drowned — starlings — this is all that you are
Gliese 581 was drowned in satellites, still, they were awash in blood-red light, the white trusswork of the transport turned pink. Sabra turned back on her seat, and saw Parandé’s broadside, half a kilometer long but already barely visible. Timon sat behind her, and he was darker than the space around them, the dim longwave light sank into his skin, while the void was aglow with zodiacal light. He looked back at her, and the tapeta lucida behind his eyes blinked red for an instant.
The torus was made of diamond. Where the crater had formed, the surface had not crumpled or collapsed: it pyrolized and turned to smoke. The solid surface was buried under a layer of soot.
They stopped the transport next to the torus, and waited for the crater to appear. Its only salient feature was a narrow opening, like a syringe needle seen under a microscope: a square tunnel transected by a plane at a shallow angle, large enough for human-shaped explorers.
Parandé took over the controls and matched the tangential velocity of the torus, pulling gently up and seeming to float over the crater. The transport arced down to the epicenter, where the cracks on the diamond converged at a singular point, and they landed softly on jets of cold gas.
Flecks of sp²-bonded carbon swarmed them like black insects as the exhaust blew soot off the surface.
They stabbed poles into the crater surface, and fastened the transport to them, and walked awkwardly, in the low gravity, along a surface like a beach of burnt sand. Short columns, burned like matchsticks, protruded from the surface, and a long crystal spar lay across the ground, terminating in a flaked wheel-shaped thing. Timon suggested it was the cable reel of a gantry.
Sabra and Attila wore Class IV suits. Timon, who was the beast of burden, wore a harness carrying bags of equipment on his naked body.
The entryway was diamond, the walls burned into slippery graphite. They walked slowly and their feet cracked the vitrified debris beneath them. Soon they were entombed in darkness, and they found, at the end of the passage a heavy intact wall. Near the center: an alcove with a huge, heavy lever.
They scraped soot from the walls to make a smooth seal, took out a portable airlock, unfolded it, and turned it on. The actuators pressed the frame of the airlock against the walls and they pressurized the interior with neon gas from a tank, until a device inside the wall made a clicking sound. They pumped the lever a few times, slowly, the wall moved aside.
The passage had a square profile. The floor was coarse, monocrystalline diamond, textured with waves like poured glass, backed by a jet-black surface, so that it looked like a mirror. The walls and ceiling were verdigris, like worn copper, carved intricately with stylized pistons, trip hammers, pump jacks and images of other mechanical devices. Everywhere, lichen and mold-like growths spotted the walls.
The atmosphere was nitrogen and oxygen and ash.
The walls seemed to swallow the light from their lamps, but the floor, with its uneven surface, shone back at them when illuminated.
Sabra inspected one of the walls. She put a gloved finger over a lichen-thing: a broad, shallow button, like a model of Olympus Mons, gray and textured like book gills. At the slightest pressure it collapsed. She withdrew her finger: a spot of gray ash, completely uniform.
The passage went on and curved upwards and away in the distance.
They walked kilometers down the passage, and at regular intervals they found doors on the left wall: square doors made of diamond, textured and structurally-coloured to look like red wood. The rooms behind them were almost cubes, most were empty. There was a room filled with radio equipment, all conforming to centuries-old standards. Coarse, EM-shielded cables disappeared into a socket in the wall.
Sometimes Timon would stop, and feel the ground with SONAR. But for the passage and the rooms there was little empty space: the rest of the torus was bulk matter—which they guessed were computers or storage—and pipes and banks of cylindrical things they assumed were flywheels.
Asman was born in Tigranes—HD 35650 in the catalogues. Early in life, her clan had funded, at great expense, her Grand Tour of the network. Arriving in Ctesiphon there was a great upheaval in the markets—owing to the birth of new god, some tens of years away—and her funds became worthless overnight. And this provided an excellent excuse never to return: had she toured every settled star, she would have seen less variety than in Ctesiphon.
And she remembered how a society was turned upside down by the mere report of a theogony. These confident people had mastered themselves and the world around them, and were like titans, who felt neither fear nor hunger, but at the sight of a deity they saw terror and the sublime in one, they resumed an atavistic nature, and prayed cynically to gods they had long discarded.
She trained as a toposophist to learn the nature of the gods.
After hours of exploration, they pitched a tent in the middle of the passage. They went inside, and began talking about the kinds of things that the sight of ruins and the dead evoke.
“Imagine,” Sabra began, “explaining our lives to someone from the anthropocene. Disembodied souls, traveling on beams of light. Poured again into bodies made of glass; bodies without organs. Minds made of spinning gears. The dreams of Babbage come true.”
“To them, we are like demigods,” Timon said, and left unsaid: but not gods.
The lamp light dimmed and they slept on the ancient twenty-four hour day.
Sabra dreamt of an angel shaped like the Antikythera mechanism, gears clicking like hangings, suspended over an infinite grid of human beings. The hearts of the dead are weighed at the end of time.
There was a room full of feigned starlings. They flew, groomed their feathers, sang and brooded in empty nests. But they were transected down the midline, the left half missing. And the cutaway showed brass pipes for the syrinx, a flywheel, and a gearbox that drove the entire mechanism. Attila stole a bird from a nest; methodically, he dismantled it.
“Sixty one gears,” he reported. As if the artist had said: this is all that you are.
“There must be hidden logic,” Timon said. “A computer embedded in the gears. How does it know where to go? How to fly straight?”
“The flywheel makes up for the missing wing, I think,” Attila explained. “It turns counterclockwise and the bird rolls right.”
And Timon thought: they are saying, ‘I am mighty, I can do great things with almost nothing’.
“How are they still moving?,” Timon asked.
Sabra inspected one of the nests.
“There is a rotor at the base, here,” she observed. A four-sided knob, turning slowly. “It must charge the flywheel.”
“It must be a memory,” Attila said.
Branches made of tinted glass extended from the walls, looking like mountains in Persian miniature.
Carefully, Attila reassembled the bird and put it in a sample container. One eye, a glass marble, stared at nothing when he closed the lid.
“The astronomers looked through their telescopes and saw the moon of a gas giant had turned an opal texture.”
They walked in silence, and Asman spoke over the radio, describing a prior expedition.
“It was close to Ctesiphon, on a settled system. So we went on the network. Just a few years. Very brief. Not like this.”
Thousands of toposophists had come along, she said.
“It was a glass sphere of logic. It shed heat by shooting arcs of liquid sodium into space, like magnetic field lines made real. We never saw anything like it again.
“Parts of it were hot, but most of the volume was frozen. And we guessed that it was half-dead, or sick, or pupating and preparing for a metamorphosis.
“We went down a cooling pipe that had broken and vented into space. We found maintenance tunnels for robots, hexagonal passages with corrugated surfaces. The robots were half-dead, occasionally one would see us, track us with its eyes, and turn off again.
“We didn’t dare drill samples, because it was not dead. Not entirely. But we learned what we could from X-ray scattering and induction, and from the surfaces that were exposed.
Then we reached a warm area. We heard the hum of electricity. And we tried the standard contact protocols: the Taylor series, the cubes of Hinton.”
Then, she said, it had come alive.
“We were swept by waves of blinding light. And I heard the smell of iodine. Then all the light left us.”
For a moment, there was no sound but their steps.
“And we were compelled to confess things,” she said. “Our most secret things are the most parochial. If we knew the contents of each other’s minds we would not suffer.”
Timon said he heard an unsteady drumming sound, kilometers away.
Parandé’s probes arced over the planet surface, their gravimeters measured changes in the local gravity that could not be explained by Gamma’s faceted shape. So they sent a seed factory to a carbon-rich area of Gamma’s surface. It grew a small phalanx of robots, other bodies of Parandé, which they could operate simultaneously through an engineered form of hemispatial neglect.
In places the surface was rows and rows of corrugated trenches, like plowed soil, elsewhere, it was an ocean of liquid metal that had solidified. The robots split into packs and traversed the land, they drew power from the dim light of Gliese 581, fixed in the sky above them. Gamma was tidally locked, and they could only work in the sunlit half.
A mountain range of aluminium oxide—of sapphire—rose above them: the remains of the orbital ring that had come down from heaven when the Entity died. They unfolded photovoltaics in the foothills, scaled the cracked glass walls and climbed inside. In the dark red light, the shadows and the light were hardly distinguishable.
The interior was a collapsed tensegrity, a jumble of diamond bones, connected by slack ropes, like the rotting fascia of a beast that once bestrode the world.
They walked through caverns made of glass and crushed rock. Where the structure had impacted the ground, the diamond had explosively formed fullerenes, and their limbs became covered with soot, like the bodies of men who, in the days of Turing and the ancients, had worked in coal mines.
They found the coils of the catapults that launched and caught payloads to and from the Dyson swarm, crushed together like Rouleaux complexes in the blood of a dead animal. They found plasma gasifiers and electric furnaces and a smelting plant hundreds of kilometers long.
They found a power distribution center: miles and miles of high-tension lines and transformer stations. And where the power lines converged there was an immense structure, a capped cylinder made of a foam-like white ceramic, like a pill, stabbed with pipes in every direction. Concentric layers of armour were separated by hydraulic pistons, it had survived the collapse of the orbital ring intact. They cut their way through it and their Geiger counters began clicking in brief, ominous spikes.
Inside was something like a fusion reactor. There was a magnetic pipe, through which charged plasma could travel, and an MHD generator to convert the energy in the plasma into electricity. And, between them, a vacuum chamber braced by huge pillars, as if holding an immense weight.
They opened the chamber, and Cherenkov sparks danced in the opening, they lit the dark of the ruins with stroboscopic blue light.
Where there should have been a fusor there was instead a flat disk two meters wide, a centimeter thick, gleaming white ceramic, cracked and spalled. In the center was a narrow opening. Light was bent and refracted through the opening, so that it looked like a lens.
The expedition in the torus had set up camp in an empty room adjacent to the passage. Timon woke up when Parandé pinged him, and a high-resolution scan of the device rotated in his Cartesian theatre. He asked:
“What is remarkable about this?”
And Parandé said:
“It masses sixty thousand tons.”
They didn’t want to bring it up to orbit until they knew what it was, and they didn’t want to recall Timon from the torus. So he operated one of Parandé’s bodies remotely, he laid down in the tent and closed his eyes, and his limbs twitched as in a dream.
They began by clearing the ruins. Parandé’s robots carried matter compilers and feedstock, and they printed the pieces of an immense gantry, they lifted the disk so that it was held up by strained cables in a posture of strange reverence and placed it inside a vacuum chamber studded with hermetic sensors.
They swept a diffractometer around it, and saw that the rim of the disk was made of ceramic and tungsten and, around the lens-like thing, a superconductor.
They shone light across as many frequencies as they could through the lens and saw that it was transparent to everything from radio to x-rays.
They tried to touch the surface of the lens with an atomic force microscope, and the nanogram probe exploded like a hand grenade. The sensors saw exotic particles and gamma rays, and Parandé predicted:
“It’s made of magnetic monopoles.”
Timon’s treasure explained that these were hypothetical particles, one of the many items in the catalogue of things theorized and never found; each one would be smaller than a proton, mass one Planck mass, and would act as a magnet with a single pole. And, importantly, when they came into contact with baryonic matter, they catalyzed baryon decay.
So they set up a different experiment: they shot megadalton pellets of metal through the opening, they passed through—and disappeared with a shower of exotic particles. And the expert systems confirmed they were observing baryon decay.
They repeated the experiment thousands of times, at the request of the expert systems, and when they had a statistical sample of the decay modes and their branching ratios, they slotted the results into the unknowns of the theories.
For a sublime moment, Parandé and Timon were the only minds, other than the gods, who knew the whole system of the world.
The gods could convert matter into energy, that this was widely known and attested by telescopic evidence of gamma-ray emissions. And the entire pantheon had to use the same mechanism, because the gamma ray flares always had the same energies. But that nobody knew how, and experimental physics had drawn its last breath centuries prior.
When Ctesiphon was settled they had built a circumstellar accelerator, twice the radius of Beta Pictoris and supported dynamically by its own operation. They ran it for a century, and drew the last of high energy physics, and tore it apart to build spin habitats. But they had failed to find grand unification or any of the long-sought after theories of everything. And here the Entity had done, over the course of a few decades, what 1015 posthumans had failed to do with a collider larger than a star.
They gathered in a Cartesian theatre, where Timon and Parandé explained their findings.
“It’s a device,” Parandé began, “for converting matter into energy. Baryonic matter passes through and the entire mass of it decays into charged pions and mesons, then to gamma rays. One hundred per cent efficient.”
“The thing in the middle, that looks like a lens, is a crystal monolayer,” said Timon, “made of magnetic monopoles. They catalyze baryon decay by the Callan-Rubakov mechanism. Like reusable antimatter, if you want.”
Parandé had termed it a conversion device.
Sabra asked the first question:
“It can’t be dense enough to show gravitational lensing. Why does it look”—she gestured at the high-resolution scan of the device, floating in their Cartesian theatre—“like a lens?”
“Monopoles screen the magnetic field like electrons screen the electric field. It refracts light because it’s an insulator, implying the charges—the monopoles—are immobile in space.”
“You said ‘crystal’”, said Attila. “How do you know it’s a crystal? How would monopoles be bonded together? And to the device?”
“We don’t know,” Parandé said. “And neither do the expert systems. We posed these questions to them. We suppose they are in a crystalline arrangement because they are fixed in space, but we can’t see monopoles directly. They might be in some kind of bound state analogous to chemical bonds. As to the second question: the lens is levitated all around by a superconductor.”
“There is a mass defect,” Timon added. “We can calculate the monopole-baryon interaction cross-section from theory. The expert systems can, at any rate. This tells us how far apart the monopoles have to be spaced to get total conversion. And we know the surface area of the lens. Taken together, we know the number of monopoles there should be in the crystal. But if you multiply this by the Planck mass you get one third of the total inertial mass of the entire device.
“So either there are extra monopoles—perhaps these act as a binder?—or there is some unknown force, or some arrangement of unknown particles we cannot see because they don’t interact.”
Sabra asked how the device could have been built.
“I have no idea,” Timon said. “This is far beyond me. This is femtotechnology.”
“Then a more productive question is where,” she said. “Because this seems out of place, no? So far all the equipment we have found is made of baryonic matter and we can understand, at least on a mechanistic level, how it all works.”
“The telescope in Ctesiphon,” Asman said. “Tracked a high-energy industrial zone of the Entity’s. A space station, at a low altitude over Gliese 581. Huge photovoltaics, huge gamma ray flares every hour. When the Entity died the stationkeeping presumably failed: after two months it went down into the photosphere and broke up. That may be the where.”
“The paucity of exotic devices,” Attila said. “Might be explained by cost. If it takes terajoules to make one monopole it would take a long time for a conversion reactor to repay that energy expenditure.”
“There’s other devices,” Timon said. “Scattered across the surface. Other reactors. The Entity needed a lot of energy to dismantle Gamma, far more than could be provided by the light of Gliese 581.”
“We got lucky,” said Parandé. “The mass of the device and the intensity of the radiation means they were very thoroughly braced and shielded, so the other reactors survived largely intact. We can bring them back to Wepwawet for study.”
Asman ended the discussion: she said that this was invaluable but it told them nothing about the Entity’s mind. But Parandé was undeterred. They spoke excitedly: physics has been solved, grand unification, that last dream of the ancients, has been deciphered. The transformation of matter into light had yesterday been a miracle, known only to the gods: today it was science.
Sabra noticed that Parandé had six distinct voices, which she thought corresponded to the minds of the original crew, that they spoke sometimes simultaneously but mostly isolated in their distinct sentences. One voice spoke exclusively of propulsion and orbital mechanics, another spoke timidly, another spoke boldly.
Sabra and Attila packed away the tent into the bags and mounted them on Timon’s harness. Then they resumed their travel down the passage.
The smell had become impossible to ignore when Timon said:
“I hear a human heartbeat.”
Everything was still.
They walked for kilometers until they found a collapsed tent, once-white fabric draped over the outlines of boxes and human bodies. Empty cans were strewn around the floor.
Attila unzipped the entrance, dragged out three mylar sleeping bags, and laid them out side by side on the mirror-like surface. Indistinguishable human remains, mummified, wearing identical, simple clothing. They didn’t know where to begin investigating the cause of death: they had no biologists on the crew, let alone human anatomists.
Next to the tent there was a door, and they stood there in silence for some time. Timon said someone was inside.
They opened the door, and a wall of humidity struck them, and a renewed smell of decomposition.
There were crates of equipment, broken batteries, dead lamps, life support equipment with time-worn, stained surfaces, and a thin mylar sleeping bag. Inside, a man made of flesh.
The mylar surface heaved up and down, reflecting faint light at them.
They remained silent, and unmoving. It seemed the most natural thing in the world to observe this atavistic man in somber silence: a memory from the anthropocene, like a museum exhibit, from the time when the dead outnumbered the living.
“He’s old,” Attila said.
“I can’t see through the metal,” Timon said.
Carefully, Sabra removed the mylar sheet off the man’s body.
Through millimeter-wave eyes Timon saw a cavern of dying flesh, a human heart with thick walls and a thick septum, tired muscle, blood reverberating, barely moving.
“He’s near death,” he said.
“We have to bring him to Parandé,” Sabra said.
Parandé cut in immediately:
“Absolutely not,” they said. “Samples, not living things. We don’t know what it is. It could be a device of the Entity’s.”
Timon asked if they had the plans for a sarcophagus in the treasure.
Reluctantly, Parandé sent a robot with a matter compiler on the backup transport, printing the sarcophagus as it fell down the Hill sphere to the torus. It landed on the crater, and raced down the passage carrying the finished product.
Meanwhile, the members of the expedition argued anxiously.
Timon said that he must have been one of the people from the wrecked ship. Sabra opined that Parandé was right, that he was a creation of the Entity, that perhaps the Entity was alive and this was a trap of some kind.
And Attila speculated that this was the Entity’s genitor, the man the Entity had been before their theogony. That when the Entity had died he had become trapped here. That if humans collect photographs and objects of childhood, then it stands to reason by proportionality that the gods should collect persons or entire worlds.
The robot surged out of the darkness, almost as large as the passage, a crab-like machine painted international orange, with a cluster of bulbous eyes. It moved with a swiftness that belied its size. When it reached them, it carefully deposited the sarcophagus from its many-armed embrace.
Timon radioed Parandé:
The robot stood unmoving, tracking Timon with its many eyes.
“It won’t clear the smell,” Parandé said inside his head.
The robot lowered its body, it picked up each of the bodies in their mylar bags and placed them in a cargo basket. Then, without a word, it turned back and walked up the passage.
A slate coffin sat on the mirror-like floor. They opened it and ran the diagnostics, it asserted that it was functioning. Then it began to fill with fluid.
The man was still asleep. Sabra tried to rouse him, and asked, in the language of Ctesiphon:
“Can you understand me?”
He opened clouded eyes, coughed and lost consciousness.
Attila and Sabra undressed him and heaved his body into the sarcophagus.
His body swelled, the tissues filled with fluid and became edematous, opening the gaps between the cells, for the sarcophagus’ repair machines—a genus and ecology of engineered bacteria and viruses—to travel and do their work. Machine arms cut his skull open so that his brain could swell. Old waste was swept away, and his body grew young inside out.
Colour returned to his hair, and even the lens of the eye, which is unchanged from cradle to grave, was dissolved and grown anew.
He spent days in the sarcophagus while it ministered to him, and the three members of the expedition waited and argued about his identity.
Parandé was anxious, and thought he was a danger, a trick of the Entity’s. They brought up the possibility of leaving.
He woke up, coughed once, and opened his eyes. Golden light from the discharge lamps filled the room. He was naked under a sheet of pale blue fabric, and lay on an inflatable mattress, next to and parallel to the sarcophagus.
Sabra stepped into the light, and introduced herself perfunctorily, pointing at herself when she said her name. He saw her and closed his eyes, and said something in an old language.
She dredged the grammar from her memories, and introduced herself again.
“My name is Sabra,” she said. “I’m a linguist. We came on the interstellar vehicle Parandé.” Then added: “What is your name?”
He wore an uncomfortable expression.
“From where?,” he asked.
“From Ctesiphon,” she replied. “Beta Pictoris.”
He considered this.
“There, men are like gods,” he said.
Timon stood outside the room, listening to an expert system translate, and thought: sad, farcical, epigonic gods.
“My name is Tiet,” he said quietly.
He sat up, and looked directly at one of the lamps for some time, and closed his eyes.
“Am I alive?,” he asked. “Am I still made of flesh?”
He opened his eyes and looked at her.
“Yes,” she answer hurriedly. “We didn’t change anything. The sarcophagus—,” she pointed at it, “—turned back time.”
After he said nothing, she asked:
“Did you come here on the J. B. S. Haldane? From Luhman 16?”
“I have no idea what you are talking about.”
Parandé whispered to Sabra over the radio: “Don’t say anything unnecessary.”
“I was a historian on the Futurological Congress,” he added. “We came from Ararat.”
“How long have you been here?”
He was looking down at his arms, running a finger tenderly over the skin of his left forearm, and said under his breath:
“Indeed like gods.”
Half-formed tears sat on his eyelids. He turned to her and said in a low voice:
“A long time.”
“There is a wreck in another orbit, around the planet. The nameplate says J. B. S. Haldane. There are human bodies there.”
“There are a lot of things in orbit,” he said. “We were in too serious an emergency to make a thorough search.”
“An accident,” he said. “How else do people die nowadays? Stupidly.”
At this, his expression changed, and he continued impassively:
“Four of us went in here. The others landed the Congress on the planet below.”
“Land?,” Timon whispered to Sabra over the radio. “An interstellar vehicle?”
Elsewhere, Parandé began scouring their photographs of the planet surface.
“We never heard from them again.”
“Did you blow the crater?,” she asked. “The crater on the torus surface?”
He looked up at her.
“We came in through the crater. That was already there.”
Parandé spoke in her head:
“Found it. It broke up, near the remains of the orbital ring. Human bodies under a lean-to. I can see them on SAR.”
“There were, in the passage outside—”
“They died,” he said, matter-of-factly, “over the years, when the life support was too aged.”
She said nothing.
“We heard a voice in the walls, in the first year,” Tiet said. “It tried to speak twice.”