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Le Jeu des coquilles de nautilus
(Chambered Nautilus)


Élisabeth Vonarburg



(Excerpt from "Chambered Nautilus", p. 263-277)

When she realized that this time she couldn't leave, the Voyager decided to keep a diary.
Only one sentence, and already a half-lie, she thinks with some irony. In fact, when she realized she couldn't leave she was stupefied, furious, terrified. It was when she'd accepted the idea of never leaving that she began keeping a diary.
Or else the idea crossed her mind when she went back to the village feeling troubled, discouraged and listless, when her Total Recall accessed her first awakening on the beach. The thought came hesitantly, tinged with amusement. A diary. What is a diary if not an imperfect, distorted memory - as proven by the first sentence she wrote in it? The idea of a diary for a Voyager with free access to Total Recall and trained to assemble and integrate countless data - yes, it was rather funny. Humour is the politeness of despair, as someone once said (she doesn't want to know who or in what universe). The idea was doubtless a final twitch of despair in the face of certainty, the final admission that she would never leave this particular Earth, this particular universe where the ever unpredictable laws of her Voyages had cast her ashore.
The shifting, finely granulated texture of the sand, the intensity and slant of the sun's rays, the rhythmic murmur of waves lapping, the slightly saline humidity Dozens of other facts recorded by her sensor implants (atmospheric pressure, exact composition of the air), enlarging her perceptions before she even opens her eyes, tell her she is beside the sea in the northern hemisphere, and that it is late afternoon on Earth. On one Earth.
In the eternal present of Total Recall, there is almost no causal delay between data recorded by the Voyager's body and the conclusions drawn from them by her consciousness. Recall, whether Total or not, isn't linear. The Centres on some planets have perfected complex machines capable of directly recording the electric impulses corresponding to memory engrams. Voyagers can skip the interminable recital of their travels. Yet other machines translate and catalogue the data for the Archives. She, however, has always liked to recount her Voyages aloud. Some atavistic impulse, no doubt. Tell the story of her Voyages to someone. As they have been lived, not as they've been recorded in her brain and body. Also, to avoid accessing Total Recall except when necessary. It has always seemed to her that the telling gives these Voyages an extra edge of reality. Isn't writing a diary the equivalent, after all? She would be telling the story of this last Voyage (no longer a Voyage now that she could never leave), this passage that should have been a stopover and is to become her life.
She kept her eyes closed for a moment, letting all her other senses describe the scene: a long, sandy beach curving gently around a calm bay; behind her, the fringe of a fairly dense forest, with trees interspersed with hard blocks, too regular in their irregularity not to be buildings. And, fading away along the length of sand and water, bouncing off the forest and plotting the contours of the blocks, human voices, the voices of children playing.
One of those Earths.
Not Earths like the one she'd left on her first Voyage twenty years ago - Earths where in recent years she sometimes awoke directly in a Centre, in the Voyagers' capsule, in the core of the Bridge's sphere. Where often, on opening her eyes, she found an Egon bending over her, an old Egon, moved to see her, but at peace. (Just as she had delivered herself from him in the course of manifold encounters in manifold universes, so he, in his way, had delivered himself from her. Now he could hold out a hand to help her out of the capsule and smile as he said her name: "Talitha.") Sometimes - and it happened more and more often - there was no Egon in these Centres. Egon was no more; Egon was dead.
She felt no sadness: he was alive somewhere else in other universes. It must surely be a sign. The Voyage takes Voyagers into universes that secretly correspond to their desires, and therefore the progressive fading and disappearance of Egons must mark the end of a phase for her. (After more than twenty years! Were one's inner tides so slow?) A sign that perhaps she was approaching the moment where Voyagers control the Voyage, go where they decide to go, not where their obscure inner voices propel them. They can only move among universes at will when these voices can be recognized and interpreted. A sign, the sign that soon she might be able to direct her Voyages, venture onto the most distant branches of the human universe-tree, and at long last leap onto another tree, go truly Elsewhere.
She had consulted the Archives in all the Centres she'd passed through, combed the libraries and the most advanced data on local science or the most ancient memories of tradition. No one, not ever, had made contact with a non-human universe. Oh, there were varying external details (diverse morphologies covered with fur, scales, or even a carapace), but the basic form remained upright and biped. Given these variants, their natural habitats, and the resulting mentalities and societies, the possible combinations were immense but not infinite. The universe that contained all possible variants of human history was certainly just one among many others. And it was the Others that she longed for.
Had some Voyager in some universe made the leap, having mastered the Voyage? Impossible to know, of course. She herself had only Voyaged in a few hundred universes out of billions or trillions.-.-.-. Well, it didn't matter: what she sought was a different universe-tree, another universe, the Other Universe, truly and absolutely different. She didn't really know what motivated her - she supposed this was why she hadn't yet found it. Was it fame? Curiosity? But she'd set aside these false motives long ago. No, it was something deeper, more obscure. This idea of her goal had only come to her bit by bit. In the beginning she had wanted to become a Voyager the way some people want to die. But - with Egon - she had learned to want to live, even if she was still fleeing when she left the first time. Egon. For years she hadn't stopped fleeing, or seeking, or finding him. At last, though, she'd understood, had accepted the inevitable and freed herself. All those years, all those universes behind her .-.-. she could feel them drifting away. The end of one phase and the start of another? But so nebulous, so uncertain.-.-.-.
Personal, subjective time takes on another dimension during the Voyage, in the leap from one universe to another, from one historic time to another, sometimes vastly different. But she'd kept count: in the last five years there'd been a dozen Voyages with the same pattern. About one time in three, she would find herself in a Centre on an Earth identical to her own. She would leave immediately, not bothering to explore the variants, for they were often so minimal that it would take years and years to discover them. Another time in three, she would find herself on a planet not Earth, but always terrestrial enough despite variants to make it clear this was not the desired Other Universe.
That small planet on the outer edge of its galaxy, for example, perched on the verge of an intergalactic void - a vast black space where no star shone, where the most powerful telescopes could only discern the distant light of other galaxies as patches where the dark was slightly less profound. She stayed on this planet for six months, motivated by a vague hope. But no one ever crossed the void to bring news of other lives. She stayed to watch the night skies gradually losing their stars as the planet drifted toward the part of its orbit bordering on the void. That season of deep and total nights corresponded to springtime in the southern hemisphere, where the equivalent of the Bridge was located. Spring, the renewal of life: the inhabitants of Shingèn associated them with blackness, whereas she perceived the blackness as a heavy, terrifying lid. The Shingèn fantasies - their myths, religions, and legends - stubbornly survived and were preserved as a precious heritage, peopling the shadows with beings of black light, guardians of a domain where, once a year, all the colours of the world came to renew themselves. And the Shingèns had a very wide vocabulary for describing colours, especially black, which for them was the most mysterious and rich of shades. "Was." Is. Why speak of them in the past tense? Their universe still exists, and so does their planet, perched on the edge of its stellar abyss.
There has also been that planet where life was only possible within a thin zone suspended between the boiling pressure of the surface and the suffocating void of gigantic mountain tops. Hanging between two mortal hells, life still evolved, tenacious and rich in dreams. The Bridge was not called by that name, and had been developed to explore the torrid depths of the surface. As often happened, its inventors had no idea it could be used to Voyage through universes, and their attempts after she'd come had failed. Perhaps they'd had no need to Voyage. They'd only begun to explore their planet, and, in itself, it was three universes.
There has been. Yes, this is how the memory of this diary differ from Total Recall - in this past that insists on coming back. She has briefly visited these planets, these universes, and will never go back. Her passage emphasizes their temporality. There has been, therefore, this planet where two human races cohabited, one very ancient, and the other on the edge of humanity, over which the first watched with discreet tenderness, not keeping itself hidden but with no attempt to dominate, with no fear or bitterness. The name of the first race, K'tu'tinié'go, literally meant "those who come before the beginning," which signified "the apprentices," or "the unfinished." Only the second race, which had barely begun to explore the fringes of language, was called "human." A system of complex myths recorded these names, to which the K'tu'tinié'go scholars, and particularly the biologists, gave another meaning. But they would smile at her as they explained the scientific basis for relations between the two races, as though these explanations were merely another story, mainly pleasing for its novelty and ingenuity. For them, all truths were always multiple. She had been astonished that, with such a world vision, this first people had been able to develop science to a state advanced enough to include the equivalent of a Bridge.-.-.-. They used it to treat congenital cellular degeneration, which could only be slowed down in the suspended animation of deep cold, around absolute zero.
And one Voyage in three leads her to another Earth, this Earth, with continents gradually submerged, dikes anxiously watched over by their guardians, cliffs nibbled away by the waves, and the soft, moist air of a warming planet on which the polar icecaps are inexorably melting. She had recognized it even before opening her eyes. This was the fourth time her sensors had recorded this gestalt perception in her Total Recall. When she did open her eyes to find the beach with its still muted colours, she asked herself yet again whether, through some new and bizarre trick of her Voyages, this mightn't be the same planet at different moments in its evolution.
Total Recall, so clear, so immediate; the past becomes the present again, just for the asking. The children aren't far from the spot where she has materialized. She knows, having read about it in many Archives and witnessed it once herself, that a Voyager appears almost instantaneously, almost in the blink of an eye. Perhaps the children haven't seen her appear. The awakening takes longer, and plenty of Voyagers have found themselves in sticky situations, although never fatal - not according to the Archives consulted by her, at any rate. Could suicidal Voyagers propel themselves into a universe that would immediately kill them? But you can't train to become a Voyager and remain suicidal, as she well knows.
Haven't the children noticed the woman sleeping naked on their beach? She walks in their direction, watching them and scanning the landscape. The beach is well kept, with heaps of driftwood and kelp neatly arranged at the far end beside the pilings of a wharf. The forest seems well tended, too. Great umbrella pines mingle with more tropical species, growing thickly enough to create a wall of foliage and branches above the regularly spaced trunks and the cleared forest floor. The half-hidden buildings are ruins, but their contours and materials are still recognizable - such architecture was ultramodern on the last Earth of this type that she'd visited. The children's village lies beyond the wharf, in a notch cut out of the forest.
The children continue playing at the edge of the waves. Their slender bodies are of curiously different shades, the palest seeming to shimmer in the sunlight. It is hard to tell girls from boys at first glance. The sinuous silhouettes flow smoothly from head to shoulders to hips to legs, ending in feet that are subtly disproportionate and, like their overly large, flat hands, slightly .-.-. webbed. A semi-aquatic humanity - she's never encountered it on an Earth like this one. The children don't turn their eyes away when she looks at them. They smile rather shyly and go on with their game. She can tell what it is from their movements. They are tossing a flat, round marker and hopping to retrieve it. Rows of shells mark segments in the smooth, wet sand. But it isn't the hopscotch grid of her childhood (so near, so far, dozens of universes away), or those she's occasionally come upon since then. Those were either rectangular or arranged in a double cross. This one is a spiral with ten sections that diminish toward the centre, ending in a space just big enough for a child's foot. Beneath it, somewhat scuffed by the feet of the players, is the whorl of an inverse spiral that grows bigger toward the centre.
She sits on the sand again near a pile of empty shells. A great sense of peace fills her, as is so often the case when she awakes. The sun sinks behind the sea, leaving a sky dotted with small clouds slowly sculpted by a distant wind, meticulous yet shifting hieroglyphs, their silvery outlines bright at first, then fading to nothing. The ebbing surf breaks softly but steadily on the sand to a continuo of rustling trees and the gentle, rhythmic sing-song of the children at their game. A new coolness touches her skin, and night seems to well up from the water as it fades from pink to gray, blotting out the line where sea meets sky. All this, simultaneously perceived by her senses (and not linearly as it is now being recorded by these words), resembles the vibrato of an ultimate chord before . . . before what, if ultimate? Still, that is what she feels at the time, a Voyager in transit, present yet altogether detached: a suspension, a waiting.
She is waiting for someone to speak. But the someone sits down beside her in silence, watches the children as they continue their game, takes a shell from the pile - the smooth greeny-white palette of an oyster - and strokes it with a finger. A long finger, joined to the others by a translucent membrane. The light skin, vaguely pink in the afterglow of the sun, is covered in fine, iridescent scales; the arm, like the whole body, is wet and smells of the sea. The head, with its cap of fair, water-smoothed hair, pivots slowly to reveal a heart-shaped face, vaguely Asiatic, with large, gray-green eyes, heavy lids slanting toward the temples, a flat nose, and a small mouth with full, curved lips. The someone is a naked woman, age impossible to tell, who has just come out of the water and is looking at her, unsmiling but not unfriendly. They stare at one another for a long moment. Then the woman gets up, takes her by the hand, and leads her to the village, followed by the children.
Talitha accepts the simple garments proffered by the villagers. After a somewhat uncertain silence, the familiar ritual begins. The large, dusky woman who appears to speak for the villagers places a hand on her heart and says, "Ao palli kedia" - syllables that may be her name. Talitha's trained mind immediately begins to establish correlations between the stressed syllables and pronunciation of this language with those encountered on the three other, similar planets. Perhaps the syllables mean "I am Palli Kedia" or "I am a kedia" or "a palli" or "the village chief." Faithful to the ritual, however, Talitha in turn places a hand on her heart and says her own name clearly. The villagers murmur softly. Is it surprise? Appreciation? The woman from the sea touches Talitha's arm and smiles - perhaps because she is moved or amused or both. Putting her other hand on her naked breast (a flower-like hand, the membranes stretched between the spreading fingers) she speaks what must be her name, accentuating the difference: "Ao Tilitha."
Talitha has already met herself in other universes. Not very often - that isn't what she was hoping to find when she became a Voyager. (And, quite soon, she even stopped wanting to meet the Talitha who lived happily with an Egon. Of course they exist somewhere, all the facets of this story exist somewhere, but she has finally passed beyond the stage where she thinks of it as "our story." It is the story of every Talitha and every Egon in their respective universes, as those she's met have made her fully realize. Her own story is something else, something she hasn't yet shaped.) And so she merely smiles, noting the similarity between her name and the name of the woman from the sea. She has no desire to find out more about this contingent variant of herself, however exotic. She turns toward "Palli Kedia," resolved to do what every Voyager does upon arrival: learn the local language.
Palli Kedia seems reluctant to talk, once they have exchanged names. Talitha shows her wish to communicate, pointing to the objects around them and saying all the names given them on other Submerged Earths. Palli Kedia may be reluctant to talk, but she is quite ready to communicate. The language is based on a complex sign system assisted occasionally by a few words, sometimes by a mere sound.
There are Voyagers who never tire of the infinite forms of humanity encountered. They are the ones who feed the Archives in the Centres, to which they travel only to leave again. Talitha isn't one of these explorers. What struck her very soon in her Voyages were the recurrent patterns, the resemblances, the repetitions. She seeks something else, something totally other, unimaginable, amazing.
She leaves the village next morning. If this Earth resembles the other three fairly closely, the political and scientific centres will be in the southeast. Once again she'll probably have to travel to the extreme south of the continent, where the capital stands on a cliff (in one case entirely artificial), a city built as a challenge to the sea and its inevitable encroachment. On the first Submerged Earth this was a true calamity - a natural disaster. On the others, humans had played a considerable part in the general warming of their planet. Changes came with great speed, made worse by the accompanying recurrence of violent seismic activity. On an overpopulated Earth, and in societies that were all the more fragile because of their complex technologies, these upheavals were catastrophic. The long-term consequences had decimated the population on the third Earth, and the human race was slowly becoming extinct. She had taken nearly three years to find a group of scientists either dynamic or stoic enough to continue doing research, and to convince them to develop the machine that one of them was tinkering with for the sake of amusement - a machine that, unknown to him, was an embryo Bridge. Three years! Never had she stayed so long in one place, even in the universe where she had at last made her peace with Egon. It was also the first time she'd actually had to help build a Bridge. She left that planet, that universe, with a brief question in her mind: now that a Bridge existed, Voyagers would surely come, and others would leave by it. But it was probably already too late to change the fate of that dying human race. In any case, she was no missionary and she knew perfectly well she hadn't given that Earth a Bridge in order to fulfil the secret plan of some hidden divinity: her goal was to leave.
Now, as she travels over almost vanished roads, through ruined towns and landscapes still bearing the scars of ancient devastation, she soon feels a growing anxiety. Does she detect an increasingly recurrent pattern here? She'd found it more and more problematic to leave the preceding Submerged Earths. This one seems to have regressed even further in the same direction as the last. Not much is known about how the Voyage works, apart from the physical functioning of the Bridge itself up to the moment when the anaesthetized body is cooled to almost absolute zero and disappears from the capsule. But the law, the only sure law, is that the Bridge always provides access to universes that you can leave, one where a Bridge exists (even if not called that), or where it is technologically possible for the Voyager to have one built. There is nothing surprising in this, because it is not the Bridge that propels Voyagers into the various universes but the Voyagers themselves, their psyche, or as believers say, their Matrix. Voyagers may have sent themselves into universes without any means of escape, because they desired it either consciously or unconsciously. It is a statistical certainty, but materially unverifiable, since such Voyagers have never returned to the Centres to confide their experiences to the Archives. She knows she doesn't yearn for that kind of universe; that means there must be a Bridge on this planet or the possibility of one - or its equivalent.
After two weeks of solitary walking, her fears are allayed. She comes to a small city where the remaining inhabitants speak a language closely resembling the Euskade she'd learned on the second Submerged Earth. Without too much difficulty, they agree to provide her with a small automotive vehicle in fairly good shape. The roads improve toward the southeast, they tell her, and she'll have no trouble getting to the big city she's looking for. In the other universes it was called Périndéra, Neva de Rel, Torremolines. In the village by the sea they called it Aomanukéra. Here it is called Baïblanca...

© 2003 Éditions Alire & Élisabeth Vonarburg

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