In memoriam Iain M. Banks.
‘Raid on Qåwalzak’
Your visor’s screen the smoke won’t penetrate
Through, of razed polis Qåwalzak’s demise,
Its palaces of chalcedony, chalcocite and agate
Reflections mere afore your shielded eyes.
But, look – here rose once the Master Clockmaker’s Fort
That planets seven busied to restructure Time,
And thereabout lay Şevern’s lingo-businesses’ famed port
Where the cunning Immaterials in secret profit thrived.
You tread among machine crushed and ash of flesh and burnt down pine,
Your step adjacent to the politics of chaos past and diamond rain falling
Upon the preserved figures of Alives and AIs, raided, recorded Gone, and now supine
Lying forevermore, renegades devoted of the Lost Cause’s reign.
But as you pass by
(if you don’t mind)
O traveller, tell
How the Story never yielded
Because of us.
— Zenius Dainom TechBard III
Poéte-prophet of Âdcheron 20’s ArtiMoon Agåpe +385 SG -242 JN
Draft poem #74,113
Others stored their ancestors in scents, optical vases, echo containers. It wasn’t uncommon these days to preserve their essence even in food. Why not? You could access what this or the other forefather of yours thought –or rather would think, given that a Preservance was certainly a highly accurate estimate of the retained individual’s thought patterns, yet a calculation nevertheless– via taste. In a sense, you communicated with the dead by eating them or sprinkling their flavour on consumptibles. Savouring the past, if you like. The latest galactic trend was to retain them in water. You took a bath; their thoughts flowed into you through the pores of your skin. Of course, they didn’t get exhausted, you never ran out of family. The Bank remained unaltered. The Bank of Ancestors or Quälia, that is the sentience-capacitating sphere hosting their collected consciences and life backups, was ever the same – only the outward material through which their assumed reactions manifested changed. Hence Ancestral perfumes, spices, holograms; conversing flowers, opinioned light bulbs, interactive windows and so on.
Cpesh’ia Limr Always Prinld&, however, was unconventional in that respect. She possessed a Bank of Ancestors like everybody else. But she rarely turned to it for advice or idle chat, despite knowing how faithful representations those Preservances were of her once-alive predecessors. Preservation could be paralleled to living on post-mortem, what with having the sum of your memories, future expectations/predictions, and general thought motifs cached, quantified and hyper-extended (without the need to resort to a Time Undoing), but Cpesh’ia didn’t fancy the concept. She barely spoke to her living relatives, save those of a non-Alive status. Plus, her own Bank was stranger than most, seeing as she had chosen to preserve her family in thin air.
If Cpesh’ia had thought hers a gesture of subtle irony, it had been at least tricky to implement. The difficulty lay specifically in that the Quälia needed to come into contact with material substantial enough to withhold and transfer yottabyte-sized clusters of information. Ancestor perfumes operated based on a liquid fusion in which the Bank was baptized. Air, on the other hand, was harder to impregnate with systemic, complex mind processes; besides, it necessitated the intended recipient having at her disposal powerfully tuned sensors able to perceive, cipher and interact with the ever-scattering data-laden oxygen particles. Cpesh’ia did. Moreover, the Ancestors Room had to be sealed airtight, unless you didn’t mind discovering great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandmother Filisk’ia hovering in your bedroom and inhaling her (damnatory) opinion on your electro-bondage activities with the MultiFormer. (This had indeed happened, once, to the awkward effect that the MultiFormer lost its mechanical erection and shamefully refused to reveal itself in holo-nakedness for two weeks afterwards. An inconvenience which could have been avoided had Cpesh’ia not so insensitively passed on her great8-grandma’s intervention to the MultiFormer, since itself it didn’t breathe.)
Today though might be one of those unusual occasions, occurring more or less once or twice per semicentennial, when Cpesh’ia seriously entertained the prospect of visiting her Ancestral Bank. The subject troubling –precisely and impressively– 55% of her mind (the rest of it consistently consci-connected to and occupied monitoring the situation over at the Historeum) considered none other than D’oneiron Fstrenr WhatAreYouThinking JqahXx, better known among Immaterials as Zerias Astrophletes, and her would-you-even-call-it-a-relationship with said anti-galactic bastard. Having pondered the question at hand for the best part of a year, Cpesh’ia increasingly sensed she wasn’t getting anywhere closer to reaching a decision. Not that her Ancestors would offhandedly provide any solutions for her –the past, admittedly, never did– but maybe whatever they had to contend would put things into perspective. Maybe.
Then it occurred to Cpesh’ia she could consult Zenius on whether there was any point consulting her Ancestral bunch. That insecure, the realization didn’t escape her. But the over-glorified poetic machine had been hibernating for a couple of years now, evidently hard at work on his newest poem, and waking him would at least provide Cpesh’ia with some distraction if not prove of any use to lifting her iffy mood.
Moving to the centre of her living quarters, she extended a thin pale finger and traced the singular line decorating the table’s surface. He didn’t like that, Cpesh’ia knew and suspended the grin forming on her face as she stepped away from the table. She recalled Zenius likening the touch to dragging a blade’s edge along the nape of a sleeping human’s neck.
A guttural, metallic groan. Then,
‘Sqredi grapshka-freknin pop rl’asisko, valen tal ij threshke,’ the machine cried out before starting to shape-change.
This roughly translated to ‘Fuck you, slut of a slot, gimme my money,’ in Orŏmirian slang, Cpesh’ia’s autoglot chip grudgingly informed her after her pressing nudge. She laughed. The TechBard was an old model, not considered ancient among AIs but reverently aged still, and parts of him had once belonged among else to gambling machines from some obscure, obscured planet in Supercluster Erŷſon. Zenius enjoyed elaborating on how the individual constituents comprising his figure retained their own memories since before being assembled to collage him to life, though Cpesh’ia suspected this was more of an exaggeration for show rather than true.
Before her, the table was unfolding. It transformed, extending limb-like protrusions, wheezing steam and huffing, balancing itself and partially re-folding, until the eleven-foot-tall poet AI stood finally immobile in the middle of Cpesh’ia’s living quarters, towering over her nimble figure not unlike an enormous MetaTree extending its branches over a human child or a baby AI. His lavatronic, gleefully-coloured suit was shiny as ever, the smooth fluid transfusion that ran through it glowing topically here and there like a thermal undermap of his streamlined surfaces. He’d chosen to assume a fairly humanoid shape now, as he often did with Cpesh’ia, and behind his face (the sole bit of his physical repertoire that didn’t change when he form-shifted), behind the Athånat-wood, metal-veined warrior’s mask designed in the fashion of a human Earth’s Samurai somen bearing wild hog tusks, his gaze gleamed scarlet.
Red gave way to a kinder, light green light, and in a (forced, Cpesh’ia thought) barely audible but tender tone, Zenius ventured:
‘Very sorry for that, my dear, my Cpesh. Old memories, you see. Not even mine, come to it.’ Then, abruptly, he stopped. Zenius looked at her.
He hadn’t seen her in quite a long time. Patently, this creature’s appearance demanded not to be ignored.
In her 325th year, the golden age of her physical and mental faculties, Cpesh’ia was brimming with youth like a mug of cask strength rosewicky generously topped up teeming with flavour and fragrance. She was like narrative hitting its stride and becoming the undeniable tour-de-force. Unknowingly, the sort of female nature that once her holo-Projection inhabited a room it changed with her. Transformational. Whether you were an Alive or AI, situations turned interesting, exquisite, lively around her. Her gait carried that forceful, vivid, soul-lifting sensation you get when listening to a song you’re obsessed with really loud and your favourite part kicks in. Like the high you ride on certain days you’re luminous, own a superb clarity of mind and grace of movement, when the planet around you brightens up and breathes at your very passing and your luck works uncannily on every small thing.
Summoning a quick trick from his old days, Zenius overplayed his internal procedures and pushed his personal Time current to a slow, minute-overriding extension, to better absorb the moment.
Perfectly balanced and shapely though she was, it was her face that did it, he decided. What would those of her species have to relate about her figure, in ages previous, religious, unStored and unknown to her, had they ever had the opportunity to witness the offspring of their special line? Hers was a face not just crafted by a favoritist god drunk on genius artistry, but a work of wonder in every detail refined and corrected by one after the other all the angels… to be then passed on to the devil himself, for him to add upon it his own traits of calamity-bearing, disaster-promising allure that make a woman extraordinary to behold. Even modern, HighSpecLustre AIs might not compete with her. Not strangely, Zenius registered a sense of pride for his human companion.
Cpesh’ia’s eyes were liquid blue like Paŧfheld coffee, and bright as the days one gains after beating years-long depression. There sparked in them with such vitality that sublime flare a poet’s eyes possess during those rare, mad moments when inspiration strikes like a cataclysm. (Zenius thought primarily in poetic and narrative terms.) Hers shone like that all the time, regardless what she did. Her naturally bicoloured hair framed her physiognomy in streaks of gold and black, lending her constellation-freckled face a curious intermittent luminosity. Her eyebrows were scimitars, whose rise and fall could slash through your heart or PrincipalROM, her nose – okay, her nose was just fine, Zenius had to admit, reining himself in, unsure what would constitute the paragon of beauty for a female human’s nose. And her mouth, how would he describe her mouth to those unlucky enough not to have seen it? For the colour of her lips he’d claim a poemgrenade shade. But the shape of her mouth, its intrepid symmetry – that was another thing altogether. Perhaps the thing about Cpesh’ia. For upon her lips played an expression mysterious, some strange quiet innocence and fierce enchantment. A smile danced hidden in their human flesh like that of someone who has stolen and claimed for herself a piece of the infinity of the universe. Looking at them, one started to fear the moment they might open and never again fall into the same perfect of positions.
It was that mouth Zerias Astrophletes wanted–
The unwanted and unforeseen notion forced the poetic machine back to relative current Time, where Cpesh’ia was staring at him with her head slightly tilted, entirely oblivious to the effect she had created upon him.
‘My dear. You’re beautiful,’ was the only thing Zenius trusted himself to say.
Cpesh’ia blossomed a grin in his direction. The TechBard, though belonging to a different existential category from her, had for several long decades dedicated his efforts to studying the elements of beauty (culturally considered, comparatively objective, and limerence-based) on a pan-galactic level across species and subspecies of Alives. His main conclusions by the end of his thesis (composed in Trivrîllian note-alphabet, in 35 unPændtrÿonic stanzas, and conducted before the Universal Academy by a TechChoir which he himself skilfully maestred) had been relevant to symmetry and hinted at the fact that even in the absence of it beauty could be encountered anywhere.
‘How have you been, Zen?’ Cpesh’ia said moving by the window, to take in the picture of the enormous AI gently humming in her living quarters. Behind her, Qåwalzak stretched out like an Edenic canvas, its artificial atmosphere and nature gardenful with Metaflora and micro-faunal species, up to the point the bright horizon ended, allowing a view of the dark vast globe that was the Historeum.
‘Just writing, my dear.’ Zenius’ pretended (or was it, after all these aeons of emulation) humbleness could be tiring if encountered everyday, but Cpesh’ia had been separated from her poetic companion long enough and knew what an honour it was to co-inhabit a planet with likely the most famous and celebrated Intellectual AI of her time, so she forgave the brevity and affectedness. Not that he ever seriously discussed his p(r)o(ph)etic endeavours.
‘You’re so useless,’ Cpesh’ia smiled at him again.
Zenius accepted the compliment graciously, imitating a human blush though taking care to keep the effect brief, aware that a prolonged red flash underlining his mask might appear sinister to human perception.
‘I’m sure I’m too much more use than I should,’ the poetic AI reflected meekly and Cpesh’ia wondered if this was just a phrase or whether the TechBard really regretted their making profits from malting his work. His liquefied poem collections sold steadily throughout the galaxy (mainly due to the paramount status of his name and the drinks’ palateful disposition rather than their comprehensibility) but this was in no way a profession. He still had quite a strong claim on existing as art, or at least more so than Cpesh’ia.
‘And how have you been, pet?’ Zenius sounded genuinely curious.
Pushing aside the notion she’d forgotten how much Zenius conversed like a pre-ancient aunt, Cpesh’ia tried to offer an honest reply.
‘I’ve been fine,’ she ended up saying. ‘Busy at the Historeum, but nothing unusual.’
‘Mhmm.’ Zenius could do that, let out a low hum that somehow echoed reassuring. It was curious, given that many machines couldn’t recreate the effect unless by record and replay.
Alive and AI remained silent for a moment; they had laxly, within 60 comfortable words spoken between them, traded all the necessary information each ignored about the other during the two years and three months they had been out of communication, exchanged niceties, and reassured one another in their amiable alliance.
‘So, I’ve neglected my poor human. She isn’t feeling well, apparently,’ Zenius mused.
‘I’m not feeling bad,’ Cpesh’ia countered, meanwhile realizing she had left her mind channels unguarded. Gotten too used these years to being on her own. Zenius had been bio-scanning her, obviously perceived her distress and in his system it translated as a malfunction. Cpesh’ia reinstated her emotion walls.
‘Now, my dear, my Cpesh. Don’t you take offense at this. But I’ve known you for more than two centuries and a half,’ Zenius said. ‘You’re troubled. And I know why.’
There was a disguised note of unease in his observation.
Cpesh’ia lowered herself comfortably into the soft platform by the window and raised her eyebrows at him. ‘Us humans and our inherent psychological turmoil, right?’
He made no reply. Both were aware of their disagreement in the matter. Zenius followed the typical AI dogma secernating purity of thought from every other actional factor and hierarchying it above all else as the sole cogent evidence of character. Machines that could unwillingly experience direct feelings (as opposed to mentally perceived or imagined), such as MultiFormers, were classified with lower status and didn’t count among AIs, in legal terms at least, possessing no unaffected personality of their own.
With humans, things were slightly more complex.
‘The particular emotion we’re discussing happens to be the only one recognized by Universal Law as a valid, non- or liminally-understood Logical Process that may be taken into account on occasion as a driving personal trait,’ Cpesh’ia pushed. She had granted the word ‘valid’ a certain gravity.
‘And by that you mean you’re unhappy for love,’ Zenius retorted.
But seeing her expression he made his face mask emit green light, the equivalent of beaming warmly. ‘I’m reminded of that story, Love in the Time of Intergalactic Warfare,’ he said. ‘Where the male human remains in feeling with the female human for fifty one centuries.’ He sounded quite amused at the idea.
‘But fictions aside, science has proven it, my dear,’ Zenius carried on. ‘Feelings do not survive time. They technically don’t exist. Elusions, delusions,’ he concluded.
Cpesh’ia nodded casually.
‘A masterpiece of course, nevertheless, that story,’ he added in ameliorating tone. Her Sentonym, after all, was ‘Always’. Cpesh’ia Limr Always Prinld&. Zenius wasn’t sure what it referred to; she’d never divulged. One didn’t ask such questions. It could be a personal life bet or an observed latent tendency it described. Was she perhaps incapable of conceiving the finality of certain temporalities as, paradoxically, was characteristic of so many of her species? Or just young and romanticizing nonexistences? He decided to tread more carefully.
‘Cpesh, you well know I do not understand the use for an emotion of such potentially and observably catastrophic consequences.’
‘I wouldn’t ask you to,’ she said in low voice.
‘And yet. Here we are. Facing another philosophical discussion bound to no end. About that Immaterial again.’
‘I’d rather you didn’t call him that.’ Cpesh’ia kept her voice low, avoiding eye-to-mask contact.
Zenius affected a sigh. He nursed no sympathy for criminals. Apart from the danger that human transported with him like a second nature, he dared assume a Z-initialled name. Only TechBards of his own class were allowed this honour, apart from government officials of the highest order.
‘What did he do this time? Hack into our planetary systems? Infiltrated the Historeum? Turned your MuF completely into a renegade lunatic?’ he said, voice of sarcasm.
The MultiFormer, upon hearing Cpesh’ia’s pet name for it, looked at him innocently from the other side of the room where it was sitting. It was wearing Zerias’ figure.
‘You’re young. It is almost your responsibility to be enjoying life. Instead of souring over an… involvement not only destined to be discontinued but which even yourself won’t remember after–’
‘Zenius. He asked me to Contact him,’ Cpesh’ia cut in.
The poet AI’s expression would have changed to serious, offended, terrified and angered, or perhaps a blend of all four, had he possessed the necessary facial features. As it was, his warrior’s mask remained unchanged but he let out a perceptible jet of cool air, tinged deep red, from the oblong horizontal slits circumscribing the base of his neck.
‘Zerias asked me to Contact him,’ Cpesh’ia repeated.
Unbelievable, unacceptable. Atrocious. When had this happened? And, it was clear now, his friendly human had indeed been hiding something that he had –incredibly– failed to suspect. How…? Of course, a Contact. She must have kept that part of her mind processes entirely shut and locked, in completely private compartments of hers, likely (and hopefully, for all their fates) immediately as soon as this proposal had taken place.
This hadn’t been, as he had assumed, once more about her fascination and (illegal, highly perilous) communication with the Immaterial or the conflict it typically generated in her. His human companion hadn’t woken him to discuss her emotional instability or argue whether it was wise to pursue continuation of this menacing charade. There was very real reason to worry.
‘Allow me access to the communication,’ he asked, though it sounded more like a command. Not a superior’s command; closer to an order instinctively originating in an upset guardian but which is still an order. He needed access to the conveyed notion that Immaterial had passed on to his human, to analyze every possible aspect of tone and intent. Were there threats in it? Was it sanely intended?! What did it feel like? So he needed to scare his human, perhaps, a bit.
‘It’s private,’ Cpesh’ia said.
Zenius anticipated this. His entire suit flashed red underneath.
‘Can it be, since that very proposal threatens my existence, too?’ he said. Cpesh’ia noticed he didn’t mention the MultiFormer or SuP, the other two ~sentient beings on Qåwalzak.
‘Cpesh. My systems can quantify intents in the Immaterial’s message you likely don’t even know exist. The communication, please?’
She hadn’t apologized for her refusal.
‘Sqredrz,’ Zenius observed. He didn’t blame it on any of his constituents this time.
On her part, Cpesh’ia understood her AI companion’s distress. Her dear Mr. Astrophletes was not only an Unrecorded and a confirmed member of the Immaterials, but one of the exceptionally few and untypically rare Untouchables. This, in essence –as Zenius, too, knew– meant three things:
1. His point of origin in the universe was unknown and he had never been caught / previously Recorded.
2. He was a devoted renegade of the Lost Cause. And therefore sought after by authorities in –literally– the entire universe. (Conspiracy theorists argued this was true only if one believed in the existence of a singular universe. Multiverses –and they attributed the preternatural talent of Immaterials to exist undetected to exactly that assumed actuality– could potentially provide haven to an Untouchable. Unless he was wanted there, too.)
3. When discovered, he faced a fate worse than torture and death. (Namely, Nihilation: a post-protracted-torture-and-death physical expunction of his DNA from the space-time continuum, not only limited to the destruction of any Individuals preceding, current, and surviving him with whom he had direct or indirect contact, even minimal, but also extending to erasure from the memory faculties of everyone –Alive, non-Alive and AI– remotely associated with him to the liminal degree of having passingly glanced at his name. A fully no-trace-left extinction, which threatened others’ lives and constitutionally authorized unconscious invasion and modification to their memories. Note be, it was said a Nihilation had never taken place but that the tech for it existed. On the other hand, had one (or more) been administered, no one would know or remember, including even the Nihilation’s very instigators and enforcers. Oh well.)
This guy had asked her to Contact him.
Now that put things into a certain perspective, didn’t it. But even though Cpesh’ia experienced guilt at the knowledge she was potentially endangering the TechBard’s life too, she wasn’t prepared to go as far as to entertain his curiosity. Her communication with the renegade was a personal matter.
‘You haven’t decided to fall for this already, have you?!’ Zenius said suddenly, his mask colour and intonation conveying bewilderment at the obvious possibility he might have missed. ‘They’re not coming for us?!’
Cpesh’ia shook her head.
‘I just thought you should know, at least.’
‘At least. Brilliant,’ the poetic AI commented, taking a step forward and then returning to his previous position, having made the space around them tremble ever so slightly. It was his own version of ‘nervously pacing up and down the room’. He knew all was said, and that there was no point trying to convince Cpesh’ia to grant him access to the communication.
‘And what have you to say about all this, Mr. Immaterial?’ Zenius turned and asked the MultiFormer. It was still wearing Zerias’ shape and overhearing the conversation with a snug expression that made it look quite idiotic. ‘Are you going to step in and protect us when half the galaxy’s Eliminators are upon us? Do Immaterials even have a sense of pride… Oh, wait, I forget. You’re an Untouchable as well. No need for apologies, am I right?!’
‘Calm your tits, WALL-E,’ Zerias let drop, bored, and then the innocent expression on the MultiFormer’s face changed to an unveiled, threatening smile.
‘What in the name of logic is he referring t-’ Zenius started to say, the frown audible in his voice.
‘No idea,’ Cpesh’ia intervened. Zerias’ references were often weird and made no sense. ‘But let’s not argue, please.’
‘Was that related to some theory about how AIs should be enslaved? Did he just offend-’
‘Zen, it’s only the MultiFormer. Zerias isn’t here,’ Cpesh’ia reminded him. She could almost see him looking up MuF’s reference against his vast quota of Alives-related knowledge.
‘It still transmits his special ideas,’ Zenius turned very serious to her. ‘I believe in your outdated lingobumbling,’ he switched back to Zerias, ‘it’s called racism. Or speciesism, more precisely.’
The MultiFormer let out a rumbling fart in response.
Zenius looked perplexed. ‘Is it okay?’ he asked, eyeing the small human-looking machine almost worriedly. Zerias/the MultiFormer was leaning back comfortably on the polygonal couch, scratching his thigh.
‘It’s fine,’ Cpesh’ia replied struggling to maintain a serious expression. Apparently even Zenius ignored certain pre-ancient, human-body-related connotations that hadn’t survived in time.
‘It’s emitting gases,’ Zenius said, mystified. ‘Surely you haven’t forgotten its decennary serv-’
‘Zenius, you worry too much. We do that sometimes,’ Cpesh’ia said. Then, before the argument could resume, she nudged the ArtiPlanet’s Sense into life.
SuP, Historiviver Limr Prinld&, Qåwalzak’s Supreme Planetmaster system announced itself to her.
‘SuP, do we have any clothing material?’ Cpesh’ia asked.
Yes, Historiviver Limr Prinld&. We do, the Sense’s reply came in a thoughtwave. Should I burn the lot?
‘What the fu- no!’ Cpesh’ia shouted. ‘SuP, just fetch me some clothing material to put on. Please.’
Yes, Historiviver Limr Prinld&. Right away.
Zenius looked at her bemused while they felt the Sense abandoning the room in search of clothes.
‘So, you’re visiting your Bank,’ he commented.
(Was he offended, Cpesh’ia thought, that she preferred to discuss the matter with the dead rather than him?)
She was, hence the need to keep up appearances. Some of her Ancestors had grown used to the idea that humans didn’t need to cover their skin for several millennia now. Yet most of them, and especially those of pre-ancient times when prejudices and beliefs held tighter, found the concept of being undressed highly unsettling in a social context. Whenever she visited, Cpesh’ia humoured them. She considered it a sacrifice born out of respect on her part, that she applied certain constraints to her character and body in their presence. Not that they ever appreciated it fully, despite the fact the damned things were so uncomfortable to carry around on you. She had to tolerate a comms and safety helm when working at the Historeum, but a whole bunch of the stuff covering most of her body was weird, intolerable.
But she was adaptable to change, Cpesh’ia thought, looking at her legs next to the mirror. She secretly thought they were just about the sexiest thing on her (well, off her now), so she had kept them after removing them. Her ArtiSkin-engulfed machine prosthetics had exactly the same shape and feel to the point you couldn’t tell the difference by look or touch, but Cpesh’ia nursed a certain fondness for her original limbs. Almost as if they were proof she was by nature designed pretty, not by modification. Of course, she was pragmatic; her machine legs were far superior, in terms of being able to sustain severe pressure without breaking and in regards to achieving speeds her first set of legs wouldn’t have been able to. They were useful to her, at the Historeum. Come to it, she casually accessed the 45% of her mind consci-connected there; all good.
Cpesh’ia looked out the window, at Qåwalzak. Zerias/the MultiFormer yawned from the couch. Zenius was lost in his internal processes, perturbed by her news. While they waited for the Sense to return, Cpesh’ia’s gaze fell on the MultiFormer. Amazing, how closely it had come to resemble Zerias.
Of her last partner, Cpesh’ia had let MuF keep only a few external characteristics: his unusual but attractive eyebrows, lineaments of lips, his eye’s shape (he had just the one, by aesthetic modification, not accident). Otherwise, nothing of character to keep. He had been, to all intents and purposes, a whore; barely five years after ceasing communication with Cpesh’ia, she’d ‘overheard’ from her Bank that he was already in contact with other females, slave to the attractions of attention. So no, no aesthetics there she wished to commemorate.
A MultiFormer could assume the shape of virtually anyone, yet it was common practice to determine its features and personality using elements you found in your partners. You kept the good things; your personal companion then became over time the sifted best version of the best of your experiences. Before Zerias, Cpesh’ia’s MultiFormer had been a fairly androgynous creature, leaning perhaps a bit more towards the male figure, with characteristics inspired by 9 separate individuals, as many as Cpesh’ia’s romantic involvements. (An almost promiscuous past she had there for her young age and one comprised of entirely different between them partners, so that MuF had ended up an attractive but still eccentric amalgam of her personal life.)
All that had gone out the porthole with Zerias. He had proved a cornucopia of characteristics and mannerisms he had dictated to her MultiFormer to emulate, store and employ. It even picked up his habits by its own volition, and Cpesh’ia had a sense it liked wearing Zerias’ skin, if it was possible to say something like that about a lower status machine. Half a decade after being introduced to him and her MultiFormer already behaved more like Zerias than any other of the previous boyfriends and girlfriends she’d had over the span of two centuries.
In many ways, and subtle ones, this surprised Cpesh’ia since she was the one supposed to decide which features and behaviours the MultiFormer copied. Nowadays it imitated a breathing rhythm like Zerias’, a tad slower than normal, as if withholding oxygen for a few seconds longer gained him a dispassionate control over things, and it had taken to his broken, sharp laugh, too. ‘What are you thinking?’ had become one of its most used phrases, as was Zerias’, after which he’d got his Sentonym. Somehow, the chameleonic machine seemed more intimate, taking after him. Perhaps it was that it asked more often about her, or the endlessly inquisitive fashion in which it led conversation. It seemed like it needed to know everything about her, in a complimenting way. Other than thought structure, performance in bed, and weaponry of knowledge at its disposal, the MultiFormer had gained Zerias’ laziness of character as well. It was endearing; it walked in a distinct, controlled but light manner, and it also appeared to have lost weight. Before she’d realized it, Cpesh’ia had let the MultiFormer abandon the features of her past lovers and immerse itself in Zerias’ shape. It was strange, sometimes – as if they were living together.
The MultiFormer seemed more sensitive to her needs even. Before, she sometimes needed to stand in front of it and directly speak the command for it to assume a partner’s shape. With Zerias, it barely needed to hear his name to be summoned, and occasionally it turned up as him without any prompt, wandering into the room at random moments.
All that and their conversations were perfect. But a Contact? What happened if things simply went wrong? Relationships were unstable things on their own, and one’s time with someone else might end abruptly anytime, regardless whether they were your average Alive or happened to be hunted down by the entire universe. Even ignoring the life-threatening consequences the idea entailed, what happened after a Contact’s termination? Who would ever want you again; who would ever want a body you had once given to somebody else?
The proposal, Cpesh’ia presumed, was equivalent to the pre-ancient and nowaeons seldom practiced among Alives concept of ‘marriage’. A binding preposterous not just on the basis of it encouraging actual, real-time and real-space meeting with another representative of the same species, an undertaking which in itself imposed a plethora of granted impediments to manifesting one’s individuality, but on top of that it preconditioned the automatic and irreversible loss of basic galactic benefits available to all, ranging from taxation, work and property-related rights to the entitlement to reside in any given solar system. It was like asking if she wanted to become a pariah.
In an age when individuals had become so inherently complex and super-self-identified in regards to psychosynthesis, what did anyone need same-species friends or a partner for anymore? Incompatibility, dysfunctionality, simple mendacity or impossibility of union were unavoidable, surely, when one had fumbled up to the corners of her own nature and learned how to achieve harmony with herself. Like a solitary manifestation of poetry, where one was both the poet and the poem, without need for a reader. Basic functions could be satiated impersonally. Emotions, even when manifesting in unexpected gales and franticness, could be appealed to and appeased. Peace could be found. Self-completion was there.
She wouldn’t have even considered it, if not for that one strange occurrence.
There had been the one moment of tangency between them; they’d been in each other’s body, once.
Neither knew exactly what had happened. In the middle of a conversation that Cpesh’ia anymore didn’t remember what it was about. Zerias, of course via the MultiFormer he’d been currently inhabiting during one of his visits, had touched Cpesh’ia’s hand. The weight of that (unwilling?) gesture had severed their connection and left them both unconscious for several hours, Cpesh’ia at the terrace of her living quarters in Qåwalzak and Zerias back wherever he happened to be. During the seconds the touch had subsisted, they had… swapped.
And yet. When they had briefly exchanged bodies (or had it been souls, the difference lying in what had been surrendered, given over, and what had not), it had been… good, Cpesh’ia thought. During those seconds the touch had lasted, she had seen through Zerias’ eyes, she had been inside him, indeed had been him. Looked at herself from outside. But that… touch?, union?, connection of sorts, surely it wasn’t the same thing as a Contact? It had been profound, rapt and complexly intimate, almost arcane in its technological malfunctive demonstrations, but a Contact was a contract Cpesh’ia knew entailed none of these adjectives. Completely the opposite. Right? It wasn’t a sense of that which individuals sought by Contacting in exchange for effectively ostracizing themselves at will to little more than universal outcasts?
How her routine had been altered by that one communication. And all these invasive thoughts! They visited her daily, now. They’d be in bed, and she’d catch herself wondering about his hair. …when had she become that repulsively glacé?! Still, surely it felt and smelled and tasted the same in the original, but was it the same? A crazy question, because the machine essentially duplicated Zerias’ body in every aspect of the senses. But was it the same?!
And there was another query: given his status as an Unrecorded and an Immaterial, necessarily with all the info he had to withhold from lending the MultiFormer, was he much different in reality? And how?
But still upon still to the power of still. A Contact? It was a mad mind’s object. Dangerous. With the MultiFormer, it was different. It had progressively been her parent, guardian, friend, lover. Her life companion, as was natural. Safe; outside of her, there was nothing for it in the universe. Where could she ever hope to encounter such devotion other than a machine? Did Alives really make attempts at Contacts these days?!
‘Zerias,’ she had breathed in the MultiFormer’s ear, sometime, aware the individual wasn’t there. It lay spent on her, awake but imitating a languid breathing rhythm. ‘Are you different in reality?’ she had said.
Then she had seen the half grin stretching on his face. She’d wondered. Would that have been his genuine reply or did the MultiFormer only assume a wordless reaction due to lack of data? Anyhow, the MultiFormer worked more in the area of concupiscence rather than in what might be termed love. Her answers weren’t with it. Who even knew where its original was at the time. Suddenly she’d sensed a surge of tenderness for him and had tightened her limbs around the machine.
SuP, Historiviver Limr Prinld&, the ArtiPlanet’s Sense announced itself once more and Cpesh’ia jumped, to find herself blushing heavily, much to Zenius’ confusion and the MultiFormer’s amusement. They’d both been scrutinizing her; could the damn thing somehow read her thoughts now?!
Next, a tile slid sideways on the living quarters’ ceiling and a bundle of soft material fell through to the floor.
This is what I found, Historiviver Limr Prinld&.
‘Thank you, SuP. They look very nice.’ At least she was trying.
There was a deep green, white-striped 18th century crinoline dress complete with panniers, a camo tactical vest, a wedding thong decorated with pearls, a black trench coat (slightly worn out), a pair of children’s blue jeans, a balaclava, a grey Russian ushanka and a pair of men’s loafers.
Cpesh’ia sighed. Armed with patience, she donned one after the other all the articles of clothing the Sense had chosen for her, requiring its help thankfully only twice. Once when she had trouble inserting her arms into the jeans (‘What weird outfit is this?!’ she had protested; But see what strong material it’s made of and how protective for your arms it is? SuP had countered), and once when she had almost put the loafers on her feet instead of hands (their shape had made her think they were intended for her lower limbs, but SuP had confidently asserted they were classified in its system as gloves, which meant they were designed specifically for upper limb protection, so she obeyed).
‘How do you feel?’ Zenius asked her, when the ordeal was over.
‘Hot. I can’t breathe well,’ Cpesh’ia muttered under the balaclava and the ushanka. ‘Very grateful for ArtiEnvirons, really.’
I also found this, SuP communicated, dropping a bagpipe from the same tile on the ceiling.
‘Absolutely not!’ Cpesh’ia objected. ‘What’s this thing now?! I don’t care if it offends them, this is already impossible!’
‘My dear, my Cpesh,’ Zenius said.
Historiviver Limr Prinld&, with all due respect, may I remind you how unhappy your Ancestors were re your appearance that time you visited featuring only two (2) articles of clothing? It seems ‘the more the better’ is the rule here, SuP reflected.
‘Unbelievable,’ Cpesh’ia muttered. ‘Un-fucking-believable. I’m one of the only 5,133 Historivivers in the entire universe. And look, look what I have to go through!’
Zenius tsked sympathetically, though Cpesh’ia could tell he was still considering the Contact issue.
I think you just have to throw it over your shoulder, SuP commented encouragingly. Cpesh’ia imagined the ArtiPlanet’s Sense poring over its records, trying to find accurate instructions on how to wear this yet another strange piece of clothing.
‘Fine, whatever,’ Cpesh’ia said in defeat. She picked up the bagpipe by the drone cord, passed it over her head and shoulder (some fine manoeuvring was required, as the huge camo vest highly restricted her movements), and turned towards the Room of Ancestors.
In the poetry of the moment, she lost herself.
It always happened, when Cpesh’ia visited her Ancestral Bank. A homecoming of sorts, a return to where she didn’t yet belong but was always welcome. Here she was, at a corner of the galaxy, in a room the polished wooden surfaces of which made it resemble a sauna, barely occupying any space all on her own and yet, with a simple mental command and the help of a small technological masterpiece, she could traverse Time backwards, over millennia, in much an illusion but also in as real a lie as it could be, striving to grasp at a connection that was ever impossible to establish and yet somehow subsisted.
She was, after all, the genetic offspring of this bunch, despite having met none of them. It was weird, yet strangely comforting (in theory at least) that all of them were gathered there for her, always, in case she needed them, their thoughts, their words. The past was reliable, in a sense. Having grown up solo, like most Alives these days, Cpesh’ia never had any other family or experience of such other than her Bank of Ancestors.
The moment she entered the Quälia, she took a breath, her autoglot chip stiffened, then the voices surrounded her. Like a torrent, like a hurricane, the past entered her nostrils:
Yo, look ‘ere, it’s the weirdo again! ~ What in the name of Vitruvius is she wearing?! ~ Cpesh’ia Always, welcome back. ~ Good to see you again, kid, how you’ve been? ~ What in the seven suns is she pretending to be this time?! ~ Seventy three decades we haven’t seen you, beloved Cpesh’ia! How have you been? ~ Cpesh’ia, welcome! ~ I told you she hadn’t forgotten about us, heyCpeshbeewhatyaupto? ~ Welcome, Cpesh’ia Always. ~ Are these shoes on her hands or?! ~ Your cousin M’orkeid Lawful visits much more often, huh. ~ Is that my dress?! D’fidio, come see! It’s my… ~ Welcome, Cpesh’ia Always! ~ Cpesh’ia, welcome back, we’ve missed you. ~ You’ve lost weight, haven’t you, dear, how I wish I could make you something to eat… ~ Cpesh’ia Always, thank you for visiting. ~ Cpesh’ia Always, I hope we can be of help to you. ~ I preferred it when she came in that bikkuini and lace-ups! ~ Hullo, Cpesh’ia, how are you, love? ~ It’s ‘bikini’, you pre-ancient, sexist ape. And she’s your great-great-great-great… ~ Cpesh’ia Always, what news, lass? ~ How’s the Historeum faring, Cpesh’ia? ~ Cpesh’ia, have you reached mating age, finally? ~ Hi, Cpesh’ia. What a gorgeous lady you’ve turned into! ~ Cpesh’ia, what’s the matter? ~ Should we tell her that’s a thong, you reckon? ~ Hello, Cpesh’ia Always. ~ Hi, Cpesh’ia Always. ~ Cpesh’ia, hiya.
A cacophony of familial familiarity.
Before Cpesh’ia addressed any of them, she made sure to check her interBank channels were shut off from the rest of the Ancestral network, seeing as today’s subject was more than just subtle. The reason? Your Ancestors weren’t only yours, unless somehow they had all collectively bequeathed their memories only to you. (Rare.) You shared them with anyone else they belonged to, via their Ancestral Banks, and passing on current news this way was entirely possible though much slower a communication method. So today’s data and conversations wouldn’t be uploaded to any other Ancestral Banks, just Cpesh’ia’s own, she made sure. It was like swearing them to secrecy. Of course, it was the dedicated purpose of certain departments within multiple intergalactic universities to study the changes in Ancestors’ characters through time after death and Preservation, detailing how they differed from Bank to Bank, given the potential of their extended conscience being altered by different information ‘fed’ to them in different destinations. But Cpesh’ia hadn’t subscribed the personal part of her A-Bank to these studies; felt she herself and her family weren’t statistical data. Not if she could prevent it.
She let herself bask in that familiar kerfuffle for a while, drifting away in their voices. The voices carried through not just thoughts, but images, scents, tastes. Emotions. She was grateful for the existence of Banks, just then. All that human noise, so inimitable, conveniently attainable once more, that only the stellar carver of a moment could potentially recreate. For some time, Cpesh’ia lost herself in the Quälia.
Then she opened to them access to particular memories of hers relevant to the Contact. There were plenty of gasps, and a deluge of loudness following. She’d listen to all of them, but Cpesh’ia was mostly interested in one of her Gone relatives’ opinion.
She snorted, effectively evicting her great8-grandmother Filisk’ia’s hysterical thoughts from her nostril. Then silenced the rest of the voices, and waited for that one. Eldricz’ia Fimr Always Rrennial* began to talk.
They shared the same Sentonym. 6,472 years separated them.
‘SuP, prepare the Caddy, please.’
Yes, Historiviver Limr Prinld&.
The craft wasn’t technically a Cadillac, of course. A luxurious personal carrier half the size of an ArtiMoon’s core, it naturally couldn’t have been. It was Historiviver Limr’s designated vehicle, allotted to transport her from her living quarters to polis Qåwalzak. But because of Cpesh’ia’s weird obsession with many things outdated, it retained an Earth’s 1968 Cadillac De Ville’s appearance (+9,113 SG -7,656 JN in modern Chronomeasurements, to give you an idea).
Cpesh’ia was back in her living quarters, her visit at her Ancestral Bank unexpectedly disrupted. The MultiFormer had appeared (holo-naked, effecting a rather overly scandalized and remonstrative reaction from Cpesh’ia’s Ancestors) to announce there were signs of battle at the Historeum. Zenius had sent it from the other room to report the vast globe was lit up in a firestorm. MuF, wearing Zerias’ figure, had an ominous mood about him while transmitting the message.
She could witness it from here. The battle in the dark globe had recommenced. The miles-tall sphere that encompassed almost one third of the planet Qåwalzak was engulfed in flames. Cpesh’ia couldn’t discern whether the Eliminators’ crafts had risen yet, to deal the polis its final blow. And it didn’t matter. Cpesh’ia came from a family of Historivivers that went a handful of generations back. She had learned to detach her feelings at work. The battle was being re-enacted, for the trillionth time as always, as it had happened the first time, all those millennia ago. That was how Historeums worked. Froze a moment in Time; then, replayed it. Resurrecting all the components of the battle, from the Immaterials whose ArtiPlanet had been discovered and was currently raided, to the crafts that had been sent to raze the polis to the ground. A moment in Time, encased in glass, with the difference that its outcome was already known and determined, replayed at will for the sake of interplanetary tourism, and featuring the additional element of diamond rain enveloping the normal weather conditions of the scene, as this was the most subtle (and at the same time cool, they thought, perhaps) form the organizers had come up with to introduce their Time-controlling processes inside the globe. The battle would continue, the Immaterials would be extinguished to the very last, the Clockmaker’s Fort would collapse under 600 terajoules of pure atomic energy, the authorities’ crafts would revel in victory, the figures of the dead renegades, Alives and AIs, would be turned facing upwards, the scene would fade.
No, what troubled Cpesh’ia was that her consciousness hadn’t registered the malfunction on its own accord. When she accessed the 45% of her mind that was always consci-connected to the Historeum, sure, a scarlet alert showed up, 32 minutes ago, demanding her immediate attention/intervention. But no report of that had reached the rest of her faculties.
Historiviver Limr Prinld&, the craft is ready for you.
‘Thank you, SuP. Zenius, may I borrow Fleer?’
Fleer was a professional Aesthetician. Hence she lay constantly in a state of personal crisis. Not an entirely conscious individual on her own, she constituted part of Zenius’ figure, one of the many. In specific, Fleer was Zenius’ second left (of 14) cerebral hemisphere, which could be detached from him and hover about in the form of a drone. She was more or less his aesthetics’ section, integral mainly to his poetry writing, though in other cases useful –because she was self-powered– for maintaining communication where no other ~sentient individual was allowed entrance apart from Cpesh’ia. The Historeum, that is.
It was highly illegal, yes, but meh… Cpesh’ia and Zenius had often disregarded the rules and allowed Fleer to board the craft that took Cpesh’ia to the Historeum. It was a way for Zenius to watch over Qåwalzak’s raid again and again without booking a holo-seat at the Historeum’s travelling deck and for Cpesh’ia to have some company during her breaks between shifts (which, admittedly, lasted several weeks on end sometimes).
‘Fleer is a bit distracted at this moment,’ Zenius replied, musing back and forth with her apparently. ‘She’s upset about the fact Eyaorlkiȅan poetry, though highly talented and promising, revolves too much around the politics of hypo-sexuality. But what do you expect, Eyaorlkiȅans are only a couple millennia old, technologically almost savages; they haven’t even gone through a Gender War of their own yet.’
Cpesh’ia looked at him patiently.
‘To answer your question, yes, I’ll send her after you as soon as I manage to calm her down,’ Zenius promised, and Cpesh’ia flashed him a last smile.
‘But, Cpesh’ia,’ he said as she had started moving to the other side of the base, the ArtiPlanet’s Sense switching off the systems behind her and entering the living quarters in Waiting mode until her return. ‘We’ll talk about this Contact, when you’re back and the situation at the Historeum has been resolved.’ There was anxiety in his voice. For which situation, Cpesh’ia wondered. ‘All right?’
She nodded without turning.
Entering the craft, she put on No, No, No; You Won’t Fuck With My Life, Calypso loud on the speakers. An old zeta-grunge Überhipster antimelodic industrialist death metametametal band. Zenius would have scowled. Cpesh’ia took her seat at the control room, checking the systems and bobbing her head slightly in rhythm.
Picking her comms and safety helm, she put it on directing her hair to braid itself and climb out the aperture over the helmet’s rear vent. She was a natural at her job. A scarlet alert most likely meant the system had been switched on by accident and that the battle had recommenced earlier than expected. It happened. She had to get in there and find the core of the malfunction. The battle’s manifestation wasn’t always exactly the same; people ran in different directions, hid in different places, shot at different enemies. But that didn’t matter to her. Cpesh’ia simply had to check where the discrepancy between the current raid and older records showed, make a note of it, and reverse Time at the Historeum. Put history back in place, in short. Easy peasy lemon squeezy.
She sensed the hacking too late. One moment she was extending her hand over the Piloting Pool, palm and fingers already communicating to the smooth liquid surface of the central disc directions for the craft’s space-sailing course. The next, like an aura or a ghost, Zerias Astrophletes had taken over her body.
(This story has a number of alternative endings/beginnings)
 Echoreferring to pomegranate. Intimates the similar colour of malted poetry, esp. when liquefied into a –minimum 50 years aged– spirit.