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[ Read more about author Joe Murphy ]

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So, 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 ground?

Stumbling in the Language of a Dead Planet

by Joe Murphy

9,880 words

 9,880 words





Stumbling in the Language of a Dead Planet




Joe Murphy




      Yavi stumbled and clutched at Rina's hand.  They halted between the antiseptic brightness of Monument's quarantine facilities and the dark stone corridors of the habitat.  Yavi's hip throbbed; a back spasm forced a sharp intake of breath.

      "Are 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.

Only 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.

"I...need to rest a moment."

      "Here 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."


      "So 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.

      "We'll get to see a monument today, don't you think?"  Rina nestled against him and took his arm.

      "Perhaps.  But it's awfully late."  He tried to turn his mind from his deception.

Monument, 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. 

"I 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.

      "It's not what I imagined."  Rina pulled him gently along the corridor, their shuffling steps without echo.

      "Well, we haven't seen anything yet."

      "Remember 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."

      "Eighty years ago, wasn't it?"  Yavi grinned.  "What does that have to do with this?"

      "Let 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 him so?

      "I'm old now," he said quietly, "and look at you, you're exhausted too."

      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 you?"

      "We 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."

      "I'm Yavi and this is my wife, Rina."  Yavi offered his hand.

      Lucratai ignored it and turned abruptly. "Come, I'll show you to your quarters."

      "We 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."

      "You'll 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..."

      "You're 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."

      "But on Taitren we were promised-" Rina drew herself up.  Yavi saw the indignation on her face and almost chuckled.

      "I promised nothing.  Those on Taitren, even the Protector herself, have no say here."  Lucratai 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.

      "Here's your room."  Lucratai 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 the corridor.

      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.

      "He 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 terribly thin. 

Without 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 fifty.

After 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.

Sleep 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.

Rina 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 chest.

Rina would 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.

The 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.

He 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.

Sweat 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 corpse's skull...

Abruptly 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 intersection. 

Far 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 different path.

He 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.

Against 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.

      Life 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.

      Leaving 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. 

      The 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. 

Yavi gazed up at a monument.  At last!  At long last!

      The 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.

      He'd seen them before, who hadn't?  But only in sims and vidpods.  Finally, he stood before the real thing.

      The 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.

      Below 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.

      Twelve 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 scale.

      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.

      The 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 the other.

      Beyond these glyphs and this planet, no trace remained of The First.  Only one other ancient race had known them--the Providians. 

Yavi had been instrumental in deciphering the Providian records, a quartz data matrix found in a lone Providian temple and known as the Inverted Codex.

      The 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.

      The number of Providian Truths exactly equaled the number of monuments on this planet.  Yavi 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 within him.

      His 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.

      "Where 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.

      "Why didn't you wake me?  Or leave a note?" she sobbed.  "You shouldn't have left."

      "I couldn't sleep-"

      "You 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..."

      "We 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.

A weak 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."

      "I 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 hand away.

      "It's 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."

      "We're both frightened, Rina."

      "Whatever you're scared of," she shook her head slowly, "it's not just death."

      His 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.

      Although 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.

      He 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..."

      The doorknocker clacked and the door swung open before he had a chance to move.

      "Where 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..."

      "You've 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 it."

      "Services?"  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.

      "Our apologies."  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."

      "Neither of us feels well," Yavi said. "We'll be there early for services tomorrow."

      The 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.

      "I suppose I might have been hasty."  Lucratai looked away.  "I forget sometimes that not everyone expresses their faith in the rote adherence to schedule."

      "We promise to be on time."  Rina smiled.  Yavi could never resist her smile; few men could.

      "Five-thirty.  Sharp."  Lucratai nodded, staring at their feet.  "I've...other duties to get back to."  Stiff as stone, he turned and left.

      "We're not the only ones frightened."  Rina took his arm and clung to it.

      "He hurts inside."  Yavi nodded, staring at the door.  He squeezed Rina's hand.

* * *

      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 the twilight.

      As 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.

      "One 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.

      "In 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 in.

      The 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.

Without really wanting to, Yavi frowned.

      Was 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.

      His gaze turned to the floor.

      "One 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 white cane.

"The 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.

Yavi 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.

Could 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.

Providian 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 nanotechnology.

So, 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 ground?

The 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 glittered.

Nine 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.

His 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.

A strange word formed in his mind.  Two alien syllables echoed through his ears and he struggled to wrap his tongue around them.

"Mlatus," he whispered.  "Mlatus!"

"What?"  Rina's voice came from far away. 

The 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 sun.

"So 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."

"Are you all right?"  Rina touched his wrist.

Yavi 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.

"Yes," was all he managed.



Copyright © by Joe Murphy . All rights reserved unless specified otherwise above.

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