Niss dreamt about a set of storehouses, stepping up and away from the harbour. The ferry had run aground, the heavy diesels killed, the band dispersed. The dying light of the city and the last embers of the great fire threw her shadow onto the quay – indistinct, fuzzy and frayed around the edges. She caught the faintest of suggestions of wings collapsing down from the shadow-shoulders; cascading out through half-recognised forms; swept and swing wings, straked and sunk. She shrugged, and the myriad-wings sprung out and grew out until they drowned the faint lights and enveloped the quayside and the island and it was just her, alone in the darkness.
And the storehouses, visible in the dark. Untouched by the absence – as if they were other, apart from the physical. Dislocated and implicitly located. She shed her shadow-wings and stalked away from the water's edge.
Closer, the lightlessness of the storehouses resolved itself. It was not so much a presence of internal light as much as an indifference to a darkness. Each brick and beam and bracket seemed to resolve this ambivalence individually, so that the sum effect was one of deep flatness – each element ordered and structured in the whole, but functionally distinct. As she approached the wall she realised – with that sudden, dreaming clarity – that the bricks were un-mortared – that they hung together in a precise constellation; their joints void. She reached out for one, felt it shift and tremble beneath her touch. Heavy and insubstantial – nudged sideways, intersecting and ghosting though its neighbour. It was small enough to grasp, and larger than the island, than the world. Digits wrapped around, passed through, were swallowed and enveloped. It unfolded itself, mirror-lines and planes butterflying out from hidden dimensions, taking her with it; collapsing this little pocket universe down to something stabler and stranger and grosser and grander.
She felt her mind and matter unravelling – a great unwinding of material as the landscape unfurled – and she felt the faintest of ebbing understandings as the last thread of her consciousness was unpicked, and she was thrown, starting...
...awake. Sweating, with sheets kicked and knotted around her legs. She lay there for a good while, listening to the growling, purring city through the half-open window. It was still too warm, and she was too sober, and the hangover was coming, crashing on and down. So she rolled and she tumbled to the floor, and rose, and crossed to the window and the balcony beyond. The slender towers of the central city and the smell of late summer, and the troubling dream-memory of concatenated space – pocket structures within pocket structures. She had a sudden, startling presentiment – a sense that all this, the city beyond the railing, was transient, hyper-fragile – a momentary expression of some passing and contingent structure.
That something real lay out there, waiting to come into being.
There was a surprising tenacious piece of cant – Ben hesitated to call it a myth, feeling that that was imbue it with unnecessary gravitas – around the idea of subjective reality. In its simplest form, it related to the interaction between indigenous and invader groups – the story, as Robert Hughs rendered it, was that European ships were, quite literally 'invisible.' That they existed outside of an aboriginal frame of reference and were not just unrecognisable, but entirely absent from their reality.
Which, Ben reflected, rather missed the fundamental qualities of the real.
The story had clearly originated with Cook – who'd had moderated encounters with tribes along the north-east coast. Cook had recorded their indifference to the bulk of the Bark Endeavour, but noted their consternation as sailors in ships' boats approached the shore and their campsites. Quite how this reasonable, precautionary reaction to an unknown element should be converted into a wholesale incapacity to see reality mystified him. How it could mutate, and in transition, head southward – mapping itself on to that initial interaction between the Eora people and the First Fleet – was clearer. It was an explanation – no, an excuse. Lacking context, the passing of the first inhabitants was an inevitability. They couldn't see the future, and the reality of it ran over them.
Except it was all arse backwards. Ben couldn't speak for any of the original peoples (and his previous attempts had seen him forcibly ejected from the New Push gatherings) but he fancied they'd a stronger grasp on the real than those first invaders – or anyone who'd come after. It had been the Fleet and their followers who'd been blind to reality – mapped European concepts onto and over an alien land – steadfastly ignored warning signs, the pattern new biota and the practice of an old people. The original climate deniers.
Their reality had collapsed around them – drought and fire and flood and salinisation. Race and identity and politics and all that complex attendant mythmaking; these models of the world, necessary concatenations, revealed as falsehoods – collapsing. Or, rather, dissolving – written over by something intellectually weaker but practically resilient.
It had only gotten worse.
They were standing on the cusp of something terrible – a moment where the fundamentals of the real would cascade out and overwhelm the fragile narrative armatures and mutual deceits that had accreted around the bulk of human endeavour. All the stories they told themselves to convince themselves that you could argue and guide and direct. The idea that you could legislate your way out of catastrophic warming. That applications could solve the immutable emotional mess that was the human psyche. That information was liberative. That the market was sane. That they had agency.
And when that happened, they were screwed.
Because the real contained no space for agency.
The first one came through in the wake of the six-day fire – the bushfire that had burnt, uncontrolled, through the dense forests of the Victorian south-west coast. A CFA volunteer, mopping up spot fires after the front had passed, had discovered it – although it was equally likely that it had 'discovered' her. 'It folded its way out of nothing,' she'd offered, when the first proper survey was started. 'It wasn't there, and then... it always was.'
The volunteer was Claire Swan – she of the half-a-hand. She'd been poking around the charred footings of an old beach bungalow when it had intruded. Its arrival had been messy – it had intersected with the spray wand, and a half metre of hose, and her right hand, from middle to pinkie finger – not severing them as much as swapping them – replacing them with six-six point three eight cubic metres of … of …
They were uncertain of what to call it. It was simple and complex – impervious to all radiation. Preternaturally smooth. Photographs rendered it jet black - observers swore that they saw colours burnished out across its surface – an opalescent sheen that oozed moodily across the spectral range.
The object, the intrusion, was formally crude – a bifurcated extrusion with a density ranging between that of tungsten-carbide and near vacuum – except for the edge that had intersected with Swan. There it span down to a finer network of joints and protuberances; boxy fingers, searching, questing. It was one of those shards that had sliced into Swan.
She bore it no ill will.
“I got in its way,” she said. “I disturbed it.”
The cut was clean, uniform, and sheer down to the micrometre. Swan didn't report anything more painful than a slight blush of warmth and then 'a sense of a lingering absence.' The wound bled, weakly, for a few days and then healed – clean, unblemished. Swan – discharged from her duties – quit her job, and then the country. Despite the best efforts of the intelligence community, she vanished.
The object, steadfast, did not.
They set up a clean zone around it – a hardpan of concrete and steel, a triple-skinned positive pressure tent enveloping the intrusion. Helicopter pads and data-uplinks, and then a nested set of exclusion zones that locked down the sleepy seaside hamlet and its slumbering harbour. A multimillion dollar outlay to study this catastrophic anomaly – an outlay that all became rather embarrassing when intrusions started turning up, well...
Relatively benign, at first. A testing of the waters – objects of the same scale and mass as that initial incursion – long lozenges of jet-black ab-matter intersecting and enveloping pylon-footings, and irrigation ditches, and culverts and sidings. Almost exclusively in South Eastern Australia (there'd been a single one reported on Niue, and a trio had emerged in quick succession on the abandoned spillway in Nauru) and then almost always in spaces that one might charitably think of as 'fragile.' The initial incursion had set the tone – they appeared after and around disasters. In some cases, they presaged them – there was a burgeoning cottage industry of charlatans and hucksters who plotted their appearances and issued complex, predictive warnings. For a fee. Always for a fee.
But they were in these liminal areas – in spaces where people had already made their peace with the idea of fragility, of a shift, of a passing. If they punctured an old corrugated iron tank on a struggling property out in the heart of the Mallee, so be it. If they cut and diverted the course of a dry culvert up in the Riverina, well, they were on their seventh straight year of the drought – the trees were long dead. They erupted through the cracked and pitted roads of towns that were very nearly ghosts – hanging on by the slenderest of economic threads, by the old redistributive covenant between the coastal cities and their sunburnt hinterlands.
After that first brush with Claire Swan, they took great pains to avoid people. Their appearances were sudden, but very rarely witnessed. The line, invariably, was that they'd been privy to the arrival of something that had always been present.
Over that summer, the intrusions became something that, like fire, and flood, and drought, one simply had to anticipate in the liminal and peripheral spaces on the edges of urban Australia. Some planning schemes shifted. Notional safe zones were declared. A grand total of forty-five homes were condemned – funds allocated for the residents' relocation. But, generally, policy makers were content to wait and to watch – to stand on the edge of the control line, to watch this controlled burn. Bright sparks in Canberra termed it a form of stewardship – set up a hotline to report sightings – created a commission to formally advise and forecast potentially liminal locations. Still, most people preferred to use the prognostications of the hucksters; who had quickly started parcelling their warnings up as push messages, spewing them out across an ecosystem of interlinked apps.
Summer wore on. Despite the ineptness of the predictions no-one died. Property losses were compensated. A cottage industry emerged running tours that tracked recent incursions; regional towns saw an uptick in visitors chasing what were unimaginatively termed monoliths.
Stewardship seemed to work.
“Monolith. Right. Mono meaning one and lith meaning... rock.”
He mimed removing a pair of glasses, and then kicked at the fencepost, hard. “Only they're not singular, or … coherent. And they're not fucking rocks.” He kicked the post again. It shifted. “It's cultish – they're mapping this stupid fucking idea of … some sort of alien guardian onto these things. Watchers. Assessors.”
He kicked the post a third time. It bent, crumpled inward; whiteant, reducing the ironbark to a lacework of pulp and pith and interwoven tunnels.
“For kickers, there's at least two... two breeds.” He tasted the word, seemingly uncertain. “Species, maybe. Camps. Political creeds.” Swift was not a good tour guide. His tours were not popular. There were six sight-seers ghouling along with him today. Other guides regularly led packs of thirty. Then again, Swift, having a reputation for the macabre, attracted a very particular clientele. They paid adequately.
“They must have seen it, but... but clearly, they didn't. Most were, what? Type A. Alphas. Big. Tough. Heavy. Like this one...”
He gestured across the paddock, at a cantered prism that had burst through a windmill and its concrete pondage. A series of neon-pink warning markers sketched out the mandatory fifty metre perimeter.
“They're big, and they're getting bigger. They're hungry. They crush things. They're definitely Alphas, if you want to subscribe to that notional hierarchy.”
It was a little over forty degrees and the flies were out in force. The tourists who'd politely refused his earlier offer of aeroguard were looking desperate. Swift set out across the paddock, aiming for the low, granolithic outcropping in the middle distance, trusting that the group would follow.
“The others, well, the others are smarter. They're getting smaller – more complex. You don't hear about them because they.... they go unnoticed. They're not dramatic – we're conditioned to see big dangers; literally big dangers. Lions. Thunderstorms. Bushfires.”
He fell silent, and then there was just the sound of boots on dead grass, and the buzz of the flies and the periodic chirrup of smart-phones as they consumed the sunburnt scenery.
In the shade of the first of the boulders – ancient and weathered and cool – he halted the party.
“Big dangers. But this is like people focusing on deaths from car accidents, when the real kicker was the emissions. We're seeing the big dangers and missing …”
He levered himself up into a crevasse between the boulders – waited there, pinned between the rocks, guiding his charges.
“No. A foot there, and then swing up... yes. Well done. You. Flap-hat. You're next.”
The little crevasse widened and rose and opened up to small natural amphitheatre. It framed a view of the low foothills of the range, and the rolling country falling away down to the sea – white wind-turbines sketched out against the painful blue of the southern ocean. He let them drink in the view, for just a moment.
“Big dangers. We get big dangers. They make sense. But that is, as I've said, just the Alphas. Because,” and he stepped to one side, revealing a slender form half embedded in the rock, “there's another kind. A smarter kind.”
The same jet-black material, but a weird, nodular assemblage – fingers and oozing coils; serpentine. Visceral.
“The other ones are dumb. I mean that in every sense of the word. They're getting bigger because they can afford to be bigger, but they're not really targeted. If they hit anything, its a function of its size. It's like scaling up the megatonnage on old nuclear weapons because the guidance was so fucking awful. These ones,” he gestured towards the knotted morass. “These ones are smart. And I mean that in every sense of the word.”
The mass seemed to shiver, to move. The tourists all took an instinctive step backwards. Monoliths didn't move – were infamous for their implacability.
“It moved?” one ventured.
“It did. They've been moving for a month, now – moving more as they get smaller.”
“What … what is it?”
“The big ones are dumb. These ones are smart. This is... this is a kind of mechanism. A set of physical logic gates. The first one I found was about three metres across – had maybe sixty or seventy gates in it. It was a counter, probably.”
The one they were ringed around was about fifty centimetres from tip to tail, perhaps sixty wide. It was slightly lopsided, a dense network of pipes and filigreed stems, tapering to a sharp central point. No colours, but that consistent sense of tone lurking on the edge of vision, hidden in the material. It was shifting and cycling, slowly, through states – like some perverse, self intersecting anemonic manifold.
“They're probes, kids. Computers. Crude, at the moment, but they're sounding out the terrain, working out what material they've got to work with – how the rules run, here. And every day they get smaller, and more complex, and more capable. This one is... maybe.... three thousand logic gates all strung together. Next week, well...”
The oozing pile shivered and recoiled.
Swift was smiling. Swift was not a man who should ever smile.
The tourists shivered and recoiled.
“... soon you won't even know they're there.”
Swift was wrong.
At the end of March it all cascaded out of control. Incursions that had previously been constrained to the southern bulk of Australia suddenly appeared worldwide. Like that very first incursion they were absent and then, just like that, they were present. As if they'd always been there.
Except this time they weren't on the periphery. They were focused, and purposive. The huge and heavy ones were instantiating with a desperate purpose. A ten-kilometre long spear of black-matter cut clean through a Saudi Aramco refinery on the Persian Gulf. A set of twenty-six irregular polyhedra catapulted into existence in and around lower Manhattan – severing towers and tunnels and the span of the Brooklyn bridge. Tens of hundred smaller knife-like objects – and here smaller meant on the order of tens of metres, rather than kilometres – variously crushed or severed or separated or simply disappeared individuals. There was no pattern – world leaders in offices of state; financiers in private jets; sales-clerks in mid-tier warehouses; chai-wallah's in crowded train-stations.
It was the brute species, flexing its muscle. Massive and heavy and inescapable.
And the smart ones? The small ones?
Well, Swift was right.
Niss dreamt of a silver thread spinning out of space and into the tangled mess of her neocortex.
She woke to an itching warmth around her left temple. A cursory examination, eyes bleared, in the bathroom mirror, revealed a spiderlike tangle of jet-black threads cascading away from her skull, around and under her ear – terminating a little below the lobe.
She felt, surprisingly, unafraid.
I'm stifling your fear-reflex.
A neat, melodious voice. Everywhere and nowhere.
Well. Localised, for now, Niss.
She stroked the little hairlike tuft. It was cold and it was warm and it was heavy and light and so very complex – shivering and recoiling and shuffling and shifting. An incursion.
Sadly necessary. You will be... gratified to know that you are not the only one gifted with this... link.
Niss laughed – she wanted to feel terrified, felt it half-way, but couldn't make that critical connection.
It's a war, Niss, in case you haven't gathered. And you are hopelessly outgunned. Thankfully, you have us. And you have the fact that we feel very strongly about... about you, about all of you.
There's a war on, Niss. We want to help you. But we need a way to... to talk to you... properly. We need a hotline. A mainline of information. A model for you. We need an embassy.
An Embassy of the Real.
And Niss knew what to do.