Mountaineering

By Brian Bourner

Red dust sprayed wildly as the capsule shot out of the wormhole, its grey metal screeching against the rocky surface before clattering into rocks and coming to a standstill. Angela staggered out, relieved to find herself still in one piece. She drew herself upright and saw Isla, thrown from the capsule by its sudden jolt on re-entering fixed space-time. Isla sat, examining her crumpled blue dress, now covered in dust.

Patting the dust from her own long pink frock Angela complained heartily: “A certain degree of unpredictability is one thing, Isla, but that was way too close. This travelling by wormhole is something no-one should be asked to do. Have you survived intact?

“Fine, yes I’m fine,” Isla replied, “I’ve gravity adjusted,” and in looking up her eyes widened as they roved restlessly over a new environment. “My god, would you look at this place Angela. It’s dark alright, there’s a stench of bromine, but there are maybe four moons and the sky seems hung with tiny fairy lights. And those mountain peaks! See that gigantic purple one in the distance! Wow!”

Angela rummaged in the pocket of her dress and pulled out a small Scottish Saltire attached to a tiny extendable metal pole. She rammed the pole into the dust, and commented, “That’s one job done at least.” As Isla raised herself from the ground Angela added “That sleeveless dress looks really good on you. The mid-twentieth century style suits you far more than it does me.”

Isla retrieved her straw hat and pulled it down tight, pushing her black hair back from her neck at the same time. “I suppose there had to be something to make it less unbearable back there. I mean, base camp could have been worse, but no-one had any faith in me. I was constantly undermined by new programmers. Besides, any elegance in this dress has been properly knocked out of it. I mean, that wormhole was way too tight. You’ll have to tell them to get another one for any new trips they’re planning. To be honest, returning could mean travelling separately.”

This last remark caused Angela to cast a worried glance at her colleague.

Then Isla asked “Where exactly are we Angela?”

“Where are we? Where are we ever, Isla? The answer’s always the same – the unknown.”

“But if it’s the unknown, how come we recognise it? Isn’t it uncanny how things can seem so explicable, even in the middle of the utterly inexplicable?”

Angela frowned. “Well, you know how it is Isla. They used to say ‘there are things we know, things we don’t know, and things we don’t know we don’t know’. Or they’d say ‘There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy.’”

“Who used to say? You said engaging with staff on base was a waste of time!”

Angela’s eyebrows merely knitted even closer, until Isla asked “Ok, come on then, what’s the job?”

“The job’s always the same Isla. We test their latest hypotheses.” She stood where the surface ended in a deep chasm and sat down on the cliff edge. “Is that a giant owl looking at us?” she asked.

Isla sidled up behind her, her eyes staring down the dark chasm and towards a distant mountain. “Owls? It’s all a bit like looking at wallpaper,” she replied. “You see all kinds of shapes and faces in the pattern.”

Angela waited to see where Isla’s thoughts would take her.

“It’s all sort of pointless, isn’t it?” Isla blurted out. “Futile. That’s all I heard at base camp. I heard it’s all one; and if it’s all one, and we’re part of it, then it’s all known, isn’t it? We don’t need their hypotheses. We need something else.”

Angela was listening intently. Motionless, she asked: “What are you suggesting then? Should we just sit here, together with the mountain, and wait for instant enlightenment? What about achieving progress?”

Isla grinned. Somehow it just seemed right. “Yes, just sit here,” she exclaimed enthusiastically, “that’s exactly what we should do! As for ‘progress’,” – she uttered the word with undisguised disdain – “we’re intelligent, aren’t we? We know it’s as much an illusion as time itself; just a phantom to peer at, as through a glass darkly.”

Angela’s taut shoulders relaxed, as Isla continued in full flow: “The real tools are music, and poetry, and maybe even religion. Truth is art.”

Angela’s anxiety about the programming, that she had not been allocated the capacity to coax or cajole, at last subsided. So many androids were passing for human, but it was clear now that everything would go to plan.

“Ok Isla,” she said, “but becoming one with the mountain may take rather a long time.” Then Angela dropped into command mode. “Switch off all batteries. Adjust sensors to available light, and receptors to receive ambient sound. Empty stored memory to maximize capacity for new data. Set communications module to transmit.”

Isla fiddled with her controls, happy to comply.

“That’s it,” confirmed Angela, “leave just enough power for your cached music, poetry, and art imagery so transmissions aren’t affected. It’s all part of the process.” Then her automatic transmission override emitted the signal confirming safe landing and undamaged monitoring equipment.

As senior android Angela was relieved the mission was on track. Data for pre-set enquiries and hypotheses would be transmitted: atmosphere composition, ferrous dust, owl, etc. How the data would be received, light years away, was not part of her programming. Time and distance travelled were a mystery to Angela and Isla. But short of meteor showers, volcanoes, and unpredictable unknown unknowns, they would continue to transmit data from this place for a long time, perhaps forever.

While, behind them, the wormhole slithered, narrowed, and gradually disintegrated, it was replaced by a monstrous shadow, flapping slowly towards their backs. Angela’s capacity to compute viable exit points from a wormhole on Earth, never mind mid-twentieth century Scotland, was unlikely to ever be required.

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