(Back to Zool V)
D'you know, said Artu to his fellow morphant-cyborg cop Isidore (between the two of them, they reckoned they could've had their 'Terminator 2' counterpart for breakfast), I've just had the strangest dream. (Oh yeah?) Isidore spoke softly, with a faint Scouse accent. (Too much William Gibson before bedtime?) Archaeology, actually. I was trying to salvage some old files from an ex-university server. I managed to get hold of some documents relating to a round-robin e-novel from last century, but they're half-corrupted. (Which half?) The sane one, I think. Anyway. there's one phrase from it that's stuck in my metaneurons: 'Zool, death planet where the intractable criminals of ten thousand worlds etc.' (Time for your overhaul, pal,) Isidore scoffed. (But where the bizdec are we?) --TL
"Zool, death planet where the intractable criminals of ten thousand worlds," boomed a deep, godlike voice.
Etc, Artu added, before registering the deep, godlikeness of the voice which had spoken.
(Who the frell is that?) Isidore demanded. They were in a dark space, with a smooth floor, and a godlike voice was shouting at them from somewhere high up. Despite a cerebral cortex capable of processing huge amounts of information in roughly a tenth of the time it would take to blink, faced with such a lack of input data, the cyborgs might as well have been running Windows95. The voice laughed, and a faint whistling began in the air above them, getting louder by the minute.
(What do you suppose...) Isidore got no further, for Artu dived at his partner, knocking him to the ground and out of the way of a tall man in a bronzed spacesuit who had just dropped out of the sky. The man landed on his head, but seemed unaffected by this, and got to his feet.
"Greetings, noble if oddly dressed and rather shifty-looking now that I come to think about it persons," he said, in HTML. "I am..." but he got no further... --WJR
"He's a friend of mine," the godlike, booming and female voice interrupted him. "My name is Saitra, and I'm your friendly psychic pan-dimensional superintelligence. I only just managed to escape the attentions of the Don King and his goons, not to mention that blighter Unicron, on the real Zool, death planet where the intractable criminals of ten thousand worlds etc (see Zool IV: Resurrection), by projecting myself into this simulacrum Zool. After a few centuries I began to miss the company of that little girl I once knew, so I invited you two, and this cookie - his name's Montague, by the way - to play games here." A gargantuan female face appeared across the ceiling, glimmering ghostly blue like a 'Star Wars' psychic projection, and smiled. "Hmm. There's four of us now; anyone care for a game of 'Settlers'?" (No!), Isidore and Artu chorused. "You would refuse me, Saitra, the one mind to vanquish the power of the great Yog-Sothoth, who could turn your puny minds into Notepad software in a moment?" the godlike voice raged. "So be it! You shall be trapped in this simulacrum until you play with me - and I win! Muah-ha-ha-ha-haah!" (Yotz), said Isidore. --TL
Might I suggest a compromise? Artu said diffidently. Isidore gave him a hard stare. (If you so much as suggest "The Land of Og" I'll rip your face off and spit in your central processor.)
"We few, we happy few are too few to play Werewolf," the apparent Montague told them. Yes, I know that, Artu told him a little shortly. I wasn't going to suggest that either.
"What then?" Saitra peered down on him curiously. Gazing down at something so tiny so close under her transcendental nose was turning her slightly cross-eyed, Isidore noticed.
Simply that we might make up stories to amuse one another, Artu explained. As per the Canterbury Tales, if you will. (Only with fewer rude bits.) Yes, thank you Isidore, only with fewer rude bits. Perhaps I ought to begin. Isidore eyed him suspiciously. Artu had entered this dimension chattering about this strange fragment of Earth fiction he'd discovered, surely the battle-worn lunatic wasn't about to quote it at the very being who'd...
Zool, Artu began, Death planet where the intractable criminals of ten thousand worlds...
"ETC" boomed Saitra, in tones of irritated finality. -- WJR
That was the last thing Isidore heard as the world seemed to change around him, to take on a slightly more lit but still very dingy aspect. He was standing in a twentieth-century kitchen oppressed by some unspeakable stench, as if something had died in it. (Oh, Christ.) He exited at speed, heart pounding... (wait. I don't even have a heart; I'm a cy.. a s-s-) He found himself blundering into some Victorian mantlepiece surmounted by a mirror, unable to form the critical word: looking up, his reflection was ten years too young and sported a pair of specs and (I'm a sodding character in a Bruce Robinson, aren't I?)
"Dear boy, forgive me," said a rather full-of-alcohol looking old chap in tweed. (Monty -!) Isidore turned round, furious. "After Lady Saitra's immortal words had been uttered, I took the liberty of adding the line 'which bore a strong resemblance to the City of London in the year AD 1969'. I'm afraid it's one of my foibles. But do go on, dear boy, it's your turn to add a line..." --TL
They were interrupted as a door slammed open and something resembling Artu- or, at least, Artu dressed as a slightly down at heel one-headed Zaphod Beeblebrox and pushed the wrong way down a wind tunnel might look. He stood framed dramatically in the doorway, then fell down dramatically face down on the sofa. (Artu!) Isidore hurried over to him. (Are you all right?) I feel so cold... Artu moaned. I need anti-freeze.
"Oh, my dear boy, my dear, dear boy!" Montague hurried over to the stricken cyborg, turning him on to his back and prodding him carefully. "I had no idea this little reality trip would affect you so severely." He retrieved a bottle from the mantelpiece. "Some of this will cheer you up." -- WJR
(Oh no you don't,) said Isidore, interposing himself. (If there's one rule I've learnt in all the different realities I've been in, it's that you should never mix your metaphors. You don't want to make Saitra angry, do you? Right, I've chosen my next line.) He stepped forward and scooped up a semi-inert Artu under one arm. ("Only this was a parallel 1969 wherein time travel and antigravity were not only discovered, but accepted as the norm." Civilisation, here we come.) He took a single bound towards the centre of the room, jostling Monty as he did so, and vanished.
"Ohh, have it your own way, dear boys," Monty growled. "I mean to get you in the end." He snapped his fingers and disappeared. --TL
A spiral of energy seemed to surround them, consuming and issuing forth in one endless CGI and delirium influenced whirl of impossibility until eventually, when their cybernetic senses had adjusted, they were somewhere entirely different. A city street. Night. Artu and Isidore dropped simultaneously into data-acquisition mode, emotional and reasoning capacities momentarily downgraded and subverted to allow an unbiased and unfiltered coherent mass of data to stream in and be absorbed. The buildings seemed smooth- perhaps metal, perhaps concrete. The substance, whatever it was, appeared to defy a more rigorous analysis. Of course, since all this reality might well be at least partially constructed out of Saitra's will, it was entirely possible that they could not analyse further than surface appearance because there simply was nothing further to analyse.
(Well, that was an experience,) Isidore observed, straightening his armourform carefully. At least he seemed to have got his own clothes and age back and - putting his hand to his head - his own more practical length of hair. Artu nodded shortly, still craning his neck around.
At least we appear to be sober, he ventured, and no one is attempting to destroy or otherwise inconvenience us.
"Hoi!" They turned to face the voice. A thin ratlike figure whose limbs seemed somehow not to fit together as well as one might have expected was running down the street towards them, clutching a pistol and a black leather satchel, and dressed in a tight lime-green tunic and peaked cap. Artu quietly downgraded his colour perception. The man seemed angry- furious. He trained the weapon on the centre of Isidore's chest. Neither had the heart to tell him that there weren't actually any major systems located there.
"What the kintichna are you doing out like that, you subverts!" The man snarled at them. "Silver and black is Fridays!"
I'm sorry, Artu said smoothly, we are a little lost at the moment... I wonder, is this planet Zool by any chance?
Yes, Zool. He elaborated. Death planet where the intractable criminals of ten thousand worlds... etc. He trailed off. No, I didn't really think so. The man jerked his pistol angrily.
"You're coming with me. For Mental Correction."
Isidore looked at Artu. (Well, why not? We might find out something useful.) The man lead them along. (So,) Isidore asked after they had been walking for a few minutes, (This isn't Earth, by any chance?)
"What are you talking about? Of course this is Earth!" the angry man looked at them as though they were mad. "You'd have trouble breathing if this were the Moon, wouldn't you... and I'd be wearing red today."
(Ah yes, of course. Wearing red. How silly of me not to notice.) He glanced at Artu. (Any historical context yet?) Nothing that I recognise, which means we're probably in the future... wait a moment. Without another word, Artu broke away from their captor and hurried across to a small newstand, deserted apart from one bored looking lime-green tuniced old woman who shrank from him as he approached. The gunman turned and shouted, then fired. The bullet shot through Artu, making a neat hole in his armourform. He tutted, the liquid metal of his body flowing back into place around it, and extruded more of himself to make cosmetic repairs to his armour. Artu picked up a newspaper and scanned it quickly. Isidore.
(Yes?) the other cyborg came over to join him, and looked down at the masthead.
"The Dependant on Sunday: 15th March 1984" They began to read the newspaper. -- WJR
(Frell, this is bad,) Isidore murmured, examining a very Orwellian-looking series of propaganda notices, warnings about curfews, and twee adverts for government agencies. Suddenly, the words began to blur and change. (Now what?)
Just a taste of your own medicine, Isidore,
the banner headline reprimanded him. Isidore stared back at the newspaper coldly. (Saitra. Subtlety doesn't seem to be your strong suit, does it?)
You nearly outwitted me,
said another article heading. An adjoining one said,
You changed history. I don't like that. PTO.
Isidore turned the page, unwillingly, only to see... himself. Himself and Artu, captured in a real-time webcam poised at the top of the page he'd just turned. (Ha. I presume this is being sent to the authorities here who nearly tried to shoot us.) D'you expect us to be frightened by that sort of nonsense? Artu snapped.
"No, you two," said an advertisement. "I expect you to lose. Bye for now..."
Enough! Artu slammed the paper shut, but not before several ominous-looking characters had appeared behind him and Isidore. (Frell,) the latter said again. They both turned. You said it.
"Turing Squad, lads," said the lead thug of the squadron. "The One doesn't like unlicensed computers running about the place. There can only be One. Let's be having you..." --TL
Isidore leaned forward, eyes glittering. (Ah, but I am the One, my friend, so that doesn't really apply, does it?) The thug looked a little confused, and opened his mouth to speak. (It's just a little test, d'you see? I take on the characteristics of one of these dreadful cyborg things that I... obviously... hate so much, and wander round here to check how efficient my Turing Squads are.) He beamed at Artu, then at the gang of thugs. (Congratulations! That was excellent. There's room for improvement, of course- there's always room for improvement, but that really was quite splendid, wasn't it?) A pause. The thug's brain seemed to be melting. Then after a great struggle, he said:
"You... are the One?"
(That's right!) Isidore added on an ultrasonic frequency only in Artu's hearing, (There's a good little cretin, isn't he?)
"Who's that one then?" The leader pointed at Artu. "He's a machine too, isn't he?" The men raised long, nasty, and distinctly modern looking guns.
(Ah... he's... er, he's the One too.)
Artu raised a quicksilver eyebrow at him.
"The One Two?" This time the Turing Squad leader looked more perplexed than a man facing an untuned television, and the rest of his squad weren't far behind. The man in the revolting green suit snarled.
"They're playing games with you, Comrade Prescott."
Prescott- the lead thug, scowled back at him.
"No one plays games with me, Comrade Comrade."
What, No One? Then he blinked- totally unnecessarily, given his own cyborg physiology. Hang on, Comrade Comrade? You were brought up in a left-wing totalitarian state, and your parents really named you 'Comrade'? What complete and total sadistic...
(He's me from the future!) Isidore yelled, more as a way of getting back control of the conversation than anything else. (The One from the future... so we're both equally the One really, aren't we? You don't have to kill either of us? Yes?)
"No," Comrade Prescott rumbled. "We kill both of you."
Oh but come on now, Artu purred, That's really not on. It's quite simple. He moved a finger between the two of them. One... Two. One... Two... Three! They leapt between two squad members and- just for an instant, there was only one morphant cyborg. Isidore, stuck to Artu's back and feeling thoroughly ridiculous, winced as the first shots cut across him. Static phase fire. It could short out his molecular electronics. Nothing he couldn't fix, but if they fired for long enough then yes, those weapons could hurt them. Even as he thought it he found himself bumped down on to the gutter, and twisted round. Something silvery and liquid was pouring down the drain like a writhing snake. Isidore attempted to copy the form, and came up with something like melting silver cheese. There were times when he truly envied Artu his sense of style. Still, it got him down the drain.
(Nice one, Comrade Artu.)
I thought so, Comrade Isidore. Now let's regroup and plan. Something large and not overly short on teeth rose up out of the slime in front of them. (It's a frelling alligator,) Isidore observed. Then gears and pulleys glittered behind the creature's jaws. (It's a frelling robot alligator.)
Artu looked around. As a wise man once said, change of plan. Leg it! -- WJR
They ran for some time before Isidore, looking back, said, (I think we lost that creature. Good thing this sewer's big enough to take a man standing, even if it does smell.) Hmm, convenient, wasn't it? Artu raised an eyebrow. Which means it's too good to be true. (I sense a cunning plan coming on...) Indeed. Saitra wants to win this game, and up until now we've been told to lose. But what if... (...we refuse to take part altogether?) Isidore finished. (Artu, you beauty. That way, everyone wins. Well, let's do it according to the rules. Remember, you started this story, then Monty, then me, then Saitra. It's your turn again.)
Right, said Artu, so I'd better do it carefully. Here goes. "Artu and Isidore, and Montague, who despite being occasionally objectionable was, after all, a prisoner of Saitra, woke up..."
A piercing scream echoed through the sewer, recognisably Saitra's voice. "Nooooo...."
"and it was"
The scream died away. --TL
There was silence for a long time, and then Isidore became aware of white light. Lots of it. (Funny,) he mused, he didn't recall the Centre where he and Artu had been training prior to their kidnapping being quite that bright. It was more... biometallic neurons flailed around in bewilderment. (I don't remember it.) He looked around himself. (In fact, I don't remember very much at all.) Then another thought. (Artu, what the yotz have you done?)
"Something most strange is afoot, my dear boys," Montague observed in plummy hypertext from somewhere behind Isidore. "I fear that whatever you have done has backfired somewhat." Artu's voice was heard next, and sounded as if it came from directly in front of Isidore. (Have I gone blind?) he wondered.
I don't understand... I just said "It was all a dream". We should be... he gulped- no small feat for an invisible being without a windpipe. Oh. A pause. Oh frelling frell.
(What is it?) Isidore demanded impatiently. He took a deep non-substantial breath. Control yourself. You're young, still not used to your powers, or their limits. Think rationally. (Artu?)
It was all a dream, Artu murmured apologetically. I... think I may have left out a few parameters.
"Oh yes indeed," Monty chuckled. "My thanks for a most efficacious rescue, my lovely boys. You appear to have rescued us from everything."
Isidore was beginning to catch Monty's drift now, and it was not an especially pleasant drift to catch. (You mean we... woke up, and everything else was a dream... which has therefore now stopped existing since we woke up?)
Isidore... Artu said quietly, I'm afraid I might just have destroyed the universe. -- WJR
"Not quite..." Monty spoke up with greater confidence. "You surely know from experience that what you call a 'cookie' is virtually impossible to expunge from any system. Myself and all my relations included. What you have destroyed is only a virtual micro-universe, the simulacrum of the death planet of great renown. Thanks to we three, Lady Saitra has been forced to make... alternative arrangements for her accommodation, so we are free to do what we want. However, our hands are tied by one thing: when you erased the simulacrum, Artu dearest, you erased the ordinary exit code." (So you mean... we're free to leave, we just have to draw ourselves a door?) Isidore was incredulous. Monty's precise tagging took on a slightly impatient note. "Unfortunately not. We have to start up the program from scratch, recreate the simulacrum from its start-up codes as best we can, and then try and find our own way out of it." Great, came Artu's angry sigh, so we're back to square one. (Worse,) said Isidore, (we've got to try and rebuild the game-board we were playing on... Oh well, here goes nothing.) "Indeed, my dear boy," said Monty smugly, "here comes something."--TL
Isidore fumed. (If I could see him I'd strangle him,) he thought with respect to Monty, and was a little surprised to find the thought echoing round the 'nothing' that the three of them shared.
"No privacy here, my wide-eyed innocent friend," Monty purred harshly.
Shut up shut up shut up! Artu yelled. There was silence. (Artu?) Isidore could scarcely credit it. For Artu- nominally a more primitive model but still with far greater real-world experience- he'd been involved with the Squad all the way back to the Gimboid incident after all- to lose his temper so spectacularly was unheard of. In fact, he realised in one of those bio-circuit jolting moments when reality bends around you, it was unheard of. It wasn't unseen, however. The words 'shut up shut up shut up' were floating across his field of non-existent vision in neat italic Courier New font. He blinked non-existent eyelids over non-existent eyeballs. Had they 'heard' anything since arriving in this non-world, or had everything been seen, their brains simply translating it into sound for the sake of continuity? Some blether about continuity scrolled across in front of his eyes.
That's better, Artu observed. Now we've got a clearer field. We've only got our words to work with, right?
(Right.) Isidore stared. (Do I really speak in brackets?)
It's always sounded that way to me. We could do something immensely clever and metaphysical... on the other hand, Lady Saitra... not that she's much of a lady... more a lady of the night if you ask me...
(Will you get to the point?)
I'm building up dot dot dots... she has the mental age of a child, and a very literal mind.
"So what?" Monty's 'voice' was a snarl, with faux <annoyed> tags to either side of it.
(I see it!) Isidore shouted, and then added, (..............) The line of dots sprayed out, ricoched of Artu's own collection of dots, which formed a circle. (!) Isidore added, the two brackets holding the circle apart whilst the exclamation mark slotted neatly into it.
P Artu said calmly. The italic 'p' hooked round the exclamation mark and turned it in the lock of brackets, and a door opened. Darkness flooded in, casting the shadows of two cyborgs and one rather portly spacesuited figure on the stone corridor beyond.
(Well, ----- me,) Isidore exclamed. The missing word went unrecorded, as he tripped over it and went sprawling into the corridor.
That, Artu observed, is why cartoon characters keep them tidied away inside balloons.
They walked out into the corridor. The door into nothing closed behind them with a creak. To their left, an open door. A red dot dressed as a pirate was chained to the wall, a tall man with long hair and shades clawing at its hand.
"That's the Crimson Binome," Monty whispered gleefully. "One of the last survivors of the Great Unfinished Zool Campaign." The evil hippy torturer looked up at the Binome.
"It's all over. We're going to keep on torturing you till you talk, man."
The Binome gasped, choking. "I am not a man. I am a free number!" The hippy snarled, and pulled a lever on the wall. Electricity surged through the Binome's chains. Artu leapt forward with an angry yell, his fingertip flowing, surging forward, then dividing and meeting round the hippy's head in a loop. He twisted his hand, sending the hippy flying into the wall. Isidore followed him in. (Good move. Looks as though you're too late for the prisoner though.) The Binome appeared very, very dead.
How's the torturer? asked Artu grimly. Isidore knelt beside him, examined a small tag on the man's belt.
(Dead. Otherwise fine.) Artu bowed his head. Even in this environment, to take a humanoid life was trying for him. Who do you suppose he was? Isidore went on examining the tag.
(An intractable criminal, I imagine.)
"What do you mean?" standing in the doorway, even Montague looked scared, his normally plummy face white.
(I mean that this is a criminal identity tag... it gives the name of the penetentiary. This is Planet Zool!) -- WJR
Silence fell for a moment, before Artu piped up, Actually, that makes some sense. If we've gone back to the default settings on the simulacrum, then this is the recreation of the death planet where the intractable criminals of... Isidore caught his eye stonily: he added sheepishly, ... and so on. We're back where Saitra started. (I hate to say this, bro,) Isidore cut in, (but I think you're wrong. We're in a digital world all right, but the wrong one. The architecture's all wrong for just a simulacrum...) You don't mean we're...? (On the real Zool. Gods only know how, but we've found our way into the digital wing.) He took another, entirely needless look at the identity-tag whose contents he had already committed to memory. (Funny, you know, Monty... this guy's one of yours. 'Committed for Crimes against Data-Kind'.) Montague was backing out, fast, scared practically to death. (Come on, let's have a look at some of the other cells. Ah, more labels on the outside. 'Committed for Mass Destruction of the World Wide Web'. 'Committed for Assistance in Industrial Espionage'... must have been an AI for one of those file-sharing whatsits. Heh... 'Committed for Aiding and Abetting a Management Consultant'. Marvellous.) Er, Is... (What?) "It's alright, my boys, they've come for me," Monty quavered. (Should think so too,) Isidore said, (we're cops, after all.) Er, try telling that lot, Artu warned, pointing at a rather familiar looking character. (Why,) said Isidore with a grin, (if it isn't our old friend Comrade Prescott!) I think that's the point, Artu murmured, it isn't. --TL
Six men in the grey and black uniforms of prison guards stood further down the corridor, their leader smiling at them nastily.
"Well well well", he growled in a Northern accent that seemed almost more pronounced now that they knew it to be fake, "If it isn't our two little celebrities. Take 'em back to the holding cell, Alan!" Heavy steel arms seized Artu and Isidore by one shoulder each. As one, their eyes met. As one, they engaged neural relays that would change their morphant forms, slip out of what their sensors had already determined to be an unbreakable grip for creatures of their strength. As one, they looked at each other in shock, loss, and slight embarrassment when nothing of the sort happened. Their captor, a massive steel robot, roughly humanoid, laughed hollowly- a laugh which was echoed by the ersatz Prescott. "Forgotten our holding collars again, have we?" He snapped his fingers and his human guards rushed forward and seized a now quivering and terrified Monty. "i didn't mean to do it they made me do it she made me do it" Monty squealed, forgetting his punctuation and uppercase letters in his fear. Isidore's hand stole up to his neck. There was a thin gold band there, much the same as he'd seen around the neck of Monty, and for that matter around what passed for the neck of the Crimson Binome. Digital Criminals. Oh. (Godzilla dren.) He looked up at the robot holding them. (What the bizdec is this thing anyway? A cyborg gorilla?)
"Yes, 'Prescott' purred, "you must excuse Alan- he's rather out-of-date now, I'm afraid. His central processor was formed from the motherboard of a twenty-first century laptop found in the remains of Balliol College. He used to run Windows ME, but we upgraded it to one of the other Windows Disease Class Operating Systems. Windows Narcolepsy."
Artu registered the name. So Oxford was implicated in Zool, I knew it! Prescott smiled. "Yes, but you will find it will do you little good- who would believe a convict. Take them back to their cells." (How long have we been here?) Why can't we remember? (Who are you?) Prescott laughed, sinking to his knees and throwing his arms out wide. "Who... am... I?!" he bellowed, and then his form began to shift. Many images flashed before them, a giant purple and orange planet, its nearer end a vast toothed maw, a man-sized spider, hairy limbs sheathed in gun-metal plate armour, three eyes burning malevolent red, a stainless steel teddy bear, a great green serpent, and then a final form was revealed... -- WJR
...the final form of a small girl, about half the size of 'Prescott', fair-haired and wearing a rather comedic pair of plaits and spectacles. Under one arm she was carrying two books: the Rough Guide to Cult Movies and the Rough Guide to Cult TV. The gaze she directed at the two cyborgs, however, was as nasty as ever. "Hello," she said, "Artu and Isidore..."
The two cyborgs hit the floor in the same tenth of a second as Alan dropped them.
"...My name is Sally, but you must call me the Auteuse." (And are these thugs your Aut-ons, then?) Isidore sneered, indicating the thugs. The Auteuse took no notice. "This is my domain, and I have the power of life or death within it. You're here because you're criminals. Murderers. You erased my friend. You've been sentenced to life in prison. There is," she added almost as an afterthought, "no appeal." Artu and Isidore stared in horror.
"Wait!" rumbled Alan. "I know these. They would not have killed without reason. You say 'Artu'? My old handler told me a long tale of how he and a 'Doctor' defeated evil. She was dictating the story to that wretched Word program, but I heard it all the same. I call for a retrial. I shall defend them." The cyborg stood up to its full height, nearly scraping its shoulders on the ceiling. "Alan-Breck has spoken!" --TL
Continued in Zool V Chapter Two...
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