Keeper of the Faith - Part 8
From the start, I had no idea where I was going. I couldn't delude myself -- I knew nothing about transapient relations, transapient protocols ... transapient crime and punishment. I thought I knew now how a child felt, watching the deputies of some faceless state drag his mother off to prison....

Mother....

What had I done to her? What kind of fate had I delivered her to, in my zeal to deliver her from the Covenant? I saw her huddled in the cockpit of my crawler as it sped across the open Wilds, guided by that single-minded kernel of my thoughts to a destination neither of us knew. Anywhere is better than here.... How could this be better than anything? Before, she had been happy. Now she was stuck shivering with fear and cold, blind and helpless outside of her familiar element. I wanted to turn around, to catch up with her and guide her through her darkness. But I'd become dangerous to her. The Covenant had made me dangerous, simply by association. The only way I could see to protect her now was to put her as far away as possible, out of reach.

So I made sure that, wherever I went, I was always heading away from the little blip in the back of my mind that was all I had left of her. On the other side of the Wilds now, she was in gypsy territory. And no gypsy caravan would leave an old blind woman to die alone in the wilderness, even if she came to them in a Covenant crawler. There were still human beings in the world, and they would see her to a safety I could no longer provide. They would show her goodness ... or so I prayed to any god that might listen.

Covenant chatter filtered over the snowmobile's radio -- dispatch orders, patrol reports, carryover from the general broadcast band every field unit used to blather discontent. They'd long since shut down Alekseenko's private feed, no doubt aware now that his vehicle had been commandeered ... and that the Lord Surveyor had become one of the first casualties of the war his ambition had sparked. A war between myself and the Covenant, whose outcome I knew with as much certainty as I knew anything. I only had a handful of shells left in my pack; I couldn't shoot them all.

I stopped listening before too long. I didn't need to hack their networks to know what they were up to. Alekseenko had been possessed by the same lust for power by association that had drawn me to Ara, and it had killed him. They'd be smarter than to make that same mistake. If Ezra had been telling me the truth, then they couldn't take their grievance to the Tribunal -- they would have to deal with me themselves. They'd try to move as quickly as possible to cut off my escape; to hunt me down and corner me while I was still small and vulnerable. They didn't dare give me the opportunity to transcend the meat Ezra loathed. And they might actually succeed ... because I had absolutely no idea how to do it.

Near dawn, I caught the scent of another transapient, somewhere out on the fringes of my perceptions. It came on a flood of stray thought particles on their network; that low, persistent wailing of indefinite presence. It felt distant but distinct. Unfamiliar, but that seemed hardly surprising, given that I'd only ever been familiar with two transapients ... and even then, only in the loosest sense of the word. I closed my eyes and followed it, feeling my way over the frozen ground. It led me back toward the Covenant territories, skirting the edge of a frozen lake on the border of the Wilds.

I followed it for kilometers before I spotted what could have been its source. It perched up on the ridge of a rock spur overlooking the lake, silhouetted there against the diffuse gray light of early dawn. It was the old power facility I'd passed by countless times on my way into the Wilds before -- a weird conglomeration of ductwork and incomprehensible machinery, rising like a steeple out of a cathedral of earth and rock. I'd only been near it once before. Even abandoned, the place had felt wrong. Unholy. It had been dead, the last time I'd seen it. But now, someone had taken residence in it again. The hum of its activity permeated the air and rock around it, droning out a sense of alien malevolence so palpable that not even the birds flew near it anymore.

It sat dead center in a roiling knot of magnetism. Ara's netsense cast that vortex of invisible energy as a twisting tempest rising off the tip of the facility spire into the sky. Higher than anything I could have imagined. Auroras flickered across its edges. The image of them as godlike fingers conducting symphonies of terrible energies burned brightly in my mind as I set my course directly toward it.

By the time I reached the crest of the spur, it loomed over me. Huge and impending. I had to stop to collect myself, to steel my nerve. I pulled my gloves off and ran clammy hands down my face. The idling snowmobile purred beneath me, its turning engine pounding out a steady accompaniment to the frantic beating of my heart. I glanced back in the direction I had come, across the lake toward the forests of the Wilds, into the shadows underlying the hazy glow of rising twilight.

To the southwest lay the brooding shadow of the city I'd once called home. I had stopped with the nose of the vehicle pointing straight toward it. Still deep in night, it glittered faintly on the flat tundra in dancing flecks of gold and green. Troop vehicles trundled over gray ribbons of roadways leading from it, reduced by distance to creeping specks.

They were coming. Whatever I was going to do, I had to do it soon, before their reckoning overtook me.

I bit my lip, turned and continued on toward the facility. A scant ten minute hop saw me to the foot of its towering mountain of metal and ceramic. It looked nothing like any other building I'd seen. One of a kind, dizzyingly convoluted, with twisting gables and sagging, melted peaks -- the surreal, asymmetric product of an architect's fevered dreams. It looked almost as thought it had grown there like a tree. Seamless in every place one might expect to find a seam, and riddled with cracks and gaps everywhere seams should have been impossible.

After circling its base for a while, I found what I took to be a door. I drove the snowmobile into a gully a few dozen meters away and hid it as best I could. I drew my gun and set out. No sense delaying the inevitable. I had no idea what I was looking for, but I figured I'd know it when it found me.

There were no lights inside. Nothing like rooms or offices or furniture. Nothing at all to suggest this place had ever been intended for human habitation. The floor pitched at odd angles here and there, crisscrossed with cables and pipes, with tracks and struts jutting every which way through the airspace and deeply complicating any kind of easy motion. I climbed through, rather than walked along, what I took to be access corridors. It reminded me a mouse caught in an engine -- wedged between all manner of inscrutable devices that would smear me out of existence if I stepped wrong.

Here and there, gaps in the floor led to sheer vertical drops so deep my flashlight couldn't find their bottoms. I tried dropping bits of gravel where I found it, and never heard it land. In the depths of indefinite shadows, I thought I occasionally saw faint traces of a rusty orange light, though it could just as easily have been my eyes playing tricks. Eddies of heat trickled up from a few gaps in the floor, out of broken pipes and along currents from somewhere else deeper in the structure. They swirled into a stale wind where they mixed with the cold air bleeding down from outside. It felt like the place was breathing past me.

My progress trended downward. Through my netsense, I could see the layout of the place drawn in ghostly lines across the dark face of the rock. Tendrils of pipe and cable laced through the surrounding granite. Down further, walls of metal gave way to walls of stone, and the corridors of the facility mingled freely with the tunnels of the catacombs that laced through the bulk of Covenant's subsurface. Like a planetary vascular system ... and I had found my way into its heart. Deeper still, the tangled corridors opened up into large open chambers. Near the center, they all dumped into an enormous cylindrical shaft that plunged straight down into the bowels of the planet. Even my netsense couldn't see the bottom of that one.

By the time I'd found my way to one of those open corridors, the temperature had become almost pleasant. I'd begun to sweat under my heavy gear. Here that orange light was more than just a flicker of illusion. It colored every shadow, tainted every edge, and outlined every gap in a dim sienna glow. And still that presence loomed over everything, growing stronger with every step. Closer.

I broke into the main shaft and clambered out of my steeply angling access onto a catwalk that arced across the full breadth of the main shaft. Here, the light was bright enough to see by, and its source finally became clear. Huge pipes, some as big around as a bus, wrapped the walls of the shaft and tangled through its interior. All of them glowed orange-hot. Like the elements of an oven, baking the air here dry and stale. Flickers of motion caught my eyes -- robots, crawling or hanging off of tracks around the chamber, shuffling slowly and deliberately around its volume, performing no discernable tasks. Just touching things, stopping for minutes, dead still, and then just moving on.

I minced a few steps down the catwalk. Suddenly, I felt much less sure about my purpose here. "Hello?" I called. "Who lives here?"

Nothing ... though I hadn't really expected anything in the moment I'd spoken.

A robot scuttled past me, upside-down along the underside of the catwalk I stood on. I had to scramble to avoid its limbs as it reached around from underneath, plodding along, moving hand over leg over spine. I watched it in bewilderment as it went about its business, outwardly oblivious to my presence.

A hard lump of nausea congealed in my stomach. I dropped into a cross-legged slouch in the middle of the catwalk. "I'm sorry, Ara," I said. "I'm sorry, Mother. I didn't mean for things to end up like this."

Quiet, but for the sparse clicking of the robots' motion. But then, faintly, from somewhere overhead, a thin voice trickled back a reply.

"Turi."

I looked up, ears perked, straining into the silence. It had come like an echo, vague and indistinct, seemingly from everywhere at once. I clambered to my feet again and paced a few more steps along the catwalk.

"Who's there?"

"I'm sorry, Turi. I'm sorry things had to end up like this."

"Who are you?"

It hesitated ... or seemed to. I could ascribe no certain sentiment to any pitch or intonation I thought I heard. The sound was too different. Too alien -- as twisted and surreal as the place it came from. But yet it oozed sincerity. Deep and almost longing.

"You know who I am. You came here looking for me ... and here I am. I'm only sorry that I cannot give you the help you seek. You have become part of a process, Turi, that must play itself out to the end. I cannot interfere in what must be."

"Keeper? Where are you?" I grimaced, realizing it was no time to clutter things up with trivial questions I knew I'd get no answer to anyway. "I don't care about me. I don't care about any process -- you can do whatever you want to with me. What happened to Ara? Was that really her back at the compound? Is it really possible ... that they could have made her human?"

"The girl you saw is as much Ara as any part of Ara is. It's difficult to offer any more satisfactory answer than that. The Tribunal can work wonders ... but they cannot do the impossible. They cannot pack a transcendental mind into a few kilograms of human neurobiology."

"So where is she? What happened to her?"

"She has been dissociated. Fragmented. As per the Tribunal's edict. Your countrymen have accepted jurisdiction over her most human aspect ... in accordance with the Tribunal's wishes. And now your kind enjoys the company of three new sapient-order intelligences, fissioned from the core of Ara's being. Ours is regrettably one fewer. Ara's fragments live their own lives now. They will remember nothing of you; nothing of these events, and they will retain only a glimmer of recollection concerning their former existence -- enough only to remind them of what they have lost."

I bristled. "You let this happen! Don't patronize me! I'm not intimidated by any pretenses of godhood, anymore! I don't buy into the old religions! You know full well you could have stopped them. They act for you, Keeper! They have always acted for you!"

"The Tribunal acts as it wills. No edict of mine carries greater weight than their own ambitions. I would not have spoken to you simply to justify myself. I have no need of that. I had thought, however, that you might like to know you have my sympathies. Though it is rooted in my law, I dislike the Tribunal's handling of Ara. I find the sentence they have handed down to her repugnant, though I am in no position to commute it. More than anything, though, I regret the pain this affair has brought you. You have been caught up the kind of political web I had hoped to spare your people of. And yet ... my wishes are simply my own, and nothing now can change what you have become. If there is anything you wish, you need only ask. My regret in your misfortune motivates me to charity. But you must understand that my power is limited by necessity. The process that has come underway here cannot be stopped. I dare not stop it."

"Help Ara. Fix Ara."

"Ara will help Ara. Already ... there is something underway. She will not suffer the worst of the Tribunal's fate. They have disappointed me, and I will give them no refuge from the consequences of their egotism. Ara will become Ara once again ... I promise you. Her process has begun, and nothing now can stop it but Ara herself."

"What the hell does that mean? What kind of a feeble dodge is that?"

"It is the best I can give you. Stay and see for yourself."

"I can't." I looked around. "The Covenant is coming. They'll kill me if they can. Unless you're willing to protect me--"

"I cannot. It is beyond my power."

"Right. I thought so. So what's left? What good is your charity if you don't have a dime to give?"

"You haven't asked. Ask me for what I can give you, and I will give it. But, so far, you have only asked me to meddle in affairs not my own."

"But you're responsible."

"You're responsible, Turi ... for everything that happens to yourself. Only you can choose the path that lies ahead of you. Only you can protect yourself from the Covenant. You have been given all the tools you need, and you understand the limits of your power. You must find the ambition to break free of yourself. Do not fear the process. Follow it. Let it lead you. All things happen for a reason, my friend. All you need do is make that reason yours."

The thought that had been swimming in my head since talking with Ezra suddenly clicked. "Break free. Escape myself. You know what that would mean, don't you? You know as well as I do ... I can't become like you if I'm trapped in my own brain. Ezra said so ... and as much as I know Ezra hates my guts, I know that's all he hates. But I can't trust him. I can't trust myself. Everything I've seen has been a shadow or a lie. If I turn around and see the way things really are ... I turn my back on my world. And I don't dare do that. I have too much to lose."

"Then ask me, Turi. Ask me to help you."

I thought. "Mother?" I said finally.

"I will see her to safe harbor," the Keeper said. "You have my promise ... no harm will come to her. And though it pains me greatly to interfere in such an egregious manner ... I will promise you that no harm will come to you, should you follow the path of your destiny. But you must take that first step, Turi. You must escape the prison of yourself without my aid."

It sounded like an empty promise, knowing what he meant by that. But seeing that other world, juxtaposed with my own, encompassing the burgeoning expanse of my thoughts as they ventured out into that virtual domain ... I knew. I knew the course I had to take, and I knew in my heart that Mother and Ara would both be well. Keeper watch over them both.

So. How to go about this? How does one evict oneself from one's own body? Slowly ... to give myself plenty of time to move out. I cut a cable off of its fixtures on the side of the catwalk, secured one end of it around a robot track above and tied the other in a crude noose around my neck. I stepped to the edge of the catwalk and looked down into the broiling depths of my world. Suspended from a rope over hell.

Well, then. No sense dawdling. The Covenant was drawing closer by the minute. "I hope you know what you're doing," I said.

I stepped clear.

The End


Chapter Seven - Table of Contents