The Cube - Chapter 16 - Tom and Cerise

Mutt awoke in a borrowed tent. Ivy was sleeping on a separate haysack on the other side wearing a sundress, her shoulders wrapped in a shawl. She did not have a gown. She was on her side with her back turned to him, her calves protruding from the dress, her hands pressed between her knees. He had always found her attractive sleeping. She seemed so helpless, so innocent. He wanted to protect her. His mind was still spinning from the revelations of the Oopsah. He could not understand how the world could be constructed this way. Should not each iteration be different? If you threw a stick off the edge into outer space, how could that stick somehow make it back into the next version of the planet? He was sure that things would have to be different, that each iteration would change even without the knowledge contained in the Oopsah. And why could people not act differently even if everything was the same? He thought that people had the power to choose their actions and that this meant the future was undetermined until such choices were made. Ivy stirred. She turned over and looked at him, feeling desolate. Mutt had not abandoned her even after learning her horrible secrets, but she could feel that his love had waned, that he could not feel the same toward her. It made her feel ashamed, as if she were at fault for what others had done to her. Perhaps it did not matter whether she was a victim. There are some things that taint simply by changing what you are, whether or not you choose them. If she were a leper, he would feel differently toward her. It would not matter that she did not ask for the disease. And if she were the wife of Tobor Zranga, it did not matter that her parents bartered her to the monster for his pleasure. Once he had her, she was ruined in the eyes of a Hutman, a girl robbed of her most precious virtue, her purity. Ivy did not want to live with this stigma. She wanted to rise above it but could not without Mutt’s acceptance. He looked at her with a pained expression. He was not thinking at all about her prior marriage.

“How can the world work like this?” he asked. “It seems like such a cruel trick. Everything in all creation is just an illusion, a parlor game always ending with the same result. Until somebody else comes along to change the rules. All those people who lived and died in the past, they were just acting out a script that was already written. I thought that I could make decisions that would change my life, that there was right and wrong, that by choosing right I was making the world a better place. Now I feel no better than a machine, just cogs and wheels without a soul.”

Ivy did not know how to respond. She had already had these thoughts in great detail. It was true. People had no say in their actions. They would do exactly what they did the last iteration. Only the Controller could change the future. Once he did so, the people affected by his changes might behave differently than in the last iteration. But until the Controller comes along they are all automatons acting out the last script.

“Mutt,” she said, “if you were destined to be a good person, you are still a good person. It is what you are.”

“What if I choose to be a bad person?”

“You cannot make that choice because it is not who you are.”

“I can now. We are outside the last script. The future has already changed. This has not happened before, we have never been in Leland before, and I am not bound by what a prior self did.”

“That may be true but you are still a good person.” She did not want to talk about the Oopsah. “Mutt, I need to know something. Do you still love me?”

He looked at her. “Yes, I still love you. I will always love you.”

“But do you still love me as much?”

“I do not love anything as much right now. I am still in shock. My emotions are stunted. I made a decision a long time ago that I would never abandon you. And I will not change that decision. You are the greatest gift God has ever given me. I ask only that you respect that I am suffering now just as you have suffered. I need time to adjust to this new reality. It is nothing like the old one.” Ivy was not satisfied. She wanted to see the same all-consuming desire he had shown in the angle. But she understood his feelings and decided she could prod him no further.

“When I first read the Oopsah, in Harmour,” she said, “I found a pile of notes Tobor had written explaining how it worked. I am not sure I understood them.” She proceeded to explain in halting language the discoveries Zranga laid out. He said that the matter along the six directions was like a programming code, referring to new machines that could be programmed with instructions on punch cards to perform various computational tasks. It was a first condition at the creation of the universe. These six strips of matter stretched out across the entire universe and were designed to travel along their respective directions and collect at the origin of the Cube, then develop into the planet with its teeming life. He wrote up a summary of research into the obscure forces, a term she had never heard before. Apparently the matter of the Cube, when liberated by its destruction, did not simply come to rest in its respective directions. It tended to disintegrate to its primal state and then migrate to its primal position over the millions of years. The code of the universe recreated itself so the Cube could reform exactly as it was originally. Tobor called it a reboot. If matter could not migrate to its primal position, new matter spontaneously filled the gap. The only exception to this process was the vault containing the Oopsah. A long time ago, in the first iteration, somebody figured out that a certain molybdenum alloy is impervious to the obscure forces. So they built the vault, using the only available sources of the metal, and loaded the Oopsah into it, not knowing whether it would return to the Cube because they did not know if the universe was open or closed. But they did know that the Oopsah could survive the journey across space. When it came back to the Cube a billion years later, the Oopsah became the only new thing in the second iteration, allowing it to change. Tobor described this as a recursive function. Each iteration starts with the previous iteration but is changed by it through the Oopsah, itself a function of the prior iteration. He concluded in his notes that the Oopsah was part of the primal condition, an artifact of the original code programmed by God. Because if the Oopsah did not exist in the first iteration, there could be no mechanism of change in the second iteration, and therefore the Oopsah would never come to exist. The Oopsah was the only way things could change from one iteration to the next. Without it, they would be stuck in an endless loop.

Mutt was struggling with these concepts. “Why can we not make our own decisions? Why must everything be determined?”

“We do make our own decisions. It just so happens that for any given set of conditions, we will always make the same decisions. It is impossible for a person to act differently in a subsequent iteration if nothing has changed. No matter how hard you try, you will always do what you did last time.” Mutt found this exceedingly distressing.

“The Controller is the person to whom knowledge is given. Once he reads the Oopsah, he knows what the future holds. He can then take actions to change it. This is the unalterable right of being human. To know the future is to change it. If you are told that it has been determined where you will be tomorrow, upon learning this information you can choose to go elsewhere. Any future prediction within your sphere of influence can be changed. Zranga knows this.” She reverted to his surname. “And he has decided that he will keep changing the future until he gets what he wants.”

Mutt was still struggling. “How do we know that we have free will, here in Leland, just because we are outside the last script?”

“We don’t know. Perhaps somewhere there is another Oopsah, a meta-Oopsah, in which all this has already happened and we are just acting out its meta-script. But if we could read that new meta-Oopsah, we would then have the power to change the future it describes. So it would take yet another Oopsah, a meta-meta-Oopsah, to determine us, and so on.”

“Is there any perspective in which things cannot be determined?”

“I don’t know. Maybe that’s God.”

She collected her thoughts. “We will always have a semblance of free will. It is impossible for our fate to be both completely determined and completely known, for the simple reason that once given the knowledge we can choose to act differently. A completely determined universe is possible only in a state of ignorance. We can never truly know our future.”

“What do you want from all this?” he asked.

“I want to stop it. If Muglair is stopped, the planet is not destroyed. Maybe then the Oopsah is never launched and the world never reboots.”

She paused and looked at Mutt.

“I want to live a normal life with you. I want Hope to grow up.”

“Is that why you wanted to get pregnant? So you would have a reason to fight Tobor?”

“I wanted to get pregnant because I wanted to have your baby. I did it for love, Mutt. You did it for love, too. That is one thing I will always know.”

He had not fully appreciated how deeply his ego was bruised by the revelation of her prior marriage. But these words helped to salve the wound. He needed to know that she loved him as a man.

“So what happens when it all stops?” he asked. “If Muglair is stopped and the Oopsah is not launched, is that the end of the cycle?”

“I think maybe this is a cosmic puzzle, and that if the cycle stops the puzzle will be solved, and the universe will start over with a new code. But I cannot think that far ahead. If we solve the puzzle, our reward should be a long and prosperous life in the next iteration, for ourselves, and our children, and their children.”

Mutt had a thought. “Did we meet in the last iteration?”

“Apparently Zranga did not tell me about the Oopsah last time although I learned of it much later. That’s how Celeste came to be. I’m afraid Interior may have gotten your prints, and they may have shot you. If so, I am dreadfully sorry.”

“That’s okay, I suppose,” he responded, quite disturbed. “Time heals all wounds.”

He was still bothered by the time loop concept. “Ivy, how do we know that we will live again if the world is destroyed?”

“Because it has always been that way.”

“No, I mean, why are not those next versions of ourselves different people? When we die this time, maybe we, you and I,” he pointed back and forth, “are just gone, and then new people come along in the future who are like identical twins but who are not us.”

“Those new people will be identical to us in every way right up until the acts of the Controller change their paths. They will have the same experiences, feelings, emotions, love. There will be no way to tell them apart from us.”

“But they will be different people.”

“Mutt, this is all we have left. This world is going to disintegrate in a few days and we are going to die. If we do not have next time, we have nothing. I choose to believe we will live again.”

Mutt was skeptical.

“Think of Hope. She is going to die at the age of four. We can do nothing to stop it. Is that a thought you can bear? What would you give that she may live again? We can watch her grow up,” her voice cracked, “just not in this life.”

“You talk like you have a plan. Tobor has learned his lesson. In the next life he is not going to tell you about the Oopsah so he can have Celeste. Hope will be as dead in that world as Celeste is in this.”

“I was going to trade my life in this world so that we could have Hope in the next. But when you arrived ...”

He cut her off. “Are you sorry I am here?”

“No, I am not. But it could mean the end of our future.”

“Do you still wish to be with Tobor?”

“What do you mean, wish to be with Tobor? Do you think I like that old man forcing himself on me?”

“Well then why were you doing it?”

Ivy looked at Mutt incredulously. She could not believe what she was hearing. She felt a column of anger rising within her.

“Would you sleep with Tobor Zranga to save Hope?” she suddenly yelled. “Would you sleep with Tobor Zranga to save me? Look at me!” She was shrieking now. “Because if you wouldn’t, you are a shitty father, and a shitty husband!”

Mutt was eviscerated by her outburst. He stared at the floor sheepishly. “At least I wouldn’t enjoy it,” he mumbled. It was quite possibly the stupidest thing he ever said.

If Ivy had been a steamboat her boiler would have blown.

“So that’s what this is all about! Your pathetic little ego always thinking about how good you are in bed! Maybe Ivy likes it better with him! Maybe she got a drop of pleasure from it! How in the world could you be such a buffoon! Do you think I like being knocked unconscious and had like a sex doll? Do you think I enjoy being raped?”

Mutt physically compressed into a space smaller than a thimble. He knew how thoughtless he had been. “I’m sorry, Ivy. You are right. I am still adjusting.”

“Mutt, I married you because you are kind and generous. I did not marry you because you are enlightened. But you will have to grow up. You will have to understand that there are things in life besides your dick.”

Mutt did understand this, theoretically. “I am sorry,” he repeated. “I was not thinking.”

Ivy was trembling. She did not want to lose this man’s love. He was all she had and all she wanted. But she could not stand the thought of him associating her with that pervert. She could not stand that the taint had rubbed off on her.

“Mutt, how do I make you understand? You want me to demonstrate my physical desire to prove your manliness. You want me to be so overwhelmed by your presence that I fall prostrate. Have I not done that already? Did I not give you everything a woman could give, heart, soul, and body? Did I not give you a child? You are making it very difficult for me to feel that way again. Being a man does not mean begging for scraps. You must earn my love. You promised to be my anchor. I need you now.”

Mutt was alarmed. He had just assumed that the only question was whether he could still love Ivy as fully given her past. But now she was speaking as if her love were conditional, that her disappointment in him was causing her to reconsider.

She calmed down. “I made my choice too. I will never leave you and will always love you. But you need to make it easier for me. I have to believe you can love me for who I am and not dwell on things I could not control. They are insignificant. I have never wanted anyone but you, and will never want anyone but you. Please be a decent husband for me.”

“I need some time to clear my head. Please do not take this the wrong way.” He kissed her and left the tent. Ivy sat on her haysack flustered. Mutt walked around the village kicking the occasional tumblebrush. He felt foolish. Not only had he been unfair to her, he had been weak and mushy. Ivy was right that he needed to be a man. That meant giving her the assurance she craved, looking beyond the petty things that were bothering him. He was caught up in a cosmic drama that played out for a few years every billion years. The future of this drama depended on their actions now. He could not waste time regretting the past. If Ivy Morven had one defining trait, it was the ability to make a decision and stick with it. Mutt had to follow her lead. Deep down inside he had never doubted his decision to devote his life to her. But by nature he spent too much time regretting lost alternatives or thinking how life could be better only if some impossible thing would happen. She deserved better than that. He resolved to collect himself and rededicate his life to the role of husband. She did not need a man to lead her, but she needed someone who could pretend to lead. He could not be a child whimpering about lost toys. He returned to the tent.

“Ivy, you have a way of clarifying things. Everything that has happened to you,” he paused to underscore the point, “makes me love you more. I will be the husband you want and deserve.” He paused again. “Provided you have sex with me right now.”

Her face went from tender, to offended, to a laugh, all in one second.

“We will know when the time is right.”

Is there ever a wrong time? Mutt thought. He kept the question to himself.

“We need to get Hope,” she said. “We have left her too long.”

“I am glad she was not here for that.”

“Watching parents fight is part of childhood.”

“Ivy,” Mutt began. He had an idea. “Why can’t the Oopsah just be sent uncoded? Would it not be possible to avoid all these horrors, the deaths of our parents, your promising to Tobor?”

“It would not work. If it were just decoded and still received a thousand years ago, the future would change so much we would not exist. What mother would name her child Muglair? What person, what army, would follow a script to the letter once it has been read to them? If the Oopsah were sent uncoded, it would be an entirely different world.”

“Perhaps it would be a better world.”

“I want to see our daughter grow up. I am not willing to commit suicide for strangers.”

“What if the weight of the Oopsah were recalibrated so it came back in the present instead of a millennium ago?” Ivy had explained to him how the Oopsah was alloyed to travel at less than free velocity in the direction of Arland’s gravity. This resulted in a delay in its return to the Cube so that it would arrive long after humanity had evolved, just a thousand years before the planet’s inevitable destruction.

“We would never have Hope. We would never have each other. Everything that happened, had to happen for us to get to where we are. I do not want to give up our day in the angle. I would not give up our child.”

Mutt could not argue this point without risking a further outburst. But it seemed highly self-centered to subordinate the fate of the universe to the lives of just one family. On the other hand, he could not think of a better solution. All paths were fraught with terrific risk. Perhaps what came with the knowledge of the Oopsah was the right to manipulate the future for personal gain. Perhaps everyone else really was an automaton entitled to no consideration in the cosmic calculus. Mutt could not shake the feeling that this was deeply immoral. Yet he agreed with Ivy. Letting their daughter live a full life was a worthy goal, and far better than the goals that usually animate people with power.

“If you could change the future to save your parents’ lives, our parents’ lives,” he asked, “would you?”

“You are overthinking this.”

“Well, would you?”

“If it meant that Hope would not exist, no. And I would gladly sacrifice my own life for her. That is what it means to be a parent.”

“But ...”

“Please, Mutt, no more questions. We have to be parents now in this life. She has been with strangers for a day.”

“Just one more.”

She was getting irritated.

“Is the cycle a billion years? Or is it a billion years to cross space, plus the time it takes the planet to form and get to the present?”

“There is some sort of clock in the Oopsah. Tobor’s notes said it was a billion year cycle, destruction to destruction.”

Mutt’s curiosity was satisfied. They stepped out and walked several tents over to retrieve their daughter. Ivy entered the Ooson tent and emerged with Hope, who had just woken up. The little girl rested in her mother’s arms, her legs dangling by her mother’s hips, her head tilted on her mother’s shoulder, wanting to stick a thumb in her mouth but knowing if she did her mother would pull it out. Her father looked around the land of long shadows and decided it was all just an illusion.

***

Mutt figured the wounds inflicted by the Oopsah might heal more readily with conventional pleasure. He had not been with Ivy since the Notches and would not feel secure in her love until he knew her again as wife. Hope was sleeping nearby but a true Hutman did not care about the presence of a small child. Ivy was sleeping as well, her back curved into Mutt spooning, as he caressed her shoulders, aroused. He dare not wake her to proposition her. Not only would that be insensitive it would not likely elicit a favorable response. So he lay there dreaming of being with her, his thoughts returning to their passion in the Notches. He did not feel the same intensity, his mind so disoriented by the revelations in Irla, stumbling into Ivy’s wedding to another man, discovering she was not a virgin on that magical day in the angle, learning the universe was designed by a misanthropist, having their imminent deaths proven so dramatically by the fact that it already happened a billion years ago. Was Ivy tainted by all this knowledge? He was working hard to move beyond blaming her for the sins of others. But it was difficult because the purity and simplicity of their early love was the standard of comparison. Beyond her love he needed her as a woman, for the release of animal spirit so pent up since their last coupling. She stirred and he immediately rolled her on her back before she realized the movement. He draped a leg between hers and kissed her on the cheek, then on the mouth. What was he doing? He knew this was not the way to approach her but he was driven by a biological imperative. She turned to spoon again and felt his arousal poking into her back as he clutched her hip. She rolled over to face him and said now was not the time. She had suffered too many traumas and needed to know he loved her for more than her parts. He said he loved all of her including her parts, and had not she vowed a loving relationship? She said she did not recall promising to be prone every minute of every day and he said it was implicit in the “have and hold” part. Ivy sat up.


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