‘You shouldn’t have told him all that. You know he’ll stay up half the night now, scratching your old-wives tales down onto those sheets of plant-crystal he hoards in his bedroom.’
‘Anigan, someone has to remember where we came from. The virads destroyed our records, but while we still remember our past it should be recorded somewhere.’
‘Half the things you told him – they’re myths, stories told to children. All he needs to know is that our ways have always been with cattle and horses.’
Zenira sighed and passed a flagon of tea to her husband and sat down at the bench. In contrast with the stone and plant-crystal out of which they’d constructed their lodge, the table was made from lightweight alloy and was taken from the sub-orbital transit craft after the final trip back from the migration fleet in orbit. No stains or food ever stuck to its flat matt surface. Anigan had wanted to take as little as possible from the ship, but Zenira had managed to salvage a number of items of which the table was one.
‘My Cherished, let us not quarrel. I’ve hardly seen you today.’
‘You’ve been tending the horses all day. How is Astarte?’
‘Thank you for changing the dressing today, but I’m worried about her. The leg isn’t healing and the infection is spreading. I doubt she’ll walk again. In a week I will end her suffering.’
‘The poor thing. I’ll change her dressing again in the morning.’
‘It’s as if the animal knows what’s coming, and she’s as calm and accepting as ever.’
‘I had hoped that Fasano would one day take her as his mount.’
‘But the foaling is going well. Next year we’ll have a new set of beautiful animals for the market. He can take one of those, if he’s interested.’
‘He will start showing an interest soon. He’s at that age.’
In the next room, ten year-old Fasano sat beside a dim lamp scratching markings onto a writing slab of plant-crystal. He took a flint stylus and drew a line and a slightly uneven circle the size of his fist at one end of the line. ‘Put the star here’ he said to himself out loud. He scratched lines inside the circle, filling it in, then drew running outwards from it.
Next to the circle one hands-width along – a small circle, half the width of a finger. Another hands-width along – a circle one fingers width. Then another hands-width – another circle one finger wide. A gap of three hands-widths he drew a circle three finger-widths across, then another hands-width along there was a circle two finger-widths along.
He went back to the fourth circle from the ‘star’ and scratched a stick man standing on the tiny circle.
Zenira watched Anigan put another plant-crystal log on the fire. It wasn’t that she couldn’t see Anigan’s point of view. The Oblivion occurred twenty years before, when virads had broken through the spam-filters of the migration fleet and infected every piece of technology with endless repetitive footage of interactive toodee and tridee AI. It was a miracle that enough manual control remained to steer the migration ships into a safe orbit.
Lately, Anigan had sided with a growing fraction of the fleet who felt that perhaps the loss of all record of the past presented an opportunity to break from the burden of history and forge a new sense of self. But he believed the horses must always remain. Horses had always been at the core of their culture.
Water in the plant-crystal boiled in the fire. Small fragments of crystal flew from the grate to the rug covering most of the room’s floor. Within a few seconds the fibres around the debris started strumming like cilia, wafting the shards back towards the fire. As they reached the edge of the textile, there was a series of tiny flicks, and the fragments were sent back into the flames. A circular wave quickly flashed outwards from the centre of the rug, a resetting – a smoothing of the fibres. The peristaltic rug was one other of Zenira’s indulgences, rescued from the ship. Friends had bought it from Maverick traders and given it them on their wedding day. Twice it began motioning items into strange shapes and had needed rebooting. One time they had returned home to find it had rearranged the furniture. Anigan had once reprogrammed the rug on her birthday – he dropped a bag of cereal on the rug and the grains rearranged themselves into the form of Zenira’s smiling face.
There remained however two small piles of crystal chips gathered up in the corners of the rug. The rug would have to be reprogrammed.
Zenira felt that contemplating the loss of their past was more than she could bear. It had been only six months since leaving the migration ships behind in orbit. Her feeling of connection to their old home Lacaille was still strong, and she needed to keep that. perhaps until some future time when her people had created some history of their own here.
Zenira and Anigan retired to bed and both quickly slipped into deep sleep. The young boy could not sleep. His excited mind filled with his mother’s stories about their people’s liking for travel and exploration and the evacuation of their continent. Zenira had told him other older stories about the migration of humans across the spiral arms. The stories had included mention of semi-mythical denizens not seen for millenia - The Technicians, The Constables, The Mind-Sowers, The Vault, The Mavericks, The Chroniclers, The Rehistory Institute, a place called Nimbus.
Up on the plateau they were above the level of the nightly showers and as usual Fasano pressed his nose to the shutter and looked between the slats, watching for the light green flashes of the Ring-fragment meteors. Pieces of the planet’s inner ring system regularly broke free and fell through the atmosphere. Fasano studied the Ring, perpetually hanging in the sky but was never able to discern any changes in the Ring.
Fasano watched three meteors, but became bored until his attention was caught by one of the dark creatures waiting at the edge of the woods, in amongst the trees. Never seen during daytime, and rarely during the night, the village folk never spoke of them, as if the people assumed their eyes played up at night. The humans feared the woods, although those few people who claimed they had ventured into the forest also claimed that the forest creatures had not approached the humans. The creatures would not enter the meadow and certainly would not cross it to reach the village.
Fasano was reminded of the strange illusion enjoyed by hi school friends. The meadow running up to the forest-edge was flat, as Fasano could now see from his window, but as you approached the trees you started to feel as if the ground you walked was slightly tipping you forward – as if you were starting to walk downhill. And yet – visually – the ground was clearly level. The village, the meadow and forest all sat atop a plateau.
From the village a small hill in the forest was sometimes visible. From one month to another the rocky protuberance would flatten to a low hemisphere, elongate into a long barrow, raise up into a lofty pinnacle or sometimes flatten out and almost disappear from view. It also seemed to move, appearing every few days in a slightly different position. Looking through eye-glasses, its surface never deviated from the appearance of a natural weathered rock face. The village-folk dismissed the hill’s apparently Protean nature as an illusion and never bothered to discuss the matter. It was one of the strange occurrences in the area taken for granted by local people.
Peering through the shutters of his bedroom, Fasano looked across the tree-tops but could see no sign of the hillock. The world had no moon and the darkness wrapped itself tightly around the dwelling, apart from brief flashes of green meteor light. Each momentary illumination seemed to reveal more dark creatures. At least seven or eight – stationary. Fasano had never seen this many of these strange denizens gathered. They were usually solitary, going about their unknown business. Fasano felt they were watching him. Or perhaps studying him.
Twenty years previously, Zenira and Anigan’s people entered this planetary system and were surprised to find this world, with its nitrogen and oxygen atmosphere and a chlorophyllic ecosystem sustained by left-handed organic molecules – the same as those of their human bodies and the biological environments of the human race stretching back to the mythical Earth. The other five planets in the system were either gas giants or their surfaces were too dangerous. The fleet elders agreed to make landfall on this world and named it Brautigan’s World, after their chief navigator. Once on the surface, it was apparent that the forests covering most of the continental land harboured unknown things. The colonists spread themselves out across the planet, using the heavy lifters, high-altitude runners and hovercraft they brought with them from orbit. But wherever settlements were formed things emerged from the deep forest and stood amongst the analogue trees, seeming to watch the people.
Fasano was only vaguely aware of the homestead’s door swinging closed behind him. His mind was vacant and something was drawing him towards the woods. He walked barefoot across the pasture and his unfocussed eyes drifted past the edge of the grass into the deep darkness amongst the analogue trees.
Whatever inhabited the woods had not showed up on thermal imaging from orbit. The sheets of plant-crystal lay piled on the ground between the trees, littering the woods and although brittle, it was razor sharp, and hindered walking. The villagers stayed away from the interior of the woods and only at the forest edge harvested the highly versatile plant-crystal.
Fasano had never before been inside the woods. There was almost no light. He slowly regained his awareness and became conscious of a faint blue glow from all around him. His people had never sought augmentations of their senses, but as his eyes adjusted he perceived six or seven large shapes circled around him. He presumed they were the forest creatures. Each one was around half a horse-length and bulbous, but the darkness was too dense to discern any features. The boy could not tell in which direction the homesteads lay. Perhaps he had sleep-walked? He tried to stand, but felt that he could not. He felt surprisingly little disquiet. The air was still and the only sound a quiet humming. He sat propped against a tree, his hands resting on plant crystal fragments littering the forest floor. He felt no malice from these beings – only a deep and almost infinite patience.
In the near-total darkness it was difficult to tell, but small objects seemed to be breaking off the ring of beings around him. They fell to the ground and scuttled towards him. This was when he felt his first pangs of disquiet. Four or five hopped up on to his skin causing him to flinch. He was afraid. The small verminous fragments scurried over his skin until coming to a rest and clamping on to him. There were perhaps dozens of these mouse-size objects on his head and body. Hundreds of tiny pin-pricks were followed quickly by a sensation of calmness washing over him and he settled back against the tree.
He wasn’t sure how much time had passed, but he became aware that the strange insectile objects on his skin had gone and he was along in the woods. He stood up wondering which direction home lay. A flashing blue light flashed into existence to his left. It was moving away from him and he followed it. Soon he was out of the woods and crossing the meadow.
Climbing into bed, Fasano noticed a grey powdery residue on the back of each hand. Searching further on his body he found twenty or so grey powdery ovals on his skin. They easily brushed clean. He slept.
The following morning, having slept deeply, he remembered nothing of the night except a strange dream.
He had walked into the woods and sat by a fire talking with a mysterious journeyman. The journeyman was old, very old.
‘Boy – more beer?’
‘No thank you sir. Fasano had never before tasted beer.’
‘You see my shoes boy? There – drying by the fire.’
‘Sir they’re just rags.’
‘I have come far but I cannot go further until they are mended.’
‘I would like to help, but I know nothing of working cloth or leather.’
‘My compass, you see it there, by my sleeping roll?’
‘Yes. Is it also damaged?’
The boy noticed then that all of the journeyman’s possessions were worn out and tired or broken.
‘I am tired and old. Will you mend these things for me?’
‘I will do my best.’ And while sitting by the fire listening to the old man’s tales of faraway place, Fasano found he knew how to sew and weave and work metal. He cleaned and mended the items for the journeyman.
That afternoon Zenira brought a fresh dressing and fresh water to Astarte’s stable.
The foal was standing beside Fasano.
‘Fasano, what did you do to her? How…?’
‘I don’t know mother. I was talking to her and stroking her leg. I suddenly felt something change in her leg. She was quiet for a bit then got up.’
Zenira examined the beast but could find no trace of the injury.
In time the foal grew larger and Fasano took her as his mount. At first farmers brought their injured animals to him and he healed them with a few touches. Soon people brought injured or sick relatives or children to him from far afield and asked him for healing, until he seemed to lose his power.
The symbols chattering quietly in the back of Fasano’s mind never completely left him and he grew to find it a reassuring presence. Eventually while playing with his friends at the village school he gradually discovered that most of them were accompanied by the same quiet voices every moment of their days.
One morning Fasano was sitting on the porch holding a piece of plant crystal – the material harvested from the edge of the forest which he had played with, written on, used as fuel for the fire, every day of his life.
The white sheet was strong but brittle. There was no grain. It seemed almost like an extremely fine honeycomb structure.
The boy had the feeling almost as if the sheet was whispering to him, or perhaps as if he could read something in the crystal. He could not see anything but he felt it, as he turned the sheet over in his hands. And not just one thing, but an immense trove of information. But the words were indistinct, just out of reach – and they were not words, but more like thoughts.
Fasano began rationing his handling of the crystal sheets, as they all began to pour information into his mind. And he soon learned to control this flow of thoughts somehow stored in the sheets.
‘Mother, I often feel as if I can read something in the crystals. Do you find that?’ he asked her one day.
‘Son, the sheets you write your stories on, you mean?’
He found that only to the other children had the crystal become so alive.
One morning Fasano decided to walk to the remains of the transit craft his parents had used to arrive, riding it down from the migration mother-ship. He fastened a small wheeled barrow to Astarte and led her gently. Ideas were almost bursting out of his mind – if he could find the raw materials, perhaps he could express some of these ideas to provide some relief.
It was a breezy dry day. There were enough cloud-free gaps for Fasano to observe the occasional green scratches of descending Ring meteors.
The route took him across a moor and a wide grassland area until the land sloped down to the wide valley where the ship had landed. He was thinking about all the strange new ideas that had come to him lately, when he had a strange sensation of voices conversing quietly but very rapidly in his mind. They rose up suddenly and he slumped down on the ground struggling to control them. After an indeterminate time the voices quietened and subsided into numbers, colours, symbols and shapes dancing, splitting, joining and interacting in the back of his mind. The concerned horse was licking his face.
Lichen crusted most of the hull and vines were creeping all the way up to the sub-orb’s observation cupola above the flight deck. Standing below the sub-orbital transit grey bulk, the chattering symbolic calculations in the back of his mind had quietened and he was almost able to ignore them.
He did not know what impulse had made him visit the ship, but on entering it he made his way straight to the ElectroWeak reaction core and started stripping out the fractal arrays and the boson injection system. He carried these out through the EVA hatch and used a length of rope to lower them into his wheeled-barrow. Following a power-conduit he found a small zero-point generator and removed that too.
There wasn’t a great deal of innate intelligence built into the substance of the transit craft – not like the migration ships his people had once built and used. His mother had told him tales of the ships flown by people her grand-parents had traded with. Enormous needles in space they had called Methuselah Towers, that flew within a whisker of light, far faster than the Ring meteors, and maintained their own gravity by constant acceleration, unlike his people’s migration ships. The Ring-fragment meteors were the fastest objects Fasano could imagine. She told him of other types of ship besides, that were used for travelling within the Spiral Arms. Saddened by the limitation of the simple pastoral life of his parents’ people, Fasano often dreamed of having that kind of power – the technology to go anywhere, to explore the Galaxy. His mother told him how his grandparents had lived in the thick of human civilisation, on a world near a busy intra-arm route. During his mother’s life the migration fleet, seeking a new start, was forced to stray far from inhabited space. They were now in a backwater, hundreds of light-years from even the most minor interstellar routes. Fasano would probably never see a Maverick ship during his lifetime.
Fasano and the gentle Astarte together struggled with the wheeled-barrow back to the homestead.
Fasano took over part of one of the sheds and first built a power system to feed the homestead. Finding a little time around his schooling and tending the horses, various strange technology took shape in the shed. Fasano tried to show his father around the computer and imaging system but he wasn’t interested. There were sensors, detectors and lasers. Further trips to the transit sub-orb yielded more raw materials.
Fasano would invite school friends to the shed and they would discuss experiments and ideas.
The voices from the crystals began to seem as if they were the discarded thoughts or memories of something unseen – a being, whether dead or alive, with knowledge for which Fasano now thirsted. He also began to feel that the endlessly flowing lines of symbolic calculations in the back of his mind were being fed back somewhere, or read by something – a being, an ancient being who needed their help.
Five years later the village had changed beyond recognition. The buildings were encrusted with new technology; there were masts and powered vehicles; there was electricity and lighting, and hovercraft and aircraft had been restored to use.
One night not long after Anigan and Zenira had moved to the sea there was an astonishingly heavy thunderstorm. Behind the blistering rain the thunderclouds were turned into eerie green lanterns backlit by the flashes of meteors pouring down from the Ring.
The following morning the symbols ceaselessly cycling through forests of thought were gone. It was the first moment of cognitive peace experienced in ten years.
The forest was gone. The remaining meadow ringing the homesteads led only to a deep crater miles across. There would be no more plant crystal. And crossing the ground from the homesteads to the crater’s edge, the meadow no longer seemed to run downhill, but was level – and everyone believed it had always been so.
But Fasano had foreseen the departure in the crystal sheets. The sheets had told him of other things – the destiny of his people, that they would leave this world and travel, carrying out the intentions of the old one who had given them so much, but who had also needed them.
Life went on. The village became a town, then the capital of the continent and within two decades it was the chief city on the planet.
A hundred years later Fasano’s people existed on a world of glittering technology yet they craved nothing other than to explore and to find other humans. They bided their time until the right moment arrived for their departure.