40 - The Farm Boy

Hoggum Diffen walked along the rows of collectors, cones of influence forming a haze above each one. He was barely twenty-five, and already he felt old, a life of farming taking its toll on his weary joints. Which was weird, because he didn’t do any baling, or fence mending, or cattle wrangling or seed sowing whatever it was that the former occupants of his land used to spend their inconsequential time doing. He felt like parts of him were just withering away. Must be some residual effect from walking among the machines. He would have to look into that. No worries, he had a state of the art medical lab in his research facility.

He was a nu-farmer, of considerable engineering repute, and one of the newest, most secretive members of the Old Jardinian Industrialist caste. Truthfully he didn’t have any use for the social climbings and extravagance of his compatriots; he was just glad to have enough (by far) money and resources to pursue his other ambitions unfettered. On graduation day plus one some five years ago, he had been approached by the dean of the Academy Spuria.

He had been secretly and excellently brooding (darkly) that he hadn’t earned the Mark of Excellence, even though he knew his own experiments were revolutionary, and were quite frankly far across the threshold of geniousdom. The Dean had taken him aside, massaged his wounded pride, and offered him an opportunity. She admired his steadfast resolve, in the face of criticism. HIs classmates had called his experiments “cruel, lacking in morals, barbaric” but he had stood fast and preserved in the face of clear academic bullying. The dean admired that, she really did. She knew he would do well.

The opportunity came in the form of a box, with some blueprints and some technical drawings. He saw immediately the opportunity it held for him, ascension to the ranks of the Industrialist Caste, and with that, a general carte blanche on behaviour outside the public eye, and resources to fund his life work in perpetuem. And so, the little machines proliferated, harnessing power on such a level that easily forced out all competitors. He expanded onto new land as needed. Usually it had been recently vacated by some failing family farmers, losers in the endless battle trying to compete with Acropolis. Sometimes he gave them a nudge to help them on the way, a little fire here, etc. Better than delaying the inevitable he had thought, though now he had some pesky boxhomes to dispose of. In truth, it was kindness. A tough kindness, the importance of which his parents had impressed upon him young.

“Now, now, what do we say about frivality?” His mother had said, torching his treehouse with her flamethrower. He’d built it from scratch, as a seven-year old. The tree house, not the flame thrower. His father had watched impassively from his study, turning away to paint his models and forget that he had children, and also ideally forget that he was in fact, not a privileged genius living on Laudishan terrace. The resulting blaze, helped along by some enthusiastic trigger fingers and then some extremely flammable paint thinner, had destroyed their modest house in the old government quarter, and ensured that he spent his childhood in one of the exciting new boxhomes with his newly single mother.

And hence, the ever-growing tract of temporal solar collectors hummed, void wranglers wrangling in earnest. He walked along them absentmindedly, dreaming of an unfinished opus and, watching for intruders and industrial espionage. There was always the chance some of the old power magnates he’d driven into the ground weren’t quite dead yet. His machines were efficient in a manner inconceivable decades past. He refused to let anyone inside, though they were curious. Of course he was admired and revered as a genius in Old Jardinian, they just respected his perceived eccentricity and let him be. The Jards were unquestionably thankful that they could buy energy so darn cheaply.

And the humm of the machines blotted out all the troublesome noises from the main laboratory. Hoggum Diffen was pleased with this. This state of affairs would have continued for some time, nearly limitless power turning a delectable profit, if the the Smudge hadn’t so rudely intruded, preceded by the dusty foursome that he was now squinting at.

Au, or known to him in the immediate moment as the inconvenient dusty and loud person, was barreling down one of the rows towards him. The other three, equally dusty but somewhat less fit, were trailing behind. Impecca had never even run before, besides on the various ancient exercise machines provided within Chronus Extent. Archie's athletic days were far behind him.

Diffen idly wondered how they’d accessed the perimeter, it/they had been the very best that Castle Inovata had to offer.

Au reached him, gasping for breath. He was of course the only live person amongst the near-infinity of temporal farming machines. That she could see, anyway.

“You” she managed, pointing at him, still bent double, “should shut off these machines”

“You should be missing limbs” He countered mildly, still confused about the sudden breach of his compound. “Why should I shut off my solar collectors? I provide power to all of Old Jardinian. You should ask them if they want to lose all power. I bet that would go _really_ well for you.” He was pleased he’d got a sarcastic quip in, often he was too awkward in interactions to get the upper hand. But this was his barn, so to speak, (metaphorically, of course, he’d razed all the pathetic farming structures the land had come with.)

She was upright now, and the others were catching up. “Nice sarcasm, bub.” Diffen frowned, actually he had been proud of that one.

Au continued, “You see that smudge on the horizon? It encroaches. That’s the result of your temporal microdilations.” If you don’t shut them down now, it will swallow up Old Jardinian like a Festivian’s Toe Nibbler devours digits.“

The Observer arrived next, LM in tow. He was slightly out of breath. He’d been slacking on exercise in the node, with nobody to keep him on task. He looked at Hoggmitt, the fire of accusation and inquisition burning in his eyes. “You didn’t do a probability index, did you?”

“Looks like a storm to me” Hoggmitt said defensively “Besides, I just followed the instructions. I have other projects I’m working on, more important things.”

He got a faraway look in his eyes, as he dreamed of the research back in the main research building.

Au snapped him back to the present. “Do you understand what is going to happen? This faculty, and the rest of Old Jardinian, the city and people that you owe your financial security to, will be flattened, rended and stomped by a maelstrom of improbable creatures and unlikely events.”

“The small temporal dilations invite them” explained the Observer, “That which governs the likelihood of such events is tricked by the small areas that have experienced nothing untoward in a hundred thousand years. You’re lucky it’s still sighting its range.”

Hoggmitt was simply out of his depth here. Without a moment’s thought, he rejected the theory, and with a flourish, pulled a syringe from his pocket. He held it out threateningly. The liquid inside offered up an effervescent glow.

“What else do you have in there?” Said Archie, aghast at the impending safety violation. “What kind of laboratory are you running here?”

“Darn shame that he didn’t store it needle-side up” mused Au.

A ghostly whine and thunderous crack announced the arrival of the vanguard of the smudge. A meteor had landed a few kilometres distant. The ensuing cloud rose up to join the smudge on the horizon, which had taken on a looming presence. It appeared to be closing in on either side of the horizon.

Hoggmitt jumped, and as the four had turned to look at the cosmic intruder, began the long sprint back to his laboratory in the centre of the temporal fields. He didn’t want to believe it. All he wanted was solitude to continue his experiments. Maybe if he shut them out, they would go away. His gleaming white research station beckoned with promise of isolation, a final bastion against the encroachment of naysayers and these charlatan harbingers.

The foursome took off after him as one. The madness that had infected Hoggmitt long ago spurred his skinny limbs along in an ungainly yet high speed gait that threatened to dump him over at any minute. Only pure force of will kept him from sprawling in the dust, with several containers of unmentionable material and substance in his lab jumpsuit that would likely explode upon impact with the dry, furrowed ground, or possibly rend reality entirely).

He yelled at the door of his gleaming research temple to open, from yet a hundred meters distant, not gaining ground on the pursuers but not losing it either.

The research temple was a pill shape, several floors high, seemingly half buried in the ground. Polygonal obtrusions obstructed the smooth lines; for function or style, it was hard to say. It certainly looked modern, though the pursuers were in no mood to presume architectural provenance. The topmost quarter had a large, upward curving window to look out over the temporal fields, and beyond was presumably the means to control them. A gleaming, white thumb; it taunted them as they ran.

The door was the same shape as the gate, dusty white this time. Lord knows the designers over at Castle Inovata would customize the color for you, but they seemed unwilling or unable to customize structure on these voice activated security doors. A bit of doubt for Diffen as he veered through the opening on both feet, the change in floor texture sending him on a controlled slide across the austere floor. Castle Inovata doors hadn’t stopped the poking, presumptuous posse before.

As the four neared the structure pressing up out of the temporal fields towards the sky, they saw him close the outside door. This particular set of doors lent a feeling of a hasty addition to an already standing structure. And then there were the overgrown furrows disappearing from one side into the distance.

It appeared the bottom half of his primary research complex was indeed buried underground, and this is where he contained his most precious work. It was there he went and hid, vexed and snivelling, and waited for the intruders to Leave Him Alone.

“That will be voice locked,” said Au as they came to a stop outside, she’d seen the doors in front of whatever anyone with money had wanted to protect. She was annoyed that they hadn’t been able to grab the squirlley little guy in the research suit and goggles, force him or bribe him to shut it all down. Now what, destroy them one by one? She looked at the arrays of spinning temporal solar collectors. How would they even destroy one of those? Would anything they stuck in, or tried to hit it with just get sucked into, and this sounded silly - another time?

Another crack, a second meteor fell, shaking the ground. Then as Impecca arrived, stopping closer to the door, it opened, like the front gate. She shrugged.

Archie ran in first, apparently completely unfazed by the thought of traps or nasty surprises left by the strange, unhinged proprietor. He was rewarded with a sterile lab environment, much more harsh than the gentle research alcove at Alovian station.

There was a central lift, standard Old Jardinan equipment.

A third meteor struck, or perhaps an earthquake this time, shaking the foundations of the building. The catastrophic anomalies were getting closer to the temporal fields now.

They searched the floors, one by one, populated with a few pieces of lab equipment here and there, but not much. They came to the third floor, the one with the window.

“Here” called Au, and the rest joined her at the huge observation window, overlaid with diagnostics and data from temporal fields, though thoroughly lacking in controls. The smudge was closing in now, pincers closing, each end on a vector that would take the smudge over some of the most important and lovely parts of Old Jardinian in the next couple hours.

“Ok,” Au said, Taking Charge. “Archie and I will keep looking for that shut off, it’s probably hidden away somewhere with the begoggled character, god(s) know(s) what secrets he has here.” Archie nodded.

“Impecca, you’re Alovian. You, Tyton, and computer should go to Alovian station, maybe you can access something we can’t. See if they have any smudge related solutions hidden in a manuall somewhere. Maybe there is some insight into these machines.” Austera told them about the research floor quickly, where they might start their search.

The Observer nodded, you couldn’t be too careful in the face of meteors and strange beasts - even if Archie and Au managed to shut down the temporal farm - it might not be enough. The group, bonded by a quick but profound journey of revelations, shared a hug before getting to their various tasks.

“Ok, if you were a enthusiastically mad scientist, Archie, where would you hide?” He looked at her as if she was stupid.

“The cellar, basement?” He appeared to have already given this some thought. He was a bit into theatre, and often took villainous roles at the local stage. Sometimes he tried out to be the hero, but everyone seemed to think he had a villainous hairline, and was so typecast.

OK, back to the ground floor then. Au wondered aloud, “Where did that paranoid little schemer hide his best goodies?”

They tore apart the bottom floor looking for some access point. Just then, she wished she hadn’t sent Impecca on her way so soon. Maybe the hidden area was voice activated, like the gates that seemed to open in her presence. Voice activated compartments and doors, yes, that was all the rage with the industrialists. Thank you, Castle Innovata. They couldn’t get enough. They didn’t want to waste a lift of an exalted finger.

She said as much to Archie, who after a moment’s thought, reached into his pocket to claim the little black shape that had allowed him to control the elevators back at Alovian Station.

He put it in his ear, and said “Open”

In his excitement, he had forgotten to specify. All the doors in the place opened, in time with a rousing crack of some sort from the outdoors, shaking dust from the ceiling, a light shockwave blowing dust in.

They had been standing on trapdoor ramp, carefully hidden by a rug, which now that Au thought about it, looked quite out of place in a laboratory/factory setting. It surprised them as it opened, dropping them down a ramp, them sliding into the real laboratory. The first thing they saw were screens everywhere, for keeping tabs on the rest of the faculty while underground. The second thing they saw was Hoggmitt.

He was standing with a piece of carboplast pipe over a smoking, sparking console. Everything was cracked, and the rollscreens torn in half.

He looked at them with unbridled menace. “Manual override” he squealed ” Aiiee! You can’t turn them off now!” He’d consolidated his manual systems into this one console, his paranoid mind working out correctly that someday, someone would try to take his little machines away from him.

He backed away from them, and toward a table of bubbling concoctions. Large, empty, clear compartments with white tops and little red lights formed a wall behind everything. There were small puddles in the bottom. Au was troubled by the look of them, but could not fathom what they were for.

As he backed into his station full of experiments, he caused what would be, in different circumstances, a humorous domino situation. The table collapsed, already straining under the weight of machines and liquids, and he dropped to the floor under a mess of it. The liquids poured onto him. Archie wrinkled his nose at the smell of burning, no dissolving flesh? The little madman was making a severe ruckus now, begging for them to drag him from certain, and ironic death.

Au imagined what, or who had been in those clear containers at the back of the room. There would be no more poetic end for the man, but she had a city to save. She reached out.

“Can the machines be turned off?”

“Yes” he said glazily, “there is a switch at the bottom.”

Perfect she said, and pulled him out of the flowing liquid, taking care to avoid splashback. They’d come back for him later, he was in no condition for further mischief.

Archie had already raced up the ramp, partially to avoid the unsettling smell, but also to get a head start on turning the machines off. They had thousands to do, before the smudge cometh. He called back, “I’ll take the leftward ones, you take the right!”

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