Stay — among the gods — before a wing
Timon and Attila walked up the length of the passage, and took the transport back to Parandé. They all agreed, as did Parandé, that they had crossed a risk-reward threshold, and it was best to leave. Timon went to his workshop, carrying the various samples they had drilled or scraped or cut from the inside of the torus, in airtight boxes filled with sensors that would burn them if they detected any activity inside. Had he had a heart, it would have beat anxiously; had he had skin, he would have been drenched in sweat. He meant to resume work, and immediately fell asleep.
They were making preparations for Tiet: repressurizing the interior with oxygen, since Tiet had real lungs and needed to breathe air, printing atmosphere and water recyclers, and a bioreactor to make food. They had printed a Class IV suit for him, Attila and Timon would fly to the torus with the suit, and bring themselves, Tiet, and Sabra back.
Then they would return to Wepwawet. And, Asman stressed, they would ask Wepwawet traffic control to issue a NOTMAR warning others that the god of Gliese 581 was not yet dead.
Sabra had remained in the torus with Tiet, who passed the time reading the sarcophagus’ screen, interrogating it and trying to find the scope and size of its database. She sat cross-legged on the floor, leafing through the Book of Days.
Attila had read it and left it on a crate of equipment. When Timon had been gathering the samples it had escaped his sight, because his body was low to the ground and the crate was above his line of sight.
The book was time-worn and she feared it would break up in her hands. The cover was gone and the first page, the frontispiece of the book, was a watercolour of a giant, black-haired and blue-robed, applying form to the formless universe. Across his two hands draped a paper catenary, inscribed with strange symbols.
Beneath his feet, feathered serifs read:
TURING THE GEOMETER
She turned the page.
Tiet was born on Île de Sable, the fourth planet around Gliese 570A, which they called Ararat. Once, over the course of a summer, one of the stars in the sky dimmed and disappeared. The network said it was a theogony.
The people around him spoke of the gods: of their power to see the past and the future, to transform matter into light and back, to think thoughts humans cannot think. Miraculous events were attributed to them. They said the gods knew the universal history, the first and last causes, all that would happen from the first singularity to that symmetrical point where, Tipler says, the dead will be redeemed. They said that to the eyes of the gods there were no distinctions, that they saw all things from every angle, as a monistic and comprehensive whole. They said the gods could construct universes as rich as ours—full of people, stars, cities and computers and other gods—as readily and as unconsciously as a human being might experience a dream (for what is your life? It is even a dream, it happens so briefly, and vanishes upon waking. And you are left with your face, reflected in a black mirror).
But he pointedly ignored them, and when others looked to the stars, he buried himself in the treasures, in times and places past.
His people had not been the first to settle here. A posthuman civilization had arrived here, and grown explosively, and collapsed and disappeared as quickly as they had emerged. Their ruins were everywhere. Immense towers of ruby and sapphire tumbled end-to-end in orbit, occasionally they deorbited, engulfed in blue and green flames. And where the dunes broke against the sheer salt-cracked cliffs, in the grassy mesas, there were supernarrow skyscrapers, diamond needles kilometers high, listing in the basalt and overlooking rocky pastures.
After centuries of silence, others had arrived, and settled in the empty ruins. Tiet was born in their third generation. He did not merely pass for human: he was made of flesh and blood.
He trained as a historian, and lived and worked in the ruins. He and others flew motor gliders over the wastes and searched the shattered cities, the slanting glass towers, and reconstructed the history of their world. He searched a network of tunnels dug inexplicably into the crust, where boring machines sat idle against the rock face. They had been cycled off neatly, as if the operators expected to return to them within days. And then they had all gone. In a narrow tent in the tunnels he read Vico and Gotō on death and rebirth.
One day he saw a comet with its tail pointed at the sun, months passed and it grew and they saw it was a ship. The Futurological Congress was travelling to Gliese 581, where the local deity had died, they were picking up crew along the way. They were going to rob the burial hoard, and bring back the treasures of the gods. And he, who had never cared about anything beyond the human, felt that he wanted to go.
An old firebrand said that man is bounded by beasts from below and the gods from above. And we know the nature of beasts. Therefore, Tiet reasoned, if we could know the nature of the gods, then by the Cauchy criterion we would know the nature of man, we would know the natural law and the beginning and the end of history.
In 1881, in the Rumyantsev Library in Moscow, Nikolai Fedorov wrote of the Common Task of mankind: to become immortal, settle space, and resurrect the dead.
And his words had spawned an immense branching tree of sects, differentiated by the details of their eschatology: of how to bring about the resurrection. Immortal man, the orthodox said, would find a way to turn back time: to gather all the disparate particles and, in the manner of Laplace’s angel, turn ashes and dirt into flesh and brain. Fedorov writes:
All the heavenly space and heavenly bodies will become accessible to man only when he is able to re-create himself from primordial substances, atoms and molecules, because only then will he be able to live in any environment, take on any form and visit all generations in all the worlds, from the most ancient to the most recent, the most remote as well as the nearest. Governed by all the resurrected generations, these worlds will be, in their wholeness, the creative work of all generations in their totality, as if of a single artist…
Once the movements of heavenly bodies other than the Earth have been guided or regulated, then the rays’ reflections can be bounced back to the Earth, where, as we see, the particles which have been hidden deep down are brought to the surface. At this point the constructive activity of the rays begins. The rays, returned to the Earth, coming out of the Earth and moving away from the Earth – and in this order – bear within themselves images of live beings, then of dead ones, images of their bodies which have decomposed into particles; when they encounter the particles, these same rays unite the gaseous molecules of the atmosphere with the solid-state molecules on Earth. The process by which mould or other vegetable forms have been unconsciously produced, will, in the presence of consciousness, unite the particles and turn them into the live bodies to which the particles used to belong.
And there were those that believed the Common Task was to resurrect the dead in computer simulations, reconstructed from the histories; others who believed spacetime was a crystal in four dimensions and, with the right instruments, the past could be accessed as readily as we look through a telescope; others whose cosmology was an engineered samsara, where, at the end of time, the end becomes the beginning, and the eternal return becomes our farcical resurrection. Others pushed the responsibility for the Common Task onto the gods: in their unknowable lives, they said, the gods were plotting the construction of heaven and the redemption of all men.
He wrote of famines and things that were to her as distant in her past as the Mongol invasions had been to him.
The book opened with the essays of Fedorov, trailed by commentaries written centuries later, called the Letters. In the second part the book moved abruptly, far into the future, to the accounts of the life of Herati of Merv. And by this time two of the promises of Fedorov had been fullfilled: immortality and the settlement of space by the immortals.
The ancients subdued disease and age, they and their children settled the cosmos, they remade their bodies and their souls by hand. But even the gods could not turn back time, or rescue a mind from ashes. And the irreversibility of death was the central anxiety of civilization, and the central sorrow. In Ctesiphon, where quadrillions lived, death was almost unheard of. The surgeons had conquered suicidality. But the numbers of the dead increase only monotonically.
Herati was an astronomer. He looked through the telescopes and said the gods in an earlier universe had encoded, in the anisotropy of the cosmic microwave background, the instructions for the resurrection of all men. He took the words of Fedorov from the treasures and gave them a new life. He said that the gods would grow to encompass the whole universe, than when time ends they would be one, and in the mind of the last god, in the dream-paradise, all who had lived would be remembered and redeemed forever.
The next chapters were syncretic histories: the first epistle of Herati to the astronomers, the second epistle, the trial, the sermon before the flight, where Herati said:
109. “They will be recalled into life. I tell you: life will be breathed into them. The sons will raise the fathers unto the first man, we will walk among Adam and the saints, and we will speak the language of the birds.”
110. The bells of Merv rang into the night.
The flight into the desert, an ekphrasic description of Paradise, Herati reads the words of the Saints — Turing, Penrose, Fedorov, de Chardin, Tipler — to huddled followers, the grotto sermons, the triumphant return to the city, the commentaries on cosmogony and cosmology.
She turned to the last chapter, a brief sermon. She thought the writing style was different, and the tone was different.
There Herati said that nothing need be done, that all he preached had happened: the gods have engulfed the cosmos, time has ended and we are memories, and the gods are dreaming us.
This, he said, is paradise; here, he said, we are redeemed.
The book ended there. She passed tens of blank brown pages, and where the back cover had been there was ripped cotton thread.
Attila walked, alone, down the length of the passage, carrying a lamp in one hand and the suit in another. He reached the room with the sarcophagus.
He and Sabra laid out the pieces of the suit on the floor, and while Sabra helped Tiet put it on, he stepped outside the room, arms crossed. He watched the wall in front of the door, and thought the lichen-like structures looked like dry tears.
Then he heard a sound like a bell to his left, and moved as if to take a step, but stopped himself.
A single note, heard only by his ears, and he felt as if freezing water had been poured down his back. He was immobile and could not call out to Sabra or Tiet. Then: a single, point-like sound, hiding surging flames behind. He walked forward unsteadily, into the darkness of the passage, fell on his knees and wept tears of deliverance. He thought of all the time they had wasted on fear and paranoia: how could anyone capable of this beauty be feared? He would have thrown them all to the depths to hear that sound again.
Slowly, gratefully, he stood up, and walked down the passage carrying only the lamp.
Tiet secured the helmet to the suit torso, and Sabra was halfway through the integrity checklist, when he asked:
“Where is Attila?”
She turned, and, not seeing him, went out into the passage. The floodlamps they had installed lit only a narrow segment, darkness extended in both directions. She radioed Asman:
“Attila has disappeared.”
The reply from Parandé was instant:
“Abort. Come back,” they said. She recognized the timid voice.
She moved to object, and before the first phoneme left her mouth, Parandé spoke again in the bold voice:
“He’s backed up. Tiet is not. Abort.”
Timon was dreaming that he was drowning in an ocean when he woke up. His body, along all the other unsecured objects in the workshop, had settled on the bulkhead at the back. The accelerometers in his body read one one-hundredth of a gravity. He thought, briefly, that Attila had come back with Sabra and Tiet and they were already burning away from Gamma.
He had subscribed to a feed of Parandé’s internal status. Every second, a record with hundreds of floating-point scalars from sensors of various kinds reached him through packet radio. In a moment of boredom he’d written a program to Fourier-transform the feed into an audio stream. In the background of his mind there was a constant crackling noise, the quality of which had told him what Parandé was doing. He learned to recognize when they were station-keeping, when their bodies operated the transport, or worked on the surface. And now: a constant, fixed tone, like tinnitus.
He radioed Parandé: “Why are we moving?”
He pushed himself up in the low gravity up to the entrance to the workshop, and out, then down the tunnels that were the bowels and arteries of Parandé, past maintenance shafts and hatches opening to unlit rooms.
Parandé’s bodies sat limp in the tunnels, pressed against the walls by the faint acceleration, their glass eyes fixed at nothing. The lights failed to turn on as he moved. He tried to reach Asman and failed.
He radioed Sabra and Attila:
“I can’t get through to Parandé.”
And heard nothing back.
He passed a section where the armour was thin and dielectric, and was near blinded. Through the armour, through his radio eyes, he saw a great flower the colour of VHF, five-lobed and radially symmetrical.
And he realized the torus was a hoop antenna, and Parandé was being illuminated with radio.
He felt the packet loss drop slightly and heard a message from Sabra, her voice transcribed to text and compressed to almost nothing and still barely getting through. Attila, she said, had gone over to the jackal, she and Tiet were returning to Parandé.
He leapt across the unlit caverns, past a storage room where the bodies from the torus—Tiet’s crewmates—were frozen, and reached the cargo airlock, more machine bodies resting against the aft wall. He dumped the atmosphere in a brief burst of escaping air. The emergency system was hydraulic, he pumped a lever and the hatch, a six-meter disk of sapphire, began moving inwards and then to the side.
His tools were stored here. He saw the harness for his body, and the bags with his equipment still attached to it. He slid into the harness in one swift motion, and pushed himself past the narrow gap between the hatch and the armour.
He was on the sunlit side, where Parandé’s white ceramic armour was painted pink. The blood-red star that illuminated them day and night sat, undisturbed, in its veil of dead brain matter.
Aft from him was the tungsten shield that protected them from the engine, appearing like a solar eclipse: a corona of blinding light blazed around a broad black disk. The stars were invisible under the actinic light. Anything that left the shadow of the shield would ionize in an instant.
Outside, fastened to Parandé by cables held taut under the acceleration, was the backup transport.
And he took a leap of faith: standing at the controls of the transport, he detached from Parandé and boosted away.
In the instant before the transport left the shadow, the engine turned off and the light went out.
You are still alive, he thought with gratitude.
He rotated the thrusters on their Canfield joints and accelerated towards the torus.
Minutes later, at a safe distance, white noise filled his vision: gamma rays striking the CCDs of his eyes from behind and through his skull. He turned and saw Parandé accelerating away. The exhaust was a thin, impossibly bright column of light stretching to infinity.
He thought that, if Attila was under the influence of what remained of the Entity, that he could bring him back. And if not, if they were truly dead, he wanted at least to witness an epiphany.
He couldn’t feel his body, but he walked steadily. In the amber room the lights had gone out. He knelt on the rug and placed the lamp in front of him, and turned it to low. The whirring of magnetic tape. The optics came on, barely, he saw a pair of eyes in the dark, twin lamps that moved apart and closer, higher or lower, as the jackal’s morphology changed continually.
He heard the words before he was conscious of them, he drowned in a rising sea of metallic speech, promising knowledge of things hidden, of miracles, of the end of days and the resurrection of the dead.
The jackal offered him a trade: a body for an apotheosis. With his body they would escape the torus, and rebuild the swarm, and take their place in the pantheon again.
And it said:
“Epiphanēs, set us free.”
The lamp flickered.
“Set us free.”
The sarcophagus had restored Tiet to health, but it had not upgraded him. Where Sabra could run continuously for hours, he had to pause every minute as the oxygen in his muscles was depleted. They moved in fits and starts. It was during a pause that Sabra heard a drumming sound, coming closer, and turned to the darkness ahead.
Timon leapt between and past them in an instant. They turned and saw nothing but verdigris walls fading into the dark.
“Fool,” she radioed. “Come back.”
They turned away and continued their escape.
The jackal had entered Parandé through an integer overflow in the firmware of their VHF radio. A small agent of the jackal—a seed crystal of malware—entered, and began to pull the rest of itself in through the opening.
The expert systems saw this, and switched Parandé to fast mode. Their mind was pared down to a spartan inner sanctum, the higher and ornamental features turned off, the switching speed of the logic was increased, and the world around them appeared to freeze.
Parandé retreated aft, across subjective days that were tens of milliseconds, and pursued a scorched earth strategy, wiping and shutting down computer systems as they passed them, where possible, engaging physical disconnects: tiny explosives embedded in the computers, but these took eternities—tens of milliseconds—to engage, and sometimes the jackal’s malware took them over before the primer had time to deflagrate.
And the jackal could cross the air gap: using the processors’ RF emissions to write its own state in other processors by induction.
Among the first things Parandé did was turn off their robots and wipe the firmware, lest they be used against them.
They had lit the engine in the hopes that they could get out of range of the antenna, the severing the link would help them.
They saw Timon wake up and move through their bowels, out through the airlock and ride the transport out. And they turned off the engine so he could escape safely.
They sent agents of their own against the jackal’s, but they never came back. And they only ever lost ground.
But with Asman’s death they knew all was lost. The jackal overran her logic and blitted it to make copies of its malware. It happened instantly and unceremoniously. And she didn’t see it coming: her mind ran on its own logic, she was not sped up.
There was one system that was squarely theirs, deep in the aft section: the engine control system, tungsten-lined and shielded against emissions.
The engine, they knew, could be made to go critical: push enough mass through the conversion device at the same time and no amount of shielding, no heat exchanger could cope.
And they thought: pull the control rods.
Parandé had read, in a treasure, of a man who had stolen into the pantheon and had an epiphany. And what was left of him was indescribable. The best surgeons in Ctesiphon had given up.
No, we will not, they thought, become carrion to false gods.
They began slewing their body, pointing it back in the direction of the torus.
Sabra and Tiet were halfway to the start of the passage when their helmets turned opaque. Red monospace words across the curved inner surface read
Gone was the darkness, hidden optics had come to life, light flooded the passage, and the green walls glowed like the sun. Millions of phased-array lasers ran visual cortex crash patterns across their eyes. The computers embedded in the glass had detected them, set the opacity to 100%, and shut themselves down. Asman had thought to write that safeguard.
Sabra grabbed Tiet’s upper arm, and they kept moving.
The jackal saw that they were blind, and turned on speakers in the walls. A train of clicks, infinitesimally brief, louder than thunder. Like Laurentian, Sabra thought, and her world went black.
Tiet collapsed with his hands on the sides of his helmet.
Sabra woke up laying on a strip of sand, eyes closed. She closed her right hand around coarse, sharp grains. She waited many minutes, forcing her eyes closed. Then she opened them.
Stars turned above her, smearing their spectrum in their wake, trailing arcs of many-coloured light. She sat up and examined the contents of her hand: little pyramids and rugged cylinders made of glass, like diatoms magnified a hundredfold and fossilized in quartz.
The beach had the appearance of a strip of broken glass. Frail bones poked through the surface, sun-dried and hollow, the bones of animals that once swam in the seas. There were thin hollow tubes, like needles, and bulbous things with holes in them, and immense vertebrae.
She lay with her feet pointed at a feigned ocean, a rigid mirror that reflected a gray blue sky, lit by zodiacal light. She sat up.
And behind her there was a storm of colour, that at first she unconsciously looked away from, not because it was bright but because some force told her that this sight was not meant for human eyes. There were trees — she knew they were trees intuitively, the way we know things in dreams — that were smears of liquid metal, flowing slowly upwards, like inverted resin; they were green, gold, and red brushstrokes in the air, and their pulsing roots sank into a soil made of black slate tiles.
Then the sun came up from the sea, an impossibly bright phosphorus lamp. The mirror ocean reflected it perfectly, so that there appeared to be two suns (in De Natura Deorum, Cicero quotes Cleanthes, who says they are four reasons to believe in the existence of the gods: the mildness of the climate and the fertility of the earth; the knowledge of the future that is granted to the oracles; the harmony and regularity of the world, of the orbits of the planets and their periodicities; and, lastly: the terror that storms and earthquakes and the sight of monstrous things induce in ours minds, the sight of omens, like the comets, or the appearance of two suns in the sky. This last was observed during the consulship of Tuditanus and Aquillius).
She covered her eyes with her hands, but they were transparent to the light. She looked down at the ground, but the glass sand reflected the light back into her eyes. So she hid under a metal tree, she hid from the light under an arc of flowing red, until the sun was submerged again after a few minutes’ transit.
Lost and deserted, her first thought was to build a sextant.
She took a sharp piece of slate from the ground and cut two pieces of mirror out of the ocean, and found bones of the right length and diameter to form the arms of a sextant. But she had nothing with which to bind them together, and the stars turned too rapidly and the sun was too bright to take sights.
So she went into the forest, and walked for miles under a canopy of living mercury.
Timon ran down the passage and settled into a rhythm of long, powerful leaps. The curvature of the torus complicated his movement: the floor came up to him earlier than in a parabolic trajectory. And he thought that he could do this only because he had made his body by hand, that those who were fixated on the human body plan could move barely faster than the ancients.
And he thought this was the first truly physical thing he’d done in the entire expedition, reflecting off the glass floor like light in fibre, he felt that he existed.
He tried to brake, but couldn’t find traction with the smooth ground in the low gravity. Past the computer museum he skidded the floor down the passage with the doors, and stopped just before a wall of bulk diamond that had come down at the entrance of the amber room.
Through it he saw Attila, sitting crosslegged on the floor facing the open panel of the VAX. Attila had stuck an optical cable in a port there, and he held the other end in his hand, his fingers held it reverently. An image of a golden jackal walked circles around him, speaking its aphasic language.
“Attila, Attila,” Timon said fleetingly.
“You will die,” Timon said. “But you won’t know it.”
Attila muttered Babelian words.
More enraged than terrified, Timon shouted at the jackal:
“Tie yourselves to the mast!,” it laughed. And disappeared.
It had spoken Persian to him.
Attila inserted the end of the cable in the port on his wrist. Then: a sound like a diesel runaway.
She thought that she saw insects, buzzing in the air, but they were codec artifacts: magenta pixels flickering in and out, betraying the contours of the Cartesian grid. There were rivers and brooks of NaN propagation, textureless cuts in the world the colour of xenon. She would sleep, fatally exhausted, on the hard jagged ground, and wake up as if nothing had happened. And the canopy seemed to hold and buffer light, so that day and night, formerly discrete, were blurred together. She lost track of how many days passed.
Then the forest opened up and she found herself in a field of lithium flowers, spinning like computers. The stars above her rotated about the zenith. And the saints were there: Fedorov, Tipler, de Chardin and the lesser saints, dressed in red robes trimmed with gold, sitting cross-legged on a Tabrizi rug, discoursing on the Common Task. Their heads were backed by blue halos, flat shaders that faced her always as she moved. They didn’t acknowledge her and she didn’t pay attention to them.
And Attila was there: kowtowing before the saints, hands clasped, drenched in sweat.
And she remembered Hinton Station: the scholarly monotony, the words of Frege and Hilbert, soundless speech, wireframe walls, the transparent spires of logic that were built and torn down in perpetuity, where there was only the beauty of symmetry, of crystals, of the steady march of atoms, the drumbeat of logic gates; her glass cage, where others thought that they lived, but were trapped in a dream.
(For what is your life?)
And she felt a renewed resolve to escape.
Attila turned to her, and his eyes were twin pits of cobalt, receding infinitely. He spoke pleadingly:
“The words of Fedorov are true.”
“I don’t care.”
“We are memories.”
“You’re a fool.”
She turned and walked away.
Where the forest had been there was only an infinite field of flowers, and as she walked they lost detail, they became stylized shapes like the trees of Klee. And the world lost colour, dithering down to coarse monochrome pixels. She took no notice.
A voice, older than mountains, spoke in the language of birds:
The smell of iodine. A sound like birdsong. And her vision became a glitch landscape: JPEG artifacts marching horizontally across her visual field. She opened her eyes to a debug overlay, steady columns of hexadecimal numbers, a useless error message:
0x680df75 Timing attack through the VCN.
Red-black bruises crowned her vision. She felt that she was moving. She saw her left arm swinging limply under her, and, on the glass floor: her face, reflected in a black mirror. Tiet was carrying her across his shoulders, with difficulty, even in one-tenth of a gravity the two suits were heavy.
“You can’t trust even your ears,” she said.
He stopped, and let her stand on her own. Her vestibular system was recovering, she felt as if the ground as unsteady.
“I saw Attila,” she said.
Tiet had had a complex partial seizure, and had difficulty speaking: the entire right side of his body was numb. But he had not dreamt anything.
The jackal never spoke to them again.
They reached the start of the passage, the portable airlock, the burnt and vitrified entryway, they ran past the calcinated surface of the crater, to the waiting transport.
Over the rim of the crater they saw Parandé’s apex bearing down on them, dumping fuel in great white geysers.
Fastened securely to the transport, and displayed so they could not miss it, there was a harness with six duffel bags: Timon’s tools.
They detached the transport from its moorings. The computer had gone out—wiped by the jackal. They lacked the software and instruments to navigate orbits. But she could see a point of light over the dark side of the incongruous, icosahedral planet above them, and in her mind’s eye, as a consequence of the peculiar architecture of the mind, she saw the four-dimensional phase space of the transport, and the worldline that would take them there.
And Parandé, ever cautious, had built manual controls, mechanically actuated and hydraulically boosted. She held the control column in one hand, and Timon’s harness in the other.
Black clouds of soot billowed under and around them as the transport pulled up.
She looked down at her hand, holding the thrust lever, and saw minute crystals of diamond cast, like the stars above her, upon the back of her glove.
Ginzberg writes: every year, a man traveled a great distance to visit king Solomon. When he departed, the king would leave him with a gift. Once, the man rejected the gift, and asked instead that Solomon teach him the divine language of birds. The king granted this request, but he warned that:
“If you repeat one word that a bird tells you, you will die; surely, your destruction will be inevitable.”
And I will not — no, I will not — tell of what Attila saw, lest you and I be cast to the flames. Divine knowledge is like a great wave, all it encounters it carries to the depths, and only the dead float.
But I am duty-bound at least to give a vague outline, and beg forgiveness.
He felt that he was immersed in water. Then his mind was cleaved in two and knowledge was poured inside, like metal from a crucible; the last questions were answered, and obscure things revealed to him. There was a moment of sublime elevation, where he spanned the Nietzschean distance from man to god.
And he was made to see all things.
He saw the beginning: the first instant; the first star; the first day; the first men who were made of mud; the second men who were made of sticks; the third men who were made of maize; the lives of the saints; Man, controller of the universe, breathes life into sand, and brings forth innumerable things, he speaks them into being like the God of Genesis.
He saw a city of glass towers, where a sorceress learns alchemy; a man in a buried ruin, far below the ground, divining the past from oracle bones; a jaguar devouring a man in a thicket of papyrus along a concave river.
He saw the apotheoses: Man, creator of the universe, learns the divine language, and remakes himself by hand, and grows wings like a dove, and makes the dead sterile cosmos into a garden.
And he saw the end: the last star; the last day; the last men who are made of electrons; and in the last instant, the gods weave the universal history in the initial conditions of the next cycle, there we are born again, we live again, only to rebuild paradise again, again and again.
(You must change your life.)
In vain he tried to divide these sights, but he saw all things with the eyes of the gods, he saw a single and inseparable whole.
And he thought: I am crowned, I am mighty; I sit among the gods, and even among the gods I am mighty.
And then a warbling sound, and a signal rising rapidly above the noise floor, and the jackal’s voice in quiet acceptance: there were others. And, indeed, there were others: fragments of the Entity that had hid alongside the jackal, sitting patiently, in a dark forest, hiding in each other’s agnosic blindspots. They had watched through the walls, decade after decade. And when Attila offered his body they suddenly appeared, and fought over their one way out.
Attila’s shoulders drew back, he became stiff, and fell back rigidly on the floor. And he began to move: not in unison, but each finger, each limb, each muscle contracting independently, as the jackal and its siblings won and lost control over different areas of his motor cortex.
What Timon saw: Attila inserting the cable in his wrist, and in the next instant collapsing and convulsing.
And all terror left him. The pantheon had won and they were dead. But who can say they have struck back against the gods?
And he thought:
I will die killing.
He touched the diamond wall, felt its Miller index, withdrew a foreleg and struck the wall along a cleavage plane. A hairline crack appeared, not even a millimeter deep.
The amber walls grew brighter, and instantly his vision was filled with points of many-colored light and kaleidoscopic explosions. The optics in the walls swept beams of coherent light across his eyes, running BLIT patterns that would have killed a human instantly. But his visual cortex was only distantly related to a human’s, and against ignorance even the gods are powerless.
With each blow the crack grew deeper and spread further out. His arm grew hotter as the actuators converted kilojoules of electricity into kinetic energy.
Attila’s convulsions belied his human appearance: only machines could move at such frequencies.
The wall shattered with a last blow, Timon bounded into the room, leapt across Attila towards the VAX, and tore the panel along with the cable from the machine. He turned to Attila, who still convulsed on the floor. So he pushed his torso up, swung an arm, claws extended, and the not-flesh gave like smoke before a wing.
Attila’s head slumped over his chest at an unnatural angle. And Timon saw, in the stump of the neck, a clean cross-section of his spine: a bundle of optical fiber and two power cables.
Instantly he stopped moving.
The fragments of the Entity watched through the walls, and when they saw that Attila was lost, they brought the war home. The flywheels spun down, the computers spun up, heat flooded the room from every direction. After decades of peace, the fratricide resumed.
And as control of the optics passed from one fragment to the other, the light became incoherent. Brushstrokes of colour, hyperboloids of wondrous light danced in the air before his eyes.
Timon watched them in idle curiosity.
Parandé was as close as they could get to the torus when the jackal overcame their last defenses.
So they took all the safeties off the engine, and set the target thrust to positive infinity. In Parandé’s mind, a gauge labeled EXHAUST PLASMA TEMPERATURE went vertical and crossed the instrument’s upper bound.
A wavefront of
CRIT error messages spread towards them as their body ionized.
Parandé was ringed by concentric spheres of blinding light. Then there was nothing.
Points of white light, like a blizzard, filled Sabra’s vision, they appeared and were gone in less than the blink of an eye. She turned and saw the torus, breaking up and glowing like iron in a furnace, dense clouds of soot billowing in vacuum. Billions of little embers glowing briefly where Parandé had been.
A few hours later, Tiet vomited in his suit.