Argument: Tribes of warring pastoralists drive their meat-shrubs across a snowy plain. Their world Hurth does not turn, but is forever divided into Dayside and Nightside. The tribes wander only across Dayside, under the cold blue sun that hangs stationary in the sky. By mythic coincidence, all tribes simultaneously arrive at the gates of Lunagrad, an abandoned automated city. Outside the city stand three great black teardrop-shaped objects, perched on pedestals. These are the “earthships” that, according to legend, travel so fast that they appear to stand still. The pastoralists invade the empty city, battling each other at first but then coming to an uneasy cohabitation. The tribes attempt to follow the city’s mindless, automated commands. The city assigns busywork to its new inhabitants, rewarding them with brain-broadcasts called “buzzah.” The city’s architecture is mutable, erupting unpredictably in new “Builds.” Fresh Builds are temporarily covered in a white wormlike script from which all citizens, apart from a few select Readers, must avert their eyes in order to avoid blindness or mental derangement.
He had crawled, as a child, into this very clearing. Here, for the first time in his life, he’d felt clean, purified of the city’s stinks and stupors. He’d curled up on the frozen ground, wrapped in the rags of his school uniform, and waited for the cold to claim him. Or for wild animals to find and devour him. He’d heard of the “monkey-spiders” that lived out here in the Thicket, eyes flaring yellow, teeth and claws going clickety-click. He thought they might only be mechanical toys escaped from the city. Refugees like himself.
He’d brought nothing, no club to defend himself with, no matches to make a fire. Not even a scrap of bread. His morning ration had been withheld again, following his beating for insubordination. He should not have corrected the warden’s misreading of a historical plaque. He shouldn’t have been born at all. Because of his yellow eyes—his animal-eyes—no prospective parents touring the birth-theater would take him. He’d finally been sent to a home for waifs—the unwanted children with too few fingers, too many fingers, with asymmetrical faces, crooked spines, or those who were deaf, mute. The inmates of this “school,” as soon as practicable, were recruited into work gangs. Never, never would he return there, to dig and haul and, after a supper of thin gruel, to recite lessons on counting up and counting down.
For something had awakened in him on the last dig. His shovel had struck a hard object in the muck—a tubular bell or scroll. He’d picked it up, wiped off its surface with his sleeve. The tube was inscribed or coated with a living alphabet, foreign yet stunningly familiar. He could almost read it. The writing, writhing, was trying to escape from—no, into his thoughts. Turning the scroll in his hands, he could see that it told a story. Not about Lunagrad, for once. This is my Story, it said to him, or he said to himself. Before he could inspect it further, the warden had snatched it away, cuffing his head.
“Stealing treasure, are you, Pisseye?” That was what they called him, warden and schoolmates alike. “You know all such finds belong to the Mayor.” The warden, a stupid, sickly vod drinker, had stumbled off to purvey the tube at the marketplace. But tendrils of the scroll-script had already reached into Pisseye’s brain, taking root there, coiling and uncoiling, telling him who he was, spelling out his real name, blank until now. For some time afterward, he’d carried out his duties in a daze, increasingly preoccupied by bits of divine syntax forming, reforming a sentence behind his eyes.
That final morning, after the warden had punched and kicked him to the floor, the sentence had broken apart. Don’t get up. Just lie there. Wait. The warden had stood over him for a moment, breathing hard—then, satisfied, had lurched out of the room to teach another lesson. Now. It was written. Run away now.
And so he’d raced through the alleyways, slipping out the Nightward Gate, only to become become lost in the snowfields outside the city. At last, when he couldn’t run any more, he’d heard a high keening, a lament as if sung by a child, emanating from a patch of woods nearby. From the Thicket, where monsters dwelled. He, too, was a monster. He, too, was crying.
He’d fought his way into the network of tree-bones, seeking the source of the lament. It was located in a clearing. Over and over, in timeless time, he would fight his way into these woods to obtain counsel and consolation. Now he was kneeling here again, an aging man at the center of his Story. Soon he would be encircled by his friends, his fiends, eyes like yellow lanterns hung in the branches. He could feel their thoughts, slithering wordlessly through his mind. “Tay—”
Once again, he’d brought nothing. Could offer nothing in thanks for his rescue. He searched through the pockets of his greatcoat, found a few bills of bloodmoney, valueless. His writing pad, gone blank again. “Blenk—”
That was their name for him. A name derived from the line of script that infected him. Blenk stood up, unsteadily, his knees aching, his heart full of a sad laughter. “What now?”
They surrounded him now, his monsters. Their greeting—hum and drum, gnash and snarl—indistinguishable from threat. Yet they recognized him—their yellow eyes matched his own. Were they his ancestors, or he theirs? The lore of the nomadic tribes held no account of them. The city dwellers rarely sighted them. Their only known habitat was here, in the Thicket, where they survived by sucking the tree-bones’ marrow.
“Ob—rob—Ob—” That was Tay, the only one of the monkey-spiders who could, or who cared to, communicate in human language. Even Tay, tongueless as the rest of his insect brethren, couldn’t actually speak aloud; instead, he transmitted his thoughts to Blenk using the Forbidden Frequency reserved for buzzah broadcasts. “Gift for you—”
More of the silver vermin were arriving, skittering quick as electricity through the queerly synaptic branches. He waited for them to settle around him as usual. Ever since his first appearance here as a wayward waif, they had accepted him—Blenk often wondered why. There was some secret sharing, some soul-affinity, between him and Tay especially.
Hey Tay!—it was easy to spot Tay in the flash and flurry of this insect convention. His segmented body was a bit larger than the others, though still child-sized. His head was sleeker, his eyes brighter, his movements a clearer calligraphy of action. Blenk always wanted to read Tay like a living fragment of scroll-script. Just as Tay had read him, known him by name, at their first encounter. Their thoughts entwined: “Power tool for you—”
A scene, just out of view, teased at Blenk’s mind, not a memory or an imagining, but an experience of spaces superimposed on one another: a room in which Tay turned to him in human shape; a room without walls. Blenk shook his head. This often happened when he met his friend. Now Tay, the real Tay, was smiling at him.
One of the littlest monkey-bugs scuttled into the clearing to present him with a prize clenched in her mandibles. It was a chip of stone, veined with fine wires. Almost shyly, the bug dropped it at Blenk’s feet. He bent to pick it up. The chip weighed next to nothing. Hadn’t he once, on a visit to the Hall of Learning, seen something like this? Blenk realized then: it was a piece of human anatomy.
“Yebena mat,” Blenk cursed softly in Rush. “Where did you—?”
“Ob—the truck—” Tay called every human who was allied with Ob Ob. Blenk shuddered to think what had happened. At least one of Ob’s men had not escaped the swarm at Blenk’s tower. And so this—this brain-mineral—had been extracted from a gangster’s skull.
“Hurt you—hurt you—” Typical of Tay to compress more than one meaning into his limited sayings. Blenk understood: Ob’s gangsters would have hurt him if the monkey-spiders hadn’t intervened. Yet it also hurt Blenk to know that a man had been killed on his behalf. Tay, if not apologizing, was at least acknowledging this.
Such a chip burned in the brain of every person in Lunagrad. The chips, installed during embryonic regeneration, were needed to receive buzzah broadcasts. Another example, as Mek said, of the city’s remaking of humanity. But Blenk’s own chip had never worked properly—he was immune to buzzah. Instead, he was receptive to the thought-whispers of the monkey-spiders. Did their own brain-minerals form naturally? The bugs were free of the city’s influence, or so it seemed. . .
“Power—” Tay was trying to tell him something. “Listen—” The chip in Blenk’s hand was not inert. In some way, it was still alive. The chip wanted to connect with a human nervous system—it was made to do so. It was giving rise to odd sensations in his fingers. Blenk had to stop himself from throwing it away.
Raskol. The gangster’s name: systems of crime and punishment. A meeting with M, at the site of the new Build. Destruct-code in the new script. Important meeting—
Blenk pocketed the chip. He couldn’t keep it in his hand any longer. His fingers felt soiled from having touched it. But Tay was right: the chip was alive with information. It contained receptor-sites for personalized buzzah broadcasts, in effect an index to certain murmurings in the murdered gangster’s mind. Blenk picked up a handful of snow and cleansed his fingers.
Rustle, bustle behind him, laughter. Blenk twisted around to see that a satchel, the one Ulla had given him, lay at his feet. He must have dropped it while fighting his way into the Thicket. The bugs had retrieved it for him. Once again, he exclaimed his thanks, wordlessly, and heard his non-word echo in their hearts.
He was indeed hungry, thirsty, tired. He sat upon the frozen ground, opened the satchel and proceeded to devour one of the cooked birds. Drank half a bottle of green wine. Slumped onto his side as the vermin came down from the trees, swarmed him, warmed him with their bodies. Though smelling of metal, their segmented armor felt softer than it looked. What humor was pumped by their vermin-hearts? Not blood. Yellow bile, perhaps; or black bile. Some kind of beautiful life-fluid, in any case. He slept.
When he awoke, he was alone in the clearing. Alone, in the perpetual day of the cold blue sun that never moved—but why should it move? Why even think so? Lying on his back, Blenk blinked as he looked upward, studying the sun’s dim uniform disc. What was the sun?
“When you no longer feel the need to ask questions,” Mek once told him, “you will have attained wisdom.” Blenk groaned as he attempted to get up—his limbs were stiff, half-frozen. He dusted off the fine fresh snow from his pants and coat. Perhaps Mek had only been testing him with that statement. Was wisdom merely acceptance? Insect laughter. For now, he must simply accept the sun.
Rummaging in the satchel for his breakfast, Blenk repeated the thought: I must accept. But the object of the verb had shifted to something shadowy, an anti-sun. Accept what? His mind resisted, even as the phrase began to repeat obsessively. Accept, accept it. Accept him.
Tay? Was this Tay-talk, insisting? Blenk was bewildered. He opened the Forbidden Frequency in his mind, listening intently. Nothing. A whisper of snowfall. Finally he caught a hint of Tay, but very far away. Too far to carry on a conversation. Nonetheless, Blenk put out a call to his friend, then finished his breakfast.
What now, Tay? He wanted guidance. But Tay was not answering. No use waiting any longer. Having eaten, Blenk conducted his toiletries like a plainsman. As he washed his face in snow, his fingers ran over a bump just below his left ear. Surprised, he probed around it. Slightly sore, the bump was hard, but superficial. He could push it back and forth under his skin. Had one of the bugs bitten him? Blenk, at a loss, walked in circles, fingering the bump. Nothing serious, surely.
Meet me at the new Build. That was not Tay talking, but the gangster Raskol’s voice-vestige, starting up again. Urgent business there. Blenk didn’t want to hear any more. But he knew that he must not discard that discomfiting gift from Tay. It contained information vital to the underwork. But where was it, in which pocket had he put it? He needed to insulate it somehow.
His next steps were becoming clear to him. Go back to the city, bring the brain-chip to the Den of the Red Engineers. They could tease out its information. The engineers, ostensibly working for the mayor, were tasked with analyzing all the tools and tricks devised by Lunagrad. Like the scroll-readers, they were supposed to deliver their findings to Ob, but often censored their reports. Committed to peace and industry, they tended to be sympathetic to the underwork, and were sometimes willing to trade secrets. Blenk was well acquainted with several of the red-vested tool-fools.
But he couldn’t find the chip in any of his pockets. He searched the ground; it must have fallen out. All the while, that phrase continued to bother him: Accept, accept it. Accept him.
Blenk stopped in mid-step. He clutched the left side of his neck, hit by a stunning realization. He cursed in Rush—during his sleep, the monkey-spiders had performed surgery on him! Stolen the chip from his pocket, inserted it through a cut in the skin of his neck. Sealed the wound with bug-spit, which had hardened to a scab. Why, why? He sat down again, holding his neck, whining in anguish, his other hand digging in the dirt. Betrayed. Betrayed. He was Pisseye, the friendless, once again.
Desperate, he pinched the bump fiercely, wanting to tear it out of his neck. It was not embedded very deeply. Hissing with pain, he pulled harder. He could do it. Tay’s voice: “Brother, stop—” Blenk responded, not with words, but with fury, hurling a white-hot ball of blackness, a howling hole of sickness, back at Tay. He squeezed his eyes shut. He needed to master his emotions.
He sensed that Tay and the swarm were closer now. He heard, at some distance, a buzzing that rose and fell: not the bugs, no. An electric truck; perhaps more than one. Ob was looking for him. Never before had Ob sent his minions beyond the city gates in pursuit of a fugitive. They wouldn’t dare to penetrate the Thicket—or would they?
“Brother, you are safe—” Tay, via the Forbidden Frequency, shared his vision with Blenk. The scene was multiplied by Tay’s compound eyes, so Blenk wasn’t sure how many trucks he was seeing. The trucks were canting, straining to make progress through the snow-fields.
“Exterminate—” Blenk understood Tay’s word all too well. Ob’s mobsters, enraged by the killing of Raskol, were coming to exterminate the monkey-spiders once and for all. Blenk’s capture no doubt remained a priority, but one more easily accomplished after the removal of his protectors. Tay, tactician Tay, had led his swarm away from the Thicket to divert the pursuers.
Now Tay was out of range again. The bugs were luring the enemy into the broken terrain that lay nightward of the city. Trucks constructed to patrol the glass-smooth streets of Lunagrad would be out of their element there. Soon they would get stuck; the gunmen would clamber out of the vehicles to find themselves surrounded by a gnashing swarm. Blenk shuddered to think what would happen then.
Take your chance, mishka. Take your chance. The brain-chip couldn’t be speaking to him. It had no intelligence, it was only a receptor, randomly cycling through phrases uttered by its dead owner. Nonetheless, that last phrase was appropriate. While the mobsters were battling the monkey-spiders, it was Blenk’s chance to escape back into the city. He would seek the engineers’ help; they had the tools to extract the chip from his neck with a minimum of pain.
He forced himself to stand up, to shoulder his satchel. His anguish was so overwhelming that it was difficult to move, to think. Why hadn’t Tay conferred with him before implanting the chip? And the unprecedented truck-attack—and Ulla’s visit yesterday—and the new Build—
Blenk, all at once, was gripped by a fierce resolution. He needed to read the new Build. That was the answer. Forget Tay. Forget the chip in his neck. Forget himself. Lunagrad was awake and attempting to communicate. He needed to receive that annunciation.
He left the clearing. Never to return. Just as he had abandoned, for good, his room in the tower yesterday. As he walked, he felt his old life closing up behind him. What lay before him? If—if—his reading of the new Build did not shatter him irrevocably, could he find sanctuary inside an earthship? Impossible—their sleek surfaces provided no hint of access. And what would he find inside but, as legend had it, an inhuman convolution of space?
So what! No word could ever meet its object. Wander was the true Way.
He could never enter or exit the Thicket by the same route. Like clockwork, the trees changed their configurations. But he knew the city lay in the noonward direction. So, if the tree-shadows pointed nightward, he must go oppositely. Not the true way, of course. Blenk was prone to contradiction.
He braced himself. Passage through the Thicket was always an ordeal. The thorns wanted to inscribe their own story on his poor tattered coat, on the skin of his hands and face. He heard nothing of the battle now, only the snap-crackle-pop of branches breaking as he advanced through dry tangle. Raskol’s brain-chip provided commentary, a constant guttural gutter-talk.
Nor could Blenk keep silent: he was gasping with pain and effort as he fought the fanged vines. There was a city floating before his eyes. Both real and imagined. Lunagrad, wandering in place, unsettling its settlers, was never the same as itself. But there it stood, one version of it anyway, becoming visible through the trees.
Blenk knew that, as he crawled out of the Thicket, he too would become visible to any watchers patrolling along the city walls. Running, he could cover the distance between the woods and the walls in half a clock. It didn’t matter—he would be seen. Ob’s men would be waiting for him at the Nightward Gate.
No need to run, then. He no longer felt fear or anguish. Instead, his spirit was filled with—made vacant by—a clear, cold resolution. Ob wanted him to Read, did he? Very well, he would Read. He would find his end in Reading. Blenk walked forward like an automaton.
It was snowing again, horizontally. The particles weren’t falling from the sky, but—driven by an obscure wind—were sweeping parallel to the ground. This often happened on the outskirts of Lunagrad. Blenk scanned the heights of the city walls—no watchers were in evidence. Perhaps they had taken shelter from the whipping snow.
He might as well have been walking backward. He might as well have watching, from his tower window, a lone figure crossing the fields. The illusion of motion could not be refuted. In a blink, the window became blank, a wall of glass. He was used to such reversals. Without surprise, he found himself standing outside the Nightward Gate, shivering in his snow-coated coat. On the other side of the gate, someone began to ring a dull metal bell.
Binty, don’t go. No, please, Binty—That was Raskol’s wheedling voice, reliving some drama. Listen, I’ll make a deal with you. Nobody uses that sluice, just climb in that way. Nobody goes the True Way, right? So pay me, pay me right now, or I’ll—
Blenk clutched the side of his neck. How nauseating to overhear Raskol’s speech-fragments! Reeling backward, Blenk was almost blinded by the sideways sleet. If he allowed Ob to take him, he might be prevented from visiting the red engineers. But what choice was left to him now? The gate would spring open at his touch—Lunagrad’s gates were overly responsive, overly sensitive to any outsider wishing entry. So he would enter, and be taken into custody by Ob’s grinning henchmen.
He had no choice. Careful, mishka, the sluice—dead tomorrow, alive today. Hopeless, he looked up, down. The muscle-mass of city-wall was windowless, but irregularly dimpled with small vents and pipe-ends. Here, hesitating at the Nightward Gate, Blenk noticed, at ground level, the grated mouth of a sluice. Not the True Way—
Could he fit through that opening? Raskol—not Raskol, Blenk—gripped the bars of the grate, pulled hard. The grate had been holding back a deposit of garbage, which spilled out over his feet. This, he deduced, was a street-sweeper sluice, a conduit that should lead to a drain along one of the city’s main thoroughfares.
A scavenger-bird, attracted by the garbage, screamed overhead. Its flock would soon gather, make a commotion. Not that anyone would pay heed. The birds efficiently removed much of the city’s offal. But Blenk didn’t want to be caught in that storm of wings. He had become a thing of earth, not sky, destined to creep and slither through the intestines of Lunagrad. Raskol grunted approvingly as he squirmed up into the urban sphincter.
Andrew Joron is the author of several collections of poetry, including The Absolute Letter, Trance Archive: New and Selected Poems, Fathom, and Science Fiction. Joron is also the author of The Cry at Zero: Selected Prose and Neo-Surrealism; Or, The Sun at Night: Transformations of Surrealism in American Poetry. His poetry has also been included in the anthologies American Hybrid and Primary Trouble. His translations from the German include surrealist Richard Anders’s The Footsteps of One Who Has Not Stepped Forth and philosopher Ernst Bloch’s Literary Essays.
Joron is an associate professor of creative writing at San Francisco State University and plays the theremin in the musical improvisational trio Free Rein. He lives in Berkeley.
*Image credit: James Lee Byars, Untitled (Performable scroll), 1967.