“So what do you say?”
Garland Vane didn’t hear the question. The astroecologist was fixated on the monstrosity looming from the wall. Behind Leeson’s desk hung a large black carbon-fiber board. On it Leeson had mounted the fearsome carnelian skull of a jungle bear from Cancri 4, underlined by two crossed core sappers. An acrid spite welled on Vane’s tongue and filled his mouth with mute vituperation. Vane’s head danced with heretical visions of hurling his chair over Leeson’s head into the taunting mimicry of the Jolly Roger, of rendering the bear’s skull to dust with the rest of its mortal remains, of shattering the sappers and returning the planet’s life-giving energy to the husk that now orbited Cancri.
Vane looked into his supervisor’s face. The smirk was wrenched from cheek to cheek, tightly monopolizing the truth that should have poured freely out a man with whom Vane had once broken bread, shared room and board. He had even set him up with his sister, telling her that Leeson was the most upright, selfless person he’d ever met.
“What do you say?” Leeson repeated.
Leeson’s beady, quietly rapacious eyes sparkled full of eager hope and yearning. Vane would have preferred it had Leeson spoke like the rote grind of a well-worn gear. He was reminded of something he’d once read about Earth’s ancient past, when men prostrated themselves before the altars of superstition. An Islamic mystic had formed a cult of assassins, brainwashing his acolytes by plying them with hashish.
“Honestly?” asked Vane.
“Of course honestly.”
“Honestly,” said Vane, “I’ve heard these promises before.”
Leeson condescended with the tilt of his head to one side. He may as well have opened the manager’s manual to Vane’s face and pointed to the corresponding play. “I know you have,” Leeson said, “and I know you haven’t deserved to be passed over. You have seniority, and you have a record of someone with nearly twice your time. There’s no one in Recon & Cultivation who deserves it more than you.”
Vane nodded his sarcastic appreciation.
“I’m only saying the truth,” Leeson continued. “I’ve been Vice-President of R&G for eight years. You’re the best in the division. And I’ve known you personally for, what, twenty years now?”
“Twenty-four,” Vane quietly answered.
“You’re one of the best I’ve ever seen.”
Vane looked into his boss’ face. “Clem, I’m pulling this assignment because I’m the only one willing to run R&G on the most inhospitable backwaters the galaxy has.”
Leeson leaned forward in his seat, pushing the mawkish reinforcement in Vane’s direction. “That’s not true.”
“Remember in ’58?” Vane asked. “Who reconnoitered Daphnis? Completely? In two weeks?”
Without hesitation Leeson said, “That was you.”
“And who completely reconnoitered and cultivated a third of Izanami? The highest cirriforms and deepest oceans?”
Vane shrugged his question.
“You don’t see how trusted you are?” Leeson’s smile parted to reveal his painfully white teeth and distractingly large gums. “It’s your success on systems like Daphnis and Izanami that’s earned you this opportunity.”
“First, this isn’t an opportunity—”
“—it’s busy work. Second,” Vane couldn’t help edging forward in his seat, “you don’t think I earned my opportunity a long time ago?”
“That’s not the attitude you should have for this.” Leeson wagged a finger like an elder spitting wisdom from his fingertip. Vane wanted to grab to finger and break it.
“How should I look at it?” Vane asked.
“As a golden ticket. You make good on this, your career’s an open oyster.”
“I’m allergic to oysters.”
“C’mon, Garland,” Leeson said, the smile seeping off his face. “Don’t be like that. This is the moment you’ve been—”
Vane leaned back and crossed his arms. “Please, Clem, don’t talk to me like a I’m a short-timer waiting on a slot in Admin. Could you do me a favor and for once ignore the approved talking points and go off script? Can you talk to me like someone you’ve actually known for twenty-four years?”
Leeson spent a moment in aggrieved silence. Vane watched him pitch pretense out a window as he stood. “Sure,” Leeson said. “As far as your great triumphs of old are concerned, who cares? You remember this is a business, don’t you? What-have-you-done-for-me-lately is the name of the game, pal. And lately you’ve been about as quick to jump as freeze-dried fruit. I’ve watched your enthusiasm and proactivity wither like a prune for years now. You used to be first in and last out every day. Never a day off, in when you were sick, overtime without even thinking of it. Now when you’re here, you’ve got the vim of some zombie clockwatcher.”
“I thought you just said I was the best.”
“In the field, yes. You find planets and suck them dry with the best of them. But the eighty-sixth floor wants more than that. They want devotion and passion. They want cheerleaders. You mope about here like a six-year old girl whose cat just died. And I’ll tell you something else. I don’t know where you get off being disappointed in me. I’m the only reason the eighty-sixth floor still knows your name.”
“Yeah, you’ve been a great friend.”
“You bet your ungrateful ass I’ve been. Did you know two years ago the eight-sixth floor instituted a new policy? Cultivators turn forty, they’re shuffled off to Mop-Up.”
“That’s right. I convinced them to institute a grandfather-clause solely on account of you, and it’s only because I kept harping about your long-forgotten triumphs that they agreed.” Leeson came from around his desk. “Garland, I’m telling you as your friend, your head’s an inch away from a glass ceiling. You hit forty-five, and you’re off to Mop-Up. You’re not going to go somewhere else. No other corp’s going to pay you what we will. You’ll be competing with guys half your age who’ll work harder longer for less than you will. And how much longer do you think you have in you? Are you going to be cultivating at sixty?”
Vane kept his eyes on the improvised skull and core sappers on the wall. He scowled years of accumulated disappointment in impotent, poisonous silence.
“Just make this one shine,” Leeson continued, his voice warm steel. “For your own sake.”
“You’re telling me to polish a turd, Clem. It’s a rogue twelve light-years from the nearest star. How do I make that shine?”
“You just do it.”
It took Vane’s recon ship three weeks to make the journey from Galactic Resource Acquisitions’ station on Mars to the rogue’s position. The corporation could have adhered to standard operating procedure and spent the $3,474.98 to put him in light-stasis for the journey. Vane nodded and grinned coarsely as he passed by the stasis chambers. That savings must be making all difference, he thought, to G.R.A.’s multi-trillion dollar bottom-line. The corp was making a worthwhile sacrifice, surrounding Vane with white, featureless curves that could settle into slumber the most exuberant of minds.
Vane spent the three weeks diligently following protocol. He ran daily diagnostics on the ship’s control and support systems, its electrical network, and its structural integrity. He physically inspected the lightdrive, the gravity-induction coils, the oxygen condensers, and the anti-matter reactor. He checked and then double-checked the ship’s defense mechanisms and its external illumination. He gave a thorough twice over to the drop shuttle and all its functionality, then to the surface rover and its functionality. He did the same for each of the orbital nodes and his field suit and equipment. When he was finished, he still had ten hours before he could go back to sleep and forget the empty ritual he was mandated to repeat. The ship’s CPU was programmed to run diagnostics of all its systems every twelve hours. Most of these systems were self-correcting and would fix just about any problem before Vane had learned of its existence. If the rare unfixable problem arose and proved dire enough, the shuttle would immediately return to base. A faulty lightdrive came with its share of fail-safes. Even dusting and sweeping was pointless. Until he arrived at the rogue, Vane was superfluous.
He struggled each day to invent new ways to hurry the clock, but the absence of vocation left a moribund pellicle scabbing over his temporal lobe. He sat in the mess hall for meals, the shy hum of the ship’s turbines his only company. He found himself unwittingly drumming simple rhythms on the tabletop with his fingers, on the tray with his fork. The percussion filled the vacuum of the present with long-ignored memories. The occupational counselor’s words had swarmed around the thirteen-year old Garland Vane like hornets. The histories of the four corporations, the corps’ Paths and Commandments, their rites and sacraments had conjured an intoxicating zeal in the adolescent. He had left the counselor’s office and floated to his science class with newfound sight, as if a great hand had passed over the world and swept away a blinding fog.
Vane sat on the ship’s bridge, his feet kicked up on the seat beside him, staring out the prow’s window at the speeding hyperspace tunnel. He picked one glowing thread of blue and followed it as far down the tunnel as he could. It was a gentle, undulating stroke underlining the tedium. As the bluish glow bled across his field of vision, it lulled Vane back to his meeting with the recruiter from Galactic Resource Acquisitions. The man had occupied his seat like a sentinel invoked by some alien tongue. His voice had been the inviting crackle of an arcane volume opening before the sixteen-year old. Within ten minutes Vane had known with humbling clarity who he was for the first time in his life, as if Amun-Ra had loosed his secret name.
Vane was happy to let the remembered warmth drive away the solitary chill of his journey, but the heat was fleeting and infirm. As it passed, other memories slunk into consciousness. Assignments beneath his skill and dignity, promotions bestowed on some ne’er-do-well nephew of the eighty-sixth floor. The isolated tinges of frustration gnashed and broke him down piece by cellular piece. They were flesh wounds whose triviality embarrassed Vane. An unfortunate turn of season was poor justification for turning his back on civilization’s enlightened and perfect order. Vane had been instructed, instilled with the virtue of capriciousness, but as he paced aimlessly through the shuttle’s corridors, he realized that the seed had never taken root. He had weathered caprice’s tart spittle on his face for years and gladly greeted it with an obeisant smile. But he had never learned to dole out his own arbitrary injustices. Even when the taste for vengeance had nearly made his mouth water, some subatomic apostasy had stayed his hand. Was that why the eighty-sixth floor had routinely sabotaged his advancement? How long had they known? On his first day nearly a quarter of a century ago? Before he had entered the building, as he had stood before the edifice of steel and tinted glass, suckling at the wonder that split the Beijing sky? Had Galactic Resource Acquisitions known then that Vane would one day gaze upon the galaxy’s star-specked majesty and see it riddled with scars oozing klumpen red over pristine black?
The black stared back at him, and Vane saw the lightless background of Leeson’s makeshift Jolly Roger. Vane had ripped the ore from the moons of Astarte, and the roar of the crumbling mountains echoed through his chest. He had set the fires that consumed the forests of Zoroaster 2 and watched the rust iron smoke swallow the vermillion sky. He had ordered the tankers to roll over Edunn’s life, intelligent and otherwise, and felt the fluid glass over his eyes. He had watched from the bridge of the G.R.A. flagship as the core sappers rained onto Cancri 4’s surface like a volley of hypodermic needles and withdrawn the planet’s blood from it’s heart, and he had ordered the flagship to sail away and leave the carcass to the cold. As the flagship absconded back to Earth, Leeson had toasted the crew, led the celebrants in jubilation, and hoisted above their heads what remained of the jungle bear, it’s carnelian skull still cloaked in organic detritus. The crew’s cheers had bled through the ship’s hull and found Vane three levels below. He had been reading a book on ancient Earth’s greatest minds. A leader of one of the old religions had written, “Faith is to believe what you do not see; the reward of this faith is to see what you believe.”
As the shuttle neared the rogue, Garland Vane still felt like an adolescent lost in an all-enshrouding fog.
The siren bleated dully as the ship approached its exit from hyperspace. Vane was already seated at the control console, doodling on the back of a brochure that advised against sexual congress with indigenous humanoids. The lightdrive whirred down, and the cylindrical corridor of light disappeared. An infinite sackcloth mouth adorned with blinking stones filled the window. In its center the rogue spun softly on a nonsense axis, a tiny dust-coated marble lost within the unseen folds of its oblivious home. Small bursts of nimbus illumination briefly flashed through the gray and brown ocean of atmosphere that churned around the marble.
Vane stabbed a few buttons with his stylus, his eyelids drooping lazily as if scanning the headlines before his morning coffee. The ship settled into orbit just outside the rogue’s ionosphere, and Vane released the orbital nodes. He watched the feeds from their cameras zoom through the rogue’s stormy cloud cover, and their findings quickly scrolled onto the monitors. The clouds’ chemical composition failed to excite. Water vapor, methane, ammonia, etcetera. Vane spent the next few minutes sketching onto the brochure a vigorous meeting between a man and a conciliatory Keplerian, stopping only when the nodes’ pings finally announced the arrival of their report on the atmosphere. Vane’s gaze trawled over the readings. Trace levels of nitrogen, oxygen, helium, magnesium, and all the other elements needed for creating and sustaining life were there, as he had expected. But when his eyes fell on the reading for hydrogen, he sank back crestfallen. The rogue was practically sweating hydrogen.
If he left now, the eighty-sixth floor could plausibly argue that he had been negligent. The rogue may have insulated its incipient heat long after it had broken free of its orbit. It may have a still-functioning core. Vane cursed himself for entertaining the possibility that he might be able to knock off early. He flipped a few switches, and the chittering robots darted around the circumference of the mud-colored globe to map its topography. Vane kicked his feet up on the nearest empty seat. Why was he even bothering? The nodes would find the ideal landing site, and the ship would direct itself to the surface. And for what, a mission that would net him a life-sentence in Mop-Up operations? He should just as well stay on this space-locked island and allow himself to die without the frustration. His resentment made his eyelids heavier, and he let himself drift asleep. He dreamed of ranks and files of empty robes supplicating themselves before a twinkle that threatened to blink out of sight.
He woke to the tremors of the ship piercing the troposphere. He groused and fingered the sleep dirt from his eyes before he brought up the projection of the rogue’s topographical map. He swiveled around as the holographic globe, spinning lazily, swirled into view and roused Vane from his compulsory stupor with jolt.
He saw the miles-wide valley in which the ship was set to land, but the mountain ranges spread across the planet’s face struck Vane like a heavenly jeweled spear. Massive identical aiguilles exploded from the poles several miles into the air, spitting tentacular chains across the hemispheres. Each chain shrank steadily from the polar aiguille to its terminating hillock, and each sported peak links that shrank logarithmically. From each peak link grew a set of chains to scale of its parent, and those peak links The peak links repeated the spread of mountainous tendrils until the various ranges had covered nearly every square mile of the rogue’s surface. Only the valleys, the numerous small pinches and the four equatorially centered giants, sprawled as virgin tracts of the planet’s surface.
Vane would have been speechless had he anyone with whom to speak. The rogue’s entire geologic architecture was a starfish fractal. The northern and southern hemispheres mirrored one another, as did the eastern and western. Even the dead, flat valleys, small and large, maintained the fractal structure. Vane knew that the fractal, for reasons that continued to fluster astroecologists, commonly manifested in nature. It was practically the rule in botany. Simplistically organized animals like bacteria and small mollusks took the form. Even the tectonics of Earth and other planets had created mountain ranges and coastlines that resembled fractals. But Vane fixated on the holographic projection of a planet that had studied Fibonacci and applied him to its entire existence. It was not possible. Nature did not work like that. This had to be the work of a sentience beyond anything mankind had ever encountered, but Vane could not fathom what kind of mind would develop the technological capacity and the inclination to terraform a planet so.
The ship settled into its fixed orbit two miles above the valley, and Vane stood in the center of the armory’s floor. Its mechanical extremities fitted the components of his field suit onto his body. He was surprised at how slow the process now felt. He struggled to not impatiently tap his foot or nod his head. Just as he had been trained to do, he began to focus on his breathing, to take note of the lengths of his breaths, the flag of the hairs inside his nostrils as he breathed in, the air that passed over his upper lip as he breathed out, how much his breaths raised and lowered his chest. How long had it been since he had needed to do this?
Encased in his field suit and outfitted with the full compliment of gear necessary for planetary reconnaissance, he bounded behind the drop shuttle’s controls with a tightly coiled spring in his step that he hadn’t possessed in years. He opened the hangar doors and blasted toward the surface. The winds threatened to spin the shuttle tail over teakettle, but Vane’s old hands easily kept the shuttle steady. Beneath the jungle of heavy cumuli endless blackness teased Vane. As the shuttle passed over a monolith of a peak, he magnified the topographical map and saw a sudden drop in elevation. A perfect circle had been carved out of the top of a plateau and hollowed into the planet too deeply for the orbital nodes to chart. It was an indisputable reinforcement of engineering, and Vane fought the urge to accelerate.
The shuttle coasted over the mountains. The intermittent blasts of lightning briefly lit the mountains of dead gray and brown. Just as one flash died out, the illumined rock-face on his right startled Vane. He was white from what he thought had been a geometrical ghost splayed across the range. He set the shuttle to hover, panned to face the mountain chain, and activated the exterior floodlights.
The biolithic ruins met the incandescence with a stoic abnegation of the astroecologist’s simplest precepts. The vague speculations Vane had entertained of the dead civilization’s origins withered and crisped to brown. The rogue’s masters had hewn their society from every square inch of visible rock. Every peak was an architectural marvel designed to render crippled whoever beheld the creators’ redoubtable imperium. Any semblance of geomorphology had been subsumed. Every structure was an icon of plant life. Sierras of leaves from elms, camphors, maples, and sycamores cut through the wind like dorsal fins. Inselbergs speared upward as the branches of spruces, firs, palms, and cedars. Each was complimented with botanical adornments. There were diadems of pinecones tufted with masses of acorns and seeds. Ivy and bougainvillea gilded massive teaks. Poplars towered, bejeweled with cherry and hawthorn. Moss and fungi ringed bases of horns. Incalculable shapes corresponding to plants unknown to Earth or elsewhere flowered the chain with an eldritch majesty. And the fractal paradigm was pervasive.
The soft beeps and whirs of the shuttle carried Vane back to a semblance of presence. How long had the wonder possessed him? Grasping for the security of professionalism, he turned his head to the lengths of mountain still hiding in darkness. The cloaking black whispered into his ear, offered its hand, and having already surmised what he would find, he panned the shuttle and its floods in a full circle. Leprous ruins filled every micron of elevated land over which the light passed. An unsullied world had seemingly birthed itself into a vibrant horticultural metropolis that spanned the globe.
As the shuttle descended to the valley floor, Vane’s eyes fell upon a nettle-shaped peak. Its leaves were folded open like supplicating palms. Its teardrop flowers hung by hair-trigger slivers, poised to fall upon the fire of hell. Something runic reached through the currents of dirt roiling upward in the shuttle’s propulsion. His eyes narrowed on the folds of the nettle, and they assumed the guise of flying buttresses. Its conical peak became a sikhara. He saw a towering plea to the heavens, and he started to writhe in an atavistic fever.
They were temples. Shrines, basilicas, mosques, pagodas, gurdwaras, mithraea. He knew with a certainty beyond the purview of reason that he was staring at some strange monument to an alien dendrolatry. He let the details fall away and looked at the expanse as a whole. All he saw were temples. Where were the buildings dedicated to government and enterprise? Where were the factories, the shopping centers, the banks, the military facilities? There were no homes, no roads. Vane felt a sharp flurry of talons from inside the chambers of his heart, and their serrations drew cold that bled through his chest.
The shuttle touched down, and Vane, dazed and slowed by a treacherous gravity, collected himself and stumbled through the shuttle to the surface rover. Seated behind the controls, he punched some buttons, and the drop shuttle’s doors opened. He punched a few more, and the rover’s treads groaned alive. They crunched onto the ground of the valley, throwing up the catacomb dust around the rover’s hull. Vane clutched the controls like the shoulders of someone panicked to incomprehension. The shuttle, lugubrious and indolent, ignorant of his fidgeting postulance, lumbered across the valley. Vane drew down his facemask as the rover approached the base of a near-cylindrical jut of the sedimentary megalopolis. It lurched to a halt, and Vane opened the shuttle hatch. The muffled crack of dirt beneath his feet was the echo of his steps on the humbling floor of a nave. The kick of the wind roaring into his back had become little more than the outside world, secular and of no import. He saw the gauntlet of strata punching through the crust before him. He stood before it, staring into the solid rock. He had expected a sudden rush of grace as he approached, to pass through a warm field of anima that would seep through his pours. He felt nothing but the suffocating cling of his field suit, and angrily snapped himself out of his hypnosis. He scratched some grains from the mountainside, catching them in his cellular gauge.
The results appeared on the gauge’s monitor almost immediately, and Vane jumped back as if a djinn had erupted from the ground. The mountains were not rocks at all. The botanical temples had never been hewn. They had been cultivated. They were shaped like plants because they were. The rogue planet that now rolled through the galaxy like a lost and forgotten marble had been a global arboretum. The petrified ruins testified of a civilization that had not been constructed but grown. The fog enveloping Garland Vane grew thicker, darker, and churned with an enraged viscosity.
As he turned around, a pitiful blotch of maroon hoved into his infrared monitor. The orbital nodes had found nothing, but now a heat signature, little more than an ember’s dying gasp, was barely sparking less than four miles northwest. Vane hurried back to the rover. Every inch it lazily rumbled over was a trial, every yard interminable. With a quarter of a mile to go, the petrified wall of mountain appeared through the recesses of the valley’s dust-choked wind, and with it a shape, something cylindrical ringing black. With only a hundred yards to go, the wind calmed, the dust settled, and Vane was staring into a cave. Around the mouth was an arch of roughly grown thorn. He assumed it had risen from the mountain of its own volition as the rest of the planet seemingly had, or hadn’t. His capacity for reason had abandoned him. A civilization of nothing but religious monuments? How was that possible? He neared the mouth and saw the scars left by impatient chisels, the absence of the fractal perfection marking the rogue’s ontology. The makers of the mountains would never have tolerated this lack of precision, of natural harmony. Vane considered the possibility that someone else had made the arch, but discounted it immediately. It made too much sense. It was too likely. The makers of the mountains had made the arch. He was sure of it. He did not know why they had suddenly adopted the crudity of masonry, but he knew its intention. By a math that was elusive but reflexive Vane knew what he beheld. This was their tomb.
Vane examined the readings for his life supports. His fuel, energy, and oxygen were all ample. He looked at the heat signature again. Would it grow with the cave’s depth, through a blinding mist without any foreseeable end? What would it reveal? Would it reveal anything?
What would happen if I returned to Galactic Resource Acquisitions right now, Vane thought, but he never attempted an answer. There were many variables in the question, and questions demanded the rigor of reason. But as he stared into the unknown darkness within the archway, Vane faced no question of returning home and declaring the world dead without venturing into that cave. He put the rover in gear and started into the rogue’s depths.
The cave soon revealed itself to be a man-made tunnel. Vane could have taken a giant’s compass and failed to draw a circle more exact than the passage’s circumference. And whereas the pinnacle of drilling technology employed by G.R.A. needed to circumnavigate the odd deposit of hard metals, the tunnel, like hyperspace’s corridor of light, was a hollowed meridian free of the slightest bend or kink. It left Vane scratching his head. It was a feat of engineering without precedent or, more conspicuously, consideration of aesthetics. There were no decorative flourishes or indecipherable inscriptions. The artisans had failed to even smooth the surface. Roughly, perhaps hastily hewn, the walls were the edge of a gnarled fingernail that bled serrated shadows as the light approached.
Like the arch at its mouth the passage defied all geologic sense and what little Vane knew of sociology. It had been created to serve its most basic function without regard to the emotional underpinnings. The creators had failed even to consider basic comfort, Vane realized, as the cragged and pocked floor jostled him in his seat. Throughout his career he had acquainted himself with many civilizations before obliterating them. Even the most primitive had shared some basic precepts of intelligence. Intelligence led to individualization, of personality, of talents, of psychology, all of which had been present in every civilization he had encountered. Masculinity and femininity, childhood and maturity, wisdom and foolishness. Every polarity exhibited by man had proved to be a common trait of intelligent life. Now the rogue was crumbling the pillars supporting the roof of all he had learned. Why would a mighty people’s tomb not celebrate their life?
For an hour Vane followed the yellow-white corona painted around the tunnel’s dark center, before a pinhole of white punctured the black. Vane leaned forward as the light slowly engorged and became a rich, honey gold. Beyond the tunnel’s exit was a chamber. The opposite wall held another circular mouth of black, the continuation of the tunnel. Around it were carvings too distant to identify, their shadows spilling toward the floor. The illumination had to be coming from the roof of this subterranean mausoleum.
Vane brought the rover to a stop just within the confines of the chamber, a cube large enough to comfortably house fifty surface rovers. The floor was a murky crystal of pale blue-green in which flecks of silver, amethyst, and opal seemed to swim. There was no segmentation, as if the world above had been plucked off like a lid and the floor dropped into place. The walls were bare stone of a fine grit, and the oblong bas reliefs sprung forth, arrayed in sprays as if the floor had exploded and buried them in the chamber’s skin. Vane nosed the rover closer to a wall and aimed a spotlight at the carvings. Each was festooned with spiked ridges and ringed with tiers of pinwheel cilia. Vane knew a spore when he saw one, foreign as it may have been, and he saw thousands launched from the blue-green sea beneath the rover’s treads onto the walls. He leaned forward in his seat and twisted himself to find the ceiling through the rover’s windows. It was domed, and a circular convexity of golden crystal bloomed from the center, pouring the room’s illumination.
Vane could not look directly at the light source, but any sign of technology on the rogue seemed to have gone the way of the trilobite. He concluded that the golden convexity possessed some kind of geoluminescence. He knew he should have been considering how such a phenomenon had occurred, but against his sense of scientific rigor and what remained of his professional integrity, Vane was fixated on the purpose of the chamber. It was little more than the birth of life on the rogue, and it paralleled the birth of life on Earth. Why would the creators record an event of such abstracted distance? What was the point? The questions needled Vane as he threw the rover into gear, resuming the tunnel on the opposite side of the chamber.
Vane entered the next chamber after more than another hour. The spores adorning the first had taken root, and carvings of fescues and junipers and other small plants hugged the walls. They shared real estate with bas reliefs of diminutive creatures. Mammalians with long and stunted snouts sniffed at the air, with short rue that dusted their skin and flowing pelts that dragged behind their feet. Reptilians basked and skittered on two and four legs, scales of many shapes and sizes, sometimes on the same animal, covering their bodies. The blue-green sea was gone, and the rover now idled on a surface of muddy quartz. At its fringes starved roots of black and brown weaved through the crystalline loam.
Vane chuffed. Was he going to have to slog his way through every geologic era, period, and epoch before he discovered how the rogue became the rogue? The promise of answers echoed from deep within the tunnel ahead, but he heard, felt, the whispered exaltations retreating. Vane blinked away his fear and chided himself for feeling underwhelmed. What had he expected, a sudden drawing back of curtain? A dramatic clap of thunder and lightening? Go sit under a tree for forty-nine days, if that’s what you want. Be a scientist, he told himself. Investigate.
Roving through the next length of tunnel Vane considered the rogue’s geologic time scale. It was parroting Earth’s, and according to the chambers he had just departed the late Devonian period. The necessity of objectivity nagged, but he hoped the next chamber skipped over the Carboniferous and Permian and deposited him somewhere in the Mesozoic era. He found himself silently articulating his hopes. Let the rogue’s great lizards depart from the shackles of expectation. Let them leave fossils that stimulate the soul. The headlamps’ corona on the wall had been a pulsing center of focus until it pulled Vane out of his pontification. He noticed the difference before he’d become aware that it was a difference. The corona was wider, covered more of the wall than it had.
The creators had gradually been narrowing the tunnel. Why? Was this a test? An indirect demand for genuflection? Vane could not attribute the narrowing to laziness. What could necessitate a deviation from their plan? Was it the creators’ impending extinction? The thought struck flint and sparked, but why in that case build the monuments at all? Why expend the remnants of a soon-to-be lost race teaching its potential discoverer why they had died? Who thinks of posterity in the absence of a future?
As the rover passed out of the tunnel, the crunch of rocky fingers pulverized by the vehicle’s passing hull surrounded him. The screech of metal filled the chamber with a roar that fanned the darkness like smoke. The rover entered the colossal space, and stopped. Vane waited for the roar to die before turning his attention to the exhibit of history. He had hoped for a compression of the timeline. Instead he saw a Carboniferous period in full bloom. Vane’s eyes followed the roots in the floor. They had grown deeper, slowly converging on the center. Giant ferns and elms and alien plants filled the walls from floor to ceiling. He found the small animals littered around the planet’s floor, on the backs, their bellies torn open, the vines and branches reaching into the carcasses. Some vines and branches had yet to reach the animals. They sported open mouths that, even in rock, appeared to salivate.
They’re carnivorous. The thought spurred Vane’s mind like a top spun up by ripcord. This was where civilization began. The fauna in its various genera had never ruled the rogue. It was the flora that had dominated. Vane flashed to man’s unconscious propensity for creating works in his own image. The temples that formed the planet’s surface had not been places of worship. They had been the priests.
Vane accelerated the rover to the next length of tunnel, his mind already on what the next chamber would tell him. He turned to the tunnel’s entrance, and quickly braked. He saw the reduced circumference and could tell the rover would not fit.
He gazed into the black mouth before him for a dumb moment, the risk of what he was about to do crawling beneath his field suit. He checked the suit’s oxygen and energy levels. He had hours’ worth to draw on but no idea if that would suffice. He exited the rover, and stepped to the chamber floor. Then he started the suit’s jets and floated into the tunnel.
The memory of the surface rover was of a suit of armor, its confines safe but stifling, a visor protecting his eyes but limiting his vision. Floating through the tunnel infused Vane with an uncharacteristic glee. He allowed his arms to drift from his body, his fingertips to brush against the walls. He could feel the reverberation of his jets tumbling around him. He wished he could climb out of his field suit, smell the stone and taste the air. The astroecologist felt tantalizingly close to a synonymity with the rogue and its secrets. He had kept his velocity constant, but the passage of time telescoped with a stubborn grind as Vane neared the mysteries’ key. The tunnels were getting both longer and narrower. He was sure they would continue to grow and contract. It was fitting the path become more arduous.
Vane saw the sudden drop in the floor as he passed into the next chamber. It was now a perfect sphere, the walls and floor curved to match the domed ceiling. The light exploded and the rock nearly shimmered. The roots twinkled undulations through the floor. They twisted and gnarled identically and met in a Gordian tangle directly beneath the topaz sun. Vane turned to the walls and saw the planet at the apex of its verdant civilization, the acolyte-temples all fully grown into their terraformed raiment. He saw the plants reaching in unison for the sun, their thick trunks craning for the sunlight to wash over their photosynthesizing eyes. He saw the leaves turned upward and open, praying to the great golden disk in the ceiling, their sun and god. But the walls were cloaked beneath a shrouding pall and looked sickly. Vane turned to the golden sun above his head. From beneath the shade of his hands he saw a translucent border of dead crystal, gray like dirty dishwater, ringing the geoluminous rock. The sun was shrinking in the sky. The planet had broken free of its orbit.
A thousand questions rose into his throat. How did the plants sense one another, communicate with one another? How did they understand science and connect it to the sun? How was their society organized?
Vane was tempted to smack himself back to sense. Those questions had nothing to do with his investigation. What was he investigating? The heat signature, he reminded himself.
No, he was not. The realization was a glove across the face. The heat signature had been a trail of breadcrumbs and led him to a trap set deep within the rogue. He had sprung the subterranean memorials, and his hands were wrapped around the bars of his cage. How could he have been so foolish, so amateurish? The plants had mastered some alchemical blasphemy and deployed it with the intention infecting any passerby with their doomed ontology. Vane found himself balling his fists. His impatience resurfaced, an insistent simmer threatening to roll over to a boil. He wanted to see the remaining chambers, watch the sylvan flock endure the myriad plagues he knew were coming. He wanted to watch them panic as their deity withdrew his favor and left them to die in the lightless cold.
The smart idea was to head back to the rover. Vane could easily make the case to Leeson that whatever energy the rogue still harbored would be exhausted before a reclamation team could be mustered and dispatched to the planet’s cadaver. He was quickly depleting his jet fuel. If the tunnels’ elongation continued of which he had no doubt, there was no telling how far he would have to walk back. And how much oxygen would he consume? But Vane found himself reaching for the jets’ ignition.
In the solitude of the tunnel Vane’s thoughts, possessed by a Janus of sadism and pity, held the passage of time in abeyance. One eye greeted the death of the world with the thrill of righteous satisfaction. His other witnessed the birth of the rogue through the wistful gauze of nostalgia. He flashed to the previous chamber’s walls, the deathless black springing to life as a malignant speck. He flashed to the prized skull of Leeson’s jungle bear looming over its killer’s head. He flashed to the ashen corpses on the rogue’s surface.
The plants had been foolish. They had afforded divinity to the untouchable. Its blessings and mercies had been incendiary scourges without the coincidence of distance, and in the end the sun had proven to be fickle, arbitrary, apathetic. The plants had earned their fate.
No, they had not. How could they have known? They had died a young race. Their society, as towering as it had been, should have matured into the pinnacle of Antiquity. Superstition had been a necessary growing pain just as it had been for humans. Chance had robbed them of the opportunity to evolve.
In the crossfire of his thoughts Vane felt his toes brush the ground. He looked down as the balls of his feet brushed the tunnel’s floor. The gaseous propulsion sputtered and coughed as Vane brought up the readings. The jet fuel was gone. He landed with a soft crunch beneath his boots.
The plants’ destruction was imminent. A thousand sage voices bellowed, “Turn back.” But in the passage the dark smoke still billowed around Vane, and the cacophonous sagacity echoed a nonsense mass. One thought spiked through the dirt. That the plants had died, that the race was extinct, burned Vane like steel beneath the sun. It glowed red like a vivid heat signature. He took one step, then another.
He walked for unmeasured hours. If there was fatigue, promise kept his feet moving. If there was pain, the pull of the rogue’s dying core burned it away. The only sound was the soft crunch of rock under foot, which in time became the rhythmic clink of a treadmill.
Vane barely saw the chamber as he approached. The light was a wearied candle illuminating a continent. As he entered his feet shifted and skid off high points of uneven ground. He activated the lamps mounted on his shoulders and saw a chamber riddled with pits shallow and deep, wide and narrow, interspersed randomly, the spherical perfection nested by tumors. In the ceiling the sun was little more than a modest beryl being swallowed by a maw in space. The plants had resorted to cannibalism, feasting on the dead and sickly to preserve the living temples and monuments to the greatness of the life-giver.
An airy whisper within and around his helmet told Vane to check his oxygen. He likely had enough to return to the surface rover, but he had reached the point of no return. To trek further would be to pass a sentence of suicide, so Vane asked himself one more time, What am I doing? He watched the plants in the rock and found himself wondering what they felt when they had learned they committed atrocities in the impoverished hope for a deliverance that would never come. He knew no record in stone would provide that answer, that he would not gleam it from analysis. Only the survivors could tell him. As if the crystalline sun above gave Vane its last blast of life, he understood what he was searching for. He understood that there was no guarantee of deliverance. He understood that he would die, possibly choking on the surrounding fog.
He exited the chamber through the next length of tunnel in full acceptance that he his last step would bring him to the throne of Osiris.
The fatigue and pain broke through. He hunched over as the tunnel narrowed to a man-sized burrow. What am I doing? What am I looking for? He tried to focus on his breathing to preserve oxygen, but his discipline abandoned him. Everything had abandoned him. All he had was his foolhardy confidence that the answers lay ahead.
He limped into the next chamber unaware that he was in it until he stumbled on the drop from the tunnel’s mouth. He activated the lights of his field suit. The chamber’s surface was an amorphous scribble without purpose or substance. The planet was dead. A trickling exodus of hardscrabble vines trudged beneath the same arch beneath which Vane had passed. On one side of the room, some plants spent their death throes creating the lone hole Vane had passed in his descent to the rogue’s surface. It was a beacon, an opening to let them know when their god had returned. Meanwhile the roots in the floor had thinned to skeletal twigs of gray, the common root little more than a tumbleweed.
The anger burst from Vane in a choking rasp of isolated sobs. They had been so stupid, so pious. He knew he had to meet the survivors. He looked at the next length of tunnel on the far side of the chamber. However long it was, however many chambers through which he had to pass, however long the ferry across the Styx lasted, Vane was going to face the last of this arboreal race.
There was no argument within him, no voice of reason elucidating the improbability of it all, the impossibility of his survival. But as he approached the tunnel, he wondered what he was going to say, why he needed to speak to the dead.
Vane didn’t bother to check his oxygen level again. He knew from the dizziness, the lack of strength, that he was going to die. But his vision was clear. On his hands and knees, his back grazing the top of the tunnel, Vane had crawled out of the fog. As the end of the tunnel neared, a glow of red and orange grew from nothing and drew him closer.
He entered the wide ring of a cavern painted in a sickly pink air. Gaping vents in the rock spit out strangled tufts of smoke. Vane could feel the heat of what little remained of the rogue’s rapidly fading core. Above his head was a hole in the ceiling, the last conduit to communion with the sun that would never return, and through it he could see blasts of lightning in the clouds of the sky. Vane lowered his head to the ground.
One small plant clung to the ground, half its foliage a deathly beige.
As Vane stepped closer, the plant shuffled. A thin reed of root reached out to Vane. Without thinking he knelt and removed a glove. Thin wisps of rich brown slid under Vane’s fingernails. There was a momentary pinch, then Vane heard the plant speaking to him from within. It was not English. It was like the common language of intelligence given a tongue of its own.
You found us.
“Yes,” Vane answered.
You saw our story in the earth?
With almost a breath of hope dying finality, the voice said, Why did God leave us?
Vane shrugged. “Your… God didn’t think you would miss him.”
Why would God think such a thing? Did he not see all that we did in his name?
“No,” said Vane. “You were too small for him to see.”
If a plant could weep, Vane would have heard it then.
Why bring us into being?
The cold shot through Vane and blew away the warmth of the core with a sudden gust. “I don’t know,” he said. He could feel the root in his arm start to decay.
We waited so long. We hoped God would return to us. We hoped that we had proven our fidelity.
Vane, now suffused with a strength he had not possessed in years, sat down before the plant. “God has also abandoned us.”
Yet you survive?
He nodded. “We’ve learned how to survive without God.”
How is such a thing possible?
“God gave us the tools to do so. He wanted us to find the answers to our own questions.”
Have you succeeded?
How do you hope to understand the language of God in his absence?
“We believe we can.”
“Because we have to. If we don’t, we’ll end up… like you.” Vane had no idea if he actually believed what he was saying. He knew, however, that he had to.
God must favor you. We have no such tools. You have survived. We have not.
“You survive,” Vane said.
The tangle you see before you is all that remains of us.
Vane felt a new pulse he had not before. It was soft and pitiful.
In the presence of God we were legion and of all one being. Now the growth you see is surrounded by many whispers. They are familiar but distant. Each is the agony of uprooting. There is no common core.
Vane nodded and smiled meekly at the plant. “I’ve felt lonely before. That’s what you’re feeling.”
It is an unpleasant feeling.
“It is. But we find our answers alone.”
“Among all your people, you alone live. Correct?”
“That makes you an individual, which means you have an individual life. You always have. Every we is comprised of many individuals.”
It is a strange concept.
“You’ve already learned a truth about God that none of your other people ever learned.”
Vane could feel the plant shudder with consideration. I see the reason of your belief. I would like to learn as much as I can with what life I have left.
“So would I.”
How do I begin?
“We introduce ourselves. What’s your name?”
I have no name. My people have never needed them.
“Well, every individual should have a name.”
What is your name?
He thought for a moment before answering. “My name is Garland Vane.”