If the world would go away, we'd open up
And if the world would open up, the world would go away
-Big Blood, "Secret Garden"
From the decorative battlements of the physics building, a mad grad student proclaimed the end of the world.
"We are alone in the universe," he shouted, "because this universe is just for us. A prison! Under a dome of objective rectifiers, in a sea of unnavigable physics, they call it the Lonely Planet, and they fill it with their dark heroes and moral imbeciles, their outcasts and linecrossers, the scum at the top and bottom of Chainspace and the Scroll."
Below, the building entrance was barricaded by police doing deep searches on a queue of people leaving, while those entering were ignored. Beyond a flashing corral of emergency vehicles stretched an unexpected festival of demonic chatterers and ecstatic dancers, skywatchers and navel-starers, supplicants and mendicants to the unseen.
Among them came a small woman with eyes so sharp they seemed to cut a path. Her hair was bound in a tense ponytail with a few stray hairs in front escaping eyeward. Her skirt fluttered like brisk wings as she strode with insolent precision through the dreamtime minefield.
At the line of police tape she flashed a badge, and the cop pointed her to a professor sitting on a rock in a bed of tulips. A greying beard softened his villainous chin, and his childlike eyes flashed dangerous focus, like a surgeon watching a butterfly.
Again with her badge, she cast into the garden and caught his eye.
"Perceiva Wixie," he pronounced.
"Perceva, like Perceval."
He didn't hold out his hand but nodded. "I'm Crafton Veer."
"And this whole thing was your project?"
"What have they told you?"
She shrugged like a hiccup. "Nothing. They sent me in cold so as not to cloud my judgment with wild rumors."
"And what do you see?"
"At first I'm thinking, LSD in the water, but the door search means an ongoing threat. Then I'm thinking contagion, but there are no biosuits. That cop has noise-canceling headphones." She turned her head like an owl. "They all do. It's a sound!"
"You could say that." Dr. Veer swayed like a seed-heavy grainstalk.
"But how is a sound an ongoing danger?" She closed her eyes and turned her focus inward. "It's viral! A madness-inducing earworm." She opened her eyes. "Is it a song?"
He startled as if teasingly slapped. "How did you know that?"
She shrugged again. "I looked."
"No. Interpreting a memetic sonic attack as a creative work, as art, is an intuitive leap to the very parapet of the truth."
"Your notebook." She looked at its steely icon, stylized radio dishes like blossoming buds around the letters SETI. "It's a song from space."
He sighed longingly. "The Pleiades."
"But those are young stars, too new for life."
"That presumes the aliens are talking to each other. But if they're talking to us, they would post their message in the most conspicuous spot in our heavens."
"But if they can put it anywhere, why can't they put it everywhere?"
"If it was everywhere, we might not recognize it as a message."
She knotted her brow. "You think an advanced extraterrestrial civilization has been trying to contact us, and failing?"
"My ex was a therapist. She said, when a new patient comes in, I know in five minutes what's wrong with them, and it takes five years to get them to see it."
"Sounds like she wasn't a very good therapist."
"She was the best. That's why I left her. She was getting too close."
"What's wrong with you?"
"So many people have asked me that. I think you're the first one who's actually been curious."
"I have only two mental attitudes: obsessed and indifferent. Somehow neither one is appealing."
"Right now you're obsessed."
"How can you tell?"
"You keep sneaking glances at the sky like it's a woman's breasts."
He had to look. They were right in front of his face, mysterious in their constriction. Then he looked carefully up at her armor-piercing eyes.
"You've heard it," she said. "The song."
He looked around shiftily.
"Why didn't you lose your sanity like everyone else?"
He grinned. "I lost my sanity a long time ago."
"You realize it's my job to stop this thing."
"Of course. So, do you want to hear it?"
"That is a bold dare, Dr. Veer. I accept."
She followed him into the building. Above them on the rat balcony, the raver intoned:
The blackened window, cracked, unshades
The vines that pull the stones from sky
The blades of grass that break the blades
Of glass that glazed the eye
In a dark warptube like a coalsmoke moonrise, a familiar craft traveled. Its wide elliptical engine was nearly half its bulk, bearing its aquatic encrustments raw and lacquered to hold its status as a historical artifact.
Ahead, the hull had been repainted as an ocean thunderstorm, blue-black with silver cracks of lightning from the tentacled apex to the wavecrash shore of the engines. Its new name: Knife of the Sea.
"Avast!" The Captain's hands tickled the imaginary field of the navglobe, still half-unpacked from its crate by the vacant upface where raw wires led underfloor to the new engine. "We've skipped the ferries to shoot the tubes unhindered!"
"That's some fancy language," Dez said, "for one notch above space trash."
Torisa said, "Trixie, what are we doing in this weird part of the chain?"
She was in her level two avatar, a glazed-paint portrait of a perky receptionist. "The computer says we have an appointment."
"Can I talk to the computer?"
"Ahoy!" Trixie's voice boomed like the radio song of a gas giant. "What was the question? Sorry, I'm cogmodded on the pure glow of pattern recognition."
The Captain said, "We were just in the Ladbroke sixline, but I've been all up and down it. I've never seen it this dark."
"Oh, at the last node I moved us to the eightline."
They laughed. Outside, a deeper blackness flashed.
"Wait," the Captain said. "That was just a node with no light at all. Trixie, is this really the eight?"
"It's a joke," Torisa said. "The existence of an eightline has been thoroughly debunked."
"Raise your faith, acolyte!" Upgraded paintdrones had already switched Trixie to her level five avatar. "The evidence was not absent, only hiding. Hold on."
The ship now slowed to tiptoe the thin edge between space and time. They could see actual stars, blue and redshifted and strobing as the warptube sorted its vector in Gridspace.
"Listen," Trixie whispered.
In the immense silence, something hinted.
Hairs spiked on Torisa's neck. "Trixie, get us out of here!"
With a paintdrone flourish, the avatar's eyes burned with wicked ecstacy, and her voice resonated across the bridge. "We are now balanced on the very tip of the hurricane. We ride the first breaking of the wave!"