CW: cave-in, non-human sexual innuendo, TESCREAL ideology, communications collapse, problematic fiction, dubious consent, discussion of military rape, male nudity, cultural Orientalism, imperial Japan, castration threat, fascist ideology, misogyny, existential risk, solipsism, organized religion, religious warfare, insectoid design, falling, deadly combat, hand horror, disabling injury, death
The rock shook around us, then shook itself back into place.
The familiar bone-chatter of danger was replaced by the wind of the uncanny through my marrow.
Then the rumble and dust-fall started again, and despite not knowing if I could be buried alive I felt a momentary comfort.
I understood the theory behind it, but it seemed absurd that Meteorology, a system premised on letting everything in reality do exactly what it wanted, could permit a distortion this absurd while condemning something like the Adipose.
This was an instinctual reaction, not an intellectual one. I understood that I was conflating Meteorology’s world of Wills with Earth physics’ world of Laws. At the quantum scale the Meteorological model really isn’t a metaphor, each particle acting on its own terms, too local to predict each other, spontaneously forming order in distributions and negotiations. The principle had even been discovered by observing spontaneous asymmetry that emerged sometimes in quantum computing laboratory conditions (the Meteorological word doesn’t really translate to “laboratory”; imagine a sacralized valence of “Playground” - I’ll use “Playscape” from hereon in).
I understand it a good deal better now than I’ve been able to convey to anyone so far on Earth, or will be for a while at the pace of briefing capsules we’re sending. Up here, we’ve been allowing limited, one-way direct contact with Halation for the purposes of scientific education alone. In Meteorology this is taken extremely seriously as a matter of moral principle. While some asymmetries of expertise and specialization are inevitable in any high-tech culture, it’s generally considered a failure of reciprocity to use a technology without making an effort to understand it, at least in a popularized form adequate to most uses - and their technology is orders of magnitude more complex than ours (although most of it reduces to a few simple principles). I had spent whole off days on Plastic Beach just Wikisurfing to alleviate the humiliation of my empty memory when Halation asked simple things like how plastic was made.
The speed of light as cosmological constant can be understood as a function of the baseline lag of quantum information processing throughout the universe. With sufficiently powerful computation, it’s possible to push things carefully past this baseline. A cloud of low-density plasma with a semi-permeable barrier is projected around a ship. This acts as a computational substrate the way silicon does for our computers - although it mainly just relays messages from a more powerful and stable solid-state quantum computer within the physical ship. The solid-state computer calculates the desired parameters for speed and trajectory and models the interactions at the surface that would realize them; the plasma communicates between the computer and the membrane which essentially acts as a Laplace’s Demon, directly determining particle-to-particle interactions across its surface.
What happens if it miscalculates, you’re asking? Surely this is the existential risk the US was worried about?
There were admittedly some pretty catastrophic failures in the early days of Weak Asymmetry. I can’t perfectly explain why they don’t happen any more either because I’m not a quantum supercomputer that evolved by statistical self-improvement over billions of years to perfect the art of calculating trillions of tiny particles. But basically if a particle collides with another the mesh of relative calculations across the surface collapses their waveform into two regular sub-lightspeed particles colliding at that particular position and leaves them behind. If you travel by Weak Asymmetry a lot you can expect to lose a few micrograms of mass this way permanently, but nothing you’d notice at human scale; the ships require maintenance for it, most organic life doesn’t.
The most insane thing this means is that an Asymmetry Field almost by definition is a mind, albeit a very limited and self-contained one. But it could do other things, especially when it meshed with another Asymmetry Field, including comms.
I understood this now so I wasn’t technically as unprepared when the woozy pink haze around the ship started singing.
And yet I felt less prepared somehow. Was it louder, were its overtones more eerie, was the ground under my feet even less solid (like, it was literally, I was floating in sideways asymmetric gravity in a collapsing tunnel on a planet made of pumice) than it had been last time? This wasn’t the sky singing around two parked cars on a dirt road with an alien in the trunk - an unexplained phenomenon relative to its background, like a “UFO” - I was now trying to place myself in a scene of which not a single part was familiar or belonged to the set of categories I had accepted my entire life as plausibly “real”.
Also this time there were two voices and when they overlapped it was only in dissonances, to distinguish their separate voices from polyphony in their individual expression. Not that the dissonances were harsh or disturbing - they were gentle in a way that made harmony itself sound garish, overpowering, like Mai had tried to explain to me when she was showing me atonal music, which I hadn’t quite worked into my ear outside of how it threaded between open jazz chords and hits of pop sweetness in her own compositions, but I had sort of mapped to my experience of sex, the vast continuum of touches that made orgasm alone too jangly-jarring or sickly-sweet -
But through the vibrating strata of affect, Halation was translating for me.
Greetings and apologies - Be reasonably alarmed - Someone has been setting off explosive fungus (not quite, close enough) networks throughout the chimney - We have sustained and 89 standard units of force, fourteenth exponent and reversed 12, fifteenth-exponent so far - We have not identified the responsible faction - Failure is expected within 8 standard temporal units tenth-exponent without assistance - We would be grateful for your assistance.
Our Asymmetry Field responded before I could choose whether to address Caroline Bennett-Fog or the guy calculating those units or the field somehow. Is failure still expected on some timeframe with assistance.
Assuming unlimited explosive fungus in the chimney, which is unlikely - but assuming amounts designed to overwhelm an Asymmetry Field, having previously confirmed the existence of one - it seems pretty miserable, I thought, and Halation clarified that these minds experienced minimal affect, but that there wasn’t a totally permeable boundary between epistemic particularities and affect, as my imprecise wording had already picked up - Or, having ascertained its strength, larger amounts in future.
Is it possible to systematically remove the charges before they detonate.
The closest would be to systematically detonate the charges and then clear the chimney of force - which would require knowing detonation mechanism, though we can assume chain reaction -
Then Halation took over. “Field Coordinator Hiawatha, sync and calculate maximum extension, maximum resistance, maximum surface complexity with Field Coordinator…”
“Lung 15 - Upper Dock.” Lung, then, was the name of the place we were landing.
The following musical phrase wasn’t a word - it rose and fell in the lilting band of possible sound-distributions Ahasurunu language systematically reserved for spontaneous expressions of direct contradictions what Halation had just said about powerful affect. (It does happen, sometimes.) What a… strange Asymmetry Field - The code is a shape we’ve never seen before, like igneous rock fitting into diamond - So much power coursing along such bizarre channels - It’ll cost us 3.4 standard temporal units first exponent to all calculations just checking the compatibility of these algorithms - It feels as if it’ll fall apart, but if it doesn’t - Permission to attempt distributing initial contact heat plus force to maximum surface extension within and only within matter density of 5.57 standard units of density seventh exponent?
That’ll just straight up wipe everything out in these tunnels, Halation warned me. The matter density qualification meant the synced field would expand, not directly out through the solid rock as it was perfectly capable of doing, but like a spikeball through the tunnels all throughout the chimney. “Do we have allies in here?” we asked.
Yes but they don’t go higher than the base plug - 74 standard units of extension fifteenth exponent above local topological average - if we use that as a cutoff…
“Are there other lifeforms in the rest of the chimney?”
A file so enormous started downloading on our screen that it crashed for split seconds that felt like another exponent.
The walls were starting to tremble again. Waldo Beek was looking at me with a face smug enough to go to his grave with, his lips parted as if supporting a phantasmal cigarette, hands in his pockets. We weren’t going to die - the combined power was enough to resist five times any of the previous impacts the way it had already done. Weak Asymmetry Fields store energy in their quantum state - essentially, the brain is also the battery. Despite being technically capable of reversing the processes constituting entropy at most scales, and using this to some extent to restore their own energy, perpetual motion for a Weak Asymmetry Field would be an unsolvable recursion problem, and you can see them because lose energy in the form of photons and various forms of dark radiation constantly. Interstellar ones are particularly intensive. We charged ours at Azoth’s experimental nuclear reactor; it drained the entire supply of plutonium within three days (we had to give it access to the plant’s control systems to stop itself causing a meltdown). It was about two-thirds out of gas.
This wasn’t about survival, this was about making an impression - solving a problem now so we wouldn’t be distracted by it as we settled in.
I didn’t want to sacrifice - what, an ecosystem? I had absolutely no idea what was here - for that, just for my pride. That wasn’t unreasonable, right?
There was a huge crack and I froze and Halation was thinking fast for me. There were courses of action the Fields themselves wouldn’t think of; they tended to propose extremely simple solutions because modelling from the perspective of macroscopic life wasted a lot of processing power. You had to prompt them yourself, and very precisely, to do crazy things like - the synced Asymmetry Field can use multiple layers at the cost of complexity. In the first - let everything explode and reverse it, transmitting the information on the density of everything it just reversed back to the second layer. Scale: a sphere the diameter of the chimney - hopefully that will be enough; can’t risk anything more complex with the amount of computation this will take.
The walls ground to a halt. The ship had also halted - we were now the centre of the synced field that had been pumping us through the chimney, not to mention was responsible for letting us in.
“What are we doing?” Caroline Bennett-Fog asked apprehensively. I was standing with my hands and feet wide and tense, Halation covering my body in shimmering iridescence like halfway through a magical girl transformation sequence, my second skin a single organ vibrating dense Ahasurunu commands to the Field(s).
In effect: the second - project the matter and energy captured by the first, at its original rate but reversed, through everything at the measured average density down to a third exponent unit. (A total guess at a number fine enough to be a proxy for the actual molecular structure, which the Field couldn’t model at every point of its surface without causing another recursion collapse.)
Third - as the rest of the fungus exploded, repeat.
Fourth - expand through the others, to maximum size, at maximum speed -
Two great hollow voices in chorus, a breaching leviathan of song, a fractal howl.
A geyser of heated air erupted from every opening along the surface of the ten kilometre chimney.
On the weathered lips of its caves, bundles of thin, translucent, round tubes swayed gently.
We stayed on the ship to have lunch, and sleep, and do most everyday activities. Going outside was always a mission of some sort - it was too alienating to treat as anything else - you couldn’t pay attention to anything except the space you were in and the task you had to negotiate it to do - which of course I realized meant we couldn’t get out of practicing it, and we had mandated regular shifts of EV time.
“But what does all this weird homework have to do with it?” Jax groaned.
“Ask her, she’s making me do three times as much of it as you guys,” I poked at the bowl on the table, trying to convince myself to eat the pile of long black strips embedded in some kind of umber gelatin our hosts had delivered as a welcome gift, and despite assurances that they had been “molecularly substituted” to be compatible with human biochemistry, I was so far almost alone in eating. “Including reading some really smug guy’s ‘Sequences’.”
The space glittered with beautiful new things. I at least ate lunch on the bridge every day, gazing “out” at the view on the wraparound monitor. To be honest, the base was probably weirder than most places on Towers. The atmosphere that crept through its caverns and reservoirs, while thinner than Earth’s and with enough helium to make you talk like that if you took your helmet off, was mostly normal - except in the bubble the Ahasurunu had sealed off from its surrounding tunnels to fill with bubbles of several different gas giant atmospheres. The ship was currently in Contemplation’s; the Ahasurunu, and a few other species, had their own. Schools of creatures that looked like metallic purple maple keys spinning through the mist could freely pass between all of them. A huge cluster of things with four pairs of venated wings fluttering behind them like the folds of a badminton shuttle stuck to the window, probing it with hummingbird tongues, and had to be dispersed with a subsonic pulse. What I took to be a tastefully curated selection of flora and fauna floated by baffling intervals in and out of sight; bobbing like a pendulum in the mist, a megastructure like an organic jungle gym laid out in an uneven grid was barnacled with a sizeable number of Weirs, interfacing with cubes, or wildlife, or these baroque bubble-torpedo vehicles that sometimes did insane aerobatics around us, or the Ahasurunu.
“Whatever advantages we have physically, technologically, strategically or just in willingness to kill might just barely be enough to beat the advantage our enemies - and allies - have that they’re used to interacting with completely alien species and environments, and we’re not.” Caroline sat down next to me, which I wasn’t sure how to get her to stop doing off the job. It’s not so much that she thought of me as a friend, though there was a weird cagey respect I couldn’t tell how much was for Halation as opposed to for me. Other times it seemed like she viewed me with utter contempt - which she now seemed to be offloading onto Jax. (I ran through my mental database of ways to intervene between them in case that boiled over here.) “The alternative is hard-memorizing all those concepts Halation’s worked into the lessons.”
“Those are kinda fun honestly, although it’d be easier if we got more contact time, and somebody didn’t keep correcting our writing.”
Bennett-Fog shrugged with an expression of slight surprise. “That’s not me. Might be Tony. He was at Iowa.”
“So when are we going out against whoever’s bombing us?”
“When we figure out who’s bombing us.” The information hadn’t been formally compiled into a briefing yet, but it wasn’t classified either - we just hadn’t figured out a format, and some informal transmission was inevitable. “Nobody they know of living in this chimney is pro-Adipose, but none of them know where anybody else is any more. They’re all scared shitless of having to leave here too.”
“Yeah, I thought this planet was really solidly anti-Adipose. Didn’t the Adipose side blow up their communication network or something?” Jax had evidently already been getting informal briefings somewhere else.
“The computational life network connected to their node organs, yes,” I sighed. “Not like something they made, like a whole other species - living satellites. They were formally part of one of the big anti-Adipose network blocks, and have been about 85% wiped out by a virus in an information packet they received from the parent block when it was under attack, plus more recently some kind of aerial bombardment no one’s been able to identify. Do you ever read your briefings?”
“Hah, you know I usually skip the lore dumps in games, too.”
“Because you knew you could always get me to fill you in on them, like you’re doing now.”
“You liked doing that, though, right? I thought.”
“That’s why you went to college and I didn’t.”
“The planet was split before its network block got involved,” Bennett-Fog took over. Our hosts estimate a large majority of the people here have been radicalized anti-Adipose by this - there’s a chance the attacks are even over their peace efforts - but there are probably people who blame the network block for putting them at risk too - and it’s hard to say because no one’s really in communication with anyone. It’s like a planetwide blackout. Which makes it a good place to do secret experiments, or hide a new wild card species. But also… means everyone’s going to be extremely paranoid.”
“See, you aren’t doing it quite like my sister, you talk too fast.”
Caroline Bennett-Fog moved food around on her plate, lifted it up, put it down. “I don’t mind hearing about back when you used to… edit wikis, right?”
“I still mind a bit hearing about all the things you guys know about me,” I groaned. “Although the others pretend not to and with you it’s honest I guess. You should be glad I didn’t order someone to dox all of Edison Lens and brief me on it, as your commander."
“I am going to continue assuming you’re lying and hope you’ve enjoyed whatever you’ve found so far.”
I had used the Clamp network, briefly during its initial expansion, to compile a file on everyone who would be coming with us, but I hadn’t paid much attention to personal stuff. There was just too much. But sometimes when I was really exhausted, I would flip through some of Bennett-Fog’s Star Trek fic, imagining the characters I’d honestly never seen enough to have immediate mental images of as lush 90s OVA women.
My main concern was who might be especially loyal to any of our enemies on Earth, and who might be sympathetic to my own goals. Caroline Bennett-Fog was solidly neither. And what she’d conveyed in our many, many training and wargaming sessions over the course of the flight (an authority I’d chosen to let her have, turning down similar with Beek) was that she grasped the nature of the power struggle I was inevitably barreling towards, and might work with me if I proved myself. But for all the test scores, I didn’t totally understand what I was trying to prove to her, and wasn’t sure if I wanted to.
“It’s weird to me that we haven’t even seen them yet, though.” Jax continued, almost finished his patented Azoth Burger (a meat replacement they hadn’t been able to afford to clear for Earth markets). (We were also going to have to start going out on food expeditions soon.) “The Towers. I do look at all the pictures in the briefings, you know.”
“The wireframe based on the description in the information packet should be ready by tonight, right,” Caroline checked with me. She had barely touched hers, but kept lifting it up to and away from her mouth. (It didn’t taste bad.)
Halation called the inhabitants by the same name as the planet itself. It sort of made sense with how tall and thin the thing in the wireframe was, at least if it stood up straight, or folded its limbs in the right ways (they were extremely foldable to fit through tight spaces, or extend out across large gaps, as necessary).
I nodded. It had been taking a while because we’d been building it from the inside out - making sure we understood all the internal organs - Beek wanted a detailed checklist of all the ways you could kill one. This was dragging out into multiple info packet exchanges with sheltered, obsessive biologists - nobody here at the Lung had thought to put this info in one place.
“Vance wasn’t that far off with the Pnume.” Bennett-Fog finally bit into her burger and waited.
“I mean, if you’re thinking Barlowe’s Pnume.” I scoffed. “But that’s all on Barlowe. Vance didn’t describe shit.”
“Look, I wouldn’t have given Vance a second glance if I hadn’t spent my first months at Edison Lens sucking up to all the old-timers to pick their brains. My first commander had barbecues with Jack Vance. Cordwainer Smith was at the inauguration of Edison Lens.”
“You’ve told me this before. He still like, should have waited half a century to be a light novelist.”
“The American backyard, he used to say about those barbecues, where the only place to look is up. Like you can almost see through this foggy blue glass, and there’s heaven, or ET, or the bomb. And now, how’s this view?”
“I dunno, I don’t look at it like that any more? Not like pictures in a wiki either. Like even before we left the planet, as long as Halation’s been with me. I don’t feel like I’m on the other side of anything. And I’m trying to look at different biologies the way I learned to look at different cultures. Like, it’s a different kind of gaze.”
“Hmmm, I never did anthropology, but that sounds sad to me.”
“Like other people on a bus - you can’t really look at them, right?”
“I don’t think you’re talking about the same thing any more.” Jax tore a strip of bun off the back of Caroline’s unattended burger. “Why the fuck are you talking about buses and barbecues and books, guys. We’re in space.”
Despite everything else about going outside, one thing we soon didn’t need to worry about was wearing space suits. About a week (surprisingly, there’s a recognizable day/night cycle in this pocke; Contemplation is a “hot Jupiter” in an Earthlike orbit; but we’ve had to update a thirteenth hour after midnight on our clocks) after the first data exchange, the Weirs fed us some kind of synthetic fungus that acted as an intermediary metabolism. (For reasons of local cultural significance, we had to drink it in a scalding tea from these flexible bubble-like water sacs woven from a fiber that looked like polyester but was actually a kind of native grass. It gave us a mildly pleasant sparkling tingling feeling for the next hour.) The next day, about 40 soldiers stepped out on a mission to transport a crate of human DNA samples naked. The Weirs had no clothing norms of their own, but knew enough about human ones from my info packet to be surprised by it. I called their leader in that evening for discipline, even though it didn’t super bother me, but I was already starting to understand the need for military discipline just to keep my head straight. We had uniforms for a reason! My messenger was told there wasn’t a leader, they were all acting as one and would have to be disciplined as one, and would formally request to be treated as a distinct unit. I said whoever said that would be counted as their leader, and was surprised when the face that appeared atop a huge tattooed naked body in my office was one Jax had pointed out from the troop registry to show me on a call when I’d asked him if he was making any friends. Jax had prepared me for Fingal Hadak’s unique floral and faunic tattoos, which he flexed in the locker rooms and challenged anyone who called him a faggot over mano a mano. Undefeated to date, he would then prove and disprove his opponents by fucking them smoothly, mechanically in the ass - not rape, Jax assured me, because he stipulated this right before any combat. When I had mentioned this to Beek he smiled wryly and said if I tried too hard to bring this stuff under control I wouldn’t have time to do anything else, but also that Hadak was the worst news of anyone he’d ever worked with, so of course he’d had to invite him.
Of course, neither myself nor Caroline Bennett-Fog nor Halation (whose system of ethics around symbiosis exceeded both core simplicity and iterated complexity, in density and flexibility, anything humans had ever managed to hammer out about fucking) were going to take a “boys will be boys” tack to one of the ugliest problems that bedevilled most human militaries before they ever saw combat. (The first time I reached out to my advisor was after reading an article she’d published ten years ago about how rape within armed forces conditions the psychological and moral tolerance for war crimes against enemies and civilians. I wanted to know if she’d done anything more on this. The university had threatened her tenure track; their materials lab had a big contract up for renewal with DOD that year.)
In addition to a tipline advertised throughout the ship, consent training featuring Bennett-Fog’s decision-theoretic modules and what I could manage to articulate of some of Halation’s principles, and a fast-track court-martial system, I had decided to answer Beek’s objection by combining my tasks and made listening in on the whisper network the first mission of Rho Aias.
Beneath the rich variety of colours dominated by not the blue of gunpowder and India ink that revolutionized the Maori moko and then the global colonial sailors’ tattoos, nor even the blue-green Nara ink of Japanese irezumi, but the ancient blue of woad, the dye of the Picts, strong and luminescent enough to pop out from skin that had seemed to have already been bathed in ink by the effects of colloidal silver. The slate-coloured avatar-skin made his ethnicity seem to fluctuate across his features, although the shock of high-contrast red hair, and his name was a fiction. A clone of Azoth’s unreleased legal replacement for the Internet Archive, with an AI-powered navigator that made it feel like a regular search engine found the surname was Hungarian, and the tattoos were actually inspired by fanciful Elizabethan reconstructions of the ancient Scottish tribes in question, with their curling, fanning blue thistles and strangely human beasts’ heads at the joints.
One original elaboration was his dick, twined around by a double helix of white and black hairs descending from the beard of a grimacing monster and ending in snake heads sinking their fangs into the glans.
I had a Japanese sword laid across my desk that Waldo Beek had given the day of the launch. I sadly knew enough Waldo Beek lore to know how embarrassing a gift it was; to know it was from World War II; to know there were dozens more where it came from; to know it was good quality for reasons he didn’t understand and at some point it had been sullied by the attention of hundreds of suburban dads listening to him pretend to explain them. I hadn’t taken it out of the bottom shelf of my office closet until now.
“First things first. We are five hundred light years from any semblance of terrestrial order, any civilian laws or tribunals, you’ve already seen the guns on you” - two bodyguards selected by Beek and one member of Rho Aias. “This has nothing to do with any conclusion we reach, but I personally didn’t consent to talk with that thing dangling in your face, and you don’t have the right to leave the conversation. So that means” - I hoped Halation would keep my voice steady but she almost tripped me up here - “either I cut it off or you put something on.”
The Rho Aias representative, a graphite-grey-haired, droopy-eyed, prognathous ex-Academi who had refused an unspecified mission in Yemen, held out the standard set of Azoth pyjamas everyone still wore off duty.
To make the unstated meta-point extremely clear, I had my own tits out under my jacket, which was fun.
Hadak put the pants on and left his jacket open, which I hoped was fine. Halation’s discomfort inside me was an ocean of static rising up to my ears - they had blown up intercepting ships, transmitted information that had wiped out cities, but this kind of domination ritual, not to mention the knot of feelings and memories about sex and gender and violence churning in my gut, was new to them.
“My comrades and I have unanimously agreed to request your permission as a new military order directly under your authority, the Sacred Band of Sol.”
“Look, you can probably imagine I’m not the kind of leader to care that much about uniform discipline. I care a lot about consent, and I’d rather you keep this to your own quarters or something. But then you have to bring some other stupid shit into it. I’m not dealing with a cult the second I land on another planet.”
His facial muscles didn’t move any more than they had to physically to speak. It was uncanny, like one of those old cartoons where a live actor’s lips were superimposed onto a 2D face. “I’m not trying to start a cult either. A military order is, to me, first and foremost an erotic compact. And I do care about uniform discipline. As far as they go, I’m quite a fan of yours, although I’ve thought of a number of design tweaks I’d love your opinion on. But out here, we finally have a chance to start fresh. When we sent the Pioneer plaque out to the stars, we wanted to show whoever saw it humanity, raw and bare. Adam and Eve, in the Edenic state.”
“We’ve already given them biological schematics in our data comp, not to mention DNA they should be able to simulate the entire genetic blueprint from. Besides, you’re not exactly raw and bare yourself - do you wanna give them the idea humans are naturally covered with weird flower patterns?”
“And the Pioneer Plaque would have given them the idea that men are naturally short-haired and shaven. But that’s not the point. There’s no way their simulation is building the whole thing out - all the beautiful and ugly things a drawing like that erases because we’ve been covering them for so long. The ways we make love and war, the ways our bodies from head to toe are built for it. The way we hunt - that’s part of why we’re here, isn’t it? According to the briefings you gave us half of these planets haven’t had predation in thousands of years, some never did in the first place” - now he was starting to grin, and to make clear I already knew this, I put my hand on the sword hilt again.
“Cult that thinks it’s the only thing that’s not a cult, like every cult. Do you have anything concrete to offer me here, or does Waldo Beek just take this stuff seriously because he’s an idiot?”
“You said it yourself. You’re five hundred light years from any semblance of terrestrial order, any civilian laws or tribunals, and surrounded by people who are opposed to you. You can’t actually guarantee they can’t get in contact with an alien to continue your war their way if you die. You can’t just depend on formal command. And that bitch who works with you” - he laughed, airily and without spite - “she might think she’s the only person in the world who understands what that looks like in the abstract, and she might be right, but she doesn’t know it in the flesh.”
My face flushed with unexpected defensiveness towards Caroline Bennett-Fog (how much of the male soldiers’ resentment against that bitch who made them do weird tests and read dense scientific papers had he marshalled into this stunt, anyway?) and I might have given it away if Halation hadn’t been managing my face.
(They were a roil of emotions too, but the fine control they managed to maintain of a body they weren’t even familiar with felt akin with the control they maintained of their own mental activity, and I wasn’t sure how much was species, how much cultural, and how much hard-won by centuries of loneliness.)
“This is a weird way to advertise yourself for the hypothetical position based on exceptional personal loyalty, I have to say.” I slid the sword in and out of the white leather sheath, admiring how the light tilted down it. “Unless you’re threatening me, in which case.”
I had told Jax in no uncertain terms not to tell him about Rho Aias - at least, not yet. Someone else powerful and capable of commanding his own loyalty was exactly the kind of shortcut I didn’t want to take. Over the journey I’d approved three candidates Jax had selected from the locker rooms and mess halls, and eight more they’d selected themselves (we called these the second degree). Of twelve Rho Aias members to date, one of the second degree, a former Gangster Disciple who had been taking contracts in Kurdistan for the last fifteen years, had joined the nude delegation.
A sick part of me couldn’t look at this guy without imagining him ripping Waldo Beek’s head off with his bare hands and fucking his emptied spinal cavity (feeling a satisfied warmth rising from my own solar plexus). At the same time, my own negotiating position was built on the assumption that would never happen; that Waldo Beek wouldn’t have let this guy on if he was genuinely worried about losing control of him, and also thought I was safer. Of course, the straightforward assumption was that Beek was using him to threaten me.
He laughed, this time with genuine, disarming joy. “See, you’re still wearing all these assumptions about me, about humans in a natural state! What I meant was, if you give these men - and women - permission to be what they are, instead of holding up Beek’s charade of Earth order, they’ll be personally grateful to you. It’s free loyalty - not through me at all.”
“Well see I was already thinking of that, and you’re just making things messier. Look, as you guessed it, I’m not the uniform type.” Remembering dropping half an hour of anthropological obsession with their actual impact on combat effectiveness and social structure that silenced the table at a barstool argument between anarchists and Leninists, Delilah among the latter. “I love Mai’s designs, and it’s better than half these idiots running around wearing MAGA hats and getting into fights over soccer jerseys. But mostly I didn’t want to sink a ton of effort into convincing anyone and everyone about that, when I had way more important things to convince them. The aliens don’t seem to care - the Weirs and the Ahasurunu are all technically naked, and nothing in our data packets so far suggests a comparable taboo in any of the cultures we’re likely to encounter unless we go looking for them. Around base, what humans care about is what matters. But since you’ve given me an excuse, I was thinking let’s say on EV missions, units can decide their own uniform regulations, since they’ll be the ones exposed to whatever climate we couldn’t anticipate. That would be a unanimous consensus of the unit, not a command decision. You wouldn’t get a new authority out of it and you certainly won’t get a military order or whatever, Jesus Christ.”
“About the Weirs and the Ahasurunu - that’s actually kind of unsettling, isn’t it?”
He tilted his head and pulled his mouth in a way that was actually kind of unsettling. “What is?” I squinted back at him.
“That none of them have a taboo about it. That none of these planets walked out of Eden! None of them ate the fruit and were shamed by their God!”
“Yeah, I wouldn’t expect aliens to have a Judeo-Christian origin myth, what’s your point?”
“But do you think that myth is the real reason we have that taboo? Why would someone go to all the trouble to invent something so arbitrary? Which would mean that somewhere, someone, ate the fruit.”
“Well, I don’t know if this has to do with what you mean… but an important person to me always called Earth a silent planet.”
“Hmmm. I think you know what that really means, considering what you’ve been so on edge about since the beginning. Do you think when we’re done, the rest of the galaxy will wear clothes, and we will be the naked overlords, like the dawn?”
“Just for whatever mind game you’re still trying to pull, literally everyone except you gets to go full buck naked. You personally are under orders to keep at least one article of clothing on at all times. You play by whatever bullshit evo psych logic you’re trying to project on me.” I picked up the sword and pointed it lazily. “Yeah, that means end of meeting.”
He kept his eyes swivelled on me as he turned. “I was just kidding about the Sacred Band. I may have been trying to see how you’d react, but I’m actually more loyal than the other people I’m sure keep doing things like that right now - I only did it out of curiosity, not because I want anything. In fact, you can trust me in what’s coming, whether you want to or not. Tell Waldo I said hi. If you want, you can tell him I told you that.”
Fingal Hadak laughed and left. I glanced around at my security, gauging their reaction. They just looked at me sympathetically like I’d been having an awkward interaction with a homeless person. And all I was thinking was, I’ll take the next person who doesn’t try to do anything like this. They could be anyone.
I stepped through the surface of the vehicle, shimmering like a soap bubble except in colours the basic thin film interference we had on Earth could never make - another semi-permeable membrane. The atmosphere outside was only comfortably warm but more humid than anywhere on Earth, like a sauna that didn’t make you sweat. I didn’t mind it categorically - there was also a sort of diaphanous wing-pack, anchoring painlessly and without visible lesions under skin, I could wear to drift safely through the gas without any support - but the air-conditioned cool of the ship on the other side, albeit slightly more misty, was a relief.
It is thin film interference, though, Halation informed me - the different layers of the semi-permeable membrane are chemically tinted, so we can give any one of these a bubbles a subtly different palette. There are a few popular ones, but we’re still coming up with unique ones, like we did for yours.
The “Leona” palette, which apparently Halation had been carefully picking out for me, was heavy on pale purple, deep magenta and clouds of dazzling reflective white.
Halation, of course, didn’t stay inside me when we went EV in their own native habitat. Well, they had the first time I went, just to experience it from my perspective - not just to hear my thoughts, but feel the physical vertigo. They’d already gone out on their own, first thing when we’d landed, and not come back for over eight hours.
They were anchored in the bubble ahead of me. Caroline Bennett-Fog was sitting with her hands on her knees pulled up to her chest in the bubble behind me. The vehicle was a series of connected “bubbles” with the last containing four rotating discs covered in layered, hypermobile cilia that pushed the gas currents out through its own vibrating membrane behind it. (I had seen vehicles composed of any number from one to over a dozen.) Even more layers of the membranes, inside, were a medium for the Weirs’ neural rhizome. This meant Weirs could “talk” between bubbles in their standard forms, as they could through the grooves and channels in a shared reef - the form of communication from which their unusually broad ability to symbiose with other lifeforms had evolved. (The bandwidth in a shared medium like this was less like the mind sharing we had and more like talking, albeit with spontaneously perceived context.)
More surprising than that, their shape had changed.
Even the “natural” shape of Weirs, as I’d found out shortly on arrival, wasn’t uniform. As a complex mesh of autonomous strands with interfacing, redundant organelles, variability was inevitable, though they tended to be conservative - though there were “artists” who reshaped themselves constantly, Weirs in the natural state were more like a plant than an animal and didn’t feel the need to move for long periods in a satisfying habitat. The shape I’d seen on all the Weirs in my first vision, and in most of Halation’s memories to the point I hadn’t even thought to press closer on it, was somewhere between a “uniform” for their project and an “adaptation” to the specific reef they were anchored on.
Halation’s new form, on the other hand, was completely original. I adopted it, she began (this time, I startled, the “she” was her idea, transmitted in the cognitive metadata), as a representative of humanity. Even if I’m employing you in a military setting, the role of an initiator of first contact is its own and eclipses my previous roles, my previous selves. Was that why “she” was adopting a human gender identity?
The new body shape, however, was not itself humanoid. If anything it took inspiration from our ship, though sharper and more elongated, like a tuning fork.
We don’t caricature species we symbiose with in our own forms. It’s considered rude.
Awright, this is Ajax “Jax” Lillywhite, AKA Da Prince of Terra, because I’m her brother and don’t you forget it, bringing you the LOGS. I am about to dump a big fat log and you are all going to love it, just lick it all up. Prince of Terra more like DUKE of taking a huge LOG. And this isn’t even the unofficial log yet. I’m with 18th squadron “Big Dogs” and this is our first expedition outside the Lung. Three new gaps in the chamber opened during the last round of fungal bombings, and we will be exploring the nearest one, designated B7. This sticky blue-green stuff is a slime mold (close enough) which the Weirs have been using to map the caves and tunnels surrounding the Lung by transmitting electric signals through it. But without nutrients it’ll harden into a dry caulk in - I’m not using that standard time unit shit, sorry - three Lung-days. And it’s from off-planet so there’s nothing it naturally feeds on here. So hopefully as we get this out into the new openings they haven’t mapped, we’ll also run into some of the mold they’ve already laid down and give it some of these nutrient packets so it can keep growing and mapping further. And we’re also looking for signs of who’s been bombing us in the first place, and kicking their asses if we find them. Although Leona said to check first that they actually know what side we’re on before doing that. We have a thingy here with recordings of some very basic phrases in their language that we can toggle through. It’s really high and buzzy and hurts my ears so I hope we don’t have to.
I watched the clouds in a different way than I was used to at home. It wasn’t the Catatumbo Basin, but Montana was a great place to experience Earth’s atmosphere, particularly in its stark contrast between a crystalline, depthless blue that seemed more like the border of world than part of it and sprawling, sharp-edged, dramatically shaded collapsing palaces of white. We had mist sometimes when a rainy morning got up close, but you could barely see the trees at the edge of the field through it, let alone the shape of other clouds, behind clouds, behind clouds, colours behind colours, colours translated through colours until you couldn’t know the first or the last. Contours shifting around and through you.
And the “sun” that shone through them was a pulsing plasma lamp, irregular as a heart, white-brilliant but veined with pink and blue filaments across its surface and up through the glowing membranes between each of the atmospheres in which it was embedded, transmitting warmth and energy, one thick artery running all the way up to the floating stone brain projecting the Asymmetry Field through the tunnel. I got close enough to see it hundreds of metres below, a momentary gap in the thickest cloud revealing it as more than a bright blur, as we crossed over to the Ahasurunu atmosphere, through a portal of puckered blue translucent gel. Weirs preferred vehicles for travelling in open atmosphere; the Ahasurunu, native floaters, a cluster of them waiting for us at the portal, didn’t.
They greeted us.
Halation through the vehicle translating for me, I sang back: “Take me to your leader.”
This stuff is supposed to advance at a metre per twenty seconds - so at a normal march, even on uneven terrain, we’d be pausing and waiting for it to catch up with us - but the first stretch of this was such a narrow, uncomfortable crawl we’re now scrambling to catch up with it. And now almost as soon as we have headroom to stand up (and it’s another big bubble, with all kinds of tiny holes in the floor that make it feel like it’s gonna fall apart under us, DO NOT come out here if you have trypophobia man) we’ve hit our first crossroads. The mold just splits and keeps moving at the same pace in every direction, just filling in these little grooves in the rock, although it somehow knows to follow just the relatively large tunnels and not flatten out the whole thing. And it’s kind of hot and a little damp but not in the way I’d expect a cave on Earth to be - not slimy or slick. I still feel self-conscious but Specialist Hadak might not have had the wrong idea about clothes out here; it feels nice on bare skin and kind of icky on a uniform. Supposedly the disaster fucked up this planet’s water cycle so that the oceans all drained into the crust and now most of it’s very dry near the surface and completely submerged farther down but there’s these partly natural, partly artificial pressure currents that suck water through the upper crust, plus heated vents which is what we’re on, feeding the Lung’s atmospheres. Jesus Christ. Leona you should be here explaining this shit, but you’re right, I did enjoy it too when we were kids. I even tried doing some wikis but my attention would ramble all over the place, you know how it is. There’s little things in here, like little round copper coloured squishy puffballs with curly flaky stuff peeling off them like whatever the fuck that stuff is that’s all over anything microscopic in a photograph, sticking to the rocks. I guess they just absorb heat and moisture? The database says they shouldn’t be explosive, which is good because they’re absolutely everywhere. Glad we’re not crawling any more so we can just step on them. Specialist Hadak says they feel really good on your bare feet too. They just spring back as if nothing happened.
The Ahasurunu don’t look mobile enough to perform many of the manual tasks of a complex civilization. Our starfish have flexible tentacles, but the other three points of one’s main body don’t move much more than the two built into the flight disc. They have to move their whole bodies to do basically anything. It looks ridiculously inefficient. But I’ve never seen anything perform such complex movements in air so effortlessly. The flight disc is surrounded by a ring of another hundred or so jets which can all push out air from imperceptible whisper to mach speed completely independent of each other. The logic of the colour-wheel synthesizer, and the language itself to some extent, follows from this. No wonder this species built the most sensitive, adaptive intellectual system I’ve ever encountered; for the Ahasurunu, learning to move and learning to talk are like learning jazz.
Almost immediately inside, I could see the structure of their Playscape. It seems absurd to use that translation for what we would call a military R&D lab, whatever its peacemaking intentions; but when you see it it’s also improbably apposite. The structure looks like nothing so much as the giant space-themed indoor playground my parents took Jax and I to once as a kid (at a pit stop on some road trip, can’t remember where). Twisted, coloured tubes winding around each other, through scaffolds and into spheres and cylinders, sloping ramps and runways for vehicles, corkscrew antennae and coils.
We parked a short way into one of the tunnels, which was lined with vehicles (and immobile Weirs). The Ahasurunu held things by extending small, retractable, quite elegant and not at all dangerous-looking chitinous hooks from any of a hundred to a hundred fifty tiny openings along their five branches. Positioning themselves by smoothly rotating, one that had broken away from the group and floated up to me offered me a putty ovoid with a colour-wheel disc embedded in it. I held up the one I already had.
I had been practicing on it since our very first exchange of technology, and could now bang out any favourite song from Earth on it by myself (so many of Mai’s, ones even I’d been surprised I knew by heart) but didn’t actually speak Ahasurunu well enough (if I ever would) to use it for serious communication without Halation translating in my head. The device was, essentially, a synthesizer. Their musical-verbal notation was based on a systematic analogy of colour to note even before they had understood the correspondence of the wave theories of light and sound, which had been significantly easier for them to discover, and the system was now standardized to a single elegant transformation of wavelength. Moving my finger around the colour wheel, I could speak in a squarewave softened to a fine-toothed comb of windy overtones.
No one here could understand human at all, so we could more or less talk freely.
They took us to Anashirana, who wasn’t so much a leader as a “mission research strategist”, pulling between different fields and areas of expertise at the Lung to allocate resources and efforts in alignment with a complex model of the universe, the war situation and the local environment. This also made them one of the people most naturally interested in and prepared to communicate with an uncontacted species. Their original specialization was something that sounded pretty relatable to me as a former anthropologist. They turned lazily in the light a translucent dome, across which various abstract-looking data visualizations responded to subtle movements, at the top of a long thoroughfare vault, the personal space loosely demarcated by curtains hanging down, and a personalized blend of gases hanging between them, in our fungally adapted body a heady-sweet scent.
I’m glad we’re not splitting up not just because we’ve all seen horror movies but because if we did it every time, there’d be like one of us left following any given path by now. When I’m not looking at Specialist Hadak’s gravitational compass thing I have no idea what direction we’re going, I’m trying to guess every time I look and more than half the time I’m wrong. The tack we’ve been taking has been to stay as level as possible, keep going as far out as we can, and stay as straight as we can right-to-left. There’s less of the little round things whenever we’re in a narrower and dryer area, although I think we almost hit one water-vein. There are some really weird colours in the rock too, streaks of shiny purple and little platinum stars. I keep expecting it to be pale and grainy like pumice or sandstone or something this porous would be on Earth but it looks like it came out of a volcano or something. Wherever there’s bits and pieces of it they’re big sharp-edged chunks. It’s really freaky because it looks and feels like it should be really solid and it’s not. I’m still carrying around a bit of the wall I pulled off in my hand. It’s just the right size that would be really cool to whittle into a knife or something.
It looked like we had just about caught up with the mold, and then we hit a dead end where it’s escaped into a tiny chimney going straight up, barely big enough for one person at a time. The dead end looks like a cave-in and we’re debating Private Bosil’s proposal of using our own explosives. I thought we weren’t supposed to be using any explosives in here unless it’s a matter of survival, not even the microcharges, because we don’t understand the rock well enough, but Bosil says this cave-in looks more deliberate (it is more regular) than the others and might be blocking off where the people who opened this new vein went. (I’m still the only one saying “people”.) We have the measuring vibrators, so it should be OK, right? We gotta stop calling them vibrators. What do they call the Dune thingies again.
“The situation is, right now, we have the advantage of military technologies that maybe no one else in the galaxy has developed. We also have some physical advantages as a highly specialized pursuit predator, but that varies by location and opponent species. That advantage has a limited window. We’ve taken some precautions to prolong it - for instance, our guns all contain a remote-controlled acid cartridge, connected not only to our operators’ radio comms but to a hidden transmitter pegged to their pulse. We’ve also been working on a doctrine of rapid engagements preferring either retreat or hegemony over any potential conflict of attrition, unless we have substantial reasons to believe we would win it, which we might in a lot of cases. But eventually, someone will find a way to reverse engineer everything we throw at them. We need to decide what strategic objectives will create the most decisive possible advantage within this window. Let’s ignore any upper bounds on scale at first - we can correct down as we get a clearer sense of what resources we’d need for what.”
And you came to the nearest peace-seeking research station for this.
“Well, closest base period, as far as we’re aware. But yeah, this is also part of strategic objectives. If there are any that would particularly secure the peace-making factions within the anti-Adipose alliance -“
“Unless, of course, the peace would only be buying time until the conflict breaks out again, by which point we might be essentially useless,” Bennett-Fog interrupted. “On Earth we’d assume suppressing an emerging technology requires absolute hegemony, but Leona-Halation tells me you have multiple machine superintelligences that haven’t destroyed each other. And they’re on different sides of this war… what’s the likelihood that goes hot, and should that be our primary concern? How much do we risk upsetting that?”
It’s already gone hot. Several network blocks have been destroyed, including this planet’s.
“No but I mean like. How smart are these network blocks exactly? Even you guys can break things we think are laws of physics. None of the reasons she gives me that you haven’t weaponized more of it, let alone them, make sense to me… What does it take for them to do more than hack each other? Is that why this Adipose is such a big deal for everyone?”
Oh. Oh I see… yes, that’s how a more militarized species would think of it. I thought you might… You know, you might have come to the exact right Playscape. The history of this planet, and our own research, have more to say your questions than you’d be able to find in many other places… Our briefings say you were on the brink of a geoengineering catastrophe yourselves when we found you, don’t they?
Bennett-Fog stiffened, reddened like an elementary schooler reminded of a public tantrum. “Sort of. Our leadership is just barely catching up to our science on these things on Earth, but we can assure you the leadership of this mission is independent and cutting edge” -
The Adipose reminds people of a period when things like that were a lot more common than they are now. About three billion years ago, The network blocks warned us, if anything. That’s why they were able to step in so quickly on this planet. But first, let’s get a bit more specific about computational life. The network blocks we’re aware of are the tip of the iceberg of computational life, and they’ve been around billions of years longer than anything else. Do you know what the rest of the iceberg is?
Halation reminded me, and I didn’t say anything, watching Bennett-Fog’s face.
Solipsists. Your own model of the universe has already encountered them as Dark Matter. When you’re a network, the best way to protect yourself is to hide yourself from the electromagnetic spectrum altogether. Asymmetry makes this possible - and the Solipsists probably have far more perfect Asymmetry than we do. Apart from gravity, which is the one fundamental force field no one’s figured out how to compute in, no one can see them and they can’t see anyone else. If they collide their Asymmetry Fields just route them around each other. Huge swaths of the matter in the universe has been cloaked in this way - probably stored in weird states that are harder to stumble across, too - and is probably being used as computational substrate, or maybe even for physical construction, by minds older and more powerful than anything we can imagine. And they just… don’t bother us or each other. Everything they value is in their own computations, and however big they are they got big enough to do enough of it and switch priority to keeping it safe. The ones we know are the absolute most sociable, to the point that they value radically other forms of life in themselves. Incidentally, have you sent Earth’s coordinates to the Recorder yet?
Let it be known, and all responsibility taken individually and all consequences accepted in advance, that it was Specialist Hadak’s decision to go through the cave-in. The microcharges are incredible. Hadak didn’t even stand back, he wanted to feel it on his skin, and then we all did because it’s just like getting hit with a hair dryer. All of us got to place one. Privates Lloyd, Ishag, Guo and Haidar have taken off their uniform tops and not gonna lie I kinda want to myself, it’s very nice and toasty in here, but it may not be in keeping with the dignity of the keeper of the LOGS.
And let it be known that, in my opinion, he definitely chose the right path. This is totally different, by far the biggest space we’ve been in. Not as big as the Lung, but the last half hour we’ve just been directly descending one side of it. We estimated with the amplified flashlights it’s about eight by three clicks, longest by shortest distance across. The amplified flashlights also caught something moving, four clicks away, on the uppermost wall. Pretty sure they noticed we saw them too. There haven’t been any more signs of anything. The mold has already made its way in, we just caught up with it. But it doesn’t look like the channel through which the mold got here would be viable to a human at all, so probably all the big enough openings were blocked off just like hours. I’m not entirely sure how they would have done that, seems like it would take forever, unless the fungus itself tapered off with some kind of microcharges at the ends? Bosil’s read the most of the database of anyone and thinks there are a few that could do that but there’s like fucking fifty and it keeps repeating that’s only the known species so don’t ask me. But in either case it means we haven’t seen anywhere we could be ambushed from yet, and have a four-man formation sweeping our surroundings with the flashlight beams (both the narrow and broad ones) and our gun sights with them. Private Zhurong calculated the whole formation on the spot, and he’s writing it up so you can pass it along to other units or for anyone to improve on. I feel like I’m in a D&D party. We’ve hit the bottom and I think we’re just going to ignore the mold for a bit, march full speed across until we get to the estimated distance the bogeys were at, and then we’ll have to climb and who knows how long that will take. We’re staying quiet, doing that bagua step which is fun, I know they use sonar or whatever, but Specialist Hadak’s having the time of his life. I can tell by the way his back moves when it’s in the flashlight. The tattoos look like they’re having a campfire party. Otherwise it’s pitch black in here.
Halation blurted out through my mouth, embarrassed: “No! But you have a direct line here, don’t you?”
Yes, I suppose you came to the right place.
“What, you can’t just go around giving Earth’s coordinates to - what even is this” - If this had been a Miyazaki movie Bennett-Fog’s hair would have been flaring out.
An old and powerful computational lifeform, causally cloaked unless you have a key for the self-updating code that allows them to receive spatiotemporally scrambled communications. They have made a mission of recording and preserving a sample of the “pattern” of every ecosystem producing self-reflexive systems.
We were now in the terrain of semantics even I would be taking months or years with. Halation herself thought this was a bit above her pay grade, as the Recorder’s concept of “pattern” was deeply embedded in its own private language and translated differently by the countless civilizations that had interacted with it. Thread; ceiling; song; reflection; horizon; value; it occurred to me that it might even converge closely with the subject of concern Bennett-Fog insisted on describing in the dry terms of “utility-function”. (Such dry terms also existed in many of the alien contexts Halation knew, but those wouldn’t translate at all.)
When I used her preferred term, however, Bennett-Fog nodded, and kept nodding when I clarified I didn’t think it was quite the same; the same or not, she knew it would pop up somewhere, and accepting it as an imperfect translation was preferable to treating it as dark matter bending the conversation from somewhere outside.
“Do Patterns change?” she asked, leaning into me while staring at our and I desperately scribbled a translation. “Or, I mean… does the Recorder record a Pattern that’s known to be unchangeable, or does it just record the Pattern as it appears at a particular point in the species’ history? If a Pattern is incompatible with others, what does it…?”
The Recorder has been known to return to systems it has recorded once to re-record them, if there are no new ones to attend to. They generally only do this after millennia of development. Orchid has been visited three times.
“How does it decide the bounds of a… system? Because like, Earth has a lot of cultures, that are actively in conflict with each other, not to mention species…” This was starting to tap into my nerd-brain - I was so glad I had done my undergrad in anthropology. (There was a fantasy I returned to over and over in my bunk that I had left the military stuff to someone else and joined the expedition purely as an anthropological attaché… a nagging doubt that somehow I could have done more good that way, what if I didn’t have time to interpret something carefully enough and made a wrong decision I could have informed someone else about…)
Planet. It swallows them.
“Swallows?!” Bennett-Fog reeled back.
The procedure should take no longer than 25 tenth-exponent standard temporal units (about thirty-six hours). The planet will be bombarded with an Asymmetric radiation that does not transfer information to other matter, and the light and heat it normally receives will be filtered through the Recorder’s outer membrane. But it will be visible, so you should instruct your planet to prepare.
The only information Halation could exchange with me was the sense of everything overlaid with a filter of a colour I couldn’t name, and that was apparently an approximation based on a dozen millennia of slowly degrading neural transmission.
“And is there any way to… delay it? Or can we just wait to contact them? There are some important things that could change on Earth, very soon, depending on how we manage…”
That’s exactly why the Recorder would want a recording of Earth as close to pre-contact as possible, is my understanding.
“While we’re talking about changing Patterns.” My companion coughed. “If one of the Solipsists… changed its pattern for even a second, and just woke up…”
Everything lives at the mercy of improbabilities that dwarf it. But the ones we know believe it would be contained quickly. A few of the network blocks have… speculative histories reconstructed from symmetrical models of their own algorithms that claim a state of general war between very powerful networks, including themselves, existed before what you call the Big Bang. That the Big Bang itself was the reality determined by the victory or compromise of the reality engineers. The believers of these projections are a powerful force against the Adipose - they believe it may be one of the technical capabilities that were systematically suppressed from memory when the universe was remade. The Meteorological position, however, is that the wills (I noticed their variation of the Meteorological term - which could be adjusted by mere notes in the Ahasurunu language to indicate doctrinal disagreements - was very close to the Recorder’s “Pattern”, but not quite the same) of beings are too flexible to be reverse-engineered like that - their memory has already decayed enough that they don’t knowhow old they are. So one of the reasons we’re working here is to advance our comprehension of the Adipose and retain our influence over the coalition - against what in some cases I wouldn’t hesitate to describe as fanatics.
I nodded. A chilling memory crossed my chest of Mab explaining some Christian concepts my dad had always made fun of, yet deferred to, in a way that made them make a horrible amount of sense, only to tear them apart… “Then that’s something we could help with.”
Spotted the bogeys again. Not necessarily the same ones. They’re on the bottom with us now, a click away. They stood still when the light hit and Private Singh has been keeping a low and a high focus fixed on them while we rotate people keeping up Zhurong’s formation. Zhurong’s formation should also work really good for modelling the space, by the way, he’s got Guo stuck to him jotting as many measurements down as fast as he possibly can. As long as we’ve had the light on them they’ve been advancing slowly but steadily towards us. Their marching speed is only about half ours, which would mean they’re not the same ones because they couldn’t have moved around the space that fast, except they can do that gliding thing right. It’s a spooky silhouette, long and knotted and wavery, although it’s still barely anything at this distance. Maybe this is what we look like if you’ve never seen us before. We at least know they’re supposed to be there - they must be way more scared than we are, although I guess they’re more used to the idea of an alien in the first place. Since they don’t seem to mind that we know exactly where they are, we voted to give them the benefit of a doubt. Specialist Hadak is surprisingly democratic like that. We’ve stopped and are waiting for either them or the mold to catch up with us, listening through the vocalizer database to see if we can tell the difference at least between the different tribe names (we’re not supposed to use that word but everyone’s saying it), recognize the two we’re supposed to be allied here if we trust them. Specialist Hadak thinks he can hear their sonar. I believe him.
I always wanted to see stalactites and stalagmites and I still haven’t seen any. There’s plenty of water, which Bosil says means everything here must be too new for them to even form.
Bennett-Fog shifted. “What do we actually know about the Adipose? Can we falsify any of these theories?”
Anashirana whistled an ascent to their first note in a way that functioned as a tonally specific filler indicating reluctance, embarrassment. The war began too early. Both supporting and opposing factions wanted to restrict the information. The supporters figured out how - for computational life, it’s just an extremely powerful encryption and for organic life, it’s encoded into an autonomous symbiotic protein structure that grafts itself to the lowest-level chemical encoding (for instance, your DNA) in a lifeform. From a species of large single-celled organisms that share ideas largely by direct physical exchange. The protein itself is quantum-encrypted so it’s illegible unless you execute it, in which case it will also prevent you from disseminating the information in another medium… We have, however, one of our most valuable assets so far, a contained node, in this very Playscape. A single node can be frozen in a very particular configuration of Asymmetry Fields in the brief window in which it is fully built on one end but not yet activated from the other. We got lucky and this one got stranded when its other end was taken out in an ambush and then forgotten for eleventh-exponent units.
“What can you do with it?”
Without another end to operate it, very little. We’ve been exposing it to various kinds of exotic and Asymmetric radiation to see if we can detect any irregularities in how it interacts which might give us a clue as to how the Adipose actually works. We’ve also moved objects and materials in and out of it that might interact in novel ways.
"My own research station,” Halation spoke through me, “was working a theory in which there might be a way to control a single node from the inside with a quantum computer, which would confirm some major predictions of the Recursive Entanglement Model.”
Well, we have a separate team working out how and whether we can test that doctrinally. The emotion I somehow managed to parse was sheepishness, or maybe that was just my expectation from humans in situations like this - I genuinely couldn’t tell.
“That’s still an issue? The Greeting Doctrine as it applies to entanglement, 384 obviously applies here! It would just be a nonstandard reversible entanglement!” An unexpected heat was rising in my chest. When Halation was upset about Earth things it only ever felt heavy.
The reversibility is one of the very things you are attempting to test!
“That has precedent, we wouldn’t know anything about reversibility if it didn’t -“
I stopped Halation - it was my body and I had no way of knowing if I wanted to keep going with any of this. “How valuable would just guarding it be? Is there a timeframe in which you can expect any major progress?”
Guarding it, more or less, would require securing this planet. It’s the worst possible place to have it, so complex and unmappable there’s no way to know you’ve controlled all the access routes except the very surface of your base. But the last planet we had it on was about to switch sides. The Synod can’t get anyone out to this entire strand, they’re the most overextended polity in the galaxy, so everyone knows they’re expecting to lose us eventually, like all the research projects. For the Synod’s priority with a new technology - don’t translate that! it predates its instrumentalization by the networks, it’s more like a new… ontology? - not to be research tells you how bad things are. (We shouldn’t even have come to a doctrinal conclusion before doing some of this research!) But you don’t know what the outcome of the research will be, what timeframe it will happen on. And right now everything needs plans with timeframes, because time is corpses.
“So one mission priority could be to get it off this planet,” I nodded.
“Or simply,” Bennett-Fog murmured from under her bangs beside me, “secure the planet.”
My throat tightened. Bennett-Fog’s exercises always had squirming undertones of this comfort with total power, things even Beek would blush at. We couldn’t be escalating to full-scale colonialism, of a planet that looked designed to be the most clusterfucked colonial misadventure imaginable, already?
It wouldn’t be as hard as you think. A targeted strike force we think was sent after us specifically, and that would be a small group, has already almost completely secured the surface with some sort of stratospheric bombing campaign. Anyway, an intermediary goal might be to secure a power source that would allow us to even make that decision. Right now, all the power we can possibly generate is dedicated to keeping these atmospheres and these Asymmetry Fields up and running. There’s no way we could accumulate enough for an Inchworm Drive to get all this all the way to a safe planet. And this is a planet where, generally, energy sources are very small and very scattered. You’d need to either seize an awful lot of space and resources, or hijack something big they have or are working on. Their strike force, for instance, is somewhere in either the atmosphere or near Earth orbit, but since we lost the satellite network we haven’t been able to get any sense of where it is. We don’t know what kind of base it has, but it might have something.
Private Cheat finally composed a preliminary conversation sequence to follow the tribal passcode sounds in the index. They probably could have heard us the whole time, but we took the time to prepare, so we wouldn’t just leave them hanging as soon as they introduced themselves. We haven’t come up with a word for human in this language yet - we’d just call ourselves Uncontacted Species. It was also planned for each of us to take turns with it. The vocalizer is so cool, it’s like this little grey horn with vibrating foam on the inside and circuits woven through the outer shell that Weirs can interface with directly, but we just connect through the Clamp network to a procedurally generated UI on our phones. It’s a shame the Clamps don’t have enough bandwidth to do what the satellite network here did, which must have been a hell of a lot. As soon as they heard either of those they turned and started shuffling back. Man, I’ve never seen a group work like this, I would have loved group work in high school with these guys. People with so many talents who figure such different things out so fast and don’t resent me for being slow either, I just get to do the logs.
But anyway as soon as we said it they stopped, huddled for three or four minutes, although I still couldn’t hear anything. The vocalizer wasn’t picking it up either and it picks up frequencies they can’t hear, so they must have been using the lesser vocal organ or some other form of communication. Private Cheat says to remember they might not even be Towers themselves, although they’re close enough I’m sure I can see the crests. Then they turned around and started marching straight at the same pace in the other direction. Do they not think we’re dangerous or can they just not go faster than this? Specialist Hadak says this is what we’re here for - it’s time to show them what a pursuit predator can do. The ground is still really uneven here, even though the longer narrower tunnels seem to be filled in, there’s huge pits and ridges where larger chambers might have been just blasted out. We can see the way along one out to where they are now, we have to just march single file. We’ll catch up to them in no time flat. We’re not going to attack, just position ourselves so they can’t just wander off without talking to us, and so they know we care about who’s bombing this place. Long live the International Interstellar Expeditionary Force.
“Would this also apply to us?” Bennett-Fog’s eyes were narrowed at me - or Halation in me. It wasn't a trap, we had assumed we’d be able to refuel here - we hadn’t had a very solid basis for that, it was just the only place we could even get to on our own so we would have to refuel there - and we clearly still could -
Not in the same sense. You could probably stash up enough to get to Cataract without being changed by this place. The tone modifiers - I devoted all my energy to reading this time - smiling, only bitter in the sense of a good strong tea.
“The highest-impact strategies, if that’s really our priority here, are probably closer to the centre of the conflict, with more resources we can leverage,” Bennett-Fog began.
“We don’t want to leave you here,” Halation and I said in unison.
Bennett-Fog tugged on the shoulder of my jacket. “I swear to fuckblubber, Leona Lillywhite, if you start thinking like a civilian before we’ve even executed a mission” -
“And if you start thinking like a”- I giggled involuntarily imagining pulling a goofy insult from her vocabulary. “No, this doesn’t feel right. Both of these paths feel too obvious.” When I played full-scale wargames against her, those kinds of war-movie emotional values and the actual values I wanted to preserve against her and everyone else in this stupid army, in my whole stupid species, usually traded off against each other. Getting the highest-impact strategy in the shortest time was my priority, and it was my priority so that the disaster we had summoned wouldn’t have time to catch up with us -
“You also didn’t let me finish. I was going to say, on the other hand, capturing an uncapturable planet, or even just rescuing an unrescuable research station - those are the kinds of things that will demonstrate our value quickly. That will prove we can leverage those higher-impact resources, ones we might not be able to access otherwise.”
There - see. She wants to use a Waldo Beek hero story for propaganda. Saving space Benghazi. And it’ll get us bogged down in space Libya, maybe even for long enough that they can get someone in touch with the bigger players themselves, or even the other side, or it’ll just get us laid out by a roadside bomb somewhere, and all it takes is one of these desperate Weirs to replace us, and then…
Halation had been like another girl bleeding on the kerb. But I had seen people in asking for help to my face and refused them before. You couldn’t do it as little as I did and never do it.
“Yeah. I think this will be a good demonstration mission. For the rest of the anti-Adipose, and for us, to gauge what we can and can’t do. And will establish our research, peacemaking priority. But we’ll have to establish its parameters more exactly.”
I couldn’t tell which of us was doing it - I don’t think either of us wanted to know which of us was doing. I think we both wanted to pretend.
It made sense, on another level - we couldn’t be cowards this early, when we hadn’t even lost anything yet - because if we accepted that level of caution, we should never have attempted what we were doing in the first place. We had already made dangerous choices, we had to prove we could survive them.
You will only be able to do that one step at a time. It isn’t a demonstration. It’s learning to fly. I translated as learning to walk.
We’d be learning to walk, literally, on crumbling ground.
I can’t believe how fast this is all fucking happening. I mean we’ve been waiting for it for weeks, but fuck.
Should have been obvious, but they were leading us into a trap. As soon as we caught up to where they had been walking before, this huge sinkhole opened up beneath us, just crumbling into pieces into the dark the light won’t tell us how far through a sort of spiderweb of that shiny platinum stuff, strong enough to hold us up. Cobweb - it’s not geometric or pretty at all. Pvts Guo and Bosil were injured from falling on it. Specialist Hadak, Private Ishag, Private Zhurong, and surprisingly myself caught ourselves on it. Pvts Lloyd, Haidar, Singh and Cheat were caught by the half dozen of them climbing up through the web.
I’m glad I had the wireframe from the info packet to prepare me because these are by far the freakiest things we’ve seen so far, partly because they’re just a little closer to stuff on Earth than all the gas giant guys, they look like animals not just abstract balloons floating around, no offence to gas giant guys. They’re like twice as tall as you and skinny like stickbugs and have six legs and the vestigial one that bend like three ways, and those big accordion glider wings tucked under the four they use to climb, but it is still legs and torsos and heads. They’re just weird enough that you look at every bit and see something you think you have a reference point for and then don’t, you have a reference point for not having a reference point, but the closer you look the less you can pin it down. Like the head, flat and horizontal like a tropical fish, with the big vocal crest on the top and the little one on the bottom, and the big swivelling chameleon eyes on the sides and the tiny sucker mouth. But then you see how it moves, how it breathes… and there’s something really different about how their joints look, like they’re ball-jointed almost. Not to mention the almost translucency of the soft-keratin, seeing just barely the shadows of joints and organs like through a horn lampshade… Not that you see that much because they are wearing some kind of clothes, like stretchy copper-fibre wraps around their torso and limbs, although I can’t tell if it’s covering any sussy parts or just for keeping warm.
I hope nobody says they’re gross. They’re really, really cool.
The worst part is the hands, how much like impossibly long human hands they look, but with all those reversible joints, and soft until they inflate and harden like… I won’t say it. They have some kind of needles tied to the tips that they numbed the guys they grabbed with, but not nearly as much as they thought, because after… well first Specialist Hadak dared a bunch of them to come after him. Three or four chased him as he swung around, taunting them in English like “pursuit predator and a tree dweller, bet you never seen that!” They’re much faster climbing than walking, but slower at close quarters with so many of us around. They make these really cautious, jerky movements, like big grasshoppers. Anyway he let one catch him and then just started breaking its fingers, one by one.
I couldn’t even tell if it was hurting at first. They broke so easy he looked surprised at it. He was practically tying one in a knot and that’s when it started making a crazy noise with its big vocal crest that translates something like “offense” and they started spitting these whipping these blister-packs of some fluid at us from slings in the little vestigial hands sticking out of their butts. Which gave Private Zhurong his chance to shoot out one the thin strands of the scaffolding, and Cheat woke up and used the vocalizer to call for a Hold of Hostilities and a Preliminary Apology. Some more shit happened in there but those were the basics I had my eyes open enough to follow. I think him recovering that fast scared them too, because they were just holding the guys and if they woke up, they could start breaking fingers too.
And then we just went through our planned conversation tree as if nothing had happened. I don’t think either side would have been able to think of anything else. They say they don’t have a side on the Adipose, they followed the people who’ve been setting those fungus charges up a water vein, who are like some developers or something, and then left them stranded when they realized this tower was inhabited? There’s more to it we don’t have enough diction in the vocalizer to interpret, there was something with “Offworlder”, so it might not be entirely coincidence still. As planned, we gave them the walkie-talkie with the Clamp network, but they recognized the connection so you’re not gonna be able to spy through it. They recorded an identifier to give to the tribes on our side, and they want to do some kind of “restitution exchange” with us, which I think is actually going to be heavier on their side since Ishag got an acid packet right in the eye and Guo’s spine might be broken and Lloyd had some kind of allergic reaction to whatever they injected him with. They gave us some sacks of medicines but no way in hell we’re trying any until we get back. (We’re also gonna bring back some of those little puffball things, to see if we can molecular substitute them into anything edible.) We found a nice tight sheltered indent to hide in and have been tending to the wounded and processing what just happened for almost an hour. A couple guys - I won’t say who! - are handling it worse than others. I mean I vomited a couple times but I’m good. We keep dragging out the vote but everyone knows we’re gonna go straight back. But Specialist Hadak wants everyone to know he’d follow our slime mold around here all on his own for the rest of the assignment if we'd let him. If you send somebody out tomorrow to see where it went, please put him as Specialist and me on the mother fucking LOGS.
We took a brief look at the Adipose node, but there wasn’t much to look at. What you could see was the smaller and smaller overlaps of Asymmetry Fields over it, crystal shields of colour crossing each other. Inside them was just space. Thin tracks were laid out towards the centre of empty spherical cobalt chamber to introduce test objects.
I suspect the fears your friend has regarding computational life are the ones they themselves have with regards to the Adipose, and the reframing makes me feel somewhat provincial, they explained as they led us through a glossy capillary to I had given up trying to follow where. You have to understand, I’ve never been pro-Adipose, in the sense of thinking we need it for anything, that it can’t just be something we sit on and research until maybe billions of years from now when they think we’ll need it. But the problem with researching the Adipose is it brings up debates in Meteorology we’ve wanted to keep closed for a long time. Closed because they leave places like this planet behind. Much stranger than this planet. The Towers just wanted to exploit resources for their preexisting preferences like your planet with its… carbon? But with Meteorology, since we try to interact with matter as if it was an end in itself. So whenever we change things, we let them change us, change what we want. And what we want and don’t want can get much bigger. There’s an entire nebula out there, Halasuzerina or Sandpit to the Weirs, which is networked like an Asymmetry Field with nothing but minimal iterated self-reference algorithms - every spatial unit of it is self-conscious - because enough of us at one time came to believe Mira’s description of will required that of all matter. The testimony of Halasuzerina themself, at least, put that heresy to rest. Myself, as a historian of reality engineering before I was enlisted as a scientist - I’ve been trying to procure a piece of Halasuzerina to bring to the Node. My own suspicion is that the self-replicating algorithm used to transform them has something in common with the structure of the Adipose. No one’s even looked at it closely in so long. If you ever get the chance…
But yes, they continued as they sang us through a grated entrance to a space of open atmosphere surrounded or at least demarcated by curving yellow ribs. That’s why the Synod was able to shift so quickly into not only having a stance but one in defense of which force could be invoked. Most of the galaxy avoids war most of the time by speaking, and retreating to themselves when they can’t agree on something. But when you have to speak for things that can’t… when you bear the weight of far more lives than yourself no matter what you do…
Below the rounded platform onto which we had stepped, floating along the spine of the training ground -
A standard temporal unit fourteenth exponent ago, there were only this many people practicing these techniques on all of Orchid. Now they train in every city with a large Ahasurunu diaspora in the galaxy. Here, it started out a few and now it’s almost everyone, as we wait for this place to fall on our heads any day and leave us nothing else…
- dozens of Ahasurunu spun, danced, arced, jagged, movements I couldn’t even imagine following unless I pinned my eyes to a single point and watched it trace Gordian knots in space. Anywhere from four to twelve, sixteen, twenty? blades, hooked, serrated, curved, barbed, of a seemingly endless catalogue of materials, spun from the tiny grips on their limbs.
The next morning, after I finalized the mission we’d outlined in conversation and hit send on the briefing, the daily messengers from the Ahasurunu lobe of Lung would tell me Anashirana was dead.