The Madonna of Lactar8
On Lactar8, astronomers finally found a way to extract some of the patterns buried in the energy streams they detected 80 years earlier. Their recalibrations allowed them to reverse the subatomic submersion model theorized 128 years earlier by Barandur7-9*\<. As a result, Lactari astronomers were able to examine some of the energy signals that were whizzing all around them in the Spiral Arm.
So far they had received about 20 billion yottabytes of data patterns. Yet they still couldn’t make sense of them. Some of the segments of data were incredibly condensed. Some were so condensed that they had to recalibrate their sub-angstrom meters to make sure that the segments hadn’t in some way played havoc with the meters themselves. The Lactari micro-physicists could make out some of the contours of the energy data, yet they couldn’t seem to get inside it. Occasionally they could isolate regular angles and parts of perfect curves, yet they couldn’t be sure if these were natural occurrences or the creations of some extralactarian race.
What they had deciphered wasn’t very interesting to the average Lactari, let alone the Cult. Leading Cultist thinkers were starting to resign themselves to the idea that the universe was not in fact a mirror of their majestic minds. All the angles merely repeated themselves in what seemed like meaningless sequences. It was like measuring the planets, suns, and galaxies that surrounded them: all these spinning and orbiting bodies merely spun and orbited. What might have been a cosmic dance was more like the shuffling of convicts being herded into deprivation chambers. It was only interesting to those parts of their primary brains that cared for such things as vectors, size, density, wavelengths, and rocks.
It was late in the third quarter of the afternoon when Kalströnw8-1’_[ saw two stray images emerge as if by magic from an orange streak of energy. He could hardly believe his sixteen eyes. The first image was of a two armed, one-headed creature sucking the appendage of a larger two armed, one-headed creature. Both creatures appeared to have two eyes and were staring directly at K.
The air surrounding the creatures was yellowish-brown, and contained square and circular modulations that seemed to be trapping — or protecting — the creatures within a force field. Outside the first layer of the force field were little heads looking in toward the two creatures. These tiny, insect-like heads were perhaps monitoring the creatures. Or perhaps they were obeying orders that the creatures sent through the force-field. Or, perhaps the little heads were staging an attack. In any case, the two creatures were safe within the two layers of the force field, and didn’t seem to worry about the tiny heads. The creatures could swat them if they needed to.
The second image was of a one-headed creature positioned next to a smaller one-headed creature. Unlike the first pair of creatures, these two seemed to be communicating with each other.
Both creatures had circles projecting from the back of their heads, perhaps indicating rotors and the ability to fly. Or the circles were antennae. The small creature had a grid within his antenna, perhaps to navigate the stars. In the background K could see their home planet. It had pointy towers and a blue atmosphere that settled among the rocks and buildings sprouting from the soil.
The images resembled each other in size and positioning, yet they were clearly from different planets. The vertical rectangle contained a golden atmosphere of magnetic force-fields, while the horizontal rectangle had wide open spaces in which the figures could fly about at will. Perhaps the rectangles, together, represented some sort of alliance between two worlds. Or, one race of beings controlled the other — although it wasn’t clear who controlled who.
K had never seen anything like this. He checked the flood of scintillants racing between his four cones. He did a scan-match with the database of imaginary images projected from the Cult Hive. He suspected that the strange images were just two of their crazy fantasies.
The Cultists of Lacter27
From the 81 crystal hanging villages in the ether of Lactar27, the Hive had projected almost everything that was possible to project. At first, K couldn’t make any sense of their rambling fantasies. They had projected a 64-armed Queen who impregnated currents of energy with deep pulsing algorithms of purple mist. This Queen lived at the end of space and pointed her finger at the beginning of a different space. They had also projected a heavenly King who could defy the laws of gravity, and a one-headed Smoke Demon called Rannabalis who could suck the life-fluid from a Lactari with the mere rumble of its 256 throats. Yet none of these even remotely resembled the two tranquil images he saw on his screen.
One projection that caught K’s attention was by Glontar)*_42, who was known only on the fringes of the Hive, and was considered by LactarQuorum to be dangerously unorthodox. At times Glontar refused to synch his four brains, which resulted in all sorts of mad artistry. One of his projections went like this:
On Alphasolari’s burning plain, Zadar the one-headed god dared to look up into the fiery sky. He knew that it was forbidden. He feared that in the next moment the Sun, who everyone called Master, would fry the bands of chromelium in his fluttering lattice. But he didn’t care. He’d had enough of the threats the Elders directed at his swarm. Each time the old geezers lectured him about the Primal Spark and the Evil One who tried to snuff it out, the chrimsects buzzing around his swarm hardened. They didn’t, as with other fluorescents, fly off to another swarm. Instead, their shells hardened and they increased their magnetic pulse. Together, they projected a force field, a screen that dimmed the blinding light that came from above. The screen formed a halo, hovering faintly above Zadar’s only head.
For most of his 230 years K had ignored the lurid fantasies of the Cult. Yet perhaps they too had seen strange visions of other worlds. Perhaps their projections weren’t just imaginary.
K was completely puzzled by these stories until he hooked himself up to the librarian, a dark-skinned Lactolect who took his thoughts deep into the rhombosphere. She was a hundred years older than he was, and this aging had allowed her to increase the internal flexibility so prized among Lactaris. K could almost measure time by how her body swayed. It made him wonder how many things the bright container in her lower belt of sensors might contain.
The librarian showed him that the stories of the Cult were interconnected, like the stories she tucked smoothly into her thorax. She shuffled and then funnelled them into rhythmic sequences he’d never seen before, into his central chamber. Pulse by pulse, K saw that the projections of the Cult weren’t isolated works of fantasy. At first it seemed that the sulphurous stones evaporating into the smoke surrounding Rannabalis were operating independently, or perhaps according to some unknown laws of chemistry. But then the librarian illuminated certain planes of narrative and he saw that Rannabalis was the same Demon who spawned the spore communities that ruled, from one mutation to the next, the entire domain of Electrochemistry, which in turn stimulated the sulphurous stones to turn into smoke.
The librarian held a pulse for eight seconds, confirming that he was ready. Everything was turned inside out and upside down. The spores were reading the thoughts of the Cultists who projected them. The spores were also punishing the Cultists with jolts of electrochemical mist whenever they attempted to see through the smoke that Rannabalis used to cover his tracks.
Then everything went black. This could have been because the spores were hiding their operations behind an inky cloak, or because the librarian had unhooked herself and was serving another customer.
K tried in vain to match the Cultist stories to the extralactarian images. Apart from Glontar’s fictitious one-headed god, K had never heard of a being with only one head. Such a creature would be ridiculous, even impossible. To begin with, it could never protect itself, since it didn’t have the bare minimum of four brains. It was an axiom, born out of proof from the beginning of time, that A triangle was helpless, but a pyramid could look after itself. Still, K tried to keep an open mind: could a being survive if it’s basic structure didn’t take a tetrahedron shape? Perhaps a being could have one central brain and four subsidiary sensory points? But that didn’t make sense: each sensory point would still require a brain. Otherwise, in the lag between a brain and its sensory point all sorts of waves, particles, fluids, and razor-sharp piranha viruses could wreak havoc. The sensory point might measure some new phenomenon, but while the sensory point was waiting for instructions from the central brain the mutated piranha virus would have already broken through the cell walls and injected flash fluids. These electric fluids would stun or destroy the sensory point even before it received the RED ALERT DIRE WARNING signal that instructed it to close all apertures and to project lethal venom spikes. The piranha virus would already be attacking the single brain from all sides, the most vicious of its attacks using the very dendrites that sent out the warning. Four interconnected brains seemed an absolute minimum.
But one brain and two arms? Perhaps this was why the creatures were in constant contact, to warn each other if some threat appeared from an unguarded side. But why were the images facing each other, or facing in the same direction? It would make more sense if they were back to back, with their faces and arms protecting them from both sides. Perhaps the creatures were in fact one organism, joined by mu or alpha waves or by some body part that wasn’t visible in the images. Perhaps the images were part of larger complex structure which wasn’t visible in the rectangle, but which every inhabitant of the alien world took for granted, just as Lactaris took for granted four brains in an image that only showed one of them.
K also wondered how the images got to Lactar. His best guess was that a stray energy stream got through the Giant Star Wall, was picked up by an orange streak, and was hurled in the general direction of Lactar. If only they knew what orange streaks were! If only they knew how to decipher what was inside the variegated streams! If they knew these things, they could perhaps figure out how the two images emerged. As it was, it was as if they came from no where.
The next day K went back to the library to learn what the Cultists said about the Star Wall and what lay behind it.
Several hundred years ago the Cultists had formed a Grand Council that floated in deep meditation for six years. During this “Great Flotation,” the Council prophesied a messianic Super-Lactari they called Orala, who was born deep within the Star Wall.
Today some Lactaris believe the Council intuited the existence of Orala, while others believe that the Council prophesied Orala’s existence. Some heretics — influenced by the writings of Glontar the Rebel — argue that Orala is merely a figment of their collective imaginations.
The Council predicted that Orala would one day emanate from deep within the Star Wall to protect their cluster of planets from the ravaging menace of Rannabalis. Having penetrated the very essence of energy, Orala would be able to control the nerve centres of the Spiral Arm itself. Orala would turn the Arm into a slingshot and hurl the 53 planets of Lactar to safety. The force of Orala would be so great that the 53 planets would fly between all the known stars, to the purple end of space, where all Lactaris would come face to face with Lactana, Supreme Goddess of the Infinite Worlds.
The Council wisely concluded their prophecies here. Still, freedom of expression was a primal directive in Lactar, and no one could stop heretics like Glontar from editorializing on the process of prophecy, or from adding codas to what had for centuries been considered the Final Revelation.
In his most cryptic work, Beyond Evil and Good, the arch-heretic dared to out-prophesy the Grand Council. He projected even further into the future what Lactana would tell the gathered Lactaris:
Fear not, little ones. I bring not a sword, but a Chalice filled with Water. Life-giving Water. The Fire Demon that frightens you is only a symbol of Destruction. I myself am but an image from your own minds. At best a Metaphor. At worst, an Omen. Yet out of Illusion comes Enlightenment, and out of Destruction comes Creation. The Demon himself will disappear once the sacred Water of the Chalice is sprinkled on him. The worlds of Lactar are subject to the depredations of the Demon, yet once you travel into Outer Space you’ll find worlds where Water is plentiful. You’ll find worlds in which the Demon is everywhere, even within you. Yet in these worlds we’ll also drink freely of the divine Water and thereby calm the Demon within you. The cycles of fire and water will become part of your nature. You’ll let the Demon loose to destroy old thoughts and then drink of the Sacred Water to create new thoughts. But first you must move into Outer Space and find these great Worlds of Water. You must travel to the Other Side of the Great Star Wall to a planet where Water is to be found in its deepest, purest state, brimming with sparkling depths and new forms of life. The planet goes by the name of Erret or Errerrat. It’s a spherical blue delight. It consists of Water Temples perched on jagged cliffs, all surrounded by deep troughs and Infinite Refractions of Water and Light.
Someday, the source of all Beauty and Power will be found, on the Other Side of the Star Wall. The aim of Lactari civilization can be summed up in seven little words: Break on through to the Other Side!
K looked again at the background of the second extralactarian image, where the creature’s antenna appeared to circle from the top to the bottom of the sky. He had assumed that the grey-blue background was composed of the same elements throughout, perhaps with some clouds or a land-bridge between. But now he wondered if the grey-blue sky in the upper left corner of the rectangle might be different from the grey-blue water immediately below it. Was this the watery Heaven Glontar described in his visions?
According to Glontar, Lactana also told the gathered Lactaris that good and evil were one. She said that while she was herself a metaphorical being, her words could nevertheless pacify the smoky beast within them that had haunted their dreams since they rose from the swamps of Lactar3 and lifted their frail cones with the hydraulic pressure of their primordial cylinders. Glontar projected images of radiant circles surrounding Lactana, and lactomorphic angels dancing in the ether.
The rings around Lactana reminded K of the rings around the large one-headed being in the extralactarian image.
Glontar’s visions became increasingly difficult to follow. He asserted that the universe was a series of ever larger and ever-smaller worlds. He claimed that Lactaris inhabited a series of interlocking middle worlds, and that they would eventually see that everything they saw in these worlds was like a tiny reflection of a pretty pattern in a tiny mirror. They stared into that mirror and thought it the prettiest thing in the cosmos. They dreamed about Orala and Lactana, but mistook dream for prophecy, and omen for metaphor. One day soon a giant wind from another world would put ripples in the mirror, then shatter it in a trillion pieces. Until then, however, lactomorphic angels would continue to dance unseen all around them. They even danced in the same ether in which the Cultists in their 81 villages hung collectively, nimble beings of light and sweet water hanging from the tops of the enormous langar trees. Together, everything that was and everything that would ever be would be united in the misty regions beneath the bright pink sky temples of an ancient capital. Only the Moment existed. There was no need to go anywhere else.
The Cultists of Lactar27 were revolted by the confusing and blasphemous ideas of Glontar. They were ashamed to inhabit the same hanging villages beneath the purple sun. When they saw him in a hanging garden talking his infernal rubbish to some credulous fool, they felt like throwing him over the edge into the Great Swamp below.
K didn’t know what to make of it all. Glontar also philosophized about the probabilities of telekinesis and lactomorphism, and the conundrum of worlds within worlds. To K, none of this was as difficult to decipher as the images of the one-headed creatures.
The two extralactarian images haunted K’s dreams until he died in a fit of ecstasy ten years later, yelling out something about the Mother of God.