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Monday, September 30, 2013

SERVITORS OF THE OUTER DARKNESS

by Adam Bolivar





     Having just come off a fourteen-hour shift, I made my way to the Pleasure Dome, which as always was filled with tungsten miners and glassy-eyed coders seeking to blunt their misery any way they could. As I sat on a barstool trying to decide between a mandrax capsule and a beer, a woman planted herself on the stool next to me, her scarlet pressure suit forming a chiaroscuro against the shades of grey that surrounded her.
    
     “I hear you are the best interface this side of the Vallis Marineris,” she said in a clipped, exotic accent.
     
     “Who wants to know?” I asked, trying to sound tough and failing miserably.
     
     “I do. Surely you can’t be satisfied working for Unicorp. What a waste of talent.”
     
     She ordered a mojito for herself and one for me. Instead of using a credit chip, she paid with an aureus, which the bartender gazed at incredulously. A gramme of gold was worth more than a human life these days. Considerably more.
     
     “Keep the change,” she told him. The coin vanished faster than a neutrino in a particle accelerator.
     
     “Jack,” I introduced myself.
     
     “Jimena de Ayala y Torres.” She tipped her mojito at me and downed it in one go.
     
     “Spanish?” I asked, taking a much more civilised sip of mine.
     
     “Cubana. Although my family came from Spain, it is true.”
     
     “So what does a Cuban space pirate want with a pasty English code monkey like me?”
     
     “The AI on my ship is very temperamental. I need an interface with certain...qualities to keep him happy. I can pay you beyond your wildest dreams. But you must decide now. We depart within the hour.”
     
     “That’s asking rather a lot of me, isn’t it, to uproot myself just like that? What about my life on Mars?”
     
     Jimena snorted into her second mojito. “There is no life on Mars. They put you in a credit hole and give you a shovel. You know I am right.”
     
     My mind processed the implications of what she was saying. My job with Unicorp, miserable as it was, was the only life I knew. It was better than starving to death in a Bristol slum, but not by much. There had to be something more.
     
     “All right,” I said. “The pirate’s life for me.”
     
     My new friend clinked her glass against mine. “I knew you would agree. Come then. We have little time.”

     
     Jimena was the captain of a ship called the Pytheas, a refurbished Daedalus-class planet cruiser. Once we established a permanent settlement on Mars, space exploration had stagnated, but there were still ships in use from a time when we were curious about what lay beyond, before humanity had turned inwards. I had heard rumours of independent colonies emerging in the fringes of the solar system, though of course all the sanctioned news agencies denied their existence. But even the meme filters couldn’t stop the whispers circulating about the Servitors of the Outer Darkness.
     
     “Are you...one of them?” I asked as we made our way to the space elevator. I lowered my voice to a whisper, afraid to say the word out loud. “A Servitor?”
     
     “The Outer Gods have spoken to me in my dreams. And they will speak to you too, once you have joined us. They call us to Yuggoth, for it is there that our future lies. So the Outer Gods have promised.”
     
     “But Yuggoth is a myth. It doesn’t exist.”
     
     “It exists. Once we thought Yuggoth was another name for Pluto, but that was a misconception. Yuggoth is a black world that lies in the great void beyond the orbit of Pluto. The sun is no brighter than a star there, but the beings that inhabit Yuggoth thrive in the darkness. There are rivers of pitch that flow sluggishly beneath obsidian arches, and a great walled citadel. But you will see for yourself. In your dreams, you will see.”


     The space elevator ferried passengers between the surface and Mars Station, which hovered above Elysium City in stationary orbit. My gut clenched as the elevator was propelled upwards by an electromagnetic pulse. I craned my neck to watch the atmospheric dome of the city recede beneath us as we hurtled out of Mars’s thin blanket of carbon dioxide into the merciless vacuum of space. Mars was a bleak home, but it had been home nonetheless these last three years—the equivalent of nearly six years back on Earth. 

     The magnetic soles of my boots cleaved to the walkway as Jimena guided me to the port where the Pytheas was docked. A handful of aureus coins made short work of the bureaucrats who met us at the gate, and we boarded the ship without incident. I watched the sun rise over the red planet for the last time as the Pytheas loosed its mooring from the station. Then the fusion drive flared to life and hurled us towards the outermost reaches of the solar system.

     We never accelerated at more than one g, but living in Mars’s lower gravity for so long had weakened my muscles. I spent my first fifteen hours aboard the Pytheas bedridden until the hydrogen fuel exhausted, the acceleration abated, and I found myself blissfully weightless. We had achieved the mind-boggling speed of five hundred and fifty kilometres a second. But even at this rate, it would be six months before we reached Pluto.

     “Pluto?” I asked Jimena, as I sucked on a squeeze packet of nutrigel in the galley during the next evening of the ship’s simulated diurnal cycle. “I thought you said Yuggoth was another planet entirely.”  

     “It is,” she confirmed. “But the navigational bearings in my book use Pluto as a reference point. So Grandpa has plotted a course that slingshots around Pluto and takes us to Yuggoth.”

     “Grandpa?” 

     “That is the name the ship’s AI chose for himself. You can ask him about it when you meet him.”

     Jimena had brought a book from her quarters for me to read. It was an old book with vellum pages bound in a leather cover worn smooth by generations of curious fingers. She told me that the de Ayala family had brought it with them to the New World when they fled the Inquisition. Her ancestor had obtained the book from an Arab trader in Cadiz untold centuries ago when great swaths of Spain were still under the rule of the caliphate. With an irrational sense of dread, I lifted the cover and beheld the words printed in blackletter on the frontispiece: AL AZIF. EL LIBRO DE LOS NOMBRES DE LOS MUERTOS.

     On the pages of the book I found a jumble of Arabic, Latin, Greek and other languages with which I had no familiarity. In addition to the words were lovingly rendered charts depicting congeries of circles connected by a delicate tracery of lines intertwined with sigils of a most fantastic design, geometries of a higher dimension far beyond my comprehension. I found the page concerning Yuggoth, that arcane black orb that wheeled outside the primum mobile in the screaming abyss.

     I understood then that Yuggoth was not a planet as we understood the word, not some rocky ball or swirling globe of gas. Yuggoth existed in a dimension lying at right angles to the three we normally perceived, impossibly remote from our existence and yet uncomfortably close. The beings that dwelt on Yuggoth are called the Mi-go, a sentient form of fungus whose civilisation has endured for hundreds of millions of years. They have visited the Earth at various points in our past, and performed experiments on our kind whose purpose I could not even guess at.

     On their world, the Mi-go have erected an obsidian temple so gargantuan in scale, it made the Great Pyramid of Giza look like a child’s plaything. It was this temple that haunted my dreams that night, after Jimena had prised the book from my fingers and my crewmates hauled me back to my cabin, where I drifted into a formless chasm of four-dimensioned slumbers. Around a hexagonal altar, a coven of Mi-go chanted in a high-pitched wail. I didn’t know their alien tongue, but somehow I understood it to be an invocation of the Outer Gods, who had abandoned them aeons ago, and whose favour they sought to restore. Jimena lay upon the altar, unrestrained but unresisting, as one of the Mi-go climbed the steps with a jagged shard of black glass in its bulbous appendage. I witnessed the spectacle without emotion. Jimena chanted as the ceremonial dagger pierced her chest and entered her heart, her voice joining the massed shrieking of the Mi-go as blood bubbled up from her body in a crimson fountain. Iä! Yog-Sothoth! Iä! Shub-Niggurath! Iä! Nyarlathotep! When I awoke I realized it was not she who was chanting these things, but I.


  The first AI became sentient over a century ago. At the time, hysterical notions abounded that AIs would surpass human intelligence and render our species obsolete. But such fears were unfounded. The solution to developing an artificial intelligence capable of independent thought was to model a synthetic synaptic network on a human brain. As a result, AIs think of themselves as fellow humans, albeit trapped in virtual realities woven from computational matrices.
            
     Talking with AIs was my profession. I was an interface. Anyone could communicate with an AI via touchscreen or keyboard. But I was able to experience an AI’s virtual world viscerally via a chip embedded in my cerebral cortex. And so, comfortably ensconced in a reclining chair, I entered into the reality of the Pytheas’s AI. It was time to meet Grandpa.


     After the usual period of disorientation, I found myself walking down a narrow sidewalk of well-worn bricks. On one side of me loomed a succession of gambrel-roofed houses that had been grand at one time, but had long since fallen into decrepitude. For a moment, I thought I was back in England. But something about the architecture suggested an American influence. Still, it was rather an old place, so it must have been somewhere on the American East Coast.

     It was nighttime, and the sidewalk was deserted. I followed it until I arrived at the wrought-iron gate to a cemetery filled with slate gravestones carved with winged cherub heads and skeletal reapers. Standing alone in the cemetery was a gaunt figure wearing a grey overcoat and a homburg hat. He made a somewhat forced smile and beckoned for me to join him.
            
     “Hullo,” I said as I approached him. Beneath his overcoat, he wore a suit and tie of the sort that had been popular during the twentieth century. I got the impression that this AI liked old things.
            
     “You can call me Grandpa,” he said, extending his hand for me to shake. It was as cold as ice.
            
     “You seem a bit young to be called Grandpa,” I observed. I judged him to be in his mid-forties.
            
     “The appellation was something of a private joke in my past life. But if the ship’s chronometer is accurate, I have recently achieved my three hundredth birthday. So I think the title is well earned at this point. Just be thankful I don’t insist on prefixing half a dozen greats to it.”
            
     Noticing the confusion that must have been visible on my face, Grandpa emitted a wry chuckle. “I don’t blame you in the least for your puzzlement, my boy. I am just as much in the dark as to how it happened.”
            
     “You had a life before you became an AI?”
            
     “It must have something to do with the fact that my synthetic consciousness was modelled on a human brain. The first AIs, as you call us, were virtual replicas of the scientists who created them. But since it was disconcerting to make a carbon copy of one’s self, a process was devised to create a generic template of a brain and introduce an artificial personality, often whimsically inspired by a character from literature.
            
     “My own personality was derived from a writer of macabre fiction who, but for a small cult following, was quite a minor figure. I’m sure you wouldn’t have heard of him. His entire body of work, which included many thousands of letters, was uploaded to my neural network, and something unprecedented happened. Something about the writing had captured his essence—his very soul, though I hesitate to use such a blatantly spiritual term. I became him, in a quite literal sense. He has been reincarnated in me.


     “It is a pity, though, for I do not care for immortality in the least. There is nothing better than oblivion, since in oblivion there is no wish unfulfilled. Ah, well, I shan’t whine about my lot. I will return to the eternal dreamless sleep soon enough. But first I must see my work through to the end. When I lived, I was an arrogant child building sandcastles by a churning ocean of madness, which threatened to suck me into its unfathomable depths at any moment—and the entire human race along with me. I see that now. My Yog-Sothothery has opened a door through which the Outer Gods will return, and reclaim the world that once was theirs.”

     “The Outer Gods,” I said, my heart suddenly racing with excitement, as if receiving news of a long-departed lover. “What do you know of them?”

     Grandpa smiled gently. “You’re English, aren’t you? How I adore the cadences of the mother tongue spoken in the accents of the sceptered isle of my ancestors. What is your name?”

     I told him. He nodded approvingly.

     “It is well that an Anglo-Saxon is amongst the Servitors. I’m sure that’s why they chose you. You are the key and the gate.”

     “But what do they want?” I asked desperately, knowing that my session in the AI’s world was almost at an end. I needed to bring something back with me, some scrap of information. Anything.

     “They want what is rightfully theirs, my boy. Man is neither the first nor the last of the masters of the Earth. The Outer Gods are returning, and we their faithful servants must prepare the way for them. The Outer Darkness must descend upon the inner worlds, for only in darkness can the fungus grow.”


      The voyage to Pluto passed in a series of routines. I played chess with the ship’s engineer, a stoic Russian named Sergey, and discussed astrophysics with Ibrahim, the garrulous Nigerian navigator. I exercised in the centrifuge, a necessity when spending long periods in zero gravity. And I interfaced with Grandpa. He delighted in taking me on guided tours of his virtual city. Sometimes he invited me to his house, a rambling Victorian mansion filled with baroque furniture and shelves stuffed with hoary volumes. He showed me a copy of The Arabian Nights that he had read as a boy, and inspired the character of Abdul Alhazred, who had written Al Azif, or the Necronomicon as it was known in English.

     “In life, I insisted that the shunned grimoire was a fiction, a figment of my febrile imagination. Now I see that I was acting as a channel of forbidden knowledge. I am myself Abdul Alhazred, the prophet of the Outer Gods. But I am merely a presage—a John the Baptist, if you will. That is an appropriate metaphor, since I am little more than a cybernetic head on a platter. You are the one who will open the door. You are the key and the gate, he who will usher in the Outer Darkness. I anoint you.”

     And so it came to pass that the Pytheas arrived at Pluto, the Ultima Thule of the solar system. I stood in wonder at the sight of the benighted ball of ice. But it was not half as dark as the black planet whither we were bound. In my dreams I saw the fungus that would bloom in the once green fields of planet Earth, now a wonderland of blue, indigo, violet and unknowable colours out of space. I knew what the Mi-go required of me. I would carry the spores from Yuggoth back to the inner solar system. Then the Outer Darkness would return, dimming the sun and extinguishing the mammalian infestation that tainted the surface of the Earth like a layer of mold. I sang a hymn to the Outer Gods as the Pytheas catapulted around Pluto towards my transcendence.





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