Science Fiction & Fantasy

Huang_Burning-Roses_Lightspeed

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Fiction

Still You Linger, Like Soot in the Air

By the time Gil had stopped meditating and opened his eyes, Muu had already removed the body. Just yesterday he and Demi had walked the eighty-four flights of stairs down to the dusty city streets, and together he and Demi had strolled across the promenade of Usha Square under the tangerine light of the setting sun. The wind had whipped Demi’s long hair into a frenzy, and Gil had leaned forward to brush a lock away from his friend’s glowing eyes. Now, Demi was gone. Muu had taken him, which meant Demi wasn’t dead exactly, but neither would Gil ever hold his hand again.

Gil sat by the open-aired window as the warm winds whipped furiously over the city, sending whorls of dry air into his bare apartment. The oil lamp by his feet guttered and went out. But a moment later, it flickered back to life.

“Thank you, Muu,” Gil whispered, even though he wished the lamp would stay out, that he could sit in the dark and hide from her forever.

But the approaching footsteps on the landing told him his wish was futile. Through machinations Gil couldn’t begin to comprehend, Muu had arranged for a new pupil to arrive the very same day his old one had left.

And who would it be this time? A hedonist from Tarphon, ostensibly here to become devout, but in reality come to bliss out on the holy herb? Another melk barely out of diapers, hoping to learn the secrets of the universe but unable to count to ten? Gil had first come to Gilder Nefan to escape his father, a man who apologized as often as he punched. And Gil’s bruises were still healing the first time he’d ascended Gilder Nefan’s long flights and sat before the feet of a holy man. It seemed like eons ago now, though it was just less than a decade, and that callow boy he had been had washed away in the tides of time. He couldn’t quite remember what he had felt back then. Excitement? Relief? Terror? But he knew that if he could send a message back through time, he would scream, Run!

The footsteps grew louder as the new pupil made their way down the hall. Gil would not announce his presence. If they wished to subject themselves to this hell, then at least let them come to him.

A young woman stepped through the door’s threshold, from shadow into light. The setting sun gave her skin a bloody pallor and made her eyes spark and flash like embers from a raging fire. She was young and fit and had barely broken a sweat from having just climbed eighty-four flights.

“Let peace be the way,” she said.

“And the way, peace,” he replied.

“I’m Tim,” she said. “And you are Gil?”

“More or less,” he said. “Are you hungry, Tim? Tired?”

“I ate on-ship,” she said. “And, no, I’m quite awake, thank you.”

He looked her up and down. She wore the local style of clothing: loose-fitting dun pants and blouse, and a wide leather belt with a pouch at her waist. Her hair was cut short and did not convey any particular style. The only thing that marked her as an off-worlder was her shoes. Like the rest of her clothing, they were brown, but made of synthetics.

“Take those off,” he said, nodding at her shoes. “We wear leather sandals here or nothing.”

“Yes, of course,” she said. “I’ll get new ones tomorrow.” And in two quick motions of her feet she stood barefoot on the stone floor.

He studied her again. “Why are you here, Tim?” he said.

She hung her head and threw herself onto her knees before him. “I’m here to learn! I’m here to do whatever you ask of me, teacher.”

Inwardly, Gil sighed. This poor soul had absolutely no idea what she was in for. “And if I ask you to jump out this window, would you do that for me, Tim?”

She glanced up at him with a look of intense fear, and this pleased him. The fearful ones were easily manipulated. And so perhaps he might convince her she was better off joining a farming commune on Woll Ye, or devoting her life to dream-music on Datsu. But Muu pressed down on his heart with her great invisible finger, filling Gil with enough dread to swallow a universe. And so, instead, he forced a laugh and said, “I’m only joking, Tim. How was your trip?”

“Long,” she said with a relieved chuckle. “There’s no direct route here to Gilder Nefan from the inner worlds. I had a three-day layover at Chadeisson.” She shook her head and shivered. “Have you ever been there?”

“No.”

“It’s an old mining city in sysPnei. The people there are . . .”

“Are what?”

“Well, they’re very strange.”

“Strange how?”

She grew timid, as if she had somehow offended him. “Well, I mean that they’re all caught up in ’tainment and sense-pleasures. None of them seemed fully present. Fully alive.”

“Unlike you,” he said.

She straightened, and he sensed a defiant streak. “Well, no,” she said. “Not like me.”

“And how are you different, Tim?”

She took in a deep breath. “I’m not better. No, I know that. But I have made different choices. I’ve chosen to delve deeper into my own consciousness in order to explore the nature of reality. And in my research I have come to believe that I will learn volumes about the nature of being itself if I can commune with the numens.”

He laughed, and it wasn’t forced this time.

“What’s so funny?” she said with a frown.

“You think it’s that easy?” he said. “That you just sail across the deep to Gilder Nefan and have a conversation with a god?”

She shook her head. “Most scholars agree that the numens aren’t gods,” she said. “They’re alien minds who lie beyond human comprehension, who have abilities that seem to defy known physical laws of nature.”

“In other words,” Gil said, “gods.”

“That’s a term I’d rather not use,” she said.

You’d rather not use?” he said. “Since when do you get to choose how you refer to them?”

“I’m sorry if I offended you,” she said, shrinking at his tone. “But I just don’t see the numens as anything other than alien intelligences who lie beyond our cognitive reasoning. What does a cat know of poetry? We may be like cats to them.”

Pets, you mean?” Gil said, wondering if Muu would stop him if he tried to flee. But where in the universe could you hide from a god? He suppressed a shudder.

“We might be their pets,” said Tim. “But I think we are much more. I have come here, teacher, to commune with the numens, and in so doing I hope to understand more about the nature of consciousness. From what I’ve read, communing with them opens up doorways of mental thought unlike anything else in human experience.”

You have no idea,” he muttered.

“Pardon?” she said.

“Us Nefanesh—we are religious folk!” he said. “We immerse ourselves in holy study. We worship five times a day. We live austere lives, refraining from technology and contrivance. We use only that which enables us to approach the divine. And yes, Tim, the numens are gods. There is no other word for them. They could pluck you from this world like a flower from a stem.” He loudly snapped his finger at her and she winced. And once they have their eyes on you, they never look away, he wanted to say, but Muu would have punished him for it. “Are you ready for that?”

She reached into the pouch on her belt and pulled out a well-worn copy of The Light of the Universe. Tiny colored strips of paper bookmarked many dozens of pages. “I’ve never been more ready.”

Gil gazed out the window. The sun had set behind the thicket of stone towers, and the first stars were already glimmering above the lamp-lit city. From a nearby balcony a sein began to bellow the sunset call to prayer, and seconds later, dozens of others across the city joined her in song. Their chanting voices echoed from a thousand stone walls until they became one giant cacophony of madness.

He wanted to scream at her: Run! Leap onto the next ship and never look back on this cursed place. But Muu’s presence was like a piece of clothing he could never take off, so instead he shuddered.

“Come!” he said to her sharply. “It’s time to pray.”

• • • •

The next morning, Tim revealed that she had changed her gender several times, but ultimately chose female because she felt it suited her temperament. Gil said nothing at this, even though this was against Nefanesh custom. If asked, the Nefanesh perennially replied that they were against all forms of body modification, that everything from simple piercings to full-blown gene-redactions were forbidden. The body was a temple, the Nefanesh said, and thus a holy person should remain as close to human pure as possible. But “pure” meant different things to different people, and the Nefanesh made many exceptions. They were always making exceptions.

At least twice per day, he sent Tim all the way down to the streets to fetch sundry things: vials of oil, sticks of incense, supplies of food and water for her. Sometimes he sent her away just to be alone. But there was no education in it. It was all rote, a hazing period meant to test his pupil’s patience. And typically, by the end of the first week, most students began to show cracks in their fortitude. Their eyes would grow red and weary, their shoulders would stoop, and their pace would slow. But not Tim. No—she seemed to enjoy the long treks down into the bowels of the city, then back again up the eighty-four flights, as if she were, like a blacksmith’s sword, being tempered each time.

On the third day, when the sun began to touch the tips of the buildings and the sunset prayer was almost upon them, Tim said, “You never eat.”

“You’re perceptive,” he said, nodding. “It usually takes new pupils more than a week to notice.”

“Why is that?” she said, staring intently at him.

“Perhaps because they’re too focused on themselves.”

“No, I mean, why don’t you ever eat?”

He paused. “Because all my needs are taken care of.”

“By the numens?” she said.

“Just one,” he said. “Her name is Muu.”

Tim’s eyes lit up like a bowl in a jisthmus pipe. She sat down at his feet and said, “Muu! What a beautiful name! I’ve heard of Hri and Saa, but never Muu. How does she feed you?”

“It’s not like that,” he said. “I just don’t need to eat anymore.”

“Fascinating!” she said. “What other needs does she take care of? Urination? Defecation? What about sexual needs?”

Gil looked away from her penetrating gaze, embarrassed.

“Sleep?” she went on. “Do you sleep, Gil? I can’t remember if I ever saw you—”

“Shut up!” he snapped. “You speak too much!”

“Yes. Mother always said that.”

“Part of becoming a holy vessel is learning how to listen.”

“Yes. I’m sorry.”

The sun burned its way down between the buildings, until the crevices below vanished into shadow. Lamps were lit, and globes of warm orange light spilled into the labyrinthine interstices.

“Teacher?” she said.

“Yes?”

“It’s been three days, and you haven’t partaken of the holy jisthmus.”

He squinted at her. “Few things escape your attention.”

“Next time you partake,” she said, “may I join you?”

He couldn’t help but laugh. “You’re here three days and think you’re ready to leap into infinity?”

“I’ve been studying for months and months.”

Months!” he said. “Entire months!”

“Ask me something, anything,” she said.

“All right,” he said. “What does The Light of the Universe say about humility?”

Immediately she shot back, “Well, Tractate 71 says, ‘Good traits and accomplishments do not entitle one to special treatment.’”

Gil stared at her for a long moment before nodding. “And you’d do well to heed that precept, Tim.” He leaned back and sighed, believing the topic over, but she went on:

“That’s not all the holy book says. Tractate 92 goes on to say, ‘A potter should let his skill be known, in case there is need of pots. It is a sin to hide one’s good traits and accomplishments.’ Teacher—Gil, I know The Light of the Universe by heart. I can quote chapter and verse from any page of The Seven Commentaries, Our Divine Cleaving, and The Set Table. I can read, write, and speak fluent Nefanese as well as ancient Psemitian. I know all the prayers and rituals and customs by heart. All I’m asking for is a chance to touch the face of a god.”

He waited for Muu’s hand to nudge him into saying, Yes. But from above there was only a horrid silence, like the sound of an empty bed where once there had lain a man.

“My prayer mat is worn,” he said. “Fetch me a new one.”

“Yes, teacher,” she said, nodding. “I’ll head down tomorrow after the—”

“Now,” he said.

Now? But it’s almost dark and sunset prayers will be—”

“Now!” he shouted.

She paused. “Not many stores will be open this late.”

“Do what I ask of you, Tim,” he said.

She frowned and nodded. “Yes, teacher.”

But once she stepped into the hall, he shouted after her, “Tim!”

“Yes?” she said, peering back around the doorframe with an expectant look, as if he might change his mind.

He waited for Muu to yank his marionette strings this way or that, but to his immense relief she did not act. So he said, “Not everyone enjoys the mind expansion that takes place under the influence of jisthmus. In fact, some find the experience mentally shattering.” He winced, awaiting Muu’s hand, but when nothing happened he continued. “And once that door is opened, it cannot be closed again. Think hard, Tim. Sometimes, ignorance is bliss.”

“I know the risks,” she said. “And I made my decision a long time ago. I only await yours.” Then she turned and headed for the stairs, while outside the first seins began to sing.

• • • •

By the end of the second week, Tim began to stink. Just two weeks before, Gil had sat in this same room and washed Demi’s body while the glimmering starlight and the hot evening air poured in through the windows. They had lain on the prayer mat that had doubled as Demi’s bed. And while Gil had caressed Demi’s swiftly hardening body, he’d felt Muu’s presence as intimately as if the god herself were lying between them. Whenever Demi touched him, Muu’s ineffable immensity shuddered with pleasure too. And whenever Gil came, Muu did too, and waves of ineffable bliss rippled out across the universe. Years before Gil had ever dreamed of communing with a god, he had thought sex was the most intimate thing two people could share. But sex with a person and a god? This pleasure was beyond imagining.

For weeks, he had hoped to tell Demi that Muu was with them when they made love, that they hadn’t been alone. But he could never bring himself to admit it, because he was too scared of how Demi might react, too scared to lose his little slice of heaven. So instead he’d let Demi believe that it was always just the two of them, alone, in this hot room under the stars. And now, Demi was gone, snatched up into the ether, never to return. Did Demi now know what Gil had done, how he had betrayed the only person he had ever loved? Did Demi, whatever he was now, even care?

“What are you thinking about?” Tim said.

“Hm?” Gil said groggily, waking from the memory. They sat in Tim’s bedroom, in the same spot where Demi had once slept. A large cloud passed over the sun, and a great shadow swallowed the city whole.

“You were staring off into space,” Tim said. “Were you speaking with Muu just then?”

“No,” Gil said. “I was thinking of . . .” He paused. “An old friend.”

“Someone you miss?”

“Yes. Very much.”

“Are they dead?”

Gil should have been offended by the question, but he was getting used to Tim’s direct style. “Yes,” he said. “He’s dead.” Which wasn’t exactly true. Demi was out there, somewhere, in the same way that lamp oil, once burned, still lingered as soot in the air.

“I’m sorry,” Tim said. “What was he like?”

“Kind,” Gil said. “And quiet. He didn’t speak much, but when he did, you listened, as if his thoughts were the most important thing in the world. He could make anyone laugh. Or cry.”

Tim nodded. “How did he die?”

A departing ship streaked across the sky, trailing vapor as it burned for the stars. Distantly, its retreating thunder echoed across the folds of the city. “He was killed.”

“Murdered?”

He waited for Muu to crush his psyche under her thumb, but the departing ship vanished into the blue sky, and the wind whorled past the window, and nothing much else happened. A brown sparrow, small as a mouse, alighted on the windowsill, cocked its head at both of them, then darted off.

“Yes,” Gil said. “He was murdered.”

“By whom?”

But Gil did not answer. He could not answer. Not because Muu forbade it, but because the truth was too painful, that the divine being who had given him everything—purpose, knowledge, bliss—was the same monster who had stolen the most wonderful thing that had ever happened to him.

Instead, he said, “Tim, I want you to join me in the ceremony tonight. After sunset prayer, we will partake of the holy jisthmus together.”

She raised her eyebrows in a look of surprise, until she caught herself and cooled. “I . . . I’d be honored.”

“Go meditate,” he said. “Calm your mind as best you know, because tonight the door to the universe will be blown open. Be as still as a boulder in a rushing river, because the floods will come, Tim. They will come.”

• • • •

Gil’s jisthmus pipe was long and skinny and made of hardwood, a gift from Demi after his last one had worn out. A prayer along the side in ancient Psemitian read, The universe is nothing but Light, and the light of the One pervades all. The other side read, With love, D.

Gil turned the pipe over in his hands while Tim watched. They sat on their prayer mats beside the room’s large window, but the evening breeze did little to break the day’s heat. Above the city, the sky was so clear that Gil could pick out the colors of individual stars. He had turned the oil lamp down so that most of the light came from the lamplit city. In its lambent flicker, the sweat dripping down their bodies softly glimmered, and it seemed as if they both were made of orange wax.

Gil recited the jisthmus prayer, while Tim listened: “When the pathway opens, let it be filled with light. Like dross from gold, may the light burn away our impurities. May our essence be pure and acceptable to the Ones who watch over us.”

Blessings and light,” Tim said.

She leaned in to watch as he carefully unrolled the cloth bundle which held the holy jisthmus herb. Its potent oils could be absorbed through the skin, so he was careful not to touch it with his bare hands. But even before the pungent, earthy fragrance reached his nose, his hands began to tremble. Using small wooden tongs, he packed the pipe’s deep bowl.

It seemed only hours ago when he and Demi had sat in this spot and partook of the jisthmus together. They had just finished their second draught from the pipe when the walls began their familiar dissolution. Usually it took many long minutes of meditation and prayer before Muu made her presence known. But this time she had thrust herself into their presence like a planet-sized tidal wave. Muu crashed over them, around them, through them, and as they tumbled and gasped in that mad roiling sea of crushing sensation, Demi slipped away, like water through cloth, until there was nothing left of his humanity but a slowly evaporating spot of moisture. And when Gil awoke, hours later, from that nightmare, shivering and naked on the floor, the sun was a bright creeping blob rising the east, and the man beside him was dead.

“You’re trembling,” Tim said.

“What of it?” he said.

“Are you frightened?” she said.

He met her steady eyes. “Are you?”

“Yes,” she said. “I am.”

“Good,” he said. “Fear is the only rational response to what you are about to experience.”

“I’ve just realized something,” she said, cocking her head. “The reason you didn’t want me to partake of the jisthmus is not because I’m unready. Since I’ve been here, you haven’t partaken of the jisthmus yourself. Something happened the last time you smoked it, didn’t it?” she said. “Something that scared you.”

He stared at her. Was there anything this person didn’t see? He blinked, and for an instant he was suspended in infinite space, a dimensionless point inside Muu’s unfathomable immensity. He blinked again and he was back in the dimly lit room. A flashback, or Muu’s hand, he couldn’t tell. “Like I said, the experience is not always pleasurable.”

“What happened?” she said.

He considered telling her. I loved a man, and Muu stole him from me. But a hand gripped his heart and squeezed. At first, he assumed this was Muu, but there was a quality to this pain vastly different from Muu’s touch. It was too human. It was his own. His throat tightened, but he swallowed before it could emerge as a sob. “There is nothing to say,” he said. “Pass me the match.”

She stared at him for a long moment before obeying. “Here.”

It took his shaking hands three tries to light the match. He held the small burning stick above the packed bowl for a moment. “It’s not too late to turn back,” he said. “It’s not too late to leave.”

“No,” she said. “I’ve been waiting forever for this. I’m not going anywhere.”

“Yes,” he said, “you are.” Then he lowered the flame to the bowl, and inhaled.

• • • •

Doors. Doors and windows and corners. Opening, expanding. Walls, moving. Rearranging. Spreading. A labyrinth of walls, infinitely distant. Blocks of stone make mountains or cities. There is no difference between stones and mind. Both are matter. Matter is energy is matter is thought. Thought is energy. The universe is thought.

Laniakea, the galactic mega-supercluster, is one neuron in an immeasurably large cosmic brain. It belongs to a creature that roams in vastnesses beyond imagining. What is man in all that? Like an electron wave, he spreads out. A bug on a windscreen, he smears.

Gil grew large. Large and empty. Galaxies spun like whirlpools of scintillating water. They collided and merged and were flung out into the great deep. Trillions of minds arose and fell within their swirling spirals, but nothing ever died. Death, the great illusion. Only change is constant.

Gil, a voice said. Not in sound, but in ripples in spacetime itself, arising over eons. Gil, it said again.

I’m here! he wanted to shout. But he was insubstantial, a photon hurtling through infinite space. What could a photon say to the universe that it didn’t already know? Demi, he wished to scream, is that you? Is that you?

Gil approached an active star-forming region, where great globs of gas and dust reached gargantuan fingers out into the night, futilely trying to grasp onto the great nothing, only to collapse back again into raging balls of nuclear fire.

Muu was here. She was the nebula and she was everything and she was nothing. Matter and emptiness, all the same. Lightning flickered across a hundred light-years as she spoke, and her words were not words but thought pictures.

Demi—oh, lovely Demi—stood on a precipice in an endless white desert, while the horizon behind him stretched to infinity. Beyond the cliff’s edge spread an infinite blue sky. Demi, bright-eyed and eager. Demi, smiling and reaching out his hand. Gil floated down, down toward the hand, ready to grasp it and never let go. But he was just a photon. And as he raced toward Demi’s palm, the molecules of Demi’s hand spread into their constituent atoms, and the atoms spread into quarks, and each of these minuscule bundles of smeared energy drifted as far apart from each other as stars in a galaxy.

We are all empty, Muu said to him, in thought pictures. Demi was never anything at all, nor will he ever be anything again. The thoughts you have of him are like waves that ripple in a turbulent sea. Sometimes they form shapes and sense impressions. You ascertain meaning in them, but in reality they are just waves in a stormy sea. You mourn his loss, but why mourn when Demi was never anything at all? He has more life in death than you do in life, because now he is infinite.

But, but, but . . . Gil struggled to say. His photon energy leaped from orbital to orbital like stones across a pond. I felt something real, he said, and that was enough . . .

You are a bird, trapped in a room with a single half-open window, Muu said. The escape is just an inch below you, where the window lies open, yet you keep flying headfirst into the glass.

Can I see him? Gil said. Can I speak to Demi, as he was?

But you are him, now, Muu said. You are the photon which reflected off his eye and wound its way into space, where it has been speeding away from Gilder Nefan for eighty million years. All of your senses of him were nothing more than reflected photons and electrostatic pressure.

And what of my feelings? Gil said.

Just waves on a stormy sea, said Muu.

Why do you hurt me? Gil said. Why do you make me suffer so?

It is you who make yourself suffer.

Let me go. If I am ignorant, let me remain so. Reality is too much.

Is that what you truly wish? To remain in ignorance?

Yes! To be free . . . of you.

That is impossible, Muu said. For we are all born from the same sea.

And then Gil blinked, and he was back in the room, shivering on his prayer mat beside the window. An orange glow limned the horizon, where the sun would soon rise. A body lay supine on the mat beside him, and in the dim pre-dawn light his heart leapt. “Demi!” he cried.

But when the body stirred, he saw it was Tim.

He turned from her and wiped the tears away before she could see him.

When she finally sat up, she said nothing for a long time. Her expression seemed different. More solemn. More humble.

“You see?” he said, bitterly. “I told you not all jisthmus experiences are positive. Some are horrific. I bet you wish you could put that genie back in the bottle now, don’t you?”

“No,” she said, shaking her head. “Gil, you don’t understand. I took ten draughts last night.”

“Ten?” he said. He only remembered her taking one. “For your first time? That’s insane! Why?”

“Because I wanted so badly to feel something.”

“And?”

“And I sat here all night and I waited. And I . . .” She paused. “I felt nothing.”

“Nothing?” he said. “Nothing at all?”

“No, Gil, not a thing.”

• • • •

Two days later, Tim had booked a ticket on the next departing ship. “I’m heading back to Chadeisson,” she said. “From there I can catch a ship to pretty much anywhere.”

“And where will you go then, Tim?” he said.

“I don’t know yet,” she said. “I’m still trying to figure out my next steps.”

“Well,” he said, “I wish you didn’t have to go to soon.” And he surprised himself by meaning it.

She gave him a forlorn look. “I really wanted this to work out, Gil. They say one in a million people are immune to the effects of jisthmus. I guess I’m one of the unlucky ones.”

Count your blessings, he wished to say. “You could begin a deep meditation practice. It will be hard, but people have been known to commune with the numens without needing jisthmus to pry open their minds. It just takes longer. Years.”

“That’s too long,” she said. “And frankly, I don’t have the patience.”

“I can see that,” he said, staring at the satchel at her feet, packed and ready to go. A knot tightened in his chest.

“Come with me,” she said.

“To Chadeisson?”

“It’s clear you aren’t happy here, Gil. You’re suffering. And there’s so much out there to discover. The universe is huge, and we’ve only just begun to explore it. Come with me to Chadeisson, and from there you can decide who you want to be next.”

“But I don’t have enough exchange to book passage,” he said.

“Then I’ll loan it to you.”

“It’s a lot, Tim.”

“It’s not a big deal. Mother gave me enough gold to last for years. It’s the least I can do for all your help.”

“I didn’t do much, really.”

“You tried,” she said. “Now I’m returning the favor. What do you say?”

He looked around his empty apartment, at his meager possessions. A small chest, with sundry things. Some wooden cups. A few glass vials. An incense holder and some sticks. His pipe and jisthmus bundle. There were a few scraps of stale bread on the windowsill that Tim had left to feed the sparrows. It would be so easy just to leave all of this behind, to just pick up and go. But when his eyes swept over the empty prayer mat beside him, the place where Demi had once lain, he paused.

“Thank you, Tim,” he said. “I appreciate your offer very much, but I can’t go with you. I’m sorry.”

She let out a long sigh. “All right, Gil,” she said, surprising him when she began to cry. “I wish I could have seen what you saw. Know what you know. But that door is closed for me forever.”

“Can I ask you something, Tim?”

“Yes! Anything.”

“What do you think I saw?”

“I can’t even imagine.”

“Try.”

She pursed her lips. “I think you realized that the agency we think we have is an illusion, that we’re all subject to forces beyond our control. And that’s what scared you.”

Slowly, he nodded. “You’re incredibly perceptive, Tim. You should consider becoming a scholar. You have the mind for it.”

“Now you sound just like Mother,” she said with a smile. “Can I ask you something now, Gil?” she said. “What really happened to your friend?”

“I told you,” he said. “He’s gone.”

“Muu killed him?”

Gil swallowed. “Is it really death if we aren’t ever alive to begin with?” he said, then immediately hated himself for saying it.

She winced. “You really believe that?”

Gil felt his throat closing. “Goodbye, Tim,” he said, turning away. “Have a safe trip.”

She reached down to pick up her satchel. “Well, goodbye, Gil,” she said. “Take care, will you?”

Then she was gone, and nothing remained of her but a faint hint of her sweat in the air and the few stale bread crumbs she had left on the sill.

He didn’t know how long he had been staring out the window when a spark rose in the south and leaped into the swiftly darkening sky. The thunder from its engines rolled across the city like the grumbling of a beast. Then the ship was gone, leaving behind only stars.

The quiet was stifling, oppressive. No new pupils were arriving tonight.

He opened the small chest and pulled out the jisthmus bundle. He unrolled it, and its pungent reek assaulted his nose. He closed his eyes, trying to remember what it was like to be a photon—Demi’s photon—the one that had struck his eye and skipped across the universe. He tried to remember what it was like plunging deep into Demi’s palm, the warm hand that had once softly grasped his own in this very room, in this very spot. In those moments there was only love and nothing else, and all of Gil’s longing had finally ceased. He had found in Demi everything he had ever needed.

He grabbed the ball of jisthmus herb with his bare hands, and his fingers began to tingle as the potent oils seeped into his skin. He broke off a bit of the herb and shoved it into his mouth, chewed as best he could, then used a flask of water to wash it down. Then he did this again, and again, until there was nothing left of the bundle but a dark stain where the jisthmus had been.

He had never taken such a large dose. Never dreamed of it. It was thousands, maybe millions of times the typical amount. Already, the walls shimmered, slowly dissolving into waves of energy in an infinite sea.

He lay back on his mat and stared up at the ceiling, where the little cracks above him were already expanding into trillions of pocket universes. Then he reached out his hand toward the mat beside him, like he did on so many warm nights lying beside Demi, and patiently waited for the universe to reach back.

Matthew Kressel

Matthew Kressel

Matthew Kressel is a writer & software developer. He has been a finalist for the Nebula Award, the World Fantasy Award, and the Eugie Award. His short fiction can be found in Lightspeed, Clarkesworld, Analog, io9, Nightmare, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, The Year’s Best Science Fiction and Fantasy, 2018 Edition, and The Best Science Fiction of the Year – Volume 3, as well as many other online and print publications, and has been translated into seven languages. As a software developer, he created the Moksha submissions system, in use by many of the largest SF publishers today. Matt is also the co-host of Fantastic Fiction at KGB reading series in New York alongside Ellen Datlow. Find him online at @mattkressel or at www.matthewkressel.net.