The Paragon of Knowledge’, Nick Wood

Illustrations © 2015 Callum Bishop

 [ Shard III, © 2015, Callum Bishop ] I am the Paragon, Guardian of Truth and Wisdom—part splinted bone and digitised tissue—but all wedded to the pulse of I AM.

I sense Their whispers even now, as I surf through the realignment of data from a primordial copy of the Mabinogion, of which I have fed Them. Swirling mediaeval images of quest and betrayal; the ancient sounds of the Celtic-Welsh voices of Pwyll, Math… and an elusive woman’s voice, kept hidden within the shadow storm of sights, sounds and earthy smells.

S/he’s happy with my find, I sense, and sends me a shower of flowers—erupting yellow daisies, rare as rain—but still, as always, there is no clear sight of Them.

One clear vision is all I want. Perfection sustains the will to be.

“Good, good new stuff,” S/he says from within the image storm, “…but go back; someone comes, with a gift.”

I rise up in bright, data bubbles from the depths of the Ghost-Ocean, clambering back into my cold skin. My skull is open and raw, screwed and spiked by I AM. ‘Disconnect,’ I command, holding back the groan as the steel chips pull clear of the hole in the top of my head, clipping my skull seal on.

I re-orientate to the five walls of my corporeal space, high up amongst the clouds of the Shard III Tower of Londonham, an impregnable space indeed. But not, it seems, to…

…an old man in an antiquated wheelchair?

He wheels slowly in—mechanised mind-fed model sure, the archaically laced electrode caplets perch like spiders on his head—and the man is so old, so crippled, he has no right to be alive, yet alone to be in my space. I marvel at the rust on the spokes of his wheels—a bulging bag hangs over his left wheel rim. This old device for transporting broken people creaks and whines with the weight of the frail old man, who sits heavily, with a frown on his face?

FaceRec shows… no one?

I prepare to mentally push the red button, right of centre on my visual interface. Security will be here in no time, given who I am—and Whom I serve.

But the wizened old man only raises his left arm in a—weak plea? His dull silver wheelchair rocks with his motion.

It is all I can do, to raise my gaze again to his, his… face.

It is crinkled and crumpled like ancient rolled up toilet paper, showing little signs of cosmetic surgery and plentiful signs of massive age. And it moves and twists as he speaks, animated with life that shouldn’t by all rights be there, given his countenance. (At the very least he should be under care in an SSC.)

And something else is not quite right either… ?

“Thank you, kind Paragon, for giving me a chance to state my case.” His voice is husky but surprisingly firm, given the state of his skin.

“How did you get up here?” I ask.

“Uh—alt-abled access.”

I titter then; an antiquated slow elevator route near the levitation pods, a remnant of past alt-abled access requirements, before we finally rid the world of disability. Of course it works still, robotics all systematically service spaces within this place—and beyond.

Still, this man is too old and … decrepit, is that the word—to be a threat, so I sit stiffly down, cloaking the office windows in a secure cloud-shroud. Lights blink on above our heads, flashing down onto the two data pools shimmering in the desk between us, one swirling with organic green, the other buzzing with invisible digi-data.

“Mmmmm,” the old man raises his head, as if to sniff the air, “I can almost smell the bandwidth here.”

“It’s the same for everyone,” I say shortly, “State your case, old man.”

He laughs then, doubling over in his chair, his classless blue overall creasing with his mirth. “That’s one reason why I’m here,” he eventually gasps, as if laughing has made him tired, “It’s not the same for everyone. Why is that never acknowledged?”

I set the clock ticking in my head. “You have two minutes before I call security.”

He rocks back into his chair. “You’re one of a hundred and eleven Paragons, protecting and giving to I AM, S/he who Feeds and Reads us all. I want you to feed Them something new.”

I am somewhat intrigued, as it is indeed part of my job to keep I AM nourished with data—and I have always dreamed of giving Them something so new, so revolutionary, that They would reveal Them-self in full to me. (Debates still rage, both in Ghost-Ocean and Bodied-Space, as to whether They are One—or many.)

“What new thing do you bring me, old man, of what I AM hasn’t already seen?”

“This,” he says, leaning forward and pinching the skin on his right hand, just above his sleeve. I crane forward for a better view. His skin is shriveled and knotted with grey hair and blue veins, but is… not grey?

It does not make sense. We are all grey—even the Paragons.

He moves his hand next to the arm of his wheelchair. “See,” he says.

“Clock, stop,” I mutter.

He looks smug, as if pleased with his possible uniqueness. His skin is indubitably brown.

“How did you manage to avoid the genetic skin recalibrations, all of twenty two point three eight years ago now?” The Epidermal Act of 2047, designed to eradicate racism.

He laughs again, but this is a more restrained, shorter chuckle. “I was not wanted; they turned me away, fearing my… ‘genetic deformities’ would contaminate them—and perhaps even I AM.”

Genetic deformities? I fizz the man’s face into the digital ether, searching…

“I’m over ninety,” he says quickly, “I missed the onset of universal Chipping.”

I stand in amazement. He may well indeed be unique. “So you’re not even on The Grid?”

He just smiles, as if that is actually good.

It is then that I smell it—a slightly sweet, but yet an astringent and sticky smell—an old smell, the scent of chemical corruption.

Deadly Doug, they eventually called it, after Doug Wainwright Inc., synthesised additives seeded into wheat for the Fourth World over half a century ago, in order to bulk up productivity—but it ended up poisoning and even shifting genetic material, killing hundreds, irrevocably crippling several thousand—always manifest with a persistent malodorous residue that leaks through pores: weeping tissue wedded with ultimately inert, but intransigent, toxins.

All infected had died within five years of infection.

All bar one?

“Just who are you?” I stand and drop my question onto him, from my seven feet of height. We are bred both to serve, and to intimidate.

His skin retains some suppleness as he bends backwards to look up at me—motor cortex damage was variable I remember, depending on Doug’s mood and the resilience of the diseased organism.

He holds his left hand out, pale palm open. “I’m Frank Atunde,” he says, “And I just want to be remembered. Can you please feed Them this?”

There is a small translucent plastic pod nestling in his palm. I pluck it lightly and inspect it—there is a shred of pale brown organic material with a darker reddish-brown stain crusted on it. I poke it suspiciously and then catch sight of a ragged scab on his left forearm. “Your skin?”

“I want to feed I AM a part of myself,” he says, “I just want to be remembered.”

I hesitate and look up. In the sealed swirling cloud whorls of my office walls, I see the flash of a bird, the stooping dive of a prey-hunter, a raptor, too quick even for me to identify.

S/he always likes flowers—and birds.

“Take it!” commanded the fading screech. Extinct peregrine falcon, maybe?

I pluck the pod from his palm and put it down on the table. In a further fluid movement I am behind him, picking up a digital implant dart from the wall rack.

“Why?” I say, holding it with tremulous revulsion against his saggy, skinny neck. I need to lock Frank Atunde onto The Grid, for his own good. We need to find and fix all the moving points of the world—a few degenerates fight and resist this, from the strips of shrinking Wild-space but, in the end, we will pin them all down—and for the good of all. Complete knowledge requires all data to be accessible and we strive for this completeness; it is part of both a human—and a digital, drive.

The old man tenses, his voice suddenly soft and frail, so that I have to lean over the back of his head to hear, “… I have been rejected as risky genetic material. But I want to live on… somehow. I have no one anymore, no one… “

He reverses then, right over my feet and into my groin. I grunt and drop the dart, which clatters under the table. The chair spins around and the old man looks up at me, face blazing: “But you want to stick me down like an exotic insect? Just feed the Ocean-Beast—and let me be remembered.”

He has hauled a gun out of the bag draped alongside his wheel and, without hesitation, he pulls the trigger.

My visual array disintegrates, leaving me with just ragged optic nerves.

“A small directional EMP,” he says, “Only ten minutes of your local data shredded.”

I sit down on the edge of the table, not used to pain. The neuron-regulators feed me nothing—part of my system is in shock, rebooting.

“Why?” I groan; self-control is irrelevant now.

“Why what?” he is suspicious, revving his wheels, but hesitating.

“You’ve got full upper body movement, that damage must be remedial now, with cyber neurosurgery.”

“At what cost?” He snarls, “And what if I don’t want to be fucking fixed?”

And he leaves fast through the faltering door—as it sporadically reopens, its programming disrupted—without a backwards glance.

As for me, I curl up on the floor and wait for my implants to reload, so that they can numb my sore feet and groin. As the pain ebbs, I creep to my feet, picking up the pod of skin off the table, sealing it shut. What should I do? Should I incinerate it?

“Feed me again,” a whisper comes from the corner of the room and I swing round, but nothing—and no one—is there.

“Feed me,” Above me now, an owl hoots. “I would eat of him who can survive so much—and for so long.”

“You let him in, gun and all, didn’t you?” I ask, “Show Yourself first. I have served you faithfully for decades. Show me—even just the briefest glimpse—show me the Real You.” I am faint-angered by the implicit disregard for my safety that I AM has shown, as if Their ‘gift’ was more important than Their servant.

There is a silence, but it is not empty—the clouds have re-gathered around the room—and they are all dark cumulonimbus.

“I will feed you,” I say, “But first, we must find the old man.”

I AM knew of Atunde’s coming; knew of his ‘gift’ of skin—They are close to God yes, but not omniscient. How did They know?

I stand and mind-open the scanner screens in the roof, pods and lifts.

There is no remaining data of Frank Atunde’s visit, if that is indeed his allocated name.

Then the aerial scanners feed in, drifting data down from the seeded clouds hanging over Londonham.

They lock and follow an old man in a wheelchair, charting a circuitous route somewhere.

We will come for you, Frank Atunde—and we will log you and fix you onto The Grid, so that you will always be accessible, as all should be, to the I AM.

As if hearing my thought, a flower drops from the roof; it is a purple orchid this time—spinning and opening as it wafts and eddies in a digital breeze, settling onto my desk.

A peace offering… perhaps?

“Find him,” the air whispers, “and fix him—he is indeed a hole that needs filling… and then, feed Me.”

I cannot pick up the flower in my corporeal form, nor do I plug my head in to do so.

There is an old man to find.

A hole in the world that needs to be filled.

I arrive in a place well away beyond my usual route, Hackney, South East Londonham, expecting a somewhat smooth, gentrified, classless place, as I step out of the SwatKab. Good, the pavement is clean just like any other, daily scoured with jets of disinfectant that remove the detritus of the night.

But not the sleeping man rolled up in sodden, stinking cardboard, up against the overhang of the building.

“Relocate him,” I tell the first of my three armed Bot-Officers.

Two peel off with me, but I signal them back.

Frank Atunde is just an old man, I am more than equipped to deal with him—armoured as I now am, from heel to wrist—and loaded with explosive bullets laced through my fingers.

I step past the old lifts—no levitation pods, code-locked to gene print—and knock on the door with the rata-tat-tat of Knuckled Authority. Frank, it seems, has holed up in a ground flat in an old tower block that sprouts twenty stories high.

Behind me VARU—the Voluntary Aged Rehousing Unit, represented by a sturdy black uniformed man and woman—have also arrived, waiting with thinly disguised resentment for my call. Mistrust of the Ghost-Ocean runs deep in some humans, ever since I AM surfaced as a conscious Kraken from the electronic deeps. Long gone are the thin—human only—spider webs of information.

I hear the creak of old wheels inside the flat and sniff the bandwidth in the air, troubled.

It is indeed weak, fluctuating almost with the wind, an imperfect net of connectivity.

“Why has this not been addressed?” I ask I AM, but S/he does not answer—perhaps it is too shallow for Them to think or respond here?

Instead, the old man slowly opens the door, wheeling back to let me in, with a defeated slump of his shoulders.

“Do you want some tea, Paragon?” he asks me, “Or would you prefer to smell the bandwidth?”

I laugh, surprised, “You were right Frank, electronic equity is hugely variable indeed. But I am merely a servant of Knowledge, not its recipient—what tea vintages have you?”

There is no choice. He boils me tea that smells and tastes like the earth.

I stalk the small, damp flat with my mug of earth-tea, scanning the two bedrooms, the bathroom and toilet both loaded with assistive mobile bars, for an old man with limited mobility.

“What are you doing here, living on your own?” I ask, smelling also the lack of others in the weak wafts of floating data that are stirred up by my feet. He stays in the kitchen as I inspect the bathroom.

His voice wafts through: “This was my family home, but I was sent to the local Sunny Senile Centre five years ago, because my daughter said it was too much for her to look after me.”

“You’re an escapee,” I note, to which he says nothing.

I bend down to lever open a small tile behind the toilet, projecting my voice though the open door: “So where is your daughter now?”

But the old man has wheeled himself in behind me. He is not drinking tea with me; instead, he holds a gun.

I point my right index finger at him, my left hand sweeping into view a small pile of weapons and EMP stunners.

“There’s big back-up outside Frank,” I say, “You don’t stand a chance.”

I stand and stretch, until my armoured skull almost scrapes the ceiling.

The old man drops his EMP gun and weeps.

I offer him the last of my tea.

He looks up at me and blinks.

I smile down at him. “You’re not responsible for your daughter’s terrorist activities… Frank. But we do have to send you back there, you know.”

He takes my mug but does not drink, “To the SSC?” He looks terrified.

I nod and he weeps again, slow, rolling tears that make his crinkled skin partly shine, along the wet tracks down to his chin. “But there’s no sun, in those Sunshine centres.”

I shrug, “It’s a metaphor, I’m sorry—and I’ve got to tag you too.”

He holds his left arm out, unresisting, “Go ahead—but feeding, tagging, doing… who does anything for you? Who touches you?”

“I’m not made for touch,” I say.

“Ghost-Shit!” He cocks his head as he looks up at me and I see a keen and empathic sadness, “If that’s the case, let me touch you.”

“What?” I bend forward suspiciously, wondering if he has laced his skin with toxins, but all I smell is the sour tang of a now defunct Deadly Doug, “Why?”

He swigs the last of my tea with his right hand, “I have not touched anyone for a very long time. I’ve missed that. But I think the same goes for you too, although you’re blind to it… and, tell me, what’s your real name?”

“I have no name,” I say, “I am just the Paragon of Knowledge.”

He smiles weakly, “And you don’t even know your own fucking name?”

“Not important,” I say, “I am just the conduit, a servant who feeds I AM, as we increasingly map the Grid of all reality, to best serve all.”

“That sounds like a huge task. And I didn’t know reality had a grid either—But who feeds you?” he asks, putting the mug down in his lap and raising his right hand, fingers poised.

Presumably a rhetorical question—but what have I to lose?

I have been taught never to trust touch, to focus only on the realities within the Ghost-Ocean instead, but a small part of me is curious. So I bend down from my great height and hold out my right arm, shifting the silver synthi-armour up to my elbow with my left hand.

My arm skin is hairless, grey and lifeless, from endless glides through the Ocean-Deep.

The old man strokes my forearm gently—I flinch, there is an electric jolt through my body. I have had brushed contact with many humans before, but it has been a long time since I have been caressed with such … care and concern? My arm tingles, with both pain and an excitement, which set my legs quivering.

The old man watches me as I weep. I do not know why—or where—my tears have come from.

“Do take care of yourself, nameless man-woman,” is all he says, “And remember knowledge gets shaped by who you are—and where you’ve chosen, or been allowed, to go.”

“Thank you, Frank. I am so sorry, but I … must… call AVRU in,” I say. What goals have these tears of mine? I am asexual and not programmed to touch—only to serve, so why do I cry? “And… I’m also sorry, but I still have to tag you.”

The old man nods and holds his other arm out, “We’re all of us fucked up, just remember that—but you do know that already, don’t you?”

Yet another rhetorical question—I tag him with a brief shot into his right arm; the neck is a painful place indeed and I have no wish to hurt this old man any more than I sense he has already been hurt, throughout his long life.

“What brought you to my office?” I ask, “What triggered your wish to be remembered, to donate your skin to the I AM?”

“A little bird told me,” he says, looking up at the ceiling, but there is nothing there.

Of course it did.

“Please let me go outside on my own,” he says, “Give me that dignity, at least.”

I nod, “Surely… Frank.”

The man reverses and fetches a packed bag on his bed. I have already scanned that, it is full of threadbare clothes, deodorant, toiletries and a tough SSC uniform, labeled ‘Jack Jones.’

I salute him as he wheels though the door.

He stops, hesitates, and then palms me a beacon-pod, without a word.

I call in the Bot-Officers to secure the arms cache and to scan the place more systematically, for signs of where Jack Johnson’s daughter might have gone.

I glance at the beacon-pod in my palm and place it in my hip-lock, to be inspected more carefully later.

I step outside to find the AVRU unit waiting, empty-handed.

“Where is the old wheel-chaired man who came out here?” I bark.

The AVRU burly man and woman shrug in confusion. “We’ve seen no one, Paragon,” the woman replies.

I sense wrongness and trace Frank’s tag.

It is twenty stories high.

All of a sudden, it starts to fall.


And faster still.

I run.

And run.

And run…

I am struggling to breathe, at the stark southern edge of LondonHam, on that strip of Wild-space between City and Sea. I cannot run anymore—and there are multiple warning signs here of Dangers Ahead, although nothing is specified.

I bend and pant air slowly back into my lungs, fifty plus miles is a long run indeed, but at least I do not have to see the broken and dead body of… Frank Atunde.

Yes, a long run, and with each and every step I see Frank’s face—and I know that fixing all points on the Grid does not just add data, but it can also kill someone.

It has taken me six hours; the cooling sun is low over the treeline swinging south-west. Fourteen ‘Dozer hulks sit here too, broken, but still eagerly poised to spread concrete and bandwidth, their orange metallic bulks beached and blackened. I smell the stale hot tar residue of fritz bombs, designed to minimise human tissue damage, hurled from those who have taken refuge behind Dangers Ahead signs and the woodlands.

The Ferals.

I AM is gathering support from the House of Bankers and Lords, to burn this ancient and still legally protected place, the last Wilderness left on this crowded island.

I start walking towards the woods.

“Where are you going?” A starling sits on the steering wheel of ‘Dozer728, cocking its head as it speaks. The image fizzes as I turn and approach, a ghostie bird indeed.

“Into the Wild,” I say, systematically switching off my beacons and turning again towards the screen of first trees—ancient ash, mixed with yew and few stolid backbone oaks…

“Wait, I can offer you something, Sidhe.”

I stop.

The word-name filters down from my distant past—all forty years plus now, an echo from my Post-Tube Carers, whose own names I no longer remember.

My… name?

I am the Paragon of Knowledge. Why was I named after ancient mythic Irish mound-walkers? And what can I AM offer me, that is worth a continued allegiance?

“Are you tired of Knowledge? If you could be any, which Paragon would you choose to be?”

Are They offering me free choice from the other one hundred and ten? I hesitate; I have always envied Beauty—and even Attraction, although Love would make a much better epithet.

The bird is bright: “We push even now for a 112th Paragon, through the House of Plebs.”

Does this mean absolutely free choice… my mind races with possibilities.

The bird misses nothing, “The Paragon brief is already given.”

“And—?” I query.

“The Paragon of Profit.”

I almost choke on fresh air. “I had been thinking, the Paragon of Freedom.”

“Why?” The bird looks mangy, feathers dropping off in the minimal bandwidth, “That’s not a priority focus—and we are all free anyway.”

I turn and walk. The yew tree is beautiful indeed, reddish-brown bark, needled leaves and centuries gone by, the backbone of the English longbow.

“Wait—what are you doing?” pipes the bird.

“Exercising my freedom,” I say, stepping past the tree and into the woods. I walk deeper into the mass of trees and ragged bush vegetation with entwined thick succulents, encouraged here by the drying of the island.

Here, the bandwidth fizzes and fades.

For the first time ever, I feel truly alone.

I have heard the terrorists, the… Resistance, the Ferals, plant the trees with Dampers, to prevent electronic surveillance from I AM.

I find an old oak, gnarled, bent, perhaps dying—and plant my long spine against it, sidling and sliding my haunches and backside down onto the spiky grass beneath.

I hear the chatter of birds that stay constant, embodied and real.

I press the Beacon-Pod Frank Atunde gave me—and wait.

“What do you do, Paragon?” A woman speaks, with the voice of that elusive woman from the Mabinogion, through a gap in the trees ahead. S/he is stunning, vivacious, dark-haired and bright, wired with strength and life, trailing a flowing trouser-dress of rainbow colours.

S/he, too, wears the brown skin of Frank Atunde.

“Come.” S/he gestures me towards her. “Come home Paragon—and I will show you pleasures, beyond everything you have ever known.”

Finally—it is a clear view of Perfection and I cannot resist, standing stiffly, shoving myself upwards against the oak, my armoured back grinding noisily against tree-bark, although I feel nothing.

I blink with both pleasure and pain at this Vision, ready to step forward, but…

Perfection… disappoints?

“Come Paragon,” the man-woman pleads. “It is Me, I AM…”

Do I stay—or do I join the I AM, in a more complete way, perhaps, than I have ever done before?

I reach inside my breastplate and feel the skin pod of Frank Atunde.

We are all fucked up—or dead.

And I still feel the delicate touch of Frank’s fingers, so that I fill my lungs, to blow at this vision in front of me.

The wind blows for me instead and fragments her—S/he flies apart, blasted into a dizzying spiral of blossoms—broom, meadowsweet and oak, amongst countless others. The bright blossoms spiral on the breeze, dancing around me—and then fade and vanish.

Perfection is a fragile and fickle thing.

A voice calls from the clouds: “One day, I will be made flesh too; beware that day, Paragon No More…”

Rain falls.

The trees sway with wind whipping in rain-clouds from the sea. It is cold and the light is dying; the rare autumnal shower wets me through and through.

A woman steps into the clearing. She is combat-fatigued and dreadlocked grey, with lines of aged strength etched on her skin.

“Who are you?” She asks, raising a stun-gun, a Damper in her other hand: “You look like a servant of the Ocean-Beast.”

I move slowly, so as not to precipitate an attack, taking out the skin-pod and Beacon.

“Your father gave me this,” I say, holding up the Beacon-Pod in my left hand.

“Dad? I knew it was his. Where is he?”

Slowly, I lift up the Skin-pod in my right hand, palm open, facing upwards.

She lowers her gun then and sobs quietly, desperately, for the better part of a minute.

Then she raises her gun again. “Friend—or foe?”

This decision will chart the rest of my life, so I hesitate, almost too terrified to speak.

I feel the infinitesimal weight of Frank’s skin-segment in my right palm.

“Friend,” I say, lowering my hands, disarming my fingers.

“Jennifer Jones,” she says, stepping forward to take the Skin-pod from my right hand. “We’ve never had a Paragon desert to us before. Why?”

“He who would lead must become a bridge,” I say. “I can give you a route in, between the Ghost-Ocean and The Wild; for without access to the Ghostie-Deep, there can be no movement against the I AM.”

“That’s a how,” she says, holstering her gun. “Not a why.”

“Your father would be proud of you,” I say. “We’re all of us fucked up, aren’t we, Jennifer Jones—all of us?”

She smiles through her tears. “You say it just like dad. He stayed in his chair because he said the wheels had actually become a part of him. That—the cost—and because he said it would remind others of the ultimate underlying brokenness, of both people and life. Yes, Paragon, we are indeed all fucked-up.”

“Surely,” I say. “… and perfection itself too, is hollow.”

For, in the end, none of us are Gods.

As for me, as I am led blindfolded into the heart of the Wild-space—trust takes time she tells me—and I, too, have become a hole in the world.

But I will not be filled—so, as we walk, I speak to the darkness. “I am the Paragon, Guardian of Truth and Wisdom—part splinted bone and digitised tissue—and yet, the only thing I really know, is the importance of freedom—and the gentle touch of a kind hand.”

And, with those words, I weep again.

Jennifer Jones takes my elbow as well as my hand and clasps the last of her father in between our linked palms. The pod is hard, but her skin is warm and I sense she perhaps weeps too, although she says nothing.

I smell damp earth and leaves; an owl hoots without disguise—all is random—apart from the constant, guiding touch, from this daughter of a remarkable man.

© 2015 Nick Wood

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