The Pulse: Lactar8
On Lactar8 they finally found a way to recalibrate their spectrographs so that they could extract the patterns buried in cosmic energy streams. This recalibration allowed them to reverse the subatomic submersion model theorized 128 years earlier by Barandur7-9*\<. As a result, Lactari astronomers were able to decipher all sorts of new data coming from around them in the Spiral Arm.
So far they had received about 20 billion yottabytes of data. Yet none of it was very interesting to the average Lactari, let alone the Cult. 30 years after the recalibration, leading Cultist thinkers had more or less resigned themselves to the idea that the universe was not in fact a mirror of their majestic minds. All the spinning and orbiting bodies merely spun and orbited. They were only interesting to that part of their primary brain that cared for such things as vectors, size, density, 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 around the creatures was yellowish-brown, and seemed to contain square and circular modulations. These were perhaps trapping — or protecting — the creatures within some sort of 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 obeying orders that the creatures sent through the force-field. Or, the little heads were staging an attack. In any case, the two creatures were safely trapped within two layers of the force field, and didn’t seem to worry about the tiny heads. The creatures could easily swat them even 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 in some sort of communication.
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 strange pointy towers and a blue atmosphere that settled among the rocks or habitations that sprouted randomly from the soil.
The two images resembled each other in size and positioning, yet they were clearly from different planets. One had a golden atmosphere of magnetic force-fields, while the other had wide open spaces in which they could fly about at will. Perhaps the images, together, represented some sort of alliance between the two worlds. There was also the possibility that one image controlled the other, although which was dominant was not clear.
K had never seen anything like this. He checked the flood of scintillants racing between his four cones. He did a scan-match of the database of imaginary and fantastic 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 cells 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. They had projected a heavenly King who could defy the laws of gravity, and a Water Monster who could suck the yellow 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 narrative 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. His projection went like this:
On Alphasolari’s burning plain, Zadar the One-Headed Demon dared to look up into the fiery sky. He knew that it was forbidden. He feared that in several moments the Sun, who everyone called God, 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 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 her bright container might contain.
The librarian showed him that the stories of the Cult were interconnected. They interlocked, smoothly, like her limbs tucking stories into her thorax. She then funnelled them, in sequences he’d never connected before, into his central chamber. Pulse by pulse, K saw that the projections of the Cult weren’t isolated works of fantasy, but constituted some sort of interconnected narrative. At first it seemed that the stone aggregates that turned themselves into the mind-numbing smoke of Rannabalis were operating independently, like chaos made animate, yet then he realized that Rannabalis was the same many-headed Demon who spawned the spore communities that ruled, from one evil mutation to the next, the entire domain of Electrochemistry.
The librarian held a pulse for eight seconds, confirming that he was ready. The honey-coated tetrahedrons who could read the thoughts of the Cultists who projected them were in fact punishing them with jolts of electrochemical mist whenever they attempted to see through the Rannabalis smoke that the monstrous Hydropod used to cover its tracks.
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 Demon, 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 awareness points. 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 life exist if it didn’t have at the very least a tetrahedron shape? Perhaps a being could have one central brain and four subsidiary awareness points? But that didn’t make sense either: each awareness point would still require four protection points, and in the lag between brain and awareness point all sorts of waves and particles could wreak havoc. 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. Or perhaps the creatures were one organism, joined by telepathy or by some body part that wasn’t visible in the images.
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 they knew that, they could perhaps figure out how the images emerged. It was like they came from no where.
Up until now K had assumed that the Star Wall Giant was merely a mythic Trickster, merely another of the Cult’s fantasy figures. But now he wondered if the two images weren’t just stray fragments that slipped past the Wall and made it to the other side. Perhaps the Giant had sent them on purpose. But for what purpose?
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 twenty-four years. During this “Great Flotation,” the Council prophesied a messianic Super-Lactari they called Orala.
Today some Lactaris believe the Council intuited the existence of Orala, and 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 a Wall of Stars to protect their local cluster 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 trying to editorialize about the future and adding codas to what had for centuries been considered the Final Revelation.
In his most cryptic work, Beyond Good and Evil, the arch-heretic dared to out-prophesy the Grand Council by projecting into the future what Lactana would tell the gathered Lactaris:
Little ones, fear not. I bring not a sword, but a chalice filled with water. Life-giving water. The Water Demon that frightens you is only a symbol of water’s destructive power. Yet out of destruction comes creation. Orange matter is an energized form of the purest water, which is actually blue, and is to be found in its deepest, purest source on the other side of the Star Wall. Heaven is a spherical blue delight, consisting 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 might be different from the grey-blue water below, even though it was the same colour. Was this the watery Heaven Glontar described in his visions?
According to Glontar, Lactana told the gathered Lactaris that good and evil were one. She added that this paradox could pacify the watery 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 also 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 images.
Glontar’s visions became increasingly difficult to follow. He asserted that lactomorphic angels danced in the same ether in which the Cultists of Lactar27 hung collectively, nimble beings of light and sweet water hanging from the tops of the langar trees. Together, everything that was and everything that ever would be would be united in the misty regions beneath the sky temples of the ancient capital. There was no need to go anywhere else.
The Cultists were revolted by the confusing and blasphemous ideas of Glontar. They were ashamed to inhabit the same hanging gardens beneath the purple sun.
K didn’t know what to make of it all. Glontar also projected a Being with ten billion heads, gills that brought wisdom, and swollen-headed mushroom clusters that philosophized about the probabilities of telekinesis and the conundrum of lactomorphism. None of this was as strange to K as the 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.