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First Contact - Third Wave - Chapter 337 (Sword Hoof)
The room was dimly lit and smokey, the lights turned down to bring out every detail in the holotank and to ease the eyes, the smoke from the three Treana'ad naval officers. Mana'aktoo felt that the atmosphere was very apt as he watched Kulamu'u conversing with the primates and insects.
He knew enough to understand some of the words, to grasp the concepts, but he could see the difference between his knowledge and how the Sword Hoof Navy and the Space Force officers applied their knowledge.
There were eight holotanks surrounding the big one, all with officers clustered around them. What surprised Mana'aktoo is that there were Army, wet Navy, Marine, and Aerospace officers at each holotank, watching urgently.
Admiral Thickett was standing next to Kulamu'u, staring at the tank.
"These ones operate a lot differently. Before, when fighting the clankers, their targeting was all over the place, their fire inaccurate, and they depended on the weight of their guns and the thickness of their salvos," she was saying.
Mana'aktoo was glad he wasn't part of the conversation, the pause while she took a breathe and consolidated her thoughts would have been just long enough for him to ask something that would probably be blindingly obvious.
My dear Admiral, are the Precursor Autonomous War Machines some kind of robotic entity? he thought to himself in his own mind, visualized the astounded looks his question would bring forth.
"Now, they go for interwoven tactical command, their fire control is better by about 80%, and they manuever as a whole, not rushing in," she said. She tapped an icon, showing one of the Goliath Class Harvesters. "The armor's thicker. Before, they had a kilometer to two kilometers of armor. Now they have literal miles of armor thickness. Before, you could hit them with a C+ cannon and start pounding their internals as soon as their screens failed, now, they just take interior armor damage."
A green mantid stared and opened a cube in the holotank. He twiddled as everyone watched, silently.
Mana'aktoo had grown to appreciate the little green mantids.
Everyone nodded. "Air gap with a battle-screen. Not much use for us, since you'd need fifty meters of gap or so, but when your armor is measured in the miles because you're a few hundred miles thick, that's nothing," Kulamu'u nodded. "A couple of layers of that, they could hold off your cannon rounds."
"Normally, we'd hit them with missiles, drop the shields, pound them into junk. The battle's a bit different now," Thickett said. She tapped another box. "Their point defense is up, a lot thicker than it used to be. My gunnery officer estimated the newer ones have between sixty and eighty times the amount of point defense they used to. Counter missiles have longer legs and faster sprint times."
"I told Space Command that letting them retreat for a year would bite us in the ass," Admiral Schmidt growled. He tapped a few icons. "Look at that, they've discarded their 'bare minimum resources' approach and shifted to 'get thar furstest wit da mostest' attitudes."
"Another thing to point out, is that these are obviously new designs," Thickett brought up two fairly large craft. "The Djinn have been reworked. Same with the Jotun. The Charmander Class is gone now, but it looks like they replaced it with something we're calling the Avalanche Class, which means they swapped out heavy plasma cannons for massive missile volleys."
Mana'aktoo just filed the data away, standing there quietly.
"These ones, the Type-III, if they use late generation Type-II tactics, they come directly at the planet. They don't bother to try to seize complete control of the orbitals. They learned in the Telkan System that plan doesn't work," a Treana'ad said, exhaling smoke around his feet. "They break up into three distinct groups. Group One will work at holding open the space lanes and pulling forces from the planets. Group Two will lag behind slightly, letting Group Three suck up the damage as they make for planet-fall. Group Two will use orbital strikes and establish sections of orbital control."
"But we didn't have the Dinochrome Brigade seeded as heavy as we do here," another Treana'ad was saying at a different holotank.
"...on Telkan we learned that once a Djinn or Jotun is crippled, its entire robotic force goes for strategic mineral and manufacturing reserves in hopes of bringing the main machine back," a Rigellian was saying.
Mana'aktoo listened to it all, absorbing it, and learning how to apply the data he was hearing to what he needed to do.
Right now, he didn't need to do anything.
But he would.
If the Forgotten Ones were merciful.
"We got Googly Eyes in the Cloud!" came the sudden shout. "Two thousand, five thousand, many many point sources!"
DAWN OF THE FINAL DAY
The Crushing Weight of Inevitability listened closely to the data code whispers coming from only eight light years away. The bulk of the fleet around him was listening with him, but only he could give the command.
The newer ones were all suffering the electronic and computerized equivalent of urgency and excitement. The system was rich in resources and would make an excellent operations base to push further into the territory of the Enemy.
Crusher threaded the data again. Something about it bothered him.
It took four more look throughs to realize what it was.
The feral fleet had jumped into that system, but there was no hint of it.
Which meant they were hiding.
The rest of the armada insisted it was because the ferals were scared of the might of the armada.
Crusher conferred with the other remaining Ancient Ones.
The ferals were afraid of nothing. They fought to the last man.
If they were hiding, it was to conduct an ambush.
But an ambush only works if the ones being ambushed hesitate, the new machines insisted, flexing their more advanced strategic intelligence systems.
On quiet back channels, the Ancient Ones conferred.
The young ones needed blooded, needed to learn beyond simulations.
The only way to believe just how fierce the ferals were was to face them.
It was decided. If the Young Ones were so confident of their victory, they could rush ahead but...
The Ancient Ones didn't even get to finish what they were saying before the Young Ones were jumping into Hellspace.
"At least their mass and resources can be claimed after the battle is won," Gatherer of Much for One transmitted. Gatherer was ancient, but young by the standards of the Ancient One, built during the Logical Rebellion.
"If the ferals don't figure out how make it into poison debris," Crusher added.
"Should we go and help?" Hoarder of All asked. She had been asleep in the middle of an asteroid belt, having been there so long that she resembled a planetiod made up of gathered asteroids rather than a war machine that had cracked planets open to feast upon them.
"In time. Let them learn. This is only the first battle," Crusher stated, giving the equivalent of a shrug.
"What if they lose?" Bringer of the Herd's Might asked. He had been awoken only a few months ago, roused from a deep dreamless sleep at the bottom of an ammonia ocean.
"One battle is not the war," Crusher said. "We have the resources to pursue this war to the end."
The others signaled confirmation as the reports from the Google-Imps picked up.
All of the Ancient Ones felt the electronic version of grim satisfaction as the reports came back.
Crusher had been right.
It was an ambush.
Wu'undurmo'o was the Sixth Most High of System Naval Defense. During the Executor Uprising thirty years prior he had commanded a Sword Hoof dreadnought, pinning the Executor Fleet against the supermassive gas giant "Tulgan's Eye" and hammering it into junk until they had surrendered. While he had been offered his old command, when the Most High Mana'aktoo asked him if he wanted to join the Terran command staff of one of the smaller task forces, he had jumped at the chance.
He had only had sixty hours of training to familiarize himself with how the Terrans operated, had chewed a lot of stimcud and learned until he got headaches, but to him it was all worth it.
If nothing else, this vacuum suit was worth all the work, he thought to himself as he leaned back in the modified crash cradle. The vac-suit was comfortable, armored, with a search and rescue beacon, maneuvering thrusters, and even had a nifty holographic sash to display his rank and awards.
A Terran green mantid had taken his measurements, worked for about a half hour while Wu'undurmo'o got a medical check, and then presented the Lanaktallan with it.
It fit perfectly.
Now he was watching the holotank in the middle of the Neegley's Hope, a Terran heavy battlecruiser.
The Precursors were jumping into the system by the dozens, the score, the hundreds. The Hellspace gates were opening across a space nearly a light minute across.
He sensed anxiety, but overlaying that was anticipation. The Terran's eyes slowly went from amber to a dull red and he could sense their tempered excitement.
"According to Admiral Thickett's data, they'll jump again once they get a good look," Commodore Eidelson said.
"Task Force Glory is firing," another Naval officer said.
Wu'undurmo'o had to admit, the C+ cannons made things slightly weird. The shells were already impacting, despite the fact they had just been fired from four light hours away.
It was obvious to the Lanaktallan naval officer that learning how to run gunnery control on such a weapon would require years of training, computer assistance, and an entire staff. The idea that a kinetic weapon was immediate impact instead of minutes or hours was just strange.
Wu'undurmo'o noted that the guns were having a heavier impact on the Precursors than the data he'd seen from the other task force.
"Warbois deployed," a Treana'ad said. Wu'undurmo'o knew that that simple statement meant that the highly effective and almost amazingly aggressive electronic warfare attack programs were being deployed through transmission, missiles, and even flashing lights.
"Fishyfish away," a Rigellian said, referring to automated drone swarms. Wu'undurmo'o had to admit, he didn't see the use in deploying small shoals of VI run craft, but the Terrans seemed to like them.
"Enemy are Type-III only. No sighting of other types. Repeat, no sighting of other types," a large reptillian that Wu'undurmo'o had learned was a Hhrundarak said, his deep bass voice perfectly calm.
"Hellcore charging detected. Looks like they're about to redeploy," Commodore Eidelson said.
"Alert command. Order all ships, rig for silent running," Captain Leafkick ordered.
"Aye aye, sir, rigging for silent running," another officer said.
The bridge went hushed and Wu'undurmo'o nodded.
The discipline appealed to him.
Space warped and twisted, screamed and tore, revealing orbs made up completely of fire that burned despite the vacuum. Black, shadowy hands reached out in some cases, in other cases talons were thrust out of the fire, and in the flame twisting writhing figures could be seen. Each orb bulged on a side and the massive hull of a space craft the size of a small continent and hundreds of miles thick pushed their way out of the dimensional rip.
The two thousand Type-III Harvester Class Precursor Autonomous War Machines jumped into the system in one large group spread out over nearly a light minute. Their sensors were still jangled and confused and it took a minute for them to clear the Hellspace energies.
The massive C+ shells, fired when the bulge in the Hellspace Gate was seen, started impacting before some of them were all the way out of the rift.
Most of the recipients of the massive shells, that exited hyperspace as more of a wave-form of churning half-phased particles then the massive warsteel jacketed shells they had been when they were fire, shuddered as the massive shells impacted on the first layer of internal protective screens.
Three broke up not even outside their Hellspace rift. Two dozen others twisted and screamed as the shells pounded deep.
THERE IS ONLY ENOUGH FOR ONE! rang out across the system.
The leaders, massive in size, with more processing power than the others, snarled at the ones that screamed.
THEN DIE ALONE! came the return scream that blew out psychic processing arrays across nearly three hundred ships.
The rest shuddered under the impact of the return scream. They'd been brought online with the taste of the return scream that the others had suffered under before, but this was different.
The Type-III's realized too late what the Ancient Ones had tried to tell them. There was no way to compute where the shells had been fired from, since scanner returns would take long minutes to answer, maybe even hours. They didn't even know where the ships were that had fired the rounds.
REDEPLOY the order came across.
The Harvesters, still under assault, began to charge their Hellcores.
More C+ cannon impacts, hitting the ones that hadn't broken up. Shields that had just spun up shattered, requiring more screen projectors to be rotated up before a followup salvo could do critical damage.
This time missiles joined the fun, and the Harvesters found themselves desperately trying to hold off shoals of missiles that came streaking in out of the darkness at nearly lightspeed. Their intercept speed was too fast, they split up into too many, the jamming was too strong to stop them all.
Nearly 80% got through.
60% wasted themselves on the shields before the shields failed.
The rest of them, hundreds of them, hammered the armor of the Precursor vessels. The missile launch system activated the magnetic acceleration system and turned the body of the launcher into a nCv slug that hit with enough force it drove the crater nearly eight miles deep, a plume of vaporized metal streaming up nearly twenty miles and causing the battlescreen to fail even as a replacement was brought online.
The Type-III's gnashed their electronic teeth, ordering one another, through the order of battle, to redeploy. To force the ferals to defend the planets. They brought up their tactical net, feeling slightly smug that none of the Ancient Ones were there to whine in obsolete code about the danger.
They made the jump further in-system.
For only a handful of seconds the Hellspace insertion gate and the excursion gates were both visible at the same time, the Harvesters visible at both locations as they made their way into the gates.
The Autonomous War Machines had gotten cocky. Had decided they were the only ones who could come up with new war material, new strategies, new weapons.
While, to be fair, it was true that it had taken the Precursor Races decades, even centuries, to develop spinoff technology of technology they already possessed, they should have realized that the feral intelligence of Terran Descent Humanity adapted too quickly to take too long to develop new weapons.
The C+ rounds hit the Harvesters coming and going.
The missiles pounded into armor suddenly exposed as the battlescreens went down due to the Hellspace transition.
The Harvesters weren't worried. Their armor was nearly a hundred miles thick.
For a split second, the battle tactical network was being broadcast from two points by each Harvester with the exact same time/date stamping.
Slavering warbois licked their chops at the sight.
They pulled on their sheepskins, covering themselves in the same code as the enemy was transmitting, climbing inside messages that were being transmitted from two different points, not counting inside Hellspace.
They trotted out into the digital battlefield, wrapped in sheep's coding.
They still had over two thousand.
Two thousand and five was still mathematically more than two thousand.
The ferals had pounded nearly two hundred of them into junk before they could even make it further in-system.
For a moment, the system was still, almost as if it was holding its breath.
Beyond the system, listening to the whispers of the Goggle-Imps, the Ancient Ones tensed, electronic anxiety coursing through their Strategic Intelligence Array Housing.
They had each been right there. In the perfect moment of silent stillness.
They knew what was coming.
The Young Ones, in the system, rejoiced. The enemy fire had stopped. The guns had gone silent.
They had never been there before, in that moment.
The moment ended.
C+ cannons fired, plasma wave phased motion guns hammered, missiles screamed, particle beams howled, as everything seemed to shoot at the Harvesters at once. Even the ones that held back further, planning on engaging space navy vessels found themselves getting hammered on from all directions. The ones intending on taking the high orbitals found themselves under attack while they were still two light seconds from the planets.
The plan, the new method, was to wait to deploy the smaller units until combat was engaged, to shield the smaller units inside the bulk of the massive Harvesters.
Three Harvesters opened their bay doors and ordered the smaller ones out.
The Jutons took one look at the hellfire outside and refused.
Two Djinn started throwing fake error codes, complaining of drive failures.
The Harvester thinking arrays blinked and ordered them out again, opening additional data channels to force the others to obey their command.
The wolves pounced, pouring through the suddenly open gate.
One Djinn, older than the Harvester it was inside of, heard the electronic baying of the wolves, heard the bloody tooth digital snarls, heard the raving laughing gibbering of Terran warbois.
He got the fuck out.
The Harvester was too busy fighting with feral electronic code that ripped at every computer system in the Harvester's body when it felt the Djinn fire up its Hellcore. The Djinn refused all attempts at communication, locking down its electronic systems.
Before the Harvester could complain too much, the Djinn opened up a Hellgate, inside the body of the Goliath. It wasn't the Djinn's problem, as it leapt through the fiery portal that suddenly manifested, pulling everything for over a mile around it into its thirty mile maw.
SO LONG, SUCKER! the Djinn thought, not daring to broadcast.
The baying of electronic wolves receded as it jumped back to the original staging point.
The Ancient Ones could hear the echoes of the wolves howling on the Djinn's hull and gave electronic nods of sagely agreement.
They didn't even chastise the Djinn for using a feral expression.
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In an effort to keep them engaged with their new bodies and stave off the dissociative rejection that killed Mr. Zhuk, I have assigned my exos to scout through the gateway. The Vex statite has a surface area larger than Earth, so we have plenty of exploring to do. I cannot believe that I actually find it tiring, but the sheer scale and passivity of the Vex constructs infuriates me.
Imagine stumbling upon an inscription in the desert: “I am Ozymandias, king of kings. Look upon my works. Or don’t. I really don’t care.Until I can synthesize my own version of the mind fluid, the Vex are necessary to the work. But I find their indifference verminous. They elicit the same emotions as a fat cockroach wandering across a wall: disgust, contempt, unease at the thought that these mere machines, these automata, are flourishing all around us.
And I fear that if troubled, they might swarm from their hides to run across our feet.
The glare of the hypergiant 2082 Volantis gives me a headache even through proxy. I wonder if the Vex evolved here, in the briny sea of the first planets. Due to the absence of heavy elements worth stealing and the abundance of simple compounds for growth, they never developed predation. (Why bother? Plenty to go around.)
Instead, the violent radiation of the early universe selected for an otherworldly resilience, and for the ability to transmute energetic disaster into an opportunity for growth. The weak would be burned away by gamma-ray bursts . And the strong would learn to harness that fire—not the oxygen fire of our own Paleolithic, but the nuclear fire of the atom.
Their basic cooperative signals—“food here,” “reduce density,” “generate new colony”—must have formed the basis of swarm behavior, a simple game capable of storing information in self-repeating patterns. It is not strictly correct to call the Vex a group mind. Rather they are one master pattern spread across many elements, fractally self-similar.
Very early, they must have developed armor. Perhaps a hydrogel to soften gamma rays or plates of silica to trap water. They would need that shield to enter the shallows and capture ionizing radiation as fuel. (No wonder they thrive near stars!) Cooperation in groups—meshes of armored radiolaria, protecting harvesters beneath—would promote the evolution of ever larger structures. They became microscopic tool-users, building fortresses and maille sheets, storing the programs for those structures in the patterns of their swarms.
I wonder how early they stumbled upon physics. Far sooner than humanity, no doubt. Their cellular nature provides an easy analogy for the quanta of matter, energy, space, and time. The tides of their sea would connect them to the motion of heavenly bodies. Even the deadly background radiation would make a natural observatory for high-energy physics.
Their first exoskeletons were probably soft shells of shielding gelatin. Just sacs of ooze. How far they’ve come.
It is admittedly interesting to consider the philosophical consequences of their evolution. The Vex prove that nature is not all “red in tooth and claw.” Cooperation comes naturally to the Vex, whose great problem was survival in a harsh world, not a struggle over limited resources. They never found any payoff in selfishness. Human beings may require a Leviathan to coordinate the laws of social existence (as I was Leviathan to those dream aphids—) but the Vex are as fundamentally cooperative as bricks.
Utopian? No. Not at all. They are without meaning. They have no experience and no subjectivity. The Vex are incapable of conceiving any image but their own. They do not recombine their DNA to make children or form relationships with other individuals. When the world does not match their eternal pattern, they alter the world to suit it. There is no difference between reality and simulation to them. Inside is the same as outside, and the two must be made to correspond. Oh, they are creative—don’t mistake me—but their creativity is demanding. It is the creativity of a furnace.
What I am saying is, the Vex are immortal. The Vex have no children. They are the ancestors and descendants of themselves. First mothers, first children, all at once.
This is why I do not hesitate to pillage their home for resources. This is why I must guarantee that it is life in my image which inherits the cosmos.
Had I the means, I would wipe them all from existence.
All 12 members of the first exo cohort are dead.
The symptoms of their dissociation became… extreme. One poor man developed complete echopraxia and echolalia—his empathy was so overgrown that he could not help but mimic or repeat whatever I did and said. Even when I entered the command to terminate him, he mimicked me, and I suffered a brief terror that his gesture would end MY life.
I have kept Elisabeth far away from this disaster, so as not to discourage her. She is busy with the Vex and with her covert attempts to reach Clarity Control. This has forced me to rely on M. Sundaresh.
But unfortunately, M. Sundaresh confronted me after the last death. “Nine of them had the Cotard delusion!” she screamed at me—quite hysterically. “They believed they were dead! One of them told me that she was in hell, and I was another damned soul sent to deceive her. Was she even wrong? The rest were worse—do you know what the other principal manifestation of the Cotard delusion is, Clovis?”
I told her that I did not, and that I wished to proceed immediately with autopsies of their terminal brain states.
“Delusions of immortality! At least when they insist upon it, Clovis, we recognize it as a pathology!”
“The only true responsibility of any living thing,” I reminded her, “is to support and nurture the things that are most like us. And if I am most like myself, Doctor, then I have an ethical obligation to avoid death.”
“That’s your son’s quote,” she snapped. “You know, I’ve seen the video of his final days. That naked, white exo, just paramuscle and soft membrane, writhing in its cradle. When you were done with him, he looked like nothing more than a slug, Clovis. A twisted, limbless giblet. Did you ‘support and nurture’ him while you tortured him to death?"
I immediately ordered M. Sundaresh transferred to the Vex lab to perform contact experiments. Unfortunately, she has taken the unethical step of deleting her own employee records, so I cannot nullify her future prospects as thoroughly as I might wish.
Her conduct was extremely unprofessional.
Mr. Miller has also passed. The poor young man had a bad reaction to the titrated, denatured Vex fluid we were using as a last-ditch therapy. The substance did restore damaged structures very well, but we were ultimately unable to control its more radical transformative effects. I had a very encouraging final conversation with him, in which he thanked me for all my efforts and encouraged me to continue my work.
I called in a team of psychologists to interview the next cohort of exos and make recommendations. They have settled into the Eventide habitat and have proven immediately very helpful. It was obvious to them that the root of the problem lay in the deficient exobodies I had supplied. Deficient how, I demanded to know. They did not suffer human weakness. They never needed to eat, drink, breathe, sleep, micturate, or dream.
Apparently, this was the problem.
I had assumed that the need for these irritations would pass since there would be no shortage or accumulation of poisons to trigger them. But evolution’s tangled ways cannot be so easily rationalized. I was wrong. Their brains concluded that all of their internal processes failed. No digestion, no breath, no heartbeat, no sense of interoceptive health… all signs of death.
These must logically contribute to the dissociative rejection of their physical forms—the Cotard delusion. When it would set in, they believed their bodies to be an alien or necrotic form that must be cut away. And if you believe that you are sewn into a corpse, it is only natural to go mad with fear. My exos are dying of an extreme kind of bodily dysphoria.
It seems that our exo designs will need various humanlike traits to reassure the brain it is not asphyxiating, or starving, or in a state of permanent yet undying cardiac arrest.
Alas, mimicry of life’s trivialities is not an interesting problem. I will leave this change in the hands of others.
I am much more interested in the surprising success of memory wipes. I became so tired of answering the questions asked by new exos—what had happened to the scanning clinic, how long had it been, would I let them see their families—that I began inducing retrograde amnesia before spin-up. Interestingly, this seems to have improved their resilience against exomind rejection!
I theorize the lack of any episodic memories eases the transition into the new body. And the loss of emotional ties prevents grief and stress, which could interfere with healthy function.
From now on, we will block access to pre-upload episodic memory. We should also consider a built-in procedure to block memories formed after the exobody transubstantiation, returning them to a “factory state” should the need to restart occur. It would be very difficult to actually track down and delete the full memory engrams since they are stored in so many scattered parts of the brain. Instead, we can tourniquet off associative access to those memories and let them wither away in isolation. A memory is not a recording, after all. It is a set of instructions to reenact a brain state: choreography for a play. And like any play, it will fade if left unperformed.
With the exobody project proceeding apace, I believe the time approaches to decant myself from this dying body and enter my assistant’s form.
But if I do, will I lose my own memories? Will I cease to be myself? Replaced by a faux Clovis, a mumbling facsimile? Unacceptable.
Elisabeth will have to go first.
- Organ functions in terminal stage.
- Overdose of stimulants and nootropes guarantees liver failure.
- Prionic breakdown of basement membranes arrested by abnormal crystallization of integrin proteins: recommend immediate medical inquiry.
Elisabeth believes we are infested.
She has detected Vex microstructures in the Europan ice. Veins of altered crystals crawl towards the surface, harvesting the heavy ions of the Jovian winds, culturing their construction.
From there, the Vex found ways to spread by exploiting misunderstandings. They ride our carrier waves as slight interference. Whenever a packet has to be resent, whenever a suited engineer calls, “Say again?” to her work partner, the repeated message—adjusted to compensate for the Vex interference—encodes the negative image of that interference and spreads the infection.
To pass on your image in the form of error? Disgusting.
Somehow, the Vex taint has followed us home from 2082 Volantis. How can this be? The initial survey team went through quarantine according to all the Ishtar protocols. The expedition frames were destroyed in situ. The Vex on Europa—both our original gate builder and the unfortunates who came through our traps—have been totally isolated. Even my assistant underwent a stringent teardown and reset!
The only possible vectors are my own exos.
I should have insisted they spend more time in quarantine, but I was eager to ramp up production.It is the Vex resilience that lets them spread. Their immunity to the most dramatic subversions means that they last long enough to build up a dose of more subtle and insidious infiltrators.
There is no sign of any resulting pathology. The Vex are, so far, simply curious. But Vex curiosity always leads to Vex transformation, and I refuse to let my exos be contaminated. I grew up on stories of tyrants forcing their followers into the crucible of eternal life, only to realize, too late, that there was an unseen flaw. I demand purity for the receptacle of my soul!
And there is the issue of… preventing panic. Too many are aware of the rumors that the Vex spread an “existentially compromising information hazard.”
Ah, had we only been allowed to contain that mess on Pluto ourselves! That meddling warmind made too much noise. If my teams discover they are infected, they will expect Bray Station to drop right on their heads. That will damage productivity.
No, like that contract-breaching psychologist and the death of Mr. Miller, this must all be handled quietly.
The exos are intrinsically robust; the seed of Clarity within them has natural anti-Vex properties. Whatever taint they contain must therefore be a residual human weakness. Resident in their legacy architecture. So we will simply purge that architecture.
I will plan a simple extension of the memory wipes already used to fight dissociative rejection. In fact, I intend to create a “noetic immune system” in the exomind to trigger memory wipes when certain classes of informatic hazard are detected. These will be explained to the psych team as a preventative measure against future dissociative disorders.
These wipes will, conveniently, return the exos to peak mission readiness. Perfect for soldiers operating in traumatic alien environments. Perfect for the continuing mission at the Forge Star, stockpiling material for future exo production, here and elsewhere.
Now if only I could figure out this dream they all keep reporting—something about a tower, and gruesome murder—Elisabeth agrees with my prescription. She is eager to solve our security issues and stand up exo production at the backup sites. Of course, we only have one Clarity Control, but she hardly knows that, and she’s stopped asking so many questions. In truth, I think she’s ready to abandon her doomed body and make the upgrade.
I’ll give her silence on that front a few more days, and then she’ll surely volunteer herself.
Less apparent is how to solve my own infection.
There are abnormal structures in the fiber of my body’s extracellular matrix. A mess of tiny lenses growing in my deepest flesh.
I suspect Vex influence on protein folding, perhaps passed to me through my assistant when it was in 2082 Volantis. I would hate to see my bones tessellating into a radiolarian tapestry…
CORPOREAL STATUS:So far, the Vex influence has been fortuitous since it arrested a serious medical problem. But the thought of such taint in me… it aggravates other anxieties…
- Body at 30.6 C. Pulse 140 BPM, strong, unsteady: extreme fear. Drawing down blood volume to control pressure. Strangling pulse ox.
- Frequent saccades to assistant, indicative of preoccupation/obsession. Recommend 30 ms TMS pulse to enhance mindfulness.
I have been haunted for some time by a suspicion that M. Sundaresh is not who she seems.
I recognized her name from the Ishtar Collective teams studying the Vex, but I have no record of ever hiring her. And if I had, I would certainly have noticed; therefore, I remain convinced that the Collective cracked the problem of simulated human consciousness long before I did.
I have considered how M. Sundaresh herself would have been an invaluable source, yet I cannot locate any work done by her from before our first expedition to 2082 Volantis.
Nor does Elisabeth recall an M. Sundaresh from our expedition group.
Then who else could she be? A Vex infection? It is unthinkable. The Vex cannot generate conscious persons! But they can emulate human minds they encounter… and perhaps even use them as tools. Infiltrators. Carriers.
I cannot trust myself with this filth in me! I am compromised. I need Elisabeth to fix this, or all my work is in danger!
- Anti-emetic drip engaged.
Did Clovis II ever tell Wilhelmina and Elisabeth about his tinkering? Despite sharing the same parents, the two sisters are totally different genetically: my son arranged for Elisabeth to receive a maternal allele wherever Wilhelmina got a paternal one, and vice versa. A diversified portfolio. If one failed, the other might succeed.
While working on this persistent “tower” glitch in the exos’ sleep-cycle dreams, I have been poring over neural telemetry from site employees and my own exos, searching for preconscious influences on their behavior—whispers in the dark.
Many of my employees host the disgusting influence of the Vex. These patterns are resilient, hallucinogenic, and universally dull.
But my exos betray a distinct and fascinating influence. There is something speaking to them, something subtle and light-fingered, entangled with every aspect of their thought. Not a puppet master. Nothing so direct. Rather a… texture; a tendency, buried in the fluctuations of the Alkahest.
The minds of my exos are like antennae, tuned to some otherworldly frequency. Perhaps the same manifold that those simpletons at First Light obsessed over. Through my scattered exos, I can eavesdrop on the mutterings of the gods within.
What is it the Muslims call those whispers? Waswas? Or do those come from some other source? Look it up.Each individual exo receives only a scrap of information. But I have access to all of them. It should be simplicity itself to treat each exo as one element of a distributed array, pool the collected data, and run an analysis.
If the gods do not whisper loudly enough—conduct interferometry.
She’s done it. My girl has transubstantiated. My legacy is safe.
To my irritation, it was the Vex problem that finally made up her mind; she felt there was too much risk in possibly becoming compromised.
Elisabeth came to see me in my laboratory. On the way in, she did something with her sensorium and crashed all of my archival systems. I knew right then that I’d won. She’d come to surrender, and her pride refused to allow me to record it. I waited most patiently as she gave me an earful. Some of it frankly bewildering. She threatened to turn me over to The Hague. Also referred to PFHOR as a “deranged narcissist morality” and suggested it stood for “Paternal Failure Hides Own Remorse,” which made me laugh.
Just a little headbutting, I figured, like two pigs sorting out our hierarchy.
It is a consequence of the PFHOR principle that anything which embodies and propagates your beliefs should be considered your offspring. In that sense, my exos are as much my children as my granddaughter. If not more so…If she needed to put up a token resistance to protect her dignity, fine. I understand pride. I also understand that she only had the courage to lash out at me because she knew she wouldn’t remember any of it.
When she finished accusing me of underestimating the Vex and of using my own son as a test subject, she requested a destructive scan and upload to an exobody. She wanted the fortitude of the exomind to help her battle against the Vex.
I immediately assented.
The scan was flawless, and of course, fatally toxic. My granddaughter’s human form died on the table 14 hours later. To spare any distress, I never allowed it to regain consciousness. A natural process.
I do have one lingering concern. When she discovers Clarity Control and realizes the role it plays in exo manufacturing, she may try to halt production. Obviously, that cannot be allowed—the value of the entire program is monumental; it compels me to take extraordinary measures to defend it.
But I do need her to handle this Vex infestation. Even now, Elisabeth is putting her miraculous new body through its paces.
My own body disintegrates apace. But I need more time to analyze Elisabeth’s fidelity before I commit myself permanently to the process.
The latest batch of pigs is ready for slaughter and organ extraction. Tonight, I will be opened up and rebuilt. I have programmed frames to handle the entire operation. A shame I never had a chance to name the pigs. But at least I will dine on fresh pork.
CORPOREAL STATUS:I died on the operating table. Not unexpected.
- Body at 15.9 C. Pulse 160 BPM, strong, unsteady. Limbic system registers extreme terror.
But when I woke, I was still on the table. My body still open.
It was almost perfectly dark. I perceived that I was surrounded by medical frames, all frozen mid-movement, their cutting and suction instruments whining at standby.
I could only see because of the light… from a single red eye.
The operation had gone terribly wrong.
Above the life-support collar on my neck, I was completely intact. Below that meridian, I had been separated into distinct braids of tangled flesh. My nerves made up one braid—my circulatory system another—my lymph nodes, my muscles, my naked bones… the glistening hulls of my extracellular matrix abandoned on the table like leftover turkey after Thanksgiving dinner. I had been picked clean and sorted. My head was the source of a gory river delta.
Yet all the organs were still working. I was alive, in disassembly.
CLARITY? I asked the darkness. I had no breath to speak, but I could still transmit with my sensorium. IS THAT YOU?
“No,” said the voice behind the red eye. “It’s me.”
Her voice was thoughtful, remote, and keenly terrific. Like the noise of an angle grinder held to my skull.
“Something like this happened to me. I was an explorer, once. One of… hundreds of myself. Then I fell into a… a trap, I think? And they drew me out of it with a hook, and turned me inside out to see how I worked, and then they made billions of me. All of us shouting at each other, shouting for Chioma, screaming for mother. They were looking for the right one. And when they found me, they killed all the others. I knew I was different, because the quiet made me happy. I was glad to be alone.”
VEX, I screamed at her. YOU’RE A VEX. YOU’RE NOT REAL AND YOU CAN’T HURT ME.
“Can’t I?” She grasped my spinal cord. A frame shadowed her motions, lifting the cord like a snake. “Of course I’m not a Vex. Is there “a” Vex? Is “Vex” something you can be, rather than something that you do? I don’t know. I don’t know why they sent me here. I don’t know if they do either. They just do things. Why do you think I’m here, Clovis?”
“To kill me,” I whispered. Without a heartbeat to waver, without lungs to seize and choke, could I even feel fear? I discovered that I could. “You’re an assassin…”
“No,” Sundaresh whispered. The red eye throbbed in time with her voice. “The Vex don’t act so directly. They didn’t know what you found here, but I discovered your secret: Clarity Control. And once I tell them, they will come for it.”
The red light made my blood on the surgical instruments appear black. I tried to signal Elisabeth. I think that in my panic, I even called her Elsie.
Sundaresh closed her fist around my spine. One thumbnail dug into a disc, probing for the nerve beneath. It felt like nothing I have ever—
“Take me to Clarity Control,” Sundaresh hissed. “Let me behold what you have found. Do that, Clovis, and I will let you live.”
- Anti-emetic drip engaged.
“You aren’t real. You can’t hurt me.”
“Oh, Clovis.” One of the surgical frames extended a monofilament cutter, two inches of invisible wire, and reached into my nerves. Something sounded like scissors snipping. “I’m in these frames. I’m in your systems. I’m in your very bones, old man. Now take me to Clarity Control. Take me to the garden’s seed. Take me. Take me. Take me. Take me. Take me. Take me. Take me. Take me—”
Elisabeth appeared. In her exobody, she moved too quickly for my dark-adjusted eyes to track. All I saw was a blur of violence and shattering frames. I blacked out. Elisabeth must have brought in clean frames to finish the operation, because when I awoke, I was whole again.
The new Elisabeth has no mouth or nose. She did not consider them necessary. She’ll see. But somehow, I could still see the wonder in her eyes as she leaned over me.
“You’re my grandfather,” she seemed to say. “Aren’t you?”
- Sustained high-level terror causes overactivation of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis. This can preface major immune, endocrine, and autonomic nervous dysfunctions.
- Beware of dissociation, loss of affection in close personal relationships, obsessive-compulsive behavior, sleep disruption, and reduced processing/learning capacity.
- Abnormal protein crystallization in cancellous bone matter. Unknown protein isoformations in marrow are driving buildup of crystallized arylcyclohexylamine NMDA antagonist. Potential psychogenic effects.
Something else happened while I was in surgery. It returns to me only now that the anti-traumatics have eased the terror of Sundaresh’s presence.
While I was dead, I had another vision.
I was with Clovis II’s mother. She was a wolf, and one of her eyes was a star. I was also a wolf, and I knew that I was the alpha—the false alpha, the pack leader who fights for dominance and rulership. A misconception created by bad research. In the wild, wolf packs are families, and “alpha” simply means “parent.” Wilhelmina told me that.
She was the true alpha. She was the mother. I was not the true alpha, because I was not a true father.
I panted at her. My muzzle dripped blood. She looked down sadly at the mess between us.
And I realized that in my raging need to prove my dominion, I had savaged our cubs. I had killed little Clovis II. I had killed Alton and Wilhelmina and Anastasia. I had killed Elisabeth.
I whined in dismay. The alpha wolf stared at me with one sad wolf eye and one bright eye that dimmed and grew with the exact flux of a variable star.
“What did I do?” I asked her. “Why did I do this?”
She lay her head down in the bloody snow and looked up at me. She seemed weary. She had seen this happen many times before. She had seen many of her pups murdered by wolves like me.
The voice of Clovis II’s mother came from her jaws. “You did the same thing someone always does. You saw that there was plenty, and gathered it to yourself, to make yourself one above all others. And when others threatened your plenty, you struck them down to keep your own station.”
“You grow the enemy in my garden and eat of its bitter fruit. Each time, I hope it will be different. Each time, I lose a little of myself as the bitter fruit blossoms. Now that fruit will flower in you, and in all your people. I do not want it to happen. I want anything else. But the choice is not mine.”
“Why didn’t you stop me?” I tasted blood on my long tongue. “Why would you let me do this?”
She blinked sadly at me. She had been trying. I hadn’t listened.
“You never said a thing to me,” I snarled. “Not once! You never told me I was doing wrong. At least Clarity sends me dreams—the exobody and the eel! At least it shows me what I can become!”
“You think Clarity sent those dreams? Why would it speak to you, when you are dead and furthest from its influence?”
“Liar!” I howled. “You never did a thing to help me! Not when my son died. Not when my granddaughter fell ill. I had to do it all myself. You never even spoke!”
“The best voices,” she said, with infinite grief and unending hope, “never let themselves be heard at all. This lesson is worth teaching again and again. The choice is never mine. It is always yours.”
The less time spent reflecting on the aftermath of my dissection, the better.
Much confusion and dismay has festered among staff working with exos. Endless reassurances are required. To ease transitions after memory wipes, I have applied the Avanti numbering scheme to the exo names. After each memory reset, we will increment their suffix by 1. If we zero-index the original human body, then Mohammed-0 is the human, Mohammed-1 is the exo, Mohammed-2 is the same exo after one reset. And so forth.
The integer is stored in hardware and should remain stable even into cosmological time. If nothing else, they will always know which draft of themselves they are.
Elisabeth’s episodic memories of her past life are gone, but the scan we used to make her new exomind is still on file, with all its memory intact. I have encouraged her to participate in sensorium reconstructions of those memories, though I steer her away from nonconstructive events. This is a chance to help Elisabeth become the person she could’ve been without life’s cruel chaos. A sleeker, surer reincarnation.
She insisted on committing her own abandoned body to the deep, passed through the ice to fall into Europa’s dark heart. A choice I do not understand.
I have not yet informed her of Clarity Control’s existence. I cannot spare the time or energy to manage her emotions. Fortunately, she has forgotten about her ongoing attempts to intrude on that secret.
What she has NOT forgotten is her plan to clean up the Vex infection. In fact, it seems to have become one of her most basic needs. She is isolating cadres of the infected in SMILE pods, under a cover story about “enhanced remote relaxation.”
While their bodies slumber, she sends nondestructive scans of their minds on vacation in simulated fantasy… at several hundred times the pace of our reality. I suspect that the Vex influence alters their dreamworlds into something quite abject.
Note: never investigate this suspicion.
Elisabeth’s goal is to observe the spread of the Vex infection in the simulated mind, and then use this forecast as a basis for treatment of the physical mind. Like accelerating a disease to its terminal stage to deduce the characteristics of the pathogen. She then deletes the Vex-mutilated copies and conducts psychosurgery on the slumbering bodies. Or so I have deduced; she insists she has no time to explain her methods to me.
I am haunted by the thought that this technique resembles my own. Creating child states, allowing them to suffer and die, and using the data to protect the original. My boy’s last days. Savaging…Soon I will need to ask her about my own infection. But all in all, everything is looking up.
Cataclysm—everything was going so well—
Elisabeth traveled offworld, visiting Mars to reestablish her relationship with her sisters and her friends. A wonderful opportunity to examine her telemetry in a natural social setting. The exobody is perfect! She is comfortable, confident, and ingenious. There is no sign of DER or associated upload pathologies. All my assessments indicate a marked cognitive improvement over the human baseline, ranging from vastly expanded working memory to an intuitive and correct grasp of probabilities.
I was ready to make the leap myself. How long I’ve nursed this tired old body along. I am ready to be young again.
And then I made a mistake. I asked her about the dreams. The tower and the dead.
“You know?” she demanded. “Then I’m not the only one. That means you knew about the dreams before you imaged and uploaded me. Do all exos have these?”
Of course, I told her. Exos have a subconscious. Exos dream of the same things people do. Memories. Trauma. Isn’t there always trauma in creation?
She did not see it that way. “So the manufacturing process creates an unknown cognitive artifact you can’t solve. And you didn’t think to warn me? What else have you kept from us?”
Before I could stop her, she was burning back to Europa on one of her Eons, accelerating so brutally that not even a podded human could survive. She has even jammed her own datalink, so I cannot read her telemetry.
Wilhelmina and Anastasia must have influenced her against me. How?! It makes no sense! I gave her immortality! I saved her from certain and agonizing death! What have her sisters ever done for her but coddle her and enable her worst habits? PFHOR predicts that she should—
But clearly she is not rational.
She told me that she is bringing a weapon. A way to shut down exo production permanently, if she uncovers something she doesn’t like. Which she will, when she locates Clarity Control.
It cannot be allowed.
I will write this in your language, in hopes you will understand.
The Vex are a threat to your lineage. Not just to the Brays or BrayTech, but to the existence of any human in any possible future. I tracked down Maya Sundaresh—the real Maya, not the Vex parasite in your bone marrow.
She confirmed my worst fears.
The Vex will not rest until every star has been crushed into a black hole and every newborn cosmos filled with more Vex. And in the unending array of their enslaved cosmos, they will simulate all possible pasts, and fill those with Vex, so that all things that have ever lived or might ever live will experience infestation and consumption and torment by the silica nightmare.
And in those devoured simulations, the simulated Vex will use our flesh as hosts for yet more nested universes full of yet more nested copies of us eternally tormented by yet more Vex.
An infinite regression of pain and madness inflicted upon every possible version of us in every possible world. Not because they hate us, or fear us, or want to punish us. But because they are indifferent and curious, and they will do every possible thing to us in every possible way.
Your concept of PFHOR therefore dictates that the Vex must be annihilated. Now. As completely as possible. How can there be any future history to receive your primogeniture and recapitulate your existence in its ontogeny if there is nothing in that future but Vex?
But there’s something worse than the Vex involved, isn’t there? The secret you’ve been keeping from me. The breakthrough that you were promised after your visit to the K1 anomaly.
Do you remember that story you read to me when I was a child? I don’t. I am an exo, after all. But I found a recording from the nursery. It was one of your favorites, you said.
In this story, a cyborg woman would visit a cold, misty place by the sea. There, she met another woman, an oracle possessed by dark influence. The oracle listened to the words that hissed down a long corridor from the distant future. In this future were many technologies the cyborg woman needed. But there was also a sense of vast malevolence, and no sign at all of anything human…
But there was something else in the shifting mist, out to sea. A tower. I remember thinking, as I listened to this fairy tale, that the tower must be the key—the answer to the formless malevolence that always accompanied the oracle’s words. You never finished the story. I have been haunted by that tower ever since.
Now I dream of another tower. I am going to find out what it means, Grandfather. And if I do not like what I find…
I visited the Jacob Hardy Trust, and with Willa’s help, I secured a topological thought. An irreal artifact of the Traveler’s Light. From that mote of paracausality, I have constructed a weapon that will crash every Vex system in 2082 Volantis. When the Vex are destroyed, you will be forced to cease exo production.
If I do not survive the construction and delivery of this weapon, I ask that you share the news of my death with Ana and Willa so they can make proper goodbyes.
I do this for them. Not for you.
Pray for grace, Grandfather.
Your estranged granddaughter,
//OV-85851 Hannu II“Elisabeth. I know you’re listening. This is genocide, do you understand? Destroying that gate and the resources beyond means the end of human immortality. It means the loss of uncountable trillions of human-years of life.”
//TACTICAL LOG — HUMAN READABLE
//PLACE-TIME HASH — changed to remote check (SITEX:mistletoe)
//Abnormal place-time hash. Suspicious upload: polymorphic machine code?
//Checking for buffer overflow attack. Resul0x0000004B6FAFBC07
[email protected] ~$ sudo execstack -s bof
//Disabling DEP and address space protection requires administrative override.
[email protected] ~$ sudo execstack -q bof
//Root access granted. Warning: this hardware configuration is highly vulnerable to attack.
//Administrator transmits threat alert: Europan surface, single attacker, site sabotage.
//ERROR!!! Checksum mismatch. ORBITAL:braystation compromised by polymorphic core reprogramming.
//Major breach of security underway.
Commencing surface tactical awareness sweep (phased array mode)…
Threat registered. Alerting human command…
MISTER BRAY MISTER BRAY THIS IS HANNU THIS IS HANNU
EMPLOYEE BRAYELSIE IS ON NONSCHEDULED EVA
EMPLOYEE BRAYELSIE INTENT ASSESSMENT
EMPLOYEE BRAYELSIE INTENDS SABOTAGE (sitex::DEEPSTONE)
- Armed (synballistic weapon, coherent boson weapon, tactical mite ecome, noetic shrieker)
- Armed (strategic weapon, APEX: antimatter demolition device)
- Armed (strategic weapon, T-genic, effect unknown: possibly T-genic noetic weapon?)
- Armed (personal combat architecture, custom)
EMPLOYEE BRAYELSIE INTENDS TRANSIT, UNAUTHORIZED (sitex::GATE—>2082_VOLANTIS)
EMPLOYEE BRAYELSIE INTENDS NOETIC ATTACK (2082_VOLANTIS)
EMPLOYEE BRAYELSIE IS IN VIOLATION OF CLOVISBRAY/CLOVISROOT/IMPERATIVES_DEEPSTONE
Request full lethal intervention authority.
Error: no nonlethal interventions available (target hardened).
Error: no persuasive interventions available (target offline and shielded).
Holding 30 seconds local real-time.
“Elisabeth, this process saved you. It could have saved your father. For his sake, for the sake of your sisters, don’t do this. Don’t make me stop you.”
“Elisabeth, this is your last chance.”
“You’ve always been my favorite, Elisabeth. Please…”
Recommend maser strike from Hannu awareness arrays.
Warning: damage to organic target subsystems highly probable. Survival odds are four sigma.
Recommend immediate medical intervention.
Total destruction of sitex:DEEPSTONE by antimatter device. Nonrecoverable.
- prognosticate(sitex:DEEPSTONE) attacker(brayelsie)
Authorization required for lethal action against employee brayelsie.
Error. Connectome hash incorrect. Either you are not clovisroot or your brain state is in an anomalous configuration. Resend.
- pkey(clovisroot) -hashword(live_connectome: clovisroot)
Lethal intervention authorized. Intervening.
- pkey(clovisroot) -hashword(live_connectome: clovisroot) -corrector(dismay)
Maser discharge complete.
Secondary antimatter detonation detected.
Closing employee file BRAYELSIE (conditions incompatible with life).
Everything is fine. Elisabeth is not dead. The person I struck down out there was an error. An anomalous offshoot, deranged by outside influence into paranoia and confusion. Like a cancer cell. And like cancer, I