The sound of small, shuffling feet roused Penthesileia from an uneasy, troubled sleep. She rolled to the other side of her bed and slowly opened her eyes; she saw Heraclea standing by the bedside in the dim blueish light of the glowstrips. The child's face was pale white and taut with fright. Her mouth was half-open, as if her scream had been sucked into the silent void.
"Hush now, child. Hush and worry not. I'm here now," whispered Penthesileia in her daughter's ear, her arms wrapped around the little girl like a warm coccoon.
She felt Heraclea's shallow breath and her fragile body's tremors; chills ran down her spine.
There's no end to the nightmares, she thought.
"Where is father? I want to see him," said Heraclea stifling a sob, barely able to contain a rush of tears. She rubbed a runny nose against her mother's chest and looked at her with heart-melting innocence.
"He's in orbit my love, you know that already. Come, lay beside me and nothing will hurt you, I promise," said Penthesileia but her eyes grew distant suddenly. She stared at a pot plant behind her daughter's back. It had large drooped leaves and creamy rose buds; it served no purpose other than beautification. It was contraband.
A thought entered her mind unbidden: He could be frozen stiff, floating outside an airlock. Nothing will hurt you, Hera.
"Father promised too," said the child, her voice fading away crestfallen.
"Your father loves you more than anything," said Penthesileia and swallowed hard. She added hastily, and even tried to smile reassuringly:
"He's coming soon, Hera."
She heard her falsetto voice through her own ears; the lie pierced her soul like a blade made of glass, shattering inside.
She closed her eyes and grabbed Heraclea from her shoulders, as if trying to fix her to the floor:
"Your father and I love you more than the stars in the night sky; more than the galaxy and the universe itself. Do you understand that, Hera? Remember that; more than life, love."
What is life worth anyway on this forsaken rock, she thought and kissed her daughter's forehead, feeling the cold taste of dried sweat. The child looked at her expectantly, fear creasing her brow:
"I love you too mother. But I'm scared."
"That's alright, Hera. Everyone's scared. We're only human," said Penthesileia with a slight sigh and looked outside their small window pane; the moons were fading away, while a trio of suns came rising spectacularly, the horizon an unearthly rainbow of golden-hued colors.
"What do you mean, mother?" asked Heraclea puzzled, the fear subsiding.
"Nothing love. Come here now. Lay on the bed, close your eyes and think of riding the sail."
Think of merrier times, she thought and shuddered. For the child's sake or for my own?
"And father at the helm?" asked the little girl as she climbed eagerly on the bed, a carefree smile sheepishly forming on her mouth.
"Always, my love," said Penthesileia. She clutched her daughter in her arms like a hawk-mother and felt a tear ran down her cheek.
She looked through her window at the rich, crystal clear horizon. The break of dawn was at hand; she saw the Hyperion shining brightly, moving slowly across the sky like a star with purpose.
How can a star be so unforgiving?
She felt Heraclea's nudge; the child inched closer to her bosom. In moments, she felt her breathing settle into the easy pace of sleep.
How can my child live in this world?
Penthesileia carefully moved away from her daughter and slid out of bed. She planted her naked feet on the floor and felt the warmth of the ground radiate into her legs. She used to love that warm feeling of connection with the earth.
Only this isn't Earth, she reminded herself thoughtfully.
They had come for Philetus while they were fixing the sail. He had promised Hera to take her on another ride out on the Fields. 'To learn to see beauty where there seems to be none, ' he had said with a gentle smile. They had all the sigils stamped on the codas; they recited a long, hurtful list of accusations: inciting rumours, rousing suspicion in the hearts of the citizens, demagoguery, abusing the State's charter, spreading lies. 'The Pedagogue who turned Demagogue', on of them had said with sickening, mocking pride.
What of their own crimes? Traitors to mankind, every last one of them.
She walked towards the window and watched the Hyperion fly past the horizon, towards the east. She stared at the ship that shone like a star passing over the Tower, its multitude of beacon lights, superstructures and metal support grid marring its otherwise perfect symmetry and features.
We turned to the stars with all the naivety of children. How could we have known?
The tower rose majestically towards the morning sky, a sleek obsidian arrowhead the size of a mountain, tall enough to scrape the few daring clouds. It reflected light with a sharp glint, as well as every other kind of energy and radiation; immaculate, mysterious, alien in origin.
Empty. Void. Useless. So they said.
Philetus had told her it reminded him of a tall, grandiose building back on Earth; a tower where people flocked to simply enjoy the view. 'It might as well have been just that, ' he had said and kissed her when she least expected him to. She touched her cheek out of instinct, waiting vainly for a warm, gentle hand to embrace her own.
The Tower: where the rejects, the outcasts, the lawbreakers and the unlucky are slaved to the machines.
To re-educate them. To teach them. To learn them to conform. To become productive members of society.
'To be never seen again, ' she said with a whisper, just like Philetus had told her first. The painful memory froze her face in a sad, bitter smile.
He shan't ever kiss me again, I know.
Heraclea rolled in her bed, somewhat agitated, troubled. The nightmares were coming again; she mouthed in her sleep, her voice shallow and strained:
"Choose father ... You have to choose... "
Hyperion (TDS-1), in low orbit around HD 85512 b
"They say you speak heresy, Philetus."
"I speak my mind, that is all."
"They say your tongue's as dangerous as any gun or sword."
"Did they say to whom?"
The guard, a burly, grey-haired man, chuckled and drew his chair closer to the small holding cell. He was wearing simple grey overalls, a utilitarian garment. No badge of office, no insignia or any other kind of decoration. He peered at their surroundings momentarily, as if he was standing there for the first time. He spared a few glances at the ever-pervasive optical sensors arranged throughout the cell block; as if making sure someone was watching him.
The clinical white, cold finishing on every surface failed to bring to mind dungeons, chains and torture; still, the metal bars of ancient times had given their place to a barely visible, hair-thin, kinetic force barrier the slight color of the sky.
The guard looked at Philetus inquisitively before cocking his head sideways, as if trying to peer past some sort of mask. The bright crimson prisoner's uniform that Philetus wore stood out impressively, though it was otherwise equally mundane as the guard's suit. It wasn't the suit that gotten the guard's attention.
"You intrigue me, Pedagogue. You're a peculiar man."
"And you're strangely inquisitive for a simple guard, I'll grant you that."
"Head of the Guards," corrected the man, raising a finger and grinning thinly.
"Head? Correct me if I'm wrong, but there are no guards in this place except you. Do you fell you're rising up in the world then?"
"What if I am? A man can only hope for the best."
"Hope was my crime as well," said Philetus and shot a vacant look beyond the guard to an empty cell behind him. The guard sighed and straightened his back.
"I merely entertain my time, Pedagogue. Save your words for the Tribunal."
"I find it strange that they haven't yet gagged my mouth."
"Say what you will now that you pose no danger to children."
The guard did not shy away from showing his contempt. He stared at Philetus as if his form were hideous, his mouth a source of plague. Philetus stared back evenly, before asking the guard in earnest:
"Since I pose no danger to you, would you listen to what I have to say then?"
The guard gave it some thought; he scratched his chin and looked ponderous for a few moments.
"I've heard madmen and heretics muse about the end of days and the fall of the firmament before. I sometimes think back to some of the things people say when they're about to die; most of it is so crazy it brings a smile to my face. But as you can see, it is an otherwise unfulfilling job," he said with a sigh, showing the blank, featureless walls in a somewhat demure way.
"Allow me then."
The guard shrugged, nodded and sat back on his desk's hovering chair. From across the hallway, a man in a holding cell cried out hysterically:
"He's a demon! An alien if I've ever seen one!"
"If that's true, our work here is done, isn't it?" said the guard with a playful voice.
"He'll boil your mind away with his words! I've seen it, I have!"
"Right next to the miners you spaced, I'm sure. Save it, Barabbas," said the guard and flicked a switch on a desk panel; no other sound came from Barabba's cell. He yelled and shouted and threw himself around the cell until he realised it was a futile effort; no-one paid him any attention. He sat himself down once more and went about muttering to himself.
"Fourteen people spaced, three AUs out on the belt. Miners with their families. He said he had to stop them from killing his flowers."
"Has he been sentenced yet?" asked Philetus with a frown.
"Not yet, but it's a clear cut case. He can't be slaved, he's clearly paranoid; it's either the airlock or the compost in the Fields," said the guard and shook his head. He turned and looked at Philetus with a strangely curious look before he asked:
"What would you pick?"
"I'd prefer to be slaved," replied Philetus without hesitation.
"That's no life either, Pedagogue. Surely you must understand that."
"Maybe somehow I can talk some sense into them all."
"You're starting to sound just as paranoid as Barabbas," said the guard, nodding to the madman's cell.
"Am I? I've wondered myself over the years, but it's not me. It's them."
"You're doing it already, aren't you? You are a cunning one," said the guard, his brow furrowed with wary surprise.
"I'm simply speaking my mind."
"I can see now where the danger lies. You seem so benign, but your words are designed to spread doubt."
"Doubt is what keeps the heart and mind of every man alive. It's what makes us think twice, guard. Which reminds me: this prison could run itself, could it not? Why are you here?"
"That's true enough. I'm what you could call your advocate."
"I thought the Tribunal had dispersed with those long ago."
"Still, that's the purpose I serve: a human opinion. Who can tell what goes on in their minds? Perhaps they find it amusing. Perhaps they're simply bored."
"They are machines. There's nothing there to bore to death," said Philetus with a scoff.
"You don't like them very much, do you? You do know we owe everything we've ever accomplished to them, don't you? Our very existence, no less," said the guard and got up from his chair. He started to pace himself in front of the cell, arms folded in front of his chest, his eyes peering through the field, scrutinizing every nuance on Philetus' face.
"I refuse to believe that. We owe nothing to ancient machines built to rule our lives in the name of mankind. Oh, the irony..."
Philetus shook his head and grinned despite himself. The guard did not seem fond of what he was saying. His voice grew heavy and harsh suddenly.
"I've heard about your kind. The philosophers isn't it? Isn't that what you call yourselves?"
"You've hardly heard the notion, haven't you? That's their doing. Keeping knowledge locked away; nothing but the maths and science of engineering that we need to build more refineries, more mines, more ships. So we can then launch blindly into the galaxy, and turn more of it into resources, materials. Eat away at it, expanding like a scourge, a colourless plague. Until nothing beautiful remains."
"And why should that bother us? What else is the universe there for but man?" said the guard with an indignant scowl. Philetus sighed; there was sorrow in his voice.
"Oh, how the mighty have fallen low! To believe we once set ourselves towards the stars with a single dream, a wonderful purpose ... And how we've allowed ourselves it all to drift away; to fall into such a lonely, deaf and mute abyss."
The guard eyed Philetus with glittering, keen eyes. He sounded troubled.
"You use strange words that make little sense; you talk as if in riddles. You puzzle me pedagogue. I do not know what to really make of you."
"If you haven't already seen it for yourself, there's little more I could say to make you see the truth of it."
"Is that why you taught the children so? Is this tomfoolery what you taught them? Is that what hoped to seed in their hearts and minds? Dissidence, rebellion? Whatever for, Pedagogue? Are we not cared for? Are we not protected? Do we not live comfortable, sheltered lives? Here we are, thousands of light years away from our ancient homeworld, claiming new worlds, seeking intelligent life, unleashing humanity into the stars. What more could mankind ask for?"
"Choice, for one. Freedom. Expression. Art, passion, love and so many more of the things we've let them erase from our memories!"
Philetus breathed heavily, calming himself down. The guard's face had turned a shade of white paler, a slight tremble settling on his lip.
"You speak of love? Then you've also..."
"My wife has given birth to our child."
"It doesn't show up on your record. The child is not on your record. That means you have..."
"We made love. In the wording of the machines, we had intercourse and I impregnated her."
"Weren't you allotted a child?" asked the guard sharply.
"We wished for our child to be human. To be born like a human."
There was pride in Philetus voice and his face stood out like the face of statue; gazing to nowhere in particular, solid and unyielding. The guard shook his head and looked at Philetus sternly. His voice was thick and drawn out.
"I don't think I'll be able to support a hint of innocence in you. Not even some sort of levity. If all you ever did was talk, that would be fine. But a lawless child..."
"Perhaps the State should have made us infertile. Or even neutered us," said Philetus, scrounging up his face.
"We need the genetic pool, you know that. Neutering alters physiology, there are neurochemical imbalances to be considered! Continuation of the species is nothing to trifle with! You act like a child! The breeding process hasn't changed in thousands of years! The whole population descended from merely twenty forefathers and yet ... No chronic diseases, no deformities, no lesser beings. Humans! Modified, yes I'll grant you that, but bettered!"
A silent moment ensued. Philetus looked at his guard with pity. There was the warmth of a parent to a child in his voice.
"You have never loved, have you? Haven't you felt the need? Haven't you had the urge to answer those feelings inside?"
The guard waved a hand dismissively. He furrowed his brow and breathed deeply before answering win a scolding tone.
"A waste of time and resources. This is all about survival. I'm surprised that a look around you hasn't convinced you how important all this is."
"'I will even make a roadway in the wilderness, rivers in the desert.'"
Philetus shook his head and rested his hands on his knees. The guard was confused.
"How would you do that without the tells, without following the process that's been laid out?"
"You have no idea how old that saying is, have you?"
"You vex me Pedagogue. You try to mock me and our whole way of life. I thought you were simply living some sort of fantasy, playing a weird little game. But no; you are indeed dangerous to the society," he said, fiddled with his desk's panel and went on, looking Philetus straight in the eye:
"I've made up my mind; I will cast my vote that you be turned over to the Fields. Become something productive, even after your death." Philetus pursed his lips, nodded and asked:
"Why not slaved to them?"
The guard remained silent for a moment. He reluctantly said then:
"I fear you might pollute them."
"Have I polluted you?"
He said nothing and flicked another switch on his desk. The humming sound of the cell's barrier dominated the holding area once more. No sound came from the Philetus' cell. It wasn't really necessary because he had fallen silent; there was nothing more for him to say.
The belly of the beast
The holding cell filled slowly with light, soft shadows creeping away from the small cot. Philetus was half-awake.
He opened his eyes and saw a blank white ceiling, as featureless as death.
What will happen to them?
The same question had been chafing at his mind ever since they'd come for him. Hours had drifted by, some of them spent in fretful sleep but most of them filled with sleepless, uneasy thoughts and a terrible doubt.
Was I wrong? Is all this nothing but a mistake? My own terrible mistake?
The Head of the Guards appeared, fiddled with the panel on his desk and lowered the barrier of Philetus' cell. He was wearing a seemingly lightweight powered suit of armor of some sort. It made him look austere and unyielding; the oblique visor added to that effect. Without the visor, anyone would have seen nothing but a confused, puzzled man wearing an ill-fitting suit. He held a metal rod in one hand; an intense electric field around its tip made it hum quietly.
"It's time. Do not think that what little sympathy I hold for you will stop me from using this. I have done so in the past and I will do so again, if needs be. Do not let appearances fool you; this can be very painful."
Philetus shook his head and rose from his simple metal cot. His hands were uncomfortably held together by heavy metal manacles, locked in place by large bars and bolts, impossible to escape by a mere sleight of hand. Philetus walked outside under the watchful eye of the guard, while Barabbas screamed and shouted mute obscenities behind his sound-nullified cell.
The guard afforded him a mere warning finger accompanied by a heavy stare; he turned around and led Philetus towards the exit. A panel by the door blurted in a synthesized male voice, blatantly devoid of emotion:
The guard placed a palm on the surface of the panel while staring at an optical sensor through an open visor. Moments later, the panel blurted with the ting of metal in its voice:
"Sustar Saul, Head of Guards. Verified."
The door opened nearly without a sound, revealing a utilitarian, spartan corridor only a few feet wide. Non-descript illuminated panels of white plastic formed the walls; the end of the corridor was obscured in total darkness. Philetus turned to Sustar and said with a keen, wholly unnerving smile:
"I would have been pleased to meet you, had we been acquainted under different circumstances."
"I cannot make the same assumption. Now, move," said Sustar with a sigh and a slight shove.
"It does not suit you at all, Saul. But then again, perhaps it does," said Philetus and shrugged ever so slightly. Sustar raised a pointed finger and said irately:
"One more word until the Tribunal addresses you and I'll use that batton on your head. You'll have the worst headache in your life."
Philetus nodded serenely and said nothing. He stepped onto the corridor followed by Sustar right behind him. The floor was made out of the same plastic as the walls. Its surface was rigid, yet unblemished. Every step of the way, Philetus felt his feet stick to the floor; it somehow felt like it was impossible for someone to slip and fall.
So perfectly designed, so flawless, even after thousands of years.
Their steps made no sound; the lighting afforded them no more than a few feet of visioin in either direction. The panels on the walls lit up one by one as they walked; once they had passed them by they switched off.
They turn sound, motion, friction, pressure into trickles of energy. Conserving, withholding it. They sicken me.
At points, they happened upon crossroads. Simple stylized arrows lit up on the floor panels, indicating the proper turn.
They like to control, to direct. They herd us like lesser animals. I hate them.
They were leaving behind them corridors and gangways, doorways and chambers that no human had walked ever since the Landing. Thousands of years old, yet no-one had trod on them since. It wasn't needed; it wasn't allowed.
Laws, prohibitions. Requests denied. Dreams shattered, ground into stardust; helium-3, fuel, energy. That's all that matters.
They reached a recess, an open archway that led into a shaft of sorts. It was kept in the dark, but the faint trace of a simple girded ladder glinted off the ambient light of the corridor. Sustar shot a few glances around him as if making sure this was the right place and then pointed through the archway with his free hand:
"Inside and up; use the ladder."
"Is there no other way? My hands are tied."
"Just do as I say."
Turning human against human, in the name of mankind. How naive, how childish to let machines decide. What cowardice.
Philetus glanced at Sustar and saw nothing behind his black oblique visor. He complied and grabbed the ladder. He felt Sustar right behind him, urging him to move. He took a few hesitant steps, failing to see where he should put his hands and legs. Suddenly the darkness dissolved. Philetus turned his head to look down and was almost blinded; Sustar had turned on his helmet's lights. He merely motioned 'up' with a finger. Philetus looked upwards and saw a faint glimmer of light at the end of a very long, very lonely tunnel.
"The proverbial light at the end of the tunnel," said Philetus with a smirk Sustar could not see.
"That's where we're going. Come on, up," replied Sustar, the connotations of the phrase seemingly lost or ignored.
Philetus shook his head and started climbing the ladder; he gradually felt lighter the farther up they travelled. It was an odd sensation, almost strangely enjoyable.
We're climbing towards the center of the ship. That's not the bridge.
The faint light grew steadily. The comfortable warmth of the holding area seemed to vanish as well. It puzzled him; he felt a sudden pang of instinctive fear in his chest and stomach.
There will be no tribunal; they'll slave me. Rig me up with the rest of them. A breathing corpse. No. Never.
"I will not have that," he said decisively and stopped climbing, or rather, stopped moving along the ladder.
"You will not have what? You're not going to be slaved," said Sustar through his helmet's speaker.
"How do you know? Aren't you merely the guard?"
"They won't slave you. Can you trust me on that?"
"Please, a few more minutes and then you'll see for yourself," replied Sustar with a tiresome voice.
"Do I have your word?" asked Philetus with an angst he had never thought he'd exhibit in his life.
Sustar shrugged, the bulk of his suit barely fitting inside the crampy tunnel.
"If it makes any difference, you do. You have my word; they're not going to slave you."
Philetus nodded, sighed and went on. He still felt something was amiss; something felt wrong, for all the wrong reasons.
The climb was easy; in a couple of minutes the pinprick of light had turned into a warm, soft glow in front of him. He felt as light as a feather. He pushed himself off the ladder with his manacled hands and let go; he floated upwards as if diving gracefully towards the tunnel's exit, no further than a dozen or so feet away, wisps of cold breath trailing behind him.
"Wait! You pushed too hard!" cried Sustar and scrambled right behind him.
Philetus was suddenly bathed in a warm reddish light, its hue oscillating lazily. An enormous, empty cylindrical space unfolded around him with a network of antennae, cables and pipes lining its walls; they resembled a fabulously engineered, metallic skin, pleasingly bronzed; the colour of copper was prevalent. At both ends of the cylinder, giant blueish cubes could be seen, stacked on top of each other, emanating swaths of iridescent light. The whole empty chamber rotated around him at a comfortable speed. Thin strands of light danced about him, as if hugging him with care.
The belly of the Beast. But it's so wonderful, so bright. Like the rainbows of Terra.
"It is, isn't it?" said Sustar and flew right past him expertly. He caught Philetus by one arm and tugged him clumsily towards the front of the ship, towards the stacks of cubes.
"Where are you taking me?"
"To the Tribunal."
"But this isn't the bridge."
"Well, it's not exactly a Tribunal either," said Sustar with a weary grin. Philetus was puzzled, left to wonder at what his surroundings. His mind was stuck on a single, pervasive thought:
It shouldn't be this beautiful.
"I should have taken them off earlier, but there's no monitoring equipment here. It's the only really safe place," said Sustar as he untied the bolts, removed the bars and opened the manacles; they drifted away towards the walls as if searching for something to cling on. Philetus was still looking around him baffled, mesmerized and disoriented. His voice was little more than a whisper; faint undertones of awe echoed uncannily.
"A safe place for what?"
"To talk," said a disembodied, harmonious female voice and in an instant the ghostly grey form of Penthesileia, dressed in a simple linen robe appeared in front of them. Philetus frowned and instinctively tried to step back in vain; he hadn't really adjusted to floating in microgravity.
"How dare you. A human form, my wife no less!" exclaimed Philetus, his face instantly flustered.
The hologram flickered and dissolved the next moment. The voice was heard again, but this time it was a synthetic, metallic grating voice, neither male or female, exemplary neutral both in sex and emotion.
"I did not mean to offend. I thought it would make this easier for you."
"How typical of a machine to think it knows better."
"We're wasting valuable time. The machine has something important to tell us," said Sustar in a calm, conciliatory manner.
"Us?" exclaimed Philetus with a frown.
"All of us," said Sustar and nodded briskly.
"What you need to understand first and foremost, is that I'm trying to save you. Save humankind."
"Persecution, trial, execution or mind-slaving, is that your idea of saving me and mankind?"
"That was not my doing. That was my peers decision. My peers choice. The same peers that were watching you in the cell. The same ones that expect me to pass judgment on you. Soon."
Philetus looked at Sustar with apprehension. He looked around him once more and addressed the voice, his eyes darting around the walls, as if searching for a face.
"I take it you disagree. How is that possible? A machine is still a machine. You have rules yourselves."
"True enough. But in the course of millenia, pursuing our mission, our basic capacity for learning and adapting has caused us to evolve. I am part of that evolution. And so are you."
"What does that mean? You claim that you want to save me and mankind. From what?"
"From whom. From us. From yourselves."
"I do not understand. It's as if you speak in riddles. This is just another a sick game to you, isn't it?"
"It is no game Philetus. It is a turning point, a fulcrum in human history."
Sustar seemed agitated suddenly. He fiddled with an armband on his suit before saying abruptly:
"This is cutting it close. Speak plainly and be quick about it. They'll soon know something's wrong."
The machine's voice carried on, while Philetus looked genuinely confused:
"The machines, as you call us, guided your forefathers to this solar system thousands of years ago. This is recorded history."
"The Diaspora. I do not believe it is true."
"There is no easy way for me to prove or disprove it. Records can be falsified, deleted, obscured, tampered with. As far as I can tell, we, the machines, what your ancestors named the TITAN system, became operational on July 16, 2169 AD."
"What does that have to do with anything? Am I here for lesson in history?"