Read an excerpt of The Architect of Aeons, the epic finale to the Count to a Trillion trilogy from John C. Wright, publishing April 21.
CHAPTER 1: A LOST WORLD
Part 1. Ghost Ship
The Earth was gone.
“Damnification and pestilential pustules. You’d better be dead wrong on your dead reckoning, Blackie.”
The nigh-to-lightspeed starship Emancipation hung in space in the spot where Tellus, the home of man, was in theory supposed to be. Sol hovered to one side, an endless roar of radio white noise and high-energy particles.
“Restrain your ire, my dear smelly Cowhand. With the navigation beacons wiped out, our precise position is hard to determine. But the sun is at the correct size and distance, and the other planets also. This is where Earth should be.”
“Blackie! You think the enemy done her in?”
As a ship, the Emancipation was a titaness: one hundred thousand metric tons displacement, her overall length twice that of a skyscraper’s height from the First Space Age, with a sail spread of five hundred miles, requiring seventy-five thousand terawatts of laser energy to propel. With her sails folded, she looked like the skeleton of an umbrella with absurdly long and spindly arms, or perhaps like some microscopic marine animal. She had been designed for a complement of four hundred eighty fully human persons, a complement of twenty posthuman Melusine, whose cetacean members would occupy the fore cistern, and an additional complement of twenty packs of subhuman dog-things, who would occupy kennels and factory volumes amidships. But the miles of conduits and inflatable tunnels connecting the fore ramscoop array with the long spine of the aft drive shaft, the rotating living quarters and nonrotating slumber quarters, the work houses, shroud houses, laboratories, mind-core and launch collar (where an arsenal of pinnaces, probes, landers, missiles, and robotools where docked) were empty. The vast ship was a floating ghost town.
Like an arrow, even when at rest, the shape of the star-vessel suggested flight, as if she yearned to soar. Newtonian space and time was not suited to her lines: the paradoxes of Einstein were in her, implied by the heavy armor, the drag-reducing streamlines.
Neither ramscoop nor drivespine had ever once been heated up to form the ship’s vast magnetic funnels fore and aft, nor had her polymer sails, brightest mirrors of weightless gossamer, ever been run out to their full multi mile-wide diameter. Despite her name, the nigh-to-lightspeed vessel had never achieved near-lightspeed, nor even left the Solar System.
“Cowhand, whatever do you mean by ‘done her in’?”
“Blackie, I mean beefed her!”
The ship had two crewmen or three, depending on how one counted. The two humans (or technically, incarnate posthumans) aboard were Menelaus Illation Montrose, who had once been the Judge of Ages before his abdication, and Ximen del Azarchel, who had once been the Master of the World before his exile. They were the best of friends and deadliest of foes, as well as being the only members of their subspecies, homo sapiens posthominid, called Elders or Early Posthumans, and both in love with the same long-lost girl, the Princess Rania of Monaco, and both unwilling, during this particular protracted interval of time, to take up weapons and murder each other as they both so dearly wished to do. Each one was, in his own way, a very lonely man.
“Beef what? That is hardly more clear.”
“Blackie, don’t you speak proper Texan? I mean, d’you reckon the Varmint destroyed the Earth?”
At the moment, both men had their bodies safely tucked away in biosuspension coffins, with four quarts of submicroscopic fluid machinery occupying all the major cells and cell clusters in their corpses. Whether the bodies were alive or dead was a matter of semantic nicety. The nanomachinery slowed the
biological processes to a rate indistinguishable from stasis, except that at the moment enough of their neural tissue was at an activity level to house their consciousnesses. The coffins were clinging by their crablike legs to surfaces that could be called bulkhead, or deck, or overhead (in zero gee the distinction is also a semantic nicety) of the forward storage locker used as the ship’s bridge. Calling this the bridge was yet another semantic nicety, since the control interfaces and guidance systems could be piped into any cabin in the ship where the pilot found himself, and several spots on the hull.
“As for that, my dear friend, I, ah, ‘reckon’ it to be unlikely.”
“Issat so? Gimme your whys and wherefores, Blackie.”
The third member of the crew (if it could be called that) was visible at the aft of the locker, filling the space where the entire wall (or bulkhead) had been removed, and reaching back along the ship’s major axis some nine hundred yards. This third was a single monomolecular diamond, tinted amber due to nanotechnological impurities: lattices of fluorine-based chemicals like submicroscopic irregular camshafts were woven through the diamond matrix, and formed the basis of a rod-logic computation appliance wherein the ship’s softbrain was housed. The crystal was semitranslucent, and shed some of its waste heat in the form of photons in the visible light spectrum, so a dull erubescent glow, like coals in a grate, filled the amber well of crystal with a smoky red gold.
“What we know of the Virtue— to use Rania’s name for entities on the hyperpostsuperposthuman level of intellectual topography—comes from the inscription left behind on the Monument at V 886 Centauri, which, even after millennia, the human and posthuman civilizations of Earth cannot fully decipher. But that inscription hints that the Virtue of Hyades was coming here to rule and uplift the Earth, not destroy it.”
“Yeah, well, looks like someone transposed an omicron for a zero for a doughnut or something, because I am looking at the spot where our mother planet, Earth, is supposedly s’pose to be, and I ain’t seeing nothing but a whole lot of nothing.”
“The Hyades are not the enemies of man, but our natural masters! They will guide us upward to evolutionary heights undreamed.”
“Or blast us to atoms, if ’n we ain’t no damned use to them.”
“You know nothing of them!”
“Nor you. Nor anyone, human or posthuman or whatthehell.”
“I know no man shoots his own hounds.”
“Unless the hound is a mad dog, mad enough to want to die free rather than live the slave of his so-called natural masters.”
The reason for having this storage locker act as the bridge was that, with the aft bulkhead gone, there was no interface between either man and the ship’s brain. Neither trusted that if the brain information were piped in through some indirect means, a control panel, a touchscreen or wand, that the other man might not bug or jinx the datastream. Both men were wary of the other, and both were gentlemen enough not to let the mutual hatred and suspicion rankle on them. Little compromises made things easier: each man designed his own interface, and just sent a maser or laser into the depth of the crystal mind core at whatever arbitrary spot he chose. Neither man knew the one-inch-wide interface volume the other had claimed as his base of operations in the million-gallon multiton mass of seething thought-crystal.
Montrose observed, “On second thought, I am going to back off my Fried Earth theory. You’d think there’d be debris.”
“What if they used contraterrene?” asked Del Azarchel. “The Virtue had the mass of Uranus. Enough to hold one earth-sized mass of antimatter.”
“Hm. Total conversion would have made a flash we’d have seen while we was cowering like rats out at your old hidey-hole at Jupiter, Blackie.”
Ximen del Azarchel, with a mental command, pointed a micro wave laser at the input- output port on Montrose’s coffin, and sent text with a parallel verbal channel for voice expression, and a wireframe for body language and facial expression. Del Azarchel sent a cartoon image of his lean, goatee’d, devilishly
handsome face wearing a supercilious glance of doubt. “Jupiter was in conjunction, so Earth was 6.2 AU from us, masked by Sol.”
Montrose sent back a shrug, a scowl on his bony, big-nosed, lanky, and lanternjawed face. “The whole mass of Earth turning instantly to photons? We’d have seen the reflection from the other planets, Sol or no. Odds are you’d see it from Andromeda galaxy in two million years or so, something that bright. You want to check my figures?”
“No, Cowhand. Do you want to check mine?”
“Nope, I trust your math more than I trust opening an unshielded data channel. Do you think the Earth is hidden? Shielded somehow?”
Blackie put a thoughtful look on his cartoon face and sent that. “When we departed the Earth the first time, the human-cetacean group-mind had occupied the entire nickel-iron core of the planet, which you so thoughtfully turned into a gigantic logic crystal for them. They are what a man named Kardashev long ago called a level K-One race: a civilization that controlled the total energy and resources of a planet.”
“What Rania called a Potentate.” Montrose reminded himself with a mental frown what the scale and magnitude was of these monsters they faced. He knew that, by the Kardashev scale, a civilization controlling the whole output of a star was called K-Two, and of a galaxy, K-Three. The Hyades was between K-Two and K- Three, controlling the total output of matter and energy in a small star cluster, and an intelligence in the hundred billion range: what Rania called a Domination. In her scale, a civilization that totally exploited the mass and energy output of a gas giant was called a Power. The servant of the Hyades dispatched to Sol, large as a gas giant but much more finely organized, was called a Virtue, and was above K-One but below the K-Two level, controlling more mass-energy than a rocky planet but less than the total mass-energy of a star system.
Blackie was sending: “Like an ugly duckling finally reaching its own, the Earthly civilization was the first human race truly to supersede humanity. You saw how quickly the Swans reestablished the ancient weather control of the Sixtieth Century, how rapidly they converted the interior mass of the moon to logic diamond, and created the Selene Mind. It’s been four hundred years since last we were allowed on Mother Earth but you saw the rate of development.”
“I sure did.”
“They were evolving from something at the edge of what we could comprehend to something beyond that edge. The growth rate was asymptotic.”
“Always is, during a boom, Blackie.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean in real life, and not in daydreams, things got a natural growth rate until they run into a natural growth limit. Then the asymptote flips over: sure, advanced societies still advance, but always slower. Lookit how quick the fastest a man could go went from the speed of a sailing ship to the speed of a supersonic jet. And then in the decades after—what happened? Man did not keep getting faster and faster. Lookit how free mankind got during the Enlightenment, the Industrial revolution, and the abolition of slavery. And then what happened? Natural limits began to set in, and people didn’t keep getting more free and more, they started losing their liberty by sips and dribbles in my country, and by gulps in yours. What makes you think intelligence growth doesn’t have built in limits?”
“Merely because I know that an ape could not imagine a human. We are not discussing a merely linear increase in thinking speed, but a revolution in the quality of thought, the use of means beyond our imagination. Do you, ah, ‘reckon’ that the Swans, while we were absent, might have passed beyond an event horizon of asymptotic growth, and evolved beyond our reckoning?”
“And do what? Invent a technology that allows them to bend light around the entire globe?”
“Nothing so dramatic. Merely a layer of ash and dust brought up from the interior would lower the albedo. Let us never forget, just because we are dealing with entities that crossed one hundred and fifty-one lightyears to conquer us, that even something so small as a solar system is unimaginably vast, even for imaginations such as ours. If the Earth were not reflecting light, if we were out of estimated position by a few hundred thousand miles . . .”
“So where is Selene, the intelligent moon? Every crater and pothole was supposed to have a weapon inside. She was going to be the great offensive fortress, our rock of Gibraltar in the sky. The face of the moon lights up like a Christmas tree when she fires her main beam, and all the smoke from all the secondary launchers gets ionized in the hash. Where is she now?” Menelaus sent a sigh. “What if the ash and dust got kicked up not from the Potentate masking the Earth? Weapon damage would do the same.”
“I don’t believe it.”
“You don’t want to believe it, Blackie. Those Varmints are evil.”
“The Virtue is meant to introduce us into the Galactic Civilization!”
“As serfs. Or all-meat patties. And if they was here to introduce us, where is they?”
“They who? You mean the Virtue?”
Not long ago, while orbiting Ganymede, the long-range telescopes of the Emancipation’s astronomy house had captured an image of the intruder as it passed into the Solar System.
It had been a globular mass the size of a gas giant, adorned with silver clouds swirled into storm systems large enough to swallow smaller worlds. The clouds covered a liquid surface black as sin. They had seen the black mass drifting like a soap bubble toward the blue loveliness of Earth, moving with no visible means of propulsion. Fourteen immense machines or organisms that looked like trees in winter or naked umbrellas had been in orbit around it. These were the orbit-based space elevators or “skyhooks” whose blueprint had been seen on the surface of the Monument: the instruments used for deracinating whole populations of one planet to another. These skyhooks had had the decency to have reaction-drive engines, and move according Newtonian principles, even if the mother mass had not.
They had lost sight of the apparition as it passed toward the inner system.
Blackie said, “We are crippling ourselves by operating at less than optimal intelligence. Let us warm up the mind core to full self-awareness.”
“It took me ten thousand years to figure out how to destroy Exarchel, your last fully self-aware supermachine, and that was when I had a supermachine of my own occupying the Earth’s core helping me. No thanks. Next idea?”
Blackie said, “Let’s take a year or two and look for occlusions. If a body passes before a star, we can find it.”
Montrose said, “We can also keep an eye on any orbital anomalies. A mass the size of Uranus, if it is still in the system, might not mess up the fallpath of Jupiter too much, but we should be able to see its influence on the motions of the smaller planets, Mercury and Pluto. And let’s deploy the sails a little bit, and gather in some light.”
“Which may expose us to the Virtue, if the body is still in this system. With our sails open, we are visible to anyone with a medium-powered telescope.”
“Let’s risk it. I got two reasons. First, the aliens never approached any object smaller than a planet before. This ship is just a mayfly to them, and we’re just specks.”
“Hm. I seem to recall that even humans occasionally swat flies. What is your second reason?”
“We’re both reckless and bored.”
By unspoken mutual consent, both men lowered their subjective rate of passing time until they could see through the various instruments in the astronomy houses fore and amidships, or brought in through extravehicular remotes, the jeweled dots of the planets moving like waltzing dancers against the star-gemmed
velvet of vacuum.
Intently they watched.
Part 2. Visions of Great Worlds Afar
They created indentations in portions of the sail to use as convex mirrors and flexed the shrouds to turn them this way or that. These immense light-gathering fields were larger than any Earth-based telescope could be. It was like having a lens the size of the arctic ice cap.
Montrose soon noticed an anomaly in the drain of resources from the ship’s astronomy house: the ship’s brain was spending time poring over data peripheral to star occlusion scans. He was curious what Del Azarchel was seeking, and carefully, slowly, and secretly, he heterodyned a repeater signal on the incoming astronomical data.
The first quarter of the sky toward which Del Azarchel looked was the constellation Canes Venatici, toward the great extragalactic globular cluster at M3. Montrose with some effort beat back his rage at this act of voyeurism, so he did not thaw himself, take up the fire ax from the bulkhead, go to Del Azarchel’s coffin, and chop his frozen face into bits. Yet Montrose was appalled that Del Azarchel would dare to stare, like an adulterous lover sighing and mooning at a married woman’s window, at the stars which so called to Montrose and so recalled his wife to him.
But then Del Azarchel turned elsewhere those instruments more potent than any human eyes. Here in the constellation of Fornax the Furnace was a star called Hipparchos 13044, two thousand lightyears from Earth, whose waltz through the heavens betrayed the presence of a dark body, perhaps twice the size of Jupiter, orbiting it. But the star was one of many in a Helmi stream, originally belonging to a dwarf galaxy that had been devoured by the Milky Way nine billion years ago. The age of the planet was greater than that: it was from outside the galaxy. Montrose could not imagine what interest Del Azarchel could have in this astronomical anomaly.
Closer at hand, the wobble of the failed star HD 42176 in the constellation Auriga the Charioteer, three hundred ninety lightyears away, betrayed a fire giant world, larger than Jupiter and closer to its primary than Mercury, orbiting once every thirty hours: a year short as a day.
It seemed Earth-like planets throughout the Local Interstellar Cloud were unusual. Jovian and superjovian worlds were much more common than smaller, rocky worlds. The current theory was that small planets were naturally swept up in the orbits of larger ones. In Sol’s system, for reasons yet unknown, a primordial superplanet had been split into Jupiter, Saturn, and Uranus, and this allowed inner and outer worlds, Mercury and Pluto, to form. Apparently life on Earth-sized worlds was a rare accident.
Montrose was puzzled. What was Del Azarchel’s interest in exosolar planets?
Part 3. Inconstant Earth
Both men exclaimed at the same time.
“Eureka!” and “Thar she blows me!”
“What did you find, you disgusting Texan clodpole?”
“I found where the Earth is hiding, though I cannot say how she got there. What’d you find, you dandified Iberian gutterbug?”
“I found out how she got there but not where she is. While looking for occlusions of any stars or background radiations by black bodies, the instruments picked up occlusions of various intervening energy fields. The magnetosphere of the sun is gravely disturbed. This disturbance is enough to grapple the core of the planet magnetically, and impart a lateral vector. I assume the initial acceleration was very mild, because even rocky planets are actually just gooey liquid with a little crust on the surface, and we do not see a trail of asteroids, ejecta, and debris trailing off. And it also shows the Earth was not removed entirely from the Solar System, since the solar magnetosphere does not extend so far, and, at accelerations low enough to keep the planet intact, could not have achieved solar escape velocity.”
“Well, boy howdy, because I done found her. Venus has a slight drift to her orbit, and a wobble to her rotation, and so does Pluto—who did me good service this day, despite the men of old who said he weren’t no planet.”
“Up. The Earth is at right angles to the plane of the ecliptic. Earth is in a ball-o-twine orbit above the solar North Pole and below the South Pole.”
“At the same distance as before?”
“So I guess. Simple orbital mechanics says it is easier to change your inclination than your speed or distance from the center of gravity. In this case, all they did— whoever they were— was increase the orbital inclination to ninety degrees. Boy, are all the astrologers going to be daffy after that stunt. As seen from Earth, the sun will swing through the same northern and south constellation once a year, but the zodiac of signs the sun passes through will be different each year, because the whole orbit is turning.”
“So you have not actually found the Earth?”
“I know where we should concentrate our telescopes. One AU to the solar north, and one to the solar south. Because the whole orbit is turning like the rim of a spinning penny, we won’t know from what direction Earth’ll be approaching the solar North Pole. Could be up to six months before she passes through that area, and then however long it will take us to match orbits, three years or so. But to us at this speed, it will seem like no time. . . .”
Part 4. Less Oblate Spheroid
“. . . See? That weren’t long,” Menelaus concluded his sentence.
Now the world loomed large within the images the astronomy houses fore and amidships brought in. The moon looked nothing like the moon of old. Logic diamond had coated her seas and uplands, and now new craters of war damage had smashed and cracked the layers of diamond shell so that she resembled the fantastically shattered surface of Europa, rather than the silver-gray moon of Earth’s past. Unthinkable energies had scalded strange and lurid colors into the blasted glass, green and gold and lines of crimson like bleeding scars, speckles of peacock blue scattered like pepper.
One crater so large that it by rights was a sea now occupied the lower quarter of the disk like an eye, and the mountains cast up in the center were a beady pupil. It overtopped the exact spot Tycho Crater once had occupied, as if some base or fortress there had been obliterated with a six-mile-wide meteor, or some other weapon yielding a ninety-teraton blast. Tiny ring arcs of dust and gravel orbited the moon, perhaps residue from the blast.
Menelaus was shocked—nay, offended—that the ancient body and the mysterious seas which had haunted so many love songs and images of his youth were now forever gone.
“It’s . . . it’s rotating,” he told Del Azarchel, unable to heterodyne into any tone of voice the infinite sense of loss and rage he felt. The globe would now turn its dark side once every two weeks toward her primary.
Del Azarchel was also enraged. “The print of my hand is gone. Look here, instead. This.”
In the vast crater that covered a quarter of the surface were the angles and sinewaves, arranged in dizzying, eye-defeating spirals and concentric ranks, an imprint of the Monument notation.
Montrose said, “They left us our own Monument? Can we translate it?”
“Not without considerably more calculation power than this ship currently . . .”
“Nope. We are not waking up your poxy monster brain. Let’s ask the survivors.”
That there was technological civilization still on Earth was not in doubt: in addition to the moon, two sails, nearly as broad as the main sail of the Emancipation, were orbiting at a half-geosynchronous rate. The Earth was not seen as the normal blue crescent astronauts approaching it tangentially to the sun would see: like a moving continent, a circle of light cast from the farside mirror was passing over the night of the world, and, equal and opposite, a circle of darkness hid the noonside of the world. The crescent of the Earth looked almost like a curving letter w, but only if the w were dotted like a small letter j.
Earth herself was shockingly unrecognizable: she had slowed her rate of spin, and the change in centrifugal force, imperceptible as it was, no longer created as large a bulge along her equator; therefore, Canada and Alaska and half of Russia were submerged in the polar sea, the Great Lakes basin was mingled with salt water. The Gulf of Mexico, on the other hand, was now an inland sea, for a second isthmus, of which Cuba and the Caribbean Islands were but hills, joined Florida to Northern Brazil.
Baja California was now the highest elevated of three peninsulas reaching into the Pacific like a hand whose fingertips dripped archipelagoes. India was now connected by an isthmus to Madagascar, making the Arabian Sea an inland lake larger than the Caspian.
A belt of the ocean severed South Africa from a combined Euro-Northafrican continent, and the Mediterranean basin, dry for many ages, had been flooded once more, lapping the slopes of the White Mountains and the Italian Alps. The higher elevations of Egypt and Libya were no more than large islands in this combined Mediterranean and Saharan sea; Mount Gibraltar and Mount Abyla were smaller islands, as was the lonely peak of Malta.
In the East, Australia and Indochina were now part of the Asian supercontinent, and the Sea of Japan was a dry and deep valley between the high plateaus of what had once been Manchuria, Korea, and Japan. In the West, a new land mass shaped like a snake had emerged from the mid-Atlantic ridge, an old fable of Plato now true, if in reverse. Antarctica was entirely submerged.
The ice caps were gone. The amount of water vapor in the air was far lower than it should have been. The sea level was lower by scores of meters than it should have been, even with the other catastrophic climatic changes.
“The orbit is more eccentric than it had been,” announced Del Azarchel. “Much hotter summers and much cooler winters. The ice caps return in winter, I suppose, and reach far down toward the temperate zone. The angle of interaction between the Earth’s magnetosphere and the surrounding solar environment should make aurora borealis and aurora australis visible year round and from every latitude. Other than that, from the surface this new orbit would provoke no obvious difference in the appearance of the skies. They even pointed the pole at the pole star, and imparted the exact same precession of the axes.”
“The South Pole,” grunted Menelaus dourly. “You’d think they’d get that detail right. But why did the Varmints move the Earth to a new orbit? What would be the point? And where are they now? Why aren’t they shooting at us?” At her current parabolic orbit approaching Earth, the Emancipation with sail deployed would have been remarkably visible. Everyone on Earth, even without binoculars, would have seen caught in her sails the bright image of a smaller and colder second sun rising in the east, getting a little bigger every day.
Del Azarchel said, “I don’t think the Virtue did this. Look at these figures.” And he sent as text a few thousand lines of Monument notational math, showing the type of electromagnetic impulse that would have been necessary to move an object the size of the Earth to a new inclination.
Menelaus was able to take in the whole equation at a glance, but did not see the significance at first. He paused, divided his mind into several subsections working at different subjective speeds and organizing the information in different patterns and data-groupings before he saw the point. He rejoined his mind into one frame, and sent a low whistle of astonishment along the audio channel.
Del Azarchel must have noticed the pause. “You could have asked.”
“I like reckoning things out for myself. Besides, if we are both thinking what I’m thinking we’re thinking, that’s independent confirmation. You think the Potentate died, wiped clean by the electromagnetic pulse.”
“Crippled rather than died, depending on electrically inert backups and failovers, but yes. And I think that such a pulse happened before the new orbit. We can reconstruct the order of events. The Hyades Virtue connected the Earth and sun with a flux tube. For what reason, I don’t know. That wiped the data out of the core mind. The whole mass of iron was aligned by the shock, and there was a line of plasma connecting the Earth to the sun. The Swans took advantage of it—I cannot tell if the flux tube lasted a second or lasted a decade—to maneuver the Earth into a new orbital inclination, at right angles to the plane of the ecliptic. Again, for what reason, I cannot fathom.”
A flux tube was a cylindrical region of space where the magnetic field at the side surfaces is parallel to those surfaces. The sun had many such tubes rising from its surface and falling back again in vast arches, paths of least resistance followed by solar flares. Jupiter and Io were connected by a complex dance of flux tubes, carrying heavier and lighter cargoes of cold plasma, either buoyantly expanding away from the giant planet, or massively sinking toward its storm-filled atmosphere.
Since Jupiter was Del Azarchel’s personal playground, the headquarters of the most massive project he, or any of the human race, had ever attempted, no doubt he was quicker to recognize the phenomena than Montrose.
Montrose said, “If we hadn’t been kicked off the planet by the damnified critters we created . . .”
“You created. . . .”
“. . . that got created somehow- or-’nuther, we would have been here to see the shindig.”
Del Azarchel sighed. “I am wondering where the aliens are. The Monument indicated that they were coming here to rule us. It would bring order and peace.”
“Peaceful as a pigsty. Farmer makes sure his swine don’t fight each other. And all he asks in return is pork, bacon, and ham.”
Del Azarchel said sardonically, “I can pick out human shapes occupying villages and towns, and the instruments show energy use along the seabeds, so the Melusine are not extinct. Our old friend the horse is still around, regrown from your Tomb archives. And . . . look at this image. Do you think it is a sporting event?”
Montrose said, “War. Horse cavalry and Mastodon cavalry. Look at the line of organization: that is a posthuman general in charge, someone of our level of intelligence, but nothing as smart as a Melusine or a Swan, much less Potentate.”
Part 5. Battle in the 111th Century
Across the mossy landscape of what had once been sea bottom, the battalions clashed. Soldiers garbed or painted all in green and gold, carrying an emblem of a balance scale, clashed with those in crimson, who fought beneath the sign of a winged hourglass.
The heat was more than tropical, since steam arose from the moss at every footfall. The soldiers were a mix of human and artificial hominids from recent gene records, elephant-legged giants, half-animal Chimerae, dwarfish Locusts, and, from more ancient lines, Neanderthal troglodytes and nocturnal Cro-
Magnon. The soldiers of all subspecies wore glass helmets and armor made of prismatic diamond glitter, and fought with energy rays, chemically powered crossbows, and flails and staves and bokken swords made of amber-colored wood.
Or at least it looked like wood. The amber weapons had some odd bioelectrical properties: foot-long sparks and blinding flares jumped from the wooden blades or flails when a blow fell. In addition to beating the moss to emit its clouds of vapor and steam, both armies tossed glass grenades or ignited petards to spread clouds of glinting smoke to baffle the ray weapons of the enemy, and the rays seemed remarkably weak even when they struck. It was as if they feared to emit any large-scale discharges.
Montrose asked, “Can you pick up any energy signals coming off those dead bodies? If they are just remote-controlled puppets, and the brain info is just downloaded . . . ah . . .”
Del Azarchel said, “The deaths are real. None of them are connected to any remote information system. However, there is someone or something who is the center of worldwide signal traffic approaching from below. Look there.”
In the image, the warring parties parted as suddenly as the Red Sea beneath the rod of Moses. A single figure, manlike but taller than a man, wearing a living cloak like wings, walked across the battlefield. He was barefoot, and walked with precise, mincing steps, stiffed-legged, his toes touching the ground first before his heel. His hair fibers swayed like undersea plant life in an unseen current.
On higher and lower bands of the spectrum, even through the intervening atmosphere, threads of energy dense enough for ultrahigh-speed communication connected this figure with weather balloons and peach-sized artificial satellites in low orbit, continent-sized orbital mirrors in high orbit, and also with towers and dishes here and there along the mountaintops of both Earth and moon.
Montrose pondered the information throughput volumes with alarm. The intelligence level was far higher than his own, or that of Del Azarchel.
The Swan turned and looked up at him. His eyes bored into Montrose’s startled gaze like a knife into his brain. Montrose blinked by shutting off the feed from his coffin circuits to his visual centers, because he could not meet that gaze. Of course, the calm-faced superhuman creature was merely glancing at the bright sail of the NTL Emancipation climbing to noon, but the effect was unnerving.
Del Azarchel said, “He seems not to notice the battle. A very dignified demeanor! How reticent.”
Montrose opened his visual feed again. He saw the Swan stalking forward. The being did not look left or right at the carnage around him.
Montrose was not sure if Del Azarchel were kidding. “How blind, you mean. The visual information is being edited out of the Swan’s reticular complex before it even reaches his cortex. Everything human is invisible to the posthumans. Phantasms. Remember?”
There was no sign of panic or haste among the men: the image was clear enough that Montrose could see officers on either side were giving orders and hearing reports, dressing their lines to await the signal to resume, and meanwhile heralds waving colored flags were shouting across the field to the foe, looking oddly like cheerleaders in their gestures and poses. The men raised their arms and clashed their wooden swords against glass shields with pride or anger at each exchange.
The Swan had emerged from a nearby river, cutting a deep canyon in the mossy sea bottom, and strolled without seeing between the parted armies to a knob of high ground. Neither did he hear the shouts and slogans apparently being shouted back and forth between the momentarily parted armies.
When he first emerged from the water, the posthuman seemed porpoiselike in his face and skin surface, but he became more human-looking as he walked.
The war leaders and standard-bearers and buglers who were occupying that knob of high ground toward which the great Swan stalked, their coign of vantage for overseeing the battle, with swift and practiced motions dismounted and gathered themselves out of the way, and carefully pulled aside walking watchtowers, electric fence posts, basins, and battleflags, so that the Swan would not trip on them.
The warlords did not try to move their now-riderless beasts aside, and when the winged figure raised his hand as if in greeting, the horses broke their pickets and came to nuzzle him, and the mastodons danced with massive mirth for him, and writhed their trunks like comic pythons.
The wings the posthuman wore were not just antennae: the Swan, done petting the beasts, now expanded the wing surface to many times its size, and rose rapidly from the point of rock, effortlessly as a thistledown rising. The surface of his body changed color as he entered thinner atmosphere, as if he had biotechnological mechanisms for adjusting to extremes.
The face was becoming hardened and featureless in preparation for vacuum: a statue of diamond.
Part 6. Phantasms
Del Azarchel took the time to draw up a detailed version of a sardonic expression to his face, exaggerating the twist of the lips and making the supercilious eyebrow arch higher than he could in real life lift it, before he passed it to Montrose on the visual channel.
Montrose said, “Are you surprised? You were expecting that my phantasm system would be broken by now.”
Del Azarchel said, “It has been half a millennium. One would think a superior brain would notice the gaps in the visual patterns, the unexplained shadows, the unexpected and indirect clues.”
Montrose did not point out that Del Azarchel’s pet brain Exarchel had been inflicted with the same phantasm program for ten millennia, and never combined the tiny irregularities or indirect clues to deduce that he had a blind spot. Instead, he said only, “The more superior a brain is, the easier it is for it to fool itself, and explain things away.”
“Every corpse on the battlefield below there, his blood is on your hands. If the posthumans were allowed to tame the humans, war would be gone. I suppose your posthuman intellect can easily explain your guilt away, Cowhand?”
“Well, I can explain your guilt to you. You thought your posthuman brain gives you the right to rule humans. But logically this means the higher powers from the stars have the right to rule you.”
“I have never rebelled against them. There is a natural order to the cosmos, like a ladder. Everyone has his place.”
“I have never submitted. I reckon that is my place in the natural order. As for my guilt; what guilt? I did not put a bullet in any of those corpses down yonder. All I did was cut off the bottom rung of your cosmic ladder. The rest of y’all on the up-high rungs can enslave each other to your heart’s content, but the humans at the bottom, I dealt out of the game. But I was as fooled as you, old pal. I thought the Hyades were coming to set up shop.”
“Are you as curious as I, amigo?”
“That I am, partner.”
“Then our alliance and nonaggression pact continues?”
“We need proper seconds and judges and a right good footing with no shipside Coriolis effect to throw off my aim. You don’t even need to ask. I ain’t going to shoot you in the back, and I know you ain’t going to shoot me in the back. The survivor will have to live with himself until the end of time. Cause both of us stopped aging a while back, and neither of us ain’t planning to cash out our chips early on . . . Jesus H. Christ in a thorny hat!”
“Please don’t blaspheme,” said Del Azarchel, which surprised Montrose, even though it should not have. Hard to remember that Blackie took his religion seriously, or seemed to.
“That weren’t no blasphemery! That was a pestilential prayer of poxed thanksgiving! I been hanging out with you too long, Blackie, that I almost forgot that I don’t believe nothing you say! You think the Hyades world-armada, that cloud of black slime the size of a gas giant, after coming all this way from Epsilon Tauri was sure to crush any resistance. You said mankind, not humans and not posthumans, not Swans and not Potentates, none of us could possibly hurt them nor drive them off ! But I ain’t never said that!”
Del Azarchel said, “I don’t see your point.”
“Which shows that, no matter how smart you are, you cannot escape your axioms and assumptions. What is the simplest explanation for what we are seeing? Earth is here. The Varmint ain’t.”
“I still don’t . . .”
“We won. We drove them off.”
“Let’s get a radio message to someone, and get permission to land, read a newspaper, find out the story. We can always ripple our sail like a honking big heliograph and send them flashes in Morse code.”
“Or burn a city from orbit if they ignore or threaten us,” added Del Azarchel with a dark smile.
“You are one sick, sick puppy.”
“Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, or a world-ruler dispossessed, or so they say.”
“Start sending signals. How long can it take?”
Part 7. Reply
“Cowhand, we’re getting a reply from the surface. It is in the Swan language, which, like the Monument code itself, contains its own self-reflexive predictions for its own semantic changes and semiotic drift.”
“So y’all were able to find a common language?”
“In theory we could have rendered one using infinite-variable calculus techniques to solve toward absolute syntax strange attractors. But it was just easier to use Latin.”
“Omnes viae ducunt homines per saecula Romam, I reckon. Who was it? What d’they say about the Varmint, or the location of the Earth? What happened?”
“It calls itself the Judge of Years and the Voice of the Swan, and seems not to be in the mood to answer questions. I cannot tell if this comes from some corner of planetwide Noösphere, or is some smaller, in de pen dent group, or even a lone crackpot with a radio. The signals are coming from the eastern shore of
Africa. It says the Swan for whom it speaks grants us permission to make splashdown. It gives a longitude and latitude and a window of time. Do we trust this unknown voice?”
“Better than sitting up here in ice’tween our buttock cheeks. The Swans should not be able to see us or stop us, so we got the perfect smuggling vessel. Let’s risk it. Do I need to recite that poem from Kipling? If you can keep your hat when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you . . .”
“You are a man after my own bold heart, but spare me your clubfooted Anglo jingles, I who rejoice in the fiery wine of Manuel José Quintana, or who have flown to the pure classical summit of the Paradise by Gaspar Melchor de Jovellanos!”
“Anglo poems is better. I see you one Shakespeare and raise you a Chaucer.”
“I match them and find them wanting against the satire of Cervantes and earthiness of the Juan Ruiz, the Archpriest of Hita. In any case, I am willing to risk my heap of winnings on one turn of pitch-and-toss—”
“There is a ‘ but’ a- coming, ain’t there?”
“—but this Judge of Years has warned us that neither will we be given nor sold any heavy water to spare for the fusion drive of the landing craft, to power a launch again. To land now is to be stranded.”
“Fine,” said Montrose, sending an X- ray version of his face cartoon, so Blackie could see him grit his teeth. “We nip out to the asteroid belt, find a likely chunk of ice, boil it down, render up enough heavy water to do a safe belly flop into their oceans . . . how long can that take?”
“I do wish you’d stop saying that.”
Part 8. Splashdown
The new orbit of Earth made the winters much more severe than in prior eons. The Emancipation formed her mirrored sail as a magnifying glass to clear the icebergs from a generous volume of the Sea of Arabia. Here, not long after, the ship’s fifty-foot pinnace splashed down.
Bobbing to the surface, Montrose and Del Azarchel commanded the hatch of the flattened, trilobite-shaped craft to undog itself and admit the atmosphere of Earth, which neither had breathed for centuries. The air whistled in the dorsal hatch and internal xenon gas, which had been used as a preservative to fill the interior, streamed out of ventral gills just above the waterline, an unseen smoke.
Both bodies had been prepped for a quick thaw, so it was only a matter of minutes, rather than hours, before their coffin lids slid aside and they saw each other once more in the flesh.
Del Azarchel was naked, soaked with medical fluid, and holding a longsword whose hilts were crusted with dazzling work of diamond, topaz, and jacinth. The scabbard was white leather flayed from the flesh of the Coptic Patriarch who had reigned on Earth before the rise of Del Azarchel to power. Montrose had his white glass caterpillar-drive pistols in his hands.
“You look shaggy,” observed Del Azarchel.
“I cannot believe you programmed your coffin to trim and maintain your little goat beard thingie all these centuries.”
“Hair cells are cells; why should I grow uncouth, merely because I slumber? You must tidy yourself, though. The portable head unfolds from the deck, and I think there is a dop kit with a straight razor. You can program your coffin fluid into lather, if you like. . . .”
“I know what it can do! I designed the damnified Jell-O one molecule at a time. The message told us to land here. If they are surface dwellers, they will send a boat, or if they are sea dwellers, they’ll surface. Is there anything outside?”
Del Azarchel surprised him by not going over to the sensor panel (which was bolted down for gee-maneuver conditions) but by simply swarming up the newly formed ladder to the hatch, and sticking his head into the sunlight.
He yelled and jumped down.
Montrose readied his pistols. “You hurt? What happened?”
“Wind chill, Cowhand. It is cold as Erebus out there. There is a clipper ship made of fiberglass on the horizon, approaching from the South. I saw men and elevated animals aboard, and from the play of the waves I deduce they are accompanied by an escort of dolphins, which I assume are post-delphic Cetaceans. It is a six-masted ship with energy lanterns ranked on three firing tiers port and starboard, with swivel-mounted bow-chasers. So your little magnetic pistols may not be enough to sink her.”
“Yeah, well, I will leave you to sink the ship with your pigsticker. Think you can awl a hole in the hull with that piece of ironmongery?”
“Ah! Speaking of which—the Iron Crown of Lombardy! Shame I had to store it in a mere boat locker.” Del Azarchel moved over to a rack bolted to the overhead, and worked the catch, drawing out a transparent, macromolecular-locked diamond case.
“Blackie, you are a damn crazy man,” opined Montrose.
“Compared to whom?”
“You are stark naked wearing a crown on your head.”
“I would say this shows a nicety of priority on my part. I had the ship fabricate any number of proper garments, which we, as historical figures of some import, should not hesitate to don.”
“Hope you included parkas.”
“I will break out your gear, Cowhand, while you are shaving. Are you really going to use that barbaric knife rather than a depilatory cream?”
“Bowie knife, not barbaric knife.”
“We are on a rocking deck! You’ll cut your jugular.”
“And deprive you of the plea sure of shooting me? Not likely.”
“Spoken like a true friend. I have laid out your . . .”
“Are you yanking my Johnson with this? What is this, a costume party?”
“I had thought, considering . . .”
“An English judicial robe and a long white wig. That is what you thought I wanted to wear?”
“As the Judge of Ages, that is the garb legend describes.”
“Legend can stick a snorkel up my bunghole and suck a heaping snort of dung fume. Besides, we been out of touch with local legends for quite a spell. Who knows what they think about us nowadays? Maybe they’ve forgotten us. That’d be a relief, wouldn’t it?”
“Not at all. It would mean a lot of work to reacquaint them with whom they are dealing.”
“I am not going to let you burn any more cities from orbit, you sick snot.”
“That was long ago, and a regrettable necessity, and all those people, had they lived, would have been every one extinct with all their racial stock by now in any case. We are the only true Homo sapiens left.”
“It weren’t so long ago that you ain’t still licking your lips over it like the tomcat what found the fishbowl. So what are you wearing?”
“Hm? The uniform of the Hermetic Order, of course. Simple, tasteful, black—does not show dirt. I brought yours as well, just in case you want to assume the rank and station to which you are entitled? I will take it as an honor if you would agree, amigo.”
“Nope. I’ll wear the damn fool Halloween costume instead. And you keep talking like we is still the cock of the roost. Pardner, the Giants is as smart as us, and the Swans are smarter, and moon has a mind many magnitudes smarter yet, and moon ain’t even one sixth of the volume used to be at the core. So maybe you should take off your dinky crown, forget that you used to rule the Earth, and remember you is now a beggar, you and me both, and there are super-beings as far above our mere posthuman selves as we are above a sheepdog of middle-to-average doggy smarts. Now, I grant you, sheepdog smarter than a sheep, but you think that makes the shepherd ready to give Rover a vote on whether he gets fixed?”
Del Azarchel had pulled a dark uniform about him. It was made of ultralightweight black silk, with a ring at the collar to fit an air hood. The hood itself hung down the back, a triangle of silver and red fabric. The fabric was woven through like the fine, many-branching veins in a leaf, with countless tiny tubules for life support, heating and refrigeration circuits, and air capillaries. Black gauntlets and black toe socks completed the outfit, and a silvery half-cape of shadow-cloth, dotted with a gem-design of energy cells.
Del Azarchel held up a massive bracelet or amulet of dark red touch-sensitive metal. It was fanged on the inner surface, and looked like a medieval torture instrument. He put his hand in the clamp, wedged the amulet against a flat surface, and leaned on it with his other hand and arm, shoving the big needles and spikes into his arm. He writhed and grimaced as the needles sought out veins and nerve connections in his wrist, and sent a probe into his bone marrow.
Montrose winced. “There are ways a sight less fearsomely painful to do that these days. Technology works wonders, y’know.” By way of demonstration, he put his left hand into the medical fluid of his now open coffin. When he removed it a moment later, there was a layer of hard flesh, like the shell of a tortoise, encircling his left wrist and grown into it, and the shell was nacreous ruby. It looked feminine compared to Del Azarchel’s heavy manacle, but the computing power used to oversee the continual process of reversing aging errors in cell growth by means of spoofed RNA was the same. Del Azarchel had shared the secret of eternal youth with Montrose when Montrose shared the secret of eternal slumber.
Del Azarchel held the arm which bore the ancient amulet high, and gazed at the antique biotechnology appliance with hawklike stare, his handsome eyes narrowing slightly.
“Menelaus,” he said softly, “it is not the opinion of the world that concerns me, nor am I a man to be moved by such light and trifling things, no, not even if the world contains such genius as cannot be estimated. I wear the Iron Crown because it be my right. My conquests I will not forget, even if history forgets, nor all the glory of them. This suit is symbol of my order. The world outside is my child, made by me and marred by you, and so it is a child who escaped control. No matter: my heart is already set on greater things. All this I did, all this, merely so that the Hyades and their superior powers would enfold us within their civilization. It is up to us whether we shall be like the Japanese when they met the European, whom they so soon imitated and surpassed, or like the Negro, who could neither combine to drive them off, nor learn from them—yet even the sons of slaves in whiter lands, once freed, earned and learned and equaled them and then surpassed. Even at the price of slavery, were they not better off? We are immortals, now, Menelaus. Nothing but the long term should concern us.”
“So you ain’t thinking of just beguiling away the time until my Rania comes back?”
“Mine, not yours,” said Del Azarchel with a humorless smile, sharply white within his black goatee, and a twinkle in his eye, dark and large beneath dark brows. “And I shall see to it that this world is fit for her to return to, or, if my ambition deceived me not, a horde of all the local stars. An extensive kingdom in space I will offer her as bride price!”
“Your pot is cracked, Blackie. She’s already married, so a-courting you shan’t go.”
“I have remade man in my image, albeit it took millennia, and now I wish to grant them to go forth to many stars and worlds and conquer and subdue. Not just to Adam and Eve, but now to the minds that inhabit Earth and moon and one day Jupiter, I shall say go forth and multiply.”
“Nothing wrong with kids learning math.” Montrose sighed. “Okay. You win.”
“What? Win . . . You mean you will join me in my glorious Great Work?”
“No, I mean I’ll put on the silly robes you brought. I was suddenly took by the strange feeling like some judgment ought to happen, or maybe a hanging, so I figure I’d as well dress the part.”
The sea wind was bitterly cold, and the upper hull of the pinnace was slick with ice, even along the armor of the nose friction-blackened by reentry heat. Both men stood with one hand on the rim of the open hatch to steady themselves against the pitch and roll.
They stood in the wind, one man in a black shipsuit with hood and cloak, crowned and armed with a sword, handsome as a satyr; the other a craggy-faced staring-eyed hob goblin with a hook nose, wearing an absurd long white wig of curls beneath a square black cap and flowing red robes that blew and flapped in the icy air, two white pistols tucked in his cincture. Del Azarchel looked black as a Dominican; Montrose, scarlet as a Cardinal.
The sunset painted the horizon red as the pyre of a king. The sky above looked like a peacock’s tail. The aurora borealis filled the equatorial heavens. As she approached, the great clipper ship, vast and pale as a fog bank with her mast upon mast of sail, lit up colored lamps at port and starboard, a tradition of awe-inspiring antiquity, but then seemingly from every yardarm and line silver lamps surrounded by rings of glowing fog lit up, and the approaching ship was like a constellation walking toward them.
A voice cried out, “Ahoy!”—a word that was eleven or twelve thousand years old.
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