Pilgrim Sky

“Ancient History”

a Pilgrim Sky story by millenomi.

At the altitude of Skytouch, outside the atmosphere, there’s no visible night or day outside the window; which is why Tuti only became aware of the passage of time, startled, when the lab lights dimmed down from evening configuration to night.

“You okay?” asked Demeter.

“I, uh, yeah, uh–“. Tuti yawned. “I’m fine.” Ze waved a hand so the motion sensor would keep the lights on in the lab room for a couple more hours.

The boredom of waiting for a progress circle to fill, Tuti thought, and looked again at the screen (ninety-eight percent!), at the mess on hir desk and at the small projector perched beside the typing board, atop a stack of articles yet to be read.

The projector was on, and still showing the previous attempt: shapes hung in mid-air in a melange of wireframe just shy of any recognition. Ze twiddled the base, and the images flickered, stuttering — even downsampled and mangled like this, they were still almost too much to handle even for the lab’s state-of-the-art equipment. How the fuck did the ancients even record this?, Tuti wondered, stomach suddenly churning, thinking of the vast gulf of time and capability yawning in front of hir, almost questioning hir drive to be a History major. Answering that question meant writing downsampling algorithms for weeks to process recovered logs from literally ancient backups, and then waiting through failures one through five, and then again as attempt six inched closer to finishing (ninety-eight point two percent done!)

Demeter also looked at the screen in muted expectation, and with much less patience. “I think I have time to grab some dinner,” they chimed in, and: “Want anything?”

“Isn’t the cafeteria closed?”

“It’ll have to be the dispenser, I think.”

“Oh. A couple wraps, please?”

Demeter rose, stretched. “Sure,” they said. It took a long moment for Tuti to notice that they were already out the door, and then another one passed as hir gaze got caught by the window, and the rainbow hues of space that were right there, and hir suit propped up on the rack near the door, vacuum-proof. And—

A ding!.

Tuti’s hands were on the typing board faster than ze could think about it. The threw in a couple more commands to load it up on the projector (another progress circle: one percent, then five, then nineteen, then twenty, twenty-three…), and as that goes on ze switched over to comms, started typing to Demeter "Hey, the thing finished", but couldn't even hit 'send' — Demeter was back in the lab, arms loaded with barely passable dispenser food. “Uh, hey, is it done?”, they asked.

“Just now! Let me—“

It had worked, this time! — barely. You see, ancient storage was so vast it could log everything; audio would capture vibrations coming from miles away, and the video would as well fill in polygons for every single microscopic crease or bump on a surface, even if it would've needed a microscope to see. Filtering the signal out of that noise was trivial for a civilization that could just ask omnipresent, all-powerful AIs to do the work for them in realtime; much, much less so for two PhD students pulling all-nighters trying not to ruin precious millennium-old memory units.

The video flickered to life. “Are they setting up for something?” asked Demeter. Tuti squinted hir eyes. “Yeah, I think— is that surface floating?”

One of the figures, masculine, was apparently grabbing part of a wall, and some part of it — roughly circular, though the ‘roughly’ bit may have been the noise flickering atop the shape — was floating gently down in the air and then remaining at the height a table would be. Another masculine figure was calling off-screen: “Remee, kam, le’s selbreé ϸ’ kàm'wt”. Remee, come, let’s celebrate the…, the kàm'wt, whatever it was. Tuti whispered, “You were right, this is the mystery celebration again.” Demeter replied, “any hints?”, but Tuti was squinting, trying to catch details that could emerge in the infuriating blurriness of the downsampled textures, occasionally pausing, and yet enthralled by the scene:

The walls of an ancient vessel were visible; this was pre-arcologies, still on the— oh, in the background, the emblem of the Ruritan visible flickering on the wall outside the lodging for a moment, along with a deck number glyph. It faded as the scene there shifted — was the lodging moving?, being relocated inside the vessel? — as the glass on the entrance door went frosted for a long minute before it became clear again, the scene outside the lodging aligned to a different deck — same emblem, a different number glyph. From there in stepped a kid, probably Remee, and — “Surpràes!”, the two adults cheered, and from above small colored patches of color fall like confetti, and the entire lodging reconfigures, red and golden, full of patterns (“Familial patterns? Perhaps in the vessel manifest from—“, says Demeter), and food just appeared from— from thin air

It was at that point that Tuti and Demeter looked at each other, then again at the video, transfixed, at the clear image of the cake on the table. “Pattern generation from—“ “From nothing?” “Perhaps the atmo is saturated with source matter?— does this log have atmo as well as audiovisual?” “The usual incomprehensible mess of it, yeah, we’ll have to try filtering—“

Tuti’s sentence faded mid-word. Remee was getting a slice of the cake that a moment ago wasn’t there. Their– parents, likely, this looks like a familial unit like so many other ancient ones, their parents smiled and drunk from glasses, and whatever this kàm'wt was, it’s clearly important to them; Remee is crying happy, looking downward with a shining smile on their face. Ze was suddenly filled with a longing for something lost, something ze couldn't even really place, looking into space as the log ended, figures unmoving, the projector’s base lighting up, ready to go from the top one more time.

Tuti and Demeter watched it five more times; took screenshots; then spent the night looking for the familial pattern on the crew logs of the Ruritan. They found Remee (“Remee Santrander”, said Demeter in a celebratory tone, but Tuti didn’t even turn to look: ze just cancelled all searches and immediately set the probabilistic sniffer to look for ‘Santrander’ on hir portion of the files, before picking up what Demeter had found and saved aside). And yeah, there it all was: dates, name changes, a marriage, what looked to be some sort of recreational position (“Cook? Even with the nano making food—?” “I think it was some sort of… I think they were cooking for pleasure. Professionally. There’s a venue name here…”), another marriage, a child. Their parents, Kamal and Bertern Santrander.

“From thin air! Think what the professor will say. The first time we can show it’s not just noise masking some other process. You can see it happen. From nothing!

Tuti looked at comms. “I’ll comm' the professor, then we fucking go to bed. I slept three hours in two days.” Ze almost fell asleep as ze closed hir eyes a moment, thinking about what to type. Then type ze did:

TO: Cecil Cantor-Steward

Tuti Cantor-Lin> Professor, we have clear footage of nano-generation of food and utensils without a separate source matter block in log 7881, we can show you tomorrow first thing if you have time.

[Warning: Cecil Cantor-Steward has notifications off. He will be notified at 07:00 tomorrow.]

And then, as Demeter was suiting up to go back to dorms, ze switched over, hesistated, then typed:

TO: Tuil Cantor-Lin, Sana Cantor-Lin, Sirrha Cantor-Lin

Tuti Cantor-Lin> hey dad moms

Tuti Cantor-Lin> nothing, I just miss you lots

[Warning: Messages queued for retransmission to remote relay: @study-fleet-1831. Message retransmission queue quota used this month: 3%]

before ze got up from the chair, groaning as previously immobile muscles protested the fact, and finally moved up to get back to the dorms.