tagNovels and NovellasBattle for the Known Unknown Ch. 14

Battle for the Known Unknown Ch. 14

bybradley_stoke©

Chapter Fourteen
Intrepid - 3754 C.E.



Ever since he'd got married to Beatrice, Paul had tried to resist the temptation to visit Nudeworld. It no longer had quite the same attraction as before. It wasn't that Paul didn't visit cyberspace any more. He still enjoyed going to places and meeting people that could only ever be encountered in virtual reality, but he mostly avoided sexual encounters. He preferred to be free from even virtual guilt when he and Beatrice made love. But the truth was that he was more often alone these days rather than in Beatrice's company.

Paul's wife was very much the social animal. She'd made many new friends amongst the scientists, the crew and even the soldiers. Paul wasn't especially drawn to the busy social whirl, but he had no cause to be jealous. He knew that Beatrice loved her. Barely a day went by when they didn't make love, so Paul had no reason to doubt this. He never probed her about any extramarital activity and Beatrice never said anything that might arouse his suspicions. He was a lucky man to have such a beautiful and sensual wife. If anything, Paul felt guilty that he wasn't equal to her prodigious sexual demands.

Even though Beatrice was sometimes out until quite late into the evening, Paul had little cause for concern about her whereabouts. After all, his wife had taken considerable trouble to introduce him to some of her new friends, but this still didn't incline Paul to spend much time in their company. There was Chico, a tall Neptunian, whose greatest passion was the study of nanobes. There was Corporal Mazuki and her husband from Mercury who were both tall and thin with green hair and bright yellow skin and both enjoyed asteroid surfing. There was Professor Dillinger from the Moon who was proud to have been celibate for nearly a century and whose conversation on exotic, dark and non-baryonic matter fascinated Beatrice but bored Paul.

He was sure there were many more such friends, judging by the familiar greetings that Beatrice received when she and Paul ventured out together. This was usually to the various social gatherings organised on the ship; such as the tiresome game of rugby where Colonel Vashti was such a star and the stage shows in Russian (with simultaneous translation for monolinguists like Paul) that the Saturnians were so keen on. The truth was that Paul didn't really enjoy such social occasions. He'd much rather stay in his pleasant villa on the outermost level where he could research into the Anomaly's ancient history if he ever felt so inclined.

However, his research would have been more compelling if he could somehow dig up some more interesting discoveries from his computer disks and tapes, but there was no such fresh breakthrough. The encrypted data that his software had so easily cracked wasn't hiding anything more fascinating than what he'd already found.

The scientists of the early centuries of the third millennium had no better idea of what the Anomaly might be than those in the thirty-eighth. In the twenty-fourth century, the longest and most heated discussion on the subject was whether funding for research should even continue now that the Anomaly had faded away. None of the space probes launched towards the Anomaly had sent back any useful information. The peculiar apparitions associated with it were dismissed as software malfunctions. Although the funding for research rapidly declined when there was no longer anything to study, the records betrayed a palpable sense of relief that such an uncomfortably inexplicable phenomenon could now be filed away on computer archives where nobody would ever think of looking—that is, until Paul stumbled across them.

When Paul next visited Nudeworld, it was as if he'd never left. The intervening years seemed to have never happened. Blanche greeted him as if he'd not been away for more than a single day. Paul wondered how sophisticated her artificial intelligence might be. Had she really been doing nothing but sit motionless for all those years while he sped across the Solar System? Was there really nobody else whose company she could have enjoyed in all that time? But their lovemaking was familiar and reassuring. For Blanche, at least, there had been no separation at all. She loved him with the same unquestioning passion. As always, she served only to satisfy his animal lust and his every mundane desire. She expressed exactly the same familiar passion as when Paul last fucked her. There was no evidence that Blanche had noticed any improvement in his lovemaking skill, although Paul was sure he was a better lover now. Beatrice had taught him so much more than a virtual construct could ever do. Blanche was as receptive to the more considerate practised lover who now pleasured her as she'd been with the decidedly inexpert one she'd last known.

Paul felt a sharp spasm of guilt as he watched Blanche wipe his semen off her chin and forehead. It wasn't as if his wife didn't give him pleasure. He resolved not to tell Beatrice of his sexual exploits in this other world, but the very fact he kept such secrets from her caused him anxiety. What would she think if she knew? Paul was sure she'd understand and tell him not to worry about it, but this consideration didn't absolve him of guilt. He still lusted after other women and this was something he couldn't control.

Nudeworld was relatively tame compared to the strange places Paul had visited on his journey through the Solar System. A world whose main distinguishing feature was that no one wore a vestige of clothing now seemed wholly innocent and unthreatening. There were people he'd met in real life, just as desirable as those on Nudeworld, who also never wore clothes. The entire exercise now seemed rather pointless and not even especially erotic. Nevertheless, it was strangely comforting to walk out of the house he shared with Blanche and stroll along those long-familiar streets, after his virtual partner had crumpled up and thrown away the semen-soaked tissues. Paul and Blanche climbed to the top of a grassy hillside from which they could gaze down on the small town where they lived.

"It's a beautiful view, isn't it?" remarked a familiar voice that was most certainly not Blanche's.

Paul turned his head, while still keeping a hand in his virtual partner's. As he guessed the voice belonged to Virgil.

"Ah!" said Paul with the boldness that he could only express in virtual space. "This proves you're not an avatar. You must be a virtual construct."

"Why's that?" Virgil asked as he sat cross-legged next to Paul and on the other side of him to Blanche.

"If you were an avatar of a real person in the Solar System," said Paul, "you couldn't possibly be present in real time so far from the ecliptic plane. The best I might expect would be a time-delayed response between the time I said something and when you responded. In real life, I'm over two light weeks from the nearest colony or natural satellite. If you were the avatar of a real person, you couldn't possibly be so responsive."

The Intrepid was already at least as far from the sun as the outermost perimeter of the Kuiper Belt but it was at such an angle to the ecliptic plane that there was virtually nothing to trouble its flight. For instance, it was totally impossible to have a normal conversation with his parents or friends from Godwin as any transmission to the colony would take nearly a month. The best he could offer were rambling monologues compromised by the fact there wasn't much he could say that wasn't classified information. Furthermore, the reply to his monologues could never be especially satisfactory as he'd forgotten, in the intervening weeks, what he'd originally said.

Virgil smiled.

"Well analysed," he said. "However, it is interesting that you make such a big distinction between the people you meet in virtual space and those in the real world. Can someone in virtual space ever be real?"

"Only in an abstract sense," said Paul.

"I suppose so," said the gentleman, but he didn't choose to pursue this line of conversation. "It's a while now since you last visited Nudeworld. Is the real world really that much more interesting?"

"It has been."

"And now: not as much so?"

"I wouldn't say that," said Paul. "I've seen more of the Solar System than I'd ever imagined possible and it's a more bizarre place than this world could ever be."

"Well, Nudeworld is limited by the parameters set by its designers," Virgil admitted. "That's the problem with virtual worlds. None of them can quite exceed their original design. But isn't that also true of the real world. It may not have been designed as such, but you're always constrained by the laws of physics. No travel faster than light. No teleportation. No ability to change shape, walk through buildings or withstand nuclear explosions. And yet in so many virtual worlds these laws are routinely broken."

"That's only because of the license of their designers' imagination," said Paul. "The laws of physics can be broken, but only because there isn't a requirement to be entirely consistent."

"And if they were absolutely consistent in every detail," Virgil wondered. "What then?"

"I imagine that what is possible within the limitations of design would be as constrained as they are in the real world."

"And is it ever possible that in the real world there might be circumstances in which the original design is compromised in some way?" Virgil pursued. "Are there circumstances in which, for instance, a massive object might travel faster than light?"

"That's impossible," said Paul. "If that were to happen then the whole fabric of space and time just couldn't hold together. Everything has to be consistent."

"And if something inconsistent did exist, how would you explain it?"

"Then it can't be of the same universe as everything else," Paul concluded.

"In the same way as Nudeworld is not in the same universe?" Virgil remarked. "And yet you're able to enter virtual universes where the laws of physics are routinely broken. In Nudeworld, for instance, you can be in the same apparent space now as you were when you lived in Godwin and your delightful partner has no conception that your body is in a physical location that is any different to before. But these virtual worlds are still part of the same universe as the one you come from."

"Well, of course," said Paul. "If all the servers hosting Nudeworld were to fail then it would abruptly disappear. It only exists as long as they do."

"Just as you do for as long as your universe continues to function?"

"Well, of course," said Paul. "Should the universe suddenly stop then so would I. And so too would everybody else."

Virgil mused on that reflection for a moment and then remarked: "It's such a pleasant day here. I could rest here forever. How about you?"

Paul wasn't sure how to answer. It was possible to spend one's whole life in virtual space and many people chose to do exactly that. They eventually died strapped to their holographic devices. However much they wanted to escape from the world they eventually succumbed to their physical contingency.

Paul felt restless. He wasn't enjoying his stay in Nudeworld quite as much as he thought he should. It was disconcerting to reflect on the real world when that was what he wanted to escape from. So, with a polite nod to Virgil and a reassuring squeeze of Blanche's hand, he exited Nudeworld. His senses once again returned to the real world bound by his villa on Intrepid and the unromantic hardware that generated the virtual universe he'd just a moment before been visiting.

As he so often did on returning to the real world and when he'd disengaged himself from the machinery, Paul pinched himself so that he could feel the unmistakable sensation that somehow seemed more painful in the real world than it ever did in Nudeworld. But he was, as always, not entirely sure that his perception of reality was any less than it was in the virtual universe. The simulations were so convincing that it was only because Nudeworld was unlikely to exist in reality that he was ever sure of which was real and which was not.

Paul had sampled the virtual worlds generated by the latest software. These were very much more needle-sharp and detailed in rendition compared to Nudeworld. The more modern simulations offered sensations that were even more real than reality. The colours were more intense. His physical sensations more tactile. The degree of detail so considerable. It was almost as if the real world was a mere shadow of such virtual worlds. Perhaps the real world was just a little bit more banal. Perhaps it was just a little bit more fuzzily focused.

It took Paul a few minutes to adjust to being back in mundane reality, but the memory of his conversation with Virgil still troubled him. Virtual simulations were supposed to be no more than artificial constructs that in one sense or another functioned to distract him, not to make him think. He speculated idly just how much the Anomaly was any more real than the virtual world he'd just visited and whether the way it appeared not to conform to the normal laws of physics might not in some peculiar way be like the disjunction between the apparent reality of virtual space and the soulless number-crunching that generated them. Virtual universes did indeed permit huge transgressions of normal physical laws, however much they were truly nothing more than an illusion. They were so convincing that only common sense and reason enabled Paul to differentiate them from what was unquestionably real.

Paul's reverie was suddenly broken. He became aware of a loud knocking on the door and then the looming presence of someone in his bedroom. He turned his head, half-expecting to see Beatrice. After having had sex with Blanche, he was keen to compare it with the real thing and in that regard his wife was always obliging.

So, it was actually rather a shock to Paul to realise that the woman striding towards him across the expanse of his bedroom carpet was Colonel Vashti whom he'd hardly ever seen since the day he and Beatrice had visited Captain Kerensky and then only from a distance.

What was she doing in his villa? Was his wife accompanying her?

"Quick!" said the colonel urgently. "Gather together only what you really need. You've got to evacuate your home immediately."

Paul blinked his eyes rapidly. Colonel Vashti was unaccompanied. There was no sign of Beatrice.

"Why's that?" he asked.

"You are in extreme danger," said the colonel. "Just hurry! I'll explain what's happening as we leave."

Shit. Again! Even here on the Intrepid, a ridiculous distance from home, there were people trying to kill him. Just what had he done to deserve so much unwelcome attention? "All right! All right!" said Paul who was almost used to such emergencies.

It was Colonel Vashti who carried the suitcases that Paul hurriedly packed and who insisted that Paul shouldn't slow down his flight by carrying anything other than a briefcase. The bulky luggage didn't trouble the colonel at all. She hauled them over her shoulder as if they weighed a fraction of their real weight. It was only as Paul followed the colonel across his lawn, past innocently grazing sheep, that he remembered that in his haste he'd forgotten to rescue any of his wife's belongings. Oh well, he reflected, it wasn't as if she wore many of the clothes in her wardrobe anyway.

Paul scurried to catch up with the colonel as she strode ahead. "Why do I have to evacuate my home?" he gasped. "Is it another assassination attempt?"

"Assassination?" asked the colonel. "Not at all. The ship's being invaded. We have to clear everyone from the outermost level. Not just you."

"Oh, I see," said Paul, who was oddly comforted to discover that this time he wasn't the sole target. "I can't see any invaders. Where are they?"

The colonel raised an arm holding a suitcase and beckoned towards a flurry of activity just over a kilometre away. "See that," she said.

Paul looked as carefully as he could while not breaking his stride. Soil and metal was flying outwards and upwards from a patch of ground that couldn't have been more than ten metres across.

"What's going on?" he asked.

"It's a laser drill," said the colonel. "That's how the invaders are cutting through the ship's hull. Soon they'll be inside the ship and when they are, they'll either kill everyone they see or seize them as hostages. You don't want to be killed or taken captive, do you? So, make haste."

It was more than two hundred metres to the tall column that housed the nearest elevator and Paul wondered why the colonel had arrived on foot and not by vehicle. Perhaps there just hadn't been the time, although other residents from the outermost level were being transported in a fleet of hovercars.

Paul returned his gaze to the soil and metal that flew outwards from the drill pushing through the ship's hull. A plug of metal suddenly thrust itself out of the ground and hovered above the outermost level's lawn. The Intrepid was rapidly repairing the hole in the ground created by the vehicle's intrusion and all signs of it had almost totally vanished as the craft began stabilising itself a few metres away from where it had emerged. Then Paul saw a handful of figures jump awkwardly out of the metallic object and onto the grass. They were dressed in burdensome space suits and hoisted massive rifles over their shoulders which they trained in all directions about them. The invaders mightn't be especially fast or mobile, but Paul was fairly sure that their weapons were lethal.

This reflection added extra impetus to Paul's step.

"Who are they?" he asked.

"I don't know," admitted the colonel now that they were less than fifty metres from the elevator. "Whoever they are, they must be both brave and foolhardy. They are about to encounter some of the very best soldiers in the Solar System. And that only if the robot infantry can't hold them back."

The greatest delay to Paul's escape wasn't the distance he had to run to get to the elevator but the crush of scientists, technicians and senior military officers pressed against the elevator's doors. Behind them, and still nearly a kilometre away, the lumbering invaders were approaching.

Dozens of military robots were gathered around the column that held the elevator and towered some fifty metres above to the roof that was also the floor of the next outermost level. They weren't especially large but they were clearly equipped for battle. Paul was barely inside the column's doors when the robots flew off towards the invading forces.

"They'll protect us, won't they?" Paul asked anxiously. "They'll keep the invaders at bay."

"The robots, you mean?" asked the colonel. "I hope so. But we need to get away as fast as we can. The elevator's full. We'll have to take the stairs."

"The stairs?" remarked Paul, who was horrified at the prospect at climbing such a height.

"Come on!" the colonel said, still carrying Paul's luggage and unhindered by their weight as she ran up the emergency staircase, two steps at a time. "You can see how well armed the invaders are."

Paul obeyed but despite his haste he trailed well behind the colonel. As he climbed up the metal staircase, he could hear thunderous crashes and explosions from the battle that was now taking place in the pleasant gardens and villas of the level of the space ship that he'd so recently known to be his home.

His flight wasn't over when he eventually reached the top of the stairs, followed behind by other desperate evacuees and their military escorts.

"We need to get everyone to the core of the ship," said the colonel. "We don't have to go all the way by stairs, but we must get you as far as possible from the invaders."

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