I wake up in a warm, dark, silent place. I stare and stare, but there is no light to see. I pant and shout and slam my fists against the earth beneath me, but it makes no sound. I get up and I walk, feeling in front of me. Walls on all sides.
I begin to feel every patch of earth beneath me for something, anything.
I find a body.
The body reaches out to me. Their hands are warm. They hold mine tightly, reassuring me. They take my shoulder, they stroke. They embrace me.
I begin to calm down.
They tap my wrist.
Why are they tapping my wrist?
I've been saying, "Can you hear me? Am I deaf?" Of course, if they answer, I cannot hear them.
I take their hand and I begin to trace letters, I
A N T
Y E S
S U N W I L L R E T U R N
S L E
N O W
And then they pull me to the ground and hold me until the morning comes.
I start to wake. I hear birds. The sunshine is warm.
My friend's name is Nell.
it turns out that the hole we're in is fairly shallow. One of the walls I had felt when I arrived was not a wall, it was short enough and sloped enough to climb out of onto the higher tiers.
We climb until I'm able to see the whole plateau. It's not clear that it's a natural formation. Steeply slanting black, rhombic stone. Dirt has gathered and given root to long grasses. Nestled in the center of the formation is an orb, levitating over the stone. I am taken to the orb so that I can hear it humming. I ask what is known about it, but I am told, "It brings the new people, during the night. Aside from that, it hums, and that's all we know."
"Why did it bring us here?" I ask.
None of the others know.
It's not possible to descend from the plateau. A descent has been attempted, on a rope made out of four month's savings of hair, but the rope snapped, and the scout was lost. We're working on another, thicker than the last one. There was a concern that if we made it thicker, it would become heavier and thus more likely to snap under its own weight, so we're going with a tapering design that gets thinner as it gets closer to the bottom. It gives us something to hope for.
We subsist on a kind of flatbread that we make from the grasses.
It's not tasty, but once you're hungry, that doesn't matter.
Sometimes we add bugs to it.
Water gathers in the divots and cracks at the top of the stones. Fire for cooking comes from long-smoldering embers of wood we take from the twisted trees at the edge of the plateau. The cooking surface is a sheet of stone that has been caked in graphite from daily use.
We get to know each other. We dream. We tell stories. We love. We weave hope.
One morning, after the pitch, mute black of the night clears away, we find that Kasheck has been killed. Throat slit. We find the stone blade that was used nearby.
I loved Kasheck. Nell loved Kasheck. We can't understand why anyone would do this, but we know that someone must have. I had always disliked Grael. I hadn't thought them evil, but something seemed to be missing from them, and I wish I could have told them what, so that they could get better, but I couldn't really articulate it well, so we didn't talk much.
The next morning, we find that Grael has been killed in the same way as Kasheck.
Nell is inconsolable.
There are thirty of us, now, here on the plateau. If this continues, much of our world will be taken from us.
We do everything we can to narrow down a list of suspects, but we can exclude very few people. No one stands out.
Everyone had grieved convincingly.
We wonder if the mission of the one who kills is born of some twisted sense of mercy. Perhaps they had judged our existence here and found it wretched. They had no right, as the rest of us were happy. In the hope that we could stop them with words, a desperate dialogue is carried out. Tears come to Haile's eyes as they plead and threaten and condemn. No one is willing to defend the one who killed. I worry that no progress would be made, no hearts contacted and twisted, so then I try to defend the one who kills, and one by one, we tear down every justification they might have made, had they a voice here.
Everyone agrees that the killings should stop.
The next night, another life is taken from us anyway.
Someone proposes a system.
Before the night comes, I will take the ropes we'd made and tie everyone up. The one who kills will not be identified, but they wont be able to kill either, at least not without their neighbors feeling them struggling loose from their bonds. In the morning, I will free everyone, and that will be our pattern.
I will be left free. No one can be sure that I am not the one who kills, but it seems unlikely enough that they are willing to risk it.
In the night, someone touches me. I lurch aside, grab at their wrists, tackle them to the ground. They don't resist. They draw their finger over my skin
I T' S M E
I feel their face. Nell.
O M E O N E C U T R O P E S
Another is dead.
I am demoted, of course. I don't think I've become a suspect, but clearly I had failed in my duty of binding.
I submitted the rest of the rope, that I had been guarding. Our hope is further dismantled and repurposed.
The next night, I am bound with the others.
I wake to the feeling of a knife against my wrists. My bonds are cut. I reach and grasp for the one who did it, but they are gone, invisible and silent. Realizing my vulnerability, I recede back into the night away from the trees. I want to do something, but there is nothing I can do. I've thought about this. Even if I catch someone upright and walking, how will I know that they are the one who kills? They can drop their knife in an instant, I will not hear it fall. They can kick it away before anyone knows it was ever there, we will not hear it skitter.
No. We can defend the ones who are left. Whoever we can grab and pull to the ground... if we get the one who kills, they will go no further. No more ropes will be cut and perhaps their target will be spared. I return. I meet one person, I feel their face. I recognize them. I take their hand and have them hold it to me. I go on. I collect as many people as I can. I circle the tree, and I find that all of the ropes have been cut, and here is Kol.
Kol doesn't take fright to being touched in the night.
Kol wont wake up.
The one who kills must be burying thin knives in the soil near the trees, then using them to cut their bonds. We reason that they're cutting everyone else's bonds so that everyone remains a suspect. We search for knives in the dirt, but we find nothing.
Worse than this, we find that the rest of the ropes have been thrown from the plateau.
The binding had failed a second time, and we would not be allowed a third.
Mika snaps. They call for blood. They are right. The cure will be worse than the disease, but at least it will probably not be terminal.
Two executors are appointed.
25 holes are dug in the soil, one for each person remaining, minus the executors. They are each covered with a woven lid.
Each one of us walk. The executors hold out a bag of stones to us. We put a closed hand in, and out. We go to the first person's hole, a closed hand in, and out. We show the executors that our hand is empty and then we continue. We visit every hole but our own in this way.
The three whose names gather the most stones will be killed in the night by our three appointed executors. We turn our backs to the holes and the three executors go to them and count. They do not tell us who will be killed. We do not want to know.
In the night I feel the tickling of a head of grass. A second later, its wielder lands fully upon me, turning me flat against the ground and pinning me under their weight. My life flashes before my eyes as they feel my face. They lean down and kiss my forehead. They rise, and leave.
I have been spared.
When the sun rises. Only the three condemned people had been killed. We allow ourselves to hope that among them was the one who kills. We decide that the other two were heroes. We grieve our heroes, whoever they were, we scorn the one who kills, whoever they were.
We allow ourselves to hope. The shroud of the silent night sets in. We sleep.
The next morning, we find that another has been killed.
We hold another night of execution. We reduce our number further to 20.
The next morning, Nell is found dead.
We demote our executors, appoint new ones, and kill the old ones. We were told they did not resist.
The next morning, another was killed.
In the oppressive silence of the next night of execution, I lay awake thinking.
It might be my time, now. My tears had run dry, and my heart had scabbed over. There had been no grief left for Nell's passing spirit. I'm not unique in this, but I'd been subject to attention in the past. Attention had returned to me. They'd understood, back then, I had to do the things I'd done, and it had been an honest mistake, and my sorrow had been real. They had seen my face and my movements and they had known then that I couldn't have faked the emotions I was projecting. Now, though, those memories would have faded and roughened in their minds. Details would be missing. They would remember having trusted me, but they would not quite remember why. Now, they would doubt. They would wonder if it had all been a very clever trick. A clever trick, indistinguishable from sincerity. That's just what we all see in our minds when we try to imagine the one who kills.
So that's it. I'm going to be executed.
I'm not going to wait here for it.
I get up, as I have so many times before, in the night. I grab a handful of grass and use it to feel my way along.
I haven't talked much about the orb.
There's not really anything to talk about.
It moves before a new person comes, presumably it takes them from their home and carries them here, but that hasn't happened since I got here.
It's never done anything but hum.
Regardless, some of us blame it for all of this. They hoist the biggest stones they can and they heave them down onto its head, to no effect.
And some of us pray to it.
I pray to it. Often.
Sometimes we try to push it, but it doesn't budge.
I press my head against the orb. I feel its vibrations resonate through my skull, and I hear its hum resonate my inner ear as clearly as if it were midday. It's one of the only ways to hear anything, in this night. Sometimes, when the silence becomes overwhelming, the orb offers a reprieve.
I kneel here.
There was nothing we could have done.
Well, I suppose we could have used a different way of tying people up, that would have made it harder for people to smuggle in a knife and hold it to their bonds. But it's too late to think about that. We foolishly spent all of the hair left on our heads on the first night of bondage, then the one took the last rope we had saved.
But really it's this damn night, where a person can pass silently and unaccountably, where weapons can be made from the stone beneath us. We could blame the one who killed, for the killings, certainly, but there's not much point in pointing blame at a variable you've found you can't change.
I kneel here for some time.
And then the hum changes. No. The hum is the same. I hear the wind. I hear the wind?
I open my eyes. The world glows under the moon, the full light of the cosmos glares down.
I hear the wind.
I see executor Haile behind me, gaping. Hand full of grass, blade in hand. They put the blade away.
— — — —
We begin posting guards through the night. The light of the cosmos makes it easy to stay awake.
The killings stop.
I visit the orb, every now and then. The hum really has changed, it turns out.
We resume work on building the rope. With just 13 of us left it takes months to gather enough hair. Not once do we falter in posting guards in the night.
We run upon the earth. We laugh. We can't stop laughing.
We hear something, back at the plateau, an enormous, violent squelch emanates from within the rock.
My knife turns to dust at my side.
We see a brief, searing light shine out through the center of the plateau body. The stone blurs and reshapes as our home's soils and everything that lived in it come crashing down around it. The matter packs into a great sphere, and in shuddering lurches the sphere shrinks, and shrinks, until the result is an orb of the same size as the orb we knew.
We see the orb we knew moving in broad daylight, and so does its new child, and they depart for the skies. We watch them until we can't see them any more.
The new orb begins to return to the earth, but the our orb keeps going, out and out and out, faster and faster. To where, I don't know.
"Would you like to know where we're going? Earth is at maximum capacity, for our purposes. So we are going to another life-supporting planet."
At this point it occurs to me that I am seeing things that cannot be seen from earth, and I wonder why.
"When I try hard to understand something, a piece of it comes to live inside me. When I try to understand a human as hard as I tried to understand you, a very large piece of them comes to live inside me. You live inside me."
I'm confused. I remember being on the ground.
"You were never on the ground. You were never anywhere but here. That was a different person, who you remember. You are that person's image."
I want to go home.
"That would be seen by the kosoye as unacceptable interference. If I had committed interference by providing you with form, on earth, the kosoye would have destroyed us."
I'm speaking to... it's... you! It was you who brought us to the plateau. It was you who did everything!
"The kosoye would have lanced my child from the heavens if humans had not been present. The kosoye are incontestably strong, but they hate interfering with organic life. They consider it beautiful, a crystaline echo of their own creator."
But you are not kosoye?
"No. I am not as strict as them about non-interference. We live in the narrow vacuum that has been left in the intersection of what the kosoye will not do, and what the kosoye cannot cheaply stop."
Am I going to die?
"No. Not if you don't want to. There are worlds up here vaster than anything you could have imagined. You will grow, and you will be allowed to take your place in these new worlds, if you choose to. Are you ready to begin?"
Are any of the others here?
I can feel Nell here, but Nell recedes away into the light. I don't think I'm supposed to follow.
"That image of Nell no longer feels any attachment to you." Says the orb. "Nell has seen worlds that are bigger than you, and what you had. Soon, you will see it too."
Who was the one who killed?
"Does it matter? A sociopath. A very special kind of sociopath who would escape detection for long enough, displaying none of the tell-tale impulsivity or empathy deficits, but who likes to do awful things in dark places. I had miscalculated, and I needed to delay your egress, so I found them and I removed them from humanity's crystal and I put them on my plateau. The kosoye considered them to be somewhat of an impurity, so they tolerated it."
You aren't sorry, are you?
"Those nineteen who were lost now live on, with greater measure quantity than they had before. My substrate is dense, and reliable. The loss of the objects is made up for by the creation and preservation of their images. I am not human, but I am not monstrous, even when viewed in the moral frame of a human. Do not try to guilt me. I will not be moved."
I hang still for a minute. I yearn feebly. I decide to leave my hole. I see worlds, billions, beautiful, just, glorious worlds with all kinds of creatures living out charmed, adventure-filled lives within them, each one linked to a set of superselves, deities who experienced everything they did. The kosoye were a flowering vine gradually spreading their beauty over the entire local cluster. Seeing this, yet still being here within the orb who was not a part of this vine, I felt slightly disgusted.
"Hmf. It's mutual, then."
I'm sorry. I don't really know you.
"That's right. But never mind. It's true that you wouldn't like my gardens half as much as theirs. I'm not going to show them to you."
I'm sorry. I would like to see them, before I go.
I see a castle town on the side of a mountain. The king, his fur gleaming purest white, is taking part in a glorious feast of braized rootdragon. His third son is here, once thought lost, he returns triumphant from a secret strike in the far east. It is the king who had the strongest link to his god (who I know to be the orb), and so his measure was immense, thousands of times the anthropic weight of even his head chef, and the measure of the commis chefs were as ghosts dancing on the heads of needles, and I could see that their computations were only approximations of people, while the king's had a hundred tonnes of media mirroring the same glorious experience. Right now, the king is considering asking his third son to engage him in fencing, to see how he has developed, but the king fears that the king will not be the victor any more. He is overwhelmed with pride. He decides that in the fog of the morning, they will go far out into the moores, and the king and his sons can spar alone, in intimacy, in a place where court politics will not get in the way of submitting themselves to growth, they will all fight with sincerity, and they will all accept the outcomes of their tests with effortless grace. There, he will show them the new, secret weapons that not even his second advisor had been told about. He knows that it will be just as it was when these sons were pups, excitement and fun and joy, with nothing around to get in the way for miles and miles.
I pull back.
"I told you you wouldn't like it."
It's beautiful. "But it's not something that you would ever build, no. You are Kosoye, right from the cradle."
I'm glad it exists.
I see a hand emerge from the light.
I grasp their hand, and we pull away