A cool wind blew through the open window, keeping me focussed. I was running late for meeting the others, and it would take time to transfer my belongings and get properly checked in at the archive. It wasn’t far, so I drove a little faster than I normally would, feeling the light structure of the automotive crunching along the sandy roads. The streets were quiet, and I only passed a few other autos and a handful of pedestrians. Soon enough, the archive hove into view: as the largest building in the city, it already stood out, but since it had also been dug straight out the rock in the Brisingham basin, it arrested the eye. At three storeys tall, it was higher than anything else, and it extended far further underground – much of the rock quarried out for its vast chambers and corridors had been used in the construction of the rest of the city. It needed to be this large – at one time, virtually our whole population would shettle, depositing the possessions and artefacts of each life below ground. There had been something in our social conscience that kept us from simply destroying or discarding those relics, instead they sat sealed and silent, carefully logged and catalogues. Together they formed a vast cultural archive of our people. Of late, the volume of depositions had declined, along with the practice of shettling. I’d given it little thought until fighting with Relyan – though I’d been unsure if the timing of our shettle was right, I’d not doubted the practice itself. It troubled me that so many were choosing to persist. What had they found to give their lives meaning? I found it hard to imagine the endless time looming before me.
Miqual’s automotive was parked outside the archive’s main entrance, empty of people and boxes. I pulled up alongside, and hopped out. The archive’s doors swung open easily, leading me into a brightly lit atrium, sunlight coming through the roof and front of the building, shaped by the stained glass into the branches and canopy of the allforest. Miqual was inside, chatting with the sole clerk at the bank of counters that ran the entire width of the room.
“There you are,” Miqual called, as I strode across the atrium towards him, “I thought you’d gotten lost.”
“Sorry, I just had a few more things to pack up than I’d realised.”
“Ever the hoarder.”
The clerk addressed me for the first time, “do you have items to archive?”
“I do, yes, though not as much as he’d have you think.”
“Very good – take the trolley and bring it all in.”
It was just a few minutes work to stack the remnants of my life onto the trolley and wheel it back in. The clerk fussed with labels and seals for considerably longer, until my boxes were doubly identified and marked for storage with the rest of the circle’s paraphenalia. I passed the clerk my identity card. The only thing on it of any real importance was the number – my name could change when I shettled, as might my home, and the people who I joined in my next circle. I had no plans to reawaken with anyone else, but these things were allowed to happen. Tracking who shettlers actually are occupies a considerable amount of effort. Somewhere in the archives there was a record of when I first shettled, how many times, and with whom I had been in a circle, and the precise location of every item I’d ever deposited down in the labyrinth below us. It wasn’t something I liked to think about a great deal, but I suppose that was part of the point of visiting the archive each time – a reminder of overall continuity of existence, beyond the individual rebirths and cycles. A strange business. While the memories of those prior lives was hidden from me, being here gave me a sense of them. Just seeing my trolley-load of boxes disappear into the darkness as a single life made me wonder a little how many other times I’d stacked my life like this.
“Miqual, do you ever… think about the last time you did this?” I asked, hesitantly, not entirely sure what it was I wanted to know.
“Not really. I’d guess that I’ve contributed a lot to the archive over the years, in diaries, if nothing else. That seems so fixed a habit that I can hardly imagine I’ve lived without keeping them.”
I responded with some noncommittal murmur, still waiting to see if the thought that was scratching in my mind would come forth.
“Excuse me,” I said to the clerk, a densely built man, who filled his suit jacket with ease, “this might be an odd question, but – do you remember me?”
Both the clerk and Miqual stared at me like I’d gone mad.
“I’m sorry – I know you’re not supposed to say, but it’s been on my mind. Look, if you don’t mind my asking, do you shettle?”
The clerk chose to indulge me; he could easily have refused to continue our conversation. “It’s been a long time since I have. My circle split; some of us returned to the allforest, some of us chose to live on. I’ve always assumed that one day I’ll shettle again, but I haven’t reached that time yet. You seem troubled.”
“It’s just,” this was hardly the time or the place, but there was something stuck in me, some idea that I’d not given space to, that wanted to be out of me, “I saw someone today – a neighbour, a friend,” I carefully avoided eye contact with Miqual, “she is someone, I’ve… hurt, I think, in this life. I wouldn’t want to hurt her in the next. But I don’t know how I can prevent that.”
“That’s not your responsibility Jenn,” said Miqual, “she will know the rules – you’re not the same person, and it’s up to her to decide whether you’ll know each other, to protect you from your earlier self.”
“But what if I’d done something terrible – I haven’t – I wouldn’t know that, how could I avoid doing that again?”
Miqual’s face was a frozen mask.
“Miqual, I’m sorry, but this is on my mind.”
“Today? You don’t think you should be focused on what’s to come, focused on the group, your circle – your family?”
“I am. What If Aer and Rumala end up together again, and it ends up like this again? What if it has before? What if we’re always re-entering the shettle for the same reason? How would we know – how could we do things differently?”
“Look Jenn, I don’t know what’s got into you, but it’s getting late. We need to join the others.”
He took my arm, to drag me out of the archive. Before he could pull me away from the counter, the clerk leaned over his desk, touched my shoulder and spoke quietly, “I do remember you.”
Miqual exploded with rage, snatching the man’s hand from my shoulder and flinging it back at him. “Stay away from him,” Miqual snarled, “I’ll report you for this.” He made a show of reading the clerk’s name badge, ‘Hevalan’, then stalked out of the archive, pulling me along like a recalcitrant child.
When we got outside, my head was still spinning. Even though I’d asked for it, I knew the rules well enough: ‘a shettle shall not be reminded of their former lives, they are free to learn and live anew’. That the clerk of the archives, of all people had been willing to acknowledge my question. To have remembered me, he must have persisted in the same life for more than the forty-two years that my circle had been together. I found myself almost desperate to know how many times he had seen me. I had too many questions. And it was too late to ask them. Miqual flung me towards his auto. I tripped and just barely managed to get a hand up in front of me before I hit the auto headfirst. I stood up, gazing at him with shock, rubbing at the hand and wrist I’d jarred.
“Get in the auto,” he said, “the others are here.”
On cue, the rest of our circle arrived, dusted off and looking smart and relaxed in their fine suits. I ducked into the backseat of the auto, covering the newly ripped open knee of my trousers with one shaking hand. Aer’s auto pulled up alongside and the group divided themselves into the two vehicles. Miqual got in without another word. It was horribly obvious that something had happened between us, but I had no idea what to do about it, and slipped into some default setting where everything was fine.
“Did you get it all put away?” asked Tesh, squeezed up next to me.
“Oh yes, all stacked and signed in,” he must have been able to feel the tremor that still ran through me from the hand I’d slammed into the auto’s door. Rather than say anything, he just stretched an arm around my shoulders and gave me a private smile.
“Everything will be fine,” he whispered.
“Hey, you two! No secrets on the last day,” Rumala called, grinning widely.
I’d rarely felt so out of sync with my circle.
Miqual called to Aer out of the window that he’d take the lead. Aer offered him a thumbs up in return. I couldn’t see how Miqual answered, but we pulled away from the archive at quite a speed, causing Tereis to exclaim from the front seat that it must be a race. The carnival atmosphere of the others slid around me like fog. All I could focus on was the back of Miqual’s head. He’d scared me, something I never thought I’d feel in our circle. I wanted to apologise, to take back my questions and whatever it was that had made him so angry. But I had no idea how to start that conversation, squeezed into the back of his auto with two of our friends. The words caught on my tongue, got stuck behind my teeth. It would all be forgotten soon though, and we’d get another chance.
It was another hour’s drive north of the city before I relented in the face of the others’ cheery mood. I joined in, offering up more memories of our time together, chatting and laughing. There were more stories about the gang in the other auto than ourselves – if we couldn’t actually race, we could certainly compete. But my eyes kept being drawn back to Miqual, who, while not exactly silent, was certainly the quietest of us, focused intently on the road ahead.
Above us the sun was on its way to handing over the sky to the twins, though there were a few hours before they would take over. I felt a tremendous sense of anticipation, the promise of the twin moons laid on top of each other. They hung like a weight behind the horizon, soon to be flung across the world, to change everything. My doubts still lurked in my mind – maybe I always felt this way as shettling approached. I saw how happy Rumala was that the mistakes of this life were about to be erased, how free she looked. Wasn’t that how I should feel? I caught sight of Miqual’s eyes, fixed on me in the mirror, and I hastily looked away. I couldn’t stop the rising anxiety in my stomach.
Farms slid by on either side, more space carefully denuded of the allforest so we could live alongside it. We’d settled down to a friendly silence, watching the farmers do whatever it is that farmers do. They gave out to a thin region of scrubland, scattered with juvenile alltrees, and then the allforest was upon us. There was no more time for my doubts.
Stolen Skies – Part Twelve (Nanowrimo 2022)
I hate how much I keep waking up, you know? Waking up’s supposed to be a good thing – we wake from a nightmare, become enlightened with an inner waking,