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art by Shannon N. Kelly

Worlds Like a Hundred Thousand Pearls

The Numbers Quartet is a collaboration between Aliette de Bodard, Nancy Fulda, Stephen Gaskell, & Benjamin Rosenbaum

Aliette de Bodard lives and works in Paris, where she has a day job as a Computer Engineer. In her spare time, she writes speculative fiction--she is the author of the Obsidian and Blood trilogy of Aztec noir fantasies, and her writing has been nominated for a Hugo Award, a Nebula Award and the Campbell Award for Best New Writer. Visit aliettedebodard.com for more information.

Nancy Fulda is a Phobos Award winner, a Vera Hinckley Mayhew Award recipient, and a two-time Writers of the Future finalist. Her near-future space exploration story, "That Undiscovered Country," was jointly honored by Baen Books and the National Space Society. Nancy's writing has appeared in Asimov's, Apex Digest, Strange Horizons, Clarkesworld, and many others. Her web site is nancyfulda.com.

Stephen Gaskell has published fiction in Interzone, Nature, and Clarkesworld, amongst other places. His SF novella, "Strata", a high-tech thriller set in the sun's chromosphere, co-written with Bradley P. Beaulieu, author of The Winds of Khalakovo, has just been released through Amazon and B & N. He is currently working on his first novel, a near-future SF tale set in Lagos, Nigeria. More of his work and thoughts can be found at stephengaskell.com.

Benjamin Rosenbaum lives near Basel, Switzerland with his wife Esther and his children, Aviva and Noah, who demand logic puzzles, classic rock, and childrens' suffrage . He's recently become Swiss, which means of course that he is on the board of a club (in his case, a little synagogue). The Swiss have a deep reverence for clubs; they consider them the backbones of democracy, and the constitutional "right to assemble" actually translates to "the right to form clubs". No lie. His website is benjaminrosenbaum.com.

Exponential: the transcendental number that is the base of Napierian or natural logarithms, approximately equal to 2.71828. The number also has applications in probability theory--symbol e, first referenced in work by John Napier in 1618 AD.

Shall I tell you a story?
Not the Buddhist fables in the sutras, about kings and their sons--the cryptic wisdom you stopped believing when war stole your husband from you, leaving you with only a hologram on the ancestral shrine, and your son Hoang, too young to understand, who kept asking you why Daddy wasn't coming home. Not a Daoist story either, full of heroes with peach-wood swords and demon-fights--where the dead can rise, and walk again: the miracles that never happen. For you have stood at too many funerals, watching the coffins covered with a yellow shroud, and no one ever woke up, not even to become the shambling monstrosities that used to frighten Hoang so much.
No, it is a far, far older tale; older even than Gautama Buddha himself. You might have heard some of it already, in one form or another--the Lotus and the other sutras, for instance, speak of worlds upon worlds, stacked atop each other like Hoang's toys--each awaiting the Honored One's coming, that he might teach them the way to Nirvana.
Before you ask, I know nothing of Nirvana, or the Honored One. I have never seen them on my travels. But the worlds...
The worlds are there, scattered like a broken necklace--a hundred thousand pearls ready to be picked up, and the way between them requiring only a thought to be opened.
A thought. You don't say it, but I hear it all the same. You think it's not a much better story than the ones I mocked. You sit in your deserted house, your hands smelling of dirt--thinking that you should wash them, that you should check the Eight Diagrams mirror above the door of your house, make sure the angry ghost won't find his way home--though you cannot imagine Hoang ever angry, or vengeful: merely lost and bereft, weeping for the descendants he'll never have. You listen to me as you listened to the elders who told you not to mourn--who told you that the old shouldn't break their hearts over the young, that a child's death is a tragedy, but not so great as losing a parent.
Let me tell you about the worlds. I've walked a hundred thousand of them--under red suns, in deserts strewn with glass, by lakes shining under starlight. I have seen a city so large the sun never set on its gilded pagodas; a world of habitats in the Heavens, where the people released their dead on metal kites that slid down towards the scorched earth; a forest of crystal on a vast sea, where the wind sang songs like fisherman's laments.
They're the worlds of paths not taken, of choices not made, of outcomes that never came to pass. Everything that happened around you--every direction taken by the myriad aircars in Hanoi's Old Quarter, every brush of a butterfly's wings, held in Hoang's cupped hands--every moment, every gesture, every held or released breath--they all gave rise to universes, the new rising from the debris of the old.
Your eyes narrow. You watch me--you see me for the first time, standing by your side with my hand outstretched--holding out a piece of crystal that trembles with the weight of our breaths, scattering faint notes in the silence of the room. You see my face--which isn't Viet or Chinese, or Westerner, which is like nothing you have seen before--and for the first time, you realize that this--all of this--might be for real.
It is.
Your breath catches in your throat; and the shard of crystal in my hand tightens in answer. You'd ask why; but you know better. There are no reasons in the universe--because, if there were any, you wouldn't be here with the white headband of mourning still coiled on the table.
So, instead, you ask about the worlds. You ask about the other ones--the ones where the aircar swerved right instead of left; the ones where Hoang didn't cross the street running, excited about showing you the cicada in his hand.
There is an answer; but it is neither easy nor simple. Bear with me.
My order is old; old enough for its origins to have been lost. We have opened the gates between worlds for as long as we can remember--on a held breath, on an empty mind, on a single thought spun into nothingness. We take nothing. We own nothing. We decide nothing--not even the destination on which a gate opens. We travel, witnessing the wonders and the horrors; the myriad dreams and fears of the living--the joys and the sorrows, the births and the funerals--the fabric that binds people everywhere, whatever their shape, language, or thoughts.
So yes, you might see Hoang again, or your husband. I can't foresee where your path might take you. I can, however, give you one warning.
We cannot hold on to anything. It is a necessary condition: as in the Buddhist tales, it's only detachment that will unlock the world; and you can only leave a world for another if you have nothing to lose.
You might, perhaps, see them again; but they would be as strangers to you--you would feel nothing, perhaps not even the slight flutter that comes when you walk by an old acquaintance in the street.
You know all about pain, and having nothing to lose. You think you can pay the price, if only for the slight chance that it offers of seeing Hoang again. But I know about pain, too; and about renouncement; and I can tell you that it is a heavy price to pay.
I can tell you, too, that in time, the rawness of grief would become dull, like a knife's blade eroded by the sea; that you would walk by Lake Hoan Kiem and think of the time Hoang scraped his knee on the path to the temple--and that your heart would contract a little, with caring and with love, and the remembrance of happy times. That you would find comfort in your elders' words, and in the small chatter of your siblings and cousins at family reunions--and, perhaps, in time, find someone else to love as much as you love your husband and your son.
In time, you would dismiss me as a sick mind's fancy.
Shall I tell you a story?
Like all good stories, it ends with a moral--a question, and a warning. Come with us, and you'll have the whole of space and time spread before you--more wonders and terrors than you can even imagine, to fill the emptiness in your heart. But only if you can accept that you'll never be able to grasp and hold any of it--that you'll never own anything, never master anything. Only if you accept that you will never love anyone ever again.
Come; tell me your answer.
The End
This story was first published on Wednesday, February 1st, 2012

Author Comments

This was mainly an experiment to see if I could tell a story in second person present tense, a conceit that is hard to maintain beyond flash length. I ran into trouble writing it because the many-worlds concept raised embarrassing questions, such as whether there was a world in which the main character's husband and son had survived. Fortunately, a few small additions took care of the problem.

- Aliette de Bodard
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