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He was confused, more than anything else. His last memories were a jumble of images. Kissing his wife. Double checking her nanostasis tube settings, climbing in to his own nanostasis tube and tucking the small relic under the pillow behind his head. Slowly drifting off to sleep as the nanites worked their magic on his brain.
Then he found himself here, in this plain, spartan, white office, sitting in a comfortable chair and looking across a short table that was covered in ancient magazines. His clothing was different. Though it was of the same style, his many-pocketed overalls were now black instead of gray.
His attention was drawn again to the magazines. He had seen their like in virches many times. Though he had never seen these particular ones. Rather than get up and explore the office - as there really was nothing more to explore - he decided to explore the magazines in front of him.
The one he picked up had a picture on the cover, a low-quality still picture, of a nanoswarm engulfing a plebhu settlement on some unnamed garden world. The gray goo was puddling in the streets and falling out of the windows of structures. The caption for the picture, printed in an ancient language he was fortunate enough to know, read "San Diego overrun by nanoswarm weapon". It was then that he realized the magazine was made of real paper, not the synthetic plastics to which he was accustomed.
As he was about to open the paper magazine, the door opened to the plain office opened, and a man entered. The man was dressed as if from a Sopera virch, wearing a white lab coat over a blue shirt and pants. Around his neck hung an unidentifiable instrument that somehow added to the man's "medical" aura. He was a small, fat man; balding on top. His face was pleasant enough, with a congenial smile on his lips. Jacob relaxed.
The doctor - at least that's what he looked like - inhaled deeply and then spoke in a pleasant but very deep voice, "Mr. Montgomery? Jacob Montgomery?"
"How are you feeling?" The doctor asked.
"Fine. Just confused. What...uh...what's going on? Who are you?" Jacob asked.
"My name....well..." The doctor mused, "Just call me Dr. Watson." He smiled.
"Well, Dr. Watson, what's going on?"
"Do you remember anything?"
"Certainly!" Jacob replied. "I remember...well...everything, I guess."
"Where were you before you found yourself here?" Dr. Watson asked, his voice kind and patient, without being smarmy or condescending.
"In a nanostasis tube on board a vessel. We - that is my research team and I - were returning to The Core with some relics we had found in an alien civilization's ruins. I had just put my wife into nanostasis, and got into my own tube....Then I found myself sitting here just a few minutes ago." Jacob said.
"Hmmm....appears everything is okay then," Dr. Watson smiled. "To which alien civilization are you referring?"
"A new one, I think. We could find nothing that resembled their architecture or their writing. The civilization is centered something like 1700 light years past the To'Ul'h homeworld." Jacob explained. "We found dozens of huge black Dysons, and surveyed several of them."
"Really? Interesting." Dr. Watson said as he took a seat opposite Jacob. "So you're a xenoarcheologist?"
Jacob nodded vigorously, "Yes. This was my first major expedition."
"Who gave you the backing to do something this large?" Dr. Watson asked.
"The Eden Institute," Jacob said. Jacob suddenly stopped his musing on the past and asked firmly, "Look, conversation is nice and all....but what is going on? Where's my wife?"
Dr. Watson smiled sadly and spoke in a slow voice, "There's been a problem, Jacob. From what we can tell, your vessel was destroyed sometime after you left Black Acropolis space. Recently, a team of mine found the wreckage, and we managed to save you."
"What of Krissa?" Jacob asked, feeling a rush of cold on his spine. "Did you find my wife?"
"You were the only survivor, Jacob."
"How was the vessel destroyed?" Jacob asked.
"We don't know. Pieces of the wreckage were scattered across eight light years of space." Dr. Watson explained. He was being very careful with his word selection now. Jacob didn't particularly notice, Doc Watson's skill was much beyond his capabilities.
"But how....?" Jacob made the leap in logic rather quickly. "Terragen civilization was light years away..." Then he slipped in his thinking, "...Black Acropolis Builder?"
"The name given to the society that built those black dysons you were surveying." Doc Watson smiled.
"That means someone else finished the survey....that would mean....How far are we from Black Acropolis space? How far away is the nearest dyson....the odd one with the big black spire on it...?" Jacob remembered seeing the spire on the first dyson they had come across. It was the nearest to Terragen space.
"About four hundred light years. We are on a moon orbiting a gas giant named Rangar in the Etaran system. Of course, that won't mean anything to you," Doc Watson said.
"What year is it?" Jacob finished his train of thought and a wave of icy cold flooded him.
"Well, here's where we come to it, isn't it?" Dr. Watson said, leaning forward in his chair and watching Jacob intently. "It's 10,426 a.t. Jacob, you were drifting in space - or rather, your severed head was drifting in space - for over seven thousand years."
The words were designed to provoke a reaction. Jacob was dimly aware of this, but his reaction to the words totally swallowed the knowledge.
"Seven thousand years?" Jacob asked quietly. His hands were shaking.
"Yes, Jacob. Much has changed. Wars have been waged. Our section of the galaxy is different than you remember. Many things have changed," Dr. Watson said, meaning far more than the words conveyed. Jacob didn't notice.
"I do have some news for you though. You may take some comfort in the knowledge that both you and your wife were embodied from backups stored on your homeworld, Sufficiency. You.... well, they... lived full and happy lives together. One of your...erm...their children even ascended to SI:2 and even now manages a huge combine in the NoCoZo." Dr. Watson explained. How could Jacob not see the manipulation in these words? They were designed to hurt, and yet, he could only feel shock. They were designed to cut out the heart of his philosophy, and yet, he didn't notice.
"How did...they die?" Jacob asked, finally on the right track.
"You understand, this all happened thousands of years in the past, do you not?" Dr. Watson asked cooly.
"I have to know!" Jacob screamed, bringing his fist down on the white table in front of him. The sound of cracking plastic filled the room.
"It was a terrible event called The Version War. Your new body has the model of DNI to which you are accustomed. You have free access to our network here," Dr. Watson said, waving his hand in the air.
Jacob was more accustomed to actually having to touch a network interface to his socket, having grown up on what most people of the galaxy referred to as a 'primitive dirtball'. His home had almost no angelnet fog for the living to soak in, and he preferred it that way. It took him a moment to realize that he could connect to the Known Net from his chair, without getting up to find the network connection. The knowledge made him somewhat uncomfortable.
When he opened his mind to the virtual world, he was flooded with images of fire, horror and death. He experienced still pictures, flat video, immersive virtual, written account, modeled reconstructed events and second hand tales of the deaths of hundreds and hundreds of billions of terragen sophonts. At the end of it all, he experienced the death of his planet.
Jacob watched in horror as the degenerate matter RKKS projectiles slashed at the crust of his world, burned the atmosphere, and killed everything that he ever loved.
In the span of a few seconds, he absorbed the totality of the Version War. It nearly killed him.
As it was, he lurched to his feet and moaned one question as he lost consciousness: "Why?"
"You can't win them all Jacob. Sometimes you can just minimize your losses," Father said, unholstering his pistol as he came to the front door of their home.
"But....can't they be fixed?" Jacob asked, tears in his eyes.
"No son. They were built poorly in the first place. There's no way to fix them," Father said, putting his hand on Jacob's shoulder. "If we tried, they would just die in more pain. I know you are fond of them. What I'm doing is a kindness. It's saving them from a life of pain. The genegineer explained it to me. They can't get enough energy from what they eat. And we can't fix them. If I don't do this, they'll starve to death no matter how much they eat."
Jacob was crying silently now, tears wetting his cheeks. There was no hitch in his voice as he spoke, however, "Just make sure they don't feel anything."
"I will," Father said.
"I don't want to watch. That doesn't make me a coward, does it?" Jacob asked.
"No, son. You are the bravest boy a man could want to be his son," Father said, turning to the door. Father went out and into the kennels.
Jacob stood there, and each time he heard the pistol discharge, he flinched. After he heard 27 shots fired, he knew all his puppies were dead. He wanted to hurt someone. Himself. His father. The stupid genegineer that had built his puppies wrong. Mainly himself.
Jacob awoke on the floor of the small white room. He was alone. There was a glimmer of hope, though - deep inside Jacob's mind was the idea that this entire situation was being orchestrated. He wasn't exactly sure what form the manipulation was taking, but he had the idea that he was being manipulated. He didn't like it.
This was the very reason for his home world's existence in the first place. Freedom from the manipulation of those titanic minds that ruled the galaxy. Freedom from being used as a toy or a slave, or from even simply being outmatched by them.
But those titanic minds had destroyed his home. In the middle of their pointless war, they had burned his world, and every single thing he loved to a smoldering cinder.
They should be held accountable for what they had done. This "Lord Of Rays" should be punished for the deaths e had caused. The sheer nerve of this Daniel Borde to consider himself a god....It sickened Jacob. It made him queasy in his soul.
He pulled himself up into the chair, and leaned back, considering what he knew.
Jacob was certain Doc Watson was either the agent of one such mind, or the embodiment of one of them. That thought brought a moment of panic. He already knew he was sitting inside of a nanotech fog that could paralyze him, read his mind and control his body. Within the confines of the angelnet, he was completely at its mercy. He could feel the tiny robots dancing on his skin.
He wasn't one to sit in a chair and mope - far from it. He was one for doing things. But how could he do anything about this entire situation?
Even if he could get out of the room - which he doubted - what could he do? This Doc Watson more than likely already knew what exactly was on Jacob's mind. The good Doctor would be able to stop him instantly.
Memories connected in Jacob's mind and he said quietly to himself, "Then he'll have it to do."
Jacob and his father were in the southern field, training the youngest of their pups. Raising dogs trained to hunt the large, fast game animals of Sufficiency was hard work. But his father had made a name for himself in that particular area, and the waiting list for a hunting dog trained by Johnathan Montgomery was now nearing a decade long.
The day's session was over, and Jacob was loading the dogs into their kennels when he and his father heard a rustling in the brush at the edge of the south field. Jacob raised his rifle and looked through the scope.
Earlier that week there had been a posting on the community network's bulletin board that a gang was moving up the valley, muscling people out of their homes and being a nuisance. Jacob was expecting to see a number of toughs step out of the weeds. He wasn't expecting to see his best friend come staggering out nursing what looked like a broken arm.
"Dad! Look! Schwee is hurt," Jacob said as he hurriedly put his rifle on top of the kennels. He ran across the field to meet his friend.
Schwee was a raffin, a very intelligent and artificially evolved rat. He and his family had settled into a small field south of the Montgomery farm. The Montgomery family was the only humans in five days walk that treated Schwee and his family with any sort of respect.
The one time Jacob had asked his father about this, his father only said, "When I was in the war, my drop ship's pilot was a raffin, like Schwee. He saved my life more times than I can count. He was a good man."
And here stood Jacob's best friend with a broken arm and blood on his white and black fur. Jacob screamed his name, and Schwee looked up. He looked weary, and blinded with pain. Schwee didn't say anything until Jacob was standing right beside him.
"They burned down my house and killed my wife. I don't know if any of the children escaped. I tried to fight," Schwee said in his high-pitched voice.
"Who did this, Schwee?" Jacob's father asked. Jacob didn't know his father was right beside him. He had assumed he had outrun his father to meet his injured friend.
"That gang we've been reading about on the 'boards," Schwee said.
Johnathan Montgomery turned to his son and spoke with a cold finality in his voice, "Get him back to the house. Your mother will be able to help him. Tell her I'm going to have a conversation with the people that did this to him." Johnathan drew his pistol as he said this.
"John, don't....they'll kill you. There's ten of them," Schwee said, his eyes focusing on the gun in John's hand, his unbroken arm held out to his friend, pleading.
"Then they'll have it to do, Schwee. You're family. No one does this to my family."
Several hours later, as Jacob and Schwee sat at the table eating bowls of soup, Johnathan came home. He too was injured - a bullet hole in his leg and his shoulder. Jacob's mother rushed to her husband's side and helped him to bed.
Behind him, in the front yard, was about half a dozen small raffins - some of Schwee's children. All of them were crying. Schwee rushed to them.
Jacob picked up his father's pistol where it had been dropped at the threshold. The readout on the side of the magazine showed that ten rounds had been fired.
"You're right, dad. No one does this to my family. They might be able to stop me, but they will have it to do." Jacob said softly to himself. He considered his options. He began making a plan. First he would leave this place. Then he would find some way to travel to Fons Luminus. Once there, he'd have to figure out a way to get to this Daniel Borde and kill him. Somewhere inside the thing called The Lord Of Rays was a man, and that man was to be held accountable for the deaths of every man, woman and child on Sufficiency.
Dealing with the other side of the conflict that had destroyed his world would be something else entirely. There was no one being towards which to point the finger. The Metasoft Version Tree seemed to have no king, no emperor, no ruler of any kind.
First, he would have to get out from under this Doc Watson's control. Doing that while swimming in his angelnet would be nearly impossible.
If only Jacob could circumvent it somehow. If only....
Jacob stood up, almost surprised that the angelnet didn't tighten around him and hold him in the chair, and walked to the door. He grabbed the knob and found it locked.
"Here comes the first test, then," Jacob said, took a step back, mustered up all his will, dropped his shoulder and charged the door. Surprisingly, the angelnet didn't try and hold him back. For a moment, he felt it surge around him and propel him at the door. His shoulder slammed into the door, and he felt the plastic crack and give way. The door swung open violently and he tumbled out through it.
Jacob hit something soft and pliable, and felt wetness on his face. He looked up and saw a dolphin inside a bubble of water, floating in the air.
The dolphin looked back at him, and Jacob heard a series of sounds come from its blowhole on top of its head. "Kleet'Chaa!" the thing said, and Jacob was surprised to find that he understood what the thing was saying. "Watch it, you dipshit!" was the closest translation his mind could find.
Jacob stood up, and tried to apologize. "Pardon me," He said in the dolphin provolve's native language, "can you tell me where they keep the....the..." he struggled with the word, "flying space boats?"
The creature recoiled from him, and spoke back, "Your accent is horrible, two-legger. But I'm surprised you can speak to me at all like this." Jacob could feel the dolphin's attention on him, and he could swear he saw the thing smile. "Ah, I understand now," It said slowly. "The spaceport is in the center of The Box. All the paths lead to it. Just remember that I only gave you information you could find yourself. If you get in some sort of trouble, it's not my fault." And with that, the dolphin swam away.
Jacob studied his surroundings. Behind him was the shattered frame of the door and the entrance to the white room with the paper magazines. He was standing on a long, narrow balcony that ran off into the distance to both the left and the right. In front of him was a long drop, several dozen meters to a tiled floor. Across the tiled floor, maybe two hundred meters away was another balcony, facing the one on which he was standing. Everything was white, and most of the "people" that walked around in the open space below him were dressed in white - at least the ones that were dressed. Some of them he wouldn't classify as "people". Some of them were just too strange to be imagined.
Jacob watched the people for a moment, and then he saw a marvelous sight. A young human girl on the floor far below held out her arms and flew up into the air. She flew up to a balcony opposite Jacob, and two levels below his own, and stepped onto the floor. Then she went to one of the doors, opened it, and went inside.
Ah...the utility fog in the air, Jacob thought. He saw no stairs, no elevators, and no means of getting down to the main level far below him. Everyone simply depended on the utility fog to raise and lower them.
But would it work for me? Jacob asked himself. He could either admit defeat and go back into the bare room, or he could take the chance and step off the balcony.
Nothing would change if he went back into that bare white room. What would he do? Read the ancient magazines on the broken plastic table?
Jacob closed his eyes, raised his right leg, and stepped off out into the air. He had convinced himself that the angelnet would bear him up and slowly lower him to the ground. He was wrong. He fell.
At first he panicked, flailing his arms wildly. Moments before he hit the white tile floor, he got his feet under him and bent his knees slightly.
He felt the shock of his feet hitting the floor, and felt himself slow rapidly as his knees bent and absorbed the impact. He had fallen at least 80 meters and landed on his feet. And yet he felt no pain, and felt no injury. He looked down at his body and quietly asked himself aloud, "What has he done to me?"
Several people were looking at him with odd expressions on their faces. Quickly, a crowd began forming around him. A tall, possibly human, nude male with extremely prominent sexual organs - several of them to be exact - looked at him quizzically and then burst out laughing. He pointed a long, thin finger at Jacob and laughed harder. Most of the crowd joined him in laughter.
"Okay, what's so funny?" Jacob asked, and everyone laughed louder.
The tall man with the multiple penile organs smiled and grabbed one of them.
In that instant, Jacob recalled something he had encountered while connected to the network back in the white office. This man was a wuppista, a sort of disgusting performance artist, comedian and political commentator. In mere moments, Jacob would be covered in a multitude of this man's bodily secretions.
Jacob remembered everything his father had taught him about self-defense. He was about to put it all to use - again.
It was a cold winter morning, and father had awoken Jacob early. They were standing in the snow in front of the kennels, and even through the cold, Jacob was sweating from his exertion.
"You have to stay mobile. That's the key," Father patted Jacob on the legs, "so bend your knees a little. Yes, that's right."
Father stepped in front of Jacob and faced him, assuming a much less clumsy version of the stance Jacob was in. "Watch my shoulders. They'll move first. But keep in mind, if you aren't fighting a human, you might have to watch some other body part. Now, hands up and try and block," Father commanded. At first, the blows father directed at Jacob were slow. Openhanded strikes were well telegraphed by father's dipping shoulders, and Jacob could block them all. Then they came faster, and blocking them became harder.
"Not bad, son. Not bad at all. Now, let's try your feet. You won't be much of a Capoeirista if you can't use your feet well."
As the wuppista started to let loose his barrage of disgusting fluids, Jacob's left hand swung around in a backhand motion and slapped the wuppista's "weapon" away. The questionable goo sprayed the crowd to Jacob's left. He continued spinning, and brought his left foot up high. The heel of his left foot clipped the wuppista in the neck, just under his jaw. Jacob's right hand followed his left foot less than a second later, his fist smashing into the wuppista's nose.
The multiple-penis-bearing man staggered backwards and fell in a heap on the floor.
The laughter was gone, and for a moment, the echoes of the tall wuppista falling to the tile floor dominated the huge open room.
Blood was dripping from the wuppista's nose and mouth, and he was quite unconscious. Jacob's kick and punch had been perfect. Father would have been proud.
Jacob looked around at the crowd, and every face he saw was a mask of shock and horror. An instant later, the room was filled with screams of terror, and everyone around Jacob began fleeing in panic. Some ran across the tiled floor, others took to the air like a flock of birds.
"What?" Jacob screamed at them. His word was lost in the din.
He heard a voice beside him say "They have never seen a display of violence like that. They have spent their entire lives here in this angelnet that should have prevented what you just did."
Jacob turned, looking at the dolphin in its floating bubble of water. "So I was just supposed to let that freak piss on me?" Jacob pointed to the unconscious wuppista.
"I'm not judging what you did," The Dolphin said with a smile in its voice, if not on its face. "I'm only saying that you did something they cannot do."
"This angelnet prevents them from defending themselves?" Jacob asked, incredulous.
"They have nothing to defend themselves from," The dolphin said.
"Nothing other than random strangers deciding to use them for a human toilet! It's disgusting!" Jacob felt like kicking the wuppista, but there was no point in that. He had already been defeated.
"Disgusting to you. It's humorous to others."
"Oh for fuck's sake, this place is insane!" Jacob screamed into the now-deserted concourse as he paced back and forth over the tile floor. The word 'insane' echoed off the walls of the concourse. "So, how, exactly, was I able to do something they can't do?" Jacob asked.
"That's a question you should turn inward, Jacob," The dolphin said. "Are you comfortable with who you are? Do you even know who you are?"
"I've spent my entire adult life studying beings that lived long in the past! I never thought I'd actually BE the being that lived long in the past!"
"Time travel is an impossibility. You must assimilate into the now, or you must die." The dolphin said patiently.
"Or I can remake the now into something I find more palatable. How do I get to the spaceport?" Jacob asked.
"Good luck in changing the universe Jacob Montgomery. There are quintillions of sophonts you are going to have to change to succeed. I suggest you get started soon. Consider me your first victory," The dolphin said, amused. He glanced at the unconscious, bleeding wuppista and added, "or maybe your second. The spaceport is roughly 250 kilometers away, down that corridor." The dolphin indicated a smaller, one-story high corridor at right angels to the main concourse. "The angelnet system is ignoring you. You will have to make the journey under your own power. All citizens of The Box have been alerted to your status. They will not get in your way. I would suggest you hurry before some measure is taken to stop you."
"Thank you," Jacob said, extending his hand to shake hands in thanks as father had taught him. Then he realized the dolphin had no hand to shake. He simply laid his palm against the utility fog bubble that held the dolphin and his water suspended in the air.
Jacob turned and ran down the corridor the dolphin indicated.
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