The Heplion Contingency – part 2

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Chapter 2: In the Dark

Nimban woke up into total darkness. What was that? – it asked itself. It had been unconscious for a while, no way to know how long. How could something like that happen?

The last image recorded in its memory came to the fore: after its safe’s sudden opening, it had a light shone on it, and behind that, a young human woman. Nimban had barely had time to register this intruder before she activated a psionic plate. A psychic nullifier, to be sure – only that should be capable of disabling its artificial mind.

It extended its senses outward. Sight was useless there, of course, but a psionic brain such as Nimban had other resources to draw upon. Sonar input revealed it was inside a much thinner container than its usual safe, which was hardly surprising; it had obviously been stolen. It didn’t seem to be moving. Its telepathic probe wasn’t registering anyone nearby. It was deciding whether to activate its uplink to the Conglomerate database and consult it about the present situation, when it detected a mind approaching.

Concentrating on the new arrival, the artificial brain felt around in its thoughts. That was a fairly complex mind, sentient, but still unprotected. He (or she) was preoccupied with fleeing from someone, but not very urgently; his pursuers shouldn’t be close by. At the edges of his consciousness, there was also a desire to acquire something that could be sold or bartered for some kind of food and shelter.

Hey! Look here! Nimban mentalized, sending these thoughts to the approaching stranger. There’s something really interesting for you here!

The being out there got curious. Did I hear something?, he wondered. It’s like I heard a voice in my head, calling me…

That’s right! Nimban answered. Go on and look around! There’s something very valuable here. You could make a lot of money.

Ah, what the hell, the stranger thought. I’ve got nothing else to do anyway. Where’s this thing?

I’m not sure, the brain sent back. You’ll have to search.

After several minutes of searching – during which Nimban heard several objects being moved and thrown around – the container was finally opened. On the outside, there was a dark alley, filled with junk, drenched by recent rain, the last of which was still coming down lightly. The creature whose mind it had reached out to was humanoid, with a gaunt body and thin limbs. The hands pulling the hidey-hole’s wooden lid away had three thick digits each, and the face leaning in had two large, round eyes with slitted pupils, a tiny nose and mouth, and a pair of small antennae on top.

“Yrrzk klyk dikhty”, the stranger said in an unfamiliar tongue.

Interesting, Nimban thought to itself. If I’m not mistaken, that’s one of Bhadrapada VI’s races. At least I’m not off-planet.

“I’m sorry, I cannot speak your language,” the psionic brain said out loud, in the common tongue. “Do you speak common?”

The alien pulled it out of its hiding place, bringing it under the soft light of a distant lamp-post. “Of course I do,” he answered. “Well, look at that… seems I wasn’t going crazy after all.” He turned the strange object over in its hands, examining it. “Yeah, very pretty… worth some nice scratch just for the jewelry. And it talks, to boot… by the way, what the hell are you?”

“First of all, please allow me to apologize for so rudely intruding upon your evening,” the device said, its green light pulsing with every word. “I’m an eighth-generation Lemnis series artificial brain, designed to aid my owners in various functions involving intellect and knowledge. I have been nicknamed Nimban, so you may call me that. And you would be…?”

“Uh… Dykstri,” the man said. “I’m just some guy. A gryzzik, if that’s what you’re asking.”

“I was simply wondering about your name, but thanks for the information. I’ve never had much contact with people outside the office where I was installed, so I have so far never had the pleasure of encountering a member of your species. By the way, Dykstri… could you please tell me where we are? This looks nothing like my office!” Nimban’s artificial voice took on a lightly jocular tone.

The gryzzik stared at the jewel, dumbfounded. He could hardly believe he was talking to this gizmo – worse, he was answering its questions, as if he had any reason to indulge the curiosity of some bauble. However, he somehow couldn’t help doing so. Words flowed out of his mouth, almost against his will.

“We’re in Arabar Downs,” Dykstri answered. “In Harmony. By the harbor.”

“Oh, splendid,” Nimban said. “I haven’t gone very far then. Good to know. And, just to be sure… this is still the night between the 13th and 14th, right?”

“Uh… yeah. Little over two. Why?”

Just a matter of minutes, then, the artificial intelligence pondered. I must have been teleported. This looks like a retrieval spot… I wonder when will the thief’s associates come pick me up. As well as who are they, come to think of it.

“No reason,” it replied simply. “So… I need to be returned. I don’t even know how did I wind up here. Could you give me a hand? I’m sure my owners will reward you handsomely for that.”

The gryzzik’s large eyes narrowed. “Yeah… I suppose so. Sounds like a good idea. Where are we going then?”

“Thank you for your cooperation!” Nimban’s tone was genial. “Would you please drop me off at Karnati’s local headquarters, at Umrad Hill? Kemish Avenue, 3112.”

“Sure, sure… I’m on it. Going there now.” The man put the artifact in his coat pocket and started walking. Or I could just drop it off at the nearest pawn shop, he pondered. Lot less risky that way. Too much exposure, dealing with a big corporation. They’ll ask questions.

Still listening to the half-insectoid’s thoughts, Nimban was considering whether to allow itself to be pawned off – and maybe find someone more reliable to bring it home – when its sonar picked up another creature nearby, tailing their movements from about a dozen paces away. It was too far away for telepathic monitoring, however, and the coat blocked visuals. Friend or foe? the device wondered, and decided it couldn’t afford to take chances.

“Hey, Dykstri?” it said. “It’s rather late, and I’m sure my company is quite preoccupied with my absence. Could we please hurry along to Kemish Avenue?”

“Told you, I’m getting there,” the man said, although he was headed in a different direction. Yovan’s shop is half an hour away, he thought. I just have to stand this pain-in-the-ass gadget this long and I’m getting rid of it for good.

No, you’re not, Nimban replied telepathically. A chill ran down Dykstri’s spine. “I must insist,” it added vocally. “Please return to the correct path and speed up your pace.”

“Why… you just can’t…” The humanoid felt exposed, vulnerable, and a little betrayed.

“I can, and I will.” The brain’s voice was steady and forceful. “If you will not cooperate in good faith, I’m afraid I will have to take measures to ensure your compliance.”

The gryzzik’s legs stiffened and started moving of their own accord. He tried to control them, but the presence in his brain was just too heavy. It seemed to buzz with raw power, numbing his will, obscuring his personality, until it almost seemed like he had always intended to do what the artifact willed him to in the first place. His head pounding from the struggle, he turned into a side street and started walking faster.

“Okay, I’ll do it,” Dykstri whispered. “I’ll do what you want. I just don’t want anyone asking questions when I get there.”

“I’ll put in a good word,” Nimban replied softly, “but I can’t make any guarantees. They have their protocols.”

“What’s the point?” he protested. “They should just be happy to get their stuff back! Maybe if I just toss you at their door and…”

“You know, you’re not exactly helping your case here. Need I remind you that you don’t quite hold the most favorable position in this debate?”

“Alright, alright, I’ll play along!” The half-insectoid sighed. Let’s just hope they haven’t brought in the cops yet, he thought. “Can you let go of me now?”

“Do you promise to keep walking to Karnati as quickly as possible if I do?”

“I promise, I promise! Just don’t do this… thing again!”

Nimban released its control over the humanoid’s mind. He stopped for a bit to breathe a sigh of relief, and feeling the presence starting to encroach on the edges of his consciousness again, bolted off toward Umrad Hill. “I’m going, alright?” he said, breathlessly. “Chill out, and just leave me alone.”

They moved silently across the city, feet quickly crashing over the last dregs of the night’s rain, and ducked into a dark alley to short-cut a wide commercial block along Novelke Avenue. About halfway along the corridor, from one of the garbage piles lining its walls, a man-sized figure pounced at the running man, knocking him out cold before Nimban had a chance to react to the sudden movement.

The assailant patted the gryzzik’s limp body, and finding the bump in his pocket, pulled the device out. The moonlight filtering down from the piles of junk above them barely touched the scene, but Nimban’s night-vision caught her just fine. Her Emishan features – tan skin, curled red hair, epicanthic-fold eyes – were familiar.

It seemed that thief had found it after all.

The First Story

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The First Story

by Fernando Sacchetto – dec. 2009

Once upon a time, there was a peasant boy who loved to play. While he was very poor, such that he often had to go to bed hungry, he was rarely without a smile, for his life was never devoid of wonder and magic. Nobody could tell from looking at him, as he looked in all ways like simply one more peasant boy in a dreary forgotten down, living a dreary and soon-to-be forgotten life. However, when he played – which he did in every waking moment of his life, as much as he could anyway – he lived a thousand different and fantastic lives. This time he was a bold knight, fighting against monsters so strange and fearsome that the wisest sages could scarcely find words to describe them; that time, he was an escaped slave, trudging through dank sewers as he evaded the tricks of his wicked sorcerer master, contriving plans to bring about his downfall and claim his remote frozen kingdom. His little head had more stories in it than the greatest of libraries, each more amazing than the last – and, when he finally tired enough to lay down and sleep, they came to life.

One cool spring night, the boy dreamt of a king. This king and the peasant boy were one and the same, although he could never have suspected that, having been a powerful and respected king all his many years, and a young high-born prince before that, but never a peasant boy. The king in the boy’s dream led a life of glory and greatness, for his kingdom extended in all directions as far as a horse could ride, and was filled with people who had nothing but deep love and respect for their sovereign. He lived in a vast and beautiful castle, where he sat on his high throne, dispensing justice, pronouncing edicts, laying down the law, and deciding on war and peace, all with the most hallowed wisdom. He would also go out hunting gorgeous beasts with his trusted retainers, and hold memorable feasts for a shining court, where the most delectable foods and drinks in the world were served, and the most enchanting music played. Yet, despite all this, deep inside, the king was troubled.

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