We were on the shuttle to Barstow Station when the math began to take hold. It had been over an hour since I jacked the hacked dataslate into the back of my skull, and I had begun to worry that my cogitator had developed a workaround, a resistance, an immunity. But as the lurch of deceleration yanked what was left of my bowels toward the floor, I felt the left side of my body crawl with bugs and soft whores' fingers as my mechanical rightbrain choked on the irreversible computations and self-annihilating fractions I had fed it. Half of my visual and audio input was flooded with error messages and the smell of flowers closing like a reversed time-lapse vid feed.
It took me a moment to register Vera asking if I was alright. I patted her arm reassuringly and tried to tell her I was fine, but all that came out was a 333 digit prime number. She waited patiently for me to finish.
Introductions are in order, or what follows will make less sense to you than it did to me at the time, and I was wasted out of my reinforced skull for most of it. I'm J.P.L. 27, making me the twenty-seventh clone of the original High Magos Biologos Joachim Percival What's-his-name. It's an august and noble geneline, with a penchant for staggering genius and the creation of brilliant, beautiful mechanisms and theoretical refinements that skirt the edge of dire tech-heresy. Also the tendency to go cogfucking crazy and get put down. I was the latest attempt by the Mechanicus to get the nectar without having to deal with the giant Catachani man-eating flowers. They thawed me out, let me work for a while, then tried cracking my skull open and replacing the crazy, emotional, right half of my brain with a nice, sane piece of machinery.
They screwed up, of course. My hemispheres were reversed, right to left and left to right. They scooped out the jiggling pink genius-parts and shitcanned them, leaving me with the bits that get bored and horny and always sense that beautiful something just out of reach, just over the horizon, just the far side of this latest idea. That liminal sense that must have driven my predecessors til they cracked. Whatever that shining something is, I've got no shot at it now; the parts of me smart enough to reach for it wound up in a wet and mushy pile in the surgeon's discard tray. I generally stay sufficiently chem-wracked not to care.
After the operation, I vaguely realized that I was dead if they figured out exactly how badly I was broken, so I dosed myself drooling with depressants and let the cogitator-implant drive. I wound up building standard servo-skulls for two years before they declared me normalized and started sending me out on repair detail. Which is why I was strapped into a flying can in my stained red robes, with a case full of chems and dirty logic between my feet and my mechadendrites twitching and twisting around each other like epileptic metal snakes screwing.
Heh. Metal. Screwing. Vera's looking at me, concerned, and I stop laughing. She's a real piece of work, Vera. My work, from before the operation. She's a Skitarii, technically, but the general definition of those tends more toward the "heavy combat cyborg" and less toward the "shining work of art." She's both, I guess; seven feet tall, most of her skin replaced with this gleaming, flexible metallic stuff that I can't for the life of me remember making, any more than I can remember the meaning of the letters V. E. R. A. on her back. Most cogboys don't care about aesthetics, but I was on some kind of "perfect human" kick back then; something about gold men, iron men... quicksilver men? It's fuzzy.
Anyway, she doesn't belong here. She should be working guard detail for a High Magos, or honor guard for a sector governor. Or standing on a pedastal somewhere while people throw flowers at her for being so **** gorgeous and perfect. Perfect. Whatever combination of psych-programming, drugs, and surgury I used to lock her into loyalty was perfect too. She's imprinted on me, and won't take orders from anyone else unless I'm there to confirm them. I forgot the procedure for reassigning her, unlocking her fixation. I forgot what I did to make her like this. I think she called me Daddy once, but I was pretty gone and might have imagined it.
She's strapped into the seat to the right of me. Her green eyes are glancing around the shuttle, scanning for threats in a dozen spectra. My addled gaze traces the curve of her breasts; my cogitator tries to model them mathematically, but it chokes and starts doing the flower thing again.
She notices me looking and stares at me blankly. "Master?"
"What? Negative. Nothing. I'm fine. 7533197..."
Strapped into the seat to my left is a crate with air holes. I'll get to that later.
My inner-ear replacement goes nuts for a moment and I half-worry I've burnt it out, but Vera calmly informs me we've docked, which mean's it's the transfer to the station's artificial grav which is throwing me off. She unbuckles herself and starts gathering up the luggage while I stagger toward the exit. My interior gyroscope helpfully informs me that I am both perfectly upright and standing on a wall. My mechadendrites grab the doorframe for balance, and I stare out in dismay.
The walls of the docking tube are transparent, and I can see Barstow Station in all it's glory. It's a supply station; it'll be utterly vital to the logistics of any serious Mechanicus or military undertaking in the six nearest star systems, none of which are in any danger or of any particular interest to anyone. As a result it hangs in space, in orbit around a bluish gas giant, inhabited by a skeleton crew, and largely forgotten by the universe. It's an enormous irregular box, a 10-kilometer warehouse that learned to fly and may now be regretting it. It's also slowly strobing through all the colors of the rainbow, but that may just be me.
I make my way unsteadily down the tube, Vera trailing after me. Through the round door on the other side is a huge, empty cave of a cargo hold. Empty except for the welcoming commitee; a tall, shriveled old man in Administratum robes, and a skinny, nervous girl in a baggy jumpsuit. The raisin on stilts is the station manager; he launches into a wheezing tirade about scheduling and how long it took me to get here. I fix him with my best crazy-eye stare, but that doesn't shut him up, so I follow up with a good 12-second screech of feedback from my throat vox. There's a pause of blessed silence after that, before he informs me he has vital business to attend to and stalks off.
I turn to the girl, who's staring at Vera. She's mousy and stick-thin, with brown hair tied back in two short tails. There's a Mechanicus symbol on the breast of her jumpsuit, meaning she's an initiate; probably the closest thing this box warrented to a tech-priest. Bit young to be keeping it running herself, though. She notices me glaring at her and jumps, then bows deeply and starts talking. She gives her name, which bounces right off my brainmeat without making an impression, then rapidly chatters about how honored she is to be in the presence of a full-fledged servant of the Omnissiah, and something about orbits and meteors and doors.
I inform her that this particular servant of the Omnissiah is greatly wearied by his travels, and also that the intoxicant levels in his oily bloodstream have decayed to far below optimum. I must be shown to my chambers, that I may enter a state of blissful communion with the Machine God for a good ten hours or so, to sanctify myself before turning my hands and mechadendrites to whatever repair work is required.
"Ten hours, sir?" she squeaks, "But... sir, we'll all be dead in nine!"
My muttered obscenities come out as squeals and static.
Senior Initiate-Mechane Rednow had been trying to figure out why the attitude thrusters that kept Barstow steady in its lonely little orbit weren't firing. He'd been trying to figure it out for several months. He and Junior Initiate-Mechane Mousey Forgot-her-name-again had been on the hull examining the problem when a meteor struck the bay doors of cargo hold 3. The doors buckled and blew out, venting half the station's air before the crew managed to manually close all the bulkheads.
Mousy had been half-inside an open hatch during the impact, and had managed to hold on. Rednow had taken the long fall.
The station's orbit had been slowly decaying since the attitude thrusters stopped firing, but the meteor strike and subsequent jet of lost air had turned a creeping downward slide into a majestic dive. They'd sent out a repair and assistance request, and I'd been in the area, on a ship bound for Malfi. When the request had been forwarded to me I'd been under the impression that the ship I was on was digesting me, so I rather hurridly agreed to come out and take a look. By the time I arrived, there were just under nine hours left before we broke up and burned out spectacularly in the soothing blue atmosphere of Petasatus IV. Or, my cogitator helpfully informed me, six hours before the point where the stations thrusters could no longer correct our orbit even if we did get them operational.
By the time I'd gotten straight enough to process this information and run around in a panic surveying the damage, the shuttle had left and its parent ship had warp jumped. I took something to calm me down, so that I could deal with the problem rationally, then something to counteract that when I realized I was contemplating my demise with an undue level of peace and acceptance. As a result, everything has become very clear and loud, and I feel like I'm covered with a thin, flexible layer of ice.
It occurs to me that I am possibly the third most likely person on this station to actually fix any mechanical problems, after Mousy and Apex. Vera brings me Apex's crate, and I unlock the thing and stand back. The little bastard throws the lid open and scrambles out, screeching and whooping angrily at his long confinement.
Apex is another product of my long-lost "perfect human" obsession. The theory I espoused to my enraptured collegues was that a certain recombinant algorythm could reverse the mutation and genetic drift of tens of thousands of years among the stars, resulting in a prototype, an archetype human genome. We could back-engineer the genetic code of that ancient ancestor, that great explorer who first left holy Terra to conquer the stars... the apex of evolution.
As it turned out, the ancient ancestor of all mankind was short, stupid, covered in hair, and had hands for feet. Some time after my brains got scrambled, I pulled him out of storage and stuck a cogitator full of repair instructions in his head so that he could put his four hands to use and I could avoid any actual work. I don't recall when I gave him the wings; probably sometime during the bender on Fenksworld. These days I just tell people he's a hairy cherub.
I chitter at him in binary, telling him to fix the thrusters. Apex bares his teeth at me and bangs his fists on the deckplate. Then he pulls a toolbelt out of his crate, buckles it on, and flaps awkwardly away down the corridor.
Normally at this point I'd just wait for Apex to do his thing, but the creeping prickling sensation of stimulants and fear won't let me sit still. Also, Mouse-girl is staring at me in rapt attention and it's making my neck itch. So I start asking questions. Spare parts manifests, power consumption; she can answer a worrying number of my queries from memory, but as long as she's biting her lip and squinting in an attempt to recall something, she's not giving me that creepy ******* stare.
Suddenly, the fizzing fog of drug-fear and death-fear goes momentarily transparent. I order her to repeat what she just said.
"No sir, none of the automatic bulkheads functioned. That's why we lost so much air, sir, we had to seal them all manually."
She flinches slightly as I round on her. My mecadendrites are lashing around above my head and my eyes are bloodshot. Serves her right for giving me that creepy stare before. "What controls those?"
"Uh... the... the machine spirits of the pressure sensors petition the holy central cortex, which, in its kindness and wisdom, closes bulkheads and opens vents to ensure stable atmosphere for surviving crew. Except, sir, it didn't."
"And the altimeters and thrusters?"
"The... the same, sir. The altimeters report to the cortex, which fires the thrusters to keep us fixed in the heavens. But they havn't been firing, sir."
I turn and begin to sprint down the corridor. The thud of Vera's combat boots and the patter of Mouse-girl's shoes follow me until I reach an intersection and skid to a halt.
"Where's the central cortex?"
We find it deep in the heart of the station. A metal cylinder three meters in diameter runs from the floor to the ceiling, with a small alter before it for maintenance ceremonies. Apex is here already; he's removed part of the shielding and is reaching into the cylinder.
I squat down beside him and look in. Data-readouts shed dim green light on a glass globe filled with murky fluid. Apex makes a strange, sad cooing sound and taps the glass. Within, I can faintly make out a floating, wizened, foetal shape, with wires running into its spine. A small plaque at the base of the globe reads "SOPHIA ANISS - SERVICE IN LIFE, SERVICE IN PERPETUITY."
I peer at the readouts. Much of the glowing data is meaningless to me, but what I can understand plants a twisted black knot in my augmetic guts. I flop back on my ass and look up at the Mouse, who's staring at me with a glimmer of awe and hope in her eyes.
I speak. It comes out static. I tap my throat and try again. "Well, I found your problem. You need a new cortex. This one's done."
Worry creases her brow. "Uh, sir, we don't have a replacement cortex."
I sit cross-legged and stare at the shimmering globe. "Yeah. I know."
She leans over and looks into the hole, blocking my view. She peers inside for a full minute, then turns and speaks in a soft voice. "Is the machine spirit... dead?"
"No, this... Omnissiah's brass balls. This was an Exaltation, a reward. The... the woman that used to be probably helped build this station, or did something that impressed the Mechanicus, so they wired her in alive. They gave her an eternity of blissful union with the machine, an enormous, incorruptable metal body. They left more of... her... in there then they normally would, enough to feel the everlasting joy of her transcendent state."
Mouse folds her skinny arms across her chest and hugs herself. "So... it... she..."
My meat-parts are crawling. I'm distinctly, uncomfortably aware of my body's every seam between flesh and metal. "She's not dead, she's not alive, and she's not happy. Stupid cogfuckers, this kinda rig is... not fine, but, but functional in a ship, or something else big and complicated and mobile. A station like this, just orbiting, and ... there's not enough input, stimulus. She got bored, then she got a really quiet kind of crazy, and then for the last who knows how long she's just been waiting to die. Look at this..." I lean forward, tap readouts with a mechadendrite. "Neurotransmitters, tanked. Neural activity, barely there. Input/output... there's the signal from the altimeters, that's all she's getting, a number, getting smaller."
Mousy-girl gently lays a hand on the cold metal of the column. "The spirit is... sad? Lonely?"
"Or so bored she decided to stop breathing."
She looks at me wide-eyed. She's chewing on her lower lip. "Can you ease her pain? Sir?"
I can't answer. I can't look at her. I look at Vera instead. Vera's staring at me with quiet confidence, patiently waiting for me to come up with some transcendently brilliant plan. I've never been able to convince her I'm not the genius who made her. I'm just the husk that person left behind when he died.
She's carrying my case. I've got stimulants in there, maybe... my cogitator runs through the list, and the theoretical effects. Some act on organs the cortex doesn't have anymore. Some would kill what was left. None would wake her up, happy and functional. She'd need a massive flood of nerotransmitters, and I just can't think of any way to make that happen.
We're all falling to our deaths.
I'm sobering up in the worst way, aching and terrified and confused. I swivel my head wildly, looking for help, escape. Apex is in the corner, his back to us, furiously masturbating. Vera's a silver statue of a warrior goddess, staring down at me, serene and beautiful. Mouse-girl's eyes are full of hope and fear. She's actually kinda cute, in a skinny, overeager way, and she thinks I'm the Omnissiah walking. I'm about to ask if she wants to die a virgin when I get the third worst idea I've ever had.
I lurch forward into the hole and stare at the wires running into the globe. I yell over my shoulder. "Hey, have you got a set of three-guage neural jacks in your neck?"
I get two replies.
"No... no sir, I haven't had the honor of augmentation."
"Yes, Master. My neural interface jacks are 3-guage compatible."
I wince. I'm going to have to be very, very high to pull this off.
I'm focused, chemical-assisted and heuristically-assisted. It's giving me nasty feedback in my error-detection, forcing me to check and recheck every connection exactly 18 times and constantly tap my left foot, but it's a hell of a lot better than crossing a wire and ******* this whole thing up.
I've got Vera wired through the portible cogitator and my hacked dataslate. She made a strange little gasping noise when I brushed her hair aside so I could jam the cables into the back of her neck, but she hasn't complained... not that she ever does. Mouse girl brought the blankets I asked for and laid them out on the floor, and now she's scurrying around lighting all the incense and candles. I see the dissappointment in her eyes when I tell her she's not cleared to witness this particular Most Holy Ritual of the Adeptus Mechanicus.
"Yes, sir. I'll... is there anything I can do to help, anything at all?"
I hesitate, then poke my head into the cortex containment cylinder and study the floating near-corpse for a moment. One wire seems to be be connected to an ancient, pickled nipple. I peer at the system for a moment, then pull back.
"Yes, actually. Um. Is there a pressure sensor on deck 15, section C?"
"Go there, wait ten minutes, and then start blowing on the sensor. Or direct a vent onto it and move the airflow back and forth."
"Can't hurt, might help."
It warms my hearts to see her jump into action like that. I turn to the problem at hand. Vera is standing at attention, wires emerging from her shining golden hair and trailing down to the ground.
A memory, vived and garish, pops to mind unbidden. A couple guys had jumped me for money I owed them, outside a bar on Fenksworld. I'd been hammered and hadn't been able to make out anything but motion and screaming until everything stopped and I saw Vera standing in the pool of light cast by the street lamp, shining with blood, a length of intestine carelessly draped over her shoulder and trailing down to the ground.
I open my case and remove a small datacard and a plunger filled with clear fluid. I talk to keep my mind off the thought of my secret, private, inner juices being used to paint this room a nice Mechanicus rust-red.
"Vera, you understand what we're gonna do here, yeah? You get what's happening?"
"I understand, Master. I look forward to the mission's success."
"You're... capable of, eh, success, right? The massive seratonin release we need to achieve?"
"With your assistance, Master, yes."
"Uh... right. Do my best." I frown, worried. "Are you gonna be able to feel... I mean, how sensitive is that metal skin of yours?"
"I shall remove it." Her hand reaches up to a point between her gleaming breasts. With hallucinatory clarity, my mind's eye shows me the last servitor I saw with its cowling off, red and gray and wet. I hurridly turn away, jam the datacard into the jack in the back of my head, and reach up under my robes to stick the plunger into my secondary liquid intake valve.
When I turn around, the world's already beginning to fray and burn at the edges like a tapestry in a housefire. Vera's stepping toward me, bare. Her skin, beneath the shining silver, is pale and crisscrossed with fine scars. I vaguely remember making them, scalpal flying, sculpting perfection. There are silver vines growing up all the walls and Vera's shining like a pale, breathing star and my skin is on fire and there's something I really, really have to do, to her, starting now and continuing until time arches its back, screams, and ends.
Shortly thereafter, the world moves. Well, the station at least. Individual attitude jets flicker, bursts of flame bright in the void, with increasing frequency, moving in waves down the sides of the 10-kilometer long station. The waves pulse and interfere, build and cancel, until suddenly they all roar as one, blazing propellant in every direction, as inside the station doors slam open and closed and ear-splitting alarms echo down the corridors.
A few minutes later, the planetside attitude jets fire together. Gently, they thrust the angular behemoth up out of the blue gas giant's gravity well and toward the stars.
I'm waiting in one of the massive, empty holds. I'm waiting for a shuttle. These facts sit quietly in the calm center of my brain. Around the outer edges, fatigue and specters, fear and loathing, chase themselves through a fog of chemical residue.
Vera is here. Apex is here. The skinny, mousy Mouse girl is here. The tall old talking man was here, but Apex jumped on his face and screamed for a while and he left.
There's a viewport in the bay doors. I stare out at the stars. There's something out there, just over the edge, just out of sight. Something liminal.
Oh. Right. I was telling the girl something. Something very important. I have to tell her about the thing out there we need to find, the thing we lost. I marshal my brilliance.
"Strange memories, on this nervous night here on Barstow. How long? Ten thousand years ago? History is hard to know, because of all the hired bull, but even without being sure of "history" it seems entirely reasonable to think that every now and then the energy of a whole species comes to a head in a long fine flash, for reasons that nobody really understands at the time — and which never explain, in retrospect, what actually happened. Humanity boiled up out of our one little world, pouring madness and light in every direction, striking sparks everywhere. There was no fear, not of anything, not even of ourselves; there was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning. . . We had our ideas and our technology and we took the fight to the forces of Old and Evil, certain that our glorious energy would simply prevail. We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave. . . And now, ten thousand years later, you can stand and look out toward the Halo Stars, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark — that place where the wave finally broke, and rolled back."
Everyone's quiet for a while. I told them. I told them what we lost. Vera's staring at me seriously. Apex hugs himself and rocks back and forth. Mouse-girl's eyes are sparkling; her mouth is moving as she remembers every bad-crazy word.
"Sir, the maintenance for the cortex? I'm to run the input file stored in the cogitator three times a week at least, yes?"
"Right. Yes. That's right."
"And the ritual, sir? What blessing should I perform before running the sacred file? Or, um, is it anointing?"
"Um. Add some ethanol to her nutrient drip and tell her she's pretty."
"Yes sir. Um...
One of the stars is moving. It's the shuttle. Coming closer. Mouse girl's trying to ask something.
"Sir... might I know your name?"
"Huh? Oh. Techpriest J. P. L. 27"
"...thank you, sir."
The shuttle docks. Mechadendrites gripping the walls of the tube for balance, flanked by my beautiful failures, I stagger off the station. A voice calls from behind me.
"Omnissiah watch over you, Jay Peel! I'll never forget what you taught me!"
I look back over my sholder, squinting. My visual cortex is fried, and there's a corona of rainbows around every lightsource. Mouse-girl is waving.
I call back, voice crackling with static. "You take care, Clara."
Clara. That was her name. I remember now.