The roof is shaped conically and made of strongly translucent glass, throwing the entire room into blue waves that play across the art-deco furniture, like so many children on blades of grass. It is hard to describe the emotions that fill her heart upon this return; she had spent so long in transit, in the surprisingly warm embrace of space, that seeing a scene so dynamic makes her a little bit queasy. That’s another thing which they don’t tell you about space: nothing much changes there. Not only the void itself is motionless, that’s almost too obvious, but ship life itself is monotone, mundane and nonfluctuating. When all that separates you from certain, swift death are thin walls, rickets, bolts and pressure valves maintained by fragile humans, routine has a calming effect. Even as a passenger, albeit a military one, Inerra was merely another set piece in the flow of the crew, something to be navigated around. Options were considered: could she be used as a gravitational slingshot, a motivational force or aid that would make a job faster? Or was she instead the gravity well of a heavy, gaseous giant, inhibiting a person’s drives, making them slower? That was all that mattered.
Now, unbelievably, she is in a room, alone. The luxury of solace, much deeper and more important than silence, is a thing too often taken for granted. Inerra closes her eyes, letting her empty kitbag, a mere formality of military ritual now, fall to the floor as she stretches out both her arms, slowly, gently. She isn’t taking in a specific emotion but the feeling itself, of being alone and unconcerned with others. It has been years since she felt; years since, groped at vaguely by a planet’s gravity, she had any time at all where she could be herself. Not in any psychological sense of false authenticity; Inerra crumples her nose at such a thought, something that her mother might adhere to in her pointless attempts at making sense of life. No, simply the ability to not be dependent and not be depended on. A solitary body, bound to no orbit or other, gravitational effects except the one too large to really be felt or imagined. She smiles briefly and then continues her survey of the room. Under the slight, blue waves (their reflected light originating from the nearby bay) which flood the apartment, lies satisfaction: cold, solid wooden floors, practical yet hospitable furniture and an immense bed that is everything she currently longed for.
Inerra is far away from home, the farthest one can get in many senses. Therefore, she had decided a while ago, lying in bed staring at the ceiling of the Nihil Sub Sole Novum, that she would become her own home; an island of ideas, emotions, and thoughts that she could relate to. A self sustained system, like the efficient drive of the ship that had undulated quietly beneath her. It wasn’t going well so far, as much as she’d like to tell herself otherwise. She doesn’t quite feel lonely at the moment (the hotel room and its many familiarities help with that) but she isn’t at home with herself, a turn of phrase which pleases her vaguely among the general disquiet she is now feeling. Perhaps that, oxymoronically, is the best way to describe what is going on inside her: disquiet. As if something is stirring in the back of her mind, feeding off the empty spaces that still exist there, having been birthed either when the ship had left Episcopal or, strangely, as her skipper had decelerated towards this very planet. As if, somehow, by longing for solace, she had also birthed an aversion to it; the strong, sleek passion mirrored by an equally powerful repulsion.
She understands now, in this blue-washed room on a planet that doesn’t mean much to anyone who matters, that she has lied to herself. All those mornings (and nights) spent walling herself off from the others on the ship. Letting only transients, men and women who had come to the ship with the express goal of leaving it soon, into her bed and into her body. Stretching her arms far in front of her, coating herself in the faint lie that she would rather be alone. Now, she sighs as she folds into a nook that overlooks the recently nameless city that stretches out below the conical window that makes up one of her walls. Now, she is filled with a creeping dread that is all too cliche, a sensation which she tries to combat and fails, a knowledge that what she had sought outside of her mother’s planet and home was really waiting back there all along and was now lost. She scoffs slightly before sleep takes her, exhaustion from the last stretch of her travels finally taking hold. She scoffs at how boring that sounds, like a green-behind-the-ear jumper muttering about adventure over their first beer. She scoffs as her eyes close.
Later, in the humidity drenched streets of the port city, Inerra is lost. Not a geographical quandary nor a simpler, locally spatial one. Instead, her eyes are lost, disjointed from the purpose of her self. They flicker here and there, seemingly trying to drink in the street. There’s not much to sate her visual thirst: the streets are mostly empty, this being the middle of the night, housing only the broken effigies of lives that had once made sense. Coerced via the inescapable, and yet wholly imagined, vector of will, they used to make striking figure as they cut through the stream of life, the wide river of possibility. Now, they are still, decrepit husks of ocean fearing vessels that litter the wide bay that is the city. Inerra walks among their detritus, mixing with that of urban living, much like they themselves; un-tethered, cut loose from purpose, made to await a cue that she had no preconception of but of which she would instantly know. Her hands move slightly, back and forth, as she paces, lost in the memory of the last time she had been here.
She had felt a similar disconnection then but it came from a wholly different souce. Still on her initial vector, heading like a spear of fate deeper and deeper into space, she had been filled with the unexpected shock of exploration. It had pushed everything from inside of her, like a wounded space hulk venting what was left of its artificial air. This had been just a short stop, a stepping stone on a journey farther and farther away from all sorts of things. It had been different times for the city as well, times now lost as a faint, chronological way-point in the deep annals that is, by now, on par with that of her own lifetime. As the disparity between the years she had actually lived and the years that had passed grew deeper, recollection of places and events seemed more and more inherently absurd. Regardless, the city had seemed to her to be more than just a center; it was a hub, a place where so many ideas, words and beliefs changed countless hands, mouths, and ears each minute. Which was, of course, why it fell. Or so her H1F files told her, commonplace artifacts for traverses of the inky deeps. No one ever got past H1 but not more was needed in order to comprehend the historical tragedy of this place. Bullet-point after bullet-point had fired before her eyes as she descended the atmosphere, extolling crackdowns, Artery Law backlashes, ostracization and, finally, the ultimate punishment the Heart could levy against anyone: severance.
Left to drift in the coldness of space without a network, surrounded only by the silence that is most of reality, the city had slowly decayed. Now, Inerra walked where once ideas raced, subtly perplexed at the slow fever with which concepts were now discussed. But of course, she knew why; the first lesson you learn in space, the first lesson that the Heart taught, the first lesson that made anything go, was connectivity. Not a mystical action from afar, not a synchronicity that tied existence into ebbs and flows. No, this connectivity was wholly human but not less powerful; wholly artificial but all too innate, lying as it did underneath all things that aspired to movement. The teacher, the space-farer, the soldier, the pilot, the politician, the lover, the artist, the lawyer, they all needed one thing: context. Most civilizations realized this well before they went to space but in taking that first step out there they learned the second, more terrible lesson. In the universe, context is the exception, not the rule. Adrift in a blankness beyond words, all human ideas, constructs, and emotions fade into nothing, launched into a place that had never known, and thus could never accommodate, their foundations.
Deadspace, depression, The Haze, dedetox, Mercurial, every culture that had ever went out there had a name for the creeping dread that overcame all who traveled the inky waters. Adrift on lack of time, on the death of genealogy and, therefore, the death of culture, a million million civilizations slowly faded. Flaring again and again, humanity tried to grasp on to something out there, to make sense, a sense which would act as a node for their network of connections. Like so many bacteria in their petri dishes, they would reach out spores and seem to thrive for a cosmic moment or two before their center gave in under the lack of context and died as quickly as it appeared. Such collapses rang across human space with the threat of collateral, technology, weapons, finances, and people spiraling out of the relative restraint of civilization. Often, such collapses destabilized other hubs of humanity, initiating a deadly chain reaction. Thus humanity clung to existence in the void, until the answer came, until the answer rang out across the metaphorical skies and, slowly, over millennia, overtook them all. Where there was alone, there was now together. Where there was freedom, a freedom too cold to breathe, there was now Law. Where there had been violence, a desperate attempt to force context on the universe, there was now Language. Together, these two forces reshaped everything, including places like the ones Inerra now walked through. But the answer itself only had one name, even if that name reverberated and came back to everyone in many forms. There was only one name and that name was Heart.
Back in the now of things, Inerra starts to fade into the urban backdrop. Her mind races, vision distorted into the perspective of recollection. Thoughts of the Heart and the civilization which pulsates through and enables Human Space metamorphose into thoughts of her own motivations, objectives and fears. Out there, on the sleek Nihil Sub Sole Novum, en-route once again via the twisting roads in space the Heart had made, things had appeared clearer; she needed to disconnect and what better place was there for that then this once illustrious node, this planet and its two cities cut adrift? As the ship decelerated towards the planet, Inerra had dug deeper into the files, rows on rows of data which even flash before her eyes when she closes them, as if etched on the back of her eyelids. She’s gone off the beaten path, deeper into the ultimate dejection the city’s dying throes spread across all space. Why had she drunk so deep from the well of knowledge? What was she looking to know?
Obviously, why they had sent her on her mission. On the brink of severance, when the bell of the planet’s doom was already rung and they were just waiting for its echo, they had sent for her. A bleak message, asking for an even bleaker thing, had flashed across her work-space. Many questions: why her how had they known where she was how had they known she would go why did she go why did she do what they had asked why destroy something so large, so uncaring, so meaningful? All these cascade in Inerra’s mind once again, as they had when she had been alone, in front of a computer screen flashing with an impossible request, a litany of doubt which loops and loops and has looped for objective decades/subjective weeks as she had sped back and inwards and into the past, hands shaking now and then as the mental barricades she had set eroded underneath what she had done. To an outsider, to an impossible someone from out of the Heart, out of the Language and Law which made existence possible, her actions wouldn’t seem as that drastic; knowledge hidden here, information exposed there. From her own little terminal she set out to shift little pebbles, nudge them into a position where potential energy (purely theoretical of course and more social than physical) would be better poised to turn kinetic. Little packets that had been given to her, attached to the selfsame hopeless message, silver bullets crafted from a knowledge of history and genesis which no one should have had which was, in fact, impossible.
These bullets were even now making their way through the target’s body, the consequences of her actions were even now ringing out across Human space, echoing along the networks which made it possible. Now, as she walks through the blighted city towards the border between it and its sister, her mental defenses collapsing from sheer, internal pressure, Inerra imagines how those reverberations might unfold. Her packets would be discovered by system administrators, curious scholars, random netkids, and all other manner of those who dwell in the network. At first, it would be discarded; the story would be too old, too preposterous (empire from nothing, Language from death, Law from misunderstanding). They would wave it away and discard it into their drives, halting its trajectory from further accelerating through the invisible filigrees of civilization. But enough strains would go on, forwarded automatically or with a flippancy in writing, a careless shrug of characters and protocols.
At some point, someone would take it seriously. Someone would glean the ring of truth vibrating in the words and be shocked. Reeling backwards in their chair/console/creche, they will start spreading it in earnest. From screen to screen, from code to code, the truth of the Heart’s genesis will spread and its inherent paradox unleashed on its members. Was the story true? Enough of it was. Enough of it struck fast and deep, as Inerra soon discovered after reading it, after editing it, after sending it out. Enough of it explained many things which the lofty executors of the Heart’s will had never bothered explaining. In the wake of its blow, what? Nothing more and nothing less than what surrounds her now. Severance. Dejection. Nihilism. Unraveling. Severance, of the basic ties which held Human space together, foolishly predicated on the ability to speak and be understood. Dejection, of and from the Law that was so well founded on those aimless words. Nihilism, as the void which was kept back by culture floods in when shared truth collapses. Unraveling, of everything that had been propped to stand the test of time.
She, of course, didn’t even think for a moment about blaming those who had contacted her. There was no context for such an accusation, nothing small enough for a human mind to cling to and twist into a grudge. Set loose, cut free, floating away, an entire civilization was not only doomed but exposed on the cliffs of the universe, a child (as all human civilizations often are in the face of the ever-aging sage which is the universe) left bereft of all shelter, some deformity not of body as in days of old but of culture, of habit, of language, sentencing it to a lonely death. That might sound excessive, since all death is, essentially, lonely but there are types that are even lonelier, when the individual is left outside the campfire, outside the circle of light. There is no greater need for that fire, for that demarcation of us and it, then there is in space. And so, dying, terrified of the night, they had done all that they could and reached out to her. Not the hare trapped and gnawing on its own foot to get out but the hare confined by its very existence, every breath containing the bitter chill of the vacuum, a hare that is a lacking metaphor for an entire civilization trapped on the fringes that just reaches for anything, for something to do, for something that isn’t stillness.
Inerra looks at her hands and back at the city around her, now shimmering silver as she heads into its sister, back to the same hotel room she had left but also a different one. Back into a mirror, a silver staircase that she hadn’t dared take the last time she was here. It promised answers, introspection, understanding of self. She is ready now. Here, the results of unraveling are perhaps even harsher. The rings which surround the world in this iteration are slower than they were when she was last here, less filled with the brimming commerce of vehicles that had made their engines run. The streets themselves seem fainter, people tottering side to side. Not drunk, or at least not on any material substance, stricken with befuddlement by a force thousands of light years away. Stricken with the more precise version of what she had unleashed when she uploaded those files. Now, faced with the results of the cruelty of her target, mental defenses were long gone and Inerra’s psyche began working on the true bulwark of personality: moralism.
This was her excuse after all, what she had told herself (without hearing it, of course, since she spoke in her most internal voice, the voice which speaks with suggested suggestions, hints of hints and premonitions of maybe feeling something in a few seconds) as she had set in motion a plague which she knew too well, as she reverse engineered the hair of the dog that bit her into the dog itself and let it slip its leash, let it fly its kennel, let it run amok in the chicken coop that was human space. The arithmetic of cause and effect, of punishment and justice, the chains of worth and retribution, the silk shackles of consent, had all helped her move her hand and press the trigger, releasing her tiny, tiny bullets/packets on their civilization killing course. Here, now, standing in this shadow city which was all too real, those petty reasons fell away. In that moment, swaying through streets familiar to her (as she had just, moments ago, walked their mirror) towards her un-hotel, swaying in beat with the others around her, stricken by the same internal malaise, she would take it back if she could. But that, of course, was impossible. The moving finger had made its always-final pass and no tears nor prayers could reverse even one flashing line, even one sickly, green line of code with which she had executed this most final of sentences.
Lastly, as her hands fumble on the un-door leading to her un-room in her un-hotel, Inerra (or rather, the sleeping part that was un-Inerra, the sister city which lives inside all of us, hazy streets mirroring our waking hours, faintly faded structures which echo our “conscious” thoughts, our inherent sibling, our unconquerable territory, our Tír na nÓg of meaning, yawing doors of not only ignorance but of the terrible knowing of things which we’d rather not to know and which therefore get squashed into the basement of our edifice) reached the volta do mar of the soul, the clasping of the snake on its own tail. Nothing left to burn by itself, surrounded by people so dejected (now outside the room but very much present nonetheless) that empathy barred even the vent of external blame, all argument corrosive to its own foundations, in that moment and place the psyche realizes that there is no one else to blame, realizes, truly, deeply, that there never was anyone else to blame but itself.
Inerra opens the kitbag that she had carried into the room with her in the original city. It had been empty. Now, inside, there is a gun.