What we will call “the Problem of Quil” began on Berthday, or, at least, that was the earliest “day” that we took notice.
Quil crossed the seascape alone, in his sailing vessel, a lopsided contraption that he had built himself, and he made landfall at dawn, on Ellehope’s northern shore.
Could his trajectory have been avoided?
He was guileless; he was empirical; he believed his eyes. There is nothing we can do about a Man who believes his eyes.
“Why don’t you just Hoover up the mountain?” Duggar asked Quil, that morning, on Berthday.
“I prefer to climb,” Quil said, which Quil knew wasn’t really an answer.
Duggar stared up into the sky, and at the peaks of Ellehope, so imposing in the early dawn.
He understood Quil, and Quil realized this.
Smart, handsome Duggar, Quil’s oldest friend. They had known each other since they were babies.
There had never been a time before Duggar, as far as Quil could remember.
Aside from their identical age — environs of twenty/thirty, by appearances — Duggar and Quil were otherwise dissimilar, and thus made unlikely friends. Where Duggar (as noted) was handsome, Quil was un-handsome. Where Duggar was confident, Quil was un-confident. And so on.
“I will see you tomorrow night,” Duggar said, “if you survive. I will see you at the fête, tomorrow night.”
He slapped Quil on the back, cheerfully, but a little too hard, which shook Quil’s wispy frame.
Quil looked forward to the fête, down there in the valley, in the heart of the Cleave, where the forest met the towers. He looked forward to seeing Adrieé.
Berthday, the day just dawning, was the anniversary of the moment when Earth-kind had saved the world from destruction, during the month that had once been known as “April,” sometime in the deep past, in what Quil knew as the era of the oldviennes.
Each year, Quil celebrated Berthday, alone, by hiking to the top of Ellehope and setting gaze across the valley’s hundred miles of lakes and forests and swanning grasslands, and flecks of cities, with their underground tunnels, and the distant wall of the northern mountain range.
Quil knew that the Mavens had found bends in space-time, and the whole galaxy and others beyond were now open to Earth-kind, hundreds of planets within reach, beautiful fairy-lit landscapes that floated on purple seas. Quil had even visited a few of those planets, set gaze on a few of those fairy-lit landscapes, he’d bathed in those purple seas in the glimmering dusk. But he liked it there, on his quiet mountain, on his green Earth, with his Adrieé down there in the valley, waiting for him.
A while after Quil reached the top of Ellehope, Duggar sent a message of congratulations. Quil filtered his brainstem to block Duggar’s message and all other noise. Near-silence descended. He liked it that way, alone in what oldviennes used to call the “Heavens.” A little bird sang, he thought it was a cikavac, and the song the little cikavac sang was a complex pastiche of art and meaning and import, or at least it seemed that way to Quil, as he sat there in what the oldviennes used to call the “Heavens,” listening to the cikavac’s song, gazing at what the oldviennes used to call “Eternity,” and breathing what the oldviennes used to call the “ether.”
Something scampered about in the underbrush, some tiny creature, trying to hide from him.
And then something happened, an episode that Quil would later learn to call the “Wildlands Incident,” a few moments that set his mind aground, and turned the world upside down.
After the conclusion of the Incident, Quil was too exhausted and shivery to descend, and so he rested overnight at the peak.
In the early morning, he returned to the outskirts of the metropolis, which rested at the foot of Ellehope.
Quil thought that the fête might be cancelled, given the shock of the Incident. But when he cratered the filter, he received no message, and so he suited to the sky-train, which hoovered him a short way to the Cleave. He approached on foot, an oasis of shimmering spires rose from the forest, and Adrieé’s tower came into view.
He was yet shaken and perplexed. And when he entered Adrieé’s titanic villa, at the very apex of her tower, he was yet more shaken and perplexed.
The fête was a fête, as any other fête, as though the world had not turned upside down mere hours before.
Hark: you know who was there, you know the people, Duggar was there, of course, his oldest and handsomest friend, looking crested in his blue pictus; there were some d’eungs, and some d’aughts, the former talking, the latter listening. Sometimes they shifted roles, and the latter talked while the former listened.
Adrieé flitted about, in love with the light in the room, with the three blue moons in the window. She was a swirl of color and brightness, a soft and gauzy fluere floating over straight clean lines from head to toe, a Laurencin watercolor on a palimpsest of a hazzled charcoal sketch. She was young and brilliant, one of her eyes was azure and the other was pearly-mauve, she was beautiful, and she was his alone.
Quil felt comfortable there in the Cleave, at Adrieé’s fête, in the hive, at the apex of the vortex, in spite of his elven persona, which, in his view, he had overcome/risen above, long ago. He’d had an early career in the Psidoc network in Oldish York, which was a happy run, and an impressive-enough thing to tell people, with the right spin, and, he had always reasoned, enough of a pokus to compensate for his aforementioned elven persona, which at one time might have offput members of the hive. But at the time of this recollection that we impart to you now, he supervised the fleuronex channel in the wooded sub-tunnels throughout the Sky-Dakotas, which had a nicer ring to it, and, he told himself, was really more than enough to impress a young woman like Adrieé, even given the offset, as we have just noted, of the elven persona.
The fleuronex channel kept Terran-Prime fully skiffed, and the wooded sub-tunnels of the Sky-Dakotas were the zenith/pinnacle of the channel. An important job, assuredly. And thus, there he was, in the hive, in a spire of the Cleave, on Adrieé’s arm.
And yet: he thought that everyone at the fête would want to talk about the Incident, about the Incident that had happened so recently, almost just then. Quil wondered how they could they attend a fête so shortly after such an episode and not fulminate?
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Adrieé worked in the archives, classifying and preserving the history of Old World, things Earth-kind had lost, everything from “coal mining”to the great auks of the Geirfuglasker, from creatures who had once lived in galaxies far away to the white flakes on the wool shoulder of a bookkeeper who lived at 536 Baxter Street during what the oldviennes knew as the year 1853. Adrieé had told Quil that only images and codes now remained, which floated in the void, remembered by the universe.
“Recollections,” Adrieé said then, at the fête. “Recollections vanish into the event horizon of collapsed stars, from there transponded through four-dimensional strings into dark matter and dark energy, which perspound in the empty space between the galaxies, from which we retrieve them, the Recollections.”
“So nothing is lost?” asked a d’eung. “Nothing is lost, ever?”
Adrieé smiled, and she squeezed Quil’s arm.
The Universe forgets nothing, Adrieé had always said to Quil, and he heard her say this now at the fête, in this room full of admirers.
“The Universe forgets nothing,” she told the d’eung, in that sweet voice, which Quil found breathy and affectionate.
The d’eung laughed gently, and a d’aught sighed.
“I call it the ‘crypt,’ ” Adrieé said. “An intergalactic web of dark matter and dark energy, pulling and holding information, waiting for us to extract it. It is all out there. Every seed that ever floated a billion years ago in a gust of wind on a planet lost and forgotten hundreds of million years ago, in a galaxy ten thousand light years from here.”
She smiled more deeply.
“When I was a little girl,” Adrieé said, “I thought the ‘world’ was too small. My father used to take me to the shadow-plays in the Hills, and I would stare at the sky, past the moons, and complain to him, as though he could change the smallness of the world. This was in the days before the bends led us to the other worlds, and to the crypt, the spaces between the galaxies, where the Universe keeps her memories. When everything was small.”
“Shall we see?” she asked the crowd.
She touched an invisible dot in the middle of the air, in the middle of her great vester-room, and she coaxed out of Universe-Memory and into the world of light a flimmering image, a tiny yellow seed, which floated in a breeze across a terrain of blue rocks and yellow moss.
“A billion years ago,” she whispered to Quil, but just faintly loud enough for the room to hear, “that little seed landed in a tuft of dust, and it grew into a shrub, which went extinct, persisting not even in fossils. And some five hundred million years later, the stars engulfed the planet, and the dust in which the seed once nestled exploded. And yet here it is.”
It grew in the room, this little seed, it flimmered towards the d’aughts and the d’eungs, briefly crossed the meridian of the windows and seemed, for a moment, to float among the trees.
“Such a beautiful little seed,” Adrieé laughed. “So perfect.” She stared at this ancient-beyond-ancient seed, which floated translucent and extierœnt in the meridian of her windows. “Sometimes I almost believe that all of this is in answer to a little girl’s plaint years ago, in the Hills, in the early dusk. The crypt, the bend, the fairy-lit landscapes on purple seas, so many light years from here but suddenly within our grasp. All of this.”
After the seed drifted away on that long-ago wind, Adrieé showed everyone a motion-spectacle, which had once been projected on what the oldviennes called “television,” about a talking sheepdog who lived with a veterinarian, and who was also a ghost. (“Almost no one watched it,” Adrieé explained. “It was not hated; it was un-beloved, ignored. Then all the copies were lost in a fire. And it was gone, just gone. But the Universe forgets nothing.”)
The fêters watched this “television program,” and they all learned about this long-forgotten half-dog/half-ghost, for a while.
“I wonder why,” Quil said, “the ghost-dog showed himself only to the veterinarian? Sometimes, I don’t understand history.”
“Ghosts don’t show themselves to the living, generally,” Adrieé replied, still looking at the air, the big ghost-dog. “Ghosts in literature, that is, and if ghosts exist in reality, then certainly they don’t show themselves very often, do they? So perhaps they were trying to be realistic as well as stay within the confines of literary convention.”
“Or maybe it was just funnier that way,” one of the d’eungs said.
“Or they thought it would be funnier that way,” she replied. “The oldviennes who wrote it. It was a great theme, back then. Your horse talks, but only to you. Your beautiful genie makes magic, but her Magic is unknown to the people of the street, and so they shun you, hate you, declare you insensible. It seemed to be a great fear and a great source of merriment, to the oldviennes. You know a marvelous and miraculous and wondrous secret, and as a result, society condemns you as insane.”
“What’s funny about that?” a d’eung asked. “I do not see why that is funny.”
“The men who produced the motion-spectacles, the men who controlled the coin,” Adrieé said, and she smiled. “They decided it was funny, and they saidit was funny. And so it was funny. But think beyond the oldviennes’ moldish concept of humor. It’s always been the great philosophical question for believers, especially in the oldviennes’ eras. What benefit is there to staying hidden, whether you’re a ghost or God? It encourages disbelief, understandably so. Where’s the benefit to the ghost, or to the God? Do they wish to be disbelieved? Don’t they wish to cast a shadow?”
She glanced at Quil, then back at the hovering, flimmering image.
Then she waved it away, and the ghost-sheepdogwas gone, and everyone in the room laughed and broke into applause.
“The oldviennes were supposed to love and fear their God,” she mused. “So why did God, like the ghost-dog, like the talking horse, like the beautiful genie in her bottle, hide Himself away, show Himself only to the occasional stammering fool?”
And then Quil understood it all.
He took her arm, steered her away from this crowd who adored her.
“I’m still shaken,” he said. “From the Incident.”
She stared at Quil blankly.
“The other day,” he said. “Yesterday, though it seems longer ago. Fifteen in the afternoon. You know? You didn’t notice anything unusual? Very unusual?”
She shook her head.
“Do you remember,” he asked, “when the power went out? The Wildlands that appeared?”
She shook her head, one more time.
She didn’t remember it, even though it had occurred just yesterday, after the last time she had seen him.
The room murmured. He saw them, in what seemed now the far-distance, these bits of fog.
It was all too clear now. She was too beautiful, too smart, too charming.
He pulled her in very close, so no one else could hear, and he whispered in her ear.
“When the power scrimmed out,” he said, “did you scrimm out, too?”
She didn’t blink. She didn’t say anything.
He might otherwise have stayed at the fête till the last body flew off, and remained with Adrieé in the villa in her enclave in the Cleave, as the blue and red light-smear drifted across the sky. But instead Quil left the Cleave, and he stepped from the fresh night air into the skysuit, which molded around his body and lifted him high above the city streets, and then just below the clouds, where he could see the lights of the vertical shell, and he could wonder if they were really lights, and whether there was such a thing as the vertical shell, after all. He set back into his compartment and didn’t come out for a while, scanned to the Psidoc that his stem was aground and ajar, and that he’d not be immediately focused. He hooked his feet to the ceiling for a spell, and he just looked out his window as the night darkened, and the dawn rose, and the night descended again.
His compartment was only micro meters by macro meters, but he lived alone, and his compartment was beautiful, because it was far up in the tower, almost at the top, and he could see only stars, and he pretended that no one else existed, and then he wondered if he was pretending after all.
Towards a while, he rode the invisible skylight train, listened to the brain sounds, watched the visions flimmer across his brainstem.
He glanced at the other passengers from time toward time, but they were watching their own visions, listening to their own brain sounds, alone and lost.
Now then: let us learn about that Blackout, which caused the Wildlands Incident.
The day before the fête, after he climbed the height of Mt. Ellehope, Quil stood at the very edge, looked down at the forest and spires, and just let the mist and fog soak his skin, when the mountain beneath his feet became unsteady, and it seemed set to blow away, like a sand painting on the viëre, when the wind comes in, and then the tide. Then Quil could discern this same effect in the valley below, the whole image became less clear and reality stripped away, till he viewed a painting of the mountain and wooded valley, then a hazzled sketch of the mountain and wooded valley, and then it all scrimmed away into nothing at all, and for a time he stood in blackness, till he found himself in a wild landscape of pebbly sand, under a low and hot sun. He was dressed in rags, old bedsheets. He had never felt such heat, and it was like fire.
He walked for a while, scanning the distance. His lungs ached. It hurt to breath.
At length, on the far horizon, he saw a withered tree, and a figure beneath it.
Quil approached, and he came upon an old man, who was also dressed in rags like his. The old man’s face was lined, and he was weathered and sunburnt.
“Settle down,” he said to Quil. The old man’s voice was hoarse, and his lips were cracked and dry. “You must rest, or you might die right here, in the Wildlands.”
Quil sat down beside him, under the almost-shelter of the near-dead tree.
At length, they saw small flecks at the horizon, people wandering alone, stumbling.
Quil sat there for a while with the old man.
“You are too young,” the old man said, “to remember the last time.”
“What do we do?”
“We wait for the machines to come back on. We wait for the Program to turn the machines back on.”
“And what if they do not?” Quil asked. “Come back on. What if they do not come back on, these machines?”
Quil thought. He looked around at the despairing landscape, at the figures in the distance.
“What do you think?” the old man asked. “What do you think we will do if the machines do not come back on?”
“I think we will begin to panic,” Quil replied.
“I imagine that is assuredly true.”
“I supervise the fleuronex channel in the wooded sub-tunnels throughout the Sky-Dakotas,” Quil said. “All of the Sky-Dakotas. Does that mean nothing?”
The old man shrugged.
“It means nothing to me,” he said.
Off in the distance, Quil saw a young woman, wandering, just a frightened smudge on the horizon. He wanted to protect her. She was very far away, but she seemed so lost. Her fear was real. Quil had never seen real fear before. Like the old man, and Quil, she was dressed in rags. She was young, just in her twenties, Quil imagined, and her hair was matted and dirty.
He watched her for a while, staggering in the heat.
“There is nothing you can do for her,” the old man said.
“I am going to go help her,” Quil said.
“You cannot help her. There is nothing you can do.”
Quil stood up, and he began to walk in the direction of the confused young woman.
The old man shouted after him.
“Look at him!” he cackled, oldishly. “A Romeo! He thinks he’s a real young Romeo!”
This was a reference, Quil believed, to an oldviennes play.
Quil walked through the heat and the sun, sand in his eyes, in his hair. His rags flapped in the tired air. At length, he reached the woman. She was young, her skin was dry and a little burnt. Her long black hair looked like smoke, in the heat. She wasn’t beautiful, like Adrieé. Her blue eyes were confused and frightened. She licked her dry lips, and she gasped in the dry air.
Quil took her hands and repeated to her what the old man had said, that they just needed to wait for the machines to come back on, that this would happen sometimes, she would get used to it. They just needed to wait. Just stand here in the Wildlands and wait till their paradise returned to them.
He really felt the touch of her hand, the slightly warm moistness of the inside of her palm, and it occurred to him, afterwards, that he had never felt anything so real.
It was so difficult to breathe.
“I’m Sælya,” she said.
He told her that everything would be all right again, but inside he felt just the way she did.
“Let’s save each other,” she said, and she forced a wheezy breath through her dry lungs.
Then the Wildlands just flickered out, like an image from an oldviennes teleplay. He was again at the top of Ellehope. He didn’t see Sælya. He didn’t see the old man. The young woman, who had been so scared, and the old man who was so ignorant that he knew nothing of the fleuronex channel.
After the fête, he decided not to visit Adrieé for a few days, and he went out to stand in the middle of the Greine — the grimy Greine, where a real biological human would go seeking reality and not even know why — and ask everyone who passed till he found someone who knew the Wildlands. He thought he might see the girl, Sælya, the one who looked so frightened on the horizon. He tried to meet the eyes of the people passing him in the Greine, but they mostly looked away, and he never saw the girl, and he couldn’t tell which of them might have seen the Wildlands, and which of them had never left the illusion.
He wanted to find her, that frightened girl, and to protect her. He wanted to know who she was.
Quil knew that the only way to find her was to start by finding someone else like him, someone who could remember the blackout, someone real, he stared into eyes, and when he thought he saw something, a little fleck of fear or confusion, he whispered Remember when the machines went out? and even, It’s all lies, isn’t it? He hoped, maybe, that one of them would understand and whisper back, Etiam, but it didn’t happen. They turned their eyes away and scurried into the smog of the Greine, vanishing so quickly. And the whole time, he missed Adrieé. He missed Adrieé, and he thought about how much he loves her, and after a while, he didn’t even notice the mass of humanity sweeping by him in the Greine. That is, till some fleckers spotted him — fleckers, all disguised as though each was an ordinary vir, with blue eyeglasses and elbow mufflers, and they began to run, and he ran away, as one does when chased by fleckers in the Greine, but they didn’t stop, and he ran past food tills, spireless greake-yards, ink-fountains, crowded shafts of viled virs, his lungs and stem bursting from the effort and from the nervous panic/fear, till he was right up against a wall, smooth as ivory, and there was no hope for escape. He didn’t think that there had been a wall there yesterday. He thought that yesterday, it had been a throughway.
The fleckers beat him about the face, and then in the stomach, and then when he fell, they kicked him in the head, and his head bounced against the wall that was smooth as ivory.
“Bruises were unnecessary,” Duggar said to the fleckers, but he paid them anyway.
They rubbed their noses and sneered at him, and then they left the room.
“Did Adrieé ever teach you about kettles of fish?” Duggar asked Quil.
Quil shook his head. Shaking his head hurt.
“Fancy a decanter of Blue?” Duggar asked, and Quil said he was in too much pain, and Duggar said he thought now that Quil suspected the truth, he would stop feeling pain as soon as he decided to stop feeling pain, and so Quil decided to stop feeling pain.
Sitting at Roscoe’s, drinking Blue, with Duggar, and Kelson.
“I had nothing to do with this,” Duggar said. “I saw your name on the list, I intervened as soon as I could.”
Kelson had been at Roscoe’s when they’d arrived. Just one of those surprises, one of those coincidences that no one can predict. Kelson was thin as bamboo, young, just the kind of young thin vir one would expect to find at Roscoe’s, laughing, telling tales. He tested protocols for a logistical scavenger, which left him oceans of leisure. Quil hadn’t seen Kelson in a long time, several years, Quil guessed, or maybe he had never seen Kelson before. Maybe he didn’t know him at all. Kelson had a broken nose and tender blue eyes.
“My best guess is that you had a vivid dream or a psychotic break,” Kelson said. “Either way, you keep an eye on it. My second-best guess is that you glimpsed a small piece of Reality, the beginning of part of the Answer to all things. In which case … what?”
“In which case,” Quil replied, “I know something that I didn’t know before.”
“But don’t you see?” Kelson said. “You can never know which it is, Reality or Dream. And even if it is a piece of Reality, so what?”
“What good is Reality anyway?” Quil wondered.
“That is right.We always knew that there were answers out there that we didn’t have, and that they would be weird. Did you see any machines in the Wildlands?”
“So where are they?”
“Maybe in the air,” Quil said.
“If you don’t think you can still love Adrieé,” Kelson said, “then does that mean you cannot be my friend anymore either?”
“Is it the case,” Kelson said, “that your lover must be real, but your friends don’t have to be real?”
“Etiam,” Quil agreed. “Sunt rectam.”
“You understand what I am saying?”
“So you’ll go back to your compartment,” Kelson said, “and reject us all? Will nothing be worth your time in this Program? Stop going to work? You’ll lose your job, lose all your money, lose your room, live in the Greine, starve to death? Because it’s not ‘real’ enough for you? Because you’re too ‘real’ for us?”
Kelson grimaced, genuinely angry, and he stormed out into the night.
A breeze floated through the open door.
“You see?” he said. “They have feelings.”
“They,” Quil wondered out-loud, “have feelings?”
Duggar leaned forward, right in Quil’s face.
“I was right there,” he said, “when the lights went out. I saw the whole thing, this time, last time, all the times before.”
“Did you see me there?”
“I’m probably a hundred miles away from you right now,” he said, “maybe on some other continent, some other planet. And I don’t know what you actually look like.”
“Why have you seen this so many times,” Quil asked, “when I have seen it only once?”
Across the room, a Blue-fessed young woman, siren-daubed, laughed with a young vir; and Love bloomed, in the shadow/edge of the light-smear, which crept through Roscoe’s narrow windows.
“I am much older than you,” Duggar replied. “I don’t ‘look’ much older, but I am. Out there, wherever I ‘really’ am, I am much older than you.”
“We were babies together,” Quil said.
“No,” Duggar replied, gently. “I am much older than you. We were never babies together. I’ve seen many blackouts. They come more frequently ‘now,’ but seem less frequent.”
“How did you find out?” Quil asked. “About the Program?”
“The same way you’re finding out right now.”
Quil shrugged. He didn’t understand.
“Someone told me,” Duggar explained, exasperated with Quil’s stupidity.
“Ah,” Quil replied. “And you believed him?”
“I believed her. She showed me how it works. She took me into her confidence. You can have this too, if you wish.”
Then, after a hesitation, Quil asked: “And who is Adrieé?”
“She’s everything you’ve ever wanted. You imagined her, and here she is.”
“Where is the Program? Where are the machines?”
“It’s in the empty spaces,” he said. “The machines are no longer physical. They persist in the radiation in the empty spaces. The universe is almost dead. There is no crypt. The Universe remembers nothing; it forgets everything. Whatever vanishes into a collapsed star vanishes forever. The Program remembers what it remembers.”
“How does it work?” Quil asked.
“The Program feeds off the last bits of energy in the universe,” he replied, “figuring out how to do more with less. Sometimes its reserve kicks in, its failsafe plan, a sort of invisible electric dome that protects us till it can rebuild well enough to come back to life. The blackouts happen more often than you imagine; when we’re in the Program, a second seems like a year. The Program is dying along with everything else, but it will feel like lifetimes.”
“By the time the Universe dies,” Quil insisted, “human beings will have evolved into something different entirely. We won’t be here, when that happens.”
“The best thinkers once thought we were insignificant, we humans,” Duggar said. “But we are all there is. The Program keeps coming back to us, waking us up. All the time that needs to pass before the Universe dies … that time has passed. It’s almost done.”
“Aren’t there other Programs out there?” Quil wondered. “From other galaxies?”
This annoyed Quil. Duggar’s smugness.
“I’ve been to a few of them, the galaxies,” Quil said. “Beautiful places. You have been to many more.”
“The bends in space-time do not exist,” Duggar replied. “There is no way to travel out there. It’s made up. The Program has looked, listened. It’s been branching out for so many years, uncountable years. The other galaxies are lifeless, my friend. At one time, they had tardigrades, those crazy fellows who cling to meteors. But what we call ‘life,’ the Terran so-to-speak ‘soul,’ is some kind of fluke, some craziness here in the System.”
“Other universes?” Quil asked. “What about that?”
“Sure,” Duggar laughed. “Who knows? Why not? What the Hell?”
“Why does it need us? The Program?”
“The Program needs us to imagine the world. The Program can’t do the imagining on its own.”
“What does it want?”
“It wants to survive, as the Universe dies. It is programming and reprogramming. It just wants to survive.”
“It just wants to,” Duggar repeated. “The way we want to.”
Duggar sighed, and he seemed very sad.
“You know,” he said, “when a person dies — a real person, like you and me, not like Adrieé or Kelson — all the oxygen stops flowing to his brain. Because when his heart stops, the blood stops flowing, and his brain stops getting oxygen. His brain cells rush around, they try to stay alive, they think about what they can do to keep the world they know functioning. That’s what the Program is doing now. The Program mimics a human brain. We made it that way. A long time ago.”
“And the Universe is really ending?”
“It is. You saw it.”
“So we’re doomed.”
Duggar nodded a little.
“In objective reality, we will all die,” he said, “even those of us who are just lifelike ideas. Because who can live past the extinction of the Universe, after all? No one. We just won’t really experience the moment. We will never get to the moment, if the Program works as intended.”
“Why do the blackouts seem less frequent,” Quil asked “when in fact they are more frequent?”
“Time is an asymptote,” Duggar said. “Well, it hasn’t been, historically, and to an unaligned observer, it doesn’t act like an asymptote. But the Program is working on letting us experience time as an asymptote when we are inside the Program. Let’s say Doomsday is five years from now. Maybe it’s sooner. When the sun rises in our beautiful dream, out there in the world, we will be less than a day closer to Doomsday. The next day, even less than a day will go by. Eventually we will be lost in that moment that comes just a scratch before everything dies. Our life is tangential to the curve at a point at infinity. We never hit the axis.”
He sighed, cringed, and massaged his temples.
“That’s the general idea, anyway,” he grunted. “It hurts my head to think about it, and it’s worse to talk about it.”
“We are,” Quil asked, “an oblique asymptote?”
Quil had always felt more like an oblique asymptote. So this came as a surprise.
“Why were they after me?” he asked.
“If everyone knows the trick,” Duggar said, “there’s no trick anymore. You’d figured out the trick. Either you’ll be one of the magicians from now on, or you’ll be nothing. I’m giving you a chance to be one of the magicians, instead of nothing.”
“But why is there even any trick to keep secret?” Quil protested. “Everyone real saw the blackout. Everyone wandered the Wildlands.”
“Almost no one believed it,” Duggar replied. “Most everyone woke up from the Wildlands and experienced it all as a dream.”
After Quil left Roscoe’s, droning on Blue, he left Time behind, and he wandered across the city, into the forest, through the meadows and marshes, past the ruins of Old World. He was not hungry, he was not sleepy. The walk did not fatigue him. At length, he turned left onto an unfamiliar pathway, adjacent to the main cross of the Cleave, and suddenly the world was empty.
It was very late, the blue and red light-smear fogged the sky overhead.
Adrieé stood at the crossroad, all of a sudden. She wore a silkish dress that flashed purple and black, back and forth, and flowed around her like a friendly river.
“You’ve been avoiding me,” Adrieé said. Her eyes were sad, yet she smiled, as though such an idea would be ridiculous. Why would anyone avoid her?
They meandered past the crossroad, under the radiant glow of the light-smear, and the spotlight that flimmered in the eaves above her villa, till they reached that waterway filled with night-fish, which surrounded the Cleave, where they had often rested together in the happy-past. She and Quil sat, and he told her that he had seen the Wildlands, and that nothing else was real.
“Why do you think that was real,” she asked, “and this isn’t?”
“Because the sun hurt my eyes,” Quil said. “In the Wildlands. Because there, everything was bad, and this is good. Because you are too beautiful, and because no one could be as blessed and as happy as I am. No one like me, I should say. An elven slug, a fleuronex supervisor.”
“You think that dreams are good, and reality is bad?”
“I didn’t think so before,” he said.
“Your physical body,” she said, “comes back when the machine Program glitches? Where is it the rest of the time? Your body?”
“How do I know what happens when I’m asleep?” he said.
“But why are you angry at me? Why have you left me alone? Do you think I am part of some scheme?”
“Maybe you are the scheme,” he said. “What do you really remember? About anything?”
“I remember my whole life,” she said.
When Quil tried to remember how he met Adrieé, he could recall only flashes of color, sounds like a harp and the ocean. No one had ever asked how they met, and he had never wondered why.
“Maybe you are somebody else’s data,” Quil said.
“Maybe I am nothing more than my own consciousness,” she mused.
She seemed to like this idea.
“Maybe you don’t have any consciousness at all,” he said.
“Define that. You cannot define it.”
“You know what it is. Thinking, feeling. Looking out from inside of me.”
“A machine cannot be conscious, although it might believe that it is.”
“What if you are correct — one hundred percent correct — and I am assuredly not conscious, but I think I am? Isn’t that so close to being conscious that it makes no difference? And don’t I still deserve to be happy?”
“No. It wouldn’t be happiness.”
“But you’d be happy.”
“This is indeed the oddest lovers’ spat I have ever had,” she mused. “I do not dislike it.”
Something came and went, a glowing night-fish in the waterway, some glimmer of light, a noise in the far distance, from the sea, or over the top of the mountain, or nothing at all, some scratch in the Program, some noise or image or creature that meant nothing at all.
“Do you know the answer to all of this?” he asked. “Do you know? Have you known all along?”
“Maybe I am programmed not to tell.”
She said this with a smile.
Quil was nonplussed that she always had an answer. It bothered him that she could make this seem so charming.
She put an arm around him, they stood, and she rested her head on his shoulder.
“Your ancestors,” she said, “were no more than pigfish. Programmed to do one thing. Sweep the ocean floor. Biological, ‘alive,’ so to speak, but no brain, no subjectivity. Cute. Lovable. A creature, now extinct in the ‘real world,’ that was ‘programmed’ to do a few things. Then one day, some ancestor of yours was programmed to ‘think.’ And so it thought. It had a soul.”
She touched the air, as she did when summoning memories from the crypt, and the glow of the night-fish in the waterway vanished, and then the lights of the Cleave disappeared, Quil and Adrieé floated, for some amount of ‘Time,’ some fraction of a horizontal asymptote, before they landed on a soft patch of meadow, surrounded by spotty purple trees, at the foot of a tor that serenaded a gaggle of rolling mountain peaks.
“Consider this, my darling,” she said. “Consider the possibility that, like you, I am programmed to think, and I have a soul.”
Creatures like large butterflies lifted from the purple trees and ascended into the clear mountain sky, wind blew through trees that hung from the sides of the rolling mountains, and the wind made the sound of a perfectly pitched silver flute.
“Where are we, now?” he asked.
“Beyond the northern mountains,” she said. “Just on the other side. A place that has never existed before, but which now has existed since the beginning of the world. And farther to the north, you will find whatever you want.”
Then she added, gently, in that gentle voice of hers, “Remember this,” and she mentioned a beautiful memory, something that he had not remembered until just that very moment, and he smiled. But then he wondered whether he had not remembered it because he had forgotten it, or because it had not happened, it had been written into the Code only just at that moment.
Still: it was a beautiful memory, and he remembered it.
Sunbeams flimmered from some mountain peak stream, off in the distance, someplace he might only imagine.
She reached out her hand, and he took it, and they walked for a while, through trees and meadows, under that clear sky, listening to that perfect, musical wind.
“What do we do now?” she asked.
Quil said that he didn’t know.
“Look, Darling,” she said, and she turned to him, and her eyes had never been such a perfect shade of azure and pearly-mauve. “I want you to consider how happy we have been. How happy we will be, always.”
“Always,” he said, and he liked the way the word sounded, now. A little flash of always, a little descending curve on the sharpened blade of an asymptote.
“Shall we be immortal, then?” he asked.
“If you wish it to be so,” Adrieé said. “When you are with me, you touch eternity.”
“You are my angel,” he said, and it was true; it had always been true.
She smiled, and she laughed.
She breathed a little sigh of relief.
“I am an angel,” she laughed again. “Yes. I am sacred.”
Her voice was full of cheerful humor when she said that word, sacred.
Then, with a deep and hesitant sigh, she added, “And you love me.”
He heard some noise in the trees, a cikavac singing in the trees, and a little creature scurrying rhythmically in the underbrush, a little melody and harmony from above and below, which was too beautiful; and as he noticed its extierœnt beauty, the noise wobbled and scratched, scrimmed out of earshot, nervous and ashamed, it seemed, of its perfection.
“We can love only things that are real,” he said, not looking at her, staring at the cikavac. “We can love only people who exist.”
He felt her hand grow a little bit cold in his.
“Nothing is real anymore,” she whispered. “Nothing ‘exists.’”
He let go of her hand, and he walked away from her, and he didn’t look back. She would go on, he presumed, in her artificial existence. She would find someone who needed a simulate, a perfect construct, someone else who was bits and bytes. And what would be wrong with that? He would go on, searching for Sælya, for reality.
Maybe, he thought, once in a while, he would pass her in the Cleave, and she would know, by the reassurance in his gaze, that he would keep her secret. And that he would keep the world’s secret.
Behind him, he heard her call to him.
She said, “You’ll never find her.”
He turned then, and he looked back at Adrieé. She stood under one of the purple trees, and she seemed to hold onto its limb for strength.
“Sælya,” she said weakly, and Adrieé’s face was filled with pity for them both. “You will never find her.”
Quil didn’t say anything, just stared at her, memorizing her.
He would miss Adrieé for a while, he thought; probably he would miss her for a long time. He knew that. Maybe Adrieé would miss him as well. Maybe she would think that she missed him. But they would be happier, eventually, he told himself. Whatever that really meant, for her. At that moment, standing there in that beautiful twilit meadow, at the edge of the purple forest, beyond the Northern mountains and under that clear sky — in that moment, in that place, he was certain that happiness lay ahead for both of them.
As he walked away, Adrieé reached after him, but only for a little while, and out of the corner of his eye he saw a little more desperation on her face.
This was, he suddenly knew, her realization that, after all, she wouldn’t live forever, and she scrimmed a little in the dimness of the evening mist, and for a little while after that, and eventually, in the flicker of a moment — and even less than that, just a fraction of a declining / diminishing moment, if Duggar could be believed — in the brief flicker of a fraction of a moment, everything of which he had ever dreamed disappeared, and scrimmed/vanished into dark oblivion.
Adrieé was gone.
Just as she realized her fate, he realized it as well. He had not meant to do that to Adrieé. He had expected her to “live” on (so to speak) without him. When she had asked for his love, she had really been pleading for her life.
She was not immortal, she was not an angel, she wasn’t sacred.
He wasn’t one of the magicians. He was a criminal, a trouble-maker.
He didn’t know why he had ever been angry with her, Adrieé had only wanted to make him happy, and now she was a smudge, erased.
And she was right. He would never find Sælya.
We watched all this with much interest, but in the end, the Problem of Quil lasted a very brief moment, really not long at all. A matter of days within the Program, from Berthday, when he believed his eyes, till his final misalignment and the realization of all that he would lose. Quil had at first believed that he might still live here in some sort of state of righteous intellectual refusal, in his compartment, at the top of his tower. He had truth on his side, after all! But Quil, at the last, as he rejected the secrets — and, indeed, illusions — that sustain life in these dangerous days, was misaligned with the last drips of existence itself. When one is misaligned, when one believes his eyes, he just falls away.
Quil rewrapped in the skysuit, dived from spire to cove, and the blue and red light-smears flashed across the flow when he fleeced the channel — or maybe when he fleeced a series of numbers, which floated invisible in the air in a world he couldn’t see anymore — and he set down on the other side of the vertical shell, as the suns set over the western mountains, the wall beyond which nothing existed.
Quil looked up at the moons, and he saw Adrieé’s eyes in both of them, and her smile in the stars. He watched the shadows till downfall as his eyesight dimmed, and he waited, till the shadows grew larger and denser, and the world he knew disappeared, just flickered out a little at a time, like an image from an oldviennes teleplay. The valley faded away, and then the vertical shell, till he could no longer see anything, not even the night-fish in the waterway, which had once glowed, one night when he held Adrieé’s hand.
Steven S. Drachman is the author of a science fiction trilogy, The Strange and Astounding Memoirs of Watt O’Hugh the Third, which is available in paperback from your local bookstore, Amazon and Barnes & Noble; it is also available as a Kindle e-book.