Table of Contents
A Solitude of Stars
Over The Hill
TO SLIDE? NOT TO slide? On all fours, head down, eyes closed to keep the flashing lights at bay. He held himself rigid on a polished parquet floor, his claws digging in to stop his paws slipping out from underneath his body. Stick thin. Clearly defined ribs. All elbows and points and scabs. A neglected hound. He had lost all sense of time, here in the deeps. He was hollowed out. He used the hunger as way of holding on to something that he remembered vaguely as a reality.
The sound of breaking glass, away to his left in a room just two doors down from his own. Miloš the dog, alone, listening to the glass break and the winds of the void sucking at his bones. The sound of glass and wind and faint peals of laughter beyond the door were a repeating theme, one of a number of cycles of hallucination that he had to endure. These were the bouts of madness that dog Miloš had to live through in order to surface momentarily in the real. He was trained. Once upon a time he had been conditioned for this, back in the kennels… No, he thought, that was wrong, but he could neither make shape nor sense of his memories. It was enough that he remained a good dog.
He barked twice, hearing words in his head. “Good boy!”
He licked his lips and wondered whether the laughing demons beyond the door would put a bowl of cool water out for him this time. He had long since given up on solids. He felt like howling. He felt a paw slip to the side. He belly-growled and dug his claws even harder into the wooden floor, determined not to slip any further this time. He felt that dread shift in the world. A faint shimmer as the rules of the construct twisted in his head. The floor turned to glass. He howled now, long and hard and desperate. His legs slowly splayed apart and his body sank towards waiting mouths full of row upon row of sharply serrated teeth, mouths hanging in the darkness just below the cracking glass.
A beacon. A signature written in digital cuneiform. Crude symbols and broken dialects. Hand-paintings on a galactic cave wall. The signals were leading him substantially off the beaten track, in every sense of the phrase, but that was good. These signals, these faint echoes in the darkness, suggested that as yet the artefact was unpicked. There might still be flesh on the bone. Out here, where star-weeds tumbled on solar winds, this unknown relic was definitely something of interest to a wandering and financially speculative astro-archeologist.
Wardour Praed could stand a minor detour about now. The last couple of folds had proven substantially barren, and he needed a diversion, no matter how improbable the outcome. Months of isolation wore a man down. Having a purpose, having a target vector, helped to keep the weirdings at bay. Praed could invoke a host of creatures to keep him company out in the wilds, but he chose not to use artificials. He liked the silence because it gave him time to think fantastic thoughts, but every so often, a diversion was called for, and this particular artefact, at a couple of light years distance was nothing more than an hour or two of divergence from an essentially random flight plan in his ageing but favourite Foldship. The Mothership, the RV Howard Carter, was berthed at a convenient hold point in the greater fold. Praed had all the time in the galaxy to do something irrational.
He double-checked the navigational computations and projected a positive thought to his embedded neural interface. The ship seemed to hunker down slightly, and his gel suit applied a gentle pressure around his seated body. The ship entered what he liked to think of as deep contemplation. The navigation system started to fold space as if it were a kirigami master folding a piece of paper into thin strips and cutting a hole near each of the left hand creases, so that he and the ship traversed vast distances in a series of short and simple steps. It would take a couple of hours to complete the journey. When the ship unfolded this particular piece of super-strange galactic paper he would be light years distant, sitting in perfect peace and harmony at the paper’s far edge, right next to the beacon source.
As he waited, cocooned in the spherical bubble at the rear of his ship’s long and thin folding needle, Praed ran through the numbers and the deep-scan analysis one more time. Having an accurate, albeit embellished, data stream would be an essential prerequisite for publication on the academic casts. The evidence amassed so far was vague but tantalising. The initial broadcast data could have been dismissed as cosmic microwave background interference, but one of the learned search algorithms on board the RV Howard Carter had recognised a long dormant cue-form. An ancient communications protocol. Once the machines had recognised the command protocols, working out basic coordinates and idents was straightforward. Data analysis completed during Praed’s subsequent folds suggested a ranged likelihood that the artefact was between three and five thousand years old. Not the oldest off-world human relic, but as an apparently live and extant entity, it was tantalising.
Praed allowed his thoughts to wander forward. He drifted beyond speculation and saw a somewhat idealised version of his current self, standing mid-centre in a Tri-D lecture. He would hold the audience in the palm of his hand. He would walk them through the discovery of a rocket ship, or perhaps an ion drive machine, or, best of all, given the likely date range, one of the earliest, tokamak derived, fusion ships. Praed stopped in mid imaginary sentence, milking the anticipation of his galactic audience. He squared up and offered his best profile. He would be magnificent, the youngest and most acclaimed Professor of astro-archeology this side of the galactic core. He grinned.
The countdown clock in his head ticked away slowly and evenly, even though his mental perception of speed and distance was ablaze. Praed let slip the fantasy and zeroed in on the beacon signal. With each fold, with each leap towards his target, he paused the ship for a second or two, acquired the signal again, and focussed a little more sharply on the data stream. There would be twelve folds and two edges to navigate. With each fold completed, his on-board machines would learn more. He would become aware, just as they did. Fold five revealed a definite pattern. The data signature was fundamentally and primitively digital. That put the source out there towards the five thousand standard year mark. Exciting stuff.
By fold nine, Praed was confused. The overt digital signal was a false marker. His own tech had failed to spot a sub-carrier wrapped up within the bogus outer envelope. The signal was using a quantum light carrier to generate a cloaking field. A basic form of encryption largely forgotten now. It was old and crude, but nonetheless effective and disappointing for that. Praed now estimated the beacon to herald from somewhere in the mid date range. Around three and a half thousand standard years. Almost certainly a later model fusion drive. Praed felt robbed by stealth technology that was so basic and yet impressively stubborn. He sighed audibly as his soaring imagination crashed back down towards the ground. He was almost certainly on a wild goose chase. The artefact was probably junk. Jettisoned detritus, marked simply as a courtesy to other ships.
By fold eleven, Praed had a name. Ellengowan. The old girl was off grid. Praed could feel his sense of anticipation deepen again. He slipped back easily into a tense and expectant frame of mind. An unknown ship. Unregistered. Lost to the data mines and the registers and the archived manifests. He trawled the standard texts and found an obscure link. Back end of the first expansion. Companies and missions and religious miscreants setting out on their fragile wings buoyed by their misguided prayers. He might, he thought, just might pull it off. He continued to search the archives, but in vain, for any reference to a starship by the name of Ellengowan. Praed did, however, find one vague mention of a prehistoric Earth vessel that sailed a planetary sea. He speculated wildly. A lost starship from the missionary era. That would be too much. A fantasy story for children. The sort of fantastic story that he had loved from his own nursery days – and a healthy payday to boot.
Incoming data. A security protocol. Embedded telemetry. The probing of the beacon signal by Praed’s interrogation devices triggered a fluctuation in the sticky quantum flow. A photon, held in secure containment aboard the target artefact, twitched when its endlessly repeating clone was read by the incoming archeological survey Foldship’s intelligent machines. The data casket, long ago dropped by the exploring Ellengowan, attempted to contact its protected message vector, Miloš Forty-three.
Miloš. Dog and man. The form varied depending on the level of psychosis. Once again he found himself on all fours. The fundamental question remained the same. To slide? Not to slide? He squatted with his head down, his eyes closed to keep the flashing lights at bay. He held himself rigid on a polished parquet floor, his fingers and toes splayed and held rigid to stop his hands and feet from slipping out from underneath his body. Miloš was stick thin, showing clearly defined ribs above a distended belly. He was all elbows and knees and points and scabs. A neglected and malnourished waif. He had lost all sense of time, here in the deeps. He was hollowed out. He used the hunger as way of holding on to reality.
The sound of breaking glass, away to his left in a room just two doors down from his own. Miloš, the man, was alone. He listened again to glass breaking and the winds of the void sucking at his bones. The sound of glass and wind and faint peals of laughter beyond the door were a repeating theme, one of a number of cycles of hallucination that he had to endure. These were the bouts of madness that man Miloš had to live through in order to surface momentarily in the real. He was trained. Once upon a time he had been conditioned for this, back in Holy Orders… No, he thought, that was wrong, but he could neither make shape nor sense of his memories. It was enough that he remained a faithful man.
“Good boy.” He said it out loud twice, hearing the words echo off the walls of his penitential cell. “Good boy!”
The voices on the wind were faintly odd this time, though. He tilted his shaggy head to hear better. The demon laughter seemed different and more compelling than in his usual hallucinations. More urgent. There was a definite sound now. A shape was forming in his head. He held his breath. He dare not open his eyes or look up. The lights would blind him. He felt a deep sense of dread. The voices were almost clear. He heard changes and clicks and softer roundings. The image forming in his head became ever-sharper. A ship. A great sailing ship, four-masted and fully-rigged. She was there for a moment, a shape looming in the fog, and then she was gone. Miloš’s sense of dread deepened. Was it the black ship that came in the night darks to take bad creatures away? He felt the construct twitch yet again. His self-image flipped. He cowered down, wrapping his tail between his legs and putting his ears back in abject submission. Bad dog!
The worlds in his head misted and fell away. He licked his lips and wondered whether the laughing demons beyond the door would put a bowl of cool water out for him this time. He had long since given up on solids. He felt like screaming. The night ships were out there. Bad man! Bad dog! He looked down and saw human limbs extending beneath his furred body. He felt a hand slip to the side. He growled out his defiance and pressed his fingers even harder into the wooden floor, determined not to slip any further this time. He felt again that dread shift in the world, but this time the shift was piratical and utterly insane. The floor turned to ice. He howled now, long and hard and desperate. His knees and hands slowly splayed apart and his distended and empty belly sank towards waiting mouths full of row upon row of sharply serrated teeth, mouths hanging in the darkness just below the cracking ice.
A final series of checks. Simple thrust manoeuvres. Edging closer. Defensive deep-scans running across local space. Tempting little decoys were a stock in trade of renegades, robbers and privateers. Praed wanted to get out of this with his prize intact. His machines were slowly establishing communications protocols with the as yet unclassified object’s on-board systems, primitives showing significant functional degradation and decay. Creating a meaningful dialogue across millennia would take some time, and Praed was once again beginning to wonder whether even the meagre effort of folding his way across two light-years of unmapped void was going to offer up anything other than three thousand year old refuse.
The object was in visual range now. A dull, pock-marked oblong box, its surface ragged and scoured by radiation and dust and the extreme malaise affected by almost eternal stagnation. A remnant energy field flickered ineffectually at random points around the object’s shell. The one saving grace in the data stream was a snatched and broken decode. Analysis showed that the object appeared to hold a data cache but the vector was obscure. Predictives suggested that the object’s systems did not, themselves, appear to be the data cache. Praed’s mood swung back towards the positive. He drew a simple conclusion. Whatever the outer shell might be, it appeared that this scruffy old box of tricks had been designed to hold something worth protecting through millennia of decay and slow destruction.
Praed pushed the Foldship to within two thousand metres of the object and then spun the needle out and to the rear so that his command bubble faced directly onto the found artefact. Using minimal invasive thrust, Praed edged closer, opening up the bubble’s observation panel so that he could see the thing with his own eyes as well as on visual and tactical displays. It was such a small and insignificant thing. The object reminded him of an ancient sarcophagus that he had once seen in a childhood visit to an old-world museum. The weathered surface of the box looked just like pitted and cracked stone. Now that Praed thought about it, he was impressed that such a primitive machine could survive out here for so long and still retain some residual function.
At five hundred metres, Praed cut the last residual thrust and allowed the Foldship to coast in towards the artefact with a glacial velocity. He maintained a constant set of scans, wary of defensive threats as well as of his own vessel’s bow wave potential to damage such a fragile thing. His command seat was at the forward edge of the spherical bubble, with the whole unit being just large enough to accommodate a man and the machines required to keep him alive and to run the Foldship. Behind the bubble, mimicking a stubby thorax, was an open storage bay. A simple field generator had already been deployed so that Praed could pull the object into that storage bay using light-touch energy traction. Quarantine drones hovered around the casket, providing constant updates and telemetry. Praed’s on-board machines were delving ever deeper into the casket’s substrates and intelligences.
Praed’s eyelids fluttered as he monitored a host of outputs and analytics. That’s odd, he thought, as another layer of security features in the artefact’s core command set finally yielded to an adapted challenge. Praed pulled the resulting analysis into a three dimensional holograph and spun the shapes and the streams around as he tried to make sense of the data. Familiar shapes swirled into half-formed patterns before breaking apart again in cascades of data and code snippets.
He swallowed hard, mouthing, “Oh my… Oh my…”
Praed was momentarily lost for words. He felt his skin prickle and tingle. His heart skipped in his chest. He kept repeating those two words.
“Oh my… Oh my…”
Taking shape in the data stream, becoming flesh and blood before his wide, blue eyes, Praed saw the unmistakable shape of a man forming. More than that. The data sets on screen and in the holographic display matched. Praed opened his mind to the machines and let the cascade flood into his head. There was no mistaking this. The simulation running in his head clearly showed that the man was both a functional being and had no significant augmentation. The creature was still basically an ape.
Praed almost swooned in his seat. He felt faint. He could barely speak. He felt a hard lump settle in his throat.
“Oh my…” he said out loud one final time.
Praed had hit the jackpot.
The casket was designed to respond to specific protocols based on neo-Careyist signatures and motifs. The constant click-over of fusion clocks meant nothing to the waiting intelligence. The casket had a simple mission: deliver the data to a sympathetic host. The fact that the Ellengowan and her mothership, the Southern Cross, had long ago faded out of human memory, was systemically immaterial. The clocks ticked on. The casket waited.
The casket tried to make sense of this new situation. The data vector was in a deeply psychotic state, made all the worse by the unexpected and unusually long wait for data collection. The data vector’s general mental situation was then exacerbated by the resulting rationing of essential supplies. The casket had ceased to provide any but the most essential psychotropic treatments over a thousand years previously. The hosted human form remained locked in stasis, in deep freeze, and would likely never thaw, at least in any meaningful aspect. The mind, the uploaded sense of Miloš Forty-three, remained viable however, and through that vector the casket would deliver knowledge of a Godless galaxy to the Mission. Miloš must, therefore, be protected, but the invasive, this unknown interrogator was using techniques sublimely beyond the casket’s defensive computational capabilities. A next step was required. The machine faced an unfavourable final option.
As the casket intelligence and its fading sub-systems battled with the intruder, they found out quickly that they suffered with one huge handicap. Making sense of the situation required a fully-functioning machine intelligence, capable of working in lock-step with some reasonably sane human input. The machine, while still patchily functional, suffered with deep memory loss. The hosted human body was essentially inert. The human mind, although active, was far beyond the rational. Nevertheless, Miloš, whatever state he might be in, could be called back from his long sojourn in purgatory. The machine intelligence considered this for a moment before making an alternative and definite decision.
The uploaded and psychotic mind of Miloš Forty-three would compromise an already catastrophic situation. Instead, the casket intelligence responded like a punch-drunk boxer as it attempted to parry another wave of invasive dissembler code. It failed and fell back upon its last quantum redoubt, held up only by metaphorical ringside ropes. Another layer of security was peeled away. Options were limited. A prime directive. Destroy the data if all else was lost. Swarming flights of alien code bugs were inside the machine‘s inner core. The casket machine mind tried to invoke a fatal fission reaction.
That final self-destructive command broke upon a virtual fist formed by the invading code swarm.
To slide was no longer an option. Miloš floated in the void, looking up at the broken ice floes, staring out into the flashing lights as the ravening mouths below him ripped ineffectually at a fading image of his bare back. All flesh and fur and viscera had been stripped from him now. His bones had been gnawed to the marrow and the last flakes of his physical being drifted down towards the floor of the universe. He felt no pain. He felt no pressure or weight. The hunger pangs were a distant memory. Miloš wondered why he had struggled on for so long. This descent into final madness was an unexpectedly warm and welcome relief.
It occurred to Miloš as he drifted downwards that this sense of warmth, this sense of unity and peace, was almost rational. He had a feeling of limitless time, during which he had fought claw and nail to escape the hungering, and now, when he should finally have been consumed, he felt as though he were being released. The chains that had bound him for so long were loosening. He felt light-headed. Miloš twisted in the void, dropping through a wall of fading teeth, settling slowly onto a hard metal floor
He was on all fours again, with his head down and with his eyes closed to keep at bay those bright lights in this strange space. He held himself rigid on a metal grating, his claws digging into the grooves. There was no danger of his paws slipping out from underneath his body. Miloš looked at his re-emergent physical form. He remained stick thin. Clearly defined ribs. All elbows and points and scabs. He was truly a neglected hound. Unlike those long, dark days in that long ago world of timeless pain, he now felt a distinct sense of place and space and progression, here in the shallows. He no longer felt hollowed out. He sensed things viscerally. He was, he supposed, somewhere close to the real.
The sound of breaking glass, away to his left in a room just two doors down from this strange space. How, he wondered, did he know that? He was Miloš the dog, alone, listening to the glass break and the winds of the void sucking at his bones. The sound of glass and wind and faint peals of laughter beyond the door were a repeating theme, a cycle of hallucination that he remembered. He recalled ancient bouts of madness that dog Miloš had lived through, but now, at last, he had surfaced in the near-real. He was trained. Once upon a time he had been conditioned for this, back in the kennels… No, he thought, that was wrong, but he could still neither make shape nor sense of his memories. It was enough that he remained a good dog.
“Good boy.” He barked twice, hearing words in his head. “Good boy!”
He licked his lips and wondered whether the laughing demons beyond the door would pat him and nuzzle him and join in with the new pack bonding. He felt like howling.
His ears flicked backwards as he heard a door slide open in a wall behind him. He stood rigidly, gripping the grating ever harder. He belly-growled, determined to let the demon in the light know that, as famished and weak as he appeared, this dog was still vital. He felt that dread shift in the world. Miloš felt and saw a faint shimmer as the rules of the construct twisted in his head. The floor turned to flowing water. He howled now, long and hard and desperate.
A vaguely familiar voice spoke to him.
“Over to you, now, Miloš…”
The flowing currents strengthened and his legs were swept away from underneath his body. The undertow dragged him down. He fought for clear air, but the waters pulled and tugged him under. He opened his mouth to howl one last time, and knew for sure, as the waters filled his mouth and nostrils and lungs, that he was a dead dog. The last thing he saw as he sank towards the riverbed was a wall of disembodied fish mouths full of row upon row of sharply serrated teeth, mouths swarming towards him in the shadowed floodwater depths.
Praed had slept a little during the return hop to the RV Howard Carter. His true physical need for rest was limited, plugged up as he was with ship systems and nutrient feeds and stimulants. He found, however, that a moment or two of deeper meditation helped him to clear away the competing confusions inherent in manipulating multi-threaded data streams. He wanted to focus on a single challenge. He wanted to concentrate on the enigma that was, he now knew, called Miloš Forty-three
The ship’s folding needle slid into a perfectly fitted sheath within the body of the main vessel, so that only the command bubble remained exposed to the outer void. The bubble nestled in the centre of a flat forward facing disk, behind which an array of pods and cylinders and randomly shaped habitats were tethered to a central spine. At imprecise intervals folding needles protruded from that spine like the spines of a sea urchin, pointing in all directions except on the forward plane. Within the body of the vessel, in preparation for transfer to the main archeolab, the data casket was already being transferred to a mag-loop that ran along the ship’s central spine. Praed monitored progress while he slowly and methodically unhooked himself from the umbilicals and the feed lines and data connectors that had bound him in his Foldship-world these last few hours. Aboard the RV Howard Carter he had a little more space to roam. He cleaned up a couple of the wet interface points on his forearms and chest. Then, naked as the day he was born, he ambled into the main body of the ship on bare and hairless feet.
He dressed in a simple wraparound robe, all the while tracking the casket as it moved deliberately along the ship’s spine and into the main lab. He watched as his machines analysed and then fabricated interfaces that would connect him directly to the ancients. The interfaces would take another couple of hours to complete and then hook into the casket’s remaining operational constructs. For now, the casket lay inert and dull, presenting a minimal operational signature to scans and probes. All bar the core life support systems had already been stripped bare. There remained the creature’s physical body, held in cryo-stasis, and now enhanced with Praed’s own medical devices. There also remained a stubborn knot of data stores that had, so far, resisted decryption. Analysis indicated an active but closed substrate. He was certain now that this was where the treasure was buried.
While systems and programmes and probes did their work, Praed pored over the results of his earlier investigations. The casket and its cargo were early human in origin. Internal casket records identified the cargo as Miloš Forty-three, a clone data vector, carried by a missionary ship, the Ellengowan, launched around the middle of old Earth’s thirty-fifth century. By standard reckoning that made the artefact just short of four thousand years old. Operational records indicated a deployment at least a millennia after that launch date. The casket itself was a basic but robust cryo-system designed to maintain a human body as a source of data. The closed circuitry at the heart of the machine was, Praed guessed, a mind construct, similar in function to his own neural networks, but massively more primitive.
Praed reviewed key status data. Even with his own advanced meds and machines in place, the physical body would be unlikely to survive an awakening. From a presentational point of view, the ape within would never amount to much more than a curiosity. Useful for advertising, but a freak show exhibit at best. Praed would ensure that the basic casket and cadaver combination remained viable, at the very least as a part of his private collection, but they alone would not make the impact that he had hoped for. As for the casket’s more advanced operational coding, that would offer a small insight into primitive systems and logic, but their patched and decayed nature would once again be unlikely to offer any deep research opportunities. No, thought Praed, no. The true value lay in the contained mind, a mind that, so far, had eluded all of his machine-lead interventions.
The intelligence aboard the RV Howard Carter was significantly greater in range and capability than that aboard the small Foldship that Praed had used to go out and fetch the casket. Praed thought through a series of options, guiding the machines as he sipped orange juice, and waited for the next phase response to his suggestions. So guided, the machines skipped through trillions of combinations and adaptations every second, probing for weaknesses or doorways.
Time and expectation. No matter the distance and the relativistic switchbacks, no matter the breadth and scale of Praed’s experience travelling across the heavens, he remained as prone as the next impecunious wanderer, to impatience. He preferred to let the machines do the talking, but so far, the only glimmer of hope lay in a direct, mind-to-mind interface. The casket’s core data construct remained stubbornly closed to machine intelligence, but did offer a single pathway for an upload. Praed felt that he had few options. He wanted to know what was in the box. He wanted to know, once and for all, whether his little jaunt would lead to a magical moment of true serendipity.
He paced his quarters for a few minutes longer, mulling over this one option. The construct was primitive and the tunnel into it was narrow and restricted. He would have to take precautions, both in shoring up the tunnel walls and in limiting his exposure to the mind within. There could be no telling what state such a primitive mind might be in. Praed flash-read studies of extreme isolation. Catatonia seemed the best bet. He should, he decided, also arm himself against the saddest of all outcomes: his own disappointment.
Praed lay on a medical station platform, once again tubed and wired and logged into the machine world. He liked to imagine himself as a dragonfly in these situations. He hovered above a pond, dark and deep, watching for signs of prey. He felt the breeze on his wingtips, and he flicked this way and that, orienting himself, bearing down on the slowly spinning whirlpool at the heart of the pond. This would be his visualised point of entry into the alien landscapes of the data casket. He buzzed across the water’s surface, sensing the tension and the cold, looking for signs of the body and the mind that lay deep and dark upon the sediments at the bottom of the world. In his mind’s eye he checked and checked again that his avatar was ship-shape. He was a moment away from the final flicker and switch. He would step out of the natural world and let his mind fall into the whirlpool. He would be wrapped in neural gossamer, running security programmes and defensive firewalls. He would sit at the centre of his digital cocoon just as if he was once again skipping across vast skies in his Foldship.
His sense of his own shape morphed and he became a bullet, spinning into the whirlpool with sudden and explosive mass and velocity.
Injection into the casket construct was almost instantaneous. There was a microsecond of blackout, but Praed was confident. Data and analysis showed all systems in the green. He opened his machine eyes and started to assemble data and cues and parameters. He deployed perimeter defences and then armed himself with body-formed shielding fields. He was dressed in black, sporting the virtual equivalence of a traditional katana strapped across his back. Praed’s machine entity recorded every aspect of his incursion into the casket’s data layers. He wanted to look the part when he published his academic paper. Praed smiled to himself as he slowly spun around, taking in the scenery. He had a working title in his head: The Tomb of the Ellengowan Ape, a play on the original Howard Carter’s account of discovery in the Valley of the Kings.
Praed turned full-circle and faced into the empty construct space, with the tunnel, his entry point, being squarely at his back. He took a single pace forward, carefully checking that his perimeter defences and his personal shields remained in lock-step. He had to pace himself. Deep in the heart of an alien machine there might be a lag between his pre-thought, his own movement, and the corresponding alignment of his defensive protocols. At this stage, alone as he appeared to be, he remained highly cautious. All seemed to be well. The comms and data links back to the outside world were effective. His prone physical body was in a relaxed and dormant state. His avatar was, quite clearly, the most advanced piece of kit in this virtual world, used to bearing only the mind of one primitive ape.
Praed set his own mind to the question of communication. He had loaded a translation protocol before his injection, and based on the programmed command sets used by the casket, he thought that he had a more than even chance of making himself understood should he make a new acquaintance. Happy with those options, Praed tried a short run. His secure fields maintained perfect alignment. He adjusted his visuals, lightening the inputs so that he could make more sense in the darkness.
There appeared to be no structure. The space within the construct appeared to be a contained void. Dark and deep and blank save for the sensation of the unseen floor upon which he walked. Praed’s heart sank a little. He continued to walk forward, mapping the space, until he felt that he was somewhere near the centre. That was when his sense of solitude slipped. Praed felt the hairs on his virtual skin stand upright. He started to think about sweat. His mechanistic heart skipped a beat. Something was circling around the outer perimeter wall, heading down and behind him towards the tunnel entrance.
Praed brought a full scan and diagnostic sweep to bear on the skulking creature by the far wall. He had to wait a second longer than he thought necessary. The delay felt like a repeat of the injection blackout. He shook his head, as if he might reconnect a loose pathway, but all the scans revealed was a slightly darker patch in the void. Praed upped the sensitivity of his virtual probes. Maybe, he thought, these apes had been a little more capable than he had given them credit for. He sought and retrieved an enhanced visual mapper, loading it into his virtual brain with the flicker of an eyelid. He looked again at the far wall. The creature had come to a stop beside the tunnel entrance. Praed watched, dumbfounded, as the tunnel entrance wavered and then snapped out of view.
“Not… not possible…” he muttered to himself. His comms links had already switched to their quantum backup state. He was no longer hard-wired through the tunnel. He called up a deep-scan of the construct. He shook his head again. The scan was blank. Not even he was showing on the analysis. Praed hesitated. He felt like a small child, suddenly lost in a sea of tree trunks, surrounded by traps and snarks and lures. He was genuinely scared.
Praed urgently requested emergency extraction. He heard nothing but static. He tried again. Silence. He had no extant sense of the paired super-weird photon links that underpinned his normal worldview. Praed was orphaned. He checked his local defences, which gave him a momentary sense of wellbeing and respite. His local systems remained online and functional. Praed breathed deeply. He laughed nervously. Human reactions persisted in the construct. He reminded himself that there was no air in the machine mind. Praed took a step towards the now closed tunnel entrance. He held out both hands in supplication and started to broadcast what he hoped were words of peace.
*Miloš stood on all fours, head level with his rippling shoulders, eyes open to keep the prey in line of sight. He held himself rigid on a polished black marble floor, his claws scratching at the surface as his roughened pads gave him purchase. He was a prime specimen, an alpha-male, defined and honed and maliciously perfect. His flanks bristled with intent. His tail twitched in anticipation. Miloš, the dog, was all teeth and claw and violence. A hunting wolf. He had lost all sense of time, here in the deeps. He was famished after the long trek northwards. He used the hunger as a way of holding on to something that he remembered. The kill was his reality.
The sound of breaking glass, away to his left in a room just two doors down from this space. Miloš, the wolf, was alone with his prey, listening to the glass break and the winds of the void sucking at his bones. The sound of glass and wind and faint peals of laughter beyond the door were a repeating theme, one of a number of cycles of hallucination that he had to endure. These were the bouts of madness that wolf Miloš had to live through in order to surface momentarily in the real. He was trained. Once upon a time he had been conditioned for this, back in the days of the pack… No, he thought, that was wrong, but he could neither make shape nor sense of his memories. It was enough that he remained a strong wolf.
“Good boy.” He growled deeply, hearing words in his head.
He licked his lips and wondered whether the laughing demons beyond the door would put a bowl of cool water out for him after the kill. He felt like howling. He felt a paw slip to the side. He belly-growled and dug his claws even harder into the polished marble floor, determined not to slip as he began the circling. The prey creature advanced towards him. Miloš Forty-three tensed, moving in slowly, switching left and then right, inching closer, closing the circle. He felt that dread shift in the world. A faint shimmer as the rules of the construct twisted in his head. The floor turned to a carpet of moss and pine needles. Overhead he saw a bright, full moon beyond the crowns of countless Douglas firs. He howled now, long and hard and desperate. His claws bit into the softly yielding earth of the forest floor. One more bound. His back legs coiled and launched him through the air at the startled doe. He felt a flash of pain as his teeth sank into a neck. Something bright and cold and razor sharp bit into his flank. Twin bodies dissolved in a mingling of blood and tissue.
Drifting in a fold, held in a stationary position between the world and the mists of vast time and distance, two bodies lay aboard a Foldship, both in their relative states of stasis, waiting for redemption. Within the substrates and layers and machines of the RV Howard Carter, twin creatures drifted in the virtual void, looking up at broken ice floes, staring up and out into the flashing lights of the real, as ravening mouths below them ripped ineffectually at their fading cadavers. All flesh and fur and viscera had been stripped from them now. Their bones had been gnawed to the marrow and the last flakes of their physical beings drifted down towards the floor of the universe.
Neither Miloš Forty-three nor Wardour Praed felt any more pain. They felt no pressure or weight. Miloš wondered why he had struggled on for so long, but as he twisted and looked into the shocked eyes of his companion, he felt that it would be good to have a friend. Their descent into final madness was an unexpectedly warm and welcome relief.
It occurred to Miloš as he drifted downwards that this sense of warmth, this sense of unity and peace, was almost rational. He had a feeling of limitless time, during which he had fought claw and nail to escape the hungering, and now, when he should finally have been consumed, he felt as though he was being given the blessing of companionship. The chains that had bound him for so long still held firm, but he was no longer alone in the void. He felt light-headed. Miloš twisted, dropping through a wall of fading teeth, settling slowly onto a muddy river floor. He pulled his new companion down and held the creature’s rigid and frozen body in his arms. He remembered those days, when the shock of eternal isolation first consumed his sanity.
Miloš blinked and he was on all fours again, with his head down and his eyes closed to keep at bay those bright lights in this strange space. He felt the presence of another hound. He held himself rigid on a metal grating, his claws digging into the grooves. There was no danger of his paws slipping out from underneath his body. Miloš looked at his emergent body. He remained stick thin. Clearly defined ribs. All elbows and points and scabs. He was truly a neglected hound. He opened his eyes and looked at his pack mate. A cowering wreck of an animal. He nuzzled up and licked at the poor creature’s ears.
The sound of breaking glass, away to his left in a room just two doors down from this strange space. How, he wondered, did he know that? He was Miloš the dog, but he was no longer alone. These twin creatures were listening to the glass break and the winds of the void sucking at their bones. The sound of glass and wind and faint peals of laughter beyond the door were a repeating theme, a cycle of hallucination that he remembered. He recalled ancient bouts of madness that dog Miloš had lived through, but now, at last, he had surfaced in a different place. He was trained. Once upon a time he had been conditioned for this, back in the kennels… No, he thought, that was wrong, but he could still neither make shape nor sense of his memories. It was enough that he remained a good dog.
“Good boys.” He barked twice to reassure his new companion, hearing the words in his head.
He licked his lips and wondered whether Mother Isabella would approve. He felt like howling. He felt joy in a job well done. The pack was safe. The data was safe. He was no longer alone. He was sure that Mother Isabella had said those words all those years ago.
His tail wagged. He panted. He licked at his companion’s ears once again, and the poor wretch turned a dread eye upon Miloš. Praed, dog Praed, knew that he was trapped. Dog Miloš bounced in front of dog Praed, then sat back on his haunches, threw his snout up to the moon and started to howl.
Praed felt the madness in his head rise, and he too started to howl.