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The Tome of Tourmaline

Besides being a writer and translator of speculative fiction, Ken Liu is also a programmer and lawyer. His fiction has appeared in F&SF, Asimov's, Clarkesworld, Strange Horizons, and Lightspeed, among other places. See his other works for Daily Science Fiction at www.cyfie.com. He lives with his family in Massachusetts.

"Come, come!" the attendants at the gate of Tourmaline call to you. "Come and bathe your feet."
The water is refreshing, ice cold, straight from the glaciers on top of the mountains far to the west. You wash away the dust of your long journey across the desert, and marvel at the streets lined with twenty-foot slate slabs, the centers slightly depressed from centuries of traffic. You squint at the bright blue murals depicting rearing elephants and leaping lions in smooth jade and lapis lazuli.
When you stand up, the attendants hand you a towel and point you to the center of the city.
"But I haven't told you why I've come," you protest.
"All visitors come here for the Tome," they tell you.
It is said that the Tome tells the most beautiful and moving story in the history of the world, a story that has caused the cruelest generals to shed tears and the most morose bureaucrats to laugh out loud, a story that has entertained kings and paupers since time immemorial.
Yet no one who has read it has ever told others what the story is about.
The Tome is held at the very top of the Great Library. A long-robed librarian leads the way up narrowing flights of spiraling stairs until, finally, you reach the cupola.
Sunlight floods the tiny space, barely enough for a desk and a chair. The view is breathtaking: bustling Tourmaline laid out beneath you like one of the woven carpets the city is so famous for, the red tents of the market forming a sinuous ribbon against the tan-tiled roofs, like a cursive signature inked against a blank page.
The attendant sets the Tome on the table, and leaves.
You flip open the cover, heavy and ornate.
The noises around you--the braying donkeys, the distant murmur of haggling merchants, the splashing of water in the afternoon streets to keep the dust down--fall away.
The story begins, as it always does, with nothingness, the void.
And then: in that darkness, in that sliver of light, the cry, the confusion, the terror, and after, delight.
Where a moment ago there was nothing but the blank page, there is now a tiny question mark curled against the emptiness, fetal, fresh, new.
You lie down in bed, the paperback light in one hand.
You begin by silently sounding out the words in your head, testing out the right voice to use to read to yourself. After a while, you stop doing that and the words simply stream through you.
You forget about the hands of the clock, the soft pillow, the heavy blanket, the smooth sheets.
Like flickering shadows, consciousness and will take shape on the page. There is light, sound, the smell of safety, the caress of love. The world is out there, and in here, the self.
That moment of understanding: luminous.
You caress the book, lightly, and electrons swirl and dance, bombarding crystals and viscous fluid until light and darkness have been arranged into words, patterns at once analog and digital.
You ignore the jostling of the commuters around you, the grinding of subway cars, the chattering of others on cellphones.
You read.
The story continues, with curiosity and growth, with first loves and difficult goodbyes, with learning to inhabit this skin, to stretch this mind, to exercise this body to its fullest.
Words, sentences, scenes tumble through you, out of you. Each moment in the retelling is made glorious, given weight and meaning, imbued with color. You marvel at how many beautiful memories you have forgotten and lament how many mistakes you have made. Here is the story of your life, given shape, plot, a narrative purpose. It's all starting to make sense.
Always, the book compels you to turn the page, to move forward.
Sometimes it's not so clear if you're reading the book or if the book is reading you.
You touch the book and the recorded voice comes alive in your ears. It takes you a while to get used to the voice, but soon you forget that you're reading with your ears instead of your eyes. You walk through the streets like a robot, automatically avoiding collisions, following a path so well known that it is etched into the physical structure of your brain.
Your life runs through your ears, a strand as strong as desire, as light as fate.
Closer and closer, you move to the present moment. You've read about your friends, your foes, your lovers. You've read about your work, your idleness, your search for a feeling you can't name. Now you're reading about the journey to Tourmaline, driven by a curiosity to read the greatest story the world has ever known.
You hesitate. What will happen after you pass this moment? Will you find out how it all turns out? Will you get to your life's period, and then the parenthetical beyond?
You read faster.
The clanging bell rouses a flock of doves. The birds circle through the air, above you, then below you, making ever-widening circles, like ripples from the bell's ring.
And the book ends, in the middle of a sentence.
You cry out in frustration.
The librarian closes the book, tucks it under an arm, and squints at you. "Was it the greatest story ever told?"
"It was." A pause. "For me."
The librarian squints more. "Was it perfect?"
The book was so great in so many ways, but now that the exhilaration is past, you begin to remember flaws, moments of disappointment with the author. "I would have changed a few things."
The librarian nods. "There's still time"--he turns to leave--"in the second half."
You're alone in the cupola.
It's evening. The merchants have already gone home, dismantling their red tents. In the fading light, the tan-tiled roofs merge into each other, like a blank piece of parchment.
You smile, and
The End
This story was first published on Wednesday, May 9th, 2012
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