When Riley and Asha finally reached the planet Terminal and found the Transcendental Machine, a matter transmission device built by an ancient race, they chose to be “translated.” Now in possession of intellectual and physical powers that set them above human limitations, the machine has transported them to two, separate, unknown planets among a possibility of billions.
Riley woke up.
He was standing, alone and naked, in a dark, closed space.
“Asha?” he called, but he knew she wasn’t there.
He remembered things—everything—like the journey from the planet Terminal toward the end of the spiral arm, across the Great Gulf to the neighboring arm, with a supercargo of aliens in search of the Transcendental Machine. He remembered the bonding among the pilgrims, and the hidden forces at work within the ship, revealing themselves one by one, and the treachery. He remembered the stocky Dorian Tordor with the sensitive and deadly proboscis, the weasel-like Xi, and all the others. And he remembered fighting his way, with Asha, through ravenous arachnoid aliens to reach what they thought was a cathedral but turned out to be a waiting room.
He knew a lot of things that he had never been aware of before, and with a clarity he had never experienced. He knew, for instance, that the Transcendental Machine was a matter-transmission device that had been used by the other spiral-arm aliens—an earlier version of the arachnoids, or the species the arachnoids had replaced—to explore not only their own spiral arm but the spiral arm of humans and the aliens of the Federation. And maybe to influence them in ways that might never be understood.
The Machine analyzed anything that entered it, destroying it in the process, and sent the information to a receiver in which the same entangled quantum particle was embedded, where what had been destroyed was re-created from local materials—and that included sapient creatures such as Asha, and now himself. In the process imperfections were left behind. Transcendence was an accident.
He had been restored but the pedia that had been implanted in his head by strange, unknown entities, which was not part of his ideal condition, was not. He didn’t know yet how he would get out of wherever he had been sent, nor how he would find Asha. The Machine had sent her somewhere else. If it was not programmed, the Machine chose destinations at random or in some pre-set order. After a hundred thousand long-cycles—maybe even a million—it was a miracle of alien technology that it functioned at all.
But he knew he would find Asha if he had to fight his way halfway across the galaxy. And when he found her he knew that they, and the insights and power of transcendence, would change the galaxy.
Riley felt his way out of the machine that had re-created him and began the necessary exploration of his surroundings. The space was chilly, even chillier to his naked body. The floor under his feet felt rough and dusty, and the dead smell of long-enclosed spaces, along with the musty smell of disturbed dust, reached his newly sensitive nose. Two cautious paces in one direction and he reached a smooth wall that began to glow a soft rose as he touched it. Four more rapid paces took him to the opposite wall, which also sprang into gentle radiance. He could see now that he was in a featureless cube with a ceiling above his reach and the machine in the center.
The machine was little more than a free-standing closet, open on one side, simpler than the Transcendental Machine. Maybe it was a later, more efficient model. Or, since there was a heap of clothing on the floor but no pile of dust, maybe it was meant to receive and not to send. Maybe the alien emissaries were ambassadors for life and never expected to return. Riley recognized the heap of clothing. They were—he understood as he put them on—the clothes and shoes that he had once acquired new, or the clothes that he might have acquired in an ideal world in which clothes were ideally made of materials ideally suited for their purpose. The Machine analyzed and transmitted everything within its focus, transformed.
Riley inspected the inside of the machine, running his hands across its surfaces, but it was featureless. The only thing he noticed was that his sense of touch, like his sense of smell, seemed to be keener, as if his fingers had been sandpapered. He felt his way over the outside. It was equally uninformative until he reached a spot above the opening. The spot was difficult to see, because the light was dim and the structure itself was taller than he, as if it was intended for creatures a third again as large, but his fingers felt a series of slightly raised places like designs or, more likely, letters of an alien alphabet or figures intended to convey a message. They weren’t like anything he had ever encountered and no amount of fingering, or even inspection if he had something to stand on, was likely to decipher them.
He could only guess that they were instructions on how to operate the machine, or maybe the controls themselves. He began to reevaluate his hope of an easy way to reunite with Asha.
Where was she? Where in the galaxy had she been transported? He had, he realized, assumed that he could return to the planet of the Transcendental Machine. With his newly created clarity of thought, he ought to be able to do that. With clarity of thought came confidence, maybe overconfidence; he would have to be careful of that. He had also realized that returning to the planet of the Transcendental Machine would put him no closer to Asha. Even if he could, maybe, reverse the Machine, what he could never do was decipher where the Machine had sent her. Unless Asha came to the same conclusion and also returned to the planet. Clarity of thought did not mean clarity of information; what was unknowable, like truly alien forms of communication, remained unknowable.
He could try, he had thought, and if she was not there, or if their returns did not coincide, he could leave a message, or find one from her. Timing would be everything, since they could not survive for more than a day, or perhaps even a few hours, among the arachnoids or other dangers, without food or drink. Without that, where would they meet out there among a billion suns? And there was always the chance that the Machine would send him to a nonfunctioning or destroyed receiver, and he would end up an electronic ghost searching through the galaxy in a forlorn hope of rebirth. But even that uncertain avenue had been closed.
So, there had to be another way. Somewhere in their shared experience, in their journey together, was a clue to a meeting place if they got separated. Meanwhile there were practical problems to be solved: He would die of thirst and starvation, and maybe unbreathable air, unless he found his way out of this featureless cube.
With a feeling of urgency but not of desperation, Riley felt his way around the walls with his newfound sensitivity of touch. Doing two things at once was easy for him now, and he reviewed, like a visual recording in his head, everything Asha had told him during their time together, including her experience in the generation ship Adastra when it was captured by Galactics and taken to their Federation Central. She was a child then and grew up under Galactic captivity until the junior officer on the Adastra found a way to make an escape, with the secret of the Galactic’s nexus points that made interstellar travel practical and human competition possible. And their flight, with the aid of an ancient map and the Galactics in pursuit, to the adjacent spiral arm, and finally to the planet of the Transcendental Machine. And their perilous path through the city before Asha found refuge in what she took to be a cathedral, where she entered the Machine and ended up … where? He wished now that he had asked for more details of how she had found her way back from wherever she had been sent then and how she had returned to the Galactic Federation. But there had been no time for that in the urgency of their time together and their own crisis-filled journey.
Riley searched his memories for any clue to the way Asha had solved the problems that he now faced, but he knew that this was a carryover from old deficiencies. His present memory held no dark places, no secrets waiting to be discovered.
He made the circuit of the room twice before he found, above his head, a set of raised places similar to those he had found near the top of the machine. If they were instructions, he would never be able to read them. But just below the raised hieroglyphs, if that was what they were, he felt two indentations that, on further exploration, revealed themselves to be holes. They were about the size of a small tentacle or an insectoid feeler or his little fingers. Without hesitation, he inserted one little finger into each hole as far as it would go.
Soundlessly, a hole appeared in the middle of the wall below and grew into an opening into a dark space beyond. He didn’t pause to consider the nature of the substance that was solid but capable of dissolving. He removed his little fingers, undamaged, from the holes into which he had inserted them and stepped through the opening in the wall before it closed. The walls outside did not glow, but strips above his head emitted enough rosy light that he could see he was in a rough-walled corridor, with a floor equally uneven beneath his shoes, as if it were made of cobblestones or of bricks that had deteriorated unevenly over the long-cycles, and a ceiling farther above his head than he could reach.
Behind him, when he turned, the hole in the wall had healed itself and there was no legend above the spot where it had been, or holes with which to activate it. The area where his disembodied information had been received was like a womb to which he could never return. He was cut off from the alien machine. If using it had ever been a possibility, that door was closed. That the process was a one-way trip became more certain, and the reason that the receiver area remained undisturbed after all these long-cycles, more evident. He turned to his right and began to walk briskly. He was not yet thirsty or hungry—maybe his new condition was more efficient in that respect as well, but it couldn’t repeal the laws of nature and sooner or later he would need food and drink.
As he moved, strips on the corridor wall next to the ceiling came alight with him and darkened behind, although occasionally a dark gap appeared where the damage of the ages had conquered even the superior alien technology. He had noticed it in the alien planets he and Asha and their companions had visited in their pilgrimage—the alien structures, in all their splendor, had survived their creators.
Those creators, he thought, were not the arachnoids who had attacked them. They were too big to fit into the Transcendental Machine or even through the doorway into the building that housed it, too big to fit through the opening that appeared in the wall or the corridor in which he was now walking. Perhaps their smaller cousins could, but they were the wrong shape to fit into the Machine’s compartment comfortably. No, the aliens who built the Machine and the city that housed it were humanoid, though perhaps larger than most humanoids. And their eyes had evolved under a different light, perhaps the red sun he had seen in the alien sky. There had been a blue sun as well, but it may have been captured later, and perhaps that cosmic event had precipitated the downfall of the Transcendental Machine species or the rise of the arachnoids.
But all that was speculation for another time, and this corridor was narrowing into a space even a normally sized human would find a tight fit. Soon he would have to make a decision to reverse his course or to pursue this one on hands and knees until he could no longer turn around. The wisest course, he decided, was to explore in the other direction.
After an hour, thirteen minutes, and twenty-two seconds—he realized he had a timekeeper in his head that kept track of such things—and after exploring fifteen corridors of various sizes that ended in blank walls or narrowed to sizes that he could not squeeze himself into, he followed the sixteenth corridor to an opening into a chamber like the one in which he had found himself re-created but with an ordinary doorway and walls that were rough, like the corridor, and that did not light up. The only illumination in the chamber came from the corridor behind. The chamber in front of him had been produced by an earlier, more primitive culture, like the corridors themselves, or else the chamber in which he first found himself had been built into a structure that was already in place. He thought that the latter was more likely. From the light behind him and with vision that seemed to operate far more efficiently, he could see that something that resembled a sarcophagus rested on a platform in the middle of the chamber, that if it was a sarcophagus it had been opened and what might have been a lid or cover had been removed and lay broken upon the floor, and what was in the sarcophagus, as he approached, were the remains of an alien creature and perhaps what had once been garments or ornaments, though they, too, were broken or scattered so that their function was obscure.
He realized now what the structure was that he had materialized in. He was inside some kind of massive structure assembled to protect the remains of some ancient ruler or god for eternity. But, like all such attempts at permanence, it had not worked. Sometime in the remote past, grave robbers had found their way into the primitive structure, had found the chamber, and had stripped it of the valuables it once might have contained.
Or they had found it without anything worth stealing and had destroyed everything in their frustration.
Riley moved into the chamber and inspected the sarcophagus. Ornate designs had been carved into the stone, and even with the little light that spilled in from the corridor he could see that they represented some kind of life story, with oddly shaped, perhaps stylized, figures of various sizes standing upright on large legs and perhaps a tail, or an ornamental train, behind, and confronting or interacting with other figures of different shapes. They seemed to represent a journey from life to death and beyond, a process guided or determined by more powerful beings, perhaps gods, and illustrating the path of glory and greatness traveled by the body that was laid within the sarcophagus.
That body, he saw as he looked into the sarcophagus, was only bones. Perhaps once the remains had been preserved by some alien art, but stripped of adornments and exposed to the elements and the ages everything impermanent had fallen away, leaving behind only its structure. The bones told a story. They had belonged to a species with strong leg bones, small upper bones, and a powerful tail, somewhat like pictures Riley had seen of Earth marsupials. The evolutionary process did not privilege grazers in the development of intelligence and technological culture, but Riley remembered Tordor and the heights to which his species had ascended, transformed by discipline, cruelty, and a sense of mission, as well as the ways in which the other aliens on the Geoffrey had been shaped by the pressures and opportunities of the special conditions under which they had evolved.
Looking down on the greatness that had once motivated a species to build a massive mausoleum at a terrible cost in treasure and lives, and over a span of time that must have lasted generations and impoverished an economy, Riley felt the first stirrings of hunger and thirst. He would have to find food and drink soon or he would end up like the remains in the sarcophagus. He looked around the chamber for some kind of guidance but the walls were bare rock and the floor was dusty and scattered with bits of metal, apparently discarded by the grave robbers who had made their way into this hidden place in spite of the ingenuity of the engineers who had constructed it.
Surely the designers would have left some testament to their care behind, if not to their piety, but there was nothing. Still, he thought, the grave robbers would have left something more valuable to him.
He walked slowly and carefully out of the chamber and down the corridor that had led him to the sarcophagus, looking at the walls and the floor for ancient clues. The grave robbers could have used markers like paint or leaves or crumbs to mark their path to the outer world, markers that would have vanished long ago, but he had to assume they had chosen something more permanent in case they wanted to return. They would not have needed guidance close to their goal, but when he reached a point where the corridor branched he saw a place in the corridor wall, at the height of his shoulder, where a small piece of the stone had been chipped away. He would not have noticed it if he had not been searching for some kind of guidance, and, even searching, he might have dismissed it as the damage of time if his need had not been growing more urgent.
At another branching he saw a similar marking, and at a third, another. But that led him down a corridor that ended in a blank wall that no amount of manipulation could turn into a door. He retraced his steps to the place the corridor had branched and inspected the marking more closely. Now he noticed that the chipping was different, with a downward blow that left the deepest part pointing toward the floor rather than a sideways blow pointing forward, and he realized that the grave robbers must have marked the wrong choices as well as the right ones. A few paces down the other corridor he found the mark that told him, he hoped, that he was on the right path.
Finally he arrived at the point where the corridor narrowed and the ceiling got lower. He hesitated and then kept moving forward, trusting the marks and his interpretation of them, until he was forced to his hands and knees. Soon, he knew, he would have to back out or be in so far he could not extract himself. But surely, he reasoned, that is what the builders of this mausoleum would have done as a final protection. At one point, just before he was about to decide that he had made his last mistake, the floor of the constricted space felt pebbly and sharp beneath his hands and knees, and the sides and ceiling of the tunnel grew a bit larger, and he realized that the ancient grave robbers had chopped away at them and left the debris behind. And then the corridor grew large again.
Riley stood up. A few paces away was another blank wall, but this, he knew, was his pathway out of this massive structure into whatever lay beyond. It took him one hour, six minutes, and forty-two seconds to find the combination of pressure points around the circumference of the wall that made a segment of the wall swing inward and allowed light to enter and a breeze redolent with the distinctive scent of alien life and vegetation and their decay.
Riley stepped to the opening and looked down at a flat, rugged surface of stone as far as he could see, sloping away from him toward the canopy of a tropical jungle, and above to a sky that was drifting with clouds turned reddish by an alien sun.
He took a deep breath and started the long climb down to a world that he had to learn about very quickly before he could find a way to leave it.
Copyright © 2016 by James Gunn