Stanza V: Imprinted

Textile District
City of Tul-Amura
Planet Celaro, Dresmon System
13 standard cycles before the Crescendo

Synthesized Recollection

“It’s a beautiful city. It really is,” Muka the red-haired youth said as he leaned over the railing. His words trickled down into the city streets below the darkened balcony. Steam from food carts wafted over the painted tile rooftops. He took it all in. He was especially fond of the glittering mosaics of crystals that covered the many steam wells jutting out of every roof. These lights cast a ghastly glow through the billows of vapor which stood out in stark contrast against the stillness of the black waters in the harbor beyond.

“It still will be,” his dark-haired companion said in a voice as gentle as the water in the harbor. Unlike Muka, he was looking up at the sky. Beyond the city, and beyond the ring of debris that the recent war had left to encircle the planet. These additions to the Celaran sky were the twisted remnants of the planet’s jump gates and defense fleet. It looked to Verno like a scar of jewels slashed across the face of night.

Muka cocked his head at his friend, Verno. He hesitated, then asked, “You can tell me the truth. If it hurts, you can tell me.”

Verno turned to Muka, his face a mask of serenity and the corner of his lips curled with a faint smile, “I promise. There is no pain.”

“Okay,” Muka said, turning back towards to city, “Cuz I’d still do it, you know. Even if it was painful. I know that’s different from what I used to say when we began, but I’ve changed.”

“I know,” Verno said, clasping Muka’s shoulder and giving it a friendly shake. “And I’m really glad to hear you say that.”

Muka wanted to say, “you’ve changed too,” but felt as if saying such a thing would be pointless. But it was true. It was the reason he listened to Verno while others turned away from him. Muka had known Verno for most of his life, and he remembered how he used to be before. A tangled knot of worry, fingers always fidgeting, nails bitten down to the quick. Even before the war. The war made it worse, as it made everything worse.

But after it happened to Verno, he was calm. It wasn’t the sedated, heavy-lidded kind of calm from sedatives. Muka had known that kind of calm. Many people had known that kind of calm since the war. The sedative calm was a kind of sleepwalking, of letting the days seep by as numbly as possible. It was a good alternative. It worked for Muka.

But when he saw the change in Verno he knew there was something else to it. There was nothing subdued about Vero’s newfound calm. He was bright-eyed and fully there, fully present in every moment. This was something Muka resented at first but later would come to envy. How could anyone be so fully present these days and still find a way to smile like that?

“I’m actually very happy,” Verno said, still looking up at the night sky, “that you’re joining in so early.”

“What do you mean?”

“I know you are committed now, and that you would do this even if it was painful. I know you’re telling the truth. So, I’ll tell you this because I don’t think you’ll change your mind.”

Muka inhaled sharply, “What is it?”

Verno’s hand was still on Muka’s shoulder. “Everyone will be a part of this eventually. Those of us like you and I who choose to be a part of it early, we won’t feel any pain. I’m not exactly sure how it will be for those who don’t prepare themselves like us, but it won’t be like that for them. I’m just glad that won’t be you,” he said and squeezed Muka’s shoulder affectionately.

Muka felt a cold shiver bury itself into his lower spine. He felt it every time Verno spoke like that—but he also knew it was true.

“And what if they don’t accept me?”

 “They will,” Verno said, “you’re ready.”

“How do you know?”

“The same way that they will.”

That was the last thing they said about that. They spent the rest of their time on the balcony talking about other things and cooking their meal over a mound of burning coals. Muka couldn’t help but feel a sense of finality at that moment. As if this was a form of saying goodbye. But Verno did not feel anything like that as they ate in silence. He wasn’t dreading saying goodbye to anything, instead, he was excited at saying hello once again to his old friend. To see Muka become what Verno knew he could become.

When they finished, they took a walk down the edge of the harbor, past the many rows of fabrics gently fluttering in the warm breeze. The boat waiting for them was smaller than Muka anticipated. It was a black cruiser with peeling paint and exposed panels. The type of craft that would never stand out among the rows of crumbling boats lined up along the rows of piers.

Muka waited for Verno to follow him onto the craft, but Verno stayed on the pier and smiled. “I’ll see you when you return, Muka.”

Muka’s heart sank. He knew that he would have to be alone for what followed, but he hoped that Verno would at least be on the ship with him when it happened. He simply nodded and tried to return Verno’s smile, failing to do so.

“I love you,” Verno said sincerely.

“I love you too,” Muka replied, just as sincerely. It was amazing how easy that feeling was to affirm, despite everything, even when other emotions felt so inaccessible at times. Even when it was hard to feel the love, Muka knew it was always there—like an anchor holding a warship at bay.

Muka stifled the knot in his throat as he was led into the lower level of the ship, and then to a windowless room with two dim lights on opposite walls. In the middle of the room was a single chair, bolted to the floor.

Muka sat and waited. Eventually, someone entered and stood before him. She was not smiling, but her eyes reflected the same look of tranquility that Verno’s did—that peace he longed to feel.

“Are you ready?”

Muka took a deep breath and looked up, remembering the words he had trained to say. “That is not for me to decide.”

She nodded, seemingly satisfied by his response. Verno had told him that the words he said were not what would determine if he was ready or not.

“It’s not the words you’ll say,” Verno had told him during his first lesson, “but the impact that the words have had on you that will determine if you are ready or not.”

“So then why do I need to say the right things?” Muka had asked in response to that baffling claim.

“The words show you have the knowledge, that you are mentally prepared for what is to come. If you don’t even know what to say, then there’s no point in proceeding. But that’s not enough. A clever person can say the things they’re required to say, but if they don’t believe their words, then they’re not ready.”

“So even if I really am ready, I can be turned away for screwing up my answers?”

“The words are important,” Verno repeated, “but the words alone aren’t enough.”

Muka reminded himself of this as the woman asked the next question.

“Do you swear to follow Asmon, revealer of the sacred outline?”

“No,” Muka said, feeling his hands begin to tremble.

“And why not?” she snapped.

“Because like Asmon, I seek to follow no man but the outline in which all is contained and through which all can be obtained,” Muka said, leaning forward and grinding his forehead against the sticky floor. This part was not taught to him, but it felt right.

“You’ve had time,” she said, “why didn’t you come sooner?”

“Because,” Muka was tempted to lie to her, she couldn’t possibly know he would be lying. But he let go of the temptation. “I thought you guys were fucking crazy,” he laughed, feeling the tension escaping his chest with each burst, “I’d see you guys walking around speaking what I used to think was nonsense all while the universe kept crashing down. It seemed crazy… until it wasn’t.”

She did not ask another question, as if wanting more out of him.

“I didn’t come until I was truly convinced that there was something to what the imprinted were saying. My friend, Verno, I saw that for the first time in a long time, he was happy. He found peace. Something happened to him that allowed him to finally be one step ahead of his fear, and he stayed ahead of it. I don’t pretend to know how this is possible, but I wanted that for myself. I have selfish motives for this,” he finished in a whisper.

The woman knelt and turned his face upwards. “What will you do if faced with the following choice: rejection or death?”

Muka narrowed his eyes, “I’m sorry, I’m not sure what it means to be rejected, my guardian never explained it to me.”

“Good, he was not supposed to, so I will explain it now. If you are rejected from receiving the outline you will simply go back to your life. You’ll return to shore unharmed, your memories unmodified. That’s what it means to be rejected. I don’t think I need to explain death, do I?”

Muka felt his chest tighten. This was not a question he was prepared to answer. He felt sweat collecting on his palms and on his forehead as the adrenaline began to course through him. This simple question, and his answer to it, could decide everything. He forced his breath under his control and thought about it for the first time. His words came as the thought formed in his head.

“I would choose rejection over death.”

The woman cocked an eyebrow and stood over him again. “Why?” she asked patiently.

“If I die here now, I will never get to offer myself and everything I carry within. But if the outline chooses not to reveal itself to me now, I’d trust the reason for this, whatever it is, and wait for the day that the outline may be revealed to me. I know, I know that the outline will eventually be revealed to everything in the universe. I’d happily wait for that day until my last breath.”

Muka let her guide him up to his feet. She smiled at him and said, “You are ready for your communion.”

Muka was led up to the top of the ship, and soon he was alone there. He glanced back at the twinkling skyline of Tul-Amura. Somewhere among that jumble of lights and steam, his friend awaited his return. Verno said he knew Muka was ready, but Muka was never sure if this was something that he knew with certainty or something he simply wished to be true.

Muka then glanced up at the stars and tried to imagine the Signal. Verno explained that it was everywhere now, that it would only continue to multiply and be transmitted among the stars. These days, it was one of the last things to travel the cold space between the points of light and life in the universe. Those stars were once part of a web of signals, starlanes, and frequencies, millions of signals that bounced from satellite to planet, to star, to jump gate, all creating an intricate web of information.

That web had been broken. Fewer and fewer signals crept through the frozen expanse of space until they were snuffed out, one by one. Now, there was only the Signal.

There were only those who sought to escape it, to destroy it, and those who wished to hear it, to see it.

Another person arrived at the top deck of the ship. Their guide also returned to the lower decks after escorting the newcomer to the top, leaving the two alone there. Muka guessed he was also ready and would be shown the Signal as well. They stood there, unsure of what to say as the ship rocked gently on the night-painted waters.

Before long, the two others Muka had seen climbed the steps to join them. They held between them a simple receiver, a bulbous screen with compacted antennae coming out of the top of it. They placed it delicately on the ground before them and asked Muka and the other to sit before the screen.

Muka lowered himself, sitting with his legs beneath him and his hands on his lap. He held his breath as they extended the antenna high into the night sky and switched the device on. The screen flickered, a mess of wavy static that began to define itself into a shape. Muka’s heart froze. He had seen this shape before, but where? It was the most familiar thing to him, like an image burned into his earliest memory. The coiling arms of it, the pulsing center, radiating delicate wisps of static that left an iridescent wake behind them as they slid across the screen. The image seemed to pull him in, at first, to draw him closer, but soon began to expand and fill his entire field of vision.

As the pulsing shape drew closer to the edge of his vision its feather-light touch brushed against the edges of him. First, it was like the slow pouring of honey, then he felt the thing fill him like the warm downpour of summer rain filling a dry lakebed.

Muka did not notice as the other man kneeling before the screen collapsed on the floor of the deck and began to convulse violently. The two imprinted raced to the man, trying to cradle his head.

“He’s resisting,” one of them calmly said. Warm blood spurted from the struggling man’s nose and soon began to dribble out of the corner of his eye. His movements became less violent, and soon he lay still, eyes wide in horror.

They both looked up at Muka, eyes still on the screen, as he began to smile.