A glider made of ceramic touched down on a thin arc of sand. The island was the sole landmass on the empty northern hemisphere, a submerged mountain with an aspen forest at its apex. No-one saw them arrive.
Sabra walked out, followed by Timon, who had a dewar strapped to the rack on his back. The cold wind raced perpetually over the sea and buffeted the island, throwing sand in their faces.
There was little daylight left, and the forest was dark.
They walked cautiously between the white-trunked trees, Sabra leading the way. Through gaps in the orange leaves they saw the Epiphany, a fixed star sitting in geostationary orbit. They followed the directions from the ship to find the pit.
In a small clearing between the forest and the rocky shore, coarse bricks formed concentric square steps. Three steps led down to a bottomless pit. The water was black, and the sun had almost set.
“Is he warm?” she asked.
“Two fifty Kelvin”, Timon replied.
Sabra opened the dewar, a small amount of liquid nitrogen spilling onto the grass below. She pulled out the skeletal frame that held Tiet’s stiff body. Carefully, she unwrapped the metal cloth that covered him.
Tiet’s mouth was open, and his jaw tilted, so that he appeared to be moaning in pain. His tongue had shrunk during the freezing, a wireless thermometer was stuck to it. His eyes were covered with thick, broad circles of gauze.
The cold had shrunk the contours of the wound on his left temple. She took the body, and set it down on the edge of the pool. The bricks were wet. They had discussed this process at length, but still she turned to Timon, who said nothing.
She grabbed the back of his neck, and lifted him, and let him down gently, head first, into the pool. And Tiet’s body disappeared into the dark.
The sun set under the ocean. The starlifting tracks became visible against the dark sky.
The structure around Sadalmelik was a cloud of countless satellites, each of which was an immense computer. In concert, they made a single mind.
The scholarly-minded would have called it an ISO, an intelligent super-object, on account of its great size. Much of the educated universe followed this convention. The scapers, who had a Latin binomial for everything, would call it a model organism of Machina epiphanes, the genus of the most rarefied of posthuman minds. Others called them gods; the usage of this word spanned the range from the facetious and ironic to the fatally earnest.
After the satellites, the star was surrounded by a rat’s nest of starlifting tracks. The tracks were elliptical, and immensely eccentric: one lobe sat inside the star, the other almost two astronomical units away. Machines raced down the endless track, grazed the star, and carried a fraction of it away, in preparation for the long night. In time the star would be gone, its mass trapped in microkelvin snowballs in the dark. And after every other star had gone out, the Maker would continue to ponder, living off their primordial hydrogen from the time when the universe was young.
Machines, small and crab-like, woke and jumped from the walls of the pit towards Tiet’s body. They sat on the contours of his body, and briefly it looked as if it was in the middle stage of decomposition, his skin overrun with hairy growths of mold. The machines arrested Tiet’s fall. They modulated the flow of heat from the water to his body, warming him more slowly.
They peeled his skin, layer by layer, and dismantled his organs. They bit through his skull. Then the encephalon was exposed.
His body was pulled apart. Every cell in every organ was opened, their contents inspected and recorded. Cell nuclei and vacuoles were forced open, loose strands of RNA were scanned, their nucleobases and methylation states recorded and sent, on immaterial radio waves, to the mind of the Maker, sitting silently around the star.
Tiet’s remains occupied a volume of fifty cubic meters when the process was complete. Then the machines let go, and his pulverized remains fell like marine snow and settled at the bottom of the pit.
Sabra and Timon waited around the pit for the first night. The starlifting tracks transected the sky and divided it like the lead cames in a stained glass window. When the sun rose again, they went to the glider and pitched a tent on the beach, above the tide line.
The tent was white canvas, and fluttered in the constant wind. Inside, a small analytical chemistry laboratory occupied a long and narrow table. Timon slept on an old Persian carpet. Sabra slept in a thin bag of mylar. An empty cot sat in a corner.
Sabra and Tiet had broadly human bodies: an information age anatomist would have called them human. Timon had a human mind, but his body was quadrupedal, a panther-like thing cast from exotic allotropes of carbon, a Babbage engine for a soul.
Timon explored the area around the beach. He pawed at the sand on the shore, and thought he heard a voice in the woods behind him.
The sand on the beach was an agglomerate of diatom-like structures, the remains of countless micromachines that had assisted the Maker in completing the abortive terraforming of Terre Haute.
Sadalmelik was a young star, and Terre Haute’s crust was shot through with Uranium. At night, the sand fluoresced.
When Tiet had died, they had debated what to do.
The crew had sat around a circular table. Timon, restless, paced wide circles around them.
“We should go back to Ctesiphon”, he had said, walking behind Sabra. A phalanx of surgeons, he explained, would be available to dissect Tiet’s brain and rescue what they could.
Sabra countered that by the time they returned, millennia would have elapsed, and Ctesiphon might not exist anymore.
She had her hands on the table, and was looking down at the intricately carved wood. The wood had come from a world called Tierra del Fuego: from a tree by the side of a river, where wild horses drank, where thunderclouds descended from the mountains. A settlement had been buried nearby. The people there had lived like Scythians.
She thought of the incomprehensible distance that separated them from that world, while running her fingers over the age-dried wood. Millennia had elapsed.
We, too, have lived like Scythians, she thought.
And she remembered something she’d heard from the treasure:
“On Sadalmelik there lives a god”, she said. “The locals call it the Maker of Rivers.”
It had been observed, she explained, to resuscitate the dead.
They went down to the treasure room to confirm her claims. A river of stars, conjured by the treasure, floated among them. And elegant white serifs clung to a small point of light:
Sadalmelik (Alpha Aquarii)
ISO «Maker of Rivers»
And the treasure said that around the star Sadalmelik was a planet called Terre Haute. That it had been settled by a group of fleers who burned their ships on arrival, that they had partially terraformed it, and lived there for some centuries, and abruptly evacuated the system after the Maker emerged. The evacuation had taken place fifteen hundred years prior. In the intervening years, the Maker had grown to an ISO that enclosed the entire star, and had begun to mine it for fusion fuel. There were reports, third-hand and insubstantial, of visits to the star by toposophists and grave-robbers and claims that the otherwise taciturn Maker had intervened in human affairs. The last report was nine centuries old: it said the Maker had fixed a woman who had drowned.
It said little else. The origin of the Maker was unexplained. Nobody knew if the Maker had been human.
Timon cautioned against it:
“We’ve spent millennia robbing the graves of the gods. And now we’re petitioning a living one. It’ll destroy us”, he said. “We’ll be lucky if it destroys us. It will disfigure our souls.”
“The Maker must have been human once”, Sabra countered. “They know what is it to die. They must have died countless times to become the Maker.”
“The Maker might be benevolent,” Timon explained, “or it might be malevolent. Or some linear combination of the two. Or, more probably, it is so distant from us that neither concept is useful. When it cracks open Tiet’s mind, if it doesn’t like what it sees, it could swat us out of the sky. The Epiphany would cleave like air to a wing.”
They knew that he was right. The Epiphany was a travelling glacier, invulnerable. But the Maker’s body encased an entire star: the Maker could grind them to dust without them even entering the Cartesian theatre of its mind.
No-one spoke. He continued:
“In Ctesiphon I met a man who tried to commune with the wrong god. What was left of him was indescribable.” he said, and, after a pause: “An army of surgeons couldn’t…”
Then he thought of Tiet.
The living outnumbered the dead in countless multitudes. Most who lived had never known someone who had died. But Tiet was dead. He had refused, steadfastly, across the millennia, to be uploaded. He refused precisely because he could die, because if he were digital, his soul could be copied and stolen. And he had seen what horrors stolen souls could be subject to.
Bone and ceramic tore through his brains and he was gone. Gone, and out of reach of anyone who might steal his soul. His body sat, still as glass, in a dark urn, half-filled with liquid nitrogen. The dewar vented to the air: Timon topped him up every week. Time passed, but not for Tiet.
They preserved his body because they hoped that not all of his was gone: that a civilization, a team of surgeons, or an intellect vaster than theirs could pull apart the ground-up flesh and the bone and the blood vessels and make time turn back, and rescue the fine tracery of his soul.
Both had seen it done: dead souls can live again.
They agreed to petition the Maker.
This is the noocene: 1030 immortal souls scattered over a billion stars, across a disk eight thousand light years in diameter. And a pantheon of some seven hundred gods, who have changed the face of nature. Most leave them a wide berth: the stars around Sadalmelik are not settled.
And when gods die, grave-robbers flock to them and dig a quarry out of their bodies. This is the crew of the Epiphany: explorers who sift through the middens of collapsed civilizations and rob the graves of the gods, searching for beautiful things. This is the Epiphany: a treasure ship, laden to the gunwales with precious things from every world and every age, and the burial hoards of the gods.
The Epiphany arrived at Sadalmelik and slowed to seven hundred kilometers per second. The cat’s cradle of starlifting tracks the Maker had stretched around the star grew daily. The system had been stripped of anything larger than a fist: every atom had been recycled to build the Maker’s body, but for Terre Haute, a blue gem transected by white streaks of water vapour.
Soon their every action became subject to an infinite debate: what will the Maker think of this? Will it perceive a harmless action as a threat? Those debates ended always with a general admission of defeat: that they knew nothing about the psychology of the Maker, and could know very little of the comparative psychology of posthuman minds.
Timon suggested they illuminate the planet with RADAR. Everyone else agreed that this was far too dangerous: that the Maker might interpret it as hostile action, even as an attempt to interfere with the feeble radio links that connected the machines inside Terre Haute—unseen, the Maker’s agents on the planet—to the main Dyson swarm around the star.
Alone, Timon paced his room. The gods are made of atoms, he told himself. They are not gods, but Titans. They are machines, machines, machines. Like us.
They entered a polar orbit around Terre Haute, and imaged the surface with their telescopes: vast expanses of wild sea, austral taiga, forests of spruce and birch. Mountain ranges dominated the three continents of the southern hemisphere. And the half-buried ruins of a radial city at the head of a bay. And huge mirrors necklaced the planet in quiet orbits, warming the water just above freezing. And then they saw the pit.
Said the treasure: “Petitions are made here.”
They rose with the sun, and spent the days at the pit and the nights in the tent.
Sabra feared the Maker hadn’t noticed them, that Tiet’s body was rotting at the bottom of the pit, and all hope was lost. Timon’s fears were different: he feared the Maker would revive Tiet, but only as a farcical caricature, to humiliate them. Or that the Maker would leave something crucial out, and the Tiet that was returned to them would be a stranger. Or that the Maker would revive Tiet and kill him, and revive him again, to torture them.
During the sixth night Sabra dreamt of unwrapping Tiet’s body. The open mouth, the tilted jaw, the expression of agony, the cold-shrunken tongue were as she remembered them. On the tongue, where the thermometer probe had been, was a coin made of tin, an image of the starlifting tracks around the star carved on its surface. She dreamt of Ctesiphon, too, and for the first time in her life, a homesickness born of fear took root in her mind.
Timon dreamt, too. His dream was an oil painting of coarse brushstrokes and a thick impasto, all shades of grey. And Tiet stood at the edge of the forest, arms by his side, legs close together, as still and narrow as the serried tree trunks behind him. He had no face.
Sabra woke up in the night. Stepping outside, the light from the tent’s opening illuminated a nightingale, singing on the branch of an aspen tree. She realized then that she had not heard any sound other then the sea and the wind since their arrival. There were no animals on the island.
The nightingale stopped singing and turned to her. It laughed like a human and flew away.
She wondered if she had dreamt it. She took a few halting steps out of the tent, then ran through the forest path to the pit. Timon, who’d seen her walk out, followed at a distance.
There was no moon around Terre Haute. Faint light reflected from a train of hydrogen tankers, flung from the starlifting tracks towards gas giant planets still under construction. One of the immense mirrors sat in space, edge on from her vantage point, a black line through the black of sky. Sabra ran in the dark, blind, jumping at unseen obstacles, and stopped at the forest clearing where the pit had been.
There was something else where the pit had been, barely visible in the light.
Then one of the mirrors in space turned and caught the sun, the ocean was lit by the yellow light of dawn, the sky turned pink and a curtain of blue light rose from the horizon, bright blue light chasing the darkness towards the zenith. In a few seconds it was as if noon, and the sun, reflected, was warm on her skin.
And Tiet lay in the middle of the clearing, surrounded by a labyrinth of flowers. From her angle she saw the soles of booted feet, but she knew they were his.
And the blood went cold in her veins.
Slowly, with terror, she walked across rows of pink flowers, laid down on the grass with a geometer’s precision. Frost crunched under her feet. She knelt besides Tiet. His eyes were closed.
The injury that had killed him was gone: the hole in the skull was absent, the coarse-cut flaps of skin were bound together, and no scar could report an injury.
His head was crowned by a wreath cast from gold, intricately moulded twigs and leaves. The sunlight reflected on the wreath and on his skin, and on beads of water on his face. A small pool of crystalline, almost white water had settled on his jugular notch.
Timon arrived soon after. He froze and said nothing.
She turned to him and mouthed:
She reached under Tiet’s shoulders and legs, and lifted him up. Then the mirror turned and the light went off.
They carried Tiet back to the tent, put him on the open cot and wrapped him with a grey blanket. He was unconscious for four hours. In the meantime, they discussed the news with the rest of the crew on the Epiphany.
When Tiet woke, the first thing he saw until his eyes focused was the black blur that was Timon, staring back at him, four eyes made of gems, still as stone.
“Timon”, he said, in a quiet voice, and reached out his hand from under the blanket. He caressed Timon on the area that might, by analogy, be described as the bridge of his nose. “My friend Timon”.
“I thought you were dead”, was Timon’s reply, and his voice broke on the last word. “Do you know what has happened?”
Tiet paused and his smile disappeared, as though he’d remembered something. He explained he wished to sleep again. Timon did not press him, and left the tent.
The Epiphany fell through space for decades before arriving at Sadalmelik. With no star to light the golden hull, the ship was a bayonet-shaped black silhouette. They spent most of their time asleep, waking for a week every few years to ensure everything was in working order.
Timon became withdrawn, and spent long hours in the treasure room, where Tiet had worked. He sat on the glass floor, listening intently as the treasure told him of distant places and times past.
The ship was a burial palace larger than that of any pharaoh: a tower of ice and diamond, with a man entombed at its center. Sabra thought the ship itself was infused with a sinister appearance: the corridors were longer, lonelier, darker, the stars outside dimmer.
The treasure room was colder, the stories the treasure told were deader, less coherent. Lies and rumour grew like weeds on the treasure’s files. Without the gardener’s touch, the garden began to die.
Tiet slept in the tent. Timon and Sabra were outside, speaking. The wind afforded them privacy.
“I took a sample of his saliva, and put it in the mass spectrometer”, Timon said. “Every carbon atom is carbon-12. Every nitrogen atom is nitrogen-14. There is not a single isotope other than the most stable. The same is true of his hair, of his skin.”
After a while, Sabra replied:
“The artist’s signature.”
“The Maker took him apart”, Timon said, “and built him again, one atom at a time.” For the first time in years, she thought she heard fear in his machine voice.
And she thought of something Tiet had read to her, in the treasure room: because thou art dust, and to dust shalt thou return.
“And from dust thou shalt return”, she said to the wind.
She wondered what motivated the choice of isotopes: the Maker must have known that they would notice such an obvious yet subtle change. She thought this was the Maker laughing at them. Or it was the Maker showing off; that he had not just repaired Tiet, sown him back together, but took him apart, his every cell and atom, and reassembled him as he was. Or, simply, the Maker’s stores of atoms were sorted for purity, and Tiet’s assembly from stable isotopes meant nothing, a detail of the Maker’s machinery.
Many had erred by imputing vain, human motives on the actions of posthumans. Thinking about their motives and goals was pointless: the Maker might not have a subjective concept of purposeful action, they may act on a kind of superhuman instinct at all times, they may have goals and actions that were beyond Sabra and Timon’s ability to guess at.
“If Tiet was rebuilt, then he must have been scanned down to the atoms. There is a copy of Tiet in the Maker”, Timon said.
Sabra did not reply. If the Maker had taken a copy of Tiet’s, they would not know it, and there was nothing they could do about it. What purpose—if, again, the Maker had a concept of purposeful action—those copies would be put to was pure guesswork. She hoped that, if the Maker had returned Tiet intact, that it would not keep a copy of him in a personal oubliette.
The sun set and Tiet woke, and got up from the cot. He met Sabra and they hugged.
Timon gathered driftwood and started a bonfire on the beach. Sabra smiled and thought it was strangely comic for someone who was so distant from humanity—Timon, whose body wasn’t human—to engage in such quintessentially human behaviour as lighting a fire before a shelter.
They sat around the bonfire, on stones that Timon had dragged: Tiet facing the sea, Sabra across from him and facing the forest. Timon laid down on the sand, his face pointed at the fire, looking intently at the flames. The wind was slowing.
Sabra asked what it was like.
“I woke in a dream room”, Tiet said. “I was on a bed of pebbles, surrounded by water. The sun revolved around me, clockwise, and oscillated up and down the sky like in the polar regions. There were pillars arranged in a square around me—I couldn’t judge their size or distance. They cast revolving shadows on the water.
“I remember perceiving all of these things. But I don’t remember when I saw what. And I think this is the Maker’s intention: he could have ordered my memories, but he wanted me to feel as thought these percepts had been broadsided into my mind at once.
“I saw or remembered what happened. I saw the Epiphany arrive from the stars, second by second, from the Maker’s eyes. I saw the glider touch down from the center of the world, as though the sand was made of glass. I saw you from below” – he turned to Sabra – “holding my body, as if my eyes had been the waters of the pit.
“I remember closing my eyes. Then I saw the Maker.”
A log cracked in the bonfire.
“I saw the face of a wolf, surrounded by a halo of Dyson spheres.”
An unpleasant sensation grew in Sabra’s throat. Tiet looked directly at the fire, and his face was clad in carnelian. The sound of the fire, the wind, the sea disappeared. All she saw was Tiet’s face in the void, and the flames danced on his face.
“His voice was the calving of glaciers. And he said: live again.”
At this, Sabra closed her eyes and felt warmth welling up under them. She looked down and opened her eyes, and her vision was blurry, and her eyes burned. Twin tears fell on the sand, and disappeared.
Timon remained still, as though he did not hear.
When she lifted her gaze, she saw Tiet looking past her shoulder into the ocean. And he wore an expression of terror.
Tiet stood, his eyes fixed behind her. She turned to look at the ocean. Timon, too, stood and turned to look.
The water lapped gently at the shore. The bonfire turned the waves the colour of wine. She thought then that Homer must have sung the Iliad around such a fire, around such a sea.
Beyond the water there was a wall of stars. And nothing else.
“What is it?”, Timon asked.
Tiet sat back down on the stone, looked down at the fire, and rubbed his hands together. The other two looked at him. He wore a complicated expression.
“Nothing”, he said.
Timon laid down on the sand again. Sabra half-turned to look at the ocean again, and stopped herself.
Timon lazily turned his head to face Tiet.
“Why is he called the Maker of Rivers?”
“The rivers, like the neurons. A river delta”, Tiet said, quietly. “Maker, because he built his soul by hand.”
Embers rose in the endless night. In the forest, a nightingale began to sing.
Tiet was the first to go back to the tent. Timon stood and began pawing sand on the fire. The wind picked up again.
Sabra was very still, until she finally spoke:
“When I went to the pit”, she said, “one of the mirrors caught the sun, and lit up the forest. Like a spotlight, as though the Maker were presenting us with a gift.”
Timon said nothing.
“But the mirrors move in precise orbits, like clockwork, not on their own power. How did the Maker know I would be there, at that precise moment?”
Timon gave a perfunctory answer:
“We ignore these things to protect ourselves”, he said.
She could tell that he, too, was terrified.
The fire died and they returned to the tent.
Early in the morning of the next day, they agreed to leave. They dismantled the tent, and put their equipment in its boxes. Sabra took a brief walk through the forest, then returned to shore. Tiet stood on the deck of the glider, picking the boxes Timon lifted up and lowering them into the hold. And she froze: from her vantage point, Tiet stood directly in front of the glider’s sole propfan, his head ringed by the thin halo of the engine inlet. Briefly. And then he squatted to pick up another box.
Sitting in the glider, flying over the endless blue of the ocean, she held the gold wreath in her hands, careful not to bend the delicate leaves. The wreath: to the victor who had conquered death, who had swam back to shore from the abyss. She turned it in her hands, thumbing the leaves as if they were prayer beads, and counted one hundred and nine leaves.
Timon was silent. Tiet was silent.
The glider soared until the air was a thin whisper, where a cable from the ship picked them up and reeled them in.
The Epiphany flew away, and for many nights the actinic light from its exhaust illuminated the forest and the island far below them. Days passed and the exhaust faded and the Epiphany was gone.
Orion’s Arm is the biggest single influence on my view of the future. Some of the terminology – ISO, toposophy – is from OA. The work of David Zindell, which itself inspired OA, set the standard for transhumanist fiction. The names of Tiet and Timon are from The Planck Dive by Greg Egan. They are not semantically meaningful: I like the way they sound.
© 2021 Fernando Borretti. Released under the CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license.