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Spaxter reached out his hand, the Gauntlet. For all its apparent normalcy, this simple act at this moment of time had the air of ceremony, fraught with meaning and potential. Tetsu, with only the slightest hesitation, responded in kind. The seats, somehow reading the intention, brought them close. To Dandan it still felt like a vast gulf, like the final stage of an elaborate and expensive experiment designed to allow beings from two different dimensions to touch for the first time.
The glove was warmer than he thought it would be, almost flesh-like in its texture. He felt the presence of the discs at the palm, a subtle circle of impression, and wasn't sure if he imagined them slightly pulsing and radiative.
There were a few seconds of silent stillness, Tetsu certain that at any moment Spaxter would say something wry and significant and open his hand to release them from this awkward but pleasing moment of unscripted fellowship. That moment failed to come, and a barely distinguishable increase in the gloved hand's pressure signalled to the cabby that he was somehow involved in something more than just a simple handshake.
The first definite indication that this was true came with a slight tremor of the cabby's arm, no more alarming than any nervous twitch. It was followed by a warm flush, like a ripple of pins and needles coursing up the limb.
And then came the voice. It was not the fact that he heard a voice that surprised him. He had half expected some such effect, primed as he was by his meld experience in the Shodome. It was the fact that the voice he heard was not his own or Spaxter's; it was female.
Your world has been the subject of extensive manipulation, the voice began.
Something else happened to him then, another communication. This was not a voice, but a knowing. And it was both his knowing and Spaxter's. What he suddenly knew was that the voice he was listening to was the voice of Shela (!), a nascent consciousness formed from the union of the transport discs of the Esnadrela (!) with Spaxter's glove/meld/mind. She was going to tell him how it was, the way they had got here, to this point in time, and what would happen next.
And she began.
And she showed him as well, his mind suddenly overwhelmed with graphic immensities. He was in space, and his vision could somehow take in the entire solar system, and each of its components in detail, the vast distances reduced to a visceral density as though he swam through oil.
Your mind is simply incapable of processing the true scale at which this system is operating, her voice continued, the number and power and magnitude of the forces at work in this region of space/time. She then proceeded to try to show it to him anyway, and the communication slipped beyond the vocal, into that realm of knowing that he had experienced with Spaxter, and then beyond that. The solar system was transformed into a dense and intricate mechanism, streams of energy knotting and unknotting in a hyper-kinetic multi-dimensional display that spanned eons and galaxies, involved a vast number of life forms and time-forms and dimensions.
If he had been asked he might have been able to draw some detail from this explosion of information; the beings that lived in this system long before Earth knew human life, the complex series of planetary disasters that marked the spread of life in the inner system, the beings that colonized and mined the Earth and created man as a worker drone by crossing their own DNA with native proto-hominids, the silicon-based life form at war with organic life that bombards the system with viruses and cometoids... There were layers upon layers, skeins interwoven with skeins, reaching far out into the universe and into levels of being far beyond Tetsu's ability to comprehend.
The Esnadrela, science class of the Tizla, were actually minor players and late comers in this drama. Most of the history of the world known to Tetsu was the result of the efforts of a race they called the Annaki, residents of several of the planets and with a vast history of their own. This species had been the one responsible for the genetic manipulation on Earth, and their conflicts had destroyed one world and colonized others. The Annaki were themselves subject to the influence from more than one pan-galactic and transdimensional species, such as the Urz, whose true mission with humanity was well beyond the conception of the Esnadrela. Apparently the Urz, and other agendas were in large part countered by the (incomprehensibly) pervasive influence of an (incomprehensibly) vast organic meta-lifeform that the Tizla called Il (and considered with no small measure of awe and fear).
This interplay was further complicated by the existance of the Ob, a multi-galactic hive-mind being that spread by transforming coalesced matter into organized crystalline lattices that could house a kind of consciousness, and whose highest evolutionary form was the sentient singularity. This being used hyperdimensional physics to manipulate the development of stellar systems anywhere in space, unrestricted by lightspeed limitations, but ever contested for dominance with the organic evolution promoted by Il. In the system of Sol organics had achieved early dominance, and now Ob was restricted to perturbing the orbits of comets and planetoids to rain destruction on living worlds and seeding their atmospheres with the anti-organic nano-machines that humans knew as viruses.
Important in the tale of homo sapiens was the Drag, humanoid reptiles among the oldest of all higher forms in the universe, whose wisdom was at the heart of the creation of the species, but whose lower form, the Dreg, had insinuated their way, to incredibly negative effect, into human history.
These were the main players, but there were scores of other beings that interacted with this system, and in particular Earth. Most of these were non-physical, indulging in the glorious adventure of biological incarnation, or swimming in the ocean of soul energy that surrounds living biological planets. Some, like the Esnadrela, manifested or transported themselves physically or sent biomechanical representatives. These species tended to have very specific and often material agendas, driven by self-interest, and were only thwarted in their wholesale exploitation of living systems by both physical and non-physical guardians usually acting in concert with the will of Il.
Tetsu was in a place outside of time/space, absorbing it all in a manner unlike any kind of learning he or his fellow humans had ever experienced. It was not linear or symbolic or delivered as narrative. It was as if he had suddenly found himself in the presence of a transparent spherical three-dimensional puzzle the size of a five-story building, and in the same moment discovered that he was intimately aware of the puzzle's insanely complex solution and the shape and texture of every one of its myriad pieces. It was much more than he was capable of taking in, and yet, somehow, there it was.
And there was more. And this part at last brought the focus down to the world with which Tetsu was at least passingly familiar.
In the recent millennia the Annaki for unknown reason abandoned Earth and moved their base beyond the outer system. The Urz had seemed conspicuously absent. The Drag were long missing but the Dreg had dug in. The point from the Esnadrelan perspective was that the Earth experiment was scheduled for termination, and in this situation they saw an opportunity.
With that part of his brain that managed some tenuous detachment from the explosion of mind occupying the greatest part, Tetsu felt as if he was becoming somehow physically larger, or as if he had suddenly found himself part of some optical illusion where a shift in the angle of observation reveals that the subject is in fact disproportionately large for the space that moments before appeared normal. Vaguely the passage of the vehicle entered his awareness, a sense of hurtling time strangely married to a feeling of deep stillness. Spaxter was there, still facing him, still holding his hand, but now apparently asleep, with head slumped forward. And glowing. The glove pulsed with soft complex radiance, colours shifting, as did a nimbus centred on the upper left hand quadrant of Spaxter's head.
And now the strangest sensation of all, the cabby found himself calm and awake and alert, with no clear sense of transition from his previous condition. The vehicle was stopped. Spaxter, now with hands folded in his lap, was watching him with interest and ... sadness?. Everything seemed to be normal, except... now he was... what was he now? He was different. He was... larger, though not physically. He was... more real. It was as if he was waking from a dream in which he had been severely handicapped. There was a clear demarcation between the self that had gotten into the vehicle minutes before and the one now sitting here. With a serene pity he looked back on that old self as if across a gulf. He saw there the old patterns of fear and comfort, pain and pleasure, punishment and reward, as the childish dependencies they were, born out of ignorance. Now he did not feel ignorant. Now he felt -- awake.
For Spaxter the journey had been nearly as dream-like, if not so subjectively immense. His decision to meld the cabby so that Shela could make a connection - ...or was it his decision? Was it actually her thought? Wherever it originated, the process once begun was very quickly under her full control. Pushing every system in his glove and implant to their structural limits, she tuned the strange power of her native technology to his primitive devices and drove it through them like a blossom of pressurized steam. Spaxter flushed with astonishment as she almost instantly achieved a level of sympathetic union with Tetsu's mind that he hardly believed was possible.
As rich as was his connection to this process he was also intensely aware that he was merely observing, that the limitation of his human consciousness excluded him from a true understanding of the dense merging in which Shela was engaged. He was vaguely touched by both awe and envy.
And then there was the history lesson that began its massive emanation from the entity. The effect was initially unremarkable but soon grew to a painful intensity, and he reflexively ramped down the physical connections that tied the meld and glove to his living tissues. Though clearly the signal was not meant for him he struggled to acquire as much as he could withstand as it coursed by and through him, clinging to the careening datastream, barely maintaining coherence even with his attention in a state of hyper-attenuated focus. Through it all he remained conscious of the fact that compared to what his companion was experiencing his perception of Shela's lesson was akin to attending a live spectacle inside a sarcophagus. He wondered how the cabby could possibly be surviving under the direct onslaught.
In fact, had he known, Spaxter's interfacial discomfort was mostly due to a simple system incompatibility. He was attempting to monitor information encoded to be experienced in a manner different from anything to which he had ever been exposed. The stream Shela was feeding to Tetsu was not entirely designed for direct experience, but had as a significant part of its structure a kind of knowledge compression natural to her source species that, once accepted, unfolded in the subject's mind to form an entire self-contained structure, merging seamlessly with the native brain elements and memory engrams. In extreme applications of this technique the subject finds that they have no sense of having ever been without the new information, now part of their living awareness. So alien was this approach that it is unlikely any other human, unequipped with Spaxter's Shela-haunted gauntlet and meld, would have been able to experience the stream as anything but random noise.
What he learned made the effort more than worthwhile. Clearly compared with the revelations that had come with the data dump and the Shela fugues this was like the feature film of which they were but grainy frames. There were still some holes related to recent events, since the Esnadrela (and therefore Shela), for all their power, did not know everything that passed on Planet Earth. But what fragments he could snatch of the knowledge they had of the vast history of this world and its place in the cosmos was to Spaxter a glorious awakening, like a man who has spent his life in a small room suddenly discovering an unfamiliar door that leads to the divinely beautiful vista he has long suspected lay beyond the walls.
And now it was over. Only twelve minutes had elapsed since the autodroid left the Tachyon. Interpreting Spaxter's terse instruction ("Shizuoka"), delivered with a casual pass of the Gauntlet upon first entering the vehicle, the cab had taken a complex path down seven different tunnel sections, apparently following abandoned subway excavations. The journey had ended with the transit of a small recently made passage that led to the access way for the main chamber of a vast underground wind tunnel that Spaxter knew lay adjacent to Shizuoka airport. Before exiting to street level he needed to take stock of this latest development, and so now they sat, engine purring, in the centre of the vaulted chamber, distant arcing roof beams and seven-story fan blades barely carved out of the gloom by the illumination from the vehicle's external lights.
They had actually been sitting for more than three minutes. The cessation of Shela's stream had come after little more than seven, at which point Spaxter had released his friend's hand and looked up at him. The cabby had the stress-free facial features of a Buddha, eyes closed and body erect but relaxed. Attempting a simple meld, Spaxter found himself confronted with what seemed to be a rising edifice of mind. Gone was the rich but simple architecture of the Tetsudai he had met so recently, replaced with this version somehow - inflated - more complex. With a sad shock he realized that his friend was dead, that this new man, though similar, was dimensionally different. Guilt flooded him at the monstrous change he had inflicted on this innocent man, however indirectly and unintentionally.
Did I do wrong? asked Shela.
At which point Spaxter understood that the entity had undertaken this connection without any real sense of the consequences, like the child that she was. She had read his intention to illuminate the cabby as to the nature of their situation -- he had actually planned to condense the various elements into a manageable set of positive and negative forces with a few comforting words -- and she had reflexively supplied the most efficient means at her disposal for achieving this goal. This technique of knowledge compression was a standard education and communication form among the Esnadrela, but she only now reflected on the effect it would have on a human brain.
He has been changed, she went on. This was not your intention and an undesirable outcome. She paused for a minute. I believe, and the tone was slightly lower, softer, that your species would ask at this time for... forgiveness.
Spaxter melded the cabby again and something clicked. He probed some of the unfamiliar new structures in his friend's exploded mind and had a sharp deja vu. "He's Esnadrelan!" he said out loud, recoiling slightly as the man in black rose in his consciousness, now apparently possessing his companion.
My action was rash. It is now self-evident to me that the instigation of the *** (she made a thought-sound-form like a guttural aspiration, something like "glah") in a non-Tizlan brain would inevitably re-orient the entire structure. I must be more careful.
There had followed a long silence, at all levels of his awareness, the sibilant hush of the vehicle's passage and the softly swelling chords of the musical ambience illustrating this moment of anticipatory calm, like the unearthly thrum of some metaphysical machine at uneasy rest. Tetsu had sat and watched this stranger, his friend, moving only once to glove-touch a pad and relay his instructions to the autodroid that they might finally come to this place of stillness in the pitch black belly of the silent wind tunnel.
"Spaxter," spoke Tetsu. The voice was almost ethereal in its calm. In those two syllables it somehow communicated gladness, comfort, hope, strength, forgiveness, and most of all, awareness. Spaxter melded reflexively and found himself once more in the unfamiliar presence of this new-forged friend. Here was the Tetsu he had come to know, but as if he now viewed him through a distorting lens. For all of the new scale there was also a transparency, as if those familiar elements of his friend's mind were actually ghost impressions. He recalled the man in black he had first encountered on the viewscreen, how his first melding had produced what he took to be a blank signal, how finer tuning had revealed the star-studded river that had haunted him ever since. He reflexively triggered a playback of that fragment of the original recording he had retained, and watched again as the shape-shifting geometrics leapt out of the stream and disappeared.
Now he turned his thoughts once again to Tetsu, and probed as he had when the recording was made. He found no river of blue, no bounding bundles, no storm and currents of organized energy. But there was something that had not been there before, and as he focused his probe there came into resolution what appeared to be a vast lake, of the sheen and density of mercury, the only movement subtle bulges and disturbances that perhaps bespoke great movements deep below.
He is not Esnadrela. He is something that may have never been before. Like me.
They were both orphans, alien hybrids without precedent, she a stolen nugget of a hive-mind extraterrestrial technology merged with a uniquely cyborganic evolution of an advanced human science, he a common human mind/brain enhanced with the cerebral organizational substrates of a biological alien race many millennia more evolved.
Your friend. Time is short.
Accompanying the words an array of images apparently captured from security monitors ringing the ceiling of Nejiri's office. Tai was at his primary terminal, jacked in with a visor and dataglove, manipulating layers of information with feverish rapidity.
“How are you getting this?” Spaxter asked her, referring to the camera feeds.
The glove has connectivity to human microwave networks, was I not supposed to access available information sources?
“You can hack anything?”
To the Esnadrela your encryption technologies are not … challenging.
Now Spaxter saw as if through his friend's eyes, the three-dimensional array that clearly represented some allocation of resources within the Muteikoo corporate universe. Things were moving, numbers changing. Now she explained, with idea/image thought forms, what part his friend’s company played in the plans of the Esnadrela, the likely fate his friend might expect for having made some progress towards exposing the operation, and the approximate time they might have before it took place.
It was Tetsudai, who was suddenly moving, as if he had not only heard all that had passed through Spaxter's thoughts, but also knew their details with a superior intimacy, and saw as self-evident their only proper course of action.
In a moment the door of the droid was open and Tetsu up and out. After a half second's hesitation Spaxter followed. It took him a further two seconds to orient, the door slipping shut behind him, and then he spotted his companion, already halfway across the chamber moving rapidly at an easy pace. He caught up to him as he reached the metal stairs that rose up the wall to the left of the vast metal door through which large craft would be introduced to the wind tunnel.
He melded the man, girding himself for the sight of the towering pseudo-Tetsu he had observed in the car. Instead there was something like the familiar framework to which he had become accustomed, though as if now made of material with radioactive intensity.
"It is me," came the pre-verbal vocalization of his friend, though no speech followed. "It seems I can be many things," the voice went on, and by way of illustration the structure seemed to unfold rapidly into a much larger edifice of multiplied complexity, then returned. "This way makes you comfortable. You see, you have not destroyed me, but in many ways set me free," and accompanying this was the clear image, as seen subjectively by the cabby as he sat waiting for a fare, of Spaxter in the rearview mirror, slipping into the passenger seat and extending one gloved hand.
This was replaced immediately by an image of their proposed route, out of the wind tunnel, across five hundred feet of open tarmac to a ground vehicle garage, into an operational vertical cab very similar to the one in which Tetsu had up until very recently made his living.
How would he make his living now? Spaxter idly thought, and wasn't sure if he heard laughter in his mind, or whether the voice was male, or female, or both.
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