Vagabond - Part 6
She took the stairs two at a time, the motions of her breathing labored and nearly superfluous in the nigh-vacuous air. The worst had been 4 kilometers below her. Just a little further, she reassured herself. Not even half a klick.

(apply shortest-path [build-graph [arrival-distance 452.3 [:local-length-measure] ^{shortest ascent} mean-free-photon-path 7.67x10 ^12 [:local-length-measure]^{visible-light-spectra} map[topological]->local parameters[biont]->local]])

It took, by her local reckoning, nearly 5 kiloseconds, her vision fading in and out to black, a roaring in her ears not caused by the tenuous atmosphere of this altitude. This form was nearly spent. She willed the last of her Pep and oxygen reserves.

(filter override parameters[biont]->local)
(filter override parameters[net])


But there was so much about this quaint place that was so.

She stood on the prow of the mountain, a wake of Kelvin-Helmholtz clouds rippling in the lee.

A steadily lengthening cylindrical habitat, Dharamsala's climate was dominated by the axial circulation of atmosphere chasing the progressive heating of the day-night cycle as the world rotated around the Luminaire and the Shadow at its center. While there were no seasonal variations due to axial tilt, the output of the Luminaire itself was chaotically modulated towards some ineffable purpose. The Shadow itself -- which could not be seen directly as light bent around it and one saw only the illuminated face of the other side minus the Luminaire -- seemed to grow and shrink in subtle ways.

Too, the rotational nature of Dharamsala's gravity acted differently over the vast surface than would have the radial field of the odd planet.

Such things were a matter of custom for most biomorphs. A topopolis was a much more economical distribution of habitable mass than a planet. Of course, the Cybercosms were the most efficient of all.

Her destination was sited near one of the Shield Walls, the mountain ranges circumscribing the eventual torus and extending past the atmosphere of Ge, Realm of Earth, which was itself only the bottom layer of the entire Dharamsala topopolis. Some said the purpose of the Shield Wall was to contain climate into distinct cells; others said it was for damage control, aesthetics, or the runes of some mathematical language writ large.

The Archai themselves, of course, declined to elaborate.

Below, tendrils and rivers and continents of white vapor obscured the near field view of Ge, axisymmetric atmosphere bands thinning until the laminar flow of air over ground became the turbulent shear of a vast spinning landscape sliding under planetary masses of air. Hurricane force winds had snatched at her where the densest flow-lines impacted the mountainside; four straight days of tortured handholds and restless climbing had gotten her past.

She neared the summit, peaceful and silent in the thin air. Below, sky and earth strove endlessly on the cycle of existence. Above, hard vacuum, the corruscating red storms of Ouranos, the Realm of Air, and then the shimmering, fey flame-wrappings around the Luminaire of Indra, the Realm of Fire.

(filter override version-tree)
(filter override version-tree->transaction->local)

How did she come to be in such a place?

Ah, the folly of youth.

Rumors of fantastic reality, embodied Ascendance following some form of quaint local tradition had piqued their curiosity. Their Instantiation was beyond the ken of most local intelligences ....

But underneath the Sublime was the Real, and they'd local-exponential-weight-decided: at least once, they should embody in some iconic form upon the substrate of Reality.


Such a unique endeavor demanded the very best.

But then, they had exclusive perspectives with which to trade, and nearly singular reputation in their area, being what they were.

Their social coterie had voted approval from the far corners of the universes. They'd commissioned the finest biomorph, reputedly a design from that being known as the Flesh Sculptor. The artistry of this form itself was to be the first in a series of unique trades.

The necessary contract constructs specified animation facilities of some sophistication for this complexity of transference. Even they had not the means for that ultimate of masterworks, the Uniques. (A Unique also entailed complications in transport and accommodations for which they had not yet achieved the proscribed economics protocols.)

Thus, the cool chambers of Dharamsala Transit Station brought her to gentle wakefulness, alone for the first time in her existence, at last.

Orbiting the kilometer-class Gate hundreds of AUs distant, it was the endpoint of a null-world-line transit from the farthest reaches of the galaxy to this place in the local polity known as the Mutual Progress Alliance, her mindstate having been carefully conveyed across innumerable comm-gauge wormholes per the Compact.

She looked for the first time upon her hands, limited clumsy appendages and her main interfaces to the physical world. Since they had never accepted the Ultimate Substrate Conjecture, this incarnation held for her none of the holiness that others might have gone on about in Rapture.

Nevertheless, simplicity was a kind of beauty. Skin flowed over bones and musculature and connective tissues; blood beat its rhythm throughout.

How strange was this limited form in this negligible place!

She looked about the revivification chamber, slowly integrating her sensoria. Auditory waves of a mathematical character impinged, slight currents of respiratory media flowed over her skin, light and smell and taste and touch each demanded a portion of her limited capacity to absorb their information. The natural filters of her new substrate activated before sensory displacement set in. She accustomed herself to the odd sensation of movement and balance, perspective and focus, attention and unconscious instinct. Curiouser and curiouser!

Ready at last to take her first steps, buoyed by the utility fog incubator, she was conducted towards that most baroque of transportation, a spacecraft. Her final journey was to be mired entirely in the Real of successively more primitive means. During the journey, she would immerse herself in the totality of her physical manifestation.

(filter override parameters[here->local])

A being used to moving effortlessly in the Sublime, one part of her had felt incredibly restricted every one of the hundreds of megaseconds she'd been instantiated. To have so much of ones form taken up by the mechanism of locomotion and maintenance was so outre she'd nearly decided to fork then and there.

(apply transaction[me last[version-tree->transaction->local]])
(apply silent pov)

But in this simple form, threading her consciousness was impossible.

That too, remained unutterably strange.

Representation was coordinate invariant, of course. Coordinates were just a primitive metric category. Events and places were where you local-weight-instantiated; non-transactions (such as translation) was non-existence. There were countless events and locations, after all, so natural limits arose in information storage and processing.

But on the physical substrate, participation required locality, and that was not so trivial, she was finding. The separation between location and action, action and being, being and instantiation, instantiation and non-existence; all were hopelessly muddled by threads of mutual deadlock and race condition. Perhaps that was the most curious thing of all.

Lost in deep introspection, her foot betrayed her, tripping on some unseen flake of granite whilst her mindstate had wandered off the physical realm. She stumbled, catching herself with her hands to avoid a nasty fall onto a spire of bare rock. A faint tendril whipped about her.

Even the impact of her reinforced cranium upon the mountain substrate might have thrown her into a kind of shock.

What madness it was for such beings to climb mountains!

And yet they had.

Transiting hundreds of thousands of geodesic kilometers from the arrival station across dozens of mountain ranges had seemed inconsequential when they'd calculated optimal itinerary.

It was a decade of wandering, of silence. Physical reality on this scale was almost unimaginably lonely. No alter-selves to integrate. No Network to traverse. Very few other travellers, each intent upon their own journey. Sometimes they shared companionship, or information. But these were as infrequent as starships passing in the void.

This small corner of the universe seemed so empty. Sometimes the thought of this tiny dust ring, wrought from the emptiness that was the cosmos, was nearly self-negating.

But there were joys, too, even within the limited spectra of her senses.

Birds, she had learned, flew the vastness in flocks and clouds of iridescent plumage, the means of their flight turned to subtle and random artwork. The larger ones could even pierce the megameters divide between Ge and Ouranos, and looked at her with a strange gleam in their eyes.

Plants grew in their own cycle of life, a thousand-fold slower than even her own embodied perspective. Smaller and larger creatures danced within the intricate ecosystems, which she but faintly touched upon. The details of geography, flora, and fauna was a universe itself that changed from plains to rivers to rain-forest to mountains and back again, similar and yet different, the ancient fractal of life. She became attuned to her body via the land and sky, and felt a kind of peace.

Daily she meditated and waited for the Rise, the Luminaire suddenly overhead as a steadily thickening band of light, its appearance bringing her an influx of energy and well-being. It continued hazing the atmosphere with increasing brilliance until it was at maximum width. Winds blew, carrying the far-off scent of the world ocean, and the fierceness or calmness of the weather was a precursor of the day to come. When her reserves were replenished she began her daily travels; sometime later -- her metabolism was exquisitely balanced enough to detect variations within in the length of this epicycle -- the Luminaire began again its shrink to nothingness at Set.

If the endless monsoons did not pour down upon her, or she lay not under the humid quintuple canopy of the rainforest, the glow of the air would subside into night, and she would rest awake for awhile.

Indra and the Luminaire would disappear into Set/Shadowrise, and then --

She would see boundlessness.

Infinitude was the entire band of Dharamsala stretching along its orbit, viewed through the twinkling and twisted red haze that was Ouranous. Annular weather patterns spun perpendicular to the lighted vault of land and sea, discernibly nearer.

An ancient mind might have felt comfortable laying beneath this strange yet orderly procession of sky, earth, and water.

Or blanched at the terrifying vastness.

Thus it had been every night of thousands she'd spent on mountainsides and open plains, the arch of Dharamsala beckoning with majesty and grace to behold all its glory, constant and yet ever-changing. She viewed this wonder for as long as she was able; nightfall meant rest, as she no longer created much sustenance for its duration.

Just before Rise, she would awaken again, another day of her life and journey, one and the same. Mud and dust and thunder and rain blended and she renewed her flesh with Ge.

On occasion, by some strange happenstance, she would come across a community, briefly coalescing individuals taking mutual reprieve from their vagabond ways. They shared, for a time, life and living. But eventually, she or they passed on.

And seconds became days, and more decades passed.

Until at long last she found herself at the base of her chosen Temple atop a mountain reaching skyward, yet dwarfed by the dark wall behind it.

This curious perception of time -- cosmic ages had passed in Sublimity -- was now her worldline. Or perhaps it had always been and they'd never noticed, attention forked manifold upon the myriad threads of their existence. Life was self-completeness mixed with self-negation in the vastness of the land. Loneliness her constant companion, a piercing ache that somehow gave sharp clarity to her journey. No more thought of the heirarchy of order in her universe. She strove against the land and water, and listened to the sky, and was content.

The shallow granite stairs beckoned.

Atop the last landing, an eidolon of a human in saffron yellow robes bowed deeply to her, traces of a smile upon an otherwise inscrutable face. Her labored breathing subsided. How long had it been since she'd seen a visage not of the sky?

She turned to look down from her mountain.

Incredible scenery etched the synapses of her enhanced eyes; information bandwidth limitations pressed upon the optical cortex of her biological brain.

The Luminaire bisected the world during the daytime, suffused by a red glow, an incandescent streak across the sky fading from view upon Setting.

Rivers, mountains, lakes, oceans, continents soared upwards. One could take the globe of fabled Terra, flatten it to a dodecahedron and mount in on the vast ocean, cast adrift besides dozens of other such continent-clusters visible for ten thousand kilometers or so on the inside curve of the hollow noodle that was Dharamshala. Then parallel to that, arrange thousands more strange continent-clusters to arc millions of kilometers along the world-ocean in both directions visible up to the limits of diffraction along the primary orbit of the unseen star.

It was orbital mechanics reified into land, sea, and sky.

The land she could see with her naked eyes exceeded the habitable surface area of the worlds and habitats of the First Federation from antiquity.

A wheeling bird, floating with large wings unfurled against the slight updrafts, dove suddenly against a backdrop of a boiling river falling from the face of the mountain, filamentary clouds shrouding its flanks, lush forest visible through the cloud patchwork, and beyond, continents, super-continents, and the world-ocean all in the same apparent visual plane.

She turned back from her last view of her finite limitless cosmos to tread the granite steps of her final destination.

At long last it was time.

Time to see the Oracle.

She sat in the attitude of calm abiding, prepared to wait until she expired, and invoked the chants and the breathing of the ancient samskara. The cosmic oneness of the universal sound reverberated deep within her abdomen. Sanyasin was complete; everything that she'd learned and become channeled towards attainment of moksha.

The unexpected touch was gentle yet palpably shocking.

She came slowly, reluctantly out of her deep reverie. In a less enlightened stage she would have experienced annoyance. Instead she merely waited until her visual cortex functioned adequately. It seemed she was not yet through with the world of dust.

The smiling brown face, tinged with surprising concern, swam into focus.

You must go now -- it mouthed, as her visual/auditory senses re-synchronized. His grasp on her elbow was very firm now, and slightly tingling. A slender brown, delicately wrinkled finger pointed to the two granite slabs that outlined the Entrance.

Deep rumbling, more felt through the soles of her toughened feet than heard in the thin air --

A stir of emotion surfaced the still waters of her reverie.

Rock and thick, chalky dust sprang into the air as she was jarred violently, the mountain booming beneath her legs and buttocks. The last treasured imprint of wondrous scenery was replaced by a vast black cloud of darkness spreading across the entire ocean and land as far as she could see. She looked at the monk in confusion, unable to understand the wrongness of it all.

The monk's outline hazed and wavered over a ball of spinning fury.

"Hurry!" he said, smiling beatifically. "Take this."

His hand was briefly in hers, and she felt a warm, hard sphere drop into her palm. She looked down at the Sirius Pearl Module, then back at him again, puzzled.

But his features flowed together and all semblance of humanity faded as the shapeless swarm jerked away, its central orb incandescing --

Behind him, or it, the mountain face crumbed and -- she slipped into thinking of cybercosms with different physics -- a tendril of the vast darkness over Ge became a strange avalanche rising up the mountain with terrifying speed towards her --

His face appeared one last time, looked soulfully into her eyes, and smiled.


And her Kshatriya, in his angry ball lightning swarm form, rushed down to meet the inevitable black wave.

The mountain erupted in fire.

A cushion of solid air gently swooped her up in a cradle of lightning, caressing her with cool amidst the inferno. She was turned and moved towards the gateway as she struggled to regain her feet in thick syrup. Thunderclaps punctuated the air in continuous staccato, felt but not heard as her auditory complex instantly filtered the deafening volumes of sound.

She was on her own feet, scarcely cognizant of running. The black gate of the Oracle reflected flashes of the terrible battle behind her. She dared not turn to look lest she become a pillar of salt. The gods and heavens roared their strife.

Through the soles of her feet, the mountaintop slid downwards, a vast raft of granite on a sea of shattered glass. Innumerable rock and other fragments concussed the ground, splintering stone where they fell.

A wave of heat picked her up and smashed her down, torn, bleeding and broken. Pain receptors receded from her charred skin.

Her protector was gone.

Dazed, she crawled onwards. Bloody fragments trailed.

To have come so far, to find death rooted not in stillness and serenity, but in unimaginably widespread destruction and horror --

A blackened hand met the smooth glassy field that was the Oracle. And a window in her mind opened --


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