Authors: Gregory Benford
“It swims,” Seeker said.
“Or better to say, it paces its cage.”
“I…” Cley began, then remembered Seeker’s remark about words robbing mystery. She saw that the shiny half would reflect sunlight, giving the prickly pear a small push from that side. As it rotated, the wave of color change swept around the dome, keeping the thrust always in the same direction.
“Hold to the wall,” Seeker said quickly.
The spectacle had distracted her from their approach. She had unconsciously expected the trees to slow. Now the fibrous wealth of stalks sticking out from the axis grew alarmingly fast. They were headed into a clotted region of interlaced strands.
In the absolute clarity of space she saw smaller and smaller features, many not attached to the prickly pear at all but hovering like feasting insects. She realized only then the true scale of the complexity they sped toward. The prickly pear was as large as a mountain. Their tree was a matchstick plunging headfirst into it.
The lead tree struck a broad tan web. It stretched this membrane and then rebounded—but did not bounce off. Instead, the huge catcher’s mitt damped the bounce into rippling waves. Then a second tree struck near the web’s edge, sending more circular waves racing away. A third, a fourth—then it was their turn.
Seeker said nothing. A sudden, sickening tug reminded her of acceleration’s liabilities—then reversed, sending her stomach aflutter. The lurching lasted for long, sloshing moments, and then they were at rest. Out the window she could see other trees embed themselves in the web, felt their impacts make the net bob erratically.
When the tossing had damped away, she said shakily, “Rough…landing.”
“The price of passage. The Pinwheel pays its momentum debt this way,” Seeker said, detaching itself from the stick-pad.
“Debt? For what?”
“For the momentum it in turn receives back, as it takes on passengers.”
Cley blinked. “People go down in the Pinwheel, too?”
“And cargo. The flow runs both ways.”
“Well, sure, but…” She still could not imagine that anyone would brave the descent through the atmosphere, ending up hanging by the tail of the great space tree as it hesitated, straining, above the ground. How did they jump off? Cley felt herself getting overwhelmed by complexities—and quiet fear. She focused on the present. “Look, who’s this momentum debt paid to?”
“What is this?”
“What’s that mean?”
“A truly ancient term. Your friend Fanak could no doubt tell you its origin.”
“He’s not my friend—we’re cousins, a billion years removed.” Cley smiled ironically, then frowned as she felt long, slow pulses surge through the walls of their tree. “Say, what’s a Jonah do?”
“It desires to swallow us.”
And we want that?”
“We could return to Earth.” Seeker grinned wickedly.
“I…on the Pinwheel? No.” Her nerves were not up for that.
Crawly creatures were already busy in the compartments. Many-legged, scarcely more than anthologies of ebony sticks and ropy muscle strung together by gray gristle, they poked and shoved the bulky cargo adroitly, forming into long processions.
Though they were quick and able, Cley sensed that these were truly not single individuals. This might be what smart ants became without gravity’s grind; insects the size of people.
She and Seeker followed the flow of cargo out the main port, the entrance they had used in the forest only two hours before. Swimming in zero g was fun, though she had quick moments of disoriented panic, which she managed to cover. They floated out into a confusing melange of clacking spiderlike workers, oblong packages, and forking tubular passages that led away into green profusion. The air was fresh, like that in the tree. This place was tuned for humans, she realized, and she relaxed a bit.
Cley was surprised at how quickly she had adjusted to the strangeness of zero gravity. Like many abilities that seem natural once they are learned—like the complex trick of walking itself—weightlessness reflexes had been hard-wired into her kind. Had she paused a moment to reflect, this would have been yet another reminder that she could not possibly represent the planet-bound earliest humans.
But she did not reflect. She was as Original as anyone in existence, and that was enough. She launched herself through the moist air of the great, noisy shafts, rebounding with eager zest from the rubbery walls. The spiders ignored her. Several jostled her in their mechanical haste to carry away what appeared to be a kind of inverted tree. Its outside was hard bark, forming a hollow, thick-walled container open at the top and bottom. Inside sprouted fine gray branches, meeting at the center in large, pendulous blue fruit.
She hungrily reached for one, only to have a spider knock her away with a vicious kick. Seeker, though, lazily picked two of them, and the spiders back-pedaled in air to avoid it. She wondered what musk or gestures Seeker had used; it seemed scarcely awake, much less concerned.
They ate, ruby juice hanging in droplets in the humid air. Canyons rimmed in shimmering light beckoned in all directions. Cley tugged on a nearby transparent tube as big as she was, through which an amber fluid gurgled. From this anchorage she could hold steady and orient herself in the confusing welter of brown spokes, green foliage, metallic-gray shafts, and knobby, damp protrusions.
Their tree-ship hung in the embrace of filmy leaves. From the hard vacuum of space the tree had apparently been propelled through a translucent passage. Through a membrane Cley could see a slow pusher-plate already retracting back toward the catcher’s mitt that had stopped them.
Around them small animals scampered along knotted cables and flaking vines, chirruping, squealing, venting visible yellow farts. Everywhere was animation, purpose, hurry. Momentum.
“Come, please,” Seeker said. It cast off smoothly, and Cley followed down a wide-mouthed olive-green tube. She was surprised to find that she could see through its walls to green layers beyond.
Sunlight filtered through an enchanted canopy. Clouds formed from mere wisps and made droplets, and eager cone-shaped emerald leaves sucked them in. She was kept busy watching the slow-motion but perpetual rhythm of this place until Seeker darted away, out of the tube. She followed hand over hand into a vast space dominated by a hollow half sphere of green moss. The other hemisphere, she saw, was transparent. Not glass—something tough yet flexible. It let in a bar of hot yellow sunlight that must have been reflected and refracted far down into the living maze around them.
Seeker headed straight for the mossy bowl and dug its claws into a low plant. Cley awkwardly bounced off the resilient moss, snatched at a spindly tree, and finally got a hold. Seeker was eating crimson bulbs that grew profusely in grapelike bunches. Cley reached for some, and the bulbs hissed angrily as she plucked one loose. All bluster—the plant did nothing more as she bit in. She liked the rich, grainy taste.
But her irritation grew as her hunger dwindled. Seeker seemed about to go to sleep when she said, “You brought us here on purpose, didn’t you?”
“Surely.” Seeker lazily blinked, tongue lolling.
Angered by this display of unconcern, Cley shouted, “I wanted to find my people!”
“They are gone.”
“You say that; all-powerful goddamned Rin said they’re all dead—but I want to look for them.”
“Rin and his kind are good at a few things. Among them is acquiring information. I believe their search was thorough.”
“They missed me!”
“Only for a while.”
“You said I could find people like me if I followed you.”
“If any remain, they have gone here, into the solarsphere.”
“I still want to see for myself!” She pressed her lips together in what she hoped was a stern look. “Alone, maybe—how’d you like that?”
“The price of such seeing will be death,” Seeker said quietly.
She blinked. “We’ve done fine so far.”
“A numerical series can have many terms yet be finite.”
“But—but…” Cley wanted to express her dismay at being snatched away from everything she knew, but pride forced her to say, “Something in the sky wants to kill me, right? So to get away we go into the sky? Nonsense!”
“You are unsettled.” Seeker folded its hands across its belly in a gesture that somehow conveyed contrition. “Still, we must flee as far and as fast as we can.”
“Me, sure. But why you?” She jutted out her chin, thinking,
I can fend for myself,
and knew immediately that she was lying. Adolescent bravado was not going to work here.
“You would be helpless without me.”
Cley’s mouth twisted, irritation and self-mockery mingling. “Guess so, up here. In the woods we’d be even.”
“Perhaps. But against the entities who live in higher dimensions, we are equally powerless.”
Cley shook her head. “We nabbed that one, right after we got back from the Tubeworld.”
“I believe they are from the other ‘brane,’ as humans term it. They wish to intervene in our struggle, clearly, but still have trouble manifesting here. I think they will learn quickly, and we will lose whatever small advantage we had.”
“To affect the flow’s pinch point—you.”
“Huh? Because I’m Original? There may be others.”
Seeker smiled. “Out here? Not with certainty. No one keeps an inventory anywhere, except the Supras, of course.”
“And if I don’t make it to this big party somebody’s planning, what happens?”
“We all die, I imagine.”
Cley blinked. “The Malign? It’ll—”
“Lay waste to the system solar, and much else.”
“Me? I…wish I…” She let it trail off, not knowing how to finish. She had almost said,
had my Meta. Had my Moms…someone who’d make this right…
Or an even older longing:
had my father.
That last she could maybe do something about—look for him, at least, out here in this wild place. Somewhere. Even if it hurt to hope, she could look.
Seeker said nothing, and Cley realized it was being diplomatic, letting her have her moment to reflect. They weren’t on an equal footing here. Cley had woodsy lore, but Seeker had moved through these strange spaces with an unconscious assurance and craft she envied. The procyon had direction, somewhere it believed they needed to be, and clearly had an idea about how they should get there.
Well, at least that makes one of us
. “Where do we go, then?”
“For now, Earth’s moon.”
“The…” She had unconsciously assumed they were arcing above the Earth but would return to it along some distant trajectory. Seeker hadn’t said they were going to the planets, after all. She knew the Supras voyaged to other worlds, too, but she had never heard of her own kind doing so. The Meta didn’t venture much beyond their woods and plains. That’s why her sudden idea that maybe her father had done so was, well, a thin reed… She shook herself from her reverie. “So… For what?”
“We must move outward and be careful.”
“To save our skins?”
“Guess you don’t have skin, just fur.”
“It does not seek my fur.”
“And who is it?”
“What, not who.”
Seeker leaned back and arranged itself, all six muscular limbs folded in a comfortable cross-legged posture. It began to speak, softly and melodiously, of times so distant that the very names of their eras had passed away. The great heavy-pelted beast told her of how humanity had met greater intelligences in the vault of stars and had fallen back, recoiling at the blow to its deepest pride. They had tried to create a higher mentality, and their failure was as vast as their intention.
So they had tried another approach.
“I know about this,” Cley offered. “I got a holoform of it.”
“In the Library.” She shrugged. “In off-hours.”
She had thought that dipping into the chilly pools of antiquity would help her figure out her time-steeped world, so she did unassigned homework, after Fanak had finished with his pontificating. She recalled the holoform and told Seeker about what she could see in moving forms of ancient vintage.
The story echoed with things unsaid, sorrows unnamed.
In the distant era known only in the Library’s holdings as the Quickening, some had left the conceptual space of humanity entirely. Nothing was known of where they went, either mentally or physically.
As the Quickening had approached, human minds that had amplified a billion times thought their way through to a destination unknown. They were said to have been as much beyond ordinary intellects as a woman was beyond the bacteria that flourished in her gut—and the comparison was deliberate in both magnitude and status.
In the final, bittersweet moments of detachment, as the Quickened vanished from human ken, some ordinary people received spotty impressions of what lay beyond. They reported what they perceived, to the limits of their understanding. These gave rise to legends of remarkable persistence.
At first the Quickening ones made a playground.
There the traditional ills of man got erased. Death went first, forever banished. Even boredom died. Life proliferated into uncountable worldscapes. Ideologies ranging from the devouring collective all the way through to the rigidly, rabidly free—all found their scripts performed.
If necessary, the ever-elusive human nature got tinkered into compliance with the demands of belief. Populations lived joyfully under crushing control. Skeptics found their every doubt confirmed. Believers dwelled in ecstasy, bonding in rapture with their God. Sybarites lounged in pleasure palaces sustained by unflagging energies and desire. Revolutionaries got to try their experiments upon themselves.
In the telescoping moment when ordinary humans could see down the dwindling bridge, there flowed images, ideas, and fidgeting torrents of information. Those who were left behind witnessed a circus of rapt play.
Ideas exploded in minds unbound by the soft, wet chemistry of a kilogram of gray meat carried in a hard skull casing.