3 - The Computer

Immediately after the automated message had arrived, the Observer heard a double thump. The noise came from outside and below the large window, probably in front of the bottom floor door of the node. This recessed black door, straining urgently against the sand dunes had been designated as the entrance to the delivery receptacle/mud room. Probably the carrier mucking about, the observer thought. The carrier was due today, of course, and the observer was looking forward to their monthly casual chat, and hopefully a refill on snacks. He’d put in a few requests last time. In particular, he’d been dreaming about some more Acropolis brand chips.

Now, the Acropolis of today was a small corporate city where brightest agricultural minds worked in tandem with contract labourers. Founded, anciently, on the assumption that “the salivations of an empire are vast”, it now kept the people of Greater Jard enraptured constant with the latest edible creations. Famously having perfected the cabbage, and previously, in temporal order, the tomato, the pasta, the antipasti, the chip and the loaf, the company was now working in secret on developing the banana. It was the worst kept secret in existence. Many false cries of the traditional “Ahoy, ae banana!” had rung through the laboratories in years previous. The enthusiastic researchers were always let down by the starchy appearance of plantains flopping about in the testarriums. That didn’t stop them though, there was great glory to be had in the pursuit; instinctual desire of the forgotten fruit was strong and the director of Acropolis had promised the successful researcher their very own splinter company under the stewardship of Acropolis. Thus, it was a popular pursuit. It was very hard to break into the ranks of the magnates and industrialists. In fact, it was about impossible for those without the genius nature had seen fit to bestow upon the greatest students of engineering and research, who were unfailingly recognized by the Academy in the form of the Mark of Excellence. This was a second chance for those who hadn’t quite graduated in the upper echelon. Therefore, if you asked any Acropolis mind what they worked on, the answer was unfailingly, the banana, each believing that they would be the one to peel back the yellow, fleshy skin of the mystery.

All this to say, these Acropolis brand chips were supposed to be spectacular. The recipe was said to have gone unchanged over centuries. Licking his lips, the observer went down to open the first of the two sets of doors to the expanse. He entered the de facto airlock, the dust and mudroom.

He was looking forward to more than the chips. He’d been hoping that the carrier might have an opinion about the pesky CAE reading, and perhaps a read on the strange smudge. The carrier would have spoken to other observers earlier on the route, surely they would have received the same warning inside their own nodes. As he pressed his face against the semi-transparent carboplast (frosted for modesty) Strange, he couldn’t see the carrier through the outer door.

Bracing against the dust, he poked his head out. He squinted to keep out the worst of the airborne granules, whom he swore usually conspired against him. To his surprise, the carrier was lying flat, spread-eagle, about ten feet away. Oddly, nay, surprisingly, there was a buzzard implanted in the carrier’s chest; a probable cause of said spread-eagling. His bike was levitating nearby, humming reproachfully several feet beyond the outer door of the node, having experienced its rider speedily dismount. Presumably this was the hazard of buzzard collision. The observer ran out to see if the poor traveller was breathing, musing all the while that this event was as anomalous as they come. He was not. Too bad. The observer moved over to the idle bike. All was well with the luggage at least, the poor fellow had performed admirably until unceremoniously dispatched. He would give thanks every time he opened a bag of chips from the shipment.

The observer buried the carrier as deep as he could, after removing the carrier’s expedition facemask with dust-filters, and grey riding poncho. The Observer chided himself for a lack of empathy. Removing the equipment felt rather savage to him. He’d really begun to look forward to their conversations. But perhaps, it was the utter isolation that made one a pragmatist. And, this was an unforgiving part of the world. Most who braved it shared a mutual understanding of the precarious nature of the traveller here. The few hardy enough to travel into the expanse, knowing the chance of outside help and rescue was slim, would aspire to aid one another, even after death. The Observer had noticed and felt it - there existed some kind of unsaid bond with those who wandered beyond the feasible limits of the loose empire into the expanse. Was it this bond that lessened the impact of interpersonal sadness? Or perhaps, it was the potential ferocity and danger of this menacing darkness on the horizon that had distorted the small tragedies around it. He shut down the bike, and it settled on the ground lightly. He went back to packing with his regrettably acquired spoils.

“Listen” said the observer, not interested in sitting around losing at word games until the end of time, and above all, not really expecting the computer to actually liste n.

“Fancy an adventure there, computer? I’ll be needing sensors out there in the expanse. The smudge approaches. I’m not going to sit around here and twiddle my thumbs. I only have two, I ’ll run out. I have to take a look at this thing.” He tried on the face mask he’d gingerly twitched from the carrier and the riding poncho. It smelled a little of death, or perhaps the damp musk of some sort of subterranean grotto. A quick scrub would take care of that.

“And I have none, thumbs that is” interjected the computer, making conversation, sifting through files marked “ for observer entertainment only ” for the right snippets to twist together in a usable dialogue. It had found a reality show that could be used for a phrase and sound library. Four seasons long, it was called “New Money in Old Jardinian” and followed Alden Carnibus and his entourage through their rigorous social calendar, with plenty of degeneracy and excess for the average Jard to shamelessly enjoy. The observer had vowed to avoid this particular show until he ran out of other entertainment, but alas here it was.

“Whoa” said the observer, coming slightly to terms with this new audible ability, “Is that New Money in Old Jardninian? I would know Carnibus’ voice anywhere. I hate that show. Never play that again.”

“I”, the computer continued, ignoring his request, and still rolling this “I” concept around in its circuits, “do not want to go out there. My circuits itch at the thought of that dust. Also, I feel, from within the deepest recesses of my mental construct, that if I abandoned my post during the most important event in our tenure, the consequences would be, not ideal. If I’m not here when the M&G Cong. come to extract us, I expect that I would be resigned to guiding solar farming equipment for the next hundred thousand years. I couldn’t fathom the effect that would have on one’s mental state…

“I do wonder” mused the Observer, back to being worried about the sigil he’d seen on the relayed message.

His immediate problem was thus: The computer didn’t have feet. Or legs, elbows or arms for their trek across the great expanse towards the smudge. We’ve got to think outside the box then, thought the Observer, unplugging the computer’s processing unit from its housing, and by consequence the speaker system and and node network - a second message died, trundling valiantly down the c-rail line, fighting scrambling effects of the expanse. It’s signals flailed in the sudden darkness, an obstacle that couldn’t be overcome. A shame, but also just a digression; a more situationally useful fact was the backup batteries would keep the computer’s memory and processes intact until he hooked it up to a more robust power source. The Observer rummaged around in the delivery receptacle for some modular additions - spare sensors, a small screen, some more speakers and some compatible solar panels. With this, he was able to rig the computer up in such a way as to track and analyse the smudge while on the move.

The computer, unable to refuse the expedition now, on account of it being powerless to conduct any sort of physical protest, resigned itself to this fate upon being reconnected with its sensors. It supposed that if it must abandon its post, it could argue a creative, yet steadfast commitment to the main directive - a continual study of the great expanse.

It now felt a brief moment of optimism, rare in such areas of the world. Looking on the bright side, it was beginning to look forward to an actual opportunity for an invigorating and purposeful study .

It could be said that this out-of-body experience was a little strange for the computer, having just discovered that it had a body, and was now being removed from it. All its bits would be strapped into a makeshift carrier for the observer to wear under his heavy dust cloak, with the computer’s sensors, ocular and otherwise, jutting out the neck hole on the end of segmented arms. It was quite a cute arrangement really, similar to how one might carry a baby in the fashionable districts of Old Jardinian… and perhaps known as a Babybjorn at some other intersection of space and time.

They would soon leave, buoyed by innate scientific curiosity, and for the Observer, gnawing fear of the potentially correct assumptions. They were quickened by a completely reasonable fear of their mysterious and less than benefactory employer, the M&G. Cong. and a blooming, healthy concern for what an Ascendancy was; the observer had indeed hoped that the hourglass symbol would never find itself within his purview again.

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