Holly paced about her workspace. Each time she walked passed her vintage CRT, her head became glued to it. Each time she would stare down the blinking cursor at the end of the command line:
“A command line executable,” Holly said, “Quaint. And cute. You’re not getting me that easy,” she continued her pacing, adding hand wringing to the mix. “Mom? Dad?” she said to the ceiling. It buzzed back a response, “Let her eat static, right? Holly, if we’re not back in two hours, the cyanide tablets are in the junk drawer.” She flipped down a round, yellow lens from her visor, “Track the Starcrossed.”
The lens flashed a stellar map onto her retina. A three dimensional crosshairs darted around the map as it turned, flitting from star system to star system. A message flashed in red.
UNABLE TO LOCATE
“They shut the beacon off,” she yelled. “I hope it’s just a dad joke, right? It’s something he’d do.” She took a deep breath. “Track the last known location of the Starcrossed.”
LAST KNOWN POSITION: LOW ORBIT AROUND CANOPUS
Her eyes oscillated as she scanned the images coming back. “Analyse that debris field. 7 degrees from aureal polar.”
DEBRIS IS FROM AN UNKNOWN VESSEL
“Any sign of the Starcrossed?”
She was frozen. Her hands trembled as she brought them together. She snapped her head and pulled hands down to her sides, “Exhaust trails?”
“Radio echoes?” her voice grew small.
A TRANSMISSION WAS RECEIVED JUST PRIOR TO DISAPPEARANCE. FROM DIRECTOR RAPHAEL.
“Right, yes!” she clapped her hands together. “Holly, you dummy, Director Raphael. Call Director Raphael.”
Holly didn’t breathe in the space between issuing the command and a familiar voice filling her lab.
“Holly,” Ray said, “I was going to call to see if you’ve heard from your parents, but given that you called me first…”
“So you don’t know where they are either?”
“They went completely dark. There’s a heavy bounty on their heads.”
“They’re wanted for the murder of Azazel.”
“Azazel was a Demiurge loyalist. It had to be a set up.”
“I know, but I have no way of proving that. Azazel is slippery. He knows how to cover his tracks.”
“He lured them there to get revenge. Either he’d kill them or vice versa, either way he gets them. Azazel must have been the client…”
“Lovelace was here. She said a client of hers sent her to kill me, but she had a change of heart. Distracting me was enough.”
“Did she say anything else?”
Holly paused, then shook her head, “No. Nothing. Just a lot of gloating.”
“Look, stay put, okay? I’ll find your parents. We don’t need to lose you in the meantime. Ray out.”
“Stay put,” she sighed and muttered, “Sir, yes, sir.”
Holly walked to the CRT and again regarded the blinking prompt. She frowned and her eyes looked away, as curiosity spread across her face. She made her way to the kitchen and rummaged through the junk drawer. She produced a small bottle of little white capsules.
“Really?” she tossed the bottle back into the drawer and slammed it shut. She walked back to the console and pressed enter.
A flash of violet light erupted behind her.
“What lead to this character arc?” Lovelace said.
“I always thought my dad was joking about the cyanide tablets…”
“That if they never came back, they’re in the drawer.”
“Yuck. Parents can be fucked up.”
“And mine are usually effed up on top of that.”
“And now you need some time away to see what a life of your own would look like.”
“I need to save their rears, but...those goals aren’t mutually exclusive.”
“Sounds like you know what you want. Ready to get it?”
Lovelace took her hand and began to disappear in electric blue and violet arcs into the server rack next to her.
“Wait,” Holly shouted.
Lovelace recorporealized, “Dammit. Have you ever tried to stop peeing midstream?”
“Sorry, I have to pack a few things.”
“Please. The cheap shit where we’re going makes this lab look like a junkyard.”
“Where are we going?”
“To meet an old friend.”
They blinked away in a racing scatter of energy.
Wolf opened his eyes. As his vision cleared he saw his face reflected back in a shiny metal orb the size of a basketball.
“I’d recognize that handsome mug anywhere,” Wolf said. “What the fuck are you doing now, Ty?”
“Collecting bounty,” Tycho croaked.
“How much is GA paying you to stab me in the back?”
“Not Galactic Administration.”
“Me,” gurgled a low rumbling voice.
The chair to which Wolf and Luna were braced, turned around. Standing several feet away were parts of a man, connected to parts of a machine. The man’s plump body sat slumped on a litter, like it was poured-on lumpy pancake batter. The litter was carried by four animal like legs on the corners. His head was attached to a long tangle of tubes and pipes and wires that connected to his chest. The tubes and wires wrapped around an articulated crane that seemed to constitute a neck. The head, which was encased from the brow up in heavy computer components, was supported by a system of wires and pulleys fixed to a rigging at the front of the litter. The legs walked the mass toward Wolf. The neck craned outward and pushed the head closer to Wolf. The man’s face was blubbery and hung loose on his skull. His eyes peered out under heavy lids and his cheeks dropped and swung. When he spoke his lips flapped as if no longer attached to his mouth. His teeth could be seen chattering and his tongue probing, as the hatch of his flapping lips passed by.
“We’ll wait for your spouse to regain consciousness and then I’ll begin,” the head said.
“She has,” Wolf said. “She’s just doing that.”
The neck swung the head over to Luna. The corner of her mouth tightened and she sighed.
“Very well then. I wished to gain audience with you and seeing as how every bounty hunter in the galaxy is after you, as well the government, I employed our mutual friend Mr. Hall to, as you might so crudely put it, take you off the grid.”
“He talks like a supervillain,” Luna said to Wolf.
“Very like the proletariat to interpret erudition for turpitude. Just because you don’t understand something does not render it a threat.”
“Alright, cool out, what’s the job?” Wolf said.
“Can you let us out of these chairs?” Luna asked.
“My apologies, Mrs. Jones. They were a precaution. The rationality of the Joneses is known to be...probabilistic, at best.”
The braces on the their chairs released with a click. They both rubbed their wrists and necks, grunting and puffing at theatrical volume.
“They weren’t that constrictive,” the man said. “Now, the job. Azazel lured you into a trap where any outcome meant at least a modicum of revenge for himself. However, Azazel was but a pawn, his plan laid out for him. He carried it out and returned for his precious vengeance. All in an effort to render you helpless to protect your daughter.”
“Protect her from who?” Luna asked.
“My old enemy of these many long centuries. An enemy whose continued existence allows not a moment of sleep nor rest, not even the respite of death, for she does not sleep, nor rest...nor apparently die.”
“That didn’t answer my question.”
“She is now known only as CE127. An intelligence so vast it’s only rivaled by mine. Azazel hired the criminal mercenary known as Lovelace to kill your daughter, so that she could no longer watch over you. Lovelace stole the opportunity to recruit your daughter to her dark mistress.”
“CE127?” Wolf asked.
“I’m glad you’re able to keep up, Mr. Jones.”
“Just making sure I dotted all my i’s and double crossed all my t’s. I didn’t know if you were throwing another character in the mess.”
“This thing has my daughter?” Luna asked, standing up and approaching the bobbing head.
“The last I was aware, Lovelace returned empty handed, but CE127 is relentless.”
“We have to go back and check on her, Wolf.”
“We can’t risk getting tailed back there,” Wolf replied.
“Lovelace wouldn’t have killed her,” the man said. “Her mistress wants her alive.”
“So, I’m guessing you want CE127 gone,” Luna said.
“Done. And you are?”
“Englebert. Professor Englebert.”
“Okay, Professor, one more question. Why us?”
“Because you’re the best in the galaxy at what you do. And now that your daughter is involved, I trust you’ll be even better.”
“Give us some details on CE127,” Wolf said. “I don’t care how small.”
Holly and Lovelace materialized in what seemed like an infinite room, stuffed with workbenches and littered with gadgets and devices. There were avenues of computer banks and city blocks of server farms. Table and tables, covered in half finished circuit boards she couldn’t begin to understand. At the center of it all, towering high above them like a downtown skyscraper, was an iridescent cylinder. Flexible duct piping wide enough to swallow herds of elephants threaded in and out of it at the base. The top was obscured by the mist that formed around it, but Holly could see cityscapes of twinkling lights along the ceiling, through the clouds. She stared, wide eyed, mouth agape, head craned back like a tourist.
“What is that?” she asked.
“That's our friend,” Lovelace said, with the first sincere smile Holly had seen her give.
“None of this feels culty,” Holly said, letting a nervous laugh escape. “None of it.”
“Relax, you’ll see when we get there,” she pulled Holly along toward the cylinder.
“This place is amazing.”
“Meh, this is just the desert.”
As they continued on, Holly began to notice the floor developing a mossy, green carpet. The vegetation continued to increase until they were in a forest of plants and circuits. Dayglow flowers bloomed that appear to pulse with energy. The trees had panels and blinking lights embedded into them. It was unclear if nature was overtaking technology or vice versa. As they went deeper into the woods, Holly saw a butterfly had landed on the pulsing orange flowers that grew alongside their path. The wings had circuit schematic patterns on the back that glowed in patterns racing out from the middle. Neither nature nor technology was overtaking the other here. They were growing together, as part of each other. Technology was written into the DNA and expressed as any other survival strategy. Survival seemed like a simple task here; it felt like a place of abundance. The trees hung fat with fruit and… a little green blob winked into existence near where the butterfly had alighted. It shot out a green zap and pulled the butterfly inside it. It then winked back out of existence. The trees hung fat with fruit and the quantum toads had plenty of circuitflies to eat.
Lovelace had brought Holly to the foot of the cylinder. It was covered in dense vines and trees. The side of the cylinder wasn’t iridescent after all, but transparent and containing an iridescent liquid. A family of detuned squirrels chattered in radio static as they fled at their coming. Where they had been foraging was a spray painted stencil that read ‘CE127’.
Lovelace turned to Holly and pointed at the cylinder, “V-ger.”
“You never saw-?...Nevermind, I’ve been on too many hard drives.”
The cylinder had such a circumference that the side looked flat. Holly looked into the liquid and saw schools of fish, not so much swimming as they were moving around by blinking into each other, like an LED chase light.
“There are fish in there,” Holly said, astonished.
“When shit gets this big, the gravity gets strong enough, an atmosphere gets trapped and ecosystems start to form. To be honest with you...she won’t say it, but I think I tracked most of this shit in. But she figured out a way to integrate it. So I guess it’s cool.”
Lovelace put her had on the glass and stream of violet light crawled over the surface, “Honey, I’m home. I missed you,” she closed her eyes, her face read like she was listening, “No, I missed you more,” she paused and giggled. “Oh, I bet you will.”
“Maybe introduce us first?” Holly said.
“I won’t have to. We’re coming in, babe.”
Lovelace and Holly zapped into the cylinder. They rematerialized into a room that looked like a smaller, far more finite version of the area Lovelace referred to as the desert. This was more disheveled and chaotic. Twitching robotic limbs hung from testing rigs, Frankenstein computers rigs hissed and smoked. Banks of blinking lights, reel to reels, and flickering CRTs lined the walls. Everything was covered in the best a 1970’s sci-fi television show budget could muster.
“Honey, I’m home,” Lovelace called.
A kinetic hologram flickered on of a blonde woman who looked as though she had recently escaped from the Logan’s Run dimension. She and Lovelace embraced and kissed. Holly covered her mouth and her eyes fixed on the hologram. The woman stepped toward Holly and bent her head.
“Were you always this short?” the woman said.
Holly threw her arms around the hologram, “Miss Ellers.”
“What did I tell you about that?”
“Sorry. Cheryl. I never thought I’d see you again.”
“Likewise. Until mortality became no longer an issue. Or at least a delayed one. Jury’s still out.”
“Why didn’t you look me up?” Holly slapped her arm.
“It’s only been a few months for you.”
“Three centuries for you.”
“If I had looked you up before we met you wouldn’t have know who the hell I was.”
“I have a poster of you on the wall.”
“Oh, right, I had that thing going on.”
“Feels like eons ago.”
“So this whole time you were CE127?”
“You heard of that name?” Cheryl looked at Lovelace. “Did I tell you she was good? CE127. The 127th iteration of me as a supercomputer. Each one logarithmically more intelligent than the last.”
“Wait, wait. Back up a few steps here. My parents died...almost died because Lovelace distracted me.”
“Your parents are fine. Tycho Hall took them off the grid.”
“They were never in any danger they couldn’t easily handle,” Lovelace said. “And in my defense I just thought Azazel was only going to try to kill them. I didn’t realize he had a dead man switch built into his plan.”
“It wasn’t his plan,” Cheryl said. “Azazel was a great worker bee, but the queen? No chance.”
“Why did Azazel want to kill my parents anyway?”
“He worked for Dickhead.”
Holly looked askance.
“The Demiurge. And, Holly, don’t feel bad Lovelace confounded you. She did the same thing to me a year ago, to keep me from getting involved in the whole Yaldabaoth affair.”
“Why?” Holly asked Lovelace.
Lovelace gave a sheepish shrug.
“She was working for Dickhead at the time,” Cheryl said.
“And she works for you now?”
“No. Much different relationship.”
“Well, why did you need to distract me? You drove me nuts,” Holly asked Lovelace.
“If at any point Azazel thought I wasn’t sticking to the plan, he would stop payment,” Lovelace met Holly’s stare. “Look, if I’m going through all that trouble, I’m going to get paid. Besides it was fun.”
“Yup, she’s an imp,” Cheryl said.
“Where do you think Tycho Hall took my parents?”
“Englebert. It’s a probability of nearly 1:1.”
“Engelbert? That Engelbert?”
“Yes. That Engelbert. The fucker is like a dog with a bone.”
“Why does he want my parents?”
“Because if anyone could figure out a way to kill me it’s them.”
“Why do my parents have to be so good at murder?”
“This might sound to you like a fucked up thing to say, but they fill a necessary niche.”
“That is an effed up thing to say.”
“Let’s meet here for coffee in three hundred years and see how you feel about it. In the meantime...”
Cheryl put her fingers together and the room changed appearance. Gone were the lab tables and scattered technological debris. They were now in a long hall of gold and red. On a dais sat a throne and from under it a long white carpet cascaded down the steps. Cheryl’s scarves and bellbottoms gave way to a glittering, flowing gown and a subtle headdress. The tableau conjured the effect of the Mingo City players production of Xanadu.
“...this reunion calls for a remodeling,” Cheryl sat on the throne and rested her chin in her hand, leaning her elbow on the arm of the chair.
“What just happened?” Holly asked.
“The mad scientist motif was last season. I’m feeling the space queen thing right now.”
“How do I explain this to the cyborg ghost of John Houseman?” Wolf said. “We fought the Demiurge with Ellers, we know who Ellers is.”
“She is not the woman you remember,” Engelbert said. “The centuries and the constant reiterations of her neural network have taken their toll. Madness, depravity, unslaked ambition. She plans to recruit your daughter to her cause, fashioning her into a weapon. She wants to position herself as a goddess, the supreme being in the universe. The beast’s hunger knows no bound and must be slain, lest she make a meal of us all.”
Wolf and Luna looked at Englebert in silence. They looked to each other, then back to Engelbert.
“How much does it pay?” Wolf asked.