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dexter mcleod

Between Scylla And Charybdis

by Dexter McLeod

The twin singularities are forever circling, forever falling. Beneath me, above me—their shadows are heaving, and roiling, and churning.

I look out of the crystalline metal wall as one gravitational silhouette marries the other, blotting out both hemispheres of my view. As above me, it is so below. For several breaths, the stars are gone. We are now between two nevers. Two nothings. Two everythings.

Jolan Trae, the man in the cell across from me, always laughs when he sees me tense up during these convergences. He always notices because I always do it. Or, maybe, I always do it because he always notices. And always will. Here in the Lemniscate, our prison, cause and effect no longer belong to us. Or to time. Or to, one wonders, even gods—if such things exist. Inside the Lemniscate, tomorrow and yesterday don’t matter. Have never mattered. Will never matter.

I exhale when we pass out of the double shadow, as I always do. The stars return, spilling back into the horizon as the dual globes recede. Through the hull I can see the coiling, writhing spine of the prison as it moves in a perfect figure eight, like an infinity symbol. A cosmic snake eating its own tail. Its individual compartments move like a stellar train millions of miles long, whose tracks make an orbit around and between the two black holes. Our keepers. Our wardens.

Their official designations are useless to most of us. The pair were discovered by Nylerian astronomers half-a-million years ago. Their number system was base 60, and they assigned some sexagesimal code in place of a proper name.

Jolan calls them Scylla and Charybdis, great mythical monsters, between which safety is on a knife’s edge. He fancies himself a scholar, which suits the crimes that imprisoned him. A destroyer of libraries, a burner of books. He stole histories and stories of a dozen civilizations, saving a copy, for a price.

But we thank him. Knowing the names of things is strangely important to us, with so little to occupy our minds. He laughs to himself, calling us Ixion, or Sisyphus, or Tantalus, though he keeps that riddle to himself.

When I was a child, a neighbor had a pet tarm chained to a stake in the yard. It was a beautiful pure bred Calusian. I still remember it, running around the yard with its blue and orange fur, bright yellow antennae streaming behind it like ribbons. But it grew testy as it aged, discerning the extent of freedom afforded by the chain. A circular rut formed in the grass as it toiled and worried and strained against the stake.

We’re like that tarm, but we have gouged a furrow in spacetime, and not in muddy soil. In the Lemniscate, the dual gravities distort the flow of past, present, and future. They bunch together, like too many people huddled beneath an umbrella. Instead of rain, the singularities swallow their accretion disks, and vomit particle fountains—burning rivers pouring from frozen gyres.

I wonder sometimes if we can be seen by astronomy hobbyists in the star system next door. Are we a Möbius strip in their sky, a belt cinched tightly around two starving galaxy eaters? A lopsided infinity symbol, bolded at one end, and italicized at the other? As the hull ionizes when we pass near the particle geysers streaming up from their poles, do we form an incandescent analemma they can see? Does their news announce a particularly bright lightshow on clear evenings—a hellish aurora to be seen from their porches, and their skyscrapers, and their yachts? Are we a serpentine morning star?

Kheenen Du, the man two cells down, insists he helped design the math this place runs upon. The calculations are his, he claims. He mapped the nested and intertwined fractals that ascend and descend through the boundless continuum and back again, looping in on themselves as if some cosmic gods were sewing into the same stitch over and over, tugging and tightening at the knot of time.

He won’t say why they sentenced him here, only some grumblings about knowing too much. It makes sense, I suppose. Didn’t the silver Klibbin emperors of Darsec, and the Trelochian underqueens of Unmure, and the First Dynasty Egyptian pharaohs of Sol each seal the workers beneath their entombed rulers? Just to keep the palace secrets of their ladies and lords for all eternity? Perhaps he is such.

As we spin and twist between Scylla and Charybdis, I know they are evaporating. Nothing, not even this hell, lasts forever. With infinitesimal slowness, the singularities are bleeding—radiating a quantum of themselves into black space a particle at a time. Not a river, but a trickle, flowing like an estuary into an ocean of permanent night. It will not be quick, but it will happen. One day they will exhale their last and wink out into nothingness, leaving only escaping x-rays and a quivering of the quantum foam. Not the banging gravity waves of their making, but the whimpers of their decay.

I am struck by this oddity. What are we prisoners to these bottomless wells of gravity? And yet, I am vertiginously perched between them, waiting for their death. I am a carrion bird circling above a wounded, three-antlered lerra deep in a ravine, braying for a mother who cannot help it. A falcon outliving its falconer, slouching towards infinity.

I will live long enough to see the constellations contorted and deformed by time, only to see them slowly reassemble as the eons flicker by, and then rewind.

As we move back into the umbra for yet another loop, my cell is thrown again into darkness. The stars are leaving now. We’re falling towards the convergence: an infernal Lagrange point, a divine asymptote. I know it’s coming. Have always known. Will always know. Can never not know.

The twin singularities are forever circling, forever falling. Beneath me, above me—their shadows are heaving, and roiling, and churning.



Dexter McLeod resides in western Kentucky, where he writes in the darker shades of Southern Gothic, folk and cosmic horror, science fiction, and the New Weird. His work has been included in Air and Nothingness Press‘ dark fairy tale themed anthology, Upon a Thrice Time; in Dark Moon Books’ Horror Library Volume 8 anthology; in several volumes of British publisher Hawk & Cleaver‘s award-winning horror and science fiction series, The Other Stories; and in Wight Christmas, a holiday-themed horror anthology from Canadian publisher TDotSpec. Visit to connect with him online.

Philosophy Note:

My inspiration for this story deals with how complexity scales with civilization. From a futurism standpoint, I wondered about how a distant future humanity with greater technology would continue to overengineer the more mundane systems we already use. Carceral systems would seem to be an area our future selves would likely continue to scale upward, and as our structures become megastructures, I wondered what a prison in the distant future might look like. Philosophers along these lines have imagined penitentiary-style megastructures, like panopticons, but so much of our modern carceral state is less about watching or reforming prisoners and more about forgetting or containing them. This story considers how that might continue when compounded with deep time.