Chapter 23:

Twenty Three

Only in Chaos Are We Conceivable

Claudia woke up in bed besides her husband, her face touched by the autumn Quauhnahuac sun streaming through the window. The digital alarm next to her husband’s night stand began to sing a local folksong. Claudia groaned and jerked the covers over her head to block out both light and sound.

“Damn it, dear,” she moaned. “Why did you set the alarm so early?”

“Isn’t it launch day today?” her husband jolted up. The sound of an alarm triggered an old instinct in him. His eyes glossed over an empty bottle of mezcal standing atop a rustic collection of encyclopedias and deckled-edge journals. “I thought you wanted to go see it.”

“You should’ve told me that before we downed a bottle last night,” Claudia kicked her bedsheets aside. She slipped on a pair of socks and meandered half naked into the restroom. “We need to hurry. I want to pick up the package for the Windmeres before the festival gets too crowded.”

They headed downstairs ten minutes later. She was clothed in a white dress and a straw hat strapped with a nutbrown ribbon. He wore a casual blazer and wool slacks. A handknit hazel scarf hung over his neck. Arm in arm, Claudia and her husband strolled down the already bustling streets. Their next door neighbor inspected his garden. He beamed with pride at the beautiful trumpet vines, the glistening papayas, the staunch pear trees, and a field of exuberant plantains.

Spectators cheered at a bull fight in the local arena. A stable boy calmed his horses whose nostrils flared and shook at the sound of celebratory gun shots ricocheting in the streets. Cantinas invited early customers. Each of them switched their televisions to the local news channel.

“Coming to you live from Spaceport Yvonne,” Claudia overheard a news caster. “We are standing at the outskirts of Quauhnahuac, where the rocket is to set to launch at roughly noon. The cosmonauts have begun their final preparations...”

“Hurry, hurry!” Claudia ushered her husband forward.

A tea shop sat at the end of the next street, obscured by people crowding a bus stop. Sputtering fumes kicked up dust and sand. The mixture formed an unpleasant odor, and Claudia pressed a handkerchief to her nose. Wind chimes rang when they stepped through the wooden door. A middle aged man leaned back on a celadon stool. He looked up from his book of mythology and grinned.

“Claudia! How do you do!” he exclaimed. “It’s been too long. Four. Five years maybe?”

“You too, Arthur,” Claudia exchanged a nostalgic hug and kisses on the cheek.

“Mr. Belona,” her husband shook Arthur’s hand.

“Please,” Arthur sighed. “Mr. Belona is what the boss calls me. It’s just Arthur to you two. You’re here for the Windmeres, I reckon? I have their usual shipment somewhere in the back. Just give me a second.”

“Is the boss here?” Claudia called as Arthur disappeared behind a pair of velvet drapes. “I wanted to talk to him about that book of his. The one about the ferry?”

“Malcolm?” Arthur said. “No. He left early. Left with a bottle of mezcal actually. Maybe two. Off to have a few drinks with that neighbor of yours. The consul with the plantains?”

“You’re on a first name basis with him?” Claudia raised an eyebrow.

“Only when he’s not around.”

“Him and the neighbor are always drinking,” Claudia moaned, then rubbed her husband in the ribs. “Got both him and I into it. I’m still feeling a little faint from last night.”

“Well,” Arthur emerged from behind the curtains. “It’s one way to pass the time, right?”

“How is he going to purchase that home if all he does is buy alcohol?” her husband asked. “Surely he’s got no savings between that and paying rent for this place.”

“Which home?” Arthur said. “Oh, you mean that one by the sea. Way up north. Well, just let the man dream, alright? Here, Claudia. I packed a little extra this time. But try to come back more frequently, yeah?”

“Will do, Arthur,” Claudia waved.

As her husband escorted her out, Claudia turned around and for the briefest moments glimpsed a familiar air about Mr. Belona. She paused, as if caught in a feverish dream, before returning to reality. Her husband massaged her shoulders gently. He had seen her like this before.

They caught the next bus out of town. The children sitting besides them played with a pariah dog. This time, it was Claudia’s husband who felt faint. Dizziness settled in. He registered the bus’s subtle swaying. It was the images of many children riding a bus into the outskirts of town. Claudia held him close. He had shared the harrowing tale once long, long ago.

A few hours later, husband and wife got off on the second to the last stop, leaving behind a generous tip for the bus driver. Linda and James Windmere beckoned to them from the tallest hill around. They leisured beneath the cool shade of a large willow. The lovely couple had hardly aged at all. They had prepared a portable table and set sandwiches and porcelain cups on it.

“Come on, it’s just about to start!” Mrs. Windmere gestured to the open chairs she had set earlier. She received the package from Claudia. “Oh, thank you so much! James, get the thermos.”

The hill oversaw a massive space center in the distance. A tall rocket slept alone on the launch pad. The spaceport itself had been constructed on vast swaths of swamp and marshes. Refined composite metal beams and the rumbling of rotund pipes bringing fuel to the rocket stood in contrast to the local fauna.

“How much longer?” Claudia asked.

“Should be any minute now,” James measured tea leaves and poured hot water into a tea pot. “The announcer was saying something a while ago.”

Claudia discussed the latest gossip with Mrs. Windmere in the meantime. Her husband listened to her prattle on and on, jumping from topic to topic within minutes. The neighbor's divorced wife, the Fishers cheating at bar trivia, an upcoming chess tournament, archaic museums in dire of funding, poetry readings on the other side of town.

Her husband smiled at her cheery expressiveness, but he also missed Claudia's once speculative nature. He relished in the memory of experiments she ran with fastidious care in the basement of their old home. He still remembered walking up and down the Quauhnahuac's guardian volcanoes in search of geological samples. He loved the way she scrutinized them, often screaming with delight and epiphany, squeezing him tightly to share her joy before demanding that he go outside and fetch more rocks.

They abandoned that cottage a long time ago.

A siren from inside the middle of the spaceport blared and broke him away from his thoughts. Far away, steam vented from the rocket’s boosters. A mechanical male voice began to count down from twenty. Claudia and her husband held hands.

As the countdown drew to a close, sparks danced and ignited. Bright orange flames burst from the bottom of the thrusters. The platform shook violently. Smoke billowed from the bottom of the rocket. The town’s third volcano flared to life under the watchful shadow of its dormant parents.

The rocket broke free from its earthly chains and blasted upwards. The roaring and crackling air filled Claudia’s ears. She and her husband witnessed the fleeting deafening beauty of a manmade star rising into the clear sky. Beyond the blue dome, it would settle among whatever the cosmos had left behind. Asteroid belts, lonely comets, brown dwarfs, vestiges of old civilizations.

Old civilizations. The thought occurred to both of them that perhaps there was intelligent life out there. After all, life had flourished for so long here. Who was to say that Quauhnahuac, its the settlements to the north, the new cities arising in the far east, and the mysterious megastructure sitting at the poles, bore the only gifts of life in this universe?

That single thought ruptured the near eternal spell that Claudia and her husband had so willingly cast upon themselves. They were themselves a part of an old world. Claudia and Traveler turned to each other in realization. A flash of shimmering light behind them overpowered the radiant afternoon sun. They spun around, knowing who to expect.

“Seems like you two have finally remembered,” Philomela smiled, draped in her usual purple cloak. “Hello again. It has been nine hundred and seventy four years since our last meeting.”

Neither Claudia nor Traveler felt shocked by this. From the moment the spell had been broken, they understood. What she said could only be the truth. Their romantic memories shared over nine centuries were proof enough.

“She a friend of yours?” Mr. Windmere asked. “Didn’t see you there.”

“Something like that,” Claudia answered. “Could you two excuse us? We need to discuss something in private.”

“I had not expected for you two to be entranced for that long,” Philomela said as the Windmeres departed. “The realness of the world is perhaps to be commended, then?”

“What did you do to us?” Claudia demanded. “Nine hundred years imprisoned in a simulation seems cruel and unusual, don’t you think?”

“I didn’t do anything that you wouldn’t have done yourselves,” Philomela replied. “After I left you in the town square nine hundred and seventy four years ago, you were left to your own devices.”

“Impossible,” Claudia snapped. “The simulation has to be mathematically cohesive, which means all its variables are deterministic. You knew what was going to happen.”

“Not entirely true,” Philomela shook her head. “The simulation is deterministic insofar as human biology rationally reacts to stimuli and catalysts from the natural world. In practice, this happens ever so imperfectly. I can certainly model the trajectory of human societies but discrete atomic individuals are outside my purview. My evaluation of you two as candidates has more to do with what I could glean from your psychological profiles than knowing where you will be two days from now.”

“But do you know?” Traveler spoke up. “Where we’ll be two days from now.”

“No,” Philomela said. “I don’t. Because you two will no longer be here in this world.”

Steeled certainty ran through Philomela’s worlds. She gestured to the trunk of the willow tree. A fissure in the world tore itself from the insides of the tree. Nested in the center of the trunk now rested a tranquil void. A portal to the old world.

“What makes you certain that we’re going to leave?” Claudia crossed her arms.

“You two decided the moment you remembered the old world,” Philomela replied. She gazed at each of them, one at a time. “Both of you are beginning to remember that you have unfinished duties in that other world, duties that are more important than the times you have shared here. If you remain, you will be unhappy. So in spite of it all, you two will leave.”

“You’re persuading us to leave,” Traveler accused.

“No,” Philomela sighed. “You’ve already persuaded yourselves.”

Claudia and Traveler recalled the nine hundred years they spent together. It began at a cherry orchard not too far from where they were standing. What had they even said to each other? It was hard to remember, but it had made both of them laugh.

Then, Claudia was reminded that there were people waiting outside. Thomas and Yuki. Her stubborn gaming community who did nothing but ransack the reviews of her favorite expansions. Meanwhile, Traveler thought of his caretaker. No amount of love for his wife could override the guilt he would feel for leaving her behind. It was only because of her that Traveler was still alive.

Husband and wife reached the same conclusion, just as Philomela had precited. They exchanged a warm hug, then turned to face the portal.

“What will happen to the others?” Traveler asked, finally, after what seemed like minutes of silence. “So much time has been passed.”

“Over the years, they have been offered the same choice as you two,” Philomela smiled. “But most have chosen to stay. Their bodies in your world are no longer of any use of them.”

“Will we remember?” Claudia whispered. “You know. When we’re back and all.”

“Almost a thousand years to remember,” Traveler chuckled nervously. “My brain hurts at the thought.”

“What you remember, what you don’t,” Philomela bowed. “It’s an elusive and deceptive thing. Like objects in a rear view mirror, memories are twisted by reflection. Some things appear closer than they are. Some things were perhaps never there at all.”

The two looked back. The celebratory lights of Quauhnahuac could still be seen. They lit the walls of an otherwise dark shaded palace, illuminating its rustic lighthouse and ornate arches. From afar, they could hear faint inebriated yet angelic singing. Traveler thought of children laughing while riding the slow moving ferris wheel in the town square. Claudia remembered long serene afternoons aboard rocky gondolas.

Hand in hand, they wandered, at first hesitant, towards the portal. Claudia hummed one final song. As they stepped through, the world fell behind them. Trees and fields and hills and cacti and people lost their three dimensional appearance and flattened as if they were theater props.

The sounds of Quauhnahuac drifted away. Like smoke from the vanishing rocket, song and laughter diminished and faded away with the return of the wind. Claudia and Traveler felt the presence of the other disappear, and through the new world they returned to the old in their own solitary way.