This is not a story.
A story follows a sequence of events, one manufacturing the next. The concern of these pages is a single event, both infinite and temporal, which has been distorted to fit the dimensions of a narrative. To ape Bertrand Russell, it occurs “once and for all”. It also occurs over just a few billion years…
The date is October 4th, 1959. A huge evening billows over south Michigan’s bare hills, an ochre moon, blazing through scrappy quills, picks out the valley towns and unkempt roads. A sprawling bruise appears on a dark sloping field. Its gaudy colours are a mud blur, but inner lights throw out a gold web of poles and guy ropes. We can hear clanks and hollers on the wind. The Big Top is up, bunting still being stitched to the masthead while kiosks sprout at its roots. Sparks and blurts from a hurdy-gurdy are masked by the silhouettes of shambling beasts.
There is a Frankenstein flavour to the sight: dead parts sewn together and punishingly charged with life.
One man has truly come alive this evening: Ringmaster Leyton Peters shakes off the road’s malaise with an inspection of the righting tents, wading through mud and laden workers with equivalent disregard. “Look alive!” he yells, or “folks won’t know what hit ‘em!” He halts to watch an entryway heaved upright, a test flicker of the sign’s bulbs: Pallento’s Circus and Menagerie. You won’t believe your senses!
Peters tugs his moustache: his workers share relieved glances and rush to the next task. So long, Leyton Peters, he is thinking. Arise August Pallento, showman, swashbuckler and exhibitor of marvels that defy the very laws of Creation…! Pallento practises his rolled ‘r’s with his chest puffed–then he scowls.
Why is it, he thinks before turning, every trainer I hire smells worse than the animals?
“Well?” he demands.
Griggs’ face is haggard, his fingers, lost without an implement of control, scratch his neck like kittens. “Ringmaster, it looks like one of the elephants–Sheba, one of the African cows–made a run for it, see. Bashed right through the bars, brought down some lights and rampaged off that way.” Griggs points downhill where the trees at the edge of the field kill moonlight.
“Get after it then!” The Great Pallento whitens. “Darn it, why am I seeing you?”
“No need, sir.”
Griggs fumbles to explain. “See, it just looks like it.”
The zoological arm of Pallento’s operation was run on the basis that less light and exposure makes animals more docile. This is not the case, as many previous trainers could attest (if only by seance), but transport was simpler if the beasts stayed caged.
Downwind it smelled atrocious. Animals revolted by the reek would surely produce less waste, Pallento reasoned, and by his pomaded moustache he had been spared the truth. Worse for him were the noises–brays, howls and shrieks that scared off sleep. Tonight they are more intense.
The double-stacked cages form a boggy corridor down which he lets Griggs trudge first. The nearest outpost, a hook-a-duck, lies mangled nearby. A clown tries halfheartedly to unbend a metal pole. The mud between them shows a pegboard of wet imprints that hurtle off into the dark.
“Fetch a gun.” says Pallento, tracking the fields with a hunter’s eye. Griggs points backwards along the prints, between the shrill chimps and thin snorting lions, to Sheba’s cage. The metal bars now jaggedly extrude it; half the straw lies outside. But within, huddled in shadows, fretful and pale, her one eye rolling timorously, is all one thousand stone of Sheba.
A pause unites the two men. “It came back.” Pallento states uncertainly.
“Don’t know, sir.” Griggs scratches. “Don’t know how she could fit back in. Those bars are pretty gnarly, and the prints…”
Pallento understands. There is only one set, stampeding off into the night. He is a pragmatic man, unmoved by mysteries–which are, after all, his stock in trade. Still: “Where do they go?” he murmurs, sounding more like Leyton Peters than the Great Pallento…
Then recovers. “Fix those bars. No second chances, Griggs. Next time it’ll be you hightailing it.”
“Yes sir,” Griggs says. Both men gaze down the line of prints as far as moonlight allows, and for once share the same thought.
“Should I…?” Griggs begins.
“Not you. Send someone else. We can’t spare more than one.”
As Pallento trudges away, Griggs instructs his subordinate Alfie Prue to follow the mysterious tracks, but not to worry if it might take all night.
Prue sets off gamely through the dark grass, running until his lungs ache. When he slows for breath a mile later, he squints at the tracks, confused. What they signify he no longer knows. A path? Their shape and pattern hasn’t changed–onward they lead into the night–and yet he cannot recall why he is so eager to chase them. Feeling foolish, the victim of some obscure prank, he turns and retraces his own prints uphill to the circus.
It is only in sight of Sheba’s cage that he recalls what an elephant is.
And now eight hundred and fourteen years must pass, sparing the reader a lot of unnecessary bad news…
In the auditorium you could hear a stylus drop. Ten thousand students, most on remote interface, observe a small, balding prelate of the Elephantine Order of Mathematics. The prelate has a personable manner that runs counter to the austere grandeur of the room, his voice rising as the Singapore Dropper loudly rockets overhead. Furnishing the cameras with as much attention as the crowd, Larchin co Deel continues his introduction, brandishing an A4 page borrowed from a very conscientious museum.
“A piece of paper has only two dimensions. Not quite, of course, but let’s imagine it has. Now let’s imagine we live on, or in, or are part of that piece of paper. We too have only two dimensions. Now.”
Enjoying himself, he swipes an object from a front row desk.
“Let’s take a simple 3D shape like this… what is it?”
“A mood ball.” its owner sighs, prompting a chuckle from the young audience. Lecturers and tech.
“Fine. Let’s say this spherical mood ball can pass through our world, through this piece of paper. What would we observe?” He presses the ball against the page. “First, we’d see a circle appear out of nowhere. Then the circle grows, eventually to the diameter of the ball. Then it shrinks and disappears again, as it passes all the way through.” He hands the device back to its owner.
“But that’s level one. Let’s imagine a cousin of the sphere with four dimensions moving through our three-dimensional world. Now what would we observe? A sphere popping into existence, expanding, contracting then vanishing? Reasonable so far.
“Now add more dimensions, the shadows of shadows of shadows twisting through our world. Even that we can grasp, at a stretch. But what about time? Space has no monopoly on plural dimensions. Time, we think, has only one, but there may be myriad others. So how might we perceive them?…”
The lecture ends a success. Deel strides outside, enjoying the city’s approximation of fresh air. He has just enough time for a caffeine injection and a sip of eggwhite before catching the dropper uptown–a literal description, the monolithic city being so tall as to be visible abroad–to a privately-funded gallery on Platinum Plus, where his friend and former colleague Sana co Tharlian is unveiling her latest anti-sculpture.
Deel’s rumpled academic gown is plainly subpar in this lofty milieu, but he isn’t the kind to notice. With a younger man’s gait he reaches the gallery before the circus-like reveal, and manages to catch Sana’s eye. She barely smiles. Her usual pride is absent, she awaits the showing with anxious frustration. A greying curator expounds on the hidden work, calling it ‘sublime’ and ‘magnificent’ in a dreary voice. Sana co Tharlian hears none of it–nor Deel, absorbed by her reaction. It is unlike Tharlian to evince doubt.
The curtain drops at last, and there it is: Tharlian’s anti-sculpture. A complex silicon framework shapes a void of air (so far so tiredly bourgeois), but in this case the shape is not abstract. The vacuum defines some sort of beast, three metres tall, with four tree-like limbs and a fifth overhanging the jaw. Gratuitous ears, a short, ropey tail and jutting tusks round out the piece.
Deel is strangely overcome, and is not the only one. The witnesses go quiet, their champagne forgotten, the air humming with off-kilter thoughts. What is lost, what is far-flung and unsettling, has been exposed. A path?
A loud gentleman barges through the crowd towards Tharlian, who folds her arms. Deel sidesteps in between.
“Let him come.” she says impatiently. “I don’t fear criticism.” Light security check their approach.
If the heckler is embarrassed to be so magnanimously brooked, it does not show. He sports the scarlet gown and dyed-to-match goatee of the Venerable Elephantine Order, a political titan as much as a religious one, and his towering epaulettes denote membership of the highest echelon. “A sacrilegious affront!” he declaims with zeal. “An offense of the most profound register! Somehow–I don’t deign to grasp your fiendish methods–you have perpetrated an abomination. You are formally directed to destroy it!”
Just another crank, but his station carries weight with the crowd, who noisily react. The heckler’s gaze falls on Deel.
“You, academic. Elephantine Order of Mathematics.” He references Deel’s gown. “Will you stand by as the source of your funding is defamed?”
Mouth dry, the mathematician declares, “I see a shape, Brother. The EOM has kindly funded my studies into shapes for over twenty years. I have yet to be accused of heresy.”
Unmoved, the VEO prelate continues to rain shame on the artwork even as he is escorted from the building; though he does not, or can not, describe what is so profane about the baffling shape. After him, the event is marred, the champagne sour in the mouths of the guests whose appetite for spectacle is limited to art. In twos and threes they drift out after the cleric.
Across Platinum Plus, under a blazing jumbotron for animal welfare, squats a print cafe of no repute except to Larchin co Deel and Sana co Tharlian. They have met here occasionally for years, and head towards it without thinking. They upload their usual orders and sit while their drinks are assembled molecule by molecule between them.
“What was it called, the piece?” asks Larchin.
“The First and Last.” Sana replies.
“I’m not sure but I almost thought I recognised it for a second.”
“I am not a plagiarist.” Tharlian says curtly.
“No–of course. It just feels familiar–that cleric certainly thought so. Maybe from a dream.” He breaks off, embarrassed (mathematician first) by his vagueness. “What do you see?”
“I see myself,” Tharlian states, “as in all my pieces. I see freedom and the triumph of life. But it was in a dream I found it, that’s true. Anything glimpsed in those dimensions is ideally expressed, I think, until we try to explain it afterwards.”
“What kind of dream was this one?” Deel is intrigued.
“An extremely vivid one. I was angry; I was in someone’s sky. I was blundering around, all different bits of me; then I saw bars–thick ones with rust–and other people too, in other cages, but I couldn’t see them. I remember panic, then I realised I was dreaming. How could bars hold me in a dream? I gathered up my might and burst right through them. Out of the trap came pure joy–look, I’m still tingling. Nothing was real enough to hold me. I woke in ecstasy, and the shape of what I’d been stayed with me. The First and Last: it’s all there, Larchin, all life. My best work, whatever they say.” She pauses to sip. “Does that sound familiar?”
Deel says slowly “I think so.”
But it’s another dream that slows him, one he has nursed for nearly six years. In it, a warm Sunday bed irresistibly embraces them; there is fresh orange juice downstairs; there is the smell of breathed-on skin; there are conversations which climax in quiet; there is sweat, peace and courage. There is love.
But in adjacent dreams he sees bars too, not the kind he can break. Besides, there’s never been a good time.
Hiding his mouth with a deep sip, he notices Sana’s lyfeband pulse green. She accepts the call, surprised. When the call ends, she swears like an attack of lightning.
“That pious bastard!” She ends, her arm already seeking her coat sleeve.
“What is it?”
Tharlian says through clenched teeth: “Sabotage, that’s what. I’m going back to the gallery. Where’s a Dropstop?”
“Wait, I’ll drive.”
The Elephantine Order of Art gallery on P+ is shut when they arrive. A biometric scan of Sana’s face lets them through the fire door.
Out of hours, The First and Last is normally taken to Sana co Tharlian’s temporary workshop above the exhibition room, rejoining its brothers and sisters of six months’ artistic labour. The workshop is vac-sealed, impregnable to radiation, magnetism and ground tremors. As expected, the anti-sculpture is gone from the exhibition room when Sana rushes through, followed by Larchin. Still, the sight of the empty plinth revolving in the half-light sheds a full skin of foreboding.
The droning curator is fidgeting outside the workshop’s sealed door. “I waited for you.” he calls out, panting as much as them with stress. “Miss Tharlian, I promise it has been sealed the whole time. I personally have stood guard since the spike. We never tamper, as you know. There are no cameras inside, so as not to influence the experiment.”
“Was it a bomb?” Sana interrupts.
“I don’t know what it was, Miss Tharlian, but I heard it from my office. I’m afraid we should expect the worst inside.”
Larchin bends, leaning on his knees, heart throbbing, he thinks, from the exercise. He can barely speak, his gown is cold with sweat.
Sana begins to resolve the biometric lock. The ratchet grinds back. A shadow of a gust of something intangible escapes through the opening door, forcing Larchin to crouch. Sana shoots him a concerned look.
“What did they do to it?” he responds, waving her in.
She strides into a scene of such disarray it makes the curator feel faint, peering over her shoulder. The workshop has always been a mess but now it is obliterated; dust and bits of hardened foam still descend in shaky spirals; the main workbench, its iron legs bolted to the floor, has been pounded flat; the pale walls are scarred and battered through. Bits of her brood are scattered among torn wood and chunks of plaster. On her knees she finds fragments of her dearest child, The First and Last, ripped open like the bars of a cage.
Too powerful, the rampage that dismembered the room, for men, and too chaotic for a bomb. But to Sana there is no mystery, not even the sealed door. Holy saboteurs. There is heat behind her eyelids and a growing rage. The others she can reproduce but not this one. The best she can give is gone, and all that she can love is lost.
A confused old man enters behind her, moving midway between stagger and swagger. His eyes are shining. The bars are gone. Freedom and the triumph of life.
“Sana.” he says, “I’m sorry this has happened, but I love you.”
There’s never a good time, is there?
As a pattern starts to emerge, we now travel backwards to a period in which conflict looms, at the dawn of the 22nd Century…
The acolyte sits, discouraged. For twelve days the visionary Qu has not opened his eyes, parked under the ginkgo tree in an attitude of supplication. Unfair, the acolyte thinks, that such stupendous ruminations cannot be known, and that the activity of thought cannot be entered in on like a sport. She strokes the dirt where the master’s toe has been, just in case there is something to pick up.
The candle she holds gutters alarmingly.
The master opens his eyes and reacquaints himself with context. A swathe of desert rolls out ahead, prickled by stubborn rocks; behind him stands the city of New Basra, a bombed-out ruin whose survivors proudly resume life after each drone-raid, and whose kebbe is the pride of the fledgling century.
Christian forces flock like ravens to its airspace: clumsy and separate. A ceasefire is stomached, until all sides find the compromise more sickening than the crimes. There is no way for authorities to keep track of civilian deaths (before mandatory lyfebands), but the wounded populace and the frenzied officials keep their own charters. Agendas embellish each.
Master Qu Ecko was born of millionaires in the export of oil. His birth name was Farid al-din Abi Hamid Muhammad ben Ibrahim Attar, after a certain mystic poet, but his chosen name is of sufficient vagueness to imply a more universal profundity. At twenty-one he rejected a gig at the filial firm in a stand against nepotism, and was proudly exiled. Now the self-styled Wise Vagrant is starving, with all due aplomb, fifty feet outside the city gates. He has witnessed truths that boil the universe down to nothing: what can he supply to the acolyte as comfort or to justify rebellion?–the state militia is already entrenched. Shapes and symmetries, patterns among flames, are all he cares to ponder. The plight of his adherents irks him little.
“Master, there will be another raid tonight. You must take shelter.”
The Wise Vagrant says nothing, engrossed by the simple pleasure of sunlight.
The acolyte asks hopefully, “Would you have us fight? Shuri’s father hides weapons in his basement, he is willing to arm us. We all swore to defend you, master.”
Qu hears her with a sullen heart. The problems of the present age he wishes to reject: Temporal distractions from considerations of totality. He wants to say, honestly, I cannot save you. Death and suffering are fragile burdens it is easy, with practice, to ignore. To perceive the scope of all things–his aim these twelve nights–makes her need for justice seem trivial. Sooner or later we all die; the specific sentence is like which water is in a particular raindrop. And yet, a human heart beats in him.
“Return by nightfall,” he mumbles helplessly. “I will have answers then.”
The acolyte stoically nods and leaves. But the proud scion has no answers, and he wilts as her candle rounds the city gates.
The drones return at sundown. A glinting horde speckles the waning sun, three or four hundred, whistling over the sirens. The streets drain, shelters are bolted from the inside, children play games in the dark. Street and house lights go out like a falling shadow.
The acolyte reaches Qu under the ginkgo tree. She brings twelve other men and women sashed with ammo, dressed in red to camouflage against the evening sand. The Wise Vagrant hasn’t moved. Legs crossed and hands tucked under knees he grimaces and sweats, his eyes welded shut as he enters a lucid dream…
His eyes open.
There is a faint disturbance as if the sun, the sand and the approaching swarm are painted on a backdrop that has just been tugged.
Then erupts a shoal of churning patterns, sensed by the eye the way an ear senses a change in pressure. Some sections block a patch of grass two metres away; the moon crawls over others like a mite in a meadow. The pieces burst and coalesce, vanish and appear, with mercurial erraticness; the watchers taste bark. The whirl starts to accrue flesh and colour.
The first drones to meet the emanation vanish or explode, creating a fiery nebula that outshines the dying sun. The awesome spectacle is lost on the citizens who hide and on the drones whose cameras short out on impact. Only the thirteen figures by the ginkgo tree witness the last revelation: the cloud of fire, falling slowly, shapes a vast evolving beast of unguessable size. The form staggers, howling, taller than nature and abhorrent to it, passing through endless dizzying permutations. Then it disappears, like smoke. Burning drones fall through the sudden void. All is quiet, eventually.
“What was that?” the acolyte breathes, after a full minute.
Qu’s eyes sparkle with the light of all things. “The shadow of something far greater.”
“It saved you.” The acolyte utters with awed conviction.
Qu replies cautiously. “That was its effect. We must not think-”
“It protected our saviour!” The acolyte is gaining steam. “You raised it. We saw it. It saved you.”
“It saved us.” Qu corrected, exasperated. “But you can bet it wasn’t even aware-“
“Yes, Master. It saved us all!”
“No, we should not ascribe-“
“Be not modest, Wise Vagrant.” said the acolyte, adopting the pious tone Qu often used to deflate her enthusiasm for rebellion. But she has grown taller. “You conjured it. We all saw it.”
“By its nature, what we’ve seen must be unknowable.” Qu protests weakly.
“Then we shall know it! Friends, we must tell the people: Though we are outnumbered, outmatched, there is might on our side. A god was summoned in our defense–let every home ring with the news!”
Qu sulks as his followers rejoice with fits of relieved laughter. Their eyes open to the acolyte, who begins to lay the groundwork for an uprising that one day will be referred to as the Red Tusk. Qu tries not to listen. His hopes of being left alone to fathom the universe are apparently fulfilled, making him grumpy.
The only fighter not completely spellbound is Shuri, whose father provided the group with guns. Alongside weapons in his basement he stored books, which are weapons of another sort. Very suddenly she recalls the shape of that lumbering tumult from old print encyclopedias. Her memory of those pages seems oddly fresh, and she is amazed that so awesome a creature as that–elephant, yes!–could be so poorly represented by the authors.
But Shuri’s gospel has been lost by the Elephantine Order.
And now we must migrate to the earliest time so far, when life on Earth had not yet started. We call this ‘before recorded time’ or ‘the Archean period’ depending on outlook. The surface is a tepid, unambitious goop surrounded by tedious ocean, and the sky is a febrile haze…
It is easy to see why the elephant is upset.
Firstly, it is alone on Planet Earth. Only one being knows such solitude, and it is the one that has just discarded a baffling new lifeform at this point in time and space.
Before the elephant can be lonely, it must contend with being suddenly alive. And all the standard-issue bewilderment that follows birth is compounded by an instant surge of parallel sensations: the pain of a barbed crop, the odour of burnt silicon, the image of a shrinking, fiery sky, the need for freedom, the triumph of life and countless others, most of them anathema to its senses. On top of which, it has manifested at the very bottom of a swamp.
First, it assumes it is not meant to move, that it and the gloop are one. Then it feels the urge to breathe. Struggling with unpracticed limbs it manages only to become stuck in the turgid mire. At last, upside down, it perceives a dim glow fighting through the scum at the surface: a huge evening billows overhead, forever unseen. It drowns, at last, gratefully.
And what an end! A cargo of strange bacterial grist begins to carry through the swamp. In the blink of an all-seeing eye, it will give rise to its own kind, to the lesser species in whose dreams it first appeared and the groping belief of that species towards an understanding of the unknowable. This has been managed already. This is being managed.
Who knew this traumatised alien corpse, unknowingly summoned, formed, fleshed, replicated, made extinct and forgotten (passing right the way through) would be the catalyst for the development of you and me?