The organic blast door closed shut with an eerie whistle, sealing the external platform behind the two women, one of which wore a white-and-blue Starmoth Initiative suit and the other a simple coral-like voidsuit. One of them was indubitably human, though her skin was the colour of a deep ocean. The other had a less firm grip on reality, or perhaps it was the other way around; when she walked on the dust-covered floor, the small particles falling from the decaying structure of the Sequence ruins seemed to remain undisturbed as if she had been a proverbial holographic projection. Heavy thumps echoed from beyond the blast door.
"Talasea, how much time do we have?" asked the coral-wearing woman.
"I am not sure, but I would say not much, sadly. These organic doors are strong, but they can't hold that thing we're trailing behind -- even if it was just a shambler, I would not bet on the door. They can't interface with these ruins anymore but they can just, you know...punch through."
Another heavy thump echoed in response.
"No word from the Al-Andalus?"
"No." Talasea checked the q-aug on her palm again. "Last communication was the one we received in the atrium. I've got an automated shuttle coming down, but it will be too late. I, well..." The irenian took a glance at her laser stylus, a trusty tool, but even at its highest power settings, no more than a flashlight against a Sequence combat organism. "I guess I'll have to start talking with the monsters."
Another thump. The organic door was about to give way, artificial muscles strained to their very limits, stretching like rotting roots under a powerful wind.
"How come you're still there? Fly away, you beautiful lady. Go away, Kalisa. You don't want to see me crushed to death by a Sequence lifeform. You haven't seen the Algorab tapes. I have. It's not very pretty."
The coral-wearing woman looked up, towards the wide, blade-blue sky of the fractured Sequence world, with derelict bio-arcologies reaching towards the twin stars in the shape of skeleton trees. Down below, there was nothing but five thousand meters of cold emptiness.
"You've always had such a detached attitude towards death, Tali."
"That's typically Irenian, I guess. We choose hedonism, so we don't have to worry about anything when it all ends. Or that's just scientific curiosity. Now go."
A final thump. Two muscles broke, spreading dark artificial blood on the cobblestones.
"I'm not going anywhere."
"You can literally cross the entire galaxy in the blink of an eye and you are telling me right here, right now, that you don't want to be going anywhere?"
"What can I say? I think I like you. And there are things...I have always wanted to say."
The door finally gave way, splattering in a shower of dark fluid and shattered organic particles, spread into the wind as soon as they found themselves freed from the shackles of artificial muscles. The Jeweller followed immediately in the wake of the destruction it had inflicted on the door, a swirling cloud of transbiological particles that evocated images of self-aware baroque paintings to Talasea. The Jeweller spread its tentacles to mirror the two suns above, then moved towards the two women, poised for the kill -- or perhaps, if their biological material was deemed adequate, absorption into its complex transbiology, that had been starved of new inputs for so long.
Kalisa winked, then stepped forward, calmly, gently. It lasted only a second or two, perhaps three at most. The Jeweller froze in time, then extended a tentacle towards Kalisa. The white-haired woman poked it with a smile, and Talasea assumed they spent the following second exchanging information. Then the Sequence lifeform quickly folded its tentacle and slithered away through the remains of the door with a quickness that felt almost like a fear reflex. Kalisa dusted her shoulder, where the lifeform had left a bit of golden dust, then turned towards Talasea again.
"Well, that was interesting."
"What did you say to each other? Ok, I am rephrasing my question...what part of a dialogue between a Lady That Wanders and a Sequencer can my puny brain understand? Couldn't you tell it to just...stay for a while, if it wasn't determined to kill us?"
"Oh, I am afraid it was very much determined to murder both of us. We are, after all, trespassing on its domain. To say that I talked to it would be a bit of an overstatement. I just, well, told it who and what I was."
"And it slithered away, just like this?"
"Bedding you was a terrible mistake."
1985, Northern Afghanistan.
Jyothi held her breath and crawled under the trees as two Mi-24 helicopters zoomed above her head, their blades mincing the cold morning air. The aircraft looked like oversized insects with bulbous eyes gazing at the dusty landscape. The low-pitched vibrations from their engines shook the very ground as they reverberated through the valley. As they turned around and gained altitude to climb over the cliffs, Jyothi allowed herself to leave her precarious hideout and crawled towards the edge of the hill, among the juniper trees and hawthorn bushes. She grabbed her binoculars from her backpack. She had smeared the lenses with engine grease to avoid reflections that could easily give away her position. In the past few days, the only human presence in the valley had been the soviet helicopters on their way to the nearby plateau, but Jyothi did not want to take any chances. She was a ghost, here. A presence roaming the hills and valleys of a country some western scholars had named "Graveyard of empires" - but of which empire? The British one? The Soviet empire? The Bactrian empire? The Mughal empire? Or perhaps even Alexander's foolish but oh-so-fascinating endeavour? Strangely enough, thought Jyoti, Afghanistan's historical role as a crossroads, much more than a cemetery, was the real reason for her presence here.
Her binoculars swept across the valley, finding dust, juniper and cedar trees, then a dry seabed and, finally, an ancient Bactrian-style arch lost amidst hawthorn and gooseberry bushes. Here it was. The entrance to the Butterfly Garden. Jyothi watched the skies once again, but the helicopters were not coming back. She stood up and slowly crept down the valley, towards the dry forest growing against the limestone cliff. She wondered what she would have looked like to a distant observer. With her well-worn jacket, scarf and ancestral Lee Enfield rifle she would have been easy to mistake for some kind of operative, perhaps even a KGB one, but her veil clearly identified her as a woman. She spoke acceptable Pashto and, maybe, could have had been mistaken for an afghan person. Maybe. In a very dark alleyway.
It felt strange to walk under this time-battered arch, stepping on an ancient path taken over by the overgrowth. Maybe, she thought, some of her ancestors had fought near this valley, in the Mughal Empire's bid over what was yet to be the state of Afghanistan. Perhaps even a few drops of familiar blood had soaked the dust and sand of this very place, unbeknownst to her. Jyothi entered the garden. She felt better now that she was under the relative cover of the trees and bushes. The air was colder and less dry, emboldened by the nearby springs. A few dozen meters away from the arch were the ruins of a small building she could not identify; it could have had been anything, she thought. The pillars of a small mosque, the pedestal of a Buddha, the last stones of a Hindu stupa, the entrance of a long-lost church, the last remnant of a pagan temple, maybe even everything at once, in a strange summary of Afghanistan's history. Graveyard of empires but crossroads of civilisations...Jyothi kneeled in front of the ruins and sent a short prayer to the clear skies above, a prayer that could have been addressed to any deity, then slowly, gently, started to work the stones loose.
It took Jyothi a few hours to finally reach what she was looking for. A small wooden crate, the size of a jewel box, carved in butterfly patterns, wrapped in white cloth in memory of a loved one. She opened the box with great care and unwrapped the jewel that it contained. It assumed the shape of a moth with its wings spread to the wind, made of small crystal fragments sewn together with half-decomposed linen strings. To the untrained eye, it barely had any value, and indeed no self-respecting pillagers of ancient things would have even considered seeking for this thing. And yet, to Jyothi, it was one, if not the most precious artefact in the world. It came from Ethiopia, by way of Cairo, Jerusalem, Tbilisi, Moscow, Baku and all the civilisations in-between. A strange relic, assembled by scholars, peasants and wanderers from fragments found at the heart of old deserts under an ancient sun.
It was made of one hundred and twenty-seven four-dimensional crystals, shards of self-repeating symmetry both in time and space.
Fragment retrieved by a deep network sweep on [DATE AND LOCATION ERASED FOLLOWING USER REQUEST].
I have vivid recollections of the evening where we realized what the geometry drive could actually do. We had spent the last two weeks eliminating every single potential bias in our measurements, every single human or technical error that could have fooled us into feeding false data to our computers. Hell, I had even scoured pre Low-Age papers on physical storage to make sure I had not missed anything we could have taken into account. But there was nothing. We had submitted the results of our experiments to the thermonuclear version of Occam’s razor and all that was left was the original interpretation.
Ten times out of ten, the geometry drive would beat light in a straight run by a factor of nearly one billion.
I remember sending a group message with the latest results attached and something like let’s take a few days for ourselves and our families and discuss that in a week, then closing my laptop and letting my eyes wander towards the ceiling. That’s it, I thought. Our society. Our civilization. Our Earth. This, right here, right now, is as good as we are going to get. We’ve won. Game over. Within a few years, we will be an interstellar species. Give it a decade or two, and we will have our first settlements outside the solar system. A century and we will be a true multi-stellar species. We’ve passed the Great Filter. Not through technological prowess, not through hardship and sacrifice but through sheer, dumb luck.
Then I took another look at the drive. The crystalline cube was lying on the table, still wrapped in the apparatus I had used to protect it during our translation experiments in cislunar space. It gleamed slightly albeit there was no power running through its structure at this moment. For a moment I considered its mundane shape as if I had been looking at some kind of rubble left alongside the road. And then a shiver went down my spine and another thought burst through my mind.
This has the potential of breaking physics in half. If what the geometry drive does is indeed spontaneous faster than light travel then we are going to run into a massive wall of problems. Relativity and causality, one of these has to go. Calm down, Rani, and think. After all, we could get rid of relativity. That’s an option. If relativity indeed doesn’t work, it won’t have tremendous consequences for slower than light physics. But what if relativity stands the test of the geometry drive? What if it’s the other variable that breaks? What if there is no preferred frame of reference? Then causality paradoxes can exist. Then we can have causality loops. Out of sequence events can happen. Time travel can happen. Magic can happen in the most literal sense of effects that have no causes.
I pray that relativity doesn’t hold.
That prayer was never answered.
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