| The planet below glittered like a jewel. Its entire volume honeycombed with endless arrays of diamondoid logic matrices, Sirius II diffracted the meager portion of light missed by the sunscoops into a smear of neon rainbow. Up from the surface stretched the beanstalk, looming large near her transport's destination and narrowing away to invisibility above and below. From the node at the equilibrium point it reached up another hundred thousand kilometers before terminating in a pitted asteroidal counterweight, a hyperfiber cable long enough to wrap the planet's equator four times if ever it fell. But it wouldn't. The Noëar didn't build artifacts to fail.
Image from Jim Wisniewski
A patch of the wall rippled, configuring itself into a vocal membrane. "Beginning docking approach," the computer intoned solemnly. Its voice sounded cold, flat, and echoed hollowly in the cramped passenger chamber of the transport. The oblong ceramic craft rotated leisurely about an axis, bringing the face with her seat and the exit hatch normal to its velocity vector. Out from the tower's side extended a long telescoping arm, tipped with an amorphous globule, a general-purpose docking connector. Airlocks were a rarity here, as was any form of life that needed air. The connector met the transport carefully, shaping itself to form a perfect seal. She only felt the slightest tremor inside the cabin. The airlock opened with a hum. Cool, odorless air drifted through the link.
She pulled herself through the airlock with the ease of one born and bred in a solarium. The chamber beyond was a vast spherical cavern, seemingly huge though it only occupied a small portion of the central node's volume. Passageways connected and branched off from it at seemingly random intervals, and handholds studded the softly luminous inner surface. Except for the strange look of the walls, it might have been any intersection in Aurum's belowdecks. So much like her home.
"Our home is dying," Till had said to her. They stood on an outcropping of rock at one end of the solarium, looking out over the interior. Streaks of clouds lay across the land below, curving up at the sides to meet overhead. A beetle clambered over the loosely packed dirt at their feet.
"We have had problems for a long time," she argued. "Hundreds of years. We always get by." The forests were once thick with the golden-leaved trees that were the solarium's namesake, a sea of yellow she remembered well from her childhood long centuries ago. Running through piles of bright leaves after midyear, chasing Till about as brother and sister would. Watching the leaves released from the axis by the ton during the yearend celebration, raining down in a centrifugal blizzard of gold.
Now most wooded areas showed wide swaths of brown decay, and the rest were duller than before, the aur trees stunted and sickly. The soil had eroded in patches, occasionally revealing the metal plating below. The brook running along the central belt had dried up; the three great curving windows were filmy with algae and dust.
Till shook his head. "It is different now, Elen," he said. "The reports from the agricultural sections are in. The amount of sunlight we have been receiving has dropped over the last few months." The beetle stopped, as if surprised.
She blinked. "But that is impossible."
"Impossible things usually do not happen. And it is not just inside, either." He raised an arm, pointing out towards the wide sweep of the window spinward of them. "All the other solaria agree on this. Something out there is blocking the light. Food production is suffering, and the maintenance systems are losing power. As though they were not already half-broken."
"How many people know about this?"
"Just the technical crews who discovered it," said Till. "And us. But the secret will not keep for long. If the light levels drop much further the difference will be visible. Some of the other effects are becoming apparent as well. A section of Azure's window blew out this morning, and the maintenance systems took twice as long to patch it as they should have. Three people died, luckily not permanently." He shook his head. "This sort of thing cannot keep happening. People are getting worried."
She stared out at the landscape intently, silently. "I will call a Council meeting," she said finally. "What else can I do? New troubles could end up killing us all. We have been stagnant, too idle for too long to let things get this bad." She crushed the bug with the toe of her boot. Death in the midst of life.
And here, life in the midst of... she didn't know what. Were Noëar alive, flitting through their electronic lattices? She touched the glowing wall of the chamber. It felt warm, smooth, and yielded slightly to the touch.
From one of the larger passageways swam the construct designated to meet her: a long chittering segmented thing, a metallic millipede grown huge in null gravity. Eyes poked out of strange positions on its head to peer at her. "Please come with me," it said, the voice surprisingly pleasant for such a strange form. "I shall take you to be encoded."
"Here?" she said, momentarily puzzled. "I though I was going down to the surface."
More sensory appendages extended towards her. "You are baseline, correct?" the construct asked.
"I am human, if that is what you mean."
The construct twisted its head slightly, sending a torsion wave down the length of its segments. The motion seemed to her oddly reminiscent of a shrug. "Yes. The surface has no atmosphere and a very high temperature. Your body would not survive exposure. The encoding will take place in the tower."
She felt surprised briefly, but nodded. They had partially expected this, and it would make little difference. The creature understood her gesture, wrapping the tentacle at its tail around her midsection and pulling her carefully through a series of tunnels. Each was featureless and identical to the last, with no apparent means of distinguishing one from another. Her sense of direction felt intact despite this; they seemed to be moving towards the center of the node.
After several minutes of weaving through the tower's interior they came to another room, spherical as well but smaller and studded with dark protrusions on one side. Through the translucent walls she saw intestinelike tubes snaking around the entire circumference of the room, pulsing slowly as they carried various fluids about. The construct released her and pulled itself over to the bank of ports. Its middle sections split down the center, unfolded to reveal a tangle of cables connected to a long cylindrical bead of clear, viscous liquid. This was held in place by a mesh of fine threads.
"You must leave behind all items not directly integrated into your physiology," the construct said. "They will be returned to you upon your departure." The surface of the liquid rippled as the construct plugged connections into the wall.
She left her clothes near the entrance, drifting only slightly in the cool motionless air. The construct directed her to step into the fluid-filled cavity through an opening in the mesh near the top. The liquid was warm, probably body temperature. She shuddered involuntarily as thin metal-tipped wires hunted over her skin, sinking in at intervals to connect to blood vessels. A larger cable positioned itself at the middle of her back. Swarms of nanomachines pushed through the layers of her skin, began building a connection to the nerves in her spinal cord. And then -
a thousand shards of crystalline agony
She stood on one face of an infinitely large cube, the surface textured like rain and the scent of blood. Left-recursive algorithms sprouted from it, iterating through an n-dimensional phase space. Illusory sensations brushed along her arms, across her back, up her spine. Her senses spun sickeningly, mixing together in a blur of confused sensory input. Nameless horrors flitted across a contorted sky.
She heard (smelled, saw) a voice booming out from the nonexistent horizon. "Remain calm," it said, acrid and tinged with blue. "The synesthesia will subside once we finish analyzing your sensorium." The algorithms waved in a non-Euclidean wind.
Gradually the scene became less surreal, congealed into something approximating normal reality. The impossibly distant sky shifted, shaped itself into the interior of a cube, of a house. Squat baroque pieces of furniture grew up out of the floor like strange geneered plants. To her right a bright-feathered bird screeched noisily at her presence, pecked at the pile of seeds in its cage. She noticed the insistent tug of weight, trying to pull her downwards. The simulated gravity was unusually strong, close to a full standard gee. A door in one wall, the handle a crude mechanical device, led to the outside.
She stepped out into bright harsh sunlight, shining down on ground which spread out flat before her instead of curving up and around itself. Grass covered the landscape, the air heavy with its scent. And the sky - the sky was wrong. It was a bright garish blue, darkening near the zenith, with no visible features or boundaries save for the far-off horizon. The sun shone yellowly through it, but no other stars were visible. Megastructures stretched high overhead, glittering, a faint white line reaching to and past a hair-fine arc. An orbital tower and synchronous ring: this was undoubtedly a planet. Perhaps the Noëa world before they came to Sirius, or even Old Earth...
"Neither, actually," said a voice behind her. "We created it just for you."
She turned around, startled. Behind her stood a man, short, clad in a dark suit of an archaic design. His accent was strange. "How..." she began. A cold spike of alarm shot through her. Could they read her thoughts? If they saw - !
He held up his hands, a calming gesture. "My apologies. We're still trying to determine which parts of your mind we should avoid accessing directly. I didn't mean to alarm you. Do not worry! The programs which encoded you were simple ones, and their memory buffers have been purged. Your secrets remain your own, whatever they may be."
Was that last statement too pointed? No, she'd imagined it. "Thank you."
He nodded. "Well, then. Welcome to the Sirian Hierarchy. I'll be the... interface, if you like, between your mind and the local realities. My name is Joseph."
"That is a strange name," she said.
He smiled. "It's an ancient name. Our roots go back to Sol system itself. Yours do too, eventually, but your memories don't reach as far back as ours." He started to walk across the springy green grass, and she fell into step beside him. The landscape shifted as they walked, slowly, subtly. "So tell me," he said presently, "what brings you to the virtual world? It has been quite some time since we have had direct dealings with baselines, or they with us."
"Bad news, I am afraid," she said. "Some of the solar power collectors, which we understand are under your control, have moved out of position. They are now blocking much of the sunlight we need to survive. We were hoping you would be able to fix the problem."
He frowned. "Strange. We haven't noticed any trouble with the sunscoops - " No, of course not - "but we'll look into it. In the meantime, you must be interested in knowing more about us. I can give you the tour, so to speak."
"Yes," she lied. An excellent opportunity to stall for time.
"Excellent. Well, the first thing..." His voice trailed off, eyes defocusing as if he was looking at something impossibly distant. The light dimmed, but it was not due to the sun; the entire view darkened, becoming blurred and indistinct. The air fairly vibrated with power and a palpable sense of presence. She looked around in alarm.
Joseph seemed distracted, listening to a voice she could not hear. "Yes," he said after a moment, "this is the one from the solaria." A pause. "No, I suppose not. I will remember." Then it was gone, the scene as bright and pastoral as before.
"What was that?" she asked.
"One of them." A meaningful glance upwards, towards the delicate arching lines of diamondoid. "A Noëa."
"I thought you - "
He laughed. "Oh, no, not in the least. They don't understand how you think well enough to talk directly, any more than you understand them. The differences are too great. I am... well, an echo of sorts, a recording of the being I once was. Insofar as there is an I anymore. They were human once, before they became what they are now." He turned and indicated the house, now sheltered within the walls of a thickly wooded valley. "The landscape is fictional, but that was my home."
Presently he paused, and for the first time she sensed some hesitation in his words. "At least, I think it was. Not all my memories were stored, you see, and sometimes a few more get lost in the mix. My greater self has more pressing memory demands than preserving me." He fell silent for a minute in reflection. Then with a visible effort he pulled his thoughts back to the present, and turned to face her again.
"Come," he said. "Let me show you things."
Overhead the sunscoops sparkled.
"Thousands of them," Till confirmed. "They seem to have drifted out of their normal positions, and now they are occluding the sun. There are so many of them that the decrease in luminosity is substantial."
The council room was embedded in the side of a rock face, in fact the very cliff on top of which she had spoken to Till the previous day. The room's wide windows allowed a panoramic view of the solarium's interior. Ordinarily the sight cheered her, a reminder that they had faced tough situations before and survived. Now in the slowly fading evening light, the decaying forests and broken ground seemed bleaker than ever. She turned away from the windows.
One council member cleared his throat pointedly. "Yes, Dr. Alakir?" Elen asked.
He stood easily in the light gravity of his home near the central axis of Argent. He was a small man who possessed the air of dignity which came with nearly a millennium of age. He had once been one of her teachers, three hundred years earlier. Now he was the most distinguished expert of orbital engineering in the Twelve Solaria, and the council's Director of Science. "This was not simply a chance occurrence," he said. "The sunscoops are not in orbit, but are held up by the pressure of sunlight. The only way for them to move other than radially is by tilting them in a very specific way. We can be sure this was a deliberate action."
"On whose part?" she asked. On this he had no opinion, and sat. The other members looked at each other uneasily, reluctant to put voice to the thoughts troubling them. She guessed after a moment. "What, the virtual world? They have never bothered about us before. What threat could we pose to the Noëadrim?"
"Their minds are unknown to us," said Taneki, the historian. "They think differently. They may not want us to use up resources they need from the asteroids. Or they may simply have decided our use of their sunlight is not allowed."
"Their sunlight!" exclaimed Till. "This is our home! We have as much right to it as they have."
"Their presence here predates our own," she responded evenly. "There are precedents. But of course you are right. Sirius is a bright star, and few others live around it. There must be more than enough energy to go around. Certainly they could be reasoned with."
"If that was the case, they would have contacted us first," said the Director of Security. "To me this speaks of hostile intent."
They argued back and forth for several minutes, images flickering slightly from the holoprojectors' disrepair. She watched silently, nearly able to predict when and what a given member would speak. The same thoughts, the same old arguments and fears repeated once again. Centuries of complacency all congealed into one room.
"Enough," she said finally. Silence fell as they all looked at her. "This is pointless. We cannot simply talk to them - the best we could do is send a representative and hope they can devise a way to translate. Neither can we attack them. We have no weapons and no way to defend against a retaliation." The room remained silent as the others thought deeply, trying to come up with a solution.
Then, the Director of Information coughed slightly. "I may have an alternate suggestion," he said carefully.
A rounded disk of superheated plasma, bulging in the middle. Encircling it from pole to pole, a slowly rotating ring of bright hot points. Farther out lay a nearly complete sphere of thin squares of dark material - sunscoops - on some of which sat arrays of green lasers. Periodically these would fire into the outer edge of the disk, sending up great bursts of glowing plasma. Moon-sized structures orbited within the larger sphere, absorbing the rapidly cooling gases. And in the middle of all this were two human figures, standing impossibly on a surface that did not exist.
"What is this?" she asked wonderingly.
"One of our more ambitious projects," said Joseph. "Sirius is a very large star. It will burn itself out in scarcely a billion years unless we intervene. Similar plans have been started in other systems, although it will be many thousands of millennia until their outcomes are clear." Around them plumes of stellar matter leapt outwards towards the surrounding darkness. "These are just the design plans, of course. We won't know what it looks like until the project gets under way."
"Then this is actually possible? I would never have thought something like this could really be done."
He nodded. "Ironically, it was humans who first devised the idea of star lifting, but they were fated never to be the ones to carry it out. By the time the adequate technology had been developed, they had already been surpassed by greater intelligences. Your kind is no longer the driving force in the galaxy, I'm afraid."
"I think we still have some contributions to make," she said, a bit stiffly.
"Not in the same way you once did," he said. "You have numbers, we have power. It evens out, I suppose. But your ability to drastically alter the future has passed on to higher beings. On the other hand, neither are you able to accidentally destroy yourselves anymore. The tradeoff may or may not be comforting to you; take it as you will."
"It is not."
But then he showed her many things she would never have imagined, from all across the inhabited galaxy. The images surrounded them, changing in rapid succession. Weylforges and linelayer ships carving paths through spacetime; arrays of cargo accelerators so long light would take hours to cross them; the incredible megaengineering projects of the MPA; even the Shapers' kilometers-long sentient habitats, whole worlds unto themselves. All were designed, built and controlled by superintelligences of one sort or another. She knew what he had said was true, and hated him for it.
"The Noëadrim are beings of information," they had said. "So we must use information against them."
As she watched she felt the program buried within her mind start to come to life, reaching out into the surrounding simulation with thin tendrils of logic. The images jerked, distorted and then froze entirely. Joseph frowned, startled. "What - "
"A virus, hidden inside your brainwave patterns. It will take time to adjust to their data architecture, but then it will strike."
The scene around them started to break up, becoming grainy and broken as if eaten away by acid. A darkness spread outwards from her, consuming everything it touched. Joseph drew back from its touch.
"I will go," she had said over their protests. "It is my responsibility, no one else's."
"Elen! Are you all right?"
"I'm sorry," she managed to say, and then the darkness swallowed her as well.
"I told you they wouldn't disappoint us."
"Surprising. Very well, Joseph, we will do as you ask and permit their existence. But we must still keep a close watch on them."
"Undoubtedly. Look, she's starting to come around."
She awoke with a start. Disoriented, it took her a minute to figure out where she was - inside the house she had arrived in, lying on a couch. Looking over she saw Joseph sitting in an ornate chair next to her. At seeing her awake he stood with a concerned expression. "Are you all right?" he asked. "Do you think you have been damaged?"
It took her a minute to assess the question. "No," she said, "I do not think so. But what happened? I thought..."
"This?" He held up a strangely contorted object, made of glinting metal and twisting around and back on itself in a complex fashion: a physical representation of the program hidden within her thoughts. "A fairly simple virus, as such things go. We detected it when you were encoded, and had little trouble disabling it once it activated. The real trick was preventing it from doing any harm to your data in the process."
Now she felt thoroughly confused. "But, why?" she asked, sitting up. "If you knew, I do not understand why you let all of this happen. Would it not have been simpler to just remove the virus and tell me afterwards?"
"Yes," he said, "but that would not have suited our purposes." He pulled his chair closer to her couch. "Some four thousand years ago, the first colonists came to settle the Sirius system. The project was eventually abandoned as unfeasible, but not before one group became dissatisfied and broke off to do things on their own. They moved into the asteroid belt, established a habitat run like a corporation - "
"The founders of the Twelve Solaria."
"Our history records that, but only in fragments. Even we are not totally immortal."
"Neither would your culture be, without external intervention. For centuries you flourished, but in recent years you have been in decline." As he spoke the room faded from view, replaced by images of times long past. She saw the solaria at their height, and then the descent into decay. "We observed you at long range, watched your forays into the asteroids become more infrequent and your equipment degrade. You were becoming stagnant, insular. Human society is a chaotic process, and you were slowly spiraling down into the well of a dead attractor. We decided to give you a nudge, to try to boost you out of your complacency."
Diagrams flitted by in dizzying patterns, flickering in the corners of her vision. "So you did move the sunscoops purposely."
He nodded. "We - well, the Noëar, at least - have a distaste for interacting with the physical world directly. I don't understand why myself; this sort of simulation seems real enough to me, but their thoughtspaces are much more abstract. Regardless of their rationale, the solution was a very elegant one. All it took was a few numbers being changed slightly, numbers governing the tension on a group of sunscoops' staying cables."
"And that tilted the collectors, making them move..." Black squares sliding across a piercingly white disk.
"Blocking your lifeblood, your sunlight. Yes. The mere fact that you responded by coming here proves there is enough life left in your society to warrant further action. As for the virus, we had to be sure. We had to see whether you would risk permanent death for the sake of your habitats' survival. You could not have harmed us in any event." The images melded into the background as the room returned to view. "You may well fail to understand us or our motives," he continued, "but we do desire your survival, and if possible, prosperity."
She was quiet for several minutes, thinking about all he had told her. "And why do you care?" she asked presently. She thought of the beetle she had crushed so thoughtlessly, those long days ago on the cliff. "We are so small compared to you."
Instead of answering, Joseph stood and walked over to the cage hanging by the door. He reached in though the bars and smoothed the feathers of the bird inside. It chirped appreciatively. "Do you like it?" he asked, turning back to her.
"Yes, it is. It makes beautiful music as well, and consumes virtually no resources of any importance. Why not support its existence? Even in your solaria you have bird feeders."
Realization dawned. "But... no. You cannot mean - !"
He smiled then, that strange smile that seemed to speak of secret and unknowable truths. Before she could respond, he did something at a level hidden to her, changed the pattern of the simulated reality she was visiting. Logic blocks folded out of existence as they reached their conclusions, the data streams turned back on themselves, everything appeared to skew -
And in the tower high above, still wrapped in the construct's mechanical embrace, her eyes opened.
By Jim Wisniewski More about Sirius here