We planned to come back. Really. At the beginning, anyway. Even later, when we were thousands of klicks down the Path, we still knew we could go back, if we decided we wanted to. No matter where we were on the Path, in the distance ahead we could always see the towers, guiding us along; and in an equal distance behind we could see towers we had passed, so we knew we could retrace our steps – get back to our beginnings, so to speak. Our point of origin. We felt comfortable forging ahead, knowing that.
After a time, we didn’t care so much. The Path took over. The Path, and the towers.
The towers were gigantic, unbelievable – pastel structures a thousand feet tall, seeming to be barely tethered to the ground. Some were pink, some sky blue and almost invisible during the day, some terra cotta or adobe white; all the Easter egg colors, someone observed after a while.
They sang in the wind, when it blew. Each sang a somewhat different tune, but we always knew when a tower was singing. We loved tower song. Many of us recorded bits of it, so we could play it back when the wind wasn’t blowing, or when we were too distant to hear it well.
They were old, those towers, and in that way, not like Easter eggs at all, whatever their color. All of the towers were feathered and softened by the detritus of centuries or millennia – dust and wind and rain and blown seeds, season after season, year after year. All that accidental effluvia attaching itself to the polished surfaces and simple colors.
They so so old that they were driven through and grown over by impossible looking trees, sprouting from the accumulated dust and loam of centuries, creating vertical forests rising hundreds of feet into the air. Through the leaves, though, the soft colors of the original surfaces would still shine. The combination of the original structures and the overgrowth was beautiful, and utterly unmistakable – we were never in doubt about which way we should go, and though that way was always forward along the Path – yes, we planned to come back. None of us began by thinking we were going away forever.
On the Path beneath the towers, the ground was not always paved, but it was always leveled and evened and in some cases decorated with enchanting repetitive carved stone motifs, or bits of incomprehensible script on once-polished walls, or by a series of panels telling some story or other. The smaller gullies the Path crossed were sometimes bridged and culverted, sometimes filled. Along the way little resting areas with benches and tables had been situated by the original builders in inviting little moss-grown alcoves and garden areas alongside the Path. Wherever the view was particularly striking or the sun or shade particularly welcome, there would be a little turn-off and a place to put your feet up. You could tell what kind of people the builders were from that one little fact. Like us, they loved this world. Had loved this world – they were gone, long gone, but you could still feel the love. They loved observing that world in its surpassing beauty, and they took the time and effort to help others to see it, too.
Whoever built this stuff? They were our kind of people.
The Path was as softened and worn as the towers were, and by the same forces – time, and the persistent encroaching of life. But the Path, too, was unmistakable and beautiful. We always knew when we were on the Path.
Why did we go? Why did we surrender ourselves to our peculiar quest? How did that happen?
Well – we got sucked in.
By fame and fortune, yes, in part. This civilization was unique – nothing like it had ever been found, not in centuries of galactic exploration. When we began, we imagined scholarly articles and lucrative research grants. Of course we began exploring the Path. All the fame and fortune faded, though, with the passing of time and our greater exposure to the Builders.
That’s how we thought of them: the Builders. We kept going because of them.
Once the lures of fame and fortune had lost their charms, the thing that really kept us going was the love we came to feel for the Builders. The more we knew of them, the more we wanted to know, and so we kept going.
There was also the simple pleasure of forward motion when traveling on such a delightful road. Sometimes, the next horizon was the sum total of what we cared about – the next hill, the next valley, the lovely towers, the wonderful Path, the seductive tower song and the endless wonder of exploration and discovery on a now empty but still welcoming world.
We never started our quest as a quest, you see – we just… started exploring. Almost as soon as we hit the planet, we started.
Partly, that’s what we were supposed to do: we were a survey team, after all.
Yes, we "were" a survey team. "Were" is definitely the operative term. I don’t know what we are now, but we’re not a survey team – not really; not any longer. We still do the same sort of research, but we’ve been out here what seems like forever now, and haven’t sent a single report.
Sad truth is, that’s probably not a big deal. We’re pretty sure no one has noticed. The Builders weren’t the only civilization to vanish: the human variety kind of went to the dogs right after we shipped out. We heard the beginnings of the collapse, and then the FTL communications channels went silent, one by one. That’s why we’re pretty sure no one would be listening, even if we did call in.
That made it easier for us to do what we did.
Bit by bit, we abandoned most of our tech. Our vehicles didn’t need fuel and could regenerate most of their needed parts, but not all; one by one, we left them behind as they stopped working. Which meant we had to travel lighter, so we began leaving other things behind too. We’re mostly on foot now, with a few holdout running dogs loaded with gear to help us out until they too break down.
It’s okay. This is a beautiful world.
Beautiful worlds are common as crullers, of course – most human-habitable worlds show the same kinds of plants and animals and geology, after all. This lovely world is just a variation on a very common, but still very beautiful theme.
The towers were the only surprise when we got here.
Since our team first formed, we’d visited lots of beautiful planets – there are billions of them, after all. But the towers? None of us had ever seen anything like them.
Those beautiful towers give us a direction to follow. Which is how we discovered the Path.
Humanity had, over the course of centuries of starfaring, encountered occasional planetary or interplanetary civilizations and many, many odd intelligences. These were routinely innocuous and glad to see us on the few occasions we made open contact.
We had even encountered a few interstellar cultures, and they too were (as a rule) delightful – curious, yes, for the most part, but almost invariably gentle. At first, humans thought this odd, but some smart people ran the numbers – it turns out that cooperation and helpfulness and friendliness are almost always productive and efficient evolutionary paths. More so than most other possibilities.
So it really is mostly a friendly and welcoming galaxy. The rare exceptions to this rule have almost always been avoidable, and if not, then they were exterminable. Violent, aggressive, hostile cultures are inherently weak – pushovers for civilizations run by grownups.
But through all of humanity’s interstellar history, there had been nothing like the towers. There was something mythic about them, something like a song about them. We wanted to explore them – had to, almost – it felt like a compulsion, and then once we’d discovered the Path, well – that was all she wrote.
A rewarding compulsion, too. Every tower was different, and each was a revelation – exploring them was the most rewarding work any of us had ever done. Each tower was comparable to a museum telling some part of the story of the Builders, and – in a nutshell – they were wonderful people. Wonderful.
They were so wonderful that we kept going.
Tower to tower, we continued, learning who they were, what they felt, what they dreamed, how they laughed. We fell in love with them; partly because they would have loved us. We could feel it as we learned about them. We were so simpatico...
On a deeper level, though, we fell in love with them because we had to.
Turns out the Builder world was kind of a trap. A lovely trap, yes, but a trap, nevertheless.
Everything in that world was designed to appeal to us.
Flitting from tower to tower as we did, we were like pollinating bees flitting from flower to flower, and we had just about as much control over our behavior as bees do.
It took us years to figure that out.
Somehow, the builders knew us, or knew another people so like us as to make no difference. They knew us so well, and the world they created was a vast seduction.
Once we had that figured out, though – well, we still kept going. We still enjoyed everything about that world, and we still loved the Builders. None of that changed.
But the driving force behind our quest had shifted. Once we knew it was a trap, we started trying to understand: for whom had it been built? Us? And why?
Also, somewhere deep down beneath and behind our growing sense of betrayed affection, we needed to know how to escape.
Even though none of us wanted to…