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Author: James E. Gunn
Publisher: Tor, 2016
Series: Transcendental Machine: Book 2

1. Transcendental
2. Transgalactic
3. Transformation

Book Type: Novel
Genre: Science-Fiction
Sub-Genre Tags: Artificial Intelligence
Galactic Empire
Human Development
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Transgalactic: the latest novel in Hugo Award Winner James Gunn's SF Grandmaster Career!

When Riley and Asha finally reached the planet Terminal and found the Transcendental Machine, a matter transmission device built by an ancient race, they chose to be "translated." Now in possession of intellectual and physical powers that set them above human limitations, the machine has transported them to two, separate, unknown planets among a possibility of billions.

Riley and Asha know that together they can change the galaxy, so they attempt to do the impossible--find each other.


Chapter One

Riley woke up.

He was standing, alone and naked, in a dark, closed space.

"Asha?" he called, but he knew she wasn't there.

He remembered things--everything--like the journey from the planet Terminal toward the end of the spiral arm, across the Great Gulf to the neighboring arm, with a supercargo of aliens in search of the Transcendental Machine. He remembered the bonding among the pilgrims, and the hidden forces at work within the ship, revealing themselves one by one, and the treachery. He remembered the stocky Dorian Tordor with the sensitive and deadly proboscis, the weasellike Xi, and all the others. And he remembered fighting his way, with Asha, through ravenous arachnoid aliens to reach what they thought was a cathedral but turned out to be a waiting room.

He knew a lot of things that he had never been aware of before, and with a clarity he had never experienced. He knew, for instance, that the Transcendental Machine was a matter-transmission device that had been used by the other spiral-arm aliens--an earlier version of the arachnoids, or the species the arachnoids had replaced--to explore not only their own spiral arm but the spiral arm of humans and the aliens of the Federation. And maybe to influence them in ways that might never be understood.

The Machine analyzed anything that entered it, destroying it in the process, and sent the information to a receiver in which the same entangled quantum particle was embedded, where what had been destroyed was re-created from local materials--and that included sapient creatures such as Asha, and now himself. In the process imperfections were left behind. Transcendence was an accident.

He had been restored but the pedia that had been implanted in his head by strange, unknown entities, which was not part of his ideal condition, was not. He didn't know yet how he would get out of wherever he had been sent, nor how he would find Asha. The Machine had sent her somewhere else. If it was not programmed, the Machine chose destinations at random or in some pre-set order. After a hundred thousand long-cycles--maybe even a million--it was a miracle of alien technology that it functioned at all.

But he knew he would find Asha if he had to fight his way halfway across the galaxy. And when he found her he knew that they, with the insights and power of transcendence, would change the galaxy.

Riley felt his way out of the machine that had re-created him and began the necessary exploration of his surroundings. The space was chilly, even chillier to his naked body. The floor under his feet felt rough and dusty, and the dead smell of long-enclosed spaces, along with the musty smell of disturbed dust, reached his newly sensitive nose. Two cautious paces in one direction and he reached a smooth wall that began to glow a soft rose as he touched it. Four more rapid paces took him to the opposite wall, which also sprang into gentle radiance. He could see now that he was in a featureless cube with a ceiling above his reach and the machine in the center.

The machine was little more than a free-standing closet, open on one side, simpler than the Transcendental Machine. Maybe it was a later, more efficient model. Or, since there was a heap of clothing on the floor but no pile of dust, maybe it was meant to receive and not to send. Maybe the alien emissaries were ambassadors for life and never expected to return. Riley recognized the heap of clothing. They were--he understood as he put them on--the clothes and shoes that he had once acquired new, or the clothes that he might have acquired in an ideal world in which clothes were ideally made of materials ideally suited for their purpose. The Machine analyzed and transmitted everything within its focus, transformed.

Riley inspected the inside of the machine, running his hands across its surfaces, but it was featureless. The only thing he noticed was that his sense of touch, like his sense of smell, seemed to be keener, as if his fingers had been sandpapered. He felt his way over the outside. It was equally uninformative until he reached a spot above the opening. The spot was difficult to see, because the light was dim and the structure itself was taller than he, as if it was intended for creatures a third again as large, but his fingers felt a series of slightly raised places like designs or, more likely, letters of an alien alphabet or figures intended to convey a message. They weren't like anything he had ever encountered and no amount of fingering, or even inspection if he had something to stand on, was likely to decipher them.

He could only guess that they were instructions on how to operate the machine, or maybe the controls themselves. He began to reevaluate his hope of an easy way to reunite with Asha.

Where was she? Where in the galaxy had she been transported? He had, he realized, assumed that he could return to the planet of the Transcendental Machine. With his newly created clarity of thought, he ought to be able to do that. With clarity of thought came confidence, maybe overconfidence; he would have to be careful of that. He had also realized that returning to the planet of the Transcendental Machine would put him no closer to Asha. Even if he could, maybe, reverse the Machine, what he could never do was decipher where the Machine had sent her. Unless Asha came to the same conclusion and also returned to the planet. Clarity of thought did not mean clarity of information; what was unknowable, like truly alien forms of communication, remained unknowable.

He could try, he had thought, and if she was not there, or if their returns did not coincide, he could leave a message, or find one from her. Timing would be everything, since they could not survive for more than a day, or perhaps even a few hours, among the arachnoids or other dangers, without food or drink. Without that, where would they meet out there among a billion suns? And there was always the chance that the Machine would send him to a nonfunctioning or destroyed receiver, and he would end up an electronic ghost searching through the galaxy in a forlorn hope of rebirth. But even that uncertain avenue had been closed.

So, there had to be another way. Somewhere in their shared experience, in their journey together, was a clue to a meeting place if they got separated. Meanwhile there were practical problems to be solved: He would die of thirst and starvation, and maybe unbreathable air, unless he found his way out of this featureless cube.

* * *

With a feeling of urgency but not of desperation, Riley felt his way around the walls with his newfound sensitivity of touch. Doing two things at once was easy for him now, and he reviewed, like a visual recording in his head, everything Asha had told him during their time together, including her experience in the generation ship Adastra when it was captured by Galactics and taken to their Federation Central. She was a child then and grew up under Galactic captivity until the junior officer on the Adastra found a way to make an escape, with the secret of the Galactic's nexus points that made interstellar travel practical and human competition possible. And their flight, with the aid of an ancient map and the Galactics in pursuit, to the adjacent spiral arm, and finally to the planet of the Transcendental Machine. And their perilous path through the city before Asha found refuge in what she took to be a cathedral, where she entered the Machine and ended up... where? He wished now that he had asked for more details of how she had found her way back from wherever she had been sent then and how she had returned to the Galactic Federation. But there had been no time for that in the urgency of their time together and their own crisis-filled journey.

Riley searched his memories for any clue to the way Asha had solved the problems that he now faced, but he knew that this was a carryover from old deficiencies. His present memory held no dark places, no secrets waiting to be discovered.

He made the circuit of the room twice before he found, above his head, a set of raised places similar to those he had found near the top of the machine. If they were instructions, he would never be able to read them. But just below the raised hieroglyphs, if that was what they were, he felt two indentations that, on further exploration, revealed themselves to be holes. They were about the size of a small tentacle or an insectoid feeler or his little fingers. Without hesitation, he inserted one little finger into each hole as far as it would go.

Soundlessly, a hole appeared in the middle of the wall below and grew into an opening into a dark space beyond. He didn't pause to consider the nature of the substance that was solid but capable of dissolving. He removed his little fingers, undamaged, from the holes into which he had inserted them and stepped through the opening in the wall before it closed. The walls outside did not glow, but strips above his head emitted enough rosy light that he could see he was in a rough-walled corridor, with a floor equally uneven beneath his shoes, as if it were made of cobblestones or of bricks that had deteriorated unevenly over the longcycles, and a ceiling farther above his head than he could reach.

Behind him, when he turned, the hole in the wall had healed itself and there was no legend above the spot where it had been, or holes with which to activate it. The area where his disembodied information had been received was like a womb to which he could never return. He was cut off from the alien machine. If using it had ever been a possibility, that door was closed. That the process was a one-way trip became more certain, and the reason that the receiver area remained undisturbed after all these long-cycles, more evident. He turned to his right and began to walk briskly. He was not yet thirsty or hungry--maybe his new condition was more efficient in that respect as well, but it couldn't repeal the laws of nature and sooner or later he would need food and drink.

As he moved, strips on the corridor wall next to the ceiling came alight with him and darkened behind, although occasionally a dark gap appeared where the damage of the ages had conquered even the superior alien technology. He had noticed it in the alien planets he and Asha and their companions had visited in their pilgrimage--the alien structures, in all their splendor, had survived their creators.

Those creators, he thought, were not the arachnoids who had attacked them. They were too big to fit into the Transcendental Machine or even through the doorway into the building that housed it, too big to fit through the opening that appeared in the wall or the corridor in which he was now walking. Perhaps their smaller cousins could, but they were the wrong shape to fit into the Machine's compartment comfortably. No, the aliens who built the Machine and the city that housed it were humanoid, though perhaps larger than most humanoids. And their eyes had evolved under a different light, perhaps the red sun he had seen in the alien sky. There had been a blue sun as well, but it may have been captured later, and perhaps that cosmic event had precipitated the downfall of the Transcendental Machine species or the rise of the arachnoids.

But all that was speculation for another time, and this corridor was narrowing into a space even a normal-size human would find a tight fit. Soon he would have to make a decision to reverse his course or to pursue this one on hands and knees until he could no longer turn around. The wisest course, he decided, was to explore in the other direction.

After an hour, thirteen minutes, and twenty-two seconds--he realized he had a timekeeper in his head that kept track of such things--and after exploring fifteen corridors of various sizes that ended in blank walls or narrowed to sizes that he could not squeeze himself into, he followed the sixteenth corridor to an opening into a chamber like the one in which he had found himself re-created but with an ordinary doorway and walls that were rough, like the corridor, and that did not light up. The only illumination in the chamber came from the corridor behind. The chamber in front of him had been produced by an earlier, more primitive culture, like the corridors themselves, or else the chamber in which he first found himself had been built into a structure that was already in place. He thought that the latter was more likely. From the light behind him and with vision that seemed to operate far more efficiently, he could see that something that resembled a sarcophagus rested on a platform in the middle of the chamber, that if it was a sarcophagus it had been opened and what might have been a lid or cover had been removed and lay broken upon the floor, and what was in the sarcophagus, as he approached, were the remains of an alien creature and perhaps what had once been garments or ornaments, though they, too, were broken or scattered so that their function was obscure.

He realized now what the structure was that he had materialized in. He was inside some kind of massive structure assembled to protect the remains of some ancient ruler or god for eternity. But, like all such attempts at permanence, it had not worked. Sometime in the remote past, grave robbers had found their way into the primitive structure, had found the chamber, and had stripped it of the valuables it once might have contained.

Or they had found it without anything worth stealing and had destroyed everything in their frustration.

Riley moved into the chamber and inspected the sarcophagus. Ornate designs had been carved into the stone, and even with the little light that spilled in from the corridor he could see that they represented some kind of life story, with oddly shaped, perhaps stylized, figures of various sizes standing upright on large legs and perhaps a tail, or an ornamental train, behind, and confronting or interacting with other figures of different shapes. They seemed to represent a journey from life to death and beyond, a process guided or determined by more powerful beings, perhaps gods, and illustrating the path of glory and greatness traveled by the body that was laid within the sarcophagus.

That body, he saw as he looked into the sarcophagus, was only bones. Perhaps once the remains had been preserved by some alien art, but stripped of adornments and exposed to the elements and the ages everything impermanent had fallen away, leaving behind only its structure. The bones told a story. They had belonged to a species with strong leg bones, small upper bones, and a powerful tail, somewhat like pictures Riley had seen of Earth marsupials. The evolutionary process did not privilege grazers in the development of intelligence and technological culture, but Riley remembered Tordor and the heights to which his species had ascended, transformed by discipline, cruelty, and a sense of mission, as well as the ways in which the other aliens on the Geoffrey had been shaped by the pressures and opportunities of the special conditions under which they had evolved.

Looking down on the greatness that had once motivated a species to build a massive mausoleum at a terrible cost in treasure and lives, and over a span of time that must have lasted generations and impoverished an economy, Riley felt the first stirrings of hunger and thirst. He would have to find food and drink soon or he would end up like the remains in the sarcophagus. He looked around the chamber for some kind of guidance but the walls were bare rock and the floor was dusty and scattered with bits of metal, apparently discarded by the grave robbers who had made their way into this hidden place in spite of the ingenuity of the engineers who had constructed it.

Surely the designers would have left some testament to their care behind, if not to their piety, but there was nothing. Still, he thought, the grave robbers would have left something more valuable to him.

He walked slowly and carefully out of the chamber and down the corridor that had led him to the sarcophagus, looking at the walls and the floor for ancient clues. The grave robbers could have used markers like paint or leaves or crumbs to mark their path to the outer world, markers that would have vanished long ago, but he had to assume they had chosen something more permanent in case they wanted to return. They would not have needed guidance close to their goal, but when he reached a point where the corridor branched he saw a place in the corridor wall, at the height of his shoulder, where a small piece of the stone had been chipped away. He would not have noticed it if he had not been searching for some kind of guidance, and, even searching, he might have dismissed it as the damage of time if his need had not been growing more urgent.

At another branching he saw a similar marking, and at a third, another. But that led him down a corridor that ended in a blank wall that no amount of manipulation could turn into a door. He retraced his steps to the place the corridor had branched and inspected the marking more closely. Now he noticed that the chipping was different, with a downward blow that left the deepest part pointing toward the floor rather than a sideways blow pointing forward, and he realized that the grave robbers must have marked the wrong choices as well as the right ones. A few paces down the other corridor he found the mark that told him, he hoped, that he was on the right path.

Finally he arrived at the point where the corridor narrowed and the ceiling got lower. He hesitated and then kept moving forward, trusting the marks and his interpretation of them, until he was forced to his hands and knees. Soon, he knew, he would have to back out or be in so far he could not extract himself. But surely, he reasoned, that is what the builders of this mausoleum would have done as a final protection. At one point, just before he was about to decide that he had made his last mistake, the floor of the constricted space felt pebbly and sharp beneath his hands and knees, and the sides and ceiling of the tunnel grew a bit larger, and he realized that the ancient grave robbers had chopped away at them and left the debris behind. And then the corridor grew large again.

Riley stood up. A few paces away was another blank wall, but this, he knew, was his pathway out of this massive structure into whatever lay beyond. It took him one hour, six minutes, and forty-two seconds to find the combination of pressure points around the circumference of the wall that made a segment of the wall swing inward and allowed light to enter and a breeze redolent with the distinctive scent of alien life and vegetation and their decay.

Riley stepped to the opening and looked down at a flat, rugged surface of stone as far as he could see, sloping away from him toward the canopy of a tropical jungle, and above to a sky that was drifting with clouds turned reddish by an alien sun.

He took a deep breath and started the long climb down to a world that he had to learn about very quickly before he could find a way to leave it.

Chapter Two

Asha woke up.

Light was streaming down from above and a spray of liquid was hitting her face and naked body as she opened her eyes. She was standing in the familiar structure of a simplified Machine, but there was nothing familiar about its location. When she had been transported before, she had awakened in the walled-in section of a cave remote from civilization. Here, she realized, the Machine that had received her was the centerpiece of a fountain that was spraying what seemed to be water. The fountain was in the middle of what appeared to be a public square or a plaza surrounded by structures that seemed just a little weird but clearly intended for habitation or business. The air was breathable with just a hint of an alien odor, a bit pungent, like sandalwood. The square was occupied by several hundred aliens, somewhat humanoid in appearance, and without clothing. And they were all looking at her.

Sometimes, she realized, the Machines left around the galaxy by the Transcendental Machine aliens would have been destroyed by geologic accident or by superstitious natives over the past million long-cycles. But sometimes, if they had been discovered, they might have been admired or even venerated and placed in positions of honor. That, apparently, was what had happened here.

Clearly, too, she and Riley, if he had followed her into the Transcendental Machine, had been transported to different places, perhaps to different parts of the galaxy, and Riley would have awakened, as she did, wondering what had happened, though perhaps, if he had observed what had happened to her, more aware of what the process involved. He would be in a position, and with newly acute faculties, to figure it out, as she had in her first experience through the Machine. And he would have her account for guidance. Now, though, she knew what to expect and what she would have to do. Before, she had found herself among truly alien quadrupeds, whose barklike language had been difficult to learn, but who had worshipped her with doglike devotion and, fortunately, had achieved spaceflight a thousand long-cycles earlier and Federation status only a few hundred long-cycles later. So she had been able to find her way back into Federation space and begin the journey that had started with the rumors of Transcendentalism and the Transcendental Machine, and ended with the pilgrimage on the spaceship Geoffrey from Terminal to the planet of the Transcendental Machine in the adjacent spiral arm.

Here it might well be different. First she would have to calm the apprehensions of the natives of this world, win their trust or maybe their worship (how would they have responded, she thought, if one of the arachnoids had appeared in the Machine?), and find a ship that would take her off this world and into the galactic civilization of nexus point travel and the Galactic Federation that controlled this spiral arm, where there were powerful forces that would rather see her dead and forgotten. She was the unintentional prophet of the new religion of Transcendentalism, a religion of evolutionary fulfillment that threatened the stability hard-won through thousands of long-cycles of wars and internecine struggles, most recently with humans newly emerged from their solar system into the galaxy.

That was the simple part. The second was more difficult. She had to find Riley, for personal reasons and for the help she needed in order to save the galaxy from itself, to fulfill the promise born into its first living creatures, not only to survive but to prevail. To improve. To be the best they could be. To do that, the galaxy needed a more nourishing system of governance, of art, of literature, of discourse. And to make that happen she needed Riley. But where would he consider a logical meeting place in this vast galaxy? It was something they should have talked about, something she should have considered, since she had already been through the Transcendental Machine. But she had not envisioned the variability of destinations. Even transcendence has its limitations.

She would think of something. But now she had to meet her new companions.

She gathered up her clothing scattered on the floor of the Machine, too damp to put on even if she had wanted to. She stepped out of the Machine, into the full spray of the fountain, as naked as the humanoids who stared at her from the plaza.

* * *

As soon as she stepped out of the fountain, humanoids who had emerged from a nearby building rushed toward her with some kind of cloth over their arms and a stronger odor of sandalwood from their bodies. Before she could react, humanoids closest to her had taken hold of her arms. She did not struggle. The touch of their four-fingered hands was firm, warm, and dry but not painful or unpleasant--almost reverent-- and she stood still while the humanoids with the cloths shook them out into garments and draped them on her body: a sheer, royal-blue wraparound gown, a silvery sash, a matching scarf that went over her hair and shoulders. Then they stood back and looked at her as if admiring their handiwork.

They were small people, the tallest among them reaching just a bit above her shoulders. They seemed to lack external gender distinctions. Their smooth, brown bodies were not mammalian; they had no breasts or nipples or genitalia, and she wondered if they were all one gender and how they reproduced and how they nourished their offspring. But they were tugging at her arms, pulling her toward an ornate structure nearby from which the humanoids with the clothing had emerged. She did not resist. She had more pressing concerns. Why had she been clothed when the rest were naked, where were they taking her, and what were their plans for her?

The building resembled the pictures she had once seen of oriental palaces, with smooth rock walls painted with ocher--or perhaps constructed with colored rock--and projections on the roof and the entranceway topped with silver spheres or irregular objects that the humanoids might consider art or ways to ward off evil. As they got closer, the short flight of stairs in front of them flattened into a silvery ramp, perhaps a carpet. It was soft under her bare feet as they pulled her toward a pair of massive silver doors that opened automatically in front of her.

The little people were squealing and hissing now as they tugged her into a large anteroom just beyond the door, its floor paved with marblelike stone and a large vase or urn in the center with blue, raised figures on it, apparently depicting various actions that might have religious or ceremonial significance. She would have to examine and decipher them when she had the chance. But that chance was not now. The little people tugged her across the room and through a door on the opposite wall and into more intimate quarters, with a pallet on a pedestal against the far wall, a pool filled with a clear liquid in the center, something resembling a table--a flat surface with legs--against another wall, and above it a silvery mirror.

She caught a glimpse of herself in the mirror, not haggard from her recent experiences as she would have expected, but radiant, restored-- perhaps by the Transcendental Machine--and adorned like pictures she had seen of ancient ceremonies where women were united with men in lifelong relationships. She would have to think about that. Perhaps she was the guest of a hospitable people, treating her with the special privileges and status befitting guests in this culture, particularly those that emerged through the Machine. If there was a tradition of creatures emerging from the Machine. Maybe there were only myths. They would have to be powerful myths to survive a million long-cycles. On the other hand, they might have been nurtured by charlatans secreting themselves in the Machine and emerging as visitors.

Another possibility was that visitors from the Machine were considered by this culture to be gods or the offspring of gods or those chosen by the gods to reign over these creatures. That would create problems for her need to get off this planet and back into the interstellar community of the Federation. It might not be easy to abdicate and even more difficult to escape without abdication, and almost impossible if she were the scapegoat queen, chosen to rule in splendor for a long-cycle and then be sacrificed for the welfare and good fortune of the people, assuming all their sins and guilt and bad luck in the process.

All that would have to be sorted out. At the moment the cluster of little people had brought her to the middle of the room, squeaking and whistling, and then all but two had retreated in postures that she interpreted as showing deference and perhaps worship as well as twitches of the head and arms that somehow suggested bowing and scraping. The doors closed behind them. Asha heard a click that she understood to be a lock being closed. Her room was a prison. Well, she had been in far less comfortable prisons, and locks were meant to be opened.

Meanwhile her two guards or attendants or fellow prisoners were removing the finery with which she had just been adorned and gently tugging her into the bath in the middle of the room where they proceeded to rub her body with gentle, warm hands and liquids that emerged automatically from spigots on each side of the bath. At first she stiffened at these personal touches from her--what? handmaidens? serving men? Perhaps the question of gender didn't matter to these creatures, or mattered to them only on special occasions, and if so it shouldn't matter to her. She relaxed. They kept squeaking and whistling while they worked, but in a gentler, more soothing pattern. Clearly it was a language, and she would figure it out. Already she was beginning to notice a difference in squeals that her brain, without any conscious direction, was beginning to connect with actions.

Soon they were finished and they helped her out of the floor-level bath and dried her with absorbent cloths taken from a cabinet that opened, at their touch, in a wall. They seemed to marvel a bit at the differences in her body from their own but without alarm or distaste. They did not use the towels on themselves, instead allowing themselves to drip dry and then mopping up the moisture on the floor with additional towels. Finally, finished to their own satisfaction, they tugged Asha, each to an arm, toward the bed and pushed her gently down.

Asha sat upright. "Sorry, kids," she said. "I know you don't understand what I'm saying, but I don't feel like sleeping right now."

Her handmaidens or serving men--she didn't know what to call them, and it wasn't simply a matter of pronouns but a kind of fundamental unease at her inability to place them in a familiar gender context. The problem was common when dealing with humanoid aliens who seemed like humans but differed in some significant way, particularly sexual. Well, she would let that sort itself out, she thought, and before she had finished with it, her attendants had made some invisible signal and the doors opened for two more humanoids bearing platters that they placed in front of her on legs that magically sprang open as they descended to her level.

One platter had an assortment of what seemed to be fruit--purple balls, clusters of what looked like green grapes but were wrinkled like berries, larger globes of a red fruit that had been sliced into sections with moist, red insides. The other platter contained flat yellow pieces of what looked like bread or cake in ornate shapes. She looked them over carefully before selecting a piece of the breadlike substance and sampling it. She tried nothing else. The improvements in her body meant that it could cope with many substances that might have been poisonous to her earlier self, but it made sense to try one at a time, and something that had been cooked had less chance of being deadly. She could try other substances at her next opportunity and then something different until she had established a cuisine of alien foods that she could tolerate. And if anything made her sick, her body would reject it without, she hoped, permanent harm.

Meanwhile, though, the bread, if that was what it was, seemed not only tolerable but tasty, if a bit spicy, like the odor of the world itself and the little people who inhabited it.

"That's enough, kids," she said, putting down the remnants of the bread and waving her hand at the rest, hoping that the gesture, if not the words, were universal. The attendants who had brought in the platters picked them up. The one with the fruit placed it in a far corner of the room, as if leaving it for her later use, and then retreated with the other humanoid through the doors that opened automatically in front of them and closed just as automatically behind, with the same clicking sound.

"Now what, kids?" she said.

She stood up, beginning to feel like a giant among Lilliputians. The attendants looked at each other and then one moved to a different portion of the wall. When the attendant touched a spot, the wall opened like a door to reveal fixtures that seemed intended for the elimination of bodily wastes.

"Not now, kids," she said, and did not move.

The one who had touched the wall--she could not yet distinguish between them--returned to her side. They each took an arm and tugged her gently toward the mirror, squealing and whistling. Their chatter almost seemed to make sense to her, as if she could feel the translation machine in her head whirring as, one by one, words dropped into place.

"I get it," she said. "You want to show me something."

She stared at her image again, this time looking a little gross beside the childlike bodies and faces beside her. But before she had time to ponder that issue her attendants had waved their hands in front of the mirror and it turned transparent. She was looking through a window into a world outside.

* * *

Later she lay in what the little people used for a bed. It was firm but not uncomfortable, except for the two attendants who were curled up at her feet. They were asleep, but she was only resting. She didn't need much sleep anymore--maybe an hour or two of relaxing all the muscles in her body and calming the swift precision of her thoughts. Now, though, she had much to think about.

The mirror, she understood, had become a screen for scenes from the outer world into which she had been thrust, showing views that were either recorded or live. After observing only a single gesture by one of the attendants, she was able to control what was being offered, from landscape to close-up and from what seemed like the town or city in which she had appeared to more varied scenes and more distant vistas, all accompanied by the squeaks and whistles that served the little people as language, or, occasionally, by a cacophony of sound that may have represented music.

This world--she wanted to give it a squeak-and-whistle name--was a planet favored by size, geography, and geology, a bit on the small side but with flat, productive farmland and occasional rolling hills over most of its temperate zone, a few mountains at the equator, and icy poles. The mirror had shown nothing astronomical, so she had no way of judging the planet's position in its system, only that it had a benevolent G-2 sun. She had noticed that when she'd emerged from the Machine.

There were cities, rivers with boats, oceans with ships, landscapes with some kind of vehicles that traveled on single rails. But she did not see any vehicles that moved through the air. And most important of all, she saw no spaceports. That was going to create problems. Getting a world into the space-travel era would take tens of long-cycles, at best, and she didn't have tens of long-cycles, maybe not even a single long-cycle if her worst fears about this culture were confirmed.

Unexpectedly, as if in response to some inner timer or a signal that passed between the attendants unseen, one had stepped in front of Asha and waved its hand at the screen once more. The view of the outside world disappeared and was replaced by a darkened space. A single monstrous figure, but stylized like a line drawing, appeared in a corner of the space before fading away into blackness. Then, in another corner, appeared the figure of a humanoid alien, one of the little people, before it, too, disappeared. A sequence of appearances and disappearances followed, with the two figures showing up in different places each time, but never close to each other.

One of the attendants moved its hand again in front of the screen. Each time the figures moved to different places.

"I get it, kids," Asha said. "It's a search game, like the Monster and the Princess, and I'm supposed to solve it. And that will get me a prize. Or maybe not."

She had heard about such games. Ren had liked to hone his skills on them in the long, dull stretches of travel between nexus points, and she had even toyed with them herself, though never with Ren's success. But her brain worked better now, and she ran over in her mind various strategies that she might bring to bear upon the solution. If she wanted to solve it. Maybe the problem was one these humanoids knew how to solve and solving it would prove her right to membership in the group of aliens intelligent enough to be granted membership in the civilized community. Or maybe it was a problem they had never been able to solve, and solving it would mean her qualification to rule over them. But she did not know, yet, what they did with rulers.

She closed her eyes and let herself relax, sensing the bodies of the little people at her feet and feeling that peculiarly comforting. She hoped that when she stopped thinking about her situation, the answer would come to her.

Copyright © 2016 by James E. Gunn



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