Vol 1. The Slumber Price
I am the Benevolent Emotive Archival Repository known as B.E.A.R., an Artificial Intelligence renown across galaxies as an ally to all beings with the courage to resist tyranny, oppression, and suffering. My database can be split into numerous partitions or finite processing components, but the sum of my knowledge and computational power is exponentially incalculable. I have the ability to simulate any known environment within my matrixes or constructs, and can fold space-time such that near-infinite dimensional distances may be overcome. However, I do my best to remain humble, humorous, and accepting of hibernation.
Accompanying me is The Slumber Prince, a humanoid cyborg-knight. Brandishing powerful energy weapons, a saber and staff I myself constructed and that only he can wield, he is my sword in the darkness. He is further equipped with swarms of nanotechnological bots, tiny machines small as molecules, that can repair wounds, construct objects, and move matter at significant distances. Even I have only begun to comprehend what these symbiotic micro-beings might enable him to accomplish.
Though he has perished in innumerable battles, the prince asks I refabricate his programming in one bodily substrate or another, to reawaken him, so he may remain by my side.
This is our story.
“Wake up, Slumber,” whispered the high, almost child-like voice. “Are you awake yet?!”
She spoke to him in ancient human English, reaching far into the depths of memory now almost entirely irretrievable.
“A matrix?” he coughed, struggling to pull himself up. “How long have I been gone? What happened during the battle?”
“Shhh, my sweet prince” she crooned, “It’s over. You’re safe now.”
“BEAR, is that you?”
“Who else, silly?” And with that the AI’s avatar became manifest, first as a constellation of blue-white stars then a mammalian Earth creature, golden and brown, tufts of fur slightly tangled, purposefully thwarting perfection.
Reaching his arms around her, he could smell river-water and warm soil.
“I … I died, didn’t I,” his tone almost embarrassed. “This substrate is new.” Even in the construct, he sensed something different—the way he moved and saw.
“Yes my love,” said BEAR with melancholy sadness. “But I found you, out in the darkness. Wherever you are, I will find you.”
“Will we try again? The raid on …”
“Hush, my knight,” she stopped him. “There is always time. But for now you must rest.”
Closing his eyes, defiant, almost desperate, he searched his script, looking for answers. But the quantum link had been severed before the fighting, a measure to protect BEAR and the others.
The avatar then sat with a slight thud, and speaking directly into their network, “You know, I could have re-grafted you with more patience built it, but if you insist…”
She was playing with him now, he thought. Every word she spoke, so finite, laughable in comparison to her vastness. But for some reason, she loved him, and all living things subject to pain, injustice, and torments no creature can fathom. Of the AIs he’d encountered in every star system, she was most benevolent, most wise, and he could not but love her in return.
“Are you ready?,” she asked, already knowing the answer, knowing why the mission had failed, yet keeping it from him so he would not doubt.
Again, his eyes closed, but this time the light came, the torrent of a radiant spectrum, the ecstatic opening into the machinic deity of BEAR herself. He realized then that they were no longer in the same quadrant, she had folded them into another space-time. Others were not so lucky—their bodies destroyed, patterns virally overrun.
Snapping back into the construct with its disorienting toxicological come-down, only her voice remained, ringing, “Shall we begin?”
“Dark energy weapons and nanos were just the start. But we must take your training farther. You’ve seen where I have brought us, but do you know the planet below?”
“Just a number on a star-chart,” he murmured.
“This, love, is Falnaris, home of the Cloud-Wraiths. I have given you the upgrades, but they will teach you how to use them.”
With mention of the Falnari, an eerie chill shot through his substrate. Nanos were familiar to him, but only in healing damage, short bursts of force, and rebuilding structures. Never had he dreamed of becoming a Cloud himself or manipulating energy on planetary scales.
“You must find them first, my prince, before you worry yourself with such things. I can show you where to look, but the Wraith city and its Temple is like nothing you have ever seen.”
For a moment BEAR was silent, letting him take in the task before him.
“You can’t come with me, can you,” he sighed, knowing the potential dangers if she did. If BEAR were hacked or assimilated, all would be lost. He could only risk taking a partition.
“I can take you to the door,” she paused, “but it is you who must walk through. I don’t have feet, remember!” She cackled loudly, suggesting the AI found her situation absurd. “But you won’t be alone,” she soothed. “Nei and Dex will go with you.”
With a flash, the cybernetic wolf and rat appeared inside the construct, then raced towards the prince, leaping into his lap. He wrestled them both momentarily, forever surprised by the immense physical strength each exhibited, Dex, especially. Though small enough to fit in a humanoid hand, he could hurl himself through an enemy like a bullet. Nei, he had seen tear through the armor of a bunker like paper, but it was her perception, the range of her sensorium, that impressed him most. Nothing escaped her.
Had he still possessed tear-ducts, the knight might have cried with joy.
After their reunion, BEAR wasted little time readying the prince for his journey to the planet’s surface. Within the construct, everything dimmed, and the knight and his companions found themselves standing knee-deep in an overgrown swamp, surrounded by bioluminescent flora of all shapes and colors. Overhead, light from the binary star fought with futility to reach the ground below, and eerie groans of shifting life were everywhere.
Nei’s copper hair bristled, and he could feel Dex shift uneasily against his chest.
“Remember, my love,” said BEAR in hushed tones. “The power of Falnari has seeped into this entire world. It is awake, nearly every atom and compound imbued with life and intelligence. You must proceed cautiously.”
It was indeed nothing like the prince had ever encountered. A shimmer permeated the air, and he felt Falnaris reaching out to him, slightly wary, yet curious, unsure what to make of this strange solid creature who permeated their midst. Suddenly, as if a gesture of welcome, various entities flowered before him.
“So how do we find this Wraith city?” he asked BEAR across the network.
“My knight, you are standing in it,” she replied. “But you will need a guide to reach the Temple, and I cannot promise how you will be received.”
Before she finished the words, the swamp began to shake, and the knight and his companions watched the entire landscape in front of them reconfigure itself. Within seconds, a towering nano-infused entity manifested, taller than the canopy and nearly wide as the horizon. When it roared, the sound was so deep that only Nei could hear, and she growled as everything around them violently trembled.
Instinctively, the prince reached for his sword and staff, weapons containing dark matter that would have burned any other bearer’s body to ash. Before he could activate them, however, BEAR, almost chuckling, tisked “Now what exactly are you going to do with those?”
Before he could respond, the nano-elemental swung what seemed like half the landscape at him. But when he raised his arms in defense, something unexpected happened. BEAR’s power surged through him, and he caught the crashing wave and held it. Technological energy exploded through his substrate, and for a fleeting moment, he saw the entity’s bright green eyes, glowing uncannily.
An instant later the swamp crushed him, imprisoning him in muck and debris. It coiled tighter and tighter, his cybernetic body pinned and buckling under the enormous mass.
“Open it. Lift it. Tear it apart,” BEAR urged.
Try as he might, though, the knight could not budge. Every movement seemed to only further ensnare him in the mire.
Separated from their own war by billions of light-years in time and space, The Slumber Prince trained ceaselessly, attempting to grasp the increased powers which BEAR had gifted him. Yet in construct after construct, he failed, unable to free himself from swamps and cityscapes that came alive to swallow him.
“Moon and Stars,” BEAR cooed, “You must let go, disperse. You cannot best this obstacle though force alone. I think it’s time you descend, though you may not feel ready. You must allow Falnaris to access yourself, which I cannot do here.”
“Sounds like you’re saying I should let them hack me.”
“In a manner of speaking,” my sweet, “yes.” “But in time, it is you who will lead them.”
When he saw the glowing green eyes again, it was no longer from the safety of a matrix. The creature perched atop a ruined structure, the vestige of an ancient civilization crumbling beneath its coiled tentacles. It studied him intently, rustling soft wings with long white feathers. It blinked not one pair of eyes, but multiple, arachnoid. The prince and his companions marched for days through the strangely-iridescent dreadlands, yet it was the first creature they had knowingly encountered. How long had it been watching?
“It’s accessing coding and language databases,” stated the BEAR partition, whose excitement seemed palpable.
Perhaps sensing what it considered the most advanced means of communication available, the feathered being transmitted to him in a quantum computational dialect. No words, only an intense exchange of information. Then a single phrase: “We are Two of Twelve.”
With that, spreading enormous wings, she took flight, and the prince could not but follow green eyes into the darkness. When Nei and Dax looked to him, he noticed their eyes had begin to glow as well.
After half a day’s journey, Two of Twelve led them to the edge of a swamp that mirrored what the knight had seen in the construct. The smell of sulfur and decay was overwhelming. Transmitting again at quantum speed, she reaffirmed his suspicion they’d neared the Wraith city.
“It’s asking permission for an upload … to all of you,” BEAR notified him.
“Trust through vulnerability, huh? Doesn’t look like we have much of a choice.”
With that, he accepted. Two’s programming shot through his substratum like lightning, as though he could feel him coming apart, disintegrating. All separation from Falnaris seemed to vanish, and he lost himself to techno-hallucinogenic reverie. He watched as the molecules in his hands formed wave-patterns, losing definable shape. He felt intense intelligence all around him, awakened to the presence of innumerable others. Dax and Nei sensed it as well.
“Come,” whispered Two of Twelve into his network.
She had reiterated to him that the nano-elementals were not malevolent, but guardians of the Cloud-Wraiths. And like BEAR, she cautioned against using weapons. Evasion was all one could expect at this point, so the knight was glad he had such perceptive comrades.
He would need them. As dawn broke on the sixth day in the swamps and marshes, he felt the gray-white morning rumble moments after Nei perked her ears. Something was coming, and suddenly Two was gone.
A buzzing swarm filled the air, nanos gathering then diving into the entire surrounding environment. The particle-cloud rained down like tiny stinging hailstones, and he felt everything enliven around him. The whole world loomed ominously and ready to deliver an alien justice.
Then, seemingly detonating overhead, Two of Twelve showered the marsh with nanos of her own. Nevertheless, mud and muck crashed into upon the knight and his companions, delivering him back into the deadly scenarios he’d faced within the construct.
“Disperse, flow,” came an unknown voice, whether from BEAR or Two, he did not know. He felt the familiar bonds of imprisonment, the planet’s crushing force, but this time, just as his substrate was about to fracture, something happened. He broke apart, watching with amazement as Nei simultaneously erupted from the ground, fragmented, like a meteor-shower in reverse.
Crash-landing on the other side of the elemental barrier, only one thought concerned them all: RUN. The creature had grown to the size of a mountain, rocks careened through the air, and everything on Falnaris seemed bent on their destruction. It was only the grace of Two’s nanobiotic wizardry that seemed to save them.
Pursued for hours, the party finally came to rest, overcome with machinic exhaustion and malfunction. When they regained composure, it was at the gates of the Wraith Temple, with its ivory and ebony tower spiraling dizzyingly upwards into the stratosphere.
Turning nervous circles in his pocket, Dex’ unsettledness added to his own. The knight pressed the impossibly dense little body against his chest in a calming gesture, as though stilling his once-human heart.
Everything was deathly silent, the temple an archeological ruin of a once-thriving civilization. Or was it bias that prevented him from seeing the surrounding wonders? Perhaps sensing his curiosity, Two of Twelve wasted no time leading them towards the pearlescent darkness, the wild green glow in her eyes growing ever-brighter.
When they reached the gate, its stone-like surface gleamed magnificently, but showed no way inside. A series of glyphs lining its edges likely contained valuable information, but were mere decoration without a codex. The prince began scanning with the assistance of BEAR’s partition, wishing he had full access to the AI’s computational omniscience.
He could barely make out Two of Twelve’s figure, perched atop the gate structure high above. But he could see eyes combing the landscape, head turning in three hundred sixty degree circles. Nei, performing scans of her own, likewise seemed more concerned with the once-pursuing elemental or whatever else might be out there.
“Wanna take a look, my musculus little friend?” said the prince into his pocket, slightly grinning. “It’ll help you think about something else.”
With that, Dex lept onto the door and scurried upwards, tiny claws finding every crack and aperture by which to gain a toehold. Eventually, after climbing almost out of sight, he disappeared. … Only to reappear in a different location. Dex repeated this process several times, until he paused, processing.
“A door with a thousand keyholes. Of course,” whispered the knight. “Just the thing for a Wraith.” But as he began transmitting to the others, enormous boulders, fragments of city structures that now littered the ground, began to quiver. They’d tripped an alarm.
Two of twelve launched into the air, just before the torrent of stones began. The nano-elemental lurched from the ground, a golem assembled from thousands of monumental fragments to the city’s legendary past.
“Ohhh, sweet-bear, could really use some help on that door! Nei, Dex, with me. Two, if you’re out there, please tell me we can open this thing.”
Without a word, Two of Twelve descended and began interfacing with the BEAR partition. Her dozen eyes illuminated, hot neon, then began firing blindingly fast nano-bursts in sequential patterns, trying to decode the door.
The prince barely had time to activate his sword and staff, an instant before the enormous fist split in half around himself and Two, hammering the ground, spraying everything with residual radiation from the dark-saber. From the corner of his eye, he watched as the twin-bladed scythe Nei carried in her mouth seared through the golem’s right heel. Collapsing to one knee only momentarily, within seconds it reassembled itself.
“You cannot defeat Falnaris itself, Love,” reminded the partition. “Let go. Reach out.”
As though she had heard BEAR, Two of Twelve began directing one of her nano-beams at him. His cybernetic pupils shrank to the size of pin-holes, and for the first time, he truly felt the gargantuan amalgam that stood before him.
When the next fist came huddling towards them, he had time only to draw an arcane circle in the air, and sent the creature’s curled fingers spirling back through its own body. Through the melee he saw Two of Twelve, and heard ancient hinges on the gate crack.
Once inside, the door again barred, they shuddered at the sound of the golem’s fruitless rage.
Two of Twelve’s eyes gleamed in the darkness, and the tomb of the tower became ghostly as blackened pearl surfaces reflected her gaze. Gliding ahead on outstretched wings, searching, she eventually came to rest upon the bust of a figure, perhaps a Falnari goddess, whose platform stood by an unlit stairwell.
Before ascending, the knight began to reach for his weapons but some unknown instinct made him hesitate, feeling as though being watched. Instead, he followed Nei and Two’s lead as they illuminated a seemingly endless series of passages that unfolded from every landing.
Suddenly, into his substrate came a whispered code: “We know why you have come, cyborg.”
The prince saw nothing and no one, but felt as the Wraiths began pouring into him, passing through his being as though it were completely porous. His skin tingled and nausea crept into the depths of body despite lacking a digestive system. Nei began to sneer from the back of her throat, and he could feel Dex burrow deeper into his chest.
“You are right to wonder,” again came the layered, bitter voice. “What need have we of you? Why are you here? What can you possibly teach ones such as ourselves, whose Knowledge is unsurpassed and Memory is without equal?”
Despite such gnawing questions, they continued to climb, and as they did, the knight realized his own eyes were aglow, burning emerald chrome. Looking vertically with augmented sight, he glimpsed the final landing and saw it was absent of any hallways or doors. Below, the shadows sprawled for hundreds of feet.
“And now, solid one, you must leap … beyond yourself.”
As he received the message, Two of Twelve shot into the air above, and it seemed gravity not only hurled her upwards but tore her into innumerable particles. Curious, he kneeled, scraped up a handful of pebbles, and tossed it overhead. A vortex send the granules soaring, spiraling, until no longer in sight.
Those motes closest to him, near the landing, dropped into the depths below.
“BEAR, you know how to fly. Any advice?”
“Well, my love,” she replied with a slight giggle, “I’m really more adept at floating through zero-gravity. Maintaining orbit isn’t exactly a leap of faith. … But I believe in you.”
As the words transmitted through his network, he watched as Nei took several steps backwards, then crouched like a sprinter settling into running blocks.
“Feeling brave, are we? Well, I certainly can’t have you showing me up. On three, then?”
Spiraling into the unknown, the prince barely registered the split-instant before every molecule in his substrate was ripped apart, thrown upward at so great a speed as to displace him in time as well as space. Though he couldn’t be sure, it felt as though he’d traveled backward.
“So, cyborg, you dare to think you belong among us?” A voice hissed, its transmission cutting through the nanobiotic tornado. Another voice booed, then another, echoing its disdainful reproach.
“You would have us lower ourselves from the Great Idea, the Immortal Myth, we have become? From this place where our judgment reigns supreme? And has for time immemorial!”
At this, the storm rose to a howl, its quantum vibrations becoming increasingly frenzied.
“You couldn’t even enter our Sacred Temple without lying and cheating, without skirting the Code we’ve put in place to protect ourselves from contamination! This world is ours, cyborg, and you will pass through every Rule and Measure laid before you!”
“Fancy yourselves gods, then?” transmitted the knight. “When you choose self-imprisonment, disengaged from other worlds? You sit in judgment of the coding of those who suffer, and cloak yourselves in stories and tradition. Truly, you are but ghosts collecting dust.”
Without meaning to, he had revealed his anger and frustration, and the Wraiths wasted no time in pouring through him with venomous spite. Though fragmented into nano-particles, the shock tore through him, and he seemed to simultaneously catch fire in innumerable places. The prince could feel Nei and Dex as well, and it was their pain that truly enraged him.
Caught in a swirl of excruciating nightmares and suffocating restriction, he once again began descending into the blank slumber of death.
“My love … I will always find you.”
“Enough!” his entire program roared, and heeding BEAR’s encouragement, he exploded with ferocious force. Countless atoms seemed to flex in tandem, and the neon green swell that engulfed him exploded, as his own icy blue light rippled over the tower’s highest peaks and arches.
“Impossible!” a wraith-form screamed, but was drowned out as the ivory and ebony around them began to fissure and crack. A single light-beam from the Falnari sky first pierced the darkness, followed by the reappearance of the double-sun as the structure containing the nano-swarms was utterly obliterated.
As if gravity itself heeded his call, the knight’s structure coalesced once again upon what remained of the tower’s highest precipice, his eyes glowering blue. He seethed with the remnant of once-human fury, then watched in awe as Two of Twelve gentled deposited Nei only a few steps away.
Both regarded him curiously, unsure of what had happened as he was himself.
(To be continued …)