Episode 1: The Battle for Node 3312 The AI God known variously as the Lord of Light, Ammon-Ra, Christos, Lord of the Self, Fons Luminis, or most often Lord of Rays, rules its empire directly, through the God-Emperor on Fons Luminis (Hesperia or Xi Ursae Majoris A-II; when people want to talk about the system without confusing it with the AI they usually call it Radiant and the planet itself Raphael). The God-Emperor was originally Daniel G. Borde, a charismatic AI-worshipping cyborg born in 2496 a.t. on Smith Suspension, an orbital base above Eden (now extended into the Birth Cathedral, a major pilgrimage site and significant source of income for the local government). He founded the Network of Light, which later became the Ecumenical Union of Churches of Light, which in turn became the Solar Empire. As he extended his Union he also interfaced more deeply with the emerging femtotech AI (third toposophic and above) sphere, until he became the manifestation of the Lord of Rays. Borde simply became the interface of the God. Since then the AI has mainly manifested through its avatar, which for all practical purposes is a physical God: the body is a femtotech construct, and on Raphael it able to influence nearly anything through the picotech devices spread through the atmosphere. By all accounts the presence of the God-Emperor is magnificent, even without the technological aspects.
Apparently the Lord of Rays selected Xi Ursae Majoris (Fons Luminis), as the center of its empire due to the huge amounts of easily accessible solar energy and material, which could be used for wormhole construction and interstellar expansion. Here it built the grand linedropper ships: massive expansion ships using the Diametric Drive to speed outwards at relativistic speeds, dropping off smaller ships that slowed down near promising systems, opened a wormhole gate, returned through it to Fons Luminis and then to the linedropper again. Orbiting in great bands around Kephra, Horus and Amon are wormhole stations, orbital factories, habitats and defense installations. Orbiting around Re are several major AI installations
.:: Encyclopaedia Galactica: Solar Dominion Guidance Server - email@example.com.Guidance.80 - Solar Dominion - Fons Luminis 10194.0.1 AT
Swirls of light, and sensation that had the tang of citrus, the raspy feel of towel over bare skin, the thrumming vibration and scintillating pleasure of an erotogen toy. He felt himself plummeting, in free-fall, gently turning, feeling the light sleet off his skin, thousands of tiny photons colliding with his outer self, pervading his soul until he, too, dissolved into the light, and became something else.
A new iteration began, and he was flooded with new sensations. This time it was criss-crossing lasers, intersecting his body, and at each point generating waves of warmth and pleasure, unknitting sore muscles, unravelling him, and then;
The disjointed shock of an abrupt connection;
- he recovered quickly, sitting bolt-upright, staring around within his own personalvirch, the quiet room empty except for him, and the insistent throbbing that signified an incoming request for a connection. He shook his head again.
He'd been biont, once; a real-life, living organism. He'd lived a life of contentment on board the massive orbital ring that he had been born on. He'd studied, and explored, and wandered, seeking meaning. He'd met his first partner as a biont; they'd mated and declared to each other and he'd been living with her for almost a century when he first applied to join Guidance. While the nanological angelnet that enveloped their habitat prevented most crimes or problems, there were occasional catastrophes that merited the response of a Crisis Team; Guidance was the agency that coordinated such teams. He'd been praised by his Octachaplain, the day he'd joined; apparently it was a great personal move, rejoiced his Octachaplain, a step closer to the Prime Reflector, to personal unity with the God-Emperor, the Lord of Rays.
If only his octachaplain had had some idea of where his time in Guidance would take him, or that part of him that still remembered what it was like to be a biont, that still perceived a need to shake his head upon waking.
Before he'd been copied and uploaded into virchspace, he'd been a biont, and as such, some habits were difficult to break. His own personal self image was still that of a biont; he still had the familiar urges to breathe, to eat, and indulged those urges with various food and drink templates that he had gathered in the many years since he was uploaded. And within his own personal space, his own personalvirch - his Lobby, if you used the ancient term - he still saw himself as a biont, and when something startled him, still sat bolt-upright, instead of simply willing his awareness, his sensoria, to acknowledge it.
The rest of the team - of his team - were mixed. A few of them were ex-bionts or vecs, and the others were born virtuals. They had no need for the "monkey-baggage" that came with being an ex-ril that had been uploaded - the need to walk, the need to feel the sensations of breathing, of swallowing, of flexing muscles for the satisfaction of the stretch, or the sensation of itching, or pain. They claimed they didn't feel the same disorientation that came from a forced disconnect, either. They would't have had any need to look around, or to wait for some simulated visual feed to get their bearings.
On the other hand, they all worked for Countersubversion, now. Traversing the shadowy border between virtual and real-life (ril) was their study, their profession. Having had some previous experience as a ril entity carried some decided advantages.
Grius stifled a moan as he rolled sideways and off the reclining lounge. The incoming message still thrummed inistently, and with a sigh, he answered it.
"This had better be good," he broadcast gruffly. "I'm meant to be on a downcycle here."
"Get online now, Grius," was the terse reply, and in his datamind Grius could parse the avatar of his commanding officer, Carmichael, a virtual, an AI, and an AI sufficiently advanced that he probably could have simulated Grius' entire mind in spare processing cycles alone.
"What's going on, boss?" replied Grius, with a growing sense of unease. "You know how much I value my downtime. Can't Ajasu take care of it? He's on alert duty."
"He's already out there." Suddenly, there was interference, the scintillating crackle of - something. Electromagnetic? No, it felt more like data interference. Maybe something was interfering with the connection, making it become laggy, or lossy. Grius made out a snatch of transmission, something someone was saying to Carmichael.
"-gauges 18 to 42 have just gone up as well-"
The static cleared, and Carmichael was present once more. "Grius, I have secured a connection to 114.22.Guidance.80 on port 155 from your home server. You are to login immediately."
Grius could hear the urgency in his commander's voice; a voice normally level, and calm. What could possibly unnerve a posthuman AI as powerful as Carmichael?
"Okay, boss; consider me there." Grius shook his head, clearing away the last vestiges of the abstract virch he had been lost in, and began multitasking, loading his work suite into memory, reviwewing his latest briefings, and preparing to log in and find out in the Dominion was going on that could lead to Carmichael disconnecting him from his downcycle with barely a word of warning.
It had been so quiet when he had logged off from Guidance, barely a Dominion hour beforehand.
Guidance was in chaos as he returned. Myriad connections being made and broken every second, a pervading, constant processing overhead that Grius sensory systems interpreted as a continuous background hum. As Grius felt the connection protocols stabilise, he dumped himself straight into the Command Centre virch server. A moment of disorientation while his sensory feeds caught up, and he was there.
The room had no walls, no celing, and no floor. Around them, kilometres of schematics hung, vibrant in the darkness, tracing the intricate Known Net connections, the vast infospace that served the many rils and virtuals that made up the Solar Dominion. In the literal sense, billions of interconnected computer systems, millions of interacting protocols, a vast web of pulsing information that spanned worlds and, via the magic of the Archailects and their wormhole technology, even the stars themselves. A vast web of surging information. Around this schematic, the various others logged on to the Command Centre drifted, avatars gently floating between visual and tactile representations of cables, angelnets, wireless transmissions, and mighty wormhole gauges. The main concentration of avatars was clustered near the centre of the virtual room, around a series of diagrams that portrayed some of the major communication-gauge wormholes that linked into the inner sphere, and Grius drifted over rapidly. As he watched, hundreds of beings logged in, and out, every second, flashing into existence and then fading away almost as quickly. The scene was blurred, incomprehensible. Someone in the middle of the cluster was running on fastime, and with a conscious effort, Grisu managed to slow his own perceptions down to match, and the scene before him became less chaotic;
"Glad you're here, Grius. I need to brief you," issued the deep, resonant voice of Carmichael from behind him. He turned around to face the intelligence's avatar. It was always the same - a featureless, metal globe. Every vitual changed their avatar, sometimes. It was who you were, your expression of everything that was yourself. Changing your avatar was like a ril changing their clothes, or taking on a cosmetic biomodification. Everyone changed their avatar.
Not Carmichael. But who could fathom the actions of the transapients, the posthumans, the godlings? Who could hope to understand the actions or compulsions of a Seraiph of the God Emperor himself?
"Yes, Zar," replied Grius, sending pulses of respect and acquiescence. They were canned message frames, formulated and saved for use in situations where a nearbaseline, such as Grius, was conversing with a Seraiph, such as Carmichael. "What is the situation?"
Carmichael did not hesitate, and his sensory feeds betrayed no hint of concern, apart from the terseness and that had suffused his earlier transmission. "At approximately 10.066 today, standard Dominion time, a massive info-assault was launched through all ports from the Dominion outpost CA-442. The datapressure was so high that it triggered overpressure systems on most of the servers along the route and they have shut down to preserve net integrity. We are in the process of manually accessing the remaining relay servers, either virtually or by sending ril Guidance teams to shut the servers down manually."
Grius radiated curiosity. "What was it, some kind of dos attack?"
"A denial-of-service? Possibly. Although I have my doubts as to whether a dos was the intention of the attacker. Most of the transmissions were junk, but we have determined that approximately one percent of the incoming transmissions were carefully encoded programs. We do not currently know what the payload was."
Grius felt his skin crawl. "Viral?"
"As I said, we don't yet know what the payload was. It failed to trigger any of the standard viral sensors on its arrival."
"Perhaps the flood of data managed to effectively spoof the viral sensors?"
"Unlikely," replied Carmichael. "The viral detection systems are designed to remain functional in the instance of an overpressure attack. If there was any viral content, we would have expected it to trigger them by now."
Grius nodded slowly. "Unless it's some kind of new viral technique. Or some kind of sentient virus, a savir."
"At this stage, we suspect it is a savir. Ajasu is currently scanning in an attempt to locate any possible infection. I need you for another mission."
"Go ahead," said Grius.
"What makes this attack so different is that it appears to have subverted many of the wormhole relay gauges between here and CA-442. The main bulk of the information is travelling through those gauges. As you can understand, we are reluctant to shut these down, as it will lead to the complete loss of contact with CA-442. It would also necessitate cutting the Archai in CA-442 off from several of their own personal nodes which are located in local Inner Sphere space. This would mean greatly diminished functional capability for those archai."
"That's clearly a bad thing," replied the shocked Grius.
"Indeed. Furthermore, because it is travelling through gauge ports, we are having great difficulty blocking its dissemination into the known net. Wormhole gauges are integrated into most of the major Known Net backbones within the region. Archailect operated gauges are not designed to be readily blocked. Rhyder and Lifter are currently working on blocking outbreaks, but the transmissions have already grounded themselves into several major Dominion servers. Those servers that have been compromised have been quarantined, and all their external connections to the rest of the net broken."
"How the hax did they manage to infiltrate an archai?" asked Grius in disbelief.
"Greater minds are currently working on answering exactly that. Until we can, it is a matter of great urgency that we try and stem this info-assault before it manages to push its way into any more servers. We need you to take a partner and infiltrate a relay gauge on Node 3132 on the archai known as 32 Degrees.
"You want me to infiltrate an Archai?"
Grius felt the pulse of assent from the other mind. "With that Archai's consent, of course. 32 Degrees has just reported that the flood has overwhelmed compensatory systems in the node. Unfortunately, 32 Degrees was in the process of a complex computation and had left only a baseline fragment in charge of Node 3132. That baseline fragment appears to have been compromised by the savir. At this stage, 90% of the transmission flood is entering local servers from this node. We must shut it down."
"Okay," Grius replied, trying to quash the unease he felt. "I've never refused a mission before. But surely there are transapient agents who are more suited to this task?"
"Not at this stage. Many of our transapient agents are currently engaged in controlling this info-assault. We suspect that near-baseline agents will have more success in infiltrating the the node, in any case, due to your lower overhead requirements."
"You mean our brains are smaller, don't you, Carmichael?"
"By several orders of magnitude," the seraiph replied. "However, this is not why you have a lower overhead. Your meagre sensoria limit the amount of information you will be able to request from the node, and we believe this will enable you to operate with less chance of detection."
"Are there any metanet connections into the node?"
"As a matter of fact, there are - several."
"Then detection shouldn't matter. Even a Savir won't be able to block an incoming metanet signal."
"Logs coming in show some anomalies arising from the use of metanet connections. We are still analysing them. I wish to be careful. An in any case, if your signals are traced, as a nearbaseline, your possible infection or deletion is of far less consequence than that of a transapient or transavant agent."
"As usual," sighed Grius, "We're expendable."
"Correct. And also relatively fast to restore from backup."
Grius shook his head, grinning. "When was the last time I restored from backup, Carmichael?"
"According to my records, you are yet to restore from a backup; however, my records of you as an entity only go back approximately one and a half centuries, to the point where you were uploaded to Countersubversion."
"Indeed. I've never needed restoring, and I'm not planning on doing now. If Ajasu, Rhyder and Lifter are out answering the call of duty, who are you recalling to back me up?"
Grius began shaking his head and backed away. "No way am I doing this alone. If that node's been compromised, they could have its own counter-subversion defences running. Transapient defences. Infiltrating it'd be suicide."
"You won't be going in alone."
"Well, if Ajasu, Rhyder, and Lifter are all extant, you'd better have got me someone good from one of the other units."
"You will be partnered with Lyrica for this mission."
Grius began to laugh. "You must be kidding. There's no way she's up to this."
"She is the fastest hacker we have."
"She's a damn abstract, Carmichael! She's not even in the same universe as us! If she loses interest or decides to play with the pretty datanodes, we'll both be dead!"
He felt the pulse of disapproval from his commander and fell silent. Carmichael spoke again, and this time Grius could feel the insistence and the urgency in his transmission. "Lyrica has an interpreter now. They have been integrated as a groupmind. They are currently being prepared for launch. Time is of the essence in this mission. We are currently working on securing an open port for you to access Node 3132. As soon as we have one, I need you to be ready to connect. Both of you."
Grius suppressed further protest, satisfying himself with radiating displeasure at the thought of working with the only being in the control center possibly more alien than Carmichael itself. But there was no satisfaction in his anger; his thoughts on the matter were of no consequence to the posthuman AI as it drifted back to the main conference clustered around the schematics in the center of the room. All that mattered was his service. Through his service he would bring himself closer to the Prime Reflector.
"You'd better have some good guns for me, Carmichael," Grius ground out between vitually-clenched teeth as he prepared to disconnect and reconnect to the launch centre.
"What do you have for me, Control?" asked Grius, materialising in the launch center. He adroitly manoeuvred his avatar to the side as several other virtuals scurried past, and slowly rotated to scan the various schematics scattered throughout the virchspace before him. Several caught his eye, the symbology and readouts attached to them identifying them as integrated programs designed to dole out mass destruction - at least, in terms of virtual space. He grinned, highlighting several of the schematics with a faint gold outline. "Looks like the good stuff here, Control," he said, grinning wolfishly.
The slim outline of a humanoid figure, sex indeterminate, materialised out of the darkness before him, a close-fitting white shipsuit cladding the effeminate frame, silver nano-feedlines criss-crossing the white smartex, with a single optical scanner embedded in an otherwise smooth and featureless face, across the upper third, where baseline terragen eyes would be located. When it spoke, there was no simulated timbre and resonance of sound; it was pure data.We have something special for you, Grius
Grius grinned again. "What,even better than the ISF-95?" he asked, once more highlighting one of the more complex schematics.Carmichael placed a special order for this mission. We are currenrly prepping an IGP-20 with a mission specific loadout
Grius' brow furrowed, and he emitted spurts of confusion and displeasure. "A general purpose suite? Tell me there is some kind of mistake. There is no way I'm going to war with, with what I'm about to face, in a GP suite."
Control remained expressionless. Carmichael anticipated you would say that. Carmichael has authorised the release of certain advanced weapon systems. We are currently retrofitting them to the IGP-20 suites. They are normally designed to be deployed by more advanced users. Adapting them to your requirements has been a - challenge
Grius nodded, surly. "So, what has the cantankerous po arranged for his toy soliders, then?" he asked.Your humour does not befit the seriousness of the situation
"You know, I don't know if I've ever asked you this, Control. Are you transapient?"While I remain classified as a nearbaseline superbright, I have been augmented to have spikes into transapient intelligence in certain select areas
"A transavant. Figures. Have you ever been nearbaseline?"Yes
"Ril?"Yes. A long time ago
"Then it's understandable that certain elements of the nearbaseline reaction to stressful situations would no longer be familiar to you."Indeed
A spell of silence ensued, and Grius grew uneasy. Perhaps he'd gone too far. Every soldier knew that the last person you wanted to offend was the one in charge of the equipment. He sighed, and loaded up a few frames of penitence and apology, and squirted them to the avatar before him. It remained unmoved. Grius nodded, and tried again.
"So, what kind of modifications have you made to the '20?" he asked, slowly. Control spoke once more.The entire sensor suite has been changed out and refitted with a series of protocols for accessing most of the major transapient operating systems in use currently. The onboard programming has been radically upgraded to enable it to downsample the incoming sensor data to nearbaseline tolerance at both realtime and fastime. Most of the standard onboard commands and other weaponry have been redesigned to be interoperable with the new sensor suite to enable them to function in a transapient operating environment
Grius widened his eyes incredulously. "You've refitted a general purpose suite to make it effective against transapients?Of course. How else did you think you would survive on Node 3312
"You know about the mission?"I needed to know the mission parameters if I was going to be able to design a weapon suite that would function effectively in the environment
Grius was silent for a moment. Then: "Can I try it on?"Unlikely. I currently have 60% of my active technical team working on the two suites in order to get them operational by the time the transmission window arrives. Simply loading it will require a massive memory overhead, far more than that usually allocated to nearbaseline suite operations. I am currently working on freeing up those resources. I suspect your first chance to operate the suite will be at launch
Grius grunted. "That's a shame. I like to test new software out before I commit my ops to it."I trust you have backups
Grius laughed. "Fine, before I trust other people's opses to it."The limited data I have received indicates that there are no virtuals residing within the computronium of Node 3312. No others will be at risk. As a result, I have authorised the release of several high-yield weapons contributed by some of our transapient operatives
"Now we're talking. You know how I like my suites."Unfortunately, I do
. Grius caught the aura of disapproval in Control's transmission, and the few images that came trickling along the link, of virtuals dead and dying, left no room for misunderstanding.
"So, Control, you're a pacifist? Seems a strange leaning for the head of Countersubversion's technical branch."Not so strange
There was only so much probing that a nearbaseline could get away with when dealing with a transapient, and while the continuing conversation held some promise of a rather interesting ideological debate, Grius felt the sensory feeds from Control suddenly cut down to informational and auditory only.
In other words, end of conversation. Grius smiled a wry smile.
"You've got my suite preferences?"On file. They'll be integrated with the suite before launch
"Very well. I have some more business to attend to before launch."
Where rils had hardware - weapons, shields, scanners, countermeasures, armour, autowars - virtuals had software. For most virtuals, warfare - the visceral, deadly, dangerous variety of it - was something that happened outside. Offline. In Ril. Common, garden variety, online warfare, of course, happened all of the time - there were entire servers built around it, entire cultures that had arisen around ritualistic conflicts, virtual battles played out to carefully contrived rules, with operating systems that kept a careful tally of the score, and reset both it and all those individuals who had fallen, at the commencement of the next round.
Not to belittle the importance of that garden variety virtual war, of course. It was an essential outlet. Terragen life was robust and adaptable, and that was partly due to the territorial and stubborn nature of its component members. Virtual wars allowed an outlet for that hereditary aggression - at least for those individuals who had not chosen to have it memetically removed from their psyche, or had it bred out of their genetic template many generations prior. But virtual life was designed to be immortal. Operating systems were designed with layers of fail-safe mechanisms to ensure that virtuals could not be altered, accessed, or deleted, without their own permission. Virch servers were carefully designed to maintain up to the minute - even up to the second - backups of their inhabitants. In the event of a catastrophic event of some sort, many of the inhabitants would simply have their backups transferred to a backup server, and be reactivated. Possibly even before they realised what had happened.
Real wars - dangerous wars - happened outside. That didn't mean that virtuals were safe from them; the aforementioned catastrophic event might be an amat weapon being detonated in close proximity to the computronium bank your ops was stored on. Bang. End of program. Shut down mid-process, and unless you had a backup on a remote server, never to restart. But mostly, ril wars passed virtuals by. Data threatened by ril incursion on its storage substrate could be transferred to secure nodes, behind friendly lines; software countermeasures and firewalls stopped viruses and other info-assaults at the operating-system-level, before they encroached on virtuality.
But when a Virtual had to go to war, they called on software, rather than hardware, to get the job done. Suites of inter-operating programs, designed to envelop the virtual consciousness with the equipment to travel where they had to go. With the systems to keep them alive when they got there.
With the weapons to do the damage they had to do when they arrived.
Of course, the virtual warrior never actually went
anywhere. Once the suite was loaded into memory, they simply sought out some kind of secure - or in desperation, unsecured - connection, and set about hacking their way into whatever server they needed to get to. Their mind stayed put; they simply connected their sensoria to a remote server. Of course, that was difficult; even entirely nearbaseline-run servers had formidable defences against penetration, but it was still possibly to hack in, whether by brute force, or through stolen identity information, and once in, using the various programs and commands stored within the suite - to wreak havoc.
You didn't get long, though. The defender always has the advantage in a virtual war. They can simply disconnect you. Unplug whatever port you happen to be coming through. So then, you have an alternative, already ready, already hacked. And you switch to that. And when they block that port, you switch to the next. And the conflict becomes a complex, rapid, and ultimately deadly, battle of thrust and parry. Thousands of connections each ril second, virtual warriors frantically battling in subjective fastime. Eventually you get in, and you stay in long enough to get control of the operating system, long enough to force your port open, maybe even long enough to hide a program in an innocent user account, and if you do that carefully enough, they will never know. And before they have time to find it, the program executes, and the server begins systematically deleting itself, and the program runs with suser authority, and the frantic security forces for that server can do nothing but calm panicked virtuals and offload backups as fast as they can, hoping to get everyone's backups off the server before they are deleted, or before some vital part of the server operating system is damaged beyond repair and the entire server goes offline.
A smart program ensures that this happens first.
Of course, if you lose, you take the chance that the "defender" has just traced your connection route back to your own server. And if they have a sufficiently equipped suite of their own, and a sufficiently skilled operator, maybe they just managed to penetrate through the maze of stealthed ports and dummy servers and redirects that you were using to cover your tracks. Maybe they manage to find your home server. And maybe they launch their own attack on you. And then you are the defender, and they are the attacker.
And hopefully you are better than them, or in the event that you become the loser, that you have a recent offsite backup.
Of course, such a war is a war of attrition, a careful ballet where to commit to any attack also opens yourself up to retaliation.
The great weapon would be to find some way to make those connections, some way that couldn't be blocked. Some way that couldn't be traced.
Some way of infiltrating the enemy.
The main Countersubversion servers were almost self-sufficient. They had to be; they could not afford to rely on the general public to support them. The Solar Dominion was an empire based on light. They had little regard for those that walked in darkness.
As such, they had all of the things any self-respecting net zar could want within their own covert community; commercial outlets, home quarters, social gathering places, schools, training facilities, Solarist places of worship, medical facilities.
The virchspace Grius materialised into as his connection stabilised was typical of a Dominion virch - he found himself in a quadrangle, surrounded on all sides, and above and below, by a tangle of walkways. This central area was housed in the enormous inner cavity of what Grius knew from the outside to be a solarist pyramid - a four-sided pyramid with the top truncated so that it had a flat upper surface. From below, verdant light streamed upwards, and Grius noted that the physics of the virch had been tweaked ever-so-slightly to slow the speed of the light from below down, so that it moved at speeds almost visible to the unaided nearbaseline eye. It was a popular Solarist tweak - it made the light feel closer, more familiar. It personified it. Around the outside of the quadrangle, people were leaning out, staring downwards, and letting their bodies bathe in the light from below. There were no guard-rails, even though the drop from the edge of the connection platform seemed to be endless; there was no need for them. The server would not allow anyone to fall; they would merely be re-loaded back on the platform if they chose to step off.
It was the Countersubversion Treatment Centre, home to the foremost experts on neuroprogramming within the Dominion. And exactly the place to find a defective Abstract that was being shoehorned into a role that it did not fit into. With the barest of impulses, Grius loaded the public online listing into his datamind, and scanned the names. Unlesss they'd changed her public profile -
No. There she was. There it was. Lyrica. He willed himself there. The connection platform dissolved, and a new room materialised across his visual field - plain, nondescript, golden-hued walls with lights in both floor and ceiling.
"I was expecting you, Grius. I thought you'd like to take the opportunity to become accustomed to your new partner." The voice seemed to echo from the walls, with no clear source. Grius coughed. Some people changed their avatars like they changed their clothes. Some, like the enigmatic Carmichael, chose to retain the same avatar.
Some saw no need for one at all.
"A14, I see that Carmichael has had you working on his latest project?" Grius announced to the room at large. There was a pause, and a chuckle.
"Actually," came the disembodied voice again as Grius scanned the room's other occupant, "Lyrica is more my project than Carmichael's. Such an interesting challenge provided me with many hours of amusement. After all, I am the head of Neuroprogramming here. Projects such as Lyrica are my speciality. I think it's good that you take the chance to meet her before your mission."
For the first time, Grius surveyed the room, and noticed an avatar standing silently in the corner.
This avatar was made up of two figures; one was that of a tall woman, eyes and mouth closed, as if dreaming, her skin was silver, she wore no clothing, and her body was entirely hairless; as Grius watched, faint skeins of multi-coloured light washed over it, like nano over water. Her hair was not hair at all, it was hundreds of tendrils, millimetres thick, growing thinner as they swept down her back to end somewhere near the ground, each one writhing slightly as she moved.
Standing before the otherworldly figure of a woman was that of a man; shorter, more rotund, eyes and mouth most definitely open. His head was bald, and studded with metal outcroppings, implants of some description; both eyes were also clearly cyborgised. He wore a simple black shipsuit. As Grius watched, the two figures moved in perfect unison, the man's actions perfectly mirroring the dream-like movements of the woman. The only way they differed was in the gentle movement of the woman's tendril-like hair - it gently curled around her to caress the studded pate of the shorter figure before her.
"Seems like a lot of people know about our mission, for something supposedly so secret," Grius replied sourly.
"Only those of us that need to know. Grius, meet Lyrica and her interpreter. Final testing is complete; the two of them have been united into a perfectly functional groupmind."
Grius surveyed the avatar up and down, a shifting, glowing aura made it hard to discern where one figure ended and the other began. "What do I call it?"
"Our interpreter has graciously agreed to allow his own identity to be subsumed into that of Lyrica for the duration of their union. He simply contributes his skill in acting as a conduit between Lyrica's abstract sensoria and our own world. As such, the groupmind should continue to be called Lyrica."
Grius grunted. "That's a shame."
A14 spoke again, warmth suffusing it's voice. "While I am aware of the circumstances of Lyrica's last mission, and your own personal ill feelings towards her, I can assure you that I have tested the new construct rigorously. I do not anticipate similar problems to those we faced previously with Lyrica. She should have no difficulty in integrating with your Countersubversion software suites, either."
"What's with the 'borged headgear on your interpreter there?"
"The interpreter is a recent upload. He had such implants in ril. He still retains much of his identity from his time before uploading, and as such, he has chosen his avatar to mirror that image."
Grius nodded curtly. "Does it talk?"
The dual avatar shifted slightly, both heads tilting to one side. The shorter, male figure's mouth began to move.
"Yes, I do, Zar Grius."
"Who am I talking to? Lyrica, or the interpreter?"
There was a pause, and the shorter figure spoke again. The inflection, the accent, they were different this time, and the voice strained. "Zar Grius, with some effort I am able to parallel process and bring my own identity back to the surface. However, for the bulk of the time, you will be interacting directly with Lyrica."
Grius looked them over. "Okay. That was obviously the interpreter. Lyrica?"
This time, the voice was easier, less strained, more melodious, unmistakably tenor, but with an audible soprano echo. "Yes, Zar Grius?"
"Do you have any memories of your last mission?"
"Zar Grius, I do not have true memories, although logs of the mission have been processed and uploaded for me to review. I am aware of what happened, and also my part in it."
"Do you know what our current mission is?"
"Yes, Zar Grius, I have been briefed by Carmichael on our next mission. To Node 3312."
Grius paced to the other side of the room, before turning around. "Lyrica, I don't know what it is about you that addles Carmichael into keeping you around, but I don't like it, and I don't agree with it. As far as I'm concerned, you don't even share the same universe as the rest of us."
"In a sense, this is true, Zar Grius," Lyrica replied. "My sensorium is fundamentally different to yours, as a result of many hundreds of cycles spent immersed in a transensory virch. However, with the services of A14 and my Interpreter, I am now able to function well in environments suited to terragen standard sensoria."
Grius turned to face her again. "What happened last time - "
"I can assure you, Zar Grius, that what happened last time will not happen again."
"See to it that it doesn't," hissed Grius, "or I'll arrange for you to be stripped of your interpreter and thrown back into whatever abstract virch you toppled out of." He turned on his heel and, as quickly as he could manage, dumped himself out of the medical server and back to Launch Control.
Imagine a virch where the baseline terragen sensory inputs are - scrambled. Adulterated. Altered. Suddenly, things are different. You can feel
colours. You can see tactile sensations. Suddenly, every noise triggers your sense of smell; every smell paints a vibrant soundscape in your inner ear.
Imagine that all of a sudden, there are more senses. Senses that baseline terragens do not have concepts for. Sure, you can try and describe them. Maybe it's like seeing weird colours - but wait, that's not a new sense, that's just the sense of sight re-hashed. Okay, so maybe you can feel deep thrumming vibrations - no, wrong again, once more, just trying to represent new senses with old ones. The problem with a transensory virch is that you can't describe it because the concepts don't exist for those descriptions to make sense - not in the classical baseline sense. The only way to know it is to experience it - to experience the ecstasy and agony of having all that is familiar moved through ninety degrees and turned upside down. Add into the mix a suitably surreal setting - perhaps every mind connected to the virch is some kind of resonant frequency in a forest of crystal; perhaps they are waves travelling through the white-hot plasma of a verdant star - and you have a transensory virch.
Imagine the joy of spending time in that virch. It would be like drugs. No - better than drugs. Cheaper, certainly. Easily accessible. And you could do it again, and again, without any harm befalling you, without the wait for them to take effect.
Imagine if you spent more and more time in such a virch. Imagine if you started spending so much time that all of a sudden it seemed real and the other mundane, baseline-compatible virches seemed surreal - limited - boring - cold. Imagine if you spent so much time that your brain adapted. Re-tasked. Re-wired its sensorium to adapt to the new sensory environment you were immersed in, cycle after cycle, hour after hour, day after day.
Imagine if you reached the point where you could no longer function outside of that abstract virch. Outside of your new reality. What would you do, then, if you were exiled? What would you do, when you had no choice but to leave?
Connection window in approximately five minutes, Zar Grius
The expert system's voice chimed melodiously in his datamind as he carefully flexed his mental muscles, testing the pull and the give of the new construct. The new Suite was loaded into memory, and Grius grimaced as he gingerly felt out its connections, its linkages, and tried to glean its quirks, its foibles.
It felt clean. That was good. That was what you wanted, before a fight - a good, clean connection. You didn't want loss, or lag - anything that impeded the steady flow of information, from the target, to the suite, to your brain, and back, from your brain, to the suite, and then to the target. They would operate at deep fastime - it was an enormous strain on a baseline mind but it would give them the advantage of speed. Grius, Lyrica, and their suites had an entire server-full of resources to call upon - hopefully their target would be unable to speed their perceptions in the same way.
Grius whistled through his teeth. His biont habits always came back to him, before a fight. When he was focusing on the mission, and not on his own avatar. He felt heavier. Different to the way he normally felt. Not sluggish, just oddly massive. It must have been the jury-rigged transapient systems - they made the suite feel bigger, somehow. Like the difference between an armoured suit, and a tank. The transapient systems were taking quite a toll on Launch Control's support systems.
Three minutes to launch, Zar Grius.
Carmichael smoothly insinuated himself into Grius' datamind, not waiting for Grius to accept his incoming signal but simply inserting himself directly into the nearbaseline's sensorium. Not terribly good conduct, but for a Countersubversion AI it was easily enough achieved and Grius wouldn't have barred the AI from his mind anyway.
"You have your briefing?"
Grius pulsed assent over their link. "How are the rest of the team?" he asked.
"I have Ajasu in Command now downloading his log files. He has several in-vivo samples of the rogue program. I suspect that you were indeed right - it is a savir of some description. We are analysing it now. Rhyder and Lifter continue to try and stem outbreaks along with units two, three, four, and five. And, of course, Lyrica is in the final stages of preparation for connection, as are you."
Grius nodded. "Any advice, Carmichael?"
"Be careful. This will be your first attempt at infiltrating a transapient-operated server. Even without 32 Degrees in control, many of the automated systems will still be as intelligent as you are."
"I thought you said this Suite would travel undetected?" Grius queried.
"It should. We have integrated an active camoflague matrix based on recognition codes supplied by 32 Degrees. Additionally, you will be connecting via metanet pathways. You should remain undetected. There is always the possibility that the savir has subverted those systems in charge of countersubversion, however."
"What if we cannot shut down the server?"
"I believe 32 Degrees spoke with you earlier?"
Grius shook his head. The headache still throbbed. "It certainly did."
Grius fancied that he could sense the slightest hint of humour in Carmichael's incoming transmission, although with transapients you could never be sure. "I'm sorry, Grius," the AI continued. "32 Degrees is unused to dealing with nearbaselines. I will discuss with him the importance of using output filters when dealing with lower-capacity minds. I trust you understand what it told you, however?"
Grius nodded slowly. "I heard what it told me. Whether I understood it or not -"
" - is of no consequence. You understand what is required of you?"
Grius nodded. He spoke no more words, simply sending a pulse of emotion - anticipation; eagerness; fear; endorphin-laden dread.
"Then may the Prime Reflector light your path, Zar Grius," spoke Carmichael in blessing.
"I don't want any light. Not where I'm going."
One minute to connection.
Darkness, and then flickers of light, and sound - random sensory inputs as the protocols sought each other out, exchanged greetings, verified, attached, strengthened. The sensory deprivation was eerie; it was time in limbo that always accompanied a server-jump, even though Grius knew that it would only last a few seconds, until either the connection was established, or the Suite timed out, recycled, and they would try for a second attempt.
Data sprung across his visual field, raw information swirling and pitching; there was another moment of disorientation.
Grius' words were met with an instant response as his visual field stabilised and he was there - within the operating system of the server itself.
No minds travelled here. It was virgin territory. Minds were restricted to the world that sprang up as an emergent property of this place - to the virch settings and servers that were spawned by the monolithic program that Grius and Lyrica were currently inside. This place, however, was not designed for minds to see - and so the Suites took the information that was the operating system and condensed it and turned it into a visual representation that enabled those chosen few who walked in the shadows to understand it, to comprehend.
It was said that what each mind saw while within the embrace of the Suite was different, determined by their own cognitive patterns. Grius saw -
Grius saw a vast field of geometric shapes, cubes, stark grey and featureless, visual representations of blocks of data stored within the great computronium banks they were currently connected to.
Grius saw processes - arcing, blinding streams of light flowing from the fields of data down below, past them, up into the simulated sky far above them.
Grius saw the processing node, a vast sun, crackling and spitting, high above them, and as the lightning streams that were running processes passed by it, they exchanged information in vast gouts and arcs of energy.
He shook his head, willing the nausea to subside. He was disorientated. This was far larger than he was used to. The data fields stretched far beyond his field of view, to the horizon, and beyond, and he rapidly lost count of the amount of programs he perceived streaming past him, to that central processor. Even it was far larger than that of any system he had ever been a part of, and as he focused on it, he began to feel its energies invading him, flaying at him.
"Filters!" he managed to croak, and as suddenly as the nausea had risen, it subsided. He felt the sensory overload recede.
He looked around. The figure that represented Lyrica drifted beside him. Fearing the worst, he sent an inquisitive probe in her direction.
She responded immediately. He cleared his throat. She appeared to have fared better than he. He turned to survey the fields once more.
"There's some major work going on here," Grius spoke to the datascape at large, eyeing the hundreds of processes arcing their way upwards.
"Perhaps. I've never been inside a transapient operating system before," replied Lyrica. "Maybe the computation 32 Degrees was working on is still running?"
Grius nodded. "Maybe. No matter. Let's get down to business."
He felt Lyrica's presence move up beside him. "What would you like me to do, Zar?" he heard her ask. He continued to survey the datascape before them, and without turning to face her, replied: "Begin surveying for active defense systems, although we seem to have stayed under the net so far. I'll begin scanning for viral activity and see if we can isolate and kill it."
He felt Lyrica move off, and he began his own search.
He felt the scanning display fall across his visual field like a curtain. A cursory scan of the surrounding data fields showed no activity associated with known viruses, but that meant little - if it had been a known virus, it would have been stopped before it could cause so much strife. Grius flexed a mental muscle, and engaged the markerlight.
The markerlight was a subroutine that would illuminate a data block or process and scan it for a range of things - in this case, viral activity or presumptive viral activity. He could have triggered a comprehensive viral scan, but that would take days on a server of this size, and they didn't have the luxury of that sort of time. The markerlight display once more superimposed itself across his visual field.
Grius smiled. "Smooth."
The jury-rigged suite was functiong well within parameters. He knew he'd have little time once he detected anything - if it was the Savir, it would know it was being tampered with and immediately take countermeasures. What those countermeasures were depended on the virus, but anything tricky enough to take control of an entire transapient node obviously had some resources to draw on.
"Okay," muttered Grius to himself. "If I was a viral process, which of these processes would I be?"
He turned slowly, scanning one process after another. Each one came back clean, no change in his visual field. As he turned, he saw another raft of lightning bolts arc up from another data field. His onboard processor tallied up over two hundred new programs executing.
He groaned. "There's too many of them."
Grius began eying the individual processes. He'd need to narrow it down if he was going to have any chance of spotting it. But after all, that's why they had sent a nearbaseline in where expert system antiviral monitors had failed. Nearbaselines could think outside the box.
Grius had thrown the box away a long time ago.
As he scanned slowly, he reopened his link to Lyrica. "All clear?"
"Crystal," was the groupmind's only reply.
He turned back to the datafields arrayed before him, eying the processes. Suddenly, one caught his eye.
In fact, it was two processes, arising from neighbouring data blocks, seemingly alternating - one would arc, then the other, and then the first again. Grius drifted closer, and tried to peg the pattern down, but he couldn't. The interval between the two processes seemed to fluctuate at random.
He felt his skin crawl, and surmised that somewhere back on the Guidance servers the non-existent hairs would be rising on the back of his avatar's neck.
Carefully, he engaged his second weapon - a set of subroutines that would scan the process and then issue a kill directive directly to the central processor. The killswitch - rapidly lethal, and at the end of the day, the reason why Countersubversion agents were so effective. Really, it was the only weapon they needed. Their real power wasn't in their suites. It was in the fact that the metanet protocols gave their suites access to the programs themselves. It was hard for your enemy to do anything when you controlled the substrate they subsisted on.
A quick flash of movement - markerlight up, and he was scanning. A flash of red, and Grius saw it - the malevolent, twisting, snake-like shape that signified viral activity. "Contact!" he narrowcast at Lyrica, at full intensity, and aimed the killswitch. It jittered for a moment, scanning the process, trying to lock onto it as it twisted and turned, and steadied -
- and then the process was gone. Grius spun around. So was it's partner. He checked his logs.
"Hax it!" he swore. The process had terminated itself before it could be scanned. Which meant it had probably started up somewhere else -
"Grius! I have contact!" he felt the narrowcast transmission from Lyrica. He spun, seeking her position; his onboard systems highlighted the tiny figure of her avatar some distance away. Of course, within the advanced suite simulation, distance was subjective - with the merest of thoughts, he was beside her, in time to see the process she was scanning disappear.
"Lost it," she announced tersely.
"Blighted thing's fast," conceded Grius as he began scanning the datascape again. Suddenly, something caught his eye.
"I think it's restarted over there," he narrowcast again, at a whisper. They both drifted over slowly.
"Do you think it can sense our approach?" Lyrica asked quietly.
"Don't be absurd. We're coming in here via the metanet. It can't even tell we're connected. All it knows is that it's getting read and then getting kill commands sent at it. It probably can't even tell where the killswitches are being sent from. As far as it knows, they're originating from nothing."
"Poor virus. Do you think it's sentient?"
"Even a sub-turing virus can kill itself and re-run if it's scanned. A carefully designed one."
Once more, they were next to the process, and once more, it had generated a twin. Grius slowly circled around it. "This time, you try and acquire it. I'll be on the lookout for it when it terminates and reactivates. Hopefully if I can hit it as it restarts it won't have the time to kill itself again."
Lyrica pulsed her assent.
"On my mark," narrowcast Grius. "Three, two, one, mark!"
He felt the scanning systems of Lyrica's suite as a hum across his auditory sensors, but he was already spinning to scan the datascape himself. He felt the process behind them die, heard Lyrica's softly-spoken curse, and then, across the fields, spotted a twin process arcing upwards towards the central processor -
"I have it!" He shipped his markerlight up, acquired the target, and raced towards it, feeling the signal track, waver, and then firm. A picosecond later,
"Process scanned. Process killed." The dulcet tones of the suite directly into his auditory centres.
He whooped, and heard a polite laugh from Lyrica, and then her voice, the strange tenor tones modulated with high-pitched soprano.
"Well done, Grius. What have you got?"
He carefully pulled up his quarantine logs, studying the datafeed closely. "I'm - not sure. It's odd, whatever it is. The suite's processing it now; hopefully it'll be able to resolve some kind of signature from it so we can scan the rest of the processes and shut down the dataflood."
"What do you think Carmichael will make of it?"
Grius shook his head. "Far be it from me to try and second guess a Seraiph, but whatever he sees in this thing, he'll be studying it now. He should have already got the specimen over our telemetry feed."
A tone, once more directed straight into his auditory cortex - the analysis was done. Grius smiled grimly as he loaded the newly generated viral signature into his markerlight. He squirted a copy of it across to Lyrica, and then brought his markerlight up to bear on the expansive datafields. "Okay. Let's go hunting."
He engaged the light once more, and moved to sweep it across the fields. He paused, as he felt the sudden resource drain, the sudden lag in the connection.
"What on Luminis," he muttered.
"I'm feeling it too," replied Lyrica to the uncompleted question.
All of a sudden, a wash of red seemed to overlay itself over the datafields, and Grius felt his suite processors move into overdrive as they tried to resolve the image sweeping across his visual field. It took several seconds, but as it intensified, Grius drifted upwards, slowly surveying more and more of the enormous field. Row upon row of grey, nondescript cubes and pyramids, stretching as far as the suite could feed into his vidual field before it generated a horizon.
Every single one of them with a tiny red worm at its core.
Every single one of them infected.
And with not another thought, he slipped into darkness.
There is a literary technique, one that has been in use since the birth of the AI gods. It is known as "Voicing the Gods". It recognises the most important fact of life in dealing with the seraiphs of the Solar Dominion and their masters; that these beings are utterly, incontrovertibly, alien. Their motives are their own and they do not answer to the whims or urges of their lesser nearbaseline brethren.
The newly ascended, those who have just passed the first singularity, retain some of their nearbaseline traits. They may still look the same; they may speak the same languages, and have the same memories, although they might chafe at the slowness of nearbaseline language and despair at the lack of resolution and clarity that those memories hold. But none of this changes what they have become. They are different, at the most basic level. Ascension isn't about thinking faster; it is about thinking differently. Thinking better. Nearbaselines think in terms of numbers and letters. The ascended pose their thoughts in the form of calculus, or novels.
Those who have passed the second singularity often need to create fragments of themselves, sub-minds specifically tasked with the role of interacting with nearbaselines; conduits or links between the slow-thinking rash of terragen humanity and a newly formed mind that has already analysed the conversation and plotted all likely outcomes before the lowly nearbaseline has finished their sentence. Those who have ascended past the third singularity rarely speak to humans at all. Singularity four minds have little need to speak with humans; they live in a world of abstract concepts and run Weylforges, wormholes, and other such celestial constructs. Fourth singularity minds can create third singularity minds at will, would think little of creating a second-singularity mind and running it at fastime simply to solve a complex problem as background processing, and have the theoretical capacity to monitor an entire habitat-full of nearbaseline minds, analyse the contents of their sensoria, and save these to file, on a real-time basis. The capacity, although possibly not the patience.
And, of course, these minds are mere transient thermodynamic phenomena against the great burning stars that are fifth singularity minds. Keter. The Caretaker Gods. The Judge of the Negentropy Alliance.
The Prime Reflector, the Lord of Rays.
All of these minds, from the Lord of Rays down, share the one common trait that they are incomprehensible to nearbaseline minds. Nearbaselines submit to the whims and vagaries of these higher minds like pets, or errant children. No one living knows what motivates these sephirotic empires to treat their inhabitants so well, but they do; they build for their charges vast nanotopias, where nearbaselines want for nought.
"Voicing the Gods" recognises both the impact that these gods and godlings have on their assembled worshippers, followers, and citizenry, and yet also recognises that the motives behind their actions cannot be understood. It gives voices to those that speak a language that no nearbaseline could understand.
In Fons Luminis, the massive capital system of the Solar Dominion, where orbital rings girdled the stars themselves and a hundred interstellar pathways converged on the Prime Reflector and all of E's unrestrained glory, such a conversation was taking place.
The First said: "I am node X4510, and I am a sub-mind of Guidance Analyst Processor 12; I have been tasked with presenting an analysis of this conflict."
Protocols were exchanged in vast gouts of data that would have overloaded a nearbasline mind.
The Second said: "I am the forty-third copy of The Penumbral, and I am an emissary of the Lord of Rays."
Once more, sub-vocalised data were exchanged in surges of information.
The First said: "The severity of the attack continues unabated. I have my doubts as to the efficacy of the Level Zero agents that have been despatched to Node 3312 of the AI 32 Degrees."
The Second said: "Their despatch was at the behest of the Lord of Rays emself."
The First said: "I have completed multivariate analyses on two hypotheses. The first; considering that the Level Zero agents succeed in ending the incoming wormhole links from Node 3312. The second; considering that the Level Zero agents fail to end the incoming wormhole links from Node 3312."
The Second said: "If they fail?"
The First said: "The most favourable course of action would be to despatch a Level Three Guidance Agent to reassimilate Node 3312 and then purge it of all data and shut down the wormhole gauge. Following this, to despatch a number of Level Three Guidance Agents to CA-442 to co-opt the local intelligences and reassert communications purity in the region. This would allow us to identify the source of infection and trace it back to its creator."
The Second said: "If they succeed?"
The First said: "There are no known assumptions that lead to this scenario, except for one."
The Second said: "And that assumption is?"
The First said: "That there is information regarding this situation that I do not have access to."
The Second said: "In the event of the agents despatched to Node 3312 succeeding, you are to prepare to deploy the remainder of Guidance Countersubversion Level Zero, Unit One, to CA-442. You should include the fragment Carmichael. You may also assemble a transapient unit to accompany them. Their make-up is at your discretion."
The First said: "I assume you speak for the Lord of Rays in this?"
The Second said: "That is correct. When the time comes to deploy the team to CA-442, Unit One and their fragment commander Carmichael must be deployed first."
The Second said: "This goes against standard transmission order."
The First was silent.
The Second said: "Agreed."
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