The wonderful Wizard of Wiz, I thought, confusedly, waking up from a peculiarly Technicolor dream: Disorientated, probably still a little hypnopompic, not so much hallucinating as having a few boundary problems, reality wise. I'm never great at mornings, and I really don't like being woken unexpectedly, especially as the dream was just getting to a good bit. I tried to settle back into the bed, maybe even recapture the moment, so to speak, but...
Reality asserted itself disconcertingly quickly, starting with a small voice in the back of my head, pointing out that hypnopompic was not really my sort of word. Then came the memory of where I was - on an alien planet, of course, and not even in my 'own' part of the multiverse - and the subsequent realisation that I was being woken by my friendly local AI. Which did not make a habit of acting as the world's - no, sorry, the universes' - most sophisticated alarm clock ... or of talking directly to me, for that matter. As things came together a bit I got suddenly worried. The Wisdom had woken me? What the fuck was that about?
I got the time to decamp from my private space - well, Xav and my private space, to be strictly accurate - and to get myself slightly more organised in one of our more formal meeting rooms before the Wiz would actually tell me what was what. 'Course, by that time, I'd gone through the "can't be that important, else I'd have been told" bit and arrived, instead, at the "it must be really dire if even the bloody AI needs to do this so formally" stage. I had a brief moment of panic at that point, wondering at the various possibilities. I was in the habitat on my own - I doubted the machinery would have chosen me to talk to if anyone else had been around, frankly - but that meant ... Well, Yvonne was somewhere back on earth, in the Caribbean, in fact, making a point to someone, Patrice was now pretty permanently based at 'home', getting his own personal revolution into gear and Xav ... well, Xav was technically around but deep in Immersion. Again. He seemed to think he was on the brink of pulling a lot of stuff together, cutting a few evidential Gordian knots, as he put it; everyone else thought he was pushing himself ridiculously hard, taking risks and...
A shiver made its belated way down my spine as I realised the implications. 'Oh, god, I thought, don't let this be about Xav, not..."
Which was the cue for the AI to let me in on its little secret. It wasn't about Xav.
It was much stranger than that...
However omnipotent the Wisdom - and its associated technology - sometimes appears to be, it does have its limitations. As an example, you can't travel from place to place, locally, as directly as you might imagine. I mean, you can flick from world to world - from one plane of the multiverse to another - in the blink of an eye, but move around this particular planet and its back to more or less earth normal speeds. The 8-dimensional rotation/translation/whatever-the-fuck trick involved in the former wasn't really viable for a few 1000kms, apparently ... or so the Wisdom said.
So, when it suggested - like I had a choice - that I might want to drop in our esteemed colleague Queta's little operation, I had to do it the slow way. And that gave me plenty of time to think, given that our base was in the higher northern latitudes of the planet - more or less Arctic Norway in Earth terms, don't ask me why - while Q, an Andalusian, had sited her group rather further south. Almost two hours further south, in fact, given that the little shuttle thing in which the Wisdom was transporting me was limited to no more than a few times the speed of sound. Still, thinking was good, people were always telling me - I mean, Xav did a lot of it and seemed to enjoy the process - and I did have a fair amount to ponder. Unfortunately, this being an AI inspired 'mission', I was also lacking a lot of the basic facts I might need to actually come to any conclusions, let alone a plan of action.
So, I knew that the AI was concerned about something amiss in Queta's side of the operation, that she was contributing far less to our joint efforts than her team should have been capable of. What I didn't know was what precisely caused the concern, nor what role the second AI who was supposed to be looking after Q and her group was playing. All 'our' AI would say was that it appeared to be a 'human thing' and that it therefore did not want to make a judgement. Which struck me as being unusually considerate, by Wisdom standards, but then again it was, most probably, just another of its little games. I wondered whether I was revisiting our previous 'issue' with Queta - whether she'd somehow reverted to her earlier pathological religiosity, whether our excision of the malign implant that had been guiding her development had somehow failed. Somehow, this didn't seem to be too likely. For a start, everyone seemed to have been pretty confident at the time that our little bit of psychic jiggery pokery had been entirely successful, Queta herself had believed this to be the case and ... And somehow I thought that, if it had been that 'simple', the AI would have been less reluctant to go into details. And would probably have waited for Xav to be available to deal with it, given his previous involvement.
Which got me wondering about my role, whether this was all so urgent that it had to be done by whoever just happened to be available, or whether I had somehow been selected for the task. If the latter, well, It would have gone for Yvonne if physical force had been the preferred option, Xav if transcendent analysis and general all round intellectual swankiness were required. I tried to assess my own unique skills - or, at least, the technology's rating of same - but couldn't really think of that many. I mean, I did have a sort of link with Queta, I was a woman, which might be another way in, in some circumstances ... and I was an amoral bastard with rather fewer scruples than any of my colleagues. Even, I thought, with a grin, than Yvonne, who mainly spent her time killing people - when she wasn't just leaving them wishing they were dead.
None of which prognostication was getting me anywhere at all, I thought, and realised that I was just going to have to wait and see, assess the situation on the ground and try to react accordingly.
At least the scenery was nice, I thought, looking down through the bubble canopy at the alien landscape passing by below...
Queta had built herself a genuine fake Spanish-Moorish castle, a sort of Alhambra on steroids, a massive wedding cake of a building, contained in a hemispherical biodome and perched on a high crag in a semi-arid landscape. It was all quite unlike our hi-tech steel and glass construction up North, the latter all structural efficiency and task-orientated design, this some sort of self-indulgent whimsy. As the craft slowed on its approach, I could see no sign of life, nor of anything resembling an entrance - the dome was as smooth and unbroken as it appeared to be unsupported. I felt rather than heard some sort of communication burst from "my" side, being, as I was, entirely reliant on the automatics to fly - and, of course, land - the thing, then the craft slowly circled the structure - very elaborate, I thought, but not exactly functional - and finally settled itself onto the sand just outside the dome. And then did absolutely nothing, for some time.
I wondered if I was supposed to get out and knock or something, but that would have been difficult given that Wisdom had never been keen on out-of-habitat excursions due to the danger of contamination - of the biosphere by us, not the other way round - and the interesting quirk of local geo/biochemistry which led to high concentrations of carbon monoxide in the atmosphere. Which fact, apparently, accounted for the lack of 'terrestrial' animals larger than an earth nematode worm - and so made this planet particularly suitable, from the AI's perspective, for our use. No natives to perturb by our presence.
Which was all very interesting, I thought, and explained much about the view I was currently contemplating - the lack of anything resembling a flower, for instance, despite the profusion of 'plant' life all around. What it didn't explain was just quite what I was doing sitting here waiting. I mean, the AI had announced my visit in advance - or at least, it had told me it was going to do so - and I knew my machinery had been in touch on some level with theirs. I wondered whether there was a bigger problem than I'd been led to believe - such as them all being dead, for instance - or whether this was all some sort of calculated slight. We had, after all, done some pretty unpleasant things to Queta's head and, even if it had all been 'for her own good', she could be forgiven for harbouring a degree of resentment.
But none of that was getting me anywhere, so I contacted the AI, and, after a brief debate, got it on the case. Which resulted in my moving, slowly, towards the bubble, followed by a complicated sort of flux whereby the dome seemed to expand, merge with a similar skin that had expanded from my own craft and, eventually, formed an entrance through which I could pass ... but which remained completely sterile as far as the outside world was concerned. I was impressed, really I was - I'd only ever seen anything like that in computer graphics before - and I was in, but no less worried about quite why it had all been necessary.
I wondered whether bringing a gun might not have been a good idea after all.
Inside the dome, and outside of my transport, it felt like I could have been back on earth, holidaying in Spain as I'd done often enough in my time. OK, so the scrubby 'grass' outside the dome was rather more red than it should have been, but Q had clearly spent a lot of time on getting things right inside. It felt like a perfect summer's morning, the sun warm but moderated by a gentle breeze - which would have pleased Xav, I thought - even as I was wondering where the hell everyone was, whether they really had failed to notice my arrival.
I shrugged, picked up the small bag of gear that I'd brought with me, walked purposefully towards the elaborately castellated gateway before me. I had the AI provide surveillance data - nothing appeared to be moving in this part of the complex except for a fountain or two - and also integrate with the local systems just enough to do useful things like opening the door.
It was odd, I felt, moving into a long and ornate corridor, towards a filigreed courtyard visible at its end. There was something very definitely amiss hereabouts, or rather several things, and none of them pleasant to contemplate. The first was that the Wisdom seemed to be excessively distant - I mean, I'd never exactly got on with the thing, had always been treated with something like disdain as a result, but I'd never experienced it reacting like it was at present. Yes, it was helping, but reluctantly ... and it was a different sort of reluctance, somehow. Not the normal almost petulant air if impugned superiority, this felt uncomfortably like the thing was nervous.
And if that wasn't unsettling enough, there was the apparent absence of the local AI to contend with - the one who was supposed to be running, or supporting, this place - and, the, probably not unrelated, I realised, subtle but visible signs of decay all around me. There was dust here, cracks in some of the tiles, even stains and tears to be found in some of the carpets. Somehow the signs of less than perfect maintenance disturbed me more than anything else.
Up to and including the lack of people.
I was almost in the centre of the complex - several courtyards further on - when I first came across signs of life. Spoor, in fact - and not in the general sense of useful signs to track hunted animals with ... but actual spoor. You know, faeces. On a carpet, by a pool. And, while I'm no expert and, in any case, had no great desire to check too closely, it looked distinctly like human faeces, too.
Things, I thought, were not in immediate danger of looking up. But there was nothing much else I could do except press on, so I chose an exit at random, continued on down another corridor, this one lined with ornate and complex tapestries, increasingly stained and torn as I walked on. I tried hard to convince myself otherwise, but they looked horribly like they'd been climbed on. By something with claws.
Almost despite myself, I sub-vocally queried the AI about this, looking for an explanation, a plausible theory ... anything, really. I got resounding silence. Great, I thought. I should put in a complaint about this. Lack of service, dereliction of duty? I would have to write to my MP about it...
Before I could lapse into total hysteria, though, I heard a new sound - the first I'd heard since I'd arrived, aside from the tinkling of those bloody fountains. And this was not architectural - it was a definite scrabbling noise, a grunt such as could only have been made by an animal. I set off at a run.
And, to my vast surprise, found myself running towards the thing, not away from it.
Cornered, at last, it was unimpressive. Well, physically unimpressive: Psychically it was almost completely overwhelming. And not it, in point of fact, an it - but, rather, unfortunately, a he.
Dr Rutger Karlson, I thought, dredging my memory for details of Queta's companions on her skiing trip, the group rescued with her and subsequently transferred here to be part of the new 'branch'. Like, I thought, Xav and Yvonne and Patrice had joined me on our team. Only, whereas our lot - myself included - appeared to be thriving in our new environment, something had clearly gone very wrong for Dr K. Very, very wrong - sufficiently wrong for every cell in my body to reject my identification with a screaming frenzy, enough for my brain to scrabble wildly for another - any other - explanation.
Until the AI chipped in with a monosyllabic confirmation: This was Dr Karlson. No longer a preternaturally bright young chemist, no longer a rising star in the academic firmament. The creature cowering before me was almost apelike, matted and lank hair covering most of its body, finger and toe nails grown to talons, teeth yellow and vicious where they protruded from snarling, prehensile lips. It was partly wrapped in a filthy rag of a cloth, a garment that did nothing to conceal the monstrous phallus it was stroking with one clawed hand even as it cringed in its corner.
I wanted to be sick, I wanted to run, screaming, back from whence I'd come, I wanted, desperately for this not to be happening.
But it was. And I had to deal with it. Whatever the fuck it was.
Obviously, I tried to talk to the thing. It - and I could not bring myself to think of it as he - showed no sign of comprehension. I tried something more basic, offered it some of the food that I had in my pack - an apricot, to be exact. It did grab the fruit - I only just avoided getting my hand savaged in the process - and then it bolted... up the wall, over my head and into the ornate carvings surrounding the ceiling. I could just about keep track of its movements, at first, following it at ground level as best I could, but I was never going to be able to catch the thing. And then it pissed on me. With notable accuracy.
I let it go, reasoned to myself that there was nothing I could have done, that it might have chosen a much more violent form of defence, and sat on the floor for a moment or two to think about things. From what I'd seen, this was not some Lord of the Flies type of regression; the good doctor had been transformed rather more completely than that. His reflexes and climbing skills were clearly no beyond human, there appeared to be no capacity for verbal language and ... there was that penis. I had a rummage in my memory, again, couldn't dredge up anything suggesting that elephantine genitalia were characteristic of any of the apes on earth, admitted to myself that the thing was of such a size that it just had to be a huge - hah! - disadvantage in every day living. Come to think if it, it had climbed one handed, using the other to keep its monster dick out of the way.
If something - or someone - had deliberately caused Dr K's transformation, they had a truly perverse imagination. And a lot to answer for.
I found myself a sword in one of the galleries, hung onto it like a comfort blanket. I had no idea where my 'find' might be, no real idea where I was. I guess I was relying on the now apparently catatonic AI to get me back to the transport - if I ever got out of here - and was basically wandering round the buildings at random. In theory I was looking for clues, or, better yet, answers, but in practice I was just blindly wandering. It should have occurred to me that buggering off back to base and coming back with reinforcements - a small army, by preference - was the sensible course of action, but it didn't. Call it shock, stupidity, a momentary lapse of reason. Call it anything you like, in fact, except bravery: I've never been that stupid.
Luckily, my observational skills hadn't completely given up the ghost, nor were all my faculties entirely keyed into mutant ape-man spotting. Which I proved by noticing something odd about one of the innumerable doors I passed, something that caused me to double back and look a little more closely. Well, not that closely - the anomaly was obvious on second glance: This door was altogether more functional - and less decorative than any of the others. And, when tried, it turned out to be locked. Which gave me something to vent my frustration - and the sword - on, thereby breaking the sword and giving my shoulder a nasty jolt. And apparently waking the AI, which got its act together for long enough to open the damn' thing.
Inside, I found not more eccentric fretwork and ornate furnishing but, rather, a modern and almost clinical set up, looking not unlike a spaceship bridge from a really clichéd sci-fi film, and which gave the strong impression of being, for want of a better interpretation, a control room. Oh, goody, I thought, wondering why such a thing would be necessary somewhere like this.
Mentally, I gave the Wisdom a bit of a prod, sat myself down at one of the consoles and wondered how it all worked, what it was supposed to do.
With the somewhat grudging assistance of the Wisdom I got some of the systems to co-operate, and began to gather some useful data on my local environment. There was quite a lot to the complex, which, as with our own version, extended for a considerable depth below ground, right as far as the geothermal plants which powered the whole thing, but most of it appeared to be completely empty, occupant wise. There were a couple of signs of life - two apparent entities which, on observation, moved and behaved in a way that convinced me that they were, in fact, my acquaintance Dr K and AN Other, presumably afflicted in a similar fashion. There was no trace of the other three members of Queta's original party, or of the professor herself - assuming, as seemed probable, at least to me, that she wasn't now performing as Second Ape-thing.
What there was, was an area of the complex, fairly central, just below ground level, on which I could obtain no information whatsoever - aside, obviously, from its location and exterior dimensions. Unfortunately, the level of control I had of the systems I'd co-opted didn't give me any idea of what might be inside.
Which meant that the answer, if there was an answer, had to be somewhere in there. And that, I supposed, resignedly, meant that I had better go and take a look.
I can't say that I set out with a cheery heart and a spring in my step, but I quickly realised that my most morbid premonitions about what I might find were completely inadequate to the task in hand. Even the architecture was twisted: The closer I got to what I'd somehow come to think of as the lair - my subconscious can be unhelpful at times - the creepier things got. So, the delights of medieval Islam all too rapidly transmogrified into a near psychotic nightmare of warped carvings and dripping walls, the route became convoluted and intestinal, the very atmosphere increasingly dank and forbidding. I could sense Queta here, knew that somehow she was responsible for all of this- there were just too many echoes of the dreams that she had unwittingly shared with me in the past. Which confirmed, in a way, that Queta was unlikely to have suffered the fate of at least two of her colleagues - even as I wondered what horrors had been visited on her. And then I found the skeletons.
There were two of them and they hadn't just been left lying around - they were employed - deliberately placed - either site of what could only be the final portal. One had been crucified, the other impaled. Both appeared to have died - slowly - exactly where they had been left. Some sort of display, I thought - most probably, perhaps, a warning - but a warning to whom, or to what purpose, I couldn't say. Well, aside from maybe providing a more graphic version of Dante's famous "Abandon hope..." dictum.