DO NOT READ UNLESS YOU’VE READ THE BOOK!
The End (again)
The bleak sun inched above the horizon and a new day felt its way to the complex. Above the corroded-bronze sky, Samarkand was gaining yet another feature; a spreading orbital cloud of frozen gobbets of flesh, pieces of bone and metal, dragon scales. Hubris, poised geostationary above the complex watched this cloud spread with an aesthetic appreciation only available to AIs with the full the spectrum of senses it possessed. With another fraction of its sensorium it listened in on the departing mini-shuttle.
“Now y’ can tell us,” said Blegg, then he chugged down a large cup of whisky and grinned wickedly.
With his own cup resting on his knee Cormac stared down at the floor of the shuttle with the unseeing gaze of exhaustion. He was finding it difficult to grasp that his plans had paid off. Eventually he spoke. “I guess it’s a case of knowing who your enemies are. I could be wrong. I hope not.”
Blegg looked at the bottom of his cup in annoyance, took out his flask, shook it, then smiled benevolently. Cormac had never known anyone like him. He probably knew exactly what had happened, yet he managed to appear completely unconcerned. A strange man was Blegg.
“That was cryptic,” said Mika, referring to Cormac’s statement. Cormac nodded and held out his cup to Blegg. When it was filled he went on. “Background first, as I heard it, and believe it to be. Dragon did not lie when it said the Maker’s kind made it. Our first estimation was correct: Dragon was a galactic probe. The Makers sent it here to study, record, return. Something went wrong though, Dragon acquired a degree of self-determination it should not have. It allowed itself to be found by us, started to interact. The Makers sent a ship to retrieve or destroy it. Dragon attacked the ship, destroyed the ship. What we found here was an escape capsule.” He looked up. “It’s not for us to attribute blame there. Dragon was looking after itself. The Makers were after a rogue machine. All that is relevant to us is the deaths here.” He shrugged. “Dragon picked up on the position of this escape pod through our grid. It sent its dracomen to prevent the Maker leaving Samarkand. From that I can only assume that, like Hubris, Dragon cannot move very quickly through underspace.”
He paused. Mika interjected, “They set the mycelium. The dracomen.”
“Yes, we were distorting the facts by looking for complications. Fact; the Maker left here long before the mycelium was set. Fact; the mycelium was set shortly after the dracomen arrived. Fact; Dragon tried to destroy any incriminating evidence on the planet. And as far as intentions are concerned; the dracomen were made to handle the cold, yet the creature made to guard the capsule was not. What does that suggest to you?”
Mika said, “That the Maker had not expected any temperature change, and that perhaps Dragon did…”
“Precisely. The dracomen carried out the task they had been programmed to do, then waited, as they were able to. I don’t think Dragon is the psychopath it claimed the Maker to be, but it certainly has no regard for human life.”
“That thing still killed Gant, half frozen or not,” said Thorn.
“Yes. It was there specifically to guard the escape capsule from any of Dragon’s agents. We were just in the wrong place at the wrong time. I’m sorry about Gant. That’s all I can say.”
“How much regard does this Maker have for human life, then?”
“It didn’t kill you, when it could have. What if some innocent had run into our automatic guns on Viridian? Same thing? I’m sorry, but I was more concerned with the deaths of those thousands on Samarkand, rather than the death of one trooper doing the job he was paid for.”
Thorn stared at Cormac for a moment then looked away. It was a while before he said anything more, and when he did his voice was strained.
“How do you know all this for sure. And how the hell did you deliver that CTD?” he asked.
“More or less from the start I knew Dragon was culpable, and that the only way to prove it was with contact with the Maker. Remember our first encounter? It could have killed us all. It didn’t. In fact, I was getting something over my intercom that had to be an attempt at communication. Then the dracomen attacked. That was what they were there for; to prevent any useful communication, if they could, so we would do what Dragon wanted. Otherwise, they were there to plant a mycelium at the runcibles on Viridian, to prevent the Maker leaving, as before.” He looked at Mika. “A lifetime of study, you said. Just a little longer and you might have discovered that they carried the mycelium inside themselves. That’s why Dragon wanted its dracoman back so badly. It didn’t want us to discover that. It wasn’t so omnipotent it didn’t fear us. Lucky for us that Maker grabbed the dracomen.”
“But if the Maker was innocent of–”
Cormac held up his hand, and reclined his seat.
“I’m going to get a little sleep now. We’ll complete this on the surface. I want to be a little fresher by the time we arrive.”
“You can at least tell us why…” Thorn trailed off. Cormac was already asleep.
An hour and a half later the shuttle came down on the edge of the complex in a storm of CO2 crystals. Cormac woke as soon as it bumped against the ground.
“Ask Samarkand II how the stage two runcible’s coming along,” Cormac asked Aiden.
Aiden got up from his pilot’s chair as if he had not heard, but he had obviously asked the question using his internals, as Samarkand II answered it over the speakers.
“The stage two runcible is undergoing rough alignment. This will take approximately fifteen minutes. I will fine tune it in one tenth of a second.”
If ever an AI had been guilty of conceit, Samarkand II was that one, thought Cormac. He moved to the door of the shuttle as a covered walkway attached like a lamprey. He waited while the air in the walkway was heated to a reasonable temperature. Without being asked to he continued his monologue where he had left off.
“The Maker took the two dracomen and deprogrammed them. Just as Dragon did that first time it grabbed them. They were probes for Dragon. The Maker used them in the same way. From them it learnt our method of communication and somewhat of Dragon’s plans. At about the same time, I decided I would gull Dragon into thinking we killed the Maker, to give us time to learn more, perhaps to communicate. Hence the idea of using the stage one runcible, the closing off of information access to the containment spheres. How would Dragon know what went through?”
The door thumped open like the door to a fridge and they entered the walkway. Soon they were passing the milling technicians by, and Samarkand II’s voice droned over the speakers.
“Stage two runcible alignment test commencing… Test complete. Still too far out for insertion of five-D cusp.”
The larger containment sphere of the stage two runcible now rested under a large dome with floor-space all around. The open door to the containment sphere was big enough for heavy transport sleds. Cormac recognised the familiar figure of Chaline next to the door. He walked up to her and saw she was directing the adjustment of machinery under the black glass floor, the same kind of machinery as he had destroyed in the stage one runcible. Floor panels were up and resting against the wall of the sphere.
“Much longer?” he asked.
She looked at him suspiciously for a moment, then relented.
“A few minutes.” She gestured at the work going on. “This is only cosmetic. One more test and the spoon’ll be in.”
Cormac left her to it and turned back to Blegg, Mika and Thorn. They watched as esoteric adjustments were made and Samarkand II gave notice of the next test. This time rainbows shimmered between the wide apart horns of the runcible and climbed to the roof of the sphere. It was a beautiful sight. Cormac remembered his first sight of this with the stage one runcible; the tower of rainbows reaching into the sky. It still did not fail to impress him.
“Spoon’s in. All yours, Samarkand II,” said Chaline with glee.
Cormac said, “Samarkand II, inform Viridian that access is now allowable from there.”
“Viridian has already been informed.”
“You mistake me, inform Viridian that Cormac says access from there is now allowable.”
There was a pause, and when Samarkand II spoke again it sounded as surprised as an AI could be.
“Viridian tells me your message is affirmed… Transmission coming through.”
Cormac began speaking to the three with him, knowing they were growing impatient with the interruptions to his explanation.
“When I went into the cave system I still wasn’t sure how I was going to pull off my ruse to fool Dragon. But I needn’t have worried. The Maker came for me…”
At that moment the runcible flickered and Cento stepped through. He had been rebuilt, partially. His missing arm had been replaced with a bronze coloured one. He held it up and grinned triumphantly as he approached.
“We talked. We hatched a plan,” said Cormac. “You see, the Maker’s kind made Dragon, so creatures like the dracomen were easy for it to deal with. In that cave system only one CTD exploded. The Maker put the other one inside Nonscar, right where it held the mycelium.” He reached into his pocket and took out a small sealed canister. “A tissue sample of organ is in this. I watched the Maker remove it.” He handed the canister to Mika. “Check it. I think you’ll find the Maker didn’t lie. I don’t need the proof.”
Mika took the canister gingerly and dropped it into her own pocket. Blegg watched this exchange with a smug expression. Tangible proof: Cormac knew what he was thinking, or at least he thought he did. He continued speaking.
“All that happened here, when we returned, was to deny Dragon information so it would snatch back its dracoman, like it did before, but also, to make it think we had followed up on our proposed plan but were then entertaining suspicions. I think that if Dragon had known that we knew what had really happened here, it would have run, after destroying Hubris and levelling the complex. I wanted it concerned, but not panicking. I wanted it to take back its dracoman, but without too much checking. It was all to get that CTD into Dragon. It had to pay. We couldn’t let that pass.”
“Transmission coming through. Energy anomalies…”
The cusp of the runcible flared with light and the glass dragon stepped through. There were screams of surprise, some screams of fear. The dome seemed full of light.
“There is no need for panic,” said Samarkand II, and those who had screamed felt a little foolish, perhaps.
“Jesus!” was all Thorn managed. Mika said nothing. Her first look of shock changed to one of almost lascivious fascination.
“The runcible … what went through?” asked Blegg.
Cormac smiled tiredly.
“I thought it was Scar, but I see I was wrong. It must have thrown something else through.”
He pointed to the Maker as it came through on limbs of fire, scanning the place it had arrived in with its three glass eyes. It seemed to Cormac it should have dwelt in that tower of rainbows he had seen. It seemed wholly mythical. The blackly silhouetted dracoman walked before it, like a slave, or its tamer. Cormac continued.
“The idea was for the Maker to head for the containment sphere and for something to come through. Dragon would believe it to be the Maker that came through. It would have been very happy at first, then suspicious when we didn’t contact it. It was all manipulation.”
Soon the Maker was before them, and now they could see the workings of its body like a glassy display of flasks and tubes in a chemistry laboratory. It spoke, and its voice seemed to draw sound from every direction and precipitate it out in gusting words.
“Cormac,” it said, and its terrifying head bowed down to look at him, then at the others.
“I thought you were going to use Scar for the blast,” said Cormac.
The voice came again, its elements seemingly drawn from the people who were gathering round, to watch, gawp. One brave soul reached out to touch, then snatched his had back before it was burnt, or before he touched something ineffable.
“Scar is an advantage,” said the Maker. “Only one quarter of Dragon died here.”
Staring into light Cormac suddenly felt even more tired.