He began flipping through the pages more rapidly. His eyes fell on a page that looked different. He froze. It began:
“To my future self.”
Mutt re-read these words multiple times before his eyes moved forward to the next line:
“You are reading this because I failed.”
Mutt did not understand. He feared reading forward and flipped back to the preceding pages. Here were more accounts of historical events. He took comfort in their seeming normalcy. He noticed that a page was dog-eared. On that page he read more closely the descriptions. Something was wrong. These were not ancient events. They had happened recently. On the dog-eared page he saw a brief description of the collapse of a viewing platform at the People’s Hall. One hundred and twenty-six people died, and Muglair blamed Arland for sabotage. Mutt could not wrap his mind around this. Was this how Ivy had known in advance of this calamity? She must have read it in these pages. The Oopsah was telling her the future. But why then was she off by two in the death toll? The logical explanation was that he was the victim of an enormous and cruel hoax. Ivy had somehow written this account after the fact in order to convince him of her powers of divination. But why would she do this? And how could she have been so close in the death toll, indeed in predicting the accident at all, if she did not know the future? What about the predictions he found in her satchel in Skava? It occurred to him to look forward a few pages right up to the strange section he lacked the will to read. If the Oopsah had told the future to Ivy and that future had come to pass, it could tell the future to him. He turned forward and saw a continuing description of recent events which had in fact happened. Seamlessly these descriptions moved forward in time to beyond the present. He read that Arland and Skava would reach a mutual preservation pact. That Arland would send forces to help control the Flume. That the great nations would cooperate in laying giant metal cylinders across the rush of water in the hope of containing it. And that these efforts would fail as the hole widened. He read that Muglair would eject the cooperation force from Skava and declare his intention to solve the problem himself. That he would then take no action, forcing Arland to send the Armada to again try bombing the Flume into collapse. And that these efforts would fail. He learned that Muglair would walk onto the Skavian plains with his arms raised heavenward so that Arland could obliterate him in a hail of ordnance. And that no one would be sure if this was really Muglair or a decoy. As he read these passages he became physically ill. They were all leading to an inexorable conclusion. With the loss of water from the Silent Sea the planet would dislodge from its fixture, and then it would be only a matter of hours. The last entry in this section read:
“The date of our death has been ordained. It shall be in two days, for the planet can hold out no more.”
Mutt emerged from the tent shaken. Ivy sat with her head buried in her hands. She glanced up.
“What am I reading?” Mutt asked.
“I don’t know,” she replied. “Have you read it all?”
“Ivy, these pages are telling us what’s going to happen.”
“Mutt, you are not through. You cannot stop half-way. You must finish.” Mutt had heard these words from her before but could not recall when.
He was frightened. He had never believed he could be afraid of mere words. He did not want to read what came next. He looked at Ivy and began to understand the enormous strain she was living under. Something was radically wrong with the world. It was headed toward apocalypse and somehow this book knew it. He decided he had to share her burden. If he could not do it for himself, he would do it for her. He was starting to love her again; maybe he had never stopped. He could not imagine a treachery more complete than when he saw her in a wedding dress in the dance hall, yet somehow he was coming to believe her. Was his resolve to resist her wiles so weak? The feeling was rising within him, as if he were surrendering to her, accepting her transgressions as the price of her love and taking on faith that she had good reasons. She seemed so brutally sincere, so torn by these horrific mysteries, so in love with him. Could she be such a good actress? If she were, could he forget her other roles and enjoy the drama in which he was the lead male? If to have her love he must suffer her scorn, he decided he was willing. The welter of feelings would not permit of loneliness. This was the woman to whom he had pledged his life and there could be no other, so powerful was the bond. He could not suffer loneliness and he could not suffer another. And at least he had stopped the wedding and remained her one and only, if only by chance. For reasons he could not fully comprehend the idea of another man in her body was unthinkable.
“Must I re-enter?” he pleaded.
“You must finish what you started.”
He knew now what he was hearing.
“It’s not sex if you pull out.”
He entered the tent. The page on top was the one he dreaded.
“To my future self.”
He collected himself. These were just words on a page. He could handle whatever they said. He felt himself slipping into a stream of unreality. A story was being told of an effort to stop the Great Man and save the world. A door with a remote trigger would be positioned at the intake to the Flume at the bottom of the Silent Sea. Muglair would try to sabotage the effort but the sabotage could be thwarted. The Great Man would have to be assassinated for he was bent on destroying the planet. To him it was absolute power or absolute destruction. There could be no salvation with his survival. It was necessary to take these steps because nothing else would stop the disintegration. The author laid out his plans in magnificent detail, identifying the stamp on a defective spool of cable, a travel itinerary for Muglair on the appointed day of assassination, and the names of persons who could help. In this last section Mutt saw the name “Ivy” followed by a question mark with the notation “trust at your peril.” For pages and pages he read details of this grand plan to save the planet. This seemed to him like something Tobor Zranga would have written. But Ivy told him that Zranga translated the work and was just as surprised as she was by its content. A few pages in he read a statement that seemed strangely out of place. The author wrote that a child is an expression of the will and must be preserved at all costs. Mutt began to suspect something awful. A chill spread through his body, a rush of negative adrenaline as if a spider were crawling up his leg in a dark room. Deep in his mind a thought was forming. It could not be. These were things that were not possible. The writer proceeded to complain bitterly about the failure of his current efforts. He had tried, he had struggled with all the intensity God had given him, but had fallen short. He had been traduced by spineless agents of evil, people who saw no greater purpose to life than personal advancement on the strings of their puppeteer. The Morvens had betrayed the plot to Muglair. They had been the Great Man’s agents all along. They had reported Zranga’s every move and revealed all his secrets and his plans had failed. They had thwarted the assassination and sabotaged the great door. He cursed the Morvens and swore that he would chase them across eternity and run them through with spikes. The author now sat in a crypt, a godforsaken pit in the bowels of the earth, waiting for creation to expire. Mutt felt as though all the blood in his body had drained through a hole in the floor. He was purged of emotion, transfixed by the story he was reading. It ran on for pages with bitterness at the failure of his plans and with instructions on how to avoid mistakes “next time,” a phrase repeated over and over. The pieces were falling together in his mind. He no longer existed as a human being. He was merely a puzzle solver. He then read a most curious comment. “It is for Celeste that I have done everything. And it is for Celeste that you will.” He flipped the page and saw the picture. Staring back at him across eternity was the most disturbing image he had ever seen, the most innocent child in all God’s creation gazing blankly at him sandwiched between the arms of her loving parents, Tobor Zranga and Ivy Morven.
He had seen the face of Celeste.
Mutt sat down on the dirt floor cross-legged and destroyed. Oh God, oh God, oh God, oh God. What was this world in which he was living? It was impossible. It was not this life the Oopsah was describing. It was another one. It was a message from another time in which things had been different. He could not understand how this was possible. But Ivy had lived before, and she had been Tobor’s wife, and everything she had done since the day she fell into Mutt’s arms had been a vain attempt to escape this destiny. He stumbled out of the tent. It had been years since he cried uncontrollably. Men did not do that. But he collapsed to the ground sobbing before Ivy. He wanted to worship her. He wanted to curse her. He wanted to die.
“Ivy,” he said, gasping, “what is happening to me? What is happening to us?”
Ivy kneeled down. She thought that she was beyond tears but her emotion welled up. She could not have loved a human being more than she loved Mutt. And she could not have struggled harder for his love.
“Mutt,” she said. “Everything I have done, I did to make our love possible. I wanted my own destiny. I did not want this pervert chasing me across eternity. I wanted to find my own love, and I chose you. I wanted to grow old with you.” She could not speak, her mouth contorted in anguish. “And I failed,” she mumbled.
Her face relaxed and she began to compose herself. “You need to understand what is happening.”
“I do not understand. I cannot understand.”
“You can, and you will.” She breathed deeply. “Muglair is destroying the planet. When it happens, it will spin and disintegrate, killing us all. But the matter of the planet will cross the universe for a billion years, and come back to its origin.”
Mutt returned to his sense of puzzlement, his emotions receding.
“And it will all start over.”
He worked his head around this idea. The Cube is formed, Muglair drills a hole through its center, the Silent Sea is drained, the planet spins and disintegrates, its matter disperses freely in the six directions, and it crosses the universe for a billion years only to return to the origin, where the planet reforms and everything starts over. He wanted to laugh. It was a brilliant trick of creation. There was a God after all, and He hated them.
“Then what is the Oopsah?” he asked.
“It is a message,” she replied, “from the last time.”
Mutt was spent but tried to follow.
“This has been going on for a while. Tobor Zranga sends messages across the universe to the next Tobor Zranga, all for the purpose of preserving the child he forced on me. He can succeed only if I bear his child and he stops Muglair. If either condition is not met, he lets the world go and tries again a billion years later.”
Mutt could not process this information. This woman’s capacity to explode his perception of reality was unlimited. He wanted to go back to who he was before he entered the tent, as awful as that was.
“Mutt, you must listen to me. Somebody, a long time ago, launched a message into space, just like tossing a bottle into a river hoping a stranger will find a message inside it. Only this message came back to the Cube a billion years later and in the meantime the planet had been destroyed and reformed. So it was learned that you could send a message across the universe to the next iteration and it would be received by them as a prophecy about the future, because the past for one iteration is the future for the next. Each iteration is identical in every detail to the prior iteration until the Oopsah arrives. Once you learn the future from the Oopsah you have the power to change it. And the more you change the future, the more it goes off track from the predictions in the Oopsah. At some point Tobor Zranga managed to hijack this process. He encoded the Oopsah using a factoring algorithm only he could crack. He knew that in future iterations he would be the first to discover the algorithm and as a result the first to decode the gibberish. So he began sending messages to himself, trying repeatedly to topple Muglair.”
“And to knock you up,” Mutt added. “Dear God I thought I had worked hard for your hand.”
Ivy snorted. It wasn’t funny, but it was.
“Mutt, he had me last time. Our child was Celeste.”
“How did you escape him this time?”
She dropped her eyes. She did not know how to tell him.
“I didn’t,” she said, after several seconds.
“It is not possible for me to escape him.”
“But you did. I was there. You leapt.”
“Mutt, when we first met I was Tobor Zranga’s wife. I was pregnant.”
This for Mutt was a more shocking revelation than the last one. He had built his whole life around this woman, and it was founded on deception? He could live with a God that hated him but not with this betrayal. Ivy was more important to him.
He sat there stunned.
“My parents gave me to him. I was thirteen. I had no say in the matter. I was their insurance policy. If their daughter was the wife of a Minister, they would be protected from the purges.”
“So I was not your first.” The virginity cult was strong among Hutmen.
“No.” She was beginning to feel tainted. “I yielded to him. I had no choice.”
“You told me you had never been with a man.”
“Tobor Zranga is not a man. He is a monster.”
Mutt was an empty shell. The reading of the Oopsah had been a bonding moment, his crossing over to her side. But his trust in her was destroyed.
“Is Hope Celeste?” he asked, expecting to be annihilated.
“Oh God, please never think that. If there is anything I have ever done right in my life it was to have your child. Everything I did was for that.” She halted. “You need to understand ...”
Mutt interrupted her. “No, you need to understand, I believed in you. I thought I could trust you.”
“Do you regret me?” She did not want to know the answer.
He could not bring himself to respond.
“I cannot undo this. Tobor Zranga will rape me for eternity until the cycle stops. It happened before he decoded the Oopsah. And it will happen again next time before he decodes the Oopsah. There is no way to stop it.”
Mutt remained silent.
Ivy became agitated. “Please do not hate me for what was done to me. Can you not love me for who I am?”
“Why couldn’t you stop it?” he asked finally.
Ivy felt like he had not been paying attention. “Because there is no power to change the future until the Oopsah is read. And Tobor does not read it until after I’m pregnant.”
Mutt was stung that she used his familiar name.
“Are you still married to him?”
“Legally, in Skava, I suppose yes. What do you care for a scrap of paper?”
Mutt could not talk. She had two husbands. She had carried another man’s child. Ivy was on the verge of tears. Of all the obstacles she could face, she had feared this one most. That, and the question he asked next.
“What happened to Celeste?”
Ivy was ready with an answer.
Mutt did not believe her. But he understood now her bloody condition when she leapt from the Edge, and her subsequent infection.
“You are a monster,” he blurted out. He regretted it the moment he said it.
Ivy was again alone in the world. Mutt was not the man she had hoped for. There had never been anyone on this planet who could love her and never would be. She had been destined for a horrible fate and her attempts to escape it had only made matters worse. Mutt had taken great pride in his union with Ivy. He could not bear the thought that another man had been there first. For him the act of deflowering was the same as marriage and he could not feel married to her.
Ivy stood up. “I must leave, Mutt. I have no place here. I am sorry for what I have done. No woman will ever love you more than I do, and no woman will ever fight harder for your love. But if you cannot love me with the scars I carry, then I must go. I realize now that my destiny was not Tobor Zranga, and it was not Mutt Ogga. It was to die alone.”
Mutt was not paying attention. He was thinking of Hope. This was Ivy’s way of eradicating Celeste. The two children could not exist in the same world. Once Hope existed, Ivy had to stop Celeste from coming back. Hope was her motivation to fight. If Tobor prevailed he would get Celeste. If Ivy prevailed she would get Hope. It was the mother of all custody battles. Mutt was just a pawn.
When he looked up Ivy was gone.
She had wandered several tents over and was staring at the glowing embers of a dying bonfire. The fire was abandoned and Ivy watched as small flames flickered about the coals. She had suffered so many wretched experiences in her life but this was the worst. She wanted to hate Mutt. She wanted to go back and tell him that if he could not love her he did not deserve her. But he was the kindest and gentlest person she had ever known. If he could not love her, no one could. Ivy Morven was unlovable.
Mutt sat down next to her. “Why did you leave?”
“I know when I am not wanted.”
“Ivy, you have suffered more than any person who has ever lived. It is not fair of me to add to it. But you must allow me time to adjust.” He put his arm around her. He did not feel tender. But he owed it to her to comfort her. It occurred to him that she had murdered her parents because the Oopsah said they thwarted Tobor’s plan to assassinate Muglair and sabotaged the great door. But Tobor abandoned his plans because Ivy was no longer carrying Celeste. He wanted the world to be destroyed so he could try again in the next iteration. How many bodies would these people leave in their wake? Mutt wondered if he would be next.
Ivy was lost in her horrors. Her parents, the people she thought were her parents, had given her to Tobor to rape. There had been no ceremony, just the signing of papers. He was thirty years her senior, the age of her father, and he presented her with a nubility drop for the honor of her flower. This was what they called “pledging” in the Hutman tradition, “promising” among the Inta. Her blood still boiled when she thought about it.
“You promised me.”
Afterward, he brought her to his apartment where a servant prepared a meal. He talked to her about his experiences in the Hutman cause, trying to impress her, as if a girl her age would care. He seemed awkward, fascinating but repugnant, a father figure who would be more. He was tentative, unable to show the assertion that governed his work in the Party. She yielded to him nonetheless, believing it her duty, and was traumatized by the experience. She had never before touched a boy. Tobor did not know how to handle her and could wield neither force nor persuasion. She continued to live with her parents visiting Tobor only for assignations. She resisted her wifely duty, stiffening and falling into violent shaking fits when he approached. He gave her wine during her fits to calm her down, but by the time it had any effect she was already asleep. When she learned in the Oopsah she was pregnant, she believed it impossible. They had not been together as man and wife for months and she had had her flow several times since. It was then that she realized he put sleeping potion in the wine. He had talked about the potion, said he would use it on himself, and asked if she would like help sleeping. But it had never occurred to her that he would physically incapacitate her to rape her. When she learned of her pregnancy, she was torn between a belief that her life was ruined, and an uncontrollable rage. She had gone with the latter. Mutt was her escape to a better life. She wanted to be his Hutwoman wife and the mother of his children. She wanted to purge herself of the awful experiences in Harmour and to create her own destiny. She had truly felt that she was a virgin with Mutt. Because he was the first man she ever chose. And he was the only man. She did not want another even if he rejected her.
She told him about the potion and he listened quietly. He asked her to stop because the details were too painful.
“Mutt,” she asked, “did you go to the Stoika?”
“Yes, I did.”
“And what did you do there?”
“Things I would rather forget.”
“But the things you did, you chose to do them.”
“And the things I did, they were forced upon me.”
“So why must you reject me? Shouldn’t I be rejecting you?”
Mutt felt that she was engaging in sophistry. But he could not find a flaw in her logic. He had either a double standard or no standards. He could not bring himself to admit the obvious. He expected only Ivy to live up to his standards.
“Ivy,” he said after a long silence. “I cannot blame you for what was done to you. And it does not take away from the joy we have shared. I suppose I should not think so much about the first time we were together. But I travel back to that day every day. It will always be the best experience in my life.” He hesitated. “And I hope in my next life.” His system was overtaxed by all the revelations. He did not feel as close to her as he had in the angle. Perhaps that was just an artifact of the relationship being older. He could not control how he felt but he could still be her anchor.
She lifted her hand into a claw shape and made a hissing sound.
“What are you doing?”
“I’m being a monster.”
“I am sorry I said that. I was the monster.” He stared into the fire. “Ivy, have you told me everything?”
“I believe I am out of surprises.”
“Good, because I thought maybe you were a suckleworm in disguise.”
She laughed. She did not know what to make of the man seated next to her. But he was still there, and she was not alone.
Check out chapters of The Cube right here.