tagNovels and NovellasBattle for the Known Unknown Ch. 04

Battle for the Known Unknown Ch. 04

bybradley_stoke©

Chapter Four

Godwin - 3749 C.E.



Once again Paul had failed to notice the time passing while he'd been working in the laboratory. He couldn't be at all sure when he glanced at the clock on the wall with its antiquated twelve-hour period clock whether it was ten o'clock in the evening or ten o'clock in the morning. It would be a trivial matter to find out for sure, of course, but he somehow rather liked being in ignorance.

All around him and scattered on the tables and floor was a bizarre array of mostly archaic computer hardware, much of it almost as antique as the first ever electronic timepiece. And what wasn't held in peculiar beige boxes or crunched into opaque cylinders of semi-conducting metals or nanotubes was accessible by exotic connection devices to machines stored elsewhere in the university. It was often joked that Paul was proprietor of the most extensive museum of ancient computer technology in the Kuiper Belt, and although this wasn't totally true (there was a rather more extensive one on the Dawkins colony), this collection did at least have more than curatorial value to Paul.

None of the ancient hardware Paul had assembled had real value as antiques. They were all facsimiles assembled on Godwin from templates purchased from the virtual emporia in the Solar System that specialised in such peculiar interests as Paul's. One of his greatest pleasures, in fact, was to log in to any one of these remotely based emporia. There was a convincing rendition of an antediluvian warehouse of the kind that once served as retail outfits in the long distant age of profligate vehicular transport when such places were located many kilometres away from wherever anyone actually lived. Paul would spend many happy hours studying ancient kit that was sometimes equipped with long copper cables and noisy fans. And here in his laboratory he was surrounded by exact copies of these electronic devices that operated at pitifully slow processing rates, measurable in gigabytes and gigahertz rather than the more familiar yottabytes and yottahertz used by information scientists in the 38th century.

Although Paul had already published the preliminary findings of his research, there was still much more work required on the massive volume of data he'd discovered of the mysterious anomaly whose existence he'd located in the first few centuries of the third millennium. He was convinced that he'd stumbled onto something very noteworthy. So much so that he imagined it might even be the springboard into more detailed archaeological research of other ancient mysteries.

"Don't you ever get any sleep?" asked Professor Hofstadter who wandered into the laboratory and startled Paul out of his reverie. "You've been here for days!"

"It's just so absorbing," Paul admitted. "I've just been studying some data from the late twentieth century. They're difficult to decipher as the data's stored on an array of proprietary hardware that uses several different encoding standards, but I think there's conclusive proof of government research into deep space anomalies at that time."

"Fascinating," said the professor, who was a man even more careless of his health and appearance than Paul. He had so often postponed his regenerative treatment that there were lines cracking around his eyes like crows' feet and his skin was beginning to look unhealthily fragile. "However, there's a report of a situation in your lab that's causing the security systems some concern. I'm sure it's nothing, but I thought I'd mention it to you."

"What kind of situation?" Paul asked with alarm. Normally his research attracted no attention from anyone at all and he was convinced that only a few eccentrics in the Solar System ever read any of his countless publications.

"I'm not sure I really know," the professor admitted. "I've got the holograms here, so you can see what the security cameras saw and draw your own conclusions."

Professor Hofstadter sat in a hoverchair just by Paul's and invoked a holographic film image that showed Paul huddled over an antique flat screen with the rest of the laboratory behind him. All of a sudden there was a flurry of movement as lights flickered on the machinery about the office and several apparently random items shifted about. And then, after less than ten seconds it was over.

"A gust of wind? A malfunction in the climate control systems? A fault in the computers' primitive processing systems?" speculated Paul.

"You'd think so, wouldn't you?" said the professor. "But when played at a slower frame rate, there does seem to be something methodical about it." He played the sequence again, this time at such a slow rate that the ten seconds stretched out to nearly half an hour. Neither Paul nor the professor had the time or patience to watch more than a fraction of it but it did appear that an invisible force was carefully examining a range of equipment, picking up discs and crystals and then putting them down. There was even an uncomfortable few microseconds where there was a flurry of slow-motion activity just by Paul's shoulder. "You didn't notice anything, did you?"

Paul shook his head. "It's weird. Perhaps it's just one of these bizarre apparitions you hear about. Like that unicorn on Venus. Or that floating monolith in Jupiter orbit. Just one of those peculiar things that no one knows what they are."

"Maybe," said the professor thoughtfully. "But why should such a thing happen in your laboratory? It is after all the same kind of weird thing you're doing research into. Could there be a connection, do you think?"

"I don't see how. What I'm studying happened over fifteen hundred years ago. And whatever it was, there doesn't seem to be any record of anything after about 2367 C.E. It sort of just disappears from the records at that point."

"And just what is this anomaly you're researching, Paul?"

"I'm not sure. It's somewhere off the ecliptic plane. And scientists in those days didn't have the means to get a close look at it."

"They had some fairly high resolution telescopes, didn't they? They were able to identify exoplanets by the start of the 21st century and telescopes got steadily more powerful over those centuries."

"It was all hypotheses. No one had a real idea. There was a lot of debate about whether it was a natural phenomenon or some kind of alien intelligence. They never got a precise handle on it."

"And then it just vanished, I guess?" asked the professor.

"As far as I know."

"Well, it's possible that what was observed was just a strange coincidence and nothing more," Professor Hofstadter remarked. "However, keep alert and don't be surprised if Systems Security gets a little more intrusive. There have been a few apparitions reported near Godwin lately—nothing at all as bizarre as those reported elsewhere in the Solar System—and inevitably the syndicates are beginning to get worried. There are people in the Solar System who for various ideological reasons would dearly like to see the economic and social failure of a colony based on anarchist principles. The very existence of a corner of the Solar System that doesn't use money and doesn't have a government is a kind of affront to them. So we must remain alert, although there's no evidence at the moment that there's anything specific to be alarmed about."

"I'll report anything I see," said Paul.

"That's if you ever take your eyes off from your work for more than ten minutes!" remarked the professor. "Look. You must take a break. Go home. Get some sleep. It'll do you a power of good."

Paul nodded. His concentration had already been fatally disrupted. "I'll do just that. I'm not sure I was getting very far with what I was doing anyway."

However, after a deep and rather long sleep in his own bed, Paul didn't feel inclined to return to the lab. When he was away from the lab, the pull of research was less compulsive and he now just wanted to escape from it all. And where better to retreat than back to Nudeworld.

"Goodness!" said Blanche on his return. "You certainly do like to sleep!"

She wasn't referring to the Paul's real-life sleeping habits of but to his absence from the virtual world. Paul inevitably felt guilty for having been absent for so long, as he always did. How could he have been so thoughtless to his virtual lover? He made up for it, of course. And after so many weeks of celibacy, his carnal desires required a great deal of compensation. And Blanche showed just as much undying love for him now as she had when he was last in Nudeworld.

"What shall we do now?" asked Blanche, while Paul's virtual semen dripped down her chin and onto her abundant chest.

"I think we should visit the Technician's Arms again," said Paul. "I'd love a drink."

"What an excellent idea!" Blanche exclaimed who, unlike real-life women of Paul's acquaintance, was immediately ready to leave.

It was dusk in Nudeworld, although it was just after midday in Godwin. The ancient rhythms of this virtual world were wholly independent from those set on the colony which, for historical reasons, were synchronised with a diurnal sequence known as Eastern Standard Time. When Paul was younger, he'd assumed it had something to do with the Earth's Orient and was disappointed to discover that it was related to the daily cycle of the eastern seaboard of the North American continent.

The reason Paul wanted to revisit the bar was that he'd been wondering whether he might see once more that strange avatar of an old man. It was unlikely, of course. If the avatar belonged to a real person the probability of that person visiting Nudeworld at the same time and in the same place as Paul was extremely small. However, Paul was oddly gratified to see the avatar sitting exactly where he'd been the last time Paul visited Nudeworld. He was sat on the same barstool chatting to a naked barmaid and appeared to be drinking from exactly the same glass of red wine.

In the real world and in the distant past, the sight of a fully-clothed man who exhibited the signs of a biological age that Paul guessed to be something like fifty or sixty years wouldn't have attracted anyone's attention. But here in a bar with half a dozen nude people all perfectly proportioned and totally unconcerned about their nakedness, this was a peculiar sight indeed. Furthermore, in such a real world Paul would never have the courage to approach a complete stranger as he did now. Nor would he have been so careless as to leave his lover unattended for any length of time without a drink or other distraction.

"Hello," Paul said boldly to the gentleman and sat down on the antiquated barstool beside him. "I've seen you here before. What's your name?"

Paul had never been very good at introducing himself but in Nudeworld his unsubtlety was never remarked on.

"Well, good evening," said the gentleman in a well-articulated voice. "It's Paul, isn't it? My name's Virgil. Like the Roman poet celebrated by Dante. It's a pleasure to meet you. Can I get you a drink?"

"Erm," said Paul who usually just asked for a beer but was sure he should demonstrate rather more sophistication. "I'll have what you're having."

"A Merlot, then," said Virgil, gesturing towards the barmaid who nodded in reply and poured out another glass of the peculiar red liquid. "Excellent choice."

"You're an avatar of a real person, aren't you?" asked Paul. "You're not just a virtual person. You're real."

"Well, I most certainly feel real," said Virgil with a smile. He picked up his glass and chinked it against Paul's. "Cheers."

"But I mean really real," persisted Paul. "Where do you come from?"

"What a question!" Virgil exclaimed. His face crinkled in an amused smile that seemed appropriate on a face that wasn't nearly as bland as that of most people Paul met in virtual space. "Like you, I come from outside the borders of Nudeworld. But whether I'm real in the sense that you're real is a truly metaphysical question. How real is real? Isn't your delightful friend real?" He smiled at Blanche who was sitting patiently at a table, wholly unconcerned at being unceremoniously ignored. "And the avatar you inhabit in Nudeworld? Doesn't that seem real too?"

Paul frowned. This wasn't the sort of discussion he normally had in Nudeworld. Nor for that matter in Godwin. Philosophy wasn't his area of proficiency.

"When I say 'real'," Paul persisted, "I mean that you have an independent existence beyond Nudeworld."

"Well, I most certainly have," smiled the gentleman. "But enough of me. Tell me about yourself, Paul. Where do you come from? What do you do? Or are you like so many people one meets in Nudeworld whose life beyond is a mere shadow of their life in this delightful, but utterly eccentric, universe?"

Paul was more than happy to talk about himself. His opportunities for doing so in Godwin were very limited as most people got visibly bored by the tendency his conversation had of becoming just another unending monologue. He wasn't especially adept at social interaction at the best of times. But Virgil showed no sign of boredom as Paul recounted his recent visits to the computer emporium whose physical base was somewhere in the Asteroid Belt and appeared to be fascinated by Paul's digression into the obscure operating systems extant in earlier centuries.

Although Virgil must have been an avatar (who wasn't, after all?) he seemed bizarrely more corporeal than an avatar should be. His eyes were a sparkling pale blue that maintained a steady gaze. His clothes were rendered in fabulously intricate detail and yet there was nothing remotely ostentatious about them. Paul decided that the real Virgil must be using a very advanced plug-in to emulate himself in Nudeworld.

"So tell me, Paul," said Virgil after a while, holding up a glass that however much he supped from never got any less full. "Do you ever have that feeling that you're at the centre of the universe and that everything around you interacts with you for a purpose?"

"It's not a question I've ever considered."

"It's something that's engaged philosophers for millennia. How much do you know? Just how much of your life is pure accident? How much has already been determined? Have you never thought that everything you've ever known, whether in Godwin or Nudeworld, is there for your benefit and yours alone?"

"Never."

"Solipsism it's called," Virgil continued. "It's a kind of egocentric view of the world. And do you really believe the universe continues without you when you're dead?"

"Of course it does," Paul replied. "What else could happen?"

"You tell me," Virgil smiled. "Can you be sure of even something as simple as that? When you ask me if I'm real, perhaps you should also ask whether anything anywhere is real. Perhaps nothing is real. Except you, of course."

"What a mad idea!" Paul exclaimed, already looking forward to the relative comfort of the concrete, unmistakeable reality of the Godwin colony and the things that were so certain to him there.

However, he didn't really want to leave the delectable Blanche quite so soon so he decided to tarry a little longer in Nudeworld. In any case, he'd noticed an advertisement for an all-woman netball match which he thought he'd like to see. It wasn't that he was particularly keen on netball, or any other sport for that matter, but for the same guilty reason as he rather enjoyed the kinkiness of a world of totally nudity he was attracted by the prospect of watching naked women running around a netball pitch in only their shoes. Not surprisingly, Blanche, who'd never before expressed any enthusiasm for the sport, was more than willing to accompany him to the stadium.

It was more than a day later when Paul at last disengaged himself from the pleasures of Nudeworld and, feeling slightly bruised and groggy, returned to the real world. The first thing he had to address was the ravenous hunger that the food he'd eaten in Nudeworld hadn't fully satisfied.

It was several days later that Paul at last decided to drag himself away from the lazy pleasures of home life and return to the lab. However much he enjoyed immersing himself in work, he also loved the luxury of doing nothing very much at all. He was sure he could do something more constructive with his spare time, but Godwin wasn't a large colony and he'd more or less exhausted every sightseeing possibility in his eighty years there.

It was a pleasantly warm day, as every day was, and Paul was determined to make an effort towards addressing his lack of exercise. He chose to walk to the university by a slightly circuitous route through Erewhon Park. This was one of many parks that helped to generate the ecological balance that was vital to the colony's survival. It was large enough to hold two square kilometres of tropical jungle, a pleasing array of artworks and several park benches on which he could rest to prolong his walk. Paul wanted to feel fully relaxed before he once again tackled the intricate algorithms he was devising to extract what he wanted from all those petabytes of ASCII and EBCDIC data.

"Well, goodness!" said Professor Hofstadter who was seated on a hoverstool outside the main doors to the university and had evidently been waiting for him. "Your timing was impeccable. You couldn't have chosen a better time to be away."

The professor wasn't given to sarcasm, so Paul understood that his comments were meant kindly and humorously. He also guessed that they must have been said to prepare him for some important news. It was a long time since anything much had happened at the university and on the last occasion that was when one of the nanotechnologists' experiments had gone badly wrong and an enormous swarm of nanobots had to be exterminated. Since their coding was to fluff up woollen clothing this was a fairly benign threat to anyone who wasn't wearing wool, but a considerable nuisance to those who did.

"What's happened this time?" Paul asked. "Nothing serious I hope."

"Well, I'm afraid it is. And what's worse, it's directly affected your lab and, I'm sorry to say this, your research."

Acts of terrorism, though rare, were not unknown in the Godwin's history. After all, the foundations of anarchism were not unconnected with such acts in its earliest history. Consequently, the syndicates were generally relaxed about it and accepted that such things were inevitable in a community of several million people. However, this particular incident wasn't quite like any that had ever happened before.

Paul studied the holographic film of the incident over and over again, first when it was shown to him by the professor and many more times later when he was summoned to the chambers of the Godwin's Security Syndicate.

A woman had wandered into Paul's laboratory, which in itself was unremarkable. Not one corner of the colony was out of bounds to anyone. This was more as a matter of principle than because everywhere in the colony was especially safe or habitable. There were plenty of incidents of people being mauled by lions in the game reserves or getting lost in the huge airless zones in the colony's engine rooms. But what was remarkable and had caused the closure of a substantial proportion of the university was that within less than a minute of the woman entering the lab, she suddenly disintegrated into an explosive cloud of smoke and flame that took with her the whole of the room and its contents. The explosion blew holes through the walls that spread the havoc to the adjacent rooms and laboratories. And not quite immediately but soon enough the ceiling collapsed and a pile of fresh rubble fell into Paul's lab from the floor above.

Before she blew herself up, the woman opened up her arms in an open embrace and uttered some words that Paul couldn't quite make out and certainly didn't understand.

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