I look out from an observation pod, watching the City of Miracles turn beneath me. Behind and 'above' the multi-kilometer bulk of the liner blocks the sun and puts the pod in deepest shadow. To either side brilliant stars, visible even against the reflected glare from the planet below, are other vessels parked in orbit. Traffic is heavy here.
In front and 'below', the world-construct known as the Miracle City forms a landscape of shimmering complexity. Most of the mind-numbing detail that forms the City is blurred to non-existence at this distance but enough still remains to stun the mind. Many of the structures making up the world before me are so large that they are visible even from orbit. Long straight lines crisscrossing the globe designate causeways kilometers across. Huge arcs of shadow, interlocking here and there, are the mark of tower blocks the size of mountain ranges. And along the edge of the world, rising above the atmosphere and breaking up the normal smoothness of an orbital horizon, are the starscrapers. Towers so tall they extend into space.
No one knows who built it. No one knows exactly how old it is. And in a matter of hours I will walk upon its surface.
With a flick of the mind, I shift my pov back aboard the liner. The view from the automated observation pod, one of dozens flying formation with our vessel, vanishes from my senses, replaced by the view of my cabin.
Currently my shipboard space is configured as a Sophic meditation grove from Aliaster. I visited there several centuries ago. The grove is a perfect ring of shrubbery, with occasional trees scattered across the grassy clearing so created. Virtually every aspect of the grove offers options for meditation. From the fractal patterning of the tree bark, to the changing play of light and shadow through the leafy branches, to the carefully arranged sounds and colors of the small fountain marking one of the focus shrines spaced along the perimeter, everything here holds the possibility of losing oneself for hours in silent contemplation and cleansing focus.
I sit cross-legged on a platform at the center of the grove, absorbing the perfect simplicity and underlying complexity of this place. I often come here, invoking this surround out of the many I carry in Hard Memory. Against all the wonders and awesome vistas I have seen, this simple (seeming) garden is somehow…restful.
A scented breeze blows across the clearing. A small cyclone approaches, flower petals and colored spices swirling within its depths. Riding atop it, balanced perfectly on the wavering gyre, is a crystalline slab of water clear diamond; its surface covered with earthen bowls and delicate glass decanters. Breakfast has arrived.
On a whim, as the table slides to a stop in front of me, I cancel the cabin optics program. The meditation grove fades away, replaced by a grayish space of indeterminate size, my personal belongings set here and there on basic shapes that merely sketch the outlines of shelves and tables. The breakfast slab and its fanciful whirlwind pedestal are gone, replaced by a simple mushroom shape of milky grey.
Another mental command and half the room becomes a window, looking out at the world below. Soon I will walk in places where the barrier between illusion and reality is thinner than anywhere I have visited before. It seems fitting somehow, before beginning such a journey, to eat my meal surrounded only by the products of that most stubborn of illusions, this thing we call reality. I smile and begin to eat.
A brief surge of weight as the shuttle is boosted down the launch track, and then free-fall grips the cabin. As the graceful wedge of the landing craft moves away into the space around the City, the glittering mass of the liner comes into view on the external channels. A chain of four spheres, each a kilometer across and enclosed in a bracing framework. Here sunlight reflects from an ancillary structure or radiator fin. There a navigation beacon flashes around an exit port or probe bay.
Fore and aft the rings of the Halo drive glow with a cold blue fire against the night. That light is faint now, the drive barely turning over as the ship spins in orbit. It was far brighter the night before as our vessel made its final deceleration into City space, the massive magnetic fields of the rings snatching particles of the solar wind and the odd drifting hydrogen atom and exciting them to blinding luminescence. Announcing our arrival to any sophont with the wherewithal to point a telescope in our direction.
Turning my attention from the view outside, I glance around the cabin at my fellow travelers to the world below. We are a diverse group, typical of the cosmopolitan centers that usually spawn visitors to such places as the City. Here, a pair of neo-octopi float in mobile water tanks, flashing colored patterns back and forth in rapid conversation. There an Aroostai grooms itself in apparent boredom, its long neck curled as it rummages in its back feathers. Next to the preening ostrich provolve a cyborg breaks into rolling laughter, apparently in response to a comment from the cat-splice seated next to him.
My own row mate is a non-descript sphere, studded here and there with sensor strips and effector nubs. During boarding, it perambulated down the aisle on three cordlike legs before settling into the seat next to me, retracting its limbs, and introducing itself as a team of Savir hedonics counselors from Kiyoshi. Normally such sophont computer virii would have simply transmitted themselves to the surface when the liner established communications with the City's local network. However, as we exchange pleasantries I learn that this group (collectively known as Odega) has decided to limit itself to ril existence during the course of their trip, both as a novelty experience and possibly to increase their talents in their chosen trade: infiltrating the nervous systems of other sophonts, either ril or virtual, and amplifying their sensations and responses during sexual activities. Odega feels that physically interacting with corporeal sophonts in a social setting may give them a better understanding of the ril condition and thereby improve their collective skill when working with non-virtual clients. They prove to be an interesting and charming conversationalist and over the next hour I find myself chuckling more than once at some witty joke or anecdote. For my part, I explain my own occupation as an Experiencer, traveling from system to system and recording the sights and sounds and sensations of each new place I visit for consumption by those who either have no time or no inclination to travel so extensively themselves. Meanwhile the shuttle continues to drop toward its rendezvous with the world below.
A gentle tone passes through the shared sensory space of the public net, followed by a brief announcement. The Lifter is drawing near. Odega and I quickly re-link our minds to the shuttles sensors and follow the impulse tags to the appropriate section of sky. There, moving smoothly towards us is the great silvery ring of the Lifter.
Lifters are a product of the City. They appeared shortly after Terragens began coming to this world. How they work is unknown, at least to merely human minds. Who can know what the transapients may understand. After all, they build the Halo drives that brought us here.
Slowing as it approaches, the Lifter maneuvers to place our shuttle within the circumference of its structure. Gently the ring turns, orienting itself along a plane parallel to that of the shuttle. For a few moments nothing seems to happen. Then the view outside begins to change. Below us the City begins to expand at a visible rate. In little more than ten minutes we cross over twenty thousand kilometers of space, moving from near-synchronous orbit to the edges of the atmosphere with not even a hint of acceleration being felt by those aboard. In the last moments of our journey the City seems to rush toward us at dizzying speed before stopping abruptly. The Lifter, still cradling our shuttle in whatever strange forces it employs, now hangs above a platform atop a starscraper, one of the great towers extending to the edge of space. For the measure of a long, trembling sigh we float above our destination. Then the shuttle settles gently downward, its landing struts extending just in time to cushion our gradual fall. At the same time weight quietly returns to those aboard, the near-standard gravity of the City finally making itself felt.
Above us the Lifter floats a moment more and then vanishes in a flash of silver, returning to the dark above as swiftly as it came. An airwall forms around us, followed by a muted roar as atmosphere is pumped onto the platform. We have arrived. Let the miracles begin.