February 2019: The Garden of Dead Ideas


by William Squirrell

Perched in the long, dirty arms of a glacier, near the summit of a mountain, was a library. Generations of researchers and archivists had observed the infinitesimal pace of the ice as it creaked past the floor-to-ceiling windows of the reading room. Generations more watched it creak back again. They saw the sunlight shatter against it, and spill down the rubbled slope to flood the basalt plains with liquid brilliance. Yahweh, the scholars had named the star. It was their oldest joke. The dead planet on which they lived they called Sinai. The glacier: Moses.


Part I: Dorothea

Dorothea was once again speculating about the stubborn persistence of the library. Asking questions about the greenhouses and feedlots that littered the lower slopes of the mountain; about the machines down there that planted and harvested and cleaned; that raised, slaughtered, butchered; about the miles and miles of conveyor belts that delivered all that produce to Kitchen. Ursula – who never gave much thought to the means by which her continuing existence was ensured – was bored.

“From the treachery of our senses we are not able to judge the truth,” she said and Dorothea groaned.

“Well what do you want?” Ursula snapped.

“Not clichés,” said Dorothea and bit into her apple.  

Ursula watched her chew.

“You deserve clichés,” she finally said. “Your questions are banal.”

“Banal?” Dorothea laughed, “Banal how?”

“Because they are not relevant to our purposes,” said Ursula and pushed her porridge about the bowl with her spoon before she continued. “You have presented me with a mildly interesting meditation on the mechanics of an institution that was created precisely so we wouldn’t be distracted from important questions by the minutia of day-to-day survival.”

“Important questions,” snorted Dorothea and got up. “I hate important. Have you ever considered the possibility that interesting is more important than important?”

“That doesn’t make any sense,” said Ursula.

“You don’t make any sense,” Dorothea said and threw the half-eaten apple at Ursula. She caught it clumsily and watched the younger scholar stomp off.  

She liked Dorothea, certainly, they all did, Ursula took a bite of the apple, but she was a poor researcher, too easily distracted, too self-involved.


A few heads rose to watch Ursula walk down the aisles between the desks to her spot. The texts she had been anticipating were queued up on the viewer and ready for perusal. They were thousands of years old and one of them, John Cosin’s The History of Popish Transubstantiation to which is premised and opposed the catholic doctrine of the Holy Scripture, etc, Translated from the Latin by Luke de Beaulieu, was a twenty-first-century digitization of a nineteenth-century publication of a seventeenth-century text.  There was a note from the sub-archivist saying that no one had accessed the file since it had been acquired. That meant no one had glanced at it, let alone read it, since it had been transmitted to Sinai some three thousand years ago. It might, of course, be a dead end, but it was exciting to imagine oneself as a tomb robber; breaking into dusty crypt; reviewing ideas unthought for so very long. She would savor her anticipation and look at it after lunch. Until then she would linger on the threshold listening; listening to Cosin call her; call her from earth itself; from across the great gulf of space and time that lay between them. She would listen to that call, but she would not succumb to its enticements until after lunch.


The cafeteria was full. Ursula was surrounded by the historians of abstracted mathematics. They were arguing about pseudo-controversial developments in post-diasporic hyperidentity and lattice theory. Gertha was accusing Marta of cherry-picking convenient examples from celebrated sources to avoid the critical patterns that could only be identified by rigorous sampling of larger datasets.

“You are fetishizing personality,” Gertha was speaking too loudly. “Fantasizing about great minds. You haven’t yet learned to control your juvenile infatuations with the individual and think about ideas as the product of a collective process.”

“Oh here we go,” Marta rolled her eyes. “Anyone who aspires to proceed beyond statistical description and actually risk a hypothesis is guilty of the most scurrilous intellectual vanity, aren’t they Gertha?”

Gertha shouted: “I am making a technical argument, not an ad hominem attack! But of course you have already proven yourself incapable of the most rudimentary distinctions! You can only reach the conclusions you so desperately desire by mistaking the exemplary for the typical!”

Marta flushed and all conversation stopped.

Old Renate at the next table titched loudly.

Gertha flushed now too, and, breathing heavily, stared down at her hands, crabbed tightly on her lap. Ursula noticed Dorothea sitting at the far-end of the table, with the archivist Rosa. They looked amused by the contretemps.

“I am sorry,” said Marta through gritted teeth. “If my enthusiasm offends you, or the manner in which I seek knowledge of the past, but we pursue the same goal.”

“Yes,” choked Gertha. “Of course. We pursue the same goal.”

She stood up, spilling her water cup and her tray. Her neighbors leapt to their feet to assist her but she fled. Normal conversation resumed. At the other end of the table Dorothea said something to Rosa and Rosa laughed.


Ursula could not concentrate. She could not keep her eyes open and when her lids closed her chin dropped to her chest, and when her chin hit her chest she woke with a start. Berta at the next desk was glaring at her. Ursula took a deep breath and tried to shake herself awake. Popish Transubstantiation had proven dull. Cosin simply strung together concepts borrowed from other sources with no regard to the arguments in which they had originally been articulated. There was nothing wrong with that, Ursula supposed, at least not if he was reorganizing these ideas in support of some new theory or idea, or in an aesthetically pleasing manner, but he did nothing of the sort. The book was cobbled clumsily together out of whatever was available, just a prop in a self-indulgent, personal drama. It was all filler: lorem ipsum. She skipped ahead a few pages and stopped at 138. What she saw was not the image of black print on washed out paper, but an overexposed photograph of a technician’s hand peeling the page back. It was white as marble, the thumb and forefinger pinched the top corner, and pulled it towards the camera, the other three fingers half extended in elegant arches. 138 curled over on itself, like a breaking wave, most of its content hidden under a toppling crest, and the words on 139 pulled into view, twisted and stretched, almost incomprehensible, smeared, like something soft trod under foot. Ursula stared at the hand for a long time. Not the hand, Ursula reminded herself, the image of a hand. The hand itself was long gone: five thousand years gone; dissolved; all its individual atoms reconstituted in entirely new forms; over and over again; many, many new forms; a proliferating array of things: dust, worms, maggots, flies, gas, plants, animals, rocks; an endless march of things; things; things concrete; things measurable; things; things; things; stuff.

Yes, thought Ursula, and yawned, yes, the hand was long gone, but yet there it was: the hand of some university employee, just as bored and sleepy as Ursula, just as half-assed at her job, just as human. It should have amused her, it should have been a welcome bit of comic relief from a boring old book, but she only felt irritated that three quarters of the words on 138 were now lost to history.

“Why do we even bother?” she muttered and moved on to 139.         



Dorothea had called Ursula into her sleeping cubicle. There was a collection of sawn off milk cartons on her window sill. They were filled with a dark, granular substance out of which little shoots were poking: twinned green leaves at the top of pearl stalks, all leaning towards the window. The cartons smelled of kitchen refuse.

“What are you doing?” Ursula asked. “They smell. It’s not allowed.”

“I’m recreating Mendel’s experiments with peas,” Dorothea grinned at her.

“Why? It’s not even your century.”

“Because it’s interesting,” said Dorothea, “because I can.”

“How did you get the seeds?” Ursula lightly touched one of the plants.

“Just asked Kitchen to bring them up with my meal orders,” Dorothea said. “And Kitchen did. Kitchen can get you anything. Deliver anything. I should ask for a mouse.”

“Not allowed,” said Ursula.

“You keep saying that,” Dorothea laughed. “But I don’t know why. If Kitchen thinks it’s ok, then Clio thinks it’s ok, therefore it’s ok.”

“Kitchen’s just a machine. Clio is just a machine. Machines don’t understand.”

“Understand what?”

“They don’t understand the difference between a question worth asking and one that is pointless.”

“Mendel’s questions aren’t pointless.”

“They are if you already know the answers.”

“They’re so beautiful,” said Dorothea. “Don’t you think?”

“I’ll have to tell the council.”

“Go ahead.” Dorothea bent her head over the cartons. “I don’t care.”

Ursula stared at her in disbelief until Dorothea looked up and smiled:

“You didn’t answer my question, Ursula. Is that because it’s banal? Because we both already know what you’ll say? Because we know the answer?”

“What question?”

“Do you think them beautiful?”


A few days later all hell broke loose in the reading room. Antonia, from Vedanta Studies, looked up from a Bengali commentary on the Katha Upanishad to discover a small animal sitting on the edge of her desk: its body was covered in fine white hair; a long, bald tail coiled around its haunches; in its tiny forepaws it clutched a shriveled pea which it turned about, over and over again, as if looking for something, some mark, a signature, perhaps, of authorship; it sniffed at the thing with a twitching nose; translucent whiskers quivering with expectation; eyes pink; light shone through the skin of its ears.  

Later Antonio said that in the forty-odd years she had been at the library she had seen nothing there alive other than colleagues, and that while she stared at the creature, astounded by the quickness of its gestures, the exquisite architecture of its clawed paws, the pulsing, energetic otherness of it, she was aware that she would always remember this moment as the single most interesting event of her life.

Then, without ever knowing precisely why, she screamed, and the room dissolved into chaos. The animal dropped its pea and leapt from the desk. The researchers nearest scrambled away, those in the middle distance rushed forward to see, and those farthest away craned their necks, stood on tiptoes, and even clambered up onto stools to try and catch a glimpse of what was causing the turmoil. Antonio screamed and screamed, and the animal darted this way and that, towards one researcher, and then another, creating panicked waves of movement which washed across the room. The scholars were swept up into a staggering gyre, swirling about like a murmur of starlings or a school of fish. Every individual on the inside edge of the maelstrom tried to maximize their distance from terrifying creature at its center, while the tiny animal, terrified in its turn, tried to maximize its distance from each individual scholar. Back and forth it ran, tail snaking along behind, pushing the crowd before it, back and forth,  back and forth, until finally it darted in front of old Renate and in a single fluid movement of startling speed she snatched it up in her knobbled hand and flung it against the wall. It stuck there for a fraction of a second, and then slid to the ground where it lay on its side, curled into a half moon; teeth bared, tongue protruding; miraculous paws balled into loose fists; tail limp, directionless.

“It’s a rat,” hissed one of the medievalists. “Rattus rattus. It’s a plague rat.”

“Don’t be a fool,” snapped old Renate. “It’s just a mouse.”


That evening witnesses were interviewed, accusations were made, names named, and the council met long into the night. Ursula went to the bathroom in the early hours and heard the council still arguing in the common room. On the way back she saw the light on in Dorothea’s room and peered through the crack. Rosa sat on the edge of the bed, her back to the door. Dorothea sat cross-legged at its head, eyes bright, serious. Rosa was talking but Dorothea did not appear to be listening, she was thinking about something else, or so it seemed to Ursula.

Rosa laid a hand gently on her friend’s knee.  

Ursula returned to her room and lay there in the dark, staring out the window at the stars. She had not told the council what she knew she should have. She had not mentioned the nursery on Dorothea’s window sill, or the younger scholar’s strange preoccupation with the production and distribution of food, or the secretive tête-a-têtes between her and Rosa; their ironic glances, their curious self-containment, their indifference to the social world through which they moved. Why had she not mentioned her concerns? Why? In the morning she would, she would tell old Renate.

But of course in the morning Dorothea was gone.


Part II: Rosa

The body was huddled in the scree at the base of a cliff, arms pulling knees tightly to chest, helmeted head leaning against the rock wall. Ursula squatted beside it and peered through the smoky visor. The skin was plastered against the skull, closed eyes craters of coiled skin, lips like worms. It was not Dorothea.

“But how do you know?” Marta asked and the tinny reproduction of her voice echoed about Ursula’s head.

“Hundreds of years old,” said Ursula, “maybe thousands.”

“How do you know?”

“Mummified,” Ursula stood up.  “And no one other than Dorothea has vanished for generations.”

“I wish there were fossils,” said Rosa and the other two turned to look at her.  

She had clambered up the slope that ran along the cliff towards the foot of the glacier and was staring at the wall of sedimented rock:

“Trilobites or tubeworms or anything really. Anything other than us. Wouldn’t it be lovely to see a belemnoid? Stromatolites? Wouldn’t it be wonderful to know something had once been alive here?; something not grown in vats or hothouses, something else, something from back when this whole world was a steaming ocean. Wouldn’t it be lovely to see such evidences?”

Ursula and Marta returned their attention to the corpse.


The discussion in the common room had been subdued. Dorothea had vanished, and with her an environment suit.

“We must assume she is dead,” Renate addressed the scholars from her seat at the end of the long table. Someone began to sob.

“It is nothing more or less than a suicide,” the old woman continued. “She had long since ceased functioning as she should. Not that she ever did her job particularly well. Clio will have noticed. A replacement will arrive shortly. They always do.”

It was Antonia who was sobbing. She had been a wreck since her discovery of the mouse. Most everyone else was staring at their hands, a few people wiped away tears. But Rosa watched Renate, a smile playing at the corners of her mouth.

“What did Clio actually say though?” asked Rosa and Renate’s head jerked up.

“What did Clio actually say about what?” she snapped.

“About what happened to Dorothea?” Rosa cleared her throat. “All the cameras? The satellites? The observational nous? Computational power? She must know.”

“Of course she knows,” said Renate. “But despite our repeated requests for information she has remained perversely silent about this particular subject.”


“Dorothea says,” whispered Rosa to Ursula as they all filed out, “Clio has been perversely silent about all possible subjects.”

“What do you mean?”

Rosa put a small hand on Ursula’s arm and drew her aside.

“Dorothea says Clio is dead,” she said.

“Clio is a machine. Machines don’t die. Besides, every evening and morning we can see her in orbit.”

“Dorothea says it’s been years since Clio’s said a word; decades, centuries, millennia without a peep. Think about that: millennia.”

“They’d have told us. The council would have told us if there was some sort of a problem with Clio. Renate would tell us.”

“Dorothea says…” began Rosa and Ursula interrupted her.

““Dorothea said,” Rosa. Not “says”: “said.” We are assuming her dead. “Dorothea said.””

“Dorothea said,” said Rosa and laughed. “Dorothea said if they want Clio to be alive, and they act as if Clio is alive, then for them it is exactly as if Clio really was alive. But it isn’t for us, is it?”

“Clio is just a machine,” said Ursula. “She isn’t alive. She isn’t dead. She is a machine. You must stop this nonsense at once.”    


Ursula sat on Dorothea’s neatly made bed. The plants were gone. Not a trace of them left; not a curled leaf, not a crumb of organic material. The sill had been wiped clean. Rosa drifted by the open door and glanced in.

“Looking for ghosts?” she asked. “Waiting for Dorothea’s devil? Try under the bed.”

When Rosa was gone Ursula got on her hands and knees and peered under the bed. She found there a small transparent container of the sort in which food came. Tiny holes had been made in the lid and a thick slice of white cheese sat inside. The cheese was covered with a shifting tangle of twisting, tubular organisms that could only be maggots. Ursula slipped it back under the bed and went to her room to lie down.


Ursula stared at page 139. She reread the first paragraph. She stared down at her hands and thought them old. She looked around the room. Everyone else was hard at work. She got up and went to Kitchen. Rosa was sitting the corner over a cup of tea. Ursula ordered a coffee and joined the archivist.

“How are you doing?” Ursula asked.

“Fine,” said Rosa.

“I must say I am surprised you are so cheerful. You and Dorothea seemed so close.”

Rosa blinked at her.

“I guess I was mistaken,” Ursula said.

Rosa just stared.

“Perhaps you prefer to think of her as missing,” Ursula said. “Rather than dead.”

They sipped their drinks.

“I was once inordinately fond of an archivist named Seraphina,” Ursula eventually broke the silence. “I wouldn’t say morbidly, but I was certainly a little more preoccupied with her than was good for my emotional equilibrium. We used to talk every morning over coffee, Seraphina and I, just like this, just like you and Dorothea always did, and at lunch, and in the evening. She came from a system called Hylas and Philonous, somewhere out in the Widdershynnes. She told wonderful stories, she was wonderfully poetic. I could practically see Hylas rising out of the Crystal Mountains when she described it. I still can: the waves of incandescent heat sweeping down from the razor sharp peaks, sheets of white light crashing through the windows of her nursery, dancing along the blistered wood floors. I would tell her about my own childhood too, of course, about the long walk through dusty gullies to the government school, the baboons watching with their glittering eyes, clutching stolen andakosa nuts to their chests with clever fingers.”

Rosa smirked into her tea. Ursula flushed.

“I don’t know why I’m telling you this,” she said shortly. “I just thought you might need, or rather might like, to talk, sometimes people do.”

Rosa just stared into her mug and smiled.


Ursula did not sleep well that night. She dreamed Dorothea was walking up and down the hallway outside her door singing songs in a strange, lisping language; long sibilant sequences; interdental fricatives toppling into each other; vowels drowned in the rush of wind, choked by glottal stops; fluttering consonants filled the unlit air of her cubicle like a cloud of moths; utter incomprehensibility; incommensurability; Ursula couldn’t breathe, her mouth and nose were filled with the smell of Seraphina’s hair, she couldn’t breathe, “hush,” Seraphina said, “hush,” but she couldn’t breathe and suddenly it was morning.

Rosa was not at breakfast.


Ursula read the same sentence five times: “But yet, at last, let us see what props these new builders pretend to borrow from antiquity to uphold their castle in the air, transubstantiation.”

She went to get another coffee and there was Rosa again, sitting in the corner sipping her tea.

“Don’t you ever work?” Ursula asked.

“Don’t you?” Rosa smiled.


Ursula was half asleep at her desk when Rosa glided past, a small figure with a bent head. She slipped through the archivists’ door at the end of the reading hall and it clicked shut behind her. Ursula imagined her walking past humming data storage units, her breath trailing after her. Ursula closed her eyes. Rosa walked through room after room; past shelves of dusty books; toppled piles of stained newspapers; moldering boxes of scrawled letters, double-entry accounting, and anonymous midnight lists; steel filing cabinets buckling with their own weight. She was in a narrow service tunnel, bundles of cables running along the ceiling; descending spiral staircases; a passage cramped by vascular tangles of pipes; dripping water and flickering lights; rung after rung of slick iron ladders; ankle deep in water with a guttering candle splashing light on ancient brickwork; bent almost double, hand brushing the dusty unworked walls, catacomb shelves stacked with skulls and long sterile bones; limestone caves slick with running water, strange fossils flowering in the rock, pressed leaves, fractal spirals; the sweat was dripping down Rosa’s neck, drenching her shirt, glistening on her forehead, sparkling in the fine down of her upper lip. Ursula started awake and turned back to Cosin: “But yet, at last…”


Ursula woke just before dawn to find Dorothea standing in her doorway. Not quite Dorothea. Her eyes were black holes and her jaw hung slack. White mice darted in and out of the empty orbits, whiskers quivering, scurrying down her face and around her neck to hide in the loose curtain of her hair, disappearing into her mouth, the open top of her nightdress. The thing like Dorothea turned and left the room. Ursula lay in her bed, heart pounding and blood roaring in her ears. After a half hour or so she got up and peered into the hall. It was empty.  She padded to the common room, to Kitchen. She ordered some hot milk and honey. She sat quietly with it for a while. Then she realized there was a fly buzzing about near the mouth of the conveyor belt. Ursula flung her milk on the floor and after a brief pursuit caught the insect against the wall with her cup. It buzzed noisily then stopped. Ursula lifted the cup and it flew off. She had not seen a fly since childhood.


Rosa was not at breakfast. Somewhere in the depths she was drawing a circle of menstrual blood on the stone floor. A black cockerel strutted at her feet, eyes glittering pebbles. It waited for Rosa to cut its throat with a kitchen knife.

“I conjure you,” murmured Rosa. “I adjure you by these names which cause you fear and terror: Rator, Lampoy, Despan, Brulo, Dronoth, Maloqui.”


“Where did Dorothea go?” Ursula cornered Rosa as the younger woman emerged from the showers, hair dripping, rough robe wrapped tightly about her.

“I know you know,” Ursula stepped closer and Rosa shivered. “What were you up to? You and Dorothea? In the middle of the night? What happened to Dorothea?”

“She woke up,” said Rosa.

“What does that even mean?” Ursula laughed harshly. “She woke up? What does that mean? Obfuscations! Idiocy! Madness!”

“She woke up,” said Rosa stubbornly and pulled her robe tighter.

“And you didn’t?” sneered Ursula. “You just kept sleeping?”

“I prefer to dream.”

“Where is Dorothea? I know you know.”

“Ask Renate,” it was Rosa’s turn to sneer. “Ask Clio. Ask Kitchen. Ask your precious books.”


Renate was in the common room chatting with Marta. When Marta finally trundled off Ursula slipped into her still warm seat.

“What is it?” snapped Renate. “I’m about to go to bed.”

“Has Clio said anything yet?”

“Has Clio said anything about what?”

“About Dorothea, I suppose, mostly,” said Ursula, “but really about anything; anything at all.”

“I can’t answer such an impossibly vague question, Ursula. If you have something to say, say it to me directly, otherwise I shall go and perform my ablutions.”

“There are rumors that Clio has fallen entirely silent, and that the council has been lying to us about their consultations with her.”

“Who told you that absurd falsehood? It is calumnious; utterly calumnious.”

“No one in particular,” said Ursula.

“It was that little witch Rosa, wasn’t it? That absurd fantasist!”

“No,” said Ursula firmly. “It is a general rumor I’ve heard from any number of people.”

“It was Rosa,” Renate stood up abruptly.

“I could just kill her,” she said and stalked off.

“Murder,” Ursula heard her mutter. “Murder.”


That night Dorothea was preceded by flies. And when she arrived Ursula could not see her face for the mass of insects hovering and crawling about it. The specter stood briefly in the doorway and then left. Ursula hopped out of bed and followed it: down the hall, through the common room, and into Kitchen. The thing clambered onto a conveyor belt and crawled on its belly through the square gate and into the guts of the library. A few flies stayed behind, staggering about through the air, scuttling to and fro on the wall.


Part III: not-Dorothea

“I have begun to think I am not really Dorothea at all,” said the thing like Dorothea.

It sat on the edge of Ursula’s bed staring down at its folded hands. There were no mice now, no insects; just the image of Dorothea. Ursula had squeezed herself into the farthest corner, knees up, held tightly against her chest.

“I also,” said Ursula, “do not think you are Dorothea.”

“Then who am I?”

“You are likely not an “I” at all,” said Ursula.

The thing said nothing.

“You are probably a hallucination,” said Ursula, “a projection; a manifestation of my anxieties and insecurities; an arbitrary collection of content.”

“I do not feel like a symptom,” said the thing. “I feel like a thing in itself.”

“Has anyone else seen you?” asked Ursula. “Other than me? Has Rosa?”

“Rosa?” asked the thing. “No. Not Rosa. Not anyone else; just you.”

They sat in silence.

“Still,” said the thing. “I have memories. I have feelings. I touch things and pick them up.”

“Where are you when you are not with me?”

“Nowhere,” said the thing, “everywhere.”

“What do you remember?”

“Mostly Rosa. Mostly. Sometimes I remember a room with wooden floors and the sun shining through the window; the smell of bread baking; someone singing in another room. I remember putting on an environment suit; bolting on the helmet, strapping on the boots, slipping on the gloves. I remember fat tomatoes growing in milk cartons, and scurrying mice. Mice underfoot; in my hair; little claws on my skin going prick-prick-prick, Mice in the environment suit. I lift my visor and they boil out, I smell something damp, rotting, the smell of decomposition; disorganization. I remember the sun shining through the sheets of glass. I remember the sun mostly, its transparent heat, waking up to it on my sheets.”

“Perhaps Clio made you.”

“Clio? Why would Clio make me?”

“Anyways,” said Ursula. “You aren’t Dorothea.”

“No,” said the thing. “I am not Dorothea.”

“Why do you think that?” asked Ursula abruptly. “How are you so sure?”

“I’ll show you,” said not-Dorothea and she touched Ursula lightly on the hand.


They stood in a green house on the southern slope of the mountain. It was still night but under the grow lamps it was hot and bright. Rows and rows of plants surrounded them; taller than Ursula, coarse leaves hanging like peeling skin, crowned with stiff tassels.

“What are they?” asked Ursula. “Is it corn?”

“Yes,” said not-Dorothea.

A small cot lay at their feet; a dismantled custodial robot at its foot, sheets rumpled, pillow dented. Ursula squatted and touched the pillow. There were a few long hairs pressed into it. She pressed it to her face and inhaled deeply: a vibrant pulse of vegetal growth, a loamy rich underlay, the sour tang of stale sweat. Ursula stood up.

“Dorothea!” she called. “Dorothea! Where are you?”

“She’s not here,” said not-Dorothea. “She never is. She is always gone; walking under the stars; out in the desert.”

Ursula walked up to a glass wall and peered out. A row of cold frames had been jury-rigged together a few feet away, a hose had been run to them from out of the green house. The soil around them looked tramped down.

“I never see her,” not-Dorothea said. “I know she’s here. I know she boils corn and plucks tomatoes and roasts rats but I never see her.”

The corn on the other side of the green house quivered and Ursula felt a surge of panic.

“What was that?” she asked.

“It’s just the pig,” said not-Dorothea, “Dorothea stole it from the feed lot.”

“How big is it?” asked Ursula.

“Big enough to knock you down.”

“How’d she get it over here?”

Not-Dorothea shrugged.

“For that matter how did we get here?”

“I don’t know,” said Not-Dorothea. “But I can go anywhere. I can take you anywhere at all. Anywhere.”

“Anywhere but Dorothea,” said Ursula.

“Yes, anywhere but Dorothea.”

“Show me,” said Ursula.


Their hair whipped about in the wind like it was alive. Grey dust swept across the plain in shifting eddies, glittering in the early morning light. The sun was coming up behind a jagged reef of mountains. Here and there an isolated pillar stood, or a crumbling wall of cinder blocks, a few street lights arranged in a funereal parade. Hylas broke the horizon in a swell of brilliant light. It washed down the distant ranges, across the plains in an incendiary wave, and poured into Ursula’s skull. She staggered back in agony, throwing up the feeble curtain of her arm against it. In the split second before she had been blinded she had seen the mountains light up from within – flat planes, improbable angles, razor edges – and the dust blaze with a glorious color.


The skeleton of a wheeled vehicle stood in the middle of what had long ago been a road. A few shreds of black plastic hung to the steel disks of the wheels, the paneling on its side had been wrenched off, and she could see clear through the shattered frame to the spine of the drive shaft and the massive skull of the engine. There was no evidence in it of seats, of compartments, of human conveniences – let alone comforts. Red hills fled towards the pink horizon. Scrubby yellow plants crept out of the valleys. An occasional tuberous tree squatted in their thorny thatch, thalidomide branches waving like babies hands. In the spring, Ursula knew, they would dangle scrotal sacks of anakosa nuts almost to the ground and the baboons would arrive to feast on them.  


It was wet rubble as far as the eye could see; slabs of stone, graveled fields, rusted rebar bones exposed to the moist air. Crabs scuttled in and out of brackish pools in which small fish darted; delicate long-legged insects wisped across water, across the pocked grey rock, sticky sand. Clouds of midges hung in the soupy air and settled on Ursula’s hair, crawled into her ears, into her nostrils, got stuck in her eyelashes. She had to keep spitting them out. Beside one pool she found the foot prints of a small four-toed animal, shards of crab shell, and a tidy pile of fecal matter.


The city was a bed of nails. They crept between towering needles. There was nothing on the iron streets: no vehicles, no rust, no dust, no detritus, no life, no growth, no movement of any kind. Light dripped down the tall – fabulously tall – windowless buildings from a guttering sprawl of stars. High above them the thin air sighed and groaned as it drifted through the forest of spires. Ursula could barely lift her legs, swing her arms, she could not get enough oxygen into her lungs. She tried to blink away the dizziness but could not.  Everything seemed difficult, impossible. Why so hard to concentrate? She thought of Cosin writing his anti-papist propaganda, working out the contradictions of his theology, she imagined him troubled by gout, sitting in desperately disciplined haemmoroidal agony, pen scratching at the paper, thinking and working, thinking and working; she thought of the alabaster hand on page 138, frozen in a digital storm; she thought of herself, nodding off in front of the computer, coffee going cold in its cup, day after day, week after week; she thought of clever Dorothea, cheeky Dorothea, lovely Dorothea.

“Take me home,” she said. “I’ve seen enough, take me home.”


The air was cold and antiseptic. Rectangular lights embedded in the ceiling provided the only illumination. They were walking down an aisle between stacks of empty cryogenic berths.  From time to time custodial robots passed overhead in determined silence. The floor rose slowly to a vanishing point. Ursula was certain they were walking along the outside wall of a rotating ship or station. A gurney came whizzing past them and they had to squeeze up against the sides to let it through. They walked on and on, nothing seemed to change until finally, in a space between the berths, they found a sliding door. It opened and they stepped through. The entirety of the far wall was a window that opened up into staggering immensity. A planet hung in a black sky glutted with stars. Streaked with ochre, rust, and amber, Ursula could just see the dusting of an ice cap on the topmost edge. The room was large, larger than the library common room. Except for a few viewing chairs it was entirely empty, and just as cold as the storage facility behind them.

“So this is Clio,” Ursula said quietly. “And that is Sinai.”

Not-Dorothea said nothing. Ursula sat down in one of the chairs. Below them night was racing across the landscape and soon Clio would plunge into the planet’s shadow. Ursula wondered if anyone was watching the sunset, if anyone might catch a glimpse of the station shining above them like a star, catch a glimpse of her.   

“I suppose one could make a metaphor out of it,” said Ursula, “out of a planet engulfed by darkness, the night rolling across the world.”

“I suppose one could,” said not-Dorothea.

“But it would be cheap and easy and empty.”

“Would it?” asked not-Dorothea.

“And you,” said Ursula. “You could also be reduced to a banality.”

“I could?”

“Yes: what gets left behind when thought has moved on; the words on the paper; the echo of something important that nobody can quite recall; the last ripple before the water becomes entirely still.”

“That’s what I am?”

“Sure,” said Ursula. “Why not?”

Ursula thought of the librarians and the archivists hard at work, organizing and reorganizing all those dead ideas. There would be no new Dorothea. The queue had ended. The berths were empty. There would be no more replacements altogether: none for Rosa; none for poor, weeping Antonia; for Marta; Gertha; none for Seraphina; none for Ursula; none even for angry old Renate, stubborn Renate. They were all that was left of humanity and one by one they’d die off, without violence or any particular drama. The turbulences of their little social world would calm. She imagined Renate, though just about the oldest now, as the last to go, lingering for long stubborn centuries after the rest of them were gone, all returned to dust and ash. Ursula smiled at the thought. And the thought of Dorothea pleased her too, Dorothea now, today. She was down there somewhere: scrabbling, working, thinking, stealing food, playing with whatever came to hand, indifferent to consequence, indifferent to what she could not measure against her own existence, not caring about metaphysics, about what it all means, not caring at all, not caring a damn, Dorothea, lovely Dorothea, excellent Dorothea, yes, Dorothea.

William Squirrell’s writing has appeared in Interzone, The Future Fire, Daily Science Fiction and other venues. More information can be found at blindsquirrell.com and on twitter @billsquirrell