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Fiction: The Bodhisattvas by Gord Sellar

“The skyhooks are rotting,” Yana said softly as she stared out the viewport. The cable had grown hairy, and shed miniscule bundles of threads off into Martian orbit as the car soared along its length. The filaments drifted off into the emptiness of space. It wasn’t an organic sort of rot, not the way that bodies and dead leaves go; it was how dying, intelligent machinery goes bad, its maintenance systems collapsing by degrees, backups and stopgaps all failing in slow, mindless sequence. 

“Yes,” said the ancient bodhisattva standing beside her. “But it’s slow rot. They’ll be usable for another hundred years or so. No need to rush and build more.” The monk gazed down at the pulsating, goo-wasted surface of the planet. He must have been working on the Martian rehabilitation project. 

Yana had never met him before, this squat black saint-monk beside her, his eyes tucked away behind thick folds, so that only the pupils and a little iron-grey iris were visible. He smiled down into her face—he was a little taller than her, maybe ninety-five centimeters altogether, and dressed in the saffron robes of brothers from the Old World. Yana, a Western Shore monk, was in the traditional grey and white of her order.

“Where are you going?” she asked.

“Home, eventually,” he said, gazing silently out the portscreen for a moment. His evident homesickness was a feeling Yana knew very well herself. When he turned to face her, he seemed to read the next question on her face, or perhaps her heart, as it was said some old bodhisattvas could do. “The Plateau,” he told her with a small grin, and nodded as if to preempt any doubt. “But for now, I have things to do on Luna.”

Yana gasped softly, but unmistakably. “You’re really from the Plateau? The stories I’ve heard… are they true?”

The monk inclined his head a little, and said, “It’s the most beautiful place. It breaks my heart to wait to return. Of course, that is an attachment and I should rid myself of it. But,” the old monk smiled, “with the Plateau, attachment is understandable.” 

Yana felt as if somehow a blindfold had slipped from her face. He was old, this bodhisattva, so immensely old, and as her eyes traced the thick folds of inky skin that sagged upon his ancient face, she realized that he was dying.

He had been away from the Earth’s gravity far too long, had not done his zero-g exercises in many years. When he went home to the most beautiful place left on Earth—the last beautiful place remaining there—he would go there to die. 

Yana touched his hand. In many eras such touch had been forbidden between monks, especially monks of different sexes, but this age was one of compromises with the universe; most of the last stewards of the worlds had turned to the path of compassion and braved the vale of attachments again, to see them through the long dark and silence. They touched, made love, bore children. They alone kept their population stable. 

The old monk smiled at her, so calmly, as the space elevator ground to a stop. One palm pressed against the other, the lotus of her hands bidding him good journey and peace, she bowed. Smiling, the ancient monk returned the ancient gesture, and then returned his gaze to the viewport for a moment longer, to the way station looming above them in Martian orbit, and the stars glittering beyond it.

#

Yana reached out from within herself towards Dharma, which she visualized as an ancient king: a being shaped not like her or the other monks—neither small nor wrinkled, his eyes open to the beautiful blue skies of the world as it had been before man had ruined it, and his skin fair enough to darken in the gentle sunlight. The Dharma King was a virtual giant, his thick black mane streaming behind his head. His white tunic and golden crown shone in the starlight, and the skin that stretched over his muscles gleamed with a divine light. 

Slowly, he soared toward her, across the star-spattered darkness. He would envelop her in his arms, reacquaint her with stillness. Untouched by hurry or hesitation, he approached like a sunrise, inevitable. Yana thought suddenly of mountain peaks she had stared up into as a monk-child, and imagined the silent darknesses beneath the oceans she had stared out across on long, blistering afternoons. Faint droplets of memory flicked at her skin, a hazy recollection from childhood rainstorms. She felt the gentle patter upon her bald head, and rivulets trickling down her shoulders and chest. 

Through those storms child-Yana had remained, always, in the stone lotus position, the same posture in which she now drifted weightless in the chamber where she would shed her flesh. She was soon to go out bodiless across the teeming emptiness as a message of light, only to find herself embodied again on the far side, leaving Earth far behind. 

The present was a distraction. The chamber was a distraction, as was her coming voyage. Like any human, her mind was littered with attachments, and Yana felt the perceptible drift toward them begin again. It was an ancient, unceasing pattern of mind, but she had learned that fighting this drift was useless. Though her people no longer resembled humans in the time of Shakyamuni, they remained human. Across the ages they had engineered themselves into a new form, one adapted to survive in their ruined home world, and sometimes they shed their bodies, in a prefiguration of the final shedding of ego and samsara that would come at the doorstep to nirvana. 

Yet attachments plagued their souls still, and still they drifted towards them daily, just as Yana did now, slipping past Dharma, who was not yet close enough to encircle her in his arms, and toward memories of pain.

She saw Daigon on a small screen, shivering and crying out animal noises. She felt the arms of a pair of Brothers restraining her, the weight in her belly. The hot wetness in her eyes that was the closest thing to crying possible in bodies redesigned for a deadly, ruined biosphere.

Yana breathed deeply, slowly, and immersed herself in the pain. The hands on her arms, the cold stone beneath her feet. The hum of a ventilator fan far above her. 

And it was not sorrow that haunted her. It was rage, rage at the unnamed sickness that had robbed her of him. Rage at the ancient ones and their idiot war. Rage at the toxic soil and the poisoned sky. 

Breath. Breath was life. The energy of the world, even here surrounded by the void of space, could be drawn in through the nose, the tailings of thought expelled through the mouth. 

She whispered her bodhisattva vow again, words she had first spoken as a child, promising to struggle as long as time and space would endure, through the suffering of Earth and all worlds, as long as living beings would exist, to the end of all things, that she would drown misery in compassion, and kindness.

The words stilled her, and then the familiar sensation began. Coldness and quickly rising dark. She was being stripped down to data, and would soon be light among stars, bodiless and unthinking, yet moving, intact and real as stone and water and sunlight and thought. 

She settled quietly, letting her ego dissolve into the silence and the circular rhythm of her breathing. 

#

Walking toward Temmus of Usak Plot, Yana found herself oddly unable to hold his eye. She turned her gaze to the walls of the ancient chamber to which the other monks had led her. All around were faded paintings of Indian gods and goddesses. A female goddess, whom she remembered had been named Ganga—the goddess of a river long swallowed by desert now—rose up, wrestling with some blue-skinned deity whose name she could no longer remember from her childhood studies.

And then she was before him, surrounded by an entourage of scholar-brothers, in a brightly-lit chamber crammed with machinery. It was enormous by the monks’ standards, like all rooms built by the ancients, and they were near its center. No longer the boy she remembered fromsangha, Temmus had become a small, bright-eyed monk in a white robe, smiling brightly in greeting. 

Silently folding his hands together in anjali, the prayerful greeting used by all monks, Temmus smiled to her. Yana mirrored the gesture, and then added the slight bow customary among the monks at her sangha. He bowed slowly, awkwardly and late, as if he had grown uncomfortable with the custom during his many years away. 

“Welcome to Ayodhya Station,” Temmus said, his smile anxious.

“Thank you, but…you don’t seem ill,” Yana said, careful to convey more puzzlement than annoyance. She could still see in his face the troublesome boy that Temmus had once been. With a surprising fondness she remembered their blood-berry fights on the edge of Usak Plot, and the adolescent scraps Temmus had gotten into with Daigon.

“That depends,” Temmus said, “on how you define ill. If you saw things as I see them…” His voice trailed off, before he turned to face the computer screens plastering every surface of the room. “This is my laboratory. This is where we do our work.”

Work,” Yana said dubiously. “Fiddling with black holes.”

“Birthing new universes,” Temmus corrected her with a smile. “Stages upon which all the souls still trapped in samsara can learn how to live in compassion.” As he finished the second sentence, he shuddered slightly, his eyes sliding out of focus. He shut his eyes, and then opened them again. “It is important, sacred work.” 

Yana smiled with gentle, kind derision. She had seen great debates held at great sangha conferences: bitter theological disputes between rival orders on whether the birthing of universes from tuned singularities was heretical, or indeed the highest dharmic calling of any sangha that could summon the scientific wherewithal to conduct such experiments. The unforgettable drama of monastic debate—clapped hands and stomping feet driving home each point of an argument—brought a smile to Yana’s face as she remembered how Daigon had smiled, watching those contests, clapping his hands softly in unison with the debaters. 

Then she noticed that Temmus was nervous. He shivered as if…it looked like a seizure, though she knew from the reports she’d read that it was nothing of the kind. Epilepsy would have been impossible: A millennium before, Tenguz Gyuto Nen had ordered that all genetic disorders be engineered out of the faithful who were to remain on Earth. It was no naturally-occurring illness, this: no infection, no inborn defect, not a sign of decrepitude—Temmus was clearly too young for that—and whatever was causing this, scientific medicine could not say. 

When he stilled, Yana looked him square in the eye and asked, “How doyou see things, Temmus? Since I cannot seem them as you do…”

He looked at her, and then at the other monks, and said, “Tomorrow. A demonstration is necessary, and one will not be possible until then. And,” he added, catching her eye, “I am sure you have news for me, as well.”

“Yes,” she said, looking to the goddess of the extinct river once again, and nodded. “And a space in which to meditate?”

“Of course,” Temmus said. “You may join us in our silence hall.”

#

The calm of the meditative trance still hung around Yana’s mind as they sat upon the floor of Temmus’ chamber, held softly down by gravity simulated by the rotation of Ayodhya Station, and ate the last meal before sleep. 

“This sickness,” an older Ice Shore monk named Gehje said, and then paused. He continued his sentence only after a glance toward Temmus. “You will not understand it until…” 

“How is everyone at Usak Plot?” Temmus interrupted, turning his gaze upon Yana. His twitching and dislocation seemed to have passed, and she could see no sign of illness in his face or eyes. 

“They were well when I left, ten years ago. I have been on Phobos since then. Biosphorming project. Bacteria.”

Temmus smiled at the idea of a decade of bacteria. “Do it a million times, and the thing you thought was most boring becomes the most interesting thing in the world,” he said with a smile, quoting some ancient monk whose name had long been lost. He was speaking physicist-to-physicist, she could tell.

“Not at all,” she wobbled her head in disagreement. “It was always fascinating. There’s still plenty of interesting work going on in biophysics. Just in anthroselective programming and biospheric energy-transfer modeling…”

“Of course,” Temmus said with a smile that took her back decades, to an afternoon seated outside at the sangha, when he had cruised his way through a pile of ancient Feimang diagrams and suddenly started spouting claims about vacuum energy and something called the Higgs field. He was two years her junior, yet Yana had never heard of such things, and realized the boy had been up late at nights, after working in the sangha‘s greenhouses, studying physics from the roots up. 

That was when she had realized the word “genius” actually meantsomething.

Other sunlit days flashed through her mind, as well—races run in thesangha yard, and a younger, prettier monk’s hand in Temmus’. A tiny fluttering of what Yana had thought was long-dead jealousy tickled in her belly, and she narrowed her tiny eyes. 

“I think you’d be surprised what a rewarding pursuit it is to use one’s scientific training for directly practical purposes,” she said, noticing a tiny pang of defensiveness rising within her. “For the good of living beings, in a career of compassion. After all, your work is all theoretical, beyond the visible effects of the singulari—”

“No,” Temmus interrupted her with a pang of annoyance. “We have hard evidence of inflationary expansions in baby universes—the first instants of cold Big Bangs being carved from Bulkspace are clearly evident. Explosions of pure bodhicitta-potentiality! I’ll show you the echoes…”

“It’s alright,” Yana said, relief spreading within her that he had not accepted her criticism. She steered the conversation back to why she had come: “I’ll take your word for now. But tell me, what is this sickness that has struck you, and why did you summon me? I’m no more a physician than you are. You should have requested an appropriate specialist.” 

The monks glanced at one another, and Temmus shook his head. “You arethe appropriate specialist, Yana. But, we cannot explain the effect to you. All we can do is show you. We will, tomorrow. Until then, could we please leave this issue, as much as we can? Now, tell me, how are Ryangba and Nug and Ohol?”

Yana sighed. “Ryangba returned to the bardo, three years ago. He missed you, and often mentioned you in stories. Nug is well, and working with The Infrastructure. She likes it, maintaining connections between sanghas and the planets of our system. She deals specifically with childrens’ networks. And Ohol…Ohol is now among the Hinya, on the Silent Satellites.” 

Temmus’ eyes widened. “Really? I thought he…” 

“Yes, he changed his mind. About five years ago. After all those years. We hear from him every few years, but it’s always the same: ‘Disembodiment is the path to nirvana,’ he says.” Yana smiled. Ohol had been the most vociferous opponent to sustained disembodiment, claiming that the computer emulation of a human mind was a sacrilege against the universal order. An idea like that could only come from the diseased cultures of the ancients who ruined our world, he had said so often. During their childhood at the Usak Plot sangha, Yana and Temmus had constantly quoted the line with a tone of mock-anger, barely understanding what it meant. And now he was preaching the bodiless path.

“It seems even an old monk can learn new tricks,” Temmus said with a grin. 

“Yes,” Yana said with a nod, touching her hands together, and scooping some of the vegetable paste onto the boiled grains, and then placing some of it in her mouth. It tasted plain, like everything the monks ate, but nutritious. Its calming effect was part of their daily practice. But she was full, and set her bowl aside, to show that she was finished.

With that, the other monks rose, and Yana followed their lead, rising to her feet.

“How many hours until your demonstration?” she asked.

The other monks looked to the youngest among them, a woman named Uhl. “Eleven,” she said. She was the group’s technician, Yana supposed. “We will be ready tomorrow after morning rising and meditations.”

“Good,” said Temmus, and he met Gehje’s eyes pointedly. The older monk nodded, and began to leave as Temmus turned to Yana, delicately grasping at the hem of her sleeve. 

“Let us speak alone for a few moments, Sister Yana,” he said, releasing her sleeve only after a moment’s hesitation.

Yana bowed her head and clasped her hands in anjali to the leaving monks, and then she turned to face Temmus once more, an awkward smile on her face. 

“I heard what happened to Daigon,” he said, his eyes on the wall suddenly, as if afraid of the grief he imagined would well up in her. As if it might be infectious. He had known Daigon too, had scrambled with him in the dust, and laughed over tea on quiet evenings. For many years they had spoken their daily bodhisattva vows in unison, with the same breath, and in the same voice. 

Temmus knew Yana better than he should have, after all these years, after so much change. The grief he anticipated did well up in her, but he had turned his eyes back to hers, and watched her. He reached out across the squat floor-table, and touched her on the arm with one gentle, black hand. Yana saw Daigon there, superimposed upon him for a moment, tears in his eyes and reaching across the table too, and she lowered her eyes. 

Flood. It was an ancient word that had used to mean a deluge of water, an overflowing of a kind that Yana had never seen in the broken desert land of her childhood. But she knew the word well, for in ancient scriptures it was used to describe the rawest state of human emotions. Emotions of which even a bodhisattva could not fully seize control, could not completely escape as long as she remained at the doorstep of nirvana, holding open the door for all others to go in first. But she was not at Daigon’s deathbed now. She was not watching the love of her life die. She was lost again in the vale of her mind’s attachments, and a hand was on her shoulder.

She turned her face back to Temmus, and saw the faint lines on his face. The tears surprised her. She had not imagined Daigon having remained in Temmus’ mind, but Temmus swallowed softly and said, “In truth, only a little time shall pass before this body, too, is discarded, empty of mind, like a piece of wood thrown away once useless.” 

It was ancient scripture, and Temmus sat silently, looking at her for a few moments. She did not gaze at him, but felt his eyes on her face. After a time, he quoted Shakyamuni: “It’s as if the sun and moon have left the sky,” he said. Words the Buddha had said when he’d learned of the deaths of two beloved disciples. 

Yana nodded. The Buddha too had felt this pain. She let the emotion sit within her, like a rock balanced on a rope that might explode if it fell to the ground. She did not stir it, did no touch it. She let it rest where it was, and tried not to stare at it. 

But it did not remain still. It did not stay where she put it, but rumbled deeply, threatening to explode anyway, and burn the rope away with it. A dark surge of memories welled up once more within Yana: Daigon’s eyes staring up at her from a ruined, inhuman face, his voice soft and pathetic in a way she had believed he could never become. The liquid sound of his breathing. The gentle shiver that he had developed just before the end. 

Temmus closed his eyes, and began to hum. It was a melody that Daigon had loved, and which Yana had not heard in years, had never sung to little Gobai, the son she had borne for Daigon, the son who had long ago gone to Venus to work on another biosphorming project. She braced herself, as if a much greater flood might now strike, but instead, she felt calm, as if some part of Daigon were in the room with them. Without thinking, she touched the band of his braided hair that hung around her wrist. She could smell his sweat in the air, and hear his soft, strained breathing.

And instead of weeping, she began to hum the song as well. The melody filled the enormous room, with the gods on the walls playing out their ancient stories. The room was full, and still, and calm. 

And then Temmus held Yana for a time, as she wept again, and looked at her as if he wanted to tell her something, something perhaps that Daigon had said. But he only led her to her chamber and left her there, with one more gentle touch upon the shoulder.

In her chamber, Yana did not sleep. The flood had not ended. This was why it was called a flood. When waters had filled a place, they did not drain away quickly or easily. They remained, soaking through everything, swirling about perilously. 

Rage. And for people who were ancient, and perhaps still lived, somewhere distant. 

#

It was on a morning many years ago that Daigon had died. 

Yana had noticed that his shivering had gotten worse, and he seemed to feel as if something were about to happen, too. The Degan Kalataka, a text about a millennium old, had described this, the phenomenon in which a mind naturally realized that it was on the doorstep of the bardo once again. 

Daigon’s floor mat had been a wet tangle, soaked with sweat and soiled by seeping blood and vomit. His extremities had swollen overnight, and trembled involuntarily. His eyes stared blindly from an unrecognizable face, one discolored and twisted. 

In her safesuit, Yana’s hands shook, and the wetness gathered upon her eyes, but she knew that he could not see these details. His eyes were bloody, and glazed. He could only hear her, and feel the touch of her gloved hand. 

He was going to die, and she would never touch him, could not touch him now. If she did, she would soon follow him, and he had forbidden her, sworn her to surviving his illness. Daigon had blamed himself for his condition. It was the same thing that Yana had loved so much about him—his easy nature, his simple acceptance of things, his trust that everything would work out—that had made him forget what sort of a culture he had been excavating. Made him forget to check his safesuit occasionally. The thing that Yana had loved most about him had killed him. 

No sane culture could develop weapons like these, illnesses that would kill a man only after a week, so that his sickness would strike all other men he came in contact with. No sane culture would load such a weapon into the air vents of a building, so that it would infect any trespasser, and slay him for the transgression of stumbling upon a building six thousand years after the nation that had built it had collapsed, its richest citizens having fled to outer planets and the stars while the rest died. 

Yana wrapped her gloved hand around his bare, swollen one, and sat beside him on the mat. She said a prayer, and he moaned along with it, for he could not speak and had refused pain-killers. The pain was sensation, the purpose of life. Through sensation and detachment from it, one reached nirvana. Daigon had vowed not to go into the bardo dulled, not even a little. 

In her heart, at that moment, tablets of scripture began to crumble and split. Why this doctrine, why the permanence of a road taken? Daigon was not this suffering being in the bed, she realized. It was only a fragment of him. A small trickle of light shone through the prism held at this angle, instead of that one. 

Daigon did not have to disappear. Would not have had to, if the sangha‘s elders had not followed the Western Shore path. Had Daigon fallen ill on the Ice Coast, or on the Plateau, he would have been reborn, to begin again from the moment at which he had last stepped out of a transmutation to light. 

But doctrine aside, it was not the elders, not the strictures of the faith that were killing Daigon. He held to those principles, held to the faith as he had learned it. 

What had killed him was an ancient weapon, left behind by the long-gone maniacs who had fled the Earth as soon as they had finished trashing it and burning down its last trees, unthinkingly poisoning the last untouched water-spring and the deepest corner of the oceans. They, those selfish ones who drifted out there somewhere, frozen and searing across the void still, that same generation, searching for another world to ruin. 

The feeling was heavy in Yana’s heart, and she realized, with a twinge of terror, that this was the feeling of hatred. The most terrible attachment, the most paralyzing fetter, it had bloomed in a single moment, fully formed and delicate as a tiny black flower embedded in her heart chakra. She could feel it there, heavier than any other sensation she had ever experienced. 

She held Daigon’s hand still, more firmly then, and whispered the bodhisattva vow, the prayer that always had given Daigon strength. He groaned, his mouth unable to form the words of the vow but his throat grinding out the rhythms and phrases. And as she prayed with him, she sat down to wait quietly and calmly for the end. 

It had not taken so very long at all for life to slip from Daigon, for him to slip through Yana’s fingers and be lost forever. But as much as she studied, prayed, and unchained the attachments in her spirit, a part of her would remain seated there, praying incoherently and with wet eyes, for the rest of her life.

Such is the nature of human beings, and of the struggle all such creatures face. And so it goes, evermore and always.

#

The bank of computer screens glittered with shimmering loops of imagery: spinning energies, deeply symbolic representations that reflected the flow of interactions and harnessed forces. It was power that thousands of generations of humans could never have dreamed of controlling, but Temmus mastered it with only his voice and his computers. 

Yet Yana was not dazzled, for at her own workstation a far more prodigious set of screens had flickered with mathematical maps of the bacteriosphere that was the object of her last decade’s study. To study life through the lens of physics was to gaze into the heart of samsara, to look upon the illusory dance of karma and dharma and begin to tap out the music in time with the movements of their feet against the fundaments of the dream that was all existence. To Yana, working with mere fundamental forces and masses could never compare. 

Temmus had gone off in a shuttle to the experimentation platform a few thousand kilometers away. In his absence Gehje had proven a rather nervous and uninspired host. After the morning meal he had quietly led Yana to this observation chamber. It was a rectangular room in which the side that was not covered with screens opened into a wide viewport facing the distant—but faintly visible—experimentation platform.

“I will stay with you here while Temmus replicates the conditions for the onset of the seizure,” he told Yana. 

“Seizure?” Yana asked. “Is it a neurological reaction?”

“Not exactly,” Gehje said, and lowered his eyes for a moment before gazing over at the screens. “That is a readout of Temmus’ brain activity,” he said, and gestured with a nod towards one area of the wall of displayscreens. 

She scanned the displays until she found what she was looking for: the image of a glowing brain upon a screen, rippling with the flow of energies of thought. It looked normal enough to her, an impression confirmed by the text onscreen that proclaimed Temmus’ neurological state NORMAL. 

“Yana?” came a voice, and she realized it was Temmus speaking through the comms.

“Yes,” she said loudly, before softening her voice. “We’re here. Ready when you are.” She crossed over to the screen displaying Temmus’ brain readings, then sat on the floor and stared up at it. 

But her eyes were drawn to other screens, where visual renderings of pulsing numbers seared brightly into a cascade of forms. It was energy, enormous amounts of it, turning round as a gyre turns, faster with each moment, and as the forces compounded and increased, the bank of screens quickly grew incandescent, until the room was flooded in white light. 

A quick glance at the running scan of Temmus’ brain showed nothing strange going on other than a mild stress reaction. 

And then, suddenly, the singularity formed at the center of the searing ring of energy, its only emanation a trace amount of radiation, the ancient technical term for which Yana could no longer remember. The black hole expanded slowly, minutely, and infinitely small fluctuations in the particle accelerator that had generated it now tuned it, resonating it this way and that, in a fine cascade of adjustments. 

The black hole grew, and began to sing in a voice wholly made of gravity, drawing everything into it. 

The particle accelerator suddenly eased back, its goal achieved, and its influence declined immediately. The black hole winked out of existence. The peak, the cresting climax of the experiment, had passed. That had been the point at which Temmus and his cohort claimed a universe was born someplace else, in some inaccessible corner of the multiverses. A big bang locked behind a door that could never be opened. 

Immediately, things fell apart. 

The image of Temmus’ brain didn’t light up like any Yana had seen before: no orderly pattern, no chaos—it simply exploded into thorough radiance, as if every synapse were firing constantly, simultaneously, the way a brain plugged into a trillion batteries might look.

“He’s dying!” she whispered, her eyes wide. 

Gehje touched her shoulder, shaking his head. “We thought that too, the first time. But he isn’t dying at all. This is the same as every other time.”

Yana’s eyes searched all the other displays, and found them all showing the same strangeness. Cameras were flooded with a blinding haze, and the ship’s readings were flickering between a multitude of conflicting signals, all coming through on the same channel. A siren blared, and suddenly, the ship’s readings flickered back into unity. 

Then, just as suddenly as it had come, the chaos collapsed away. 

When she turned to Gehje again, he was watching her. “Look at this,” he said, and pointed toward a screen that had been displaying visual imagery of the experimentation platform. “Replay singularity formation,” he said, his eyes on that screen, and the screen skipped back a few minutes to the moment when the singularity had coalesced, a delicate, ultramassive nothingness formed of mass and energy and gravity. 

The platform shuddered, suddenly faintly fuzzy and incoherent. 

“Is it a camera problem?” she asked. “Some side effect of the energies?”

“No,” Gehje told her, shaking his head. “That’s what it actually looks like. Temmus sees it that way every time. So now you see why we needed you,” he said. He was suddenly bold, his gaze locked on her eyes. 

“Now you understand.”

#

But for Yana, understanding was a much finer and more complex thing. It was a thing built of numbers and long hours of silent contemplation, of talking herself through equations and mechanisms, sketching Troschan matrices and Feimang diagrams in the air as the computer traced her movements and fine-tuned the illustrations that it shaped in her mind, pulsing its miniscule signals into her brain.

Understanding took much more work than Gehje had implied. The black hole glittered, conceptually visible only in terms the radiation it gave off as it began to decay. For hours and hours, Yana beheld the disruption—or, a model of it, carefully garnered from the records and readings of Ayodhya Station, of the experimentation platform, and nearby scanner buoys that tracked the region for any interesting developments.

And she had learned that the disruption was not, as she’d originally thought, a discrete event. Rather, it appeared to come in a series of pulsating waves, each more forceful and more destabilizing than the last. If this was a natural phenomenon, it was something she had never heard about in any of her studies: Something they had done, something about building the black hole, had nudged mother universe into raising her robe and revealing a hidden secret. The invisible, tangled quantum chaos that swirled in the roots of physicality had become visible, for a moment, decohered and burned itself into the seeing minds of living people. 

She was certain, though she could not exactly say why, that some sort of interaction between The Bulk and the brane that was the known universe was going on. Something involving vacuum energy, and something involving gravitons. Why the inception of a baby universe ought to disrupt the transmission of gravitons from The Bulk to her world’s brane, she could not exactly say, but then, only a little was understood about the mechanism of that transmission anyway. And she had learned, in her long life, to trust to her instincts—however tentatively—when facing the unknown. 

Yana pored over the literature—all of what was contained in the station’s computers, and in her own personal reference files. There was nothing so stark, so apparent, that could explain what she had seen, what the instruments had recorded. Nothing on this scale, or at this level of complexity. This was, as far as she could discern, a new phenomenon.

She switched views, crossing into a Platonscape. After hours of staring into the mathematical guts of the universe, she wondered whether perhaps working backwards, from essential forms, would help her. The forms were, of course, not emulations of physical objects, but rather highly symbolic meta-objects and forces. She reached with one hand toward the glittering black dot that was the seed of the black hole, pulsing slowly larger and brighter (as a representation of its increasing gravitational pull) as the emulation skipped forward a few picoseconds at a time. 

The Worldbrane—the lower-dimensional membrane-like layer of the universe that was inhabited by Yana and her universe—floated within a higher-dimensional everythingness called The Bulk. The visible universe was like a sheet of cloth hanging from the branch of a tree in an invisible, immense, many-dimensioned jungle of forces and energies that made up The Bulk. 

Jungle, she thought to herself, thinking of the pulses. Why the pulses? Why that pattern? They seemed familiar, but not from any phenomenon within physics. She had sought out explanations from known models of The Bulk, from the little that had been discovered in experiments, but so much remained unknown. Yana and Temmus were unusual: Physics was the science that had mattered the least to the bodhisattvas who had remained on Earth, rebuilding the trashed ecosystem and gently re-designing its native life to survive the aftermath of humanity’s ages-long rampage.

A jungle, she thought again, imagining what she had never seen herself, for there were only a few small jungles on Earth now. Tentative, carefully tended. Yana summoned up a picture from what she had seen in videos, and read, and saw a green, wild place, but it was abstract. The only model she had for teeming life was of the roiling, wild soup of bacteria she had spent decades studying on Phobos. Wildly differentiated life, swimming in a three-dimensional ocean, invisible from the surface. 

Unimaginable, to one who knew nothing of the ocean and merely glanced at its cresting waves, Yana thought, and she turned her eyes to the black hole again, which was growing, warping the WorldBrane and pulling hard on The Bulk beyond it; tendrils of Bulk twisted into the singularity, tearing off and disappearing… 

“Yana!” 

The voice seemed to come from the black hole, from the corona surrounding it, but she realized that was because her mind was so focused on the emulation. The voice was really coming from outside the emulation, from somewhere inside her chamber. Yana hesitated, not eager to break from her trance. Most of the insights she had achieved in the past had come at times like this, deep in study of a phenomenon, closed in the tight circle of observation, entranced. 

But she had never reached that point without breaks along the way, she reminded herself as the voice called out her name again, and a hand touched her shoulder. She switched out, opening her eyes and turning her gaze upward. 

It was Temmus, wearing an expression that she had not seen on his face in decades. The sweat-glistening face of the boy in the yard beside the study hall, wrestling his friend in the dust; the boy who had known what a Feimang diagram was before anyone else in his cohort. 

“Messages!” he said, panting. He had run to her room, wiping his brow with one sleeve. “We’ve intercepted a message! You must come!”

She blinked, looking down, and felt the faint response inside her: submission to his presence. It puzzled her, and hurt, so soon after having wept once more for Daigon. She looked up again, and he was smiling at her, his eyes knowing but unperturbed. 

“From whom?” she asked, stretching her limbs and rising to her feet. 

“From the ancestors. They’ve arrived, out there somewhere, wherever they were going. And now they’re calling home.”

#

“Stewards of the home world,” the woman said, her words, ancient and incomprehensible, translated into modern speech by the computer that was relaying them. “My name is Erinn. I am one of the last people who left Earth.” She said this with a smile, wistful but also brimming with hope, and she paused to raise her hands, clasped together in that ancient salute, theanjali. For a moment Yana wondered whether the woman had said, in her own language, “I am” rather than “I was.” Then she realized that the woman had slept through millennia, and felt as if she had left mere weeks before at most.

The ancient woman looked bizarre, huge and pink and fleshy, and the proportions of her face were all wrong. Thick brown hair hung from her scalp, and as she spoke, emotions flickered in her eyes, those huge, bare eyes. Yana had seen ancient videographs of humans, of course, had seen the strange faces, the whites of their eyes unshielded by fleshy layers as her own were, and the odd expressions that they wore as they spoke. Looking upon the ancients, she had felt the sweep of those emotions, unbridled and somehow animal. 

But this was different. This was a being that was alive now—or, at least, sometime not so very long ago—and speaking to her. Not to her directly, but to the collective of sanghas, to all those who had stayed behind. 

“We arrived at our new world three hundred years ago, but have only woken in the past few days. For those three centuries, we have slept while our machinery began the work of terraforming this planet. It is our new home, perhaps the first one encountered. We have not heard from any of the other sleepships yet. We hope that you are still there, and that your work has continued. We…we often think of you here.”

Watching the woman speak, she felt as if the ancient emotions on the stranger’s face had somehow infected her. Her face grew hot, and the deluge she had experienced the night before began to surge again within her. She turned and looked at Temmus, who was staring at the screen, his eyes burning with fascination. 

He turned and saw Yana watching him, and said, “This is just one of millions of messages. But this one… she is my ancestor. Well, almost—I am a descendant of a cousin of hers. She is… she is family to me. My closest living ancestor for thousands of light-years.”

Yana glanced over to a nearby screen full of text. It was a lineage tracker. But it was not displaying the result of Temmus’ search. Rather, it was working through another tracking series, and on one end of the list was the name of Gehje of Ice Home. Gehje was searching for an ancestor in the haystack of messages, too. 

“We can find your ancestor next,” Temmus said, smiling. 

“We know that ages have passed,” the pale, strange woman continued, “And we are sure that if you remember us at all, it is as the people who destroyed the Earth. You would remember us as monstrous destroyers, as criminals of history. But we were not even born when this destruction began. We were born into a ruined world, just as you were, and we did the best we could. We didn’t know. I swear to you, we didn’t understand, until it was too late. All we did differently was to leave in sorrow,” the ancient monk said with a quavering voice. She was remembering the world, a world that Yana had never seen for it had crumbled away, leaving only its poisons, its manufactured diseases, its ruinations. Yana had grown up at the scene of the murder, and now the guilty were calling en masse to apologize, to explain. 

“I am a biological engineer. I will be redesigning human bodies to live on the world we have found. It will be hard work. I miss your world. We all do: We miss the Earth so much,” the monk said. “We want to be friends with you who stayed behind, to tend her in her sickness.”

Yana felt Daigon’s hand through the glove, suddenly, all those years later and she saw his eyes glazed over, seeing nothing but turned toward her somehow. 

The ancient woman’s voice trembled: “I will not hear from you—it is too far—but I hope my children or grandchildren will.”

When Yana spoke in response to Temmus’ offer, just before the deluge surged up within her and she fled the room, it was only a single, simple syllable. Louder than the voice of the computer’s translation, firm and heavy with rage.

“No.”

#

When the shuttle left for the platform, Yana and Temmus sat silently, beside one another. Yana knew that Temmus wanted to talk about her outburst, but did not know where or how to begin. It had always been that way with him, which was why she had chosen Daigon instead, all those years ago. 

Daigon hadn’t always known any better than Temmus what to say or do, but he had never minded not knowing. He had been strangely comfortable with uncertainties, one who had gone always with a smile into the unknown. 

Which was what had killed him, but it had also made Yana love him, and bear a child with him. 

Temmus looked at the shuttle’s screens as much to have something besides her to look at, as to confirm that the ship was on course. As they passed a survey-buoy and it shimmered against the dark, star-spattered nothingness, Yana thought of a long-ago night back on Usak Plot. 

It was only a flash, a moment on that moonless night, when the stars for once had shone brightly, and the monks had gathered by a fire, and then wandered off alone. Monks were the only people in the world, and thus they lived a redesigned monasticism. They fell in love. They had children, and raised them in the heart of the sangha. They slipped apart, sometimes, and sometimes they stayed together for decades, or even for life. 

Yana remembered sitting far from the fire, Temmus’ hand in her own, and asking him a question in her softest voice. “Why do you want me?” She remembered being puzzled at her own question, uncertain why she would even ask it, and even a little shocked at herself. But Temmus was, she was certain, a genius. She had seen him working. She had watched him discover things that most people simply learned from books, understood poorly, and recited from memory. 

Temmus, she realized that night long ago, spoke the language of the universe. It was his mother tongue, and this other language, the language of the monks, was slightly foreign to him. 

So he had stared awkwardly into her eyes. She could see that he felt as if he needed to say something, quickly, and she held herself back from what she wanted to say, which was, “Tell me later, if you cannot say it now.” Instead, her face became more expectant, and his grew more anxious. 

“I don’t know,” he said, pulling closer to her, this monk who knew all the answers there were known in the world. This monk who could see the secrets of gravity, the language of the quark, the songs of the trembling branes within The Bulk.

And she saw that he realized his mistake immediately, that he saw the confusion that welled up in her, caught an unmistakable glimpsed it in her eyes. Felt the awkwardness in her as he put his arm around her, and touched the crown of his bald head against her own, and he said, “But I love you.”

They had both felt it, already, the weakening pull, the tumble out of orbit and into the cold and lonely dark. They had felt the ending begin. 

“Yana,” Temmus said, turning to look at her.

She looked up at him, not speaking this time.

He looked as if he wanted to tell her something else, but all he said was, “We’re there.”

The shuttle docked to the experimentation platform with a slight jolt that reverberated through the interior, and then the shuttle’s computer announced that docking was complete and boarding could commence immediately. 

Temmus turned to Yana, bowing once again with his hands raised in anjali, the formal gesture of host to guest. She smiled, and returned the gesture, accepting his anxious hospitality. 

The platform was enormous, but the passages that linked the labs within were very small, only a tiny fragment of the structure. It had been built long ago, however, to accommodate the ancients, so that just as with Ayodhya Station, the passages gave Yana a feeling of diminution, as if it was impossible to live up to the stature of the enormous old ones. 

Except it felt slightly different now. Despite herself, she had seen something of her own self in that faraway, ancient woman on the screen. She had seen another human being, strange-faced perhaps, but a creature with recognizable feelings, and regrets, and sorrows. A being that, like herself, struggled with attachments and had, after all, set out upon the same path of suffering as everyone Yana knew. 

While Yana was lost in her thoughts, Temmus led her silently to the lab, which turned out to be an immense room clustered with equipment. Much of it was disused, but there was a small workstation in the middle of the room. Temmus led her to it. 

“This is where I create the singularities. It is where the disturbances have struck me. Are you certain that you want to…”

“Yes,” she said. She didn’t know why, but she felt she had to, if she wanted any hope of understanding this phenomenon. “Is the accelerator ready?”

“It is,” Temmus said, and spoke a little more loudly, enabling the commlink with Ayodhya Station. “We’re here,” he told Gehje and the others, and then said, “Begin when you are ready.” Then the two of the sat side by side, and waited. 

Before long, there was a humming noise shivering through the platform. It grew so loud that Yana began to feel it coming up through the floor, vibrating her body slightly. The energies at work were tremendous, immense. The kind of energies that nature had played with from the beginning, but which humans had not begun to harness until sometime just before the Exodus of the Ancients. 

For a moment, Yana was gripped by a sudden feeling that Temmus had left, gone away, but when she turned she saw him sitting there, beside her. Still awkward, a little, after all the decades that had passed. She reached out her hand, and squeezed his, and smiled. He smiled, too, and then his eyes turned toward one of the screens. He signaled to it, and the graphic leapt from the screen to the air before them. 

It was a chart, drawing itself up into an exponential curve. Yana knew well enough that it was a graph of the energies at work, and that when they approached the accelerator’s absolute limit, a black hole would be born. And that black hole would be the brief, instantaneous womb of a new universe, forever disconnected from their own. 

The chart climbed, slowly, and Yana watched it with anticipation. But at the last moment, she felt Temmus’ eyes on her, and turned to face him. 

He was smiling, his hand still in hers, when the world shattered. His smile blurred, and then shifted. There was not only one Temmus here, now; there were millions of them, and millions of Yanas too, their hands in a myriad different variations of the position they had been in, miniscule variances that branched off from one another, all superimposed. 

Yana felt an immense pain explode within her, and had to hold herself calm for a moment, drawing on her decades of training to set aside her emotions and her instincts to focus only on what she was experiencing. The noise in her ears was denser and thicker than what she had heard when the accelerator had been building up its energies. It was not one din, but an infinity of dins echoing through one another. 

She wondered for a moment what the buoys would pick up, and the accelerator’s own sensors would deduce from interactions within the particle beam: whether any surge in gravitons would result, or other particles. Whether there would be any explanation to be found there. 

But this was real, she realized. She was experiencing it. It was something that was yet to be explained, in this universe. 

Something that had to be explained. 

And Temmus could not do it, she marveled, as the pain and the noise grew too great, and everything exploded into white light, and an infinity of oceanic silences. 

#

Yana woke with a head full of dreamed bacteria dancing, tracing out a music that could never be heard by human ears.

She rose immediately, her strength having returned in the days since their trip to the platform, and she hurried to Temmus’ chambers. Perhaps she was not as strong as she thought: A wave of dizziness hit her, but still she hurried as quickly as her tiny legs could carry her. 

“Brother,” she called out, tapping on the door. “Brother!”

Temmus answered the door, and stepped back to let her in. Without pausing even to offer anjali or to bow, she immediately said, “We need your computer. I…” She paused, and looked at him anxiously. 

“Yes? You… you what?” Temmus looked groggy, but awake.

Yana’s hesitation had appeared from out of nowhere, and in a mere instant had bloomed to an enormous sunflower of doubt. 

Temmus met her gaze, and she could feel him read what was within her. Her intimidation at his genius, and her embarrassment at the insight that she did not dare speak to him. Had he always seen into her soul this way? 

“I asked you here because I knew you could help me,” he said. “I asked you here because I could not find the answer my way. What is it, Yana?”

She inhaled once, deeply, through her nose, and let the air fill her, leach away her apprehension before exhaling through her mouth. 

“I think maybe it’s life,” she said. “Life in The Bulk.”

“What?” Temmus narrowed his tiny eyes, and creases folded the night-black skin around them. 

“I’ve spent years studying bacteria. The physics of their evolution, the mathematics of their dance of life. I have seen patterns threaded through their reproductive cycles, music and meaning in the waves of their propagation and the waves of death that have passed through their populations.”

Temmus leaned forward, straining to understand. 

“Temmus, we’ve been spending aeons trying to understand why gravity works as it does. We’ve modeled every possible variation of structure for The Bulk, and still we have never accounted for it successfully. Every theory has failed,” she said. 

Temmus nodded, sitting down on the floor as if in shock. He was beginning to see. 

“I cannot be sure, Temmus, but… when I was unconscious, I dreamed.” Yana said this last word softly, reverently. There had been a time when scientists might have smirked at it, but it had passed. Dreams were never evidence of anything, of course, but they were leads. Not a few scientists over the ages had stumbled upon insight in their dreams and imaginings. 

“I have dreamed it every time I have slept, since then. We are seated upon the brane, in the station,” she said, and pulled up an image, an Angref model of human beings on a brane. Temmus’ computer caught the image, and drew it into the air. 

“Our brane exists within The Bulk,” she said, knowing he knew this, but fuzzing in The Bulk on her diagram anyway. “When you created the black hole, the resultant warping acted not only on our brane, but upon The Bulk itself, via the threads that bind all things.”

“Now,” Yana said, pulling up an image of bacteria and splattering it into the model and transforming The Bulk into a teeming jungle of life. “Imagine The Bulk as a place of life. An ecosystem, but not a biological one in the sense we know in our own brane. Life there would thrive on energies, on interactions. On the constant flow of vacuum energies, on the force communications of gravitons and bosons. And perhaps these interactions that they thrive on are also only possible because of this life?”

Temmus stared at the model, baffled, and then he nodded. “It’s speculative, Yana…”

“But Temmus, what if…? What if, when you create those baby universes…” She flicked a model of a black hole into the image, and then allowed it to warp gravity and spacetime across the Worldbrane and The Bulk alike.

A miniature extinction exploded, in pulsing waves, around the black hole, as a baby universe formed within The Bulk and exploded into a brane of its own. 

Temmus clasped his hands, though he could not stop them shuddering. They both knew that this would be difficult, perhaps impossible, to test. And yet it felt possible. It felt as if Yana had stumbled upon something. 

“We can test it,” he said. “We can work at lower energies, create patterned interactions at high energies and see what echoes back to us from The Bulk.” But he was still shaking, and his eyes were wet and his mouth working silently now. He looked the way bodhisattvas look when they weep. 

Since childhood, they had both been raised to share a terror of ecocide. The ancients, they had been taught, were to be forgiven, but such forgiveness was difficult. They had lived in a world of green, of vivid life, and they had slaughtered it. They had poisoned it and kicked it in the face. Ecocide was, for the bodhisattvas, the most awful crime imaginable. 

And Temmus was now imagining experiments to discover whether he had, unwittingly, been committing it himself. 

Yana saw him through the haze of her own wet eyes, and lay her hand upon his own. Daigon was in her mind, groaning, his hand upon her suited hand, and he was calling her name. The face of the ancient brown-haired woman on the screen appeared before her, saying, “We didn’t know.” She met his eyes as his face distorted, filled with his shame and horror. He turned his face away, and she realized that of all people, he was most ashamed in front of her. 

Some part of Temmus was still there, on that beach far from the firelight, searching for what to say, and failing. Failing again and again, over the decades. 

“It’s alright,” she said, gripping his trembling fingers, and looking into his face with kind eyes. “You didn’t know.” 

But Temmus kept his eyes down, broken. Yana moved closer to him, and put an arm around him as he shuddered. If it were true, what suffering would he undergo?

“You couldn’t know,” she told him. “And it is only speculation.” But he said nothing. 

After a few moments, Yana began to sing the song that Temmus had sung to her only a few days before. She didn’t know that she remembered the song—until Temmus had sung it, she had not heard it since their childhood—but it was, somehow, complete within her memory. 

It was a jataka song, a tale from the lives of the Buddha. A tale of a hunter and a doe, with the Buddha as the doe. The creature had found a starving hunter, begging the universe to give him a deer to hunt, and had offered itself up not because of the hunter’s karma, but out of compassion. The hunter had slain the deer cleanly, lovingly, and with compassion himself. It was a song that had puzzled Yana when she had heard it as a child: people killing animals? How could there be compassion in that? How could anyone speak of such acts with the word compassion?

But now, with Temmus curled against her and sobbing, she understood what the song meant. She held him, and sang, and sang, until she could feel that some small measure of peace had come into his heart. 

#

Yana spoke her full name, her lineal designation and her place of birth, Usak Plot on the Great Outer Western Shore. 

On the screen, the computer displayed her name, and then began to spit out the line of her ancestry: her mother and her father and their siblings; their parents, and grandparents, and cousins, and aunts and uncles. 

A great tree spread out, and for the first time in ages, Yana felt truly connected to the past. So many lives, each laboring under the weight of its own attachments and struggles. Each life riddled with joys and hopes and griefs. Each mind longing to transcend, and lost in a vale of difficulties and confusion. 

So many generations, each tied together with a single string of words—the bodhisattva vow. She spoke it, softly, as she watched the branching family of her ancestors expand across the screen:

        As long as time and space endure, 
        As long as living beings exist, 
        And as long as creatures struggle and suffer, 
        Until the end of all things may I remain also, 
        To drown misery in compassion and kindnesses.

 

By the end of the vow and perhaps from habit, her eyes were shut. Yana sat there for a few moments in the silence of the room, and felt the emptinesses that loomed within her. And she felt her own unimagined missteps, and the suffering she had, unwitting and unwantedly, left to fester in the heart of poor Temmus. 

After some time, the computer broke the silence. 

“Message from your ancestor found,” it said. “Brother Shamol Dairani, Lesser Eastern Shore order.” Yana opened her eyes, and saw a man with skin the color of rich earth, of living, loamy soil. His head was lined with grey-white stubble, he had a nose that was flat and broad, and his enormous brown eyes looked utterly alien to her, yet also familiar. 

Her ancestor. And, she was surprised to see, he was a monk. 

After a few more moments of tactful silence, the computer asked, “Would you like to listen?” 

And then Yana said yes.

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