Sunday, June 02, 2013

Canyon Town, part two

Mirenza's machine was little more than a small lens in a brass frame. Small buttons and levers protruded from it here and there, like a combination of a pocketwatch and a jeweler's compound eyepiece.

My Amrat and her English have improved since I first met her, so - with some help from Karlishek - she was able to explain a little more fully exactly what the device does.

As far as I could understand it, the lens shows the past. Sometimes. Other times it doesn't. The precise working of it is immensely complicated; the one Mirenza had was the simplified portable version, and even then, her explanations of the functions of all its knobs and switches quickly rose to heights of technicality beyond even Karlishek's ability to understand. Mirenza eventually gave up and just demonstrated for us.

The first subject she tried was a heap of green glass beads lying in an empty doorway. Garnet, Karlishek, and I had to crowd closely around the lens, as it was really only designed to fit a single eye. At first, the lens simply showed the heap, as if we were looking through ordinary - if somewhat dark and distorted - glass. Mirenza gave expert flicks to a couple of switches. The lens darkened, then cleared again to show a different image, grainy and flickering, like the pictures in an antique slide projector. When viewed through the lens, the beads were now on a string. A few more flicks of switches, and the view pulled back to show a dark-haired girl - perhaps fourteen or fifteen, with the stubs of an adolescent pair of antlers on her forehead - wearing the beads around her neck. She laughed, soundlessly, and vanished through the doorway where we had found the beads. In the lens, the opening had a wooden door in it, carved with symbols. "Health and protection," Mirenza identified them in a distracted mutter.

The girl closed the door, and the image blurred into darkness. Mirenza's claws flew over the switches. The darkness gave way to a burst of scratches, which cleared to reveal a priest. (Mirenza identified him by his robes and by the Amulet of Humility* around his neck.) Above the amulet, he was wearing the same necklace. His face bore little resemblance to the girl's, but he did have a magnificent set of antlers.

We watched for what seemed like hours as Mirenza flicked through image after image, following a dizzying array of people. Some had a family resemblance to the girl; many did not. All of them wore the beads around their necks. The lens was watching the beads, in their previous form as a necklace, and their wearers simply happened to be in the picture as well. One brief glimpse showed a glassworker actually making the necklace and giving it to her husband, whose eyes were an identical shade of brilliant green. Other images - much blurrier than the rest - showed only blowing sand, or an outcropping of greenish rock, which we assumed to be the sources of the beads' material and pigment. Apparently, anything further back than that no longer resembled the beads closely enough for the lens to observe it.

Most of the people showed up many times. One heartbreaking scene showed the first girl, a few years older, grieving for the death of her young husband. We had seen the two of them courting in many of the previous images. The next one showed the two of them, decades older, eating a quiet dinner with a small boy so similar that he had to have been their grandson. They were listening, clearly fascinated, while he described something to them with many soup-flinging gesticulations of his spoon.

This was when I started to be doubtful of the accuracy of what the lens was showing us. Mirenza switched it off a moment later, returning it to an ordinary glass lens, and explained.

The lens doesn't see the past; it sees all of the pasts. The pictures in it show both what was and what could have been. Mirenza had pointed it at the remains of the necklace, and we had seen where the necklace had been - and where it might have been, had things been different.

It is an archaeologist's dream. It is an archaeologist's nightmare.

Fittingly, Mirenza's group of archaeomechanogeolinguists calls these devices "arkmasith," which translates roughly to "historians' dreams." They've been working on them ever since Hashmax Bensathrack, their biometallovitrialchemist,** found that he could see strange things through a batch of glass he'd accidentally mixed with the powdered shells of oracular crabs. The creation of more lenses has progressed slowly, as oracular crabs are quite difficult to catch. They always seem to know where you're going to look for them.

The team has managed to improve the accuracy of the lenses somewhat, using the elaborate mechanical workings around them, plus an exhausting amount of testing with objects whose pasts are well-documented enough for comparison. The small one Mirenza had was an early model, with few adjustments for accuracy, considered by most of the team to be past its usefulness. She had kept it anyway. "We are look for beginnings," she explained, with a smile at the edges of her beak. "We never should forget beginnings of our own work. Also, is shiny thing."

We wandered through the canyons for the rest of the day, taking turns looking through the lens at whatever remains of the vanished community caught our eyes. We looked back to when that streak of rust was (probably) the wheel rim of a cart pulled by goats and miniature saurians, when this rock was (possibly) at the bottom of a swift-moving canyon river full of fish and freshwater nautilus, when that doorway was (perhaps) carved by a stubborn one-armed sculptor who clenched his chisel in his teeth, when this fossil was (dubiously) a small trilobite who spent its days tracing geometrical proofs into the silt of an ocean floor, when the hollow cave-houses were (most likely) inhabited by families who lived and died and danced and prayed beneath statues that had not yet lost their sandstone faces to centuries of wind and rain and neglect.

Not one view gave us any hint as to why they had left.

* The Amulet of Humility is commonly worn by the priests of Uncertainty, who teach that true knowledge comes only through sufficiently complete observation. "Sufficiently complete" observation, in the strictest division of the faith, is possible only by omnipotent beings. The most exceptionally adventurous and introspective of mortals might, by the end of their lifetimes, come to know all there is to know about themselves. To know everything about another person is usually considered impossible. To know everything about a place, or a society, or a species - much less the rest of the world - is utterly beyond hope. True knowledge is therefore restricted to the central deity or possibly deities of the Uncertain (His/Her/Its/Their followers don't presume to know anything at all about Him/Her/It/Them, including whether or not He/She/It/They actually exist). Mortals must learn to accept that the sum of their knowledge will forever be a microscopic grain of flawed and partial observations in the vast and incomprehensible universe. Followers of Uncertainty consider it a sin to be certain and a virtue to admit to being wrong. This perhaps explains why there have always been so few of them.

** All of the terms I'm using are broad approximations made up based on Mirenza's attempts to explain the scientists' work to me, and are probably laughably inaccurate. Language barrier aside, they simply do not seem to divide the sciences into the same categories with which I'm familiar.

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