He had waited in the vault mesmerized by the stain while Ivy dictated the final message to the Order, which then inscribed the pie sheet and inserted it into the Oopsah in the same place as Ivy’s sheet in the last iteration. They snapped off two upper corners of the frame of the Oopsah, bent back the vertical members, inserted the sheet along with Zranga’s original sheets from the last iteration, and reassembled the frame. Mutt had no idea what she had written.
She began the inscription, encrypted by displacements of pi and e and prefaced by the word “pie”:
To my future self. You must kill Arvin and Kitla. They are not your parents. You are the daughter of Yarly and Prudence. You were taken from them after their spiking and given to the Inta. They are agents of Muglair and will thwart Tobor’s plot, which must succeed to save the planet. They sabotaged the great door and stopped the assassination. You must leave Harmour before Tobor returns. You are pregnant. You must go to the Edge. You know who will be there. He is the seventh son of the seventh son, and your only hope. You may read no further until the 2nd of Skitton, and you must read on that date. The Arland official weather reports will provide substitution numbers.
These were the exact words she had written in the prior iteration and decoded in the clean room while Zranga was on the Silent Sea. “Pie” was a personal code she had developed for amusement during those long boring days in the den on Lane Navachi. She could not change these words in the new inscription without risk of changing the immediate future in the next iteration, which could lead to her losing Mutt and Hope and release Tobor from the binds of determinism. Nothing could be different until after Hope was conceived. The Second of Skitton was well after her birth. After this date Ivy could change the future without losing her family. The prior Ivy had not known what would happen between her reading of the Oopsah and the Second of Skitton. But she understood that gains needed to be consolidated, so if by that date the future had gone well she had a mechanism for protecting it in future iterations. All she had to do was not change the first message and the future would proceed identically up until reading of the next message. Ivy had not understood the phrase “seventh son” when she read it in the clean room. Her prior self knew that this was Interior code for sons of the martyrs, and that the seventh son of the seventh son was the child of Outin and Paxa, but her current self had not learned this expression. She also had not understood that she was the Controller.
She had believed Tobor was still the Controller and she was sneaking in secret instructions, even though she had replaced his new instructions with his prior ones thereby trapping him in a loop and robbing him of the power to change destiny. She did add one line to his prior instructions, strangely out of place, telling him in his own voice to share the Oopsah with his wife before departing for the Silent Sea. Her prior self, the one who somehow managed to insinuate herself into the vault to inscribe the pie sheet and replace Tobor’s new inscriptions, had not understood that the eternal change was occurring. She had not had time in that life to think through the consequences of her actions or to write detailed instructions for her current self. She had only an intuition to seek Mutt Ogga which she now believed was her mother’s guiding spirit.
Her inscription in the prior iteration continued with the passage that could be read only starting on the Second of Skitton. Her decoding instructions had been ambiguous but Ivy, the current version, figured out that she needed to take the last digit of the high temperatures in the order they appeared in the official reports. This was a sufficiently random sample to prevent her, or anyone else, from decoding the message in advance. Over her seventeen days of decoding at the Notches, Ivy read this ancient message from her prior itself and was told that if she was satisfied that the door would be triggered or Muglair would be killed, she should take no further action. If she was not satisfied she had to tell Arland of the Oopsah, demonstrate its power, and seek their aid. She had gambled that Muglair would be stopped and lost. The message also told her to go to Irla if the Flume erupted, which was where she had lived out her final days with Tobor in the prior iteration. Her prior self had given her one more set of instructions decodable by weather data only after her current self arrived in Irla. It was through this final message that the current Ivy discovered the full meaning of pie. She learned that her prior self had rewritten the Oopsah and assumed power over destiny by accompanying Tobor to the vault and inserting changes. She suspected that her prior self had murdered Tobor in the vault and returned to Irla to die with Celeste, but she had no way of knowing. She learned details of the Order’s tunnel system, including the link to Irla, and was told by her prior self that she would have to penetrate the sacred chamber again. She would have to rewrite the future to prevent Tobor from seizing control, else the cycle would revert and all would be lost for eternity. She was acting on her own instructions when she slew Tobor and took his severed head to the Order. What could be more convincing of the eternal change? That, plus the proof of pie, was what she needed to fulfill her destiny and save her family. The prior Ivy had been unable to stop the world’s destruction but she had laid the groundwork for the current iteration.
It was her duty this time in the vault to write instructions for her next self. In the next iteration, upon the Second of Skitton, the weather-based code would inform her that the only way to stop the cycle of destruction would be to murder Zranga upon his visit to the Notches and immediately take all knowledge to Mira and through her to the leadership of Arland. She could not inform Arland prior to the Second of Skitton because any deviation from the current iteration prior to that date would put her marriage and the conception of Hope at risk. Everything had to be exactly identical up until the Second of Skitton, when she would receive the new instructions, to preserve her family. She inscribed future weather data that she would read on the Second of Skitton as proof to the Arlanders of her knowledge of the future, along with details of future events no ordinary mortal could predict. She would take the cosmic gamble because once Arland became convinced of the Oopsah’s powers they would seize it from the Order and Ivy could inscribe no further. If she told Arland and Arland failed to stop Muglair, the nation would use the power of the Oopsah for its own purposes and salvation for Ivy’s family, for her union with Mutt and their child, would be lost. She could think of no other way. Only Arland had the power to stop Muglair, and they would have ten months before the Flume erupted to do so. They had to bomb Shamba into oblivion before the final stretch of the shaft was dug to the bottom of the Silent Sea. They had to approach the intake from the Silent Sea and install their own plug. They had to take all measures within the power of a great nation to save the planet and end the horrific cycle of destruction. In that future world, if all went according to plan, Ivy could have her wish, she could have her husband, she could have Hope, and she could give Hope all the siblings the couple wanted. She would be his Hutwoman bride and he would be her Hutman groom, and they could continue living in a hut, maybe even a bigger hut with fewer rodents.
In her final instructions she concluded:
The fate of the future is for all times on your shoulders. You must not fail. Tobor Zranga will arrive at the Notches three days after the end of this message and you must kill him by surprise, without delay, and without mercy. You must then take all future data contained in this message to Mira and compel her to transmit it to Arland. You must be present in any meetings and you must convince Arland of the Oopsah’s power over the future, and of the certain disintegration of the planet if the Flume is not destroyed immediately by any means necessary. This is your one and only chance. There will be no other. If you fail Arland will take control of the Oopsah for future iterations and you will lose your husband and daughter for all eternity. It is your sacred duty to protect the love you have found in the Notches.
She switched to writing in the first person:
I have brought Mutt Ogga to the vault of the Oopsah for the final inscription, and we have left on the wall of this sacred chamber a remnant of our love. It is for this stain, this mixture of our bodies, that the Oopsah has been reconsecrated. If love cannot be humanity’s highest calling, then humanity deserves to perish.
I must now tell you, my future self, in the limited space remaining, of the path I have followed since the Second of Skitton, the path you will avoid if you follow my instructions and change your future. We have had more drama than humans should be allowed. When the Flume erupted, the Notches was caught in the front between the armies of Arland and Skava and shadowed by the great Armada on its way to Shamba. We fled into Arland and were captured in a Skavian salient. I was imprisoned in the camp at Dunder and witnessed the atrocities of Muglair’s dystopia, with which I will not burden you. Mutt received a hero’s welcome in Skava for his series on the Sphere and used it to secure a meeting with Muglair, at which he stared down the Great Man with proof of precognition and threats to expose his secrets, thereby gaining my release to Leland. He brought Hope to Irla only to find me at the altar with Tobor Zranga, whom I was planning to wed in exchange for a life with Mutt in the next iteration. I remain ashamed of this plan yet would do it again. Mutt left me, so wounded was the poor soul, but his love is pure and he returned. He read the Oopsah in Tobor’s tent and my terrible burden was finally shared. When I received the final message from my prior self, I resolved to murder Tobor and take his severed head to the Order. I switched his potion and he fell into slumber while disrobing me. I waited for him to awake before driving a dagger into his heart. Never in the history of mankind was a death more deserved. It was with his severed head, and the proof of pie, that I penetrated the sacred vault to inscribe these words. You must not fail in your mission. All your prior selves have perished so that you may have this chance. There will be no more futures.
I ask of you, my future self, two things. When the peace comes, arrange a play date for Hope with a beautiful little boy named Varun Ooson, for they are such a cute couple and were pretend married in Irla after Mutt crashed my wedding with Tobor. What she does is her business, but it is a mother’s business to rub flint. And visit your grandparents in Gulet, for they are suffering terribly from your loss. You will find in their den a bowl of peppermint candies that has lain untouched nineteen years awaiting your hand. I do not advise you to eat any. And I shall add a third injunction. Never question the love you have found, for it is transcendent.
Following this message was a long series of weather data and details of historic events in the current iteration which would be future events to the next Ivy. These were to be her tools to conquer the future.
Mutt listened in wonder to Ivy’s detailed recounting of the final inscription. He thanked God he was not the Controller for he would never have known where to begin with such power. His faith in Ivy was complete and he was confident she would save the world in the next iteration. But Ivy remained gloomy as she steered the tumbler up the tunnel. She was accepting that her family was going to die and that their next incarnations would be different people. Sure, they would be identical up to the Second of Skitton when the course of history would diverge. But the new identities they had forged since that date would be forever lost. Most of all she regretted that the daughter she had proudly watched blossom into a precocious four-year-old would be extinguished. Hope would live again until the age of two-and-a-half but the current Hope, the one who had lived from the Second of Skitton in the Notches past her fourth birthday in Irla, would not. This was how the world was constructed and she had no power to change it.
Mutt sensed her thoughts and tried to comfort her.
“Ivy, I have taken your words to heart. I choose to believe that those future people will be us, and we will live again. To choose otherwise is to surrender to death.”
On the surface the ground had a noticeable tilt. The planet had dislodged from its fixture and was slowly moving through space with the preponderant weight of Skava over Parva, growing unstable as the Silent Sea sloshed violently beyond its containment throwing the planet into rotation. The end was nearing and the slow twist to disintegration had commenced. Ivy rushed to the Oosons’ tent to find an inconsolable Arna.
“Where have you been? Your daughter is ill.”
Ivy lifted Hope into her arms and felt her forehead.
“My child, you have a fever. But it is not serious.” She had no medicine and gave her a shot of cognac.
Arna was facing the apocalypse but was consumed with Ivy’s abandonment of Hope. How could a mother leave a child crying for her in the hour of doom?
“Arna, you must listen to me. I cannot tell you where I have been but I can tell that this is all an illusion. We will live again, and you will know the joy of your children’s sweet breath in a future life.”
Arna had heard all sorts of nonsense from Ivy but this was the most offensive. She began to chastise her and Ivy took her hand.
“My dearest Arna, you are a gift and I will be forever grateful for your love. Please, let us celebrate our families in these final hours. Our children should not see us suffer.”
Ivy announced a barbecue and invited everyone in the village. Bring all your food, she declared, and she supervised the construction of a gigantic bonfire and lit it herself. Mutt retrieved his mandolin from the tent and sat on a stump playing the instrument adjusting to the unusual feel of its Arland sidematter, for no mandolins were manufactured in Leland. The party grew until most of the tent village assembled, men reaching into the fire with long-handled tongs for foil packets, women spreading the benches with fruit baskets and honeyed ambrosia, swarms of children circling the fire to avoid the changing directions of the smoke. Conversations were lively though oddly often about politics, a topic that could never have been more pointless. Ivy regaled Arna with endless stories of cute things Hope had done stopping only for Arna to match her with tales of Varun’s deeds or misdeeds as the case may be. Hope usually wore sandals but preferred boots in the cooler air of Leland and had just learned to lace them up but unfortunately knotted the laces together and could only walk backwards for two days. Varun stuffed handfuls of squirsh, a viscous treat beloved of children in Leland, into the pockets of all his mother’s dresses as a surprise gift, which promptly melted into an impenetrable goo when she warmed the clothes by a fire to smoke out vermin. Several children roasted dollops of posh, an airy confection of whipped sugar, on sticks over the fire waiting for bursts of flame. Hope was tipsy from the cognac and appeared to forget her fever. She sat with Varun in the dirt, their legs forming a corral, pushing pillbugs around with their thumbs. Mutt asked her to dance for the crowd and she shyly demurred before yielding to the urging of her parents. She insisted Varun join her and he was even more embarrassed than she was. But they did dance, as clumsily as they skipped to the dais in the dance hall, while Mutt energetically popped the mandolin in a tune about a turtle flying on the back of a crow. The children had somehow absorbed the rudiments of Hutman dance and spun in figure eights elbows locked, free hands twirling, switching arms and directions as the mood hit. The sun moved slowly across the sky and angled downward, an event never before witnessed in history, as the tilt of the planet increased. But there was no point worrying. Their fates had been sealed and all that remained was to celebrate for the alternative was to reveal their gloom to the children and mar their final moments. Hope kept asking why the ground was slipping and Mutt kept telling her it was because a giant aardvark was pushing it from beneath. She knew he was joshing but accepted the answer. Small chunks of sidematter, and then larger chunks, began whirring overhead and through the gathering. The planet was disintegrating and it was time now to return to the tents.
Arna gathered her three children in her arms before the fire and began sobbing uncontrollably. She could no longer maintain a festive veneer so destroyed she was that these tiny ambassadors of life, her future and the charges she had solemnly sworn to protect by the very act of giving birth, were soon to die. She composed herself for they had figured out something terrible was happening and their mothers’ breakdown only confirmed it. Ivy hugged Arna tightly and told her she was God’s chosen and her love and devotion would be rewarded. Arna wanted so much to believe in the heaven Ivy was describing but it did not diminish the stark terror in her heart and her anguish for her children’s lives and her unborn child. She was surprised to hear Ivy talk of salvation such a freethinker she had always been. Ivy lifted up Hope and stood before the fire with Mutt’s arm around her. The licking of the flames was profoundly saddening but she resolved to keep a smile for Hope. How could this poor child understand what was coming? A sizeable chunk of sidematter walloped the fire scattering coals at their feet. Ivy leapt back with Hope in her arms as Mutt shoved coals away with his boots.
“It is time,” said Ivy, “to retire.”
She hugged Arna, who could not contain her sobs, and returned to the Ogga tent. The family entered and Ivy tied the canvas flaps in place from the inside, glancing one last time at the tent village on the plains of Leland. She reached into her satchel, tucked away in a corner against the canvas, and retrieved a small vial of powder and a jar of angoo juice. She poured the powder, sleeping powder from Tobor Zranga’s tent, into the juice. Mutt looked at her surprised but realized Ivy could not bear to witness her child’s terror at the end. She asked Hope if she was thirsty and the little girl nodded.
Ivy felt her head. She still had a slight fever.
“Mommy, why was Miss Arna crying?”
“Because she loves Varun so much.”
Ivy struggled to hold back tears. She handed Hope the cup. The little girl grasped it with her tiny hands and drank eagerly.
“Sleep, child,” Ivy spoke softly, “and when you awake I will tell you more.”
Ivy untied her daughter’s stalk and placed a pillow under her head. The parents of Hope sat silently as their child fell into a deep sleep, curled up in a ball by her mother’s side.
“I could not save her, Mutt. I could protect her no more than my own mother could protect me.”
She gazed upon Hope disconsolate.
“Why is this child not enough? You have your parts, I have mine, and together we produced this beautiful creature, and all our energies should go into raising her, into being her parents, into being a family. Why is this not enough for the world? Why must we destroy everything when all we need is so closely within our grasp, attainable through a simple act of joy?”
Mutt did not respond. He wanted to tell her that humans were animals competing for scarce resources, that selective pressures favored those with a propensity to violence, that those who took had, thriving at the expense of others and passing on the will to take to their children, and how the dynamic of subjugation served them well until it found its fullest expression in the person of Muglair and the destruction of the planet. But even if true, what good would come of talking about it now? He needed to be her anchor, but an anchor keeping her from drifting into despair, not one pulling her down. And was not civilization the taming of these violent impulses? Should not Ivy’s questions be valid in a civilized world? With the power to create had come the power to destroy, but it did not have to be used. Ivy had done everything a mother could to protect her child and to hold out hope for a triumph of love over evil. Perhaps the purpose of the Oopsah was to let her keep trying until she succeeded.
“Ivy, no mother has ever struggled harder for her child. And what you could not achieve in this life, you will achieve in the next. We must have hope for the next world, for this world is lost. We will relive the flourishing of our love and we will write a happy ending. We will have Hope again, and we will have each other.”
“Maybe there is a Heaven,” she whispered. “I want to believe in something bigger than this life.”
“I think you already found that.” He was referring to the Oopsah.
“I want to believe in something good, not indifferent, something that transcends our lives. I want this all to be an illusion. So when it is over, we can be together with all the people we ever loved, who ever loved us, without fear, without death. I want to see my mother. I cannot bear the thought of what happened to her. I was ripped from her arms as a toddler and I have never recovered. If I could make one wish come true, it would be for her to meet Hope. Oh how I would love to see her holding Hope, for her to know that one day by divine fate I met that most beautiful boy she described in her letter, and that together we gave her a grandchild. Why are we designed to suffer so? Why must we want so desperately things that can never be? Surely there must be a Heaven so these things can come to pass.”
The tilt of the surface of Leland steepened as the planet slowly spun. The ground shook in violent spasms causing a rack of clothes to fall onto the legs of an upturned chair. Tableware and toys rolled into the corner of the tent bulging into the canvas. The lantern hung ominously at an angle like a pendulum frozen in swing as the world about it reoriented. Ivy grabbed Hope’s sleeping body to keep her from sliding into the canvas. Strange howling noises and creaks filled the air, low shaking rumblings and whistlings of chunks of sidematter flying dangerously close, strange illuminations from unknown sources flashing grotesque shadows on the walls of the tent, all signs of the apocalypse. Mutt saw fright and helplessness in Ivy’s eyes. He embraced her and purged his mind of all fear. He would comfort her in their dying moments, he would find purpose in holding her tightly to the end, he would be her rock, he would be her anchor. She would die knowing he had been there for her completely, that she would never be abandoned in any ordeal no matter how awful, that she belonged to him, and he belonged to her. She looked at him achingly, longingly, and softly kissed him.
“Will you hold me again,” she asked through tears, “in the next life?”
He wanted to answer but she pressed a finger to his lips. There was nothing left to say. Hope was sleeping peacefully at her parents’ feet oblivious to the looming catastrophe. Ivy gathered her up, turning to her husband as if to thank him for giving her such a beautiful child, then gently laid her on Ivy’s far side away from her father. She rolled onto her side with her back to him and scooted into his embrace, spooning with him as she spooned with Hope. Mutt was reminded of a photograph he once saw in a gallery. Archaeologists excavating the ruins of Thirbel, destroyed by the invading Army of Glode, found three skeletons crushed beneath a fallen roof. A man lay on his side holding a woman, who lay on her side holding a child, their arms each protecting the object of their adoration. These simple gestures were futile in the face of the ruinous onslaught and their bodies were now only weathered skeletons. But in some other world where such things matter, they preserved the form of their love for all who have wonder to gaze upon. Now Mutt lay on his side clutching Ivy, with her clutching Hope. His protective arm would be as futile as hers but they would die knowing their place in the universe. They were each a part of something larger, a family in which their identities had merged, in which they had learned to love others before loving themselves. The angle of the ground sharpened as the planet lurched inexorably toward disintegration. In the distance Mutt heard a sound of raw power unlike any he had ever heard, as though a herd of celestial horses eight miles high were galloping across the plains of Leland straight for their tent. Ivy tensed in his arms, leaned back and kissed him, then buried her face in Hope’s locks, breathing the fragrance of her child. She knew they were going to die, and she was not sure they would return. How she wished she could have avoided this fate! How she wished she could have watched her daughter grow to womanhood in this world and not had to wait for some uncertain future! The thundering herd drew closer as the ground shook violently. The disintegration was upon them with a wall of sidematter as high as the horses in Mutt’s imagination. He lifted his eyes from Ivy’s graceful form and for a hundredth of a second saw a disturbance in the canvas of the tent. As soon as he saw it the canvas was driven into their bodies with the force of ten thousand sledgehammers. Mutt was suddenly at the Edge as the sunlight froze the image of the desolate grass for all eternity and stored it in a place reserved for exalted experience, just before Ivy fell into his arms. And then there was nothing. Where their bodies had lain the wall of matter poured unstoppably toward the crumbling edge of Leland, headed to outer space and the cosmic journey.
The violent snuffing of their lives was repeated millions of times across the planet, with all wondering in their final moments how humanity could be so blind to its peril, so bent on its own destruction. All that humanity had created, and all that God had bestowed, fell prey to the violent forces ripping the planet apart. Rixjrig and Leri Deri, Shivaree and Gulet, Irla and the Notches, the Mothers Hall and the People’s Hall, the Stairway and the Stoika, the canneries of Dark Harbor and the factories of western Arland, the huts and cottages, the schools and dance halls, the greens and playgrounds, the roads and byways, the lakes and rivers, the mounds and hollows, little girls in bows, little boys in jumpsuits, men and women who had done no wrong their entire lives, the carnivorous flowers of Skava, the magnificent trape groves of Arland, the vast deciduous forests of the hinterlands, the goats, the skunks, the rabbits, the turtles, the family dogs, the iridescent looper fish, the luminous frogs of Bivenal, the contemptible suckleworm, all churned to dust beneath the towering waves of sidematter. The twisting of the planet continued as the matter of all sides sought out its directions until the majestic cube formed over the eons was no more. In the space where the mighty planet once rested nothing remained. There were only memories, with no mind to entertain them, of the lives and joys and trials of the millions dead. And among these memories was the story of two young people who fell in love, who conceived and nurtured a beautiful child, who persisted through the most extraordinary circumstances lovers ever faced, only to succumb to the frailty of their bodies in the face of perfect evil. If memories could leave traces, space would be aglow. For here it was that a young boy met a young girl on a glorious day enveloped by the scent of dogwood on the Skavian breeze, where she leapt over the Edge into his arms to escape a fate worse than death and to find the possibility of true love, where he set aside all that he knew to save her and protect her, where they discovered the joy of one another’s bodies and shared as passionate a union as lovers ever knew, where they conceived and brought forth the most wanted child in the history of creation, where a perfect little girl with hair tied in a stalk danced to a mandolin and reveled in her parents’ love, where forces of darkness beyond their control destroyed their home and ripped their family apart, where in the name of progress they endured desolation and suffering of unimaginable torment, where against all odds they reunited in a lonely village in the land of long shadows, and where with full knowledge of all their imperfections their love reflourished into the complete acceptance Ivy Morven always craved, a melting of their selves into one, the vindication of all her struggles. The world had never known a love more devoted, more complete. Everything she had done, she did for him, and everything he was, he had given to her. But they had failed and the splendor of their love was cut violently short. There was now nothing left here in space but a potential, a point of origin around which a new world could develop. The matter of the Cube was already spreading across the universe, traveling the natural axes until its inevitable return.
They would meet again in a billion years. And this time they would die on her terms.
Check out chapters of The Cube right here.