This week's story was first published as "Le jeu des coquilles de Nautilus" (1986) and first appeared in this English translation in Tesseracts 4 (1992, translated by Jane Brierley, eds. Lorna Toolis and Michael Skeet). It has been selected and introduced for this week's issue by Aliette de Bodard.
When she realized that this time she couldn't leave, the Voyager decided to keep a diary.
Only one sentence, and already a half-lie, she thinks with some irony. In fact, when she realized she couldn't leave she was stupefied, furious, terrified. It was when she'd accepted the idea of never leaving that she began keeping a diary.
Or else the idea crossed her mind when she went back to the village feeling troubled, discouraged and listless, when her Total Recall accessed her first awakening on the beach. The thought came hesitantly, tinged with amusement. A diary. What is a diary if not an imperfect, distorted memory — as proven by the first sentence she wrote in it? The idea of a diary for a Voyager with free access to Total Recall and trained to assemble and integrate countless data—yes, it was rather funny. Humour is the politeness of despair, as someone once said (she doesn't want to know who or in what universe). The idea was doubtless a final twitch of despair in the face of certainty, the final admission that she would never leave this particular Earth, this particular universe where the ever unpredictable laws of her Voyages had cast her ashore.
The shifting, finely granulated texture of the sand, the intensity and slant of the sun's rays, the rhythmic murmur of waves lapping, the slightly saline humidity... Dozens of other facts recorded by her sensor implants (atmospheric pressure, exact composition of the air), enlarging her perceptions before she even opens her eyes, tell her she is beside the sea in the northern hemisphere, and that it is late afternoon on Earth. On one Earth.
In the eternal present of Total Recall, there is almost no causal delay between data recorded by the Voyager's body and the conclusions drawn from them by her consciousness. Recall, whether Total or not, isn't linear. The Centres on some planets have perfected complex machines capable of directly recording the electric impulses corresponding to memory engrams. Voyagers can skip the interminable recital of their travels. Yet other machines translate and catalogue the data for the Archives. She, however, has always liked to recount her Voyages aloud. Some atavistic impulse, no doubt. Tell the story of her Voyages to someone. As they have been lived, not as they've been recorded in her brain and body. Also, to avoid accessing Total Recall except when necessary. It has always seemed to her that the telling gives these Voyages an extra edge of reality. Isn't writing a diary the equivalent, after all? She would be telling the story of this last Voyage (no longer a Voyage now that she could never leave), this passage that should have been a stopover and is to become her life.
She kept her eyes closed for a moment, letting all her other senses describe the scene: a long, sandy beach curving gently around a calm bay; behind her, the fringe of a fairly dense forest, with trees interspersed with hard blocks, too regular in their irregularity not to be buildings. And, fading away along the length of sand and water, bouncing off the forest and plotting the contours of the blocks, human voices, the voices of children playing.
One of those Earths.
Not Earths like the one she'd left on her first Voyage twenty years ago — Earths where in recent years she sometimes awoke directly in a Centre, in the Voyagers' capsule, in the core of the Bridge's sphere. Where often, on opening her eyes, she found an Egon bending over her, an old Egon, moved to see her, but at peace. (Just as she had delivered herself from him in the course of manifold encounters in manifold universes, so he, in his way, had delivered himself from her. Now he could hold out a hand to help her out of the capsule and smile as he said her name: "Talitha.") Sometimes — and it happened more and more often — there was no Egon in these Centres. Egon was no more; Egon was dead.
She felt no sadness: he was alive somewhere else in other universes. It must surely be a sign. The Voyage takes Voyagers into universes that secretly correspond to their desires, and therefore the progressive fading and disappearance of Egons must mark the end of a phase for her. (After more than twenty years! Were one's inner tides so slow?) A sign that perhaps she was approaching the moment where Voyagers control the Voyage, go where they decide to go, not where their obscure inner voices propel them. They can only move among universes at will when these voices can be recognized and interpreted. A sign, the sign that soon she might be able to direct her Voyages, venture onto the most distant branches of the human universe-tree, and at long last leap onto another tree, go truly Elsewhere.
She had consulted the Archives in all the Centres she'd passed through, combed the libraries and the most advanced data on local science or the most ancient memories of tradition. No one, not ever, had made contact with a non-human universe. Oh, there were varying external details (diverse morphologies covered with fur, scales, or even a carapace), but the basic form remained upright and biped. Given these variants, their natural habitats, and the resulting mentalities and societies, the possible combinations were immense but not infinite. The universe that contained all possible variants of human history was certainly just one among many others. And it was the Others that she longed for.
Had some Voyager in some universe made the leap, having mastered the Voyage? Impossible to know, of course. She herself had only Voyaged in a few hundred universes out of billions or trillions... Well, it didn't matter: what she sought was a different universe-tree, another universe, the Other Universe, truly and absolutely different. She didn't really know what motivated her — she supposed this was why she hadn't yet found it. Was it fame? Curiosity? But she'd set aside these false motives long ago. No, it was something deeper, more obscure. This idea of her goal had only come to her bit by bit. In the beginning she had wanted to become a Voyager the way some people want to die. But — with Egon — she had learned to want to live, even if she was still fleeing when she left the first time. Egon. For years she hadn't stopped fleeing, or seeking, or finding him. At last, though, she'd understood, had accepted the inevitable and freed herself. All those years, all those universes behind her... she could feel them drifting away. The end of one phase and the start of another? But so nebulous, so uncertain...
Personal, subjective time takes on another dimension during the Voyage, in the leap from one universe to another, from one historic time to another, sometimes vastly different. But she'd kept count: in the last five years there'd been a dozen Voyages with the same pattern. About one time in three, she would find herself in a Centre on an Earth identical to her own. She would leave immediately, not bothering to explore the variants, for they were often so minimal that it would take years and years to discover them. Another time in three, she would find herself on a planet not Earth, but always terrestrial enough despite variants to make it clear this was not the desired Other Universe.
That small planet on the outer edge of its galaxy, for example, perched on the verge of an intergalactic void — a vast black space where no star shone, where the most powerful telescopes could only discern the distant light of other galaxies as patches where the dark was slightly less profound. She stayed on this planet for six months, motivated by a vague hope. But no one ever crossed the void to bring news of other lives. She stayed to watch the night skies gradually losing their stars as the planet drifted toward the part of its orbit bordering on the void. That season of deep and total nights corresponded to springtime in the southern hemisphere, where the equivalent of the Bridge was located. Spring, the renewal of life: the inhabitants of Shingèn associated it with blackness, whereas she perceived the blackness as a heavy, terrifying lid. The Shingèn fantasies — their myths, religions, and legends — stubbornly survived and were preserved as a precious heritage, peopling the shadows with beings of black light, guardians of a domain where, once a year, all the colours of the world came to renew themselves. And the Shingèns had a very wide vocabulary for describing colours, especially black, which for them was the most mysterious and rich of shades. "Was." Is. Why speak of them in the past tense? Their universe still exists, and so does their planet, perched on the edge of its stellar abyss.
There has also been that planet where life was only possible within a thin zone suspended between the boiling pressure of the surface and the suffocating void of gigantic mountain tops. Hanging between two mortal hells, life still evolved, tenacious and rich in dreams. The Bridge was not called by that name, and had been developed to explore the torrid depths of the surface. As often happened, its inventors had no idea it could be used to Voyage through universes, and their attempts after she'd come had failed. Perhaps they'd had no need to Voyage. They'd only begun to explore their planet, and, in itself, it was three universes.
There has been. Yes, this is how the memory of this diary differ from Total Recall — in this past that insists on coming back. She has briefly visited these planets, these universes, and will never go back. Her passage emphasizes their temporality. There has been, therefore, this planet where two human races cohabited, one very ancient, and the other on the edge of humanity, over which the first watched with discreet tenderness, not keeping itself hidden but with no attempt to dominate, with no fear or bitterness. The name of the first race, K'tu'tinié'go, literally meant "those who come before the beginning," which signified "the apprentices," or "the unfinished." Only the second race, which had barely begun to explore the fringes of language, was called "human." A system of complex myths recorded these names, to which the K'tu'tinié'go scholars, and particularly the biologists, gave another meaning. But they would smile at her as they explained the scientific basis for relations between the two races, as though these explanations were merely another story, mainly pleasing for its novelty and ingenuity. For them, all truths were always multiple. She had been astonished that, with such a world vision, this first people had been able to develop science to a state advanced enough to include the equivalent of a Bridge.... They used it to treat congenital cellular degeneration, which could only be slowed down in the suspended animation of deep cold, around absolute zero.
And one Voyage in three leads her to another Earth, this Earth, with continents gradually submerged, dikes anxiously watched over by their guardians, cliffs nibbled away by the waves, and the soft, moist air of a warming planet on which the polar icecaps are inexorably melting. She had recognized it even before opening her eyes. This was the fourth time her sensors had recorded this gestalt perception in her Total Recall. When she did open her eyes to find the beach with its still muted colours, she asked herself yet again whether, through some new and bizarre trick of her Voyages, this mightn't be the same planet at different moments in its evolution.
Total Recall, so clear, so immediate; the past becomes the present again, just for the asking. The children aren't far from the spot where she has materialized. She knows, having read about it in many Archives and witnessed it once herself, that a Voyager appears almost instantaneously, almost in the blink of an eye. Perhaps the children haven't seen her appear. The awakening takes longer, and plenty of Voyagers have found themselves in sticky situations, although never fatal — not according to the Archives consulted by her, at any rate. Could suicidal Voyagers propel themselves into a universe that would immediately kill them? But you can't train to become a Voyager and remain suicidal, as she well knows.
Haven't the children noticed the woman sleeping naked on their beach? She walks in their direction, watching them and scanning the landscape. The beach is well kept, with heaps of driftwood and kelp neatly arranged at the far end beside the pilings of a wharf. The forest seems well tended, too. Great umbrella pines mingle with more tropical species, growing thickly enough to create a wall of foliage and branches above the regularly spaced trunks and the cleared forest floor. The half-hidden buildings are ruins, but their contours and materials are still recognizable — such architecture was ultramodern on the last Earth of this type that she'd visited. The children's village lies beyond the wharf, in a notch cut out of the forest.
The children continue playing at the edge of the waves. Their slender bodies are of curiously different shades, the palest seeming to shimmer in the sunlight. It is hard to tell girls from boys at first glance. The sinuous silhouettes flow smoothly from head to shoulders to hips to legs, ending in feet that are subtly disproportionate and, like their overly large, flat hands, slightly ... webbed. A semi-aquatic humanity — she's never encountered it on an Earth like this one. The children don't turn their eyes away when she looks at them. They smile rather shyly and go on with their game. She can tell what it is from their movements. They are tossing a flat, round marker and hopping to retrieve it. Rows of shells mark segments in the smooth, wet sand. But it isn't the hopscotch grid of her childhood (so near, so far, dozens of universes away), or those she's occasionally come upon since then. Those were either rectangular or arranged in a double cross. This one is a spiral with ten sections that diminish toward the centre, ending in a space just big enough for a child's foot. Beneath it, somewhat scuffed by the feet of the players, is the whorl of an inverse spiral that grows bigger toward the centre.
She sits on the sand again near a pile of empty shells. A great sense of peace fills her, as is so often the case when she awakes. The sun sinks behind the sea, leaving a sky dotted with small clouds slowly sculpted by a distant wind, meticulous yet shifting hieroglyphs, their silvery outlines bright at first, then fading to nothing. The ebbing surf breaks softly but steadily on the sand to a continuo of rustling trees and the gentle, rhythmic sing-song of the children at their game. A new coolness touches her skin, and night seems to well up from the water as it fades from pink to gray, blotting out the line where sea meets sky. All this, simultaneously perceived by her senses (and not linearly as it is now being recorded by these words), resembles the vibrato of an ultimate chord before... before what, if ultimate? Still, that is what she feels at the time, a Voyager in transit, present yet altogether detached: a suspension, a waiting.
She is waiting for someone to speak. But the someone sits down beside her in silence, watches the children as they continue their game, takes a shell from the pile — the smooth greeny-white palette of an oyster — and strokes it with a finger. A long finger, joined to the others by a translucent membrane. The light skin, vaguely pink in the afterglow of the sun, is covered in fine, iridescent scales; the arm, like the whole body, is wet and smells of the sea. The head, with its cap of fair, water-smoothed hair, pivots slowly to reveal a heart-shaped face, vaguely Asiatic, with large, gray-green eyes, heavy lids slanting toward the temples, a flat nose, and a small mouth with full, curved lips. The someone is a naked woman, age impossible to tell, who has just come out of the water and is looking at her, unsmiling but not unfriendly. They stare at one another for a long moment. Then the woman gets up, takes her by the hand, and leads her to the village, followed by the children.
Talitha accepts the simple garments proffered by the villagers. After a somewhat uncertain silence, the familiar ritual begins. The large, dusky woman who appears to speak for the villagers places a hand on her heart and says, "Ao palli kedia” — syllables that may be her name. Talitha's trained mind immediately begins to establish correlations between the stressed syllables and pronunciation of this language with those encountered on the three other, similar planets. Perhaps the syllables mean "I am Palli Kedia" or "I am a kedia" or "a palli" or "the village chief." Faithful to the ritual, however, Talitha in turn places a hand on her heart and says her own name clearly. The villagers murmur softly. Is it surprise? Appreciation? The woman from the sea touches Talitha's arm and smiles — perhaps because she is moved or amused or both. Putting her other hand on her naked breast (a flower-like hand, the membranes stretched between the spreading fingers) she speaks what must be her name, accentuating the difference: "Ao Tilitha."
Talitha has already met herself in other universes. Not very often — that isn't what she was hoping to find when she became a Voyager. (And, quite soon, she even stopped wanting to meet the Talitha who lived happily with an Egon. Of course they exist somewhere, all the facets of this story exist somewhere, but she has finally passed beyond the stage where she thinks of it as "our story." It is the story of every Talitha and every Egon in their respective universes, as those she's met have made her fully realize. Her own story is something else, something she hasn't yet shaped.) And so she merely smiles, noting the similarity between her name and the name of the woman from the sea. She has no desire to find out more about this contingent variant of herself, however exotic. She turns toward "Palli Kedia," resolved to do what every Voyager does upon arrival: learn the local language.
Palli Kedia seems reluctant to talk, once they have exchanged names. Talitha shows her wish to communicate, pointing to the objects around them and saying all the names given them on other Submerged Earths. Palli Kedia may be reluctant to talk, but she is quite ready to communicate. The language is based on a complex sign system assisted occasionally by a few words, sometimes by a mere sound.
There are Voyagers who never tire of the infinite forms of humanity encountered. They are the ones who feed the Archives in the Centres, to which they travel only to leave again. Talitha isn't one of these explorers. What struck her very soon in her Voyages were the recurrent patterns, the resemblances, the repetitions. She seeks something else, something totally other, unimaginable, amazing.
She leaves the village next morning. If this Earth resembles the other three fairly closely, the political and scientific centres will be in the southeast. Once again she'll probably have to travel to the extreme south of the continent, where the capital stands on a cliff (in one case entirely artificial), a city built as a challenge to the sea and its inevitable encroachment. On the first Submerged Earth this was a true calamity — a natural disaster. On the others, humans had played a considerable part in the general warming of their planet. Changes came with great speed, made worse by the accompanying recurrence of violent seismic activity. On an overpopulated Earth, and in societies that were all the more fragile because of their complex technologies, these upheavals were catastrophic. The long-term consequences had decimated the population on the third Earth, and the human race was slowly becoming extinct. She had taken nearly three years to find a group of scientists either dynamic or stoic enough to continue doing research, and to convince them to develop the machine that one of them was tinkering with for the sake of amusement — a machine that, unknown to him, was an embryo Bridge. Three years! Never had she stayed so long in one place, even in the universe where she had at last made her peace with Egon. It was also the first time she'd actually had to help build a Bridge. She left that planet, that universe, with a brief question in her mind: now that a Bridge existed, Voyagers would surely come, and others would leave by it. But it was probably already too late to change the fate of that dying human race. In any case, she was no missionary and she knew perfectly well she hadn't given that Earth a Bridge in order to fulfil the secret plan of some hidden divinity: her goal was to leave.
Now, as she travels over almost vanished roads, through ruined towns and landscapes still bearing the scars of ancient devastation, she soon feels a growing anxiety. Does she detect an increasingly recurrent pattern here? She'd found it more and more problematic to leave the preceding Submerged Earths. This one seems to have regressed even further in the same direction as the last. Not much is known about how the Voyage works, apart from the physical functioning of the Bridge itself up to the moment when the anaesthetized body is cooled to almost absolute zero and disappears from the capsule. But the law, the only sure law, is that the Bridge always provides access to universes that you can leave, one where a Bridge exists (even if not called that), or where it is technologically possible for the Voyager to have one built. There is nothing surprising in this, because it is not the Bridge that propels Voyagers into the various universes but the Voyagers themselves, their psyche, or as believers say, their Matrix. Voyagers may have sent themselves into universes without any means of escape, because they desired it either consciously or unconsciously. It is a statistical certainty, but materially unverifiable, since such Voyagers have never returned to the Centres to confide their experiences to the Archives. She knows she doesn't yearn for that kind of universe; that means there must be a Bridge on this planet or the possibility of one — or its equivalent.
After two weeks of solitary walking, her fears are allayed. She comes to a small city where the remaining inhabitants speak a language closely resembling the Euskade she'd learned on the second Submerged Earth. Without too much difficulty, they agree to provide her with a small automotive vehicle in fairly good shape. The roads improve toward the southeast, they tell her, and she'll have no trouble getting to the big city she's looking for. In the other universes it was called Périndéra, Neva de Rel, Torremolines. In the village by the sea they called it Aomanukéra. Here it is called Baïblanca.
The city is like its predecessors, a constant from one of these universes to another, revealing the stubborn resolve of the city's creators to fashion a place at once functional, comfortable, and aesthetically pleasing. A rather too carefully orchestrated casualness seems to have governed its development. This Baïblanca possesses the same general characteristics and layout as its doubles, with one notable exception: it is almost totally deserted. The parks and gardens have run wild and are invading the streets and squares, a green tide attacking monuments and buildings. She walks the length of the Promenade, the name here for the long, tree-lined esplanade that follows the curve of the clifftop — or what had once been a clifftop. At high tide the water washes over the flagstones, swirling around the benches and trees in small, patient eddies (there is no violence in the sea, it knows it has won). The weather is mild and the sunlight has a pearly quality from the permanent haze masking the sky. A few people in light boots stroll along the Promenade, and a few children too, barefoot and too young to be either blasé — or afraid, laughing with sacrilegious delight at seeing water where it should not be. She contemplates the Promenade's sweep, subtly distorted by the thin layer of water, and already she knows, senses, what the still-functional data banks will tell her: there is no Bridge, nor the equivalent, nor the possibility of a Bridge in Baïblanca.
She doesn't give up at once; she will not, cannot believe this. She consults the data banks, criss-crosses the city interrogating the inhabitants — a nucleus of several thousand diehards clustered in the quarter between the Arts Palace, the Government Complex, and the fortress-hill of the Institute. Whatever its names elsewhere — names meaning "academy" or "university"— the Institute is the real seat of power. Here she finds interested listeners, minds still curious, and a wistful willingness: yes, they understand very well the principle of the machine she describes, and they even dig through the Institute's memory banks to show her another version, equally workable. But to build such a machine...
The problem isn't so much to build it as to reconstitute the technology necessary for making the required materials. Baïblanca has passed the critical point beyond which this is impossible.
She won't, can't believe it. Surely Baïblanca isn't the only large metropolis still in existence! People sigh and pull long faces, but they give her names and maps, and at last supply her with a precious, small airborne vehicle. They wish her good luck, but they are right to be skeptical. After six months, she has to accept the evidence: no one, nowhere, is capable of helping her build a Bridge. If one exists on this Earth, it has been forgotten and all trace of it lost. In a flash, she sees herself as an old Voyager, transformed into an obdurate explorer, a detective, interminably ruffling through tattered documents, following dubious trails in the heart of jungles and ruins, tirelessly interrogating human survivors who have reverted to a primitive state. No. Not her. Another Talitha in another universe, maybe, but not her. She won't chase a phantom for the rest of her life, the mirage of a nonexistent Bridge; she won't pay such a crazy price to avoid despair.
She does despair, although she won't admit it, returning to Baïblanca through what is left of the continent called Numeïde, Eslam, or Basilisso in other worlds, but Africa in this world. She journeys part of the way on the back of a dromedary, an animal no more and no less strange than others in other universe — hump-backed, a long-legged quadruped, its long, arched neck resembling a ship's prow, rolling like a dinghy as it walks. "Ship of the desert," its human owners call it. The name has stuck, despite the fact that the desert is finally disappearing beneath the Sahara Sea, which linked up long ago with the other sea — a sea with no special name anymore, because it is the same everywhere, the same inexorable invader, "the sea." She goes back to Baïblanca, leaving the small airborne vehicle to rust away in the shallow water where she made a forced landing. The Institute scholars are certainly not pleased, but they pity her. They offer her their hospitality, but she feels restless, preferring to explore the city, camping wherever she can, striding tirelessly through the familiar yet strange places (in a city where she had spent three years of her life, not so very long ago, in another universe). She catalogues resemblances and differences, but as usual she notices the resemblances most. Does she actually see them? She records, she moves, tries to tire herself out on rambles so that she will fall into a dreamless sleep at night. She ignores the city's dangers, the wild animals, the solitary and sometimes aggressive humans; these don't compare with the real terror, the instant of inattention when the noise of all this motion fades, and the inner voice is heard again.
I cannot leave, there is no Bridge, I am stuck here! Condemned to live and die here, on this drowning Earth. Is it possible? Is all she knows or thinks she knows about the Bridge and the Voyage false? The Bridge takes you where, consciously or unconsciously, you wish to go, until you have mastered the Voyage, until you know yourself. Then you can go where you please, or return. What she knows or thinks she knows of herself — is that also false? After twenty years of Voyaging, is she unable to understand why she has propelled herself onto this dead-end planet? She is stupefied, furious — and scared to death. So she goes off to yet another quarter of the city, she probes the occasional data banks that still function, learning in bits and pieces the story of this world, this society, this city, not really caring what her Total Recall is recording. The crucial thing is to fill the threatening silence with voices and images, to prevent the horrifying litany from welling up: I cannot leave, there is no Bridge, I am stuck here!
When at last she gives up, she returns to the Institute and settles into one of the residential wings of the fortress-campus. Naturally, some of the Institute members ask her to record her experiences in other universes for the central Infolibrary. There are no machines for abridging the process, but it doesn't matter — telling it helps pass the time. She accesses her Total Recall and listens to it speak. Weeks pass: in the morning she talks, in the afternoon she answers questions raised by her accounts. After that, she aimlessly digs for facts in the Infolibrary or wanders through the inhabited triangle of Baïblanca, taking a detour to the Boardwalk or the Colibri Park. The park is named after tiny, colourful birds, living jewels that gather nectar from the flowers beneath a huge, transparent cupola in the middle of the main lawn. But it isn't the birds that fascinate her: it's the statues.
There are dozens, perhaps hundreds, everywhere — the bodies of men and women, sometimes in graceful poses, sometimes in stances so natural as to seem strange. It was dusk when she first entered the park, and she thought that the whole city had congregated there. Figures stood, sat, lay on the ground, rested against trees, even in trees. And then she realized that all these people were completely naked and motionless. As she came closer, she saw that they were made of stone, or something mineral-like. All of them statues, all of them highly individualized. They had worn clothing once, but it had gradually rotted away. (The Infolibrary provided her with curious pictures of this gradual divestment, showing multitudes of statues with garments in varying stages of disintegration.) But the statues themselves were made of a material impervious to salt air, and yet so delicate in texture, porous, like a honeycomb ... like pumice stone. As she touched it, she had a momentary vision of the park finally submerged beneath the sea, and the statues gradually floating off their benches, or trees, or lawns, drifting with the tides. In reality, however, the stone was very solid, very heavy. The statues would remain anchored to the sea-bottom in the park, and moonfish would replace the tiny birds.
"Oh, the hendemados," says Caëtanes, referring to the statues.
The old biologist's tone sparks her interest. It is an intricate mixture of amused disdain and an undercurrent of resentment (of disgust, of fear?). He says no more, and the Infolibrary is also curiously laconic on the subject. Six hundred years earlier, during the brief period when all was still in a state of equilibrium, when the Earth's civilization had not yet begun to topple toward extinction, scientists and technicians had perfected an artificial organic material with complex properties, capable of imitating life. The artifacts created by biosculptors out of this material had a certain amount of independence that diminished with age — and they aged rapidly. Generally, after about a dozen years, their gradually slowing metabolism produced complete mineralization. For some unfathomable reason, it became fashionable at one point for biosculptors to give their creations a motor tropism that directed them to Colibri Park as life was ending. And there they stopped forever.
The history of biosculpture covers barely a hundred and fifty years. The sources of this science — this art — are obscure. Its origins seem to have been in more or less secret government research immediately after the so-called "Catastrophe" period, the fifty or so years after the first Great Tides. The Infolibrary is very discreet on this point. Nevertheless, various signs clearly indicate to her trained mind that the data bank has been fixed and that the Institute itself has probably lent a hand in this. Old stories of a bygone day that seem to have left fairly conscious traces in the minds of the last survivors... She doesn't realize it at this moment, but after nearly a year the period of mourning has ended. Her old vitality has rekindled itself and she feels the need to act instead of letting the days slip by. This small mystery comes at just the right moment to distract her. It doesn't take long to solve: after six hundred years, the taboos have lost their potency, even among the heirs of the Institute.
Some biosculptors clearly improved on their basic material, to the point where their creations couldn't be distinguished from real human beings. And some biosculptors actually decided that their creatures, their artifacts, were indeed human beings. And why not? They had actually created beings that lived longer than normal humans, and above all, could procreate — something normal humans were doing less often and less well. The Institute had outlawed biosculpture, but it had neither the political power nor, in reality, the necessary conviction to enforce this. The artifacts proliferated. Now, only a few small communities of the original human race remain, and these have become rigid in their isolation. Over the centuries, however, often without knowing it, humans had mated with artifacts. Their halfbreed descendants, the hendemados, and the descendants of mating between artifacts themselves, are slowly, very slowly, repopulating the world... This Earth isn't a dying planet, after all is said and done. It's recovering slowly, very slowly, from a near-fatal illness.
When she's finished putting together the pieces of the puzzle, she is astonished. How could she have thought this planet was dying? She has let herself be hypnotized by ruined cities and the traces of a once-powerful civilization that can still be seen everywhere. Above all, she hasn't really cared whether it was dying or not, since this planet was supposed to be merely a stage in her Voyages. And when she realized she wasn't going to leave again... Now she understands both the cause of her illusion and that this cause no longer exists. She suddenly thinks of the fishing village, of Tilitha who may be her double in this universe. Why not, why not? Going back to her starting point would be a gesture replete with satisfying irony: would it not respect the recurring structure of her latest Voyages? To go back to her starting point: a dead end, the circular motion of starting over. She sees things clearly, now (so easy in retrospect). All those Earths, identical to hers, were telling her the same thing as those other, falsely different planets: the end, immobility, death. The stellar desert in the springtime night of the Shingèns, the certain extinction of some of the K'tu'tinié'go and of those ever more submerged Earths... Of course, there was also Manischë, the planet of fire and ice, its tenacious life balancing on a thread. The heirs of the K'tu'tiniè'go would take up the torch once more, the starless Shingèn night would be succeeded by the constellations of the summer sky. And here, the hendemados...
And just because she, Talitha, will live out her life on this particular Earth does not mean life itself is becoming extinct. Through the huge picture window of the reading room she has a view over the city to the sea, a dull gleam beneath the veiled sun. She can certainly make this sacrifice to her new but useless clairvoyance: since life goes on, at least live where it is going on, and not in condemned Baïblanca. Make one last little voyage, and for once (the first and last time) know where she is going.
February 20: Year One, after all. I've decided to. I. Really, decided? I'm certainly assuming a lot.
When she realized that this time she couldn't leave, the Voyager decided to keep a diary.
Only one sentence, and already a half-lie...
February 23: Welcomed without fanfare by the village. They recognized me and greeted me by name, helped me settle into a small, quickly built hut on the edge of the village. They didn't say much — and always in sign language. I'll soon learn it. Easier to use the first person: I. Because they are observing me — an external perspective that in effect makes me draw into myself, concentrate on myself, unlike my own perspective, which undoes me.
February 26: It seems they've decided to make an exception for me and talk a little, at least for long enough to teach me the sign language. Spoken language is too precious to be wasted in verbalizing the trivia of daily life. (A curious detail: in this language the verb "to talk" seems to have the same derivation as the verb "to voyage.") I'm learning very fast, of course, both the spoken and sign language. It's easy to establish correlations from the crumbs they let fall — after all, I was trained to do it. They seem surprised. Palli Kedia came in person to see how I was getting along. A supposedly fortuitous meeting. I was coming back from my morning walk on the shore. (How quickly one settles into a routine!) She greeted me, we talked for a moment, and I continued on my way, conscious of having passed a test. And now?
March 6: Now it's Tilitha who's keeping an eye on me. Or so I suppose. Our meetings, always on the shore morning or evening, also seem purely accidental. Tilitha is always naked, often wet. Dolphins play in the waves while we talk. They come with her, go with her; she calls them "cousins." She and those like her, the arevags, visit the village regularly, but they don't live there. Their habitat is under water, in the forest of giant kelp covering the drowned cities. Tilitha is the sister of Palli Kedia. The two races can crossbreed. Among the arevags, one child in four — almost always a boy — turns out to be a hendemado and is given by the mother to the village. The same proportion of arevags is born in the village; they are always girls, and they return to the sea, as in Tilitha's case. Both are almost completely amphibious, with the hendemados able to remain under water for long periods, and the arevags able to stay in the open air for over a day without discomfort. Their respective capacities depend on the degree of crossbreeding — scientific details to be recorded in my Total Recall, not in this diary. What I see of this double race, what I experience, is the constant mixing, the opening of one to the other, and the impression that the water's edge isn't a frontier for these people but a door to be opened at will. The reverse of Baïblanca, in a way — Baïblanca on its inundated clifftop, Baïblanca where the tide is looked upon as an almost unholy encroachment of one element on another, because each is conceived of as an opposite. Here, water and earth are clearly distinct, and the two races (despite their ability to crossbreed) are different, if only because the arevags are exclusively female; yet they are open to one another, for better or for worse. (There are quarrels, jealousies, and longings that cause a certain amount of strife, and life, particularly in mixed families, seems fairly agitated. Sign language may not be noisy, but it can be pretty vehement for all that. The other day I witnessed a public outburst that ended in blows and tears.)
By the by, as far as language goes, each race seems to have adopted the habits of the other. The arevags tend to speak aloud when they come to the village, and the villagers communicate with them by signs, as though they were under water. Both, however, have begun to observe a cautious silence toward me, the stranger. Probably they don't quite know what category of human to put me in: suddenly I appeared from nowhere on their beach, and I didn't stay with the original humans (referred to by them simply as "the last ones"). My talks with Tilitha have been fairly brief these last few days. I'm not even sure our meetings are part of a predetermined plan on the part of the two communities. Perhaps it's a purely personal initiative on her part, because of the similarity of our names. This seems to fascinate her. To start with, she didn't ask me where I came from; instead, she explained who she was and where she came from (thereby confirming my theories about the arevags). I tried to do the same, but without much confidence. How was I to make her understand the concept of the Bridge? I drew the universe-tree in the wet sand, showing the ramifications of its branching universes. She listened, nodding, her eyes shining. I wondered what she made of it. Then she asked, "How?" I tried to explain the Bridge, but my description of the machine only aroused a perplexed interest. She came alive, though, when I began to explain how the Voyage worked. The descent to absolute zero, the cold sleep, all motion stopped, and at the heart of this absolute immobility, absolute motion: the spirit, the Matrix, shooting forth, tearing the Voyager's body from its universe to propel it into the merry-go-round of similar universes. "Similar universes?" she echoed, visibly disconcerted. I described the universes where I had met Egons — and Talithas. She meditated this for a while but said nothing. Then, with a sharp fingertip, she drew a closed circle around the tree in the sand. (The arevags don't go defenceless into the depths: they have sheathed claws.) In a few minutes she has grasped what has taken me five years to comprehend: the Voyage comes to an end one day; there is no truly other universe.
"I am Tilitha. You are Talitha," she added aloud, as if to conclude her statement.
That's how I translate it. What she said in her language was, "Ao Tilitha. Ao Talitha." Ao, the human pronoun of both arevags and hendemados, can't be translated otherwise. It's used to introduce oneself to strangers, or talk of oneself or others in important discussions — when it is felt the speaker is not the individual woman or man, but the person, a concept transcending gender. I asked her about the origin of this so-called human pronoun. It was a long story, Tilitha said with a smile, getting up. Hadn't we time, I asked? She shook her head. "Tomorrow." She slid into the water without leaving a ripple, and went to join her dolphins.
March 11: Of course, it's a lot more complicated than I thought. Ao, the human pronoun, implies active virtuality. There is another, O, related to passive virtuality. Tilitha explained this to me (or thought she was explaining it, while plunging me into even greater darkness) by recounting a legend. It was the story of creatures who attained the state of wholeness in the real world. (Androgynes? Or beings capable of changing their sex at will? It wasn't clear.) These creatures went away from the Earth but left their seeds behind to divide and redivide, spreading until their effectiveness has been completely lost. The only surviving traces are in language, among others this active-virtual pronoun. But what about the passive-virtual pronoun O? No, no, that pronoun came from before, said Tilitha by way of correction, as though it were obvious. Not obvious to me, though, as she realized; she decided to go back to the Flood for my edification, that is, to Creation.
The first woman is called Manu, and she has two mothers. The Uncreated Mother, Taïke, whom she meets during her wanderings and who gives her Earth and Time — in other words, Death, without which no life is possible. And another, the Created Mother, who gives Manu the Sea and Life, and who is named Tilith (after whom girls are often called Tilitha). Tilith entrusts Manu with a mission: find the land-beneath-the-sea and the first arevags who have been lost there in the limbo of eternity (are they immortal?). Manu finds them, and in some obscure way — since the original arevags are all females, too — gives birth to the first hendemados.
Manu must be the third woman then, not the first, I said to Tilitha. Yes and no, she answered (with confidence, not with the hesitation such a reply would express if I had made it). Manu was the first real woman; Tilith was the first virtual woman. And Taïke? Taïke came from the world in an earlier state, not chaos, but "the mirror-world."
I pleaded for clarification, and Tilitha tried to supply it. In the mirror-world, the passive-virtual beings (o ikeï she said) reproduced by union with their reflection. But one day, three of these beings had union among themselves, abandoning their reflections and creating Tilith, the first being who wasn't a copy. In this same momentum the three reflections, left to themselves, fused to produce Taïke, called "the Uncreated" because in a sense she gave birth to herself. But Taïke was too heavy for the insubstantial material of the virtual world; she tore a great hole and fell through. Her fall created the Earth. Tilith also was too real for the virtual world. The reflections turned to water wherever she went, and all this water flowed with Tilith toward the tear and spilled onto the Earth. And Tilith's fall created the Sea. The meeting of Tilith and Taïke gave birth to Manu in the real world created by both.
I asked Tilitha what happened to the beings of the virtual world once their reflections had spilled away, and her reply at last made it clear how she had been able to grasp my explanations about universes so readily. They still exist, she said. Without Tilith, the reflections grew again, and at this very moment Creation is reenacting itself in innumerable places and innumerable ways. The world in which we now live is merely a sort of local precipitation around the original seed created by Tilith and Taïke. There are many others, elsewhere.
March 15: As usual, a morning walk along the shore. And as usual, on the smooth sand left by the tide, the children are drawing the spiral of their morning hopscotch, the one narrowing toward the centre. This spiral retraces the adventures of Manu, and each segment must be approached in a certain way, accompanied by the little song I heard when I first awoke on this planet. It's a kind of dance, with the stances and the song complementing each other in recounting the adventures of the Third Mother, from her birth (first segment) to the birth of the first hendemados. The evening hopscotch tells of the creation of the world, the birth of Tilith and Taïke in the mirror-world, their fall, and (in the last and largest segment) the birth of Manu.
The whole game is highly ritualistic and the song resembles the chanting of a psalm. The players sing the whole thing in unison, adding a verse at each segment. The one standing on a segment must stay perfectly still all this time, holding the required posture for that segment and the story, only picking up the marker on the last syllable of the verse. Once one has hopped onto the same segment as the marker, one closes one’s eyes. This gives the other players a chance to exchange a sign fixing the speed at which they will chant. It may catch the player unawares, especially if one hasn't a clear idea of where the marker was lying. One has to pick it up without opening one’e eyes. If fumbling the first try or stumbling, then one must wait until the next turn to try for the same segment. I'm a little surprised at the age of the players, though, considering the kind of game it is. They range from five to fifteen years, of both sexes, arevags and hendemados — but fifteen is the cutoff mark. This is also the age when the young hendemados stop using speech as their main form of communication, and adopt the adult mode, three-quarters of which involves gestures.
I've been living in Terueli (the name of the village) for nearly a month now, and I'm still under observation. When I ask questions, people often reply with the head movement that means "tomorrow." Even Tilitha, whose open curiosity about me is an exception, often makes it clear that a particular question is premature. With the help of my Total Recall I can make all the correlations and hypotheses I like, but they're worthless if I can't verify them. (I'm forever noticing that the information in Total Recall isn't knowledge; like wisdom, knowledge isn't merely a matter of storing data.)
In any case, these people are not at all primitive, although they live simply. In a world where previous civilizations have plundered most of the primary materials, they make very clever use of what can be salvaged from the waste still surrounding them. Not so much at Terueli, which is mainly a fishing village — but the hendemados of the interior trade regularly with the coastal communities and even with some cities where the original humans are on the point of extinction. They have very sensibly adapted their way of life to the possibilities in their changed environment. But how do they really see themselves? Do they know that arevags and hendemados were artificially created by the original humans only six hundred years ago? It's tempting to link Tilitha's myth with my findings in Baïblanca.... But then I remember the K'tu'tinié'go and their indulgent smile. Such a reductionist interpretation would still tell me nothing about how the myth nurtures their individual and collective lives. Tilitha had no hesitation about telling it: for her, it is a familiar story with no sense of secrecy or taboo. She even seemed to regard it with a sort of amused detachment. But how representative is she of her culture, I wonder? Physically, she's more of a hendemado than an arevag, and yet she's chosen to live under the water. And although she has a male companion in the village (and a female one beneath the sea, as is often the case), she has never had children, which is very unusual. It accentuates our resemblance. Some women Voyagers are compulsive about bearing a child in each of the universes where their desire takes them — something I could never understand. Or accept. And the ones to whom I sometimes talked never understood my quest for a totally different universe. But there was no acrimony in our disagreement: the Voyage is too personal, too solitary an adventure for us to judge each other. But they no doubt found what they were looking for, whereas I...
March 22: Was it a dream? If so, I certainly can't shake it off. It has some secret meaning that I want to — that I must — make clear to myself.
Yesterday was the spring equinox. The villagers had a festival. They cleaned and redecorated their boats and houses. Delicious smells wafted through the village all that day and the day before, heralding the dishes for the coming feast. The young adults went out with the ebbing tide, and the boats came back with the rising tide, bearing the little hendemados born beneath the sea. These children will live in the village from now on. The little arevags born in the village will leave at the autumn equinox. There was dancing, music and singing competitions, and the two communities competed in trials of strength and skill on land and in the water. At nightfall we had the feast. I hadn't been officially invited, but then I've been welcomed with good will and friendliness at all festivities. I assumed an invitation was considered superfluous, since I was now sufficiently part of the village. As the night wore on, however, I became uncomfortable amid the increasingly erotic intimacy. All at once I felt terribly alone, and the black thoughts that had been temporarily pushed aside came flooding back. I'm here forever, I'll never leave... I set about serious drinking, both amused and disgusted at my childish behaviour. Disgust got the upper hand in the end, and I walked away from the merrymakers, not wishing to inflict my maudlin drunkenness on my hosts. I collapsed in the shadows of the beach, drifting in the slow whirlpool of second-stage inebriation as I lay between the heaving beach and the reeling, starstudded sky. I closed my eyes and fell asleep. And dreamed. I think.
I am on the beach where the feast was held. All trace of the festivities has disappeared, leaving only villagers and arevags seated side by side, forming a continuous line in the shape of a spiral. At the heart of the spiral, motionless and with eyes closed, lies Pilki, a fairly old hendemado. I've been tempted to think of him as the village priest, because people often consult him on a variety of problems. ("Oh, no," Tilitha said, "he's merely the father of a lot of children.") He doesn't move, nor do the arevags and hendemados, and yet something is moving. It's the song. It spirals slowly, swelling as each voice picks it up and adds a syllable. The song is a single word that lengthens as it passes from mouth to mouth... and suddenly begins to diminish, one syllable at a time, as it coils around the old man. I see it, I see it as though each syllable were a round box larger than the one before, growing until a threshold is reached, a limit beyond which the movement turns back on itself and each syllable folds into the preceding one until the word returns to its original state. Only to unfurl once more, from beginning to end, and from end to beginning—and no, they aren't boxes but rings springing successively out of their predecessors and being successively swallowed up by them, and the rings are a word, the word of the universe: it governs the ebb and flow of the tides, the elliptic path of the planet around the sun, and the sun's trajectory in the embrace of the galaxy; while the galaxy, dancing in the universe, whispers the same word passed back from sun to planet to tide, carried on the swirling winds and the curling buds, and from there into human bodies and jostling molecules of matter, minuscule galaxies of infinite coils.... The spiral of sound furls and unfurls, and at the end of this eternity of motionless movement no one is left at the centre of the coil. Pilki has disappeared.
I awoke in my hut — someone had carried me back. It was past noon. I had a dreadful hangover and didn't get up. The villagers have better heads for their sparkling wine than I, and went about their daily business. In the evening one of Palli Kedia's sons brought me something to eat (leftovers from the feast will probably feed the village for several days). He is a tall, handsome boy named Lekin: the only sign of the arevag strain is his very light, vaguely iridescent skin. I made a joke of asking him if he'd brought me home last night. There was just the slightest hesitation, then he said "Til," sketching the sign for arevag. Tilitha had brought me back.
March 23: Pilki is no longer in the village. When I awoke this morning, I had such a vivid memory of the night on the beach (although I don't think I'd been dreaming again) that I went to Pilki's house. I had some idea of asking him about the meaning of my dream. He's no longer there. He has left, someone informed me in sign language. No one in his household seemed particularly upset except for Lollia, one of his granddaughters. Her eyes were red, as through from crying, but perhaps there's no connection. I went down to the beach. The children were playing hopscotch. I viewed the game differently now, and I asked them why they are always playing it, and why only at sunrise and sunset. To begin and end the day properly, they replied. Is it a game? A prayer? A training for the ritual I witnessed (maybe) the night of the festival? Or why not all of these together?
Tilitha was in her usual place, not far from the children. I expected some banter about the other night to reassure me it was all a drunken dream. But she said nothing. She was playing with one of those large shells sometimes washed in by the waves — a nautilus. After the brief moment of shared silence that is our greeting, I asked her where Pilki was. She turned the shell over and over, not answering, the delicate membranes between her fingers stretching and shrinking like a pulse-beat.
"When I was little," she said dreamily, as though not hearing my question, "I used to wonder what happened to the animal in this shell when it died. I thought it must get smaller and smaller as it went further and further into the shell, until one day it disappeared."
She handed me the shell. Its surface had been broken by the scouring sea or by the creature's predator. I could see the inner passages of the nautilus, the delicate, opalescent helix coiling around the transversal cone. I dropped the shell, annoyed by her apparent evasiveness. Was Pilki dead? Tilitha picked up the shell and blew off the sand.
"No, Pilki has left. He is elsewhere. As you are elsewhere here — more than you are elsewhere here. But he can never come back."
More than I was elsewhere here? Tilitha's forefinger, the tip of its claw just showing, traced the shell's spiral from the wide end to its apex. I tried to talk about my dream, but she held out the shell again.
"There is a tale. After Taïke fell from the mirror-world she was very lonely. She hadn't yet met Tilith. One day she found this shell on the beach and picked it up. It reminded her of her longed-for mirror-world. She lifted it to her ear and heard the word of the universe."
What had that to do with my dream?
Tilitha placed the shell in my hand with gentle authority. "Your dream," she said.
In exasperation I threw the shell far out into the waves where Tilitha's cousins were dancing. She shook her head and slid into the sea.
My dream. The nautilus. The spiral-song, the helix. Pilki's disappearance. I waited for the spark that would set all these data alight, but nothing came. Back in the village I tried to question the villagers — not openly, of course: if there's one thing I've learned, it is that this subject is really taboo, since even Tilitha couldn't answer me directly. My deviousness got me nowhere. People pretended not to understand, remarking with veiled amusement that things had got pretty hot at the festival. So here I am with my diary, alone beneath the great wheel of the stars. Tilitha hasn't come out of the sea to watch the sunset, or the daylight sky closing like a mother-of-pearl fan as night draws in. The sand beneath my feet is dotted with little rolling shells. Shells. Rolling. The wheel of the stars. The word of the universe. Taïke's mirror-world. My dream. The thread of words that coil and uncoil. A slow turning, more and more resonant, more and more...
motionless movement, resonant and deep, like
that sensation of motionless movement by which,
when the interior and exterior change places just before
the moment when the cold when
the imperceptible irresistible coiling when the cold
eyes closed the cold when breathing slows when
the breathing slows when
the vibrating thread of consciousness when all must stop
then the motionless and profound movement of the Voyage through
the Bridge, the Bridge!
But how do they do it — how would they do it? Suspended animation? Induced trance? I've never encountered anything like it before. The Voyage without the Bridge. Never, anywhere... How is it possible? I'd have to know more about the metabolism of hendemados and arevags. (Return to Baïblanca?) Heaven knows what those biosculptors invented six hundred years ago. Maybe they didn't even know themselves, or perhaps evolution has continued to shape their creatures in forms they never even imagined...
No, it's not possible. A Voyage without a Bridge, a one-way, uncontrollable Voyage — it's death, Tilitha must have been talking about death. And yet she did say, "He is elsewhere, as you are elsewhere here — more than you are elsewhere here." But if this is a Voyage, how do they know it? Have those kinds of Voyagers arrived here? And yet she was so quick to understand my explanations, the universes, my Voyage...
No, it's a dream, it must be a dream, because I've hunted through my Total Recall and there's nothing... but Total Recall records dreams too, so why would this one be so nebulous?
March 23, later: Tilitha again answered (but is it an answer?) that Pilki is elsewhere and that he won't come back. (She's so serene. I wonder why?) So I really did see something that night and it wasn't just a dream? Pilki has gone on a Voyage? Have visitors come here the same way Pilki has arrived elsewhere? No. Well, how does she know he's elsewhere, in that case?
"Before you came among us," she said finally, "we didn't know, we weren't sure. Now we know why no one ever came back. Pilki is elsewhere. And he's not Pilki any more."
"If he's no longer Pilki, then he's dead!"
"Yes and no," she answered, always with that disconcerting assurance. "If he were still Pilki, he couldn't really be elsewhere. That's the price you have to pay."
Suddenly she seemed so strange in the pearly dawn light, such a stranger with her incomprehensible certainties, so totally, terribly, alien... I felt we could talk all day long, all our lives long, and I wouldn't even begin to understand. She's there, so close to me that I can touch her, but she seems to be... in another universe. And yet I'm the one who is the Voyager. Who was the Voyager.
Who could become a Voyager once more. Total Recall doesn't tell me anything about what happens between the moment I lose consciousness in the Bridge's capsule and the moment I wake on another planet. Suppose I were in the middle of the circle, in the middle of the universe-word like Pilki, perhaps I wouldn't remember anything when I awoke elsewhere. Really elsewhere?
"If it really is elsewhere, you can't tell. Look," Tilitha said, pointing to her dolphins leaping out of the sea at some distance from the shore. Their blue-black bodies glistened as they described perfect arcs in the air. "We are able to come on land and remain the same, just as our land sisters and brothers can go under water, but the dolphins... the dolphins can't fly. They're not made to fly. If they stayed in the air they'd no longer be dolphins. That would be the price they'd pay for becoming birds, for being truly elsewhere, don't you see?"
March 29: Pilki isn't dead, but he's no longer Pilki. In order to go elsewhere, truly elsewhere, he has become totally other. I understand. A transformation over which no control is possible, an irreversible metamorphosis, a Voyage from which you can't come back. A Voyage with no control, ever. I can grasp the concept intellectually, but my whole past life, all my conditioning as a Voyager, refuses to accept it. Yet what if this is the price of breaking out of the circle, of going truly elsewhere?
It's odd. All these years I spent leaping from one universe to another in search of something I wouldn't recognize, and I never once asked myself how I'd know it, how I'd identify the other universe-tree. How can anyone recognize absolute otherness? Can it even be perceived? When I thought about it, I naively told myself it would be a kind of illumination, that I'd know. It never occurred to me that it must be a one-way illumination, changing you irremediably, tearing you from yourself. How can you know the absolute-other if you carry your own reflection around with you everywhere? You can't simply recognize. You have to be other, no longer yourself... Impossible not to think "cease to be." (Tilith—between the world and its reflections, unable to stay in the universe where she was born, flowing out of it and, as she fell, creating another universe.) The price to pay. I never thought there'd be a price to pay: giving up control, giving up certainty — giving up oneself. A gamble. To get to the edge of the spiral, to the last syllable of the universe-word, and leap.
The law of the Voyage is still valid, though. I have indeed sent myself into a universe where a Bridge exists. A kind of Bridge. A Bridge you burn as you cross it. And of course none of those Voyagers has come back to describe other universe-trees. Even if they could, their truth would be incommunicable. Is that really what I was looking for, an incommunicable truth? No, I wanted to come back and tell the story, and that's still what I want. But I can't have it both ways. If I go, I become other. If I come back, if I become myself once more, I'll be unable to describe the otherness. Either way there's a price to pay.
But I did send myself here, where choice is possible. Go. Stay. Just as it was twenty years ago when I became a Voyager. But that wasn't really a question of choice: I'd already decided by coming to the Centre and undergoing the operations and training. I didn't leave right away became of Egon, because I wasn't sure he didn't love me... And in the end I left without being sure, on an impulse. That wasn't a real choice.
Go. Stay. If I leave, will it be out of defiance? If I stay, will it be out of fear? I don't know — I just don't know.
Tilitha felt the call of the dolphins' dance. She got up, and I automatically did the same, following her to the water's edge. The tide had washed the nautilus ashore again. A different nautilus, though, with a perfect shell. Tilitha nudged it with her foot, smiling, and I picked it up. I shook out the sand and water. They came in spurts, first passing from one chamber to another, sliding along the intricate coils of the inner surfaces. The chambered nautilus is an amazing shell: the volume enclosed by its internal surfaces is greater than the volume enclosed by its outer surface. There is more space inside the nautilus than its outer shell occupies.
"For us," Tilitha suddenly said, "the world, our world, is a nautilus. It takes a long, long time to explore its entire space, and rarely, very rarely, do we ever reach the end. Pilki thought he had reached it. Do you think you've reached it, Ao Talitha?”
Not knowing how to answer, I put the same question to her. She smiled. Long ago, when she was younger, she thought so. She retreated beneath the waves to meditate for a protracted period, after which she took a long journey through the sea, far from the kelp forest where the arevags live, and far from the coast as well. She visited the lands-beneath-the-sea, the drowned countries, their monuments, their cities, their mountains. On the way back she went to Aomanukera (the-city-of-Manu, as they call Baïblanca). And she decided she wasn't ready to go elsewhere.
"For me, elsewhere is here, with my companions in the village, my sisters and cousins beneath the sea. So many things to learn, always. And you, Ao Talitha, do you think you've learned everything?" she asked, gently insistent. "Do you believe you've come to the end of this world?"
To the end. The end of this world? Know everything about this world? No, of course not. Never. You are right, alien from the sea who bears a name so close to mine, you are right, Ao Tilitha. I don't know, I won't know, not for a long time. Not before I die, perhaps.
Is there more space within than without?