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NOTHING BUT LIES
AMIDST torrents of rain and blasts of lightning, Ryne stepped from his boat onto the shore of the last island, the place where his life ended. The mental beacon that had guided him across the open water faded away. Clarity replaced certainty, composed of equal parts confusion and anger. Flapping his ears against the downpour he muttered a phrase heard by his students at least once a tenday for the past six decades. “The math is all wrong!”
He stumbled into the surf, limbs weary after too many days spent bailing just to keep afloat. His left hand grasped wildly before finding the gunnel and he went down on one knee, submerged in water halfway up that thigh.
“How did I miss it? How does everyone miss it?” Despite his aches and fatigue, he heaved himself forward, leaving the water and struggling up onto the sand. His head turned left and right, taking in what he could see of the beach through the curtain of rain. Behind him, a shaft of lightning struck his boat and set it aflame despite the storm. Ryne sniffed at the scent of ozone, acknowledged the sizzle of burning wood, then ignored both as he focused on the math once more. His muttering continued.
“Five and a half million Fant on Barsk … birth rate of half a percent … mortality rate not significantly more as to matter … at least three quarters—conservatively—of whom sail away when they sense their life’s ending … that’s more than twenty thousand people showing up here, year after year, for centuries.…”
But that wasn’t math, that was just arithmetic. Still, it provided a starting point. The bulk of the actual math he shaped into the questions that had assailed his mind, once his need to be here had been slaked by completing the journey and arriving at his destination. Why had he never examined that need? Or its sudden onset? Or how it was simply accepted as part of the natural order of things by everyone on the planet? Or that no Fant on any world in the galaxy prior to the Alliance shoving them all on Barsk—not a single one of them—had ever woken up one morning with the certain knowledge of their coming death and the compulsion to travel to meet it? The slowest of first-year students should have been able to see the incongruities present, and yet … no Fant did. No Fant had, at least, not prior to sailing away. How many million Dying Fant had walked this same stretch of sand, dazed and bewildered as he was now, expecting … something. Something other than just another expanse of shoreline.
He strode further up the beach until the edge of the island’s forest became visible through the rain. Turning slowly, he took in everything that the storm allowed. For a moment it was as if the years fell away and he stood as at the height of his professorial power, poised once more behind a lectern at the front of a classroom. Beating his trunk against one outstretched hand for emphasis he asked his questions, genuinely wanting answers but knowing in his heart they were rhetorical. “Where are all the boats? The fragments of so many journeys? Where are the bones of all the people?” He bellowed into the wind and rain with the last strength remaining to him.
The weather offered no reply. The beach remained merely a beach. Ryne’s trunk drooped lax upon his chest. His upraised arm fell to his side. The years weighed heavily upon him again. It was over. He’d arrived at the last island, done with living.
And then a voice spoke from behind him.
“Really, Ryne, you might ask the same question of any other island. Or do the people of Taylr leave their possessions strewn upon their beaches? Do they eschew the proper rites and fail to bury such citizens as pass before their time? Surely you don’t find debris when you travel the points of either archipelago.”
He spun, swiftly, nearly falling but with a skip kept his feet. There at the forest’s edge, like an actor stepping onto a stage, a figure emerged from shadow and approached through the rain. It resolved into a person. A woman. An old woman. An Eleph. Here, on this island that existed on no map, that only the Dying could find, that made no sense when you thought about it and which no one ever thought about, here was someone walking toward him as nonchalantly as an aunt at a family gathering. And she’d called him by name.
“Ryne of Taylr,” she said, her voice hoarse with years but musical all the same. “I bid you welcome. I am Bernath, my mother’s name was Layne.”
His ears dropped at the wonder of it, questions of math falling away for the moment. She wore a simple dress of pale brown with a slightly darker vest over it, both clung to her body as the rain soaked them. As she drew closer, he caught a faint floral scent, a perfume that had been popular decades ago. Her eyes locked on his face, her arms opened wide in greeting. The simple familiarity of the ritual provided a touchstone and he shook off his confusion, stammering the traditional reply as he had at other introductions, thousands of times over too many decades. “Perhaps our mothers knew one another.” The absurdity of his words hit him. Knew one another? It would require a Speaker, assuming one could be found who was old enough to have known either an Eleph named Layne or his own mother before they had sailed away and arrived here themselves. The framing of that puzzle brought the impossibility of the math back to his mind, now compounded. This was the final island. No one lived here. Each Fant sought it some few days after awaking to the knowledge that their death lay at hand and then strove to arrive on its shores. Nothing of the living world belonged here, least of all a … hostess.
Ryne sucked air hard as his mind raced with probability functions. Assuming the island’s perimeter contained an average span of usable beaches for bringing a boat to shore, arriving on the same day as another Dying Fant had better odds than the annual archipelago lottery. But this Bernath, she had called him by name, spoken of his home, and that unlikelihood exceeded all the stars beyond the clouded sky. He gawked at her as the words fell from his mouth. “You … you know me?”
“I feel as though I do, though I know we’ve never actually met. But in time, you and I will come to know one another far better. In time, I hope you’ll entertain some questions I have, questions about magnetic optics and the dynamics of charged particles on electromagnetic fields.”
His ears flapped back and down as he lowered the odds of his initial estimate, taking into account the thousands of students he’d had over a lifetime spent in academia, the many papers he’d presented and published. Even so, the math was still impossible. Cut the nearly infinite in half and one still had half an infinity. And yet the Eleph woman’s questions reflected some of his most recent work and unpublished theories, research that had never been a part of his classroom, calling into doubt his calculations once more. “You know my work?”
She closed the distance between them and, without inquiry or invitation, slipped her arm around his. “Indeed, yes. It has occupied much of my time in the last few years. You were so close to a breakthrough before you left, weren’t you?” She began leading him back toward the forest from which she’d come.
“I … I think I was. One can never be certain of course. The simulations were quite promising, but I needed funding to take things to the next level and—”
She patted his hand. “Funding won’t be a problem for you any longer. I promise.”
He snorted, a piercing trumpet of disbelief. “No matter how small the budget item—and the needs for my work were anything but small—in all my years at the university on Zlorka, funding physics research has always been a problem.”
“Look around, Ryne, revered scholar. Do you have any doubt that this island is not Zlorka? The limitations you endured at the university will not hamper you here.”
“You mean … I … I can continue my work? But I’ve … I thought I’d left that all behind, with my life. I’m dead now, aren’t I? Isn’t that why I’m here?”
“That life is dead, yes. Everything involving the people you knew, the bonds you forged with friends and colleagues, all the relationships you built, the vast family you have known—all that is gone. But I think you have a few years left to you. Don’t you agree? And wouldn’t you like to finish what you started? Surely you have some suspicion where it all leads. Now that life is behind you, what else is left but to follow the ideas of your mind’s creation down avenues no other being has ever conceived?”
“Of course, but—”
She guided him deeper into the trees, moving slowly in acknowledgment of his still labored breathing but without drawing attention to it. “I imagined as such. One does not settle for only a glimpse of how the universe works, not when there’s the chance to see so much more. By the way, I have to tell you, I had to argue with a number of the others to be the one to greet and welcome you.”
“Others?” Ryne paused, and Bernath patiently stopped as well. His gaze lifted, as if he could see through the dense forest, up ever higher, perhaps all the way to the canopy. “You’ve an entire, populated, Civilized Wood here?”
She laughed, a strange sound in his ears after days of deluge and constant bailing. “Of course. It wouldn’t be much of a city if we didn’t.”
“Hush, Ryne. All these questions are natural enough, and you’re not the first to arrive here and ask them. I promise you, there’s a full and informative briefing in your near future and you’ll find the answers perfectly satisfying. Now come, let’s get you settled. No doubt you can use a hot meal, and a roof over your head, and an opportunity to put on some dry clothes.”
“That all sounds quite wonderful,” he admitted, though he never expected to experience any of that again. “If … if you think there’s time.”
“There’s plenty of time, now that you’re here. A couple nights of solid sleep in a comfortable bed will have you good as new. When you’re ready—and not before—there are more than a few people eager to meet you, students of a caliber you’ve never experienced, all waiting to discuss your work.”
He nodded, following along as in a dream, a part of him already crafting the next stages of his research, spinning off from the last notes he’d scrawled and left behind for his most promising students. After only a few steps deeper into the Shadow Dwell of this, the final island as he’d always understood it to be, he caught Bernath’s eye and asked, “So, is everyone wrong then? This isn’t where we come to die?”
“Technically, I suppose it is,” she said, as they left the last shore farther behind. “Death comes for all of us eventually. No one’s discovered any way to avoid that. But just because you’ve arrived here doesn’t mean you need to be in any rush to expire.”
“But then, if it’s not the end of the final voyage as we’ve all been taught, what is this place?”
Bernath laughed again and Ryne realized he could get used to the sound of such delight. She patted his arm as she replied, “I like to think of it as the best kept secret on all of Barsk.”
Copyright © 2018 by Lawrence M. Schoen