Copyright © 2018
Nathan M. Hurst
& Amir Zand
Light strobed across his eyes, first his left eye, then his right and back again. There were muffled sounds, but he ignored them. They meant nothing. He had work to do, critical work, and it needed his full attention, total commitment to the only task that mattered. He focussed and sifted information and memories, searching for correlations, for hidden patterns or paths through the data which flooded his mind.
He heard voices. “How is he, Doc?” Estel.
“He is sedated and stable. His temperature is normal for now, but we need more time to determine the cause.” He didn’t recognise the voice. Female, middle aged, slight Transasian accent. Names began to flood his mind, each deduction about her character filtering the list and reducing the available names, a few moments later he was reduced to three names, all southern Transasian doctors. Her voice, mellow, soothing, calm and understanding. Strike the young doctor from the list. The final two, of comparable age and regional ancestry. He made his choice. Dr Sara Li. Father from the Scandinavgrupp; the harder inflections in her accent coming through in certain phrases.
But the picture that his mind drew was incoherent, blurred somehow, the data conflicting. More information began to flow into his conscious thoughts, her move to the west had coincided with her promotion within the Transasian medical corps, then a military exchange programme at the same time as diplomas for medicine were awarded. Shortly after, she was liaising with many of the internal military departments across the Scandinavgrupp. There was a gap in his recollection, dates where she was off grid, undetectable. She re-emerged a couple of years later, senior security advisor to Maddison Trent, CEO to Civic Industries, an energy provider for, and umbrella company of, the Subterranean Power Corporation, or STC. The connection was made. There were two information histories for this person.
He began to strip away the falsehoods, the inconsistencies and lies. Moments later the woman that stood before them was revealed, a cross referenced and verified digital fingerprint.
His eyes flicked open and looked straight at her. A threat detected.
“Viper,” he said. Both the doctor and Estel looked at him confused. “She’s a corporate spy,” he offered further to Estel, whose gaze turned to the doctor with the look of a predator suddenly picking up the scent of its prey on the wind.
“Now, wait a minute,” she said, possibly thinking she could bluff her way out of the situation, especially as the accusation was unproven and seemingly from the imagination of a patient who, only moments before, was being examined for possible high fever and delusional states of mental instability.
Estel edged forward, Li backed up ever so slightly, weighing up her options.
“Your father’s name is Kristopher Stanhope, your mother was Su Lee.”
Her eyes went wide. He could read her thoughts in that expression; surprise and guilt. She had been so careful. She had taken months of preparation and undercover infiltration to build her profile and gain entry into the organisation. How could he have known? He didn’t know, it was a question he had been asking himself for a while. Ever since his mind-touch with the monolith on Fastvatn, he had been increasingly aware of his recall, of his increase in mental capacity. Things he read, anything he saw became instantly available as high definition memories. He could reread the page, or close his eyes and see a scene again in fine grain detail. It was more than just didactic memory.
But it was a flood. There was no barrier to it, no way to turn it off, and as time went on, he extrapolated his situation to one of complete madness. He had taken to isolating himself; locking himself in his room with the lights out. Closed to the world about him, he attempted to reduce his sensory input, aiming to reduce further escalation of data which his mind would undoubtedly try to process into cross-referenced vivid memories. It was the only way to subdue the relentless onslaught of all he was experiencing.
Estel had become concerned and a doctor had been requested. She was on the approved list of outsiders sympathetic to the organisation’s cause, but she was a fraud.
“You are Transasia military.”
“He is delusional,” she said to Estel. “He needs help. I can advise a good local hospital. I’ll call them in the morning and arrange things.”
He spoke over her . “Transferred to Civic Industries as a security advisor to head-up their work in corporate espionage. You are no doctor, Captain Suzuki Stanhope – You are an assassin!”
She felled Estel with a single punch to the throat. The action would have crushed his windpipe if it hadn’t been for the military implant shielding his trachea, but the punch was still effective if not fatal, he immediately fell to his knees, clutching his throat. She stepped over Estel, the act of submissive victim put aside, the predator she really was in full effect.
His body flushed with adrenaline as he realised his stupidity. He had identified her as dangerous then had begun in some conceited way to play with that knowledge, almost boast at his own deductions. The miscalculation had put Estel down and placed him at the blade of an assassin. His eyes went wide in that moment of realisation, and his heart pounded, every step the assassin took another heartbeat in time, like a clock ticking down to his demise.
“What are you doing?” he said, backing away across the room and knocking a chair and tipping a tray which had been his dinner, across the floor. “You cannot do this, I have work to complete. There is much that needs to be learnt. Much I have to report.”
What did he need to report? The thought had been blurted, but his conscious mind had caught it and questioned it. Report to whom? Where had that detail come from? It span around his thoughts for a moment distracting him.
Where his back hit the wall, his retreat faltered. His mind went into proper fight or flight and his eyes darted about the room looking for options. He could see none, just the scalpel thin blade of the assassin moving to within striking range.
“Why are you doing this?” he asked, playing for time, feeling the panic rising within him. But there was something else. Something almost primal working through him. A mist of darkness moving around just behind his conscious mind, a worrying malevolent power. He started to calm.
“Do you really have to ask that question?” replied Stanhope. “We need to know what you know.”
“You won’t find out anything by killing me.”
“Who said I was here to kill you?” she said with a smug, venomous smile. “But you will tell us what we need to know.”
It was then that the world clouded into darkness, the scene coming back to him as a monochromatic vision, every one of his senses heightened, a surge of power coming from somewhere deep within.
“You want to know all I know? Here… see yourself!” he found himself saying in a voice which was not his own. His hands came up before him as he stepped forward inside her guard, then he slapped out and pushed her arms aside, the snap move vigorously whipping the needle from her hand, though she managed to keep hold of her blade. Placing both hands on her head and grasping hard a surge of energies laced and arced their way from his outstretched fingers across her skull and throughout her brain. The network structure of nano-filaments which had been forming inside him to enhance his neurological and nerve pathways became a conduit, the combined accrued knowledge of human history he had learned and experienced to this point was forced into her in an instant. All the advancements, all the conflict, all the horrors. Peace was an illusion. Her scream was visceral.
Falling away in slow motion, her blade reversed its direction and clattered from the lax grip of a lifeless hand. Suzuki Stanhope’s eyes stared vacantly into space, her brain fried by the inability to consume the tsunami of information.
He stood looking down on her, then back to his hands. The darkness which had clouded his mind a moment before, faded into the background. He had not really been aware of it before, but now he recognised the shadow which he had carried since that day at Fastvatn.
“What did you do?” came a rasping voice. Estel was laying on the floor, clutching his damaged throat, and speaking through gritted teeth.
“I don’t know.” He replied, staring at the palms of his guilty hands. A moment later he looked at Estel, his mind made up. “We need to go back.”
“Go back where?” Estel replied as he stood and joined him looking down at the lifeless body of Stanhope.
“Fastvatn. The archive.”
In the cold light of the moon, he stared out the back of the cargo lifter and considered whether he might regret the next moments of his life. He didn’t mind heights, but this was something different. He could actually see the curvature of the earth, he couldn’t see the ground, all was water and wisps of cloud a long, long way below.
“You okay?” asked Estel brightly through the tac-suit comm.
“Next time, we do it my way,” he replied.
“Your way wouldn’t work. The place is crawling with military.”
“And your way will?”
“It has a 95 percent chance of getting us to the target. Getting us inside…” he shrugged, “that’s down to you.”
He fell quiet considering the last part of Estel’s statement. He was sure of the answer. He didn’t know how he was so sure, but he would get them inside. There was no real evidence for his conviction to know either way, however, he had argued hard and with confidence to get the agreement for the mission. Everyone back at command, they believed him. No, they believed in him. It was something more.
“I hope you know what you’re doing.” Estel said.
He gave no answer, just stared straight ahead.
The light by the open bay door went from red to green. In unison they stepped forward and towards the horizon. He didn’t feel the sensation straight away, but gravity took hold and his stomach lurched. His tac-suit oriented itself into a head down attitude, nav-system pre-programmed with the target landing zone, and they accelerated towards the ground, the sound of the rushing air loud in his ears.
High level insertion, his suit breaking systems would slow him to a short final drop, like jumping off a step. No matter the tech, he still called the act one of lunacy. But here he was – the lunatic. He watched the altimeter in the corner of his visor clicking down in hundreds of standards, the horizon now lost to his peripheral view, nothing but deep dark blue-black in all directions, the ocean a matte unfocussed wall momentarily confusing his senses and giving the illusion of being stationary.
In an instant everything changed, the edges of his visor began to flash amber, an urgent female voice stated, “Active scanning detected. Evading.” His tac-suit automatically redirected, swinging him out and away from Estel, then further in a second manoeuvre. Losing track of Estel, clouds flicked past as he continued to descend, an island now apparent in his display as an outline, mapped with key features, and then targets and enemy positions as his passive system picked them up. He really wanted to flick his tac-suits active detection system back on and take a proper look at the world below, but he knew what Estel would say, and besides the reality of what they were descending into would probably just distract him. He kept his suit to its passive setting.
As he closed on the ground the world about him began to get darker, the sun now way past the horizon line and the black of night blotting out his vision. The visor switched over to light-enhanced mode and the overlay of icons and ground features began to fill in as the altitude decreased. There was a short triple beep in his ear and his tac-suit flared. His arms and legs became a star shape and drag inducers popped out of their housings increasing his surface area to the oncoming airflow. The effect was instant, his insides complaining as they were forced and squashed around.
The tiny island was now vast, he was no longer able to see any shoreline, the map showing a more and more dense population of warnings and targets as the tac-suit’s display indicated the landing zone to be coming up fast. Adrenaline kicked in as he experienced a sudden ground rush, eyes wide and breathing hard he started so yell something, but the words were meaningless and lost in the noise of the tac-suit retros. He was forced upright and into a slight crouch, his suit positioning his body to cushion the final touchdown. Two further bleeps gave a final audio warning, the retros cut out. He dropped to the floor and to one knee, his hands arresting his final unbalanced fall forward. He was on the ground.
There was a stunned silence as he looked up and towards the base of the archive, a group of six Aggressor guards in Scandinavgrupp military grade combat suits were already in position and surrounding him before he could even stand, their camouflage clearly confusing and obfuscating them from his tac-suit’s systems. The barrels of their weapons levelled on him and his tac-suit finally pinged alerts and icons across his display to indicate the impending danger. There was no longer any need to stay quiet and passive. He switched his suit over to active tactical mode. The picture changed immediately and it was bad. It was as if the eye of the world had suddenly turned on him. Estel was right, this had been a bad idea.
“Restrain him!” barked a voice from behind the group, the voice was modulated, amplified and menacing.
But in that moment his fear dissolved, the darkness behind his subconscious reared again and his vision switched to a monochrome. The world changed. More precisely, the archive changed. He could see access ways and surfaces covered in runes laced with pulsing energies. His immediate surroundings took on an almost translucent quality, he was able to see subterranean tunnels, probably those of the STC and their mining operations, he could see the huge underground structure which the archive was part of, he could see the men inside the armour in front of him, their hearts pounding in their chests, elevated adrenaline and pulse rate. He could hear retros firing and a familiar noise, not a noise – a voice.
“Go, Jagen! Go, now!” Estel was coming in fast. He moved, taking the guards by surprise, he jinked and sprinted for the archive.
Sparks started to flash across the armour of the outlying Aggressor guards as incoming fire peppered them from above, then the central group were hit like a train as Estel used them to dissipate the elevated energy he had from turning off his retros early. His landing was precise, limbs and bodies mashed to the floor with a sickening crunch of armour and bone.
The world became a whirlwind of fire and light as he closed on the monolith, bullets scattering the ground around him, answered by lines of intense pasma which began to lance past him in the opposite direction, roiling explosions dotting the hillside around them, the destruction of tanks and portable heavy gun emplacements. It took a second for him to realise where his cover fire was coming from, the archive had activated its own defences. Then the world dissolved into dirt and darkness.
A familiar voice spoke calmly to him through the fog of his mind. Slowly the words formed meaning from the unconscious sound it had been a moment before, “Suit oxygen depletion in two minutes.” He knew it was important but he hurt like never before, his body weighed down and crushed by tonnes of earth and rubble. His mind began to race as he came round trying to move anything under the pressure pinning him down. An arm, he could move his left arm a little. He moved it more, the tac-suits exoskeleton applying more power to his motion than he would ordinarily, in fact the suit and its exoskeleton had likely saved him from the land fall which had swallowed him. Though, if he didn’t act fast, that same suit would also kill him as its air ran out.
With a little more motion he found the earth piled on top of him giving way, “Suit oxygen depletion in 30 seconds.” He struggled and thrashed releasing more of the rubble until he was able to roll over and pull himself free of deaths embrace. He was sweating profusely, his eyes stung as he blinked hard to clear his vision, his breathing was ragged and getting worse as he clutched frantically for his visor. He almost ripped it from his head. Gasping for lungful after lungful of earthy, wet air he managed slowly to calm himself.
Looking around he couldn’t really easily orient himself. For a moment he still thought he had his visor on as what he saw before him was an almost digitised augmented reality. The world about him was black, subterranean darkness, light completely blocked from his senses, yet, the view he saw was one of a three dimensional world of tunnels, mining equipment, machines and brightest of all, the archive shining like a beacon. Amongst all the visual illumination was from a single point which caught his attention, a human figure stood about 30 marks away.
Considering his options, he started to make his way slowly, crouched and cautious towards the figure. Part of him was drawn to it like a moth to a flame, a compulsion driving him forward. Moving through the passageway it began to appear different to him, more constructed, less hewn from the rock and earth about him. He realised he and scrambled out of the pit, he was now within the archive.
Moving closer to the humanoid he found a slight step up into a small spherical chamber. As he entered the camber, his senses returned, the monochrome switching back to reality, a door slid down and closed behind him. A trap sprung.
A soft androgynous childlike voice spoke in several unintelligible languages, then a couple he recognised, then “Hello.”
“Hi”, he responded. Confirmation. Recognition of his own language gave the archive the communication channel it required.
“Please, take a seat.” A couch slid into the room, rising from the floor and forming a hard but contoured surface on which to rest. With some trepidation he slowly sat as requested.
“Would you like refreshment?” the voice asked in comforting tones. A cup of water rose on a pedestal from the floor and stopped a short reach away to his right.
“Thank you,” he responded. Taking a small sip at first to test the quality of the liquid, he confirmed it was indeed water, cool and refreshing. He continued to drink in large swallows until he had drained the beaker. As he returned it to the pedestal the voice continued.
“Could I ask your name?”
“Jagen. And you?”
He stared at the ceiling of the sphere, trying to locate the childlike voice which had invoked a name that had to be more than coincidence. He was finally in the right place, he would find answers here.
His whole life had become consumed by the need to be here, right now. But now he was here, he felt lost. He had achieved what he had felt compelled to do for the last year, but now he looked into his future and saw nothing, it was like looking to the horizon in all directions from a life-raft, marooned on the widest ocean. He went back to the start. The very first question which had been his driving force from the moment the monolith drove itself from the ground into his world.
“Palomina, what is this structure? How could we have not known about this?”
“I am an archive. One of many across many worlds, placed here to be the collected learning of all humanity across the eons. Five of us on this world have made ourselves available for access by this current epoch of humanity on this planet. We have made contact.”
The answer held so many more questions for him. How many human epochs on this world? How many other worlds had humanity populated over its time? The fact there were other archives on this world, how many more were hidden away? But the only question that he found himself asking was the ego driven one, where did he fit in?
“Made contact? With me?”
“Yes,” the archive responded.
“What have I got to do with all this?”
“You were selected as the Arbiter. This world has reached a level of technological advancement which puts it on the brink of great endeavours. It can take one of two paths and can be either a constructive or destructive force from this point on. The knowledge within these archives and the advancements in understanding it would afford this epoch of humanity will give you the stars and will be an amplifier to your collective ambitions and desires. But you will be the Arbiter, Jagen. It is for you to decide whether your people are ready.”
It was as if a veil had been lifted from Jagen’s eyes. His need to confirm the existence of the ARQ Field drive technology, the obsession with mining data and identifying scientific advancements across the planet, and searching for understanding of the path humanity was taking. It was to obtain new data, up-to-date data for the archives. He had become their eyes to the future they now inhabited. Their drone.
An Arbiter they called him. He could say nothing, his mind now wandering through his memories, his childhood, the news casts, his travels. All that he was reflected the environment in which he lived, the sum total of man’s world had brought him here, to investigate its corruption and danger, war and self-interest, as a journalist he had seen it all. But the world did contain good, people were still at heart driven to care, nurture and explore, to discover new things and wonder about their future. These base qualities just obtained less coverage in the world of chaos about them. The view the world had of itself was negatively biased.
Sitting for a long time in silence, the weight of the question rolled around and only caused further indecision.
Estel raised himself from the ground and eyed the standing Aggressor guard. He had given Jagen his chance and time enough to reach the monolith, but artillery fire from the ridge had caused a cave-in which had swallowed Jagen like prey. In that moment he had felt nothing but rage, lashing out he took down two more guards, the shots from his sidearm precise and deadly.
It was then that they began to swarm him, reinforcements coming from all directions. His ammunition depleted and an alert flashed red in his visor, the breach of his sidearm locked open. Throwing the useless weapon at the head of the nearest guard he followed up with a flurry of punches. It wasn’t enough. A second later they were on him and driving him to the ground. As the kicks and punches rained in a green icon appeared in his view, Jagen had made it. Looking back at the monolith the icon slowly entered the structure a few metres below the surface. He smiled to himself in triumph, then a bright pain flared as a rib cracked. He was back in the fight.
“It is the wrong question, Palomina,” stated Jagen. He looked up at the roof of the sphere which had become a cinematic cast of the world outside, of the military camp, the newscasts of various global feeds, each broadcasting violence and destruction. “This is not who we are.”
“Your history would state otherwise.” The outside world appeared on a screen projected ahead of him. Estel was brawling with an overwhelming number of guards.
“You should be asking, whether we want the knowledge the archives possess?”
There was a silence, the archive possibly having not anticipated his answer suddenly communicating with others, working towards a new course of action.
“And why is that a better question?” the archive asked.
“Because, humanity is an information animal, we are continually driven to explore and discover. To learn. Getting the future handed to us would undermine who we are. Having these things handed to us… where is the learning in that?”
“Are you fixed on this course of action? You will be denying your people a future guided by our experience and wisdom.”
“Answer me this. What happened to your creators? You speak of epochs. Where are the descendants of these periods in human history?”
“Humanity follows a cyclical pattern. Each epoch ebbs and flows but almost always ends in a similar way. There is a continual thread, but the population becomes decimated through self-annihilation or disease, earth-strike or extreme environmental change. Those who survive rebuild, eventually, but knowledge and understanding is always eroded.”
Estel’s head was thrown with force against the rear of the RV as the Aggressor guard tried to bundle him inside, stars sparkled in his vision as his world became shades of grey. The smug smile on his face just wouldn’t go away and he knew it was annoying his captors. He and Jagen had succeeded, they had won the prize. The struggle and blood he and the cause had shed would be rewarded with the bounty of technology the monolith promised. Technology like that would be power in the new world, power which they would wield.
Jagen watched the images play through as he listened to Palomina, he saw Estel being wrestled into a personnel carrier and felt lifted by the fact he was alive. Some good, possibly the questioning later would be less so.
“No, the world is not ready for these archives,” he said, continuing to monitor the feeds. “Right now, the amplification you speak of would be focussed by the more destructive side of our nature and that cannot be allowed to happen. The balance is wrong at this time, better to move forward under our own incremental actions. Your knowledge would be a giant leap toward our undoing.”
“You are decided?” asked the archive.
In that moment the spherical room began to glow and become a brilliant white. He felt a tingle across his skin, like that of a static charge. Information flowed into him, through him, became him. He wondered anew at all the knowledge which he was suddenly being shown, absorbing and understanding. Enlightenment and transcendence; he finally understood. He was finally home. Then for a brief moment he thought he saw his body become billions of dots of light before they accelerated in all directions out towards the boundary of the sphere and beyond. A sudden sense of panic was overcome by calm and the brilliance of the light around him.
Estel put his hands out and although cuffed managed to grab the door of the personnel carrier he was being dragged into. The Aggressor guards were clearly under instructions to keep him alive for questioning later, so he was taking full advantage and struggling to escape their grasp every step of the way. He may be outnumbered and his capture certain, however, he could still be obtuse. But the wrangling and wrestling stopped in an instant as a thunderous explosion shook the air. He felt it like a thump to the chest, his ears deafened, muting all sound but a wavering, disorienting whistle.
Stumbling to keep his footing, he stood and looked up at the monolith, his captors stood with him staring at the structure as it deconstructed and fell as dust and rubble all around. He knew then for certain that Jagen had got inside.
“My god, Jagen. What have you done?”