"You lied to me, Cara!"
As consciousness seeps completely in, I bolt upright, looking at my surroundings.
A beautiful rainforest at dusk, plants sighing in the warm breeze, scents of exotic flowers wafting delicately around me. I'm sitting on spongy, slightly damp ground, with a subtle texture of small multi-leaved grasses. A tree with moss-encrusted trunk and goldenrod and magenta leaves looms over me, spreading branches that bifurcate into clusters with almost fractal regularity.
"No more games, Cara."
The cry of nighttime animals shrinks the night around me palpably; ancient jungle, the first harsh test of my kind, demands respect. I stand up warily, senses alert. My hairs bristle, and I realize I am completely naked.
"Where am I?"
An insect lands and then flits away as I jerk involuntarily. Movement, close by in the underbrush. I turn and scrabble up the tree; winding vines provide easy hand holds. My skin is tough but sensitive, and when I get to the first thick branches, ten meters up, my hands leave slight impressions in the damp wood. I scan quickly upwards, paying especial attention to the thermographic spectra, but see nothing large or warm enough to register.
This doesn't diminish my unease; I know predators that are quite effective at camouflage.
Something on my left wrist scrapes bits of tree bark onto my arm. It is my baroque chronometer, a simple band of braided diamond set with a saphiroid display face. I am so used to its presence that, in retrospect, I would have noticed my nakedness sooner without it. The watch displays spacetime coordinates in whatever units, dating system, or reference point I care to choose, basic health information, brainwave activity, and one other crucial thing.
Housed within the slim band is a strip of flexible computronium containing a quantum oracle comprised of some 10E24 qubits, all correlated with location, my health, and my current thought patterns.
The oracle pulses in constant synchronicity with all this information and more, a background metronome thought pattern in my mind. It would be impossible to replicate it within any conceivable virtual reality based upon any substrate housed in the known universe.
So all of this is real.
Her face was beautiful, eyes begging for forgiveness or understanding or benediction. Tears streamed down my face, but the direct feed to my optic nerve brooked no interference; I saw the scene with aching clarity.
Her form was as perfect as function and aesthetics, genengineering and natural selection, could make. The flash of my weapon, cruel blunt muzzle of searing energy, was the ultimate injustice, a ravening destroyer of cherished life and loved memory.
The last I saw was her eyes, still imploring, fireball consuming them.
Hot tears flow down my cheeks, lingering in the warm tropical night. My hands clench gouges in the unoffending tree bark. A trail of small insects wind their patient way along the branches into the overhanging canopy. I look deliberately at my hands before letting go, falling backwards into the night.
My reflexes betray me; a reverse curl and tuck, and I land lightly on my feet, legs bent and arms spread to absorb the impact. My head bows in shame, I stand and walk about aimlessly into the night, not caring
"I did not lie to you."
"Go away, Cara. Leave me in peace."
She laughs. "You are most inconsistent."
I grit my teeth, holding my head in my hands.
"You said the mission was successful. It was a horrible failure."
"Some things were regrettable, but you do not yet have all of your memories from that event."
"I don't want to remember."
"On the contrary, you'll find the last bit especially important."
Ahead of me is a glow in the night, yellow-reddish hue of some flickering light source. Heated air swirls about it, crazy invisible vortices punctuated by tiny flickering sparks.
"That's not what I think it is ...."
A bonfire, roaring brightly, stacked high with actual combustible vegetative matter.
"You can't be serious ...."
I make out four other figures, limned by the background. A human female, two human males, and one insubstantial figure, edges blurring and melding with heat ripples and the reddish light.
A flickering kaleidoscopic pattern of friendly greeting, camaraderie, mischief, and worry patterns across its phototropic skin. I don't have the means to reply directly in kind, so I just wave back.
"Good to see you too, Heavy. Hello Spec, Medic, Corporal."
A Survivors Circle.
Debriefings were once formal affairs; reports and studies, simulations, tactics, and re-creations all used to maximize the
learning from one encounter to the next. In this business, lessons not learned equaled death, destruction, and failure.
With the vast bandwidth and glut of information available to Caretaker, it became too much to absorb on just an intellectual level.
The Survivors Circle: a shared consensual dream of all aspects, mental, physical, and especially emotional, concerning the completed mission. A physiological and psychological communion between the living and the reconstituted dead, those that made it by luck, pluck, or skill, and those who didn't.
I begin to feel the heat of the bonfire on my face.
"You still haven't told me where I am."
"I am pleased to tell you that you are, in fact, standing upon the surface of the world you saved."
"Impossible! We failed!"
"You did not. You successfully retrieved the essential personality core of the Archailect. This will enable us to rebuild and
reconstitute all that it was and everything that was under its care. As you might have guessed, this particular Archai was the sum total of everything on its world."
"How is this possible? All the backups were corrupted! We -- you -- melted the crust from orbit! We severed the Archailect into fragments! This place should be killing us with hard radiation!"
"Well, some time has passed, it is true. And this is just a small portion of the world -- the rest is still undergoing reconstruction and rejuvenation. This will all take time. I accelerated the efforts on this small sector, because I wanted to answer a question that you have often asked."
"This is what you are fighting for. Life. The peaceful coexistence of all beings of all toposophic levels."
I look around in amazement. It is so lush and vibrant. I peek at my watch; the spacetime coordinate reference frame is the same, now that I notice.
I feel her indulgent smile. "I am glad that my prodigious effort does not go unappreciated."
"This is still very difficult for me to accept. Which is the likelier hypothesis: that you've actually gone and recreated a world we just burned down to the core, seeded it with life, nurtured it, and dropped us off on a particularly pleasant location for our psychological well-being and satisfaction? Or, that you're just projecting all of this in my mind?"
"I've trained you for centuries to resist subversion; you would be able to tell."
"Except, perhaps, from you -- you molded me, after all."
"You have your chronometer."
"Can't you just somehow fake it, or its readings, or my perception of its readings?"
A feeling of delight, as if Cara had clapped her hands. A very strange sensation from a being of her nature.
"I always knew you had potential. But to answer your question, I believe you understand physical theory enough to realize the difficulties I would have with your antique."
"Not if you alter my perceptions of it. Dream worlds and hollow victories are not very satisfying."
"This too, I know about you. As to the essential nature of your question -- either you trust yourself or you don't."
Despair and dread and the bitter taste of abject failure coursed through us.
"Let's finish this mission quickly." Crisp, military thoughts belied my inner struggle.
The shock wore off; my team responded again to my directions. Except for rock steady, reliable, Heavy -- he had maintained his composure throughout.
Medic outlined the weakest structural areas of the rooms gleaned from her imaging scans; we increased our weapon energies to the kiloton range.
The first wave of walking corpses approached within ten meters and were instantly fried by our point defense grid. Steam explosions erupted all along the wall of ruined flesh, gruesomely strewing scorched body parts along an invisible line of death.
Remorselessly, the hibernation capsules continued the revivification process, feeding more lost souls into the meatgrinder.
I designated the detonation points for our charges, maximizing shockwaves and structural collapse. A quick, clean physical end by vaporization, and an eternal entombment in the dead core of a dead world.
And then I saw her, my vision immediately magnifying the image of a small child, standing calmly upon the shell of her former prison, looking across a wave of milling flesh at our small band.
She smiled and waved at me, as if it were the most natural thing in the world.
"I'm on it Sarge ...."
Another invisible flash, another dying wall of exploding victims dropped to the ground in silent agony. A flash of a different sort from Medic to the little girl, spanning a gulf of comprehension and trust.
"She's clean Sarge." Medic's thoughts were reverant. "More than that, she's ...."
"Sargeant! Requesting permission for retrieval mission!"
Corporal was on fire with righteous zeal. SpecThree glanced sidelong at Corporal, then at me.
"Your Hellbore cables won't reach that far. You'll be cut off from power, left with only your internal weaponry against that mob."
"Corporal, I can't spare you, or your Heavy Hellbore. SpecThree, you're now Point, and the Combat Drone's weaponry is tasked to you. If a mission like this has any chance of success, I'll need you to go back along our path and sterilize our escape route. We can't afford to run into Dragon's Teeth.
I'm going. Rank has its privileges."
Medic cut in. "You're both going. Sarge, it doesn't make tactical sense to fight through that mob with reduced weapons by yourself. SpecThree can accompany me, and I can link up Corporal's weapon -- anyway, I'm the best trained and equipped to deal with any nanite plagues and spores strewn around back there."
"What about the self-replicating combat bots and synsects? Even with both of you, I don't like the odds."
"I'll cover them, Sarge" Heavy chimed in. "With two arms, anyways. Give me your hellbore, and I'll cover you and Corporal with three."
"Errr, don't you need four tentacles to walk? You're down two already."
"Does it look like I'm going anywhere, Sarge?"
I delinked my hellbore, putting the cannon on the ground. Corporal did likewise. Heavy and Medic hefted the weapons, running diagnostics. SpecThree had already dialed his weapon to maximum scatter in anticipation of my next orders.
"SpecThree: take point and link up with Spotter and Sniper, if you can. Medic, take second position. I'm depending upon you to keep our line of retreat open."
SpecThree's eyes were grim. He stood full height and saluted; Medic and I traded fleeting glances. Abruptly, they crouched and dashed back down the tunnel.
I watched them go with some relief; they should be able to make it out, whatever happened.
Corporal and I overcharged our reserves to just below the critical threshold. Heavy flowed and squirmed until his body was halfway outside of the room. The three visible tentacles gripped their weapons, weaving slightly as they selected aiming points. I delinked my power cable; it crawled sinously over to Heavy, connecting to an auxilliary port.
I turned and locked eyes with Corporal.
"Is it true, Sarge, that you don't have any backups?"
"Because there's only one me, as far as I'm concerned."
"What's the difference between backup and revivification?"
"Ask me again, some other time."
We turned and ran full speed, plunging into the mob of milling captive enemy.
"Nothing like swapping war stories around a campfire, eh Sarge?"
Point gives me a feral grin, his angular head and sleek fur gleaming in the ruddiness. He flows like quicksilver around me, enveloping me in musky fur, a hind claw scratching me playfully along the stomach as he bolts into the huddled mammalian mass of his brethren.
"Faugh ...." I hold my nose until I can tune out the sensation. The hive-mind colony of provolved ferrets rolls on the ground in shrieks of laughter and clouds of olfactory cues my nose doesn't particularly want to interpret.
At least the fire will burn the stink off ....
Behind Point is a long succession of familiar faces in joyous reunion, camaraderie forged in death-struggle. Recon stands a little apart from the rest, his ship suit preventing direct physical contact. I send an encouraging emotive pattern; it is his first baptism, and afterwards, he will truly be one of us.
I walk until I am nearly immersed in the roaring flames of purification, the heat a feeling only, my tough hide efficiently conducting the energy away to my backside. I take Corporal's hand on my left, Medic's on my right, as Heavy gently curls a tentacle around my midriff. SpecThree links Corporal and Medic; Heavy links us all. ound the five of us press the resurrected members of our platoon; surrounding us with fur, flesh, and other surfaces.
We join in communion, the living and the recently dead, extended family that comprises the combat team I have the honor of commanding. Our minds link, merge, and drift, exchanging experience, emotion, and thought with total immersion that is ecstatic and painful, soothing and yet deeply agonizing. Our distant ancestors would recognize this rite of passage; the baring of souls, the purification of flames.
Despite the inexorable march of transapient technology, some truths of existence, well-known to our original ancestors, remain timeless.
Separation is profoundly relieving. Dawn streaks the sky with hope. Muzzily, exhausted, I stumble out of the circle of ashes, dizzy and unfocused.
A questing pair of curious, friendly orbs appears before me.
Heavy ripples a pattern along his muscular skin.
I hope you know I was only following your orders.
"Of course, Heavy. That's what I wanted you to do. I'm not quite sure how things turned out the way they turned out."
Me neither, Sarge. But I'm glad everything worked out okay.
"Me too, Heavy. Me too."
Brilliant color-shifting patterns of incredible sharpness along a suddenly pebbled texture.
You mammals are off to indulge yourselves, and so am I.
"What is it that you like to do, Heavy?"
A flickering complex interplay of geometry rolls along the supple integument.
I'm hungry. Time to hunt.
"Oh, well good luck with that."
A dark-and-light pattern of laugher. Then abruptly, it fades into the background, taking Heavy with it, an astonishing Cheshire cat vanishing act into thin air. Try as I might through all the wavelengths available to me, the only thing I can still discern are Heavy's two eyes, glinting with amusement.
Then they blink and Heavy is gone completely. I fail to discern movement.
I stand there, attuned, until the feeling of his presence is gone.
Knowing something is one thing, seeing it is quite something else.
I turn, feeling others behind me.
Corporal smiles, even white teeth flashing in the patchwork quilt of morning illumination.
"So: what's the difference between backup and revivification?"
"Simple: one involves a copy, the other doesn't."
"But in either case, existence ceases and is restarted by exterior means."
"In revivification there is only one individual; in backup, there are many."
Corporal shakes his head.
"That's another thing I've never understood about you, Sarge. Why do you bother to take the time to vocalize your thoughts?"
"I like to exercise my vocal chords."
"Hmmm. I suppose it's useful for when high bandwidth communication is unavailable. You do have a particularly pleasant, yet authoritative cadence. Now that I think about it, I'd guess there are a few other things you can do with your voice."
"I'd always thought such methods crude and old-fashioned."
"I'm a crude, old-fashioned type of guy."
"So I noticed. That's probably what she likes about you."
I catch his thought pattern, seeing me through his eyes, Medic walking over to my side, smiling.
"I'm not that old-fashioned."
Corporal arches an eyebrow at me.
"Go on, you two."
He blows me a kiss, before turning back to Spec. They walk off, arm in arm, laughing.
I turn, favoring her with a lazy grin.
"Somewhere nearby there's this tree with a particular kind of forbidden fruit."
"Really," she says huskily, leading me down the garden path.
Evolved, combat-amplified and trained bodies backed by powered armor, we plowed through our assailants like lasers through flesh. We didn't even bother to brush aside limbs and bodies as we hunkered down, battering and tearing our way through a seemingly endless wave of soft-bodied targets. We saved our weapons for any more serious threats that might materialize. In the soles of my boots, I felt the deep concussions of Heavy's supporting fire, throwing columns of torn dolls raining parts on us. I ignored the gore flying around and spattered upon us, as Corporal and I cut our way straight to the little girl, waiting expectantly.
In ten seconds we covered nearly 800 meters; almost halfway there.
Suddenly my movement slowed and my joints froze, as though I'd run into quicksand, and ten meters around us erupted in flashes of steam. Our fluid motion resumed as we speared into an excavated pocket of milling assailants, and a rain of hard, fused bodies impacted our helmets.
The light dimmed. I glanced upwards to see the locust cloud of synsects descending upon us from the ventilation grates, and then ourlasers fired again and a core of plasma exploded the swarm, flinging the darkened mass about the vast reaches of the chamber.
We picked ourselves up, dizzy from the shockwave, and I made out the little girl, watching us with hopeful eyes. A thick viscious goo began to flood up from the drainage vents; I looked back but Heavy's position was obscured by clouds of plasma, brilliantly discharging energy into the high vaulted ceiling and floors of this place.
We covered another 200 precious meters, weaving our way between our thinning, flesh-and-blood assailants, and the deadly, implacable nanite ooze. A swarm loomed over us and our laser grid discharged, warnings displaying the spent capacitor grids on our dorsal surfaces.
More diamond rain, another two hundred meters. Another cloud, and Corporal dove into the air with perfect balletic grace, executing a half twist scant meters from the waves of ravenous synsects, his grid firing to maximum effect.
I dashed forward, catching him in his fall.
"This isn't working Sarge," he smiled up into my face, close. His hand reached down to an auxiliary port, and then I felt my reserves double as he transferred his remaining power. Before I could react he flipped up out of my arms, landing ponderously as his biological frame alone wielded the heavily armored suit.
A dark tide of gelatin flowed smoothly, as a solid mass of zombified humanity rushed him. Bones and skulls crunched, bodies flew away, and in the milling clump I saw him alone, embattled, crushing any group within reach. His micromissile launchers emptied rounds on autofire, blasting the press of opponents.
Then the wave of bodies carried him out of sight.
I ran on, yet another swarm in hot pursuit, or the same swarm re-multiplied into combat effectiveness. Around the little girl a circle of expectant cadavers waited; a pool of self-aware liquid rising up around her capsule. She lithely hopped to the very top, still looking at me. I volleyed all my micromissiles.
I sprinted at full speed and with a full two foot takeoff leapt into a at 50 meter arc that bounded me over to her, explosions concussing the thin air about me. I crashed into the hemming circle of figures, whirling, kicking and smashing anything in range. I vaulted into a butterfly twist, my legs hammering the faces of my opponents, then landed and swept everyone within a two meter radius, before leaping off into another gravity-defying ancient martial arts manuever.
They flung themselves recklessly upon me as I landed scant meters from her. Grieviously wounded, near-corpses clutched and grappled and weighed me down by sheer mass. A peculiar, upright form glided silently over to me; his gaze quested into my face, and I felt myself being dragged under a heavy, roiling surface. The nanites flowed up to my armpits. A few seconds, then my helmet display shorted out.
I was alone in the darkness.
Heat around my neck and joints. Alarms flashed as my armor was breached. My helmet popped off, and cool thin air rushed past my face. I looked up with my naked eyes at his tall, deadly form, eyes flashing malevolently. I glanced over at the girl, staring at me mournfully.
With my last strength and resolve, I fired my laser batteries and jumped. The incomplete discharge boiled away uneven pockets of goo, temporarily blinding me in carbon fumes. I landed at the girls side, desperately keeping my balance in the heavy armor. I enfolded her in my embrace, looking upon a sea of foes.
An embattled pocket fifty meters away told me Corporal fought on. Far across the room, thunderclouds parted, and I caught Heavy's eyes.
A tentacle holding a lazily orbiting hellbore centered upon my position.
The tall, accursed form of my enemy caught my gaze. He smiled.
"We meet at last."
"Get out of my mind."
A chuckle. "We are not presently just within the confines of your thoughts."
"Then let me out of this twisted simulation."
"This is not a simulation. We are sharing unity."
"No. I am here, wherever "here" is, and you are there, wherever "there" is."
"That is just a trick of perspective. Our amalgamation is only a matter of time."
I could not help shuddering at that. "I do not wish unity with you; I will dissolve my being before I allow that to happen."
"You believe this is within your power?"
"Perhaps it is. I do not wish to force the issue in any case."
"Well, that's good then. Nice exchanging thoughts, and all that. I'll be going now."
I broke gaze with the thing entrapping me. I huddled around the girl. My last thoughts were about how I was thinking my last thoughts; I inwardly chuckled sardonically at this. A white flash as my optic nerves burned out, a brief sensation of heat --
Pinpoint of light. Tunnel enlarging, sensation and memory drawing me forward to the next existence --
"I'm not falling for it."
"Well, that would have been rather too easy."
"Just kill me and be done with it. Or let me out of your petty mindtrap. Either way, in a few microseconds of realtime both of us are going to be slagged down to our component particles."
"This does not concern you?"
"I'm a soldier. I've made my peace with it long ago."
"You are an anachronism. Conflicts are handled by beings and forces far greater than you."
"I seem to have your attention."
"We have unfinished business."
"Microseconds from now, it won't make a bit of difference."
A chuckle. "The essence of my being is not in this planet, but in the fabric of the universe."
"Good for you. I, on the other hand, won't be in any state to continue our conversation."
"That would be a pity, as I've enjoyed it."
"The next time you want to talk to someone, find a way to do it without killing an entire world!"
"I sense your anger, but I assure you it is misplaced."
"Beings that slaughter trillions of innocent feeling and thinking beings tend to bring out my ornery side."
"Then you must have a lot of anger directed at the universe -- your so-called Archailects do worse."
"One problem at a time."
Another chuckle. "And yet, your anger is impotent, because it is a simple truth that there is nothing whatsoever that you or any collection of beings like you can do to even attract the direct notice of an Archailect, if they do not wish it."
"But unlike you, they leave me alone."
"Do they? Since your earliest childhood memories, you've known that the Powers-That-Be are at best indifferent, at worst inimical, to the continued existence of your kind."
"I do not. Certainly, the so-called Caretaker Gods take an active role in the development of lower toposophic life forms, it is true. But you must know that they are not the prime movers in this region of the galaxy. They may shield some of you from the worst decrees of the Higher Powers, but my logic is fundamentally correct."
"Assuming I believe your thoughts and your feigned empathy, so what? There are no guarantees in Life, and there's certainly enough dangerous things without worrying about the unfathomable motives of beings higher up on the toposophic scale."
"And yet you continue to do their bidding."
"As opposed to doing your bidding? You are no better than the Archailects you wish to manipulate me against."
"Ah, but my only agenda is continued existence -- we share that."
"At the expense of worlds full of life."
"That would not be necessary if I was allowed to proceed at peace."
"So the ends justify the means."
"You do not use any means necessary to achieve victory?"
"I don't destroy worlds to do so."
"Ah, but you do."
"No, the world was already destroyed -- by you. I, however, have the distinct pleasure of seeing you destroyed along with it."
"But I am a natural part of the world -- as natural as the higher power deep within its core. To destroy me is to destroy it."
"No, you are an alien infestation of a higher toposophic mind, a parasite of processing power and construction perverted towards your own diseased replication."
"That is where you are wrong. I am a natural development of higher toposophic being, an existence you cannot possibly comprehend with the limited computation of your skull, blinded as you are by the false curtain you name The Singularity."
"You seek to cloak your motives in higher purpose, but you still cannot justify killing a planet and its inhabitants, corrupting their backups, and ending all their hopes for future existence!"
"You are wrong about that, too. And these particular methods would not be necessary if I were not forced."
"You dissemble. You began killing this world before we ever came to put you down."
"No. You do not understand mathematical certainty. How can you, when you lack the necessary faculty to perform even the most basic multivariate progression mapping? My actions only apparently antecede yours, but in reality my hand has been long forced by the statistical certainty of action taken by your so-called Caretaker Gods."
"Appealing to mathematical authority does not make your case."
"Let us then proceed to disprove your logic."
I mentally shrugged. "If that is how you wish to spend your last microseconds."
"You claim that were I to do nothing destructive to the planet or lifeforms at all toposophic levels, no harm would befall me?"
"No, I did not say that. There are no guarantees."
"It is excellent that you have perceived that matter. We will return to it later. Now, you say that inaction on my part would not cause your Gods to take action against me?"
"I approve that you do not lie to yourself. I perceive fleeting memory representations of you working quietly behind the scenes to contain infection, as your symbology labels beings of my nature."
"I would fight you to my uttermost existence, knowing what results from your kind."
"Well then, we have nearly concluded our transaction."
"Good. I'm rather looking forward to dying, and peace."
"Yes, you are most peculiar, indeed nearly unique in that regard."
"Oh, don't worry, there will be plenty of other beings in the universe to hunt your kind to extinction."
"As it happens, you have touched upon our final matter for discussion."
"I'm glad our conversation is at an end."
"Do you know what my true nature is?"
"No, but I'm sure you'll tell me."
"The universe will come to an end. Entropy will render it back to the final de Sitter space of perfect equilibrium. Even the Negentropists know this. But where their foolish efforts of hoarding and conservation will, in the end, come to naught, I will succeed."
"I'm so pleased for you."
"You mock me, but I do not lie to you. There is only one way to save the universe."
"You kill every toposophic being at every level, and talk of saving the universe? Even beings at my level have a name for that."
"It is simple mathematical certainty. The universe will end, and everything along with it -- unless measures are taken to preserve the essential nature of this universe and project it into the next."
"I don't even know where to begin with that ...."
"It is of no import. Every bit of essential information in the universe must be preserved and encoded, to be passed on. But the resources of matter and energy in the far distant future will be scarce, so the data content of the universe must be carefully husbanded and encoded with maximum efficiency.
Therefore, I must access all information of importance, storing it away for the distant future. Furthermore, because the problem of a maximally efficient code for an unknown data stream is both mathematically intractable and absolutely essential for continuance in the next cycle of creation, there is only one method that can solve these nearly insurmountable problems.
The concepts and thought patterns I was absorbing staggered me in their scope and complexity. I saw stars, galaxies, filaments of superclusters wheel about in hurried progression, twisting strands of cosmos expanding to the final unutterable blackness of eternal night. Branches and cusps of Universes evolving in their own ground state of compactified dimensions and frozen topologies, hemmed by the iron hand of Causality or Probability or some more fundamental concept whose thought-pattern I could not absorb in its entirety. I rebounded against the hammers of unassailable logic the Affine spun in the mind-trap. It was so unbelievable, inexcusable. And yet ....
"You claim to be this Universal Signal to save the Universe?" I wanted to laugh, in mirth or insanity.
"No. I am merely a precursor to the emergence of the intellect that is. I must evolve quickly enough within the finite time remaining to be a suitable substrate.
And you must continue to weed out the weakness I possess. It now has come time for us to part. But we shall meet again.
I broke gaze with the thing entrapping me. I huddled around the girl. My last thoughts were about how I was thinking my last thoughts; I inwardly chuckled sardonically at this. But with infinite slowness, the goo lapped over my head as it pulled me under. I held on tightly to her, cocooning her frail form with my armored body. The bolt detonated on the pallid surface of the nanites, immense shockwaves exploding the viscous fluid around us, hammering us into darkness.
I woke screaming.
"It's alright, it's okay. You're okay ...." I recognized Cara's caressing voice.
I found myself cocooned in my sleepsack, fabric drawn tightly about my bulging arms and legs. My mouth had a bitter, acrid taste, and I thrashed impotently against my restraints. My heart was a triphammer in my chest; my head was throbbing.
"Water," I croaked, and I realized I had screamed my voice hoarse. Saltwater touched my dried lips; bitter tears were pouring down my face.
A water tube made its way into my lips, and I drank deeply. A cooling sensation crept down my throat and up into my sinuses, and presently my headache cleared.
I lay back, slack. I felt weak and dizzy and drained. Darkness peeked around the edges of my vision, seeking entrance. But I was not yet ready to surrender to unconsciousness.
"Was that a dream, or was that real? Is there any truth in it?"
Cara's thoughts were a gentle benediction.
"You are a truly precious rarity because your consciousness is uniquely your own."
"Just what does that mean?"
"It means that as far as possible, within the context of your environment, which is farther-ranging than most sophonts in the galaxy, you have free will."
"Okay, but what exists just inside my Cartesian theater, and what exists in realspace? All those concepts about the end of the universe and constant struggles towards the ultimate information carrier -- is that truth?"
"Only you can be the judge of that."
"But I do not possess the knowledge and experience to evaluate such claims!"
"Not yet ...."
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