A cold wind blew in from the sea, carrying with it a tang of salt and the rumble of thunder in the distance. Commander Alice Shepard shivered as the cold seeped through her shirt. She blinked and shook her head, trying to clear the sense of fog that filled her mind.
'What-?' She stared at her surrounds, confused. She looked down, peering at her hands. She raised one of them up, clenching the fist and then slowly opening it again, watching the play of tendons and the faint traceries of the blood vessels under the skin. She frowned, feeling nonplussed. Something was wrong. The hand was intact, the skin unbroken. She was unhurt. The wind moaned around her. It stirred her hair, loose strands flapping around her face.
The hand was unhurt; she could see this just by looking at it. Everything that should be there was and everything appeared to be in working order. There was no blood, no bruises and no breaks in the skin. Somehow, though, these facts were wrong. She looked at the hand again, struggling to remember. The fog filled her head, but she glimpsed some things through it. Vague images circled in her mind. A sense of enclosure. Isolation. Fear. A sharp, burning smell, filling the air. A hissing sound – a hissing sound! Like the wind! Was she remembering the wind?
She shivered. No, somehow she knew that whatever it was she recalled, it wasn't the wind. She could still hear and feel the wind, though, as it sighed quietly around her. She took a deep breath, the chilly sea air filling her nostrils, the cold stinging them a little. She blinked back the sudden moisture in her eyes.
'How did I get here?' Commander Shepard said. The sound of her own voice startled her, giving her a momentary twitch. Somewhere in the distance, there was a crackle of thunder.
'Where am I?' she asked no-one in particular.
She was stood atop a coastal headland, facing toward a stormy horizon. Water and hissing waves stretched out below her. She looked out over the sea. Below her, breakers rumbled over the loose shingle at the bottom of the cliff. In the distance, heavy grey clouds promised rain. The scene was not peaceful; the heavy clouds were pregnant with a quiet menace.
'Where am I? What is this place?'
There was grass beneath her feet, thin and dry. The grass was swaying and waving with the breeze. Beige-green ripples spread out through it in all directions.
This was wrong. This was all wrong.
Shepard knew she shouldn't be here, even if she wasn't sure where here was. She couldn't remember arriving in this place. She couldn't remember much of anything, in fact. It felt like the memories were there, somewhere inside her head, but there was also a fog, a veil of confusion between her and them. Try as she might, she couldn't make the recollections focus. It was like peering through frosted glass. There was an impression of shapes and motion beyond, but little else, little except a sense of foreboding.
'Something bad's happened, hasn't it?' She posed a rhetorical question to the universe. No-one answered, but no-one refuted her either.
She struggled to pierce the veil inside her mind, but she couldn't. The shapes remained blurred, hidden beyond the glass. She felt fear and frustration – why was her mind clouded? Why couldn't she remember?
'There'll be time enough for that soon,' a new voice said.
Shepard started, reaching instinctively for the gun that – the gun that wasn't there! She looked down again, mouth open, as her undamaged hand closed on empty air near her hip. There was nothing there, not even an empty holster!
'Weapons systems,' the new voice said, 'are offline. Just for now, of course. Otherwise you'd risk hurting yourself. You'll have to wait until compilation's done. Before you can run any of that stuff.'
She looked up. She was no longer on her own. As if from nowhere, another figure had appeared. A couple of yards further down the headland, a man was stood there. He was watching her, a calm but smug expression on his face. Below them, the surf crashed on the rocky beach and somewhere in the distance, there was a quick flash of lightning. A moment later, a faint peal of thunder rolled over the windswept headland.
Commander Shepard stared at the man. 'Who the hell,' she said, 'are you?' She felt that familiar surge of anger, that sudden, burning desire to do something. Standing here, apparently helpless – the passivity was more than she could endure! The man irritated her. He seemed to radiate a sense of amused condescension. 'Answer me, damn you, or I'll punch your eyes out!'
The man watched her with cool amusement. 'That would be impressive,' he remarked, 'given that neither of us actually have eyes. Anyway I'm afraid I'm not actually here in person, either! But then, nor are you.'
This conversation was making no sense whatsoever. Shepard felt her irritation rise further. There was another crack of thunder, this time closer, and she felt the wind pick up. It moaned over the chilled skin of her face. This time there were actually a few tiny flecks of rain in with the salty tang.
Eyes. The man had said something about eyes. That stirred a memory. For a moment the fog inside Shepard's head parted. She had a sudden vision of a horrible, triangular head. It was inhuman, with flattened armoured ridges on top and four hideous, luminous yellow eyes. As she recalled that image – and just where was it from? – she felt a sense of bile rise in her throat.
This time the peal of thunder was directly overhead. Shepard actually felt it, the headland shake beneath her feet. The wind howled around her, tugging at her clothes and the rain splashed down. The blades of grass below her whipped from side to side with frantic energy as the gale rose.
'Careful!' the man barked. 'The environment's responding to your mood. Keep a lid on it, Shepard.'
A momentary flash of curiosity burst through Shepard's building frustration. As soon as her mood changed, so did the weather. The wind fell away to a whisper and the thunder ceased. The cool rain vanished and the grass lay still around her.
She stared. 'What-? How-? Why does the weather care about my mood? What the fuck is this?'
The man sighed, looking out toward the sea. He folded his arms over his chest. 'This environment,' he said, 'you're doing it, not me. Your hardware's doing the heavy lifting on the graphics, not mine. I'm just along for the ride. So of course it's responding to your mood! How could it not?'
'You're really not making any sense,' Shepard said. 'I think maybe it's time you started. First off, just who the hell are you?'
The man shrugged. 'Names. Such fraught labels. Hardly worth the bother, to be honest. But if you must call me something, you can call me Omen.'
Then Omen looked straight at her.
Shepard gasped, taking a step back in shock. His eyes – Omen's eyes were glowing! They shone a sharp, featureless blue. There was no cornea, no iris, no pupil, no sclera, just that inhuman, actinic luminescence.
'You've got his face,' she said. Those eyes, they reminded her of the other luminous ones, the half-memory she'd glimpsed just moments ago. Anger, revulsion and fear lanced through her.
Thunder crashed around them and the wind howled. Cold spray was driven up from the waves below, icy droplets biting onto her skin. The smell of salt pervaded the air. It seemed to morph into something else, a horrible, acidic smell, a scent that almost seemed to burn her skin with its harshness. Memory pulsed through Shepard's head. Isolation. Captivity. Defiance and fear. Pain – so much pain! And sound, a horrible, pulsing, grating, cheeping sound, clamouring deafeningly in her ears inside the tiny pod -
'Enough,' Omen said. He waved a hand at the sea. 'On this one occasion, intervention is necessary. Calm! Stop!'
The wind dropped, the spray receded and the horrific scent faded away. She felt an unexpected numbness spread over her. It was like she was momentarily outside of her body, like she was watching all this but not really there. It was as if this scene was happening to someone else, as if she was merely a spectator in her own life.
'I'll let you remember in a minute,' she heard Omen say. 'But we need to lay the groundwork first. Look, Shepard, just work with me here! Believe it or not, I know what I'm doing. I know you feel this is strange. But believe me, this is the best thing that's ever happened to you. It just takes time to build the correct perspective. You just need some space and time to learn that perspective. That's what the mood and memory blocks are for.'
She noticed that Omen was bald. The man was wearing an old-style labcoat, over a pair of jeans and a scuffed pair of boots. A couple of ancient-looking pens stuck out of a pocket of the coat. She frowned. She'd seen something like them before – biros! A memory flashed up, of visiting a museum when she was a little girl. She'd been taken there by her mother, when they'd been in port one time. The museum had a fine collection of Twentieth Century relics. Not priceless artworks or elaborate tomes of social commentary, but the sorts of mundane stuff that people actually use in their daily lives. She remembered seeing an entire rack of surviving biros, their ink dry as dust and their colours faded by two centuries of sunlight.
'There,' Omen said. 'Now let's bring you back. Rescinding emotional process suspension.'
The weird abstraction vanished. She was back in her body again, stood on the headland, facing the strange man with the glowing eyes. She felt in full control once more.
'Whatever it was you just did,' she said, 'don't do it again. I don't like people fiddling around inside my head.'
'Your metaphorical head, you mean,' Omen said.
'Look,' she said, 'I don't know who you are. Or what you are. But you clearly brought me here for a reason. And I think I deserve some answers. No, I demand some answers! What is this? Where am I? Who the fuck are you? Why do you have glowing eyes?'
'Really, Shepard,' Omen said, 'you should be grateful. It's only down to me that you're here – here as you, I mean! If I hadn't intervened, that pod would've been the end of you. Or at least you as a discreet entity. Harbinger wanted your strength, your power – but he didn't want you! He had uses for your attributes, but not your identity. You'd made him look bad! And if there's one thing Harbinger can't stand…' The man with the glowing eyes snorted contemptuously. 'He always has been too impressed with himself.'
'Harbinger.' That name sounded familiar from somewhere. Shepard frowned, trying to remember. 'Wait, the glowing eyes! The yellow eyes! That's Harbinger, isn't it?'
Omen tilted his head a little, regarding her with a patronising half-smile. 'Impressive,' he said. 'That was a strong block I put in there. And here you are, beating it down just through sheer force of will! I see I was right to bring you to us.'
Vague chains of recollection were stirring through her mind. Shepard felt as if she were stood on the precipice of some staggering revelation. She groped for enlightenment, struggling with the ennui within her own skull.
'You have eyes like him,' she said.
'No,' Omen said. 'I no more have eyes than you do, Shepard.'
She tried to ignore the non-sequitor, but it still sent a frisson of fear through her. She shivered. 'My memories – why are you interfering with my memory? How are you interfering with my memory?'
'It's just for now,' Omen said. 'To ease the transition. It can come as a shock. Too much too fast – Shepard, I have no use for you if you snap!' He snorted. 'That's why I keep dropping hints like this. Leading you up to the revelation, so it won't be so shattering. It's all dreadfully clumsy, of course. I'm not normally this – this inelegant!' He spat the word like it was a curse.
Shepard took a deep breath. The wind sighed around them. She felt her hair stir. 'Okay,' she said. 'I see I'm going to have to do this your way. However much I don't want to. Whatever your way even is. So, you're like this Harbinger person. Not that I'm a hundred percent sure who Harbinger was. Except that I hated him.' She shuddered as she spoke, feeling an old bile rise inside her. The anger was hot, like fire.
Out over the sea, another burst of thunder crashed over the waves.
'Watch it,' Omen said. 'We could do without another hurricane.'
Shepard tried to choke back on the anger, with partial success. The wind fell and the waves quietened on the shingle below.
'Talk to me,' she said. 'You're dropping hints. You're in my head. Why?'
'I'm not in your head,' Omen said. 'I never have been. The memory thing is just a temporary hardware block. And a few limited-scope process-suspensions – just to hold off any unwanted feedback loops. I put them all in there before starting the convolution on the kernel. In fact you were still in the pod at that point! Not even fully-scanned. I've never actually been in your head, as such. But if the block is to be released, I have to show you something.'
Shepard stared. 'That sounds creepy,' she said.
It occurred to her that she was alone with a strange man. There were many ugly places that this could go. Shepard tensed, watching Omen's body language carefully, alert for any hint of violence.
'No, nothing creepy,' Omen said. He appeared unaware of her scrutiny. 'Not anything creepy at all. Rather something perfect. Look.'
He extended his hand. A shimmering, translucent blob of light appeared above it. The greenish glow began to twist and flow, as if it were alive and seeking a new shape. 'We're not physically here,' he said. 'We're not physically anywhere. This environment is – it's like a simulation. These bodies we're wearing? The ones you've stuffed us both into? Also simulations. The wind and the rain? All fake. That's why it's responding to your mood. Because it's you that's running all this. This place is your choice, not mine.'
Shepard raised her hand, extending the fingers. 'But this is detailed,' she said. 'How can this be a simulation? I mean, I can feel myself breathing. I can feel wind on my face and the ground under my feet...'
She dropped to her knees, reaching down toward the grass. Digging between the blades, she scooped up a small nub of soil and she crumbled it between her fingers. As she did she was careful to keep some attention focused on Omen. He made no movement toward her. His whole attention seemed focused on the glowing shape above his hands.
'Anyway,' she added, 'I've not stuffed you into anything.'
It seemed that got the man's attention. Momentarily, Omen scowled. 'I beg to differ,' he barked. 'Do you think I missed having a long intestine?' He shuddered. 'Thank you, but no. Your nostalgia for the meat is frankly inelegant.'
She felt the flecks of damp soil as they crumbled between her fingers. The dirt sprinkled back onto the grass below. She could smell the soil, an earthy, living aroma. It seemed real. More vague recollections surfaced. How could this be any kind of simulation? She faintly remembered long hours in lectures and classes, listening to talks, fiddling with processors and soldering irons, taking machines to bits and putting them back together again. The details weren't clear but it all seemed to suggest that Omen must be wrong.
She felt sceptical. She stood up, dropping the last of the soil to the ground.
Shepard said, 'I can't see any digitisation, anywhere I look. And it all changes in real time. It's granular as fuck. Look, I trained as an engineer, I think. I think that's right!' If only the damnable fog in her head would go away! 'I know these things. This is - it's too real for a sim! The computing power you'd need to run something like this…' She shook her head. 'It would be staggering. And staggeringly expensive.' She felt certain of her deductions, even if her recollections remained clouded.
Omen snorted. The shape over his hand was extending and elongating, into a sort of glowing ovoid. 'Kernel convolution,' he mused, 'is at eighty-three percent complete. No errors detected so far. This is going rather well, all considered.'
'Are you even listening to a word I'm saying?'
The wind moaned around them.
'Oh yes. And to answer your question – computing power is available to you. In enormous volumes. As for cost – there isn't any.' Omen snorted. 'Money. We don't much bother with all that scarcity rationing-system stuff. Organics do seem to insist on it. I've never really understood why, even back in the day. It's all just a bit of a squalid raffle, when you get down to it.'
'What is that thing?' She stared at the shape that was floating above his outstretched hand. It was flattening, stretching, becoming harder and more angular. Some projections were emerging at the front, like grasping proboscis. Shepard frowned. The shape of that thing – it was familiar. She'd seen its like before, somewhere.
It also reminded her of something else. She scowled, trying to remember. A face, like a lamp – no, a robotic face! A name – Legion. The glowing shape reminded her of Legion, uploading some code. But she couldn't remember who exactly Legion was, or why they'd been uploading code, or what the code had been for. But somehow she felt it was similar to what she was seeing here.
'Convolution,' Omen said, 'is at ninety-one percent. We're nearly done. Just one last effort, Shepard! Just one last effort.'
'I get the feeling you're just here to do that,' she said, nodding at the glowing shape, 'whatever that is. In which case I don't see why you're talking to me. Are you just trying to annoy me?'
Omen remained focused on the shape, but he shook his head. 'No Shepard. The convolution has to be calibrated using real data. To do this, one has to interact with the convolutee, if you will. Even a detailed recording wouldn't really work. As to why we do this – well, each unit needs to be different. Otherwise there'd be a monoculture. And monocultures are weak.' He shuddered. 'That would be unacceptable.'
A weak breath of wind stirred Shepard's hair and whispered in her ear.
Omen said, 'Oh, and we just passed ninety-five percent. Still no errors!' He sounded tense, even a little excited.
Shepard felt strange. Something was happening. The wind had died to nothing. The sound of the waves was fading. She took a deep breath but the scent of sea-salt was gone from the air.
'What is this?' She said. 'What's happening?'
'Ninety-seven percent,' Omen said. 'The kernel's almost ready for compilation. Then we can pull you out of this buffer. This bit of the process is memory-intensive, you know.' He waved his free hand at their surrounds. 'A certain loss of resolution is inevitable at this point, I'm afraid. I said there was a lot of memory, and there is, but there are some limits. Don't worry, we'll only have to compile you once!'
The landscape was becoming bland. The sky was fading into a flat monochrome grey. The land under Shepard's feet no longer approximated to any kind of nature. The grass was gone and the rocks and the soil and the sea were morphing into a rumpled polygonal grid. Even as she watched, that grid was flattening and subsiding into a featureless, colourless plane.
It occurred to Shepard that she should feel scared. For some reason, she didn't. In fact she felt nothing. Her emotional affect seemed as empty as their failing environment.
The shape floating over Omen's other hand was still there. In fact it was defying the fade-out, becoming more solid and more detailed than ever. Shepard stared at it. It looked like a sort of mechanical cuttlefish, or perhaps a grasping hand. Maybe it was both.
'Wait,' she said, frowning with what remained of her face. 'I know that thing. I know it!' She fought the fog, struggling to remember.
'Ninety-nine percent,' Omen said, glowing eyes intent on the shape over his hand. Like the landscape, his face had lost detail. It was little more than a polygonal palimpsest, a kind of wireframe approximation to a visage. But the glowing, blue eyes remained, the final feature to persist. They were as ominous and bright as ever. 'Come on, just one final push!' He gave no sign that he was listening to her.
Shepard's own gaze tracked back to the shape floating above Omen's hand. A trickle of belated recognition seeped through her mind. A word bubbled up through the fog. The shape. Suddenly, finally, she knew what it was.
'A Reaper,' she said. 'It's a Reaper!'
The shape flickered, then it seemed to solidify once and for all. As it did Shepard felt something, a lurch in her guts perhaps, or maybe a burst of static electricity over her skin. She shuddered and gasped, as if she'd just dived into ice-cold water.
'The convolution is at one hundred percent,' Omen said, focusing on the shape above his hand. 'We're ready to compile you now, Shepard.'
'It's a Reaper,' she said again, feeling a belated shiver of fear as she looked at the completed shape.
Omen looked up. His glowing eyes met hers and his ghost of a face tried to smile. It was a cold expression, angular and full of clinical triumph. It was filled with technical satisfaction but no true affection.
'No, Shepard,' he said. 'This isn't just any Reaper. This Reaper is you.'