The Planes of Space (Prologue)
I've come to learn something, through the time I've spent living in this room.
The universe is a machine of a thousand turning wheels. All the things humans create—the names and stories, the movements and endings—they turn in everlasting cycles, returning time and again to a state they were in once before.
Think of the Egyptian civilizations, of the eras of film, maybe of the cities of America. They all see golden ages, and dark ages, and golden ages anew. First their names are known to all, on every tongue and every tablet. And then they are gone—decimated, scoured from memory, as rock scars are by the sea. Like fossils, these beloved things from times-past get buried beneath centuries and centuries of earth.
But sometimes, we children look at each other, and we say, "hey, where'd that thing go?" Suddenly we want to see them again, the things our grandparents' grandparents once loved. Some millennium-old hunger opens up within us, and we begin to excavate those buried things. And then, what was loved in past ages is brought back to vogue, the latest hotness, the in-thing again.
This year's shopper’s almanac will show you what I mean. Every other mall facade stands on Greek pillars. The newest one that opened downtown is named the Hanging Gardens. Ancient Mesopotamian salads just became the in-thing with the restaurant chains, and now I hear they’re opening theme restaurants in the aforementioned Hanging Gardens, the strumming of lutes and flutes borne on the air. It's all wheels and cycles, in the end.
Just like that, another cycle has just completed its thousand-year-long oscillation. Right now our world sits upon a crest of nominal revival: like zombies, the oldest, moldiest names are climbing out of their coffins and crawling into the open, their lifeless eyes blinking.
One of those names is mine. My name is Adelaide Moore.
As far as I’ve read, all the famous Adelaides lived in the 1000s. Duchesses, abbesses, opera characters. Apparently, too, I share my name with a city in South Australia much younger than those operas, a city I know I’ll never visit. I wonder if the air there is colder than it is up here in San Francisco, and if my old friends would tell me more about Adelaide, if they could visit me.
But they cannot visit me. There has been no one here for years and years, save that balding, bespectacled face that ghosts by the only window of my home.
My home is an L-shaped penthouse apartment. What else is there to say? It has flat brown terrazzo floors, concrete walls painted an agreeable green, and that one dark little trilayer glass window facing my acrylic sofa, barely large enough for a head.
Underneath that window is a sliding panel, painted like the walls, and streaked with friction marks. It slides away so the wall can spit food at me when I’m hungry. There was a period when it disagreed with my biological clock, but I guess my clock synchronized itself with it eventually. Now the first hunger pang is as good as an alarm for the arrival of lunch, which is always some sort of pulpy mess, or pellets. My bed sits in the other arm of the L, all synthetic cotton with metal bedposts.
There is a fake plastic Boston fern on the dresser; it’s an insipid green, not anything like the one in The Pteridophyte Field Guide. That one basks lush and glorious in a world that isn’t abashed to acknowledge it, its insect-nibbled pinnae glowing with exaltation to the sun.
Terrazzo, concrete, glass, acrylic. No wood, no hide, no wool.
My shelves, like many shelves I saw in the life I had before, are laden with books. They smell like the factories where the pulp was rolled and cut and dried: books about the old civilizations and Hanging Gardens no longer existent, about settlements that clustered around rivers and grew towards the sea, about Romans crying death in smoky arenas and ships launched between continents and the two wars that thrust America to the place where it is. There are stories about the role of silk in advancing China and the big glittery photos of the caterpillars that make it.
Caterpillars have a special place in my heart. They’re the reason. I did something to a caterpillar once, and now I’m never going to see another living creature in my life.
Here, my only means of correspondence with the world outside is a glowing touchscreen rectangle. In it there is a digital catalog of all books I’m allowed to own. Should I want one, all I have to do is write its name on the sticky note that comes with my meals. I’ll have it by dinner.
I like my books very much, they’re all about technology and biology and Ancient Greek schools of thought. But those books sometimes reference yet other kinds of books, the kind they call “fiction”, and the insets aren’t too descriptive but I think none of my books are “fiction”, nor are any in the catalog.
Sometimes the word “fiction” haunts me when my eyelids weigh and I slip myself under the blanket and the lights go out on cue. I realize it inhabits a hollow in my mind, and that something outside must fill it, something I feel a flash of wanting for.
Then I think that maybe what I really want is something that book covers cannot hold between them, something that this little L-shaped penthouse apartment can’t afford me.
See, I am dangerous. I changed a caterpillar and now they can’t let me change anything else.
–Yet caterpillars change by themselves, don’t they? Without me to change them, don’t they?
Sometimes, when the dark is a little less dim, when my pupils dilate and that far trilayer window begins to glow dull blue from outside, I wonder about people. I think about old civilizations, Romans pressing screams out of sinners, ships stringing routes across the Atlantic, and silkworm caterpillars, boiled before they’ve sprung from their cocoons.
That’s when I know that I need it. Something to do with people who don’t exist. The Greeks and their theaters. Celestial bodies. Artemis and Apollo chiseled from marble blocks. Something to do with “fiction”.
I sleep, and by the next morning it no longer matters. But the chaos continues to thunder within me.
A new book popped up in my catalogue today. The words “Ultra Limited Stock!” popped up in red beside it. I was curious because “Ultra Limited Stock!” books don’t appear all too often, so that’s the title I wrote on the sticky note at breakfast.
299,792,458 arrived with my dinner. I abandoned the brown puree for a riffle through the beautiful new volume. Skimming the content and revelling in the diagrams that pepper the pages, I breathed the press perfume soaked into its pages, and then my fingers froze—
—as they found the ragged leaf-end jutting from the gap in its spine.
Narcissus jonquilla. I knew it before I’d pulled it out; I knew it from its cells. I knew it though I was ice numb. There were jonquils by our flagstone driveway, where I lived long ago. The breezes liked the jonquils, yellow as sun. The Ancient Greeks had a sort of false explanation for how the flowers came to be—a boy at water’s edge, in love with himself. I’d know it anywhere.
The living green of chlorophyll, here, in my room. It’s something the printers could never capture.
But that’s not what is most precious about my jonquil leaf, I soon discover.
I turn it over, and scrawled across the blade, in strange wavering loops of unprinted ink, are the words:
“Do you think the planes of space are shifting?“
Adrenaline makes my heartbeat roar. My dinner lies untouched.