The Book of the Blacksmiths
by Martin Cahill
Edited by Aigner Loren Wilson
Copyedited by Chelle Parker
1567 words — Reading time: around 7 minutes
This story contains descriptions of prolonged and fatal illness.
I’m awoken by myself, so that I am the first thing I see.
I look like every other version of me but, as I learn later, the sequencing finds ways to make us all a little different. Uniqueness is an odd thrill across our genetic line. A divot on a piece fresh from the clay thrower’s wheel; a branching vein in an autumn leaf; a crimson tile within the azure mosaic. We are the same, and still celebrate our deviations. Eight Hundred and Two has a pale scar on their forehead. Eight Hundred and Sixty-Two’s fingers are one half inch longer than everyone else’s. Nine Hundred and One’s singing voice can reach one quarter of an octave higher than us all.
For my part, I learn I’m One Thousand and Sixteen. I’m one-third of an inch taller than my family; my left eye waltzes with heterochromia, a shade more green than brown.
My first day of life is spent with myselves. The oldest, Seven Hundred and Seventy-Four, educates me on the Forge. The youngest, One Thousand and Fifteen, walks me through our daily routines. And then I attend the funeral for Seven Hundred and Seventy-Three, whose long life of eight months and four days is commemorated with a wordless, haunting elegy of a song whose name I’ll never know, but whose every note has been in my mind since birth.
The radiation shielding, explains Seven Hundred and Seventy-Four, is not done yet, and so the eldest here continue to succumb. Their body, so much like my own, has a variation of cancer, little cities of poison inked onto the map of them.
“I’ll go soon, too,” they say. And I hold them closely, and whisper that I would be so sorry to lose them, because I would be losing a part of myself.
They hold me in turn and say that I shouldn’t cry so.
I’d always have myself.
Later, I realize they were telling a joke. It’s not any funnier now than before.
One Thousand and Fifteen shows me to the Chronicle, the room that will become my role, my title, once Seven Hundred and Seventy-Four passes.
From here, they say, you can monitor everything happening to, and across, the Forge. You can watch as the engineers churn up designs for the radiation shielding that will go up around the Dyson sphere like a second skin. You can observe the light connoisseurs as they attempt to create the perfect blend of energies needed for the Anvil.
“If you are curious,” they say, “you can even watch the past: reporting, data analysis, surveillance histories. Everything is at your fingertips.”
“What good is the past?” I ask. As someone who doesn’t have one, my curiosity is genuine.
They shrug. I watch my face, only seven days older than mine, turn up in a wry grin. “Some say you can learn from it,” they offer, “but in my opinion? The past is hopeful. It reminds me that we’re a story that began before us. If we’re very lucky, we’ll help write the end one day.”
“What’s to be our ending?” I ask, now even more curious about the future I might see.
They gesture at the small, dim orb of light sitting in space beyond the Chronicle’s window, the cosmic body around which the Forge orbits. “If we do our work well,” they say, “we’ll bring to bear all the power we can upon that dying heart we have named the Anvil. We will make it a star once more, and its energies will feed the Forge.”
“And what will the Forge feed with its energies?” I ask.
One Thousand and Fifteen opens their mouth to answer. Then closes it. Opens. Closes. Their words are gone, not to be found. They shut their mouth for good, and though their face is very still, their eyes begin to water. Tears leak.
I go and hold them, though they don’t hold me back. They stare into the inky black, eyes lost, as though looking down a long, star-strewn hallway, only now aware there is no door to leave through.
How was I to know our future stopped at mission’s end?
How was I to know we didn’t know why we were doing this?
After today’s funeral for Seven Hundred and Seventy-Four, I come to attend the Chronicle, officially. In their passing, the mantle of duty has settled across my shoulders, like a shroud.
As Chronicler, I scour my predecessor’s old logs while keeping half an eye on the fortieth attempt to emulate a new element in sector EV-31. But it seems my predecessor had only chronicled what occurred, not anything about how it had made them feel. Nothing but distant objectivity.
And what will I chronicle? After thirty-four days of life, I had seen so much, it felt as though my engineered skull was not enough to hold it all. The legion of myself, toiling at tasks they could not see the end of. Four new versions of myself had emerged in that time, as new as I had once been. I felt so very old next to these fresh-faced youths, who looked like me but were not me and never could be. How would they react, learning of our mission, and not knowing to ask of its end? For I had begun to piece it together, between funerals, sleep cycles, and songs: Not a one of me knew why we were doing what we did.
The tenets of the mission were clear, yes. Reignite the Anvil. Build the Forge to capture its light, its power. Tend to the needs of both.
But after? None of us knew. And when confronted, many of them went still. Some wept, as One Thousand and Fifteen did. Others became angry, furious that I would question the great work.
Do I dare record it all?
Do I share the terror that feels singular to me and no other?
At this rate, our present will never meet our future.
I vomited blood last night.
A misfire today from the Hammer — the cannon that will return the Anvil to life — caused a wave of radiation to pass through me, like a hot wind.
I can feel something inside me now.
I will do what Seven Hundred and Seventy-Four did not or could not.
I will remember all of this.
From the Chronicle, I watch us, and I wonder. Eight Hundred and Seven holds a rose in hydroponics and grins at its fluted, pink petals. Nine Hundred and Fifty-Two and Nine Hundred and Eighty-One hold hands across the lunchroom table. One Thousand and Fifteen leans their head against the glass and stares at the Anvil with such longing, as though hoping to read an answer in its nuclear heart.
I will tell my story. I will tell our story. The radiation burns through me, through us, too quickly, a wildfire among dead leaves. We live to work and die too soon in its service. Let my work keep us alive, beyond the mission, surviving the sickness in our blood.
I cough up red; my insides are melting.
There is not much time to build our future. But then again, there never has been.
Nine Hundred and Thirteen wonders how I still live.
I tell them I have a story in my heart; it won’t let me go until it’s told.
“How medicinal,” they say with dry humor.
From the Chronicle, I’ve put together a catalog of us. Of me. The things that make us unique, the stories we tell about ourselves. Even all the way back to Two.
I’ll never know One. None of us will. Whoever we were, whoever I am modeled after, they began this sequence a long time ago, and history has left no trace of them behind.
I dedicate the book to them anyway.
It’s good to remember one’s past.
My sores ache. My bones are glass, and I move at a glacial pace. Not long now.
But for tonight, I’m alive.
And it’s opening night.
They all agreed to this. A way to see me off. We’ve never been shy about death here; we weren’t built to lie to ourselves.
One Thousand and Fifty-Nine has a high, clear voice, like an angel. A born orator. In the church, we gather. But we don’t bury.
Like a prayer, One Thousand and Fifty-Nine reads from The Book of the Blacksmiths.
We didn’t have a name; now, we do. They read of our mission, our creeds, our deeds, and our duties. Of our hopes and our joys, our failures and follies. They read of our confusion and our uncertainty. How, maybe, uncertainty is the first step towards certainty.
And in the meantime, we’ll continue doing good, telling stories, cherishing our time with each other while we work, so as to make the uncertainty worthwhile.
When they close the book, the strangest thing happens: A new song fills our minds. Maybe it’s always been there and was simply waiting to bloom. The Forge fills with our voices. My voices.
We sing a song of renewal into the dark night.
I close my eyes and think about how bright the future will be.