TBOTSG-Chapter 12

July 8, 2024

A few dozen minutes later, a city began to take shape, filling the entire horizon. Its shiny glass flowed down into the sea of lava, which in turn licked the distant panorama with tongues of fire. The starry darkness enhanced the charm of the flickering lights show.

Back home, I wouldn’t have stopped taking photos, and I probably wouldn’t have been the only one; there would have been hundreds – thousands of people like me. Sela and Tha, however, continued with their thoughts, gazing into the distance absentmindedly, unimpressed by the city in front of them, which they had probably seen dozens of times before.

Sela was impressed rather by the fact that shabby this city could evoke such admiration in me. I, on the other hand, didn’t see it as shabby, only black glass and fire and stars reflected, multiplied on smooth and uninterrupted surfaces like giant phone screens, ready to light up the night with millions of colours. As we approached, the artificial lights of the city began to be visible, surprisingly subtle, leaving the rest of the world immersed in a slightly rosy atmosphere, flowing from the sea above which we had come.

In a way, the place seemed strange and dark. In another way, warm and intimate.

When we finally entered the streets of the city, I realised it was a much more futuristic version of an office building area: glass and steel skyscrapers that you see effortlessly touching the sky in Earth’s major cities. Here, however, the steel frames were not visible at all, nor any other clear lines that could suggest a junction, a place where one piece of glass ends and the next begins. Only one smooth, uninterrupted surface emerged from the ground and rose high, very high, hundreds of meters above the ground, taking on its ascent a distinct shape that reminded me of the slightly conical shape of smokestacks.

‘Are these also made by Reeza?’ I asked without really expecting an answer.

‘No,’ Tha hurried to explain, ‘Reeza and the other gods didn’t get too involved. They mostly let us do our own thing, while they did theirs, occasionally meddling here and there, either breaking or fixing something, according to their whim. But only recently have we truly realised what the gods have done for us…’

His voice trailed off slightly, and Sela turned her head towards him, scolding him with her gaze, as if what he had just said was serious. I immediately saw on the screen a few settings changed, a few systems deactivated, before I heard her response.

‘That’s why I need you. Both of you, actually… We’re at a point where, if we don’t do something, if we don’t find Reeza or the other gods, all these things, all the wonders we enjoy and believe come from nature, will cease to exist.’


‘Meaning this planet couldn’t sustain life, but somehow we ended up here. Our oldest history speaks of a double dismount. A goddess hand in hand with a human descended upon this earth thousands of years before us and created a garden. The goddess was the living energy from which the human drew sap, and with which she then created plant by plant, in the likeness of the ones on her original planet. In the end, however, love wasn’t enough, so one day her beloved walked out of the greenhouse the goddess had carefully built for her, took off her pendant, and turned into dust.’

‘You’re talking about Reeza’s ballad,’ Tha said in a low voice.

‘And the second dismount?’ I asked.

‘The second was that of the ancients, our ancestors. They came with two ships, the last survivors of a fleet of twelve, and stumbled upon this solar system purely by chance. When they entered orbit, they realised the ships wouldn’t be able to take off again once they reached the ground. So, one remained in orbit, and the other landed on the planet. Upon arrival, they found nothing but lava and an atmosphere too frail for our needs. An atmosphere that had been sustained only by Reeza’s small greenhouse. But it wasn’t enough. And it couldn’t have been…’

‘But they succeeded in the end,’ I interjected, wanting her to continue, enjoying this fireside story atmosphere, wrapped in a cocoon of magic from the city in which we were now reflected like a wounded animal.

‘The exact story is known only to a few. I’m sure even Tha hasn’t heard it until now… maybe just rumours, legends, bedtime stories. The history that I read, and that was told to me by Sela – the one after whom my parents named me, the high priestess from the Tulip Tower – isn’t known by many.’

‘The Tulip Tower?’ I asked, puzzled, yet still wanting to keep up with the story and to take advantage of her slightly surprising willingness to share these things.

‘Yes, the Tulip Tower…’ Tha said with an almost childlike enthusiasm.’ A beauty… I’ve only seen it in holograms. It’s actually a sort of artificial satellite of our planet. In the countryside people believe that the ancients still live there.’

‘In fact, continued Sela, ‘this satellite was initially the very ship I mentioned earlier, the one that remained in orbit during the second dismount. Those below suffered fairly rapid deaths, lacking the resources needed to establish a true colony, and lacking the ability to ascend back into orbit. Those left above began to devise a plan, even though they, too, lacked resources and weren’t as trained as their parents or grandparents, perhaps precisely because previous generations had lost hope. What’s important is that they began to study anew with renewed vigour, driven by the possible salvation from below and the desire to save their fellow beings, who were already trapped there and dying at a dizzying rate. With the data collected on the ground, with new knowledge and a new ambition, they began genetic modifications not only on plants but also on humans: if they wanted to live there, it might have been easier to change themselves than to adapt the planet to their needs. So, every new baby had new eyes that could withstand a much stronger light than the sun they were adapted to see, skin that simple boiling water wouldn’t burn, and a stronger skeleton that could endure the stronger gravity, along with who knows how many other modifications… What they couldn’t change was the need for oxygen. The biologists were working on that. They created hundreds of new types of plants that would produce more oxygen and help in the first steps toward terraforming. But even the most optimistic calculations predicted terraforming the planet this way would take 100-150 years, years that neither those below nor those above had. Everyone worked day and night, searched, discovered. Brilliant minds, with information gathered over millennia. When the plants were ready, the children were old enough to take care of themselves, so they dressed them in brand-new space suits, made to withstand the conditions here exactly, put them in a capsule – the last one, in fact, and waited for a miracle. On the planet, in the relentless heat, the children grew, adapted, and took care of those who were now prematurely aged and mostly dying. Life was a struggle. Death was increasingly common. Births had almost completely ceased. And then Reeza came.’

Sela seemed overcome by a strange emotion that made me imagine her reading the history of her people’s origins and their hardships, shedding tears for each hero of humanity.

‘She came right when she was most needed: below, only the children were still alive,’ Sela continued, ‘barely surviving and unable to help much, lacking education. And up above, only a few hundred people left, mostly old, sick, tired. Everyone who was alive when Reeza manifested on their ship describes the wonder of nature they saw almost the same way: as if God had opened the heavens and emerged accompanied by songs, hope, and life. That’s how they saw her—a shining beauty like the sun, with a saving energy. She looked puzzled at them and asked why they suffered so greatly. And they poured out their grief with tears of despair and helplessness, believing they had died and that they had come to the judgment of the first gods, whom many still believed in then. When they saw that Reeza was not a ghost or a god of indifference, but a force of nature, they asked her not for youth or eternal life, but for a home where they could continue their research work, because they wanted to see their children whom they had sent below and whose fate they lamented passionately. Reeza listened and then left without saying a word. Desperation grew. Some wrote what they saw, then ended their lives, believing that the gods had only shown themselves to tell them they were cursed. But Reeza returned. And she brought with her an asteroid which she placed in the same orbit and finally linked it to their ship, uniting them completely. In the center, she placed a small crystal of life energy, which built channels through the asteroid itself, showing them where to drill. And then the people began to build a new palace of antiquity, the first and last of its kind.

Then, history says that Reeza opened her palm. In the middle of it was a shoot upon which she blew gently. The shoot began to grow, and she planted it outside the asteroid. Small tubes pierced the asteroid, bringing carbon dioxide from within and returning oxygen. The people thanked her, but seeing her power and the miracle of the tree, they asked Reeza to make another one, this time on the planet below, to aid in the terraforming process they had already begun nearly three decades ago. And then Reeza left, and the people got on with their lives, researching, innovating, regaining their breath, their hope.

On the planet, the children had grown into adults, more accustomed to the harsh life, often venturing out to explore the planet and tend to the increasingly numerous gardens, though still far from the hundreds of thousands they needed. They now saw life differently—lacking much knowledge, they simply got on with their work and cursed their existence only occasionally, looking up where they knew those who had given them life might be, who had sent them to this inhospitable planet, and who might not even be alive anymore. They had a different kind of story now, sadder, harsher. Their ship had become almost non-functional, serving only as shelter, gradually becoming completely covered by a thick layer of reddish dust. Reeza had planted the identical tree next to their ship. She was not seen again until years later when she returned with renewed, shining forces. With a suite of other gods who, like her, had taken human forms. They were all impressed at how a handful of people were lost forever in the lonely, sad, harsh space unsuitable for life. And their success seemed so beautiful and proud to them that they felt the need to help them. So each of them contributed something to make our planet capable of sustaining life. Six gods began to make oxygen, made trees and plants of all kinds appear, all with red leaves and blue or green trunks, not like those made by Reeza or brought from home by the ancients. Another five caused mountains and hills to grow, which provided the shade we and many of our plants needed, and brought boiling springs to the surface that quenched our thirst. Among them, three gods decided that they wanted to make this place even better, so the first turned his energy into black water, which he collected in a lake. Bring the dead here, and they will gain a new life—and that’s what they did instead of burying them, and, one by one, they became a small seedling which later turned into a living tree, more alive than the others, capable of communicating through gentle branch undulations and leaf tremors. They connected with each other with small luminous terminations.

‘The Black Forest of Death,’ Tha whispered almost inaudibly.

‘The second god looked at the people in front of him and saw on their faces suffering, premature ends, physical wounds, and torture. So, he went next to Reeza’s tulip tree, now towering several tens of meters high, and in its shade, he built a healing fountain. Anyone who drank from it received new energy, rejuvenating and healing them: The Fountain of Living Water.’

‘The third god looked around him and saw nothing but people and plants, so he took a piece of land, watered it in the Fountain of Living Water, molded it, and then blew upon it. From it emerged a majestic creature with the head of a bird, the body of a feline, and glossy black skin with amethyst reflexions, extending on long, light frames of bone, in huge, translucent wings: The Onyx of the Sky…’

Against the backdrop of discreetly illuminated buildings with bright advertisements on mirror-like surfaces that captivated my sight, hearing, and imagination, only the nostalgic voice of Sela and occasionally pertinent additions from Tha held my attention. The world here, in this beautiful and artificial universe, didn’t seem to need saving. Everything appeared in perfect harmony, nature now timidly reflected in the tall glass columns, proclaiming that we had triumphed, that life, no matter how challenging, could be made at least more beautiful through art and technology.

Every time I was amazed by something, Sela reminded me that we were just passing through. ‘Save your enthusiasm for something truly grand,’ she would tell me whenever I seemed to lose focus from the stories of gods that she called history. It was somewhat difficult for me to digest all the information I heard—gods performing miracles, saviours of humanity—because I had encountered them in so many ways in my life, always asserted with the conviction that they were more real than me or you, that I could no longer see them as anything other than a kind of religion. And the religious war into which I felt I had stumbled wearied me in a way and foretold suffering and death in another.

When we arrived in a space with lower buildings, almost like cottages, I could see in the distance the real city: a panorama of skyscrapers taller than anything I could imagine, and somewhere in the middle of what I could see was a building that seemed to literally float. I almost completely rose from my chair—which unsuccessfully tried to adjust to the new position—and pressed my face against the window where I saw the image. Tha noticed me first and burst out laughing. Then Sela, upon seeing me, performed her magic act, and the building now appeared in all its splendour before us, the new panorama engulfing us completely. I settled back into my chair, feeling somewhat humiliated by my own foolishness: nothing was transparent, everything was a projection of the reality outside. I knew this, but somehow perception begins to deceive and distort, and if when you open the door you see exactly the same thing, you start to forget that what you see is just a recording. Obviously, my paranoia made me ask: how do you know it doesn’t have an error, that it’s not lying to you… that it’s not taking you to a completely different place than you intend?

‘Enjoy the view,’ Sela told me, not very impressed by my panic.

‘How can I enjoy the view if the view is something I can see from anywhere… I watch a film of this building and I’m done, I’ve accomplished the exact same thing. How do I know it’s real and that it’s not, in fact, some very beautiful graphic representation of a normal building, one like all the others?

‘I know what you’re thinking… but this technology is as real as it gets, honest. We have fail-safe laws punishable by death. There’s no hacking in our world, because we don’t need it. But to convince you…’

In a few moments, we entered a narrow street lined with tiny buildings, almost like cubes, their sides the size of a normal person, which seemed to serve merely as entrances. We came to a complete stop; Sela turned off all the lights except one, so the darkness wouldn’t be too overwhelming. The doors opened, and we stepped onto the peculiar asphalt outside. Like on the bridge, the atmosphere felt dry and hot. I could feel a gentle breeze now and then, a sign of the storm that had shaken the entire stretch of sea. It was late. There wasn’t a soul on the orderly streets, each adorned with a strange little tree (apparently the storm hadn’t reached this far), spaced out every few dozen meters, as if trying to bring a touch of nature to the glass conglomerate.

Our steps were muffled by the slightly elastic texture of the smooth road, without bumps or dips like we have. The material of the asphalt, if I can call it that, reminded me more of a Japanese tatami mat than the classic asphalt on our streets. Its colour wasn’t green or gray but a kind of subdued sapphire-blue in the dim and diffuse light given off by the buildings themselves, which seemed more efficient than any lighting system I had seen before. The petite trees looked perfect in this light, with bark on their trunks and branches ranging from turquoise green sometimes verging on emerald, gradually turning slightly reddish toward the extremities, where the newest shoots appeared ruby red.

The leaves were so beautiful, ruby on top, silvery underneath, they seemed more like true works of art than products of nature. Fascinated, I approached the first tree, wondering if it was real, and when I touched a leaf, I felt it tremble. It was afraid. I had thought of plucking a leaf or two to take with me, but now my heart wouldn’t allow it. How could I do that to such a lively little tree? I withdrew my hand, and as if in gratitude, I caught a scent reminiscent of orchids and ripe apples.

‘Look over there,’ Sela said to me, pointing in the direction I should look, somewhere far back and high up. When I turned my head, I was completely enchanted: in the distance, filling the space with majestic splendor, floated the building I had seen earlier. It more closely resembled a futuristic version of a Roman temple, combining marble and stone with the most beloved material of this world, glass. Beautiful, clean architecture, but with details beyond the fantastical images I had seen in past digital art albums. The building floated on a sea of clouds, and below it seemed like there was nothing. The architects probably wanted to give it a touch of heavenly paradise, as large pairs of seraphic wings, of a pure perfect white, languidly moved at its corners, while smaller, coloured wings resembling swallows and doves adorned the glass surface below. Through the clouds from all four corners, golden light pierced, the only strong light in this realm of subtlety. I felt like making the cross sign, as my grandparents used to when they saw something beyond their comprehension, although for me religion held no spiritual meaning, only political. I was convinced it was the same here, but that didn’t stop me from feeling tears of joy at witnessing such grandeur of nature, of humans, and why not, of the gods themselves.

A few moments later, without much chatter, Tha and Sela climbed into the bear and waited patiently for the few moments I spent gazing at the floating building. Just as I was about to enter the vehicle, a noise caught my attention: something had fallen from the little tree from which I intended to take a leaf as a souvenir. I went over and picked up a silvery bead from the ground, resembling a tiny living cocoon. When I showed it to Sela and Tha, they were both astonished because, according to them, this type of tree rarely produced a seed naturally. ‘Keep it safe,’ Sela said before we set off on our way.

Then she told me something else: the transcendentals – beings with the consciousness of the ancients – were a rarity. Consciousnesses are hard to preserve, and even harder to find. (And when you do find them, they are, as it turns out, difficult to control.) The revolutionary governments – every time Sela pronounced the word, I sensed a hint of irony in her tone – had frantically searched through all the temples (except Reeza’s temple and palace) to confirm rumours: that some of the last ancients have discovered a way to preserve their memory and thinking capacity intact, in a sort of artificial brain. Ever since the President – as the first revolutionary leader of the country we were in called himself, in a completely absurd manner according to Sela’s opinion, because no one had elected him and he had nothing to preside over, with dictator seeming more fitting for him – came to power, he issued a decree subordinating all government research laboratories, allowing them to function relatively independently only if they achieved satisfactory results in what interested him. And one of his interests was indeed the development of artificial brains capable of sustaining human intelligence. Then, with a tone of disgust, she added that a vast number of people who opposed the new regime had become guinea pigs for this type of experiment, which initially amounted to a death sentence. It had only been about 50 years since they managed to transfer human consciousness into an artificial brain – with a humanoid body, of course – and for about 25 years now there were rumours that they had successfully transferred 4 ancients into brand-new bodies to help them overcome the economic crisis, but especially the environmental one.

I was thinking how ironic the situation was: now myself an ancient, their world faced an environmental crisis, there was nothing I could have done to help. Perhaps their ancients, who had nevertheless managed to traverse entire galaxies, from what I could gather, had found solutions to the questions they had before: how to save our home. Or maybe the only thing they actually managed to do was to abandon ship before it sank. They didn’t seem so capable as to survive in the end – after all, without these extraordinary beings whom these people called gods, perhaps they would have perished to the last in agony and despair, cursing the moment they came into existence. I recognized in the story of the ancients the classic tale of humanity: the constant fleeing from death, and avoiding it only narrowly, for a time sufficient only to perpetuate the species, not to save the individual. An altruistic spirit, if you think about it, or a species-level selfishness: it never occurred to anyone that maybe we are an accident that wasn’t supposed to happen. A spark in an oxygen container. An incident that probably cost Earth its life.

Soon we stopped on another rather dubious alley, which seemed to lead somewhere outside the city. Beyond a small cluster of dome-shaped houses this time, a kind of field timidly appeared – a stretch that was hard for me to discern in the starry darkness. The three of us got down, without knowing why, and continued in the direction we were initially heading. Then we made a right turn, and then a left. We walked a little further through what seemed like a stone corridor, and suddenly we came upon a large room, bordered by angular stone walls, with a single round table in the middle with some rudimentary chairs, all made from nearly the same material as the walls, and which reminded me of the Table of Silence. It gave me the feeling of a clandestine space, a place where the most obscure plans are hatched. Everything had a strange vibe given by a diffuse reddish light, whose source I kept trying unsuccessfully to locate.

‘What are we doing here?’ I asked, more rhetorically.

‘We’re meeting with my brother,’ Tha replied naturally, surprising me twice over.

‘Your brother?’

‘Yes, my vehicle sent an automatic distress message when the storm hit it, and our agreement is to regroup here in situations like this.’

‘And Sela knew about this?’

‘Yes… don’t you remember when we talked about it? Sela intervened, surprised. ‘It was right after we set off. I thought you were a bit quiet… Strange.’

‘Yes, very strange,’ I said, not really finding it that bizarre after all.

Sela sat down on one of the chairs, and automatically, a red light turned on, scanning her from above. Then three more similar lights lit up from the floor, forming a triangular pyramid around her. Tha immediately sat down next to her, and the scanning process repeated. After a few minutes of waiting — during which I stayed quietly by the door, resisting the urge to explore my inside world because I didn’t want to miss anything this time — the holographic image of a man with harsh features appeared at at the table, on one of the seats, about three places away from Tha. It was a faithful representation, so realistic you would think he had truly materialised there.

‘I was surprised to see you together,’ the man said without any greeting or introduction. I didn’t know you knew each other.

‘We met today,’ Tha replied nonchalantly, leaning back relaxed.

‘Do you have the transcendental with you?’

‘Yes,’ Sela replied, but first we need to take it to the Koro Villa, otherwise they’ll immediately notice our absence, and most likely they’ll find us before we find him.

‘That’s right, the man responded. Is it cooperating?’


‘Are all motor functions active?’

‘Yes, all functions are at full capacity.’

‘And cognitive functions?’

‘Cognitive functions too.’

‘But is it under your control?’

‘Yes! Tha answered before Sela could even open her mouth, clearly seeing that she wanted to say something else. Yes, it’s under Sela’s control, for now. It hasn’t shown any signs of resistance or independence.’

‘Good. Then both of you go to Villa Koro. I’ll try to retrieve your Solenoid from the bridge without raising suspicion. Hopefully there’s nothing compromising there in case FA investigates.’

‘No, it’s as clean as it can be. And I don’t think it functions anymore, no matter what they would do to it. The pulses swiped it clean.’

‘We’ll see. Sela, you brief Tha on what you need to do at the villa. Nothing complicated — play your roles at the party, don’t do anything out of the ordinary and don’t attract attention in any way. Once the festivities are over, you start the search, not a minute sooner. Clear?’

‘Clear as daylight!’ Tha replied, partially echoed by Sela. The hologram of the man disappeared immediately after, again without any further pleasantries.

‘Your brother?’ I asked, approaching the two cautiously, ready to step back at any gesture from them. But they just sighed in relief, as if narrowly escaping some dangerous situation.

‘Why did you lie to him?’ Sela asked Tha, accusing him with sharp eyes.

‘It would have changed the plan, and she wouldn’t have seen him… Tha said, pointing his thumb towards me. I have a feeling he’s here for her, and if that’s what she wants, that’s what we want too, why change at the last moment?’

‘And what if things go wrong? What if we get caught, because she’s not coded to do exactly what I tell her, because she gets some idea, or simply because she does what she wants in a world she knows nothing about?’

‘And what if things don’t go wrong, and they go well? I say just transmit her the mission information too, and maybe it would be easier for her… maybe it would be easier for us too.’