Settings

Far Horizons All New Tales From the Greatest Worlds of Science Fiction 45


  >A whistling sharp by me and then a smack.

  >Must of been some nanos in the bread I ate before this hot sour taste rose up in my throat and I started choking real bad.

  >It stabbed me with an antenna, a big surprise because I thought it was one of those mechs that only used microwave pulsers.

  >It was at the very end of the campaign and I was tired out and lay down to catch a few snores and this slow thing came by, I didn’t pay it any mind.

  >We were going real fast to get away.

  >She went first and made the jump clean as you like and I did too but my leggings busted out and I lost my Goddamn balance.

  Riding in his upper spine he carried an advisor Aspect of great antiquity named Arthur.

  By then Paris was listened to in ’Sembly gatherings, though he was still fairly young. Arthur always urged moderation in diplomacy with the mechs and gave examples from ancient human history. When Paris questioned the hardships Arthur related from the Olden Times when humans had first come to Galactic Center, Arthur huffily replied,

  Let us say it was not precisely tea with the Queen. Every now and then Arthur would use these archaic expressions from the Old Time and nobody knew what they meant, but Arthur never seemed to notice. He had others, such as

  Warts and all—some big enough to hang a hat on.

  When plasma discharges sent burnt-gold lattices across the entire sector of the night sky, Arthur observed

  Any sufficiently advanced technology at the Center will appear to be a natural phenomenon.

  He was right, of course. Mech constructions swam in gossamer profusion within a few light-years. No one knew what the mechs were doing at Galactic Center, beyond the obvious point that here the raw energies and particle fluxes favored their kind. Not only were they less vulnerable to the cutting climate, they seemed to have a larger purpose.

  Arthur regaled Paris with tales of how grand the earlier human eras had been, one of his more irritating habits. Still, his Aspect-stilted advice was useful in dealing with the roving mechs who now pestered the ’Sembly’s days.

  Mechs were moving in and they made arrogant displays of their contempt for mere mongrel humans. Dried-up carcasses of animals and humans alike—for to mechs they were alike—dangled on rubbery ties from some mechs’ legs, so that they bounced and swayed with walking or just in the wind. Some thought this was just another way to terrorize humans, but Paris sensed in it the mech sense of humor, or something like it, for none of it of course was funny to humans.

  So the mechs came: Snouts, Lancers, Scrabblers, Stalkers, Rattlers, Baba Yagas, Zappers, Dusters, Luggos. Humanity had paid a high price for each name, each word calling up in a sensorium an instant, resonant, precise catalog of traits and vulnerabilities the mech had, facets won by many deaths.

  Beneath a smoldering sky where there was never truly a night—for dozens of nearby stars brimmed with furious glows, giving a simmering, nebula-lit sense of spreading immensity—mech ships descended like locusts.

  Paris fought in the sprawling, terrible, year-long battle that destroyed the principal mech units on Isis. In that year he wore a wolfish grin, all sharp edges and strung wire. He distinguished himself beneath the Walmsley statue, an ancient shaped mountain. There was a small village and some shacks built into the foot of the memorial monument; that’s how big it was. There Paris deduced the mech maneuverings before they could execute them, and so won the way.

  Not that the men serving under him found him warm. By then his increasing distance had become legendary. “Tight bastard, couldn’t fart without a shoehorn,” he overheard, and took it as a term of respect.

  By then he saw that a machine was a man turned inside out. It could describe all the details but in its flood of data it missed the sum of it all, the experience plucked from the endless stream. A vital secret of humans lay in their filters, what they chose to ignore.

  He did not feel degrees Kelvin or liters per second or kilograms; he felt heat or cold, flows, heaviness. He knew love and hate, fear and hunger—all beyond measure. Beyond the realm of digits.

  Their defeat of the mechs on Isis was surely only temporary. Everyone knew it.

  So the ’Sembly—grown to many millions now by immigration and fast-breeding—convened to celebrate the continuity they honored. It might be the last chance they had to do so.

  In a communal linkage the entire ’Sembly resurrected the Ole Bros—Personae so complete that some interpreted their very twilight existence as evidence for an afterlife. The Ole Bros advised that the ’Sembly strike back at the mechs in deep space, where they dwelled. Only by taking the fight to them could humans hope to survive.

  Paris believed this. Plan on being surprised, the Ole Bros said, and then unaccountably laughed. Paris took up their cause. He had many followers by this time, and women came to him easily, but he was not distracted. Something in the dire situation of his time called to him. He used the ’Sembly’s reverence for the Ole Bros to sway them, while not for a moment believing the theology surrounding the ’Sembly’s reverence for digital resurrections, for the implied afterlife in some remote analytical heaven.

  This turned Paris to a question many had asked in adversity. Of what use to humanity was religion?

  He knew this was not how the others of ’Sembly Noachian saw the world. But part of him insisted: Bare a benefit, explain the behavior. Why he thought automatically in terms of this rule he did not know, but he felt the shadow-self move in himself.

  For the ’Sembly, religion was a social cement. In its extreme form it could even get the believer to go off on crusades. Was it all based on a theory and solution to the greatest human problem, death? The power of theology among people around him then seemed to come from that shared, looming menace. He could see how this notion would spread readily, since in himself he, too, felt the hunger to resolve the anxiety brought on by the fear of death.

  But religion had no apparent feedback from the world; God did not answer his mail. Miracles are few and not reproducible. So why does religion persist, even grow?

  His mechanistic explanations, cutting and skeptical as a young man’s can be, did not seem to capture the essence of religion. There were big questions about the origins of the universe and of natural law. These science gripped only tentatively, converging on the grand riddle: why was there something, with all its order, rather than nothing? Chaos seemed as likely an outcome as the scrupulous, singing harmonies revealed by science.

  If Mind brought humans forth from Matter, enabling the universe to comprehend itself—to do its own homework—then religion manifested this underlying purpose, this evolution. But then, why did the mechs have no religion?

  To Paris, such abstract ways of envisioning the deep, devout impulse in humanity did not quite capture the heart-thumping urgency of faith. Something was missing.

  This, more than rituals and the ’Sembly’s celebrations of human triumphs over mechs, formed for Paris the convoluted condition of being human.

  THE COLLECTED

  >First thing I knew was, I was here and been turned into some kind of flowerpot.

  >I was in pieces all over but still able to think in little short pieces like this.

  >The pain that was it, and then they made less of it and I could stand it for longer but my arm was still on backwards.

  >It had written my name on my face which I thought was for identification until I saw the hologram of me standing right next door with my dick in the middle of the back of my head and hard all the time even though I couldn’t feel it at all when this thing like a woman climbed onto my neck.

  >The suet wasn’t so bad but drowning in mucus was and when I coughed and it came out through my mouth tasting like something that rotted down there in me.

  >After my skin blistered up black and brown and peeled back the chill set in on the skin below it and ran like scorching oil all over me.

  >I screamed but this thing with lots of legs would not stop.

  He met the M
antis while on patrol, alone.

  It was a glimmering thing, a play upon the planes of rock against a distant hillside. To see it meant looking past the illusions it projected. He could taste and smell it better than see it. Since he was on a routine transport job, alone with some simple ’bots, he was not well armed.

  Paris stood absolutely still and felt it glide closer. No point in running.

  Clan legend told of such a seldom-seen mech class, striding down through a corridor of ruin, broken lives and widespread suredeath, with tales of phantoms glimpsed as many-legged silhouettes scrambling across shadowy horizons, a tradition bequeathed to all the human Families and ’Semblies of horror, ghostly and undeniable, millennia of desiccated Aspect memories and encounters which few survived.

  I ask entrance. You echo of some essence I fathom from a far past. Do you recognize me?

  “No.” Though something buzzed and stirred at the back of his mind, his fear froze it. Then his training asserted itself and he felt rising in his chest a cold anger. He estimated how easily he might damage this thing. It refracted his sensorium’s interrogations, sending back to him hard claps and images of refracted icy layers.

  You have a quick and savory life, here in the wild. Your primate form is sculpted from a longer logic than I customarily encounter.

  Paris caught a fragment of a many-legged image moving rapidly at the base of distant hills. Carefully he calibrated the distance.

  Your phylum of laughing, dreaming vertebrates is capable of manifold surprises. You are an especially complex example of this; you have harvested many of these facets. I look forward to reaping and reviewing them.

  “From me?”

  Of course. You…do not know?

  “Know what?” The Mantis had paused, which in an entity of such vast computing power implied much.

  I see. We, who propagate forward forever, though in mixed forms, do not share your concern for artifacts. Though they seem permanent to you, I have already outlasted mountain ranges. Artifacts are passing tools, soon to be rubbish.

  “Just like me?”

  In your way, yes. So you do intuit…?

  Paris felt in the Mantis’s slow question some hint, but abruptly a part of him swerved from that line of thought. No, he would not go that way.

  Instead he locked his sole weapon on the last vector-signature of the Mantis and fired off a swift burst. The Mantis flickered and was gone.

  We shall merge in time, vessel.

  Seconds ticked by. Not a sign wrinkled his sensorium. No retaliation.

  The rattle of the salvo had soaked through him, enormously gratifying. His heart pounded. Something in him loved the release of action, while another seethed with unease. He felt an exhilaration at having veered away from a confusion his Me did not wish to confront. And what had the Mantis meant by that last transmission?

  He moved away quickly, fear and pride somehow eclipsing the moment, and he seldom thought of it ever again.

  Other Families and ’Semblies had come to Isis, strengthening this planetary redoubt. But in the fast pace of events at Galactic Center, great changes came even over the comparatively tiny life span of three centuries enjoyed by humans. Mechs lasted millennia and planned accordingly. Nanomechs still harried the people of Isis. Their Citadels were hard-hammered by the drawing dry climate of prickly dust storms, laden with nanos borne on the restless winds.

  Against the salting of the Isis atmosphere they mounted considerable space-based defenses. No mech could drop an asteroid on Isis, no ship could easily penetrate its magnetosphere. Paris volunteered for training in these military arts. He loved weightless glee, the play of hard dynamics, of Newtonian glides in a friction-free void.

  Isis beckoned with its dry beauties. At the dawn line, arid valleys lay sunk in darkness while snowy mountains gleamed above, crowned by clouds that glowed red-orange like live coals. Mountaintops cleaved the sheets of clouds, leaving a wake like that of a ship. Brooding thunderheads, lit by lightning flashes, recalled the blooming buds of white roses.

  The glories of humanity were just as striking. The shining constellations of Citadels at night lay enmeshed in a glittering web of highways. His heart filled with pride at human accomplishments—beaten down, perhaps, but still casting spacious designs upon whole planets. So much done, in the mere century of his life! He had helped shape artificial seas and elliptical water basins, great squared plains of cultivated fields, immaculate order hard-won from dry valleys.

  By then he had found a wife who loved him despite his strangeness, his need for solitude and silence. He had children of his own, but they showed no interest in art. Their children had children, and Paris sensed their continuity with him. Yet something rode in him he could not name, for it seethed on the billion-bit flow beneath the well-lit theatre of his conscious mind.

  He helped the burgeoning space fleet secure a wormhole for their sun-system. This one had been discovered in a murky molecular cloud that came coasting by the Isis star many centuries before. Hauling it closer consumed two decades of Paris’s life, but he gave them freely. A wormhole mouth opened to humanity a fresh grasp. Until then, only mechs had employed them.

  His labors were well timed.

  After many decades of the full experience of the ’Sembly, after creating an amazing body of his strange short-lived artwork, the skies blazed once more with constructs the size of moons.

  More vast mechs arrived, ready to break down all seven planets in this solar system, all for raw materials to aid their great Constructions. A faction urged diplomacy. Some other ’Sembly members struggled to complete a vessel to take them away, before the mechs got around to disassembling their planet out from under them.

  Paris opposed this. Instead, he urged the ’Sembly to strike back. “Destroy something they value!” he shouted. “Only then will they respect us enough to listen.”

  But even as he said it, he knew that something different brewed in him.

  The shadowy presence that had sat beyond view of his inner self now moved with sluggish purpose. Into his mind flashed the coordinates and routes necessary to take a desperate band of pilots within reach of the great accretion disk at True Center. The data-flow was a torrent, thick and fast and coming from a source he could not clearly sense. Perhaps a deep-carried Aspect? But no, another portion of himself denied it. What, then?

  He chuckled ruefully to release the tension such thoughts brought, and for a darting moment saw himself down a long telescoping tunnel of immense perspective, glimpsing himself as a member of a phylum—that of the laughing, dreaming vertebrates.

  THE COLLECTED

  >The thing with plenty legs, it said I was a monument to my kind.

  >There was a team of five of the little ones and a big one with funny legs and they cut me up slowly to see.

  >My mother was there with parts of animals growing out of her and when I tried to get to her they did that to me, too.

  >I was kept in my fighting suit like being laid to rest only there were these maggots that kept bursting out from puckers in my skin and crawling all over me.

  >They said I would not feel the things that went in through my eyes but they lied.

  >I think they forgot all about me and let me lie there on the floor while they worked on the others and finally decided to just use me for parts.

  >I could see pretty well but looked down and there was no body, just my head on a pike they carried around with them, I figure to scare other members of my ’Sembly in battle, with me pleading and screaming most of the time but without lungs.

  The Galactic Center was a collection of debris swirling at the bottom of a gravitational pothole. Its howling, riotous inner precincts were by this time well guarded by mech fleets.

  But worms made it traversable. The first human expeditions through the wormhole mouth had been successful. It opened upon a site nearer to True Center. Paris himself had flown through it, darting in and back like a mouse dashing anxiously from its hole. And so they were—pe
sts in the walls.

  They flew through in order, then met on convergent asymptotes. Paris demanded and got a role in the assault. He was an accomplished pilot, easily able to angle in on the wormhole at high speeds, with a nudge here and a twist there.

  Wormholes were fossils of the first split second of the universe. They were held open by onionskin layers of negative energy, sheets of anti-pressure made in that primordial convulsion. As natural resources, they had been gathered—by whom?—billions of years before and brought here, to serve as a transport nexus.

  Quantum froth fizzed at the worm-mouth rim, a gaudy spray of burnt hues. These “struts” were of unimaginable density, but danger lurked only at the rim, where stresses would tear ordinary matter into virulent plasma. To hit the walls of the constantly shifting, oblong target, would be fatal, as several pilots had inadvertently proved.

  The mouth was now an ellipsoid rimmed in quantum fire. He flew a pencil-thin ship, its insulation slight, safety buffers minimal. Yet he somehow felt no fear, only a serene certainty. Tidal stresses wrenched squeals from his ship as lightning curled in snakes of violet and gold—

  —and he was tumbling out the other end, in a worm complex over a hundred light-years away.

  A blue-green star majestically greeted the human fleet with a coronal plume. Nearby orbited a mech complex; picket craft policed it. With quick swerves the tiny human ships angled into a traffic-train headed for a large wormhole mouth. Fifty men and eighty-six women had died learning the route they would follow, gaining the override codes to pass through the mech complexes. But their disguises would withstand only a moment’s inspection; dally and they were dead.

  Their second transit was through a spacious wormhole that left them racing in low orbit over a smoldering red dwarf. They could use their hard-won code-status perhaps a few more times before the mech complexes would catch on. They had to take whatever wormhole mouths they could get.