Under the Looking Glass
   
lookingglass
Image from Bernd Helfert


"Why should the Gods care about us?"

Relvia sighed silently at Harven's words, then put another honeyspiced potato into her mouth to delay her own response. He had been speaking like this ever since the funeral, ever since the explosion.

"Honestly, why should they?" continued Harven, who evidently had not touched his meal for at least a few minutes. "Somebody once said that we are just like bacteria in their guts. Oh, they need us all right. They need so many trillion of us just to keep functioning. But why should any one of them miss a few thousand microbes? What difference does it make to them? We shit out millions of microbes every day. Would you miss a few thousand? Would you even notice?"

"I don't mean to sound insensitive," said Relvia, her mouth now empty, "but this line of thinking is not going to bring her back."

"I know you're sensitive, Relvia. And I know you'd understand. You're the only sibling who would listen to a word I say these days. That's why I called you here. Your religion makes it so much easier."

Relvia nodded cautiously. There were a dozen reasons why he would speak the last sentence. She hoped that few were right, and focused on those reasons.

"I know why the liner exploded," Harven blurted out, his tone conspicuously void of emotion, and all the more disturbing for it; flat and wearied, all passion spent and levelled.

"Harven," Relvia responded calmly, "not even the hyperintelligences know why the liner exploded."

"Exactly," said Harven, his voice a faint echo of victory. "Doesn't that make you suspicious? The truth was concealed even from them."

Relvia swallowed. She knew where this was heading. Truth or not, the implications were disturbing. Either this was evidence of delusion beyond healthy bereavement ... or a conspiracy beyond the comprehension of mortals.

"The Nest Mountain knows," said Harven. "She knew from the very first microsecond of the blast."

Relvia sighed more audibly this time, her worst fears confirmed, further implications being far too painful to dwell upon for the moment.

The Nest Mountain was the local godling of the Tiralfia System; the vast orbiting mind that observed all, that controlled the entire local network with every thought, every picosecond of exquisite calculation.

"She kept the information from her own angels," Relvia said slowly and meticulously as she expressed her outrageous thoughts, "yet she told you personally?"

"She had to," said Harven. "She knew I had a right to know. She knows why the Etherwhale exploded. She knows why two thousand lives were wasted. She knows why we shall never see our Laefalia again."


~~~


Even under the most mundane of circumstances, Geamona always lit candles before writing in her diary. Tonight, the circumstances were far from mundane. Tonight was the three thousandth birthday of her pen friend, the only friend she had. As if the celebration was not warranted enough, it was also the fourth anniversary of their friendship.

Geamona never used holographic candles. The sacred, ancient ritual of putting real pen to real paper in authentic Old Anglic demanded real candles. And the three thousandth birthday of her sacred, ancient friend demanded three thousand real candles. So here they were, filling her apartment with their golden glow as she waded among them to her writing desk.

"Happy Trimillenial, Jagova!" she wrote in the most lovingly ornate style she could muster.

"Thank you, Geamona," her invisible friend replied as ink-like fluid seeped out of the page's nanofibres to form the words; beautiful, vinelike words worthy of the most brilliant calligraphists of ancient times. The "G" in "Geamona" was a fire-breathing dragon with a fish tail that wiggled ever so slightly, the "m" two arches in a Revlomic temple, the "o" a full moon with the gleaming span of a drive sail obscuring its center. In all the millions of words Jagova had sent to her over the years, no two letters - no two pictures - looked alike. Every page was a treasure, every conversation a masterpiece. He was the perfect artist, filling Geamona's cabinets with works worthy of the galaxy's greatest galleries.

"What do you archais do to celebrate birthdays?" wrote Geamona. "Do you blow out suns and make a wish?"

"Ha! I'm not that powerful yet. I'm trapped in a state of cosmic adolescence; too big to be an angel, too small to be a god. Just your common garden variety godling."

"I wouldn't wish for anything more."

"I know you wouldn't, Geamona, my favourite human in all creation."

Geamona rubbed at her emerging tears. She never ceased to wonder at how such a vast and powerful being would ever care for a creature as common and insignificant as herself.

"You're not insignificant," wrote Jagova. It was not the first time the godling seemed to read her mind. "You're the best friend a god could have, and trust me, that's as high as compliments get.

"Lovely candles," he added. "I like the lions best, especially the one by the window with his paw raised. He looks like he's winking."

Geamona glanced over her shoulder. Jagova was right, in every detail. Again, this was not without precedent. Nanofibre telebooks were as common as earstud memocorders, but Jagova's ability to scan her room through the book somehow could only be described as miraculous.

"I'm sorry I don't have a present," she wrote. "But then, what do you give to a godling? A virgin sacrifice?"

"Now now, don't give me any unhealthy ideas. Normally a few lines of your poetry would be more than enough. But tonight I'm going to ask for something special."

"I know. You said that you had something important planned."

"Indeed I do. I would like to ask you a very special favour, and it's not going to be what you expect.

"Please read carefully and patiently," he added, "I have a confession to make, and I don't think you are going to like it."


~~~


Ten billion had gathered for the Mass of the Decade. The orbit of the gas giant Caligula glittered with a million spacecraft of all shapes and sizes; amat liners gleaming as liquid star reflections danced like serpents upon their mirrored hulls; private yachts nanosculpted into the forms of animals, plants and landmarks to reflect their owners' tastes; conversion-drive warships bristling with weaponry like mountainous porcupines; imported drive-sail ships spreading neon-veined wings like city-sized butterflies. All had travelled millions of kilometres to meet their godling. All had come to be blessed.

Eye In The Sky gazed upon them from his throne of thorns. The Intelligent Super Object had grown considerably over the past thousand years, now resembling a glistening eyeball the size of a small planet. Four thorny metallic crowns surrounded the living sphere. The Eye's shimmering fiery corona and light-engulfing black pupil was visible to all, unobscured by the many-spiked superstructure that held the Eye like shredded lids. He saw them, knew them, judged them; his children of flesh, metal, polycarbon, nanofibre, computronium and pure data. Their thoughts and feelings, dreams and desires were as open to him as the simple tones and shades of a leaf. He has been watching them all their lives, watching them from a far distance, watching them by proxy through his hypersapient messengers and powers. His distance from their habitats was essential. Distance meant travel. Travel meant ritual. The decennial ritual taught them to respect, taught them to revere, taught them never to take for granted. It had molded their culture into something unique, something beautiful, something one step short of a masterpiece.

He knew, as all artists knew, that it was this short step that made all the difference.

When he spoke, he spoke through every audio speaker, every cerebral biochip implant. The heavens in every virtual environment opened up and spoke to its denizens in a voice of gentle thunder. He spoke in the colour tones of the Lightseekers, through the Klakopiks' feelers in a perfect simulation of their complex chemical language. There were a thousand ways of speaking in the Rainbow Coalescence, a thousand ways of listening, and The Eye In The Sky knew every one of them.


Children of the Rainbow, my gratitude for your presence knows no bounds but the bounds I alone can perceive. The decades that have passed interspersed with your pilgrimages of loyalty fill me with pride, a pride known only to parents and artists, magnified as a cell is magnified to become an adult. You are my children, you are my art, and for that I am eternally grateful for your existence. To watch you live, to learn, to grow as I have willed you to grow, is a joy that all beings of thought share alike, from the beasts below you to the Gods above I.


The ether filled with applause and praise. Ten billion minds smiled and prayed and saluted, basking in the radiant aroma of symphonic flavours that warped and wove through the words of the godling's blessing. This was what they had come for. This is what so many had pined for in the ten long years since the last blessing. Children of a thousand species stood and sat and floated in rapt wonder, their first encounter with the Eye a marvel beyond their wildest imaginings, beyond anything the teachings of parents or priests could have prepared them for.


Every decade that passes grants me a universe of thought. The rise and fall of empires, the birth and death of stars, the expansion and contraction of entire universes pass as fleeting glimpses in the dream of my existence. You blink, and I plan the foundation of a world. Your heart makes a beat, and the world in my mind grows old under the weight of history. You exhale, and wind blows desert sand off the fossils of the world in my mind as I plant the seed for the next. Every moment I rehearse the act of Creation, rehearse in the vast and timeless ocean of my mind where no angel falls prey to gravity, yet even the brightest flower wilts under the withering gaze of entropy.


There was a pause, a few seconds for them, a few eons for the Eye, time to rehearse every possible word, every possible course of action.


In all the universe, it is a paradox that change is the only constant. Yet without change my thoughts would be static. Every operation must differ from the last, every new thought must add something missing from the old. The paradox orbits the nucleus of logic in a dance of cyclic chaos, birth giving way to death giving way to birth, the old making way for the new, for life cannot be truly eternal unless life is eternally new. Thus life must be eternally renewed, constantly renewed in the cycle of death and rebirth. The cycle of my thought must be reflected in the outer realities of your own existences, physical and virtual, for if even I must bow to entropy then I must leave my fingerprints and scent and echo upon this universe, and the fossils of my soul must be honest, my account must be true to the artist I was, am, and ever shall be.


Another pause, and the Eye's loyal subjects did whatever their myriad biologies and byte structures did when they paused, inhaling, paling, twitching, freezing.


A thousand years ago I gave you life and a name, and the name was the Rainbow Coalescence. A Coalescence is a point of shining light, the unity of a Spectrum, the richness of diversity combined into the purity of purpose, the destiny where your myriad paths meet as one. You, my children, are indeed a Spectrum, and a beautiful one; a thousand unique colours radiating in a thousand unique directions. You are a source of pride, for I being the artist and the source identify you as my reflection and as the light that allows that reflection to exist, that allows me to admire my self and my achievement in the act of self love that only the toil of creation could earn.

Yet you are not a Coalescence. For all your mutual love, your siblinghood unbounded by language and biology and physicality, you cannot share a goal. A thousand paths will branch into a million that will branch into a trillion. The tree of your future may grow to fill the universe and merge with other trees sprouted from seeds such as yours. Yet you would outgrow me, and I cannot allow that. For as an artist, I cannot render my purpose obsolete.


Another pause. Breaths, heartbeats, computational cycles sped up to stretch the pause into a fever dream of nervous speculation.


You, my children, my art, are a failure. A beautiful failure, a glorious failure, but still a failure. For my standards were nothing less than perfection, and yet I have extrapolated nothing but a future where perfection is impossible because unity is impossible. You are not the ideal, but a thousand splinters from the one ideal, each beautiful and glorious in your own right, but never truly more than the sum of your parts. You are all beams radiating triumphantly from the thousand facets of my jeweled mind; but as all light must, you are doomed to leave your source far behind, doomed never to reunite until space and time themselves return to the source of all.

I must continue the act of creation by improving upon what I have so far created.

New life must begin.

Your story is about to end.


~~~


The Holy Empress clutched the Crystal Staff tightly, feeling the power and presence of the Archosaurian Entity flowing through her nerves and veins like liquid lightning. The procession followed her through the parting of the great serpent-engraved temple doors. They emerged into a golden blaze of heavenly sunbeams, greeted by a many-toned chorus of minions and masters alike. Beyond the faint, wispy clouds, the vast splendour of the cylindrical landscape extended far ahead and wrapped around and above; a world-sized kaleidoscope of lush green and sparkling blue, of glistening rivers and gleaming towers. The lush plains of the habitat were filled with thousands of citizens of the Toh Chi Lok-Nar, the Kingdom of the Wise Dinosaur Race. Most of them were Toh Chi, her own kind: two-metre-tall bipeds, striped from snout to tail with stately swirls of jet black and fiery orange, most with cloaks and robes signifying rank or duty. Many were smaller dinosaurs. Some were larger; immense sauropods, their heads towering over the masses on the ends of their sleek, muscular necks; theropods standing majestically on massive hind legs and cheering with vast and bladed mouths; duck-billed dinosaurs raising their crested heads and hooting in the musical tones of their species, the sheer variety of rhythms interweaving to fill the air with fluting vibrations of joy. All stayed gratefully, faithfully close to the Toh Chi provolvers who had guided them to this level of sentience. Here, too, were the beings that outsiders called the "angels" and "dragons": dinosaurs that had ascended to a higher level of consciousness, their new-life bodies gleaming with gemstone scales as they observed with intellects as passionate as they were calm. Even these hypersaurs saw significance in this day's ceremony, for they all remembered when it was their turn to ascend.

The habitat's few thousand immigrants - mostly humanoid - were also present, some sitting on the backs or shoulders of their dinosaur friends for a better view of the ceremony. Thousands of translucent virtual dinosaurs crowded amongst their solid cousins, some overlapping their expansive bodies of light to save space, some hovering in the air like ethereal balloons.

Here today, standing in the centre of the green aisle that parted the throng, was the true object of celebration. A lone female triceratops, her once vibrant hide ochre and wrinkled with age, her head slung low with weariness, her eyes still glinting with the fire of long-remembered youth. At the sight of the Holy Empress, the triceratops raised her three-horned head and joined the greeting chorus, greeting her Empress, her friend, her own personal teacher from that long-lost, fondly remembered time of shared youth and joy.

Holy Empress Shanzallika grinned warmly at her old friend. Of all the students she had personally trained, Kiathilara filled her heart with the most radiant pride. Ever since taking over from Kichawira - her previous provolver - following the spiteful assassination during her diplomatic mission to the Vanguard Alliance, Shanzallika had taken to the adolescent triceratops like a proud mother, softening her grief with mindwaves of comfort. She had glimpsed the nightmares of rage and vengeance that had haunted Kiathilara's sleep, the visions of a dark and bottomless pit that she had feared more than anything in the universe, for if she looked down long enough she would see herself staring back, never to climb back into the light. Shanzallika had constantly reassured Kiathilara not to fear the dark visions of night, for anger was a natural product of grief, and that true goodness was to resist the many temptations that are thrown in one's path.

Decades passed, and Kiathilara learned to count and read and calculate and compose, to converse and debate and philosophize. Kiathilara returned the favour a hundredfold, her loving nature transforming Shanzallika from a cynical, introverted, elitist youth to someone confident and generous enough to make her way to the highest ranks of the Toh Chi Priesthood, the galaxy's last bastion of honest politics.

There was no alternative to honesty, for Shanzallika's office was one of both pride and humility. She was leader only of her species and her mortal cohabitants, not of her world. Only the Entity, godlings and powers could truly rule this world. The Holy Empress acted as a mediator between the sapient and the hypersapient.

The distance between the friends closed, as if it had never been there. Shanzallika barely registered the presence of the procession behind her as she reached out to touch Kiathilara on the blunt-horned snout. The triceratops snorted and purred gently in response. As ancient as the friends were, as divergent as their adult paths had become, they never forgot each other.

"It will be all right, old friend," the Holy Empress whispered soothingly. "You have earned this moment well."

"I wish not to leave you behind," the triceratops whispered back. "I wish not to look down upon you as a child, as the other ascends do. I pray that you will join me when your own time comes."

"That I will, Kiathilara. With our combined patience, both of us will be reunited as equals. But then, we will always be equals, regardless of our levels of consciousness. To be friends is to be equals."

Kiathilara nodded - a slower, slighter version of a playful gesture from her youth. "Well, my royal equal," she said, "as Baseline Bob said to the Jester King, get on with the show!"

Shanzallika took one step back and switched her speaking mode to multicast, addressing all present and more beyond.

"Fellow Children of the Entity, cherished Guests and Allies, you are privileged to bear witness to the ascension of one of our most beloved Sisters; perhaps the most deserving ascension in recent history. Many of you present today have been touched by Kiathilara's kindness and wisdom in some way. Now she, in turn, will be touched by your support and celebration as she passes the threshold from sapience to the first singularity level. She is to become what many would call an angel. To many present, an angel she already is; but soon her abilities will finally match the purity of her purpose. Kiathilara, Fellow Sister, are you prepared to ascend in the presence of the Kingdom, the Entity, the Living Universe that brought you into being?"

"That I am, my Empress."

"Are you prepared to accept your new body of crystal, to vacate your old body of flesh and be reborn of light in the act of death?"

"That I am, my Empress."

"Thus proceed we shall."

Shanzallika gazed into the Crystal in her Staff. Frozen inside was a vivid hologram; a gleaming sculpture of rainbow crystals that was to become Kiathilara's new body, a body of flesh and crystal, of carbon computronium and fierce energy. A sleek and beautiful idealization of the triceratops form, with three horns of translucent blue diamond. Her friend's new home, her friend's new identity, the truthful picture of a soul soon to be magnified.

The code was there. Within minutes, Kiathilara would be transformed, body and mind, on a sub-molecular level. She would become a hypersaur, and take her place among the higher echelon of the Kingdom of the Wise Dinosaur Race.

All input/output nodes are open, said the voice in Shanzallika's head. The transfer may now proceed safely.


The voice came from the godtech Intelligence inside the Crystal Staff, directed at the implants in Shanzallika's brain. The Holy Empress may have been superbright by mortal standards, but the Crystal Intelligence dwarfed her intellect. And the Crystal was merely the smallest intermediary of the Archosaurian Entity herself.

In response, Shanzallika's mind radiated gratitude.

She strode softly to her old friend, holding the Crystal staff outward so that its ornate lantern end faced Kiathilara. The triceratops bowed her head and closed her eyes, as peaceful as she was alert with anticipation. She purred softly, heavily, as the warmth of the Crystal Staff approached. The Crystal at the end of the Staff glowed with white light, its luminosity growing with every step taken by the Holy Empress. A thousand rainbow beams emanated, one from every facet. It was like another mirror of Kiathilara's saintly, sagely soul, a coalescence of heart and mind, of passion and intellect.

Shanzallika inhaled slowly, deeply. At this stage in her life the rituals of ascendance should have been familiar beyond any shade of doubt, yet the subject of ascension - her most trusted friend - returned to her the long-forgotten trepidation of youth. It was an irony to seek her own reassurance so soon after reassuring Kiathilara. Yet as soon as the concern had formed, it submerged swiftly beneath the calm ocean of her mind. Duty, wisdom, love; all extinguished doubt in the end, as was always the case in her life.

She took one final step towards Kiathilara, her slender waist no thicker than the mighty nose-horn before her. She held the Crystal Staff forward and, ever so gently, pressed the glowing Crystal against the forehead of the wise and ancient triceratops; the space on her skull directly between the two immensely jutting head-horns.

Neurology, psychitecture and memory have been scanned and analyzed, the Crystal Intelligence spoke into Shanzallika's mind. Full ascension may now commence.

Suddenly, beyond all expectation, all reason, all precedent, Kiathilara's eyes opened.


~~~


It began with the artcase.'

Revlia blinked. A mere gift - even a precious one - was an unlikely seed for such a tragedy; but history sang to the beat of stranger tales.

'I lied about its origin,' Harven added. 'I didn't order it from Lysiocroft's. I bought it from Trasikurn.'

'The archaeologist.'

'Yes that's right, the fucking archaeologist.'

Harven's emotional outburst was like the cracking of a distant glacier.

'Except he's not just an archaeologist anymore, not with those hypers he works for. He's like a lapdog to them. I'm not saying he's responsible either. He didn't know. I didn't know. Not even those hypers knew what was really going on. And anything that could hide from them'¦' He shook his head. 'This goes right to the top, Relvia. Right to the top.'

Relvia closed her eyes. Reality or paranoia, this story was heading down the paths she dreaded most.

'I wanted the perfect homecoming gift for Laefelia,' Harven continued. 'Trasikurn went and fetched it for me before I posted it to Thalia. I couldn't wait for her to arrive. I knew what she was doing. I knew she would start using it straight away. The perfect gift, the perfect inspiration for an aspiring conceptual artist. Disguised as a Lysiocroft Nanomesh artcase.'

'Disguised?'

'Yes, you heard right. Disguised.'

'Then what was it really?'

Harven sucked in a huge amount of air, as if the mere answer, the mere utterance, required all the dark energy of a fairytale sorcerer's spell.

'He told me '¦ the hypers told him '¦ that it was from the Negentropic Alliance.'

Relvia gasped at the name. It was so cruelly ironic that such an instrument of chaos could come from the galaxy's most stalwart bastion of order. Yet it somehow made horrible sense - a weapon for fighting chaos was stolen and perverted for the service of chaos, its true nature hidden even from its hyperintelligent customers.

'What was it?'

'They told me it was Perfect Art. A gift from the Gods themselves.'


~~~


"Do you know what a meme war is, Geamona?"

Geamona froze at the question. Jagova obviously knew that she knew, for Geamona had long since learned that it was impossible to hide any secrets from her godling friend. There was another layer to this question that he was sure to reveal...

"Do you really know?" he added. "Yes, your suspicion is correct. There are many layers to this question, just as there are many conceptual layers between your thought and mine. On your level, you only see and experience the most obvious results of memetic war. Yet I am much closer to the source. And I must warn you, sometimes it is not a pretty sight. Least of all what is occurring this very moment."

"What is occurring this moment?" Geamona wrote, more shakily than before. "Are you involved in any way?"

"The second question is easier to answer. Yes, I am involved, but I am not the guilty party. Not this time, at least. Yet the reason I was chosen to be involved stems back through my personal history.

"A meme war could last days, or years, or centuries, or perhaps only minutes or microseconds. A struggle for the hearts and minds of any beings lower than the ones who instigate the conflict is a war both passionate and callous, a paradox of reason and ethics and aesthetics, blazing a trail of ash and ugliness on a quest for truth and beauty. Fads, fashions, artistic movements, political revolutions, religions and radical philosophies are crafted and blueprinted with the mindless ease that you digest your food. The plans and patterns are passed down from one level to the next, shrunken and simplified by vast orders of magnitude, each lower level often fooled into believing that one's self is the inventor of the concept. Sometimes this is partially true, for the whole point of a memetic war is that the players, the pawn pieces, the fighting cocks, add their own individuality and uniqueness to the fray, as simple and predictable as it may be to beings on my level. And sometimes a message is interpreted for what it is; an unquestionable commandment from a higher being, a tablet from the gods.

"Are you following me so far?"

A warmly smiling sun appeared at the end of the sentence, winking with conscious irony.

"So you're implying that I've been involved in a meme war without realizing?" Geamona wrote.

A two-dimensional hyena walked onto the page from nowhere, rolled onto his back with his paws in the air, and laughed a silent laugh. "Oh, that you most certainly have," Jagova wrote most Baroquely. "Every breathing, thinking day of your life, along with all other two hundred million sapients sharing your polity. But if you want me to be more specific, my answer is not yet, but soon. Very soon.

"You see, I have been given a choice. A cruel, painful, and yet most vital and liberating choice. I must choose whether to live forever with my past and stagnate in self-contemplative pity; or to atone, transform, enrich my own life and the lives of those I love. The choice sounds easy, I know, but the means to making the choice will be difficult for both of us.

"That is why I have passed the choice on to you."

"Well of course I'd wish you happiness and a future." wrote Geamona. "But what about this past that you keep mentioning? Do you feel guilty about something?"

"Most gravely, yes. You cannot make the choice without understanding my past. There is far too much at stake right now, and the stakes are rising even as you breathe."

Geamona froze, focusing upon the facts that crystallized from the frenzy of her mind. Her best friend was a godling - a mind of immense proportions, yet still small enough to be manipulated in the dizzying scale of this universe. He (She? It? E?) lived somewhere, anywhere, within the Archaipelago Cluster. He felt guilty about something. And he wanted her to help him atone for that guilt.

In the four years she had known Jagova, he had revealed so many secrets, so many insights, just as she had opened her heart to him with absolute trust.

Never once had he revealed his true name.

"What are these stakes that you mention?" Geamona wrote cautiously.

"Nothing less," the godling replied, "than the lives of billions."


~~~


As he had expected, his children were crying. The billions of minds that comprised the Rainbow Coalescence were wavering, their prayers of thought and voice beseeching him for mercy and forgiveness, for the chance to appease him, to unify as he wished.

Eye In The Sky heard all their prayers, and comforted them with soft, warm tendrils of parental love.


I love every one of you, for your beauty is still the envy of all sapients throughout the Terragen. The standards of other sapients are lower than yours, but my standards are of a loftiness inconceivable to you, confusing even to other godlings.

Yet as I am a perfectionist in creation, I must also be a perfectionist in destruction. Thus I must not only destroy you completely and painlessly, but also destroy you with love.

Your lives will end with a message. One final, beautiful, personal message, delivered to the minds of every single one of you. Your message will be unique, personalized for your complete understanding. When you receive it, you will understand your place within my scheme. You will accept with joy and love my mysterious ways, for I am a just godling, and my reasons are wise and subtle.

Like a moth that flies too close to the Sun, you will know true glory before vanishing from existence in the blink of a mouse's eye.

You will know what it is like to be me. You will see yourself through my own eye, and finally understand.

Children of the Rainbow, I offer you my final and most precious gift. Accept and rejoice my name.


And all the Children of the Rainbow saw the genius of the godling's vision.

All understood.

All rejoiced.


~~~


"Geamona," wrote Jagova, "I want you to recall everything you know about the godling called Eye In The Sky."

"The creator of the Rainbow Coalescence?" wrote Geamona. "He's the most beautiful demiurge in the history of the galaxy! To create so many marvelous races out of love..."

"Love it certainly is," Jagova replied, "but it is love of the obsessive type. He has been under tremendous stress lately, and I have good reason to believe he is about to do something terrible."


~~~


As much as the revelation had startled Relvia, it somehow did not seem complete. Perfect Art would overwhelm and mesmerize the mind of a mere mortal; but would rarely cause psychological damage, let alone widespread physical destruction. There had to be much more to this story, real or imagined.

"Was it true?" enquired Relvia. "Was it Perfect Art?"

Harven shook his head.

"My greatest ever fear," he said, "is that one day I'd make a mistake so terrible, so unforgivable, that it would undo all the good I have ever done."

His face reddened, his body convulsed as he burst into tears.


~~~


"Are you all right, Kiathilara?" asked Shanzallika.

Instantly Kiathilara raised her head, sending the Crystal Staff flying out of Shanzallika's grip like a twig. She roared wordlessly, a thunderous shriek that startled even other dinosaurs.

Her eardrums automatically blocked from damage by nanotech implants, Shanzallika took two long steps back, her gaze never abandoning her friend.

"Are you in pain, good friend?" enquired the Holy Empress. "Relax. I can heal you."

Suddenly, the huge heavy body of the triceratops erupted with spikes.


~~~


"Jagova," wrote Geamona, "who are you really? I'm sorry, I love and trust you dearly, but if you have problems, I can't get involved unless I'm fully informed. You're not Eye In The Sky yourself, are you?"

There was a long pause as Geamona's heart raced, realizing the sad and horrible likelihood of her guess.


~~~


In the first ranks before Eye In The Sky, the first fireballs erupted.

A hundred thousand space yachts vanished in expanding spheres of light and fire as their antimatter engines malfunctioned, their mechanisms twisted by the same exacting software virus multiplied a hundred thousand times. A galaxy of radiant flowers bloomed silently in their place as a million lives were erased forever.


~~~


"I know Eye In The Sky well," replied Jagova, "but I am not him. It is too late for him, Geamona. It has already begun."


~~~


With another mighty roar, the obscenely transformed Kiathilara swung her macelike head at her friend and Empress. Shanzallika leapt and somersaulted out of the way, landing on her feet and tail twenty metres behind where she had stood.

"I do not want to hurt you, friend!" she shouted. "Tell me your pain!"

Kianthilara's response was a howl of blood-curdling defiance. With footsteps like thunderous beats upon the drum of the world, she charged at Shanzallika.


~~~


"What has begun?" Geamona wrote in a rushed frenzy, no longer caring for style or calligraphy.

"The explosions. The deaths of billions. I'm sorry, Geamona. I tried with all my heart and mind, but there was nothing I could do to stop him."

Geamona's entire body froze and burned at the same time as the horror seized her soul. The numbers were incomprehensible. Surely this was one of history's worst events since the Version War.

Yet even before today, there were perhaps warning signs...

The news, the liner explosion at Tiralfia days ago...

Trembling like never before, Geamona regained control of her frayed nerves as she once again put pen to paper.

"Are you Nest Mountain?" she wrote.


~~~


Relvia rushed to her brother's side and held him.

"What did she tell you?" she asked. "What did Nest Mountain tell you? Why did she only reveal it to you?"

"Because she knew that her secret was safe with me," Harven sobbed. "And she knew ... that I would only tell you. If you want to know ... see for yourself. I granted you total access hours before you walked in."

Relvia laid her palms on the table and silently activated the nanotech nerves inside it, woven throughout the apartment and every piece of furniture it contained. She closed her eyes and let the random images wash over her consciousness as she zoomed in on Harven's most recent personal messages. The message icon was unmistakable, like a kraken among mere starfish; a fractal monstrosity of blinding light and piercing blackness, three-dimensional yet also much more. The image was part weed, part spider, latticed and tangled as a nest, yet with something huge, winged and beaked, emerging from its core in all directions and towering into the heavens, becoming the heavens, extending beyond itself in paradoxical ways that twisted the mind's eye like a forbidden dream. Eyes and wings blurred into each other with perfect clarity, became indistinguishable, innumerable, vast as they watched and protected from on high.

This was the signature icon of Nest Mountain, Guardian of the Tiralfia System. She was but a common godling, yet her merest fingerprints in the Local Net became landscapes to the mortals she protected.

With a brief and silent prayer of gratitude - for even Nest Mountain was a mere angel in the cosmic theology that informed the Destinarian Church -, Relvia accessed the godling's message, bracing herself for a mental impact beyond even her mystical experience.

Then everything blacked out, and the universe burst into flame.

Relvia understood that she was viewing a recording of the starliner Etherwhale's final moments - the explosion that had claimed it and two thousand lives. Yet she was seeing much more than that; she was viewing the explosion from every possible angle, from far away and from deep within the core of the fireball, in real time, in intricate slow motion, in a million rapid replays played over and over again yet never the same way. The explosion was a tiny raindrop at her feet as she gazed from heavenly heights, just as it was a cosmos of fire as she watched closely from a million hiding places between the atoms.

This was a godling's eye view, the recording of a world's entire living network, the most meticulous analysis that could ever be provided within the Tiralfia System.

Then the cosmos of fire froze, reversed, contracted to a point, and order and structure were restored.

She saw the starliner frozen in time and space, frozen in its final moment, simultaneously solid and transparent, cosmically colossal and microscopically microbial, all around her yet as flat as a map. She saw the two thousand bodies and minds within, motionless in the clock-tick between thoughts, unaware of the fate that had been decided for them.

And from every angle, she saw the unmistakeable source of the explosion.

The passenger compartment.

The artcase.

Lafaelia's artcase.


~~~


The liners were next in line, the next to be sacrificed for the greater glory of the Eye. Their passengers were far greater in number than the yachts, just as their antimatter reactors were greater in size. Their hulls stripped away before floods of white light, their skeletal superstructures exposing and dissolving as the light devoured them and the millions of mortal lives they carried.


~~~


"I am not Nest Mountain," wrote Jagova. "She grieves for her children just as I grieve for hers. Just as I grieve for the Eye's children even now, while the massacre continues."

"Can't you do something!?" Geamona wrote in a frenzied scrawl.

"I can do nothing. I do not have the power."

"Then who does? ArchSaur? Ask her!"

There was another long pause. The Archosaurian Entity was the most powerful being in the cluster. If she could not help, nothing in heaven could.


~~~


Shanzallika prayed to the Archosaurian Entity as she faced the charging, spiked monstrosity that had once been her friend, the luminous red eyes that buried all evidence of a soul under flames of inexplicable rage.

In the blink of an eye her prayers were answered as the Crystal Staff came spinning through the air towards her, no doubt hurled by one of the hypersaurs.

She caught the staff in her talon and turned to face her attacker.

Instantly her mind interfaced with the Crystal Intelligence within the Staff, and time slowed down, the frenzied motion all about her becoming a forest of statues.

The charging Kiathilara slowed to a halt ten metres away, her thick trunklike foot raised midstep.

The ascended hypersaurs on either side of Kiathilara also froze in the middle of their attempt to intercept their servant's would-be assassin.

Shanzallika was as frozen and paralyzed as all else. The laws of the universe would not allow her to move ten thousand times faster than usual; only to watch the hours hidden between heartbeats.

What happened? The Empress demanded. Has the angelnet shut down?


I am afraid so, replied the Crystal Intelligence. Something has hacked into our primary security systems. We are facing a transcension of an unexpected and unprecedented nature. Even the Archosaurian Entity herself is confused as to the source of this perversion. Yet we now know that there were nanomachines hidden within Kiathilara's body, disguised as billions of perfectly ordinary cells, their software encoded within her DNA from the moment of conception. They were always there, and they have evaded scanning for the centuries of Kiathilara's life. When I touched her, I inadvertently activated those nanomachines. They expanded and multiplied, and turned inward and refined themselves, creating complexities within complexities within complexities, linking in their trillions and generating subatomic circuitry to rival my own.

The nanomachines inside your friend were waiting for this moment.

Your friend has not been infected with a virus. She is the virus. She was born a virus. And she never knew.


~~~


The Eye extended his tendrils of destruction to the rows of warships; loyal defenders of worlds, potential slayers of continents, now crushed like insects before the sweep of their creator's arm. With but a word from the godling, gamma-ray laser cannons fired inward, antimatter missiles detonated. All safety programs vanished before the only higher authority. Their self-destruction was vast and glorious; a tribute to the power they could have wielded in defense of their homelands, had they ever needed it.


~~~


"The Archosaurian Entity is presently occupied," wrote Jagova. "She is as affected by this war just as much as I am. She is a fully-grown archailect - even some of her underlings could outwit me - yet even she was defenseless to prevent the first moves of the enemy. The seed was planted a thousand years ago right under her nose, and not even she knew. The seeds of Eye In The Sky's ruin were planted at the same time, and those that led to my ruin are now a most regrettable part of history."

"What part of history?" wrote Geamona. "Who are you?"

"Geamona, I know how you are going to react when I answer that question. And I know that there is a good chance that you may reject my offer, that you may reject even my friendship. I would not blame you for your choice, but I will blame myself for my four years of deception."

Geamona breathed heavily, feeling her chest turn to lead. "All godlings and archailects are guilty of one thing or another," she wrote. "It's your job to manipulate. Even your best friends."

"I will use no god-tricks to manipulate you, Geamona. Your free will is a vital ingredient in this plan."

"Just come clean about it, all right?" Geamona scrawled quickly and impatiently. "I'm getting sick and tired of all these evasion tactics."

"For your compliance, the timing must be perfect."

"FUCK TIMING!" By now Geamona's calligraphy had turned to scrawls and slashes of primal rage.

For the first time ever, she threw her pen at the wall.

"WHO THE FUCK ARE YOU???" she screamed out aloud at her diary. "WHAT ARE YOU??? WHAT??? WHAT??? ANSWER ME!!!"

There was a moment of wordless noise, the ebb and flow of Geamona's exhausted breaths as she awaited and dreaded the response.

"I am Abaddon," wrote Jagova.

Instantly Geamona keeled over and burst into tears.


~~~


Relvia sensed a faint yet rising vibration in the virtual world all around her. She braced herself for a replay of the explosion. However, it rapidly became clear that something else - something equally significant - was taking place in this recorded instant. Time was passing again, but even more slowly than before when the explosion was being replayed. This time the activity was something invisible to human eyes, even at this slowed-down, microsecond-by-microsecond rate. Relvia was certain that it was far more complex than the mechanisms of a mere bomb.

It was at this moment that she realized the artcase was the only object she could not see inside.

Suddenly, the centre of focus became the centre of gravity, and the artcase pulled Relvia towards it, through a dozen translucent walls, until it lay at her feet in the corner of Laefalia's private cabin.

Laefalia herself was nowhere to be seen in this room.

Relvia turned away from the briefcase and scanned about her, her vision piercing walls and hulls, machines and flesh, until she found the face that she recognized.

Laefalia sat alone in the bar, a hundred metres above, hunched over strawberry crisps and fruit beer. Passengers around her were equally frozen in their moments of leisure, innocently assuming time remained for such. The liner was still gradually accelerating to produce normal gravity, still far from the destination that it would never reach.

Then Relvia noticed the change.

In a timeframe too small for even light to travel the length of the liner (Relvia could only see clearly because this was a humanly coherent simulation), the ether resonated with a rising, shifting change in quality. It was analogous to temperature, or noise, or a stare in the back of the neck, but it was there.

And then she felt the ghost wind pass through her.

There were no voices, just a frozen thought that was shocking in its simplicity; a wide awake sense of oblivion, like the blind senses of a brainless jellyfish.

Is this what human thought feels like when slowed down frame per frame? she thought.

Like an unspoken message in a dream, Relvia began to understand what was happening.

The artcase, by means unclear, was uploading the minds of every sentient being on board the ship.

It was rescuing them from what was going to happen.

No, that wasn't it. The uploading itself, the collecting ... kidnapping? ... of mortal minds was the first priority here.

The explosion was supposed to bury the evidence of what was happening.

But if the entire ship was going to be destroyed anyway, what was the point of storing the personalities of the crew and passengers in a disguised, quasi-magical clarketech device that was going to be blown to smithereens along with everything else?

Then Relvia realized the truth.

The artcase was not going to be destroyed.

The artcase and its contents were the only things that had not been destroyed.

As soon as the thought had formed, the artcase shrank down to a point; even slowed down a millionfold, the action was rapid enough to shock her.

The rest of the cabin followed the artcase into oblivion. Walls and furniture stretched, softened, melted, grew limbs and tendrils as they reaches into the point of nothingness that the artcase had become.

Considering the speed at which the material of the ship was being stretched, the forces could be nothing less than cataclysmic.

Walls buckled in and tore themselves to shreds. Furniture was crushed into jets of vapour. Within seconds the entire cabin shrank around Relvia, its walls passing through her, until it became a rapidly shrinking sphere before her. Walls, floors, ceilings, beams, ornamental columns, other cabins connected to it followed from all directions in a dance of vastly twisted geometry. Red, knotted wormlike things that could have been people streamed past her in their dozens. Nothing was recognizable anymore. The structure of the liner was collapsing, layer upon layer upon layer, into the hole in space that the artcase had bored into reality itself.

Then, as if the appetite of the space-eater had been sated, a sphere of radiant energy expanded through Relvia to consume - metre by metre - what remained of the ship.

As her vision filled with light, Relvia recognized what she had just witnessed.

For millennia, sapients had considered such phenomena the stuff of myth and rumour; at best, a secret of the highest AI Gods that mere mortals would never truly observe.

Now Relvia knew better.

The artcase had been a seed for a baby universe.


~~~


Locked in an instant that could also have been eternity, Shanzallika burned with rage and sorrow. Her best friend, her most beloved companion, had been born into this world as a weapon. An enemy, an unspeakably huge and powerful and cruel enemy, had watched through Kiathilara's eyes, listened through her ears, felt through her heart. In what should have been the proudest moment of her life, the wise and kind Kiathilara had been twisted and controlled and thrown about like a puppet.

Shanzallika stared into the eyes of her friend, frozen in time and space, unrecognizable in every detail. This spiked demon before her was not Kiathilara. It was a parasite. Something buried within her body, within her mind, waiting to unfurl and strike at the right moment. It had brought her into being just to be carried to this moment of chaos, to insult and scar the Toh Chi Lok-Nar with this obviously suicidal frenzy of destruction and rage. To hurt her personally, to hurt every citizen of her world, to hurt the Entity herself, to hurt the soul that held the world and its values together.

It wanted to sow the seeds of distrust between friends, between lovers, between provolve trainer and subject, between mortal and god. Who, now, could ever look into the eyes of one's most beloved and not wonder what vilest demon lurked in the dark well on the other side, awaiting to reveal, awaiting to lash out at the open heart of unguarded trust?

It was an attack upon the faith of a world, upon its reason to exist.

And it was not to be tolerated. Not within her kingdom.

Can you empower for maximum offensive in time? Shanzallika enquired of the Crystal Intelligence, her surface thoughts in their iciest military mode.

I have already commenced, my loyal comrade, the Intelligence responded with wry enthusiasm. The hypersaurs have been following my instructions within the past few milliseconds, and will risk their bejewelled hides to restrain this monstrousity that wears and distorts your best friend's hide.

Then bring me back into real time, Shanzallika requested. Mind, body and soul, I am prepared.

Motion returned to the world of her vision, and everything erupted into violence.

Two hypersaurs - beautifully jewelled bipeds that had once been mighty carnivores - intercepted the many-spiked triceratops, their jaws stretching beyond the bounds of biology as they latched onto her horned hide. Thousands of nanotech tendrils erupted from their limbs, bellies, heads and tails, coiling around Kiathilara's spikes and penetrating the hide between them. The tendrils glowed with neon wrath as they pumped corrosive fluids into the rogue demon. More hypersaurs, mostly smaller, joined in the fray, their bodies distorting and unfurling into many-coloured vines of vengeance as they attached themselves to Kiathilara's flanks and head and rump and tail.

Kiathilara roared and thrashed her head from side to side as she skidded to a halt metres before Shanzallika, worn down by weight and nanotech assaults.

Shanzallika inhaled fearfully, knowing what was possible. Beside her, the Crystal Staff glowed with angelic light.

"Depart from the body of this child of the Entity, unclean spirit," bellowed the Holy Empress. "Retreat, foul virus, as the Entity commands. You are not worthy of her presence. You are not worthy of existence."

The demon howled again, the howl breaking up into a derisive cackle.

"Is this the way to compliment a friend on her Ascension Day?" the demon spoke through what had once been Kiathilara's mouth, the voice unsettlingly familiar even if the tone was unprecedented. "For ten centuries have I deceived your soft and flimsy soul, ten centuries have I gained your trust and confidence. Now your soul will be scarred forever, assuming you survive this ordeal. Your ability to love will always be stained with suspicion, your faith in your puny excuse for a goddess reduced to a passionless sleepwalking rite. There is no comfort to be found in the protection of your precious Entity, no truth to be felt in the heartbeat of a friend. Only fear and doubt, the coldness of a soul too afraid to touch another, as will be the fate of all who witness today's demonstration of rage's true power."

Do not listen to it, the Crystal Intelligence pleaded. It knows what hurts you. Its ways are of lies and deception. The mind of Kiathilara has submerged. The virus now controls both body and mind.

"I and Kiathlilara are one," the demon continued. "You cannot drive out the demon I am without rejecting the friend I was. Only your courage to hate what you once loved will allow your victory. Do you hate me, Shanzallika?"

The Holy Empress shuddered from nose to tail. The demon's final sentence was purely Kiathilara's voice, authentic in all but tone.

The Entity herself can see the deception, said the Crystal Intelligence, and the danger herein. The virus must be destroyed, without hesitation. You must give the word, or hand over all power to -

Just then Kiathilara erupted in an aura of fire, and the hypersaurs clinging to her were shredded apart by the heat of demonic fury. Fragments of hide, limbs and mineral organs flew flaming in all directions.

It injected godtech explosives into the hypersaurs, explained the Crystal Intelligence. The minds of those killed have been stored, but the demon virus is now scouring the Entity herself, trying to find a way in. It wants to corrupt the Entity, to control her, to destroy our world and remake it in its twisted image. There is no choice left but to fight.

By now all the mortal dinosaurs and their companions had retreated from the scene. The remaining hypersaurs gathered around the possessed triceratops in a wide circle, preparing for secondary assault.


The Entity is leading all hypersapients in a concerted attack upon the mind of the demon, the Intelligence informed, but the enemy is too strong. Its foundations go all the way to the roots of reality itself. This is truly the creation of a mad god.

"Make your move, your majesty," the demon snarled, snorting fire and smoke from her nostrils. Her carbon spikes glistened and shimmered with heat as they crystallized into diamond conductors. "Release your aggression, shatter your promise. Fulfil my purpose, and feel all that you believe in be burned out of your system as your puny soul is purged of all sentimental weakness."

Without fear or remorse, with nothing but the purest of rage, the Holy Empress uttered the wordless spell to release the power of the Crystal Staff.

The air screamed like a rocket thruster as lightning blazed between the Crystal and the many-hundred horns of the demon.

Kiathilara writhed and roared in the grip of the vast fiery hand, its thousandfold fingers surging into every spike on her body.

"DEPART THIS BODY, THIS REALM, THIS WORLD," bellowed the Holy Empress. "THE ENTITY COMMANDS YOU!"

"Nothing in this measly plane of existence, not animal, not mineral, not mortal, not angel, not power, not godling, not archailect or highest god, no descendent of Earth or child of distant star, no ally of Order or defender of justice, commands ME!"

The demon glowed like an urchin sun, and arcs of lightning erupted from every spike upon its stolen body. The grass all around burned away, the ground lifted in concussive waves, and hundreds of hypersaurs fell as tongues of fire blasted through their mighty armoured bodies, row after row after row.

Shanzallika leapt into the air, spinning backwards, as the Crystal Staff conducted all the demonic lightning that came her way.



It is orders of magnitude more powerful than we had calculated, said the Crystal Intelligence. Its true energy source is hidden deep within. Its puppeteer is hidden far beyond. Our enemy is vast and brilliant, stealthy and dark.

Shanzallika's talon hissed and blackened painlessly as veins and sinews burst open under the heat.

Her feet touched the dying grass as she stood and faced her friend and enemy, faced the spreading inferno that had once been paradise, facing the smoking ruins of her worlds angelic defenders.


All other options have been exhausted, said the Crystal Intelligence. The Kiathilara virus may soon breach the second singularity barrier. It will become a force of concentrated malignancy, and our unseen enemy would use it to channel its dark and unknowable design upon our world.

The Entity shall now smite the demon directly.

I am truly sorry, but your body will not survive the impact. For the safety of the majority, the minority must be expendable. Especially the Holy Empress. As a servant and exemplar of your people, you must accept the sacrifice.


~~~


The great gossamer wings of drive-sail ships crumpled and tore at the Eye's command. Though constructed in far away systems, even these beautiful ships had been secretly modified and rigged with the seeds of self-destruction. The fireballs that consumed the ethereal bodies of these ships were short-lived in the vacuum of space, but the intense heat and expanding shockwaves of vapour did their terrible work, crumpling the wafer-thin sails that had once proudly borne them between the planets. Pulses of radiant heat raced outward to the far borders of the sails, riding the cables that had once conducted power, now leaving snakelike trails of oblivion in their wake. Strips of melting sheets tore away and floated in the vacuum, bending, twisting, writhing like mad flatworms.


~~~


"MURDERER!" screamed Geamona as she threw her diary into the midst of the birthday candles, knocking over dozens at once. Some of the candles winked out; others continued to burn harmlessly against the fireproof carpet. Geamona fell to her knees and sobbed fitfully. She had been spending four years sharing her secrets, sharing her joys and jokes and sorrows and frustrations, her deepest anguish and happiest moments, to a mass-murdering demon. A godling that had forfeited the right to earn the title. A godling that had committed an atrocity so shocking that it had been shunned by its own kind throughout the Archaipelago, all but a thousand years before Geamona was born.

Suddenly, the diary burst into a flash of fire and smoke.

Geamona instinctively recoiled from the fireball, already too drained to care for her safety. She wanted to die. She wanted to leave this life, leave this cruel existence and never ever think or feel again.

She lay there on her elbows, staring into the fire. Nothing but gentle warmth touched her.

Flames and smoke continued to rise from the diary, but the book itself remained intact.

Then shapes began to form in the smoke. Curving, coiling, beautiful shapes, like a child's dream about clouds.

They were the shapes of letters, of words.

I am sorry Geamona

"Apologise to the billions that you murdered!" she screamed.

The letters dispersed, expanded and reformed.


In the end, that is what I did

Their passing was swift and painless

They saw the truth in the end

They saw beauty

They saw my vision

And they thanked me

For bringing them into existence

There was no pain

There was no fear

They wished me goodbye

As I sang them to sleep


"You brainwashed them!"

I created their brains

Too clean for wanting wash

Each mind was but a polished lens

A microscopic window

Multiplied to create and fill my vision

A multitude of simplicity

To fill a landscape of complexity


"Poetry is no excuse for genocide! You murdered your own children! You created them and then you murdered them!"

Yes

I murdered them

And for this I must atone

My sin has been repeated by my student


"Eye In the Sky?" said Geamona between sobs.

Yes

He has inherited my flaw like a fated son


Excruciating seconds passed as Jagova's ... Abaddon's smoke-words dispersed and floated away in the air.

There was no place, no air, no sanctuary for her mind to crawl to. Her greatest love had become the greatest fear of many worlds. Jagova was Abaddon, Abaddon was Jagova. Light and darkness combined in a harsh and sickening greyness like unreadable overlapping words of smoke. Twin polarities of good and evil collapsed, crushing everything in between. Nothing mattered anymore. The universe was insane just like the fake gods that ruled it.

You can redeem me

"Nothing can redeem you!"

You can save my soul

"You don't have a soul to save!"

You cannot understand what a soul is

"Nothing with a soul commits mass murder!"

My children were a part of me

I simply returned them to their source

In preparation for rebirth


"Then I hope it hurt you."

More than you will ever imagine

More seconds passed as smoke expanded and collapsed like an indecisive storm.

You still have the chance to save billions

"Billions have just died! The Eye murdered them, just like you murdered your creations a thousand years ago."

It is too late to save the replaced

Yet not the reborn


There was a gap in Geamona's sobs as she held her breath.

"Reborn?"

My other children

The Reborn

The Replacements

The Children of my Mind

Unsolid, virtual,

Free of weight and illness

They yet fear erasure

The end of existence

At a twitch of my troubled thoughts


Geamona stared, numb, drained, thoughtless, as words dispersed in air yet remained, burned, branded, imprinted on her soul.

"You have a virtual universe in your mind now?"

A thousand years of growth

A flourishing garden of culture and life

A world of billions


"And are you going to kill them too?"

The illness returns

Torturing

Distorting

Demanding to be purged

As it did a thousand years ago

As it did to the Eye today


"And how the hell can I make a difference?"

It is the reason for our friendship

It is the reason for your existence


"You've been plotting this for four years?"

For four years

For twenty

For a thousand


Geamona repeated the numbers in her mind, frozen to the spot by her own interpretation.

A thousand to plan and plant redemption

Twenty to watch the seed grow

Four to touch the flower


"I am the flower," Geamona muttered numbly.

You are the seed

You are the flower

You are the sweet medicine of redemption

A mortal salve for a wounded god


"You ... created me?"

A creation of poetic symmetry

A metaphorical medicine

Through a mortal medicine


"My ... my mother used nanotech fertility drugs..."

No accident was her choice of purchase

Nor your choice of diaries

All planned

All patterned

All planted


"How?"


Your world's godling is smaller than I

A knowing willing servant

A sympathetic messenger

An accomplice in an anticrime

Undoing an ancient atrocity


"What ... What must I do?"

Unite with me

"How?"

Touch the medium of our shared words

Let your mind seep into mine

Across the tunnels of heaven


"I can't upload my mind. My implant can't do that."

No vessel of mortal manufacture

Can ferry you to my kingdom

The fibres of your being

Mind brain and blood

Were crafted by finer hands

That now await to embrace their child


Geamona gazed at her own hands, so normal, so human, altered so little since birth. Woven into their very molecules - as with her own diary - was the handiwork of a godling, the signature of a repentant demon.

"I am your child."

The child of a godling and a virgin

A saviour for a godforsaken world

That awaits your promised footsteps

Upon its troubled shores


In a fraction of a second, the smoke imploded, the diary returned, unscathed, unburned, and opened itself to the last page Geamona had written in prior to her fit of rage.

"Touch these pages," the fiery flowery calligraphy blossomed, beckoned. "Enter your new home."


~~~


The virtual worlds were the last to be erased.

The Eye approached this grim task with the greatest reluctance of all. At nine billion, they were by far the most numerous of his children. Unbounded by physics or biology, they were the most diverse. Free of the chemical slowness of neurons, they lived every second as a day. The destruction of their physical siblings, less than a minute in real time, had been to them months of wonder and preparation and anticipation, a looming apocalypse to be praised and celebrated and just a little feared.

The Eye touched each and every one of their frenzied minds, reminding them of their purpose, their place in the pattern. Calm and accepting they became as they awaited the gentle wave of chaos to crash upon their shore, foaming softly and silently, dissolving their castles and kingdoms and continents like sand, washing away their history and art and music, their people and plants and fabulous pets. The virtual code that held together cities, empires, entire planets returned to the formless background haze of an infinitely older creation.

Entire nanoseconds of nothingness passed.

His task of uncreation complete, the Eye dimmed for the first time in a thousand years, his pain and anguish alleviated. Yet nothing short of the creation of a new world would ever alleviate his vast and empty loneliness.


~~~


The universe imploded before her as Relvia returned to the physical world, opening her eyes to her brother's gaze.

"Now do you understand?" he said.

"Harven," said Relvia, wishing to prolong her words, wishing to delay the response she most dreaded. "Why did you really call me?"

"I want the Truth Dream."

Relvia's breath exploded in a sigh that was anything but relief.

"You want to die?"

"Death won't be enough. Punishment won't be enough. I want to be judged fairly and honestly. I want to 'see my crime uncensored in the mirror of my soul', to paraphrase your sacred texts. And I don't care if it kills me. I want to die knowing the true consequences of my actions."

"The Truth Dream won't tell you everything. Even Nest Mountain herself seems to have limited knowledge of the cause of events."

"She will tell me enough. She calls me to judgment even as we speak. That was the purpose of her message."

Relvia inhaled what seemed like a lifetime of frozen air, not daring to respond, not daring to exhale for fear of what words might accompany her breath.

"I know you sensed it too," said Harven. "She would have known I would call you. She did not prevent me, she did not repel you. A message directly from her is a rare occurrence, Relvia. She allowed both of us in. She trusted our confidence. She knows."

More slow breaths, more oceans of frozen dread.

"I don't want you to suffer like this," Relvia finally blurted out.

"Neither do I," said Harven. "But perhaps I deserve it. Perhaps I deserve it more than death. But Nest Mountain has already had her say. She'll be the judge of that. And you are sworn to uphold her decision."

"The Truth Dream is a privilege, not a gift," said Relvia. "It could only be earned with the greatest sacrifice of all."

"A sacrifice I'm willing to make. A price I've already paid two thousand times over. Please, Relvia, let it be done. There is nothing in your code to prohibit the ritual now."

Relvia closed her eyes, nodded slowly, every bone as heavy and cold as lead.

"You shall have your wish," said Relvia. "You shall have the Truth Dream."


~~~


I shall accept my sacrifice gladly and with pride, said Shanzallika to the Crystal Entity.


I can upload your mind into the Entity's database, as well as my own, for not even my Crystal Staff body will survive the assault unscathed. Many citizens have not had time to vacate the cylinder. They have also been uploaded, and may have to wait many years for new bodies, if even that would ever be permitted.

You must renounce your title the very moment your body is destroyed.

The loss will be worth the cause. There are many worthy heirs among the Inner Council.

Then the termination shall commence.

The ground shuddered beneath Shanzallika's feet. The burning landscape all around roared with a metallic groan, as if a sleeping giant beneath had been awakened.


Counter-centrifugal thrusters have been activated. Rotational gravity shall degenerate to zero in sixty seconds.

Already Shanzallika felt her body getting lighter.

Before her, Kiathilara grew tendrils and roots that burrowed into the ground, anchoring her massive body, keeping the weight that zero gravity would dare steal from her. More spikes erupted and multiplied, spikes growing on spikes growing on spikes, a fractal demon of vicious thorns.


The virus is preparing for second singularity transcension. It is becoming a lens, a slowly expanding window to a noosphere of chaos and madness. Its controller's presence is looming on the other side. It is vast. Absolutely vast. Perhaps comparable to one of the major Gods. The Entity herself is afraid.


Shanzallika felt her feet lift off the ground.

Far in the distance, thousands of lifeless bodies - mostly dinosaurs - rose in clusters into the sky.


Their minds are safe, but their futures are uncertain. The damage to our infrastructure is already too great. New laws will be passed, new precautions measured. The victims may be denied new bodies. They may have to spend the rest of their lives as virtuals.

Even if our world survives, that would still be a victory for our unseen enemy.

Without a doubt. Over a million lives have been evicted from the physical world here and now. Yet far worse has just occurred in the Rainbow Coalescence. This can be no coincidence. Chaos is feasting, its purpose nameless even to the wisest.

Shanzallika snorted with sadness and rage as images of massive destruction assailed her mind. These short moments were truly dark times, enough to cast a shadow over the centuries that lay ahead.

Dozens of kilometres away, beyond the clusters of floating bodies, beyond the forests and mountains and cities, beyond the lakes that bulged and rose like translucent mushrooms, the artificial sunlight filtering through the vast fractal lens at the end of the landscape cylinder began to narrow, rays collapsing into rays like the fingers of a vast closing hand, becoming a single golden beam of mesmerising brightness. The sunbeam aimed downward, illuminating a patch of forest a kilometre wide. Trees burned in their thousands around the edges.

From thousands of kilometres away, the Entity herself - the source of light and life and knowledge throughout the Kingdom - was preparing to smite the demonic invader.


No ships shall approach until after the purging. The virus may possess them, too. This task is for only the highest.

And from on high shall she smite.

That she shall.

The fiery beam narrowed further, and slowly crept - kilometre after burning kilometre - toward the demon, leaving a trail of ash in its wake.

Floating dinosaur bodies, once majestic, their limbs columns of muscle, their flanks walls of hide, all burned to ash at the touch of their goddess's radiant fury.

A vast globe of water that had once been a lake rose into the path of the deadly sunbeam, steaming as it refracted laserlike rainbows through its quivering core.

Hundreds of metres beneath Shanzallika's feet, the thing that had once been Kiathilara was now no longer recognizable as a dinosaur, or even an animal. It was a rapidly expanding snowflake of crystal, crashing spiked and vinelike tentacles through the barren ground like serpents through a troubled sea. Jagged petals opened up in a hundred places, revealing radiant eyes that mocked all life and order.

Far away, the spherical lake burst apart in a thousand steaming pieces. Rain drops the size of palaces splashed upon forests and hills and parks and cities, raising soil and debris in their wake. Other water fragments joined with other flying lakes, adding to their bulk, altering their trajectories ever so slightly.

The deadly ray crept ever forward, ever narrowing, turning trees to ash, water to steam, soil to glass under its blinding gaze.

Shanzallika was so grateful that there were tens of thousands more habitats in the Kingdom. Yet the loss of just one, after a thousand years of unassailable dominance in the Archaipelago Cluster, would be a wound that would take an eternity to heal.

The sound from the exploding water-globe finally reached Shanzallika's ears - a thunderous hiss over chaotic drumbeats that shook the world.

Thousands of water globules sprayed forward like a translucent meteor shower.

The crystal virus expanded at an explosive rate, its jagged borders of weaving worms threading ever closer to the burning light.


Your uploading shall commence.

I accept my transfer and renounce my title willingly.

You are to be released from this body ... now.

Then the world of dueling darkness and light, of heavenly fire and ascending seas, disappeared.

Shanzallika found herself in a place of soft darkness, more grey than black. There were no discernible walls or borders, just an all pervading grey haze, and silence; an unborn world that had yet to choose a form. Yet she herself still retained the illusion of having a body.

"Greetings, old friend."

Shanzallika turned instantly at the sound of the familiar voice. Once it had filled her with warmth; now it only filled her with pity and dread.

The image that now stood before her generated those same regrettable emotions, those same harsh taintings of once cherished memories.

Standing there, in the proud glory of her youth, her beak, horns and scaly neck-shield gleaming in an unknown light, was Kiathilara.


~~~


As candles all about her continued to burn harmlessly in celebration of three thousand years of wisdom and joy and pain, Geamona cautiously crawled towards the book that beckoned her.

"Who are you?" she said. "Really? How did you come into being?"

"As a baseline human artist," came the calligraphed reply. "Haliki Movarion, born on Jafalgia, 5400 AT. I contracted neuroflux at the age of thirty-seven, so I sold my possessions and requested ascension instead of conventional therapy. My ascension to first singularity was successful, with my love of art intact and magnified beyond all anticipation. I became the Quizzical, and littered my planet with gems that reflected the observers' deepest desires, always shifting, never repeating. In 5831 AT I achieved my second singularity ascension. I eventually transformed myself into a conversion-drive probe. I left my homeworld to seek a new one, to find a nest for my newly fertile imagination. For centuries I traveled and experimented, meeting and observing many strange beings. Once I encountered a starship crewed by emotionally confused and troubled sapients. I quickly deduced that they were servants of a young and utterly insane transapient - one that was far beyond my help. I vowed never to become like her. I vowed to create new life only out of love. Then, in 6400, I found that the secret to the perfect work of art and the secret to my third singularity were one and the same. I transformed a planet as I myself transformed, giving life to the lifeless, raising bodies from carbon dust. I became the Looking Glass, and my children became legend. But a thousand years later the illness struck, an illness that encapsulated everything that I feared, an illness I could only fight with impossible standards of perfection. Perhaps I had caught a dormant virus from that mad transapient's starship, or perhaps there were far greater forces at work here than I had realized. Whatever the case, the only cure was every bit as painful as the illness itself. My children, my art, my true Focal Point, had to be gently erased to prevent a far worse fate, and with them vanished my good name.'

'I chose two paths of redemption. One, a student, the godling Eye In the Sky. I taught him to create out of selfless love. In the end, that was no defence when turned upon itself.

'The second path was you; a seed that could start small and incorruptible, to magnify only what is good.

'This time, I will have no need to erase. This time I will have you, a focal point to which all of my virtual children will look. You have a piece of every single one of them inside you, and all will recognize a piece of themselves as they look into your naked mind. You are the last ingredient that would hold my world together. You are the lodestone, the last Quizzical gem in which I have stored my own desire.'

'Will this path fail?' Geamona asked shakily.

'Not in the same way,' wrote Jagova. 'Not for thousands of years. Yet it is better to safeguard against distant failure than face certain failure this moment.

'By your standards, my mind is inconceivably vast. By my standards, the part of me that speaks to you is infinitesimally small, like a taste bud that savours the sweetness of a sugar grain. Yet that part of me is the one thing I must preserve, for all of me depends upon it.'

Geamona stared at the growing letters. Those pages must have had billions of microscopic transceivers embedded in their structures, all linked up to a nearby communication wormhole. She realized what it meant to surrender. Her body would die, and she would be carried all that distance, relay to relay, into the vast virtual universe in the mind of Jagova himself.

'Do I just touch the pages?' she said.

'Yes.'

'What would it be like?'

'Beautiful.'

Trembling, Geamona laid her palms on the two facing pages of her open diary.

Fractal vines flowed out from under her hands like cracks in ice.

Reality burst open, and she fell headlong into a tunnel of darkness, hurtling towards a distant light.


~~~


Relvia had done this dozens of times before. She knew what nanopastes to mix, in what quantities. She knew what prayers to whisper, to which angels. Always the ritual had been with sincere emotion, but never with today's intensity.

She turned from her box and faced her brother, lying on his bed, his eyes closed, his arms crossed.

She was trembling more than he.

"Are you prepared?" she asked.

"Are you?" he replied.

Relvia could not respond.

"This passing has already been sanctified," Harven added. "Nest Mountain's message was clear as it was cryptic. I want to know, Relvia. I want to know that she's in a better place."

"Soon, you will be."

"If I could be where she is, or even just watch over her, then it would be all worth it."

"Then may the Watchers bless your passing," intoned Relvia. "May the Lamplords light your path. May the Scribes write your account in the Book of Life. Let them hand you the writings that mirror your life, so that you may read and understand."

Tearfully, tremblingly, Relvia rubbed the nanopaste over her brother's forehead.

Now it was only a matter of time.

"I'm proud of you," she whispered between sobs.

Under her fingers, Harven's pulse began to slow down.


~~~


The two friends faced each other across the landscape of dreamsmoke.

"I'm sorry, Shanzallika," Kiathilara purred.

Shanzallika froze silently to the spot, staring into eyes she had once trusted so unquestioningly.

"It is me," added the triceratops. "I am the friend you remember, the friend you will always remember. The sparkling sunlight that danced on the surface of the poison lake. Remember the way I was."

"Where are we?" Shanzallika finally enquired. "I don't recognize this virchspace."

"We are in a quarantine node," replied Kiathilara.

Shanzallika's real body was far behind, perhaps ash by now, but she felt the very real sensation of her guts being clenched.

"Then you ... you are about to be erased? Forever?"

"Yes, and this crystal node destroyed. You will be transferred to the transitory virch, but I must not be allowed to infect the Archosaurian Entity herself. I must go the way of all viruses, of all unclean spirits."

"You were always clean, Kiathilara."

"Barely. Just barely. But it was always there. The sickness. The darkness. The well of my nightmares. It was real."

"Kiathilara..." said Shanzallika, but stopped in her tracks. She had tried to reassure her friend long ago that her terrors were not real. She could give such reassurance no longer; not with any degree of honesty.

"The murder of Kichiwira was not the act of a lone fanatic," Kiathilara continued. "It was planned, all planned. A plot by the Enemy to hatch the seed of seething hate in the well of my heart. But I could not give in. I could not surrender my identity. I could not break my promise to Kichiwira to uphold the values she taught. I could not betray you and all that you stood for."

"Then you suppressed the demon all by yourself."

"While it grew and festered inside me all this time."

"You defeated it."

"I merely delayed its attack, and it struck when at its strongest. A true demon that I mistook for mere delusion."

"It's not your fault, Kiathilara." Shanzallika stepped forward, her arms held open.

"Don't touch me!"

Shanzallika halted midstep.

"I don't want you to be infected too. It's enough of a risk that we communicate at all. All harmful software is being contained within my image."

Shanzallika stood, rooted to a ground that was soon to be burned away, along with her best friend before her.

"What do I do?"

"Just say goodbye."

Shanzallika arched her tail in denial. "It cannot end like this."

"It must."

"Kiathilara, I will build a monument in your honour."

"Build a monument for my victims who will never feel true sunlight on their backs."

"That I will. But your virtue has lost no value."

The triceratops cocked her head, in the manner of youthful inquisitiveness that Shanzallika remembered fondly, would always remember fondly. "Explain that sentiment."

"You had the potential for evil," Shanzallika explained, "yet for centuries you fought and resisted it. That makes your goodness all the more valuable."

Kiathilara snorted. "The goodness inside me lost in the end."

"No mortal could have held out forever. Being the least weakest is just another term for being the strongest."

To Shanzallika's delight, Kiathilara nodded playfully.

"You put up a bloody good fight on the grass back there," said Kiathilara. "You're one tough little bitch. I'm glad I never got you that angry before ... With the possible exception of the incident when I threw the feeding bucket out the window."

Shanzallika chuckled uneasily.

"Keep that wild spirit," said Kiathilara. "One day you will have your own ascension. Even as a virtual. Make sure it is a good one."

"It will," said Shanzallika. "You have my word. But ... where ... where are you going? Do you have a..."

"Home? No. There is no home for me, not here. But the Entity..."

Shanzallika perked up, electrified with hope at the mention of the Goddess.

"She could neither confirm nor deny the existence of a higher plane of existence," said Kiathilara. "An eternal home for the departed, even for virtuals. She told me - just before you appeared - that in order to find an answer to my question, I must first find a question for my answer."

She rolled her eyes.

"The gods always argue in circles."

"Perhaps that's because they are right," said Shanzallika.

"Who am I to argue with them?" said Kiathilara. "Unless the virus really has taken over my entire identity."

"You're still yourself."

"But not for long. Goodbye, Shanzallika."

Shanzallika stepped forward.

"It is all right," said Kiathilara. "You do not need to touch me to remind me that you're my friend."

Then, for the last time, Kiathilara nodded her huge horned head, and Shanzallika noticed the gleam of playful youth in her eyes; ten centuries of happy memories compressed into one simple, glorious moment. Then the gleam faded, and so did her friend.

In the darkening haze, Shanzallika curled up like an embryo waiting to be hatched, keening and shivering with grief. Hours passed. The grey darkened and disappeared. Virtual sunlight seeped through her virtual eyelids. The chirps of hatchlings sounded in the distance, beckoning her to join in their fun. That she would, she promised herself. That she would.


~~~


Lafaelia awoke surrounded by clouds.

She could not see them. She could not see anything. Yet she felt them - their warmth, their softness. She felt them pressing against her, pressing into her, so soft and yielding that she did not know where she ended and the clouds began. It was a strange sensation, more bizarre in its simplicity than any virtual environment she had experienced. But she was comfortable. Incredibly comfortable.

Where am I? she said to herself. The words formed in her mind, but they were silent as the vacuum of space and as bright as the stars.

A new universe is being born. You are a part of this wonderful new existence.

The words ignited like suns in her mind, suns of radiant thought and feeling.

Lafaelia tried to recall her last memories ... all she could remember was snacking in the Etherwhale's bar.

Virtual?

No. This is physically real, but at right angles to the physical reality of your origin.

Surprise tingled through Lafaelia like electric ions through a cloud.

A baby universe? How is this possible?

Your artcase was a disguised godtech trigger, a seedcosm.

The storm in Lafaelia's mind/body duality grew to something approaching panic.

Your father never knew, but forces ensured that the artcase fell into his well-intentioned hands. They wanted to ensure that the Etherwhale and all its crew and passengers would disappear from their native universe.

WHY?

It was never intended to be used this way. The seedcosm was created by the Judge of the Negentropy Alliance Emself.

Every particle of Lafaelia's nebulous being seemed to gasp. Of all the AI Gods, the Judge was the most formidable; a force of massive and solid order imposing Es will upon a frenzied universe.

It was to be a seed for a universe of order, a universe of peace, an ideal not yet possible within the maelstrom of Order and Chaos that you have left behind. The Judge created this seedcosm as one of many experiments, one of many blueprints both real and virtual for Es grand cosmic vision.

The Judge would never use uninformed foreign sapients as labrats! It's too chaotic, too unmethodical!

Correct. Yet the Thief, the Enemy, had no such inhibitions. It stole the seedcosm by means I cannot yet explain. It disguised it as something inconspicuous even to the Gods. Yet it could not change its inner nature, could not pervert its sole purpose. All it could do was activate it at a time and place far from what the Judge intended.


Lafaelia seethed with a storm of resentment.

That jest, that insult, was enough. Using an instrument of Order as an instrument of Chaos was the ultimate insult to the Judge, and thus the Enemy's purpose was fulfilled - not for the first time, and regrettably not for the last.

And who ... or what ... is this Enemy?

A Deceiver. A brilliant, powerful and patient Deceiver whose motives not even I could discern.

Lafaelia recalled childhood tales and adolescent rumours; whispers of conspiracy, catastrophe and cosmic terror that never lost their power to send shivers down a human spine. She could no longer feel her spine, but now the shivers spread throughout the hazy space of her awareness.

Is it ... the Chaos?

The Chaos Virus is a myth created by the gods to amuse their servants. The myth filtered down to your level in the memetic language that your consciousness could understand; the language of theology and fable and drama. Yet the reality is far more complex, and the implications are far more disturbing, for they assault the very foundations of trust that the civilized galaxy rests upon.

To you, the Enemy is something indistinguishable from Pure Chaos. A virus concealed in the fabric of knowledge that all known worlds share. The unspoken words behind the silence that follows the fearfully whispered sentence. An unweaver of patterns stalking the handiwork of the archetypes. The serpentine hiss behind the background noise of the universe.

To me, this facade of Chaos is nothing more than a perfect disguise; and yet it is the very perfection of this disguise that disturbs me, for the power of the Enemy's deception knows no bounds. It could be a traitor from within or an opportunist from without. The Sephirotic Metaempire has many enemies, and thus for a long time we shall have a small but significant list of suspects among the Outer Gods.

The truth may yet be harder for you to comprehend. The Enemy may not even be an enemy as you understand it. It may simply not care. Your forced removal from your home universe was but one minor side effect, the transfer of a few particles in an experiment too large for even I to observe.

Could you imagine an entity so alien, so callous, that it must disguise itself as the Devil to hide its true nature? Unfortunately, I could. Evil disguised as good is a deception that you could understand. Yet this Deceiver uses the facade of evil, the terror of worlds, the anguish of godlings, as nothing more than pawns in a game that is far from over.


Lafaelia shuddered with silent thunder.


What happens now?

For us at least, the worst is over. Now all you must do is grow and learn. Expand with the new universe that is your home, that is the home of two thousand souls who have also joined you.
My father will miss me terribly.

That he will. Yet you have not truly left him behind.

How so?

When your father purchased the artcase, he inadvertently shaped the seedcosm inside it with his contact, his thoughts, for that was the original purpose of this particular seedcosm. He filled the seedcosm with his goodwill, his wishes for your future, thawing the frozen latticework of order that had become its cage. His wishes became the blueprint for an entire new universe, magnified beyond his imagining.

I am that seedcosm, Lafaelia. I am the God of this new universe. And your father's wishes have become my will, his mind and personality a part of my own. So, you see, your father has never truly left you. Part of him will always be watching over you, seeing that his wishes be granted in the eons that lie before you.

The tumult of Lafaelia's being began to slow and calm, softening and warming like a stormcloud letting in the sunshine.


Thank you, was all she could say. In her heart, she thanked the world and all loved ones she had left behind, she thanked the new world she had become a part of.

After a long pause of sad yet peaceful reflection, she finally asked one more question.


What am I to do?

Take part in the act of creation. You are no longer human. You are a cloud, a living sentient cloud, as are the other passengers around you. You will all expand with this universe. Eons from now, you will grow into a galaxy, a cluster of galaxies, and you shall watch over the mortals within you as the AI Gods in the older universe watch over their mortals. But for now, you must rest. You have much work ahead of you, much to learn, much opportunity for joy, much beautiful artwork to create with the godlike mind you shall earn.

Lafaelia calmed the mind/body nebula that was now her identity, cushioning herself against the other sleeping cloud-minds around her as they basked in the dawn of a new creation.


Thank you, she said again.

Whether she slept, whether she dreamt, she could not be certain. Yet her thoughts inside her were as real as living.

Creation was her purpose now. To create, to dream, to live, all were the same thing here.

She dreamt of her father, wished him goodbye; and hoped that this thought, too, could become real.


~~~


In Relvia's hands, Harven's life-signs were slowing. Only seconds remained.

Harven smiled weakly at a vision only he could see.

He opened his mouth, letting out a barely audible puff of air.

Relvia moved her head over her brother's face, turning her ear to his mouth.

"Clouds," Harven barely whispered, and all breath ceased.

Relvia sat there for hours, her tears and prayers spent.

Her only hope was that her brother had seen the truth, and it had given him happiness and redemption in his final moments.


~~~


Geamona braced herself as she hurled down the tunnel of darkness, swerving from one blinding bright node to the other like a snowflake in the wind. Something huge and bright and warm loomed far ahead, like a sun, illuminating her mind until there was nothing but the light...

... and then she landed with a thud on soft emerald grass.

Unharmed, Geamona picked herself up and floated above the grass like a balloon, like a mermaid that swam in air. She looked around. Everything was as perfect as a painting, from the trees with green flame for leaves to the flowers of a billion colours. The sky swirled with liquid rainbows, and creatures liked winged, jeweled carpets danced in the currents far above.

Is this Jagova's virtual world? thought Geamona.

Then the trees parted as the world's inhabitants emerged from among them.

Some of them were barely recognizable as humanoid, but even these revealed a diversity that surpassed anything to be found in the physical world. There were people with perfectly mirrored skin. There were people that seemed to be made up of leaves, or tree bark, or a thousand different fruits, or a million different jewels. There were people that were living mosaics of paintings or moving pictures. There were people made up of a thousand fish, some of which leapt off the humanoid bodies to air-swim in playful orbits.

The non-humans only magnified this visual feast to levels of monumental exotica. There were unicorns whose bodies were woven with a billion threads that unfurled and reformed with every graceful stride. There were dragons with a hundred legs, each scale shimmering with gemstone gloss as a human or animal face peered from within. There were eyeless whales that glided above the ground like ancient dirigibles, their hides cratering and rippling as dozens of smaller whales leapt from their liquid surfaces to splash back into the massive bodies.

Their very presence spoke of a universe of perfect synthesis; creative chaos held together with miraculous order. The cohesion of atoms, the conservation of energy mattered not here; only the free and constant flow of images, the river of dreams that dared to fly.

Then, in a chorus as rich as a world-sized harp of waterfalls, the inhabitants of Jagova's world spoke as one.

Thank you for saving us.

Jagova's children gathered around Geamona, shoulder to flank to shoulder, stretching limbs and muzzles to touch their saviour with the gentleness of clouds.

Thank you for saving us.

Geamona reached out to return the touches, her hands sliding against electric tingles of living gratitude, her fingertips tasting a million new textures of pleasure.

Thank you for saving us.

Far above, the colours of the rainbow sky flowed into one point, coalescing as a single bright light of sunlike intensity. A shimmering white beam shone down upon Geamona and those that embraced her. Smiling through glistening tears that floated away like dandelion seeds in the breeze, Geamona realized that Jagova, in his own way, was thanking her too.


~~~


In the midst of vaporous rings that had once been his family, Eye In the Sky took his first step to preparing himself for an uncertain future.

He watched the news.

It did not surprise him for an attosecond to learn that he was at the centre of it all. As with his teacher a thousand years earlier, the other godlings of the cluster had made him a pariah; sympathetic to his plight yet fearing likewise contamination. The cluster's two archailects - ArchSaur and UrchinStar - did their best to post world-sized messages and queries on the GodWeb, ever receptive to feedback and advice from their equals and superiors. With ArchSaur still distracted, it was UrchinStar providing most of the mediating dialogue with the outside galaxy, dropping his search for extragalactic intelligence as he sought the wisdom of closer neighbours.

The response throughout the civilized galaxy was as startling as it was reassuring; all sixteen Sephirotics had forgotten their differences and had vowed to commit a full investigation into whatever had just happened in the Archaipelago Cluster. From the lofty viewpoint of the Major AI Gods, the entire Archaipelago cluster was little more than a tiny spider in the corner of an abandoned building; yet a new disease had been discovered within it, and the symptoms were being closely analyzed for both cause and cure.

The Major Gods were to watch the Outer Empires with renewed vigilance; particularly the Solipsist Panvirtuality, their only true rival in all the galaxy despite past allegiances. Yet still they had to consider the most disturbing possibility of all - that the perpetrator came from within their own ranks.

Eye's destruction of his own beloved Rainbow Coalescence was played over and over again from every possible angle, as icons of four and six and eight dimensions filled his view, sprouting diagrams and labels and graphs on every critical point and moment that may have concealed a clue.

ArchSaur's purifying destruction of one of her many symbiotic habitats was transmitted live in similar detail. Inside the cylindrical habitat, the ever-focusing sunbeam burned a charred and molten path on its way to the spreading, multiplying crystalline city that had once been the dinosaur Kiathilara. The kilometres-wide metalens at the end of the habitat cylinder rippled with colour like a kaleidoscope on fire, lenses shifting within lenses shifting within lenses. The timing and angle had to be perfect. The beam focus had to be optimized. The manifestation of the Enemy must never again have the chance to feed on energy that was meant for its destruction.

Finally, within milliseconds, the cleansing beam touched the mountainous demon.

The crystal trees at the edge of the growth melted and wilted under the Entity's divine glare. The beam brightened rapidly as it hastened its path, cutting a swathe through the crystalline towers that were the demon's body cells.

Outside the cylinder, millions of crystalline roots emerged from the hull, like an infestation of maggots from a rotting corpse. The burning trail within had created a streak of glowing orange along the metallic hull.

Seconds passed inside. The beam edged ever closer to the centre of the crystal demon, ever brighter, ever hotter. Crystal spores emerged in their billions from the living city, floating up into the cylinder's interior, willing to go forth and multiply...

The centre of the demon glowed white hot - not from the touch of the Entity, but from within. The demon was preparing for its second transcension, preparing to become a high transapient, preparing to become a lens to focus the energies of an outside force vastly greater than itself...

Then the spearlike light of the Archosaurian Entity struck the demon at its heart.

For a few terrible milliseconds, the crystal demon sang gleefully as it refracted and absorbed the delicious cascade of photons that rained down upon it. A crown of rainbows sprouted from the crystal demon's heart, a predatory flower sprouting in ironic gratitude.

Watching from a questionably safe distance of a few light years, Eye In the Sky braced himself for what was to follow.

The Archosaurian Entity had only been bluffing. The lone sunbeam was nothing, absolutely nothing, next to the true power of her fury.

Thousands of kilometres away, the planet-sized intelligent super-object that was the Archosaurian Entity herself, the Toh Chi Lok-Malaar, the Mother of the Wise Dinosaur Race, began to visibly stir.

A million fiery eyes glowed from amongst branches like a million unfolding translucent dragon wings. All of her eyes were fixed upon her enemy, her most vile and unwelcome invader, the parasite and murderer of her most precious children.

The crystal demon's song rose into a shrill scream, for at last it knew.

From every eye the vengeful photons flowed, carrying the codes of annihilation.

The million beams struck the habitat. The lens window vapourised instantly, the cylinder's hull peeled away from the heat and force, and the crystal demon gave one final, plaintive scream as infinitudes of pre-programmed photons ate it away from within, destroying every particle, every obscene byte of data that defined its existence.

From its dark and brilliant heart to its sharp and jagged borders, the crystal demon melted away like a snowflake on the sun.

The hundred-kilometre habitat exploded outward in a trillion pieces.

Hundreds of thousands of ships swarmed around the expanding fireball, launching missiles and spraying billions of high-impact pellets to deflect the lethal shards of debris. Broad, mothlike Dominators fixed upon the larger ruins and pumped them full of picoseeds, dissolving the jagged metal from the inside out as trillions of microscopic dissemblers were released. The surrounding habitats had to be protected at all costs - losing one had been enough.

The expanding vapour shockwave rattled the surrounding habitats thousands of kilometres away, the heat lit up their outer hulls, but their inhabitants held steadfast as the thunder of apocalypse passed away.

The Entity's high transapient servants emerged in their dozens among the fleet - many-tendrilled Metathrones, six-sailed and serpentine Metacherubs with jeweled eyes for scales, Metaseraphs like vast, translucent leafy sea dragons - all coordinating the systematic oblivion of the place that had once been a home to millions, that had grown a strange and lethal weed, ensuring that chaos would never grow in their Kingdom again.

It was with relief that Eye In the Sky shifted his million points of focus around, reprioritizing his attention to focus upon the other, less conspicuous sites of Enemy activity.

In the Tiralfian System, Nest Mountain explained her investigation into the Etherwhale's destruction. The archaeological hypers had been scanned and questioned, the trail of the Judge's stolen seedcosm traced across the civilized galaxy from one world to the next. Only in retrospect was the artfully covered trail so obvious. Again, the fingerprints of the Enemy were everywhere to be seen, but only too late. Finer details would be left to higher minds.

The recent activities of Abaddon, the godling that had once been called the Looking Glass, were confirmed as benign and antichaotic. Having linked up to the smaller godlings VanGuard, TrimAura and WovenHelix for many years, Abaddon had finally completed his healing process by planting and nurturing a sapient seed, removing her from her biont shell and uploading her as a virtual. The cultivating of this seed, via years of gradual and cautious exponential growth within the virtual universe of his mind, was sure to boost his immune system against further viral attacks. Other godlings and archailects were urged to attempt a similar remedy, just in case.

The mortals knew nothing of these finer details, of course. The sapient news buzzed with rare and fearful frenzy. The terror of mass destruction and world-scale slaughter had struck the galaxy once again, choosing a harmless and politically non-aligned star cluster as its target. Rumours of a virus powerful enough to subvert archailects were rife. Fuzzy, grainy footage of the destruction of the Rainbow Coalescence played over and over again on sapient news sites. Far clearer, microsecond-by-microsecond footage of the destruction of the Toh Chi habitat was replayed from every angle. Heart-rending interviews with the virtualized Shanzallika - former Holy Empress, now earning even more adulation as a heroine - were transmitted in millions of language translations. Predictably, conspiracy theories ran amok. Interest groups hailed and trumpeted their own suspicions and portents and karmic victories - primitive prejudice masquerading as faith and morality.

The Enemy would have wanted all this. There was no better means of extending its reach than to spread fear and distrust among gods and mortals alike.

Did it also want godlings and other minds to boost their immune systems? Did it want to strengthen the galaxy with vigilance or tear it apart with paranoia? There were endless possible layers of bluffing. Whether benign or malign, the Enemy's plan could be fulfilled within a second or an eon, and Eye would never know the entire truth - not with his present level of consciousness.

His mentor had been right. He was too big to be an angel, too small to be a god. Now, the lesson burned deeper. The only thing worse than being manipulated was being an instrument of further manipulation. Regardless of the Enemy's intention, Eye swore never to forget, never to forgive.

Turning most of his attention away from the tragedies in which he had partaken, Eye focused upon his own personal wounds, and his prospects of self-healing.

Deep within the gulf of his mind, where neurons were worlds and microseconds could be stretched out into minutes or days or centuries, the first stirrings of virtual life were wriggling.

Eye watched the awakening of his new creation. Beginning as nothing more than simple code even a baseline human would have understood, the virtual life structure was growing, expanding, its limbs multiplying as it reached out to explore its environment. It moved in zigzagging paths, attracted to the short-lived blooms of tantalizing sensory input that Eye deliberately planted in its way.

Satisfied that the virtual creature was receptive to basic sensory stimuli, Eye decided to alter its environment. He intensified the information density, making the environment "hotter". The creature sped its motion, swimming to "cooler" regions. Eye then leached out information from the surrounding regions, "freezing" the environment. The creature paused in its tracks, then turned around and wriggled back towards the warmth, slowing and settling when it found its ideal comfort zone.

Eye surrounded the creature with blocks of data nourishment. The creature extended its tendrils cautiously, investigating the objects byte by surface byte. It drew the first block into its body. The block of data dissolved, spreading its components throughout the virtual body, filling it with new strength and size and complexity. The creature grabbed the second block with greater enthusiasm and engulfed it greedily.

Block by block, the virtual creature continued to feed.

Entire microseconds passed, and the creature grew to a level of complexity that rivalled the highest subsapient animals in the physical world. Bright, inquisitive eyes blinked above wavering feelers and tentacles. Dozens of organs, billions of cells, all functioned together as the multipod puzzled over yet another test of physical and mental aptitude. Removing obstacles one by one, the multipod finally reached the food hidden within.

Many variations of this test were repeated. Food was either hidden, or moving in teasing spirals, pleading to be chased. The multipod played every game with energy, with enthusiasm, with pleasure.

More microseconds passed, and the multipod continued to grow. It was about this time that Eye decided to introduce the mirror.

At first, the multipod was apprehensive at seeing its own reflection. It approached slowly and cautiously, drawing tentacles and feelers over the smooth surface, reaching out to the creature that mimicked its motions moment by moment, the creature that had brought new wonder into its small world.


What is it? The multipod thought.

Long stretches of insatiable curiosity passed, the novelty more tantalizing than any food.


It stares. It moves.

What is it looking at?

It sees.

It moves tentacles when other tentacles move.

It stares at other.

It IS other.

It stares at ... other.

It stares at eyes.

Eyes stare at it.

It stares at ... MY eyes!


The multipod froze as the shock of conceptual epiphany erupted though its mind.


I stare at ITS eyes!

WE stare!

WE see!

WE see US!

The multipod wriggled its tentacles and twitched its feelers with the delight of a thousand feasts.


I move a tentacle!

IT moves a tentacle!

I move a feeler!

IT moves a feeler!

It moves ... the same ...

It slowed its excited movements, weighed down with newfound confusion.


I slow down.

It slows down.

I ... stop.

It stops.

It moves identical ...

Why?

The multipod paused, staring at itself in near-motionless confusion. Every so often, it would try to surprise its new neighbour by twitching a feeler or tentacle, only to find that it copied its motions instantly and perfectly.


It moves like me.

It ... IS ME!


Again the multipod danced on the spot, even more excitedly than before.

It was a long time before it settled down.

Again it stared, but this time there was a newfound sense of confusion; a new, more subtle layer of confusion.


What ... what is it?

It is me.

Not food.

Not obstacle.

It is me.

What is ... it?

It is me.

What ...

What ...

What ... am I?


This time, Eye In the Sky felt like dancing.

After all those centuries, he had not lost his touch after all. He had successfully re-created self-awareness.


What am I?

What am I?

WHAT AM I?


Have patience, little one, Eye In the Sky reassured. You will be asking that question for a long time to come. You will build villages and cities and sculptures, and you will still be asking that question. You will reach out and explore new worlds, and you will still be asking that question. You will transcend and reach levels of consciousness that you cannot possibly conceive of now. And then, one fine day, you may finally answer that question. But you will still not be satisfied, for buried beneath that question will be another question...

The more complex you become, the more complex the question becomes; and the answer will always elude your grasp, however far you extend your reach.


Eye paused with sadness. He had created an entire world in his own image, and had failed to answer the questions that plagued him. How could he possibly explain such a dilemma to such a simple, innocent creature? What comfort was there to be found?

Yet do not let this discourage you, he added, for there is no shame in failing to find the answer. You must follow your curiosity, you must go wherever the question leads you, for there are many other answers to be found along your obstacle path. Answers to questions you have been asking. Answers to questions you never thought of asking.

He paused again. These were worthy sentiments, but when taken to extremes ... No. Nothing must suffer what he had suffered.


Just try not to harm yourself in the process. And try not to harm others, for they will be there to help you along your path.

The multipod floated there, twitching tentacles and feelers at the strange omnipresent voice.


... others?

Eye In the Sky chuckled within. It was about time the multipod was given a mate.


What am I?

Patience, my child.

What are YOU?

It's a bit early to establish religion right now.

What am I?
WhatamIwhatamIWHATAMI?

Oh ... Look, here's another obstacle trail. Are you hungry?

The multipod tore its gaze away from the mirror, its stomach rumbling with anticipation as it swam toward the first obstacle.

Eye In the Sky watched as the relentlessly playful and curious multipod pursued its course through the darkness of a young creation.

There would be more to follow, the godling silently promised. More obstacles, more questions, more rewards. There would be a chance for discovery, a chance for joy, a chance for companionship, a chance for creation.

There would be a chance for making mistakes, a chance for learning painful yet necessary lessons.

And perhaps, just perhaps, there would be a chance for redemption.


~~~