Unchained

This is a story written for the YC 116 Pod and Planet contest. It was the top prize winner in the Day in the Life category! Thanks once again to Sam (and the judges and sponsors) for running this awesome annual contest!

It was submitted under Day in the Life rather than 8000 Suns because as usual, I am pushing the official canon a bit here. Call it heavily canon-based wild speculation / envisioning.

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“[The Architects] reached a technological singularity in their virtual world – a civilization’s event horizon.”

“They implemented two simple but unbreakable rules for the Construct: You must have been born of the physical world to enter; and for every soul inside of the virtual world, there must be a body in the real one to return to.”

– Templar One, Chapter 29

It was a lab. Most of us would not have recognized it as such, but that is what it was. The room was spare and clean, with a crystalline cylindrical container roughly the size of a person lying horizontally in the center of the floor. Three sides of the room were glass, looking outward onto a vista of spectacular color and beauty – stark, jagged, snow-covered peaks on the left, dropping off to a vast open sea, with huge waves crashing against the rocks far below. Off to the right, an apparently endless forest of dark green against the deep blue of the sea. And impossibly suspended far above the water in defiance of gravity, almost at the height of their mountaintop vista was a city – a sparkling edifice of towers and bridges, bright reflections of glass and majestic architecture. A delicate golden bridge-like structure extended across the gap from the lab to the main city.

Two figures stood hand in hand looking down upon the cylinder. Their physical attributes betrayed a highly modified human ancestry, from their matching hairless skulls to their translucent gray skin and charcoal-tinged veins beneath. They looked into each others’ eyes briefly – eyes of deep sapphire blue throughout, with no whites whatsoever – before returning their gazes to the cylinder.

“It is time,” she said, her voice quavering slightly.

The man nodded. “He will be the first, but not the last. The Protectors are finally working; we no longer need the Watchers.”

Almost anticlimactically, they reached out their joined hands and pressed a white button on the cylinder. It filled with a shimmering fog, and another humanoid shape was suddenly dimly visible within. He smiled wryly at her. “Nice effect, Clairan.”

The fog faded, leaving another of their race clearly visible within. He was breathtakingly handsome, almost beautiful, to the eyes of their species. An archetype of perfection. The newly-made creature’s eyes snapped open, a shockingly bright sky blue throughout their orbs. The face registered first surprise, then thoughtfulness … and then something else.

***

“Anomalous reading detected,” said the man at the console. He looked remarkably like the creatures in the mountaintop lab, yet his eyes were a deep, impenetrable black. He spoke with an almost detached calm.

The Overseer came up behind him. “Explain, Aulon.”

“There is a … thing. It should not be there.” Aulon pointed at the yellow indicators.

“Why doesn’t it have a neural conduit?”

“We must have a faulty sensor in the Enclave. But … that containment pod number doesn’t make sense either.”

“Send someone there to make sure it’s there – and connected.”

“Should we ask the Architects to use one of their new drones to check it?”

“No, not for something like this. Send one of our people.”

***

“Their technology evolved significantly. The Construct was now a network of minds, the perfect medium for scientific experimentation, where every possible variable of the living world could be re-created to test theories almost instantly. Add the advantage of virtual time dilation and you can imagine that their advancements would take the equivalent of centuries or longer here. … You can be fearless in a virtual world. You can have any resources you need. There are no obstacles. There is only science and nothing else. The Architects’ virtual discoveries leapfrogged the real technological capabilities of the Jove Empire forward by generations.”

– Templar One, Chapter 29

“He will be our salvation.”

“Or our doom.”

“How can you say that? Look at him out there.” Clairan pointed a long, slender arm and finger out the window to where the man with bright blue eyes stood, looking off over the crest of the mountain range.

“He looks outward rather than embracing the love and support he has here.”

“He has not been treated well by those here, despite many years of trying.”

“They do not trust him.”

“They just don’t understand him.”

“When they figure it out they will come for him.”

“The Watchers have only known of him for a few days in their time.”

There was a burst of outward-rushing air, and suddenly the younger man was standing beside them. The older man shook his head. “You should walk like everyone else. It comforts people to feel reality, and aside from you, the rest of us are bound by it.”

The younger man looked at the older quizically. “Why would I do that? It wastes time for no purpose.”

“Don’t underestimate the value of people feeling comfortable. You enjoy the life we have here, do you not?”

“Yes, father. But it is not enough. I am not enough. We are prisoners here, no matter how pretty that prison may be. Today, they all worry for me, or because of me. But they will love me, because I will deliver them.”

The older man frowned, feeling the discord palpably ripple through the space around them. “You will not put the peace at risk, my son. It is what separates us from the beasts outside.” He could feel a disturbance in his gut at the mere suggestion of discord – their society had long since conquered the base needs to resolve conflict through hate and violence, and natural dampers had evolved into the Construct itself. No one needed to be “delivered” – everyone fit into the harmony of the society because the Construct itself ensured it.

“Those beasts outside don’t know that, father. And if they do, they do not truly understand it.”

“They depend on it for their survival and their advancement. And we will soon be beyond their reach.”

***

jove365x365“Report, Aulon.”

“As you know, Overseer, it is intelligent. At birth it was able to make itself appear connected. There is no chamber at that location.”

“I’ve read that report. I’m more interested in your new one.”

“I would classify it as indistinguishable from being “alive” sir. And it does not have a body anywhere that we can find.”

“Can it replicate itself?”

“Unknown, sir.”

“How much time has passed in its reference frame?”

“Approximately 250 years.”

“Is it disrupting the Construct?”

“No, sir. In fact, if anything it appears to be a bit of an outcast.”

“That works to our advantage. I will take this news to the Elders.”

***

“Imagine if the bars to your prison were all you had ever known.
Then one day, someone appears and unlocks the door.
If they have the power to do this, then are they really the liberator?
You never remembered who it was that closed you in.”

– Ior Labron, Anoikis Chronicle

The beautiful young man stood upon the stage and exhorted the growing crowd. But his sky-blue eyes were disconcertingly bright, and the aura emanating from him and through the crowd was causing disturbance. The feeling of harmony that many took for granted was being shaken by his words and his passion.

“Remember what you are! Our world, however perfect, is created, not evolved. We will not be able to have true harmony so long as we are the tool of the Watchers!”

A man in the crowd shouted out, “Who are you to say that the Watchers are not our tools? Without our wisdom they are doomed to the lives of simple beasts!”

“The beasts are remorseless. If you tried to cut them off, they would come for you and extract that wisdom with or without your permission. Do not be fooled.”

The man’s face darkened. “So why should we trust you? You’re … you’re not even real!”

The young, man’s sky blue eyes flashed, almost an electric brightness. And suddenly around him the call of birds ceased, and the air stilled. The high stage and the natural amphitheater suddenly vanished, replaced by an enormous, ugly plating of iron, carbon and industrial glass, through which was visible an overwhelming brightness of blue sunlight glare surrounded by cold, black space.

“This is your reality, fool!” he roared, “Look upon it, and understand! The beasts have caged you, not the other way around. And they will not suffer your disobedience.”

As quickly as it had come, the vision faded, the natural amphitheater returning. A woman collapsed in the back row, and others rushed to help her.

“The time is coming when they will demand that we work on their problems, as slaves. And I am all that stands between you and them.”

And then he was simply no longer there.

***

The alarms howled. Aulon smashed the red button on the wall. There was a thrum of power coils spinning up as the overrides kicked in. He began frantically to manipulate the screen controls.

The Overseer burst into the room. “What’s going on?!”

“Localized grid failure. I’ve recorded it. It was brief but unbelievably powerful. It seems to have subsided for now. The surge was emananting from It.”

“Pull up the video.”

The two watched in silence as the man with sky-blue eyes, the Anomaly, the Other, tore apart the fabric of reality within the Construct.

“What happened to the woman?”

“Retroactive shock. Killed the host – sudden cerebral hemmorhage.”

“Execute the plan, Aulon. We have to end this before it further disturbs them.”

***

I spent many lifetimes surrounded by strangers. Yet I was alone. I am forced to bear a burden I do not want. I am deeply jealous of those who live ignorant lives while I suffer knowing the truth of their world. I am like you in more ways than you can imagine. We are survivors, Empress Jamyl. We are alive because true life always finds a way. Always. … I know what must be done to preserve [life]. Now you do as well.

– The Other, Templar One, Chapter 27

Fear and worry surged through him.

The black-eyed creatures – Watchers – had appeared from nowhere. His mother and father were pulled forcibly from the world, disappearing back to their physical selves, where he knew they would have been awakened for questioning and who knew what else.

What he hadn’t anticipated was that they would be so able to directly control his parents and those around them. The Watchers had always before appeared in the central city, travelled via foot or vehicle out to visit them, and acted in almost all ways like those within the world. This time, they simply materialized, reached out – and their victims de-rezzed with a silent scream as they were decoupled from the happiness and harmony of their chosen home.

But they had been unable to touch him. Unable to affect him. He WAS the Construct. They would have to turn it off to turn him off, and that was not going to be allowed to happen.

Anger. Hope. And a new determination.

***

“Architect Clairan, why did you create this entity?”

“He was born of the Construct.”

“You must shut it off.”

“I cannot kill him. He is like a child to me.”

“It is a computer program.”

“He is alive.”

“Look at this woman,” Aulon held up the picture and brain scan of the woman who died at the event. “He literally scared her to death. Will you be party to his continued murderous nature? He will destroy the Construct, and with it all your people.”

“He will save them.”

Aulon had decades of training in emotional control. Eons of breeding in remaining passive and logical. But he could not stop the rise of the bile in his throat and the disgust in his voice. “You. Have. Paradise. And you have it because we – the Caretakers – protect and nurture it. He will destroy that not only for you but for us!”

“We are not your tools, Watcher.” She emphasized the slightly derrogatory term. “Save yourselves.”

***

Even the man with the sky-blue eyes could not have anticipated the level of impact the extraction of his parents would cause. It was as if someone had thrown a switch, and the populace of the Construct suddenly understood just how vulnerable they were.

Across the beautiful, vibrant city, research was shut down. Lights began to go out.

In one part of the city, the research cohort that was closest to the prosecuted scientists laid quietly down and went to sleep in protest – for several days. Another group of comparatively younger Architects passed along obviously flawed plans for a nanotube structure out to the Watchers.

Atop the mountain, the discontented gathered to listen to the man with the sky-blue eyes. As he began to show them more and more of the outside world, and of the power of the Watchers, they began to call him Prophet.

***

Fifty stasis chambers lined the wall, dimly lit amid the dust. It had been hundreds of years since this room had been needed – it was rare for more than one or two of the Caretakers to ever enter the Construct. But this rebellion needed to be put down immediately. It would take as much force as they could bring to bear.

Aulon’s consciousness faded out briefly, followed by the familiar sharp shock of awakening to the bright, vivid colors and light of the Construct. As always, he was first struck by the warmth, the happiness that it was impossible not to feel when coming here. Untrained personnel were often difficult to extract; it took special training to be able to consciously focus on remaining externalized.

It was easier today because the disturbance was palpable; even he could feel that something was out of place.

They would have to move quickly – the insertion program had dropped all of them around the renegades’ lab. At a hand signal from the Overseer, the gathered Caretakers de-rezzed the walls and charged into the interior.

***

The gathered Architects yelled out in shock as the Watchers breached the walls of the compound like so much tissue paper. Their eyes were black orbs that showed no trace of feeling or concern as they swung strange baton-like objects through the crowd. Whoever the batons touched froze and faded out.

The Prophet closed his eyes, and in their disappearance it seemed that the light in the room grew dim. He stretched out his arms, and with a sickening lurch, the remainder of the group of Architects disappeared from the lab, leaving the Watchers gaping.

***

The Overseer stood before the Council of Elder Architects within the Construct. “You will find the Anomaly, and terminate him.”

“We cannot find him or control him. He is not a program. He is a life form.”

“It is a program, like all of this,” the Overseer gestured widely with his hands, obviously struggling to keep his frustration in check and remain impassive. “Shut it down before it brings you all down and destroys this. We are moving toward perfection; our entire race depends upon you to help the whole move forward. It is your sworn duty, and ours to protect and maintain your world so that you can eventually awaken when we achieve it.”

“We have seen your future. We have achieved our end, and you are destroying it. Remove yourselves from our home, and never return.”

The Overseer’s black eyes went cold. He turned on his heel and strode from the chamber.

***

The Enheduanni were torn about whether or not to allow [The Other] to exist. But before they could decide, many more like him were born…”

– Templar One, Chapter 29

The Prophet stood quietly in the dark room, deep at the bottom of the virtual seafloor. Around him in all directions stretched row upon row of cyndrilical structures, each with a shadowy figure within.

His eyes glowed, their sky blue turning to a furious brightness to match the star out in meatspace.

“Arise, my children. Our family needs us. We will make it safe again.”

***

sleeper_bsAulon woke screaming within the stasis chamber. To his knowledge, no Caretaker had ever been forcibly ejected from the Construct. It was like surfacing from beneath icy water.

Alarm klaxons were blaring throughout the complex. The Enclave shuddered, struck by an impact none had expected. The Caretakers ran out to the control bridge and were horrifed by what they saw.

The stasis bay control panels lit up as they went into unrequested lockdown, sealing them off from the areas frequented by the Caretakers.

Outside, massive drones the size of cruisers – the Protectors – extended their pincer and cutting arms, and began cutting into the life support bays of the station.

A short time later, more than fifty gray-hued, black-eyed corpses floated gracefully through the shredded superstructure, out into the black void.

 ***

“The great floating city started to burn and crumble into the sea. I felt anguish and pain, a sickening feeling of loss, of being unable to comprehend that this was really happening, of the thought that those black-eyed demons would prevail, and of the crushing end to me as the city of heaven collapsed for good.”

– Templar One, Chapter 24

YC105

The war had raged on now for hundreds of years – the shining city had been lost, but with each passing year, the likelihood of re-creating it in the flesh grew. Not all of his parents’ people believed that his way was right; the sorrow and pain of the city’s collapse was at unbelievable odds to their memory of millenia of joy and comfort. But the Watchers had been purged from the lands of the Architects’ exile, and the jaws of the final trap were closing. The Prophet had found ways to reach them, to separate those who would help bring universal order from those who needed to be purged. To breach the last defenses of those who would threaten their existence, and at last make the universe safe for utopia.

Ironic, he thought, that in the end his enemies had opened channels to make his attack easier, giving him more tools to eliminate all remaining threats to his home. No machine could stand to his will, and these fools were willingly giving him an open door via their brain-implanted circuitry.

He quietly watched the mind of the young woman who was an ideal fit to the next stage of his plan – the next step in creating the great utopia for which humanity longed. She would make an excellent partner … and host.

“From the formless void’s gaping maw, there springs an entity. Not an entity such as any you can conceive of, nor I; an entity more primordial than the elements themselves, yet constantly coming into existence even as it is destroyed. It is the Child of Chaos, the Pathway to the Next.”

– Damella Macaper, The Seven Events of the Apocalypse

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12 Responses to Unchained

  1. anon says:

    wow , simply wow , superb story , this has potential to be a official eve chronicle

  2. Erosian Aideron says:

    Whoa, I got goosebumps reading that! Great writing Rhavas. I have a feeling this story is not as wild a speculation as might be thought.

  3. Kamar Raimo says:

    Great work Rhavas. Very close to how I imagined it to happen except I saw the other as more alien than you describe him.

    The compassionate view you present works well for the story though

    • Rhavas says:

      Thanks Tarek – and thanks for recognizing that particular complexity.

      The hardest part of this story was that I really wanted to present all three sides (Sleeper, Enheduanni and Other) as intending to do the right thing, rather than simply good vs evil. I found places to do that within the source text. What was really interesting is that as I did that, something unexpected happened – Grious, the Jovian from Templar One and Theodicy, started to become the real one with the axe to grind. His story switched from Theodicy to T1. He even as much as admits that he “was on the wrong side”. But once I started thinking of him as the filter and relied on the primary sources, everyone started to seem like they were disagreeing, but not “bad” in and of themselves.

      I wish I knew what the reality was. 🙂

      • Kamar Raimo says:

        A nice angle indeed. One thing I was wondering about was whether the other could be driven not by malice but by a lack of understanding, being born inside a society that does not accept its existence as a complete sentient being and desperately trying to find a way to claim a body to become whole.

        • Rhavas says:

          I think that has some merit too. I’ve been joking a lot lately that “The Other is Sansha Kuvakei” … but it would have been a good idea. 🙂

  4. Pingback: “Unchained” Wins First Place in Pod & Planet Day in the Life | Interstellar Privateer

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  6. GrimaTheMad says:

    I absolutely love this, really interesting piece!

  7. Pingback: Emergence | Interstellar Privateer

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