Vagabond - Part 2
A lifetime of boredom interspersed with milliseconds of stark terror.

The intricately beautiful patchwork of lush vegetation and other climate zones criss-crossing the gently curving surface of Ge, punctuated by white masses of clouds, flew by the aircar in a monotony of wonder.

There was simply too much to absorb from kilometers up.

Overhead the Luminaire was a thick line of blazing splendor, the day/night terminator a knife edge on the surface below. For the first hour of our journey we'd gazed in open-mouthed astonishment through the clear floor at the landscape, before finally dialing it to opacity from sheer sensory overload.

I was looking at Heavy, tranquilly contemplating Point's incessant pacing up and down the deck, apparently without irritation (which was a good deal more than I could muster, hence my minute inspection of Heavy's gill slit) when it happened.

Something bad.

A telltale surge of infrared and static (along that portion of the EM spectrum coincidentally most suitable for signal and power transmission among certain small objects) heralded the sudden awakening and imminent action of a fully-powered and coordinated swarm of nanites emerging from the deck above our heads that had previously housed the aircar AI.

The effect this had on the AI, which was currently giving us a rather light-hearted and entertaining introduction into the deeply philosophical yet spiritually satisfying life on Dharamshala, was somewhat comical -- its eidolons (projected on a multiphase hologram occupying the volume in front of us) did a sudden awkward dance and juxtaposition of various picturesque elements compiled from the travelogues and historical meditative works, all while its aphorism symbology degenerated into nonsense.

-- The place of enlightenment is where you were reborn -- To find yourself lose the sense of oneness -- feed your soul into the public matter compiler

No, the funny thing -- even as my body and mind kicked into combat overdrive -- was I couldn't discern the difference between the previous philosophical lectures, and the garbage output the AI spewed as it died and its substrate was co-opted.

Really bad things were happening now.

The hologram projector began building up dangerous levels of energy; the aircar took a sudden dive, and we banged abruptly into the ceiling, Point rolling to avoid the really heavy piece of luggage containing the Nanoforge.

And of course, the mere operation of our Skirmisher armor would have immediately disabled the civilian construction of our aircar.

The holoprojector released its overloaded beam, and a sweetish smell mixed with the acrid stench of ozone filled the suddenly cramped cabin as we fell back onto the floor, luggage and other objects everywhere. Something wet and sticky dropped onto my leg as Heavy reached up with four good tentacles and ripped the holoprojector from its moorings; I rolled aside to avoid getting crushed.

My left hand had opened my satchel and slipped on the plasma discharger as the ceiling panel began disgorging iridescent dust shimmering in a haze of emergency lighting. Heavy countered this by the simple act of sucking it into his mantle; I didn't catch what he was going to do after that because something else demanded my attention.

The service bush stored in the back emerged with murderous intent; I snatched up the nanoforge storage case to act as a shield, wrenching muscle and tendon and sinew, ducked and fired. A gorgeous golden-red bolt flashed an eye-searing trail of ionization, impacting the bushbot with a detonation that converted it into millions of microscopic diamond flechettes and a blast wave of superheated air, a normally fatal combination. A millisecond later, the shockwave kicked the case backwards into me into Heavy, who by now was inflated to almost twice normal size.

Our impact knocked a large cloud of what appeared to be soot out of his siphon, and I looked around to see what Point was up to, gasping.

I felt rather than saw the impact, golden-red haze dancing in my peripheral vision, and the shockwave knocked Heavy into me into the nanoforge, hammering whatever air I'd thought to breathe out of my body and covering us with a fine mixture of dead soot and live nanites. The air system continued to exhale more glimmering things, the manual controls at the front of the vehicle were a molten ruin, and Point flipped aloft a small ovoid while screaming:

"Fire in the hole!"

A soundless flash of static inside my head, sudden dizziness, abrupt blackness.

The EMP grenade took out whatever nanite swarm was left. Unfortunately, judging from the feel of the floor against my face, and my vestibular sense, we were now in a dead aircar, plummeting towards ground at a rather steep angle, the AI, controls, and power system thoroughly wrecked.

Rebirth is a funny thing.

How did my parents meet? Was their partnership primarily economic in nature, a maximally efficient eugenic bonding, a passionate life-partnership?

Was my mother really female, my father really male, or was their gender a matter of tradition, convenience, or preference? Or was it an existential macrocycle in their communal journey through life?

Did it matter?

Was I conceived out of chance, or whimsy, or decades of careful planning?

Did they have hopes, dreams, or aspirations for the future when they nurtured me into existence?

All this, origin of my world-line, was obliterated with my homeworld.

Physical theory suggests information is never destroyed, only transmuted. Perhaps when I pass on to the next existence, I will unlock the answers I seek.

Or stop caring.

It is my abiding hope that this is true. Yet, I cannot take the chance. There is too much left to do.

An infinitely thin, infinitely sharp line segments my life.

I have only dim memories of my childhood. A decade of happiness; a lifetime of pain.

Sometimes I dream of sights or sounds long since vanished. If I concentrate to make them distinct, they become instead elusive and fuzzy, reminding me that Faerie cannot be bottled, only experienced in the moment.

Cara once asked, circumspectly, if I might not want to forget, to release these memories into the void that I alone felt and saw, granting the benediction of nullification upon all those I ever knew. Gone and forgotten, a final resting place for ghosts.

But I responded by clenching my pain and sorrow to me, wrapping them tight around my being. To forget would be an act of betrayal; to turn away from the witness of the events I saw would be to implicitly abet those that perpetrated those horrors upon me, my family, and my world.

As long as I continued, as long as I was me, so too would they exist. And when I died, we would vanish together into the anonymity of history, a brief footnote in time.

Rebirth is a tragic thing.

As if it were but moments past, I recall waking in the Hall of the Flesh Sculptor, a clockwork flesh-toy assembled from qubits embedded in diamond, lying in a sepulchral cavern of wonder. Transapient artisan of the containers of souls, it favored me with a chilling smile, strangely angular face expressing alien satisfaction in the infinite care and artistry of its handiwork.

Sometimes Creation is even more terrible than Destruction.

My patron, savior, rescuer, what happened to me and why ... well, I didn't learn the full extent until many years later.

The full horror.

Sometimes I think I died long ago; what remains is merely the ghostly recording of a lost child resurrected into a pale shadow being, a revenant thirsting for revenge and redemption and purpose.

When I awoke, everything that I was and everything that I knew was gone, separated by a vast gulf of time and space I still cannot fathom. I say this now, calm and factual, as if the horror and anguish and broken heart that scarred my soul was not a suppurating wound on my psyche.

My Rebirth was a nearly singular honor, an impossible accomplishment by an incomprehensibly vast and utterly inhuman talent. If the Flesh Sculptor is not a god, the distinction is too fine for any human mythology to make.

As with all artists, the Flesh Sculptor Named its masterpiece. As with all masterpieces, the artistry lies in my flaws.

Some day, I'll go back to the Hall of the Flesh Sculptor to find my True Name.

Dharamshala was a system of mendicants, a jewel in the crown of the Mutual Progress Alliance. Under construction for the next millennia or so, from far above the ecliptic plane it looked like an incomplete, glittering wheel with filamentary spokes of fire.

The spokes were mass streams, supplying both fuel and building materials for the continuing creation of the wheel winding its slow, patient way around an unblinking eye of flame. Extracted by surface starlifters, they created a vast cradle of life in a previously barren system even as they lengthened the final lifetime of the star by moderating its mass consumption.

The glittering wheel was the beginnings of a vast topopolis, a hollow spaghetti noodle some 5500 kilometers in diameter, currently stretching more than twenty million kilometers along the orbit of its primary star, capped by glowing embers of breathtaking beauty. These ends were vast nanoforges wrapped around miniature suns, fed by the mass streams of burning hydrogen sent from mining stations on the primary itself. They burned hydrogen into carbon, incidentally releasing the energy to power the vast nanoswarm constructors which added nearly 500 kilometers on each end of the steadily growing topopolis in a single day. This translated to a current surface area of 678 Earths, with another Earth-equivalent surface added every 11 days; in another millennia, the topopolis would wind completely around its sun.

Dharamshala spun for gravity on its long axis, and all the megastructural tricks for which the MPA was famous were used to stabilize its axial rotation against the irregularities created by its circular orbit.

It was divided into two (or three, if you were infected by the meme) regions. The first, Ge, was the ground level, comprising a dizzying variety of habitats and ecosystems. Spin coupling dragged along the atmosphere, giving comfortable pressures at ground level, tapering to near vacuum a mere 10 kilometers up.

The second, Ouranos, was an airy world even vaster than Ge, an oasis of standard temperature and pressure a thousand kilometers above the surface, decoupled from the spinning walls by a hundred kilometers of nothing. Freely floating around the central Luminaire in densities dictated by the gravitational conglomeration of enormous masses of constantly-created air, Ouranos was a fantastic, turbulent domain of immensely powerful three-dimensional storms and atmospheric weather patterns that could never be achieved by mere Terraformed planets with their thin envelopes of air wrapped around a rocky core.

The source of that power, the Luminaire itself, was a vast cylinder of raging fire powered by monopole-catalyzed fusion torches of staggering volume. A variable arc along its axial circumference was lined with perfect reflectors in optical wavelengths to give the illusion of night, day, and seasonal variation. In order for sufficient radiance and heat to reach all the way to Ge, the Luminaire consumed mass in quantities exceeding the burn rate of the central star, driving the vast atmospheric circulation cells and making Ouranos an impossibly dynamic, three-dimensional realm to dwarf Ge.

It was said that seekers of wisdom could transcend from Ge to the First Singularity, but full understanding of the wild, shifting sweep of Ouranos led directly to the Third.

Nearest the Luminaire was reputedly the third zone, Indra, a region of fire uncomfortable to normal Terragens life, but the happy province of the transapient infomorphs that existed on vast computronium banks of plasma processors.

And various other beings as well, if the memes were to be believed.

Although nowhere near as large as the Kiyoshi or Djed Stapleton swarms, Dharamshala was an experiment of a different sort, a vast Ouroboros worm engineered to perfectly stimulate the proclivity towards introspection, existence, balanced with an altogether different type of existence in the airy reaches of Ouranos. For this and other myriad reasons, Dharamshala was rumored to have the highest per-capita transapience ascension curve anywhere in the Galaxy. This memeset was verified daily by the vast freehauler fleets bringing the corporeal instances of mind-boggling numbers of Terragens pilgrims, determined to directly experience Nirvana.

Dharamshala thus stood as a physical and spiritual manifestation of the Mutual Progress Alliance.

If there was a more devastating location anywhere in the galaxy for a subtle, infomorphic nano-unit plague feeding upon baseline Terragens species, I couldn't think of one.

If there was a better example of the concept expressed by the adage of finding a needle in a haystack, I couldn't think of one.

If there was a place where three soldiers could have stood out more starkly against a vast background of philosophical, enlightenment-seeking sophonts, I couldn't think of one.

We transferred by shuttle from Exit Station to the Pilgrimage Zone on Ge, our exotic gear and construction necessitating a different sort of Customs check-in than the normal one for the boundless array of baseline, near-baseline, provolved, exotic, and other species.

Like, for example, the fact that we had the undivided attention of those beings in Dharamshala whose duty it was to guard itinerant pilgrims from complications brought in from other worlds.

"Welcome to the World of Dust", it said, the briefest of smiles flitting across the stoic face with wrinkled brown skin the consistency of soft comfort wrap.

We looked it over with professional curiosity, our senses discerning a lot more of its structure and function than the average pilgrim would ever do, even if they Transcended.

Behind the smile of the eidolon clad in saffron robes was a nanoborg of not inconsiderable combat potency, compact fusion reactor levitated by magnetic repulsion, the powerful field lines accelerated the milspec foglets around guided orbital bands. A cross between a mass cyclotron and a continuously assembling maglev Tinkertoy, the nanoborg could fling bits of itself with impressive velocity or deftly caress with the lightest touch, each foglet able to control the magnetic domains of its structure and its participation in the magnetic induction envelope. The hive-mind was coordinated and powered by the monopolium-alloy reactor core, itself impressively shielded and packing a laser array capable of subtle communications or raw firepower along all but the highest bands of the EM spectrum.

Metal devices weren't just baroque on Dharamshala; if not encased in a strong superconductor, they were fatal.

Usually it stood passively and waited, carefully and harmoniously blended with the busy mecca of the Pilgrimage Zone by a fractal-realistic eidolon capable of a thousand simultaneous viewpoints, the perfect mask of the perfect guide. Always ready, willing, and able to lend assistance in whatever manner might be desired (or necessary).

Complication, yes, that's an interesting job description.

"If you'll please follow me, gentlebeings, I'll conduct you to the most appropriate form of conveyence for your needs. May this be an auspicious beginning on your Path to Enlightenment."

The monk was apparently accidentally keeping a safe distance between itself and the devices in our self-propelled luggage train. Its facial expression was a beautifully rendered mask of aloofness and enlightenment; what its combat AI thought of our presence was, of course, another thing entirely.

It conducted us out of our waiting chamber to a vast, open-air space of extravagant dimensions, throbbing with beings of every imaginable and a few unimaginable sorts, all drifting in a visible Brownian-motion crowd suspension towards the exit of one existence, and the entrance of another.

"Gentlebeings, we stand upon the Threshold from which there is no turning back. Remember that each beings' Karma is its own, and Reincarnation upon the Wheel of Life is just a means towards the Seeking."

"Aren't you mixing ancient religions?" I asked.

No Angelnet and pervasive Backup, flickered Heavy. Interesting philosophy.

"Good, we hate working around hacked Angelnets", Point muttered. "Where's Grius anyways?"

I gestured curtly. No doubt this local extension of the authorities had had us under observation for long enough to start a serious attack upon our encryption, just as a matter of principle. The dropped packet rate in the quantum encryption would climb of course, but unless they decided to be impolite, this wouldn't affect our data exchange perceptibly. Still, there was no reason to test the bounds of courtesy.

"Many, perhaps all, pathways lead towards Ascension eventually; the path you choose is of course, your karma."

"In superior firepower we trust", grinned Point.

The answering smile was blandly beautific.

And then we stepped out from the sunshade into the full volume of the plaza, the Luminaire a bright yellow ribbon across the gigantic arching sky, floating amidst fantastically white cumulus puffs on a background sheen of feathery noctilucent clouds. Dharamshala curved distantly upward to my enhanced vision, but the vast haze of cylindrical Mie scattering drew a curtain over this dominion of gods.

Incredible! Heavy's coloration kaleidoscoped between inky black and brilliant white.

"They weren't kidding about the dust! Even we get queasy at the thought of all those generations of nanites lying upon the ground, shaken loose by the implacable defenses of this place as the last detritus of the itinerant vagabond ...."

"Point, that was poetic! Perhaps your karma has led you here," I chuckled.

"Not funny, Corporal."

Because the vaults of heaven were too much even for us to assimilate at the moment, we turned our attention upon more practical and local matters; assessing our fellow sophonts.

You'd think they'd never seen a provolved Octopus before, Corporal.

"A heavily-modified provo-Octopus in the company of a provo-ferret, with intelligent milspec luggage toting what could only be energy-intensive devices, from the neutrinos we're leaking to the discerning, sophisticated traveler -- yes, Heavy, I do believe you stand out. I look rather ordinary in comparison."

Don't forget the innocuous concentration of monks in our vicinity.

"What really balds our fur is how unfriendly everyone is! Okay we may be a little unusual and dangerous-looking but they don't have to judge us just by appearances and really we're a very friendly ferret if you just take the time to know us its not as if we're not conversant in all sorts of group protocols they just don't seem to be responding to us and that's rather saddening ...."

"Don't worry, Point, just keep smiling at them and I'm sure they'll get the right idea."

Heavy rippled a laugh.

A curious pilgrim in a brown robe covering a baseline human body apparently singled me out as the least threatening of our group.

"Greetings, gentlebeing, a moment of your time only, please, as alms for my atman."

Point brightened.

"Alms? Some sort of economic exchange, yes? What would you want from us that you couldn't get from the local matter compiler? Or do you mean social exchange? That is most amazing, we're very pleased to meet you, and we must say you've been the friendliest being we've encountered in this place". Point cocked an appraising eye at the simple garb and accouterments of our fellow traveler.

"Noble Kshatriyas", she intoned, a friendly smile upon her features as she regarded Point. "As you have observed, I do not require kama or artha upon the path I hope to attain. Indeed, it is my realization that I will cease such needs altogether once I have passed beyond Vanaprastha. However, I humbly ask a question of you, who have served with Dharma."

She scanned our expressions intently. Point cocked his head. I favored her with a smile; considering Point's literally feral grin, she fixated upon me as a comfortable reference point.

Dharma. Righteousness. Right. I kept my irony in check, to spare her uncertainty.

She gave a slight start as she suddenly realized Heavy had vanished, though of course I knew he'd faded out sneakily slow, to avoid triggering any gestalt-changes.

Brave girl; she squelched the urge to look around her, pressing on.

"How can a simple sophont aspire to the exalted role of Kshatriyas, and serve in that capacity as efficiently as the Devas?"

Heavy flickered into existence behind her, his laughter outlining the tendril trailing the along her hood.

"Why haven't warfare and government been entirely replaced by the Archailects, or Devas as you name them?"

She scanned my face anxiously, as if worried she had somehow given offense. We were, after all, newly arrived, and perhaps not far along the stage of Vanaprastha, or detachment from the material world.

"It has."

She tried again. "Are you not Kshatriyas?"

"We are warriors, certainly, if nothing else. Not quite like those," I jerked my thumb back at the monk discreetly trailing us, "but in our own fashion as powerful."

She could not keep the emotions of puzzlement, incredulity, and skepticism from chasing themselves across her body and facial expressions, even shrouded by her robe.

"OM. I must reflect upon the wisdom you have granted me," she intoned, bowing.

I smiled and bowed in return as we made our way to the exit platform, packed with departure and arrival of all sorts of conveyances, from simple foot-travel to hypersonic aircar.

"A last question, noble Kshatriyas", she called in the intervening space between throngs of beings. "How does the Way of the Warrior reconcile with Ahimsa?"

"Isn't it obvious?", mused Point.

And then the crowd separated us forever, which was an answer of sorts.

"Here we go team, let's get in." I said, to forestall any further conversations.

I'd picked and negotiated with a random aircar transporter, because when you have no place in particular to go, any path will get you there.

Life is like that, sometimes.

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