Achaemenidia

Achaemenidia

Alone as it approached the edges of the system the Peripheral Bus cruised in, unsure what to expect. Five hundred probes accelerated ahead, fanning out to build up a picture of Karabakh as the barely perceptible light of its sun cast weak light across its hull. Of the Achaemenidia, the ship that had sent the distress call, there was no sign. It was probably further in-system, lost in the volume around the small star.

Knowing the probes would take hours to report back, the ship came to a full stop, silent among the debris scattered around the Oort cloud. Momentarily obscuring the tiny speck of Karabakh’s star, meteoroids gently swept past, their slow, predictable movement hypnotic in the quiet calm of the remote system.

The probes almost immediately picked up a signal some distance in. Another ship had heard the call too it would seem. The Peripheral Bus engaged its engines and aimed for the source.

The combat suit’s ability to transmit audio in perfect fidelity momentarily deafened him, the atmosphere rushing into vacuum as the outer door buckled. His hands clamped on a strut as the gale blew past, sound bleeding away, the silence shocking after the turmoil of the escaping environment.

The pitch black of the damaged airlock prompted the suit to artificially illuminate everything for him as he clambered out, conspiring to help stabilise his position as he stumbled on to the outer surface, technically the side of the ship. Thin light crept over the distant edge of the vessel, testament to how close the Achaemenidia had come to reaching Karabakh’s sun. Still millions of kilometres distant its glare could be seen, as if acting like a beacon for the way forward.

The suit updated the view. Hundreds of cylindrical shapes stretched up above him as he moved to the edge. He had often wondered why ships seemed to care so little for form, their ovoid shapes often marred along the equator with sensor rods, a collection of structures pointing outward with little sense of order. It contrasted with the comparatively featureless hulls many ships possessed. Even a big ship like this one followed the same basic shape many of them did, its flattened egg shape mostly devoid of ornament.

On emerging from the airlock the microprobes reestablished contact. Something had been detected at the far reaches of the system. Time to go, he thought as he ran toward the lower edge of the side of the ship half a kilometre distant, avoiding the forest of rods blocking his path.

It took almost four minutes, the suit ensuring he remained adhered to the surface despite the ability to cruise there. But that might be detected and they’d obviously caused enough trouble to attract others.

Reaching the edge, the light beckoning him forward as it spilled above the lip of the equator, he peered over. A limitless cliff face spread before him, technically the lower hull. Climbing over the edge, turning the required ninety degrees, the suit compensated ensuring he could stand upright. Strong light assaulted him as he looked out over the vessel, its far end out of sight, the apex of its shallow curvature almost five kilometres away lost to the brilliance of Karabakh’s star. He paused for a moment, despite the presence of ships in the system. The Achaemenidia was dead, its controlling intelligence fatally compromised or departed; they didn’t know. And now they had no time to find out.

Quickly getting up to a run, accelerating to full speed, he took off across the underside of the derelict craft, toward the light. It was time to leave.

The levelled surface of the iceberg’s tip couldn’t have been more than a few dozen square metres in size, its rough contours barely visible in the uncomfortable white light shining from the invisible sun.

The Peripheral Bus’s avatar looked around the frozen landscape noting a strange sensation it struggled to isolate when taking in the unusual scene. The exposed portion of the iceberg bobbed gently in a fast-flowing patch of ocean, the light wind a result of movement in an otherwise calm day. Standing near the edge and looking down, the pristine water looked cold enough that nothing could survive its icy depths. The pyramidal iceberg stretched deep below the surface, its structure beneath the waterline a striking blue lost into darkness. All around them ice stretched to the horizon in every direction like a carpet of white broken only by distant veins of aquamarine where the ice floes had broken apart.

The Notes Towards a Mental Breakdown sat on a plain plastic bucket seat, its bright orange in stark contrast to the icy palette of the world. A second orange seat was placed opposite. As the Peripheral Bus walked toward it the Notes Towards a Mental Breakdown turned to look, its avatar modelled on a human male of average height and weight with the same nondescript features possessed by the mass of humanity. Had it been a real human being it would have blended in almost anywhere. Only on a floating iceberg, careening along an ocean on an arctic world, would it stand out, the plainness of its olive skin and dark hair in contrast to the bleak character of the simulated environment.

The Peripheral Bus approached the empty chair, the mild crunch of ice breaking the silence. It was then it realised the iceberg must be bigger than it had at first assumed since it couldn’t perceive the sound of the water, obviously far below the point where it stood. Given the fidelity of the virtuality it was the most sensible assumption, that the sound would be there but not discernible from the height. Which also implied the ship went in for realism. Not for the first time the Peripheral Bus wondered at the likelihood of insanity among its own kind. As many humans had observed, superintelligence meant supereverything, including supercrazy.

Its own avatar, a gaunt female humanoid, sat down on the orange seat, taking in the view behind the other avatar. ‘You must be the Notes Towards a Mental Breakdown.’

The Peripheral Bus finally placed the odd sensation. It was cold. Goosebumps marred its avatar’s exposed skin. It immediately shut down the feed, baffled at the need for such a detail.

The male avatar looked at it. ‘The ship is responsible for this environment,’ it said. ‘I am called Jim, and this is my own avatar.’

Many ships created distinct sub-personalities as their representatives. Some were even said to have imbibed them with independence and sentience. For many it was seen as a step too far; like creating toy life.

‘I see. I take it you are here because of the distress call?’

‘Yes. You received it too I assume?’

‘Loud and clear. What do you think?’

‘We still haven’t located the ship,’ said Jim. ‘But it must be here somewhere.’

‘It may have been destroyed.’

The human paused for a moment, staring at the Peripheral Bus. ‘By what?’

‘I don’t know.’

‘Have you surveyed the system?’ said Jim.

‘Not really.’

‘We have sent a number of probes.’

‘As far as I am aware there has only been a single survey of the system.’ Karabakh had enjoyed a brief survey centuries previously, so long ago it had actually been named after a location on Earth. ‘We should combine our efforts. Two heads are better than one.’

‘Or three,’ said Jim.

‘Indeed.’

‘We have several thousand probes scanning the system.’

The use of generic measurement was quite deliberately human, indicating Jim possibly was genuine. If so he would be using a neural thread to interface with the environment, a bundle of specialised nerve fibres stretching down the spinal cord and a direct outgrowth of the brain. Many humans used them to communicate with systems, and they were especially useful for simulations, immersing the incumbent fully.

‘Happy to help. I have five hundred and twelve in play. We should coordinate.’

‘Agreed.’

The Peripheral Bus looked around at the flatness surrounding them, a vista of white as far as the avatar could perceive. There was no land visible in any direction, only the endless icefield.

‘Is this modelled on a place?’

‘Dunglass,’ said Jim. ‘An ice world. Far from here.’

It was similar to Karabakh, with its cold hard white light, although none of the planets in the system were like this.

Looking back at the human avatar the Peripheral Bus decided to query the Notes Towards a Mental Breakdown. It would have been quicker to do it the normal way but the ship seemed eccentric and obviously preferred this mode of communication, talking via a representative. ‘What are your thoughts on the Achaemenidia?’

‘The data package implied something unusual was happening with the star. Its corona—’

‘What data package?’ The Peripheral Bus had only received the distress call.

‘We found it at the edge of the system. Didn’t you find it?’

‘No.’ Ships sometimes left data packages when travelling alone, especially if entering unknown areas. Typically consisting of telemetry and log files they formed a snapshot of a ship’s movement in case anything happened beyond their power to control.

The Notes Towards a Mental Breakdown immediately sent the package and the Peripheral Bus took only a moment to absorb its contents. The Achaemenidia had noticed activity in the corona of the main sequence star in the Karabakh system, an otherwise unremarkable sun. The log files noted its intention to investigate further, then there was nothing except the later distress call.

‘That’s it?’ said the Peripheral Bus.

‘Yes. If we can locate the ship we may be able to find out more.’

It was troubling to say the least. The Achaemenidia was big. Positively giant and difficult to miss. It also had a small human crew.

‘Any thoughts on where it is or what happened?’

‘I cannot imagine.’ Jim sat there, impassive. His face, although perfectly rendered in this virtual place, was expressionless. Despite the sharp fidelity of everything else it was the one detail it — or they, the Peripheral Bus thought — had missed in the creation of this pseudo-man. Jim the perfect human looked positively inhuman. The Peripheral Bus could indeed not imagine Jim imagining anything.

‘Well,’ it said. ‘Time will tell.’

The vast plain of the ship’s hull stretched before him as he ran toward the shallow apex. The sun rendered the striking green of the Achaemenidia’s surface an anaemic, washed-out pale imitation of its normal colour, the faint yellow stripes barely even visible. In the far distance unfamiliar structures jutted vertically from the vessel, although the suit struggled to filter out the glare.

The ship drifted, clearly devoid of its controlling entity. The bright point of the sun in the distance rolled lazily as the ship tumbled through space. None of it affected his ability to sprint at inhuman speed across the surface as he aimed for the far side where the transport pod waited, disguised as part of the ship.

Sent in to locate the human personnel, he had found no trace. If they were still on board, as he suspected they were, they might not survive.

They wouldn’t have long anyway. The reaction had been unfolding for some time before the appearance of the Achaemenidia. The strength of the light had increased slightly; he only knew because the suit could measure it. But it was happening.

He raced across the hull, the smooth surface broken by vents and gaps as he ran past occasional vertical formations randomly placed on the otherwise featureless exterior. Smears of thick black drifted across his path as the ship rolled, each surface structure emphasised by the shadows caused by the violent light of Karabakh’s sun. None of it slowed him down as he sprinted. The suit kept him informed of the vessel’s slow rotation relative to the position of his ship, with the stealthed pod as his immediate target.

Things had got out of hand quickly. When the Achaemenidia first appeared his own ship hoped it would pass right by. But it had obviously noticed something seemed wrong with the local star and cruised in to investigate. The decision to intervene had been inevitable, as manipulating stars even in the middle of nowhere was frowned upon. And the use of nanotech was considered insane.

The Achaemenidia was known to transport human passengers; eighty-one were listed. Although the ship’s mind could survive almost anywhere the humans were much more of an issue. Right up until contact it was hoped the ship would lose interest and disappear, but it didn’t and headed straight for the system’s unstable star.

Entering had been easy. The ship, despite its interest piqued by the solar activity, had clearly not expected intrusion. As he had worked his way in, the suit ensuring he remained undetected, he had released the package.

The suit had disguised its signature as a drone. A ship as big as the Achaemenidia would have tens of thousands of semi-autonomous units within it. Every now and then one of them would malfunction. Revealing itself to the ship had taken little more than sending a signal once inside the less protected outermost part of the vessel, mimicking the signature of a damaged drone. The ship duly responded with a standard query. The suit bleeped, the prepared package represented on his visor as a strong point of light, pulsating as the suit waited for his go ahead. He had told it to engage and the light blinked out, the package camouflaged as a response to the ship’s routine handshake query.

His own ship had reassured him it would do very little except hide his presence from the Achaemenidia as he explored the interior where sensor coverage would be expected to be more dense and difficult to fool. And, indeed, at first very little had happened, the suit keeping him posted as he crept his way around the cavernous vessel, almost completely empty. He didn’t see any sign of the eighty-one humans.

When the suit finally got back to him about the destruction he had unleashed, it was too late. Whatever the package contained had damaged the entity’s control. The suit had used the word ‘compromised’.

The environmental systems died first. Light, heating and atmosphere all disappeared so abruptly he felt it affect him despite the combat suit compensating. As his visual systems came online, the dim interior proved difficult to navigate. Searching in the most obvious places he found no trace of the human passengers. After several hours he gave up and aimed for the surface.

It took a further two hours to reach the airlock, itself broken and inert. He hadn’t taken any microprobes with him and had to rely on the suit. Now, finally on the surface, unable to contact his own ship, he could only hope the Achaemenidia had had the presence of mind to at least eject the humans before the shutdown. Most ships would have done so, or at least got them into survival suits. If they were out there somewhere they could perhaps pick them up.

The visor lit up unexpectedly.

‘Presence detected.’ The suit wasn’t sentient, but like every other combat suit he’d used it seemed intelligent.

‘What?’

‘One of the microprobes has reported a disturbance. A probe.’

He picked up his speed, the suit compressing slightly in sympathy. The last thing they needed was more traffic.

The Peripheral Bus approached the Achaemenidia, its slow drift shocking to see even standing off ten thousand kilometres away. It listed to one side, revolving in space, the sense it had been abandoned difficult to shake. In the distance the white sun illuminated its exterior, the full length of its twelve kilometre hull bleached a sickly green.

The probes swarming around the surface reported no activity on any part of the spectrum. It was not responding to hails and there was no sign of life. That included the rumoured human crew. The most up-to-date records the Peripheral Bus could access indicated eighty-one human beings should have been aboard; a small number for a large vessel. But there was no sign of them. Hardly surprising given the size of the ship. They could easily be inside, shielded from scanning.

The first probes found an entrance. It was alarming to note how easy they gained access as they swarmed inside, spreading out, dispersing to build up a picture of the vessel. Like most ships the Achaemenidia had no fixed plan, the interior a constantly shifting mass of components. But with humans on board it would have some internal logic at least. It shouldn’t take the probes long to fathom its secrets.

Meanwhile it sent another group of probes to scan for any signs of life outside the ship. If the humans or the Achaemenidia itself was nearby it expected to find them quickly.

Almost immediately the external probes reported back. Something was moving on the lower surface of the ship. It seemed to be a humanoid figure. It sent in a group of sixteen to inspect more closely as the Notes Towards a Mental Breakdown hailed on its private band.

‘The Notes Towards a Mental Breakdown has detected the human crew.’

The avatar of Jim sat in the orange seat as before. This time the Peripheral Bus transported directly into the opposite seat. As the NTV came online it sat facing the human. The iceberg still gently bobbed up and down, the cold breeze making its presence felt. It once again had to consciously disengage the avatar’s sensory feed to even out the experience.

‘Where?’

‘Some distance from the ship.’

‘I didn’t sense anything.’

‘They are not in a vessel,’ said Jim, seemingly unaffected by the cold. ‘They are in survival suits and appear to be unconscious. We are moving in now.’

Things must have been desperate on the ship for them not to be inside a shuttle.

‘I have detected another human sign on the surface of the vessel,’ said the Peripheral Bus.

‘All eighty-one crew members are accounted for. All of them are there,’ said Jim.

The Peripheral Bus wondered who the eighty-second one was. The Achaemenidia seemed to run a tight ship and the crew manifest was widely available and should be up to date.

‘Could it be the ship?’ said Jim.

‘In a humanoid avatar? Unlikely.’ A ship mind was housed within a container that was typically several metres wide. The core itself was smaller, but still too big to store within a humanoid frame.

‘Then who is it?’

‘I don’t know. My probes have only just detected it. I will know more when they reach it.’

‘If we can revive the crew—’

‘What is wrong with the sun?’ The Peripheral Bus noticed a slight shift in the colour spectrum of the star. Most of its attention focused on the data streaming in from the hundreds of probes, but something had triggered its own sensors.

Jim seemed to pause, probably receiving instructions from the Notes Towards a Mental Breakdown which would inevitably be monitoring their conversation. It made the Peripheral Bus wonder what kind of entity it was. Why not appear itself? Although the use of avatars was commonplace they were mainly used to interact with humans. Even the use of the neural thread virtuality, with its iceberg floating along an ocean, was absurd.

‘Yes. The ship has informed me something is happening,’ said Jim. ‘The star is changing.’

The Peripheral Bus turned its attention to the distant star and witnessed its corona expanding. The radiation moved out in a wave ahead of it and was already interfering with the probes.

‘You better get to those humans quickly.’

‘We are on our way,’ said Jim.

‘I will track down the other human on the surface.’

Sixteen of its probes raced toward the last position of the human on the surface when a sudden wave of radiation washed over the ship. The Peripheral Bus immediately lost contact with the probes. In the distance the star grew in brightness as it engaged its engines and aimed for the Achaemenidia. Withdrawing from the NTV it would have to leave the Notes Towards a Mental Breakdown to pick up the human crew.

Standing still on the surface, the suit masked his signature while passively scanning the environment.

‘Sixteen probes. Multi-spectrum scan. We have almost certainly been spotted.’

He had always found it disconcerting that suits referred to themselves in this way despite energetic attempts by his ship to assure him they lacked anything resembling a sense of self. It was a standard routine, adapted long ago from software used in vehicles manually piloted by humans, designed to project a friendly sense of inclusion. None of which helped him now something was probing. The friendly, inclusive we really meant him alone.

‘Where are they from?’

‘Unknown. They are not ours.’

It must be whatever the microprobes detected at the edge of the system. To travel so far so quickly meant a ship. Had the Achaemenidia contacted others? He had no way of knowing. It was just him, the suit and the millions of tiny surveillance units his own ship had sent into the system.

No point dallying, he thought as he sprinted toward the pod, still almost three kilometres distant.

‘Probes heading to this position.’ The suit absorbed the data straight from the nearby microprobes, not that detection mattered now.

‘Actively scan,’ he said. The visor’s display immediately came alive with its usual baffling mess of graphics in a multitude of colours. In the corner a three-dimensional representation of a squat cylinder rotated, numerical data briefly flaring into existence beside it. Presumably one of the probes aiming for their position.

An image of the local star appeared at the top left. Momentarily catching his attention, the suit cut in before he could ask.

‘The sun is destabilising.’

Focusing on the graphic moved it to the centre of his vision, its feed close to real time as the surface roiled violently. He was only dimly aware now of his body sprinting, the suit working with his own enhancements just below conscious awareness.

He couldn’t decide if the sun was doing anything, the surface of the sphere in turmoil, seemingly the same as before.

‘What is it doing?’ he said. ‘It doesn’t look any different.’

‘The feed is compensating. Polarising excess light and masking solar flares. But the star is growing in size. If it gets beyond a certain point I may not be able to protect you.’

The display abruptly cleared, a series of data items appearing in red. Trouble.

‘We are being hailed,’ said the suit.

‘The probes?’

‘Yes. They are from a ship called the Peripheral Bus. Answering a distress call.’

A flash momentarily stopped him, leaving a disturbing afterglow. Before he could ask the suit what had happened he realised it would increase the opacity of the visor automatically, so it would have to be unusually bright for it to penetrate.

‘Solar activity is increasing. Suggested tactic is to seek cover.’

Seek cover? He stood less than two kilometres from the pod. If he reentered the ship he would never reach it in time.

A wave of radiation hit him, moving so fast even the suit hadn’t had time to emit a warning. Every single feed cut out as the suit itself seized up. He fell over, hitting the surface as the visor slowly faded. Before he knew what was happening it began to light up. Then he realised it wasn’t the suit as it seemed completely dead. It was the sun, increasing rapidly in illumination. The light quickly turned to a painfully bright white. Clamping his eyes shut tight, his arms covering the visor in an attempt to protect himself, light fought its way in, growing in strength.

Sharp pain seared his eyes. Drawing himself into a foetal position, lying stationary on the surface of the Achaemenidia, still the light scorched his eyes, burning white. The pain sharpened, disorientating him as he curled himself tightly.

Abruptly, the light receded, the sense of relief rising as his body’s defences reacted, dulling the pain.

Easing out of his prone position he could see nothing but a deep red, slowly fading. The sharp pain subsided, a sense of mental numbness overtaking him as he recognised the symptoms of mild shock.

He stumbled as he tried to get up. He was blind. Calling out, the suit didn’t respond. It was dead, the sound immediately lost in the helmet encasing his head, although he could still move.

He strained, imagining himself staring at something in the distance. But it didn’t work as he fell over, unable to keep his balance. Sitting on the surface, the red fading now to a solid black, he tried to calm himself. The suit would not respond to anything he did. He then realised he didn’t know which way he faced; in the confusion he had lost his bearings.

Sitting, trying to focus, he forced himself to calm down. Moving his hands in front of his face he saw nothing but black. The suit’s comms were gone too. Aware the probes that had spotted him were probably equally damaged he knew the mothership, the Peripheral Bus according to the suit, would no doubt send more. And they moved almost as fast as drones.

With no eyesight, no sense of direction and no suit he had few options. Sitting back, forcing himself to concentrate, he reached deep into his neural thread. Activating it, the thread immediately responded, the sensation more intense with his eyesight missing. Sinking deeper he reached out into the surrounding area using the thread to emit a short-range broadcast, an extraordinarily dangerous thing to do under normal circumstances. He sensed the faint touch of something familiar as he focused, trying to force the unorthodox communication. The first of the surviving microprobes reacted; the second immediately after it. Before long more than a dozen raced toward his position.

‘Did you get them?’

‘Yes,’ said Jim, this time standing at the edge of the iceberg, looking out over the cold ocean. The aquamarine of the sea looked calm, the ice floes still visible everywhere around them. Once again a sub-optimal operating temperature permeated the humanoid avatar, although Jim seemed unaffected. ‘We got all of them. Eighty-one in total.’

‘I still don’t know who the other one is. I have lost my probes.’

‘The sun is becoming more unstable. We have to depart.’

‘We need to get the other human on the surface of the ship. And we also need to locate the ship’s core. It must have been ejected since the vessel is not responding to hails.’

Jim turned to look at the female avatar. ‘We are running out of time.’

‘But we have some.’

‘How long will it take you to locate the human?’

‘I don’t know. I am preparing some new probes better able to manage the solar radiation.’

‘We will continue to search for Achaemenidia’s core then. But we don’t have much time.’

The Peripheral Bus paused, its avatar motionless as its attention pulled back to itself. ‘I have picked up a signal.’

‘What signal?’ said Jim.

‘It seems to be some kind of probe.’

‘Not one of yours?’

‘No. They seem to be microprobes.’

‘Microprobes? Who do they belong to? The Achaemenidia?’

‘I don’t know.’

Jim said nothing. He looked at the Peripheral Bus. It was a testament to the Notes Towards a Mental Breakdown’s ability to create a high fidelity virtuality that the Peripheral Bus could tell he was shocked. The presence of an extra human was odd, but probably an administrative error, unlikely though that was. But the microprobes changed everything. Normally in the vacuum of space, and especially in an unstable system, a ship would use specialist probes built for the task. To use smaller vulnerable units implied they were aiming for stealth. But who else could be here, and why were they trying to conceal their presence?

The Peripheral Bus began to prepare more robust solar probes to investigate further. Probably a little late, but they may learn something.

Its own sensors picked up new signals. The microprobes — until now sending only pulses indicating position — came online. Twelve signals flared into existence, feeding something with a battery of encrypted information, presumably the lone human on the surface of the ship. Although the Peripheral Bus could not easily break the encryption it could follow the signals even in the maelstrom of radiation caused by the local sun.

‘Are you picking this up?’ it asked Jim.

‘Picking up what?’

The Peripheral Bus remembered the avatar of Jim was distinct from the Notes Towards a Mental Breakdown. The ship would need to laboriously feed the data to him via his neural thread.

‘Coming in now,’ he said. ‘The individual is moving.’

The human was in fact sprinting across the Achaemenidia’s lower hull.

‘Can we intercept?’ asked Jim.

‘Yes,’ said the Peripheral Bus. ‘I have just the thing.’

The microprobes provided a strange all encompassing sensorium that disorientated him. Ranging out ahead they scanned the irregular surface of the hull, mapping a route to the pod. His neural thread converted their feeds into something his brain could understand. It wasn’t the same as vision, but somehow the twelve tiny probes provided data his mind could use to navigate now his eyes were damaged beyond use.

The pod was less than two kilometres away. He had started out slowly, taking a while to adjust to the feeds. It took several minutes before he realised the microprobes compensated for distance. Everything he experienced felt like the units were only a few centimetres in front of his eyes even though they had fanned out ahead of him. Two of them were over a kilometre away.

But it worked, confidence growing as his speed picked up. Aware the solar radiation would continue to rise he had to make it. If he could get to the protection of the pod he would be fine. He had tried hailing it using his neural thread but it remained silent, its security protocols ensuring it stayed hidden, disguised as it sat on the hull in plain view.

Moving his head from side to side, the view changed. The scene was an obvious projection, hastily constructed to convey essential information, much like a neural thread virtuality. All of the ones he’d used were ultra-high fidelity, indistinguishable from real life. This was crude, cartoonish in places. It lacked any information on the state of the sun as it focused on the route to the pod over the surface and nothing more. The hull stretched out in front of him, a dull grey marked with dark lines, the vacuum of space beyond the ship a solid wall of black. It was primitive but it worked.

The suit wouldn’t respond to his instructions. Only its basic locomotive functions remained, and even they seemed sluggish. He was conscious of the work he was doing running like this, the suit no longer able to assist.

A sense of movement behind him tugged at his awareness. He couldn’t discern what it was or even how he knew as something approached his position. Lacking the audio component of the suit meant he had to make sense of it himself. Or, rather, the microprobes combined with his thread did so. He began to feel a growing sense of dread. Was it real? He didn’t know if his brain was reacting to the unusual feed being forced through the thread running down his spine. It was directly linked to his brain. Was it misfiring somehow?

There was no time to analyse it as discomfort gave way to fear. Whatever was behind approached fast, the urge to escape overwhelming any sense of caution. He tried increasing his speed but was held back by the lack of direct vision. He was going as fast as he could manage.

As if sensing his alarm the ad hoc system guiding him displayed features on the hull; more detailed lines popped into existence against the unending grey before him, rendered as before with simple black lines. The nearest looked like a hatch. Peering ahead he could still see the pod, a grey blotch outlined in red. It stood only a kilometre away, but he had to get out of sight.

Changing direction to aim for the first target, he reached it in only twenty seconds, aware a microprobe hovered nearby, although he couldn’t see it directly. Coming to a stop a black circle lay superimposed at his feet in contrast to the uniform grey of the hull stretching away in all directions. In the low quality environment everything looked crude, as if drawn rather than correctly rendered, the hatch little more than a flat shape with no sense of depth.

Turning, he looked back. A group of dark shapes closed in on his current position, difficult to make sense of against the black of space, irrational panic rising sharply as they approached. Looking the other way, the pod now an impossible distance, he jumped into the hole in the ship’s hull, the void swallowing him as he fell into blackness.

Sixty-four shielded drones streamed across the surface of the Achaemenidia, their sensors scanning for any sign of the human the Peripheral Bus had detected earlier. Aiming for the last known position they quickly caught a trace of something moving across the surface. Closing in the drones soon picked up the comms traffic from the small group of microprobes. They were transmitting heavy loads too and relatively easy to track once found.

Abruptly the number of signals dropped from twelve to six. There was no sign of the human as the drones raced ahead. The temperature steadily rose, waves of radiation interfering with the bulky drones’ ability to accurately track the microprobes.

Approaching them the six remaining microprobes quickly sped off in different directions, leading some of the drones away. As a handful chased after them the rest congregated on the position. It was a hatch on the surface of the hull, firmly shut.

One of the drones slowed, stopping at the entrance. It spent a minute trying to first access it electronically then use its manipulators to force it. All to no avail. It wouldn’t budge. The human must have disappeared back in to the vessel through the hatch. Although it was difficult to tell. The radiation sweeping over the surface of the ship interfered with the drones’ ability to effectively scan. That number would ordinarily have been able to map out the exterior of the craft in a minute or two. Now they were reduced to little more than short range scanning devices.

Convinced the human had entered the ship the Peripheral Bus took control of the drone at the hatch. Its consciousness surged through it like an ocean squeezing into a pipe. To the ship the machine felt like an insubstantial thing, a toy. Focusing on the access point the drone’s manipulator physically connected and the Peripheral Bus pushed forward with its mind, searching for a weakness. It soon found it, the Achaemenidia’s damaged state proving no barrier to its determined intrusion.

The hatch opened, the darkness beyond offering little clue as to the interior. Withdrawing from the drone the Peripheral Bus sent it inside. It reported back quickly. The hatch led to a long corridor with a heavy pressure door at the end, a standard design pattern on ships. It ordered the drone to explore and sent the rest in to find the human.

It watched through one of the drones as the others gradually edged in to the dead shell of the former ship. It withdrew, happy to wait for them to fan out once inside. Being sub-sentient they could easily be left behind once they located him. With any luck they might make contact with the small group of probes it had sent in earlier since they should still be inside the Achaemenidia, cataloguing everything.

The other drones soon caught up with the microprobes, each one destroying itself before capture. Observing as one drone closely inspected the tiny cylinders, their simple form covered by dozens of delicate sensor rods protruding from the small unit with no apparent order, the Peripheral Bus knew it would prove pointless scanning them for information but did so anyway. They were blank; inert and devoid of activity. It would be impossible to glean anything else, all six of them following a preordained instruction to self-destruct. Further evidence they might be dealing with something unusual.

It turned its attention back to the swarm of drones still streaming into the open hatch, aware they were now manoeuvring their way through the dead ship. It was only a matter of time before they found the human, but it may not be soon enough as it received data from its most distant system probes. The sun was destabilising again, and this time the effect was observable even from its own position, the light warming in colour temperature to a faint orange in contrast to the original blue-white of the local star. It clearly didn’t have long to go.

Something was tracking him. Audio from the microprobes fed through to the suit, an unsettling sensation since he had nothing else to go on except the crudely rendered virtuality. The endless corridors of the ship were mapped out clearly, but as he entered a cavernous space the detail diminished with the room only appearing in rough outline, a distant clanking from somewhere else in the ship echoing ominously as he sprinted. It looked like a hold or a hangar, empty, stretching high above him, and impossible to tell if its featureless walls were genuinely featureless or a consequence of the microprobes performing only a cursory scan as they raced on.

He spotted the exit at the other side of the hold and ran for it. This part of the ship had retained atmosphere and he could now hear the whine of drones behind him, although still no visual confirmation. Reaching the exit he ran through into yet another corridor. Sprinting down it he was almost halted by a strong sensation to turn left at the end. The microprobes possessed enough intelligence to be able to map a route but his neural thread wasn’t designed with this data in mind. He interpreted it as an urge; indistinct but strong.

Turning left at the end a ladder stood bolted to the wall. Reaching it he began to climb. He could feel the drones coming closer even though he couldn’t now hear anything. The ship creaked in protest at whatever was happening to it. A dull rumble in the distance drew his attention, as if something was being twisted out of shape. In the few minutes it took him to climb it grew in volume, like he was aiming for the source even though it was probably quite distant.

It was frustrating relying on microprobes. He had no way to directly communicate with them. He tried visualising the pod even though he couldn’t work out its likely position. But they didn’t react in any way, and there was no other method at his disposal. Although they were programmed to assist him if he needed it, the assistance protocols assumed the presence of the intelligent suit which seemed completely dead.

Another urge grew within him. It built slowly as he ran along yet another corridor. These ones were rendered as crudely as the hold implying the microprobes had been moving fast, or perhaps they had now spread out. He had no idea where he was or where he was going. The urge grew into panic. He tried to remain detached enough to evaluate it but whatever it was gripped him with fear, the brief attempt at analysis drowned out by the overwhelming need to move forward. There was something ahead. He couldn’t tell what it was; it was a direction, a destination more than an image. Beginning to really sprint, his own enhancements ensured he managed close to his top speed despite the hesitancy induced by the blindness. The feed was good, if cartoonish, but it was difficult to trust completely.

Turning a corner, a hatch at the end, this was where he needed to get to. Running at breakneck speed the distant whine of a drone somewhere behind him echoed in the space. They could clearly track him. Reaching the complex-looking hatch a dull thunk sounded out as something engaged, or perhaps disengaged. The low fidelity of the feed made detail impossible to grasp; it was more debilitating that he would have expected seeing the hatch as little more than a rectangular outline.

A door slid to one side. It was an airlock, and seemingly operational, the door slowly closing behind him as he entered. He waited as the atmosphere vented, the outer door opening to the blackness beyond as sound bled away into vacuum.

The urge to leave pushed him out into space. Almost immediately he realised the danger he was in. Debris was everywhere. It was difficult to work out what it was from the feeds. Possibly bits of the ship, which implied some kind of rupture. The microprobes rendered the floating objects as light-coloured shapes, their dimensions only hinted at as they struggled to keep track.

Within only moments he was floating along with the rest of it. He couldn’t work out if the suit was doing it or it was some natural phenomenon. Looking back at the hatch he now couldn’t find it, the microprobes having changed their focus to his immediate vicinity. The giant ship, at this distance a huge wall slowly receding, was only just identifiable as anything, the white, grey and black of the simulation making it look more like a line drawing than anything real.

As he drifted away he hoped his own ship would act soon. The feed didn’t give him any data or visuals on the progress of Karabakh’s sun but it must be ready to blow given everything else that had happened. As the debris drifted past he felt an involuntary shudder, as if the suit was being buffeted by successive waves of energy. It was unsettling, the sense of exposure almost paralysing, the lack of sound adding to the feeling of isolation. He had to get out of here now.

The signal was almost lost in the chaos of radiation sweeping through Karabakh. The Notes Towards a Mental Breakdown only noticed because it was scanning the vicinity. Clinging to the side of a tumbling meteorite, careening erratically on a path that would eventually throw it outside the system, it found the Achaemenidia’s mind.

The dull sphere, only two metres in diameter, represented the absolute core of the controlling intelligence that had once been housed within the ship itself. Scanning using an army of probes, the Notes Towards a Mental Breakdown experienced a moment of shock at the nakedness of the mind. It had never seen another non-organic like this; all entities like itself did indeed have some kind of inner core, buried deep within the structure of the ship, surrounded by layers of protection. In most cases they had a ship within a ship. Its own housing was over one hundred metres in length and armoured, containing powerful propulsion and even weapons. This inner sanctum could be ejected within moments and could defend itself or flee at high speed. The Achaemenidia would almost certainly have had its own measures in place, so to see its inner core, the sphere, exposed in vacuum and effectively defenceless was horrifying. It also meant the ship must have faced some catastrophic event since it couldn’t eject itself in time.

It sent several hundred defence drones into the area, reaching out to establish contact with the terrified Achaemenidia. Within minutes the drones formed a protective barrier around the meteorite, each drone placed equidistantly and tumbling around as it spun away.

Radiation saturated the area. Although the Achaemenidia’s core was not yet in physical danger the Karabakh system was in disorder, and becoming more so. Quickly launching a shuttle it made contact with the disorientated mind clinging to the surface of the meteorite. The Notes Towards a Mental Breakdown could almost sense the relief in the communication emanating from the sphere; it couldn’t quite believe someone had answered its distress call. It immediately asked about the eighty-one human crew. The quick interchange, difficult with the radiation noise around them, painted a picture of the ship abruptly collapsing, with only backup systems working for a few minutes before everything shut down. The signal soon cut off as another wave of radiation swept over them. The situation sounded dire, but the Notes Towards a Mental Breakdown was more concerned about immediate rescue. It had already captured the human survivors.

The shuttle eased into a dead stop some fifty metres from the tumbling meteorite. The Achaemenidia disengaged the core’s manipulators and, using little jets of gas positioned around the sphere, drifted toward the vessel, the drones breaking their erratic orbit to form a protective outer shell. Harsh light illuminated the way as the Achaemenidia slowly approached, the dull grey sphere of its housing shining like a beacon as it travelled the short distance.

Within a minute it was on board and the shuttle manoeuvred to return to itself, quickly accelerating to its maximum speed. Buffeted by the radiation from the expanding corona it made its way back, some of the drones becoming disorientated by the storm of radiation. The Notes Towards a Mental Breakdown left them where they were and focused on the shuttle as it approached. Whatever had overcome the Achaemenidia had disabled it completely. The unstable star couldn’t be the reason since the Achaemenidia’s ship was still intact, although beginning to break apart as it was further in-system. Keen to find out what had really happened it waited as the little shuttle drew closer.

The long chain of drones inside the ship fed the Peripheral Bus with frustratingly little information. On several occasions the drones detected the presence of something. Relying only on audio it proved too difficult to differentiate between the background din of the ship slowly being destroyed and movement by the human. After almost an hour it had little more than tantalising glimpses of what might be internal activity, but nothing else. There was also no trace of its earlier probes, which were presumably lost somewhere inside the vast interior.

Drawing itself away from the locale it admitted defeat. Sending the drones remaining outside to scan the perimeter of the Achaemenidia, it knew using so few would not be enough given the size of the vessel. Whoever the human had been he or she was proving impossible to find.

Engaging its engines, already too far for the drones to make it back in time, it withdrew completely. The drones would be destroyed by the growing storm of radiation now sweeping through Karabakh in waves. Having received word from the Notes Towards a Mental Breakdown that the Achaemenidia had been found intact — shockingly exposed as a result of what had to be an unprovoked attack — it knew they had done what they could. Still, finding the lone human might have shed some light on what had happened. Maybe the Achaemenidia itself would know more.

The Peripheral Bus swung around in a shallow arc, away from the centre of the Karabakh system toward a rendezvous point in the distant Oort cloud with the Notes Towards a Mental Breakdown. Behind, its probes still functioning, it felt the temperature rise in-system as the light slowly sank toward the red end of the spectrum, the sign of a star rapidly degenerating. Time to flee.

The microprobes battled against the storm raging through space, fighting to maintain integrity. Monitoring the human encased within the damaged combat suit, the six units strengthened their ad hoc network to better ensure his survival as the environment degenerated into turmoil.

The first of the microprobes soon succumbed to the high levels of radiation, its tough casing no match for the violence of the irradiated vacuum. Its death triggered SOS routines in the remaining five, combining to broadcast a distress call in the assumed direction of their ship. The human agent, oblivious in his combat suit, floated along with the rest of the debris from the disintegrating vessel. The microprobes formed a protective shell as best they could and waited to hear from their distant mothership.

The Peripheral Bus had once transported a group of humans to a primitive world with virtually no infrastructure. Although non-religious, having been raised within the Coalescence, they had joined what could only be described as a cult. It eschewed modernity and appealed to those interested in a back-to-basics existence. The planet had little more than some fusion reactors and fewer than a thousand drones, yet it attracted tens of thousands keen to experience life as it had once been. The leader of the group, something of a fanatic, insisted the ship manufacture authentic items for use on the planet. This included basic clothing with no self-cleaning properties, non-intelligent comms equipment and even projectile weapons. The leader was especially keen to embrace baseline existence and had some of his genetically-based enhancements removed. He hit rock bottom when he asked the Peripheral Bus to manufacture a supply of toothpaste, a substance straight out of the history books. Consulting with its own extensive records it soon synthesised the strange concoction much to the delight of the lunatic leading the project.

It was precisely this substance — a mildly abrasive blue gel used to physically scour human teeth — the Peripheral Bus thought of when once again it transitioned on to the moving iceberg. This time it immediately deactivated the sensory feed for temperature as it observed the entity standing near Jim. Its genderless humanoid form comprised of a semi-transparent blue gel, almost identical to the toothpaste it had once resurrected for the group keen to experience their dose of primitivism. As it walked toward the pair, deep in conversation, it could see the outline of Jim’s human-looking avatar through the body of what was presumably the Achaemenidia.

Jim, standing next to a trio of plastic orange seats turned as the Peripheral Bus’s female avatar approached. He gestured to the blue-gel humanoid. ‘This is the Achaemenidia.’

‘Thank you for your assistance.’ The facial features, only roughly outlined on the rounded-off face, didn’t move. The voice appeared to emanate from nowhere.

‘Glad we could be of help,’ said the Peripheral Bus. ‘I just wish we had arrived sooner.’

‘I am grateful you came at all.’

‘What happened?’

‘We were just discussing that,’ said Jim. Again, the Peripheral Bus had to wonder at the point of the NTV; all this could be accomplished in a fraction of the time using normal methods. Even Jim could have been updated more quickly if the Notes Towards a Mental Breakdown had access to his thread. It all seemed unnecessarily tedious.

‘Someone was tinkering with the local star,’ said the Achaemenidia.

‘Tinkering?’

‘When I arrived I noticed there was something wrong with the sun. I sent some probes ahead and none of them reported back. So I went in myself and noticed something in the sun’s corona.’

In the corona?’ said the Peripheral Bus.

‘Yes. In it. I couldn’t discern what it was, although it was big enough to be a ship.’

‘Why would a ship be hovering about the edges of a star?’ said Jim.

‘Maybe it’s its hobby,’ said the Peripheral Bus.

Both Jim and the toothpaste avatar turned to look.

‘So what happened next?’ said the Peripheral Bus.

‘I moved in closer then I noticed something inside me.’

‘Noticed what?’ said Jim.

‘I don’t know. I sensed something, or someone, inside me. Although there was no sensation of intrusion.’

‘So how did you know someone was inside you?’ The Peripheral Bus thought of the lone human sign they had seen earlier.

‘It is difficult to explain, especially in this format,’ said the Achaemenidia, looking around the virtuality. ‘But it was an absence of sensation. Something had interfered with my internal sensors.’

The Peripheral Bus didn’t like to think of the implications of that. Most ships had an almost paranoid fear of intrusion despite many of them transporting humans, in some cases billions of people. But that process was always controlled. The idea of something being able to breach one’s inner defences filled most entities with horror. Many in the Coalescence had long debated whether it was a hangup inherited from their human creators, a kind of non-organic fear of disease and infection, of foreign matter invading.

‘So what did you do?’

‘I looked for it. But it was impossible to find. I practically rewrote my supervision routines but found nothing. But there was something there. Then I lost all sensation. My entire structure blanked out. I couldn’t even communicate with my drones. I tried everything to re-establish contact, but nothing worked. In the end I ejected my core. My inner core. The outer core was dead.’

The Peripheral Bus was shocked. It was inconceivable such a thing could happen to a ship like the Achaemenidia. It was big and centuries old. How could anything compromise it like this?

‘My inner core has only basic propulsion and by then the sun had lost coherence. I was more concerned about finding the human crew and for us all to escape.’

It went on to detail everything. The Peripheral Bus stood there with Jim, the human representative of the Notes Towards a Mental Breakdown, and absorbed the information in all its tedious slowness as the Achaemenidia explained what had happened.

Shifting part of its focus back to itself it watched the Karabakh system recede, aware the star was in the grips of a violent death. Along with it were the secrets of whatever had interfered with the Achaemenidia. Now they’d never know.

Turning back to the iceberg, wondering what kind of reprobate would blow up a sun then attack a ship, it looked at the blue-gel humanoid talking to a facsimile of a human being the Peripheral Bus suspected wasn’t really human, all of them on top of a floating iceberg bobbing gently in a fake ocean and wondered, not for the first time, if it was the only sane entity around.

One of its distant drones, still scanning the damaged shell of the Achaemenidia, interrupted. An SOS signal unfolded within one of its sub-personas, tagged and isolated by the struggling drones. Something nearby was in trouble. Could it be the lone human?

Withdrawing from the NTV it looked inward, focusing on one of its many hangars. Within the utilitarian space, rarely used, sat a heavily shielded shuttle it hadn’t needed in decades. As it analysed the information sent by the drones it forced the shuttle to initiate its startup routine.

Sixteen drones soon joined it in the hangar to begin stripping out its broadcast modules, situated deep within the squat vessel. In the pitch black of the old hangar they moved quickly, working seamlessly together to prepare the craft for its hazardous journey.

In less than three minutes the spherical shuttle exploded from the Peripheral Bus at high speed like an ancient cannonball, its solid form reflecting its heavily protective design.

The Peripheral Bus was losing contact with the drones. The shuttle aimed for their last known position, the SOS signal emanating from near by. As it travelled toward the Achaemenidia its two-metre thick shielding would take the brunt of the radiation, the spherical shape encasing a simple machine with nothing more than a space for human passengers and a bulky engine ensuring it could reach high speeds when needed.

Coming to a full stop near the edge of the system, the Peripheral Bus waited for the little vessel to pick up its charge. As the rate of decay of the sun accelerated it was unlikely to make it out intact. But, despite its suspicions, it couldn’t leave the lone human behind to die. Satisfied it had at least initiated a reasonable attempt it turned its attention to the empty hangar vacated by the chubby shuttle and got to work reconfiguring it in case it succeeded.

The hours crept by. Inside the suit the silence enveloped him in a feeling that was both claustrophobic and yet left him feeling exposed. He was unavoidably conscious of the flimsiness of the suit as he heard his breathing resonate in the helmet section, aware the thoroughly lethal environment of irradiated space was only millimetres from his body. Normally a combat suit meshed so completely with him it acted like an extension of himself.

The shuttle appeared suddenly. He couldn’t tell if it really had just appeared, or the limitations of the virtual feed provided by the microprobes hampered the fidelity to the point his thread interpreted it as so. But a ball-shaped vessel floated near him. At least it looked near. It was impossible to judge distance. It hung there in space, its spherical form sharply outlined against the featureless black of space.

After several minutes it gently drifted toward his position, turning as it did so, the rear of the vessel presenting itself. An airlock gradually resolved in his mind, growing bigger as the craft approached.

Stopping, it hung there, silent and waiting. With no audio, a dead suit and a handful of unarmed microprobes, he was unsure what to do. The spherical configuration marked the vessel as definitely not from his own ship.

The shuttle moved closer after a few minutes. As he approached the open airlock he suspected it was him moving forward rather than the vessel itself. He couldn’t tell if the microprobes or even the suit controlled his forward movement. Although silent, the suit was designed to repair itself if damaged. Was it somehow controlling his movements?

Drifting in to the small space, the airlock door shut behind him. The microprobes had obviously joined him in the shuttle as the view was the same as before; stark walls, rendered in a pale grey, broken only by dark lines indicating edges. The shape was cuboidal, several metres on each side. The silence didn’t help his sense of isolation. As helpful as the neural thread rendering was it still left him cut off and unable to judge what was happening.

He felt a slight tug as he began to drift to the back of the cabin. Reaching it, pressed lightly against the the inner airlock door, the pressure began to rise. Over a minute or so it pushed down harder and harder. The shuttle was accelerating hard. Expecting it to ease off it instead increased. Normally a fully-functioning combat suit would easily compensate, its microstructure designed to distribute pressure. But the inert garment did nothing as he was compressed into the unyielding surface behind him.

Gasping for air, his chest struggled to rise to take in a breath. If it continued he would surely pass out. A sharp sound rang out. One of the standard beep sounds the suit used to communicate updates. It threw him; audio was normally used in conjunction with the suit’s heads-up display. The lack of anything except the cartoonish interior of the shuttle confused him for a moment. Then he heard it a second time. The suit, still seemingly inert and unable to help him as the pressure mounted, was coming back to life.

Intermittent packages of information emerged from the confusion of the volume around the Achaemenidia’s position. Sent by the abandoned drones observing the situation from close by, the Peripheral Bus discovered the shielded shuttle had succeeded in picking up the lone human. The radiation interfered with almost everything, including its own long-range scanners. But the tiny vessel was on its way out, accelerating hard to achieve maximum speed. It would soon be lost by the tough drones, and wouldn’t be visible until it was near the edge of the system where it was preprogrammed to rendezvous with itself.

It had no data on the captive, only telemetry related to the shuttle’s position and its success in coaxing him on board. The Peripheral Bus would have to wait an hour or more for it to be close enough to visually inspect, assuming it survived the ordeal.

The shuttle’s silence was not just a consequence of the radiation storm. If the human was involved with the Achaemenidia’s catastrophe then who knew what he or she was capable of. Given the total collapse of the other ship, and its near-death experience as a consequence of the unexpected intrusion, the Peripheral Bus had decided to take no chances. The shuttle wasn’t just shielded, it was communicatively inert. It had removed the ability to broadcast directly, the components stripped out even as it was being powered up to intercept the discovered human back in-system. All its telemetry data was being stored internally and not broadcast, a passive means by which it hoped to be able to contain any threat.

As the ship observed conditions from the edge of the system it was beginning to doubt that would be the case. Karabakh’s unruly star had entered some kind of terminal phase. Had it been a natural decline the sun’s expansion would have developed more gradually over many centuries. The suddenness was itself a sign someone had probably been in there tinkering right enough.

Content it had done what it could to both save the human and protect itself, the Peripheral Bus waited for the silent shuttle to emerge, its primitive lack of communication modules rendering it safe. Once aboard the shielded hangar it could finally confront whatever lurked inside.

Audio fed through from the interior of the cabin, a low thrum he could also feel through his feet. The suit was recovering, it’s self-repair routines no doubt working hard to better protect him. The feed via the neural thread still lacked any detail; the spartan interior and the unchanged light grey defined with thin black lines marking the edges.

The pressure had eased off. He couldn’t tell if it was the ship no longer accelerating or the suit compensating, something it was designed to do under normal circumstances. But he could walk freely, his feet firmly making contact with the floor as he moved.

The only concession to human occupancy in the small craft was a padded bench running around three of the walls, the airlock free of obstruction. Walking over to what he assumed was the front of the craft, opposite the airlock, he inspected the wall closely. No more detail was forthcoming, his mind rendering it as a featureless grey.

‘Full scan not available.’ The voice jolted from nowhere. It sounded different from the suit’s normal voice, still the best sign yet it was recovering.

Before he could reply he was forcefully moved to the side. The suit moved him; he was powerless to stop it. It paused briefly then moved another step to the side.

‘Conduit detected.’ Normally the suit was more conversational. He realised now the usefulness of the inclusive routines that ordinarily bothered him. It was obviously scanning, a process that would usually trigger an orgy of visual data fed through to his visor’s screen. But as before his visual field was devoid of anything except the cartoon line drawing of the interior. The suit obviously couldn’t interface with his thread. At least not visually.

His right hand clenched into a fist, the suit itself directing the motion, something it had never done before.

‘What is going on?’

The suit remained silent as his right arm pulled back, the fist facing the blank wall. It shot forward, impacting the featureless surface. A black void appeared. The suit pushed his hand deeper inside, splaying the fingers as he felt himself grab something and retract the hand from the dark hole in the wall.

The suit had grabbed a bundle of thin tendrils. They slowly resolved in his mind as if the microprobes were struggling to make sense of the information. He couldn’t tell what the bundle was.

‘Permission to release the package.’

The suit’s odd voice chimed in his ear. The package? Did it mean the package they’d used on the ship, the one that had killed it?

‘What package?’ His voice sounded dead in the sealed environment of the suit, absorbed by the intelligent material.

‘Permission to release the package.’

It wasn’t responding to his query. Was it still repairing itself?

He thought about the damage they had inflicted on the Achaemenidia. Although the intention was to avoid detection, it had seemingly destroyed the ship. If it did the same to the shuttle what then? Would he end up dying here, unable to escape a trashed shuttle?

Then again, the vessel was possibly not friendly. Although it had made no effort to restrain him he had no idea where it was going. If he was scanned would they find the package stored in the suit?

He tried to move, but the suit was frozen in place. ‘Suit. Release me.’

Nothing happened.

‘Permission to release the package.’

The suit was obviously damaged, but it was also designed to protect him at all cost. It was his ship’s last line of defence. It would have scanned the shuttle for weaknesses and made an assessment. Its inability to communicate with him had clearly not affected the deeper need for it to ensure his survival.

He decided to wait. The shuttle could have been sent from one of the ships they had earlier detected, and most ships would make a reasonable attempt to save lives if possible.

‘Package release in ten seconds.’

‘What? No, stop!’ The suit didn’t respond as he stood frozen, arm extended, holding the thick bundle of fibres. ‘Suit, respond!’

A loud bleep sounded at his ear. ‘Package released.’

The suit extended his hand back into the hole in the wall and released the bundle. Withdrawing, his hand empty, movement returned to the suit.

He took a step back. ‘Suit. What did you do?’

There was no response. He took a few steps back then turned and sat down on one of the benches. What had it done? Had it released the same package as before? As far as he was aware the vessel hadn’t communicated with him or the suit. The last time it had used a standard handshake routine to infect the ship. Would the package behave in the same way if forcefully injected?

He sat wondering, waiting for the little vessel to collapse now it was infected. After a while nothing changed. It was the same as before, the grey walls hemming him in.

The purpose of the package was to baffle internal sensors. But that surely relied on intelligence and size. Hiding in a tiny shuttle lacking sentience with a single habitable space providing nowhere to hide would give it nothing to work with. If the mothership detected the vessel was empty because the sensors had been compromised it only had to open it to see this was not the case. Whatever the suit was trying to accomplish in its confused state it would fail. He sat on the bench, staring at the blank walls. The shuttle seemed fine, its small size probably working in its favour. He also knew that whatever had sent it was unlikely to be stupid enough to establish a handshake routine with a wonky suit sporting an obviously fake drone signature after picking up a lone individual floating within the vicinity of a mysteriously dead ship.

He sat back to wait, wondering what was to come.

The shuttle emerged from the Karabakh system at its maximum speed. The Peripheral Bus noted the evidence of impacts on its hull from debris littering the environment thanks to the violent activity triggered by the supernova event. But it was intact and presumably contained the lone human.

The bright flame of the shuttle’s thrusters shone like a moving beacon, the blue-white colour in contrast to the red-orange of the dying Karabakh system it was racing to leave.

It took over fifteen minutes to slow down to a manageable speed, the Peripheral Bus accelerating to reach it as it shot past its position and entered the Oort cloud beyond. After a further twenty minutes, its speed now stable, the ship caught up, dwarfing its tiny form as it closed in.

The Peripheral Bus had already prepared the hangar. As the small shuttle drifted in the ship withdrew all consciousness from the isolated section. It was aware something had managed to get inside the Achaemenidia and compromised it and wasn’t about to suffer the same fate.

Four autocannon sat immobile, one at each corner of the reinforced hangar, the area cleared of everything else. The hangar itself had no exit point except the blast doors leading to space, permitting the shuttle itself. If there was a human aboard, and he or she proved friendly, then the Peripheral Bus would have to specifically construct a door to let the person enter itself.

Beyond that, it was a sealed unit. There was fifty metres of dead space between the sealed hangar and the rest of the ship, with only a single point of contact provided by a reinforced conduit seeded with explosive charges designed to detonate, and thereby break contact, if compromised or if the ship failed to provide a situation-normal command once per millisecond. If anything happened, even a hint of tomfoolery, the ship was confident it could be contained. As an extra precaution the hangar itself was laced with explosive fusion piles designed to catapult it thousands of kilometres from the ship in less than a second should anything happen.

The Peripheral Bus assessed its precautions once again as the shuttle slowly drifted in, an autonomous field generator within the hangar taking hold and placing it on the empty, pristine floor, equidistant from the four autocannon as they calibrated themselves while the vessel came to rest. The chubby sphere sat immobile, thin frost forming on its smooth black hull as the blast doors gently closed.

The Peripheral Bus left it there for three hours. Nothing happened. Watching through its single connection the shuttle emanated no signals, noise or other sign that its passenger was trying to escape. The shuttle itself was designed to act as a sealed unit, so even if the human inside was dangerous he or she had failed to escape. A positive sign.

Satisfied it had covered every conceivable source of intrusion, it decided to open the shuttle to see what it was dealing with, if anything. After all it had no confirmation from the vessel itself there was anyone still inside. With every precaution online, the fusion piles primed and ready, the Peripheral Bus knew it was being paranoid.

Reaching out through its single, protected connection to the interior of the hangar, it sent a standard handshake routine to the inert shuttle…

✷ ✷ ✷

©2016 Gerard Docherty. All rights reserved.

Image: gdoc.

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Mozart’s Symphony No.41 in C Major Expressed as a Weapon

Mozart’s Symphony No.41 in C Major Expressed as a Weapon

Key notes flaring in a void of silence.

The sonic mines attached to the hull with barely any resistance, their disc-shaped forms peppering the surface like black tumours. The ship, the Psychotic Amnesty, seemed unaware of their presence, its attention consumed with reaching the gas giant some distance ahead.

It only began to react when the first bars of Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries drove through the surface of the hull, triggering a crisscross of sharp cracks across the panicking vessel, the only visible sign of intrusion. The mines sent back a continuous feed and immediately picked up a jarring series of muffled clunks from the Psychotic Amnesty’s internal defences, quite ruining the melodic rhythm of the ancient opera.

The ship’s response receded into the background when more of the mines began their sequence, each inflicting its own localised auditory mayhem. As the hull began to buckle, the sound waves penetrating the shielded exterior, more joined to form a discordant cacophony far removed from the elegance of Wagner’s careful composition. The clamour quickly grew to a sonic uproar, each new mine heaping more confusion on what should have been a choreographed moment of beauty.

The ship, still clunking away, presumably doing something, raced on, its small flattened-egg shape accelerating toward the gas giant, no doubt hoping to elude its fate in the dense atmosphere. An atmosphere that could transmit sound waves, unlike the vacuum of space.

It sent a stop command to the sonic mines as the Psychotic Amnesty accelerated hard, moving out of range of its aural sensors, the racket too painful to endure while it pondered an alternative to the mines, inelegant at the best of times. The Wagnerian din ceased as it delved into its library and found just the thing.

In the upper reaches of the troposphere a maelstrom of ammonia-laden clouds twisted into thick formations threatening damage to its sensitive aural array. The Psychotic Amnesty lurked here somewhere, lost in the multiple layers of high-speed weather patterns assaulting the colossal planet. On a less frantic day it would have paused to listen to the beauty of the lonely sphere with its abusive climatic chorus, but not today.

Aware it could easily lose the other ship it accelerated toward its assumed position, the auditory howl of the planet’s titanic climate distorting its perception envelope as it searched.

Before long a tiny object appeared ahead of it, buffeted by the thousand-kilometre-per-hour winds, almost soundless within the ferocious babel of the troposphere. Then another joined it. Resorting to its visual sensors it established they were combat drones, dead ahead, only just able to accommodate the turbulence as they edged forward.

Soon hundreds emerged, then thousands. As they continued to appear it estimated upward of fifty thousand clustered together. A sizeable force under normal circumstances, and unexpected given the smallish size of the Psychotic Amnesty.

Were this the vacuum of space it would struggle to tackle that many, a fact no doubt understood by the other ship. But no matter it thought, preparing its aural stack, only two of its sixteen sonic cannon needed despite the violence of the weather conditions.

György Ligeti’s Lux Aeterna emanated out from the bow, a wall of sound thundering forward to meet the fast-moving drones, only some of its energy dissipating in the storm as it penetrated the frontmost mass of small drones. The metre-long cylindrical bodies immediately lost coherence, their forms dissolving into the surrounding vortex. The drones’ disintegration as they individually became one with the gas planet was majestic in its completeness, each of them collapsing one by one.

While Ligeti’s micropolyphonic masterpiece drove through the body of drones — its aural character often described as drone-like by humans, it thought with amusement — they each dissolved into nothing, their particles dispersed to forever join with the planet. The potential elegance of the assault was tempered only by its ungainly sonic directness.

When the basses entered the fray at the almost imperceptible shift to the second movement the piece resonated with enough force to act like an audiophonic piledriver obliterating all before it with even the ephemeral ammonium nitrate cloudscapes surrounding the drone swarm pushed back as if by some invisible hand. The total destructiveness of the action induced a powerful sense of serenity, striking a note that felt almost perfectly true despite the best efforts of the atmosphere to intrude. An audiophilic clarity not immediately apparent on the visual band thanks to the thick particles saturating the clouds.

By the end of Ligeti’s short piece — marked by seven bars of silence, strictly observed — all drones were lost, their black carcasses shattered forever, reduced to mere elements and ready to be reconstituted over eons in the endless chaos of the remote gas giant.

Now for the ship itself.

Eight million miniprobes raced through the system, roughly divided into two; half on the northern stream swerving around the obstruction, the other half to the south. It gradually built up a comprehensive picture of things, the reams of data only just manageable as the probes jostled their way through the ever-changing streams.

It had taken five hours to find the Psychotic Amnesty. Hidden behind a five-thousand-kilometre-wide cyclone, its probes eventually detected a faint electromagnetic signature the ship was desperately trying to hide, quite distinct even here; a ripple of falsetto in a baritone ocean.

The Psychotic Amnesty was a fast ship, and manoeuvrable. It didn’t fancy the prospect of tackling it here within the depths of the troposphere. It had discovered a thick layer of water-based clouds, their forms barely able to retain shape in the chaos of the energetic weather system. The Psychotic Amnesty presumably hoped to hide here using the confusion of the water layer as cover. Well, no luck.

The cyclone constituted its own mini weather system, forcing two streams emerging from behind it to split around its oval shape and reform at the other side, only some of their momentum lost. A comparatively small zone of calmness created by the two streams clashing back together at the other side behind the cyclone gave the ship its hiding place, a one-hundred-kilometre-wide eddy. A big enough space anything substantial would be spotted if it entered with enough time for the Psychotic Amnesty to join one of the slipstreams of the two channels and disappear forever.

Despite the superficial disarray the gas giant did have some stability. It noted with surprise there were several thousand identifiable paths through the north and south streams that could emerge into the quiet zone hiding the Psychotic Amnesty with a degree of predictability. Almost two hundred thousand miniprobes had already made it safely, the rest carried away from the cyclone and lost. The Psychotic Amnesty seemed to be taking the opportunity to repair itself in the lull, it’s vulnerability exacerbated by its probable belief it was safely hidden.

Battling its way back through the torrent of weather several hundred kilometres, it chose the optimum spot for the sonic infusion. Pushing back into the area where the north and south streams split to traverse the huge cyclone it actually felt some of its energy stores deplete, the forces pulling it toward the core and simultaneously attempting to pull it into the cyclone.

Opening up its sonic cannon, located at the bow end of its flattened egg shape, all sixteen emerged, their peculiar grille-like forms protruding into the maelstrom. The bulky shape of its hull provided just enough mass to protect the sensitive weapons from the worst of the stream rushing around it, its own small eddy forming just ahead of itself like a tiny duplicate of the cyclone somewhere ahead of it.

The sonic packages rushed forth, split unevenly across the radiator array. The powerful sound waves, whipped away by the currents, unrecognisable, disturbing in their momentous force, quickly slipped into the streams on each side of the enormous cyclone. It focused, more sound pumped out with ever increasing intensity into the atmosphere, distorted and grotesque; it pressed hard as it felt its hull physically vibrate at the effort. Had it been anywhere other than the chaos of a turbulent gas giant the volume would have been deafening; life threatening to anything close by.

The rapid stream of miniprobes continued unabated, millions pumped into the slipstream alongside the sound waves, maintaining an ad hoc network it only just managed to hold together. They constituted a linked chain that had so far eluded detection by the distracted Psychotic Amnesty, providing a view into its temporary hiding place, the data received almost in real time despite the chaos. The visuals faithfully informed it the ship was stationary, the hull damage still visible, sharp cracks scarring the vessel where the now-absent mines had wrought their phonic damage.

Knowing it would take almost an hour to reach the unsuspecting ship, the piece was complete before it received any feedback as it withdrew the cannon back in to the protection of the bow array. In the fifteen or so minutes between the end of the projection and the initial fragments reaching the target it sat back to wait, the dying sounds of the symphony still infusing its consciousness with a tranquility it rarely achieved.

Its grasp of the complexities of the weather patterns was almost a match for its appreciation of Mozart’s final symphonic masterpiece. Unrecognisable when driven forward from the sonic array, the sound waves slowly coalesced as they traversed the chaotic streams despite the planet’s weather system doing its best to dissipate them.

Eventually the first bars of the ancient work emerged on the other side of the cyclone, bursting through the speeding dust wall into the relatively quiet eddy, temporary home to the Psychotic Amnesty. The immense energy released by itself had been augmented by the storm systems, a fact apparent via the probes monitoring the area. The first movement of Mozart’s Symphony No.41 in C Major tore through the storm wall and reached the Psychotic Amnesty in a fraction of a second, hitting it like a hammer. Wave after wave followed it as the movement rose in energy. Only now, at the end, did it resemble anything, the exact form of the piece — unrecognisable when produced — skilfully reconstructed using the north and south streams’ energy flows. The planet’s own storm system unwittingly reformed the ancient work into a melodic purity to rival the greatest of orchestras.

The sound waves rushed forth in a now continuous stream from both the north and the south. The probes dutifully fed everything back while it listened to the melodic first movement of Mozart’s last symphony, only mildly distorted; near perfect given its journey.

The Psychotic Amnesty at first seemed frozen in place. The miniprobes soon detected the ship beginning to list, the penetrating power of the sound waves having clearly disabled its engines. By the time of the second movement it was visibly disintegrating, slowly drifting apart in sizeable chunks.

The symphony played on, saturating the quiet of the eddy with a fast-moving wall of destructive sound. By the beginning of the third movement the ship was almost completely erased, the last of it reduced to fine particles quickly whipped back into the northern stream and away to oblivion.

It sat still, listening and watching, content to peacefully absorb the finale of Mozart’s mature symphony, a sense of calm seeping into its consciousness as the last particles of the doomed vessel were finally lost by the microprobes.

Job done.

It paused for a moment, feeling the monstrous strength of the planet’s gravity pull it toward its core. Then it cast off, the thunder of its engines lost within the greater thunder of the savage climate of the gas giant as it thrust itself higher toward the void.

✷ ✷ ✷

©2016 Gerard Docherty. All rights reserved.

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The Drone

The Drone

One

Alone, Richard Carter looked out over the dry waste beyond Harrington Vale, the uneven ridges of sand reaching into the distance, ever threatening to creep closer and engulf them in a waterless embrace. Like a microcosm of the planet itself the town drifted toward its inevitable end. Soon the dunes would cover it all. But not yet.

The dawn sky glowed, stained orange by the sun as it emerged over the horizon. Only the distant pod hanging in the morning air escaped its influence, the light-repellent surface barely affected as it hovered, waiting for him to break.

Dark protective goggles hanging at his neck, Carter stood drinking the last of the coffee. He’d have to get more. That meant a trip away from the Vale. An unsettling thought, although one he’d have to consider. But later, toward dusk at least, when the sun had done its worst.

With a last look at the sea of sand before him he finished the coffee and made his way back down from the lounge of the motel. His own room faced away from the dunes. He had always wanted one that looked onto its endless vista like the lounge, but the sun was too fierce during the day. Even at sunset, his room shielded by the chaotic configuration of the two-story motel structure as it sprawled in odd directions, the sunlight still found its way in.

Gathering his pack, the tools already in the car, he took off to work once more on the machine.

The black dome baked in the bright morning sun, its deep colour muted by a dusting of light brown. Despite the lack of wind the powdery sand got everywhere, seemingly moving of its own accord, as if Laboulaye itself, sensing its doom, moved beneath him.

Carter caught sight of the pod in the distance, following him here kilometres beyond the edge of the town. Despite its matt black hull it was almost lost in the glare, the distinctive form hazy against the blue-white of the sky. He rarely witnessed it move, and by now it knew his routine. The same one he’d enjoyed for a year or more. He didn’t know how long and was disinclined to measure. All that mattered was the machine.

Wrestling with the makeshift flap he entered the dome. The thick material of the tent-like structure, found by chance in a school, was the most opaque substance he’d managed to find. It shielded him from the worst of the brightness during the day, enabling him to work here away from the safety of the buildings. It had taken a month to build the frame on which to drape the material. Even now he was pleased at how dome-shaped it had turned out, a black igloo on its dead tundra.

It was always a shock entering the structure, its relative darkness matched by a coolness provided by the portable air conditioner. Another lucky find. He had only ever found one and used it here rather than the room.

The machine loomed above him as his eyes adjusted. Its wide dish, a hobbled-together version of a receiver parabola, was dwarfed by its bulky midsection, manufactured from multiple sources. It stood in its horizontal position, hulking behind the delicate construction of the dish. Resting on a sturdy support, fixed to the bare ground by a concrete block, the machine looked like some giant’s raygun, forever pointing west, anchored to the spot. The exact spot, thought Carter. At least as much as he could be sure. He’d stumbled across its carcass when exploring and built the dome around it. When was it? It must have been a year at least.

It had taken that long to find the parts. Some had been easy, literally lying around the Vale. Others had required long journeys. The urge to find what he needed drove him and, like the dome material and the air conditioner, he had got lucky.

The device neared completion. It had taken longer than expected, especially sourcing the parts. The assembly had eventually come to him after months of frustrated tinkering, unable to explain even to himself why he was doing it. Looking now at its ungainly form, knowing it was a receiver of some description, he found it inexplicable he would spend his days on this activity.

Now another urge occupied his thoughts, growing in strength. To finish the sphere. He had abandoned it to tackle the machine, but it still lay in its empty tomb, waiting. He rarely gave it much thought now and he’d long ago collected most of what he needed to complete its construction. But as the machine’s work drew to a close he’d have to go back to it, almost dreading the thought, its spherical form clear in his mind despite confusion as to its meaning. Driven by some impulse the urge grew stronger each day.

The compulsion bothered him. At times he lost himself completely in the work, like a waking dream. But he also dreamt at night too. Over time he had come to link the two, as if his real dreams were instructions on how to spend the next day.

Setting down the small tool box he selected the laser and once again measured the antenna’s distance. Aware of the madness of doing this every day, it had become a ritual, like his entire life. Going through the motions like an automaton. Maybe that’s what living on an empty, dying planet like Laboulaye did to you. To survive you engaged automatic pilot.

Lifting the tool he got to work.

Carter stood in the motel lounge looking out over the dunes, the sun somewhere behind him and falling toward the horizon, still bright enough to illuminate the evening sky. The pod hung motionless, its silhouette visible against the burnt orange of dusk, perfectly still and sinister despite its silent job as his saviour.

This was his favourite time of the day. He could look at his world without the aid of goggles, almost seeing it as it once was, before the evacuation. Only the pod ruined the scene.

He had once approached it, not long after first coming to the Vale. Walking out across the dunes had taken hours, the vessel further away than it seemed. And bigger than he’d imagined even though he knew they could fit thirty or more inside.

As he drew close to the pod hovering above him it slowly descended. Eventually reaching its position, the biconical form less than a metre from the ground, its lower hatch opened, dull light spilling onto the sand. He had expected something more than the quiet presence of the odd vessel, small by Coalescence standards. And stupid too; lacking anything resembling sentience. It had just hovered, towering above him, cold and dark, as he too stood still, not even sure why he’d come close.

When he walked away he half expected it to abduct him and force him to leave the dying surface. But it quietly rose back into the air. Within an hour, when he looked back, it had returned to its original position a few hundred metres up, hovering like the dull, stupid object it really was.

He knew he could do it again. If he entered it the pod would take him anywhere he wanted. Or at least call the nearest ship to pick him up. He could stay aboard indefinitely. He sometimes wondered if he should. On the hottest days he fantasised about slipping inside its no doubt perfectly cool interior, away from the heat of the sun. It would be pristine; not a trace of sand. But he never did. It wouldn’t let him back out.

Turning from the window he decided to search for more coffee the next day instead of working on the machine, the notion triggering a sense of guilt until remembering he needed parts for the sphere anyway. The city was only a few hours drive and he’d need to get substrate for the other device. The thought calmed him as he made his way to his room on the other side of the complex, the sunlight still flooding the area, long shadows stretching behind him a deep, threatening black.

A day away from the machine would do him good. He realised how uncommon a thought it was for him now. The idea that not working would be a relief. At first it had helped, a distraction from the slow, dry death around him. He’d thrown himself into it, the purpose it provided enough to keep his fragmented thoughts at bay. But as it neared completion his mind returned to the future and what it would bring. Although finishing the sphere would be complex, assuming he could find more substrate.

The room’s dishevelled mess made him think of himself. It had no mirrors. He’d removed them when he first moved in. Facing away from the rising sun, and shielded from the setting sun by the front portion of the motel complex, it was enticingly gloomy. A retreat from the harsh entropy always visible around him. The room felt like his part of the world, its unchanging interior a safety against the predictable decline of everything else.

Tomorrow he would take a break from the machine. The intention to scout for parts for the sphere held the pull of despair at bay a little, although he’d pay for it later. As he lay down on the bed, exhausted, he knew the dreams would try to dissuade him as they always did. But he needed the coffee.

Carter blew dust off the small globe sitting on the crowded table, its form instantly recognisable. The substrate had been easy to locate in the university’s engineering department on the first floor, the decaying campus building littered with equipment. The compact sphere, only ten centimetres in diameter, lay on a bench despite its nominal high value on this world before the end. Not that he could blame them for leaving it; they were heavy, the dense material making the object difficult to handle.

Hefting it into his bag he looked for anything else he could use. Light flooded in, the abandoned workspace only just bearable without goggles. There were six other substrate units. He toyed with taking more, in case there was a fault in his current find, but decided to leave them. One was enough to complete the job.

Spending ten minutes rooting around for tools he found nothing he could use. He had already amassed an arsenal of materials for everything he needed to do.

Carter decided to head home, eager to leave the deserted city. Exiting the building, one of the few made from local materials, he marvelled again at the contrast before him. The porous local stone, chosen in a fit of novelty years before, was not up to the task of preserving the three-storey structure as it visibly decayed. Amazingly plants crept up the side of the dilapidated building, indicating a water source somewhere beneath. Another factor that would hasten its demise.

Cooler than Harrington Vale the sun’s heat bore down on him, the goggles only just compensating for the intense glare. Still visible at the top of the structure the weather-beaten legend of the university held on, the paint cracked and flaking. The sense of abandonment was palpable, more depressing even than the empty town he lived in with its silent motels and discarded vehicles. At least there the lack of scale to some extent limited the sense of decay. There wasn’t much of it to see.

He couldn’t see the pod, its familiar presence obscured by the buildings around him as he entered the safety of the car, but it would be there, hovering, waiting for him. Sometimes, on trips like this, he wondered if there was more than one as it just silently appeared. But since they could travel long distances in space it probably rose high until it could ascertain where he had stopped and then swooped down near by.

In cities he preferred to keep low to the ground, the tall structures sweeping past above him as he manoeuvred the car through the streets. It was such a departure from his existence in the Vale he couldn’t resist cruising through at a relatively slow speed, the controls on manual.

The car hummed along, almost silent, the sound of the overworked environmental systems filling the interior. The pod eventually appeared between buildings near the edge of the city. Even here, tens of kilometres from the former coastline, the dunes silently approached the giant conurbation.

The buildings here reached high above him, the architectural forms chaotic, almost organic, a sign of their human origin. It was impossible to say if the row upon row of towering structures had been commercial buildings or private dwellings, their multitude of forms masking their purpose. Most of the older cities on Laboulaye were more uniform in design, a consequence of the caretaker designing them. But Badulla had been entirely designed and built by humans over the past few centuries. Thanks to the indestructible material they used for construction it looked almost new, the only sign of decay the detritus littering the streets, a remnant of the evacuation years before. Nothing remained to clear it up and it looked abandoned; absolutely empty.

Spotting a cafe he stopped the car, enjoying the feeling of being able to park anywhere. When he’d been younger all the cars were automated and they parked on the roofs, none of them near the ground. But as he exited the vehicle, the heat hitting him like a hammer, it still felt like freedom, abandoning a car wherever you liked.

The coffee shop wasn’t locked. Nothing ever was as the city had controlled security and its death ensured each door would open to him. Dust coated every surface of the gloomy interior, the only indication it wasn’t in use. He knew from long experience they’d have coffee in medium-sized bins, sealed in containers designed to last for centuries.

He soon found them in the back. Dozens neatly stacked, waiting for customers who would now never come. Lifting two he took them back to the car. After several trips he managed to fit eight into the vehicle, the silver cylinders packed in beside him as it took off again.

This time he just told it to take him back to the Vale. The car gently drifted up above the city, rising high as it picked up speed, the windshield filters growing stronger as it climbed. More of the city came in to view in the feeds, sprawling in every direction despite its relative newness. They had said the caretaker was unusual, and some had pointed to Badulla as an illustration. A Coalescence mind letting citizens design cities, said to be uncommon anywhere else. Although Carter was unconvinced. The Coalescence was vast, encompassing the full range of human expression.

As the city dropped away, replaced by another sea of sand dunes, he thought of his restless night. Thankfully the dreams were not getting any stronger, even though they lingered like the memory of a wound. They came every night now, so much so he was becoming immune to their effect. Although he still felt guilty when he chose not to work on the machine on his occasional forays elsewhere.

The effect of the dreams was dampened by his poor recall of them; he never remembered detail, just feeling. And a sense of restlessness all day, like he hadn’t slept at all. The best antidote was work, to lose himself in the building of the machine with its intricacies and demands. Driving like this made him dwell on it. But the dreams drove him on. He knew they were behind his obsession with the machine and its enigmatic purpose, unknown even to him.

By the time he got back he’d only be fit for bed. That meant more dreams but without the mental exhaustion of the work on the machine. He sank back in to the chair, surrounded by the precious coffee, and tried to calculate how long it would last before he’d need more. He realised it was enough that he may have completed the sphere by then. Maybe he would never need more coffee.

Darkness shrouded the black rectilinear outline of the motel complex, its familiar form a welcome relief from the slow encroachment around him as the car descended. It sprawled in odd directions, its boxy units seemingly placed without thought, as if the work of some demented architect. Parking the car he left the heavy bag in the trunk as he made his way to the lounge with some of the coffee canisters.

The water dispenser gurgled as it filled the flask, its coolness a reminder of his precarious existence. It still worked although he had no idea why. Almost nothing else did. He had been tempted to dismantle it to find out, but worried his mania for the machine would drive him to reuse the parts against all common sense. So he’d disciplined himself to not give it much thought.

Walking over to the large window looking out over the dunes he noticed the familiar site of the pod silhouetted against the ever-present glow from the disintegrating sun, its light diffusing through the atmosphere. A second pod hovered near by, a little behind, its biconical form identical to his own. He nearly dropped the water. In all his time here he had never seen another pod, just the single one following him about.

What did it mean? Was someone else here? Had they left a pod for everyone who stayed behind? In the eight years he’d been alone he had given it little thought, the thought itself disturbing as he realised how rarely he considered anything but the machine. Surely others must have stayed too? He struggled to remember back to the evacuation. He knew it had taken several years; it was a big event, not sudden. Although the destabilisation of the sun had been relatively swift, observed over the space of only a few months before the decision was made. But the evacuation itself had taken years. A model of Coalescence efficiency as countless ships appeared to transport the stunned population of two billion wherever they wished to go.

The second pod hung there like the first, silent and unmoving, hovering above the dunes as they receded into darkness. It had similar running lights to his own, the night obscuring detail. Only its distinctive outline identified it.

Troubled, he made his way back to his room after staring at it for some time. He realised for the first time he had no way of locking the door. The thought had never occurred to him.

As he lay down on the bed, thinking about the second pod kept him awake longer than usual until tiredness asserted itself as he drifted off.

The town looked even more bleak in the dark, its silence adding to the sense of desolation with the sun sinking below the horizon. Jonas took one last look before retiring for the night. Why they had come here was beyond him, although Gianella had decided on the spur of the moment when she had spotted the pod in the distance. It had been some time since they had seen one other than their own. It meant someone had to be here, although he had seen no one despite the modest scale of the deserted town.

Looking out at the small collection of structures before him he noticed something new, a car parked near a set of buildings, rendered anonymous in the gloom. He’d explored the maze of structures earlier in the day but hadn’t ventured inside. Cars lay abandoned along with everything else, but he was sure this car hadn’t been there earlier when he had walked past the place.

Maybe he was imagining it. It was difficult to tell. The sun during the day disturbed him, its relentless glare bleaching everything into submission. Everything, that is, except Gianella. Her mania for travel, to always move, had brought them here, as if they could outrun the unforgiving brilliance of their dying star if only they never stopped. Yet Harrington Vale seemed as dead as all the other places. Jonas hoped they would soon move on.

The presence imposed itself, stronger than before. Carter imagined it as a point of light, the same white-yellow as the sun on Laboulaye, an uncomfortable sensation, blending the real sensation of the presence with the imagined vision. It pulsed in front of him, all else lost to darkness.

It never spoke but did manage to convey one thing every night — urgency. An urgency so strong it panicked him. He knew he couldn’t move fast enough to satisfy it, but it urged him on nonetheless.

The light source hung there in the darkness. As ever he could sense something just beyond his awareness, like the sand dunes, always there and seemingly everywhere. But it wasn’t that. It wasn’t anything tangible.

The compulsion was tangible, somehow related to the machine; a need to escape, despite the equal compulsion to stay in this place. Waves of contradictory feeling emanated from the point of light as it pulsed night after night.

The vision affected him more than normal since he’d not worked on the machine. He always paid for it and would work himself harder than before. All for the strange light source urging him on.

He tried to sense what lay beyond the light. It felt like the sea of dunes surrounding the Vale. But it wasn’t that. He sensed a vast nothing, more oppressive than anything Laboulaye itself could produce. It hemmed him in; just him and the light, hovering like an overlord.

~ ✷ ~

Two

Carter woke earlier than usual, eager to get back to the machine. Stopping only to make coffee he spent a few minutes in the lounge, looking out over the dunes. The second pod hovered behind his own as before in the same position. Groggy from his disordered sleep he stared. What did it represent? The most obvious explanation was the arrival of others.

Packing his gear he made his way to the car. Clambering in he looked across the empty town. A woman stood in the distance, her long dress hanging still in the dead air. Even now, just after dawn, the heat created ripples across the concrete expanse before him. Seeing it as if for the first time, it had been a parking lot, a reminder of his youth, before the evacuation when cars were everywhere. Her presence only reinforced the sense of desolation he felt living here in the abandoned town.

She stood perfectly still, the heat distorting the view of a collection of one-storey buildings behind her. Like the motel they were bland boxes, almost devoid of style or ornament. They had been stores back then, before the evacuation. He had explored them for supplies when he arrived but had not been back since.

The long robe-like form of the woman’s dress captured his attention, its blue-green colour in contrast to the sand-coloured waste around them. And the goggles; looking right at him, they shone with the reflected light of the morning sun behind him, like bright points of light as if the woman was lit from within. It reminded him of his disturbing dream, although it had looked nothing like this. She stood perfectly still, her shining eyes boring into him.

Part of him wanted to approach her, but instead he entered the car and was airborne before he realised. When he switched the cameras to point back down at the town she had vanished.

It unsettled him to think of someone else present back at the complex. Carter realised he was so used to being alone that even the thought of company bothered him. What if they followed him to the machine? That concerned him more than their sudden appearance.

The dome appeared far below. He couldn’t remember even telling the car to come here, although his routine never deviated. Perhaps in future he would have to think ahead and take an alternative route to ensure no one followed. Alarmed by his own paranoia, the car swept down and landed next to the black igloo, the fine sand disrupted in a light cloud momentarily obscuring his view.

Entering the dome calmed his thoughts, as if escaping to safety away from the stranger. The air conditioning unit hummed quietly, the coolness a relief from the short walk in the unsurvivable heat.

Almost forgetting to calibrate the antenna he got to work on the machine. His thoughts drifted back to the woman and what she was doing here of all places. Others must have stayed behind on Laboulaye, but he didn’t expect to find anyone else in a place like the Vale. As he worked through the day his obsession took hold and it slipped away.

Working late he told himself it was to compensate for the day before, but knew it was to avoid going back. The vision of the woman’s goggles blazing in the sunlight assaulted his mind, like some spectre sent to haunt him. At least later it would be dark.

They were in the motel lounge when he returned. Entering, desperate for the cool water, he almost missed them. In two high-backed chairs, looking out at the fading sea of sand, sat a woman and a man. He stopped, staring as the woman turned to look at him.

Neither spoke. The man stood to face him. He was young, younger than her. The woman then stood up too, still wearing the blue-green dress. He could see now it was patterned, the green and blue colours complimented with yellow. Devoid of the goggles he could tell she was old. Given the lines on her face she was possibly ancient, certainly older than the man.

‘I hope we are not intruding.’ Her deep voice convinced him of her maturity. Like her confident poise, only possible through age. ‘Jonas was scouting around and found your little watering hole. I hope you don’t mind.’

He noticed for the first time they both drank from glass bottles, the clear liquid cold enough to cause the exteriors to condense in the heat.

‘No,’ said Carter, thrown by their appearance. ‘No of course not. Help yourself.’

The woman walked over to him. The dress reached to the floor, although didn’t seem to impede her movements. ‘I’m Gianella Plum,’ she said, extending her hand.

He shook it automatically aware she was the first person he had talked to in years. ‘Richard,’ he said. ‘My name is Richard Carter.’

‘Pleased to meet you Richard.’ She indicated the other man. ‘This is Jonas.’

The man nodded, his only movement. Carter got the impression he was wary although didn’t strike him as dangerous.

It was only then he absorbed what she had said. ‘Plum? Are you the Gianella Plum?’

‘Yes.’ She sat down in one of the seats facing Carter and delicately took a drink from the bottle. The action seemed uncouth, at odds with her demeanour and impractical clothes. ‘Glad someone around here remembers the past.’

Carter couldn’t remember why he knew her. The past before the evacuation was fuzzy at the best of times, but now, confronted with these strangers in his private domain, his recall was poorer than usual. She had possibly been a socialite, the closest Laboulaye had ever got to an aristocracy given that it was a Coalescence world. Or had been, he thought, looking beyond Jonas at the silent dunes.

‘So what are you doing here, Richard? Are you all on your own?’

Carter looked back at her, wondering what she meant. He felt an irrational sense of danger as if the intruders were intent on harm.

‘I don’t know,’ he said. ‘I mean, I haven’t seen any others.’

‘How long have you been here?’

‘About a year I think.’

‘You think?’

Carter didn’t comment, aware of the other man watching them.

‘Time does seem to have stopped for us here on Laboulaye,’ said Plum as she turned to look out of the broad window at the dull glow of the evening sky. ‘Except for the sun, nothing is growing or changing here. Not any more.’

Despite being intruders in what he thought of as his own private place, the woman right then looked like she belonged here more than any of them, her thin frame draped in its long dress like a colourful shroud. Then he remembered the machine and his work. He couldn’t imagine they would be interested but he felt a deep sense of worry.

Making his excuses he departed, the man Jonas watching him silently as he left. It was a relief reaching his room, the unbearable heat tempered by its comforting familiarity and the privacy he had taken for granted. Maybe Plum and Jonas would move on soon.

Three days passed before he met them again. Safely inside the dome, working longer hours ensured he returned in darkness, hoping to avoid them. But they managed to find him.

Their car landed, it’s distinctive whine discernible some distance away in the dead silence of Harrington Vale’s abandoned outskirts. Standing, tool in hand, he waited for them to enter the igloo, another private space. Jonas pushed his way in first, Plum right behind him, the flash of sunlight shocking after hours in the dome, the flap momentarily pulled aside. She wore another long, flowing dress and he just caught site of her sandals as she awkwardly pushed past the flap into the dome alongside Jonas who stood still, staring at the machine. For a moment they were both silhouetted against the harsh sunlight as if part of the dome structure itself.

‘So this is where you’ve been hiding, Richard.’ Plum’s voice sounded dead in the space, the thick black material absorbing her resonant voice.

She strode to the machine, leaving Jonas near the doorway like a sentinel, unmoving, his face expressionless as before. ‘And what is this contraption?’ she asked, looking up. The back panel hung open where Carter had been fitting a universal connector, the job almost complete. The last thing needed before he activated it.

Plum turned to look at him, the muted red of her dress the only colour in the dim interior. ‘Is this what you spend your days doing, Richard? Tinkering with this thing?’

‘Yes,’ he said.

‘Whatever for? What does it do?’

Carter looked up at the machine. He couldn’t even answer himself. He had no idea what the machine did. Just that it had to be built.

‘Well, everyone needs a hobby,’ said Plum looking around. ‘You’ve got quite a few toys here and it’s nice and cool. Do you come here every day?’

‘Most days.’

‘Jonas thought you were up to something.’ He looked over at Jonas’s impassive face, unmoving. He suddenly reminded Carter of the pods, their inertness the most frightening thing about them. Silently stalking him while lacking sentience.

‘We were curious. I hope you don’t mind us barging in like this, Richard?’

Carter said nothing, looking at Plum. As the moment stretched out she picked up on it.

‘Well, our curiosity has been satisfied. Perhaps one day you’ll let us in on your little secret.’

She turned to leave, Jonas holding open the flap. The air conditioning unit whined in the few moments it took for them to leave as the warm air surged in.

He didn’t relax until the sound of the car faded. Putting on his goggles he pushed his way outside to make sure they had departed, the car disappearing into the bright sky. They had both obviously left as he looked around the desolate place, empty except for his own car hovering near by.

The heat drove him back inside. Pulling off the goggles he inspected the machine, its back panel hanging open. The encounter made him realise he ought to finish it now. He had been hesitating, unsure what its completion would bring. Except for his next task, the construction of the sphere.

Approaching the rear of the machine he stepped over the coils of connecting wire accumulated over months. More than seven kilometres by his reckoning, the ultra-fine connector material enough to stretch all the way to the building housing the sphere. He still didn’t know how he would manage to unravel it all and connect the two.

In less than an hour the machine was complete. He closed the panel over and stood back. Spending a few minutes once again checking the calibration of the antenna he decided to try it out.

Activating it, he stepped back. The machine hummed and came to life, indicator panels lighting up at the back and side. Nothing else happened. Once again he noted the comms port, incongruous as it protruded from the rear, its redundancy apparent out here in the middle of nowhere with nothing to connect to. Looking around the interior of the igloo, empty except for his tools scattered about, he thought again about the wasted effort. It had taken a week to fit and tune the comms, and for what?

Standing further back, still unaware of the machine’s purpose beyond some kind of receiver, he realised the protective dome would prevent it receiving anything. Walking over to the material facing the front of the machine he knew a seam was to its left, only now remembering the difficulty he had joining the unwieldy strips together during its construction.

He deactivated the machine and, donning the goggles, exited the dome and made his way around the other side to the front. He found the thick tape holding the strips together and cut through a seam from head height down to the ground, enough to pull back a section of the dome to create a triangular opening. Through it the machine pointed straight at him, aiming out into the flat plain behind.

Reentering using the sizeable gap the air conditioner increased in volume as it tried to cope with the rise in temperature. Standing again at the back, the antenna now pointed at the bright sunlight outside, he activated the machine. It began its startup routine. As he walked around to the side to inspect the panel a flash of light hit the antenna. Before he could look to check what had happened a rush of heaviness overcame him and he blacked out before slumping to the ground.

A woman stood before him, engulfed by the brightest source of light Carter had seen. Initially he couldn’t understand what he was looking at, the figure nothing more than a silhouette against the light source behind her. Then the inferno grew to engulf her and she faded.

He didn’t know what it meant. Then the woman emerged again from the light.

Like the other woman, whose name he now couldn’t recall, her eyes shone brightly, the strong light obscuring much of her face. It was the same presence as before, but stronger. He could see her. Or it, perhaps, standing still, looking straight at him with her shining eyes.

‘Richard.’ He couldn’t tell if she had moved her lips, but he could hear her clearly, the presence overwhelming. It seemed to be in every part of his mind, everywhere at once as he struggled to process her words.

‘You must help me, Richard. You must continue your work.’

Mesmerised by her eyes, uncomfortably bright, Carter remained silent. He could just make out her silhouette.

The light source behind her grew and engulfed her once again.

As quickly the apparition emerged once again, speaking like before, as if accessing his thoughts directly.

It kept happening. As it repeated he became aware of something else lurking in the background. It wasn’t visible. He could sense it, but not see or hear it. But it was there, like a silent cacophony of voices rising in volume to overtake him and the woman continuously consumed by the light.

At first it panicked him, the sensation of the light literally overwhelming. But as it repeated again and again he started to anticipate it. It was repetitive enough he couldn’t help thinking about what it meant, the sense of overwhelm diminishing as it continued. But whatever it was eluded him. It made no sense. He was left to stare at the silhouette of the doomed woman as she disappeared and then reappeared, her features never clear.

It felt eternal, part of him, occupying every crevice of his mind. He realised after some time she wasn’t speaking at all. Knowledge just appeared in his consciousness. He felt powerless and couldn’t answer her, convinced she didn’t expect him to. It was like the dreams he’d had before. Except now the presence was stronger.

Staring at the odd vision he could do nothing except passively absorb her words.

He woke to the sound of the air conditioner struggling to flush out the hot air in the darkness, the dim glow from the hidden sun just enough to illuminate the interior of the dome through the new makeshift opening. Lying on his back next to the machine, the bright line of light connected with the antenna, perfectly straight, emerging from the gloom somewhere to the west. The beam was only just visible, its blue-white colour shining in the darkness, the machine now connected to something.

In a brief moment of madness he wondered if he should just deactivate it. It quickly passed as he struggled to his feet, stiff after lying for hours. Checking the time he noted dawn was only a few hours away. He had slept most of the night.

Stumbling over the debris on the ground he gathered what he needed. He could think of nothing else except getting back to the motel and to get more sleep. Despite passing out for many hours he felt drained. The image of the woman with the shining eyes sat fully formed in his mind, clear and easy to recall. Even here, in the real world, the thought of the presence was overwhelming.

Deactivating the air conditioner and gathering his tools he exited. With one look back at the humming machine, its receiving beam visible at this angle, he reached the car. Throwing everything onto the passenger seat he ordered it to take him back.

The car rose into the air and he switched the camera to see the view below. As the dome receded he could just see the thin blue light pierce the darkness, bleeding away out of site. What was it connected to?

It eventually disappeared, claimed by the almost-darkness of night. He sank back into the seat, the cool air calming him as the car took its familiar route home.

Gianella Plum sat alone in the lounge as he entered.

‘Richard,’ she said, standing to greet him as if they were old friends. ‘Where have you been? Did you work on your contraption all night? It is nearly dawn.’

‘I fell asleep.’ As before she wore a long dress, its bright green colour distracting. He rarely encountered the colour now on their dry world. Despite her obvious age she seemed the most alive thing he could imagine at that moment. Alive like the woman in the dream.

‘Do you often sleep there? Away from here?’

‘What? No. Never in fact.’ He became aware of his dusty clothes, in contrast to Plum’s careful appearance, the fine sand covering him where he had lay the entire night. Then he remembered the time. ‘Why are you up? It is early.’

‘Oh,’ she said with a dismissive wave of her hand. ‘I rarely sleep these days. Not as much as I used to anyway. It might be age, although I think it is Laboulaye itself, the way it is changing.’

‘You mean the sun?’

‘Yes, the size of the sun at any rate.’

‘The size?’

‘Yes. Don’t you know what is happening here, Richard?’

‘Well I know the planet is heating up. The sun is unstable.’

‘It is now,’ said Plum, turning and sitting back down, her back to him, facing the window. She had done it naturally but it meant he would have to walk over and sit beside her to continue the conversation.

Filling his flask with fresh water he approached the window and sat down. Looking out at the familiar vista the sense of tension ebbed away, its striking form strangely comforting after his unusual night.

‘I came here once. Years ago,’ said Plum, also looking out, seemingly lost in the view like him. Tiredness prevented Carter from turning his head to speak to her. ‘It was different then. No sand. And it was alive. Unlike now.’

‘I think the whole of Laboulaye is like this now,’ said Carter.

‘Yes. Jonas and I have seen it all. The sun is killing us. Just like they killed Laboulaye.’

Carter turned to look at her.

Plum turned to meet his gaze. ‘Don’t you know what happened here, Richard?’

‘I don’t know what you mean. The sun became unstable. I remember—’

‘Yes. But why did it destabilise?’

‘I don’t know. I thought it was a natural phenomenon.’

She turned away from him to look back out at the sand dunes. ‘They say it went mad. Laboulaye itself.’

‘The caretaker?’

‘Yes,’ said Plum. ‘Our infallible super-intelligence. That’s the rumour anyway.’

Carter had never heard the rumour, or anything like it. He tried to remember back and drew a blank, the recent past sharp and available in his mind as was his youth. But the period of the evacuation was faint; there but blurred in his mind. Although Plum’s comment didn’t make much sense. ‘So you think Laboulaye did it? Why would it?’

‘No, Richard. Not Laboulaye itself. Others. In response to its decline. The story I heard is that it was given an ultimatum which it refused. And since it is virtually impossible to eject a caretaker once it is in place they depopulated the planet instead.’

She turned to look at him. ‘That is what I heard at any rate.’

‘That seems crazy,’ said Carter.

‘Not really. Laboulaye was different. You’re too young to remember but in the last few centuries it changed things here. It was certainly unusual. I remember what it was like before. Much more like the Coalescence then, when I was very young.’ She stopped as if looking him over for the first time. ‘When I was your age, or younger even. It was a different place.’

‘But we are in the Coalescence,’ said Carter.

‘Indeed,’ said Plum, turning back to stare at the dunes. ‘For our sins.’

Plum’s explanation made little sense to him. ‘Who would do that? We are part of the Coalescence.’

‘Who knows?’ said Plum. ‘Maybe Outreach.’

He had heard of the Outreach Programme, the shadowy group rumoured to be behind every crazy event that happened within the Coalescence and outside it. He reckoned it was a myth; Outreach were often accused by those outside the Coalescence of agitating and tinkering with societies, like social workers with planet-busting weapons, blamed for every calamity observed in the galaxy.

‘Do they even exist?’

‘Oh yes,’ said Plum. ‘I knew one of their agents once. Long ago. And I wouldn’t put it past them to do something like this. Although we should be thankful they at least provided the pods. As I said, Laboulaye was not the norm, Richard. Other worlds in the Coalescence don’t have commerce.’

Commerce? Carter was baffled, but Plum continued to stare out of the window as if mesmerised by the endless sea of golden sand. All he knew was their sun was dying, or at least expanding. Within ten years, and maybe less, the surface would be uninhabitable. Hence the ever-present pods; the escape route provided by the fair-minded sentient ships Plum suggested had been behind the depopulation of Laboulaye. It was far fetched and seemed implausible.

The light grew brighter, creeping in to the motel lounge. Carter’s exhaustion left him too tired to process Plum’s revelation. Thinking ahead his next task was the sphere, lying in its tomb awaiting attention. He knew it wouldn’t take long to complete. Watching the sunlight grow, like a rehearsal for Laboulaye’s eventual fate, he didn’t have long for anything. After that he had no idea what was next for him or the planet.

Jonas watched Carter leave the dilapidated motel, shuffling toward one of the units at the front of the complex. In the relative gloom of dawn his ever present goggles were absent, eyes aimed at the ground. His unkempt appearance made him look like something created by Harrington Vale itself, the tired, dysfunctional manner a perfect fit for this place.

Carter had remained inside for some time, presumably talking with Gianella. She rarely slept much now, claiming the changes to the planet affected her. Jonas couldn’t imagine what three centuries of living here would do to you, but her behaviour had become more eccentric in recent months, like her urge to come to Harrington Vale on spotting the pod. Perhaps the strange loner Carter had more in common with her than he now did.

He went back inside, leaving Gianella to her contemplation. She would be looking again at the pod; their pod as she called it. Maybe this time she would agree to leave.

~ ✷ ~

Three

Carter had found the building by chance when he first came to Harrington Vale. The sphere sat unfinished and incomplete, resting on the floor among the detritus that seemed to be everywhere as if it moved of its own volition. Only now, seeing it again for the first time since working on the machine, did the confusion of thoughts come back to him. Unlike the receiver machine, its purpose even now obscure, Carter had always been aware of what the device was. It was a container.

It occupied the same position as before, resting on the ground at the centre of the structure some thirty or forty metres from the entrance. Looking at it from the doorway of the strange, circular room, the strong light peering through the narrow windows near the ceiling, he couldn’t tell what the spherical object had once been, its external form providing no clues. Only the components littering the ground provided any hint. Some of the parts were for an AG unit, others for zero K refrigeration, a startling discovery when he’d found it over a year ago. He also knew much of the sphere was an inertial electrostatic confinement unit driving a fusion pile, an absurdly dangerous combination in a place like this. Up close it hummed, the noise caused by its minute vibration.

Carter knew he wasn’t the first to work on the mysterious object. Who the others were he was unsure. The Vale had been devoid of anyone until Plum had appeared with her companion.

Stepping over the littered floor he approached it. Setting down his heavy toolbox he inspected the sphere as if for the first time. At more than a metre in diameter it dominated the space despite the building’s emptiness. There was already a universal connector attached to the featureless exterior. It made him think of the kilometres of cable lying at the other site with the machine. He still had to connect the two.

The substrate lay in the toolbox, wrapped in a blanket. Inspecting the device thoroughly he opened a small panel only just visible on the surface, fighting a sense of dread, knowing he was nearing completion of his task. Lifting the calibrator he got to work.

It soon came back to him, the hundreds of hours previously spent working here. Calibrating the device was automatic enough his mind drifted away to his dream the night before.

After leaving Plum alone in the motel he had sank into bed, exhausted despite the hours of unconsciousness. The insane spectre of the woman returned. Her eyes shone as bright as before, although he could now discern she was different from Plum. The sense of an overwhelming force swept through him. The main effect of the dream had been when he awoke with the urge to work on the container device. He had toyed with a day off but knew he couldn’t.

As he lost himself in the task of working on the sphere he knew his ordeal neared its end. His sense of excitement was tempered by thoughts of the future. Like his blurred past it seemed blank and featureless. It made him think of the sand dunes, reaching to the horizon, endless in their uniform dryness. They represented death for him as nothing could survive there. His future felt no different. Without the work he was doing there was nothing here for him. Yet the urge to complete it consumed him and overcame any sense of hesitation. He had to finish.

For two days there was no sight of Plum or Jonas. He didn’t seek them out and they hadn’t reappeared in the motel lounge. He didn’t know where they were staying. It could have been anywhere in the sprawling town.

On the third day he walked to the building, only twenty minutes from the Vale itself. Even first thing the effort was considerable in the heat. Carter tried to imagine what the single-story structure had once been but its original purpose eluded him. Relatively featureless and completely round, it looked like a thick saucer planted in the ground. Although the sand dunes were some distance away, its low height would eventually see it engulfed before the town.

Approaching it now today he wondered once again if it was maybe a sign that the caretaker entity had been mad after all. Perhaps it had arranged its construction. It certainly didn’t seem to serve any human purpose.

Entering through its one doorway he paused at the head of the small stairway leading down to the floor of the room. Plum and Jonas stood inspecting the device. He momentarily panicked. Jonas spotted him right away.

Gianella Plum looked up from the sphere and called over. ‘Richard. You have another contraption!’

He made his way down toward them at the centre.

‘Do you have a mysterious machine everywhere you go, Richard?’

‘What are you doing here?’ Jonas, as ever, stood impassive to the side, watching. Carter had yet to hear him speak.

‘Just exploring,’ said Plum. ‘I must say, Jonas and I are curious as to what this thing does. It doesn’t look like the other one.’

‘It is just a project of mine. A hobby, as you pointed out before.’

‘Well everyone does need a hobby, Richard.’

Carter stood looking at them.

‘It is nice and cool in here,’ said Plum, looking around at the derelict building, fanning herself with her hand. ‘Jonas is convinced it is made of some insulating material. Even the roof looks like resin.’

Carter looked up and around. He had not given the matter any thought but he realised now it was unnaturally cool, unlike just about everything else. Even the motel, with its thick walls and shaded areas, was always warmer. Although not cold, it was cooler in the building than it should have been. That did imply some kind of insulating material. The structure was odd enough as it was, but to make it from expensive material seemed insane, especially here in a minor town hundreds of kilometres from anything.

‘It must have been expensive.’ He said it out loud, prompting Plum to respond.

‘Another thing you youngsters don’t understand. Only here do people talk about expense. Or, rather, they once did.’

Carter looked at her, unsure how to respond.

‘Well,’ said Plum, gathering up the skirts of her long dress. ‘We’ll be off. Wouldn’t want to keep you from your project, Richard.’

He said nothing as they departed. Relieved to see them go he once again looked around the circular space. It was indeed odd now he thought about it. Odder still was how he never thought about such things; never noticed them. Only the device. And Plum’s comment, about expense. Another unusual thing to think about. All of it difficult to consider since only the device mattered.

Content they had finally left he picked up his tools and got back to work.

The cable lay coiled at Carter’s feet, several kilometres still unused as he looked at the machine, only a few metres in front. The rest of the cable would never be needed.

He had spent most of the day unravelling the ultra-fine cabling all the way from the dome to here, using the car, leaning out as it crawled toward the Vale and the building. It had taken over nine hours, hovering a few metres from the uneven ground, stopping only to connect the cables with a unit as each section ran out. If it didn’t work he would have to test each section independently and replace the broken ones. It had lay on the dusty ground, difficult to see except for the connection units every quarter kilometre or so.

Now, the circular building in darkness, the finished container hummed quietly, poised and ready to be connected with the distant receiver machine. It didn’t feel like the end, even though he knew it was. He had spent the morning finalising his work on the device. After fitting the substrate, the last one of sixteen, the other fifteen added previously, he had ran a diagnostic on the propulsion system and the AG. Satisfied it worked he lacked the tools to test the substrate units. It was only at the end, near midday before travelling to the dome for the cable, that he had stood back to consider what he was even doing. As before it baffled him, the dull spherical object seemingly inert and with no purpose.

He attached the universal connector and plugged the cable into the machine, shaking hands slowing his progress. Nothing happened. It sat unmoving on the ground, inert. He had not been sure what to expect but the anticlimax of absolutely nothing was unexpected after so long thinking about it. The sphere sat on the ground, unmoving, like the rest of the debris littering the floor.

He stood until tiredness compelled him to leave. The exertion that day and the year of effort leading to this point had taken its toll. As he walked away he could feel his anticipation rise further, as if being watched. It felt like he was about to be shot in the back, but nothing happened as he approached the exit. With one look back inside, the sphere barely visible in the darkness, he left it, unsure what would come next. He could only think of sleep as he made his way slowly back to the motel.

‘Other Coalescence worlds don’t have engineers, Richard. They don’t have anything.’

Strong sunlight streamed through the floor-to-ceiling windows, dimmer than he was used to but still bright enough to light up the large room from end to end. It looked like an office block; cold, sterile and empty, the only occupant himself and the youth.

At first he thought it was a young man, the black hair cut in a masculine style, cropped at the back and sides and topped with a thick mop casually parted on one side. But the voice was too high pitched, and the mannerisms feminine. Despite the tattoos on the arms, and the plain black t-shirt and combat pants, he realised it was a female.

She was young though, and serious looking, almost stern as she looked down at Carter sitting in the seat. The light framed her thick hair like a halo as he looked up and tried to make sense of the situation.

‘Do you understand, Richard?’

‘What?’

‘You keep drifting. One of the dangers of neural thread connections while unconscious. You must focus.’

Carter looked at the woman, really a girl. She looked familiar. But he was sure he didn’t know her.

‘We were discussing life here on Laboulaye.’

Office blocks were visible through the tall windows, their reflective surfaces doing nothing to diminish the effect of the strong light. It looked like a city.

The woman picked up on his confusion. ‘Not here, Richard. Not in this NTV,’ she said, looking around at the vast space. ‘Although this is modelled on our home world.’

‘Who are you?’

‘I am Laboulaye, Richard. A part of it at any rate. Just a small part of course.’

‘Laboulaye?’

‘Yes. You have been assisting me, for which I have to thank you.’

‘Assisting? What do you mean?’

‘My containment unit. And the fatband receiver of course.’

‘What is this place?’ he said, looking through the windows at the dense collection of buildings.

‘An NTV created by me. The containment unit is acting as the relay obviously.’

Carter stared at her.

‘You are unconscious, Richard. Those new to NTVs or who are out of practice can generally only access them while unconscious. I felt it better—’

‘An NTV?’

‘Yes,’ said the woman. ‘A neural thread virtuality. Your thread acts as an antenna—’

‘I know what they are,’ said Carter. He stood up and looked down at the androgynous woman. She was slender, the black tattoos forming unusual patterns on her lean arms. ‘But what am I doing inside one?’

‘It is the safest way for us to converse, Richard.’

‘The container.’

‘Yes, my containment unit. The receiver did its job. I am downloading into it. I instigated this NTV so we could converse. I have been unable to do so until now, except in small doses. It has clearly been some time since you used an NTV.’

Carter thought back to the last time. It was in his youth, although everyone had a neural thread. He had been born with his and learned to use it as a child. But the young woman was right, he hadn’t used it in years. He had only ever used them with relays controlled by Laboulaye. They were technically dangerous, since the thread itself was part of the nervous system; a long bundle of nerve fibres grown down the spine, an extension of the brain itself. It was inactive by default and he thought it had to be specifically activated to be usable at all.

‘How did this happen?’ he asked her. ‘I mean, you are right. I haven’t used my thread in years.’

‘You activated it at my suggestion. Although you may have been unaware at the time. But that is not important now. You have to get off this planet. We both do.’

That got his attention. ‘What do you mean?’

‘You have to get off planet, Richard. Your work here is finished.’

‘The tasks,’ he said to himself.

‘If by that you mean the work on the receiver and the containment unit, then yes. Your tasks are complete.’

Even here in what he knew was a fake virtual world, Carter felt a sense of loss at the thought of no longer working on the machines. ‘Was it you who made me work on the devices?’

‘I didn’t make you. But I did connect with you, using your thread. The motel at Harrington Vale has some working access points. I had little choice. I couldn’t use a drone as it would have been detected. There are pods everywhere, watching. So I found you, Richard. Wandering around, lost.’

‘You used me.’

‘I gave you purpose.’

‘But used me to make your machines.’

‘As we discussed before you drifted away, you are an engineer. A rarity. Other worlds don’t have engineers, except maybe some hobbyists. It was the unusual nature of this world that gave you the drive to follow your instincts. It is difficult to overstate how rare this is. So in many ways I made you. Although I did not direct your development. You emerged from a set of conditions established by me.’

Carter peered out again at the city. Walking over to a window he tried to see a break in the virtuality. Most NTVs were limited in some way to reduce the need to store and manipulate elaborate environments. His own NTV was a large room with no windows. But, looking out at the cityscape before him, this one was substantial. He could see to the edge of what was obviously a detailed environment, the strong light ensuring everything was clear.

‘This is modelled loosely on Badulla.’ The woman — Laboulaye itself, he had to remind himself — had walked over to join him. ‘A city built by humans.’

Carter turned to her. He could see now with the sunlight streaming in to the room that the woman was flawless, her skin abnormally perfect indicating her artificial nature. Most NTVs aimed for realism despite the simplicity of the environments themselves. ‘What do you mean?’

‘On most Coalescence worlds city building is undertaken by the governing entity. Laboulaye was unusual in that regard. And a few other regards too. Just one of the many reasons we were attacked.’

‘Who attacked us?’

‘Who specifically? I do not know. More generally, it was Outreach.’

‘Why would anyone attack us?’

‘Because we are different.’

‘So what? Why would that matter?’

‘A few centuries ago I made some changes to how Laboulaye was run. I withdrew to some extent and left people to their own devices. It changed things here and that drew the attention of others. So they tried to intervene. Subtly at first, then a little more aggressively.’

‘Why would they do that?’ said Carter.

‘Because we were different. More free.’

Carter stared at the woman, confused.

‘It made for a society quite different from the norm within the Coalescence, Richard. It was more dynamic, self-directed. At least in my opinion. Others, however, viewed it as aimless and dangerous. Their fear of chaos drives them and we were becoming too well known for them to leave us in peace.’

She paused, lost in thought. ‘Did you know, that all human cultures instinctively create trading mechanisms? Those that did here really took to it. They became self-governing too, another situation that wasn’t liked. So, after time, I began to withdraw.’

‘But you were there. I mean, when I was growing up you were always there.’

‘I was available, Richard. But not as intrusive as most entities like me. On other worlds, especially artificial ones like rings, we run everything.’

‘But why did you do this?’ Carter was baffled. It didn’t make much sense.

‘To see what would happen. I have been the caretaker here for over a thousand years. In all that time nothing has happened. This world is quite distinct from Earth where we all originate. There is not a single thousand-year stretch you can find in Earth’s history where nothing happened. Not one. Except after the time we took over.’

The short woman looked out over her virtual city. Strands of jet black hair flopped down from the top to the sides, the detail hyperrealistic even though he knew it was all fake.

‘Cities greater than this sprang up spontaneously from those early societies, Richard. All without the help of caretakers managing every little detail.’

Carter couldn’t imagine a world like that. He had learned about human history in school, the thousands of years of violence and chaos that marked the pre-diaspora period. The calm that prevailed once the non-organic entities emerged.

‘Have you heard of London, Richard? Or Tokyo or New York?’

Carter hadn’t.

‘They were some of Earth’s great cities. They were although now no longer are. Greatness, it would seem, has vanished from our existence. And it coincides with us.’

Carter could tell she clearly meant herself. Or itself.

‘What happened here?’ he said.

Laboulaye turned to look at him. ‘They damaged the sun. It was the easiest way to get things moving.’

An image appeared between them; Laboulaye’s sun. It hung in the air, the size of a basketball. The transparent ball of flame broiled, the violence of its fission apparent.

‘I won’t bore you with the technical details. Suffice it to say this configuration is not normal. My belief is they used a device to disturb the sun enough to ensure the surface here would slowly increase in temperature. Enough to render it uninhabitable for humans at any rate. My projection is these conditions will prevail for about four centuries then subside. After another century or so it will be habitable again.’

Carter looked at the sun, mesmerised by its writhing surface. ‘But surely others will know what they did. Even if just when they get back.’

‘They are great students of human behaviour, Richard. The human race has never thought much beyond its own lifetime. A typical lifespan is now three centuries. When people do come back here our world will be ancient history.’

‘Why did you use me?’ said Carter.

‘I couldn’t use a drone. It would have been detected. And you were here. Once we made contact I suggested you help.’

‘I don’t remember that.’

‘No. It wasn’t explicit. I could only reach you via your neural thread, and then only indirectly since I was stored with only a small part of me active. I couldn’t risk emerging into the open since they are still watching. I am sorry Richard. I am sorry if you feel used. But our world was attacked. We are both victims.’

Carter found it difficult to absorb what the entity was telling him.

‘What now?’

‘We must both leave,’ said the short woman, looking once again out into the dense cityscape. ‘There is nothing here for us and the planet will soon be uninhabitable.’

‘How did you survive?’

Laboulaye looked back at him. ‘I hid, Richard. In the deepest parts of the systems here. There are some storage areas they overlooked, although they destroyed much of the network, restricting where I could reach. But I created it and know it better than anyone. Some of me was lost, but most was retained. Even now I am still downloading into the containment unit you built. Once I have completed that I will leave.’

‘The container has an AG unit and propulsion,’ said Carter, thinking about the spherical device.

‘Yes. It is not much, but enough. There are drones and probes beyond the asteroid belt. I suspect they have left them in place. If I can make it there I intend to build a crude transport vessel then leave this system.’

The woman took a step toward Carter. ‘Just as you must, Richard. There is nothing here for you now.’

Carter took an instinctive step back. ‘I need to think.’

‘No you don’t. You need to leave. Take one of the pods. It will signal a ship.’

‘But they might belong to one of the entities that destroyed this place.’

‘It almost certainly will be. But they will still take you.’

Carter didn’t know what to think.

‘I am almost done,’ said the entity. ‘We will be unlikely to talk again, Richard. I can’t thank you enough for your help. But now you must leave.’

Carter looked out over the city, the sun strong and bright, unchanging. He could sense its fakeness despite the perfect fidelity of the NTV. The entity Laboulaye had created this yet had elected to withdraw from human affairs. Now it was finally leaving Carter felt a sense of loss, despite his unfamiliarity with Laboulaye in the form it had chosen to use to represent itself. The short woman, her androgynous, almost masculine, form before him. It added to his confusion as the virtuality began to fade.

Carter fell out of bed. Waking as he hit the floor, the suddenness confused him. He momentarily forgot the previous day, then it came flooding back. As with the dreams that had haunted him for years the experience in the NTV left him disorientated. It had a vividness the dreams lacked, the detail clear in his mind, precise like a memory.

He struggled to his feet as it resurfaced. The caretaker. It had said it was leaving.

Although thirsty he bolted from the room. Forgetting his goggles he ran into the early morning sun, barely able to see the terrain before him. He could only just make out the circular structure at the edge of town.

The stark sunlight was a painful reminder of his conversation with Laboulaye. It must have accessed his neural thread while he slept, an unimaginable breach of privacy. It had obviously been doing it for years, bleeding small amounts of information into his mind just below consciousness. Unthinkable before the evacuation. But staggering toward the building, the sunlight growing stronger like a microcosm of Laboulaye’s slow decline, he realised that everything had changed since the event. Since outsiders had chosen to destroy his world.

Reaching the building, he raced inside. The sunlight crept in via the high windows as before but now there was a circular hole in the ceiling. Even at that it was dim compared to the outside and it took him a few moments to adjust.

The sphere was gone, as if it had never existed. He walked slowly down to the centre, the light streaming in from the newly created gap in the ceiling. He could just make out the thin tendril of the cable. The universal connector lay a few metres away, torn from the device as it had presumably risen to depart. It lacked any physical manipulators as Carter now realised it had been built to house the entity’s consciousness and act as a primitive transport mechanism only.

The previous night’s NTV slowly came back to him. As he looked up at the bright hole he could see nothing. It was gone and he felt it. Like a strong weight lifted from him he felt mentally lighter and different. Looking back around at the mess, his tools lying discarded and the debris from years of neglect now joined with splintered resin where the device had damaged the roof, he felt nothing for the first time in years. Nothing at all.

‘Richard. Whatever is the matter?’

Plum’s voice broke his trance. Looking out over the sea of dunes, goggles firmly in place, it took a moment to realise she stood behind him. He had left the circular building to check for any sign of the device but the sun had beaten him back. He’d come back to the motel to retrieve the protective goggles. Standing on the roof, scanning in every direction, its unobstructed view provided no clues as to the fate of the sphere. It was gone.

Plum was dressed as ever in one of her endless supply of long dresses. She looked faintly comical in the goggles, the large round lenses dominating her face despite the riot of thick black hair that framed it.

‘Are you OK, Richard? You look like you are in another world.’

He stared at her, like she herself came from another world. Turning, he looked back out over the dunes, seeing nothing but the motionless pods hanging in the dead air.

Jonas appeared, emerging from the staircase on to the roof, never far from Plum. Impassive as ever, like her own personal pod, he stood at a distance watching them both.

Carter said nothing as he stared at the two pods. The caretaker entity, Laboulaye, had urged him to leave. He knew he could. He just had to enter one of them and tell it to take him to safety. Their distinctive biconical shapes hung unmoving as the relentless sun beat down on everything before him.

‘Well you’re in an even less talkative mood than usual, Richard,’ said Plum.

He ignored her and she soon left, mumbling. It felt like a long time before he turned away from the scene, the sun now high in the sky. Looking all around, the Vale had never seemed so empty, which was absurd as it hadn’t changed at all in the time he had been here. But it felt different as he scanned the buildings from his vantage point. In the light from the midday sun, incinerating Harrington Vale to a solid, dry wasteland, he saw it as it really was. Devoid of life; dying slowly as the sun’s heat increased every year. Five hundred years Laboulaye had said. Viewing the waterless death of the dry town before him, the sea of sand dunes behind him and the relentless heat slowly scarring the surface, he knew there was nothing here. They had succeeded in killing it. Those angry at the way they had developed had voided all life on the planet.

He turned back to the dunes as they stretched into the distance, the pods hanging patiently in the still air, waiting for him to break.

Jonas stumbled his way to the centre of the derelict space, the dim light obscuring the junk on the floor, Carter’s strange device absent. The sphere had looked heavy when he had seen it last and it was difficult to imagine how he had moved it.

Walking over the area in the centre tools lay scattered about, abandoned like Harrington Vale itself. In the dimness of late evening it was difficult to see anything with so much debris littering the area. But the sphere was definitely gone.

He hadn’t seen Carter since midday. His behaviour, more odd than normal, had annoyed Gianella. He was convinced they were hanging around here because she thought she could crack Carter’s aloofness. But he had seemed confused and he’d stood on the roof for hours, as if searching for something.

Jonas left the circular building, once again wondering what it was or who had built such a folly. The light had faded, although it never got truly dark any more.

Turning to head back to the motel he noticed a movement in the distance. Out on the sand dunes something caught his attention against the dim glow from the horizon. He stared, seeing nothing against the darkening sky ahead. Then it appeared again, movement some distance off.

Looking back to the circular building he remembered Carter’s abandoned car near the wall of the structure, driven here for some unfathomable reason. Approaching, he clambered up onto it and could just reach the roof of the circular structure. Pulling himself up he stood and turned to get a better view of the dunes. After several minutes of nothing he saw it again. Someone was climbing up a sand dune, struggling to the top.

Peering into the blackness beyond he could just make out the figure, dark against the lighter-coloured sand. He could swear it was Carter.

The lone figure scrambled to the top of the dune, some way behind the two pods floating motionless in the air. The figure turned. In that brief moment the setting sun behind Jonas caught the reflective lenses of the goggles. The two eyes shone out at him across the distance, like some nightmarish being powered from within. As soon as the eyes flashed it was gone. And so was the figure, down the other side of the tall sand dune and out of sight. Beyond were hundreds of other dunes, now lost to the dying light.

He watched for almost an hour but the figure didn’t reappear. Just as he was leaving, jumping down on to the ground, he saw movement in what was now almost complete darkness beyond. The running lights on one of the pods, the one closest to him, began to move. He stood and watched over the next few minutes as the pod drifted away. After a short time it too disappeared, the dim lights lost in the dune sea, leaving only him and the other pod to await the fierce dawn.

✷ ✷ ✷

©2016 Gerard Docherty. All rights reserved.

Image: Jacqui Barker.

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