Thursday, June 23, 2016


"The time is out of joint. O cursèd spite,
That ever I was born to set it right!"

"So, it is a cascading chain—one member of the group of photons is entangled in a new way with the next one down the line. And so on and so forth, until the retrocausality effect is obvious on a macro timescale."

"And then what?"

"And then we receive the message before we send it."


"In practice, it would never get so early that our brains would ever detect it. But it could get so early that a machine could detect it. The message would have to arrive before it is sent."

The slides whirled past. Tim Webber clicked through them with the pointing device as if it were itself communicating with a point microseconds in the past. The sun in the windows was brutal and white, and they were hot to the touch. They showed walking paths and saguaros and barrels and pipe-organs performing their standstill dance. There were questions from students in shorts, but all of them were answered without lingering. Tim did not stick around either.

He hefted an old typewriter box weighted with failure, and walked out of the heavy metal doors, pushing on the black painted handles. The sun assaulted his head immediately, and everything glinted. Sunglasses forgotten again. One day it'll go. One day it'll work. One day it had to work. He shook the box. The rules were there, and Tim was just following them.

Linda was at home, red hair flying from standing too close to the air conditioner vent. An angel of fire. Tim kissed her goodbye, lugged the typewriter box into the passenger seat, and took the I-10 to Los Angeles to see his brother, Mack. Before he had even left the Valley of the Sun, he realized he was almost out of gas, and stopped at a grocery store gas station on the west side of town. It was Fry's. He was struck by an epiphany, and wrote the following symbol on a paper, and stuck it into the box. It was this: .

Tim sat in a building in the Mission, showing the device to an investor named Brian. Did they say he was an "angel investor"? The money would have been fantastic. Yes, this device would revolutionize trading—it would give the leading edge to whoever possessed it. No, you could not actually send messages to yourself in the distant past. Theoretically, Tim explained, it was possible, but the practicality just wouldn't even be there for hundreds of years, if ever. It depended as much on new theoretical physics being done as new materials being discovered and new technology being invented. For now, it was just really fast.

He opened the typewriter box and the machine was gleaming. At the top, a black plastic button like a telegraph machine. Right now, that's all it could do, Tim explained. It would need funding to move from a single signal to full language communication. He moved to touch it and heard a morse Q. Dah dah dit dah. He was nauseous.

Brian asked if Tim did that.

Tim explained that no, and that was just a fun glitch. He tapped a Q and no sound came out. Then he paused and tapped once, and the single tap came out at the same time.

Brian said he'd take it under advisement.

Tim said thanks, and he'd be working on it before his roadtrip home.

Brian said he thought Tim lived here.

"Of course," said Tim, "Silly me."

And Tim thought how he missed Linda again, and how he deserved all the hell she gave him, and if it were possible to get back together. Divorce wasn't final, was it?

"Nothing is final," said Tim to no one. Brian was not in the room.

As the door closed, Tim made up his mind to visit Linda in Seattle. He still felt nauseous from that Q. That shouldn't have happened. That should never have happened. When he was in his bed that night, he woke up and wrote this symbol on in a notebook he kept by his bed for just these occasions: . In the morning, he took the I-5 toward Seattle.

Four floors and retail. Tim was on the second, which was lucky because it was hot and he didn’t have an air conditioner yet. The air on Southeast Division and 30th was stale with bus and human, but there was a gentle undertone of ice cream. The number four bus sped eastbound. The bare minimum bedframe held the bare minimum bed and the typewriter box, empty empty empty. The machine should have been there. He still remembered that fateful day with the venture capitalist. The hellish racket of dah-dit-dah-dit, looking for him before he hit the button at all. The sick feeling.

No use crying over broken physical laws, I guess. Tim picked out the sheets of paper from the box, one a legal paper from a legal pad. The other a small paper from a bedside pad. The first was the strange asterisk, dark with flat splay tendrils. The second was a step down and Tim had marked the top of the page with a small dot to remind him which way was up. They seemed such important keys in such distant places. The third was a yellow paper from a yellow pad. It said: .

“Tim there is a very large problem,” said the voice of his hallucination. It was a spider with eight straight legs like the sun. It spoke like a cartoon, like a stick figure drawing. “You have broken the only law.”

“I have done no such thing,” Tim insisted impudently.

“You have broken the arrow.”

“No. No, you think you can fool me by talking in riddles, but they’re not hard. I know what I did. The device could never have sent that letter C. That letter C is a lie. This is all a lie. I am perfect.”

“I am perfect. I am an angel. You are filth, and you have done something that filth shall not be allowed to do.”

“It is done. It can’t be reversed.”

“It is reversed, Tim. It cannot be done.”

“Well, if I am filth and have done something that was not allowed, what are you to do, O Angel, O Perfect?”

“You are imperfect, and so it is time for Truth. And Reconciliation. That letter Q is the only truth, so it shall be undone. Though this riddle is impossible, it shall be un-spoken. Words shall be reversed.”

“It was a C.”

“I will set the broken bone. And you will disappear.”

“I will do no such thing.”

“The only law will be healed. It is a small thing, Tim.”

Tim woke splay on his bed, all arms outstretched. It felt like he had millions, and his head was pounding. There was nothing to be done for it. He reached for the yellow pad he kept by his bed. On a yellow sheet, he drew a symbol much like a lowercase script f. There was no time left—he was soon going to be late. The conference was in Austin, and the plane was going to leave PDX sooner than possible.

Standing at a podium. Auraria Campus. This is familiar. Students, asking questions, and Tim talking to the voice in his head without even hearing it. Without even being in the room. “...and so on down the chain, until the effect becomes obvious on a macro scale. At which point we receive the message before we even send it.”

A question flew from the back of the room.

“No, we could never, ever. And I mean ever detect it with our simple brains. So I know that if I ever got a dit-dit from the machine and then I tapped a dit-dit into the machine and heard nothing, it would be simply a massive coincidence. The universe, having a laugh.”

“Am I laughing,” said the image of a snake, bent in two right angles, starting at the origin, then following the x-axis, then jutting straight in the positive-y direction, then plus-x-ward again. “Am I laughing?”

Tim tried hard not to speak through his body in the classroom. Just to think. You are clearly not laughing and neither am I, but you have not killed me yet.

“Am I laughing?”

Unless you don’t intend to kill me. Do you intend to erase me? Is that what this is? Repairing causality by ensuring I will never have been born?

“Am I laughing?”

Can you even hear me? It doesn’t sound like you’re responding to me at all. Since you don't care what I say, I'll say it: I will not. I will not! I am finding the machine! I will never give up, and I! WILL! NOT! BE! ERASED!

Body-Tim's brow was very furrowed, but he managed to muddle through the rest of the questions. The right-angles snake continued to shout "Am I laughing?" through it all, fading ever so slowly with each iteration.

"But you've made one of these?" asked a student.

"Yes, yes I have."

"Where is it now?"

"Oh. Yes, well I'm not in possession of it at the moment. seems to be on loan, in a manner of speaking."

Skepticism was the water in which he swam, and uncertainty the dissolved oxygen that rammed through his gills. It was over, and Body-Tim stepped into the hall, and made a gesture in the air that looked like this: .

In the corner, Psyche the Bug, flapping her wings like a bitter angel. A Monarch is what Tim thought. A man in a black suit was there.

"Michael Candland, National Institute of Science and Technology."

"Tim Webber. You'll understand if I don't believe you."

"No, I'll actually be escorting you to Washington if you don't believe me."

Body-Tim finally had a reaction. Pins and needles in his hands, flushed face, slowing time. Flight was selected over fight, but not activated. Alas, it was time to get into a black SUV with federal plates and take a plane from Denver to the capital.

It was a small place, some kind of assisted living with medical on site, just south of town along the French Broad River. A Doctor, whose name Tim could never remember, but started with a Q. It was another week trying to reconstruct memories. Memories Tim was sure he'd never had. He didn't remember growing up in Washington, D.C. He remembered a lot about Phoenix, and the doctor told him that's where Mack lived. Mack apparently had a wife named Tara, and Tim couldn't remember that either. They'd been together for years.

He walked on the riverbank. Smell of sycamore and mud. Cold water. The constant voices. He knew the hallucinations. A mechanical man with a face like a violin. He spoke to Tim often, just the voice, in hushed and loving tones, relentlessly informing him that he must die. Tim engaged him, and felt he was getting closer to the end, to revelation, by talking to him, than by talking to the Doctor.

"So, what are you?"

"You've never asked before?"

"I'm sure I have. But I don't remember! Are you some kind of spirit sent to repair what was wrong?"

"Nothing that brutal or sincere or banal. I am inside of you!"

"My madness."

"Your only sanity. The only thing you have left is this."

"I have nothing left, then."

"Well, yes. Better put: the Universe has no You left."

"Then how am I still here?"

"Echoes? I have no idea. As you might recall, I am inside of you. This means that all of my declarations are your declarations. Anything done by only me is done by you. Pretending otherwise is a myth. My old pretenses were just that."

"You were so brutal before..."

"You were so brutal before. I am softening because you are softening. I am growing because you are fading. I must increase and you must decrease."

"You are taking over?"

"Nothing of the sort. You are sort of nothing. I must grow and you must disappear. And then I will be here and you will be dead."

"But you are me."

"Well, I will be here in the universe, as the waves your arms made while you flailed and drowned in the wake of time. You will be under the water, and they will never draw your body out."

"You have become brutal again."

"I have become serious. The shouting and the prophecies were so crass and so frivolous, but in the end, you have still committed the error. You must still be expunged. That only is the way. That is the only way."

"But why only me?"

"Because only you knew. Only you sent the message. Only you received the message, and only you did so before sending it. When I said you broke the arrow, and you understood me, you must have understood something like this would happen."

"Nothing of the sort!" Tim's face was sweating now in the gentle spring humidity. "Nothing of the sort. I thought it simply could never be done. Or that it could only be done in the distant future—mankind in silver suits in space with Greek columns leading nowhere. Austere councils who knew what to do with violated causality. Laws! Directives! Holy orders!"

"There are no holy orders here. There are no angels. You should be considered lucky. Your complicated brain has kept you in some state of existence these many years. A lesser animal would have simply died. But it will all be gone, nonetheless, like messages written on the beach."

"In how long?"

The hallucination, which before today had not taken a physical form in years, stood straight as an arrow pointing into the sky. "YOU DO NOT GET TO ASK QUESTIONS OF TIME," he said brutally again.

"Go to hell, you," Tim said.

"Well, I'm sorry," he said. "But it is ludicrous you know. First, asking questions of time when you have broken time. Then, you have told me to go to hell. I am hell, don't you see? But I will, Tim. I will, and then you will see. And then you will see nothing."

"What will I see?"

"Nothing. You will see the Liminal Place. The Boundary. And if you don't, ask my counterpart to show it to you the next time around. Here. Here's what you have to tell her."

"What?" asked Tim.

"," he said.

As the evening fell, Tim was on a walk with an orderly, when he bolted from his side and plunged into the French Broad River, which was not tremendously deep, but enough to drown in. As he did so, he imagined being on an airplane, headed to Boston, Massachusetts.

* * *

"Más interesante es imaginar una inversión del Tiempo: un estado en el que recordáramos el porvenir e ignoráramos, o apenas presintiéramos, el pasado."

Tim jolted awake when the airplane hit some small turbulence on the approach to Logan. His seat back and tray table had to be adjusted, and Linda's fire-hair draped over his right arm. She woke as well.

"Sorry, honey, looks like I fell asleep too," she said.

"You don't have to apologize for that!" Tim smiled, and his face hurt.

"Did you have any dreams?"

"Yeah, the strangest. I, well, there was something about the device working. I sent myself a Morse Code message into the past, just a few seconds."

"Wow! Is that even possible?"

"Not even in the slightest. Well, at least not my device. Maybe in hundreds of years. But yeah, I was driving to see Mack in L.A."

"Ha! That's funny. Mack, living in L.A.! He'd die there."

"Yeah, that would be pretty terrible, right?"

Mack was at the airport with his new girlfriend, Tara. Lunch was at a café not even very far from Logan. Mack said he didn’t live even very far from Logan.

“The noises are terrible,” he said. Tara frowned.

“I believe it,” said Linda.

“So,” said Tara, to a rolling eye from Mack and a toothy smile from Linda, “What’s this device you’re working on?”

“Well,” said Tim. “It’s not what you’re going to hear from—”

“It’s a time machine,” said Mack.

“It’s not a time machine. It’s a nonlocal quantum communication device. That’s just hot air for it’s a really really fast radio.”

“Okay,” said Tara more slowly than possible. “Why’s Mack calling it a time machine?”

“Because, technically, it can send messages into the very very near past. So near you wouldn’t be able to tell it.”

“So you couldn’t, like, send an SOS to yourself yesterday, right?”

“Right, at least not for hundreds of years. I guess if we knew more about quantum stuff, maybe. It’s for telecommunications companies and for high-volume stock trading.”

“Fascinating,” said Tara. “I was just reading about parallel universes the other day. Does this have anything to do with that?”

“Well, I don’t know! At least, not directly?”

"It absolutely does," said Tara. Her voice slowed to the sound of cracking glaciers, the sound of static noise in the sky on a warm, dark night. Mack was utterly still. Linda was utterly still. They were speechless, mouths ajar. They were not breathing. They were vacant. Tara continued. "It is the beginning of the erasure."

Tim gasped and swallowed air. It felt thin, unforgiving. He managed to speak. "What...what are you?"

"I am your only friend, again," she said.

"You are...the counterpart?"

"You are the counterpart, are you not? You are Mack's twin? I am his lover. You are a copy. I am not a copy."

"But the man, the man in Asheville. He said to tell you something, then he made a noise. He said you would show me the place."

"I will do no such thing. I am here to show you out, not to show you in. Your time is over. It has begun again, and this time, the erasure must be complete." Tara's eyes glowed. "It will be the end again and finally."

Tim opened his mouth to speak and all the air rushed in. Mack and Linda returned to normal. Tara was much quieter through the rest of the meal, and seemed not to let anything on. She doodled on the back of the check when it came. It was a symbol: .

Tim tried very hard to keep inside his head, days on end. He was very relieved when it was time to return to Phoenix.

The building on the outside had a sign that said "National Institute of Standards and Technology" and the inside of the building had labcoats and a man named David Candland, who was a small, unimposing scientist hunched a little too close over the typewriter box. Tim re-seated some glowing components inside the box.

"An unusual method of transport, to be sure," said Candland.

"You wouldn't believe how worried I am that this thing will get away from me," said Tim.

"Has it ever?"

"Yes and no."

"Let's try it, I guess."

"Here goes nothing," said Tim. He gulped and switched on the power. He had been expecting some kind of hallucination, some kind of voice. Some finger from hell, stopping him this time, taking the device, taking Linda, taking his life, but there was nothing. The device beeped.

Dit-dit, dah-dit dah-dit, dah-dah dit-dah. Shit. Tim sweated. Hell. It did it.

"So, the bootup is an ICQ sign?" asked Candland. "That's funny."

"Well," Tim said. He debated whether to sound crazy or not, and settled quickly on yes—after years he had given up on cause and effect. "It's not. It's not! That ICQ should never have happened. I don't know where or when it came from. I could tap it out now, and we could pretend that's the end of it, that's where it came from, but I don't think I will."

Candland reached his hand to the actuator button.

"No, I don't think so," said Tim. He slammed the case shut and closed the clasps. He tucked it under his arm. "Goodbye," he smiled.

He immediately hallucinated.

Linda was walking along the Embarcadero, throwing pieces of what looked like food on both sides of the walkway, and even into the water. She was dressed in red. She never dressed in red. She was beautiful and sad and full of hate.

The camera eye of his vision got closer, and he saw that the food was actually parts of his device, and that she held the typewriter box in front of her. Tim began to cry, to try to push himself into the dream. To stop her. But he could not. When she was finished, she wiped her hands together to rid herself of the crumbs, then threw the box, like an Olympic hammer, into the San Francisco Bay. A yellow paper flew out, and it was the only piece left. Linda stepped on it, but Tim saw the symbol. It was .

It was the old familiar road. Brown grass and heat—the northbound to his left, the frontage road to his right. Interstate 35 to Austin. He should have stopped in Temple for a piss and fill, but he was lost in thought. Next stop Salado. There's the exit, missed again, and now he's stuck on the frontage road, looking for gas. Nothing could be big enough for a gas station out here; everything's too close to the road. Gasping slightly, Tim muttered "there it is" and found a truly ancient wooden building with atavistic gas pumps. "Doubt those still work".

He knew better than to go straight for the pump. Gotta pre-pay. He checked the trunk again: typewriter box, still there. Typewriter box, still empty. Tim sniffed.

The woman at the counter was young and blonde, and had a weird face. She looked one unit off of normal. Like a mannequin, or someone on a lethargic drug trip. Someone under anesthesia. Someone about to fall asleep. Her nametag said "Candy".

"I'd like a fill on Pump...well, the left one," said Tim, his childhood Texas drawl coming back ever so slightly.

"You'll get it," said Candy. "You'll also make it on your trip," she said, eerily.

"Excuse me?"

"You'll make it. You must be destroyed, of course, but you will make it to the place. If you can only divulge the key."

Tim thought. "Oh, of course. The man in Asheville gave it to me." He set his mouth as well as he could. "It's ."

"You have given me the key, and now I must guide you. It is the law. You must prepare to see the Liminal Place. The Day-Line. The Terminus. The Prime Meridian."

"I am ready," said Tim. He wasn't ready.

"Here ya go," said Candy, with jarring perk. She held up a beaten brassy key attached to four inches of two-inch diameter PVC pipe. "Behind the drinks, first door on your left."

The door said "" and the key fit. Tim went inside.

The Liminal Place was bright. Not a celestial bright. Garish bright. There was a tall, very clearly plastic chandelier. The walls, apparently at an indescribable distance from him, were painted in a sort of design, like a two-year-old created a national flag with yellow crayon on a bright white canvas. There was a sink and a mirror in front of him, about two feet away. There were two symbols on the mirror, and two numbers. The two symbols were and . The two numbers were a three on top of a zero.

Tim spoke and his voice was swallowed in the mass of the room. It was not beautiful, and the noise that returned was not beautiful. It was as if he spoke under a heavy polyester pillow that flattened his face. It was as if the world were made of styrofoam, and this room was the center of it. It left him with neither awe nor comfort. It felt like being an unwelcome guest in a sharply tilted house for hundreds of years. A voice came through the bright white and the bright yellow and the thick, thick air.

"You must resolve the equation."

"What?" came Tim's miserable, squelched response.

"You must resolve the equation to be saved."

Tim stared at the mirror. The equation was just 3 over 0 equals question mark, written in cheap lipstick, darker and pinker than blood. The two symbols stood above the question, in the same shade.

"Undefined," said Tim.

"Take your time," said the voice. It was Candy's voice, as spoken by an eternal worm. A giant monster from outside time.

"I don't need to! The answer is Undefined! Not a number! There's no solution. Anything divided by zero is unsolvable. It's counter to the nature of division!" His words piled up in the thick atmosphere, and a sound like a cacophonous crash of voices that were only Tim's rang against the infinite walls.

"Take your time," said the voice. "You can try as many times as you like."

Tim drew his finger forward and touched the mirror. An icy pain shot through his hand, but he drew his finger beside the equals sign to the right of the zero, and a redder color came out of his fingertip: NaN. His hand shook.

The words disappeared. His finger bled drops onto the floor.

"Take your time," said Candy.

Tim drew an infinity sign. "This is wrong," he said. The pain was heavy, and Tim's hand instinctively withdrew from the mirror surface. The lazy 8 disappeared.

"You can try as many times as you like."

"But I don't like!" shouted Tim. "It hurts!"

"It hurts, but there are those around you who would say it's worth the effort," said Candy. "They don't want to see you go."

Tim drew his hand back and excruciatingly wrote a "U". He bore down, dripping blood down the mirror as he desperately poured himself into n, d, e, f, i, n, e, and d. It disappeared as soon as the final stroke of "d" was drawn, and the drips of blood that muddled his writing disappeared too. Tim cried and fell to his knees.

"You can try as many times as you like," Candy's voice was almost kind this time, as if she understood the pain.

Tim was struck with an idea. "Which of these symbols is it?" he shouted to Candy in the void. "Which one of these is the thing that means 'the answer to anything divided by zero'?"

"Take your time," said Candy.

Tim deduced. If was the key, surely must be the answer. It was the name on the door. This is the Liminal Place. The must mean "The Liminal Place". That's as good an answer to "divide by zero" as anything.

He took his left hand to force his right index to draw a curly backward f. As he crossed it, the pain in his hand came over his entire body and he fell again, like a stone. He tried to wail but could not. The air seemed to become even denser, folding in around him and making a crumpling sound. A million plastic bags. He writhed on the ground, and faced away from the mirror and sink. There was a door behind him, the one he had come in. In his pain, he managed to hook his foot around that slightly open hollow wooden slab, and kick it wide—it weighed nothing.

Lifting himself to his knees with every tiny effort available to his brain, he rolled himself out of the door and back into the convenience store. The pain left. His finger was no longer bloodied. Candy the attendant looked at him vacantly and cracked her gum. He stood and closed the door, seeing briefly a mirror with three over zero equals question mark. He still had to pee, but he would hold it.

He returned to the car, and everything had changed. He was at a modern pump, at a station near the bank of a very wide river. He hadn't touched the pumps at all, and an employee in an orange vest smiled at him. Filled up with regular, sir.

A roadsign uphill from his location said Interstate 84, West. Further in the distance, he could see a green sign telling him that Portland was 50 miles away. His Texas plate was an Oregon plate. The typewriter box was still empty.

The lights were bright in the waiting room. Flickering slightly, annoying. They gave Tim a headache. There were art pieces on the wall, small ones. Abstract, uninspired. A man with a salt-and-pepper beard came out and called his name, and then the two went to a room with a desk and a couch, and a small office chair. "Pick whichever one you want, Tim," said the man.

Tim thought sitting on a couch in a counselor's office would have been too much of a cliche. He took the chair. "Always take the chair," the counselor muttered.

"Well, hello, Tim," the counselor continued. "It's good to see you. Do you remember why you're in here?"

Tim paused. The view out the window was from a high floor down on a city full of trees and hills. There was a gray sky. Had he made it to Portland? Had he finally stayed in one place? It didn't strike him as right. He looked at the counselor.

"I'll take that as a no," said the counselor. "Well, let me fill you in. First off, my name is Doctor Travers, but you can call me Phil if you'd like. We've been meeting here for a number of years. You have a mental disorder which is so rare, it's not actually named yet, and you've been coming to see me here and Dr. Kat Taniguchi down at Swedish for other treatments. Do you remember Dr. Kat? My job is to help you remember what you can about your life, manage and respond to and hallucinations you might be having, and keep your perception in a place where you could maintain a running memory of your life events as they occur. Do you have any questions?"

"No," said Tim, because he knew this was the right answer.

"Okay, let's start off with the basics. How long have you been living here in Seattle?"

Tim stared at Dr. Travers's face.

"I'm sorry to see that you're having trouble with this one this week. Usually you've been pretty good at identifying the basic, long-term details of your life. Well," Dr. Travers breathed deeply, "you've been living here your whole life. You currently live in your childhood home. Your parents willed it to you, and your father passed about eight years ago. Alright, on to the next thing. Do you remember any people in your life? Anyone who's close to you?"

"Yeah, sure. Mack and Linda and Tara and...Candy?" Tim offered.

"Alright, getting somewhere. Your twin brother Mack, who lives in Los Angeles with his wife, Tara White. Your ex-girlfriend Linda Lovell. I...I'm afraid I don't know who Candy is, that's a new one. We may spend some time dealing with whether Candy is real or not later on, but for now, this is good. This is good. Do you remember anything else about your life?"

"The box?"

"Alright, this is consistently something that comes up. Yes, the nonlocal quantum communication device. This is something you were working on. Do you remember you have a PhD in physics? You got a PhD in physics from University of Washington, and this was your dissertation. It was on some kind of device, and you'll always correct me if I'm wrong, that can communicate with the recent past?"

"Yeah, that's it. But only fractions of a millisecond."

"Right, that's right. Do you remember anything more about that?"

"That's the only thing I do remember. I sent myself a message with it."

"A sort of hello, wasn't it? Like a 'looking for somebody' message?"

"ICQ, it's the old Morse signal you would send back in the telegraph days and sometimes now with ham radio. Yeah, I sent that back in time to myself. Only I tried to stop it, and something terrible happened."

"Okay, okay. Well, Tim, I have some good news on that front, but when you've heard it in the past, sometimes you've responded poorly to it. It's, well, it's this: the device doesn't really exist. Your dissertation was purely theoretical, and as far as anyone who knows you or who has worked with you can tell, you've never actually built one. No one in the field has been able to do it. And I read tons of quantum science news every week, stuff that's way over my head, just to see if anyone is actually accomplishing it. So far, it seems to be impossible."

Tim felt anger rising in his head. He thought this whole scene with the shrink was a kind of test, so he kept it under control.

"Well, that's a relief," he said through clenched teeth.

"I'm going to call that some pretty significant progress," said Dr. Travers. "Alright, let's go onto some of the other details of your life. Your condition seems to involve your brain rewriting important memories in exceptionally dramatic ways, and producing some lengthy and vivid hallucinations. They tend to center around your being persecuted for your work on quantum communication devices."

Tim sighed and looked down. The carpet was a terrible pattern of faded colors on gray, and the air was stale and smelled of office. This was almost worse than the trial in the gas station. If anything, it was simply more tedious.

"Can you tell me anything about the circumstances of your home life? Do you remember any details about high school or college?"

"Linda?" Tim said weakly.

"Ah yes, of all the people in your life, your brother and your ex-girlfriend are the two that seem to...stick. Here's what I know about Linda, having spoken to her and to Mack about your relationship: You and Linda were together for three years, two and a half of which you spent living together. About six months of that was in an apartment not far from here, actually, and the rest was in your childhood home after your father passed. Mack helped you get settled in, then moved to Los Angeles, where he's been working as an executive in a robotics company. You and Linda grew apart as your work began to consume your life, and she left you about six years ago. You have been in contact since your diagnosis, but you probably don't remember that fact."


"We'll spend some more time talking here after a small break for you to process all this information, but I'd like to know: is this sinking in? Does what I'm telling you all real to you? We're hoping this can combat some of the effects of the history-editing your brain is doing. Well, along with the treatments at the hospital."

"Yeah," Tim lied. Of course none of this seemed real. None of it was real. Somehow, having been on a road to Austin and writing in blood on a gas station bathroom mirror to reverse the causality gods' death edict was more real than having been a lonely physicist in a somewhat run-down house in Bryant, Seattle. Of course this wasn't real.

The conversation continued and was miserable and boring as expected. Upon leaving the waiting room, Tim heard the elevator bell ring, and entered it. He was alone. The button to return to the ground floor was labeled . He pressed it. "Here it comes," he said to no one. The elevator car descended.

“Hello, Tim.”

“Hello, Tara. Hello, Mack.”

“You’re not surprised to see us?”

Absolutely the hell not. Nothing makes any damn sense anymore. “Should I be?”

“Well...good! We are a little used to you forgetting.”

“Do you have your things ready?”

“My things?”

“To come with us?”

“Oh,” said Tim. Play along. “I’m afraid it’s difficult for me to say whether I have everything ready. We should probably go back to the house.”

“No worries. It’ll only be for a little while. We’ll come help.”

The house was a small red-brick number next to a cemetery. Tim had never seen it before in his life, but he’d never seen Seattle before in his life, either. The sun was shining now. All his stuff was in the house: clothes he remembered buying in a Target in Phoenix, a pipe that a particularly eccentric resident of the home in Asheville had given him. A University of Colorado pen. The typewriter box: the almost-cubic behemoth with the weird checked pattern made of some rough and synthetic fabric.

Containing one Smith-Corona typewriter, beige.

Mack’s voice came from the other room. “I think you’re really going to love L.A. Not nearly as gray as here. I mean, you know. It’s not gray right now, of course, but it usually is.”


Oh God, I'm in a car. Whoa. Watch that red one there. OK, control, control...Where the hell am I going? Oh, little readout right there...pretty fancy looking...east. I'm in the...2030's? 40's? My arms! Wow, so wrinkled. I must be old. Older than...older than Asheville for sure. I wonder if that means I won. Did I win? Did I put right what once went wrong? Have I stuck it to the demons from the wherever that needed to erase my existence?  Holy shit, blue car, you need to slow it down! OK, there's a cop. Check your speed. You're fine. And there are even some pills on the passenger seat. Excellent.

Where am I, anyway? Junction of I-5 and I-10 in three miles. That's...L.A.? Again, I went where I thought I was going. That hasn't happened since...Boston, right? When I...when I died. Died and went to Boston. Wonder if that means I was good or I was bad. I'm sure the Time Weasels would tell me I was neither. I was irrelevant. But clearly I was relevant or they wouldn't be trying to kill me. I'm probably the most relevant person in the history of the world! Who else has been targeted for total nonexistence by otherdimensional creatures?

Oh, coming up on the interchange. This is terrifying. What a stack. It's like something out of Dante. OK, straight on through. Keep going east. It's not like you know where you're headed, anyway. Ah, Phoenix. Where it started. That's where I must be going. Maybe I should ask them.

Is that where I'm going? Oh, right, they can't hear my thoughts.

"Is that where I'm going, time bastards?"

I have no idea what you mean by that.

"Whoa, you're in my head now. That's terrible. Can you at least do me the favor of being a real hallucination?"

Again, I'm not sure what you mean.

"This is much worse than before. Alright, so be it. Am I headed to Phoenix?"

You appear to be. Eastbound on this path will take you to Phoenix.

"You know, you're neither being very helpful nor very menacing. It's disturbing to me."

Your glibness is disturbing to us. It is as if you still do not know what is going to happen.

"Damn straight I don't know what's going to happen. Seems like I've lived a whole life, two lives, waking up in a different place every day. Sometimes I'm with Linda, sometimes I'm not. Sometimes I go on a terrible trip into a gas station bathroom. Sometimes I literally change the course of history. How would I know what was going to happen?"

Because we have told you.

"You told me I was going to die. And then I died. And apparently that wasn't good enough for you."

It is but the beginning.

"It is the end, jackasses. I'm done with you. I have meds. I have a car. I have a direction. I might have a few years left, even. I win. I finally win."

Tim heard a screeching sound, a bang, a scratching sound, and was soon outside of the car, face up, looking straight into the sun. He was numb, but he knew he was dying, again. Am I going to come back? he thought. Against the sky, he saw a symbol in red: . Mack stood over him with Tara. Linda stood over him, with the device, throwing the empty old checkered typewriter box into a stiff breeze. Candy stood over him and laughed. And Tim closed his eyes before he could imagine a new destination.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

A Child of Omelas

Note: This is my favorite thing I've written. I usually call it my "Le Guin fanfiction"; it is a reimagining and expansion of "Those Who Walk Away From Omelas", Ursula Le Guin's most famous short story. I break some of the "rules" she sets forth in the beginning of that work, but only to make a functioning story with commentary upon the important message set forth in the original. ~BJC

At the first, stories of the shining city of Omelas always centered around the festivals. The lavish, the luxurious. The libidinous. Then, the child. Pools of black ink have been strung into line after miserable line about this squalid closet containing the ultimate miserable waif. Then there were stories of those who turned their backs on the artisans, the courtesans, the colored vessels, and the bright gold. Only after we spoke of these, the ones who walk away, could we begin to write about the ones who tried to help. The mother, who on the day of the Grand Parade finally could not bear to see her son in rags and scabs. She pulled him from the so-called “chamber”, only to be accosted and murdered by a ravenous mob—her act of pity had caused the procession to falter into shambles though blocks away, and the citizens knew the deeper meaning of that. The crowd immediately repaired to the chamber, and were in no means surprised to find that the Child had been released. He was reinstated after having seen his mother die savaged by a hateful mob.

    Before, there were no guards outside the “chamber”. The closet was in the terrace level of a building that served as an auxiliary to the street market, and those few who had not heard of the proceedings at the Grand Parade were surprised to find men volunteering to watch the door of which few ever spoke. Citizens were still allowed to visit the Child, even encouraged to do so, provided they made the proper arrangements.

    Some decided that the way to help, the way to calm one’s heart on days when the sun hung high in the sky, and the gentle haze of the drooz had parted on a brief glimmer inside one’s own mind, was to visit the child more personally. Of course, many came—many had always come to see the Child. Some spit upon him or her, or otherwise abused him or her. Others wept with pity, then went back to their peace and pleasures. Still others walked away, some forever. And then there were those who came to try to cheer the Child. While they knew this person was doomed to misery for many years hence, they thought a small cheer could help the Child, and in turn dull the pain of self-inspection and keep them from crying or running out of the city into the wastes forever. These found it difficult, because it is a property of the “chamber” that anyone within it becomes miserable, and after half an hour’s time, most visitors were the as despondent as they had ever been, or would ever be.

    What has not been written is this: the Children are released. The Operators of the chamber know this. They are given the wisdom to select a Child and to release a Child, when her time has come. Most released Children do not lead normal lives. Many of them return to the city as orphans, their parents unable to remain in Omelas for pain, but unable to retrieve their child for the guards, and unable to return to claim her for shame. Many Children die, even as they’re released. Re-feeding problems, the doctors of Omelas would say. Brittle bones, they might add. Many are so stunted they can never re-master the Omelasian tongue, or stay trapped forever in the mind of a young child. Many are deformed and scarred, some dependent upon parents or guardians, or (of all injustices) the state, for life.

    Some grow to adulthood. A few of these have walked away into the wastes forever, believing that great heresy, The Rumor of Altrop Camp. A very much smaller group have tried, in vain, to save Omelas and the current Child at the same time. These have brought delights from the Market, dolls and games, medicines from the shops. But if these have worked to relieve the Child’s suffering momentarily, they have not lasted. Nothing good can last in the chamber. Some of these visitors have stepped upstairs for fresh air, returning to find fruit rotten and molded, dolls shredded to bits, medicines turned thick and black.

    Most Children that grow to adulthood, though, support Omelas as best they can. Some are respected pillars of the community. Nearly all of them stay, and nearly all of them respect and attend to the advice of what has come to be called the Chamber Regime. It is not a government, per se, as Omelas boasts of a particularly fair and respectful democracy consisting of a fairly-elected mayor and an upright, caring City Council, who act as right conduits of the public will. The Chamber Regime is a group of Operators that has been charged with overseeing the chamber, so as to ensure its continual, efficient, and humane function and non-intervention in city life. One Child in particular, was eventually selected to accede to the role of Chamber Regent. In the beginning of his tenure, the other Operators found him, if anything, too severe, too effective. They have tempered him, but he recently convinced them of some small items of chamber business that they agreed should change.

    Iila Talov is a Child. She is twelve years old and has been released from the chamber for now almost eight months. She is walking again, eating regularly (though nothing too sweet and no red meats yet), and restarting her reading lessons. She doesn’t run well, and trips on her own legs often, though the doctors are glad she hasn’t broken them in any of her misadventures. She has made remarkable progress in speaking, and lives with her adoring parents. She is very frightened of small spaces, darkness, mops and brooms, and loud noises. So, she sleeps in the living room with lamps lit, and plays in the sunshine while her father or mother cleans the house.

    One morning, a crier came to the doorstep, dressed in green. He was young and sprightly, and was not the fat, loud crier Iila had seen in the Market during the summer. The door was open, as Father had been to the yard collecting firewood for a morning burn. The man in green stared in. He shouted “Ahoy!” and Iila was the first to stride awkwardly to the threshold. The man looked at her as if he were watching some hideous cuisine being made before his eyes. He lost his train of thought for a moment.

    “Dear, is your mother home?” he said with some fear.
    “She will be here in a moment,” said Iila in perfect Omelasian. The man’s face lit up briefly, then drooped into sadness. Mother arrived.
    “A crier,” she said, “At the door and so early! What news, friend? I hope it’s good.”
    “V-very good,” said the man, now tripping on his words. “New wisdom from the Regent.” He held out a paper.
    “You’ll forgive me if I bid you farewell, sir,” said Iila’s mother. Her voice had become stony. “And read it on my own time.”
    “Not at all, ma’am,” the man’s eyes pointed at the ground. “May fortune be with you.”
    “And to you as well, good sir.”

    Mother and Father read the notice together, seated at the small table in the parlor. They did not respond to Iila’s attempts to ask questions about its contents, or assist her in reading the hard words. She writhed on the top of the chair trying to get a better vantage. Father said, holding Mother, “Perhaps this is for the best.” Mother wept uncontrollably. Iila begged explanation once more.

    “No,” said Mother through her sobs, “No. You are a beautiful and special child, and everyone in this world owes you a great deal. And I cannot hurt you or cause you to come to hurt. And there are some things I must hope that you can continue to forget.”

    This was strange language, but it had become something of a pattern: when Iila asked for things that she couldn’t have, or to do things that she couldn’t do, her Mother often told her how important and special she was, forbade her gently from having or doing the thing, and picked up weeping. Iila imagined it was very difficult for mothers to say no.

    As for forgetting, Iila knew there was something missing in her mind, as it felt like she was new. As if her life had started in the late spring, and before then, she was a baby or a child wandering the woods. She could remember a bit of her life as a small child, but those memories appeared to her as stories told by a fire, or last night’s dreams at the end of the next day.

    Something stirred in Iila’s heart late that bright morning, after a romp through cold puddles while her parents did small cleaning chores after breakfast. She was determined that her mother should not have to cry after reading just a small paper, and that if she could find out what was on the paper, perhaps she could help. Perhaps her mother would let her have sweet things, or at least not sob after telling her no.

    So she took the paper, and went to a place where she knew she would find a smart reader: the Market. People at the Market were very smart. They knew the price of rhubarb, and of blueberries, and of onions. Sometimes they were so wise, they had enlightened discussions, heated discussions, as to different opinions on these prices. Surely one of them could read her the letter, which she now noticed bore a sigil and design and very large letters at the top.

    To her surprise, this design and sigil, and the very large letters, were also posted at the market, on the side of a small building she had seen merchants duck into for a towel or one of those terrifying mops. She compared her small letter to this much larger version stuck to the wall. She peered at the paper, then at the poster, and found that, as far as she could tell, they were identical in every manner except size. An old man stood reading the large one.

    “Excuse me, sir,” said Iila. “Can you read for me the letter that has been pasted to this wall?”
    “Oh, child, you cannot read?” said the old man. “That’s unheard o—Oh,” he said, with a look of recognition. “Certainly.”
    He cleared his throat. “A Recommendation of the Chamber Regent, for the benefit of all citizens of Omelas: In days past, we have seen an increase and multiplication in misfortunes and small accidents. Goldsmiths have burned their hands at the refinery. Fruit shipments have been infested with worms. Carts have overturned. It is the considered opinion of the Chamber Regime that this is due to the increase in so-called ‘compassion’ to the Occupant of the Chamber. As a result, the Regent recommends that any such supposed assistance to the Occupant should cease. Visits may proceed as normal, but please do not bring in outside food or material, and do not stay longer than five minutes. Respectfully your servant, Orob Sill, Regent of the Chamber of Omelas.”

    Iila stood puzzled. She thought if she had understood the letter, she would understand her mother’s weeping. But she could not comprehend these words at all. She begged an explanation of the old man. He turn to her, and his eyes shone briefly, and not the shining of tears.

    He repeated the saying that is well known to all of the people of Omelas. Most of them have heard it at school, at about the age that Iila had reached now. Iila, of course, did not go to school and had never heard the saying. It is a poem, without rhyme, and without verse. It is the ugliest verbiage that can be spoken in Omelasian. During his recitation, just before the part that begins “There is a chamber and a child,” he sat upon the ground, on the raised brick that surrounded the three sides of the small building. He finished, “...and upon this lies all the beauty and the craft of Omelas.” Iila stood, and barely comprehended.

    She was fortunate that this saying didn’t restart her memories immediately, or she couldn’t have proceeded. She did proceed, however—she pointed at the stairwell of the small building with a quizzical look, and the man nodded. So she descended the staircase past two large men in red, and the door to the chamber of Omelas was closed. A smell filled her nostrils, a heavy darkness filled her lungs and heart. She lurched up the staircase and vomited just beyond the men in red. She lied in anguish in the white daylight and then wept, not sobbing, but screaming. She saw a person from the market approach her, and she scrabbled away. The thoughts were dashed from her head. She thought nothing of Mother or Father or even knew her name or her home.

    She found herself in the Green Fields, abandoned for the time because of the cold of winter and because children were being taught in their schools. The bright sky began to darken with clouds, and a cold mist came. Then, at the tenth hour, the early dead dark night of winter began to fall. Still Iila screamed, and wept, and sometimes retched. She didn’t know it, but her parents were concerned about her, but not surprised when she didn’t return home. They knew she might one day join those who walked away.

    By the eleventh hour, it was black as pitch and terribly cold. Iila would have died of cold if it weren’t for the old man from the Market, who found her underneath a tree in the green field, reduced now to sobs because she had lost strength to scream. The pain of the afternoon subsided briefly when she saw his face, and the humanity returned.

    “Why was it me, old man?” she shouted hoarsely, “Why did they do this to me?”
    “I am sorry, Child of Omelas. I am truly, truly sorry. But there is more I need to tell you, for I can see now that you may prove different from those who have gone before you. You may yet free us all, but you will need bravery and the tongue of Omelas.”

    Thoughts of her parents and her home returned, but they did not bring the comfort she was used to. They were confusing, dark, mysterious, and tainted now.

    “There are those who walk away from Omelas, too hurt by the sight of the child in the chamber. They do flee in all directions, but many have followed the river beyond the Eighteen Peaks. Those who followed our River Omelas to where it empties into the river in the north, which is called Great, they have built a camp, where they seek to be free, to build and craft and court and grow brave children, without the foul magic that shames us. This is called Altrop Camp, and if you follow the flow of our river, you will reach it.”

    Iila sobbed deeply, as if to swallow the man’s words.

    He continued, “And there is a book, wherein is written all the names of the children whose lives have been diseased for the health of the city. The Roll of the Chamber is its name, and it is found in a small hole, at the bottom of the staircase, near the doorway to the chamber, in the building where we met in the market. This book will tell you where all of them live. All of them, even the ones who have fled to Altrop Camp. Even the ones who have fled to the nations of the barbarians. Even the ones who live among the bears in the wilderness. Go now, daughter, and go in peace.”

    The word “peace”, sosso in the Omelasian, provided the only respite Iila had known in hours. Her mind was clear now, and the path was clear also. It was still the first watch, but dark and still and cold and damp. The mist continued. Iila returned to the market. Now there was only one man guarding the entry into the building, and the chamber. He sat on a wooden chair, old and beaten with time, and though it was early, his eyes seemed to be swimming. The child was stealthy. She stole into the doorway, which, of course she was allowed to do—visits were permitted any time of day or night. She crept down the stairs. She braced herself for the shock of pain she knew she would receive.

    But she wasn’t ready. This time, as her feet fell on the landing of the staircase, and she righted herself to search for the book, she was hit by a stronger stench than before. It smelled of disease, of pain. She lurched with her remaining will to look for the book, and as she turned, she saw the door was, strangely, ajar. She saw in the flood of lights from the street lamps above, a small boy a few years younger than her. He did not turn, but he gave a small, drowned whimper. Iila shuddered forward, but did not vomit. She turned her head away, and found in a dank rectangular hole to the left of the doorway, a battered, ancient book. She wrenched it from its place, and turned back to ascend the staircase, tears now rolling and falling, leaving craters in the dust on the floor. She must have made another sound, because she heard the boy turn and then he uttered a scratchy, wispy, pathetic cry.

    Iila bolted up the stairs, and ran. In days past, this would have almost immediately caused a fall, but now she put one foot in front of the other beautifully, gracefully, quickly. The guard was roused by the cry but paid no attention to the girl, running, already far away from the door. She wasn’t the Child.

    When the running was over, Iila gently collapsed onto a knoll beside a schoolhouse. She would need to find a place to sleep, or risk freezing. She was already so cold. She tried a small door on the side of the school house. It opened into a kitchen. She curled up on a sack of potatoes and fell into a fitful sleep. She awoke in the first hour, before the sun would even rise. She found a pantry and ate two large hunks of dry bread. She left as the sky began to light, dully, not knowing that today was one of the three days in ten that the children would not be attending.

    In the morning, she returned to the market, raised the bucket of the Market Well, and drank deeply from the common cup. She found at one stall a small canteen, and promised to pay the vendor for it after “a short trip to the mountains”. He looked at her. His face showed recognition, then sorrow, and he hesitantly took her deal. She smiled grimly and was off.

    It was a small mercy that the day was much warmer than the previous. Iila wandered through the streets nearest the market, embarrassed to ask where the River Omelas flowed through the city. She saw a crowd of robed figures all headed down through what looked like an alley. She followed, and found that the alley opened onto a large thoroughfare, and that across the street there stood the tall, white, gleaming guildhall. Between the hall and the trees next to it, she could see coursing water. Iila was struck with a mindless fear that one of them might somehow divine her plan. Careful not to be seen by the passersby near the guildhall, she headed north through the side streets for several blocks, then up through the mansions and oaks, and back to the riverside.

    On the east side of the river, there is a track that follows the bank of the Omelas, at times diving under a bridge, at others, weaving around a house. At the end of the track, about the eighth hour, she came to a farmhouse, then a very long field of newly planted winter wheat. The track had diverted Iila onto the side of a wide road.

    About the ninth hour, Iila heard a cart pulled by a lone horse. She prepared herself to talk to its driver, thinking she might find something to eat, for she was very hungry, and somewhere to sleep, for she was already very tired, and some sort of blanket or cloak, for she was very, very cold.

    “Ahoy,” she shouted. It came out tinny and hoarse. The cart moved past her, and she ran to try to catch up. “Ahoy!”
    The cart stopped. Iila ran up to it, and peered at the driver. He was seated on a bench in the front of the cart. A woman and a young girl no older than six, were seated in the back, along with a number of wooden objects and dry goods. “Whence do you come, child?” asked the driver.
    “Omelas, good sir. I’ve only just left!”
    “What is your intent? Have you no family?”
    “I have, sir. I am leaving Omelas in search of Altrop Camp, and I have no food and I travel without a cloak. I am cold, and I have no guide nor mount. I beg lodging, if you be headed toward some farmhouse in the riverbank, perhaps.”
    “We, too, are leaving Omelas for Altrop. We have brought little in the way of food or clothing, but we do have bedclothes and some small bread. I’m afraid we intend to sleep in the cart tonight, no matter the cold.”
    “It is too great a thing I ask, but may I travel with you? I will strive to do my part of the work, but I have no other means by with to pay you.”
    “What is that book you have?”

    Iila thought. She considered lying to the man, worried that even those who walk away from Omelas would not approve of her theft of that relic of the chamber. Instead, she told them. “It is a book called ‘The Roll of the Chamber’. I took it from the chamber of Omelas, in the building of the Market.”

    “That is most unusual. Alight, tell us your tale, and we will consider that recompense. I am En, this is my lady Opon, and our young daughter Ippi. Welcome to our journey.” Ippi had tracks of dust stretching from her eyes to the corners of her mouth. Opon looked almost too young to be her mother, and had eyes that gleamed bright green even in the dropping sun. En’s back was facing the cart as he drove, but Iila could see that he had a red beard from the parts of it that extended beyond his cheeks, and broad shoulders with a dark blue cloak.

    In her stilted speech, Iila told of her day at the market, her realization, the pieces of memory that shook her, the old man and his message. Ippi burst into tears at the story, and Iila could see that the tracks on her cheeks were where her tears flowed. When Iila’s telling of the story reached the word sosso, Omelasian for “peace”, as spoken by the old man, Ippi’s tears and sobbing immediately stopped. She spoke to the party.

    “This is the girl who will stop the crying!”
    Opon spoke gently to Ippi. “What do you mean, love?”
    “I have told you of my dreams, of that horrible closet with the crying boy. What I have not told you is that I have heard a voice saying sosso to him, and he quieted and went to sleep. This must be the person who will quiet the boy!”
    Opon’s voice cracked with love, “Dear Ippi, if she can quiet you, if she can help you sleep, she will be nought less than an angel to me. Continue, guest, and tell us what you intend.”

    Iila told of her plan and Opon and En asked many questions. In the end, they both remarked in their way that they found it to be a wise plan, especially from a child, and that they wished it would succeed for the sake of all the people they had left behind in Omelas. Unbidden by Iila, Opon told of the reason that the little family was undertaking the journey.

    It is that little Ippi had picked up the habit of crying and screaming every night, and had done so for forty nights. Every night, father and mother would console her as well as they could, and every night, they would worry over her as they helped her obtain what rest she could. The nightmares were always the same, and they always revolved around a scene of the chamber of Omelas. They sought help from as many doctors as would visit, and none could help her sleep. They worried—Ippi had never seen the chamber, and as she was too young for school, it seemed unlikely that she heard it from schoolyard chatter. The fortieth day was the day of the regent’s decree. In the afternoon, En and Opon told Ippi of the reality of the chamber and its function. She burst into tears, and they decided at that moment that they would gather their things, purchase a mount and a cart, and leave, for they had heard the Rumor of Altrop Camp. This they did in order to save their child.

    The moment they passed the last bridge of Omelas, Ippi began to sob and sputter, rather than bawling outright. When they saw their first farmhouse, she quieted and began to speak normally again. En said she had always been the most talkative and sunny girl he’d ever seen. Opon said she had been a gift of mirth from the gods. They both said they thought no price too high to bring that countenance back to their daughter.

    That night, En gathered stones, Opon built a fire, and they slept in a barren field in the cart with the fire blazing nearby. Iila caressed Ippi’s head and wished she had a sister. They all slept more deeply than they had in a long time. The winter morning came late as always, but very brightly.

    The southern approach to Altrop takes sojourners away from the River Omelas and up a small hill before descending back into the valley. This is because the banks of the river become sandy and impassable, especially in the rainy winters. En urged the horse along, through thick firs and maples, through a corridor of barren rosebushes which certainly would have been glorious to see in the summer. The cart crested the hill, and through the limbs and trunks of the forest, the party caught its first glimpse of Altrop Camp.

    Or better, Altrop City, for it looked to be even as large as Omelas. As the forest thinned and the view became clear, Ippi’s joy overflowed. Altrop was larger than Omelas, by half! And it gleamed all the brighter! The girl laughed for half an hour straight through. Iila could not help but smile, but she was caught up in bigger things. Namely, reading the Roll of the Chamber to find the names of those who had once been imprisoned, but had been released and had walked away to here, to Altrop City.

    This task presented the same difficulty that reading always did, but Opon was as patient as any Omelasian teacher, helping when the words were confusing or difficult. Over the following few hours, Iila and Opon had narrowed the list to three prominent-looking Altropites that were old enough to help, and looked to be engaged in prestigious professions.

    Iila closed the book and hid it under the blanket on the cart as they approached the South Gate of Altrop City. Two guards in blue approached. It was the ninth hour, and the sun was slipping downward through distant trees.

    “Good sir,” one said to En. “We pray your business here. If it be no trouble to us, we shall welcome you to our humble city.”
    “Humble, indeed!” said En with a smirk. “We few have traveled two days over the southern route. We have elected to walk away from the shame of Omelas.”
    The guard’s face was alight with joy. “Well it is, good sir. We always welcome those whose conscience has driven them from the land of suffering. A thousand welcomes from the Council of the Altrop Camp! We hope you will find this place,” he gestured behind him to the city gates, “a pure and loving ground on which to raise your two lovely daughters.”

    En nodded and made as if to urge the horse on, but Iila spoke. “Oh, good sir, but I am not their daughter. They have been so kind as to take me from the shame of Omelas, but I have a mother and father in that city as of right now. I hope to return, to bring them here, and to set right a thing in Omelas which has been so wrong.” The words came out, without announcing themselves to Iila’s mind beforehand.

    “Oh,” said the guard, with a puzzled look, “This is unusual. We have had many a young person flee Omelas for the peace of Altrop in the past, but never one so young. What are your years, young one? Eight? Nine?”

    “Please sir, I am the better part of twelve years old. I appear small and weak because I have been a child of the chamber of Omelas myself. I am come on a mission, and I dearly hope the people of Altrop will support me in my endeavor.”

    “Oh dear child,” the guard said and he knelt. His companion knelt. “Our warmest welcome to Altrop, and our deepest sorrow at your pain. Know this, that there are people in our city, though you may not know who they are, who have shared your lot. They are our most honored citizens. We would be most grateful if you joined them to increase the peace and glory of our city.”

    “And I shall, sir, but I must attend to my quest first of all.”

    The guards directed the party to an inn, where the keeper had the habit of promising a room for anyone leaving Omelas behind. This keeper was a beautiful woman about Iila’s mother’s age, taller than any woman Iila had ever met. Taller than En was, even. She spoke to En about the guildhall, and at what hour the guild of carpenters met (for En was a carpenter), and where there was space to build a house. That night, Iila slept with En and Opon’s family for the last time, and on a bed for the first night in three.

    The next morning, Iila awoke before anyone else, crept out of the chamber, and approached the innkeeper while she was laying plates on the table. She asked about the address of the first of three names she had chosen with Opon’s help. She was very obliging. Because she knew who lived at that place, she informed Iila that the silversmith didn’t often rise before the third hour. She held up her long right hand, and explained that she knew this because she had sought him to repair her ring one early morning and was turned away rather gruffly. It was better to wait, to take a big breakfast, to see the city perhaps. But Iila swore her matter would be serious enough to convince the smith to give her audience.

    “I am sure I know nothing of bond between two children of the chamber,” said the innkeeper.
    Iila was nonplussed. “How...?”
    “I have known that our smith was a child of the chamber for many years. You, well—you bear the marks of the chamber still. Do not worry, child, for you will outgrow them. You will rise and your star will burn bright here in Altrop, far away from the stain of your past. But for today, what do you say to that breakfast?”
    “No thank you, madam, but I will return at noon-time.”

    The smith’s home was not a mansion by any means, but it was imposing, on the side of a rise where the northern road had been worn down by years of rains. A stone staircase connected it to the walkway. Iila climbed it.
    “Ahoy!” she shouted from a few paces from the door. Nothing stirred inside the house. “Ahoy!”
    There was a small rustling, a clomp, another rustling, and hollow booming sound.
    “Go away!”
    “Ahoy! My name is Iila Talov and I have just come from Omelas.”
    “I don’t care!”
    “I found your name in the Roll of the Chamber.”

    The door opened. A man in an undershirt and trousers stood in the doorway. He was about Iila’s father’s age, but with wild hair and a scruffy beard. He peered at the child with water-blue eyes.
    “You what, my child?” he asked, with contained anger.
    “I am a child of the chamber of Omelas. I was told of the Roll of the Chamber by an old man, and I am come on a mission to purge the stain of Omelas once and for all.”
    His expression softened. “Well. Come in,” he said with resignation.

    The parlor was not well-appointed. It did bear a tapestry with some kind of battle scene woven into it. The seating was worn, the rug was frayed. Iila sat on a single chair which had certainly once been the showpiece of a carpenter’s shop, but had since fallen into disrepair. The smith sat across from her on a chaise.

    “Would you like tea? I have shortbread from a recent gathering. I have some fruit,” he said.
    “No thank you, Master smith,” she said. “I would rather tell you of my mission.” And she told him of her story, including the holy word sosso and her travel, including the dream of the daughter of Opon. She continued:
“Only a child of the chamber such as yourself can understand the suffering of the chamber. We alone can understand the pain, and we alone can end it,” said Iila. Her words began to come unbidden, flowing as the River Omelas, directed by a force outside of her little body. “We must gather the people of Altrop, as many as are willing, led by children of the chamber. We must return to Omelas in our number, stand on a high place in front of the guildhall, reveal the pain of the chamber by our own account, and demand that the child in the chamber be released, no matter the cost. If they will not agree, we must enter and destroy the chamber and its magic.”

    The smith was stunned. “This is quite a mission,” he said, smiling, “for one young as yourself. What makes you think that the people of Altrop City, having left Omelas behind forever, would return with you to the place of that misery?”
Iila stared at him. She had not expected this. She had thought that for certain no child of the chamber would be so cowardly, so inure to the pain of that place. So weak.

    The smith continued, “I, for one, cannot return with you. I cannot face Omelas or its chamber, for it haunts my dreams every night to this day. I wish you naught but the best of fortune in your journeys, but I must bid you farewell now, before the specters of that place come back to me.” He walk to the door and opened it. Iila rose, teary-eyed, and left. She turned back to him before he closed the door.
    “At the very least, might you help me find this woman?” she asked, and held out a small slip with the next address written on it, in Opon’s hand.
    The smith looked pitiful. “Of course.”

    The next name was a woman in her middle-age, a player in the troupe at the Blue Theater near the public square. Again, Iila was rejected.
    “Dear child, don’t you see that I can do great things in the world of Altrop? I can use my fame here to inspire people to be kind to one another, to redress grievances and to live with peace in their families. In Omelas, I am unknown, and while it is truly terrible the thing they do there, it is but one injustice. Here, I can repair many.”

   In the end, the player had Iila out before she could ask about the third address. She returned to the inn to ask the innkeeper or Opon for help.

   The keeper was clearing the board as the last breakfast guest was leaving. Iila was glad to see her, but the woman’s eyes were sad. She swept the dining room and tried to sound cheery.

   “I assume you’ve had a little bit of a setback, my star?” she said sweetly.
Iila’s power of language left her, and for the first time since seeing the chamber, she set to crying again. The innkeeper held her close, and she was calmed.

   “It should relieve you, then, to hear that Opon’s family has already found a place to stay until their home is built. I offered them a room here, but another man came to find them. He has a home near the City Forest, and I urged them to take that for now. Soon, they will build near the home of the master of the carpenters’ guild. I get the feeling that one day, En will be master himself.” She sighed deeply after speaking.

    Iila, still feeling unable to speak, held out the slip with the third name, and looked imploringly.
    “Oh, my light, I am so sorry for your sadness. I will tell you how to get to Opon’s house, and from thence to this man’s house on your paper. Perhaps seeing Opon and En and Sister Ippi will brighten you before you resume your task.” And she described the route.

    Iila wandered slowly and without purpose to Opon’s home. There, across the way from them, was a stand of enormous firs. This must have been the City Forest, which was an unusual thing to see for someone who had grown up anywhere but Altrop. En was outside the house, carrying a wooden chair into it. The house was largely barren, but cots could be had from another carpenter or from sellers in the market for a fair price. En, to be sure, would build a board fit for their meals very soon. Opon saw Iila from the window and ran outside to embrace her.

    “Oh, daughter, come and live with us,” she said.
    Iila straightened up and tried to look as though her mission had been a success. “I couldn’t, you see. I am to return to Omelas and complete my task. But I do envy this,” and she gestured at the house. “Where is young Ippi?”
    “She is a-bed for an early nap. So, tell me how is your quest?”
    “It is well,” Iila lied. “How is your new home?”
    “Very well. Ippi has been calm, and her nap has been uninterrupted. We are so fortunate to have seen the truth of Omelas and to have been able to leave. Not everyone has been so lucky.”
    “Indeed,” mumbled Iila, and she looked down.

    After taking leave, Iila resumed a slow walk to the last address, an old lawyer who was kinder than the player, but who insisted that he was far too old to undertake such an endeavor, no matter how just. Iila walked away from the lawyer’s mansion dejected again. She decided to return to the inn directly, to respect Opon’s family’s new life with her distance. Bothering them with incessant inquiries about names from the Roll of the Chamber seemed a poor way to help Ippi move on from the horrors in her former dreams, no matter how much she would like to live with the family. Beside that, she considered her own mother and father and how much they would be missing her. There was no time to start a life in Altrop.

    It was the seventh hour, and the midday hunger was upon her, but Iila decided to wander a bit before returning to the inn. She entered the City Forest and explored the paths winding through the trees. It was cold and beautiful, as the weak winter sun prodded rays through the branches where the moss grew thick and pale.

    She must have been in the wood for half an hour, and beginning to feel very acutely the need for a meal. There would be time to return to this magical place later, but the inn called her now. She wandered back to a familiar seeming path, and found a large boulder which caught her attention, well away from the network of paths. She struck a deal between her curiosity and her hunger, that she would see what was beyond the rock and then make for the inn straight away.

    Behind the rock was a small home.

    It was unlike any home she had seen in Omelas or in Altrop. It filled her with an unknown emotion, the alloy of curiosity and fear. The door was weathered, and the timbers that made it were too small, cracked, and uneven. The walls weren’t fitly made either—there was lamplight bleeding out from them and into the dark of the forest. The roof appeared to be made of inches-thick moss and fallen branches. It was gray. It looked cold.

    Iila approached the door, and though she was afraid of who she might see on the other side, she tugged it. It gave with a crack like sharp thunder and suddenly her eyes were filled with the dull light of flame. The house was small, but for some reason there was a family in it, as gray as the faded wood. A father and a mother, both short and hunched. Two children, ageless and small. Stunted. A baby, wailing like a wounded animal. The adults stood, talking near a cooking hearth in muted tones. The mother held the screaming baby while she stirred a brown, thin soup in a pot on the fire. The children tugged joylessly at two pitiful toys: a small wooden horse and cart, and a ragdoll. As she approached the children, the eldest, a boy, met her eyes briefly, then looked down. The girl did not even bother.

    Iila tried to speak to the boy, then the girl, then the mother, then the father. Everyone’s eyes were wet with tears. The feeling of a pit opening began to fill Iila’s stomach. She was arriving at an understanding of what this place was. Kinder perhaps, but still the same mechanism. She addressed the family with urgency, shouting over the baby’s wails.

    “Are you being held here against your will?” she asked.
    The boy looked up into her eyes again, managed to hold contact for a few seconds, and again looked away.
    “Is your suffering being used? Is there a great poem telling of the beauty of Altrop Camp and when they speak of your home, do they say ‘upon this lieth all the beauty and the craft of Altrop’? Are you cursed?” she shouted.

    They said nothing, and Iila’s stomach pit began to rage. Her innards felt as though they had inverted, and hot tears began to flow. Iila wanted desperately to stay, to fight this urge to flee that was flowering in her, but there was nothing she do for them. Not by herself. Until this moment, the only memory of the chamber she could conjure was one of the pure emotion of suffering, devoid of detail, but now one episode rushed at her mind:

    She sat, stone faced, but wailing, in the chamber. Her mother bawled at her side. She was vaguely aware of the passage of a certain amount of time: an hour or so since her mother had come. As she stood to leave, Iila’s weeping intensified. She had become used to her mother’s visits, each a few minutes longer than the last. As her mother departed, Iila heard her say, “Goodbye again, my love,” barely able to speak through her sobs.

    Iila rushed from the house. She couldn’t survive being in that place, much less with a flood of clear terror in her memory. She caught her breath on a fallen log near the trail, and followed the daylight out of the woods, in whichever direction it was closest. This happened to be the direction of Opon’s house, and she stumbled out onto the lane and into the light. As she rose to her feet, there stood in front of her a man. He was old and familiar—he looked like the man from the market in Omelas. He uttered the word sosso. Iila’s eyes closed for a moment, and when they opened again, he was gone. Beyond where he had stood, there was a crier in green, walking from house to house carrying paper rolls. Iila looked back as he shouted “Ahoy!” at Opon’s door, and walked on to the inn.

    At the inn, Iila was heartbroken and speechless for four days. She embraced the innkeeper every morning at breakfast, and spent the rest of her time sleeping, or sitting on the bed staring through her window. On the fifth day, she regained her speech.

    “I’m going back to my mommy,” she said. That forceful feeling of words pushing themselves through her throat, of sounds making her tongue move as if controlled from elsewhere, was gone.

    “I understand,” said the innkeeper. “I love you, child, but there is no love in the world like that of a devoted mother. I imagine your mother to be kind and patient.”

    “She is,” said Iila. “Do you know about the house in the woods?”
    “I have heard that people have seen a ramshackle house in the City Forest. Remnants of the early settlers of Altrop Camp, is what I hear.”
    So Iila told the innkeeper of what she had seen in the house, and how she had felt. The old feeling of eloquence returned in fits and starts during her tale, and in the end the innkeeper sobbed with her.
    “I will return you to you mother,” said the innkeeper. “After two days for me to pack and sell the inn.”

    “But no,” said Iila, “You do so much good here for those who leave!”
    “Young Iila, you begin to sound like the player who rejected you!”
    Iila sighed. She knew there was no way to return the words she had said, and that someone who had seen and quartered the throng of people leaving Omelas, including children of the chamber, could never abide the Secret of Altrop Camp for long. She would have to go into the forest, into the barbarian countries, or into the snowy mountains.
    “Do you know where you will go?” asked Iila.

    “No, child. We here in Altrop Camp do not have a Holy Rumor of a place free of the dark magic of the forest house, for we do not know of the dark magic of the forest house. You may not understand, child, but I am very angry. The angriest I have ever been, even angrier than when I was told the truth of the chamber of Omelas.”
    “Will you tell the others?”

    “I cannot say as yet. I will decide. Perhaps I will flee before I can tell. Perhaps I will not have the heart. Perhaps I will become so angry that I stay in Altrop all my days, preaching the truth of the forest house—a wild prophetess.”

    In two days, the innkeeper and two of her hired hands took Iila to the outskirts of Omelas. They would not enter the city, neither by the path of the river, nor by the East Gate. The innkeeper kissed Iila and handed her the Roll of the Chamber and said by way of parting: “Fare thee well, child of glory. Be free and be loved. I only lament that your mission was not realized.”

    “Fare thee well, lady,” she said. “But know that my life is long enough to yet do it.”

Tuesday, June 7, 2016


Note: This short story was written in May 2015, the first in what was to be a multi-entry experiment in writing pieces based on songs that I enjoy. I did this one, based on "Take" by the band Tunng, then got bogged down in an attempt to write another based on The New Year's "The End's Not Near". Listen to "Take" before reading. ~BJC

The blocky red lights said 3:24. Arthur sat upright in bed, and flailed his covers off. He knocked the glass of water from his bedside table. It slid, fell, and landed right-side up on the carpet, rocketing water into the air. Drops landed on Arthur’s wrinkled face, his bedclothes, the clock, and the pocket-sized journal he kept on that table. He frantically wiped the drop from his notebook, shakily clutched his pencil, and began to write before his dream could fade. He had seen her face, her eyes ablaze in the ancient light of the sun, fading as it always had during that summer in the old Peckham flat—flitting, light and dark, between the neighboring buildings. She would have been twenty-five, and he would have been thirty. The well-worn CD player stood on the dresser, which has long since been thrown out. The sound of an orchestra emerged from it, slowly, as though from miles away: Brahms’s Lullaby. She was singing it to him, and Arthur for the life of him now could not remember what words she was singing. “Celestine,” he whispered as he scrawled. The word gave him pain.

In his memory, the fading sun disappeared, and the old creaky-necked white lamp was up, leaving a bright spotlight on the wall. Celestine still sung arcane and unrememberable words to The Lullaby, even as she made a rabbit shape appear in shadow in the spotlight. The words and The Lullaby intensified, and the images became more real. An actual wolf, with teeth. A home. A naked woman and a naked man, slowly approaching each other. Arthur giggled at this, and as the images approached each other, he turned his head for a moment, only to turn back and find himself, still in his thirty-year-old body, slipping under the sheets with Celestine in her twenty-five-year-old body. The sun rose precipitously, and clouds rolled in.

They began to walk on the street. It was Consort Road, and their walking pace was somehow as fast as cars until they reached the cemetery. The clouds opened up on them, and it poured all around them. Arthur and Celestine were still naked, and the rain didn’t get them wet. The ground swelled with mourners, standing in black over an empty grave with no casket. A huge computer floated above them in the air. It had the shape of a gray, glowing hot-air balloon dragging an old, old gray internet cable, but Arthur knew it was a computer. A woman, who Arthur knew to be precisely seventy years old, went to the terminated end of the gray line, and placed her mouth on it, as though sipping through a straw. She disappeared into the cable and up into the computer balloon.

Celestine began to cry, and Arthur joined her, looking miserably at the balloon. She began to sing a sad song, which Arthur recognized after a few notes. “The Bonny Earl O’ Moray”. Arthur joined in. She winked as she purposely sang about the Lady Mondegreen, and the mourners started at the sound of her name. Some leered at them, puffy faced and weeping. Others laughed and followed them. Some joined in the song. Celestine led the crowd, lifting off the ground and flying through the air, still naked, into a park in which the trees began to grow at a visible and miraculous rate. Vines flourished before everyone’s eyes, and as Celestine landed, a fountain sprang at her feet.


Arthur scribbled frantically, having written up to the shadow puppets and desperately trying to hold the whole experience in his aging memory until his mechanical pencil could scratch it into the paper. The lead snapped. He pumped the action at the end of the pencil in a frenzy. No more graphite filament was forthcoming. He searched the table for any other pencil, any pen. Nothing. The dream faded quickly in his worry, and soon there was only one word left, the word he had uttered aloud. “Celestine,” he said to himself again, and patted the sheets next to him. They were as cold and as empty as they had been for decades.

He cried to himself, letting whatever tears would form fall onto his bedclothes. Nothing for it but a drive, he thought, even though it’s dark out. Hope the car’s still here.

Arthur’s house in South Croydon was his mother’s, though he hadn’t moved into it until years after she passed away. His car, however, wasn’t his. It was too expensive now to have your own car, and once he became a pensioner, the government provided one to be shared between himself and three other pensioners on the block. One of them smoked in it even though you weren’t supposed to. He wandered out of the bedroom in slippers and pyjamas and grabbed the housekey, dangling from a hook just inside the front door. He opened the door and with relief, found that the small car was still there.

It took two tries on the fingerprint reader to get the door to open, because he couldn’t quite see where the pad was the first time. He sat down on the middle of the bench seat and pressed the ignition button, which ignited nothing, but did start the electric motor and the computers.

“Peckham Rye,” he said to the computer.

“I’m sorry, I did not understand you,” came the soothing female voice of the machine

“Peckham Rye.”

“I’m so—”

“Dulwich Library,” he said. The problem with the car is that it didn't always listen to you, tried to make things more convenient. Took you to the Tesco when you wanted to go to the mom-and-pop grocer you used to love. He thought perhaps the computer might still have a problem with this, as there were probably a half-dozen closer libraries, but something had made him want to drive past the Peckham Rye Park. Something to do with the dream, he thought. Perhaps. It seemed as though the car had no complaints.

The drive was quick, mechanical, painless, the way he'd remembered every driverless trip since he'd gotten the vehicle. Occasionally light beeping accompanied various turns and other maneuvers. He honestly had no complaints about the fact that there was no driver. It was just that damned computer making decisions for you that was no good. The streetlights zoomed past and the Dulwich Library was in view, closed with an empty parking lot. OK, now to triangulate, he thought. The Tube station was close to the park.

"Peckham Rye tube station, please," he said.

The car got going, and took a circuitous route of all left hand turns to arrive at the tube station. Arthur did this several times, calling out a location close to the park. A couple of them, like Nunhead Cemetery, were ignored, and for the other destinations, the car took long routes that avoided the park entirely, never went up or down Consort Road, never passed the old apartment complex, not that Arthur knew whether it would still be standing after forty-five years. It was as if the car knew what he wanted and was determined to deny him. Anxiety started to well in his eyes and in his chest. Breathing became more difficult. He weakly hit the dash with his fist, and unrolled the window to an abnormally cold summer night.

"Damn you, computer!" he shouted.

Celestine had never had the same distrust as Arthur, never once felt threatened by new things. She had brought a computer with dial internet into their Brixton apartment, all those years ago. She had upgraded a couple of times there and in their starter home, and had spent quite a lot of her money on newer and newer machines after the split. When they had managed to reconnect almost a decade after that, she had the whole complement of wearables and head accessories, and the intelligent agents and the lot.

"Damn you, computer!" he shouted again.

When the time came, and it was possible for utopian dreamers to finally realize a fully technologically-mediated society, governed by what was supposedly a "friendly" artificial intelligence, she was gone. At least she went to the one in America, he had thought at the time. Not that he'd ever see her again. To his knowledge, no one had ever heard from a utopian commune dweller after they joined. No one escaped, or no one wanted to leave. Some rumors had it that they had uploaded their consciousnesses into a mammoth computer and killed their own bodies. Others held that they were planning to take over the rest of human society with the support of their AIs.

"Damn you, computer," he coughed. He had a small coughing fit. "Damn you, lungs!" he shouted in something of a raspy wheeze.

The beeping in the car increased in frequency, pitch, and volume. Something was wrong. The windows began to roll up. "Stop, stop," he called. He pressed the window lever to no avail.

"Please remain calm," the female voice said. A small hiss emerged from the air vents, and a few moments later, there was no light from the streetlamps. There was no light from the dash or the headlights. There was sound, then motion, then nothing.


Arthur woke up in the car, in his drive in South Croydon. He managed to drag himself back upstairs to his bedroom, glaring at the empty top of his dresser, glaring at his notebook, still open, glaring at his bed. He sobbed himself to sleep.

The morning came, bright and clear, and Arthur awoke rather suddenly, as a bird chirped in the window. He rolled over to find a lump next to him in bed. His mind wandered, desperately seeking recognition. Oh, yes, of course. It was Celestine, just as he had expected. What a terrible nightmare, he thought.

Celestine rolled over, her seventy-year old features still so beautiful to Arthur. She began to speak, but Arthur must have had something in his ears, because it was difficult to hear. He thought he might tell her to speak up. Instead, he began to talk about his dream. In his mind, it was as though he was telling her about every detail, which was clear as crystal. In his ears, though, his own speech was slurred, stunted, unintelligible, slow.

The noise startled him, and he began to cry again. Am I having a stroke? he thought. Celestine sat up and said something, which was equally unintelligible. She leaned over, and then, as she put her hands tightly over his ears, he could miraculously hear her. "Wake up, Arthur."

Arthur woke up in his bed. An orchestra was playing Dvorak, "From the New World". The ancient CD player was on top of his dresser, as it always had been. He took the glass of water from off his bedside table. It was full and a little cold, with bubbles that had formed near its rim in the night. The notebook was there, open with a cheap ballpoint pen, as it always was. The last entry was two weeks ago Thursday, a dream about a cricket match with aliens. Sunlight streamed into the window. Arthur arose with his normal difficulty, and saw the car in his drive. Becky, the smoker, was crossing the street to come take it. His bed was empty and the sheets were disarrayed. He felt a sob well up in his throat, but when it emerged, it had transformed into a relieved sigh.