The Surreal Rash
'Is the gate safe?' I eyed the display: the traditional dodecahedral framework was covered with strange shimmering outgrowths, some of which extended whiplike tendrils ending in bright points of light. It looked like something rusty fished up from the bottom of the sea rather than a wormhole.

' "There is no safety anywhere in the universe, academic. There is only the question of how much you are willing to risk to gain something" ' the captain quoted from his holy writ. 'The Ship says it is worth the risk, given how much you Institutionals and the other passengers pay us, and I have been through it thrice without getting killed. But of course, it could collapse at any moment - those are femtotech growths, and who knows what they might do with exotic matter?'

The ship approached the wormhole at a high and steady speed - which would not help us in the least if the framework could not stand the stresses. And even if we got through and were not fried by the implosion, there was a five century trip back to civilisation. Well, five more centuries than the two I would already have lost on this trip.

The village was perched on a crumbling step of a gigantic ziggurat stretching several kilometres into the air. The step below was in the tidal zone, and as the water withdrew from the encrusted building the villagers scurried down along the steep stairs they had carved out of the stone over the centuries. Below they were checking their nets, gathering bristleroos and kindlers while shouting and chanting at each other. I watched from the edge a few hundred meters above, safely away from the sea and its far too spiny inhabitants. Around me the carbon tubers braided into towers, with webs of neverdells and airspiders glittering in the bluish sunlight. The village was dwarfed by them, an insignificant outpost on a planet covered with miracles.

A thousand kilometres to the west lies the diamond jungle, a fractal labyrinth where each trunk houses more processing power than the entire Ship above contains. It constantly spews out odd creatures, most of which are immediately eaten, measured and disassembled by the rollergonzos. During the evening the clouds of shining femtotech symbiotes descend from the ionosphere to feed the gonzos, converting themselves into radioactive nuggets. And that is just the eastern coast of the continent, the interior is much stranger.

'Why are you here, academic?' the villager asks. He has sneaked up on me, totally unheard and unseen. He is one of the natives of course, which makes it much easier for him - his scales shift in color to fit the surroundings as long as he is calm. I consider his question. What answer would make sense to him? That I want to understand what went wrong here so that we could try again? That I am studying how an interstellar super-ecology works? That I am here as an agent to investigate the spread of anthropists and their teachings? Or just that I am a tourist? I decide to lie a bit...