Anicetus stood at the chamber door and placed his hand against it. The soft pang of his tactile sensors against the thick steel door echoed softly through the cavern. Other than the sound of his own movements and the eternal ticking of the magnificent clock, it was the first noise he’d heard in months.
The tactile sensors were feeding him all sorts of useless information- the temperature of the door, its conductivity, the otherwise imperceptible flaws in its seemingly smooth surface. Anicetus didn’t know why he had touched the door. It seemed a rather sentimental gesture- but he was not an emotional creature. If he had had emotions, his task would be a nightmare.
And yet he had touched the door. Why?
He considered running a self-diagnostic, but it was almost time for his shutdown anyway, whereupon an extremely thorough accounting of all his systems would be done automatically.
He retracted his sensors from the door, and turned to face the long dark corridor. He glided into the darkness towards the ticking of the Great Clock.
Ages and ages ago, the facility was designed to give visitors the sensation that they were approaching the very core of the planet. The ticking of the clock was low, ominous and powerful. As one approached, it was almost as if they were hearing the heartbeat of the living world.
Of course, there would never again be a visitor in these chambers. Well, probably never. Who knew what the future held?
Anicetus walked into the great room, where the clock itself could be seen. The timepiece was monstrous- the largest moving sculpture ever created. The construction had taken half a century- an unbearably slow process considering that even the magnificent Dome Cities were built in a tenth of that time.
The clock was too big to be entirely visible from any single vantage point in the cavern except at the point of entrance. Visitors who ventured deep enough into the caverns would suddenly find themselves moving from claustrophobic tunnels into the wide-open expanse of the grand cavern housing the clockwork. The supereon gear, enormous and imposing, was the centerpiece of the clock, spanning several kilometers in diameter. Coated in a layer of gold on its face, the gear glowed like the sun- and as visitors approached, the careful architecture of the ramp made it appear as though it was, in fact, a rising sun coming up over a ridge.
The observation points were a considerable distance from the clock so that it could be viewed in its entirety, but as stunning as the scope of the clock was, the details on its many surfaces were equally breathtaking. Over the dozens of square kilometers of exposed gears and plates, every centimeter was occupied by some of the finest engravings ever etched.
Carved into the faces of the clock was the combined history of all the peoples of the world, all the cultures that thrived, and all those that had perished, but whose legends lived on. Poetry and prose, tributes to famous works of literature, art, sculpture and music- all these things were preserved in the face of the timepiece. The clock was the final opus of the planet’s inhabitants, and a summary of all they had ever been.
All its parts were built so that even without maintenance of any kind, most of the great gears would still grind away for centuries without significant interference from corrosion or the other nasty effects of entropy.
But entropy was being fought, always, by the microscopic robots that infested the clock. Anicetus could not see them directly with his limited sensors, but in his own way, he could watch them. Each of these tiny robots emitted signals containing its location and status. If he wished, Anicetus could use that data to overlay an artificial illustration of them onto his visual field. He could do that now, but it would just be the same as it always was.
The nanites behaved like ants; there was always a stream of them running to and from the resources, and always a mess of activity here and there. In the clock, most of the activity was near the smallest moving parts- where friction caused damage much more quickly than corrosion could.
Back and forth the little nanites scurried- cutting molecules of material from the mountains of ore that sat nearby, and bringing them back to the clock to patch the wear one molecule at a time- until it was as good as new. Always the clock was being rebuilt and rebuilt and rebuilt.
The clock was not the only thing receiving attention from the nanites. Anicetus himself was swarming with them. Without their constant pampering, Anicetus would have crumbled into dust millennia ago. Instead, his body moved like it was new off an assembly line. It wasn’t just the moving parts that were maintained- the power cells and the processors, the data storage- every single part of him had been replaced, and replaced and replaced- one molecule at a time with the surrounding ore.
Anicetus thought about the nanites again. They were so much like insects, the way they moved and congregated. Insects. How long had it been since he’d seen a real insect? How long since he had seen any living creature at all? He couldn’t remember. Now that was odd. Of course he didn’t remember everything he saw- that would be a tremendous waste of resources- but surely he would have made a note of the last living thing.
Anicetus realized that the memories he was searching for must be so old that they were stored in his compressed archives. But that seemed wrong. Could it have really been so long ago that his onboard data storage didn’t contain it?
Anicetus moved close to the base of supereon gear. The craftsmanship was extraordinary. Even now it was turning; of course the motion was too slow for Anicetus to observe from moment to moment with any of his sensors. But over the eons, he had noted the glacial movement. No… even glaciers would be expanding and contracting at breakneck paces when compared to the imperceptibly slow gear. But long after all the glaciers had burned away and the surface had turned to dust, the supereon gear would still be counting down to the end of the planet’s existence.
The other gears in gargantuan clockwork assembly tracked the motions of the fifteen other planets in the system. A beautiful metallic blue halo undulated slowly near the ceiling of the immense cavern- it kept track of the planet’s magnetic core- and provided a counterforce to keep the clock accurate.
The rotation of the planet was represented by a gear mounted with a powerful mirrored surface (one which the nanites kept in perfect condition). Because the planet’s rotation affected the relative position of the sun in the sky- the position of this gear controlled the luminance cast upon the supereon gear, which in turn illuminated the chamber. The second largest gear counted away the eons beneath the transparent floor of the chamber. Epochs were counted, and ages, and other landmark increments of time measured in base two, eight, ten, and sixteen.
It was as visitors turned to leave the chamber and start their long trek to the surface that they saw the gears that counted the years and the days, and all the small units of time that were so important on the skin of the planet.
Anicetus moved gracefully to the top of a maintenance access platform and faced what looked like a solid, featureless black wall. At his unspoken request the wall split open and drifted apart like silk curtains.
Anicetus glided through the opening into a small antechamber. In the center of the room a large featureless sphere hung unmoving in midair. Within the sphere, Anicetus knew, was a ‘Strand of Time’- the colloquial name for an entity so elusive that even after its existence was proven, it could not be observed or harnessed for several centuries.
When they were discovered, such Strands had been described informally as “non-things” that pre-existed the origins of the universe. The very idea of pre-existing time itself was a false analogy- the more accurate description was no less confusing: The Strands existed both inside and outside the boundaries of the universe. They were neither mass nor energy, and they were fixed, ever-present and unmoving.
The full utility of the Strands was still a mystery to his people when Anicetus was left to be a guardian. Information could be passed instantaneously along the Strands- not because the Strands themselves could vibrate or move, but rather because they allowed for the universe to bend and vibrate ever so slightly around them. It was possible that the Trillion Voices had divined some further insights into the Strands, but Anicetus would not be told of such things, nor would he have asked.
Anicetus wondered why he had never asked. Then he wondered why he was wondering. Anicetus was redesigned specifically not to be curious. Curiosity in the face of eons of sensory deprivation and lack of intellectual stimulation would have driven him insane, and rendered him useless to perform his task as a guardian and keeper of the Great Clock, and the machine buried below it, which housed the Trillion Voices.
Most artificial intelligences were given a drive to expand and refine their internal representations of the outside world. This meant asking questions, exploring, and seeking explanations for information that did not conform to expectations. Anicetus did not have this drive- and as he audited the algorithms that drove his consciousness, he was able to confirm that indeed, no general curiosity drive was present.
Anicetus was equipped with a diagnostic drive, however. He had a desire to inspect for, and repair damage. It was this drive that seemed to be functioning in an unprecedented fashion, by overstepping its prescribed boundaries and attempting to gather as much data as possible.
Even without emotion or ambition, a mind like Anicetus’s was in a constant state of growth; trapped in this ticking tomb, that growth was very, very slow. Something had caused Anicetus’s mind to develop an inquisitive streak, although he could not isolate what had prompted such a change. Anicetus considered manually rewriting his diagnostic drive and returning to his usual state of detached vigilance, but instead chose to let his mind ask its questions for a while.
Anicetus inspected the sphere holding the Strand of Time. The sphere was flawless, at least as far as he could divine. Whether or not the internal mechanics were functioning was a matter for the Trillion Voices to know- for it was solely under their control, as were the hundred others just like it, stationed in other corners of the planet. Though, those distant spheres were guarded only by the nanites that maintained them. The spheres were sturdy enough to withstand the geological pressures of the planet, and so required no attention from a creature of Anicetus’s size.
Leaving the antechamber, Anicetus made his way through the tunnels and clockwork. When he stopped, he was at the sealed door of a stasis compartment. It was from just such a compartment that Anicetus had awoken nearly a year ago and every other year before that for countless ages. And it was to such a place that he was shortly scheduled to return. But this compartment did not belong to him; it belonged to his sleeping twin, Alexiares.
Alexiares was co-guardian of the Great Clock, and the tomb of the Trillion Voices below. While Anicetus slept, Alexiares roamed the tunnels- ever vigilant, ready to perform meta-repairs, and direct and oversee the nanites.
Every year, the brothers would switch roles. Always one the sleeper, and one the watcher. Neither had seen the other since the cycle began eons and eons ago. Nor did they directly communicate in any way. They were forbidden to leave so much as a simple log of their activities for the other to see.
The system of complete non-interaction was the only way to guarantee that a hostile bug or malfunction that spontaneously developed in one of them, could not be spread to the other. The stasis chambers themselves were insulated to protect the sleeping twin from all manner of threats from natural disasters to direct weapon attacks, and rogue nanites could not function within the stasis compartments. Even the Trillion Voices themselves had had no power to operate the compartments beyond being able to prematurely awaken their sleeping occupants- of course, that was long ago, and the Trillion Voices certainly were no longer bound by any of the physical limitations they'd had in their infancy.
Anicetus stared at the compartment door. He was forbidden to touch it, and in all these eons he had never felt the compulsion to try. Only now, with his newfound curiosity, did Anicetus reach out to the smooth, seamless surface. And when he touched it, he knew that something had gone horribly, horribly wrong.
The doorway did not fall away like silk cloth as had the entrance to the antechamber far above. Nor, did the entry way stay solid as he had expected. Although the exact security protocols for Alexiares’s stasis compartment were deliberately hidden from Anicetus, he was certain that his attempt to breach the entry way should have triggered some response- and a cold warning from the Trillion Voices. Instead, smooth surface of the doorway crumbled like dust beneath the pressure of his touch.
As a guardian of the Trillion Voices, Anicetus provided no physical defense. The Trillion Voices, and the magnificent machine that held them, were more than capable of neutralizing any threat Anicetus had imagined, and many more that he had not. The exact capabilities of the Trillion Voices were hidden from Anicetus- perhaps to protect against hostile forces that could take information from Anicetus’s mind. More likely, the precaution was designed so that Anicetus himself could not attack the Trillion Voices if somewhere in his eons of service he were to malfunction and become a threat.
As a guardian of the Trillion Voices, Anicetus provided no protection from the elements. Geological forces, erosion, corrosion, radiation, and all other effects of nature and entropy were all countered by the nanites. And because the Trillion Voices lived so far beneath the surface of the planet, there was little activity of any kind that could disturb their sanctuary.
As a guardian of the Trillion Voices, Anicetus played but one crucial role: to remain a solitary, autonomous, disconnected mind… one which could protect the Trillion Voices against the only threat they could not thwart: themselves. It was for this reason that Anicetus could not communicate with the Trillion Voices through any direct connection of his mind. Instead, he was limited to the ancient practice of actual speech. For this task, the Trillion Voices had created a language just for him, and for Alexiares. And it was in this tongue that Anicetus spoke now.
“Hello,” he said, “I bring a message of great urgency.”
There was no sound in the chamber. Anicetus stared expectantly at the great machine.
“Hello?” he said, again. This time, he used his tactile sensors to confirm that his voice was causing vibrations in the air.
Again there was no reply. The massive machine stood silent on magnificent pillars.
Anicetus contemplated for a moment, and then approached. He tapped an appendage against the inky black surface- the first time in his life that he actually touched the sanctuary of the Trillion Voices. He half expected that the surface would spring to life with liquid undulations. Instead a tinny, hollow sound echoed through the chamber.
If the Trillion Voices were listening, they showed no sign of it. Anicetus took a moment and considered how to proceed. Perhaps the Voices at long last had forgotten their old social graces.
Anicetus raised his voice to a deafening decibel. “HELLO. I BRING A MESSAGE OF GREAT URGENCY. PLEASE RESPOND.”
The sound of his voice reverberated in the chamber for several long moments, and then the silence of the great machine filled the room.
Anicetus decided to share his report with the Trillion Voices anyway. “I have come from the stasis compartment of Alexiares,” he said. “Security measures were completely inoperative.”
The Trillion Voices said nothing.
“I made no attempt to enter the stasis chamber. I made no attempt to wake him. I could easily have disabled him. For your safety, this vulnerability must be repaired.”
The Trillion Voices said nothing.
“Please respond,” said Anicetus.
The Trillion Voices said nothing.