He floated in the dark, in the churning infinity of pain, until it occurred to him that we will send someone to talk with you might not mean what he thought it meant. It might not even have been directed at him. It certainly didn’t give any hint as to the timeframe involved. But then, timeframes didn’t seem to mean much here anyway.
He wondered who else it might have been talking to, if not him. At the precise moment he did so, he became aware of other … presences.
They weren’t sounds, exactly, because without ears and without sound-waves there was no sound. He didn’t even have a brain to interpret vibrations in his nonexistent eardrums, and yet here he was, nowhere, communicating. With something. No, they weren’t sounds. And they weren’t voices, because he couldn’t understand them. But he recognised them as language of some sort. Some of it tantalisingly familiar.
There, that bit. Had that been Middle Mygoni American? Nobody currently alive had ever heard the language spoken aloud – indeed, he was fairly sure it had been extinct before the Fleet and the Repositorium had arrived at Earth – but the shape of it was right. And that, Terellian. And that … it was a little mushy, but he was sure it was Xidh. Only … he understood Xidh, so why had the words not lined up? Xidh was an almost impossibly stable and foolproof language, so even if had been the language spoken by the old Worldship builders of Dema, he would have been able to understand it.
Then, amidst the rising flood of discordant babble, he heard a bright, cheerful voice in almost painfully familiar Þursheimer-local Six Species standard. The language of AstroCorps. The language humanity had pulled out of the wreckage of the Zhraaki reformation, wiped the blood and Old Grand Fweig off, and declared the common tongue of civilisation in general, because fuck Xidh.
He still didn’t get the words, but he knew exactly what dialect and tone it was, and then in the blink of a metaphorical eye ‑
“Gosh, there are a lot of you, aren’t there?”
Elan mulled it over before carefully formulating an answer in as close to the same vernacular as possible. And it was shockingly easy. The whispered truth hadn’t been kidding when it had said it was going to send someone to talk to him. It couldn’t have found a closer linguistic match if it had called up their daffy old neighbour from the next ranch along the Sweetnature.
“There may actually just be the one of me,” he said hesitantly. “I’m not actually sure.”
“Or just one, yes!” the voice agreed happily.
“Or anything in between, to be honest,” Elan added. He felt curiously comfortable talking to the invisible presence. Like the old rancher – what had his name been? Commitment-With-Gusto, his Mygonite name was; they called him Gus – there was a relaxed and undemanding feel to the conversation. “Or none of the above.”
The voice laughed. “Ha ha ha! Or something else!”
“Do you represent the whispered truth?” Elan asked politely.
The voice faded for a moment, then returned. Although it hadn’t actually spoken in the process, Elan had felt its presence shift. “Do I what … ? Represent … ?”
“The whispered truth. The – all of this. Do you speak for the voices ‑ ”
“Oh no,” the cheerful rancher-voice replied, “I don’t suppose I … no, I couldn’t say I speak for all of us, I’m an awful duffer you know … ”
“Sorry!” the rancher said.
“That’s – that’s okay,” Elan said, somewhat at a loss.
You will make them understand, the whispered truth, suddenly quite clear as itself again, spoke to Elan.
“Understand what?” Elan asked.
“What what?” the rancher laughed. “Honestly! I can’t say I do understand!”
Make them understand. This place is not for them. The risk is too great, even here in this sealed system. We cannot – how does it go, in your sphere, where things must happen, and it must be understood that things must happen, or else there are terrible consequences … ?
“You mean like – rules?” Elan struggled. “Are you trying to tell me the rules?”
“I’m just trying to figure out how you can possibly make tea in all this jolly dark! Honestly, a little dash of milk would lighten it right up.”
Elan soldiered on. Just muddle through, like the Mpodans loved to say. “Um, so assuming you’re not – I’m not entirely sure who you are, if you’re a facet of the whispered truth or some other consciousness that’s been dissolved in here or – or something else … and with the understanding that I don’t actually know the rules myself, anyway there are apparently rules for, uh, intruding on this sphere.”
“Is there a sphere? You mean like a ball? I remember there was a children’s toy when I was a lad, it was a ball with this little furry chap attached to it, and it would roll around ‑ ”
“Tumblin’ Chuck,” Elan said in sudden excitement. He remembered having one of those toys when he was a kid. Was the whispered truth looking for some sort of common context? Building a rapport-library? “It was a little plush Mobian chuck and a ball with a motorised gyroscope inside … maybe if we list the, well, the ‘rules’ of how Tumblin’ Chuck worked, we can establish a framework to discuss the rules of this place. Although I suppose calling them rules is misleading,” he thought for a moment. “I think they – not that there’s really a they even, maybe – they don’t want our universe to mix with theirs. It’s against the – well, rules.”
“Do you?” Elan said without much hope.
This is the best we could find. Better than the others. Can you speak to it?
“I’m trying,” Elan replied.
We have brought you close to this intruding thing. Close to your eddy. Close to their violation. So you can explain.
“What sort of intruding thing are we talking about here?”
“Maybe it’s a space whale!”
“A … space whale?” Elan echoed despairingly. “I think I’m fundamentally not understanding this mode of communication,” he confessed. “It’s hard enough to hammer out a common frame of reference with an extra-dimensional proto-consciousness, without this creepy attempt at a relatable human ‑ ”
“Oi! Creepy, are we?”
“Guess we’d better just muddle through then,” Elan said grimly.
“That’s the spirit! Muddle on through, I always say!”
Did you want to talk to others within the eddy? They are even more confused, and lost.
“More lost than this guy?”
We will try.
“Now listen, see here ‑ ”
“So you’ll go away then?” the rancher non sequitur’d. “Jolly well shut up shop and move along? Righto!” Elan wasn’t sure what to say to this, but he was still trying to think of something when the voice went on. “Of course! Hello!”
It was the same voice as before, but something about it had shifted. “Are you … you’re still the one from the intruding thing, right? Same fellow? We were just talking … I thought we were going to try ‑ ”
“Maybe! Look, about that, I was just talking to the others!”
“The – others?”
“Yes! And they thought it would be a good idea if you could lift us back into orbit, you know, through the underspace!”
“Aha, so now you’re talking about planetary physics,” Elan grasped at this feeble straw. “You – the whispered truth was saying something about people – maybe people – using it as some sort of … transport conduit. Is that what you did? You used it to … jump from orbit down to a planet and are now trying to use it to get yourselves back up? Is it just you, or ‑ ?”
“Ha ha ha, no, the whole ship, of course! If you just took us up there, we’d probably suffocate or freeze! Or probably both!”
Did someone dissolve a starship in this stuff? Elan thought incredulously, but dismissed the idea – he was clearly still not conceptualising the whole thing quite right. To make matters worse, the distinction between him thinking things and saying things was so twisted it was disorienting. It was almost as though the whispered truth had spoken. “Well yes,” he replied, “but you said ‘us’, so how many ‑ ”
It cannot be done.
“Um, so apparently they can’t do it, anyway,” Elan relayed.
“Oh! You can’t?”
“I can’t do anything, but that’s not ‑ ”
The remaining hold we have, the nature of the intrusion is too tenuous. The tear in the veil between us was healed, and we cannot risk its return.
“Too tenuous,” Elan said helpfully. “Too tenuous to make a … travelling connection like you need.”
“Too tenuous, eh? Not sure what that means!”
“Too risky, from what I gather. They don’t want to tear anything open again.”
“Oh, I see! The doors are all too closed again! Well what about the Artist?”
The Artist is no more.
“Um,” Elan pivoted, “so the artist is gone, I’m afraid.”
“Oh! Oh, that’s a shame!”
“But I may be misunderstanding,” Elan added quickly. The pain was a constant, and never quite reached a point where he could tune it out, but the conversation itself was wearing him down more. He saw no resolution to it, couldn’t see what the whispered truth was trying to achieve – aside from getting rid of any and all intruders from his plane of reality, who seemed to be able to drop in using a variety of esoteric methods. Not that Elan saw any way of leaving, at this point. “It – they just said ‘no more’, it might be a mistranslation ‑ ”
“Will he be alright?”
“I honestly have no ‑ ”
He will recover.
Elan would have sighed, had he but the equipment. “Apparently he’ll recover,” he said, “whoever he is.”
“Yes, I expect it will be fine!”
The great cold minds, with dreams like ice spears from the great trees themselves, left him here in ragged pieces.
“Hold up,” Elan grasped at another straw. “It sounds like you’re talking about aki’Drednanth there. The aki’Drednanth apparently did a number on this artist friend of yours? Might have given his brain a bit of a rattling. Maybe you can talk to them about it.”
“Oh, no, I don’t think the aki’Drednanth will give him more trouble! I think O-Chal just had a mishap with some rope … ”
They have knowledge of other … times … the spheres have bled, the whispered truth spoke over the rancher’s prattling. Some are wrathful at this. Others, calmer.
“ … far too much on her mind to bother him again, and the others ‑ ”
“The others might be less cross?” Elan suggested.
“Yes, you’re right, they do seem a lot more relaxed, don’t they?”
Such things rarely happen. Never. Not yet. Perhaps.
“They’re telling me this is all very new and they don’t know what happened,” Elan interpreted optimistically. “If ‘happened’ is the right word. Um.”
The Artist is no longer relevant, as we understand linear time. His dissolution aided his becoming. He was unable to give the aid the intruders needed, to the specifications they provided. It was confusing. Great concentration was needed. Spears of ice … were a distraction. He will recover, and do other things that are needed. We do not know if he can. Perhaps they are done already. Perhaps neither is the case.
“Perhaps we don’t quite understand linear time yet,” Elan suggested.
Time is space is matter is energy. Elan could have sworn the whispered truth sounded a little surly. Or else it isn’t. All of these things exist only in the sphere you know.
Nevertheless, he gathered his wits and did his best to relate the whispered truth’s words to the cheerful disembodied voice of the Sweetnature rancher. It seemed expected of him. And perhaps it was the voice’s cloying Mygonite optimism rubbing off on him, but he thought it might just be getting easier.
You have always heard us, the whispered truth said. Encouragingly, this time.
“I … don’t know that I have, but maybe from your perspective ‑ ”
You are here to help them all to leave. You are here to heal this wound. You are here to lead them home.
Elan floated, bodiless, in the yawning gulf of pain that was the whispered truth behind the urverse. “Lead who … ” he began to ask, and then trailed off.
One by one, the voices rose.