October 2018

Three figures loom below a vision of perfect, immortal Vloles, and all three are consumed, from below, by flames.

This is the cover of Le Aaiun’s book, and it comes from a drawing by Le herself in the scattered notes that were later compiled, along with notes from interviews, into the finished book. Ad Dakhla was himself a writer, poet, and artist of some note, and he was responsible for turning Le’s sketch into the beautiful but apocalyptic vision for her book. In the preface, he writes on the artwork’s context:

“The one and only time I was able to ask Lady Aaiun about her drawing, she was weaving in and out of consciousness shortly before she went missing. She told me that the drawing depicted the ‘many-who-are-three’ and the ‘three-who-are-many.’ When I asked if she meant the three godheads, she vehemently shook her head. ‘No, they are the many-who-are-three, the three-who-are-many. They are guided, guarded by the spirits of dead suns, and dream no more.'”

“I think it likely that they three figures are the Light, the Dark, and the Nameless. Perhaps in her talk of dead suns, the Lady Aaiun gave us her ultimate clue as to the very nature of the dreamlands, of Vloles, and of life eternal. I must leave it for a greater mind than mine, however, to piece together this last puzzle. I can only curate the pieces as best I can in the hopes that someone will assemble them in time.”

“I hope the answer is one we wish to hear.”

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In the great market of the City of Bronze
Many sell artifacts unearthed nearby
Or even elsewhere, down to the Dead River
One of them sold statues, cold-hewn stone
Gods and goddesses long since fallen
Long since forgotten, long since dead
I was amazed to see my very own face
Adorning one of the stones, crowned
Worn with a thousand years of sun
Still encrusted with salt crystals
From the lowest, saltiest reaches
Of the Dead River, the City of Aaiun
Why, I asked, does this ancient statue
Bear my face upon it, despite its age?
The old vendor laughed and worried it
Weathered hands caressing worn stone
I understand, he said, your confusion
I once found my own face in Aaiun stone
Where to I was worshiped as a god
Alongside yourself, together divine

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Fabled Vloles is set upon the Dreaming Moon, seemingly forever beyond the ken of dreamers save those who are able to brave the terrors of the City of Aaiun and the madness of the Infinite Stair. To those that reach its shining turreted walls, life eternal awaits in both waking and dreaming.

It’s said that, in times past, the great White Road led to Vloles, which was then amongst the dreamlands. Pilgrims who desired life eternal would simply journey its length and the worthy survivors would find the gates of Vloles flung wide. Interestingly, though the tales say that many were able to make this journey, none ever are recorded to have left Vloles again.

When the Light and the Dark made their wager, perhaps Vloles was taken aside to be another of their prizes. Perhaps the Nameless, in their unknowable ways, sought to keep the great power of that place to themselves.

Or, perhaps, the White Road was simply too easy of a trial for such a bauble as life eternal. Set among the heavens now, Vloles asks far more of those who would reach it–so much so that none are known to have done so since Le Aaiun, despite the many who have attempted it.

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in the dream one evening
i went to a bridge i knew
a shape would be there
a korton silhouette
stark against the sky
i asked them their name
they only laughed back
then they asked me mine
we had met once they said
in the light of day
amid a city of bones
the path to the heavens
lies open but only
the strongest can climb
and we are all so so

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In the time since Le Aaiun’s book was published, and Le herself disappeared, many dreamers have said that they have seen her. Sightings are most frequent in Korton, of course, since the darkness there makes it easy to mistaken anyone for a lost explorer. But some have mentioned meeting a mysterious shape, high on the bridges over the River Kor, who appears when the city sleeps and asks strange questions in between whispers of the Dreaming Moon and fabled Vloles.

Ad Dakhla himself, who completed and published the book, said that he had seen Le twice more. The first time was as a luminous vision, changed, mysterious, and wonderful compared to the woman he had once nursed in the City of Bronze. This vision merely winked before vanishing. The second time was in a cartload of statues hauled up from the Dead River by treasure hunters. Among them was a statue, worn and covered with crystalline salt, of Le herself. It was at least a thousand, possibly even ten thousand, years old.

It is said that the puzzle of these visions haunted Dakhla to his dying breath. When asked about it, in later years, he could only murmur that ‘Vloles upon the Dreaming Moon must be a powerful place indeed.”

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Where the Silver Sea meets the Dead River
Both their waters run midnight-dark
Nothing can survive there in the dreamlands
Dreamers awaken, perhaps even into death
Everything else is drowned in those waters
They say someone once tried to swim it
Fortified by the Nameless Ones so it is said
Whether they swam for glory or for escape
Is nowhere recorded; only their grim fate
Their body rebelled against the water
Sprouting great bone-barbed wings
That bore them up and away, limply helpless
Never to be seen again by any dreaming eyes
One wonders if, in the uncharted west
Far beyond the Holzoff Range’s silent cliffs
There is a forsaken city of swimmers
Cursed with twisted wings of horror
For daring to plunge into such tainted waters

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Korton on the River Kor, safe in darkness beneath the gaze of Køs, the star whose rays bring light and death in equal measure. It was not always so.

Once, the plains of Laïs were safe for all dreamers, and Korton was as their beacon, a shining city with a culture to rival any other. The Nameless Ones watched, as they watch everything, with their own inscrutable machinations.

The great Library of Korton has long since been closed and dispersed, its books traded away to sighted lands and replaced by those written in the pebblescript that all in Korton now use. But once, it had a million, ten times a million, books, and among them was a tome that the Nameless Ones did not desire mortals to look upon.

Some call it the Book of Angels or the Winged Tome. It is also often called The Wager, for it is believed to carry in its pages a copy of the compact that Light and Dark, Life and Death, signed to wager for the souls of the dreamlands.

The Nameless Ones knew immediately when it had been opened and read by a curious scribe.

Terrible Køs appeared in the sky the next morning, a day star visible both in light and in darkness from the length of Laïs. To bathe in any noonday light contaminated by Køs, whose name means simply Destruction in the old dreamtongue, was almost certainly to die.

No one knows how the Nameless Ones made their compact with Korton, trading life for light. It is said that the Dark itself appeared as an intermediary, visible over the distant hills, to negotiate in a voice that drove all who heard it to the brink of madness and bearing a visage to terrible to describe.

By the time Korton’s salvation had been secured, half of its people were dead or insane.

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O’er the City of Bronze
The beaming sun breaks
Light reflected infinitely
A warden against the darkness
When the dunes close in
As they ultimately will
She will be watching still

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As throngs strode by
The sultan, sweating
Beneath bronzed armor
The sun, beaming
Secure in its wager
Even a heatstroke death
Is a victory

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Roberta was a teacher, but left that gig when her kid’s books started selling. I guess you could say that she was sort of like the M.C. Escher of children’s literature; she loved her some surreal landscapes, impossible angles, and of course, mice. Mice were in every book she wrote, peeking out here and there from the mazes, lurking in the background of every story, and just generally making you wonder if there was an exterminator in the house and whether Ms. Atkins might not want to bow to the inevitable and just get a cat. The thing is, the mice were never the stars of the books. The stories were all about children, at least until they stopped being stories and started just being surreal picture books by the end of her career, but the mice were there nevertheless.

Another thing that Roberta could do was make jewelry. She’d done it as a teacher to make the ends of her meager salary meet–all you teachers out there listening know how that is, having to get your side hustle on just so you can keep being taken for granted by little brats and yelled at by their parents for including books on the reading list that feature anything resembling real people. Ms. Atkins was a pretty dab hand at making jewelry, to the extent that she handmade the covers to all of her books–they weren’t so much drawings as photographs, you see, if you’ve never had the opportunity to read one. Go check out your local library, I guarantee they’ll have at least one of them if they have any kids’ books at all, and you’ll see what I mean.

So Roberta Atkins eventually decided that she was sick of doing books, and decided to do a computer game instead. So in the early 90s she founded a company called Musoft, which is a really delightful pun if you speak more Latin than I do. Mus, mouse, plus soft, software. She was a clever one. Anyway, Musoft published its one and only computer game in 1993, called A Golden Tail. And here’s the thing that makes it really interesting. The cover of the box was a mouse necklace made out of 25-karat gold. And calling it a necklace really does a disservice to the thing; it’s almost more of a collar. Ruth Bader Ginsberg would be happy to wear this mouse when writing a minority opinion. And the game, it’s said, contains secret clues on where to find the actual golden mouse itself!

Yeah! During the press tour to promote the book, Roberta Atkins said that she buried the original necklace–the one from the cover of the game–and if you figured out the clues in the game, you could uncover its location, dig it up, and have a prize that she claimed was work about thirty thousand dollars in 1993 dollaroos, which would be even more today after a recession and two Republican presidents. The solution to the puzzle was entirely different, it was said, from the solution needed to complete the game, and “anyone with a head for puzzles and a fondness for mice” –her back-of-the-box quote, not mine–could find it.

And here’s the thing: nobody ever did.

The game sold really poorly because it happened to come out on September 24, 1993–the same day as a little game you may have heard of called Myst, which was also a puzzle game. But A Golden Tail had far higher system requirements, more than most machines at the time could muster, and Roberta Atkins hadn’t published a children’s book in years while she was developing the game, so her brand was kind of out of gas at the time. Only about 10,000 copies were sold, Musoft closed its doors, and Roberta Atkins never published another thing in her life. She’s the one in the asylum, by the way, and I say that because it’s the last I could find of her in the news: a 1998 headline, “CHILDREN’S AUTHOR COMMITS SELF.”

As far as anybody knows, Ms. Atkins is still there. And as far as anybody knows, her golden rat is still buried somewhere, with the secret to its location known only to the author and anyone who can unravel the puzzle in an obscure and poorly-selling 1993 computer game. Now can you see why I’m so interested in this for tonight’s podcast?

It took me a while, but I found a sealed copy of A Golden Tail on eBay. We’re going to unbox it on this podcast, and then I’m going to play it live and see if I can’t find me a golden rat for my retirement years.

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