Lillium had been listening to the quite hubbub of the auditorium around the sphere; in stasis you heard nothing but the deep mumble of dreaming. She pressed her hands deep into the sphere, it was time to catch up on everything she had missed through the centuries. As her hands were enveloped, for you did not use more than your hands with the live data fluid, a signal pulsed into being a vibration across her fingers, it was unusual and unexpected. Lillium moved her hands through the powdery immersion fluid, letting the cell-trodes that coated her skin read her thoughts directly from her nervous system while she conjured forth an auditory representation. She had to hear it to be sure. The language was strange, but in her mind it was definitely in the human range, she would still need confirmation from the sphere. The immersion offered nothing, no translation so it wasn’t part of the current human standards.
“How old is the signal?” she asked the powder-like fluid; it should at least be able to fathom that much from the background radiations. Her voice would have vibrated the still surface of the sphere, like a ripple it would penetrate the outer membrane and be stripped into raw data by the immersion. In her head the response would be slow and ponderous. Time appeared to run slowly in the sphere. If she had been suited up she could have been able to directly interact through armour filters, she would have been able to take multiple feeds until she received all possible answers. Her hands were bare, the touch of the immersion like air, dry air. She was careful with her interactions with the small moon-sized, living information hub. If she allowed more than her naked hands to connect with the sphere it would bring an end to real life, bring on the harsh reality of true death.
“The signal is between ninety and one hundred thousand standard Earth years old.” The sound in her mind was thick like syrup, the immersion would simply be arranging brain chemistry to form the sounds needed to frame words in thoughts.
“Light years?” She tried to think of any civilization that far out.
“Light years, standard Earth light years.”
Lillium closed her hand inside the fluid, its blue radiance a momentary cushion in her grip. The expression of frustration would have been swiftly noted, but the cell-trodes would not hasten their response; even Primaries would have to wait. She spent one hour in contact with the sphere every three to five hundred years, she had already wasted minutes on this message. After millennia of interaction with the living entity of the immersion she should have grown used to the fluid’s exceedingly slow and deliberate processes, but when something as strange as an old message arrived in Earth’s complex system, she had hoped it would have bypassed a few of its precious protocols.
“What can you tell me about the signal, what kind of message is it?”
“It is human,” the sphere finally admitted, offering nothing more.
Removing her hands slowly, allowing all the powder to separate itself from her skin and extract its deep penetrations and manipulation of her nootropics, she thought this could be the return of a deep space Primary, only they never announced themselves in such a manner and they all used standard or at the very least functioned in Aberration. Lillium stepped back from the sphere and had time to contemplate. Human? Which humans? she wondered. She left the immersion and moved into the glaring white lights of the Primary well, the bright stream of consciousness that made up the Conglomerate; a fully functional colour wheel with the dominant houses being the Primaries of Red, Yellow and Blue. The light was shaped into a wheel that housed all who interacted to form the extensive writhing existence of the galaxy governing Conglomerate. This news was small in the context of time but the message defied the sphere’s realm of knowledge and when something did this she would have to wake a few Primaries; even the barest of protocols meant no avoiding interaction. While one hundred thousand standard lights was a long time away it may not truly reflect the distance of any one coming to Earth; the visitation could come in centuries or it could be minutes, it depended on how close behind the message a visitor would be travelling. Was someone coming to Earth? It would take several seconds for the data stream to flow through to the wheel and before anyone arrived she had time to clean herself of residuals. The immersion powder made her mind itch and her skin crawl with invasion and the sickly scents of ketones and other enzymatic particles always made her nauseous. She stepped into a sonicator and allowed the vibrations to settle the many thousands of connections the immersion would have opened in her skin; every pore was an access point. As she felt the remnants of odours fall away she thought of the Conglomerate as another type of immersion, but one less tactile. If it wasn’t for the signal, the oddity of the message she could have completed her duty and returned to stasis never interacting with another living being other than the sphere. She would only need true contact every thousand years or so, but she was unusual in that regard. Unlike many of the Conglomerate she still needed the feeling of touch with another; even when such contact was across the boundaries of primary zones. It was too easy to get lost within the wheel and forget about life and living. The chronometer in her mind stated it had been three centuries since her last manipulation of the sphere and yet it was only a blink in her subjective time. She thought of contact this time out but knew not all times were aligned and convenient, maybe in the next five hundred standards a meeting could be arranged. Maybe.
Naked and refreshed she positioned herself inside the white light of the Conglomerate ring, the floor a glowing pad sending a curtain of golden light up twelve kilometres into overhead rock; the thick and undulous crust of the Earth’s surface. The light pulsed slightly as it recognised her aura and switched to her primary colour. She left her eyes open as the cortex association was made; retinal displays danced over her sight for the barest of seconds until full identification establishment had been secured, then they faded away. The light wavered as it settled into her synaptic rhythm. She was able to view and communicate with those of the Conglomerate that deemed it necessary to wake. The immersion would have sent a signal of importance into every stasis cubicle, though Lillium didn’t know how important it had deemed the information; the fact she had made a personal approach should put forth her own case for attention. In her peripheral vision flickered the primary colours of the houses, including a few fledgelings allowed the external reaches of the colour wheel, cyan and magenta, while not primaries, did hold key positions.
“Lillium, it is so good to connect with you. How long has it been?”
The sound of Marroka’s cyan persona was somehow expected, he was eager to impress the primaries as a newer member of the Conglomerate. He knew exactly how long it had been since they had last discussed his political aspirations, he seemed to always come forward when she was on duty; an expectant teenager ogling his first girlfriend. He would not be the first to receive her conclusions, though she did appreciate his spontaneity. Another light cell came to life and she could see him standing, dressed in the tight fitting lavender armour, ready to act. Others came, all complimentary colours flickering into view and all offering the same hollow welcome. The extra help would be appreciated if required but what she needed was a Primary. She waited long seconds until the house of blue flashed across everything before dominating all other colours; it pressed up hard against her solid yellow but with a force of will she didn’t allow it to penetrate. Now wasn’t the time. The primaries were equals in all things, no matter what some of them believed.
“Have you determined how human this communication is?” Navium said, appearing and walking out of his blue haze. He would be amused at her unyielding stance but concern about the message would take precedence. Navium did surprise her though; a blue wasn’t usually the first to react to inter stellar happenings; their interests ranged deeper into space time, temporal shifting, causality and the notion of traversable worm holes. Had he known it had specifically been her to make the request? Or had he known this was her hour in the immersion? While she was pleased to see him she also knew this had to be something important and she was glad she had been the one with her hands in the powder-fluid when the message arrived.
“The signal has travelled over one hundred thousand lights, but luminosity suggests it could be older. The immersion calculates an age closer to one ten.” She left the lighted pad and stood beside the equally naked man. “I have already instigated search and match systems but the sphere needs interactions; the language is too strange for it to interpret; it isn’t in the data base of known and dead languages, as far as it and I can tell, but we have only started digging.”
“It might take hours to unravel what we need to know, Lillium, this has come a long way and across the ages. I have considered perhaps a wormhole was used.” He didn’t look at her. “Have you confirmed this is human?” He turned his grey eyes on her, if there was anxiety in his manner it didn’t show. “The Villi - gre – mons have been known to mimic our transmissions and I have long suspected they have the technology I have been researching. Are you sure this isn’t alien?”
“You would not be here if it were fake.” Navium was live thinking, she knew, he was searching for a pathway forward. Questions without immediate answers were not supposed to be possible since the induction of the living immersion sphere; the live entity that had been created by early human hands, and recreated by itself to be better than any human mind could imagine. The sphere had never been incapable of answers. The sphere was supposed to know all human history for tens, if not hundreds of thousands of years. Navium frowned, an odd gesture on the smooth and youthful face. With a wipe of his hands over his chest he encased himself in royal blue armour; a thick leather like substance that fit the contours of his body exactly.
Lillium sheathed herself in chrome yellow armour, they didn’t know how dangerous this situation was and a primary could never be too careful; he was also preparing to step into the heart of the sphere. Behind them she heard the heavy clomp of thick heels. A Red by the name of Scarlen would be the wearer. Lillium knew the walk as if it were a repetitive bad dream. Scarlen would be more than a little peeved that Navium had answered first, reds acted first in everything associated with the sphere. She would show none of her disdain in this meeting and Lillium was sure there would already be a time stain in Navium’s sensory pit waiting for his return.
“Is this necessary?” Scarlen said, already red suited with a helmet clipped to her side.
“You must have deemed it important enough to come.” Lillium thought all the reds were tyrannical.
“Did the immersion give you any indication other than what it sent us?” Scarlen studied the sphere like it was an animal to be conquered.
“Most of what it has determined is incomprehensible but one thing did stand out. It could be the Never,” Lillium offered. “I tried some probes while I waited for you to answer the call.” Her sensor pit had calculated the possibility based on immersion probabilities. They had received things like this before but they always turned out to be bouncers, lost communications rebounding between stars like a wedgling’s see-cube thrown into a rubber room. “Given the age and distance travelled we may not get a positive verification.”
“What do we have?” Scarlen stepped into the group, waved her left hand and space opened up before them. Stars, millions of lights scattered against the densest black imaginable filled the space around them, even the floor became a starscape.
“Here.” Lillium touched a bright spot in the field. It opened to reveal a series of monster red suns; it had age written all over it. “Given our packet boosts and the angle of distortion I am almost certain the signal came from here, across the galactic centre and in the outer part of the arm. The sphere reference is Cygnus Ceta T965.”
“Is the sphere just making that up?” Scarlen questioned, one dark eyebrow lifting, a straight line on a too young and perfect face. She waved her hand through the starscape and new data streams came to life, bright multi-coloured lists of activity and inactivity flashed in and out of life like so many picto-squares.
“I cannot be sure of anything given the distortions from the core.” Lillium pointed to large, black objects near two of the suns. “There is also dark matter influence to contend with.”
“So you cannot rule out bouncing?” Scarlen also touched the field, another group of stars shifted into a tighter view, just a few degrees away from what Lillium had indicated. “I was delayed by my own calculations,” she said, offering an excuse why she did not come through first. Also a tactical move considering Navium was yet to offer any insights. “It is very unusual to have any signal or message coming from an area of space we don’t already know about, so I cannot believe any speculation you have, Lillium. The message could have easily come from this segment of space and we know which aliens manipulate our signals from there.” She offered a smirk. “I think we need to work out why the sphere was listening to this specific frequency in the first place.” The look on her face suggested she knew more than she was saying. “It is not one within existing records, and no one I would expect the immersion to scan.”
Lillium manipulated the fields, overlaying them and calculating angles of influence. “I am assuming this is a speed of light transmission.” She inserted a parabola. The plane rotated and plot points flashed in and out based on live feed data from Lillium’s mind. “While I am a little dubious of red’s assertions, I agree we should investigate why it was listening.”
“Are you not interested in what the message might be?” Navium spoke, turning on Scarlen with more than a little frown of doubt.
“Until I know more I am not even going to consider this is even a valid signal.” Scarlen stood a little straighter, her two metre stature towered over Lillium at one sixty five and was more than a little imposing against Navium’s one fifty. The red armour fitted her slight form allowing full skin to tactile nano-fibre contact. Filter armour. “This could be no more than a glitch in the immersion’s field of influence.”
“There has never been an immersion malfunction. Why have doubts now?” Navium wasn’t pleased. “I am curious, Scarlen. If you think this is nothing to be concerned about, why have you graced us with your presence at all?” He looked annoyed; Lillium remembered the animosity between the blues and reds.
“Because, Navium, the signal does not make any logical sense; the immersion has no referencing data on the language, if it is a language at all, and I am not convinced it is even a human voice we have heard.” She folded her arms as if that was the final determination. “I suggest we spend a few precious hours on this and then let it be. I seek only to clarify my own thoughts.”
“And, Lillium, what makes you think this could be the Never?” Navium made an exaggerated look at the flashing indicators on the field. “Why would immersion even suggest the possibility?”
“Immersion didn’t on its own accord; I suggested the possibility and sent it looking for the history of the legend.” She held up her hand to quell protests. “Before we decide whether or not this is the Never, I want full immersions from the three of us.” She did not believe in glitches in immersion and despite the misgivings of someone she did not trust she felt they owed it to all the primaries to investigate the message. She glanced to Scarlen who had already put on her helmet. At least she agreed to this much.
With minor movements of their hands they were all encased in their coloured protection. From forehead to chin they were fully covered by a clear field known as the data-ice; their vision now restricted by what was displayed on the ice-like crystal that protected their eyes and face. The powder-liquid inside the sphere waited for them to step into its embrace. Once in, the primary colours would be muted by the iridescent blue of the cell-trodes. While the suits didn’t allow normal cell-trode interaction it did create an information film around each suit which could be quickly translated by the need now principle. Their helmets would function as an interface between the raw data of the cell-trodes, the armour and the information requests of the primary’s brains.
Navium made a slow, downwards chopping action with his right arm and the star field they had been studying faded to leave them and the sphere bathed in a white well of light. The auditorium was alive with activity now as many of the complimentary colours came forward to examine outlying data streams. The cavern housing them all hadn’t as much been built to house the sphere but more the sphere occupied a place in space time within the large room and then projected how it wanted to be seen into the minds of all who entered the auditorium. No one really knew what the immersion sphere really looked like. Lillium had heard it was nothing more than a bubbling black pit of ooze that sunk deep into the core of the planet. She preferred to believe in what it made her see, a kind of water coloured representation of the Earth.
In unison they stepped into the swirling eddies of fine powder and their crystal face plates blacked out, readying for its own interface with the living intelligence. Ice shields weren’t water ice, though water did constitute some of its makeup, they were a combination of hardened cell-trodes, synaptic resonance particles and a swathe of exotics created by energy production for human habitation. The blackness cleared and Lillium could see the hazy dark blue of Navium and the muted but still audacious red of Scarlen. While they wouldn’t need to be in actual contact with each other physically the process of unified immersion worked better if you stood close to each other so the synaptic transfers between the suits didn’t have too far to travel.
“First the language,” Navium said, his voice both a sound and a vibration through the fluid-like powder, it rattled against Lillium’s suit like a slow, thick wind. “Lillium, you delve into post metamorphic, I think I detected a few words that could have been in that tongue, very old, very sparse. I suggest looking for some Mars logs, go back until there is nothing to find and then work up from that.”
Navium looked to Scarlen. “Because I feel red involvement.” He sneered at her. “Scarlen, I want you to venture through pre and post Aberration.”
“This isn’t Aberration, there’s no cortex stimulation in the signal.” Scarlen was blunt, too blunt.
“I don’t want a match with Aberration,” Navium said calmly. “I want you to run the signal though a pictology mesh, I want a picture of what could be meant here, and you have the experience for this.” Navium played the flattery card too often for Lillium’s liking, but she had to have some level of trust for the man.
“And what will you be doing?” Scarlen’s face plate was already interacting with the powder, a steady river of colour, shapes and sound flowing in vortices about her face.
“Construction,” he said blandly. “I will be searching out all construction records before the immersion entity was born; hopefully it has some of the old data in a secluded part of its memory.”
“You will find nothing there.” Scarlen said, “Everything we need to know is in here, stick with what we know.”
“It has been a long time since anyone has trawled for anything connected to the legend of the Never, Scarlen; so long in fact I can’t even locate any records of it ever occurring.” He moved his hand through a swirl of black figures crowding about his faceplate. “If I didn’t know any better I’d say the immersion has been deliberately losing information; if we know of the Never, why has the immersion suddenly stopped knowing?”
“I thought you didn’t believe in speculations?”
Lillium ignored the exchange, Navium could take care of himself and she had little doubt in the enormity of the task he had set himself. The message was old and the language had not shown in the immersion’s first and secondary scans. The immersion simply didn’t know what to look for and when that happened it made Primaries nervous. She had started her own direct visual connection with what she could find of the morphs, the pseudo humans that once occupied the solar system’s poorly terraformed Mars and parts of the Oort cloud. It took less than a few seconds to process all the relevant material available, and it didn’t offer much. The morph language was only in fragments and reading and listening to it hurt, its penetration through the suit’s filters bit into her nerves and put her teeth on edge. Morph was a guttural harshness that spoke of airless caverns and old space ships, as she listened to the scraps of recorded sound she couldn’t help but feel a sense of abandonment; while she listened and played her fingers through pictorial streams, data piled up around her, piled up around all of them. The immersion would be finding every obscure reference related to their search criterias but it still took a human mind to put the pieces together using the type of lateral creativity the entity of the sphere had yet to fully grasp.
The three of them stood within the sphere with rivers of data interacting with them through the suits. Need to know data was fast piling up in caches beside each of them as growing black cubes, and Lillium knew soon they would have to stop the live interpretations and clear the back log. After nine minutes her face plate started to show data weariness and sections of it would black out for refreshing. At ten minutes Lillium signalled with her hand at the waist high caches. Navium didn’t seem to notice but she saw Scarlen’s crystal change from clear to red and the cache material started to flow into the new face plate, but so too did some of the cache beside Lillium; was Scarlen helping? Surely she had enough of her own material to concern herself with.
Barely a minute had passed when Lillium realized the sifting task was far more than her suit could translate and within only a few more minutes her face plate started to blink out altogether. Something was clarifying though, some morph had matched, a word or two; it was small but it was a start. One hundred and fifty thousand years of data, most of which wasn’t actually in the store, was proving to be too much for the three primaries. It was time to get help; Lillium couldn’t keep the inflow consistent anymore. Bits and bytes crammed into her head threatening to crash her own internal cell-trodes, the fluid machines were starting to overheat and she could feel pain forming in her frontal lobes. Then she saw it, a spark. It had been sitting in the cache as an insignificant possible partly connected with Mars. Lillium broke contact with the other two and stepped out of the sphere. The powder-fluid flowed away from her in slow motion as it re-joined the immersion, the connection faded and she dropped to her knees exhausted.
“It’s Hedron.” She looked to the sphere and spoke again, knowing her helmet would pass on what she had discovered. “The language is Hedron.”
“Period?” Scarlen asked, also stepping from the immersion. Her face plate cleared and Lillium could see the immense strain of the connection in her face; she looked ten years older. “Does it mention the Never?”
“The period is pre morph I think, but there could be cross over.” Lillium shifted to sitting on her behind, helmet off and armour retracted; sitting naked in the warm air helped settle her. “It’s connected to Mars though, only a few words so far but enough to say the message does have some roots. I found no Never matches in morph but who knows? it could be enough to start a base line for the subtext.”
“Mars has been uninhabited for almost a hundred thousand standards.” Scarlen retracted her suit and likewise sat on the black floor beside Lillium.
“And you knew that, how?”
“Aberration; a picture of the red planet formed, a scattering of flashed images, nothing to hold onto with any great conviction but it connects with what you have discovered.”
“So the message has come from Mars?” Lillium closed her eyes and gently rubbed at her face. It didn’t make sense, why would it take so long?
“Not Mars.” It was Navium, he stepped from the sphere and disengaged his armour, “but associated humanity involved with the failed terraforming. I also found many words matching the message and confer that it is Hedron or a variant of the language as used on Mars, though Hedron is more than likely pre-morph cross over. I am afraid there is a lot of information that has been translated into our standard language forcefully and it has now become meaningless.” He looked to the sphere with the face of a disappointed man.
They had somewhere to start, Lillium thought, they had a language, and a smattering of assorted words that did and didn’t make sense. Lillium understood what Navium had meant with the translations and she questioned the forceful insistence of the immersion to have everything suddenly in Earth standard. A complexity that would require more time interacting with the sphere. The message came from humans who wrote and spoke in Hedron. While this was key information the turquoise poly-trope’s working deep info mining tasks of the sphere’s billions of information wells couldn’t fathom any true meaning. She thought of the Never, a legend in one time and a possible religion at another, or so said the scant information she had been able to tease out of the stream she had confronted. The difficulty now with the language was once something was known the standard was applied by the immersion, so what she had understood in her mind only minutes before was now a major variation of its true self in standard. The immersion wouldn’t keep both versions, so why was the Earth standard being enforced? Was the message trying to self-erase? she thought, rubbing at her eyes. She needed contact; she looked up at Navium and managed a smile. Maybe later, she thought, maybe later. At the moment all they really had was speculation and the sphere didn’t really deal in such things. The most troubling aspect was the sphere was supposed to have all the answers they would ever need. With the immersion changing the presentation of data the new problem was they no longer knew what questions to ask, or how to ask. Therefore the ‘need to know’ data streams and the suit filters were beginning to sound pointless.
Lillium composed herself and stood by the sphere, allowing proximity connections to play through a few possibilities she’d managed to think up. She could almost hear the pulse of the immersion in her own chest and in a way she breathed in and out to the fluctuations in the data flow. In minutes she had secondaries and lesser hues working in fields far removed from the sphere; they had a jumble of recording which the immersion had released and the collection of random words discovered by Navium. Lillium couldn’t risk contact with the immersion; not until she knew what was happening.
“You find anything useful?” Scarlen asked, joining her at the edge of the sphere. Lillium wanted to put her hands in but she just didn’t know how to frame her questions. All the primaries who were now awake suffered from the same thing, only the reds had been cross communicating with the sphere and they were reluctant to share what they had discovered. Another political move to enable them more control of the colour wheel.
“I’ve got Marroka and Terac working on deconstructing the message like a child’s puzzle, the filaments of the signal teased out to fine strands so only their spectrums show.”
“Will it work?”
“No, but it keeps them out of my hair.”
“Navium has found little more about the Mars colonization, other than it took place over one hundred and fifty thousand standards ago. There is no explanation as to what happened to the colony so he’s been thinking it could be them. I want you to convert what you have into standard, so we all have the same information…”
“There you go, and that is our problem.” Lillium interrupted, her frustration upsetting her calm equilibrium.
“What are you talking about?”
“Standard. All the languages are being forced into Earth standard and I need the original texts for comparison, I need the non-standards here. Hedron is a language, a spoken tongue and yet every time I get close to full examples, the examples are forced into standard and I lose the thread.”
“How so? I used standard protocols to determine the age of the message this morning, and I can confirm it is closer to one hundred and ten thousand standards old.”
“But Scarlen, that is measurement, everything in that regard makes sense once you know what increments have been used.”
Scarlen smiled. “And it is the same with the language.” She paused. “If we can understand this message once it is in standard we will have the answer. If it cannot be translated then I am proven right in thinking this is not a message at all.”
Lillium had travelled this road a few times in the last twenty three and a half minutes, ever since the message had been received; she knew what the answer was and her gut lurched at the knowledge. “Up until a few minutes ago we used to have some scant records of Hedron, something has changed how the immersion thinks and acts and those examples have been changed then deleted. And before you mention the sphere I have already run this through immersion, it simply says following directives of this nature has stabilized humanity for many thousands of years.”
“And?” She raised her eyebrows, the face returned to its young appearance, the brow line thin. Lillium noted she smelled of apples.
“Why has immersion started this regime and why now?”
“Again I don’t understand. Standard is what keeps our uniformity, Lillium, it has always been this way.”
In frustration she folded her arms and thought about bringing forth her armour for extra warmth, she suddenly felt cold. “I still have some fragments that have somehow missed the standardization in the last ten minutes. Before the purge and well before the artificial intelligence uprising, everything had been in its original form; original languages and meanings.” She looked deep into the blue of the sphere and tried to fathom the questions she needed to ask. If the Never came from before these events maybe she could find answers by going even deeper. “Does the idea of the Never have a non-standard version and how do I find it?” It was a rhetorical question.
“The Primaries are divided, Lillium, and I think your concerns will only cloud their action. They want to go back into stasis, we have been out too long as it is.” Scarlen was unarmoured, naked like Lillium and her skin a light brown where Lillium was the clearest of whites. “How close are you to knowing what that message says?” Her tone was even and voice low so none of the secondary and complimentaries could hear.
Lillium had her doubts and concerns, she had been second guessing herself with the sphere’s assistance for the last few minutes, but she did feel if she didn’t draw too much attention to untranslated information she might get something. “I think I could have some answers in another hour, provided I can keep ahead of the standardization systems and secure code my discovered data from the general conversion.” Lillium sighed and wondered how much she had already lost before she realised the problem! “Navium has been loading ancient Mars’ material into a secure cache which is still in base Morph; provided I get a good cross section of that language I might be able to translate the message into full Morph and then into Hedron in two hours and eight minutes.”
“I am sorry to hear you encountered the standardization protocol,” Scarlen said with a slight frown. “Perhaps I can assist you.” She took Lillium’s right hand in her own and pushed both hands into the sphere.
“What are you doing?” Lillium didn’t pull away; she was just surprised at the contact. Only one person was allowed to touch her.
Her bare hand tickled at first but soon developed a settling warmth she expected from the noonday sun in winter; there was an edge of coolness, though the sensation was distant to the point of distracting. Then a memory flashed in her mind, an effect of the cell-trodes’ first contact, a blue sky, white clouds and the smell of jasmine. She wondered how long it had been since she’d been outside; centuries maybe. The flash faded, replaced by the walls of raw data living within the sphere; packets of memory stuff piggy-backing the atom-sized cell-trodes began to swarm about her hand, the communication had begun. The immersion wasn’t wet like observers imagined; the experience was dry and almost frictionless it was an ultra-fine powder filling a tight, well controlled atmosphere. The feeling was a non-feeling, like inserting your hand into a tub filled with air, but she knew the trodes would smear her hand and wrist and send electrical signals directly into her nerves. The feeling of invasion minute. It was safe to do this with only a hand or two but full naked immersion wasn’t possible, the body’s defences would be overloaded to the point of neural toxicity and cell by cell breakdown. The sphere and immersion might have been a blessing to human knowledge and information interaction but it was not benevolent.
“Here,” Scarlen said opening her palm to reveal a small, red spheroid. “Mars as it is now.” She closed her fingers and flicked them open again, the red ball displayed patches of ruddy red and blue. “This is at the height of terraforming. When the language of morph developed. Where Hedron originally took root.”
“You know? How long have you known this?” Lillium touched the planet; a sparkle of data ran up her arm, it had all been converted to standard and referentially meaningless. She looked to Scarlen who was smiling. “What are you doing?”
“Making sure something doesn’t happen. The wrong person had been listening, Lillium. I am truly sorry it had to be you.” She closed and opened her hand again. Her palm was filled with crystals. ‘Can we come home?’ appeared in bright red letters about her palm. “This means the same in our standard,” she said with a little hesitation, “the message is for us, I mean, the reds, not you and Navium, not the other Primaries.”
Lillium tried to pull her hand out of the immersion. She found she couldn’t. With a little more effort she leant back but she was pulled in further. The sphere was dragging her in. Scarlen had released her hand after leaving a circlet of red bands pulsating around her wrist.
“Stop it.” Lillium tugged and felt the pain of restriction. “Let me go.”
The pull of the blue haze had her up to the elbow. She looked to Scarlen who removed her hand from the sphere and slowly backed away. The harder Lillium pulled the more she was being dragged into the immersion. Cell-trodes invaded her arm, flowed into her blood and started their attack on her mind; fighting for control.
“The message can only ever been known by the reds,” Scarlen said, taking yet another step away. “You cannot be permitted to change things.”
“What are you talking about?” Lillium was now up to her shoulder and the cold sensation usually assigned to her bare hand was now creeping across her chest. The sphere, a system that gave and took raw information, was doing what it was originally designed to do; absorb sentience and turn it into accessible data.
“You already know what the signal means; you already know it is from the Never.” Scarlen turned to see if others were witnessing what was taking place. Lillium also saw they were alone in the chamber, or in the black ooze pit. “There is a reason you aren’t meant to know about the Never and the reds understand this more than others.”
“I don’t know what…” The sphere convulsed, sucking Lillium all the way through its membrane and into the swirling eddies and streams of powdery information lines. Cell-trodes flooded her eyes; a soft film covered them and changed her vision. For a moment she couldn’t see, couldn’t feel, it was if she was trapped inside a dark box with her arms and legs restrained by bonds – soft bonds. The immersion, the powdery fluid they had come so reliant on for tens of thousands of years seeped through her skin, penetrated muscle and bone and took residence in organs, even converting the brain to a storage vat for bleed off information. Where Lillium’s armour would have filtered the bombardment of the immersions synaptic impulses, she was now at the mercy, if sentient raw data knew of mercy, of the sphere.
Light slowly crept into her world, she wasn’t sure if it was in her eyes or simply firing electrons in her brain; the over stimulation of cell-trodes. The light cleared to show the blue world she was now fully immersed in; hazy and flickering. She raised her hand to her face and saw it silver coated and shining like water, the trodes creating their own communicative skin over hers. She should have suited up before putting her hand into the sphere; hindsight never made mistakes. Trying to activate armour once in connection with the immersion wouldn’t work; the electrical signal to the sub dermal nano-fabric could not compete with the cell-trodes once they’d been permitted to penetrate the skin and come alive in nerve endings.
“This may be the last message we send,” came a male’s voice vibrating through the fluid. The language was the same as the message she’d first heard but instead of incomprehensibility she now understood. She now understood Hedron. How? Remnants had remained in some of the archaic stores but not enough to form an understanding like this; they had found no key to unlock the secrets of terminology and phraseology.
“Who is this?” she asked but then knew she would get no answer. The message was old and if it took one hundred and fifty thousand light years to get to the Earth, it would take at least ten thousand to get back with signal boosting and packet waves.
“We have found a world, or The Never Sea has found a world for us, it is inhabited but the semi-humanoids on the planet are willing to allow us independence and a place to start our lives over.”
“Who were they, what was the Never Sea?” She moved her head and the sound wavered as the vibrations wobbled about her. She could see images now, a face, a uniform, she thought. The signal had come through as more than just audio. Scarlen would have known this; she would have found it via Aberration. The image wasn’t clear, it had been etched by time and distance, radiations criss-crossing the galaxy would have offered their own distortions but given the tightness of the original beam, the precise manner of the band, the message had made it across space and time.
“We have spent more than five centuries inside life vats on our journey out and the ship did a good job with only a few of the vats failing. The life-giving fluids were finally exhausted and the Never Sea brought us back to real time three years ago. We lost the captain and part of the executive but we have established a workable political system that the remaining nine and a half thousand of us can live with on the new world. We don’t know how long or how far we have travelled away from Earth, ship computers are partially corrupted but it does appear for short times we surpassed relavalistic speeds, maybe even entered a natural worm-hole; impossible I know, but we crossed some kind of fissure through space-time, or at least that is what keeps appearing on the records. We crossed the galaxy’s centre, something none of us realised was possible. We know we covered a great distance quickly and given time dilation we also know human history on Earth has exceeded any imaginings we are capable of. We know the edict we left on but we hope you will forgive us this one contact. Things would be different now for us and we want you to know that.” The man’s face looked dour, as if remembering something uncomfortable. Lillium tried to formulate a command that would stop the message being standardized and lost but nothing would come. Would she be the only one to hear this? “Given the distance we must have travelled, a reply will be pointless as we may not be in existence or even remember the Earth by then.” The face looked tired, older than anyone she had ever seen before. The cell-trodes dug into her brain, endorphins reacted and she felt a brief spike of joy.
Lillium’s understanding of life away from Earth was the ten systems they occupied and the primary concerns across those spheres. Emergence of the fifth age ensured continued consistency of the lines, but no one had a complete history of deep time. Pain erupted down her spine. It was the immersion; it would be trying to pull her apart, doing its best to incorporate all of her into its data stream. All connections with the immersion was a slow breakdown by the cell-trodes of human DNA and RNA, the datafication of all life and experience. While she knew she was dying she wasn’t dead, yet, she still had the ability to move, even if a little. She was getting the message, seeing it as it had arrived less than two hours ago. Lillium had to create an opening to Navium, or to any one of the complimentaries working on decoding. Where was Marroka when she needed him? Even he would be welcomed, he could help her out of the sphere, rescue her from the immersion; that would guarantee him a position on her council.
The message continued. “The reason we were made to leave was understandable but our many religions have united and we can truly say we have found a sensible unification among us. The divisions that separated us from you may have been closed over time back on Earth, maybe not, but please know we have found peace on this new world, peace in the one God.” She noted that his eyes looked down. He was reading the message. This was a carefully prepared broadcast, the message significant somehow. Navium might know; she had to contact Navium. “In time, some of us might eventually come home. Some want to go home, even after all we have endured…”
With effort Lillium traced Navium’s name into the immersion, slow and deliberate movements of her fading hand and for fractions of seconds the letters hovered before being whisked away on a firm breeze. Please understand, she asked the immersion. Just because it would know her thoughts, detect her distress, didn’t mean it would act in anything other than its own interests. Get Navium, she thought, creating a picture of him in armoured blue in her mind. If he was hearing, experiencing this then he would know what to do. He had been in space, had interests in some of the Jovian gas syphons, he would understand, he had to understand.
The sphere was ramming data into her brain and taking it out just as fast, she could smell, or her sensory glands were being stimulated by a burning odour. Lillium felt no heat but she somehow knew her brain was being fried like an insect on an electrified grid. The command of thoughts was becoming tenuous and she found it easier and easier to flow into the pictograms, colours and numbers as they soaked into her being. The message was becoming part of her, or was she becoming one with the message and one with the immersion? She had heard part of the message sent by the Never Sea, what happened to the rest of it she didn’t know, and didn’t seem to care about not knowing. She focused on the message, its meaning, what the man had said. Was this who the Never were?
It was not like closing her eyes to light when the darkness came, it held a deeper sensation, one where she could feel everything inside slowly stopping; she thought she could even sense the declining vibrations of her heart through the blue medium. Blackness came, real blackness, impenetrable and absolute. She sighed, the first actual action of her lungs since being pulled into the immersion, and a full ten seconds had passed since then. Navium, she thought one more time.
The water was cool and invigorating, the pseudo suns glowing from five points in the high ceiling warmed her exposed skin; Lillium felt alive and relaxed as she rinsed bubbles of soap from her shoulders.
“Navium,” she said, as the man from blue stepped into her domain.
“I am here. Are you feeling better?” He wore royal blue armour, the cleared faceplate of his helmet reflecting status icons over his white face.
“Better?” She stood, water flowing from her skin and splashing about her thighs. “Was I unwell?” Lillium took the offered rich, yellow towel from a slight yellow assistant and stepped from the bath. “And why the armour? Are you preparing to enter immersion?”
He stood and watched on while she towelled off and then formulated a chrome yellow dress over her skin. The warmth felt luxurious, the texture of the fabric soft, yet sheer. Navium didn’t move and in his armour he was hard to read, yet she felt she understood some of his thoughts. She closed her eyes, an extended blink and smelt the pungent stink of heated powder. But she had just bathed? She had washed the soap from her skin only moments ago. She opened her eyes to see Navium standing barely an arm’s length away now, his face plate a translucent red, his eyes shadowy pools beneath.
“We have to talk.”
“We are talking.” Even as she spoke she found the words distant and disconnected.
“You called me to the sphere.” He reached for her but changed his mind, quickly dropping his arm before she could touch him.
“I did?” Did she, she wondered. If she called him to the sphere why were they in the bathing chamber?
“We don’t have much time, Lillium, you must grasp onto something the immersion needs more than anything else, something it doesn’t yet fully conceptualise.”
She watched the dance of lights across his faceplate, the slight ripple that ran over his armour. “What’s wrong?” She looked to her clothing and quickly conjured her armour; it wouldn’t form. “Navium, what is happening?” She tried again and again and again but the armour, anything protective, failed to coalesce about her. She turned to the assistant, but she was gone; the bath was gone, then she realised the whole room was gone.
“You are inside the sphere, Lillium; you are inside the immersion unprotected.”
“Scarlen.” The name jumped into her mind, a fleeting shadow across a dimming sun.
“The Never,” he said carefully, his voice like a breeze rustling far off flags. “Grasp on to the Never. Think of Mars; access all the information stores on the red planet. Seek out the search pattern for The Never Sea, hurry Lillium, search The Never Sea.”
Navium seemed to fade slightly as if a film were forming between them. Lillium wanted to reach to him but found she had no arms, she had no legs and she had no body. She could not check to see if she had a head, but she could see, or did she simply sense and be? The roar of something filled her ears, filled the world about her, she knew a more muted version of that sound; she remembered. Data, raw data. She thought of The Never Sea. Tried to visualise the words in standard but found they wouldn’t come, the symbology was all distorted and slippery. Hedron, she remembered, the last thing she had been hearing was in Hedron. Following the patterning she recalled, she formed the words, formed them inside a sphere of blue and for a moment they flashed. Everything slowed, the roar of data fritted away to a hiss of sound. She saw the red ball Scarlen had shown her, it was dotted with Red and blue patches. She’d seen this before; if the immersion had seen and got it the first time through Scarlen it would lose cohesion in her. She reached for it, touched it with her mind, commanded The Never Sea to be revealed.
“Good.” It was Navium, he had returned to his place before her. “The sphere must now delve deep within itself to find references; references that may only exist within the message itself.”
“What is happening to me?” Lillium felt scared.
“You have become part of the intensive data stream of immersion.”
“Scarlen,” she said again, only this time she had a vision of her doing something, getting her stuck in the sphere. “She tricked me.”
“We will deal with her later.” His vision plate was clear and she could see his face; it was wet with perspiration. “The more questions you ask about The Never Sea the more the immersion will have to put you back together, for it is through you it will have to get the answer. You don’t know the answer yet and that is what is going to save you, Lillium.”
“I don’t know what to ask.” She felt as if she was crying but there were no tears, no sobs.
“Ask all the simple questions first. Envision who? What? Where? Why? How? When? The immersion will delve but find nothing solid or convincing, it will be forced to create something to seek the answers it needs and you, Lillium, you are still closer to subjective reality than it is.”
She envisioned the questions, each word pushed into place letter by letter until she could hold it steady, each word becoming more solid in her mind as they were formed. Navium again faded out, but not completely, he was surrounded by a blue liquid, the power fluid of the immersion. She could see her arms, see her body, transparent but there where it hadn’t been before. The immersion had no answers, the information flow that would have attacked her was now drawing back, reinstating her particles and withdrawing the cell-trodes that had stripped her down to information packets.
“Soon it will question you,” Navium said. “It will ask you if you understood the message.” He held up his hand, “Say no, think no, send your mind to a dark empty place when it asks.”
The questions came and her first thought went to the message; in only the fraction of a second the immersion started into her again, the dismantling of all she was. The immersion threatening to drown out any opposition she might have been attempting. She thought of Scarlen and darkness came, she created it in her mind; it could have been hatred but an understanding of true hatred was hard to maintain, it was almost as alien to her as true love, but it was dark and safe, that sense of nothing closed in protectively around her like a blanket. Quickly she felt as though she was actually seeing with real eyes and experiencing the lighter-than-air touch of the immersion on her skin. Cell-trodes still formed a silver skin over her body and she could still detect fine filaments of connection from them, a peripheral touch.
Navium was before her, his face plate clear, icons and blocks of text reflecting off his face plate onto his face, into his eyes. He reached for her and she reached for him, at his touch all senses collapsed.
Scarlen sat imprisoned in her stasis cube, decked out in a ruby red off-the-shoulder dress with a helmet on a table beside her. She hadn’t been called forward to answer the question of why she had tried to kill Lillium and destroy the message; she had simply had her time access blocked. Lillium had recovered a little from being turned into atoms and she still had the unnerving sensation of flying apart if she sneezed or coughed. She and Navium stood naked and staring into the immersion sphere, the blueness swirling through the information it gathered over its long life. Navium had been quiet, his primary blue counterparts and her yellow had called for an alteration in general hue for red, but the reds had been adamant that a change to the primary code would unbalance the wheel; simply isolating Scarlen for a thousand years should be punishment enough. Lillium accepted this as she knew it would be rare if they even met again in any time line. Secondaries and complimentaries walked in and out of the sphere, data journeys beginning and ending all the time. Lillium saw a cyan suited inside the sphere, faceplate filled with streams of primary colours; Marroka. When it had come time for him to prove himself he failed her. He might have been first to answer her initial call, but he was nowhere when she desired help the most. He was tasked in data trawling to restore languages to their original forms, or close enough representation of those forms. The job was estimated to take close to ten thousand years and whole research teams would have to work in real time collating hard information; materials that couldn’t be stored in packets. She would check in every five hundred years, spend an hour evaluating how far the secondaries had managed to rebuild what had been lost, but she would spend no more time inside immersion.
“The message came from The Never Sea?” Lillium said, changing her focus to the small man beside her. “It’s hard to believe humans managed such a feat like that. I don’t think we would be able to do it now; travel in space like that.”
“Things were different back then, Lillium. From the fabric of history, using what I know of temporal shifts I could create a very subjective picture, but it would never truly be complete. There were many things tearing at the human existence and an extreme measure was taken.” Navium gently touched the membrane of the sphere, a small ripple radiated out from his palm. “The people of The Never Sea were of mixed religions, something we had long disposed of. They were expelled for holding onto beliefs that defied logic.” He looked troubled. “Scarlen possessed a part of this illogical fracture.”
“Scarlen wasn’t religious.”
“She wouldn’t have thought so, because what she did made as much sense as anything that goes on here.” He indicated the sphere. “She was part of a very old order, a sect I suppose, and it arose well after the Great Banishment, the time when the Never Sea was sent out. They were known as the Listeners, and they were in place to listen for any news from the Never Sea. Even the immersion hadn’t accessed that kind of data for tens of thousands of years. None of it had been converted to standard and lost to interpretation. When we were in concert looking at the message, Scarlen delved into the archives and must have found something that indicated the message was somehow connected to the Listeners, she set in motion a scrubber which invaded the sphere. The immersion came alive to it all and became hungry.”
“And she fed me to it?”
“I think she believed she was doing the right thing.” He looked at his hand as if expecting it to have residue from the sphere. “But she was wrong, of course.”
“The man in the message mentioned The Never Sea; I guessed it was a kind of generation ship.” She moved closer to Navium, she could feel the warmth of his skin. Feeling safe, she sighed lightly. “The Never was The Never Sea.”
“It would be fortuitous if that was the case,”Navium said, “but I am afraid the Never doesn’t refer to the ship, but it does refer to the people who were on it. Lillium, they, the last of the religions, were herded to Mars and sent on their way in that star ship. It has been gone for over a hundred thousand years at least, unless the worm hole theory they suggested holds true.” He looked at her with sadness in his eyes. “They were banished from Earth and sent with the strictest command of never to return.” He looked at her sombrely. “Over time never to return became the never.”
“And they are coming back?” Would they be welcomed? “Is that what the message meant? They are going to bring religion back to the Earth?” She rested her hand in Navium’s.
“No, I don’t think they are coming back.”
“Then why the anxiety as if they were?” She touched Navium’s face, he closed his eyes for a little time.
“They don’t have to return.” Navium opened his eyes and turned away from her and the sphere. “Through Scarlen and the reds, the seeds of religion have been re-sown.” As he said this Lillium also turned and looked into the auditorium that surrounded them. A multitude of colour, primaries, secondaries and complimentaries went about their daily business and from time to time someone stopped and looked up, staring into the roof of the cavern. They were listening.