Three brilliant students. The world’s best supercomputer. What could go wrong?
What Mathilde has found isn’t just life: it The peaceful civilization Mathilde has discovered on Janus is under attack, and it spells the biggest challenge Mathilde has yet to face.
Listen to the audiobook podcast here! Want to make sure never to miss an episode? Subscribe to the podcast RSS feed by clicking just below:
Or simply read on for the chapter!
Chapter Twelve: The Darkpi
“SZYMON!” she yelled.
The black Decapus spun around, bunched up its front tentacles, and blew out of the habitat. Mathilde couldn’t move. She stared at the floating Matriarch, now shapeless and broken, drifting aimlessly amidst a spreading green cloud.
Whistles erupted from outside the room. Mathilde rushed to the opening and froze in horror. Black Decapi swarmed around the towers like a flight of bats, twisting and turning in perfect coordination. Cries of anguish and green-tinged water billowed out of the round openings.
“Mathilde,” he materialized next to her in a flash, his voice steely calm. “We’re under attack.”
As if to mark his words, a school of black Decapi tore through their transparent bodies and latched to the wall behind them. They scampered up like spiders, drowning out the reflections of the light.
Stop this, she willed silently. Stop this, please.
She looked out towards the fields, and suddenly caught sight of her orange-grey Decapi. They were rushing back to defend their city. Her heart soared as they approached. There were hundreds of them, far more than the Black ones wreaking chaos and devastation.
As they got closer, her Decapi suddenly spun around and latched their tentacles together, forming up into their complex wrestling shapes. They blasted off towards the attackers on the nearest tower, and smashed into them. They disappeared in a flurry of bubbles, only to reappear, unharmed, a moment later. Black corpses floated behind them.
Mathilde was about to whoop in joy when a black Decapus two meters above her head emitted a shrill whistle, and dozens of its tower-ascending peers twisted around towards the incoming defenders. As one, they pushed off the walls and grouped around in teams of six. One Decapus floated in the center, and the five others latched around it and pointed their javelins forward, forming an elongated cone. More black Decapi moved in behind the contraption and began to spin and push it forward with powerful pulses.
Her Decapi rushed towards the cones, forming an orange-grey wall, and Mathilde stared on in horror as the javelin cones drilled straight through, twisted around in a tight curve, and attacked again. They were relentless, like a crowd of hornets harrying them from all directions, until nothing was left but ribbons of green blood carried off by the current.
More Decapi tried to mount a resistance from the bottom of the tower walls, but ended up caught in a vise between the black ones pouring down from the top and the javelin cones from the side. She closed her eyes and turned away.
“There are so many,” Szymon whispered solemnly.
“Where are they coming from?” Her words shook with fear and adrenaline.
Szymon pointed up, and Mathilde gasped. The usually calm mirror of the surface was a stormy sky, broken by waves and streaked with wakes of bubbles as hundreds of black Decapi burst in from above.
“They’re jumping in? They can walk on land?” She immediately rose up towards the surface, breaking through the water and stopping to float above the cliff.
A terrible sight awaited. Before her stood a fleet of wide-wheeled canoes, moving across the grass in three long rows and stretching back as far as the eye could see. The black stone canoes were open-topped and filled to the brim with water. Tentacles snaked out on either side, carrying javelins that pushed into the ground in smooth, synchronized motions, propelling the boats forward like oars on a ship.
“They’re land boats,” Szymon said breathlessly as he swooped in beside her. He immediately flew down and stopped further down the line, at an overturned canoe. Its wheels spun emptily, and black Decapi were littered across the grass, spasming and suffocating. A few tried to latch on to passing javelins, but only found themselves carried under the wheels and crushed.
Mathilde looked back towards her river. Even now, more boats were driving straight off the cliff and tumbling their passengers into the water to join the killing frenzy.
Oliver suddenly jumped in beside her. He glanced around and a grin lit up his face. “Cool.”
“Szymon sent me a text – said something about a land invasion?” He floated nonchalantly toward the cliff, completely oblivious to her panic. “Bloody hell. This is unexpected. And exciting.”
She spun around and tore down the lines of boats, going the opposite way. There was too much going on, and she didn’t have a second to waste on Oliver. She tried to slow her ragged breathing. Figure out where they’re coming from, she thought, Maybe there aren’t many left.
But the line of ships stretched all the way across the strip of land, ending only at another gigantic river, far wider than that of her own Decapi. She followed the lines to a collapsed piece of cliff where yet more boats were strenuously pushing their way up the steep passage.
“Stop it!” she yelled despite herself, “Stop it, go back! Fuck off! FUCK OFF YOU SCUM!”
But they kept moving forward, relentless. In desperation, she flung herself into the water towards the source.
Black Decapi swarmed around her thick as flies, piling into yet more boats in a bubbly storm. Her heart raced at the sheer mass of them. There were thousands of them here. She tore free from the roiling water, towards the river, only to stop barely a few seconds later.
It was empty. There were no floating towers here. No fields in the distance. Nothing but a wall of dark rock peppered with tight holes, out of which poured out yet more black Decapi.
A gasp escaped her lips and she unconsciously floated back in terrified awe. There was more to the cliff that met the eye. It was hundreds of meters tall, and so big that she hadn’t noticed it straight away, mistaking it for the natural curves of the rock. But it wasn’t.
The entire cliff was carved. A gigantic bas-relief.
She backed up some more and let the full image come into view. A shudder tore through her body.
A colossal Decapus with hundreds of arms, layered like the Indian goddess Shiva, was carved out in the center. Its tentacles stretched in all directions in a cruel starburst, ending in horrifying scenes of violence. Stone figurines tore off limbs, pierced and sliced up bodies, and crushed babes under giant slabs of rock.
The carving was nothing but violence and murder. Everywhere she looked were scenes of pillage and torture.
“Mathilde?” She heard Szymon’s voice in her ear, “Where are you?”
“I’m…” she hesitated, “I’m where the black Decapi come from.”
“You should come back. It’s… It’s over.”
She called out Szymon’s tag, and her surroundings flashed out of existence. She opened her eyes to what she immediately recognized as one of the Decapi warehouses. Szymon and Oliver floated in a corner, looking down. Hundreds of orange-grey Decapi swam in place against a wall, flanked by javelin-toting black ones. A few black Decapi were going through the shells of food and carting them out the door.
“What’s going on?” she asked.
“Don’t know,” Oliver grinned, “But it’s getting interesting.”
Szymon gave him a glare, but Mathilde barely noticed. Two of the black Decapi had just grabbed an orange-grey one, and dragged him out to the middle of the warehouse. There, on a pentagonal rock platform that she had never seen before, they spread him out while two more soldiers approached with sharp rocks.
They set the tips to the flat surface, and with a violent scrape, sliced off two tentacles. Spurts of green burst out from the wounds, and the Decapus screeched out in pain.
Before she could react, the soldiers flipped it over, and tore off two more. They hastily applied a white paste to the stumps, bandaged them with seaweed, and dragged the Decapus out of the warehouse. When they returned, they grabbed another orange-grey one, and pulled it to the platform.
“What are they doing?” She couldn’t move.
“They’re hobbling them,” said Szymon quietly, “They can’t swim with only three tentacles on either side.”
“But – but why?”
“I’m not sure,” Szymon hesitated, “But if human history is any indication… They’re making slaves. If the Decapi can’t swim, they can’t run away – but they can still work.”
“They’re Decapi-tating them,” chuckled Oliver to himself, “Get it?”
She stared at him with wide eyes. How was he not getting the gravity of the situation? How could he not feel the punch in the gut that hit her with each screech of pain?
“Ollie what the fuck? ” she yelled at him, “They’re suffering down there!”
“Woah,” he raised his hands defensively, “It’s not really happening, remember? It’s not real. Calm down”
Her blood boiled. The shriek of the Matriarch still echoed in her mind, her broken body overlaid on the shadows of that gruesome bas-relief. She flinched as she heard yet another scrape of the sharp rocks, followed by the shriek of a newly amputated Decapus.
“IT IS FUCKING REAL! They’re dying! They’re being murdered by these… these…. fucking animals!”
“THEY’RE BLOODY CODE MATHILDE!” yelled Oliver, “They’re just like the dragons you and Szymon kill for XP in Chronicler! They’re a string of qubits. THEY’RE. NOT. REAL.”
“How would you know?” she demanded, “You’re never here with them. You don’t know them like me and Szy do.”
He looked at her coldly, and slowly shook his head in disapproval. He turned back to watching the scene below. “First the rock and now this,” he muttered, “You really need to learn to disconnect.”
“You… You…” she stammered, “Just go fuck yourself Ollie,” she spat it out and disconnected from the Mosverse. She immediately pulled out her VR contacts, wincing at the pain, and fell face first on her bed. Uncontrollable tears poured out, and she bit into her pillow and let out a cry that was half-scream and half-sob. She hated herself more than ever.
It wasn’t so much the agony of the Decapi. It was that little rational voice at the back of her head, telling her Oliver was right. Telling her the Decapi were nothing but code, and that she was nothing but an overly emotional brat.
And yet, how could she ignore their pain and suffering? They were so real. They were hers, to protect and to care for. Her creations – and she was failing them.
A faint knock rang at her door. “Mathilde?” called out a worried voice. Szymon.
“Not now,” she said brusquely, and heard him hesitate, then shuffle away. She knew where Szymon stood on this issue. The Decapi were fascinating to him in a clinical sense. He felt no attachment beyond one of intellectual curiosity. This was her problem to deal with.
She opened SzymonChat and typed out a message.
“Just – just hold me ok?” she said as she snuggled against Charles’ chest.
The whistles of pain and confusion still echoed in her mind. Try as she might, she couldn’t get rid of the sound. The Matriarch was still there, tentacle tips twitching as she died.
“Is everything ok?” he looked worried, and drew her in closer.
“Yeah,” she rubbed her nose, “I mean, no. I don’t know.”
“I haven’t seen you in weeks,” he paused, “What happened?”
“Nothing.” She didn’t want to talk about it, afraid of the tears that might come again. She wasn’t even sure she could if she wanted to. To her relief, he just hugged her close. His arms, his smell, his heat – all of them combined to comfort her. She felt her heart slow, and the veil of anger, fear and sadness lift.
“I built something incredible,” she said after a long moment of silence, “But now it’s all wrong.”
“Well, I don’t really have much to go on here… But I’ve learnt that sometimes, if it feels wrong, it’s best to just walk away.”
“I don’t know,” she rubbed her nose again, “I don’t know what to do.”
He stayed silent.
“Do you think machines can achieve sentience?” she blurted out.
His eyebrows jumped up in surprise. “Where did that come from?”
“Nothing. Never mind.”
“Did you build a robot? Is that the big thing you’ve been working on? An A.I.?”
“No, no, nothing like that at all.”
He hesitated. “Well to answer your question, I don’t see why not. I mean, what are humans if not big, imperfect, biological machines?” He looked down and met her teary eyes. “Ones with buggy software that make us cry and love and do crazy things.”
“And fill our noses with snot,” she sniffled.
“Exactly. If anything, machines will be better at sentience than we’ll ever be,” he delicately pushed back the hair from her forehead and gave her a kiss.
“I guess.” She hugged him tighter.
He woke her up a few hours later. It had been what she needed. She felt refreshed and energized. Yesterday was like a distant bad dream. It wasn’t easily forgotten, but it could be safely ignored.
“Are you sure you’re going to be ok?” he asked as he got in the cab.
“I’ll be fine,” she paused, “Thank you.” She gave him a quick kiss on the cheek.
“Call me if there’s anything,” he closed the door and took off.
She walked home in silence. It was the middle of the night, and despite the warmth of the early summer air, she hugged her light black sweater around her.
As she walked past l’ENS, she realized she hadn’t set foot there in almost a month. Exams must be coming up pretty soon, she thought, I should check the dates at least. She kept going, walking past the bars filled with laughing drunken patrons, and climbed up the little street to their flat. She shook her head. Those people had no idea how simple and carefree their lives were. Responsible only for themselves. Unaware of a whole entire universe that existed barely a stone’s throw away.
She let herself in and walked straight to the kitchen for one last cigarette before going back to bed. To her surprise, Szymon was already there, playing on his tablet. He looked up with concern.
“Are you ok?”
“Yeah, I’m fine. I’m sorry. I overreacted.”
He set down his tablet and looked her straight in the eyes. “I don’t blame you. It was pretty violent.”
“Well, Oliver was the drop that made the vase overflow,” she said as she sat down, “But I don’t really blame him either. For him, it’s just what we intended, right? A game. A cool game.”
She felt he wanted to add something, but couldn’t find the words. She waited.
“For Oliver, yeah, it’s a game,” he finally said, “But what is it to you – The Mosverse?”
She looked down at her hands. “I’m not even sure anymore,” she said, “It started off as a game, sure, something to discover and explore. It’s what we wanted, right?”
He nodded silently.
“But then… I got attached I guess. It’s my baby universe you know?” she laughed dryly, “Mine. And when bad stuff happens, it feels like it’s my fault.”
“Ever wonder if that’s how God feels?” he said pensively, “Looking down on us, seeing us tear ourselves apart, unable to do anything?”
She paused. “Szymon, are you religious?”
“I’m Polish remember?” he grinned, “Everyone’s a little religious there, even the atheists.”
She laughed for what felt like the first time in a long while. It felt good. “No but seriously. Are you?”
“I believe in a ‘force’, yeah,” he said with airquotes, “Not necessarily with intent, but that imbues power into things.”
“Oh, like Spinoza the philosopher?”
“No, like Szymon the genius.” She rolled her eyes as he chuckled at his own joke.
“I’m going to bed Szy,” she rose, and after a pause, “Thanks.”
On a whim, she gave him a quick peck on the cheek and went to her room.
It took her five more days before she finally found the strength to return to the Mosverse. Szymon had been in it every single day, and he offered to act as her guide and catch her up on how things had evolved.
“So turns out, very few of the rivers are connected to each other,” he said as they floated over planet Janus, “Which means each one developed radically different eco-systems. From what I’ve seen, the reason the Darkpi – that’s what I call the black Decapi – are so aggressive is that they started off in a river with tons of huge predators. Giant eels, poisonous jellyfish, worms filled with teeth and spikes – scary stuff.”
“So that’s why our Decapi were so peaceful?” she asked, “No predators?”
“Yeah, and it explains their color too. The Darkpi live in caves behind the cliff for extra protection, and so they naturally took on the color of the stone. For camouflage. Streaks of orange isn’t great when you’re trying to hide.”
“How many types of Decapi are there?” she asked, intrigued.
“I’ve counted 15 so far, but I’ve only done a fraction of the rivers,” he paused, hesitating, “Four of those were Darkpi slaves though. A smaller green version, a version with front tentacles almost twice the size of the back ones, and then the others were just various shades of grey.”
“How can you tell them apart then?”
“There are a few things. Scaling varies widely – some types don’t have any, others are covered in it. Some do scarification as well, I’m not sure why, while others wear stone rings of different sizes on their tentacles. They might have picked that up from the Darkpi though. From what I can tell, it’s a symbol of hierarchy there.”
“Well, the higher you are in Darkpi society, the more rings you get. The maximum I’ve seen is seven, but I think there might be a few with eight or more in the caves. I tried going in but couldn’t see anything. Too dark, even with luminosity boosted to the max.”
“I guess I should code in infrared at some point,” she said.
“Probably,” he answered distractedly, “So yeah, most of them are super peaceful, except for the Darkpi, who have been spreading from river to river using the little canoes. They enslave the populations they invade and put them to work. They’ve spread to about a quarter of the planet’s rivers now.”
“Wow,” Mathilde said. How had they not checked out any of the other rivers? Granted, there had always seemed to be that much more to discover in theirs, but they should have at least given the surrounding rivers a quick scan. “So where are our Decapi now?”
Szymon smirked painfully. “You sure you want to see?” She nodded. He loaded up a pin, and they materialized in a dark tunnel.
Pulling themselves along with only three tentacles, her orange-grey Decapi were dragging huge chunks of rock behind them. A few Darkpi floated above, monitoring progress and occasionally prodding the laggards with javelins. She felt the familiar pang in her gut, and steeled herself against it. Look at it as if it’s a movie, she thought.
“What are they doing?”
“They’re connecting both rivers with a tunnel. Digging under the cliff. They kept some Decapi working on the farms to supply food, but moved most of them to this tunnel. It’s eat/work/sleep now.”
“How long will it take?”
“Based on their current speed? I’d say a decade or so. It’s long, distance-wise, and it’s a wide tunnel,” he said, pointing around, “There are also problems with parts that collapse from time to time. And then…” his voice trailed off.
“Bring me to see the other civilizations.” She didn’t want to spend another second in that tunnel.
Szymon had invented names for all of them. He brought her to see the Aztecpi, who lived in large inverted pyramids, the top level of which floated on the surface of the river, tied in place with long vines to the nearby cliffs. They followed the Hunterpi, the only Decapi who didn’t live in societies and hunted like nomads in the marshlands. She marveled at the Treepi, not because of the Decapi themselves, but for the giant aquatic plants that grew thick as sequoias from the riverbed. “We’re in a really wide river here,” Szymon explained, “So the current isn’t as strong. I think that’s why the seaweed can grow so big.”
The next day, she finally agreed to let Szymon show her the Darkpi cities, built into the cliffs.
The Darkpi were a warrior race – that much was clear. Not a single Darkpi toiled the fields. Their days were spent training. Even their games were warlike in nature – sparring, wrestling and militaristic drills. For everything else, they relied on the lower Decapi, conquered from neighboring rivers.
“How come the slaves don’t revolt?”
“I’m sure they will one day. No empire stands forever right?”
She looked at the Decapi toiling in the fields, and scrunched up her eyebrows. “How about we just skip to that part then?”
“Let’s fast-forward. Let’s see what happens when they collapse. The Darkpi suck and I hate them. The only creative thing I’ve seen them do is transforming disembowelment into an art form. Fuck them.”
Szymon thought about it. “I’m not against it,” he ventured, “But shouldn’t we ask Oliver first?”
“No,” she answered firmly. He wouldn’t be happy, but she didn’t care.
Calling up the time-control panel, she accelerated it. First to twice their current speed, then to 10x and then 1,000. Everything around them began to move faster. The cliff side full of elaborate bas-reliefs blossomed at the edges as yet more carvings grew out of the gruesome thousand-tentacled monster. The seaweed grew higher and higher, jumped down to half its height, and then began growing again.
She stopped when they had skipped a decade. “Still here,” she said matter-of-factly, pointing at a few Darkpi swimming around, and immediately accelerated time again, two orders of magnitude faster.
She skipped a hundred years, but the Darkpi still swam around them when she stopped. If anything, they were even more numerous than before. She skipped again, and this time gasped in joyous surprise at the sight of floating Decapi towers. She rushed towards them, hoping to find them filled with her Decapi, only to turn back at the sight of the hordes of Darkpi within.
Again, she skipped, this time to 500 years ahead. More towers had sprouted, and a few inverted pyramids popped up, floating in the water, but all were full of Darkpi. She skipped, again, and again, and again.
“Stop,” said Szymon.
“What?” frustration burned in her voice.
“Look at the field workers.”
She looked, but all she saw were oppressed Decapi toiling among the stalks. Her Decapi. She raised a hand to skip again.
“Wait,” Szymon insisted, “Look closer.”
It hit her like a rock to the face. The ritual scarring. The different colors. Toiling among the fields, she recognized them all: Aztecpi, Treepi, Hunterpi and more. Members of every single civilization were present in the fields.
“No,” she said slowly as the horror creeped in. “No, no, no.”
She flew up out of the water, straight to the marshes at the other end of the planet. They were swarming with Darkpi. She jumped from river to river, her panic growing with each visit. Darkpi. Darkpi, and more Darkpi. They were all filled with Darkpi. Reeling, she flew up to just over the cloud cover, shivering and shaking. Szymon slowly glided in next to her.
“Mathilde,” he said.
“They’re everywhere. They’ve destroyed everything. Every civilization on this planet.”
“Mathilde,” he said again, more slowly, “It doesn’t matter.”
“I KNOW IT DOESN’T!” she yelled at him, “I know it doesn’t matter. I know they’re just qubits! I know!”
Her head fell. “But it matters to me,” she said quietly, “It matters because it was beautiful, and it’s all destroyed.”
“Mathilde,” Szymon reached out as if to touch her shoulder, “That’s not what I mean.”
He pointed towards the desert. “It doesn’t matter not because the Decapi are real or fake. It doesn’t matter because the whole planet is dying anyway.”
~ End of Chapter 12 ~
Enjoy the chapter? Make sure to subscribe to my Facebook page here for updates on new chapters, or sign up to my newsletter (I don’t spam, only once a book is complete or for cool free stuff like my short stories!)
Thanks for reading!