Story Excerpt

The Metric

by David Moles

 

The Ship
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The ship was a billion years old, and it was dying. The incalculable energies that had forced open the metric to permit its passage were all but spent, and now the relentless quintessence was taking over again: pulling the metric tighter, so that from instant to instant the needle-eye the ship tried to thread was that much narrower, the forces pulling the ship apart that much stronger. Fields that could have carried the ship intact through the event horizon of a stellar-mass black hole were tearing like dry paper; decks and bulkheads built to withstand the heat and pressure at the heart of a star were being ground away in a shower of exotic particles that decayed instantly to pure radiation and were gone.

The ship—whose name, in a language that had been dead for many long ages before its keel was laid, was Thus is the Heaven a Vortex Pass’d Already, and the Earth a Vortex not yet Pass’d by the Traveller thro’ Eternity—had known when it set out that this was the most likely outcome; had argued, itself, for the impossibility of the task it had been asked to undertake, when they had woken it from its long sleep. Had gone to that sleep, so many millions of years past, expecting never to be woken, never again to be needed.

It had volunteered, all the same. It fought back now with shifts of mass, changes of geometry, striving with every trick learned in a long lifetime, thousands of voyages across millions of years, to protect its precious cargo; but the hungry quintessence tugged and the metric tightened like a knot, and there was just not enough space or time left for the ship to exist in, any more. And now that its prediction was coming true, the ship felt—not bitter, certainly, but cheated; not by the ones who had sent it out, but by the quintessence itself, by the laws of physics, by the long life and the imminent, untimely death of the Universe.

The ship had hoped so much to see Earth one more time, before the end.

*   *   *

The city was called Septentrion, and in its current incarnation it was more than seventy thousand years old. It was said there were other cities yet remaining on the Earth, but it was long since word of any of them had been much more than rumor, and Septentrion was the oldest and the largest. Three-fourths of the remaining population of the Earth made their homes here within Septentrion’s walls, where the mirrors and the latent heat of the world’s core still kept land and sea free of the ice ten months of the year: thirty million of the living, tens of millions of motiles, millions of sessile ghosts inextricable from the fabric of the city, uncountable billions of computationals and functionals, and this was not a tenth of what the city had held at its peak.

It was said that Septentrion was so old that when its first stones were laid, there were still stars in the sky. This was untrue and would have been untrue, had the city been a hundred times older; but it was certainly more ancient than any of the living could comprehend, and its origins, like those of the sun and the sky, the lake and the sea and the Earth, belonged to that deep time in which every ancient thing seems more or less contemporary with every other, and the age of all of them is the same, which is: unimaginable.

Piper and Petal Anchialine were born in Old South Port (which had not been a port in living generations, and which was more west now than south), in a house overlooking the 110° Canal. The twins were born a hundred days apart, Piper near the end of Frimaire and Petal at the beginning of Germinal, Piper into the Cricket sodality and Petal into the Primrose; and they were born among the living—which is to say they were biological creatures, their bodies symbioses of cells animal and fungal and bacterial, distinctions less important now than in earlier times.

Not all the living were born in the traditional manner, but the Anchialine twins were, and the forms they grew into, like those of their parents Swan and Cutter and Hare, would have seemed only a little strange to a living human of primordial days. They both had Cutter’s compact bones, and Swan’s straight hair (though Petal tended to wear it short these days, while Piper’s was shoulder-length like Swan’s), and if Petal had a bit more of Swan’s quiet thoughtfulness and Piper a bit more of Cutter’s fierce temper, they were in most respects as alike and close as twins could get; and (to Cutter’s occasional chagrin, and Swan’s secret delight) they had both inherited a full share of Hare’s restless energy.

Piper was fifteen and Petal was fourteen, the day the ship came.

Thus is the Heaven a Vortex Pass’d Already announced itself in the early hours of the third watch, a flare of violet-white at the very edge of the empty sky, a sun-bright pinpoint that made the night into a brief, unnatural day, and buried itself in the mountains east of the city with a thunderclap that shattered windows in the outward precincts and sent brackish waves flowing backward up the canals.

The twins were awake, as it happened, though they were not supposed to be: both of them on the floor of their room in their nightclothes, playing a prehistoric count-and-capture game with haptic projected pieces. Petal was bored and starting to make up new rules, to Piper’s increasing irritation, and at any moment one of their parents was going to come in and put a stop to the argument and the game both, when the light interrupted them.

Piper, reaching for a piece, thought at first something was wrong with the board, the pieces no longer substantial but ghostly, the board itself gone translucent, so that the pattern of the floor showed clearly through; and then the floor brightened, and the walls, brighter and brighter, until the twins had to cover their eyes; all of this in total silence. And then the light was gone, more quickly than it had appeared, leaving them blinking at yellowish afterimages in the dark.

“What was that?” Piper said.

“I don’t know,” said Petal.

“I wasn’t asking you,” Piper said. “Halocline. What was that?”

Halocline, the ancient ghost of Anchialine House, did not immediately answer, and that itself was more frightening than the light. The ghost was far older than the Anchialine phyle, dating to the times when the house had been just one cell of a manufactory that ran the length of the canal, and if it was occasionally cantankerous, occasionally exasperated (particularly by the twins), by and large it treated the generations of Anchialines that filled the house as wayward but beloved grandchildren; and it could think and learn much faster than any living human.

“I don’t know,” the ghost said eventually. And then, sharply: “Get down.”

The twins, who were already as down as it seemed possible to get, looked at each other in the dark, eyes wide.

And then the shockwave hit: thunder, like a summer storm over the lake, but it went on and on, louder and louder until the twins covered their ears and buried their faces in their arms, and the whole house moved in a sudden convulsive jump that caused the floor to fly up and hit Piper in the nose.

The noise died away, and other noises began: shouts from inside the house and outside, alarms of various kinds, the sirens of City Response vehicles and the amplified voices of aerial sentinel motiles.

“All right, we’re all right,” Halocline said.

“Speak for yourself,” said Piper in a muffled voice.

“Piper’s nose is bleeding,” Petal said.

“Wipe it,” Halocline said, without much sympathy.

“What was that?” said Piper, sniffling.

“Something new,” said Petal.

*   *   *

 

2. The Stranger
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The ship was new, the first new thing in Septentrion in a long time. That it was a ship at all was something City Authority had to work out by the old process of eliminating the impossible to make room for the improbable, and then on discovering there were no improbables left, backtracking to allow for the chance that City Authority might be wrong in its ideas of what was possible and what was not.

To most of Septentrion the metric was not even history but legend, and not the most popular or interesting legend; the long aeons of Earth’s isolation and the heaped millennia of city history piled fact upon fact and myth upon myth, so that even in children’s tales of adventure the city looked mostly to more recent times, and still thought them ancient.

Nor in all Septentrion’s hundreds of centuries had any in the city—any in their right minds, and in possession of all the facts—imagined they might see a ship again cross the gulfs that separated Earth from the invisible stars. The quintessence, the primordial dark energy—weaker in the early aeons than gravity, but by the birth of humanity’s sun beginning already to overcome it—was too strong, the metric long since too constricted, and most of those few in the city who remembered when the metric’s vertices had permitted passage—a handful of the most ancient and most baroquely elaborated computationals, older than the city, inheritors of labyrinthine memory-complexes older still—would have guessed those passages closed long ago, the suns and worlds they connected sundered forever.

But evidence was evidence, and City Authority respected abductive inference over enumerative induction. A flock of aerial motiles, dared into venturing beyond the walls to overfly the new valley gouged into the foothills, reported something there, at any rate; and one of them volunteered the additional opinion that whatever it was, it was most likely either dead or in severe distress.

City Authority’s duty was clear. It thought over its options, made a decision, and came to Hare.

There were not many in Septentrion in those autumn days who made a habit of leaving the walls of the city; and of those who did, there was not one among the living that had traveled half as far as Hare Anchialine. Hare, alone among Septentrion’s living citizens, had been born under another name three thousand leagues away in Meridion, Septentrion’s antipodal twin. At seventeen, Hare, with five companions, had left it and headed north.

Now Hare did the Anchialine accounts, and rode the Anchialine float in the annual Canal Parade, and played the ophicleide in the Old South Port clique’s festival band, and in general played the part of a model citizen. But in the summer, Hare would lead expeditions of the restless or curious across the lake or into the mountains. And it was to those players at adventure that City Authority came now.

Piper and Petal, Hare and Cutter and Swan; half a dozen of Hare’s students; and with them a living official from City Response named Tanner Campestral, and a motile from the Archive named Gauge Malpais. They were up before dawn of the second day after the ship’s arrival, in that time when the city took care of all the tens of thousands of little things that needed taking care of, between one day and the next. Barges moved on the canals, cleaners and their attendant recyclers trotted industriously along the pavements, poking into doorways and under hedges; long trains of empty cars gathered at the trackline stations to wait for the morning’s work. Of the  excitement of two nights ago there was no obvious sign, unless it was that the dust from the mountains made the night mist that reflected the city’s light fall a little heavier, that the first breeze from the east brought with it a hint of pine-smoke.

A City Maintenance train took them to the eastern gate, and through it, on a disused section of track reactivated for the purpose. A crawler, likewise from City Maintenance, took them through the abandoned exurbs and up into the hills. It was a route Piper and Petal had taken before but always on foot, when they would walk a day or more beside some disused exurban road, camping in the overgrown foundations of some long-gone structure, and then more days along game trails and old tracklines, up out of the empty plain. Now they rode, half asleep—they’d been up early, packing in the dark, Petal complaining of the hour and the cold until Hare offered the option of staying behind—watching the late-winter landscape roll by, dreamlike.

The crawler carried them up, the switchback paths they had taken on other occasions winding back and forth across hillsides just beginning to green, with some snow lingering on the northern slopes; over a ridge then, and down, into the basin that had not been there when last they climbed this way. It was a place of downed trees, needles and branches stripped, their trunks aligned with almost deliberate precision toward the center of the valley, where a little river ran over and through an obstacle course of rubble and tumbled logs, all of it lightly dusted with morning snow. It was always colder here, outside the focus of Septentrion’s mirrors.

“There’s nothing left,” said Piper.

“We need to be sure,” said Swan, and Cutter and Hare nodded. Swan was by five years the oldest of the three, thin and wiry, barely taller than Piper and Petal, with a quick wit and usually a quicker smile, but serious now, as they all were. Cutter was a year younger than Hare and a little shorter, solid as the city and as generous. It was Cutter who at sixteen had convinced Anchialine House to open itself to Hare the starving traveler, and Swan who had made the case for Hare’s citizenship to City Authority; and though they said nothing of this aloud, the three looked at each other and knew it was on all of their minds, as they looked to see what new stranded voyagers might have come to ask the city for aid.

The crawler came to a stop then, and Hare put the armor on.

The armor was what had kept Hare alive, on that journey around the world. It was millennia old, an heirloom of Hare’s Meridionese phyle (tagma was the word Hare used), the product of crafts forgotten in peaceful Septentrion, or never learned. Its ghost was equally old, and clever. With the armor, Hare was stronger than any three of the living, and proof against fire and ice and thin air and deep water, and against thirst and starvation and exhaustion and despair.

The armor was a marvel, and on that long journey it had barely been enough. Of the six, all similarly equipped, who set out from Meridion, only Hare had reached their destination.

Of the ship itself, even seen through the armor’s eyes, there was hardly anything left: a few splinters of feather-light metallic microlattice, none longer than a finger, arranged like the fallen trees in that same radial pattern, and some anomalous smudges of fullerene carbon.

“Is it safe?” Piper called from the door of the crawler, thinking of bugbears out of old stories: nanites, poisons, radiation, malign enchantments.

“Safe enough,” Hare called back.

“Come on, Piper,” said Petal, climbing out. “I’ll race you.”

With the challenge all of Piper’s misgivings vanished, and in a moment both the twins were gone, down the slope and over the rough timber fast and sure as monkeys. The rest of the party followed after them, a little more carefully, with Hare at the rear most careful of all, mindful of the armor’s extra weight and watchful for anything its eyes might have missed.

“There!”

Piper spotted it first: something small and bright, a red-orange speck against the burnt black earth. The twins chased each other down into the crater before Hare and the others could stop them, laughing and shoving each other as they ran.

“Me first!”

“I saw it first.”

They reached it at the same time: a sphere that might have been rough stone or painted metal, etched with fine yellow whorls, barely larger than a closed fist. It sat atop a cone of fine dirt like a knee-high anthill—as if it had been buried in the crash, and burrowed its way out.

“Wait—” Piper said, suddenly cautious again; but too late. Petal had picked it up.

And there was someone there. Standing next to them.

Petal dropped the sphere in surprise—it rolled a little way down the anthill—and the stranger was gone.

“Where—” Piper began, looking around.

Petal scrambled down, picked the sphere up again, and the stranger was back.

A living person, or the appearance of one, of ancient form, brown, slender, exactly the twins’ height, dressed in a simple red chiton, leaving arms and feet bare. Hair a puffball of black shading to copper; face proud, if unfamiliar, deep-set black eyes beneath a round forehead, nose long and straight, chin narrow and pointed.

The stranger looked at Petal and in a voice musical, serious, and urgent, said something neither of the twins understood.

Petal looked at Piper, who shrugged.

The stranger said something else, in some other language, richer and darker, and waited; then when the twins didn’t answer, a third, full of lilting tones and short nasal syllables. Then a fourth.

“We don’t understand you,” said Petal.

Hare and Gauge caught up with them.

“I do,” said the motile. It hesitated a moment, and then said something to the stranger, in the first language the stranger had used. The stranger nodded.

“Can your armor translate?” Gauge asked Hare, who nodded.

The stranger repeated that first urgent sentence.

“What?” Petal demanded. “What is it?”

Hare and the motile looked at each other. The motile bobbed indecisively. Hare looked at the twins, head cocked, listening to the voice of the armor, and frowned.

Petal turned back to the stranger.

“Don’t talk to it,” Piper hissed.

“Hi,” Petal said. “My name is Petal Anchialine.”

The stranger glanced at Gauge, who said nothing.

“It doesn’t understand,” said Piper.

But Piper was wrong.

“Bring the message to your old machines,” the stranger told Petal. “Speak to them.” The musical, serious voice was the same; the accent was Gauge’s, or Halocline’s, the accent of the oldest motiles, of ghosts.

“What message?” Petal asked.

“This message,” the stranger said. “The world is ending.”​

*   *   *

They took the stranger—who seemed less than clear on the concept of names but who agreed, after a conversation with Gauge in that old language, to answer to Tirah—back to the city. (Petal asked what the name meant, but Tirah ignored the question, and Gauge refused to translate, saying the word was too ambiguous.)

Septentrion’s most ancient intelligences—Tirah’s “old machines”—were not properly part of the city at all. They were in communication with the city’s computational matrix, but predated it—predated Septentrion altogether, Gauge Malpais said, and perhaps the Earth as well, at least in its current form, belonging instead to that ancient age when there had still been stars in the sky, when light from distant galaxies had still reached the Earth and the quintessence had not yet stretched the gulfs between those galaxies wider than the observable universe: the age that had birthed the metric.

Tirah’s first request—transcription to city tape, direct contact with those intelligences—was held for review by City Integrity, an agency of which Petal had never even heard. But there were places—the sacella—where a corporeal citizen could still address the ancient intelligences, and City Authority had granted Tirah provisional citizenship. The request for incorporation into the city’s matrix being denied, Tirah had therefore requested a new body, built to specification. City Integrity objected to this as well, but—Swan argued, as Tirah’s advocate—the ethics were clear, as were the precedents. City Authority could not without cause sentence a citizen, even a provisional one, to be carried around in Petal’s pocket like a pet imp; nor could a citizen that desired to be motile be confined to some structure as a ghost; nor, without cause, could City Authority withdraw Tirah’s status as a provisional citizen, once granted.

And so Tirah’s new body—the image of the projection Petal and Piper had first seen on the mountain—began to grow, layer by layer, in one of the Archive’s fabricaria; and while it was growing, Petal and Gauge would sit with Tirah in the salons, or walk, Petal carrying the little sphere in one hand through the dappled leaf-shadows of the Archive gardens, Tirah’s projection walking beside.​

*   *   *

“You’re spending all your time at the Archive,” Piper said, sitting up.

It was true enough. Tonight Petal had come home late, late enough that Piper was already in bed.

“I asked you to come,” Petal said defensively. “It’s interesting. You’d think it was interesting, too, if you’d just come.”

“Interesting,” Piper repeated, making it sound like something obscene.

“Piper,” Petal said, “this is important.”

Piper fell back into the bedclothes, with an exasperated noise.

“This is the biggest thing,” Petal persisted, “the biggest thing that’s happened in our lifetimes. Maybe the biggest thing that’s going to happen, now, ever. I’m not going to miss it. If that means spending all my time at the Archive, fine.”

“That’s not why you’re spending all your time at the Archive,” Piper said darkly, from somewhere in the nest of bedding.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Petal demanded.

But Piper wouldn’t answer.​

*   *   *

Tirah’s message—“the world is ending”—was too huge a thing for Petal to take in, and the details, Tirah said, the explanations and justifications, required mathematics that Petal would need years to begin to learn. So mostly they talked of other things: Petal of the city and life in it, Gauge of the history and legend out of which Tirah came—and Tirah of those who had sent the message, and what they had given up in sending it.

The history Petal knew at least in outline: that once, when the quintessence had been weak, there had been stars in the sky, and worlds around those stars, worlds found, or made, as the people of those primordial times had gone out from this Earth, or one much like it; that they had built ships, magical ships the size of cities, to sail between those stars, almost as fast as light, and then faster. That as the quintessence grew stronger and threatened to tear those stars from one another they had knit and forged the metric out of space-time itself to hold them together. And that it had held, for an age as long as all the time before, linking the worlds of humanity by secret fast ways, even as the sky went dark.

But in the end, Petal also knew, even the metric had not been enough—the quintessence, pulling apart the nodes of the metric and pulling the metric itself ever tighter, had prevailed.

Hoddmímis Holt, the world that had sent Tirah, had been built perhaps two hundred million years ago, as Septentrion counted years; built when there were still stars in the sky, and when ships like Thus is the Heaven still plied the metric, knitting a web that spanned galaxies, even as the quintessence was drawing those galaxies apart, emptying the spaces between the stars to drown each galaxy alone in red darkness. It was a great city, as Petal understood it, built mostly of things more clever and more enduring than brute matter: noötic mass, dissociated fields, knots of space-time akin to the metric itself; and home only to purely computational intelligences, as far beyond the computationals of Septentrion as the Holt itself was beyond Septentrion’s towers of carbon and crystal.

The Holt was made in nearly full knowledge of the inevitability of the quintessence and the limitations of the metric, and made to last. Its makers poised it on the edge of a singularity with the mass of twenty billion stars, the core of a galaxy far from humanity’s birthplace, a black hole so enormous that even light would take days to girdle its vast event horizon; and there it spun, balanced at the equilibrium point between the singularity’s hungry mass and the even hungrier quintessence.

“I wish I could see it, one day,” Petal said.

“It’s not possible,” said Tirah.

“Because we don’t have the ships?” Petal asked, turning to Gauge. “We could build one, couldn’t we? We have the records, in the Archive?”

Gauge hesitated.

“Even if we could,” it said, “you saw what happened to Tirah’s ship. . . .”

“A stronger one.”

“To force the metric open,” Tirah said, “in these times, against the quintessence, takes an unimaginable amount of energy. The mass of your whole world, converted to energy, and its sun along with it, would not open the metric wide enough to admit a grain of sand.”

“So you’re stuck with us,” Petal said. “You can’t go home.”

“You still don’t understand,” Tirah said. “The mass of Hoddmímis Holt itself only just sufficed to part the metric for a ship; and the ship did not survive.”

“The mass of the entire habitat?” Gauge said.

“The habitat. And the singularity.” Tirah’s eyes were dark and deep. “The singularity, the Holt, and everyone in it. They sacrificed themselves, all of them, to send this message. And still, it almost wasn’t enough.”

“Why?” Petal asked. “What could be that important?”

“The world is ending,” Tirah said. “The features of the metric that protect this space—any space—from the quintessence, are like loops knotted in a string. As the string is drawn tighter, the loops begin to slip—first little by little, then all at once. The knot is pulled tight, and the loops disappear.”

“You came to warn us,” Petal said. “But how can we stop it? What can we do?”

“Nothing,” Tirah said. “Already the metric is stretched tight. Soon this loop will collapse.”

“The world is ending,” said Petal.

“How soon?” asked Gauge.

“Perhaps a few billion seconds,” Tirah said. “Perhaps only tens of millions. Perhaps less.”

“A few lives of the living,” Gauge translated, “or perhaps only a season.”

“That’s how much time is left?” asked Petal.

“The computationals of Hoddmímis Holt could fit eternity in an instant,” Tirah said. “These forms, bound by matter and time—” the projection gestured at Petal, at Gauge—“these forms cannot.”

“Then why?” Petal asked. “Why even tell us about it, if there’s nothing we can do?”

“This world will end,” Tirah said. “But space and time will go on.” Tirah looked at Petal. “If a new world is to be born, then space and time, too, must come to an end.”​

*   *   *

“There’s something wrong with you,” Piper said, as Petal was leaving for the Archive again.

“There is not,” Petal said.

“There’s a rogue process loose in your head,” Piper said. “A parasitic replicator. That—thing put it there. It’s taken over your brain and turned you into a functional.”

“Shut up,” said Petal.

“It didn’t work on me,” Piper said, “because I’m not stupid.”

“We’re twins,” said Petal. “If I’m stupid, you’re stupid too.”

“Different wombs,” Piper said. “Different neonatal environments. Also I’m a hundred days older than you, and everyone knows Primroses are stupid.”

“Everyone knows Crickets are crybabies,” Petal said. “So quit crying and shut up.”

And Petal left.

*   *   *

 

3. The Message
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After that Piper spoke to Petal less, if anything, and Petal spent even less time at home; and by the time Tirah’s body was ready, Piper was hardly speaking to Petal at all.

City Integrity, in its objections to Tirah’s incarnation, had gained one concession: before being allowed to enter one of the sacella and make Hoddmímis Holt’s case to the “old machines,” Tirah would first have to make it to City Authority. The room where Tirah was to testify was a semicircular chamber the size of a netball arena, right at the top of the Archive under a broad low dome. Gauge Malpais said the room had served some governmental purpose, once, long ago when the Archive had been a palace, and then it had been a reading room, later, in an austere period when scrolls and paper codices had been in fashion, but now it stood empty more often than not.

The desks were still there, though, in row on concentric row. Not all the desks were filled; Petal was disappointed. A hundred or so embodied citizens occupied perhaps a quarter of the seats: mostly the living, with a scattering of motiles. The ghost of the Archive was present as well, of course, and the reading room had its own genius loci, an ancient sessile intelligence, affiliated in some way with City Integrity, that Gauge called the Aedile; and according to them a few hundred computationals and functionals were attending via the Archive’s systems. But that was all.

Piper, of course, had refused to come.

“Provisional citizen Tirah,” the Aedile said, “you may begin your testimony.”

The Aedile had produced a podium, an imposing thing from palace times, twice Petal’s height, a monolith of mirror-polished blue-black set with seven silver stars in an asymmetrical pattern—an old symbol for the city, Gauge said.

Tirah ignored it, standing next to the podium, looking small and serious.

“Words will not convince you,” Tirah told the audience, living and constructed and computational. “Not enough of you. Not in time.”

Tirah looked directly at Petal.

“The truth must be shown.”

Tirah’s dark eyes were the sky.

The sky was full of stars.​

 

There were stars everywhere Petal looked, and more stars in the spaces between the stars, and galaxies. It was a young sky, in a young universe, one that still echoed in microwave frequencies from the report of its birth; and if Petal looked hard enough into the spaces between the galaxies it was possible to see almost all the way back to the beginning of time.

Humanity was young, too, just a few million years into its great diaspora, ubiquitous in its home galaxy, but barely beginning to venture across the gulfs beyond. The quintessence was a scientific curiosity, its effects visible only at the largest scales and of interest only to cosmogoners and eschatologists.

The metric was not yet even a dream.

Tirah and Petal were born in a sphere habitat sweeping the circumstellar disk of an orange main-sequence sun less than a hundred million years old and less than a thousand light-years from humanity’s birthplace. Tirah was ten years Petal’s senior, and the most brilliant philosopher of the age. Petal was Tirah’s best student.

They were collaborators, rivals, lovers. Their home was a place of coral cities in warm shallow seas, golden plains dotted with wooden towns, towering low-gravity forests wreathed in permanent cloud. They climbed the trees in the tall forests and swam in the shallow seas and danced the carnivals in the towns, and all the time they threw ideas back and forth like jugglers’ clubs. They took what humanity thought it knew about the shape and structure and history and future of the universe and pried it apart and put it back together into elegant new structures that were simpler and at the same time more fruitful than what had come before, the epicenter of a tidal wave of new physics and new engineering that rippled outward from the sphere habitat’s orange sun and washed up on every inhabited shore.

Tirah was the one who first proved what humanity had long feared: that thanks to the accelerating quintessence, the end of time would come, not with an inrushing collapse and the fiery birth of a new universe, nor with a long twilight and unimaginably longer darkness as the last stars were born and died and the last singularities evaporated—but with a violent breach, as galaxy was torn from galaxy, star from star, and in the end atom from atom and quark from quark, world-line from world-line, snapping the links of the causal networks that bound the vacuum together; and that this end would come, not in the uncountable eons of black hole decay nor yet the trillion centuries to the natural death of the last stars, but in a number of years measured in mere billions.

Humanity’s cosmos, though still in its infancy, was doomed never to see old age.

But Tirah and Petal uncovered consolations in their work, discoveries that pointed the way to new modes of conveyance and communication, flowerings of knowledge that promised both to knit scattered humanity more closely together and to let humanity explore every corner of the young cosmos before it was taken away.

And there was their greatest invention, the most lasting, the inspiration that would give humanity the ability to tie galaxies and stars and worlds together even as the universe was torn apart around them, and cheat the quintessence, for a time: the theory of the metric.

So despite the somber truths they had uncovered, it was said of Petal and Tirah, as they grew old together, that they had done more for the inhabitants of humanity’s brief-lived universe than anyone could ask.

But Petal had one last discovery to make. Petal, who had never been willing to surrender to fate, never been willing to admit that mortality was inevitable: Petal, in Tirah and Petal’s old age, was the one who proved that the darkness and isolation of the quintessence need not be the end.

It was a known result, so old as to be almost forgotten among the bones of the earliest discarded cosmologies, that the far future of a flat universe—smooth and dark and empty after the last matter was gathered into the last singularities and the singularities themselves had finally evaporated in the slow trickle of virtual particles through event horizons—was mathematically isomorphic to the universe’s distant past: similarly smooth, similarly empty of matter yet filled with energy; but radically different in scale—the unimaginably large, mirroring the unimaginably small.

Petal showed that the same would hold true of the far future of the quintessence—not an empty universe, but a universe of furious energy, its edge receding so quickly that light, if there were still light, could not cross the width of an atomic nucleus before the expansion of space itself would stretch that distance to infinity. Petal proved that the infinite distances, the infinite divergence, the causal rupture implied by the quintessence portended not a cosmos of infinite scale, but a cosmos without scale: a cosmos of distances that, because infinite, were immeasurable, and because immeasurable—meaningless. Small and large would become one. The same physical mechanism that would tear the cosmos apart, Petal demonstrated, would provide the transformation mapping the final singularity of infinite expansion onto the initial singularity of infinite compression.

Petal was the one who showed that beyond the end of their universe was a new beginning. That if, as Tirah had told Petal and Gauge in the gardens of the Archive, time and space were to come to an end—still, a new future lay beyond.

Petal was the one who gave them hope.

But as long as the metric was in place—Petal’s mathematics also showed—the divergence could never go all the way to infinity. Even in its final state, with Earth and all the homes of humanity torn apart, the metric’s nodes collapsed to lifeless, dimensionless points, the vertices that linked them pulled to threads narrower than a photon and stretched beyond the edges of any observable universe, the metric would remain, the nodes would remain causally connected, and distance would still have meaning. The old cosmos, though uninhabited, uninhabitable, stretched and twisted beyond recognition, would never truly die, and the new cosmos would never be born.

But that fate, Petal was sure, would be averted by a later age. When the metric no longer served to link the worlds, but—for a time—still provided them a bulwark against the quintessence, the last custodians of the metric would break it down. They would trade those worlds’ last days for the possibility of a future.

The old universe would pass away, and the new would be allowed to begin.​

*   *   *

Petal, in the old reading room at the top of the Archive, knew this was fiction. Recorded lives—real and reconstructed and invented, with more or less structure, more or less control, more or less agency—were not rare in the city, and Petal had lived enough of them to recognize this one for what it was.

There had never been a Petal or a Tirah born circling an orange sun under a star-filled sky. The reality of the quintessence and the theory of the metric were too complex for any one living mind to contain, let alone invent; humanity had come to know both through the patient accumulation of knowledge over centuries, the slow work of generations of synthesis, not through the flash of insight of some solitary genius or even some pair of geniuses. “Petal’s” final inspiration—the potential for the birth of a new cosmos out of the fatal, final unraveling of the world-lines of the old, and the necessity of the dismantling of the metric, if that unraveling was to be completed—had not been known at all to ancient times; only in the long dark time after the ascendancy of the quintessence, the constriction of the metric and the final diaspora, had it been discovered, and even then not by the living nor yet by the calculating minds of computationals such as lived in Septentrion’s city systems, but by the massed intellect of Hoddmímis Holt, as far beyond Septentrion as the city was beyond the bees in Cutter’s garden.

Even now the mathematics of it, that only moments ago had seemed so clear, so much Petal’s own, were vanishing from Petal’s mind like frost in sunlight.

But Petal understood the conclusion.

There was one place—here, at the nexus where all the metric’s strands wound together; here, on this world built in memory of humanity’s birthplace—one place where the knot of the metric could be cut. Here.

The Earth, Petal knew, had to be destroyed.​

*   *   *

The sacella were placed under guard. Tirah was confined to the Archive grounds. Gauge was allowed to visit, and Campestral, and a few others—mostly motiles in the service of the Archive, or of City Integrity. Petal was not among them.

“Well?” Petal asked Gauge, after one of the latter’s visits.

“We spoke about city history and city governance,” Gauge said. “I answered Tirah’s questions as best I could and showed how to invoke an archivist to learn more. After that we hardly spoke.”

“It’s not fair,” said Petal. “They can’t just keep someone locked in the Archive forever.”

“The Aedile says they can,” Gauge said. “But I wonder.”

They were on a terrace above the great square of Limit Cardinal. Below them was a makeshift camp, a few dozen shelters, some of those who had been in the audience for Tirah’s testimony, and more who had only listened to those who had. Projections twisted in the air above them: abstract geometries, meaningless in less than five dimensions, that nonetheless plucked at Petal’s mathematical dream-memories of the metric and the quintessence—or crude political graffiti, stylized City Authority figures performing acts anatomically improbable for any of the living, and meaningless to the Authority ghosts. There was chanting. There was music.

“Can it be done?” Petal asked. “What Tirah wants, I mean.”

“Tirah seems to think so,” Gauge said. “The Archive ghosts think it’s likely that the machines that manage the metric still exist, among those that could be reached through the sacella.”

“Would they do what Tirah asked?” Petal said.

“I don’t know,” said Gauge. “But apparently City Authority doesn’t want to find out.”

“They can’t keep Tirah locked away forever,” Petal repeated. “These citizens won’t allow it. They want Tirah to be heard.”

The motile’s smooth head moved in a birdlike sideways bob, not in disagreement, but not in complete agreement either.

“Some of them want that,” Gauge said. “Some of them want to dismantle City Authority and institute distributed governance. Some of them want heat rationing. Some of them want incarnation rights for functionals. Some of them want disincarnation rights and city tape allocation for motiles and biologicals. Some of them want the Corn Divinity to bring back the Moon.”

“The what to do what?” said Petal.

“Never mind,” said Gauge.

“They want change,” Petal said.

“Or they want things the way they used to be,” Gauge said.

“Is that so bad?” Petal asked.

“No,” the motile said. Its head moved again. “But I don’t think it’s possible.”

They were silent for a little while, looking out over the camp, watching the twisting mathematical shapes.

“What did you see?” Petal asked quietly, still watching the projections. “At the Archive, I mean, when Tirah testified.”

Gauge took some time to answer.

“I think the message was the same,” it said eventually. “What form it took—what Tirah meant to say to each of us, what each of us brought to it . . .” The motile made an equivocal gesture. “Who knows?”

“But the message—” Petal asked—“was it true?”

“I think we all saw what we all saw,” Gauge said.

“You know what I mean,” Petal said. “Was Tirah telling the truth?”

“What is the truth?” Gauge asked. “I spoke to some computationals who attended. They agreed that the mathematics seemed compelling. But also that what Tirah showed us—what Tirah showed them, even, vastly more complex and detailed than what you and I saw, I’m sure—was only a simplification, an approximation. Not even an approximation. An analogy. A toy model, to demonstrate certain aspects of a theory. Does the theory represent the truth?” It made the equivocal gesture again. “They couldn’t say.”

“If what Tirah told us is true . . .” Petal began.

“If what Tirah told us is true,” Gauge said, “we’re unlikely to live long enough to invent the science that would let us build the instruments that would let us perform the experiments that would tell us whether what Tirah told us is true.”

“But if what Tirah told us is true,” Petal said again—“would you do it? Would you break down the metric?”

“Would I break down the only thing protecting us from the quintessence, you mean?” Gauge asked. “Would I destroy the world?”

“If you want to put it like that,” Petal said.

“If it was true?” said Gauge.

“If you knew it was true,” said Petal. “If you knew the world was going to end anyway. Tomorrow, or next week, or next year.”

The motile was silent. Petal watched the twisting shapes, and listened to the chanting crowd. The chant was always changing but was still hypnotically deterministic, the output perhaps of some uncharacteristically articulate functional.

“I don’t know,” Gauge said, finally. “If I was there, at the end—if I knew, if I was certain—I suppose I would. Why not?” It looked at Petal. “But what if you didn’t know? What if you couldn’t be certain? Would you do it then? That’s the difficult choice.”

Petal had no answer to that.

“Piper said—” Petal began, and hesitated. “Piper said Tirah put something in my head. Like a trophic facilitator, or an epistemic façade.”

“I wouldn’t worry about that.” If the motile had had a face, Petal thought, it might have smiled. “I’m sure City Integrity would have noticed; and that sort of thing is much harder to do than Piper probably thinks, anyway,” it said. “Much harder, especially, to do to the living.”

“I suppose,” Petal said.

Gauge looked down at the crowd.

“I don’t think Tirah understands the living that well, really,” it said. “Or any of us, for that matter, decadent throwbacks that we are. I’m sure we’re not what Hoddmímis Holt expected to find, when they sent Tirah here.”

“They probably expected something like themselves,” Petal said.

“Exactly,” said Gauge. “So Tirah has had to improvise. But the only thing put into your head—” the motile tapped its own—“is an idea. What to do with that idea . . .” It made that gesture again.

. . . is up to me, Petal thought.

Aloud, Petal said, “Will you give Tirah something?”

“I don’t see why not,” Gauge said.

It took the offering: a crystal globe, small enough to be enclosed in one hand, its inner surface ringed in projected blue and brown and green, dotted with swirls of white cloud, the whole lit by some unseen source with a glow of sunrise orange. On close inspection the green resolved into cloud forests, the brown to golden grass. And on the crystal’s shadowed side, almost invisible, were the reflections of stars.

“It’s very pretty,” Gauge said.

“Halocline helped me make it,” Petal said. “Will you take it? Please?”

“Of course,” said Gauge.

“I just want Tirah to know I haven’t forgotten,” Petal said.​

*   *   *

“You’re going to get caught,” said Piper.

Petal hauled the armor down from the shelf where Hare kept it. In its boxy stored form it was surprisingly light, though awkward.

“Are you going to tell on me?” asked Petal.

“No,” said Piper. “But you’re going to get caught.”

It was two nights later. Tirah had accepted Petal’s gift, Gauge had said, but had given the motile no message.

“At least I’ll get caught doing something,” Petal said, and shut the door in Piper’s face.

The first part of putting on the armor you had to do yourself: unfolding the gray slab butterfly of the vest, head through the collar; heavy tails swinging loose at front and back. Fingers down into the gloves, toes down into the boots.

Cadet Petal Angyldsbearn, the armor said.

The voice of the armor was a little like Hare’s but dispassionate and precise, without Hare’s warmth but also without judgment or impatience. Its name was Castre, which Hare had told Piper and Petal meant Rook.

Its voice wasn’t really a voice, most of the time; most of the time it was only in your head. Likewise you didn’t really have to talk for Castre to hear you, just think about talking.

—Castre.

—I am authorized to protect you in emergency situations, Castre said.

It spoke the language of Meridion, or one of them—Hare said there were two, the tribunes’ speech and the cohorts’. Castre was of the former; the name it gave Petal, Angyldsbearn, was of the latter—Hare’s birth-name had been Angyld Haemedsbearn. But the tribunes’ speech was not far from that of Septentrion’s older ghosts and motiles, like Gauge and the Aedile, and Castre had been in Septentrion for a long time.

“This is an emergency situation,” Petal said—aloud, but quietly, and in the privacy of the helmet. The armor moved then, helmet and collar locking, the vest closing around Petal like a live thing—Piper had never liked that, when Hare had let them try the armor, had thought it was creepy, but to Petal it was comforting, like a parent tugging a child’s jacket down. Like being held.

Petal crept out of Anchialine House and down to the canal, silent as only the armor could be, and invisible even to the City’s senses. The water in the canal was rippling glass, black and empty as the sky except where it reflected the watch-lamps of the houses above. Petal shivered, momentarily, inside the armor, imagining the quintessence already victorious, the canal a fissure in the Earth, the night welling through like a live thing.

And then Petal looked to the horizon, where the globe Halocline had helped make for Tirah glowed in the armor’s sight, pinpointing Tirah’s location through buildings and walls and fields.

Petal gathered the armor’s strength and leapt.

 

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Copyright © 2021. The Metric by David Moles

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