Big Echo

Critical SF

The Women From Asylum

by Peter Milne Greiner

Inspired by Arthur C. Clarke's Exile of the Eons” (1950, Super Science Fiction Stories, later “Nemesis”)

CHAPTER 1

HEIGHT—BADLAND—NICHE—one smaller northern Atoll was situated on Mount Shafroth’s uppermost massif, and there those that remained in the shadow of Denali, as they cast their own on Foraker, forgot Alaska. The Shafroth Atoll had five settlements, a people’s council, its motions and constituents, and its citizenry. It was home to those who were outspoken and popular, and to its recluses in the lower ridges, its hermits and drifters. The Idea told the people what to do and not do, mores were passed down through the generations and between neighbors, the past was strange, and rumor was taught with uncertainty in the tiny schools. Life biased survival even at that extreme elevation, and people biased life’s fabling, even if at that elevation they daily grew faint and weary.

In The Gatherer of the Hunters, a town of almost a hundred people, the Shafroth Atoll’s only xylophonist and maker of xylophones lived by herself and her name was Strobilus. She shaped stone scraps of the Atoll, fiberglass scraps from the towns, ice scraps and other scraps, into the bars, troughs, and mallets of her instruments. In small, isolated communities everyone is famous; Strobilus, though, because of her gift, was known.

Her studio faced the western cliffs. In the early mornings of the hot half, before the sun brought the gales, she would go to the edges of the cliffs and listen to the stormclouds’ sullen, almost embittered rumbling. Louder and more articulate by the minute, the clouds approached her through the dark, over the soda flats, skittishly, as if she were a camera trap. She listened to the quickening breezes and foehns as they leapt up over the cliff face: for their dramas, for shifts in tonality. Not for voices; she knew that what came up over the rocks didn’t speak like that. What came up over the rocks muttered and gasped, howled the dour errata of the lowlands, wordlessly offering to her bargains she accepted.

In the studio on a day in the middle of a mild hot half, Strobilus did not know why she was there. She hadn’t needed to get anything. She sat down to eat her breakfast. The mushrooms were raw, some a deep gold color, a familiar color. The others were bluish-green, the only bluish-green in the world. A clear syrup she drank was a combination of algae and bacteria. She looked at what she had written as she chewed. The mushrooms were designed to be delicious, to taste like something she had never eaten before in her life: flesh. She didn’t think about tastes, or yearn for them. No one did, because no one knew what food was. She picked up her scores for the new song and read them.

It was called Erratic Song, after the rubble left behind by the glaciers. The boulders, though she did insist on calling them erratics, could be seen from a distance, and reached on foot at certain times of the year; a procession of abstract and senseless monuments. She had learned the word erratic in the library; that they had been left behind by the ice, the cold. The song was almost finished. Strobilus had created a system of notation for her compositions that was part tablature, part pictograph, and there was a variation of the system for each of her xylophones, which were all unique. Schistaphone notation differed wildly from that of the gabbrophone, and each icephone had its own before becoming obsolete when, eventually, she drank them or donated them to the workshops. She ate faster. She tried to hear the movements of the song, but she could not that day; she could not focus because someone had threatened to martyr her.

On the Atoll, violence was accident. Martyrdom was abstract or arcane, ghost story or hyperbole in tremendous poor taste. The air outside was hard at work and her instruments lay around her on all sides of the room. Everything was normal and everything looked like it could be used by someone to harm her, like an obscure word, a weapon. She was afraid of her martyrer, of how different one must be to become one, or to aspire to become one. It struck Strobilus, momentarily, as revolting, a lofty type of disgust, before striking her again more plainly. She did not know that the word for this plainness of being was dread.

The mushrooms were called mushrooms, and the other sustenances had names, but they were far removed from anything that had ever grown in a forest or a field. They were automated—foolproof—failsafe. No one gave eating a thought; but they were generous with thought in respect to breathing. The mushrooms were grown in the workshops, the people grew on the mountaintop of the Atoll. Strain, a cornerstone of ecesis, was present in both populations, but the people were worse for it. In the habitat of the workshops the mushrooms had never shown change beyond the subtlest molecular level, but they were changing, wayward. She drank the last of her bacteria and left the studio quickly as precaution became panic. There was a remote battery on the north side of Hunters where she doubted anyone would think to look for her.

Power came to the towns from every direction, because it came from moving air that crossed the turbines of the Farm. The turbines were very old, but looked very new, like most of the settlements, at least from the outside, and they roared in the gales of the hot half of the year. During the warm half they turned swiftly, but made no sound. Their blades were in some motion always. The Farm was everywhere, its turbines and batteries distributed throughout the whole of the Atoll, and everyone worked on the Farm, because that was the Idea.

Teachers were still called teachers, but Farmers were called techers, and they kept the turbines and batteries going. They knew the computers. They knew how to run the crop workshops, how to rear the bacteria, and some of them knew how to use the other machines and devices that still remained and functioned. The techer called Charles Carthage had spent his minutes away from the battery on Scushen’s Ridge trying to bring a very old, long disused, and widely condemned device back online: a radio. Certain that they existed, it was Carthage’s desire to use the radio to contact other Atolls, but few shared his belief, and fewer his desire. Carthage’s project had inspired an opposition, and its basis in fear swiftly united many people. They were afraid of being hurt, of becoming sick, of becoming hungry, and of becoming changed. They were afraid of contamination, as they had been taught to in school. Though some, like Strobilus, were unsure and remained silent about the matter, others suggested that the Idea could define his plan as a crime, and they warned him that undertaking it further might earn him candidacy for immortalization. This threat terrified him. But the radio was broken, like the world, and Charles Carthage was, after all, Steward of the Idea, and so the people came to tolerate his endeavor, trusting in its certain futility. Slowly—it took years—he became a scavenger. He studied the turbines and learned their colossal redundancies, at first repurposing their many components abstractly. Once he established that a repair to the radio was possible, he changed again. He became a thief.

Toward the end of the Height, the world’s habitability had begun to wear away. The wearing away itself wore on and before long there were few places left where people could survive. Those that did hid in the mountains, high up, where it was cool, and then warm, and then hot, and then, if the mountains weren’t tall enough, too hot. People rushed to build summit habitats that would last. Their isolation, once it had—over the course of decades overlapping with generations—set in, was deeply felt. It was treasured and torture, it was sacred and safety. It was Paradise. The people of the Shafroth Atoll had, in their living memory, heard of one other by name: the Samara Atoll, but all they knew was that it was far to the west, on the other side of an island chain that had since disappeared as such and which had been strung from the Alaskan summits over the sea to other summits. The islands had been the Aleutians, and the Samara Atoll was on the eastern coast, then eastern extreme, of Russia. There had been a time when travel between the Atolls was possible, routine, but that did not last long. Eventually the air became too hot, the weather too poor, eventually the means to travel deteriorated, and the Atolls were isolated from one another and reduced, gradually, globally, autotomously, to a handful of redoubts for whose inhabitants time and world were less linear and coherent by the day. Life at altitude had led to everyday problems, had made accidents worse, had complicated sleep and childbirth, indeed it had complicated all exertion. The blood of the people of the Atoll was different than it had been in earlier periods, during the Height, and the time before the Height. Their veins were different and their hearts were different. The techers who knew the hospital kept the sick well, or what was then called well, but the Atoll was often collectively dizzy and the hot imbalances of the Alaskan firmament rang in their ears for mornings and afternoons like a faint distress call. Being human, they were bound to the Earth, and though they were still on it their existence was a stretch, the bond tenuous.

Carthage lived in Bristlecone, near the library. He was a scientist; few weren’t. He worked in the disciplines that life on the Atoll necessitated like everyone else: with varying degrees of aptitude. He had long ago given up the study of the heart and circulation under the stresses of high elevation, critical though it was to those whose blood would pump up there for a lifetime. He had searched the databases of the library for rumors of the world, what had been, how people had ended up on the mountain, if there were other mountains, if there were others. But he wasn’t a teacher, he was a techer, and though, when he came across it, a very obscure word like wildlife intrigued him, it was ultimately other clues about the Height that he sought.

The text in many areas of the databases was badly corrupted, and the work of recovering and making sense of it was archeological by nature. There were many lucid fragments of information, tracts of nonsense, and there were intact and pristine areas that were nevertheless inscrutable. There was one reference that interested Carthage the most. It was to a place, he thought it must be a place, even before he knew it was, called Ylem Caldera. One afternoon in the hot half of the year, having finished his work on the battery that day, he thought of this place, and the woman he knew there, as he inspected his radio, which had been working for some time, a fact that he had hidden with care until about an hour before. And he thought about the woman he knew from the library, the musician.

Strobilus knew well that fewer people would be at the library if she waited until the gales came, which she always did, though she could count on Carthage to be there for the same reason. Before breakfast, she had made her way up the path and onto the porch, where she stopped for a moment to listen. When air passed over an object, when it met with resistance, sound was produced, and that sound belonged to the object like a shadow. Strobilus thought about this often as she pored over the databases in search of exotic instruments from the Height. Didgeridoos, oboes, saxophones and, more abstractly, something called a theremin were amongst the soundmakers that made up her ghost orchestra.

There was a microphone mounted next to the barometer on the porch, directly below the door kit. It was connected to a monitor in Carthage’s lab, continuously streaming the sound of the air currents outside, which blew along the path to the library, sometimes keeping to it, sometimes resisting. These currents, their strength and character, varied wildly, and what came through the tiny speaker could, he thought, be their steady and coherent breath in the evening, or sudden and urgent anecdotes—tirades—outbursts—or brief, obstinate silences. He never turned it off. The air swept around the library. It was always making mention of the paths, the buildings, the mountain, sometimes with subtlety, more often with what Carthage praised as an astute grasp of the human predicament there. The air spoke of their enrangement. He had thought of that word only to discover that, at least in the library, it didn’t exist.

The entrance sensed her and Strobilus had entered the library a little balefully, but froze, attentive, when through the open doorway to his lab she heard Carthage’s voice answered by one she did not recognize, but knew. It was a woman’s voice. Strobilus heard the voice say that the woman couldn’t come to the Atoll unless she knew everyone would welcome her. Then she had heard Carthage speak. He wanted the woman from Ylem to come to Shafroth, that he could help her find the things she wanted, there on the planet, that he had written a rumor of the Atoll. He was eager to share all he knew, if she would only come. Strobilus listened. The woman was reluctant; she reminded Carthage that the orbital community did not possess the means to reach the Atoll and return home, that it would soon, but that undertaking such a trip would nevertheless be doubtful. His voice took on a desperate edge. He was trying to change her mind by changing his story. At first he reassured the woman that the people of the Atoll were ready for her arrival, then he said that a consensus would be reached soon, then that it would never be reached and that her only recourse was to come anyway. Strobilus thought she would spend the afternoon listening to him lie to her, but the woman cut the conversation off short, promising Carthage that they would speak again soon.

For a few moments the library had been silent, until the sound of Carthage bellowing in frustration coincided with an object shooting out of his lab into the library, hitting a far wall, and coming to rest intact on the floor. It was a small portable hard drive. He had emerged, his face red, breathing heavily, to retrieve it, when he saw her. She picked it up herself. She warned him that if he didn’t calm himself down, he would end up in the hospital and possibly dead before he could stand trial. Strobilus had told him that he had broken the Idea by contacting the woman, and broken it further by inviting her to the Atoll. She reminded him of the consequences. The Towns would adhere to the Idea and immortalization would be on the table.

Carthage did not calm himself down. The sudden accusations aggravated him more. He grabbed the hard drive from her and she let it go easily. She was afraid. He fumed and paced around the room, turning to her after a moment to say that he would accept, abstractly, but evade, absolutely, immortalization, that he could convince the people to welcome the woman, that the Idea didn’t matter. And he begged Strobilus not to make history about it. He backed into a desk, placing one hand on a terminal, and the other, still holding the hard drive, on his chest. She hoped this meant the episode was over. She wanted to know how long his conversations had been going on, and he admitted it had been three weeks. He had first made contact only hours after bringing the radio online. She asked him what was on the hard drive. He was silent. She said she would make history about it if she had to, and he tossed the device back to her.

That she caught it was involuntary. She didn’t have time to defend herself at first. He lunged. His hands were on her neck. His face was contorted, inches from hers. Though he did not speak, she saw him mouth the words I will do it. And there had been a moment when she thought he could. It was the moment when he thought he could, the moment when he again became something else, something worse still. She felt his thumbs crossed over her throat. He was changing. She felt what it was—stoppage—her weak spot—everyone’s weak spot. He meant it. The lost postures of attack and defense, their reflexes, their routines, took on a bewildering, dejavuine immediacy. Strobilus felt the guarantee of air and the guarantee of no air. But he was too exhausted by his state. He was hyperventilating. His weakness was her ward. She pushed him, with great effort, away. He fell to the floor, and managed to say that he would make history, too, if he had to. Then he told the floor, as he rose from it, staggering toward her again as she fled the library, that the woman wasn’t going to come, because for some reason she didn’t want to.

The xylophone player already knew. She knew that the Ylem Caldera was a space station, not another Atoll, because she had spoken to a woman who lived there, though not that one, several times already, while Carthage was at work on the battery. And she too had entertained inviting her, had broken the Idea. But, she reminded herself, her conversations had played out differently. What troubled her then, apart from Carthage’s threat, his new hostility, his sudden martyrous streak, was that he didn’t seem to know, after several conversations with the woman, about Strobilus’ own dialogue, just as she was ignorant of his. This of course meant the women from Ylem wanted that. Alone in North Battery, which is what the people in The Gatherer of the Hunters called her new refuge, she was glad for the first time that she had eaten, and did not know for the first time when she would again. She touched her throat. It was tender and swollen; she tried to picture the bruise, she decided it must be bad, but she was breathing normally, even after running home, and then running to the battery—reflex—response—redoubt. It was effortless. The decisions made themselves, and she made of them sense, or little sense.

The batteries were white sheds networked not to their own turbines, but to all of them, and to each other. Inside the shed, up to ten people could route and distribute power around the Atoll using a simple set of controls. This power could be sent to other batteries, individual buildings, or fed back into the turbines in the event of a possible overload. The sheds were identical, but used differently. Fresh energy generated by the turbines was managed by routing it to only a handful of centrally located batteries, which could be attended to by teams. Each town had one, and near Bristlecone another one had been designated the Master Battery, where the distribution of power throughout the entire network was monitored. The system was designed to allow for this disequilibrium. It kept the power and the observers of that power organized. It also ensured that many batteries were seldom visited.

Strobilus knew no one would be in the shed. She herself had never been in North Battery, but despite being exactly like the ones she had spent so much of her time in, the space felt unfamiliar. She approached a bank of distribution controls and looked at an overview of the battery. It was set to hold a charge between forty and sixty percent of capacity, which was standard. Energy that would exceed sixty percent was routed mostly to the central battery in The Gatherer of the Hunters, with small amounts also routed to the other towns. She noticed that additional small amounts of energy were also routed to a battery on the other side of the Atoll, near the southernmost town. This struck her as odd, though distributions of that kind often were made by mistake, or were created in the hot half for a specific purpose and thereafter overlooked. She pulled up the power scheme for The Gatherer of the Hunters, selected the building where her studio was, selected her studio, and rerouted the power to a random battery outside Bristlecone. Without power, the door to the studio could only be opened manually, with a door kit. She had taken the one from her porch. She hoped this would discourage Carthage from entering. She opened the distribution overview of the battery on the south side of the Atoll, curious about how it was being used, and thought about what to do next—next—next.

Carthage was in her studio already when the lights went out, and he knew that meant two things: that she was in one of the batteries and that she had trapped him, by design if she had taken her door kit, or by accident if she hadn’t. It was there, in its housing, by the entrance. When he had arrived in the studio, he sensed at once that she was gone. Xylophones crowded the space, but there was no disarray, except on her workbench where flakes of stone and other materials were strewn wildly like arrowheads. Rage had erupted from him like a neat and steady autograph; he chose a xylophone, a gabbrophone she called it, he had seen her play it, it was the size of a small desk; he picked it up with both hands and smashed it against the wall, and the wall at that moment was his instrument, and he played on it in reprisal, or in fear, a brief song about an earthquake, a song that was over when the wreckage of keys and frame and trough settled on the floor. It was destroyed. He had then chosen another, but before he picked it up he noticed its lower keys. They were long, polished, slightly concave, corners rounded, sharp, expertly made. He had lifted one off its pin, admiring the workmanship despite himself, when the room went dark. He slipped the key into his front jacket pocket, resting it in a bottom corner. The pocket was too small. The key stuck out at an angle, pointing toward his shoulder, but he had to take it. He went to the door, feeling for the door kit. Getting it open, assembled, and turned on was easy. He was outside in minutes. The gales were weak and night was falling on the summits fast. He rushed to the library, turned the radio on, and demanded that the woman come, that he needed her, that the people of the Atoll needed her. He asked and asked and asked but she did not respond. The monitor played the sound of the air and he followed the sound, imagining a current that led up into the night, to where the composition of the world and the sky above it changed into nothing, and though he knew it could not, he imagined the current crossing that change, heading for the Ylem Caldera, for the woman, colliding with her, and bouncing back.

The woman continued to ignore Carthage; Strobilus risked no further attempts to use the radio, and no further visits to her studio. The hot half went on toward the warm half and more people were out during the day. The turbines turned. Gardens for the short season they could manage were sown and cared for. The warm half came. Strobilus would be expected to give a performance, as she always did at the beginning of the long but easier half. Hundreds of people came to The Gatherer of the Hunters to listen. She came from North Battery. In the evening, near the cliffs, she played. He was there. She spoke a little to those gathered. He watched her. The sound of the xylophones spread over the stone like shadows. When it was over, it was night. The people went home to their towns. The air moved over the mountain.

When the representatives from Ylem came, it was of their own accord, after a period of radio silence with Strobilus and Carthage, and when they did they came from the south in a tiny aircraft. It hovered over Bristlecone for several minutes, then moved off, clear of the buildings, and began to descend. The people of the Atoll stood motionless and watched the aircraft, as people who have never seen such technology would, with wonder, wonder and uncertainty, and then with fear. By the time the vehicle had touched down, the paths flurried with dust and loess as if preparing everyone present for the reveal, the first contact. But no one had remained to greet them. It was late morning. The gales came. They were strong, they weakened, they steadied. Strobilus and Carthage approached the aircraft, which was black and shiny like obsidian, from opposite sides of town, and stood before it together. They looked at each other, perhaps to each other, in shock, and did not say anything. A hatch opened, and two figures wearing masks emerged.

The figures spoke first, informing the xylophonist and the Steward that they had come, chiefly, to intervene in a situation they worried would result in violent conflict. The two introduced themselves and said where they were from, pronouncing the name several times, to clarify. The word Caldera, they added, was an artifact, perhaps autocorrected by the database somewhere along the way, most likely from Colony, but no one had ever referred to it as such, and so it could only be surmised that the entry Carthage had found in the library had been created a very long time ago, by someone who hadn’t gone there. The figures invited Strobilus and Carthage to the place they had been calling Ylem, asking only that the musician come with an instrument, and the rumorian with his Rumor. Carthage did not miss that they referred to him not as Steward, but as historian, nor that they referred to Strobilus by name. The women must have refused his invitation because of her own involvement, her adherence to the Idea. They had no interest in him, he concluded, or the Atoll. They had come for her. His feeling of defeat lasted only a moment, but he came out of it different.

All four people knew they would go. Within the hour, the man from Bristlecone and the woman from The Gatherer of the Hunters had gone to their respective workspaces and returned. They had everything.

The women from Asylum took them into the ship, Strobilus with the schistaphone and Carthage with his Rumor on a hard drive. There was room for nothing else in the tiny cavity. Cables ran across the walls, lights and dials and switches and buckles and darkness and use covered everything like a convoluted and eons-old genome with no knowable underlying order or expression. Strobilus felt as if she were inside an extinct insect, not eaten prey, but a foreign object, a pathogen, or a disorder, as if she were something the insect was worried about or the insect’s guilt. She touched her face. Her heart was not racing, but it was running. She rehearsed The Cliff’s Song’s fourth movement in her head, eyes closed, fingertips playing her jaw, and her pulse quietened.

Charles Carthage remained motionless as the ship lifted off the ground, as it rose over the houses and the turbines, as at first one town was fully in view and then all of them, as the mountains Shafroth, Denali, and Foraker disappeared into the cloud cover. When he moved, it was slowly, a hand to his chest, where inside a pocket over his sternum he reached for the schist xylophone key, his luck, his totem, his bargaining chip. It throbbed there like an enlarged and mysterious gland. He heard her song’s missing note.

The sky was a series of ‘spheres and ‘pauses. The road to microgravity was unforgiving of the bodies of Strobilus and Charles Carthage, such that when they reached low orbit, the two Atoll dwellers were in dire pulmonary jeopardy. High elevation—high altitude—peak height—they had known it all their lives, but now at the threshold of directionlessness their precarious adaptations were failing them. Their blood became troubled and ill, lost and in crisis. It crowded against her head and Strobilus hallucinated.

She was an origin of life. It was dark. Hot water rushed over her, but she couldn’t feel it. Mileages of water pressed down on her from above, but she couldn’t feel them. She was tiny, an assemblage of tininesses. She breathed easily without breath. She felt symmetrical and common, and she felt her symmetry growing, becoming structure. She felt energies entering her and she desired to keep those energies, to protect them, to use them, to deprive the world of them. She struck out at the asymmetry of the rushing water and she learned to loathe the dark while bettering herself in it. Then she left the dark. In her hallucination she knew she was much less than human, but still felt the parts of herself as if they were body parts, she knew there was a core—a vast ribbon—and barriers—between that which was her and that which was not her. She felt her nucleus. It was filled with many types of fear and they were all perfect and original. She thrived, but she desired more, she craved and starved and devoured and then ultimate and pure abundance tore through her and that was the climax and agony of mitosis—two Strobili. And then they too in due time divided, until she was surrounded by herself, a vast diaspora, a culture looking back at its zero-celled beginnings. The Strobili multiplied by the billions, and so did the years. She felt herself one being again, but she was sheless and herless, and the tralatitous significances of those billions had given way to something else. There were others there with themself, as before, perhaps like before, and they changed and reproduced, but it was different, it was after everything Strobilus knew, it was after people, and there were no words for it.

Carthage did not grasp the key, but held it lightly. The minerals and structure and resilience of that key had survived every terrestrial catastrophe there had ever been, it had been upheaved itself, removed to the farthest remotes of the world, it was inert, crustal, it was passive, it was pacifism itself, it was stone of one of the highest mountains on the planet, it had only since then borne the music of a human intellect, and now it would end that intellect, held as it was in the most savage and enduring weapon there was, the Hand. It had crossed the ranges and made its homecoming on the throat of a witness. The key underwent this transformation without the slightest segue or resistance, it would now—simply—kill—simply.

Charles Carthage was suffocating when he performed the martyrdom of the xylophonist Strobilus, who was also suffocating. He brought the schistophone key to her throat, a large key for an abnormally low note, for she had built the schistophone in the scordatura tradition, the note was designed to create a particular effect in The Cliff’s Song, the effect of dawn in the hot half on the western cliffs of the mountain of Shafroth. He brought its fine edge to her throat and he cut, and the cells ran out of her like a bloom of red algae, like long lines of elegy, and the note that sounded told the tale of his failure better than words, because Strobilus indeed bled, and it wasn’t long before they both fell into their comas, and it wasn’t long after that that the women from Asylum announced that she would live.

The penalty for committing martyr was immortality. Charles Carthage knew this in waking life and in the life of his coma. In the life of his coma he awoke to exoneration, to the news that Strobilus had lost too much blood, hadn’t survived, was indeed martyred, that the women from Asylum had sided with him, had been on his side all along. They told him that the Samara Atoll existed still, that it harbored a massive human population, and that they would take him there.

He convalesced at the Asylum for many weeks, healing and acclimating, breathing deeply, stretching his limbs out as far as they would go. Once he thought to look down upon the Earth in search of Alaska, but of course he could not find it. There were no shapes. There were no straits or archipelagos or basins, there were no continents. There was only the Surface. In an observation compartment, ill-fitting pieces of this revelation fell into place. Finally, after his long recovery, they were to make the descent to Samara. Carthage and two other women boarded a ship similar to the one that had met them on Shafroth. It was on this trip that he learned how—barely—such landings were possible. A larger vehicle, of which the Asylum had built but one, which they called a cusp ship, ferried the smaller shuttles into and out of the atmosphere. The cusp ship could not land. After reentry it would launch a shuttle and return to orbit. The women explained that the cusp ship had only recently been developed, and that the trip to the Shafroth Atoll was amongst its first successful uses.

The cusp ship brought them into the atmosphere and launched their lander without incident. Carthage had no sense of direction. The women told him they would approach Samara from the south. The mountains appeared in the distance, the color of his mountains, black and blue and orange and tan and white and gold and silver. He saw three great summits studded with turbines, white buildings, and long, impossible structures connecting the summits. The women told him these were monorails, a means of travelling between the settlements of this massive Atoll. They landed and were greeted by throngs of townsfolk, officials, techers, musicians, children, merchants, courtesans and lords, scribes and bards, magicians, acrobats, mimes, ewerers and pageboys, goats, ibex, and leopards, bells ringing on their exquisite bridles and sashes, bleating and snarling their welcome. They led Charles Carthage, Savior of the Idea at Shafroth, through the streets of their Farm to his reception in the courtyards of the Library of Samara, where the Cult of Chefs would invoke a dinner from the cornucopias of that prosperous Atoll. He watched as the Chefs focused the power of their minds upon the newly butchered goats—but what was a goat—roasting their haunches and legs without fire—and he watched the garlands of rosemary and saffron and dittany—and what were they—adorn the haunches—and he watched the salts of the mountain rise up from the ground and fall on the meat like snow. He watched cordials and ciders bead through the air as if in a vacuum and drip into the chalices of the harpsichordists, their robes encrusted with embroidery, their breasts sparkling with amulets. He watched the mensal knives carve the choicest loaves, and he watched as huge squashes and whelks sizzled midair in butter and parsley—as ribbons of dough crisscrossed pies that baked ovenlessly—ah, but he knew of ovenlike machines—and he watched the masters of telekinesis bring plenty to him and his brethren and he rejoiced.

It wasn’t clear if the man named Charles Carthage would wake up soon, or ever, but Strobilus sat at his side in the little clinic, the long cut on her neck held fast by a foamy substance not known on the Atoll. She regained consciousness quickly, the women said, because of the way her body had mediated the two strange traumas. One woman came to her often and spoke at length while Strobilus looked out the clinic’s large circular window. The angle changed continuously with the day, but always outside the Asylum was a huge, tan planet. The woman told her the rumor of the Asylum, how it worked, how they ate and generated power, and where the men were. She explained that the people who lived in the Asylum called rumor history. She told Strobilus what she knew about the other Atolls and how they were different from each other. And she returned to her the key that Carthage had taken. While the woman was gone, Strobilus slept, or thought, or watched huge patches of cloud cross the world. The schistaphone was in the room, the missing key restored to it, but she hadn’t played. It was time to, she thought, pulling her chair to the window. She placed the schistophone before her, pulled two mallets from her jacket, and looked at the planet.

She played. The improvisation began slowly, not with hesitation, but as if to acquaint itself with the swaths and columns of cloud that obscured the terrain beneath. Her terrain then was in the uppermost octave of the schistophone, where she had built in identical keys that could be played to create unisons. She played these high unisons first, letting the tones ring out and fade to silence, before shifting to bright, hushed dissonances. The song, which was not a song, she knew, did not quicken or intensify, or even change much. She repeated the same few figures over and over again, until the Earth was a sliver in the window. And then she saw it.

An object had come into view, but not as the view shifted with the turning of the Asylum. An object appeared, or seemed to, from nowhere. She thought it must be an asteroid, perhaps one the Asylum had brought into orbit and mined for resources. It had the supernal look that certain geological formations sometimes did—a fantastical look that one must accept as natural with reservations, like crystal, or a natural arch, or riverstone, or basaltic prisms, phenomena she had seen images of in the library. It had the look of uncanny design. It must have drifted into her view at a moment when she turned her eyes to the schistaphone, she thought. It must have been something the women were working on. She noted absently that the object was blue. Another minute passed, and the Asylum had turned away from it, and it was gone.

She had not thought about her hallucination, about what she had been in it, and what she became in it, since it happened, but it returned to her mind now, as the door to the clinic opened and the woman came in. Strobilus shifted in her seat, turning to face her. When the woman spoke, it was with the same calm and steady tone as before. She said that she had come this time to show Strobilus something. The woman looked around Strobilus, at the schistaphone, and then her gaze shifted to the window, through which nothing was visible at that moment. Strobilus followed her gaze, and knew she must have meant the blue object, and asked the woman if that was so. The woman told her that the blue object was part of it.

They walked together to a distant part of the Asylum. Strobilus wasn’t sure how much of it she had seen, but after an hour she realized it must be a huge complex. The woman talked to her as they made their way through it, passing other women along the way. She told Strobilus that the women from Asylum had made significant technological advances in the time since their habitat was first built, but that certain technologies could not be brought into use without the proper resources. She added that progress had been made in recent years, since the object Strobilus had seen in the window first started coming to Earth. She explained quickly that it was not an asteroid, that it was not natural, nor was it unnatural. Strobilus didn’t understand. They arrived in a deserted observation deck, its window into space much bigger than the one in the clinic. Through it, huge, very near, was the blue object.

Before Strobilus could ask, the woman told her that she did not know what it was, and that furthermore, the unknowness of the object outdated such questions. It did not represent a technology. It was not a vehicle. It could be a vessel, as a cup is a vessel for water. Nor, she went on, was it crewed, though, the women—bearing in mind the absence of a better, more appropriate vocabulary—conversationally used the word someone to describe what was there. The woman confirmed that the object appeared out of thin air, as Strobilus had seen earlier, remained near the Asylum, and vanished again, every sixty five to eighty hours.

She told Strobilus that the object—she paused often, using certain words as if against her will—went back and forth between Earth and another—another pause—planet, but that went and planet were not exactly accurate. She admitted that the women didn’t know how it worked, but that they had gone with it to this other location, and that they wanted to take Strobilus there. The woman explained that they had some—pause—metaphors for what could be—taking place. One important and difficult consideration was that the vessel did not, as she mentioned before, seem to make use of what people called technology, but rather a technology-analogue. It appeared to have functions that were like the functions of their own spacecraft, insofar as it had a form, was partly—pause—a habitat, and was designed to—and here she paused again. The temptation was always to say move, and she said they often did say that. But the vessel didn’t propulse. It—managed—distance—and apparently only one single distance—by some other means. Words like traverse or cross or cover were words they avoided. The object remained outside the window. They looked at it. After a short silence the woman said that they called it their Albatross. And that some called it their Person. It would remain outside the Asylum briefly, and then—depart. The woman would go with it, and so could Strobilus, if she wanted to.

She did. The woman told her the preparations had been made and that they would go to the object. Boarding the tiny shuttle, Strobilus was again reminded of her hallucination, and Carthage’s attack, but with detachment. She realized she did not know how long it had been since she had come to the Asylum. She touched the plastic scar on her neck. It didn’t hurt. The shuttle left the Asylum and moved toward the blue object. For a second she saw the Asylum. It was enormous. And as they pulled away from it, and the field of view became wider, she saw other complexes. She saw a giant asteroid in a silvery vice. Tiny lights shone in its mineshafts. In a few minutes, their shuttle, the Lacuna, had nosed up to the object, into a sort of hollow or niche in its side, if it had sides. There was a jolt as the Lacuna attached itself to the object. Strobilus asked the woman when they would leave, and she said only that leaving wasn’t accurate. They waited.

Waited was accurate. After many hours in the shuttle, without warning or preamble, they were somewhere else, a fact made obvious by the planet that appeared in the window—a planet not Earth. It was huge and close. Strobilus felt nothing of the uncanny, no sensation whatsoever, only that one moment had passed to the next. She breathed normally. She kept silent, waiting for the woman, who said nothing at first. They were alone over strange clouds. The woman spoke. They couldn’t land there; it wasn’t that kind of planet. Possibly, it wasn’t a planet at all. Beneath the swirling gasses that could be seen from orbit, there were structures, possibly geological, possibly artificial, but the data were ambiguous in either scenario. It did meet certain criteria in terms of how planetary bodies were defined—it was a round celestial object that seemed to have been created as a byproduct of stellar formation, for one. But other facts didn’t add up as neatly. It wasn’t where it should have been in the system, and the system itself seemed to be returning to equilibrium after a period of sudden, inexplicable change. It was the woman’s opinion that the planet, or whatever it was, had been moved somehow, that the balance of the system had been adjusted, or manipulated.

Strobilus listened. Other blue objects appeared in orbit with them. At first only a few, then many more, then more than she could count. The woman talked through the spectacle. The women thought of the phenomenon in terms of what they called a migration architecture. The objects seemed to arrive there, or return there, periodically, as albatrosses or penguins used to convene on islands in the southern hemisphere on Earth. Sometimes the women arrived first, sometimes there were thousands of objects already there, other times millions. Sometimes their Albatross left early or late. They had observed some go into the planet. They didn’t know where the others went when they vanished. They did know that when they were near the other planet, they were far from Earth. Their instruments could find no recognizable points of reference in the stars by which a proximity to Earth could be ascertained.

Objects crowded the view. And then the view began to shift. They were moving toward the planet. The atmosphere glowed. They passed into it in silence and the Lacuna was filled with light. Strobilus looked at the woman, who smiled at her and said that human beings learned to recognize abundance early on. The primate brain was attracted to and obsessed with presentations of abundance. Strobilus nodded. They emerged from the cloud cover and there were so many objects surrounding the planet that space was no longer visible. They could see only the blue of the Albatrosses.

 

CHAPTER 2

                                 The wind with its perpetual

                              rhetoric was searching

                         for answers in the canyons

                               and the trenches, in the endless bunkers of desert

                         ants, in the taigaland’s brittled stickdom,

                   at the feet of mountain ranges

         It swept up the loamy but inert earthstuff,

                  showed it

                   in the sky, and randomized

                           it down again

                      And the mountains rose up

                                out of this

                    randomization like reefs

              The valleys were the valleys

       of death, and the shelves were the shelves

         of death, and the same was true for the channels

                and the floodplains and the buttes

                     The gasses and their speeds were

                        the wind and the answers answered:

                       Exonym—echo—edge—elegy

                            Because that is what search sounds like on bare stone