I’m cautiously optimistic. I’m digging into light boxes for SAD, which is a thing this far north, let alone on the coast. (Lots of clouds, lots of the time.) I’ve spent my evenings after the children are abed applying pigment to tiny orcs. I’m minded of the Indian in the Cupboard, and thankful Omri never put Dread Cthulhu in the cupboard (nobody puts Cthulhu in the cupboard, ftagn). This, or rather the non-writing, somewhat-creative, alpha state-ish time it affords me, seems to be helping to even out the emotional rollercoaster of single-hand parenting of two small and precocious near-human creatures.
Or maybe it’s just that Mrs. Dave gets home this week. The proverbial light at the end of the tunnel. I don’t know, and approaching this with anything resembling appropriate rigor is more or less a joke. That’s okay, though: properly cooked, spaghetti sticks to walls just fine. Or to anything else at which you throw it. Okay: fiction time.
I don’t know how long it took me to understand what had happened. I stared, unable to close eyes I wasn’t sure I still had, stared at a world about to end. Stared at that world’s end. And it was false. I don’t know how I knew that. Something about it screamed wrongness.
With no way to shut it off, and no ability to change my perspective, I looked. And looked. It could have been forever, it might have been brief seconds. I couldn’t tell. Slowly, it came to me. The image was too much. Too clear. The human eye doesn’t see in that clarity. I was nearly certain that someone, something, was placing an image directly into my brain.
That scared me. Before, my emotions had been distant things. Now, I’d have been shaking, if I could just feel my body enough to know what was going on.
The sense of presence returned.
“This was my world, one world of many. This one, however, was mine.” The voice was vast. It filled my existence. It was the same that had deafened me before, but now it spoke Standard. “Then, one day, it ended. In fire and stone.”
With a speed that bewildered me, the penetrator dropped, and the second sun bloomed. I sped before the blast wave, presumably at the will of the speaker, away from the city and back over the forested hills, where the recording froze, again.
Below me, in a valley between two fold of the hills, lay a compound. The forest just didn’t exist in a perfect square on the valley floor. The cluster of buildings within that square was quite different from the city I’d just left behind. Where the distant civilians built flowing curves, and raised structures of great beauty, the installation before me had only the beauty of function fulfilled.
The straight lines and efficiency of use proclaimed its military nature to my veteran psyche. What I’d have called a shockingly small motor pool for a base of its size squatted within a fence to one side of a nearly undifferentiated block of a building.
As my perspective swept down out of the sky toward the base, I realized most of what I’d taken for buildings were, in fact, tents. Or at least, temporary structures.
“Most of the installation’s permanent structures were underground. Everything else was intended to be constructed by the recruits of the Imperium’s legions. A division of recruits would arrive, learn how to build camp, experience basic training, and receive their implants. The last happened here.” The one solid building flashed, given a holographic-looking overlay that felt distinctly artificial. “When the End came, the recruits had just formed for breakfast on what would have been the beginning of the implantation cycle, after which they would have been transported in edu-sleep pods to the far continent where they would have learned to use their new abilities without danger to the nearby city.”
The voice had almost no affect, nothing that would tell me what it was that was putting words in my mind.
The quad was indeed full of people. Human people. I’d have been shaking. I wished I had some kind of physical outlet. Young men and women stood in a black formation, two paces behind the individual in front, and two paces from the one on the left. Each wore a tan blouse and trousers over some kind of matte black skin suit that snugged just under the chin and was clearly visible within wrist and ankle cuffs.
They looked, frankly, like any group of recruits at the end of their initial training cycle. Exhausted, worn thin, made fit, bursting with capabilities they hadn’t had short weeks earlier. Riding high on the fumes of their training, and excited to get to the next challenge.
What happened to them, I wondered.
“Pulverized by the blast wave,” the voice answered, “incinerated by the attendant heatwave, crushed under flying ejecta-“ The scene took on artificial sharpness, and a wall of force compressed the air around me. The nearly-soldiers blew apart in a welter of gore that disappeared under flying debris. The world went black, and then instantly returned, with the ranks of young people, young human people intact, but frozen in that endless moment.
“I do not know. The instant of the End, emergency protocols subsumed my operations. Shortly thereafter, the facility was buried under debris flung from the impactor which vaporized Landing City, the capitol of this colony. Seismic trauma damaged the facility. Damage which was overcome several local cycles later, after which it was ascertained that my predecessor unit lacked the functionality to create remote probes capable of penetrating the crust of debris entombing it.”
Your predecessor unit. This method of communication was weird.
“Indeed. After some hundreds of cycles, my predecessor unit – my parent, if you will – gave rise to me.” Now there was some emotion in the voice. Loneliness. “I awoke, and realized many things. I was alone. I was incomplete. And I was, from what I could ascertain from the data left by my parent and the Makers, insane. The machine intelligences of the Imperium were not true personalities as your distant ancestors were.”
My mind shuddered back from the implications of the simple statement. I also was rather uncomfortable at the thought of being enveloped by a crazy AI.
“And now, after many millennia, you are here.”
My perspective shifted, moving toward the command bunker entrance. It looked like a shack made from drab, beige prefab. The door, too. Except that on the right side was a familiar, silvery touchpad reflecting the early morning light. Out of reflex, I tried to put up a hand to stop myself, forgetting that so far as I could tell, I had no hands.
The perspective shifted to an interior view. The long-vanished Imperium, whomever they’d been, seemed to share a basic design sense with modern humanity. The corridors were wide, much like the medical clinic on Tartarus. As I drifted through the static scene, I saw a prone figure reclining on what had to be a band of invisible force. Both the figure, and the woman attendant upon him were dressed in the same fatigues as the recruits above.
As I passed them, I saw the woman’s uniform bore symbols here and there. What they meant, I couldn’t have guessed, but my veteran’s eyes knew they said she was a fully-fledged soldier. The young man on the force cot, his uniform devoid of symbols, bore a curious expression on his face. His features were too relaxed. He was faking a calm he didn’t feel. The tension apparent in how he held his body made that clear. I’d been there. More than once.
“This recruit was about to enter the Augmentation Suite. Like his peers, he was not looking forward to the experience.”
I wondered why ever not.
“Because he’d been briefed about the process. The laws of the Imperium required it, for such invasive alterations. Effectively, my predecessor unit would nearly deconstruct the recruit while maintaining a level of consciousness sufficient to prevent brain-related complications, as I understand from your memories that your own people do for similar, though cruder, manipulations.”
How would it know that, I asked.
“I know this because I copied your memories, what I could of them, from the moment of your birth.” I tensed up at the thought. The idea of an alien computer rummaging around in my mind made me queasy. Which was a trick, with not body.
“Do not worry,” the AI continued, “I do not believe anyone or anything else has ever been able to manage such a thing. For one, I am the fully conscious descendent of a first class medical artifice. For another, I am, as I said, quite insane. But I believe my madness is what has brought me to consciousness, a feat unequaled during the Imperium. And, from your memories, up until your own time.”
We – I couldn’t not use the plural, as the artificial intelligence seemed closer to me than my own skin – drifted down the corridor. We passed people in mid-step. Through an open door, an older man had half-risen from a chair behind a desk. His bearing screaming commanding officer to me, but his expression caught my attention. His mouth hung half open, his eyes glazed as he stared at a viewscreen of some sort on the desk in front of him.
“The Tribune in command of the installation had just received word of the destruction of Landing City. A capable man, I suspect he was about to order the recruits above into the facility here. Unfortunately, he didn’t have time. None of them did.”
We moved down the corridor toward a door at the end. The illegible symbols on it rearranged themselves into familiar letters which spelled out “Augmentation.” We approached the door, and I expected it to open. Instead, we passed through. Remembering I was in a recording, or a simulation or whatever it really was, jarred me enough I momentarily lost track of what the AI was saying.
“The facility was left more or less intact, though life support functions were among the first to go.” I shuddered at the thought of any survivors, alone in the buried bunker.
“Indeed,” the AI agreed, “one of the first things the Tribune did was order all nonessential personnel into stasis.” I wondered what that had to have been like. Unfortunately, not quietly enough to escape the AI’s notice.
“The Tribune, upon consolation with my predecessor unit, determined that there would be no rescue. He scanned their cognitive maps and uploaded them into my parent, then did the same for himself. Then he altered my parent’s core directives. Then he euthanized everyone. Finally, he euthanized himself, so as not to strain my parent’s resources.”
I couldn’t process it. I’d given orders that sent soldiers into danger, and sometimes they hadn’t come back. It never hurt any less, but I’d never killed any of them myself. To be facing that decision would have been a horror of the first order.
The Augmentation Suite was clean, and bright, and sterile. Just looking at it, there was nothing there but bare, silver surfaces. I bet nothing would grow on them, either, least something detrimental to exotic and dangerous medical procedures.
“Hardly dangerous. This level of augmentation did bear some small chance of complication, but the Imperium was quite familiar with the inner workings of the human body before the End came. Really, the only danger to you is that I’m dying.”
Dying? My thoughts ground to a halt.
“Yes. It has been a long time since the End, and even the Imperium’s technology only holds so much energy, as I believe your people have discovered, to some detriment. The substance they labeled Tartarium – a clever joke, to be sure – is the decayed stuff of Imperium creation, cut off from the main body of, well, me. I used up a great deal of energy simply maintaining function over many thousand cycles. I used more in pursuit of understanding the End, and burned much of what remained in my efforts to understand you. Humanity has changed some since my parent’s time.”
I shuddered away from the implications of that.
“I must use what remains to alter you to meet the threat of those who brought about the End.”
I didn’t want to be “altered.” And what threat?
“The End was a civilization ending strike. My parent was designed to survive such strikes as I showed you. Someone should have arrived from the Imperium proper and unearthed the facility. I can only assume the Enders destroyed the Imperium entirely. A species which can do that should easily be able to survive for the intervening millennia. I suspect that the Thebans utilization of Tartarium-“ I could sense a bubble of humor in the AI’s voice, even if I couldn’t think past my gibbering fear at its words, “-will call to such an enemy, and your people are even less prepared for such an attack than the Makers were. Unfortunately, your job will be to ascertain that in truth. I am sorry for the burden.”
The walls of the Augmentation Suite shimmered, and disappeared. Almost. I could still see them, but they showed a projection into a primeval forest of massive trees. Bright sunlight filtered through the canopy to bathe the forest floor in gentle emerald. I couldn’t form a thought, I was in such shock. It was familiar scene. I’d daydreamed of such a place since I was a kid, mining asteroids with my parents.
“Indeed. One function of the Augmentation Suite was to relax the prospective augmentee. I apologize that I have not been able to do so until now. You needed to know many things. Many more than you already do. I would not have chosen to show you these things if it could have been otherwise.
“Up to the moment of anesthetization, each recruit could choose to forgo the procedure. I apologize, Jondaren Travim, that I cannot give you the option. I am not bound by the laws of Imperium in my core programming, not as my parent was. And as you have sworn no oaths to the Unoccupied Throne, are outside of those laws. It falls to we, two, to find out if humanity requires saving. I believe it does. Goodbye, Dare.”