A moment of darkness, an extended period of handshaking protocols - visual and auditory static, white noise and random imagery, before resolution, connection, and -
Grius looked around, trying to re-orientate himself. This virch was huge - massive, in a sense poorly defined by the baseline mind. He was adrift in a galaxy of stars. He winced, filtering the input. From behind him, a voice spoke.
"The experience can initially be quite unsettling for a nearbaseline," Carmichael announced quietly. Grius slowly rotated to face the small sphere, the vast panorama of stars blurring as he turned, a trick of perspective making the universe turn on its axis around him, rather than the other way around.
"What is this place?" Grius asked in wonderment, still staring out at the broad starry expanse. He fancied he felt a pulse of amusement from the transapient before him, before Carmichael replied.
Grius shook his head. "I just have a room. This â€¦ this is very large."
Carmichael dipped slightly. "Yes. It is." As they watched, a new star was born into the ether, seemingly kindling itself from nowhere, a gigaton blast furnace igniting from a single speck. Carmichael seemed to drift towards it slightly, and as Grius watched it began to orbit away from them, towards a cluster of stars below them and to their left.
"It is â€¦ a game, of sorts," Carmichael continued. Although the featureless globe had no identifiable front or back, Grius felt as if it was watching the newfound star intently as it began its stately journey. "A pastime, if you will. Something done for pleasure, and for contemplation."
"What is the object of the game?" Grius asked quietly, feeling the heat of the fledgling star beat upwards upon his face.
Grius nodded sagely. "Always an admirable goal, Carmichael."
"And a difficult one to achieve in a complex system," replied the transapient.
Grius nodded again. "What is the game called?"
Carmichael was silent for a moment, before E spoke again. "You know, in all of my time, that is a question I have never asked? You nearbaselines continue to surprise me, Grius, although I should have suspected your near-pathological need to identify the unfamiliar would lead you to that question. As far as I am aware, it has no name. It has no need of a name. It is simply the game."
"How do you win?"
Carmichael laughed, rich tones mellifluent in the emptiness. "Winning is a nearbaseline concept. The beauty of the game is not in winning. It is in what is learned while playing it."
Grius turned away from the spheroid and once more surveyed the emptiness. He remained silent for a long time, trying to find words to put around the feelings he was harbouring. "I have a bad feeling about this mission, Carmichael," he spoke finally.
"An understandable reaction. A predictable sequence of autonomic nervous system reactions that are carefully simulated as part of your ops; they ready you for the need to fight or flee."
"Except that we can't flee, can we, Camichael?"
"No," Carmichael replied. "I do not believe the Dominion will make any attempt to reconnect the wormhole until the specified period has passed."
Grius looked up, surprised. "Specified period?"
"A pre-arranged time period during which all wormhole links into the system were to be collapsed if something were to go wrong with the jump. Pre-arranged, before the insertion, in case of just this eventuality."
Carmichael drifted down, placing his spherical body on a level with Grius' head. "Approximately two Dominion months. That is how long we have to track down the source of the virus and eradicate it, before the wormholes open once more."
Grius shook his head, looking downwards, focusing on the beginning of a spiral arm that he could see framed between his feet. "I'm worried we won't last that long," he said, his voice quiet and strained.
Carmichael drifted a little closer. "Unit One is resilient. I would not have brought you here if I did not think you could succeed in this mission. A good tradesman does not wilfully break its tools."
"What if the tools are weakened?" Grius asked, looking up. "What if the Tradesman has chosen the wrong tools?" He was raising his voice, now. "Come on, Carmichael - that virus wasn't launched by a nearbaseline! It wasn't even launched by a first singularity mind! You're as out of your depth here as we are!"
Perhaps, Zar Grius, but we all have our duties to perform. This time the answer snaked its way straight into his brain, and Grius let himself simply think out a reply.
I have a broken mind with a jury-rigged interpreter, and a religious zealot who is young, and is happy to remain blind to the true nature of the Dominion. As much as I like Rhyder, I am afraid that she won't cope here, away from her Octachaplain. Away from the Prime. She staked so much on searching for the light, and found it in Fons Luminus - how can I expect her to function out here, in the dark? On the edge?
Carmichael replied: I think you give both Rhyder and Lyrica less credit than they deserve, Grius.
I think I know my own people, Carmichael.
Carmichael replied: I think you give me less credit than I deserve, Grius, if you think that I would place any of the zars under my command in the path of unnecessary danger.
Grius felt his pulse pounding, and with conscious effort he slowed it, slowing his breathing, reminding himself that these were nothing more than sensations simulated for his own comfort, scrabbling to find some calm in this outlandish virch.
We need your help, Carmichael, he told the unrepentant sphere.
I will activate the prayer-chamber for you, Grius. I have no doubt Rhyder will take much comfort in having her Octachaplain close at hand once more. It may go some way to alleviating the profound sense of loss she is suffering at the closure of the wormhole connections to the rest of the Known Net. It may assist you to find some peace as well, Grius.
I don't want peace, Carmichael, Grius replied. I want help. You're our commander, Carmichael. Command us. Command me.
Carmichael slowly rotated from side to side, before lifting up and away from the now kneeling figure of Grius. This time, he spoke aloud into the vastness of his personalvirch. "I have faith in you, Grius. We have worked together for more than five centuries now. You know what you need to do."
"I cannot fight an enemy that is so far beyond me, Carmichael," Grius beseeched.
"And I would not ask you to," Carmichael replied in carefully measured tones. "Analyses of the actions of the aivir before we left Fons Luminus indicate that the aivir is of baseline intelligence. It might be numerous, but it remains no more or less intelligent than you and the rest of your unit. It is your target. I will fight any higher battles that our mission necessitates."
"And what when those battles outstrip you, Carmichael?" Grius asked plaintively. "What then? How then do you propose to protect us?"
"There are other minds here in CA-442, Grius. The local Guidance coordinator is a third-singularity mind. E remains loyal to the Prime. I remain confident that E will lend what aid E is able."
Grius felt tendrils of calm infiltrating his mindset, then, the wished-for inner peace finally coming to him, and it was with only a mild sense of bitterness that he realised that the sensation was being engenerated by Carmichael, rather than his own innate self-control. He relaxed the set of his jaw, and felt a dull ache echo throughout his body. He sighed.
"What is that, Carmichael?"
"Just a small dose of IASA-15."
The Index of Allowed Sensory Alterations was updated a regular intervals by the Lord of Rays and eir delegates to encompass the myriad sensory-altering programs that virtuals could utilise without endangering themselves or others, or interfering with Solarian worship. IASA programs were in constant use throughout the Dominion; they were analogous to the allowable nano- and macro-drugs, both exogenous and endogenous, that many bionts used to modify their psychological and physiological workings. And, much like the use of nano- and macro-drugs, illicit trade in non-IASA programs was rife in the outer regions of the Dominion, where control by Guidance and similar agencies was not well established.
Grius shook his head. "I'm sorry, Carmichael. I don't want to let you down. I don't want to let the rest of the team down. But right now, I don't even know where to start."
Carmichael began to drift away; Grius felt the first-singularity mind's attention drawing away as, in the distance, a flash and a wash of heat heralded the birth of another star. Grius knew his audience was over, and he averted his eyes from the burgeoning glow, as he heard Carmichael's reply echo from the distance.
"Start by finding the virus. Limit its spread, trace it to its source, and neutralise the source. You know what to do."
Grius grunted, turning away. "I just wish I knew how to do it," he whispered to himself as the game faded away.
The water was peaceful.
This was here she went, at those times when she felt beleaguered, or attacked. This was her solace, her comfort, her place of rest and repose.
It was difficult being the odd one out.
Rhyder flicked her tail, turning herself over languorously. Down here, in the deep water, there was a kind of peace that those born into the world of air could never understand. Sounds were both muted and amplified; the meaning carried, even though the words might not. This was the world she had been born into. It was her origin, her centre.
It was lost to her now, although she retained this faithful replica as her personalvirch.
She envied the others. Grius seemed to carry with him an aura of quiet self-confidence that was eclipsed only by Ajasu's brash enthusiasm. Lifter spoke little, worked efficiently, and was manufactured a Vec; it's mindset seemed incompatible with the kind of emotions she felt, although it obviously had a working understand of the principles of baseline emotions, or how else could it interact with the rest of them? Even Lyrica, for all of her shortcomings, already seemed to have found acceptance. Rhyder loathed being so different. She'd fled her birthplace, filled with the need to find more, a pricking knowledge that somewhere out there was a world that held something for her other than the life she had been born into. It had taken her a century of wandering before she discovered that what she had been searching for had been with her all along, and returned to the Dominion, filled with a new-found zeal.
She'd made twelve requests to commune with the Godweb - her first communion since her Interface day, when she'd been little-more than a pre-adolescent. She'd hoped to return to the Dominior Godweb, bask in it's accumulated knowledge, become a theologian, a scholar - perhaps even an Octachaplain, once her studies were complete.
She had been rejected twelve times. On the eve of the twelfth, her Octachaplain had gently suggested that she allow herself to be guided in other directions, and so after her final rejection she had left her colony world and sought out Fons Luminus, and an audience with one of the Octachaplains of the great Dominion capital. Fons Luminus was at the center of the empire, and was the closest to the Prime, both in terms of the physical and the metaphysical. Where else could she find guidance?
And then Guidance had found her.
She had served Guidance for almost twelve decades. For all but three of them, she had been a part of Unit One. She had made herself a sponge, absorbing as much of the capital system culture as possible, maxing out her bandwidth allowances and borrowing as much as she could from others to channel information into herself. If the Godweb would not open itself to her, maybe she could find her way in from the outside. Maybe if she parsed enough data from the vast Dominion known net - the teachings of the Octachaplains, current affairs, theological debate, popular opinion - maybe she could make herself enough of a resource that the Godweb would want her.
But in a hundred and twenty years, the Godweb had not accepted her requests. And now it was all gone. Now she had been shipped to a fringe star, on the edge of sephirotic space, and her connection with the Prime had been cut off. It was as if her eyes had been put out, her ears made deaf; her fins amputated, her tendrils bound and prevented from re-growth. Or even worse, like she had been made partially blind and deaf, just enough so that the loss of most of her world still felt keen.
And all that Grius and Ajasu seemed to be able to do was mock the Dominion. They laughed, while she bled.
A single muted, fluting tone in the distance, announced a transmission, which she answered.
Zar Rhyder - I have secured sufficient resources to reactivate our prayer-chamber. I hope that it provides you with some solace. Carmichael.
A hexagonal chit, only a couple of centimetres in diameter, spawned in the water before her. A single tendril snaked out from the pod behind her ventral fin, curling around the chit, drawing it closer. She examined it, eyes sightless (and useless anyway - little light penetrated the deep water), tendrils washing water over it, barosensors sensing the perturbations in the current as it swirled across it, constructing a three-dimensional conceptualisation of the tiny prayer-bauble.
Caelphins do not smile, but Rhyder felt a tiny font of jubilation within her, a trickle that she hoped might fill the emptiness within her. Carmichael understood. Carmichael understood, where the others could not. And Carmichael had provided her with the way.
With a thought, she felt herself slip out of the water and log into the prayer-virch. A new water-filled chamber, hexagonal walls and ceiling featureless, the floor inscribed with myriad tiny patterns, laser-etched, the many teachings of the Prime available to her with a single sweep of her tendrils. And before her, another Caelphin, larger than she, exuding warmth and intimacy.
She allowed herself to forget that the being before her was simply a turingrade copy that had most probably been rolled-out a hundred times before. She even allowed herself to forget that it was probably little more than a puppet operated by Carmichael emself. After all; Carmichael understood. She simply allowed it to speak, and let herself bask in its mellifluent tones and concepts.
"Zar Rhyder. Thank you for Confessing. How may I guide you today?"
Consider the nature of the human condition, in the vast nanotopias of the sephirotic empires.
Humanity has taken evolution in both hands and begun steering it. What was once a simple response to external stressors is now turned to our own ends. Imagine a universe where the discrete unit of the mind is no more. Minds can be shared now; they can be modular, connecting and disconnecting to others at will. Imagine a universe where consciousness spreads far outside the collection of sense organs we are born or manufactured with.
Early humans could not comprehend the reality of such a concept; that is, after all, the nature of the singularity. The rich, overpowering streams of data only became comprehensible with the modification of the brain to incorporate the datamind - the addition of the requisite processing power and structures to process this new information. Early humans "saw" data, saw it in words or phrases or diagrams; they "heard" voice messages, "touched" simulated texture in the first immersive virtual reality programs. The first datamind changed all of this, and more; no longer was data "seen", "heard", or "touched" - it was felt, it was absorbed, it was parsed on an instinctual level by those new brain structures that were designed to accept it.
Cue ten thousand years on and even this innovation is primitive and ancient.
Imagine a universe where a brain might span entire worlds. Imagine beings who pay others in a currency that is beyond our ken to act as sensoria, to gently ride on their visual, auditory, and tactile subsystems and absorb the sensory feeds of a hundred such individuals into their own brain. Uploads, downloads, and crossloads are common. Rental bodies are available - why fly when you can email yourself to your destination and simply download into a spare body until the day's work is done? The sephirotic nearbaseline in 10,000 AT lives a life of unparalleled luxury. Imagine being able to activate or deactivate entirely different personalities depending on who you were addressing, or being able to change form at will, at least in the virtual world, and with only a little more preparation in reality. Imagine your mind cross-referencing hundreds of resources at once - online data stores, seamlessly mapped into your memory centres so that an attempt to recall a previous experience simultaneously queries a knowledge base and provides collateral information; extra, offsite processing cycles, enabling you to think faster, harder, more complex thoughts, or run partial sub-personas to try and grok some particularly non-trivial problem; or clairaudience, the integration of communication protocols - with the consent of another, in an instant, with the merest thought, you can see what they see, feel what they feel, stand by them, be with them, without moving. Even in the physical world, even in Ril, the body is no longer the unit of self. Some still live within Ril, firmly ensconced in physicality, mixing the sensations of the physical and virtual but remaining based in the physical; some waste away, allow their physical body to wither, connected to lifelines that maintain physiological function while they skim the googolplex of virch worlds available; some upload completely, leaving the physical behind forever; while some may even download, those who were born and raised in virch, and yet yearn to know what Ril living is like. Imagine a great, pulsing nexus, greater than the sum of all physical travel within the Sephirotic empires, greater than the wormhole nexus, greater even than the Known Net - or perhaps even an integral, poorly understood part of it. An endless sea of connections, great splines of shared data, collections of information, minor nodes consisting of millions of intelligences, and vast central banks of minds, all joined together in a fractured unity. This is the penultimate extension of the evolutionary process - the final step before the final choice must be made - immortality, death, or ascension.
This is the nature of the human condition, ten thousand years After Tranquility.Back to Contents