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Part of USS Redding: Something Funny Happened on the Way to the Underspace and Bravo Fleet: Labyrinth

Manifold VIII: a Round City in the Underspace

Romulan Bird-of-Prey Koruba, Underspace
September 2401
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Iskander al-Kwaritzmi’s personal log, day 23 in the Underspace: I’m really happy about the latest modifications to the crystallization process. We have been making lots of progress and might be finished before the Redding has experienced a full day. Nothing else to report.

Iskander opened his eyes and thought something was wrong. He turned his head and noticed that he was alone in bed. It was the first time, in his experience, that Dhae had gotten out before him: even when he woke up first, the Romulan preferred to remain tucked in, reading his PADD.

Iskander checked the hour. It wasn’t even late.

However, as soon as he sat up, he noticed that there was a PADD on Dhae’s pillow. That felt like a message. Yawning and scratching his naked chest, he picked it up and had a look. Indeed, there was a message: “Come here when you are ready”, with instructions on how to navigate the labyrinthine bird-of-prey.

The human slowly got out of bed and for a moment wondered what to wear: uniform or civilian? After quite a long hesitation, deciding that the message hadn’t felt official enough, he picked some civilian clothing — comfortable camel trousers and a crop shirt decorated in old Coptic motives.

He, of course, passed by engineering. The crystallizer was working. Good.

Iskander arrived at the indicated junction. Dhae was waiting for him, leaning on the wall, dressed in his own out-of-work clothes: an absurdly tight black sleeveless shirt, and equally tight dark-green trousers. The colour wasn’t of the most vivacious, but the clothing clung to his skin almost lewdly. After 23 days in the Underspace, his curly hair was becoming a bit unruly, but Iskander found that to be delightful.

The Romulan smiled. “There you are, Iskander.”

“I am here and I am intrigued.”

The Romulan pointed at the nearest door. “I have a surprise for you. I really do hope that you’ll like it.”

That was the first time that Dhae had led him to any room that wasn’t an engineering space, a quarter, or the astrometrics lab that they now had converted to their eating room. That was intriguing. “Only one way to find out.”

Dhae looked sceptical. “What way would that be?”

“… Seeing what it is? Sorry, it’s a common human turn of phrase.”

“I can tell. No self-respecting Romulan would wait that late to have a confirmation. A Romulan should know before seeing.”

“It just sounded like you hoped instead of knowing, Dhae.”

He flushed slightly. His skin wasn’t particularly pale, going for a caramel tone similar to Iskander’s, so the fact that Iskander could see it getting slightly green was impressive. “My judgement is emotionally compromised”, admitted the Romulan, and pressed a button to open the room.

The two lovers entered in room showered in a light bright more than anything had been bright since weeks.

Eyes trying to adapt, Iskander could first feel the warm, warm air that brought odors of river, of palms, and of spice. The sound of wind.

As soon as he could see, his heart jumped a bit.

“It’s the Round City!” He exclaimed. “Goodness! This is one of my favourite places in all of space and time!”

Dhae, at his side, seemed to relax considerably. He smiled — his smiles were becoming less rare, but not for that less affective and sexy. “I am really pleased to hear that.”

Iskander kissed him and decided to calm down a little bit.

The holographic simulation had put them on Main Bridge: the Tigris flowed peacefully under them, with the typical beauty of a natural river free to meander how it wanted. Behind them was the Nahr Buk quarter, and in front the impressive stone wall of the Round City.

“Care to give me a tour of the place?” Asked Dhae. “I launched the simulation knowing barely what all of this is.”

“I am absolutely amazed. How did you get a holographic reconstruction of ancient Baghdad?”

“I sent a request to the Redding two days ago. Your friend Diran Koli transmitted it personally.”

“I didn’t know that you had holographic decks on the ship, also.”

“Of course we do, Iskander. We do not use them for recreation but for training or interrogations. Please do not tell anyone that I’m doing this — I don’t want to explain why this isn’t a misallocation of energy and a superfluous activity.”

“My lips are sealed, Dhae. Let’s go.”

They walked rapidly across the river, approaching what Iskander assumed was the Khorasan Gate. The simulation was set in mid summer: the riverbank was filled with simulated life, papyrus and reeds; but a scarce meters away the grass and bushes looked almost dried in the oppressive sun while large trees seemed to still thrive — Iskander could recognize only some figs, and the rest of the trees remained a mystery.

“How old is this place?” asked Dhae.

“This specific city has been built roughly 1500 years ago. Not far from here there’s much older cities — thousands of years older — and this started as around the new government palace of the Abbasids. Now it’s still a very large city.”

They had arrived at the gate and walked through. As Iskander recalled, the Round City had been built according to more ancient Sassanid standards, but it had two round walls and not one: the outer ring was a residential and commercial area, which in the simulation teemed with all sorts of people. Dhae and Iskander, standing out thanks to their attire, had at times to fight through a crowd of people.

Iskander was trying to give at least some pointers on the history of the place, but he knew that there was a specific building they had to get to.

“You seem to know where we are going” commented Dhae.

“I certainly do.”

This simulation had come from the Redding, and Iskander had already visited it several times: he knew quite exactly where to find the House of Wisdom, and they made their was there with little deviation.

The House of Wisdom, in the simulation, was large and built in baked brick, featuring several iwats and a hypostyle section, carved with extreme precision and decorated with calligraphy and glazed tilework. They entered.

“A library” commented Dhae with delight as they had entered and found themselves in a much fresher, darker vaulted hall of hushed voices and silent, old academics sitting at tables and looking at parchment and paper. “Your favourite place in the whole universe is a library.”

“It was also the workplace of some of the finest philosophers, scientists and mathematicians.” Iskander pointed. “We are in the public section, but down there work the copyists and the translators, while down that hallway you’ll get to the natural science laboratories, and up that staircase you’ll find the mathematicians.”

“Do you think we can find a table in here?”

Iskander led them to the silent cloister in whose garth was a large fountain and a collection of noble trees. The table was in dark wood, octagonal, and the chairs were comfortable.

“Computer” said Dhae as they had sat. “Initiate protocol 7.”

“What’s protocol 7?”

As an answer, a cleaning robot appeared whizzing and drove all the way to them: carrying breakfast.

Iskander laughed and kissed Dhae. The put the breakfast on the table — Romulan pastries, fresh fruit, some sort of purple brew.

“This is absolutely lovely. Why haven’t we done this before, Dhae?”

“I didn’t have the holoprogram.”

“I’m sure your computer has a database filled with several holographic simulations of beautiful places. Some of them might even be not-interrogation themed.”

Dhae reflected for a moment. “I wanted you to feel a bit closer to home, Iskander, not even further away from it.”

“Oh. Well — I appreciate this.”

They ate silently, enjoying the sound of the fountain and the taste of the food. One could have even have forgotten that they were trapped in the Underspace.

“You see why I want you to know things about me?” asked finally Iskander.

“No.”

“I told you what I like and where I come from and you had enough information to do something for me that I really enjoy.”

Dhae raised his eyebrows and mulled over the idea. “It’s a novel concept. Knowing something against someone is a way to know how to do them harm. Knowing something about someone is a way to know how to please them. Is it always like that amongst humans?”

“No. We can be very cruel to each other even if we know about each other.”

They poured hot beverage.

“Dhae?”

“Yes?”

“You never ask about Orsos.”

“Who is that?”

“My dead husband.”

“Ah. No, I never ask. I assumed that it is k’vanit zhaman.”

Iskander tilted his head a bit. “The translator didn’t get that word.”

K’vanit zhaman. It is — eh — the secret of self-death.”

“There is a secret to achieve self-death and it has to do with my late husband?”

Dhae was very serious. “No, Iskander. It is a belief on ch’Kovex. We believe that each person has to carry one secret — is given, in their life, one secret — that they can’t reveal. Should this secret be discovered, it will surely lead to an annihilation of the self, to a destruction of personhood: the person will maybe look and behave as always, but their inner self will be nihil, empty.”

“Do you really believe this?”

Dhae nodded. “Of course. A Romulan of no secrets is not a Romulan, as far as I am concerned.”

“And if this… k’vanit zhaman… is discovered by someone else… what? Your consciousness vanishes?”

“What’s consciousness to do with any of this? No, the self vanishes, the personhood. Your capability to serve the State.”

They stared at each other.

“Goodness me you are so alien sometimes” said Iskander.

“Ah. I suppose that humans do not think of themselves as having a k’vanit zhaman. Not even all Romulans do. It’s ch’Kovax philosophy.”

“We, indeed, do not. You can ask me about Orsos if you want — you do not have to avoid the topic. And I’ll keep being a good Federation citizen even if you learn about him.”

“I thought it was your k’vanit zhaman because you really, really avoid the topic.”

“Because it hurts.”

“Why would you share your pain? I can’t feel it for you.”

“Because you’d know something more about me.”

Dhae made that face that he always made when he was trying to assimilate a completely alien concept, then he smiled. “I will think about questions. They have to be the correct ones.”

“Whenever you want.”

“Is this place still standing on Earth, Iskander?”

What an elegant pivot in topic, thought Iskander. Sadly he loved history too much to resist.

“No. The House of Wisdom was destroyed about a thousand years ago.”

“I do hope that the knowledge within was preserved!”

Iskander made a pensive move. “That is historically unclear. The legends say that the invaders threw so many books into the Tigris that its waters became black with ink.”

Dhae looked completely aghast. “You must be joking.”

“No. But those are legends. The true damage is unknown, but it was enough that the House of Wisdom ceased to exist.”

“Absolute barbary! Positively revolting! Things like this make you want to go back in time and bomb people from orbit!”

Iskander was quite surprised at how emotional and angry Dhae sounded. He had rarely seen him react so viscerally.

“Let’s… not do that” he said. “But I agree.”

Dhae calmed slowly down. “Sorry.”

They looked at the table: their breakfast was now completely finished, and Dhae had meticulously eaten even all the crumbs.

Iskander offered his hand to Dhae. “But it’s still going to be five-hundred years before, in this simulation, the Mongols knock this place down. Plenty of time for us to visit. Want to go and see some books?”

Dhae’s expression cleared. “Let’s!”

And they giddily explored the House of Wisdom, forgetting for a brief moment the horror of the Underspace.