I am watching a world create cliffs when they find me: jagged grey cliffs towering above an ocean. The water is filled with datastreams, the pounding of waves on rock powering the ancient technologies that are building landmasses on a world. The air smells of fresh-cut grass, and will for some centuries yet as terraforming engines, applications and linkages piece themselves together into the most efficient forms.
I am seeing it all from white cliffs further away, among the first geological features the world had of stone, and in the centre of them the various strata spell out the names of friends I have had in languages long dead and gone. It is my only indulgence, and I doubt it will last. But that feels as if it is for the best, that the past is buried under changes. That we move on. That we can pretend to move on.
The human simply steps out of the air beside me. No spaceship, no disruption-engine. Just the raw power of the human mind to move her across light years from Braden’s World, the closest inhabited system. She is tall, skin shifting white to blend into the cliffs, air and nutrients brought from Braden’s World in a shimmering field about her body.
“Our seers did not believe it to be real when they found this place.” Her voice is deep and sure, pressing against my mind. “The technologies here are alien to us: alive, dead, aware. Too many to count, all building a world at the very edges of our reach. An akashic record filled with selves waiting to be born.”
“I know how they feel. I felt the same for a long time on the first Arc-World I visited.”
“There are more.”
“There are six; one was destroyed long ago and rebuilt; this will be the seventh. The others were approaching hard limits as to what could be changed, could be added, could be adapted. This one won’t have those.”
She moves closer, slowly, to circle me. She is human. I am not, a cylindrical shape of treads, with limbs and sensors inside my chassis. I was human once, before becoming a transfer, being placed inside this body. Humanity has destroyed itself four times, in wars or by their own hand, during my long life. In each, the arc-worlds rebooted the species, made a new Earth. That is what the Arc-Worlds are for and they are hidden even from the alien hingari. I think.
“I am Shino,” she says. “I do not know what you are. Your mind feels human, but – very strange.”
“I’m Dar.” It’s been so long since I’ve said my name that it takes a moment to recall it. I alter my chassis a little, shifting apps and linkages until I have a viewscreen again, flick it on so she can see a human face in it. “This is how my face would have looked if I was thirty or so.”
“You are not an alien.”
“No. What do you know of them?”
“We call them hingari, and they exist in the alpha-space, in the pathways that allow for true astral transit past the speed of light. They will not let us pass them in it, not let us explore beyond them to the rest of the universe. There has been talk of war, a seeking for weapons. Stories about worlds filled with ruins. And then the seers found this.”
“I didn’t mean for it to be found; I figured it was a possibility. I’m a mechanic: I’m good with tech, even the organic kind, but you’ve developed purely mental abilities and I had no way of being certain I could hide this from you.”
“Did you want to?”
I smile at that, rueful and tired. “Some days I don’t know.”
“Oh.” Shino studies me. “You are shielded from me. Even the GESTALT could not break your shielding, I think, if it still existed. We were forced to destroy the Whole-Mind. It was us and not us, too big to think of small things.”
“I know. Before you one group mind detonated itself. I was – pleased you avoided that.”
“Before us.” She stares down at the white cliffs under us, out at the grey ones being made. “These Arc-Worlds have been used, then.”
“Four times that I have been privy to.” She lets out a hiss of shock. “Mine was technology built from the world, taking stone and iron, electricity and gravity, forging tools out of that. I called it normal, of course, because for me it was. In one, organic technology existed but their craft were no match for the hingari. The third was the group mind that detonated itself, the fourth wiped themselves out in wars long before they left Earth. And now you.”
“And you have done nothing?”
“I have waited to be found. I have hidden myself, the Arc-Worlds. What they mean. The Arc-Worlds are mostly automated: they would run just fine without me, but wouldn’t learn as quickly from each new embodiment of humanity. I am sure there are some out there hidden even from these worlds, safeguards piled upon safeguards, hope stacked up against despair.” I extend a limb from my chassis to gently brush the white cliffs. “I am a mechanic, Shino. I was born one, I have been one, and I can fix things. People are not things. If I interfered, if I did things, or taught them –” I shake my head in the viewscreen. “There is no way that ends well. Better to be alone than be a god.”
“What do you wait for?” she says, barely a whisper of thought.
“I don’t know. The Arc-Worlds need me a little. I think they like the company, so stuff breaks down for me to fix. The hingari have always been called that, in every form of humanity I know of. I suppose I’m waiting to see what happens if we do move beyond them. If we find out what they are. I have a few theories but no way to prove any. At least not without risking the Arc-Worlds being noticed by them.”
“You have wisdom we could use, then.”
I snort; it startles her a little. “No. Most of the technology in the arc-worlds isn’t anything you could use, let alone understand. I don’t understand over half of it, and I’ve been studying and learning it for a long time. You’ve built an entire civilization based around the human mind. Everything I could show you would just limit what you can become on your own.”
“And if we force the issue?”
I blink. “You could try; others have.”
“So you will just sit here and be a second chance, over and over, never helping?”
I move toward her; Shino steps back. “What do you think being found is, if not a helping?” I snap. “I have seen humanity die out four times, Shino. Four. I don’t know how often it happened before I ended up on the Arc-Worlds, how often we’ve done this dance of discovery and forgetting. The Arc-Worlds aren’t a second chance at all but a whole new throw of the dice. Knowing this, knowing that every time humanity has been rebooted it has failed, that is the lesson. That is the message of this place. To be better, to do better.” I move back. “Think about it: you’ve beaten your own Gestalt, walk to to other worlds with a thought.”
“The hingari are still our jailers.”
“Then you’ve made your choice. You can leave now.”
For a moment a storm gathers about her and the white cliffs shudder under me, but the moment passes as she vanishes a moment later.
I can’t cry; some times, like today, I find it a blessing.