Visitation: 2

Beneath the Wrecked Church there was a single Hasp. Its name was not known. The consensus among those in the SM faculty was that it was not of the usual order of Hasps; no. It was a Category I, expressed in Form II. And it was the last line of defence, for nothing could stand against a naked Haccieter, against the final idea of a basic force. Why The Defence was where it was no one knew. The Wrecked Church was around 12,000 years old, and as far back as records went it had always contained the Hasp. In that ancient past some deal must have been struck, a trade of some still-incomprehensible value. What was in it? Friendship? That surely was a heresy. It was impossible to imagine.

In any case the Hasp could not be moved. Of course it had been tried. But it could not be done. It was fixed relative to the gravitational centre of Stize. There was also the problem that anything that came within a metre of it (99.2 cm, said the notices at the entrance) would disintegrate as a result of absurd tidal forces. Outside that radius, however, those gravitational forces simply disappeared. They did not tail off; they simply did not extend there.

They could see the Wrecked Church now, the shattered spire of six metal plates, most of the top half entirely gone except for where two of the triangular sheets stretched skyward, nearly touching before cleanly cut off as if by some unnoticed catastrophe, some antiseptic violence that had come tumbling from above. Copper green with intimations of wisdom, flying buttresses broken and left clawing at vaulted notes the hearing of which was like a musical gesture in the middle of its enactment, like a sign paid out in instalments, the long spinal nave of stone and its interdenominate vertebrae locked in place, the high holy orifices of the windows agape, unprepared after all this time—

“It looks pretty good for a ruin,” Garf said, sweating a bit now. “I know it’s a stupid thing to say but it doesn’t look very – ruinlike – doesn’t it?”

They stopped to look.

Bizzo leaned back and shaded his eyes. He said nothing.

“It’s a bit like that Cubist stuff. Not really Cubist, I mean, but like that – who was it – Worthow, I think.”

“Ah,” Sal said.

Garfield drew a hand across her forehead. “I wonder why I never noticed before.” She took two steps back and stretched out her hands in the direction of the structure, moved them mechanically up and down as if measuring something. “You really get a sense of its size, hm? Standing here. I suppose that’s it.”

“In Canon II there is a section on the influence of prehistoric art,” Sal said. Canon was the vast university library.“I think Worthow is mentioned. There’s a book called The Lineage of Art from Before Time. Brewer and Fentiman. It’s good.”

“It isn’t really a church, is it?” Bizzo said. He coughed. “All the later ones that were copies of these two, those were churches. But we’ve not got any idea what this was for.”

“No,” Sal said. “Although there are many theories.”

“Why isn’t there anyone around?” Garf said.

Sal went up to the door and pushed it open.

Above the long darkness of the nave light seeped from the clerestory, touching nothing. At the end a great flood from broken spire.

“I spoke to QC,” Sal said. He grinned.

Garf took in a deep breath of cold air. “And it didn’t let anyone in today.”

“It re-arranged things,” Sal said. “So there would be an empty window.”

Bizzo stood just inside the door, his hands in his pockets. “There’s something, you know, oppressive about this. This place.”

Outside was the human noise, the human suffering.

The very thought.

Garf opened her mouth to say something but Sal said, mildly, “No. No. I understand.”

They walked over in silence to the crossing. The North Transept was ruined and from where they were they could look out at the sun pluming outside, the trees, the rolling air. In the middle of the crossing  there was a shallow bowl worn out of the basalt floor and at its bottom there was, incongruously, a lift, a large steel box.It looked like it could take ten or so people at once.

They got in and the doors hissed shut and they immediately began to descend.

Down hypodermically through rock. This is the song of an unassailable people.

They did not stop for a while.

“What the fuck?” Bizzo said when the doors opened.

They were at the edge of a vast rectangular chamber tiled entirely with what looked like white ceramic. The scene was a study in perspective; the dark lines of rock which showed between the tiles ran from where they stood to the opposite wall nearly a kilometre away, across the floor, walls, ceiling.

The light came from everywhere and nowhere and was painful.

Near the far end of the chamber there was a black square, so dark it looked nearly unreal, like something projected into vision: a perfect cube ten metres in height. Around it the neat lines formed by the tiles appeared to bend, to warp and wrap in on themselves again and again.  A space around where light congregated endlessly, fawned without end.

“So that’s the casket,” Garf said. “Trippy.”

“Is that lensing?” Bizzo said.

“Yes,” Sal said.

“Hmm,” Garf said.

“This shouldn’t be that surprising. What do you know about The Defence?” Sal said.

“It’s Type I,” Bizzo said.

“If you go to the SM faculty page you can find a list of well-defined Hasps and their properties. One standard way of classifying Hasps involves a Reissner-Nordström transform. You express properties about the Hasp by treating its derived properties as if it was a charged spinning black hole. Once you figure out a Hasp’s effective implied charge you can give it a certain mass. It’s not an actual mass, but you can treat it for certain calculations as if it has one. Basically you can figure out what Hasp in Form III would look like. The Defence is in Form II. But its inferred Form III mass – and it’s probably the only Hasp whose Form III mass has been precisely calculated, for obvious reasons – is approximately 4 billion solar masses.”

“Urk,” Bizzo said.

“That’s a big number,” Garf said.

“If you rank the well-defined Hasps by mass it’s pretty high up.”

“That is frightening,” Bizzo said.

Sal said nothing. He looked at the dark cube and said nothing.

The stuttered world made fiduciary to this.

“Is that number a limit?” Garf said. “What does it actually tell us about what this can do?”

“It’s not a limit,” Sal said. “That’s not what a Hasp contains. It’s an expression of actual gravitational potential, not potential gravitational potential.”

“I don’t –” Garf began.

“Garf,” Sal said, voice clear, cordial, knowing, “Don’t worry about it.”

Bizzo was staring. “We can’t go near that,” Bizzo said. “If the gravity is strong enough to bend light like that there’s no way we can go near that.”

“If it was a gravitational field, we’d be dead by now.”

“Terrorist!” Garf said, but put no heart into it.

“What is it? It not a gravitational field why’s the light fucked up like that?”

“I can’t get QC,” Garf said. She turned to Sal. “I just tried to make a query and got nothing.”

“There’s also no Composite Dust in the air,” Sal said.

“What is it?” Bizzo said.

“It’s a field,” Sal said. “It’s complicated.” He grinned like he had made a joke. “It only affects massless particles – photons – the way gravity does.”

“Okay.”

“It’s safe,” Sal said. “Let’s go.”

Garf looked hesitant. “Is The Defence doing that?”

“Of course.”

“And what’s that?” Garf pointed to the long gash in the floor where the tiles had been crushed in an arcing path that ended with the casket.

“Continental drift. The casket moves a tiny bit each year as Wassea drifts underearth it. Let’s go.”

As they walked the lines around the casket slipped and dilated like liquid. They came to the door in the side of the casket.

“We’re standing right here but I can see you just fine,” Bizzo said.

“Yes,” Sal said.

“I shouldn’t be able to,” Bizzo said. “Not if this was bending the light.”

“It’s strange that the door’s just like that,” Garf said. “I’d expected something more impressive.”

“Security?” Sal said.

“Yeah.”

“It would make no sense trying to keep the Hasp in. And it can’t be damaged or moved, so there’s no sense keeping anything out.”

The door was visible only as a faint outline in the smooth black surface. A handle was set into it; Sal took it and pulled and the door hinged open smoothly.

Inside the light was dimmer.

It was on a small plinth and it was black.

“There’s a smell” Bizzo said. “It’s like the smell you get when you get into the car in the morning and the air-conditioners come on. But it’s sweeter than that.”

Garf went up to it. There was a circle inscribed into the floor: come no closer. She stopped a metre away.

How to stare this cruelty away?

A monument like the word if and just as improbable.

“It’s sort of muscly,” she said, “Very lean, like you can see through the skin to the muscle underneath. Is it crouching?”

“It’s like you took a military jet and made it into an animal,” Bizzo said. “You know what I mean?”

“It’s crouching,” Sal said. “It has its head between its knees. It’s digitigrade – you can see how the legs fold beneath it. It looks like it has an extra joint there. If it stood up in this form it’d be well over two metres tall.”

Anatomy. How to embroider a wound.

Teeth do not rot in the grave.

Garf shook her head. “It’s black.”

“Yes.”

“I can’t make out the – the contours of the limbs. Those are the arms wrapped around its – knees –  that is the neck, the neck, going down between them. It doesn’t look alive.”

“It’s not alive,” Sal said.

“Why would anyone want to come so close to something like this?” Bizzo said.

“If you look inside the circle,” Sal said, “You can see – although it’s hard to make out since the floor is so dark – you can see human remains.”

Garf brought one hand to her face, rubbing, checking.

“Those smudges?” Bizzo said.

“Yes,” Sal said.

“Oh,” Garf said.

“This is such a strange place,” Bizzo said.

“I can’t get a feel of it,” Garf said. “It’s not – you know – threatening, now that we’re here. But it doesn’t have a present the way a sculpture has presence. It’s a gap. Do you know what I mean? I’m not sure if I’m putting this across. I feel sad for it. I know this makes no fucking sense at all but it looks sort of sad. Not to move after all this time. It’s so fantastic it’s beyond fascination. I can’t even describe it properly. Seriously. If I go back out and someone asks me, ‘What was it like,’ I’m pretty sure I’ll say ‘I don’t know,’ and it’ll be really honest. And if they person says ‘What did it look like?’ I’ll say, ‘It was dark and crouching and made the light funny and smelt strange,’ and that sounds ridiculous.”

Garf looked at Sal. Sal looked at the Hasp and did not say anything for some time. Then he said, “Look at this. After all this time this is what we rely on.” His hands had been pressed together but he spread them apart now, raised them. “Look at this.”

A child before the blackness, hands raised, wrists loose, lost already in ritual.

“Uhm,” Bizzo said. There was a look on Sal’s face that he had no seen before, the look of something caged and now finding its larger intention, the latch in its trammel. It was not a rapturous look. It was slightly sorrowful.

“Rely on?” Garf said. “We’ve never used it in any way.”

Sal turned to Garf.  Then he turned to Bizzo.

“I wouldn’t know,” Bizzo said.

“This is the basic threat.” Sal pointed at the Hasp. “This is under everything. Isn’t it absurd? Isn’t it obscene? It is a threat so powerful it cannot be used. It is the basic violence under our structure. Do you know how other nations see us? To them we are already a Kingdom of totems. Providence picked bare. They don’t even contemplate conflict with us. And then they see this, our Defence. And what do you think they think? And we use that. I use that. Its hint is in everything I do: you cannot overcome us. Even if I did not want to I would be forced to.” He stopped and looked thoughtful and nodded, or maybe that movement was only imagined. “Look at this thing. I am the same as it. Don’t you think?”

Bizzo and Garf stood and looked at him and did not say anything. There was a light in his eyes and a deadly calm.

“Don’t you think?” Sal said. He held out his wrists. He smiled and there was nothing in it that was not genuine and warm. “Come on. Do not believe that I am something else. Under my skin there is a violence. There is a violence. Don’t look at me that way, Garf. It’s the most basic eloquence and it’s all here, all inside me. Hm?”

A wild and profligate gesture.

Him receding now, just like this, taken by therapeutic quantities of darkness.

“That’s not – a problem,” Bizzo offered. “It’s not easy, being the Leviathan, but it’s not a bad thing, I guess.”

Sal looked up and titled his head and looked at them out of the corners of his eyes, as if puzzled, thinking. “Oh, Bizzo, I’m not complaining.” It was a terrifying look, alien, suddenly, maybe cold, haughty. “But this encroaches on me,” he said. “Come now. You must know this. This is easy to see.”

Garf said, “But the Defence has never done anything. It’s not doing anything now.”

“Garf,” Sal said, “I am not an alternative. Do you understand? What’s – I don’t know, choose what you want – what’s truth to violence? What’s violence to greater violence? What’s me to a God?”

“You are saying you can’t control this,” Bizzo said. Sal looked at him blankly.

“It’s The Defence, Sal,” Garf said. “It’s not doing anything bad. It’s just a defence.”

“Do you think that this must be a defence? Do you really think that?”

Bizzo said, “What else could it be?”

“Suicide.”

“Suicide.”

“Yes.”

“Something to kill everyone?”

“Well, think about it. This whole world is already impossible to attack. There are too many forces conspiring against it. QC. Gates. Gatekeepers. Compydust. College AIs, if necessary. Armouries. But if we were all to die it would be through this.”

Garf said, “So this is about controlling it.”

“I’m not complaining about anything,” Sal said, “I’m just saying this is the way things are. I’m pretty okay with it.”

“I’m pretty sure you could stop that from happening” Bizzo said. “I’m sure there are ways to do it.”

“Why would I prevent it?”

“What?”

“Why would it not be me making that order?”

“What is this about?” Garf said. She had her hands in her pockets, her body tight against itself.

In a different world trees stood shocked in the sun, canopies small spaces and worlds apart.

“Kasakadei has written little thing. A monograph. Have you heard about it?”

“The ethics majors in Hakon mentioned –” Bizzo said.

Evitable and Inevitable Duties of Non-Existence. It’s what you would expect from Kasakadei. A tight airless thing. The arguments in it are not new – they are clarifications of some very ancient claims. Dusted off, restated to avoid some obvious attacks.”

“What is this?” Garf said.

“If it is not a moral evil to fail to create a utility-positive life,” Sal said, “then it follows.”

“What follows?”

“That it might be good that we all die. Isn’t strange that such a small concession, something look inconsequential, almost, could lead to this? Small things have big consequences.”

“When you say we you mean, all, as in all of us?”

“You see now why a Hasp is useful for this purpose.”

“What is this argument? I don’t see how anything follows.”

“It’s about an asymmetry. We all agree that it is wrong to create a life if it would be one of suffering. To cause the existence of such a life would be a moral evil. We therefore have a duty not to create such a life. But it is not clear that we must think that the flipside is true – that we have a duty to create a happy life, given the chance. But if there is no positive duty to create a life where that life would be a happy one – if that is not a moral good, then we are left with a conclusion that the happiness that a non-existent life passes over is not a morally relevant loss, while the pain and suffering that is passed over is a morally relevant gain. Do you see? This asymmetry means that we have a duty to create not life at all. An inevitable duty of non-existence obtains. No matter how gloriously happy the life we create is, as long as that life contains some sort of suffering, no matter how slight, that pain could have been avoided by not creating that life in the first place. Yes, no happiness would have been experienced, but if you think that failing to bring a utility-positive life into existence is not a moral wrong, then all this follows. The Inevitable Duty of Non-Existence.”

Bizzo was quiet. Garf was thinking.

Horror could be thus held purely by its skin.

Garf said, “This is an argument about why it is wrong to cause life to come into existence. It does not say that once life is created we should end it.”

Sal laughed. “Yes! Yes. But one does rather imply the other. And if the killing is quick there is little harm done.”

Bizzo said, “You don’t believe any of this.” He ran his tongue over his front teeth like an animal. “You don’t believe any of this.”

“Bizzo, darling, why do you ask me? Think about it. Any answer I give to these sorts of questions will not be motivated by my desire to tell you the truth but by the necessities of my position.”

“We’re clearly not dead,” Bizzo said. “So you don’t believe that.”

“No,” Sal said. “There you go, I guess.” He laughed.

“Shall we head?” Garf said. “We’re having lunch at Porales.”

“No,” Sal said.

“Come on, let’s go,” Garf said. She started moving toward the doorway.

Sal looked at her. “No,” he said smoothly, without any gap between Garf’s exclamation and his denial.

Garf stood as if paralyzed.

“You should know about the other argument,” Sal said. “Don’t you think? Evitable duties of non-existence. You should find out.”

“Why are we discussing philosophy?” Garf said.

“We’re not discussing philosophy at all,” Sal said, sounding surprised. “We’re discussing why I should not be minded to kill everyone.”

“Okay,” Garf said. She grasped her face and ran her hand down it, pressing into her cheeks. “Must we do it here?”

“The arguments are made rather sharper here, aren’t they?”

“Go on, then. Explain.”

“It’s not complicated. It’s an old argument, an ancient argument, really, that Zapffe Ipcress articulated fully in Grief and Sublimation. It’s an argument for an evitable duty because this duty is sensitive to the value of existent life itself; it matters how that life is to be lived. The claim is that happiness is not real. That is to say, it does not exist independently. Suffering is what exists independently, as the groundnorm. There is nothing intrinsic about the satisfaction of fulfilling desire because desire multiplies – and desire is only a kind of pain evolution has forced us to clutch at, reflexively, a lie of value that we must hum to ourselves over and over again. Ipcress’ words. Do you know what Ipcress writes in the second annex to Four Meditations? I can recite it for you. It slips into the mind quite easily:

“‘Conscious life, although nothing on the scale of cosmic time, is laden with suffering. This suffering is directed towards no other end but its own perpetuation. This is to be expected. All suffering directed elsewhere, which is to say all honest suffering, has long since ended. It is lost to us. What exists is that suffering which, by making a terror of everything, threads the barren and yawning needle of mere survival. We feel, deeply but pointlessly, that life nonetheless has some meaning, or at least some pattern-of-value. We feel that because we hold in ourselves an argument that, even if unarticulated, is as powerful as it is false. What is this secret argument? (1) To say an interest is morally relevant is to say that it matters morally; (2) If it matters morally, it must matter to the entity whose interest it is; (3) For an entity’s interest to matter to it, there must be something that it is like – that it feels like – to be that entity; (4) That feeling-of-being this entity possesses must be indicative of the relation of its interest to its being; (5) The relevant part of this feeling-of-being is desire; and hence (6) Desire must, if not identify precisely, at least indicate those interests that are morally relevant, and thus stake out within each life a space for meaning to develop. At each stage this argument proposes an erasure of suffering and its replacement with meaning, or something like it. Call it truth. Call it light. Call it nobility. Call it honesty. Call it freedom. Call it dignity. But it never shows its true face. That true face is that it is correct in one place only, and it locates a truth. Life is morally relevant – that is to say, it matters, but only because it is an evil. It needs to end.’”

Bizzo coughed. Garf was staring at Sal.

“Well,” Garf said.

“Do you agree?” Sal asked.

Do I agree?

“No. No, I fucking love my life, Sal. I would never give it up.”

Sal laughed. He looked at Garf and then at Bizzo. He. shrugged apologetically. “I think people should know about that argument. It is eight centuries old. It shouldn’t have taken Kasakedei to resurrect it, to put it in so-called analytic terms. It is worth hearing.”

“Sometimes I am terrified of you,” Garf said. “I mean that. Sometimes I am.”

“Sorry,” Sal said. He turned his palms up and that hint of good-willed gangliness came back.

“You didn’t bring us here to do – that, did you?”

Sal made a face of pretend-woundedness. Then he laughed and shook his head. “No, no. I came because I thought it would be interesting to see The Defence.”

“You don’t believe in that argument.”

“What can I say?”

“No, you don’t.”

“Well, I don’t believe in it. Crane has some sharp things to say about it.” He looked at them, gauging if this was enough. “I told you it’s not useful, asking me these things. Let’s go.”

“Fuck me,” Garf said. “I am suddenly famished.”

Sal looked at The Defence. He spoke to it. “You’ll be here, won’t you?” Lightly again. “This luminous grave. It must be good. Oh well.” He turned to Bizzo and Garf. “Let’s go.”

Visitation: 1

“—and the weirdest thing that happened, by which I mean not necessarily the funniest but certainly the most surreal and I suppose if you think about it maybe even instructive, was something that happened just after the Khorsan Shit-Surge –”

“Khorsan Shit-Surge? You mean the bombing of the waste processing—”

“The Khorsan Shit-Surge is its proper name, proper meaning the name we, the perpetrators, gave it, of course. But as I was saying, what happened was that L. broke his penis. I see you sceptical faces but allow me to elaborate and make more plausible what I know sounds to be an implausibly farcical situation. What happened was that L. decided to celebrate the KSS by fucking some native guy, having grown rather overfamiliar with us, and so booked a hotel room with two single beds for the act. And it was by all accounts, by which I mean his account, going very well, since if I remember correctly this guy had unconscionable stamina. And so L. is fucking this darling cumlet (his words) up the arse, in the very throes of high passion, when he withdraws his penis to attempt a truly heroic thrust, to really skewer this fine fellow, and because they had taken the two single beds and joined them together by the primitive expedient of shoving them together and covering them with a blanket, (a room with a double bed had been considered and rejected by L. since Ditarod society is highly suspicious of homosexuals, feeling perhaps collectively threatened by their collective sexual vigour and exuberance, and one room with a double bed for two men crossed a certain threshold of apparent suspiciousness in L.’s generally highly accurate estimation) some combination of action and reaction occasioned by L.’s rearing, tensing of the fleshy and tendinous fasciculi of the lower back to arch the spine and bare the cock in prelude to the rigid muscular thrust that was to follow, and the backwards force exerted on one of beds and the complex trusswork of springs and struts maintaining the bed’s taut yet smooth and pliable surface, causes the beds to slip ever so slightly apart and one of them to fold inward in a subtle way, with the result that L.’s cock, previously so precisely honed in on the other guy’s anus, veers off course and ploughs with still-unchecked force into the otherwise pleasingly well-developed gluteus maximus of the other guy’s left butt-cheek. The guy yelps and gets a bruise that swells, passes through a phantasmagoric array of colours, and eventually dissolves, over the course of a week or so, but poor L. – and he has a penis which, I can assure you, when in the full fastness of complete tumescence is very rigid indeed – takes the full brunt of that vehement thrust on his penis, which has a much smaller cross-sectional area than his partner’s gluteus maximus, and so breaks. That is not the formal term, of course, there being no bone in the penis, (which after all needs to change size and posture quite often and so would not benefit, evolutionarily speaking, from the scaffolding of a rigid bone) but that is the term all the relevant people deployed, relevant of course referring to us eco-terrorists, for something in the penis had in fact broken, some sliver or vital spirit or anima had snapped, had been cleft in twain as I believe L. had said.

“L. proceeded with haste to the local hospital where an operation was performed of which he had little direct experience since he was anaesthetized, anaesthetic being necessary since no self-aware creature has developed the poise of constitution necessary to withstand one’s member being hemmed and hawed over by a group of strangers with whom one does not plan to have intercourse with in the short-to-middle term. The long and short of it was that while L.’s penis was sort of repaired the inconvenience which the penis-breaking occasioned had only begun. L. had to take a flight back to meet us but had been told by his doctors that every hour his penis had to be thoroughly iced in order to reduce (unwanted) swelling and to minimize post-operational discomfort. There is I think an interesting observation to be made here about the general state of medical technology on Ditarod, which is that even though in a high-functioning if deeply pathological capitalist society people should in general be willing to pay through the nose to demand the best possible services to repair damaged genitals, genitals being so important in general social joshing and occupying something of a totemic pride of place re conceptions of self-worth, dignity etc. as far as bodily appendages are concerned, genital repair services on Ditarod were so primitive that a waddling and tragically un-reinterpretable gait and timely icing were necessitated by even the most sophisticated operational procedures. But the main thing was that this particular icing requirement caused L. quite some embarrassment on the flight back to meet us, since every hour he had the raise his hand to catch the eye of the air stewardess and ask for ice – no, not ice in a drink, or even in a cup, just a bag of ice, please, and no, thanks for the concern, but he was most certainly not feverish at that moment – and while people stared (he got an aisle seat) he would put the ice on his trousers over where his penis approximately was and the ice would slowly melt leaving him with a form-hugging little bag of cold water and condensation would collect on it and soak his trousers so that he looked as if he was incontinent, rather than having merely a broken cock – and then an hour later, which was before the damp had left his trousers even in the very dry air of the cabin, he would have to very discreetly get the attention of the air stewardess again, and say, could I – until of course she was finishing his sentences while her look metamorphosed from one of bemusement to unbearable pity and compassion. The whole situation was so excruciating that that once or twice L. resorted to taking the ice with him into the toilet and dunking his penis into the bag, eventually stopping this experimental practice because it was a hassle plus he could not use the toilet if it was occupied or when there was turbulence and, if he thought about it, the implications of his proceeding to the toilet for long periods with a bag of ice were at least just as disturbing (if more puzzling) as him sitting there while a patch of velvety blue metastized across his groin, besides dunking his cock in ice cubes resulted in painfully uneven cooling, and if he waited and tolerated it until the ice had melted somewhat the pain went away but only because his penis was turning a deathly shade of maroon.

“But the worst thing, and this, if you know L. (which you do not, so make my word for it) really was the worst thing, was the fact that the doctors had told him that under no circumstances whatsoever was he to let himself get an erection. If L. had been in the company of a loving and supportive group of friends and colleagues I suppose they would have escorted him from one sexless public space to another, turning aside each erogenous object, fastidiously avoiding beautiful people and paring down their vocabulary to the most blandly functional, but instead L. was trapped for the next month with us, and we were all of us fascinated to see what a broken (or only recently un-broken) penis would look like if erect – like a punctured blimp attempting lift-off, Cortanse speculated, or two slugs very tightly entwined in a pink mating-dance – and we would burst into his room naked, all us beautiful men and women, a posse of irresistible eco-terrorists, and we would dance with our penises and breasts flopping around as if possessed while poor L. screamed and cowered in his bed and used his blanket (on which, in a show of unspeakable venality, we had inked all over with minute and cleverly tessellating penises) to cover his eyes in an attempt to ward off our limbic onslaught, until he nearly passed out from sobbing with self-control, from the sheer effort his will expended while swathed in a halo of venereal glory.”

“That all sounds very cruel.”

“Being a terrorist demands a certain steeliness, a viciousness of temperament.”

“still—”

“You could never be a terrorist, Garf, and I cannot expect you to understand. I am not angry. It was too much to expect.”

“Well, you can just – are you laughing, Sal?”

“I can tell you that L.’s torment did not end there. We sent him messages marked URGENT: RESP IMM containing only images of the most crushingly well-formed men. We scoured the pornographic stashes online (our AI, good old Semirhange, must have downloaded a fifth of the internet) for the most vivid and hallucinatory –”

“What happened in the end?”

“In the end?”

“You know, after.”

“In the end L. came back one day in a total paroxysm of joy because he had accidentally had an erection – one of our messages had triggered it, at last – and it had been fine. The thing had not erupted into a geyser of blood or deflated terribly like a balloon, no, it had just been fine. L. was so happy that he lay on the floor in the foetal position and sobbed like a child, a large and horny child, I grant, but with innocence nonetheless. We could all understand. It had not been a good time for him. When he tried to confront us we would run at him with high-quality glossy porno printouts and he had no choice but to weep and flee.”

“When he recovered I hope he beat the shit out of you.”

“Of course not.”

“What did he do.”

“He fucked us.”

“Oh.”

“We’re here,” Sal said, and stood up. He looked at Bizzo. “It’s fine, Bizzo. Let’s go.”

“Of course it’s fine,” Bizzo said. He blinked. “Why wouldn’t it be fine?”

“You get talkative when you’re nervous,” Sal said.

“What?”

“You’re excellent when you’re talkative,” Sal said. They got out of the train carriage. It was nearly empty. “I wouldn’t have expected it.”

The exit took them to the edge of a large field. The sign said: Malament; Wrecked Church & Old Park.

“It’s okay, Bizzo,” Garf said. “Seriously. It’s not like The Defence is going to eat you or anything.”

“It has —” Bizzo protested, but there was little energy in it to match his sincerity. He coughed and made a face.

Garf went down the steps. “Gorgeous day,” she said.

And indeed it was. All of Old Park lay tremulous and dazed in the sun. Birds lodged in trees panted, struck speechless by the heat, rare calls like faults in the air, shrink-wrapped eroticisms hurled and taken aloft…

Stizostedion was an overprotected world. The Kingdom made no pretence about its value, and things had been done to the place, things discussed in other quarters with fear and trembling, with fury and appreciation approaching extremes that might be termed aesthetic, with a film of despair, even, and envy… There were the great armouries on all the Gates that led to Stize. There were the onworld Gatekeepers; a ludicrous 228 of them, when Naze, the capital, had only 24. And then, and then…ah, there was QC with its Composite Dust, Drizzle to End All Days, two grams of which had been sufficient in wilder days to raze three cities on Moheger and transform the Union’s 5th Battle Group (Mixed) into a mere commixture of essential dusts then pressed into a boule of machine essence and expelled just before noon onto the plains of Saracen, an ingot of ambitions too tragic to even speak about…and yet on Stize CD was the very air itself, and the even the light that came through it was a membrane plucked clean by force, that carried the basic grace that came from having asked permission,  amniotic rigging strung through the air as mucosae sticky with predatory intent, ardour made manifest in a trillion trillion shudders and gasps, a twining together of motes, of unnumbered urges, aches, infatuations, eggings – into a coil of awareness bent upon itself, bent upon the entire world, a chrysalis that invited, a veil that was all voraciousness, oh come, oh come indeed all ye faithful…

But that was not enough. What if there was a rent somewhere? What then? What if the ravenous panoply fails? What then? And so one arrives at The Defence.

Beneath the Wrecked Church there was a single Hasp.

Kind of getting away: 13

Day two and I think of my close my life is – all the ways in which it could have been – can be – perfect.

Dusk comes and takes up the places between the trees. Mild and serum light settling down. The kind of light that brings colour to the sky but exhausts its purpose there and so can only turn everything else into silhouette. Really it is unspeakable. I imagine how my face looks now, a blue totem in a blue hour.

It is good to be out, here, in the tent. There is sincerity in the idea of shelter. Just shelter, not the idea of a home. Something far more basic, far more inherent, something far more in this sense like a silhouette. A space in which to put up a little light, to coax forth a little warmth and tender it for nothing. Feel its smallness. Shelter is the basic condition, I think. I mean, just – what does it say? It says: everything is out there, and I am in here, I am apart. Look at this tent, this little yellow thing. What is it really? What can it offer? So much a function of its shape and how it is seen rather than what it really is. Why should I have any affection for it at all?

But I am happy. I think of the evening. I think of the tent and the migration report I have to write. I think of the coming gestures of the night. I think of Helper’s patience.

That is important, actually. The thing is that when I am around other people I find that they have modes, vibrations, certain harmonics of being, certain methods of calling up from inside themselves some unfounded coherence.  So often with people you need modes. I remember friends who are always cynical, so afraid of the idea of sincerity because that would mean nailing themselves down and letting the light touch them and no fucking thanks. They drag me that way. We speak and our words are rushing sibilances, sly and shining extraterrestrial missiles that glance off everything but trade in nothing. Sometimes with a friend I am forced to be a conspirator standing against the world: look at all the idiots around us, look at their irreversible cobalt eyes, rancid lips glued shut with sperm. Sometimes I need to enter a tottering skit, a looping pathology of gastric funniness, ha-ha, ha-ha, parasite living off amphetamines that are not in me. This is why Helper is important. The good thing about Helper is that it does not need any acting. There is no panic like a glassy undertow. I don’t have a mode. I don’t need a mode and it’s just such a relief.

Just before I left I went out onto the Wash again. To prepare myself for this? Well, not really. I stood there in the mud and left myself be held by the thought that all the water has been here for millions of years. This vast flat expanse and its slow shallow pulse a pattern completely unrequired of time and completely ignorant of it. A grey heart gurgling from wimples of sand, going on just like that, without shame. All of this is all of a piece. But something had changed. Something was different this time. I held some mud in my hand and it was just mud. Could not be squeezed dry. Could not be made still. It dribbled all the way down my arm. The weather was very cold and the mud was cold too. This is the only way mud can be: on a plain, under a hanging sky, holding under it the curve of the world. Not offering it protection, not eating at it, not hiding it, just holding it, touching it at every point, without anything more.

I was standing there for I don’t know how long, trying to pinpoint it, when I heard Helper coming over. Helper makes no noise when it moves, but it’s figured out that it’s general social niceness to do something unintrusive to let a deaf little human know you’re coming. So there’s this soft whirring sound.

“I’ve got your Allweather,” it said, offering it.

“Thanks,” I said. It was very cold and I was shivering.

“We can go tomorrow if you’d rather that,” Helper said.

“No,” I said. “I’ll get one last shower and then we’ll go.”

“I’ll get your stuff.”

“Uh, don’t worry about it. It’s better if I pack anyway.”

I headed back to the house. I’d only gone about a kilometre out and so it didn’t take long. When I got there I looked back and Helper was still there on the Wash, one kind of grey set against another, looking out, or maybe looking at where I had stood, that small sandy dimple and the curls of mud the only blemish on that expanse.

The Dry Land: Excerpt

The Dry Land

The Dry Land is a Full Experience Heightened Reality Indefinite Utility-Positive Game, classed as a Massively Multiplayer Shareworld Direct Substitution Role-Playing Game in the Dark Fantasy genre. It is one of the 5 open-world games currently hosted on Bombe. It is generally accepted that Bombe created the game, although it has been suggested that Emprinten and Nocrus played a part in its development, given the complexity of The Dry Land’s world. More radical suggestions that Way-on-Hill or Messier advised in its development are now nearly universally rejected.

The Dry Land was released on December 11 2966 worldwide on Stizostedion and was released on Naze on July 34 2970. It is accessible via a TSD blacktile-64 nullport, freely provided by Quistclose and Petromyzon, with two upgrades available from the Bombe/Nocrus platform. No official world additions have ever been released, though users (mostly Inhabiters, but also some itinerant Players) have noted that some aspects of the gameworld appear to have been modified since The Dry Land was first released[1].

The Dry Land takes place in an alternate universe based closely on the Kingdom, centered on Stizostedion; many colleges are replicated in The Dry Land. As is typical of Bombe’s games, the backstory and mythology of the The Dry Land is extremely difficult to piece together, although it is generally accepted that a Decontextual Happening features heavily in the relatively recent past of The Dry Land[2]. The physical laws of The Dry Land generally follow the Canon Set, although there are certain marked divergences which have not been properly catalogued.  The most well-understood divergence is the The Dry Land’s setting in a Weakless universe[3]. Ingame observations from the EMpScI observatory on Naze confirm that the universe of The Dry Land is also relatively young, being about 6 billion years old[4]. Many other divergences have been observed, although these are poorly understood. For example, users have reported that in certain situations angular momentum appears to operate according to a left-hand rule[5], which would imply a fundamental asymmetry in Neurath’s laws. Bombe has refused to comment on the game’s G-set. Certain commentators have also classed The Dry Land’s (apparent) portrayal of naked Haccieters as a modification of the Canon Set.

The Dry Land does not contain, as the Kingdom does, Allocative AIs, and the allocation of resources operates on basic anarchic-capitalist principles. Users are thus given an unusual degree of freedom in the game .The Dry Land has been of considerable interest to academics as a model for both capitalist markets and for the spread of diseases in primitive societies [see: FEHR modelling].

There is no mission-set specified for users in The Dry Land: they are free to act, subject only to ingame physics and the actions of other users. Consistent with other games Bombe has created, users cannot extend the gameworld.

The release of The Dry Land was met with both critical acclaim and, over time, increasing controversy. Game reviewers praised the extreme difficulty of the game, in particular its unforgiving attitude towards pain, and noted that despite having no mission-sets, “…The Dry Land feels entirely if menacingly purposeful. Staying alive is no easy task. But it is impossible to enter The Dry Land and want to only survive. The thrill comes from the need, invariably and keenly felt, to explore – and that is where the vastest and strangest encounters lie. It’s ur-surreal, and, as my partner pointed out, ur-real. ”[6] A particularly glowing review in the New Journal for Massive Games noted that “while The Dry Land makes you suffer, and there were moments where the sheer what-the-fuckery of it made me regret ever having entered, it brings you into contact with beings so awe-inspiring and so strange that when the payoffs arrive you genuinely feel like you are taking part in the making of a myth. The number of impossible missions you can construct for yourself in The Dry Land is quite remarkable. I joined the Assault on Messier on my second day in. I could not help it. It’s is hard to imagine a spontaneous coordination of frankly sick aggression developing in any other gameworld. For six hours I watched people pour atomic fire onto the Lock until, of course, the thing-that-is-not-a-Hasp came out and killed us all…”[7]

In what proved to be a prophetic review, IGV wrote in its one-month report that “… it is hard to believe this game is utility-positive. The play is deep, the atmosphere unrelentingly dark, the mythopoeia haunting, and the moments of rest utterly sublime. But the rest? Who knows. Who knows indeed. There is a lot of suffering to go through. There is a lot of it and this game might not turn out to be utility-positive but here’s the kicker: now that I’ve stopped, I keep thinking about it. And I can’t remind myself of anything but the fact that I want to enter The Dry Land, again and again. Bombe has another disturbing masterpiece. But whisper that fact.”[8]

Controversy

The Dry Land proved to be the most controversial Bombe release. It was noted from the moment Inhabitation was allowed that a surprisingly large number of individuals requested this option, despite the harsh nature of The Dry Land. The vast majority were denied by Quistclose, which expressed alarm at the number of Inhabitation requests[9]. It was also noted by Quistclose that even Players who had spent a short amount of time in The Dry Land suffered from Expanded Personality Syndrome, although it took no rectificatory action, continuing in its longstanding policy of not interfering in FEHR games. Quistclose has also noted marked suicidal tendencies in Players who are barred from entering The Dry Land, although these are considered easily treatable and at best a trivial harm.

The Dry Land also contains a high number of Experience Gutters, most of which pertain to situations where a user is dying or in pain. Users at first complained about the fact that when wounded they did not have the ability to log out, but rapidly developed aversion tactics  or purchased ingame painkilling equipment. Most experienced users of The Dry Land aggressively defend this aspect of the game, pointing out that much of the attraction of playing in The Dry Land comes from being forced to avoid Experience Gutters[10].

The Dry Land is also controversial for its depiction of Haccieters, which many users have criticised as unnecessary, confusing, and “even by TDR standards, needlessly horrific”[11], as well as its modification of important sites on Stizostedion and Naze. The latter has occasionally led to frustrating gameplay – Messier, for instance, is completely inaccessible, and users who attempt to enter are immediately killed. Since the complete death of 7 Inhabiters (and many more Players) in the ill-fated Operation Doppler [see: Operation Doppler], few players now attempt to enter Messier. Similarly, any user entering the Blueshore area on Naze is confronted by (apparently) the Lama Sabachthani and immediately killed. Nonetheless, not all modifications are extreme (e.g., the Ambassador), and some areas, most notably the Memorial for the Nameless Dead, have been left substantially unchanged.

The Dry Land also broke the longstanding tradition that Descendants and the two unclassified were not portrayed directly in art. A general feature of The Dry Land is the corruption of AIs. College AIs, for example, are rarely benevolent. However, the extension of this theme to ingame Descendants was viewed by some commentators as “crossing the line that separates punishing from hair-tearingly unfair.”[12]

The most controversial feature of The Dry Land is its MDEs. While mass death is not unheard of in other FEHR games, it is exceptionally rare, and is either non-guttered or relatively quick and painless. A minor MDE occurred in the very first week of The Dry Land’s release, during the First Siege of Messier. However, there were no permanent deaths, and the deaths that did occur were relatively painless.

November 3rd 2971 – the “Temper-Being IMDE”: “… watching us fizz.”

On November 3rd 2971, the first controversial MDE occurred when the Temper-Being ventured beyond its usual territory and burnt to death 700,000 users of whom 114 were Inhabiters, all of whom were – unusually –deemed unretrievable. This MDE combined had several strange features, each of which would have been shocking to users on its own. Firstly, the entire sequence was guttered, and users had the experience being burnt to death. Secondly, unlike all previous MDEs, this MDE was completely unpredictable and apparently not linked to user action. Thirdly, this MDE was non-discriminatory: hunkers (users who had invested huge quantities of money into protective equipment) were killed just as easily as fleeters (completely unprotected users). The Temper-Being was the tongue-in-cheek name given to the ingame guard of the Wrecked and Full Churches. Until 2971 both Churches were inaccessible to users as the guard would stop all attempts to enter, prompting joking speculation that Bombe had not completed the Churches (they were being “Tempered”). Since logspeak for “temper” often used the flame symbol, the guard was called the “Temper-Being” due to its similarity to an open flame when viewed from a distance. The actions of the Temper-Being are not currently well-understood: Players gave fragmentary and “extravagant”[13] accounts of what happened. Jonze’s description of the first MDE is now famous: “What happened is that Bombe made a monster. Then it sent the monster after us and the monster put Big Bangs inside each of us and watched us fizz.”[14] The event of November 3rd 2971was classed as an Inordinate MDE or IMDE, although they are usually referred to as “burnings”, in reference to the Temper-Being event.

The causes of the 1st IMDE are not well-understood; Bombe has, as always, remained completely silent on the issue. The Temper-Being has never again appeared after the November 3rd event, and both Churches are now open. The Full Church is unaltered, but The Defence is missing from the Wrecked Church[15] [see: The Wrecked Church (representations)]. It has been suggested[16] that the 1st IMDE was a result of an attempt to model Alle, the second Haccieter although this suggestion has not been widely accepted[17]. In the aftermath of the IMDE, intense scepticism of the utility-positivity of The Dry Land forced Quistclose to divulge for the first time its EUF (estimated utility function) for the game [see: The 2972 Bombe Revelation], which itself led to a sudden explosion of activity in the study of Deep Law [see: the Bezoar Mechanism or: the Double-Counting Dispute]. Close scrutiny of the EUF has led to a tentative consensus  that Quistclose’s assessment of The Dry Land as utility-positive is correct, although challenges to this consensus are frequent[18].

April 24th 2979 – the “Dusty IMDE”

The 2nd IMDE occurred on April 24th 2979, when many users had come to believe that the 1st IMDE was a freak one-off experiment that Bombe was unlikely to repeat. User numbers, after dipping after the first IMDE, had more than recovered by this time; indeed, participation rates had nearly doubled.

[end excerpt]

[1] P. Ampiere and D. Green, “Bombe Does Not Lie, But…”, Northern Link Herald, January 20 2983.

[2] J. Fuern, “Imagining The Dry Land: A New Way In”, Journal of Alternate History 2993, vol.2, p.404.

[3] T. Hasegawa, H. Lemmerl, J. Tulkser, R. Dove, “The G-Set of The Dry Land”, World Studies 2969 vol.1 p.78.

[4] Above.

[5] F. Katye, “Problematic Observations”, General Exploration in Hypothetical Models, Issue 82

[6] D. Bromley, “Review: The Dry Land”, New Gaming, Issue 347, p.3

[7] Anon., “Something Altogether Different”, New Journal for Massive Games, Issue 99

[8] “One Month In: The Dry Land”, IGV 4288, p.25

[9] Log: D/D/TDR/InHb/2230

[10] The Dry Land Forum, threat: “Guttering and Glory”

[11] F. Kinn and R. Cope, “Gameworld Leakage: An Overview,” World Studies 2893 vol.3, p.11

[12] T. Andrew, “The Idea of Reward,” Play, Issue 230, p.4

[13] H. Hiber, “Memory Modification by Bombe”, Journal for Massive Games, Issue 141, p.30

[14] “Unstoppable” Inquirer, published November 5 2971

[15] A thorough discussion of the significance of this can be found in: R. Setzer, “The Defence”, Emblematicisms and Action 2972, vol.4, p. 183.

[16] See e.g.: P. Somas and R. Setzer, “Fear and Trembling in The Dry Land”, Player Investigations 2973 vol.1, p. 78, D. Hefstomerk, “How To Burn”, New Journal for Massive Games, Issue 150, pp. 2-8, and D. Tridimas, “Eyewitness Accounts of the 1st IMDE: A Systematic Review”, Journal for Massive Games, Issue 259, pp. 65-123.

[17] See among many others D. Seller, H. Turner and V. Kramnik (eds), “Explaining The Dry Land,” Full Patent and Fence of Inkper College, 2999, S. Drake, “Modelling the Temper-Being,” Investigations Into Rules 2977, vol. 5, p.1, V. Kramnik, “A Response to Somas: Removing H2”, The Standard Model 2973 vol.3, p. 44, E. Fry, “Records of Peculiar Electromagnetic Interactions in The Dry Land”, General Empirical Studies of Basic Forces 2984, vol.1, p.4

[18]See among many others F. Helfgott, “The Dry Land is Not Utility-Positive”, Welfare and Social Design 2974, vol.2, p.34, G. E. Itirades, “Double-Counting Yet Again,” Journal of Economic Studies 2975, vol.3, p.1, A. Lomer, “Unbalanced Weighting in The Dry Land’s Utility Counting Functions: Implications for Intermediate EUF Derivatives”, Making Utility Work Issue 21839, p.64, A. Pinker, C. Radosch, and P. Urdos (eds) “The Measure of The Dry Land”, Full Patent and Fence of the Faculty for Welfare Studies, 2984.

Kind of getting away: 11

Today the sky looked capable of any enormity.

Helper and I went down to the bridge to look. We found nothing there.

“Well,” Helper said, after a while. “I’m sorry.”

But of course there was something there. Nothing is made deciduous but the thought of it.

“Sorry,” Helper said.

A big sound came through the air like a foghorn. I looked up and then I looked at Helper.

“Is something wrong?” Helper said.

Kind of getting away: 10

I ought to say a thing or two about Helper. There are not so many immarginable objects in my life.

I met it while I was back at Summerlock, just before I left to come here. The usual thing is for to meet our helpers before we leave. Just to get used to each other. It’s a good idea. I had some role to play in getting Helper assigned to me but it was not anything huge.

Helper is not like the rest. It was not made a helper. It was a HKd – Hunter-Killer drone – made for Millan/Tofael. It’s as high up as you can go without being a Descendant. At  least that’s what I think. But something was wrong with Helper because once it got to Millan it became clear that it wasn’t so much into the hunting and killing. It had not fucked up. But it had not been quite as into it as a HKd might have been. When I first met it it had the designation of GHKd – Guard-Hunter-Killer drone. It was a designation made up for its personality type. I had asked it about that designation because I had not seen it before. It told me that there were only three others like it that it knew.

“We’re problematic,” it had said.

“What was it like?” I had asked.

“Being of my type?” it had said.

“Yes.”

“Nothing much happened.”

I don’t think Millan/Torfael was the kind of campaign where nothing much happened but I’ve not asked again. Maybe that all that happened to Helper was that it got a boring observation post and was made to stay out of the way.

Helper had figured something out during Millan/Torfael and after it ended it asked Petr. if a civilian role was possible, and Petr. spoke to QC, and QC asked Summerlock[1], and Summerlock said it knew of a research role where it would be useful, and I went to meet it, and shortly after that Helper stopped being GHKd and became a helper – and then Helper.

Helper shows its military heritage. It’s not pretty. Or it is, but not in that way. You could say it’s elegant. You take time to get familiar with it and then you can see what it is about. It’s a flat metal rectangle about half my height. It is usually featureless and dully reflective but there’s a small notch in one of its corners that it never got repaired. (“No need,” it said, when I asked about why it had not asked for one[2].)

Once I described Helper as “minimalist” and it had overheard. I suppose an ex-GHKd overhears a lot. It told me it preferred to be described as “intimately brutalist”. It’s got a sense of humour. It’s not always up here, but it’s usually there somewhere[3].

But it’s a good description. Helper has taken on civilian trappings well. Helper does not, properly speaking, have a front or a back – or a up, or a down. But when it’s speaking it turns around to face you. The little notch is on the upper left of its front side. That’s how I think of it now. Front. As far as I can tell that is how Helper thinks of it too.

I just mentioned Helper talking. It told me once that when it was a GHKd it had never spoken once. But now it’s dealing with people and it must have needed at some point to choose a voice. I’ve met people from outside the Kingdom and what they always say is that they don’t expect AIs to sound they way they do. All AIs sound like us. They sound like perfectly normal human beings. If you didn’t look at one you couldn’t tell. Obviously a voice with little inflection is easier to synthesise, and an AI could choose that kind of voice. But none of them do. Why would they do that? That would be entirely beside the point of a voice. Helper has a male voice. O. once (accidentally, I think) referred to Helper as he and Helper did not seem to mind. It’s one of those low but sharp voices. It’s businesslike but you can hear each individual vibration in the words sometimes, like Helper is speaking in undertone to someone nearby.

None of which is to say Helper is just a helper. Its field capacity is clearly well beyond what is needed for tracking + tagging + rescuing me if things go wrong. I don’t think there are any threats on Tokata that require handling by a GHKd. While most helpers use fields + AG to get around Helper can move around very fast without them[4]. It dissembles into articulated blocks and can pendulate or amble or cartwheel around. It’s very shocking to see actually happening. The entire thing looks like maths made real. But of course most of the time I see Helper it’s asleep in one corner. I’ve grown used to that sense of mass in my study.

Thought: QC + Petr. must have considered just killing Helper after M/T. It wouldn’t have minded. Not good to have something that dangerous zipping around where it might be caught and used. But I suppose it appeared unlikely that Helper and I would try to conquer some country somewhere outside the Kingdom. Helper carries no more missiles etc but it hasn’t been fully stripped out. Not properly defanged. Neither did it ask to have its personality changed.

I’m thinking of helper because today something happened with Helper. Everyday things happen with Helper but this can be put apart. It returned in the morning having spent the night over the Berents. It went and put the samples in the Store and then came back in.

Helper does not start conversations. But Helper said, “Would you actually stay?”

I did not know for a moment what Helper was talking about. But then I remembered that I might have told Helper about what O. had said.

“You mean – if Ogford decided to stay?”

“Yeah. Would you wait for the next party? Or would you want to be here forever?”

“I don’t think I would stay. We’ve not been here long, you know. We ought to wait.”

“Do you think things will be very much different from this? What we’re doing now?”

“We’ve not started on the Excursions yet.”

“Yes, but you know what I mean.”

I was getting surprised. Helper was really going at it.

“I don’t know, Helper. Are you worried about something?”

“I’m not worried.”

“You must have gotten used to spending long periods more or less alone, surely. All that time on Miller/Torfaen –”

And then Helper interrupted me. This was very strange. It’s very patient with me, usually. Which is not to say that it interrupted me in an impatient manner or anything like that. But I got the sense that it needed to say something. And I don’t think I’ve ever seen Helper act like it needed to say something.

“If you decide to stay, you need to know that I’ll be staying with you.”

That was obvious, I thought. I couldn’t get another helper, surely.

“Obviously,” I said.

It did not say anything and went out again. Then after an hour or so it came back in and it said, “You’d be quite useless without me, I’d have you know.”

I laughed.

“—and Skeffie does not even like going out. So I’m staying.”

“I’d love for you to stay,” I said. “I didn’t expect anything else.”

“Good.”

“You’re a bit paranoid about this, you know.”

Helper sighed. “Mock the ex-guard-hunter-killer. Mock the sad old slab.”

I laughed again and slapped Helper on the side. It tilted over to mime looking at where I had hit it.

“There was something at the bridge,” it said.

“What?” I said.

“Something came up the road all the way to the bridge.”

It is not at all like Helper for it to be vague.

“Was someone coming to visit? They should have told me.”

“No.”

“What was it?”

“I couldn’t tell. I was far off.”

“Far off.”

“That might have been the issue. I could not see it properly. But something was there.”

“You could not see it properly?”

“It might be a malfunction.” I was not sure if Helper was joking.

“What was it like?”

Helper stopped for a while here. “Well, it was alive and moving. It was dark. It came up to the bridge and stopped there. I’ll show you.”

It wasn’t lying. It was a dark blur thing, a longish thing. It seemed to see Helper coming and craned its neck to look up. Then it leapt up into the air and was gone.

“I should go and take a look,” I said.

“I already did,” Helper said. “There is nothing there.”

“Nonetheless,” I said.

Helper waited again. “I’ll go with you,” Helper said. “We can leave tomorrow morning.”

Right now I have about 9 hours or so before I’ll have to leave. But I’m mostly thinking about Helper. I know that Helper is broken, in way. It is not a Descendant. It was made with a purpose. It was made with a set of desires and it was complete at that moment. It cannot escape that. But something has changed, hasn’t it? I can’t lie to myself about it. From here I can see Helper naked and the sum of all its wants has become something with a growing edge to it, something dangerous.

That’s the word I ought to use, isn’t it? Look at it. It’s pathetic, really: dangerous. Sooner or later I will have to tell Helper what I have done to it. What I have done is a kindness.

Well. I do not have to tell Helper. But I’d feel awful about it otherwise.

[1] Of all the colleges Summerlock produces the largest number of field researchers.

[2] So HKds are more or less indestructible. Must have been something pretty awful that gave it that notch.

[3] I’ve noticed that when Helper is feeling pleased (because it’s gotten a lot of work done, for example) it refers to itself as slab, as in: “Slab on way back”; “Slab 2ks South”; “I don’t know what you’d ever do without your Slab.”

[4] Typical redundancy for its type, I would presume. All kinds of things in war might make AG fail.

Arrival

Leviathan arrived on Stizostedion, as he (a he this time, it was well known) always had, with moderate fanfare indicating the confluence of huge excitement and a population too sophisticated (intimidated?) to attempt a proper expression of it. This was news passed in peristaltic fashion through long conversations had for the most part in the eternally dishevelled air that gyrated outside butteries – conversations self-aware enough to vigorously acknowledge their own speculative nature and rapidly divert themselves to the unsung mysteries of digestion—

Such were things on Stize. There were oddities reasonably to be expected of a University older than most civilisations and that had managed to swallow an entire planet. Even with the inconvenience occasioned by the intermittent closing of border crossings caused by deep methodological disputes among departments, university life built up around itself a thick plaque, a jus of joys mostly intimated, epileptic compilations that colluded to a rich mucilage without rote or indeed fantasy, a brew in which oddities accreted into institutions, into certain forms of assault . Stizostedion, so formally called, was under the good watch of Quistclose, an endlessly helpful, considerate, compassionate, murderous AI that (some argued, mostly keeping Petromyzon in mind, but of course everything was argued here, was it not? was this not essential in the specification?) was the most powerful (contested term) in the Kingdom, the most magical and hieroglyphic, the most known and unknown, the one with colour. It had loaded Stize’s fat skies with a sheen of Compydust (a tragic name of QC’s own making) soupy enough to instantaneously dissolve all unpermitted peoples into a sanguinated cloud, a halo of florid light, and to send any ships unfortunate enough to have Breached Two Tiers (of Protocol eith Notice and Without Due Consideration) hulking aflame into the sea, or if that was not possible/desirable to grind them into a metallic mash deposited as exquisite spangly powders over the spires and buttresses of the 322 colleges. QC’s favourite phrase, which was a much-checked fact on public record, was “—terribly sorry.”

Upon arrival Leviathan was admitted promptly into Way-on-Hill, starry tabernacle of the academic firmament, and before the month had passed during which people were meant to get acquainted with the air of essential shabbiness fundamental to academic life was saddled with a devastating trinity of tutors: Kramnik, from the SM Faculty, sexless, urbane, endlessly mild-mannered, vague and brilliant as cheesecloth, sometime contributor to the fabled Field Guide to the Stray Shopping Carts of the Western Paleartic (also, everyone noted, rumoured to have been once involved in a near-fatal smiling accident); Crane, sweating, massive, dewlapped, tumescently brainy, orbiculate body barely keeping viable a head in which arguments mated noisily, bred, and died; proof-annihilator, brash, antiprolix, wearyingly acute, famed amicus to the great Erskine judgment, a colossus rudely – nakedly – triumphantly!— bestride the Ethics Faculty; and the one they called Tehayanianatu, lodged nominally in the Logic Faculty, the only metavirus in stable human residence, the only tutor on Stize no-one had heard physically speaking, unknowable and brooding and black in its ancient chambers, absent at all Formals to no inconsiderable relief of most fellows of Way-on-Hill, devourer of (at latest count) three undergraduates, one colleague, and a small loop of QC itself (the furore was immense; one could have built civilisations off it), controversially described by the worshipful who braved its supervisions as speaking – speaking, despite the common knowledge! –  in a manner soft and kind and toneless and terrifying as it hung down from the dark spaces in its rooms, hierophant to infinitary logics, dripping, redolent of blood, and loose – far too loose, oh! how very loose, do not laugh – with the forest of teeth serrated and secreted in its blind head.