On the Human Plan
by Jay Lake


I am called Dog the Digger.  I am not mighty, neither am I fearsome.  Should you require bravos, there are muscle-boys aplenty among the rat-bars of any lowtown on this raddled world.  If it is a wizard you want, follow the powder-trails of crushed silicon and wolf's blood to their dark and winking lairs.  Scholars can be found in their libraries, taikonauts in their launch bunkers and ship foundries, priests amid the tallow-gleaming depths of their bone-ribbed cathedrals.


What I do is dig. For bodies, for treasure, for the rust-pocked hulks of history, for the sheer pleasure of moving what cannot be moved and finding what rots beneath. You may hire me for an afternoon or a month or the entire turning of the year.  It makes me no mind whatsoever.


As for you, I know what you want.  You want a story.


Oh, you say you want the truth, but no one ever really wants the truth.  And stories are the greatest of the things for which I dig.  Mightier even than the steel-bound femurs of the deinotheria bred by the Viridian Republic, which I can show you in vast necropolii beneath the Stone-Doored Hills.  More treasured than the golden wires to be pulled by the fistful from the thinking heads which line the Cumaean Caves, screaming as the lights of their eyes flash and die.


Anyone with a bit of talent and the right set of bones to throw can foretell the future.  It's written in fat-bellied red across every morning sky.  But to aftertell the past, that is another trick entirely.


*     *     *


They say death is the door that never opens twice.  At least, not until it does.  Sorrow is usually the first child of such a birthing, though just as often the last to be recognized.


People die.  Cities die.  Nations die.  In time the sun itself will die, though already it grows red and obese, a louche, glowering presence fat on the midsummer horizon.  When the daystar opens up its arms, all graves will be swallowed in fire, but for now, the bones of men lie atop older bones beneath the friable earth.


Likewise the skins of cities.  All our places are built on other places.  A man might dig down until the very heat of the earth wells up from the bottom of his shaft, and still there will be floors and streets and wooden frames pressed to stone fossils to greet him there.


You know that the first woman to greet the morning had gone to sleep the night before as an ape.  Some angel stirred her dreams with God's long spoon, and the next day she remembered the past.  The past was young then, not even thirty hours old, but it had begun.


That woman bred with an ape who didn't yet know he was man, then birthed a hairy little baby who learned she was another woman, and so the world unfolded into history.  That woman died, too, laid herself down into the earth and let herself be covered with mud which turned to rock.


If I dig down far enough, someday I'll find that grandmother of us all.  But this story you've come for is about another time, when I only dug down to death's doorstep.


It was an exogen come to me, in the twenty-seventh hour of the day.  My visitor was taller than a pike-pole, with skin translucent as the slime of a slug.  Still, it was on the human plan, with two arms, two legs, and a knobby bit at the top that glittered.  The ropes and nodules of its guts shimmered inside that slick, smooth, shiny skin.  Its scent-map was strange, the expected story of starships and time's slow decay mixed in with spices and a sweat which could have gotten a rock-crusher drunk.


Dangerous, this one.  But they always were.  The safe ones stayed home.


"Digger," the exogen said.  It used a voder which could have come from before the dawn of technology.  Believe me, I know.


I'm not one for judging a man by his shape.  Metatron knows I find myself judged enough.  Still, I'm cautious around one who comes from too far away, for a man distant from his home has no need of scruples.  "Aye, and that's me."


Something flashed pale, pallid blue in the exogen's middle gut.  "Compensation."


One of them types.  I could handle this.  Like talking to a Taurian.  All syntax implied inside a hyperlimited morphemic constellation.  Like playing a game of two hundred questions.  "Compensation in what cause?"




"That's what I do.  I seek.  By digging.  What do you seek?"




That one required some careful thought.  I didn't reckon this exogen had come all the way across the Deep Dark between the stars just for me to dig him a grave.  Not that I hadn't dug a grave or four in my day.  It was just that no one spent the kind of energy budget this exogen had dedicated to being here on Earth simply to lay themselves down.


"Anyone's death in particular?"


"Death."  My visitor flashed a series of colors, then manipulated its voder.  "Thanatos."


"Oh, Death his own self."  I considered that.  "You must be aware that death isn't really anywhere to be found.  Mythic personification doesn't leave behind calling cards for me to dig up.  Entropic decay does, but everything is evidence of that."


I knew from experience that it would take the exogen a while to assemble my loose stream of lexemes into a meaningful morph that fit its own mind.  I'd been working on my sun-altar when it had found me among the dunes of rusted bolts where I make my home.  So I returned to my labors, confident that my visitor would speak again when it was ready.


Exogens work on their own timescale.  Some are sped up so fast they can experience a standard-year in a few hours, others move so slowly they speak to rocks, and perceive trees as a fast-moving weeds.  In time, this one would answer.


Two days later, it did.


"Secrets,"  the exogen said, as if no time had passed at all.


"You want me to dig for the secrets of death?"  I laughed.  "There's no secret to death.  It finds us all.  Death is the least secret thing in the universe.  I can open any grave and show you."


The traveler's hand brushed down its translucent front, trailing tiny colored flares.  "Undying."  The voder somehow sounded wistful.


I picked up a ritual axe from the Second Archaean Interregnum, traced a claw tip down the blade edge. "That's easy enough to take care of.  Dying is simple.  It's living that's hard."


For an awful moment, I wondered if the exogen was going to dip its head and dare me into trying that pulsing neck.  Instead it just stared a while.  I thought the exogen had slipped back into slow-time, until it spoke again.  "Door."


"Door."  Death's door?  That was a figure of speech as old as architecture.  This exogen must have something more literal in mind.


"Door." This time the voder's tones implied an emphatic conclusion.  The exogen shut down, sinking into a quietude that took it across the border from life into art.  The sense of light and life which had skimmed across it like yellow fog on a sulfuritic lake was gone.


I had acquired my very own statue.  Walking, talking, likely intelligent, and certainly fantastically wealthy.


For a test, I poked one tip of the Archaean axe into its chest.  About where the sternum would be on the human plan.  It was like poking a boulder.  The exogen's skin had no give, and the sense of weightiness was downright planetary.


Door.  What in all the baroque hells of the Mbazi Renaissance did it mean by door?


*     *     *


You know perfectly well that while the Earth is dying, it's nowhere near dead.  Even a corpse on the forest floor isn't dead.  Intestinal flora bloom in the madness of a sudden, fatal spring.  Ants swarm the massive pile of loosening protein.  Patient beetles wait to polish bones until they gleam like little fragments of lost Luna embedded in the soil.


So it is with this world.  I can tell by the cut of your suit that you're from offworld, but I can tell by the quality that you didn't ship in from across the Deep Dark.  A patient man with an unlimited air supply and a wealth of millennia in his hand can almost walk from here to Proxima Centauri by station-hopping, but anyone terrestrial planning to move between the stars on anything like the scale of a human standard lifetime is very, very wealthy.   And you are plainly terrestrial in origins, and just as plainly from those boots are not so wealthy.


I'm sorry.  Did I offend?  Take it from me, after you've riven open the graves of a million generations, you find your sense of tact has evaporated with all the rest of time's detritus.  I'm poor, poor as a chuck moose, so I see no shame in anyone else's poverty.


Besides, this story I'm telling you may save your life some day.  Surely that's worth an unintentional insult or two.  Not that I'm planning another, mind you, but Digger the Dog is famously plainspoken as any of his kind, for all that he's not on the human plan.


Here we are, a collection of mortally wounded peoples on a mortally wounded planet, but we yet live.  No matter the elevation of our estate.  I may be a beetle polishing the bones of the world rather than a bright explorer at the morning of all civilizations, but still I draw breath.  (Metaphorically speaking, of course.)


And so it fell to me to search for meaning in the exogen's request.  After a month had gone by, his skin was cooled to the color of cold iron, and no one might ever have believed him to be alive.  He stood like a man marking his own grave and stared sightlessly at the spot where I happened to have been positioned that night.


At least I understood now how he passed between the stars.  The exogen had no life support requirements, and was immune to boredom.  He wasn't so much undying as unliving.


I went to my friend Pater Nostrum.  A man very nearly on the human plan, as so few of us are in these terribly late days, Pater Nostrum lived in a cathedral he'd built himself as an agglutination of debris, donations and some downright thievery. He dowsed for his cathedral one shard at a time, using a rod made of Gerrine Empire hullmetal wrapped in sable manskin.  A time or ten I'd dug and hauled great, broad-beamed members for him, fetched by some unseen-to-me holy mandate from the dank rust-grained soil.


The genetics in that rod's leather grip were worth more than all of Pater Nostrum's earthly accumulations, but as a priest, he was beyond caring of such things.  Or so he told himself, me, and everyone else who would listen.


This day I claimed back from him one of the favors owed.


"Pater," I said.  It was the season for my third body, which was generally the most comfortable for those with whom I spoke.  Not that the exogen would have cared, or truly, even Pater Nostrum.


He smiled, resplendent in his robes of rich vinyl trimmed with donkey fur. "Digger, my... son.  Welcome."


We met in his cathedral's Second Sanctuary, a round-walled room with a ceiling line that very nearly described a hyperbolic curve.  Armor cladding off some ancient starship, with a look like that.  The walls were relieved with 10,432 notches (I am incapable of not counting such things in my first glance), and each notch held a little oil lamp wrought from some old insulator or reservoir or other electromechanical part.  They all burned, which argued for some extremely retarded combustion characteristics.  The scent map of the room confirmed that well enough.


"I would ask something of you, Pater Nostrum.  I cannot yet say whether it is a remembering or a scrying or just some keyword research in the deep data layers."


Information flows everywhere on this earth.  It is encoded in every grain of sand, in the movements of the tumbling constellations of microsatellites and space junk above our heads, in the very branching of the twigs on the trees.  Knowing how to reach that information, how to query it and extract something useful—well, that was one reason we the world had priests.


Prayer and sacrifice invoked lines of communication which remained obdurately shut to most of us most of the time.


"I will do this thing for you gladly," Pater Nostrum said.  "But you must first cross my palm with slivers, to make our bargain whole and place you under my hieratic seal."


This I knew as well, and so had brought a cluster of shattered beast-ivory from a sand-filled sea cave recently explored beneath the Hayük Desert.  I scattered it over his open hand in a brittle mist.


Pater Nostrum closed his fist and grimaced.  I knew with skin like his that the ivory would cut, burn, slice.  When he opened his hand, the usual small miracle had occurred.  A tooth with four twisted roots lay whole on the bloody palm.


"Well brought, Digger," the priest said.  He smiled.  "And of course my debt to you is long-incurred.  So speak plainly and tell me what you seek."


I closed my eyes a moment and let my skin tell me the story of the point-source warmth of ten thousand little flames.  The framing of this question had been much on my mind of late, with me working at great length to tease it out.  Still, no matter what I said, I'd be wrong.  Clearly enough the only choice was to address the moment and trust my friendship with this old priest.


"There is a client.  A difficult one.  It has charged me with finding the door into death.  I would know if ever there was such a thing outside the sliding walls of metaphor.  If so, where might I find this door, or evidence of its former existence?"


"A door into death."  The priest stared up at his hyperbolic ceiling, his eyes following the receding curve into some dark infinity.  "I will scry," Pater Nostrum muttered.  The air began to swirl around him, dust motes orbiting his upturned face like swallows around a charnel house chimney.  His eyes rolled inward until nothing remained within his lids but a silvery glowing sliver.  One by one, the flames on the wall niches began going out in tiny pops as the priest drew from their energy in some pattern known only to him.


I settled to watch.  The brilliant dust of a thousand millennia of nanotechnology meant the world could describe itself, if like any competent priest one only knew how to ask the questions.


So he scried.  The flames carried Pater Nostrum inward on a wave of information, a palimpsest of infinitely successive and fractal functional languages, protocols, handshakes, field-gestalts and far stranger, more curious engineering dead ends.  I knew there had once been information systems which stored data in the probabilistic matrices of quantum foam, extracting it again in a fractional femtosecond as observational dynamics collapsed the informational field to null.   Likewise I knew there had once been information systems which relied upon the death of trees to transmit data at a bit rate so low it could be measured in packets per century.


Pater Nostrum could reach them all.  At least on his best days.  Each little lamp was a channel into some dead language, some time-hoared data protocol, some methodology which had once swept the world so hard that its fingerprints remained in the noösphere.


One by one, 10,432 flames went out.  Slowly we passed through shadow before being cast into darkness.  I don't measure time on the human plan myself, and so hunger, micturation, joint fatigue and the like tend not to impinge overmuch on my situational experience, but Pater Nostrum underwent all those and more, until blood ran gelid-dark from his nose and ears as the last of the lights winked away to leave the two of us alone in lightless splendor demarcated only by the priest's breathing and my scent map of his body's sudden advancement into further decay.


Finally he came back to me.


"Well."  Pater Nostrum picked his way through his words with an exaggerated care.  "It has not been so in more decades than I care to admit to."


"You scry well, Father," I said politely.


"I should not think to scry so well again.  Not as I value my own health."


"Surely the gods forfend."


"Gods." He snorted.  "I am a priest.  What does my work have to do with gods?"


"I can't say, Father."  After that I waited for him to find the thread of his thoughts.


Finally Pater Nostrum spoke.  "There was a movement during the era of the Viridian Republic.  Religious, scientific, cultural."


A long pause ensued, but that did not seem to require an answer, so I did not answer him.


He gathered himself and continued.  "They called themselves Lux Transitum.  This movement believed that life is a waveform.  So long as you do not collapse the waveform, life continues.  Death was viewed not as a biological process but as an unfortunate event within the realm of some very specialized physics."


"Life is... life," I replied.  "Antientropic organization in chemical or electromechanical systems which, when left unattended, tends to metastatize into computers, people, starships, catfish and what have you."


Lighting a candle from the inner pocket of his vinyl robes, Pater Nostrum shook his head.  "As the case may be.  I only reflect what I have been told.  I do not believe it.  Sooner argue with the dead than contend with the noösphere."


"Wise policy, every bit of it."


"At least for those of us on the human plan."  He tried another grin, but this one failed.


More silence followed, as if Pater Nostrum was now determined to subdivide his attention into short tranches interspersed by gaps of inertia.


Finally I stepped into the conversation again.  "Did Lux Transitum have a laboratory or a temple?  Is there some place where they addressed this uncollapsed waveform?"


"Hmm?"  Pater Nostrum looked at me as if noticing me for the first time.  "Oh, well, yes."


"Father."  I imbued my voice with infinite patience, something this body was fairly good at.  "Where might I find their holy place?"


He woke to my question with a non sequitur.  "How long have you been alive, Digger?"


"Me?"  I stopped and considered that.  "At least 7,313 years, by the most conservative view.  Counting since the last cold restart of my cognitive processes."


"How long have I been alive?"


"I shouldn't know with any certainty," I said, "but we met shortly after the Andromachus strike.  Which was 4,402 years ago the second Thursday of next month."


"You are not on the human plan, but I am."  He leaned close, almost touching me.  "Do you think the human plan called for four-thousand-year-old priests?  When was the last time you saw a child?"


I tried to remember when I'd last encountered a juvenile of any species.  Not just human.  "Surely people must breed somewhere."


"Surely," said Pater Nostrum.  "But not here on Earth, it seems."


"This would not come naturally to my attention," I pointed out.  "But you might have noticed it somewhere along the way."


"You know," the priest said vaguely.  "The days are bathed in almost endless red light.  There is always something to do.  So few people roam the world..."


"A thought-block," I said sympathetically.


He seemed shocked.  "On the entire human race?"


"What human race?"


We walked outside under the dying sun and argued long over whether Lux Transitum had the right of it, and what had been done with people.  Most of all, whether to wake them up.


*     *     *


You're wondering now, aren't you?  How long ago did this happen?  What did Digger the Dog do next? Did I rouse the exogen and what did I tell him when I did?


Look around you.  What do you see?  Quiet place we've got.  That line of hills over there is a linear city from the Vitalist Era.  Bury it in a quarter million years of rain and three major eruptions due west of here, and there's nothing left but low hills covered with scrub.  Until you go digging.


Now beneath your feet.  The red sand dusting your boots is rust accumulation from when teratons of asteroidal iron were brought down by the Wolfram Bund to clad the world in an impermeable metal shell.


Feel how the air tickles your throat when you breathe?  You'd be appalled at how much processing power goes into your lungs, and what percentage of that crosses through the alveoli into your bloodstream.  There's a reason that access to this damned planet is so heavily restricted.


So we live here in our lowtowns and our cathedrals and our shanties and caverns and buried mansions, and nothing ever changes.  That is the big secret the exogen was searching for.  You can transcend death, but only through stasis.  The whole point and purpose of life on the human plan is death.  Otherwise you are us, grubbing in the ruins of a million years of dreaming.


And you are us, now.  Check in with your shuttle.  I can promise you it's not going back up in this lifetime.  My fourth and sixth bodies have already disassembled the engines and control surfaces.  You will live forever, too, my friends, trapped in the same story as the rest of us.


The exogen?


He'll wake up eventually.  We're letting him sleep.  He's already found the answer.  He just doesn't have to dig holes under a bloodred sky to earn it every day.


I am called Dog the Digger.  I am not mighty, neither am I fearsome.  But I am all you will ever know now.


Or maybe this is just a story, like you asked for.  Under the crimson light of a dying sun, is there any real difference between a story and the truth?


Welcome to my Earth.




About the Author:

Jay Lake lives in Portland, Oregon, where he works on numerous writing and editing projects. His 2009 novels are Green from Tor Books, Madness of Flowers from Night Shade Books and Death of a Starship from MonkeyBrain Books, while his short fiction appears regularly in literary and genre markets worldwide. Jay is a winner of the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, and a multiple nominee for the Hugo and World Fantasy Awards. Jay can be reached through his blog at jaylake.livejournal.com or his web site at www.jlake.com




Story © 2009 Joseph E. Lake, Jr.