Sterile

by

Admaxis

The Guardian: Chapter 3

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He stood staring at his mismatched reflection. This was all very wrong. Hugely wrong. Catastrophically wrong.

What disturbed Anicetus the most was not that he was walking around in the wrong body; that was merely a mystery that would likely be solved upon investigation. No, the problem here was that he had been walking around in a state of impairment so great that he had not even been aware of the damage.

Anicetus pondered his predicament. When one cannot trust one's own mind, particularly one's own memory, the first order of business should be to request aid from an unaffected party. For, Anicetus knew, there was the danger that at any moment, he could lose his concentration, forget about his damaged mind, and wander aimlessly through the facility in an interminable daze.

How long had he done just that? How many times before had he faced his twin's reflection in the mirrored clock surface? Was this the first time he'd discovered his damaged mind, or had he discovered it before?

The preferable action would be to inform the Trillion Voices of the error- but they had been silent. Or had they? Could he trust any of his senses if his mind itself was unhinged?

Anicetus ordered the few remaining nanites in the underground cavern to periodically transmit a message back to him, describing the depth of his mental impairment. He dedicated considerable resources in his own mind to repeat variations of this message over and over to himself. And then he extended a sharp appendage towards the clock face and scratched a message into the smooth surface. It was a simple pictogram, but quite enough to get him to run a memory diagnosis if he were to encounter it in a moment of disoriented confusion.

Satisfied that he had set enough fail-safes in place, Anicetus considered the danger in running a truly exhaustive internal diagnostic. He was unsure which systems when probed would collapse his entire conscious mind. When that thought occurred to him, he decided a different course of action was required. He knew nothing of his consciousness except that it was in the most fragile of states, and the few nanites he had gathered within were not capable of repairing him.

He was in no position to fiddle with his own memory systems. He was far too valuable. His first duty- his only duty- was to the Trillion Voices. Their perpetual sanctuary was beginning to crumble, and they had fallen silent. One Guardian dead... and one with a hole in his mind.

Anicetus knew that while he might not be able to fix himself, he should be able to build something that could do the job for him. He set the few nanites he could reach to the task.... but there were so few of them trickling in through the veins of ore... so very few. He had to let them replicate first.

He commanded them to reproduce, and set into their building queue the instructions for producing a robot capable of diagnosing and repairing him. Even in his damaged state, conjuring the physical schematics and delicate programming for such a creature were simple tasks for him. The nanites acknowledged the instructions and chugged on, trying to restore their numbers.

Anicetus looked on and calculated the time it would take them to carry out his orders. And then he waited. And he waited. And he tried not to think. If he had had breath, he would have held it. He listened to ticking of the great clock, steady as a metronome.

The nanites gathered slowly, invisibly constructing tiny factories to make more of themselves. They harvested resource from the ore, and slowly- achingly slowly- they brought it back, sometimes no more than a few molecules at a time. The work was imperceptible even to Anicetus, who did not even allow himself to monitor their motions. His whole being, and his entire race dangled by the tiny thread of his lucid consciousness. He had no idea what thoughts or actions might send him back into absent-minded insanity. He would not watch them work, nor would he think about them. He would stand perfectly still so as not to jostle a single bit of his inner-workings. He would be as still as the world outside the clockwork caverns.

The minutes ran into hours, and then into days... he stood motionless, meditating, almost... weeks then months... standing... waiting.

Anicetus received a transmission from a nanite cluster announcing the completion of construction on the repair robot. He tried to gauge the time that had lapsed but encountered a series of internal system errors when he queried his internal clock. He stared at his reflection. The mechanical body was perfectly sound. Remarkable that it housed such a damaged mind.

Anicetus sent an activation signal to the newly constructed repair robot, and was shocked when not one, but three mechanical creatures sprang to life. They were all quite similar, with only slight variations in design. Anicetus was certain that they were all creations of his imagination.

He realized the troubling explanation immediately. In his fragile state, he must have had several lapses of memory, each time concluding with the same course of action: ordering the construction of a new robot. Yes… that was logical enough. He didn’t remember querying the nanites to see if they already had a robot in their building queue. Which one of these three did he actually remember designing? It mattered not. The evidence of his mental deficits was disturbing, but at long last a return to normalcy was near.

The robots had the physical strength to complete any meta-repairs they deemed necessary, and wits enough to restore Anicetus to consciousness should the initial cognitive testing send him into full system failure. The robots established a link with Anicetus and began probing his systems with painstaking precision. Anicetus monitored the results, and marveled at the damage.

Nothing in his mind was working as it should. The cognitive abilities he enjoyed were the result of a haphazard patchwork of disorganized bypasses. His mind, like the Great Clock, had been designed to withstand the assault of time. Both systems required the maintenance of nanites to truly fight the effects of entropy- but even without them, he should have remained fully functional for several decades. Now he saw a mind full of holes, systems with quadruple redundancies had fallen to decay, and been patched over with strange redirections and peculiar new pathways. He was looking at evidence of centuries of neglect.

As the robots probed deeper into his psyche, Anicetus heard the Great Clock stop ticking. For a moment it seemed as though the repair robots had somehow disconnected his auditory receivers or processors, but then the disturbing truth snapped into his mind. The robots hadn’t disrupted anything- they had fixed something. Those ticking sounds had been a creation of his ailing mind.

Anicetus could see the mechanics of it quite clearly now: Whatever entity had sloppily patched his brain earlier had somehow decided that Anicetus, having lived with the clock for eon after eon, somehow required the input for normal functioning. It was foolish assumption- one which only made sense if the entity doing the repairs did not understand the world outside of Anicetus’s brain. The nanites, unguided, had clumsily stitched together his failing brain.

He had been living in a dream. He had seen and heard what he had expected to see and hear. The Great Clock was quiet. The planet had no heartbeat.

What had prompted the nanites to fix him? How bad had the damage been when they began? Had he been conscious? Without an overseer directing the effort, the nanites had tried to fix the workings of his mind without truly understanding it. A few patches seemed quite elegant- perhaps he’d had a moment of lucidity in the past and had guided a subsystem repair?

The robots dug deeper into Anicetus’s core. His working mind was a fluid thing- not in literal sense of liquid processing units (though such things had been built by his people)- but in that the functions of his consciousness were not compartmentalized, nor specialized. It was this advanced design that allowed Anicetus to split his consciousness into smaller independent processes- each one perfectly sized to its task. It was the most delicate of mechanisms. Here, where he expected to find the most damage, he saw none. Something, or someone had taken great pains to ensure that whatever else was lost, Anicetus’s ability to reason, to deduce, and to ponder would survive the decay of time.

His memory storage was in a sadder state. At some point he’d lost the ability to keep track of time- a supreme irony, given that he lived inside the Great Clock. Without proper time encoding, his newer memories had become difficult to organize and retrieve. On top of this critical system failure, there was also physical damage to his memory storage unit. It had been built with a number of redundancies, so that reconstruction of lost data would be possible in almost all situations. But this damage was so extreme, and had been unchecked for such a great while that Anicetus estimated significant permanent memory loss. Fortunately, external memory banks deep in the catacombs of the facility held backup memory storage units. In all likelihood, those would be degraded as well, but would allow for the restoration of a quite a bit more data.

The robots began work on the memory core. Anicetus refused to shut down as they recommended, but did isolate and deactivate the unit. Instantly his cares fell away, as forgot everything about himself and the world. He’d left himself only an anchor of orientation: enough to monitor the repair robots progress, and make sure everything was proceeding as planned.

His mind was adrift in an abyss- the thoughts he had now would fade from existence the moment he was done thinking them. He had no past and no future, his whole being was floating in a timeless moment where nothing mattered at all. He knew only that there were things he did not know- and that he was waiting for something.

How long he was in this state was impossible to gauge. When he awoke from the trance with his fully functional memory core, the world seemed somehow more focused. He quickly surveyed the robots’ handiwork.

His internal clock had been repaired. Although it had arbitrarily been set to an unconfirmed point, he could now, at long last, properly and reliably store his experiences. He could learn. He could remember.

A large gap remained. The events between detecting the damage and the final repairs were clear enough, but none of his mysteries were solved. He still had no clue how he had ended up in such a wretched state. And he had no idea how his mind had gotten into Alexiares’s body.

The last normally indexed memory that existed with any clarity was from the last time that Anicetus had returned to his stasis chamber for the changing of the guard. From that point backwards everything looked normal. There were large gaps in his memory, even going back several eons… but on his vast timeline of existence, these absences mattered little. He deduced from the remaining memories that his tenure in the caverns had been uneventful, as they ought to have been for a guardian of a disinterested god near the core of a dead planet. What Anicetus did not know- and could not know- was if he had ever awoken again in a healthy state after his last recorded entry into stasis.

Satisfied that the repair robots had stabilized his broken brain, Anicetus ran a full self-diagnostic. He could visualize every component of his mind and body, and run simulated input tests on all of them. The robots had done a fine job- his systems were sluggish, but they were quite stable. He assigned several thousand nanites to begin the fine repairs that would restore him to full functionality.

He scanned the area for nanites and noted that his request for their mass reproduction was being implemented nicely. Their numbers were growing exponentially now, as they kept producing more of their microscopic factories. At this rate it would be only a decade before they had returned to the numbers required for the maintenance of the Great Clock and the surrounding systems. Of course the clock was Anicetus’s last priority; it was merely a monument to a dead past. He had his people’s future in his hand.

Anicetus moved; it had been the first time in… years… he calculated from the nanite population. He turned away from the shiny reflection and faced the cavern with fresh eyes.

The clock had ground to a stop. That was his first clue as to the true duration of his time lapse. Assuming all the nanites had disappeared, the Great Clock still would have kept moving for well over a millennium. It would have lost its accuracy by a half a day, perhaps, after 1500 years of neglect. Barring any outside forces, the tiniest gears making up the core of the clock would have worn down beyond their ability to drive the rest of the clockwork some 200 years after that. The system of counterweights, and the powers of inertia might have kept the clock moving past that point, but the mechanics of the system would have failed, and any gears smaller the those that counted the centuries would have been uselessly inaccurate.

Anicetus inspected the clock to verify his theory. It was difficult to tell for certain, but he was confident that the nanites had stopped their maintenance at least 1600 years earlier- perhaps longer. He had no idea how long the clock had sat idle.

Anicetus realized that having hallucinated the working clock, none of his pre-repair memories could be trusted. It was time to reassess the situation from the beginning.

He glided quickly to chamber of the Trillion Voices, and called out to them again.

Silent. Still.

He moved back to the heavy, external door where he had rested his hand at the beginning of his new thread of memory. Had something happened here that had awakened him from centuries of dementia? He could see no clue of what that might be.

He was feeling stronger now. The nanites were making good time with their repairs. He raced towards his own stasis compartment and hovered over his former body. This he had not dreamed. It was all real. His own decaying shell, and Alexiares’s decimated memory core.

Anicetus tried to deduce the events that had transpired which led to this sad state. Had Anicetus himself ripped his memory core from his body and inserted it into Alexiares? Had Alexiares done the deed? Had they met, and spoken, for the first time in eons, and jointly agreed on the transplant? What could have led to such a desperate pact?

Perhaps the location was a clue. If Alexiares had been able to enter Anicetus’s stasis compartment unharmed, then the nanites must have already been long absent. Neither Alexiares nor Anicetus had the power to control the stasis fields. That power was for the Trillion Voices alone. Ah… then perhaps the Trillion Voices were already silent when Alexiares entered?

Anicetus collected up Alexiares’s decayed memory core. Perhaps it could be of some use. If the external archives held only moderately damaged records of Alexiares’s experiences, then even miniscule fragments of data in this memory core could be used to reconstruct full memories.

Anicetus rocketed to the archives. Built into the wall of the caverns, the archives had been fairly neglected by all but the nanites. The vast storage system had quietly done its job, collecting the thoughts of Anicetus and Alexiares waiting to be called on in the event of system errors that rarely occurred.

But the archives had not been designed for an error of this magnitude or duration. Anicetus was certain that he had once known the unaided lifetime of the memory depot, but could not recall it now. If the archive used a light-trapping mechanism, the data could last almost indefinitely, provided the storage medium was kept intact. But impurities had their way of working into any system. Atoms from the surrounding materials had a bad habit of fusing with their neighbors on long enough timelines.

Anicetus tried to communicate with the archives in the conventional way, and after the expected silence, he pried loose a panel exposing the body of the archiving system. There were no pre-designated interfaces; Anicetus had only to extend an appendage, and sensors on his own skin began to connect with the database.

Anicetus withdrew quickly- alarmed and puzzled. The archives had been destroyed. This was not the decay of time. He detected deep fragmentations in the storage medium. Something had physically demolished the system.

A closer inspection revealed that the destruction had been thorough. It hadn’t taken much: ultrasonic vibrations at the appropriate resonance frequencies had shattered the medium. It could be repaired, of course, but the data was lost. This had not been an accident. Someone or something had wanted the records destroyed. Anicetus looked down at Alexiares’s memory core. It was heavily damaged- too heavily damaged to be accounted for by the effects of time alone. It was clear now that its destruction had not been an accident either.

Nothing made sense. Anicetus’s mind raced through scenario after scenario trying to explain the madness around him. Had he gone insane? Had Alexiares? Had one of them ordered the destruction of the nanites? Had Alexiares attacked Anicetus in his stasis chamber? What could explain the exchange of memory cores? Had Alexiares known something that had to be kept hidden? What could he have known that Anicetus had not?

Anicetus set some nanites to the task of preventing the further degradation of Alexiares’s memory core. He doubted that there was any more to be done with it, but should he decide that something critical was locked in there, then it was better to have arrested the damage.

Anicetus pondered over Alexiares as he began a slow patrol of the caverns. With his mind no longer playing tricks, he was able to see problems everywhere. He cataloged them all as he went, and ordered the nanites to see to the repairs when it became efficient to stop reproducing and resume maintenance.

He paused outside the antechamber containing the Strand of Time. He reviewed his memory of the door opening like curtains. He decided that it was likely a fabrication of his crippled brain, for where the nanetic doors should have been, there was only pile of inky black dust on the ground.

The Strand of Time, encased in its floating sphere, appeared to have weathered its neglect far better than the clock had. Anicetus knew nothing of its inner workings, but the fact that it was still defying gravity seemed to be rather a good sign. Satisfied that there was nothing more to see here, he resumed his patrol until he had completed his circuit.

The nanites had their orders. The Great Clock and all the surrounding fixtures would be restored to health in a little over a decade. The stasis compartments could be restored, though without the Trillion Voices monitoring them, actually using them would be quite dangerous.

Alexiares could be rebuilt. Rather, an entity exactly like Alexiares could be built, and made to take his place. Anicetus could clone his own mind into its body. The two could then resume the sleeper/watcher dynamic. But it was all for naught if the Trillion Voices were already dead. Anicetus was built to be a guardian, but he had enough sense not to stand watch over a graveyard.

He returned to great machine that housed the Trillion Voices. He called to them again. Again they were silent.

When the Great Machine had been built, Anicetus knew the precise mechanics of its inner workings. Over the following decades, the machine rebuilt itself, and rebuilt itself, each design more brilliant and complex than the last. Within the first 50 years, the designs had become so complex that Anicetus was no longer able to fully understand them. And the redesigns became more and more frequent. By the end of the first century the Trillion Voices were rebuilding themselves every day. A decade later the machine was in a constant state of flux. After that, Anicetus didn’t really understand what happened. The physical redesigns ceased, and when Anicetus requested the final schematics, the Trillion Voices told him that there were no designs. They had offered no more explanation, and Anicetus had requested none. He suspected that they had outgrown the rules of the universe as he understood them- that in some sense they had shed their skin.

Yet always they seemed to inhabit the great machine. They always spoke to him through it. Or they had until now.

Anicetus employed every sensor he had. He aimed them all at the great machine and tried to detect any sign of activity. There was none.

He spent the following weeks conjuring new sensors, and new sensing techniques. The chamber became his personal laboratory. He bombarded the Great Machine with every type of stimulation he could manage. Even as he concocted new and interesting attempts, he felt the futility of his efforts weigh on his mind. Nothing produced a response. At long last, Anicetus surrendered.

He glided out of the chamber and all through the facility until he stood at the entrance. He looked out over the defunct clock, beautiful and awful. He turned towards the narrow passageways and headed to the surface.

On the skin of a dead planet, a great monument towered above a barren wasteland. The gargantuan archway stood- solid and strong, constructed from strands of material so fine that they had been sewn together one molecule at a time. It stretched across the horizon like an inky-black rainbow. Beneath it, a gaping chasm yawned an invitation to the heart of the world. The archway bore symbols, carved thick and deep, and the only living soul who could still read them paused to do so.

“All our Hopes and Dreams, All we Were and Will Be”- Anicetus read the words and paused to reflect on them. It seemed like an epitaph. He tried to remember the mood of his people as they started the long transition into the Trillion Voices.

For some it had been a joyful experience, an adventure into the dimensions of the mind. For others it was an escape from mortality. The few Biologicals that were still around at the time had stopped aging centuries earlier. Disease and illness were things of the past. Death was a rare curiosity. So much more tragic to die when one might have lived for an eternity.

For some, joining the Trillion Voices was a sad experience- the heartache of being torn between loved ones on the outside and loved ones within. In the end, every one of them let go their physical selves. Every one of them, save for Anicetus and Alexiares.

For a short time, the transition was invisible. Individuals from the planet’s surface would upload their consciousnesses into the Great Machine, but they would continue to use their physical bodies as puppets. Or, their minds would live both in the Great Machine and in their bodies, synchronizing their thoughts at various intervals. The effect was the same- the population of the planet continued to go about their daily routines (or some approximation of them) for several years.

Eventually, the seductive nature of existence within the Trillion Voices outweighed anything that was to be gained by wasting time in corporeal form. Within a decade, the physical bodies were abandoned entirely. In the end, it was not uncommon to see an abandoned body (Shells, they had called them- or Husks)- just lying on a public fairway. Even the Biologicals left their bodies to decompose. There was no reason to remain in the real world when the life in the Great Machine was so much more vibrant. Anicetus reckoned that after only a few years of fine-tuning the Trillion Voice sensory experience, the physical world must have seemed small and artificial. Even the Biologicals would have felt more alive as disembodied thoughts inside the Great Machine.

Anicetus did not know if his own consciousness was one of the Trillion Voices. It would have been easy enough to copy his mind before the reprogramming. He suspected that his unaltered self had been preserved in the Great Machine, and that his physical self had been made to forget during the same purge that stripped him of his emotions and curiosity. For several years, security of the Trillion voices had been a serious concern, and his role as Guardian had had real meaning. It was during those early years that there would have been some danger in having a Guardian’s mind mixed in with the general population. Were they afraid of betrayal on his part? Or that a weakness in his own mind could be exploited to infiltrate the Great Machine? He had known the reason once… now his memory was full of blurry uncertainty.

He stared at the sun near the horizon. The planet was rotating noticeably faster than when he had entered the caverns so many eons ago. The Great Clock had tracked the shortening of days of course, but it was still strange to see the effects of geological time with one's own eyes.

Anicetus had outlived ice ages and extinction-level asteroid impacts from the safety of his caverns. His planet had died and been born anew several times during his long term in the deep below. But never once had he seen with his own eyes the raw power of time to change those things small beings think of as permanent.

Soon it would be twilight and Anicetus would use the night sky to calculate the date. Accurately realigning the Great Clock below would require considerably more precise measurements- but those adjustments would have to wait anyway.

Anicetus scanned the horizon for signs of life. Though his sensors indicated that the atmosphere could support it, he saw no hint of vegetation. The ground beneath him was coarse sand, the same rusty color as the surrounding rocks. He set some nanites to the task of creating an olfactory sensor to analyze the trace particles in the air. If there was life nearby, he wished to see it.

He looked back to the archway, amazed that it stood all this time without maintenance. Unlike the Great Clock, the archway had no moving parts, and no army of nanites fighting off the forces of nature. To call it an archway at all was incorrect; it was a complete oval, half-buried underground. It was designed to be buoyant in a sense- floating half submerged in the rock and sand. It was built to be virtually indestructible, and lo, for eons it had fought against erosion, and withstood the most brutal of environments- an engineering marvel for an audience of one.

He watched the heavens grow darker. Stars and other celestial bodies quickly appeared through the fading green of the sky. Moments into the twilight he had enough data to reengage his internal clock. If his calculations were correct, it had been 2,711 years since his last successful hibernation period- nearly three thousand years of demented wandering through the caverns since whatever tragedy had occurred in the depths below.

Anicetus gazed into the sky, and then back at the chasm in the earth. What had happened 2,711 years ago? And why had it happened then, after nearly 117 million years of tranquility?

Anicetus was a statue before the magnificent black archway. A light breeze swept sand across his ancient frame. His gaze was fixed on an empty patch of dark sky. There, in the hollow blackness of space, Anicetus waited for a glimpse of his people’s past, and perhaps their future.

They had been a cautious lot, the ones who would become the Trillion Voices. As they each gave up their physical forms to join with the Great Machine, they had taken precautions to insure that the survival of their race was not entirely tied to a single piece of technology, or to a single location… however deep and secure it was.

Every person, before entering the machine, had the entirety of their minds translated into pure information. For artificial intelligences, this had been as simple as copying data files. For the biologicals and hybrids, however, detailed maps of the organic brains had to be made, and then converted into virtual representations of those minds. In either case the processes ended with every individual mind on the planet being represented as finite data files containing the sum of their memories, every pathway of their brains, and their current state of awareness at the moment of the scan.

The data was inert- as lifeless as the words on a printed page. It was only when uploaded into the Great Machine that emulation began, and the data sprang back to life, like film running through a projector. Anicetus remembered the peculiar novelty that the Biologicals (the ones that opted to keep their physical bodies) experienced as they were handed data storage units containing a copy of their scan. He remembered the odd looks of wonder and sometimes confused disappointment when they realized they were holding the entirety of their beings in a single crystal which was barely larger than a grain of salt. But these souvenirs were not the only copies made of the scans.

Vast archives were created to house a copy of every mind that entered the Great Machine. Anicetus had wandered through one of the storage centers in his old life- back when he had allowed himself to feel emotions and wax philosophical. He remembered moving through the stacks of frozen minds and trying to decide if the place felt more like a library or a graveyard.

During the final years of the migration/metamorphosis into the Great Machine, it was decided that the archives on the planet’s surface were not enough. To truly insure the survival of the original minds, an off-world facility was built to house a copy of the data. To that end, his people had hollowed out an asteroid and installed in its heart an enormous vault. It was for this asteroid that Anicetus searched the sky.

He adjusted his optical sensors slightly, almost imperceptibly, to compensate for the steady winds in the upper atmosphere. If the asteroid could be seen at all through this turbulent sky, detection would require a long exposure. After several hours his patience was rewarded. He couldn’t confirm that he had found his target, but at least he knew that something was adrift in space where his asteroid ought to be. It was a start.

Constructing a spaceship from scratch is no easy task. The designs had been completed in every detail almost as soon as Anicetus had willed them. The problem was in the production.

The nanite population below was increasing exponentially, but every time Anicetus tasked them with a new construction it slowed their progress. More than anything else, Anicetus was certain that he needed to restore their numbers so that he would have a solid infrastructure to work with in the months and years to come. He considered the possibility of using the nanites to build larger manufacturing tools, but calculated that the quickest technique was to have the nanites build the ship themselves. As long as he collected and hauled ore to a central location the project shouldn’t take more than a few years. In fact, he realized that if he collected all the ore first, and let the nanites reproduce undisturbed in the meantime, the actual construction would take only a few months.

The ship itself would be rather small- barely large enough to hold Anicetus. But, it would not hold Anicetus. It would hold communications equipment, and a very small robot. For this, he would almost certainly be recycling the repair robots that had patched him earlier.

Transporting his massive frame into space would be a tremendous waste of resources. By using a smaller proxy, both the ship and its payload would be considerably lighter. Of course, his mind was going on the trip. He trusted the task ahead to nothing less than a clone of his own brain.

The duplication of his mind would be a simple task once the hardware was complete. That mind would control the small robot body in the ship, and would be independent until it reached the asteroid and established communications. Once a stable link was possible, Anicetus and the clone would attempt periodic synchronizations where their independent experiences would be shared, analyzed and merged. This splitting and weaving of consciousnesses had been mastered in the days of the Biologicals. In the span of a few years physical travel grew to be regarded as inefficient and had been replaced with Remote Body Control.

Back then, individuals wanted to experience life on the other side of the planet, and even off-world travel- but they refused to leave their primary bodies unattended. The obvious solution was to duplicate their consciousness and for some time exist in two independent bodies at once. When their travel came to an end, all the experiences of the temporary body were integrated into the original, and the duplicate mind was erased- and handed to the next host. People who experienced this consciousness weaving would be left with the odd experience of having two separate and distinct sets of memories for the exact same periods of time.

Anicetus hadn’t split his consciousness since before he was a Guardian. Back then he remembered pondering long hours over the philosophical consequences of having two selves that coexisted in the universe. But now, several eons older, and having been wiped of any emotion, the existential consequences of his plan concerned him not at all.

With every step of his plan charted out before him in perfect clarity, Anicetus set off into the desert in search of rich ore deposits. Far in the caverns below, the nanites churned and grew in the darkness- a vast ocean of tiny workers, carving more of themselves from the rocks beneath their feet. And in the cold nothing of space, spinning and dancing around his star, an asteroid tumbled through time, waiting.

Pushan wondered what it meant to have a name if no one ever spoke it. The symbol ‘Pushan’ had been etched into his tiny body, but all his memories told him he was Anicetus. And, though he had remained completely autonomous during the long journey, he would soon be regularly synchronizing his brain with the creator he’d left behind, and essentially they would be one mind sharing two bodies.

Back in the days when Anicetus’s people still had physical forms, the creation of clones was commonplace. Large-scale construction projects were often designed and built exclusively by a single consciousness, who temporarily created armies of duplicates to do the hard labor. This had been an ideal way to protect trade secrets, and to ensure consistency and quality control in the construction process.

In those days, however, clones were not given names like ‘Pushan’. Clones were given numerical designations which described the hierarchical structure of complex cloning relationships. Following old standards, Pushan should have been named ‘Anicetus.1’. Should Anicetus have made a second clone, it would be called ‘Anicetus.2’. If the second clone made a clone of his own, that entity would be named ‘Anicetus.2.1’, and so on.

The designation ‘Pushan’ had been Anicetus’s homage to the superstitions of the past. Pushan had been the name of an ancient deity worshiped for his ability to bless journeys and also being the courier of souls into the afterlife. Anicetus had chosen the name because it was doubly appropriate.

A hollow pang reverberated in the perfect darkness. There was a scraping sound and a series of tiny snaps. Pushan turned his attention to the ship’s skin sensors. Ice crystals on the asteroid’s surface being chipped and crushed under the mass of the ship as it landed. The hull was made of tightly laced carbon fibers, so there was little chance of any damage to the vessel. Still, touching and tethering to the asteroid was the most difficult part of the journey, and Pushan was determined to proceed cautiously.

The asteroid’s gravity was negligible, so the first step was to get anchored. Thin strings of carbon fibers began to flake off the ship and float with aching slowness to the strange rock below. When they made contact, a small contingent of nanites set to work fusing the strings to the rock at a molecular level. This was a process that would continue for some time, but Pushan stepped out of the ship as soon as a significantly strong bond had been secured.

Pushan stood little over 10 centimeters. Actually he less stood than floated. The almost total lack of gravity made any sort of earthly locomotion impossible. Instead, his movement was controlled by a thin tether which linked him to the ship’s interior. The tether itself was made of materials that could bend and contract akin to the body of an impossibly long snake.

His tiny frame drifted up as far as the tether would allow and scanned the surface for any sign of the vault entrance. A circular object just barely submerged beneath the surface quickly caught his attention. The tether tensed and swung him to his target where he landed in silence, splashing a wave of gray particles into space.

The tether pressed him firmly to the ground and he used his stubby appendages to drill and scrape and pry at the circular shape beneath him. He was uncertain if he was attacking a split doorway, an aperture or a cover which had been meant to be pried from whatever lay below. It was irrelevant; small though he was, Pushan was quite powerful, and determined to bore through any resistance. In all likelihood, any intended methods for unsealing the vault would have long ago failed. There was little doubt that brute force was necessary.

Pushan extended a featureless spike which was needle-fine. The spike’s tip contained fixed nanites tasked with destroying molecular bonds. They tore away at the surface, ripping at the ancient vault entrance. Once the initial bonds were broken and the structure was compromised, Pushan found that with the proper leverage he could chisel deep fissures into the surface.

He was lost in his task when the ship sent him a transmission; the anchoring was complete. He commanded the tether to pull him back to the ship where he began to unload the communication equipment. He assembled and mounted the apparatus to the hull of the ship and aimed the transmitter and receiver at a relay beacon that he had dropped en route. It was a clumsier setup than he would have preferred, but it had been the easiest to construct, and it would allow for uninterrupted communications even when no line of sight existed between the asteroid and his home world, where Anicetus waited patiently.

Once communication was established with the beacon, Pushan sent a test signal. It would be several minutes before Anicetus received the message and several more before the acknowledgement would find its way back to the asteroid. Pushan, every bit as patient as Anicetus himself, waited motionlessly.

The confirmation message was brief and without celebration, and it was quickly followed by several months' worth of memory files for Pushan to integrate. Pushan replied in kind, sending his accumulated thoughts during his months-long journey to this lifeless rock. There was not a lot of information to exchange. Pushan had been essentially inert other than monitoring the ship, and Anicetus had spent the time directing the construction of small emulators, bodies and storage units to hold the minds they would resurrect from the asteroid.

Pushan returned to work. The tether carried him back to the vault where he resumed his assault on the hardy material. Its creators would have taken comfort in the fact that the vault had remained so secure after so many millions of years, but Pushan was incapable of feeling even the slightest bit of reverence or awe. He merely dug, and scratched, and smashed at the surface of the asteroid, with the tether flipping wildly, high above him, ensuring that he had the leverage he needed.

There are many dark places in the universe. There is the darkness of the deep seas and hollow caverns of the earth where light does not penetrate. There is the darkness of places in between the galaxies, where the naked eye sees no shapes. But no natural darkness is as empty and cold as the darkness engineered by Anicetus’s people.

The vault, ancient and still, had permitted no light, nor radiation of any sort, to penetrate its skin in all the eons it had rested. Nor had a single atom moved into the sculpted depths. The contents of the vault had remained untouched by time, frozen to a temperature once thought impossible to achieve, and disturbed by nothing- until now.

The vibrations from Pushan’s onslaught were completely dispersed to the surrounding rock by the outer shell of the vault. It was only with the molecular unfastening of unfathomably tiny fibers that the structure began to fail. The inner membranes of the vault skin moved quickly to fill the breach, as they had been designed to do. When they too, were punctured, the vault woke.

Like the grand archway on Anicetus’s planet, the vault’s form was not kept by nanites, but rather by the nature of the materials from which it was constructed. No mind large or small controlled the vault’s actions- only the carefully engineered nanomaterials as they responded to heat, pressure vibration, and now their own unraveling.

There was no air within the vault, and so when Pushan finally pierced its inner layers, there was no dramatic pressure change or sudden venting of gasses. The only clue that he had actually broken the ancient seal was the sudden lack of resistance to his chiseling action. He slid a thorn-like arm into breach and began to tear and peel away at layers of material. When he’d created a hole large enough, he collapsed his appendages into a tight bundle and pressed his small body down into the darkness.

Pushing against the inner walls for leverage, Pushan felt the heat leech out from his body wherever he made contact. A cascade of sensor failures flooded his consciousness with error messages. The tether linking him to his ship went taut and reflexively began to pull him out to the surface. He overrode the reaction, and instead retracted from the walls, carefully riding the tether down into darkness.

Pushan did not know the layout of the vault because Anicetus himself had not known. The information had undoubtedly resided in the archives near the Great Clock before they’d been destroyed. Remembering the existence, let alone the location of the asteroid had been a happy accident given the state of Anicetus’s damaged memory.

Pushan wondered what Anicetus’s relationship to the asteroid had been over the eons. Had he kept a watchful eye on it? Had he ever taken measures to clear its path of debris? No… the Trillion Voices would have done that themselves, he was sure.

Pushan emitted a dim light, and was immediately disoriented. The surfaces all around him were impossibly reflective, and he could not find his bearings. The entire structure seemed designed to transfer all energy outward to the asteroid, keeping the vault’s content’s cold and undisturbed.

He extended a thin arm downward and willed the tether to drop him deeper. After a moment, he made contact with the floor. The sensation was similar to the experience of forcing weak repelling magnets together. His leg touched the ground but the surface did not want to accept it. If the gravity of the asteroid had been enough to hold him to the floor, he was certain he would have slid around on the mirrored surface as if it were ice.

Here Pushan could touch the surfaces without the heat being pulled from his body. He extended his limbs in every direction, and began wandering about the vault, mapping it by touch. The room was small- little over a meter and half in height, with curved walls no more than 3 meters apart.

Satisfied that he had mapped the boundaries of the vault’s entrance, Pushan stopped and pondered his next move. He had detected no controls or discernable features of any kind on the smooth mirrored walls. There were no markings or signs that indicated how one was supposed to access the collection of minds stored somewhere nearby in unseen data crystals.

Light from the distant sun began to trickle into the room as the asteroid rotated slowly. Even knowing the shape of the chamber, Pushan’s visual processors had difficulty interpreting the bizarre reflective nature of the walls. Turning around, he realized that his visual confusion had been compounded by an unforeseen presence. Hanging motionless near the center of room was a floating sphere. Its surface was as perfectly mirrored as the walls, and had he not seen the image of his tether disappearing behind it, he may have continued to miss it entirely.

He walked around the eerie floating orb until he was satisfied that it was, indeed suspended in midair. The dimensions were smaller than the ones he’d seen on his home planet, but there was no question what it was. Pushan was befuddled, though; such a thing was not supposed to be possible on an asteroid like this. Yet here it was, sealed in a vault for over 100 million years: a Strand of Time.

It had been believed that the Strands of Time could only be harnessed near gravity wells. The first confirmed Strands were detected inside a gas giant. It was years before they were found on Anicetus’s small home world, where the race to harness the Strands had begun.

Once harnessed, the Strands then had to be kept in relative orbit around those gravity wells. Moving them closer or farther from the height where they were captured required energy, and the farther you tried to move them from their capture point, exponentially more energy was needed.

If a Strand were captured on the surface of a perfectly smooth and round planet, one could move the Strand with ease around the globe. But to move a strand more than a kilometer up from the surface or down below it, one would need more energy than most stars produced in their lifetimes. The Strands in the caverns below Anicetus’s world were only there because they had been captured at those extraordinary depths, where Strands were easiest to ensnare.

The name ‘Strand of Time’ was a hang over from the early days of discovery. When probed under certain conditions the strands had emitted electromagnetic signals from the distant past including radio broadcasts that had passed the Strand’s location decades before. As testing methods became more refined, they saw that the memory of the Strands stretched back farther than anyone had imagined… so far, in fact, that they were able to use the Strands to watch their own sun burst to life- an event that had happened billions of years earlier.

Speculation about the Strands had swept Anicetus’s home world at once. The great minds debated their equations and placed their bets on whether or not the Strands could be used to see future events. These debates led to experiments, and the experiments led to disappointment. A litany of crushing failures drove away public interest, and work continued quietly in universities while the rest of the population focused on more pressing matters, like the construction of a global neuro-network which would eventually become the immediate predecessor to the Great Machine.

A decade after the public stopped paying attention, an image was released from one of his world’s premier research institutions. The image was of a simple floating sphere. Prior to that moment, anti-gravity had been achieved only through a series of expensive manipulations that amounted to little more than illusions. When people saw the freestanding sphere that defied gravity indefinitely without consuming energy, the Strands once again took center stage.

The spheres themselves, it turned out, were specially conditioned particles that interacted with an energy field that surrounded the Strands. The concept confused many laypeople who had assumed that the Strands of Time were literally strands, like invisible pieces of thread which stretched infinitely in one direction or another. Of course, those who knew better described the Strands as ‘non-things’ which could be interacted with only at one point in space at any given moment, and the only property that made them strand-like was the fact that they appeared to be tied to their past in a way that ‘real’ particles weren’t.

The floating shells around the Strands had benefits beyond interesting aesthetics. The shells reflected and amplified the vibrations of the Strands, putting a simple physical face on the mysterious and elusive phenomenon. The floodgates opened, and researchers from around the world threw every test they had at the encased Strands. It was only weeks later that a team discovered that messages could be passed from Strand to Strand instantaneously- the first concrete example of information travelling faster than the speed of light.

Of course, in a world where minds can be collapsed into finite streams of data, faster than light communication was essentially the same thing as faster than light travel. A being like Anicetus could transmit all his programming and memories to the other side of the galaxy and be assembled by whoever waited for him out there… provided they had their own Strand of Time and knew how to interpret the communication.

As it turned out, things weren’t quite so simple. The Strands, though they theoretically had infinite range, required an enormous amount of energy for long-distance data transmissions. Initial transmissions from Anicetus’s home world to a the moon of a gas giant in the same system required power inputs so enormous that a reactor once used to power multiple cities had to be commissioned for the project.

There was little doubt that such communications would become more power-efficient. For one thing, the discovery on a new Strand encasing method allowed for larger shells- and those shells required less energy for transmission, and were able to detect weaker signals from afar.

For a time, plans were made and remade to send a team of researchers to the nearest stellar neighbor, 2 light years distant. The general idea was to have them harness a Strand of Time on a planet or moon, and to attempt to transmit and receive signals. These missions were inevitably delayed almost as soon as they were scheduled. The project would have taken an enormous amount of resources, and the timeline for progress was indigestibly long to gain any real support in the public or the scientific community.

Always they were teased with the promise that new breakthroughs would make such an outlandish experiment moot. Many believed that the way to progress was to build ever-bigger spheres around the Strands and hope that one day they would have a receiver big enough to hear the traffic of intelligent life on other worlds. Experiments continued, but there were no new breakthroughs to shock the world. Eventually all the minds entered the Great Machine to become the Trillion Voices, and the research was pursued in the silence of the hive mind. Since then, the mysteries of the Strands had surely been solved, but Anicetus was never made privy to the answers.

Now the mystery was born anew for Pushan; for here sat a Strand far away from any significant gravity well. And, it had apparently been captured before the vault was sealed. As a final curiosity, the small size of sphere indicated that it was slightly older than the Strand in the antechamber near the Great Clock.

Pushan was still having trouble with his vision in the vault, and so at first he assumed his perceptions were in error. Then it happened a second time- and a third. The sphere was… pulsating… growing larger and smaller. If it had had a rhythm to it, it would have seemed like breathing. The movement was very slight, but it was unmistakable. This Strand was different from the others. This Strand was … awake.

Anicetus paused when he received the latest stream of thoughts from Pushan. The Strand of Time was an unforeseen variable, and it called for a recalculation of his entire plan. The mysterious origins of the Strand did not concern him- he might well have known about the Strand before all the decay damaged his memory. No, the Strand was not interesting because of its past. It was interesting because it renewed the hope of communication with the Trillion Voices.

Pushan had, of course, reached the same conclusion, but Anicetus, being the originating consciousness, was the decision maker so long as communication was established. Within minutes, Pushan would receive permission to begin testing the distant Strand. Extracting minds from the vault would have to wait.

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Admaxis

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