in the Language of a Dead Planet
and clutched at Rina's hand. They halted between the antiseptic brightness
of Monument's quarantine facilities and the dark stone corridors of the
hip throbbed; a back spasm forced a sharp intake of breath.
you all right?" Rina
gazed up at him, the wrinkles etched upon her face deepening.
"Yes." A lie but Yavi
forced a smile. He had betrayed his wife
and his faith. Now he had crossed this
final threshold, having deceived Monument's quarantine.
those who truly served the sanctity of the Human Genome, who refused the nanotic transformations that took man beyond humanity,
could hope to end their days upon this ancient world. Only a handful were
chosen, those judged as outstanding devotees of the Purist Order.
to rest a moment."
we go." Rina
guided him to a nearby bench. He managed
to sit down; the cold raised chill bumps through his
pilgrimage coveralls. Rina squeezed his hand.
The dim strip lighting caught her blue eyes with their violet flecks
left by the anti-aging drugs. "Look
at these walls. I'm amazed basalt this
old retains any structural integrity at all."
where's our welcome?" Rina gazed down the corridor. Her gray curls shimmered. Yavi ran a
trembling hand over his own hair, grimacing at the thinness. He was in no hurry to meet anyone, at least
until the shakes wore off.
get to see a monument today, don't you think?" Rina nestled
against him and took his arm.
it's awfully late." He tried to
turn his mind from his deception.
a planet more than aptly named, a world that had died before Old Earth had been
more than a dust swirl. Beneath a dim
red sun stood over thirty million stone monuments, spaced equidistantly over
the planet--all identical.
"Ready to go on?"
Rina rose and smiled down at him.
suppose." Sitting didn't help. He squirmed inside his body, unable to keep
still. Nerves. He stretched out his legs, then
gathered them beneath him. With her
help, he found the strength to stand.
His hip hurt but he forced a smile and offered his arm.
not what I imagined." Rina pulled him gently along the corridor, their shuffling
steps without echo.
we haven't seen anything yet."
our first trip to Providia?" Rina gazed up at
him. "You could hardly wait to see
the Codex. You dragged me to the Temple
of Inverted Folly before we'd even unpacked."
years ago, wasn't it?" Yavi grinned.
"What does that have to do with this?"
me revise my original statement." Rina shook her head.
"Monument is exactly like I imagined. It's you, more specifically your
reaction, that's not what I expected."
Yavi froze. Had she guessed? If she had discerned the nature of his final
trip to distant Providia, how could she stand beside
old now," he said quietly, "and look at you, you're exhausted
Rina only smiled and clung to his arm all the tighter. He made one foot step out before the other;
they continued on.
"Ah, there you are." A man, looking even older than Yavi felt, hobbled toward them, narrow face pinched into a
frown. "You should have waited for
me at Quarantine. Didn't anyone tell
are waiting. Just
looking around a bit." Rina grinned.
"And you are?"
"Lucratai Delmonico." The man folded thin arms across a brown-robed
chest. "I'm Archprotector
of the order here--for the time-being at least." He squinted at them. "So you're the famous Gavins."
Yavi and this is my wife, Rina." Yavi offered his
Lucratai ignored it and turned abruptly. "Come, I'll
show you to your quarters."
were hoping to see a monument first."
Rina released Yavi
and touched Lucratai's arm. "And I want to talk to you about libraeton access."
see one in the chapel, but not until it opens for services." Lucratai scowled
and drew away from Rina's hand. "That will be tonight. As for libraeton
access," his head shook, "I'm afraid that's impossible."
"What?" Yavi stared at
him. "We have our studies to
conduct. You'll need to rearrange..."
here to die, not for research." Lucratai steadied himself against the wall. "This, I'll remind you only once, is a
place of devotion, not study. We're all
equals now. Don't expect special
treatment because of your reputations."
on Taitren we were promised-" Rina drew herself up.
Yavi saw the indignation on her face and
promised nothing. Those on Taitren, even the Protector herself, have no say
glared at them, as if daring a denial.
"I alone have libraeton
access." He turned and led them
through several black corridors. At
last, they reached a door composed of equally dark wood, adorned with a bronze
insignia, the Purist double helix. It also served as a knocker, Yavi noticed wryly; theirs was a practical order.
turned a knob and pushed open the door.
"An initiate will arrive shortly with your things. Supper is at six sharp. Be seated before the devotional or not at
all." With that, he started down
Yavi stared after him.
It wasn't so much the man's harshness but what seemed beneath it. Lucratai's voice
bore an undercurrent of pain, something Yavi might
have missed a hundred and sixty years ago when he was young, but not now.
seems rather miserable. Especially for someone dying in peace." Rina took hold of
his arm. "Let's go inside. You look tired, my love."
Yavi only nodded, and did as she asked.
* * *
A nap would have made things bearable but Yavi couldn't close his eyes. He lay next to Rina,
an arm around her, and all he could think was how age had whittled her down to
a twig. Both of them had grown so
nanotics, the human life span could be lengthened
only by twice the Hayflick Limit--cells
bathed in nutrients and the anti-aging drugs the Purists had developed could
replicate themselves a hundred times instead of Hayflick's
one hundred and eighty years, he and Rina had finally
reached the point where their bodies could do no more. Within three years both should die.
frightened him now. Yavi
stroked his wife's back, feeling every rib, every knobby vertebra, instead of
the sleek muscles his fingers still remembered.
He listened, straining until sweat beaded his forehead, waiting for the
intake of her lungs, a soft moan, anything to prove he wasn't holding a corpse.
finally stretched, murmured something from a dream, and cuddled closer. He fit himself against her, but that left his
hip aching. His heart thudded in his
die within three years. Yavi had bought himself a choice. He would live on. He would even leave this place. The knowledge and insight gained from close-hand
study of the monuments would aid his continued research on Providia.
Purists would brand him a coward. Where
was his faith? Beside
him, beneath a thin blue blanket.
All her life Rina had dreamed of spending
their final days in Monument's solitude.
would stay with her to the end, give her a peaceful
death she so much deserved. He owed her
that, owed her even more. Just not his life.
matted his armpits. His nerves burned
with a will of their own. For the
thousandth time, he tried to force his eyes shut. They wouldn't stay closed. He stared again at the back of his wife's
head, at gray strands that failed to hide her scalp. He traced the outlines of her skull, a
he squirmed from their bed. Donning his
coveralls, he slipped from their quarters.
The basalt corridor walls scraped his fingers as he limped into an
down to his left, an old woman struggled with a walker. She looked neither right
nor left, her movements steady as an automaton. Yavi chose a
found the airlock by accident. These
corridors made getting lost easy, especially when one ignored signs. Narrow-arched windows flanking the steel door
looked out upon perpetual twilight. Red-tinged
gravel stretched into dusky moonless shadows.
the opposite black basalt stood a rack of pressure suits. Perhaps these were only for Initiates, the
youngsters lucky enough to serve here and receive the wisdom of the dying. Yet nothing denied him access.
as a linguistic archeologist had taken Yavi to many strange places.
He could don a p-suit in his sleep; he donned one now. To step out upon an ancient world, to know,
to feel the echoes of sentient creatures, their lives made mysterious by
unimaginable spans of time and space, this was what he lived for.
the airlock, his breath wheezed softly in his ears. Gravel crunched beneath his boots. He stood on a path, the distant outlines of
the monuments black against the sun's weak rays.
pain in his hip dimmed as he struggled up a mild slope. Gravel sparkled in his headlight, and
abruptly the sparkles ended in a wall of black.
up at a monument. At last! At long last!
nine-sided stone oblong stood forty meters tall. Centered in a vertical line
lay the Three Glyphs. Thousands
had tried to decipher them; thousands had failed.
seen them before, who hadn't? But only
in sims and vidpods. Finally, he
stood before the real thing.
first glyph was etched just above eye level.
Three lines intersected to form an equilateral triangle. The lines extended past each intersection
with two additional lines at each apex. It looked like three joined starbursts.
it, the second glyph too was composed of nine intersecting lines, a large
single starburst? Yavi
held his breath, reached out, and touched it.
The grooves were deep; with no atmosphere to wear away the beveling, it
might have been carved yesterday instead of ten billion years ago.
percent of the monuments had shown pitting from micrometeorites. Amazingly minor damage for
such a time span. The builders,
known simply as The First, had developed stellar engineering on a massive
The sun, for example, was similar in size
and composition to those in the Carna Cluster fifty
thousand light years away. Its sequence
would last another nine billion years, spanning the expected life of the
universe. Trace elements indicated the
planet had been moved nearly thirty thousand light years from the Baldru System. All
surrounding space had been scoured of potential debris.
final glyph was also composed of nine lines. The outer two formed a forty-five
degree angle. They all met at the same point down two thirds of their length.
It looked something like an ancient hourglass, on its side, one end larger than
these glyphs and this planet, no trace remained of The First. Only one other ancient race had known
been instrumental in deciphering the Providian records, a quartz data matrix
found in a lone Providian temple and known as the Inverted Codex.
task had frustrated linguists for centuries, not just from the vast complexity
of language. The Providians
had believed that truth couldn't be stated directly. The matrix was structured in a series of
falsehoods, which in summation proved what they regarded as essential Truths.
number of Providian Truths exactly equaled the number of monuments on this
owed his reputation to the decades spent deciphering the beginning
thirteen. From them had come the
knowledge to create unique subatomic programs, the most promising breakthrough
since nanotech itself--the entelechers hidden
chrono beeped and Yavi
checked the time on the readouts inside his helmet. He'd stood here over an hour. Rina might be awake
by now. Time to go.
He started back along the path. It wasn't hard to find their quarters; his
body might be failing him, but his mind was still sharp.
were you?" Rina said through clenched teeth as
he entered. She sat on the bed, her hair
mussed and fists balled. Gray tears traced the wrinkles around her eyes. "I woke up and you were gone. I just knew something had
happened." Her shoulders shook and she
brushed angrily at her cheeks.
"Only out for a walk." Yavi hurried to sit
beside her. He put an arm around her
shoulder. Abruptly she wrapped hers
around him and squeezed until he thought his ribs would break.
didn't you wake me? Or leave a
note?" she sobbed. "You
shouldn't have left."
never used to be this...furtive." Rina
scowled. "You've changed since that
last trip to Providia. I just don't understand."
"Rina, this is hard for me."
"For you? I
worked all my life to get here. I served
in the barrio missions of Serges. I struggled through a dozen academies. And, Yavi, how I
prayed," he reminded her.
"You with your little tendrils." She shoved him away. "And those tentacles
where your ears should have been."
Yavi put his palms to his ears and wiggled his
fingers. He couldn't help grinning at
this old joke between them.
smile brightened Rina's face. Her eyes gazed beyond him, into their past.
Yavi reached for her hand.
"Thank the Protector you knew a good surgeon. Without your inspiration and love, Rina, I'd have never made it."
was there for you." Rina's face grew
solemn. "Will you be here for
me?" The violet flecks in her eyes
grew moist and glimmered. "All my life
I waited for this..." Her breaths came in short
shallow gasps. Yavi
tried to stroke her hair. She pushed his
all right," he said. How had he
become such a liar?
"Now that I'm here." She looked up at him, her eyes so sharp they
cut into his conscience. "I've
never been more afraid." She sobbed and cried out, "I dreamed you
were dead! I saw you lying against a
monument with your face all scraped."
both frightened, Rina."
you're scared of," she shook her head slowly, "it's not just
hands went numb against her. His body
grew taut and his lungs refused to breathe.
She was close to the truth.
Should he confess? Would she ever
forgive him? No. He would be deported from Monument and she
would die alone.
they'd often traveled separately, he had never seen her like this. She'd always talked of Monument. Countless nights they'd held each other in
the darkest hours and she'd whispered of the comfort Monument would bring.
had been one of the corrupted, adorned with tendrils and alien sensory organs,
when she'd first found him. Her faith,
her love, had saved him.
"Rina, I know our faith means everything..."
doorknocker clacked and the door swung open before he had a chance to move.
have you been?" Lucratai
glared at them, arms folded, half-shadowed in the corridor light.
"A moment, please." Yavi rose and faced
him. "We need our privacy..."
missed services." Lucratai stomped into their quarters and extended a long
bony finger. "That's
inexcusable. I won't have it, even with
your reputations. I just won't have
Yavi remembered now, but their arrival this
afternoon seemed impossibly distant. Was
his mind going after all? Such a thing
would never have slipped him before.
Rina stood up beside him. Dried tears still blotched
her cheeks, yet with a toss of her head, her hair fell into place. "Shuttle lag, I suppose. We're both truly sorry."
of us feels well," Yavi said. "We'll be
there early for services tomorrow."
harsh planes of Lucratai's face softened. Once he had been a powerful man, Yavi realized, though stooped and thin, Lucratai
still carried himself like a fighter.
Certainly he was no older than they were; the adjustments of these final
years must weigh heavy on him.
suppose I might have been hasty." Lucratai looked away.
"I forget sometimes that not everyone expresses their faith in the
rote adherence to schedule."
promise to be on time." Rina smiled. Yavi could never resist her smile; few men could.
nodded, staring at their feet.
"I've...other duties to get back to." Stiff as stone, he turned and left.
not the only ones frightened." Rina took his arm and clung to it.
hurts inside." Yavi
nodded, staring at the door. He squeezed
* * *
A monument stood in the center of the
chapel. The chapel's clear dome
surrounded it, and four concentric rings of benches, topping a small hill. The remaining habitat lay buried beneath the
surface so nothing else would be disturbed.
Even the shuttle port hid underground, a narrow gorge barely visible in
Yavi stared out through the dome, his breath caught
in his throat. Monuments stretched in
every direction, rows upon rows of stone monoliths receding into infinity, dark
beneath the red sun.
approximately every ninety-four hundred square meters," Rina whispered beside him, squeezing his hand. Yavi smiled, how often they'd shared the same thought. He looked down at her bird-bright eyes. Eyes he could stare into forever, out of
which gazed not the bent woman beside him but a million memories.
Purity's holy name we gather." Lucratai moved slowly up the aisle. Yavi and Rina turned from the red sun as a gray-haired crowd filed
habitat residents moved with the halting spastic gaits of bodies that barely
functioned. Some in wheelchairs, others
clutched walkers, their hands knotted with effort while the devices slid
smoothly along. Their steps shuffled and
stopped frequently. Heads turned toward
him with quavering movements.
Yavi's stomach twisted at the sight of so much flesh so
close to decay, the sinking corruption of cells that refused their tasks. Still, the eyes he met glittered with
life. More than one smile, filled with
peaceful acceptance, greeted him.
really wanting to, Yavi frowned.
the corruption of age any worse than that of nanotechnology? In these final moments, it didn't seem
so. Here stood the real test of
faith. Having lived with his convictions
so long, would he take the easy way out?
Yes. They would die, but he would
go on, to study, to learn.
gaze turned to the floor.
thing is certain," Lucratai stood beside the
monument, hands clasped upon a podium.
"Nothing more will ever be learned of those who built this
stone. Beyond this planet beneath us,
those known as The First have left no hint of their purpose." He motioned everyone to sit.
Yavi and Rina took their place upon a black basalt bench between a
blank-faced man who nodded constantly, and a stick of a woman who clutched a
only thing we can truly know about this enigmatic race," Lucratai gripped the podium, "Is that they lived, grew
old, and chose to die. Everything
else..." He glared down at Yavi, "is couched
in Providian lies and will never be truly understood."
"Well. We know where he stands," Rina giggled, putting her hand over a grin.
nodded, found he was imitating the gentleman beside him, and stopped. He had discovered a great deal of truth in
the Providian Codex. Of course, those truths, the extraordinary achievements of
an ancient empire, merely provided passing amusements to a civilization grown
jaded and cynical.
something more bridge such a distant gap?
What contact point might be found with beings so far in the past? Lucratai's
statement proved true in the final analysis; all they really knew was that The
First appeared, and then died.
texts maintained that The First had been a mighty civilization, that most
technology was borrowed from the ancient race.
Stellar engineering, even the corrupt science of
The First had faced the same choices as humanity. Like the Purists, they had decided to end
their lives rather than mutilate their flesh with micro gadgetry. They had chosen to be mortal or they would
still exist. Could death be the common
idea grew in him until he could not concentrate on Lucratai's
continuing drone. He sat transfixed,
staring at the monument glyphs. The Archprotector seemed only a distant shadow. But the wan light caught the center glyph; it
intersecting lines shone in the alien sun.
Starburst or star? Focal point of life itself,
a gathering of light? Light for
the soul? Yavi
thought of the never-ending legends of near death experiences.
pulse quickened; he forgot to breathe. Death and light, life born of starlight. It had to be.
His nerves screamed. Energy
seared through him. Had the entelechers somehow activated? No. Impossible.
strange word formed in his mind. Two
alien syllables echoed through his ears and he struggled to wrap his tongue
"Mlatus," he whispered.
"What?" Rina's voice came
from far away.
starburst glyph exploded. He tried to
raise an arm to shield himself, tried to cry out, tried to squeeze Rina's hand, tried to stand--and could do nothing.
Mlatus! Yavi stared into a
white-hot sun, a blazing mandala that in no way matched
Monument's sad red dwarf.
Mlatus! All things begin and end in the fire that
doesn't die. All beginnings and ends
meet in the middle. Life
without limits. It meant so much
more. Yet, the meaning focused upon the
shall it ever be!" Lucratai's voice thundered over them, jerking Yavi back. The glyph
shrank into the black basalt, glittering no more. "For we are creatures composed of faith
and nothing else."
you all right?" Rina
touched his wrist.
exhaled a long whoosh of breath. He
could move again. Tears burned his
eyes. He turned to her. He wanted to hold her, to beg her
forgiveness, to make love to her, to sit beside her and remember their
children. He wanted all these things so
badly he couldn't stay still. He wanted
to scream, laugh, and dance through the chapel.
was all he managed.