This week, Annalee Newitz brings us an astounding new world wrapped around a stellar story of grief and growth. ~ Julian Yap & Fran Wilde, October 2, 2022
A Hole in the Light
By Annalee Newitz
Arch had never been to a ritual of dissolution for someone who mattered.
Of course, there were distant kin who had died. But when they dissolved, it felt like they had moved to the next village: poignant, but not a disaster. The artificiality of the ritual made her more uncomfortable than their loss. Well, perhaps that wasn’t quite true. She had genuinely suffered when her physics teacher had died, and she could no longer ask questions about what lay beyond the village of Slope-Toward-Sea, on the planet Skiff, wrapped in the mottled glow of the eroding firmament. Even when her teacher dissolved, though, the ritual had seemed absurd.
But now, watching four adepts from the Memory commit Plaza back to the sea, she realized she had misunderstood everything about what the ceremony meant.
At the island’s edge, Arch’s beloved Plaza broke apart, his once-solid edges softening into a jumble of molecules. The adepts’ long song of mourning tumbled through the air, but she felt no slow gathering of boredom. She wanted to stay here forever, to imagine Plaza magically reconstituting himself the way he might have thousands of generations ago in the age of cities.
Each member of the ritual, including herself, added proteins to the swirling liquid that clung to the shore. They bubbled and spread, an oily slick of fluid overtaking the molecules that had formed Plaza. Now the person who once reached seven arms around Arch was merely froth in the ocean, and the Memory adepts sang:
fragments of death become threads of life
Arch sang along, instead of just mouthing the words:
we came from the sea, we belong to the sea, we return to the sea
Next they would retell the history of Slope-Toward-Sea and its sister villages, transforming themselves into the ancestors who fled the city to build a new civilization.
Tasting the syllables, she now understood why every dissolution required a story about the history of her people. She felt like her future had been ripped out of her own guts—as if she had lost not just Plaza, but time itself. To return to life, she needed to rebuild all of existence.
After the long song was done, Arch slowly gripped her way past the farms to tell her cluster that she was never coming home again. Every angle and gleam of Slope-Toward-Sea reminded her of Plaza and it was too much. She had to get away, and there was only one place she could imagine that would be far enough.
“I’m going to follow the adepts to the Memory while their trail is still fresh in the sea,” she announced. Nobody was surprised. The cluster joined together, membrane to membrane, sharing fluids and molecular fragments that merged with her own. It was a proper farewell: she took pieces of them with her, and left pieces of herself behind.
And then she set out to sea, following the scented path that led to the Memory, a place she only knew from stories. Overhead, the Big Puddle rose in the sky, a dark maw in the swirl of gleaming firmament—a promise, her physics teacher had once said, that the universe would eventually become a void lit only by distant, unreachable nuclear reactions.
* * *
From the sea, the towers were a mirage, enormous arms pointing at the sky. Up close, they were crumbling structures on an ancient city island made from carbon trash and calcified biofilms. This was where the adepts’ trail ended, but Arch could see no sign of the Memory.
She slid onto shore, scrambling over rocky crusts. Ahead of her, a flora-softened path wound up a steep hill made from piles of giant blocks and shattered, unrecognizable machines. The towers she’d seen from the sea loomed overhead, their bases invisible beneath the eroded debris of a thousand generations. Eventually she reached the summit, and peered down into a green valley cleared of urban remains. Ringed by the old city’s remains, the domes and trees of the Memory nestled in cool shadows cast by mountains of cultural ruins.
Arch knew from songs that the Memory had four public buildings for scholarship, each associated with a different discipline. She made her body into a formal oval, stretched out six legs, and gripped her way down toward the one devoted to science.
Inside, there were more people than lived in the entire settlement of Slope-Toward-Sea, debating and elongating animatedly with each other. One pointed her to a small greeting chamber for novices like her, seeking to join the Memory. She told her story to a sympathetic adept, who reached out an arm—not unkindly—and asked to read her molecules. This would help him understand where Arch came from, and what she’d been exposed to in her environment.
“I’m Spire,” the adept said, after pondering a few short polymer chains. “I can see how much of Plaza is in you.” He paused. “I’m very sorry for your loss.”
Arch said nothing. Her body spoke for itself.
“It appears that you have spent your whole adulthood clustered with him in Slope-Toward-Sea. You are a good farmer.”
She elongated in assent.
“If you wish, you may become my student. But I warn you, the work is difficult and might sometimes appear pointless.”
“What is the work?”
“I am translating the memoir of Cinderblock, a cosmologist who lived in this city fifteen thousand generations ago.” Spire paused and became lumpy. “Do you know her work?”
Arch felt a spurt of joy for the first time since Plaza’s death. “She’s the person who described the origin of the Big Puddle! I studied some of her equations with my physics teacher.”
“That’s right. My colleagues and I are building on her theories to predict the Big Puddle’s behavior in the future.” He pointed at the sky through an overhead window, flowing with particles and gas. “In the future, all of this will be gone, and we need to prepare.”
Arch had always loved contemplating the firmament, and this sounded like the perfect project to get lost in. But reading someone’s personal history? Even if Cinderblock was a scientist, a memoir didn’t sound scientific. “What good will her memoir do?” she asked. “Does it shed light on her theories?”
“I don’t know yet. You will have to translate it.”
“But I don’t know how to read Old Kind.”
“I told you the work would be difficult.” He laughed. “At the Memory, you must learn a lot before you can start to learn.”
A crease of ambivalence made its way across her membrane before she could hide it. Was she really going to devote herself to mastering an ancient language just so she could find out where Cinderblock took a shit as a child? Spire was right. It seemed pointless. Then she thought about going back to Slope-Toward-Sea, tending the farm, feeling Plaza’s absence for the rest of her time.
Spire broke into her thoughts. “You can discover a lot in the space between an old language and the one we speak now.” A sly ripple made its way down his right side. “And don’t you want to know what it was like to live here when the city was new?” He pushed open the door and gestured for her to follow him outside.
Arch pushed sensors to the tips of her stretched arms, studying every angle of the eroded towers that surrounded the Memory. Maybe it would be a relief to escape into the past. “All right, I’ll do it.”
* * *
After a while, Arch grew accustomed to the valley. She memorized every wrinkle in the soft ridge that linked her nest to the science building. She joined a new cluster. The Big Puddle rose hundreds of times overhead, as the planet Skiff rotated its face toward the mystery that nearly drove Cinderblock mad. Though not as mad as translating Old Kind was driving Arch right now.
She returned to the sentences she was working on, putting every uncertain term [in brackets].
A sweet [something] emerges from the [air vessel? small flying object?] and it is a delivery from my love.
This may be metaphorical, she noted in the margin. There are no other examples of the character [something]. Perhaps a unique name for a highly specialized trade good?
The [something] soothes me when [idea images?] turn people to [political group? entrenched structure?]. The [idea images] become [exchange value] and the people are in danger. Luckily, some of us are in [elite social bond] with researchers on Chariot, where [gas-ball gazing? burning vision?] is one of the great sciences. We must research together. Otherwise, this [hole in the light] will be our doom.
Possibly more metaphorical language, she wrote with a sigh, doodling a person humping a burning gas ball in the margin of her pad. She kept coming across the “idea image” characters in Cinderblock’s memoir and still had no idea how to translate them.
But maybe she could figure out some of the other words in this section. Arch scanned the full text of the memoir, looking for the combination of characters she was leaning toward translating as “gas-ball gazing.” There were a dozen more hits, all in the context of talking about science on other planets, like Chariot and Raft. She read further, and realized that Cinderblock was talking about a network of scientists trying to understand the Big Puddle.
“Gas-ball gazing” was some kind of slang term for the hypothesis that the Big Puddle would take over the universe, leaving behind nothing of the firmament but solitary balls of burning gas.
It was strange to imagine Cinderblock working in a huge metropolis in the exact spot where the quiet Memory was now. Back then, ships launched themselves through the towers, sailing the star winds to other planets. Few made the journey in recent generations. Pockets of darkness were opening everywhere—smaller than the Big Puddle, and more dangerous because they were unmapped. Even the most talented navigator might find her ship falling into one, starving it of the thick, life-giving gas that made up the firmament. Her crew would slowly asphyxiate, their bodies hardening into stone.
Arch returned to her translation.
Gas-ball gazing is what drew me to Chariot, the planet of my love.
Cinderblock never named her lover, and Arch wasn’t sure if it was a personal choice or some kind of stylistic quirk of memoirs from that era. Very little personal writing survived from Cinderblock’s period, and Spire told her that the adepts didn’t have enough representations of romance to be sure what the norms were.
We were at [elite social gathering] for scientists who study the end of the universe. Afterward, we left Chariot together and sailed for Skiff to join [more than a million people] in a performance of “The Three Clusters.” So many voices and floats! It was beautiful. Then we [orbited] the city together and felt the star winds, always tugging at the firmament—the same force, we believe, creating the holes.
“Holes in the light” is clearly their term for the Big Puddle and related phenomena, she wrote.
It was thrilling. It was [horny? exciting?]. We reached inside each other and felt joy.
“Definitely horny, then,” she muttered to herself with a laugh, tweaking her wording.
It was thrilling and arousing. We reached inside each other joyfully. Afterward, I confessed to my love that I fear the [Entrenchment] on Skiff. They are inside too many people now. They want to make gas-ball gazing forbidden.
Arch sat back, pleased with the last few sentences. She had hit upon a good translation for the political group Cinderblock mentioned often with trepidation: “the Entrenchment.”
And then the memoir took a dark turn.
During [pepper festival? hot party?] my love developed hard skin, and the medics [made stillness?] so my love could heal. I didn’t know when the Entrenchment would let me leave and be with my love again. So I continued my studies, and my cluster comforted me.
Pushing the pad away, Arch respired as if she’d been stretching uphill. Hard skin was the disease that had killed Plaza. The infection had crept across his membrane until he could no longer reach out an arm or send an eye into his hands to see the world. By the end, he was caged in a scabrous shell that allowed no molecules in or out. Thinking about it—the moment when the last chemicals passed between them through a tiny gap—made her want to cry or vomit or some combination of the two. Their cluster had stayed by both of them as he slowly disappeared, his sweet taste walled off by sickness.
But of course, hard skin was one of those diseases that the ancients had conquered. They considered it a major inconvenience, but not a horror. She wondered if Spire had known about what had happened to Cinderblock’s lover. Perhaps Spire hoped she would study her connection to Plaza with the same scholarly zeal she applied to Cinderblock’s memoir.
Pushing an eye to the tip of one long arm opposite the arm she was using to read Cinderblock’s memoir, she could peek past the door to her office. The view confirmed what she’d already smelled. Nobody was around.
She needed to get outside. Cluster call wasn’t for some time, so she could wander through the ruins for a while. There was one particular tower she liked because it still retained some of its old colors and light emitters. Gazing up at its faintly glimmering surface, you could imagine thousands of people’s sacs stuck to it as “idea images” danced through the air and gardens flourished in floating orbs.
Arch gripped her way up until she approached the weather-softened top of the tower, its portal to the firmament dark and quiet. From here, she could see all that remained of the city that had once housed millions of people. During Cinderblock’s time, it would have been impossible for her to absorb the city’s vast and varied weirdness—she would have dissolved knowing her home was full of amazing things she never saw. Plus, it swarmed with ships ferrying people between worlds. There were so many interwoven, interpenetrating social groups. Even if you lost a friend, there would be hundreds more waiting to meet you.
Still, something about the city’s vast collective organization created bizarre conflicts. The Entrenchment tried to stop cosmologists from discussing their work, despite the fact that anyone could see the Big Puddle growing overhead. And their “idea images” were rippling across millions of membranes, twisting billions of proteins, until there were fights within fights.
Arch adhered to the spire next to imprints from a sac that was long gone, and stared across the choppy waves in the direction of Slope-Toward-Sea. Even from this far away in space and time, she could still feel Plaza’s loss.
* * *
The Big Puddle rose another hundred times before Arch was halfway through translating Cinderblock’s memoir. To celebrate, Spire invited her to a picnic atop the mountainous ring of the old city, where they ate on a pile of disintegrating machines.
“Have you learned anything that you didn’t expect?”
“I was born at the wrong time,” she said, surprising herself with a jolt of bitterness. “Fifteen thousand generations ago, I could have come here and walked through floating gardens with more than a million people.” She used the Old Kind word for “more than a million people.”
“People always think that meeting lots of random strangers is a better life. More exciting, I guess.” Spire turned his gaze to the Big Puddle, its inky void promising nothing but more darkness. “But you know what I think? Those times were thrilling, but there was still death and sorrow—just like everywhere else. Only it was amplified. Because they were surrounded by the pain of millions of strangers and the monuments they built to their grief.” He put out a hand to touch her arm.
“Maybe. But they could go anywhere—even the shores of a star. They performed ‘The Three Clusters’ with millions of voices and arms. It must have been more beautiful than anything we have now.”
Spire moved closer, leaning warmly against her without trying to reach inside. “No matter when we live, we can find beauty.” He pointed at a garden that the agriculture novices had planted nearby, in the shattered translucent shell of an old city vehicle.
“Stop making false equivalencies.” Arch felt herself raising two spines in anger. “Did you know Plaza wouldn’t have died back then? They had medicine. . . .” She started to cry quietly.
“They had ways to heal, but not everyone could use them. You only know the stories of the people who had everything—the ones who survived. What about all the other people? There were many ways to die here. The seas oozed with their remains, and nobody gave them the ritual of dissolution. Be glad you have only this pain, instead of the pain of many worlds, binding you to a grief that can never be resolved.”
Extending himself into a spindle, Spire plucked a purple flower out of the nearby structure’s gradually eroding facets, then slowly returned to a resting position. Arch absorbed her tears and looked at the blossom’s bright orange center.
“In Cinderblock’s time, Plaza would be here with us. He would have loved this flower.”
“You will never find peace in your counterfactual. You need to look at what’s happening around you right now.” He stretched an arm at the sky. “Eventually everything will look like the Big Puddle, and the firmament will be reduced to tiny, distant stars. The entire universe as we know it will be gone. Do you perceive what I’m saying?”
Arch absorbed her arms and became almost perfectly spherical. “We’re doomed?”
He laughed. “Yes, we are. But so is everyone. You have to learn to see the promise in the darkness.”
Reflexively, Arch curled her tongue around a snippet of Plaza’s molecules, tasting his beloved laugh. She knew it wasn’t healthy to keep replicating these last pieces of him inside her. Mutations were building up in the strands. Her cluster could only do so much to maintain chemical integrity without purging Plaza’s remains. An unexpected mutation could do serious damage, and these were becoming more statistically likely as time stretched on. She might even cause hard skin in herself or a clustermate.
Extending her arms again, she blocked the firmament’s ubiquitous glow and tried to imagine a universe eaten by the Big Puddle. The light wouldn’t be gone, but it would be different and more rare.
* * *
Arch began spending her free time gardening with the agriculture students who had grown the purple flowers. There was no rule against working on two projects, and Arch enjoyed the group’s discussions about growing plants out of metals harvested from star winds.
She had finished another quarter of Cinderblock’s memoir, and the cosmologist’s story was getting more political.
Gas-ball gazing is called a [toxin? disease?] on Skiff now. If I publish my research, I may be [force-dissolved].
In the latter half of Cinderblock’s memoir, she spoke often about something that Arch decided to translate as “force-dissolve.” The verb included characters that meant “force” or “coercion,” as well as the familiar character for “dissolving,” still roughly the same after thousands of generations. It also included a character that could mean “travel,” or could refer to the mathematical idea of becoming smaller. If she had to guess—and she did—it meant that the Entrenchment was making people smaller by forcing them to die.
Now she understood what Spire meant about how the sea around this ancient city was oozing with dead bodies. Conflicts here often ended with death, by some means that Arch could neither translate nor understand.
Finally I received a [high-value object] and took a ship to Chariot to visit my love in recovery. There are no clusters allowed on this planet, so I often feel disordered and sad. But scientists can speak about gas-ball gazing. I have joined a group building a prototype [enclosed? shielded? vessel] for travel inside the holes in the light. No one is ever force-dissolved.
But Chariot’s oceans are covered by [energy machines]. I often dream of home, where star breezes ruffled the oceans, and there is a [group of a thousand people] who sang near my cluster’s sac. I miss those sounds and smells. And the gardens. Chariot has no tradition of gardens.
Arch felt she truly understood Cinderblock for the first time. It was as if the cosmologist stood beside her, speaking like a friend. Arch knew the feeling of contentment that came from watching the waves around this city island swap beams of light, and the sense of peace among the flowers. Sometimes she could hear gusts of music in the valley, from adepts who studied the arts. There was not much about Cinderblock’s life that was easy to comprehend, but this feeling she could translate perfectly.
The time may come when I will be allowed to return, but I am not hopeful. The Entrenchment has closed Skiff’s firmament paths. For now I remain on Chariot, where my love says it is [not directed? untethered?]. That may be true for science, but not for everything.
The characters that I’m translating as “not directed” or “untethered” might be metaphors for freedom, she wrote in the margin, sketching a flower next to her note.
After she finished this passage, Arch gripped her way to the agriculture students’ experimental garden with its purple flowers. She spread herself flat in the moist, warm soil. The firmament warmed her from overhead, and Skiff warmed her from below. She thought about Cinderblock, in exile on a planet without gardens, without the comforts of clustering, and tried to soak up all the beauty of Skiff. She would take joy in this world for an ancient cosmologist who no longer could.
* * *
Arch was nearly finished with the translation of Cinderblock’s memoir. When she realized the end of her research project was approaching, she decided to shed the last pieces of Plaza, much to her clustermates’ relief. It meant she could no longer taste him inside her, but she also felt much stronger now. Replicating a chunk of mutation-riddled molecules had been more of a drain than she realized. She didn’t miss him any less. But she also felt . . . The Old Kind character for “untethered” popped into her mind. That was it. Less tied down. More free.
It turned out there were a dozen students with overlapping interests in cosmology and agriculture, and they had created a small interdisciplinary cohort together. Spire and a young agricultural adept named Canal were co-tutoring. Arch attended the first meeting, where Canal lectured about healthy ways of integrating farms into settlements, then segued into a discussion about the molecular structure of red moss and how it interacted with radiation.
When she and Spire found a quiet spot away from the others, he gave her a nudge. “Have you learned anything from Cinderblock’s memoir that surprised you?” It was his favorite question.
She rolled onto her side and mirrored his posture for a moment, gently mocking him. “Is there something you think should surprise me?”
He looked serious. “She presented her entire theory of the Big Puddle shortly after she finished this memoir. I was hoping you could tell me what inspired her breakthrough.”
She recited two sentences in Old Kind, and Spire listened intently. “What is the translation?” he asked.
“‘I love this city. But I must force-dissolve my connection to it.’”
Troubled, Spire reached a hand out to stroke one of the purple flowers nearby. “So it was the loss of her home on Skiff. That’s what changed her perspective.”
“My guess is that she had figured out the Big Puddle a long time before, but couldn’t tell anyone about her theories until she left.”
Spire twisted himself a little, expressing contemplation. “It must have been a huge relief to her, to escape from this place where she couldn’t publish.”
Now it was Arch’s turn to become very serious. “I don’t think she was relieved, actually.”
“Why do you say that?”
“She loved it here, which is understandable.” Arch gestured at the valley, where buildings divided the light into pleasing polygons. “It’s beautiful. And with the city and all those people? It must have been astonishing.”
“But she couldn’t be herself here.”
Arch wriggled an arm, shrugging. “I think she could be herself here in a way she couldn’t be on Chariot. She could join a cluster. She could perform the great stories. There are many kinds of freedom, and it hurts to choose only one.”
Just then, Canal let out a cheer, and the students followed suit. “We’ve done it! The moss is producing a new kind of protein!” Everyone was talking and exhaling molecules of triumph at the same time. Arch and Spire tumbled to meet the class, their conversation about Cinderblock’s choice mostly forgotten.
When Arch stretched an eye into the huddle of students to see the moss, she was nonplussed. “What is the new protein?”
“It’s a medicine!” Canal waved eight short arms excitedly all over her body. “It’s a therapy for rending!” The agriculture teacher was referring to a degenerative condition that caused small cuts to open in the skin, leaking fluid. In extreme cases, it led to desiccation. Even when rending wasn’t deadly, though, the condition was disabling and painful. Being able to heal those cuts—that would be a gift to many people.
For a moment, she thought again of Cinderblock, who lived in a city where nobody ever died of rending—or of hard skin. But millions of people refused to see the Big Puddle for what it was. The city embraced one kind of science, and force-dissolved the other. It was incomprehensible. Looking around at her cohorts in the science and agriculture class, who were still talking excitedly about the possibilities for red moss medicine, she felt a weight shift in her mind. Maybe the old city’s technologies could have healed Plaza. But Arch was glad to be here now.
* * *
Cinderblock’s memoir was finished and polished. Some of the words’ meanings were still opaque to Arch, but she had made her final choices about how to translate them.
At her completion ceremony, Arch would announce her intention to stay at the Memory. She wanted to help Canal and the other students with their work on the red moss. The interdisciplinary class had become almost like a cluster to her—better in some ways, because she didn’t have to taste their sour excretions when they were dyspeptic.
As she put out more legs to pull herself to the ceremony platform, Spire nudged her aside for one of his conversations.
“I wanted you to be the first to know that I’m taking a ship to Chariot soon.” He stretched with pride. “There’s a group I want to work with on navigating the Big Puddle.”
She started to protest, but he waved an arm to silence her. “I have a prototype of a ship that can withstand— What did Cinderblock call it? ‘Holes in the light’?” He spoke the Old Kind words.
“That’s right,” Arch replied quietly.
“I know you’re worried that the journey is dangerous, but so is a future without travel between worlds.”
Arch spoke in a mock-teacher voice. “I expect you to come back with a complete map of the darkness.”
Spire laughed and they embraced, weeping a little. Spire promised to bring Arch’s translation of Cinderblock’s memoir to the Big Puddle researchers on Chariot. And Arch promised she would carry on as an adept with the group that studied cosmology and agriculture.
Despite her sadness, Arch took her place at the center of the ceremony to read an excerpt before the real party began.
I will never go home again, and it hurts. I suppose some are lucky to keep their homes, and others are lucky to keep their lives. Maybe we cannot ever have both. Now I try to think of the people who will live after us. Perhaps in many generations, everyone will understand that the universe is going dark.
Arch turned an eye to Spire as she read, thinking of his impending journey. Future generations would need those maps. Even now his journey would be dangerous—nobody knew exactly when a hole would open up in the fabric of the firmament.
Waving six arms in a flourish, she read the final line.
I leave this memoir behind on Skiff, hoping that you, my future reader, know what the Big Puddle is. But most of all, I hope that you are untethered.
Her colleagues cheered, and overhead the firmament swirled around the mysterious darkness that Cinderblock had predicted would grow larger with time. Flowers bloomed in the valley below them, and red moss softened the wall of a collapsed building.
She wished Plaza were here to see her. But at this moment, in this place, it was all right that he wasn’t. She was home.
Thank you for joining us on our journey this week!
Annalee Newitz’s nonfiction includes Four Lost Cities: A Secret History of the Urban Age and Scatter, Adapt and Remember: How Humans Will Survive a Mass Extinction, (an LA Times Book Prize finalist). They’re also the author of the novels The Terraformers (forthcoming in January 2023), The Future of Another Timeline, and Autonomous, which won the Lambda Literary Award. They are a writer for the New York Times, have a monthly column in New Scientist, and have published in The Washington Post, Slate, Popular Science, Ars Technica, The New Yorker, and The Atlantic, among others. They are the co-host of the Hugo Award-winning podcast Our Opinions Are Correct.
“A Hole in the Light,” © Annalee Newitz, 2022.
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Annalee this is such a gorgeous story. Thank you for sharing it.
I really liked this! Notes are up https://twitter.com/tanaudel/status/1576724833932484608