“It's as I said, this is where Doctor Johnathan Tetherson died. It was here where he detonated the bomb that won us the war. Triad just made sure it stayed won, despite what you may have been taught, Tetherson was the hero that day, not many people remember that but I do. I'll warn you now, you might be feeling a little disorientated. ATs don't work here, a residual effect of the bomb.”
“Why would they say it was Triad that won the war?”
“It was a hundred years ago, things change, even the past. Especially the past. Triad's the gatekeeper of human knowledge, it's well within it's capabilities to spread such misinformation though why is anybodies guess. The distinction is a subtle one, both played a major part, Triad more so over the long term, but without Tetherson's sacrifice there would have been no need for Triad, it would have done no good as we'd already be lost.”
“Why is there nothing here? And more importantly, why are we?”
“The same reason no-one sets up shop in Chenobyl. This place is tainted, it makes you uncomfortable in the same way raising a baby in an ex-abortion centre would. Something is just wrong. I'm not even human and even I recognise this. Open your mind Michael, get a feel for this place and you'll see what I mean.”
Michael willed himself to relax, to feel his surroundings. He felt nothing. It wasn't like being a strange place he'd never been before, normally he just felt a neutral indifference, an acknowledgement of his surroundings that wasn't even a conscious thought but this place felt different. He felt nothing, nothing at all. The place was a void, he felt disconnected from everything, cut off from reality, like his very being was slowly fading away to leave him as nothing but an empty husk. Suddenly he felt something grab and shake him.
“Whoa there Michael! Almost lost you there for a moment! I didn't expect you to be effected so deeply.”
“What the hell was that?”
“No-one knows, though the Aetherics think they have an idea. What you experienced just now was the effects of this place, it drains you if you don't keep your guard up. It's addictive too, in a sort of nihilistic, self-destructive kind of way. I wouldn't fall asleep here if I were you. You'd most likely not wake up again. If you've got implants I'd use 'em, else Max can make you some pills to keep you awake.”
“No wonder this place isn't advertised. I can feel the draw of that sense of oblivion even now.” Michael said as he activated the sleep-inhibiting function of one of his implants. “People would never leave, it's like a sinkhole for life. You said the Aetheric had an idea what it was?”
“Hmm, yes. They think the bomb destroyed the connection to the Aether of this place, it would explain a lot of things, why no ATs work for example, why nothing has grown back in over a hundred years. I only briefly understand the Aetherics theory so I'll try and translate it into Technocracy terms. The Technocracy obviously acknowledge the Aether, correct?”
“Yes, they may be stubborn about their world-view and science, but they're not idiots.”
“Well, the Aether, in technocracy terms can be viewed as an energy field that exists in additional geometric dimensions to the three we usually experience. This energy field is expressed by the various processes that result in life, thus the connection to living things. Now the Aetheric believe that rather than just expressing this energy, life exists symbiotically with it in a kind of positive feedback loop. Life begets energy begets life, ad infinitum. What the bomb did was explode in more than just three dimensions, disrupting the energy fields in the higher dimensional spaces which resulted in catastrophic failure for all living things in the area. It caused a chain reaction of reducing the net life/energy in the area to zero.”
“That sounds very technical. If I had any doubts before about you being a Technomancer AI they're gone now.” Michael smiled.
Arthur laughed. “Did that make things any clearer for you?”
“A bit. Just because I'm technically a technocrat doesn't mean I'm some brainiac scientist, I just live there. They'd like us to believe we're smarter than everyone else, but I've been exposed to enough of the real world to know that everyone thinks their better than everyone else. I know enough to get by though. Ask me about Aetherics/Technomancer technological hybridisation and I'm practically a genius. The rest of it, not so much.”
“It's nice to meet a technomancer so level headed Michael. Of the three parties, I've always found them the most stubborn and pig-headed. It's good to have proof they aren't all like that.”
“I do my best for the team.” Michael laughed.
Just then a voice emanated from the house. “We will be there shortly. I don't like this place Arthur.”
“Thanks Max. I know you don't like this place and I don't want you to stay any longer than you have to. We'll leave shortly, okay.”
“Okay.” Came back a slightly sulky sounding voice.
Michael piped up. “Max can talk?”
“Yes, though he doesn't say much. Max is a little eccentric for a louse but I like him like that. Since we'll be parting ways soon, I suppose this is goodbye.”
“You're not coming with me?”
“No, you heard the bug. This place makes Max nervous and where Max goes, I go. We'll drop you off at the rendezvous point and then head back to New York.”
The floor shook slightly as Max landed, his massive wings humming in the air in preparation for another take off. Arthur showed Michael to a newly formed exit ramp and they both shielded their eyes against the flying dust thrown up by the force of Max's wings. Michael walked down the ramp and turned back to the entrance when he reached the bottom.
“What do I do now?” Michael yelled over the noise.
“Wait. They'll show up soon enough.” Arthur yelled back. “Here, you might as well take this. Might as well wait comfortably if you can.”
From behind Arthur bounded the table-chair on it's four furred legs, it sped down the ramp and nearly bowled Michael over.
“Take good care of him!” Arthur yelled as Max began to lift off again.
“I will!” Michael yelled back.
The hatch on Max began sealing up but he could see Arthur laughing through the shrinking space. “I wasn't talking to you!”
The table-chair wandered around, somewhat aimlessly, but never strayed much from his side while Max lifted into the air, his woodlouse body curled into a ball except for a series of shell segments that had slid back to allow enormous amber wings to flicker in the air. The energy expenditure must be enormous, ornithopters weren't known for their efficiency and insect-style flying didn't scale well to large sizes. Michael suspected it was mostly for show, perhaps steering, and that there was some other kind of propulsion at work, some kind of repulsion or anti-gravity technology, though he was not aware of any such thing existing. No, he supposed Max must just be very light and very strong and that was all there was to it.
When Max was just a speck in the distance Michael looked around him at the surrounding area. He was roughly a hundred meters away from the edge of the crater. Around him was grass, the odd shrub or bush, a tree lay broken by Max's descent which, given what he now knew about the crater, seemed like a tragedy. It was eerily quiet, no animal or insect could be heard. He felt a nudge at his knee and looked down, the table-chair was trying to get his attention.
“Well hello there. I suppose we better get to know each other better. I'm Michael.” He said, stroking the fur of the chair and feeling mildly ridiculous. “I suppose you'll need a name. How about Chair, it's short, accurate.”
Chair seemed pleased with it's new name and positioned itself on the ground in front of him, waiting for him to sit. Michael smiled and obliged it. Now he waited for these mysterious friends of Arthur's to appear.
* * * * *
Gabriella was in a terrible rush, her next lecture at the University was in half an hour and she hadn't nearly begun to prepare. As she scrabbled for her things, she lost her sight and hit her head painfully on the desk in her small dormitory as he stooped to pick up some discarded textbooks. Blinking back tears she tried to focus, remain calm. She channelled the Aether, harnessed it and used it to paint a picture of the world around her. Everything came back into focus, thought it wasn't a pleasing sight. The room was the colour of stress, it was deeper immediately around her, bleeding out and spreading along the floor and through the air in tendrils. The only other colours in the room were the faint hints of pride, relief and the recent splash of pain where she had hit her head. She sat on the bed, defeated and the hue around her began to change to one to match.
It was so hard being a blind Aetheric. She'd never seen, her eyes were useless when she was born and even though the technology or treatments were readily available her parents were both hard-liners and wouldn't even consider going outside their close knit Aetheric community for help. Instead, she'd learnt to cope. She had a natural gift for manipulating Aether it seemed, and she had used it to fill in for the sight she felt her parents had stolen from her.
When her parents had learnt of this, their first thought had been of themselves. Oh what prestige they could garner, their own daughter an expert Manipulator without a single day of training. She could go far, go to the University of Aetheric Sciences and bring them back the attention and glory they thought they deserved. Gabriella just wanted to be left alone, but any excuse to escape her parents was one worth making. She left. She'd been at the University for three years now and was closing in on her final year. The course was only meant to have taken two.
As thought, she had a natural gift for seeing, but that seemed to be it, the lecturers surmising it must be driven by her lack of sight than by a natural talent for Manipulation. She struggled in other subjects, found the basic principles of Aetheric elements difficult to grasp and failed module after module, only barely scraping by with enough to qualify for a reattempt. She knew the other students pitied and mocked her for her stupidity but secretly she was glad of it. While she was here she was free. She wished she never had to leave.
“Gabriella, you're going to be late, come on!” Casey called out as she opened the door and stuck her head into the room. “Jesus! You're bleeding! Let me take a look at you!”
Gabriella felt her forehead and winced as it stung under her touch. Her fingers were stained with pain and healing. “I-I didn't think I had banged my head so hard...”
Casey squeezed into the little dormitory past all the books and clothes and examined Gabriella's head. “Hmm, doesn't look like anything too serious, wont need stitches. I can probably heal it right now if you like.”
Casey held her hand over the wound and concentrated. Gabriella could see a glow of healing bleed down over her right eye and veins of life flowing through Casey's arm. She could see shadows of love and a little arousal cast behind Casey and embarrassed, even though she knew that Casey couldn't see, she pushed her away.
“Gab, I'm not finished yet!”
“I'll be fine, besides I need the practice, I'll try again by myself later.”
Gabriella put and a brave face and laughed. “I'll be fine, really. Case...”
The room was suddenly shot through with bright spurts of embarrassment, as if a squid had swam through and ejected neon ink everywhere.
“Uhh, we better get going”
Together the girls gathered up there things and ran for the next lecture. As they squeezed past she bumped into a man being escorted by some professors and what seemed to be a walking, furry chair.
“I'm sorry. I didn't mean to bump into you I'm just in a rush is all.” She stammered.
“Not to worry, no harm done.”
One of the professors spoke up, frowning at Gabriella as he did so. “Michael, lets move along shall we, we want to get things from you before you suffer to many distractions.”
Michael shrugged at Gabriella as he was escorted past. As she watched him go she noticed something odd about him, he seemed to carry a long thin tube around with him that stretched behind him like a snake, it disappeared through a wall out of sight. She'd never seen anything like it before.
“Gab. Gab! Gab!” Casey said, shaking Gabriella out of her revery. “We gotta go.”
Reluctantly she let herself be dragged into the lecture room.