Thursday, 9 August 2007

Felix and the Frontier - Part Two


Felix and the Frontier is a story told in six episodes, posted serially by me, your dedicated literary spelunker, Cheeseburger Brown.

Chapters: 1|2|3|4|5|6
Related reading: Simon of Space, Free Felix, Life & Taxes

And now, our story continues:



2/6

Felix is a sucker for tradition.

On every planet he visits he erects a flagpole and hangs a flag, just like people did back when they first landed on the Moon. He flies the flag of the Solar Neighbourhood, of course. Felix is very patriotic. There are rumours that he sings the Queen's anthem when he raises it, but that bit is never included in the recordings.

Personally, I'm sure he always looks up to find one of our stars in the sky, or the faint rosy smudge of the Solar Nebula. How could he not? He's so far from home.

There's nobody further, but there are dumb machines out beyond him: the fleet of colonizers we sent out centuries before Felix even left home. The first thing he does when he gets back to his camp is check up on the progress of the colonizers, to see where he might gate out to next.

The gatehouse here is a crude affair -- just one humble dome with a great dish pointing from its apex. Nobody ever thought this planet would be suitable for people. It was established as a waystation, as a convenient node in the web of hyperspatial gates the colonizers leave in their wake. It's a bus stop.

Felix's staff work to align the gate with the distant hyperspatial transmitter, orbiting at this star's heliopause. The staff are dumb machines, too. They are like miniature versions of Felix without real thoughts of their own, carrying out his orders and relaying their perceptions back to him.

He got the idea from the Pegasi, a member of the Panstellar Neighbourhood whose physiology evolved out of a unique parasite-host relationship in which the principal organism is served by a cadre of peripheral sub-organisms, semi-autonomous puppets controlled via electromagnetism and smell. Nice folks, the Pegasi. Strange sense of humour, though.

Felix builds his own staff out of whatever's handy, so they are sometimes a motley crew.

A dull black member of his staff locks the gate coordinates while a green and copper stained fellow gathers Felix's provisions and tools and stows them for transport. Felix takes one last look at the dusty-rose sky and then strides into the gatehouse. The air hums as the generators come online and wind up for transmission. The inner port irses open. Felix steps inside the spherical, reflective chamber and waits while his staff arrange the cargo capsules.

When the last of his four staff members climbs inside the port irises shut. A second later it irses open again, admitting new smells. The staff scurry out.

Hyperspatial transit is anticlimactic, to say the least.

Felix steps out onto a new world. The sky is black, with a faint haze at the barren, rocky horizon. The landscape is pockmarked by overlapping impact craters. Here and there a geyser of gas billows from a rupture in the ground, boiling away under the heat of two naked white suns.

His staff irradiate him, to avoid tracking alien mud into a new world, then spray on a bacteriostatic film to keep the local microbia in check. They step back, retiring their little tools.

Felix walks out of the shadow of the gatehouse and feels the rays beat down on him. Artificial ants, the foot soldiers of the colonizers' maintenance brigade, crunch beneath his feet. Streams of them run up and down the gatehouse, checking every system with their flitting antennae, swarming to pour back into apertures in the dome's surface.

It's damn hot. Felix uses his hand as a visor and scans around him, turning in place.

"Hello?" he calls.

His voice is silent. The atmosphere is too thin to conduct anything.

He instructs his staff to knit a flag and then sets off for a stroll up and down the craterfield. It's a forlorn place -- quiet and nearly airless, grilled by dual suns, unshaped by wind or rain. It is a dead place. Felix kicks pebbles and shrugs, trudging on, panning his head from side to side. After a while he becomes overheated, and elects to take refuge in the shadowed mouth of a small cave.

His body ticks as it cools. Felix yawns.

He smells something. He causes his armour to phosphoresce, probing the depth of the grotto behind him with the resulting greenish glow. The armour isn't casting as much light as it should, because Felix is so dirty. He frowns, then proceeds on his hands and knees deeper into the crevice.

He comes to a torus-shaped cavern, a hollow in the mantle blown out by a gas geyser eruption. The walls are very smooth, scored by intense heat, crossed by lines of pressure blasted crystal fissures. Where the lines intersect holes have eroded. Felix sits on the edge of one of the holes, the crystalline edges crunching under his bum.

He drops inside, followed by a rain of fragments. A cloud of crystalline dust rains down over his head as he surveys the sub-chamber he's fallen into. He blinks, leathery lids flashing over his black, reflective eyes.

He is inside a round cell, with round apertures on three sides. Through the openings he can see a succession of similar round cells of varying sizes, like a froth of interconnected stone bubbles. He has just enough room to stand in the centre, the top of his head brushing the smooth, pristine rock ceiling above. He wonders what marvellous process has wrought this unique geologic delight.

He hears his feet shuffle. The atmosphere is thicker down here. "Hello?" he calls again. His voice echoes through the stone chambers, diminishing gradually. He waits for an hour, but receives no reply.

Felix goes on the move, his muddied glow guiding the way, squirming from one spherical stone cell to the next, ever descending into denser air, thick with a curious melange of odours. He sniffs like a dog, peering into the infrared as he rubs his chin and decides which way to proceed.

He rushes forward and downward until he comes to a cell coated from top to bottom in whorls of white, branching material that smell distinctly fungal. Felix taps and picks at it, then cuts out a slice and tastes it. He nods to himself and proceeds to the next cell.

The white fungus becomes thicker the lower he goes. The air sparkles with tiny spores, suspended in the greenish light of Felix's armour. What stops him in place is not the spores, however, but the traces of vibration he detects through his flattened palms against the fungus-coated stone.

He clears away a tiny thatch of fungus and then puts his ear in direct contact with the chamber wall. He listens for a long, long while. Felix is, above all, patient.

And then he feels it again: vibration. Faint, indisinct -- but aperiodic.

Felix goes further.

A change in the air causes him to hesitate at a particular threshhold. His glowing armour reveals nothing ahead. He casts about in the ultrasonic, holding still to best decipher the sonar echoes: a massive spherical cistern, filled part way by a fluid lake.

Felix drops through the aperture and, after a long fall through the blackness, splashes down and deep into the lake. He swims to the surface and tries another sonar scan, but the picture keeps getting smeared as he bobs randomly in the fluid. As far as he can tell the walls of the enormous cistern are smooth rock coated in white fungus, as elsewhere but on a far grander scale.

Felix kicks himself over upsidown and swims deeper into the black lake.

Stars appear in the velvet darkness. First one and two, then dozens. In the next moment Felix finds himself drifting through a cosmos of glowing specks. They're bioluminescent microbes.

Felix touches down on the bottom of the cistern with a hollow clunk. He's sitting in a bed of white foliage with celia-lined leaves waving gently in the weak slosh of current. Felix squints, refocusing his eyes to see the wee zooplankton swimming between the plants. "Hello," bubbles Felix softly. "Hello there little friends."

This is when he is eaten. It is sudden, vicious, and bewildering. Felix has the vaguest impression of being rent asunder and then is cast into the rudest kind of soundless, sightless darkness...

After an interval Felix reboots.

He blinks. His body is reporting all sorts of alarming injuries, so the first thing he does is take stock of his parts. He's dismayed to learn that all four limbs have been severed, and that his head is attached to his torso by only the most precarious of connections.

"Faeces," says Felix.

He tries wiggling around a little, but one of his hips has been mauled terribly and the muscles in the region won't respond. A hairy leaf keeps bowing down into his face, so Felix blows at it to push it away. This contest goes on until the victor is clear, and Felix resigns himself to having a leaf on his face. The cilia tickle.

He can't feel his staff through all the rock above him. He knows, however, that they will find him. Given time.

Time passes.

A malevolent shadow swims over Felix every now and again, and nips at him. He maps it in sonar, and decides it is ugly. It is a cold thing, barely visible in the infrared -- at least, barely visible through the leaf. Annoyed, Felix blows the leaf out of his way. The shadow responds like lightning, and bites him in the face.

"Faeces," says Felix again.

The creatures decides, for the dozenth time, that Felix is inedible. It shakes him back and forth for good measure and then throws him. Felix spins in the water, then settles with a cloud of dust in a plantless patch. When the dust diffuses away he winks his one remaining eye clear, and smirks. "Oh hello, leg," he mutters darkly.

Poor Felix.

He perks up when he detects staff. They're following his trail, making their way through the fungus cells toward the cistern. One by one three of them drop into the lake while one stays behind. Felix directs them to collect his parts and make for the surface, and soon enough he finds himself bobbing there, supporting by six sets of little legs treading water. They've piled his arms and legs on top of his torso.

"So..." says Felix, craning his head to look around the cistern. Fluid keeps sloshing in his eye. "How do we get out of here, boys?"

The staff have no reply. They blink at him stupidly.

One of them disappears suddenly, seized by the aquatic predator. A moment later it splashes back to the surface, spit out intact aside from a missing foot. It swims over to Felix and resumes treading.

He has an idea. The staff arrange themselves around him and begin kicking propulsively, sailing the good ship Felix to the wall of the cistern. He bumps against the fungus covered stone with the top of his head. "Nice."

Next, the damaged staff member is disassembled by his two brethren and his parts reassembled into a crude laser cutter. The tiny staff stand on Felix's chest while they work on the wall, patiently carving out the rock a millimeter at a time until they have a groove. Then they step up on the groove and continue shaving away until the cutter runs out of power.

They've made a little shelf in the wall of the cistern. They drag Felix's torso and head out of the lake, and then pull his limbs onto the shelf as well. They immediately set to work reattaching his arms. Felix sighs with satisfaction as he flexes his hands again, feeling out the damage. He regains one leg, but the other can't connect to the ravaged hip socket.

"That's better," he declares.

He leans out from the shelf to look up the wall. It's a sheer climb of twenty meters. The single staff member crouching in the aperture looks down at him helplessly. Felix frowns.

They are forced to make very slow progress. Felix holds up his forearm as a support for the staffers who chip holds into the rockface with no tools but themselves. They remove their left arms and wield them with the right. They work ceaselessly, until their implements glow from friction. Once a hold has been dug Felix climbs another short distance, then raises his forearm again so work can begin on the next step.

They get nearly all the way to the round aperture in the wall before a geyser in an accompanying compartment erupts, shaking the cistern and causing Felix and his staff to tumble down into the lake.

They swim to the shelf, and haul themselves out again. Felix picks up his discarded leg and scratches his head with it. "H'm," he says. "Bother."

He spins a new plan, and relays it to the staff member waiting in the aperture who promptly scurries off to execute it. Felix and other two staff lie waiting, wedged on the narrow shelf in the rock.

When the envoy returns it returns with an army of artificial ants from the gatehouse. They swarm out over the wall of the cistern and arrange themselves into a pathway of stripes, ant crawling upon the back of ant until they collectively bulge out to form a ladder between Felix and the exit.

After this frenzy the ants freeze in place, the sounds of a million overlapping scuffles suddenly silenced.

Felix tentatively puts his hand on the first rung above the shelf. He tugs. The ants subtly shift the locking pattern between them as he applies force. Felix pulls harder. The meshy rung of insect bodies bends, but it does not break.

"Splendid," says Felix. He sets out, and his staff follow him, climbing carefully hand over hand up the sheer face.

With relief he clambers over the edge of the round opening and through the aperture. He stands up on his one leg in the little spherical cell, balancing himself with an outstretched arm. He feels cautiously at his head which seems likely to fall off at any moment. He feels like a ghoul.

He climbs from cell to cell back toward the cratered surface of the planet, a trio of staff behind him. Streams of ants weave over their heads, parading back home to the gatehouse. When Felix emerges he has never been so happy to see a dead black sky, or two naked white suns.

He takes to the shade in the gatehouse and relaxes while he repairs himself. He sends out the ants to suss out raw materials, and sends out the staff to fetch it and feed it into the matter printer. They sit like little tailors on their tiny stools, weaving strands of new micro-machinery to rebuild Felix's tissues.

A couple of months pass. Felix stands up. He stretches, then cracks his knuckles. "Wonderful," he says appraisingly as he gives his own calves a little kick with each opposite toe, as if he's checking the tires on a car. "Very nice indeed."

He directs his staff to seek a homeward alignment for the gate. As is his famous custom Felix appends a brief, informal note to his report before laying it down inside the inner chamber for transmission back to the Neighbourhood. The note says:

Thriving subterranean ecosystem. Complex multicellular life, evidence of predation. Exploration truncated by a very nasty fish. Yours, F.
He waits for a star on the hyperspatial network to rise, then irises shut the inner chamber and engages the gate to transmit the report. The generators build up to a furious hum and then fall to rapid silence. A moment later steam jets from a series of exhaust vents on the outer dome. The system relaxes, and signals the all clear. The inner chamber door irises open.

Felix corrals his staff. "Come on boys," he says. "Let's hop."

The gate is realigned. Felix thanks the ants, salutes the flag, then steps inside the inner chamber beside his staff: one black, one copper-green, one rusted grey.

The port irises shut. The generators thrum, and Felix is gone.


11 comments:

Simon said...

Oh, fun!

Felix has such a different personality than Jeremiah. I wonder how much of it comes as an effect from being plugged into the garage for as many years as he served in Free Felix.

The graphic header takes on new shape now as well. I thought the second silhouette was another man-thing farther off in the distance. I'm now led to believe it's one of Felix's staff.

So what will he find on the next world as he explores more of the frontier?

sheik yerbouti said...

Hopefully you'll never get tired of hearing this: your art is fascinating, and above all, you create the most wonderful characters. How can anyone not love Felix?

The bit about the staff was ingenious. Assimilating the biotechnology (or just the concept) from alien races... cool.

My pet hypothesis got some food from this chapter as well. Of course whether that pans out or not, I'm enthralled.

Does Felix ever outrun the colonizers, or are they always before him? I got the impression from Jeremiah that F was accelerating on in his own ship at the time of the story, or transmitting his messages by micro-gate in his head to other Execs; maybe that's true by SoS.

Also, what's with the green armor again? I thought J was just using that as a robot disguise (and the Zorannics have long since acquired bodies at this point anyway). Will we learn more about the commonality there?

Dan said...

Felix is wonderful. Another immersion into the Burgerverse.

But why would Felix yawn?

THE Danimal

Mark said...

This entry could stand alone as a short story. So much wonderful imagery and character development (and those neat gadgets).

Felix's character has come out of its shell (so to speak) and fully into the Burgerverse.

How could anyone reading not be pulling for Felix?

I pictured his staff as very small compared to Felix, for some reason. Hmmm...

Cheeseburger Brown said...

Dear Simon,

Depicted is indeed a staff member. The full significance of the image will come in Chapter 5.

Dear Sheik,

Felix travels at the leading edge of the colonizers' hyperspatial network. There will be more details about this in the chapter to come.

On the subject of the armour, Felix's coverings are not blue-green like Jeremiah's in Simon of Space, but the hue of their phospherescence (sp?) is greenish.

Dear Dan,

According to Science Daily, yawning may be an efficient way to cool the brain by introducing a flow of moving air beneath the palette.

This may make some sense for Felix, though I imagine most of his behaviours that mirror human motions are, more than anything, part of programme designed to make interaction with human beings intuitive for both parties.

Felix also sighs -- likely for the same reason he frowns: to broadcast his emotions to fellow apes and ape-descended automata.

Dear Mark,

The relative scale of Felix and the staff member as pictured is not clear in the illustration -- we don't know who's standing in the foreground and who's standing in the background.

The staff are, indeed, small.

Love,
Cheeseburger Brown

maltese parakeet said...

like simon, i am intrigued by felix's personality, which seems so different from the only other executive we know, dear jeremiah. i find myself wondering which is more towards the norm for executives.

i also find myself wondering who our narrator will turn out to be.

mandrill said...

Felix is one of the first, and as he was introduced in Life and Taxes, he has a robotic, not biological body. We also know from Free Felix that he had to be assembled upon delivery to the garage. I get the feeling that the fact that he has kept his original robotic body, adapting it or improving on it over the years is a source of pride to him, and considering his mission far more practical than carrying a load of biology which may or may not be able to withstand the variety of planetary conditions he encountered.

Teddy said...

I think they all started out that way, mechanical, but Felix probably wandered his way out to see the sights before they went semi-biological.

Also, CBB, is there a story behind how Felix was shipped to the wrong place, or how he found his way back to Zoran's "Home for Wayward Sentients"?

TRH

sheik yerbouti said...

Mandrill,

Felix is THE first. Also, per CBB's own comments, all Zorannics began with robotic bodies and subsequently were given an enhanced carbon-based physiology (a subject elucidated in the upcoming Robot Camp).

His body certainly seems biological, though alien to our own sensibilities; besides, something tells me that Felix would never sacrifice any part of his humanity for mere pragmatism.

The icing on the cake: he still signs his name as "F". Childlike, this one -- I simply can't wait to find out about my long-term plot prediction.

Simon said...

Maltese Parakeet,

I would suppose that your question about which of Jeremiah or Felix is more the norm for Executives would be sort of the same as asking whether you or me or Mark or Teddy or Sheik is more the norm for humans.

Teddy said...

It's certainly not me, I'm far to eccentric and oddballish to be any kind of decent representation for Humans. That and I'm a misanthrope...

And yeah, they're 17 seperate individuals. I'd like to meet a few others, myself. It'd be interesting.

TRH