The Cube - Chapter 17 - An Assignation

“Great news!” Garan was excited. “You must read the board.”

Mutt followed him to the notices and saw amidst exclamation points the breaking news that Muglair had relented. A cooperation force from Arland was on its way to the Flume. Together the armies of the great nations would lay giant metal cylinders across the rush of water, stopping the flow and saving the planet. This was what Garan needed, hope for his family. His days in Irla had been the blackest of his life as he became increasingly convinced he would lose his wife and precious children to Muglair’s madness. Mutt smiled weakly then forced a generous grin.


“This is wonderful, my friend. Let us have hope for the future, that our children may live long and prosperous lives.”

Mutt appreciated the burden Ivy carried so long by herself. How could he tell Garan what he knew? This had all happened before. The historical events now transpiring were outside their sphere of influence. Even with knowledge the destruction could not be averted. The Flume had been an unstoppable force for countless iterations and the draining of the Silent Sea would end no differently this time. The fate of the world was determined. The only effect of knowledge was to eliminate the last shred of hope, however irrational it might be, that things might turn out differently.

Garan wanted to celebrate and Mutt resolved to help. If all he could do in his final days was give comfort to Garan’s doomed family, it was a worthy cause. They gathered around a bonfire eating teaberry flan with makeshift spoons from an assortment of odd containers. Children lofted an owl-patterned kite on twine with a ribbon tail before snagging it on the pole of a tent banner. Mutt volunteered to retrieve the kite which was a more involved undertaking than he anticipated. One could not simply lay a ladder against a tent to reach its summit. He eventually snagged the kite with a fishing lure and filament but tore it beyond repair on retrieval. He made up for his botched rescue by teaching the children to play flute by blowing on thumb knuckles into the cavity of cupped hands, much like the chyrix call but without the blade of grass. Only one child managed a toot but the effort distracted them long enough to forget the tattered kite.

Garan talked hopefully about efforts to control the Flume and wondered aloud whether the peoples of the great nations could forge a lasting cooperation pact that privileged mutual advantage over conflict. He collared Mutt for a conversation about the cylinder plan which appeared infeasible the more he thought about it. Would not the water seek out new channels along the sides of the opening? How can one hold back a column of water in free fall two hundred and sixty miles deep? How would the cylinders be anchored? Arna asked Mutt what would happen if the cylinders failed. Mutt assured her that what humanity had wrought it could undo and there was no need to contemplate tragic failure. The real question, he suggested, was how civilization would adjust to the loss of hydroelectric power. The water already depleted would take centuries to replenish even assuming no further use. Other power sources were not nearly sufficient to compensate for this loss and people were going to have to adjust radically with fewer cold compressors, electric ovens, artificial illumination, or battery cars until new sources, presumably wind power, could be developed on a broad scale. What little power remained would be devoted in the near term to energy intensive industries such as electrolysis and papermaking, and no doubt munitions. The common people would have to revert to a standard of living predating the taming of electricity. Personally, Mutt declared, nobody in the tent city of Irla should have trouble adjusting. They had all lived without electricity for months.

Ivy refused to join the celebration and remained in the tent contemplating her options. Tobor had already written new instructions for the next iteration, she was sure, ordering his next self never to share the Oopsah with her and consigning her to a future as his wife and mother of Celeste. Perhaps that future Ivy would not be so miserable. She would never learn of the marriage to Mutt or the birth of Hope and would have no standard of comparison. Perhaps she could focus on raising Tobor’s children and derive some benefit from her status as wife of a Minister. If Tobor stopped Muglair in the next iteration, she would not have to live through the awful cataclysm she now faced in Irla. But the prospect of living out her future days in Harmour under the thumb of that monster filled her with despair as intensely as when she first read the Oopsah. She hated the man, and the Morvens for giving her to him, and wanted to lash out at the world in violence. Only what could she do? Why would Prudence not guide her? All her life she needed her mother, and all her life her mother was not there. She wanted to kill Tobor. It would do no good. In fact killing him would eliminate her last hope in the end times, for only he could inscribe the Oopsah, and only through new inscription could the future be changed. But eternal damnation was a price she would consider for the pleasure of watching him die.

Mutt entered the tent for the sleeping hour having strategically deposited Hope with the Oosons to have time alone with his wife. He had become accustomed to acts which brought release that girls in Shivaree would not have called sex. He began to caress her as she hovered on the edge of sleep but she withdrew and told him Prudence had come to her in a dream too. This was completely unexpected. Unfortunately, Prudence told her there could be no more hay rolling of any sort until the next iteration. Mutt was dumbfounded. He began immediately concocting another Prudence vision in which she preached total wifely surrender for her daughter but it was pointless. His great plan to save the world had backfired. Ivy turned on her side, her back spooned into Mutt, grinning as she twirled her finger about the stub of hair where he had cut the lock. This was only fair, she figured, and drifted off to sleep, Mutt poking haplessly into her back. He decided he had to confess all when she awoke. He had no idea how she would react but he could not stand the thought of no contact for another billion years. He did not sleep one second and when she awoke rolled her toward him.

“I made up the story about your mother.”

“I know.”

“I am sorry. I thought maybe it would motivate you. I am not ready to give up.”

“Why don’t you motivate yourself?”

“We both know if anybody is going to save the future, it will be you.”

“I do not know that.”

“Maybe Prudence is guiding us.”

“Do not say such things.”

“I am serious. When I awoke, the idea was there. I did it without thinking. I am beginning to wonder if she really did come to me.”

“Mutt, we are alone as people can be. I want to believe in my mother’s spirit but she was not there when I was thirteen, and she is not here now. The Inta killed her, her body and her spirit, and I am left to cope.”

Mutt was surprised at how definitive she was. Ivy was surprised as well. She had been feeling a connection to her mother’s spirit but now viewed it as a sign of weakness, a projection of her longing to be sheltered by others in trying times when the resolve needed to come from within. She was struggling to develop that resolve but still had no plan. She wanted to chastise Mutt for playing so callously with her emotions but understood his trick for what it was, a last ditch effort to salvage a hopeless situation. If he could try so hard, even if misguidedly, she could too.

She lay on her side and gazed at him sweetly, not angry at his deception.

“What are you doing?” he asked.

“Appreciating you.”

She had been thinking of life with Tobor, the life she had lived for iterations in the past, the life she appeared bound to repeat in the future, and comparing it to the bizarre and beautiful twist her destiny had taken when she leapt over the Edge. One man raped her as a child, drugged her to impregnate her in sleep, manipulated the fate of the universe to keep her in bondage, repulsed her to the core of her being. The other rescued her from the hell of Harmour, cleansed her body of that awful taint, loved her and committed to her, gave her a child she wanted and adored, and stayed with her in the face of all adversity. She needed a sign from her mother and perhaps this was it. She had no mother, only the voice of her conscience speaking through an imagined mother, a trick of the mind to lend authority to her wavering convictions. And her conscience, in the form of her mother, told her she could only escape Tobor’s grasp by appreciating the man she had found. She knew she must rewrite the Oopsah to preserve their love and to free that awful text from Tobor’s control. But how? Mutt had no idea what she was thinking and saw only an angelic smile. He assumed this was an opportunity to bond with his wife while Hope was still with the Oosons. Her mind was in outer space while his was on earth, and she decided to come down and join him. He was not the only one who could receive pleasure in ways that would not get her pregnant, and he had shown remarkable enthusiasm for the panoply of options. He had the ability to block out their imminent and unavoidable deaths during conjugal relations which she resolved to emulate. This was an hour they would never get back and what better way to spend it?

Garan followed the boards compulsively over the following days waiting for runners to arrive with the latest notices from Shamba. He read intently of the progress of the cooperation force. The cylinders could not merely be laid across the Flume because the force of the water was too powerful. The engineers of the great nations dug tunnels at an angle into the shaft in the hope of pushing the cylinders into the cascade like a magician’s sword box. But water from the Flume diverted into the new channels and gushed upward to the surface, creating a bigger problem that required immediate capping before the openings merged. Arland’s chief engineer proposed digging deep into the ground to insert cylinders horizontally across the torrent using the overlaying earth as anchor. But this would take weeks and Muglair was growing impatient. He declared he would dig his own side tunnels using the superior skill of Skavian miners and detonate his most powerful ordnance on all four sides of the shaft simultaneously along a vertical stretch four hundred feet high, collapsing the column in a violent explosion. Arland offered the services of its engineers but refused to supply explosives for fear Skava would use them on its territory. In retaliation Muglair ordered the cooperation force out of the country and declared he would proceed alone. The terms of the pact required Arland to vacate immediately upon demand. Despite official protests from Rixjrig and a last-minute offer to contribute equal ordnance, the unarmed force was compelled to withdraw. With the pact dissolved Arland could resume hostilities consistent with the law of war but elected not to. Muglair’s new plan was preferable to surface bombing, Arland’s only option from afar, and the Marshal decided to give it time while girding for a final all out assault. The fate of the world was now in Muglair’s hands, and a less deserving steward there could not be.

Muglair’s political position was rapidly deteriorating. Even his hand-picked Council, the persecution of their predecessors fresh on their minds, took up the charge of the People’s Hall to present the Great Leader with terms for a proposed peace with Arland. He solemnly conferred with the Council and promised to give their ideas careful consideration. The economy collapsed as he debased the currency by printing obligations promiscuously, and he seized direct control of the warmaking apparatus while the country descended into barter. Necessities were rationed and food shortages widely reported in the provinces, with famine gripping non-agricultural areas in the rural east as grain and produce were diverted to population centers. A revolt was brewing in the rubble of Leri Deri as the military refused orders to fire on assemblages in the plaza. Muglair stripped the military of domestic law enforcement duties not directly related to war and devolved riot control onto Interior which lost no time dispersing protesters by water cannon and small arms without regard to casualties. Village green societies, long supplanted by Party cells, reorganized spontaneously and sent delegates to Leri Deri as an alternative to Muglair’s power structure. The civilian death toll mounted under Arland’s relentless bombing campaign targeting all stages in the military supply chain, often located in urban neighborhoods. Arland targeted Leri Deri without mercy and without direct military purpose to demoralize the population and upset the basic economic functioning of society. Graphic images of children killed or maimed by the bombing, long a staple in the Party press for igniting nationalist hatred, now had the effect of calling the war effort into question. What were these children dying for? Water? The cause of equal rationing of the Silent Sea no longer seemed so compelling. Stores of Arland sidewater ran low limiting Skava’s ability to dump ordnance over the Edge that could curve back onto enemy territory. Rumors of Muglair’s torture chambers and prophylactic justice spread throughout the country aided by a resurgent underground press and leaflet campaigns directed by Arland and resistance cells. What before was questioned only in hushed tones, what before had seemed arguably justified under exigent circumstances in the face of sworn enemies, now demonstrated the abuses of power by a bloodthirsty tyrant who had brought the country to its knees. People who had suspected all along the horrors inflicted on innocents now began to question the atrocities openly, an attitude sorely lacking when it might have had effect. Few were willing to declare mass murder off limits as a policy tool, but was it truly necessary to round up small children and drive bayonets through their chests? Such were the heresies gripping the nation.

Muglair continued to imprison and execute those within his grasp he deemed disloyal, more from force of habit than designs for maintaining power. He grew serene at his fate and decided his epitaph would be written by the manner of his death. It had always been possible he would fail the Hutmen, that the Hutmen would fail him, that the current of history would turn in Arland’s favor, but it could never be said he did not devote his whole being to the cause of justice. He had taken harsh measures, yes, but they were no more cruel than was dictated by historical necessity. If he had struggled so completely to upend the order of the world for the betterment of the Hutman and still failed, could it be said that his methods were too extreme? Surely he was not barbaric enough and would only try harder if he could turn back the clock. He dawdled on his plan to collapse the shaft deep underground, diverting manpower and resources to less pressing needs such as trench construction along the Edge, consumed by the unjust world that would endure after his passing if the Flume were capped. He would not take more forceful action to stop the planet’s disintegration because apocalypse was superior to Arland’s continued hegemony; destruction of the world was preferable to maintenance of the status quo. They would all be equal in death, and was not equality all he ever sought? He would achieve it one way or another, and as the days passed the other way became more likely. Although he perceived his tilt toward apocalypse as the recent and natural evolution of the Hutman cause, he had rigged the planet for destruction from the beginning. He had removed all internal louvers from the Flume design and sabotaged the great door in favor of a single surface control that could not withstand the ferocity of Arland’s initial assault, believing from the beginning that safety mechanisms would foster a compromising spirit. As long as the great powers knew they could be saved by activating a control, they would fight and negotiate on the basis of Muglair’s eventual surrender. His plan had been to force Arland to capitulate under threat of planetary destruction and upon capitulation find a way to control the mighty jet of upwater. A credible threat requires the will to follow through and now that Arland had not capitulated he was carrying it out. He could never have taken his gamble for supremacy without risking the apocalypse, and that risk was becoming reality as the gamble failed. He had no regrets. If he would fail, the world would fail with him. The Hutman would never again have a leader with his strength, his dedication, his will. They were destined to a future of eternal subjugation to Arland if Muglair failed and the planet survived, and to that future he preferred that the Silent Sea drain indefinitely. They would all be equal in death. It was a comforting thought.

Ivy wanted to believe history could turn out differently this time. Had not the course of history changed sufficiently through her acts, and those of Tobor, that the Flume could be stopped? Had not the deaths of the Morvens, the desabotaging of the great door, Tobor’s various intrigues inspired by the Oopsah, Mutt’s invocation of Muglair’s superstitions, Ivy’s entreaty to the liaison, had some effect? Perhaps, but these divergences were not enough. She was coming to believe that once the Flume erupted the end was written no matter how history diverged based on knowledge obtained from the Oopsah, such was the force of that current of water. All paths were like magnetic lines leading from the pole of eruption to the pole of apocalypse, bowing in different directions but curving inexorably back to a single destiny. This world was lost, and the next iteration would be lost if the Flume erupted again. She needed a way to change the next world before the Flume became operational so that the planet could be saved, but the only way to do this was to yield to Tobor, to be his wife, to give birth to his children, to validate his prerogative. That was not a future she could contemplate.

Her single greatest regret was that she had lost the final revelation. Her readings in Harmour and on the Second of Skitton offered her guidance from a higher power, and that power had told her she would receive one more reading in Irla. But she had lost the sacred gibberish with the plundering of her satchel by Interior. What Mutt returned to her, bless his heart, lacked the most important data of all, her transcription of pie, the vehicle for the final message. She was left to wonder how the future might have turned out differently, how she may have found hope for the next life, if only she could have her final reading. It was a bleak time, so bleak it was almost soothing, the restlessness generated by belief that actions can have effects dissolving into resignation and acceptance of death. The beautiful life she had found in the Notches and tried so hard to recreate in Irla was an aberration. Tobor would restore his will to the cycle of iterations and she would lose all. He was wrong that love was never true, but he was right that it would never triumph. All she could do was enjoy her final days with her family as best she could with death hovering in the background, to love them without restraint and appreciate the wonder of their union in its waning moments. As surely as with Muglair, the manner of her death would determine the rightness of her cause.

***

“How were you going to end The Sphere?”

Mutt had been pondering this question since arriving in Irla but never found a good time to ask. Simple, Ivy told him, the Sphere would have a great work like the Oopsah in which evil people transcribed events and instructions and with the slinging of the planet’s matter into outer space the sacred text would be launched skyward, only to float back down to the Sphere a billion years later after the planet reformed under the influence of spherical gravity. She had to invent a new concept for the globe, upmatter, to buoy the vault of the text so that it would descend at the appropriate time, one thousand years before the torque of the windmills performed its ruinous magic. But this upmatter would only exist in the vault itself, implanted by the original code, and all other matter would retain the singular, if boring, property of mutual attraction. Mutt figured the rest of the Sphere would be a retelling of the awful story of the Oopsah although he wondered how Posy would rewrite the sacred text before her death to seize control of the next iteration. Ivy wondered this too. Her only idea was to have Posy land in the vault in outer space and chisel her own inscription but this seemed hardly plausible. She would need a spacesuit and Huston would have to remain by her side so they could die in each other’s arms, an imperative for tragic romance. Actually a raunchy space scene to top the vat room romps had literary potential but she was not convinced she could pull it off. What exactly could a couple in spacesuits do? If they pulled the suits off would not their bodies explode from the pressure differential? Would they have time for canoodling before the explosion? She figured the Oopsah, the one on the Sphere, would have to be pressurized with a hatch, and somehow Posy and Huston would have to get through the hatch in outer space before suffocating. The more she thought about it, the more she preferred Mutt’s simple ending with the tearful couple tossed heavenward with the nabana grove and no hope of future lives.

Ivy had planned to spill all her secrets after the Fifteenth of Tarpin if the Flume did not erupt. Mutt wondered if he would have believed her. By that time history would have diverged so radically she may have lacked proof that the Oopsah could foretell the future. Perhaps through weather data she would have won him over to her prophetic powers, but he suspected his rational biases were so strong he would have perceived the data as a trick, a magician’s stunt that he could not replicate but could rest assured involved only sleight of hand, not invocation of higher forces. He would have judged her a nutcase, compartmentalized his concerns for her sanity, and struggled to view her as a loving wife and mother which she undoubtedly was when not crazy. How would that future have transpired in the Notches if the Flume had been thwarted, if the great door had been triggered, if Muglair had been assassinated? Hope would certainly have a sibling by now, a little brother he was convinced such was the restorative power of his biology. Would their love have remained as strong? Would they have grown tired of each other? Would they have been faithful in the permissive atmosphere of the Notches? Would the Ivy he saw in the dance hall of Irla re-emerge to seek out a more cultured mate? He hated himself for asking these questions. He would never leave her himself given the belief in family instilled by Mira’s tutelage, his inability to hurt others, and the power of inertia in his life. The doubts he entertained about her were the result of his own insecurities, not flaws in her character. She had chosen him with the same resolve he had chosen her, even more so. She rewrote destiny to be his wife and the mother of Hope, and she was never going to voluntarily abandon that path. And he was the child of Outin and Paxa. What better catch could she find?

It was raining and Ivy brought the Ooson children to their tent to play with Hope. Mutt and Ivy were not the only couple who needed time alone. It was a muddy mess with shoes tossed carelessly across the inside landing. Ivy found the frenzy of children a welcome distraction from her depressing ruminations. Mutt found himself questioning his desire for a large brood so loud was the mayhem in the tent. Two was beginning to sound more reasonable and if Ivy wanted three they could play Shivaree roulette, a game he could doubtlessly rig. Ivy found the bustle of small children invigorating, an affirmation of life at the source, the living symbol of fertility. She was coming to accept the wisdom of Mutt’s desire for a larger family and had no idea what he was thinking in the cacophony of the tent amplified by the contours of the canvas. She put herself on autopilot, playing patty cake and tossing pillows and calming hysterics and defusing hostilities, all while returning to the central question dominating her mind. How could she preserve this life for the next? How could she have her family again and live out a normal existence in the next iteration? She had to get into the vault. It was theoretically possible if the Church of Irla had a tunnel but there were too many barriers to pass, both physical barriers and the constraints of mystical orders. Tobor could do it because he was the Controller. What did Ivy Morven have to offer? She would have to plead her case to pass each barrier with little chance of admission. Only if Tobor accompanied her could the sacred text be inscribed, and then only if she succumbed to his extortion. Tobor Zranga, she realized, was the fullest expression of the governing principle of humanity, even more so than Muglair. What is good and decent must be crushed, for it is always a threat to power.

Arland resolved to launch a final massive assault on Shamba, a culmination of its superior wartime production which, freed from significant disruption from Skava, had generated ordnance far in excess of use. The resulting stockpile would now be dumped all at once. Muglair’s dithering made clear he had no intention of collapsing the Flume. Arland’s profilers said from the beginning he would rather destroy the planet than concede defeat and they were proving correct. Arland would drop everything and hope the walls of the Flume would collapse inward with sufficient force to stop the column of water. It was their last chance. On the appointed day Muglair fled to his bunker outside Leri Deri and received reports of the complete obliteration of every remaining structure, and all remaining personnel, within two miles of the Flume. Nearly every ballast ship was employed for the offensive allowing Muglair to launch his own mini-attack on Rixjrig with its diminished defenses. The pounding in Shamba was calculated to fall at once on all four sides of the Flume with the hope that pressure waves from the blasts would drive earth inward and downward into the shaft. The explosion was so terrible that multiple ballast ships were blown outward into space, some unable to recover due to damage to their blow holes, sending crews overboard in harnesses or to asphyxiation in the void. The mighty Flume choked on the debris crammed down its throat and for a few seconds it appeared that the flow had stopped. Then with a gigantic belch it spewed forth a torrent of filthy muck, as much sludge as water, and within a few seconds resumed its familiar profile, a plume of crystalline foam, the fate of the planet now sealed.

The People’s Parliament in Leri Deri, meeting in an underground bunker in the Hall, invoked the inalienable right of revolt and declared Muglair stripped of all power effective immediately. Muglair sent his goons to close off the bunker and they were met by armed resistance, a bloody battle ensuing. The surviving goons switched sides observing the shift in political power and feeling a convenient disgust for their leader now that he had faltered. Arland relented on the bombing as the revolution unfolded. Over a hundred thousand people gathered on the sandstone plaza singing the original anthem of the Hutman cause and marched in unison to Muglair’s main military bunker on the outskirts of the capital. The crowd overwhelmed the rump of loyal defenders and trashed the entire complex, systematically smashing communications equipment, passing files and furniture out by bucket brigade for destruction by angry mobs on the surface, and torching the interior to smoke out the Great Man wherever he was hiding. But Muglair had fled to his bunker outside Shamba which had survived the massive blast from Arland. The ballast ships continued dropping ordnance on the Flume but for no purpose other than the comfort of action in a hopeless situation. The bombs were no more effective than trying to blow back a bullet.

Muglair sent a telegram to Arland admitting defeat. The lawful government of Skava was now the Parliament and Arland should negotiate exclusively with their representatives. He would walk onto the plain of Shamba alone in two hours to meet the destiny of Arland’s choosing. Ballast ships at a height of one thousand feet circled the entrance to the bunker, the only one known to have survived the bombings, and waited for the Great Man to emerge. At the appointed hour he exited the bunker wearing the ceremonial headdress of the ancient Hutman and walked calmly across bomb-scarred terrain toward the Flume, the ships awaiting orders from Rixjrig which were slow in coming. Their men on the ground wanted first to confirm the identity of the solitary figure before firing. But as he approached the halfway point between the bunker and the Flume, a location suspected of hiding a secret entrance, word was given, and a massive rain of artillery fell onto the lone individual, his arms stretched heavenward as if to welcome fate, obliterating him and the entire landscape within two hundred feet so thoroughly that only a crater remained with remnants of flesh too small for the naked eye to see.

The Parliament sued for peace without terms and Arland ceased hostilities. Muglair’s plan to collapse the Flume internally had progressed to the point of digging placement tunnels, and Arland with the cooperation of the new government filled the parallel shafts with all remaining ordnance that could be crammed inside. The planet was destabilizing with moonlet-sized chunks of matter crumbling from the Parvian edge and rolling across the sides, the planet’s natural restorative tendencies now stretched beyond breaking. Sappers had little time to wire the explosion precisely for synchronicity but managed a massive simultaneous explosion all the same. The result was less impressive than the surface attack with not even a moment of doubt as gurgling brown sludge spewed forth in an enormous fantail followed by resumption of the normal jet. The column of water was too powerful, too deep, too momentous to be stopped by means within the powers of the great nations, and there was nothing left but to find peace with God. The leadership of the now harmonious nations continued to make plans, to comfort their populations with words of encouragement, to meet in grand committees to consider alternatives as if they had not been exhausted, all for the comfort of taking action in the face of mortal threat. To occupy a position of power and face extinction with resignation was unconscionable. They would continue to search, to pray, to act in the vain hope a solution could be found. Plans were already underway to drop depth charges to the bottom of the Silent Sea as they had tried multiple times before. The nations lacked the technological capacity to deliver charges of sufficient force with precision at that depth but perhaps this time it would be different. The planning and anticipation for this next effort was a reason to keep living. If they played their cards right, the leaders could take bold action right up to the apocalypse without having time to contemplate their role in the destruction.

Garan read about these efforts in the notices, which now came only from Arland, and through the rosy prose of propaganda saw what was coming. Yes, the most recent effort had failed but they were now embarked on a new effort at the intake that would succeed. All that mattered to Garan was the failure part, and the dangling of new plans was a tease to distract their minds from imminent doom. He no longer had hope and his despair infected Arna. She could not cope with what would happen to her precious children, the beings who in God’s plan were meant to outlive her, to carry her spirit in the march of generations. She fell to praying and hoping and striving to believe in their future but her every waking thought, her every sleeping terror, was consumed by their awful fate. Ivy had long ago given up on this life, even subconsciously before the Flume erupted. She had intuited that on a higher plane this iteration was doomed from the beginning and her hopes must be confined to the next. She was running out of time for these hopes. They had four days before disintegration, she knew the date from the Oopsah, and she had four days to change the future. Only one option remained, going to Tobor, and the degradation it required made death without redemption preferable. She wanted to murder Tobor and accept that her family would be lost eternally but this was a selfish desire she could not inflict on loved ones.

She watched her sleeping child mesmerized by the miracle of her breathing. Ivy’s body had produced this beautiful creature with her husband’s seed, and here she lay in exquisitely crafted perfection, millions of tiny moving parts coordinated into a living being who could laugh and cry and breathe and eat and love and hate, all the myriad capacities that make up a human, and so delicate was the balance of these parts that disruption from the environment seemed inevitable. Yet here she was four years after emerging onto the birthing board growing and thriving and blessing Ivy with the joy of motherhood, the vitality of this organism promising to live on and flourish into healthy adulthood if only the world in its indifference did not crush her out of existence. It would take an apocalypse to destroy this immaculate being and one was coming. Ivy fell asleep in contemplation of the wonder of her daughter, knowing that what she had to do, she must do as a mother.

She awoke to find Mutt seated upright on the haysack, his eyes moist.

“Honey, what’s the matter?”

“I saw her.”

She was not going to fall for this trick again.

“I am not pretending this time. She was here, in this tent, in my dream. She hovered over me, looking down. Her hair fell about me in a curtain. I was completely enveloped.”

He sounded deathly sincere.

“Ivy, it was not just me.”

She felt a powerful surge of emotion.

“It was me, and you, and Hope.”

She looked around for a lock and petal and found none. He was telling the truth.

“Ivy,” he continued softly, “it was just a dream. Maybe I saw her only because I wanted to so intensely. But when I awoke I felt something I never felt before.”

“What?” She so wanted to believe.

“She is protecting us. All of us.”

Ivy lifted Hope’s sleeping form and placed the child between her parents, then nudged Mutt down onto the bed, held his hand across the little girl’s waist, and looked upward into the canvas imagining the warmth of her mother’s smile and the protective curtain of her charcoal hair surrounding their bodies. Prudence gazed lovingly upon them, radiant and beatific, ethereal in soft light, promising to return to Ivy what was so violently stolen from her in Gulet, a mother’s love. Ivy found tranquility in the apparition, the most complete peace she had ever known in her life, a filling of the void in her heart, a sublimation of her childhood fears into the comfort of a mother’s embrace, a soothing calm and assimilation into the divine. She did not believe Prudence was in the tent, her faith destroyed by a life of hardship, yet she did not believe she was alone. What she felt was that her demons were hiding from the light, the fragments of her life were coming together, and she could release herself from time. All experience was spread before her on a higher plane and she need only reach across to touch her mother. Prudence was a living and breathing being because she had once lived and breathed and time could no longer separate them. Ivy found peace in this vision and she knew what the peace meant. The apocalypse was coming, and all her energy would soon be released.

All she needed was a sign.

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