Trouble at the Root: Compassion for an Anomaly
An ecophysicist visits his uncle at a monastery in the borderland of Tibet-Dinétah, while responding to a mild breach in the fabric of spacetime.
Her gleaming home-world. In the dream she felt privileged to witness it up close. Like a precious heirloom shown only to worthy guests, upon the black velvet fabric of the infinite.
People made of sky and clouds were warming themselves by its radiant colors, and contributing to its creation. A glimpse of its gleaming core attracted her attention. Like the inside of a marble... she tried to look deeper within…
She only remembered a feeling of time, and light, and any thing being possible…
Then her gaze slowly cleared and she was sitting at a campfire, twirling a squash blossom between her fingers.
“You were a gift from someone,” came the voice, a most perfect voice. “Someone I loved.” She turned to see Ptesan-wi smiling as she sat beside her, hands folded in her lap. The long stone they sat on looked ancient, and felt warm.
The White Buffalo Calf Woman gestured to her with the warmest smile, “I hope you like it here.”
Water lilies were opening all around their bench and around the fire, sprouting up from puddles or mud, unfolding flowers of the most exquisite patterns and radiance!
For some time she admired their individual coloring, and the coordinated patterns between them.
Until a scent - or a feeling - of far-off decay touched the wind.
In the dream, something deeply out-of-balance and malevolent was eyeing their fire from the night beyond, but also afraid of it.
“Does it even think?” She wondered. “Does it have feelings? Or does it only manipulate ours…”
The mysterious presence stole away the heat…
She awoke. Not chilled… but worried.
Leaving the embrace of the thin sheet and lightweight comforter, a warm breeze welcomed her onto the balcony. Distant lights of the city and another city across the border were both dimmed for the sake of wildlife. She felt it added mystery to the night’s complexion.
She looked to the stars... gripping the railing with one hand while massaging her arm… remembering that her husband would be flying west, passing from Dinétah into Tibet. Thoughts of fast-changing weather crossed her mind…
After a hundred years of making machines better at protecting lives instead of ending them, his aircraft should be absolutely safe. But these days his job wasn’t. Increasingly less so, if only he’d admit it.
Always heading into danger this guy…
With an electronic chirp Kii’s flight helmet disengaged, layers folding aside, freeing his braid to fall naturally again. Himalayan air… along with the flap of prayer flags, and sounds carried over great distance.
Pressing the keypad, he walked towards the cargo hold as its seal opened with a low hiss. Checking his gear, he paused to stare longingly. Powered armor… a Yat’siminoli design for anomaly recon, folded up and swaddled in 3D-printed foam blocks. Memories of swinging from trees came to mind, retrieving drones that so often got confused around quantum rifts. Good times.
He tapped on one of its folded arms with his fist.
His uncle’s familiar voice joked at him. “Is that… is that the famous ecologist I’ve been hearing so much about?”
“Yá'át'ééh!” he turned and waved. “Famous? Then I’d never get time off.”
“My point exactly,” his uncle smiled. “And how is Father Sky today?”
“Some turbulence… he’s a ch’ízhy soul sometimes.”
“Ha! He picked the right spouse then didn’t he? Come, you can’t setup your machines hungry, let’s eat! ...Speaking of that, would it be too worldly of me if I were hoping for betel nuts?”
“Oh, sorry... I-”
But the man waved the matter aside with his hand.
“Chísh - we are at no loss for good food here.”
Sitting with his uncle at a dark-wood table that seated ten, most people wore red robes with a yellow inner layer, even though family monasteries didn’t appear insistent on dress code.
He was enjoying his first bite of fry bread when someone asked about his work.
“So you’re an ecologist?” Said a Kushite monk next to his uncle. Light reflected off her translator glasses and silver face markings as she smiled.
“Yes,” he nodded and greeted them with a Kushite phrase, then added “Now also trained in ecophysics.”
She raised a glass, her translator earpiece like fine jewelry of white & gold, “we thank you for your service.”
He raised his glass to hers with a tap.
They all discussed rift events, and some xenobiotic sightings, while baskets of shabhalays and some of the spiciest food he’d ever enjoyed traveled around the table.
“So you also know much about plants I take it,” she continued, “what’s the latest theory on Tahu?” He liked that she had used the Iturian’s indigenous name for the World Tree.
“In fact that’s why I’m visiting - to check up on it.”
“Oh? What’s wrong exactly?”
“Probably nothing. Some strange readings, but things tend to self-stabilize here.”
A round-faced, thoughtful looking young man looked down the line of baskets at him. “Why do its roots in the Ituri forest only grow above the surface?”
“We’ve all known people just as shallow,” laughed another monk.
“There is an analogy here to how we treat our kids,” his uncle said. “If you treat them with attentiveness, compassion, they can sense Hozho or wholesome action all their life. They grow deep roots of trust towards the world, like Hopi corn.”
They talked about all sorts of things… history, philosophy, nature. Eventually the topic of karma came up, and Kii stared into the wisp of steam rising from the bite in his shabhalay, remembering how it earned the name “resistance bread.”
“Karma is an idea that’s always felt problematic to me,” he said to his uncle in mostly Diné Bizaad. “Most empires got VERY far living in defiance of Hozho. They made their cities cramped until people died of plagues, then searched far-off lands to strip bare, letting their plagues mostly do the conquering for them.”
In Diné tradition, his uncle held silence for a moment in case Kii had more to say… which allowed him to truly complete what he had to say.
“Our culture warns that thoughts can create, or destroy. What destroys us from the inside faster than to think our soul deserves whatever ugliness attacks us? Some cultures lived so well in Hozho but were suddenly attacked, and we can’t think those peaceful cultures ‘had-it-coming.’”
His uncle smiled fondly, and laying a hand on Kii’s shoulder, said, “we raised you well didn’t we. Come, let’s get some tea.”
They passed by someone whose robe portrayed an animated scene of lotus flowers swaying in a stream. His uncle kneeled behind the yellow-trimmed, red table of the tea station.
“You know… when Red Shirt’s warriors chased us up this mountain, and we discovered the Tibetan’s had mellowed out…” He carefully poured some of a brew from one kettle into another. “…that saga didn’t end until our hataali gathered and prayed for them to be returned to harmony. They were Mother’s children as well - thoughts and actions towards family are important.”
“Mother could have parented a lot better during those years,” Kii joked.
His uncle laughed, leaning forwards and pointing his finger, “She knew those bilagáana would have absolutely gotten rolled once Kham fighters were on our side.” The hataali pulled over a box of additional herbs, “Besides, if she usually intervened in our actions, would we have created peacemaker A.I., like M.E.T.A.C.O.M.? Now opposing views can speak so as to understand each other, and feel for each other… I like to think we pleasantly surprised her.”
Kii made thoughtful sounds and nodded while admiring the colorful tapestries on the wood columns showing various Buddhist sagas.
“Perhaps Mother is growing just like we are,” he mused.
His uncle nodded, eyes closing for a moment, “We are Mother’s fine jewels. Self-polishing! Maybe she is still learning how to speak to all our souls.”
Among the herb jars Kii recognized the mummified, highly-distorted form of what was once a caterpillar. Now it was mostly the consuming fungus that preyed on them.
“Nature does weird shit ALL the time,” he added with a point of his finger, “…karma or no, just saying."
Pollinators brought abundance to ecosystems - and beauty, they were little jewels themselves. It might be very dangerous if cordyceps fungus ever got out of balance, or took on more potent, far-reaching forms.
The old hall was lit by small photonic heaters along the ceiling, styled like paper lanterns. Touching the lacquered walls he noticed how they reflected the light, and felt warmer than Kii expected. With her background in architecture his wife would appreciate how the ancient wood seemed to conduct or even magnify the glow and warmth across space.
He set down his KeeperTray of Khapse from dinner and settled into a chair. The diagnostic suite he’d linked to sensors outside made an ongoing, power-hungry whine.
Nearby, parts of the planet’s quantum anatomy and geomagnetism were swirling into a vortex. It descended deep below the ground to where scans indicated a root of Tahu passed by. Properties of its lava-like “sap” appeared to influence many forces of physics, so over a few hours he analyzed the ongoing interplay.
He went to bed…
Notification sounds woke him.
It was still dark outside, but dawn would come soon. Walking, stumbling - from his room back to the area they had prepared to sustain the equipment, he heard monks slowly chanting nearby.
What awaited him on the scanners was alarming beyond ALL expectation.
“What… are you…” he whispered under his breath as he typed display commands, eyes mesmerized by movement within the vortex.
An anomaly was causing the entwined forces churning into the vortex to “bulge” as it moved. The movements looked unmistakably alive.
Then what looked like tendrils of unrecognizable energy extended from it to tug at other parts of the vortex.
As much as he wanted to feel excited by the discovery… data showed volatile new behavior amongst the forces pouring into the World Tree’s root.
“Yeeni…” he whispered with trepidation, thinking of who he ought to contact first as we watched the anomaly amidst the powerful forces.
Kii’s uncle returned to silence, feeling tones and intentions from the Hózhójí drift in the ether. Returning his medicine pouch to his waist, he entered the cold morning air to rejoin his companions, who formed a prayer circle closer to the monastery. Warmed by robes and the special skill of Tummo, an eerie, discouraging cold still haunted his heart…
The group ahead had already finished blessing the rising sun as was customary in his culture, and the Tibetans’, and that of the emissary who was guiding them. She was a small monk in her 60’s from the Ituri forest.
But the mystery that haunted them all in their sleep had worsened… he began to feel light-headed…
Like that molten, magical sap flowing far beneath them, this inner fire pushed him forwards despite the entropy. He halted mid-stride however, when he saw a fellow monk in the circle ahead faint to the ground…
Kii retrieved one of his tools from its docking cradle in the larger diagnostic suite, its heat sinks cycling down while his heart sped up.
Rushing down halls in the direction of the disturbance, his gaze darted between the display projected in the air above his hand and the hallway as he maneuvered around surprised monks.
Rounding a corner of ancient wood, decorated with spiritual figures and totem-like faces to ward off demons, he noticed a crowd of monks in the distance, some sprawled on the ground.
Then a flash of light just beyond them, followed by a thunderclap. Special shock gripped his whole body, every muscle, as soon as his eyes realized that what was emerging was not of this world.
And then he saw his uncle, walking towards it, on the other side of what the sensor said was a field of radiation.
Multiple tendrils of pearlescent energy whipped about, as something pulled itself out of a pool of glowing fog not far from his unconscious friends.
Despite the disorientation, Kii’s uncle continued to sing intentions of harmony and beauty for whatever had bumbled into this sensitive well of reality.
A tentacle of geometric patterns of light reached towards him, each of its many segments endlessly unfolding and collapsing upon itself. Seemingly between real and unreal, the being’s center was like a fountain of unfolding-and-collapsing hexagons of light, hovering above the ground as high as a house.
It appeared to vibrate, and flashes of color flickered momentarily amidst its churning, beautiful form. Other arms or tentacles slowly waved in the air, or darted across short distances… or seemed to “fold” between them.
It was so beautiful… like the glowing steam that began to rise from cracks in the ground.
Eerie noises pulsed faintly through the air, just as familiar sensations of telepathy touched his consciousness. Not a steady and polite power like that of the more experienced Lamas however. It was like a child’s game of guiding magnetic beads through an upright maze of glass; This being’s bumbling attempts to move one’s thoughts kept hoisting images and concepts in front of his mind’s eye, only for them to fall away prematurely.
Kii’s uncle let one mantra become a stillness of the mind and a glow in the heart. Steadying himself amidst the psychic frenzy, he glanced at his dear friends, sprawled across the ground or catatonically stumbling.
He felt that the alien was trying to communicate. But the feeling was not a sensitive, empathetic one…
A lone tip of human fractal currently coming towards it, showed… only compassion?
It was expecting more resistance, even from those it already incapacitated.
It began to doubt about what the Assimilator had told it. Only about humans - not about the plan.
Shivering its body in the dance of translocation, it focused on shaping the developing aperture as the Assimilator had instructed. The glow of unfiltered - but unfocused - infinite potential bathed its body to the core!
Swirling open one of its appendages, it assessed and absorbed what the approaching being was thinking…
And it was stunned with surprise!
This creature regarded it as family! The being sought to determine its needs, and warned it of danger. Danger, in proceeding with what it was doing to the world.
Very observant… why did the Assimilator have no interest in these beings? They had intriguing potential.
Perhaps one could parse the planet’s energy instead of stripping the whole world to its core.
If it could convert these interesting beings, it might convince the Assimilator to… Yes! - a planet to rule as well as to feed upon!
It couldn’t waste such an opportunity - with such power and such freedom, who knows what it might become!
Dividing its focus, it began slowly parsing the small being’s consciousness, while continuing to open the aperture.
Running down paths familiar and unfamiliar as if by instinct, Kii leapt over short walls like in some AR game his wife had him play. Growing tremors added to the challenge, until finally he reached his aircraft
“Hunta-hunta!” he thought aloud in his wife’s Oceti Ŝakowin slang, as the cargo hold slowly opened and he activated the powered armor. It registered his presence and began unfolding, its open halves dropping down around either side of him. He swiftly slipped his hands into the inner gauntlets, his feet into the boots - which then rose from the ground on the stilts that became a new skeleton for longer, nimble legs. Insect-like pieces of articulated metal spiraled around his arms, fusing into a form-fitting exoskeleton. Environmental protection layers unwound from vents along the metal, swaddling the new limbs repeatedly and expanding into synthetic muscle.
“External A.I. module Integrated,” came the suit’s voice in Maskókî, followed by the robotic, feminine voice of his Black Mesa Personal Diagnostic Assistant.
“Power-assist movement activated,” it said in Merchant Common.
When it showed the vision it had received from the Assimilator, the little being was dismayed and couldn’t appreciate it. In part, the being was exceedingly disturbed when it saw what those who made the Assimilator looked like. Also, the human had qualms about the mass destruction of other beings.
It picked through the little one’s mind, looking for the right ambition to appeal to…
But the little being brushed aside it’s influence, feeling ambition of this kind “drove existence mad.” Like a contagion.
Musically intoning sounds, or words, feelings shone forth from the little being’s soul. Once again it was shocked to see nothing of defiance, only sentiments of healing.
Save yourself, was the clearest of which, as the little one continued to sing, and something mysterious rattled one’s hyperspatial body to the core.
“WARNing, hazardous radiation levels detected.”
Kii leapt over a short wall just as a column of flame shot forth from the side of a mountain.
“OH WHAT THE-” Then the world shook.
Sound like a procession of giant boulders rolling into a powwow made him pause in his stride. The jet of fire from the nearby mountain was moving.
A vast cylinder of volcanic rock rose further and further into the sky as it spouted flame. It was etched with narrow ravines like the craggiest tree bark…
It’s one of Tahu’s roots! He thought with utter disbelief. There were many theories about the monolithic “tree,” taller than any human-made building and unlike any known lifeform. Some thought it wasn’t alive at all, and some thought it wasn’t from this world.
None thought that it could possibly move!
Dozens of diagnostic warnings in his helmet did nothing to help him make sense of what was happening.
It reached from the nearby mountain, towering into the sky...
Then it began turning towards the alien, his uncle, and the monastery just beyond. If the broken end of the “root” curled downwards to face the monastery, one long stray jet of its plasma-fire could kill who knows how many people. That was assuming it doesn’t just flop over and crush everything with sheer size.
First the other glowing creature, now THIS? Everything that fascinated him as a scientist right now also happened to be an imminent threat!
Iridescent light from its own body strobed over the tiny being, now held between hyperspatial appendages. It focused so deeply on the human, partially ignoring the world and the aperture. Three of its arms halted in their attempt to peel open the crack in reality.
This… stillness. An evening-out of highs and lows that at first it sought to resist… but it couldn’t. It’s kind could not turn away from new ideas, from novelty…
It felt its segments spasm with un-certainty! It had incorporated too much of the Assimilator’s paradigm into its scaffolding, its very cycle of breathing! It felt terror that it was recognizing this too late - that the former ambition was actually something parasitic in disguise.
But just as its kind could rarely forgot anything that once proved useful, it could also easily conduct new ideas. As the small being clad in red and yellow sang to it, ever-unfolding segments accepted this new, contented resilience into its lattice, liberating it from that parasitic, desperate wanting.
It felt the need it’s kind always felt, to fold through the distances of the universe again in search of novel experience.
Kii’s uncle watched the alien retreat backwards, its body a display of swirling colors and shapes colliding against each other. The creature of light squeezed itself through a gleaming crack in the air, its receding drawing the tear increasingly tighter until suddenly it vanished with a hiss.
He languished for a time, body and mind stunned, frozen, both cold and hot in different ways. He glanced up at the hallucination of a tower of volcanic rock, or was it something he should recognize? A wisp of fire dwindled at the tip of the motionless, obviously unreal structure. Looking up made him dizzy…
Slumping forwards, his fall was cushioned… stopped, by a huge hand of rubber buffers and metal.
He felt a vibration around his body, enveloping him. It swept away the burning upon his skin that was making him sick.
“It’s okay uncle, I’ve got you,” came a dear voice as if through an electronic speaker. He floated peacefully into the strangest dream of his life.
Raindrops bounced off the top of the climate bubble, an invisible forcefield which soundlessly protected the outdoor hospice section of the medical center. His people still wished, in most cases, to be under the open sky when they passed on.
His uncle was in a coma… but the very fact that the intense radiation had not caused gruesome death was a miracle. Feelings of anger and hopelessness over possibly losing someone so dear kept Kii from truly appreciating that mystery.
His wife had sped off to meet him as soon as she heard about the “attack,” arriving less than an hour ago…
He was still worried for her, with the thin air at this altitude. Caressing his back in widening circles, her hand somehow brushed away some of the weight from his heart…
“Where did you learn to do that?” He asked.
“Whatever it is you’re doing… It’s like magic.” She took him out of his head for a moment as her touch made the tension - more than he'd even recognized - defuse from his heart, shoulders, and throat.
“He nurtured the medicine of his heart,” said someone to their friends amidst the small crowd of monks. “Giving it freely, widely, as if it would never run out. And I said for that reason it would never run out, and that he should outlive us all.”
“He… also said HE knew he’d outlive us all,” remarked someone else, causing a round of chuckles despite their shellshocked, weary hearts. “Would always say… that the diversity of his friends meant he would never tire of life. There would always be someone different he could spend time with.”
There was a moment of silence, except for the patter of rain on the climate shield above.
“Mother’s fine jewelry…” Kii added, looking around at their kindly faces, many shedding tears. “That’s how he sees humankind. As jewels.”
They held that moment of traditional silence…and one more sentiment came to him in his native tongue.
“Shine, brothers and sisters!” he said.
Manly hoots of affirmation came from a couple of the men, as his wife raised her voice in a celebratory, honoring cry:
“We shine - with compassion and bravery!”
“WE shiiine!” someone responded.
“May the cosmos see our gleam,” a young monk in his twenties with a narrow, timid face said in Tibetan, queuing more affirming yells of camaraderie. “Shine like the stars,” another observed.
It was transformation for the weight of loss… it was resolve… and it was a song for his uncle’s soul, or at least he hoped so.
Some time later, after trying to feel the presence of his uncle’s spirit for awhile, he and his partner stepped away. One of the hospice hataali began singing om mani padme hūm, as Kii stepped through the tingling and almost-rubbery sensation of the intangible climate bubble…
He contemplated the vast blue above as he held his wife. Rubbing her back as well, protectively... like a prayer... he kissed the top of her head while thanking her.
From the cliff below, an eagle rose not far from where they stood. Sturdy wings held against invisible currents, working with them so that they buoyed it up, as brother eagle scanned the horizon.
Back and forth, the eagle adjusted their posture. Despite the gravity, it somehow managed to rise and take flight, with nothing more than the same air he breathed.
(Author's note: Credit/shout-out to this poet whom this writing borrows from, even if my tone is not so deep, focused, and useful as her's).
About the author
Writing alternate-world futurism and fantasy these days, usually because I'm loving particular music and the visuals it brings me. Expect solarpunk cities, intense battles, and elements of mystery or multicultural philosophy.