An Obelisk in the Void

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Science Fiction  |  House: Science Fiction

Mason discovers an unexpected answer to the Fermi Paradox.

Mason stood back from the others and studied the stone. It was black, smooth but uneven, like obsidian. It was about three meters tall, roundish, a bit too thick for a man to wrap his arms around it, and it was tapered and blunted at the top. It gleamed, almost reflective in the evening sun that hovered over one end of a vast prairie. The stone was completely out of place.

 

“What is it?” asked Joan, rhetorically and pointlessly.

 

Mason shrugged. “Well, it isn’t food, and it isn’t shelter.”

 

Mason looked around his expeditionary group and knew that everyone was thinking what he was thinking. The obelisk was unnatural, crafted, the product of an advanced intelligence. Against all odds the people of Earth had reached out into the cosmos, again and again, for thousands of years, without discovery of a similar, space-faring intelligence.

 

The odds said that countless civilizations should have risen and fallen before the advent of humankind, that it was improbable humankind was alone, that in all rational consideration, humankind should run up against superior, established galactic intelligence and force. But despite that, nothing. Fermi’s paradox had held true and unresolved. Until now—a strange monument on a world unpeopled by intelligent life. This held an answer.

 

He motioned to his security team. “Let’s set up camp a few klicks to the East, back where we crossed the stream.”

 

Ralph, his geologist, let out a sigh of disappointment.

 

Mason nodded to the security captain. “Have a couple men stay with Ralph and Mauve for an hour or so. Then head to camp.”

 

The captain nodded and picked two men to stay. Mauve was the group’s exo-engineering expert. By the look of the stone, an engineer was as likely as a geologist to make sense of it, though probably not inside of an hour. This was just to keep the science types happy.

 

Mason, Joan, the security Captain, and the rest of the security team and scientists headed back to the stream. Joan tested the water and declared it potable, and the Captain directed the security team as it set up a force perimeter. They had glimpsed some large footprints that Mason estimated must hold a quarter-ton beast or larger. There was no need to become dinner the first night on the planet.

 

Mason took the rest of the explorers and set them to rigging tents, lasering away the prairie grass, and making a fire. Then he wandered a short distance from the camp and looked away from the camp, back towards the sunset, where the obelisk must be, obscured by clumps of a particularly tall species of golden grass, two meters or more tall, that dotted the rolling prairie.

 

The cryptobiotic rust-hued crust and pale blue and pink lichens that hugged the prairie dirt crunched under Mason’s boots as he stopped and stood atop a small knoll, surrounded by waist-high grasses, blue-green with waving stalks of brown-gold seeds, and wildflowers of delicate white, yellow, red, and purple.

 

Around him, here and there, was a plant like horsemint from Earth, growing in clusters of stalks topped with pink-powder leaves, infusing the air with the familiar scent of mint. Mason breathed deeply.

 

There was no sign of the team, no sign of the patrols, no sign of anything except the waving of grass and wildflowers in the lightly gusting prairie breeze. Mason turned back to camp. All done, the camp set a perimeter around a mostly-mowed plot on both sides of the stream, with a fire on one side, and tents on the other. It was dark.

 

Ralph, Mauve, and their escort hadn’t arrived. This concerned Mason, who sent out patrols in an attempt to locate the four. Well after what he imagined must have been midnight, he fell asleep despite it all. The watches and patrols were already set, and despite the stress of four missing expeditionary members, remaining awake could solve nothing. The rest of the camp tossed and turned under the same unrelenting truth.

Mason rose as the sunlight beamed through his thin tent wall. He exited to find the Captain already well under way organizing the day’s efforts. “I thought that until we find the others, we should make camp here,” the Captain explained.

 

“Aubrey, you’re right,” acknowledged Mason. “We can’t very well go on without them.” Mason paused for a moment to take in the alien sun rising over the vast woods to the east, densely foliaged in blue and green, near where their shuttle must rest. The prairie grass glowed golden-brown in the sunlight, almost blinding him. He lowered his eyes.

 

“It’s amazing,” said Joan, touching his elbow.

 

“Damn straight,” Mason replied. He turned away from the blaring sunrise and faced her. “I suppose some of us should start off where we left them.”

 

Aubrey nodded. “Yes, I could take a tracker to the obelisk and start there.”

 

Mason nodded. “Good, we’ll come with you.” It was really unnecessary for him or Joan to go on patrol or try to track anyone, but it felt better than doing nothing.

 

Considering that thought, he ordered: “For that matter, before we go, see that the rest of the team has some kind of patrol assignment.”

 

By the time Aubrey, Mason, Joan, and the tracker, Bill, left the enclosure, patrols were bustling away, along the stream, in all directions, but not near the obelisk. “Don’t want them trampling all the evidence,” Bill explained, “although that likely happened last night already.”

 

Mason understood. Even though sending patrols to search for the missing team members had been the right choice, it came at a cost. It would be almost impossible to track the four missing members through all the footprints, trampled grass, and so forth caused by the patrols. Still, he had to take his best shot with Bill.

 

The four walked almost in silence, with only the sounds of their footfalls and rustling of grass, with the hot sunrise beating on their backs, until they reached the obelisk, about a half hour away from camp. The area was lousy with footprints and trampled grass.

 

“Ugh, boss,” said Bill, “you’ve gotta see this.” Mason strode over and stood behind Bill, who was stooped over a large pawprint of the type they’d seen yesterday. “It’s fresh,” said Bill.

 

This was an unfortunate development. While Mason looked down in disbelief, he heard, behind him, the sound of a body thudding into the prairie dirt. He wheeled around to see Aubrey struggling on the ground near the obelisk. On instinct, he sprinted to Aubrey, and as he arrived, saw that Joan had fallen into the obelisk and lay nearby it, her hand still touching its side. Dodging and leaping to avoid trampling her, he came to rest with his back and hands against the obelisk, his chest heaving from the sudden exertion.

 

Joan and Aubrey were both rising, unharmed. “What was that about?” demanded Mason, before he realized that, in the stress of the moment, he was making a demand.

 

“Well,” replied Aubrey, “I was just getting a look around obelisk, to see whether there were tracks, or anything Ralph or Mauve might have noticed, when I stumbled on a clump of grass.”

 

Joan nodded. “I bent over to help Aubrey up, and tripped into the obelisk.”

 

“Well, since everyone’s okay, did you see anything?”

 

Joan and Aubrey shook their heads. They hadn’t seen anything helpful.

 

“Bill!” Mason called out. “Bill!” Mason thought it unusual that he hadn’t caught up. Bill would certainly have heard the ruckus and was not the sort to hang back.

 

There was no response. But, nearby, clumps of tall grass began to tremble, then wave, until four human figures emerged. As they approached, Mason began to make out their faces. “Ralph, Mauve, Nina, Jackson, where the hell have you been?” he demanded.

 

“We must have taken a wrong turn,” explained Nina, shifting her weapon nervously. “After dark, we just set a perimeter and took watches, rather than walk around blindly…you know, the pawprints.” She was visibly concerned that Aubrey would consider the decision wrong or rash and deliver a browbeating.

 

But Aubrey simply nodded. “Glad you made it,” she said. “That’s a load off.”

 

Mason sighed in relief and sat on a bare spot near the obelisk, allowing himself to rest, if briefly. Joan did the same. Who could know what decisions were right or wrong in a place like this? You took a guess and made it work to the best of your ability, and that was all anyone could ask for. All’s well that ends well.

 

As Mason rested, he heard a rustling behind him and turned to see Bill approaching from the obelisk. “Bill!” Mason exclaimed—how did you get behind us?”

 

“Oh, I must have circled around following a trail. When I got past some of the tall grass, I saw the lot of you here. Seems like the search is done.”

 

Aubrey nodded. “Yes, didn’t expect it to be this easy.”

 

The group laughed with relief. “I suppose we could have remembered that protocol is stay in place until found,” said Joan. And they laughed once again, because without really thinking about it, that’s exactly what had happened. The lost team members had stopped and held position when they knew they were lost, and then when they had their bearings back, they’d returned to the place they had last been seen. It was exactly as it should have been. What surprised Mason is how they’d managed to slip by all the patrols—by pure luck!

 

The group had returned to the camp about an hour later, and as the patrols returned once more, Mason held them back, in the camp perimeter, until the entire expeditionary force was gathered. This was a good site, the obelisk was a good curiosity, and the team had been stressed and tired. Mason decided they would remain here for a few days, acclimating to the surroundings, studying what they could.

 

He left the science team leaders and the Captain to sort out the logistics of it. He’d learned long ago that micromanagement is a curse. An expedition leader isn’t chosen to make decisions, but rather to resolve conflict. For the moment, there was nothing for him to do except make himself useful, which he did by scraping together samples for the biological team. When he wasn’t doing that, he’d watch the engineers and geologists poke and prod at the obelisk. Apparently, it was extremely hard and dense and extended an unknown length down towards the planet’s core, but no one could discover or deduce much about it.

 

It was on the third day that the Visitor arrived. He, or she, or it—whatever, Mason couldn’t decide—rode up to the perimeter and dismounted from an immense beast, a giant six-legged panther with paws that could well have made the tracks the expedition had noticed. The Visitor walked straight through the camp perimeter as the beast wandered around foraging grasses. “Greetings,” it said.

 

This came as a bit of a shock to the scientists because nothing about the preliminary expeditions to this solar system had indicated any sign of intelligent life. Mason could tell it wasn’t as surprising to the security team. It’s not that security personnel were dimwits or mistrusted science, it’s just that they had a different mode of thinking.

 

They’d happened upon an unnatural obelisk. If that was small enough to slip through the preliminaries, other things might have slipped by, also. The science teams expected the obelisk to be an artifact that didn’t affect the present assessment of the system; the security team expected the presence of an undetected artifact to call the entire method into question.

 

It seemed that the security team’s perspective was correct. And frankly, Mason was relieved that security folks had that sort of perspective. It meant that even though their weapons were currently raised and trained on the Visitor, they weren’t panicked, because they weren’t surprised. Mason waved their weapons down, although the Visitor hadn’t seem concerned in the least about their weapons. “Well,” said Mason, “greetings—have a seat with me.”

 

The Visitor was an interesting fellow. It was about two and a half meters tall, and it was dark like the obsidian of the obelisk—although its shape was without depth, as if it were covered in carbon nanotubes, a black absence cut in the fabric of reality, except that it quivered and shimmered ever so slightly. The Visitor spoke and saw, and had the silhouette of a face, but no-one could precisely say what its features were. It was bipedal, with two arms, and appeared to go about naked, but no-one could discern any features of nakedness.

 

The Visitor sat comfortably at the makeshift mess bench, across the table from Mason, and spoke with him. “It has been a long time since anyone touched the Beacon,” explained the Visitor.

 

“The Beacon—that is the tall obsidian structure a few klicks to the West, the one we call the obelisk? The one our people are studying?”

 

“Yes, yes,” laughed the Visitor, “the Beacon is the structure you call the obelisk, the one your scientists poke and prod.”

 

Mason frowned. “Are we harming it in any way? Is our study…inappropriate?”

 

The Visitor laughed again. “No, no, you will not harm it, and no-one begrudges you the opportunity to study it. The Beacon is there for all who would take to the stars and explore.”

 

Mason nodded. “Is it dangerous?”

 

The Visitor paused for a moment, with what felt to Mason like deliberation. “No, we would not say it is dangerous. We would say that it merits caution, but it is not dangerous. I don’t know whether that tells you what you need to know.”

 

That was how Mason’s conversations with the Visitor progressed. To Mason, the Visitor was plainly beneficent, transparent, but there were also judgments that the Visitor was incapable of making. The obelisk did not cause what the Visitor would consider harm, but for some reason its study should be approached with caution.

 

Mason could tell that the Visitor would always be as honest as its comprehension of human agency and opinion allowed it to be, and it would also be truthful when its understanding did not allow him to make a clear judgment. There was caution here. Human preferences might diverge on the answer to some of Mason’s questions.

 

“Well,” inquired Mason, “what is the Beacon?”

 

“It would be difficult to explain the Beacon before you have understood it,” explained the Visitor. “What I can tell you is that it is that which calls out, that which brings you to us.”

 

“Difficult, or impossible? Try me.” Mason didn’t want to make demands, but he had to understand whether a human being would consider the obelisk a threat. If there was one reason for his presence on the team, it was this sort of question.

 

The Visitor paused in consideration. “I don’t have the ability to explain the Beacon,” he explained. “I am just a messenger.”

 

“Okay,” continued Mason, “in that case, why is there no danger, but reason for caution?”

 

“The Beacon cannot harm you, but it is a path to our worlds, and a path is a choice.”

 

Mason did not find this explanation illuminating. He sighed and leaned back, then rose from his seat. “Well,” he said, “I suppose we can return to this conversation later, after we both have some time to think about it.”

 

The Visitor looked up at him, or seemed to, with its swirled, featureless face—or did Mason see a mouth and eyes briefly, very much like his own? He could not be sure.

 

“I must return from where I came,” declared the Visitor. “I will eventually return, but for the time being, I can stay no more.”

 

And with that, the Visitor rose, bowed, turned, and walked through the perimeter, whistling for its beast, upon which the Visitor rode off towards the Western horizon.

 

Mason shook his head. At least they now knew that the beasts were herbivores. It wouldn’t do to startle one or anger one, if they could be startled or angered, but at least there was not the nightmare of being hunted and consumed by a massive predator in a grass-obscured prairie.

 

That night, Mason’s dreams were strange. He felt aroused from sleep, though still groggy, and began to rise, seeing Bill’s face. Bill spoke unintelligibly, and Mason fell back into sleep. The next morning, he asked Bill whether he’d tried to wake him, but Bill claimed he hadn’t. Despite the odd dreams, Mason felt well rested, ready for the new day. He had similar wakeful dreams for the next few days and told himself it was his mind working out the underlying tension in the situation. A decision had to be made.

 

He called Joan and Aubrey to his tent and discussed the obelisk with them. Eventually, it was decided. Aubrey would stay on planet, in command of the expedition, while he and Joan returned in the shuttle, to the lightship, and did what was necessary to obtain guidance from Earth. Until they returned, no-one would interact with the obelisk. Scans and passive study only. The scientists would be disappointed, but they would still be busy, as there were many modes of passive study, and there was, in any case, a largely unexplored world.

It was about half a day’s walk back to the shuttle. As they walked, Joan and Mason pondered the obelisk and the Visitor.

 

“A path is a choice, and we should be cautious,” repeated Mason, aloud. “It’s not exactly cryptic, but it’s not very revealing, either.”

 

Joan nodded, then, as Mason was behind her, said “that’s true.” She paused. “What do you think Shamish will say?”

 

Mason laughed heartily. “Oh, gods, that one is easy to predict!”

 

Joan laughed as well. “Stop everything! Do nothing until our expert science team arrives! Led by Shamish personally.”

 

“Yeah,” added Mason. “All paranoia and personal glory.” After a while, “What about Victor?”

 

“Oh,” replied Joan, “that one will insist that a team extract the stone and study it at some remote laboratory.”

Mason laughed again. “You’re right. I wonder why we even bother—we should just sit on our hands until someone gets here.”

 

Joan turned and smiled. “You know why,” she said.

 

And Mason did know why. Here he was, stepping through the motions because he knew that his role required it, but the reality was, they hoped that their team would trigger something before the Expeditionary Council could ruin everything. That was the point of being out here. The chance to make a discovery, to make a decision, before the Council had a chance to take the fun out of life.

 

“Sure do,” he replied. “The real question is, why are we on our way to the lightship?”

 

Joan laughed. “Duty.”

 

Aboard the lightship, Mason activated the Superluminal, and in short order was speaking with the Expeditionary Council. They reacted exactly as he’d expected they would. Shamish was the neurotic, paranoid freak Mason knew him to be, and insisted that Mason and Joan wait for a science team. Victor surprised Mason a bit, arguing for study at an Earth laboratory. The conference bored Mason, and he ended the transmission as soon as it was polite to do so.

 

Their orders were to await a science team that would arrive to study and extract the obelisk.

 

“The only surprise was that Victor wanted to study the thing at an Earth laboratory,” Mason said. “It’s uncanny how easy it is to predict those two.”

 

Joan laughed and nodded. “I expected the Earth laboratory—it’s more firmly under Victor’s control that way,” she explained.

 

“Well, it’s late,” Mason observed. “And nothing the team is doing is exactly inconsistent with our orders.”

 

“Yep,” agreed Joan. “May as well take advantage of our quarters here for the night and give the team another day to play with its new toy.”

 

And so it was settled. Mason parted with Joan at her door and made his way to his own quarters. They were exactly as he had left them, which, while a natural enough consequence of Newtonian physics, was a bit of a shock to him, since he was usually wrong about exactly how he had left his quarters.

 

His bed was perfectly made, just as it had been the first day out of space-dock. His efforts to leave the place in order had obviously exceeded his own expectations, and he felt a tiny bit impressed with himself as he adjusted the temperature to near-freezing levels and settled into bed with the comforter wrapped around him. At the same time, his room felt surreal, even uncanny.

 

The next morning, Mason arose and found his clean uniforms waiting, inexplicably in perfect order. He packed a few into his sack, figuring that it couldn’t hurt to have more. Then he made his way to the galley, where Joan waited.

 

“I had the weirdest dream,” she announced. “I dreamed that Bill was shaking me awake. In fact, I felt awake—groggy, but awake. And then I woke up here, in my comfy bed.” She paused. “A really comfy bed, almost like a dream.”

 

Mason started a bit. “Huh. I have had that same dream about Bill. Odd.”

 

But there really wasn’t much to be done about sharing a dream with his crewmates, and he supposed it wasn’t unusual. After all, Bill had woken them on other expeditions. Why wouldn’t they both have a dream about it? In any case, here they were on the lightship, with a shuttle, with the chance to bring down supplies for the expedition, so Mason and Joan quickly put aside talk of dreaming and busied themselves loading the shuttle, mostly in silence, as the work went faster with focus.

 

Later that day they landed within a klick of the camp, where they were quickly greeted by a security team led by Aubrey. The team unloaded the shuttle onto a couple broad hover-platforms and carefully pushed the supplies along, up and down the rolling hills of the prairie, until they reached the perimeter, where Bill greeted them with excitement.

 

“You have to see this,” he exclaimed, “follow me.”

 

Mason looked at Aubrey, who nodded. “It is weird,” she opined, “and you’ll want to see it.”

 

Mason, Aubrey, and Joan followed Bill as he led them back to the obelisk. It didn’t take long—there were no more clumps of grass to navigate. The team had cleared and trampled a fairly broad, straight path from the encampment to the obelisk. The path was large enough that a scientist could push heavy machinery along on a hover-platform without much concern or care.

 

When they reached the obelisk, Bill simply said, “see?” And Mason did see what Bill must mean. The obelisk no longer seemed solid. It seemed more like the Visitor, a space for something rather than strictly the thing itself. Mason couldn’t make out the curve of the obelisk; it was an obsidian absence. He felt the urge to touch it. As he approached it, he could see Bill’s reflection, but not his. He edged over towards Bill to see if he could get an angle on his own reflection, but he could not.

 

“Do you see that?” Mason asked.

 

“Yes,” said Joan and Aubrey, almost at the same time.

 

“See what?” asked Bill.

 

“You!” the three replied. As Mason looked, Bill’s face swam in the obelisk.

 

Mason gave in to his urge and reached out to touch the obelisk.

 

He felt himself slip, as if losing consciousness. Something caught him, held him up. As his head cleared, he stood more steadily. Aubrey stood next to him, helping Bill to steady him. Joan lay on the ground, near the obelisk.

 

“It seems you almost passed out there,” Bill said.

 

“Well, you’re right, that was certainly something to see,” said Mason. “What happened to Joan? She was standing by me not a few seconds ago.”

 

Bill just looked at him quizzically. “Are you sure you’re okay?” Bill asked. “Still lightheaded?”

 

Mason shook his head. “Well, I suppose it’s time to get back to camp, get a report on everything that has happened for the past couple days.”

 

Bill shook his head. Aubrey stepped in front of Mason and peered quizzically into his eyes, as if looking for a foreign body. “A few days? Are you sure you’re alright?” she asked.

 

Mason nodded, but then noticed something strange. “Aubrey, Bill, are you seeing this?” he asked. “What?” they replied.

 

“Well,” Mason said, “it’s just that there’s no path back to the camp anymore.”

 

“Path to the camp?” asked Bill. “What the hell are you talking about? Now I am sure that something’s wrong.”

 

With that, the camp’s siren began blaring an alarm. Aubrey and Mason rushed back to camp, jogging quickly but carefully so as not to twist an ankle or break a leg on some hidden impediment. Bill followed behind, carrying Joan. Inside the perimeter, Mason bent over, panting. One of Aubrey’s sergeants approached.

 

Aubrey stood up straight. “Let’s have it,” she said.

 

“Bodies,” huffed the sergeant, also winded. “Bodies about ten klicks from here, looks like four of them, mostly eaten.” He huffed some more. “Surrounded by those big goddamn pawprints.”

 

Mason shook his head. “But we found Mauve and the others…and the Visitor…those things are herbivores…”

 

The sergeant and Bill looked at Mason as if he were a lunatic. “They’re not herbivores” said the sergeant, a bit breathlessly.

 

Bill spoke. “I don’t think we found Mauve and the others—I was with you, remember? And what’s this about a Visitor?”

 

Mason looked at his wrist chronometer, something he’d not had the time or reason to do until that moment. The date was wrong. He grimaced. “We’ll have to get back to the Superluminal and contact command.”

 

The sergeant wrinkled his nose at Mason. “You feeling okay, sir?” he asked, in a concerned tone. “What’s this about a ‘Superluminal’? You having a science fiction moment?”

 

Mason realized that command could not be consulted about their difficulties. It would be many years before command would receive and respond to a message.

 

But perhaps he understood the problem, now. “Bill, exactly how long was I out of your sight?”

 

“Less than a few seconds,” responded Bill. “I heard the sound of people falling and came right after you.”

 

Mason stood up straight. “Sergeant, I want you to get everyone inside the perimeter, pronto. And no-one—I mean no-one—is to approach the obelisk. No-one is to touch it, you understand? Not for any reason at all.”

 

Somehow, a week or more had passed in seconds, or for all Mason could tell, a fraction of a second, or virtually no time at all. And then there were the four devoured team members. No one was going near the obelisk without a plan.

 

He sat in his tent, awake, that night, pondering his course of action. He could go back to the lightship and use the communicator—wait the years needed for the response. He knew what conversation would result back on Earth. It wasn’t just a dream. Shamish and Victor really would wish that he would sit on his hands—they really would want to dissect the thing.

 

Before that could happen, something must be ventured. By the time he fell asleep, past midnight, exhausted from the past two days, he knew what must happen.

 

Mason arose early in the morning, found Bill’s tent, and shook him awake. Aubrey and the sergeant were on watch. “You two will do,” Mason said. “Come with me—bring Joan.”

 

He led the little group back to the obelisk. “Leave Joan here and set a perimeter,” he ordered Aubrey and the sergeant. “I don’t think there will be a problem during daylight, but let’s be safe.” To Bill, he nodded. “You’ve seen it once already,” he said.

 

Bill nodded, but still said, “Care to explain?”

 

“It wouldn’t make sense,” Mason replied. He set Joan’s hand against the obelisk. Then he reached out and touched the Beacon.

 

“Back again!” observed the Visitor.

 

Mason nodded. “I understand now—well, I don’t understand the technology of it, but I know enough for you to answer a few more questions.”

 

The Visitor nodded. Mason could see features now. They were still hard to make out, and the Visitor still exuded the sense of being empty space—or not empty space so much as reserved space. But Mason at least felt that he saw features. No matter. The Visitor spoke.

 

“Yes, you have deduced enough for me to provide some answers.”

 

The Visitor waited, as Mason waited. Then, Mason spoke.

 

“Can you tell me things that I don’t already know?”

 

Laughter from the swirling face. “Yes. No. Sometimes.”

 

“The Beacon, it’s a portal, right?”

 

“Yes.”

 

“Now that I’ve been inside and out of it, I understand, my consciousness can enter it, live independently in the Beacon, and exit back to my body—if my body is still there, right?”

 

“Yes.”

 

“My crew are conscious inside the Beacon, even though their bodies were consumed by those creatures. Except Joan, of course—she can still return.”

 

“Yes.”

 

“I assume that anyone who enters the Beacon and does not leave within the day is likely carried off by the things and eaten, and of course we don’t have a good way for them to leave after that.”

 

“Yes.”

 

“But it’s unlikely that anyone would know it, unless like me they’d traveled back and forth, or unless they knew ahead of time.”

 

“Yes.”

 

“The Beacon learns what the people who enter it know, models their world, right?”

 

“Yes. Maybe. It models their wishes. Knowledge. Dreams. It can be different for each person.”

 

“Does it model anything else?”

 

“It extrapolates the universe.”

 

“Accurately?”

 

“As best as it can. It learns whenever newcomers find it.”

 

“I lived a week or so in the Beacon in only a few seconds.”

 

The Visitor laughed. “Maybe a nanosecond.”

 

“Okay, so how long does someone go on in the Beacon?”

The Visitor laughed again. “How long does he want to go on?”

 

“And as long as I want to return to my body, I can do so by touching the Beacon, as long as my body is…out there…still touching the Beacon?”

 

The Visitor nodded. “Yes, as long as your body is still touching the Beacon.”

 

“Will you greet me whenever I enter?”

 

The Visitor laughed again. “You perceive my function.”

 

“Can you fetch Joan?”

 

The Visitor’s empty frame bowed ever so slightly. “Yes, she wishes it.”

 

Joan appeared beside him and nodded to Mason. Mason nodded back and took her hand. He turned toward the Beacon and reached out with both their hands. Their skin met the Beacon, and they were gone.

 

Mason opened his eyes. “How long was I out?” he asked Bill.

 

“Huh?” scoffed Bill. “You just touched the thing and then turned back to me. You went somewhere? You were ‘out’?”

 

Joan shifted uncomfortably on the hard-packed dirt at the base of the obelisk. “Jesus, it feels like someone draped me over a spasmatic horse,” she complained.

 

Mason grinned. “Let’s head back to camp,” he said, confidence in his voice. “We have a lot of explaining to do.”

 

A century later, Mason stepped from his shuttle, followed by Joan, Aubrey, and Billy. Another new world to explore! This one was a young world, folded up into towering mountains, with raging seas that beat the cliffsides into sand. Mason supposed that he had the Visitor to thank for all of it.

 

Shamish, Victor, basically the entire elite of the Expeditionary Council, had been unable to resist the Beacon. Not many scientists had been able to resist. The chance to spend essentially infinite time studying the mysteries of the universe had been too appealing. Although, all their bodies were kept in cryogenic stasis, piled up in warehouses on the prairie. Humankind was accepting the passage, one by one, but the elite had declined its finality. Mason had no idea how anyone who expected to return to corporeal existence would gain access to a body. He supposed it was about the feeling of finality, not the true possibility of return.

 

Mason had heard that as news of the Beacon spread across the inhabited worlds, people questing for immortality began to arrive in droves, touching the Beacon, dropping silent by its side. He’d heard that the perimeters had been dropped, that the nightmare beasts no longer simply yowled from the forests, but performed their age-old function, keeping the obelisk clean. For a common pilgrim, the journey was permanent.

 

As for Mason and others like him, lightships and exploration were still where “it” was at. They’d drop in on the Beacon, learn humanity’s advances, and drop back out. But those contacts were dropping off. Humanity in the Beacon was losing interest in humanity outside of the Beacon.

 

Before Mason lay down to sleep, he sat, meditating on his small piece of obsidian, and lay his hand over it. He was greeted by the Visitor.

 

“Well,” said the Visitor, “It’s nice to see you again.” The Visitor had a face now and looked almost humanoid.

Mason nodded. “I suppose you’ve just learned the knowledge we’ve gathered.”

 

The Visitor nodded. “The Beacon has,” it said. “The Beacon has updated its extrapolations.”

 

“Good.” said Mason.

 

“You know,” said the Visitor, “you won’t stay young forever, out there.”

 

“No—that’s not the way of things,” replied Mason. He could stay young for an indefinite time with the knowledge humanity had developed in the Beacon, but not forever.

 

“You can explore forever in here,” said the Visitor. “It’s practically eternal, and it’s every bit as real. You can age, even die, if you want. You could die, be reincarnated, and learn about it later. Or never know. Whatever you like.”

 

Mason nodded. “I think you’re right, and I enjoy our visits.”

 

The Visitor raised what Mason now perceived as a brow. “But?”

 

Mason laughed. “Yeah, but…” he paused, then continued. “I’ll just stay a bit longer out here. At least until you stop sending me fun new toys.”

 

And he set his hand on the obsidian, found himself in his tent, and settled down to sleep.

 


Submitted: September 25, 2022

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