by Arturo Sierra
It is a well understood fact of galactic sociology that any civilization with the resources, know-how, and time to build a ringworld has no need to do so. Consequently, those that embark upon this kind of colossal engineering are considered eccentric. Other, saner civilizations do well by evading the freaks and coming up with unexpected reasons for a tour of the Magellanic clouds. Any excuse to avoid contact with the weirdos.
The best that can be said for megastructures is that they serve as great tourist attractions, once the builders vanish into oblivion, as inevitably happens; well worth the centuries of interstellar travel it takes to visit the sites. For some can be found here and there, however frowned upon they might be: Dyson spheres, matrioshka brains, Shkadov thrusters, and, of course, ringworlds. Strewn at random across the Galaxy, they are most often abandoned, crumbling ruins, the surrounding debris all that remains of the foolhardy engineers. It’s just that, as galactic years go by, and then the galactic centuries, ennui starts to seep into even the most sensible of cultures. It becomes the driving force in a society that has moved post-scarcity and then post that, too. Some civilizations find themselves with little argument to avoid eccentricity and come up with radical purpose.
Such is the case of the Milotans, in the Perseus arm of the Milky Way. Traditionally thought to be a dignified species by other galactic powers, nobody foresaw them suddenly deciding to dismantle planets and rearrange them in a neat circle around their star. The first time anyone heard of this insanity outside the Commonwealth was when President of Presidents Ölóssa gave a speech to officially kickstart the great work. Though most Commonwealth citizens considered it a rousing declaration, a sphere of extra-empty space, a dozen parsecs in diameter, quietly formed around ground zero as other civilizations cringed away.
Seen from very far away by someone with the eyes of a cosmic eagle, the construction process would have appeared like a swirl in a sink, only the sink was scaled to stellar proportions for the use of some obscure sort of god. Glittering drones moved in a carefully choreographed dance to place beams of hyper-rigid material in the correct orbits. Five gas giants were vacuumed, for lack of a better word, producing brightly colored hurricanes and eddies, storms illuminated from within by lightning as they disappeared into electromagnetic suction hoses. Gigatons of gas were slurped up to moon-sized factories, where matter was syphoned to make degenerate-nuclei materials. But all in all, construction of the Milotan ringworld went forth without drama—indeed, by some standards it was a subdued affair. No civil wars erupted, no crime-adjacent contractors skimmed off the top with catastrophic results, no armadas of doom were sent to exterminate neighboring primitives and steal their resources. The most exciting thing that happened during this time was President Ölóssa calling a press conference, at which event, in front of cameras and flashes, some words were written in a notebook using ink and pen, to the public’s astonishment. It was to be the opening paragraph in a book intended to keep a record of the adventure.
This book deserves special attention. It had no digital input or storage; instead, it was made to write in longhand over creamy white pages. Writing with such instruments was a daunting task, since no Milotan had done so since time immemorial and the art had to be reinvented. The paper was so thin, the billion sheets made for a tome no larger than your standard grimoire, but they were sturdier than diamond. It would be passed from generation to generation, from father to daughter and mother to son, as explained by President Ölóssa to a delighted press core. Every event of the magnificent journey would be recorded for the benefit of posterity.
Once the ring was completed, the whole enterprise took a turn for the bizarre, or rather—depending on who you asked—for the far past bizarre and into dangerous, potentially contagious insanity. Every Milotan in existence gathered at a designated place, somewhere on the inner side of the ring. The billions crowded shoulder to shoulder, all of them looking in the same direction and united in purpose as no other people since. Across the circumference, they had built a monumental arch as a sort of start and finish line, and, on sounding of a kilometer-wide gong, every single member of the civilization started going under it with cheers and huzzahs. They had the firm intention of walking all the way round the ring, as if every individual shared in a single, collective will.
The megastructure was designed to be a challenge. The first couple centuries of the march, they went through a scorching dessert with no food and little water. After that came the gloomy rainforest of Ifny, plagued with genetically engineered tigers and mosquitoes the size of trucks. Historians estimate the civilization was reduced to a quarter of its original size by the time it emerged from the jungle.
The challenges did not end there. Going through the Labyrinth of Mist was particularly tough, as social cohesion vanished almost entirely amid hallucinations induced by an omnipresent fog, which seemed sometimes possessed of its own, perverse kind of life. A generation was born and died at sea while crossing the Bulian Ocean in wooden sail-ships. The ring’s spin caused kilometer-high waves, children learned to climb masts before walking, and krakens were trained as work beasts. When the shout came of land ahoy, most people didn’t understand what their eyes reported.
The continent of Julisk was divided spinward by a mountain chain, its peaks so high they pierced out of the world’s atmosphere. Eternal storms spun in a vortex around the tops due to friction with the air. The Milotans were presented with a choice to go left or right of the mountains, having no clue as to which path was the right one. History fails to mention what they decided, all that’s known is that, after two centuries of march, the wanderers found themselves at a dead end and had to turn around. On their backtrack, they encountered settlements, cities, nations, and empires founded by those who had quit the journey, all memory of their transcendent goal lost to them. Wars had to be fought in order to gain passage through the barbarian kingdoms.
Testimonies survive of the families tasked with chronicling the march: the Holy Tome of Records was passed on faithfully, as the builders intended. Each keeper wrote with a distinctive hand, most often scribbling such tiny letters they had to be read with a magnifying glass. They documented lore in ever-varying languages, in verse and prose, in matter of fact, succinct lines or haughty sermons. Mishaps and heroes were recounted, wonders and terrors.
Elnee Lyvaya wrote of the visions she received from the ancestral spirits. Unknowingly, the prophetess was channeling taped messages she got from brainwave transmitters, antennae disguised as trees. The President of Presidents, who had been dead for millennia, appeared in her dreams and urged Elnee to galvanize the people, to rekindle the purpose of the march when it seemed almost forgot. Taïgi Son of Taïgi set down the Epic of the Fallen Mirror, a (very liberal-with-the-actual-facts) telling of events following the crash of a shade-sheet, one of many orbiting the star in order to produce an artificial day-and-night cycle with their shadow. Ringquakes brought down mountains as the mirror collided with the structure and the sun shone for so long that the very stones caught on fire. Eventually, days were restored by the automation the Builders had left behind for just such an emergency, but calamity had already reduced the number of wanderers to a mere few thousand strong. The population recovered slowly, every precious child learning the Epic by heart to commemorate the fallen.
As blood lines ended, monsters ate lore keepers, and generations embraced illiteracy while method-acting horseback nomadism, the chronicles were forgotten. As centuries climbed back the ladder of cultural self-awareness, the Tome was found in old trunks, or in the treasure hoard carried on the backs of a warlord’s slaves, or in possession of raving madmen. It was read, and people marveled at their own history. At different times, funny hats were forced over the heads of keepers and religion sprung around them like fungus, often involving wanton human sacrifice. At other times, masters of lore were branded agitators, imprisoned, and scorned. This usually happened when a majority of Milotans wanted to take a breather and settle some cities, but keepers wouldn’t shut up about the march and refused to stop urging the host forward.
It is thought that the so-called Terrible Misplacement happened while crossing the infernal plains of Tromarga, covered in ash by a thousand volcanoes and populated by necromancers of unfathomable maleficence. The necromancers were actually robots, their undead minions simply corpses animated with help of some cybernetic tricks, but by this point high-concept technology might as well have been wizardry, for what most Milotans knew. After defeating a particularly nasty lich in a bloody, final-stand battle against the forces of darkness, it happened that the last of the lore masters noticed she didn’t have the Holy Tome of Records on her. Years were spent searching for it among the black stones of the plain, in towers of sorcery surrounded by sickly, green glows, in deep lakes of light-swallowing water. They looked in ominous libraries left by the Builders and kept by weird, ten-legged creatures that collected books like magpies gather trinkets. They scoured the earth in desperation. But the Story of Stories, the account of hard-earned wisdom, the Book with all the Ring’s Marvels was never found. Other than face-palming, there was nothing to be done.
Total duration of the march has been estimated at sixty thousand of our years, but the day came when the old arch appeared on the upwards-curving horizon. A shockwave of awe passed through every Milotan bone, sprung from the deepest recesses of genetic memory. Those who were not there could never understand the emotions that flowed like a jet stream of super-heated plasma out of a million throats that day.
It would be a descendant of that last record keeper who was to become the first, the one to pass under the arch before any other. He was also, in point of fact, a descendant of President of Presidents Ölóssa, though it should be noted that, owing to a universal quirk of population growth, at this time all surviving Millotans were Ölóssa’s descendants, too. In any case, forever after the crossing he would be known as the Very First, the Finisher, the Eternal Walker, and several other such pompous monickers. Even those civilizations which recoiled from the ringworld’s folly, all those millennia ago, heard of the Very First and spoke of the triumph with reverence, if somewhat embarrassed to discuss such matters aloud.
The Eternal Walker was a fervent believer in the higher calling of his culture, a philosopher, a poet warrior, a Hero of the Purpose. His Letters to the Wider Galaxy on the Gist of it All are studied across alien cultures, held as a fine example of the dangers and silliness that come with thinking too hard about the meaning of life. On the other hand, the Unauthorized Biography, by an anonymous chronicler, is considered by learned critics a masterful portrait of an ambiguous character. He was sometimes a leader of sadistic monstrosity, callous to the suffering of the flock, sometimes a most humble and charitable soul, capable of compassion and self-sacrifice what to tear up the stones.
The chronicler claims the Eternal Walker saw the arch for the first time when he was but a child, and the arch itself still a continent away. The vision ignited a bright flame in the Very First’s heart, a flame to keep hope burning during the last stretches of the march. When the hardships would have broken lesser civilizations, when the ice sheets seemed to stretch all the way to infinity, when the night terrors lurked, when cultural trauma nearly drove every Milotan insane, then The Eternal Walker would speak unto them and tell them to get off their butts.
So much of the journey is forgotten and the book is lost. Yet the story is told all over the Galaxy, of the words spoken by the Very First after crossing the finish line.
“That’s that, then. Now what?”
Arturo Sierra lives in Santiago, Chile, quite happily. So far he has lead a completely uninteresting life, and, with any luck, it will stay that way.
Science fiction at its best is all about a sense of wonder, and what could be more awe-inspiring than a megastructure? A world that stretches all around a star, a sphere that encircles a star completely, what sights for the imagination. Endless arguments can be had about how such a thing could be achieved, and indeed Niven made some corrections to his seminal novel based on corrections sent to him by people who read the book and had thoughts on the matter. Little time is given to the discussion of one tiny, crucial point, however: why in God’s name would anyone go to all that effort? Seriously, for what insane purpose could you possibly need all the energy of a star? Is your species the Tribbles, that you need all the space in a ringworld to fit your people? Sometimes, we think so hard about the how that we end up doing silly things at great expense, because we didn’t pause a second to think about the why.