Silent Emergent, Doubly Dark

by rthieme on December 1, 2008

A splendid slipstream anthology (Subtle Edens, from Elastic Press: London, November 2008) includes this breakthrough story, which received this review:

subtle-edens1“Silent Emergent, Doubly Dark” by Richard Thieme opens with a quote from James Joyce, whom I consider to be a primogenitor of slipstream. Thieme, fortunately, doesn’t try to match Joyce for wordplay and instead gives us a calm, flat look into the psyche of an alien being. Thieme explores various levels of reality through his protagonist, moving farther and farther away from the seen, into unglimpsed realms. The story itself, like Joyce, is a bit difficult, but Thieme’s beautiful descriptions and intriguing concepts keep things interesting. This is a piece that truly deserves the slipstream label.


Silent Emergent, Doubly Dark

by Richard Thieme

starniteWhat spectacle confronted them when they, first the host, then the guest, emerged silently, doubly dark, from obscurity by a passage from the rere of the house into the penumbra of the garden?

The heaventree of stars hung with humid nightblue fruit.

- Ulysses, James Joyce

I wanted to leave the Earth the minute I knew I could.

Didn’t everybody? Well, no, I learned. Everybody didn’t.

So most don’t. They’re wired by design to like their home planets. I was wired differently. I hungered to plunge into the cultures of other worlds.

First, however, I had to matriculate, study psi and physiology, physics and symbol systems. I had to learn how to weave words, then learn how to weave the wind.

Lacking siblings and close friends, restricted to the precincts of the spaceport by my mother’s work, I played inside my mind in a gravity well of necessary solitude. That, I discovered, was a precondition for the bounce.

“That’s you, there, when you threw the dice,” my mentor said, showing me a retro of a toddler in a room. A doctor entered, and the child’s eyes – my eyes – filled with fear. Then the apprehension vanished and the child rushed into the doctor’s arms.

“That’s when you went off-world,” my mentor said. “That’s the platform, that moment, there. We provided the wiring but you had to make the splice.”

#  #  #

The first culture I explored on my own was the whrill-ggg! or the whirlibangs as I called them. The whrill-ggg! lived in one of the small planets at Sirius B. They lived inside the dirt like ants in a huge hill.

They had ritual memories of when the dwarf roared and they lost all but the most roastable of ancestors. Memories were enacted in the darkness twice each year and then the little ones exchanged hugs and touches. The dark carapace-encrusted ones and the thickly feathered remnants of the flyers were the only ones to survive. The pinkies, the fair-ones, all died in the flames.

Two major races built inside and moved mountains literally, turning everything upside down. Whereas before there had been towers in the sky, there were towers inverted, plunging into the Earth. Tunnels connected them in fractal-branching patterns that looked for all the world like self-luminous trees. They cultivated luminescent bacterial gardens and learned to breed thousands of different batches. The inner darkness glowed with every imaginable color and hue. The inner world became diverse, nuanced with colors that the day-star would never have revealed, had the Roar not happened.

Unfortunately the feathered ones and the encrusted ones decided that they were more bonded to being feathered or encrusted than they were to being a single species. So the tribal divide coincided with the near-completion of the initial work on their inner world. They fractured in two. Still, both tribes spoke glowingly of the beauty of their habitat when seen in a flash, an intuitive flash better than a visual, and that was the precondition of recombination. Even after they fractured, paradoxically, a single luminous web unified their common life.

This is what they did. They built a framework of bonded earthworks that absorbed extraneous light. Absorbent pebbles sucked in the light and left a blackness so thick it was nearly visible. Then they engineered a number of levels by programming tiny animals, then bigger ones, then ones that were unimaginably big, to dig patterns they wanted to etch in several dimensions. Then they lined the tunnels with liquids that thickened and held to the walls as they dried. Then they released luminescent bacteria that found the right walls and began to live and multiply in and on them. But because of the pressure as the gradient increased, there were apertures over and around each section. So from any vantage point in the primitive grid they could see every hallway and tunnel, all glowing with various colors and depicting the entire planet in precise miniature. Then when they altered or as they called it “played upon” one part or another, they could see the effect on the whole as the luminous life-forms adapted themselves to the changes. Then they would execute the changes or not, depending on consequences.

I had just arrived when they took me to see the First Matrix. It had long ago crumbled when they stopped repair-work and built the Second. But its smudged colors and broken walls and portals made it somehow even more exquisite to behold. It was breathtaking, really, coming down the locks and through the gates that held the heat up or out and entering the cooler darkness then being taken by the hand and led through the lightless maze around and up to a platform where suddenly as one came around the last bend the ancient remains of the First Matrix glowed with indescribable beauty. Blues, corals, yellows, pinks, these I remember most. But when I named the colors I saw they laughed. My frog-eye and frog-brain couldn’t come close to saying what they saw with their million-faceted dark-adapted eyes.

The feathered ones and encrusted ones rebonded after the Great War which is why I was able to go. They never sent newbies to war zones or even to temblors, which is what we called cultures that gave signs of impending disaster, war, catastrophe, or collapse. They tentatively called themselves the whrill-ggg! which was an amalgam of their racial names like Serbo-Croatian or Anglo-Franc had been on Earth. You could tell that the name still sounded strange on their tongues, except of course they did not have tongues. They had hundreds of vibrating cilia around their mouths and inside what we called their lips. When they sang together at council, harmonized on hug-days, or aroused themselves for a planetary change, the humming sounded like cellos and bassoons to me, then violins when the younger ones joined, then instruments for which I have no names when the ready women, neuts, and crawlers all joined the chorus.

I learned a few sounds which I made in different ways with my agitator, my cheeks, my sound banks, and my thrummers. I learned how to ask for something to eat or drink, inquire in at least seven levels of formality after their health or well-being, admire with appropriate restraint the nubile budding of their ready ones, and of course ask for directions to the channels of elimination. “Tubes and cools” we called it in the seminar room. There, however, it sounded more like “RRggghhh—hroopeff!” and “Wwwwrilllling-upsss?”

The feathered ones fascinated me because they still had wonderful stories of soaring. Their feathers had thickened for better insulation and most were unable even to flutter or primp. But their hug-fests were filled with images of soaring in the twin-sunned skies before the Roar and their young ones twittered and danced with excitement.

I lived there only for one month. That was the term for the first journey and no matter how much you loved the culture, there was no changing it. I can understand now how impressionable we were, coming out of the academy, so eager to translate or adapt. The danger of falling in love with your first culture and going native, particularly since the target is chosen to be congruent with your hunger for belonging, was too great.

I hated to leave. Since they had seen academicians come and go on a monthly basis for centuries now, they never grew attached. Their hive mind did not entertain attachment in the same way, anyhow. You were either part of the hive or you weren’t. If you weren’t, you were food or enemy or guest. Guests were never loved inordinately or adored during hug-fests beyond their limits.

My eyes had barely begun to open, don’t you see. When I saw the First Matrix it took my breath away but it was as if I was opening my eyes under water for the first time. A week later I returned to the vista and used it as a benchmark. Already I could see why they laughed. There were hundreds of luminosities, nuanced gradations of brightness and dimness I had totally missed when they asked what I saw. They only asked questions, I know now, that the academy provided. They weren’t just being polite, they were taking part in a program the rules and objectives of which they understood thoroughly and had for many generations, too many to count. By the end of the second week I wanted to stay and move my eyes from color to color, light to light. After the third week I was cocky and described the harmonies I could discern with glib triumphalism. This too they tolerated, saying nothing, giving me hugs and strokes with their lateral cilia. Then at the end of the fourth week when I knew I would leave the next “day” I stood there and wept at the beauty of it, the inexplicable patterns I had just begun to notice, and all I wanted to do was stay inside that planet and learn and learn and see and see.

But rules are rules. Through the gates we clambered and through the locks growing hotter and hotter until they bade me farewell and I came up into the tube that sucked me like milk in a straw into the ship and before I knew it I was home.

#  #  #

“Hey! Alien Brain!”

It happened outside the academy walls after I returned from my first excursion. Youth from the spaceport barracks, three of them, made bold when they saw how I walked. I was growing accustomed to Earth weight but still lurched from side to side. I was more aware of the bright light. Everything was glaring! Everything on Earth looked whitewashed in too-bright sun, unfiltered. Colors bled and shadows were shocking and harsh.

The three of them blocked my way. I looked at their faces. They seemed pinched, narrow-nosed. Their eyes were like slits and their mouths gushed words. Humans, I was learning, are a funny species. They think talking is doing. Their souls ride floods of vocables like rafts in rapids.

“So how’s Alien Brain, huh?”

I measured the distance. I withdrew my head toward my shoulders, my neck shortening. My hands rose at my sides like winged claws. My eyes burned with defense-of-nest rage.

The talker cooled and stepped back. His face lost color, nostrils flaring, eyes opening wide. He rose to his height, flexing his fists. But then his fingers unclenched, his expression relenting.

“Big important alien brain, huh!” he said, but he backed off. The others backed off with him, feigning grace and style. “Watch yourself!”

I hunched my shoulders in an unmistakable take on encrusted ones entering the feeding ring and facing down the feathered ones. Ritualized, to be sure, but there was no mistaking the menacing implication. The encrusted ones were fierce. Inside I felt my carapace shift plates and adapt to the diminished threat.

They backed off, honoring their fear. They knew that I knew and knew I knew they knew. It is never disreputable I learned on B to honor one’s fear. Fear is noble when it is honored. It is ignoble only when dismissed.

I didn’t know why they called me Alien Brain. Whatever I had learned from the whrlll-ggg! in one month was still percolating into my personality, still inflecting how I held myself as a possibility for action. I couldn’t see myself yet.

Had nothing to do with a brain, anyway. Brains are physical, I thought then – before I lived four earth-years among the Tzdow in artificial orbiting cities.

After my excursion to Sirius B, I wrote a paper which caught the attention of professors. I emphasized not so much the adaptation of the two dominant cultures to the interior of the planet but the relationship between the symbolic matrix they continued to rebuild with greater and greater refinement, the nuances of the colors, the ripples of luminosity and flux, the fact that a snapshot of the symbolic system at any moment produced a static image of near-perfect symmetry, regardless of the point of view from which it was taken. This meant that the blended cultures had an ability to synthesize diverse thought-forms at successively higher levels of abstraction and was able to think more than multi-dimensionally. They were able to see their mental representations as dogs having not tens or dozens but hundreds of tails, as it were, and they were able to imagine all the dogs chasing all the tails both in a dynamic simulation always in flux and as a static snapshot, a map of the interior of the planet and more importantly of their own well-integrated hive mind.

I was well into the Gray Zone. That’s what pleased my mentors.

The ultimate task for the Cosmos as we arrogantly called our pan-galactic collective was to narrow the Gray Zone. The Gray Zone exists between our mental multi-dimensional maps and the things they represent. Because the hive on B, for example, is dynamic, there is a always latency or lag time between the frequently reiterated map and whatever is “out there” or rather “in here” as in fact was literally true on B. That latency was down to a few nanoseconds for the hive mind which is remarkable considering that the representations were made almost exclusively of wetware, flows of luminous bacteria that constantly shaped and reshaped themselves through spontaneous telepathic connection to subtle alterations in the composition of the materials of the planet – shifting strata, changing chemical balances, fluctuations in temperature – somehow they factored all of it in, devising quantitative measurements for relationships that others had not yet discovered.

As a recent graduate, this taught me how hastily I had applied words like “primitive” and “unsophisticated” to a feat that no other civilization to our knowledge had achieved.

No wonder the denizens of B were honored and were always the first stop of anyone endeavoring to understand how the Cosmos understood itself.

I left the academy infrequently after returning because contemplation of what I had seen, attempting to re-member it, became a preoccupation. This is not unusual, so deeply imprinted is the cadet by the living rainbow arcs of that inner world.

A post-excursion exercise illustrates how difficult it is to re-member what we saw.

I was using movables and mindscreens to plot the points I recalled of the First Matrix. I chose the most basic because it would be simpler, I thought. I smudged colors with an artist’s fastidious hand, moving pastel whorls along cracking lines between zones. The form of the whole emerged in four dimensions. I could run it in real time or let the slide show snap through the cycle.

Watching the weekly run one morning, I suddenly sat up and hit Block. A rainbow bridge spanning the chasm of the third divide did not look right. I took it ahead frame by frame, squinting as the bridge shifted in slow time and arced over a canyon I did not remember seeing.

“That’s funny.”

I buzzed for a Master and waited patiently until she came.

“I don’t remember it this way,” I explained, “but it works in the simulation. How could I have missed it?”

She ballooned her white skirts which seeped air as they settled to the floor as she arrived beside me. Her eyes were magnificent, telescopic and slightly tubular, protruding with the apparatus that enabled her to see little and big in the same scan.

“What happens if you remove the bridge?”

“Remove it entirely? Obliterate the link?”

“Yes,” she said. “What do you think would happen?”

“It would fall down.”

She twinkled. “Give it a try.”

I obliterated the bridge and backlashed parameters as if it had never existed. I fell back to a prior position and let the simulation race. To my surprise, the canyon was at first dark but slowly became self-luminous over time as bacteria flowed along its walls. It began to brighten about the time the bridge would have invented itself and the light arced through the air and formed a different bridge where there had been nothing, growing along a luminous flow. A dozen frames later, the bridge was there, made it seemed of light, pure light.

I sat back, hitting Block to stop the movement, staring at the bridge of light.

“What happened?” she asked.

“It built what was needed,” I said. “I understand that. But there was no material! How did the flow of information create a tangible structure out of thin air?”

“Well,” she said, smoothing her skirts and indrawing her stalks. “What would have to be true in order for that to happen? What kind of universe would it be if this simulation is correct?”

I thought for a moment. “Thought forms!” I said. “Thought forms as real as the material out of which …” – my mind was racing – “out of which everything is made.”

“Which means …?”

“Talpas!” I thought of that nasty monk taunting Madame de Neal. “The simulation forms so-called ‘reality’ in its own image – creates it, in a way – which means that the imagination, the mind, not only half perceives, but also half-creates.”

“And where does one begin and the other end?”

I looked inside my mind to see. After a moment, the Master laughed.

“Can you see? And if you can see, can you say what you see?”

I peered into the darkness, feeling deflated.

“I don’t think I can see, no,” I said. “And I have a hunch that if I could I could not say what I saw without distortion.”

“Without building bridges out of thin air, in other words …”

Suddenly I saw. “Yes!”

“So you do see?”

The moment passed. My mind was clanking machinery again, gears grinding. “I thought I saw …”

“No,” she gently corrected. “You saw, and now you think you saw.”

“Ah!” I said, growing excited. For a moment my mind flickered back and forth like a hologram being seeing and thinking I saw then seeing myself thinking then thinking I saw myself thinking I saw … collapsing into infinite regress.

Then I was sitting there again merely, the Master riffling her skirts as she rose.

“A good day for remembering,” she said with a twinkle. “A good day for forgetting, too.”

My laughter rang out as someone threw a switch in the control room and her simulated image vanished.

#  #  #

The Memory Game, the less pious call it. This is how Harambee, a senior classmate, explained it in a seminar.

“You didn’t grow up with siblings,” he said, “so you don’t know. I had a brother who was four years older. Once he asked if I remembered an incident that took place when I was four. It was very depressing, he said, how our parents lost control of their emotions. They went wild that night.

“That’s funny, I told him. I don’t remember it that way. I remember an argument full of good will, a respectful exchange that ended with a perky little kiss.

“Maybe we’re talking about two different things, he said.

“He was right, but not the way he was thinking. He always thought our home was insane.

So he remembered the story in a way that fit that decision. I always thought there was plenty of affection and good will. That’s how I approach life generally and I remembered the ‘same event’ in a way that was congruent with my happier self, my happier life.

“But is it the same event at all? Even if we agreed in the way we told the story, even if we got the planet or the galaxy to agree on how the story is told, would that do anything other than inflect the way we co-create the Cosmos, surrounding ourselves with seamless agreement that determines how we hold ourselves as possibilities for action?”

“Are you suggesting,” I asked, “that there is nothing ‘out there’ except what’s ’in here?’”

“Well, what kind of universe would we inhabit if that were true?”

I laughed. “That’s Theology. We’re in Cultural Studies, remember?”

“Are we?” he smiled.

#  #  #

The middle period of my learning was full of wonder. ‘You are learning so fast it is making you giddy,’ read one evaluation. ‘You can not absorb the lessons in other cultures fast enough to satisfy your hunger. Your need to connect is relentless. Unless you create and recreate the Big Picture, always using more data, you feel as if your life is meaningless. Your mind moves at a speed most cannot comprehend.’

I felt like I was balancing on the tip of a gyroscope spinning on a hair stretched between suns. Naturally, I lost balance and fell. The boundaries between disciplines that I had studied as if distinct disciplines – physics, exobiology, astrochemistry – blurred. Everything, I discovered, related to everything else.

Cultural Studies require at some point familiarity with the major research areas of exobiology. It is impossible to separate the physical from behaviors that seem to manifest what some call spirit and some call soul. Those are names for an integrated whole or the image of the whole projected by the perceiving being. Drill down through levels of abstraction defining behaviors of subcellular automata, cells, individual beings, colonies, or communities of all shapes and sizes and you find they are layers around a planet’s core. At some point they collapse and you plunge into nonspecific awareness where cognition becomes ill-defined prior to self-identification through reflexive consciousness.

The Universe begins and ends in consciousness that half-creates and half-perceives. Consciousness like the Universe is finite but unbounded. Therefore we must grieve not …

But I digress.

Exobiology is fascinating. The Gray Zone is even more important in that discipline. The proper study of biological entities, after all, is form. Form determines identity and identity is destiny. But form disappears in the Gray Zone. That means destiny as an intentional trajectory is impossible to trace to its source. It happens at the quantum level and it isn’t certain whether it’s a function of what’s there or how the mind sees what’s there. The dividing line between them is another Gray Zone.

The holographic brain flickers between distinctions until it gets a bad headache.

The important things in the Universe happen in the Gray Zone, between low and high tide, on the edges of things. That’s where we see most clearly that choices become decisions and decisions are engines of self-definition.

That’s where/when a species stops fooling around and plays the game with real money.

gg1These insights evolved after I visited gas planets where higher beings float. They emerged apparently from the soup as membranes around chemical processes. They look to earthly eyes like gelatinous jellyfish, flexing in the currents of their atmospheres, as adapted as fish in a sea. Their forms are translucent, resilient, tough. They live at all levels of the float. They signal in all frequencies.

At one point they communicated through the exchange of gases but began specializing, making trade-offs. Energy became information and information discovered more appropriate forms for self-expression. Some ingathered nutrients, others defended the distributed network from chemical assault. As nutrient fishers became more efficient, the colony needed fewer of them. That allowed the defenders to evolve elaborate structures that looked more offensive than defensive. At some point in their evolution the distinction became meaningless. Floaters that did not participate in the collective memory disappeared and a single membrane that looked like an immense brain without a skull flowed in the winds and storms of the hot giants.

The only way to study such planets from the inside was to participate in the flow. We had tried to establish observatories (with consent, of floaterscourse) on their many moons and listen to radio waves, synapses crackling with static, as we learned to distinguish the flow from the colors of the upper atmosphere. It didn’t work. We wound up describing processes as if they were merely physical.

They worked with us to establish modules that synched with their habitats. We designed skeins of tough flexible polycarbons into which we knitted ourselves, brains afloat in translucent fabrics that moved with the winds. We connected our floaters to the planetary being by multispectral communication that enabled us to see, feel, hear, receive, link and – we hope – think as they did.

Visiting the gas giants was a highlight. I practiced for two years in tanks and sims before I was inserted. Still, the first shock of flying was as terrifying as it was exhilarating. I kept feeling for ground under my feet and couldn’t find it. I kept trying to focus my thinking right in front of my face as if I were a brain seeing the world through physical eyes. But the information that mattered wasn’t coming in from the front. It was coming from behind, around the edges, and I had to learn to listen as it were with antennae that extended out and back, gathering signals and processing them in a part of my brain that at first did not feel “real.” I knew theoretically that it was just habit. I had learned from my fetish that images however enticing floated beyond the core reality I sought. I applied that lesson a thousand times on the gas giants. The part of my brain that processes images as if they are real became something I could observe. Instead of seeing things, I saw myself as a process generating images of things. Then I knew how my mind structured or created realities in which I lived as if they were real. Meanwhile I dropped down into a listening place below the level at which images were generated. It felt like letting go of a struggle to stay above the water and breathe air. I let myself sink into the silence of the deep, sink down into the darkness, except instead of dying, I discovered myself more alive, more aware than ever.

I hung between points of gravity in equipoise, listening.

Then I became part of the flow. There was always a level of intentionality that had to happen for connections to be made, but once I learned where that happened and could go there at will, I could always find the reins when I dropped them. Once you know how to regain the reins and know that you know, you have mastery.

Then the synapses crackled not with static but with multichanneled signals layering information into patterns, weaving immense tapestries the size of moons. The signals were like threads built into a pattern and at a higher level of abstraction they became images heard not with the ear but with the entire organizing brain.

When I returned to the academy for a sabbatical after that sojourn I had the most difficult time translating what I knew into language that others could understand. I had to “layer up” from the primary way of knowing to the metaphors and symbols that made sense in another domain. It was as if I was describing life underwater to people who had never left the land, or worse, did not know that two thirds of their planet was under water.

Still, I knew it would be a cop-out to blame a lack of communication on the receiver. I knew that communication was a function of my intention; I learned that on the gas giants, wrinkling and sliding in the upper air. If you did not want to connect, nothing came your way but noise. But if you did, the sense of well being issuing from multispectral multilevel communication among all the cells of that planetary body was a source of ineffable joy.

I realized I would never again be who I had been. The points of reference for my core identity had shifted as a result of changes I had not even realized were happening.

Here’s how I discovered that.

One evening I went for a stroll outside the academy walls. The twilight sky was indigo and the breeze was light. The fragrance of blossoming trees was pale, whitish pink and rosy red. The street was empty until, turning a corner, I found myself facing the three louts who had called me “Alien Brain” so many years before.

I recognized them instantly, but not they me. I flashed on fear, but they were oblivious. I stopped, looking into their faces, making them stop too.

The leader was still the leader. The followers were still followers. But they were much older. I wasn’t, however. They were a hundred and I was thirty. The face of the leader retained its youthful ignorance and disdain for the different. They worked at the spaceport, had worked there all their lives. They were as happy as they could or would be. Their dislikes were necessary, I suddenly understood, for self-definition. Without so many ways of saying who they were not, they would never know who they were.

“Don’t I know you.” the leader said as much to himself as to me.

I flowed in the twilight, feeling the currents of the cool moon.

“You’re one of those Alien Brains. You see different.”

The words were hot but his heart was cold. The differential created an electric charge. I did not object to his memories or need to be right.

“We kicked your ass.” another said. “Years ago, we kicked your alien ass.”

My smiling flowed in and out of their eddying disturbance, contouring itself to their posturing. Felt like going down the drain. Felt like a dark adrenalin-driven hurry-up flow racing to the tip of a spiral and stopping.

“Guess you know who’s king of the street,.” a follower said.

“Guess he does.” said the leader.

We waited in silence in the twilight. The moon rose golden through limbs of a redbud tree. The breeze died, night ready to spring.

I walked toward them then through them as they flowed around me and down the street. Before they turned the corner, one shouted: “Alien Brain!”

The night was alive with triumphal acknowledgement. Ways of saying anything, anything at all, dissipated with the afternoon heat. The flow was all.

Darkness gathered us in, knitting the leaves into an opaque mass.

#  #  #

sextet_hst_fullThe Tzdow were a gift, an opportunity, a benevolence.

Because they had been around for so long, the Tzdow had drilled deep into the levels of consciousness that informed and animated the Cosmos. They were one of the oldest races in the Universe. They were quasars of sentience, the furthest fastest manifestations of divergence and convergence as they became one thing.

And I got to go. By the grace of all that is holy, I was able to live for four years in the orbiting cities of the Tzdow.

The Tzdow had gone artificial when the word still had currency, that’s how long ago it was. No natural disaster or catastrophe, no crisis or upheaval forced their decision. They simply looked and saw what was necessary. Mutation and accident had taken them a long way. They wanted to take control of their destiny and did.

It’s easy to say this after thousands of centuries. It had not been easy to do, however. The Tzdow say they invented the words “trial and error.” Billions died, billions were warped or distorted, billions wept before their cities became workable. Was it worth it? The Tzdow say yes.

The transition from appendage cities to orbiting cities took six months. I was immersed in acclimation studies. I was at the peak of my abilities. Still, I nearly lost my mind when I made the jump.

A mind is a precious commodity. You can play all you like with the way it plays, but there comes a time when you have a nightmare in daylight. The light of the sun turns into blood. Then you play the game with real money.

They bombarded me with information, insights, simulated wisdom. They gave me exactly the right amount of time to integrate what I was learning. They did it perfectly and made sure I knew that. But the day came when I couldn’t stand anymore.

I began to flip from modality to modality. I used all the wings of cognition, all the arms and legs of my senses, but began thinking as I had as a child. I thought about the makers of the Matrix and the floaters. I remembered battlewagons, how information became the cornerstone of war, how the hive mind became target and weapon. Illusions crashed into illusions in halls of mirrors, then the mirrors shattered, shards on the floor of my trembling soul.

I thought I would find a point of reference from which to understand what I was supposed to be learning but couldn’t. Then I dropped down to the next level, and the next, and the next, and at each it became clearer that they weren’t kidding. This time they were going to drive me mad with cascading images that overwhelmed my efforts to understand. They did not want me to understand how the Tzdow had learned to construct their worlds. They wanted me to go crazy.

Something broke. Something shattered. Something came apart that would never again come together in the same way.

If one can sob hysterically in silence while the soul falls asunder, that’s what I did. The wings of darkness ingathered my fragmented being and tore it away from whatever illusory center had held it together. The dissolution of my soul felt like lightning striking. I could not think because no one was there to think. I could not imagine because no one was there to imagine. I could not be clear because clarity dissolved into nothingness. When I reached into that nothingness, there was … nothing. Absolutely nothing.

Nor was I in freefall because I was not present to my own dissolution. Nothing was present. Nothing at all.

Then … a point of view ignited from which the event was observed. A point of view from which it could be seen. Said. Described, even.

Then the portal opened and the Tzdow welcomed me to their orbiting cities.

#  #  #

I felt as if I were entering the landscape of a minimalist building. Curved white walls of an immense arc turned to either side. I looked for a guide, a mentor, an ambassador. No one showed.

I centered myself and extended into the environment. I attended to each of my senses in turn, mapping the landscape. The walls were so white they looked like plasmas generated by ships accelerating to lightspeed. I heard white noise in which as I listened I could discern a subtle rhythm. Pattern almost happened but not quite. I smelled nearly nothing, just atmosphere filtered and scrubbed. Felt walls which were smooth smooth smooth. Sampled the air. Spliced the non-sounds. Linked to the flow which meant I could crimp the multi-stranded tangled veins of a deeper organic structure of what had seemed to be merely a mechanical habitat.

The deeper organic structure fascinated, held my attention. Veins were like colored wires tangled in a pipe. The pulsing energy in them sounded like beating hearts but faintly, faintly. Heat generated by processes was cooled by invisible gases hung in luminous blue traps. From that fact I could infer the form of more elaborate processes under it all. Wetware and dryware were one, all of the processes merely a means of maintaining equilibrium, managing the entire system.

Walls floors and ceilings were alive with light.antwerp

Along the white curving wall I discerned suddenly – had it been there all the time? Or did it just appear? – a faint off-white line that traced a distant echo. It disappeared around the curve around the bend and I followed, keeping it in sight but not forgetting the other extensions. I was immersed, still astonished. I did not know. I calculated distance and duration, creeping along the wall.

All unknowing. White on white.

The off-white line either ended or grew too faint to make out. In the unvarying light, distinctions were difficult to make. But at my feet I saw an opening in the floor and without thinking, plunged into it head first.

What I saw as I fell was like the First Matrix raised to the Nth degree. The entire fabric of their universe had been simulated in miniature but a miniature, I suspected, that extended across the span of a galaxy. The scale of the enterprise was beyond comprehension.

Still I flowed through empty space until the tunnel became the entrance to a cave in the side of a mountain. The mountain was immense, the cave an opening into its side. I crawled into the cave or tunnel, feeling like a miner crawling on hands and knees, my path illuminated only by a dim light on my hat. The pathway twisted and I had no choice but to keep moving.

After a time, the tunnel glowed faintly with an outside source of light. I paused to get my bearings, making sure I was not imagining. I was not. The light grew brighter up ahead and I quickened my pace, the light growing brighter and brighter until I burst out in candescence like a welder’s torch except it illuminated a vast cavern. The cavern was full of technology I did not understand and myriads of beings tending it with care. The machinery looked like the control room of an immense starship. Except everything was white, the doors opening onto the sources of energy were white, the white fire, the beings in white coveralls attending to duty with loving precision.

I moved through rooms harboring the technology of consciousness both aware and unaware of what I saw, felt, heard. The rooms went on and on but had an end. The deep structure was finite but unbounded. Another entrance appeared that was also an exit because one could go in either direction. I went through and exited the halls, emerging on the other side of the mountain. Instead of darkness, however, the night skies blazed with galaxies spiraling in pinwheel magnificence. I forgot for a moment to breathe. The glowing stars so dense they were like fire whitening the skies. The spirals of light echoing the matrix I had just traversed.

“This is how much you saw,” said a voice. “Imagine a span from the center of the Andromeda Galaxy out to the four-fifth spiral on its distant edge. If that is the scale of the simulation, then you saw but seven inches.”

I felt my mentor beside me and turned as he appeared. He wore an ancient cloak and hood in a humorous reference to the mythic dimensions my entrance into their city had elicited from my soul.

“The myth is your own projection,” he said. “The city – well, you have not yet seen the city. That’s why you will be here for four years, Earth equivalent. That’s the bare minimum for beginning to understand how technologies of consciousness are manufactured and linked. We build floors under floors under floors in infinite regress toward the core of unknowing.”

“I have started the tour, then.”

“Oh yes. But unlike your other tenures, where you had more and more to do, this one will require that you do less and less.”

I laughed aloud.

“You begin to understand,” he said. “You must explore and as you explore explore all of the means by which you explore. By which you see perceive and understand. You must see yourself seeing yourself seeing yourself. You must learn to discern subtle stirrings in the deep currents of consciousness. Minute perturbations in the background radiation that became everything. Then you will understand how and even why, perhaps, this city is alive.”

“My destiny, then” I said, “is not to take action.”

“No. And yes. You do not belong to the city of sentient beings. You belong to what once was called the city of god.”

“But that’s not cultural studies! That’s theology!”

“Isn’t everything?” he said. “All studies become studies of consciousness. The means of deceiving dissolve as the knowing mind comes to know itself. The proper study of self is Self. Except – as you study your self – it disappears.”

“And …?

“You study what is left.”

“But … nothing is left.”

“Correct. Nothing. Absolutely nothing.”

He took my arm gently and led me back into the halls of light.

“For the next four years,” he said, “walk these halls. Nothing more. Walk slowly in a way that enables you to see. Then see, taking note of what you see.”

He smiled and vanished into thin air.

The first eighteen months were spent learning to walk so I could forget that I was walking. Then I could pay attention. The next eighteen months were spent walking and seeing. Then I could forget that I was seeing. The last year was spent neither walking nor seeing. All the while walking. And seeing.

#  #  #

By the end of the fourth year, I glimpsed the relationship of organic materials to their sources. The sources of the sources, however, were elusive. No language enabled me to say what I saw when I glimpsed an intention that bootstrapped a point of reference out of nothing.

The rhythm of the cities became the rhythm of my body and brain. The cities calibrated my machinery to its own. I learned in four years what I had learned in the first month.

When I left, I was at last a beginner.

I imagined I would weep when I left but didn’t. I was calm and happy and grateful. Four years were just right for the first term.

My three friends were in the street as I expected when I returned. “Hey! Alien Brain!” shouted the leader.

I walked up to face them and saw how they had aged. Their faces were ancient. Had I really been afraid when we first met? Did I really think they meant to harm me? These bearers of my destiny, builders of the ship of my soul?

I saw that they had done exactly as intended. They were not deficient in any way. They were perfect as they were. And seeing who they were, I loved them all.

We smiled at each other. We embraced and held one another tightly. We touched and hugged, twittered and danced. Then the three of them flowed, transparent to their purpose.

I watched them dissolve. Just like that, they disappeared into thin air.

Well … maybe they did not disappear, exactly.

To disappear, you have to be there in the first place.

# # #

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