Helionox: Tales from the Systems End – The Tears of Icarus
Part 7: A New Dawn
By T M Romanelli
They had been told about the strange imagery encountered in cryosleep, an effect of altered cortical processes during suspended animation. She found herself moving effortlessly through a deep blue ocean, awash with specks of bioluminescence that were the stars carried on a cosmic current. The horizon was endless, and even though she felt small and fragile as she drifted onward, there was a presence that reassured her that she was not alone. Pleida remained with all of his conservators, even throughout the long night of the Deus Aestiva, the cortical interface projecting his eidolon across space and time. It should have been a serene experience, like the one during the pentum’s final exercise on Kepler.
Darker, less pleasant sensations assailed her, but never fully coalesced into the substance of nightmare, leaving her to endure a state of perpetual apprehension. Rarely, she would be seized within a cold brilliance, surrounded by the murmur of distant voices. Were they talking about her?
How long had she been here?
There was no meaningful measure of time in the place she occupied, no milestones to mark her journey or any tangible end that would serve as a destination. She lingered in a remote medium without any personal agency, and the interminable nature of her isolation strained her sanity. Only Pleida’s continuous presence kept her from capitulating to utter despair in the prison of her stasis. There were intervals of abrupt, painful transition, during which Lysirah felt repeatedly shattered and then reassembled in a manner that left her unable to account for all of the fragments that made her whole.
Gradually, she became aware of another presence.
The entity was distinct from Pleida, and expanded into her consciousness without empathy or malice, speaking a language of hyperbolic functions and polynomial values that she did not understand. The dialogue never stopped, and even though Lysirah could not respond in kind, she continued to listen. Ever so slowly, distinct patterns emerged from the limits of her cognition, forming the sediment from which she molded a Rosetta stone. The subsequent visions that she witnessed revealed a delicate order within the grand chaos and inexorably led her towards an insight of infinite scope, only for the cold brilliance to return and interrupt her pilgrimage, beckoning to her.
Curious, she became one with the light.
“Focus on my voice as your vision clears. Take slow, deep breaths.”
The voice was authoritative but reassuring, and Lysirah felt her disorientation recede as she followed the instructions. A background haze of blurry images consolidated into the antiseptic design of an infirmary and a bank of stacked cryotubes. One of the units lay opened, and a path of wet footprints led from its gantry to the puddle of gelatinous residue that had formed to one side of the examination table. Thin streams of cryofluid dripped from her feet as they dangled over the ledge, and she wiggled her toes to confirm they were her own.
Lysirah had emerged from cryosleep, but not aboard the Avalon. The interior was more spacious, imbued with a warm light that softened the sterile environment.The lack of weightlessness also meant the vessel was large enough to house a structural centrifuge that could simulate nominal gravity.
A woman stood in front of her with a dataslate, inspecting the biotelemetry monitor on Lysirah’s forearm with a clinician’s skill. The tight crew cut flecked with grey, fine wrinkles around piercing blue eyes and a thin scar along the jaw line all implied an indeterminate but robust middle age. Her entire left upper extremity was an anatomically accurate prosthetic with synmuscle fiber bundles encased in a white composite mesh. The palm and finger pads were a darker tone with a texture like porous skin, and a network of subdermal implants spread up the arm to disappear under her tunic sleeve. An elaborate tattoo marked her cortical interface.
“How do you feel?”
“Not dead… I guess,” Lysirah answered after a few moments, not hiding her surly mood that reflected the annoyance she felt towards such a banal question.
“Are you sure?” the woman responded, sporting a mischievous twinkle in her eyes. After all she had been through, Lysirah was not in the mood to parry sarcastic cracks with this stranger. She mumbled something under the oxygen mask and the woman carefully removed it to make her patient more intelligible.
“That’s better,” the woman said, understanding the tone of the response if not the dialect, and chuckled softly. “Yes, you’re doing just fine, all things considered.”
The subsequent physical exam, neuraxial fluid collection and blood samples were tolerable only because the woman performed these tasks with the competence of a seasoned professional, and inspired a trust that made up for any procedural discomfort. Lysirah’s attitude further softened as the woman gently wiped away the remaining cryofluid, washed the residue from her hair and helped her into a clean uniform. She entered a notation on the dataslate, and gauged her patient with an expression that was an odd mix of pride, relief and a little sorrow. Something about her seemed vaguely familiar, but the woman’s tunic had no insignia or identity plate.
“Uh, do we know each other?”
“Not really, no,” she answered. “But I wanted to be here for your emergence.”
“The others that were with me on the Avalon– are they alright?”
“I understand that you have many questions,” she said with a small smile. The woman placed the dataslate on a nearby console and took Lysirah’s hand within the grip of her prosthetic. It was surprisingly supple and warm. “But the answers are not mine to give. Not yet. Pleida will be here soon.”
“Pleida is here?”
As if on cue, the bulkhead doors parted and a woman with a meticulously shaven scalp entered the medical suite, her tall frame and athletic physique accentuated by a sleeveless, pale robe. Intricate patterns of tattoos adorned her olive skin, depicting sequences of nested metrical equations that wrapped sinuously around her limbs and across muscled shoulders. Lysirah had no rational explanation, but she knew without a doubt that the regal individual who now approached her was Pleida.
“How is she, Doctor?”
“Abrasive, irreverent and profane,” the Doctor replied, catching the dirty look from her patient. “Quite normal, according to some of your prior descriptions.”
Although Lysirah didn’t like being the subject of a private joke, it contained enough truth to temper her indignation. She looked at Pleida, noting the subtle likenesses within everything that was different about her, and realized she could finally share all that had been left unsaid before this auspicious reunion. But so many thoughts and emotions fought for expression as to render her almost speechless, and so she blurted out the first thing that came to mind.
“Pleida, you… changed your hair.”
A moment passed as Pleida gazed back at her, and then both she and the Doctor started to laugh. Lysirah laughed with them, seeing the absurdity of the comment in light of her mentor’s radical transformation. Then all at once, the doubt, fear and horror that were pushed aside during the crisis erupted from her, an emotional purge that could no longer be contained. Her spirited laughter dissolved into racking sobs, and Pleida embraced the young woman tightly as she broke down.
“I’m sorry, Pleida!” she cried, as tears flowed freely. “I never wanted to make you angry with me! But I couldn’t leave Magda’s girl behind… like I was… not again.”
Pleida held the young woman as she wept, supporting her through the painful catharsis. The Doctor had started to shed her own tears, and as she backed away Pleida reached out and gently stopped her from leaving. Be strong for her.
“What about the others?” Lysirah asked when she had calmed herself, searching their faces. “Are they alright?”
“Everyone was rescued,” the Doctor reported, after regaining her composure. “We also recovered… Magda’s body.”
“And the Avalon,” Lysirah continued, sniffling and dabbing at her eyes with the sleeve of her uniform. “Were you able to get the-”
“I did not come for the fucking ship, Lysirah,” Pleida declared, taking the young woman’s face into her hands and wiping away the tears she found there. “I came to save what was most important to me. I came for you.”
“But I thought-”
“I was wrong,” Pleida admitted, her voice becoming softer. “After our link was severed, I knew I had made an unconscionable mistake, and became terrified that you and the others would be lost. I am sorry, Lysirah, that I tried to suppress the most noble part of you, and allowed my ambition to eclipse the value of one life.”
“I just needed you to believe in me,” Lysirah said quietly.
“I always have, my child. Even throughout the most arduous of trials, testing the limits of your courage and perseverance, you kept your promise,” she stated, giving her a warm smile. “I am humbled by your capacity for self-sacrifice, and words alone cannot express my pride in the person you have become.”
“I couldn’t save everyone,” Lysirah told them, squeezing her eyes shut at the thought of Dr. Nabakova’s final hours. “Magda was wounded in the transit… I tried to… God’s Blood, how will I tell Daenni?”
“Magda left some entries on her mini slate while you attempted to repair the ship,” the Doctor added. The chief engineer had provided an explicit account of the events from Lysirah’s arrival at the design annex to the wreckage in Neptune’s orbit. It made for an incredible story. “So you see, Lysirah, you won’t have to tell me. I already know about Mother, and what you did for all of us.”
“I don’t under-”
It was as if all of the distinct features of the Doctor’s face shifted slightly into their correct positions, like the final pieces of a complex puzzle. Lysirah wondered how she could have missed it- not just the blue eyes and scar on her jaw, but the thin lips and high cheekbones that had given the chief engineer an aristocratic countenance. The family resemblance was uncanny, and obvious now. Lysirah learned that Daenni’s father had died on Ceres during the early days of the Perdition. Without any other kin she was given refuge at Alhambra and in time became a Conservator. She was mentored in her specialty by Lucius, Pleida’s personal physician, and assumed the honorific and responsibilities after he was killed.
“Killed? When did that happen?” Lysirah asked, trying to make sense of all the incongruous information. “Wait just a damn- how long have I been in cryosleep?”
Pleida and Daenni looked at each other, and although Lysirah knew they were communicating through their link, she was not privy to the exchange. This isolation did little to alleviate her growing anxiety, and she had the sense that this matter had been discussed between them many times before. As she considered the unsettling implications of Pleida’s metamorphosis and Daenni’s advanced age, Lysirah steeled herself for a difficult revelation.
Pakshet ako she broadcasted over the cortical interface, gaining their attention.
“What are you hiding from me?”
“We discussed this,” Daenni said aloud, looking directly at Pleida. “She needs to hear everything. And don’t try to soften the blow. You can’t.”
“Please, won’t either of you just give me a simple answer?”
“My sweet child,” Pleida lamented, as she took Lysirah’s hand and prepared to establish a deep link. “There are no simple answers anymore.”
Eighty-five years had passed.
Officially classified as the Eisenger Ultraflare event, the coronal mass ejection became the largest natural disaster in recorded history. Within a matter of hours the solar storm had eradicated all life on Mercury and damaged critical infrastructure among the inner planets. Only a few million colonists escaped the lethal epicenter and intense radiation that created an exclusion zone at the heart of the system.
The Perdition was the colloquial term adopted from popular casters on the immersive media channels, and the inciting catastrophe that marked the beginning of the Helionox- a series of environmental changes, socioeconomic disruption and religious turmoil that threatened an extinction level event.
Many survivors were in desperate need of shelter and medical aid that never fully materialized, while the general public reeled from the total loss of the system’s most dynamic economy. The response from the Interworld Governments was decried as ineffectual, and massive protests forced the central governing party to disband. The power vacuum invited religious zealots to spread their extremist influence and they promptly demonized the Mercury refugees as the recipients of God’s judgment against immoral technological progress. Discriminatory ideologies took root among a populace that needed to assign blame for the terrible hardships they now endured.
The Interworld Governments were reorganized under the Council’s supervision, and they regained some power by enacting legislation that played to popular sentiment when broad categories of cybernetic enhancements, autonomous AI constructs and advanced research were outlawed. Without a home or any advocates, the refugees and their descendants formed the Mercurian Diaspora, and small enclaves tried to integrate into the few settlements tolerant of their stigmata. Disavowed by the Colonial Authority and exploited by nearly everyone else, a whole generation of scientists, physicists and engineers was reduced to a subsistence lifestyle by selling their expertise in the rapidly growing black market for illegal tech.
Many Conservators were lost during the Perdition, representing an incalculable loss of collective knowledge and experience. The special project had produced five prototypes for an exploratory fleet, but Camelot, Galahad and Merlin were lost to the solar eruption and Avalon had been stripped for parts. Excalibur was used for additional testing before key components were reproduced and secretly distributed to other vessels commissioned by Pleida over the next few decades.
The remaining Conservators had worked tirelessly to find a solution to humanity’s decline, fearful of the unpredictable nature of the Helionox. Some septs fell victim to religious fanatics, and the violent pogroms incurred further losses among Pleida’s followers. Alhambra had been razed during the Martian Insurrection.
It was a new Dark Age, a harbinger of the end times. Despite the chaos, Pleida believed that humanity would create a brighter future from the suffering of its past.
Released her from their link, Lysirah sat silently as she contemplated all that had occurred during her long stasis. Even as everyone neared the precipice of extinction, Lysirah couldn’t help but consider her own plight as a person lost in time. She knew that the natural aging process was significantly slowed during cryosleep, but she still looked and felt the same. Gazing at her reflection in a monitor screen, she wondered how it was that she hadn’t grown old. Not even a gray hair.
Every remaining Conservator had been forced to endure long periods in cryostasis. Daenni clarified the distinction between chronological and physiological age, and told Lysirah how she had used her clinical skills to perform cortical remapping, protein remodeling and ribonucleic renewal upon the young woman. These life-extension rituals were the exclusive privilege of the Undying Sovereign, and Lysirah was shocked that such a fundamental taboo had been violated.
“I could not bear the thought that I would lose you, Lysirah,” Pleida recounted slowly, as she began to reveal her motivations behind such a bold decision. “Lucius labored to stabilize your condition after we recovered you from the wreckage, and I directed him to administer his expertise without limit. There were a number of unexpected… interruptions. Ultimately, Daenni brought the process to fruition.”
“I don’t know what to say.”
“It is a gift, for the person I have chosen to take my place,” Pleida said. Lysirah looked at her mentor incredulously and was about to challenge this appointment, but Pleida raised her hand to preempt her protest. “I need you to listen carefully, so that you may understand everything that has led us to this moment.”
Pleida told her that many years before, she had pioneered a unique field of predictive mathematics that fused theorem with ritual and prospective analysis with instinctive belief. The metamaths ultimately matured into the Chronicle, a complex algorithmic medium that visualized a probabilistic future from the muddle of the past and present event space. Pleida employed her creation to accumulate the wealth and political influence needed to become a prominent but hidden force behind many of the technologies used to colonize the system. Her sponsored research into reliable interstellar propulsion and subspace cartography had neared its practical application, positioning humanity to continue its Great Expansion.
The Helionox had thrown all of her meticulous plans into disarray. Pleida now scrambled just to find some respite from annihilation, pursuing multiple paths to deliver humanity from the brink of extinction.
In violation of the High Magistrate’s Law, Pleida continued to secretly research advanced technologies and synthetic intelligence, disseminating her findings to other individuals that were positioned to use them. A number of mitigation techniques were explored to abate the environmental effects of the Helionox on various planets, but recurring famine, water shortages and gravimetric disturbances brought about new problems that reversed her progress. Environmental and social stability became ever-receding goals as the sun continued its erratic behavior.
Pleida hoped her efforts would circumvent the need to abandon Sol for a safe haven in a distant system, but she had also planned for the worst-case scenario. The schematics for the Chasm Jumper were given to a member of the Mercurian Diaspora, who spread the illegal tech to a few others preparing for a hasty emigration. Her own ships were outfitted with it, but she did not want to risk the safety of her remaining followers or the fate of humanity on the partially tested drive. The system-wide chaos had depleted her resources, and Pleida needed to ally with those who could provide technical expertise and material support.
“A number of individuals are working independently on their own plans to escape the Helionox,” Pleida continued. “They are known as Architects. The Interworld Governments branded their activities as sedition, and have responded with lethal sanctions. Lysirah, you will need to seek out these persons and organize their efforts while shielding them from the Council and its agents.”
“Me? Pleida, so much has happened that I don’t think…” Lysirah said, still trying to catch up with current events. “I don’t think I can do this.”
“Yes, you can,” Pleida countered. “You have already proven yourself, and in doing so have shown the finest qualities of our nature that I can no longer claim. It pains me to ask anymore from you, but I must if we are to survive what lies ahead.”
Lysirah would not be alone. She learned about Scion, a forbidden synthetic intelligence that was self-aware, fully autonomous and had access to the entire knowledge of the Chronicle. And yet, Scion had requested a virtuous, human companion to help fulfill its purpose. It had linked with Lysirah during her extended cryosleep, creating a bond between them as strong as the one she shared with Pleida. Together, they would find a way for humanity to sustain itself beyond the Last Sunset.
Pleida revealed everything, including her complicity in the murders that surrounded Scion’s creation. Lysirah could hardly reconcile those atrocities with the person she knew and loved, but understood how the destructive scope of the Helionox had instilled a growing desperation that sacrificed morality for survival. Pleida told her to save her pity, and warned the young woman to guard her compassion from those that would exploit it. Lysirah and Scion were fated to become de facto judges, presiding over an effort that could not possibly save everyone. Difficult choices awaited them, threatening to obscure the greater good until it was without meaning.
They talked for a long time, discussing many important details of this tremendous undertaking. Lysirah and Scion had been given powerful abilities, and they would need to use all of them during their epic quest. Pleida’s efforts across the years had left her weary, but she was also hopeful now that her adopted protégé would help shape a brighter destiny through the turmoil of the Helionox. Lysirah had overcome many unexpected challenges, and made a promise to her mentor that she would lead them all towards a new dawn.
She would not fail.