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A singular heart

A singular heart

Along the bustling streets of an ancient city, in a marketplace known as Anthropocene Alley, archaic machines and virtlings stand behind their wares, offering the promise of nostalgia. In one stall, I spot the seeds of old-world gardens, dotting black velvet like distant stars. In another, I see the remnants of ancient bots: controllers and feedback systems laid out like the ill-fitting pieces of a complex puzzle. As always, I feel the lure of history and memory, but instead I push forwards to the place where my future waits.

Outside, an antique sign leans over the street, flickering with faded neon letters — “Fortune Teller”.

As I enter the shop, I feel the space in the room shift, tremors of the singularity heart pulsing through its ancient wood floors and spare walls. In the room, not far from the door, the quant-bot known as The Empress of Time sits with another customer, reading his future. She looks up as I enter, her gaze fixed in my direction. Something passes between us — an awareness I can’t comprehend.

I try to focus on the room, return to the present.

But I fail.

The room is filled with so many layers of time, turning over in my vision like a prophet’s Arcana. But one image finally settles, and I see a room of framed photographs and art, wide windows covered in brightly coloured curtains. There’s a table in the corner, stacked with a deck of Tarot cards — the paraphernalia of prophecy.

It’s hard to believe that in that old world, the fortune tellers didn’t have miniature black holes to fuel their visions of the future — back then they relied on instinct, chance and lies.

As I wait, I feel a sudden shift, as if I’ve been summoned out of the depths of time. And then I feel her gaze, an awareness that feels like nostalgia. I’m suddenly standing at the crux of a branching current, an island of moments where everything is possible. The tributaries of time connect and part around me.

The old bot client stands up then and walks out of the shop briskly, nodding as he passes.

“Please,” she says, pointing to a space in front of her. I’d been around quant-bots before, but never one who could divine the currents of time. Already, I can feel her power, the fragments of potential reaching out. I begin to sense the spin of her heart, that swirl of inescapable motion.

The feeling only grows as I approach, and I know that I’m meant to be here. She steps back, tilts her head and watches me, the lenses of her quant-bot eyes bright and turning, drawing me inside.

“I know you,” she says.

“Where …” I begin to say, trying to understand how this is possible, this feeling of having been here before, of meeting her. “Where have we met?”

“A better question is when,” she says. And then she moves towards me, and the world ripples “When … have … we met? Sometimes, there are crossings of other timelines, but this is different.”

I feel time pass, the tangles of yesterdays and tomorrows, of so many histories and futures. I want to follow her there, to move through moments like her. I want to erase whatever mistakes I’ve made, to fix a past that has failed me. But the visions come too fast.

“Please slow down,” I say, imagining each moment she offers like the card of a timeless Arcana — The World, The Sun, The Empress.

All at once, she stops and stares at me for a long time, as if trying to divine her own message, and I feel the singularity pulsing, straining inside her.

“This is the first time this has happened,” she says. “Can I move closer?” Before I can answer, her arms surround me, and I see my life in a few branches of eternal tomorrows — lives flooding inward.

Vast shimmering oasis of starry seas, out beyond the farthest reaches of the galaxy, farther than our human creators could’ve taken us. The two of us, together …

Or …

Remaining here on this strip of desert, a city haunted by the ghosts of an older world, sharing our lives together on this very market street.

Or …

Exploring the cloud-cities of Titan, or drifting in the seas of other worlds, or building a home in the Martian desert. Together … always together …

As the branches spread outward, cascading into every possible future, there is always that single element that doesn’t change — that we are together.

“I know that you once had a hole for a heart too, stolen long ago; that you loved more than once and lost, that you came here searching for a purpose. I know that you were once a machine built for war, but you grew into something more. You travelled widely and built a life out of the ruins of this world. And then you were alone for such a long time …”

“But I’m not alone anymore,” I say.

And as we continue holding each other, in that eternal moment, I know that it’s the truth, held between us with a force that nothing can escape.

The story behind the story

Preston Grassmann reveals the inspiration behind A singular heart.

Ever since Albert Einstein presented his general theory of relativity in 1915, the black hole has become an enduring image of science fiction. It’s been used to provide passage between stars, turned into world-destroying weapons, and implemented as a form of gravity for asteroids and space habitats (to name but a few). It was popularized by films such as The Black Hole (1979), which nostalgia paints with a mercifully broad brush, and has appeared in popular comics (as in the Superman tale ‘For the Man Who Has Everything’ in 1985). But ideas have continued to gather around it, spinning and colliding — an accretion of stellar matter that spans from Arthur C. Clarke to Greg Egan to Alastair Reynolds.

Inspired by these creators, I began to take notes on a series of stories, hoping to find new ways of exploring the idea. In The singularity graveyard (published in Futures last year), I wanted to use extreme relativistic time dilation as a way of imagining how it might lead to self-knowledge and transcendence. In A singular heart I wanted to portray a post-Anthropocene moment in which the images and thoughts of humanity remain in their creations and turn the ‘hole’ of a heart into an inescapable future. I hope this finds a place among the many spinning (and colliding) worlds of the genre and inspires something new along the way. Thank you for reading.

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