By Duncan Ayerst (2017)
Zen paced through the vines and creepers, running his hands along tree bark and over rocks. He heard the singing in his head before his ears picked up any sound.
"Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall…"
Now the plants began to give way to bits and pieces of broken tech. Here was a rusted oxygen recycler, there, the exhaust pipe for a matter decimator.
"Humpty Dumpty had a great fall…"
Finally he found himself before a gaping hole in the hull of a space cruiser. Sparks fizzed and crackled from deep within.
"… All the king's horses and all the king's men…"
Zen stepped through the hole and made his way down a dilapidated corridor. He really disliked this song. Not to mention the fact that she was tone deaf.
"…Couldn't put Humpty together again!"
He came to a chamber full of cannibalised devices. A slight, lithe figure was silhouetted against the sparks, facing away from him, elbow deep in a mess of cables. Her voice was loud and somehow sounded more obnoxious. She was always trying to irk him, trying to stop him from living up to his name.
"I'm here." he said, in his calmest tone.
"Ah! Zen, Excellent! So that little doo-hickey I rammed into your skull still works?"
He ran a hand down the back of his neck, and felt the familiar lumpiness where his mind had been invaded, all those years ago. She had cobbled it together from junk, just like everything else on this forsaken rock. He had intentionally never educated himself on the details of implant technology, and was naturally distrustful of it. Unfortunately, this meant he had no idea whether what he could feel on his neck was a power source, a communications array, or something more sinister… more lethal.
He got the impression that was sort of the point of it.
It had been a real test of his patience. His father had always told him to cherish the purity of his form, that the world out there, beyond the Outer Volumes, was full of fools seeking the power of gods. His father had always said that modesty and humility were the keys to true peace. Thinking about it caused the slightest twitch of an eyebrow on his otherwise serene expression. She noticed.
"Oh don't get grumpy! It's not like I'm rooting around in that big bowl of tapioca you call a brain. And I haven't made you any better either! It's just so I can get hold of you when I get lonely."
Zen imagined rolling his eyes. It was a trick he learned from father, to see if someone was reading your thoughts. Apparently, if you visualised expressing an emotion without actually expressing it, a reader might mistake it for the real thing if they're not looking. She showed no reaction. But of course, that meant nothing. The whole time they had known each other, he had tried to second guess, analyse, and get the better of this strange acquaintance. Knowing that her intellect far surpassed his own had never deterred him.
"What is it this time, Little-god?" he said
She grimaced "Don't call me that!"
"Well, you've never told me your real name."
"Don't have a name. Don't need one."
"Ridiculous. How do you know who you are without a name?"
"Don't need to," she turned around and grinned at Zen, "I know what everything else is. I'm just the remainder!"
"You claim to be all knowing and yet don't want me to call you a god?"
Little-god sighed "Well I suppose your teeny weeny, itty bitty little perception of reality would have to put me into that category. But it's still an over-estimation if you ask me." She flipped a switch behind her, and what Zen had thought was a random pile of junk whirred and beeped into life.
"What have you made this time? It's going to try and eat me again isn't it?"
She sighed again "Oh Zenny! That was one time! And Phobos learned his lesson! He feels very guilty about it."
He couldn't contain himself now. "That monster's still alive?! I pushed it off a cliff!"
Little-god giggled. She liked emotions. Zen sometimes wished he liked Little-god, just so she didn't have to torture him to get at his. "Relax, I only salvaged his AI. The rest is on the scrap heap."
"What is it?" he asked through gritted teeth.
"Good question. It's hard to describe." She frowned, her lips moving, as she tried to work out an explanation. "Do you know what a fish-eye lens is?"
He nodded, slowly.
"Right, so with a normal lens you can see this much-" she held her hands out in front of her, parallel to each other, "-but with a fish-eye you can see all this as well-" now she widened the distance between her hands, "-but it still takes up the same space. This thing is sort of like that. But different."
"Different as in, one is a good analogy of the other or different as in, totally unrelated?"
Little-god scoffed, "I'll have you know I take pride in my ability to communicate complex multi-dimensional theories to inferior intellects. I'd ask you if you wanted to try it but I know you'd say no. Plus it would almost definitely make your head pop off."
"So are you going to try it out?" Zen asked. He was hoping she would speed this along.
She raised an eyebrow "Ooh! Interested are we? Is that a spark of curiosity I sense?" She grabbed a helmet from the console by her side. Wires and sensors sprouted from it in an oddly organic fashion. "I appreciate you finally taking an interest in one of my little projects."
He shuddered, remembering the various forms of havoc Little-god had wreaked over the years. There was Phobos, of course. The battle-mech was friendly enough (once Little-god had reconfigured its AI), but far too curious for its own good. Then there was the nanoswarm. Little-god had managed to contain it of course; but not before it devoured a sizeable chunk of the landscape.
There was a reason why no-one ever came to their nameless little planet. Interstellar communications were chock full of disturbing rumours about this place. Zen didn't blame them for avoiding it.
Little-god was wearing the helmet now, and operating several consoles at once. She was muttering strange words. Occasionally something would beep.
Zen coughed. "Uh, is everything all right?"
She said nothing. Then she tore the helmet from her head and threw it across the room. Sparks flew as the wires were ripped from their sockets. Then she grabbed a hammer and started smashing everything to pieces. A solid four minutes later, she sat in the centre of the rubble, breathing heavily.
She sniffed. "That's it, Zen. That's all I can do."
"What do you mean?"
"This is the most complex task that I'm capable of." Her voice was becoming harder to understand through the sobs.
"So… it didn't work?"
She scowled at him through tears "Oh, it worked fine!" She fell to her knees bawling. "It's me that doesn't work! I'm not-" a pained looked appeared on her face "- I'm not compatible!"
"Hey, it's okay…" he murmured, and reached out to touch her shoulder lightly.
"Fuck you!" she shrieked flailing her arms at him. "Stupid fucking monkey! You can't even begin to comprehend how it feels! Knowing that all that shit is out there! Knowing you'll never truly understand how perfect it is again…."
There was silence for a time.
"I could imagine it feels terrifying."
She sniffed and chuckled to herself again. "S'pose that's one word for it…" she looked up at him, then looked away, more tears welling up, "The reason I hate you calling me 'god' so much is because I used to be so much more. Gods don't take care of their people. They just demand worship and sacrifice. I wasn't like that. I loved them. I loved every last one of the stupid little bastards. I'd watch them play with the toys I made them; I fed them and clothed them. I even tried to help them understand, like I did… fool that I was…" she was shaking, knees under her chin, rocking back and forth. Zen felt he should say something.
"Uh, that doesn't sound foolish. It actually sounds quite benevolent of you"
This didn't help. She threw herself on the floor, rolling around and screaming. After some of this she returned to sobbing and ranting.
"I tried to help" she gulped, "I wanted them to grow, to make themselves better… and instead they killed themselves! And they almost killed me in the process! Serves me right I suppose…"
This was it. She'd gone into a full meltdown now. She was kicking and flailing. Zen realised she was going to hurt herself at this rate, and grabbed her by the shoulders.
"Hey! Calm down! This isn't helping-"
"Fuck you, Zen! You think you can just sit here on your tiny little planet and meditate it all away? You think your prick of a father saved you by bringing you to this shithole? Fuck you!"
Zen's expression solidified. She knew about his father. He had never spoken of him to her. There was only one way she could know. He sighed. "Okay, Little-god. I think it's time we got rid of this thing, hmm?"
"What?" she burbled.
His fingers gripped the metal tubes going into his neck. He pulled.
"Wait-" Little-God started. Then she winced as her uplink to Zen's brain was interrupted. Fragments of thought sliced through her consciousness. Among them was one that was whole. One that answered a question she had pondered for a long time. She watched as Zen threw what he had pulled from his head to the floor.
She looked at it and laughed to herself "I don't pay much heed to all the myths you get around these parts. All I know is that when I came here I detected all kinds of abandoned tech. Most of it was pretty standard, but there is something here which is definitely not supposed to be. My guess is all the other ships came here looking for that. But now they're all dead. And all that's left is you. A human; an un-augmented, totally defenceless if not completely ignorant, human. I must say I always found that a bit odd."
Zen felt woozy. He felt like lying down, and he didn't need to hear any of this. He turned to walk away.
"Wait-" she called after him. "I never looked at your thoughts before today. I want you to know that."
He didn't stop. Any curiosity he may have had concerning this poor tortured thing was fading quickly. He wondered for a moment whether that was due to the removal of whatever it was she had put in his head. Then he lost interest in that as well.
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