The Night Sea Journey
Stephen B. Kagan
Fly, dotard, fly! With thy wise dreams and fables of the sky.
When I died they wrapped me in a radiation shielded cryo-suit, stuck me in a sarcophagus like pod and shot me off into space. I must have looked a lot like a mummy wrapped in tinfoil. While my last request was to become a silver skinned sentinel of the spaceways, they had instead done their best and made me into a mummy. Unlike the mummies of old I wasn't planning on ending up on display in a museum or being turned into pigment and used for portraiture by some stupid alien Rosetti.
When I was alive I was never an impulsive man so I chose my target carefully before my last gasp and entered into the light. I had never travelled much before, happily burdened most of my life with the responsibilities of work and family, so I at least wanted to travel when I was dead. And though I kept my nose to the ground, my eyes and mind were always looking beyond the white sliver of the moon high in the noonday sky or the vast spill of stars at night and the soft glow of the setting sun like honey on the across the horizon. And so after my mortality got the best of me, they pulled my sorry withered ass up one of the space elevators, towed me out of orbit as flotsam on some asteroid mining expedition, took aim and shot me off toward Tau Sagittarii, 122 light years or so from Earth. Rough estimate was that it would take me about 850,000 years to get to my destination. I wasn't in a rush; I was dead after all.
Now, there could have been better targets than that with the potpourri of Earth-like worlds littered throughout the galaxy but I guess I wanted to make a point. I half expected that human technology would accelerate enough to allow them to pick me up and revive me in a hundred years or so but that never happened. I'm not sure what transpired back on that old wet ball, probably science and technology got dragged back down into the dark ages by some narrow minded theocracy or conservative political ideology.
The first time I woke up Rilke had it right; I did not know if I was a falcon, or a storm, or a great song. Vague recollections of deep Cambrian dreams in caverns measureless to man washed upon the shore of myself but faded quietly into the oblivion of the modern mind. Were they merely artifacts of a dying and waking brain or were they various incarnations along the way? Sadly, I suppose I will never know. When I finally came to I found I was in a large dimly lit room filled with swathes of cool mist inhabited by a pair of tall humanoids with bird like heads and feathered garments. They peered at me with sharp clear eyes and an unwavering gaze. They removed a scroll from my hands, looked over it carefully then set it aside.
I watched serenely as they stripped the frozen desiccated flesh from the loom of my bones, spun out my DNA and wove new organs and tissues that they knit back onto my cleaned and radiant skeleton. While I watched, a soft quiet buzzing filled my skull and not only did my eyesight become sharper but old forgotten memories from my childhood burst into awareness with greater clarity. I remembered the excitement of chasing after an ice cream truck on a sweaty summer day with a gaggle of friends by my side as it crawled up the street through the cool shadows of chestnut and maples. The street was pocked with small oozing bubbles of tar, the air was wrinkled with heat and cicada buzzed like thousands of little electric saws in the tree tops.
By the time they reconnected my head, the multitude of memories settled from a storm into a simmer and I understood things now with greater clarity including the language these creatures spoke. They said they had picked me up in transit and after examining me decided the honorable thing to do was assist me along my way. They were enroute to establishing trade with a rather xenophobic species in another solar system and could not afford to bring me along or delay their mission. I thanked them deeply though it grieved me to lose this opportunity to explore their civilization. They disassembled my pod, transformed it into smart dust and reused the material to build an actual cryogenic chamber with a basic propulsion system. They gave me back the scroll they had found in my hands and I smiled when I saw it. The picture and hieroglyphs were drawn in my older daughter's unmistakable refined style. It showed a scene where Ra, the falcon headed god was riding a boat through the land of the dead. The aliens waited until I was ready then lulled me carefully into a deep cryo-sleep and sent me along my way.
The second time I awakened I was in a small room, brightly lit in some places but mottled in shadows. Despite my previous awakening from the dead I could not remember who I was. All I knew were the stories of old and I could not recall if I was Odysseus cast adrift, but now stranded upon an island or the wandering Gilgamesh now in the house of Siduri, the goddess of the vine. A crowd of small gnomish creatures gathered around me and poked me gently with long prehensile hands and luminous fingers. Their eyes were large and gray and the creatures moved like awkward children though I could not tell their age. Their thin lipped mouths moved though their voices said nothing remotely like any language I had ever heard. My joints ached, my throat was dry and I desperately wanted a drink. After they did a full scan of my body they did indeed bring me a squat cylinder of a clear but softly fermented liquid with a soft berry taste.
They took great interest in exploring my body and doing various scans with small pieces of equipment shaped simply like softly glowing displays. After a while I was finally able to sit up and look around. They showed me a chart of the galaxy with the path I had taken and a clear You Are Here symbol. Near as I could tell, I was most of the way toward my destination though I had no idea how many thousands of years had passed. It took some time for them to scan my brain and process my language before they could adjust their translators. They had brought me to their home world but before they could let me out into their atmosphere they needed to make some adjustments with my permission. I agreed and was able to watch as they removed my rebuilt organs and replaced them with synthetic ones that glowed with a warm golden light. When they sealed me up it was strange to no longer feel my heart beating quietly or my lungs rise and fall within my chest. Instead I felt a vibrant hum as though I was constantly on the edge of discovery.
Their home world turned out to be a new one that they were in the process of terraforming. Giant creatures ambled through the barren rocky landscape consuming stone and releasing gas and nutrient rich soil. Carefully designed bacteria and nanites were busy munching upon and reworking the bonds of atmospheric molecules. The oceans were already full of a plethora of eukryotes and trillions of nanites balancing and adjusting the chemistry. Under large domes where my hosts lived, vegetation grew in jungles amidst small urban centers. The transformation of the planet was happening at an extraordinary pace and it would take decades rather than centuries.
In the quiet of the night after leaving my hosts for the privacy of my own thoughts I decided I needed to move on. This was their task, their world, not my own. As a species they had little sense of privacy, their food was bitter and they smelled funny. Now that I was alive again and had a means to travel the stars I decided there was no reason to linger. They had studied me with great interest especially when they found the changes to my body from my previous encounter. Conversely, I had studied them and enjoyed having my feet upon the ground again for a while. The hunger to explore was a fire in me now and I discovered that I had no interest in settling down. The galaxy was a vast network of cultures and intelligence with wonders yet undiscovered. How could I justify settling down when there was so much more out there to explore?
They expanded my cryo-pod and installed a guidance system with maps of all the known inhabited planets and those likely to harbor life. They brought me back to space, we said goodbye, I was lulled back to sleep and shot toward my original destination. There must have been some molecular drift because now my awareness was loosely sustained, glacial as it was. I dreamed vast slow dreams with little plot or direction. How long I was in space before I was picked up again I had no idea.
Of the next encounter I have only vague recollections and they were not kind. The room was dark and shadowed, lit by dying embers. They were creatures of some forgotten lore and their eyes were dark as ravens. I was analyzed like an inert specimen, an artifact. They did not respond to any of my attempts of communication and treated me like an odd fish dragged exhausted onto a boat, it's gills pulsing as it gasped for breath. I was worried that I was going to be dissected and eaten before I could figure out what to do. Mostly paralyzed, I could still move my hands and started flashing my fingers in sequences of primes until they glanced at me and at one other before continuing on as before. I gave them the finger and wished it could traverse the gulf. Eventually they put me "back into the chamber turning, all my soul within me burning" and as I lay there in muted terror and began to slumber I wished that we could have been better strangers and I prayed that I would see them nevermore. Again I dreamed, meandering through dark forbidden landscapes and finding rooms behind doors I had never seen before.
When I finally woke again I was in a vast undefined space though there was a sense of enclosure, of nearby boundaries though none could be seen. A diffuse light filled the space with no clear shape or direction and a soft resonant sound that resembled the long slow drone of temple bells came from everywhere at once. Distant tones rose and fell like voices in plainsong and far off I heard what sounded like the deep pulse of a great engine and other strange mechanisms. In the hours when I lay in a mythic mind on the edge of slumber while looking out at the world, I could not remember if my ship was named Pequod, the reed barque of Ra or the nameless boat of Charon.
Thin strands of vibrating energy appeared around me, pulsing and shimmering as they rapidly exchanged a staccato of rhythmic sounds too fast and complex for me to understand. I tried to communicate but my words were like dull stones that fell to the floor and vanished. The strands of energy moved around me in a dance and one outstretched a thin resonating filament to my face. Muscles throughout my body stiffened and twisted uncontrollably and a sense of revelation came upon me. A rapid succession of soundscapes and resonant forms flooded through my enhanced but all too primitive brain. Silence enfolded me as the filament moved away from my head and disappeared. I tried to put together something comprehensive from the flood of information that had passed through me but it was impossible. I longed to understand but my mind was just too small.
A memory from the distant past came unbidden from when I was somehow more human though less complete than I was now. I recalled being an infant on a dance floor at a wedding, a jumbled forest of legs moving around me to a melody I could not comprehend. I wanted to participate but it was too much for me, I was just too damn small and I couldn't understand the chaos of how the people moved around me.
The vibrating strands of energy pulsed and rapidly exchanged complex polyrhythms like an ancient piece of African drumming underscored by the long rich tones of a viola and then there was silence. I had the impression they were waiting for me, waiting for an answer. All I could do was re-iterate that I wanted to understand. Silence ensued and all but one of them disappeared. It spoke slowly to me in the pleasant and reassuring voice of a cello. I slept for a while, a deep dreamless sleep and when I awakened something had shifted in my awareness that was difficult to comprehend. I felt as though I was standing or floating beside myself. Somehow my consciousness had split and was in two places at once. One was enmeshed in nerves and flesh, the other floated in a serene space nearby. They had somehow entangled my consciousness and separated my selves by a small distance, but for me there was no distance. Instead of two of me there was only one, but with two sets of eyes. It was dizzying at first, as though I was learning to see straight with crossed eyes.
They took my body and bathed it in deep resonant sounds of complex harmonies and wrapped me in folds of magnetic fields. I sang the body electric as agonizing pain momentarily ripped through my nerves and soon there was only one of me watching with a curious sense of detachment. They disassembled my body, separated the elements and recompiled them from the bottom up, molecule by smart molecule. They built me a body laced with webs of conductive nano circuitry then transferred and melded my consciousness within and I was whole again.
My capacity had grown beyond anything I had previously imagined was possible. My entire history and portions of the history and knowledge of each species I had encountered including my own were embedded within me. They always were but I could not read the code until now. Each species I had encountered had given me far more than I had known and I had become something more than a simple explorer.
My new friends, whom I had seen before as vibrant strings of energy were now clearly complex beings of resonant energy. I understood that they had evolved beyond the need for organic and were now something more akin to resonant patterns of information. They brought me to their home world and what was once a viable planet had been transformed into a vast branched arcology that resembled what could loosely described as a tree of souls. It turned out that I had finally reached my intended destination, the source of the interstellar signal that Earth had received all those millennia ago. These beings were in the process of engineering the destruction of the second sun that was destabilizing their binary system. It was spectacular to watch as the star ejected a vast quantity of solar energy that they captured while the star cooled rapidly and collapsed in a controlled demolition, first into a white then a black dwarf.
I cannot say how long this took according to my primitive old standards of time since all of my biological cues were gone and my time sense had evolved to match that of my companions. All I can say is that after many turnings, the longing in me to explore the cosmos welled up within me again. I no longer needed to sleep and had plenty to occupy my mind though I could now live for long spans of deep undisturbed peace without the need for thought or boredom. My friends used the materials of my old cryopod mixed with matter they had mined from the black sun and built me a ship with which I could travel the stars. It had an advanced propulsion system but it worked on principles of bending spacetime to travel vast distances nearly instantaneously.
A few of my new friends decided to join me in my continued exploration of the galaxy. There was so much yet undiscovered and unknown. Eventually I wanted to find my way back to Earth to see what had become of my old stomping grounds and share with them what I had found. For now, though there were so many inhabited worlds out there to see, who knows where we would end up next. I now had an exact replica of the scroll my daughter had made from the Egyptian Book of the Dead inscribed into the molecular structure of which I was composed. It said:
"Hail, thou who goest round about heaven, thou pilot of the world, thou beautiful rudder of the western heaven."