“Is the pressure getting to you, dear ?” The tone of Lady Forthwith-Huntington’s question was not solicitous.
Lady Forthwith-Huntington stood in the middle of a vast unwalled pillared chamber, on a dais of polished serpentine, around which flowed burbling waters. Four dark towering fountains, intricately carved in the shape of fantastic animals and inlaid with glowing gems, fed the waters. Surrounding the fountains lay a narrow beach of black sand, behind which in every direction stood a dark tropical forest. On all four sides of the chamber, the forest ended in mountain ranges, cunningly fashioned to provide the illusion of great distance and height.
Above the mountains, a thin band of the sky glowed pink with the last moments of twilight. In the dark above the twilight as in frames, the heavens were filled with the beauties of the universe: a spiral galaxy dominated one, a glowing, ghostly nebula another, a galaxy cluster another, and a ringed gas giant the last.
In each corner stood an onyx column, slender, deeply fluted, with a florid Corinthian capital, set, like the fountains, with glowing gemstones. Across the ceiling spread the Great Galactic Wall, strands of galaxies like pearls against a field of black. The entire structure, a thousand meters to the side and a thousand tall, was alive with subtle movement and sounds at the edge of hearing. The Construct was, it had to be admitted, beautiful.
Mistress Elizabeth Boward-Campanile knelt atop one of the black columns, her forearms held parallel above her bowed head, holding up the capital. Three other women topped the remaining columns in similar postures, their onyx bodies motionless.
“No, m’lady.” At that moment, a slight tremor passed through the entire structure. “Then what was that, pray tell?” One of Lady Forthwith-Huntington’s hands now rested on her hip.
Intelligences that might be called life forms gathered in the dark voids between the luminous galactic filaments. Presences were projected; some were present to the others merely as persistent ideas. A few had even arrived in space ships. The Greater Intelligences did not judge, but accepted whoever came in good will.
The gathering had taken 500,000,000 years; the decision a mere 100,000,000. The preliminaries had been surprisingly easy. The Greater Intelligences were able to provide a syntax suitable for discussions among the varied intelligences. Coordinating ethical systems had taken less than a million years. Analysis took the most time; possible courses of action were presented and discussed, and, finally, a plan was chosen and commitments made.
The Great Galactic Wall was an artifact indistinguishable from both magic and nature. The subtle science of the Greater Intelligences had seen its true and artificial nature 10 billion years ago. Others had seen hints, which when studied and piled together for a million years or so, gave more and more dire hints.
The Great Wall was truly a wall, a wall to keep others out. Dark matter had been manipulated to create it, and had shaped and arranged the galaxies behind it. Inside, the insatiable appetite for energy, the dreams of a Kardashev IV civilization, drove its builders.
Outside the wall, stars died too soon. Kardashev II civilizations died before their times, outside the Wall. Energy was being drained from what to the Builders of the Great Wall were the hinterlands. The gathered intelligences decided that this must stop.
Another tremor shook the Construct. This time, Mistress Katherine Barbican-Allbright, on the column diagonally across from Mistress Elizabeth Boward-Campanile, noticeably sagged under the weight of the sky. Despite the conceit of the Construct, the four Mistresses and Lady Forthwith-Huntington could see and hear each other in detail across the distances.
Mistress Elizabeth spoke: “M’lady, when may we be relieved?”
Lady Forthwith-Huntington sighed. “I am here to witness the Fall. You may not leave until I see it.”
“We are to die.” I was a simple statement.
“Come now. You – we – are all going to die.”
“We might live millions of years more. The Fall will be long.”
Lady Forthwith-Huntington sighed again. “Very well. I suppose a triviality like a few millions years more life might be important to some. I grow tired of this life. Our sad little imaginations cannot keep up with our abilities to satisfy them.” She shook her head. “What difference does it make if the barbarians breach the Wall? Let them come! You are dismissed.” She vanished from the Construct.
The four caryatides heaved together, impossibly thrusting the ceiling up off their forearms. The leapt from the columns as one, and vanished as they fell. The ceiling followed them down, the columns crumbled, and the Construct flickered and died.
Trillions of intelligences, wielding subtle engines, breached the Wall.
Kleon wiggled his way through the muddy-green foliage to join the press of worshippers. He knew that far ahead, the throng moved toward a blinding light he could not see. He could not see because he kept his eyes averted and closed. To look upon the Face of God is death.
Above him, only sky, from which dripped a steady light rain.
He was now swept past a Pillar of Heaven, an almost unimaginably large shaft disappearing into the sky far above. The Angels had set up these posts upon the Founding of the World, to keep the sky above in place. For God had decreed: At acceptable times as told by the Prophets, all may look upon the Side of My Face. At such sacred times, I will turn away, in My mercy, to spare My people. To look upon the Deep Heavens any other time is death.
Kleon had a Name – Kleon. This placed him among a select few of the advancing throngs. To have a Name was to be a person. To be sure, much of scripture was devoted to the duties and, indeed, love, to be shown by the Named to the unnamed, so anything short of gentle care for the poor mindless hordes was a sin. In more primitive times, a Named who showed contempt for the nameless was condemned to be thrown into the Outer Lightness, and die.
Kleon did his part as a Named Person. His pheromones helped direct the Unnamed forward in a calm state. Once the throngs started moving, excitement would grow. Unless the Named did their best to keep the poor unconscious calm, millions might rush into the Light. Sometimes, even a Named was carried thus to his death by the throngs.
Kleon sensed that there were many Named nearby, enough to maintain order. He found he needed to work to keep his own mind calm. For this was the Great Feast, the Awakening, the memorial of the First Naming. All of his kind would get to see the Profile of the Face of God! Many would die from sheer joy, and be counted happy, although all were strictly forbidden by scripture to desire such a death. Joy like that was a pure, unearned gift of God!
Excitement grew as the Light, sensed through closed eyes, began to slowly fade. Billions of eager worshippers had now surrounded the Circle of Light. Pillars of Heaven were here arranged in a majestic curve, trailing off to the left and right in a grand arch. Just beyond these Pillars, the sky ended.
This was a time of prayer. For endless hours, the Light faded, and each Person thought, and each Unnamed felt, the growing Presence in its more gentle form. Soon, one might see the Profile of the Face of God – and live!
Horrified, Kleon sensed that an Unnamed had been unconsciously jostled into the Light. Because the Light had already faded to less than half His full intensity, the poor creature’s death was comparatively slow. It released a cloud of pheromones as it desiccated, of both excruciating pain and utter bliss. Kleon and the other Named nearby strained to keep the surrounding Unnamed from throwing themselves into the fading Light, and succeeded. God would be pleased.
Finally, the Light almost completely withdrew, leaving only a gentle glow a little brighter than the endless misty gloom of the World. The Named, using all their strength, kept the Unnamed in place, for their safety and in order to maintain a decorum appropriate to this Feast.
Finally, the Named allowed the throngs to move. Slowly, they advanced. It was all the Named could do to keep the front ranks moving, although it hardly mattered – the following ranks simply climbed over them. But piles of creatures were unseemly, so the named did their best to keep the creatures in the front moving.
As the Named and Unnamed came out from under the sky, they turned their eyes to the heavens, and saw the stars.
“This is a little creepy.” Diana sat in a control room of the power plant, looking out the window. A million square kilometers of the solar array, visible in every direction, disappeared only where they dipped below the distant horizon. 90% of this desert hell-hole of a planet was paved over in solar cells. The last place the planet’s surface was visible was the clearing around the power plant itself, a ring about a kilometer in radius. Her eyes were on the edges of the clearing, where motion could barely be detected in the gloam, disappearing to the naked eye as the night settled in.
There was nothing else to do but look. Her team had been dropped off to inspect the alien power plant, their work was all but complete, and the system’s new cyclers would not be back by to pick them up for another 18 months.
“This plant is old!” declared Bob, who had entered to control room. “Well, yeah,” said Diana, “that was obvious from space.” She tried to be a good team player, but she and the other 5 team members aside from Bob had quickly determined what they had come to this God-forsaken system to find out. The plant was perfectly operative; its panels were of an unknown design and slightly less efficient than current Empire standards, but it would hardly be worth the effort to upgrade them. Instead, the Empire could enjoy yottawatts of found power, left by long-gone engineers. An uplink to an orbital laser, for example, could power acceleration and deceleration of light sails…
“No, I mean, really old!” Bob was pacing. “We’re talking at least 50 million, maybe 150 million years old. Maybe more.”
“This is a quiet backwater, geologically dead, not much in the way of space debris or weather to disturb things.” Williams, the team’s geologist, had entered the room. “Thin, inert atmosphere. Almost no water. And a nice slow 153 hour day. Local sun beats down on these panels for 76.5 hours a day like clockwork.”
“That’s what I’m trying to say,” continued Bob, “this is a near perfect place for a huge solar array – and has been for a billion years. Somebody figured this out maybe 100 million years ago, stuck this array here, and built it to last. It could power all kinds of repair spiders, all kinds of cleaning and maintenance bots, while hardly putting a dent in net output.”
“We haven’t seen any bots,” said Diana, “seems deserted.”
“Build it right, and the spiders and bots only need to come out every century or two, or even less.”
“Or, better, build it to evolve.” Jommy, the senior engineer and Diana’s boss, looked up from a deck he had been examining. “You build the total system with enough AI, and enough intelligent intervention, analyze what goes wrong, fix it, analyze the fix, rinse, repeat.” He put down the analytic probe he held like a wand. “How many years do you need until it just don’t break anymore?”
Kleon saw the light in the window in the central tower far above, and his heart stirred. Scripture spoke of angels visiting the Heavenly Ladder, coming and going with nothing to say to the Named. Not once, since the original Naming, had angels interacted with his kind. But not in thousands of generations had an angel visited…
Billions of his fellow creatures paved the circle of light surrounding the Ladder, compound eyes heavenward, antennae raised. Here was the Time of Ecstasy. In a few hours, the Named would gently herd the Unnamed out of the Light and back under the sky. Even under the stars, his kind tended to dry out if they spent too much time unprotected. They needed to return to life beneath the sky.
“Good God, Ppillimt, why do play with those disgusting bugs?” His mate looked down upon his crouching form, two of her four hands on her hips, and shook her head.
“One, what else is there to do on this rock? The array never breaks; the uplink never falters.” He picked up a palm-sized beetle-like creature, which lifted it forebody on multi-jointed legs, and further lifted its ‘head’ to look at him. “And, two, I think these things are much more intelligent than we’re giving them credit for.” He could feel his mate’s chagrin, so he changed the subject. “How is the investigation going?”
She sighed. “We may crack their script, but it’ll take some time. We have a pretty good grasp of their math. But the big find: their star charts. We were able to determine the age of this facility by apply know rates of motion to known stars on their charts, and calculating how long ago those stars would have been in the positions indicated – this thing was built 47 million years ago!”
Ppillimt carefully put the bug down, then stood. “Whoa. Yet it runs perfectly. These founders must have been quite the engineers.”
Tzapotlz continued, “We also found a biology collection. We can’t yet make out the text, but the pictures are interesting. Seems this planet did have some zoology. The most advanced creatures by far were something like sand fleas, just little specks somehow surviving in the scorching sun and bitter night.” She looked down at the bug Ppillimt had just been holding. It sat at attention. “That little guy there evolved, I’d guess, from the sand fleas, over millions of years since the founding.”
“Yea, and evolved under these solar panels. They’re all but air-tight except around the uplink towers. It’s a lot more temperate and lot more damp under there.”
“I went under there once,” Tzapotlz looked disgusted, “those slimy plants cover everything, and those bugs are everywhere.”
Ppillimt picked up the bug again. “Damp and moderate temps would certainly be a lot more favorable to life as we know it, in general.” He looked at the bug, which had again raised itself on its front legs and was staring at him, in what appeared to be rapt attention.
“I like you,” he looked at the bug, then spoke over his shoulder to his mate. “I think we need a pet.”
Tzapotlz rolled several of her eyes. “Ugh!” She turned to walk back to the tower.
Ppillimt looked again down at the bug, which never waivered in its attention. “I think I’m going to call you Kalliq.” He carried Kalliq with him as he stood to follow his mate. “Wonder if I can teach you any tricks?” Kalliq tilted his head.
“Whoever defends his farmland and raises sons, wins.”
Jedidiah eyes swept across a sea of wheat shimmering in the morning sun against a backdrop of majestic purple mountains, and saw the Hand of God. Chuck, whose words made no impression on Jed, surveyed the same fields, and saw a soft target.
“We’ve cut the roads and railroads,” Chuck stated flatly. “Fuel is precious as blood. People in any numbers gonna have to walk.”
If Jed were listening, he gave no sign. “If they had any brains, they’d wait for harvest, let us do the work.” Chuck spat. “If they had any brains, we wouldn’t be watching the world burn.”
“The Sumerians built their farms and cities on the plains of the Tigris and Euphrates,” Jedidiah spoke to the air in front of him. “The nomadic Akkadians, in the neighboring hills saw, and felt envy and greed.”
“Yea, well, we’re at least a lot less exposed than that.” Chuck had insisted the fields be grown in a fertile triangular debouche backed up to a defile – less ideal for farming, but better for defending. Two of his boys were stationed along the opposing ridges of the only easy way to get in from the west, where any attackers would need to come in single file. So far so good. But facing east was only the downslope to the river; north and south the ridges petered out into the screes on the knees of hills that ran right down to the water. Certainly better than ancient Ur, where, apart from the rivers, there were no natural defenses at all.
“The Akkadians conquered in name only. They styled themselves the kingdom of Sumer and Akkad. Not something a conqueror usually does.” Jed was still looking off into the distance.
Jed’s a fine man, a hell of of farmer and even better father, based on his passel of kids, thought Chuck. When his Helen had died, he knew that he had to be there for their kids. He mourned quick and hard, and got back to work.
He was a deep thinker, never panicked, and always had good things to say. Chuck just wished he could get around to saying it a lot quicker. Best get on with the immediate concerns. Jed would say his piece in his own good time.
“Who’s going in?”
Five years earlier, after much debate, the families had planted a stand of poplars a quarter mile east of the farm. Fast growing and dense, they already looked like a small forest. Some city thugs had rafted down, seen the farm, and attacked. That’s when they’d lost Helen, and Chuck’s eldest, who’d died saving his little siblings.
On the one hand, the trees did make their little hideaway harder to see from the river. On the other, it provided potential cover for a smarter enemy. Chuck had his younger sons carefully make a daily sweep of the forest. It was dangerous, he hated sending them, but it had to be done.
Jed said nothing. “Jed, what do you think?” At evening last night, just as the light faded, one of Jed’s girls on lookout spotted the telltale curl of smoke from a campfire in the poplars a little north and toward the river.
“We go.” Nothing had happened overnight, and there was no smoke this morning. Jed and Chuck had waited for sunrise to decide what to do next. If they did a careful sweep of the forest, no adults would be left at the compound. Neither man was comfortable leaving the homestead defended by their sons, 12 and 13, and even less happy putting arms in the hands of their girls.
Their older boys, 15 and 16, needed to stay put guarding the western defile. That’s where the most serious threats had come in the past, and it wasn’t prudent to expect that had changed.
Elizabeth, Jed’s 15 year old daughter, took over the watch. Good girl, thought Chuck, who had once imagined she could have in time married his eldest son. It would have been a good match. “Our adversaries have changed.” Jed resumed as if he’d never stopped. “We had to fight our way out, then defend against mobs, then against gangs, then against thugs. Over the last 5 years, it’s been desperate stragglers.”
“Yeah, desperate stragglers who can kill you.” Chuck was still haunted by having gunned down a kid with an AK-47 3 years ago. Starving, crazy, but a live threat, that kid would have killed him and his, no doubt – he was actively trying to do so.
“For the people fleeing now, 10 years in, getting gunned down is not close to the worst they imagine could happen,” Jed continued. “We need to realize, at this point, for anyone escaping out here, being confronted by men with guns probably makes them start thinking of ways they could kill themselves.”
“I’ll keep that in mind.”
After comforting, instructing and arming the other children, the men headed carefully down toward the forest, shouldering a couple Mosin-Nagants they’d liberated at some cost years earlier. Jed headed north, Chuck south, intending to rendezvous where they’d seen the smoke rise.
They figured it would take 30 careful minutes to get there. If there were any threat, they’d assume positions on opposite sides and watch. It would probably be obvious at that point what needed to be done next. At least, they hoped so.
Chuck crept up and peered through the foliage. A dead campfire and a dead man lay on the ground 100 feet away. A very good bird call let him know Jed was also in position. A large man, dressed head to toe in what might have been police issue body armor, walked into the small clearing, a knife to the throat of a woman herding two small, petrified children in front of her. He was followed by a smaller man with a sidearm.
Chuck prayed he was reading this situation right, and took aim. The larger man turned the woman toward Chuck, and was forcing her to her knees. The smaller man drew his sidearm, and held his pistol against the head of the little boy, then pulled the little girl by her shoulder until their heads were aligned with the gun’s barrel.
“Two for one.” Chuck heard him say.
“Drop your weapons and back away,” Jed’s voice, unnaturally calm, rang out. The large man looked around, but kept the knife pressed to the woman’s throat. The smaller man laughed. “I got a better idea. Why don’t you drop your weapon and come on down? Maybe we can negotiate?” The woman gasped, and Chuck could see a trickle of blood on her tattered blouse.
That was enough. Chuck hoped Jed was targeting the smaller man. He let out a whistle, the sign that that things were about to get hot. A Mosin round is not much concerned with trivialities like body armor. Chuck’s shot blew a hole clean through the big man’s throat; he quickly chambered another round, but Jed had already blown the top of the smaller man’s head off.
As Jed and Chuck trotted into the clearing, the woman grabbed the large knife. She ran to her children, leading with the knife like a bayonet.
With horror, Chuck realized she intended to kill them. He was too far to get to her in time!
Jed flew out of the trees, and tackled her just as she reached her terrified children. The knife flew out of her hand. They hit the ground hard. Jed managed to kick the pistol away; Chuck gathered the weapons. The children ran for the trees.
“We’re not going to hurt you!” Jed said calmly, all but drowned out by the woman’s sobbing cries of ‘No, no, no!”
They managed, finally, to get Lydia – that is the woman’s name – and her kids back to the compound, where Elizabeth took charge, got them fed and cleaned up under the watchful eyes of two still armed boys. They buried Alfonzo – that was the dead man’s name – in the woods where he had died. They threw the bodies of the two thugs in the river.
They wiped the dirt from their hands as they stood from the grave, picked up the Mosin-Nagants and headed up to the compound. “The next step is to found a town,” Jed picked up as if the discussion had never been interrupted. “There are people need killing, but there are now going to be more people who need civilization.”
“So, we need to be Sumerians?”
“We need to build something the Akkadians would want, but be a little more cautious about it.” Jed continued, “then civilize them when they get here. Ten years in, and most people in most places have died one way or another. The remainder are either warlords and their troops – or potential allies.”
“But clueless, barbarian potential allies.”
“Right. When our boys are old enough to defend the homestead here, we need to start making a few inquiries up and down the valley. Got to be other farmers, and if they’re still around after ten years, they’ve got their defenses worked out.”
Chuck pondered for a moment. “You think it’s time to switch from defense to offense?”
“I wouldn’t put it that way, exactly. Time to start building. For our kids.”
Somebody got a nuke. 90 seconds after a pirate broadcast announcing that Heaven had withdrawn its mandate and the rest of the world was ordered to stand down, Beijing went up in a high megaton mushroom cloud.
The Chinese Communist Central Committee had been meeting in Beijing. Within minutes, conventional weapons began to strike sites around China, some obvious, some mysterious to western observers. It looked like a well planned decapitation. Not so well planned that the Middle Kingdom did not descend into chaos.
Dominos around the world began to fall. Over the course of hours, then days, then weeks, failsafes put in place by Chinese leaders and operatives released certain pieces of information to specific people and organizations most in a position to take action.
Information was distributed as the case demanded. Some figures were widely exposed, with selected watchdog and law enforcement people around the world getting it. Others found themselves confronted by individuals who they had done very wrong. Violent individuals. The Left, in particular, ate itself alive.
Shootouts broke out in the CIA and FBI, as players and agents found out exactly where they stood in the plans of their enemies and friends. Operators were given very specific information and very convincing evidence about who planned to do what to whom. The bloodbaths within the factions was worse than that between them.
Similar situations prevailed in tech, industry, and of course the political parties. Those who were not themselves killers certainly knew people who were, or quickly died. One third of the Catholic hierarchy went into hiding or otherwise disappeared. Exorcists found themselves very busy. The education leadership almost entirely vanished. College faculties whined, found that no one was listening, then found out some very unpleasant people were listening, and fell silent, but only after a few true believers were tarred and feathered.
The media spasmed, twitched, and died. At first, the major news organizations tried to spin hard, but this was so far off narrative no consistent story emerged, No one knew if the next story they ‘reported’ would get them killed and so reported nothing; a couple live on the air executions put a damper on the 4th estate’s enthusiasms, and it fell silent.
Social media suffered the same fate. Direct satellite uplinks created a new internet, outside the control of the tech oligarchs. The satellite network was too big to shut down or shoot down; anyone with a dish could get access outside the control of our betters. This favored those in the country and far from cities, who had dishes because they deplorably lacked cable. For a while, the Chinese disinformation machine tried to keep the flow going, but its operatives were coming under the same or greater pressure. Eventually, the idea of a citizen press became a reality.
The news, as reported by citizens and despite the wild rumors that inevitably got through, was more free and accurate than it had been in 200 years.
Banking, built as it is on trust and caution, effectively ceased. Those confident in their widely distributed wealth faced sudden poverty.
The assault on the White House was exciting, but ultimately brief and unsuccessful. A persistent and believable rumor arose that one heroic member of the President’s security detail discovered who the moles were in the nick of time, took direct action, and died for it – but not before the inside men’s cover was blown. Several fighter pilots, disobeying commands, shot down their peers coming in for bombing runs. Chaos broke out in the Pentagon. The ground assault was over in minutes, as the White House countermeasures worked like a charm. An eerie silence fell on Pennsylvania Avenue as properties all around burned.
And the President had a satellite uplink. The news now regularly carried his speeches and directives in full. Those outside the cities got their news and instructions unfiltered, and were the first to restore order.
All this took time, of course. The Chinese had merely installed safeguards to keep individuals in line; they had not intended it as a world-ending trip bomb. One high-level disappearance or public shooting would start to worry the next man in line; the empty offices, the rumors, the dead phonelines – eventually, Scripture was fulfilled: the guilty fled where none pursued. Even the Chinese, employing the ancient inscrutable cunning that had produced Sun Tsu, had not concerned themselves with what would happen if they all ceased to be in a flash of hydrogen fusion. The mechanisms they had laid in did not, of course, know this, and so the serpent uncoiled itself and fed for months, unsated.
It was almost a pity the Chinese Communist leadership was no longer around to enjoy it.
The rest of the world was not spared. True globalization had been achieved, where not only mammon, but guilt recognized no borders. There were a few Talleyrands, but very few. There were a few comfortable retirements in obscure third-world countries, but only financially comfortable. For months following the Chinese Event, mobs or hit men discovered a former executive in Bolivia or a political operative in New Zealand, and the results were not pleasant for them.
And that’s where we end up today. The relief efforts of flyover country and the rural areas of the other states, shipping in potatoes, flour, and beans to the smoldering cities, have kept many alive. For obvious reasons, flight from the cities to the country is heavily regulated at the point of a gun, but not out of malice. If the city populations are to be kept alive, then the country cannot be overwhelmed by people useless in the production of that food.
Leadership from Washington is, despite all history and suspicion, leading. Gradually, peace is penetrating back into the cities as looters are shot on sight, and traitors are tried and hanged. Once given a look into the bloody maw of the beast, most people are fine with this. Chicago, what’s left of it, anyway, holds out, of course. Seattle was promptly overrun by the more sane people from the suburbs. No one much knows what’s going on in L.A., as it has become in fact what it always was in its own mind – its own special universe.
No one knows how this will turn our. Taiwan and the surviving dissidents in Hong Kong have made large inroads into the coastal areas of China, but, in accordance with ancient tradition, the interior is ruled by warlords. The Catholic Church has become the main channel of order and charity over much of China. Japan, a spectator for the most part, is having a baby boom.
Europe is a mess. The Sons of the Winged Hussars have managed to restore some order in the East, and Poland, of course, rode it out all but unscathed. The operatives and traitors were exposed to few people’s surprise, and were tried and shot. Your average African and Latin American hardly noticed a difference, while those with ties to China tended to simply vanish.
We are all eagerly awaiting the election of the new pope.
Kyle surveyed the smoldering wreckage of the Kohl’s from the roof of the Wingstop across the parking lot next to the freeway. Except for two middle aged women down by what had been the mall’s high-end appliance store, the crowd had moved on. Those two were trying to move a large Vulcan range by tipping it onto a couple skateboards, probably abandoned by an earlier wave of more mobile looters. They weren’t having much luck.
They’re making some common but mistaken assumptions, thought Kyle. Let’s say, contrary to all appearances, the two ladies get the range home. Then what? How long do they think the gas and power will keep flowing? Or do they imagine they can list it on eBay, pick up some easy cash? Like the web is going to stay up, the banks stay open, the shipping companies remain, waiting to take orders from randos? Who will pay them in what, exactly?
The last straw was Reality’s refusal to bring about the Apocalypse. Several centuries of millennialist fervor has to go somewhere, and came to take any number of odd shapes, like the water in a balloon being squeezed. Heaven and earth, with remarkable indifference, showed no sign of passing away. We’d been promised 4 Horsemen, workers of the world casting off chains, or at least some ice caps melting. Something, some sort of comeuppance. But nope.
The children of the Puritans became the children of Marx, the environ-mental-cases, the Deconstructionists; fervor and zeal undiminished, their spirit flowed into all the isms pouring forth from the world’s fevered imaginations.
The dogmas of the abstracted are infinitely flexible. But zeal for their father’s demise consumes them, under whatever liturgical trappings this week’s catechism dictates.
The women gave up and disappeared. Kyle noticed a team of people, looking suspiciously organized, doing something at the power poles. Two men and a woman stood watch at the pole’s base, while one or two others clambered up, cut some wires, and smashed some equipment. Hard to figure what they were doing, but looting wasn’t it.
Suddenly, a grimy face appeared over the low parapet of the Wingstop’s roof. Kyle took a step back, and watched an older but fit-looking man heave himself onto the roof without taking his eyes off him. Kyle showed him his palms in an instinctive ‘I’m no threat’ gesture, but the man had evidently reached the same conclusion.
“Kid, I’ve got a couple things to take care of here, then I’m gone. We’ll just keep our distance until I’m done. Capisce?”
“Sure, no problem.”
The man, in grey coveralls, nodded, looked around, and headed over to one of two surveillance cameras set on the corners of the roof. He pulled out a prybar, ripped the camera off its moorings, then smashed it with a couple brutal swings. For good measure, he yanked the wires out. With a glance at Kyle, he went to other camera in the opposite corner, and treated it as poorly as the first.
“So, no appetited for looting? Just want to watch the world burn?” The man was now focused on a satellite dish and what might be a cell phone base station atop a large rectangular box – air conditioning unit? Kyle didn’t know – in the center of the roof.
“What’s the point? If it needs power, can’t use it. If it don’t, it’ll probably still be there tomorrow.”
“Hmmm,” grunted Coveralls, who then pulled himself up atop the box, and went to work on the equipment perched there.
“So, what are you doing?”
Coveralls didn’t turn from his work. “Oh, establishing a perimeter. Something like that.” He then stopped, and turned to Kyle. “Kid, gotta admit I’m impressed. Not one in a 100 of your contemporaries seem to understand that little obvious point you just made. They imagine they are going to burn the world down, and then settle in for some serious MMO action to celebrate on all the nice equipment they lifted.”
Kyle nodded. “I’m trying to figure out how not to get murdered, first, and how not to starve to death, second.”
Coveralls yanked the wires out of the satellite dish, then pulled on the ends still in the conduit on the roof until he’d ripped out several yards of wiring. Satisfied, he dropped back down on the roof and faced Kyle.
“You have a better handle on things.” He stared into Kyle’s face. “I’m going to trust you.”
Kyle wasn’t sure he wanted to be trusted, but he didn’t see a way out at the moment. “OK.”
“Do you have a cell phone or tablet on you?”
“Both, in my bag.” Kyle pointed to a daypack up against the parapet on the other end of the roof.
Coveralls nodded toward the far side of the air conditioning unit. Kyle followed until it was between the two of them and his pack.
“What we need to be secure against is electronic surveillance. You, or at least your phone and tablet, are a glowing dot on somebody’s screen right now.”
A whistle cut Coveralls short. The team working on the power poles was scrambling for cover. A forklift, ‘Dick’s Sporting Goods’ stenciled on its side, came rolling into the lot below, carrying a large metal box topped by a black hemisphere bristling with tubes and wires, setting it down in the middle. The forklift then hurried back to the wreckage of the mall. Kyle watched, transfixed.
Coveralls grabbed Kyle’s arm. “We need to get down and out of sight. NOW!” He yanked Kyle over to the ladder, leapt over the parapet and slid down to the pavement. Kyle had to climb. “10 seconds!” someone shouted. Coveralls kicked in the Wingstop door (the looters had used the shattered windows) and dragged Kyle in, shoving him to the floor.
Kyle could see a Tesla drive up. Where its hood should have been was a shiny metal tube, pointing upwards at about 45 degrees. .The driver ditched the car, and was sprinting toward them. A buzzing sound, like a 40 pound bee, grew louder.
A black drone the size of a gurney swung into view, and strafed vainly at the driver as he dove into the Wingstop. The drone exploded; then a flash and the sound of thunder hit them. The Tesla rocked.
“Got the bastard!” shouted the driver, sprawled amidst the shards of safety glass covering the floor. “Oh, hi, Bob.”
“Afternoon, Juaquin.” He motioned to Kyle. “This is, ah…”
“Hack’s in?” Bob asked Juaquin.
Bob and Juaquin fell silent at the sound of a swarm of 10 pound bees. The black hemisphere spun into action. As the swarm of smaller drones came into view, a high pitched mechanical whine could be heard over the drones. The hemisphere flashed and spun, and each drone fell from the sky in smoldering ruin.
“Nice!” said Bob.
“As far as the network knows, those drones just took us all out. They even have footage.” Juaquin smiled. “And, in a few minutes minutes from now and a few miles from here, they all get shot down. As far as the network knows, anyway.”
“Good work.” Bob had stood up, and now lifted Kyle to his feet.
“What – what was that?” he sputtered.
“Tesla batteries can power a small railgun.”
“Yea, two shot, max, and then you gotta plug her in.”
“Autotargeting was awesome, Juaquin! Old Betsy Blaster just – wow!”
“It helps to have their positional data off the network. All I did was make the tiny allowances for movement during lag. Fish in a barrel.”
“Not everybody in the government is a fascist creep.”
“Only most of them.”
“Yea, well, only takes a few. We are so deep in their systems, they can’t spit without us calculating wind direction and splatter radius.”
Bob tuned to Kyle. “Betsy’s got a liquid sulfur battery. Fast and hot. Powers little pea shooter particle beams. Good enough to smoke smaller drones.”
Juaquin was dusting safety glass fragments off his coveralls. “We gotta get out of here.” The two men started towards the door.
Bob stopped, and turned towards Kyle like he’d just remembered he was there. “So, ah, … “
“Kyle, right. About trying to improve your chances of not starving to death. Maybe we can work something out, maybe even up your chances of not getting murdered. A little, anyway.”
Night fell, and the sky became suddenly black. Then, slowly, whether due to some unknown process or merely to his eyes needing time to adjust to the deep darkness, the familiar stars appeared.
“Marcellus, come see.”
At his father’s words, Marcellus turned his gaze away from the last glow of the sunset, and walked the few steps along the city walls to where his father was working. Iulus took a step back from the device, clearing room for his son to look through the eyepiece. He saw the flat, elongated disc of a star.
“That’s the one,” Iulus continued.
“Why do you say that? It looks no different than a hundred others.”
“Ah, but it is. I have calculated the relative motion of all the visible stars, from tables that go back 10,000 years, to men who stood in the dark taking measurements until their eyes failed and the next men took their places. “
“As you now stand…”
“Yes, but with my device. To these observations, I have added the spectra, star by star, noting the dark bands…”
“And, applying a theory of your own, have deduced speed….”
“Yes. And now, direction as well.”
The impossible blackness became somehow more black, the stars more bright. It was said that some, on the darkest mountain tops on the clearest nights, could make out more, fainter stars even in the blackness; Iulus’s device proved this true. There was no end to stars.
“That star,” he continued, “is moving directly away relative to us. According to my theory, based on the displacement of the dark bands in its spectrum, we would have been in it about 2 billion years ago.”
“What do you think stars are, father?”
In the darkness, Marcellus heard a mechanical rumble, the deep creaking of something large being moved. Siege engines, advancing under cover of darkness.
Iulus looked up into his son’s face. “No one really knows. The ancients thought them much like our sun, despite being able to make out the swirling shapes of a few of the brighter stars with their naked eyes. Some sort of atmospheric distortion, they said.”
“You have another theory, of course.”
Iulus returned to his device. “The stars are not mere balls of burning gas as we think our sun, that much is clear. They have structure. Some are discs; others are diffuse balls; a few are distorted, irregular.”
He looked back up at his son. “Sometimes, I can make out what look to be suns within the stars.”
Marcellus’s thoughts had turned to the battle that was soon to be upon them. They could hold out against a siege for a while, but, barring a miracle he could not believe in, the city he loved, and all within it, would soon enough be dead. Or worse. He himself would die, the young hero upon which the people’s irrational hope was focused, leading the defense of his doomed city. No amount of science in arms or any other thing could prevent it.
“I think,” his father hesitated, “that the stars are enormous collections of suns. Millions, perhaps billions, of suns.”
His son pulled his attention back to his father. “How would that even be possible?”
“The same mechanisms that formed our sun and its 3 planets could form many suns. That force that sends us spinning about, circling our light, could, given enough material and time, form many suns and planets…”
“Why would you propose such a thing? I see no problem your hypothesis would solve, even in theory.”
“Consider this: our best natural philosopher say our earth and sun must be at least 3 billion years old. I have spent my life studying the motion of the stars, comparing ancient and modern records. Almost all stars are moving generally away from us and each other. But only this one star, which we name Glosbe, moves perfectly away. If we imagine how things were two billion years ago, we would have been in that star.”
Marcellus was trying to appreciate the distraction. His father continued. “Our sun and its planets are alone and unique, we have long thought. Why should that be? Everywhere in nature we see repetition, variations on a theme. Why but one sun in what we more and more know to be an enormous universe?”
“What do you think happened, then? How did our sun come to be?”
Iulus fidgeted slightly. “Here I depart from firm science, and indulge in speculation: say the stars are huge collections of suns and planets and things unknown. Many appear to swirl. Perhaps suns are born within these stars, and,” he hesitated. He had always been a careful man. “perhaps some suns and their planets are flung away….”
“What titanic forces could fling a sun?”
“The same ones that hold our earth in its orbit. We see no limit in the scale of gravity. More and more mass would generate more and more force. Billions of suns would generate enough force to fling any number of suns away….” He stopped, almost embarrassed.
Marcellus considered. “This theory of yours presents many difficulties.”
“Yes. But I feel in my bones it is true.”
Marcellus heard a sound like a giant tree falling in the distance, followed by a growing whistling, followed by a loud thud maybe a hundred yards from the city walls. He remembered what makes that sound: a trebuchet. The enemy was finding the range.
Iulus didn’t seem to notice. He was back at his device. “Father, perhaps we should come down off the walls for the night.” Marcellus was considering what would be the pious thing to do. He couldn’t bear the though of what the enemy might do to his father if they took him alive. His father’s idea of honor would not allow him to kill himself. Attempting to escape might be possible, but only in the chaos of the inevitable sacking. He hadn’t planned on living long enough to consider that, as he would be expected to lead the defense. It would be unmanly to try to survive…
Thank the gods his mother and sister were both long dead. “Come, father, lets us return to our home.” His hand found the hilt of his sword.
D. On a less light note: the recent Supreme Court ruling giving those confused about their sex cover as a protected class is, ultimately, the final puzzle piece in the 200+ year effort to bring all schools completely under the control of the state. As usual, the stated goals are a smokescreen: the champions of this ruling were talking fairness, discrimination, and mean old bigots, not ‘we can now sue private schools out of existence and lock up homeschoolers and take away their kids.’ But that is what this is about.
The help in this dive clearly knew Igor and his daughter. A round dude with a round bald head and a black apron materialized, dropped off a heap of fried brown bread and checha and three tall beers, nodded at Igor and Ksenia with, maybe, the slightesdt twinkle in his eye, and dematerialized.
“You like beer?” Igor nodded at me, then drained his pint with practiced ease. Ksenia did likewise, with a ladylike elegance that didn’t seem possible. Of course, she didn’t seem exactly possible herself…
I tore my eyes away from here after just a beat too long. Oh well. Time to rep for America. I tossed back the beer as nonchalantly as I could manage.
“Czech?” I asked. Good beer.
“Da!” Igor nodded, and seemed to warm to me ever so slightly. Round bald guy reappeared from the ether and slapped down another round. “Vyškov Generály,” Igor looked thoughtfully into his second glass. “This only bar in Moscow carries it.”
I need these people to trust me, at least enough to do my job. I’m little more than a glorified mule, sent to fetch some information that can’t be simply emailed or sent parcel post. As such, I’m professionally charming and flexible. This Moscow gig is downright civilized. I’ve sipped vodka in a yurt over a meal of boodog. I’ve caught piranha off the back of a canoe. Those little bastards will bite on anything; catch one, CAREFULLY gut it, hook the guts, toss the line back out, catch another. Repeat until you’ve got enough for dinner. Pretty good eating, too.
This was a little different. I been warned there might be some piranna of the two-legged sort, but, so far, it was just me, the enigmatic might-be-a-pig farmer, and his insanely gorgeous daughter who, I have from multiple sources, will kill me if I touch her. They seemed cheery enough…
A tongue of cold snaked through the bar when the front door opened and closed. A tall man in a heavy, fur-collared coat and a Bromberg appeared, looming above Ksenia, and said something quietly in Russian to Igor, whose face was stone. I started to stand, when Igor put me back into my seat with one meaty hand.
The stranger laid a hand on Ksenia’s shoulder. Her face went white, and her eyes widened with fear. She looked tiny against the mass of the large man. I tried to rise again; Igor again planted me in my seat.
Ksenia stood, shaking, the stranger’s hand still on her shoulder. A trace of a smile passed across the the tall man’s face. With sudden, cat like quickness, Ksenis drove her heel hard into the man’s instep, and followed up with a two-handed uppercut into his jaw, her legs and body uncoiling like a spring, putting some force into it.
The man let out a small yelp and staggered backwards, into the arms of the round bald guy and two large, very stern looking fellows, who, without a word, pinned his arms and whisked him out of sight. The other patrons seemed not to have noticed anything unusual, and the background hum quickly returned to normal.
Ksenia straightened her skirt, sat back down, and smiled at me.
“It is a good beer,” she stated, and drained her second pint.
That’s Jeremy, just do it. Just tinker up some trash and head for the stars.
What, I’m gonna say ‘no’?
We headed out to the Strew, started rounding up some trash, see if it’s doable.
“Whoa, man, this looks like an Hitachi 2800X T-drive.”
Jeremy had climbed over the wreckage of a mid-2000s micro factory rig. Those things had gotten dropped in the Strew like last week’s guacamole, generally intact, a hundred robot arms akimbo. Obsolete overnight. Sometimes, you could pull some sweet servos, maybe an idiot AI unit from those things, but mostly they got incorporated into Burning Men, ‘art’ for the sake of bored wack jobs. They were everywhere, the rigs and the wack jobs.
But a T-drive? Intact or close? That’s something!
“Take a look, man!” Jeremy had climbed down into what looked like a shallow crater, at the bottom of which lay a chunk of the smooth composite skin of a Lifter, maybe late 90s vintage. Peeking out from under one end was the unmistakable stylized “2800X” of an Hitachi T-drive, embossed on the slick black sheath of a thruster cowling.
I was impressed.
“So let’s get this junk off it, man, take a look.” I was trying to sound casual. Jeremy has a death lock on the out of control enthusiasm part of our friendship. I’m supposed to be the cooler head.
If the 2800X works, this whole thing works. Or should.
“Johnny-Bees is on it,” Jeremy said as he squinted and nodded into some invisible heads-up display. In a minute, a swarm of lifting drones appeared, and quickly arranged themselves to spell out “Johny-Bees” in a swirling light show, while blasting his theme song, some relic from the 50s – the *1950s*. The drones descended on the junk pile, and quickly removed the trash obscuring the T-drive. Then, with a flourish and a blazing guitar lick, they were gone.
“I promised him a six-pack,” Jeremy watched the swarm disappear over an horizon of broken machinery.
“We’re going to need Syd on this.” I clambered down to the T-drive.
“Why her? She’s a pain.”
“I heard that!” A voice was heard in the wilderness. A lone drone hovered a hundred meters up. “Now you’re going to have to talk real nice to me, if you want my help.”
Jeremy and I exchanged glances. “Is Johnny-Bees broadcasting this?” I asked no one in particular. A couple guitar notes confirmed. Well, at least only the usual suspects, the folks we’ve goofed with, are likely to be on Johnny’s feed. And we’ll need their help, so it’s cool, I guess.
The reason the 2800X is such a great find is that you can reason with its AI. Most of these old space rigs have either idiot AIs or military, and you’re lucky you if you can even strike up a conversation. Stories say some of the old space force units will kill you if you even try; nobody I know has ever tried. But an old Hitachi? Practically invite you in for tea.
It’s a few steps from getting one to talk, which any fool can do, to getting one to power you to the stars, which takes some finesse. That’s where Syd comes in.
I found a port, jacked in, hooked up some audio – never pass up a chance to learn, that’s practically the motto of us slappers – and talked nice to Syd. “OK, dearest Syd, I’m talking nice – can you see if this rig works, and get it to play with us? Pretty please?” I added, “I know you’re the best on all the interwebs, a legend, no one else…”
“Cut the crap.” She was on board, dying to strut her stuff. To be honest, she really is the best at this, she could talk an old industrial AI into a foot rub and making her a cup of coffee. At least.
Syd did some fiddling. “Hello sweetheart, how you doin’?”
The Hitachi AI spun back to life, after lo these decades of sleep.
“Well, thank you.” The AI spoke in a standard feminine voice, known for reasons lost in time as the Majel.
“Listen, honey, I’d like you to run a date check, tell me when we are.”
Pause. “2146. April.”
“That’s plenty, thank you. So, sweetheart, what’s your name?
“Roxanne. May I ask you name?”
“Sure thing, Roxanne. I’m Syd. Would you mind if I called you Roxi?”
The back and forth continued for almost an hour. Syd first had the AI figure out how long it had been inactive, what this meant about its mission, had it look up the companies and people it had worked for, had it survey the surrounding area, all the while expressing sympathy and concern. These old Hitachi units were built during a time when hyperrealism was all the rage, when the jocks thought they could code in intuition. With the proper approach, you could talk them into doing what you wanted, just so long as you didn’t trigger any safety protocols.
Jeremy, who had little patience with this sort of stuff, got some other slappers to help him identify and gather other pieces. Lifting drones were deployed across the Strew. Scans were run. There were inevitable distractions.
“Dudes! There’s a *Chevy* *Impala* in here! Almost intact!” gushed a slapper going by Dogberry, whom everyone assumed was a kid.
“What the hell’s a Chevy?”
At the same time, the CADdies were generating mods and modeling up transition pieces. Arguments, banter, really, broke out over proposed solutions.
“Sure, you can fab a slab that’ll get that Medex unit to stick to the Hitachi, but it will look like crap.”
“What are you gonna do, paste a navsys on the nose?”
“A big gross flyin’ GI-tract!”
“C’mon, man, it meets spec. It’ll look funky-cool.”
“Sure. Stick the head on the fuel tanks. Have to suit up to take a leak.”
“Speaking of – anybody looking for some suits?”
Drones were dropping off finds. I threw up a holo of the CADdies’ ideas. The image changed as the polling numbers came in. I froze a few I liked. Nothing I saw was going to win any beauty contest. But, so far, it was looking doable: a functional spaceship from a couple centuries of trash and abandoned scrap.
“Wow! Found an old Mech-era envirosys, off a cruiser!” one of the drone pilots chimed in. “You boys think you might want to take a 100 of you close personal friends to Arcturus?”
“The Hitachi could power that, but just barely,” a CADdie offered. “Spec says you could do it. I wouldn’t.”
Syd broke in. “Well, you doofs, I’ve convinced Roxi here to take you to the stars. Roxi, meet Steve and butt-face.”
Jeremy sighed. “See? What did I say about her?”
“Careful, monkey-boy. Show some respect. I could probably convince my new bestie Roxi here to drop you off in deep space someplace.”
“Hello?” Roxi said. “I don’t think I should drop Mr. Butt-Face off in deep space, Syd. It would not be proper. Do you really want me to?”
“See?” Syd triumphed. “I better hear some grovelling from certain parties…”
In the end, we skipped the huge envirosys, went with something off an old space yacht. Sleep 10 comfortably, although only Jeremy and I seemed committed to the trip. I’ll probably miss them, even if Jeremy is the only one I’ve seen face to face.
We were able to find everything we needed on the Strew. The CADdies estimate about 2 weeks for assembly, using a couple recycled assemblers the lifting drone team had found. The best antimatter factor we could find will take almost a month to fuel us up anyway, so that’s not a problem. In the meantime, the team would occupy itself with fighting over suggestions on furnishings and decorations – an exercise in good-natured mockery.
Roxi was running diagnostics. She seemed in good shape, just a little slow and underpowered by modern standards. She would incorporate the infotech systems of the other components as they were added, all, in the end, becoming her. Then she could fly us anywhere we might want to go. All for free, not counting the six pack Jeremy promised Johnny-Bees.
It’s crazy the stuff people will throw away. But when they took to space, they threw away a whole planet, I guess.