The Guerdon Earth

by Jonathon Sullivan

 

 

For the first time in five thousand years, Charles Crooke wore a body and stood on the flowering skin of the Earth.

 

"Welcome home, Emissary."

 

He stood in a summer meadow. A slender, middle-aged matron waited nearby, accompanied by a young man and woman. They wore loose tunics of blue fabric, trousers and boots.

 

A thought later, and Crooke wore similar raiment. He stepped out of the shallow crater, the womb in which his new body had gestated.

 

The man frowned, tightening his grip on the long weapon he carried. The end of the barrel glowed dull red.

 

 "I'm Charles Crooke." He held up his hands. "I'm an Emissary of the Jovian Congregation." His heart pounded. His limbs trembled. He had no practice with fear, much less the sensation of fear. "I'm here to talk. The weapon isn't necessary."

 

"That's not for you to say." The young man's voice broke. He was afraid, too. The girl carried no weapon, save a malignant expression directed at Crooke.

 

"Be quiet, Malu," the older woman said. "You two are here to listen and protect, not to speak."

 

Her companions stood fast as she approached. "Welcome home, Charles Crooke," she said. "I'm Durga, the presbyter. Malu and Indira here are my acolytes. You could have spared yourself the trip."

 

"Confronted by a weapon, I might tend to agree."

 

"My presbyt insisted," Durga said soothingly. "Just as they insisted you come here, instead of our village. I'm sure you understand. We're afraid. We won't harm you if you don't try to harm us."

 

"We want to save you, Presbyter. What happens here is entirely up to you." Crooke put down his hands, but kept his eyes on Malu. En route from Jupiter, he had received troubling news. Two days earlier, on the other side of the globe, another community had met another Emissary with violence, incinerating her before she could escape. He had expected an order to turn back, but the Congregation's mandate was clear: the anthropoids would have their last chance.

 

Why me? he asked himself again. It's not fair. I'm just a musician now. I'm not a diplomat anymore. That was another life, another world. Gone forever. But the Jovian Congregation had a long memory.

 

That memory had mandated this dangerous exercise. That memory had drafted Crooke to put on a body and come here to strangle the Congregation's guilt before it could germinate and grow.

 

 "I understand your skepticism, Durga." Crooke tried to smile, wondering if it looked as clumsy and mechanical as it felt. "Perhaps we could talk, before your people finalize their decision."

 

Durga nodded. Her eyes were dark and kind, her features sun-weathered and pleasant. Her iron-gray hair gathered into a braided queue that hung to her waist. Her lips were thick, almost sensuous, lips that smiled often.

 

"Why don't we sit there?" she said. "It's a beautiful spot, don't you think?"

 

"I'm instructed to discuss the proposal with the entire community."

 

"The Presbyt is here." Durga tapped at her temple. "Right now. They see and hear everything."

 

"Oh." He frowned.

 

"We have indoor plumbing, too. You Jovians should visit your backward cousins more often." She stepped past him and sat in a patch of clover a few meters away.

 

He followed her. His awakening senses catalogued the surroundings. This clearing overlooked a valley, a quilt of woods and meadows. A wide river bore the shimmering  reflection of a pale dagger of light, hanging in the sky like a distorted moon. A wedge-shaped sector of the Shell, under construction. Crooke smiled. At least he could say he'd stood on humanity's ancient home, the Earth, to see humanity's new home, the Shell, with eyes of flesh and blood.

 

He examined his hands with claustrophobic wonder. Loaded with nanosoft, this body could morph or dissolve with a thought. But it was still a body. Any of the four trillion minds encoded in the quantum vibrations of Jovian hydrogen could access a memory of the flesh, and it would seem no less real. But Crooke knew he wore a shell of bone and blood. That knowledge colored his experience with a strange, meaty suchness.

 

The dagger in the sky hung over a village. Small, colorful buildings sprouted beside the river. The architecture was simply graceful – cones and geodesics, longhouses built up from conjugated arches. Even as an anthropoid, Crooke had never seen anything like it. By the time of his birth, shortly before the Exodus, such pastoral tableaus had become a thing of the past.

 

And soon it would all be gone, forever.

 

He ran his fingers through the clover, marveling at its moist delicacy.

 

This is real.

 

"We're waiting, Emissary."

 

Crooke started and looked up at Durga.  She smiled indulgently. His cheeks flushed.

 

"Forgive me," he said. "It's been...I take it you've received the proposal?"

 

Durga pointed to the wedge of reflected sunlight. "About the same time we noticed you'd begun work on your splendid Shell. You're making rapid progress. We watched you devour Mars, the Jovian moons, the asteroids. You haven't responded to the appeal from the Global Assembly, so... we're next. As far as you're concerned, humanity's birthplace is just another rock. Just raw material sitting in your path."

 

Crooke looked up at the Shell. "Humanity moves forward. We're taking our civilization to the next level."

 

"And you're not going to let us get in your way."

 

You're already in our way. Crooke had nearly caste his vote against offering the proposal, like most of the First. Many in the Congregation argued that the anthropoids had chosen to let human evolution proceed without them. They were just another obsolete species now, a throwback, subject to the whim of cosmic fortune. They had chosen to cling like insects to their little rock, where a rogue comet or asteroid would eventually destroy them all anyway. The Shell was just another cosmic inevitability.

 

But most Jovians, born in the clouds as pure mind, cherished the romantic notion of preserving the memory of an Earth they'd never known. And in the end they had carried the day. Rather than come themselves, they'd drafted Emissaries from among the First, like Charles Crooke, to expiate their guilt. Some things never changed.

 

He launched into his duty, eager to be done with it. "The appeal was given due consideration," he said, "and rejected. The Shell will be built, Presbyter. But we're not interested in destroying you or your way of life."

 

"You can't destroy the Earth without destroying us."

 

"We've tried to make it clear to you that we can. Those who wish to join the Jovian Congregation are still welcome. When the time comes, they'll make the move to the Shell with the rest of us. They'll be immortal."

 

Durga looked grim. "We'd rather not."

 

"Those who'd rather not can be preserved as virtual representations, outside the Congregation. You'll live – and die – as you always have. Your existence will be indistinguishable from your life here."

 

Durga nodded and closed her eyes. "You really don't understand. The Presbyt has studied the Congregation's proposal, and we are in agreement. We believe you would, and could, do as you say. We believe our recreated existence would be indistinguishable from this reality — except for one thing."

 

Crooke's fingers pulled at the clover, shredding it. "That being?"

 

"The knowledge that it wasn't the real thing. The knowledge that Gaia was gone, swallowed by the Shell. You Jovians have never understood — it's not about our individual lives or even our way of life. It's about the presence of the divine. Our union with the consciousness of this planet. No, Emissary. You can't destroy the Earth without destroying us."

 

"I understand that some of you worship the—"

 

"Don't think of it as worship. Think of it as community with the living, breathing mind of Gaia. Our way of life emphasizes being part of something larger — the consciousness of a planet."

 

"The Jovian Congregation is something larger. You could be part of that. The Shell will be something much larger." He leaned forward. "Those who join us there will belong to the consciousness of a star."

 

"A synthetic consciousness, compiled from synthetic minds. I'm talking about a being evolved from rock and water and carbon, millions of different species. I'm talking about our mother – yours and mine. Gaia is conscious and alive. And we're part of Her, bones to brains."

 

Crooke shook his head. "You're allowing romanticism and pseudoscience to destroy you. Those ideas were discredited long ago."

 

Durga frowned. "I urge you to tread lightly, sir. The presbyt is willing to hear you out, but our convictions are just that. You won't help your case by ridiculing our beliefs." She tilted her head furtively toward Malu and Indira. "Not to mention the matter of your personal safety. It was all I could do to prevent your being met by a mob. My people are angry – and afraid."

 

"My apologies." Crooke shook his head. Blame the remove of millenia or his own apathy, but one thing was certain: he was no longer a diplomat. "I don't mean to ridicule."

 

"We aren't children. We have mathematical models to support our convictions. We've learned Her moods – we've learned to read Her mind. We know every detail of Her weather, trends in Her ecosystems, the biogeochemical fluxes that pump matter and energy through Her body. Gaia is a state machine, or rather a vast network of state machines. Once a network becomes elaborate enough it has the potential for consciousness. And Gaia is the most elaborate network in the solar system."

 

"The second most elaborate," Crooke said. "You have no idea what it's like. If it's transcendent immersion in a higher consciousness your people crave, then you should reconsider joining us. Or you can remain within this reality."

 

"We come back to the sticking point. It wouldn't be reality, would it?"

 

Crooke looked around the meadow. This is real. How would it feel different if it weren't?

 

His eyes settled a large spider, yellow and black, working in a web stretched across the branches of a nearby shrub. He had not seen a spider in millennia. Now, watching the pearly abdomen and elegant legs, he tasted that forgotten mixture of revulsion and wonder. The spider's belly flexed forward and backward, spinnerets working as she trundled an ungainly package – a grasshopper tangled in her net. The spider wrapped her prey in a cocoon of silk, to suck the life out of it later.

 

"Have you concluded your presentation, Emissary?"

 

He looked up, letting his eyes indulge in the rich texture of Durga's features. In the Jovian Congregation, human interactions were rarefied, abstract, and sublime. Music, philosophy, poetry, mathematics. Individuals represented themselves as melodies, geometric forms, or idealized icons. The imperfect symmetry of this real human face carried elegance and immediacy. Durga was a handsome woman, weathered but still regal. He could imagine her in her youth, like a svelte goddess from an ancient Hindu temple. Now she wore a different kind of beauty.

 

She is at most sixty years old, and she has changed much. How much have I changed in five thousand years?

 

A claustrophobic panic seized him. He wanted to be done, to be back in Jove's mighty embrace, a vibration in a sea of minds like his own, afloat in the endless bounty of radiation that had become humanity's food, spinning out the quantum melodies that so pleased his fellows.

 

"I urge you and your people to consider carefully," he said, struggling with each word. "Don't allow yourselves to die or your way of life to disappear just because of some notion of —"

 

Durga stiffened. Her eyes grew wide. "No!"

 

"What?"

 

Durga's acolytes darted across the meadow toward them. Malu leveled his staff at Crooke. The glowing tip of the weapon turned to an angry violet.

 

Durga stood. "Wait!"

 

"What's going on?" Crooke climbed to his feet.

 

"Stand back," Durga said. "Behind me."

 

"I take it your Presbyt is angry." His heart pounded, and the long-forgotten sickness of fear washed through him again.

 

"They'll do the same to us, Presbyter!" Malu shouted.

 

"They could do it anyway" Durga said, and now her voice carried the strength of command. "Put that thing down."

 

"What's going on? Tell me!" Crooke fought the urge to morph into the escape vehicle or melt into the grass. It didn't matter that a copy of Charles Crooke resided in clouds of hydrogen a half solar-system away. That Crooke was already somebody else. His fear twisted in his belly.

 

"Put that thing down!" Durga said.

 

Malu lowered the weapon. Crooke got a better look at Indira – a shapely creature with huge eyes and long black hair, rather like his image of the younger Durga. In her expression he saw smoldering rage. Malu's face held only despair and defeat.

 

Durga turned to face Crooke. Her hands traced an oval in the air to create a screen, like a hovering plate of silver. Crooke saw another village, buildings like those in the valley below, arranged in a series of colorful terraces embracing the slopes of a verdant mountain. As he watched, a blanket of white foam enveloped the buildings like translucent lava, then fizzed away into nothing. The process spread away from the village, stripping the mountain of trees within a wide perimeter. It was over in seconds. Nothing remained but a swath of bare rock.

 

"Our sister community," Durga said. "Seventy kilometers away. Will you do that to us? Boil us away into vapor?"

 

"The recording process is necessarily destructive. Your neighbors were visited today by another Emissary. Obviously they accepted our proposal. Look."

 

A lone human figure clambered over the bare, steaming rock of the mountain. The picture closed in, and they saw a naked man identical to Crooke. He squatted before a metallic ovoid resting on the sterilized rock, like an egg of mercury.

 

"That's the recording," Crooke said. "Your neighbors are in there, along with their village. Their world. Their lives are preserved in that object. They never even noticed the transition."

 

The naked man melted. Crooke watched his Doppelganger become a puddle of silvery liquid that surrounded the cocoon, enclosing it in a glistening polyhedron that lifted into the sky and disappeared.

 

"They would never agree to that!" Indira said, glaring at him.

 

Crooke shook his head. "We wouldn't take the recording without their consent."

 

"So you say." Malu's voice trembled with terror and revulsion. "What's to stop you?"

 

"Look, I don't care! If you want to stay, that's fine. I only know I don't want to stay!"

 

Durga waved the image away, warning Crooke with her eyes. Be careful.

 

 "I'm sorry," he said, watching the glowing tip of the weapon in Malu's hand. "I'm out of my element, and I'm...afraid. It's been a long time since I've been afraid. Please understand: it really makes no difference to me...to us. We're offering you an option, out of fairness and mercy. There's no profit in it for us, either way."

 

 "Liar!" Indira seized the weapon from Malu and stepped forward. "Don't you hear them, Durga? The Presbyt has made its decision!" She aimed at Crooke.

 

"The Presbyt cannot decide that!" Durga spread her arms, standing in front of Crooke to block the blast.

 

Malu shoved the weapon aside as Indira fired. The pulse dug a wide trench of steaming earth and vaporized a tree on the other side of the meadow. Crooke issued a frantic mental command to his body. As Indira aimed again, Malu seized Durga's tunic and jerked her out of the way.

 

Vision faded as he completed his transformation. He had no time to become an escape vehicle — even if he did they would see, and destroy him.

 

So like his comrade, he melted into a puddle of liquid. His mind shuddered as part of him boiled away, destroyed by the blaster. His awareness flickered in and out, oscillating between oblivion and confused terror, waiting to see whether he'd lost too much of himself to reconstitute. At last he felt his mind congeal. Billions of nanospores scattered through the soil re-established communication and formed a tenuous network that called itself Charles Crooke.

 

Percolating into the earth, he spread across the meadow. The capillary action of the roots pulled him into the clover, and his mind flowed into the fractal branchings. He filtered through the loam, seeping into the saprophytic fungi and bacteria that seethed below the surface. He split into countless tubes of light, a million mouths and a million anuses, feeding on the crushed remains of foliage and animals, shitting rich organic residue, shuttling carbon and nitrogen and phosphorous between dead matter and the living veneer of the meadow.

 

Now an aphid chewed one of his leaves. He spread into the insect's tissues, tasting the ferment of life there, tangy and sweet. His jaws kept working the leaf, eating himself. A moment later a sparrow took him.

 

He seeped into the soil and the clover and all the creatures of the meadow. Again and again, his mind split into vibrant fragments, then recombined into structures of expanding order and beauty. Here he was safe. Here his awareness could spread out, encompassing multiple levels of experience, as when he spun his symphonies of quantum music, simultaneously aware of the whole and all its parts.

 

But there was a sublime harmonic here, one he had never heard in the clouds of Jupiter. As he spread through the meadow the theme grew more distinct, playing high above the rhythm of eating and being eaten. A primitive, aching desire flared back to life within him. Every plant and animal, every microbe, every atom embraced every other with ancient passion, the ecstasy of losing one's flesh in another. He put a face on that passion, and it was something like the face of his mother long dead and something like the two faces of Durga, young and old.

 

Her kiss: both erotic and maternal.

 

It took an eternity for a current of caution to slowly rise into his awareness, a sense of time within timelessness. When he stepped out of the womb of the earth, the sun lay against the horizon, and shadows stretched across Durga's figure. She sat alone in the soft clover, watching him.

 

He walked toward her, savoring the feel of his bare feet on the ground, the play of the muscles in his legs. He tingled with a primitive rapture he had forgotten long ago, if he'd ever known it at all.

 

He looked down into the valley, toward the village. "How long before they return to try again?"

 

"They don't see you," she said, shaking her head. "I'm...disconnected. We thought you were gone. Dead."

 

"No. I could have been, if you hadn't given me an extra second..." He swallowed the sudden, sober realization. "You saved me."

 

She nodded.

 

"If you thought I was dead..."

 

"I hoped you weren't." She sighed. "Besides, I just couldn't find the desire to get up and go home."

 

Crooke sat before her, naked. His head still buzzed with residual joy, and it spilled over into a burst of affection and compassion for this remarkable woman. "What's wrong, Durga?"

 

"My people could have simply said no." In the gathering shadow, her face seemed more elderly than middle-aged, more exhausted than vivacious. "Instead they chose violence. I'm ashamed of them. Indira and Malu..." She put her face in her hands. "It doesn't matter anyway. Nothing matters."

 

"Why not?"

 

"Because the Presbyt won't outlive me. The Earth won't outlive me. Our way of life is over, one way or another."

 

He shook his head. "Durga, you don't have to—"

 

"It's worse than that. I saw you, just now. I saw you rise out of the Earth. I saw the look on your face. I know that look... You were gone for hours. What happened to you, Emissary?"

 

Crooke opened his mouth, but found no words to shape his experience. "I remembered something I didn't even know I'd forgotten," he said at last. "I felt alive."

 

"Alive." Durga laughed bitterly. She pointed to the wounds Indira had cut into the earth. "You became a puddle of goo over there. Indira burned it away. We thought you were destroyed. But you were alive. You took sanctuary and communion. In our church!"

 

Crooke smiled. "That's an interesting way to put it."

 

"Our way is more prosaic. We commune with Gaia through planting and harvesting, through the restoration of ecosystems. We catalogue and monitor species. We do penance by cleaning up the mess you made...the mess we made of this world, before the Exodus. We meditate on the cycles of matter and energy that animate Gaia's flesh — which is our flesh. But...it's not anything like what you just did."

 

Now he understood her grief. For all her talk of mathematical models and state machines, Gaia was still a matter of faith to Durga. A set of ideas. Not a being she could touch, a living mind that would embrace her and love her and change her - as it had Charles Crooke.

 

"Emissary, you came here to tell us you will destroy everything we hold dear and divine. But you have felt Her presence more deeply than any of us. How does a cleric face the realization that the infidel sees the truth more clearly than she ever will?"

 

"It's not the same. I don't live here."

 

"And neither will we, not for much longer."

 

"Durga, it doesn't have to be that way. Listen to me! When I came here, I didn't really care what your answer was. But now I do. This...this needs to be preserved."

 

He reached out to brush her cheek. Her eyes grew wide, but she did not pull away. For the first time in millennia Crooke touched the living face of another human being. "You need to preserved."

 

She stood and backed away from him, glaring, shaking her head. "Preserved?"

 

"Durga—"

 

"Preserved! Like a mummy in a museum! A...primitive artifact, a curiosity." Her eyes narrowed. "I should have let them kill you."

 

He reeled at the impact of her words, the depth of his own hurt. "You don't mean that."

 

Her expression, an obsidian edge of anger and envy, slowly melted into an dark pool of despair. "No, I don't. I couldn't have lived with myself. But at least I wouldn't have to face the knowledge that you can go where I never will."

 

"That can change!" Crooke felt the old fire, the exhilaration of a diplomat who had found the angle to close the sale. "We can fine-tune the software. When you occupy a virtual Gaia, you'll be able to do exactly what I did."

 

He saw longing in her eyes. Then she shook her head.

 

"Think of it, Durga! You'll be one with—"

 

"I'll be part of your elaborate museum piece. The altar of your guilt. A relic." She stood a little straighter, lifting her chin, and Crooke watched her rekindle her strength. "The Presbyt has considered your kind offer and declined, Emissary. We wish you safe return."

 

He stepped back, trying to comprehend the emptiness in his chest. Pain. I want to go home. The meadow glowed in the reflected light of the moon.

 

No. He looked up. The Shell fragment had risen high into the night sky, like a luminous tooth suspended over the Earth.

 

I want to go home.

 

"I respect your decision," he said at last, and gave a silent command to the nanochines in his blood. Some of them spilled onto the soil as the transformation began.

 

He morphed into the escape vehicle. As he rose into the night and climbed out of the gravity well, he tried to forget that his last words on Earth had been a lie.

 

 

 

#          #          #

 

 

 

A century later, Crooke stepped out of another hole in the dirt. He saw Durga coming up the trail. In the valley below, the tidy village and cultivated fields clung to the gray river. The panorama was less striking this time, the architecture less charming and perfect than he remembered. Even for an immortal mind encoded in the precise fluctuations of a quantum computer, emotion could color perception, and memory could be tenuous and illusory. Everything sweet was sweeter in recollection.

 

Crooke swallowed his dread. Would it be the same when he finally returned to Gaia's embrace – if he had the courage to go at all?

 

Durga limped toward him, smiling. Time and medicine had waged a long battle over her body, and time was winning. Watching her hobble up the trail, Crooke tried to imagine her pain. But while the passing century had slowly chewed away at her, his life in virtuality had been free of pain, if not free of doubt. 

 

He stood as she drew near.

 

"Welcome home, Emissary." Durga's face still held lines of wisdom, deeper now, and scars of grief. Her skin had taken on the sickly hues of decline, and the iron gray of her hair had become bone white. Slowly, painfully, she sat on the soft bed of clover.

 

"It's good to see you again, Presbyter." Crooke sat next to her.

 

"You look well," she said, and gave him a mischievous wink. "You must be eating right."

 

He tried to laugh.

 

She pointed toward the triangular shard of the Shell. "We've been watching that thing for more than a century now. It hasn't changed since your last visit. We were given to understand that construction would proceed rapidly. But you don't seem to be making much progress, Emissary."

 

"There have been delays," Crooke said. "And we can afford to be patient. We had hoped that those of you who remained might change your minds, given time."

 

Durga shook her head. "No. My people are steadfast. But we're grateful for the reprieve. I, for one, am glad I won't live to see the end. Selfish perhaps, but..." She shrugged, grinning wickedly, and again Crooke saw the girl she must have been.

 

"Are you happy, Durga?" After a century of rehearsing a thousand oblique ways to ask her, the question flew out of him like a wild thing, stark and starving.

 

"I am at peace. We all are."

 

He had longed to hear her say it, but now the words did nothing to stifle his guilt.

 

"Of course," she said, "I still harbor a certain degree of professional jealousy."

 

He laughed, a hollow sound. "You shouldn't."

 

"I wonder," she said. "I wonder if it changed you. Did you think about it, after you went back to the Jovian Congregation? Did you miss it?"

 

He took a deep breath. "Durga..."

 

She leaned toward him. Her expression held a strange tension of hope and challenge. "Why did you really come back here, Charles Crooke?"

 

He had a lump in his throat. He shook his head. "I..."

 

"Would you like to enter our church again, Emissary? Would you like to enter this little meadow, and taste what we cannot?"

 

Yes I would. "That's not why I came," he lied.

 

"Then do it for me," she said. "Let me see that look on your face again. Please."

 

Crooke's mind twisted in a whirlpool of dread and desire, pulling him down to the truth. His indictment or vindication lay in this moment.

 

He stepped away and allowed his body to melt into the dirt, into a delicate web of energy and matter, stability and flux, predation and evasion. Every creature was hungry and afraid. Every pattern was taut and beautiful. Every detail was vibrant, rich with atomic-level fidelity.

 

Perfect. Clean. Empty.

 

When he'd seen enough, he stepped out of the earth, cold with grief.

 

Durga stood, wariness on her ancient features. "That's not the look I remember. You look ill, Emissary."

 

"It's...it's a bit much for me." He took a deep breath, fighting to maintain his composure. "Too primitive. I prefer the fellowship of the Congregation. I prefer immortality to pain and death. I prefer what you have denied yourselves."

 

She stared at him for a long time. Finally she laughed. "Liar!"

 

He stared at her. She had found him out.

 

"I was wrong about you, Crooke. For a long time, I clung to that memory of your face, when you came out of the Earth so long ago. I saw Gaia through your eyes that night. For the first time in my life, I really knew. But it was a sour revelation. There was always that jealousy. I hated you, because you..."

 

Her face drew into sadness for a moment, then the smile returned. "But now I know better. You may see more clearly than I, but you aren't with Her. You've denied Her for your Shell, and it's killing you. Again, your face says it all." A fiery, defiant joy grew in her eyes as she struggled to her feet. "You can join with the Earth more intimately, you can touch Her where we cannot. But you'll never be as close to Her as we are. Finally, you understand what's being lost." She raised her arm into accusation. "You came here to convince yourself it wasn't so. I'm glad I made you look Her in the eye before you killed her. I hope it drives you mad, Charles Crooke. I hope it drives you all mad."

 

He shook his head. She didn't know.

 

She laughed. Her teeth were still white and perfect. "Soon my bones will rest in this meadow, and soon you'll grind the bones of the Earth to finish your pathetic Shell. None of that matters now. You've made me a happy woman, Emissary."

 

He stood mute, still vacant and numb from his union with the dead meadow. Her stabbing words were his redemption, because she did not know. And his damnation, because Crooke knew too well.

 

She turned her back on him and hobbled down the trail.

 

He sat in the clover, unable to leave, unable to die. In the branches of a nearby shrub he saw the same spider in the same web, still spinning her captive grasshopper into a cocoon of death. A thousand such clues must have been scattered about this valley, but Durga and her people had not recognized them. They weren't supposed to. The program was set up that way.

 

She didn't know.

 

That, he told himself as he escaped into the sky, was all that mattered.

 

#          #          #

 

 

Another lie. Emerging from the cocoon, Crooke stood on the inner face of the finished Shell. His articulated legs floated over the bright, semiliquid surface. Fourteen quintillion minds lay beneath that mercurial sheen, encoded in the vibrations of atomic nuclei, dancing in the bounty of energy from the captive sun. Some said their interlocking thoughts compiled a transcendent godhead, a solar consciousness. Others dismissed the idea as neo-mystical fluff. It had become an issue of perennial philosophical debate. For Crooke, it was an issue long since resolved.

 

Sorting through the rain of photons, his electronic eyes examined the tiny cocoon floating on the sphere beside him, like an insignificant speck of meteoric flotsam. He had hidden it here in obscurity, like the contraband it was. If the Shell Congregation ever learned that he had made this record without the permission of Durga and her Presbyt, his punishment would be severe. Crooke knew it could never be severe enough.

 

Eventually, the sun would burn away the cocoon and its contents, erasing the evidence of his crime. By then Durga would have passed into eternal sleep, as dead as the Earth she loved.

 

He took the recording in his triple-jointed forelimbs, turning it over and over, regarding his reflection in the smooth surface. Four pairs of electronic eyes stared back at him, and his eight legs emerged from the distorted reflection of his oval thorax to wrap around the egg, like meridians. When he'd created this recording, after his first proposal to the Presbyt, he'd told himself that most of all he wanted to preserve Durga. Her wisdom. The goodness that had driven her to almost give her life for his. Her sad, weathered beauty.

 

He turned the cocoon over and over. Every atom of this object was a quantum processor, ticking away at petaflop speed. This power had captured the essence of Durga, insulating him from any complicity in her destruction. He'd seen it.

 

But he'd wanted more than exoneration, more than Durga. He'd seen that, too. He'd hoped to capture his dream in the meadow, the primitive maternal warmth that had haunted him for a century, the transcendent presence that he had sought, but never found, in the Shell.

 

He had failed.

 

He stared into Her tomb for a long time, and saw only himself. Finally, he put it aside, and set off across the inner face of the Shell.

 

Eventually, the sun might burn away this body, too. His life and his music and his friends waited for him in the Shell - an elaborate, empty existence of solipsistic contemplation, creation and play. But it would never be home, never again.

 

The Shell Congregation didn't know what they had destroyed, or what they had failed to create. Durga didn't know she worshipped a dead god. They were all content.

 

All but Crooke. He crawled along the endless, recursive landscape without direction, waiting. The Sun, imprisoned at the center of humanity's Shell, would shine for billenia. Long enough, perhaps, to burn away the ignorance that was bliss, or the knowledge that was suffering.