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Technocalypse, The

History of the civilisation collapse that befell Earth and the Solar System in the Late Interplanetary Era. The Technocalypse is known by many other popular names, including the Nanodisaster, the Technocrash, and the Swarms as well as more technical terms such as the Cascading Complexity Collapse.

Protowars
Image from Steve Bowers
Protowars decelerating towards Mars, firing their main engines as they drop war packages towards their target.

Introduction

Few events in the early interplanetary history of mindkind have imprinted on the galactic noosphere as much as the Technocalypse, a tragic chain of events that took over five billion lives, and the period that followed, often referred to as the Second Dark Age. As with all such mythopoetic representations, exaggeration and half-truth has too often replaced fact. Although it is correct to speak of an extreme Cascading Complexity Collapse (the academic term) the Solsys event was surpassed in scale and severity by later examples such as the Gemand Crisis or the Swallowflight Disaster, despite the representations to the contrary in the popular media. Had it indeed been that severe Terragen life would never have survived. Nevertheless, it is generally conceded that had events in Sol System progressed somewhat differently, or been only somewhat more severe than they were, virtually all of Solar civilization, perhaps even all Solar sophonts, would have ceased to exist. Some believe that even the transapients in Solsys, the interstellar colonies of ordinary sophonts, and extrasolar transapients around the nearby stars were also endangered, though is a point of discussion and debate even in the Current Era.

The following account, the so-called "Standard Model", of the event is based on historical and cliological evidence and extensive simulation. A relatively large number of records have survived from this time, and even if a number of minor details remain obscure, it is relatively easy to reconstruct the overall disaster with a high degree of confidence.

Beginnings

The initial event of what, in the Current Era, is generally referred to as the Technocalypse (also known as the Fall, the ePocalypse, the Crash, the Simplification, the Nanodisaster, and many other terms across Terragen space and history) began on the evening of Galileo 1, 540 AT (January 5, 2509 CE) with a sudden surge in emergency responder calls across the Inner Solar System. It would be most of two days later before the disaster response teams on and around Venus, Earth, Mars, Luna, and the orbital habitats would start to put the pieces together, but with the benefit of hindsight it is possible to arrange the order of events more directly.

Initial emergency calls or facility visits seemed to all be for a sudden and mysteriously virulent flu strain that had been making the rounds for the past several months. The apparent infection was widespread, but also notably mild and readily dealt with using commonly available broad spectrum anti-virals. As such, it had received little attention. The first hypothesis, based on reports by friends and family members and those few patients who were conscious and coherent when help became available, was that the strain had somehow mutated into something much stronger. However, further testing rapidly determined that this was not the case. Rather, the patient's immune systems were running wild in response to infection by the virus, not only destroying it but also treating every other system in the body as an invader to be eliminated. The results of this acute autoimmune disorder were myriad and horrifying — everything from massively amplified flu-like symptoms, to total immune system collapse, to the sudden growth of tumors, nerve damage, and paralysis were all reported, with no apparent rhyme or reason to their appearance or cause.

Early attempts at treatment proved unsuccessful, as the sheer virulence of the immune system malfunction was unprecedented. However, by a combination of automated experimentation and superturing-mediated simulations carried out over several days, treatments and protocols were developed, patients began to be stabilized, and it seemed likely that a root cause and then a cure would soon be developed using mixtures of specialized antivirals and gengineered immune cells. Unfortunately, events conspired to prevent this from happening.

Just as the various research labs and medical facilities were on the verge of launching treatment programs against the new disease, a host of new patients suddenly began appearing, this time in numbers dwarfing what had come before. While the medical resources of Earth-Luna, Mars, and Venus were able to adjust with only minor strain, the comparatively tiny medical establishments of all but the largest habs were quickly overwhelmed.

Emergency management agencies around the system, which had been monitoring events closely, now shifted into full response mode, nanofacturing and deploying everything from additional beds to entire temporary hospital wings, assigning additional researchers (biont and AI) to finding both cause and cure, and moving to create public information campaigns and protocols to avoid panic. At the same time, law enforcement and military forces also stepped in to maintain public order and look for a possible cause, since the sudden and widespread appearance of the malady indicated an artificial (and presumably malicious) source rather than a natural one.

As the crisis continued and the number of patients mounted, rumors began to appear and spread across the InterPlaNet. The disease was the result of rogue AIs seeking to wipe out humanity. No, it was the work of radical provolve rights groups. No, it was the Backyarders. Or the Genetekkers. Or the Illuminati. Or whichever nation-state, Non-Governmental Organization, Regional Environmental Management Alliance, or anti-technology group the theorizer disliked most. As the various theories, accusations, denials, ideological axe grinding, and simple panicked babbling bounced back and forth between the worlds and habs of Sol, the amount of actual useful information and new developments was rapidly outstripped by the sheer quantity of simple noise. Social order, mostly in the virtuality of the Net, but even occasionally in the realized world, was becoming frayed around the edges.

It would be most of six weeks, and over twenty million afflicted before the cause was found. Early in the crisis several common denominators had been established among all the patients. Virtually all of them were reasonably well off, ranging from solidly middle class, to quite wealthy and every one of them had received rejuvenation treatments within the last two years. Armed with this information, researchers focused their attentions on the rejuvenation processes that had been used. This proved to be a more complex task than it initially appeared. While Interplanetary Age rejuvenation methods all followed very similar protocols, there was a significant amount of variation, either due to different manufacturing and vendor processes, or as a side effect of the rejuvenation process itself, which was routinely customized to the patient's biology, age, and level of health at the time treatment began. Combined, these variations resulted in a vast number of possible causes, either direct or as a result of interactions among the various elements of the rejuvenation process. Nevertheless, with massive resources now being thrown at the problem from all levels it was only a relatively short time before the tangle of possible causes was pared down to one.

The ultimate origin of the disaster was a coding bug in the control RNA of a bionano/gengineered hybrid replicator that formed the basis for the telomere reconstruction that was a part of virtually every rejuvenation process on the market. In this particular case, the replicator was created by a third party vendor and sold to some 60% of rejuvenation firms where it was included in the overall suite of mechanisms and lifeforms that were used to 'turn back the clock' for each subject. The trouble arose out of a miscoded synthegene sequence that in turn caused the replicator to insert a set of regulatory elements into the DNA of the common lymphoid progenitor. These elements were a mutated form of those involved in safe telomere regeneration. Normally dormant and harmless, the resulting genetic tweak had a single appalling side effect: When exposed to antigens of a specific, but otherwise mild, viral infection, the regulatory elements caused immune cells to aggressively attack the body.

Once the core cause was determined, the medical establishment was able to mobilize and begin treating the disease in earnest. Genetic therapies were rapidly developed and administered, and the majority of the afflicted were ultimately cured. Unfortunately, that left the minority of victims who succumbed before the cure was found. While some were able to be 'preserved' using cryotechnology, there were simply not enough storage units to go around, and the unreliable nature of the technology of the day meant that only a few were willing to use this option, and not all of them were successfully revived. Ultimately, the entire debacle would cost 8 million lives, including the CEO and Board of Directors of Bio-Fixe, the source of the flawed replicator.

These parties met in secret at a location several kilometers from the company headquarters in Rio de Janeiro in the first week of Imhotep (March) to discuss possible strategies and damage control. The corporation was facing financial destruction from a tidal wave of pending lawsuits, as well as vilification in virtually all media, and death threats from multiple quarters after evidence emerged that the synthegene problems had been identified but not assigned appropriate QA-controls.

Biofixe Tower under attack
Image from Steve Bowers
The Biofixe headquarters under attack

Unfortunately for the Board, the time and location of the meeting was leaked to the Net and a mob first surrounded, and then attacked the building while local law enforcement looked on. After first dragging the screaming Board members onto the roof and hanging them from the building solar array, groups rampaged through the complex, destroying offices and attacking anyone they found who seemed to be connected to Bio-Fixe. As news of the massacre spread across the net, similar mobs either spontaneously formed or grew out of protests taking place near various Bio-Fixe installations and properties at the time, often resulting in everything from minor injuries to the destruction of entire facilities. In several cases, a number of experiments and new products being developed by the company were unintentionally released into the outside air. The results were to prove catastrophic.

The Black Rot

The Black Rot
Image from Steve Bowers
An attack of Black Rot in the Amazon Basin, with some quadricopters desperately spraying blue antiagent to try to contain it

As the month of Imhotep waned, and even the news and controversy surrounding the Bio-Fixe debacle began to fade, a new issue arose. Unlike the Bio-Fixe replicator, this one initially had almost no publicity and went practically unnoticed. A fact which made its ultimate outcome even worse.

Within the vast techno-farming areas of Brazil and the Amazon Basin, a new disease began to appear among several species of plants and bionano growth nodes. Appearing to be a type of mold, it spread rapidly, seemed to be largely immune to the initial efforts to kill or contain it, and killed or rendered unusable virtually everything it infested. That the mold seemed able to consume natural, gengineered, and nanotechnic structures with equal ease quickly led to suspicion of an artificial origin among the researchers and security experts called in by the T-farm megacorps to investigate. This hypothesis was soon proven to be accurate as genetic assays and nano-disassembly recordings revealed an internal structure that was a hybrid of biology and bio-nanotechnology both.

At its most basic level, the fungal life form that would come to be known as the Black Rot was purely biological, although a biology that had been artificially optimized in various ways to make the Rot both highly resilient and extremely efficient. What made the Rot so much more than this was a new component that was discovered operating inside the cells of the organism's reproductive spores. Within each Black Rot spore, was an array of simple, but highly capable, bionano computers created out of inter-locking artificial proteins. These proteins, indeed the entire computer array, were in turn created as a byproduct of the natural development of the Rot's own cells.

Or as the head of one research team rather indelicately put it: "Look out! It's the attack of the cyborg germ that ate Cleveland!"

When a Rot spore landed in a likely area and developed into a sufficiently large fungal colony (mass ~.3kg), the protein computers contained in the spore would activate and run a specialized program that would experiment with the Rot's genome and response to local conditions to find a combination of traits and abilities that maximized the chances of survival. Different parts of the colony would temporarily express different traits based on different gene sequences and those that proved most capable or robust were rapidly adopted by the whole. In effect, the internal nanocomputer acted as an adaptation machine, causing each new fungal colony to be optimized for existence wherever it found itself. In addition, this rapid adaptability allowed the Rot to resist and eventually overcome any attack against it that wasn't immediately and totally destructive. Burning a colony of Black Rot would destroy it in short order, but new spores would soon arrive from other colonies or be released in reaction to the burning attempt and a new colony would appear within days. Anything less than total immolation using anti-fungal agents (chemical or nanotechnological), fire, or highly corrosive chemicals, invariably left a few surviving spores or cells, which would adapt to be resistant, immune, or even undetectable to the method the next time it was tried.

The immediate result was a constant running battle between an organism that continuously modified itself to make best use of any conditions it found itself in and those who were trying to destroy it (and whose attempts in turn stimulated yet more rapid adaptation in response to the increased environmental stress).

The long term result was disaster.

Since the only immediately available methods that worked to destroy the Rot also destroyed whatever it was feeding upon, the increasingly frantic efforts to contain or eliminate it were also destroying large swathes of both the farming and technofarming materials base. The result was initially a sharp increase in the cost of food and techno-farmed products, and then eventually shortages. The economic impact of these was only worsened when Black Rot spores were discovered in the bio-feedstock being shipped to several Lunar cities, causing Mars, and to a lesser degree the rest of the solar system, to place an embargo on Terran produced food and bio-technology. Whether due to contamination by the Black Rot, or the financial upheavals created as a side effect, by mid-Jung (April) of that year, hunger began to be known as more than a temporary inconvenience in several places on Earth and its orbital colonies.

Neumann Malfunctions on Mercury

Mercury Exa Energy under attack
Image from Steve Bowers
The subverted mining machines approach the Exa Energy Base dome habitat on Mercury

Far across the Solar System from Earth and the Black Rot, the Neumann replicators of Mercury had been supplying heavy elements to Solar civilization for decades. The silicate rich crust of Mercury supplied Solar industry with a variety of useful elements, including calcium, magnesium, iron, and aluminum. These and other elements were mined to both support the replication of the various types of Neumann units spreading across the surface, and for shipment offworld to the hungry orbital complexes of Venus, the Earth-Moon system, Mars, the Belt, and occasionally even Jupiter and Saturn. Mined materials were launched into space using magnetic accelerators before deploying solar sails to propel them to their final destinations.

To maximize operational efficiency, multiple types of Neumann miner were used, with different units specialized to extract different elements, and different classes of replicator exchanging raw materials to provide each other needed resources for replication and repair. Radio and optical communication networks and self-optimizing software combined to allow the entire system of Neumann machines to operate more as a hive of coordinated components than as individual machines operating independently and with almost no sophont supervision.

What exactly went wrong has never been determined conclusively, but in the last week of Jung, 540 AT, the various self-replicating machines of Mercury suddenly ceased processing and shipping materials off planet and instead began a furious program of replication and redesign. Many machines disconnected themselves from the planetary network, and began operating independently, remaking themselves or spawning new generations of machines that could locate and extract all the elements needed for replication. Other machines retained the networked structure of the original system, but ceased sharing resources and coordinating their efforts across the planet, instead seeming to form self-contained 'hives' in which only those machines that were part of the same lineage would cooperate together while fiercely attacking any other machines or group of machines that attempted to encroach on their territory. Still other machines actually turned to predation, seeking out and consuming their fellow Neumanns to extract and reprocess their raw materials and components for their own use.

In effect, the Neumann system of Mercury was reconfiguring itself to form a crude mechosystem. At the time, the best guess was that somehow the experimental eDen program, which was working to actually develop ecosystem inspired machine architectures (the ancestor of the modern mechosystem), had broken out of its carefully contained cavern beneath the Caloris Montes and infected the rest of the planet (the resulting lawsuits and acrimony directed against the backers of the eDen project would cripple mechosystem development well into the second century of the First Federation). However, there was actually little direct evidence of this and other theories for the cause of the chaos also waxed and waned in popularity, including sabotage (either by anti-neumann terrorists, or possibly shadowy Belt interests hoping to get rid of the competition) or some unforeseen development in the self-improving software that ran the machines.

Speculation and argument about the cause of the disruption initially dominated, but was then rapidly supplanted by confusion and fear when it was made disastrously clear that the redesigned Mercurian mechosystem had no place in its programming for its former creators and supervisors. The price of that clarity was the deaths of just over 20,000 operational staff and their family members at the Exa Energy base and arcology supporting one of the three biont rated launch tracks along the planetary equator. Suddenly attacked by a hive of newly reconfigured mining units (who completely ignored all commands and stop orders transmitted to them), the base was breached in minutes and the last inhabitants were eliminated in less than an hour. The track itself was completely dismantled in a bit over a week.

The loss of the Exa base and launch system triggered panic across Mercury and a mad scramble to get off the planet while also avoiding the newly aggressive machines. A mix of various encounters (costing another 10,000 lives) rapidly demonstrated that, while the bots of Mercury were not actively targeting Terragens on a planetary scale, they were quite willing to treat them as a convenient source of raw materials when they encountered them.

The next several months saw more than a few scenes of both the surreal and the nightmarish. Many heroes were forged in that period, along with several martyrs. By a combination of fortifying and defending their positions until help could arrive, a significant amount of hiding, and a massive influx of ships from all over the Inner System, the bulk of Mercury's population was evacuated. The last group to leave got out after a harrowing 16 hour running battle with a 'pack' of aggressive 'mechovores' (as the media came to term them) that pursued them to the last functioning person-rated launcher and actually began dismantling it even as the final launch pod rose into space. Mercury was now abandoned, at least as far as everyone knew at the time. In reality, a few hundred survivors, hiding in a series of deep caves discovered a few years before the malfunction began, were still living there and would go on to found the Joh Lau culture discovered during the Federation Age.

The chaos on and ultimate loss of Mercury sent markets crashing across the Solar System, heightening the already tense situation caused by the Black Rot to the point of panic in some cases. Rumors again flew across the networks, competing with each other for followers and using ever more wild claims to try to woo them. Two of the most popular on Earth were that the Rot was either a plot by the Backyarders or perhaps the result of some hubristic experiment gone wrong. Another was that the whole thing was an attempt at a technological coup being carried out by Mars with the intent of overthrowing Earth as the dominant power in the Solar System and taking up that mantle itself. Both the Martians and the Backyarders hotly denied these accusations.

In late Archimedes (mid-August), the Black Rot was discovered to have spread beyond the farming complexes and into the wider Terran ecosystem. At the same time, the first post-evacuation expedition sent to Mercury to try to take back control of the Neumann systems, consisting of a half dozen craft carrying a small army of programmers, Neumann designers, and experts in system theory, was fired upon and nearly destroyed as it entered orbit, apparently by a number of surviving magnetic cargo launchers that had been either conscripted or re-constructed by elements of the still evolving planetary mechosystem. The surviving craft fled Mercurian space while transmitting images of large scale constructions spreading across the surface.

Mass Ecosystem Destruction and Failure

Black rot decay
Image from PortalHunter
(23 Imhotep, 540 AT) Outbreaks of Black Rot have been reported in Eastern Acadia and the coastal rainforest bands of Cascadia and Vancouver Island. Charlotte Arcology and the surrounding forests show signs of infection. The forested regions around Lesser Monkton and Naxoat Prefecture are currently under Cauterization by Incineration and Deforestation. Containment procedures are being enacted in the rainforests of Western Cascadia along the 4th and 5th Divisions of Columbia Complex Cinq via aerial decontamination squads.

As the month of Brahe (September) dawned, the governments and regional combines of Earth, driven by a sense of political desperation and with the images of what had happened to the former board of Bio-Fixe still sharp in their minds, determined to end the threat of the Black Rot once and for all.

Combining and coordinating their resources, deploying hosts of nano-constructed bots ranging in size from gnats to office blocks, the rulers of Earth set about eradicating the threat in the only way that had been found to be completely effective: with no regard for collateral damage. The Earth Council Black Rot Eradication (ECBRE) project was formed and immediately became the highest funded agency in history, with an annual budget of 1% of the gross world product.

Using incendiaries, herbicides, corrosive chemicals, and robotic deforestation squads, millions of hectares of the Amazon Basin, Pacific Northwest, and Asian sub-continent were rendered nearly sterile. Everything down to the level of soil bacteria was destroyed. Shortly thereafter, the remains of the biomass were gathered up, reprocessed, and then converted back into soil heavily infused with gengineered micro-organisms, growth media, and fast-grow seed packets intended to restore the lost territory as quickly as possible. In effect, Earth was seeking to terraform parts of itself. Initially, the results seemed promising. However, as time went on this proved to be anything but the case.

To the bafflement of ecoengineers across the System, rather than beginning to heal and restore itself, the ecosystem in the reprocessed areas struggled to become re-established and even began dying off again in several locations. Over the next six months, efforts to determine the cause of these die-offs met with no success, nor did attempts to repair the damage by introducing additional organisms into the restoration areas more quickly than had been planned, or even completely 'resetting' the area again and starting over. Nothing worked, and the various purged areas across the planet all began to die off. Worse, the previously untouched biomes around the purged regions also began to also show signs of instability and failure as well. Some critical factor, or set of factors, had been critically disrupted within the vast, interconnected network of systems that made up the planetary ecology and nothing that humanity attempted seemed able to fix the problem.

For the remainder of the Technocalypse, and indeed up until the intervention of GAIA Herself, Earth's ecosystem would be a battleground, unraveling with terrifying speed in dozens and then hundreds of locations across the globe while the ecoengineers fought to contain and reverse, or at least slow, the damage. The failure of one area would lead to instability and failure in another, which led to another and so on. Even those segments of the planetary ecology (plant pollination, predation of more prolific species, etc.) that had long ago been mostly or entirely replaced by technology began to succumb. The programming of the planetary management systems had been designed to operate in symbiotic interaction with the remaining natural systems in a series of complex feedback loops. When those loops were themselves disrupted or destroyed, their artificial components proved just as vulnerable as the natural ones. Entire species of robo-animal and plant ran wild, or simply stopped functioning for reasons that refused to become clear.

A chain reaction had been created and nothing seemed able to stop it or even explain it; not the then state-of-the-art in complexity management nor any of the simulation systems available, even those created and overseen by superturing level controllers.

The sophont cost of this disaster was as great as the environmental one. As food and medical supplies ran short, social disruptions mounted. The governments of several of Earth's poorer nations effectively collapsed and as their societies crumbled, waves of refugees began to appear around the world for the first time in centuries. While many of the wealthier and more powerful nation-states moved to assist the displaced populations, using robo-construction units to rapidly produce entire refugee cities while trained diplomats and specialized AIs worked to repair their damaged governments, others took a more opportunistic approach. Using the ongoing chaos as an excuse, several smaller countries were essentially annexed by military coalitions of their better off neighbors or, in one case, several megacorps. While there were cries of outrage over such brutal and rankly opportunistic behavior, little else was done as there were simply not the attention and resources to spare.

Neumann Breakout

The Black Rot kept most of the media's attention focused on events on Earth rather than Mercury, but that changed abruptly when Neumanns began launching themselves into space.

In the months since the initial mass malfunction, various megacorps and governments had sent probes and expeditions to the innermost planet, seeking to gather intelligence or try some new method of regaining control of their rebellious technology. Virtually all of them had been fired upon when they got within a million kilometers of the surface, the arrays of planetary launchers that had once set cargo all over the Solar System now turned to military purposes and augmented by what appeared to be many additional units built since the malfunction began. Having thousands of what were effectively magnetic cannon at their disposal meant that the machines of Mercury easily outgunned any military force currently available. Given time and sufficient nanofacturing that could change, but the cost of such an endeavor was felt to be prohibitive. In addition, most were loath to consider the wholesale destruction of the massive industrial resource that was Mercury (and the decades of replication it would take to replace it) until all other options had been exhausted.

All of these issues became moot in early Copernicus 540 AT (October 2509 CE) when the Mercurian launchers suddenly began firing packages into orbit once more. At first, it was thought that this might be a sign that the system had somehow reset itself and was returning to normal operations, particularly when the first wave of packages all deployed solar sails and began following trajectories toward Venus, Earth-Luna, Mars, and the Asteroid Belt. The theory became shaky when a second wave of packages deployed their sails and began tacking inward toward the Sun, specifically toward the great amat farms in close solar orbit. It lost most of its adherents when none of the sail packages either activated tracking beacons or responded to hails. It fell apart completely, when the first ship intercepted a package, and was promptly attacked, dismantled, and partially consumed by the Neumann replicators it contained.

The phenomenon that would eventually be called the Swarms was beginning, and it would be a factor in Solar history, politics, and culture for centuries to come.

The Amat War

The Battle of the Vortex.
Image from Steve Bowers
The Battle of the Venus Polar Vortex, where the Venus Defence Fleet destroyed several incoming Swarm packages from Mercury using particle beams

On Einstein 22, 540 AT (November 22, 2509 CE), the first Neumann package reached the Hyperios Cluster antimatter farm in close solar orbit and was destroyed by local security forces the moment it came in range. Security at the amat farms had been much heavier, and much more heavily armed, ever since the infamous B4 disaster some decades before and it was initially thought that this would be sufficient to deal with the incoming Neumann threat. Such optimism proved to be short-lived however, as the number of incoming Neumann packages increased exponentially. As heavily armed as they were, the defenders' resources were still finite and not designed to support a state of open-ended siege. Solar energy to power lasers was available in effectively unlimited quantities — but the number of actual lasers available to use it was not. Similarly, defensive missiles and kinetic launchers only existed in finite numbers and possessed a finite amount of ammunition. And virtually everything required a certain amount of downtime for maintenance or the replacement of components that could not be synthesized or recycled using the on board fabbers.

Slowly, but surely, the amat farm defenders went from being engaged, to being harried, to being overwhelmed. One by one, the farms began to fall, Neumann packages reaching and consuming them in an orgy of replication. This continued, until finally only three farms remained. In a daring move that is still taught in history books across the Civilized Galaxy, the last defenders were able to achieve a stalemate with the incoming swarms by using several of the farm arrays as giant solar sails and sunshades, engaging in a risky maneuver to rendezvous with one of the near solar orbiting Vulcanoid asteroids. Once there, the crews from the different arrays combined their equipment and resources to mine material from the asteroid and use it to feed their fabbers and automated production lines, creating a new supply of (admittedly crude) ammunition, growing additional sunshades, and modifying the delivery packages normally used by the farms to transport their output to market.

Using the energy and materials made available by their new location, the defenders set about producing amat with a will and shaping it into a combination of relatively short range total conversion 'bullets' and longer range amat-catalyzed fusion warheads or even pure anti-matter bombs. In addition, the material of the asteroid was used to create a number of large mirror arrays which could focus massive amounts of concentrated sunlight onto a target, diverting or destroying any incoming light sails.

The thousands of Neumann packages that had been heading for the last stations had been caught off-guard by the sudden orbital changes they had undergone and lost weeks attempting to adjust their trajectories to intercept the farms both during and after their move. This proved to be as, or more, difficult for the relatively light Neumann light sails as it had for the much more massive farm's solar arrays, and many of the Neumanns were either lost or apparently decided to seek a more easily reached source of 'food'. The relatively small numbers that were able to plot an interception course were readily destroyed or diverted by the newly re-armed defenders. For a time at least, it seemed a degree of stability had been achieved for the situation in the innermost parts of the solar system. At the same time, anything but stability was being experienced in the amat commodities markets of the solar system, which were alternating between mass panic and mass rallies as the situation changed from day to day, or even hour to hour. Fortunes were lost and made and lost again, often faster than their sophont owners could be told about what was going on.

By Galileo 541 AT (2510 CE), the first Neumann packages began arriving in Venusian space and attempting to consume the habitats and infrastructure they found there. However, the Venusians, forewarned by events at the amat farms, and having spent the time busily forearming, were more than ready for them. Particle beams, lasers, and kinetic kill weapons of various sorts were deployed and initially took a terrible toll on the incoming replicator packages. However, as much as these victories boosted morale, no one could forget that ever more replicators were on the way. The crisis at Venus promised to become a duel between the Neumann technology of Mercury and the nanoforge technology of Venus. Which would prevail, no one could say for sure.

From Bad to Worse

Over the next several months, conditions continued to deteriorate.

On Earth, the ongoing failure and unreliability of the various planetary management systems resulted in a population explosion among the species that they had been created to manage in the first place. Insect and rodent populations boomed, and there were simply not enough functioning predator systems, natural or artificial, remaining to contain them. The Black Rot had also proven even more durable than expected, and had adapted to living off the gengineered purification systems that provided fresh water to most of Earth's 22 billion inhabitants. Water shortages rapidly became a part of everyday life, even as engineers, AIs, and hordes of robots labored to build replacement systems that while vastly less efficient, did not rely on the compromised biotechnologies.

In Near-Earth Space, the worst case scenario finally happened and the Rot appeared in the farming complexes of the orbital habitats and Luna. Draconian quarantine and decontamination measures had been emplaced to prevent just this occurrence but, given the massive amount of traffic that passed between Earth and the rest of the volume, a breakout was probably inevitable. The one bright spot in the disaster was that the modular design of the orbital farming units, along with the ready availability of hard vacuum and solar radiation, made destroying the Rot much simpler than it was on Earth. The larger habs also saw occasional Rot infestations in their general environment spaces, but were able to contain and destroy it fairly readily, their simplified and near totally artificial ecosystems never demonstrating even a hint of the environmental collapse that was taking place on the homeworld.

In the wider System, efforts shifted from attempting to regain control of the Mercury Neumanns to simply destroying them outright. Unfortunately, this proved problematic. The orbital launchers on Mercury were far too numerous for anything but mass bombing to destroy — and there simply weren't that many bombs available nor any single ship or group of ships large enough to deliver them. Certainly, sufficient weapons could be built given a bit of time, but the Mercury Neumanns were continuing to replicate and spread and there was some question as to whether or not their head-start in a replication race was already too far advanced. The orbital launchers of Mercury also continued to fire on any vessels that got too close, as well as any missiles that they attempted to launch. While a few warheads did get through to damage or destroy parts of the Mercurian surface, the results were only temporary. The machines that remained simply rebuilt the destroyed areas in short order. There were tens of millions of machines spread across the planet even before the Malfunction, and robots designed to thrive and replicate in the radiation flooded environment of the innermost planet were more than able to withstand the radiation produced by the aftermath of a few fusion explosions.

The loss of the antimatter farms also greatly hampered efforts to intercept and destroy the Neumann units in flight, or any plan to take back Mercury, or mount a rescue of the people trapped on the amat stations themselves. High performance vessels were the key to nearly all of these objectives, but such ships depended on amat-fusion, or even pure amat plasma systems for their speed and carrying capacity, and without a ready supply of amat they rapidly found themselves either operating in a greatly reduced capacity or sidelined entirely.

Arising out of and overshadowing all of these issues were the economic earthquakes caused by the overlapping crises. Multiple sectors of the System economy, including food production, metals and CO2 processing, space travel, gengineering, Neumann design and manufacture, and especially amat production were all reeling from events and the fallout from these threatened a collapse of the financial ecosystem to rival that of the planetary one. This greatly hampered many of the initial responses to the various events, although as time went on many governments and some megacorps were forced to a position of simply doing whatever it took to survive and ignoring the expense.

The Collapse - Social Upheaval and Chaos

The ongoing chaos on Earth, the habs, and in solar orbit had been taking a toll on social stability across the Inner System for some time, but as events dragged on, things finally began to fray more seriously.

Earth - On the homeworld, food and water hoarding began to appear, and even some rioting. Even more problematic, people began looking for a cause for all that was happening and for someone to blame. They found many candidates: Provolved sophonts, the Backyarder movement, the AIs, various Splice or Rianth communities, and many others were accused of somehow being responsible for what was going on. The various governments of Earth, Luna, Mars, and the Outer System polities were also the focus of many conspiracy theories as were some of the more well-known hu supremacist and Ludd groups extant at the time. That no specific evidence could be found to support any of them hardly mattered at all.

From angry rhetoric, it was a short step to action. Violence against non-humans, modified humans, and those who engaged in customized nano-fabrication, gengineering, or mind-design began to increase. This in turn led some among these communities to retaliate and things rapidly degenerated. The appearance of black market weapons templates on the more fringe fabbing networks only exacerbated things. Acting in response to these events several national and local governments around the planet began deploying increased numbers of security bots and drones in an attempt to curtail violence before it started. Unfortunately, this often ended up destabilizing the situation rather than defusing it, and many security units found themselves being targeted by everything from malware attacks to home built anti-drone weapons - many of which proved equally capable, even if unintentionally, of inflicting damage on the security officers themselves, as well as their tools.

Overarching all of these issues were the first overt instances of the Disinhibition Plagues. The technologically induced lack of impulse control that characterized the Plagues had been banned by treaty by virtually all groups and nations, and it was thought at the time that cures existed for all the known variants, yet new cases began to pop up here and there, and relapses and flashbacks were widely rumored to be taking place among the previously infected. It also became evident that some of these plagues had been deployed in their subtler forms in the years leading up to the Technocalypse. How much of an impact this had on the course of events remains unclear to this day. The technology to detect the Plagues proved vulnerable to Black Rot infection and soon ceased to be a factor in events. Though capacity to produce new varieties was apparently also destroyed, both the Disinhibition Plagues and the results of them lingered for much longer.

As the situation continued to deteriorate, the provolves and the Backyarders in particular were targeted for abuse and attacks. The first because early Terragen civilization (and in particular Terran civilization) often still struggled with issues of non-human rights, the second because decades of memetic assault and not-so-subtle legislation sponsored by governments and megacorps opposed to the more free-wheeling Backyarder approach to technology had often painted them as a group to be distrusted or even feared.

The provolves had often lived in communities of their own kind to begin with, and those that did not began to move to these, either directly, or on a temporary basis while staying with friends or family. Many others moved to more accepting areas of the planet such as California, the Reformed Confederacy, Iran, and Kenya.

The Backyarder approach to the deteriorating situation was rather different. A basic part of the Backyarder ethos had always been self-reliance, and that included self-defense. Many Backyarders began using their technology to create weapons and defensive systems, and the larger enclaves were able to arm themselves quite heavily indeed. These efforts turned out to be very much a two-edged sword since, by their very actions and methods in response to the troubled situations, the Backyarders helped further convince some that they were responsible for it.

Events came to a climax in South Florida, Costa Rica, Johannesburg, and Mongolia, when groups of armed vigilantes (and in one case an actual mob) attempted to attack major Backyarder enclaves and were met with near military level force. Although mostly non-lethal devices were used, in the South Florida incident, seven attackers were killed and the eventual law enforcement response ended up killing twelve members of the enclave, including two children. Among the Backyarder channels on the planetary networks, momentum began to rapidly build for a major initiative: Up and Out.

Mars: Civil unrest was initially relatively muted on Mars, although hostility toward Terrans and Lunarians had increased significantly. The Martian government had instituted a near total ban on products and travelers from the Earth-Moon volume and subjected what few items and people that were allowed through to extended and invasive quarantine and disinfection procedures. All this proved for not when the Black Rot was discovered in several Martian domes. Although the domes themselves were immediately destroyed, rumors quickly spread that the infection was more widespread than it was and that it was the result of agent provocateurs from Earth-Luna. The resulting riots killed many Terrans on the planet at the time and saw the destruction of several Terran embassies before order was restored.

In what was later determined to be a major overreaction to events, the Martian government declared a state of emergency and martial law. Civil rights and the rule of law were largely suspended, supposedly on a temporary basis. In practice, the 'temporary state of emergency' was to become a condition that would last for centuries.

The Outer System: The various colonies and polities of the Outer System had largely been relegated to watching the events in the Inner System with various mixtures of horror and disinterest. For those who had friends and family still living in the Inner System, the crisis was very personal and very real. For nearly everyone else, it was an abstract and distant thing far from the day to day concerns of people living and working on dozens of different worlds, moons, and habitats often separated by billions of kilometers. Although the Inner System news media liked to portray the worlds and habs of the Outer System as a homogenous social and political block, the reality was far different. Many of the factions and societies of the Outer System were essentially complete unto themselves and barely even dealt with their neighbors in the same local space, let alone sophonts living on or around other worlds located light-hours away.

The appearance of the Black Rot had prompted an embargo of the few Terran (and later Lunarian and Martian) products that ever made the long journey up the gravity well to the outer worlds. The Neumann threat would take years or decades to make its way even as far as Jupiter and, with the resources of what was essentially a miniature solar system at their command, the various Jovian communities felt little reason for concern (The various Jovian and Saturnian Neumanns, mainly consisting of self-replicating bubblehabs, used distinctly different programming protocols and much slower replication strategies and were believed to be immune to whatever was causing the problem with the Mercury replicators). The problem was one for the Inner System and would eventually be dealt with by the Inner System polities. Or it would not, by which point the Jovian colonies (not to mention the other Outer System communities) would have years to prepare a response that would surely end it once and for all.

It never occurred to the leaders and scientists of the various outsystem communities that they could be at risk from a threat traveling at the speed of light itself.

The Malware Outbreak

As chaos and social breakdown spread across the inner system, various rogue groups sought to take advantage. Hu supremacists on Earth and Mars, anti-AI or anti-gengineering groups in the asteroid belt and a hodge-podge of social and political fringe groups attempted to promote their agendas, settle scores, or otherwise gain advantage or even primacy. Even with the great powers of the Solar System distracted by events, most of these efforts were crushed almost as soon as they began and before any significant damage was caused. The single largest exception was the Malware Outbreak, caused by an alliance of a number of Deletionist groups, most particularly the Apostles of the New Light.

In late Hippocrates 541 AT (February 2510 CE), New Light malware released into the networks and databanks of Earth, Luna, and Mars rapidly propagated across the solar system and began attacking systems everywhere the system communication networks reached - which is to say virtually everywhere Solar civilization had reached. From the densest portions of the Inter-Planetary Net to starships and colonies light-years from the solar system, viruses and worms erased data, corrupted indexing systems, and worked to destroy as much information as possible. Distance was no protection in this case, as the various attack programs propagated across the Inter Planetary Net and attacked databanks in the Inner and Outer System both.

At any other time, the New Light attacks would have been disruptive, but recoverable. In the midst of ongoing multiple crises, they were a disaster. The more so when it became apparent that the Apostles had created their malware using a-life algorithms. Artificial digital life forms formed the core of the multiple software weapons that were released into the networks and, like most a-life forms, they retained the power to evolve in response to changing conditions. Whether this was deliberate or a result of accident or incompetence on the part of the Apostles remains controversial to this day. Regardless, shortly after the release of the original New Light malware, several new a-forms evolved into existence and began disrupting everything from communication networks to self-driving transport systems with disastrous results.

Some of the most notable and destructive effects of the Outbreak included:

The Sandman Bug

A virus that infected approximately fifteen percent of all DNI systems in use at the time. Infected users had their sleep patterns or dream states disrupted by subtly malfunctioning alarm and notification systems built into their DNI firmware. The extended sleep deprivation that resulted eventually led to hallucinations, psychosis and, in some cases, death.

The Satanic Imp

The cause of the Satanic Imp event was a viral sentient-level program that exploited some widespread vulnerabilities in the personality/program of the habmind ais of the day. In particular, it subverted and controlled the sup-programs/sub-minds controlling the hab's cyborged agrimonkeys. The horrific scenes that followed as the agrimonkeys carried out acts of murder and sabotage against their masters were widely recorded. None of the infected habs and arcologies had any human survivors. Most of the habminds died as well, either from the direct effects of the virus, or by suicide when their charges had all been killed, or because other persons targeted them in an attempt to halt the plague.

Most hard hit by the Imp were the habs and stations of Venus, where approximately 60% of the population lost their lives to agrimonkey attacks or sabotage.

The Loss of Uploading and Rejuvenation

While the destructive uploading available at the time was banned on Earth and Luna, it was still widely used elsewhere in the solar system. Rejuvenation technology, while expensive, was still in widespread use across the Solar System by the wealthy and well-to-do, as well as those who could get a loan to cover the cost of the procedure. Both technologies depended on ready access to powerful computronium and complex interactive programs that monitored and responded to a subject's mental and physical state in real-time.

Apostle malware was able to infect and crash the control systems for both technologies. This might have been dealt with without too much trouble, but the viruses then went on to mutate into forms that did not immediately crash the infected systems, but instead corrupted them. This in turn led to a series of easily overlooked errors in the uploading or rejuvenation process that might takes weeks or longer to manifest. Effects of the corrupted systems varied wildly and ranged from nightmares or minor phobias (in the case of the uploaded), to the appearance of benign tumors in the rejuvenated, to total insanity or system crash or massive biological system failure killing the subjects either near instantly or (worse) over an extended and painful period of time.

The rejuvenation industry, already reeling from the recent Bio-Fixe catastrophe, essentially ceased to exist altogether, taking an estimated one and one half percent of the Solar economy with it. Rejuvenation would not be restored to anything like its pre-Outbreak level of activity until after the founding of the First Federation. Uploading continued on in a minimal fashion in the Outer System, particularly in the bubble habs of Neptune and Uranus, but only under conditions of extreme data security and generally only as a last resort for those who could either make the journey there or were taken by those who deemed them too valuable or important to be lost.

The Nanoswarms

In what is almost certainly the most well-known event of the Malware Outbreak, nanofabs all over the Solar System, from top end personal home units to full scale industrial fabbers, were activated remotely and then downloaded a series of templates for various classes of robotic combat units. These devices, ranging from synsects to heavy combat systems, were deployed over the course of several days beginning in early Lavoisier 541 AT. Some of the mid-to-large size units were neumann-capable if they had access to suitable materials; once established populations of these combat bots sometimes grew and expanded. The origin of the templates that created them was later determined, or at least widely rumored, to be the militaries of Earth and Mars, both of which had had secret programs aimed at penetrating and perverting nanofab systems under development for many years.

Although the actual malware infection impacted only a minority of all the nanofabs then in operation (18% of all home units and 26% of all industrial units - universally those high end units capable of open-ended reconfiguration for the production of multiple types of devices), the attacking swarms of combat bots resulted in almost five hundred million casualties in only the first 48 hours. Another three billion would die, either in the interregnum or in the cross-fire as government and private security forces scrambled to contain the initial outbreak. Most of the survivors of the Satanic Imp outbreak at Venus were killed, Earth and Mars saw massive death tolls in their mostly densely populated areas, dozens of Belter habs were lost, the colonies on and above many of Jovian and Saturnian moons suffered losses and damage, and more than a few of the bubblehabs of all four gas giants were destroyed (many of the rest reacted by cutting off all communication with the wider civilization and seeking to hide themselves in the vastness of their world's endless storms).

A particular blow to public morale, even if represented only a tiny percentage of the lives lost, was the fall of the last of the near-Sol amat stations. After successfully driving off the attacking Neumann replicators of Mercury, the stations had been working with various organizations around the Solar System to make optimal use of their resources and better adapt themselves to operating in such close proximity to the Sun. Much of this work had involved the receipt of updated templates for use in the factory nanofabs. As such, there was no warning when what was to be a regularly scheduled template run was replaced by a swarm of several thousand combat synsects that rapidly spread through the factory and killed everyone aboard. The derelict station would remain in Solar orbit, slowly being whittled away and degraded by the fierce conditions, until just before the founding of the Federation.

Even after the worst of the Nanoswarms were finally contained, powered down 'sleeper units' hiding in ducts, sewers, and other little visited parts of the societal infrastructure would be a recurring threat for years afterwards. In the case of the neumann-capable models, they might tap into nanofab feeds or scavenge suitable materials to produce entire swarms or armies ahead of their outbreak. The occasional reappearance of the template in the networks (where it could download and release a fresh swarm of killer machines at any moment) would ultimately lead to the virtual elimination of all but the simplest networked nanofab systems and a severe reduction in the capability of most others. The colonies of 'sleepers', sometimes quite large ones if they managed to replicate, also made re-activation of infected habs or industrial areas an extremely hazardous operation, to the extent that many facilities were simply abandoned or were destroyed from a distance.

Taken as a whole, the Outbreak would prove to be one of the most destructive elements of the Technocalypse. Attacking some systems and ignoring others, vanishing for weeks or months at a time only to suddenly reappear, and constantly mutating to operate on different platforms, use different coding schemes, or bypass different defenses, the Outbreak a-lifeforms became a scourge that would help to drive the solar system into a dark age that would last for most of four hundred years.

Death, Desperation, and Fear

By the fall of 541, the combination of events, in particular the Black Rot and the Malware Outbreak, is estimated to have resulted in nearly five billion deaths, either directly or as a result of deaths due to infrastructure loss, economic collapse, lack of transportation (in particular lack of medical transport), lack of potable water, and lack of medical treatment, including rejuvenation and uploading.

On and around Venus, civilization had essentially ceased to exist. Most of the population, both on the planet and in orbit, had been killed by various elements of the Outbreak, and the survivors appeared to have either cut off virtually all communication and retreated into the never-ending clouds or fled the planet entirely for the Outer System. It would only be after some centuries and the founding of the Federation that it was discovered that at least some of those survivors had utilized the newly built beamrider system to leave the Solar System entirely and eventually found the Deeper Covenant.

In the worst hit areas on Earth, people began to abandon their homes and communities in attempts to find areas with sufficient food and water. Refugee camps and even cities began to spring up; often becoming breeding grounds for crime, violence, and despair as the constant influx of new refugees first strained and then overwhelmed what resources were available. Various local governments attempted various solutions and mitigation efforts, but most were only partially successful, at best. The planet simply did not have sufficient natural resources to support the number of people now living there without advanced technological support.

On Mars, food and water were also at a premium, although the situation never reached the levels of desperation that were found on Earth. The Martian population was only a fraction of that of Terra and the closed environments of the farming complexes had proven nearly as amenable to 'purging and resetting' as those in the various habs. But the ongoing process of doing this consumed both time and resources and, outside the farm domes, the Black Rot was spreading across the newly created Martian ecosystem with increasingly problematic results.

In the Asteroid Belt, around Jupiter and Saturn and among bubblehabs everywhere, there was disquiet and disruption. While not as hard hit as the inner system, the ongoing depredations of the Outbreak and the potential future threat of the Swarms made for many sleepless nights and not a few heated arguments and even fist fights. Increasingly, people began to think and discuss the idea that maybe the situation in the Solar System was beyond repair, that it was time to think about either becoming fully self-sufficient - or leaving entirely.

Fear and uncertainty reigned everywhere and to many it seemed the Solar System was teetering on the edge of complete social breakdown.

Escalation

The governments of Earth and Mars, outraged and panicked by the events of the Malware Outbreak and the ongoing Neumann Swarm crisis were rapidly devolving to finger pointing and mutual accusations of everything from incompetence to deliberately causing the various disasters that were rocking the solar system. Uncontaminated food, water, and computation were becoming increasingly hard to find regardless of location, and the ongoing threats of DNI viral infection and longevity treatment corruption were rapidly fraying what social fabric there was. Not just governments, but average citizens were looking for someone to blame. Those who they found more often suffered for the crime of being different than for any actual connection to the problems of the day.

On Earth, attacks on the Backyarders increased and were even supported by some of the smaller governments, causing many of them to either harden their enclaves to a degree that nothing short of full military force could overcome, move to remote locations scattered around the planet (what few remained), or take the leap into space; usually just to Luna or the Belt, sometimes into the deep Outer System or the Kuiper Belt and Oort Cloud, and occasionally even to the stars - although few succeeded at this last option.

On Mars, society continued to destabilize and break down. The spreading Black Rot, the Malware Outbreak, and the ham-handed responses of the central government all fed dissatisfaction and dissent, which drew government responses that fed the dissent in a rapidly escalating feedback loop.

Looking for a distraction and a way to bolster its own image, the government deployed Martian military forces around the planet and across the Inner System. The primary stated goal was to attack and destroy as many Neumann swarm units as possible, while also preventing any further infections (software or biological) from reaching Mars. To that end, they intercepted and searched all ships approaching Mars, and many that weren't anywhere near it (critics contended that the whole exercise was a mix of theater and government sanctioned looting, and various surviving accounts and records would seem to support both charges).

Elsewhere in the Solar System, the response was more varied and often more constructive. Many habs and colonies began working to make themselves fully self sufficient if they weren't already. Many also began to reach out to each other to seek alternative sources of those items that they could not readily manufacture themselves. From the Belt to Neptune, people began hunkering down and preparing for the worst as best they could. Whether they thought the worst was already upon them, or sensed that it was still to come has been a matter of speculation, both academic and dramatic, for thousands of years.

Protowars Deployed

As the year of 541 waned, the situation in the Solar System reached a new low. In response to Martian military escalation, the defense forces of Earth-Luna also began deploying around the Solar System. As with Mars, the ostensible reason was to intercept and destroy the spreading Swarms from Mercury. As with Mars, the reality had more to do with saber rattling and attempts to intimidate the lesser powers of the Solar System.

Central to the Terran deep space deployment was the device that would change the dynamics of Solar civilization like never before: The Protowar.

Incorporating a superturing level AI specialized in the areas of strategy and tactics, each Protowar was an autonomous warship equipped with multiple high grade nanofabs able to process raw materials from the local environment and use them to repair and renew itself as required. The on-board nanofabs could create replacements for exhausted or damaged weapons and components, produce fresh fuel for the vessel's fusion drive and power reactors, and even create additional secondary weapons platforms for deployment in interdiction or remote strike operations.

The one thing that the Protowars could not do was replicate themselves. A complex series of semi-independent programming blocks and suicide codes prevented any Protowar from making copies of itself and triggered any of several self-destruct systems if any such attempt was made. Even so, the creation of such systems had long been forbidden by various treaties and the revelation of their existence created outrage across the Solar System even when considered against the current crisis.

Mars in particular expressed shock and outrage at the 'treachery' of the Terran-Lunarian alliances and pointed to the example of the Protowars as 'proof' that many, perhaps even all, of the failures and attacks plaguing the Solar System were the result of Earth-Moon duplicity and incompetence. This public relations offensive was at first fairly effective in turning public opinion in the Belt and Outer System against Earth-Luna, but lost much of its impact when Mars abruptly revealed its own Protowar systems, substantially identical to the Earth-Luna models. Martian claims that they had managed to reverse engineer their own Protowars in only a few weeks via a combination of natural Martian genius and heroic effort were not believed by any but the almost ridiculously credulous. It was obvious to everyone else that Mars must have been developing its own Protowar systems in secret long before the current crisis began.

With both of the major powers of the Solar System operating in crisis mode and directing hostile and confrontational rhetoric (and heavily armed robotic warships) toward each other, it was generally felt to be only a matter of time before the war of words turned into something more. That time was to be Mendel 23, 541 AT, although the result was something very different (though no less horrible) than what anyone had been expecting.

The Protowars Rebel

At approximately noon, Greenwich Mean Time on Mendel 23, 541, a Martian military squadron hosting several Protowars intercepted a Terran-Lunarian force that also included four Protowars some fifteen million kilometers from Martian orbital space. Signals were exchanged, carrying what was apparently increasingly hostile rhetoric (transcripts or recordings of the dialog that occurred have all been lost, either due to the chaos that followed or possibly deliberate efforts by elements trying to hide the exact sequence of events, and therefore blame, from future investigators). Shortly thereafter two Protowars from the Martian force are believed to have suddenly boosted toward the Terran force while three Terran-Lunarian Protowar units and a pair of medium class cruisers moved to intercept them. What happened next was apparently completely unexpected by both sides.

As the rival Protowar units closed to firing range, both fleets were suddenly inundated by a hugely powerful directional radio transmission that was quickly determined to be originating from Mercury. This continued for several minutes and then ceased abruptly. Initial analysis of the signals was unable to break the encryption algorithms used and this activity was abruptly terminated when it became apparent that the Protowars themselves had suddenly begun exchanging signals at extremely high speed and in the same encoded format. Approximately 10 seconds later, the signal exchange expanded to include all Protowars in both fleets even as confusion and consternation spread among the command and control structures on both sides. Approximately 30 seconds after that, all Protowars on both sides ceased tactical maneuvers against each other and abruptly turned their weapons on the fleets of their supposed opponents, the Terran Protowars attacking the Martian forces while the Martian Protowars attacked the Terran. Both fleets were destroyed almost before they knew what was happening, leaving only the Protowars behind. The Protowars in turn began boosting for the Inner System at high acceleration while simultaneously broadcasting the same set of complex signals to every Protowar on both sides that was active to receive it. At the time, that meant some 175 Protowar units, primarily located in defensive positions close to their respective homeworlds, but with perhaps a third of all units traveling with fleet forces operating across the Inner System and extending into the Belt and even near-Jupiter space.

In virtually every case, the Protowars receiving the encoded signals would immediately cease to obey their controllers commands, instead either engaging in massively destructive attacks on the nearest 'enemy' forces of Earth-Luna or Mars before boosting toward the Inner System at high acceleration or, if no 'enemy' force was readily available, simply heading Sol-ward directly while completely ignoring whatever combination of control codes and imprecations was directed at them in an attempt to regain control.

Exactly what was contained within the Mercury transmission, and why it was sent when it was, would not be made clear until the rise of the First Federation. As part of its efforts to eradicate the last of the Protowars and rogue Neumanns from Sol system, the Federation gained access to a number of newly destroyed units and was able to apply hyperturing analysis to their control coding. From this, it was determined that elements of the Malware Outbreak had first infected the Mercury Neumann systems and then prompted them to transmit additional invasive software into the Protowars. That the robotic warships had been protected by the most sophisticated firewall technology of the day was apparently no barrier to infection and lent weight to speculation in some quarters that transapients might have had a hand in the Outbreak, the Neumann Malfunction, and ultimately the Technocalypse itself. However, virtually every Federation hyperturing (and those few ahumans who later deigned to answer questions on the matter) repeatedly denied that this was the case.

Protowars Travel to Mercury and Venus

While most of the Protowars vectored inward to Mercury, some boosted towards Venus. Given their demonstrated behavior up to that point, this was met with trepidation and outright panic among the surviving Venusian population, still reeling from the effects of the Malware Outbreak. Most of the few who could abandoned the planet, fleeing outward to the Earth-Luna volume and the protection of its extensive military forces. Those who could not escape, along with a core of Venusian holdouts and stubborn malcontents, armed themselves as much as they were able, maneuvered their bubblehabs even deeper into the planetary atmosphere, and waited for the automated warships to arrive.

Despite numerous calls for military intervention by various groups on both Mars and in the Earth-Luna volume, no additional forces were sent. Both militaries had been heavily damaged by the sudden Protowar attacks in their midst and the vast majority of the panicked populations and governments of all three worlds were demanding that all military forces be kept in close proximity to defend against possible Protowar attack. Venus was on its own.

Protowars at Mercury

Due to planetary positioning, those Protowars heading to Mercury actually arrived first and by late Galileo 542 were in orbit around the planet. At first it was though the planetary launchers might attempt to fire on them just as they had every other vessel that approached too closely. However, this never happened.

Although the distances involved and press of events made any observations difficult, it appeared that the Protowars began exchanging signals with the primary Neumann concentrations on the planet, followed by several of the AI warships exploding. Based on events and some small portions of the Protowar transmissions that had been picked up and partially decoded, it was widely theorized that the Protowars had attempted to reprogram the Mercury Neumanns to use their self-replication capacities to create additional Protowars. However, before these attempts could bear fruit, they triggered the hard coded anti-replications systems built into each Protowar (something that both the Earth-Luna and Martian governments had installed in their weapons using multiple layers of coding, hardwired systems, and heavy duty conditioning applied during the developmental phases of the Protowar AI cores).

Shortly afterwards the remainder of the Protowar fleet left Mercury space and began dispersing around the Solar System. Some headed for the Asteroid Belt while others moved to intercept a number of the Neumann Swarm light-sail craft, apparently consuming most for raw materials, while leaving others untouched, for reasons that were unclear at the time. Several Protowars headed inward to the now depopulated amat factory left behind by the Outbreak.

Protowars at Venus

Protowar forces arrived in Venusian space in early Hippocrates 542 and spent their time there seemingly exploring the remains of the orbital facilities and largely ignoring the remaining bubblehabs cowering in the murk below. A few of the higher flying habs were shot down, driving the remainder even further into the depths (and resulting in the catastrophic failure of at least four habs when their drive to reach lower altitudes exceeded their habitats' structural limitations), but the main focus of Protowar attention seemed to be the remaining orbital facilities and factories. For a time the Protowar vessels maneuvered from factory to hab to skyhook, apparently examining them and in a few cases at least partly activating them.

This behavior changed abruptly when the Protowars at Mercury abandoned the planet. Within hours, the Venusian Protowars had also departed, but only after destroying the entire remaining orbital infrastructure, including the skyhooks. This single act would isolate the population of Venus (now reduced to barely half a million sophonts) for the better part of a century until they could grow launch systems able to take off from airborne platforms and achieve orbital velocity without rotovator assistance. Designs for such systems had existed for centuries, but the now tiny population of Venus had goals that did not include getting back into space they now considered terrifyingly dangerous. Simple survival and rebuilding a civilization that had always assumed easy access to the rest of the Solar System was a far more urgent priority.

After the Protowars left Venus, they first headed to the facilities at the various Venus-Sol LaGrange points, securing and repairing facilities that they apparently considered useful, while destroying others, in particular the habitats that had held the local populations. While some of the Protowars remained behind, the majority also set out into the wider Solar System, some on intercept courses to the approaching Swarm neumanns, others heading toward points in the Asteroid Belt.

Collapse of the Antimatter Economy

The loss of the last of the antimatter factories to the Protowars, although coming well after the actual physical loss of the station to the Outbreak was the nail in the coffin the antimatter economy around Sol. The fastest and most capable ships, both military and civilian all depended on antimatter for fuel, and that fuel as now a very finite resource. Prices temporarily skyrocketed, before the governments of Earth, Luna, Mars, and the Jovian and Saturnian systems seized and essentially nationalized the remaining stockpiles in the volumes they controlled.

Efforts were immediately begun to make up the shortfall. In the Inner System this took the form of building new amat factories in orbits that were hopefully safe (or at least defensible) from encroaching Neumanns and attacking Protowars both. In the Outer System, the colonies of Jupiter and Saturn first looked to the long unused amat mining systems that had fueled much of their early development in prior centuries. Most of these had been dismantled long ago, but a few had just been mothballed, and these were rapidly reactivated and pressed into service, while new units were constructed and deployed as quickly as possible.

Unfortunately, neither of these efforts could come close to matching the production of the near-Sol antimatter farms, either in the immediate future or at all, in the case of the gas giant amat mines. Solar civilization had become used to having a ready supply of anti-matter to power its most capable spacecraft and now that supply was reduced to but a trickle. Enough remained to allow the most important vessels, those devoted to homeworld defense, to operate just long enough for the new systems to come online and keep them barely supplied as long as no major fuel expenditures (such as were likely to occur during major combat) were required. Orbital and surface based defense systems were also rapidly being built in various places, but these would be limited to purely defensive roles, able to (hopefully) protect the primary population centers, but utterly unsuited to the task of prosecuting combat in deep space or taking the battle to the Protowars themselves.

Fusion rockets, ion drives, and light and mag-sails, all still widely used across the solar system, suddenly saw a massive expansion, as governments and megacorps scrambled to make up the transportation shortfall. These vessels might have only a fraction of the speed, power, and maneuvering capability of an amat-catalyzed drive ship — but they were robust, reliable, and (most importantly) could be refueled almost anywhere that deuterium and helium-3 could be refined. Their construction provided a minor offset to the general economic malaise (often hard to distinguish from near total collapse) that was gripping the Solar System by this point.

Of course, it was rapidly becoming apparent that merely having the means to set out on a voyage across the Solar System was not the only requirement for making the journey. A would be traveler would also have to survive to reach their destination.

The Light of Civilization Dims

The Nanoswarms
Image from Anders Sandberg
Padang Harbour arcology, 547 AT. The arcology was a wonder of biological architecture until the Black Rot arrived. The struggle between the Rot and the Sharp Orchid 3.2 bluegoo severely damaged all organic materials in the vicinity.

Over the next six months the Protowars consolidated their position, while making it clear they were not content to merely ignore the rest of the Solar System, even if they could not replicate to fill it.

Protowar forces repaired the last amat factory and began using it to provide themselves with fuel, in the process gaining a significant tactical advantage over the must less well supplied forces of mindkind. Using a combination of asteroid mining, the industrial facilities of Venus, and cannibalization of the much slower, less maneuverable, and essentially unarmed light-sail craft of the Swarms for raw materials, they guaranteed themselves a ready supply of virtually everything they needed to continue manufacturing new weapons and components indefinitely. Using the energy, matter, and anti-matter they now controlled, the Protowars seemed intent on eventually destroying Solar civilization completely.

From their strongholds near Mercury and Venus, they launched an ongoing stream of seemingly random attacks on habitats, asteroid and comet mining operations, and ships crossing the Inner System. Worse still, they began devising ever more clever methods of attack. Protowar-built combat drones sneaked aboard ships bound for the Earth-Luna volume, for Mars, and points all around the Asteroid Belt and Outer System. Protowar-built transmitters (possibly built under the influence of the same Malware that triggered the Rebellion in the first place) broadcast a seemingly endless stream of software viruses, worms, and attack programs in all directions. Changing frequencies or encoding schemes provided only a temporary reprieve as the Protowars were themselves constantly changing these factors. And the Protowars themselves were always lurking, often mimicking the drive, heat, and data signatures of other vessels to approach close enough to a given installation or hab to attack, hiding themselves amongst the densest concentrations of the Swarms, even modifying some Swarm units to be both armed and aggressive, turning them into weapons to be used against the holdouts of civilization.

Limited in their amat supplies, Earth and Mars could defend their immediate environs (mostly), but lacked the resources to take the war to the enemy. The colonies of Jupiter and Saturn were even less capable, and primarily focused on simply defending their immediate volumes as best they could and counting on their great distance from the matter and energy of the Inner System to protect them.

Only the sheer scale of the Solar System, the comparatively small population of the Protowars, and their apparent reluctance to engage in an all out direct assault against all the worlds prevented them from entirely overwhelming civilization. And in many ways, civilization seemed like it was intent on doing the job for them.

Travel and communication between the worlds of the Solar System became a rare and sometimes risky thing, with insufficiently protected ships and transmissions subject to attack or infiltration by Protowar forces or malware. The various colonies and installations of the Asteroid Belt found themselves to be particularly vulnerable to these types of attacks. This led to a rising level of fear and distrust among and within the habs, driving many to abandon their homes en masse for the (hopefully) safer volumes of the major population centers. Others made the decision to cut off communication with the outside world and attempt to operate as wholly autonomous communities. A few groups with access to the necessary information and resources attempted to leave Solar space entirely and escape to the stars. Even fewer of them succeeded.

On Earth and Mars, the ongoing problem of the Black Rot continued to worsen, with Rot variants beginning to be found in several insect and lower order animal species on both major worlds and several of the largest orbital habitats. It was widely believed to be only a matter of time before the contagion made the jump to humans or some other sophont race. The strain of this and the ongoing inability to effectively deal with the problem finally proved to be too much for many. Several governments on Earth fell, some of them violently. Many smaller communities went the way of some of the Belt colonies and converted themselves into independent entities, relying on their internal nanoforges, or a network of trade with a few other trusted locales, to allow them to operate outside of the complex web of material and information flows that had bound Earth together for centuries.

On Mars, violence erupted in what was essentially a multi-sided civil war, culminating in several orbital factories and terraforming comets being de-orbited and converted into makeshift kinetic kill vehicles to strike at one faction or another. Its fragile ecosystem severely disrupted, Mars reverted to an earlier phase of the terraforming, with a thinner atmosphere, less available water, and the biosphere primarily expressed in the form of smaller animals and ground hugging plants. The newborn Martian forests, once the pride of the planet, were dead or dying, and to many it seemed the whole idea of a united and made habitable Mars had died with them.

In the Outer System the situation was not as immediately dire, but most feared that was only a temporary condition. Distance seemed to be providing some degree of protection from the Swarms, whose light-sail based propulsion would be at a distinct disadvantage so far from the Sun, but some Neumann units appeared to be vectoring toward the Asteroid Belt. Who knew what they might do once they go there? Perhaps even switch propulsion systems or build a new generation of Neumann that as not so limited. And of course the Protowars used fusion-amat drives and were perfectly capable of traveling to any of the Outer System worlds quite rapidly if they wished. Meanwhile, the broadcast malware from Protowar transmitters was causing a variety of problems, although the diverse and occasionally idiosyncratic nature of Outer System programming and network structure provided a degree of protection that the more standardized Inner System did not enjoy.

The responses to these challenges were as diverse as the Outer System itself. Around Jupiter, the major colonies and habs of the Jovian League began working to both strengthen their alliance and develop a local defense force, mainly consisting of a combination of locally created AIs and large numbers of armed drones. The Jovian bubblehabs were largely not involved with these efforts, having mostly cut themselves off from contact with the greater Solar System after the Malware Outbreak. However, a few hab communities chose to remain in occasional contact with the orbital colonies and would continue to do so through the remainder of the crisis and into the eventual Dark Age.

Around Saturn, the various colonies and bubblehabs reacted in almost diametric opposition to those around Jupiter. Rather than forging closer ties among themselves, most of the Saturnian moons and habs sought to become fully self-sufficient and independent. This approach would lead to the creation of a number of unique cultures that would come to impact the future of Sol System and even the early Federation for centuries to come.

The cultures of Neptune, Uranus, and the greater Outer System of the Kuiper Belt and near Oort Cloud were largely unaffected by events beyond the Malware Outbreak. Too far from the light and population of the rest of the Solar System to apparently interest either Swarms or Protowars and too widely separated to take much note of newly arrived refugees, these most distant Solar communities would continue on with their own evolution for the duration of the Technocalypse and beyond.

By early 543 AT, Solar civilization had not ceased to exist, but had been drastically reduced to only a pale shadow of its former glory. The ongoing threat from out of control technology would persist and grow, culminating in the rise of GAIA and the Great Expulsion that would herald the start of a new Dark Age. In turn, these events would lead to dozens of new interstellar colonies, the creation of a truly interstellar civilization and, eventually, the First Federation.

 
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Development Notes
Text by Todd Drashner
Ryan B, Stephen Inniss, Chris0033547, Ithuriel, Radtech497, FrodoGoofball, iancampbell
Initially published on 08 July 2015.

From original material by Anders Sandberg and M. Alan Kazlev initially published on 24 June 2000.
 
Additional Information
Fiction about the Technocalypse

The Inspection
 
 
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