That I had wings like a dove — for then I would fly away — and be at rest — I would wander far away — and in the wilderness remain
Wepwawet traffic control intercepted them two light-weeks out: the Epiphany’s exhaust had the spectral signature of the ships of the gods, and the locals panicked, and thought one of the gods had come for their star and their matter.
They were boarded and a toposophist administered the tests of Taylor and Airy, the cubes of Hinton and the test of Madurai, and decreed that they were two nearbaseline transhumans and a baseline human, and congratulated them for their safe return.
The Epiphany arced inwards and saw that the system had changed markedly: the sole planet they had seen, once a cratered wasteland, was covered in ocean, with continents green with life.
They’d left backups at Wepwawet Relay, where they presented evidence of the three deaths.
“Ecce homo,” the surgeon said.
Asman, in a new body, opened her eyes.
“Did we die?,” she asked mournfully.
“Yes,” Timon said.
“But did we succeed?”
Sabra explained what they had found: the theory of everything, a new source of energy, a new means of propulsion. But this didn’t interest Asman: she wanted to know about the nature of the gods. They had two faces, candidates for the Entity’s genitor; and a vague idea that the Entity’s mind had been a society rather than a unitary whole. And apart from that they knew nothing.
They resurrected Attila, and that was more painful. When they told him what had happened, he took it in stride.
“It chose the first person to pick up that book,” he said.
They resurrected Parandé, who resented them for wasting decades of their life, decades of memories. Timon sold a paper on the properties of magnetic monopoles, and with the funds he bought them a new body: a new ship. And they shared with Parandé the recordings taken throughout the expedition, so that they could have something like memories.
Asman and Attila went back to Ctesiphon through the network. Sabra, Timon and Tiet rented a house made of ice in Wepwawet Relay. They watched, through windows cut through the ice, the black-robed crowds outside.
Together they took some weeks to compile a report of their experiences, alongside recordings, images, files produced during the course of their exploration, and sent it to the Miranda Institute through the network, with apologies for the failure of their mission.
One day a traffic control officer arrived with a square envelope, sealed in wax, bearing an animated watercolour: a stylized North African landscape, trees and bushes on a barren desert in pale colours, and a wolf tracking unseen prey. Sabra opened it and found a small card, where elegant gilt serifs announced that the Wepwawet Traffic Control Co-Operative had accepted the Epiphany’s public keys and would broadcast them across the network to the nearby stars, where they would percolate across the network and enter the Catalogue of Ships so that others knew who they were.
Then they took the Epiphany out to the comets, and found an unclaimed mountain of ice. They sent the robots to break it apart and centrifuge the dirt out of the ice, they refueled the Epiphany, aimed it at Ctesiphon and lit the engine.
They fell between the stars for decades, and slept most of that time. The Epiphany approached Ctesiphon and from the first message — an automated NOTMAR — they knew that things had changed: the
Language header did not read
fars-tisfun as it always had, but something new they hadn’t seen before. With some difficulty, Sabra deciphered the text.
They sent an acknowledgement. The Epiphany’s public key had arrived earlier, over the network, as had their reputations, the news of the expedition to Gliese 581, of Attila’s epiphany.
Traffic control initiated a conversation, each party took months to reply to the other, the delay shrinking with each cycle. Sabra asked what had changed since they left, and traffic control said:
In the centuries that they were away, there had been many hardware and software upgrades. For the digital societies, thousands of years had elapsed. There had been upheavals, turnover, golden ages and collapse. The population had exploded to almost 1018—and collapsed suddenly, in successive waves of emigration, down to the mere hundreds of trillions.
Asman and Attila, traveling at the speed of light, arrived decades before them, both had been briefly famous, and then they had left Ctesiphon because they did not recognize it.
Ctesiphon was still densely packed with people and the Epiphany’s exhaust was a column of fire many light-seconds long. Ten AU out, a traffic control robot boarded them and installed an engine limiter and firmware to take over the controls remotely.
They spiraled slowly inwards, at mere tens of kilometers per second, burning briefly at extensively negotiated position-orientation-time vectors.
And then they were inside Ctesiphon, the center of the universe, the acme of culture and civilization. And they knew nobody, and their expert systems could barely speak the lingua franca.
Beta Pictoris was already yellow. Timon thought that in a few centuries it would become a red dwarf, and he thought of the Entity’s grave, watched forever by that unblinking red eye.
They debated what to do next, and consulted the local treasures.
“The Kyoto Collection is not far,” Tiet had said.
Sabra looked at the lights of Ctesiphon. This, too, had changed: they were fewer, less green and blue, and more red. She said nothing.
“I should like to see it before we leave,” Tiet said.
“I should like to see it too,” Timon said.
They took a glider down into a ring habitat, down the atmosphere. A continent made of stone sloped gently out of the ocean, the waves lapped at it and a thin band of wet stone separated the two.
There was a town of low buildings, with flat yellow walls and small windows. Stone stairs led them up and down narrow alleys and small shadowed courtyards. At the edge of the town there was a large building, sunken into a depression and hidden by trees, a spartan construction made of large stone blocks, each face bearing a unique, intricate carving.
They left a basket of flowers with a bottle of wine and a note introducing themselves and offering a trade, and returned to their lodgings. The next day, a messenger bird flew through the window, and left a note accepting the offer.
The Cicerone met them outside the building, a small man who passed for human and wore antique clothing. He led them down a tree-shadowed path and in through a narrow opening into a large undivided space, lit dimly and indirectly. Limestone walls absorbed the light.
Objects of various kinds sat on shallow pedestals under crystal boxes filled with vacuum, laid out at random; treasures airlifted to the stars after the noocene explosion: the stone where Nietzsche heard Zarathustra; the fireplace where Gogol burned the second half of Dead Souls; the forty-five volumes of the Encyclopædia Iranica; Canova’s Mars and Venus; the Antikythera mechanism; the Löwenmensch figurine; the skull of an early hominin, an ancient friend.
A true manuscript of the Book of Days and the apocrypha.
“The Kyoto Collection,” the Cicerone said, opening a red door into a brightly lit room, furnished in very old things. A replica of Gotō Hideoyoshi’s study, and on the desk — and Tiet wept openly at the sight — a first edition of his Histories. The Cicerone invited them to touch it.
They took turns examining it carefully, they caressed the pages; Tiet, in a stentorian voice, read from the first line of the first chapter:
In the beginning men caught a virus, and began building cities.
They read passages aloud and spoke of the virtues of the ancients, who once lived as briefly as fireflies and died as uselessly, but had learned the system of the world and settled the stars.
Then the Cicerone led them past a heavy door into an immense chamber where suspended in the air by thin wires there was a cube made of transparent glass, studded with sensors of every type, rigged with explosives. The Cicerone turned to them, smiled sheepishly, and said:
“Divine objects. You can’t be too careful.”
Sabra took the ragged book from a pocket and handed it to the Cicerone, who accepted it with thanks. He walked up spiral stairs made of wrought iron, past an airlock and into the chamber. Inside there were cabinets of diamond textured to resemble wood. The Cicerone opened a drawer, revealing a small nook surrounded by thick armour and sensors, placed the false Book of Days inside and closed it.
The Cicerone led them outside, they thanked him profusely, and he thanked them equally for their gift. Sabra spoke of how Ctesiphon had changed since the expedition had departed.
“There has been a sea change,” the Cicerone said, smiling compassionately.
Sabra said nothing.
“There was a great flowering here,” he said. Then he bowed and returned inside.
The orbital had turned and the sun was gone, but they were deep inside Ctesiphon and there was no night: when the sun was hidden, zodiacal light from millions of habitats illuminated them. Sabra and Timon had been born under this vault of light, but they did not recognize it. Once their sky had been a river of gems, every one an exploding star of possibilities; now they were dim and forlorn. Sabra put her hands on her knees, and breathed with difficulty. Tiet turned away. Then they made their way back to the town.
They took a glider from the continent of stones to the archipelago of forests; they found the most secluded place they could, a vast island with a human community of a few tens of thousands spread out thinly.
They rented a cabin by the shore, at the edge of a dense forest of white birch trees, cut by broad, shallow rivers that were just an inch of water running over a pebble bed.
Timon sold to a physics institute the conversion devices he had brought along, and used the funds to buy fuel. In time they would light the engine and go out into the wilderness. But for the time they rested.
Sabra sits on a lounge chair on a thin strip of sand by the water. The ocean curves up and away from her, then the atmosphere becomes too thick to see through, it becomes a white haze, and above it, a column of blue and green rises up to the zenith and comes back down on the other side, again the haze, the oceans and continents curve down towards her. The Epiphany sits above them, a thin golden arrow floating near the ring’s axis.
Timon spends his evenings wandering the forest, and in the morning, Tiet reads aloud to him the words of the philosophers:
“Said Chrysippus: when you see a beautiful house, do you imagine that it was built for the owners, or for the mice? Analogously, we must infer that the universe was made for the habitation of the gods, and not of man. This is told to us by way of Cicero.”
Sometimes they encounter humans: bathing in the river, or walking on the forest trails. Sabra and Tiet could pass for human, but Timon could not. But the locals regarded them with perfect equanimity, as though Timon were just another forest creature. They smiled at them and treated them with normalcy. One day, Sabra opened the cabin door and found a basket with bread and salt.
In the bird market, Tiet bought a blue starling and brought it to the cabin. The three of them stared intently through the wire cage. They opened it, and the bird perched gently on one of Timon’s claws. They took it to the edge of the water and set it free.
In the streets of the town, Sabra sees a dog with yellow eyes. It looks at her kindly, and she expects it to speak Babelian words.
When the sun sets, hundreds of birds hidden among the trees sing at once; half-asleep, she hears fragments of the divine language.