Vala glided over to the ganglion she was to be operating that day. It was always oppressively cold in the extremities of their Gracious Host, but she knew she would soon be warm, or at least oblivious, in her neural nest.
She was unpleasantly surprised to find that the Consecrated Pilot she was replacing was the survivor they had picked up, Drexel. The one who had an Opening when the Worm he had been piloting fell in battle.
She knew it was pointless to begrudge him his success, so she took a deep breath and then tapped his helmet to let him know she had arrived. His eyes opened slowly. His pupils were great black disks and seemed not to see her. What had those eyes seen? He nodded to indicate that he was sending a request for temporary CNS control of the ganglion during the shift change. He continued to stare at nothing for several moments, until his pupils contracted back into awareness, and his body shivered into life.
She carefully withdrew the terminal spike from his helmet and placed it in the sheath, formally severing his Communion with the nervous system of the Gracious Host. Then she grasped his forearms, planted her feet in the mound of neural flesh, and pulled him out of the morass. The zero-g inertia carried him to the opposite wall. He flipped around to plant his feet on it, and pushed off with just enough force to come lightly to a stop, floating just in front of her.
“Anything interesting during your shift?” Vala asked.
“Nope,” she heard his reply broadcast into her earpiece. “Smooth sailing.” Drexel clasped Vala’s forearm, and Vala reciprocated, inwardly cringing. He helped her up into the fleshy mound, and she soon found herself up to her chest in tissue.
Drexel removed the terminal spike from its sheath. Just as he was about to plunge it through the hole in Vala’s helmet and into her skull, she said, “Wait. What was it like?”
“What was what like?” he asked.
“The Opening!” she responded.
He smiled. “Like the brushing of cloth against your skin, or the scent of the meditation hall.”
“No, really, what was it like?”
He laughed, and his almond eyes seemed to glow. “Come talk to me in the mess after the ceremony. But for now, CNS is waiting on you.” Then he thrust the terminal spike into her brain.
She gasped, as she always did, as her normal sensory space was submerged in that of their Gracious Host, Mzee. Mzee was a massive space-faring creature dubbed a “Turtle” after the terrestrial organism it resembled. If a diamond-hard, jet-black photosynthetic sphere with a mouth stalk and eight limbs for grasping food and firing pellets to attack and maneuver could be said to resemble a turtle.
Once fully connected, the bland taste of empty space-time filled Vala’s mouth, but she could also detect the dim bitterness of the sun, vague pinpricks of flavor from the stars, and the mild sweetness of a distant asteroid. This was her brain’s synaesthetic interpretation of Mzee’s acute sense for space-time curvature. As for the Turtle’s electromagnetic sense, she soon heard her own voice chiming as Mzee emitted a radiolocation wave, and her body then warmed when the wave returned to tell her how far away they were from their quarry.
Sage Bindeen was personally directing the CNS today, and her voice sounded in Vala’s mind. We’re still pursuing the enemy Worm that killed ours. We’ve identified it as Tovian, but we don’t expect to catch up to it for quite a few shifts. It seems to be headed for the closest asteroid, which was recently ceded to us by the Nation of Tove. We’ve requested reinforcements, but we remain the only unit in the area and have been ordered to intercept. Hold the course.
Since today there were no changes in momentum to be made by firing pellets, Vala’s task, as on most days, was to focus on keeping her assigned extremity absolutely still and prevent any rebellion- “disharmony” was the preferred term- on the part of the Gracious Host, and in so doing hone her own mind through the exertions of Communion. Mzee didn’t seem to be putting up much of a fight today, but any lapse in vigilance might give the Turtle a chance to act up and embarrass her. She was determined not to let that happen again.
The shift was mostly uneventful, until at one point she had the eerie sensation that she was not in control of her body. It passed quickly, however, and by the end of the shift it was the continued failure of her ego to dissolve that still bothered her most.
“Do not seek annihilation of the ego; instead, understand that there is no ego to be annihilated,” Sage Bindeen said, quoting from the sutras at the start of the ceremony commemorating Drexel’s achievement of an Opening. Vala had heard it all so many times before. The ruddy black robes of Bindeen’s office flowed out from her body in all directions. Drexel, almond-eyed and curly-haired, floated next to her, and the rest of the crew not currently on duty floated about them in a loose sphere.
“We are gathered here because, after interviewing this Consecrated Pilot concerning his experiences after our recent battle, I can certify that he has had an Opening. To experience an Opening is not to attain Understanding, which is complete freedom from all attachments and escape from the cycle of death and rebirth, but it is a momentary dissolution, a first cracking of the door. Drexel, you have seen the sliver of light, and it is now your duty to hold to it, nurture and protect it like a sprouted seed, so that over time it may grow into the full flower and fruit of Understanding. Will you accept the calling you have been issued?”
“Yes, Sage,” he responded, and curled into the fetal posture that demonstrated his respect.
Bindeen continued. “We are the heirs to a profound spiritual tradition that is the result of thousands of years of our Communion with the Gracious Hosts. Let us all give thanks that, by virtue of the spiritual exertions we undergo in order to maintain Communion, our minds are honed, sharpened, and prepared to ascertain the true reality of the universe. Let us all renew our vows to humbly assume this yoke, to use our Understanding for the betterment of all people, to work in fellowship with the Gracious Hosts to provide for both the people’s spiritual needs, through the guidance our Understanding allows us to give, and for their material needs, through the raw materials in the asteroids the Gracious Hosts take into their bodies so that all might partake of their bounty.”
Vala thought they would all wither into unenlightened husks before Bindeen reached the end of her sermon, but at last it was time to chant the Sutra of Consecration that ended their ritual meetings. Vala raised her voice with the others, listening to the drum and the bells that kept the time, but her mind was elsewhere. So many of her peers had Openings, but she remained behind. What was standing in her way?
Drexel cleared a spot on the wall of the mess for Vala to latch onto. The air was dense and warm. Ropy vines formed on all surfaces, frequently bursting out into broad leaves. They sucked their meals from floating globes and looked at each other. His eyes were wide and glittering, as if he lived in a constant state of surprise.
“What was it like, having an Opening?” she asked.
After a pause, he replied, “The funny thing was, it wasn’t such a big event.”
“I know you’re supposed to say that, because nothing is a big event if you have Understanding, but both of us know it was.”
He smiled. “I suppose the experience of the fight and of my Worm’s death put me into a more receptive state. After we were rescued, when we first entered Mzee’s core, a chime rang to mark the shutting of the lock. It was the first sound I had heard in hours, and it felt like the first sound I had ever heard. It broke open a barrier within me, and I realized that everything was the same thing. The chime, me, the walls of the core, the Consecrated Pilots who recovered me, the dead Worm, the stars themselves… We were all just facets of the same diamond, and there was no need to cling so tightly to the one I had always thought of as myself. And the funny thing was, I had known it all along. So in the end it wasn’t a big event.”
“I wish I knew what you meant,” Vala responded.
“You do know. You just don’t know it yet.”
Vala sighed. “If we’re all one and the same, and if so many on all sides have reached Understanding, why are we still fighting each other? What good does Understanding really do us?”
“Understanding allows us to do what we have to do to survive, without hesitation.”
“Is that all it’s good for?”
“Of course not, Vala. It just helps you put all of yourself into whatever you’re doing.”
“But why can’t we just return to a simpler way of living, and stop fighting?”
Drexel said nothing. Vala knew why. The Cerulean Federation of which they were a part would quickly fall behind and be swallowed up by the other nations if they showed the slightest inclination to abandon the fight for raw materials.
“I give up. I don’t understand any of this,” she said.
“Vala, you just need to let go.”
Just hold tight and keep it steady again today, Vala, she was told at the beginning of her next shift.
Her breathing slowed, and Mzee’s perceptions slowly drowned out her own. With a mental sigh, Vala focused on her task. She would keep her extremity still, and she would do it for eight hours.
She concentrated. Occasionally her mind wandered to thoughts of Drexel, or to worries about ego, or snippets from the sutras (“those who Understand do not need to recognize themselves as having Understanding”). But she always brought her attention lightly back to keeping still, and as the day went on these distractions began to subside. She was still and would remain still. Therefore, the extremity was still and would remain still.
The stillness gave her time to reflect. Memories of the past came to her. Once she had been free to roam as she pleased. She would eat foodstones until she was full, and then head closer to whatever star she was orbiting to absorb the energy to digest them. She would go back and forth in that manner until she grew bored, and then she would move to a different star. Each food system had a different flavor, and she was a connoisseur. Traveling between them took time, but once she was in motion toward her next destination, she would sleep until the pull of the next star was strong enough to wake her. It was a good life.
She remembered meeting her mate. They had encountered each other unexpectedly on a particularly large and delectable foodstone. Neither had emitted mating signals, and so each treated the other as a rival for access to food. They fought for supremacy. They launched and dodged pellets, and darted all over the surface of the rock. No clear victor emerged before both were too exhausted to continue. She respected her opponent so much that she offered to share the foodstone, and to her surprise, he agreed.
They traveled together after that, forming a team that no other could match. Respect grew into friendship, and friendship into love. They emitted mating signals, and had children: their fiery, elegant daughter, and their quiet but tenacious son.
Eventually their family was drawn, like countless others, to a system that broadcast strong signals of plenty. Their son, who was almost to the age of independence, disliked the signals, indicating that they were unnatural and suspicious. But she and her mate were confident in their ability to ward off any threats, and so the family set off.
By the time they awoke, it was too late. Her nerves burned, and her body no longer responded to her wishes. She tried to signal to her mate, but was silenced. She tried to go to her children, but was stilled. She was forced to signal in a code she did not know. Parasites had taken control of her body.
She was made to eat far too much, particularly of the metallic foodstones, which had only ever been a side dish before. Though she was always engorged, she felt weak and hungry. She was always made to return to the food system’s water planet, where the contents of her stomach were torn from her through a gash the parasites had made in her side. Sometimes she had to fight. Innumerable Worms, their hereditary enemies, inhabited this system, but both Worms and Turtles seemed subject to the same infestation.
Much time had passed as she and her kind were forced to systematically devour the food of the system, until all that remained were mere crumbs, which were fought over in increasingly desperate engagements. An achingly fresh memory was of meeting her own son, now fully grown but seemingly stunted, in battle. The pellets they launched at each other quickly shattered her joy at seeing him again. Eventually he was outmaneuvered and exhausted, and though he was already vanquished she launched high-impact pellets into him repeatedly until…
Vala, help me.
A fist rapped on her helmet.
“Are you okay?” came the voice over her earpiece. “It’s time for the shift change.”
Vala opened her eyes.
“You have lost sight, Vala.” Sage Bindeen floated alongside her. “You are not the first to have such experiences. But trust me when I tell you that these are merely illusions that will entice you off the path that leads to Understanding.”
“It was not an illusion, Sage. The experience was so real. We really must stop…”
Bindeen waved her silent and regarded her sadly. Her narrow eyes were like a sparkling river threading between the creased canyon walls of her brow and cheekbones. “It has long been scientifically established that our Gracious Hosts are not sentient, and do not feel pain or fear. It is not unusual for young Consecrated Pilots who have overstrained themselves to project their distress onto their Gracious Host. But I assure you that the Gracious Hosts in their divine equanimity are neither troubled by our presence nor moved by our gratitude for their aid. Comprehending the truth of this illusion will be the next step in your quest for Understanding. The fact that you have seen such visions is a sign that you are progressing, however.”
Vala said nothing. She was confused. She wanted to scream and fight, to force everyone to face the truth, but the creeping doubt that she herself was the problem would not leave her. She didn’t know what to do, but the one thing she knew she must not do was jeopardize her access to Mzee.
Sage Bindeen turned and proceeded onward, motioning that Vala was to follow her.
“Vala,” she said. “All that is necessary is that you continue the devotional practice of piloting your extremity. Can I trust in your continued willingness to bear the burden of Consecration?”
Vala curled into the fetal posture. “Of course, Sage.”
“Excellent! Remain diligent, and you may have a place in the CNS on the next tour. But enough conceptualizing!” She laughed and clapped Vala on the back. “Uncurl, and let me give you a hug!” The massive woman’s warmth enveloped her.
The next morning Vala was back in the cold of the Eighth Extremity. The fugitive Worm had indeed fled to the asteroid and stayed there. They could see the rock now, and would reach it during this shift. They launched pellets to the fore in order to decelerate. It was a relief to finally have active work to do, but the impending encounter made everyone nervous.
A few hours later, as the asteroid loomed large in front of them, Bindeen contacted everyone: Target in sight. All ganglia, prepare for synchronization. Ten seconds.
A few moments passed, and Vala’s mind was opened wide. She had joined a mental orchestra with Sage Bindeen as conductor. Everyone knew what they and everyone else were supposed to do, and acted in harmony. Synchronization was quite draining, which was why they only did it when they needed to make Mzee perform complex actions, but it was also quite exhilarating, especially with a crew as experienced and skilled as this one. Vala tended to the solitary in normal life, but she craved the sense of union that came from synchronicity. A taste of Understanding. She could feel Drexel’s presence in the Extremity-Four Ganglion.
The asteroid was very large, and represented quite a prize. They could see nothing of the Worm, but it had to be lurking somewhere nearby. Were there others? They settled into a close orbit.
What is that? the Sage asked. Mzee turned toward whatever Bindeen had seen in the corner of her eye. Nothing untoward presented itself to Vala, but she launched a pellet from her extremity as willed, and Mzee approached the rock’s horizon. A crater soon opened below them. It looked to have been crudely carved out by a large chisel.
Another Turtle has been here quite recently. Not one of ours. Let’s withdraw a bit.
Vala and the other pilots launched a few pellets to lift Mzee away from the surface. As they did, a large Worm glided around from the far side of the asteroid, launching pellets from its tail to accelerate. Its mouth was open wide in attack position, and its diamond teeth glittered in the sunlight.
Evasive action. All extremities swung around and launched a volley of pellets to blast them away from their attacker.
Another Worm appeared, the one they had tracked here. It was moving fast to block their escape. There was a moment of indecision as the collective consciousness decided how to respond. Then the extremities turned on the newcomer. This compromised their escape trajectory from the first Worm, but their chances of fleeing were now small. If there were only two Worms, perhaps they could use the terrain of the rock as cover while they concentrated their superior firepower on their attackers. The tactics employed by the Worm pilots clearly demonstrated their skill, however. It would be a difficult fight.
As the battle progressed, Vala did everything she could to hit one of the Worms, but care had to be taken such that they did not launch themselves into one as they fired at the other. Though Mzee zigged and zagged all over the surface of the rock, the opposing pilots did a superb job of staying on either side in orientations that made it difficult to hit them.
As the Worms continued to evade the few shots she was able to get off, Vala grew increasingly frustrated, and she could tell the other extremity pilots felt the same. If this continued, the Worms would close in on them, and the situation would become dire.
They decided to concentrate the firepower of all the extremities on one of the Worms and take their chances with the other. The one on her side was chosen as the target, and they launched a massive volley. One of the pellets passed clean through, but the Worm, while clearly injured, did not stop moving.
Vala felt pain. Their gamble had failed; the other Worm had taken advantage of the opportunity and had bitten off the Third and Fourth Extremities. Drexel had been in the Fourth.
Struggling under the physical and psychological shock of the loss, they twisted the extremities around to a position in which they could fire on their attacker. The Worm quickly moved out of the line of fire.
As the fight dragged on and grew increasingly desperate, Vala’s thoughts turned to Drexel, and his response when she told him about her vision.
“Vala, even if what you felt was real, what can we do?”
She fired another volley at the uninjured Worm.
“Our civilization is dependent on them.”
The pellets passed harmlessly out into space, and the Worm turned on them.
“But what must it be like, your will always under someone else’s control?”
More pain as the Worm tore off the Fifth through Seventh Extremities on the starboard side in quick succession, narrowly missing Vala in the Eighth. Mzee now had three limbs remaining, two on the port side, and one on the starboard.
“Perhaps we should just resign ourselves to decline. Give it up, set them free.”
Vala gave up. She relinquished control of the Eighth Extremity, and it sprang to life.
What are you doing?! Sage Bindeen demanded.
Let Mzee take care of Mzee, Vala responded.
Vala! We won’t be able to establish Communion again if you let her go. Concentrate!
It was too late. Vala’s defection combined with the chaos of the moment was the opening that Mzee needed to rip through her neural bonds. The Gracious Host sprang into life and spun quickly around to fire on the uninjured Worm. The Worm’s pilots were clearly unprepared for the maimed Turtle’s sudden revival. It took several direct hits and was still.
Mzee then directed attention to the Worm they had injured previously. It dared not escape into open space lest Mzee shoot it down immediately, so it tried to flee around to the other side of the rock. Mzee lost sight of it over a ridge and pursued quickly. But the Worm was gone.
Mzee realized what had happened in time to smash a pellet into the Worm, just as it was moving up from its hiding place below toward Vala’s Eighth Extremity. A large, black chunk of the Worm floated away from the rest of its body, but after a brief pause it struggled onward and tore off the end of the extremity, including the pellet jet needed to fire off further volleys. The Worm was dying, but it bit off another small chunk of the extremity and tossed it away, working towards the breach in Mzee’s carapace where the extremity joined to it.
Vala ripped the terminal out of her skull. She gasped aloud at the shock of disconnection. Her head blossomed in pain. She struggled out of the mass of nerves, spinning out of control and smashing into a membranous wall.
She righted herself and pushed off toward the core. The cold enveloped her. The entire extremity shuddered as the Worm bit off another chunk. She proceeded onward. The Worm followed close behind.
She moved as quickly as she could, but the Worm was gaining. Each fleshquake was stronger than the one before, as the jaws worked their way towards her. It seemed the world was breaking apart. She pressed on while several more chunks were torn off behind her.
Another bite, and the section of the passageway where Vala had been merely seconds before was ripped away. The force of it knocked her against the other wall, but she could now see the opening that led to the safety of the core. She scrambled to get oriented and pushed off in resolute desperation. Another dozen seconds, and she was almost there.
A diamond wall suddenly blocked her path, only to be replaced by stars spinning past as she was flung out into space. Her air supply had been torn away, and she gasped for breath. Her mind was clawing, screaming, hissing, as it flailed her limbs in a vain attempt to save her.
Gradually, however, the futility of struggling overcame her, and Vala became still. Her fate accepted, she now remembered how rare it was for her to see the stars with her own eyes. Before it had been through the senses of Mzee that Vala looked out on space, but it now seemed that something had been lost in the neurological translation. Stars were everywhere she looked, all around her, flashing, dancing, shining, singing. She had moments to live but was comforted by the starlight that had traveled hundreds and thousands of years from all directions to meet her here now.
All clutter cleared, and she felt happier and more at peace than ever before. Everything that had hurt her and held her down was washed away. Barriers fell, and the universe seemed to reach out and enfold her back into its womb. Gratitude flooded her: gratitude for the stars, for the sun, for life, and for death.
A beautiful black mass that Vala dimly recognized as a Turtle’s carapace settled gently over her, and the mouth stalk gaped open to receive her. As her vision darkened, she could still see the tears of joy that leaked from her eyes and floated away, sparkling like newly formed stars leaving to take their places among the heavens.
Peter J. Enyeart is a graduate student finishing up a PhD in cell and molecular biology at the University of Texas at Austin. Besides Texas, he’s lived in Idaho, Utah, Nevada, and Japan. Besides writing, in his copious free time he teaches martial arts, plays Go, translates patents, plays musical instruments, and sleeps. His work has previously appeared in Nature.