Quantitative Analysis

“Hurry it up, Robert.” Sighed Mara. “We’ve got a quota to meet. Just chuck him in the army or something.”

“You can’t rush these things.” Replied Robert, pressing the words through his teeth with barely concealed impatience. “Please try to be professional.”

“I am.” She snipped. “I’m trying to meet the professional standard of not spending a quarter of an hour on one decidedly average citizen.”

“Tell me, how long have you been working in this department?”

“Two years.”

“Twelve. So it might be worth listening to my advice: you can’t just throw everybody in the army. The Military Board doesn’t like it, the CR Board doesn’t like it, and if they get around to complaining upwards rather than down, the Ministerial Board won’t like it either.”

“I don’t want to throw everyone in the army, Rob. I want to throw this schmuck in so that we can move on the next one, and maybe actually hit our daily target for once.”

“Well, perhaps we’d be more productive if you stopped bickering with me on every case.”

“We’d be more productive for sure if we just took the algorithm at its word, but you don’t like that idea…”

“We have human oversight for a reason.”

“Right. And we have two humans for a reason, too. Cuts both ways. Army.”

Robert scowled. He enjoyed scowling, Mara felt.

“Fine. We’ll run some numbers one more time, and if I don’t come up with anything else, we’ll go with the army option.”

She smiled inwardly, glowing in the anticipation of coming smugness.

“Alright, you shuffle aside, and I’ll take the screen.” She said. “There’s not enough space in this broom-closet for both of us to huddle over it. I’ll feed you the numbers.”

“Fine.” Robert relinquished his place at the computer with an air of wounded pride. Mara moved over with precisely the opposite demeanour.

“Ready when you are.”

“IQ.”

“106. And a third, if you care about the third.”

“Height, weight.”

“178 cm. 73.4 kg.”

“Deviation from standard life expectancy.”

“Negligible.”

“Happiness quotient?”

“Ouch. 92.”

“Disposition quotient?”

“A nice, crisp, 120. Tell me, what are the Military Board’s minimums for those?”

“HQ 85, DQ 115.”

“Thought so. And IQ 105 – 130, as I’m sure you know.”

“Yes, I do. But there are plenty of roles for those ranges.”

“Fine, fine. On to the achievement scores?”

“Correct. Physical, bipartite.”

“64, 60.”

“Social. Just give me the overall for this one.”

“64.”

“Academic. Tripartite, this time.”

“40, 51, 42. No love for the heptadecapartite scores?”

Robert scowled.

“We only use those for IQ 140 or above, and you know it.”

“I must have forgotten.” She smirked. “You’ve got those four IQ points on me, remember? Go easy.”

“Alright, alright. Any Observer comments that we missed?”

“Of course not. When was the last time you saw any?”

“It can happen. Clearly, the designated Observer just didn’t see any need in this case.”

“Or any case, apparently. Must be a pretty cushy job.”

“Careful what you say. The Overall Value Band is 3b, right?”

“3c.”

“Well, you win.” The furrows of his dissatisfaction were slightly more pronounced than usual. Not only had he ‘lost’, he had forgotten the OVB. For Robert, who was strangely resistant to apathy, this was a source of personal frustration. “We’ll say army and be done with it.”

“Oh, are you sure?” She crowed. The smugness had arrived, and she welcomed it with open arms. “I’ve got pages and pages of this stuff.”

“Yes, I’m sure. What did the algorithm recommend?”

“Army, of course. I didn’t come up with that stroke of genius myself. You sure you don’t want to bounce him back for another year in the Supervised Community?”

“A good allocations clerk never does that.”

“So you’ve told me.” Robert was stubborn about this, which was strange, since the option was officially sanctioned. Sometimes you really did just need more data. Equally, it sometimes made more sense to leave a file for the next lot rather than risk a mistake. “Army it is.”

Mara input the appropriate vocational code, and the pair’s decision was beamed off to that all-knowing god of bureaucracy, the (great, glorious, noble, infallible) National Mainframe. Seeing no red flags, the Mainframe dumped Citizen M45QS-S, soon to be renumbered to fit his designated raison d’être, into the lap of a bored Civil Resources employee. This provider of token human oversight scrolled through the case file in search of anything entertaining, found nothing, and confirmed the decision.

Robert and Mara received confirmation of this confirmation, and were duly presented with another citizen ready to graduate from their community. There was a mutual, simultaneous discarding of attention as they scanned the first page. This would be an easy one.

“IQ 98.” Said Mara. “Unlucky, Ms. F82GL-S.”

“Luck has nothing to do with it, Mara. The numbers don’t lie.”

She was about to retort that this didn’t necessarily mean that they were saying anything particularly truthful, but intercepted the thought before it could escape her head. Some things really were better left unsaid.

“Ship it over to the lovely people at the Exceptions Department?”

“Correct. Unless you see any reason not to?”

She scrolled through the file. “Well, not in the scores. And would you believe it, there are no additional comments.”

“Don’t get glib. This is an unfortunate necessity.”

She declined to comment.

Another offering to the Mainframe. It accepted it, ratified it, and rerouted it. A different (albeit equally bored) Civil Resources clerk gave the go-ahead, and the Exceptions Department found themselves with another lump of biomass.

Robert and Mara were blessed with a run of easy calls. There were certain lines in the sand that people in this vocation acquired very quickly, certain numbers in certain columns that, by virtue of their relation to prescribed benchmarks, narrowed things down to just a small handful of options – and that hand was sometimes practically empty. Save for exceedingly rare cases, a single exceptional score (euphemism or otherwise) was enough to determine someone’s optimal fate. It was the average ones who were more problematic, if you insisted on thinking too hard about them. Robert was rather prone to this. It was one of a curious selection of scenarios in which thinking too hard was encouraged.

Armed with their knowledge of these no-questions-asked indicators, the pair were able to allocate citizen after citizen in a matter of seconds each. It was a stroke of good luck, and they were able to make their quota for the day. Robert, as the senior of the two, confirmed their performance data for the shift and sent it to their sub-manager, a man or woman whom neither of them had ever met. The record would show that they had done well. In turn, it would show that the team who had assigned them to the department had done well, and so that their allocators had done well. As had the Observers, whose data had fed these successful decisions, and the sub-managers of all of the previous, and their managers, and their Superior Managers on the Civil Resources Board, and their overseers on the Ministerial Board, all the way up to the very top of the chain. The day’s reports reached the National Mainframe, and somewhere within its whirring, deific networks, the results of untold assessments ticked up in infinitesimal approval.

Untitled © Donald Judd

The End.

Inertia

Woodrow was one of the least remarkable people I had ever met. We moved in the same circles for almost all of my teenage years – went to the same parties, drank in the same bars, killed time with the same cliques. It’s entirely possible that I spent more time with him than with anybody else, although it certainly didn’t feel like it. In the grand sum of all those bored, listless days, nothing was as fundamentally bland or devoid of purpose as Woodrow. Save for a slightly unusual name, he was the most fantastically uninteresting person anybody could imagine. Someone who was present at every gathering, but whose presence was utterly intangible. The sort of friend whose defining trait wasn’t wit, vivacity, kindness, bravado, or really any attribute fit to evoke a response. Rather, to know him was to be in the presence of sheer, inoffensive amicability. He would never tell a joke, never express an opinion, never let slip a spark of passion, and so never give any reason to dislike him. He was just there. The living, breathing god of benignity.

We used to make fun of him, as teenagers are wont to do. We’d say (for example), that he was the inventor of the colour grey, or that trigonometry was first devised in a failed attempt to create something more boring than Woodrow. If a tree fell in the woods and only Woodrow was around to hear it, did it make a sound? Cogito, ergo non sum Woodrow (not my own invention). It would be possible to avert any momentous historical event by replacing one of the key actors with Woodrow, since wars, revolutions and breakthroughs were all far too exciting to occur in his vicinity. Likewise, his status as the world’s only known non-entity positioned him as the answer to many of history’s great mysteries. Any unseen hand or forgotten agent could just as well be Woodrow, since to see him was to see the air behind him, and all awareness of his deeds was immediately displaced by something more interesting. The list could go on for ever, but the point is that we were fairly cruel towards poor Woodrow, behind his back. Of course, none of this was done with any malice. That would require even the first ounce of emotional investment, an ounce that was decidedly unavailable in this case.

Anyway, the years strolled on and people drifted apart. Some of us went to work, others to university, others travelling, others to parenthood, and all on divergent paths. Some adolescent friendships endure, and others slough off. Woodrow was universally the first to be shed. There was understandably little compulsion to maintain contact with somebody who communicated nothing. Woodrow was out of mind even when he was firmly within sight, and there was really no way for absence to make the heart grow fonder of something about which it genuinely didn’t care in the first place. I myself fell out of touch with everybody from those days, reminiscing often but never acting on those thoughts. I was in my early forties before I saw a face from my youth again. A bland and inexpressive face, but one that I would recognize anywhere.

I was walking back from the office when I caught a glimpse of him across the street. For whatever reason, in spite of everything he represented, my eye was drawn swiftly and inexorably towards him. Woodrow looked exactly as I remembered him. I ought to make myself clear – that was no figure of speech. He looked exactly as I remembered him. Over two decades later, and Woodrow hadn’t aged a day, an hour. Not a wrinkle, not a hair more or less on his head. The same expression, the same walk, the same clothes (or close enough). I was looking at the person I had known, precisely as I had known him. No hint of a change, no trace of time. I stopped, motionless, and stared for a good couple of seconds as my brain attempted to reconcile this information. Woodrow, clearly sensing a degree of attention to which he was wholly unaccustomed, looked around in discomfort and spotted me. There was a rare flash of emotion across his face (namely panic) before he turned and began to scurry off, his retreat manifesting as a clumsily hastened version of his usual gait.

With my curiosity piqued for the first time in a while, I immediately gave chase. Striding across the road and around the corner in pursuit, I could make out Woodrow’s unassuming frame, clear as day, turning left off the main street. A considerable head start, but entirely wasted on him – he wasn’t particularly fast, and he was even less imaginative. I found him in a side-alley café, sitting in a corner, facing away from the window. It was a rather optimistic attempt at stealth. I entered, waved half-heartedly at the barista, and joined my old, surprisingly youthful friend.

“Oh. You found me.” He muttered, still slightly winded from what, for him, must have been an epic feat of exertion. To this day, I have never seen the man actually run.

“Yeah.” I answered. “You know, I probably wouldn’t have done anything if you had just kept walking.”

“Oh well. I suppose I’ll remember that for next time.”

He looked at me blankly, as though my desired topic of conversation were not blindingly obvious. He had never been much of a talker, of course. To be caught in dialogue with Woodrow was to descend into a world of overly long pauses and overly short responses.

“You’re looking well.” He said. If I didn’t know better, I would have thought he was mocking me.

“… as are you. Very well. Impossibly well.”

“Oh.” He sighed. “You noticed?”

“I did. It’s quite noticeable.”

“Right.”

He glanced over his shoulder. The barista was far more interested in their machinery than with us. He seemed content with this.

“This is a bit of a predicament for me.” He said, softening his already taciturn diction.

“I can imagine. But try to look at things from my end. I’m sitting across from somebody who hasn’t aged in more than twenty years, and I’ve got no idea why. You’re going to have to give me something here.”

His face contorted with the first motions of a frown, but this stopped as soon as it started. He closed his eyes, shook his head, and tutted. It seemed like he was reprimanding himself.

“Fine.” He said, with renewed calm. “I’ll talk to you. But I have to ask that everything stays between us. I don’t want any attention.”

“I can respect that.” Deflecting attention came naturally to him, after all. I had no desire to upset the natural order of things.

“Well. Erm…” He puzzled around in his own head for a minute or so. I understood that this was not a conversation he had ever planned on having, and so the words did not come easily. “I’m mostly immortal. Have been for some time.”

“I see.” This seemed reasonable enough. “How long?”

“Five hundred and six years.”

“That’s a lot of years.”

“Yes.”

There was an awkward pause. Woodrow shuffled his feet. I exhaled.

“I suppose you’d like to know more?” He asked, with an air of trepid defeat.

“That is correct.”

Another pause. At this point, I realised that I would probably have to take the reins if I wanted to get anywhere.

“Alright, question number one: what’s the secret? Fountain of youth? Witchcraft? Ambrosia?”

He thought for a second.

“I suppose I was just born this way.”

“That’s it? That’s all you can say?”

“No.”

“… then keep going, please.”

“Well, by the time I was about fifty, I knew something unusual was going on. Of course, back then, people were more willing to go along with these things. And they died more quickly. So, I didn’t have to deal with the trouble of hiding my condition nearly as much as I do now. Anyway, I thought that I might as well go and see a mystic about it, maybe find out what was happening, you know? I was a little bit more adventurous back then.”

“And?”

“They were quite perplexed. None of their divinations or other arcana had any effect on me. They said it was as though the universe didn’t even know I was existed.”

“So… you just kept on doing your thing for the next half-millennium?”

“Yup.” He shrugged. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

“And you’re immortal because… because what? Death hasn’t noticed you yet?”

“Something like that.”

“And you’re happy with it?”

“It is what it is.”

I was hit by a sudden urge to laugh, which I supressed in the interests of decorum. Woodrow was so boring that the human condition itself couldn’t be bothered with him. He had surpassed (souspassed?) every joke we had ever thought to tell about him.

“Look, I don’t want to talk about this too much.” He said, in an uncharacteristic display of mild preference. “It’s kind of a risk.”

“How so?”

“Well, I’ve gotten this far by just being me. You might not know this about me, but I’m a pretty tepid person. I like things to be the way they are. I don’t like to go out on any limbs. I’m not comfortable being involved in anything too exciting.”

“I’d noticed.”

“Talking about this out loud is a change for me, and I just don’t want to rock the boat. Even getting worried about possible consequences is a danger. Any emotion or activity that’s unusual for me might burst my bubble, for all I know. That’s all. So please, keep this between us.”

“Absolutely. You can rely on me.”

Woodrow glanced back once again. The barista, oblivious to what they were missing, continued to perform their duties.

“One more question, and then you’re free to go.” I said. “I appreciate that you’d rather just be on your way.”

“Oh, don’t worry about it.”

“Why spend all that time with us? And, presumably, with thousands of other people? If your goal is to live a nice, quiet life, not to mention to keep your secret, why not just keep to yourself?”

Woodrow looked at me with slight curiosity, as though I had just asked something to which the answer was completely obvious.

“Well, that’s it, isn’t it? I’m just being me, and that’s one of the things I do.”

He was right, of course. Woodrow was defined by his overwhelming neutrality, and self-imposed isolation was inherently too extreme for him. True to my word, that was the last question I asked him. My curiosity was far from sated, but it would have been cruel to keep him there. Besides, Woodrow’s rather dim powers of communication would probably have been an insurmountable barrier no matter what. We exchanged mobile numbers, said our goodbyes, and went our separate ways.  I walked home in a daze, this little interlude having thrown my day entirely off balance.

In the years that followed, it proved surprisingly easy to come to terms with what I learned that day. The fact that this extraordinary state of affairs concerned only Woodrow, the least extraordinary person of all time, made it somehow acceptable in my mind. It seemed perfectly fair that somebody with no desire or capacity to make their mark on the world be granted an eternity in which not to make it. With anybody else, it would have been an affront to the general nature of humanity. Woodrow, however, was physically (and apparently metaphysically) incapable of affront, and so there was no harm done. It was a momentous, cosmic article of knowledge, and I was privileged to have been gifted it. But I also didn’t really care.

In the times that I have seen him since, he has of course been unchanged. Perpetual, youthful vigour for an old soul that has not once exercised it. I am now in my twilight years, and my own waxing mortality makes me wonder about him. I wonder if some great personal upheaval will ever thrust him back into synchronicity with the rest of humanity, or if he will simply spend all of human existence just being Woodrow. Just being there.

Well, I don’t suppose anybody would notice either way.

 

The End

Humility

Raim did his best to appear unassuming. This was not difficult – wearing plain robes, riding in a plain carriage, he was thoroughly congruous with his surroundings. Still, it was hard not to worry. There were parts of the city to which he was accustomed, and parts to which he was not. The day’s activities would be spent entirely in the latter. Still, it would all be his soon enough. His father ailing, his elder brother deemed unfit to rule, the crown would fall to him in some short months (or maybe weeks). Hence the need to expedite his studies. He had thus been cooped up, kept under house arrest by a procession of tutors, each bearing a marathon of tomes and practica for him to suffer. Statecraft, literature, philosophy (both natural and general), warfare, history, etc. etc. … Today marked the first venture beyond the palace walls in quite some time, and so it stood to reason (in his mind) that it would take him through some of the drabbest quarters his dominion had to offer. There was at least a certain newfound charm to be drawn from all this mundanity, knowing that he was soon to inherit it. The tawdry little trading stalls, the couriers rushing past with news of no importance, the paupers reaching out for alms or skulking in side-alleys. A year ago, they could have drawn no response from him. But as his subjects-to-be, well – it was hard not to feel a touch of sentiment.

With him in the carriage were two others. First, there was “the pilgrim” (as he had been introduced). A gaunt, unerringly taciturn young stranger who had kept his head down and his lips closed for the duration of the journey thus far. Secondly, there was his tutor and chaperone for the day. This was Shahn the Wise, an elder scholar from one of the temples on the city’s eastern fringe. The exposed skin on her hands and face was laced with the script of a secret language. Raim, literate only in modern and historical text, could not even guess as to its meaning, but he did at least know that it was exceptionally rare to meet somebody with tattooed hands. The hands, being the instruments of action, were deemed worthy of symbolic adornment only among the most dedicated and skilled of individuals. Shahn had also barely spoken. There was a sort of stoic patience to her expression that suggested that she would be entirely happy never to break that silence.

“Fine.” Sighed Raim. “What’s today’s lesson? Where are we going?”

“Today’s lesson is in humility.” She replied. “We are going to the Pit.”

“… the Pit?” He asked, attempting to conceal his genuine concern at this revelation.

“Yes. You have read of it, I’m sure.”

“Of course.”

“Then tell me what you know.”

“The Pit, also known as the Maw, the Mouth, the Throat, or to the ancients as That-Which-Threatens or That-Which-Is-To-Be-Watched, or literarily as the City’s Vacant Heart, the Great and Open Wound…”

“Get on with it.”

“… is a pit. A big, nay vast, hole in the ground. Located in the very centre of this city, presumably owing to some atrocious civic planning on the behalf of our ancient predecessors, whom we are to believe it predates.”

“What is its purpose?”

“Anything evil or malevolent is cast into the Pit. Thrown into the unseen depths where it can’t trouble us anymore. This evil can be in the form of a cursed object, the vector of a particularly wretched illness, the purveyor of particularly despicable acts…”

“Who has the right to see it?”

“Proven wisemen and women such as yourself. Members of the order that guard it. People who are about to be sent into it. Sovereigns.”

“Correct, but you have forgotten one. Think of our companion.”

“Pilgrims.”

“Yes. You should find this strange.”

“Should I?” He asked, although of course he did. The ancient texts treated the Pit with an almost spiritual terror. Almost all interactions with it had to be conducted through a sect of dedicated guardians, such that exceedingly few would ever cast eyes on it, let alone set foot at its edge. Its location was surrounded by a wall of tremendous height, always manned, almost never spoken of. This reverence seemed entirely inappropriate for a glorified refuse depository.

“You will soon be taking the throne. It is now your right and responsibility to know more.”

“So, this isn’t a lesson in humility after all?” He smirked.

“It is. But humility is fed by knowledge.”

A tollgate marked their passage from one district to the next. Shahn dismissed the guards with a wave – not even the highest and most headstrong of officials would try to coerce money from somebody of her standing. Moving now into an area rich with metalworks, the wall that surrounded the Pit could be seen in the distance. It was indeed strange that such a visible landmark represented something so obscure to most.

“In your reading, have you heard of a figure called the First Sinner?”

“I have not.”

“That is because all known text concerning him – I shall refer to him as male, although we do not know this to be the case – has been secured in the easternmost quarters, just as all texts concerning the royal lineage are contained in the southernmost. Some knowledge is to be kept where it belongs. Still, we know that some arcana concerning the First Sinner and the nature of the Pit eludes us.”

At this, the pilgrim seemed to smile.

“Who is this Sinner, then?” Asked Raim, ignoring him.

“Somebody from the early ancient period. This much is certain, everything else is subject to much debate. But that does not concern you. As you will know, the Pit existed even at this time, and its function was not dissimilar to now. The ancients used it to dispose of objects or individuals too repugnant to warrant any other treatment. The First Sinner was one such individual. Now, the name is not to suggest that he was literally the first to sin – this would be absurd. Rather, it is to say that he was the first who was meaningful in what was to follow. So, the First Sinner was a truly repulsive individual. Many ancient writers devote whole volumes to his transgressions, and indeed all refuse to do him the honour of referring to him by any proper name – thus our identity woes. When finally captured by a gathering of famed heroes, most of whom will no doubt be known to you from your reading on their other exploits, he was summarily cast into the Pit. Do you follow so far?”

“Of course.”

“And that is where the interesting part, the secret part, begins. The First Sinner was no ordinary wrongdoer. He was, we are told time and time again, preternaturally despicable, but also possessed of an inhuman force of will. So, being hurled into the darkness was not the end for him. Naturally, the details of what follows resemble myth more than history, and are not to be taken at the exact measure of their word. Nonetheless, we cannot doubt their fundamental veracity. Scorned by his peers but embraced by the Pit, the First Sinner ventured down, further down, and yet further still into the dark bowels of the world. The ancients describe in lurid and presumably wholly invented detail the various ordeals of this journey, the alien creatures that waylaid him, the unnavigable darkness that surrounded him, the weight of time, hunger, thirst and isolation that pressed down on him. The First Sinner, being a soul devoid both of human virtue and of human weakness, was undeterred. His descent could not be stopped. However many centuries later, he reached the bottom.”

“Of what? The world?”

“Correct. We can only theorise as to the nature of this ‘root of the world’. Certainly, it is a place where many natural laws cease to apply. Traditionally, it is believed to have been the primordial wellspring from which all life emerged. The First Sinner, by now even more impossibly evil and embittered than he had been before, reached this sacred place, lay down, and abandoned what twisted mockery of his body still remained. This false death released his essence, and the very base of the world was at once possessed by his all-conquering malignance. Since then, he and all his contamination have been growing, reaching upwards. He has shed mortality and become a cancer, a source of untold putrescence, a nucleus radiating insuperable disgust and concealed beneath stratum upon stratum of unthinkable filth, a force of and against nature whose slightest and most fleeting whim is akin to the horror and rot of every plague that has ever ravished our people, a…”

“Shahn! Stop.”

Shahn closed her eyes, performed a cryptic gesture with her hands, and was calm again.

“That is the true nature of the Pit.” She continued, gravely. “It is the passage between us and it. One day, the First Sinner’s tumorous progeny will reach us, and that will be the end of our world. This cannot be avoided. Until then, it is best that we conceal this knowledge. That is why so few are granted access to the area to which we now head.”

“Well, you’re right that it sounds like myth.” Said Raim. “But supposing it were true, why continue to throw things down there? Surely that would just be fuel to the fire?”

“A good question. Indeed, that vileness will consume anything it touches. The more spoilt the food, the better the meal. And yet still we feed it. Some say that is only right that sin be sent below and virtue stay above, that what exists down there is part of a dualistic balance, and we are to play our part in its custody. Anything evil tarnishes an ambiguous world, but it can make the absolute degeneration no worse than it already is – merely larger. But that is just one theory. What matters is that it is done, and always has been.”

“And we are to be content that our city rests on the eventual source of its destruction?”

“Content? Well, yes and no. In any case, there are many ideas on the matter. Some maintain that nothing will come of it. Below will stay below. Others say that the end will come when it comes, and that this would be the case no matter what. Still others search for miracles, for secret arts that will save us when the time comes. Again, it is not your concern.”

Raim knew that the sage could have spoken for hours, days, on these topics, but was instead choosing to offer him breadcrumbs. This frustrated him, but not enough to act on the grievance. Besides, they were fast approaching the gates that led to the Pit, and he was certainly more curious to see it now that he had been before. They were ‘greeted’ by a pair of tall, silent men in turquoise robes. Angular figures in interweaving arrangements decorated their faces. Shahn whispered something into one of their ears, and they were granted passage.

The area beyond the gate was a stark contrast to that before it. After some ordered rows of monastic dwellings, there was nothing. Gone was all the bustle, the inescapable urban trappings. Here, the city momentarily observed the natural state of the plains on which it sat – almost. Abstract geometric totems of towering height faced inwards, standing in seemingly arbitrary but no doubt precisely calculated formation. The grass was sere and the soil loose, both wanting for nourishment.

“We must alight.” Said Shahn. “The horses will not go much further, even under duress.”

And so they did. A sense of smallness nettled Raim in this place, aggravated only further by the indignity of having to walk. They were not five hundred metres from the gate, and yet it seemed that they had entered another world entirely – a world defined by an inexorable spiral towards the wound in its centre, which was out of sight but always in mind. For a short while they walked in silence.

“Pilgrim.” Said Shahn at last. “Tell the prince your story.”

“As you wish, learned one.” Said the Pilgrim. His voice was dolorous, with a lingering accent. “I was born to a clan of herders, on the plains. Life was hard, dull, and pointless. As the youngest and least able of the men, I was the first to be denied food when it was scarce, which was always. I took enough to live by, that being more than I was able to provide. I was beaten and shamed for my failings. Those days ended when we were massacred by a wayward expedition from Kedd. I survived, and was taken on as a menial servant and guide. I learned of the First Sinner from the cleric of this band, but it did not interest me much at the time. Further West, me and the other servants were bartered as slaves to a Felgo clan in exchange for safe passage. I was once again put to manual labour – although I was far better suited to being brutalised for amusement. This went on for many months, until I was able to escape. That is when my pilgrimage to this place began.”

“And why here?” Asked Raim.

“I wish to descend into the Pit. To join what rises from below. To become one with the First Sinner. There is no place for me on this world. I have no voice, no power. But I can echo the sentiment of that cleansing wave. I can lend what little I am, what minuscule worth I possess, to a force that rejects this cradle of my sufferings.”

“Thank you, pilgrim.” Said Shahn. “It is not an uncommon view, prince. It grows each day, just as does the entity it feeds.”

“And we are to allow this?” Raim was incredulous. “This man wishes to destroy us, even if his methods are foolish.”

“The choice is his alone. And he has long been starved for choice.”

“Thank you, scholar.”  Whispered the pilgrim.

Raim did not respond. He was here only to learn and observe, not to pass judgements. That time would come soon enough. Anyway, they had arrived. He now stood before the Pit. It was every bit as vast as he had pictured it, a great lake of black, null space, yawning and thrumming with sheer absence. The winds seemed to swell and chill, whistling and shrieking their way down into the void, their impetus gently compelling the three visitors to follow. All thoughts of the city, his city, fled from his mind. There was only the immediate, the visceral, the Pit. No further thought could be conjured, no emotion raised but some odd relation of awe and despair. With a cry of exultation, the pilgrim sprinted forth and hurled himself into the dark. The flapping of cloth and the screaming of praise could be heard, until they were consumed by unforgiving, unmitigated depth.

“Step to the very precipice, Raim. Look down with your mind’s eye, and you will know that I have not misled you.”

Spellbound, Raim did as instructed. Standing with his toes to the edge of the world, there was not even dirt between him and the downwards passage. He closed his eyes, and observed little difference – each spectacle was just an eyeful of black. He meditated on Shahn’s frenzied descriptions for some time, tried to send his imagination and intuition down the path that the pilgrim had just taken, to picture what existed at the absolute nadir. Then, his heart stopped. In that skipped beat, he sensed it, and he knew it all to be true. He ran ten full steps in flight before fading, spinning downwards into the parched soil.

Shahn and her disciples tended to him in a temple antechamber. A swift recovery was needed, because there was one more thing to see.

That night, he sat atop the highest observation tower of the most esteemed astronomers of the easternmost districts. The starscape lunged panoramically, dizzyingly, in all directions. He had seen these constellations in his studies, he was sure, but would not be able to recall a single one if pressed.

“Behold, the nations and estates of heaven.” Said Shahn. “On each one, towers of uncertain construction stand, facing us. Eyes with indeterminate sight look upon our little dominion. Minds of unknown genius or idiocy contemplate us, devising plans of unknown scope or nature.”

“How do you know this?” He asked, exhausted but intrigued.

“It is not your concern. Know only that great intellects and esoteric methods have deemed it so, again and again. At the Pit, you witnessed the certain destroyer. The force that will end us, but we cannot know when. Now, witness the paragons of all uncertainty. Behold the unknown realms of unknown things. You may rejoice in our ignorance or tremble in it, but you must accept that it is so.”

Staring up, he found himself making contact not with a prescribed astrography, but with an infinite swirl of luminous oculi – and they with him. And though the eyes may be the windows to even an obfuscated soul, he could discern nothing in this embrace of gazes. Only one errant thought, perhaps a fiction, penetrated this unknowing fog. Here he saw another Pit, extending this time not downwards, but in inconceivable ascent. And just as the first, this second Pit harbours only one will, promises only one end.

So ended the day’s lesson.

The End