Virus recounts the life story of Amanda Soolyan, a woman who grew up in an inside-out world. At the end of her life, she recalls her youthful adventures and her search for the truth behind her world's existence.
Chapter one: I enter the world
My name is Amanda Soolyan, daughter of Quentyn Soolyan and Pramasa Eglantine. My parents were well known and widely admired people, and I also achieved a measure of fame as the founder of the Soolyan Flying School. If you are in a position to read this chronicle, all of this will mean nothing to you, but as my story progresses you will see that it has a bearing on my fate, and therefore on yours as well.
In weighing what might seem remarkable to the reader regarding the circumstances of my birth, the first and most obvious is that is happened at all. Births are rare events, so much so that in remote towns and villages the full resources of a community, or a district, are mobilized in aid of the upbringing and education of a child. Similarly, deaths, whether by extreme misadventure or, as is more common, from a crushing world-weariness, are also rare events. Prior to the adventures which will form the greater part of this chronicle, I assumed that over the centuries, the population had gradually increased to the point where deaths would precisely balance births. In a world that is manifestly, visibly finite, it is difficult to contemplate any topic for very long without considering its global implications. And perhaps I should have given more thought to the odd coincidence that this balance occurred with the population at a level that could be comfortably supported by the world’s finite resources. At some point I noticed that many married couples live their entire lives without producing offspring, and having more than one was almost unheard of. So clearly some other, mysterious, agency was required to maintain the population in a state of equilibrium.
But I have digressed from my central topic, which is myself and my origins, and to this topic I must return. According to my parents, I was a very active child, and as an infant was initially rather irritable until I discovered that I could move myself, even by so simple an action as rolling. Their view was that I found my surroundings so fascinating that I desperately desired a closer look at everything, and was deeply frustrated that there was no way to make this happen. I see nothing wrong with this interpretation, and they were certainly in the best position to make that judgment. Apparently the newfound ability to move brought about a remarkable change in my demeanor, and I was a sweet natured child thereafter.
So far, these are simply things that I was told about myself. As for what I can personally attest, my earliest memories are of gazing out my bedroom window, filled with wonder at the amazing world spread out before me. Our apartment at the time was high on a hillside, part of a complex that seemed to grow naturally from the slope. It afforded a grand view of Kandar City below, the harbor around which the city had grown, the ocean itself with its sprinkling of islands, and when the air was clear, a glimpse of Kandar’s counterpart, Almyst, on the opposite shore. Beyond, I could see the entire Southern Hemisphere: the rich farmlands, casually demarcated by lazy, meandering rivers, gradually rising to meet the distant forest and mountains. It was called a hemisphere, though to me it looked more like the interior of a long tube.
I look back on my family’s hillside apartment with considerable nostalgia, which is all the greater because we had to leave it when I was ten years old (under circumstances which I will relate in due course). It was spacious, light and airy, decorated in browns and greens taken from the colors of the hillside itself. The broad balcony which we shared with our neighbors was adorned with potted trees which were frequented by birds and butterflies; with benches and fountains for relaxing; and even a tiny playground, though I was the only child in the entire complex.
As delightful as it was playing outside, there was great fun to be had in the other direction. The hill upon whose slopes our building was situated was riddled with tunnels, conveniently connecting each apartment with the local train platform, with shops, and with many beautiful gardens. In the daytime, the tunnels were ingeniously illuminated by means of light pipes threading down from the hilltop. For illumination at night, piezophosphors were built into the floors, the same as in my family’s apartment. The floor glowed wherever one stepped, providing more than enough illumination to find one’s way. Although the tunnels were designed with a practical purpose, as a small child I imagined them as a vast and devious maze, and delighted in scampering through them as fast as I could, hoping to get lost so that I could enjoy finding my way out again.
My memories of early childhood become more specific and detailed starting from a singular event which occurred when I was four years old. My parents were relaxing on the balcony, and I was running around as usual. Apparently I had come to an uncharacteristic standstill and was looking out over the balcony railing. My father, seeming to know what was in my mind as he often did, walked over and stood beside me.
“What do you see?” he asked.
“I’m looking at the ocean, the way it stretches away in both directions” I said, or words to that effect. “And there is that ribbon across the sky which is the same color, but much narrower.”
“Amanda” my father replied, “look carefully. See how the ocean seems to grow narrower in the distance. That is simply because it is far away. And that band overhead, that is the very same ocean as it makes a great circle around the middle of the world.”
This took me by surprise, to say the least. The world looked flat in my vicinity, and if I had thought about it at all, I had always assumed that the upside-down landscape in the sky was some kind of extremely elaborate ceiling. Of course, the way that everything came together in the lands far beyond the ocean had always been a great mystery to me.
If the ocean was continuous, that meant that the world on either side of it was also continuous, and what I was seeing overhead was simply another part of the same world that I inhabited. It took some quiet moments for me to digest this perspective. Then, I expressed the key question:
“Papa, if that is also the world up there, and there are people on it, why don’t they fall down onto us?”
He smiled and said, “Dear, somewhere up there I am sure there is a little child pointing at us and asking her parents the very same question.”
At that point, he took out a notebook which he always carried with him, and made a quick sketch:
“Do you see? Everything makes a circle around that dotted line” he said. “Here we are, on the shore of the ocean, and up there, past the sun, is the other side.”
He went indoors for a moment, and came out with his drawing glued onto a piece of cardboard. He had also attached a string right over where he had drawn the dotted line.
He didn’t have to explain: I tied one end of the string to a chair leg, and held the other taut while I gave the card a spin. All I could think of was that the world looked like some kind of inside-out turnip, fat in the middle and skinny at the ends.
I must admit I was still quite skeptical, and he did not press the matter directly, but said, “How would you like to go all the way around? I mean, set off on the ocean that way”, pointing to the left, “travel all the way around the circle on the ocean, and arrive back here from that direction?”, pointing to the right.
A sea voyage sounded exciting enough all by itself, so I hopped with enthusiasm as I said, “Yes! Yes!”.
I assume that this trip had been in the works for quite some time, and Father had simply waited for the opportune moment to inform me in this dramatic fashion, laden with pedagogical purpose. At any rate, my excitement had abated not at all when, two days later, a hired carriage brought us to Kandar’s passenger docks. I recall that we had many large pieces of luggage with us: great steamer trunks, rolling suitcases and smaller bags, all in a dazzling shade of blue. I have mentioned that both Mother and Father were persons of great renown in the city. They did their best to manage the luggage and their tiny daughter, but when people seemed to appear from nowhere insisting on helping them, they relented with good humor, and focused their attention on keeping me from going badly astray. Contrary to appearances, I was thoroughly focused on this voyage, and nothing would have prevented me from being on board the ship at the appointed time. It is naturally difficult for an adult to see this single-minded determination in the wildly random trajectories of an energetic youngster, so they devoted their attention to controlling my excesses, and we were safely aboard and all together when the ship moved away from the dock with a mighty baritone blast from the horn above and a powerful surge from the steam engines below.
Again, in hindsight I see more evidence of just what important people my parents were, as our cabin aboard the cruise ship was on the highest level, and was very spacious and comfortable, almost like being at home. The views from the cabin were delightful, but there was nothing to compare with the much wider view that could be had from the deck. I watched the city shrink from view and disappear into the mist, as the ship headed for deep water. I could see that we were heading leftward, or to the East, as Father had indicated. No matter the delicious distractions, the serious educational purpose of the cruise was fixed in my mind and could not be dislodged for long. As much as I trusted Father, his claim about the nature of the world was so fantastical that I was determined to keep track of everything related to the “big picture”.
The ship stopped at many ports of call, and to this day I struggle to reconstruct exactly where we landed. Everything was exciting: the different architecture, the different styles of clothing, the strange accents, the exotic smells of unfamiliar foods. We attracted curious glances wherever we went, perhaps due to my parents’ fame, but also because they had a child in tow, and as I have mentioned, children were very rare creatures.
Our deck was equipped with several telescopes, and after we had been a few weeks on our voyage Father summoned me over to one of them.
“Look at this”, he said. “Be careful not to move the telescope: I have it pointed at something very special.”
So, trying my very best not to jostle the instrument, I peered into the eyepiece. It took a few minutes to make sense of what I was seeing. The telescope was pointing almost directly upward, so whatever I was seeing clearly belonged to that strange world overhead, which had undergone some kind of steady motion opposite to the direction of the ship’s travel. Through the eyepiece, I could see the shore of an ocean, and a great city. Directly at the center of the field of view, I could see, upside-down, a large hill partially covered with a complex of apartments. I knew, even upside down, that this was our home, and that the world was indeed round as Father had claimed. I was very quiet and contemplative for some hours after this, sitting on a deck chair, looking not at the pretty sea creatures frolicking in the ocean, but at my own familiar home, directly overhead. I imagined myself as that little child he had described, looking up and wondering why those people (my parents, neighbors and I) did not fall down!
As you may imagine, I enjoyed the remainder of the voyage to the utmost, and had decidedly mixed feelings as our ship finally approached the docks at Kandar, from the right, or West, as Father had predicted.
Returning home, I discovered to my joy that a telescope, similar to the one on the cruise ship, had appeared in my bedroom. I was no longer limited to what my eyes could discern: I could explore the world in exquisite detail. Trees, buildings and hills obscured my view of things nearby, but that only accounted for a tiny fraction of the world anyway.
I could carefully follow the course of the rivers from the mountains to the ocean; view the network of roads and railroad lines crisscrossing those lands and connecting the small towns and major cities; and watch the razor-sharp line separating night from day as it moved grandly across the world overhead, ushering fields, houses and forests abruptly from light to darkness and back again.
There was much to learn by studying the “flatlands” as they are called, though they exhibit a considerable upward slope from the ocean to the mountains. But it was that long tube that increasingly captured my attention. The mountains were far enough distant that I could see them as a jagged circular ring. But inside that ring, and slightly further away, was a set of nearly concentric circles, quite sharply delineated. I say nearly concentric because they were gathered together at the bottom, where they were obscured by the mountains. On the opposite side of the circle, looking upwards, the circles separated into distinct bands: alternating sandy brown and mottled green. And, at the center, was a concave surface of that same sandy color, only visible on rare occasions when the thick clouds cleared away. It was like a single, inscrutable stony eye staring back at me, daring me to learn its secrets.
It was Mother’s turn to educate me in this instance. She informed me that those narrow, sandy bands were immensely high walls and the green and brown bands were narrow hoops of flat land, on which people might live, and according to folklore, did indeed live. And she gave a name to that mysterious blank eye: she called it the South Pole.
In my childish imagination, I populated those narrow hoops of land, the Terraces, with exotic landscapes, with dazzling kingdoms with people who dressed in the brightest colors or adorned their bodies only with paint and feathers, with people impossibly tall or extremely tiny, and with creatures unknown in the flatlands; and with monsters, villains and heroes. Because they were separate, faraway lands, and as far as I knew inaccessible, they were therefore exciting and appealing, and wanted to be there, immersed in the adventures.
Later, as I came to understand better the overall shape and structure of my world, I realized that the Poles were the highest places that one could possibly reach in the world, if indeed one could get there at all: any higher, as seen from my bedroom window, and one would, in fact, be moving back downwards. It was an interesting observation, and might have been nothing more than that. But the thought remained in the back of my mind, whether or not I was aware, that the Poles represented the ultimate goal in what became a lifelong quest for high places.
Given the scarcity of children, it should come as no surprise that child-centered activities were quite uncommon, and in the years before I entered school I took a great interest in adult activities of various kinds. This, gazing at the world above me, and occasionally running about like a berserk animal, fairly well summarizes my childhood. I am not sure I would rate any of these three areas of activity above or below the others, either in importance or in enjoyment.
One of our neighbors at the time was a woman by the name of Jrenn. I never discovered whether this was a first name, a last name, or some fancy she had concocted with no connection to her origins. Like all adults, she was somewhere between one hundred and one thousand years old. Her appearance gave no clue as to where she stood within this span, nor was it considered polite (even for a four year old) to inquire. It was not an important matter. I recall her as a plump, blonde woman with an infectious laugh. What was most significant about her was that she enjoyed my company, and that she was an artist who worked in ceramics. I have a vivid recollection of wandering, day after day, over to her studio, which extended invitingly onto the broad balcony, with her wheel gleaming in the sun. Jrenn would patiently take me through every step of the process: mixing the clay, throwing it on the wheel, shaping it into something marvelous and unexpected, embellishing it with intricate etchings and colorful glazes, and firing it to fix these miraculous liquid qualities for all time.
The reward for my diligent attention was that, one day, she let me make an artwork of my own: a simple bowl. It was thrilling to feel the clay take shape, to guide it this way and that as the wheel spun, and to agonize with excitement over the decisions that came after: how to decorate it, what glaze to use, and so on. I remember staring at the kiln with my artwork inside, thinking it would never be done, and the joy of taking it in my hands after it had cooled and carrying it proudly home to show my parents. It is a hideous thing, lumpy and irregular, colored with vague splotches of different shades of brown, but it is my dearest possession and I treasure it still, having kept it intact through long millennia filled with events which are nearly beyond description. When I can’t be home, I can hold my little bowl in my hands and feel happy, knowing that I am connected to something ancient and intimate, which goes to the very heart of what it means to be human.