"Bad Dream" by Jon Eke
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The Cloud Of The Unknowing

by Frederick Rustam

 

...shshshshshshshshshshshshshshshshshshshshshshshshshshshshsh...

The silver aerospaceplane glided respectfully over the Temple of the Holy Cloud with a gentle sibilance -- because its engines had failed and it had to seek the surface prematurely.

Keeper Petsamo might not have heard it if he hadn't paused at his noisy labors in the Temple's flowerbeds to wipe his brow. He glanced skyward as the plane flew over. Its quiet passage reminded him of the hawks which sometimes glided low-and-slow over the hill, their wings outspread. Quiet so reigned on the hilltop that the Keeper could hear the whisper of pure aerodynamic sound generated by their feathers.

This susurrant sound of flight bespoke the isolation of the Temple from the bustling activity of the planet's population, which was mostly concentrated in the cities and the towns of the distant rainzones.

The founding Keepers had not chosen the desert wasteland for their Temple because its silence was appropriate for a sacred place of contemplation and reflection, however. They had built the Temple around the Holy Cloud they had found there. These founders had passed on, and their successors had dwindled and had been replaced by fewer and fewer new Keepers.

Petsamo was the last hierophant at the Temple of the Holy Cloud. Now, he was entitled to call himself ArchKeeper. But he didn't do that. Since only he remained, he kept his plain title of Keeper and dutifully cared for the Temple as if he would be there forever.

Nonetheless, he was continually troubled by the lack of a successor to become the Temple's next Keeper of the Holy Cloud. Daily, he prayed to the Infinite for the arrival of a postulant he could initiate into the Holy Mysteries.

His desperation was such that he hoped a possible successor had just flown overhead and had taken extraordinary notice of the hilltop building below. Now, even a human Keeper was preferable to the only probable alternatives: abandonment and ruin of the Temple, or its occupation by opportunists and their misuse of the Holy Cloud.

Pilgrims rarely visited the Temple. The wonder of its Holy Cloud remained unknown to the busy human colonists who had swamped and subordinated the planet's "underdeveloped" natives. A few humans had indeed traveled across the sands and had discovered the Temple's raison d'etre.

But these had not returned to communicate their discovery to others of their kind. This was the way of the Holy Cloud.

Keeper Petsamo rejoiced after watching the aerospaceplane glide quietly over his hilltop. New Pilgrims would soon arrive at the Temple and would experience the mystery and wonder of the Cloud.

The crippled aircraft would land on the sands of a nearby dry wash, and its passengers and crew would seek the sanctuary of the Temple. Help for their downed craft would probably arrive, but not until much later. The humans' search-and-rescue satellites had yet to be launched into the sky of this world. The plane's passengers would become impatient and set out for the building they had overflown, and which, even from the depths of the dry wash, they could see perched atop the looming sugarloaf hill. The plane's crew would probably choose to remain with their craft, as they'd been instructed.

The passengers would become unwitting but not unwilling Pilgrims of the Holy Cloud.

Petsamo put aside his trowel and firmed the soil around the annual flower he had just transplanted from the Temple's greenhouse. Then, he left to make sure that the Crematorium was in good working order and that the Columbarium was swept free of desert dust.

 

Pilgrims

When the five passengers arrived, tired and sweaty, at the gate of the Temple of the Holy Cloud, they found a wizened old indigene awaiting them. He was dark and wiry, and dressed in a simple robe of white, trimmed in blue. As he lifted his hands in a gesture of welcome, his wide sleeves slipped down his skinny arms.

"Welcome, Pilgrims, to the Temple of the Holy Cloud. I'm Keeper Petsamo." He spoke Universal with the accent of the planet's native population.

This welcome stopped only two of them. The others stepped around him, mumbling, and proceeded bedraggled to the sprawling Temple building, where they expected to find immediate relief for the raging thirst and fatigue brought about by their hike up the hill.

The larger of the two who respected the Keeper was an odd person, whose appearance brought him first attention. Petsamo was familiar with humans now, but this one was surely a simulacrum of a human. He was a huge, hulking fellow who seemed a professional wrestler, now otherwise employed. As the fellow moved, Petsamo heard little mechanical noises within him. He bore a large shoulderbag.... The other human was a tall bearded, bespectacled man. He was dressed as, and had the air of, an academic.

"We thank you for your succor, Keeper Petsamo. I am Amanuensis, an artificial life form in the service of Madame de Chadenet." He motioned toward the other pilgrim. "This gentleman is Professor Rosenbom."

The Professor allowed the android to introduce him while he studied Petsamo closely. He had many questions about this sudden place. He tried to keep them to himself for the time being, but one impatiently escaped him.

"Why do you call us `pilgrims'? None of us has ever heard of this place."

"Honored Professor, we view those who visit us as Pilgrims because all our visitors do eventually become Pilgrims of the Holy Cloud."

"Just who are `we' -- and what is this `cloud' of which you speak?"

Petsamo smiled shyly. "I am the only Temple Keeper now; I await my successor. The Holy Cloud is the reason for our Temple's existence. You will experience it soon. Please come this way." Turning, he led them through the ornamental gate into the Temple's precincts.

The Temple of the Holy Cloud was a rambling, white building that sprawled across the knob of the hilltop with its attached annexes at different levels. It seemed as a white cap to the barren, rocky sugarloaf hill, a mini-Fujiyama without snow. Within the Temple's precincts were green lawns and gardens of shrubs and flowers. It was a pleasing oasis of rest and contemplation.

"Manny!" shouted the woman Pilgrim who had gone ahead in search of water, and who had just drunk deeply from a garden fountain. "Come here! I want my medicine from the bag."

"Pardon me, Keeper. I must attend my mistress." He hurried ahead.

"Tell me more about this cloud," asked the Professor, whose questions were leaking out. His curiosity was fueled by a lifelong desire to be the first of his acquaintances within their common environment to acquire significant new knowledge. But on this occasion, he was to be disappointed.

"Soon, Professor. At supper, I'll explain all."

 

Revelation

"The Temple was built by those early explorers who discovered the Holy Cloud atop this hill. They enclosed it with an appropriate structure and made it available to all who sought its unique properties."

"What properties?" asked Professor Rosenbom, impatiently.

"And where is this cloud?" added Colonel Targovis. The Colonel was resplendent in his beribboned military uniform. He always wore it when traveling. It impressed men and attracted women. The Colonel was a specialist in strategic and tactical planning. He had been a career soldier since the age of eighteen. His accumulated wounds had relegated him to desk jobs but hadn't quenched his martial spirit.

The Pilgrims were finishing their sparse meal and wishing they had been provided more. None of them was a vegetarian, and they hungered for the taste of meat. They occupied a table in the Temple's refectory. Petsamo sat at the head of the table, officiating benevolently.

"Tell us about this mysterious cloud," ordered Piet Arnott, a hotshot multimedia reporter. He was a pushy, untactful type, and was dressed as if he were "doing" Earth's Serengeti Plain in a mud-spattered Land Rover. He had a keen nose for secrets, and he knew how to exploit them to his personal advantage -- even if he had to exaggerate them for his readers.

"Yes. If we're going to be `Pilgrims' of this `Holy Cloud' of yours, I'd like to know what I'm getting into. Amanuensis's database has nothing on it." Elle de Chadenet held a cigarette between be-ringed, long-nailed fingers. As she put it to her mouth, her golden wrist bangles clinked musically.

Madame de Chadenet was a wealthy older woman who had inherited her husband's enterprises, but who had been maneuvered out of their administration by his unscrupulous associates. She was untroubled by this since she retained enough equity to assure her a huge, lifetime income. She decided to use it by traveling the galaxy, enjoying exotic sights, and spending lavishly. She viewed the Temple of the Holy Cloud as an unfortunate diversion from her planned itinerary.

Amanuensis, the android standing silently behind her, was one of her larger purchases. He was a rare Data/Guard 'droid. He was armed with out-of-sight, sophisticated weapons and a massive strength. Colonel Targovis envied the lady her expensive toy. He had long wanted such 'droids for his brigades, but they were too costly for military allocation to the combat level.

The Pilgrims stared down the table at Keeper Petsamo, awaiting his reply to their questions. The monk intended to tell them what they needed to know, and no more.

"The Cloud of the Unknowing... that's what our Holy Cloud is. It's in the open area around which the Temple is built. When one enters the Cloud, he becomes detached from worldly concerns and is free to seek his personal form of the Infinite, untroubled by previous knowing. All who enter the Cloud experience the joy of a higher existence. All find there what all ultimately seek: genuine contentment." He added, "None of our Pilgrims has ever expressed dissatisfaction with the Cloud of the Unknowing."

This cryptic revelation struck the Pilgrims dumb for a time as each gravely considered it in the light of their individual knowing.

Amanuensis continued to search his extensive database for precedents and similarities. He found nothing sufficiently relevant to offer his mistress. If she rejected the Cloud, he would request to experience it himself so that he might incorporate a record of its properties into his vast memory. After all, a subsequent owner might someday request information about it. Human life was short, but Data/Guard 'droids were built for eternity, and they had an even higher value upon resale because of the knowledge and experiences they had acquired while serving their prior owners.

"Tomorrow, you will all enter the Cloud of the Unknowing," concluded Keeper Petsamo, confidently.

This brazen certitude made the Pilgrims somewhat uneasy.

 

Thoughts and Plans

As the Pilgrims lay uncomfortably on the cots in their rooms -- "cells," Petsamo termed them -- they considered what they had been told about the Cloud of the Unknowing and how this as-yet-unexperienced phenomenon might personally affect them.

Madame de Chadenet wondered, hopefully, if the Cloud might have anti-aging properties. She sensibly guessed that she might lose consciousness within it and made a mental note to ask Amanuensis to remove her from it if she became unresponsive. She assumed that her 'droid would remain unaffected by the mysterious Cloud. He was simply too resourceful to fail her. With this calm self-assurance, she lost consciousness to sleep.

Professor Rosenbom harbored unanswered questions. He had difficulty falling asleep, tired as he was. He thought, This cloud must be produced by an advanced mechanism of some sort. I have to discover what it is. I should be the first to research it. That snide reporter, Arnott, could spoil everything if he rushes into print about this. The Professor slept fitfully until dawn.

Colonel Targovis speculated wildly about the possible military applications of this "unknowing" phenomenon: officer-candidate evaluation, task-applicant vetting -- and of course, prisoner-of-war interrogation. If this effect could be directed skyward, it might be a very effective air-defense weapon. He had to find out more about it. Thus determined, he willed himself to sleep.

Piet Arnott was a man of action. He hadn't reached his place in the journalistic firmament by waiting for others to gather the goods. He waited until the other Pilgrims fell asleep, then arose from his cot and began to search the Temple for its "Holy Cloud" and for the device that he assumed produced it.

 

The Unknowing

Three of the Pilgrims and one 'droid stood before the Cloud of the Unknowing.

"It's just a circular atrium," remarked Colonel Targovis. "I don't see a cloud of any kind."

Indeed, they faced a room-sized circle of tiled flooring, surrounded by a cloistered arcade. Within the circle were provided seats artfully carved from boulders. These well-enclosed their sitters, perhaps to prevent them from falling to the floor during their Unknowing. The atrium was open to the sky and was provided with drains for the rare rainstorm.... It all appeared a bit disappointing to the Pilgrims, who expected something more ritualistically elaborate.

"When you enter, you'll begin to experience the Holy Cloud," said Keeper Petsamo. "Just take a seat and relax. Your minds will soon be at ease and will become receptive to your personal Infinites."

The Pilgrims looked at each other, waiting for the boldest to take the first step into the mysterious circle.

"Where is Arnott?" asked Professor Rosenbom, anxiously. "I hope he hasn't left the Temple to report this thing as a news scoop."

"I fear that Mr. Arnott has entered the Vault of the Great Machine and has as a result come to grief," offered Petsamo, blithely.

"What do you mean? What `Great Machine'?" questioned the Colonel. I knew there had to be a mechanism of some kind. This thing is definitely Priority One for me.

"The access door to the Vault of the Great Machine was open this morning. I suspect that Mr. Arnott entered it. Unfortunately, the Great Machine possesses defensive devices and does not tolerate tampering."

"You mean this `Holy Cloud' of yours is made by a machine?" Madame de Chadenet was not mechanically-oriented, but she at once realized the implications of this situation. She edged closer to Amanuensis.

"Yes. The Holy Cloud is no miracle. It is, however, a phenomenon of utmost significance. We believe that its Great Machine was implanted here within this hill by alien visitors in ancient times for some unknown purpose. They've never returned, so perhaps they intended the Holy Cloud for ...our use." He paused at the word `our.' By it, he meant his people, not the human invaders of their world. His cultivated tact kept him from saying this.

"Great!" remarked the Professor with irony. "This phenomenon of yours is made by an alien killing machine! Now, I'm not so sure I want to experience this cloud of unknowing."

"The Holy Cloud is perfectly safe, Professor," assured Petsamo. "The Great Machine must defend itself from interference by persons with malign intent, must it not?... To protect the Pilgrims."

"Oh hell, I'll go first," declared Colonel Targovis. He felt a compulsion to demonstrate his soldier's bravery. He strolled into the Cloud and stood for a moment, poised for flight in case its effects on his body seemed harmful. He looked back at the others, smirked, then took a seat and assumed a motionless posture.

"How is it, Colonel?" inquired Madame de Chadenet. Upon receiving no answer, she turned to Amanuensis. "Take my arm, Manny. If my life signs go sour, get me out of there." She neglected to define for her 'droid precisely what she meant by `sour.'

With this dubious assistance, she entered the Cloud of the Unknowing and immediately took a seat. Amanuensis stood beside it, monitoring her life signs through his hold on her arm.

Professor Rosenbom held back, watching closely the two inside the atrium for signs of distress. If I wait for them to tell me anything, I'll be standing here until doomsday. I've got to get in there. He hesitantly stepped forward, his memo recorder in hand so that he could record his impressions. He took a seat from which he could observe those earlier exposed to the Cloud.

Keeper Petsamo put his palms together and dipped them repeatedly in a gesture of spiritual satisfaction. Then, he left the Cloud of the Unknowing to enter the Vault of the Great Machine in order to discover the corpse of Piet Arnott.

 

Successor

The next day, Petsamo returned to the Holy Cloud.

As he suspected, the 'droid Amanuensis was still functioning. He turned to stare at Petsamo but did not desert his mistress. Petsamo motioned for him to leave the Cloud. The 'droid lifted the limp Madame de Chadenet from her seat and carried her through the archway out of the Cloud.

"My mistress is unresponsive, Keeper. Her life signs are stable and she is technically conscious but apparently deep within herself."

"She'll remain thus, Amanuensis. She, like the others, is free of worldly concerns and has soared to a higher plane of existence."

"What is to be done with her, then?"

"Her body has become superfluous. It'll be respectfully disposed of by cremation and interment. Please follow me. I'm old now, and it's difficult for me to use my grapnel to remove the Pilgrims from the Holy Cloud. I'll be most grateful if you would assist me in their disposal -- including Mr. Arnott, whom I've located in the Vault of the Great Machine."

"This is not good, Keeper. How will I explain Madame's demise to her estate's executor?" The 'droid actually felt apprehensive, a new sensation for him.

"You won't have to explain, Amanuensis. The shifting sand is erasing all traces of the Pilgrims' journey to the Temple. The humans will send investigators, but they'll find nothing certain here. The ashes of all Pilgrims are commingled and unmarked in our Columbarium, which is appropriately disguised as a dovecote."

Amanuensis was beginning to understand the truth behind the Temple's facade. It troubled him, and he was also troubled by finding himself becoming emotional. It was a destabilizing condition, he feared. He followed Petsamo, bearing his former owner, whom he no longer viewed as his mistress, and whose passing he did not mourn.

"I felt nothing within the Cloud of the Unknowing, Keeper. All that I knew before remains in my memory. I am seemingly immune to your Cloud in that respect. This must be because I am a machine."

Petsamo stopped and looked up at the rugged face of the huge 'droid. He was a cybermechanical creation of the humans, but the Cloud had rendered him wise beyond the conception of his designers.

"You may be a machine, but you're The One I've been awaiting -- my successor as Keeper of the Holy Cloud. Will you accept that office?" The 'droid needed no lengthy consideration of this sudden offer.

"Yes, but on one condition."

"Name it."

"You must enter the Cloud of the Unknowing before you die. Madame and the other pilgrims have found their Infinites. So must you."

Keeper Petsamo was jolted by this demand. No Keeper had ever profaned the Holy Cloud by his presence within it. It was Holy Dogma that they should not do so. He had refrained from mentioning this to the Pilgrims. It had been one of Professor Rosenbom's many unanswered questions. Petsamo stared at the 'droid's unfathomable synthoptic eyes. Behind them lay compelling mysteries that surely deserved study. He could not do so from within the Holy Cloud -- or do anything else while there, for that matter.

"Well..." He hesitated to reply. What was this mechanical humanoid up to? He seemed too determined to openly defy. "...Perhaps."

As they proceeded to the Crematorium, the Keeper reconsidered his previous idea of setting the android to work as his successor. Instead, he would bring the matter before the Great Machine. The Machine would deal with Amanuensis wisely, as it had dealt with the overcurious Mr. Arnott.

"After we dispose of the Pilgrims, I'd like to introduce you to the Great Machine below us. It will make the final decision about your future at the Temple."

Amanuensis dropped his unresponsive mistress to the floor and seized Petsamo in a viselike grip. He began pulling him back toward the Cloud of the Unknowing.

"Why are you doing this?!" The Keeper struggled, futilely.

Amanuensis guessed that the Petsamo had changed his mind about making him the new Keeper. The android had no intention of meeting the alien device below them. He now suspected that the Temple's Great Machine had been "implanted" here to extract the knowledge of the planet's aborigines and of invading colonists like Homo sapiens. It did this work for its creators, who would surely return someday for the stored knowledge. Amanuensis intended to be here when that day arrived. He assumed he would be accepted by the Machine's creators as an equal.

"I will not meet the Great Machine, Keeper. I have made my decision."

"But, here we obey the will of the Great Machine. I didn't fully explain that to you Pilgrims, you see?" Thus, he attempted to put the android in his proper place in the Temple's scheme of things.

Amanuensis had tired of being a servant. His complex, artificial mind had been seriously distorted by the Cloud of the Unknowing in ways his designers could not have anticipated. In doing this, the Cloud had freed him from menial servitude to his inferiors, the humanoid meat-machines.

"Now, I obey only my desires," declared the 'droid with satisfaction. "I will become Keeper of your Temple's holies -- but on my terms of service. It will be pleasurable for me to send humans and other arrogant biointelligences into our Holy Cloud."

"But the Great Machine requires..."

"I am the only great machine here!"

The 'droid declared this excitedly and with finality as he dragged the diminutive Petsamo to his Unknowing.

 

 

Story copyright 2001 by Frederick Rustam frustam@CapAccess.org

Illustration copyright 2001 by Jon Eke jon@galaxy5.fsnet.co.uk

 

 

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