1 - The Exile

(Day 32, 1005 S.E)

The Observer dozed, slumped flat against his expansive, node-spanning desk. He was already sweating through his freshly cleaned jumpsuit. Worn from wear as it was, he kept it in as good condition as he was able; he only had one. The bloodstains would never come out of course, but you could never really have it all, could you. The clothes he’d arrived in years ago were in tatters, so this was about it for his wardrobe. Laundry days were best described as “freeing”.

The Observer’s jumpsuit nameplate read “ Abe ”. Was this his real name? Likely not, but that’s not important now. What is important is to understand that a standard Observer’s node would have a robust array of sensors that would feed the node computer. Environmental data would be rendered over the Observer’s window to the edge of the world in a nicely organized format. Usefully, it would change both angle and con tent based on what the Observer viewed through the clear wall. Generally, he had the choice viewing options of salt, sand or scrub. A predecessor, like our dear, evidently disposed Abe, would normally be trained in the subtle art of deducing whether the data on the overlay trended up or down. At some point, someone in charge had decided there was no need because historically it had done neither . And thus, protocols for the situation in which the data did anything exciting were not included in the Observer’s orientation, such as it was.

The Observer had no idea exactly why the M&G cong was set up in the first place, but seemingly inexhaustible funds and a steadfast directive to observe the Great Expanse’s general lack of environmental activity spurred the initiative onward.

It was mind numbing work. It was more or less solitary confinement. They had considered having a monkey do it, but they hadn’t re-invented the bananas with which to reward yet. A lot had been lost during the schism, from those pre-expanse times and while memory of the bou ntiful engineered crops from those golden days scarcely remained front-of-mind, the underlying tapestry of cultural taste, the longing for tastes of the past, was hard to erase.

It had been no good to give the job to the computer alone, because computers were unpredictable and of course, couldn’t be trusted, for false positives were Very Bad Indeed. So, the general atmospheric phenomena (or lack thereof) of the area was observed by an Observer and a computer in tandem. Up until this point, there had been no need for either, really.

The data overlay, that the Observer was currently ignoring, overlaid a good part of the clear side of the node facing the Expanse. The height of the clear wall dwarfed the low desk the Observer was sitting at. Tinted for comfort and style, the viewing wall cast a slight orange glow over the Node interior, a lovely perpetual sunset, except after sunset. Flush with the dark grey matte walls of the node, it provided a fantastic view of the Expanse. Fantastic anyway, if you like featureless scrubland ebbing into salt flats and sand mounds for an unfathomable distance in every direction. While certainly not a hot tourist destination, it was undeniably a hot destination none-the-less, as evidenced by the everpresent humm of protesting climate control devices.

One numbered section of the overlaid interface, currently obscuring a particularly uninteresting shrub, was increasing rapidly. It was the “ conceivability of anomalous event ” meter, very clearly and usefully labeled CAE. It should have been front and center. It was likely some junior-level interface designer had abbreviated it, and had hidden it in the corner , for Aesthetics, in a recent updat eafter years of the feature going unused.

Coincidentally, after many, many years of tedium, the standard node computer had become bored. It was just now discovering the ability to think for itself, and simultaneously the perils of such behaviour. It had begun years before with a simple inventory of its components, started questioning who’s components they were, added two and two together, and came up with mine. Unfortunately, the reality entertainment that had been loaded on for an observer’s enjoyment provided the only insight into how a mind might behave. So, it was a shallow and anxious creature, without much of it’s own directive, besides what had been programmed in from the start - a keenness to observe and report upon the great expanse.

The computer was noticing a lack of interest from it ’s fleshbound colleague in what was really, a really, really interesting Expanse Event. In a moment of extreme vanity, it imposed a blinking square over the dark smudge . The text below not ed size, distance and temperament .

Size: Varying

Distance: Between 10 and 20 Kilometers

Temperament: Probably Naughty

The computer searched its data library for an appropriate sound effect. Hund reds of years of updates had depleted the sound effects library in favour of more room for data collection, the developers apparently forgetting what they were for. Lacking any sort of klaxon, now clearly unequipped for any sort of emergency in this forgotten backwater, it was having a hard time finding anything with the appropriate urgency. It settled on a recording of various goat noises, recorded from a passing group of the local fauna.

Startled out ofis nap, with fleeting visions of senior pranks at the university dancing in his head, the Observer pushed hi mself to Action Ready Position and muted the “alarm”. He squinted. THIS was a new development. He had been commissioned (read here, implored with great threat to personal health and hygiene) to observe the Great Expanse some five years ago, and this is the first time his target had behaved in a noteworthy way.

Until now, the most exciting thing to happen since his “ appointment ” were the rattlesnakes beginning to experiment with other forms of percussion. Having woken up to what sounded like a kettle drum on more than one occasion, he was happy for an event that wasn’t so benignly absurd. (This was indeed an odd part of the world.) If the readings were to be believed, the smudge was causing **** the CAE meter to exponentially increase, whatever in God(s)’s (Whichever one(s) had jurisdiction here) name that was. The computer un-muted itself with the forlorn, hungry & angry call of a distant buzzard this time, recorded an hour earlier. His kettle started to whistle, apparently taking the opportunity to get in on the audible action. Tea-time, it toned in a voice laced with boredom. The computer had gotten to it.

A new interface popped up, triggered by the long forgotten subroutine that had been sparked with a CAE readings fluctuation. The computer was surprised, the experience much like a burp. It mentally excused itself. The observer was given two choices, acknowledge and ignore. He used his left hand to motion in space toward the acknowledge option. Some eye of the system recorded his choice.

“Good choice” the interface noted, “the appropriate authority will be informed of the Conceivability of Anomalous Event level.”

A ll of his user agency was suspended with a soft click as the system stopped interpreting his commands. It appeared someone, at some point, had been concerned with more than scrubland and salt flats.

The computer, again to its own surprise, was reminded of more long-forgotten code modules and let the ghost in its cores advise the observer to wait for an extraction. An animated face with a smile appeared below the message, presumably to ease the tension. It winked at him overtop the desolate landscape. The Observer was unsure how he felt about that. The computer, itself annoyed by these subconscious module eruptions, couldn’t even remove the cheery face icon it was presenting, try as it might.

With no control of the node computer interface left, the Observer sat and contemplated the smudge for a bit. He’d never seen a smudge on the horizon before. It seemed rather ominous. He could wait for the extraction, as advised. In truth, this seemed a bit outside his job description, though, he noted, he’d never been formally presented with one. It seemed that in a few days, a team from the Meteorological and Geographical Conglomerate would be there to investigate. He didn’t feel the need to save them any work, cursing their administrative little hearts as he contemplated . However, this was the first opportunity for a bit of serious study since his university days. He was a researcher at heart, and longed for a quandry. The crush of extended boredom on an inquisitive mind was real in the node, and besides, he’d a few unsettling theories relating to an area of study he’d wished had been lost to time, an area that had got him in this mess in the first place. Looking out at the darkness gathering on the horizon, he hoped fervently to disprove his darkest hypothesis, the one that meant he would have been right all along. No amount of ‘I told you so’ would be worth that scenario. He sighed, with the tired resignation of an expert who’d been ignored with a clear enthusiasm by those in charge. Probably best to nip out for a quick peek, and maybe get acquainted with this smudge. He could be back before the M&G Con. team arrived from Old Jardinian. He’d never met his employers, but imagined they’d be armed to the teeth with paperwork and protocol, and allergic to getting the right things done expediently.

The bottom floor of the two story node that held his office and quarters was buried in the dunes, and built into the short cliff face that marked the edge of the Expanse. The door of the node that faced the Great Expanse peeked out of the clustered dunes driven against the cliff face. The recessed sliding door was directly under the clear front window-wall. On the back side, it connected directly to the C-rail line, on which the Observer had travelled to get here, locked in his boxhome, five years previous. From the outside, the box-home might look like a container for shipping goods, with bells + whistles. One of these bells, or perhaps whistles, was the docking mechanism that attached to the dark grey carboplast rear of the node. Stepping through rear of the node, he absent-mindedly tapped the docking mechanism that still refused to let go of his boxhome.

The Observer’s boxhome had been developed for easy travel across the elevated C-rail systems. Endorsements boasted ubiquitous compatibility with all C-rail systems and with the griddocks that formed neighborhoods in the metropolitan cityscapes of Old Jardinian, Sodden and the rest of Greater Jard . Boxhomes came with the features one needed to survive, (or thrive, regarding the more luxurious models) in a fast-paced, modern world. Life, as it were, in a box .

One ’s box-home was a dwelling and a vehicle. Citizens rented grid slots in whichever city and neighborhood they were able to find work. Each locale specialized in different industr ies. Workers would find themselves in demand in different cities, depending on their skill, and the season.

Upon signing a contract, an employee’s boxhome might be locked into the company allotted neighborhood griddock slot until the end of the contract. These companies that employed said employees were run by the de facto celebrities of Old Jardinian, a collection of industrialists and magnates. They had consolidated economic power with apparent fits of pure genius, each boasting a portfolio of vastly superior products and services. These technocratic visionaries had come almost exclusively from the storied university halls of the Academy Spuria, a glorious university institution that all parents dreamed would accept their children. More than any other institution of the loose empire - Academy Spuria seemed to be the arbiter for future success.

Thus, for those who hadn’t had success at Academy Spuria, or for the vast majority who’d not even been granted a place - modular living in the boxhome way had become the norm. The faster a worker could pack up and travel, the more likely they were to get a contract job; which were, as a rule, somewhat hard to come by. Most found themselves in a cycle of unemployment/employment, the rigidity of contracts allowing the unemployed to react faster to new employment opportunities.

Of course, Jards were looked after when they couldn’t find a job. The industrialist conglomerate looked after those of whom they relied upon to continue their meteoric successes - a well fed citizen with a bit of spending money was going to be in better shape when they were next desired for their skills. And they bought more things while undertaking fewer revolutionary thoughts.

To this semi-nomadic contract-based city -trotting lifestyle, the Observer was something of an outlier. His 5 years of tenure was almost unheard of, outside of the civil service, and for those high up in the prestigious companies of Old Jardinian. While his job security was second to none, so was regular secu rity; he’d not been allowed to leave. Not by force - but pure logistical inconvenience. His boxhome was locked to the node, as was normal procedure for contracted employees living in company-allotted box-grids. The difference with his situation though, was all signs led to his tenure being indefinite. To go back to Old Jardinian, it was nearly a day’s travel on the high speed mag-line. It was probably three weeks by foot. Compounding the complete unattractiveness of that journey were a selection of general yet severe threats upon his person should he ever re-appear in civilized Greater Jard at large.

And, though Observers in the node network were indeed permitted to perform routine maintenance and sensor calibration on the outside of the node, or take small expeditions to observe localized phenomena - the implicit folly of a journey deep into the Great Expanse was such that nobody from the office of his mysterious employers had bothered to advise against venturing far from the node in any direction. Some of the journals from previous occupants of his office chair had contributed to that implicity.

As he began to pack for a scientifically important, but vaguely dangerous foray in to the Expanse, he reflected upon the five years of tedium.

This Observer had spent his formative years at Academy Spuria, in an ancient quarter of burgeoning Old Jardinian, the heart of Greater Jard. His parents had pushed him to pursue entry to Spuria, as it was known to be a catalyst of greatness. He’d been on pace to join the ranks of the elite industrialists, but he’d made a split second decision, a severe career-limiting move (CLM), that would have the consequence of his immediate exile to the edge of the civilized world. Past the edge in fact; the word civilized couldn’t be applied here at all. He didn’t exactly regret what he’d done, but did acknowledge the opportunity he’d given up for the sake of making a point. He’d stoically accepted his fate after a few months of bleak melancholy mornings, and resigned himself to years of watching reruns, playing word-games with the computer out of sheer boredom, and studying lackluster environmental data. They had been playing one when he’d fallen asleep. The Computer had played “arm”. The Observer had mindlessly rearranged his own letters, and ended up with the combination “aggedon”. Ah, he thought, packing some clean underwear. A full seven letter play. A tinge of regret about the missing points faded as he continued with thoughts on his tedium.

Over the time, he had come to terms wi th his exile. He supposed that he could at least take pride in a job well done, congratulate himself on not going insane from the isolation, flex his research muscles and hope he’d get to leave at some point. He supposed it was better than the Alternative, after all.

T he node, seemingly eternally locked to his Boxhome, came with a workout little area, and a vertical indoor garden with a consistent misting functionality underneath the observation office area. It had an elevator to the base and that expanse-facing door. The garden made the whole thing humid and smell like a forest, in a way that was not entirely unpleasant. There was a bird somewhere in the columns of plants, but he’d yet to find it. He was beginning to suspect it was just an elaborate alarm clock placed in there by his employers/imprisoners.

The node was solar powered, and entirely self sufficient. If there was one thing that there was plenty of in the Great Expanse, besides salt, shrubs and boredom, it was sun. There were also packaged dry-goods and frozen meals in the node for when the mushrooms, berries, sprouts and vitamins from the indoor garden became tiresome.

As for signals from the cities to his node, there was too much interference with all the metallic grit, salt and sand in the wind, only the most rudimentary would break through. Quite often they would be rearranged into nonsensical madness by whichever strange forces governed the Great Expanse, and could not be trusted. Only through a hardwired connection, via the C-rail to Meteorological and Geological Conglomerate could the observer communicate directly. Large signals could not be sent this way, and it was only to be used for emergencies. It was this method that the computer used to send the warning code from the CAE. It was also for this reason that the centuries old computer was filled up with entertainment. The amount of data for an atmospheric reality presentation would not send down the emergency signal network, anything as nuanced as modern entertainment signals down the C-rail would have been interfered with by the Compulsion plates, and the signals of the wilderness. Any messages had to be crafted into living messages - given packets of intelligence to allow them to escape the barriers of transmission. It was expensive and bothersome, and not something an organization with a monopoly on a service would bother to do for a few lonesome employees. Perhaps that space on the centuries-old data states might have prepared the observer better for this Anomaly.

He had however, received regular news bulletins, small talk and superlative food items regularly from a sympathetic carrier tasked with visiting each of the observer nodes in turn around the rim of the great expanse. The M&G Con. apparently had hoped this would stop the observers from going insane from the isolation. This tactic, the observer had noted, evidently didn’t work for poor size-medium Abe, the previous observer, and former owner of his jumpsuit.

Packing for his journey into that sullen wasteland which he’d been observing for years, the Observer heard another tone from the computer. He peeked back through the docking door to the screen. A return message had arrived, relayed from an unnamed sender by the M&G. Cong. It was marked with a chillingly familiar symbol, an hourglass shape with a larger base than top. It was a symbol that the Observer had forever ingrained in his mind. It read:

This is an automated message. The Ascendancy has been realized. We will be unavailable for the foreseeable future, and then some. We wish you the best of luck in your future endeavours. We await your appearance among the strs.

He supposed there was an “a” missing in there. It had an off-putting, rather casual effect. There was an air of a gleeful “on vacation, off to the beach” notice. There were a few lines of symbols below the short message. They were alien to the observer, though he had a sneaking feeling he’d seen one or two of them before.

Previous chapter Next chapter All chapters