I don’t have anything clever today. This week has been a rough one, with a good bit in the way of sleep disturbances, courtesy of the Wee Horde and Uncle Sam, and us all unrecovered from Thanksgiving Break, too. Fortunately, Mrs. Dave’s parents will be joining us for a visit, and extra hands to mind the pint-sized barbarians will be helpful.
I’m sorry this post is late. Everything else has made the fictioning grind more or less to a standstill, which I mislike something fierce. The other side of that particular coin is that I was so focused on getting to the big AI reveal that I neglected to plan for after. “He gets empowered by the AI, which dies, then Stuff Happens. Eventually he fights with Perseus. Maybe.” So I’ve been beating my head against that wall for several days while working to keep soul and body together and planning for the holidays. But I promised more fiction. Late, but delivered.
Chapter 16: Liquid Light
Not the wittiest of comments, I admit, but my most recent experiences seemed to have sapped what Andi would have called the “poor half of one I had left.” Thinking of her hurt, as always. Andi occupied a very strange and unstable place in my mind, just then. And, staring at the glowing sigil hanging in the air in front of me, I thought my concerns over the Theban’s “secret” breeding project might just be moot.
I shivered, and looked down at myself in the dim light. I was naked. I hadn’t been when I’d been sucked into the now completely dead AI’s substance.
“I’m going to have to come up with a better name than Tartarium,” I muttered. The stuff of the long-dead civilization didn’t really act like a metal, not when it had power. I almost wished I’d been conscious – really awake – to see what had been going on inside the doomed medical AI.
Something had sure happened. Aside from watching a civilization end in fire and destruction, I mean. I lifted my other hand, and the sound of droplets falling snatched me back to myself.
The light from my glyph illuminated a cave. It cast too much light, and the droplet showed me why. Liquid silver ran down my arm to drip from my elbow. Each drop pinged strangely in my ears: heavy, metallic, and almost musical.
I blinked. The liquid wasn’t water. It didn’t even move like water. It clung to my skin like hull paint, and possessed the same mirror sheen as the pseudopod that pulled me into the AI. As I watched, it gathered at my elbow. Slowly, it elongated into a droplet shaped mirror that threw the gentle light of my glyph back at me. The drop depended downward, stretching toward the mass in which I sat.
The tail connecting the pendulous mass to my joint stretched out thin, and then snapped with an audible twang. The tail snapped back up to join the stuff still clinging to my arm. The drop hit the pool with the sound of hitting a damped metal beam with a heavy bar, and kicked up gentle ripples. In a lifetime of traveling space, it was easily the strangest substance I’d encountered.
The light dimmed, and I blinked, but the glyph hadn’t changed. The compelling design still hung in the air in front of me, emitting the same level of light. I looked down, and instead of looking at my face mirrored in the liquid, I was shown a darker blob. It was losing its reflectivity as I watched, taking on a flat, gray that looked more solid than liquid.
I scooped some up in my hand and held it toward the glyph. Now it really resembled hull paint. I poured it out, and instead of the almost musical chiming it had made while silvery, the stuff splashed with the muffled slap of something thicker than water. Also like hull paint. I felt one corner of my mouth quirk upward in amusement.
Thinking of the unholy mess that was the never-ending process of protecting a spaceship from radiation and micrometeorites helped calm the terrified, gibbering monkey in my back brain. More or less every time a ship touched down somewhere, all hands had the pleasure of going outside to check the hull for holes in the paint. Defense screens were power hogs, intended to protect a ship from intentional energy attacks.
For everything else, there was armor, which was extra mass on a trading ship. Some was absolutely necessary, or you could find yourself bleeding air. Too much was just going to slow you down and cost more money. Likewise, keeping the screens active cost money, in probably-catastrophically burned-out generators and certainly in reactor mass used to power those generators, and everything else on the ship.
So humanity had come up with hull paint. It was gray, it was sticky, and once slopped onto hull metal and cured, it managed to deal with the pesky eventualities of getting hit by stuff in space. It was also pretty good at absorbing the heat of re-entry, for similar reasons. Only pretty good, though. Which was why a good captain checked it after he landed. Otherwise, he could find himself with an unexpected hull breach, which tended to ruin one’s day rather definitively.
I shivered, coming back to myself just a hair calmer than I had been. The stone was cold, and despite the warmth of the light coming from my glyph, that was just an illusion of color. I was quite chilly.
A mental itch blossomed, which demanded all my attention. I grimaced as I tried to remember something I’d forgotten. Or something I’d never known. A framework of data snapped into my consciousness with a suddenness that left me gasping. Several times throughout my life I’ve experienced something similar. When I watched my ship destroyed by terrorists, and realized my old life was over. When I genuinely understood Andi loved me, and later when I realized the cost.
Those had all been momentous, life-altering changes. This was rather pedestrian. My mouth formed words in that language I didn’t know, and my hands made a series of peculiar passes in the still air, and I almost understood what I was saying. Meaning I had aplenty, but genuine understanding lurked somewhere in the recesses of my mind.
Fortunately – maybe – there was plenty to distract me from the strange things I was doing. The leftover mass of the dead AI pulled together into a single mass, mounding into a sphere of gray liquid that rose into the air on the other side of my glyph. The sphere began to swirl, rotating into a spinning disc. The cave brightened as the spinning disc began to glow with a soft pearlescence. The glow brightened while my voice rose to a crescendo, bright enough it hurt my gloom adjusted eyes. The disc vanished with a flash of light accompanied only by my hoarse shout.
When my eyes adjusted to the renewed gloom, I reached out with shaking hands to pick up the pile of cloth sitting on the now-dry stone floor of my pocket of air in the surrounding rock. I held up a single piece jumpsuit, much like what the recruits in the AI’s vision had worn under their uniforms. Seamless and seal-less, the garment was still clothing, even if I didn’t understand it, or how I’d made it out of the substance of the dead AI.
I scrambled into the jumpsuit, and almost screamed as it crawled over my skin, adjusting itself to my blocky form. I managed to hold myself to a humiliating squeak. I hoped I’d become more emotionally inured to the outright strange things that seemed to keep happening to me.
After a series of deep, calming breaths, I moved around. The garment was snug, clinging to my skin, but without binding. It was also far warmer than it looked. Warm enough to counteract the chill coming up through the soles of my feet.
At which point I realized I was standing, and that the glowing symbol had risen to head height. I squinted into the darkness, and that same alien itch in my mind prompted me to do something. I willed the light to increase, and the glyph brightened in response. And then I staggered, as a wave of fatigue rolled over me. But at least I could see.
“Voidspawn,” I swore quietly.
I looked around at solid stone in every direction.