Obsidian hooks tear the wild proto-universe’s crust like the tooth of a shark ripping through tender human flesh. The Megalodon makes a steep turn larboard as the universe’s strength wrenches the ship’s black dragging chains nailed to the main deck. This is a tough one, thinks Guido. A really tough one. The sailorman hurries across the ship’s outer corridor as fast as he can, even faster than wisdom recommends. Any misstep and he’ll fall overboard, eternally into the pit of the Primordial Ocean, down until the very substrata of his soul will be stretched thin, dissolved and obliterated.
The storm of falling stars, the most feared starm, makes the vessel’s bluish, scaly leather skin too slippery to trust. Four sailors are already dead, their lives thrown away by the incommensurable force the expedition’s trying to capture. He sees, far ahead, his many colleagues running, preparing the confining tank or driving the cranes to help fish the thing Guido has mentally found. But today it’s up to him to finish the job. He has to reach the prow. His mission now is to shoot the harpoon.
He keeps his tremulous hands gripped to the banister, while black lightnings blow from the universe’s open wounds, shedding darkness upon them all. It lasts for just a heartbeat, but floods Guido and the rest of the crew with black terror. Right where he is, the sailor can see the sphere’s immense surface below, shining in emerald and cobalt, every square inch containing the potential to blossom a whole world. Who knows what holds in its core? Probably the secrets of being and many other pieces of esoteric wisdom only accessible to the hi/storians. Like the doctor. Yes, the doctor knows.
The starm falls heavier as the singularity desperately tries to bolt from the hunting party, a violent tug being its way to scream leave me. As the thing pulls, winning inch upon inch of precious territory, frigates try to shepherd it back closer to the Megalodon, so the chains, tensed to their limits, won’t be torn apart. The globe’s radius, Guido observes, is more than half the ship’s own size. But the captain says they can make it. A big catch, that is. The biggest in the young sailor’s short career.
Suddenly, Guido’s radio buzzes a message he will never comprehend. It’s probably captain Sagaza, or the doctor, but noise and light, confusion and static fills the space, making any attempt of communication utterly impossible. It’s hard to even think of anything but survival. Only that matters. It’s only then that the young man notices he has lain on the floor and is holding the lower side of the banister with all the strength he possesses, scared to death and shaking. To hell with the prow, he curses in his mind.
“Guido! Do you copy me?” the man barks on the radio. “Guido! Answer right now, you coward! It’s an order!”
“I-I’m here,” Guido cries out, stammering, trying his best to reach the headset and adjust the microphone.
Loud creaks, the moans of a dying animal, rise from the Megalodon’s innards. The vessel’s on the verge of collapsing. The next tug forces the boat to dive another thirty feet or so, making Guido’s stomach lose weight and float just like the city-states suspended in the Primordial Ocean’s unreality. Guido only wishes he was in the safe ports of Menote, unloading an easy cargo, drinking rum with one or two fine ladies. But he isn’t and frankly, he won’t. “I copy you, Captain. I’m stuck here on the larboard corridor. The starm’s too strong. There’s too much light, sir, and the ship’s rocking hard. I—”
“Now listen to me, you fuckhead,” Captain Sagaza interrupts, his voice barely audible, low, calm and deep. “Either you reach that goddamn harpoon or we all die. Do you understand that? Do you fucking understand me, you worthless mule?”
The captain’s prejudices usually come forth in times of trouble. Guido remembers similar outbursts when the captain’s beloved ship’s about to sink or when other pirates are about to attack. The Captain is the perfect example of Menotian hypocrite motherfucker, whose opinions on the mules vary according to how essential they are to a given task. And pinpointing proto-universes with a kind of sixth sense is something absolutely essential in that kind of fishing boat. But they’re about to sink, aren’t they?
“Yes. I understand, Captain. Sir.”
Guido pushes himself straight and drags his body forward, hate feeding his will. This is his fourth expedition and already he hates the job. He hates that stupid captain who talked him to join the team. More than anything he hates himself, for he knows he wasn’t convinced. He boarded on his own because he needs some answers. The answers.
Six consecutive blows of black lightning hit the deck with a roar, throwing large chunks of wrecked sharkskin close to Guido’s hideout. The dark energy leaves a strange track in the space where it passes, an absence, a longing that smells of both ozone and chrysanthemums. Five yards ahead, a huge piece of cartilage, the tip of a fin the size of a grown man, rolls from the Megalodon’s back, scratches the propulsion chamber and goes down in the proto-universe’s direction. When it stops, the only thing noticeable is the distant sound of a heavy load crashing into water.
For a second, the beast stops pulling.
Guido darts to the distant prow, dodging still falling scales, walls, escape boats—and ropes and people—and his own thoughts. He jumps over a black chimney blocking the way, and when the universe recovers from whatever made it inert, he finds himself amid the rest of the crew at the nose of the ship.
Suddenly, the deck leans in obeisance to the universe’s force. The place has wrecks and corpses and fallen cranes sprawled all over the floor, tumbling containers smashing everything in between, on their way to the ocean outside. Two of the three smaller frigates fly over his head, taking position. But without the Megalodon’s main fishing lance, all that effort will be meaningless.
And Guido’s far from being a harpooner.
In fact, this will be the first time he’ll shoot a proto-universe. The real officer, a mule like him, is dead. Found in his cabin after the last hunt, a few months ago.
The golden harpoon shimmers, a beacon under the starm’s falling light. Stumbling, almost falling out of balance, Guido’s less than a yard away from the harpoon when the universe starts spinning, flinging the Megalodon to the opposite direction it sailed. Loose cargo and desperate people are catapulted away, but sharp reflexes allow Guido to jump at the last second to the harpooner’s cabin. He only reaches the cabin’s door handle, his whole body colliding against the golden structure. He hangs there, bouncing against the cabin, the world blurring at increasing speed, his thoughts invaded by Sagaza’s barks, until Guido manages to put his legs on the door frame, his other hand firmly holding a crank or a lever, he can’t tell. He finally pulls himself through an open window and falls over the harpoon’s blank control panel.
A roar. Tentacles strike the ship even before Guido’s able to fasten his seatbelt.
Impenetrably dark, the scourge hits the deck with the violence of a thousand humanities. The impact rips two or three of the ship’s outer layers, tearing its veins and spilling black blood-oil in every possible direction. Guido hears and feels another thunderous impact, and yet one more only a second later, both of which he presumes are happening on the stern, beneath the hull. We’re all fucked, he thinks, the boat won’t make it.
“Captain. The ship-board was hit. The guys are dead,” he shouts over the communicator.
As if waiting for a chance to make itself present, a second voice seizes the line: sweet, calm, cold, and metallic. “Guido, this is Hazel,” the doctor says. “Are you at the harpoon already?”
Surprised, Guido forgets all the chaos around him and responds with cold discipline. “Yes, Doctor. I’m in.” He speaks in a tone just a few decibels under shouting level.
“Listen carefully. The last attack damaged the kirlian cameras installed on the harpoon, so I’m blind to whatever’s happening over the singularity’s surface. It is imperative that you shoot it with your eyes wide open. Do you hear me?”
Again, confusion strikes him like a hammer. Whips the size of buildings snap louder than the apocalypse above the cabin and the doctor commands him to shoot with his eyes open. Can it be done any way around, for the Ocean’s sake? “Yes, doctor. But-”
“It’ll hurt. It’ll be ugly. But it is imperative, I repeat, imperative that you look straight into the target while shooting.” The doctor’s breathing leaves a whirr on the phone. “Do you copy me?”
Guido doesn’t answer. Instead, he leans over the command panel and presses a sequence of invisible buttons. Outside, the proto-universe’s rising above the deck’s horizon just like the mythical Sun, about to swallow whatever stands on its way. Several tentacles lace the Megalodon, trying to shatter its body and scatter what’s left throughout the Ocean. The harpoon’s controls create a silvery light inside the cabin, forming a target mark across the windshield and a pair of tridimensional triggers ahead of the shooter. Guido grasps two ghostly controls and sets the charging in motion.
As the proto-universe squeezes harder, the Megalodon’s bones creak more and more. The vessel bleeds intensely and ought to be dead in no time. Cranes, crew, and whole sections of it are falling, destroyed. He pushes the controls forward and the harpoon wakes up, its artifact gears producing a sharp sound, a precise motion towards the target.
In the cabin, electricity sparkles in pale blue as the golden weapon reaches its full power. The proto-universe drags the Megalodon closer. Something’s taking form on the singularity’s surface. Something’s taking form on Guido’s tongue. But before the mule can spit it out, and before the enemy attempts any movement, the sailor forces his eyes open and blasts the energy harpoon.
The death cry of millions of stillborn souls shoots him back.
Plasma waves crash against the ship’s self-healing hull. Guido spent the whole day at the tip of the deck, opposite the containment chamber, watching the immaterial tide raise and drag the Megalodon up and down. The living vessel needs at least another day to heal from the proto-universe’s furious charge, so when the sailor left the infirmary earlier that morning, he rode his wheelchair between wrecks and starm soot and searched for a quiet place close to the harpoon to think. And he thinks he’ll probably need another life to heal his own wounds.
“I’ve caused genocide.” He speaks aloud to no one in particular. By now the starm’s nothing but a gentle drizzle, shining particles falling like fireflies. His mind’s clouded and lost. His eyes are fixed on an imprecise point in the space, a point he’s looking at, but can’t actually see.
What he sees, though, are bodies burning to cinders. They’re all printed in his retinas. The excruciating sound of moisture fleeing from muscles, then skin, at spurts of hot, hot red steam. All stuck in his eardrums like a second thick layer of wax. The deaths they had, the lives they didn’t, all buried inside his soul.
But he isn’t sad, exactly. He’s scared. He feels he had committed suicide.
“They’re not real,” whirrs a metallic voice, a breeze approaching from behind. Dr. Hazel has the coldest of touches, heavy over his shoulders, like an absent mother reaching his son to tell him not to worry in a condescending tone. “You know that, don’t you?”
Startled, Guido turns to face the mirror-polished brass helm. “Well, I am real.” He wonders if—underneath the plates and the screws and the oxygen filters—there’s a real woman, a flesh and bones creature inside that black leather uniform. A human more real, or closer to that, than he is.
“I should say you’re lucky to be real.” Dr. Hazel paces slowly around him, one of her metal hands anchored close to Guido’s telescopic yellow-and-brown neck. “You had time to become real. The human zygote infected by the emanations of a proto-universe gave you that time. Those you supposedly killed yesterday had no such time, and thus, weren’t real. You killed none. You’ll go to whatever heaven there’s left in this depleted universe of ours.”
There’s no heaven, and there’s no explanation to the mule phenomenon. It started only a decade ago and usually happens with those whose parents are men or women who work on the docks, like sailors and whores. For some reason, the reality-bending energy that streams from some proto-universes touches humans at the earliest stages of being. It chooses zygotes at random, apparently, and makes them come to life physically different from the rest of humanity, each one carrying some kind of disfigurement, several in some cases. But, strangest of all, every mule is born connected to the proto-universes. Somehow.
Guido rises to his feet, head bowing as low as possible, so his batrachian eyes aren’t that far from Dr. Hazel’s face. “Still, I killed whatever was becoming alive there. And that sucks. A lot.”
“Don’t be so foolish.” Dr. Hazel chuckles. “Even you can’t be that sentimental. I know you’re not that sentimental.”
Past them, people work rebuilding the parts the Megalodon can’t fix by itself.
Sailors disassemble twisted cranes and raise new ones, close to the fleshy canyon opened in the attack. Engineers, officials, and scientists stop by to watch the dance of stars, planets, continents within and the populations riding history in fast-forward across the sphere’s surface.
The massive thing lays trapped in the containment chamber close to the open wound. The jail has the shape of a bowl, its periphery a ring of lead and iron keeping the universe stable, unchanging. The space it occupies is way smaller than the proto-universe’s real dimensions. Again, weird rules of physics messing with geometry.
Steam flushes from Dr. Hazel’s joints. The hi/storian’s badge attached to her upper sleeve flickers under the workers’ holophotes. “I’m glad you were discharged from the infirmary so soon. It seems there’s no sign of any deeper trauma,” she says, getting closer. “So you’re able to get back to work, aren’t you?”
“What do you want, Dr. Hazel? Ma’am?”
The hi/storian clockborg folds her arms and tilts her brass head forward, assuming an even more severe visage. “Did you do what I asked you? Did you look at it?”
Guido’s eyes drift to the outer space. Yeah, he looked straight into the universe’s surface while shooting. He had reported that. He told her here a minute ago. “I saw them dying,” he tells her again.
“I know. What I don’t know is whether you kept your eyes open after you shot the harpoon. After you impaled the wild beast and helped the cranes drag it into the ship. Did you see anything else? Forms, shapes, landscapes? Words, maybe? Numbers?”
Flashes jump back and forth in his mind’s eye. He remembers seeing something. Scrapes the size of mountains. A greenish blur, speeding. The skeleton of a city. Fireworks or supernovas. The ruins of reality. Guido shakes his head, dispersing the waking dream. “I-I think I saw something.”
“Excellent!” Dr. Hazel claps her clockwork hands in celebration. “We go in tomorrow morning,” she says, departing.
“Excuse me, Dr. Hazel,” Guido says, sitting back on the wheelchair. “We go in where?”
She turns, but doesn’t stop her march. “Inside our prisoner, of course! Back to the womb!”
Astrometaphysical archeology is probably the most dangerous activity practiced in this post-creational era. This is one of the reasons only pirates accept the money put into the year-long expeditions led and funded by the hi/storians. The hi/storians say they’ll unlock the secrets of the great unmaking by hunting, capturing, analyzing, and cataloguing the shards that, before reality broke, comprised the totality of the Universe.
But to dive into one of the godlings? That’s suicide. It’s the most fucking stupid way of killing yourself.
Morning greets the Megalodon’s crew with a clear pink and purple Ocean that stretches around them towards infinity. Days like this usually make Guido confused, for it’s hard to distinguish what’s up from what’s down outside the ship. But as strange as the Ocean is, he figures, the stars still fall in a single direction. And that is down.
Standing next to him, Captain Sagaza observes the blurred proto-universe through the semi-transparent floor of the Meduso, the ship’s deep-diving vessel. The old pirate wears a royal red coat, turned black by the jade and cobalt light pouring in from under their feet. Sagaza watches the mosaic get bigger and bigger as the cranes descend the exploration vessel down to the contact point. The buccaneer holds a pipe, mouth agape, leaning closer to the wall, but not all that close. His voice comes in gurgling. “Hi/storian witchcraft sees no limit, huh?”
“It sure doesn’t,” Guido replies spitefully, not looking at the man. “And oh! Dr. Hazel told me not to fear the inner walls. The vessel’s interior is acid-free. They had the best bioengineers, or wizards, whatever, working on it since the beginning. Or something.”
“Yeah. I believe they had.” Sagaza murmurs and bites the pipe.
Guido leans his back against the undulating wall, resting his huge neck on a soft column. The room hosts a dozen people or so, the majority belonging to the hi/storians’ crew–black-uniformed scientists too busy fine-tuning gadgets Guido can’t comprehend. Most of the equipment consists of milky pulpits that rise up to their waists and shine with a bioluminescence stronger than the bulbs hanging from the ceiling. The room smells of sweat and seawater and a distant, pungent vestige of ammonia.
Without warning, the Meduso halts with a rumble and stays there, hanging over that cold-colored whirl for several minutes. Suspense’s cut by the sharp metal voice of the exploration’s leader. “Gentlemen, we’re ready to submerge in five. Take your positions,” Dr. Hazel’s voice announces through loudspeakers.
“Excuse me, Captain,” Guido asks, putting himself back straight, a frown on his face. “Why are you here?”
Wrinkles and warts stretch and twist as a half-smile forms on the captain’s face. Both men are heading to their seats, close to the high platform where the Meduso’s controlled, where Dr. Hazel dwells. Sagaza says, “Well, let’s say I think the hi/storians are not keeping their word. So, I’m here to make sure the spoil collected is the one I’ll receive.”
“But did the doctor tell you exactly what we’re looking for?”
With a puff of smoke, Sagaza turns to the sailor. “Sort of. They were kind of looking for this particular fish. They were expecting you to find it, I guess. I overheard the doctor saying this one may contain some key information about the unmaking. You know, that superstitious nonsense they believe.”
Cosmic collisions. Multiple dimensions hitting one another, crashing its fundamental structure, permanently breaking causality. Miscalculation or deliberate experiments to thin out the membrane covering each cell in the multiverse. Yeah, Guido knows the tale. He asks, “And do you know why exactly I’m included in this part of the expedition? I mean, I found the fish. I even shot it. What else does she want?”
Sagaza smiles an equally delighted and repulsive smile, his teeth blackened by too much tobacco, and pats Guido’s shoulder. “That, kid, only the doctor can tell.”
Can she? Guido has his doubts. For months now they’ve been hunting proto-universes, with marginal success. He can’t explain and nobody, not even other mules like him, can tell how it’s possible to spot a hundred-meter-diameter sphere composed of pure potentiality, lost in the infinite vastness of the Primordial Ocean, with nothing but an insight, a whisper at the back of the head. A guess.
Like this. He walks to the bridge, looks straight to a point beyond the beyond, and the horizon simply tells him where to go. The smell of chrysanthemums is the only thing to be found, most of the time. But then, that scent, that faint presence is the confirmation that a proto-universe has lived in that spot but fled, maybe feeling an incoming danger. Or maybe it just got tired of standing still and moved, carrying with it the building blocks of the world, millions of shards mostly lost to humanity and its variants.
Without notice, an apprentice hi/storian approaches the two men, bows, and speaks to Guido. “The doctor wants to talk to you. Please follow me.”
“See you, mule.” The captain continues to smokes.
Guido nods to Sagaza and follows the apprentice, crossing the room towards the steep and gelatinous-looking stairway leading to the main command deck. Up there, he’s obfuscated by the brass helm glistening under bioluminescent light, an aureole reflected on the doctor’s metal head. A deceiving sight, he thinks, far from angelic. Though he has convinced himself those people on the proto-universe’s surface were not real people – that is, they weren’t alive, they were even fading away from his memory now – he thinks it was cruel of Dr. Hazel to make him watch their dissolution.
He meets her studying a map sprawled over a big round table. It displays tumbled buildings, strange vehicles, and rotating blocks of wreck floating in the air. There are some red dots marked here and there, and white numbered lines connecting them. He stops right behind her and stretches his neck, hoping that clockwork heart may lose a beat. “Did you call-”
“Yes, I did,” the clockborg says. She manages to grab Guido’s arm, pulling him closer to the table’s edge. Her voice comes out paused and professorial. “I’d like you to observe this map very carefully. Tell me if something calls your attention.”
The mule lowers his head a bit more, facing the mask almost directly, his daunting features reflected on the brass mirror. “Can you tell me for once what we’re looking for?”
Again, she doesn’t look up. “Anything, really,” she says quite dismissively.
“That doesn’t help!”
Steam whistles from under the mask. Dr. Hazel stretches her arms, as if trying to release some tension, and moving her face slightly towards Guido’s direction, she says, “We’re looking for the Ground Zero.”
Guido raises an eyebrow. “Ground zero? What is that? More esoteric hi/storian bullshit?”
She chuckles, a little bit amused, but mostly scornful. “You can say ground is the place where you stand, but literally, it was once an amalgamation of minuscule rocks and crystals and dejects and non-sentient life forms, covered by a thin layer of green blades, living beings that breathed poison and exhaled pure air.” Her arms slice the space over the map broadly, imitating a colossal wave of destruction. “Before reality broke, the worlds were covered by grounds.” After a short pause, Dr. Hazel continues. “And zero is complete absence.”
“Like the tracks left by the universe’s tentacles?”
“No. Zero is nothingness. No traces, no tracks.”
“But how can there be such a thing as a Ground Zero? Something so rich and complex standing next to its antithesis? I don’t understand.”
“Such were the things before the unmaking,” says the doctor.
“Reality was a really weird thing then.”
“It was.” She walks away. “Concepts like ground and zero may be lost forever, but we hope to find bits and pieces of our prehistory. Maybe reproduce and reintroduce these long-gone elements.” She looks over her shoulder, in Sagaza’s direction. Guido could see the captain on the first floor, readying himself for the submersion. “If, of course, the pirates turn less greedy and let us keep more artifacts instead of selling our entire excavations. Damn profit.”
Pirate as he is, though a young one, Guido’s about to argue, but sees no point in discussing property rights of treasures to be found in unclaimed territory. He has other concerns. “You didn’t say what you want from me.”
She turns, pointing her dagger-like finger to the table. “Just concentrate on the map. And try to remember what you saw when you shot the singularity,” she says, showing him a bright red “X” mark with her other hand. “When you see it, and you’ll know what it is, put the mark where it stands.”
Not even close to understanding, Guido handles the mark, analyzing it. Pocketing the red letter, he turns to the stairs. “I’ll let you know if I see something,” he says and heads to the seat next to his abhorred captain.
“The womb is a crypt, a safe lock, a dimension unto itself,” Dr. Hazel says. “Enclosed within, an oppressive white noise turns one deaf to desire, while a million vortices of red turmoil rip the flesh of the atoms and expiate their every sin. It is beautiful to the point of maddening, exciting to the touch. It is not for the faint-hearted.”
She ritually unseals the hi/storian biblos, passed to her by a gray-robed apprentice stationed at an exact step behind her. Eaten by subdimensional bookworms, its vellum pages are infested by tiny holes that move about so as to let the letters unharmed. An old agreement between the worms and the ink, explains the clockborg. Guido notices entire words written in the empty air, but what they mean will always be a mystery to his illiterate mind. “This book contains every bit of knowledge collected by the Order. It tells the story of the unmaking as precisely as it’s possible. And it begins with a tale.”
Guido waits for the doctor to continue. They are both at a high balcony inside the Meduso now, watching the submarine’s milky filaments harvest archeological artifacts frozen in space, or swirling in large groups inside the proto-universe’s womb. There are forgotten geometric shapes, erased mathematical formulae and impossible double-helixes, as well as alchemical compounds, magics neither black nor white, lost races, new emotions, and alternative states of being. Pieces of the jigsaw puzzle called existence, deconstructed and stored since the dusk of time.
The hi/storians’ orders are to bring onboard as many treasures as possible, for their museum-lab in Menote is rather new and demands research material. The pirates, on their part, tend to be more selective and pick only highly demanded raw materials, exotic spices, exclusive gems, and rare intoxicants, all of which are to figure, some months from now, at the city’s shards market.
“In the end, there was the Ground Zero, where the Wise Forefathers dwelled,” reads Dr. Hazel, and then skips the first page, flipping quickly past the rest, barely giving Guido time to admire the highly detailed illuminations adorning every border. “It goes on, pages upon pages, describing a marvelous city of philosophers and miracle makers, of alchemical reactors and complex gridded abacuses, a place bathed in sunlight, and from which it obtained its nourishment. Univercity, it was called. The place where the Forefathers broke reality.”
An immense filament crosses the space outside, slicing the landscape in two. It bears what appears to be a mass of string instruments leaking a dissonant melody on its way up. The sailor observes the vibrating chords and asks rather casually, “And what makes you think the Ground Zero is here?”
“Intuition,” replies Dr. Hazel, closing the book with a thump.
“Not mine, of course, but the harpooner’s. The one that preceded you.” She gives the biblos to her assistant, who turns on his heels and strides away.
“The dead one?”
“That’s him,” confirms the hi/storian. “You see, he went into shock while trying to capture the previous proto-universe we chased. He shouted over the communicator and in the end he wasn’t able to shoot. So we lost that hunt, but when he got out of the harpoon’s cockpit, his eyes were literally ablaze, smoking a glittering dark fume. It had that characteristic smell, too. Flowery. He fell on the deck crying and when the team came to rescue him, he started speaking in tongues, a nonstop babbling ciphered in a language few people know today. The idiom of the Wise Forefathers. The poor soul recited that babbling for six full days, confined in his cabin. He was found dead the next morning. He bled to death after cutting out his tongue.”
Guido blinks. “You’re telling me that man got mad and committed suicide.” In Dr. Hazel’s mask Guido’s face assumes a purple, furious aspect. His eyes are fixed on her dark visors. “After looking with eyes wide open at the fish? The guy killed himself after that?” Swinging his fists in the air, he empties his lungs in a shout. “What the fuck! You were trying to kill me!”
But Dr. Hazel keeps herself still, obviously unmoved and uncaring. From behind the columns and shadowed corners, hi/storian enforcers make themselves known, like venomous spiders about to finish the life of a netted prey. “No. I was trying to gather more data. That mule was reciting quotes from the biblos. More than that, he was completing it, adding details we would never have access to. He was giving us directions. And maybe you could speak more. Maybe you could finish the message, the coordinates, and help us find the Ground Zero. And we’d take absolute care of you, of course. We wouldn’t commit the same mistake.”
A stiff long yellow finger stops inches from the clockborg’s polished mask. “Fuck you and your people,” Guido hisses and turns to leave. “I’m out of here.”
“Do I need to force you?” Her voice’s calm as the minutes before a starm. “Because I can. And I will, if necessary.”
“Suit yourself. I don’t give a shit about your threats. You’ve tried to kill me once and I’m still here.” His steps are angry kicks on the floor, every blow trying to dig down a wound deep enough to bury his indignation.
No, you don’t fear death, Guido. You fear oblivion. You fear dissolution and ignorance of both your origin and your final destination,” the clockborg says, raising her voice only slightly.
Echoing, Dr. Hazel’s voice sounds like a nest of rattlesnakes. “Because your species is new and has no history, nor creeds or myths, therefore you’ve no perspective and no idea about the path you’re walking on. You’ve nothing but your absolute now, Guido. And every moment turning present into past, or that little step crossing the barrier into the future, that is a moment of unbearable torture. You are empty.”
The mule slows his pace, as if dragged by the obsidian chains of a pirate boat. He feels dizzy as the room assumes an odd illumination, less pale, but not exactly clear, like gaslight or candles. There’s an itch in his tongue. A knot forming in his throat.
“But what if I tell you the riddle I’m trying to solve is the one and the same that’s consuming you? And that the answer can be found at the same place?” Dr. Hazel’s whizzing breath fills the gap in her speech. “All you have to do is point out where it is.”
Collapsing, Guido’s neck bends forward.
Miraculous numbers start falling from his head like a cascade of dandruff, drawing on the floor complex diagrams and formulas he can’t read. As the men in black uniforms grab his falling body, unknown words come out like black bile and vomit. In his mind, he feels a shard of the Univercity. In his heart, he’s close to the Ground Zero.
The Univercity’s urban skeleton rests over a plain, past a steep misty hill, mostly composed of discarded parts of several worlds-to-be. Dr. Hazel commands the pirates and scientists to stop collecting reality shards and prepare to dive deeper.
The Meduso rocks, bangs, then loses and gains depth, navigating through the extreme conditions inside the womb’s amniotic environment. The vehicle’s structure creaks loudly, but it’s not known for sure if that’s simply the result of the continuously raising pressure, or if due to the vessel’s failure to hide its fear. After seventeen hours swimming in those living waters, it’s only natural.
Should apocalypse ever be photographed, Guido concludes, the sight of the city’s remains would be the wicked picture surfacing to the paper, slowly coming into being under an all-encompassing crimson light. It certainly redefines the concept of devastation. It’d eventually become fashion, he thinks, for there’s something in destruction that makes it beautiful. Destruction is art.
Entropic maelstroms erode the walls, roofs, and the land, sucking out the essence of things, turning cars into the ghosts of cars, trees into the specters of trees. But nothing ceases to exist. Instead, they remain in perpetual decay, decomposition unfulfilled. It’s like seeing one of the prehistoric catastrophe movies the hi/storians keep at the museums on eternal loop.
But the site isn’t the corpse of a city, a ghost town. No. It’s a zombie metropolis.
“Here.” Guido points at the table, pinning the red “X” mark on the map. ”It’s definitely this way.” Strangely, he feels like a parasite, guiding himself and the contagious disease he carries through a labyrinth, a downward spiral that will lead him to an already sickened, malformed, dying fetus. But he feels like he needs to do it.
He does feel it.
He hears its calling.
After his breakdown, it takes only minimal concentration to see dusty little pieces of green dancing under a calm, red breeze. He can see other things too, maybe people, in the periphery of his vision. But he can’t say exactly who they are.
“I can see nothing special. Only red rocks, debris, and death. I think we should be going back to the Megalodon,” Captain Sagaza mutters, staring through the transparent wall. The old pirate stands at the command deck, resting his elbows on the balustrade. Biolights shine brighter as the submarine dives deeper into the womb. His customary pipe, smoky and ablaze, gives the air a sickening smell of burnt chocolate and camphor that appears to please him more than the actual taste of the tobacco. He has a spreadsheet in one hand and after checking the ruined landscape, gets back to taking notes, marking ticks, circling some items.
“Neither do I, Captain, but the womb tells me where to go,” Guido replies, his voice low, not taking his gaze away from the table. “And I obey.”
“Let the boy work, Sagaza,” Dr. Hazel hisses from behind the helmsman. She has a smaller map lined up over the drawing board at the room’s end and is analyzing coordinates with a kind of baroque sextant. Every five seconds or so she turns, compares her numbers with something written in a book on the table-map, then returns to the drawing board and scribbles three or four lines of mystical symbols. Finally, she stops writing and comes closer to Guido. “Then we’re almost flying over the Ground Zero,” she concludes, not hiding her excitement.
“Actually,” says the mule, walking to the stairs, eyes turned to the floor, neck craning down almost to his waistline, “we’re right above it.”
The crew seems to stop for a second, not quite understanding what the hybrid means. Not even Dr. Hazel dares to interrupt. It’s Sagaza who ends up breaking the silence. “And now what?”
Guido’s already halfway down the stairs when, with a grin, he turns to face the captain. “Now,” he says, his eyes drifting to the doctor, “we go in.”
The clockborg drops her maps and notes and comes forward, her face steaming in protest. “Go in where?”
“Deeper. Where life begins.”
Sagaza steps up next to the clockborg, and chuckling, he says, “We can’t go outside, idiot. It’ll get us killed in an instant. Want to waste your worthless life, mule? Well, I don’t.”
Guido climbs two steps back in the captain’s direction. The grin on his face is gone. “Then goodbye, Captain. It was shit being under your command.” The next second, the mule is heading to the first floor, followed by Dr. Hazel and a retinue of black-robed hi/storians.
“Wait,” Sagaza cries. “I won’t let you keep my share of the treasure,” he says in a defeated tone. “I’ll go.”
The moment the red wind blowing outside the Meduso touches him, Guido is no longer in the womb. Instead, he’s in a field painted with all possible colors, bordered by all kinds of flowers. He stands at the middle of a cement alley, framed left and right by tall sunflowers, rosebushes, tulips, and orchids, but mostly by chrysanthemums. Some red-brick buildings can be seen uphill, in the distance. And the sky, oh—the sky’s an almost cloudless blue.
Never before had Guido thought about the concept of sky. It never occurred to him. He had never even named something like a cloud before. But now—like facing a long-gone love affair surprisingly showing up for dinner—he remembers those things, those loves, those pieces of himself and the world that were forgotten and lost in a cage deep inside his soul. He just knows.
This time his conscious mind asks why he isn’t scared. Why he’s not screaming and running, desperately looking for the Meduso and the rest of the crew?
He’s at peace.
Something calls his attention, an object glittering with a green light just a few paces up the alley. It resembles a stone, or a piece of some broken structure. A wall, maybe. It invites him.
Trembling, he walks towards the jade-like rock and is surprised to see its colored light isn’t uniform. In fact, it’s a green carpet covering a brownish body, an amorphous object resting right there, like it has been thrown down to the floor, discarded.
“Yes,” says a disembodied voice.
Guido is disoriented; the world spinning in his confusion.
“Yes, that’s it,” the voice continues. “To be precise, that’s just a part of it, or its version available down here.”
Guido turns once, twice, looking for the mouth releasing those words. Then he notices the green-and-brown object is no longer where it had laid.
He turns once again and is startled to see two score men standing in front of him.
It’s like being in a house of mirrors. He’s staring at himself, reflected in a maze shattered in millions of pieces and glued back again.
“Who the fuck are you?” He can’t help but back off almost a yard.
“You,” answers the man at the front, holding what Guido knows to be the Ground Zero, still shining with a greenish light. They have his body, his face, his same voice, but none is a whole version of him. Some lack parts of their faces, or a limb. Others are younger or too old and have holes in their torsos and their organs are exposed. “We’re possibilities of you. We’re the pasts you could’ve lived. We’re the futures you may have. We’re those who donated ourselves so someone called Guido could be. And though you are because of us, we can only be through you. We’re your history and you, Guido, you are our now. It’s a pleasure to meet you.”
Guido nods, his long, long neck assuming an affirmative, understanding pose. He lets a smile form, but still, his eyes, the same frog-like eyes that stare back to him, announce his one and only doubt.
The mirror-Guido steps forward, moving to hand in the Ground Zero to the hybrid. This one gives him a deep, thoughtful stare. “There’s a word for that question, Guido, but I’m afraid there’s no answer. There’s never been one, and never will. It’s called anguish and it’s been the drive moving humanity forward throughout all of its incarnations. But I tell you this: learn and live with it. And keep asking.”
The trip back to Menote is silent, funereal, especially for those few who ventured into the womb and survived. Except for Guido. He was the first to swim back, and then rescued by the sailors waiting outside the containment chamber. A day later, Dr. Hazel appeared within the lifeless remains of the Meduso. She immediately commanded the hi/storians to release the proto-universe out to the Primordial Ocean, giving no further explanation. Captain Sagaza was never seen again.
Watching the Menotian shoreline come closer and closer, Guido toys with the Ground Zero, feeling its weight, its texture, its overrated value.
“I was wondering when you’d give it to me,” Dr. Hazel says, her whirring voice sounding older than ever. The hi/storian’s on a crutch, limping, her clockwork mechanisms clearly dried up.
Guido gives the Ground Zero a last dismissive look and throws it to the clockborg. The fist-sized piece of grassy land spins in the air. “It’s yours. Enjoy it.” He smiles, then turns back to watch the plasma waves dance around the ship.
Dr. Hazel catches the artifact in midflight, but apparently doesn’t give it so much importance now. “Thank you.” She shoves it in a leather bag and turns to leave. ”Have a good day, Captain. We’ll discuss our next expedition after debarkation.”
“I’m afraid this ship no longer hunts for proto-universes,” he says over his shoulder, but Dr. Hazel’s already on the move. Poor woman, he thinks. Whatever she assumes she had found is not what she has been looking for. The hi/storian’s not asking the right questions, Guido thinks. She doesn’t ask, only collects. It looks like she isn’t human after all.
Jacques Barcia is a weird fiction writer from Recife, Brazil. His stories have sold to Clarkesworld, Solaris, and Apex, among others. When he´s not writing, he´s either growling in a grindcore band, or fighting Muay Thai. You can reach him via his blog (www.jacquesbarcia.wordpress.com) and his Twitter account (@jacquesbarcia).