Muglair Putie had been a fixture in the Hutman cause for two decades. He was a lieutenant to the leadership during the great repression when the Hutman leaders were arrested for treason and subjected to summary trials in the People’s Hall. The Inta regime concluded that the cause had become a threat to its maintenance of power and that piecemeal accommodation would no longer work. The conviction of the leaders was a foregone conclusion once they were arrested. Within a day of trial they were trundled to the vast sandstone plaza before the Hall where people, primarily Inta, regularly gathered for official pronouncements. The condemned were led naked in shackles up scaffolding to the tip of a needle, a sharpened spike over forty feet high. Executioners raised their bodies above the tips and slowly forced them down, piercing their abdomens and impaling them. The scaffolding was pivoted away from the needles allowing the bodies to slide to a small handle in the spike fifteen feet above the ground. There they came to rest like insect specimens, limbs splayed outwards and agonized faces turned heavenward. Death came slowly and mercilessly in the sun’s blinding rays beneath the bloodstained needles their bodies had just descended. Spiking was the ancient form of execution designed to instill fear in a restive populace, and it had been resurrected by the Inta for that purpose.
It had long been rumored that Muglair betrayed the Hutman leadership to the Inta. Arland published what it claimed were informant reports obtained from the Skavian Inta detailing his treachery. He had worked secretly with the Inta regime, so it was claimed, and revealed the hiding places of the leadership to save his own life when it became clear the Inta would take a hard line. Muglair denounced these rumors as foul Arlander propaganda and took harsh measures against anyone in his domain who spread them.
After the repression Muglair assumed leadership of the Hutman cause which now pursued a policy of working within the rules of the Inta regime, abandoning the platform of revolutionary change. As Arland pressured the Skavian Inta to expand the rights of Hutmen, Muglair organized village green preservation societies, local political collectives based in Hutman villages which sent non-voting delegates to the People’s Hall in Leri Deri. As the number of societies increased the representation of Hutmen grew. It was only a matter of time before the delegates gained voting power, first in an advisory capacity and then, after the bloodless revolution, as a binding Parliament.
The Party was born of these societies and remained dominated by its founder and his acolytes. After the revolution Muglair stood before the People’s Hall and declared passionately that the Hall would now be true to its name, that all people, Inta and Hutman alike, would be served equally by the new regime under the full protection of law. He pointedly selected Inta to high positions including the rank of Minister, and sought to allay fears of reprisals through inclusion of Inta in official functions and suppression of Hutman factionalism. It was a glorious day for Skava and a hopeful day for the planet.
But Muglair was consumed by an overarching hatred of Arland, Skava’s more powerful neighbor to the west and the dictator of international affairs. Arland had long taught its schoolchildren that humanity evolved in Arland and spread to Skava only as the occasional convict tossed over the Edge survived his death sentence. Muglair purported to discover that Skava was the cradle of civilization and that humanity spread to Arland only when antisocial elements of the primordial societies were forcibly expelled. Arland taught that its lead in technological progress resulted from the superior organizing capacity of the Inta. Muglair taught that Skavians were naturally compassionate “sun people” and that Arland’s supposed advantages were made possible only through ruthless exploitation of the working class. But most of all Muglair focused on the actions of Arland in curtailing Skava’s drive for energy independence. Skava was willing, Muglair announced incessantly, to share water with Arland as equals in God’s bounty with an identical allotment for each person, even if this limited the power needs of Skava’s industrialization campaign. But he was not willing to accept Arland’s unilateral attempt to force an unequal distribution of resources. He would resist to his dying breath the iron yoke of Arland and called upon all his countrymen to join in the struggle.
It was perhaps inevitable that Muglair would begin to eliminate those elements in his country he deemed impediments to his goals. First came the purge of Party members whose primary loyalties lay with other patrons. They were usually only expelled from the Party but sometimes disappeared never to be seen again. Once the base was eliminated the higher up in the party who had cultivated their support would be purged. Then came the systematic demotion and expulsion of Inta from governmental positions.
Muglair stayed away from an official declaration of pro-Hutman policy but the trend was obvious. He was whipping up nativist sentiment and this required not only hatred of Arland but hatred of Inta. The unofficial press, long a part of Skava’s political tradition and used effectively by Muglair in organizing the village greens, was extirpated. A system of camps was established to house undesirable elements and re-educate them through labor. He began constructing a new capital in the geographic center of Skava called Shamba, Old Hutman for paradise, widely regarded as a testament to his megalomania. He launched a campaign of veneration of the martyrs, the leadership impaled on spikes during the repression. He publicly and loudly declared himself the humble regent for the children of the martyrs, the rightful heirs to the Hutman leadership. The children had been wrested from the families of the murdered leadership and placed with Inta families or murdered outright. Few had been recovered because the Inta destroyed the assignment records before the regime fell and adoptive Inta parents would not come forward. Muglair announced he would not flag in his effort to recover all these stolen children from their Inta captors and install them in positions of authority.
He was most obsessed with the children of Outin and Paxa, the revolutionary co-leaders at the time of the purge. They were the first to be spiked, on special needles built for the occasion, with their naked bodies left to rot in the sun as an example to all until sloughing off from decomposition. They had three children, two of whom were believed murdered and one stolen by Inta. The Great Man declared he would cede power to this stolen child and serve as faithful minister if only the child could be found. Occasionally young people stepped forward claiming to be children of the martyrs but they were usually impostors. Of the children too young at the time of their parents’ murders to remember their identities few had likely survived. Those making claims that appeared legitimate risked disappearing for the Great Man had no actual intention of relinquishing power.
Muglair was pushing the world toward violent conflict. He had chosen Bivens Mill to test the mettle of Arland for it presented foursquare the defining issue of the day, the rationing of water, and highlighted his most sympathetic cause, the right to an equal allocation. It was also friendly terrain because Arland had only a small oriented force in Bivenal although it controlled the skies. Muglair seemed to have no plan beyond pushing conflict but no further plan was necessary. On the streets of Leri Deri the energy was palpable. Those supporting the Hutman cause, the new Hutman cause of crushing Arland hegemony, saw in him a supreme organizer who would inspire the Hutman to freedom from Arland’s bondage. They were ready for action and Muglair was ready to supply it. Those opposing the Hutman cause were nowhere to be found. To the young man in Arland peering over the Edge, this political cyclone remained abstract and remote. He knew of the rise of Great Man, his hostility to Arland, and his absurd claim to be a humble regent, but he had yet to feel the brunt of Muglair’s belligerence. That would come soon enough.
Mutt did not come to the Edge to think about politics. He wanted mostly to think about nothing, if that were possible, and just exist in the soothing sun and breeze. He removed the mandolin from its clip on his back and sat cross-legged on the grass near the tree line facing the Edge. He began strumming simple major chords with his fingers, lacking a plectrum and playing more in the manner of guitar. He then began arpeggiating the chords into a simple melody in which he took great delight. He found peace in this moment, in the blissful solitude far removed from the bustle of daily life, and looked eagerly to the new life he was starting in Shivaree, a life now as an adult, emancipated from his home but near its loving shelter. He was moving in to a small out building at a neighboring farm and would occupy himself in the printing profession. He imagined he would settle permanently in Shivaree, finding love with a local girl and raising a big family. A part of him stirred for more adventure in life, but he had seen enough adventure in Rixjrig and was content with a rural existence. As these thoughts swirled in his head he sought release from waking thought and slipped into dreams, wild dreams of bounders and the Stoika, mild dreams of dinner with his family, all the thoughts that had occupied him consciously now floating freeform across the theater of his mind. He had no idea how long he slept.
As he drifted back into consciousness he saw through half-opened eyes something dangling over the Edge. He bolted upright, panicked. Two feet were suspended from the Edge resting on the grass of Arland. Somebody was reclining on the Skavian side directly across from him. Mutt had never seen a Skavian before. He thought he should never see one again, and slowly rose to make a quiet escape. He did not know who this person was, or whether there were others, or if they were hostile. He had heard so much about the violent turn in Skava that he half believed they were all animals. To his surprise he sat back down and gazed at the limbs now kicking freely back and forth with abandon. He placed his mandolin in his lap and strummed a chord. The legs shot up and disappeared. He approached the Edge, foolishly given the risk, but with curiosity that would not be denied. He sat back down again and waited. A head peered over the Edge, a curious face cupped with a bob of charcoal hair hanging down toward him. It was a girl. She seemed close to his own age and stared directly at him. She had the most inquisitive face he had ever seen, so much that he wanted to laugh. She continued to watch him silently.
“Are you looking for something?” he asked.
She eyed his lap.
“I think I found it.”
He was suddenly self-conscious.
“The mandolin,” she continued. “I was looking for the instrument.”
He was completely taken aback. Who was this person? How long had she been there?
“Yes, I bring it here to play.” He was about to ask if she came here often before catching himself, realizing it was a pick-up line.
“I was listening before you fell asleep. It was very peaceful.”
“This is a place to find peace. Funny to find it here.” He was referring to the tensions between Arland and Skava. “Do you come here often?” He wanted to smack himself. This was exactly the question he had told himself not to ask.
She smiled at his awkwardness.
“Occasionally. And you?”
“It’s been a couple of years. I was away in the service.”
“Oh, were you digging ditches?” That was how the Arland patrol system was described to Skavian schoolchildren. In this case it was accurate.
“Yes, well, flow trenches as they called them.”
“It’s a good way to build muscle,” she said.
He was reminded of the comments from the elderly ladies in Shivaree and was again self-conscious.
“Could you do me a favor?” he asked.
The girl was going to say “it depends” but decided on “yes.” She had no doubt his request would be honorable.
“I would very much like to hold a dogwood blossom. I have smelled the scent blowing over the Edge but could never touch one.”
“Consider it done.”
She leapt up and walked back to the tree line scanning the abundant ferns for the occasional white-petaled blossoms of a dogwood. She brought one to him and placed it in his hand. Their fingers touched briefly before she withdrew and he felt a rush of adrenaline. He channeled the feeling to his subconscious and composed himself. He held the blossom to his nose and inhaled. It was the sweetest fragrance in creation, magical in its potency.
“Thank you,” he said. “You have made me happy.”
“You are easy to please.”
“Here, put it behind your ear.”
She realized he was flirting with her. This was a new experience. She was not permitted contact with boys in Harmour. She placed the stem behind her ear and looked at him, waiting for his assessment.
He was captivated.
“Just the dogwood?” she asked.
Now he realized she was flirting with him.
“No, not just the dogwood.”
She smiled. It was the correct answer.
He felt he should say something clever but his tongue was tied. He thought of lying on his own stomach on the grass as she was doing so their heads could be closer. She decided to fill the lull.
“Where are you from?”
“Shivaree,” he replied. “It’s mostly a farming town, a Hutman village, five miles that way.”
She was not supposed to reveal her hometown.
“Harmour,” she said, breaking the prohibition. She pointed to the trail into the Skavian forest. “It is a short walk that way.”
It was a word Mutt had heard before, always in ominous tones.
“Harmour?” he inquired. “I did not think children were permitted there.”
“I am not a child.”
“Well you are not, and neither am I, but nor do we design evil weapons.”
Harmour was well known in Arland as a classified weapons facility in a restricted area close to the Edge. It was rumored that attack from Skava might emanate from Harmour in the event of war. No one had a clear idea how such an attack might be carried out but it was generally assumed to involve toxic substances flowing over the Edge. He had not realized how close it was to Shivaree.
“Is that what you think of Harmour?” she asked.
“Is it not true?”
The girl realized she could not answer without revealing too much.
“Harmour to me is home.”
“Are you happy there?” He was not sure why he asked the question.
The girl hesitated. No one had ever asked her before if she was happy. It was such a basic question yet a matter of complete indifference to anyone she knew.
“No,” she answered.
Now she was at a loss for words. She was not used to this type of probing.
“Because the life I lead there is hell,” she finally said.
He began to ask a question but she shushed him, saying, “I am not permitted to talk about it.” She was so secretive he began to worry he might be in danger in her company.
“I have not introduced myself. I am Mutt Ogga.”
She repeated his name emphasizing the “og” for effect. “That’s a funny name. I like it.”
“What is your name?”
Now she realized she must clam up. She had an alias but did not want to lie.
“My identity is classified. I cannot tell you who I am.”
He had never heard this line from a girl.
“I must say if you are trying to blow me off, you may do so directly.”
“Let’s not talk about names.”
“Well I must call you something,” he said. “I will call you sunflower.”
The girl found this corny. “I suppose that is better than dogflower,” she said dismissively. He had offered his nickname sincerely and was stung by her remark. “But you have it backwards,” she continued, trying to repair his ego. “My face is light surrounded by dark.” She was referring to her hair.
“Then I will call you moonflower.”
She decided she would graciously accept the new name. “Moonflower it is. I shall answer when you call Moonflower.”
She twirled a blade of grass around her finger and snapped it. He took the blade from her and pressed it between the knuckles of his thumbs. He blew directly on it producing a high-pitched reedy sound. “It’s a call for a chyrix.” He was referring to a local pheasant. He placed his hand above his eyes for shade and pretended to survey the grass of Arland. “I’m sure they’ll be arriving any minute. My mating call is irresistible.”
The girl thought this was funny.
“Now,” she asked, “will you do me a favor?”
“It depends,” he responded.
“I want a stick from Arland.”
Mutt thought this a strange request. He walked back to the tree line and twisted a branch off a tree. She took it from his hand and threw it into the air with all her might. The branch fell away from the Edge toward the hinterland of Skava traveling horizontally over the canopy with the gravity of Arland.
“Do you think it will ever come back?” she asked.
“What do you mean?”
“Do you think it will travel across the universe and come back and hit me in the back of the head?”
He had never thought about this. “I suppose if it would, we would be getting hit by sticks all the time.”
This seemed like a good answer. “I suppose it does go on forever. I wonder how far forever is.”
She lay down on the grass on her side with her knees bent and head propped on an elbow leaning over the Edge. Mutt adopted a similar position close by so that it would be easier to make eye contact. Their bodies extended along their respective sides at a perfect right angle, each having the perspective of peering over an infinite cliff into the other’s world.
“May I see your hand?” He wanted to touch it.
She looked at him suspiciously, then held it out.
He took her hand and turned it palm up in his. For a moment he admired the delicate skin, the soft pink warmth. He began tracing his finger along her palm lines.
“What are you doing?” she asked.
“I’m reading your future.” This was an old trick in Shivaree for flirting with girls. “I see here that you will have a long life. But I cannot find any love line at all.”
She pulled her hand back. She had liked him holding it.
“I fear your reading may be accurate.”
“Are you not afraid coming here by yourself?” he asked.
“What do you mean?”
“It’s a restricted zone. All sorts of strange people wander around. Drifters, deserters, fugitives ...”
“Should I be worried? Are you going to leap over the Edge and ravish me?”
Mutt turned red. He had not been referring to himself. “I didn’t ... I wasn’t referring ...”
“If I were in danger,” she asked, “would you protect me?”
For his entire childhood his mother had drilled into his head that it was the solemn duty of a man to protect a woman from harm.
“Yes,” he said earnestly. “I could have no greater privilege. But you would then have to tell me your name.”
“My name is Moonflower.”
“Of course.” He paused. “Did you grow up in Harmour?”
She fished around in her satchel, which she had placed on the ground by her knees, and retrieved a photograph in a glass sleeve. She cradled it by the edges obscuring the back side then turned it around and handed it to him. A small girl with her hair tied in a stalk was seated on a playground seesaw laughing with delight.
“What is this?” he asked.
“I was three when this photo was taken. That was the last time I was happy.”
He held the photo by the edge so as not to smudge the sleeve.
“Go ahead, you can hold it. Don’t let it fall.” He was holding it over the Edge and if it fell it would keep falling. He gripped it more securely.
“You were an adorable child,” he said, struggling to find the right words. “I hope some day you will smile as brightly again.”
The girl again thought he was being corny but resolved not to dismiss it this time. He was sweet when he tried to care. That someone in the world would want her to smile was a new idea.
“I would smile that brightly again,” she replied, “if I had the occasion.”
He perked up and stared into the Arland forest pretending to search for something.
“What are you doing?” she asked.
“I think I heard a chyrix. I told you my call was irresistible.”
She took the photo from his hand and returned it to her satchel.
“I have to go now,” she said abruptly.
He was startled. “When will you come back?”
“I am not permitted to make plans.”
Her demeanor changed and her eyes seemed to ache. He felt like she wanted to tell him something. She leaned forward and kissed him on the lips. “I am sorry,” she said. “I had to do that.” She bounced up and walked away, back toward Harmour. She had never before kissed a boy. Mutt was stunned, wanting desperately to plan another meeting. He watched silently as she stopped at the tree line and poked a finger into a carnivorous poppy. The petals snapped shut, then she swiftly withdrew the finger and held it to her nose. He did not understand the gesture. She turned without glancing back and disappeared along the trail. He lingered on the Edge gazing down into Skava, all thoughts of its lush vegetation and ruthless leader purged from his mind. For he could entertain only a single thought, a most pleasant and beautiful thought. He sighed, unable to fathom what had just happened. The word ran over and over in his mind: Moonflower.
Ivy Morven had a short walk back to Harmour, little more than a mile. She was not fearful in the forest for she was not alone. She had gotten what she came for and was returning to the Demographics Institute. But she had gotten something more. Mutt Ogga crystallized in her the horror of her daily existence. Here was an alternative life in an alternative world, one that seemed more carefree and normal. She had actually kissed a boy, a thought that until now, at the advanced age of eighteen, had remained a subject of fantasy. She felt she had lost her childhood in the grip of evil. And she had just lost her adulthood as that grip was becoming tighter. Her future, her destiny, was already determined in Harmour and there could be no escape. The thought of this filled her with despair. She wanted to run back to the Edge and jump off. But she remembered she had duties to fulfill and found meaning in their execution. The performance of tasks, the demonstration of her usefulness to a larger cause, was her only validation in life.
The Institute was a campus of buildings serving various research purposes. She headed to a building used as a personal study for her superior, Tobor Zranga, the Director of the Institute and a Minister in the regime of Muglair Putie. She had received her position through the efforts of her parents, research scientists at the campus, who felt it would be useful to have a link to such a powerful man. Zranga had been absent for a week without explanation. She could not know this but at that moment he was on a trawler on the Silent Sea. After passing through security she walked upstairs to a specimen room, reached into her satchel, and removed the childhood photo, carefully holding it by the edges. She opened a drawer and retrieved a card on which she wrote a series of cryptic notations, then walked over to the sink. She could not do this. She wiped clean the glass sleeve containing the photo then pressed her own fingers onto it. Only she did not do a thorough job of cleaning and an original print remained. She removed the photo, on the back of which was typed the word “stock,” and threw it into a trash can. She placed the empty sleeve into a plastic bag and deposited it along with the note card into the drawer.
She returned to her home. She would have to move out soon but had struggled to delay the day. Lane Navachi was an oddity of residential neighborhoods, a forested enclave of box-shaped homes surrounded on all sides by the open campus of the Institute. It was a place where one was literally surrounded by evil. She had not a single pleasant memory in this house yet it was her only refuge now that things had gotten worse. The image of Mutt continued to dominate her mind. She wished she were a peasant girl in Shivaree and that he was courting her. She had so little ability to conceive a better life, never having seen one, that she latched onto this fantasy with intense desire.
Before Zranga left he had a strange conversation with her. He was not one to talk intimately with subordinates but he had taken her aside and asked if she believed in destiny. She said yes without thinking and he said that was good because she had one. He told her there were larger forces in the world than anything she knew. She said she understood that the Hutman cause was the driving force of history, repeating a Party slogan, and that even the Inta were subsumed within this force. Zranga told her no, there were things far more important, and commented without elaboration that the Great Man was misguided. People regularly died for lesser comments. The conversation had taken a dangerous turn that made Ivy nervous. Why was this powerful man confiding in her? He then made a strange remark: “There can be no free will without knowledge.” For the first time ever in their interaction he appeared indecisive. “I am leaving you to safeguard the clean room,” he said, referring to the secret room he regularly retired to. “You know the penalty for access. I am waiving that penalty for you. I do not encourage you to enter. You must do nothing you are not ready to do. There are some things that, once learned, cannot be unlearned.”
The conversation stuck with Ivy. He was inviting her to share some dark secret. She was repelled by the man and did not want to be a confidante, but she also feared his reaction if he returned and she had proven not ready. Resting on a lounge chair in the house on Lane Navachi, she decided she would have to learn what could not be unlearned, as Zranga put it. Her life was bad enough. Nothing could make it worse. She took a shortcut through a copse and entered the Director’s building through the rear. When she reached the second floor her heart began to pound. What was she doing? She was fearful that the more one knew of Party secrets the more likely one was to disappear. She preferred to keep a low profile and had no interest in advancement; she was not even a Party member and did not intend to join. Perhaps she had misheard and he was not really inviting her into the clean room. But she could not have misunderstood because he gave her the pass code and informed security. She opened the outer door by the security desk and walked unchecked down a brightly lit windowless corridor. The hall made a left turn and she was now facing a solid white door. She punched in the pass code and turned the handle.
Within the room was a series of drafting tables on which large rolls of paper were laid out. She glanced at one and saw it filled with incomprehensible letters. To the side were sheets on which the larger roll was apparently being decoded. She had no idea what she was looking at. She sat down and began to read one of the sheets. The passages seemed familiar, archaic language describing ancient events. She realized it sounded like the Oopsah. Like everyone on the planet she had grown up with the story of the Oopsah, of the divine plan obscured in gibberish awaiting an exalted Controller to decipher it. A thought crossed her mind. She suppressed it.
She moved to another table, scanned the decoded text, and caught something. It was her name. She again sat down, trembling, and began to read, not understanding what this document was. As she read further she began to piece together the meaning. Her mind drained of all emotion as she sat at the desk flipping pages of decoded text. Soon she realized she was reading something midstream and needed to find the start of the passage. She moved one table to her left but was still confused, then moved one further. There she read words that began to shed light. A chill passed through her body. In this windowless room bathed in sterile light she was indeed learning something that could not be unlearned. There was an order to the universe she could never have imagined. All that surrounded her faded away into ephemera. It was not real. She was reading what had been called a divine plan. She figured in the plan. Only it was not divine. It was pure evil.
Ivy Morven thought she had known evil from her life at the Institute. She knew what they worked on, she knew who they served, and she knew the purposes to which their discoveries would be put, but that was nothing now. She became physically ill. She stood up to leave, then collapsed to the floor overcome by nausea. She curled up in a ball and convulsed into dry sobs unable to cry tears. The life she had thought could get no worse was now much worse. She had been in an abyss with a false bottom and had fallen through. For several minutes she lay on the floor crumpled, then arose and returned to the desk. She had to have the knowledge. She moved several desks to her right seeking the end of the passage. Was this it? She flipped through the decoded text to the last page and there she saw it, an image staring up at her from the page, an image in a context that could yield only one meaning. It was a face of utter beauty, a creature she could not have known existed but now knew must exist. How was this possible? It was not possible. She searched her memory for clues. Could she have seen this coming? It was simply not possible. She stared into the face of this divine creature. There was no blemish, no imperfection, no flaw, just the dead image of a being staring lifelessly at her across eternity. She had seen the face of Celeste, and she was horrified.
Ivy Morven had always reacted to trauma with paralysis. But she knew now that forces larger than anything she had ever known were set in motion. Tobor Zranga would be gone another week and she could not be here when he returned. She began reading all the decoded passages, taking notes, and committing important elements to memory. These could prove useful. She discovered scribbled comments in a hidden drawer theorizing about the origins of Oopsah’s powers. On one scrap of paper she found what appeared to be a translation of the words “Oopsah” and “Fajuyt,” one of the great mysteries of the Church. “Control module,” it read. Eventually she came to Table No. 19. The decoding paper was empty. Had Zranga not had time to finish the job? She looked at the gibberish and froze. It began with three letters followed by a colon and random numbers. The letters spelled “pie.” Tobor Zranga had not understood this word. Ivy Morven did. She freaked. Her world dissolved about her. Her legs were rubbery and she wanted to collapse. But she had passed beyond normal cognition. This was a dream in which only impossible things happened, and this was just another impossible thing. She knew she needed the entire cipher from this table and would have to copy it. It was hours before she emerged from the clean room. She had entered a victim of horrible circumstances. She left an even more traumatized victim. But she was also a changed person. In the space of a few hours she had learned her place in the universe, and she was going to fight it. She was not going to tolerate destiny.
Check out chapters of The Cube right here.