This is an early version of a story eventually published in revised form in Furthest Tales of the City. The original form is preserved here for archival purposes. The story is set after ‘A Hundred Words from a Civil War’ and ‘Apocalyse Day’.
Throughout the history of the City of the Saved, the four Gates which defined its arbitrary compass-points exerted a peculiar fascination on its occupants.
Unlike the Uptime and the Downtime Gates, the North, South, East and West Gates of the City boasted no actual function. While open, the Uptime Gate was focal for the City, no mere conduit for commerce and communication but an umbilical linking the humanity of the City to the life it had once lived in the Last Universe. After that cord was cut, the ever-elusive Downtime Gate, long rumoured to lead into the Next Universe, continued to evade all attempts at discovery... or at least the ones which anybody heard about afterwards.
The compass-point gates, by contrast, led nowhere. Colossal porticoes through which all but the largest of the universe’s stars might have been brought into the City, they in fact carried no freight; no thoroughfares ran through them. They opened, not on lands beyond the City, but on empty void: not even vacuum, for there was no space for vacuum to occupy, but on the sheer absence of existence. To gaze out of a Gate was, for a time, to know the oblivion which the resurrectees of the City had been forever denied.
Each of the four Gates had its own character. The North Gate, for instance, always attracted hermits and ascetics: staircases, niches for stylites, cells for anchorites and even entire monasteries had been carved with sober determination into its gigameter-high pillars, from which the contemplatives gazed forever out into the void.
The South Gate became a tourist destination for would-be-suicides. Despite the fact that jumping through a Gate was no more likely than squeezing toothpaste to kill one of the immortal Citizens, the Gate’s reputation shortly became self-fulfilling. The expense of retrieving jumpers from the no-space beyond the Gate was enough of an annoyance to the City Council that after some decades a safety-net the size of Earth’s old orbit was anchored across its massive frame.
The West Gate, meanwhile, attracted explorers. From the earliest days of the City it sprouted fantastical structures – derricks, gantries and piers which eventually stretched for astronomical units beyond the pediment, into the increasingly rackety and unreliable aphysical domain. Entire communities grew up with their own distinctive cultures, inhabiting effective nonexistence.
Identifying these trends early, one of the Hive Councillors pressed during the first decade After Foundation for the East Gate to be declared a Civil Architectural Preservation Area. It should, the Council eventually decreed, be conserved in its original, pristine state in perpetuity, immune from human interference. From then on a quarantine zone pertained, with Eastgate District in its entirety verboten to all but sterile telepresence drones and bodiless astral-projectors.
All of which is beside the point now, of course. One wonders, though – did they, those first City Councillors, perhaps guess even then that the structure they were preserving would be the last part of the City to be swallowed?
* * *
The crowd at the Gate is millions deep, a terrified stampede of every single Citizen paranoid enough to think of getting here in time. The populace, long since deprived of their much-vaunted invulnerability, trample and crush each other, mounting foothills and ranges of their fellow Citizens’ bodies, tearing and clawing in their desperation to quit the City, abjuring its once-cosy womb for the blank nothingness beyond. Out there, beyond the City’s walls, the billions of successful leapers arc gently through the void, beginning graceful orbits under their own momentum and the City’s gravity, wondering what to do next.
The void they occupy, however alien, however strictly unreal it may be, is at least known and familiar. The new, the indescribable which has invaded the City now, cannot be called any of these things. It is a region – a sphere, as far as its dimensions can be measured – of ‘apophatic space’, a term which simply means that nothing whatsoever can be said about it.
Sprouting in Bonehall District in the West, this unknown has grown with exponential speed, incorporating all within its path. Within the first hour Bonehall and Sacradown, Jospin and Typeminster Districts and Clarevold Park had all become unspeakable as well; Kempes District, ArenaVille and Memorial Park passed beyond knowing within a few hours. One could not positively say that they no longer existed, for the apophasis was neither existence nor non-existence, just as it was neither real nor unreal, living nor non-living. It was equally possible that everybody within the sphere of indeterminacy was unharmed, dead, erased, or somehow transfigured.
Some welcomed it, of course, hailing it as God: the long-awaited, too-long deferred Omega Point in which humanity would, finally, evolve into the ultimate Unknown and achieve its destiny. They waited with submission till it took them, or threw themselves in gratefully. Most, though, were in less of a hurry to be absorbed. Within minutes of the first news leaking out from neighbouring areas, the earliest trickle which would become this stream, torrent, inundation and eventually tsunami of humanity had started out towards the East Gate.
The City did its utmost to resist it, but nothing it had made the slightest impression on what some media pundit shortly christened the Anonymity.
As soon as the scale of the problem became apparent, the rebel warlord Clutterbuck, whose name had inspired terror in the Council’s loyal armies since the opening volleys of the Civil War, contacted Council House with an offer to pool resources. Their joint armies stretched from the Romuline to Central District, and with those Districts they fell – as did those lesser forces which came to support them: the Rump Parliament, the Cwejentown Reservists, the Heart of Spite, the Macrocosmic Clans, the Coming Men.
The rash of satellite apocalypses which this armageddon had somehow unleashed proved to be chaff before it: the mummified armies, the black-hole gourmet, the plague of beast-headed gods, all scattered before its spreading stain.
Attempts to communicate with the Anonymity, drawing on the most advanced linguistic, diplomatic and telepathic techniques of the Lasthuman Noosphere, met with blank unacknowledgement. Efforts to hold it back with science, even with the active cooperation of that embodiment of all technology which suddenly made itself known to the Citizens as the Universal Machine, were hopeless.
The Machine’s own headquarters in the City vanished, with the Great Park known as RealSpace, on the evening of the first day – as did Teletopia, Samphire, Orlack, Spinegrove, Godsdice, Mappamundi and every remaining District or Park with any claim to power or authority, as well as millions of billions without.
The South and, shortly afterwards, the North Gates followed, and knowledge of the City shrank to a rapidly-diminishing crescent of what once had been the Eastern Quarter.
* * *
The mountain of dead and living, crawling biomass fighting its way through the East Gate begins to squirm and shriek as something opens up within it.
A Tubespace tunnel bores its way through flesh and bone, carving out a whirling, colourful channel from which a chain of carriages emerges in a streak which in the Universe – the City operates no such restrictions – would have notched up a respectable proportion of the speed of light. Human figures and their fragments sprinkle explosively into the void as the chain blurs through the East Gate and rockets into the beyond, irrevocably severing its contact with the physical City.
Moments later, Eastgate District is consumed, and with it the last of the City walls, sky-dome and base-substrate. The haze of human motes surrounding them follow on the instant, and at once the only objects remaining in the chasm between universes are the Tube chain and that ever-expanding epistemological horror.
Suddenly the Tube chain’s engine unit breaks away explosively from its carriages, which tumble wildly for a moment before plunging into the apophasis. The screams of the last surviving Councillors and their families sound for an instant, then are gone.
Freed to an even greater speed, the engine plunges deeper into the cosmological nothing. A moment later, blows from an emergency fire-hammer shatter the forward windscreen glass, and a human-shaped figure stands poised on a lip of broken glass. With a prodigious leap she builds her speed still further, abandoning the engine to that unknowable hunger. The Anonymity is so large now that it no longer appears as a sphere: indeed, without space there is nothing for it to be spherical in. Instead there are two regions: void which is known and non-void which is unknown and unknowable. And in the former, just outpacing the latter’s encroachment, a woman’s figure turns to face it.
Her body is alabaster-white, her stone toga rippling impossibly in her windless flight. For now, her speed and that of the expanding other are identical, and the goddess Civitata faces the end of all her knowledge, an angel hovering before a wall of neither-nothing-nor-not-nothing. Incongruously, she wears an antiquated digital watch.
‘Are you still in there?’ the goddess asks her timepiece.
00:77:34, the watch displays, in blocky seven-segment figures. It is an ugly thing, black plastic with an LED display. The goddess of the City holds her wrist upside-down to read it, before turning her attention back towards that cloud of unknowing.
Civitata knows a fellow god when she sees one – and an almost infinitely superior one, at that. This wall of ignorance she faces has consumed her entire physical structure in less than 24 hours, leaving nothing but this avatar she had constructed to represent her within her own interior, plus a wristwatch.
For now, she is immensely vulnerable, composed of nothing but faith and theories. In time, she might consolidate her existence, regain her former properties, even – given a century or so – regrow the inner universe she once contained.
She has, she reckons, somewhere in the region of 32 microseconds. Plenty of time for a conversation, then, at least.
‘What do you mean,’ she snaps, ‘“You will become Us?”’
* * *
The Anonymity could not be said to speak, any more than any other statement can validly be made about it. Facing it, words form in Civitata’s imagination, speculations as to what it might say were it somehow, impossibly, capable of articulation; and for the moment she decides to assume that it is not she who is imagining them.
We are you.
The ultimate expression of yourselves;
your future selves,
become the very End whom all your legends
have so inadequately predicted.
Our presence here is paradox,
yet We transcend such trivialities.
‘And they said I’d got a God complex,’ Civitata mutters.
Behaving as a God
when you are none
With Us, no such reservation pertains.
‘So why go eating a perfectly good universe?’ Civitata asks. ‘If we were going to become you anyway, why bother hastening the process?’
We were not yet complete.
You were compendious.
All human life was yours.
All we needed to make Us All was you.
‘Fair enough, I suppose,’ the goddess of the City says. ‘What use is a God who’s nearly omnipotent and omniscient, after all?’
It is why We are here.
It is why You, too, will become Us
22 microseconds from now.
‘You’re not complete, then,’ Civitata muses. ‘You want to contain the whole of humanity – well, look, here I am. It may have been a long time ago, but I was human. Without me there’s a tiny piece you’re still missing.’
‘Admittedly that’s looking likely right now,’ Civitata says. ‘So what about the others?’
We have the others.
‘Oh really.’ Civitata’s voice is flat. ‘Let’s see.’ She begins to count on her fingers. ‘Percy, who never returned from his mission into enemy space. Karenin, timelooped and turned into a garden ornament by the Lord Painted Tortoise. Demi and Medea, brought down and cannibalised by Tonton Macoute as bait for the loas. Poor psychotic Antipathy, who actually set foot inside my City, annihilated by Godfather Avatar. And, ooh, a good few thousand others. My children, each with a drop of my human blood in them. You don’t contain a trace of them. I’d know it if you did.’
The timeships were
humanity’s last children;
You excluded them.
‘You bet I did,’ Civitata says. ‘And without them, you’re no more the culmination of the eternal totality of human existence than... my watch is.’
77:34:40, flickers the watch.
You could have resurrected them;
you chose otherwise.
They posed a threat to you.
‘I assume you’re getting that received wisdom from the people you ate,’ Civitata says.
We, too, can resurrect,
given your knowledge.
Civitata smirks. ‘I said I excluded them from the City,’ she notes. ‘I didn’t say I didn’t resurrect them.’
In Civitata’s overactive imagination, a momentary ripple crosses the sheer wall of unknowingness as it encroaches steadily upon her.
They are alive...
To Civitata’s mind, the words have an incredulous tinge to them. She suspects, though, that this is a remnant of her human fallibility. ‘Have you finished?’ she murmurs to her watch. ‘I freed up the carrier singularity three microseconds ago.’
09:09:09, flashes the watch.
You know where they are.
You will become Us
thus so will they.
‘Not bloody likely,’ Civitata says. She holds up a palm, as if to stop the Anonymity’s advance.
‘None of them guessed it,’ she says. ‘None of you, I should say now. Why wouldn’t I incorporate the timeships – my children, don’t forget, who I love just as much as any other mother, I should imagine – into the City? You have the intelligence of a hundred undecillion people, give or take. What do you think?
We understand now:
your children are your backup.
Thousands of boltholes.
Civitata smiles serenely. ‘Well, obviously,’ she says.
Faith and theory cancel one another out like terms in an equation, and the illusion of the goddess’ stone presence dissipates like vapour in the wind.
The Anonymity eats the watch.
* * *
...And elsewhere, in a womb the size of a galaxy, where another, far stranger City hangs surrounded by a sky studded with stars, the goddess Civitata, the Universal Machine, Urbanus Ignotus, Godfather Avatar, Gnas Gortine,Laura Tobin, Melicia Clutterbuck, Lucius Cassius Ignotus, Keth Marrane, Grandfather Halfling, Amanda Legend Lefcourt, Selene Walmric, Professor Vril, Het Linc, Mesh Cos, Gargil Krymtorpor, former Citizen Verrifant, Vlad Tepes, Kyme Janute, Akroates, Brianna ap t’Erapi, Dedalus, Ludmilla, Krisztina-Judit Németh, Antonio Finlay, Beatrix II, Parallaxia div Procyon, the Pharaoh Akhenaten, Tonton Macoute, Godfather Lo, Godmother Jezebel, Godparent Pinocchio, Cousins Edward and Porsena, Compassions II to IV, the Emperor Claudius and Allisheer St Marx, Helēné of Troy and Terrence Moody, Sophie and Edward Davenport-Maitland, Jane Dick and Kurt Cobain, Socrates and Inigo Faber, Lazarus and Richard Mann, Rex and Jane and Rex Halidom, William Shakespeare, Yeshua bar-Abbas, Adolf Hitler, a surprising number of Sherlock Holmeses, you, I and a hundred undecillion others, are – once again – restored to glorious life.
© Philip Purser-Hallard 2012.
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