Cover artwork by Ginevra Cave.
for John Yau
The argument: A fleet of four neo-Soviet starships has crashed into a wrinkle in spacetime. The wrinkle, a semi-sentient entity, translates ships and crew into a “pocket universe” consisting of one planet and one sun. This planet, deemed Hurth, is a frozen world that keeps one face perpetually turned toward the dim blue sun. Forgetful of their origins, the crew survive for generations as tribal pastoralists herding “meat-shrubs” across the snowy plains of Dayside. By mythic coincidence, the various tribes meet at the gates of Lunagrad, an automated city. The pastoralists invade the empty city, battling each other at first but then coming to an uneasy cohabitation. They become industrial workers, starting up the dormant factories. The city’s structures are mutable, erupting unpredictably in new “Builds.” Fresh Builds are temporarily covered in a white wormlike script from which all citizens, apart from yellow-eyed Readers, must avert their eyes to avoid mental derangement. In the episode that follows, Blenk, one of the city’s Readers, has just escaped from prison in the midst of an uprising against the despotic Mayor Ob.
Emerging from a jumble of illogical architecture, Blenk found himself nearing the factory zone. The air was warmer here, thanks to the prevalence of inhabited buildings. He staggered down the middle of a grand boulevard, no longer caring if he was spotted by Ob’s men. He was exhausted, almost in a trance. As he went, he passed by people—workers gathered on corners, whispering intently among themselves—who ignored him. At the next corner, Blenk saw a group of children tormenting an injured sewer bird. The bird, one wing dragging, lept and fell repeatedly as it attempted to fly away. The children clapped and shrieked with excitement as an older boy struck at the bird with a stick. The morning shift had started; why weren’t these children in school? Blenk approached, waving to them, calling out “Stop it! Leave the bird alone!” He was surprised by the croak in his voice.
The children scattered; the bird responded with a croak of its own. Blenk watched as the bird flapped heavily into the sky, both wings functioning well enough. Time to start over, Blenk thought to himself, unsure of what he meant. Flying Noonward, the bird disappeared into a layer of factory smoke. When Blenk looked down, he saw that one of the children hadn’t run away—a boy with yellow eyes.
Blenk drew back, confounded—other than Mek, he’d never met another yellow-eyed person, a potential Reader! “Who are you?” he blurted to the child. He received no answer. Down the street, the retreating children cried “Pisseye! Get away from that old man! Come on!” The boy smiled at Blenk, but turned in the opposite direction, beckoning Blenk to follow.
Blenk hesitated—he had no time to play games. The boy led him into a nearby alley, where the air glittered with ice-particles falling from the slanted roofs. Like Blenk, the boy wasn’t dressed for the cold but didn’t seem to care. He gestured toward a pile of dark detritus at the end of the alley, where one brighter item stood out—it looked like a little patch of pink meat. The remains of a bird? Or something worse? At the other end of the alley, the truant children came back to watch in silence.
Blenk bent down to examine the pink patch. It was a fresh piece of muscle-mass. For a stunned moment, Blenk thought it might be the bud of a new Build. But no—it was already differentiated into spikes and turrets, too developed to be a bud. Yet it was so small! He could pick it up in one hand—at the same time, he shrank from it. For it appeared to be nothing other than—he shook his head, denying what he saw—a toy Build. Blenk turned wonderingly to the yellow-eyed boy smiling up at him. “What’s this? Is it growing?”
The boy shook his head, did a little dance. “Answer me!” Blenk demanded. The boy stopped, squinted at Blenk, his smile turning into a smirk. Blenk was tempted to slap him. “Why don’t you speak?” Slowly, the boy stuck out his tongue, which was dark red, his expression almost evil, almost lascivious. Blenk heard the other children tittering at the end of the alley.
At Blenk’s feet, the gelatinous heap of the miniature Build seemed to quiver. What monstrosity, what miracle was this? A Build that moved visibly, in real time? Slowly, as if in mimicry of the boy, a wet tongue-like extrusion oozed from its base. The boy danced away, now singing: “Written on the tongue! It’s written on the tongue!” He ran to rejoin his comrades, who took up the cry, with additional obscene taunts. Blenk, fixated on the extrusion, paid them no heed.
It might have been a scroll. At a big Build—a real Build—scrolls unrolled, all too slowly, from the base. But those scrolls were thin membranes. Whereas this—this extrusion was thick and quick. Blenk stared, keeping his distance, his disgust mingled with fascination. The meat was mottled, recognizably so. The tongue-like slab was covered with white script.
Blenk was a Reader. He couldn’t help but read that script. Automatically, he took up his reading stance, palms held outward, eyes wide, mouth open. A debased version of the Glad Glyph pulled him in. He felt the familiar spin of comprehension—but this glyph was going backward.
The script enlarged, guiding him along its pathways. He was led outward this time: a centrifugal force urged his senses past ancient facades dripping with information. Farther, past clangorous myth, toward an all-surrounding silence. Ten, nine, eight, seven—he knew this ritual. It was called a “countdown.” He tried to stop reading. At the end of the countdown, there would be an explosion. He didn’t want to reach it: the explosion that made the world, he feared, would unmake him. Holding at T minus seven.
He tore his eyes away from the script. He stood there, alone in an alley of shadow; the children had departed. Blenk relaxed his reading-stance. He had just experienced a fragment of true script. He expected that the big new Build—if he ever got there—would tell the same story. Of a Light before time. Of the fall of Lunagrad. As if in confirmation, the little Build collapsed into itself, becoming indistinguishable from the other garbage piled at the end of the alley. A scavenger bird—the same bird?—flew down to peck at the pile.
No use standing here, he thought. No time to ponder the mystery of this little Build and the yellow-eyed boy. Blenk turned away, knowing the fate that awaited him, as he continued his trek toward the big Build. Toward the moment, at the end of the ritual, called “blastoff.”
The counter-argument: Three structures stand outside the gates, bigger than any building in Lunagrad: three teardrop-shaped vessels, mirror-black, each perched on an arching pedestal. These are the “earthships,” understood to be travelling at infinite velocity—going so fast that they appear to stand still. As Pyotr, the poor philosopher, manacled to the wall of Ob’s prison, said, “The earthships have no importance to humanity. That is why I care about them. They don’t intervene in our lives the way the city does. They stand aloof from Lunagrad and all its changes. All praise to the earthships, perpetually arriving and departing all at once! ‘Caught birds,’ as a poet once described them, not long after Trespass—in the days when we still had poets.” The rival philosopher Pisarev, chained to the opposite wall, followed another direction of thought: “Consider the myth, common to all tribes, of a Crash that spilled humanity across the face of Hurth. As a corollary to this myth, I advance the heresy that Lunagrad itself is the Crash site.” Pyotr countered: “Was Trespass into Lunagrad then a homecoming? Myth may go in circles, but history is a line. Humanity—so much is obvious—took shape on the plains. In Lunagrad, we are becoming something more, something other than human. Thank Roskosmos!”
Andrew Joron was raised in Stuttgart, Germany, Lowell, MA, and Missoula, MT. He studied under anarchist philosopher Paul Feyerabend at UC Berkeley, obtaining a BA in philosophy of science. Joron began writing science-fiction poetry before turning to surrealist-influenced lyric, reflecting his association with Philip Lamantia. His translations from German include philosopher Ernst Bloch’s Literary Essays.