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This Silent Dialogue
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The Leviathan can see its destination now, sharp and tiny on the desolate horizon. The beacons of various whales and depth-lurkers have quietened lately; maybe they will pick up soon. There are long spaces of blankness here in the void. Right now the landscape is familiar, but the heavy thoughts that surge through its synapses still hold its instructions tightly, since that’s all it has left. Maybe there are some companion lights off in the distance, blinking in appreciation of its lonely journey, maybe some of them busy in theirs. Maybe not.
With all eyes and ears open, it plunges on to that shining singularity.
GARNER WOKE UP, in the morning, at 16:74.
He murmured lazily, and rubbed his face into the pillow, enjoying the few minutes’ rest before he had to sign in. The Computer knew when he had to be up, and this was the time he’d asked to be awake. The digits glowed lovingly in the back of his mind.
16:75. A rectangle of light crept around the blind and into his room, across the bare walls, across the flat planes of his desk.
16:78. The lead he shared his bed with, snaking its way through his legs and into his left wrist, was waking him up slowly and gently. It was small pulses of Electric — not sharp ones, but easy, slow-burning ones, mmm, in the right places; he could tell how soon it was to get up by how awake he was. That was how it worked. Apparently, at some point in the past, people had just woken up by themselves.Apparently, you were still allowed to do so now by sleeping alone and unplugged, and apparently there were still some individuals in the colony who did this. It was weird. How did you know when it was time to be awake? It was the wrong way round.
16:80. ‘Good morning, Monsieur Garner.’
‘Morning,’ he mumbled, crawling out of the bedsheets. Upon standing, the blind began rolling itself up, and he stumbled into the shower unit. The panel slid shut behind him.
‘Nineteen minutes to sign-in, M. Garner.’ The blast of water jets sounded from behind the closed panel. Pale morning sunlight from across the park drifted in and washed over the flat surfaces, the empty floor and walls, the desk unit. ‘Appointments today: one; Mss. Neema GrelµnD. Mss. GrelµnD will be in the Square Lounge at approximately 19:50 hours if you would like to meet her in person. Tasks today: fourteen...’
Time was strange here. On the continent station, life had been simple: the lights turned themselves up at 06:00, and dimmed again at 14:00. You got the medically-recommended dose of about eight Democracy hours sleep every day, and it worked. Here though... bloody planets, and their shorter days or longer nights or irregular orbits. To be fair it wasn’t as bad as that week he’d been posted on Nihong-madrid (the planet’s day had longer than its year, poor souls). But it was still frustrating using a timescale that had nothing to do with your daily routine.
Everyone here seemed used to it.
16:87. The gushing water cut out, and was replaced by fans blowing. A couple of minutes followed, and then this too ceased, Garner stepping out of the cubicle rubbing himself with a towel.
‘...And fourteen: process analysis of asteroid cluster #00379 (in correlation with the Dharïan Soñus sample) and send results to Democracy personnel for transmission.’
Garner looked at the machine blankly.
The smooth, soft voice remained calm. ‘Monsieur Garner, I have just read out your appointments and tasks today, and I doubt you heard any of it because you were in the shower. Would you like me to read them out again?’
Garner grinned to himself. ‘No thank you, Computer.’
‘Very well Monsieur Garner.’ A lovely, smooth, female voice. It was probably hundreds of years old. The woman was probably long dead.
He dressed quickly and, bringing his hand down on the desk’s scanning panel, he signed in to the day at 16:93.
Neema GrelµnD was normal, and strikingly so. She was also twenty minutes late.
The Square looked bleak and empty, as always. In the back of Garner’s head (not literally of course, where his chip buzzed and glowed) he thought it was something of a design flaw: clearly it was a lot of space being taken up, and no-one was using it. It was decorative, sure. But it was an open space. You only had open spaces when lots of people needed to use them all at the same time. If not, well, who was signing it off in the budget? Pointless.
From his streetside sofa, he glanced around at the other few souls in the lounge. Some seemed rather restless, on edge perhaps, and were probably bitter about having to leave their homes. Strictly speaking, no-one wanted to leave their block, or even their room really, and most saw little need with regular use of the treadmill and exercise. The lounge itself was a cream colour, generally, while the walls shifted and changed colour in a soothing, trance-like manner. The service robots were, of course, colour co-ordinated with the furniture.
The brunette figure stalking down the street turned into Mss. GrelµnD, and she smiled as she walked in, a long wide smile on her long smooth face.
‘Hey there,’ she said, folding up comfortably into the sofa opposite him. A bot whirred up on its treads and placed a glass on the low table, containing whatever she’d ordered before coming. ‘So sorry I’m late.’
Garner knew she wasn’t, but didn’t mind anyway. The Empire was peculiar, he’d decided. Anything related to the Democracy was accurately, forcefully on-time; anything relating to people, however, was invariably irregular and unco-ordinated. Having said that, compared to the busy continent station, people here were almost punctual. He watched her almost frantically pull her lead out of her right wrist and plug it in to the glass table next to his. ‘Ahhh,’ she breathed, visibly sinking into her seat, ‘that’s good. Took me fifteen minutes to get here. They really need a way of wiring everyone remotely up to the network.’
‘Oh I know,’ agreed Garner, even though he was used to periods without the Electric. ‘How’s the hospital?’
She shrugged, crossing her long legs. Her smooth, black trousers rode up to reveal equally smooth, pale ankles. ‘Same old things. People are so awkward sometimes. We’ve had three whole cases only partially recognised by the computer in the last month. It’s ridiculous. My job is to oversee the hospitality bots and mechanics, not to heal people.’ She eyed his dark green Democracy shirt. He could feel her probing his mind through the wires, small gentle buzzes of Electric. ‘And you? How is the giddy world of geo-sampling?’
‘Not giddy enough.’ He passed a return glance over her blue chemise that was fitted to her curves. He was of course instinctively attracted to her, just like every other woman on Fortium Rhegardé. Or had ever met, for that matter. He looked back out over the Square.
‘Apparently water levels are running fairly low,’ she chatted aimlessly. ‘For this point, I mean. Might have to start rationing again.’
He turned back and frowned. ‘Who said this?’
‘Oh, Saraí Vilstok down in climate systems.’
‘Rationing doesn’t sound pleasant.’
‘Oh it’s fine really, just happens, you know. Don’t you remember the last time?’ He shook his head. ‘Oh I forgot,’ she stroked the back of his brain again, ‘you’ve not been here that long have you. Where were you last?’
‘Trinigal Station,’ he replied dryly.
‘Oh my! That’s ages away. What’s it like? Must be really different from out here.’
Garner considered it, and realised it was very much the same. ‘Yes, it is. People barely drink out of glasses there.’
‘Ha, urbanites. I suppose it’s all intravenous there.’ She smiled, and undid a button on her shirt, revealing more than a glimpse of cleavage.
‘Are you busy today?’
‘Not really, no, why?’
‘Oh, I just wondered if you had time for a fuck this afternoon.’
‘No thanks. I would but I had someone yesterday, quite a long session.’ She deflated a little, disappointed. ‘Need to get my levels back up.’
She huffed. ‘Fine. Who, out of interest?’
‘Uh, Ethania Stüttgorm.’
‘Blonde, works in chem-physics labs.’
‘Huh,’ Neema snorted. ‘I’m a better fuck than her. I’ve gone without for three days now, how am I going to find someone this afternoon? They should draw up a rota.’
‘Sorry. I’m fine for some laughing though, if you want.’
She was. The Democracy said that sex was good for you, in moderated amounts, and recommended a certain amount per week. It also said that laughing was good for you, in moderated amounts, and recommended a certain amount per week. Laughing was harder to guarantee though. Hence, the small tablets the beige robot brought out on its tray, which people took regularly.
It struck Garner though, as they dropped the capsules into their drinks. You laughed at things because they were funny, didn’t you? He couldn’t remember the last thing he’d seen that was funny.
‘Of course, you could be lying to me about this Ethania woman,’ said Neema with a wry smile, although the sexual coyness had gone. ‘Word has it you’ve been spending a lot of time in the library. In the virtual suite.’
‘Well, that’s true,’ he conceded, taking a gulp of his mixture. ‘It’s a practical data-processing demonstration from Dharïan Soñus. But I was fucking Ethania yesterday.’
‘Fair enough.’ We’re nearly ready. Your progress has been good.
‘I can do you next week, if you like.’ Who else is taking part?
‘Certainly, sounds good.’ You know I can’t tell you that. You will find out at the Changeover.
‘Send an appointment to my diary.’ I’m not happy with the arrangements. What happens in the aftermath? I have been given so many details for the preparation and yet none for what happens afterwards.
She eyed him, smiling that broad, sexy smile and stroking one of her breasts, savouring sexual thoughts of him. You’ve been chosen for your aptitude Garner, not your experience! Everything is planned and everything is going to plan.
He sat back, eyed her carefully, and then looked at the colour-changing walls. And laughed.
Steill stared. Wind pushed at her constantly, threatening to drop her into the crevasse below. Even the buggy’s powerful lights and her own handheld torch gave little visibility to the chasm below, in the dark and the hurtling grit. It felt like swarms of tiny insects swirling around her, trying to find any chink or gap in her suit. Unbelievably, the ground was still warm beneath her feet.
There’s no way we’ll find it.
It’ll be here somewhere. We have to find it.
Black, the once-silver lake had been raped and blackened by the streaming wreckage that had hurtled down from the colony. Steill felt a pang of sorrow for the silver fields here, only now realising how tender they were; they were only built for environmental resistance. To her right, a maintenance bot was struggling, lost, tracks sticking on the charred surface as its peered over the gap. They were the biology out here, the solar fields’ children, tiny cells that examined and healed the colony’s photosynthetic skin. Now, it was sad to watch them, mourning their mother’s torn wires and leaking veins.
I have an idea.
They weren’t alive. And yet, it was like witnessing the death of life. Technology. Biology. Technology. Yes, technology. There was a difference. She raised her head to look back towards the colony’s mountain ridge, or where it should be through the dark. Maybe with Electric she might have been able to see it. One of the bots leaned into the small void and dug claws into the black char, started lowering itself down; the burnt brittle metal proved too weak though, and with claws snapping the creature fell meeping into the gouge. A gust of wind nearly toppled her too, and she brought herself low, away from the gap.
A bot crawled up on its tracks near to her, the green lights of its eyes blinking.She knelt carefully on the ground and cocked her head, looking back at it. She held out a hand, and watched the head move to examine it, claws out uncertainly as if to fend it off. It didn’t look like a human. It was clearly made of metal. But, maybe, maybe, there was something...
She put her hand over the eyes atop its small head.
There it was. A thing. They weren’t “eyes” she was covering, they were lights, simple green lights, and a small head shaped like an animal’s. It was just full of component parts. It was a box.
The bots are scanning for it. They reckon it’s somewhere further down.
It made sense; Steill and Marcus had been simply staggered by the extent of the destruction, and part of her was still vaguely lost in this mild awe. But she wasn’t quite in that world at the moment. She was here, trapped in this silent dialogue, with a box full of wires and component parts. Somehow though... somehow it wasn’t just technology. If it was too complicated, too complex to take in all at once, it became a thing, it became real. Characterised. Even though she knew it was just component parts.
The flight core would be leading the impact, as it would be the last thing to disintegrate. Mentally shaking herself, she crawled back to where she’d left the buggy and Marcus. She was still furious with herself at the time they’d lost sleeping those hours; if D-polix were being sent, they’d be well on their way now. Still, she’d seen the rents in the ground getting thinner, and they weren’t far from the end. Hopefully they’d get back in time to make some sense of the Crash.
The suit that contained Marcus stood motionless by the buggy. Upon seeing her he pressed pads by the door, which opened, and slipped inside. She followed on the other side. The door slid shut, Marcus tripped the pressure switch and air flowed back into the cabin.
‘You okay?’ he breathed, giving her a brief glance. She shrugged wearily. ‘I’m fine. Foot’s not good. Not too bothered about it now.’
She snapped round. Her accusing glance caught him eerily — intent, wide eyes, with the whites somehow dirty. She turned back and ignored the word, as though avoidance of the subject would keep it at bay. Her stomach was certainly boiling though. Only mildly, but getting worse. How long would they live, on the proto-fluid they had? She’d never been without food before. No-one had.
‘Steill. When the body doesn’t get the right nutrients... what happens?’
‘How do you mean?’
‘Well... do your fingers fall off?’ Just for a second he looked slightly uncertain, and slightly shameful at this lack of knowledge. ‘Like with body warmth. You know, drawing everything inside itself...?’
‘Of course not, don’t be stupid,’ she replied, completely uncertain herself. She booted everything up, plugged herself in, and considered her own component parts.
Kibo knocked on the door, and waited patiently before it, clutching the material close and out of sight. She glanced uneasily down the passageway to her left, nodding to a guard further up, and tried to remain still. Finally the door swung open and the scientist appeared, looking startled.
‘Sergeant, what brings you—’ he began.
‘I need to come in,’ she said flatly. He noticed the material she was trying to hide, and nodded sagely. ‘Of course, please.’
She stepped in but didn’t close the door behind her. ‘A friend of a friend gained access to this. Don’t ask how I got it.’ She thrust the object at him, looking extremely furtive. She was thankful there wasn’t one of those things behind him on the table — but to her horror she saw another just by the wall to her left, preserved in fluid with two (no, four!) horrible eyes staring at her.
Archeus barely noticed her discomfort, staring at the substance that flowed in his hands. ‘What is it?’
‘I don’t know, I’m not the scientist,’ she abruptly replied. ‘They recovered it some weeks ago. They’re fairly certain it belongs to them.’
‘But why would they keep it from me? Sorry Kibo, are you alright?’
‘Look, can we talk about this elsewhere?’ she mumbled. He nodded, and placed the material out of the way in a desk. They left the small room, locking the door behind them. The gloomy passageway led away, only the emergency lighting there to guide them.
‘Sorry, I’m sorry,’ burst Kibo in the silence. ‘It’s those things. That thing you’ve got preserved. I know I’m a sergeant, but, but they’re horrible. They’re grotesque.’ She sniffed, and looked up at him. ‘How do you stay so calm about it?’
He shrugged. ‘I’m a scientist, it’s my job to find these things interesting. Don’t forget, it’s partly what we’re here for.’
‘Ha, yeah, out here on the edge of nowhere. But oh god, better you than me.’
‘And better you’re a guard than I am.’ He shivered. ‘Now this stuff. How come people want to keep this from me? It’s clearly not ours. Which means it’s crucial to my research — our research — of these things.’
‘I don’t know, not entirely. But you’re not popular in certain circles. There’s people who — who don’t like these things.’ She paused, as they waited for another guard to pass in the narrow space.
‘But you don’t like these things,’ he hissed.
‘Yes but... I — I just find them unpleasant. I still see the need for your research.’ She turned to him again, urgency in her eyes. ‘They’re talking about contact, Archeus! Contact!’
‘What?’ Tension gripped his thin features. ‘Contact? What on earth are they even discussing that for? We’re in no position to make contact now, not with the power down.’
‘You know what central command’s like! It’s all preliminary talk now, all talk of “reconnaissance” and “primary clearance”. But you know as well as I do they’ll go in with guards. You’re a problem, Archeus, you’re an obstacle.’
‘But what am I supposed to do?’ The passage widened out, and they drew back into a corner as people hurried past this way and that. ‘If their minds are made up, what can I do about it?’
She watched the corners of his face drop in dejection, and felt sad, and was surprised at herself for it. ‘It’s just that stuff you were saying the other day, about communication and misunderstanding... it just seems right. And peaceful communication isn’t even in their vocabulary! You’ve got to come up with results soon. Really soon.’
‘And what if I can’t? They’re an alien species, Kibo, they don’t work anything like we do—’
‘Then work faster!’ She was running a risk here, showing emotion in front of other people, and would have to go before some passer-by started making connections. ‘Please Archeus, before this gets out of hand… we don’t know what they can do...’
He was about to reply, when she slipped away suddenly, hurrying down the corridor. He opened his mouth to call out, then thought better of it.
He watched her go.
Maybe his fingers would decay and fall off, as the body drew nutrients back inside itself. Marcus felt the low rumblings of the engine beneath closed eyes, slipping back into a semi-sleep. Food wasn’t the only worry. They were driving blind, with no grid beacons or location markers giving direction; with nothing coming from the central computer, most of the display panel was empty and dead. He was mildly surprised the buggy could function independently.
‘What do you think about the Crimson Republic,’ Steill murmured, above the silent static of the silt outside.
‘What?’ he replied distractedly. He glanced at her, at her healing flesh and her eyes that looked real, scanning the way ahead. She’d brought them both out here, chasing this pod. Which she’d shot down. It had been a small craft, hadn’t it?
‘It’s very suspicious. Demons with no physical trace. Access to the System without identification. Seems like a threat without presence. Remember Xhovin Terros.’
‘Xhovin Terros?’ He frowned, as he juxtaposed the dark storm with images of the mega-planet three systems away. The event was legendary, in a hushed way. People were mostly thankful Fortium Rhegardé had escaped the draft to repopulate the factories. ‘That was a Democracy exercise.’
‘We were told it was a Democracy exercise. I could think of better places to stage an evolutionary-virus procedure. Like somewhere without anti-grav mechanics to stop human bodies collapsing.’
‘Oh shut up with the evolutionary software idea. I thought you gave that up ages ago. It’s ridiculous and just not scientifically possible—’
‘Who owns science, Marcus?’
‘—to create programs that continually rewrite themselves to that level of complexity. Software can’t do scientific advancement on its own.’
‘You forget just how far out we are here Marcus. Just look at this, this crap we have here,’ she banged the metal panelling with a torn knuckle and the back of her hand. ‘You know as well as I do this colony’s only a hundred years old. The technology we’ve got here is barely different from when they first left the continent station to build it. And we have no idea what they could have developed back at the Hub. It’d be a different world.’
‘Not entirely. Technology can develop, but science is true. And they hit some limits of science a long time ago. How do you suggest they break the speed of light?’
‘And I don’t mean with particles, I mean usefully, realistically. It can’t be done, transmission’s still at a standard speed.’ He’d sat himself upright in the seat, almost forgetting his hunger, frowning. ‘What the hell do you think happened on Xhovin Terros?’
‘Nothing.’ Meek response.
‘I said noth—’
‘I know what you said—’
‘Well it looks stupid if I say “terrorism” now doesn’t it?!’ Her face was ugly. ‘Now you’ve just proved everything and said everything, it would be “ridiculous” to suggest terrorists had sent a program to shut down the anti-grav systems long enough to take control of a self-sufficient manufacturing planet, isolated enough from the Empire to be defensible.’ She sat uncomfortably, twitching, frowning.
Marcus’ face held a frown atop incredulity. His mouth hung open for a second.
‘Yes it would be! How do you explain passing communication through the Empire mainframe, or that technology is only made by the Democracy? There is no-one else! There’s no other people, there’s no other society, there is just us and the way we do things! There’s no place or means for any kind of “terrorists” to develop or exist — I mean, what the hell makes you think they do?’
The communications screen buzzed into life.