6910 words, short story
The Bells of Subsidence
The Bell is coming.
It’s night, and I’m lying beside Temetry on a cold grey crater of this world’s endless desert, listening to the oscillations of the Bell. At times we glimpse its Brilliance, the after-image of its long and branic toll splashing across the plush black firmament like an endless corolla borealis. I imagine it far overhead, arcing through the universe, plancking the anthropic landscape from yoke to clapper, and can think of only one word to describe it.
“Godly,” I whisper.
Temetry nods by my side. He doesn’t speak, not since the last Bells came when we were babies, but I know what he’s thinking. I’m thinking it also.
“How are your non-orientable insects?” I ask.
He shrugs. This shrug means he’s had no breakthroughs. I know it, because he’d not be here with me if he had. The men of this world would have taken him for the Gideon heat-sink long ago.
“I won’t forget you,” I say to him quietly.
He turns to me, and smiles, because he knows I cannot keep that promise. The Bell is coming tonight. His hand worms the grey sand, folds my fingers within his own, and I remember that he is the most beautiful thing I have.
“I love you,” I whisper to him. His fingers tighten, rippling over mine in Euclidean gymnastics, until our hands are joined partway between a reticulated conch shell and an intersecting Klein bottle.
I laugh. It is our joke, a vestige of what Subsidence has brought us both. We are only 11, and I love him, because I know in my heart that he will never forget me.
“I’ll whisper your name to the branes until I die,” I promise him, feeling the urgency of this moment, alone in this crater for the last time.
His smile turns sad. It is the last abiding image I have of him, because then comes the sound of old Ingen, and the moment is lost. She is huffing and panting her rooty head over the crater-lip. This place is no longer special or secret. Temetry’s dazzling smile is sad, forever, because I’ll never see him again.
Ingen is my mother, and she uses me.
She plucks me from the crater without even glancing at Temetry. I don’t think she even sees him anymore. Arm in arm we stroll back to the Gideon bore, and she chatters on about her day, about what permutations she wrought in this planet’s atmosphere, what gains in the heat-sink they explored.
We arrive at the bore-head, a silver pipe in this dry planet’s haunch, and she kneels before me in the grey sand, her hands on my shoulders. I know this is how she talks to her simulacra, plugging fresh wavelengths into their pea-sized minds, laying in the algorithms of growth. I am just another of her extremities, to be ordered, wound, and sent chuttering on my way.
“You must forget that boy, Aliqa,” she tells me. “He’s lost, too far under the Bell. You know that, don’t you? He can’t follow where you’re going.”
She aspires to love me, but I know the thing she loves most is herself.
“Yes mother,” I reply. I am polite and correct, a good Gideon girl.
Ingen ruffles my hair in the way I hate. I am not an infant anymore. Temetry would never do it. “Good girl,” she says, and she leads us into the bore-head. We stand atop the dimple, and she initiates the involutions.
Space folds, and I taste the familiar feel of my mother’s mind in my own, twisting the anthropic plane. A moment later we emerge in our living room.
“Go to your involutions, Aliqa,” Ingen says. “Hone your mind for the Bell.”
I go. In my room I close my eyes, stand upon my dimple, and begin. Far into the night I manifold four dimensions in non-Euclidean space, inverting Tesseracts, decanting Klein kettles, shaving Möbius strips into interlocking many-twisted chains.
I finish in the dark morning, as ever unable to speak or think, the involutions have so stripped away my sense of self. I sit on my bedside vacantly, emptied into submission, until the folds of my mind remember the shape they ought to take, and I can heal.
Then I will sleep.
This is not my hope. It is my mother’s hope for me. She will have me upon the Bells though she must strip the last shred of self from my mind. I am matter to be prepared, used, and replaced.
In my non-state I struggle to think of Temetry, but there is nothing of him there. No I, no you, only the endless entangled looping of the branes.
Pink dawn comes, and on a Gideon screen in my empty room I watch the Bell snuffing down over the grey desert.
It is immense, a vast colorless ark that fills the horizon, eclipsing the grey desert I have known all my life. At the atmospheric boundary its toll emerges as a jarring rumble in the earth, a Brilliance so complex with harmonies and grace notes that it makes all the simulations I’ve heard seem like one-fiddle jigs. The sound is a universe of its own, oriented through the branes in ways I cannot grasp.
It snuffs down, and all I can think of is Temetry. He will be out there somewhere, sitting the grey crater-sand, folding paper with his hands, his eyes sad as the first sun rises. Before him will be an array of non-orientable sand-hoppers, each folded like Möbius strips with only a single side. Each of their eight limbs will be perfectly formed, aligned, so life-like they could at any moment hop away. He will have sat awake all night folding them, as the only thing he can do.
He will watch as this Bell lands, and he will name it after me, for he knows it will be the Bell that takes me away.
Grey sand fills the screen, and it lands. I feel the branes tremble around me. This is my life, now. Tears run down my cheeks as I realize what it means. I will truly never see Temetry again.
Then old Ingen is at my side, dabbing at my cheeks with her sleeve, hustling me to the door.
“Don’t worry on my account, child,” she bustles, and I realize she thinks my tears are for her. “Old Ingen will abide. There’s much work to be done here yet, don’t cry for me.”
I want to tell her I am not, but bite my lip hard. There is no need to be cruel, now. It will change nothing, only hurt us both more.
At the door she holds me again by the shoulders, and I see that she too is crying. She runs her hands down my sides, smudges away a non-existent speck of dust, and I wonder. Perhaps she does love me after all. Perhaps she is sad to see her most talented creation disappear.
“Be a good girl,” she says. “Do as they say, be polite.”
I smile and nod at this fallacy. We both know I will have no choice. For the next five years I will be indentured to the Bell, and my mind will not be my own. There will be no need for me to do a thing, except survive.
“You’ll make me proud, Aliqa,” she says. “Don’t worry about that.”
I smile, I nod.
We enter the Gideon bore together. The world flutters like a butterfly kaleidoscope, I taste my mother’s mind for the last time, and the next phase of my life begins.
We are a class of 100, boys and girls of Bell-age, drawn from all the Gideon bore-holes sunk into our planet. Spotless white simulacra gather us in a vast hall, colorless as the Bell’s exterior, and move us to stand upon our marks; dimples in the smooth flooring.
I let myself be shunted into place by their cold palms. I look down at my dimple, and wonder briefly how many have stood here before me, how many have gone under the Bell to keep Subsidence alive.
I push that thought aside, and in the seconds before it begins, try to sequester what parts of myself I can, hidden within the folds of my mind.
Then the anthropic plane is unleashed upon us.
It is unlike any involutions I have done before. It is an inexpressible order of magnitude larger. In the face of it, I am obliterated. I am rewritten.
An endless torrent of images pounds through the thin capillaries of my mind, effortlessly scrubbing away all the tiny levees and dams I have prepared against it; a tidal surge of unorientable, non-intersecting, non-Euclidian possibilities.
As the torrent comes, I cannot help but seek order from the chaos; raveling and inverting Klein bottles, stacking and nestling them within each other like Matryoshka dolls, folding tesseracts upon themselves, helixing Möbius strips into Riemann planes. Around me the 100 do the same. Together, by the combined resonance of our efforts, we will planck the branes for the first time. We will build our own Brilliance. Through our efforts, the Bell will toll.
I barely feel the effects of gravity, as the Bell rises up through the atmosphere, and leaves my desert world behind.
Only when it is over, and it has been over for six of the eight rest hours allotted to us, do I begin to remember who I am, where I have come from, and what I have done.
The Bell has already left my world. Ingen is gone, left behind. Temetry is gone. All the things that tied me to who I was are gone.
I feel more than an ache, I feel an erasure. Already I have lost so much of what I was. My mind has diminished, has enlarged, has shrunk.
I am lying on a double-bunk cot in a dark room, where the simulacra brought me. Beside me a girl’s hand dangles down from the cot above. One of her fingers is marked by a line of lighter skin, and I wonder that she had once worn a ring.
I push her hand. It sways nervelessly.
“Wake up,” I say to her hand.
“She’s under the Bell,” comes a voice. There is another girl standing in the semi-dark before me, her hair in ratted pigtails. She smells overpoweringly of sweat.
“I’m Aliqa,” I say to her.
“Mazy,” she answers. Her eyes are shot through with red. “You were talking in your sleep.”
“I was?” I mumble. My lips seem thick, foreign appendages on my face. “What did I say?”
“The same as all these others,” Mazy says, and gestures at the groaning, sleeping, moaning bodies of the other 98 of us, stacked like folded tesseracts in our cots. “A load of old balls.”
I can’t help the frown from crossing my face. I was raised to be correct. Mazy laughs more when she sees my expression, then she leans in, and her sweaty stench rolls in with her.
“You listen to me, girl. You aren’t special, no way no how. Nothing in that brain of yours is worth going under the Bell for. You just let it go, let it all go, and you and me’ll be pals. You hear me?”
I blink hard, as if it’ll somehow push back her smell. It doesn’t.
“And if I don’t?”
Mazy laughs again, leans back, and gives the nerveless hand hanging from the cot above a playful shove.
“Then it don’t hardly matter a thing now, does it?”
She winks. She walks away.
There’s a little over an hour left before our next involutions; the red digits of a countdown clock on the distant black wall glow fuzzily. In the dim light I look at the white band round the girl’s nerveless hand, and wonder who gave her that ring, and what it might have meant. I listen to the others moaning, as Mazy said. They are whispering names, whimpering, crying in their sleep.
For a little while, I cry too.
Soon the simulacra come for us again, and carry us back to our dimples. I let them lift and maneuver me. I feel too weak to move more than my eyes. They lay me in my allotted space, and as I wait for the barrage to open, I think about Temetry. I know now that I cannot hope to hide him in an enfoldment of my mind. I can only say goodbye, again and again, until one day the Bell scores him from my mind forever.
“I won’t forget you,” I promised him on the sand, but I have not the strength to keep that promise. I am too small.
Then the barrage begins again.
I don’t come back to myself for a long time. When I do, it is to the freckled face of Mazy, up close to mine. She is lying by my side, sharing my cot, her tousled red hair on my pillow. I feel her warm breath on my lips. Her arm is wrapped around me. I try to shrug it off, but sharp pain aches through me, and I fall still.
Mazy stirs, and her eyes slit open. Her irises are deep green. She smiles at me.
“I thought you’d gone under,” she whispers. “It’s good to see you back.”
I open my jaw, struggling to ignore the pain. “How long?” I whisper.
Mazy shrugs. “Weeks? I forget. They really worked you good that time, though.”
“What?” I ask. My mouth is so dry. “What do you mean?”
She doesn’t answer. Instead she pushes herself up on her elbow, reaches to my face, and pushes a strand of hair behind my ear. I try to pull back.
“Stop it,” I mumble. “Get off my cot.”
“Your cot?” says Mazy. “This is my cot. You climbed in here yourself.”
“After they were finished with you, whispering that damned name.”
I am confused. How could I climb here without knowing it? What cot am I in? “What name?”
“Temetry,” she says, and watches my face for the reaction. There is none, because the name means nothing to me.
“Who’s Temetry?” I ask.
“I don’t know. You were the one screaming it, in the middle of the involutions. They had to pull you off the floor and double your involutions to shut you up.”
Her words shake me. “I don’t remember any of that.”
“Not after a session like that, I’m not surprised.”
I lay there and say nothing.
“Was he a boyfriend?” Mazy asks.
I don’t answer. I try to cast my mind back, feeling as though I am probing a fresh wound. My mind is raw. Temetry. I reach back, back, and touch upon something. I handle it gently, calmly as I would a sand-hopper, lest it take fright and skitter away. Temetry; a feeling more than anything, a sense of something, insubstantial and shifting, but something definitely good.
“Maybe,” I say. “Maybe a friend.”
Mazy snorts, and runs her hand through my hair again. My body aches too much to push her away. “Well, you’re my friend now. You and me. I’ll look after you, don’t worry.”
I don’t worry. I lie there, and wonder who Temetry might have been.
Months pass. The cots grow quieter every night, as memories are plancked out of our minds. Soon there is no one left to miss, no home to yearn for, no one to cry for. More of us go under the Bell.
Mazy shares my cot every night. She smooths my hair. When I become quiet, she speaks the name to me; Temetry. It has no meaning in itself, it is just a word that we share, something to bond us together. We lie in each other’s warm arms, and wonder on what it might mean.
Our lives are involutions and sleep. Tolling the Bell becomes something rote, ringing out our Brilliance across the universe in our wake. There are no questions to ask of each other, because there is no past to speak of. There are only questions in the now.
“Where do you think the Bell is going?” Mazy asks, most nights. I spin stories for her of all the furthest systems I’ve heard of, worlds where the people travel through Gideon bores and harvest the heat of stars on desert planets. Mazy smiles, laughs, and tells me about planets where everything is an endless city, and people drink the blood of plants and fly through the sky on rainbows and just have all the fun you could imagine.
I wonder if I we are from an endless city, or a desert, or a jungle. I wonder what Temetry is. Is it a place, a person, or a thing?
Around us, the 100 dwindle. I forget my own name, and she forgets hers. We come to know each other by touch, by feel, by the one word that stays with us; Temetry. It becomes a totem.
Then one day, I wake in her arms, and she is still. I shake her, but she doesn’t move. I open her eyelids and look into her eyes, and see within her a void, carved and hollowed out.
Her heart beats, her body lives, but her mind is gone. She is under the Bell.
Within a day she is only a memory.
Simulacra move me to my own cot. The others are removed. Lying there, wondering on the meaning of this word Temetry, I realize I am the only one left.
The only one left? Were there others?
I am to be captain.
Days pass and there are no involutions for me. Simulacra come in and out of my room, nameless as ever, and occasionally I ask the word at them.
They never reply. Their white bodies and flat blank faces seem to look past me. They bring me training cycles that I am to rewrite my mind with, sad stories of the origin of Subsidence, but I cannot watch them for long. All I want to know is the origin of this hole within me, this thing that I have lost.
I set down the latest of the cycles and exit my room. I walk the corridors and call out the word Temetry, though there is no one to respond. White-bodied simulacra move by me at times, carrying shapes on their flat white palms that seem to defy dimension. Pieces for the clapper, I presume, that revolve and involute as I watch.
I wander for days. When I’m hungry I eat, food brought by the simulacra as I need it. When I’m tired I sleep. I know these explorations are pointless, that even were I to walk a hundred years I would never cover more than a hundredth of the whole of the Bell. But that doesn’t seem to matter now.
I walk the involution rooms, hundreds of them, each stretching on and on, every one of them a hammer to hit the clapper at the Bell’s core, to keep us moving, to keep Subsidence alive if only in memory. I wander over dimples where generations have involuted the anthropic planes before me, where generations have gone under the Bell to keep Subsidence moving.
I am alone, now, but for this word that haunts me; Temetry.
This is my odyssey. I know that as well as any.
I am sitting at a port looking out over our sparkling Brilliance, a branic contrail sizzling back through space like corolla borealis, when the captain comes to me. He sits by my side. I am not surprised. I have expected this for a long time.
He is very old; his face riven with lines deep as the dimples. He is the first living thing I have seen for as long as I can remember.
He sighs, and smiles at me.
“Temetry,” he says.
I smile back. Though we have never met, never spoken, I feel I know him well. “Do you know what it is?”
He shrugs. His eyes flicker with quiet amusement.
“I heard it in the Brilliance. You tolled the word into space. Even now, that word is floating through the anthropic planes, reverberating, echoing forever.”
“I wish I knew what it meant,” I say.
He only smiles.
We sit quietly for a long time, as the Brilliance ripples out like a whip-tail from our Bell, glissandoing into space.
“What happened to the others?” I ask him, at last. I don’t know who they might be, but I know there were others. I am not the only one the Bell took for fuel.
“They went under the Bell,” he replies, his voice soft. “Left behind on the planets we passed. They’ll live out quiet, uninspired lives. They’ll procreate.”
“And what about me?”
“That’s your choice. You’ll be captain, if you want. You’ll steer the Bell, and ring out your beautiful, mournful, sweet Brilliance to the universe. The other Bells will hear, and know you, and Subsidence will continue. Or you will not.”
“What else would I do?”
He shrugs, answers slowly. “Leave. Start a new life on the next planet. Forget about the Bells, about the branes and the Brilliance.”
I see it in his pale blue eyes. He has already made that choice, and left this place behind.
“Where will you go?” I ask. His gentle smile gives me the answer. We both know the Bell keeps no logs. There is no home for him to return to. There is nothing left in his mind now but the beauty of the branes.
He stands up.
“Goodbye, child,” he says. “I hope you find what you’re looking for.”
He walks away down the long and arcing corridor. I watch him go.
The simulacra come for me as darkness falls across the Bell. They wipe away my drying tears, and carry me to my dimple. Through the long hours of the Subsidence night, I planck the branes that toll us through space.
We will snuff upon a planet soon. There will be a hundred waiting, thinking glory and duty await, ready to sacrifice their minds to the might of this Bell, to the continuation of Subsidence, trusting me as their captain to lead.
But lead to where?
All I have is this word. I dream it while the planes reticulated about me; Temetry. It has no meaning, but I feel its weight, like a Gideon bore sucking me down. I am not free. I am not alone. I am weighted to this dying Empire, and there is only the grace of the branes to tell of my loss.
So I tell it to the branes. I dream them filled with this thing that is Temetry, this thing that matters so much even the Bell could not scrub it from my mind. I sing it, watch it spiral out into the dark, and wait for the Bell to snuff down.
We come to a planet. It is black with vegetation, life creeping every inch of crust beneath twin helixing suns. There are 100 waiting, adepts, all of them young.
I walk out amongst them. The black vines underfoot writhe at my touch.
These people do not know what I have brought to them. They look at me as though I am a god. They have adapted to the light of this place; their skin is dark, their violet eyes are wide, but they are people like me. I wonder at their dreams, at their lives, at the new adaptations the Bell will force upon them.
The captain’s words haunt my mind.
They talk to me, honor me, offer feasts in my name, but I do not know my name. The honor is for Subsidence. The feasts are for the Bell.
I stand for a long time, looking out at them and their world as though through glass, studying a thing I once knew. I watch their twin suns spiral overhead, patterns dictated by forces unleashed at the start of the universe, tracing through time, inexorable, unstoppable.
One of their leaders comes to me at last. She is tall, regal, dressed in long robes of finely braided black twine. I know to her violet eyes these fabrics have color. To me it is all the same.
“Is something wrong, Bell-captain?” she asks, her eyes downcast.
I look over her 100 and wonder how I can steal away their minds. I look over her black world and wonder if I could adapt, could make it my home.
“Do you know what Temetry means?” I ask her.
She looks up briefly, and I see in her eyes the frisson of confusion.
“Is this a test?” she asks warily.
I wonder if it is.
I walk past her, to the first of the 100.
“Do you know Temetry?”
I ask them every one, but none of them know, and at each of their answers the path before me becomes more clear, like order folding out of the branes.
I return to my Bell with none aboard. I will sound the clapper myself. I will toll the distances alone, and at each planet waiting for me, I will ask my question.
I will not fade away like the captain. I will not give my life to Subsidence. I will find the meaning of Temetry, and make of it my home.
Always there are more planets; worlds of lavic sulfur ice, worlds of ammonia oceans, worlds of aluminum sands, and on each one, the descendants of Subsidence. They live afloat on tar-balked ships of petrite, in cloud-castles held aloft by technologies long forgotten, in Gideon bores beneath the ground, in bubbles of molten neon endlessly revolving through the core.
At each I am met by the 100, and hopes that Subsidence has resurged, that the hand of the empire will once again come to steer their lives.
I bring no solace, only questions. I ask every one of them of Temetry, but none of them know. I leave them behind, my Bell empty and sounding only with my voice, my dreams in the Brilliance, my turn of the branes.
I see the wonders of the Universe from my dimple. There are galaxies yet forming, out near the discordant rim of existence. I see red shift blur the anthropic landscape about me, feel the echo of entropy as it is born. I hear the stripling birth-song of stars yet to bloom, the grand harmonies of systems flung out like the petals of a sand-flower, spiral arms interwoven as though the arms of long-lost lovers.
I dream of Tesseracts, and Temetry. I enfold Klein bottles and slice Möbius strips, and think of Temetry. It is the only thing to sustain me. A hundred times I have thought to leave the Bell behind, and a hundred times I have pulled back, held by this weight in my middle, pinning me in my place.
At each planet I tell them I will take none of their 100. At each I tell them to forget Subsidence. The Empire is gone. It is dead.
And I travel alone, in my Bell.
I feel them first as grace notes in the rippling Brilliance, the tolling of loss through the branes. I feel them gathering at my back, tracking me through my enfoldments, keeping pace, adding their long melancholic tones to the anthropic landscape about me.
The sound of them fills me with sadness. I need not see them, the large colorless hulks of their Bells, to know they have come because of me. But I have nothing to give them.
Every passing day there are more. They swarm at my back, each Bell a string to planck the branes, to make the anthropic landscape tremble with ordered life. I feel them rising as though a wave, cresting behind me, an orchestra to pulse my dreams of Temetry to the universe.
At the next planet, a world of grey lead mists, I meet the first of them.
He is young, as I once was. Has it been 20 years? His hair is long and dark, his skin pale, his eyes so full of yearning.
He stands before me, looking at me as though I can give him back what he has lost. This world’s 100 watch us, there in the boiling mists with our two vast Bells snuffed down behind us. I do not know what to say.
“Where are you going?” he asks.
“I am searching for a thing I can’t remember.”
He nods. He steps closer. I feel his need to reach out, to touch me, to know me.
“Temetry,” he says.
I nod. I watch as his eyes fill with tears. He makes no effort to brush them away. They slide down his cheeks like the oscillating Brilliance of the Bells.
“Why are you following me?” I ask.
“Because you are beautiful. Your search is beautiful. In the emptiness your tolls ring with meaning.”
“But I do not know the meaning. It is only a word.”
He smiles, steps closer, as though he is grateful for this.
“I remember nothing,” he says. “I do not know who I am, or where I came from. Your word is everything to me.”
I shake my head. I do not want this. I cannot be responsible for him.
“You should not follow me. It is a dream I have followed for too long. It has no meaning.”
“You are wrong,” he says, his voice firm. “It is the light of all the Bells. Your tolls spill hope through the universe.”
I too feel like crying to hear him say it so. I have no hope. Only the endless reticulation of the branes, and the black of space, and a word that is empty at my core.
“Don’t follow me,” I tell him. I can do nothing else. “Please. I am as lost as you.”
I do not speak to the 100. I return to my Bell. I have been a fool to continue this long. I am a fool with impossible dreams.
That night I resolve to leave the Bell at last. I will make my life among these people in their thick mists. I will learn their ways, and forget the word that has haunted me for 20 years. I will at last be free.
That night I dream of Temetry. It is a swollen river flowing from the clapper of my Bell, spreading out across the universe, dappling the branes with its flavor, ringing out for melancholy, and loss, and a thing once loved. It is beautiful, endless, threading the anthropic landscape with hope.
I wake to a thought that upturns my world.
I dare not think it, can scarcely imagine it. As I hurry to the first dimple I ever used, I cannot voice it aloud in my mind. It is too large, too terrifying, and I cannot bear any more, not now, not so close to the end.
But I must know.
At the dimple I enter the involuting trance, turning non-orientable shapes in non-Euclidean space as I have a thousand times before, until I can feel the flow of anthropy unfolding around me, the branes swelling like budding fruit within, opening the pathways that will allow my Bell to travel through the enfoldments of space.
But I do not travel. I reach out.
Here is my own trail. I can feel it in my Bell’s Brilliance, the hints of what I was 20 years ago, stitched together and held fast by the single word that remained throughout, spreading back from now to the time I was a child: Temetry.
It arcs up through the mesosphere of this leaden planet and out into space. It is the path I have left, the vibrations of Temetry that these other Bells have followed, the hope they have sought.
I speed my involutions, turning the endless flood of images harder than I have for years, reaching back, tracking my Brilliance through enfoldments and entropy, piecing together the reverberation of my travels through Subsidence’s empire.
In the midst of it, I launch the Bell. I can feel Temetry thrumming through me like a geyser of hope, a feeling I cannot hide, cannot mask from the other Bells. If I am to do this, they will surely follow. I do not care. Let them. All that matters is Temetry.
My Bell races the branes, back along a trail I have written across the stars for these past 20 years, with the fleet of Subsidence in my wake.
Days pass by, perhaps weeks, swimming up the contrail of my Brilliance to its source. I have traveled back through so many years already, five, perhaps ten. I have spun together the fading echoes of Temetry I left scattered through the darkness, leaping from tone to tone, straining at the limits of my shuddering mind to hold the trail together.
Then the trail is gone.
Its notes are too diffuse, split apart and wafted by solar winds and the expansion of the universe, broken by entropy, the echoes too faint for me to hear. I strive for it, I reach out desperately, but it is gone.
I collapse about my dimple. I feel like a child again, rewritten by her first involutions, scarcely able to think. There is only Temetry, and my failure. I sag there, and sob, because now I have lost all hope. It has dispersed, been erased, rubbed out by the endless reshuffling of the universe. Time has blown away my Brilliance. There is no more trail to find.
I sob, and sob, until sleep finds me.
I wake to a hand on my shoulder. It is a young man, but I do not know him. He is dressed in the clothes of a Bell captain. He has long dark hair, pale skin, and such a yearning in his eyes.
“Do you know Temetry?” I ask him.
He shakes his head slowly. He is sad, I feel that much.
“No,” he says. “But I can help you find it.”
I sit up. In his eyes is a desire burning as deep as my own.
He steps back, and gestures to the involution hall around us. I rub the tears from my eyes, and see there on every dimple, at every one of the 100 stations, a Bell captain looking back at me.
It is impossible. There is only one captain to a Bell. My jaw drops slack.
“They want to help,” he says. “All of us, we want to help.”
I look around at them, back to the young man, and feel something cinch tight in my chest. There is a weight there, it has been there for such a long time, too much for me to bear. Perhaps now I will have the strength.
He smiles. It is sad, but laced with quiet strength.
“Because you give us hope.”
He does not wait. He moves to my side, where he takes up the one remaining dimple. I look around once more. The hall is full, as it has not been since I was a girl.
“Thank you,” I whisper.
And the involutions begin.
It is more than it ever was before.
Where it was a torrent before, now it is an inferno. It is chaos incarnate, blazing through our minds, a violent tsunami of impossibilities to be ordered and stacked.
And we stack them. Beneath the torrent, we stand. From its burning and furious heart we hundred Bell-captains forge the pure and startling music of the branes, each sounding a perfect note that entwines perfectly with the others. As the brutal force of the anthropic plane blasts across us, our notes rise and interweave like pillars into the sky, glissandoing harmonies I never heard before, chords that should ring false but now, under the combined force of our involutions, ring true. Our symphony swells through the chaos, growing into a thing larger than any one of us, larger than the sum of us, larger than Subsidence itself ever thought possible.
I soar on it. I feel it propelling me from behind, feel the will of the others beneath me, lifting me above the inferno, giving me the strength to do what I must.
I toll the clapper with their strength, and the Bell roars across the empty gulf of space faster than it ever flew before. I trawl the anthropic plane with their will, gathering up the long-faded remnants of my Brilliance, tracking the distant branic echoes that were once the word Temetry, sung out into nothing.
Faster, further, we hurtle back through the long years of my lonely voyage, and I feel the captains trembling around me. The inferno is too furious, the task too vast, and one by one they reach their limits. The anthopic flow overcomes them, and they slip beneath the Bell.
But we do not stop, nor slow. Less than ten remain, but we have been honed to incandescent perfection by the raging of the branes. I stand at the cutting edge of our Brilliance and hack into the decayed trail I left as a child, fusing the many parts together until the path emerges, and leads back, and back, and back.
The young man by my side shudders and drops limp. Somewhere far off simulacra carry him away, but I cannot stop. I am roaring now, tearing into the meat of the fabric of all things, forcing entropy to reform, meshing light from dead stars with the frequencies of interstellar dust blown on solar winds, building a tapestry of all chaos, of all order, pounding it in the furnace of this collective mind, smashing it until I totter under its weight, forging from it the single molten trail that I must follow.
Explosions, as the world begins again. Light floods out. Subsidence is born on a far-gone planet, and grows out into the galaxy. They spread, and spread, until their Empire is stretched so thin there is no union remaining, and entropy consumes them. All that remains is the Bells, their last vestige of civilization, ferrying their memory to worlds slowly sinking back into isolation and simplicity.
I read the history of all the Bell captains in the diffuse echoes of their Brilliance, and I understand why they have followed me here. Without Temetry, I would be just like them; as empty as Subsidence, as empty as their Bells, left orbiting like hollow moons about dead and dying planets.
The inferno rises, and rises, and at last, breaks.
Involutions rendered a hundred-minds strong finally crash as spume all about me. Everything is rewritten. Everything is under the Bell. We collapse, and around us this vast ship finally comes to a long, lone toll, as we snuff down upon a dry world, a grey desert planet, stocked with heat sinks and Gideon bores.
I stagger to the glass to look out over the world that was once mine. It is all craters. I fall in the corridor, struggling to hold on to what I am, as the sands billow up around us.
Simulacra wake me with water. The corridors are empty. I remember the long search, but there is no sign of the other captains. Perhaps they have already gone out, to my world, to find Temetry. Perhaps they all fell under the Bell.
I look out and see this planet’s atmosphere sparkling like corolla borealis, flecks of mist catching the reflections off my Bell’s sloping sides. I feel the branes thrumming around me, through my mind, filling me with possibilities.
I exit with nothing but the captain’s clothes on my back. This place is a desert, and the air is hot and dry. I feel the heat from their sinks radiating up from the grey sand. I walk a little way, past the silver Gideon bores, past the crowds of people watching and waiting. I see the 100, hastily turned out and waiting for admittance, flanked by their parents, grand and fierce expressions lashed across their faces.
They watch in confusion as I climb a dune and sit at the top. The vast weight of my Bell towers above me, shadows everything. I am yet its captain.
A man walks from the crowd to join me. He is perhaps as old as me, dressed in simple brown smocks. He sits by my side, but says nothing, only looks at me as though he knows me, with sorrow, with love.
He holds something out to me, on the palm of his hand. It is a speckled white sand-hopper. It is a pretty thing, its long legs stretched out to skein it over the hot desert surface. I reach out, thinking to touch it, expecting it to flee, but it does not move. I touch its back, its side.
It is folded paper. I lift it from his hand, turn it over in my hands. The folds and twists of its craftsmanship are stunning. All of its limbs, its sinewy body, its whip-thin antenna, are folded from a single sheet of paper. It has been twisted into a single side, like a simple Möbius strip, non-orientable.
I have never seen anything like it. It is beautiful. In all my travels, in all my years upon the Bell, I have never seen anything so alive brought out of the folding.
I turn to the mute man, look into his eyes.
Michael John Grist is a science fiction & fantasy author and ruins photographer who lives in Tokyo, Japan. His stories can be found in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Ideomancer, and Andromeda Spaceways, and he is currently writing an epic fantasy novel. He runs a website featuring his writing and photographs of the ruins or 'haikyo' of Japan; filled with dark short stories and matching images of abandoned theme parks and ghost towns. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/michaelgrist.