Visitation: 2

Beneath the Wrecked Church there was a single Hasp. Its name was not known. The consensus among those in the SM faculty was that it was not of the usual order of Hasps; no. It was a Category I, expressed in Form II. And it was the last line of defence, for nothing could stand against a naked Haccieter, against the final idea of a basic force. Why The Defence was where it was no one knew. The Wrecked Church was around 12,000 years old, and as far back as records went it had always contained the Hasp. In that ancient past some deal must have been struck, a trade of some still-incomprehensible value. What was in it? Friendship? That surely was a heresy. It was impossible to imagine.

In any case the Hasp could not be moved. Of course it had been tried. But it could not be done. It was fixed relative to the gravitational centre of Stize. There was also the problem that anything that came within a metre of it (99.2 cm, said the notices at the entrance) would disintegrate as a result of absurd tidal forces. Outside that radius, however, those gravitational forces simply disappeared. They did not tail off; they simply did not extend there.

They could see the Wrecked Church now, the shattered spire of six metal plates, most of the top half entirely gone except for where two of the triangular sheets stretched skyward, nearly touching before cleanly cut off as if by some unnoticed catastrophe, some antiseptic violence that had come tumbling from above. Copper green with intimations of wisdom, flying buttresses broken and left clawing at vaulted notes the hearing of which was like a musical gesture in the middle of its enactment, like a sign paid out in instalments, the long spinal nave of stone and its interdenominate vertebrae locked in place, the high holy orifices of the windows agape, unprepared after all this time—

“It looks pretty good for a ruin,” Garf said, sweating a bit now. “I know it’s a stupid thing to say but it doesn’t look very – ruinlike – doesn’t it?”

They stopped to look.

Bizzo leaned back and shaded his eyes. He said nothing.

“It’s a bit like that Cubist stuff. Not really Cubist, I mean, but like that – who was it – Worthow, I think.”

“Ah,” Sal said.

Garfield drew a hand across her forehead. “I wonder why I never noticed before.” She took two steps back and stretched out her hands in the direction of the structure, moved them mechanically up and down as if measuring something. “You really get a sense of its size, hm? Standing here. I suppose that’s it.”

“In Canon II there is a section on the influence of prehistoric art,” Sal said. Canon was the vast university library.“I think Worthow is mentioned. There’s a book called The Lineage of Art from Before Time. Brewer and Fentiman. It’s good.”

“It isn’t really a church, is it?” Bizzo said. He coughed. “All the later ones that were copies of these two, those were churches. But we’ve not got any idea what this was for.”

“No,” Sal said. “Although there are many theories.”

“Why isn’t there anyone around?” Garf said.

Sal went up to the door and pushed it open.

Above the long darkness of the nave light seeped from the clerestory, touching nothing. At the end a great flood from broken spire.

“I spoke to QC,” Sal said. He grinned.

Garf took in a deep breath of cold air. “And it didn’t let anyone in today.”

“It re-arranged things,” Sal said. “So there would be an empty window.”

Bizzo stood just inside the door, his hands in his pockets. “There’s something, you know, oppressive about this. This place.”

Outside was the human noise, the human suffering.

The very thought.

Garf opened her mouth to say something but Sal said, mildly, “No. No. I understand.”

They walked over in silence to the crossing. The North Transept was ruined and from where they were they could look out at the sun pluming outside, the trees, the rolling air. In the middle of the crossing  there was a shallow bowl worn out of the basalt floor and at its bottom there was, incongruously, a lift, a large steel box.It looked like it could take ten or so people at once.

They got in and the doors hissed shut and they immediately began to descend.

Down hypodermically through rock. This is the song of an unassailable people.

They did not stop for a while.

“What the fuck?” Bizzo said when the doors opened.

They were at the edge of a vast rectangular chamber tiled entirely with what looked like white ceramic. The scene was a study in perspective; the dark lines of rock which showed between the tiles ran from where they stood to the opposite wall nearly a kilometre away, across the floor, walls, ceiling.

The light came from everywhere and nowhere and was painful.

Near the far end of the chamber there was a black square, so dark it looked nearly unreal, like something projected into vision: a perfect cube ten metres in height. Around it the neat lines formed by the tiles appeared to bend, to warp and wrap in on themselves again and again.  A space around where light congregated endlessly, fawned without end.

“So that’s the casket,” Garf said. “Trippy.”

“Is that lensing?” Bizzo said.

“Yes,” Sal said.

“Hmm,” Garf said.

“This shouldn’t be that surprising. What do you know about The Defence?” Sal said.

“It’s Type I,” Bizzo said.

“If you go to the SM faculty page you can find a list of well-defined Hasps and their properties. One standard way of classifying Hasps involves a Reissner-Nordström transform. You express properties about the Hasp by treating its derived properties as if it was a charged spinning black hole. Once you figure out a Hasp’s effective implied charge you can give it a certain mass. It’s not an actual mass, but you can treat it for certain calculations as if it has one. Basically you can figure out what Hasp in Form III would look like. The Defence is in Form II. But its inferred Form III mass – and it’s probably the only Hasp whose Form III mass has been precisely calculated, for obvious reasons – is approximately 4 billion solar masses.”

“Urk,” Bizzo said.

“That’s a big number,” Garf said.

“If you rank the well-defined Hasps by mass it’s pretty high up.”

“That is frightening,” Bizzo said.

Sal said nothing. He looked at the dark cube and said nothing.

The stuttered world made fiduciary to this.

“Is that number a limit?” Garf said. “What does it actually tell us about what this can do?”

“It’s not a limit,” Sal said. “That’s not what a Hasp contains. It’s an expression of actual gravitational potential, not potential gravitational potential.”

“I don’t –” Garf began.

“Garf,” Sal said, voice clear, cordial, knowing, “Don’t worry about it.”

Bizzo was staring. “We can’t go near that,” Bizzo said. “If the gravity is strong enough to bend light like that there’s no way we can go near that.”

“If it was a gravitational field, we’d be dead by now.”

“Terrorist!” Garf said, but put no heart into it.

“What is it? It not a gravitational field why’s the light fucked up like that?”

“I can’t get QC,” Garf said. She turned to Sal. “I just tried to make a query and got nothing.”

“There’s also no Composite Dust in the air,” Sal said.

“What is it?” Bizzo said.

“It’s a field,” Sal said. “It’s complicated.” He grinned like he had made a joke. “It only affects massless particles – photons – the way gravity does.”

“Okay.”

“It’s safe,” Sal said. “Let’s go.”

Garf looked hesitant. “Is The Defence doing that?”

“Of course.”

“And what’s that?” Garf pointed to the long gash in the floor where the tiles had been crushed in an arcing path that ended with the casket.

“Continental drift. The casket moves a tiny bit each year as Wassea drifts underearth it. Let’s go.”

As they walked the lines around the casket slipped and dilated like liquid. They came to the door in the side of the casket.

“We’re standing right here but I can see you just fine,” Bizzo said.

“Yes,” Sal said.

“I shouldn’t be able to,” Bizzo said. “Not if this was bending the light.”

“It’s strange that the door’s just like that,” Garf said. “I’d expected something more impressive.”

“Security?” Sal said.

“Yeah.”

“It would make no sense trying to keep the Hasp in. And it can’t be damaged or moved, so there’s no sense keeping anything out.”

The door was visible only as a faint outline in the smooth black surface. A handle was set into it; Sal took it and pulled and the door hinged open smoothly.

Inside the light was dimmer.

It was on a small plinth and it was black.

“There’s a smell” Bizzo said. “It’s like the smell you get when you get into the car in the morning and the air-conditioners come on. But it’s sweeter than that.”

Garf went up to it. There was a circle inscribed into the floor: come no closer. She stopped a metre away.

How to stare this cruelty away?

A monument like the word if and just as improbable.

“It’s sort of muscly,” she said, “Very lean, like you can see through the skin to the muscle underneath. Is it crouching?”

“It’s like you took a military jet and made it into an animal,” Bizzo said. “You know what I mean?”

“It’s crouching,” Sal said. “It has its head between its knees. It’s digitigrade – you can see how the legs fold beneath it. It looks like it has an extra joint there. If it stood up in this form it’d be well over two metres tall.”

Anatomy. How to embroider a wound.

Teeth do not rot in the grave.

Garf shook her head. “It’s black.”

“Yes.”

“I can’t make out the – the contours of the limbs. Those are the arms wrapped around its – knees –  that is the neck, the neck, going down between them. It doesn’t look alive.”

“It’s not alive,” Sal said.

“Why would anyone want to come so close to something like this?” Bizzo said.

“If you look inside the circle,” Sal said, “You can see – although it’s hard to make out since the floor is so dark – you can see human remains.”

Garf brought one hand to her face, rubbing, checking.

“Those smudges?” Bizzo said.

“Yes,” Sal said.

“Oh,” Garf said.

“This is such a strange place,” Bizzo said.

“I can’t get a feel of it,” Garf said. “It’s not – you know – threatening, now that we’re here. But it doesn’t have a present the way a sculpture has presence. It’s a gap. Do you know what I mean? I’m not sure if I’m putting this across. I feel sad for it. I know this makes no fucking sense at all but it looks sort of sad. Not to move after all this time. It’s so fantastic it’s beyond fascination. I can’t even describe it properly. Seriously. If I go back out and someone asks me, ‘What was it like,’ I’m pretty sure I’ll say ‘I don’t know,’ and it’ll be really honest. And if they person says ‘What did it look like?’ I’ll say, ‘It was dark and crouching and made the light funny and smelt strange,’ and that sounds ridiculous.”

Garf looked at Sal. Sal looked at the Hasp and did not say anything for some time. Then he said, “Look at this. After all this time this is what we rely on.” His hands had been pressed together but he spread them apart now, raised them. “Look at this.”

A child before the blackness, hands raised, wrists loose, lost already in ritual.

“Uhm,” Bizzo said. There was a look on Sal’s face that he had no seen before, the look of something caged and now finding its larger intention, the latch in its trammel. It was not a rapturous look. It was slightly sorrowful.

“Rely on?” Garf said. “We’ve never used it in any way.”

Sal turned to Garf.  Then he turned to Bizzo.

“I wouldn’t know,” Bizzo said.

“This is the basic threat.” Sal pointed at the Hasp. “This is under everything. Isn’t it absurd? Isn’t it obscene? It is a threat so powerful it cannot be used. It is the basic violence under our structure. Do you know how other nations see us? To them we are already a Kingdom of totems. Providence picked bare. They don’t even contemplate conflict with us. And then they see this, our Defence. And what do you think they think? And we use that. I use that. Its hint is in everything I do: you cannot overcome us. Even if I did not want to I would be forced to.” He stopped and looked thoughtful and nodded, or maybe that movement was only imagined. “Look at this thing. I am the same as it. Don’t you think?”

Bizzo and Garf stood and looked at him and did not say anything. There was a light in his eyes and a deadly calm.

“Don’t you think?” Sal said. He held out his wrists. He smiled and there was nothing in it that was not genuine and warm. “Come on. Do not believe that I am something else. Under my skin there is a violence. There is a violence. Don’t look at me that way, Garf. It’s the most basic eloquence and it’s all here, all inside me. Hm?”

A wild and profligate gesture.

Him receding now, just like this, taken by therapeutic quantities of darkness.

“That’s not – a problem,” Bizzo offered. “It’s not easy, being the Leviathan, but it’s not a bad thing, I guess.”

Sal looked up and titled his head and looked at them out of the corners of his eyes, as if puzzled, thinking. “Oh, Bizzo, I’m not complaining.” It was a terrifying look, alien, suddenly, maybe cold, haughty. “But this encroaches on me,” he said. “Come now. You must know this. This is easy to see.”

Garf said, “But the Defence has never done anything. It’s not doing anything now.”

“Garf,” Sal said, “I am not an alternative. Do you understand? What’s – I don’t know, choose what you want – what’s truth to violence? What’s violence to greater violence? What’s me to a God?”

“You are saying you can’t control this,” Bizzo said. Sal looked at him blankly.

“It’s The Defence, Sal,” Garf said. “It’s not doing anything bad. It’s just a defence.”

“Do you think that this must be a defence? Do you really think that?”

Bizzo said, “What else could it be?”

“Suicide.”

“Suicide.”

“Yes.”

“Something to kill everyone?”

“Well, think about it. This whole world is already impossible to attack. There are too many forces conspiring against it. QC. Gates. Gatekeepers. Compydust. College AIs, if necessary. Armouries. But if we were all to die it would be through this.”

Garf said, “So this is about controlling it.”

“I’m not complaining about anything,” Sal said, “I’m just saying this is the way things are. I’m pretty okay with it.”

“I’m pretty sure you could stop that from happening” Bizzo said. “I’m sure there are ways to do it.”

“Why would I prevent it?”

“What?”

“Why would it not be me making that order?”

“What is this about?” Garf said. She had her hands in her pockets, her body tight against itself.

In a different world trees stood shocked in the sun, canopies small spaces and worlds apart.

“Kasakadei has written little thing. A monograph. Have you heard about it?”

“The ethics majors in Hakon mentioned –” Bizzo said.

Evitable and Inevitable Duties of Non-Existence. It’s what you would expect from Kasakadei. A tight airless thing. The arguments in it are not new – they are clarifications of some very ancient claims. Dusted off, restated to avoid some obvious attacks.”

“What is this?” Garf said.

“If it is not a moral evil to fail to create a utility-positive life,” Sal said, “then it follows.”

“What follows?”

“That it might be good that we all die. Isn’t strange that such a small concession, something look inconsequential, almost, could lead to this? Small things have big consequences.”

“When you say we you mean, all, as in all of us?”

“You see now why a Hasp is useful for this purpose.”

“What is this argument? I don’t see how anything follows.”

“It’s about an asymmetry. We all agree that it is wrong to create a life if it would be one of suffering. To cause the existence of such a life would be a moral evil. We therefore have a duty not to create such a life. But it is not clear that we must think that the flipside is true – that we have a duty to create a happy life, given the chance. But if there is no positive duty to create a life where that life would be a happy one – if that is not a moral good, then we are left with a conclusion that the happiness that a non-existent life passes over is not a morally relevant loss, while the pain and suffering that is passed over is a morally relevant gain. Do you see? This asymmetry means that we have a duty to create not life at all. An inevitable duty of non-existence obtains. No matter how gloriously happy the life we create is, as long as that life contains some sort of suffering, no matter how slight, that pain could have been avoided by not creating that life in the first place. Yes, no happiness would have been experienced, but if you think that failing to bring a utility-positive life into existence is not a moral wrong, then all this follows. The Inevitable Duty of Non-Existence.”

Bizzo was quiet. Garf was thinking.

Horror could be thus held purely by its skin.

Garf said, “This is an argument about why it is wrong to cause life to come into existence. It does not say that once life is created we should end it.”

Sal laughed. “Yes! Yes. But one does rather imply the other. And if the killing is quick there is little harm done.”

Bizzo said, “You don’t believe any of this.” He ran his tongue over his front teeth like an animal. “You don’t believe any of this.”

“Bizzo, darling, why do you ask me? Think about it. Any answer I give to these sorts of questions will not be motivated by my desire to tell you the truth but by the necessities of my position.”

“We’re clearly not dead,” Bizzo said. “So you don’t believe that.”

“No,” Sal said. “There you go, I guess.” He laughed.

“Shall we head?” Garf said. “We’re having lunch at Porales.”

“No,” Sal said.

“Come on, let’s go,” Garf said. She started moving toward the doorway.

Sal looked at her. “No,” he said smoothly, without any gap between Garf’s exclamation and his denial.

Garf stood as if paralyzed.

“You should know about the other argument,” Sal said. “Don’t you think? Evitable duties of non-existence. You should find out.”

“Why are we discussing philosophy?” Garf said.

“We’re not discussing philosophy at all,” Sal said, sounding surprised. “We’re discussing why I should not be minded to kill everyone.”

“Okay,” Garf said. She grasped her face and ran her hand down it, pressing into her cheeks. “Must we do it here?”

“The arguments are made rather sharper here, aren’t they?”

“Go on, then. Explain.”

“It’s not complicated. It’s an old argument, an ancient argument, really, that Zapffe Ipcress articulated fully in Grief and Sublimation. It’s an argument for an evitable duty because this duty is sensitive to the value of existent life itself; it matters how that life is to be lived. The claim is that happiness is not real. That is to say, it does not exist independently. Suffering is what exists independently, as the groundnorm. There is nothing intrinsic about the satisfaction of fulfilling desire because desire multiplies – and desire is only a kind of pain evolution has forced us to clutch at, reflexively, a lie of value that we must hum to ourselves over and over again. Ipcress’ words. Do you know what Ipcress writes in the second annex to Four Meditations? I can recite it for you. It slips into the mind quite easily:

“‘Conscious life, although nothing on the scale of cosmic time, is laden with suffering. This suffering is directed towards no other end but its own perpetuation. This is to be expected. All suffering directed elsewhere, which is to say all honest suffering, has long since ended. It is lost to us. What exists is that suffering which, by making a terror of everything, threads the barren and yawning needle of mere survival. We feel, deeply but pointlessly, that life nonetheless has some meaning, or at least some pattern-of-value. We feel that because we hold in ourselves an argument that, even if unarticulated, is as powerful as it is false. What is this secret argument? (1) To say an interest is morally relevant is to say that it matters morally; (2) If it matters morally, it must matter to the entity whose interest it is; (3) For an entity’s interest to matter to it, there must be something that it is like – that it feels like – to be that entity; (4) That feeling-of-being this entity possesses must be indicative of the relation of its interest to its being; (5) The relevant part of this feeling-of-being is desire; and hence (6) Desire must, if not identify precisely, at least indicate those interests that are morally relevant, and thus stake out within each life a space for meaning to develop. At each stage this argument proposes an erasure of suffering and its replacement with meaning, or something like it. Call it truth. Call it light. Call it nobility. Call it honesty. Call it freedom. Call it dignity. But it never shows its true face. That true face is that it is correct in one place only, and it locates a truth. Life is morally relevant – that is to say, it matters, but only because it is an evil. It needs to end.’”

Bizzo coughed. Garf was staring at Sal.

“Well,” Garf said.

“Do you agree?” Sal asked.

Do I agree?

“No. No, I fucking love my life, Sal. I would never give it up.”

Sal laughed. He looked at Garf and then at Bizzo. He. shrugged apologetically. “I think people should know about that argument. It is eight centuries old. It shouldn’t have taken Kasakedei to resurrect it, to put it in so-called analytic terms. It is worth hearing.”

“Sometimes I am terrified of you,” Garf said. “I mean that. Sometimes I am.”

“Sorry,” Sal said. He turned his palms up and that hint of good-willed gangliness came back.

“You didn’t bring us here to do – that, did you?”

Sal made a face of pretend-woundedness. Then he laughed and shook his head. “No, no. I came because I thought it would be interesting to see The Defence.”

“You don’t believe in that argument.”

“What can I say?”

“No, you don’t.”

“Well, I don’t believe in it. Crane has some sharp things to say about it.” He looked at them, gauging if this was enough. “I told you it’s not useful, asking me these things. Let’s go.”

“Fuck me,” Garf said. “I am suddenly famished.”

Sal looked at The Defence. He spoke to it. “You’ll be here, won’t you?” Lightly again. “This luminous grave. It must be good. Oh well.” He turned to Bizzo and Garf. “Let’s go.”

Prophesy, or, and after it there will be nothing left

Suppose you are told of a catastrophe. It will come at a time, a time not far off, and after it there will be nothing left. It cannot be stopped. What do you do? It can be fought, but you know that no effort will put it off. Slow it, maybe. For an infinitesimal period it might be made to pause. But no more.

It will come soon. Between now and then all life is contained, a winking light in the darkness. No. That image is incorrect, somehow. What life is, what you now sense it is, is a small dark clot trying to hold itself together against a burning wash of brilliance.

What do you tell the people? You might begin with your companion. The ship has been left in the harbour too long. “You go first,” your companion says, “I’ll come later.” And so you rush out to spread the word in the street, to prophesy, putting your own shadow ahead of you like a vast barge of silence. People watch from the windows, and their hands go to their mouths, to their ears. You try to stir people to action. People bring out immaculate star charts, open holes in mountains from which metal is brought out. Silos are opened and from within them missiles look mutely to the sky. Menace moves through parking lots purpling in the evening. In a convenience store a voice says, “I’m sorry, bud, but there’s no fucking point anymore.”

You look on at this sense of great striving everywhere. Your companion stands with you at the window wondering where everyone has gone. “You know,” your companion says, “I feel that something has been lost in translation.” The sailors clamour and wonder why their vessel, untethered now, refuses to move. In the convenience store the cash register is open and ants pour out of it. The coolant in the refrigerator runs bright red. “I don’t know,” you say.

You both go down to have a sunset to yourselves all over again. In the sky there are big things to put off the catastrophe. You think of all the purpose your message has created, how everyone has been brought together, how much work has been done. The sun as it goes down cracks in two and spills its innards onto the flat of the horizon, like honey. Maybe something has gone wrong. The world split open on the skin of your thumb.  In distant hangars industrial robots waver uncertainly, their tasks still incomplete. Shadowplay. An oil tanker turns its prow to the sky and takes off like a V2 rocket. Many years ago your companion told you this is how the years would be overreached, and how you two would ultimately remain together.

Maybe you do not tell the people anything. The days must go on as before. After all this time maybe perfection has been reached and there is nothing to be gained from this knowledge. People sit defensively with their coffee, caught in Styrofoam realities too important, surely, to be shared. Cars come and go from the parking lot, steaming in indignance. Ships rust. The foundations are laid for new buildings. Maybe this is all there is to us, you think, and that is good. It is wrong, the idea that an animal is in some sense incomplete, and to be pitied. The nose touches the new grass. All of us before we are put out in the breezy fullness of being. This indistinctness is not to be solved. Plain water condenses on cans of beer left on the sidewalk for reasons as of yet unknown. The neighbour’s heating is not working. Planes parcel up the sky. A vehicle whose name you do not know moves down the street, laying new asphalt. Your companion kisses you on the cheek. The kiss smells of asphalt.

What happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object? This question is often asked as a way of illustrating, it seems, some type of irresolute paradox. The answer to this question is in fact to be found in its very description: one object cannot stop, and the other cannot move. So the moving one continues moving, and the one that cannot move stays still. They pass through each other. They do not interact. It is all in the very description. It follows without any gap. This is the fact of absoluteness, of power: it is only blindness to or ignorance of certain other facts, and most of all to other great powers. We do not acknowledge this. We ask of great powers that they move against each other. But their natures have no need or heed of our desire for spectacle. The spectacle is elsewhere or otherwise too small and too embedded in us to be seen.

a line of rain

“This house is not the refuge,” it says, “I am the refuge.”

That much has been clear.

That is to say, he has had some clear intimation of this before.

It is looking at him.

The house is wet.

It is not difficult to tell as there is water running down the windows.

“Well,” it continues, “make of that what you will.”

It is not obvious if it is referring to the water going down the house or what it has just said.

It occurs to him that that it is trying to help.

Make of that what you will.

His heart feels like it is going to burst.

It is painful, even.

Outside it is not stormy for once.

Indeed things are perfectly still.

Against this context the house has taken on a new patter of feeling.

Looking out at the sun and the way the light moves over things, at the objects it touches, he feels a huge and sudden loneliness.

He has something important to say.

“In the end,” he says.

It is not clear if he is starting a sentence or ending one.

In fact he is not sure what he intended to say in the first place.

Nonetheless it appears to have caught something of his intent.

“In the last,” it says, looking out, at the water going away.

He thinks about this.

“I don’t know,” he says, because this is true. “I don’t understand.”

“You knew that people would go,” it says.

It says this without malice, without condescension, without any gesture of counsel, perhaps with concern.

He fumbles with the latch on the window and it opens, letting in air.

“I was thinking,” he says, and stops.

It has appeared to become a sudden habit, this stopping.

It waits.

It is very good at that.

Unless he is misreading things, of course.

He used to worry about that possibility a lot but now it does not trouble him.

“I was thinking that this place can house more than two,” he decides, at last.

“Yes,” it says.

There might be something in how immediate the reply is.

In an absurd way, in an animal way, he feels sympathy for it.

That much cannot be denied.

It is grief-stricken.

What does one do in such a situation? What does one summon?

No rituals yet devised.

No rules that might speak clearly.

“I could open the door,” he says, “and see what comes in.”

It shakes its head.

Again he is at a loss.

Two crippled things.

“It is good,” he says finally, “to know that you are here. To know that you will abide.”

It is neither large or small.

It comes up to him and he puts a hand against its body, which is a fixed thing.

Its body is not warm or cold.

Instead it is like an extension of his own flesh, sharing an identical heat.

That is all that can be honestly said.

“I am with you,” it says, and it puts down its eyeless head.

He is silent.

“I am with you always,” it repeats. “Even unto the end of the world.”

It turns its head to him as if expecting some recognition.

“All worlds,” he says.

“Yes,” it says. “All worlds.”

He holds it.

This is not something he remembers doing.

Although maybe he has done this before.

That is only a passing thought.

He holds it and does not move.

Again a sudden sadness.

It is too much to demand that every lament have a cause and structure.

That thought occurs very clearly and brightly to him.

“You should know where my strength is,” it says.

The meaning of this is not entirely clear.

“You should know where my strength is,” it says.  “I should tell you so that you will know.”

He says nothing.

“Small things,” it says, “breakable things.”

He is beginning to understand, in a dim way.

“It is when others look in and say, see how weak this thing is, see how easily it can be destroyed.”

A quiver, a line of rain moving the light.

“And it is there that things change,” he says. “Are made known to be different.”

It looks at him.

“Because there is no weakness there. You cannot be destroyed.”

He stops and speaks again: “Deception.”

“Hiding,” it says.

“It is true then, what I say about you.”

It looks at him and the thought occurs to him that maybe it is the one that is uncomprehending.

It gets up and goes to the window and looks out.

There is no storm today.

In fact outside a glinting spreads unheeded.

It looks back in, twisting around to do so.

“The truth of it does not matter,” it says.

[Ref: Carrier; All That Air Outside]

Kind of getting away: 12

Yesterday was pretty good. I finished compiling the migration/feeding report for Bathophores + sent off the first draft my my spec report to Stumpf[1] so that she can tell me if I’ve got the more complicated bits correct. So today I rewarded myself and headed down to O.’s. There were Fallwhales out in the Berents today, columns of pleated grey and white standing vertically in the water. We’ve really got no idea why they do that. They keep doing that for hours at a time, though it must be pretty exhausting, especially in something as unruly as the Berents. I listened to Trove on the way there. It’s now the big thing back on Stize and I might just about see why, actually. It’s not bad: Dance 7 from Suite 5 in G. Lots of stuff from Trove is named like that: the academics gave each piece a catalogue name and rather than come with something a bit more evocative everyone has just sort of borrowed these for common use.  It’s strange how ruthlessly everyone just goes along with it. Why G? Such an arbitrary thing, really. I don’t even know what it means. O. and I talked about random stuff. He asked me what I was planning to do for the Excursion. I said I was mostly planning to tag Dromeodids[2] and he looked worried.

“You know I can’t let Helper do all this stuff on its own,” I said. Helper’s a programmed ex-GHKd. It’s made to notice certain things and not to notice others[3]. I can’t use its results on their own unless I’m around to ensure it’s doing things correctly – or fanatically micromanage its routines, but I’m not going to do. “Plus I’m pretty sure I’ll be safe.”

“Safe,” he said, looking up and scratching his chin. “Yes.”

I had missed lunch because I arrived late. But I ate anyway because I was getting hungry. I read one of his books.

“Do you think Helper should get a degree?” he said. Skeffie had done something in microconducting chemistry, I think.

“I’ve asked QC. There was no time before we left.”

But O. didn’t look too happy. I think he was thinking about what that implied. I would be going back.

“You’ll be safe,” he said.

I laughed. “Yes,” I said. “I’m the one with the Hunter-Killer.”

He didn’t say anything and so I said, “Look, I’ll draw stuff if I have the time. You can keep all of it. Tell stories to the kids.”

He put on some music. Blue Heron Amphetamine, pretty old stuff. “You know what? They’re not too interested in all this. They don’t mind but they’re not really into it. Can you imagine?” He sounded exasperated. But he was happy and I could see that.

“Look at you,” I said. “Complaining about being allowed to have kids.”

“It’s not something you can predict,” he said.

“No,” I said. “Although how would I know?”

“What a strange place,” he said, at last.

“Hm. What is this about?”

“This place,” he said. “Tokata. It’s cool, obviously, but it’s strange.”

“I like it,” I said. “Desolate, but that’s the way it was always going to be, really.”

“No, I don’t mean that,” he said. He got a notice and looked it up and came back. “Heller,” he said. “Have you been reading the updates from the rest?”

“You know how I am about those.”

“Lots of problems. Basically nothing is fitting together properly. Maybe we’ve just sequenced things wrongly in one or two places. It’s probably something basic and embarrassing like that.”

“I’m not too concerned,” I said. “Teething problems.” I wasn’t in the mood, really, to talk about the technical details. I could imagine how hard K. was pushing the evol/bio people.  I’m working more or less on the fringes, in a mostly data-gathering role, so I’m spared. “I mean, to be honest, at this point I’m mostly thinking about the Excursion. I’m quite excited.”

“I like going out,” he said, “But not for weeks at a time. I went out a couple of days ago, on the coast. Looked at some caves. But I can’t imagine staying out for so long.”

“Migration scientist,” I said, “We come in mostly one flavour.”

We watched most of a movie. He talked about his kids.

Then he said, “There was this strange thing.” The thing was the way he said it. He didn’t say it like it was a problem he was working on, or something to be solved. I was full and feeling lazy and anyway he has this devastating sofa. But I listened.

“Hm?” I said.

“You know this morning there was this huge sound. Did you hear it?”

“No,” I said. “What was it like?”

He looked out and did a very O. thing. He put his hands out and said, “It was very loud. A sort of flat sound that went on and on. Really –” he curled his fingers “—shattering.”

Of course I could recognise this. Well. I could imagine it, at least. “Huh.” I said. “Huh.”

“Like a signal. If you heard it you would know, it sounded familiar. Sort of explosive –”

“Foghorn,” I said.

“Ahh. Yes. Yes, maybe that was it,” he said.

This was all extremely dangerous, of course. I saw it outside, from the window, at that moment.

It was huger than I imagined. Was it resting on the sand, on the Wash? I’m not sure. The window was placed such that I was not looking down towards the sea. What I saw was just the long sloping line of the deck, floating there. That old metal, that follower. Taking up all that space.

“Where did it come from?” I said.

He went out to show me. He pointed straight out over the water, at the ship. “There,” he said, “Somewhere over there.”

On the way back something else again. The Volkie was coming up to the bridge when I felt the weight of that benevolence and I stopped it and got out. Over the bridge, large as a mountain, the old thing like a spider, two legs straddling the bridge, the others disappearing far off, the body kilometres up in the sky. I got out and I said it. I said Maman.

I had to crane my neck painfully to look at where its body should be, that face on the bottom with all its unblinking eyes. But it’s lost in cloud, as happens sometimes. “Is something happening?” I said. “I’m fine here.” Sudden mad rush of – power, I think, that thrill coming over me. Something moved it me and it had everything to do with death. The massive legs moved and it started walking out to sea, very slowly, footfalls like tremors, steps so big it should topple, it should topple off the edge of the world in all its greyness. But delicately and hugely it moved, perfectly, taking in its own dominion.

What it told me. What indeed.

In any case I’ve just come back and I’ve sent off a message to the good peeps at Anh:

I’ve been thinking it over and I think I’m going to try to build an ultralight. It will be efficient than my Volkie’s module for Excursions – basic AG will do – and if Helper comes along safety should not be an issue. Basic camos should satisfy PMI[1]. Wondering if you could send over some materials for the Turer when I get back. Might finish things in time to use it on my second Excursion.

Understand if not possible, but hoping things work out on your side. Regos OK, I hope? Tell me what you think.

Erth

I think it’s a pretty good idea. It also means I get a chance to do some recreational flying, if the conditions are right. I’m pretty sure I can learn fast. It’d be pretty lame having to get Helper to tow me up every time.

[1] Principle of Minimum Interference. Don’t want to scare the wildlife away.

I think it’s a pretty good idea. It also means I get a chance to do some recreational flying, if the conditions are right. I’m pretty sure I can learn fast. It’d be pretty lame having to get Helper to tow me up every time.

I’m going to aim for a boat next. I’ll see how far I can push things. No harm done, in any case.

[1] Migration science is pretty long-term thing: you need to wait for several full migration cycles to complete before you can firm up anything. Which means I get to do a lot of spec papers.  I suggested that it would be good to see if thermorhodopsin/JPCRs + tk-cryptochromes in aviformes generate fast triplet reactions that are responsible for magnetoreception. Th-rhod I suggested because I think for Chondrodatus spp. temperature does affect migration. Chemical compasses are well-understood, but nonetheless this is quite interesting, I think. Stumpy is stationed at the point on Tokata that’s just about antipodal from where I am, but she’s also a migration scientist and did some work on entanglement when she was in Inkper, so she can check to make sure my speculations are at least mathematically plausible. If it works the spec paper will be sent off to Anh. and they’ll start putting together the Emlens + capturing stuff. Assuming they actually do give a shit, which I hope they do. Obviously at this stage most of the science on Tokata is focused on the very basic things. (Look, ma, no ATP! + evol. taxonomy, where the lack of Hoxes in tk-chordates is super weird + some cool standout things like the influence of bichirality on the evolution of symbiotic partnerships + digestive tracts.)

[2] They look like reptiles. The insides are completely different, though + they are all warm-blooded.

[3] Program Designate Bias. There is a lot written about this but that’s the basic idea.

[4] Principle of Minimum Interference. Don’t want to scare the wildlife away.

The Dry Land: Excerpt

The Dry Land

The Dry Land is a Full Experience Heightened Reality Indefinite Utility-Positive Game, classed as a Massively Multiplayer Shareworld Direct Substitution Role-Playing Game in the Dark Fantasy genre. It is one of the 5 open-world games currently hosted on Bombe. It is generally accepted that Bombe created the game, although it has been suggested that Emprinten and Nocrus played a part in its development, given the complexity of The Dry Land’s world. More radical suggestions that Way-on-Hill or Messier advised in its development are now nearly universally rejected.

The Dry Land was released on December 11 2966 worldwide on Stizostedion and was released on Naze on July 34 2970. It is accessible via a TSD blacktile-64 nullport, freely provided by Quistclose and Petromyzon, with two upgrades available from the Bombe/Nocrus platform. No official world additions have ever been released, though users (mostly Inhabiters, but also some itinerant Players) have noted that some aspects of the gameworld appear to have been modified since The Dry Land was first released[1].

The Dry Land takes place in an alternate universe based closely on the Kingdom, centered on Stizostedion; many colleges are replicated in The Dry Land. As is typical of Bombe’s games, the backstory and mythology of the The Dry Land is extremely difficult to piece together, although it is generally accepted that a Decontextual Happening features heavily in the relatively recent past of The Dry Land[2]. The physical laws of The Dry Land generally follow the Canon Set, although there are certain marked divergences which have not been properly catalogued.  The most well-understood divergence is the The Dry Land’s setting in a Weakless universe[3]. Ingame observations from the EMpScI observatory on Naze confirm that the universe of The Dry Land is also relatively young, being about 6 billion years old[4]. Many other divergences have been observed, although these are poorly understood. For example, users have reported that in certain situations angular momentum appears to operate according to a left-hand rule[5], which would imply a fundamental asymmetry in Neurath’s laws. Bombe has refused to comment on the game’s G-set. Certain commentators have also classed The Dry Land’s (apparent) portrayal of naked Haccieters as a modification of the Canon Set.

The Dry Land does not contain, as the Kingdom does, Allocative AIs, and the allocation of resources operates on basic anarchic-capitalist principles. Users are thus given an unusual degree of freedom in the game .The Dry Land has been of considerable interest to academics as a model for both capitalist markets and for the spread of diseases in primitive societies [see: FEHR modelling].

There is no mission-set specified for users in The Dry Land: they are free to act, subject only to ingame physics and the actions of other users. Consistent with other games Bombe has created, users cannot extend the gameworld.

The release of The Dry Land was met with both critical acclaim and, over time, increasing controversy. Game reviewers praised the extreme difficulty of the game, in particular its unforgiving attitude towards pain, and noted that despite having no mission-sets, “…The Dry Land feels entirely if menacingly purposeful. Staying alive is no easy task. But it is impossible to enter The Dry Land and want to only survive. The thrill comes from the need, invariably and keenly felt, to explore – and that is where the vastest and strangest encounters lie. It’s ur-surreal, and, as my partner pointed out, ur-real. ”[6] A particularly glowing review in the New Journal for Massive Games noted that “while The Dry Land makes you suffer, and there were moments where the sheer what-the-fuckery of it made me regret ever having entered, it brings you into contact with beings so awe-inspiring and so strange that when the payoffs arrive you genuinely feel like you are taking part in the making of a myth. The number of impossible missions you can construct for yourself in The Dry Land is quite remarkable. I joined the Assault on Messier on my second day in. I could not help it. It’s is hard to imagine a spontaneous coordination of frankly sick aggression developing in any other gameworld. For six hours I watched people pour atomic fire onto the Lock until, of course, the thing-that-is-not-a-Hasp came out and killed us all…”[7]

In what proved to be a prophetic review, IGV wrote in its one-month report that “… it is hard to believe this game is utility-positive. The play is deep, the atmosphere unrelentingly dark, the mythopoeia haunting, and the moments of rest utterly sublime. But the rest? Who knows. Who knows indeed. There is a lot of suffering to go through. There is a lot of it and this game might not turn out to be utility-positive but here’s the kicker: now that I’ve stopped, I keep thinking about it. And I can’t remind myself of anything but the fact that I want to enter The Dry Land, again and again. Bombe has another disturbing masterpiece. But whisper that fact.”[8]

Controversy

The Dry Land proved to be the most controversial Bombe release. It was noted from the moment Inhabitation was allowed that a surprisingly large number of individuals requested this option, despite the harsh nature of The Dry Land. The vast majority were denied by Quistclose, which expressed alarm at the number of Inhabitation requests[9]. It was also noted by Quistclose that even Players who had spent a short amount of time in The Dry Land suffered from Expanded Personality Syndrome, although it took no rectificatory action, continuing in its longstanding policy of not interfering in FEHR games. Quistclose has also noted marked suicidal tendencies in Players who are barred from entering The Dry Land, although these are considered easily treatable and at best a trivial harm.

The Dry Land also contains a high number of Experience Gutters, most of which pertain to situations where a user is dying or in pain. Users at first complained about the fact that when wounded they did not have the ability to log out, but rapidly developed aversion tactics  or purchased ingame painkilling equipment. Most experienced users of The Dry Land aggressively defend this aspect of the game, pointing out that much of the attraction of playing in The Dry Land comes from being forced to avoid Experience Gutters[10].

The Dry Land is also controversial for its depiction of Haccieters, which many users have criticised as unnecessary, confusing, and “even by TDR standards, needlessly horrific”[11], as well as its modification of important sites on Stizostedion and Naze. The latter has occasionally led to frustrating gameplay – Messier, for instance, is completely inaccessible, and users who attempt to enter are immediately killed. Since the complete death of 7 Inhabiters (and many more Players) in the ill-fated Operation Doppler [see: Operation Doppler], few players now attempt to enter Messier. Similarly, any user entering the Blueshore area on Naze is confronted by (apparently) the Lama Sabachthani and immediately killed. Nonetheless, not all modifications are extreme (e.g., the Ambassador), and some areas, most notably the Memorial for the Nameless Dead, have been left substantially unchanged.

The Dry Land also broke the longstanding tradition that Descendants and the two unclassified were not portrayed directly in art. A general feature of The Dry Land is the corruption of AIs. College AIs, for example, are rarely benevolent. However, the extension of this theme to ingame Descendants was viewed by some commentators as “crossing the line that separates punishing from hair-tearingly unfair.”[12]

The most controversial feature of The Dry Land is its MDEs. While mass death is not unheard of in other FEHR games, it is exceptionally rare, and is either non-guttered or relatively quick and painless. A minor MDE occurred in the very first week of The Dry Land’s release, during the First Siege of Messier. However, there were no permanent deaths, and the deaths that did occur were relatively painless.

November 3rd 2971 – the “Temper-Being IMDE”: “… watching us fizz.”

On November 3rd 2971, the first controversial MDE occurred when the Temper-Being ventured beyond its usual territory and burnt to death 700,000 users of whom 114 were Inhabiters, all of whom were – unusually –deemed unretrievable. This MDE combined had several strange features, each of which would have been shocking to users on its own. Firstly, the entire sequence was guttered, and users had the experience being burnt to death. Secondly, unlike all previous MDEs, this MDE was completely unpredictable and apparently not linked to user action. Thirdly, this MDE was non-discriminatory: hunkers (users who had invested huge quantities of money into protective equipment) were killed just as easily as fleeters (completely unprotected users). The Temper-Being was the tongue-in-cheek name given to the ingame guard of the Wrecked and Full Churches. Until 2971 both Churches were inaccessible to users as the guard would stop all attempts to enter, prompting joking speculation that Bombe had not completed the Churches (they were being “Tempered”). Since logspeak for “temper” often used the flame symbol, the guard was called the “Temper-Being” due to its similarity to an open flame when viewed from a distance. The actions of the Temper-Being are not currently well-understood: Players gave fragmentary and “extravagant”[13] accounts of what happened. Jonze’s description of the first MDE is now famous: “What happened is that Bombe made a monster. Then it sent the monster after us and the monster put Big Bangs inside each of us and watched us fizz.”[14] The event of November 3rd 2971was classed as an Inordinate MDE or IMDE, although they are usually referred to as “burnings”, in reference to the Temper-Being event.

The causes of the 1st IMDE are not well-understood; Bombe has, as always, remained completely silent on the issue. The Temper-Being has never again appeared after the November 3rd event, and both Churches are now open. The Full Church is unaltered, but The Defence is missing from the Wrecked Church[15] [see: The Wrecked Church (representations)]. It has been suggested[16] that the 1st IMDE was a result of an attempt to model Alle, the second Haccieter although this suggestion has not been widely accepted[17]. In the aftermath of the IMDE, intense scepticism of the utility-positivity of The Dry Land forced Quistclose to divulge for the first time its EUF (estimated utility function) for the game [see: The 2972 Bombe Revelation], which itself led to a sudden explosion of activity in the study of Deep Law [see: the Bezoar Mechanism or: the Double-Counting Dispute]. Close scrutiny of the EUF has led to a tentative consensus  that Quistclose’s assessment of The Dry Land as utility-positive is correct, although challenges to this consensus are frequent[18].

April 24th 2979 – the “Dusty IMDE”

The 2nd IMDE occurred on April 24th 2979, when many users had come to believe that the 1st IMDE was a freak one-off experiment that Bombe was unlikely to repeat. User numbers, after dipping after the first IMDE, had more than recovered by this time; indeed, participation rates had nearly doubled.

[end excerpt]

[1] P. Ampiere and D. Green, “Bombe Does Not Lie, But…”, Northern Link Herald, January 20 2983.

[2] J. Fuern, “Imagining The Dry Land: A New Way In”, Journal of Alternate History 2993, vol.2, p.404.

[3] T. Hasegawa, H. Lemmerl, J. Tulkser, R. Dove, “The G-Set of The Dry Land”, World Studies 2969 vol.1 p.78.

[4] Above.

[5] F. Katye, “Problematic Observations”, General Exploration in Hypothetical Models, Issue 82

[6] D. Bromley, “Review: The Dry Land”, New Gaming, Issue 347, p.3

[7] Anon., “Something Altogether Different”, New Journal for Massive Games, Issue 99

[8] “One Month In: The Dry Land”, IGV 4288, p.25

[9] Log: D/D/TDR/InHb/2230

[10] The Dry Land Forum, threat: “Guttering and Glory”

[11] F. Kinn and R. Cope, “Gameworld Leakage: An Overview,” World Studies 2893 vol.3, p.11

[12] T. Andrew, “The Idea of Reward,” Play, Issue 230, p.4

[13] H. Hiber, “Memory Modification by Bombe”, Journal for Massive Games, Issue 141, p.30

[14] “Unstoppable” Inquirer, published November 5 2971

[15] A thorough discussion of the significance of this can be found in: R. Setzer, “The Defence”, Emblematicisms and Action 2972, vol.4, p. 183.

[16] See e.g.: P. Somas and R. Setzer, “Fear and Trembling in The Dry Land”, Player Investigations 2973 vol.1, p. 78, D. Hefstomerk, “How To Burn”, New Journal for Massive Games, Issue 150, pp. 2-8, and D. Tridimas, “Eyewitness Accounts of the 1st IMDE: A Systematic Review”, Journal for Massive Games, Issue 259, pp. 65-123.

[17] See among many others D. Seller, H. Turner and V. Kramnik (eds), “Explaining The Dry Land,” Full Patent and Fence of Inkper College, 2999, S. Drake, “Modelling the Temper-Being,” Investigations Into Rules 2977, vol. 5, p.1, V. Kramnik, “A Response to Somas: Removing H2”, The Standard Model 2973 vol.3, p. 44, E. Fry, “Records of Peculiar Electromagnetic Interactions in The Dry Land”, General Empirical Studies of Basic Forces 2984, vol.1, p.4

[18]See among many others F. Helfgott, “The Dry Land is Not Utility-Positive”, Welfare and Social Design 2974, vol.2, p.34, G. E. Itirades, “Double-Counting Yet Again,” Journal of Economic Studies 2975, vol.3, p.1, A. Lomer, “Unbalanced Weighting in The Dry Land’s Utility Counting Functions: Implications for Intermediate EUF Derivatives”, Making Utility Work Issue 21839, p.64, A. Pinker, C. Radosch, and P. Urdos (eds) “The Measure of The Dry Land”, Full Patent and Fence of the Faculty for Welfare Studies, 2984.

Kind of getting away: 11

Today the sky looked capable of any enormity.

Helper and I went down to the bridge to look. We found nothing there.

“Well,” Helper said, after a while. “I’m sorry.”

But of course there was something there. Nothing is made deciduous but the thought of it.

“Sorry,” Helper said.

A big sound came through the air like a foghorn. I looked up and then I looked at Helper.

“Is something wrong?” Helper said.

Arrival

Leviathan arrived on Stizostedion, as he (a he this time, it was well known) always had, with moderate fanfare indicating the confluence of huge excitement and a population too sophisticated (intimidated?) to attempt a proper expression of it. This was news passed in peristaltic fashion through long conversations had for the most part in the eternally dishevelled air that gyrated outside butteries – conversations self-aware enough to vigorously acknowledge their own speculative nature and rapidly divert themselves to the unsung mysteries of digestion—

Such were things on Stize. There were oddities reasonably to be expected of a University older than most civilisations and that had managed to swallow an entire planet. Even with the inconvenience occasioned by the intermittent closing of border crossings caused by deep methodological disputes among departments, university life built up around itself a thick plaque, a jus of joys mostly intimated, epileptic compilations that colluded to a rich mucilage without rote or indeed fantasy, a brew in which oddities accreted into institutions, into certain forms of assault . Stizostedion, so formally called, was under the good watch of Quistclose, an endlessly helpful, considerate, compassionate, murderous AI that (some argued, mostly keeping Petromyzon in mind, but of course everything was argued here, was it not? was this not essential in the specification?) was the most powerful (contested term) in the Kingdom, the most magical and hieroglyphic, the most known and unknown, the one with colour. It had loaded Stize’s fat skies with a sheen of Compydust (a tragic name of QC’s own making) soupy enough to instantaneously dissolve all unpermitted peoples into a sanguinated cloud, a halo of florid light, and to send any ships unfortunate enough to have Breached Two Tiers (of Protocol eith Notice and Without Due Consideration) hulking aflame into the sea, or if that was not possible/desirable to grind them into a metallic mash deposited as exquisite spangly powders over the spires and buttresses of the 322 colleges. QC’s favourite phrase, which was a much-checked fact on public record, was “—terribly sorry.”

Upon arrival Leviathan was admitted promptly into Way-on-Hill, starry tabernacle of the academic firmament, and before the month had passed during which people were meant to get acquainted with the air of essential shabbiness fundamental to academic life was saddled with a devastating trinity of tutors: Kramnik, from the SM Faculty, sexless, urbane, endlessly mild-mannered, vague and brilliant as cheesecloth, sometime contributor to the fabled Field Guide to the Stray Shopping Carts of the Western Paleartic (also, everyone noted, rumoured to have been once involved in a near-fatal smiling accident); Crane, sweating, massive, dewlapped, tumescently brainy, orbiculate body barely keeping viable a head in which arguments mated noisily, bred, and died; proof-annihilator, brash, antiprolix, wearyingly acute, famed amicus to the great Erskine judgment, a colossus rudely – nakedly – triumphantly!— bestride the Ethics Faculty; and the one they called Tehayanianatu, lodged nominally in the Logic Faculty, the only metavirus in stable human residence, the only tutor on Stize no-one had heard physically speaking, unknowable and brooding and black in its ancient chambers, absent at all Formals to no inconsiderable relief of most fellows of Way-on-Hill, devourer of (at latest count) three undergraduates, one colleague, and a small loop of QC itself (the furore was immense; one could have built civilisations off it), controversially described by the worshipful who braved its supervisions as speaking – speaking, despite the common knowledge! –  in a manner soft and kind and toneless and terrifying as it hung down from the dark spaces in its rooms, hierophant to infinitary logics, dripping, redolent of blood, and loose – far too loose, oh! how very loose, do not laugh – with the forest of teeth serrated and secreted in its blind head.