It’s the time of year, again, where the amount of things doesn’t really fit into the time allotted for them. For us, we’ve had Mrs. Dave’s ‘rents here for the last few days. It’s been great to have other eyes on the Wee Horde, and they all enjoyed it, too. My brain took enough of a rest that I was actually able to write, yesterday. And the house is still clean! Which I’m promptly going to ruin, as I pack for the imminent holiday departure.
That’s right: we’re heading out after school today for Parts Unknown (to y’all and the rest of the world) for a small scale barbarian invasion. The Horde will temporarily increase in size, as Wee Dave and Wee-er Dave join with their kin. The world trembles, I’m certain. That said, I’ll still be writing, still be posting. Mom and Pop Dave are looking forward to teaching the spawn the finer points of razing and pillaging (it’s more romantic by firelight), and Mrs. Dave and I may even get to catch up on sleep. I’m going to read something. I don’t know what, but I’m enjoying the anticipation.
In the meantime, I’ve been continuing work on the space fantasy. I’ll make sure to carve out time for it so posts are less stressful, at least. I’m also going to try a thing, and I’ll report on it after a bit.
Chapter 17: Deep Down
My stomach growled, an increasingly frequent event in my stone prison. I walked another circuit, and suppressed the urge to kick at the fragments of stone on the floor. For one, I wasn’t wearing shoes, and the kicking would just hurt my toes. More importantly, the space in which I found myself seemed to be more or less symmetrical, and the chunks marked the only way out.
At least, I thought it was the way out. There was a hole in the ceiling plugged with chunks of stone which looked similar to those near my foot, if an order of magnitude or more greater in mass. Even if I could reach them, I had no idea how to lever them out of my way. More than that, once they were free, how to prevent them from crushing me. Beyond that, the hole was easily five meters off the floor. In a space easily the footprint of my old ship, and I had a handful of head-sized rocks to rub together. And a glowing rune powered by I didn’t know what.
This was worse than waking up unable to move and sick with stasis shock. Worse by far than watching my friends and my livelihood destroyed because some religious zealots wanted to pick a fight. I glared at the cold, stone walls and then down at my hands making unconscious fists.
Some artifact of the suit I’d somehow woven out of the alien material kept my hands warm. My feet, too, despite their contact with the cold stone of the floor. I couldn’t tell whether there was some form of active heating, or if the fabric was simply that good of an insulator. It was odd that I wasn’t uncomfortably warm, then, but I had other things to worry about. Unraveling the garment’s secrets would likely take a first class lab and a squad of cooperative techies, none of which I’d managed to find just lying about in my oubliette.
As if to find something, anything, upon which to focus, the oppressive silence closed in next. The stone transmitted sound oddly. In the hours I’d been awake, I’d heard any number of sounds. Owing to the distinctly heterogeneous nature of the stone around me – mining in it for several weeks had given me an almost intimate understanding – being made up of blast debris and rife with organic material, everything I’d heard had been significantly distorted.
I replayed the thought in my head and snorted.
“Complicated way to say you couldn’t tell what was what because the rock is messy, Dare.” The nature of my imprisonment encouraged speaking barely above a whisper. While it gave off a warm, yellow light, my little sigil still made shadows dance on the walls as I paced. For all I’d flown between stars and apparently been dismantled down to component parts and rebuilt by a time-maddened alien artificial intelligence, the way the darkness seemed to swallow the light around the edges sent primitive chills up my spine.
I forced my fingers to unbend and clapped my hands together.
“Okay, man, you may not have gotten yourself into this, but you can get yourself out. Crazy, dead AI didn’t leave you without some tools.” I’d already made light and clothing. I’d survived worse and weirder – barely – during my time in the AC. Was I going to let a few thousand tons of rock prevent me from my escaping this literal hole in the ground and achieving my destiny?
“Well, kinda,” I answered myself. I folded abruptly to a sitting position on the bare rock: legs folded and crossed, elbow on knee and chin on hand. Andi always made fun of me, asking how it could possibly be comfortable.
It wasn’t comfortable. That wasn’t the point. Discomfort was always an excellent catalyst for change. That’s what had propelled me from the family nest and the mining coop, and fairly extreme discomfort – of the heart-rending variety – had been what drove me to join the AC. While those had been existential in nature, I’d found holding uncomfortable positions to be helpful in driving sluggish thoughts toward greater facility.
And it proved so, once again, as my light source descended to half a meter in front and above my head. I looked at it and frowned. I looked at the edge of my skin-close garment and my frown deepened. I’d done something impossible twice. I’d sketched a glyph into being and made light from nothing, and then I’d converted the remaining mass of the dead AI into something to wear to keep me warm. Their very impossibility was the only point of congruence, however.
“Okay, the first time I was acting on instinct. The second time was out of a perceived need, but with intent.” I sighed. “Kind of.” The problem was that a crazy, dead, alien AI had given me the ability to do impossible things, and then put something in my head that I didn’t know how to access at will. “Well, now I need to get out of here, and I’m at the bottom of a hole that you put me in and left me. So, now what?”
That same mental itch returned, and quickly built into a splitting headache. I grunted as the wave of pain crested over me, and pushed tears out of my eyes. I felt hot all over, despite my seemingly-magical outfit. My breath whistled through my nose. Every though fragmented.
The pain cut off, and I nearly fell over from its sudden absence. I did fall over as a brilliant line appeared in the darkness and quickly widened into a blinding rectangle, out of which stepped a man. A man I knew.
“Massick? You’re dead.”
The dead man fixed me with the same raptor stare he’d had as my cargo master, and frowned.
“You needed a way to communicate, Jondaran Travim,” he said. “This likeness was chosen from your memories as someone to whom you would be willing to listen.”
“You’re wearing the face of my dead friend, whoever you are, and I-“
“Be quiet, Jondaran Travim. There is barely sufficient time to give you the very foundations, as it is. Overuse of this simulation will begin to destroy portions of your cortex without access to further supergoo.”
I laughed. I couldn’t help myself.
My dead friend looked nonplussed, which almost humanized the mask.
“Your language translates concepts differently that mine. This supergoo is a macro-amoeboid cybernetic organism made up of pico-scale bio-nannites.”
“Really?” It sounded interesting.
“No, not really, but that’s the closest approximation I can form in your language.”
I snorted, which the apparition ignored.
“You have been chosen-“
“I was the only one available, you mean.” Not-Massick’s nostrils flared, and I suddenly realized I was having fun. Massick had always hated it when I interrupted him, and it looked like whatever was wearing his likeness had copied that over, as well. I found that immensely reassuring: a touchstone in a raging sea of confusion and terrifying novelty.
“Chosen,” he said, lips compressed into the hard line Massick had always used when he’d had enough of my questionable sense of humor. “The other available was unsuitable.”
My head spun.
“Other?” There’d only been one other near the AI for any length of time after I uncovered the touchpad. “Crind?”
“His lack of discipline and inability to help a fellow sophont in distress demonstrate his lack of suitability-“
“I should think so!”
“-and moreover, his physical markers suggest cruelty, and a childish desire to dominate others. Entirely unsuitable.” The apparition continued over my interruption. It was definitely something like a hologram, too. The light from my glyph didn’t seem to interact with not-Massick, at all. “You have been chosen to complete the task my creator was unable to accomplish, given by Commander Grieth. You must discover the cause of the destruction visited upon Avaethfa and bring those responsible to justice. To this end you have been given capabilities consistent with the likely mission requirements. You have full soldier package, , full infiltration package, full command package, limited general staff officer package, limited fleet admiral package-“
I let the words wash over me as the image of my dead friend rattled off a list of terms that didn’t mean anything to me. I was apparently now Human, Mark Twenty-something. I was shocked I didn’t feel any more strange. The AI had pulled me apart and stuffed me full of the wonders of a long-disappeared civilization, and then died. I wondered if I even qualified as human, anymore.
Something not-Massick said jerked me out of my thoughts.
“What in the Void is a technomage?”
The apparition paused in midsentence.
“Technomage is a barbaric butchery of the basic classification for an enhanced human at the professional level. Most technomagi work in physical trades, from manipulating small scale force fields in mining, to basic surgery of gross anatomy, to frontline military applications. Your language lacks the nuance necessary to accurately describe concept. To further your education, here is a primer in Galactic Common-“ Not-Massick gestured, and a line of glyphs carved a searing path across my vision. I blinked at the pain, my eyes tearing up. It felt as though I’d stared into a lit thrust core unshielded. “-as well as field manuals for your enhancements. You will not see this simulation again. There is insufficient power.”
“Wai-“ I started, but the rectangle of light framing the apparition of my dead friend closed over him, back to the simple line which shrank to a point and disappeared.