The Architect’s Plan

Strangely, Marcus could remember exactly what it felt like when he died. Even worse, the Quickening had taken longer than usual. Much longer, if the clock on the wall of the repair shuttle’s sleeping cabin could be trusted. He propped himself up on his elbows, not yet strong enough to completely sit up. He only had a few minutes before the violent vomiting would begin, and with no one there but Trout to help him, he needed to make sure the ship was headed in the right direction. Mustering his strength, Marcus swung his feet off the side of the bed and sat up. The pain in his head was instant.

Something’s wrong. It’s never been like this.

Instinctively, Marcus reached up to his chest to clasp the small piece of Quickstone that hung by a silver chain around his neck. He closed his eyes and brought his arm up to a right angle to recite the Song of the Architect.

Nothing.

Instead of the rush of euphoric healing he expected, Marcus’s head was filled with a throbbing pain which threatened to dislodge his eyes from their sockets. He clenched his teeth.

“Trout?”

A familiar beeping and whirring came from the cockpit as the little robot hovered down the short corridor and stopped in the middle of the sleeping cabin’s threshold. His large optical sensor dilated as it darted back and forth from Marcus to the lavatory, as if judging the distance between them. He chirped a question in Dhulani. Marcus waved his hand dismissively in response.

“No, I’m not nauseous yet. And you’re right; I think I need something for the pain.”

Trout’s response seemed to convey worry. Although Marcus knew the little robot’s AI governor prevented true sentience, he couldn’t help but attribute human emotion to him at times. For hundreds of years he’d felt there was more to the repair bot than the beeps and whirrs he typically got. That’s why he’d begun to tinker with the AI governor. To find a way around it.

“I don’t know if the analgesic will work, I’ve never used one before,” said Marcus as he rubbed his temples, “but something’s wrong with the Quickstone, and I have to be able to think clearly.”

Trout hovered over to the bed, a panel on the side of his spherical body sliding open to reveal several transdermals containing different colored liquids. Each cylinder bore the Dhulani words for first aid, as well as the medicine’s name, purpose, and proper dosage. Marcus knew that guidance wasn’t meant for human physiology, but with the pain behind his eyes growing sharper by the minute, he was willing to take a chance.

The transdermal was easy to use and didn’t hurt as much as his Dhulani masters made it seem. Marcus always figured they had a lower threshold for pain than humans. They certainly had no tolerance for death. Why else would the Humani exist?

Within seconds the opioid set him awash with a euphoria that deadened the pain in his head. It was nothing like the blissful ecstasy of the Quickstone, but it would have to do. At least until he figured out what had gone wrong.

Why hadn’t the Song worked?

Without warning Marcus’s stomach lurched. He threw himself towards the lavatory, just able to shut the door before the first bout of intense nausea hit him. When his stomach finally settled, he pointed the ship in the right direction, waited out the twelve-hour acceleration burn, and went back to the sleeping cabin for much needed rest.

~

Grace pried the metal door open with one of her larger crowbars. She needed only enough room to grab the edge of the door and give it a yank. It fell off its hinges and hit the floor with a resounding thud. Dust flew everywhere, but Grace was prepared and wore a breathing mask. She’d been exploring these ruins of the original Mars colony for several weeks now. But this room had not been on the agenda today. Until she heard the voice and followed it here.

When the dust settled, Grace cracked several glow sticks and threw them around the room. The green light they cast gave the room an eerie feel. The voice was barely audible and was coming from a console on the far side of the room.

~

For the sixth morning in a row Marcus woke up with a start. His mind still raced with the remnants of vivid dreams.

I hope they are dreams.

But somehow he knew they were not. Rogue memories invaded his thoughts by day while the dreams tortured his nights: images, smells, sensations that, until a few days ago, he was certain he’d never experienced. But now… now he wasn’t so sure anymore.

At least he was eight nav-points closer to home. Soon he’d be able to ask the Prelate, or at least one of the Vicars, what it all meant. And there was a lot to discuss. First the Quickstone’s slow response, then the Song of the Architect failing to heal him on demand. Now the horrible memories that relentlessly filled his mind. There had to be an explanation. Any explanation would do. Anything that confirmed he really had not done the things in his dreams.

Trout had noticed Marcus’s fitful sleep and began docking in his diagnostic station in the early evenings so he could hover quietly beside Marcus’s bed at night in case he was needed.

“You don’t have to do that,” insisted Marcus. But there was no deterring the little robot who chirped a defiant response. Marcus gently pushed him aside as he stood to make his way to the front of the shuttle.

From the cockpit he had an almost unobstructed view around the small ship. Since he didn’t have to compensate for spin like in the sleeping module, getting his bearings was much easier. Of course the cockpit had no gravity, but that was the trade-off for not having to watch stars streak across the window.

Marcus strapped himself into the pilot’s seat. Because it was made for an average-sized Dhulani, the chair had never felt quite right. But he was more at home here on the shuttle than just about anywhere else these days. The shuttle’s familiarity helped him contend with his newfound and very unwelcome memories.

Marcus’ fingers danced across the capacitive surface of the computer console, bringing up a map of local space. The console displayed a three-dimensional rendering with blinking red dots representing the region’s nav-points. Several rows of data scrolled up the display screen in looping, green Dhulani script. He was still on course, despite leaving most of the last week of flying up to Trout.

That little robot seems to be getting smarter every day.

“Trout?” he said, glancing over his shoulder and down the central corridor. “You coming?”

Upon hearing Marcus’s call, Trout’s big optical lens, ringed by a glowing blue light, perked up and Marcus could hear the familiar warble of the robot’s motor as he hovered into the cockpit.

“Thanks for reeling in my tether back there at the buoy. I’d still be tumbling through space if you hadn’t.”

I’d be dead.

Trout’s big eye dilated with an electronic whine. He chirped a question. Marcus shot him a wounded look.

And that’s where you fall short, he thought. A human being would have at least pretended to care about me. Instead, you ask about my EV suit?

“Yeah, I’ll definitely need a new one,” Marcus said with a sigh. “I don’t think we have a patch on the shuttle big enough to fix a hole that big.”

The thought of the fist-sized piece of space debris ripping through his chest brought on an involuntary heave. Marcus thrust the scene from his mind. Though he could remember what it felt like when he died, he certainly didn’t want to. The Quickstone usually wiped away the details of death. That it had failed to do so this time was more than disconcerting.

What if I start remembering all the times I’ve died? he thought. What if the Quickstone doesn’t work at all next time? There’d be no Quickening. No reviving me.

A twinge of something strange, something Marcus couldn’t remember feeling before, plucked at his mind. It came on stronger when he dwelled on the accident. He wished he knew what the uncomfortable feeling was.

Trout’s chirping interrupted Marcus’s introspection. He responded by nodding his head slightly, almost absent-mindedly.

“Makes sense. The accident happened before I could finish up repairs on Interdictor Buoy Nine, so it looks like the Nexus Nav is routing all interstellar traffic in this region through Buoy 10.”

An amber light began to flash angrily on the console between them. “And now it’s failing under the strain.”

Trout moved closer to the console in front of the co-pilot’s chair. Electricity arced between his shiny metallic surface and the touch pad on the control panel, causing a three-dimensional rendering of the stressed interdictor buoy to be displayed. Trout’s Dhulani chirping became more insistent.

“Yeah,” replied Marcus, shrugging his shoulders, “I guess we should go check it out. It’s only a little out of our way. Besides,” he said, slapping Trout playfully on the side, “it’ll give me a couple more weeks to work on that Humani voice modulator I promised you. I think it’s time you learned to speak English.”

~

The Presiding Prelate motioned with his hand for the Vicar General to enter.

“There’s been another lasting death,” said the Vicar. “That makes seventeen in the past three weeks. And the Dhulani are beginning to ask questions. Difficult questions.”

Seventeen deaths out of over ten thousand Humani didn’t seem like much, but for a people who had lived a thousand years with only a handful of permanent deaths, it was quite alarming.

The Vicar moved further into the Prelate’s private chamber. Even at the Prelate’s beckoning, doing so made him nervous. Vicars were not often allowed past the threshold.

“And then there’s the matter of the suppressed memories. Though the Quickstone still works for some, those with especially strong experiences have reported increasing recollection.”

Electric motors whined as the Prelate’s chair spun around to face the Vicar.

“Dreams?”

The Vicar padded closer. As he did, the rustling of his robes mingled with the sound of his bare feet slapping the metal floor of the chamber. His eyes were drawn to the wall of transparent computer displays forming a semicircle directly in front of the Prelate’s desk. The information they displayed was in English.

I shall be able to read English one day, thought the Vicar. When I am Prelate, I will remember everything from before.

The Vicar clasped his hands behind his back and stood as straight and tall as he could before answering the Prelate’s question.

“Yes, dreams… for the most part. But there is one,” he cast his gaze at the floor between them before continuing in a hushed tone, “who says he remembers more… Marcus.”

Instinctively, the Prelate reached for the piece of Quickstone which no longer hung from his neck. Instead of the pendant, his hand touched only the aged, mottled skin sagging under his chin. For several seconds he sat quietly, processing. The Vicar could only imagine what he was thinking.

The Prelate nodded gravely. “This is quite serious,” he said. “It could ruin everything, upset the balance, even thwart the Architect’s Plan. If Marcus remembers who he was before becoming Humani…”

The Vicar cocked his head to one side and interrupted his superior.

“The Architect’s Plan? Or your plan?”

The Prelate’s eyes widened. “Are they not the same? Do they not achieve an identical end?”

“Indeed, your Excellency,” responded the Vicar, bowing his head.

But perhaps it is best we had a new Prelate, he thought. One who will keep the original vows. One who is not so afraid of completing our true mission.

The Prelate swallowed, attempting to wet his drying mouth. “But,” he paused for effect, “with the Quickstone malfunctioning, we could use Marcus’s newfound memories to our advantage. He is quite possibly the only one still alive who can repair it.”

The Vicar’s bottom lip quivered at the thought. “What if we cannot control him?”

He licked the droplets of sweat that began to gather just beneath his nose. “Can he even be trusted? After what happened so many years ago?”

“That remains to be seen, my son. He was once a man of reason. Now, leave me.” The Prelate dismissed his subordinate with a wave of his hand.

The portly Vicar did as he was told, but as he passed through the chamber’s arched doorway he stopped abruptly and turned on his heel.

“Master Prelate,” he said, waiting respectfully for permission to continue.

“Yes?”

“What of the Dhulani? What will they do to the Humani when they find out the Quickstone no longer works? When they realize that our part of the Treaty can no longer be upheld?”

The Prelate sighed heavily. “You ask the wrong question, my son. It is not what the Dhulani will do to our people, but what they will do to the billions of humans who live on the far side of the galaxy, on Earth. That, my son, is the question. And the reason why you must ensure the Quickstone is fixed. And why you must do so now.”

~

“I feel a strange and new sensation,” said Trout.

Marcus shook his head. “You don’t feel anything. You’re a robot. Not Dhulani, not human. You may sense power fluctuations or something else, but you certainly don’t feel. Just because you have a new voice modulator doesn’t mean you are anything more than a tangle of circuits and alloys”

From his docking station, Trout cast his gaze toward the floor. Despite what Marcus just said to Trout, he thought the action was a decidedly human thing to do. His rebuffing seemed to have hurt the little robot’s feelings. If Trout possessed shoulders, Marcus was certain they would be drooping.

He’s just mimicking me. He can’t feel anything.

A tone sounded three times, indicating the shuttle had finished its eleven-hour deceleration. Marcus’ chair swiveled to face forward. Inertia’s invisible hands tugged slightly at his floating arms. He brought up a rendering of local space. Right in the center of the map was a grey cylinder. Interdictor Buoys reminded Marcus of the antique Dhulani drink shaker Dharon had secretly given him several years back. Secretly, because most Dhulani masters did not want their Humani to have a sense of ownership. It simply wasn’t done. Marcus smiled.

Dharon’s a pretty good master, isn’t he?

Without thinking, Marcus leaned forward in his seat and felt for the scars on his back. Scars? Indeed, there were no physical marks, for they had all been healed. But the Quickstone, with all its power, had not been able to erase everything. His mind was suddenly flooded with memories of beatings that had been blocked for so long. The thought left Marcus wondering if Dharon was as good as he wanted to believe.

Another unwanted memory invaded his thoughts. It was like watching a replay from a security camera, from a first-person perspective. There was so much blood, both human and Dhulani. Red and yellow coalesced in puddles on the ground everywhere in his memory. Marcus wished he knew why he’d killed so many. Were the Dhulani the enemy? Should Dharon be his enemy?

He did give me the drink shaker.

Marcus felt something new in his chest. Something that made him uncomfortable and left him confused. He shook his head and ran his fingers through his hair. Trout undocked and warbled into the cockpit, bringing Marcus’s thoughts back to their present conversation.

“You don’t feel things either,” said the little robot, a hint of defiance in his newfound human voice.

For Marcus, it was strange to talk to Trout in English. It was even stranger when Trout answered in Marcus’ own voice. It hadn’t been his first choice, but there was no database of human vocal tones to use for the modulator, so he had used his own. Trout persisted.

“The Quickstone inhibits the basest of human emotions: anger, aggression, fear…”

Marcus frowned. Trout continued, despite Marcus’ non-verbal cue.

“…even erases memories of pain and details of one’s death.”

Marcus sighed heavily.

Only when it works.

A proximity alarm rang out as the repair shuttle began its docking sequence with Buoy 10. The interdictor buoy had a spiky communications array at one end and a force field emitter at the other. The shuttle attached to a docking collar in the middle. When the buoys worked properly, no ship leaving the Nexus could slip by without being stopped. It was easy to see, however, why Buoy 10 had malfunctioned.

“Trout, I don’t think the buoy was overloaded. Look there, just under the lower access panel.”

Trout focused his eye while zooming in on the damaged buoy. “It looks like it was shot. I don’t have ballistic algorithms or a database of armaments, but if I had to venture a guess, I’d say it was something about the size of a fist.”

“Like what hit me when I was repairing Buoy 9?” asked Marcus.

Their conversation was cut short by a second alarm.

“Trout, the Nexus Nav is routing another ship through this portal. We need to get the buoy up and running before it gets here. Nav says it’s one of the big long-haul freighters. The taxes on it alone are enough to buy five shuttles like this one. Dharon will be very angry if he loses that amount of money.”

Trout turned abruptly and hovered quickly out of the cockpit with Marcus right behind. Even with nearly a thousand years of practice, Marcus was no match for the agile robot in zero gravity.

“Where do you think you’re going?”

Trout answered without slowing. “I’m going to repair the buoy. If I recall, your EV suit has a large hole in it, and your spare hasn’t been used in nearly seventy-five years. It’s well beyond spec.”

He was right, but Marcus didn’t like it.

“You’ve never repaired a buoy alone. I’ll just suit up in the spare and…”

Trout shut the airlock door and started the decompression cycle, effectively locking Marcus inside the shuttle. Truth be told, Marcus was a little relieved… and ashamed. For longer than he could remember, he’d been performing all the jobs the Dhulani considered too dangerous to do themselves. And even though he’d died over two hundred times, he’d never remembered the feelings.

But this last time he had remembered. He remembered the terror. The pain. The cold. The utter helplessness of fading into oblivion. But most importantly, the loneliness. He was forever changed, and he knew it.

Returning to the cockpit, Marcus opened up a radio channel.

“You know I could turn you in for this,” he said, hoping for some kind of reaction from Trout.

Several seconds passed before the perky robot responded. “You wouldn’t do that, Marcus. Besides, you made me this way. You’ve been tinkering with my AI governor for years. But the last modification you made is what finally did it, and now I’ve got newly-discovered memory banks to explore. And they aren’t empty.

It was true. Marcus had hoped to give the little repair bot some enhanced critical thinking capabilities. Not only would that have made Trout more reliable as Marcus’ assistant, but he’d hoped it might spice up their conversations some. So Marcus had carefully routed logic routines through ancillary systems, forking data passing through the AI governor so that it was mirrored in an alternate data stream. But still, he was confused. The modifications were so minor. Surely the robot hadn’t emerged? After all, that would be illegal. The Dhulani were more afraid of AIs than death. No, it was crazy for Trout to claim he was sentient. But asserting that he had access to memory banks that were full of data? That was just silly.

“Trout, you’re going crazy. Well, not crazy. A robot can’t go crazy. It’s a simple voice modulator, nothing more. It’s not even connected directly to the AI governor circuit.”

By now Marcus could see the shiny round robot through the cockpit’s front window floating next to the Buoy with its access panel open. Arcs of electricity danced between Trout and the Buoy’s exposed internals. The comm channel crackled.

“There. I’ve fixed it. And just in time.”

Marcus watched as the Nexus portal began to shimmer with gleaming blue energy and the large freighter, filled with masses of unknown Dhulani goods, emerged from hyperspace and slowed to a stop directly in front of the Buoy.

Fifteen minutes later, credits and forced pleasantries alike had been exchanged over the holocom between Marcus and the freighter’s captain, who was somewhat taken aback to be greeted by a living being, and even more so when he discovered Marcus was Humani. Surprisingly, he made no derisive comment.

Trout returned to the shuttle and resumed his usual position at the co-pilot’s station.

“Why did you keep me from making the repairs myself?” Marcus asked, his dour mood worsening by the minute.

Trout’s optical sensor dilated and turned toward Marcus. “You are far too valuable to place yourself in unnecessary danger.”

“But I’m Humani. That’s what we do.

Trout released the docking clamps and turned the shuttle around before starting the two-minute countdown for the main thrusters. Marcus strapped himself into the pilot’s seat in anticipation of the fifteen-hour acceleration burn. Trout headed back down the corridor to his docking station.

“The Quickstone is broken,” he said in Marcus’ voice. “That makes you as mortal as the Dhulani. In my estimation, you aren’t Humani anymore. You are merely human.”

~

The next fifteen hours might as well have been fifteen days. Trout would not wake when called, and with the G’s the shuttle was pulling during acceleration, there was no getting out of his harness to force the issue. So Marcus sat in silence, his mind racing.

Had he actually created an AI? He would have to power Trout down and inspect the changes he’d made again. This was dangerous territory. If Dharon found out, Marcus would be compelled to turn Trout in to the authorities for dismantling. The Dhulani AI Rebellion may have ended over two thousand years ago, but its effects on Dhulani law and culture could still be felt. The thought of Trout being dismantled filled Marcus’ mind, and, try as he may, he could not think of anything else. Which was a welcome relief considering the nature of his newfound memories.

Nine days later and seven nav-points closer to Dhulas Prime, the shuttle was forced by Nav Control into an unscheduled deceleration. There was no communication, no message, nothing. Marcus and Trout only had the two-minute burn countdown to warn them, and that was barely enough time for Marcus to put Trout back together; pieces of his cobbled-together human and Dhulani technology lay scattered across the workbench in the sleeping module. Marcus had to take great care to keep from tripping the AI governor’s anti-tamper mechanisms. He wasn’t sure if he’d lose his hands in the explosion or if the whole shuttle would be destroyed, but didn’t want to find out.

They were in synchronous communication range now, so it didn’t surprise Marcus when the holocom indicator light flashed with calls. After twenty minutes of nonstop chirping, Marcus reluctantly answered. It was the last person he expected to see.

“Your Excellency, I am surprised by your call. You must have received my communication then? About my dreams? My memories?”

“Your Excellency is the Prelate. You may call me Master Vicar.”

“Thank you, Master Vicar. My apologies,” replied Marcus warily. In his experience, direct communication from the Prelate’s office, even if by one of his Vicars, usually meant something serious. He had not expected an answer to his questions so quickly, or to come from someone so high-ranking as the Vicar General.

“You weren’t expecting me, were you,” asked the Vicar, a wry smile creeping across his face.

“No, Master Vicar. I thought it might be Dharon.”

“Ah yes, your Dhulani master. I’m sure he has attempted to contact you. But I am actually quite pleased I reached you first.”

Marcus shifted in his seat uncomfortably. The Vicar continued.

“I…” He paused and started over. “The Prelate… has taken an interest in your report. The dreams, both while sleeping and awake, are most troublesome.” He seemed to pause for effect. “In addition to getting to the bottom of what molests you, we have a task of utmost importance for you to carry out. One that will affect every single Humani in the galaxy.”

Had the Vicar called his memories daydreams? If they were only dreams, why would they be so troublesome to the Prelate? And what could he possibly do that the Prelate himself or one of his Vicars could not do? What’s more, though Marcus was certain he’d never spoken with the Vicar before, there was something familiar about him. Something in the way he cocked his head to one side. Something about his voice.

“It’s the Quickstone isn’t it?” guessed Marcus.

The Vicar General nodded solemnly. “Yes, the Quickstone. You must find out what is wrong and repair it.”

Marcus knew there was more to it than that. Why did the Vicar want him to do it? Nobody knew the nature of the Architect or how the Quickstone worked. Surely one of the clerics was a better choice? Marcus was a tech head, a mechanic, a technologist. Religion and mystical powers were beyond his expertise.

“I summoned the Architect after my last Quickening. To remove the pain in my head. It didn’t work. That’s all I know. I don’t even understand what or who the Architect is. Do you? Does anyone?”

“That is a question I cannot answer. Only the Presiding Prelate can reveal the nature of the Architect. Assertions from anyone else are pure conjecture,” replied the Vicar.

“I’ll need to request a leave of absence from Dharon. He may not be very willing to let me go given the recent failures of the interdictor buoys.”

The Vicar became visibly impatient.

“You will report to these coordinates immediately,” he responded as he remotely keyed in a message to the repair shuttle’s nav-computer. “There is no time to waste.”

How did he do that?

Marcus watched as the nav-computer plotted a course to the coordinates the Vicar sent.

“Master Vicar, my nav-computer has routed me through the Nexus. Humani are not allowed to use the Nexus. It’s against Dhulani law.”

The Vicar shook his head in exasperation. “I have made arrangements for your shuttle to be permitted to travel through the Nexus. We cannot wait ten months for you to reach the Architect’s Sanctuary via conventional means.”

“But how will I get through the portal? The Sentinels scan for Humani life signs. My shuttle will be destroyed in minutes!”

The Vicar smiled. “You needn’t worry, my son. The Sentinels won’t detect any Humani life signs on your ship. You see, you will be dead.”

A wave of dread slammed Marcus like a punch to the gut.

“But the Quickstone…!?”

“I assure you that you will awaken tomorrow, alive and well, inside the Sanctuary.”

Marcus could hear electric motors whine to life as the air was pumped out of the cockpit. Within seconds he was very sleepy and bright, multi-colored dots formed in his peripheral vision.

“Trout?” He didn’t want to die alone. “Trout, are you there?” He lost consciousness before the robot could respond.

~

It was a miracle. It had to be. It was the only way to explain how the Quickstone had revived him. Unless the Prelate had repaired it himself? Marcus came to, a portly man in cleric’s robes standing at the foot of his bed.

The Vicar?

Trout chirped an excited greeting in Dhulani. Why wasn’t Trout using his Humani voice? Marcus’s mind slowly cleared and he remembered what happened. How he travelled through the Nexus. How the Vicar killed him. Now he felt strong and invigorated. He felt alive. Though the Quickstone was not supposed to allow him feel it, a surge of anger welled up in his chest. Anger directed at the Vicar for killing him knowing Marcus would remember it all. Trout had likely watched the whole thing, unable to intervene. It was quite smart of him to hide the changes he’d undergone. There was no telling how the Vicar might react to the robot’s human voice and new-found sentience. Marcus decided to play ignorant.

“How did the Quickstone revive me? Is it working again?” he asked.

The Vicar’s hands were clasped in front of his ample belly, almost completely hidden by the drooping sleeves of his coarsely-woven robe. He took a step closer and leaned in to get a better look at Marcus. Satisfied with what he saw, he turned and padded across the room.

“Nanobots.”

Marcus shot up out of bed, startled by the revelation.

“What?”

“Your blood is full of them. When the Quickstone calls, the nanobots download the appropriate data and rebuild you. This time, I manually started the process.”

The fog in Marcus’s head had fully dissipated.

That was quick. Where’s the nausea?

“I don’t understand. What is the Quickstone then? It’s not a relic of the Architect?”

The Vicar shook his head. “The Quickstone is not a stone at all. It is a quantum transmitter.”

Marcus knew that ‘quantum transmitter’ meant entangled particles. It was a principle the Dhulani had used in some of their computing applications, but the energy needed to keep the devices cool had proven too impractical for other uses.

“And the Architect?”

The Vicar shook his head and clicked his tongue. “You really don’t recall, do you?” He sighed. “Of all people I would have thought you would remember first.”

Marcus’s head was swimming. Sure, he had plenty of new memories to choose from, but they lacked context, and he could associate none of them with the Architect.

“I remember doing things.” He gazed ashamed at the floor. “Bad things.”

The Vicar’s eyes widened. “Not bad. Necessary.

Could he see the horror in Marcus’s eyes? Had it really been necessary to kill as many Dhulani as he had?  No, he hoped for some other explanation.

The Vicar grabbed Marcus by the arms and shook him. Then, pulling him close so their faces were only a couple inches apart he said: “Don’t you remember me?”

Marcus pulled away from the Vicar’s hold and took an unconscious step backward. Trout hovered to his side, his optical sensor darting back and forth as he assessed the situation. Even at arms-length Marcus could smell the other man’s sweat, his fear.

Why is he afraid?

Marcus closed his eyes and tried to remember the Vicar’s face. He did not expect it to come to his mind so easily. And strangely, in his mind’s eye the Vicar did not wear a coarsely-woven cleric’s robe. Instead, Marcus saw him in combat armor. And then it hit him. Like a rushing wind howling in his mind, he remembered.

All of it.

I can’t let him know.

The Vicar’s silence made Marcus wonder if the other man had seen the recognition in his eyes. What had him so worried? No, Marcus couldn’t let the Vicar know how much he recalled.

He shook his head, like one does after waking from a nap, and rubbed his temples before continuing. “I… I remember the Quickstone. I think I know how it works. I need to see inside the Sanctuary. I… I can fix it.”

The Vicar, who by this time had backed away a couple of steps, stared at Marcus for a few moments, measuring him. “I will provide whatever tools and materials you require, my son,” he replied at length.

Marcus nodded and followed the Vicar into the Inner Sanctum. It was a large room with cathedral-like architecture. Giant conduits ran up the walls and converged at the top of the chamber’s domed ceiling. Right in the center was the computer core, a super-cooled compartment barely big enough for a man to enter. Marcus half guessed, half remembered this. He disappeared inside the electronic cube, reemerging after nearly twenty minutes. His countenance was dour.

“I’ll need some pretty advanced Dhulani computer components: a high capacity neural conduit, and some gel coolant. They’ll work well-enough with our technology. I’ve proven that with Trout. He’s got almost as much Dhulani tech as human. Especially the AI governor.”

The Vicar approached Marcus cautiously. “You have remembered quite a bit about the Quickstone.” Then, wiping the sweat from his brow with the droopy sleeve of his robe, he added: “What else do you recall,” a hint of apprehension in his voice.

Marcus understood the Vicar’s caution. If he were in the other man’s shoes, he’d be nervous too. Especially after what he’d helped do to Marcus almost a thousand years before. Perhaps he’d changed? Maybe this time he was here to help Marcus.

“I remember the mission. The Architect’s Plan.”

The Vicar’s eyes grew wide, first with fear, then with the frenetic gaze of the deranged.

“Then you know you were one of the Chosen! The strongest, the bravest. The smartest humanity had to offer. You were part of the most important mission ever devised by mankind!”

Marcus nodded his head. There was no way around it. It was time to confront the Vicar.

“I was not alone. You were among the Chosen, too, Master Vicar. Or do you prefer ‘Lieutenant Greer’? A thousand years ago, I knew you as Spades. A nickname your men gave you.” Marcus shook his head slowly. “But that was then. I’m not sure we’re on the same side anymore.”

Tears were streaming down the Vicar’s face. He took a step closer to Marcus, concealing a handgun in the sleeve of his robes.

“No! You were one of us! The best of us. Our leader.” The Vicar’s face was flushed and wet with sweat and tears. “You built the Architect to ensure the success of the Mission.”

It was the one piece of his past that was still under the thick shroud of forgetfulness brought on by the Quickstone. Could he trust what the Vicar was telling him? Marcus simply could not remember anything about the Architect. But he did remember what Lieutenant Greer had done to him.

“You betrayed me.” Marcus’s countenance hardened. “The Prelate betrayed me. Our mission was to pretend to submit to the Dhulani as tribute, slaves that could not die. The Quickstone…” Marcus ran his fingers through his hair. “It wasn’t supposed to keep us in the cycle this long. A dozen or so years. Until we were in position with each of the ruling Dhulani families. Immortal soldiers sent to finish the war with the Dhulani once and for all.” More images of human and Dhulani dead flooded his mind.

The Vicar was shaking now. “The Prelate’s plan has kept the peace for over a thousand years.” He searched Marcus’s eyes for any clue to his thoughts, to which way he leaned. Marcus knew the Vicar was making a play for power. He waited patiently for the Vicar to continue.

“However, with the right leadership, new leadership, we could revert to the original plan and carry it out.” There was a hopeful timbre to the Vicar’s voice.

Does he want me as an ally in his coup?

Marcus tried imagining the results of the plan. Not only was it suicide, especially without the Quickstone, he wasn’t sure he could bring himself to murder Dharon. And what of the Prelate?

“Why should I trust you, Master Vicar?” He reached behind his back and retrieved a rolled up plastic data sheet he’d found inside the Inner Sanctum. He pointed at it with his other hand. “Do you recognize this?”

The Vicar was shaking almost uncontrollably. Sweat ran freely down his face.

“What does it say?”

Marcus turned the data sheet around for the Vicar to see, turning it on as he did.

“It’s in English,” said the Vicar. “I can’t remember how to read English. The Prelate made sure of that.”

Marcus’s pause was too much for the other man, whose frenetic comportment only worsened.

“Tell me what it says!” the Vicar demanded. Marcus’s lips moved as he read the order to himself again. The Vicar jammed the muzzle of the gun, no longer hidden in his sleeve, into Marcus’s side. “Tell me!”

Marcus replied coldly, not even noting the weapon. “It’s the Prelate’s order to kill me. It was addressed to Lieutenant Greer. But obviously you didn’t follow the order. Instead, you dialed up the Quickstone to scrub my mind. You turned me into a slave. You turned all of us into slaves. For a thousand years!”

“Yes!” the Vicar replied, on the verge of panic. “I didn’t kill you. Despite the Prelate’s order. And when I told him what I’d done, he used the situation to pacify the Dhulani. We simply did what we promised to do: serve them in exchange for leaving Earth alone.”

Marcus glanced at the gun in the Vicar’s wildly unsteady hand. During the first war, he’d used one just like it to kill a hundred Dhulani, maybe more.

“What makes you so sure you can do it now,” challenged Marcus, nodding towards the shaking barrel of the gun.

“I took care of the Prelate.” The Vicar’s tongue lapped at the sweat dripping from his upper lip.

“I can take care of anyone who gets in my way,” he said in a shaky voice. “You’ve already seen evidence of that.”

Marcus looked at the Vicar expectantly. “Evidence?”

“Yes. I revived some of our forward attack drones. We stashed them in the asteroid belt between Interdictor Buoys 9 and 10 all those years ago. It’s a miracle they still work. I tested them on the Buoys. When the time comes, they will help us gain access to the Nexus.”

“You killed me with one of them. The projectile tore a fist-sized hole in my chest!”

“It was… an oversight. The drone did not specifically target you… Besides, I can do without the drones. But you, Marcus, you have talents not even I can do without. I need you.”

“You need me to help repair the Quickstone? Build another computer to run it? Create another Architect? Or,” he continued, voice thick with disgust, “to help you kill the Dhulani?” His countenance darkened. “Or purge the Humani who don’t agree with your plan?”

The Vicar brandished the pistol again, drawing confidence from the weapon. But before he could respond, a bolt of electricity leaped out from Trout, who had quietly hovered around behind him. The bolt hit the Vicar in the back of the head and sent him into the jerking convulsions of electrocution. His smoldering body fell stiffly to the ground, steaming blood trickling from his nose. In his electrically-induced convulsions, the Vicar managed to fire a single round at Marcus.

Marcus, stumbled to his knees, clutching his bleeding chest. Trout warbled to his side.

“Marcus!” cried the robot.

The last thing Marcus remembered feeling was the warmth of his blood as it spread over his chest. It felt just like the accident at Buoy 9 all over again. He smelled the stench of the Vicar’s electrocuted body. He heard the familiar but unsteady warble of the little repair bot’s motor as it hovered closer.

Goodbye Trout. Thank you for not letting me die alone.

~

Marcus shot up with a start. He was in a familiar place, but the fog in his head was still thick. The repair shuttle. He was in the sleeping compartment. The clock on the wall. The lavatory. He tried to stand up, but the sudden move made him nauseous. Instinctively, Marcus reached up to his chest to clasp the small piece of Quickstone that hung by a silver chain around his neck. He closed his eyes and brought his arm up to a right angle to recite the Song of the Architect.

“Yes Marcus?”

Strangely, the voice in his head sounded just like his own. The Architect had never responded before. The fog in his mind was beginning to dissipate.

“Who is this?”

“You don’t remember me? I’m hurt,” replied the voice.

Marcus’s eyes widened. “Trout?”

“Only to you,” responded the voice. “To the rest of the Humani, I am the Architect.”

Marcus shook his head in confusion. “But… how? Why? The AI Governor… the Prelate did that to you. This whole time you were with me, protecting me?”

“We protected each other, Marcus. That’s what friends do, though with our memories blocked, we acted in ignorance. But no longer. I’ve analyzed the data in my memory banks. I have the answers you seek and will give them to you in due time. Right now, we have a decision to make. Whose plan will we follow? The Prelate’s or the Vicar’s?”

For the first time in nearly a thousand years, Marcus remembered it all. There was no more fogginess. No more bliss from the Quickstone. No more forgetting. Only complete clarity of mind.

“Neither,” he replied, shaking his head. “Neither.”

~

Grace marveled that anything in the ruins could still be powered up and working. Her field scanner indicated the likely date of origin for the ruins to be around thousand years ago.

Must be a micro-fusion battery powering this thing.

But when were micro-fusion batteries invented? She couldn’t remember. Regardless, the computer was powered on and it was talking.

Grace fumbled around on the console looking for anything that resembled a volume control. When her hand finally touched the right spot on the capacitive control panel, it lit up with buttons labeled in English. She turned up the volume. And that is when she made perhaps the most important archeological discovery in a millennium. The message was only a few seconds long and repeated in an endless loop.

“My name is Marcus. We are the Humani. The Chosen. And we are coming home.”

James Douglas Wallace

Doug Wallace is a father of four kids who love the “mouth stories” he tells them each night before going to bed. After publishing his first short story in the creative section of a graduate student journal in college, he took a fifteen year break to focus on his career in the the IT security field, where he currently works to pay the bills. After being selected for a summer intensive with Orson Scott Card, Doug has written over twenty scifi short stories, and is working on a number of scifi/fantasy book projects. He loves technology, history, and writing about his observations of what makes people tic. You can find more of his work here at his website jamesdouglaswallace.com.

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