1:12: “A Stone for Mr. Crowe”, by James Allison...

The rain will always make me think of Mr. Crowe. One would think that it would clean things, purify them. Instead, it uncovers old wounds, bringing to the surface things best left buried.

Nature’s fouled design.

Our Procurator is gathering the last of his personal effects from his desk. He’s preparing to leave us, to depart this sorry, mud-slicked moon. The rain on our office window might be applause or it might be a funeral volley. Either way, there’s no charm to it.

He’ll be missed, no question. We all thought him a good man. Perhaps not ‘good’ — ‘politic’ is better. ‘Charitable’ would be better yet but he fell before that hurdle. Hindsight is a cruel harpy.

For myself, I’m simply a notary. A small man, you might say; a man raised above the primordial soil by grace of a neatly printed letterhead. There lies my absolution.

Our Procurator, unfortunately, has no such refuge. To see him now, one would think him beyond commune. He is as gray as stone, a golem official. He tidies his desk slowly, with boulder hands, his suit crumpling like disturbed subterranean strata. The small round eyeglasses are calcite blinds, obscuring the soul beneath. When he clears his throat, as he does now, with a small harrumph, it means ‘business is finished’.

Storm clouds billow outside. I see Mr. Crowe’s face in all of them.

I recall the first time we encountered him. The Procurator had just concluded a lengthy judgment on a divorce settlement and Mr. Crowe’s case was next. The Procurator was irritable; I could tell by the rapid flick of his jeweled wrists. Mr. Crowe sat in the outside corridor awaiting his call. I remember him as he entered; it was as if all hope had been sucked from within him and his skin had vacuumed inward to fill the loss. He walked unsteadily, his long fingers nervously maneuvering a frayed blue cap. He was tall, and I thought at first there might have been a slight stoop. But of course, he bore the weight of the world.

When he approached the Procurator’s desk he paused, unsure of his place, and I signaled for him to be seated, while the rain outside chattered like a legion of stenographers.

The Procurator held his silence for a moment, the desk monitor’s glow making neon of his skin. “My sincere condolences, Mr. Crowe. A terrible and tragic accident. If this office can assist in any way?”

“I’d like a place for my wife. A grave. A plaque with names. To remember her by.” Mr. Crowe’s voice sounded dry. Too much dust and crying, one supposed.

Our Procurator sighed, a weary exhumation of dead air. “Mr. Crowe, you’re aware of our statutes, I’m sure. I’ve no doubt your wife was a very dear lady but she was not an eminent citizen. Unfortunately, by the criteria I must bring to bear, she was not ‘of note’.”

I remember how steady Mr. Crowe’s voice was, how instant his reply. “She was my wife. She kept my house. She was of note to me.”

He had pride. It hummed about him like an energy.

We already knew the story. Everybody did. News of the event had been broadcast throughout the station. His spouse had been working in the reservoirs of the primary drill cores when the accident had happened. Every awful detail had been relayed; how the drills had unexpectedly spun in their mountings, churning the black oil that Ishael Crowe bobbed upon in her small craft. She’d been dredging strips of scored metal, drawing the scrap into her vessel with pneumatic clamps, and it had only taken a quick whirl of gears for the life to be threshed from her. We had all endured the same shameful thought on hearing of it: How glad I am that this terrible thing did not happen to one of my own.

Nobody could find her husband when it had happened. He’d been working inside the stamping mill doing maintenance work on one of the conveyor engines. Only later had he learned of his loss, whereupon he’d gone immediately to the dredge tanks, hunched down and waited. Over six hours he’d stayed there. Beyond hope. Beyond miracles.

Our Procurator is well versed in matters of diplomacy, and so he was able to clothe his denial with some garb of decency. “I understand your feelings. But you appreciate the reasons: we grant one memorial and we must grant them all. Space is at a premium here, Mr. Crowe. Practicality denies us the luxury of remembrance.”

A politic man.

Mr. Crowe remained implacable. “We’ve remembered others. Made spaces before.”

“My apologies. I can’t authorize it. Harrumph.”

Mr. Crowe made no move to leave. Instead, he leaned closer to our Procurator, as if to give weight to his words. “I want a tribunal. I’ll challenge your judgment.”

“That is your right, of course. My notary will help you prepare the documents.”

Mr. Crowe placed his cap defiantly upon his head, as if the garment’s purpose had just occurred to him. Perhaps there was a slight tremor as he rose. He’d already turned to leave when the Procurator called his attention once more.

“A small matter, Mr. Crowe. You said ‘names’ on the plaque?”

“My wife was five months pregnant. She carried our son.”

“I’m sorry. I didn’t know.”

Mr. Crowe closed the door quietly behind him.

I looked at our Procurator, examining the features of his face, the incline of his frame, for any regret.

“A sad business,” I said.

“Indeed. He’ll lose the judgment.” The Procurator tapped his keyboard for the next file, the screen shifting its cold hue to his jowls. Compassionless men are strongest. I’d always thought so.

Delivering the petition documents was my responsibility. Mr. Crowe was out on the surface at the time, working on one of the drill housings. He seemed no more significant than the rest of the workers that milled about the bases of the huge cylinders, scuttling and inspecting like drones born of the mud, their weather coat wings flapping in the rain.

I watched him as he operated with blackened fingers. He’d caressed his wife’s belly with those hands, touched the pulse of his child’s heart. How small, by comparison, the creation that he cared for now. It stretched upwards like a crooked monument, doomed to skewer into the mud.

As I offered him the papers, he looked up at me, his eyes red and watered. I was somewhat taken aback, that a man should wear his grief so publicly. “Your application,” I said. “You’ll need to sign it.”

He took the documents and nodded. I waited but he said nothing.

“You’ll need to return the papers after you’ve signed,” I told him. “That’s all there is.”

He had no questions for me so I left him to labor on amongst the cacophony of whining gears.

I thought of him the same evening, lay awake in my bed even. I have no wife, you see. I have no one beside me to ask, ‘Is something wrong?’ or ‘Are you troubled?’ I’d always believed my heart to be a good engine, red and sturdy; I’d never wished it a thing of glass like Mr. Crowe’s, to be easily looked into.

When I slept, I dreamed myself cresting a black tide of clerks and judges, Mr. Crowe standing firm as we crashed down upon him. Even as we eddied around his waist he remained solid, a noble impediment to the flow.

I wondered where he drew his strength.

The Tribunal was convened within two weeks of the application. I accompanied the Procurator to the hearing. We sat on the benches to the left while the Adjudicates took center stage on a raised plinth. Mr. Crowe was seated to the right, a tall man made small by the burden of expectation. I noticed the steadiness of his hands, in which he held a trivinium ingot. He watched keenly as each of the Adjudicates took their places.

The Primary Adjudicate commenced proceedings. “Ezeriah Crowe, we are gathered here to make a determination in respect of your claim to Eminent Status in the community, and consequently whether to officially recognize and record the deaths of your wife and child. Mr. Crowe, please state your case.”

Mr. Crowe stood and walked to the center of the room where a clear plastic lectern awaited. Perhaps it was the longest walk of his life.

He paused before speaking. “I hold here the smallest thing of value on this world. A bar of metal so important that we give up our lives for it. But this bar is no different from any other. They are all of the same dimensions, the same weight. They shine equally in the light as this one does. Yet we put a name upon each bar. Each ingot is stamped with two lines of script. Two lines, and the universe knows where this metal came from. For my wife, who labored to make my life better, and for the son I never knew, I ask for a plaque with two lines. Two lines, to mark their value.”

I felt the blood rushing to my cheeks. Mr. Crowe was no ordinary man. He was a poet. This beaten fellow with his toolbox hands had spoken so eloquently that the Adjudicates were thrown into a burble of confused whispers.

They quizzed, cross-examined and interrogated him. What did your father achieve here? they demanded. How did your wife influence the administration of the colony?

The outcome was never in doubt.

The Primary Adjudicate was assigned the duty of announcing judgment. “Ezeriah Crowe: in respect of your claim for Eminent Status on behalf of your deceased spouse, I regret to inform you that after careful consideration of the circumstances, we rule that there can be no memorial erected, nor any plaque mounted. While she was no doubt a worthy citizen, we find no reason to elevate her in rank. This is our judgment. Let it be noted.”

The hearing was dissolved, the Adjudicates dismounting the plinth in silence. Mr. Crowe returned to his seat, the ingot still in his hand. I looked at the Procurator’s face, but saw nothing that betokened sympathy or charity. As we left the room together, I looked back. Mr. Crowe was sitting alone, perfectly still, a fallen monument.

From the tubecar that carried us back to the office, I watched the men laboring out on the mud flats. Does that man have a wife? I asked myself. And that one too? I wondered how many were content to slide with the soil.

This is no world for a poet to make his mark.

Our last encounter with Mr. Crowe came scarcely a week later. It happened in the middle of a violent thunderstorm, the rain frenziedly scourging the complex.

“He’s out of his mind!” announced the Procurator. “Completely insane!” He came tumbling into the office with a slick of sweat on his forehead, shirt collar yanked free of his neck. “Look what he’s doing — he must have re-synchronized them all!”

He swung his desk-mounted monitor around for me to see, and switched it to broadcast. The pictures I saw caused me to rise in astonishment.

The camera was fixed upon a phalanx of drills near the stamping mill. Normally, the huge cylinders would only fire in alternate sequence for fear of breaking the crust. Now, all of the colossal units were surging in unison, firing back and forth like creation’s troopers, relentlessly pummeling the deep strata. I’d never imagined all of the drills firing as one. The sight filled me with a strange elation.

The camera zoomed in, bringing a small, wind-blasted figure into focus.

Mr. Crowe.

He stood with his arms raised as if in tribute to some fearful deity, while the elements tossed him like an unwanted doll.

The Procurator mopped at his forehead. “He’ll break the crust! Everything will sink!”

I hardly heard what he said. My attention was fixed upon the wild gesturing of that tormented man and his gargantuan allies as they punished the ground beneath. Flares rocketed overhead, flashing vivid maroon snapshots. It was as if Mr. Crowe had managed to harness nature itself in the cause of his grief.

“He’s done it! He’s really done it!”

I’d never before seen our Procurator in such an agitated state. For myself, I saw a poetry in it. Even as the ground broke into mammoth shards of rock, spraying geysers of mud into the air, I knew that Mr. Crowe had exercised his will.

The drills groaned and toppled in a slow skittling collapse, the housing nearest to our failed petitioner falling sideways, blotting him out in a thunder of rock and shrapnel.

I want a grave, he had demanded.

The entire stamping mill folded neatly into sharp corners and slipped from view, blowing only a few scant bubbles of protest in its wake.

The Procurator and I watched as the livelihood of the colony slipped away. We sat in silence; the Procurator had nothing to confess, and I had no accusations. We’d done wrong and Mr. Crowe had judged us.

As a colony, we endure. The warehouses were stockpiled high with ingots prior to the disaster, and we depend upon those stocks now.

One of the bars sits upon the Procurator’s desk. He takes it into his big hand and turns it over, reading the inscription once more. I wondered if he secretly admired Mr. Crowe, as I did, for having covertly reprogrammed the mill’s laser stamp. The final batches had never been inspected; no one had noticed the new scripting until a consignee had queried it.

I imagined how our bereaved petitioner might have leaned over the console like an expectant father. How he’d picked the words as eternal gifts.

My wife. My son.
My compass and my map.
My beautiful journey.
Ishael Crowe 2206-2240 Tomas Crowe 2240

The Procurator places the ingot back upon the desk. He has no need to take it as reminder. The bars have already been circulated throughout the Company Network, to every station and colony, to the farthest outposts. There will no place the Procurator can travel where the elegy of Mr. Crowe will not be known.

He collects his briefcase and pushes his chair under his desk. When he reaches the door, he pauses to speak to me. “I wish you well,” he says.

“And you also,” I tell him.

He looks at me for a moment then turns to leave.

I want to stop him. I have questions for him: I want to know if he has children, if he has known great grief or happiness. I want to know what his greatest hopes are, his dearest dreams, this man I’ve known so long.

But instead, the rain fills the silence.

The Procurator closes the door after him.

He’d have been shocked, I think. Such sentiments are not expected of me. After all, I’m simply a notary.

Nature’s fouled design.

1:11: “The Making of the Numbers”, by James Allison...

It was sometime before late day when Mantkin Fredly frazzled himself over the wendings and windings, near splatting himself in his pell-mell, to drop the horrendous tidings.

“Bat’s piss!” exclaimed Figal Scrigley, he being the recipient. He flung his quill across the desk, black-spattering his whiskers. “There’s an end of me then! And before I’m properly mellowed too.”

“You might go undamaged,” suggested Mantkin, hopefully.

“No such blessing,” grumbled the Mathematician. “I’ll likely be hauled aloft by my jonglies for all to see and then dropped on my head to complete the tale. It’s a turd of a business, my curse on it. Who swung the vote?”

“None argued against the motion. But Saran spoke loudest.”

“Saran. Ah. I found against him once. Bitter fruit, and now the aftertaste.” Figal rolled the parchment at his desk, rising to his feet.

“I urged your cause the best I could,” stammered Mantkin, “pleading frailty, blindness, even bedwetting.”

Figal glared at him.

“The huntsmen were too few,” said the youngster, “and there it stood. They said you were needed.”

Along the walls hung the charts describing the numbers. Mantkin watched sadly as the old man straightened them with brittle fingers. How spiteful of the council to insist on his presence now, after so many years of veneration. The yearly hunt was a beastly business, not at all fit for a lawmaker. They’d never dared to demand it when Figal had presided as village magistrate.

Mantkin still thought fondly of those days, of the times he’d bolted from his mother’s skirts to slide the slopes to Scrigley-Sir’s cottage. Day after day he’d slipped wide-eyed onto the Mathematician’s knees to learn of the numbers: Eidon, the primary; One shall serve the community. Eudos; One shall not injure one’s neighbor. Then, Trifor; One should work for one’s own ends. All were of Figal’s own design and Mantkin had learned near the full set, enough in total to blot a tapestry. Only one remained unknown to him: Infinus, the greatest number, that beyond all others.

“You’re too small to know it,” Figal had snapped. “And when you’re larger, it might still pass you by.”

And so it had remained, the hallowed number never even invoked in legal judgments, for Mantkin had many times listened to Figal’s deft summing of village disputes. On the one hand, Eudos, but outweighed by the sum of Edren, and Teleth. Always, his calculations were received with equanimity by petitioners. It was the fizzle of his deportment that carried it, one could see.

Glued fast to unfolding sobrieties, Mantkin’s bladder had once swelled beyond fetter, sending him hopcricket to the scullery, where he’d peed into the furnace. Calath was the verdict, delivered upon Figal’s acquaintance with the steaming rankness: There’s nothing useful to be made of it.

Calath,” grumbled the old man, in summation once more. “Here I am, a super attenuated crotchet in the coda of my allotted span, and I’m to be cast anew as a wild-haired mutt, all gristle and grunt. Bah! What effluent wisdom to wade.”

He made busy with the tidying of his books while Mantkin hung his head, a posture he maintained until the end of the day’s light.

———•———

On the morning of the hunt, Mantkin was early at Figal’s door, and was surprised to find the old man dutifully regaled. A sheepskin jerkin swelled the Mathematician’s girth, while able boots thumped him insouciantly about the boards. His sad wife set them both a mug of minted tea, before Figal broached the farewell business amongst the colanders of the scullery.

“Well, wife, here we are, come to the crunch. Me off to the hunt and you to the dishes. A predictable finale to our calendar, one might say.”

She barreled into his arms, desperate tears and no mistaking it.

“The papers will gather dust,” he whispered, stroking her white hair.

“Husband, your papers will be in good order.” She held him tight, breathing him in. She wiped her eyes as she broke to face Mantkin. “Now, little soul, I place this fool into your care. See he doesn’t give our good name to japery. Bring him to me whole again.”

Over her shoulder, Figal gestured as if to say, ‘take no heed, she’s a surly wench and sees no good in any rough and tumble’. Mantkin nodded, schoolroom-like, with flushed cheeks.

Figal made to put himself up the stairwell.

“Now, what distraction, curmudgeon crow?” snapped his wife.

“Why, the sun is high, and my crap is low. A solid evacuation will see me in good fettle for manly trekking; it’s a matter of less weight, as science tells us.” And up he went, closing the door at the top.

Mantkin wanted to hold Figal’s wife and give her his full assurance, but secretly fearing the worst, he made himself as still as the house, and cast his eyes no higher than its foundings. Nothing good came into his head. “On the trail, we might even speak of Infinus,” he offered, but she cleared the pots, unsmiling.

After much silence, Figal not showing, Mantkin felt compelled to hail him. The bellow from above shook the rafters.

“Peace, boy! I shall appear before you presently, uncrapped and ready to kill.”

And in fairness, the bowel-tending seemed to fluff him into a fine fettle. After shedding the final matrimonial ministrations, Figal and Mantkin traipsed under the warm sun to the market square, where long shadows toppled onto an array of grizzled faces.

Saran was the first to speak, a hog of a man, truffled in greased leather. “You’re late,” he oinked.

“And you’re primordial,” snapped Figal, “though let’s not into philosophy, shall we, as there’s murder waiting.”

Saran ruffled his nose, and held his bluster for a later moment. Gorath loomed at his side, infinitely oafish, axe two lengths his own height. He kept his quiet, as he stammered quite preposterously.

Joran, a spindly jigger, unsuited to legging it over the wilds, offered his mesh net up to Figal. “Sincerely, sir, I offer this implement as I think the lightness of will go well with your gait. The number of the principal is Teheth, I believe,” he chuffed proudly, “With lesser burden, freedom harks.”

Mantkin bounced in front, shrill and panicked. “No! The net will bring him to quarters with the Korrach.” He cast around the group for support.

Figal brushed him aside. “Boy, we’ll make no show of it. I was netted some while ago. So it goes.” He took the mesh, hefting it onto his shoulders, while the whole sorry gaggle of them took to the trail like a caterpillar of cutlery, all sloth and sharp points.

Figal fell in behind Gorath, whose axe trailed a whirl of dust in its wake. “To which point of the compass are we set, heroic fellow?”

“T-t-t-ttt-to the f-ffff-ff-” Jaw bouncing like a sprung trap.

“Hell’s gums. We’ll be arrived before I hear it.”

Mantkin fell in beside Figal, keeping pace with the sway of his hem. “Master, might we speak of Infinus before the journey’s out?”

“Before I’m killed, you mean to say?”

Mantkin was shamed to silence.

The whole packet of them wound their way over verdant downery, past pee-jaundiced busheries and through to the silvered draperies of the forest, where birds and beasts hocked and clicked their dismay. By midday, the sun was blinkered with smudgeons of sky, and several of the hunters being grumble-gut, they flattened a circle of stems and snuffled into muslin sacks with a euphoric display of dribble.

Figal sat beneath a birch tree, his head set against the ghostly bark, Mantkin folded attentively at his toes. “This is more renovation than I had thought,” smiled the old man. “I find my conduits engorged and my circulation free. This vaudeville enterprise may yet tickle me, given I return untrampled, naturally.” He watched as Mantkin drew absent circulations with a twig. “And how goes your painting, these days? Are you yet become proficient in capturing the moment?”

“I have practiced it little, Master Scrigley-Sir, I must confess. I had hoped for more tutelage in the numbers.”

Figal frowned and scratched his knee.

“I am curious,” added Mantkin, forlornly, “why you have never tutored another in the skill.”

“Well now,” burred the oldster, jouncing his leg a little to trumpet irksome vapors, “that is certainly a matter of housing.”

This brought stupidity to Mantkin’s features.

“Yes,” continued Figal. “We are raised vapid, I fear; perambulatory but unseeking. Goatish, one might say, tethered to our region. Who amongst the sediment creatures should I entrust to vault the enclosure, becoming irreplaceable?”

Mantkin’s spirit was doused at this, and as he morosed, Toruth — one of the few huntsmen blessed with rudiment musicality — rose to his feet and papped on his horn.

Figal rose to his feet. “Ah, the martial belch summons us, boy. There’s no shirking this cabaret, and there’s the truth.” Mantkin lifted the net for him, while Figal laid a gentle hand on the youngster’s shoulder. “One must first view the portal to see beyond it.”

Saran had gathered himself up, thrusting his breast to address the motley gallery. “Now friends, to order our campaign, I commend to you our comrade Gorath, who has fought many a struggle.”

“The greatest being to issue cogent thought,” hissed Figal into Mantkin’s ear.

“I hand the matter to his able sergeantry,” concluded Saran, ushering forward the axe-bearer.

“W-we ss-shhss-,” stammered Gorath, eyes submerged beneath an avalanche brow.

“Friends, an idle contemplation!” hailed Figal, finger flung skyward. “As our leader has depleted himself of his stock of sibilants, perhaps an illustration might lead us home earlier. We’ll be spared the spit, in any case.”

Some snorted their amusement but Gorath glared. Striding into the midst of the clearing, he trailed his axe to complete a circle, jabbing his finger about to indicate the current assembly. A further scribble in the center depicted the beast, and pointing directly at Figal, he speared the axe head within the circumference.

“Hung to the hub by my own wit, no less,” Figal glummed, knowing his mistake.

The whole party rumbled into progress, soldiering onward past protean limestone knucklery and through to ocean pastures where the Korrach likely grazed.

Figal trailed at the rear, Mantkin at his heels.

“Master Scrigley-Sir, might this not now be the moment to address the question of Infinus? I am only thinking of the worst possibilities of the day.”

“Boy, the direst fear was your persistent interrogation, well-founded I might add.” He said it without turning. “Here I am, striding into the sun, a battle titan in the making no less, yet you insist on dragging your muddy contemplations across my porch.”

Mantkin watched the oldster as he made his way, short-stepped and tall, rays flying from his silver hair. He was indeed a palace of man, much grander in design than any of the tumbledown throng he accompanied. Disgraceful to topple such proud architecture into the humdrum fallows. And doubly sad that the old cussmongerer would not impart his greatness.

Presently, the hunters came upon the Korrach, the prized beast grazing, as expected, in the lush carpet of the meadow. All dropped to their bellies in a scuffling tumult, leaving only Figal standing, his joints rusted beyond such strenuous articulations. The beast saw them at once, a buffoonery of whispering twig creatures, and thought nothing much. Shaking the flies from its crown of horns, it sneezed, and munched on.

“The beast will see you!” hissed Saran.

“One hopes it does not judge by the company, then,” retorted Figal.

“I have a thought!” cried the prone Toruth. “We might wait until the creature sleeps!”

“A solid conceit, full of spunk and mettle!” resounded the Mathematician. “I second the scheme of somnolence!”

Joran hustled over the weedlings to Saran’s side. “The beast is docile now, amiable and not disgruntled in any fashion. Now is the time to net it!”

Saran nodded and gestured to Gorath, who waved Figal forward with a swoop of axe. The old man hesitated.

“Look, look!” bursted Joran. “The beast is unloading. Now is our moment!”

Sure enough, the Korrach had squatted on its armor-plated haunches, chewing contentedly as it unleashed its bowels.

“Now! Now!!” bellowed the huntsmen in unison.

Figal looked into Mantkin’s eyes, recognizing perhaps the divorcing of their fates. “Well here we are, boy. My day turns toilet, as the beast is likewise engaged. There’s wisdom in it somewhere.” With this, he launched himself forward, hopping and bouncing with the sprite of a one-legged chicken across the flat grass, hefting the net from his shoulders. The huntsmen cheered him on, bellowing and mooing at his spastic gait.

The Korrach watched the wild-haired old man’s approach, its dim beadlets fixed on his erratic advance. Just as he drew close, the creature discharged the last of its wastage and stood full upright, pawing the ground. Steam piped from its nostrils.

Figal piled to a dismayed halt. “Oh, crap!”

Before he could muster himself to leg it, the Korrach charged him down and hurled him over its horns, tossing him ragdoll over its back. The old man bounced on the grass and crunched to a halt.

“Quickly!” cried Mantkin. “We must make a rescue!”

“We should wait until the creature sleeps,” suggested Toruth once more, encouraging a babble of general agreement.

Meanwhile, the Korrach, having quite forgotten the reason for its expenditure of energy, paused for breath, collapsing its rear quarters onto the still Mathematician.

Stoked by grief, Mantkin burst from the thickery, armed with fearsome inanities and a spear, and ran full tilt toward the Korrach.

The alarmed beast hustled up and turned tail.

Witnessing its thunderous retreat, the huntsmen rallied themselves into cacophonous pursuit across the meadow, racing past Mantkin as he stopped to tend the felled Figal.

Joran paused, breathless, to collect the net. “A fine job, Scrigley-Sir. You’ll be remembered well for it.” And with that, he helter-skeltered himself away as the hunt disappeared over the horizon.

Mantkin listened for the oldster’s breath, then pulled him to the shade of a tree. Clearly, the wound was mortal, the essences too impoverished.

Figal’s eyes fluttered. “Why, this is a sorrowful mess, look,” he groaned. “My gizzard is all about the place. Undignified is what one calls it.”

“Yet a surgeon’s work might restore you?”

“Boy, are you blind? The pastry is broke, the juice is spilled. I’ll not be sloshed about the landscape as a kindness to beggarly birds.” His left foot twitched. “I fear my wife will bear this badly. She’s a good woman, in truth. Always kept her flatulence muffled until dead of night.”

As Mantkin had no medicinal tricks, he made do with pulling the old man’s jerkin tighter, as if to ward death from the scent.

A faint smile tugged at Figal’s beard, as if some prize was for the giving. “As it would seem I am done and dusted, I have a burden to pass. You will find it in my lower pocket, dry and well-folded. Always had you in mind for it.”

Mantkin stared a moment, then picked open the woolen pouch to withdraw a modest parchment, which he unfolded with tremulous digits. Unfurled, the parchment carried a drawing in black, a puzzle of geometrics that tumbled and skewed in perfect chaos. Mantkin’s eyes brimmed with tears.

Infinus?” He could scarce believe it. The ultimate truth, on a sketching no greater than a napkin. “Master Scrigley-Sir, you have handed me the universe. How will I thank you?”

“I would not have it as common knowledge,” he whispered, “that I was fatally ended under some beast’s rump.” He reached with sudden urgency to seize the youngster’s sleeve. “See the portal, boy; vault the enclosure!” With this, the life passed from him in a fitful expulsion that ruffled the leaves overhead.

Mantkin held the old man’s head, running his fingers through the white of his hair. Before the light had gone, he had swaddled him in a blanket and placed him on a makeshift hurdle cut from green saplings. When the stars alighted over the world, he heaved the hurdle onto his shoulders and toiled the path home, a faerybug cortege at his shoulders.

Presently, the huntsmen rowdied past him, yowling their kill, the trophy head bundled high-spiked and dripping. Mantkin did not see how many depleted they were, if any. He hid in thick bushery, and waited until they had past. Dirith, he thought with bitterness:

One shall mourn the passing of one’s neighbor.

———•———

When Mantkin arrived back at Figal’s cottage, he found the Mathematician’s wife already waiting. She stood in the porchway, her lamp-lit features freshly dry of tears.

“There was nothing I could do,” he whispered. “Please forgive me.”

She hugged him and thanked him for his kindness, and they set the body in the sleeping chamber, where she retired after sitting Mantkin to the table with a pot of minted tea. Pulling the parchment from his jerkin, he frowned over the mysterious conundrum of lines and angles, falling eventually to slumber with the croons of grief at his ears.

The morning sun brought him to his senses and he jerked his head upright, the parchment pasted in sweat to his brow. Unpeeling it, the puzzle of angles taunted him still. Perhaps he’d been gifted an unknowable thing, forever taunting him with its impossible riddle.

As he had not unloaded for the best part of a day, he elected to unburden himself into the upstairs latrine. He ascended the stairwell, folding the parchment into his pocket before dropping his breeches for business. Pots of Mercurine and blossoms of Theam glowed against the white stone of the latrine walls. A solitary beam of sunlight percolated through the crumpled glass of the skylight, throwing a crazed jumble of rainbow squares.

As Mantkin stared, the world telescoped to the moment. He tore the parchment from his pocket, not trusting the mind’s eye.

It was true. Before him, in sunbeam and stone, Figal’s pattern!

See the portal, the old man had said.

And there it was.

Hoisting his breeches, Mantkin clambered onto the stone trestling above the pot, finding it already grimy with boot prints. Figal himself had stood here; it was beyond wonderment! With butterfly heart, he grunted the window open and perked his freckles over the sill.

The sight below perplexed him, for there was nothing stupendous to be viewed, only the back yard to the washhouse, where freshly lavendered suitments hung to dry from wooden frames. Mantkin began to wonder if Figal might not have lost the reins to reason.

Then, movement: a wash girl with basket, plumpishly pretty, no spring bud to be sure, an evergreen perhaps. Mantkin ducked his head a little.

Carrying the load to the wooden frame, the girl hung the wet clothes one by one, stretching up with slender wrists to peg them. Mantkin could see the pale squeeze of her largish jollies deep in the blue fold of her bustle. Even as his eyes googled, she glanced up, catching his gaze. She stared, steaming Mantkin’s cheeks red. Then she smiled, a sly grin, quick as a thunderbolt. With a furtive glance, she unlaced her bodice, allowing her weighty womanlies to spill out. When she lewdly jiggled, Mantkin nearly dropped from his perch.

Gathering her strings, she giggled and flounced from his view, as jaunty as the leaves that dizzied at her feet.

Mantkin sat heavily onto the cement throne, a thousand hopes dissolute at his feet. It was cruelty beyond compare, the pinnacle of learning no more than squalid peepery. The old man had led him false.

He sat with his head between his knees and wept.

When Figal’s wife found him, she knocked gently at the door. “Do not cry,” she beseeched. “We must honor his name now.” Leading the youngster to the study room, she brought him a teeming broth and her husband’s pointed hat, which she pulled over his ears. “Will you make the numbers?” she asked him. “Figal would have wanted it.”

He gave no answer, and she left him sitting at a window desk, pencil and parchment at his fingertips.

He sat in silence as shadows creaked across his brow. Beneath the glass pane, a flower of Mercurine had grown through the wooden frame, its gilded petals dancing in the half-light.

Mantkin found himself transfixed. Perhaps the blossom’s span was nearly ended, the sight of it gifted to him, miraculous, intransigently beautiful.

Taking up the pencil, he began to sketch on the parchment, carefully capturing each petal’s brave flourish; forward and back, side to side; the quietest whispers of movement. As he drew, he thought of the washgirl, of her smile, of the leaves dancing at her feet, careless of time.

Infinus.

The unknowable thing. The capricious allure of a world of possibilities.

The number of hope.

Figal himself might have smiled, placed his arm around the boy’s shoulder, and hugged him.

Mantkin’s eyes welled with tears.

When the drawing was done, the sun was dull and low in the sky. Mantkin tucked the parchment under his arm and left the cottage. Crossing the street, he came upon Saran and Toruth, who were much surprised to see him.

“Ho, young sir!” greeted Toruth. “Not at your studies?”

“I have decided to make myself a painter. So I go in search of beauty.”

“We thought you locked to the numbers,” jibed Saran, “by Master Scrigley’s decree.”

“Not so, brave hunters,” he replied. “I had locked myself.” He hugged the parchment tight and smiled. “But my friend left me the key.”

1:10: “The Four Bridges of Kandos”, by James Allison...

Just one thing: the Ecluvian Ocean isn’t beautiful. I’m five fathoms down, nose to the glass, and all I see is mud and black weed. Beauty, religion, and rainbows all got left topside. Of the five people crowded into this submersible, there’s nobody here who would wish to see the Ocean again.

Just wanted to make the point.

———•———

I first learned about Kandos in the psychiatric unit of our deep core rig, from a woman named Penelope Korvac, an outpatient like me. It was my first visit and the med bay staff sent me the wrong way. Left, left, right, left, they told me, but it wasn’t. It was left all the way. Not a right in sight. Misdirecting an insane person is inexcusable.

Korvac was the statuesque brunette poised on the waiting room’s black plastic cushions when I walked in. She sat quite still, a magazine open in her lap, her scented wrists throttling the dry air. Just another deranged doll, I guessed. But calm on the outside.

The only other person in the room was a teenaged boy, standing with his nose up against one of the view portals, his hair wilder and darker than the weed that billowed beyond the glass.

“Hey. This the psyche unit? I’m lost.” I didn’t care who answered.

The kid just stared at me with placid green eyes. The woman unfroze a smile and reconfigured herself on the cushions. “I certainly hope so. I’ve been waiting two hours already.”

She was attractive, in a chiseled, spiky way. Approachable, certainly, perhaps even reasonable.

“Hope they don’t keep us too long,” I said. “It’s not safe to stay in one place too long. The body transforms eventually. Adapts to the environment. On a bio-molecular level, I mean.” I settled into the cushions while I had her attention.

“Yes,” she said. “I can see how that might happen.”

The kid had turned his attention back to the portal.

“Accelerated devolution of the species,” I elaborated. “Becoming something else. That’s what we’re talking about here. The flesh leading the mind.”

She took a moment to admire the elegance of her own fingernails. “I had a friend once who thought he was becoming a fish.”

“There you are. And how is he now?”

“Cold, wet. Confused.” She slowly leaned forward, and whispered, “But if you are really transmuting, I’d love to hear about it. It must be so interesting.”

I could have been totally honest with her right then. I could have told her that I was perfectly sane, that I had been utterly shit-scared for the last two months, and that I firmly believed that feigning paranoia was my last real hope. But I played the game. Just in case.

“So are you two together?” I nodded towards the boy.

“Yes, we are.”

“He looks like a stray. Haircut and all.”

“My husband makes his own decisions when it comes to personal grooming.” And she didn’t even wink.

I didn’t rise to the obvious line of questions. If she wanted to cradle-snatch, that was her choice. “You been down here long?”

“Just a month. My husband has been assigned to the drilling teams. We only returned from Kandos three months ago.”

I must have looked dumb at that point.

“You have heard of Kandos, haven’t you?” she quizzed.

Vaguely. Some dust ball in the outer rings. It had been surveyed for gems once and turned up dud. “Yeah, I heard of it.”

“My husband and I crossed the bridges.” She spoke the words almost reverently, as if recollecting a famous miracle.

“That’s nice.”

She smiled, a patient tutor. “You don’t know, do you…? About the Bridges.”

I knew there was some mystical bull surrounding Kandos. Despite being an empty husk, the place had become a Mecca for travelers and pilgrims. But I’d never been sure why.

She lowered her voice, as if wary of releasing a great secret. “Nobody knows how and why they form, but the Bridges appear randomly, at any point on the surface. There are four of them, all equal in length and breadth, all materializing the same height from the ground, always intersecting one another at their mid-point.”

She looked away for a moment, perhaps striving to bring the spectacle close again. “They look like cloud formations, but they’re solid. For just a short time. They coalesce like a birthing planet, and then dissolve. Without heat, or fusion or energy storms. And they are absolutely, utterly, the most beautiful things you will ever see — all the colors of the cosmos, shifting into one another, lighting both the ground and the sky above, as high as you can see.”

I wasn’t sure if she was tripping or not. But she seemed to believe herself. “And you crossed them? You walked over them?”

“To the very center, the intersection. My husband and I, together. Hardly anybody has ever done that. The Bridges only solidify for a short time, and it’s almost impossible to locate the points of origin, where they’re low enough to board.”

“So, what did you find?”

She leaned closer, her eyes glittering under the strip lamps. “Everything we’d hoped for. Absolutely everything.”

Being technically unstable of mind, I guess it was okay of me to stare. Whatever else the Bridges had bestowed, they had undoubtedly unhinged the woman’s sanity.

The door to the consultancy room opened and a sallow-faced individual slunk out. A fake. An outrageous fake. I can spot the malingerers at fifty paces.

I cursed him as he slunk away, hoping the bastard hadn’t fouled my pitch. The doctor who followed him to the door was a weathered parchment of a man, his brow a corrugation of dismays. “Mr. Freeman,” he called, peering over a clipboard, “would you like to step inside?”

I glanced at my fellow patients in surprise. “They were here before me….”

“Ms. Korvac has been here all day. She knows it’s not time for her appointment.” He made it sound as condescending as the words allowed.

Korvac graced me with her sweetest smile as I got to my feet. “See you again,” she purred, at the same time returning her attention to the magazine she held.

Hubby didn’t even bat an eyelid.

1st Consultation

I make bedrooms. That’s what I do. The sleep chambers that hang like crystal eggs from the underbelly of the rig. If you can sleep for your regulation eight hours, without claustrophobia or dehydrated membranes, it’s all down to me. Don’t thank me now, but I make you comfortable in the dream dimension, give you warmth and moisture, bring you something of the womb. Perhaps not a vocation for heroes or statesmen, but I’m of use, and there’s the essence of it; I’m worthwhile.

And yet I never felt this was my world. I always hung to the last rays of sun that filtered through the topside bedlam, yearned for the light like some energy-crazed protozoan. And that’s my problem; I feel I’m finally losing sight of it. Finally embracing the darkness.

Not that I can tell you any of that, Doctor. No, it sounds far too reasonable. So instead of being the drowning man, grasping for your every sympathetic word, I’ll just stare, wide-eyed. And slowly sink before you.

“I’d really rather you didn’t play with that article,” he grumbled. “It’s very expensive. Thank you so much.”

I put the paperweight down. Beads of sweat were massing in the trenches of my physician’s forehead.

“I need some time to make a considered evaluation of your mental state, Mr. Freeman. Perhaps we could see you again in say — three days time?”

“Sure. Take as long as you need.” Just certify me. Just save me.

Korvac was gone when I left the consulting room. I wasn’t surprised. Disturbed people do strange things.

On the way out I encountered the staff who misdirected me. “I hope that you all become turd-like,” I informed them, “and sink to the bottom of the sea.”

Got the last word on that one.

———•———

I wanted to go see Zarah after my ‘interview’. But that was normal; I pretty much wanted to see her before, after and during everything I did. Infatuation is a cruel color for a curse.

I was involved with her even before the Ecluvian Madness had first hit us. Events then had just conspired to push us closer. At least, push me closer to her.

The disease had appeared in spring, when our twin moons turn red and the topside shines crimson, (though down here in the depths, only our calendars and the darker shades of weed tell us the seasons ever cycle). No one knew how the virus had invaded us, but it broke out in all four of the Company rigs, and the effect was devastating. Victims became subject to hallucinatory episodes, becoming paranoid and deranged. Some experienced a remission before the virus began its systematic destruction of cerebral tissue. From our population of two hundred and thirty people, we sent twenty nine people topside for treatment. There was — and is — no cure. Twenty nine people went up to the light to die.

We’ll none of us ever forget the fear of those months, of greeting one another with charmless smiles, wary of each other’s proximity, fearful of contamination. The bug was transmitted through skin contact only, the medics thought. Maybe. So for three months I stayed solitary, accepting all commissions by communiqué only, seeing only Zarah, my guiding light, my calm at the eye of the storm.

I still remember the sheer terror when I suffered my first hallucination, a preposterous vision of myself growing fins and gills, swimming serenely clear of the rig.

“Jesus, Oh God, I’ve caught it, I’ve caught the bug!” I remember wailing into the viewcom.

“Wait a minute. Just stay calm,” Zarah had advised me. “You don’t know you’ve been infected.”

“I hallucinated, goddammit. That’s the first symptom!”

“What had you been doing?” she asked me.

I explained I had been testing the O2 supply to a new bedchamber, adjusting the filtration.

“And was the oxygen level low?” she’d coolly enquired.

Of course, I’d been hyperventilating to compensate.

She’d smiled like a patient angel.

I really love you, I’d thought. This only goes to prove it.

Zarah knew I’d been for my consultation at the psyche unit today, but she didn’t much care. She didn’t seem to much care for anything I did anymore. It was all part of my rich tragedy.

I found her packing files in the records office, watertight plastic binders with critical personnel discs, all ready to be sent topside for the Company’s scrutiny. I always envied the bastard who got to take them up.

“How did it go?” she asked, not really looking up.

“Fine, I think. I don’t know.”

Her assistant glanced at me and smiled, one of those, ‘I know you’re uncomfortable with me being here, but I’m enjoying every exquisite moment of it’ acknowledgments.

“Can I see you a moment?” I blurted. “In private?”

Zarah glared at me like I had killed her favorite pet. Her co-conspirator threw up her hands in mock exasperation and left the office. She probably would have done the same thing even if I’d said nothing; the opportunity was too good to miss.

“I stand a good chance of being out of here soon.”

“I know.” She kept on packing the files.

“If the Company sections me, I’ll pick up my disability package and get myself topside, start looking for something bigger and better. It could work out good for me.”

“I’m happy for you.”

“Tell me you don’t want to stay down here with all these ghosts…?”

“It works for me. Maybe not for you, but for me.”

“And what if the bug hits again? We’re just lab rats in a tin can.”

She fixed me with a look that told me I was being paranoid again. The virus had all-but disappeared as we’d developed immunity, now throwing up only the occasional isolated case. It was her best look of admonishment, but all I saw were two eyes deeper and more impenetrable than any ocean.

I retreated from the issue, defeated. “I wanted to ask you about a woman. Name of Korvac. I met her today, with her husband, who was about fifteen. You heard of them? I’ve never seen them before.”

She returned her attention to the records on her desk. “The name doesn’t sound familiar. Is she with med staff?”

“She’s a patient.”

“I don’t know her.”

I thanked her for her time, wished her well. I wanted to ask her precisely when and why she’d stopped caring for me, but that suddenly seemed such a long time ago that it had become a matter for posterity.

I left her as I found her, a petite flame-haired secretary, busy with her files.

———•———

“I hear some poor bastard tested positive for the bug, the other day.” Simmons delivered the information like it was nothing. He announced it with his back to me, while he was busy threading a plastic hose through a bedchamber’s filtration conduit.

The news shocked me to the core.

“Guy barely even hallucinated, so I heard. He never even suspected it could be the bug. They’re giving him some counseling then taking him topside.”

Counseling? Last rites.

“Guess they think talkin’ to him must pep him up some,” added Simmons.

I felt a slick of sweat sliding through my fingers.

“Maybe advising him on his life insurance…” he chuckled.

My contractor’s pearls of wit were the least precious in the seas. But the blunt artisan was the closest thing to a friend and confidante I had.

I must have been quiet enough for him to turn around.

“You okay?” he asked, grinning. “Not freakin’ out again, are ya? Textbook hypochondriac is what you are — hear about some other guy’s problem and you got a temperature all of a sudden.”

He knew I’d been tested for the bug two months back, and to him, my negative result had made the subject a running gag. Simmons was like that.

“Just makes me want to get clear of this dead-in-the-water tank. Nobody’s safe down here.”

“What you gonna do? Topside? Company’ll never take you on again — not after you’ve been sectioned. If they section you.”

“It’s a whole other world up there now. There’s industry. Business, entertainment, farming. All kinds of work on the atolls. And yeah, they will section me, and I will get my disability. I’ll be certified by the end of the month, just you watch. Whatever it takes.”

Simmons finished feeding the hose through and snapped the conduit cover in place. “Ask me, you’re more than halfway there.” He finished packing his tools. “You wanna grab a drink in the bar?”

Of course I didn’t. But I agreed anyway. We clambered up the ladder from the chamber and back into the main arteriole. The bedchamber was one of five new contracts I had. People were shipping into our miniature Atlantis faster than I could believe. The Company was still ruthlessly recruiting in its drive to scour the bedrock for mineral pay dirt, and there had never been a shortage of gentlemen adventurers. Deluded individuals all.

“You heard of a new arrival by the name of Korvac?” I asked him. “Woman with a kid.”

“Nah, never seen the name. What does she do?”

“She’s a psyche patient.”

“Great. So instead of depth charges, they’re droppin’ psychos. They definitely want to sink the place, I’m tellin’ you. It’s an insurance job.”

But that was the difference between Simmons and I; his paranoia was only play-acting. And he knew it.

“You seen Zarah recently?” he quizzed.

Sore point, but I wasn’t letting on. “Yeah, this morning, why?”

“Ah, she probably told you then. They’re retesting a lot of the Ecluvian cases. The latest guy had a different strain of the bug.”

“You are definitely yanking my chain.”

“Swear to God, man.”

I glanced at him to see if he was grinning, but he wasn’t. And I felt a sudden, cold rage that Zarah hadn’t even bothered to mention it. “So you have any more good news for me,” I snapped, “or are you done pissing on my day?”

“Yeah, one more. It’s your round.”

We’d arrived at the neon signs for the bar, but I’d lost even the thirst I never had.

———•———

My follow-up appointment came through in two days, and I was relieved. I’d spent the last two nights sweating over the idea I might not be sectioned, and I just wanted the decision done with. Sure, I could just get myself topside, but without any Company pay-off I’d just be more surface flotsam. Hiding my nerves in front of the doc wasn’t going to be easy.

Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised to find Korvac in the waiting room again, but I was slightly shocked to see her there. This time without her husband.

“So you’re moving in here, I guess?” I said, sitting opposite her.

“That’s not what I had in mind,” she replied, running her fingers through her long brown hair.

“And what do you have in mind?”

“Standing by my husband. Gathering experience, knowledge, insight. New perspectives.”

“Guess those Bridges didn’t bring you quite enough, did they. For you to end up here.” Between mental patients, it wasn’t a rude supposition.

She leaned forward, as if to lend weight to her words. “My husband is fifty eight years old, Mr. Freeman. He went up onto the bridges a tired, spent man, with no more dreaming in him.” She leaned back again. “You’ve seen him now.”

Sure I had. And we were sitting in a psychiatric ward.

“We still don’t know what the Bridges are, Mr. Freeman. But my husband and I think of them as hope and fate, as perseverance and adventure. And we sat and embraced where they all met. That’s all I can tell you.”

“So maybe it solved all your problems. That’s great for you. Some of us are in too deep for easy fixes.”

I’d let my guard down and I wasn’t pleased about it. Still, even if she thought I was perfectly rational, nobody would believe her.

“Nothing about finding the Bridges is easy, Mr. Freeman. Even the act of searching for them is an uncertain adventure.”

“Maybe for most of us, a little certainty is what we need.”

She smiled. “Is your life so full and rich that you can happily forgo the chance to completely remake it, to reshape yourself, losing all your failures and fears?”

No. Of course not.

“The Universe is nothing but a collection of mysteries, Mr. Freeman. And it’s given us one to share.”

My Doctor emerged at the door to his consulting room. By his dulled expression, he seemed to have slipped away from life’s ordinary cares just a little more. “Mr. Freeman,” he called. “If you please…?” He gestured to the inside of the room.

I was caught by surprise when Korvac grabbed my sleeve as I stood. She held tightly, speaking in a hushed voice. “Go to Kandos,” she whispered. “Find the Four Bridges. It’s your best hope.”

I was shocked at what she said, not only at the words, but the look in her eyes. It was as if we’d both sliced through all the layers of masquerade for just an instant, revealing a ghastly and irrefutable truth.

She relaxed her grip almost immediately, settling back into the cushions, perfectly placid once more.

My doctor issued a deep sigh of impatience.

2nd Consultation

I’ve tried, of late, to arrive at a definition of madness. To know its color and form, to understand the guises it takes when it takes one’s hand and leads one, guileless, toward its tricks and traps. But there are many missteps for the unwary.

For while we safely promenade the tunnels of this plastic shell, the ocean beyond teems and broils with a million tiny deaths. And the portals we fashion to look into the dark, show us only our own faces, white as maggots, rippling in the weeds. A legion of untold, routine mortalities, strangers all to the sun.

So, my question, Doctor, is:

How is one supposed to ever truly know oneself?

“Well, Mr. Freeman. I’ve made a very careful evaluation of your state of mind over the last two appointments you’ve had here….”

For God’s sake, man…

“And while I’m not convinced that you are suffering from any recognizable paranoid delusion…”

…can’t you see I’m dying down here?

…I’m quite certain that the impairment to your concentration and rational thinking is of a sufficient order to make your continued employment here unsound, from a safety point of view.”

Hallelujah.

“Based on this finding, Mr. Freeman, I am empowered by the Company to forthwith release you from your contract. With a full settlement package.”

He delivered the judgment in a weary, monotone voice, but his pronouncement drained me of whatever energy held me upright. I could have leapt over the desk and kissed him. But that would have been the sane thing to do.

“Oh,” I said. “Okay. If you think that’s the best thing.”

I signed all the forms, ended the pact, dreaming all the while of a cool, unprocessed breeze and two bright red moons. A month of graded depressurization and I’d be topside again. The Universe had just morphed.

Korvac had left when I emerged from the consulting room. But it wasn’t like I cared anymore.

I was already swimming up to the light again.

———•———

I buzzed Simmons almost immediately, and we met in his apartment, and celebrated over an ancient flask of single malt whisky, laughing and joking until past midnight. And when I finally staggered from his room, it was with some sorrow that I realized that the sight of a door with Simmons’ name and number on it would very soon be a thing of the past.

And I dreamed that night. A rhapsody of color and light, wherein the Universe folded into thin, iridescent ribbons, allowing me to pull myself, hand over hand, through a great and dark void. I saw my mother and my father, beckoning me toward them; I dreamed that I lay my head in Zarah’s lap, and that she told me that I needn’t worry again.

And Korvac. I dreamed of her too. Garbed in sackcloth, like a religious penitent, journeying through the dust storms of Kandos, constantly gazing skyward, ever searching.

I awoke in a burst of cold sweat, my forearms tingling, heart racing. Your best hope, she had said to me. But why?

Something was terribly wrong. The Company hadn’t contested my claim at all. They were just happy to see me gone.

I pulled on my tunic and left the bedchamber, my mind racing. Perhaps I was being paranoid again, but I needed to know. I had to find out just who Korvac was.

By our rig’s timekeeping, it was three in the morning. Crew manned the drill shafts all round the clock, but admin staff would be scarce at this time. It was my intention to gain access to the records office using a card key of Zarah’s that I’d cloned once, when I’d suspected her of seeing someone else.

Being paranoid had its occasional benefits.

I made sure the office was empty before I swiped the key card through. Normally, the room was a hive of bustle, both human and machine; now it was a cold blue tomb, echoes waiting to pounce from every corner. The record files were contained in cylindrical vaults, row upon row of discs containing all relevant personnel information; rank, tax status, medical history, criminal indictments, everything the Company needed to know. Or thought it should know.

It hurt me that locating Korvac’s disc in the second vault was so easy. Painful because there was no way Zarah could not have known of the file. I couldn’t decide whether it had been a deliberate deceit by her, or just apathy. The wound was deep either way.

There was a security code on Zarah’s console, when I loaded the disc. 213232. The date she had arrived at the rig, and her age. Even if I hadn’t seen her key it in so many times, it wouldn’t have taken too long to work out.

The name PENELOPE KORVAC flashed up on screen, along with her other vital stats, age, marital status, company employment history.

I didn’t have to scroll very far to see her profession:

DOCTOR.

I suppose the notion had entered my mind, but I’d never allowed it enough time to unseat all the ideals that had kept me going; hope, belief in my own tenacity, a faith in some sort of future. Now, as I read, I felt each of these had drifted clear of me, sinking inexorably beyond reach.

PRIMARY VOCATIONAL TRAINING: PSYCHOLOGY COUNSELOR,

SPECIALIZING TREATMENT AND CARE,

TERMINALLY ILL PATIENTS

The tides still rolled far above, all the satellite worlds in the Universe held to their orbits, and each and every comet that traveled the cosmos, still flew true.

But everything had changed.

And all I could do was sit on the floor, knees huddled up to my chin, and tremble. A child lost in the dark.

———•———

Final Consultation

The ‘summons’ came through the following morning — a mandatory interview with the Company’s medical board. So they could tell me what I already knew.

In truth, I was beyond caring what diplomatic protocols concerned them. It didn’t matter anymore. The only reason I went was because I had nowhere else to go, no one else to speak to. I simply drifted to the appointment, navigating the tunnels and lifts like a corporeal being, condemned to the same weary travail.

In the event, they had little to inform me, and even less to give me any cheer. I was the condemned man, before a jury of my peers, obliged to hear their sentence.

There’s a new strain of the Ecluvian.

A mutation.

Acting more slowly.

Not producing the same symptoms.

Non-infectious.

We had to be sure.

We’re very sorry.

They had tested thirty-six individuals. Two of us had tested positive. Only two.

I asked them how long they thought I had, and they told me they didn’t know. Perhaps three years. Perhaps three months. There were variables to consider, outside factors.

“And what about Doctor Korvac?” I asked them. “Why couldn’t you have told me? You must have known by then.”

Korvac’s name provoked a flurry of whispers amongst the panel. In the end, one of their number simply said: “Doctor Korvac’s status is still being monitored. She still carries the virus.”

If the hull of the rig had split apart at that moment, and sea water come raging into the room, I could not have been more shocked.

There were no Bridges.

No miracles.

There had been no counseling.

I hadn’t read her file far enough. Former Company psychologist, Doctor Penelope Korvac, was quite insane.

“Thank you again for attending, Mr. Freeman.”

We really are very sorry.

———•———

I gathered my things the same afternoon. Tidied more than gathered, there were so few. Just a few books, some clothes, discs from my family. I knew it would only be a day or two before I was authorized for transfer topside — the rig was far too small for surplus dwellers.

I’d decided not to tell Simmons. He’d remember me simply as the affable butt of his wisecracking, his hypochondriac drinking partner. Knowing I had the bug would just drag him down; there was no need.

Zarah was different. Some things had to be settled. For posterity’s sake.

I went to her apartment late in the afternoon, after her shift had finished. Not knowing what I wanted to say, or what I wanted her to say to me, just knowing it was something I had to do.

As it turned out, I arrived just as she’d returned from work, the door to her room still open, her Company tunic thrown untidily on her bunk. When she saw me standing in the doorway, she immediately froze, quickly assessing just how much of a threat I might pose. When I managed a weak smile, the nervousness visibly dissipated.

“Hi,” I said. “How’s it going?”

“Okay,” she mumbled. “Fine.”

“I just came to say goodbye.”

“They’re shipping you out already?”

“Disturbed and diseased. Wouldn’t you?”

She looked at the ground, the walls, anything but me.

“How long had you known that I tested positive for the new strain?”

“A few weeks. No more than that.”

A short silence passed between us.

“There’s just one thing I have to know,” I told her. “Before I go.”

She nodded mutely.

“Was it because of the illness that you stayed away from me?”

She shook her head almost imperceptibly, perhaps unwilling to consolidate the hurt. Until she finally, reluctantly, whispered, “No. It was nothing to do with the illness.”

My guiding light. My calm at the eye of the storm

“Thank you,” I said. “For being honest with me.”

I wanted her warmth so badly, wanted her arms around me, wanted the consolation of her tears. But she had nothing to give.

“Take care,” I said, turning to leave. “Look after yourself.”

I heard her murmur, ‘You too’. But it was a sentiment of no more value than an echo. And I was already walking away.

I’d always thought of myself as a stoic person, resolute in the maw of adversity. But that’s because I never believed I’d be called to the test. Now I found myself completely alone, on a precipice from which there was no route but down, into the abyss. And it terrified me so completely that I hardly knew what to do.

I found myself drifting toward the conservatory, a large domed viewing room in sterile white, with an array of hanging plants for home comforts. Sometimes, in the spring, clusters of bright red weed would drift down from the surface, creating bright streamers in the sea above the viewing dome. Now, it was a simply an ocean of shadows.

I didn’t even see him when I first walked in, but it made sense; he seemed to have a fascination for the depths we inhabited. He was sat on the far side of the room, gazing upward through the plastic screens.

Doctor Korvac’s husband.

He didn’t see me at first, and when he did, he simply looked away. Perhaps because he was just another outcast, hopelessly estranged from reason.

I walked over and sat near to him. “How’s Mrs. Korvac,” I asked him. “Your wife.”

He fixed me with a deadbolt stare and then snorted in amusement. “She’s not my wife. We’re just friends. Traveling together.”

It figured. “So where did you meet?”

“On Kandos.” He looked upward again. “When we found the Bridges.”

He said the words so calmly, and yet each and every syllable was a gear that turned the world so fast that it made me dizzy.

I suddenly wanted to grab him and shake free every iota of truth. “You found the Bridges?”

“We found them together. She came to Kandos because she was ill. She picked up a bug on a rig like this one — it was eating away her mind. She wanted to see the Bridges before she died. I was with a party of merchants, but they were leaving and I wanted to stay. So we hooked up.”

“You really found them?”

“They weren’t like we’d heard — just a rock formation in the desert that looked like four bridges crossing each other. But then something weird happened. It was like all the light in the desert collected and concentrated on that one place. Like being in the middle of an energy storm. But perfectly calm, y’know?”

“How ill was she?”

“She was pretty much beyond help even when I met her. She’d tried not to lose her mind, pushing herself, testing herself all the time. But it was too late.”

I hardly dared ask the question. “The illness stopped after the Bridges, didn’t it? It didn’t get any worse.”

He nodded. “That’s why she came here, where you got research on the bug. To find out why. To tell others.”

To tell me. Deep in the grip of her own imagination, she had surfaced just long enough to try and help me.

I could barely dam the swell of emotion I suddenly felt for this woman who had faced her darkest demons.

“Where is she now?”

“Probably sleeping. She sleeps a lot. I think she likes to dream about the Bridges.”

Of course. She would go back to Kandos. To find herself again. To be saved.

I knew I would probably never see Penelope Korvac again.

“When you see her,” I asked him, “would you thank her for me? For coming here. For telling me her story.”

For everything.

And he didn’t shy away when I embraced him. Perhaps because he understood that, at that moment, he was Korvac and Zarah, that he was Simmons, and my mother and father, and everybody in my life who had ever brought me close and given me hope.

I’ll tell her, he said.

And he made it a promise.

———•———

Of the five of us journeying topside in this submersible, three of us have new contracts up on the atolls. Myself and one other crewmember have been sectioned and given disability pay-offs. Only I — as far as I know — carry a fatal illness.

The submersible will dock with a way station soon, where we’ll be greeted and led to de-pressurization tanks. And I’m wondering if the nurses will be able to tell who we are just by looking at us, by studying our expressions, our body language, the way we speak.

And whether those things will betray my choice, the choice that Penelope Korvac, an insane woman deep beneath the waves, gifted to me: The fraternity of perseverance. The fellowship of faith. The brotherhood of blind hope.

I’m going to Kandos.

To find the Four Bridges.

Wish me luck.