By Andrew Joron
Argument: The world Hurth does not turn, but is forever divided into Dayside and Nightside. Pastoral tribes wander across the snowy fields of Dayside under a cold blue sun that never changes its position in the sky. By mythic coincidence, all tribes simultaneously arrive at the gates of Lunagrad, an automated city. The pastoralists invade the empty city, battling each other at first but then coming to an uneasy cohabitation. Eventually, the citizens appoint a despotic mayor whose rule becomes dynastic. But Lunagrad’s automated system is the true ruler of the city, assigning factory work to the citizens, rewarding them with entertaining brain-broadcasts called “buzzah.” The birth rate drops to zero; instead of dying, the people—whose genetic programs have been modified by the city— devolve to embryos that are put in storage for later rebirth. The city’s structures are 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 mental derangement. Among the Readers, it is believed that this “scroll-script” holds the secret to the nature of reality.
In this episode, Blenk, the city’s sole remaining Reader, has been imprisoned by Mayor Ob for refusing to divulge the scroll-secrets from the latest Build. In his cell, Blenk hallucinates contact with Tay, a “monkey-spider” who lives in a Thicket outside the city. Before his capture, Blenk had sought refuge in the Thicket, where Tay and his troupe of trickster-insects for reasons of their own had embedded, using their surgically sharp fangs and anesthetic venom, a brain-chip (a buzzah-receptor) ripped from the skull of one of Ob’s henchmen into the side of Blenk’s neck. Blenk, feeling violated, had run away from the Thicket, only to be captured by Ob.
At times, Blenk did not believe in time. The center of the Glad Glyph, the center that no one could enter, was timeless—was calling to him now.
He sat cross-legged on the cold stone floor of his cell. His only companion was a corpse that hung on the opposite wall. The corpse at least wore a friendly expression. The corpse, when alive, had once addressed him as “Master.”
Pyotr, Mek’s best boy.
Blenk opened his writing pad. The glyph was still there. He studied it as a possible escape route. As a Reader, he knew how to walk into the scroll-script. As a Reader, he had done so at every fresh Build. And he had always returned—but why? The script was a wonderland of nots. At the far end of the script lay the ultimate, annihilative potency. He had never walked that far.
His yellow eyes went walking, even as he sat there, holding the pad, unmoving. The circle of script grew, exfoliated. Now he was back in the Thicket.
There was no escape in this direction. This version of the Thicket was nothing but a picture— albeit an all-enveloping one. Reality, too, was nothing but a picture of something greater than itself. No one could disprove this idea. Was there safety here?
In this Thicket, there was no clearing. The Reader’s disembodied body walked, thorn-torn, deeper into a syntax of brittle branches. The sentence was endless, composed of clauses within clauses. In one clause, he discovered a set of claws. They belonged to Tay, who lay coiled there, smiling, waiting for him.
Blenk was tempted to curse this apparition, cross it off the page. Monkey-spiders did not figure in the lore of the plains, so no traditional curse could be applied to them. Blenk tried one out: “Der’mo!” An artificial shout. Blenk’s heart wasn’t in it. He couldn’t curse Tay. In fact, he was glad to see that treacherous vermin.
Tay could remove, as easily as he’d implanted it, the brain-chip from Blenk’s neck. That tiny remnant of Raskol hadn’t made a peep since Blenk’s audience with Ob. As if Ob’s very presence had somehow deactivated the chip. Yet, even deactivated, the chip was a nuisance. Blenk wanted to get rid of it. More than that—Blenk wanted the sweet oblivion that would come from a monkey-spider’s bite. Could Tay perform this last favor for him? It didn’t matter that this was only a representation of Tay.
“Real as you, brother!” Tay chittered and chased his tail, round and round, in the way that Blenk had always found endearing. Blenk needed Tay’s help again. He could accept, now, that the implantation of Raskol’s brain-chip had been intended as a gift, an augmentation.
Along the margins, Blenk noted a hum and drum, the dry drone of Tay’s brethren, gathering as they always did for his visit. He felt their yellow eyes reading him.
It was cold in this picture, colder than in his prisoner’s cell. And he had lost his greatcoat. “Settle here,” invited Tay, and Blenk did so willingly. As in childhood, the big warm-blooded insect wrapped sinuously around him.
“Tell,” invited Tay. Blenk wanted to, but his throat closed—for the moment, he could only shudder, sob, shudder, as Tay soothed him.
No one was allowed to see Ob. A curtain would hide the mayor from his audience.
Blenk had been hauled before Ob three times in his life. On the first occasion, he’d been introduced to Ob as Mek’s successor; on the second, he’d declared his refusal to serve any longer in that capacity, resulting in his exile to the tower; and now this third, most desperate occasion, when the curtain had been pulled aside, exposing the truth of Ob.
Blenk caught his breath as he beheld, at last, the mayor of Lunagrad: a thing that resembled a broken T-puppet, propped up in a lavish bed, surrounded by medical apparatus. The bedside table was littered with syringes; a toxic smell competed with pungent smoke from an incense burner.
Blenk had heard rumors of Ob’s abnormalities, of course. The mayor’s attendants weren’t always perfectly careful with their secrets. And even here, in Ob’s camp, the underwork maintained its network of informants. But the fact that Ob had allowed the Reader to view his aberrant body indicated to Blenk that the pact was broken: Blenk’s immunity had been revoked. Ob intended to kill him.
“You have failed me, Reader.” Ob, as always, gulped his words. Now Blenk understood why Ob’s voice, previously heard from behind the curtain, had such a blubbering quality: it was due to the way Ob’s slit-like mouth vibrated when he spoke. And did Ob have eyes? There were only two small skin-folds where his eyes should have been. Ob’s limbs and body consisted of linked white oblate spheres. He lacked hands and feet; instead, black metal rods protruded from the ends of his legs and forearms. The arms, like those of an infant, moved up and down, to no purpose. “Failed me,” Ob repeated, sorrowing.
How pitiful, the pitiless Mayor Ob! A sense of finality crept into Blenk’s soul, giving him the strength to stand before Ob without trembling. According to protocol, Blenk bowed his head and spoke in a low tone. “Most High, I confess my unwillingness to read.” Knowing he was doomed, Blenk added: “In the name of the people.” Ob’s body writhed, as if pulled by invisible strings. Blenk continued: “Little is gained by reading, in any case.” For no reason, Blenk felt proud: he lifted his head, raised his voice. “Mayor, I have learned that the scroll-script is made of numbers. We Readers have gleaned nothing but its surface trimmings. The true script carries out calculations beyond our comprehension.”
Ob, bloated in his bed, blubbered, “Blenkity-blenk! I know of the Thinkers’ new argument. That is no excuse for your dereliction. Your readings have always garnered many gifts, many weapons of great use to me. I care nothing for the script’s underlying calculations. I still await the gift that will cure me.”
Blenk wanted to cry out, “So the script is nothing but a vending machine, issuing trinkets!” Even the students at Mek’s academy, wearing goggles, could read haltingly at that level, teasing out assembly instructions for devices at once deadly and diverting. But Blenk had visited the script’s deeper levels, enchanted by its procession of nots. There, he had witnessed the formation of meanings that could never be translated into Rush or city-speak. And deeper still, at levels inaccessible to him, lurked strange equations—readable, perhaps, to someone like Vepp.
“Waiting—ever since the Accident,” Ob wept, too obviously, Ob always performing Ob.
The Accident had become legendary in Lunagrad. A wrong reading of the script had caused it—a reading by Mek’s predecessor who, ever after, had been rendered nameless by decree.
The event had been luridly depicted in blood-pigment by the artisans of Fact Five. In the first panel of the triptych, the evil Reader proffered a cup to the young and handsome Ob, newly coronated as mayor of Lunagrad. The cup was symbolic of a formula derived from the scrollscript: the Reader touted it as a panacea capable of transforming life into more-than-life, the very condition of the Cosmonauts. The second panel showed Ob and his twin sister, his constant companion at that time, entering the puppet factory—it was there that the Accident had happened. The royal pair had intended to test the formula on half-alive puppets before using it on themselves. The third panel was an abstraction, an exploding pattern symbolic of the Accident itself.
A generation later, the event remained clouded in controversy, insinuations of conspiracy. It may have been an assassination attempt. Not everyone in the dynastic circle had endorsed Ob’s ascent to high office. Indeed, Ob’s twin sister Vee had been his main rival for the mayoralty. Had she pushed Ob into the puppet vat, causing the explosion? Vee herself had sustained serious injuries. Following the Accident, she’d withdrawn from civic affairs. Some claimed to have encountered her in odd corners of the city, scheming and conniving against Ob. Though her status had become unclear, Vee still commanded respect within the higher circles of Lunagrad.
Blenk told Tay that he now realized the masked cripple who secured his arrest had been none other than Ob’s errant sister. Yet “Verra,” as she’d called herself, had been active in the underwork. What was she up to? Did she believe, by helping to arrest Blenk, that she was paradoxically striking a blow against Ob? Or was she simply insane?
“Bippity-bop! Ob on top!” Tay in mimicry, in mockery, of Ob’s voice. The brethren heckled Blenk as they crowded into his story, laughing, squiggling as he revealed the worst. Ob intended to round up Blenk’s closest friends and comrades, starting with Ulla, and “put them to the test” until Blenk agreed to read. Ob also proposed to “diminish” Blenk’s own body, removing, “with proper anesthesia, of course,” the parts unnecessary for reading. Blenk’s “head and torso” could be “wheeled over to the Build, bumpity-bump!” Blenk groaned: Tay’s imitation of Ob was almost too perfect.
Tay, still using Ob’s voice, said, “You are free.” The words bit into Blenk’s jugular, sharp as incisors. The pain broke him out of his trance. He was back in his cell, writing pad on his knee.
He probed the side of his neck: the lump was gone. Gone! The first diminishment had occurred. Blenk stared in ecstasy at the blank page. His glyph, too full of meaning, had erased itself.
A small serving of food and water had been left at the door. He rubbed his face, put away his pad. This reading had exhausted him. Stiffly, he stood, carried the tray to the corner of the cell farthest from Pyotr’s corpse. Blenk had no appetite, but he knew that he must eat. Again and again, he felt the side of his neck: it was smooth. But how—?
Pyotr’s dead face had acquired a knowing look. Pyotr, after all, had done what Blenk longed to do: he’d read the scrolls unrolling from the new Build. With Mek out of commission, Pyotr was the best the academy had to offer. To ensure that Pyotr was not holding back any results, Ob had interrogated him to death.
Blenk pushed the plate away, his meal half-eaten. He felt sick, as if Tay’s venom were coursing in his veins. The venom could kill; it could also induce visions. He waited—but nothing happened. Blenk remained imprisoned in hard cold reality. At least the lump was gone.
And now Pyotr was going away, his body already half-absorbed by the cell wall. That was to be expected—Blenk had witnessed such absorptions before, in the aftermath of intertribal battles, when the ground would swallow the fallen warriors. Anybody who died violently, suddenly, was subject to absorption by the city. It didn’t happen immediately: the body first needed to cool and stiffen.
Despite his familiarity with the process, Blenk was unnerved to watch Pyotr’s absorption. Only an outline of the boy’s body was left now. The manacles that had fastened him to the wall dangled empty.
By dance-steps, they pass
into Lunagrad’s mass—
The words of the popular song. No one had composed that song—it had dropped into everyone’s heads via brain-radio. Mandatory listening. Even if Ob was deposed, Lunagrad would still dictate over the lives of its citizens—as hidden god or mindless machine: what difference? In life and in death, we are sorted and managed. Blenk, unlike some partisans of the underwork, refused to celebrate the city’s gradual, inexorable reshaping of humanity.
Pyotr, poor boy, had always been fascinated by Lunagrad’s epochal layering, its incessant rebuilding of itself. More than that: Pyotr had claimed to recall fragments of his life throughout seventy cycles of rebirth, all the way back to Trespass. Yet personal identity was not supposed to survive retrogression. While Pyotr had entertained the other boys with his stories, no one, not even the boys, believed them to be true. And now that Pyotr had been killed, he could no longer be recycled. The substance of his body was becoming one of the layers of Lunagrad.
Blenk came to a decision: he would read, but in defiance. He would be another evil Reader, seducing Ob with poison. He went to the door of his cell, pounded for the guard’s attention. No response. On the wall, Pyotr’s dark eyes persisted—a moment later, they too winked out.
By dance-steps, I pass into Lunagrad’s mass. No—I was never a dancer. And I never liked that song. By a smear and a stain, I enter Lunagrad’s brain. That’s better, but I want to stop singing. Thank you—I am stopping, I was already stopped, one unwinding of the spiral clock ago, by slow strangulation. My strangler was a jolly man. Whose name was Mister Plan. No—Master Plan. No—
Lunagrad, as it absorbs my substance, allows my life story to pass in review. What was once my mind’s contents are being sorted and managed by a god or mindless machine. It might feel good, if I could still feel at all.
For I am dead; I am not aware of having these thoughts and perceptions. But hello! I am having them, nonetheless. Thank you for reading this. Reading is reanimation of the dead.
I was never any good at reading. As a student, I had to endure Blenk’s condescension. “Have fun seeking trinkets, and be sure to wear your goggles,” he said as he left the academy. Master
Blenk, against Mek’s objections, intended not to read but to write the scroll-script. I wanted to reply: “Have fun erasing your own glyphs.” Of course, I would never say that. I was always a polite, well-behaved lad. Well-groomed too. Never a fighter, in any of my lives. Always a soft boy.
Oh, my lives! They run, run away to the horizon, my private tribe of identities! No need to do an inventory! No need to reawaken, ever again—
There was once a man named Plan—no relation to my torturer. He too wanted to strangle or to straighten everything that ran the wrong way. He failed—
I got away, again and again—
Another man—yes, it was I—stood outside the city gates as, by some mysterious power, they swung open at the gathering of the tribes. We pushed the man forward: “Go in, go in!” It was not because he was expendable, lazy herdsman that he was. He was considered to be the most presentable. So I thought.
Even before habitation, the city was already busy with heavals. What need did it have for residents? “Here I am!” the man that I was called out. The answering echo: “Here I am!”
Nothing on Hurth resembled this place. Had the city always existed here, halfway between Noon and Night? None of the wandering tribes had ever encountered it: “Lunagrad,” as the loudspeakers announced. We tried to fit its warped edifices into our mythology of the Crash. But soon enough, the city would be fitting us into its own mythology. We became workers.
Before the food vats started up, we subsisted on meatshrubs, as we had on the plains. The first generation of citizens still fashioned clothes from shrub-skin. I remember venturing downtown for the first time, wrapped in rough hide. I knew I was trespassing. So profound was the silence that prevailed there, I felt like I was going deaf. My clothes rustled, embarrassing me, so, despite the cold, I disrobed. I went mirrored among a glass-mass of black buildings, my image slipping along their watchful facades. Was I recognized? I hoped so.
Perhaps some influence flowed from those buildings to me as I pranced, a blue boy naked as the sun. In some mirrors I loomed large, overblown; in others I was a mere dot of light. Perhaps each of my subsequent incarnations was pictured, there and then, on those facades, future memories of myself. How else to explain it? Those buildings are memory banks.
As I’m added now to Lunagrad’s layers, my memories sorted and numbered, the adjacent memories of other absorptees are flickeringly activated. And who’s this? Not a happy one:
“Wails, consternation at the falling birth-rate, the cessation of births, the devolution of our elders into embryos. Why didn’t we abandon the city? Were we too busy fighting each other for its spoils? What spoils? Miserable, manufactured handouts, all of them. And once those tiny crystals started growing in our brains, receivers of the city’s broadcasts, it was too late. Buzzah became the buzzing undercurrent of our lives.”
Oh, go absorb yourself! Sounds like a dead Thinker. I’ll just ignore him, sorry, her. I’ve got seventy of my own incarnations to dwell on. Dwell in.
A good man, a bad man, a glad man, a sad man. How frolicsome, to be all of those men at once! In all my lives, I was an inconstant character. Often, I’d come off as an innocent fool, especially in the buzzah shows received by my fellows. They would say, “Pyotr, we loved you in the role of Innocent Fool on Tribes and Tribulations yesterday!” Casting, of course, is an intimate affair and varies from person to person. I was proud to think that I might play the same role, in the same broadcast, in the brains of everyone who knew me. I was almost a celebrity.
Unfortunately, buzzah stuttered in my own brain, the episodes half-formed and fragmentary. Poor reception is understood to be a sign of poor health, and indeed I ended up dying young, devolving early, in most of my lives.
Like everyone, I had seventy mothers, only the first of them my birth-mother. But, unlike everyone, I recall them all. “Aren’t you a flighty one,” my mothers, seventy-fold, would say. I roamed the city, overly curious about things that nobody else cared about. I studied background details in instructional videos, sure that they showed a different city, with another kind of daylight, another way of life. Was Lunagrad, through all its changes, striving to become that other city?
Inconstant city, my mirror-image! I never met anyone like me, able to maintain awareness through cycles of rebirth. What was I striving to become? Not the designated Watcher of city history—that role could only be filled by Lunagrad itself. I was only a collector, or a recollector, of unnoticed aspects, discarded items. My quick eye made me an apt student at Mek’s academy. I never tried to make sense of anything—indeed, I was able to see more, and see better, when I wasn’t looking for meaning.
Now, thanks to Ob, the malfunction that caused my forbidden continuity has been corrected. My Build is decayed, my script unrolled. I am laying down my list, seventy lifetimes long, of forlorn and forgotten things. One blue boy, two bird feathers, three earthships—
And what about the earthships? Three oddly configured structures, standing just outside the city walls. A trio of mirror-black bowls, perched on pedestals. They, too, are not to be endowed with meaning. The earthships exceed all meaning, just as they exceed all velocity, traveling so fast they appear to be standing still.
Who handed down that lore about “infinite velocity”? If anyone chanced to say anything about the earthships, that is what they said. And would be satisfied to leave it at that. I was not satisfied—but not because I needed to know more. The most important things are unknowable. My bent has always been to consider unimportant things the most important.
The earthships have no importance to humanity. That is why I cared about them. They don’t intervene in our lives the way the city does. They stand aloof from Lunagrad and all its changes. The very word “earthship” doesn’t belong in our vocabulary. “Earth” of course refers to the ground of Hurth, but “ship”? That blip of sound comes from nowhere. Goes nowhere. It is meaningless. Hence alluring to me.
All praise to the earthships, perpetually arriving and departing all at once! I made sure to visit them in each of my lifetimes, sneaking outside the city walls to sit at the base of the pedestals, their triple bulk filling the sky above me. Each of them bigger than any building in Lunagrad. “Caught birds,” as a poet once described them, not long after Trespass—in the days when we still had poets.
You know, don’t you, that that poet, Khlebb, was my boyfriend? The greatest love of all my lives? Lunagrad, it’s true! In most of my incarnations I, a rather sickly lad, kept to myself, happy to be “neglected by love” as I pursued my love of neglected things. But Khlebb was so assertive, so sparkle-tongued. He licked me clean of my inhibitions, la-la! I heard he composed a perfect elegy when I died—the rhyme-song of the plains was still strong in the first generation after Trespass—but of course his words were not preserved. No scholar could be bothered to memorize them and, if they had been written down, you, Lunagrad, would have erased them. You reserve the role of Writer to yourself.
In my third life, I joined the ranks of the scholars, suffered to have my head tonsured. The scholars were interested in stringing together facts and fables about Lunagrad. As a junior scholar, I handled those strings, flaunting them like bracelets for my own adornment. What baubles I collected—glass eyes, quite rare; bulbous buttons, quite common—for one category: “Round Things of Lunagrad”! Another category, “Flying Things of Lunagrad,” included birds, birdflies, factory smoke, exhaled breaths, spoken words as a subset of exhaled breaths, and earthships.
While others tried to translate the scrolls unrolling from the Builds—the earliest scrolls were called “readouts”—I instead devoted my attention to, as Khlebb put it, “the letter of city-litter.” I became a connoisseur of the tiny bubbles that occasionally cover vacant lots—stillborn Builds? I was the scholar who oversaw the overlooked. Who stayed awake during sleep periods to watch the mental “test pattern” that is broadcast as buzzah subsides to its minimum. It was my favorite show! After the delivery of the evening sermon—“let us slip the surly bonds of Hurth”—a series of concentric circles comes on, pulsing in everyone’s interior vision, slowing down our heartbeats, helping us to hibernate through the eons of mind-travel that would elapse until morning shift.
I was able to stay awake only because of bad reception. At times when the test pattern faded out completely, I went to the window to observe the sunlit, sleeping city. I thought to myself, this is how Lunagrad must have looked before Trespass. The city pursues its own purposes. After Trespass, we became part of its purpose; isn’t that right doctrine? Not at all, replies the connoisseur. Do the frostflowers that spread on our windows have a purpose? When I look at Lunagrad, I see a frostflower. So beautiful, in a way that only things without purpose can be.
The scholars did not debate such questions. Which suited me. I was sorry when, in a later lifetime, the scholars split into three interest groups: the Readers, Thinkers, and Engineers. I advocated for the formation of a fourth group, the Recollectors, or Trash Collectors, but no one joined. Why, reborn without memory, would they? The city collects its own trash. As it is now collecting me.
Seventy copies of one boy—how to manage all that information? Selective memory was the way I did it. I never could gather more than a handful of myself at any given time. Now I feel like a Cosmonaut, transparently tripping in and out of existence. Let’s go downtown, let’s go!