At the Center of the World


 God did not exist until we created Her.  –Kirill Musov


I
The first thing that struck Kirill Musov when he entered the Polyna Academy of Russian Ballet was the pervasive scent of stale sweat and, though it was more subtle: blood.

“Line up, girls.” The old crone rapped the gold ferrule of a malacca cane against the floor. She was dressed in black crepe with a green scarf knotted around her neck. The Order of Lenin was pinned to her breast. Dangling from a gold wrist bracelet was the Moscow Medal of Artistic Accomplishment for Dance and Party Loyalty, circa 2010. 

Two dozen girls entered the training hall in a tumbled flurry of pink and white leotards, long graceful limbs, and feather-light tulle. Without speaking they arrayed themselves against the wooden barré, toes turned out, heads back.

“These are my best girls, Comrade Musov.” There was no hint of pride in Mme. Zhanna Polyna’s voice, only a statement of fact that these were, indeed, her best girls. If for no other reason than they were her only girls.

Musov shifted the cardboard tube he carried under one arm. “Krasnya. They’re lovely, Mme. Polyna. One assumes their physical talent matches their incomparable beauty?” 

She lifted her sharp chin a fraction of a degree. “Of course, Comrade Musov. I accept nothing less from my students.”

Musov looked them over. Which one, he wondered. Which of these young women will save our destiny? 

“I appreciate your candor, Mme. Polyna. You may begin.”

“As you command,” Polyna said. “Girls, this is Comrade Musov from the Moscow Polytechnic Institute of Advanced Cosmological Studies.” They regarded him with wide, guileless eyes. “He has come to our school to conduct important business on behalf of the State. You are to do what he says, answer any questions he has, without hesitation.”

A chorus of meek acknowledgments: “Da, Madamoiselle.”

“First, we will show Comrade Musov what you have learned under my care.” The malacca cane rapped the floor. “Attention!” The bodies came alert. “Relevés and échappés. Begin on my count. Un. Deux. Trois....” 

Which one? Musov wondered.

Stale sweat and bruised blood. He found the juxtaposition unsettling as the girls went through their ethereal movements. Such a place which celebrated the pink and white tradition of gossamer music and physical balance should not smell so strongly of the more quotidian human secretions, he thought. But, the Revolution itself was built on blood and sweat and shattered bone. And before his job was finished, unless he was successful, the world as they knew it would soon drown in chaos.

I must prevent that from happening, he reflected.

But which one?  

Upon command the ballerinas began en pointe work. Graceful extensions, the precise marriage between bone and muscle. The exercise continued apace. Pliés. Pas de chat. Pas de bourrée en pointes. He found their mental and physical discipline extraordinary. At last the girls moved from the barré to the center of the dance floor. Now they were doing grand jetés, huge graceful moves which gave the illusion of being suspended in mid-air, defying gravity. 

How closely, he wondered, would that physical sensation marry to what the pilot would experience as she extended her mind and body throughout n-space?

Mme. Polyna’s cane crashed to the floor. “Enough. Line up so Comrade Musov may address you.”

Another soft, whispered flurry of excited movement. The girls stood in a single row, faces glowing, slim arms sheened with perspiration. They watched Musov with a single, concentrated gaze.

The old woman crossed her bone-white hands over the pommel of her cane. “For your inspection, Comrade Musov.”

“Thank you, Mme. Polyna.” He smiled at the girls to put them at ease. He knew they had questions, a thousand questions. It wasn’t everyday an apparatchik of his caliber appeared in their lives, despite the fact these women were training in the most prestigious ballet school in Moscow -- a school from which students regularly graduated to the Bolshoi.

“Good morning. My name is Dr. Kirill Andreivich Musov. As Mme. Polyna said, I am the personnel director of an institute which studies cosmology. Simply put, we do theoretical and experimental work in the field of high-energy physics. Our main experimental lab is in Novosibirsk. Much of our work is classified, but I assure you nothing happens there that does not impact the safety and security of the Soviet Global Collective.”

He walked up and down the line of girls, addressing each as he spoke. He wanted to look into their eyes. In short he became aware of one girl in particular. She was no taller than five foot two, compact, and one of the tiniest girls in class. There wouldn’t be a problem fitting her inside the dimensions of the Bohm chamber, he reflected. But was she flexible enough? And did she possess the physical and mental stamina needed to cross the domain wall from this reality into the mind twisting madness of n-space? 

“Because our work is so secretive,” he continued, “you must not discuss what you see and learn here today.”

Of course, nothing they would see or hear would mean anything to them. But it was vital he draw upon their national pride and Party loyalty to advance the experiment.

“Do I have your personal assurance you will never speak about this?”

The girls nodded in turn. They were more than intrigued. This was an important event which might strengthen Mother Russia’s security.  Their love of country and ingrained patriotism, Rodina, would insure their lips remained sealed. In today’s world, such a promise was not taken lightly.

Musov walked to the center of the dance floor, opened one end of the cardboard tube and rolled out a black rubber mat. In the center was a unique symbol outlined in white, resembling a truncated “Y”.

Musov stepped aside. “Each of you will have a turn, or several turns if you wish. I want you to lie on your stomach and match your arms and legs with the outline of this symbol. You must place your limbs within the marked boundary. You need not worry about the three-dimensional aspect of your torso. All we are interested in at the moment is the placement of your body within the limited architecture of the structure we are building. Think of it as a game. You have already stretched and limbered up. Feel free to warm up more if you think you might have difficulty. Who wants to go first?”

One of the older girls glided forward. She was a tall, thin beauty with high Slavic cheekbones and night-black hair chopped short. “I will try, Dr. Musov,” she said. She had a Georgian accent, and lips the color of Moldavian wine.

“Excellent. And what is your name, my child?”

“Sonya.”

“Lie down, Sonya. That’s correct. Now, bring your legs up to meet your outstretched arms. Let me help you. It’s difficult to maintain position, isn’t it? Do not be ashamed, it was an excellent effort.” 

He explained to the other girls crowding nearby. “We have tried martial artists, gymnasts, and other dancers. It was only through trial and error we came to understand we needed a female ballet dancer. Someone with enormous muscle discipline and core abdominal strength. Men were excluded; their physique is too muscular, and you can see from the area within the symbol we need someone very slight of stature.” He felt a pang of conscience. He didn’t like lying to these girls, but there was no other way. 

“All right,” he asked, “who is next?”

Now the girls viewed it as a competition among themselves. A few went off to stretch while the remainder jostled one another to be next. Some were the right stature, but they didn’t have the flexibility. Several had the flexibility, but their arms and legs, or their torso, were too long to fit within the marked boundary.

The one girl Musov had fixed his eye on came forward. Her long honey-colored hair was held back with a black satin bow. She smiled briefly in his direction, pressed flat her stomach to the mat, threw out her arms and swept her legs up to meet them. Perfect, except her hands overlapped her feet.

“You’re using your hands to provide muscular tension on your legs, my dear. Can you place your hands beneath your legs, and maintain position using only your abdominal strength?” She would have to be able to reach and manipulate the console controls with her hands. Therefore, they had to be beneath her feet. 

“I will try,” she said.

It was much more difficult this way and she failed at the first attempt. She sat back on her knees, eyeing the limited space she had to contort her body to fit. A cleft of concentration appeared between her eyebrows, as if she were mentally rehearsing the motions she would need to mold her body exactly where it needed to be.

She spread herself on the mat, brought up her hands, her long legs. Almost there. Her face was a raw mask of concentration. A few more inches. The thigh muscles in her legs trembled. Musov was impressed. The muscular strain must have been enormous.

“Like this?” she asked.  

“How long can you maintain that position?”

She had to speak in short bursts. “I don’t know. A couple. Of minutes. Maybe.”

Long enough for the engineers to lower the carapace and entomb her, thought Musov. Excellent.   
    
“That’s fine. You may get up, my dear.”

She rocked back on her knees, a smile of success lighting her face. She took his offered hand and rose gracefully to her feet.

Musov looked directly into her clear, brown eyes. “You did well, my child. What is your name?”

Mme. Polyna said, “This is Giselle.”

Musov smiled at the girl. “Giselle. I very much like that name.”

Blushing furiously, she looked away for a second, then lifted her eyes to meet his. “I’m glad,” she said. 


II
“You realize you have to make this girl fall in love with you,” Chairman Taras Schlecta said.

“I know that.” Musov sat in Schlecta’s book-lined office. The mahogany shelves were filled with theoretical books on chess and annotated games. It was very dark outside. The only light came from a goose-necked lamp that illuminated their faces and a dozen scattered folders on the desk between them. “It’s the one part of the operation I don’t like.”

Schlecta packed an old meerschaum pipe from his glass tobacco bowl and lighted up. “Certainly she is pretty enough?” He whipped out the match and pitched it into a metal ashtray. He jerked the pipe aside. “If it’s a question of physical attraction—”

Musov frowned at the implication. “That’s not the problem, Taras, and you know it.”

“I didn’t mean to give offense.” Schlecta had a narrow face, like the prow of a Viking ship. His eyes were half-hidden beneath bushy brows. “You understand the sacrifice which must be made if we are to achieve success. Kirill, if I thought there were a less difficult way, for both you and the girl....”

Musov made a chopping motion with his hand. “Let’s drop it.” He jerked his chin toward one file in particular. “What’s your opinion?”

Schlecta opened the dokument and flipped through the pages for the umpteenth time. “On paper she is perfect. Giselle Tiva, eighteen. Born in Leningrad on August 6, 1992. Her father was an organic chemist on the Gudonov, so there is exposure to the hard sciences in her background. Mother was a Naval weapons expert who served on Kilo submarines before she was killed in a plane crash in Mexico.” Schelecta tapped a thoughtful fingernail against the page. “Giselle was five years old when her mother died. That’s important. Since her father raised her she may have a natural inclination for father figures, which would be to our advantage.”

“I am hardly that,” Musov objected. “I’m only ten years older than she.”

“But still older. It may be important from a psychological standpoint. Look here, Musov. Her paternal grandfather was a merchant ship captain during the Cuban Missile Crisis. When the Americans blinked he ran the blockade and was the first freighter to make port in Havana. Later, he served with the First Soviet Army when they marched into Alaska. Good strong family stock all around.” He pushed the file aside. “She’s perfect in every way. Do you not agree?”

“I’ve got a few more schools left. But we’re not likely to find anyone better,” he conceded. 

“When will you see her again?”

“Next Wednesday. I’ll give her a tour of our offices here in Moscow and we’ll have dinner later that night.”

“You will break the news to her then?”

Musov was evasive. “Tricky. I’ll have to go slow.”

“Stands to reason, given what’s involved.” Schlecta’s pipe had gone out. He scraped the bowl with a penknife and tapped the burnt tobacco out. “The other girl you found. Sonya? She may be an appropriate second for Giselle, I think.”

“I agree.”

“And Mme. Polyna was recompensed adequately for the loss of her two, what do they call them, petite rats?”

“More than adequate. She’s a fervent communist and party member in good standing. I played on her national loyalty. She won’t be a problem, nor any of the other girls if it should come to that.”

“Let’s hope not.” Schlecta leaned back in his red leather chair. “One hates to arrive at these decisions, but we must be prepared to silence Polyna or anyone else who might compromise our progress. The Siberian Gulags are bursting at the seams already. However, I suspect the KGB can always find room for one more prisoner.”

“Will you be available Wednesday?” Musov asked. “I’d like to introduce Giselle to you.”

“Of course. We have to explain to her what she’s in for.” Schlecta returned a tight smile. “After all, it’s not everyday a young girl surrenders her humanity to save the universe.”


III
“I see stars.”

Musov and Schlecta were sitting in the command center surrounded by towering consoles with amber sheets of scrolling numbers. The technicians were down in the Pit regulating the main power connection and life support cables that snaked toward Giselle’s chamber.

“I’m moving through them now.” Her excited voice emanated from a speaker crystal mounted above their heads. “Or they are moving around me. I can’t tell which.”

Musov turned to Schlecta. “She may be experiencing relativistic lag.”

Schlecta pursed his thin lips in thought. “I don’t believe so. There would be more temporal shift if that were true.” He pointed to a screen with a fluctuating histogram. “The Bohm chamber is phasing her consciousness with the natural quantum foam structure of the universe. Once the integration is complete she will be able to orient herself fully.”

Musov tried not to think of the previous experiments where the non-human test subjects had died when they reached this point. But it was agreed by everyone concerned that human intelligence could survive the integration process, because the universe was itself a reflection of human—

“I’m centered now.” Giselle’s voice was filled with awe. “I can see ... everything.”

“Giselle—“

”It’s beautiful, Kirill.”

Musov clenched the edge of the table so hard his fingers ached. He forced his hands to drop to his side. This was as far as they’d ever gone with the integration process. It had taken two months of hard training and grueling preparation to reach this point. After the indoctrination in Moscow they had moved to the high-energy physics lab outside Novosibirsk. Even Sonya had been involved in every step of the process. As Giselle’s understudy, such a move was sound scientific policy. Essential insurance in case something fatal happened. 

But today they were pushing farther than ever before. Today would be the day Giselle died.

One of the technicians, Pyotr Numinov, stated, “We are ready to bring the power full on, Dr. Schlecta.”

“Open the safety interlocks, Dr. Numinov.”

“Board reads green.” From deep below the Bohm chamber came the low-throated hum of hidden machinery. Musov thought it strange that in this modern age of computerized equipment whispering with electronic speed there might be a thrum of machinery somewhere. Throbbing, like an alien heart.

Or maybe it was his own heart pounding against his rib cage. He couldn’t tell.

He leaned forward and spoke into a micrphone. “Giselle....” he began.

“I want to do this, Kirill.”

Schlecta gave the go ahead to the engineers monitoring the power flow. They opened up the gates and the huge structure surrounding the Bohm chamber folded quantum space deep into Giselle’s consciousness. Musov watched her bio-medical readout blink off line.

His mouth went dry. She was dead.

“Jesus,” someone on the other side of the room whispered. They all had been expecting it, of course, despite the fact they knew they had the medical knowledge to bring her back within a short time frame. But, still....

“I’m part of everything,” Giselle said, her voice rising with excitement. “And it’s part of me.” 

Musov felt a chill race down his spine. By all accounts Giselle was dead. Her lifeless body lay inert within the chamber. It wasn’t suspended animation or thought dissociation or black magic. Giselle, her physical body, was truly dead. But her consciousness, that which made her human, and, yes, that which existed on a spiritual level, lived on via quantum entanglement, stretched throughout the turbulent, always roiling topology of space-time foam that made up the universe itself.

And that consciousness was searching.

“I hear music.”

Her consciousness, her spirit, call it what you will, was interpreting unknown experiences by using past associations to understand them.

Schlecta motioned to the fluctuating amplitudes that signified her new quantum existence. They were rapidly reaching the Kowski asymptote.

“Giselle.” Musov’s voice was strained.

“Yes, Kirill, I hear you. I can dance with God.”


IV
“I can’t explain what it’s like.” She lay in his arms, her hair splayed across his chest. He was holding a forgotten cigarette, blue smoke laddering in the air. “There are no words to describe the experience. Human language is too limited. But you can actually hear the music, Kirill, stretching to infinity and curving back upon itself. Enfolding you.”

I can dance with God.

Sonya propped her chin on her hand and stared at him. Her long, warm body was pressed hard against his. “During my trial runs I haven’t been as deep into the foam as Giselle. But I know what she’s feeling. Fragments of it, anyway.”

It was long past midnight. Giselle had been brought back and was sleeping in the annex under armed guard. She was too valuable, too important to the survival of the human race, to let anything happen to her now. 

“She said she danced with God.” Musov’s voice echoed strangely in the darkness.

Sonya kissed his shoulder. “You see things in that chamber. Things you can’t explain. So you try to understand them in ways that makes sense.”

Musov crushed his cigarette out in an ashtray on the bed stand. “Schlecta is scheduling the final run tomorrow.”

Sonya was still. “That’s an awfully fast turnaround.”

“He believes disorientation is essential to the full integration process. The human mind in its material state has a propensity to categorize events in such a way that limits—“

”Gobbledegook. When are you going to tell Giselle?”

Musov gently disentangled himself from Sonya’s embrace. He walked naked toward the window. He pulled the curtain aside and looked upon a moonlit forest. It wasn’t anyone’s fault he had fallen in love with Sonya, and she with him. They had started seeing each other intimately two weeks ago, stealing time whenever they could. It wasn’t fair. They didn’t deserve to be punished. But neither did Giselle.

“Miliy moy?” My sweet.

His thoughts raced.

“Devochka. You must face this. You cannot run away from it.”

He drew a long breath. “I’ll tell her everything tomorrow.” He had seen less and less of Giselle as the experiment ran its inevitable course. He loved her, he knew that much was true. But he wasn’t in love with her, and never had been.

He sighed. Damn Schlecta and his theory that emotional involvement on behalf of the test subject would give Giselle something tangible to return to from n-space. Damn him to hell.

“Kirill?”

“What.” 

Sonya sat up in bed, a rumpled bed sheet clasped to her breasts. “I meant when are you going to tell Giselle about us?”

Musov turned to stare, appalled. “Never,” he said with conviction. “I’m never going to tell her that.”

“I would want to know, if I were Giselle.”

“Sonya, can’t you understand there’s no point in telling her? Not after tomorrow, anyway.” He let the curtain drop and came back to bed. “Besides. Aren’t we doing enough already without piling on?”


V
They were gathered around a mahogany table in the main conference room. Giselle appeared tired: red-rimmed eyes and gaunt face. But when she caught Musov’s eyes she found the strength to smile at him with a weary happiness.

Musov returned the smile. He imagined the grin of a freshly disinterred skull had more warmth than he could muster. But Giselle appeared not to notice. She could not read his soul.

Not yet.

Schlecta was holding court at the head of the table. “When we first opened a gate into the quantum foam ten years ago we were able to map a limited amount of topology. It gave us clues, hints, as to what was out there. And, more importantly, what was not there. Then we tried test animal subjects. Well, you know what became of them. They didn’t have the cognitive ability to understand what they were experiencing. Our experiments to date with both Giselle and Sonya have proven the value of using human subjects.”

Schlecta poured a glass of water, took a contemplative sip. “There is little doubt in my mind, and from what Giselle has verified, that no life whatsoever exists anywhere in the universe other than on Earth. Is that right, Giselle?”

Her fragile bone-white hands were folded cross-wise on the table. “It’s true. I can become one with the music of the universe when I’m in the foam. I see all the elements. Carbon. Hydrogen. Nitrogen. Oxygen. Many organic compounds exist, but no life anywhere. Even on worlds that are huge cauldrons of water – lifeless. Not one alien species. Not one      self-replicating cell. Not one insignificant virus. I can hear the whole symphony, but there is a note missing, an empty refrain that was never written. The music of life is incomplete. We are all there is. I mean, humanity. There is nothing else, no other consciousness in the universe exists. It never has.”

“And it never will,” Musov supplied.

Giselle favored him with a tired smile. “Perhaps.”

Schlecta listened to this exchange with a closed face. “Two months ago, Dr. Musov found these women and brought them into what will be remembered as the greatest challenge Mankind has ever faced.” He rose from his chair. He clasped his hands behind his back and rocked back on his heels. “To exist, to move beyond this cradle Earth, to fulfill our destiny as a cognitive species, we must change the universe in a most direct and fundamental way. We must give the universe the ability, even the will, to create new life. I am convinced that, and nothing else, is the sole destiny of the human race, and the reason for our existence. And to do that, to accomplish this great work ... we have to invent God.”

No one said anything. Dr. Numinov, scribbling aimlessly on a pad with a pencil, broke the silence. “It’s not a problem of energy requirements. We’ve solved that. On the last run we pushed Giselle past the Kowski asymptote. If we did it once, we can do it again.”

Schlecta paced back and forth. “We’ve been over this again and again. I have played chess and studied physics my entire life. I am trained to see combinations that lie hidden, ready to be teased out and used to our benefit. The topology gives us hints, clues. We can use it to look back upon certain fragments of space-time and see that what we have now, the moment of now we are experiencing, is all wrong. I don’t know what happened to change history in such a horrific manner. Some small moment. Butterfly effect. But this is not the history Mankind was meant to have. It must be changed back. We know this is true because of what Giselle reports. The missing note, the empty refrain. The universe became incomplete through some action, some misstep on our part, or the part of humanity. It comes down to this. The universe is conscious because we ourselves are conscious. We are part of its structure. We do not live outside its totality. Therefore, the blame lies squarely on us. And it rests upon our shoulders to correct this mistake and put things aright. No matter what the sacrifice involved.”

He returned to the table and put his hands down flat. “If we allow events to remain as they are, that emptiness, that missing note, will one day unravel the fabric of everything that is, and was, and should be. The universe, some day, and very soon, will simply cease to exist. We have no other choice. In this reality,” he thumped his fist on the table, “we must create God.”

Sonya was sitting beside Musov. She pressed her knee against his and left it there. 

Schlecta resumed his seat. His face was drawn. “If we do not, we will face annihilation. The universe will become a dead and very empty, and very lonely, place. Without a conscious mind to gaze upon its beauty. Without any mortal to contemplate its grandeur. A silent symphony, stretching forever, between the stars.”

Everyone turned to Giselle. The moment went on. Musov found himself clenching his teeth.

What are we doing? he wondered. What right do we have as human beings to ask this of anyone?

“I want everyone to know I have made up my mind,” Giselle said. “I think Sonya understands why, a little.”

Sonya gave a short, supportive nod. “I do,” she whispered. Her eyes glistened with emotion.

Giselle drew a deep breath and went on. “How can I explain what it’s like out there, or in there.” She shifted a little in her chair. Everyone was riveted. “You see, nothing has meant more to me than my ability to dance ballet. I love the rhythmic quality, the muscular tone and structure and expressive fluidity of the movements. The soft grace, and the incomparable beauty, as the body melds in perfection with the music that becomes your entire world, your whole existence. It’s expression and reason and confession all in one. There’s nothing else like it in the world. It is, and always will be, my entire life and the ultimate expression of human grace. And now I have the chance to do it forever. I can’t explain it better than that. I’m sorry. But I think, I hope, Sonya understands what I’m trying to say. And maybe, one day, she can explain it better than I.”

Sonya’s eyes welled with tears. “Da,” she said, “I do understand.”

“I want this,” Sonya said. “I want this with all my heart.”

Schlecta consulted a time sheet. “Then it is decided. The Final Integration will be scheduled for 1600 hours tomorrow.”


VI.
There was a somber quality to the proceedings that followed. Last minute medical examination, a restrained noon meal among the participants, a few stolen moments with Giselle in his arms, her telling him not to worry, the inevitable countdown of time. 

Energy profiles, systems check, the carapace raised and Giselle molding her body one last time into the framework.

She had to crane her neck to see him. One final glance. “Kirill....”

He was kneeling beside the chamber. He put his hand in her hair, softly. “I’m here.”

“I wish we had more time together.”

“So do I.” He meant it, then.

“I love you.”

“I know.”

“Always.”

He touched her face. “Da, always.”

She lowered her head into the gel face mask. Musov backed away as the technicians fitted and locked the shell around her body.

Last minute safety checks. Power ramped up. Partial integration. 

“I can see the stars.”

Minor fluctuation in the Shoenburg couplings that provided digital feedback of the foam-like structure she would soon inhabit. It was immediately corrected.

“Safety interlocks off.” 

Musov watched the bio-medical readout. He pressed his finger against the flat screen. As long as the med-lines were there, wriggling, she was with them. Watch the lines. Will them to exist with nothing more than the power of your mind. Will them to continue blinking on this screen, forever.

“Don’t cry, Kirill. It’s beautiful.” A significant pause. “It’s always beautiful.”

The medical readouts went flat. Within seconds they were at the Kowski asymptote.

“I’m part of the music again,” she said, from beyond. “Kirill, I’m dancing. I’m dancing....”

Schlecta watched his console with rapt attention. “Final Integration in five...four...Planck Firewall active...two...one.”

Giselle.

“Zero.”

Musov switched off the return mechanism which would reintegrate Giselle’s consciousness with her body. Now she was cut off forever. And this time her death would be permanent.

Schlecta became all business. “Power down. Watch that radiation level in section five. Decouple the digital inputs and make sure you log that Shoenburg fluctuation. Everyone all right? Musov? It’s over, my boy. We’ve done it.” 

Musov met the other man’s eyes, knowing his own were haunted.

Schlecta gave a relieved sigh. For the first time in months he looked deflated. “Okay,” he said, somber, “let’s get her body out of there.”


VII.
Musov and Sonya walked between the black trees that stalked along the steep banks of the Ob River. It was a fine morning, with the sun beating back an early fog, and a light breeze rustling spring leaves. 

“She knew,” Musov said, kicking the earth. “She knew about us all along.”

Her hand was unexpectedly cold in his. “I know.”

Something about the way Sonya answered made Musov stop while Sonya kept walking ahead. “You told her, didn’t you?” he asked. “You told her about us. Sonya, stop and answer me.”

She turned. Green and gold lozenges of light from the leaves played over her face and body. “Kirill, she deserved to know. It wasn’t ... it wasn’t right to send her out there like that. On a lie.” 

He felt his fury rise. “Sonya, there was no need. I told you not to do that.”

She came forward and put her hand on his arm, lightly. “Kirill, do you honestly believe she doesn’t know now? Whether we told her or not makes no difference. Not now.”

He watched the river skirling past a rock that jutted from the bank. 

Sonya kept her eyes on his quiet profile. “I talked to Schlecta this morning before you awoke. They’re mapping the new topology. It’s already changed significantly. She’s out there, Kirill. She’s everywhere now filling in what was missing, changing things. And you know that’s true. What you did, or didn’t tell her, doesn’t mean anything. She’s ... Giselle’s in a different place where she understands everything. And more importantly, why it all happened.”

“I know. But you still shouldn’t have done it.”

Sonya’s face was troubled. She combed her long fingers through his hair. “Poor Kirill. You never wanted any of this to happen, did you?”

“I feel like I’m broken,” he confessed. “I’ve never felt this way before.”

“Dushka. You never wanted to go to Madame Polyna’s. You never wanted Giselle to love you, or you fall in love with me. Nyet, don’t be startled, I know that’s true.”

“I’m not sorry I fell in love with you, Sonya. Don’t say that.”

“I know. But you never wanted to live in a world where you had to change everything you ever knew about yourself so other people could live.” She gripped his hand and raised it to her lips. “But you did those things because you had the strength to do them. That’s why I love you, Kirill. And that’s why Giselle loves you. She’s out there dancing right now. Dancing in your heart, and mine, and at the very center of the world. She wanted this above all else and you helped her create that. That’s what you gave her: opportunity. If that’s not love, Kirill, then maybe it never existed.”

Musov cocked his head. There was the sound of the wind rustling leaves. The gurgle of water. Birdsong piping beyond their vision. And something else, an undercurrent that had never been there before, tugging for his attention....

“Kirill. What is it?”

“I’m listening. For the first time in my life, I’m listening.”  

She blinked in confusion. “To what?”

He smiled at her. Allowed her to come with uncertainty into his open arms. He pressed his face into her hair, laughed a little and held her close. “The music Giselle wants us to hear,” he said.