143 AS

Rhakin dreamt she was young again, just out of university on Karnak, her path to enlightenment barely begun. She had been travelling with two family members, a brother and a sister, to the Holy Temple in the south-rising of Cantaz, the anarchic anti-citystate on the planet Set-tu. Turning a corner, she saw the temple, its dark marble exterior glistening in the close sun of Set-tu at the end of a peculiar street.

To her right was a continuous wall of slate and sandstone, about 100 feet high and as long as the eye could see, carved into which were consoles for extracting 'notes,' small pieces of paper marked with sigils that denoted fiscal credit. The consoles seemed to her an abhorrence, a blasphemous addition to a clearly ancient relic. However, pious pilgrims were patronising the consoles, drawing the notes from them, with contentment and even happiness showing on their faces as they turned away.

The left hand side of the street, onto which the pilgrims walked once they had acquired their notes, was just as strange. A series of buildings had been constructed out of simple plaster and brick, each building bearing its own sigil. Rhakin walked to the nearest one, her young mind oblivious to any obvious danger, and stepped inside, where the pilgrims where exchanging their notes for any variety of items, all bearing the sigil on the door outside.

"Are you lost?"

Rhakin turned round, then looked to the ground. Her addresser was a small human child, about seven or eight, bald and dressed in robes from a denomination Rhakin did not recognise. Rhakin nodded slowly, before replying.

"Yes. I am. The last time I was here, none of this was."

The child nodded, before running back into the hustle and bustle, the crowds of shuffling pilgrims all trying to decide which product to exchange for their notes. Rhakin saw an old man sadly caressing a silk garment, another child pushing itself around on a wheeled toy big enough for it to sit upon. Feeling disorientated, she staggered out into the building. She thought she heard her brother calling her, but it was simply her imagination.

She looked over to the temple. The mighty structure had been not so much built but carved out of the shiny black marble discovered accidentally by quarriers three aeons past. The erection of these empty buildings had not diminished its solemn grandeur, its quiet glory. But no one went through its doors, either in or out. It was as if it had been abandoned.

"Why is nobody going inside the temple?" Rhakin must have thought aloud. The obvious answer echoed through her bones.

"What temple?"

She awoke from the dream, and, strange and disturbing as it had been, immediately wished she hadn't. Her head pounded from the injuries she had sustained. Her knee felt disjointed, possibly caused by the force of her attack on the Czar…

She looked around, surveying and analysing her surroundings. She was no longer aboard the convoy freighter, but on the bridge of some vessel she didn't recognise. Instinctively she enlarged her astral form to provide a rough map of the territory, but couldn't extend far enough to reach outside. It was as if she'd been buried underground, so far underground that no amount of digging would get her out again, as though all that existed was dirt and soil.

She did sense that there was one other person on board with her. Clearly they were non-hostile, or at least non-lethal, because they had rescued her from a battle that would have surely killed her, and had imparted no more harm upon her. Not only that, but she still had all her battle garments, the magnificent equipment she had used to storm the convoy. Yet her saviour had also left her on the cold metal floor of the bridge, which suggested either they did not have any other facilities, or that she had not been expected to be unconscious for long. That was okay – she had lived a frugal, spartan existence for many years as part of her path, and had only in recent years become used to comfort aboard the Jesus.

Standing, Rhakin decided to take a closer look at the ship's apparatus. The flight controls seemed incredibly primitive: not only were they purely physical but also analogue. Someone unconcerned with ergonomics or aesthetics had designed the central console, because the levers (levers!) were so far apart and awkward.

The Temple dream had not been all she had experienced while she had been unconscious. As she analysed the central console, more oneiric memories began flooding back – of foreign worlds and realities, too strange to describe, even for an experienced psychonaut like herself. She sensed the presence of the other aboard before he entered the bridge and addressed her.

"Hoot Rarmi," the male voice said. She turned and looked upon her saviour. He was eccentrically dressed, in a velvet tunic, white open shirt, brown trousers and a long flowing coat. He carried a brown wooden cane, curved at the handle, to assist his walk. His lengthy brown hair was thick and defined, and curtained a friendly, angular face, prone to shadow. "That's how you greet each other, isn't it?"

"Hut Ruarmi," she corrected. "Who are you, and why have you brought me here?"

"My name is Stark," the man answered. "I brought you here to save your life, and, I admit, so you could help me in return."

"Where is here?"

"This is the main deck of the Libertalia, my home. Would you mind stepping away from the console, please?"

"Your vessel doesn't seem to have a shape. Or any engines, imagination or otherwise. Or be anywhere, at all."

"Very observant," Stark replied, assuming control of the ship once more. "It's more of a pure idea than a vessel, I admit. The idea being, something-in-nothing. A physical space removed from physical space. A basic schrödinger manipulation maintained by Paloeon principle. Or ancestor worship, to be more specific."

"Fascinating," Rhakin said, taking a look around. She was an expert in both syncretic religion and physics, but had only dabbled in the upper echelons of esoteric science. She was a theorist, not a technician, whereas Stark seemed to be both. "Your ship is a Nganga, then?"

"Of sorts. I'm not a big fan of having dead bodies lying around, but certainly, the ideas of my ancestors are always close by. The memory keeps the metal, even the plastic, sacred. Without my piety, the construct would collapse. The Shamalongos Drive is what I use to navigate. Incidentally, I must apologise for leaving you on the dusty floor. There are only two 'rooms' aboard the Libertalia, and I don't sleep myself."

"Don't apologise," Rhakin said. "I can sense you mean me no harm. But I require further explanation."

"Why not just read my mind?"

"I… can't," she admitted. It was true: she had attempted to probe Stark from the moment he'd entered the room, but found even his most simple psychic emanations to be stumbling blocks.

"Why not?"

"I'm not sure. On the surface it appears too primitive, but clearly that's not the case. Your emotions are all disguised, even your facial patterns don't make any sense."

"Has that ever happened before?"

"Once, yes. I couldn't read the mind of the President's Science Czar, either."

"That explains it then," Stark said, turning around from the console. "My hypothesis was correct. Shall we?"

"Shall we what?"

"Adjourn," Stark smiled, gesturing to the door through which he had come.

They stepped into a larger room, which seemed to serve no one function. It was laboratory and library both, not to mention washroom, and like the console seemed devoid of any planning. The simple step-ladder Stark pushed out of their way in was the key to it, as it was devoid of any hoverdiscs, or indeed any other practicality that suggested it had been built in the last few centuries. The technology, however, was distinctly alien, a scattering of blue semi-solid globules across basic wooden desks. A familiar smell came from a familiar object – the shimmering metallic mirror the Czar had shown her before still tried to entice her with dainty cut-grass odours.

"You see, the Czar and I have a similar heritage," Stark said, pushing a stool towards her. She preferred to stand. "The same, in fact. His real name is Tiwan, and he is my brother."

"How is that possible?"

"It's a long story. Are you sure you won't sit down? Okay. I'm telling you this in all good faith. I feel like I'm confessing to a priest. There's an air about you of… anyway. Yes.

"He and I were born on Earth, in a place called the Vault. I have no desire to describe the Vault any more than I have to, but just take my word for it that it was a place you wouldn't want to visit. There are all sorts of explanations for how it came about, none of which are satisfactory, but its essential function was a bunker to stave off entropy. It did this via an early form of quantum vibration technology, which moved the atomic structure of the building at near-relativistic speeds to slow down the effect of time upon its interior.

"It was populated by a cult called the Lestig, who followed the teachings of a prophet called Omlac. You won't have heard of either. The cult was built up around a simple dichotomous prophecy, that at some point the messiah and the anti-messiah would emerge from the cult's descendants. The resulting synthesis that would allow the human race to leave the Vault and the universe behind into a new universe, free from the dangers of heat death.

"The Vault was sealed off from the world. Over time, it was buried, forgotten about, only told of in legends. While the world rotted outside, the Vault housed generation after generation, most, if not all, dedicated to the principles of Omlac. It was the seventeenth generation that reinterpreted Omlac's teachings into a eugenics experiment, and at some point only the strongest, the fastest, and especially the smartest, Lestig were allowed to breed.

"My brother and I were born into the two-hundred and forty-sixth generation. Our uncle, a man named Kurzbeg, was the cult's leading shaman at that time, and had prophesised that his sister's sons would be the messiah and anti-messiah Omlac had foreseen. When my brother emerged from her womb, disfigured as he is, it caused panic among the Lestig's political structures. Kurzbeg was declared insane, and my brother and I educated by a rival shaman. We were lucky – the genocidal practices of the Lestig had died out by the two-hundred and twentieth generation, and we were simply classified as Class X beings, entitled to a share in the society but prevented from breeding.

"At age twelve, my brother Tiwan began to educate himself. He consumed the entire library of the Vault, and relayed much of it back to me. Between the two of us we decided that the Lestig, technologically advanced as it was, had become decadent, and could not be allowed to continue.

"At sixteen we were both brought before the courts. Tiwan had become an outspoken rebel, obsessed with ancient occult practices. I had fallen in love, with a girl called Simeon. Neither was acceptable. We were sentenced to death.

"That was the biggest mistake the Lestig ever committed. Though his body was deformed and hideous, Tiwan's mind had engulfed every bit of martial knowledge the Lestig had ever accumulated. I believe you have already felt his power. The combined society was no match for his psychic abilities, or his technological expertise. My brother slaughtered the society, one by one, for opposing them. When I tried to stop him from killing Simeon, he broke all my limbs, the same fate the forbidden apocrypha reported Omlac suffered from those who had betrayed him, and killed her anyway."

"I'm sorry," Rhakin said, without really knowing why. Stark nodded briefly before continuing.

"He negotiated a way out of the Vault, building a teleportation device out of relatively simple circuitry. He didn't say anything to me in those last weeks he worked, but I could see the anger in his eyes every time he passed me. You have to understand, we had been friends. More than friends. I had agreed with him on everything. Absolutely everything, the genocide included. It had been out of pure selfishness that I had tried to save Simeon."

"Or pure love," Rhakin offered. She told herself she wouldn't interrupt again.

"Just another body among mounds of corpses, I survived by eating my own faeces and drinking my own urine. By the time my limbs healed, my brother had gone, leaving me for dead. I was quite sick, as you might expect. Only the vast technology of the Lestig saved me, once I could reach and access it. I think by then I had quite lost my mind, and it took me a long time to regain it.

"I began to make the Vault my home. I cleared the corpses of my friends, my family, my lover, into incinerators. I began absorbing the library that had corrupted my brother, knowing it was my only way of escape. The food supply, a self-replicating mycoproteinous fungus intended for generations more, was more than enough to sustain me for the rest of my life. Soon I learned my brother had acquired much of his knowledge through occult practices rather than simple reading, but that magic was beyond me. I kept to science and mind-expansive drugs, and eventually I was smart enough to learn the secrets of how the Vault worked. For the first time in the history of the Lestig, one of their number looked outside at the Earth.

"I was shocked by what I saw. There had been a war, reducing the planet of my ancestors to a wasteland. My ideas of escape had been shattered; not only that, but I think in my madness I had read the descriptions of the planet literally, and envisioned a rich landscape outside the walls of my prison, a world of green and blue, of high mountains and thick soil and oceans of endless depth and life. Instead there was this yellow nothingness, a harsh taunting emptiness. I fell into depression, and did not look for comfort or escape for the longest time.

"What happened next shocked me even more. One day the extra-relative sensors I had set up detected two humans from the outside, one male, one female, approaching the Vault. The idea of contact with intelligent creatures snapped me out of my statis. I endeavoured to switch off the very function that maintained the Vault, the quantum vibration, in order to allow them access. I cleared away the obstacles that covered the door through which my ancestors had first entered the Vault, two-hundred and forty-six generations past, and re-tooled the ancient engineering of the door.

"It was a man, and a young girl, who told me they had survived the war that had destroyed Earth. They had heard tell of the Vault, as some great and legendary library that held the key to the world's salvation.

"Contact with the pair confused me, threw me off my guard. I wanted them so much to be right, and only worked harder at mastering the weird physics of the Vault. If my brother could build a teleporter out of relative junk, why couldn't I re-jig a device designed to resist time into a machine capable of travelling through time?

"I allowed both my visitors access to the library - not simply the books, but the vast array of information-bursters and hologrammatic programs that had transformed my brother and myself – in case they could spot anything I had missed. But their minds lacked the capacity mine had developed over generations of genetic engineering. Since my ancestors had first built the Vault, only 60 years had past in their continuity!

"At first I despaired at this limitation, before I realised the implications! Continuity held the key to it. In protecting the Vault from one of the universe's fundamental laws, the untested quantum vibration tech had enclosed it in its own pocket dimension. You know of Thompson's Principle?"

"An act of fundamental resistance is an act of creation," Rhakin recited.

"Exactly. All I had to do was to re-engineer the basic function of the Vault and 'travel' the pocket dimension, complete with its own continuity, back before the war that had annihilated the planet in what I roughly termed Continuity A."

"Presumably that explains why your story is filled with anachronisms. There were never any reports of planet-destroying wars on Earth, except in cautionary folk tales."

"I imagine so. Continuity A survives only in a series of echoes. My allies and I managed to prevent the catastrophic conflict, merging Continuity B with the mainstream to create Continuity C.

"I set out to find Tiwan. By this point I was no longer the man I had been. I no longer hated the thought of the Lestig, or tried to distance myself from them. I think I fancied the Vault as their prison as much as it was mine, self-imposed at first but eventually an inescapable mental entrapment that had enslaved an entire culture. Though its potential was amazing, I abandoned it as soon as I could conceive of the esoteric physics that Tiwan had mastered.

"Eventually it was he who found me. He had not forgotten my transgression, nor I his, and under other circumstances I might have killed him there and then. But as the last remaining scions of a species as far removed from homo sapiens as they were from cro magnon, we were both lonely. He had been immersing himself in mathematics, hoping to understand in terms of digits and integers what I had experienced practically – the existence and manipulation of alternate continuities. We travelled together to the cityplanet of Silopogol, reputably the home of the universe's greatest mathematicians. Their extralinear computations would have once been too much for me, but exposure to more than one continuity has altered my mental output to the point where I no longer perceive time or space in the same lineal fashion. I believe this is one of the reasons why my brother and I are both imperceptible to even potent psychics like yourself.

"We worked extensively with a Silopogolian female named Arjo and her students at the planet's primary university. Our primary publications wowed the math-obsessed culture, and even they were unable to spot the logical gap in the hypotheses. Eventually our limitations required me to introduce a theoretical abstract set, the Base, in order to refine our computations. Essentially this was a basement-level common to all universes, an essential foundation my allies and I must have bypassed in order to leave Continuity B.

"Tiwan leapt upon the suggestion, taking it far beyond my humble abstraction. As you know, imagination and reality are as different or similar as blue and red – the addition of one to the other results in an immediate synthesis. By further conceiving of the Base he managed to map everything else, illustrating for us, in SRL, the shape of the multiverse."

"SRL?"

"Symphonic Resonant Linguistics. It's an experimental language, somewhere between a lightshow and a complex musical composition, a communicative gesamtkunstwerk." Stark gestured to one of his desks, casually extending a hand, towards which the blue material moved. He took hold of it, its ductile mass conforming to his directions. "This is memory gel," he explained as he worked. "It's what they use on Silopogol. It's somewhere between a gas, a liquid, and a solid. Its cells are committed to storing information, like a chemical computer."

"They use something similar on Tharnax, apparently," Rhakin said. "But no member of the resistance has been there since it was co-opted by the DRS." She had almost forgotten all about the war, and suddenly felt guilty for having temporarily abandoned it and her anarchist allies. She promised herself she would do everything to return to it once she had fulfilled her obligation to Stark.

"That's correct," he said. "Now, watch and listen carefully. This is the symphony map Tiwan composed in SRL, shortly before he landed the job as Esoteric Science Czar. You don't have to be fluent, a Buddha like yourself should pick it up pretty quickly. The grammar is in the time signatures, chromatic scale and so forth."

Before Rhakin had even managed to get comfortable on one of Stark's stools, his eagerness had got the better of him, and the strange show began. The gel began to mould into a spherical shape. The musical accompaniment was more than narration, it was integral to what the recording was trying to convey. The sphere split into two, not unlike a Taijitu, before evolving further, a three-dimensional recreation of Zhou Dun-yi's variation. At the same time, music and visual conspired to extend the concepts through several layers – not just physical, but mathematical, linguistic, spiritual, even subatomic. The Dun-yi-esque Taijitu expanded into a Qabbalistic concept as the multi- and uni-verses grew in size and complexity, dimensions folding back upon themselves like reprises.

After what seemed like hours, Rhakin began to understand the map, and why it couldn't be rendered into language. The Base was where an invisible orchestra sat, each vibration from each string resonating onto a stage devoid of a conductor, each note sounding different to the assembled audience that were only brought into being by the harmonies and melodies across the continuities. The universe grew its sentient beings, who created the gods, so that the gods could retroactively create the universe. Genesis, Gotterdamerung, had already happened, was going to happen, is already happening. Heat death was yesterday, the big bang tomorrow, all is occurring now, all a separate frequency away. The swirling fractal patterns of the map threatened to hypnotise her, like a fairground wheel.

"No map is the territory," Stark admitted, "but it's the closest we've come to a model of the universe."

"And the mirror?" Rhakin said, her dry mouth almost croaking on the words. Stark ran to get her a drink of water.

"I was hoping you could help with that. Every time I go near it, I…"

"It's an aphrodisiac. I've never experienced anything so potent. The Czar, your brother, called it a 'piece of the Source.' Could he be referring to the Base?"

"I don't know. As good as I am, I've only survived competing with him so far because I don't face him in a direct confrontation. My rescue of you is about as daring as I could hope for. I need someone of your power level to face him down."

"You must understand," Rhakin said, standing. "I'm grateful, but I am at war. I cannot desert the alliance."

"A combat Buddha. Shouldn't that be a contradiction in terms?"

"Yes," she admitted.

"You've seen the model. I know you know the implications as well as I do. What if certain forces in this universe, maybe even key concepts, were only psychic vibrations from another universe? We can see that if this universe does exist, all possible universes exist."

"That's a big 'if,'" she replied. "One of the assumptions imagination engineering is that this universe is a hologram of another. It's a mathematical placeholder, like your Base, but…"

"Then the Base is everything. If it exists, ontologically, the model is correct, and we can end this war through physics! If not, all we're doing is running around in a simulation, a video game artifice. Wouldn't you want to know that? Isn't your religion dedicated to conceiving of spiritual cosmology?"

"You assume much! I have walked through the fire-pits of Ares, swam through the electromagnetic storms of the Humb system, harnessed the plasma of Arcturus and contended with the Peace Corp of the DRSAF. I am D'jinz-El Ah Rhakin. Do not seek to tempt me, man. Do not seek to manipulate me. I will not be a pawn in a cradle feud between your brother and yourself."

"I apologise," Stark said quickly. Rhakin didn't need to read his mind to see that he meant it, and that his eagerness had simply got the best of him. "I told you more than I've ever told another living soul because I respect you from reputation, D'jinz-El Ah Rhakin. I need there to be no pretence between us. I needed you to see that this is no petty squabble, but a quest for knowledge that could undermine or confirm everything we have ever known to be true!"

"I think I have heard tell of you, Stark. Do they not call you the Wanderer in the eastern systems?"

"They might," he sighed, resting his forehead upon his palm. The workdesk at which they sat was now scattered with the collapsed memory gel, which gave off a pleasant azure glow that lit up the contours of his face. His eclectic clothing looked refined in the weak artificial light; Rhakin thought he could almost pass as normal. Conversely it was only now she saw the resemblance between him and his brother, a fleeting likeness she couldn't put her finger on, that flickered like a flame in a strong wind.

"Then I have heard too many contrasting tales. I will take you at your word, Wanderer. Your quest is to fulfil the Lestig, not in mysticism but in science. Mine is to end the war against the Democratic Republic of Sol. It so happens our paths cross where your brother stands. Let the war against reality begin."