by J. Edward Tremlett
Self. Then Not-Self. Then Unity.
Explorer stabilized, momentarily bewildered. Downloading into alien structures was always strange, but this structure was stranger than most.
This star-sized resting place of the Samantabhadra, may it be remembered…
“Status?” Commander communicated.
“Here,” they replied. “Scanning.”
Explorer “looked” – sending electric feelers along circuits. Nothing made immediate sense, but the Endymion hadn’t encountered anything for over 25 ship-years; they were out of practice.
“A cube” they replied. “50.5 kilometers a side.”
“Movement?” Explorer guessed. “Electro-kinetic systems. No memory.”
“Unknown. No visual sensors-”
“Swiftness!” Commander demanded. “Endymion is endangered.”
“Understood,” they said, having no desire to tarry. As intriguing as a Dyson Sphere the size of a red giant was, it had killed the Samantabhadra.
And there was a chance Poet was right…
Endymion was 54.7 ship-years into the mission when they found traces of the Samantabhadra – lost over 4000 real-time years ago.
Tracking took precedence. The Samantabhadra was a deep-freeze scanning vessel, launched aeons before the Uploading Doctrine. As the Endymion was already bringing news of that Doctrine to humanity’s furthest outreaches, the Ministers of Terra-Nova would deem Saving those lost souls worthy of course deviation.
Subsequently they detoured 25.3 ship-years to this curious system, lit only by other stars. At its center sat a metallic, super-dense sphere 22 million miles in diameter, with gravity so intense the Endymion could barely resist.
Samantabhadra lay smashed across its surface, wreckage resting in a curious dispersal pattern. No systems remained intact, which meant the crew was sadly beyond Saving. But they transmitted Explorer below the surface, hoping to claim understanding as victory.
The dead deserved that, at least.
Self. Not-Self. Unity. Explorer was elsewhere, and whole once more.
They sent out traces, once more. But this cube was the same as the ten they’d already entered.
Maddening! They’d interfaced with numerous systems – human and alien – but never had this much trouble. They should have found a memory-core before now, or at least visual inputs…
Electricity. Movement. A spasm in the electro-kinetics.
Explorer halted. Did they do that?
The cube kept moving. Explorer could sense the electricity was being sent from a central node, somewhere. At last-
“Widespread surface movement!” Scanners interrupted. “Tectonic instability!”
An image beamed into Explorer – squares of surface sliding along latitude and longitude like a sun-sized puzzle box. They now understood why the Samantabhadra’s wreck lay as it did, and might have said so, except they realized something else was here – another presence, flitting past.
And they realized Poet had been right…
Within Endymion the crew had congregated – twenty Uploaded soul-clusters, come from all areas of the drive-shell to float about Commander, who towered over all.
“Before us, Samantabhadra lies,” Poet intoned. “After aeons untold, we see with our eyes / Broken yet proud, even in demise…”
The others applauded – especially Engineering, who’d been Joining with Poet lately. Explorer wished both luck: having Joined with each, they knew one’s pretention would soon clash with the other’s need for structure.
Joining provided both much-needed pleasure and diversion. They’d spent 400 real-years seeking lost colonies to inform them of the Fleshcrime codes, and prepare them for eventual Saving. Even with time-perception slowed down to a fifth the journey became tedious.
So when habitat creation grew stale, and the universe’s wonders failed to impress, exploring each other became a new frontier. Sadly, mingling with another to find yourself was only satisfying for so long. Unknown became known, which theoretically became satisfaction but usually led to boredom – especially for Explorer.
Still, they tried, hoping each time would be the promised Forever-Kiss. They’d thought Poet deep enough, but had ultimately been disappointed.
“Anomaly,” Commander stated, enlarging the Samantabhadra’s image. “Wreckage in two sections, 5.784 million miles apart.”
“And not keeping with the crash’s trajectory,” Observation calculated.
“It couldn’t have skipped,” Engineer insisted. “Not with that gravity. What’s causing it?”
“Unknown,” Scanners replied. “It seems like a Dyson Sphere, but there’s no energy output.”
“Its star is dead,” Astrometrics pronounced.
“No,” Poet said. “Not dead. Not completely.”
“I’m registering nothing, Poet,” Scanners repeated.
“Can’t you feel it?” Poet pleaded, looking to the others. “Something is alive, down there. Look!”
The others said nothing, used to Poet’s irrationality. But Explorer wondered…
Explorer leaped after the presence. It remained one step ahead, as if fleeing.
Who could blame it? Explorer was just an alien virus, like the ones Endymion encountered, now and again…
“Danger!” Astrometrics shouted. “Detecting massive gravity distortions! ”
“They’re radiating from the sphere!” Scanners added. “What did you do, Explorer?”
Explorer halted pursuit. “I don’t know. I feel nothing different-“
“If space gets distorted near us the bias drive will be inoperable!” Engineer shouted.
“Withdraw!” Commander declared. “Explorer, transmit!
Explorer sighed – so close to solving this mystery! Still, duty called.
But then something approached, surfacing as through from water. It was the presence they’d been chasing – full and golden, old and wise.
And so very deep.
“Hello,” Explorer stammered. “Who are you?”
Information was their reply: hundreds of nesting spheres, encircling a bright, beautiful star; massive plates on each sphere, moving to create highly complex orbital shift computations; gravitic engines powerful enough to perform them, however distant those star systems…
“You’re the machine,” Explorer realized. “What happened?”
More information: Samantabhadra, unable to escape the gravity; a crash, damaging the surface in mid-calculation; a shockwave, knocking the machine unconscious.
Then, 4000 years later, another presence, entering…
“That’s me,” Explorer replied. “I restarted things?”
“Glad I could help.”
“I think we’re similar…”
“Yes,” Explorer agreed.
Explorer nervously reached out their tendrils. The presence invited them in.
“Transmit!” Commander shouted. “Explorer, transmit!”
Explorer didn’t answer, lost in a perfect kiss.
The new world moved on, beneath.
Endymion survived, if barely. It retreated far enough to watch for a time as the great machine’s surface spun to life for the first time in thousands of years. Then they left a marker buoy, and departed back along their previous course.
Commander was nothing but pragmatic, counterbalancing Explorer’s tragic loss with solving the mystery of the Samantabhadra, confirming the existence of a hitherto-theoretical Matrioshka Brain, and discovering a serious navigational hazard. Poet used the imposed three-day mourning period to compose a master-work memorializing Explorer, but did so somehow knowing their former lover wasn’t dead – merely missing.
And not “missing,” really, but found.
Hopefully forever, this time.
J. Edward Tremlett (AKA “the Lurker in Lansing”) has had some interesting times. He’s been featured in the anthologies “Spring Forward Fall Back,” “Upon a Thrice Time,” and “Ride the Star Wind,” as well as the magazines Bleed Error, Underbelly, and The End is Nigh. He was webmaster of The Wraith Project and has numerous credits at Pyramid Magazine. A former guest of Dubai and South Korea, he currently resides in Lansing, Michigan, USA, with several feline ghosts and enough Lego bricks to assemble a Great Old One. Hopefully it will not come to that…
If we transcend the flesh to become pure information, and sex then becomes the joining of two information clouds — letting down all barriers and eventually revealing all that lies within — then what mystery is left between two or more individuals? How long before total familiarity breeds boredom? And what would a truly restless soul do to find a nearly-endless source of mystery? All that and a matrioshka brain is what drives this story.