The Cube - Chapter 14 - Continued
Ivy needed to be a mother again and the transition required her to quash these thoughts. With the child came a million things to do and she resolved to do each one flawlessly. She had made such a fool of herself in the dance hall she could only restore her good standing by exemplary effort. More importantly she had to re-establish herself as Hope’s mother after such a long separation. Ivy had not even observed the child’s birthday which, by no coincidence, was the wedding date. But a party could be held later and she resolved to invite all the children she could find for a celebration of her daughter, to establish her new life in the tent city of Irla and to reforge the bond with her child. Hope joined her mother in the Ooson tent, where Ivy helped care for Varun and his sisters and found comfort and safety in the family’s companionship. The tent city lacked legal authority and a young woman could not live alone without risk from opportunistic prowlers. She frequently took the children to the parks of Irla so the parents could have time to themselves, a gift she could not enjoy with her own husband. On one such occasion Arna became pregnant, an act of defiance on a planet counting down to destruction, a validation of life Ivy wished to emulate in her weaker moments, if only she had her other half to take advantage. With the Oosons, Inta refugees from Skava, she found that the distractions and affections and annoyances of family life staved off her darker moments. But she could never sleep an honest hour without the sheltering arm of her husband, her mind tormented by the horrors of Harmour and Dunder, visions of the apocalypse, the cruel fate that awaited her afterwards. The Oosons gazed upon her with horror when she awoke from tortured dreams murmuring of bloody spikes and unholy love and bayoneted children. She said things about the Oopsah they could not comprehend yet sounded so awful they refused to repeat back to her. She would cry as she returned to consciousness begging their forgiveness, then within minutes immerse herself in the lives of the children, feeding and clothing, wiping and sponging, playing and singing, finding meaning in the nurture of small beings.
Ivy decided to celebrate Hope’s birthday in the pits. The influx of refugees had subsided since she arrived in Leland. With the systematic extermination of the Skavian Inta and increased patrols along the border, fewer refugees could escape Muglair’s dystopia. The pits were conversion wells dug into the surface of Leland where refugees reoriented beyond the range of Skavian grenade launchers. At peak immigration thousands of people occupied these ledges in squalor and filth, teeming in their own excrement with little food and no clean water, hundreds dying per week from deprivation and disease, mostly small children and the elderly. In alarming numbers young people, those recent children whose families had invested so much in their blossoming, threw themselves in despair from the ledges to certain death tumbling over the sideland surface. In its push to eliminate the Inta, Skava dropped gas balls from the edge weighted to roll into the pits and incinerate refugees or suffocate them as fire consumed their oxygen. After ignoring the refugees’ plight for months, Arland intervened to wipe out the Skavian artillery nests along the edge with a blanket of flaming shells released from ballast ships, leading to a tense standoff in which Skava picked off refugees on its land before they could escape but did not attack over the fold near Irla. Muglair was preparing a small force oriented to Leland to liquidate the proliferating Inta camps after the war. He did not want these germs spreading back into Skava. But for now the Inta had found safe haven under the protection of Arland in the pocket of Irla.
Ivy arrived in Leland with a letter of introduction and avoided the calamities of the pits, converting in a rounder built into the directorate on the main thoroughfare, her progress monitored by a sociopath plotting to despoil her body as punishment for defying fate. She emerged onto the surface of Leland with unassuageable guilt at the plight of the refugees, resigned to her personal fate but hoping to alleviate the suffering of others. She visited the pits daily carrying jugs of clean water and cartons of boysenberries she foraged from the rim forest on the outskirts of town. She alone among relief workers descended the full depth of the pits on ladder pegs to the burial chambers in the rear to offer not food or water, for these were provided at the surface, but solace and help reburying the exposed dead. She knitted sweaters and wraps for babies and toddlers shivering in the cool air of the light-starved land, and shoveled excrement from the lips of the pits carrying it in buckets to dumps in the forest. She did not care if she died from typhus or dysentery even though death would mean losing all hope of rewriting the Oopsah. But altering the sacred text remained the task she had chosen for herself if she did survive, and for this she had no recourse but to submit to Tobor Zranga’s proposal. He would establish supremacy of his will by defiling her body and betraying her for the glory of Celeste, and she would re-organize fate on a principle of human love, not subjugation. Their agendas were not compatible and she had little chance of prevailing in this contest. Zranga held all the cards; she could only buy time with abject submission and hope a card would turn in her favor before it was too late. She was reduced to appealing for a new order to the conscience of a man who had none, to the honor of an extortionist, and such was her sorry state when Mutt arrived to reclaim her in the dance hall only to witness her perfidy.
By the time of Hope’s celebration the pits had vastly improved, with far fewer refugees and an organized relief effort from Arland supplying food, water, and basic medical care. The Oosons would not accompany her to the pits for fear of disease, a matter of special concern with Arna’s pregnancy and their small children. Ivy wanted Hope to comfort suffering children and was willing to take the risk. She remained grateful for the kindness shown to her by others, by the father in the Notches but mainly by her husband, and felt an obligation to repay such charity to the refugees. She also believed that good deeds would prove her a person worthy of a better ending than the one currently in store. She selected a pit with a sizeable standing area for Lelanders and descended earthen steps into the foul air, still polluted by the stench of excrement and human decay despite cleansing sweeps. They sat alongside the living area of the misaligned families and called all children for a party, distributing bricks of tea cake and small gifts from a gunny sack, jute dolls of swans and soldiers, toy destroyers and carousels crudely carved by Garan, a slingshot with sack of berry pellets, drawing paper and colored wax, a rattle of stitched membranes filled with seeds slotted into a stick. She lectured the children that the gifts belonged to all and must be shared but within seconds they were squabbling over which toys were whose requiring parental mediation of disputes. Hope was overcome by the odor and did not play well, eventually vomiting in a corner. Ivy took her to the surface with three sisters sufficiently converted to balance on the ground, where she recovered in the fresh air and tested the sling shot on the girls with lumps of clay. Ivy planned a second celebration that day with the Oosons and sundry children from neighboring tents, this time around a bonfire in the slanted light throwing snap bark onto coals and waiting for it to pop out with trailing sparks. Hope asked if her daddy was going to sing for her and Ivy told her no, he had to go somewhere but would be back soon. She gave the girl a rolling hoop one quarter oriented to Skava that could spin westward for long stretches but was impossible to roll back. The pack of children disappeared shouting after the hoop trying to nudge it into pathways between tents, then returned panting with the hoop draped around a child’s neck only to start over.
Hope’s question about her father sent Ivy reeling, ashamed at what she had done and fearful of never seeing him again. This was their child’s first birthday celebration at which her parents had not been united as a loving couple. She was afraid he might take his life although she could not imagine him succumbing to despair, such was his natural pleasure in living. She believed he would return to see Hope, for the mother’s sins were not the daughter’s, and she would have a chance to explain herself. She wished she had never read the Oopsah. Without the knowledge in that dreaded work she could live like Arna, focused on her husband and children with no thought of post-apocalyptic evil, fear of which tainted Ivy’s blessings. If her family were all she had and their destruction a certainty, she could at least live out her days as a wife and mother without cause to betray Mutt. But the Oopsah gave her a different world in which to struggle, one that made their imminent deaths less important. She felt appearances were a thin veneer over a twisted reality others could not see, and she looked upon the end times as a sensory illusion. It was all real – the fog of her daughter’s breath, the odor of wet canvas, the taste of mashed angoo – yet it was no more real than the numbers decoded by Tobor Zranga, abstractions in a higher plane that gave flesh to her bones, breath to her daughter’s lungs, vision to jaundiced eyes, as effects of numerical relations. She supposed this was reality but as something reducible to instructions it had a special property, modular determinism, embodied in the diabolical mechanics of the Oopsah.
Ivy slapped her face. She was slipping into insanity as a coping strategy for the very real horrors she had suffered in Harmour and Dunder, for the rotting bodies in the Irlan pits fouling the air of their grieving families, for the destruction of her marriage and imminent loss of her child in Muglair’s apocalypse. When not lost in abstractions her mind was drawn pathologically to Dunder, to the image of bayoneted children tied to a daisy chain, each little boy a precious gift to his parents, each little girl a precious gift to her parents, each the honored subject of birthday celebrations just like her own child, each the sterling hope of one generation for the next, the renewers of life and the givers of grandchildren, a step in the march of generations, and each butchered by the most unnatural act in the universe, the murder of a child by an adult, as a deliberate and considered policy choice by the most powerful men on the planet, these tiny corpses launched into space so that no one could grieve their deaths with proper burial, so that some alien civilization could receive them and marvel at what beasts would kill their young. That was reality, and Ivy could not sleep with it. Her mind had only a choice of horrors to contemplate, from brutally real to abstractly evil, from personal tragedy to cosmic catastrophe, all wicked, all unavoidable, her only respite the care and nurture of her daughter, and the companionship of the Oosons.
Garan insisted on reading the boards during their frequent strolls through Irla. He believed fervently the war would run its course and the great powers would cap the Flume. Indeed he did not concede the potential destructiveness of that current of water. The Silent Sea was so vast and deep he could not imagine significant quantities of water had yet escaped. And however belligerent the great powers might be the leaders would surely act to save their own skins. He had hope and read each notice intently picking out the bits of news that favored his narrative. Arland was not mounting a land invasion of Skava. Surely this decision harkened a relaxation in tensions, opening room for negotiation and control of the Flume. Arland renewed its bombing campaign of Leri Deri with the intent of leveling the city. Surely this would exert sufficient pressure on Muglair to force a compromise, or on the other powers in Skava to topple him. Muglair dissolved the Council, executing or imprisoning its former members for treason, and replaced them with family members and cronies from Interior. Surely the people of Skava would not accept this tyranny and the Great Man’s days were numbered. Arland announced its failure to collapse the Flume from the intake at the bottom of the Silent Sea and would embark on a new mission with more powerful ordnance. Surely the great nation had learned from its mistakes and would succeed on its next effort. Arland was reforging a gigantic plug for the intake after the last one crumpled under pressure and disappeared into the shaft to emerge through Shamba. Surely the structural engineers would adequately reinforce the conical plug with stronger cross-members this time. There was no event Garan could not interpret as a positive sign for end of the war, the salvation of the planet, the salvation of his family. Yet with all this good news the planet still hurtled toward disintegration, because while Arland bombed and Muglair plotted the Silent Sea drained. What all could agree upon was that when the hourglass emptied the apocalypse would arrive. And as long as nobody took any measure to stop it, that fate was inevitable.
Mutt raced through the tent city of Irla to escape his wife, his former wife, for he had no desire to hear her voice. He had never before experienced so radical a transformation. He arrived at the dance hall the savior of his family and left the goat of a faithless woman. How could he have not foreseen her betrayal? Was it not obvious in hindsight? She seduced a convenient man in Irla just as she seduced him in the Notches. But why Tobor Zranga of all people? He was a powerful man, that was why, and whatever enmity she harbored for him melted away in his protective arms. They had planned this all along, he was convinced, remembering now that “Irla” was Zranga’s parting word in the Notches. He had propositioned her then and she had accepted his offer, needing only to rid herself of the bumpkin from Shivaree to carry out her plan. He had been a fool to think himself worthy of their marriage. She was a fine woman, cultured and educated, of a class he could only aspire to. She fell for him, literally, because he was the only man there to catch her. But how could he have believed so completely in her love? How could he have believed that Hope was born of passion and not of calculation? He could not fathom her motivations but knew one thing. It was all a lie, the deceit of a manipulative woman who never loved him, who perhaps was incapable of love.
He found himself circling around to the thoroughfare to watch the hall from behind a planter, why he did not know. He was still in a state of disbelief, and surveying the scene without being an actor in it drove home the reality of his loss. And he had lost everything, his natural mother and father to the brutality of the Skavian Inta, his loving family in Shivaree to his ill-fated marriage to Ivy, his home in the Notches to the aggression of Skava, his reunion in Irla to a heartless woman. He might even lose Hope. He had left her with Ivy, a reminder of the physical union his wife was wishing away with new vows, and he could not know if he would see her again. Hope suddenly emerged from the door of the hall dressed in a comical lacy cape holding the hand of a little boy, and Ivy came running after them, crying and laughing at the same time, overcome by the emotions of a wedding while her new husband presumably waited inside for a first dance. He shrunk behind the planter to avoid detection, attracting the attention of passers-by at his suspicious behavior. He was still in shock, the full import of Ivy’s betrayal not fully registered. He smiled perversely as if to convince himself he was in on the joke. Surely he could not have been so stupid as to trust her, so he reacted emotionally as if her cavalier replacement of him was expected.
He could stand it no more. The rush of blackness was crowding out rational thought. He returned to the shop where he had traded for Hope’s new tunic.
“Sir, I have just watched my wife marry another man. I beg of you license to borrow your bounder. On all that is holy I will return it. I have nothing of value but will pledge this ring.”
He laid it on the table.
The shopkeeper had heard many tales of woe from refugees in Irla and did not take kindly to beggars. But he had earlier that day received news of the death of his teenage niece in Atatt, another of Muglair’s camps, and was distraught. Moved by Mutt’s plight, he silently walked the young man to the back alley and untethered the bounder. For the first time in memory the shopkeeper cared little for material possessions. Whether he lost the bounder to this stranger did not matter. Nothing would bring back his sister’s child.
The tanks were full and Mutt decided he would travel to the Silent Sea and throw himself in. He left the harness in the storage compartment where it would provide just as much lift as on his body, and released downwater to levitate the craft from the locking slot. It was four hundred miles west to the Parvian edge. He released eastwater until he achieved a speed of nearly a hundred miles per hour. He thought briefly of releasing all eastwater which would be suicide once he passed the edge for there would be no way to reverse, but he had promised to return the bounder and decided his death could wait. He flew close to the barren tundra to avoid detection by the Arland patrols which controlled Leland’s skies. He grew cold in the biting wind, his hands too numb to control the levers competently. He could have easily fallen off if he hit a mongrel goose or turbulent crosswind or if the fin assembly wobbled, and he would die from the impact without a harness even at this low altitude. That would be the best way to perish, by sudden accident in a reckless endeavor, because he knew he did not have the stomach to take his life directly. He lacked the nerve to plunge a knife into his heart, or fire a bullet through his head, or leap off a bounder into the Sea, but he could do something so reckless that death was a likelihood. Would Ivy wonder what happened to him? Would she care? Would it be fair to Hope? It did not matter. The world was going to end anyway. Whatever Ivy’s demerits she could predict the future – she had demonstrated her power to Mutt’s satisfaction – and she had foretold the destruction of the planet. So if he died now he would only be hastening the inevitable. As he approached the Parvian edge he dumped westwater and lowered the craft onto the tundra, needing to rest before descending over the Sea. He retrieved the harness from its compartment and suited up for warmth. It would not protect him once he passed the edge because its gravity would be horizontal to the surface of Parva, and if he fell into the Sea he would perish even if he survived impact, but he needed the extra layer to combat the chill. The sun did not reach this part of Leland directly. The sky was darkening blue but the source of the scattered light was obscured by the rim forest and rises in the land.
He levitated again and passed over the edge, observing for the first time in his life the platinum stamp of the moon, the primary source of twilight in Parva, a cubic rock reflecting a cubic sun. In the distance along the edge he saw a gap where sidematter had crumbled inward from loss of the Sea’s counterbalancing weight. These natural sluices had developed all around the Parvian edges where bays and inlets came nearest to the adjacent sides, resulting in outflows of water far exceeding those in Shamba. Skavian engineers had not properly taken the sluicing effect into account when calculating the planet’s ability to withstand the Flume. Mutt rotated the seat and handlebars to face the wall of Parva so he could watch the Sea as he descended. He released upwater – up from the perspective of Leland – and began dropping along the Parvian crust. A few miles down he reached the ancient shoreline of the Sea, only there was no water. Further and further he descended, traveling along the surface of Parva which appeared to him a pale cliff face, watching as the basin of the Sea sloped back into the planet revealing the extent of the draining. As he descended on a perfect vertical line, the dry seabed retreated before him mile after mile until he could see it no more. He released westwater, a dangerous maneuver given his limited supplies, to travel into the basin which had, before the Fifteenth of Tarpin, been filled with water.
Eventually he heard ripples lapping against the new shoreline and slowed down. If he miscalculated he would hit the frigid waters and die from drowning or hypothermia. He stopped within thirty feet of the Sea, its waters eerily placid in the freezing mist. He had now traveled over the edge, down the surface of Parva, and into the cup of the ocean, a cup that was slowly draining its vast waters through the Flume. He saw krill skimming the surface chased from beneath by shadowy blots barely perceptible in the moonlight. So this was what the fighting was about. Both nations wanted to drain these waters for electricity but replenishment from moisture in the cosmic stream did not keep pace with human usage. It was a situation that obviously could not go on forever but rather than face this reality and conserve the Sea, humanity decided to radically accelerate the draining by poking a hole in the bottom of the ocean and letting it empty freely into space, thereby ensuring the planet’s doom. There was a logical reason behind ever step in this process – both nations needed electricity, water was the cheapest source, they both exploited the resource until depletion became an undeniable problem, Arland decided to impose global usage limits to control the draining, Skava refused to take orders from Arland as an inferior, and Skava bypassed its rival by drilling straight to the source for direct access – but now they were back to square one, needing to conserve this limited resource to save the planet from destruction. Just like on the Sphere, neither nation was willing to face the problem in earnest until the war was over, and just like on the Sphere, by then it would be too late.
It occurred to Mutt he had not thought of Ivy for hours in the darkness of Leland and Parva, but thinking about not thinking about her, as it turned out, was a way of thinking about her. Was she really Posy? Ivy had explained her heroine’s lustiness as necessary to sustain a story over hundreds of installments. Mutt had just assumed Ivy had an active literary imagination but was not describing her own fantasies. Huston was equally lascivious and his character plainly was not based on Mutt. Admittedly Mutt’s sexual ideation was not unlike Huston’s – all women are fair game for fantasy – but Mutt had the dignity not to act on these impulses. He had proven this with the dicadict, a sensual vixen assigned by Interior to be his sex partner. As attractive as Mutt found Ivy, the dicadict would have prevailed in a beauty pageant with her more voluptuous body. She had lured him into her flat and applied all her guile to bed him, not for love or physical attraction, but to earn his trust to gain information. True he had almost succumbed to temptation but ultimately he refused to cheapen his love for Ivy. In hindsight he was a fool to leave Leri Deri ungratified. His fidelity to Ivy made sense only in a world where such things mattered, and that was not the world in which he lived. He should have taken the dicadict passionately for his carnal pleasure. If he had arrived in Irla to find Ivy waiting for him faithfully, all the better, for then he would have had the pleasure of bedding both women with Ivy none the wiser. That he was a man who cared about correct behavior even when no one was watching was pathetic. He had received nothing for his fidelity but self-denial while his wife had not hesitated to betray him. He rescued her from the camps – did she know it was him? – and in reward she ran straight to the arms of another man. He remembered now Posy’s brief affair with Huston’s father. Posy took a kinky thrill in the old man’s affections and in betraying youth for age. Had Ivy been describing her attraction to Zranga? Had she secretly desired the refined older gentleman, the grayhair more secure in life’s station, the mature man freed from the tumult of youth’s passions, the more experienced lover? Mutt claimed no special insight into what made women wet but he believed that if he were a woman the thought of coupling with Zranga would make him retch.
He pivoted in his seat to survey the Silent Sea westward where it stretched endlessly across the Parvian basin toward the edge with Klokomad, the darkest and most mysterious of sides, and saw an unusual wispy cloud spreading across the sky near the horizon. The moonlight shimmered off the vapor to beautiful effect as it rose slowly upward. He sat transfixed as the ribbon of cloud unfurled in a thin line above the water, its sparkling growing more pronounced as it rapidly approached, when with horror he realized it was not a cloud but the frothy crest of a gigantic wave. He began dumping precious eastwater, necessary for returning to Irla, to escape the rushing tower of water. His rate of ascent depended on how much water he released, too little and the wave would catch him, too much and he would be stranded in the Parvian sky. He could not judge distance in the obscure light but realized the wave was much closer than it first appeared and in panic opened the throttle on his eastwater tank to rise precipitously. The foam of the crest passed underneath with a churning swoosh so closely he felt spray on his legs. He continued outward from the Sea at a rapid clip for fear of other monsters until emerging from the cup of the basin, then dumped sufficient westwater to bring the bounder to a halt as his adrenaline subsided. He had nearly accomplished his plan of death by reckless endeavor and he knew from his mortal fear he was not ready to die. Where had such a huge wave come from? He had read that storms could whip up violent swells but never anything on the order of this fifty-story behemoth. The Silent Sea was sloshing, he realized, from the destabilizing effects of draining and sluicing, and the planet was already on a path to disintegration. The Parvian edges would crumble inward in gigantic collapses caused by the lack of hydrostatic pressure and the action of violent waves, and the resulting outrush of water from the Sea would dislodge the planet from fixture and spin it in the opposite sense from the flow, liberating the constrained matter of the sides to its natural directions, leaving nothing behind but empty space as the matter of the planet sped across the universe. This was how the world was going to end.
Mutt had dropped so much eastwater to avoid the tsunami he could return to Irla only at a hobbled pace. He had no food and grew starved over the day-long return trip. He retethered the bounder in the alley behind the shop and sought out the keeper to thank him. The shop was closed, its proprietor attending a bodiless burial with his sister, mourning the lost child with no thought for the bounder. Mutt visited the relief effort south of town along the edge in the direction of Arland, where refugees running the gauntlet of Skavian snipers were received on vertical sleds, horizontal from the perspective of Skava, and lowered to safety in Leland. An Arland outpost provided cover at the edge crossing to those refugees who could make it that far. Mutt needed food and had no money, and meekly asked aid workers for tarpin bread. Their instructions were to provide food only to incoming refugees, not the numerous indigents wandering the streets of Irla, but the food distributor took pity on this unsettled soul. Mutt scarfed a roll and instinctively took up position by a sled as a group of families spilled over. Sniper fire crackled across the surface of Skava as Arland soldiers on the Leland side leaned over the edge to return fire through sighted rifles. A large net billowed behind the sleds to catch refugees falling across the surface with their Skavian gravity. A terrified family, the father bleeding from a bullet wound to his elbow, tumbled over the edge onto Mutt’s sled in a cascade of bodies. He grabbed a falling child by the collar and swung her onto the sled while the mother landed on top of her. A small boy slipped from a rescuer’s grasp and fell screaming from the sled, his parents believing he had fallen to his death before seeing his terrified face bouncing in the net below. An aid worker threw blocks of eastmatter into slots in the sled’s bottom to buoy it so rescuers could handle the weight of the family as they carried the sled to the receiving station.
Mutt volunteered his services for future shifts, resolving to help those in need as he so often had received help. It was all he could do in his wretched abandonment, to provide succor to those who still had reasons to live, who had husbands and wives and children that loved them, who had dreams for their future. Ivy, the woman who so selfishly placed her own needs first, would never deign to aid these refugees, he thought. At the station he overheard aid workers gossiping about the wedding fiasco in the dance hall, how the bride’s secret lover crashed the ceremony to the astonishment of the guests, and how the blushing virgin’s daughter – a guttersnipe sired by the bride’s lover! – rushed the procession, leapt onto the bridal train, and brought the ceremony to a crashing halt. It was the talk of the town and the tawdriest scandal in recent memory. The worker chortled at the shock on the groom’s face when he saw the child of the woman he thought he would deflower in moments. Incredibly the bride violently attacked the groom as if her deceit was his fault, screaming epithets too vulgar to repeat in polite company and tossing him out of the hall onto the street by brute force. He had been there himself, the worker had, responding to fliers announcing a free banquet in a malnourished land for those who met a dress code, and watched in amazement as the crazy bride stripped naked before the crowd, tossed her shredded gown to the mortified audience, and forced the presiding father at knifepoint to marry off two children – her own daughter and a boy she kidnapped from the audience – in an unholy union. Truly this town had never witnessed such a spectacle. The only saving grace was that the groom learned of his bride’s tarnishment before the exchange of vows and thus escaped a wretched union.
Mutt listened to this gossip in complete bewilderment. He too had never heard of a scene so outrageous. And yet, somehow, deep in the crevices of his brain, he recognized his wife in the description of this debacle. This was the Ivy Morven he had always known, a woman acting out a bizarre script with such conviction the audience could only assume it made sense on another planet. Planet Loon, he would call it. His ex-wife was an alien from Planet Loon, a visitor not yet adjusted to the strange mores of the host planet, still acting out the decadent ways of her homeland not realizing how gauche she appeared, the audience too polite to tell her. He had married a woman from Planet Loon, and everything she did made perfect sense back on the home planet, but he was condemned to suffer her ways in ignorance of her motives, the mind of a lunatic not being accessible to a lowly Cube dweller. Mutt wanted to laugh at the absurdity of his choice in women but would have to stop crying first.
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