Building Beyond is an ongoing series of conversations about how much fun worldbuilding can be. Building a world doesn’t have to be hard or scary. Let’s give it a try, together.
NASA has discovered a massive open mouth floating just beyond the edge of our solar system. It's just a mouth. And it's open.
Christine Sandquist is an NYC-based publicity and author assistant to writers such as Hugo Award Winner Mary Robinette Kowal, World Fantasy Award Winner Tobias S. Buckell, and SOVAS Award Finalist Cadwell Turnbull. On a contract basis, they provide sensitivity reading and editing services for manuscripts including queer casts or representations of trauma. Christine is a moderator of Reddit's r/fantasy community, SFWA volunteer, and servant to a pair of extremely spoiled black cats. They can be found online at their website, Twitter, Reddit, Instagram, and Goodreads.
Gailey: How is the mouth identifiable as a mouth if it's not connected to anything else?
Christine: When I first visited the Mouth as part of the Ivory 1 team, it was clear why it wasn’t immediately identified as an actual mouth back in the day. It is not particularly reflective, and the lips and jaw are not shaped in quite the way one might expect. Although it is not made of stone, it nevertheless gives off a cave-like ambiance.
Back in 2034, before we’d sent crewed expeditions to the Mouth, we noticed that our probes were experiencing an inexplicable acceleration and deceleration cycle each time they neared the as-yet-unidentified Mouth. As you know, space is a vacuum – there wasn’t anything there to explain it. Nothing to create drag, nothing to create acceleration. That just wasn’t something that was supposed to happen. We noted that the intensity of the effect seemed to increase the closer the probes were to the Mouth and when they were in a direct line with it. It seemed to be, well, breathing. It was then that the Mouth hypothesis began to gain traction.
The current leading theory is that the Mouth is breathing in space itself, causing a localized warp in spacetime. Further research is still needed to confirm this, however. Other theories involving some complex gravitational models refute the notion that it’s “breathing” at all, but these have not been explored to the same degree.
Matter that is breathed in is not exhaled, and we only have one instance of the Mouth exhaling new matter on record. Details on the exhaled matter’s composition are not available to the public at this time.
More data is required to understand what occurs to matter following inhalation. Probes lose contact with external communications shortly after passing into the Mouth, and data on what occurs in the Mouth’s interior is thus minimal. Communication has not been reestablished with any of the inhaled probes.
Gailey: What effect does the mouth have on our solar system?
Christine: Impacts have been minimal. The Mouth’s breathing knocked Pluto’s orbit a smidge off-axis in 2041, but realistically that wasn’t something that was ever going to make a significant impact on the rest of the solar system. No other significant impacts to the solar system have been recorded.
Ever since the Mouth began closing last June, however, we’re keeping a much closer eye on it than in prior years. Ivory 4 will be the first crewed mission to the Mouth since closure began and is scheduled for September of this year. We hope to gain more insight as to the Mouth’s interior and gather sufficient data to determine the cause of the closure.
There is no reason to believe that closure is a cause for concern at this time.
Gailey: Are there teeth, and if so, how are they being kept clean?
Christine: The remaining teeth are being held in a secure location on Earth. Details on their precise composition and care are not available to the public at this time.
Martin Cahill is a writer living in NYC, and works as the Marketing and Publicity Manager for Erewhon Books. He’s a graduate of the Clarion Writers’ Workshop of 2014 and a member of the NYC-based writing group, Altered Fluid. You can find his fiction in Lightspeed Magazine, Nightmare Magazine, Shimmer Magazine, Fireside Magazine, and Beneath Ceaseless Skies. He has work forthcoming from Fireside Magazine, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and is part of the writing team for Batman: The Blind Cut coming later this year from Realm, (formerly Serial Box).
Gailey: How is the mouth identifiable as a mouth?
Martin: From the files of the NASA Cosmic Bodies Division, a personal essay with The New York Times, May 14, 2074 with acting Director Nadia Clemmons
“There is a silence which can only be broken by breath. The faintest in and out, indicative of life, fragile enough to live in that deep, dark quiet. Often, I’ve thought about the places that silence and that breath exist. I think back to the last night my father was alive, the only sound in the den-turned-bedroom his labored breathing, thick and wet, and my own, moth-soft, waiting for the flame to go out. I think of the hospital room in the gossamer dawn of April 3, 2061 as my wife slept and I held our newborn daughter in my arms, my lungs knowing what to do and hers still learning the shape of the air. I think of an afternoon a decade later, as we set the tablet down, digital ink fresh on the divorce papers in a room with a silence so thick, we were drowning.
I would never have thought that of all places, outer space was one of those sacred, special places. We only noticed because one day we saw something breathing. It was subtle, of course it was. We wouldn’t have even noticed if we hadn’t deployed the Outer Rim Series Johnson Probe a few decades back. But the readings it sent back . . . there was no mistaking it. Something was breathing at the edge of our solar system.
I don’t look at social media much, never got a taste for it like sugar in my coffee but I know a lot of folks are curious about why we started calling it The Mouth. I mean, first of all, The Orifice would be much worse. Can you imagine? Christ, no, thank you. But it honestly stemmed from one of our kids down in data analysis, happened by chance. Divya was monitoring around 3 in the morning when there was an increase of solar wind and she noticed the probe was sucked in and in her own words, “swallowed. Like a mouth.”
And if we thought she was overreacting, well, it was 3 in the morning and she watched a million-dollar piece of equipment up and disappear. But here’s the thing: the readings didn’t stop coming. There was suddenly an inside to this thing, The Mouth, and our launch room lost their shit. All-nighters, grant proposals written on the backs of bar napkins, we broke four coffee pots in three days; everyone wanted to crack this. If this was a mouth, if it suddenly demarcated from outside to inside, what was inside? What was it breathing out? Did it have teeth, a tongue?
Most importantly, aside from probes, what did it eat? And were we on the menu?”
Gailey: What effect does the mouth have on our solar system?
Martin: Update from Peter Garcia, politics/tech reporter with AV Club, at 12:52pm on August 22, 2078
Damon didn’t expect to be the first person to hear The Mouth or what it had to say. He didn’t expect to become any sort of leading expert, let alone a leader. If he looks a little stern or intense, it’s because you can tell he has something weighing on him, something to say; he carries the energy of a person who has been decided to be the presenter of the group project in high school or college, the burden suddenly real on his shoulders as he gets up in front of the class when all he’d been hoping for was a passing grade.
He didn’t know that he’d be presenting to the world. He didn’t know that he’d be leading a movement.
“Yeah, man,” he says, glancing out of the windows of the United Nations building on the East Side of NYC, not too far from where he grew up in Jackson Heights, Queens. “It’s been . . . it’s been a lot. I expected a lot of different shit—sorry, I mean, stuff to happen that night. My Dad yelling at me for breaking the lock and messing with the police scanner after he said to knock it off. My Mom coming at me about ruining the car battery, because I could tell by looking at it that I’d already jacked it up pretty bad, even before flipping the switch to amp the scanner signal. Falling asleep listening to the white noise of some signal I couldn’t crack. That stuff, not . . .”
He exhales, rubs his temple like all of them do, the Voices of the Mouth chosen by this cosmic force. “Not this.” His eyes look far away, staring at the East River. Is that what he’s seeing? Is he even hearing the other reporters gathered or me?
Or is the Voice of the Mouth in his mind? Is the dark of space and pinpricks of stars what he sees when he drifts away?
Damon won’t get into it with any of us. Neither will the others gathered. From Argentina to Nara, Canberra to Berlin, Boise to Boston, more and more and even more who are speaking elsewhere today, on this momentous day, when we finally get to know what the Voice has been saying out of its Mouth.
Damon doesn’t get into how he was chosen to speak. If it’s akin to the group project experience, he won’t say. Only taps his temple, arches his eyebrows, purses his lips to say, “It just is,” as he walks to the front of the auditorium of world leaders.
If he’s nervous, it doesn’t show. “Theater minor hopeful,” he had said earlier, laughing for the first time, assuring the crowd as his Dad furrows his brow in warning, “And Engineering major! Next Fall, I hope.” It seems even the will of a Voice from beyond the stars doesn’t come between the promises of a son to a father.
Will he ever have a normal life again? Surely this Voice from this Mouth could not, would not, have tasked him and these others with something light-hearted or inconsequential? A missive or directive so carefree that after today they can go back to their lives as pastry bakers and chemistry teachers and waiters, and yes, college students?
We can only wait and find out. Keep an eye on the liveblog for updates.
Update from Peter Garcia, politics/tech reporter with AV Club, at 2:01pm on August 22, 2078
The silence after the applause broke into a thousand soft pieces as he let out a long, slow breath into the microphones, the air hot and expectant. He looked at the audience, smiled, and said, “The Voice of the Mouth beyond the stars wanted me to say this, first: Please. Please keep breathing. Please keep going. I’m here for you. Everything is going to be okay.”
Wow. That . . . One moment.
Update from Peter Garcia, politics/tech reporter with AV Club, at 3:06pm on August 22, 2078
This is going to change everything.
Gailey: Are there teeth? How are they being kept clean?
Martin: Breathing Easier: A Retrospective on 30 Years of Planetary Resuscitation by Hannah Liu for The Atlantic, December 31, 2108
We used to look out into the vast dark and wonder why it was so quiet. Surely humanity wasn’t the only civilization out there, and if we weren’t, how come no one was talking to us?
It turns out we just hadn’t learned how to listen yet for the quiet sound of breathing and the reassuring word we as a planet needed.
It’s been a little over 30 years since the Voice of the Mouth introduced themself to us through its many mortal charges and told us what it had to say. And what it had to say was . . . well, it seemed a bit nebulous at first. Affirming statements of affection, love, belief? This was what the Voice of the Mouth at the edge of our solar system had to say? No offense, we said at the time, but if that’s all we needed, we could Google any self-referential meme we wanted for a laugh or order a greeting card from any number of mega-corps. Many had feared an immense divine will bearing down on them. Others hoped and prayed for solutions to the ills of those decades ago: irreversible climate change, economic and social inequality, warfare. Not a chipper camp counselor who knew we could win the talent show if we just believed hard enough.
Military across the world had braced for riots, not for everyone to collectively shrug their shoulders and go home.
Our planet was dying, and we needed a miracle.
But as we all learned in the years to come, saving someone didn’t have to look like an answer or a movement or a weapon or even a miracle . . . sometimes saving someone started with a few simple words: Keep going. We believe in you. You’re going to make a difference.
It’s what Trini Carson heard the night she contemplated taking her life, another grant denied for her energy overhaul project a lifetime in the making.
It’s what Connelly O’Baer heard the night he proposed to his husband, choosing love over the family he feared and would finally leave later that month.
It’s what Doctor Prisha Singh heard as she sat in her driveway at four in the morning, bone-tired and ready to hang up her coat.
I don’t think I need to tell you what happened next. Trini’s overhaul of the world energy system staffed hundreds of thousands, saved economies, and is currently moving us to a greener tomorrow. Connelly’s happiness ensured the first of his groundbreaking operas collectively known as The Starsong Cycle. Dr. Singh saved the life of a young Lucas Brown, who would’ve died if not for her quick efforts; his vote on the Senate floor twenty years later finally put a stake through the heart of the gun lobby and the NRA.
And all while the Voices spread this message of positivity, the Mouth moved closer and closer. Now, it’s so close, if you look up in the day, you can see it hovering just beneath the sun or moon; it has become a cyclops, looking down on us, speaking so gently.
Many can hear their voice now, soft as a whisper, there when you need it. Yes, many panicked, including the world governments. They threw interstellar nukes at it; according to one of the Voices, the irradiated explosions cleaned their teeth free of cosmic debris. I hear Crest will be sponsoring all remaining nuclear warheads.
The world has moved forward. We have been saved by joy, for lack of a better word. By a being who looks down and sees potential. Who heard a vast world full of beings struggling and decided that the best way they could help was not by saving the day or lending a hand but doing what any powerless friend could do when their own friend was in trouble: have their back, cheer them on, and tell them it will be okay.
Reports are still being collected, but ever since they moved into our planetary region, CO2 emissions are dropping, seas are calming, and weather patterns are stabilizing. Is the Mouth breathing in our poison, redeeming this planet, us, from the destruction we sank into the soil? Or is it natural and nutritious; is it a part of their lifecycle? If the Mouth feeds on mistakes, then they can stay as long as they like.
But no. Someday, they may move on, to other people and other worlds who need them, because surely, we are not alone anymore. And we have a chance to do better. It will be sad to look up and see they’ve gone, to clean their teeth and whisper their words and breathe in and out elsewhere, somewhere that needs them as we did.
But until such time, I know I’ll take comfort in looking up and seeing the sky smile back, with a kind word in my heart anytime that I feel like I’m failing.
If the Mouth believes in me, well, then I must be worth believing in, right? I, for one, will do my best not to let them or myself down. That’s a promise.”
Both of these possibilities are just beginnings. Christine's mouth is closing, and what will happen to us when that breath stops flowing? Martin's mouth is kind, and how might we change in the face of constant, steady kindness?
Where would your mouth have originated? What might it say to us?
Do whatever you want with these questions. You can write something down in the comments or on social media or in a notebook nobody will ever see. You can draw or paint or sit down a friend and talk their ear off about your ideas. You can stare at the horizon and imagine, letting the infinite landscape of your mind unfold just a little farther than it did yesterday. No matter what you do, take pride in the knowledge that you’re creating something that has never existed before. You’re building a little corner of a whole new world.
If you haven’t already, I hope you’ll consider subscribing to this newsletter. The subscriber community is a wonderful and supportive one, and we’re spending 2021 finding new ways to stay connected and share experiences.
No matter what you do, please find a way to support Asian American and Pacific Islander communities. There are some resources here to get you started. You can also click here to find ways to support Black people and communities.
In the meantime, care for yourself and the people around you. Believe that the world can be better than it is now. Never give up.