"I think I know where we are." Steve said.
Everyone looked at him with surprise. The assertion was startling enough, DuQuesne thought, but what really grabbed me was the grim tone. Steve just doesn't do grim. Until now, the discussion had been simple, a fairly straightforward account of what had happened to them, from the time the left through their meeting with the Blessed and Orphan, and finally their return, leaving Orphan outside.
"What?" Carl said finally, clearly speaking for the rest. "I'm not sure I follow you. What do you mean, you know where we are?"
The curly-haired design specialist's expression wasn't comforting. DuQuesne could see Gabrielle's professional concern at the twisted smile, cynical and certain and somehow with a shadow of despair, all at once, and DuQuesne realized that – nanomedical assistance or no – many of the crew of Holy Grail still were riding a very narrow razor-edge of sanity.
"I'm surprised none of the rest of you get it. Think about it. We get on board and activate this super-duper faster than light drive, and then what happens? Poof! We're inside this giant … orrery, isn't that what they called them? And all our AIs are off-line, even though there's no way for that to happen."
"We all know what happened, Steve." Ariane said.
"Don't interrupt me… Captain. Let me lay it all out my way, then you'll all see. What was I saying?… Oh. So our AISages and all the others are offline and can't be restarted." He nodded at DuQuesne. "And then nuclear physics – and ONLY the nuclear physics – decides to take a holiday too, sticking us here. So we need a way out, some clue as to where to go. And when we start looking, why, surprise, suddenly there's somewhere to go that wasn't there before."
Gooseflesh suddenly gave DuQuesne a creeping sensation, something he hadn't felt outside of the still-recurring nightmares in… fifty years? He thought he knew where Steve was going now, and he fought to keep his face impassive.
"So we go there, and isn't it funny that it's made of some impossible super-material that we can't scan? Then when we go deeper, we meet some aliens, except they're maybe not quite all that alien, and we can talk to them." The diminuitive Franscheschetti glared around at them challengingly. "Well? Don't you get it now?"
DuQuesne couldn't bring himself to speak. A part of him, the detached, calm part the world usually saw, studied his own reactions with clinical amazement. I thought I'd purged it all. I thought Hyperion was over.
It was Ariane who spoke, but the slowly-paling faces showed that the others were starting to realize what Steve was saying. "You're… you're trying to say that none of this is real."
"It's obvious, isn't it? Physics doesn't take a vacation. And nothing can just change physical law like that – our resident experts," he jerked his head in the direction of DuQuesne and Sandrisson, "agree on that. That super-material, it's just the defined walls that keep us from going where the plotline isn't ready. A kinda clumsy approach, but I guess they were kinda in a hurry."
The discussion raged around DuQuesne, and for the first time in decades he found he could barely follow what people were saying. It was the tones that mattered, the emotions and the denial and the fear. Could it be true? Could it have happened to me again?
As shocked silence fell, DuQuesne realized that he'd spoken – no, shouted – aloud. He glanced down for a moment, saw his reflection in the surface of one of the tables they'd set up – a distorted, pale reflection, eyes staring and haunted. I've got to get a grip on myself.
"DuQuesne?" Ariane's voice was strained as well. The pilot-turned-commander was blaming herself for everything so far, obviously she was going to somehow try to blame herself for this current crisis as well.
He closed his eyes, swallowed, opened his eyes again and fixed his gaze on Steve; he realized how angry he must look when the smaller man took an involuntary step back. "Sorry." He tried to relax his features, but they seemed set in stone. "You think our AIs did this. Put us in some kind of artificial adventure world for some reason. Maybe the Frankenstein fear come to life, maybe to protect us, who knows. Right?"
"Our AIs, or others that invaded our machines. Maybe even before we got on board the Grail." Steve agreed. The slight lunatic edge of his voice had faded; the others taking him seriously, and – maybe – the momentary fear of DuQuesne had apparently shocked him back on track, at least temporarily. DuQuesne's analytical side approved of the result, and noted that Gabrielle had her medical nano control in hand; possibly some subtle drugging was going on.
"Well, you're wrong." DuQuesne said bluntly. You HAVE to be wrong.
Even Ariane gave him a sidewise glance. "Um, Marc… look, I know it's a pretty unpleasant thought – absolutely creepy, actually – but the way Steve puts it… it's the only thing that makes any sense of this setup."
DuQuesne shook his head. Scenario… Deployment… Balanced Stimuli… Adjustment… Denouement. No, dammit, it's not that way any more! "It's not the only thing that makes sense. It is, I will grant, the easiest way to make sense of things, but it's not the only way. Steve's also said some things that aren't quite accurate. There are theoretical levels of technology that would permit exactly this sort of thing. Depending on who's making the terms, they're various levels of smaller-scale technology; some call it femtotechnology down through attotechnology, by comparison with our nanotech, others have called it Plancktech. Basically, if one gets down to the scale of things below atoms, below subatomic particles, you start manipulating spacetime in the same manner that we currently manipulate atoms. And if you can change spacetime, you can literally manipulate the laws of physics."
Steve's answer was a short, nervous laugh. "Oh, yeah, that's a good answer. Do you notice that Ockham's Razor is about to cut you off at the knees?"
"All the Razor says is that you shouldn't go around creating unnecessarily complex theories." DuQuesne snapped, still shaking inwardly. But I'm right. "In this case, I'm looking at reality and explaining it; you're trying to deny the entirety of reality around you."
"What?" Steve's outraged expression almost comical. "That's… that's just assuming your conclusion, then making me sound like I'm the one not doing the thinking!"
"You're thinking, but you're not on the right track." He felt his equilibrium coming back, slowly. The analysis in the background continued. "First of all, an assumption like yours leads in the end to a tautological trap. It's the old elephant hunter joke, where a guy asserts he's the local elephant hunter, you respond that there aren't any elephants around there, and he of course says 'yeah, see how good I am?'. No matter what argument someone makes, you can counter it with assuming either a better virtual reality, or a more direct edit of your perceptions. So it's useless to think that way, unless you actually start to notice… well, a glitch, an inconsistency, a failure that would permit you to actually possibly break the delusion. And even then you have to assume that the hypothetical minds running the artificial scam on you would LET you notice.
"So the only reasonable approach is to assume that what we're encountering is real. If we come across something that manages to both indicate that it might not be real, and that there might be some way we can prove it or escape from the delusion, fine, then we can act on it. But without that, we'd just be locking ourselves into a mental trap – maybe some of us would try to 'prove' it by getting killed and hoping they'd wake up, I don't know. But it's pointless.
"Second, I know this is real."
"Assertion without evidence," Carl said bluntly. "How do you know?"
He gave Carl his nastiest grin. "Because, as you know, I'm a Hyperion."
"What the hell has that got to do with it?" demanded Steve.
DuQuesne had known that was coming. How can I tell them? What it was like? How they tailored the challenge, the encounters, the friends and rivals and enemies and allies? How they used the finest AIs and best scientists they could buy? How we lived in the best of all possible worlds, the worst of all possible prisons, at the same time? How they knew their true successes were the ones who couldn't be kept there… and yet were so incredibly stupid and blind that they didn't realize what some of those 'successes' would do once they got out?
Gabrielle Wolfe spoke up. "You all don't know, do you?"
She does. He realized. She really does understand. I can hear it.
"Details on some parts of Hyperion aren't really public knowledge," Gabrielle went on. "Sometimes … hell, most times… there's just a sort of comic tragedy to it, like some kind of warning parable for our times. What with replicators, sunpower, fusion, and all, even small groups can do things a lot of governments couldn't, back in the day. So an… interest group, obsessive fans, game designers, and utopians get together and try to create the ultimate colony, filled with supermen and superwomen, designed based on figures in stories, movies, myths. They get the best designs from genetic research, figure out the best way to raise their supermen to be what they wanted them to be from the latest psych research, and then go ahead and build it – high-G to take advantage of improved musculoskeletal development, of course. And then, when their superboys and girls get old enough, some of them believe their press, and things get ugly, and Hyperion ends up shut down – and a whole lot of people on both sides dead. But after 50 years, the ugly's faded."
She glanced sympathetically at DuQuesne. "I worked with – under – Saul Maginot. Studied some of the after-action files."
He managed a small smile, though it was surprisingly difficult. Even now, pity was something that hurt. "I see. Look, I don't think we need the details. Here's the point, Steve, Carl. They raised us that way – the interior of Hyperion was one gigantic virtual environment, a cylinder of lies half a mile across and ten long. They had AIs running the sims, with the best psychs in the loop, to make sure our lives went just the right way – always just the perfect level of rivalry to push us, and each of us at our own ideal level, all of us designed to be someone one of the participants had thought of. Sherlock Holmes. Clark Savage." He gave a twisted smile. "Marc C. DuQuesne."
"Most people, even the best – and believe me, even the stupidest of the kids in there was smart as hell – never realized the scam. You can't out-think a really large-scale AI, or catch it out in a lie, especially with a couple humans in the loop. Tech's advanced some since then, but these AIs were built into the entire station; they were HUGE. Speed-of-light lag was their biggest issue.
"But… a few of us DID see through it. Subconscious analysis? Perceiving some kind of inconsistency that even the AIs couldn't figure out? Noticing, somewhere inside us, that everything was just too much? I don't know, but somehow we did. And we started gaming the system, from the inside, until we were the ones controlling their lives, and all of Hyperion Station. In the end, they realized it, but too late. Some of us just wanted out, others…" he swallowed, pushing back the pain, guilt and, yes, fear. "Anyway… I would know. To fool me on that, you'd need a lot more than we've got. Either way, you're not dealing with something we built. Given that, I say we treat this as real."
There was silence for several minutes. Then Steve let out his breath with a whoosh and sat down. "Okay, I'll go for that. I don't think I liked my idea much anyway."
"Believe you me, my friend," DuQuesne said, "I liked it even less."
"All right, people," Ariane said briskly, "I think this little side-track has seriously thrown off our concentration on the matter at hand, and I think it's upset more than a few of us. So why don't we have some dinner… or is it lunch?… and after that we'll get back to the real questions."
Watching how readily the others agreed – and how relieved he felt, just hearing the matter-of-fact statements – DuQuesne realized that they might have been even luckier than they knew. She's actually commanding, and she doesn't even know it. Which is probably the best way for it to be.
Hmm. That was almost TOO exciting for DuQuesne. Hopefully the next bit will be easier on him.