The Cube - Chapter 13 - Spice Jars

“Let me,” she said, taking his hand.

“You must stay behind.”

“Really?”

“I am authorized without escort.”

“Can you navigate the system?”

“Stay here, and I will ask if I have questions.”

Mutt disappeared into a dossier room on a lower level of Interior. They had located his wife in Dunder and she would be transferred soon to Irla, the place she had whispered to him upon their forced separation in the edge transport. But the dicadict claimed they could find no record of the child despite an exhaustive search. Mutt described the little girl in detail down to the birthmark on her forehead and scar on her left shin from a tricycle accident and no record of any such child could be found. He would have to assume the worst, she explained, because not even the Great Man with his unbounded love for children could ensure the safety of little ones in a war zone. Many unfortunately fell victim to deprivation and stray bullets and marauding Inta and were buried in unmarked graves, their deaths generating no records, their bodies never to be recovered. Mutt grew incensed at these lies having witnessed himself the fresh graves from slaughter of innocents by Muglair’s goons at the processing center, and relayed a threat against the Great Man’s life through the dicadict. Should his daughter not be found the vengeance he would unleash would be a thousandfold, Tom Weathers would deliver it personally, and Muglair would wish it had been him upon the spike. For the Great Man was not dealing with an earthly force but with the spirits of the martyrs, and he should know for the treachery he wreaked there were gods lying in wait. The dicadict spoke about Mr. Weathers only with Bogin, the Great Man not wishing to expand the circle of confidantes on matters involving the end times, and Mutt suspected this woman would be executed once her mission was complete. For if there was anything scum like Muglair cared about, it was controlling the flow of information, and no life was an obstacle to this purpose. But there was nothing he could do to protect her from the Party she chose to serve. It ate the birds that picked its teeth.

Ivy Morven had been easy to find. She was held in Dunder where she was subjected to brutal interrogation but was still living and could be transported to refuge in Irla. The fate of the daughter remained a mystery. The dossier room was filled with thousands of file banks tended by wandering clerks demanding to see badges. Spiral staircases led to floors above and below with additional banks all containing the Party’s voluminous records on its enemies and persons of interest. Eventually he found catalogs that assigned names to file numbers that could then be used to search the dossiers, and in those catalogs he found references to the Morvens, Tobor Zranga, Tom Weathers, and even Mira Ogga, but no references to himself or Hope. He sought out the dossier for Ivy on an upper floor and found it was missing, all that remained being an insert sheet listing the labels of removed files and corresponding numbers. There had been files for her education, employment in Harmour, the murder investigation for her parents, and even, to Mutt’s surprise, her marriage. But there was no file for their daughter and no lead that might shed light on her whereabouts. Curious, he looked up her adoptive parents and found a personnel biography describing their roles as researchers in Harmour, with Arvin the lead scientist on a classified project described only by the code name “blockhead” and Kitla a biologist with specialty in defensive neurotoxins.

The file for Tobor Zranga, this man who had stalked Ivy in the Notches, was also empty except for a short biographical summary. He was born to a mathematician father and Mother of the Church in Skava’s second city, Moro, and given the birth name Htob as an acronym for “hyperdimensional thing of beauty” which he officially changed to Tobor upon reaching adulthood. He was first in every class he ever attended and considered a prodigy in mathematics and dulcimer before developing an obsession with cryptology. He served in the Interior Ministry under the Inta regime and retained his position as codebreaker after the revolution, only then becoming politically active in the Hutman cause. His willingness to serve the Inta during the struggles was viewed as a black mark for which he made amends by exemplary service to the Party under Muglair’s regime. He transferred from Interior to the former Inta Demographics Center and converted it to the current Institute with a defense research mandate, eventually gaining its elevation to Ministry status. A psychological profile performed after his expulsion from the Party concluded he was a malignant narcissist incapable of empathy and prone to elaborate revenge fantasies. The biography referenced a separate missing file on “deviations” marked with a double asterisk with no further explanation.

Back at the reference catalog Mutt looked up his birth parents and was directed to a voluminous file of newspaper clippings and texts of speeches by the Great Man extolling the martyrs’ sacrifice. For the first time he saw photographs of his parents as normal people, not tragic figures dying on spikes, their images frozen in youth before their murders. Here they were posing before the tendrils of a banyan tree with small children – was one of them Mutt? – at a gathering of the cause. His mother wore glasses on an oval face gazing off into space with buzz-cut hair appearing both bookish and absentminded. Here was his father’s hulking frame handing out leaflets on a village green wearing an official Inta badge on his lapel required for political activity and smiling through pursed lips at disinterested passersby beneath an unruly mop of hair, Paxa’s thumb partly obscuring the photo. Mutt found these people less warm and approachable than Mira and Dox, at least in photographs, and suspected he would have grown up less affable in their household. A subfile summarized the search for the missing children and described a middle son named Tom who vanished in eastern Arland where Hutman refugees secretly carried him to escape the repression, referencing a more detailed report kept in the Assignments Division of the Workers Ministry which apparently held jurisdiction over child placement issues. The subfile also described the investigations into Mutt’s older sister and younger brother, both of whom perished in the chaos of the repression and destruction of their home village. Mutt felt guilty for surviving this family catastrophe and tried to imagine his siblings as adults with children of their own, his nieces and nephews. For a moment he experienced the profound sense of loss that characterized Ivy’s entire life, a sadness Mutt had avoided through the Oggas’ embrace.

Yarly and Prudence had a similar dossier, though not as voluminous, in which he found the original Inta report of their arrest in southern Skava containing a cryptic reference to an unnamed “daughter age three” who had been “processed appropriately” besides which was handwritten in fresh ink the number of another Assignments Division report. There was no evidence that Interior ever linked the lost child to Ivy Morven, and Mutt wondered how she made the association herself. Perhaps she concocted the whole story about their lost parentage to feed her need for drama, but if so why was she sent to the Edge by Interior that day to collect his fingerprints? The most striking image in the file was a staged grayscale photograph of a young Prudence leaning against the stone wall of the village church in Dunder, grenade in hand and pin in mouth, bandolier across her chest, ebony hair flowing to her waist and flat bangs framing a delicate nose and lips set beneath intense angry eyes that followed the viewer from any angle. The file for Tom Weathers held only editions of The Sphere with biographical data apparently describing the wrong person, a Hutman nicknamed Tomaly Weather banished from Moro for immoral acts about the time Mutt arrived in the Notches. Had Interior not figured out that the author Tom Weathers was Mutt Ogga and not Tomaly Weather from Moro? Mira’s file did not draw the connection and contained only her voting record in the Mothers Hall with no reference to family. He was surprised by the dearth of information in the files and briefly considered supplementing them with handwritten notes. He figured if Interior was going to shoot them it should at least know who it was killing.

The dossier room was hugely disappointing. In all those thousands of files he found no reference to his daughter and was now out of options but for the empty threat to exact unspecified retribution against the Great Man if she were not returned to him. He feared his bluster would come back to haunt him. For if Interior truly did not know where she was and he failed to deliver on his threat, Muglair might deduce the limitations of his power and execute him. On top of despair over his daughter he had the problem of the dicadict, a slang word in Interior for a seductress spy. These agents were chosen for sexual attractiveness and it was her duty to develop an intimate relationship with him for the purpose of extracting information. Mutt enjoyed the attentions of a pretty woman and was in no mood to fend off temptation. She treated her assignment as an opportunity to gallivant about the capital as a couple. Did Mr. Weathers wish to visit the dossier repository? That could be arranged but it would take a couple of days and in the meantime why not join her on a skiff excursion on the ring canal. Did Mr. Weathers seek an update from the Law Ministry on the status of a prisoner? Well the appointment would be in the afternoon and why not visit the open air market in the meantime for lunch on a stick. Mutt learned to play along with these flirtations because otherwise she would make him wait. When he first said no to the ring canal she added a day to the visit to the repository. He could complain about the manipulation but it was easier and more pleasurable to reciprocate. On the day after his unsuccessful search in the dossier room she invited him again to lunch in the market. She held his hand and led him through the numerous apparel stalls hawking wraps, shawls, belts, holsters, gauchos, and all manner of strange wear, through the jewelry section past a pegboard of nubility drops which she sampled for his approval, and onto food stalls specializing in pastry pies and mystery meat on sticks. They both opted for thaban pie wrapped in foil that leaked and crumbled so much that Mutt ate more off his pants – they were seated on a curb – than from the foil. He enjoyed this woman’s company but remained committed to his wife and reuniting his family in Irla. Still, he could not help but imagine how easily Ivy could have been the dicadict given her training in Harmour, and how this woman might have been his wife with only slight variations in history.

She asked him to take her folk dancing and he said no. She invited him to a trape café and he said yes.

“You know why I was assigned to you.” She sat across a table holding a cup.

“Because you look like my wife.”

“You think it is my job to extract information.”

“What else could it be?”

“Bogin has concluded you have no information to provide. What you told the Great Man, you learned from Tobor Zranga. He is a true seer and Muglair is afraid of him. You are a fraud and Bogin will recommend your execution.”

“Do you know who my parents are?”

She shook her head.

“They are in the shrine, on spikes. My power comes from them. If Muglair is not afraid he should be. I am the child to whom he has sworn to cede power.”

The dicadict would speak no more on this subject.

“I was married once,” she said. “I had a daughter just like you.”

Mutt did not believe a word this woman said.

“My husband died at Bivens Mill. My daughter died a week later from scarlet fever.”

“I am sorry for your loss. I do not wish to repeat it in my own life.”

“I will never love again. But I like my new job. I get to meet interesting people such as yourself.”

“Do you like sleeping with strangers?”

She thought for a moment and answered honestly.

“Yes. It is all I have left. In fact,” her hand trembled, “I like it better than marriage.”

Mutt appreciated her candor.

“Your daughter is dead,” she said.

He tensed.

“I am sorry to speak so bluntly. I do not know the details. But children who disappeared at the front were slaughtered. And your wife is no angel. I have read her dossier. There is much about her you do not know.”

“I know she murdered her parents.”

“And you love her still?”

“She is all I have.”

“Come, join me in my flat.”

“What do you need from me?”

“I will ask you afterwards.”

She took his hand and led him across the dusty market. In a stall two vendors sat on chairs across a pegboard playing a bizarre game with pegs and string. Mutt refused to walk further until he understood the rules. The board contained an eight by eight array of holes into which fifteen pegs were randomly inserted. Each peg had a small hole bored across its diameter just above the surface of the board when the peg was inserted. The players each had a home peg to which a string was permanently attached, and they took turns threading the string – the loose end was affixed to a dull needle – through the holes in the other pegs. Evidently, the goal of the game was to thread the string through each of the fourteen other pegs exactly once before returning to the home peg, with the restriction that a player could not connect two pegs along a direct path already traveled by the opponent. When both players returned to their home pegs they compared their remaining string and the player with the most excess, meaning the player who had connected all fifteen pegs traveling the shorter distance, was declared the winner. As much as Mutt desired joining the dicadict in her flat he wanted first to play this game, which one vendor called Peddler and the other Traveling Salesman. Each vendor humored him for a game, defeating him with lightning moves while he deliberated chewing on his nails, in one case stalemating him so he could not even return to his home peg, a source of great mirth for the vendors. He played the dicadict and to his surprise won a game although he suspected she did not try seriously.

She took his hand, tired of these distractions, and escorted him to her motorized bounder tethered to a post, an unwieldy motorcycle using an electric battery on the streets of Leri Deri but with tanks for sidewater propulsion for longer treks outside the city. She drove him to a treelined boulevard in the outer boroughs bordered by rows of concrete apartment buildings. Mutt knew he was offending the love of his wife but he was a man with needs and here was a woman whose job was to gratify them. In her one-room flat she removed her outer garment and shoes and sat on her bed, beckoning him to join her.

“All I ask,” she said, “is that you massage my shoulders. They are so tense.”

“There is only one way we can do this.”

“And how is that?”

“You must pretend to be my wife.”

“What I said about my husband,” she replied, “was true. I will be your missing wife, if you will be my dead husband.”

Mutt joined her on the bed and began caressing her shoulders. She was a sensual woman trained professionally to draw out a man’s essence. He did not believe her story of a dead family but was surprised by the emotional pitch she created in the room. Really, he felt he would be offending her virtue not to sleep with her, so intent she was on pretending he was her departed love. She looked remarkably like a looser version of Ivy, with fuller lips and a practiced seductive pout, but the fact that she was a different woman, a stranger who drew a salary to couple with him, was stimulating. He thought briefly of his visits to the Stoika, memories that had shamed him at the time but now felt arousing. There was something refreshing about transactional sex, free of promise and pretense, simple gratification of desire like eating cream pie, and with no more significance. He imagined the natural fit of their bodies as she received him, an embrace less intimate than Ivy’s yet more erotic for its designs, a tangle of flesh moving rhythmically with a female lead insistent on conquest for professional duty. It was her job to please him, to snare her victim within the web of Interior, to employ all her womanly tricks for his tactile pleasure, to bring him to the cusp where biology would take over.

His reverie was interrupted by her crying at a family photograph on an end table and Mutt wondered if she really were missing loved ones and not merely acting. He waffled at disrobing and she told him he was a good looking man and no one would have to know, that she needed to feel her husband again, that he was the only man she had ever met who reminded her. True, this woman should find him desirable, he was objectively so, and Ivy would never learn of the liaison if he kept his mouth shut, but he did not like playing these games. She turned to kiss him and he refused, preferring an incremental approach to see if his conscience faded. She leaned her back into him and reached to feel his crotch but he moved her hand. She lay on her side on the bed facing him and he reclined to face her, her leg now resting over his waist opening herself to him, bringing their bodies closer to joinder. Mutt’s conscience was shrieking that he could not sully his marriage with seduction by a dicadict but his hand was involuntarily moving to her hip to pull her to him, a step he knew would be followed by final disrobing because he could not push into her part way without pushing all the way. They were made to fit like any man with any woman, fungible parts to be assembled for mutual gratification, and he was running out of reasons for not assembling.

He pulled away shaken, so wanting to pleasure himself and move beyond this temptation.

“I must receive a dispensation.”

The dicadict was confused.

“I have earned one. If a Father of the Church will bless our sin, I will share your bed.”

“You are a strange man.”

He insisted on receiving dispensation at the Cathedral of the Angels of God. Along the way on the bounder a thought occurred to him. He told her they must stop first at the Workers Ministry. He took her hand feeling genuine affection for this woman and insisted she use her letter of authority to access the Assignments Division. If the Workers Ministry kept track of the fate of displaced children such as himself, they might have a record of Hope. The chief clerk refused to grant access until confirming the letter with Special Investigations in Interior, and even then monitored them distrustfully in the highly secretive file room. Mutt could not make sense of the catalog system but eventually found a chronological record describing all relocated children by date of induction. He went back to the day he last saw Hope on the transport and read through each entry going forward, listing names, location of induction, age, hair color, eye color, height, weight, and other identifying information. On the third page in he found a reference to a “Hope age three” with a crimson forehead birthmark, inducted in the 14A transport facility, marked “appropriate for placement.” His heart raced as he searched the file banks for the corresponding number and retrieved a dossier detailing her placement. She was described on an intake sheet as healthy, well-adjusted, thirty-eight inches tall, thirty-six pounds, light brunette with hazel eyes, parents presumed deceased, of sufficiently mixed lineage to justify Hutmanization. He flipped past medical records to find her assignment page giving a family name and location which he committed to memory before misfiling the dossier so agents could not easily retrace his steps. On the street he asked the dicadict to lend him her map of the capital so he could get his bearings – in fact he was interested in the map of the entire country on the flip side – then solemnly announced he would proceed to the cathedral for heavenly indulgence. On the street before the main entrance he was nearly struck by a transport vehicle emerging recklessly from the ramp of the Interior garage, which he slapped in anger calling the driver a goat kisser, a common insult in Shivaree. The main entrance of the cathedral led to a lower lobby from which a magnificent double spiral staircase ascended upward with two intertwined sets of steps to the main nave. Mutt embraced the dicadict and kissed her tenderly, anticipating their liaison in the flat, his hands groping her hips in defilement of the sacred edifice.

“What do you plan to ask me?”

“I will ask you in the flat,” she replied.

“Ask me now.”

“How do you know the future?” She looked at the satchel by his side. “I read your papers. How did you learn these things?”

“Who wants to know?”

“Bogin. It is the one thing he cannot understand.”

“The only future I am interested in is the next sleeping hour.” He looked her over suggestively.

“That’s not a good enough answer.”

“Tell me the status of my wife.”

“Your wife is in better shape than my husband. She is on her way to Irla as we speak. That vehicle you slapped crossing the road, she was in it.”

Mutt jolted, unnerved by the thought.

“You must promise me something,” he asked, composing himself.

“Yes?”

“When I leave, go into hiding. Bogin will kill you.”

“Where are you going?”

“I am going to Irla to join my wife, as soon as I find my daughter.”

“Bogin will not let you leave.”

“He does not control me.”

“What is the answer to my question?”

“The answer is that my visions come in dreams. This is the end times, and the Controller is speaking through me.”

“I will earn a better answer than that.”

Mutt turned to go.

“I have much to tell the father and may be an hour or two. I must purge myself fully for our transgressions. Be patient and I will join you here.”

She did not believe he would return but decided to wait.

He climbed the staircase to the enormous nave of the cathedral, open on the sides between fluted columns to courtyard mimosa gardens with mossy vine-covered buttresses and arches criss-crossing the vaulted interior, marmosets and coypu scurrying along the stone paths between nests and feeders above the heads of churchgoers, birds and insects silhouetted against bright beams of sunlight aimed through apertures to illuminate ancient icons bolted to stone walls. A father approached and asked if the young man needed absolution. He dreamed briefly of the joy of sharing the dicadict’s bed then told the father no and rapidly descended the other side of the double staircase, emerging on the opposite landing outside the dicadict’s view in the direction of a separate exit. On the street he hurried around the sides of the cathedral back to her bounder and started it, having lifted the key from her pocket during their embrace along with her letter of authority with Bogin’s seal, which he hoped would be adequate to pass checkpoints. If he was lucky he would have a head start of an hour to reach a destination not on the map, an obscure crossroads called Bortle’s Cork referenced in Hope’s assignment file. At a checkpoint at the outer perimeter he impatiently pulled the letter of authority from his vest, snarled at the attendant reviewing it, then yanked it from his hands and proceeded without looking back, hoping no one would follow. Driving a motorized bounder specially manufactured for Interior agents gave credence to his claim of authority.

He sped as fast as the machine would travel to the small town of Porlock southeast of Leri Deri, the closest village to the crossroads, obsessed more with the woman he abandoned at the staircase than with the family he was struggling to reunite. Why did he not spend at least a day in the dicadict’s bed enjoying her company? He was mesmerized by her body, her curves and breasts and accommodating hips, and wanted to turn around and unwrap this gift so generously bestowed by Interior. Mechanically there would be no difference between sex with this woman and sex with Ivy. If anything the dicadict would be a fresh conquest and perhaps more pleasurable for her novelty and training. He had fled her advances because he feared cheapening his marriage and spoiling his heroic effort to reunite his family. But why should preserving his family be incompatible with occasionally enjoying the flesh of another woman? Their bodies were designed for mutual gratification and only his conscience, a useless faculty in bed, got in the way.

He had three hours to ponder these mysteries on the long road to Porlock, passing within fifty miles of the still widening Flume, and by the time he arrived in the village his loins had cooled and he regretted the temptation. Ivy was the love of his life, they had grown together as a couple, their deepening love would not be possible with dalliances along the way, and he could not betray a woman who would never betray him. If honor meant anything it was keeping one’s promises and he would not jeopardize his marriage with wandering lust. He was still governed by the wisdom of Mira and understood better as he grew older the effort required to build a stable home. He purged from his mind images of the dicadict beckoning on her bed and focused instead on the joyous reunion he anticipated with his wife.

Porlock was an unsightly town with new cement block construction surrounding a village green that was not green at all but merely uncultivated dirt. From the center of the dirt rose two statues Mutt recognized from photographs in the dossier room, his parents. He parked the bounder and walked across the dirt field, realizing with a stabbing pain he was in the Hutman village of his birth, the home of Outin and Paxa that was brutally razed in the repression, the ancient huts and cottages leveled and green salted so as never to support civic life again. Muglair rebuilt the town in honor of the martyred leaders but left the green in its ruined state as a reminder of Inta cruelty. For the first time since learning of his adoption he felt a blood connection to Outin and Paxa, seated at their feet in his hometown surrounded by the ghost of a thriving Hutman community wiped out in violent collective punishment, resurrected now with special outlays from Leri Deri for its role in the cause but as an inorganic substitute. What Mutt saw was not the new concrete structures, or the dirt field, or even the village green before the salting, or the cottages and huts before the leveling, but the green and cottages and spreads of Shivaree. Why had his life been so unnaturally uprooted, taken from the community of his birth where he should have thrived as a child, and in flight from unrelenting terror carried to another side of the world to an entirely different community with a new and pretend identity? He was thankful to God for the family he found in Shivaree but only now, at the feet of the lifeless statues of his parents in his original hometown, did he appreciate the tragedy of his early years. And the horror, he realized, of the theft of his own daughter from her parents.

He jumped up from the statues and ran to the bounder. Bortle’s Cork – surely there was a story behind that name – was on the main road east from Porlock near the intersection with the road to Gulet. He had not devised a plan for retrieving his daughter and what he must do would be criminal under the laws of Skava, but he would not allow history to repeat. Hope was his daughter and she would not be stolen by goons and given to another family. She would not suffer the violent rupture that had defined her parents’ lives. He studied the map to pinpoint her new home and searched the luggage compartments of the bounder for implements and accessories, finding a folding knife, sharpened thaban horns, emergency ropes, and Skavian currency, among other things. The machine’s battery was low and he considered recharging but was afraid of tipping Interior to his whereabouts, remembering the informant role of the filler in Shivaree.

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