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Lunagrad, by Andrew Joron

Blenk, more and more troubled by the phrases appearing on his writing pad, went to the window, pulled back the curtain. Dayside (I decide (deicide)). Outside lay a landscape so changeless it might have been painted on glass. Composed in colors cold as ice. White sky, blue sun.

He sipped his green wine, an aid to awakening. Sequestered in this disused lookout, he was not a prisoner. Yes, the red ladder had fallen. Ulla’s daily deliveries of food and drink had ceased. Her footprints round the base of the tower were preserved in frozen ground. Blenk sometimes felt that he, and he alone, was alive in an immobile world.

There: a bird crossed his view. Disproof of his conjecture? No, the bird’s flight itself was impossible—for, as Mek had taught, motion can be analyzed only as a series of stopped instants. Yes, motion refuted itself.

Mek had also insisted that infinite velocity was the same as zero velocity. Fortunately, Blenk was no longer the disciple of Mek.

His nerves abuzz, Blenk lifted his gaze from the steaming winecup. Beyond the rooftops, beyond the walls of the city, stood the three great earthships. Black as the void in which, at 1/∞ velocity, they traveled now, their hulls, teardrop-shaped, were perched sideways on pedestals in the middle of the snowy plain. T, T, T.

He studied their perennial forms. Blenk kept a measure of grief inside his eyes, but let a mad laughter enter his chest. He was a yellow-eyed, hollow animal. No one could come near him.

No one could say how long the ships had been traveling. No one could say whether they were arriving or departing. That the earthships, apparently stationary, were voyaging through unseen dimensions, Blenk was in no doubt.

Mek had showed him the pertinent Scrolls, pointing out a self-cancelling line of squiggles on the metallic film. To look at those squiggles induced a form of understanding fiercer than conviction. To look away—and, after a moment, one had to look away, or go blind inside—was to lose that understanding, to be left holding, in the mind’s eye, a single inscrutable fact that burned, then faded. The earthships, poised on their pedestals, were traveling so fast that they stood still.

A call from below interrupted his thoughts. He peered outside—a red-robed figure stood at the base of his tower. Ulla. After an absence of seven sleeps, Ulla had returned! Bearing a basket of provisions. He beckoned—too eagerly? He didn’t care. Motion was possible, after all. Ulla righted the ladder, positioning it beneath his window.

As she did so, a distant siren began to wail. Arising, this time, from the workers’ quarters at the nightward edge of the city. Ulla pulled up her robes and made haste to climb the ladder, the basket slung on her back. Blenk wondered at cause and coincidence: had Ulla somehow set off the siren? Were agents of Ob, the mayor, in pursuit of her?

He rolled back the window glass as Ulla arrived at the sill. Their breath-clouds commingled in the cold air. She pushed the basket into Blenk’s hands. “Your name,” she managed to say in ritual greeting. Her face was flushed, but not with the effort of the climb. “Your name,” he answered curtly, examining the contents of the basket. As usual: three birds and a bottle of green wine. “What has happened?”

“A build, a big one, near the workers’ compound,” Ulla told him, looking over her shoulder. “Highly involved, but lootable. Many devices, canisters of all kinds. And a room of Scrolls.”

A new build. A room, a room, of Scrolls—Blenk was stunned. And if so much was already known, the siren must have been sounded hours ago. During his sleep period, or while he’d been preoccupied with his writing pad. He shook his head—he felt out of synch with time.

“You—you must—” Ulla’s words, too, seemed time-slowed. He knew what she wanted to say. Now that Mek had ascended into blindsight, Blenk was the city’s only Reader. Mek’s apprentices, with their smoked eyeglasses, could glean only superficial meanings from the Scrolls. Ob would now require Blenk’s services, perhaps revoke his ostracized status.

He stared hard at Ulla. Finally he said, “You know I will not read—unless Ob steps down.” She nodded once, a quick jerk of her head showing that she knew this would entail a death-verdict. Not for Blenk, no, he was irreplaceable. The victim would be chosen randomly—and then another, and another, until—a sob caught in her throat. Blenk grasped her arms. “Go,” he said. “I don’t want them to find you here.”

Ulla nodded again. Her eyes slid away from his, her lips worked into a twisted smile. Blenk guessed that, in addition to her distress about the new build, Ulla was fighting off an episode of buzzah. She descended one rung, paused. “Read,” she implored. “Read, but tell them only—”

“No,” Blenk said. “I—” He ran a big hand, a worker’s hand, over his scholar’s tonsure. Unhappy hybrid that he was! He made a quick, desperate decision. “I will read, but only to the brink of truth, until—” Once more his hollow laugh. “Until the nauts come home. First I must meet with Mek, if he is willing.”

Ulla descended another rung, paused. “Mek sits hunched in his thought-closet. Believes he dwells aboard an earthship.” She looked up, her face half-hidden by her white, windblown hair. “Ob’s agents have removed all the Scrolls in his possession.”

“I will speak with him.” He reached down, touched her hand. “Ulla, brave Ulla, thank you.” She shook her head, refusing not Blenk’s gratitude, but the overtures of buzzah, the spectacle that, almost incessantly, intruded into the thoughts of every citizen of Lunagrad. “It’s the morning show,” she told him, knowing he was not susceptible to the broadcast. “It’s called The Comedy of Blood.”

Blenk watched her clamber down the ladder and run off, old snow crunching under her feet, into the neighborhood of abandoned buildings that abutted the city walls. Many calendars ago, he and Ulla had been lovers. But the underwork they did now disallowed such liaisons among its members. Once Ob was deposed—

He closed the window. He could no longer hear the siren’s revolving cry. Soon enough, he knew, a masked agent of Ob would knock at his window, demand his assistance at the new build. If Blenk refused, he would not be harmed—but harm would be shown to him. The verdicted ones—or what was left of their bodies—would be hung on the city’s outer walls to feed the birds.

Setting the basket on the table, he noticed a new phrase had appeared on his writing pad. Soon a noose. Next to the pad lay his quill, waiting to be dipped in nerve-fluid.

Blenk had never applied the quill to the pad—he was a Reader, not a Writer. Ether ore.

He sat down, letting the motion of his thought refute itself. To read is to write. The evidence of his labors—crossed-out, crooked words in his own hand—showed on page after page. Like Mek, he was committed to imitating the scroll-script. He flipped through his pages—such a poor imitation. After fifty-five generations—so long had the people, once world-wandering nomads, occupied Lunagrad—the Scrolls, self-revising, sometimes self-erasing, remained largely undeciphered.

He was about to throw the pad into the hearth—Ulla would have screamed no!—when he heard the whine of an electric truck wending through the alleys. He stood, put on his coat, slipping the writing pad into its pocket. Perhaps it was a weapon, a subtle weapon. Effective, however, only against himself.

The truck, brakes grinding, halted in the field below his tower. Why reveal his presence? He would wait. Blenk heard the truck’s doors slam open, stamping feet, rough voices. He went to the opposite window, slid back the pane, hung the basket of provisions on a hook outside. The cold would keep its contents fresh for a while. He wasn’t sure when, or if, he would return.

For now, Blenk stood in the center of his room, waiting. He felt ridiculous, cowardly. Why not get it over with? After a quiet interval, braying laughter from below—they were not calling to him yet, not climbing the ladder to his nightward window. They too were waiting.

Illiterate gangsters, they had been promised rebirth, rulership of their own city sectors, riches on the order of those glimpsed in the spectacles of buzzah. None of this had come to pass during Ob’s reign as mayor, yet his agents still maintained their loyalty to him. Willing to carry out his orders, murder their fellow citizens—the old tribal passions still coursed through Lunagrad’s urban society, still cursed its aspirations.

Ob’s agents cared little for history, yet how it weighed on them! They had been taught, but had forgotten, that “A thousand calendars ago, our ancestors’ tribes converged on this city, led here by their chattel, the rolling meat-shrubs that sustained their nomadic way of life.” The lesson issued from a speech-grill in a sanctum near downtown. No one paid attention. So many snows had since blanketed the ground. The meat-shrubs, no longer migratory, now grazed in great stinking herds outside the city limits, and continued to serve as a main source of sustenance.

Blenk had always brooded on this origin story. He could imagine the ancestors’ awe and consternation at their first sight of the city: a terrain of weirdly warped buildings, with the three great earthships looming nearby. No less weird was the gathering of all the warring tribes in one locality. They did not parley; they positioned themselves around the city’s perimeter, polishing scythes and scimitars. Eventually, each tribe entered the complex through a different gate—to find the place deserted, but with many of its machineries still active and muttering. From loudspeakers atop poles, a shout in Rush, never heard again, announced the city’s name as LUNAGRAD. The invaders, taking up residence among the towers and tenements, fell into territorial disputes; they resorted to violence as the city watched and rebuilt itself around their battles. After a generation, the combatants, exhausted, laid down their arms, distracted by the subliminal broadcasts, lulled by the city’s rhythms, its incessant humming of home, home, home. An uneasy coexistence—with each other, with the city—was achieved. Yet the citizen-nomads still clung to their outmoded tribal identities. And their contention over the spoils of Lunagrad had never ceased.

Blenk glanced out the noonward window, toward the cold blue sun. His people’s previous wanderings had taken them to a place called Noon, where the sun stood directly overhead and shadows pooled beneath one’s feet. It was a place no better than any other—a snowswept plain, like most of Dayside. Blenk could escape to Noon, pitch a tent under the stationary sun, live there with the most minimal version of his shadow. Why not? Here in Lunagrad, the shadows were too long and, unless deterred by city lights, reached all too longingly for Nightside. And now, aroused by the siren, the yellow-eyed monkey-spiders who infested the nightward forests could be heard howling and hooting, hailing him as one of their own. Blenk didn’t know which way to turn.

Upward? Outward? Did all pathways of his personhood—his, yes, destiny-nation—meet at the earthships’ destination? He let himself be whirled into the world-play.

Stop—his window shattered—shattered his reverie. A thug had fired a slug! Blenk rose to his feet, almost choking. It could have killed him! The floor was covered in broken glass; chill air poured within. He staggered to the window frame, shook a fist at the grinning henchmen. Maskless now—fearless, Blenk realized, of recognition for their crimes. The terms of Ob’s dictatorship had seemingly hardened during the period of Blenk’s retreat.

One of the gangsters called “Your name!” as the others cackled. An apprehension colder than ice clawed at Blenk’s vitals. Had Ob failed to inform them about his reading skills? Did they no longer respect him as a holy man, immune from violence? “What—” he tried to speak more forcefully—“what do you want of me?” He must maintain an even tone. “Why did you break my window?”

“You know why, you xyn, you cyka!” Gangsters favored obscenities in Rush, the official language of the Cosmonauts. All of the tribes honored the nauts, those archetypal beings; but Rushean epithets surely weren’t meant to be uttered by humans. The effect was shocking—another crime on the part of Ob’s men.

What help was there for him now? He might threaten them: “Ob will hear of this!” That would only provoke them to—to cut out his tongue, perhaps! They were capable of it: a tongue wasn’t needed to practice the mystic arts of Reading and Writing. He didn’t know what to do. Climb down the ladder, accept a beating? Read the new Scrolls while bound in chains?

He waved at them, an ambiguous gesture; went into his water-cubby to relieve himself. He wasn’t ashamed of his fear. It was a function of his lesser self—while his greater self, invulnerable, occupied the cabin of an earthship. He really was very far away from all of this. How readily he shared Mek’s delusion!

Blenk looked around the room, taking leave of his hearth, his table and chair, his sound-volumes. He took a step toward the shattered window, now become his very own portal to the void. As he approached the sill, he saw the top floors of the nightward buildings rise into view, their gaping window frames answering his own. “Hurry up, hurry up,” came the command from below.

Eye-light, elide: a flash of yellow in one of the far windows—then another, and another. Was someone signaling to him? More movement, half-visible, as of shadows racing up and down the façades. A chorus of hoots crossed the field. The ever-loving monkey-spiders! They’d left their forests to infiltrate the city, were massing, by the hundreds, in those buildings. Blenk hoped that Tay was among them—Tay, the monkey-spider with whom, since his childhood, he shared a stream of consciousness. Tay had most likely summoned up this army. What a now-and-now this was!— after lengthy isolation, Blenk was suddenly receiving all kinds of attention.

The truck engine restarted—the gangsters had noticed. They’d drawn their rifles—one of them was exhorting rapidly into a radio. Humans rarely encountered the big warm-blooded insects, especially in such numbers. And their bites were venomous.

The hellish howling rose in pitch, bearing an uncanny resemblance to the city’s own siren. The howlers harmonized on a single piercing note, then went silent in perfect synchrony. Blenk heard one of the gangsters utter a prayer-word. To Blenk, it seemed that time accelerated: the army of monkey-spiders spilled, exploded, a solid wave-front of yellow eyes and clickity legs, out of the doors and windows of the derelict buildings. Ob’s agents began firing as the wave-front surged across the field. The truck lurched into reverse; the gangsters climbed aboard. The scene became a blur—Blenk’s mind was blinded by what he witnessed. Hearing took over—to no avail. The world ended in a single shriek.

A world without time. Oh, slay of all now-and-now: to slay, that silence lay—A composition based on the decomposition of time.

The truck was gone. The gangsters, gone. The monkey-spiders likewise. Blenk felt the need to breathe. Pain in his hands—how long had he been gripping the window sill? The field was deserted, the snow below complicated with illegible prints and impressions. Tay—he opened his mind to Tay. No response. Then—a little jolt. Did that. Did that. A picture-message: Tay’s segmented body squirming with delight. Thank you. Find you later.

Willing himself to move, Blenk rubbed his stiff fingers over the rough hide of his coat, restoring circulation. The monkey-spiders had granted him only a temporary reprieve. He found his shoulder bag and began filling it: a few sound-volumes, yes, and Ulla’s provisions. He would never return to this lookout. He would take refuge in the undercity, or in the nightward forests. Blenk knew that either plan was hopeless.

Over the sill, down the red ladder. Decorating the dark air around him, little bits of white sky began falling to the ground. All the better: a snowfall would erase his tracks. Blenk followed his shadow nightward, into the Relays, the maze of the most dysfunctional city sector, where the city still whispered to itself in Rush. And where the nauts most often walked into and out of existence.

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