Tribes of warring pastoralists drive their meat-shrubs across a snowy plain. Their world, Hurth, does not turn, but is forever divided into Dayside and Nightside. The tribes wander only across Dayside, under the cold blue sun that hangs stationary in the sky. By mythic coincidence, all tribes simultaneously arrive at the gates of Lunagrad, an abandoned automated city. Outside the city stand three great black teardrop-shaped objects, perched on pedestals. These are the “earthships” that, according to legend, travel so fast they appear to stand still. The pastoralists invade the empty city, battling each other at first but then coming to an uneasy cohabitation. The tribes attempt to follow the city’s mindless, automated commands. The city assigns busywork to its new inhabitants, rewarding them with brain-broadcasts called “buzzah.” The city’s architecture is mutable, erupting unpredictably in new “Builds.” Fresh Builds are temporarily covered in a white wormlike script from which all citizens, apart from a few select Readers, must avert their eyes in order to avoid blindness or mental derangement.
Mek sat locked in his thought-cabinet, discontent with the content of his thoughts. He was thinking of the Five Perfect Solids. He imagined them hovering—as pure ideas, they were weightless—above an endless plane, perhaps the snow-swept plain of his ancestors. Yet he detested the simplicity of the Cube. He could understand it only as a perversely modified sphere, over-loud in its appearance, a composition for trumpet and drum. In the Tetrahedron, now, he detected the trade of rays—
To his vast annoyance, he heard, outside his cabinet, the shuffling of little feet. He applied his eye to the spy-hole. One of his boys stood outside, head hung down, clutching some kind of blanket or dripping membrane: most likely, front-page news from the Build. “Put on your goggles,” Mek cawed to the boy, “or you’ll lose your worthless soul!” But Mek’s words, after rising to a crescendo, tended of late to crumble into mere bits of noise. Not only his voice, but his vision was, as his cruel nurse once said, in the process of being revoked: his yellow reader’s eyes had now turned white. Mek had begun to see Essence rather than Appearance, possessing a “blindsight” that allowed him to view things by their own inner illumination.
The boy, with face averted, held up the membrane for Mek’s inspection. Mek could not see it, of course, but could at least discern, by blindsight, that this wet sheet held a rubbing of the Glad Glyph, the most frequently-occurring character in the scroll-script. So what? Why bother me about it? Mek clucked and chittered imprecations at the boy, who flinched but did not run away. Instead, the waif brandished the outspread membrane all the more, whining, almost weeping in his discomfort. Had the older boys put him up to this, as a prank? Shifting in his chair, Mek made an effort to blind-read the sheet.
This glyph was ugly, an inelegant tangle of angles. No hand, no mind could have made this, Mek told himself, not for the first time, bracing for the usual feeling of vertigo. Very well, then: let the reading commence. With practiced piety and panic, he fell into the glyph. While falling, Mek remained motionless, crouched inside a mind-cry, in mimicry of the earthships’ mode of travel.
He found himself enveloped in lines, in signs that soon became scenes: a river of fire on Nightside spread into a shivering river-tree of electricity in his own brain. Pathways, always the most necessary ones, wrote themselves into existence. This was reading, this was knowing how to read. Yet something was wrong. He was forced to halt at the first turning. A syntactical error? For once, the sequence did not add up. Here, at the second circumference. There, at the third. Backwards. This glyph was going backwards.
As Krek, the teacher of Mek, had discovered, the Glad Glyph functioned as a kind of clock, synchronizing the time-flow of the scroll-script. Up to now, that flow had always been futural, a coming-into, never a going-away. Lunagrad was still building itself. Slowly, slowly, the Answer was being given. As Krek had croaked, white-eyed at that point, surrounded by his nurses, about to be deposited into his embryo-jar: “Follow the roll of that glyph! It is the counter-sun, the sign of an accounting yet to come!”
What would Krek say about this backwards glyph? It belonged to a different order, never before seen. It was producing an uncomfortable ratcheting effect in the reader’s mind. Was this the end of learning, Lunagrad’s last word? The reader didn’t know which way to go. How the clock-of-all-clauses clattered here! If only he could deafen his eyes! Did he mean define? Nothing helped: the roll of scroll-script was caught up in reversals.
There was a billow, or a bellow, as the glyph slid below meaning. The membrane lay in a heap, where the boy had dropped it. The room was vacant. Mek’s mind continued to spin the wrong way.
Another sound came around. Hoot-hoot-hooting, outside his hut. Police horns. Shouts in official Rush—then a pistol crack! Were they shooting at his boys? No, no—Mek struggled to get out of his thought-cabinet. But he was too weak, his shrunken body would not obey his commands.
They have come, finally, to occupy the Build. Despite his pain, Mek almost chuckled—there was no one to read for them. His boys, his poor boys, equipped with protective goggles, could glean only superficial meanings from the scroll-script. And Mek himself could claim blindness. Now that Blenk had rejected his teaching, no one would inherit Mek’s position: the academy would be closed down. Stop reading—that was the meaning of the glyph. This time, Lunagrad would keep its secrets from the dictator Ob.
A knock at his door. Respectful, not too insistent. Mek had only to wait: he knew they would enter without his permission. The door was ready to come off its hinges in any case. Mek had cobbled the hut together himself. Unlike most structures in Lunagrad, his hut was not an extrusion of smoothly mutable city-substance. No, it was the rough assemblage of an idealist, a dwelling not meant to be lived in, but lived in nonetheless. Another knock—then the door was tentatively pushed open. Even the police must show deference to a man in his final phase.
Shtov, the neighborhood watchman, stood there in his gray greatcoat, his big face wearing a sad expression. “Forgive this interruption of your Story, snowman Mek.” Shtov, according to the custom of his tribe, used “snowman” as an honorific. A holdover from the nomadic period, when tribal shamans had stationed snow-effigies at the perimeters of pastures, to ward off—but Mek’s thoughts were drifting out of focus. Shtov. Shtov was sorry.
“It is the Reader’s responsibility to make sense of the Story,” Shtov, advancing into the room, stated formally, citing the first line of the academy’s contract with the mayoralty. He carefully kicked the membrane into a corner. “The council has as yet received no report on the new Build. Mayor Ob,” Shtov pronounced the name with consummate scorn, “is concerned.”
Mek, even if he wanted to explain his dereliction, was stuck inside the thought-cabinet, his hut within a hut. Such self-containment, according to Krek, reflected the structure of truth. Mek mumbled words to this effect—not that Shtov could understand them. Shtov was not a bad sort, for an enforcer. Shtov had grown up in this district, and seemed proud that Mek’s academy was located here. In ages past, Shtov’s tribe had frequently warred with Ob’s people, both on the open plain and in the alleyways of Lunagrad. Supposedly the two clans, like the other clans within city limits, had settled their differences, but resentment lingered. Shtov would carry out the mayor’s orders, or pretend to do so—yet Mek knew that Shtov had also helped members of the underwork go into hiding.
Mek fell backward with a groan—why keep looking through the spy-hole? His blindsight, which revealed a wealth of detail in the scroll-script, recognized human shapes only as unfinished squiggles, living many levels below the high truth of writing. No use trying to read them. They were only figures limping toward, or away from, the poverty of their existence.
Shtov, or his semblance, lingered awkwardly on the canted floor. Such a poor policeman, unable or unwilling to enforce the law! There was something else he wanted to say. But he was not very good with words. Mek—what choice did he have?—waited for him to continue.
The commotion outside had ceased. Shtov drew closer to Mek’s thought-cabinet. This was no longer an official visit. In a softer voice, he confessed to Mek: “They left Umma in a ditch, outside the puppet factory. Killed many times over.” To Mek, that whisper was only a wisp that floated, inconsequential, to the floor. Umma. No one to him. One of Blenk’s disciples, or lovers. Once she had sought out Mek, to argue, as Blenk had taught her, that motion was real. He’d refuted her argument with a single word. Her visit would occur again and again, as random points in timeless time.
“Your name, your name.” Shtov’s voice, at its lowest, was loud in the small, empty room. “Umma was a thinker, in her own way. More of us will be put to death, unless Blenk shows himself.” Us? So Shtov wanted to be counted as a thinker now? Mek choked with laughter. Shtov only nodded, hearing what he wanted to hear. “When Blenk comes to you—”
Blenk would be most unwise to come here. But he might well do so. Risking arrest, not to see Mek, no, but to read: fresh scrolls were even now peeling off the Build. To wring them dry of their dreammath would be irresistable to Blenk. But Blenk, for once, might wring them wrong. Lunagrad was retreating, contracting, and soon would disappear into a hole in the ground. The backwards glyph foretold as much.
“Snowman,” Shtov was pleading now. “Who is your best boy? Let him make the report, instead of Blenk. Let the news be trivial. A cartload of trinkets.” But Ob would know better. The boy—his best boy was Pietr—would be sealed inside a Silhouette and interrogated. To the point of perishing. Whereas Blenk, the true reader, the last reader in all Lunagrad, was too valuable to Ob—if captured, Blenk would not be harmed. Let Blenk come here, then! Let him be taken by the forces of Ob! The Story was moving to conclusion anyway—such was the news brought by this backwards Build.
“Da. Pietr,” Mek wheezed, and it seemed that Shtov understood him. Shtov made a small sign with his left hand. A sign that had been used by the underwork, obsolete now. An ironic gesture? Mek didn’t know or care. I look to my inside Nightside. When Mek opened his eyes again, Shtov was gone.
Silence, then: the most philosophical sound. And a line of blue light on the floor, coming through the half-closed door.
Mek was due to have one more visitor today: his cruel nurse Zoya, who would push a cylinder on oversized metal wheels into the room. His embryo-jar. Mek would be fascinated by the way the wheels’ spokes revolved, like factory spindles, like timepieces counting down, finally stopping at the door to his thought-cabinet. The jar would look dirty, as if some other shriveled body had recently occupied it. So Lunagrad recycles our souls. The ship cannot accommodate us all. The number of crew members was set by the god Roscosmos before the voyage began.
What was his former role? Astrogator. He knew that much. He knew nothing.
At least he would never suffer another incarnation. The motions of the city were becoming too convoluted to sustain human life. A new hypothesis suggested itself: we were never admitted, as humans, into Lunagrad. The city made us into what we are. It was not long after Trepass—when the nomads first entered the city—that the birth rate had dropped to zero. Lifespans were lengthened, and the final phase of life now took the form of regression to an embryo. Which, if the city’s instructions were followed, could be grown again. We were always free to leave Lunagrad, to die a natural death on the plains. Some of us did run away. A popular buzzah series, The Runaways, sensationalized the misadventures—comical at first, but always ending tragically—of those who left the city. Mek, for his part, had never been tempted to set foot outside the gates. If only because there was nothing to read out there.
Blenk, by now, would have fled the city, no doubt to rejoin his animal allies in the Thicket. Mek could imagine how torn he must feel, desperate to set eyes on the new Build’s rich script, yet fierce in his refusal to read on Ob’s behalf. The previous Build, thanks to Blenk’s deep reading, had yielded dreammath for constructing an artificial ear and, to Ob’s delight, a collection of talon-tipped lattices called “power-objects.” Seeing how Ob employed these toys, Blenk had vowed “Never again!” He’d locked himself inside a tower on the city’s outskirts, there to brood, attempt his own scripts, and ponder the tall earthships outside his window.
My wayward disciple. Mek, if he wished, could use blindsight to spy on Blenk at this very moment. Blindsight was partly an act of imagination. Just blink—and there was Blenk, his tonsure a target on the back of his head, running out of the city, into the twisted tree-bones of the Thicket. Blindsight imposed its own idiom on the scene: in ceremonial slow motion, Blenk pirouetted and flailed as his greatcoat caught on intertwined white branches. Mek could not hear what Blenk was yelling. Nevertheless, it was comical. Blenk was a runaway.
The scene crumpled and fell from view, as if it were a membrane discarded by one of his boys. Mek felt a pang of doubt. Was his blindsight failing him too? Had he just watched a scene from The Runaways, with Blenk in the starring role? As a reader, he was not supposed to be susceptible to buzzah. But with the waning of his powers, perhaps the broadcasts were beginning to infiltrate his brain.
The last reader. Who said that? Is it you? Yes, the academy would have to be closed down. His thinking reeled backwards, following the wrong-way glyph. Krek had read before Mek, and before Krek, Mek, in a succession of incarnations. Always the same reader. But now there was a rebel reader, not a successor, lurking in the bushes outside the city. Who was himself unreadable. His name was blank.
The door to Mek’s hut creaked open again. Louder—the door screeched like a living thing. Mek, with the power left to him, imagined it was hanging off one hinge. He heard nurse Zoya muttering as she struggled to push the heavy cylinder into the room. The door crashed to the floor, and Zoya cursed. Snow swirled up and around her. Zoya was here. Mek wondered how she would extricate him from his thought-closet, deposit him into the jar. But Zoya’s arms were strong. She would get the job done. He pictured her, in her white bonnet and nurse’s gown, bending to peer through his spy-hole. He saw her ghastly smile. “Come, malyutka,” she rasped, her eyes avid and alight. “It is time.”