Main Exhalation

Exhalation

From an award-winning science fiction writer (whose short story "The Story of Your Life" was the basis for the Academy Award-nominated movieArrival), the long-awaited new collection of stunningly original, humane, and already celebrated short stories

This much-anticipated second collection of stories is signature Ted Chiang, full of revelatory ideas and deeply sympathetic characters. In "The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate," a portal through time forces a fabric seller in ancient Baghdad to grapple with past mistakes and the temptation of second chances. In the epistolary "Exhalation," an alien scientist makes a shocking discovery with ramifications not just for his own people, but for all of reality. And in "The Lifecycle of Software Objects," a woman cares for an artificial intelligence over twenty years, elevating a faddish digital pet into what might be a true living being. Also included are two brand-new stories: "Omphalos" and "Anxiety Is the Dizziness of Freedom."

In this fantastical and elegant collection, Ted Chiang wrestles with the oldest questions on earth--What is the nature of the universe? What does it mean to be human?--and ones that no one else has even imagined. And, each in its own way, the stories prove that complex and thoughtful science fiction can rise to new heights of beauty, meaning, and compassion.
Year: 2019
Edition: Hardcover
Publisher: Knopf
Language: english
Pages: 351
ISBN 10: 1101947888
ISBN 13: 9781101947883
File: EPUB, 483 KB
Download (epub, 483 KB)

You may be interested in

 

Night Boat to Tangier

Year: 2019
Language: english
File: EPUB, 4.04 MB

This Is How You Lose the Time War

Year: 2019
Language: english
File: EPUB, 2.07 MB

Disappearing Earth

Year: 2019
Language: english
File: EPUB, 715 KB

The Topeka School

Year: 2019
Language: english
File: EPUB, 1.13 MB

Most frequently terms

 
 
ERYC
Noice book about time traveling stuff
23 November 2019 (01:02) 
You can write a book review and share your experiences. Other readers will always be interested in your opinion of the books you've read. Whether you've loved the book or not, if you give your honest and detailed thoughts then people will find new books that are right for them.
2

Fascismo e gran capitale

Year: 1994
Language: italian
File: PDF, 10.32 MB
ALSO BY TED CHIANG




			Stories of Your Life and Others





			 			THIS IS A BORZOI BOOK PUBLISHED BY ALFRED A. KNOPF

			Copyright © 2019 by Ted Chiang

			All rights reserved. Published in the United States by Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York, and distributed in Canada by Random House of Canada, a division of Penguin Random House Canada Limited, Toronto.

			www.aaknopf.com

			Knopf, Borzoi Books, and the colophon are registered trademarks of Penguin Random House LLC.

			This page constitutes an extension of this copyright page.

			Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

			Names: Chiang, Ted, author.

			Title: Exhalation / by Ted Chiang.

			Description: First edition. | New York : Alfred A. Knopf, [2019]

			Identifiers: LCCN 2018030957 (print) | LCCN 2018031993 (ebook) | ISBN 9781101947906 (ebook) | ISBN 9781101947883 (hardcover : alk. paper)

			ISBN Classification: LCC PS3603.H53 (ebook) | LCC PS3603.H53 A6 2019 (print) | DDC 813/.6—dc23

			LC record available at https://lccn.loc.gov/​2018030957

			Ebook ISBN 9781101947906

			This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

			Cover design by Na Kim

			v5.4

			ep





			 			TO MARCIA





Contents


			 				Cover

				Also by Ted Chiang

				Title Page

				Copyright

				Dedication



			 				The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate



			 				Exhalation



			 				What’s Expected of Us



			 				The Lifecycle of Software Objects



			 				Dacey’s Patent Automatic Nanny



			 				The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling



			 				The Great Silence



			 				Omphalos



			 				Anxiety Is the Dizziness of Freedom



			 				Story Notes

				Acknowledgments

				Publication History

				A Note About the Author





O mighty Caliph and Commander of the Faithful, I am humbled to be in the splendor of your presence; a man can hope for no greater blessing as long as he lives. The story I have to tell is truly a strange one, and were the entirety to be tattooed at the corner of one’s eye, the marvel of its presentation would not exceed that of the events recounted, for it is a warning to those who would be warned and a lesson to those who would learn.

			My name is Fuwaad ibn Abbas, and I was born here in Baghdad, City of Peace. My father was a grain merchant, but for much of my life I have worked as a purveyor of fine fabrics, trading in silk from Damascus and linen from Egypt and scarves from Morocco that are embroidered with gold. I was prosperous, but my heart was troubled, and neither the purchase of luxuries nor the giving of alms was able to soothe it. Now I stand before you without a single dirham in my purse, but I am at peace.

			Allah is the beginning of all things, but with Your Majesty’s permission, I begin my story with the day I took a walk through the district of metalsmiths. I needed to purchase a gift for a man I had to do business with, and had been told he might appreciate a tray made of silver. After browsing for half an hour, I noticed that one of the largest shops in the market had been taken over by a new merchant. It was a prized location that must have been expensive to acquire, so I entered to peruse its wares.

			 			Never before had I seen such a marvelous assortment of goods. Near the entrance there was an astrolabe equipped with seven plates inlaid with silver, a water clock that chimed on the hour, and a nightingale made of brass that sang when the wind blew. Farther inside there were even-more-ingenious mechanisms, and I stared at them the way a child watches a juggler, when an old man stepped out from a doorway in the back.

			“Welcome to my humble shop, my lord,” he said. “My name is Bashaarat. How may I assist you?”

			“These are remarkable items that you have for sale. I deal with traders from every corner of the world, and yet I have never seen their like. From where, may I ask, did you acquire your merchandise?”

			“I am grateful to you for your kind words,” he said. “Everything you see here was made in my workshop, by myself or by my assistants under my direction.”

			I was impressed that this man could be so well versed in so many arts. I asked him about the various instruments in his shop and listened to him discourse learnedly about astrology, mathematics, geomancy, and medicine. We spoke for more than an hour, and my fascination and respect bloomed like a flower warmed by the dawn, until he mentioned his experiments in alchemy.

			“Alchemy?” I said. This surprised me, for he did not seem the sort to make such a sharper’s claim. “You mean you can turn base metal into gold?”

			 			“I can, my lord, but that is not in fact what most seek from alchemy.”

			“What do most seek, then?”

			“They seek a source of gold that is cheaper than mining ore from the ground. Alchemy does describe a means to make gold, but the procedure is so arduous that, by comparison, digging beneath a mountain is as easy as plucking peaches from a tree.”

			I smiled. “A clever reply. No one could dispute that you are a learned man, but I know better than to credit alchemy.”

			Bashaarat looked at me and considered. “I have recently built something that may change your opinion. You would be the first person I have shown it to. Would you care to see it?”

			“It would be a great pleasure.”

			“Please follow me.” He led me through the doorway in the rear of his shop. The next room was a workshop, arrayed with devices whose functions I could not guess—bars of metal wrapped with enough copper thread to reach the horizon, mirrors mounted on a circular slab of granite floating in quicksilver—but Bashaarat walked past these without a glance.

			Instead he led me to a sturdy pedestal, chest high, on which a stout metal hoop was mounted upright. The hoop’s opening was as wide as two outstretched hands, and its rim so thick that it would tax the strongest man to carry. The metal was black as night but polished to such smoothness that, had it been a different color, it could have served as a mirror. Bashaarat bade me stand so that I looked upon the hoop edgewise, while he stood next to its opening.

			“Please observe,” he said.

			Bashaarat thrust his arm through the hoop from the right side, but it did not extend out from the left. Instead, it was as if his arm were severed at the elbow, and he waved the stump up and down, and then pulled his arm out intact.

			 			I had not expected to see such a learned man perform a conjuror’s trick, but it was well done, and I applauded politely.

			“Now wait a moment,” he said as he took a step back.

			I waited, and behold, an arm reached out of the hoop from its left side, without a body to hold it up. The sleeve it wore matched Bashaarat’s robe. The arm waved up and down and then retreated through the hoop until it was gone.

			The first trick I had thought a clever mime, but this one seemed far superior, because the pedestal and hoop were clearly too slender to conceal a person. “Very clever!” I exclaimed.

			“Thank you, but this is not mere sleight of hand. The right side of the hoop precedes the left by several seconds. To pass through the hoop is to cross that duration instantly.”

			“I do not understand,” I said.

			“Let me repeat the demonstration.” Again he thrust his arm through the hoop, and his arm disappeared. He smiled and pulled back and forth as if playing tug-a-rope. Then he pulled his arm out again and presented his hand to me with the palm open. On it lay a ring I recognized.

			“That is my ring!” I checked my hand and saw that my ring still lay on my finger. “You have conjured up a duplicate.”

			“No, this is truly your ring. Wait.”

			Again, an arm reached out from the left side. Wishing to discover the mechanism of the trick, I rushed over to grab it by the hand. It was not a false hand but one fully warm and alive as mine. I pulled on it, and it pulled back. Then, as deft as a pickpocket, the hand slipped the ring from my finger, and the arm withdrew into the hoop, vanishing completely.

			“My ring is gone!” I exclaimed.

			 			“No, my lord,” he said. “Your ring is here.” And he gave me the ring he held. “Forgive me for my game.”

			I replaced it on my finger. “You had the ring before it was taken from me.”

			At that moment an arm reached out, this time from the right side of the hoop. “What is this?” I exclaimed. Again I recognized it as his by the sleeve before it withdrew, but I had not seen him reach in.

			“Recall,” he said, “the right side of the hoop precedes the left.” And he walked over to the left side of the hoop and thrust his arm through from that side, and again it disappeared.

			Your Majesty has undoubtedly already grasped this, but it was only then that I understood: whatever happened on the right side of the hoop was complemented, a few seconds later, by an event on the left side. “Is this sorcery?” I asked.

			“No, my lord, I have never met a djinni, and if I did, I would not trust it to do my bidding. This is a form of alchemy.”

			He offered an explanation, speaking of his search for tiny pores in the skin of reality, like the holes that worms bore into wood, and how upon finding one he was able to expand and stretch it the way a glassblower turns a dollop of molten glass into a long-necked pipe, and how he then allowed time to flow like water at one mouth while causing it to thicken like syrup at the other. I confess I did not really understand his words and cannot testify to their truth. All I could say in response was “You have created something truly astonishing.”

			“Thank you,” he said, “but this is merely a prelude to what I intended to show you.” He bade me follow him into another room, farther in the back. There stood a circular doorway whose massive frame was made of the same polished black metal, mounted in the middle of the room.

			 			“What I showed you before was a Gate of Seconds,” he said. “This is a Gate of Years. The two sides of the doorway are separated by a span of twenty years.”

			I confess I did not understand his remark immediately. I imagined him reaching his arm in from the right side and waiting twenty years before it emerged from the left side, and it seemed a very obscure magic trick. I said as much, and he laughed. “That is one use for it,” he said, “but consider what would happen if you were to step through.” Standing on the right side, he gestured for me to come closer, and then pointed through the doorway. “Look.”

			I looked and saw that there appeared to be different rugs and pillows on the other side of the room than I had seen when I had entered. I moved my head from side to side and realized that when I peered through the doorway, I was looking at a different room from the one I stood in.

			“You are seeing the room twenty years from now,” said Bashaarat.

			I blinked, as one might at an illusion of water in the desert, but what I saw did not change. “And you say I could step through?” I asked.

			“You could. And with that step, you would visit the Baghdad of twenty years hence. You could seek out your older self and have a conversation with him. Afterward, you could step back through the Gate of Years and return to the present day.”

			Hearing Bashaarat’s words, I felt as if I were reeling. “You have done this?” I asked him. “You have stepped through?”

			“I have, and so have numerous customers of mine.”

			“Earlier you said I was the first to whom you showed this.”

			“This Gate, yes. But for many years I owned a shop in Cairo, and it was there that I first built a Gate of Years. There were many to whom I showed that Gate, and who made use of it.”

			 			“What did they learn when talking to their older selves?”

			“Each person learns something different. If you wish, I can tell you the story of one such person.” Bashaarat proceeded to tell me a story, and if it pleases Your Majesty, I will recount it here.





THE TALE OF THE FORTUNATE ROPE-MAKER


				There once was a young man named Hassan who was a maker of rope. He stepped through the Gate of Years to see the Cairo of twenty years later, and upon arriving he marveled at how the city had grown. He felt as if he had stepped into a scene embroidered on a tapestry, and even though the city was no more and no less than Cairo, he looked on the most common sights as objects of wonder.

				He was wandering by the Zuweyla Gate, where the sword dancers and snake charmers perform, when an astrologer called to him, “Young man! Do you wish to know the future?”

				Hassan laughed. “I know it already,” he said.

				“Surely you want to know if wealth awaits you, do you not?”

				“I am a rope-maker. I know that it does not.”

				“Can you be so sure? What about the renowned merchant Hassan al-Hubbaul, who began as a rope-maker?”

				His curiosity aroused, Hassan asked around the market for others who knew of this wealthy merchant and found that the name was well known. It was said he lived in the wealthy quarter near the Birkat al-Fil so Hassan walked there and asked people to point out his house, which turned out to be the largest one on its street.

				He knocked at the door, and a servant led him to a spacious and well-appointed hall with a fountain in the center. Hassan waited while the servant went to fetch his master, but as he looked at the polished ebony and marble around him, he felt that he did not belong in such surroundings and was about to leave when his older self appeared.

				 				“At last you are here!” the man said. “I have been expecting you!”

				“You have?” said Hassan, astounded.

				“Of course, because I visited my older self just as you are visiting me. It has been so long that I had forgotten the exact day. Come, dine with me.”

				The two went to a dining room, where servants brought chicken stuffed with pistachio nuts, fritters soaked in honey, and roast lamb with spiced pomegranates. The older Hassan gave few details of his life: he mentioned business interests of many varieties, but did not say how he had become a merchant; he mentioned a wife, but said it was not time for the younger man to meet her. Instead, he asked young Hassan to remind him of the pranks he had played as a child, and he laughed to hear stories that had faded from his own memory.

				At last the younger Hassan asked the older, “How did you make such great changes in your fortune?”

				“All I will tell you right now is this: when you go to buy hemp from the market, and you are walking along the Street of Black Dogs, do not walk along the south side as you usually do. Walk along the north.”

				“And that will enable me to raise my station?”

				“Just do as I say. Go back home now; you have rope to make. You will know when to visit me again.”

				Young Hassan returned to his day and did as he was instructed, keeping to the north side of the street even when there was no shade there. It was a few days later that he witnessed a maddened horse run amok on the south side of the street directly opposite him, kicking several people, injuring another by knocking a heavy jug of palm oil onto him, and even trampling one person under its hooves. After the commotion had subsided, Hassan prayed to Allah for the injured to be healed and the dead to be at peace and thanked Allah for sparing him.

				 				The next day Hassan stepped through the Gate of Years and sought out his older self. “Were you injured by the horse when you walked by?” he asked him.

				“No, because I heeded my older self’s warning. Do not forget, you and I are one; every circumstance that befalls you once befell me.”

				And so the elder Hassan gave the younger instructions, and the younger obeyed them. He refrained from buying eggs from his usual grocer, and thus avoided the illness that struck customers who bought eggs from a spoiled basket. He bought extra hemp, and thus had material to work with when others suffered a shortage due to a delayed caravan. Following his older self’s instructions spared Hassan many troubles, but he wondered why his older self would not tell him more. Whom would he marry? How would he become wealthy?

				Then one day, after having sold all his rope in the market and carrying an unusually full purse, Hassan bumped into a boy while walking on the street. He felt for his purse, discovered it missing, and turned around with a shout to search the crowd for the pickpocket. Hearing Hassan’s cry, the boy immediately began running through the crowd. Hassan saw that the boy’s tunic was torn at the elbow, but then quickly lost sight of him.

				For a moment Hassan was shocked that this could happen with no warning from his older self. But his surprise was soon replaced by anger, and he gave chase. He ran through the crowd, checking the elbows of boys’ tunics, until by chance he found the pickpocket crouching beneath a fruit wagon. Hassan grabbed him and began shouting to all that he had caught a thief, asking them to find a guardsman. The boy, afraid of arrest, dropped Hassan’s purse and began weeping. Hassan stared at the boy for a long moment, and then his anger faded, and he let him go.

				 				When next he saw his older self, Hassan asked him, “Why did you not warn me about the pickpocket?”

				“Did you not enjoy the experience?” asked his older self.

				Hassan was about to deny it, but stopped himself. “I did enjoy it,” he admitted. In pursuing the boy, with no hint of whether he’d succeed or fail, he had felt his blood surge in a way it had not for many weeks. And seeing the boy’s tears had reminded him of the Prophet’s teachings on the value of mercy, and Hassan had felt virtuous in choosing to let the boy go.

				“Would you rather I had denied you that, then?”

				Just as we grow to understand the purpose of customs that seemed pointless to us in our youth, Hassan realized that there was merit in withholding information as well as in disclosing it. “No,” he said, “it was good that you did not warn me.”

				The older Hassan saw that he had understood. “Now I will tell you something very important. Hire a horse. I will give you directions to a spot in the foothills to the west of the city. There you will find within a grove of trees one that was struck by lightning. Around the base of the tree, look for the heaviest rock you can overturn, and then dig beneath it.”

				“What should I look for?”

				“You will know when you find it.”

				The next day Hassan rode out to the foothills and searched until he found the tree. The ground around it was covered in rocks, so Hassan overturned one to dig beneath it, and then another, and then another. At last his spade struck something besides rock and soil. He cleared aside the soil and discovered a bronze chest, filled with gold dinars and assorted jewelry. Hassan had never seen its like in all his life. He loaded the chest onto the horse and rode back to Cairo.

				 				The next time he spoke to his older self, he asked, “How did you know where the treasure was?”

				“I learned it from myself,” said the older Hassan, “just as you did. As to how we came to know its location, I have no explanation except that it was the will of Allah, and what other explanation is there for anything?”

				“I swear I shall make good use of these riches that Allah has blessed me with,” said the younger Hassan.

				“And I renew that oath,” said the older. “This is the last time we shall speak. You will find your own way now. Peace be upon you.”

				And so Hassan returned home. With the gold he was able to purchase hemp in great quantity and hire workmen and pay them a fair wage and sell rope profitably to all who sought it. He married a beautiful and clever woman, at whose advice he began trading in other goods, until he was a wealthy and respected merchant. All the while he gave generously to the poor and lived as an upright man. In this way Hassan lived the happiest of lives until he was overtaken by death, breaker of ties and destroyer of delights.



* * *



				· · ·

				“That is a remarkable story,” I said. “For someone who is debating whether to make use of the Gate, there could hardly be a better inducement.”

				 				“You are wise to be skeptical,” said Bashaarat. “Allah rewards those he wishes to reward and chastises those he wishes to chastise. The Gate does not change how he regards you.”

				I nodded, thinking I understood. “So even if you succeed in avoiding the misfortunes that your older self experienced, there is no assurance you will not encounter other misfortunes.”

				“No, forgive an old man for being unclear. Using the Gate is not like drawing lots, where the token you select varies with each turn. Rather, using the Gate is like taking a secret passageway in a palace, one that lets you enter a room more quickly than by walking down the hallway. The room remains the same, no matter which door you use to enter.”

				This surprised me. “The future is fixed, then? As unchangeable as the past?”

				“It is said that repentance and atonement erase the past.”

				“I have heard that, too, but I have not found it to be true.”

				“I am sorry to hear that,” said Bashaarat. “All I can say is that the future is no different.”

				I thought on this for a while. “So if you learn that you are dead twenty years from now, there is nothing you can do to avoid your death?” He nodded. This seemed to me very disheartening, but then I wondered if it could not also provide a guarantee. I said, “Suppose you learn that you are alive twenty years from now. Then nothing could kill you in the next twenty years. You could then fight in battles without a care, because your survival is assured.”

				“That is possible,” he said. “It is also possible that a man who would make use of such a guarantee would not find his older self alive when he first used the Gate.”

				“Ah,” I said. “Is it then the case that only the prudent meet their older selves?”

				 				“Let me tell you the story of another person who used the Gate, and you can decide for yourself if he was prudent or not.” Bashaarat proceeded to tell me the story, and if it pleases Your Majesty, I will recount it here.





THE TALE OF THE WEAVER WHO STOLE FROM HIMSELF


				There was a young weaver named Ajib who made a modest living as a weaver of rugs, but yearned to taste the luxuries enjoyed by the wealthy. After hearing the story of Hassan, Ajib immediately stepped through the Gate of Years to seek out his older self, who, he was sure, would be as rich and as generous as the older Hassan.

				Upon arriving in the Cairo of twenty years later, he proceeded to the wealthy Birkat al-Fil quarter of the city and asked people for the residence of Ajib ibn Taher. He was prepared, if he met someone who knew the man and remarked on the similarity of their features, to identify himself as Ajib’s son, newly arrived from Damascus. But he never had the chance to offer this story, because no one he asked recognized the name.

				Eventually he decided to return to his old neighborhood and see if anyone there knew where he had moved to. When he got to his old street, he stopped a boy and asked him if he knew where to find a man named Ajib. The boy directed him to Ajib’s old house.

				“That is where he used to live,” Ajib said. “Where does he live now?”

				“If he has moved since yesterday, I do not know where,” said the boy.

				Ajib was incredulous. Could his older self still live in the same house, twenty years later? That would mean he had never become wealthy, and his older self would have no advice to give him, or at least none Ajib would profit by following. How could his fate differ so much from that of the fortunate rope-maker? In hopes that the boy was mistaken, Ajib waited outside the house, and watched.

				 				Eventually he saw a man leave the house, and with a sinking heart recognized it as his older self. The older Ajib was followed by a woman that he presumed was his wife, but he scarcely noticed her, for all he could see was his own failure to have bettered himself. He stared with dismay at the plain clothes the older couple wore until they walked out of sight.

				Driven by the curiosity that impels men to look at the heads of the executed, Ajib went to the door of his house. His own key still fit the lock, so he entered. The furnishings had changed, but were simple and worn, and Ajib was mortified to see them. After twenty years, could he not even afford better pillows?

				On an impulse, he went to the wooden chest where he normally kept his savings and unlocked it. He lifted the lid and saw the chest was filled with gold dinars.

				Ajib was astonished. His older self had a chest of gold, and yet he wore such plain clothes and had lived in the same small house for twenty years! What a stingy, joyless man his older self must be, thought Ajib, to have wealth and not enjoy it. Ajib had long known that one could not take one’s possessions to the grave. Could that be something that he would forget as he aged?

				Ajib decided that such riches should belong to someone who appreciated them, and that was himself. To take his older self’s wealth would not be stealing, he reasoned, because it was he himself who would receive it. He heaved the chest onto his shoulder, and with much effort was able to bring it back through the Gate of Years to the Cairo he knew.

				 				He deposited some of his newfound wealth with a banker, but always carried a purse heavy with gold. He dressed in a Damascene robe and Cordovan slippers and a Khurasani turban bearing a jewel. He rented a house in the wealthy quarter, furnished it with the finest rugs and couches, and hired a cook to prepare him sumptuous meals.

				He then sought out the brother of a woman he had long desired from afar, a woman named Taahira. Her brother was an apothecary, and Taahira assisted him in his shop. Ajib would occasionally purchase a remedy so that he might speak to her. Once he had seen her veil slip, and her eyes were as dark and beautiful as a gazelle’s. Taahira’s brother would not have consented to her marrying a weaver, but now Ajib could present himself as a favorable match.

				Taahira’s brother approved, and Taahira herself readily consented, for she had desired Ajib, too. Ajib spared no expense for their wedding. He hired one of the pleasure barges that floated in the canal south of the city and held a feast with musicians and dancers, at which he presented her with a magnificent pearl necklace. The celebration was the subject of gossip throughout the quarter.

				Ajib reveled in the joy that money brought him and Taahira, and for a week the two of them lived the most delightful of lives. Then one day Ajib came home to find the door to his house broken open and the interior ransacked of all silver and gold items. The terrified cook emerged from hiding and told him that robbers had taken Taahira.

				Ajib prayed to Allah until, exhausted with worry, he fell asleep. The next morning he was awoken by a knocking at his door. There was a stranger there. “I have a message for you,” the man said.

				“What message?” asked Ajib.

				 				“Your wife is safe.”

				Ajib felt fear and rage churn in his stomach like black bile. “What ransom would you have?” he asked.

				“Ten thousand dinars.”

				“That is more than all I possess!” Ajib exclaimed.

				“Do not haggle with me,” said the robber. “I have seen you spend money like others pour water.”

				Ajib dropped to his knees. “I have been wasteful. I swear by the name of the Prophet that I do not have that much,” he said.

				The robber looked at him closely. “Gather all the money you have,” he said, “and have it here tomorrow at this same hour. If I believe you are holding back, your wife will die. If I believe you to be honest, my men will return her to you.”

				Ajib could see no other choice. “Agreed,” he said, and the robber left.

				The next day he went to the banker and withdrew all the money that remained. He gave it to the robber, who gauged the desperation in Ajib’s eyes and was satisfied. The robber did as he promised, and that evening Taahira was returned.

				After they had embraced, Taahira said, “I didn’t believe you would pay so much money for me.”

				“I could not take pleasure in it without you,” said Ajib, and he was surprised to realize it was true. “But now I regret that I cannot buy you what you deserve.”

				“You need never buy me anything again,” she said.

				Ajib bowed his head. “I feel as if I have been punished for my misdeeds.”

				“What misdeeds?” asked Taahira, but Ajib said nothing. “I did not ask you this before,” she said. “But I know you did not inherit all the money you gained. Tell me: Did you steal it?”

				 				“No,” said Ajib, unwilling to admit the truth to her or himself. “It was given to me.”

				“A loan, then?”

				“No, it does not need to be repaid.”

				“And you don’t wish to pay it back?” Taahira was shocked. “So you are content that this other man paid for our wedding? That he paid my ransom?” She seemed on the verge of tears. “Am I your wife, then, or this other man’s?”

				“You are my wife,” he said.

				“How can I be, when my very life is owed to another?”

				“I would not have you doubt my love,” said Ajib. “I swear to you that I will pay back the money, to the last dirham.”

				And so Ajib and Taahira moved back into Ajib’s old house and began saving their money. Both of them went to work for Taahira’s brother the apothecary, and when he eventually became a perfumer to the wealthy, Ajib and Taahira took over the business of selling remedies to the ill. It was a good living, but they spent as little as they could, living modestly and repairing damaged furnishings instead of buying new. For years, Ajib smiled whenever he dropped a coin into the chest, telling Taahira that it was a reminder of how much he valued her. He would say that even after the chest was full, it would be a bargain.

				But it is not easy to fill a chest by adding just a few coins at a time, and so what began as thrift gradually turned into miserliness, and prudent decisions were replaced by tightfisted ones. Worse, Ajib’s and Taahira’s affections for each other faded over time, and each grew to resent the other for the money they could not spend.

				In this manner the years passed and Ajib grew older, waiting for the second time that his gold would be taken from him.



* * *



· · ·

				“What a strange and sad story,” I said.

				“Indeed,” said Bashaarat. “Would you say that Ajib acted prudently?”

				I hesitated before speaking. “It is not my place to judge him,” I said. “He must live with the consequences of his actions, just as I must live with mine.” I was silent for a moment, and then said, “I admire Ajib’s candor, that he told you everything he had done.”

				“Ah, but Ajib did not tell me of this as a young man,” said Bashaarat. “After he emerged from the Gate carrying the chest, I did not see him again for another twenty years. Ajib was a much-older man when he came to visit me again. He had come home and found his chest gone, and the knowledge that he had paid his debt made him feel he could tell me all that had transpired.”

				“Indeed? Did the older Hassan from your first story come to see you as well?”

				“No, I heard Hassan’s story from his younger self. The older Hassan never returned to my shop, but in his place I had a different visitor, one who shared a story about Hassan that he himself could never have told me.” Bashaarat proceeded to tell me that visitor’s story, and if it pleases Your Majesty, I will recount it here.





THE TALE OF THE WIFE AND HER LOVER


				Raniya had been married to Hassan for many years, and they lived the happiest of lives. One day she saw her husband dine with a young man, whom she recognized as the very image of Hassan when she had first married him. So great was her astonishment that she could scarcely keep herself from intruding on their conversation. After the young man left, she demanded that Hassan tell her who he was, and Hassan related to her an incredible tale.

				 				“Have you told him about me?” she asked. “Did you know what lay ahead of us when we first met?”

				“I knew I would marry you from the moment I saw you,” Hassan said, smiling, “but not because anyone had told me. Surely, Wife, you would not wish to spoil that moment for him?”

				So Raniya did not speak to her husband’s younger self, but only eavesdropped on his conversation and stole glances at him. Her pulse quickened at the sight of his youthful features; sometimes our memories fool us with their sweetness, but when she beheld the two men seated opposite each other, she could see the fullness of the younger one’s beauty without exaggeration. At night, she would lie awake, thinking of it.

				Some days after Hassan had bid farewell to his younger self, he left Cairo to conduct business with a merchant in Damascus. In his absence Raniya found the shop that Hassan had described to her and stepped through the Gate of Years to the Cairo of her youth.

				She remembered where he had lived back then, and so was easily able to find the young Hassan and follow him. As she watched him, she felt a desire stronger than she had felt in years for the older Hassan, so vivid were her recollections of their youthful lovemaking. She had always been a loyal and faithful wife, but here was an opportunity that would never be available again. Resolving to act on this desire, Raniya rented a house, and in subsequent days bought furnishings for it.

				Once the house was ready, she followed Hassan discreetly while she tried to gather enough boldness to approach him. In the jewelers’ market, she watched as he went to a jeweler, showed him a necklace set with ten gemstones, and asked him how much he would pay for it. Raniya recognized it as one Hassan had given to her in the days after their wedding; she had not known he had once tried to sell it. She stood a short distance away and listened, pretending to look at some rings.

				 				“Bring it back tomorrow, and I will pay you a thousand dinars,” said the jeweler. Young Hassan agreed to the price, and left.

				As she watched him leave, Raniya overheard two men talking nearby:

				“Did you see that necklace? It is one of ours.”

				“Are you certain?” asked the other.

				“I am. That is the bastard who dug up our chest.”

				“Let us tell our captain about him. After this fellow has sold his necklace, we will take his money, and more.”

				The two men left without noticing Raniya, who stood with her heart racing but her body motionless, like a deer after a tiger has passed. She realized that the treasure Hassan had dug up must have belonged to a band of thieves, and these men were two of its members. They were now observing the jewelers of Cairo to identify the person who had taken their loot.

				Raniya knew that since she possessed the necklace, the young Hassan could not have sold it. She also knew that the thieves could not have killed Hassan. But it could not be Allah’s will for her to do nothing. Allah must have brought her here so that he might use her as his instrument.

				Raniya returned to the Gate of Years, stepped through to her own day, and at her house found the necklace in her jewelry box. Then she used the Gate of Years again, but instead of entering it from the left side, she entered it from the right, so that she visited the Cairo of twenty years later. There she sought out her older self, now an aged woman. The older Raniya greeted her warmly and retrieved the necklace from her own jewelry box. The two women then rehearsed how they would assist the young Hassan.

				 				The next day, the two thieves were back with a third man, whom Raniya assumed was their captain. They all watched as Hassan presented the necklace to the jeweler.

				As the jeweler examined it, Raniya walked up and said, “What a coincidence! Jeweler, I wish to sell a necklace just like that.” She brought out her necklace from a purse she carried.

				“This is remarkable,” said the jeweler. “I have never seen two necklaces more similar.”

				Then the aged Raniya walked up. “What do I see? Surely my eyes deceive me!” And with that she brought out a third identical necklace. “The seller sold it to me with the promise that it was unique. This proves him a liar.”

				“Perhaps you should return it,” said Raniya.

				“That depends,” said the aged Raniya. She asked Hassan, “How much is he paying you for it?”

				“A thousand dinars,” said Hassan, bewildered.

				“Really! Jeweler, would you care to buy this one, too?”

				“I must reconsider my offer,” said the jeweler.

				While Hassan and the aged Raniya bargained with the jeweler, Raniya stepped back just far enough to hear the captain berate the other thieves. “You fools,” he said. “It is a common necklace. You would have us kill half the jewelers in Cairo and bring the guardsmen down upon us.” He slapped their heads and led them off.

				Raniya returned her attention to the jeweler, who had withdrawn his offer to buy Hassan’s necklace. The older Raniya said, “Very well. I will try to return it to the man who sold it to me.” As the older woman left, Raniya could tell that she smiled beneath her veil.

				 				Raniya turned to Hassan. “It appears that neither of us will sell a necklace today.”

				“Another day, perhaps,” said Hassan.

				“I shall take mine back to my house for safekeeping,” said Raniya. “Would you walk with me?”

				Hassan agreed and walked with Raniya to the house she had rented. Then she invited him in and offered him wine, and after they had both drunk some, she led him to her bedroom. She covered the windows with heavy curtains and extinguished all lamps so that the room was as dark as night. Only then did she remove her veil and take him to bed.

				Raniya had been flush with anticipation for this moment, and so was surprised to find that Hassan’s movements were clumsy and awkward. She remembered their wedding night very clearly; he had been confident, and his touch had taken her breath away. She knew Hassan’s first meeting with the young Raniya was not far away, and for a moment did not understand how this fumbling boy could change so quickly. And then of course the answer was clear.

				So every afternoon for many days, Raniya met Hassan at her rented house and instructed him in the art of love, and in doing so she demonstrated that, as is often said, women are Allah’s most wondrous creation. She told him, “The pleasure you give is returned in the pleasure you receive,” and inwardly she smiled as she thought of how true her words really were. Before long, he gained the expertise she remembered, and she took greater enjoyment in it than she had as a young woman.

				All too soon, the day arrived when Raniya told the young Hassan that it was time for her to leave. He knew better than to press her for her reasons, but asked her if they might ever see each other again. She told him, gently, no. Then she sold the furnishings to the house’s owner and returned through the Gate of Years to the Cairo of her own day.

				 				When the older Hassan returned from his trip to Damascus, Raniya was home waiting for him. She greeted him warmly, but kept her secrets to herself.



* * *



				· · ·

				I was lost in my own thoughts when Bashaarat finished this story, until he said, “I see that this story has intrigued you in a way the others did not.”

				“You see clearly,” I admitted. “I realize now that, even though the past is unchangeable, one may encounter the unexpected when visiting it.”

				“Indeed. Do you now understand why I say the future and the past are the same? We cannot change either, but we can know both more fully.”

				“I do understand; you have opened my eyes, and now I wish to use the Gate of Years. What price do you ask?”

				He waved his hand. “I do not sell passage through the Gate,” he said. “Allah guides whom he wishes to my shop, and I am content to be an instrument of his will.”

				Had it been another man, I would have taken his words to be a negotiating ploy, but after all that Bashaarat had told me, I knew that he was sincere. “Your generosity is as boundless as your learning,” I said, and bowed. “If there is ever a service that a merchant of fabrics might provide for you, please call upon me.”

				“Thank you. Let us talk now about your trip. There are some matters we must speak of before you visit the Baghdad of twenty years hence.”

				“I do not wish to visit the future,” I told him. “I would step through in the other direction, to revisit my youth.”

				 				“Ah, my deepest apologies. This Gate will not take you there. You see, I built this Gate only a week ago. Twenty years ago, there was no doorway here for you to step out of.”

				My dismay was so great that I must have sounded like a forlorn child. I said, “But where does the other side of the Gate lead?” and walked around the circular doorway to face its opposite side.

				Bashaarat circled the doorway to stand beside me. The view through the Gate appeared identical to the view outside it, but when he extended his hand to reach through, it stopped as if it met an invisible wall. I looked more closely and noticed a brass lamp set on a table. Its flame did not flicker but was as fixed and unmoving as if the room were trapped in clearest amber.

				“What you see here is the room as it appeared last week,” said Bashaarat. “In some twenty years’ time, this left side of the Gate will permit entry, allowing people to enter from this direction and visit their past. Or,” he said, leading me back to the side of the doorway he had first shown me, “we can enter from the right side now and visit them ourselves. But I’m afraid this Gate will never allow visits to the days of your youth.”

				“What about the Gate of Years you had in Cairo?” I asked.

				He nodded. “That Gate still stands. My son now runs my shop there.”

				“So I could travel to Cairo, and use the Gate to visit the Cairo of twenty years ago. From there I could travel back to Baghdad.”

				“Yes, you could make that journey, if you so desire.”

				“I do,” I said. “Will you tell me how to find your shop in Cairo?”

				“We must speak of some things first,” said Bashaarat. “I will not ask your intentions, being content to wait until you are ready to tell me. But I would remind you that what is made cannot be unmade.”

				 				“I know,” I said.

				“And that you cannot avoid the ordeals that are assigned to you. What Allah gives you, you must accept.”

				“I remind myself of that every day of my life.”

				“Then it is my honor to assist you in whatever way I can,” he said.

				He brought out some paper and a pen and inkpot and began writing. “I shall write for you a letter to aid you on your journey.” He folded the letter, dribbled some candle wax over the edge, and pressed his ring against it. “When you reach Cairo, give this to my son, and he will let you enter the Gate of Years there.”

				A merchant such as myself must be well versed in expressions of gratitude, but I had never before been as effusive in giving thanks as I was to Bashaarat, and every word was heartfelt. He gave me directions to his shop in Cairo, and I assured him I would tell him all upon my return. As I was about to leave his shop, a thought occurred to me. “Because the Gate of Years you have here opens to the future, you are assured that the Gate and this shop will remain standing for twenty years or more.”

				“Yes, that is true,” said Bashaarat.

				I began to ask him if he had met his older self, but then I bit back my words. If the answer was no, it was surely because his older self was dead, and I would be asking him if he knew the date of his death. Who was I to make such an inquiry, when this man was granting me a boon without asking my intentions? I saw from his expression that he knew what I had meant to ask, and I bowed my head in humble apology. He indicated his acceptance with a nod, and I returned home to make arrangements.

				 				The caravan took two months to reach Cairo. As for what occupied my mind during the journey, Your Majesty, I now tell you what I had not told Bashaarat. I was married once, twenty years before, to a woman named Najya. Her figure swayed as gracefully as a willow bough, and her face was as lovely as the moon, but it was her kind and tender nature that captured my heart. I had just begun my career as a merchant when we married, and we were not wealthy, but did not feel the lack.

				We had been married only a year when I was to travel to Basra to meet with a ship’s captain. I had an opportunity to profit by trading in slaves, but Najya did not approve. I reminded her that the Koran does not forbid the owning of slaves as long as one treats them well, and that even the Prophet owned some. But she said there was no way I could know how my buyers would treat their slaves, and that it was better to sell goods than men.

				On the morning of my departure, Najya and I argued. I spoke harshly to her, using words that it shames me to recall, and I beg Your Majesty’s forgiveness if I do not repeat them here. I left in anger, and never saw her again. She was badly injured when the wall of a mosque collapsed, some days after I left. She was taken to the bimaristan, but the physicians could not save her, and she died soon after. I did not learn of her death until I returned a week later, and I felt as if I had killed her with my own hand.

				Can the torments of hell be worse than what I endured in the days that followed? It seemed likely that I would find out, so near to death did my anguish take me. And surely the experience must be similar, for like infernal fire, grief burns but does not consume; instead, it makes the heart vulnerable to further suffering.

				Eventually my period of lamentation ended, and I was left a hollow man, a bag of skin with no innards. I freed the slaves I had bought and became a fabric merchant. Over the years I became wealthy, but I never remarried. Some of the men I did business with tried to match me with a sister or a daughter, telling me that the love of a woman can make you forget your pains. Perhaps they are right, but it cannot make you forget the pain you caused another. Whenever I imagined myself marrying another woman, I remembered the look of hurt in Najya’s eyes when I last saw her, and my heart was closed to others.

				 				I spoke to a mullah about what I had done, and it was he who told me that repentance and atonement erase the past. I repented and atoned as best I knew how; for twenty years I lived as an upright man, I offered prayers and fasted and gave alms to those less fortunate and made a pilgrimage to Mecca, and yet I was still haunted by guilt. Allah is all-merciful, so I knew the failing to be mine.

				Had Bashaarat asked me, I could not have said what I hoped to achieve. It was clear from his stories that I could not change what I knew to have happened. No one had stopped my younger self from arguing with Najya in our final conversation. But the tale of Raniya, which lay hidden within the tale of Hassan’s life without his knowing it, gave me a slim hope: perhaps I might be able to play some part in events while my younger self was away on business.

				Could it not be that there had been a mistake, and my Najya had survived? Perhaps it was another woman whose body had been wrapped in a shroud and buried while I was gone. Perhaps I could rescue Najya and bring her back with me to the Baghdad of my own day. I knew it was foolhardy; men of experience say, “Four things do not come back: the spoken word, the sped arrow, the past life, and the neglected opportunity,” and I understood the truth of those words better than most. And yet I dared to hope that Allah had judged my twenty years of repentance sufficient and was now granting me a chance to regain what I had lost.

				 				The caravan journey was uneventful, and after sixty sunrises and three hundred prayers, I reached Cairo. There I had to navigate the city’s streets, which are a bewildering maze compared with the harmonious design of the City of Peace. I made my way to the Bayn al-Qasrayn, the main street that runs through the Fatimid quarter of Cairo. From there I found the street on which Bashaarat’s shop was located.

				I told the shopkeeper that I had spoken to his father in Baghdad, and gave him the letter Bashaarat had given me. After reading it, he led me into a back room, in whose center stood another Gate of Years, and he gestured for me to enter from its left side.

				As I stood before the massive circle of metal, I felt a chill and chided myself for my nervousness. With a deep breath I stepped through and found myself in the same room with different furnishings. If not for those, I would not have known the Gate to be different from an ordinary doorway. Then I recognized that the chill I had felt was simply the coolness of the air in this room, for the day here was not as hot as the day I had left. I could feel its warm breeze at my back, coming through the Gate like a sigh.

				The shopkeeper followed behind me and called out, “Father, you have a visitor.”

				A man entered the room, and who should it be but Bashaarat, twenty years younger than when I’d seen him in Baghdad. “Welcome, my lord,” he said. “I am Bashaarat.”

				“You do not know me?” I asked.

				“No, you must have met my older self. For me, this is our first meeting, but it is my honor to assist you.”

				Your Majesty, as befits this chronicle of my shortcomings, I must confess that, so immersed was I in my own woes during the journey from Baghdad, I had not previously realized that Bashaarat had likely recognized me the moment I stepped into his shop. Even as I was admiring his water clock and brass songbird, he had known that I would travel to Cairo, and likely knew whether I had achieved my goal or not.

				 				The Bashaarat I spoke to now knew none of those things. “I am doubly grateful for your kindness, sir,” I said. “My name is Fuwaad ibn Abbas, newly arrived from Baghdad.”

				Bashaarat’s son took his leave, and Bashaarat and I conferred; I asked him the day and month, confirming that there was ample time for me to travel back to the City of Peace, and promised him I would tell him everything when I returned. His younger self was as gracious as his older. “I look forward to speaking with you on your return, and to assisting you again twenty years from now,” he said.

				His words gave me pause. “Had you planned to open a shop in Baghdad before today?”

				“Why do you ask?”

				“I had been marveling at the coincidence that we met in Baghdad just in time for me to make my journey here, use the Gate, and travel back. But now I wonder if it is perhaps not a coincidence at all. Is my arrival here today the reason that you will move to Baghdad twenty years from now?”

				Bashaarat smiled. “Coincidence and intention are two sides of a tapestry, my lord. You may find one more agreeable to look at, but you cannot say one is true and the other is false.”

				“Now as ever, you have given me much to think about,” I said.

				I thanked him and bid farewell. As I was leaving his shop, I passed a woman entering with some haste. I heard Bashaarat greet her as Raniya, and stopped in surprise.

				 				From just outside the door, I could hear the woman say, “I have the necklace. I hope my older self has not lost it.”

				“I am sure you will have kept it safe, in anticipation of your visit,” said Bashaarat.

				I realized that this was Raniya from the story Bashaarat had told me. She was on her way to collect her older self so that they might return to the days of their youth, confound some thieves with a doubled necklace, and save their husband. For a moment I was unsure if I were dreaming or awake, because I felt as if I had stepped into a tale, and the thought that I might talk to its players and partake of its events was dizzying. I was tempted to speak and see if I might play a hidden role in that tale, but then I remembered that my goal was to play a hidden role in my own tale. So I left without a word and went to arrange passage with a caravan.

				It is said, Your Majesty, that Fate laughs at men’s schemes. At first it appeared as if I were the most fortunate of men, for a caravan headed for Baghdad was departing within the month, and I was able to join it. In the weeks that followed, I began to curse my luck, because the caravan’s journey was plagued by delays. The wells at a town not far from Cairo were dry, and an expedition had to be sent back for water. At another village, the soldiers protecting the caravan contracted dysentery, and we had to wait for weeks for their recovery. With each delay, I revised my estimate of when we’d reach Baghdad and grew increasingly anxious.

				Then there were the sandstorms, which seemed like a warning from Allah, and truly caused me to doubt the wisdom of my actions. We had the good fortune to be resting at a caravanserai west of Kufa when the sandstorms first struck, but our stay was prolonged from days to weeks as, time and again, the skies became clear, only to darken again as soon as the camels were reloaded. The day of Najya’s accident was fast approaching, and I grew desperate.

				 				I solicited each of the camel drivers in turn, trying to hire one to take me ahead alone, but could not persuade any of them. Eventually I found one willing to sell me a camel at what would have been an exorbitant price under ordinary circumstances, but which I was all too willing to pay. I then struck out on my own.

				It will come as no surprise that I made little progress in the storm, but when the winds subsided, I immediately adopted a rapid pace. Without the soldiers that accompanied the caravan, however, I was an easy target for bandits, and sure enough, I was stopped after two days’ ride. They took my money and the camel I had purchased, but spared my life, whether out of pity or because they could not be bothered to kill me I do not know. I began walking back to rejoin the caravan, but now the skies tormented me with their cloudlessness, and I suffered from the heat. By the time the caravan found me, my tongue was swollen and my lips were as cracked as mud baked by the sun. After that I had no choice but to accompany the caravan at its usual pace.

				Like petals dropping one by one from a fading rose, my hopes dwindled with each passing day. By the time the caravan reached the City of Peace, I knew it was too late, but the moment we rode through the city gates, I asked the guardsmen if they had heard of a mosque collapsing. The first guardsman I spoke to had not, and for a heartbeat I dared to hope that I had misremembered the date of the accident, and that I had in fact arrived in time.

				Then another guardsman told me that a mosque had indeed collapsed just yesterday in the Karkh quarter. His words struck me with the force of the executioner’s ax. I had traveled so far, only to receive the worst news of my life a second time.

				 				I walked to the mosque and saw the piles of bricks where there had once been a wall. It was a scene that had haunted my dreams for twenty years, but now the image remained even after I opened my eyes, and with a clarity sharper than I could endure. I turned away and walked without aim, blind to what was around me, until I found myself before my old house, the one where Najya and I had lived. I stood in the street in front of it, filled with memory and anguish.

				I do not know how much time had passed when I became aware that a young woman had walked up to me. “My lord,” she said, “I’m looking for the house of Fuwaad ibn Abbas.”

				“You have found it,” I said.

				“Are you Fuwaad ibn Abbas, my lord?”

				“I am, and I ask you, please leave me be.”

				“My lord, I beg your forgiveness. My name is Maimuna, and I assist the physicians at the bimaristan. I tended to your wife before she died.”

				I turned to look at her. “You tended to Najya?”

				“I did, my lord. I am sworn to deliver a message to you from her.”

				“What message?”

				“She wished me to tell you that her last thoughts were of you. She wished me to tell you that while her life was short, it was made happy by the time she spent with you.”

				She saw the tears streaming down my cheeks and said, “Forgive me if my words cause you pain, my lord.”

				“There is nothing to forgive, child. Would that I had the means to pay you as much as this message is worth to me, because a lifetime of thanks would still leave me in your debt.”

				 				“Grief owes no debt,” she said. “Peace be upon you, my lord.”

				“Peace be upon you,” I said.

				She left, and I wandered the streets for hours, crying tears of release. All the while I thought on the truth of Bashaarat’s words: past and future are the same, and we cannot change either, only know them more fully. My journey to the past had changed nothing, but what I had learned had changed everything, and I understood that it could not have been otherwise. If our lives are tales that Allah tells, then we are the audience as well as the players, and it is by living these tales that we receive their lessons.

				Night fell, and it was then that the city’s guardsmen found me, wandering the streets after curfew in my dusty clothes, and asked who I was. I told them my name and where I lived, and the guardsmen brought me to my neighbors to see if they knew me, but they did not recognize me, and I was taken to jail.

				I told the guard captain my story, and he found it entertaining but did not credit it, for who would? Then I remembered some news from my time of grief twenty years before, and told him that Your Majesty’s grandson would be born an albino. Some days later, word of the infant’s condition reached the captain, and he brought me to the governor of the quarter. When the governor heard my story, he brought me here to the palace, and when your lord chamberlain heard my story, he in turn brought me here to the throne room, so that I might have the infinite privilege of recounting it to Your Majesty.

				Now my tale has caught up to my life, coiled as they both are, and the direction they take next is for Your Majesty to decide. I know many things that will happen here in Baghdad over the next twenty years, but nothing about what awaits me now. I have no money for the journey back to Cairo and the Gate of Years there, yet I count myself fortunate beyond measure, for I was given the opportunity to revisit my past mistakes, and I have learned what remedies Allah allows. I would be honored to relate everything I know of the future, if Your Majesty sees fit to ask, but for myself, the most precious knowledge I possess is this:

				 				Nothing erases the past. There is repentance, there is atonement, and there is forgiveness. That is all, but that is enough.





It has long been said that air (which others call argon) is the source of life. This is not in fact the case, and I engrave these words to describe how I came to understand the true source of life and, as a corollary, the means by which life will one day end.

			For most of history, the proposition that we draw life from air was so obvious that there was no need to assert it. Every day we consume two lungs heavy with air; every day we remove the empty ones from our chest and replace them with full ones. If a person is careless and lets his air level run too low, he feels the heaviness of his limbs and the growing need for replenishment. It is exceedingly rare that a person is unable to get at least one replacement lung before his installed pair runs empty; on those unfortunate occasions where this has happened—when a person is trapped and unable to move, with no one nearby to assist him—he dies within seconds of his air running out.

			But in the normal course of life, our need for air is far from our thoughts, and indeed many would say that satisfying that need is the least important part of going to the filling stations. For the filling stations are the primary venue for social conversation, the places from which we draw emotional sustenance as well as physical. We all keep spare sets of full lungs in our homes, but when one is alone, the act of opening one’s chest and replacing one’s lungs can seem little better than a chore. In the company of others, however, it becomes a communal activity, a shared pleasure.

			 			If one is exceedingly busy, or feeling unsociable, one might simply pick up a pair of full lungs, install them, and leave one’s emptied lungs on the other side of the room. If one has a few minutes to spare, it’s simple courtesy to connect the empty lungs to an air dispenser and refill them for the next person. But by far the most common practice is to linger and enjoy the company of others, to discuss the news of the day with friends or acquaintances and, in passing, offer newly filled lungs to one’s interlocutor. While this perhaps does not constitute air sharing in the strictest sense, there is camaraderie derived from the awareness that all our air comes from the same source, for the dispensers are but the exposed terminals of pipes extending from the reservoir of air deep underground, the great lung of the world, the source of all our nourishment.

			Many lungs are returned to the same filling station the next day, but just as many circulate to other stations when people visit neighboring districts; the lungs are all identical in appearance, smooth cylinders of aluminum, so one cannot tell whether a given lung has always stayed close to home or whether it has traveled long distances. And just as lungs are passed between persons and districts, so are news and gossip. In this way one can receive news from remote districts, even those at the very edge of the world, without needing to leave home, although I myself enjoy traveling. I have journeyed all the way to the edge of the world, and seen the solid chromium wall that extends from the ground up into the infinite sky.

			 			It was at one of the filling stations that I first heard the rumors that prompted my investigation and led to my eventual enlightenment. It began innocently enough, with a remark from our district’s public crier. At noon of the first day of every year, it is traditional for the crier to recite a passage of verse, an ode composed long ago for this annual celebration, which takes exactly one hour to deliver. The crier mentioned that on his most recent performance, the turret clock struck the hour before he had finished, something that had never happened before. Another person remarked that this was a coincidence, because he had just returned from a nearby district where the public crier had complained of the same incongruity.

			No one gave the matter much thought beyond the simple acknowledgment that seemed warranted. It was only some days later, when there arrived word of a similar deviation between the crier and the clock of a third district, that the suggestion was made that these discrepancies might be evidence of a defect in the mechanism common to all the turret clocks, albeit a curious one to cause the clocks to run faster rather than slower. Horologists investigated the turret clocks in question, but on inspection they could discern no imperfection. In fact, when compared against the timepieces normally employed for such calibration purposes, the turret clocks were all found to have resumed keeping perfect time.

			I myself found the question somewhat intriguing, but I was too focused on my own studies to devote much thought to other matters. I was and am a student of anatomy, and to provide context for my subsequent actions, I now offer a brief account of my relationship with the field.

			 			Death is uncommon, fortunately, because we are durable, and fatal mishaps are rare, but it makes difficult the study of anatomy, especially since many of the accidents serious enough to cause death leave the deceased’s remains too damaged for study. If lungs are ruptured when full, the explosive force can tear a body asunder, ripping the titanium as easily as if it were tin. In the past, anatomists focused their attention on the limbs, which were the most likely to survive intact. During the very first anatomy lecture I attended a century ago, the lecturer showed us a severed arm, the casing removed to reveal the dense column of rods and pistons within. I can vividly recall the way, after he had connected its arterial hoses to a wall-mounted lung he kept in the laboratory, he was able to manipulate the actuating rods that protruded from the arm’s ragged base, and in response the hand would open and close fitfully.

			In the intervening years, our field has advanced to the point where anatomists are able to repair damaged limbs and, on occasion, attach a severed limb. At the same time we have become capable of studying the physiology of the living; I have given a version of that first lecture I saw, during which I opened the casing of my own arm and directed my students’ attention to the rods that contracted and extended when I wiggled my fingers.

			Despite these advances, the field of anatomy still had a great unsolved mystery at its core: the question of memory. While we knew a little about the structure of the brain, its physiology is notoriously hard to study because of the brain’s extreme delicacy. It is typically the case in fatal accidents that, when the skull is breached, the brain erupts in a cloud of gold, leaving little besides shredded filament and leaf from which nothing useful can be discerned. For decades the prevailing theory of memory was that all of a person’s experiences were engraved on sheets of gold foil; it was these sheets, torn apart by the force of the blast, that were the source of the tiny flakes found after accidents. Anatomists would collect the bits of gold leaf—so thin that light passes greenly through them—and spend years trying to reconstruct the original sheets, with the hope of eventually deciphering the symbols in which the deceased’s recent experiences were inscribed.

			 			I did not subscribe to this theory, known as the inscription hypothesis, for the simple reason that if all our experiences are in fact recorded, why is it that our memories are incomplete? Advocates of the inscription hypothesis offered an explanation for forgetfulness—suggesting that over time the foil sheets become misaligned from the stylus which reads the memories, until the oldest sheets shift out of contact with it altogether—but I never found it convincing. The appeal of the theory was easy for me to appreciate, though; I too had devoted many an hour to examining flakes of gold through a microscope and can imagine how gratifying it would be to turn the fine-adjustment knob and see legible symbols come into focus.

			More than that, how wonderful would it be to decipher the very oldest of a deceased person’s memories, ones that he himself had forgotten? None of us can remember much more than a hundred years in the past, and written records—accounts that we ourselves inscribed but have scant memory of doing so—extend only a few hundred years before that. How many years did we live before the beginning of written history? Where did we come from? It is the promise of finding the answers within our own brains that makes the inscription hypothesis so seductive.

			I was a proponent of the competing school of thought, which held that our memories were stored in some medium in which the process of erasure was no more difficult than recording: perhaps in the rotation of gears, or the positions of a series of switches. This theory implied that everything we had forgotten was indeed lost, and our brains contained no histories older than those found in our libraries. One advantage of this theory was that it better explained why, when lungs are installed in those who have died from lack of air, the revived have no memories and are all but mindless: somehow the shock of death had reset all the gears or switches. The inscriptionists claimed the shock had merely misaligned the foil sheets, but no one was willing to kill a living person, even an imbecile, in order to resolve the debate. I had envisioned an experiment which might allow me to determine the truth conclusively, but it was a risky one, and deserved careful consideration before it was undertaken. I remained undecided for the longest time, until I heard more news about the clock anomaly.

			 			Word arrived from a more distant district that its public crier had likewise observed the turret clock striking the hour before he had finished his new year’s recital. What made this notable was that his district’s clock employed a different mechanism, one in which the hours were marked by the flow of mercury into a bowl. Here the discrepancy could not be explained by a common mechanical fault. Most people suspected fraud, a practical joke perpetrated by mischief-makers. I had a different suspicion, a darker one that I dared not voice, but it decided my course of action; I would proceed with my experiment.

			The first tool I constructed was the simplest: in my laboratory I fixed four prisms on mounting brackets and carefully aligned them so that their apexes formed the corners of a rectangle. When they were arranged thus, a beam of light directed at one of the lower prisms was reflected up, then backward, then down, and then forward again in a quadrilateral loop. Accordingly, when I sat with my eyes at the level of the first prism, I obtained a clear view of the back of my own head. This solipsistic periscope formed the basis of all that was to come.

			 			A similarly rectangular arrangement of actuating rods allowed a displacement of action to accompany the displacement of vision afforded by the prisms. The bank of actuating rods was much larger than the periscope but still relatively straightforward in design; by contrast, what was attached to the end of these respective mechanisms was far more intricate. To the periscope I added a binocular microscope mounted on an armature capable of swiveling side to side or up and down. To the actuating rods I added an array of precision manipulators, although that description hardly does justice to those pinnacles of the mechanician’s art. Combining the ingenuity of anatomists and the inspiration provided by the bodily structures they studied, the manipulators enabled their operator to accomplish any task he might normally perform with his own hands, but on a much smaller scale.

			Assembling all of this equipment took months, but I could not afford to be anything less than meticulous. Once the preparations were complete, I was able to place each of my hands on a nest of knobs and levers and control a pair of manipulators situated behind my head and use the periscope to see what they worked on. I would then be able to dissect my own brain.

			The very idea must sound like pure madness, I know, and had I told any of my colleagues, they would surely have tried to stop me. But I could not ask anyone else to risk themselves for the sake of anatomical inquiry, and because I wished to conduct the dissection myself, I would not be satisfied by merely being the passive subject of such an operation. Auto-dissection was the only option.

			I brought in a dozen full lungs and connected them with a manifold. I mounted this assembly beneath the worktable that I would sit at and positioned a dispenser to connect directly to the bronchial inlets within my chest. This would supply me with six days’ worth of air. To provide for the possibility that I might not have completed my experiment within that period, I had scheduled a visit from a colleague at the end of that time. My presumption, however, was that the only way I would not have finished the operation in that period would be if I had caused my own death.

			 			I began by removing the deeply curved plate that formed the back and top of my head; then the two, more shallowly curved plates that formed the sides. Only my faceplate remained, but it was locked into a restraining bracket, and I could not see its inner surface from the vantage point of my periscope; what I saw exposed was my own brain. It consisted of a dozen or more subassemblies, whose exteriors were covered by intricately molded shells; by positioning the periscope near the fissures that separated them, I gained a tantalizing glimpse at the fabulous mechanisms within their interiors. Even with what little I could see, I could tell it was the most beautifully complex engine I had ever beheld, so far beyond any device man had constructed that it was incontrovertibly of divine origin. The sight was both exhilarating and dizzying, and I savored it on a strictly aesthetic basis for several minutes before proceeding with my explorations.

			It was generally hypothesized that the brain was divided into an engine located in the center of the head which performed the actual cognition, surrounded by an array of components in which memories were stored. What I observed was consistent with this theory, since the peripheral subassemblies seemed to resemble one another, while the subassembly in the center appeared to be different, more heterogeneous and with more moving parts. However, the components were packed too closely for me to see much of their operation; if I intended to learn anything more, I would require a more intimate vantage point.

			 			Each subassembly had a local reservoir of air, fed by a hose extending from the regulator at the base of my brain. I focused my periscope on the rearmost subassembly and, using the remote manipulators, I quickly disconnected the outlet hose and installed a longer one in its place. I had practiced this maneuver countless times so that I could perform it in a matter of moments; even so, I was not certain I could complete the connection before the subassembly had depleted its local reservoir. Only after I was satisfied that the component’s operation had not been interrupted did I continue; I rearranged the longer hose to gain a better view of what lay in the fissure behind it: other hoses that connected it to its neighboring components. Using the most slender pair of manipulators to reach into the narrow crevice, I replaced the hoses one by one with longer substitutes. Eventually, I worked my way around the entire subassembly and replaced every connection it had to the rest of my brain. I was now able to unmount this subassembly from the frame that supported it and pull the whole section outside of what was once the back of my head.

			I knew it was possible I had impaired my capacity to think and was unable to recognize it, but performing some basic arithmetic tests suggested that I was uninjured. With one subassembly hanging from a scaffold above, I now had a better view of the cognition engine at the center of my brain, but there was not enough room to bring the microscope attachment itself in for a close inspection. In order for me to really examine the workings of my brain, I would have to displace at least half a dozen subassemblies.

			 			Laboriously, painstakingly, I repeated the procedure of substituting hoses for other subassemblies, repositioning another one farther back, two more higher up, and two others out to the sides, suspending all six from the scaffold above my head. When I was done, my brain looked like an explosion frozen an infinitesimal fraction of a second after the detonation, and again I felt dizzy when I thought about it. But at last the cognition engine itself was exposed, supported on a pillar of hoses and actuating rods leading down into my torso. I now also had room to rotate my microscope around a full three hundred and sixty degrees and pass my gaze across the inner faces of the subassemblies I had moved. What I saw was a microcosm of auric machinery, a landscape of tiny spinning rotors and miniature reciprocating cylinders.

			As I contemplated this vista, I wondered where my body was. The conduits which displaced my vision and action around the room were in principle no different from those which connected my original eyes and hands to my brain. For the duration of this experiment, were these manipulators not essentially my hands? Were the magnifying lenses at the end of my periscope not essentially my eyes? I was an everted person, with my tiny, fragmented body situated at the center of my own distended brain. It was in this unlikely configuration that I began to explore myself.

			I turned my microscope to one of the memory subassemblies and began examining its design. I had no expectation that I would be able to decipher my memories, only that I might divine the means by which they were recorded. As I had predicted, there were no reams of foil pages visible, but to my surprise neither did I see banks of gearwheels or switches. Instead, the subassembly seemed to consist almost exclusively of a bank of air tubules. Through the interstices between the tubules, I was able to glimpse ripples passing through the bank’s interior.

			 			With careful inspection and increasing magnification, I discerned that the tubules ramified into tiny air capillaries, which were interwoven with a dense latticework of wires on which gold leaves were hinged. Under the influence of air escaping from the capillaries, the leaves were held in a variety of positions. These were not switches in the conventional sense, for they did not retain their position without a current of air to support them, but I hypothesized that these were the switches I had sought, the medium in which my memories were recorded. The ripples I saw must have been acts of recall, as an arrangement of leaves was read and sent back to the cognition engine.

			Armed with this new understanding, I then turned my microscope to the cognition engine. Here too I observed a latticework of wires, but they did not bear leaves suspended in position; instead the leaves flipped back and forth almost too rapidly to see. Indeed, almost the entire engine appeared to be in motion, consisting more of lattice than of air capillaries, and I wondered how air could reach all the gold leaves in a coherent manner. For many hours I scrutinized the leaves, until I realized that they themselves were playing the role of capillaries; the leaves formed temporary conduits and valves that existed just long enough to redirect air at other leaves in turn, and then disappeared as a result. This was an engine undergoing continuous transformation, indeed modifying itself as part of its operation. The lattice was not so much a machine as it was a page on which the machine was written, and on which the machine itself ceaselessly wrote.

			My consciousness could be said to be encoded in the position of these tiny leaves, but it would be more accurate to say that it was encoded in the ever-shifting pattern of air driving these leaves. Watching the oscillations of these flakes of gold, I saw that air does not, as we had always assumed, simply provide power to the engine that realizes our thoughts. Air is in fact the very medium of our thoughts. All that we are is a pattern of air flow. My memories were inscribed, not as grooves on foil or even the position of switches, but as persistent currents of argon.

			 			In the moments after I grasped the nature of this lattice mechanism, a cascade of insights penetrated my consciousness in rapid succession. The first and most trivial was understanding why gold, the most malleable and ductile of metals, was the only material out of which our brains could be made. Only the thinnest of foil leaves could move rapidly enough for such a mechanism, and only the most delicate of filaments could act as hinges for them. By comparison, the copper burr raised by my stylus as I engrave these words and brushed from the sheet when I finish each page is as coarse and heavy as scrap. This truly was a medium where erasing and recording could be performed rapidly, far more so than any arrangement of switches or gears.

			What next became clear was why installing full lungs into a person who has died from lack of air does not bring him back to life. These leaves within the lattice remain balanced between continuous cushions of air. This arrangement lets them flit back and forth swiftly, but it also means that if the flow of air ever ceases, everything is lost; the leaves all collapse into identical pendent states, erasing the patterns and the consciousness they represent. Restoring the air supply cannot re-create what has evanesced. This was the price of speed; a more stable medium for storing patterns would mean that our consciousnesses would operate far more slowly.

			 			It was then that I perceived the solution to the clock anomaly. I saw that the speed of these leaves’ movements depended on their being supported by air; with sufficient air flow, the leaves could move nearly frictionlessly. If they were moving more slowly, it was because they were being subjected to more friction, which could occur only if the cushions of air that supported them were thinner, and the air flowing through the lattice was moving with less force.

			It is not that the turret clocks are running faster. What is happening is that our brains are running slower. The turret clocks are driven by pendulums, whose tempo never varies, or by the flow of mercury through a pipe, which does not change. But our brains rely on the passage of air, and when that air flows more slowly, our thoughts slow down, making the clocks seem to us to run faster.

			I had feared that our brains might be growing slower, and it was this prospect that had spurred me to pursue my auto-dissection. But I had assumed that our cognition engines—while powered by air—were ultimately mechanical in nature, and some aspect of the mechanism was gradually becoming deformed through fatigue, and thus responsible for the slowing. That would have been dire, but there was at least the hope that we might be able to repair the mechanism and restore our brains to their original speed of operation.

			But if our thoughts were purely patterns of air rather than the movement of toothed gears, the problem was much more serious, for what could cause the air flowing through every person’s brain to move less rapidly? It could not be a decrease in the pressure from our filling stations’ dispensers; the air pressure in our lungs is so high that it must be stepped down by a series of regulators before reaching our brains. The diminution in force, I saw, must arise from the opposite direction: the pressure of our surrounding atmosphere was increasing.

			 			How could this be? As soon as the question formed, the only possible answer became apparent: our sky must not be infinite in height. Somewhere above the limits of our vision, the chromium walls surrounding our world must curve inward to form a dome; our universe is a sealed chamber rather than an open well. And air is gradually accumulating within that chamber, until it equals the pressure in the reservoir below.

			This is why, at the beginning of this engraving, I said that air is not the source of life. Air can neither be created nor destroyed; the total amount of air in the universe remains constant, and if air were all that we needed to live, we would never die. But in truth the source of life is a difference in air pressure, the flow of air from spaces where it is thick to those where it is thin. The activity of our brains, the motion of our bodies, the action of every machine we have ever built, are driven by the movement of air, the force exerted as differing pressures seek to balance one another out. When the pressure everywhere in the universe is the same, all air will be motionless and useless; one day we will be surrounded by motionless air and unable to derive any benefit from it.

			We are not really consuming air at all. The amount of air that I draw from each day’s new pair of lungs is exactly as much as seeps out through the joints of my limbs and the seams of my casing, exactly as much as I am adding to the atmosphere around me; all I am doing is converting air at high pressure to air at low. With every movement of my body, I contribute to the equalization of pressure in our universe. With every thought that I have, I hasten the arrival of that fatal equilibrium.

			Had I come to this realization under any other circumstance, I would have leapt up from my chair and run into the streets, but in my current situation—body locked in a restraining bracket, brain suspended across my laboratory—doing so was impossible. I could see the leaves of my brain flitting faster from the tumult of my thoughts, which in turn increased my agitation at being so restrained and immobile. Panic at that moment might have led to my death, a nightmarish paroxysm of simultaneously being trapped and spiraling out of control, struggling against my restraints until my air ran out. It was by chance as much as by intention that my hands adjusted the controls to avert my periscopic gaze from the latticework, so all I could see was the plain surface of my worktable. Thus freed from having to see and magnify my own apprehensions, I was able to calm down. When I had regained sufficient composure, I began the lengthy process of reassembling myself. Eventually I restored my brain to its original compact configuration, reattached the plates of my head, and released myself from the restraining bracket.

			 			At first the other anatomists did not believe me when I told them what I had discovered, but in the months that followed my initial auto-dissection, more and more of them became convinced. More examinations of people’s brains were performed, more measurements of atmospheric pressure were taken, and the results were all found to confirm my claims. The background air pressure of our universe was indeed increasing, and slowing our thoughts as a result.

			There was widespread panic in the days after the truth first became widely known, as people contemplated for the first time the idea that death was inevitable. Many called for the strict curtailment of activities in order to minimize the thickening of our atmosphere; accusations of wasted air escalated into furious brawls and, in some districts, deaths. It was the shame of having caused these deaths, together with the reminder that it would be many centuries yet before our atmosphere’s pressure became equal to that of the reservoir underground, that enabled the panic to subside. We are not sure precisely how many centuries it will take; additional measurements and calculations are being performed and debated. In the meantime, there is much discussion over how we should spend the time that remains to us.

			 			One sect dedicated itself to the goal of reversing the equalization of pressure and found many adherents. The mechanicians among them constructed an engine that took air from our atmosphere and forced it into a smaller volume, a process they called compression. Their engine restored air to the pressure it originally had in the reservoir, and these Reversalists excitedly announced that it would form the basis of a new kind of filling station, one that would—with each lung it refilled—revitalize not only individuals but the universe itself. Alas, closer examination of the engine revealed its fatal flaw. The engine itself was powered by air from the reservoir, and for every lungful of air that it produced, the engine consumed not just a lungful but slightly more. It did not reverse the process of equalization but, like everything else in the world, exacerbated it.

			Although some of their adherents left in disillusionment after this setback, the Reversalists as a group were undeterred and began drawing up alternate designs in which the compressor was powered instead by the uncoiling of springs or the descent of weights. These mechanisms fared no better. Every spring that is wound tight represents air released by the person who did the winding; every weight that rests higher than ground level represents air released by the person who did the lifting. There is no source of power in the universe that does not ultimately derive from a difference in air pressure, and there can be no engine whose operation will not, on balance, reduce that difference.

			 			The Reversalists continue their labors, confident that they will one day construct an engine that generates more compression than it uses, a perpetual power source that will restore to the universe its lost vigor. I do not share their optimism; I believe that the process of equalization is inexorable. Eventually, all the air in our universe will be evenly distributed, no denser or more rarefied in one spot than in any other, unable to drive a piston, turn a rotor, or flip a leaf of gold foil. It will be the end of pressure, the end of motive power, the end of thought. The universe will have reached perfect equilibrium.

			Some find irony in the fact that a study of our brains revealed to us not the secrets of the past but what ultimately awaits us in the future. However, I maintain that we have indeed learned something important about the past. The universe began as an enormous breath being held. Who knows why, but whatever the reason, I am glad that it did, because I owe my existence to that fact. All my desires and ruminations are no more and no less than eddy currents generated by the gradual exhalation of our universe. And until this great exhalation is finished, my thoughts live on.

			So that our thoughts may continue as long as possible, anatomists and mechanicians are designing replacements for our cerebral regulators, capable of gradually increasing the air pressure within our brains and keeping it just higher than the surrounding atmospheric pressure. Once these are installed, our thoughts will continue at roughly the same speed even as the air thickens around us. But this does not mean that life will continue unchanged. Eventually the pressure differential will fall to such a level that our limbs will weaken and our movements will grow sluggish. We may then try to slow our thoughts so that our physical torpor is less conspicuous to us, but that will also cause external processes to appear to accelerate. The ticking of clocks will rise to a chatter as their pendulums wave frantically; falling objects will slam to the ground as if propelled by springs; undulations will race down cables like the crack of a whip.

			 			At some point our limbs will cease moving altogether. I cannot be certain of the precise sequence of events near the end, but I imagine a scenario in which our thoughts will continue to operate, so that we remain conscious but frozen, immobile as statues. Perhaps we’ll be able to speak for a while longer, because our voice boxes operate on a smaller pressure differential than our limbs, but without the ability to visit a filling station, our every utterance will reduce the amount of air left for thought and bring us closer to the moment when our thoughts cease altogether. Will it be preferable to remain mute to prolong our ability to think, or to talk until the very end? I don’t know.

			Perhaps a few of us, in the days before we cease moving, will be able to connect our cerebral regulators directly to the dispensers in the filling stations, in effect replacing our lungs with the mighty lung of the world. If so, those few will be able to remain conscious right up to the final moments before all pressure is equalized. The last bit of air pressure left in our universe will be expended driving a person’s conscious thought.

			And then, our universe will be in a state of absolute equilibrium. All life and thought will cease and, with them, time itself.

			But I maintain a slender hope.

			Even though our universe is enclosed, perhaps it is not the only air chamber in the infinite expanse of solid chromium. I speculate that there could be another pocket of air elsewhere, another universe besides our own that is even larger in volume. It is possible that this hypothetical universe has the same air pressure as ours or even higher, but suppose that it had a much lower air pressure than ours, perhaps even a true vacuum?

			 			The chromium that separates us from this supposed universe is too thick and too hard for us to drill through, so there is no way we could reach it ourselves, no way to bleed off the excess atmosphere from our universe and regain motive power that way. But I fantasize that this neighboring universe has its own inhabitants, ones with capabilities beyond our own. What if they were able to create a conduit between the two universes and install valves to release air from ours? They might use our universe as a reservoir, running dispensers with which they could fill their own lungs, and use our air as a way to drive their own civilization.

			It cheers me to imagine that the air that once powered me could power others, to believe that the breath that enables me to engrave these words could one day flow through someone else’s body. I do not delude myself into thinking that this would be a way for me to live again, because I am not that air, I am the pattern that it assumed, temporarily. The pattern that is me, the patterns that are the entire world in which I live, would be gone.

			But I have an even fainter hope: not only that those inhabitants use our universe as a reservoir, but that once they have emptied it of its air, they might one day be able to open a passage and actually enter our universe as explorers. They might wander our streets, see our frozen bodies, look through our possessions, and wonder about the lives we led.

			Which is why I have written this account. You, I hope, are one of those explorers. You, I hope, found these sheets of copper and deciphered the words engraved on their surfaces. And whether or not your brain is impelled by the air that once impelled mine, through the act of reading my words, the patterns that form your thoughts become an imitation of the patterns that once formed mine. And in that way I live again, through you.

			 			Your fellow explorers will have found and read the other books that we left behind, and through the collaborative action of your imaginations, my entire civilization lives again. As you walk through our silent districts, imagine them as they were: with the turret clocks striking the hours, the filling stations crowded with gossiping neighbors, criers reciting verse in the public squares, and anatomists giving lectures in the classrooms. Visualize all of these the next time you look at the frozen world around you, and it will become, in your minds, animated and vital again.

			I wish you well, explorer, but I wonder: Does the same fate that befell me await you? I can only imagine that it must, that the tendency toward equilibrium is not a trait peculiar to our universe but inherent in all universes. Perhaps that is just a limitation of my thinking, and your people have discovered a source of pressure that is truly eternal. But my speculations are fanciful enough already. I will assume that one day your thoughts too will cease, although I cannot fathom how far in the future that might be. Your lives will end just as ours did, just as everyone’s must. No matter how long it takes, eventually equilibrium will be reached.

			I hope you are not saddened by that awareness. I hope that your expedition was more than a search for other universes to use as reservoirs. I hope that you were motivated by a desire for knowledge, a yearning to see what can arise from a universe’s exhalation. Because even if a universe’s life span is calculable, the variety of life that is generated within it is not. The buildings we have erected, the art and music and verse we have composed, the very lives we’ve led: none of them could have been predicted, because none of them was inevitable. Our universe might have slid into equilibrium emitting nothing more than a quiet hiss. The fact that it spawned such plenitude is a miracle, one that is matched only by your universe giving rise to you.

			 			Though I am long dead as you read this, explorer, I offer to you a valediction. Contemplate the marvel that is existence, and rejoice that you are able to do so. I feel I have the right to tell you this because, as I am inscribing these words, I am doing the same.





This is a warning. Please read carefully.

			By now you’ve probably seen a Predictor; millions of them have been sold by the time you’re reading this. For those who haven’t seen one, it’s a small device, like a remote for opening your car door. Its only features are a button and a big green LED. The light flashes if you press the button. Specifically, the light flashes one second before you press the button.

			Most people say that when they first try it, it feels like they’re playing a strange game, one where the goal is to press the button after seeing the flash, and it’s easy to play. But when you try to break the rules, you find that you can’t. If you try to press the button without having seen a flash, the flash immediately appears, and no matter how fast you move, you never push the button until a second has elapsed. If you wait for the flash, intending to keep from pressing the button afterward, the flash never appears. No matter what you do, the light always precedes the button press. There’s no way to fool a Predictor.

			The heart of each Predictor is a circuit with a negative time delay; it sends a signal back in time. The full implications of the technology will become apparent later, when negative delays of greater than a second are achieved, but that’s not what this warning is about. The immediate problem is that Predictors demonstrate that there’s no such thing as free will.

			 			There have always been arguments showing that free will is an illusion, some based on hard physics, others based on pure logic. Most people agree these arguments are irrefutable, but no one ever really accepts the conclusion. The experience of having free will is too powerful for an argument to overrule. What it takes is a demonstration, and that’s what a Predictor provides.

			Typically, a person plays with a Predictor compulsively for several days, showing it to friends, trying various schemes to outwit the device. The person may appear to lose interest in it, but no one can forget what it means; over the following weeks, the implications of an immutable future sink in. Some people, realizing that their choices don’t matter, refuse to make any choices at all. Like a legion of Bartleby the scriveners, they no longer engage in spontaneous action. Eventually, a third of those who play with a Predictor must be hospitalized because they won’t feed themselves. The end state is akinetic mutism, a kind of waking coma. They’ll track motion with their eyes, and change position occasionally, but nothing more. The ability to move remains, but the motivation is gone.

			Before people started playing with Predictors, akinetic mutism was very rare, a result of damage to the anterior cingulate region of the brain. Now it spreads like a cognitive plague. People used to speculate about a thought that destroys the thinker, some unspeakable Lovecraftian horror, or a Gödel sentence that crashes the human logical system. It turns out that the disabling thought is one that we’ve all encountered: the idea that free will doesn’t exist. It just wasn’t harmful until you believed it.

			 			Doctors try arguing with the patients while they still respond to conversation. We had all been living happy, active lives before, they reason, and we hadn’t had free will then either. Why should anything change? “No action you took last month was any more freely chosen than one you take today,” a doctor might say. “You can still behave that way now.” The patients invariably respond, “But now I know.” And some of them never say anything again.

			Some will argue that the fact the Predictor causes this change in behavior means that we do have free will. An automaton can’t become discouraged, only a freethinking entity can. The fact that some individuals descend into akinetic mutism while others don’t just highlights the importance of making a choice.

			Unfortunately, such reasoning is faulty; every form of behavior is compatible with determinism. One dynamic system may fall into a basin of attraction and wind up at a fixed point, while another exhibits chaotic behavior indefinitely, but both are completely deterministic.

			I’m transmitting this warning to you from just over a year in your future; it’s the first lengthy message received when circuits with negative delays in the megasecond range are used to build communication devices. Other messages will follow, addressing other issues. My message to you is this: Pretend that you have free will. It’s essential that you behave as if your decisions matter, even though you know they don’t. The reality isn’t important; what’s important is your belief, and believing the lie is the only way to avoid a waking coma. Civilization now depends on self-deception. Perhaps it always has.

			And yet I know that, because free will is an illusion, it’s all predetermined who will descend into akinetic mutism and who won’t. There’s nothing anyone can do about it; you can’t choose the effect the Predictor has on you. Some of you will succumb and some of you won’t, and my sending this warning won’t alter those proportions. So why did I do it?

			 			Because I had no choice.





1


				Her name is Ana Alvarado, and she’s having a bad day. She spent all week preparing for a job interview, the first one in months to reach the videoconference stage, but the recruiter’s face barely appeared on-screen before he told her that the company has decided to hire someone else. So she sits in front o