I felt at home. Kahunah's office virtual looked like it always had: an early Consolidation era office with diamond panorama windows and thick biotech carpeting. It was apparently in an infinite tower, surrounded by a slowly drifting lattice of different globes of Orinoco. Right now most of the windows were filled by a passing globe showing the planet in visible light, revealing the algae-gelled seas, the sprawling carbonite metroplexes, hurricanes and the telltale haze of climate control dust in the stratosphere. Apparently the planet was currently going through one of the irregular overheating episodes again, and some tagais had decided enough was enough. It did not feel particularly real or relevant to me, despite the fact that my prime body had once lived in one of those algae-encrusted gray arcologies. To the right, slowly approaching, was another globe revealing the infosphere of Orinoco. It looked like a neon spiderweb draped over the planet, flaring into brilliance at intersections and tangles. The network was also showing signs of overheating, with red arteries of high bandwidth usage and the glitter of local overloads. It felt much more familiar and direct: this was where I had really lived, and this was where I felt at home.
"Nice to have you back, Eudoxus. I heard that you took the long way home." Kahunah was similarly unchanged, always the same friendly but somewhat overbearing boss it had picked up from some archive and twisted to its own style.
"Nothing like a holiday for a century or two. And how are things here?"
"Busy. You would be suprised at how much is going on right now."
"The current day debriefing didn't seem that turbulent, just a few realist resurgents and the usual trouble from Fata. Or is it in the deeper layers?"
"Very much, yes. We got a nasty situation brewing, and right now we have to just sit on it." Kahunah indicated a closeup of the infospace globe, magnifying a representation that smoothly appeared on his desk. It looked like some piece of intricate machinery or perhaps a coral reef: nodes and links organising themselves into bundles and branches growing on translucent blocks of hardware. Colored annotations and snapshots of data structures flickering between them like tropical fish.
"See that little tangle? We have been getting more and more of them the last years."
"Some kind of autoevolver?"
"Almost. It is an animated piece of data, some old search request slowly growing in complexity and intelligence. The Immunity deals with them, but they are becoming much more common and clever each year. A few megaseconds back one even made a brief physical manifestation."
"And what did the Big Guy say?"
"Nothing, It just said we were doing a fine job."
"That sounds really odd. This could be the start of a minor Qlippoth, and It just sits there."
"Right. Of course, It knows what it is doing, but for us it means we have to work even harder. Which brings me to you. What would you say about an all-expenses paid working holiday to an exotic location?"
"I would say something like 'Where is the catch'"
"Well, the catch is rather minor: we want you to look into a piece of old technology without alerting any of the other powers that we are interested. If they knew, they would both become interested themselves and maybe see a weak point in our otherwise flawless reputation. And we can't have that, can we?"
"And where is this holiday?"
"The solar system."
"The solar? You mean Solarian Prime?"
"No, the original. Terra. The origin."
"What in Exu's name could you find there? The whole place is a museum, a tourist trap."
"Sure. And it is in museums you find old junk. I want you to go there incognito as a tourist, gawk at a few ruins, discreetly look over the junk we want, and then return here. Nothing to it, and you get to enjoy yourself."
It sounded almost pleasant after having spent far too much time fighting off wild marketing assimilators in the Zone and trying to make contact with the Paradigm Agents without alerting the Pyxis Freedom Zealots.
"Oh, by the way. You are going to love your new body" Kahunah added with glee.
I don't know if you can fall in love with a body at first embodiement, but this was definitely among the more unusual bodies I had worn. Not unpleasant, but far out. I was to go to the solar system as a Nimbus mist. Approximately 50 kilograms of foglet micromachines, able to form a cloud of several cubic meters or shrink together into a 2 decimeter cube. They could move around to produce almost any shape, including a passable humanoid. Sensors existed throughout the mist, enabling full sphere vision in most wavelengths. Strength was not that great, just at the baseline level, but the flexibility more than made up for it. The feeling of being able to lift a handful of pebbles by surrounding them was indescribable.
Of course, handling this kind of wildly non-humanoid body was not trivial. I had been provided with several levels of interface. I1 was just a remote control, it felt like I was sitting somewhere else moving around the body with a mental joystick. I2 was the humanoid interface, it mapped my humanoid body image onto the mist. As long as the mist was humanoid things were normal, but having a part of you extend into a translucent pseudopod when you tensed your stomach was rather confusing. I3 went further and actually overrode the normal body image and motor cortex, making it natural to be a mist and seeing through one's whole surface. I4 was even stronger. Through that interface I had access to the individual micromachines. I could do manipulations on the microscale or even nanoscale with some specialised foglets inside me. I could feel the tensions and textures of the individual pebbles when I held them suspended in myself.
I soon decided to mainly use I2. It would both fit my cover as a Nimbus tourist doing its Grand Tour of the universe and trying to blend in among the solids, and avoid giving me the usual self-image crisis I tended to get when I went non-anthropomorphic for too long.
Most of the trip anyway was spent as a solid diamondoid brick in a mini-compartment on the passenger ship. I whiled away my time in my home virtual reviewing the mission, reading tourist guides, Nimbus culture (what little could be deciphered) and generally pretending to do serious research while just reading for fun.
My goal was Mercury, of all places. There had been some nanotech outbreak there a long time ago, and apparently Kahunah wanted to get hold on some of the information related to the clean-up project. Old, apparently unimportant information that nobody had bothered to distribute on the net. And this body was ideal for getting it. Apparently the Solar Organisation had got rather paranoid about uncontrolled nanotech after the latest few attacks on Gaia, so they were extremely careful about what they let in. But it would be hard to check a mist, who was after all just composed of nanomachines. Easy to get in, easy to scan whatever was there, easy to sneak out.
The Solar System prided itself on queues. On most worlds queues are unknown, scheduling agents and individual service makes them irrelevant. But here, just as in the most primitive systems in the Outer Volumes, there were plenty of queues. Apparently it was not due to lack of technology or management, but simply because it was "authentic". Amazing. I wondered why they had also not re-introduced bubonic plague, just to be even more authentic.
The customs gallery was in the grand torus of Port Andarte, having a magnificent view through the diamond roof to the Solar System wormhole terminals. The station was both intended as a functional passenger shuttling machine and a sieve to pick up dangerous elements. I noticed the blue goo delivery nodes hidden among the baroque and flowery statues of ancient heroes of all species, and at least one telltale glint of neutronium meshwork in a darkened alcove. Ahead was the doorway to the exit lounge, guarded by a stick-figure droid with colorful feathers instead of a head.
A family of Solarian pilgrims stood behind me. Their pilgrimage jewels glittered in the wormhole terminal light. In my youth I would have been seriously worried about them, since each diamond was a small turing and could very well be on lookout for Tiphareth Itself. But over the years I have learned that it doesn't matter. The Big One's never do anything they cannot make their underlings do, and so on. As long as I was just playing my role well enough I was safe even from the gods, just by being ordinary and uninteresting. Who cares about a lone mist?
The customs vec greeted me cheerfully in the Nimbus dialect of CACC.
"Welcome to the Solar System, Zer." I noticed a slight tone glitch as the vec tried to get a handle on being polite and friendly to a being that did not have any individual name and might even not have a sense of self.
"Thank you, honored customs vec 34873438" I countered.
"You have partaken the Solar Organisation customs declaration interaction. As you know, we have strict import restrictions on uncontrolled alien biologicals and nanosystems."
"But this volume is a standard volume, bearing nothing but the normal foglet complement" I protested.
"Naturally. But in the light of past unfortunate incidents in this system, we must ask you to accept a token analyzer swarm". The droid held out a number of green capsules.
This was a problem. Most likely they would check for the presence of general assemblers, which were my best tools here but of course quite illegal. Without them I would be much more limited in my mission. The analyzers would also likely track my position in the system, making it even harder to do an unexpected excursion. And if someone malicious had control over them, they could try hacking me from the inside. Either they were very paranoid, had had bad experiences with mists before, or someone was onto me.
I quickly disassembled most of my assemblers, hiding the rest in a small peripheral volume. Then I extended my hand into a mist pseudopod and engulfed the capsules. Being briefly in I3 saw how the Solarian child behind me stared while her parents studiously looked unsurprised. The analyzers began to diffuse among my nanites, performing their own microscale customs inspection. A bit of I4 awareness surfaced, telling me that they were behaving themselves and not overstepping the agreed protocols. Another mental subprocess discreetly moved the remaining assemblers away from the analyzers. It would have to continue dodging for as long as they remained, but I saw no other option.
The customs vec thanked me and let me through the doorway to my waiting shuttle. Behind me the Solarians were waved through.
For some reason everything on Mercury was named after artists. The geography after pre 20th century poets and composers, the major settlements after 21st and 22nd century rock bands and other locations after a bewildering number of totally unknown artists, bards, composers, fabulists, visualisers or transmuters from many millennia of eclectic naming. My shuttle landed on Weiss Spaceport (Solarian jinglemaker, 4302-4494), I took the Mahan Galloway ultrarail (Etodist songwriter) to Metallica (20th century band) on the rim of Michelangelo (1475-1564). In Stribir Tower (First Federation holoartist and environmentalist, 3107-3542) I entered Club Boweer (ComEmp geometricist AI, still around somewhere).
I sat at a corner table, overlooking the arcology. The tower was four kilometers high, giving a perfect view of the rimcities of Michelangelo. Each was a collection of domes, pyramids or cylinders filled with greenery, their adaptive surfaces turning golden against the harsh sunlight. I was not particularly impressed with the famed "huge Mercury sun" - I have been to Arcturus Zero, and there the sun fills most of the sky.
But what was really eye-catching was the landscape outside the rimcities. The craters, hills and cliffs all looked like they were covered with dry grey grass. This was all that remained of the 4650 infestation. For a brief moment the planet had flowered, covered with autoevolving nanotech constructs feeding off the abundant sunlight. According to my files, the first seeds had been released by the ecopoipoets, a small group of radical life worshippers that believed it was an artistic sin not to seed any place that could support it with life. They had begun with the local networks, filling them with viruses and agents, then gone on with algae in the water distribution system and finally spreading the nanoplants. Pictures show craters covered with lilac metal oxide and silicate leaves, strange encrustations of iridiscent coral and gas-filled balls that grew in the long night, exploding when hit by sunlight and distributing their seeds far in the low gravity of the planet.
"The phototurb is efficient, but there is no *art* in it" a Sun Miner complained.
"Have you tried? You have to be very interfaced to get the secondary helicals right, otherwise you just get a big protube."
"Ah, Zarl, you have never done a third helical as long as you have been neo."
"Gorma it, or you will see who can flare the E-vec!"
The Sun Miners had steadily grown louder and more assertive. Five silver-black humanoids, not obviously either tweak or cyborg, with various slits on their bodies most likely holding cooling and interface wings. Their clothing was simple and ostentatious at the same time, a swarm of micromachines forming whatever clothing they wanted or needed. A remote relative to my current body.
I liked the Sun Miners. They were predictable. Once the successors of the amat monopolies, the sources of all the mass needed for wormhole production. Then better methods arrived and the empries started doing star mining without the old Sun Miners. But they had made great investments of their enormous capital - both money and glamour - and had managed to hang on to it. As the new, boring mass mining corps spread they were largely owned by the Sun Miner clades. They still liked to play at doing mining "by hand", but now it was just a game or ancient ceremony. A kind of hero-nobility just like the Golden Dolphs of Syrtis. Not the kind of thinking class schemer I was.
to be continued....