Chapter 1: The Mission
“I need to speak to Dixon!” – “… So?” said the barman. – “It’s important!” – “But does he want to speak with you.” he stoically replied. – Colborn was getting annoyed. “Yes. And you don’t want to stand in his way.” – The barman carried on wiping his cocktail shaker but kept his eyes on Colborn. – She realized she’d have to nudge him a little more. “He sent for me, you know.” she said, smiling with a hint of seduction. She wasn’t certain this would register – obscure communication was always a problem. Less so than styling and fashion cues, but still tricky. How much had Sydney already worked on the barman?
“Okay then … Wait here.” said the barman over the music and turned to leave. – Colborn casually pointed after him and leaned her back against the counter. Few patrons were here this early in the evening, and it was always early. Always this time. That way she and Sydney didn’t have to waste too much effort on these people – they were not part of the mission. Mere decoration, basically. For flavor. Hm, except … why was that guy looking at her? Not casually, but intently. Ellen Colborn didn’t hesitate and left the counter behind. Walked the few meters across the wooden floor, and reached the first of many mostly vacant tables. “What’s your deal, huh.” – The man just kept staring at her face. Didn’t even blink. – “Are you looking for trouble?” she asked, squaring her shoulders. – The man didn’t react, eyes dead center on hers. – “COME WITH ME!” shouted the barman without any emotion.
Ellen Colborn lifted her left arm and stroked the leather jacket from elbow to wrist with the palm of her right hand. The music stopped. So did the background murmur of the patrons and staff. And the man no longer followed her motions. She felt the need to step to the side, to escape his frozen gaze. But realized this wasn’t bad: If he was getting to her, then the experience felt real, no? Not just tense – or laborious – due to the absence of quicksave. But emotional.
She reached over the table and quickly snapped her fingers three times, careful not to move much in the process. The system registered her command. A luminous red ball appeared, occluding her hand. She pulled it out of the sphere and began to speak the note she wanted to leave for Sydney. “This man is not running a patron script. I think you may have unassigned it by accident. And the barkeeper is shouting like a maniac. I know, key plot point, not to be missed … But it’s not good this way. He could … I don’t know, maybe let him whistle if he needs the player’s attention?” She reached into the ball again and snapped her fingers one more time. The ball turned yellow.
Ellen stroked her left forearm again in the same way. The scene was already on pause, so this triggered the exit command. Quickly, all the room’s colors dulled to grayscale. Afterwards, the contrast faded to zero, leaving her in a completely gray reality with no contours or shades. Yet it still somehow felt three-dimensional. Then suddenly, it was gone. She saw the desk of her dimly lit bedroom. Or rather, this image was now in her eyes, which she had opened instinctively when exiting the scene. But her consciousness was only beginning to adapt to this input.
It was always a puzzling, otherworldly experience. Like returning to the world from having fallen unconscious – not quite like waking up from sleep. Of course, she had learned to savor this. All citizens using VR (In other words: Everyone.) learned to appreciate it eventually. After all, they were in it for the trip, thus every facet of it would be sponged by the hungry minds coveting escape. And not every changeover felt like this. It was possible to design smooth entry and exit points. But Ellen and Sydney would, if at all, tend to these details once the bulk of the work was done. When their current virtual reality project was at a reasonably final stage. Which it wasn’t.
The blinking VR indicator caught her eye – the machine was still on standby. Ready to grab hold again of her mind via the chip implanted in the back of her neck. She turned the machine off. Then slowly rose from her chair. No balance problems – as expected. Still, the fresh memory of standing in that shady pub, and the sensation of abruptly sitting, relaxed, in this recliner, instilled an urge to be careful. Every time. Though it had never been required. The simulation was so authentic, she couldn’t overcome the belief her fabricated and her real body were identical. One of the greatest achievements of the 21st century. And so very relevant, now that living space had become so historically valuable.
She pulled her bedroom door open and squinted her eyes at the light from the living room. Ellen saw Sydney. He seemed to be setting the table for their dinner whose pleasant smell she was now beginning to appreciate. – He looked up when he noticed her. “Did you …?” – “Yes.” she said. – “And? … Did you finish?” – “No, I’ve found some bugs. Left you a note.” – “Welp … Too many changes at once.” – She longed to encourage him. “Yes, it’s early-stage. But the feeling is nice! Don’t worry, Syd, we’ll get there. … I was wondering … I think we should add a newspaper to the bar. To make it clear we’re in the early 2000s.” – Sydney turned to the kitchen counter, to fetch the meal he had prepared for them. “Sounds good. … I’m sure we’ll manage, it’s our first game scene, but how hard can it be.” – Ellen said: “Keeping the player on a narrow path is the problem. Without locking them in, I mean. We can use a generic simulation for the town, but we need to keep the users close to our decision tree. Else they miss out on the essence.”
Sydney joined her to sit at the small round table. She waited, in case he wanted to silently pray like he sometimes did, but he reached for the soup spoon and filled his plate with the deliciously smelling red beans and sauce. Ellen had no theistic leanings and found the general idea rather bizarre. But he never talked about it, and she did respect her mate, thus never brought it up either.
She also filled her plate with beans, then shoveled tiny baked potatoes onto the saucer next to it. Waited for Sydney to extract some yogurt cream from the cold glass container for his own potatoes before she got some herself. He gave her a smile. Took some of the bread, dunked it into his beans, and took a luxurious slurping bite. She started with her potatoes and cream, which were a little hot still. She took a sip of her sparkly mineral water, then proceeded to eat some of the exquisite red beans with her spoon.
Sydney swallowed, licked the insides of his cheeks, and said: “I … What do you think about a stroll in the park after?” – She looked up from blowing at her potatoes. “Fine with me, I’ve got some ideas I wanna throw at you.” – He didn’t respond immediately. “Yes, me too.” – Ellen’s thoughts drifted back to the project. It was an experiment. Like many citizens, they had created and published their fair share of postcard-like scenes. Places to visit, walk around in, listen to, smell the aroma of, and sometimes fall in love with.
A tiny cheese dairy cabin on a grassy plateau beneath some mountaintops in the alps, complete with edible cheese – and a lock to first overcome. The obligatory laguna beach with kaleidoscopes of procedurally generated swarming fishes in deep blue water. A railway station, including procedural passengers, schedule, and trains. A disco of the 1990s whose patrons would adapt to whatever playlist users would choose for the DJ. It came with a rain-wet parking lot where they could enjoy the damp night’s flavor or could be intimate with a fellow user, while the softened booming bass would reach them from the main event inside.
And of course they had also experimented with sexual scenes – minimal effort for maximum effect, since the ingenious VR infrastructure did most of the work. For example, one that resembled the standard living room, so it would feel personal and would stay with the visitor. But there was no furniture other than the kitchenette. The floor, lit from below, was seamless white opal glass covered with a hand’s breadth of thick transparent oil. And the user, locked inside a fully oiled open-face latex catsuit, hood’s edge firmly glued to the skin, would be accompanied by a selectable – and configurable – amount of simulated companions. Of course, real users could also share in on the experience. Minimal effort. Maximum effect. Despite the ubiquitousness of comparable scenes, this was their most favored download so far. Next to a related scene where one select user wouldn’t be able to return to the real world, unless their dominating companion(s) allowed it. Or the hardwired VR 12 hour clock would run out, or extraordinary circumstances would call citizens back from their escapism via their personal computers.
But game-like scenes, true self-experiences, adventures for the user? This was beyond their scope. Or had been. They aimed to cross this border with their simple and fairly cliché experiment. Reach Dixon, the local wannabe-don, without getting beat up or killed. Attach the tiny bugging device under his tabletop. And get out without raising suspicion. This presented all kinds of challenges to the newbie game developers, for example the communication logic. And it would, once decent, also be a solid foundation on which to build in arbitrary directions. Sydney had already suggested they could have a sniper, optionally playable by a user, waiting on a nearby roof, until key information was recorded by the wiretap, before killing the felon. But Ellen was against it. No violence unless absolutely necessary.
While she was beginning to clear the living room table from the small feast they had had, Sydney retreated into his own bedroom. They usually met – or stayed – in hers, so he had not worried: She wouldn’t find the tiny claret-red cushioned box he was now fetching from the farthest corner of the lowest drawer. He had done this before, several times, but prickly anxiousness had befallen him. And so he had always abstained from doing what now, his unquietness faded with each attempt, he thought it was finally the right time to do.
Sydney rejoined Ellen who was slipping into a light coat. Its sleeves were long enough to cover the computer display she was wearing on her left arm. A good idea, he realized, to hide this potential distraction. A romantic evening was what he hoped for, and so he picked a long-sleeve jacket for himself. He stepped over and reached for her shoulder. “Shall we go?” – She half-turned to him with a smile and moved with him to the tiny entrance hall. The small room would double as an airlock in case of a major incident, but this had never occurred. Protecting each and every member of the human civilization from harm, though, had grown to be a cardinal matter.
They shut the living room door and left the apartment, which locked automatically. The couple began to stroll the large enclosure of their neighborhood. The small road framed by the sidewalk was empty. Above them, dusk was already beginning to express itself. The wide portal to the adjacent neighborhood was open, of course – these were only closed for exceptional reasons. The impression of an expansive suburbia under a wide-open sunless sky was not to be disturbed, if at all possible.
They took the closest elevator down to the landscape deck. Despite having lived here their whole lives, they still felt fairly charged when about to set foot in the largest enclosed space they – anyone, really – had ever seen. Most other places were designed to claim as little room as possible. So the contrast was baffling when the lift doors moved aside: Not an efficient corridor came into view, but a wide trail wrapped in dense forest. Real trees, not a postcard. And they knew it was merely a porthole to what laid beyond.
The forest atmosphere was pleasantly cool. Pervasive plantlife exuded a wealthy aroma that bid them a passionate welcome. Few insects whirred in the dusky light. The sky was mostly concealed by the crowns of tall trees, even where penetrated by the elevator’s monumental tower. Ellen and Sydney stepped out onto the electrically lit path, the doors promptly closing behind them. The ground was solidified dirt laced with gravel. It completely encircled the pillar before continuing, invisible to them, on the back side through the sizeable forest.
With deep breaths, they luxuriously embraced the cool air. The ‘indoor’ atmosphere of other places was nothing to complain about, but their lungs were now being kissed by the essence of Mother Earth – it just didn’t compare. Every whiff communicated vitality, purpose. The air itself felt alive! It was almost like home – a notion as powerful as it was ambivalent.
Sydney took Ellen by her right hand, which was very warm, and began to walk the fifty paces towards the forest’s end. Gradually, their view opened up to the landscape deck’s marvel of engineering. The artificial azure above had already faded to desaturated pink, illuminating what was almost an exhibition of Earth’s grassland and forest biomes, but with a heavy agrarian leaning. They saw wheat fields and corn, long rows of vegetable plants, and vibrantly hued patches of farmland, among which the path continued to meander over gentle hills. Dirt tracks crossed it now and then and roads with agricultural machines. It branched out in various directions and was occasionally framed by clusters of trees.
This was a serene place, built as well for recreation as for growing crops and farming animals. And akin to the dandelion that blooms beneath the railway tracks, it had taken form amidst machines. A bubble of beautiful breathing life in the heart of the most obscenely heavyweight spaceship ever conceived. A vivarium at the center of engineering so stupendously titanic, all nations of the Earth had joined hands to make this ship reality in the face of absolute need.
But the eminent achievement did itself instill a need: The longing to be in yet another place, the place of origin – and this was it. The world turned inside out; the Earth, wrapped inside a machine, the hulking ship quasi a dimensional portal. It was geocentrism in a way. And naturally the center of life. Yes, VR reverie was unflawed, sublime, there was nothing amiss – apart from the knowledge: It’s not real! … And nothing could take that away.
Had there ever been a more distilled view on this most subtle distinction between reality and perfect illusion. A historic contrariety, the facile availableness of flawless VR – and this almost unchanging European garden in a metal box, furnished with scaffolding so the artificial sky would not fall. Life, the whole of it, had become surreal. Everything had shifted once the ship had launched near half a century ago.
Citizens would come to this place to ground themselves after sailing the oceans of simulation. If they’d find the time amidst their busy work schedule. This chamber was the sole oasis in the ship’s desert devoid of things not man-made. The only means to calibrate and find the North of what real and good and natural still meant – in this late day and age.
It was the green. The yielding earth. And the animals, so dependent on it all. The aromatic atmosphere of playful prancing biology. And the knowledge: This is real. That is what made it Home.
No psychological ailment would come without the doctor’s advice to spend time in the garden. Promenaders would find benches, at times near small tables, and far and wide they’d behold green hills with grazing cattle, barns, vineyards, fruit tree plantations, sometimes unworked land, and even recreational zones featuring sports grounds and play areas. In this place, if ever the need arose, they would relearn what the purpose was of it all; why to keep going. The all-containing question touching any person’s mind now and then, with the potential to exhilarate – or to maim.
Dusk was progressing in the artificial firmament. Ellen and Sydney would soon have arrived. Not far away laid their favorite spot and thus his destination for the big moment she had no clue yet would be upon her. They already saw the lake glittering in the distance, next to another colossal sky pillar. The vast landscape chamber had many of these, emphasizing its enormous height – but also its finity. Reminding of the darkness beyond.
Often while sauntering with Ellen had he fantasized what it’d be like if the acceleration gravity would ever give out. The lake’s tens of thousands of tons, and all its marine life, beginning to float. And drifting about the dozens of square kilometers in the one hundred meter tall diorama of Earth. Naturally, he did not wish for this to come about, but plausible it was and, anyway, an inviting concept to ponder. What if the lake were to gather on the vast plane of the artificial sky’s displays? A sizeable body of water, lit from ‘below’ by images of clouds and stars. Except it would be a lake no more – Sydney doubted it could even form a closed surface if outspread like that.
They kept following the path for a good ten minutes, rising and falling between the shallow hills. And all throughout, far far in the distance, loomed the artificial horizon, the ever misty gray wall, slightly occluded by the haze of the rich atmosphere. This barrier, a perfect circle, surrounded the entire room and reached up all the way to the luminous sky. Before this omnipresent wall stood the numerous towering pillars, spread all through the land, some fully overgrown with vines, others sheer gray metal.
The number of trees slightly escalated in the vicinity of the lake, and so did the presence of singing birds. Real birds, not loudspeakers for emotional ambience as they could be found in small recreational zones in other places of the ship. On the landscape deck, everything was real. Except for the sky. Its screens had already dimmed to apricot when Ellen and Sydney finally inhaled the humidity and traces of the near water’s fauna. The first star specks were beginning to show. The electric lanterns next to the dirt path along the grassy shore were becoming more dominant. The first crickets had joined the quiet atmosphere of warblers, sparrows, and the quietly babbling water.
The couple’s ambling had slowed. Ellen’s hand inched up to Sydney’s opposite shoulder, her right arm came to rest on his back. He was getting anxious again. In the perfect moment he hoped might occur, her hand would be right in this place. But … they had only just arrived. Had not yet created and embedded themselves inside a new mutual flow, where his profound suggestion could possibly be uttered. Once he’d feel it was the right time, however, she might have already let go of him, might be resting in the grass when they’d sit at the water. Her touch felt like a misplaced puzzle piece.
“I’ve had an idea.” she said, waking him from his contemplations, while they kept strolling alongside the shore. He turned his face towards her beauty but said nothing. – “What if a player reaches Dixon.” – He decided to allow his mind to fully drift into the topic of their project, but also clasped the small cushioned box in his right pant pocket more firmly. – “But they don’t play along with their orders. Instead … they completely go rogue. On the police. And on us.” – “The narrow path …” – “Yes. What if they … what if they just flat out tell Dixon what they’re there to do?” – He laughed. “That’s … why would they do that?” – “It’s a self-experience, Syd! They’ll … want to go places they otherwise can’t! I think it’s even likely they might go off path.” – “I … yes, but that would be completely random, they can’t expect us to consider such a thing!”
“No, it makes sense! They could let Dixon know, so they’d get paid by him, or join his mob, or … I don’t know! … Anything can lead to meaningful places, Syd. I’m …” – He felt the need to slow her down. “I’ve been there, Ellen. What’s happening to you is normal. You’re throwing your mind at something, dive in deeply, and so you inevitably see angles you otherwise wouldn’t have. And now you’re suffering feature bleed. This could be added, that could be added, etcetera. And that’s all wonderful, but it will ultimately stop you from getting anywhere! See … We chose the iterative approach for a reason, remember?” – She pouted thoughtfully. “Right. Yes. … All key plot points need to be there and working at all times.” – “Yes, remember when we had the first build? Where you actually push a button, and then a text pops up saying ‘mission accomplished’? That was the most brutal version of that, and then” – “and then we refined it” – “and put steps in, details, and the button went away.” – “Yeah … But Syd! Doesn’t this rather mean that, uh, ‘feature bleed’ is okay? As long as the main path stays intact!” – “But it leads to incredible overhead in every direction, we just can’t do all that!”
Ellen stopped, removed her arm, and turned to him fully. “And that’s where my idea comes in!” – In the lanterns’ light, he squinted his eyes at her, despite the sky showing mostly a starry night. – “We should consider something like a story engine.” – “Whow! … Ellen?” – “It doesn’t have to be elaborate, just needs to, uh … A mechanism in the simulation that … that can create new paths by itself.” – “That’s a higher abstraction level. It’s a nice idea, and maybe it’s feasible.” – “You think?” – “But it’s easy to wish for such a powerful thing. Entirely different ballpark to actually make it happen. You’re talking consciousness simulation, that’s what this comes down to! Not just scripts and decision trees.”
She said nothing for a few moments, and they slowly continued alongside the quietly rippling lakeshore, bringing them closer to the enormous sky pillar of this area. “What if we collaborate … Heck, what if there IS already something like this in development? We …” – “Oh that’s good … And if it’s not, we just have to go there! A collective effort might do it … Just imagine the possibilities!” – She was getting excited. “Of course, Syd! Just think about it … It could become so open-ended, there could be a simulated world parallel to ours, an ongoing profound role-playing experience! It could be …” – “… the future of mankind …” He was dumbfounded. What abyss of possibilities was still untapped and waiting … and his companion’s aspirations were so in line with his own. He became aware again of what his right hand was, very warmly, clasping. Was this the moment?
They arrived at the towering column. It was only now, when they didn’t have the electric lights of the path in front of them, that he realized this place wasn’t illuminated. This pillar, like all of them, he knew to be lit at its base. And he saw the light fixtures above them – but they were dark. Then suddenly, only few steps away, he saw the man. The grimace of hate, running at them. The raised arm. Overwhelmed, he uttered only shards of words. When Ellen realized what was happening, Sydney already felt the explosion on his nose and forehead. Eyes closed, a bright flash of pain was all he saw. He crossed his forearms in protection but felt a second brutal hit from above. The hard impact of some kind of tool almost robbing him of his senses. Heard Ellen scream, jarringly modulated every time a hard metallic thud interrupted her. He bellowed his wrath without words and opened his eyes in terror. But all he saw through his own blood were his falling arms while he was sinking into the grass. Robbed of his strength, desperate, he understood the screaming of Ellen had ceased. But wet metallic thudding continued to rain down on her. Then it was his turn again. He had to endure a handful of savage blows, clearly felt how they deformed and entered him. Then he fell unconscious forever. Together in death, their blood joined hands in the grass around the little red box with the ring she would never see.
In a near tree, a sparrow sat on a branch. Kept jerking its head. Chirped unfazed. Had no idea what murder was. Below, the lake’s water lapped against the shore, reflecting the artificial starlight. The fish were making their way through the water. A slight breeze moved the wild grass. Finally, the birds went silent, left the nightly stage to the crickets and cicadas. That is how it went for another eight hours. Then the bloodbath was discovered.
Deep below, in the bowels of the ship, stood an enormous round steel vessel, like a brewery’s fermenter except of colossal proportions and with glowing portholes. It was being inspected by a uniformed man wearing thick protective goggles. The man raised his left arm and typed something on his computer. A woman, also in protective gear, joined him at the reactor. He gestured her to look inside. She stared through one of the portholes into the monstrous machine, then after a few seconds turned to the man and spoke.
High above the artificial sky of the landscape deck, a group of uniformed officials stood in a small conference room. They were discussing, agitatedly. Some of them were smoking cigarettes. After a while, a small door at the side of the room opened, and an imposing tall man entered. His uniform clarified him to be above the others. They all turned and made their way to the chairs around the big wooden conference table. Extinguished their cigarettes as they sat down. Unfazed, the big man pulled out a cigar and carefully set it alight, while the room waited patiently.
The man spoke to his inferiors. A moment passed, then one of them responded, kept talking. The cigar smoker nodded, then gestured and spoke again. Then it was another officer’s turn to talk. After this, all of them broke out to let their mind be known. The tall man at the head of the table studied the inscription on the side of his cigar. Waited patiently for the officers to talk it out. Once the room had gone quiet again, another officer, present only on a screen and of lesser rank, addressed the room, with all heads pointed at him. Once he was finished, everybody expectantly turned back to their superior at the head of the table. Slowly, the big man got up from his conference chair. Began to talk. Walked around. Gestured with his cigar hand. They were all listening.
A few hours later, far below, a man walked in a corridor. A pathway through an engineering deck, dimly lit. Not for citizens. He passed a few uniforms walking in the opposite direction. Then he turned right. Kept walking. Turned his head, but there was no one behind him. He picked up speed, began to jog down the passage. Past alcoves. Past a panel with a screen, control lights, and buttons. Kept jogging along the corridor.
A door on the right wall. He opened it to a small room. A serious-looking muscular man stared at him from the inside. Both nodded. The door shut by itself. The man continued on through the inner door. Into an office. There were desks, but strangely also a couple of bunk beds further in the back. There were people, various types of uniforms, sitting, standing, talking, hanging out. They looked at him. The man made a gesture with his left hand. Like a fist, emerging from a sideways inwards grabbing motion, moving towards his chest. Some of the others did the same in response, some nodded at him, the mumbling continued. The man kept on walking, past the desks, past the row of bunk beds whose small ends pointed to the walk space between them, and sat down on the last one to his left, on the lower bed, next to the vent grills. He opened a drawer of his tiny nightstand. Took out a device. A screen. He lit it up, typed on it. Did not touch his wrist screen, stayed off the grid. Then pushed a button, spoke into the device, very quietly. He kept talking for a while, then he locked the device and put it away. Lied down on his bed, folded his hands on his breast, stared up, breathed loudly. Finally relaxing. A task fulfilled.
Someone’s coming. “Yon, have you eaten yet? You mustn’t neglect your needs.” – “I have not.” The other man places a dinner tray on his nightstand, on it a bowl of steaming thick mush, a plate with slices of white bread, and another bowl with apple-sized fruits. There’s a box that apparently holds some kind of juice. The mush smells pleasant and rich. I remember that I have really not eaten much lately. Yon thanks the man politely and sits up, his legs next to his bedside locker that leaves no gap between itself and the bed. In this awkward angle, he begins to eat. Dips a slice of bread into the mush and crunchingly sinks his teeth into the delicious meal. He sighs. Then whispers “Not far now.”, takes a sip from the beverage box, and takes another bite of bread with steaming mush.
Yon leaves the fruits for last. Then he gets up and walks away. I believe he’s off to the bathroom, to prepare for sleeping, even though it’s still afternoon. This is my chance. I carefully pull the bottom vent grill inwards and crawl outside into the room, peek my bald black silicone head above the nightstand to see what’s left on the tray. There’s still some mush, two slices of bread, and a few fruits. I reach out with my shiny black mittens, grab a slice, shovel half the remaining mush with it, and also grab two of the fruits, leaving two or three behind, then I quickly duck away and retreat into my hideout before I begin to dig in, not a meter away from the bunk. I should also have taken a sip of juice, but I’m risking enough as it is – if they see me, I’m done for. They’d quarantine me or even toss me into space for fear of me infecting more people and also turning them into fingerless hairless plastic versions of themselves. Or for fear of getting murdered.
While I’m getting some food into me, more of the bunk beds welcome their owners. Even though they talk little, my impression is all but confirmed: Something sinister seems to be afoot, and these people do not seem frightfully averse to it. I try to stay quiet. The airflow and the hum of remote machines are not quite loud in this sanctuary, but they ought to mask the sounds of my ingestion. I try not to leave any crumbs, though I have no knowledge of any rodents on the Earth Two. As far as I learned, the only thing moving in the vent tunnels, except from the air, is me.
We are the last humans in the cosmos. Every single person is now the most precious treasure. This made for some novel court rulings and legislation since we set sail. But never had there been a ruling regarding what to do with one who had taken the life of another. The ultimate crime – it had never happened before, not since departure. How would I make them believe that not I, the vent crawler who wants to stay hidden – “Maybe at all costs?” they would ask – killed those people this night? Just THIS cursed night! The night I turned into this … black thing – BLACK, of all colors! I still can’t fathom what happened. Forward observation dome nine. It’s rare that there’s anyone around after ten, and it was two in the morning, I almost felt guilty for being there so late. Couldn’t sleep, and utilizing sleeplessness is almost like desiring it. My colleague Weelah Counten would have to put up once more with a tired-out Alix Anson. She for sure must have reported me missing by now since I did not appear to my shift.
I am still trying to make sense of my situation. It all seems so new to me! … I was in the dome, with my pillow because I hoped the panoramic sight of the Milky Way galaxy’s majesty would bring me sleep. Our home … the home that we left. The home we keep orbiting with burning drive, to produce a steady 1 g of acceleration, 60,000 light-years from the galaxy core. If it were up to me, we’d be even further out. They say it’s far enough to minimize the risk of encountering any objects. But that’s not my fear. Any old object? Evade. Explode. Anything! My fear is that we meet another annihilator. The black monster. The hole in space that would end mankind, the sacred children of the Universe gone forever. No lineage, no history. A hole into which we’d roll like a marble and just stopped being, without even so much as a hiccup. No sound, no impact, just … gone. … Like flipping a light switch.
We are out here because 1 g is the only way to make mankind survive, to grow the crops, to keep the animals. And we can’t just pick a random direction and accelerate eternally. We’d build so much momentum, there would be no chance of evading obstacles. And risking our hypotheses about Metric Expansion to be wrong, so there’d possibly NOT, in the end, be mere blackness all around, that would just be insanity. We are. ALL. That is left. Besides, in the galaxy’s vicinity, we can still collect from the thin matter to keep the micro star going, the beating heart of this ship. And there’s faint hope for glimpses of worlds to settle. Despite the consensus that we’d have to send ships inwards to be sure … which would be like firing bullets into the night. We are not all that rich in resources. And … human life is precious, now more than ever. We are all that is left.
We all saw the recordings from the beam transmitters we had the foresight to install on Earth. That transmission that slowly caught up with us when we were already in relativistic flight. Once they had put it together, we already knew it would be terrible. We had seen their faces. But little did we know. It wasn’t just an environment told by 3D imagery. When we saw it, we all knew and felt what it meant. As we saw Earth fall, so our hearts fell. To us all, it was the center of the Universe, the core of all meaning, the soul of all being, that saw the black spot in the night sky grow until half the firmament was only this unfathomable darkness. Then the stars of all the sky, even from behind the giant, gathered above, as if Earth were falling into a deep well. Finally the transmission became too bad. They are still gathering data, but we have seen enough of the Black Hole’s terror. Earth, the holy blue marble of life and beauty, falling into the absolute death of this blackness. A rogue galaxy core, headed for Earth. We would never have dreamed. Thank God we saw it coming in time.
And now, for a reason I do not understand, my ardent study of the disk of three hundred billion stars has sparked something in me, opened a door through which my mind and body fell, turned me into a black shiny resemblance of the woman I once was, a silicone plastic suit worn by itself, with toeless feet and fingerless mitten paws in place of hands. Now I have become a black monster. What worse omen could manifest, to this ultimate society. On the very night of the unthinkable crime. It seems but a footnote that, on this ark of arks, a conspiracy appears to be brewing. And my skulking behind the backs of all I shook hands with, it seems to have taken me right to its doorstep. Here I cower, beneath the grieving public, in the bowels of the ship, and know not where to go, what to do. My suspicion vague, unproven. Maybe I could return? If knowledge I could bring, of sinistry and murderer, could point my fingers … thumbs … Look at the Moon! Else affairs turn terribly gory.
“I received them, too.” I hear through the grill and awaken from my melancholy. “Possibly a witless jape. The tedium gets to people out here.” replies another bunkbedian. “What’s going on, fellows?” asks a third. “Somebody … well … listen for yourself.” says the first. I can see Yon return from the washrooms, his dark hair is wet and combed back over his head. A somewhat tinny voice utters with droll foreign tonality: “I messeged yu! Yu hav messeges from me! I hav sent meni meni messeges! Meni messeges, yu hav to check!” Silence follows. Yon is in his bunk. His eyes look right at me through the upper vent grate. He appears tense yet apathetic.
“Is there nothing more? A document, by chance?” asks the third. “Not for me.” says the second. “What futile communication. A symptom, maybe, of what it means when one’s purpose no longer lies within this world. … I wonder why I have not been addressed. What sender can you see?” asks the third. “No sender. A server operator could be the actor.” says the first, then continues, with audible regard: “Yon. Have you been addressed by this strange notice?” I expected him to be bugged by this profane request, but he raises his left forearm with instantness and examines his inbox. A moment passes, then a tiny speaker once more voices what must lie in the no man’s land between inebrity, jest, and innocently inept foreignness: “I messeged yu! Yu hav messeges from me! I hav sent meni meni messeges! Meni messeges, yu hav to check!” The second man laughs quietly and says: “Even the champion is not spared a practical joke.”
Yon shifts his legs out of bed and sits up. Opens the tiny drawer. Takes the screen device. Types on it. A light electric shock passes through me when I realize it is now the second time I see him enter his password. Now I know what I must do.
I’m on the move. When I awoke with awful dizziness facedown in the observation dome, I did not bother to hide my neatly arranged civilian apparel. I even deemed it crucial not to retrieve my wristy – they could find me with it, and though I knew not yet of slaughtered people, a sudden animalic dread befell me once I saw my crippled hands and sought out black reflections in glass and chromium balustrade. I’d never seen a vent myself from the inside, but once the primal fright began to fade, I found myself ineptly claw at mechanisms now familiar, and so I vanished like a midnight ghost into the walls.
In most places, a spacious labyrinth rich with pipes, cables of all girths, tiny panels now and then, incidental switch cabinets, and too often dead ends for me, the humanoid not meant to pass into neighboring sections of the hidden arteries of the Earth Two. Sometimes a hidden room, once even with a writing desk, alluding to a hidden world, the Yang to our public Yin, quite more than just a better in-wall cable channel. This maze, I could have lived here long, I still would lose my way. With junctions, identified by numerals and letters, but even in a simpler web of paths, I just won’t see their system. Surely, the maintainers of this final vessel do carry navigation tools.
But on my aimless drifting path, I came along a lot of places, visible outside, behind the grill portals. And sure enough, I remember a storage room nearby. I can’t know if I will find what’s needed, but what options do I have. Though now that I did make my way, I wonder should I really play gendarme. What business is all this of mine. Do I not have enough to chew. But hiding is all I have left … That, and to distract myself from it. And so now that I do have traversed this maze back to the storage room, I stand quiet, naked, shimmering. This vent grill is almost a door, narrow but quite tall. I open it and step into the twilight of desolate emergency lighting. Like most of all these gates I’ve seen, it opens inwards, into the nether world that hides me. This lessens impact of obstructions within the rooms. It also aids my need for secrecy. Since I am truly by myself, I turn on the light. I’ve already sampled several of these places, mostly to evade blockades within the vents, but almost every time, the blockade found its pendant outside: A different section of the ship, many not accessible to civilians or lowly inventory managers. None to those who come without their arm computer.
A stroke of luck presents me with a full rack of blank wristies, of which I take one for myself. I strap it on and activate. Seconds later, I see the desktop, devoid of things apart from shortcuts to frequented places. No applications have yet been installed, but for my goals, it does not matter. The nitrogen pressure battery is full, I have at least hours before I’d have to punch the inlet against one of the omnipresent charger nozzles. The storage room does not seem to hold further materials of interest. I do fancy this toolbox here, but it’s too cumbersome to lug around … and too loud. Besides, I know nothing of engineering. What I’d see as an obstruction could well be a danger if unfixed, but at least relevant to our ship, and I’m not here to break anything. Quite the opposite. It’s now 17:23, and I begin my way back to the den of what I’m feel could be conspirators.
Now that I’m doing this the second time, the path seems less complex than before, and I’m making good progress. Then suddenly, the wristy vibrates. I stop, lean against a vertical strut, and review the notifications: First-start, OS-update-suggestion, standard-citizen-apps suggestions. New inbox entry. That’s the one I tap. “I MESSEGED YU!!!” I bang my hairless head against the metal before I can turn the volume down. “… from me! I hav sent meni meni messeges! Meni messeges, yu hav to check!” Just who is this wicked man, and what possibly is his meaning? Now even this uninitiated wristy was addressed. It must all be an elaborate prank, surely not unpunished on this fragile barge.
The time is 17:42. I completely mute the device and walk, crawl, climb, sneak the last meters to the grills at Yon’s bunk. I lean against the wall, sitting on my wicked black silicone butt and stare at the dimly lit shiny mittens on my knees. What happened to me. Why did it happen. I can ask no-one. They’d just claim all the wrong answers and imprison me for the rest of my life. Inside their fantasy, effectively. The everyday sin so deeply ingrained in the human condition.
I get up and look into the room. I realize that it’s now a lot darker than before. I can vaguely discern office desk lamps in the distance, but the ceiling lights are off. There are still men and women moving about at the desks. These people, too, seem to work in shifts. I have to make a decision. It’s one of those moments that go either this or the other way. But what would I wait for? And can I afford to waste time?
I unhook the lower vent grill and slowly, very very slowly, pull it towards me. I stick my head out, down in the corner, behind the nightstand. Try to hear the regular slow deep breaths of the sleeping man they call Yon … whom one of them referred to as “the champion” … but I hear several, some snoring. I crawl forward, dare to peep past the solid bedside table – his bed is empty! No! His screen device … but there’s hope. Maybe he left it here, like last time. I carefully pull the drawer open … thank my luck, take the device, and close the drawer. One last glance at the silhouettes of the sleeping men and women, but nobody seems to be up. I retreat. Close the grill. Crawl a few meters, around a bend, push my paw against the screen device’s loudspeaker hole, and press the power button.
Soon, I am greeted with the login screen. Meticulously, I use my nailless thumbs to type what I memorized: “D43S23J2020T2342” Then, all tensed up, I tap the confirm button. The screen turns white, and then I see the desktop. Its default sky-blue color has been replaced with a large black logo on a white background. It’s what looks to be a stylized eye – a thick black hollow circle that grows a lot thinner to the left and right, with a full black circle inside. To its right, simple large black letters spell “CBS”. I can’t make any sense of it, but all of a sudden, I see meaning in the overly mathematical seeming password … and wonder how I could have missed it. Those are exactly the kinds of codes I keep seeing at the vent intersections! A letter, a number, a letter, a number, a letter, a rather big number. The rest … I can’t place. But I have another epiphany: The letters are always the same. D. S. J. And it’s all so clear … Yon’s password spells a location in the vents! On Deck 43. Section 23. It’s junction 2020! How did I not see this earlier? It does not make the vent system any less of a labyrinth, because it’s not remotely a regular grid, so to know a junction number does not really tell me where to go … but if this system somehow tells the maintenance crew how to get to which place, then understanding the general meaning justifiably feels like a relief.
At least the deck number is a clear statement. Deck 42, for example, is … oh … I can’t stop feeling stupid … maybe it’s the burden of physical transformation that has stunted my mind? But anyway, now I see: Deck 42 is the gardening deck. Where we grow crops, keep farm animals, have the lake, the parks … and deck 43 is directly above it. Why is this location of importance to Yon? Or is the password just a mnemonic? … And what does T2342 mean? … Could it be … the time of day? A shadow creeps upon my mind. “The champion” keeps remembering this place and time. What are these people up to?
But I have no further time to lose. I open the system dialog of both devices and choose the clone function. Confirm about 3 times … and then my virgin wristy is being entirely overwritten by the content of Yon’s screen device. Once the process is finished, I reboot my wristy, once more enter the password, and take a quick look around, just to see if everything seems to have worked. Then I mute my device, shut down his, crawl back, and carefully place it in the drawer. When I finally lean outside against the wall behind his bunk, vent grill closed, I am breathless. If my silicone body could sweat, I’d be soppy.
I begin to study my copy of Yon’s device further. The desktop is completely empty – apart from the stark background image. I call upon the file manager and find myself in the user tree. Among the default folders like “Pictures” and such, I also find one called “CBS”. More folders inside. And a picture file named “inqisām.awbp” – It’s a photo of a handwritten letter. Addressed to one Qanit Jolaha in California. Apparently more than forty years old, written around the time construction of the Earth Two in lunar orbit was all but completed. An oddity – almost all communication in the early 2100s was digital. Maybe whoever wrote this letter wanted to give it weight … or wanted to express sincerity.
I’m glad to hear the flu has left you unscathed. We worried about you greatly!
Adam and I are fine, and the baby is healthy, six weeks to go! We are so excited! We have finally decided a name for him: Brad.
I preemptively ask your forgiveness for the boatload of digital messages I will not resist to send your way. Our first-born, and we’ve all been blessed with boarding passes!
Which brings me to the purpose of this letter. Qanit, dearest friend, our offer stands! Admiral Campbell can supply us with two extra passes, please don’t send your son off without you!
I respect your faith, Qanit, but I cannot agree it justifies throwing your life away. Please, do you not see that in the end, you will regret this decision? When the sky falls, you will beg for this chance to return, but it will be too late.
You can have a future, where no human has gone before! You could be one of the first intergalactic botanists. Celebrate with us among the stars. Mankind will prevail!
I know you’re devoted to your religion, my friend. So are millions of others, with lives just as deep and wide as yours, and they are leaving to continue their worship. Let not this cosmic hazard end you for no reason!
God knows why he gave us an early warning.
God will know what to do.
PS: Say Hi to Yon from me :)
It’s the only file in this folder. Why would it matter so much as to place it at the root of his thoughts? … I assume Qanit was his father. And that he stayed on Earth. Now reduced to faceless mass, part of the unknowable singularity. Erased from space by a black shell the size of … the size the Solar System once had. … Whow, you don’t see that every day … the file’s creation date itself is around forty years in the past.
I’ve seen enough for now and choose to create distance, to make sure I don’t accidentally make myself known. I crawl and climb to a nearby junction with strong air movement, step through a grilled hatch that I close behind me, and cross a whooshing jet of air that all but blows me off my naked toeless feet. After a few more turns, in the vicinity of faint reverberating hissing, I sit down in the cold and examine more of Yon’s data.
I don’t know where to look next and randomly pick the folder “specs”. It contains a lot of images showing photos of places like I know them: Pipes, vents, some machinery which I have not come across yet, some of which looking rather big. There are also a few ‘awbd’ files – drawings. I open one and see a schematic so complex, it takes a few seconds to render. Afterwards, I can zoom into it freely. I do so for a while until an indiscernible webbing of lines and colors has become circuitry and letters, which is just when I lose interest, because this does not speak to me. I close the file … which takes another second … and keep looking in the folder. To my delight, I also find xau files – sound recordings of sorts. One reads ‘energy supply briefing (excerpt).xau’, and I play it. A woman with a smoky voice speaks.
“ing density. It, uh … since we can not rely on finding sufficient materials, we store most of what we come across. Often, we count mere molecules. It’s like, uh … if you’re familiar with a Geiger counter, you know what I mean by ‘sparse’. We are moving at extreme velocities, but that’s all we get in empty regions: Individual molecules. For this reason, six more decks have been requisitioned for material storage. … Yes, Miller. … … Could someone …? … The microphone …” – Rustling, a faint voice, but then: “original allotted storage capacity was one hundred thousand tons, I believe. Is this correct? And how much has this capacity been increased? And are we in danger of running out of materials?”
After a moment’s pause, the woman replies: “That is correct. Our original distal body estimations were wrong. Which, uh … Such a thing was to be expected, which is why deck requisition was part of the plan all along. Not as extensively as it had to happen in the end, but … to answer your question: We now carry spendable matter for almost two percent of one galactic orbit. That’s four hundred twenty three megatons of gas, space dust, and micro asteroids. According to estimations, we are safe. It has … moment … here. It has never occurred that we left more than twelve thousand tons of allotted space unused. If you look at the figures shown, that was a scary 12 percent of our total raw fuel storage! Known to all of you as ‘The Void Crisis’. We now know that this was rather exceptional … uh but we can not be sure … and we can not risk to run out of energy. Ever! With our current … uh … over four thousand times the original storage capacity, this drops down the void crisis to oh point oh oh two eight percent. … We can now say with confidence that we will stay supplied. If all fails, with the large reserves we now have, we can afford to attempt the highly risky operation ‘Toe Dipping’, which is close to suicide, but better than no chance at all. … Any further questions? … Miller?” – “Could we not decrease our orbit to gather more materials in the first place?”
“Yes, that’s a common question. It would not help us. Ironically, the closer to the galaxy we get, the less materials on average we gather, because they have already been absorbed by the orbiting mass centers, usually star systems. We are just at the sweet spot between dust devil emptiness and intergalactic void. If we would get even more close, though … then we’d be surfing Oort clouds, rich in materials, and deadly in massy objects.”
I pause the playback. It hurts to be reminded of how fragile our existence is, much more than on the practically ever supplying blue-green marble. Which shrugged off particle and meteoroid bombardment like nothing. But I turned it off mostly because I need some space to think. Yon’s password. I don’t know what they are planning, and maybe I will find out quickly, maybe it will take much time. Anyway – instead of sitting on my ass, watching the movie of whatever is to come, I should keep participating in it.
Let’s see what apps this thing has … I bet there is … huh, it even has astro navigation … are they trying to take over the Earth Two and want to settle somewhere? … Yes, here we go! Maintenance Navigator. Tap. … A photo of the ship, half constructed in lunar orbit, behind a menu. By POI … By Deck … Tunnel Navigator! Tap. Please enter junction point. Okay. “D43S23J2020T2342” – Invalid input, but found hit for truncated term “D43S23J2020” – Was worth a try. Well then … where do I have to go? … Up a few decks, that’s for sure. Too bad that usually leads to a different sector. Actually, can’t remember that it ever didn’t … any vertical movement was always within the same deck … apart from that elevator roof I mistakenly rested on. But I guess the navigator can help … once I get there … Let’s continue the playback.
“So … the stored materials are processed, which uses energy, but not all that much. If we’d ever suffer a complete burnout, we have fast breeders, whose fallback is pressure batteries charged … uh … by material impact and, if all fails, solar power. We’d have to wait a few weeks to spark the engines, but it’s a viable option. … Hardest problem here actually is, we won’t have gravity until we’re flying again, so that’d cost us a lot of livestock and damages. Mind you, we’re talking about the last, the very last resort. We’re basically not ever gonna have drive failure. Enough focus and redundancies have been put into that problem, as you all know. The first part of the Earth Two that was built were the engines. … So … and … if none of those fallbacks get us back on our feet, there’s still the Black Reserve – one million tons of oil. Never ever to be touched! That’s about as much as the entire globe used in two hours at the beginning of the 21st century, when we still relied on oil. … uh … yes? … Kaczynski?” – “How far are we with material synthesis? Is our oil holy? Or is it just, uh … noble?” People laughing outside the microphone’s hot zone.
“Well … our current nucleosynthesis factory still has little capacity. Efforts have been underway for years to change this, but we have to balance the problem of space and material use. The accelerators need a lot of room! The goal is to create materials from energy and raw fuel. Which we already do, as you know. In some exceptional cases and at tiny quantities. When we’re not busy producing hydrogen and xenon for the reactor. We can’t yet spit out carbondum plates to extend the Earth Two externally, but all that is planned. It’ll take a couple more decades before we’ve passed through that needle’s ear. Remember – our departure was somewhat hasty.” – Silence. Then: “What about the reactor accelerators? Can’t they be used?”
The speaker replies promptly: “Ohhhkay, first of all, these are holy. If our heart fails, we’re dead in the water! … That’s why they’re so enormously spacious despite their low capacity. Every part redundant, ‘wasteful’ construction, designed to output very far below what could be done with the invested material and room. Please mind that they can NOT be run at the high energy needed for factory purposes! It’s not like their volume slider is down or something.” Laughter in the audience. “They have been designed, through and through, to run at this exact capacity, not higher, despite the amount of space and materials used. To make them extra extra extra safe! The heart must not fail. Repeat after me. – Now, the plans for extension of the nucleosynthesis factory have a very interesting side effect: It will be so designed that we will indeed have a redundant heart! So, to answer your question: The opposite is the case. Uh, will be the case.”
I pause again. I’ve reached one of the less common V-junctions: Vertical. Beyond this heavy duty grill hatch, I see a 3 meter diameter cylinder about 8 meters tall, with lots of vertical pipes and cables, and there are two opposite ladders. The wall is painted yellow, with a hint of smudge after the decades subjective time we’ve been on our journey round the block. On both sides between the ladders, the wall is unobstructed and, hollow on one side, solid on the other, there are large black arrows pointing up and down. Next to the arrows, the numbers 36 and 37 are written. About 1 meter from the hatch, I can see a small grate platform in the center, and another at the top of the shaft. Probably in case the gravity fails or rather ends up being reversed somehow.
The lever opening the hatch is blocked by an electric lock showing a small red light. I don’t know if it can only be unlocked remotely, or if any use is logged centrally, but I assume at least the latter. I can see another grill at the top of the shaft. I assume the very same mechanism is employed up there. If I somehow make it inside, I could get locked in, with no place to go. But I have no choice. And if push comes to shove, I have Yon’s data, which could placate my captors by hopefully shedding light on the suspicious group lurking on deck 36.
The Tunnel Navigator app keeps pointing towards the hatch, no matter which way I angle my arm. I am presented with a five digit code, but there’s also a contactless communication icon. I choose to just hold my wristy against the cabled box. A loud metallic clunk is followed by the red light turning green. That wouldn’t have worked with my inventory manager permissions. I pull on the lever and push the hatch upwards. I feel what would be elevated heartbeat. Another reason not to be discovered by a society that lost their home to a Black Hole, now living in fear, looking for a murderer: I have no heart.
I assume it will be fruitless, but I go through the motions of climbing up the tall shaft to unlock the upper hatch: A buzzer denies entry while the red light turns dark for a moment. Of course. They constructed it like an airlock. Well then. I climb down again, close the hatch, and move the lever’s pendant into locked position. This is acknowledged by a loud clunk. Now they have me in a cage. But my hope is, that with all the maintenance folk crawling around the ship, this is handled as a “Sign in here.” kinda thing – just in case someone needs to check later. Which makes me wonder. Will my traversal be recognized as Yon? It should be … Too late to worry about that now. I climb up, stand on the central grate, which makes me feel a bit lightheaded, knowing that the shaft extends about 7 meters below me, when the average cabin has a room height of 2.5 meters, and you always move at its bottom, not at its top. I wave my arm, the lock thunks green. I exit the shaft into another V-junction with three doors, none of which let me through unless I relock the shaft. There’s also the emergency override. In case I want to make a scene. I can not continue upwards from here, have to follow more of the labyrinth first, and so I choose to listen to more of the energy supply briefing.
“But for now, we could only produce complex hydrogen carbon molecules in quantities … uh … so small, I’d have to explain the units first. Later, though, it might well be that we could restock our precious oil – or even a more efficient energy carrier – using nuclear manufacturing. I’m sorry, I don’t know what exactly the timeline is, but my understanding is we shouldn’t hold our breath. Decades, for sure. … Yes? … uh … … … … The heart? Well … I was getting to that. The fusion reactor, as you probably know, is not the actual energy source of the Earth Two but almost exclusively used for fuel production via fermion manipulation. Well, and that’s where the heart comes in: Two synchrotrons feed into the reactor. The raw fuel material we talked about earlier – see Void Crisis – is turned into plasma via electric arcs and extreme heat, both … uh … supplied by the fusion reactor. The plasma is fed into one synchrotron, where it is accelerated to … uh … … I don’t have the figures here. Upon which it is released into the ongoing fusion reaction. … uhm … Well. We couldn’t use linacs, because they would just have been too long, even for a monster like the Earth Two. If the linac is too short, we just don’t get the oomph required by the reaction chamber. In the design phase, it was actually considered to make the ship even larger than it is, so we could have saved a lot of energy by avoiding centripetal force losses, but it was just not feasible. Plus … see material synthesis we talked about. Those considerations were part of it. If we eventually build redundant accelerators, they couldn’t also be this large. Therefore, we resorted to synchrotrons right away. … uhm … Yes, and since the plasma acceleration takes some time, we have two synchrotrons working in tandem. It’s the optimal efficiency. With only one, the reaction chamber would produce only a tenth of what two synchros can achieve. More would help, but cost benefit and all that. … Well, and that’s the beating heart, alright? … uh … Kaczynski.” – “I’m sorry if this will sound stupid. … Uhm … if we keep orbiting the galaxy … aren’t we digging a kind of tunnel? I mean, long term?”
“No need to worry about that. The corridor we’re digging … heh … fills rather quickly, for example by gas diffusion, but … not only is it practically completely impossible to hit the exact spot on our next orbit … there’s also the time factor. We’re in relativistic flight, uh, relative to the Milky Way. It’ll take us overall about 120 years to orbit it – so we’re at about one quarter of our first orbit now after our departure from within the galaxy. But in Earth time …” – A murmur emerges. – “… I’m sorry. … What’s 120 years for us is about 400,000 years for the galaxy. ‘Void tunnels’ really aren’t a concern. What’s a way more interesting problem is the impending collision of the Andromeda galaxy with ours. In about 4.5 billion years … uh … galactic time. That’s still about 1.5 million years in our time, but it’ll happen eventually.”
I pause the recording again. I have reached another V-junction. 37 to 38. I still fear they could lock me in. Last time, it was possibly just too late for them to react … but now they could be waiting for just this moment – and I have no way of knowing … I register with the lock and open the hatch. I see the red lamp flickering from above through the platform grate as I move about. A melancholic moment. Alone in this dimly lit cylinder, faint but saturated turbine reverberations, am about to lock myself in again … I hope they at least let me talk when they find me … I think one of the main causes of conflicts, large and small, is that people are just too inept or unwilling to really communicate what they mean … and respectively, that others don’t leave them the time and space to make their mind known. Maybe we deserve it … we say so many irrelevant, even untrue things, just for entertainment and self-gratification … we practically teach each other not to let us finish speaking. … I think if truth were a being, it would hate mankind.
CLUNK. Locked. I’m in the mouse trap. … I have become aware of another thing that worries me … though it’s not really a worry, it’s just weird … my feet … they feel somehow extraordinarily good. Heh, what this would sound like if I’d tell anyone. “Hey you know. I’m in this completely harebrained situation. And what also worries me is that my feet feel very good.” But whom should I tell it. And why. … It’s just weird, though. They feel warm and cozy – very – like they’re in a constant smooth hug that means really really well. I even feel it as I climb the ladder, now that I have become aware of it. Warm, cozy, bit blissful even. Must be part of this transformation that happened to me, this impossible … No, don’t think about it. This is not the time. … Okay then … open Sesame! … … Drat! Helloooo! I am waving at you! Why is the lock not reacting? … Let’s try the code – ohkayyy, my wristy’s screen content has changed. That the reason? A message. … Oh not this lunacy again … NO I MEANT TO SWIPE! “I messeged yu! Yu hav messeges from me! I hav sent meni meni messeges! Meni messeges, yu hav to check!” How bloody insistent can a prankster be? I hope they catch the guy! … Kinda ironic, coming from me … CLUNK. … Oh thank goodness … still free to go. … Well then … resume playback.
“It’s not yet a project we actively pursue.” Some laughter from the audience. “Oh, make no mistake, we will tackle this, and the earlier, the better. But we’ve got enough on our plate for the better half of a century, so … Yeah. … Where was I … fusion reactor … Yes, uh we need the fusion reaction not for its high energy output … which is almost exclusively used to process raw materials into fuel. Like I said, we cook whatever ingredients we pick up with the collector ram assembly. Otherwise, or primarily, the fusion chamber environment allows us to produce and tamper with fermions. Neutron production, for example, is crucial. Thirty nine modulator drums … only five active at a time, the others get their BEC reset and return to the queue … take care of the necessary neutron-antineutron oscillation. The Kransky process is wasteful” – “Thank you very much.” says a male voice. – The woman giving the speech goes on: “You know what I mean, Drago. Surely we’ll find a use for all those positrons eventually … but instead, they poison the Bose-Einstein condensate in the modulator drums. It’s a double waste. I know, I know … We’re lucky” – “It’s not luck, Kim.”
She sighs. “We are blessed” She pauses. “to even have a high throughput antiproton generator. Even a B-condensate in direct interaction with a running fusion chamber is a notable piece of engineering. … uuuuh … so … The antiprotons and the xenon finally make antihydrogen. That, combined with hydrogen from the nucleosynthesis factory and other sources, is our fuel. Raw power in a bottle. … Questions.” – After a moment, several voices speak simultaneously, then pause to let others through, can’t decide on a rhythm. The woman says: “De Vries.” – Sudden silence. Rustling. “Thank you. Uhm … obviously, antimatter is a dangerous substance … Is it safe to keep around? What measures are in place?”
“Two effective measures. Primarily, we store only a minor quantity. Uh … surely you’ve all heard of that whole Cauldron debacle. When hobby astronomers could already spot the distant lensing, and people were itchy to board the Earth Two, and we had just wasted another trillion credits on another failed carbondum sphere … So, while so-called scientists globally were debating if it was reeeeally necessary to create the Cauldron, we … and I mean our team here, insisted to stay put until it’s done! We’re dealing with probabilities here, not with absolutes. Therefore, and you should really take this to heart: The chance that antimatter containment eventually fails is one. Plain and simple! It could be in a millennium, a million years, or next week. It’s unavoidable, and without the Cauldron, we had better all died there and then! I’m sorry, but I feel the severity of that whole global bushwah in those months has until today not been understood for how suicidal it really was! We here, WE stood in that storm of the public hate, billions rabid with fear, when we should have all worked together! As one mind, with all consequence, in the face of to-be or not-to-be. You can’t cross a tightrope without complete focus. Else you will fall. You can thank whatever deity you may happen to believe in that the military completely had our backs. I can only shake my head. Mankind, once again acting as if physics were up for debate. … The Feynman article, first page in the book of universal law, also proposed by us, but we’re just scientists, right. What business do we have proposing laws! ‘For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for Nature cannot be fooled.’ We could only create the carbondum sphere with the resources of Earth. Once we set sail without it, we’re out of luck. And eventually … poof!” Silence.
More silence. Then: “The carbondum sphere, or the Cauldron as we call it, is basically a 600 meter diameter solid, perfectly spherical to the centimeter, with a mass of roughly 300 megatons. Except it is not actually solid: There’s a spherical chamber inside with a diameter of 20 meters, with a circular three meter diameter emergency pressure relief tunnel … which you may also call an explosion relief tunnel … uh … In the case of antimatter containment failure the Cauldron would safely – I repeat – safely contain the explosion and release the energy to the back of the ship. We’d have to rebuild the entire antimatter storage system and pipes etc. that go through the tunnel, but the biggest concern once again is gravity. In the worst case, it could spike to about 20 g, which the ship has been designed for, but not the people, livestock, or any loose objects that have the capacity to break. … Uhm … The Cauldron is specified to withstand – without rupturing or anything like that – an explosion of up to one gigaton of TNT. To employ a classic comparison, that’s fifty thousand Nagasaki bombs.” The woman waits until the murmur has died down.
“Therefore, the maximum amount of antihydrogen we would ever store is twenty three kilograms. But we keep the buffer at half that, to minimize casualties when containment happens to eventually fail. … Uhm … okay, so … two measures. Relatively small amount and the Cauldron. That’s one. The other is the containment system itself: The magnetic trap. It has a rather marvelous fail-safe system, if I do say so myself. The energy for its RT superconductors is supplied by an ongoing matter-antimatter reaction. In other words, the trap works by failing. Antimatter escapes the focal point of the field, reacts with the hydrogen from the pressured reservoir, and thus supplies energy to keep the antimatter trapped at the focal point. The chambers supply themselves with energy by gradually using up the antimatter. … Well, that’s it. Safe as it can be. … Yes. Soelberg.” More rustling. “Thanks. … uh … Ms Ingram. … First of all, let me say that I … respect your work” – “Be as forward as you like. We know we did our very best, so if that wasn’t enough …” – “… uhm … I don’t doubt it’s a good thing we have the Cauldron. … But the containment system. Why do we assume it will fail, when it’s being properly maintained? And even self-supplying?”
“Huh … I uh … It’s a simple mathematical fact! … uhm … well. In everyday life, we rarely deal with absolute certainty. That’s because the consequences are rarely fatal. On the Earth Two, there are no do-overs. If we keep even only the absolute minimum fuel reserve in the buffer, for reactor maintenance or other outages, … uh … I actually don’t have that figure … but … … yes? … is? … uh I’mmm told it’s about 12 grams of antihydrogen. Which amounts toooo … nummnummnumm … about half a megaton if that goes off. Even on a ship this size, that’s fatal. Compare that to … uh … if you … put a glass on a table, that may work 99.99% of the time, and then you accidentally drop it. In this case, you clean up the mess and move on to the next 10,000 iterations. It’s a minor thing, so people don’t think about it. But what this means is: If there’s even the very slightest chance the glass will drop and shatter, then eventually … the glass will drop. And shatter. You just have to do it often enough. Or, if we’re talking about a nondiscrete process like storing something dangerous, you just have to do it long enough. If the chance of failure is non-zero, the probability of eventual failure is one. It’s … … math. I don’t know what to tell you. … uhm … yes, and the reason for this non-zero probability is the technology and handling involved. Like I said, the material sits in a magnetic trap, so it’s not like, uh, water in a bottle that you can expect to just stay there without a fuzz, there’s a lot of parts and engineering involved. Also, we’re transferring material into the containment system, out of it to the drive and the electric generators, and between units. Interfacing with the magpipe system is fickle enough on its own. There’s a lot of opportunities for screw-ups – that’s a non-zero probability. Which means, and please understand this is not hyperbole but an exact result: The probability of catastrophic failure is one. It will happen. We’ll live. It’s all factored in. … Soelberg.” – “Thanks, uh … why do we not transfer the antimatter to the drive and such uh directly, to minimize work steps? And why the transfer between units?”
“We … do that. The reactor produces plenty of antihydrogen, part of which is fed directly to the AM drive and the electric generators. The surplus is stored – until we’re at eleven point five kilograms, which is when the reactor switches to pilot light mode and the synchrotrons shut down. We’re doing this because we need to have a fuel reserve for meager times. The entire antimatter factory has been designed with this in mind, but another reason for the high output is engineering concerns, like wear and efficiency. Take for example what I explained about the two instead of one synchrotrons heart. And the minimum scale of a stable fusion reaction despite material injection and modulator interference … oh and thermal energy needed to achieve fuel plasma state. So … uhm … we can only dial it down this much before we’re wasting machine time. If it would only happen once, it were acceptable, but production and drive have to run throughout the entire lifetime of the ship! We can’t afford that kind of dissipation. For the same reason, we can’t just produce excess antimatter that we then have to dispose of. Which would be dangerous on top of that. So … we just build up the buffer to our safe maximum, cease production, and once reserves are down to ten kilograms, the heart starts up again. … … Well, as you can see, feeding our systems indirectly is all but unavoidable. … Especially since we also have to maintain the components, during which they often have to be suspended. … Uhm … the … yes, and we transfer antimatter between storage units so we can ensure it’s always in a freshly maintained, basically pristine container. Initially, we did this every 24 hours, but years of practical experience have shown that it’s reasonable to do this just once every thirty days, which still complies with the strictest safety standards. We have nine hundred traps down there. Each certified for a safe maximum of 400 grams, but we have decided to never exceed 100. At any one time, a maximum of one hundred fifteen traps is in use. Except during transfers, of course. Transfer rotation utilizes each of them over time, meaning we’re not just playing ping-pong between two groups, we are wear-leveling all of them. And we’re strict with our scans. Twice a month, we survey each of them, even the ones that are passive and will not be used for a while. And we keep rotating staff, so we optimize not just the state of the equipment but even the set of people competing over who finds the first imperfection. Also keeps their eyes fresh – they won’t say ‘I checked this one last time, let’s move on to the next.’ … Uhfff … well. Questions. … Soelberg?” – “Thank you, uhm … that was very informative. … I love the idea that we have this uncrackable orb on board. It makes me feel safe!” – “That’s good to hear!” – “Uhm … just how was it ensured that the carbondum sphere is flawless this time? There had been several failures, after all.”
“I’ll make this short, because it’s a little outside scope. A carbondum solid this size is of course opaque to all conventional means of radiography. At the same time, neutrino beams still happily ignore it. Mostly. The interaction is still too weak for a scan. So … we placed laser microphones all around it, in a square meter grid, which is over a million. And then we rung the bell! Conventional explosives with a force of 500 tons of TNT in the vault. The rest was computing. … … Soelberg?” – “Yes, one final question. The maintenance crew … they do have to get outside the Earth Two, correct? And, uhm … I heard they have a sort of code name for the antimatter storage, yes?”
“You just want to hear me say it, don’t you. … Well, since we’re at the end of our little conference here, we wanted to show you something at this point, anyway. It will also answer Soelberg’s questions. It’s the maintenance A/V recording of that one time we accidentally sent a poet. … can we start the projection? Lights out please.”
Someone’s doing a whistle. I hear close-quarters breathing, like from a space suit. “Make sure you stay in the skirt’s shadow, you do not want to get sandblasted!” – “Thanks, control, no worries. I can see the rain.” – “… … What are you doing?” – “… hhhhh I just wanted to see it like we’re used to. The galaxy is supposed to be horizontal!” – “Operator, please check alignment.” – “Alright, alright … turning back by 90 degrees … … Hooking up … … Stepping onto platform … Starting transport.” – “Remember the visor will turn black once you get around to aft, so you won’t see anything! Keep holding on to the handles, and look upwards. The visor will become translucent once you’re safe from stray radiation.” – “Thanks, control, I’m not doing this for the first time.” – “Yes you are.” – “No I’m not.” – “Dave … training doesn’t count. You’re out here the first time, so you experience the real probability situation the first time. It affects your nervous system! It’s how stage fright works, and you know it.” – A long sigh. “Yeah …” – “So stick to the script, operator.” – “… … I can’t see the drive!” – “Ha ha.” – “… Almost there.” – “Operator, make sure you attach to tunnel transport before detaching from peripheral.” – “Roger.” – “What?” – “Hehehe.” A long pause follows.
The audience is quiet. “So … this is the Devil’s asshole.” – “The WHAT!” – “Hooking up to sphincter …” – Control isn’t saying anything, but there’s some kind of sound. – “Detaching from butt cheek …” – Control seems to have radio interference. – “Commencing rear entry …” – Control seems to be working on the connection … no, I believe that’s … wheezing. Rhythmic! The audience seems to join in. – “Control, rectal entry complete, please advise.” – The control guy is still laughing, another voice says: “Operator, proceed to hymen.” The audience is collectively belly laughing. – “Control, have reached hymen, am about to rupture.” – Someone has turned up the volume so the audience can still hear over their own riot. The control guy is still wheezing and giggling like a teenager, his colleague continues: “Operator, seal hymen behind you, move on deeper into colon.” The audience seems relieved after all that science gibberish. They can’t stop laughing. – “Control, have reached cervix hatch. Opening …” – “Operator, remember: The ovum is holy! Do not forget where you are.” – “No worries, control. Have closed cervix, am moving up through Fallopian tube. … Whow, I can see the glow!” – “… That would be the containers, operator. Mind your step.” The audience’s laugh is in free fall, instead expressions of amazement begin to rise. – “Like a crystal cave … no … no! It’s … like tungsten lights … when there’s leak current …” – “Operator?” – “No … it’s … I’m … a bug, climbing around in an ancient tube radio … glass cylinders everywhere, some of them are glowing orange … fascinating …” – The first control guy is on the horn again: “Dave.” – “Control?” – “Told you you’re a noob.”
Silence. “… Okay, folks, that’s enough for today. Remember, we have a site up where you can browse a little deeper into our topics. There’s also a couple of videos … oh, we have an interactive scene of the, uh, crystal cave! Maybe you wanna know what it feels like to stand next to … a glowing half gigaton bomb? … There’s also videos of the drive … without the visor down. And … if you wanna join us again, keep an eye out for the site’s calendar. Remember, virtual or not, the earlier you register, the better your seat! … On behalf of our team, I hope you’ll have a great weekend, and … wish all of us good luck for the future. There’s still a lot of work to do, but as you can see – it’s worth it, and we’re getting there! See ya!” A few seconds of frenetic applause follow – there must be more than a hundred people in the audience! Some seem to be getting up and leaving – then the recording suddenly ends.
So that was a VR recording! … Right, why should they limit the audience to a handful in some conference room … It’s not like we have space for theaters and such. This is not a Megalopolis, it’s an escape pod … for a civilization. … It’s a funny thought: The antimatter and reactor and all that … so essential, probably awesome to experience … yet it’s just one blip in an ocean of potential scenes. Wonder how many people ever have picked some of those during their downtime. It’s like back on Earth … I might have browsed nasa.gov a few times, but … how deeply? Certainly didn’t see everything, probably missed out on a few significant pearls … And here? Heck, I must have experienced so many different scenes, it’s a blur, I can’t even remember …
I bet there are even virtual reality scenes among Yon’s files … but I could only check those out with the equipment in my cabin. Let’s see what else is on here … I’m really curious about antimatter now … hope this isn’t just about good old stardust – playing “fuel resource management briefing (excerpt).xau” … A male voice. Bit young, I think, but what do I know.
“ow the AM drive works in general, which is essential for planning antimatter production, storage, and consumption. For example, if we’d be low on fuel, we could increase drive efficiency at the cost of propulsion plate durability. Which is actually two carbondum annuli, each 30 meters thick, with relatively small holes in regular intervals to alleviate thermal expansion stress. We’re using two plates because we have to accept the fact of erosion. The idea here is that if in some centuries the first plate has been burnt through, we drop it, and the second shifts into place, but we should then add a third plate so we’ve got a reserve again. Thing is, we’ll have to lift the entire ship – remember that we’re basically standing on Earth due to the constant drive thrust – uhm lift the ship up to insert another plate. The construct has been planned like this, but we don’t have the machinery yet. Or the material. It’s one of the essential challenges of the years to come. Especially since the plates are so incredibly large, much bigger than the Cauldron! But the need for perfection is way lower here, so manufacturing in flight is at least realistic. It’s not like we had much choice when we left. … So … to lift up the ship, they’ll use fluid pressure, probably water. … Hopefully not antiwater, heh … Because they’re already producing lots of hydrogen, so that would make sense. … If all fails, we’ll have to cope with the pains and damages of a couple of weeks of no gravity.
… Uhm … the drives. See, basically, the Earth Two is a multi gigaton sailboat. But instead of a good old sheet flapping in the wind, we use the annulus at the ship’s bottom. And the wind is the hardest gamma radiation you can think of, as well as a shower of high energy particles … positrons, electrons, muons and such. We’re cheating, because we’re creating the wind ourselves, but we’re not some fool sitting on a skateboard with a hairdryer aimed at himself. Neither is the AM drive a classic rocket engine. It’s closer to the Orion drive, where you keep dropping nukes, each giving you a little nudge in the forward direction. But instead of throwing exploding objects, we eject the antihydrogen and hydrogen directly, because conveniently we don’t need any kind of detonation assembly. On the other hand, we had to build an insanely strong magnetic field conveyor system that gets the material to where we need it – in open space, and at extreme velocities to keep up with the ongoing barrage of detonations. It’s in the range of hundreds per second after all. The RTS solenoids and the ejectors in the aft beams are a work of art. … Brutalism, maybe … but still art.
The system is computationally simple, most calculations take place the moment the material’s target location has been defined. Which itself is an interesting topic by the way … obviously, we need to wear-level the annulus. So we run an algorithm akin to a whitened random generator, except it’s area aware in regards to novelty creation, so that there’s some cooldown time. We also have to take care that thrust is spread evenly, and not too close to the annulus edges or its stress relief holes. … For this, and to homogeneously wear the surface, we couldn’t define a pattern in advance – really, the goal is to keep every square millimeter of the inner annulus area under equal stress, therefore we have to keep shifting things around constantly. Upside is, if ever we’d detect uneven wear or need for a slight course correction, we could dynamically react. Of course, in the end we won’t get around replacing the entire thrust plate.
But how long the plate lasts, that’s a matter of adjustment. See, if an explosion, antimatter or other, takes place close to the annulus … well … just imagine it geometrically, okay. If the explosion center is a point – and in our case, it actually is – and this point is right at the propulsion plate, then the entire upper hemisphere of the fireball … or gamma ball … hits the plate, thereby contributes to accelerating the ship. But if you keep picturing a sphere – or a circle – you realize that what emerges from the center goes radially outwards. Only a tiny spot of the explosion hits the plate perpendicularly, like it should. It’s like when you look at a polished steel marble. There’s a sharp specular highlight point from, uh, your lamp. That’s the sweet spot. The rest is quite literally trying to rip the plate apart, into whichever direction the vector from the center goes. And that, not surprisingly, wears down the thrust plate a lot faster. We’re probably still talking a century or so, but out here, we’re not in the business of wasting things. That’s over.
… Uhmm … now, if you imagine a not so polished steel marble, you get softer highlights. Maybe also less bright, but you can just make the lamp brighter, if you’ve got enough resources. The highlights on the marble are still kind of as brilliant – but they’re spread out more. Which makes the thrust plate happy. So … obviously, I’m talking about making the detonations take place at greater distance instead of direct contact – and at greater power. In this case, only a small excerpt of the upper hemisphere of the spherical explosion actually hits the annulus. The rest is lost in space. Meaning, quite a lot of the explosion is now wasted, compared to direct contact detonation. Uhmm … well, a lot of the energy is lost to neutrinos anyway, which, as you know, consider themselves Switzerland – we’re bathing in drive radiation every day, and it doesn’t matter. We can’t do anything about that. So, to reiterate: Either you have a small sun close to the plate and wear it down quickly … or you have a big sun, needing a lot more antimatter, further away from the plate, hitting it with more parallel rays, thus increasing its lifetime significantly.
By the way, there’s another difference, but that’s not relevant to us here: The annulus shadow. If the explosion is further away, the shadow is less effective. More radiation is going towards the ship diagonally next to the annulus edge and through the stress relief holes, but as long as nobody walks through that, we’re fine: It’s distant enough to the ship’s carbondum walls to be uncritical, they’ll just have a somewhat higher refurbishing frequency than other parts of the hull. … Regarding the shadow: If the detonations would be right at the plate, it would be near perfect. But that’s laboratory thinking. In reality, no matter how well you place the explosion, you always get a little stray radiation, but any old spacesuit can cope with that. Visor would have to be shut though. Once they’re in the shadow of the annuli, and not too close to the relief openings, they’re fine. And, as you probably know, below the Cauldron tunnel is the emergency plug inside the upper annulus. It is blown away if there’d ever be a containment failure. But until then, it’s ground to walk on and also protects visitors from the drive’s radiation that would otherwise bounce off the annulus opening’s wall and reach inside, killing any visitor. Again, stray radiation: Worrysome but friendly. Reflected radiation: Fatal. … If it’s just a single bounce. Carbondum is pretty absorbant, after all.
So … uhm … You see that our use of antimatter depends a lot on the software and parameters of the detonation dithering. If we’d ever encounter a shortage, we could significantly decrease what’s needed for our 1 g cruise, but that’s one of those decisions that have to be weighed carefully due to the downsides – but also have to be made as early as possible to”
The recording ends here. That’s all very sciency stuff, maybe I should leave the folder “specs” and go to a different one. … By now, my journey has taken me to deck 42. Agriculture and livestock farming, recreation, murders, and that one lake, the only one, and we’re not supposed to swim in it. Because it’s too small for everybody. Privileges vs envy is bad for the climate. And there’s hygiene. And leaving the fish alone, most of all. If I didn’t have VR, I’d go crazy. Sunbathing at the beach? Swimming in all the oceans of the Earth? And some made-up ones on moons from which you can see Jupiter’s majesty above? Yes, count me in. … And that’s the thing. I … wonder if my VR chip has survived the transformation. Or if it would even work with this wicked body. Or if I’d be a black plastic humanoid in the scene, or would I be my good old female self? Terrible thought not to be able to go in again … That would make this body even more of a prison than it is.
At least I can move around just fine. I’m looking forward to seeing that spot Yon’s password refers to. What’s so special about it? … Anyway, I’m almost there. Though I’m not looking forward to climb that hundred meter ladder! … Haven’t found it yet, I keep following the Navigator’s guidance. Where are those V-junctions on this deck? The vents here are really something else. Truly, “maintenance area” is the better term. Spacious. Sometimes feels like rooms that were half finished but didn’t make the cut. So … what else data can I find on this thing? … “logs” – Okay, let’s see what’s in there. … Only sound files. Not named. I mean, the file names are the same as the date, there’s no words here. Is this a diary? I … will listen to the newest one. It’s from today. Could be the one I saw him record when I found their sleepover office.
“On this day, I remember with awe the sight of the destroyer.”
His voice, the way he speaks feels deliberate, gives me the shivers. It’s slow but … how does he have this momentum in his words? They touch my soul!
“hhhh It came right for us. And gently … no tidal forces … it couldn’t have been of greater extent. The light falling away into it, only leaving us a patch of stars, encircled by a kaleidoscope, the firmament subjugated. Then, finally, we saw Jupiter vanish. It turned into a smear, faded … almost felt like a relief – the black canvas, night sky of the apocalypse, no longer tainted. … hhhh But then, and I admit that I felt terror, though I knew it was just a scene, I saw from the spot I had now chosen, going away forever, the morning sun. The love of the Most High manifest. Fading. The darkness … absolute! Blackness everywhere. Only the electric lights showing the way on this lost world drifting into the great oblivion. I felt the absence of warmth. And I felt its finality. Then, I stopped my perusal. I knew that further moments were simulated, made-up. No further reception had made it into the scene. I do not want a dream, only the truth. But it has been taken from us, from all of us. Stolen. The truth is not here. … On this day, my day, I remember.”
Uh-oh. This day. That’s when the recording was made. I … if I go to that place … and wait until 23:42 … I might just meet the champion himself. What will I see him do? What is so special about that place?
Uhm … why does the nav point there? … Is that somehow a 3D problem, like, above or below? No, it would consider that … hm … Then … false data, maybe? Reality and map, not identical? Because that right here, that’s a vent grill door! (Quite big one, but that’s not a novelty on this deck.) why would the vent navigator app lead me outside of the vents? What’s even in that room? … Oh! … Is this for real? That’s some kind of lift! Are there no V-junctions on this cursed deck!? … This means that I couldn’t even get to my cabin! … This is so wrong … I have to get up there! But they’d see me. Even if I’m lucky, there’s probably cameras out there and definitely in the lift! CURSES!
Maybe some kind of disguise? I could search those supply rooms I passed … That’s the spirit. There’s always a way! Somehow. … Maybe I should listen to the next … previous log entry. … It’s two days old.
“By the Maker! I do now believe in the reality of evil! It is hunting us, closing in on us, we have to act now! Or it could all be lost! … Today is the 15th of the month. At long long last, we have achieved completion! The excitement is absurd … And now, just now, we have to suffer VR malfunction!? The transition failed … we could not lock them in! The person saw our Christmas tree! We had no choice, we threw them into the furnace! But fortune was with us – at least communication did not penetrate, since we replaced the relay station with our own sender.
The investigation has begun, it is but a matter of days … For the longest time, I had not known fear, believed it gone for good. My heart was so at peace, my mind already counting stair steps … It is terrible and beautiful that this resurgence occurred at this most inopportune time, making believable the unholy reality of evil … and thus confirming our faith in the Maker. This fear, it is almost uplifting, were not its meaning of such absolute terror. We must not fail! Therefore, I took possession of the axe. I will see this through, just as it was always meant to be. Had not my duties locked me in … Another manifestation of the might of evil, for sure …
I must now wait for activity on the conveyance deck to cease, it is torture for my nerves. Two days until the next window. Time has never been more precious! Therefore I have decided: If further delay is necessary, we will just have to reveal ourselves and push through. They will not cope with the surprise. But it would be undignified. We are not to slaughter our brothers and sisters! My companions agree – the time has come. May the Most High carry us through these testing waters with His holy gaze …”
Eerie. … I’d think him to be a nut … but his words are almost laser light to me … They feel coherent, even though I don’t quite understand their meaning … And the intensity … I just know it matters! … Maybe I’ll understand once I get to that junction.
I actually managed to acquire a beekeeper’s suit! I feel like an astronaut! Wearing my wristy on the outside so I can use it. Haven’t lowered the helmet yet … and of course I had to leave my wicked fingerless paws out of the glove ends. But I don’t look like what the burdened citizen could see as an avatar of the Black Hole. I’m on my way back, and I feel confident. Nobody will suspect the truth … even if they look through the net and it’s bright around, they would not assume that I’m not human! At the most, they’d think that, for no good reason, I’d be playing a second-skin scene in reality, for some extra kick maybe. … Heh, now I’m wondering if just that happened to me … somehow …
It seems … Yes, there’s nobody in the antechamber. Well then. Folding helmet forward, lowering curtains … this is it. I am a beekeeper! I’ll leave the vent door unhooked. As a last resort, if I need to be quick. … … Calling lift. If only antigravity were a thing … life would be so much easier. … Heh, my wristy says “Enter cabin.” even though … Oh, the door opens. Oh! … Right … I’ll just … enter and not say a word. This is just my luck again … but at least I don’t know this man … The up button is already lit.
“Are there bees on the 43rd?” – Darned! Friendly or not, I don’t need this right now! And he turned to me … I better keep facing the door. Uh … “Couldn’t find the smoker, so I’m just gonna get a new one from a store.” Now leave me be, you friendly fool! – “Oh, these smoke cans? They have such tools up in the malls?” – Will you stop it! Though I’d find that confusing, too. Now what. Umm … alright, umm … “Heh, they basically have everything up there. … Did you know they even sell VR scenes in which you can be someone else? … Even something else?” – “REAlly … That’s interesting …” – Now shut up and get lost in your head … Yeah, like that. I know I would … Wait, do they possibly really have such scenes? Wow, I have to check that … oh … CURSES!!! I can’t … And even if I could … does VR still work for me? My chip might have been destroyed … or removed, like my toes … If I even get into my cabin … maybe after dark … *sigh*
Deck 43. The door opens, let’s go. – “Don’t let the bees sting!” – “No worries, they like me.” Shit, he’s walking with me … guess we have the same way. *sigh* … Wait, there’s a vent grill door right here, Ima … just stop … and toy with my wristy … The man keeps walking, good. Let him think what he wants. … why is the nav sending me through public spaces? … I suspect it just chose the quickest way to that junction, not the ventest way. Hm … how will I … I’ll have to study the map and pick a waypoint in the vents myself and then go from there! That should work. Okay, the guy’s gone. … Nobody else? … Let’s unhook this thing … … Hm, someone’s coming, but I’m going in anyway. … Pulling grill closed … Fast steps, too! That guy really needs to get some fresh air, I guess … Dang … that’s a constable! … hooking vent door closed … He’s pushing the call button, door opens … … He’s not boarding the lift? Just looking … Now he’s talking into his wristy … That could be about me. Why don’t they like beekeepers up here? … Oh … that … that must be the lift! But why? For all intents and purposes, I am Yon! I have a copy of his wr… of his handheld! … Uh, why does the wristy version of it even have access to all these places? Handhelds don’t come with access bits.
I better move, who knows how thorough he … And here he comes! Not fast enough, I’m used to climbing around the vents. … Oh damned … I need to get rid of the wristy! I … maybe … I can find one in a storage room? Crap, I have to move and type on the thing! Through the plastic suit arms with my mitten thumbs. … Gaining distance. I’ll just follow the wider vents – doing elaborate direction changes might slow me down more than the constable, especially since I have to use the damn Maintenance Navigator. … “By POI” – rustle-tap. There’s a list … and a search box. Oh, the list has “Supply Rooms”, let’s try that. … Have to take care not to stumble, there’s often ground obstacles in here. It’s not a theme park. … The display shows a list of … heh, the order just flipped there … a list of rooms nearby, sorted by distance. I’ll just tap the first one. Hm, a confirmation screen … with room inventory! There are supposedly “arm computers” here. Okay! Confirm.
Quick … the crossway … … up this ladder … a look down … I can’t see him, also don’t hear movement, but it’s louder in this area, so … Move, Alix! I should have thought of this earlier, to get a reserve if I need to switch … damned … And down again. Hallway. Should I keep the suit? It slows me a bit, and my hands are even more retarded now … Guess I should keep it. Safety first. … Curses! My running is so loud with all this plastic … And they can pinpoint exactly where I am now! What did Yon say about the forces of evil? Just when it matters most? Yeah. … That. … Junction, middle grill hatch labeled “D43 S14 Sto38” … … Heh, must be the tiniest duct on this entire deck. Long, too. Have to take care not to hit my head! … Damned, this is a dead end, doesn’t continue past the place … But what can I do. Into the room! … … Which I now see is indeed devoid of people, but that was a reasonable guess: The lights are out. I’ll keep it that way, the emergency lights are sufficient.
There’s the rack. Just grab that one and shove the others in place, slows down the cops. … Still booting … Have already opened the clone menu on mine … There we go. Settings … Storage … Clone … Be Host. Yes. YES. … Yes again. … I’ll grab another one! They might not expect that! Actually … let’s take it from … there … and mask the place … and then, let’s create a distinct gap over here, maybe it helps. Cloning’s done, Host rebooting. Now how do I get outta here? Won’t risk that dead end tunnel I came through, the constable might already be in it. And the door? He must have alerted someone, and who knows how many people are out there, all programmed with the phrase “Beekeeper? That way!” … When all I did was: To look at the damned galaxy! hhhhhhh … But there’s another vent here, on the other side of the storage room. They will probably think of it, it’s a simple conclusion … but they see my location anyway – and that’s the idea: I hope they won’t think of the wristy storage here and what it might imply, but that they’ll instead keep running after me. … Know what, I’ll tip over some boxes and stuff, as if I searched for something … Not so loud! … There … Let’s go NOW, I’m pretty sure I heard something from the opposite vent where I got in!
I … will leave this other vent unhooked and ajar … to aid their haste, so they don’t even think much about this place. … It’s another small vent tunnel … quick … … … A box room, I don’t know where I’m going, but gotta keep moving … … That here leads to a service room, I’d rather avoid those, someone could be there. And it might be inviting to get to my location through one of those instead of navigating this confusing maze … Whoa, there’s a shaft here, just next to the straight tunnel, leading down … Ladder, few meters … Wait, let me log in to the new wristy … This damned password … “D43S23J2020T2342” … Works! Okay, so log out of “mine” NO WAIT, I’ve got an idea … Settings … Security … Password … Clear. Are you sure. YESSSS. … Now – remove from left arm … leave turned on … reach down shaft … and drop! … They can find it now – without me attached – and learn about those guys! This is good, I should have thought of this earlier. … Now move, Alix, MOVE! Distance! … … I can put this one on while I run … The other … yes, Ima put that on, too, on the right arm, over the plastic suit. Just need to remove and hide it before I get through a scanning place like an elevator … Booting up second one. … This is a nice big tunnel, I can run, and there’s crossways … I’ll take the second to last left … Settings … Storage … Clone … Be Host. Etcetera. … Cloning. Now I can switch faster next time if I need to. On we go, up this ladder … To think that there’s shopping malls and such behind these walls … or a restaurant … Cloning’s done! Shut down second device – better safe than sorry. I’ll stick with my new left one for now.
Keep moving. … And open Maintenance Navigator. … Tunnel Navigator. Please enter junction point etc. … Clumsy oaf hands … why did it have to be mittens? Though it works quite okay through the plastic suit. But have to stop moving, the “password” is complicated enough. “D43S23J2020” – okay. That’s now my navigation point. But I still have to make sure that it doesn’t guide me through public areas, so let’s first take a look at the map, probably in the menu. … No, there’s a map button right here in the 3D tunnel view! Yep, the map! 2D, view of this deck from above. And this is where I am, let’s zoom out … Hey it has now calculated a different route! It’s not leading me back to where I came from or through the public area … Makes sense, I’m now in a quite different place, so from here … Oh. WHAT! Is that! … … I’m an IDIOT! Safe Mode is on! Let’s turn that off stat! That’s why I didn’t find those 100 meter V-junctions on 42 … hhhhhh DAMNED! I could have avoided all this hullabaloo! I could have climbed all the way up here to 43! Gaahhhh! …
This is frustrating. … Don’t wanna think about that, better listen to some radio on the way. … File manager … “logs”. I’ve heard those two, let’s see about the next. … Weird. According to the file name/date, that was exactly one hour before the one about the forces of evil and VR malfunction … down to the second! Let’s see what this is. What are these guys up to? – “I messeged yu! Yu hav messeges from me! I hav sent meni meni messeges! Meni messeges, yu hav to check!” – What? How?! Why would he store this in his logs? That’s not a recording of him, is it? … No, that’s not him. Wait, what’s that … uh … uh Alix … the date is … changing? Flickering … all the numbers are … when I try to discern what I see, it changes into something else … both, the name date and the file date, they keep changing! What is that? … Spooky … Can’t look at that … Maybe this wristy is just defective – or the data copy? Damned! … I’ll check another folder. Hmhm … “family” … “history”, hmhm
.. “SD” … “The Second Coming” … nah … “unsung” hmhmhmhm … Oh, there’s one called “VR”! Let’s see what’s in there!
Schematics. This one supposedly of a VR unit. Okay … This one … looks like a harness or carousel seat thing … Hmh, I can’t look at stuff while I’m traipsing around. So let’s use uh … heh, that’s a weird name … “cigarette burns.xau”
“… Are you recording? … Good. … The purpose of this: To keep us all on the same page. Because … If the VR lab is circa one third of the entire mission – then the changeover is about one half of that. … I don’t mean to diminish your outstanding work on the scene, Tendai and uh Janine … yes … yes, I know, but it bears mention, especially considering all that additional software you had to write. Scientific perfectionism! … Now … but without an exact changeover, the VR artifice falls to pieces. It is vital, so let’s aspire perfection.
We have two redundant VR catchers in place. They are modified from the basic model every citizen finds in their cabin, to have about triple the reach without burning the chip, and the realignment is much more aggressive. As opposed to a citizen dreaming in their home, we will have a constantly moving user. But – despite this, we need two strong acolytes. On location! Yes, I am aware of what this means, we will talk about it after. Two of them. They must arrest the user quickly and lastingly, this must happen within circa ten seconds of changeover. Lest we want to risk simulation rupture due to misalignment. And once the user believes to have returned, they must be released, and the acolytes must retreat quickly to their hiding spot. If any of this fails, which must never happen, the emergency procedure is: Immediately silence the relay! And furnace the user. – This is the last resort. Let’s hope it never comes to this. And bear in mind: A lost user will awaken the sleeping children. … If only they could understand what is good for them. And what is not. *sigh*
The redundancy is only for catching. Its purpose is not to ensure uninterrupted VR! This can not be achieved, we tried it thoroughly. But if a catcher is not quick enough, possibly due to being too remote, or becomes defective due to environmental stress, the other can do its job. If the user were willing to accept an explicit shake in their scene, a tiny jump of point of view and also some unrealistic force feedback, then a catcher could even take over while we’re live. But since the user is not a willing participant, they will notice, and we must expect the worst. For this, we have introduced an element of surprise to the scene: A rupture of the oxygen line that can be triggered by the office team. The user can be expected to repair it in time. And the surprise should mask a catcher’s takeover shake. If this happens, the team waiting on location will have to replicate both in reality to avoid suspicion, and they must complete this quickly, because, as you know, if physical stress on the user is too great, this will get through, and the scene will be suppressed. In addition to this, if we ever have to resort to this measure, we must ascertain that we are not dealing with a … let’s call it a quick thinker. One who will instantly pretend as if they did not catch on to what happened to them. The office team will have to monitor the user’s bio data closely. Do not rely on the software that was created for this. You have to make the call. A red light does not mean red. And NO red light does not mean that we’re in the clear. Possibly, we will never have this problem, but we must be ready for it. The user must not know. Or, alternatively, the user must not tell. The surveillance team following the user afterwards is fallback for this, if ever a wrong call was made, but this is the attempt to stomp out a prairie fire. It’s desperation. Let it not come to that.
Once we switch to simulation, the relay will transmit audio and video directly from within the scene. Simultaneously, it will stop transmitting whatever may come from the AV transmitter. Once the VR visit is completed, this is reversed. We are very fortunate to have our changeover attempts aided by the necessary blackout that takes place for a few moments. But the user is not asleep, they are merely distracted, and they will even anticipate this, so – be on your guard. The terminus team must not activate the catchers too early. And do not activate the catchers too late. And in between communications is best. For this, too, you will have software aid, but the machines will only show us cigarette burns. You are the ones who will have to decide when to perform the changeover. The evil force that seemed but a superstition has given us reason, statistically significant reason, to assume that it really exists. Trained minds of the congregation will have to make the decisions, not machines. The Church of the Black Star is but humble servant to the Maker. We are the warden of the unfolding of His will. We have been blessed with His revelation, this means that we are justified, we are tasked, to aid in the unfolding.
Now … the VR changeover is all but perfected. We have done test runs. Yes – on location! Our users, despite their knowledge, were not able to tell that we had taken them into the simulation. This means: The plan will work, but only if we give it our best. The next step is to establish the waiting teams and then to make a final test run.
So much for now. … You can st”
What, they want to … take someone and secretly lock them in a simulation for some time? That’s wicked … Though it’s not unheard of. After all, many have installed a simulation door and harness in their cabins, to create a realistic changeover from their tiny living rooms to expansive interiors, to visiting the beach, … or whatever … but to do this to someone without their knowledge? And … outside their cabin, in some other place of the Earth Two? … Sinister. … At least, I don’t believe in an elaborate prank … I have to listen to more of these recordings.
Well … of Yon’s password, “D43S23J2020T2342”, I have now manifested, finally, the situation “D43S23”. I don’t know how far it is to J2020 … I mean, I do know, but not how long it will take. I am quite optimistic, though, that I’ll make it on time. Before “T2342”. And then … what? … I have no clue. I need to learn more.
Hey what’s that. Another one of those audio files without name – just a date, but in this folder, “VR”. The Audio Recorder app produces these – unless a specific name is entered. This one is … from today! … Very early morning, actually. … Please let it not be that wicked foreigner again …
“I am unworthy. … … I … failed in every way. … …”
It’s Yon … He sounds so different. No trace of his, uh, nobleness. … Speaking so quietly. Something must have happened! I have some idea what that might be … Good grief, was he the one …?
“I had the axe with me. … … I was like in a trance … so convinced of my mission, the last steps … … … I was on my way. To the conveyance deck. Was about to climb down to it … Only meters to go! … … I felt it, the evil force … how it shook me … felt it in my whole body … Every step, every motion of my hands! Like swimming in molasses. Under an electric current. … My mind, so insecure … … I was so prepared! My whole life … Where did all that go? It was only … minutes, mere MINUTES until completion!! … But then, JUST THEN! … Those people, so clueless of their role … cannon fodder for the evil power … innocent, yet guilty of neglect … of instability … of blindness … I just couldn’t help it! Everything in the balance, and these … NOBODIES … just eyes and mouths, all the tools they’d need … to let it all founder … Evil triumphant … while they would feel righteous, even heroic! … I was so full of hatred … I am so ashamed … I saw mere cattle in them, animals … and that’s what I became … no mind … just a rabid wolf … butchering my fellow men …
And why did I not push through? All I had to do … was to push through … but fear overcame me … panic even! What if … it would have become a race? Against the clock? Against the constables? And if I’d be too slow … our holy purpose – shattered. Mankind … lost to the Universe … an eternal tragedy … It … It was just too much for me! Despite all this … all my life … I could not carry the weight of this moment … Knowing how absolute it was, every step … Maybe we should have sent somebody … like an errant boy … Someone who does not have a clue … But then, surely, the evil force would have overtaken them … Like it almost overtook me! …
At least I made it back with the axe. We still do have a chance! But we must act fast … By the Maker, if only I had pushed through … I have failed … … Two days ago … the operator we had to burn … and now this … Evil is reality. … They must be on to us now … It has to happen today!”
Urgh … to think I ate from his food … HE is the one who slaughtered that couple at the lake! That man is INSANE! … Hacked their faces to a mush with his axe … because they surprised him? What was he even doing? Climbing down to conveyance? What would he want there … with an axe? What is going on? … And why is this recording in here and not in “logs”? Was he too distraught to place it right?
I should feel accomplished, but I don’t. I am here! Junction 2020. Sector 23. Deck 43. … Heh, and it’s 23:00 on the nose! Plenty of time left. … But it feels like a failure. What an idiot I am! I have put myself exactly where a homicidal axe murderer is about to arrive! Very soon. A religious crazy person who speaks of the “force of evil” that he could not but smite with his axe! Oh, he’s ashamed? He’s running around with a damned AXE! On some religious mission … that he prepared for all his life!? Wait, this is … Either everything he’s saying is somehow just crazy talk … or I am still not seeing what’s really going on. … Anyway, I can not stay here! The grills around this place can be seen through. As soon as I see him – and I have no idea from where he’ll be coming – he will also see me!
But most of all … now I know. What this place is about. He doesn’t want to do ANYTHING here! It’s only his entry point! This … is probably directly above the pillar at the lake! He can’t wait any longer, but the area down there is a hot zone, probably under surveillance, so … he’s gonna enter the pillar and climb down the 100 meters and on towards whatever the “conveyance” deck is! Damned … the real event is somewhere else. It’s below! Where I came from! That’s where I need to observe, if I want to find out. … And if I don’t want the crazy axe murderer to see me!
The floor hatch … uhm … that one looks solid … and there are servo motors? Can’t even open it manually. Why is this such a heavy thing? Like a vault door … There’s a warning label: “!CAUTION! Beware of stack-effect! Strong winds and hot air! Apply safety rope!” Damned! I have no safety rope. And what the heck is a stack-effect? … What choice do I really have. Clock’s ticking. Stepping off of hatch. … Waving left wristy over servo control box. Thunk, the motors start … hatch begins to lift out of ground … Hissing! … Whow, hot air streaming in … wind … What a bulky hatch. WOW, KEEPS getting stronger! … Wind blowing into the junction … Beekeeper helmet flapping … Hatch revealing what’s beneath … Impressive! I can see lights on the hills … so far! Hundreds of meters down, diagonally … I have to … The wind is gripping my suit … THE HELMET! Pulling me back … jerking me around … insane winds! I have to … close hatch again! Cling to these handles … Hatch reverses direction, good … doesn’t insist on opening fully first. … Unbelievable winds, I have never felt something like that, and so hot! Why is it so hot down there? The landscape deck is at 15° C if I remember correctly … Oh, that’s good … wind calming down … hatch almost closed … hissing … whirring of motors … … … CLUNK!
Wow that was dangerous! I could have been gripped by the wind, flapped around like a doll, and then fallen … a hundred meters! … But I have to go … Damned! Have to take off the beekeeper’s suit … the helmet is almost torn off, anyway … No longer disguised, that’s not good! … Taking off wristies … … … … and unzipping white plastic … … climbing out … … … Now, the wristy that’s currently turned on goes on the left arm again … … and the other on the right. But what will I do with the suit? Can’t leave it here, Yon must not see it … I will fold and crumple it and take it with me. Maybe I can just … toss it out there, despite our rigorous littering regulations, heh …
Okay. Another go then. Hold on to handles … now I know why they are near the servo control box … and open hatch! … Thunk. Whirrrrrrrrrrrrr … hisssssssSSSSSHSHSHSH! … And the hairdryer … heh … feels good, this hot wind everywhere on my black silicone body … and it doesn’t grab me, just pushes a little. I’m too smooth and don’t have the suit’s plastic folds … let alone the soup ladle helmet! … Wow, the wind is getting even stronger still! … … … The hatch is now almost upright … What a storm! And so HOT! This must be 40 degrees! Okay, I’ll work myself round the upright hatch … No safety rope, Alix! Don’t forget this wasn’t made for someone just casually climbing around here! Oh, about five meters below, I can see a grate! It covers the entire top of the pillar below. There’s a ladder on both sides of the open hatch, left and right, 1 meter apart … can hold on to both of them while climbing down … WHAT A VIEW! It’s dark, but I can see the entire outdoor deck from here, beyond the horizon of this pillar top. All the giant pillars and their little lights … hazy in the distance, but I can see the walls beyond … I know the ship has some wall and chamber layers outside of these, else a hole would lose us everything in here … not that carbondum is all that prone to getting holes … There are barns, … and those might be hay bales … hills … That there near the lit paths should be the forest … Some asphalted roads for farming vehicles … There’s sleeping cows down there! … Oh now I get why it’s so hot: Heat rises! Of course! This is a 100 meter tall enclosed room. The temperature gradient is crazy! But why the strong wind? … I have to look up one day what “stack-effect” means.
Climbing down to the top of the pillar. The wind is really trying to blow me upwards, but also sideways, it’s just brutally turbulent! … That feeling … it’s all open up here, extreme wind, the widest view of the largest room I have ever seen in my life is making me vertiginous, wonder if it would be worse or better at daytime … I could fall at any moment … Just keep going. … At least the pillar is wide, ten meters diameter … that makes it feel safer on the grate … But the view straight down is … really bad. A 100 meter tube with cables and pipes, struts and grates! The wind is now coming purely from below, through the pillar. … WUT! The hatch above is CLOSING! … Must be a sensor … they can’t risk someone leaving this thing open. … I’m holding on to the big red handles on the floor grate. Five meters below the sky. Whatever causes this insane wind from below, it must be the reason they left the pillar open up here, below the starry ceiling screens. There are eight thick black columns spread out around near the wide circle of the edge of the pillar top. Columns holding up the sky! About three meters apart … quite insecure for visitors, I wonder what the idea was with that one … I should get rid of the crumpled suit, it burdens me greatly, I am less flexible as it is – no fingers. … I’ll crawl to the edge, next to one of the two opposite ladder holes leading down at the pillar’s wall, and toss the suit away. This dizzying height and STORM … Oh, there’s the lake! Just a large dark form shimmering in the starlight. Couldn’t see it because of the angle: It’s just below! I am really directly above the murder site … The first … They think it was the first murders in space, but it was at least the second … Terrible … Human life, tossed into oblivion … like this crumpled suit, jetting away with the wind, tumbling, unfolding, sailing, flapping … lost to the darkness … but I have no time for this. I must get down. It’s late! What time is it? … 23:11
Climbing down. The wind is bearable – it’s coming strictly from below now. But it’s strong! … Good thing I’m really inside, no longer on that stormy roof … can’t fall away, and no longer this dizzying sight. A grate platform with a new ladder, offset to the side, every ten meters, and a cage around them, at least down to maybe two meters above the platform. … What will I do once I arrive at the bottom of this giant shaft? Which will take a while … Wait, I’ll just tap the next audio file (and turn up the volume so I can hear it in this wind tunnel). Hm … it’s called ‘VR failure.xau’. Tap. And on we go.
“ong as you’re suitable …” – “Well – it’s not like it caused any cognitive damages. Else I wouldn’t be cleared for this now, would I.” – “Guess not.” – “… … I’m in the airlock. Still don’t get why they put it up here in conveyance.” – “Because … the ship’s bottom is full of raw fuel, maybe?” – “Ouhh … riiiight. … Couldn’t be sure how many decks they’d have to claim, so it has to be up here. … Did you hear, they took six more? Like it was nothing. Six decks, man! … Decompressing.” – “Science is God out here.” – “Yes, it iihiis!” – “Heh … and you’re one of its priests. … Put in a good word for me, will you?” – “… Opening outer door. … … Like a cat’s eye …” – “I hate that this thing is always vertical. It’s not right! Why couldn’t we orbit on a different axis? Would also give us some sense of time …” – “Because science, control. Because of science.” – “What! Why did no one tell me!” – “Beginning EVA. Hooking in. … Stepping onto platform.” – “Wish I could be out there.” – “This job? We’re not exactly lining up, you know …” – “Why, what’s wrong with it?” – “Uh … first of all, down here, it’s … like the underside of reality. … There’s quite literally an infinite abyss! Right there!” – “Come on, EVA is awesome, admit it.” – “And then, if you’re a little claustrophobic … What am I saying. Even if you’re not! Crawling around in a giant old tube radio of the 20th century … which is keeping the most dangerous explosive possible. … Starting transport.” – “I just mean EVA! Doesn’t have to be back there … The inner sanctum is off limits, anyway.” – “Well, you can! Up there near the observation domes.” – “Yeah? How?” – “You can apply. There’s a waiting list, but … Oh, and it costs something! To ensure people aren’t doing this willy-nilly. Also keeps the queue shorter.” – “Bodhi … you’re the man! I’ll have to do that.” – “Control, going black.” – “Check.”
“I hate what happened to Earth … obviously … but I do love to be in space! … … Control, vision’s back. CONTROL! CONTROL! BOGEY, BOGEY! TWO UNKNOWNS! – GET OFF” Fast heavy breathing, the sound of suit impacts. The operator’s voice is too loud for the microphone. “AAH CONTROL! BOGEYS! WE GOT BOGEYS OUT HERE! I FOUGHTEM OFF, CONTROL CONTROL CAN YOU HEAR ME!” – “What’s the site, though, is it admin or science? Or is it recreation?” – “CONTROL CAN YOU HEAR ME! I HAVE UNHOOKED, DOING FREEHAND ENTRY, CONTROL SEND HELP NOW! … … Control, I can see behind now. hhhhh God … Two bogeys standing on peripheral terminus, facing me, I’m on the transport, SEND HELP GODDAMNED! … They have a kind of harness attached to aft …” – “Operator, why are you still in the blackout zone? Answer please! We need to stay in contact.” – “CONTROL! CAN – YOU – HEAR – ME? DO YOU HEAR ANYTHING? … CONTROL? … I’m past the tunnel door. These bastards can’t follow me!” – “Bodhi, I will escalate now, because I can’t hear a peep. There better be a good reason, man.” – “CONTROL … God damned! What bastard would ambush someone? Out here? … Reaching inner door. … Opening. … … God Almighty! … … … my … God … … The golden light … it’s everywhere!” – “Operator, I still can’t hear anything, if you can hear me, come back immediately! I repeat …” – “The containers! They are … all of them … All containers are glowing! CONTROL CAN YOU HEAR ME! WE HAVE TOO MUCH ANTIMATTER! WE HAVE NINETY KILOGRAMS OF ANTIMATTER DOWN HERE! SEND HELP IMMEDIATELY! HELP GODDAMNED! … … This can’t be … The brightness … insane, it’s too bright! This container … CONTROL! … my God … the reading … it’s 400 grams! FOUR HUNDRED GRAMS, CONTROL! WE HAVE FOUR TIMES … CONTROL, WE HAVE THREE HUNDRED SIXTY THOUSAND GRAMS OF ANTIMATTER ON BOARD! … … hhhou Godhh … *snuffle* … sixteen gigatons … we are so dead …”
A very loud hard impact sound. “AAH! CONTROL! BOGEYS IN CONTAINMENT, BOGEYS IN CONTAINMENT! LET ME GO! … MY VISOR IS CRACKED, I’M LEAKING! CONTROL HELP ME! … LET ME GO YOU BASTARDS FROM HELL! … … CONTROL TWO BOGEYS, TOO STRONG, WE’RE LEAVING THROUGH TUNNEL! CONTROL, I NEED HELP OUT HERE IMMEDIATELY! HELP ME PLEASE! … … WHAT ARE YOU DOING, WHY ARE YOU KILLING US ALL! YOU’RE INSANE! THE CAULDRON CAN’T TAKE THIS! … … LET ME GO! CONTROL AT OUTER DOOR! SEND HELP IMMEDIATELY DAMNED! WE ARE OUTSIDE … … LET ME! CONTROL THEY ARE TOO STRONG, WE ARE APPROACHING PERIPHERAL, I NEED HELP NOW! CONTROL HELP ME PLEASE! … LET GO! I’M BLACKING OUT CONTROL! PLEASE LET ME GO! WHAT IS IT WITH YOU … … I WON’T TELL ANYONE! … LET GO OF ME! WHAT DO YOU WANT! SAY SOMETHING! … YOU’RE MAKING A MISTAKE … NO! NOT THIS WAY! I WON’T TELL ANYONE I won’t tell … … please can we talk AAAAAAAAAAAAA … aaarghhh … hhhHHhh … hrhrr …” Agony, wheezing, whimpering, sizzling, static noise, silence. The recording continues on for a few seconds, then it’s over.
My mind is numb. My head is empty. … I almost saw him, pushed over the edge. Falling through the annuli. Into the incessant gamma storm. Disintegrated. Crushed under the feet of the marching ship. … I had no idea, how evil can humans be? I have been playing with fire! I should have stepped forward, should have exposed myself, told them right away! But how could I have known … Satan is on this ship, and he wants to burn us all!
I have been standing at the bottom of the shaft now for a while. I arrived when … Bodhi saw the crystal cave. We have become a bomb! These people have turned this holy ship into a damn BOMB! SIXTEEN GIGATONS?! No way the Cauldron will survive that. We will all become light! In an instant! I can’t believe what I just heard … that poor man … I would have taken the axe to the face … instead of going through that … The terror of knowing … being dragged to the edge of forever, with no power to stop them … and then to burn alive in antimatter fire … I know I would have begged more … … … Have to keep moving. What’s the time? Uh 23:23!? … WHOA, HOW long has that constable been standing there!? He’s staring up to me, through the grate … gaping mouth … Right, I … am not human. And naked. … He knows that I’ve seen him!
“Pl … PLEASE DON’T MOVE! … Central I have found the uneyed! … Come to me now! … V-junction 42 dash … Just come to the lake, okay! Right now! … You won’t believe this!” – A female radio voice replies matter-of-factly: “C294, backup is underway, copy?” – “Yes. Copy! Backup! Now! … aaand alert administration!” – “C294, please follow protocol while on duty.” A pause, then the voice continues: “Why administration? What is your situation?” – “The uneyed is not a human! Repeat, is not a human! Central – do you copy!”
I am still numb, but I am also torn. Will I try to tell them? Or will I flee? … Into the arms of the axe murderer … but there should still be time, and five vent paths to choose from …
“C294, did you say not human? The uneyed is not a human?” – “Affirmative, central. Humanoid alien. Deep black skin, shiny. … Like a human female. Black head, no hair. It’s staring at me! Central?” – “C294, copy. Humanoid, female, black, bald … Are you sure? Try to communicate.” – “I am sure. Have tried to communicate, no response. Beginning apprehension.” – He’s opening the bottom grate! It has no servos … the wind is much weaker down here. I jump up the ladder, need to keep my distance. – “STAY ON THE GROUND! … Identify yourself!” – No use keeping the secret, right? … I can’t think strategies now … *sigh* … “I’m Alix Anson, I-Inventory Manager 2nd degree!” … Wow, there’s a lot of echo and reverberation in this giant tube, but at least the cables are eating much of it. Hadn’t noticed yet, cause the speaker’s squawky tone is not like the full sound of a voice. … The guy stopped climbing through the hatch … staring at me, wrinkled forehead, open mouth … hhhh my nerves … always when it counts … “I … u-used to work with Weelah Counten … u-until last night.” Damned! Shouldn’t have said that … The accursed timing! … “I d-don’t know w-what happento me!”
He’s coming again! No way, I’ll climb higher! “WAIT! I was in Fobs nine … and suddenly” – “STOP moving! NOW!” – Damn, he pulled his enforcer … I’m at the top of this ladder … If I move … “I woke up like this …” – “Climb down NOW! Or you WILL get hurt! This is my FINAL warning!” – He stepped forward from the hatch, is aiming at me with both hands … I still don’t know if they would hear me out … damned! … Dozens of scientists ‘witnessed’ that everything’s A-OK with the antimatter! … I can’t risk it! We will all die! Up, quick! … AAh! Got my leg … with that damn red humming ray of his … it’s weakened … – “I WARNED you, now STAY put!” – The grate metal must have protected the rest of me. Faraday, bitch! … No way I’ll wait for you … Damn, I have to climb this other ladder to the right … On it! … But if he’s fast, he could get me from below once he’s high enough and the angle’s right … and the ladder’s cage is too wide, won’t shield me. Also can’t stumble the eight meters across the shaft to the other side, he’d be up here before I’m gone, and I’d just drop like a sack. … My left shank’s slowing me … almost at the top, what’s he doing? – Climbing of course, and there’s the damn HUM! … Must have missed me, I’m just reaching the second grate platform … … Now quick, the other ladder!
“Central! Uneyed claims to be Alix Anson, inventory management, is evading arrest, apprehending! Expect us on 43!” – I’m far up to the 3rd floor, he’s now starting his climb to 2nd, talking into his wristy slowed him down. But my leg’s still weak! What will I do, try the vents? He doesn’t seem to listen, just police routine to him … He’s almost at floor 3 … we’re SO high up already! I’m close to 4, the wind’s starting to paint over the climbing noises. I’m too slow … have to try! “CONSTABLE!” – “STOP RUNNING!” – “YOU NEED TO LISTEN!” – “YOU … STOP AND WE’LL TALK!” – Crap! I’m half up to 5, he’s close to 4. My leg seems to be waking up, but I’m still too slow. “THEY WANT TO BLOW UP THE SHIP! I HAVE PROOF!” – “STOP RUNNING! … AND WE’LL TALK!” – Yeah, right. “THEY WILL KILL US ALL! TODAY!” Am low on the ladder to 6th, he’s half up to the 5th. Closing in, but I’m now speeding up.
He just won’t listen, it’s useless … “THE TERRORIST WILL BE HERE IN A FEW MINUTES!” – “WE’LL ARREST HIM TOO!” – That didn’t sound … serious? “I DON’T BELIEVE YOU!” I’ve just stepped onto the 6th floor, he just started to climb up here, it’s CLOSE! If he decides to shoot again, he might get me … “HE’S THE MURDERER FROM THE LAKE!” – “OF COURSE! I’M COMING UP TO GET HIM!” – Wut! “I HAVE HIS CONFESSION! RECORDING!” Hopeless. – “SHOW ME!” – Bastard keeps rushing, is starting to climb up to 7, I’ve JUST leapt over to the 8th ladder, I’m so exhausted that I’m hoping the strong wind will help me, but I realize how dumb that is. What could I possibly say to CRACK that stupid police routine!? “WAIT THERE AND I SHOW IT TO YOU!” – “OKAY!” – That son of a bitch just keeps hasting up the steps! Crap … damned! … “DID YOU NOT HEAR THE SCREAMING MAN!” … No answer. Maybe that was before he arrived?
… Yes! I’ll just tap playback again! That one gesture won’t slow me down, I’ve just stepped onto the 8th floor, he’s starting with its ladder, if only he doesn’t shoot! (((’ong as you’re suitable …’ – ’Well – it’s not like it caused any cognitive damages. Else I wouldn’t be cleared for this now, would I.’ – ‘Guess not.’ – ‘… … I’m in the airlock. Still don’t get why they put it up here in conveyance.’))) CRAP this is probably not loud enough, we’re in the damn windstorm again! “CAN YOU HEAR IT?” – “NO! YOU’RE TOO FAR AWAY!” – What kind of single-minded … “DON’T COME ANY CLOSER! I’LL JUMP OFF THE PLATFORM!” I just started with the last damn ladder! And he … why is he still at the bottom of the previous!? … But he’s moving now! “I AM SERIOUS! I WILL JUMP INTO THE GODDAMN LAKE!” – “YOU WILL DIE!” – “YOU DON’T KNOW THAT!” Indeed, he doesn’t. Neither do I. … Yes, YES! His lust for apprehension is turning on him! … If I jump, he won’t get me … neither will his cronies!
“JUST LISTEN TO ME!” – “WE CAN TALK AT THE STATION!” He’s half up the 9th ladder, but he has stopped. I’m at the top of the last, can see to the ends of the artificial starry sky. “THINK, MAN! IF I SPEAK THE TRUTH, WE ARE IN REAL DANGER!” – “LET THE POLICE HANDLE IT!” – “WILL YOU SHUT UP FOR A MINUTE! WE WILL ALL DIE BECAUSE YOU IDIOTS ACT LIKE IT’S ALL ROUTINE! CAN YOU NOT SEE THAT I CAN NOT TRUST YOU!” – “THE POLICE WILL HEAR YOU OUT!” – “IT WILL BE TOO LATE! THE TERRORIST WILL COME THROUGH THAT DOOR IN” wait … “TEN MINUTES! TEN MINUTES, AND YOU HAVE YOUR AXE MURDERER!” I’m now lying on the top platform with the black columns, screaming into the moderately lit 100 meter pipe below, holding on to the red handles on the ground with my stupid black mitten paws. Won’t risk getting caught by the wind. … The bastard is climbing again, but slowly … I think he just wants to stand on the 9th floor. “THEY HAVE ANTIMATTER! HUNDREDS OF KILOS! I HAVE THEIR PLANS RIGHT HERE!” – “GIVE THEM TO ME!” – “THE MURDERER WILL SMASH THE CONTAINERS TO BITS! TODAY! WITH HIS STUPID RITUAL AXE!”
“IS HE THE ONE WHO MURDERED THE COUPLE?” – “YES! LIKE I KEEP TELLING YOU!” – “HOW DID HE KILL THEM!” – Is he dense? “HE HACKED THEIR FACES TO PULP WITH HIS GODDAMN AXE!!!” What, why is he climbing up the ladder? “STAY AWAY, I WILL JUMP!” – “YOU’RE LYING TO ME!” – WUT! He’s up one third – I get up! The ladders from the junction above are near the center, far away from me … I carefully step backwards against one of the thick columns that hold up the night sky, a few meters away from where I ascended, push against it in the storm. “IT’S ALL TRUE! I HAVE HIS CONFESSION!” He’s at the top of the ladder. – “LADY …” – He’s climbing onto the roof, mostly lit from the pipe underneath. I look behind me, past the column, down to the electric lights of that giant chunk of Earth we took with us. – “… THE MURDER WEAPON WAS A MULTITOOL.” – “BULLSHIT!” – “WE ANALYZED THE WOUNDS!” – “YOU MUST BE” – “AND WE FOUND THE WEAPON IN THE GRASS! THERE IS NO DOUBT! YOU CAN STOP LYING NOW!” – God, how! Why would Yon record false information in his own logs? … Are they, like, a trap somehow? No, why would he do that … Damn, the constable’s slowly walking towards me! “STOP! DON’T COME ANY CLOSER! I WILL JUMP!!!” I look back again, pressed against the column. – “NO, YOU WILL NOT.” He’s pulling is damn enforcer!
Crap what will I do! I … don’t want to jump! I begin to creep around the column so I get out of his reach, firmly pressing my arms against it behind me. He’s gesturing me with his left hand to slow down, is sticking the weapon back … – “DON’T BE STUPID! IT’S NOT WORTH IT!” He can’t risk making me fall over the edge! – I am now almost on the other side, the penumbral world is below, less than a meter away, yet so terribly far from me. – “STAY AWAY!” – “WE HAVE POLICE DOWN THERE, CAN YOU SEE THEM?” – In the dark? I can see ants near the lit paths, not what they’re wearing … – “IF YOU SURVIVE THE FALL, WE GET YOU ANYWAY! COME ON, LET ME TAKE YOU IN!” – “I CAN’T! THE TERRORISTS WILL KILL US BEFORE YOU EVEN SEE MY EVIDENCE!” – “WE FOUND YOUR ARM COMPUTER IN THE VENTS! WE’RE CHECKING” – “WHAT! YOU TELL ME THAT NOW!!!”
I turn my head back around the column. God! Yon’s on the platform! Coming towards us! The constable jerks around, pulls his weapon, must have seen my shock! Yon was already running, is throwing the officer to the ground, one arm pressed against his head, pounding it onto the grate, no chance to avoid it. He’s on his back, conscious, squirming! Yon, wearing a backpack, is already getting up, stomps … no he’s reconsidering … No rabid wolf today, eh? Bastard! He’s grabbing the front of the officer’s uniform with both fists, picking him up, doesn’t seem to struggle with it. Oh no! There was at least one of the red handles, the officer’s back must have fallen onto it!
Yon’s dragging and carrying the writhing body between his legs, I think he wants to throw the constable off into the abyss! … But he distinctly changed direction when he picked him up, turned left … Of course – he must have gathered that someone else is up here! Probably heard me. He wants to make sure there’s no surprises before he … Keeps looking over his right shoulder, does he not see my black head in front of the night sky? Or is that more than just an exertion and hatred grimace!? … I step around the column, still holding on to it. … Astonishment on his face, he slowed down! I have seen enough single-mindedness – who cares what I am, to him I’ll just be a new variable in his mission program! Before he returns to being a machine, I push off from the column and storm towards him with no regard for the wind that should cave under my momentum.
In one motion, Yon drops the body, straightens up, turns his torso right – towards me – but is still standing with spread legs over the constable. I was aiming between him and the backpack, but now I only get his reaching arms. He wanted to use my energy to forward me over the edge, but I’m too far on his back side. He goes with the flow, holds on to me, and turns further right to forward me that way instead. But his stance over the body doesn’t allow him to turn freely, so he drops his left knee on the constable and, to be able to complete the turn, lets himself fall onto his bulgy backpack, which grinds down between the constable’s right shoulder and head and lands on the grate. He’s still too high up to be out of my way. The cold heat of knowing is all over me: My momentum and his throw will carry me over the edge! I reach for his torso and slip with my fingerless paws behind the straps of his backpack, half hoping this will save me from the abyss … But the combined force of our will to be victorious has turned me into a projectile – my flight all but stops, yanking his torso towards me, making him turn and slip over the edge after me. He looks up, reaches for the rim, but we’re gone … in free fall, a hundred meters down. He turns back to me. I’m still holding him by the straps, like he held the constable to carry him to his death, and I scream into his grimace of hatred: “I AM THE BLACK STAR!” The bomb in his backpack explodes as we impact the lake. A giant splash runs tsunamis towards the dimly lit shores. The water washes back and forth in the middle, until eventually, with the arrival of the first echoes from sky and the deck’s outer walls, my lifeless body emerges amidst the large red puddle of Yon’s biomatter.