It was a good landing, smooth and boring. Gordon released the hatch and stepped out, getting his first real view of the surface. Just as advertised, featureless and barren, an unbroken series of low mounds and shallow valleys carved in yellow-brown sand and rock. No buildings, no sign of any human habitation save the fused circle his slipship sat on, a ribbon of hard packed yellow leading away, a solitary autodrive. They said they were recluses, hermits, but they’d never quite let on how much. Clearly the Brotherhood took their vows and their planet seriously. He took his grip, sealed the hatch.
The autodrive activated as he neared.
The autodrive’s roof and sides dissolved revealing an austere, serviceable cabin. He put his grip in the back, following it onto the curved bench.
The roof and sides reformed.
“Opaque or clear?”
The autodrive accelerated between the hummocks, a russet prune sliding along a custard landscape. Gordon leant back, looked around the cabin in vain for any AV devices. Nothing, not even ancient audio. He settled a little further into the bench, as far as the thin padding would allow. It would be different not being plugged in and networked all the time, unpleasant perhaps but an experience anyway. Three days would be more than enough of this place for him, and he was sure it would be enough for them. They were not unwelcoming, simply cautious, and had made him agree to a short but very specific set of guidelines before coming, mainly restrictions on movement and communication. It suited him fine, he wasn’t coming to see anyone anyway, it was too late for that.
“In bound, audio only, Prelate.” the autodrive announced.
He closed his eyes to concentrate, remember the briefing notes. Each member of the Brotherhood had a closely monitored and rigidly enforced annual permissible quota of spoken words. Their speech had changed over the centuries to a highly compressed pidgin, a reduced vocabulary based on the most common interactions. It was not the understanding that would test him, rather making responses in kind that would not require response in turn. Out of duty the Prelate would respond to an outsider, even to exceeding the quota and incurring sanction. He would use a week’s worth on Gordon, and Gordon had no desire to exceed it.
“Eternal. Safe, comfortable, needful?”
“Eternal indeed.” Gordon responded after the ancient manner. “Complete, peaceful, thankful. Needless.”
“Reassured, welcoming. Departing reconnect. Farewell.”
That was it for three days, nine words from the total population of the planet then, perhaps, another nine when leaving. It was normal to them, yet his mind could not conceive a life built on nine words a week, two of which were required ritualistic salutations. They’d hardly used more when they let him know his brother died.
He resumed his outward gaze, the world now a flowing yellow river as the autodrive sped on. Perhaps here nine were enough, maybe even too many. Yellow. Boring. Lumpy. They were enough to describe the land flowing past him, sufficient to encompass it all and leave the listener with few doubts, no real questions. Add in ‘cold’, ‘warm’, ‘night’ and ‘day’ and the whole range of the ecosystem could be covered. He’d seen no other living thing, plant or animal, since his arrival. An ocean, land and the one hundred of the Brotherhood. The planet in total. Perhaps it had never been given a name as there was hardly anything worth calling. Planet. A place described in its entirety by eight words, perhaps nine if ‘rock’ was added, the only thing he could see in abundance. Of all places it was here, fifty years ago, his brother had come to, lived, and died four months earlier. For all that he’d never spared one word, let alone nine, for Gordon, his mother or his family. Until the Prelate spoke for him, of his death to Gordon, the only blood left of his alive, and from that the choice to come was a simple one, a chance to see what could so completely contain his brother. While he was alive no such contact was permissible; once Jules had passed a brief window opened to him, one Gordon would not miss.
* * *
Their last words were on his departure, a bright day on their green azure world waiting for the train to take Jules away. Cocksure and nineteen Gordon’s world had been shaken by Jules’ announcement. Twelve years older and an accomplished physicist it was a seismic blow, one no one had time to accept or rationalize.
“A hermit? It’s one thing to get religion but shutting yourself off like that’s crazy.”
His brother had smiled at him, a half-pitying half-amused grin he’d maintained since he’d told them. It wasn’t quite smugness, and it was easy to see sadness underneath.
“It’s not for everyone. It’s necessary, necessary for my faith.”
“Faith? You’re a man of science Jules, it’s not the Dark Ages. Faith in what, a god that does what science can’t explain today but will tomorrow?”
“You know it’s not that, no ‘god of the gaps’ or such rubbish. And don’t be so quick to ridicule faith, some would say science is just a different religion.”
“I don’t think so!”
“You’d better believe it. Everything in science is based on assumptions, simplifications, events or processes taken as granted and given and not necessarily observed. You tell me that’s not faith, faith of a different kind but faith nonetheless.”
He laughed, reached down and moved his face closer, grinning broadly.
“Don’t forget Gordo, you’re training to be an economist and if there’s anything based on faith and presumption that is.”
The last call for his train came and too quickly Jules was gone, lost in the crowd. My last words to my brother a stupid argument over the irrelevant.
* * *
The autodrive started to make its way through a series of switchbacks, climbing slowly as the land opened up to a vast plain. I could see the glint of steel where my slipship sat, the land now an elongated waffle, maple syrup patterns gently resting on yellow batter.
Jules had been right. Economics was simplifying assumption loaded upon simplifying assumption until it was broadly applicable to something, specifically applicable to nothing. People reduced to response-stimuli factors and bell curve residents, flatly refusing to obey the gods of demand and supply until in fits of rationalist anger and determinative despair Keynes’s six-hundred year old ghost gets dragged from its cloister and his ‘animal spirits’ trotted out yet again to explain the unexplainable. The harder I threw myself at economics the less I understood it; the more knowledge I gained, the less I knew about anything; until gazing distinctly down the hill of old age I understood the only thing I didn’t know was everything. And there my brother stood, half-pitying, half-amused grin on his face, having got there a half century before me.
We’d reached a plateau, the autodrive speeding along the yellow ribbon towards the edge, me staring alternately to the right to a small range of mountains just making themselves known on the horizon, then to the valley floor on the left bathed in early afternoon sun. My feelings shifted slightly, some of the boring had shaken off as the landscape glimmered in the sunlight, gently swaying arms of brown waving at me. Perhaps a little solitude, a little peace and quiet was called for, might do me some good. Not that I had desires towards being a hermit or locking myself away in isolation, I’d just become a touch selective about my surroundings, human or otherwise. Knowing that I really knew nothing instantly made those that thought they did grate on me, intentional or not, and I’d found myself actively avoiding the twenty and thirty somethings that resembled a younger I. I started to understand my elders’ quiet now not to be acquiescence or acceptance, but rather a melancholy rejection of the lives they’d lived. Faith, as Jules had maintained, is not changed but rather what it is placed in shifts.
I cracked the roof open a touch, inviting a raucous whistle of cold, a heavily scented jumble of vanilla and magnolia sweeping over me that couldn’t exist here yet by its very presence mocked the thought. The ridge narrowed, swung to the right. The autodrive headed towards one growing peak, an ocean of pale green closing in welcome from the left. With a little effort I could look down, see line after small line of pea-froth breakers railing against a shore of deep yellow, crashing upslope then falling back one after the other. In vain I looked for the seabirds, grasses and shells that littered the beaches at home, here there were none, the mother ocean barren or choosing not to cast her life onto dry land to prosper, the emptiness of yellow brown melding with the emptiness of pale green.
The coldness of the air and the heavy laden scents it bore conspired with the rhythm of tires on packed gravel and warming afternoon sun to lull me into a reflective mood. It hadn’t made much sense to me, why the Brotherhood would chose this far-flung rock rather than an established, populated world that surely would have posed fewer problems, simpler logistics, but chose it they had and in its entirety it was theirs. That, along with some small scraps gleaned here and there represented my entire knowledge of the group. How you became a brother was a paradox in itself. The only way to find out the requirements and definitions was to become a Brother; the only way to become a Brother was to meet the requirements and definitions.
Some small fragments started to make sense to me, their reliance on the old documents for one. My life, as for trillions like me, was one of previously unimagined richness and fulfillment, an all-embracing dance of challenge and reward, logic and emotion cocooned in the breast of technology, a cosmos-wide ocean of connection, information, support and interaction. A life from cradle to the grave shared, but not quite in its entirety, with everyone, differences notable yet muted enough to allow variety without discrimination, genius without megalomania, passion without fanaticism. Yet an unimaginably small fraction rejected it and the all-encompassing society in various ways and for diverse alternatives, always radical, usually violent, mainly ego driven narcissism. Those in the Brotherhood had simply left, and although their numbers never grew beyond the hundred yet did they never fall below. Always, it seemed, as one died another came to take their place.
They never claimed to be modern luddites, simply the pendulum for them had swung too far. To express their desires they drew from the ancient texts, in particular one from the dawn of time when Earth itself was barely populated and humanity only one step removed from the apes. ‘The world today is sick to its thin blood for lack of elemental things,’ the heartfelt call lamented ‘for fire before the hands, for water welling from the earth, for air, for the dear earth itself underfoot’. Now, with the mesmeric landscape and unfamiliar silence in and around me I felt drawn slightly closer to their minds, their perspective.
We approached the crest of the isthmus, the ocean to my left a now familiar pea green, that to my right deep olive and wind driven, the waves crashing against the near vertical cliffs of dull yellow, climbing fissures in soaring columns to fall back in misty disappointment. We drew near a single peak standing proud on the promontory, a solitary landmark before the ocean claimed the horizon. Behind me the isthmus fell away to join the plateau spreading left and right, the plains running away to the horizon; I had climbed the back of a giant prostrate dragon of yellow-brown.
The road ended part way up the peak, the autodrive shutting down as I alighted. A series of steps spiraled up the peak ending in a small landing. The crest was hidden from view, a room or rooms within betrayed by a faint blue-white glow against the rapidly darkening sky. A silhouetted figure gazed silently down from the landing. I pulled my collar closer, shifted my grip onto my shoulder, and made my way up.
Even after fifty years the figure was recognizable. I stood quietly, regarding it carefully.
“Been a long time Jules.”
“You’re looking good Gordo. How long’ve I been dead?”
“Just on four months.”
The simulacra held out his hands, carefully studied the nails, then turned them over and repeated the examination on his palms.
“Not bad, one day, perhaps two before death I’d say. Always was meticulous.”
“Do you mind if we continue this indoors? It’s getting cold.”
“Yes, yes, sure. I’m sorry, I forget I don’t notice anymore.”
We stepped through a doorway to a small room carved from the yellow-brown rock. Austere and slightly warmer than outside it held a chair, a hat stand and a solitary dim bulb swinging above the polished floor. There was just enough room for both of us to stand.
“Seems a bit on the tiny side even for a monk’s cell.”
“What? Oh this! No, it’s just the cloakroom. Here, give me your coat.”
I handed it to him and, of course, it fell straight through his outstretched hand. He smiled, slightly abashed.
“Oh, I should remember shouldn’t I? Looks like old habits die hard. Could you …?”
I picked my coat up and hung it on the stand, placed my grip on the floor below it. A doorway appeared and I followed Jules through it.
It was no palace but it was far from the bare habitation I’d expected. A circular room with domed roof, glass extended around and through it providing unobstructed views across the surrounding oceans, the plains behind and the now emerging stars above. On one side a half flight of stairs led to a mezzanine floor jutting out away from the plains, a room of glass hovering above the cliff face below, a low bed, heavily laden bookcase and small rug clearly visible through the transparent floor. Next to an ablutions alcove was a small kitchen area if one could call a small shelf, a solitary hotplate and spigot any such thing. Two chairs, small coffee table, desk, an open fireplace and clothes chest completed the room’s furnishings. The room appeared to have been carved out of the peak, the interior colored by bands of yellows and browns running diagonally across the floor, walls and ceiling, broken irregularly by random flecks of blue, opalescent rock. The room shone, polished bright by design or ages of inhabitation reflecting the pale light from wall strips back on itself then out to the night.
I moved to the opposite side, to a pair of inlaid glass doors, noticing a distinct if subtle bowing in the stone floor. Steps led down from the doors to a large walled terraced garden, the shapes of trees and smaller plants visible in the pale blue-white glow. It was the only life I had seen on the planet, and it briefly held me.
“You like my garden?”
“Yes, it’s unexpected.”
“They grow well here, surprising really. Descendants of the original seed stock I’m told, we each have one, just enough to keep body together.”
He turned with a sigh, headed towards the nearest chair.
“Started to get too much for me in the end, all those stairs with these knees.”
He hesitated before sitting, reconsidered and placed himself carefully down on an adjacent hard backed chair.
“Please, make yourself comfortable Gordo.”
I did as asked, sinking just enough into the cushions to feel at home. The silence, the simple yet cozy room nestled in its faint light wrapped in a thousand stars relaxed me, made me feel welcomed. It was a room I could easily be comfortable in, for a while, even with self-imposed solitude. It had been a long few days and I fought to keep my eyes open.
“Why’d you come here, make the effort?”
“To see, maybe get a few answers.”
“It was too late when they told you.”
He spread his palms outwards.
“Is this going to be enough?”
“It’s more than I’ve had in fifty years, it’ll do.”
We sat in silence observing each other, two old men trying to reconcile the figures before them to their last meeting. I tried, unsuccessfully, to stifle a yawn.
Jules stood, embarrassed.
“Of course, you must be tired. Perhaps rest first, we can talk tomorrow. I think you know where everything is, just call me when you’re ready.” With which Jules winked off.
“Goodnight Jules.” I whispered to the empty room. I took myself and my grip to the mezzanine, settled onto the bed. A small box wrapped in brown paper at the end of the bed caught my eye.
‘Gordo, From Jules’ was written neatly on the wrapping. He must have done this before he died, must have known he was dying and I would come, placing it here for me. I unwrapped it, lifted the lid, then just stared at the contents. A simple carbon-fiber chain ended in a small, obsidian black polished stone no larger than my thumbnail. At its center, shimmering iridescent orange, turquoise and yellow was a sliver of lodestone. I’d seen paintings, heard the myths, even dreamed the dreams everyone seemed to have about them, but to actually have one? Worth kingdoms no one knew where they originated. Wisdom, longevity, even the mind of god some said could be had through them. Only those who had one could say, and they had not.
I moved my fingers closer until they were nearly touching it. I felt a fire course through my arm, the room recede in a blur of light as I flew upwards and out, a chorus of welcoming voices calling for me, urging me on as the universe tried to find its way into my head. I pulled my arm away as if stung, looking down at the lodestone, shaken. I put the lid back on the box and the box in turn in the bottom of my grip. One more question to add to the list for tomorrow.
* * *
I couldn’t recall the last time I’d woken to just the sun, aroused without alarm or cajoling to get up, get out and run the corporate treadmill. The gentle warming, caressing fingers of light making their way over the foot of the bed slowly pried my eyes open to bring me into the day rested, not resentful. I left Jules off, made my way down the stairs to the garden. Leaving my sandals behind I allowed myself the walk across the grass, massaging my soles on the dewless blades. I sat on the low stone wall, legs dangling out above the precipice, yellow-blue sun warming me slowly. Devoid of life perhaps, but regardless the oceans in front of me burst with activity. The two waters met before me, a line of bubbling sworls stretching out to the horizon as pea green on the left met olive to my right. Far out near the horizon they sent their waves in, crashing together in foaming green striped silence until closer in and strength dissipated the mid-green amalgam reached the shallows and, once more invigorated, rose in vain to tilt at the rocks below, the sounds of clashes between they and the unrelenting cliff rising to meet me, the only ears within a thousand kilometers.
High tide coming perhaps, and no sooner had I thought it than the moon popped up above the horizon, a small, dull pewter affair with nothing to commend further examination, a pale imitation of the moons surrounding home. A pleasant place perhaps for contemplation, yet how long until this would fall to banal normality? I turned, made my way back inside.
I busied myself after a quick breakfast with a closer examination of the room, hoping to gain an understanding of at least part of Jules’ life before we next talked. A forlorn hope carried through in vain, the room yielding no hints, no clues. Bare and sparse it seemed and was, no personal items beyond some clothes, a few well-worn books, and the box left for me on the bed. Oddly there were no religious texts, human or otherwise to be found, no iconography on the walls, crucifixes or symbols surrounding the room. It was as if my brother was at a hotel or boarding house, his possessions and effects at home while he travelled for the briefest of stays, never intending to remain. But wasn’t that the point, the core of the decision he’d made those years ago? I laughed, made sure my coffee was hot, and sat down.
“Good morning Jules.”
He appeared where he had left last night, favoring me with a short bow.
“Gordo, I trust you slept well?”
“I did, thank you. And you?” I mentally kicked myself even as I said it.
He cocked his head to one side, wide eyed.
“Like the dead, thank you.”
It was a short, strained silence that followed, one I was both eager to break and atone for.
“Thank you for the present, you didn’t have to.”
“The one on the bed, upstairs, brown paper wrapped box.”
“I can’t remember doing that.”
“Surely you couldn’t forget giving a lodestone away?”
His face lit up.
“Ah, perhaps I did after I’d made this copy. I take it you don’t have it on right now?”
“Perhaps later, not yet. It’s a little … overpowering.”
Jules reached below the folds of his vest, pulled out a lodestone, the twin of the one now sitting in my grip.
“Yes, at first they are, but one quickly becomes used to it.” He saw my surprise. “Oh yes, it’s one for each of the Brotherhood, a normal part of the faith you could say.”
He held it briefly in front of him, then placed it back inside his vest.
“But that’s merely an aside, you didn’t come here to see my jewelry.”
I wondered how to start the conversation, how to be adult about it and not appear to whine or blame. I’d practiced unsuccessfully on the journey, remonstrating with myself over the stupidity of trying not to hurt a simulacra’s feelings while simultaneously understanding it was my feelings I was hoping to leave intact. I was still no closer to a solution so, as was more and more frequently happening to me, age and pure bloody-mindedness won out.
“I’m all that’s left Jules, all there’s been for ages. I need some answers, maybe closure before it’s my turn.”
He sat on the wooden chair.
“Oh, I see.”
“You left in such a hurry, we couldn’t understand why. You never gave much of an explanation to mum, you know she never stopped lighting those damned candles for you, twenty years she did at that cathedral, Saint whatsits …”
“Yeah, Saint Celia’s. You never let her know you were safe, not one word. Why? You knew she couldn’t come here.”
“You know I couldn’t, it’s the Orders, contact outside the Brotherhood is forbidden, it diverts us, clouds mind, purpose and vision.”
“But couldn’t you spare two words, even one just to let her know? She died wondering, hoping you were fine but wondering, it wasn’t right or fair to her.”
“It couldn’t be helped, even thinking about the past wasn’t allowed. Once that lodestone went around my neck, once the Brotherhood accepted me, I ceased to exist outside it, everything changed. Even now, even as a simulacra it’s hard to change that habit.”
“Would it have been so hard, just to leave a little slower, not just rush off?”
“I had a … timeline … to stick to. If I’d stayed a week a month or a year would it really have helped? What’s crueler, death by a thousand cuts or one swipe of the blade?”
Perhaps he was right, and if the finger pointing and arguing after he had gone was any measure he was definitely right.
“I missed having you there, you know, just being there. There were times I needed you.”
“You turned out ok though didn’t you?”
“Yeah, but it was close, real close.”
“You really didn’t need me, I’m not sure anyone did. For what it’s worth if I made your or anyone’s life harder I’m sorry but I wouldn’t change it. You know what I was like, I never made rash decisions but once my mind’s made up there’s no point hanging around, just get on with it. Don’t forget it cost me too.”
There were two stunned families when he left, mine and his. A wife of three years, thankfully no children. I’d been left to pick up the pieces.
“She said you never told her about it.”
“I said as much as I could, to her and anyone, as much as I was able.”
“You left it to me to deal with as well as our family. She had no one else you know, no one at all.”
“What happened to her?”
“How do I know? Anyway it’s too late now isn’t it?”
He leant back, dropped his head down above steepled fingers. It was a convincing simulacra, right down to the movement and inflections. He raised his eyes to me mimicking that big brother pose of a lifetime ago.
“Gordo, cut to the chase. You’re too old for games and I’m beyond it. If you came here to try and load guilt on me it’s not going to work, this isn’t me you know that. Anyway, I had to work all that through decades ago. You said you wanted answers well tell me, what is it you really want?”
The sun had risen to its zenith following a long low arc across the southern sky. The light fell through the windows as luminous shafts, dust motes dancing around each other as the sun warmed and the shadows cooled. Once the sun had set there would be no more dancing. My time here was nearly over, tomorrow the journey home.
“Did you find it?”
“The answer, god, faith, what you came here for.”
“How long have the doctors given you?”
“How do you know?”
“How long Gordo? Months, weeks?”
“Five, maybe six months if I do what they say.”
“Of course, why wouldn’t I be? No one wants to die and I don’t. Intellectually I know it’s inevitable but that’s no help. Nothing else helps, it’s all just fables and tales no one can explain, never mind prove.”
“I found it Gordo.”
He had an air of certainty, absolute finality about him. Not fanatical conviction but a quiet, deep certitude.
“You found god?”
“No, not what you think. I’m not even sure god exists. I found something else, something far, far better, a way to outlive my body, my diseases. A gift, an invitation made to few.”
He reached into his vest, pulled the lodestone out.
“This is what I came for, what I found, what will preserve me.”
“Exactly. What do you know about them?”
“Nothing, just the stories. Only a few of them exist, no one knows where they come from but they give knowledge and power to whoever has one, makes them nearly divine.”
“This one’s obviously not real. Can you go and bring the real one down?”
I retrieved it, placing it down safely nestled in its box where I couldn’t accidentally touch it. Jules was smiling gently, concentrating.
“Take the lid off, I would but, you know.”
The sliver was no longer iridescent but glowing, sending a rainbow colored halo of light spilling over the edges of the box. Beautiful was not enough, transcendent came close.
Jules reached out to touch it then, as if thinking better of it, slowly settled back in his chair.
“So, the sliver of lodestone, some call it the ‘Eye of God’ or the ‘Almighty’s Heart’. It’s neither and more, much more than you could imagine. The rarest jewel in the universe, that’s the myth. What you don’t know is how rare, there are only one hundred and twenty five of these in existence.”
“One for each one in the Brotherhood?”
“And twenty-five over, twenty-five selected individuals. None of them own them, they are simply gifted for life. Always on loan, always come back when the borrower translates, always back out again.”
“So it pays for all of this?”
“This and more, far more. Our safety, isolation, privacy. Absolute and total.”
“And you own them all?”
“No, we’re merely the custodians. No one owns them, no one can. And it’s not really them, it’s only one lodestone, one in a hundred and twenty-six places at once, scattered across the universe.”
“You said there were only one hundred twenty-five.”
“Yes, slivers that is. Come with me.”
Jules stood, moved to the kitchen. I followed, the sliver sat in its box in the middle of the room glowing, the rainbow halo spilling out across the table. Jules pointed to a flat panel above his head.
“Put your hand here. It’s DNA coded so it’ll work for you.”
I reached up, placed my hand flat against it. It glowed a faint green, a gentle hiss from the middle of the room startling me. I turned, following Jules’ gaze.
Cracks appeared in the floor, one enclosing the coffee table, a second encircling the room, lying close by my feet. Between them an iris opened, coffee table at the center, Jules and I on the edge, a gaping chasm between. The sliver burned, a column of incandescent light rising to the roof then cascading back down the walls, down through the cavern. It was to me an afterthought, lost detail in what was now below me.
I couldn’t see the bottom of the chasm, couldn’t see across it. Something stood in the middle nearly filling the void, following the cavern wall down as far as I could see. It burned, an incomprehensible explosion of light and color flaming outwards and through me, from not a sliver, not a rock, but a mountain of lodestone at my feet. The universe erupted from it, returned, exploded coursing through me in a continuous cycle of birth, death, regeneration each different, each the same. In the middle of it all the siren call of millions of voices begging me, encouraging me, demanding me, and at the center one voice above all loud and clear. Jules.
It was overwhelming, shattering in its intensity. My hand fell from the panel, the iris folding back returning the floor to normality, the sliver resuming its gentle halo. I sank down against the wall in a shivering, cold sweat, Jules beside me.
“There’s one hundred of these dwellings across this world, each with one of the Brotherhood, each with a sliver. Each dwelling has that beneath it, one arm reaching out from the core of the planet.”
He looked across the room, to the gently glowing sliver.
“One entity, an entire planet twelve thousand kilometers wide, one hundred arms poking up through six hundred kilometers of shale and sand to the surface. We didn’t find It, It found us. You’ve noticed nothing living on the surface, just us and our gardens?”
“Way back before we swung out of the trees there was a civilization here, people with interstellar flight. They sent out the slivers It gave them. They were the ones who started the Brotherhood millennia ago.”
“What happened to them?”
“What always happens, the civilization died out, but there’s a difference, a big difference. Some of them still live Gordo, and will forever absorbed, joined with It before they died. Chosen, accepting, voluntary merging. You know why?”
He didn’t let me get a word in.
“Because It’s eternal Gordo, It started when time itself started and will keep on when time itself has died. It knows how the universe started, knows how it will end, and It’s making sure life will come to the new one, and the one after that, and the one after that, eternally. Each sliver, each of the hundred and twenty-five is with someone who will join with us, someone who will be part of this cycle, the next cycle, all cycles. While they live they’re linked to the conscious collective mind, using the wisdom and knowledge of millennia, and when they die to be joined, merged. Not random picks, not the rich or powerful that myth says, but carefully and painstakingly chosen. By us.”
“What do you think the Brotherhood does, what I did for the past fifty years? It’s our prime purpose, under all the silence and solitude and separation. We cull, we trawl through the quadrillions of sentient beings in the universe looking, reaching out and identifying the next ones, the two or three each year that are ready and suitable to carry it through, the chosen, ones like us.”
“Like you, you mean?”
“Yes, like me. I was chosen, like we all were. Me by Dee’s father. He was called the year Dee was born, and he called me fifty years ago, when I was ready. Here, in this room I joined. And now I’m calling you. We want you to join us.”
“You’re offering me eternal life?”
“No, we are, me, It and the others chosen over millennia joined below us. You’re ready, you’re right and the time is right. There’s always a small door, a few months or weeks when a candidate is suitable. For me I had two weeks, just two weeks. You, five months. Five months after I chose to join, to merge with It. After that it’s not possible.”
“You expect me to believe you’d suicide to give me eternal life?”
“No, I know you believe it, I know it’s what called you here, no mere desire to see where I spent my life or get any ‘closure’, but our call. You might not have seen me for these years but we’ve been watching you, working towards this one moment.”
He was right of course, I knew he was right and what was on offer was real, not the pipe-dream of a dying old man.
“So what do I do?”
“Tomorrow you make a choice. You either send your ship back without you, or you go home. If you go home you will never have the offer made again. If you just put the necklace on, hang that sliver round your neck, you’re part of the Brotherhood, eternal life with me, the others.”
“Yes, that simple. The choice is yours either way.”
He stood, looking down as he had done those decades ago.
“Well that’s it, I’ve done what I was asked to do. I’d shake your hand but, well, that’s a useless gesture.”
I stood beside him. He moved his face closer, his nose nearly touching mine, wicked grin on his face.
“It’s been fun Gordo. Make the right choice and I’ll see you tomorrow.” With which he winked off permanently.
* * *
I didn’t sleep that night, forced myself not to make a rash choice, to be swayed by losing my brother a second time, or the chance to regain him. It seemed clear, an opportunity humanity had dreamt of, built kingdoms and religions around, and all I had to do was put a sliver of lodestone around my neck. I gazed at the box as I sat on the bed, the small halo not falling haphazardly but now a clear, beckoning finger of light aimed at me. An inviting yet mildly sinister sight from which I could not draw my eyes away. One act to be joined to millions of minds, self-selecting those to spend eternity with, to shape the universes to come. Another act to accept mortality, join the countless trillions in non-existence, testament to the quiet desperation and silent despair of ordinary life.
* * *
I was locked in thought as the autodrive took me to my slipship, back through a landscape now familiar yet now arrogant, apart. There was no way to send my ship back remotely, the autos had to be set by hand.
I tried to imagine the planet teeming with life, reaching out to the stars to search for intellect, for individuals deemed worthy to carry life forward. I tried to grasp the selection of one out of billions, an untold number winnowed without knowing. I could not.
I put them all in front of me, my parents, Dee, my wives, my children and grandchildren, friends and enemies, imagining them dust while I lived on. Would they curse me or bless me? Envy or hate? Would they trade places, move to godhood while I perished? Did it even matter?
The autodrive came to a halt, my slipship opening for me. I clambered inside, set the necessary processes in motion, resumed my seat.
“Audio only. Prelate.”
“Prelate connected. Continue.” the autodrive announced.
“Eternal indeed. Resolution?”
“Declined. Grateful. Departing.”
* * *
The planet shimmered slightly below me, lemon on velvet, popping out of sight as the slipship drive engaged. I relaxed, bought up the newsfeed and settled into the trip home.