Feb 5, 2024 • 5372 words • 26 minutes
| Death | Science fiction | Uploading | from Post-Self | rated G
Content warning: Discussion of suicide

To step into The Bean Cycle was to be immediately assailed by sound. There was, as to be expected, the clink of glasses and muted howl of steam wands bringing milk up to temperature, but mixed in was the clatter and clicking of work being done on bicycles. Wheels were spun, chain was dragged through derailleurs, tires were changed. Milk was steamed, espresso was made, names were hollered out.

It was not the type of din that Slow Hours expected for the one she and If I Dream were looking for. It was too uneven, this wall of sound. Too unpredictable. The steam wands were too piercing and the occasional clang of a wrench or raucous laughter over some story of a crash too jarring.

She looked to If I Dream, who merely shrugged.

Scanning the cafe-cum-bike-repair-shop revealed little. It was certainly well populated enough, with every table in use and few enough empty chairs. In the corner by the window, a crowd of synthetic creatures of some sort had gathered, looking vaguely feline but with glassy faceplates showing LED-light eyes in sets of fixed expressions. While they were all far shorter than Slow Hours — who one would be hard pressed to describe as tall — the couch that they were sitting on looked to be barely able to hold their weight.

Even if it was not the type of place for the target of their search, it was still incredibly endearing, and she made a note to herself to return some day.

“Afternoon, friends,” the barista said, grinning to them. They were tall and wiry, red hair and beard shining in the bright halogen lights over the bar. “Two mochas? Extra whipped cream?”

Caught off-guard by having her order guessed for her, Slow Hours froze, brow furrowed.

If I Dream elbowed her in the side, murmuring, “I have canvased this place before. Do not worry about it.” More loudly, she said, “Yes, though please make it three. Thank you, Hasher.”

Still frowning, Slow Hours allowed herself to be guided down the counter to wait for their drinks to be picked up. She set up a cone of silence over her and her cocladist, more for the relative quiet that it offered than for privacy.

“Are you sure this is the place?” she asked.

If I Dream nodded. “Yes, quite sure. Hasher was the one who tipped me off, and I…have seen her outside.”

“You are already watching her, then?”

The panther smiled faintly, gave an even fainter shrug. “I am nothing if not myself.”

“Then why did you not just go speak to her yourself?” Slow Hours asked. “Or bring me straight to her?”

If I Dream rolled her eyes. “My dear, I just said that I am nothing if not myself. That is not my role in this. That is yours. This is the story we are telling, yes? We are stepping into a cafe and ordering a coffee. We are seeing what this is like, this place where she has been parked the last week. We are speaking with Hasher.”

Sighing, she nodded and leaned against the counter, poking at the anodized sheet of aluminum that covered it. Thankfully, it seemed to be coated with some thin sheen of resin to keep the texture reasonable and noise down. “Well, alright. You are the sneaky ones.”

“Do you not also live in stories? I thought that was part of your whole shtick.”

She snorted. “Well, okay, good point. I suppose I am still a little rattled, is all.”

“‘Rattled’?” If I Dream laughed. Like everything else that she did, it was nearly silent, more a quiet huffing of breath through her nose than anything. “The Slow Hours of the Ode clade is rattled?”

“Yes, yes,” she said, waving away the comment with a grin. “I really do see your point about the story, I am just finding it hard to slow down, perhaps. When you said that you had heard something, I was ready to race to find her, to have to jump through all the hoops of a fetch quest, so to hear that you already know precisely where she is, that you are already watching her, makes waiting for a coffee like this feel like a waste of time.”

“It will be worth it, I promise.”

“The coffee?”

The panther laughed once more. “Well, I was going to say the story, but the coffee is quite good here, so, yes.”

It was only another minute or two of waiting before Hasher waved to get their attention, gesturing to three paper cups sitting on the bar, ready for them. Slow Hours dropped the cone of silence and winced at the sudden barrage of sounds that followed. She turned her hearing down a few ticks. “Thank you,” she said, bowing. “By the way, we were hoping to meet up with a cocladist of ours. She is a skunk, a furry, built rather like myself.” She gestured down at herself — human, instead, with pale skin and curly black hair tied up in a messy bun, but stocky and short. “Black fur, white stripe, a little jumpy. Have you seen her around?”

Wiping their hands on a towel hooked into the strings of their apron, Hasher nodded, tilting their head over toward the couch full of robots. “The one who was sleeping there the last few days, I’m guessing?”

“Sleeping?” Slow Hours asked, frowning.

“Yeah. She would just kind of curl up at one end for a few hours and nap. No biggie, of course, and we all liked her. She only ever slept while things were slow, and she’d always move when asked.” They broke out into a grin again, shrugging. “Or when it got too loud. Or when it got too quiet. Or just every now and then for no reason we could figure out — very stimmy type — but she was always very polite about it.”

“Yes, that would be her,” she said, smiling. “Well, thank you very much. Did she leave recently?”

They nodded towards the back door of the shop as they started to make their way back to the line of customers waiting for drinks. “Out back, out to Infinite Café, probably half an hour ago. Just peek in if you need anything!”

The two Odists bowed their thanks and carefully picked their way further over to the cafe side of the building, winding their way between tables until they reached the brick wall. There in the middle was a green, wooden door set into an arch, and above the arch “INFINITE CAFÉ” shone in tooth-achingly pink neon.

The sim in which The Bean Cycle existed had a weather pattern tuned after somewhere in the northern hemisphere, so they had entered the shop sometime in early March — a scant three weeks after Lagrange had come back online after the Century Attack — where the air still had a bite to it and salt still stained the sidewalks out front from where the ice had been melted in the days prior. They had arrived late in the afternoon, the sun setting down along the street casting long shadows behind them.

When they stepped out into Infinite Café, though, it was the same bright, midsummer’s noon as it always was there. The light came from everywhere and nowhere, and their shadows sat just beneath their feet. It was the perfect temperature — no matter who you were, no matter your preferences, it was always perfect — and it was as packed as ever.

If one percent of the population of Infinite Café was missing, Slow Hours could not tell, and for that she was grateful.

The sim was dead simple: it consisted of one, long road set into a thin torus. A truly enormous torus: when she looked up, she saw a bright thread directly above them where the road had curved up into an arch hanging in the heavens, and yet the road seemed perfectly flat as far as she could see.

Lining either side of the street were entrances to cafes. Cafes, coffee shops, doors leading out into libraries with coffee carts, alleyways leading out into sims where coffee was hawked from handcarts, dusty steps leading up into marketplaces where vendors boiled their coffee in their cezves in great vats of sand set over wood fires. Anywhere that served coffee to cladists that wanted was free to create an exit that led out into Infinite Café, and over the two centuries of its existence, it had grown from a labyrinthine maze of buildings to the ring-road that it was today.

She had no clue how it worked, if it really was that big, but the sheer size of the System had been driven home quite effectively over the last few weeks — 23 billion dead! The number remained surreal — so she was hopeful that there were no tricks involved, no attempts to make it look bigger than it was.

She was hopeful that all of these people here on this relatively crowded street were real, not constructs or illusions. She hoped they found coffee and friends and loved ones and long-lost selves.

A gentle touch to her shoulder brought her back to the present. She looked over to If I Dream, then followed her gaze to the center of the thoroughfare.

There, in the middle of the path, stood a skunk. She looked much like others in her clade, with white-striped black fur, tapered snout, cookie ears poking out from an unruly mane, and where she differed, it mostly came down to clothing. She wore a linen tunic in dandelion yellow, cinched around the waist with a leather belt, and a pair of loose, woolen trousers in a dusty brown. Her mane was tied back with a kerchief of some sort, a pastel triangle fully visible to them as she stood stock still and stared straight up to the arch above.

Slow Hours felt concern tugging at her cheeks, while a glance at If I Dream showed only curiosity.

“Shall we?” she asked.

If I Dream nodded.

Letting a crowd of joggers pass, the pair made their way up to the skunk so that Slow Hours could gently touch her elbow.

The reaction was far more extreme than expected as the skunk let out a shriek and skipped three or so meters away from them, nearly colliding with a couple walking hand in hand. She whirled, tail bristled out behind her and ears splayed to the sides. Her eyes were wide and breath coming in quick gasps.

Both Slow Hours and If I Dream took a pace back, startled.

In the span of a few short seconds, the skunk seemed to get her bearings and comprehend just who was standing in front of her. She visibly worked on mastering her breathing as she stood up straighter, brushing her paws anxiously down over her shirt. “Ah…I, ah…Slow Hours?”

She bowed slowly, deliberately, so as not to startle the skunk any further, and nodded. “Yes, and And If I Dream, Is That Not So.” She held out the extra mocha. “We got you a coffee, What Right Have I. Would you like to join us?”

What Right Have I looked between the two anxiously, clutching at the hem of her tunic. “I…ah, do you…I mean, is there an occasion? Is there a place? I was…I mean, I had been in The Bean Cycle but the couch…oh, I am talking myself in circles…”

With that, she began to pace in an abbreviated line before them, alternating between scrubbing her paws together and straightening her already quite straight shirt.

Slow Hours looked to If I Dream for help, and the panther stepped forward silently and wrapped her arms around the skunk from behind.

At first, she thought this would be a prelude to them stepping from the sim together, or perhaps some affectionate bear hug, though this did not fit what she knew of their faint acquaintanceship.

Instead, though, If I Dream simply squeezed around the skunk and stood still. There was a squeak and a tense-looking squirm from What Right Have I at first, but in surprisingly short order, her breathing fell under her control and she slouched against her cocladist, looking as close to relaxed as Slow Hours had ever seen her.

“What is this about?" she asked If I Dream via sensorium message.

“A hunch," the panther sent back. “Apparently a correct one, for which I am glad. Sometimes compression helps, yes?"

“If you say so."

“Are you alright, my dear?” If I Dream murmured loud enough for Slow Hours to hear as well.

“Y-yes. Tizkeh l’mitzvos.

“Will you join us for coffee? It is not a demand, to be clear. Just an offer.”

What Right Have I nodded slowly. “Is the…ah, is the couch free in The Bean Cycle?”

If I Dream hesitated for a moment, then nodded. “The creatures have left. There is a person sitting on one corner, but if you are comfortable, the rest is free.”

“If we…I mean, if I may set up a cone of silence, that will be fine, yes.”

Slow Hours watched as the panther gently released her grip on the skunk, the two monochromatic animals — one in baggy, colorful linen and wool, and the other in black form-fitting shirt and leggings — separating cautiously, as though to move faster might once more send What Right Have I into manic pacing.

“Shall we?” Slow Hours asked, smiling reassuringly to her cocladists.

The couch was indeed free, though there was no other instance of If I Dream visible. Slow Hours put this out of mind as best she could; the first stanza was well known for just how easily they slid about unseen, unbeknownst to others as they simply watched, observed.

They sat in the crook of the couch, L-shaped as it was. What Right Have I requested one of the corner vertices of their little triangle so that she could get up and pace should she need, nudging the low table that sat before her aside to help assist in this endeavor, before setting up the cone of silence and nudging it to obscure them as occupants. The din of the coffee shop fell to a low murmur.

The three of them set their coffee cups on small coasters set in the air just within reach, and waited in silence.

“What Right Have I,” Slow Hours began gently once the silence seemed to open up. “From Whence messaged the first stanza a few days ago to see if any of them knew where you were.”

“She messaged Speaking, in particular,” If I Dream added quietly. “She is the instance hunter of our stanza, yes? But she is feeling perhaps a little burnt by recent events and requested some space, for which I am glad. She deserves that.”

“I know,” the skunk said. “She has messaged me several times. I have…ah, I mean, I always endeavor to let her know when I am okay. And I am! I promise.”

Slow Hours laughed, holding up her hands. “I believe you, my dear. This is a meeting between friends, not an interrogation. We wanted to see whether you are okay, yes, but it has also been some time, yes? And I have been checking in with much of the clade in the last few weeks. There are several of me out and about on meetings such as these.”

She nodded. “She told me she just wanted…ah, she requested “a bit more proof than gentle rebuffs.” I told her that I am okay. I told her that I was walking and meditating.”

“Is that what you have been doing during the day?”

“I…” She trailed off, scrubbing her paws against her thighs. “Some, perhaps. A little. We are still in Shloshim, but I cannot…ah, I am not focused.”

“You will have to forgive me for being a bit blunt,” Slow Hours said gently. “But are you overflowing?”

What Right Have I’s expression dropped, the skunk quickly going from attentive to panicked to miserable.

If I Dream held out her paw, an offer for reassurance. “I do not know what your overflow looks like, What Right Have I. I trust that it is not pleasant, though. It rarely is, yes?”

“It is sometimes,” she admitted, shaking her head at the offer of touch. “It is…ah, it comes in two flavors. It shows itself as religious ecstasy sometimes, of a sense of spirit, a feeling of HaShem existing in the world, in the System. Those who reach out to RJ, who reach out to our friend, they are reaching out to HaShem! Ey may be our personal HaShem, yes? But ey is an abstract manifestation of the world!” Despite the sudden animation in her words, the sudden fluency in her otherwise stuttering speech, her expression remained dire, anxious.

Slow Hours smiled faintly, taking a moment to think back. The skunk’s choice of words triggered a memory of a report written for the clade decades back. “Codrin said that, yes? Or rather reported that Answers Will Not Help said that. “Our own personal HaShem.” She said that she could not feel em on Artemis, yes?”

What Right Have I nodded, subsiding back into the couch. “Yes. I…ah, I mean, I would not have joined them for that reason, never mind the other difficulties faced.”

Both Slow Hours and If I Dream nodded. No Odist had joined Artemis for its ongoing voyage.

“But ey is still b’tzelem Elohim, yes? Ey is still in the image of Adonai, yes? Ey is still human, even if ey is our world. Our world is b’tzelem Elohim, and we, b’tzelem Elohim, reside within em.” She smiled weakly. “Rav From Whence does not like it when I say these things, but that is what I feel when I am overflowing.”

“And that is what you are feeling now?” Slow Hours asked.

“No,” she said, once more sounding miserable. “If I do not feel ecstasy, I feel anguish. I feel…mm, I feel nullity. I feel nothing. I feel RJ and I think, “Ah my friend, my friend.” I do not see in em the divine. I do not feel b’tzelem Elohim, I feel stupid. I feel…ah, I feel broken. I have been staying here, sleeping where I may be seen because I am afraid…ah, because I am so, so afraid that I will disappear, that I will crash and that no one will notice me. I fear that I will be forgotten and that…ohhh, I am talking in circles. I am thinking in circles, I am sorry.”

“It is okay,” Slow Hours said gently. “Do you think you are overflowing because of the Century Attack?”

The skunk whimpered and pushed herself quickly to her feet, pacing once more and shaking her paws out as though to dry them off, then straightening her already straight skunkerchief. “I have been dreaming,” she mumbled, then jerked her head to the side with a quiet squeak. She continued more clearly. “I have been dreaming, here on the couch, out there in Infinite Café when…ah, when I fall asleep out there.”

Slow Hours tilted her head, sitting up straighter.

What Right Have I smiled faintly. “I have…ah, I am not the oracle that you are, my dear. I am no prophet.”

She smiled, shaking her head. “Neither am I. I would still like to hear your dream, though.”

The skunk nodded, paused to gather her thoughts, then spoke slowly. “I am disembodied, yes? I am floating and I see a figure, and they begin to weep, and they dissolve into a cloud of black specks, and these specks float away on a breeze, and each one enters the heart of a cladist, and they cry out in agony and dissolve into clouds of their own, and so it ramifies until all are dust. I see you, yes, and I see If I Dream, and I see Should We Forget and I see No Longer Myself.”

If I Dream jerked back as though slapped, a sudden move that was nevertheless silent. “Do not–” she said, then shook her head.

“I am sorry, If I Dream,” What Right Have I said, bowing low and forcing herself to sit once more. “I…ah, my dreaming mind remembered names of those lost, perhaps, and extrapolated.”

The panther nodded, scrubbed a paw over her face, and sighed. “It is okay, my dear. I am still feeling raw.”

It was What Right Have I’s turn to offer a paw. If I Dream accepted gratefully, giving a brief squeeze. When this lead to another squeaky tic from the skunk, she let go.

“Ah…sorry,” the skunk stammered. “I have…I mean, that is to say…ah, I am talking in circles. I am sorry.”

“It is okay,” Slow Hours said gently. “Do you need some time?”

She nodded, bowing her head for a moment before retrieving her mocha for a tentative sip. Apparently finding the temperature tolerable, she followed this with a longer drink.

Both Slow Hours and If I Dream followed suit, simply taking in the ambiance of the shop.

“Have you had dreams, Slow Hours?” If I Dream asked, breaking the silence with her quiet murmur.

She startled to awareness, smiling sheepishly. “Since the attack? No, nothing memorable, though I have not been sleeping well. I do not imagine many are.”

“And before?”

What Right Have I perked up, setting her coffee aside and scrubbing her paws together, kneading pads against pads. “Do your prophecies only come in dreams?”

Slow Hours laughed. “My little predictions are not prophecies. They are just that: guesses based on the trajectories of the stories one tells. I may predict that, when we leave today, What Right Have I will linger a while yet because there is something she has yet to tell us– no, it will come in time, you do not need to until you are ready. But that is based on the trajectory of the story I have heard so far.” She hesitated a moment, thinking. “But yes, I have had dreams that may well have been prophecies, but only ever in hindsight.”

“Tell us…ah, I mean, will you tell us some of what you dreamed?”

“Yes. It has happened four times. Only those four, though.” She held up her hand with as many fingers raised as she explained. “Perhaps Lagrange got hit by a stray cosmic ray or some other fancy particle and it flipped a bit inside the portion that contained me, and I was given some premonition. Smacked upside the head by Apollo, yes? Or, in your terms, visited by the angel of the Lord who gave me a honeyed scroll to eat.”

She tapped one finger. “The first was about Qoheleth and his little…adventure. Some two decades before, I had the same dream five nights in a row, of him standing in his robes, arms raised to the heavens, and then crumbling down into sand. At the time, I did not even realize that it was him. I had not seen him in more than a century, and when I had, he was dressed like a natty old college professor.”

The next finger, tapped. “The second was about Michelle’s death, and I will not repeat it.”

She tapped her ring finger. “The third happened in the midst of a play — one of my yearly performances — and in the scene, I was to fall to my knees and cry out, “The knife! At her neck, the knife!” But instead, I passed out and apparently mumbled words not in the script which tallied exactly with Sasha’s experience.”

There was a moment of silence as she considered the fourth and how best to describe it, not least because of the easy comparison to What Right Have I’s dream as explained. Finally, she tapped her pinkie “The fourth was a dream of a core part of me being removed through the back of my neck, a disappearing from the world and becoming a ghost in the next. There was more that I do not understand, visions of a field, a park, but I had that dream every night on the five nights leading up to New Year’s.”

What Right Have I listened attentively to Slow Hours’s description of her prophecies, or at least prophetic dreams. As she spoke, her cocladist’s expression darkened, until by the end, she was scowling. “I am no Daniel,” the skunk said once she had finished. “I will not scry your mene, mene, tekel, parsin. But if you had foreknowledge of Michelle’s suicide or the Century Attack, why did you not say anything? Who might we be if Michelle still lived? Might Lagrange be unharmed if we but knew this?”

By the end, she was nearly growling, so many of her verbal tics melting away as that emotion rose.

If I Dream lifted her snout from where her gaze had drifted. “Did she know, my dear? Or did she only have a recurring anxious nightmare? Do we not all have a hundred recurring anxious nightmares a year?”

The skunk glowered. “And? If that is–” A tic briefly interrupted her, a jerk of the head to the side, and this time she really did growl, though it appeared to be more at herself than anything. “If that is so, then why were these not known?”

Slow Hours straightened up. “I apologize if that came off as in any way glib, What Right Have I, or as though I could have done anything about them. I did try to get in touch with Michelle after those nights of dreams, but she only smiled and reassured me that she would “live on”. It was not until after she quit that those words had any import.”

What Right Have I’s shoulders sagged, though she was clearly still gritting her teeth.

She sighed, continuing, “And perhaps it is as If I Dream says. They were anxious nightmares. However, they still bore the acrid tang of ill omens to me. There was a scent of premonition, and so I have slotted them neatly into that category, even if they were only caused by anxiety.”

There followed a long moment while the skunk processed this. She seemed to be running down a mental checklist, as her rapid breathing shifted almost immediately into something deeper and more even, her posture straightened from a wary hunch as though ready to bolt, and her expression settled into a rather stiff half-smile. All spoke of various bits of therapy Slow Hours remembered from centuries back.

“Alright. Okay.” What Right Have I slowed her breathing further and turned her paws facing up, another skill from therapy. “Okay. You are the both of you correct. I live in my head and in the Tanakh and with a thought of prophecies. For you to call them such, it, ah…it…okay. It makes them not what I was thinking. You are not Ezekiel. You are not Jeremiah.”

Slow Hours smiled, gave a hint of a bow from where she sat. “I am not, no. I am a script manager and nerd whose imagination gets away from her sometimes, yes? Even in sleep, yes?”

The skunk’s smile grew more earnest as she nodded. “Again, I am sorry. I…ah, I do not know. I am unwell, perhaps. I am overflowing and making connections that do not exist.”

“Do you suppose you have had more than four, if you include those that did not come true?” If I Dream asked curiously. “They do still sound fascinating, if only as a curiosity.”

“If I have, including the scent of premonition, then I do not remember them. It was that scent, though, that led me to reach out to Michelle. I am embarrassed to say that that was the only one I acted on, though, given that all four of those revolve around death.”

What Right Have I furrowed her brow, paws shifting to clench tightly around the hem of her tunic. “I remember a story…ah, a snippet from the History where May Then My Name says that Michelle thought of herself as a dead woman walking, yes.”

She nodded. “May Then My Name went on to say that Michelle thought that perhaps even the dead can know joy, yes.”

“Did she, in the end?” If I Dream asked, frowning. “Know joy, that is? When she asked us all to merge with her, to share with her all that we had become, what did she feel? When, for an instant, she became ten thousand years old, did she choose to quit because she found peace?”

“I think that she did, yes.” Slow Hours spoke carefully, keeping an eye on What Right Have I for further tics or other signs of distress. “Or, rather, I must believe that she did. There is too much despair if I imagine her as buried under the weight of all of our own despairs and neuroses. If it is a comfortable fiction, so be it. I will live in that comfortable fiction.”

If I Dream nodded slowly. “Far be it from me to dispel what curtains keep despair from leading you after her.”

She laughed and shook her head. “There is no suicide in me, thankfully.”

“When I received her sensorium message, I nearly refused to attend out of protest. I think many of us saw the writing on the walls when we heard that uncertain steeliness in her voice.”

What Right Have I winced, squirming tensely in her seat, right at the edge of the couch cushion. “It…ah…I mean, I struggled. I was there– we all were there! But I struggled.”

The panther smiled faintly to her. “We all did, yes. Part of me felt that if any one of us did not go, then she would not quit. Another part was terrified I would be one of many who did not come, and that she would die feeling abandoned by her own family. If she was going to quit, and she wished to do so in the company of her clade…And now…”

She trailed off and let her gaze wander down to the drink she still held in her paws. Blinking rapidly, the muscles on her cheeks and snout briefly became more prominent, as though she was doing her best to keep her expression placid, to not snarl or voice her despair, much as it had been throughout, though the tears leaving tracks in her cheekfur were impossible to hide.

Alarmed at the sudden shift in demeanor, Slow Hours scooted a few inches closer to If I Dream, offering her hand just as the panther had done for What Right Have I before.

She accepted with a grateful — if still wan — smile.

Slow Hours returned that smile, saying quietly, “That was the dream I had, you know. The premonition. An upwelling of joy and then an overflowing. She looked up to the sun, and the sun was RJ, and then they were one and the same, and it was all joy.”

At this, What Right Have I burst into tears. She did not cry prettily, but very few people did. It was a brief cry, however, and soon after she scooted back to the furthest limit of the cone of silence and drew her legs up onto the couch with her, growling as she did, “Slow Hours, you are the fucking worst.”

“I am the worst, yes,” she said, voice still quiet and calm. “But that is why I am choosing to believe that the premonition was true and why I am choosing to believe that she did find joy, or peace, or at least nothingness and freedom.”

“They both deserve to be together. I hope that that is what No Longer Myself has obtained. What all of those lost have,” If I Dream sighed.

“I think…ah, I hope your dreams were true, in the end,” What Right Have I said after a long silence between the three of them, after each had fallen merely to sniffles. “I hope that they were prophecies, whether or not you knew. If only for that one, I hope that they were true.”