The Golden Age Ep. 03: Hidden in the Sense Filter

Excerpts from THE GOLDEN AGE, my debut novel from 2001. Arkhaven Comics is reprinting the excerpts mirrored here.

Episode 03

Hidden in the Sense Filter

The man was speaking: “You are blind to what is plain before your eyes!  Behold the mirrored layer of tissue growing over all these leaves.  It is to block the true sun from the knowledge of these plants.  Tracking a sun, which merely rises and sets, is easier than anticipating retrograde motion, I assure you.  Complex habits, painfully learned through generations, would be instantly thrown aside in one blast of true sunlight.  And therefore these little flowers have a mechanism to keep the truth at bay.  Strange that I’ve made the blocking tissue look mirrored; you can see your own face in it… if you look.”

This comment verged on insult.  Phaethon replied hotly: “Or perhaps the tissue merely protects them from irritants, good sir!”

“Hah!  So the puppy has teeth after all, eh?  Have I irked you, then?  This is Art also!”

“If Art is an irritant, like grit, good sir, then spend your genius praising the society cosmopolitan enough to tolerate it!  How do you think simple societies maintain their simplicity?  By intolerance.  Men hunt; women gather; virgins guard the sacred flame.  Anyone who steps outside their stereotypic social roles is crushed.”

“Well, well, young manor-born — you are a manorial, are you not?  Your words sound like someone taught by machines — what you don’t know, young manor-born, is that cosmopolitan societies are sometimes just as ruthless about crushing those who don’t conform.  Look at how unhappy they made that reckless boy, what’s-his-name, that Phaethon.  There are worse things in store for him, I tell you!”

“I beg your pardon?” Strange.  The sensation was not unlike stepping for a nonexistent stair, or having apparently solid ground give way underfoot.  Phaethon wondered if he had somehow wandered into a simulation or a pseudomnesia-play without noticing it. “But… I am Phaethon.  I am he.  What in the world do you mean?”  And he took off the mask he wore.

“No, no.  I mean the real Phaethon.  Though you are quite bold to show up at a masquerade like this, dressed in his face.  Bold.  Or tasteless!”

“But I am he!” A bewildered note began to creep into his voice.

“So you are Phaethon, eh?  No, no, I think not.  He is not welcome at parties.”

Not welcome?  Him?  Rhadamanthus House was the oldest mansion of the Silver-Grey, and the Silver-Grey was, in turn, the third oldest Scholum in the entire Manorial movement. Rhadamanthus boasted over 7600 members just of the elite communion, and not to mention tens of thousands of collaterals, partials and secondaries.  Not welcome?  Phaethon’s sire and gene-template was Helion, founder of the Silver-Grey and archon of Rhadamanthus.  Phaethon was welcome everywhere!

The strange old man was still speaking: “You could not be him: Phaethon wears grim and brooding black and proud gold; not in frills like those.”

(For a moment, oddly enough, Phaethon could not quite recall how he usually dressed.  But surely he had no reason to dress in grim colors.  Did he?  He was not a grim man.  Was he?)

He tried to speak calmly: “What do you say I have done to make me unwelcome at celebrations, sir?”

“What has he done?  Hah!” The white-haired man leaned back, as if to avoid an unpleasant smell. “Your joke is not appreciated, sir.  As you may have guessed, I am a Antiamaranthine Purist, and I do not carry a computer in my ear telling me every nuance of your manor-born protocols, or which fork to use, or when to hold my tongue.  Maybe I speak out of turn to say that the real Phaethon would be ashamed to show his face at a festival like this!  Ashamed! This is a celebration of those who love this civilization, or who, like me, are urged to try to improve it by constructive criticism.  But you!”

“Ashamed..?  I have done nothing!”

“No, no more!  Do not speak again!  Perhaps I should get a brain-filter like you machine-pets, so I could merely blot stains like you out from my sight and memory.  That would be ironic, wouldn’t it?  Me, shrouded in a little silvery tissue of my own.  But irony is perhaps more fit to an age of iron than to an age of gold.”

“Sir, I really must insist you tell me what — ”

“What?!!  Still here, you interloper!  If you want to look like Phaethon, maybe I should treat you like him, and have you thrown out of my grove on your ear!”

“Tell me the truth!” Phaethon stepped toward the man.

“Fortunately, this grove, and even the surrounding dream-space, are my own, not part of the party-grounds proper, and so I can throw you out, can’t I?”

He cackled, and waved his walking-stick.

The man, and the grove, disappeared.  Phaethon found himself standing on green hill-top in the sunlight, overlooking the palaces and gardens of the celebration shining in the distance.  An overture of music came faintly from the distant towers.

This was a scene from the first day of the celebration, one of the entrance scenarios.  The old man had deleted his grove-scene from Phaethon’s sensorium; throwing him back into his default setting.  An unthinkable rudeness!   But, perhaps, allowed under the relaxed protocols and standards of the festival-time.

A moment of cold anger ran through Phaethon. He was surprised at the vehemence of his own emotion. He was not normally an angry man—was he?

Perhaps it would be wise to the matter drop.  There were entertainments and delights enough to engage his attention at the Celebrations without pursuing this.

But … unlike everything he had seen, this was real.  Phaethon’s curiosity was piqued, and perhaps his pride was stung.  He would discover the answers.

He raised his fingers to his eyes and made the restart gesture.  He was back in the scene, at night, in the silvery grove, but alone.  The man was either gone, or he was hiding behind Phaethon’s sense-filter.

With another gesture, Phaethon lowered his sense-filter and opened his brain to all the sensations in the area, so he could look upon ‘reality’ without any interpretation-buffer.

The shock of the noise and music, the screams of the Advertisements, startled him.

Panels and banners of lightweight film hung or floated grandly in the air.  Each one flashed with colors brighter and more gaudy than its neighbor; every image was twice as dizzying, alluring and hypnotic as the one before.  Some of the advertisement had projectors capable of directing stimulation into any brain equipped to receive it.

When they noticed Phaethon staring (perhaps they had registers to note his eye movements and pupil dilation — such information was, after all, in the public domain) they folded and swooped, clamoring, pressing around him, squawking, urging him to try, just once, free trial offer, their proffered stimulants and false-memories, additions, compositions, and thought-schemes.  They swarmed like angry sea-gulls or  hungry children from some historical drama.

The music was, if anything, worse.  A group from the Red Manorial school on one hillside in the distance were having a combination scream-feast, Bacchanalia, and composition-symphony-analogue. Emancipated partials of the Psycho-asymmetric Insulae-Composition where on the other hillside, having a noise-duel.  Their experimental 36 and 108-tone scale music, subsonic and hypersonic, trembled in Phaethon’s teeth.  They made no effort to muffle the sound for the sake of those who did not share their extensive ear/auditory lobe modifications, their peculiar subjective time-scale alterations, or their even more peculiar aesthetic theories.  Why should they?  Every civilized person was assumed to have access to some sort of sense-filter, to allow them to block or to tolerate the noise.

And there was no sign of the white-haired man.  Perhaps he had been a projection after all, or some fiction, part of the art-statement of the grove?

The flash and glamour of the transparent Advertisements did not block his view.   The trees were widely spaced, nor was there brush.  And, unless the man had hidden behind the walking ice-berg thing looming above the grape-trellises nearby, there was simply no place to hide.

Phaethon threw his hands before his face and gestured for his sense-filter to resume.

Peace and silence crashed into place around him.  It was not, perhaps, the perfect truth he saw.  But the groves were quiet now, and starlight and moonlight slanted through the strange silver-mirrored leaves, and falling blossoms.  A routine calculated how the scene would look (and sound and feel and smell) were the disturbing objects not present.  The representation was close to real, ‘surface dreamspace’ as it was called.  The machine intelligences creating the illusion, able to think a million times faster than a man, or a billion, could cleverly and symmetrically account for all inconsistencies and cover up any unwanted errors.

His ears still rung with echoes; his eyes were still dazzled by floating half-shapes, colors reversed.  He could have waited for his ears to stop ringing naturally, or blinked his eyes clear.  But he was impatient; the man he sought was no doubt getting away.  He merely signaled for his eyes to reset to perfect night-adaptation; for this ears to restore.

Phaethon started to jog toward the grape-trellises where…

The iceberg-thing was gone. Phaethon saw nothing.

Iceberg?  Phaethon’s augmented memory could recreate an exact image of what he had seen.  It had loomed, gigantic, over the area, moving on myriad legs of semi-liquid, which solidified, elephantine, then liquefied again as the creature drifted forward.  Likewise, it had had a dozen arms or tentacles of ice flowing and freezing around objects in the area, careful not to disturb the trees, but holding objects (eyes?  remote sensors?) near the garden-plants, as if to study them from every angle.

It was, of course, a member of the Tritonic Neuroform Composure school, the so-called  Neptunians.  The technology of their nerve-cell surface allowed them thought-speeds approaching that of some of the slower Sophotechs; but the crystals of the cell-surface exhibited their peculiar electro-superconductive and micro-polymorphetic characteristics only under the  near-absolute-zero temperatures and near-metallic-hydrogen-forming pressures of the Neptunian atmosphere.   The icy body Phaethon had seen was armor; living, shape-changing armor, but armor nonetheless, and a triumph of molecular and submolecular technology.  That armor allowed the Neptunian brain-substances inside to withstand the unbearable heat and (relative to Neptune)  near-vacuum conditions of the Earthly atmosphere.

That he had programmed his sense-filter to block images of Advertisements or raucous music, Phaethon could understand.  But he did not remember (and his memory was photographically perfect) ordering the filter to block views of Neptunians.  Merely that one of that strange, remote school, the most distant members of the Golden Oecumene, should come physically to Earth was cause for wonder and comment.

Why in the world would Phaethon have ordered himself not to see, or to avoid remembering seeing, such a being?  It was true that Neptunians were thought of as reckless, innovative, untrustworthy, and yet…

Phaethon took a moment to examine his sense-filter’s censor.  Only three of the command-lines struck him as odd.  Very odd. One was meant to prevent him seeing the Cerebelline Green-Mother’s ecoformance being held on Channels 12-20 at Destiny Lake.  The second was to edit out sights and references to the visiting Neptunian legates.  A third was meant to distract him from studying astronomical reports or information concerning a recent disaster in Mercurial space, brought on by Solar prominence and irregularities of unusual violence.

Why?  What was the connection?

And why had he done this to himself?  And then ordered himself to forget that he had done it?

Phaethon adjusted his sense-filter to allow himself to see the Neptunian (without hearing the music or seeing those dreadful Advertisements) and was surprised to behold the gigantic creature was picking its way up the grassy slope toward him, moving like a pale cloud-bank.

As it came closer, Phaethon saw, within the ice, several concentric shells or spheres of crystalline armor.  Deep in the smoky depths was a web of nerve-tissue connecting four major brains, and at least a hundred lesser sub-brains, nerve-knobs, ganglia, synthetic cells, relays, and augmentation-clusters.

The nerve-tissue within the ice was in motion, some tendrils of brain-matter expanding, forming new nodes and knobs; and others contracting, creating an impression of furious mental activity.

Closer it came.