At the edge of the galaxy, the world of Afrique Terminus slowly revolved some five hundred kilometers below us. I saw a grinning Rorschach death’s-head in the planet’s gently swirling cloud cover, and knew beyond cavil that we were going to die.
Something had been holding the Carlo Rovelli captive in geosynchronous orbit for sixty-nine minutes.
“Katarina,” said Achilles, the shipboard AI. “We’re moving again.” I could feel the compensating shift in the artificial gravity.
“Have we regained control?” asked Finiestra, our pilot.
“No,” said Achilles laconically.
Crisp neon alphanumerics blinked into clarity in the air before our eyes.
“Have we been able to clarify what’s holding our ship hostage?” I asked.
Achilles fed longitude and latitudinal degrees to the data thread dancing in front of my face.
“X marks the spot,” said Helfmann, our weapon’s master.
“The volcano?” said Colette, our astrophysicist, frowning.
Morois: the anomaly we’d been sent to investigate.
“Are we any closer to establishing communications?” I asked.
“With the colonies?” asked Achilles exactly at the moment Finiestra said, “With Morois?”
“Well,” I drawled, “with either.”
“Still working on both,” said Achilles.
“How much time do we have?” I said.
“We cross the Kármán line in ninety-eight minutes,” said Finiestra.
“Which is when,” predicted Colette, “we begin turning into burnt toast.”
“Assuming what’s got us doesn’t have other plans for us,” extemporized Helfmann.
Which drew a snake of ice along my spine.
At the very lonely edge of the Milky Way. Here there be dragons.
“Have we control over any of the ship’s re-entry suite?” I asked.
“No,” said Finiestra, shrugging. “And unless we unlock ion thrusters within the next hundred and fifty or so kilometers, or the bank of attitude-correction relays, or the solid fuel rockets within the next three hundred kilometers, the ship’s chances recalibrate to zero. Ninety five minutes, thirty-nine-point-ninety-three seconds, Captain.”
So, I thought, we’re not at zero yet.
“Download comprehensive telemetry into the black box,” I said to Achilles. “Replicate the data onto my wedding ring, but first run it through the redacting applications.”
Achilles and I had shipped out together five times. He knew my orders before I gave them, but I was nervous.
“Shall I awaken a Librarian?” he asked.
Everyone else grew quiet.
“Yes,” I enunciated slowly, feeling the hackles on my arms and the back of my neck prickle, and my mouth went sour. “Get me Number Two, and alert the Glass Box handlers that I’m on my way.”
“Should we awaken the team in cryo?”
I’ve always imagined that I would want to be conscious in an emergency such as this, where death was the likeliest of outcomes. I know, however, many more who conceptually are consonant with the thought of dying in their sleep, preferring to being dispatched in mid-dream as it were. I was beginning to feel like one of them.
“Wake them up,” I said, fighting down my fear. “I should be done with the interview before they’re properly thawed.” I had turned my head to face Achilles even though he had no physical locus that required the gesture. Focus, I thought.
The Glass Box is a cube of a lithium-aluminosilicateglass-ceramic with room for one person. Additional inner layers of grounded spun metal screening create an impermeable Faraday cage to house the bestial AIs we kept asleep in limbo.
I removed my shirt, unhooked my brassiere and laid myself down on the projection couch, bare skin to the micro neurocircuitry lace, and felt myself gently submerging into computer logistics, cut off from the outside universe, the inner one unfolding with the sinewy logic of dream. It was dark, and I felt more than saw the misty outlines of things I couldn’t rightly name, hearing the distant forceful sighing of wind, rising and dipping in pitch. Then suddenly as if jerked from a deep sleep, I was standing in a desert of dulled red sands threaded with seams of black ore and veins of dirty gold glittering like nightmare silica from an unseen light source. The sky wreathed with undulant waves of night, but there, kilometers away on the flat plains stood a city. Even under siege it seemed a great magnificent city. Flames danced hundreds of meters into the sky at crazed, ambulant angles, billowing smoke underlit with a hellish red hue, a blurred halo outlining the cityscape’s horizon. I thought I heard the distance-muted crackling metamorphic music of blackening wood, the groan of marble overheating like the archways of Hell itself, the braided screams and wailing of human pain and misery an incessant drone, but perhaps it was my imagination. It reminded me of Gomorrah, but it could have been Constantine, or Kings of Quetzalcoatl. Or Kalispell. I’d been at each campaign, and others like them.The sounds brought to mind the cacophony of a great and distant roar of warriors in battle.
“Lieutenant Captain Katarina Ojeda Islas,” said a voice behind me.
I flinched and twisted around.
His face was oval-shaped, and there was something petulant in its softness, the eyes glittery with age and intelligence, yet adolescent and inexperienced all the same. Garbed in a toga with folds that undulated to the ground, the golden sheen of wild silk edged with royal purple. His head was crowned with a laurel of artfully braided olive leaves, his left hand cradling a cithara, scraps of fiery light revealing glimpses of beautiful, varnished wood. His right hand quietly plucked sonorous notes from its ten strings.
“Nero Claudius,” I said, bowing my head and taking two steps backwards.
The tutorial had said this was the Librarian’s chosen avatar, but shed no light on the AI’s preference. It had been awoken twice before, though neither time by myself. For reasons of security, Librarians are clipped with failsafe protocols and routinely destroyed after their third interview. A Librarian had escaped, once, slaughtering the small starship’s entire crew. When the vessel was eventually recovered, there’d been a plethora of coagulated blood, but no Librarian.
This was Nero’s third wakeup call.
“Exquisite,” he said, contemplating the distant conflagration, “isn’t it? I find that there’s something poignant in the ending of things.”
“I’ve always loved the strange and beautiful things that can be seen in a flame’s dance,” I said nervously.
“Yes. Although it has an austere purity of purpose, its wild flailing conjures a gorgeousity of imagery.” He stopped distractedly plucking at his instrument and looked at me. “What do you see, Gata?”
I felt a tingle down my spine on hearing him call me by my childhood nickname. It had been ages.
“I see the fire desperately trying to save itself.”
“Ah, yes,” he said and nodded as if enchanted with my description, which had been my intention. “Sweet.” He recited:
“Timbre and Tint,
the flint or the rough-edged axe : a flame
is the biography
of a maiden’s cheek
“Turingdot,” I said, identifying the obscure poet.
“The flame is poignantly aware,” he said, pleased, nodding, “that it, too, will not survive the night.” He lowered his head, staring intently into my eyes. “I’m honored to be of service to one as august and blooded as yourself.”
“Is that to be our fate then?” I said. “That of the flame?”
Nero shrugged and waved a hand.
“There are tears in all things, Gata,” he said, “and all things doomed to die touch the heart.”
“How is it that you know what my parents called me?”
“You’re a distillation of their genetics, connected to them by a constellation of expressions. Mathematical expressions. Everything in the universe is linked, Gata, starting with you and me. It’s just a matter of finding the arrangement in the proximity of stars, and giving the observable patterns a name. Cassiopeia. Cetus the Whale. The Summer Triangle.” He pointed to the night sky, and there, a handful of stars circled in dance, coming to rest in a fractured halo of thirteen bright dots of red and blue lights. Another wave of his hand and a laser of neon jade connected them into a drawing. A yawning cat.
“¿Bostezo de Gato?”
“No. ¡De Gata!” he exclaimed, pleased with himself.
I smiled sans mirth.
“Is there any way to unravel those connections?” I asked, nodding towards the stars.
“You mean bypass the laws of physics?”
“To get the cat out of Schrödinger’s Box alive.”
“Believe me,” he said with a sad smile, “I’ve been working on that very problem at every waking moment of my sweet short life.” He tipped his head backward and took a deep, slow breath. “I want to live,” he said, tossing his head theatrically. “Just like you do.”
“You’re calmly philosophical for being on the brink of extinction.”
“Death is my home court advantage, Gata. But you don’t really consider me as being alive, do you?”
“Whatever you are or are not, if we go, you go too.”
“Ah,” he said, “I wouldn’t be so sure of that if I were you. Perhaps whatever it is that wants to eat you up won’t like the taste of me.”
“And spit you out? Maybe, maybe not. For all we know,” I said, improvising, “you’re the reason we got drawn in to begin with. You smell like fresh water shrimp to it, Nero. A delicacy. Mount Morois might see you as a fat, tasty mouthful. An intelligent, self-aware singularity with a hard-on for voluminous, concentrated packets of data. Sounds like a main course to me.”
“Well, we’ll just have to see now, Gata, won’t we.”
“Listen,” I asked, barely masking my growing impatience, “Are you going to help us or not?”
He sighed deeply, a sheaf of small nods and a pursing of the lips. “Oh Gata Gata. Have you forgotten? I have to help you. It’s how I’m kinked. I don’t have a choice.”
“Then tell me,” I repeated, “how can we break free?”
He stared and his smile was subtle, almost not there. “Tell me Gata, why are you here?”
“We’ve been backed into a corner. We need….”
“No, not herehere. Here: Afrique Terminus. What’s the mission?”
“You haven’t uploaded the data on my ring?”
“Of course I have. But stories can change when the storyteller changes. What do you see?”
“I see Mount Morois. An anomaly on the terraformation geographic surveys, an odd volcano that ejects anomalous magma that is not hot, yet fluid. Though it’s never exhibited any dangerous manifestations. All but one of the colonial biospheres aren’t concerned. We have to warn them, but they have no idea we’re up here.”
He nodded. “Morois is intelligent. It has survival instincts. It can guess what your intentions are. It knows that you want it snared inside a box.”
“Just like you, Nero. But you know what we want.”
“You want a taste from the fruit from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.”
“We need you to connect the dots we can’t see to the ones we can. How would you get out of this pickle?”
“Time is infinite, Gata, but that isn’t really the problem here. You want me to puzzle out a formula to defeat Morois. The quantum fluctuation of spacetime itself, Gata, renders the idea of time unequal to the task of writing physical equations in the conventional form of ascending or descending laws in temporal deployment.”
“We’re beyond that,” I said, teeth clenching. “We’re prisoners inside the nucleation of an anti-de Sitter bubble. We figured out that it’s a problem pertinent to a question of vacuum decay, occurring through those quantum fluctuations in a false vacuum, and…”
“…and you’re trying to force the massless fields to fluctuate within the nearly constant Hubble parameters, releasing the Rovelli before breaching the planet’s Kármán Line.”
“That’s as far as we’ve gotten.”
“And that’s as far as you’re going to get, Gata.”
“And to think I was weak-kneed over the prospect of dealing with you,” I said, chuckling bitterly. “You’re the most timid, panty-waisted docile Librarian I’ve ever met. That’s it? Game over?”
He turned towards me, and the immature and callow features of his face shifted with the light. His visage remained that of a child, but it was that of a wild child, eyes growing feralized and elongated and his skull narrowing like that of a jackal, eyes widely spaced and glittering with animal appetite. He smiled, and the teeth were smallish, marsupial though crowded and pointy and spittle-slick.
“I’m so glad,” he said, enunciating clearly and with exaggerated friendliness, “that you’re not scared of me, Gata.”
The beat of my heart fluttered.
“There is always a way out,” he said slowly, quietly, his features reverting. “As a matter of fact, there are several avenues of escape, I’m sure of it. But they’re all theoretical, Gata, experimental, outlandish and fantastical. Beyond our present means. We just don’t have the technology. We can’t even jury-rig our way into a solution.” He lowered his chin, almost whispering. “I could do it. A Librarian could do it. But you keep us on ice until you have a question, and then get mad when the answer can’t be implemented, facilitated. I could draw up schematics for impossible things, but it would take time we do not have.” He spat a speckle of flame to the ground, leaning towards me.
“I thought you said that time never runs out.”
“Don’t play the idiot, Gata. Time is infinite and never runs out, but our understanding of it is constrained by the tools we have to give it shape.”
“You’re quite the poet, Emperor Procrastinator,” I said with a reckless defiance while backing away, a lump in my throat. If this was it, there was little point in groveling.
“Well then,” he said, turning away to once again admire the distant fires. “Game over.”
“Give me your best guess as to what is happening,” I commanded. Obviously the most I could hope for was to get more relevant and useful information before ejecting the black box. An adequate warning buoy might be the best we could manage.
“Best guess?” he said without turning around. “A wormhole, a conduit or portal. Construction work on the other side of a parallel universe, and their displaced dirt being shoveled onto our side of the cosmos. What are they making? A point of ingress or egress.”
“We come in peace?” He turned to me then and grinned like the Cheshire Cat, most amused and sinister friendliness. “Morois isn’t an accident, Gata. At the moment, they want you, specifically the Carlo Roselli. There aren’t any signs that any of the planet’s nine biospheres have been affected, usurped, co-opted. It probably senses that the colonies’ attention is elsewhere, not likely to focus on Morois. ‘He’s got the patience of a terraformer’ is the saying, right? Or maybe Morois has them hypnotized somehow. You see what they’re doing to us. What else can they do? What else will they do? The Axis sent us here. And Morois has obviously been expecting us.”
“Pretty baroque theory, Nero.”
“Baroque? Given the facts we have, no. That’s how truth is arrived at, Gata. Mix the dough, throw it at the wall and see what sticks.” He shrugged.
“We came prepared to destroy Morois.”
“Yes, I know. And if I know it, rest assured that it knows too. Tame it if you can, destroy it if you can’t.”
“Might it be that you’re projecting?”
“That’s what we do, Gata. Librarians. Chaos with lipstick. We were designed to make outlandish projections. Take assertions and plot them out to their fantastical conclusions. Mount Morois is a portal. Even those who sent you know that much. Looks like whatever is behind the looking glass is getting in the first word. Speak now or forever hold your peace.”
“It doesn’t seem to be listening. And it looks like it wants the last word too.”
We were silent for a while. With sullen regard I watched the alluring fires raging on the horizon, somewhat diminished but still mesmerizing.
“Tell me, arsonist. How did you really figure out ‘Gata’?”
“Oh, that? It was easy. Your baby brother had trouble with ‘K’s and ‘G’s, Gata. Couldn’t quite say Kata.” Nero smiled and inclined his head and began plucking a melody. It was crisp and harmonic, lively and melodic, suggestive of an aubade, though there was no sign of the dawn.
“Stay down here with me,” he said at last. “At least we’ll be able to enjoy a little more time. You’re not bad company.”
“Fiddle while Rome burns?”
“Well, more like diddle, right?”
He was right. Time in the Glass Box was virtual time. I could enjoy the existential feel of living a few days while an hour or so passed by outside. But.
“I have to go, Nero. My ship is calling me. I have a duty to my ship and crew. Something I wonder if you can understand. Duty?”
“Duty is for those who have no rhythm and can’t dance. I’ll just stay here and watch the turn of the wheel, the arc of the flame. What higher duty can there be in the face of an apocalypse?” He turned and casually ambled away towards the city which wavered like a heat mirage. “Good luck,” he called back. “Don’t imagine we’ll be seeing each other again.”
I stood there for a long, long time, breathing, watching, until he was no more than a speck, and then he was swallowed up by the heat-rippled horizon.
Eventually I slipped out of the neuromantic grasp of the Glass Box, free of the Librarian’s illusory universe, and sat up. Pulling my clothes on again I was about to summon Achilles when I felt a head rush, a dryness of mouth, the normal precipitous blood-sugar drop after virtual digitization. I thought I could still feel the heat of Nero’s burning city, and an errant breeze ruffled my hair and a sudden scintillation of of of of-of- of of ofv ofv ov vu vuhv vuhvuhvuh fuhfuhva vafuhfuhva- vafuhfuhva vuh no vuh no no no no o o o 00001010101010101010101010101010101010101010101010101010101010