Written by Teresa P. Mira de Echeverría and translated by Lawrence Schimel. Read the original in Spanish.
So long as they remained inside, they would exist.
From Vasilyevsky Island (above the park located right in front of the Naval Museum and between the two rostral columns that marked the Neva's bifurcation), the Terpsichore's static motors deafened all of St. Petersburg. The city was ready for its beloved daughter to make the first nonmotile journey in history: the ship, which would never leave the city, would traverse half the galaxy.
The sound had become a background hum and nobody noticed it any longer. Or perhaps it wasn't a sound but instead a vibration, like the deepest tone of a double bass, felt by the skin more than the ears.
The Terpsichore's nondeparture (or more precisely that of the Svekla—“the beetroot”—which is how the crew and the people had rebaptized the immense maroon-pink laminated bulk) was part of the White Nights festivals. In reality, it would be the culmination of some celebrations that had attracted even more tourists than usual. The attendees of ballet performances at theaters, plazas, and even breakwaters were now joined by curiosity seekers who'd come to observe . . . the unobservable.
Meanwhile, Captain Stephana Yurievna Levitanova fruitlessly went over the data that the Academy and the Svekla itself had already calculated and recalculated millions of times before her, and with greater precision. Unconsciously, she ran her hand over her uniform's shining new insignia. Her rank confused her. Now she was a captain without tasks to supervise nor a crew to lead; and later she'd probably be just another captain among dozens of others with the same rank. Why not simply keep her position of engineer? Why give her this useless leadership commission?
"What use is it to try and understand bureaucracy?" she asked herself aloud; and the question, although whispered, echoed like a shout through the enormous command bridge.
A laugh, short and muted, sounded behind her.
Stephana couldn't help feeling a chill. After all, traveling with a corpse wasn't exactly common.
Her edginess became visible as she clenched her fists and a rictus made her smooth jaw go numb. From the beginning, the uneasiness that came with any test flight had been increased by the ominous presence of Piotr, constantly at her side like a shadow. He was the ship's personification, its interface with the captain, the visible manifestation of the Svekla, or however to call that adolescent who stood nearly two meters tall: an adolescent who had died too long ago and who now loaned his body, his senses, his vocal cords, and his personal individuality so that the incredible complexity of the Terpsichore's multiple processors could interact with Captain Levitanova as a single consciousness, and not be just an incomprehensible tangle of artificial intelligences.
Right now the hooded figure was behind her. A silent giant, whose face was never visible, who only breathed when he needed to speak, so rare an occurrence they could be counted on her fingers.
If she looked into the upper monitors, she'd see herself reflected in them and, in the background, framing her, the enormous figure of the ship's prosopon: a body sheathed in a grey uniform and a hood of the same color with a black gap in its center.
The imprecise whitish light of the solstitial sun that never set snuck in from the monitor that showed the Neva's banks. That light that was neither diurnal nor nocturnal and seemed to slide off Piotr's ashy uniform to be swallowed up by the dark maroon color of her own.
Supposedly, the same technology that made the Svelka function kept Piotr with a sort of life that animated him. The boy was a kind of Schrödinger's cat who would always remain animate so long as he never left the undifferentiated space of the ship. Within the Terpsichore, he would be alive and dead at the same time, and it was in that state that he had been possessed by the ship's AIs almost half a century ago. A state that could be prolonged eternally.
Apparently, the name "Piotr" was the only thing he retained of his previous existence. Supposedly his family had donated the body to science and he no longer retained any self-consciousness. But, ever since her recruitment for the mission three years earlier, Stephana had had the ongoing impression that she was in the presence of something more than just a phenomenal expression of the ship's intelligent software: she stood before a person. A disturbing and unpredictable person.
"Today's the day, Piotr," she whispered to him, with all the sweetness she could muster, trying to hide, as always, the mixture of curiosity and terror the prosopon, the ship's mask-personification, provoked in her.
The nature of the undifferentiated space altered the quality of the sound, and her declaration echoed across the command bridge three times: like a living song, like a sad murmur, and like a heartrending shout from the very entrails of the Earth.
When Piotr spoke, that never happened: his voice was unique and had the precise inflection desired by him . . . or by the Terpsichore . . . the captain wasn't sure which. Stephana knew that he was going to speak because he breathed in a few times before doing so, sending air through his old, dead vocal cords.
Then the voice emerged, hoarse but strangely beautiful. Virile. Attractive. As attractive as an abyss.
"I hope we can fulfill the mission without turning into borscht in the attempt."
The captain couldn't help laughing at the joke and a discordant series of superimposed sounds reverberated through the vast chamber.
She could only know if Piotr was happy or not through some almost nonexistent body language clues or from the inflections of his voice. Without a face to observe, it was very difficult to know what he was thinking. But Stephana had developed a sort of empathic intuition that made her recognize almost instantaneously all of the prosopon's changes of humor. And those certainly existed.
She, for her part, was the complete opposite. Every slightest shift in her mood could be read on her face like an open book. A book whose cover was lovely (a smooth and ovoid face with a straight nose, a generous mouth, and green eyes beneath waves of honey-colored hair) and whose contents were more than merely interesting.
Stephana stepped back a few paces, pulling away from the console, and Piotr did the same at the exact same time, as if he could anticipate her moves or as if they both were part of some extravagant ballet.
How much had they come to know one another in these three years? Captain Levitanova wondered. She was still as much on tenterhooks with the prosopon as on the first day she had met him, but she wasn't sure if the same were true for him and his understanding of her. And that made perfect sense because, if the calculations were correct, Piotr-Terpsichore should contain as much of Stephana's knowledge as was possible.
"I am transparent for him," she thought. "And for me, he is an almost-impenetrable compact block of opacity."
She had often felt naked in the most intimate way before the prosopon. She had had to tell him her entire life but, above all, she'd had to disclose to him what no CV could include: her hesitations over the course of her existence, her doubts, moments of anxiety, lost illusions, unfulfilled dreams, old projects, adolescent fantasies, each and every one of the things and circumstances she had ever come to desire. Because Piotr wasn't interested so much in what Stephana was but in what she could have been, the lost variants of her existence, the discarded possibilities in her life choices.
That was Piotr's specific role: to collect that data and feed the Terpsichore's multiple-calculation systems (all its artificial intelligences) with those calculations, with the aim of being able to travel through the cosmos without taking a single step outside of St. Petersburg.
"Piotr, do you think I made the best choices?" It wasn't the first time the captain questioned the prosopon in this way. "Do you really think that this is the best of my possible lives?"
But, this time, Piotr answered. And the answer was a short and precise sound, without the slightest emotion: "No."
Stephana spun on her heels, feeling confused, hurt, wounded. She turned to face the Svekla's manifestation, her green eyes boring into the well of shadows beneath its hood.
"Why?" she asked in a tiny voice that was still audible in various different tones as it echoed in the immensities of the command bridge.
"Because such a thing doesn't exist."
The tone of Piotr's answer was almost sweet.
Captain Levitanova nodded in silence and let a sigh escape as she lowered her head.
"That's true, I guess there’s no such thing as ‘the best life.’"
She slowly moved away from the console that barely took up an infinitesimal portion of the enormous cabin, and headed toward the elevator.
Then, Piotr's breathing surprised her from behind, very close to her neck.
"No, Stephana," he murmured, at last. "What doesn't exist is your life."
Strictly speaking, the Terpischore was already traveling. And it had been doing so ever since it was built and sealed.
And, for that reason, Piotr was also traveling.
What remained was for Stephana to do so.
The Svekla was not so much a ship as a quantum impulsion platform. Its goal lay in unfolding the human being it carried until said being coincided with its own multiple essence; an essence existing here and there at the same time, that is to say, both at the point of departure and that of arrival. Or more precisely, the points of arrival.
Every artificial intelligence that made up the ship's parallel software was, in reality, the same processing center in different situations, in different places. The magic of the subatomic physics that maintained it lay in these situations being not successive but simultaneous. The ship's computer literally split itself before every option, before every possible path that opened in front of it, and thereby traveled down every possible bifurcation at the same time.
The only thing missing was for this same thing to happen to the experimental subject of the journey: to Captain Levitanova, the first human being ever to embark on a static journey.
Stephana emerged from the elevator and entered the machine room. A wave of sensations spread through her. It felt like static electricity.
It was a crystal labyrinth. Layer after layer of semitransparent walls reflecting each other; successive strata of runways and ramps that extended into the air like horizontal blades of ice. The play of reflections and glimmerings and transparencies provoked a familiar dizziness in Stephana.
Before she could take the first step toward the crystalline passageways, Piotr held her hand just as he had always done. Only he could guide her through the actual paths. If he had not done so, she would surely have fallen into one of the many energy vortices that swirled between the different pathways, both the real as well as the possible.
The machine room was the only place where the prosopon preceded the captain. After all, it was not so much an engine as a computer. Piotr's externalized brain. His domains, in the fullest sense of the word.
Captain Levitanova was as awed as ever, faced with that gigantic crystalline passageway. As an engineer, she was familiar with the unusual logic of that place, but as a human being she felt totally overwhelmed by it.
Of course, the Svekla's size had a lot to do with this. The Terpsichore was designed to house hundreds of humans, hundreds of possible captains, hundreds of possible variations of its lone crew member. That's why it was so big.
But there was also something more that disconcerted her. It was the idea of breaking the limits of the factual universe she had always found herself in, of delving into other possible universes, of encountering what she herself might have been.
In this case, though, since it was the first test voyage, the idea was to not surpass ten variant bifurcations. This was a precautionary measure with regard to the navigation, based on the mechanics of neutrinos, but above all it was a safety measure to try and reduce to a minimum the possible psychic or even physical damage that could be caused to the human subject . . . to Stephana.
"Don't worry, I will remember you all the time. I have seen your co-possibles. I have chosen them myself. Trust me."
That's what Piotr had whispered in her ear just before the motors stopped pounding and subsided into a lugubrious silence—precisely at the moment when the possibility of not-traveling became real for her, and she began to travel.
The first Captain Levitanova who appeared in one of the passages, three levels below her, raised an arm and greeted her energetically.
As she approached through the now-physical passageways, Piotr whispered in her ear, almost resting his invisible chin on her shoulder, "Captain Soledad Yurievna Levitanova. She's going to a specific region of the Perseus Arm of the galaxy. Her code name is Wolf."
Yes, I understand, Stephana thought. She remembered the old family story. Of how the only grandmother of her single-parent family had wanted her to be given that name, while her father had roundly refused. Her father was an energetic man, firm and very superstitious about words. Why had he agreed to give her that name he had so detested? What variants had taken place in the personality of Colonel Yuri Illich Levitan in that alternate reality to which this version of herself belonged?
A wave of warmth caressed her memory when she remembered the walks her father took her on as a child. Her favorites, by far, were the excursions to the Peterhof Palace: the fountains, the palaces, the gardens, and above all, the enormous artificial waterfall over the canal . . . And beyond it, the Finnish coast which, to the eyes of a five-year-old girl, seemed as mysterious and radiant as another planet. And ever since then she had dreamed of other worlds.
Stephana felt a twinge of resentment toward this woman, identical to her in almost everything, who would travel to the other edge of the Milky Way. To a certain degree she envied all her alter egos. After all, the key to the return, the anchor that tied the Terpsichore to St. Petersburg (to her St. Petersburg) lay in herself. The "here" of the ship also contained the possibility of not-traveling, and that role belonged to Stephana. Therefore, essentially, when she looked "through the window" (which was how the external reconnaissance screen was called) she would only see her beloved St. Petersburg, whereas each of the others would see a different place in the galaxy matching their calculated possible destinations.
That was the other enchantment that made this journey possible. They didn't need real engines, nor even true machinery—the very calculations for the possibility of travel to a place with specific theoretical means and possession of the necessary elements . . . were enough to do so.
"Remember," Piotr whispered in her ear, "from now on you're Salmon. Don't forget, that will be your way of retaining your identity."
The one who returns to where they started from, she thought. And she nodded silently while she watched as a copy of herself approaching, someone identical in everything excerpt except her hair, which was a little darker, and an expression that looked slightly more determined.
That must be enough for you, Salmon-Stephana, she told herself. Only you will return home because you'll never get out of here; none of the others will manage it, that was the most efficient design. Remember, you are the one who will return, not them.
Shaking the steady hand her other self extended to her, she almost felt pity for her. Wolf would see places that no one had ever seen, but she would remain there and her memories would be passed on to the only version able to return: to Salmon, herself.
"In my reality, Papa married Major Dmitri Dmitrovic Griboyedin. Both were decorated with honors as heroes during the Great Event. My childhood was short, but lovely."
Stephana—Salmon-Stephana—listened attentively to the story told by Panther-Stephana. This version of herself (happy, uninhibited, and much blonder) was missing her left eye (lost when she was a teenager during what she called a "not exactly orthodox" fencing practice) and in its place an enormous and ostentatious diamond sparkled. The jewel had belonged to the Kremlin's Diamond Collection and was a gift from her fatherland for services she had rendered during the events following the Great Event, known as the Brief Return. Events which none of the other versions of herself had ever heard of and which Panther-Stephana didn't wish to elucidate on for their being "too cruel."
Salmon-Stephana, just like the immense majority of the nine co-possibles who now inhabited the Svekla, had always known that her father was bisexual (something perfectly normal for his family); what she had been unaware of were the feelings he had harbored for his comrade-in-arms, which in her own reality he had kept hidden. She now felt she knew her father a little better. No, in reality, she felt she knew him even less. But, how much were the fathers of these other "selves" her own father?
She began to look at her co-possibles one by one. All of them were seated around the large meeting table, waiting for the precise moment to be able to arrive at the places where the Terpsichore already was.
By her side was Wolf-Soledad. Calm, sure, unhesitating. In the few hours they had been together, she tended to act as a guide. Behind her, like a giant's decapitated carcass, stretched the cybernetic combat armor that followed her like a faithful hound. The terrible sword, over two meters of blued steel, glittered at each of its many nicks and notches.
Beyond her, Panther-Stephana continued speaking, revealing data and personal feelings that were completely unknown to Salmon-Stephana.
Next was Lizard-Stephana. This "other self" wore the most extravagant uniform: a metallic second skin, reddish-orange in color, with a Phrygian cap and a line of dorsal plates with spines of that same material. Her wrist and elbow guards were covered with what might well have been plugs. Her eyes, which always appeared to be looking into other worlds, were constantly surprised by the images they captured of what surrounded her. She seemed to be submerged in a perpetual dream. Salmon-Stephana suspected it was something to do with the uniform. Drugs? Direct mental stimulation? Augmented reality? She didn't know.
On the other side of the ovoid glass table, right in front of her, was the co-possible who most unsettled her; the one Piotr had named Serpent-Stephana. The most stunning of all the co-possibles, she seemed to want to seduce everyone. It was difficult to follow her ruminations, which flowed along strange meanderings of thought. More than a discursive thread, she seemed to hold a single idea that mutated constantly. There was arrogance in her posture, but it was as if it flowed naturally from her. She had arrived at the Svekla enveloped in a voluminous but elegant white and gold extravehicular suit, but now wore only the lower part. Serpent-Stephana wouldn't stop staring into her eyes, without blinking, a halo of red curls framing her features and falling over her naked torso. Was she flirting with her? Or simply playing with her mind? When Salmon-Stephana prepared to look at her next alter ego, she noted the slight movement of her lips forming a barely perceptible kiss followed by that haughty smile.
Swan-Dzhessika had observed everything and now smiled. She seemed a graceful creature, refined and extremely timid. Her hair was straightened and dyed jet-black. When she realized she was being looked at, she blushed and lowered her head. How had she reached her position with such a shy nature? The only two times she had managed to speak without faltering, Serpent-Stephana had mocked her for being "too idealistic," and yet she was always to be found beside her. A remora latching on to power, perhaps? Or had the swan succumbed to the serpent's deadly seduction?
On the other side of the table's pronounced curve was the most startling version of herself that she had seen: Eagle-Dmitri. This co-possible was male and she didn't know if he had been born that way or had chosen that gender. What was certain was that he had barely spoken, but he watched everything so carefully and methodically that she had begun to wonder if he didn't belong to some intelligence agency. However, he had presented himself as a shaman, a “person who knows.” Serpent-Stephana had immediately made an ironic comment concerning the possibility of needing shamanic skills on a scientific expedition, but Eagle-Dmitri explained it as something perfectly plausible, something which oddly enough Wolf-Soledad concurred with.
Finally, far from the table and wrapped up in an anxious conversation were Whale-Dzhessika and Ant-Dzhessika. The first hummed her words between strident laughs and odd rattling movements. The second nodded and opined with long monotonous sentences. Salmon-Stephana thought she understood why Piotr had given them those code names. Whale-Dzhessika, even wrapped in her iridescent extravehicular suit with its glass helm, was a sort of collective memory (her ability to remember was too powerful to not be the product of some artificial implant in her brain) but an exogenous one, as if her particular reality didn't share an atmosphere or an historic unity with the rest of the co-possibles. For her part, Ant-Dzhessika had been the engineer commissioned to construct the Terpischore in her reality; so Salmon-Stephana was completely sure that, knowing the mechanics of the ship as she must, it was impossible for her to be unaware that only one of the nine would return home. And nonetheless, the face of this variant was totally serene, accepting, warm. She faced self-sacrifice as an individual in the service of the collective: almost impersonal patience and efficiency, wrapped in a blood-red strength-augmentation suit, her head shaved with an enormous logo tattooed at the crown of her skull.
She tried to take in all eight co-possibles in a single glance . . . all nine if she looked at her own reflection in the glass table . . . How could they be so fundamentally different among themselves? How, despite that, could they continue to be "the same woman" (or "the same man") without being them? Because they weren't copies; they were literally her.
And how would she manage to integrate all those memories into her own personality at the end of the mission?
Piotr's hand on her left shoulder made her start. Suddenly, all eyes were on him. Each captain had known him in their own reality and all of them feared him to the same degree that they depended on him. That was perhaps the only feature that her co-possibles shared unequivocally with her.
"The exit is ready," was the only thing the prosopon said, and the silence around them became thick, tangible.
They all stood up in unison and dressed in their space suits or prepared their instruments or prayed with their ritual songs or, simply, approached the Svekla's sole hatch with resolution or fear.
All, except for Salmon-Stephana.
Serpent-Stephana noticed this and a glimmer of understanding shadowed her features: Salmon-Stephana was the only one who would swim back upstream against the current, the only one who would return to the origin. Return home.
The woman smiled as she slid her suit over her naked breasts, wiggling her hips.
"Interesting," the Serpent told the Salmon. "I suppose that here the irony lies in the fact that the one who returns is the one who lives, and the one who remains is the one who dies." Then she smiled even more, revealing beautiful pearly teeth, and ended with a sing-song voice: "Just the opposite of the fish."
There was a twisted pleasure in that gesture and also a deep threat. Salmon-Stephan felt a visceral terror faced with this version of herself.
Serpent-Stephana sighed while she adjusted the lavish clasps of her elegant space suit and said to the air, as if in the midst of a reflection. "It's not fair. No, it isn't."
Then she walked with great resolve toward Swan-Dzhessika, took her in her arms, thin and fragile in her moss-gray-colored suit, and kissed her passionately. The Swan smiled beneath the fierce kiss and rested in the Serpent's avid hands. But Serpent-Stephana's excitation only became more vehement, until her fingers wrapped around Swan-Dzhessika's slender neck. Despite the intervention of the rest of the co-possibles, only Piotr's superhuman strength managed to pull the Serpent away before she asphyxiated the Swan.
Nonetheless, while the prosopon held the Serpent, the prey struggled frenetically to return to her executioner. Serpent-Stephana smiled, triumphantly, and waited calmly to be released; then Swan-Dzhessika returned, submissive, to her side.
Nobody said anything when Serpent-Stephana went to take her place in the line, waiting her turn at the hatch, with the Swan at her side. Not even when the Swan lifted her black hair to offer up her neck to her. Not even when the Serpent wrapped her fingers around it and, panting, began to constrict it. Not even when bones that were too thin made a slight, muffled sound and Swan-Dzhessika's head hung smiling to one side. Not even when, at last, Serpent-Stephana let the slender body fall, and smiled venomously at Salmon-Stephana while saying, "It's not fair that you don't experience what we do. This is my gift for you, dear sister: carry your death in your memory when you return, the memory of how you felt when killing yourself, and how you felt when dying by your own hand. You deserve it. Better yet, we deserve it."
Only one voice crowned that pronouncement when Serpent-Stephana crossed to the hatch, and that was Eagle-Dmitri saying "da" while helping a revived Swan-Dzhessika stand up again. A swan who crossed through the territories of the shaman because, ultimately (just like all of them in that place) she was neither alive nor dead.
Suddenly, Salmon-Stephana . . . Stephana . . . was about to be alone again. Alone with the prosopon because, at the moment that he opened the hatch, and the first of her co-possibles crossed through it, all of them would. All, except for her, of course.
Although she tended to consider herself the Ego.0, the point of departure, she knew rationally that she was no privileged being who belonged to a central universe, but just another possibility: the one who never left St. Petersburg. The one who had to fail in her attempt to travel.
Finally, at a sign from Piotr, the hatch opened . . .
. . . then, with the help of her combat armor, the Wolf unsheathed her sword. The titanic suit augmented its occupant's reach, force and velocity. Wolf and armor maintained the blade aloft and passed through the hatch. Barely over the threshold, she was greeted by the furthest reaches of space. The large engine visible just beyond the Wolf's neck kicked in, but the near emptiness of space swallowed its sound. Around her: Perseus.
The enormous Svekla floated in the penumbra like a heterogeneous, synchronic mass, darkly purplish.
The soles of her armor clung to the surface of the ship and she walked upon it as if her insignificant mass could compete against the eternal freefall of space. And, as she walked, the Wolf observed, sword in hand, the indescribable magnitude of what surrounded her.
The probes that coated her suit were gathering up all the data it was possible to collect. These would later be given to Piotr for him to download into the Terpsichore's multiple AIs.
Behind the ship rose a darkness splattered by light from the galactic arm. In front, dominating her view and her imagination, was the Crab Nebula: M1.
An intricate tangle of gas filaments, luminous and bright, expanded from the neutron star: the astonishingly colored afterimages of its explosion and the naked heart of what had once been an enormous star, still beating frenetically. Golds, reds, and greens weaving one against the other through various wavelengths.
The Wolf howled at the crab of light, while the multicolored ghost of the dead star blessed her raised sword.
Alone. Thanks to the nature of the ship's non-space, as soon as it was possible for Stephana to be alone, she was. Alone, again. Alone with him, with it, with the ship and its mask. The beetroot and its wilted spirit. A faceless shell.
For some reason, her mind returned to the trip she had made with her father to the Oranienbaum Palace. She was eleven years old and they had been eating oranges. The park had become dyed with the colors of autumn and incipient cold. She remembered having entered the main hall, everything golden and yellow. Beneath her feet there was a series of astonishing images and the reflectors made the gold dance in the ornamental reliefs. But the tired echo of their steps and the grey autumn light that entered through the doors gave the atmosphere a sad and melancholy air, the sensation of something already lifeless. Suddenly, Stephana felt an urgent need to get out of there as soon as possible, to return to the garden, to the present, to the world of the living; but when she tried to tell her father this, she found him staring up at the arched ceiling with a look of astonishment. The young girl also looked up at this object that filled her father with awe, and couldn't help but join him in a long, silent moment of contemplation. Something within her shouted for her to lose no time in getting out of there, before the sun was hidden and that hall, deprived of natural light, became a tomb; but another part of her begged her not to move an inch from beneath that enormous allegorical painting where Day conquered Night.
For some reason, she now felt just as she had done on that day. She looked at the door beside which the prosopon stood and trembled with the tension of those same contradictory impulses.
Finally, at a sign from Piotr, the hatch opened . . .
. . . Without even thinking about it, the Serpent crossed the no-space delimited by the door and threw herself right into the arms of a blinding light: the nucleus.
Her white and gold suit seemed to float in a sea of liquid gold like another star. The light was almost palpable and the black visors of the Snake's helmet darkened as much as they could. She was in the very heart of the galaxy. Where there were no stars but superhot gas, electrons that hurtled madly along the remnants of what had once been a cluster of multicolored suns. A portentous whirlwind, a spiral of gas swirling within a singularity that was so huge it held thousands of millions of heavenly bodies around it.
The energies wielded here were able to alter even time and space itself. The Serpent knew that she was approaching the sancta sanctorum of the Milky Way, that this sacred seat of honor was protected by the angels of radiation: emissions that were so strong that no form of biological life could survive their divine gaze. But, nonetheless, far from fearing them, she activated her backpack's thrusters and floated, with a waving trajectory, toward the Everything which would reduce her to nothingness in mere moments.
Yes, when this was over, she would leave there and go to the bridge over the Griboyedov Canal, the one which was held in the jaws of two pairs of griffins. She would stop on one side and would watch the light of the sun shining upon the gold of their wings. And she would listen to the birds in the white night, singing in the silence of a dawn that would shine as smoothly as a pearl. And then the sun would emerge without ever having set.
Yes, of course she would leave. And when she did so, everything would end. Everything and everyone. But, did she really wish to leave? Did her co-possibles really matter so little to her?
Finally, at a sign from Piotr, the hatch opened . . .
. . . Hesitantly, reluctant and fearful, the Lizard passed through to the other side. If it had been up to her, she would have remained in her world of daydreams and oneiric symbols, but the Sun called her and she couldn't ignore its call. She had traveled far to arrive so close, barely eight light minutes away. The sun was her Lord. The plaques stuck to the back of her suit unfolded to receive the entire electromagnetic spectrum, and the drugs passed directly into her veins from the suit as if she were an extension of it and not the reverse. Her goggles, filtering in H-Alpha, showed her a sphere of gentle orange tones, whose skin was a living surface populated by millions of salamanders who twisted upon themselves, blazing in eternal combustion, and in between them could be glimpsed, here and there, wells of magnetic darkness; while a gentle grayish tone surrounded everything in the majesty of its corona. Plasma curls larger than St. Petersburg, larger than Earth itself, extended like shy insects above the colossus.
And the Lizard slowly fried in the contemplation of her Lord, closer than the winged-footed messenger, closer than any human had ever been. Close, too close, and it would never be enough.
A warm and vibrant air, an air with "the scent of wandering," as Gogol said, caressed Stephana's face. The Nevsky Prospect, that grand avenue that emerged from the Neva and sunk into it once again, came to her mind; the street of streets, the promenade of St. Petersburg. Memories of her student days, wandering along its shops, playing at being able to buy those luxurious products. Had the door opened for her? No, that couldn't be! Not yet! She hadn't even had time to get to know them, to know herself. But that vibration, that air which swayed the folds of the prosopon's grey hood, didn't seem to come from the city's broad streets but from hell itself: an air wrapped in spectral flames that were and were not consuming the Terpsichore.
Finally, at a sign from Piotr, the hatch opened . . .
. . . and the Panther took a determined step toward the endless blackness that awaited her. The jewel of her eye twinkled beneath the Svekla's lights, its diamantine glitter rivaling the millions of stars that spread out at her feet: the Centaurus Arm of the Galaxy was an eternal, silvered pathway. Suddenly, she tensed at a foreboding that turned out to be true in the figure taking corporeal form by her side. The effigy vibrated constantly, entering and leaving the Panther's particular reality. It seemed a vaguely-human figure, covered in a coating like carved brown bark; its long, leathery hair hung down to undefined hips, tied with cords of different materials, and her head was like a feline skull with long sable teeth gleaming beneath completely white eyes. The panther didn't know if that being were a manifestation of her mind or a true inhabitant of this space, but the creature unquestionably pointed to the Svekla with one thin pinky, while the rings in its enormous ears tinkled inaudibly as it shook its head.
When the Panther finally looked at the ship, it had already begun to explode.
Stephana jumped up from her seat and ran toward Piotr; she had to stop him. Something in her guts begged for him not to open that door again, something deep that she couldn’t quite put a finger on.
But when she reached his side, the young man gave her a push that knocked her to the floor. The captain was surprised and disturbed, her guide had never behaved that way with her before.
"This is bigger than you or I." The prosopon's voice was like the rustle of dry leaves, multiple like the mind that controlled him.
"If you open it, they will die; all my co-possibles. Only I will endure," Stephana shouted, "and I don't know if I have that right . . ."
With calculated slowness, Piotr lifted his hands to the edge of the hood. The blackness that inhabited it receded slowly, as the fabric was slid back.
The young man knelt beside the woman.
"This was never about you, Captain, nor about any of your variants or frustrations. This is about me. Didn't you understand that you were part of the experiment? You are the subject of analysis; I am the observer."
The prosopon's face was suddenly revealed. A multitude of superimposed mouths that smiled grotesquely. A multitude of intersected eyes that watched her from every conceivable and inconceivable point of view. It wasn't just a physiognomy populated by aberrant features, it was as if space itself multiplied in his face, delving into its surface. It was like looking at what could not be seen, scrutinizing a fold of existence where every possibility was present at the same time. Like peering into madness.
Stephana opened her mouth to scream, but couldn't. That was a nightmare.
Finally, at a sign from Piotr, the hatch opened . . .
. . . and the Whale emerged at the very edge of the Milky Way, there where the emptiness of what separates it from the next galaxy is like an endless sea of darkness. "Every White Night is balanced by a Black Day," the Whale thought as she fearlessly entered that sea of insubstantiality. Her suit's iridescent weave seemed dark in that place. Then, a silent glimmer lit up her figure and made the thousand colors hidden in the fabric come to life. As she spun to view the source of the light, she saw the Eagle. But that was impossible! His shamanic version, wrapped in a transparent suit which revealed a naked male body adorned with paint and feathers, watched her with identical astonishment. The Swan swallowed a shout. However, the Ant only nodded, understanding the reason behind all this: the Terpsichore (or at least their Terpsichores) was being destroyed.
"Please, Piotr, stop," the Salmon pleaded, standing in the middle of the Plaza of the Palace, with the artificial green and gold of winter at her back, "I beg you."
While the ship exploded and didn't, the limit of the galaxy and the Sun, the nucleus and its arms, everything converged and melded, stars and nebulae and planetary worlds intersecting.
Halfway from the black hole that avidly tried to swallow the heart of the Milky Way the Serpent noticed it and, clever as ever, was able to channel the chaos. Then, for a fraction of a second, St. Petersburg was the axis of the entire galaxy . . .
While they remained within, they would exist.
But they were there to exit.
"Please, Piotr, stop," Stephana pleaded, standing in the middle of the Plaza of the Palace, with the artificial green and gold of winter at her back, "I beg you."
The prosopon watched her, if that was what he was doing, from the well of blackness of his hood, newly restored to its usual place, but Captain Levitanova could not erase that face of horror from her mind.
Around her two images, perfectly tangible and, at the same time, perfectly simultaneous, superimposed one another: the interior of the Svekla and the city of St. Petersburg. Her city.
Piotr was standing there right in front of her, in the middle of the great Plaza. People passed without noticing them, while the tongues of spectral flame consumed the Terpsichore's crystalline structure. The not-dead, not-alive youth was a giant at her side and leaned over her. Stephana glanced upward and focused, as so often before, on the darkness of that hood:
"You are the Svekla, Piotr," she tried to argue. "If it is destroyed, you'll cease to exist."
A lugubrious laugh emerged from the interior of the hood. The voice was a single one, perfect, deep, velvet, but the mouths from which it came were infinite.
"I am much more than the ship, my dear girl. I am the personification of multiplicity, the essence of the possibilities. I am Energeia, I am Khaos. I am the beginning and the end of everything. I am what has no beginning nor end. There are no rules for me. My logic laughs at your mind."
Suddenly it was St. Petersburg that was wrapped in cold blue flames. The prosopon's gray clothes dissolved under the spell of the wind, to re-form an instant later. Upon the palms of his open hands shone the same indigo-colored ignis fatuus.
"Do you want to save yourself?" he suddenly asked, as if that idea had never occurred to him before. "Do you want to save your soul, your city?" The tone of voice became thicker and darker. "Or do you want everything?"
Stephana looked around her. Nine bodies were lying on the ground of the plaza, some burnt, others broken to pieces, while others simply seemed merely to be asleep. And they were all her. Her other selves.
It was hard for her to breathe, hard for her to focus her thinking; only one thing ruled her: fear, an absolute and intense fear, the fear of the end.
"You love your beautiful city, don't you? You fear that the Terpsichore might destroy it?" Piotr slowly approached her, without walking or moving, just by simply making the space that stretched between them disappear. "But . . . I am St. Petersburg!"
Stephana was stunned by those words . . .
"Do you want to feel the colossal embrace of the Kazan Cathedral?" The two rows of the great colonnade appeared around them, while Piotr’s arms encircled her just as they did the cathedral, and made her feel safe. "Feel me, then."
. . . by the infinite possibilities of what the prosopon was . . .
"Do you wish to inhale the eternal delight of the ephemeral?" Suddenly, the Tikhvin Cemetery took shape around her. But it wasn't cold beneath those enormous, shadowy trees, for the heat of Piotr's body wrapped around her own. On that dead—and yet somehow living—face of the prosopon the effigies of Tchaikovsky and Shishkin, of Dostoyevsky and Rimski-Korsakov appeared. "I can be them all for you."
. . . stunned by Piotr himself. She rested her head against the youth's chest and heard millions of hearts beating at different rhythms, all interlaced in a continuous beat: the deafening sound of the Svekla's engines!
She felt the brush of two hundred thousand million lips on her hair.
But Piotr's body yielded and, as he embraced her with greater strength, she seemed to penetrate into the fabric of his clothes, into the substance of his dead body. As he engulfed her, the memories of the others that she could have been became yoked to her. And she was shy and brave and happy and sad and artist and engineer and female and male and herself and others . . . One by one the bodies that lay on the ground of the great plaza faded away; and as each body disappeared, she entered a centimeter further into the being of the prosopon.
Now the eyes surrounded her, seeing sharp edges inside her that she herself would never have seen. And the mouths bit her, tearing off chunks of her being, dispersing her, unmaking her into all her concomitant possibilities. But to be everything implied not choosing, not discarding, not staking all on a single path but following all of them. And all paths could only be followed by undoing herself in them, because not choosing implied being nothing.
Then, that which had been crouching, waiting for the right moment, felt the contact with her element and rose from the very nucleus of the galaxy, from the center of St. Petersburg, from Piotr's multiple heart. Lies and Truth were its essence, that's why it was wise. And that's why, when it felt the chaos, the Serpent unfolded within Stephana and tore her out of Piotr’s arms.
Both of them fell to the ground, melding into a single being: the Salmon and the Serpent. Its body resisted the combination: four arms, three legs, two dissimilar eyes, two consecutive mouths. A monstrosity at peace with itself.
A fresh laugh escaped Piotr before he helped her to rise.
"I see that at last, my beauty, you've understood. Isn't that so?" he said with uncommon sweetness.
Stephana, the synthesis of herself, watched him for a few moments before answering with her double mouth:
Finally, at a sign from Piotr, the hatch opened and the Svekla collapsed in upon itself like a rose plucked petal by petal. The gigantic crystals it had been made from rained down on the green grass of Strelka Park.
The former Captain Levitanova drew her mouths toward the gap in the prosopon's hood to kiss and to bite, at the same time, the many mouths of her guide, her Virgil, while a confused crowd began to surround them.
The stellar wind pierced everything, carrying on its wings the destroying angels of radiation. But even so, the city remained intact in the very center of the galaxy.
An eternal White Night made from the plasma of the nucleus of the Milky Way illuminated St. Petersburg.
Piotr stretched his arm out to Stephana and she accepted it with the gesture of an experienced dancer. While they walked elegantly through Bolshoi Prospekt, she looked at him, as she had always done: fascinated and terrified. Through those dead hands which held her own flowed the explosions of the suns of the galactic heart, and the very nihilism of the black hole that generated it inhabited his hooded face.
The prosopon laughed again with true satisfaction. Then, extending one hand, he caressed the deformed and yet still lovely face of the woman at his side and whispered, "Now, we might even come to understand one another."