Monday, November 30, 2009

The Quantum Mechanic: Un-Deleted Scene Six

UN-DELETED SCENE 6: Victor playtests the device.

On a rocky planet circling the Sun at odd angles, a battle has just ended. Victor puts his weapons away, eats his fill, and then resumes his journey. The destination is not so important as how he gets there, but at the moment, he needs to make up some time. He visualizes wheels in his mind, designs a simple but effective drive train, then goes down to all fours while the device goes to work.

Hard rubber forms into tires around cartilaginous wheels. The discs calcify, and Victor's hands and feet are fused over the axles. His knees lift up from the ground, and callused pads nudge the wheels into motion. He's off. Victors leg bones are re-shaped, pulled out of joint, and arranged into pistons to more effectively drive his body. Along his spine, improvised neural architecture translates his thoughts into the proper motions, and then suddenly, being a motorcycle comes as naturally to Victor as walking.

The road is in a state of severe disrepair. Chunks of pavement jut out at odd angles, potholes threaten to jar him out of his smooth and calculated motions, and the odd tree and crater disrupt the road entirely at points. Victor presses on, his weight shifting to pull wheelies, bunny hops, and occasional leaps and bounds. His path of travel weaves through and around the encroaching wilderness, leaving only the occasional squirt of lubricating saturated fat. But it is enough for a quick and clever observer to follow.

Something approaches from the horizon, vaguely behind him. It moves with frightening speed, faster than sound. Victor decides to make his stand on a nearby overpass. His pistons disengage, and he gradually decelerates as muscles weave themselves into braided coils. Multipronged chitinous hooks form at the ends, and launch themselves at the overpass as Victor rolls underneath. Victor pulls his weight back, tightens his cords, and lifts off the ground. One of his hooks loses grip, and he loses balance - the device compensates by using the gyroscopic inertia of the still-spinning wheels to correct his pitch. Coming down from his arc now, the wheels disengage and Victor curls up to roll to a stop on the raised concrete. New arms and legs have formed before his tendrils have completely retracted, and now the metals he has been carrying with him are put to use: tiny bits of acid-cut shrapnel are chemically welded to each wheel, and as a rocket launches, Victor's eyes plot an interception course. The rocket is fast, but stupid, and the weaponized wheel is a small price to pay to take the explosive out of the picture. Victor hurls it with great power and accuracy, then winds up for his pitch at the jet itself.

At this height and range, the jet cannot change course quickly enough to dodge the incoming projectile. Instead, it launches a guided missile upon its target's position. The wheel tears through a wing, then the jet veers off before jerking toward the ground for a crash that shall be drawn out over several miles. As it nears its quarry, the digital pilot notes that Victor is tricking the missile's guidance algorithms into striking the concrete of the overpass - the man will be damaged, but not for long. The pilot's last thoughts before impact concern transmitting vital data on the new talents displayed by the target back to central intelligence.

Victor comes to rest after being thrown by the blast, watches the dying aircraft sail off into the distance. He notices a couple of nearby abandoned vehicles, checks them for any remaining gasoline. Two have had their caps removed, all unspent fuel either siphoned off or evaporated. The third one has about a quarter tank left; he drinks up the fuel, metabolizes it into more stable compounds, then heads off to search the wreckage of the plane, snatching up vegetation in passing to add to his biomass. By the time he reaches the first scraps of metal, he is a hulking colossus, picking up the twisted wreckage one piece at a time and arranging them as spines upon his back. They will be useful later, but there is nothing for him to do with them now.

After following the trail left by the felled hunter, Victor finally comes upon his prize: the remains of the cockpit. He is in luck, for the computer failed to wipe its mind before dying. Victor analyzes what is left of the machine, divining its home from the clues left in the dead slab of its brain. Nearby is a mostly intact fuel tank, too; this will be handy in time. Victor places what is left of the plane's nose upon his head, a mocking mask of his erstwhile pursuer, then forms himself into a great snake and sets about slithering across the plain at great speed.

After some time, Victor nears a deep forest. There are eyes everywhere: in the sky, under the ground, and especially in the trees. Without losing speed, Victor shifts his true brain to the rear of his body, letting his leading body act as a decoy. He writes subprocesses to handle navigational problems, then watches as his body courses through the thickening wood before him. Soon, he hears a buzzing from uncomfortably close; a swarm of stinging metal insects is upon him, injecting all manner of deadly substances into his body: corrosive acids, neurotoxins, engineered bacteriophages, retroviral scramblers. With his true brain at the rear, Victor is able to quarantine the infections as they attack his body at the mechanical, nervous, cellular, and chemical level, attempting to screw him up and shut him down from every angle all at once. He sheds the infected portions, sprays a few weapons of his own into the air, watches the swarm crumple and fall. He is wounded, but not mortally so. He presses on.

Near to the ocean now, he must find a way to cross. Flight is dangerous, for he is slow in the air; swimming upon the surface leaves him open to attack from all angles; the sea floor is slowest, but safest. Victor decides to take the low road, pitches down the seaside cliff, sticky tendrils shooting out to grasp the cliff face and control his descent. Into the salty surf now, he hugs the rocky bottom, thousands of tiny finned appendages guiding his tremendous length at every step of the way. He has far to go, and not much to help him along the way. The jet fuel is metabolized a little at a time to fuel electrolysis which Victor uses to separate oxygen out from the water; the remaining hydrogen is also spent as fuel, in stages and stages. A trail of bubbles and tracks in the sand is all that Victor leaves behind.

But after a time, with quite a ways left to go, Victor is consuming his own biomass just to keep moving. High above, he hears a broadcast signal: he is being watched. His position has been pinpointed. It is only an eye, no threat to him and not worth pursuing, but his position has been compromised. He keeps moving, makes an estimate of the time that is left to him. Soon, he comes across a hydrothermic vent in the inky blackness of the deep. Velvet tubeworms and albino crabs are both a meal and a textbook to him, as he adds their biomass to his own and learns their metabolic processes. He refines them, streamlining the chemical act of eating to something more suitable to his ideas of efficiency, then digs into the sea floor as muscular cords weave themselves into a large, stretchy bladder. Victor improvises valves to suck the vents into himself, and when he is of a suitable buoyancy, he releases his grip upon the earth and shoots up to the light.

Higher and higher, he virtually screams past all manner of ecosystems layered between the surface and the depths, bursting from the water in a plume of salty spray. He rises into the clouds, slowing down now as he forms his body into a large airfoil. Flattening himself, waving through the air like a magic carpet, Victor finally lets his breath out and forces the gas out behind him. Let them look at the sea floor; he has risen above that and now surfs among the clouds. He sacrifices altitude for speed, descending into a flattening path of travel as he achieves an ever more aerodynamic shape, arranging his various metal fragments to cut through the air as precisely and usefully as possible. Gravity has a great deal of work to do for him, and he squeezes the inexorable attractant to the very last drop, even at the expense of his last bits of extra biomass.

The coast is in sight now, and off in the distance a gleaming tower looms. As Victor descends back to sea level, gliding upon leathery flaps, he loses sight of his enemy's citadel but remembers its location. Plunging into the sandy beach, he grinds down his most useful-looking chunks of metal into deadly blades, then sheds the excess as he goes off in search of food. He is able to photosynthesize fuel from starlight, but it is a slow process and he cannot maintain his speed for very long with light alone.

There is a flash in the distance, and a bullet tears into Victor's head before he even hears the shot. He has learned to hide his true brain away from all of the obvious places, so the injury is but a minor inconvenience. However, his sensory apparatus has been damaged, and so he is not able to anticipate the next several bullets to tear through his body. Pain soon gives control to instinct, and Victor flattens himself against the ground, weaving around the thin grass to avoid betraying his presence. Safe, invisible, motionless, Victor then sorts out the damage to determine the general directions of these newest assailants. Winged automatons descend from the sky, flaming swords in hand, ready to cut their quarry down at the first sign of motion.

Victor waits for the right time to strike. He is invisible, colored and textured as his surroundings, inviting his would-be killers to tread upon him. One soon does, and he works his way inside, inflating a viciously bladed dummy body to be cut down by his own hand as he infiltrates the neural architecture of his host. He then mimics the expected chatter for a downed enemy report, sees into the whole communication network that tracks the progress and elimination of his partners in this game. He is inside the machine now, and by the looks of it, the first to infiltrate the network undetected. In his hidden mind, he reflects briefly upon the difficulty of determining whether another player has infiltrated the network as stealthily as he has. He sees the snipers now, knows their precise positions, but they are no longer a threat to him. He is dead to the system, a cypher born anew into this subverted soldier. No other devices have made it this close to the citadel, so the cadre of clockwork angels is ordered to return to the gleaming city on the hill.

Victor flies into the air in his new body, slipping easily into formation with his companions as they make their way home. He sees the glorious city in all its splendor as they approach, all of the din and furor surrounding the ivory tower at its center. He realizes with glee as they approach that that is their destination: he has infiltrated the honor guard of the central processor, the guardian angels of that angry machine trying to destroy him and his fellow players. Victor analyzes the memories of his host, determines the power structure of the central processor. There are failsafes upon failsafes, and he cannot simply cut one cord to bring down the entire house.

But he can destroy the building.

As Victor's host and companions take up their positions, roosting around the very top parapets of the ivory tower, he waits. They settle into their hibernation routines, and then Victor springs into action. He pitches forward, dives down along the face of the edifice, and lights his flaming sword as he nears the foundation. At nigh-supersonic speed, he corkscrews through the walls and supports, cutting the outer wall and inner structure to ribbons. Before gravity can take its toll, he is out and free, the fleeing traitor with a glittering tail of pursuers as the central processor for the whole city comes crashing down behind him. They are on to him, but it is too late by far. Machines wither, crash, and die as their centralized brain has all its supports torn out from under it, crushed beneath its own weight. The world skips a beat, resets, and Victor stands before a gunmetal gray automaton crackling with orange lightning.

"Congratulations, Victor. You win. Again."

"Why, thank you," he responds. "It gets easier every time."

"Still," the Quantum Mechanic responds, "I would have expected another to surpass you by now, as you have surpassed others in your own time." Victor blushes, flattered by the game master. "So, how do you feel?"

"I feel great! Triumphant. It is good to defeat an enemy, if only an invented one."

"What do you mean?" The Quantum Mechanic's face is inscrutable as ever, but its shift in posture indicates confusion.

"Well, you know, the central processor is only an enemy because we call it an enemy, and it acts like one. In reality, it's just a part of the bigger picture. Playtesting and all that. It's a honing implement, not a true enemy."

"Well, on that analysis, all enmity is invented." Victor pauses for thought.

"You know," he says after a few moments, "That's right."


Zach L said...



D said...

Hooray! I'm glad you liked it. I really couldn't let this go without showcasing the versatility of the device, so thanks very much for your suggestion of the ARG action setpiece.