The Dross Record

By Matthew Timmins

Illustration by Mark Brady

Catacombs by Mark Brady

Catacombs by Mark Brady

The elevator ride had been long and uncomfortable and the scribe had fallen into a fitful sleep. When the soft alarm rang to signal his approaching stop, he jolted to his feet with a cry, sending the message disk he had been reading flying off his lap to shatter on the floor. As the elevator slowed its descent and finally came to a rest, he stared in horror at the broken memento before gathering up his briefcase and darting out of the opening elevator doors.

Pausing to refit his composure, he cast irritated looks at the corridor around him. Though set with electric lights, the hallways, stairs, and rooms of the Archival Block had been left largely in their natural state: close-fitted blocks of grey stone, bare floor, and random purposeless steps, passages, and archways. He frowned at the bas-reliefs that wound about the walls in the so-called “leaf” pattern that geoarchitects and theomystics got so excited about. He may have been assigned to the Historical Ministry, but the scribe was a thoroughly modern man who preferred his world clean and white, with video screens, escalators, and doors. Great fires! they had even left the holes in the walls — random, circular shafts, some as big as his hand, that disappeared into the darkness and led who-knows-where. He felt a boy again, dragged on a school trip into the dark wilderness to stare in fascinated horror at a waste-hole, where people too primitive or superstitious to find other solutions had dumped their trash, their offal, even their dead, into a “bottomless” pit.

His mood did not improve when he reached the Principal Archive and was greeted by a smiling archivist in a long robe of dull greenish-brown. She verified his credentials, while he sneered in disgust at her coarse garment and her sandaled feet. It was not just that he found her attire pathetically archaic and affected or that he imagined that he could smell the stink of the riverweed fibers, but her entire attitude seemed to betray a deference to the primitive past.

The archives themselves were a strange mix of ancient and modern: the main rooms were gigantic open spaces hardly ever encountered in nature, but the floor, ceiling, and walls that were present were all original stonework; a water channel had been left in its natural angular course, but metal footbridges crossed it at regular intervals; will-o-moss grew on the walls in patches, but the electric chandeliers completely obscured its pale illumination.

The archivist led him to a study alcove, then disappeared. He barely had time to seat himself and switch on the lamp before she returned carrying a long metal box identical to hundreds of others save for a serial number. He turned on his slate and pulled on his thin gloves as she prattled on about policies and regulations. Finally, after some simpering pleasantry she left him to work. Annoyed before his work had even begun, the scribe opened the box.

Silently cursing his career assessment officer, the scribe lifted an object wrapped in a silvery cloth from the box and placed it on the table. He had never wanted this room. His direction was . . . but what did it matter? An aptitude for cyphers and languages had sent him down this corridor long ago and now here he was.

Opening the cloth revealed an ancient hipbone. This was the Dross Record, an artifact of mysterious origins. The miraculously preserved bone was covered with small, precise carvings in neat vertical rows and columns. It had been discovered on its own in an empty chamber, miles from any dwelling.

What the ministry hoped to learn from this relic, he couldn’t guess. Artifacts like this had been ignored for decades (the last mention of the Dross Record was over eighty years ago!). Probably some minister was taking advantage of the regime’s newfound interest in history to secure a little more funding. Still, the scribe mused as he opened the relevant files on his slate and readied his stylus, “stairs that go nowhere can still be climbed.”

He began his preliminary notes: “hipbone: female (see medical file H.A.10428) — Age: unknown (circa -232) — Language: L-S-03, dense logogram, related to other extinct sphere-settlement languages of Mossater volume (see ESS-Moss-02, ESS-Moss-05, ESS-Moss-06). Original translator: MynFelHem (see Archive P.H.3733) placed Dross settlement in Mossater, despite Record being found hundreds of miles away in Jorsot volume.”

Pausing for a drink of water before the real work of translating, the scribe thought longingly of his own comfortable chambers hundreds of levels above him. Then he began his translation:

/ Daughter /[of] / Lun-Yun / teacher-ruler-guardian / [of] / divine flame [natural gas jet? — see “Fire Worship” Archive R.A.019] / called / Dross [Note atypical name — pseudonym? Title?] / writes[:] / world / is stone / fitted-decorated / [with] / divine skill[.] / Eternity / [of] / corridors, chambers, stairs, shafts / branching in all directions[.] / Town-sphere / sits at center [of] / world[.] [see “centralism” Archive P.P.265] /

The scribe stopped to flex his fingers and roll his eyes. Centralism. Primitives. Every dirty mob huddled around a gas jet considered themselves the center of the universe just because all halls go nowhere in the dark. Even the great Guhner Complex, that grew 3000 miles deep and 1000 wide and absorbed hundreds of civilizations, styled itself the “Holy Pivot” before its collapse. Blind as fish, the lot of them. He picked up his stylus and continued:

/ Star-chamber [see “Sacred Rooms” Archive R.A.022] / sits at center [of] / town-sphere[.] / Divine flame / sits at center [of ] / star-chamber [q.v.][.] / Its heat-light / diffused [through] / town-sphere / [via] / heat-light channels[.] [likely natural crystal-lined light tubes] / River / enters from above / town-sphere / flows [through] a deep channel / leaves down / large shaft[.] / Fish / swim [in] / river / plants / grow [in] / river[.] / Good air / swims [in] [accompanies?] / river / [and] / blows / [from] / outward corridors / [and] [through] / holes / above [and] below[.] / Thus-so[?] / Architect [Creator-worship? see Archive R.A.012] / has provided-provides / town-sphere / [with] / heat-light / water / food / good air / clothing[.] / Thus-so[?] / scripture-room [q.v.] / [and] / wisdom-reason / tells / us[.] /

Why, he wondered vaguely, was Dross recording all this? Surely this was all common knowledge in the “town-sphere.” The use of such scarce resources to record general knowledge would almost certainly have been viewed as criminally, possibly even sinfully, wasteful. Could the author have been recording this for people not of her own settlement? Maybe she wasn’t so blind after all, the scribe thought with a little smile.

/ Fortunate / live / near / star-chamber [q.v.] / near/ divine flame[‘s] / heat-light[.] / Unfortunate / live / far / [from] / star-chamber [q.v.] / [where] / heat-light / is weak[.] / Dross / [was?] / young girl / Dross / [was?] / fortunate[.] / Mother / [was?] / teacher-ruler-guardian/ [of] / divine flame / one of-among / teacher-rulers-guardians / [of] / town-sphere[.] / Mother / [was] / pious-good / Mother / wisdom-reason [had studied?] / scripture-room [q.v.] / [and] / divine flame[.] / Mother / wisdom-reason [predicted? Foresaw?] / divine flame[‘s?] / end-death[.] / Mother / wisdom-reason [prediction? Warning?] /

The scribe put down his stylus and rubbed his nose. His timer told him that he had been working for over six hours. He was annoyed and, he realized with surprise, a little disappointed; he had been able to improve slightly on the original translation, but the text had not yielded any great insights. The Dross town-sphere was clearly a solitary natural light-based settlement, what professor PorJenTin had called “lone stars”: isolated settlements huddled around gas jets, lava pools, or fire spurts, with no communication or even inkling of life beyond their own dark outer corridors. The fortunate/unfortunate divide was another feature of such societies, with not only light but heat well above the universal temperature being a sign of power and prosperity, indeed in some such societies perspiration without work was a great status symbol.

That the Dross town-sphere practiced a form of creator worship was also clear and again common in such settlements. It was also likely that they had considered the “corridors, chambers, stairs, shafts” of the universe to be of supernatural rather than natural origins and thus sacrosanct, (misled, no doubt, by the Anthropological Fallacy which states that the dimensions, ambient temperature, and even “decorations” of the universe are all adapted for human life, and not the reverse) a belief which stifles growth and precludes improvements to the environment. The mention of the possible demise of the “divine flame” was intriguing and promised insight into the death of such settlements. Alas, he had known before coming that the Dross Record was incomplete.

Finishing the last of his notes and triple-checking his unique translations, the scribe prepared to go. He should have buzzed for the archivist, but the thought of her obsequious courtesy made his jaw hurt. Instead, he carefully lifted the ancient bone with its protective cloth. But before he reached the artifact box, the silvery fabric slipped to the floor and he caught, for the first time, the reflection of the bone’s reverse in the table’s glass surface. With a small cry, he turned the bone over and stared dumbfounded at the writing on the back of the bone. No one had ever suggested that the Dross Record was double-sided. MynFelHem had certainly never mentioned it.

Trembling, he turned the bone over and began to translate the new words:

[was] / blasphemy-bad[.] / Mother / [and] / family / [were] / darkened-made dark[.] [exiled? Renounced? Blinded? See “Crime & Punishment in Primitive Societies” Archives L.A. 153] / Town-sphere [people of?] / attacked-fought / robbed / family / brother / lost-killed / father / lost-killed[.] / Mother [and] Dross / lived / outside / town-sphere[.] / Mother [and] Dross / grew[?] / plants-fungus / stole / water / [and] / fish[.] / Mother / gave birth[.] / Sister / [was] ended-dead [stillborn?][.] / No priest[?] / mother / performed rituals[.] / Mother [and] Dross / ate / flesh-body[.] / Mother [and] Dross / used / flesh-body[.] / Mother [and] Dross / thanked / sister-spirit[.] / Time went[.] / Mother / ended-died[.] / No priest[?] / Dross / performed rituals[.] / Dross / ate / flesh-body[.] / Dross / used / flesh-body[.] / Dross / thanked / mother-spirit[.]

The scribe stopped. Here, at least, was a possible explanation for MynFelHem’s silence regarding the other half of the Dross Record: body reclamation — the use of human bodies for food, tools, fuel, cloth, etc. — was taboo, precisely because it was so useful. The Dross settlement seemed to have enshrined the practice in ritual — a particularly useful piece of religious adaptation — but the practice was still strictly forbidden in MynFelHem’s era.

Even acknowledging the possibility of recycling the dead was seen as dangerous. Obviously, the very existence of the Dross Record spoke to some body reclamation, but the scribe had assumed — without reason he now realized — that the bone had been old and anonymous at the time of the writing. That it had been the author’s mother and that she had been literally cannibalized along with her stillborn child sickened him.

He continued:

/ Dross / lived / alone / [in] cold-dark[.] / Use[ing] / sister-skull-lamp / [and] / mother-candle / Dross / went-new [explored?] / cold-dark / corridors, chambers, stairs, shafts[.] / Teacher-ruler-guardian [of] / weaving / came[.]/ Teacher-ruler-guardian / said / divine flame / ending-dying / town-sphere / ending-dying[.] / Teacher-ruler-guardian / sought / mother[‘s] / wisdom-reason[.] / Dross / promised / help[.] /

So Lun-Yun has been correct in her “wisdom-reason”; the flame had died or was dying. And in their fear, the rulers of the settlement had come to the very women they had exiled. And because her mother was dead, Dross agreed to help her tormentors. Why? What power did the “guardian of weaving” have over her? Or had she offered help of her own free will? What kind of woman was this “Dross”?

Unbidden, an image of her came to him: a middle-age woman with the pale skin and large eyes of light-famine and a tiny frame malnourished by niche fungus and ceiling beetles. She wore the same riverweed dress as the archivist, not out of affectation but out of a necessity that lent it a strange beauty. Certainly it was more beautiful than Dross herself, whom he imagined as ugly, with features worn down like well-travelled steps. He imagined her in a small room, its walls covered with precise carvings in neat vertical rows and columns that she read by the wan light of a lamp that she held aloft by a hair rope. As if she heard the scratch of his stylus, she turned to him and by the light of a small grinning lamp he saw her smile and heard her speak. In her eyes and her voice, he fancied there was patience, understanding, sorrow, and forgiveness.

With a startled shake, he dislodged the vision. Chiding himself for his foolishness, he continued his work:

/ Mother / sought / never-place [impossible?] / outside / eternity/ [of] / corridors, chambers, stairs, shafts / infinite-room / full [of] / good air / water / heat-light / no-walls[?] / Architect[‘s] [q.v.] / dwelling[.] / Blasphemy-bad[.] / Teacher-ruler-guardian [and] Dross / seek / infinite-room[.] / Teacher-ruler-guardian / [and] / Dross / follow / mother[‘s] / wisdom-reason[.] / Water / falls / down / things / fall / down / fire / burns / down[.] / Down / divine-direction[.] / Teacher-ruler-guardian / [and] / Dross / go / down[.]

The scribe put down his stylus and read what he had written. If he had translated it correctly — and he was certain that he had — he had found the earliest example of the External Hypothesis, the philosophical belief in a space outside the universe, an empty dimension, that — in most versions of the theory — extended infinitely in at least two dimensions. He shivered and unconsciously made the warding square.

At university he had encountered the “Infinite Room,” a discarded philosophical oddity like square circles and angels on pinheads. But now, reading the idea on an ancient bone, in a half-forgotten language, in the stilted words of an exile, made it seem somehow less ridiculous. Dross’s “wisdom-reason” was surprisingly modern in one respect: down was indeed the fundamental direction and had formed the basis of coordinate-navigation for hundreds of years.

He had once visited the Great Reservoir with a tourist group. As their guide was doling out his facts (“The Great Reservoir is the largest room in the known universe.”) one of the other men in the group had burst into tears. “The walls,” he had cried, “where are the walls!” As the group was comforting the man, the scribe had stared across the flat surface of the water stretching away into the darkness and had felt, as he never had before, the unimaginable weight of the universe above him.

Was it possible there was such a place, an “infinite-room,” beyond the furthest corridors? Down some secret stair, beyond the footsteps of men? Could a room exist without a ceiling? Or a floor? Or even walls? What would such a place look like? What would it mean to fall forever towards a floor that did not exist? Could air fill such an infinite volume or would it grow thin as water did in too large a bowl? If air could not fill the space, what would? Could it be truly empty, an infinite vacuum? Was such a thing possible? Could it even be said to exist, being literally nothing?

Perhaps this “Infinite Room” was the answer to the mystery of gravity; if there was an eternal emptiness below the universe then would not matter rush towards it? Perhaps the whole universe was rushing into the void, falling forever into the emptiness. The empty dimension of God.

There in the study alcove, seated in an ergonomic chair, the scribe dropped his stylus onto the solid stone beneath his feet and felt suddenly dizzy.

unlikely column detail

The Dross Record © Matthew Timmins
Catacombs © Mark Brady