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Woven Light: The Orphan Obscura

Heath Rezabek began exploring Vessel, an evolving strategy for preserving Earth’s cultures and biology, in these pages back in 2013. A librarian and writer in Austin TX, Heath went on to push these ideas into the realm of science fiction, in the form of a series of excerpts from a longer work that is still emerging. The concluding post in this sequence appears below, though you’ll be hearing more about ‘Woven Light.’ A novel is emerging from this haunting look at how, at various points in our future and with a wide range of technologies, we will interact with the artifacts and stored experience of our past. Heath’s helpful synopsis begins the post.

by Heath Rezabek

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For some time, I have had in hand the final chapter – for now – of the Woven Light speculative fiction series as published on Centauri Dreams from 2013 to present. At Paul’s invitation, I am prefacing the final installment with some notes on the series as a whole.

The series began as a way to explore ideas surrounding the prospects for human or posthuman space travel, and the role which might be played by very long term archives in the resilience of life’s efforts to endure. I am not finished with the themes explored in the series, but for now it is time to shelve this particular approach to the storyline, along with its characters.

After feedback last year at the Turkey City Writer’s Workshop in Austin Texas, and encouragement from a few other parties, I am pursuing a new approach to the story arc, from an entirely different time and place in its imaginary history. The goal is to produce a cohesive and more linear novel, exploring world(s) we’ve only glimpsed so far; the Centauri Dreams installments of Woven Light are a (somewhat fragmented and dreamlike) hint at what is to come.

Here follow episode summaries of each of the published episodes, with links to their versions here.

Vessel Haven (I). We are introduced to an entity called Tracer Aakanthia [9T33], who is exploring a holographic archival site. We meet Aben Ramer, encountering a mock-up of a Vessel Haven – a very long term archive – at the Burning Man festival, circa 2023.

Adamantine (II). 
We meet Mentor Kaasura, who is exploring a ruinous region, the site of an ancient disaster. He rests at a pilgrimage shelter. We learn about an artificial life project meant to provide a guiding sentience for a starship. The sentience is named Avatamsaka; the starship – a lightsail – is named Saudade. We also learn about two offshoots of humanity: the Avaai and the Ghemaai.

Augmented Dreamstate (III). 
We meet Aben’s mother, Thea, an author of speculative fiction, as she struggles with a draft of her work. We meet Dr. Jota Kaasura, who bears an unknown relation to Mentor Kaasura from the prior installment. Dr. Kaasura is working on a project called Augmented Dreamstate, which allows the immersive visualization, exploration, and recording of scenarios. He explores one such: the scene on the day of a disaster.

Proteaa (IV). 
We explore a spaceborne habitat derived from an idea of Freeman Dyson, which he’d referred to as an Ark Egg. Here they are called Precursorae, and within them dwell beings called Proteaa. Vannevar Bush’s Memex is considered, along with an exercise developed by Thea Ramer for coaxing concepts out of a flux of random ideas: Wildcards. Dr. Kaasura meets someone unexpected, and dreams of drifting habitats far from the Precursorae.

Lesson Arcs (V). 
Thea Ramer publishes her novel, The Tracer Guild, but life has other plans. Years later, Aben Ramer meets Dr. Kaasura, and lays the groundwork for him to meet with Thea. In another time and place, perhaps aboard our lightsails, we meet Vaarea Ramer, one of the Ghemaai, immersed in worldbuilding lessons that are passed from mind to mind.

Age of Release (VI). 
Mentor Kaasura explores deep passages woven of light, beyond the shelter’s door. Far flung from there, a fog of mind called Ancient Light sifts the space between stars, finding worlds where planetbound life had nearly reached the Age of Release. Aben Ramer determines researches in one of his favorite spots for thinking, and makes a new friend.

For those who would like a plain manuscript version, in sequential order, this PDF can be found here. It includes a short Appendix of previously unreleased developmental fragments from the drafting table].

I look forward to sharing future excerpts from the new effort with Centauri Dreams as well, should Paul welcome it.

Here, at last, is the final installment (for now!) of Woven Light: A special series for Centauri Dreams, 2013-2015.

Woven Light: The Orphan Obscura (VII)

Across town, mother wasn’t doing so well.

Sorting had led to spreads, as Thea rediscovered cards she’d scribbled on years ago, and laid them out the way she remembered, five across to find three akin. She’d pull them aside, and then would remember. How it had felt: To write with an explorer’s eyes, cresting a hill to shine the light of awareness on inevitable mountains.

Eyes closed, still she could see Ityl-Atys spread below her. Wings outspread, a raptor keen and bright of eye . . . She could see the bazaar, the outlying districts, the towers of abandon. Red streaks in distant sun spread golden rivulets, a quilt of sands for all below them.

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Image 1: Based on photograph CC BY Michal Huniewicz.

And below, she remembered, delved Vaachez, his dusted hat long since traded in fair exchange for a rough and partial map; his map now guidance through at least one dimension of battered space.

Thea read an untold chapter to herself. So easily, but traceless. No recorder. This time, no traces. She only wanted to know.

~ I only want to know. ~

Vaachez made his way along the higher moraine, beams and slabs settled well for this stratum, clearstone lending its glow to light his way.

His pack was both lighter and more burdensome now, its baubles and bits traded for rarified things needed further down, when stealth failed him. So far, trading had sufficed. But trading had grown more scarce since the post where Oaami, his guide, had bowed, and remained behind. “All I have left to offer, I have whispered to this map,” she had said; and handing it to him, she had turned to her ascent.

From there, he had endured the broken way with only scrapes and the parching isolation of stealth to test him.

In time, even the need for stealth had faded, as the last small settlements carven into these caverns had scattered, and subsided altogether. But the weight he carried now was of most use down here; his ascent would depend on encountering someone else descending, the only ones for whom such things would hold the value they held for him now.

He’d had no word of other tracers when he’d ducked into the shade of the lower bazaar. He couldn’t depend on them. So far as he knew, he was the only pathfinder still drawn to this old mystery.

He had to know. Ascent or an ending, he only wanted to know.

Vaachez worked his way slowly around the edge of a drop, a good ten stories, rusty cable scraping the leather of his gloves, smell of dust and sunbeams still (thank the moon) refined by his breather.

Around the bend; only a little further, if this map was anything at all.

Across the way, just then, he glimpsed it: a bird of some sort, winged its way across the chamber above this blockage. Setting sunlight from a shaft far above them caught its wingtips: a dash of burnished wings. A piercing cry. Alight and keen, now, on the opposite ledge.

A clambering clatter in the softlight, ancient ledgers falling still. Vaachez stood, staring straight at the watcher and pierced right through in return. He couldn’t make out the size of the bird, but its shape was nearly regal. So sharp and feral, whittled by chance and opportunity.

It shifted one leg; he did the same. Nothing gave. Exhaling, Vaachez turned to see the rumored landing not a dozen streetwidths on. From there, by map, the ruins descended in wide slabs and steps, far enough that by the time he reached the fabled site, dusk would have fallen far above. Already the air was quickly cooling.

Inhaling again: ~ All things struggle ~. Exhaling again: ~ On each other we depend. ~ Vaachez switched his grip upon the cable, and stepped ahead.

From its perch, the great raptor could see the dustling balance and edge onwards, surefooted and determined.

Hours later, now sharpened in the cool air from his slow descent of switchbacks, he rested. Vaachez stood again on solid slabwork, trying to adjust his eyes to blue shadows. On beams and slabs around him, he thought at one point he had glimpsed vegetation. How possible was that, so far down below? He climbed the final rise, a silent beachhead, and stood before . . .

At first he saw a mountain. Before his mind could calm his heart he felt it sink at the thought of another climb. But no: this was an illusion. Peak there was, quite clearly rising, all in dusky blue and — yes — clad in clambering green. Darkling down below, it rose and reared at the peak as a beam full of moonlight was filtered down to impossible pools at the base of the beamwork.

And beamwork it was: a steeple of sorts, tentpoled and rising, rooted in its subterranean oasis, foundations wide at the base. There, perhaps, it sat: the Orphan, Obscura. How could he know?

Seeing himself at a ledge, an impassable drop to the oasis below, he stopped, and sat, and stared.

By now his eyes had adjusted quite well to the indigo dark, and he could see and sense that the ruin was extensive, though not as massive as some above ground. But sheltered in this space, this domed duskland, it seemed as if a miniature of something vast. Truth enough was that he couldn’t tell. It couldn’t be as large as it seemed. The space was so quiet, the air so still, the sound of water trickling so clear in the silence it carved.

Inhaling again; exhaling again.

Behind him, a cry: and a winged shadow passed not so far above his shoulder, on his right. Friend from the ledge-crossing, it needed a name. And as it made its way across the gap to perch on rising angles, he decided its name was Zinn.

The distance was greater than he’d thought; the edifice was huge. It slumber was deep. Its voice . . .

He sat before the Orphan. He would speak with it, or nothing.

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Image 2: Based on photograph CC BY-SA Al Jazeera

Letting his focus go soft, he steadied his gaze and his breathing, until before him in the settled shape of the ruins he could see a seated figure, Grandfather Silence, casting long shadows. And as his gaze drifted, it fell like the dust, and settled on wellsprings deep at the base . . . And tilted his gaze as he found there a gap of a threshold. Uncertain, he still saw what seemed like — another. Seated at the entry, a tiny mountain settled down beneath the mountainous shadow. Who would break the stillness? Who would answer?

He broke the stillness. ~ I sit before you, a traveller and a friend. I have heard only whispers, but even rumors have a cause. ~

Only dust in deep night air, so slowly.

~ I am called Vaachez. I am an orphan like you. ~

And as Zinn watched, the figure sat with silence.

And the silence stretched on, and on.

~ He has come a long way, ~ croaked Zinn. ~ He has come to know your tale. ~

The Orphan Obscura stirred then, and murmured; ~ He knows it already. ~

Zinn shook and settled, a flutter and a silence like an avian shrug. ~ He may have forgotten. ~

~ Then he is not the one to discover it anew. ~

Zinn cocked one eye, and sized the dustling up and down. ~ He may be the last. Their house is fading. ~

~ He may be the first. Their house is a seedling. ~ The Orphan Obscura shifted something, from one place inside its expanse to another.

~ If he leaves without knowing, he leaves without purpose. ~

Obscura muttered. ~ If he leaves without knowing, he leaves too soon. ~

Perturbed by this back and forth, Zinn took wing, sailing up into the rafters, and swinging down towards the base, where Vaachez’ watery eyes were still fixed. And landing there, she found a pile.

~ What is this heap? ~ She picked at the leaves.

~ It sits and waits. ~ Obscura surveyed a shallow pool at its feet, located a treasure.

~ No time to wait! ~ A fluttering dance. ~ The sun is near! The moon is full! The sleepy stir and soon they’ll wake; for what, a pile? A heap of memories? ~ Zinn darted down to peck at something shiny.

~ A heap of time, slow and intact. That is no small thing. ~ Obscura turned a stone slowly in its gaze, and beneath the stars its etchings caught the ancient light. ~ I have done what I can. ~

Zinn circled the stack of remnants there, wondering if Vaachez could read at such a distance.

She decided he could, and took wing.

~ You’ve done what you can; and so have I. ~

Vaachez sat, parched and quite lonely. The bird had flown suddenly, surely, up and beyond the loose strata far above him. He was alone with his vigil.

Before him slumped a place where forgotten things slept, and waited for a stronger will than his to wake them. But Zinn had been right about one thing: his eyes were keen. And he could read, in that cairn of debris far below, a secret hint of kindness.
Vaachez mulled his reckonings.

All about him, far above him, intolerable weight bent, balanced over its remnants. The Orphan Obscura was not alone, and several more of its kind lay at rest, he knew, slumbering guardians at the roots of other citistates. But if they were all as drowsy as Obscura, there was no way the long work of the Tracer-Guild, and the pathfinders before them, and the dreamhunters before that, could ever come to fruition.

~ Sojourner, peace. You are not alone; nor am I. ~

Vaachez opened his eyes, not realizing they’d been closed, to see the color changed in this space from dusk to slow dawning. He leaned in, peering closely at the form at ruin’s threshold, before the climbing light in this chamber swamped his eyes. Already it was growing violet.

~ A thousand ruins does not a remembrance make. ~ Vaachez furrowed, scolded the fading night.

~ A thousand and one. It takes only one, unruined and found, to spark a rekindling.
~ Obscura raised its gaze, and still could see the moon. Something on its surface glinted, and it too was unalone.

Vaachez rose. Of course the citistate Orphans weren’t the only Orphans out there. Just the most encumbered.

He would find another. He would find a site intact. Would he have to leave the Tracer-Guild, or would they understand?

He looked down at the water, hoping it wasn’t a trick of the mind. He’d need to fill his skins before he made his ascent. Shifting his glance to his rope, he surveyed the situation. He had to get down there, and he had to get back up.

Now that he knew what the seated one sat with, he believed he could see a way. Weighing his chance in his hands, he took it.

The cavern was filled with sudden sun.

– – –

Thea awoke, late afternoon blazing low on mountaintops.

“Shit. You’re kidding me.”

Why no recorder? She was out of practice, and should have known she’d fall asleep. She turned to sit, fumbling for her pad. What was it? A greenish-blue tent in a forest; winter trees overhead; a nightingale?

“Stop and go back.” She clenched her eyes shut and hit record.

“There was a tent, and a full moon. Someone sat and watched and waited. A birdsong, down at the base of the tent… A pile of leaves? A pile of papers? Stones? A pile of something.”

Shit…

“But there was a glimmer in there, underneath or beside it… And I got the impression there are others. Other campsites I guess . . .”

Thea picked at a quilt thread.

“. . . In greener forests . . .”

Greener than green. “All those years, I was afraid of ending this thing.” She looked over at her bedside shelves, at her work, paperbacked.

“Work. I’ve got work to do. At least I should finish the report. Where’s Aben?” She went to send a message, then remembered her son was a grown man already.
Bluer than blue. “I lost it. I’ll try again tomorrow. This time I’ll record from the start. It’s never the same, but it should be related.”

She shut it off, and went to splash her face, and sat at the kitchen table to read back what she had so far.

~ So reluctant. ~

Thea Ramer looked at her life and she sighed.

~ Just sit with it. ~

The sunset lit the pictureframes, the plants and books, the shiny coat of little Dakini, the calico kitten up on her shelves. Golder than gold.

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Image 3: Based on photograph CC BY-SA Ryan Cadby

– – –

Notes on the Deployment of Survey Swarm 2B “Peripheral Vision”
(New York City, Friday September 1, 2023)

The second phase of our survey project utilized a reoptimized scanning algorithm which sought to double the scale and resolution of the initial test survey. My lab at Cornell had developed the algorithm based on analysis of the 2022 data which had suggested that the storage format could accommodate far greater density than we were requiring.

Project lead for the algorithm now known as Peripheral Vision was Ph.D. Candidate Kim Tran, under my supervision. I take full responsibility for what ultimately ensued.

Once site preparations had been completed, the fleet of 64 surveyors were arranged in their starting hexagonal configuration, facing inwards towards the calibration artifact, precisely as specified. The target artifact was a solid tungsten sphere, measuring 20cm in diameter.

The process as planned was for the swarm to self-arrange into a dome configuration around the calibration artifact, and then to commence scanning at n=1 resolution.

Once that scan had been completed, each surveyor was then to pair randomly with another of its peers, the two swapping position to rescan at the same resolution from the new position as an error check and redundant sample.

Finally, once all 32 pairs had completed this process, each would re-select a different random partner, swap positions, and reset their scanning matrices to twice the resolution of the prior pass.

They were then to widen their distance from each other — and thus the swarm’s distance from the artifact — by twice their prior distance, and the process was then to be repeated. The scanning was to cease after four iterations, with a failsafe killswitch coded to kick in after that point if anything in the process had impeded the scan.

– – –

Thea stared through her words, sunken in recollection of what had happened that day.

It could have been much worse. They had lost the swarm, and several technicians had been sent to the ER with concussive shock from the blast. Really, the blast could have been much worse. It all could have been much, much worse.

And then there was the dataset. She turned from her words to stare instead through the dataset.

Aleph. The Myriad Arcana.

When initiated, it had seemed as if the swarm had failed from the start. They failed to reposition at greater distance after the first scan, or the next. Focal beams of bluelight saturated the chamber, tracing and retracing the sample sphere. One sweep; two sweeps; four; then more. Still they hovered, frantically scanning the sphere.

Because sampling had continued to double, even though the surveyors were not repositioning at all, the failsafe code was not engaged. Or perhaps that code knew something its technicians didn’t: it was only when the manual killswitch had been kicked that the surveyors blew to shrapnel, taking out half the observation deck’s retaining wall.

Thea and her team had driven the evacuation, and so she could see light of day beyond the lockdown door when the swarm blew. Flat she laid on pavement, primal fear rekindled to a flaring all around her.

But because the doubling data had shed itself instantly abroad, syncing and resyncing in distributed backups as planned, they still had the bulk of its tattered core. For better or worse it had been unquarantined, because of course they’d immediately want to vouchsafe the data as it streamed from the site… No-one had asked about this yet in the investigation; still it kept her sleepless.

The dataset was so dense that it had already been dubbed a data core by some of her students, and they had only just begun to sample its surface. It had swamped and choked their servers as it had formed, and then their distributed syncs and backups. But now it sat, inert and crystalline, arrayed as woven light; and it could be viewed. Visualized and contemplated, spinning like an ashen star in problem space.

Because it was so large, it had been a lucky break that the syncs had been distributed from the start, or they would never have been able to glimpse it as a whole at all. Yet now, each time they did, each time they sampled a slice and arrayed it with others, they found both gaps and gifts which shouldn’t have been there.

Elements too nearly related for their sampling process to be verified as random.

Samples whose content seemed nothing to do with tungsten.

Avatamsaka had been unborn.

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Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Alex Tolley October 2, 2015, 13:49

    I’m not a writer, but I don’t think that the use of “Shit” will be a likely swear word in the deep future. Perhaps substitute a made up word instead?

  • Paul Gilster October 2, 2015, 15:35

    I don’t know, Alex, it goes back to Proto-Germanic at least. But I did find it a bit startling in context here, so I think I agree with you.

  • Heath Rezabek October 2, 2015, 17:53

    Hi Alex – The careful reader will note that it is Thea Ramer who is speaking there, and she’s contemporaneous with the year 2023. So, I think we’ll still have that word in the lexicon.

  • Heath Rezabek October 2, 2015, 18:49

    The confusion arising from how widely the narrative jumps around between times and worlds is one of the main things I aim to ease in the new work underway.