January 22, 2011
4Sworn, Session Nine
We're going to cock block the Flaming Skull at every possible event. -- The Team
Monday Morning Warp-Bomb Quarterbacking
The stormy winter waters of the southernmost Indian Ocean heaved menacingly about the XTS Firehawk, but barely perturbed its gravitically stabilized hull. Ice shrouded the rails and balconies, with some masses reaching considerable size before being knocked clear by blasts from the ship’s water cannon.
In the quiet solitude of his cabin, Psion reviewed his Warp Bomb calculations and the data collected after its detonation. An offhand comment by Zap, on arriving back on the Firehawk, had intrigued him: Might the bomb have caused the anomaly in the first place, the blast projecting backwards in time?
The mathematics were frustratingly open ended. There were so many potential variables, not all of them determinable with confidence – The force vectors of every body in the solar system, out past the Kuiper Belt at least… Conditions inside the bomb-generated wormhole as it diverged from normal space… Preconditions of sub-spacial topology that had first been glimpsed only after the bomb’s detonation…
Zap’s flippant “theory” couldn’t be ruled out, but that was all that could be said. In fact, Psion would have loved to be able to show it was likely. Better that the whole affair with the anomaly should have been a false alarm, than that the bomb might have merely delayed Judgment Day for some unknown interval. But science inherently was stingy with the comforts it provided – One could prove a hypothesis wasn’t true, but what was could be damned elusive.
Sifting Shockwave’s Memories
A soothing chime signified an intercom call.
“Yes, Shockwave?” Psion cocked an eyebrow. This was the first time he could recall Shockwave calling him directly since the Firehawk had set sail. Perhaps she thought he was running the kitchen tonight.
“I’ve been thinking about those images I saw… in The Auteur’s viewfinder? …or I’ve been trying to… I’m just frustrated trying to make sense of them, and I was wondering if there was something you could do psychically, to help me recall details.”
The fact that the member of System 4ce seemingly most concerned with keeping him out of her head was now soliciting his psychic assistance suggested no end of snarky comments to Psion. Impressed by her commitment to the team and its mission, however, he kept them to himself. It was important, in any event, to keep the subject at ease and in a neutral posture in procedures such as these – A subject in either an adversarial or an overly compliant state of mind could inadvertently distort the very memories they were trying to recover. Conventional psychologists routinely made a hash of such things, most publicly and destructively during the “repressed memory” flaps of the ‘80s. Direct telepathic interface could avoid some of the pitfalls of forensic memory reconstruction, but could create all manner of new ones if the telepath was inexperienced or less than scrupulously clinical in his approach.
In the dimly lit, sound dampened confines of the PsiLab, Shockwave lay back on a couch, a featureless black ceiling filling her field of view, while Psion sat in a chair out of sight behind her. Clearing her head, she began, at her own prompting, to recall the scenes from the viewfinder:
The view of the helicopter taking off from the White House seemed to have the fewest significant details – It was a large, VH-3-type craft, done up in the white and green paint scheme of a “Marine One” chopper, though with no direct indication of whether the President was actually aboard. Nothing about the view of the helicopter or White House gave clear indication of whether the view was of something in the near future, or of any similar takeoff in the last 20 or more years.
The view of troops in combat was of somewhat more interest. The soldiers were dressed and fitted out as US combat troops. Their enemies were unseen, and no landmarks or objectives were clear. The desert environment could identify the scene as occurring during the Gulf War of 1990-91, but it definitely did not correlate with any of Shockwave’s memories of her own military service. Psion scanned the equipment carefully. Over to one side, crouched beside a dusty Humvee, was a pair of soldiers intent on what looked to be a desert camo-colored notebook computer.
“Contemporary equipment,” thought Psion, “in a not-yet-contemporary conflict.” This image seemed to depict a war many already presumed to be brewing between the US and Iraq.
The last image was the most enigmatic, and held the most hope of additional details to be uncovered: A dark-haired man, wearing a contemporary-looking orange prison jumpsuit, sat on the floor of an aged-looking brick cell, with head bowed. No windows were evident, and the only light seemed to be penetrating from under the door. Psion allowed Shockwave to recall the scene at a general level without interference before cautiously directing her to review various details, on guard all the while for any indication that those details were being fabricated or “fudged” by Shockwave’s subconscious, rather than retrieved from memory.
“The jumpsuit – any notable features?” queried Psion
“Maybe a nametag… with a number… No, wait… no tags or pockets or anything on the chest… Hold on… at the cuff… He was wearing a wristband!”
The band, previously barely present in the image Psion was viewing, grew sharper. It was of made of semi-transparent plastic – a hospital-style ID band, complete with bar code and a number, 60511. A mental hospital, perhaps? Psion withheld his speculations for now…
“Anything else about the man, or the suit?”
“Can’t make out his features, beyond the hair color. Not enough light. I think he’s fairly dark-skinned, though. No emblems or anything on the suit, but I’m sure there was some kind of mark… Wait – Letters! On his sleeve… Looks like “ML”… not printed, or sewn, though… It looks like they’re just written on, like with magic marker.”
“An odd procedure, for a facility that also uses bar codes,” thought Psion. “What about the room?” he asked.
“Old bricks… crumbly mortar… No writing anywhere, but there are scratches on the cement floor… Not just accidental… It looks like someone tried to scratch something into the floor… but I couldn’t see enough to read anything.”
“Very well. How about the door?”
“Metal. Peeling green paint. Reinforced and riveted. Definitely a cell door. There’s some light coming through what looks like a food slot.”
Perhaps in the early 20th century, but no modern mental health facility in the US, contemporary with the jumpsuit, was likely in such disrepair. Even a prison didn’t seem likely. …perhaps an abandoned facility, or a foreign one?
Origin of the Nanotech?
In his cabin, Zap studied the lab’s analyses of the corrosion-like damage to the truck, doors, and other locations at Riker’s Island. Nanobots couldn’t be confirmed as the cause – absent specific knowledge of how that concept had been put into technological practice, there were too many variables. Yet no better theory presented itself, and all the signs were there.
To Zap’s surprise, the only evidence his research could find of significant work in applied nano-engineering comparable with the powers Desecrator had displayed had been done all the way back in the mid-1980s, by a defense contractor called Unitek. Even before ‘Engines of Creation’ had popularized the idea of nano-assembler machines, Unitek had apparently been seeking a piece of the Cold War defense spending pie for weaponry based on nano-‘dis’assemblers. They had apparently been able to show more than a vague conceptual pitch to the Pentagon, but just what results they had achieved remained shrouded in rumor. Unfortunately, the trail regarding that line of research came to an abrupt halt in early 1986, when another Unitek project, an armored battlesuit, was stolen by a Unitek employee who would use it to become the supervillain known as Violator, incidentally destroying Unitek’s main research facility and many of its staff, and sending the firm into bankruptcy.
Techies in Toyland
The time spent reviewing Shockwave’s visions from The Auteur’s viewfinder had drawn Psion’s thoughts back to what he himself had seen, and thus he had proceeded almost immediately to the Firehawk’s main lab, where the mysterious Bug ship’s computer core currently loomed ominously. The knowledge held by that core could be both vast and vital, and the flashes of apparent insight he had received from the lens focused him more than ever on attempting to restart it.
Days of analysis of the inert core completed, Psion and Mindy cautiously but efficiently began applying power to it, based on the tested loads of its identified power connectors. The lab’s array of scanners revealed the enormously complex circuit-like structure of the once liquid silicon inner core. Once the core was heated to fluidity, the properties of the circuit began to breakup and reform in a manner resembling the activity in a neural synapse, and also echoing behavior seen in the Amulet recovered from Bug specimen one, but on a vaster scale than either. In full, liquid motion, the display on the scanners resembled a sort of giant lava lamp, but exhibiting three-dimensional fractal patterns rather than mere flowing wax.
The two stood in silence for a time, watching the flowing patterns and pondering their meaning. Not only the patterns themselves might store information in some fashion, but their changes, rates, and even cycles of change might as well. The sense of being in the presence of some form of life was unavoidable, and Psion instinctively reached out with his mind, but disappointingly contacted nothing.
Reorienting to the lab around him, Psion saw Mindy had already redirected her attention to sorting through a rainbow of colored cables with connectors previously molded to match the identified data ports of the core. If no sense could be made of the raw activity of the core, the logical next step was to try to mimic the Bug ship’s own interfaces, and hope that the lab’s computers could puzzle out a working language for interaction.
Sifting the Ashes of History
Zap materialized from the transmission line with a minimum of showy sparks, and looked about to orient himself. His SSC watch confirmed that he was in the Russian city of Tula, not far outside of Moscow. The drab reinforced concrete building should therefore be the military records depository he sought.
Having been unable to find further details on Unitek’s nanotechnology research, he had returned to the issue of Nazi General von Ditfurth, and how a military historian came to be executed for war crimes. His inquiries with the Russians had been answered with surprising speed, and an appointment arranged here. His knock at the peeling metal door was answered by a stocky and talkative old woman named Olga.
After friendly greetings and an offer of tea, Zap offered a cursory explanation of his interest – The Riga War Crimes Trials were of potential importance in a current investigation. Olga led him to the appropriate wing, commencing her own history lesson. She had worked as a teenager as a medical orderly with the Soviet armies that rolled into Berlin, and she recounted a long list of Fascist atrocities that she or her family or someone she once knew had witnessed, telling all in a blunt and oddly breezy fashion.
On reaching their destination, Olga dragged down box after box of yellowed oak tag folders covered in dust, and on Zap’s request searched them for items specifically relating to von Ditfurth. His trial had apparently consisted of a reading of the charges, followed by the acceptance of a plea, followed by sentence and execution. Little direct mention was even made of von Ditfurth other than that he appeared confused.
Numerous additional evidentiary files were not specific to von Ditfurth, incorporating materials relating to various other defendants. As commander of a security division in the area of the city of Vilnius, then in Nazi-occupied Poland and possessing one of the largest Jewish populations of any city in Europe, von Ditfurth had apparently borne part of the administrative responsibility for mass executions collectively known as the Ponary massacre. There appeared to be little reference to specific actions by von Ditfurth, but with Olga’s assistance, Zap found passing reference to his having singled out members of the faculty of Stefan Batory University for interrogation. Zap got a list of the professors’ names and fields of research, and found most of them to have specialized in history and philosophy. He additionally noted that Stefan Batory University had one of the largest collections of the letters of Spinoza in Europe – this brought to mind the Spinoza-Leibniz correspondence he’d uncovered in the context of the “Pandochal Lens” Frame/The Auteur had been seeking. Perhaps a bit more research along those lines was in order…
Efforts at communicating with, or even interpreting the output of, the Bug computer core had produced nothing for days, and Psion scowled at Zap and Shockwave as they breezily entered the lab, anticipating their snarky and unhelpful comments. Instead, he was shocked to find them focused on business –
“…so I did some more research on Spinoza and Leibniz, and found that there’d been a lot of correspondence between Leibniz and…” Zap scrolled through the notes he’d ported to his SSC watch.
“…yes, Spinoza,” offered Psion, attempting to abbreviate the interruption.
“No… uh… Sophia Karlotte… the wife of Friedrich I, King ‘in’ Prussia.”
Psion’s face turned less impatient and more quizzical.
“Who just happens to have been the king who built something called the Amber Room!” continued Zap, with a distinct “ah-ha” in his voice.
Psion recalled the reference to “amber properties” side-by-side with von Ditfurth’s name on the note purloined from Hellfrost’s groupie Darla. They were obviously on the right track, but the significance of it all was anything but clear.
“And this means?”
“No idea,” admitted Zap. “The Amber Room was this room decorated with gold and panels of solid amber, built by Fro-drick, and later given to Tsar Peter the Great of Russia. The Nazis stole it when they invaded Russia, but it’s been lost ever since the war. I can’t find any reference to Leibniz being connected with the Amber Room. But I figure it might be worth a trip to the Leibniz Library in Germany to see what I can dig up there.
Before Psion could answer, Shockwave chimed in…
“I circulated those pictures of Prisoner 60511 on the web, but there’ve been no responses so far. As for the prison, no ID yet,” she said, referring to some papers on a clipboard, “But I heard about something called the ‘extraordinary rendition’ program, where the US has been sending suspected terrorist prisoners to other countries for interrogation by their police or intelligence forces with fewer torture restrictions than they’d have here. Maybe that prison is in one of those countries.”
“Actually, my new research assistant did. He’s pretty good at this stuff.”
“You two seem to have some good leads here, so what do you need from…”
“Can you fly me to Germany?”
“Can you fly me to New Orleans?”
Psion did a double take, “New Orleans?”
“To get some beignets… ‘cause I think more clearly when I’m eating. And to see if Miss Cleo knows anything about this Amber Room/pinochle lens stuff.”
“Well, as a matter of fact, it's rather inconvenient. I am currently engaged in intensive research of my own regarding the…”
“I’ll be okay. Give ‘em a lift,” responded Mindy. Only after Psion had finished his brief grumbling and began to set his work aside did she lift her eyes from her own terminal to meet Shockwave’s glance and roll them exasperatedly.
Miss Cleo proved a friendly hostess, as always, but knew nothing of The Auteur or the Pandochal Lens as Shockwave described them. When she raised the subject of the Man with Green Gloves, however, Miss Cleo seemed to find herself on more familiar turf.
She explained that the forces of the spiritual world could manifest to advise mortals, sometimes taking on physical form to do so, or inhabiting a mortal body. One accepted the advice of such guides with care, for the interests of the guide often did not coincide with those of the mortal. She had heard of a such a being manifesting as a Man with Green Gloves, who seemed counsel those seeking worldly power, particularly with thoughts of vengeance.
When Shockwave proposed that The Auteur might actually be the Man with Green Gloves, Miss Cleo said it couldn’t be ruled out – that when following the counsel of such guides, one walked a tightrope in embracing the power they offered without being corrupted by it.
The curator of the Leibniz Library was cooperative, providing Zap and Perdition with translations of various pieces of Leibniz correspondence with Spinoza and Sophia Karlotte. None, however, directly referenced the Amber Room, and the curator knew of no contact between Leibniz and Schlüter (the architect of the Room) or Wolfram (the chief craftsman). Zap did find some confirmation of the pandochal lens being an actual invention – a 1671 letter to the Duke of Hannover, in which he included such a lens among his principle achievements to date. While Leibniz had also discussed an “all light-gathering” lens metaphorically, and seemed to think that it embodied some sort of philosophical truth, it appeared that it was a literal invention as well.
The letter to the Duke and also stated that if Leibniz was eventually able to realize his idea of a “Universal Characteristic” it would be “the mother of all [his] inventions”.
“So maybe that’s what the room is all about,” speculated Zap, “Whatever it is.”
“I recall that Leibniz was one of the first Europeans to study Chinese civilization,” noted Perdition, “and that he believed their written characters might be related to a ‘universal characteristic’, and even drew the I Ching into that somehow…”
A bit more digging established that Leibniz had been attempting to develop, or perhaps decode, a sort of fundamental universal language which could be used to understand and communicate concepts without subjective equivocation or uncertainty, and that this language could be used to effectively calculate truth, by means of a formulaic process he called a “Calculus Ratiocinator”. This would all be dependent on developing a “real” system of written characters – one which represented concepts directly, perhaps almost platonically, rather than simply representing spoken words.
On his way to the Curator's office to request some more materials, Zap noted a commotion in a reception area -- a secretary listening to the radio said there were news reports of armies of walking skeletons terrorizing the streets of Berlin.
Death's Head Legion
Flying a hypersonic suborbital arc in the PsiPlane, Psion and Shockwave arrived first over Berlin, to the sight of dirt-caked skeletal mobs bearing only occasional tatters of clothing swarming toward the Brandenberg Gate, chasing even larger panicked crowds of tourists and citizens. Shockwave immediately disembarked, drawing off a pack of shambling skeletons which she handily kicked to pieces. There were many more behind them, though.
Psion turned the PsiPlane's water cannon on the mobs, with only slight success. Leaving Shockwave to protect the bystanders as best she could, he followed the columns of the walking dead to a construction site, where dozens were still unearthing themselves from what appeared to be a mass grave to the accompaniment of rather operatic heavy metal music. The music appeared to come from one edge of the excavated area, where he noted several parallel slots in what appeared to be a recently unearthed concrete structure -- a wartime bunker, perhaps. There seemed to be no activity there, though.
Psion turned his water cannons on the dirt slope of the construction site, hoping to mire the skeleton hordes in mud. Just as he was beginning to have some success, though, a spray of bullets peppered the PsiPlane from behind.
In one of the slots of the bunker, a row of skeletons stood, clad in rags still identifiable as black uniforms, and sporting helmets with swastika decals as well as submachineguns that looked far too corroded to be spitting out the bullets they were. Amongst them, a two-skeleton team let rip an equally rusty light machine gun.
Zap and Perdition at last arrived. Zap split himself in two, with one version plunging into the bunker past the skeletons and toward the music, while the other destroyed two with his lightning. Perdition drew from some of the other skeletons, deflecting their bullets with the Mystical Ring of Xian.
Zap #1 found that the slot was actually the side of an exposed corridor, which was only about 10' deep, and he sped along it in the direction of the music, toward a stairwell. Zap #2 continued to engage the skeleton gunners, eliminating the MG42 machinegun team with more lightning.
The skeleton submachinegunners still standing continued to batter the PsiPlane. Since the bunker seemed to be too confined for the PsiPlane to enter, Psion and Shockwave decided to swap missions, with Shockwave sprinting to the bunker and the PsiPlane readying its water cannon for anti-skeleton crowd control.
Perdition attempted to punch a skeleton that Zap #2's lightning had blown a leg off of, but found that it was a pluckier opponent than the civilian skeletons in the streets when it dodged his blow. Zap #2 finished it off with more lightning, somewhat to his frustration.
Zap #1 passed a skeleton holding a lantern in the stairwell, before another skeleton entered from a lower door to fire a flamethrower at him. The flame proved ineffectual, and Zap #2's lighting detonated the flamethrower's fuel tanks with a satisfying blast.
Shockwave entered the bunker at near Mach 1, streaking past Perdition and Zap, and snuffing out the flames in the stairwell with her slipstream. The metal music blasted louder as she shot down the hallway, and found herself confronted by a taller, bulkier looking Nazi skeleton. Her 760 mph shoulder block sent her foe reeling eighty feet down the corridor, but remarkably when it skidded to a halt it rose and faced Shockwave, both its bony fists raised in a challenge.
Zap #2 hurled a lightning bolt at the skeleton's knee, blowing it off completely, but the skeleton appeared undaunted, hopping forward, grinning as always, on one leg.
Shockwave advanced to her foe, who met her with a punch, hitting her despite her vibratory defense. She swung back at its skull, vibrating the bones to little effect. Perdition fired one of his guns at it, and the .50 Action Express slug shattered a rib but also seemed not to inconvenience the skeleton. Zap #1 intervened with another lightning bolt, severing the other leg at the knee, but the scrappy skeleton-Aryan maintained a fighting posture on its stubby thighbones. When another bolt destroyed the revenant's skull, apparently blinding it, if not felling it, the trio took the opportunity to simply bypass it.
At last, with the music swelling, the trio came to a t-intersection. Perdition peeked around the corner and a blinding flash erupted and cascaded across his shield. As the glare faded, Desecrator stood facing the team.