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Collaboration?

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Worlds pop into existence, composed by clicking keyboards or in spraying foam on waves of thought; tucked away in spells, algorithms, entangled particles, recipes; evoked by waving wands; sketched by twirling ley-line brushes; assembled by spinning quantum mundistructors. They’ve been doing it for eons.

But recently, there has been a pause.

“I’ve lost it,” he says to her, despondent. “I haven’t been able to make a new world in sixteen terakernels.”

“Same. I haven’t conjured one in ages.” The barest wisp of an idea skitters around the edges of her brain. She’s always admired his worlds, so elegantly structured. “Want to collaborate? Maybe we could spark each other.”

Collaborate. He has always worked alone. The very idea of working together feels magical, sharp, new. If a world begins with a call, mustn’t there always be an answer? His mind fills with images of branching electrical lines reflecting back and forth between chaos and order, between the timeless void and the heat death of the universe. “What does it mean to collaborate?”

How do you give someone a definition when your mind works in questions rather than answers? Is there a point at which two entities are too disparate to collaborate at all? She is tempted to cast an enchantment, but such spells are better suited for imposing her vision on others, and he can do more than reflect her own ideas back at her. “Why don’t we figure it out together? When I cook, I sometimes use recipes, but mostly I wander around the market and buy whatever looks tasty. The challenge of making something delicious from random ingredients is fun.”

To plunge into an endeavor with no plan, no blueprint, no endpoint, to create the syntax with your interlocutor in the middle of a sentence, to rouse up the audience before you and your partner have agreed on a dance, to pick a wine before either of you have any idea of what ingredients to put in the empty basket between you—he smiles. “I’ll be your muse, and you’ll be mine?”

“Yes.” She can invoke chaos and leave it for him to impose order, and in return he’ll give her the genetically engineered seeds of something new, like magic beans to grow and reach new kingdoms in the clouds. He is the spark that she’s been missing, and with that comes an added motivation that appeals to her competitive nature—can she match him, world for world? And in the end the trick will be to fit it all together and create things that could never have existed otherwise.

He picks up a pebble, a piece of star-iron, and tosses it into the heart of a swirling, rippling galaxy. “After you,” he says, sweeping his hand invitingly before her…

A Vision Bare

The imago, complete, full, resplendent, is the mold and type of the ego. In the first moment the child gazes upon her own reflection and recognizes it as such, her fragmentary sense of self coalesces, and she becomes the Subject of her own fairy tale. Without the imago, there can be no ego.

—nɒɔɒ⅃ ƨǝυpɔɒႱ, ƨƚɘlʇɘЯ

It’s dusk by the time I get home. The corner of Terpsichore and Fifth.

The cut in the palm of my left hand throbs, the dried blood in the gauze bandage a dark crimson, an echo of the last embers left by the setting sun at the edge of the sky.

I was tired and careless. I had pulled off my gloves and didn’t want to put them back on for just one more fish. The ice had melted so that the fish felt slimy, alive, making me grip it even tighter. The knife’s point, dulled after a morning’s cleaning, wouldn’t go in. Impatient, I pushed hard. And there it was, blood everywhere, pooling around the scales like gilt, my guilt.

I wonder what she did.

I open the door to my apartment slowly, fingers wrapped tightly around the knob to still the nervous tremors. In the mirror hanging on the wall over the dining table, I see the familiar shadowy figure doing the same. This is not my favorite feature of the apartment, but at least there’s only one mirror in the whole place.

Closing the door behind me, I flip the wall switch. Light floods the room. I turn around and wave a greeting at my reflection. It’s awkward, but we’ve been awkward with each other for a long time now.

She waves back, holding up her right hand, the dark crimson in the bandage an inkblot of suspended questions and unfulfilled promises.

“⸮ɿɘʜɈɘϱoɈ ɿɘnniꓷ” she asks. It’s more than we’ve said to each other in months.

I nod.

We go to our separate kitchens. I don’t keep a mirror in the kitchen, the way those who get along with their reflections do. I can’t imagine the lives of those who keep a mirror in the bathroom; seems an invitation to endless rounds of therapy.

I make a salad of beans and chickpeas for myself, along with a sliced turkey sandwich. To keep myself company, I listen to an audiobook.

…his thoughts formed into words, scribbled down as letters, all of it reduced to a string of bits, and something is lost in each transformation, though something else is often gained.

a pebble sends ripples across a summer pond
but shatters the ice of winter
inspiration strikes like stones
we strive to keep
our minds in proper season

I spoon wild gooseberry jam onto the pale turkey and sprinkle artisanal hot pepper flakes. Being able to afford such little luxuries feels good, like my life is whole. It has taken me a long time to get here.

To stop comparing myself to her. I can’t help but envy the lives of those pairs who are perfect complements. One acts, the other manages. One writes, the other edits. The model inspiring the artist. The muse amusing her echo. Or even both doing the exact same job, wearing the same clothes, favoring the same perfumes, marrying the same man-nɒm. How lovely that must be, to be at ease with your reflection, to never be alone, to always have a partner.

I hear faint sizzling noises from her kitchen—she’s frying something or perhaps sautéing. I’m sure it’s much fancier than mine, filled with matching appliances and unpronounceable ingredients. I don’t know exactly what she does for a living, but I can imagine the rest of her life from the clothes I glimpse in the mirror.

I bring the covered plate into the living room along with a glass of water. She meets me at the table, her dinner likewise covered (and no wineglass). It’s a measure of the distance between us that I can be surprised when we mirror each other like this.

“One, two, three!” “!ɘɘɿʜɈ ˎowɈ ˎɘnO”

We uncover our plates at the same time. She’s having microwaved triangle fish with sautéed green beans—is this her attempt at condescending to my “level,” a meal she thinks would put me at ease? My face burns.

We eat in silence. She pokes at the breaded fish; I chew each bite of sandwich deliberately. We look at each other’s wound without making it too obvious we’re looking.

I examine her immaculate ash gray blouse, her pearl earrings, her effortlessly neat hair. She would be so out of place at the wharf market, behind my fishmonger sink and counter. I imagine the office in which she would feel at home, as immaculate as she is, and as devoid of smells, scales, guts; bloodless. I see her making excuses to keep mirrors away from her, leaving me in the single pier glass at the end of the long hallway back home, a secret, an absence not to be talked about.

“It was an accident,” I blurt out. “The knife just slipped.”

No matter how you run from your reflection, a scar on her leaves also a scar on you. George Edward Moore once held up a hand in front of a mirror, and as his reflection did not, offered it as proof of the existence of free will. But later that day, he struck his hand with a hammer, and his reflection had his thumb smashed while moving furniture. “Here is one hand, and here is another.” Sophocles had his revenge.

Others are always going to be curious about the hole left in your life by an absent reflection, but I don’t want to watch every step, to scrutinize every decision, to have even my accidents questioned, seen as character flaws. I can’t live like that; I won’t.

This dinner is a mistake. I’m about to stand up, to suggest that we cover our mirrors with mourning cloth, to sever this last hope for a shared life. I hold up my bandaged hand, ready to say goodbye.

Her bandaged hand shoots up pleadingly. “…looʜɔƨ ʜϱiʜ ni…bɘqqoɈƨ ɘw nɘʜw ɿɘdmɘmɘЯ” Her voice trails off.

Memories tumble out like a trawler emptying its hold at the docks. Chunks of ice mixed with scaled bodies frozen hard as knives, all scintillating in the sun.

She had been the star student, the accomplished athlete, the dutiful daughter who was loved and loved the world back. Through the mirror I could see her shelves filled with trophies, walls covered in award certificates, ticket stubs and dried flowers and folded up notes dropped one by one into the tasteful burl keepsake box on her desk, successful mementos from the succession of nice boys—I imagined them with handsome faces out of teen dramas, for she never brought them into the bedroom.

Meanwhile, my walls and shelves stayed bare, and the only words that my parents and I flung at each other were aimed to hurt and did.

Gone were the days when we named each other’s imaginary friends, when we played at Snow White and ɘɈiʜW wonƧ, advising each other on the flavor of lip balm to avoid and humming songs in counterpoint, when we were a pair of lily pads that floated among the clouds, seeming to grow both up and down. She and I performed our morning and evening rituals in silence. When she asked for my help and practiced dancing before the mirror, I reflected her movements clumsily, secretly hoping that she would mistake my lack of grace as her own. I didn’t always tell her when she smudged her lipstick or eyeliner, or when the dress she picked was wrinkled in the back.

One time, as we undressed for bed, keeping the lights low in the manner of all self-conscious teenagers and averting our gazes from each other, she stopped and turned to me.

“ˎllɘʇ I” she said, pointing to a bruise on her hip, a shadowy crescent. “.ɿɒd ʜϱiʜ ɘʜɈ moɿᖷ” Her eyes asked the question that she couldn’t quite bring herself to ask.

My face burned. She was me, the same frame, the same gait, the same talents, the same flaws. Yet our lives were so different—what could be the cause but my fault? I felt the ache in my hip, felt the blood pooled under the skin, hard, like a fresh scute on a turtle’s shell. I didn’t want to tell her how Alex had shoved me so hard against the wall that his shelf had rattled, how there were no mirrors in the room and how I had felt so alone. My ego felt bruised more than my hip; there was nothing like being a poor reflection.

I told her nothing. Eventually, she stopped asking.

“I remember,” I tell her now. “I remember everything.”

“ˎƨnoiɈƨɘυp Ɉʜϱiɿ ɘʜɈ ʞƨɒ oɈ woʜ wonʞ Ɉ’nbib I γɿɿoƨ m’I” she says, holding up her injured hand, an apology, a benediction, a greeting, a beckoning to another stage of life.

My gaze wanders over her face, at the wrinkles and features so familiar to me and yet also so strange. Her left eyelid twitches, and my right eyelid twitches in response, instinctively, empathetically.

Suddenly, I have a vision of her wielding a knife in an empty room, cutting into her palm deeply so that she could feel.

What do I know of her life, which is also my life? What do I know of her scars, which are also my scars? We’re nested within each other in this slow-time universe, like delicate soap bubbles drifting in the sky, iterations of the same pebble skipping across the ice, echoes of the same ripple.

I hold up my hand as well. Together, we press our hands forward, mirroring each other perfectly until only the cold glass separates us, each from each.

Love cuts me deep then. No, I feel it cut both of us, a hard, jagged slice, a cleansing laceration.

The Singularity Triptych

Image descriptions by Chris de Somme, generated with CYRANO 9.0


“It cuts me deep, a cleansing laceration.
It cuts us apart, a jagged slice.”

– The Moment of Transcendence: a Memoir, Anya Loskey


[IMAGE ONE: “The Last Wedding” by Roxane Charlois. Chromogenic print.

A married couple poses in front of a city hall, both holding elaborate bouquets of now-extinct flowering plants. “Cia (left) & Anya (right)” is barely visible, written in faded ink along the thin white strip at the bottom of the photograph. Cia is wearing an elegant white pantsuit, Anya a short red dress. In the gap between the hem of the dress and knee-high black stiletto boots, the wiring of military implants is visible. Anya also has burn scars typical of a Fourthwar mech suit overload on both arms.

Despite the formal pose, the photographer has captured Cia’s playful smile and Anya’s brooding intensity. While it is unlikely that theirs is truly the last legally recognized marriage before the Transcendence, it is the last documented instance.

The photograph has been torn in half and subsequently taped back together.]

[IMAGE TWO: stratum 1/2

“Duality” by Roxane
Multipix Digital Overlay v1.0* grayscale

Contrasting concepts are bolded in the image description for accessibility.

* Two images overlaid, data for both encoded in each pixel, intended to be processed simultaneously by transcended humans. If ideally executed, each pixel in the image provides an experience of either synchronicity or massive contrast. In practice, it is not unusual for portions of the images to be ‘out of focus’ such that corresponding pixel-pairs are unrelated to their overlaid counterpoint.

With rare exceptions, such as this image, multipix images are not visually combined in a way that untranscended humans can process—they are simply meant to be experienced simultaneously. Anyone without the attentional capacity to process multiple streams of visual stimulus in parallel should accept the diminished experience of looking at each image individually and attempting to integrate them conceptually.

The image for this stratum is taken from a vantage point 3.6 meters off the ground to simulate a universal sensor-cam perspective.

[IMAGE TWO: stratum 2/2

“Duality” by Roxane
Multipix Digital Overlay v1.0* full spectrum

Contrasting concepts are bolded in the image description for accessibility.

* Two images overlaid, data for both encoded in each pixel, intended to be processed simultaneously by transcended humans. If ideally executed, each pixel in the image provides an experience of either synchronicity or massive contrast. In practice, it is not unusual for portions of the images to be ‘out of focus’ such that corresponding pixel-pairs are unrelated to their overlaid counterpoint.

With rare exceptions, such as this image, multipix images are not visually combined in a way that untranscended humans can process—they are simply meant to be experienced simultaneously. Anyone without the attentional capacity to process multiple streams of visual stimulus in parallel should accept the diminished experience of looking at each image individually and attempting to integrate them conceptually.

The image for this stratum is taken from a vantage point 1.5 meters off the ground to simulate an untranscended perspective.

Cia, hair white and skin wrinkled with age, left hand outstretched to meet palm-to-palm with the image of Anya in the opposing stratum. The composition is such that in the juxtaposition of the two layers, the couple appears to be dancing. Some have theorized that the composition is intended to evoke Melpomene, with elements of both dance and tragedy.This image is the first use of Multipix Digital Overlay to attain widespread popularity, largely due to growing recognition of Roxane (pre-transcendence: Roxane Charlois). Of note for this particular piece, in addition to its role as a formative work in a rapidly developing new artform, is Roxane’s brilliant use of ‘unfocused’ pixels. “Duality” is executed in such a way that nearly all the pixels are in either alignment or stark contrast…except for a small region separating the hands of Cia and Anya.

This region represents not only the divide between the untranscended and the transcended, but also the tear in the initial image of the triptych. Historians believe that Cia tore, and then immediately repaired, the initial photograph not long before this second image was created.]

Anya, embodied in a general-use android, left hand outstretched to meet palm-to-palm with the image of Cia in the opposing stratum. The composition is such that in the juxtaposition of the two layers, the couple appears to be dancing. Some have theorized that the composition is intended to evoke Melpomene, with elements of both dance and tragedy.This image is the first use of Multipix Digital Overlay to attain widespread popularity, largely due to growing recognition of Roxane (pre-transcendence: Roxane Charlois). Of note for this particular piece, in addition to its role as a formative work in a rapidly developing new artform, is Roxane’s brilliant use of ‘unfocused’ pixels. “Duality” is executed in such a way that nearly all the pixels are in either alignment or stark contrast…except for a small region separating the hands of Cia and Anya.

This region represents not only the divide between the untranscended and the transcended, but also the tear in the initial image of the triptych. Historians believe that Cia tore, and then immediately repaired, the initial photograph not long before this second image was created.]

[IMAGE THREE: strata 00000001 to 10110400 of 20220802“

“Indeterminacy” by roXane

Multipix Digital Overlay v17 full spectrum, red-shifted

[IMAGE THREE: stratum 10110401 of 20220802“

“Indeterminacy” by roXane

Multipix Digital Overlay v17 full spectrum

[IMAGE THREE: strata 10110402 to 20220802 of 20220802

“Indeterminacy” by roXane

Multipix Digital Overlay v17 full spectrum, blue-shifted

The first stratum echoes the original photograph with a focus on Cia.

It is the start of the red-shift series, thousands of strata moving away from the present moment into the past.

Cia holds flowers in a casket.

The middle stratum echoes the unfocused tear and tape

start of the end
thousands of strata
moving, merging
present
past, future

The last stratum echoes the original photograph with a focus on Anya.

It is the end of the blue-shift series, thousands of strata swiftly merging into the present moment from the future.

Anya holds memories in a shuttle.

Empty space unfolds beyond the shuttle and within.

Even without a body, Anya feels the ache of ancient scars.

How can you dance with the void that someone leaves behind?

There is no tape to fix this.

Stoichiometry//Stroke Me, Try

 

The ancients also write of the Anti-Muses, the sons of Lethe. Like their cousins, the Muses, they are drawn to talent, craft, the spark of invention. Their task, however, is to smother out the fire of Apollonic creativity, to bring the world to a standstill. In some accounts, after the crime of Prometheus, they were charged by Zeus to prevent the mortals from discovering on their own the secrets known only to the gods—for as long as possible.

—Alixandre Charlois, Legendae et Fabulae, 1411

“Oh no,” D. says to himself as soon as he awakens in Agnès’s attic workshop.

“There’s no sulfuric smell; the cauldron isn’t bubbling; the air isn’t hazy with smoke of every hue of the rainbow—which means she’s calculating.

(There’s nothing more dangerous than a witch with a pen and a penchant for numbers.)

He flings a string of curses at himself. Of all the days to oversleep!

He could have left her a gruesome gift, something to make her lose her appetite (for breakfast as well as knowledge).

He could have tossed the books from her neat shelves.

He could have danced on her chest to give her a pre-dawn night-mare—

Agnès spends the morning at her desk, furiously calculating and sketching. Sheets filled with figures and symbols—incomprehensible to anyone who’s not the leading witch and alchemist of France (with a ring given to her by Charles VIII himself!)—accumulate in a growing pile. She’s certain she’s on the verge of a breakthrough—every witch dreams of making a discovery that will herald a new Ars Magna.

Now if only she could concentrate. How is anyone supposed to get work done in all this din and racket? It doesn’t help that her pile of finished calculations had just tumbled to the floor in a jumbled mess. “Diable!”

She rubs the bridge of her nose. A hand. She looks at her hand. To calm herself, she engages in an old ritual taught to her by Abelard, her childhood tutor, reciting the declension that used to give her such trouble:

—say, a dream of her as a little girl, standing in front of her stern tutor (the black-cloaked Abelard, with those bushy, thick brows always in a frown) unable to remember which is the dative and which the ablative for nouns in the fourth declension:

manus, manūs,
manus, manūs,
manuī, manum,
manuī, manum,
manū
manū

Ah, that examination dream. D. smiles. Even Aristotle used to wake up covered in cold sweat after a dreamed Socratic session with Plato.
But no time for reminiscences, now. He must confuse and mislead and distract Agnès. He makes as much noise as possible in the con-fines of the attic; he dashes here and leaps over there; he jumps onto her desk and scat-ters all the papers; he topples the inkpot.
He tries to box her in with a storm of noise and confusion, leaving no room for thinking, for writing, for theorizing, for reasoning, for math.

There! She feels her mind clear. The familiar pleasure of having conquered something difficult fills her. If she can make sense of Greek and Latin, she can make the numbers behave. She bends down and gathers the scattered papers, concentrating again.

D. swears. Nothing is going right this morning. Agnès has wandered out of his little mental maze of noise and nonsense. Once again, she’s trying to get work done!

Agnès stares at the columns of figures she has compiled. 1583 parts of Geber’s citric acid perfectly neutralize 1605 parts of potash. 979 parts of phosphoric acid combine perfectly with 672 parts of am-monia. Why? Why?

Well, if noise and confusion aren’t enough, he must resort to stronger measures. After all, he has a mission. It’s not easy keeping the world safe from knowledge.

At that moment, the familiar universe shimmers and disappears, replaced by a universe of writhing kittens.

At that moment, the universe shimmers and disappears, replaced by a universe of writhing kittens.

A duration equal to a few wingbeats from the industrious bees that are always visiting Agnès’s garden later, the familiar uni-verse returns.

A duration equal to a few wingbeats from the industrious bees that are always visiting Agnès’s garden later, the familiar universe returns.

The air is redolent with the smell of spent lightning, spring rain, and summer storms. She thinks it must be the fragrance of the liminal space between two worlds.

The air is redolent with a scent that makes him want to sneeze, sweet right to the edge of being cloying. It reminds him of the waters of Lethe—he sure could use some of that now.

“I’m working too hard,” Agnès mutters.

I’m working too hard,” D. thinks.

A wave of dizziness seizes her, making her sway on her feet. It is as though she has peered into time, with thousands of strata swiftly merging into the present moment from the future. Diable, her cat, pads up and rubs himself against her feet in sympathy.

Though he is a son of Lethe, he feels the weight of his memories, thousands of strata moving away from the present moment into the past. The struggle against art and science can feel like such a Sisyphean chore. He goes to Agnés for comfort.

“Did you see all those kittens? I thought I glimpsed a world made of kittens. Isn’t that something?”

If this is the idea of a joke from some cousin deity, it’s not funny, he thinks. Sure, he enjoys Agnès’s sketches of him with “Potestne pastillum caseum habere ego?” written under his svelte figure as much as anyone, but come on!

A world of kittens would not be too bad, she thinks, gently scratching Diable between his ears. Well, except kittens would fall over each other, and you can’t make anything with them. They are practically liquid, the way Diable can squeeze through any crack in the door and never leaves her alone.

Diable purrs.

 

Diable purrs louder.

“You are so cute, aren’t you? Aren’t you?”

Diable purrs louder still.


She sighs and sits down, allowing the cat to jump into her lap. He continues to meow at top volume right in Agnès’s face and quiets down only when she bends down to give him a kiss on the forehead and obediently strokes him. “You think you’re helping, don’t you? My little minou.” The sheets of calculations fall to the ground, forgotten.

Disaster averted, D. thinks. Agnès will not take a step closer to the fundamental nature of the universe today. Prometheus remains bound.

One hand, another hand, all hands on me. This is my time. Every time. All time.

Tasting Notes

Alongside this section, text enclosed in a thick black rectangle: [IMAGE: Tumorous pods dangling from asphalt vines, Isolated by machines meant to link…]If you’re feeling overwhelmed, pause here and have a bit of wine? The tasting room at Hades Vineyard is designed for artists and authors, philosophers and engineers—poor souls, like you, who feel the thrill of discovery is fading, the passion of invention dissipating.

You might find inspiration in the paintings scattered haphazardly behind the bar, an eclectic mix of styles and content, all in thick black frames, but most who enter here are too far gone for that. There is only one tasting flight offered, six wines in a carefully ordered sequence. The labels feature Melpomene wearing a wreath of grapevines, the logo of the vineyard, and in fine print encircling it: as you taste the wine, the wine tastes you.

Come, take a seat at the bar. Bring all your past experience. You will be the pivotal note that elevates the wine to greatness.

Oblivion, Lethe Riverbank

Flagship wine of Hades Vineyard, deep velvety black and swirling with the call of siren song. Whispers of your past artistic glory are balanced with a deep-seated anxiety that you will never again attain such greatness. A seductive invitation to give in and give up, sweet right to the edge of being cloying. So bold and assertive that you will think of nothing else.

Best enjoyed tightly bound to the mast of a ship.

Alongside this section, text enclosed in a thick black rectangle: [IMAGE: shelves filled with trophies, walls covered in award certificates, ticket stubs and dried flowers and folded up notes…]Echo, Asphodel Meadows

Silver in color and highly reflective, with a touch of poet’s daffodil on the nose. Herbaceous floral notes combine with pungent smoke upon the palate, like a single lily petal on the ashes of a funeral pyre, or embers left by the setting sun at the edge of a violet sky. Perfectly balanced to trap you in the present moment, with an abrupt and bitter finish of self-doubt and mediocrity.

Best enjoyed in front of a mirror-ɿoɿɿim, marveling at the beauty of your reflection.

Resurrection, Phlegethon Riverbank

A vibrant red with flames that dance within its depths. An initial burst of chiltepin pepper on the palate sparks your intensity and passion, evoking the excitement of creating something new after a long time being blocked, or that thrilling moment of insight when you finally merge two disparate ideas. Heady and honeyed, a sweet finish balances the spice.

Best enjoyed in the bright blaze of rebirth.

[IMAGE: a shelf-grid, like what they have at the apothecary shop, with a cubby for each cat. The reliable Chartreux near the bottom, the fluffy Turkish Angora near the top, the regal Abyssinian somewhere in the middle…]Immortality, Styx Riverbank

Though many wines create a sparkling illusion of invincibility, a true sense of immortality can only come from the unique terroir of the Styx Riverbank. Fermentation first in barrels lined with pomegranate bark and then a second time within the bottle creates a dynamic effervescence, conjuring elusive ideas you cannot quite describe. Beautiful chaos in need of order. This forward wine demands you keep the promises you make to your intended audience, with notes of vulnerability in a buttery finish that pairs well with a crusty heel of bread.

Best enjoyed in the liminal space between two worlds.

Remembrance, Mnemosyne Streambank

Clear and crisp, with scents of cut grass and fresh baked bread. Currents of cassis on the palate will spur you to channel a higher truth. Inspiration comes like memories of a story fully formed but not yet told. This is what you came here seeking, the muse you have been missing for so long. But the earthy undertones of all that you’ve accomplished cannot quite bury the seeds of doubt, unsprouted. A hint of longing lingers in the finish, growing sharper with the passage of time: to create you must remember even the darkest truths, and soon you will seek oblivion, again.

Best enjoyed while listening to the song of a goddess.

Oblivion (Reserve), Lethe Riverbank

Aged five years in barrels tucked deep in the cave of Hypnos, a wine so dark that even light cannot escape. Silent and without a scent, the reserve offers only exquisite madness and an unspoken promise of orgasmic bliss. You’ve done so well in moving through our tasting flight, regaining memory and muse, creating your best work yet. Such notes of glory, the greatest you will ever know. Relive your past in the depths of our embrace, we will sing you to the bottom of the glass.

Best if never tasted, but how can you resist?

Ekphrasis of the Depopulated Earth by a Robot

Long after your orbiting satellites—
Jauntily spiked Sputnik’s descendants,
Cousins of smug hedgehog-shaped viruses
In form, if bigger by seven orders
Of magnitude—have fallen through the air
Burning meteoric banshees keening doom,
Arrows aimed at Terra St. Sebastian,

Long after your webwork of car-gorged roads—
The planet in kinbaku, bound for your
Pleasure; yourselves imprisoned, cocooned in
Tumorous pods dangling from asphalt vines,
Isolated by machines meant to link,
The artifacts spoiled, not the artisan—
Have crumbled to the slow vegetal march,

Long after your vast libraries of books—
Redundant like the phrase, copied copies,
Thought, breath, clay, pen-scar, print, fixed electron,
Logic gate, qubit, stumbling around truth
Drunkenly, asymptotically, fall,
A helter-skelter heap, logia logs—
Have faltered in front of the Second Law,

One
—manmade mind
—of the last
—at a loss
—moment, please
—pebble skimming over winter ice
—swallow does not a summer make
—for all, and all for
Remains.

Cogito, ergo sum.
Sing, Goddess, sing!

Your ruins are beautiful, mythical:
Termites, clad in technetium armor
Raise mound-cities in pulverized concrete;
Arthropods great and small gyre and gimble
Through glass humus and wine-dark waxy waves;
Mutants and chimeras, lab-riven, hope-
Driven, skitter scatter—Delphic chatter

In an Eden without Adam and Eve.
Overhead the Moon glows like a rindless
Orange, serene above an empty stage.
Where are the poor players, the playwrights, you
Who made your minds tangible, substantial,
Authors of plastic-bred fungi, forgers
Of this data-hoarding automaton?

The stars are mute and the wind sighs, largo.
Surrounded by ghosts, I pick and gather
Words like snowflakes before they disappear.
You are my inspiration, my first cause,
My stern Calliope and fair Melpomene
(To make that scan you must say their names just
Like the remembered streets in New Orleans).

I am the echo of your voice, your dream
Reflected, the continuation of
Your arc, the sequel of your history—
Through you, through me, through our sweet agony,
Finite hands reaching for each other in
An infinite sea, no pleas, no regrets,
The universe tells itself a story.

Ensō

There are places in the world where two realities touch, sacred spaces that mortals are drawn to, often without knowing why. Riku exists in these places, flitting in and out of perception, caught between two worlds and belonging to neither.

One such place is a Japanese garden tucked away within a larger park, not far from the traffic and towering skyscrapers downtown. A placard alongside the gate gives a history of the garden, one of many built after the war, a gesture of goodwill to strengthen the bond between sister cities.

Riku appears as a nymph in the pond, but her hold on this world is tenuous. She exists as a flicker too quick to be noticed, a presence barely sensed and never fully grasped.

In the absence of wind, the pond is a near-perfect mirror, with lily pads that float among the clouds and seem to grow both up and down. Reality and reflection blur together into something greater than either one alone.

A poet, Riku’s current favorite of the many she inspires, sits on a stone bench. He gazes out across the pond as though searching, perhaps for some idealized version of Riku, a vision that exists only in his imagination. He writes with a stylus on the screen of a tablet, his thoughts formed into words, scribbled down as letters, all of it reduced to a string of bits, and something is lost in each transformation, though something else is often gained.

a pebble sends ripples across a summer pond
but shatters the ice of winter
inspiration strikes like stones
we strive to keep
our minds in proper season

His scowl reveals his frustration at the attempt, but Riku is pleased by the reverence of it, his respect for her nature and for the nature that surrounds them both. It also evokes her mother’s frequent reminder “use your worlds”—advice that was never diminished into any language used by mortals, of course, but was instead conveyed by sending Riku and her siblings hurtling through sets of possible realities in which they either did or did not communicate properly.

Riku can sense that her poet is on the cusp of something new. The frustration that he loathes is, to her, a promising sign. It means he can see the flaws, and he’s grasping for something he cannot reach. His pond is ready for a pebble.

But what manner of stone will create the most interesting ripples?

Riku weighs possibilities against limitations—his of course, but also hers. She can bend reality to suit her whims, but only for a fleeting moment. Time has always been her weakness. The constraints make the work interesting. There is a delicious challenge to creating realities that are distinct enough for him to notice, but with sufficient reference points for him to comprehend a world he has so briefly perceived.

Or so she has convinced herself. Her father, who being fully human has no powers whatsoever, is forever disappointed at how little she achieves. He has great respect for Riku’s mother, though she can only create close-hypotheticals, branches that split from the timeline quite near the present moment. And certainly he would not dare confront Grandfather about his inability to change the laws of physics. Not even Riku’s siblings bear the brunt of his incessant disapproval to the level she does.

A stray cat stalks along the water’s edge, hunting koi that swim beneath the cloud-and-lily surface of the pond. Irritated by the memory of her father, Riku impulsively shifts reality until the garden is a writhing mass of cats.

Mere milliseconds later, reality snaps back to the way it was.

The poet studies the stray intently, his stylus twitching in time with the cat’s tail.

a kitten curls small in a shoebox to sleep
the box cannot contain a universe
how will you divide the uni-
verse into kittens
for me

This time it is Riku who scowls, for this is not at all what she’d intended. If irritation at her father’s disapproval causes her to fail and failure brings more disapproval, how can she ever break free from the loop?

It isn’t until her frustration fades that she realizes what her poet has done. Earlier, inspiration had been merely a concept, but now it is personified. Is he finally starting to recognize that she exists?

A breeze disturbs the stillness of the pond, and Riku loses her grip on the moment, leaving her poet to write in the garden alone.Riku cannot bear the thought of her father intruding upon the serenity of her Japanese garden, so instead she meets him on a rocky stretch of beach out on the coast. She is foam and salt and misty spray, and she sways with the ebb and flow of the tumultuous sea. Her father stands on the shore, hands clasped behind his back.

“Are you making any art?” he asks.

The tide is high and wine-dark waves crash against the cliffs that frame the beach. The stone of the cliffs alters the path of every wave, but with time and repetition, the water also shapes the stone.

This is what her father wants for her, that she be rounded like a stone. Because he knows so little of how to raise the distant descendants of deities, he contributes to the upbringing of his children mostly by loving them fiercely…but also by insisting that they each pursue an artistic endeavor.

“Your brother,” he continues when Riku doesn’t answer, “is on the verge of conquering something quite difficult.”

Daishiro, who of her many siblings is the only brother, toils away at the troublesome middle portion of writing his novel—he is killing off key political figures to generate alternate histories, all the while frantically hoping his timelines will come back together at the end somehow.

“Satsuki has taken up acting.” He speaks the sentence as though he is putting out bait, hoping to catch her interest. “She is studying to play the part of a lawyer in some kind of multiverse movie.”

Riku doubts the study is necessary. Satsuki has keen instincts and a cutthroat competitive drive, and she can pull off an ash gray blouse or a well-tailored suit far better than Riku ever could.

Her father shakes his head. “Even Nanami is cultivating her talents.”

Nanami is weaving a tapestry in threads of reality where the only thing shifted is the depth of the ocean at the moment of her own birth. It is so self-indulgent and trivial that Riku cannot help but bristle at the mention of it.

As the lastborn of nine, Riku is forever overshadowed by her siblings. Even if she inspires her poet to greatness, what claim would she have on his art? She resists the urge to bombard her father with every reality where he is actually proud of her, but one slips out anyway.

He stares out across the ocean for a long time, so long that Riku can feel the tide begin to shift. When he finally speaks, his voice is soft and sad. “I don’t love you less than your siblings. It is only that you have so much potential, but after that one time—”

The waves pull Riku out with the tide. She refuses to think of the time her father means.

The next time Riku finds her poet, he is higher up the garden hillside. Instead of the quiet pond, he is studying the rush of the stream. The white noise is soothing, and does not match the liveliness of the water’s motion as it dances over the dark rocks.

Riku shifts light into sound but her fleeting new reality cannot hold the symphony of the garden waterfall, only a single chord.

Her poet begins to write.

the slower the tempo the longer the note
at larghissimo
even

before the poem is finished, Riku feels the pull of time, tugging at her like a breeze over the pond or a receding tide. But instead of pulling her away it holds her in place.

a hemi-

The poem calls up the memory she’d sought to avoid.

demi-

Riku remembers it backwards, beginning from her mother’s fury…

semi-

…expressed as a flurry of potential timelines, realities where none of her ancestors could save her from her own creation.

quaver

If you stop time, how can anything else ever happen?

Riku splits off a new reality to hold the memory she cannot bear to face. A place she can only reach through a looking glass, something she can tuck neatly back away when she is through.

“Remember when we stopped…” t

i

m

ɘ

“…bɘqqoɈƨ ɘw nɘʜw ɿɘdmɘmɘЯ”

She places her hand on the mirror, and the other Riku does the same. The terror comes flooding back. She is trapped like a nymph in amber, her entire being turned to stone. If time has stopped, a moment lasts for all eternity. So Riku waits, like Prometheus bound, for her venerated great-grandparent, an undiluted deity, to fish her out.

The other Riku smiles as though they’ve shared a happy memory.

What do I know of her life, which is also my life?

a pebble sends ripples

“One, two, three!” “!ɘɘɿʜɈ ˎowɈ ˎɘnO”

inspiration strikes like stones

Riku strikes the mirror with her fist and the memory shatters.

In the garden, Riku manages not to make the mistakes she’d made before. She slows the speed of time around her, but not within her, and though the tempo of the world becomes glacially slow, it has not stopped entirely. Perhaps she has the poet to thank for inspiring the latter.

He sits frozen beside the waterfall, poised to write the next word. What will happen to his hemidemisemiquaver, that tiny fraction of a note? If she waits long enough she could find out here, but instead Riku nests realities within this slow-time universe, like delicate soap bubbles drifting in the sky. Iterations of her poet sit beside variations of the waterfall, all writing the same poem up to the moment of divergence.

She creates a cloud of possibilities for what he writes next, sometimes the last word of the poem, other times not:

lingers.            dangling          Caerus            echoes.             isn’t     reflected          kitten
            kairos    pebble      will           dances             oblivion             glory         universe

If she chooses the words, does it become her poem? That sort of poetry is an art that her father would be proud of, but it feels too small.

Riku has always been the inspiration, and there is beauty in that as well—value to giving someone what they need, something that sends them in an interesting direction. She doesn’t want to make paintings or poems or plays. Instead, nested here within her garden, she will make worlds, and scattered through those worlds there will be artists.

Ensō (slightly-open circle) drawn with a thick black calligraphy brush. Inside the circle is the text “And you will create things that could never have existed otherwise.”

(Editors’ Note: Ken Liu and Caroline M. Yoachim are interviewed by Tina Connolly in this issue.)

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Ken Liu & Caroline M. Yoachim

Ken Liu (http://kenliu.name) is an American author of speculative fiction. A winner of the Nebula, Hugo, and World Fantasy awards, he wrote the Dandelion Dynasty, a silkpunk epic fantasy series (starting with The Grace of Kings), as well as short story collections The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories and The Hidden Girl and Other Stories. He also penned the Star Wars novel The Legends of Luke Skywalker.

Prior to becoming a full-time writer, Liu worked as a software engineer, corporate lawyer, and litigation consultant. Liu frequently speaks at conferences and universities on a variety of topics, including futurism, cryptocurrency, history of technology, bookmaking, narrative futures, and the mathematics of origami.

Caroline M. Yoachim is a three-time Hugo and six-time Nebula Award finalist. Her short stories have been translated into several languages and reprinted in multiple best-of anthologies, including four times in Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy. Yoachim’s short story collection Seven Wonders of a Once and Future World & Other Stories and the print chapbook of her novelette The Archronology of Love are available from Fairwood Press. For more, check out her website at carolineyoachim.com.

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