Authors: Gregory Benford
These particular proudly jutting spires had first broken through an ancient ocean floor as the seas themselves drained away. The birth of the first peaks had been chronicled in a ledger, now lost in the recesses of ornate and useless detail that Sonomulia still hoarded. These groaning ridges had risen during a time when the greatest of all human religions bloomed on their flanks. That faith had converted the entire world, had plumbed the philosophic depths of the then-human soul, and now was totally forgotten. Only the Keeper of Records knew the name of that belief, Rin commented, and he had not bothered to unveil that dusty era. The furious causes and grand illusions of the past were like the ghosts of worn, vanquished mountain ranges, too, now sunk beneath the seas of sand.
Cley gazed across the broad plains of desert. For so long they had been like the winding sheets of Earth’s corpse, and now were being forced back by forest. Sandy wastes still lapped at the jewel of Sonomulia. She saw as they swept southward that from distant Illusivia a long finger of a river valley pointed into the desert, reaching crookedly toward Sonomulia.
The green reconquering of the planet proceeded around its girth, and at this sight a sensation swept over her of sudden lightness, of buoyant hope. The loss of her Meta fell away from her for at least one moment, and she basked in the spectacle of her world, seeing for the first time its intricate wholeness.
Something moved on the far curved horizon, and she pointed. “What’s that?”
“Nothing dangerous,” Rin answered.
At the limits of her telescope vision she could make out a long, straight line that pointed nearly straight down. Her eyes followed the line up into the dark vault of space, dwindling away. So large! The Supras certainly could work miracles. It seemed to move, and then she lost it in distant clouds. Rin ignored her, his brooding eyes flicking among the many dense thickets of data that the ship’s walls offered him.
“Where are we going?”
He blinked as though returning from some distant place. “To hell and back.”
When she frowned, puzzled, he smiled. “An ancient phrase. Come, I’ll show you where hell does dwell on Earth for the moment.”
They plunged down through a storm wrack that was speeding around the equator. Clouds, fat and purpling with moisture, speckled the air’s high expanse. In the last few years she had felt their winds and rain more often as moisture spread through the parched ecosphere. Orange spikes forked upward, tapering fingers stretched toward the stars. The planet was acting like a vast spherical capacitor, endlessly adjusting its charges between soil and sky. The ionosphere’s shell would disperse these energies—a dynamo the Supras tapped, she knew, though she did not know how.
The craft swooped through dappled decks of fog and down, across vistas of windswept sand. Seeker put its tapered hand in hers and murmured, “Wait.” She shot it a quick questioning glance. Its bandit-mask markings around the large eyes seemed to promise mischievous revelations. Rin apparently noticed nothing except the walls’ sliding arrays.
“See?” He summoned up a continent-wide view of the desert. A network of red lines appeared slowly, images building up like pale blood vessels pulsing beneath a sallow skin. “The old subway tunnels, leading to cities that once lived.”
“More years ago than you could count if you did nothing else throughout your life.”
She stared. The display showed wispy lattices of streets beneath the shifting sands, the shadows of cities whose very names were lost. “So many…”
“I had a hand in excavating those subways,” Rin said wistfully. “In each, there were cryonic jackets filled with the corpses of their greatest, the luminaries who had earned passage into the future. They thought it would be better, more suited to their talents.”
She blinked. “But—these subways are long! Some pass through mountain ranges, crossing continents.”
“Yes, and each corpse represented the best minds of whole eras.”
“So many wild cards.” Rin grimaced.
“If we could revive them—”
“Oh, we can.”
“Then we should!” She could not stifle her enthusiasm. “So much talent—”
“And release energies we cannot know in advance?” He smiled. “These ancients may be dictators of enormous charisma, prophets of vanished religions who will seek to reinvent their faiths, inventors who can bring forth engines of destruction that later human variants erased as too dangerous, artists who can throw our very worldview into crisis—and we cannot tell them apart! The records are long lost.”
She felt crushed. The stretches of time implied by the problem were numbing. And she knew so little. The cities that now lay beneath the sands, their very shadows implying whole histories…“The subways…”
“There were vast alternatives to Sonomulia then. Great cities devoted to crafts we abandoned. We did not seize them.”
Rin laughed. “Precisely because we have lost so much, there is so much to do. Uncountable! Infinitude!”
“We are casting off lethargy at last.” He waved a hand at the screen. “The bots. The dead hand of this static past.”
To her surprise, Seeker spoke, reedy and melodious. “There are more breeds of infinitude than of finiteness.”
Rin raised his eyebrows, startled. “You know of transfinites?”
“You speak of mere mathematics. I refer to your species.”
Seeker had not spoken to Rin since they entered the ship. Cley saw that the beast was not awed by this sleek, swift artifact. It sat perfectly at ease, and nothing escaped its quick, bright eyes.
Rin pursed his lips. “Just so, sage. Did you know that your kind evolved to keep humans intellectually honest?”
Cley could not read Seeker’s expression as it said with a rippling intonation, “So humans think.”
Rin looked disconcerted. “I… I suppose we Supras, too, have illusions.”
“Truth depends on sense organs,” Seeker said with what Cley took to be a kindly tinge to its clipped words. Or was she imposing a human judgment on Seeker’s slight crinklings around its slitted eyes, the sharpening of the peaks of its yellow ears?
“We have records of the long discourses between your kind and mine,” Rin began. “I studied them.”
“A human library,” Seeker said. “Not ours.”
Cley saw in Seeker’s eyes a gulf, the spaces that would always hang between species. Across hundreds of millions of years, and chasms of genetics, words were mere signal flares held up against the encroaching night.
“Yes, and that is what burns,” Rin said soberly. “We know what humans thought and did, yes. But I am coming to see that much history passed outside human ken.”
“But we will regain everything.” Rin slapped a palm down.
“You cannot regain time.”
“We can make up for it.”
Seeker said slowly, with infinite sympathy, “Now time and space alike conspire against you.”
Rin nodded with wan fatigue.
Cley felt that she had missed much of this cryptic exchange. She had learned with Kurani to keep her respectful silence, as one both of few years and earlier origins. But this Rin…
She had realized earlier that she knew fragments of his history. Even among Supras he was famous. Of course, all other human orders knew the Supras better than any other variants. Rin had changed in the several centuries since, as a daring boy, he had altered human fortunes. He had pried the Supra forms from their sequestered city, Sonomulia. The Supra Breakout, as some termed it, was in large part his creation—done with youthful zest, overpowering inertia. Some of that still smoldered in his darting eyes.
All other human variants were but witnesses to the sudden reemergence of Supra ambition, after their kind had slumbered in their crystal city for uncounted millennia. Once again, Supras thought they could do anything. It might be so. Certainly regreening the world was a good beginning.
Still, Cley watched him with trepidation. An Original would have passed through wisdom and died in the time this man had enjoyed—another sign of the unknowable distance between the subspecies.
But he felt the range of human emotions, still—and visibly. Rin’s spirit ebbed, his face clouding, as if this flight had taken him momentarily away from a fact he could not digest.
The ship was landing beside a wall of black that she at first took to be solid. Then she saw ash-gray coils rising through sullen clouds and knew that this was the smoky column she had seen for days.
“The Library of Life,” Rin said. “They attacked it with something like smart lightning. Bolts that struck and burrowed and hunted.”
She saw the black-crusted gouges and ruptured vaults, polished clean by electric fire. Something had found the treasure that ages of wearing winds had not discovered.
“All the underground library?” Cley asked. She remembered that her tribe had once shaken their heads at a Supra who told them of this practice, the attempt to imprison meaning in fixed substance. People who lived and worked in the constant flux of the deep woods saw permanence for the illusion that it was.
“Not all, luckily. Some legacy survived,” Rin said. “The Ancients knew its storehouse would not be needed in my crystal city, Sonomulia. The urge to preserve was profound in them, and so they buried deep.”
“A recurrent human feature,” Seeker said. “Sealing meaning into stone.”
“The only way to understand the past,” Rin countered sharply.
“Meaning passes,” Seeker said.
“Does transfinite geometry?”
“Geometry signifies. It does not mean.”
Rin grunted with exasperation and kicked open the hatch. The wall of soaring smoke bulked like a dark, angry mountain. The smoke’s sharp bite made Cley cough, but Rin took no notice of it. They climbed out into a buzz and clamor of feverish activity. All around the ship worked legions of bots—ceramic and metal, and some of the plasma-discharge swirls. A few Supras commanded teams that struggled up from ragged-mouthed tunnels in the tawny desert, carrying long cylinders of gleaming glass.
“We’re trying to save the last fragments of the Library, but most of it is gone,” Rin said, striding quickly away from the guttural rumble of the enormous fire. Smoke streamed from channels gouged in the desert. These many thin, soot-black wedges made up the enormous pyre that towered above them, filling half the sky.
“What was in there?” Cley asked.
“Frozen life,” Seeker said.
“Yes,” Rin said, his glance betraying surprise; an animal knew this? “The record of all life’s handiwork for well over a billion years. Left here, should the race ever need biological stores again.”
“Then that which burns,” Seeker said, “is the coding.”
Rin nodded bitterly. “A mountain-sized repository of DNA.”
“Why was it in the desert?” Cley asked.
“Because there might have come a time when even Sonomulia failed, yet humanity went on,” Rin said. “So the Keeper of Records says.”
“I…see.” She could scarcely follow his words.
She had never seen the full panoply of the Supras at work. Iron-dark clouds raced low before a wind that boomed in the valley and whined through the wrecked galleries of the Library. Dust swirled into the cracked caverns that had been kept crisply sterilized for longer than any single species could remember. Stenches—carbon fires, open graves, smoke ripped ragged out of smashed vaults, rotting bodies thawing from the foggy liquid nitrogen, sweaty fear—seemed to coat the very sounds of this hubbub with rank odors. Metal clangs of slinking gray snake-bots, hammers thudding, joints popping, wheels creaking, leaden footfalls of ceramic diggers, voices raised in anger, sobs, whispers, silken pleas, ritual song, hushed prayer.
Cley turned, looking at the unfolding drama. Women wrapped ancient bodies, kept for rebirth after their freezings and now permitted to thaw out, dead forever. Survivors, blinded by the Furies, staggered to their tasks, unwilling to sit idle. An elaborately gowned matron screamed that she sought her family’s stored bequest, hammering at a burned compartment. Animals trotted by, speaking in their slanted tongues of horrors none could explain, tongues hanging between guttural words. Grim attendants exploded dangerously teetering arches, slamming the architecture of antiquity into powder.
“So much…gone.” She instinctively stepped nearer to Rin.
“Not all, we hope.”
The teams of ceramo-bots moved in precise ranks, so methodical that even the hubbub of fighting the fires could not fracture their lines. They surged on wheels and legs and tracks, churning the loose soil as they pushed large mounds of grit and gravel into the open troughs where flames still licked. She could see where explosions had ripped open the long trenches. The Furies had scoured out the deep veins of the planet’s accumulated genetic wisdom. The bots were like insect teams automatically hurrying to protect their queen, preserving a legacy they could not share.
Cley could scarcely take her eyes from the towering pyre of rising, roiling gray smoke, the heritage of numberless extinct species vanishing into billowing wreaths of dead carbon.
The machines automatically avoided the three of them as they walked over a low gravel hill and into an open hardpan plain. Rin did not bother to move aside as battalions of bots rushed past them. Cley realized that this was an unconscious tribute to the static perfection he knew in Sonomulia, where such error did not occur. The machines came shooting past, deflecting sidewise at the last instant before collision, then reforming their precise columns as they sped away. Seeker flinched visibly at the roar and wind of the great machines, dangerously close.
Cley saw that the dead sands had already advanced here, drifting across the smoky remains of humanity’s efforts. Supras hurried everywhere, ordering columns of machines with quick stabs at handheld instruments.
“The fight goes no better,” Rin said sourly. “We are trying to snuff it out by burying the flames. But the attackers have used some inventive electromotive fire that survives even burial.”
“The arts of strife,” a woman’s whispery voice came, sardonic and wistful.
Cley turned and saw a tall, powerfully built woman some distance away. Yet her voice had seemed close, intimate.