I remember Gray World ....
That wasn't its name, at least before. Before it was named something else, a meaningless juxtaposition of transliterated characters I only now recall as glyphs on the galactic star map. A terraformed garden world, painstakingly wrestled back from entropy, home to twenty billions of various clades of postmodern humans, forty billions of provolved sea-dwellers, and uncounted billions of sapient minds residing in computers, vecs, virtual reality simulations, and even more exotic species within the simplistic classification "AI Life".
Living, recreating, and exchanging information in the post-modern version of the great evolutionary spiral of life in its many wondrous forms, nurtured by a benevolent god of ascended intelligence of a scale to dwarf to collective intellect of all its charges.
The name doesn't mean anything anymore. There's nothing left to give it context.
The sun rose over a glorious cobalt-blue ocean, as I stretched and rolled out of a hammock between two tall coconut trees, dropping onto cool sand, morning tide lapping over my bare feet.
"Cara, do you have to sound so irritatingly cheerful this morning?"
"Well, its not really morning -- unless you'd like a different scene in your quarters."
The sun stretched vermillion fingers over jagged, snow-capped mountains, brisk morning air fogged by my exhalation, snow piled up to my calves, trailing icy tendrils down my ankles and onto the hard-frozen ground . The creatures of light and air were awakening, taking in the warmth of the sky.
"Arrggh! Stop that!"
Space. Vast, achingly lonely. No breath to breathe, though at my current metabolic rate I probably wouldn't notice for half an hour or so. Hanging alone in infinity, an insignificant speck in the vast cosmos.
"Nice try Cara, but I can detect the utility fog holding me up, and my vestibular sense tells me I'm not weightless."
I was lowered to the floor by a slight sheen of iridescence, swirling down the grating of my now quite bare room.
"Good, your brain is functioning now. What is it about Space that makes you so maudlin?"
"Waking up from a long nap. So how long has it been this time, Cara?"
"Tell me again why you wear a watch?"
"You know the answer to that."
"Hungry? Let me guess ...."
"Not bad," I said, between forkfulls of omelette. "The cheese is spot-on, and you're getting much better at the coffee."
"You have such quaint tastes. And it is, in fact, real cheese."
"You should be. That's a ridiculous amount of effort."
"Protein glop and engineered taste molecules just don't compare."
Pre-Singularity humans had stared over the brink of extinction into the nuclear hell-furnace below. Luck, or pluck, or some other agency allowed monkey-brains to pull back and, for the most part, spend the next century accelerating downslope into the altogether different exponential cliff that was the Singularity, the Diaspora, and the rest of history birthing modern Terragen civilization, with its new gods and clades and unimaginably varied expressions of life and sentience.
The ancient philosphers of my kind posit life and death existing in a duality. I still think of them: barely tool-using, constantly struggling, blighted with diseases, old age, untamed environments, unconquered predators, intellects dwarfed by the gigantic archailects of modern times. I think of how, in spite of the insurmountable odds of the universe, they grasped essential truths of existence, and I smile.
Grimly. They were right. Existence is a Mandelbrot pattern of recurring contexts, spiralling above and below in fathomless
complexity. The exponential flowering of sapience that was the Singularity brought to the stars new and terrible plagues of death and destruction far beyond the ken of humankind.
At least in all-out nuclear war or asteroid bombardment, the cockroaches and microbes survive.
Or perhaps it was already here, waiting for us.
It was waiting for Gray World, borne on faint radio signals too dim for any but the most sensitive ear backed by a hyper-expansive mind to take in and decode the terrible information content within.
Caretaker had already forced the gate when we arrived at Briefing. We stared at the silently expanding cloud of debris, remnants of the old wormhole waystation and whatever defenders that had been arrayed against us. The tactical displays showed thousands of Caretaker globes enveloping the Stargate: perimeter safely established. The bulk of Caretaker had yet to pass the wormhole, but E knew my squad always liked to have an early look at things, once the starside situation had stabilized.
"There probably isn't much for you to do here, but I know how curious you are, " said Cara, seemingly just behind me.
"...And you thought it might be educational, eh? Well, if you didn't false-color all my displays, I'd just be looking at a bunch of bright sparks against a background of dim sparks."
"Well, you are visually oriented, and I have to do something to get your attention ...."
"You already outdid yourself waking me up. Always an adventure." She laughed. "That's what you signed up for, isn't it?"
"Right, that's me, standing by and ready to loot, pillage, and burn... I mean, save civilized planets from the forces of darkness."
"I always knew you were good for something."
"And what does that imply?"
"Nothing. Be still, my knight in shining armor."
Scowling, I turned my attention to my displays, overlaid with false-color highlights.
See the grand tour of the burned out star system, visited upon with the full horrors of nano-mimetic warfare. Look at the dead cinder cores of the four in-system gas giants, their masses stripped to feed the engines of their destruction.
"There's the power transmitter array," said Recon. He? She? It? was still a little new at this game, gesturing with one of its (temporary) appendages even while designating the target on the squads displays. Or perhaps it was something in the way Ambimorphs were wired.
"Good job spotting it, Recon. I can't make it out even with sensors maxxed", said Heavy.
"Well, shape recognization is my specialty," replied Recon.
"Yeah, you'll do, kid. You'll do."
I grunted once, which the rest of the squad correctly interpreted as "cut the chatter, and get back to business". I did have a good feeling about the new Recon, and was glad to see Heavy taking it under one of his tentacles. Heavy could always be relied on to make newcomers feel welcome; the big cheery provolved octopus was "big older brother" to half the squad, and I secretly fretted that losing him would do more damage to morale than even the massive firepower he personally wielded.
One thing never figured to me. I mean, when your physical body doesn't have a fixed shape, how would you possibly develop shape recognition to the degree the Ambimorphs had?
"They communicate via shape, dearie".
"Listening in again, Cara? You know, some men would consider a woman constantly in their thoughts to be a bad thing."
"The knuckledragging, thick-browed, me Tarzan you Jane kind."
"Now now, we may have to go in and rescue a clade like that some day."
"We already have. I'm very diplomatic when I want to be."
"You mean, because nobody but me can hear you."
"That's not always true."
"You've been cheating on me again!"
"That's a quaint concept."
"Leave me alone, so I can think cheating thoughts to myself."
"When you have a space that no one else has access to. Your own head,
"Was there ever any privacy?"
Hmmm. She got me on that one. I hate that.
I initiated a full systems inspection and diagnostics routine, as a
way of limbering up.
"That's not much of a distraction, you know."
She laughed. I looked around my squad to see if anyone was reading my expressions, but they seemed lost in their own thoughts. But that was one of the points in physical congregation after all; so I could assess their mental and physical condition after hibernation.
I can't really fathom destruction on this scale, any more than I can count grains of sand on a beach or number the stars in the Universe.
You watch the remains and ashes go by on display, but it doesn't really register, intellectually or emotionally. Perhaps a hundred billion thinking beings, many of them similiar to my own species, had met unutterably awful ends terminating in that terrible, terrible whisper into the void. Yet the tragedy was too vast to have a face, or a name, or anything more than a simple sickening twist deep in my gut.
Instead, the abiding sense of horror I got was generated from post-contextualization, superimposing the silent cenotaphs with my own imaginings of events, fed by my all too real up-close-and-personal remembrances.
We passed the remains of the ring transmitter, neutralized by a flotilla of Caretaker's modules, tattered strips of trash that once stretched along an entire orbital of the primary. We brooded in silence as our modules glided by many more derelicts unseen by us; the former occupants of this busy hub of interstellar civilization.
In our line of business, it was always "Hurry up and wait."
And finally, ahead of us, gray, poisoned garden world, studded with soaring, delicate towers visible even from our distance, just beginning to melt under bombardment.
"Sarge", said Recon, "those aren't what I think they are?"
"Yes, they are. Time to pay attention!" I said, right on cue.
Waiting time was over.
External sensor feeds switched over to tactical briefing as the General began addressing us, individually in our own contextualized fashion.
"Initial defense suppression phases have been completed," said the General in the crisp tones of the battle-scarred war hero my psyche had supplied.
"We have coopted the primary power grid and have begun preliminary EMCON suppression and close-orbit supremacy operations. Opposition has been relatively light, and this phase is expected to terminate within thirty minutes.
"You will begin insertion in a class IV borer, with full orbital softening and close-in support, target penetration depth twenty two hundred kilometers to mantle beneath the aesthenosphere gradient in the subduction zone of what was once the West Ocean.
"You are to secure a beach-head at the insertion point.
"Once this objective has been completed, you are to transit via tunnel to the main tectonic control station, and secure a beach-head there.
"If this objective has been satisfied with appropriate results, you are to move on to secure the main power control station and the hibernation/backup chambers within the power station and await further orders.
"Are there any questions?"
"Sir, why are we doing this, sir? This is a dead system ...."
Of course, the new guy always asks the ....
"Good question, Recon. I'll answer: because, despite appearances, there are still possibly survivors here that may be able to relate what happened, and are worth saving in any event, if we can do so successfully."
"But how could there be .... oh", said Recon, the answer finally dawning.
"A fine question, Recon. I'm glad the answer was instructive. Are there any further questions?"
"Are we looking for anything or anyone in particular, sir?" I asked.
"That's on a need to know basis, Sargeant," replied the General, catching my eye.
I'd know soon enough.
"More questions about the mission plan?"
"Why are we going in so hot?" asked Point, indicating the ferociously radiant fog hiding a planetary surface melting under furious orbital bombardment. "The crust won't even be cool ...."
"Well," intoned the General, taking on the tones we'd heard in Briefing at least a thousand times, "we wish to maximize shock effect and minimize enemy preparation time. Your borer's monopolium hull will simply sink through most of the mantle until you reach target depth, and we'll have several combat drones on task for close support. In particular, we wish to minimize the time the memory cores can be powered and infected."
"If they haven't been already," said Recon.
"Yeah, that's what we're there to find out," said Point.
"That's what we do," said Heavy.
"Sounds like a primary objective to me", I said.
"Another excellent question, Point," the General approved. "Are there
No one else felt like being instructed.
"All right people, " I said briskly (Though who knows how it was translated? I didn't care, as long as the job was done.) "You know the drill: make your peace, get your gear, get ready!"
Ready to mount an orbital-to-subsurface transport through heavy EMP that made all but wired communication impossible (and would fry any nanites subjected to its radiance), down to the molten surface still glowing from defense suppression, to burrow two thousand kilometers into the crust of a dead planet to the remaining warm bits, secure tectonic control, secure a powerstation, and hope to get to a bunch of backup copies and offline memory cores soon enough to sort out and preserve something worth saving.
In the face of an already successful opponent that had strip-mined the system and co-opted all available life to its own purpose, with nothing to do but wait for our arrival.
And this one was simple.
Did I say I liked my job?
Cara saw fit to not comment, just then.
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