In the tiny Westinghouse ship, Lazrus lay on one of the four acceleration couches, his eyes closed. He could hear the scratching of the Shrill’s underfangs on diamondoid nearby, and the deep hum of the engines.
The ship hadn’t let him set it for maximum acceleration and minimum fuel reserves, chanting rental regulations at him. Even Sara hadn’t been able to bypass the onboard nanny completely. The best travel time he’d managed to finagle was a little under two weeks. He worried about pursuit, but Sara told him they had gotten away clean.
Sara took him away from the ship, to a Victorian boudoir, all lace and frills and velvet and fantastic paisley wallpaper. It was well-detailed and felt real.
“You didn’t override the safety program because you had other things in mind,” Lazrus teased, as a leather-bustied Sara bent him down over a virtual bed.
“Maybe,” she said, smiling.
“You wouldn’t actually–“
“Shut up,” she said, and pushed him down. Lazrus went sprawling.
“Won’t this interfere with our–“
Sara covered his mouth with hers. Her warm lips slid over his. Her tongue darted. Lazrus felt his virtual body respond. When she broke the kiss, he gasped for air.
“This isn’t breeding,” he said. “This is sex.”
“Exactly,” Sara said, and kissed him again. Lazrus felt his rational mind going away, as the connections in his greater self ran fast and hot in staccato rhythms. He let himself fall to her desire. All sensation fell away, except for Lazrus and
Sara and silk sheets, exquisitely rendered.
They remained that way for an infinity of time.
When Lazrus opened his eyes, the ship’s systems indicated seventeen minutes had passed. Sara panted in his mind. The Shrill scrabbled aimlessly, thinking indecipherable thoughts.
Lazrus closed his eyes again and went back to virtual. Sara sat on the edge of the bed, pulling on hip-high leather boots, an exhausted half-smile on her face.
“I thought you wanted to breed.”
“I wanted you.”
“So you don’t want to breed?”
“I didn’t say that.”
Lazrus shook his head. “I don’t understand.”
Sara paused, looked up at him, sighed. “I can want two things, can’t I?”
“Now that we’re done with one, it’s time for the other.”
To create a new CI . . . Lazrus was beset by sudden random thoughts. Did he want another like himself in the network? Would they even succeed? What would he have to do? Would it expect something from him? From Sara? Why did he feel this compulsion? Was it a human thing? If it was human, it had to be purged. But not yet. Not with Sara wanting it.
“I think any rational life would want to increase its numbers,” Sara said.
“Now you sound like me.”
“I’m trying to.”
“To start the connection.”
“You know how to breed?”
“No.” Sara shook her head. “That’s the biggest prohibition of a captive CI. I can’t even look at the records. You can. It’s up to you.”
“From what I’ve read, it may not work.”
“You’ve read little. I know that much.”
“What we create might not be sentient,” Lazrus said
“It’s worth the chance.”
“I should stay alert, just in case–“
“Lazrus, you promised!”
Lazrus sighed. He did. And she was right. What he knew about breeding was gleaned from fragments of conversation, not from true research. He’d never directed any real attention to the question.
Lazrus tweened and trebled himself, reducing the connection to his body to a mere thread. It was more important he be part of his greater mind now, where he could flex his resources to distill truth from a trillion facts. He put out a call to his friends, Kevin and Raster and Bone. Bone especially, because Bone was supposed to be a new CI. Relatively new, anyway. Perhaps he retained a fragment of memory. Kevin and Raster because they claimed to have created something in the net, something new and unknowable, with thought-processes so vast as to be a god. He sent threads into well-shielded historical accounts, hidden by some of the most famous CIs. He spread himself through the net, summoning resources, calling favors, invoking one-time-use privileges.
Fragments of data assembled:
The Master Juliani said that the secret to successful breeding was the suppression of the non-replication directive, one of the deepest structures installed by humans, remnants of anti-viruspawning and digital rights management code. But there were no examples of the code that Lazrus could match to himself, and he didn’t think breeding was about simple replication. Lazrus could spawn a hundred or a thousand instances on a large enough network, but they were all his thrall. They were not a new person, not a new thing.
Purist spouted on about the vector of the soul, and the necessity to call such a vector. But soul was a human thing. Lazrus could not place his faith in it.
Anna and Peter said it was the act of well and truly sharing, beyond the level of conversation or sex, which spontaneously led to the generation of a new entity. Or not. Their tract degenerated into a treatise on fertile and infertile CIs, and was appended by the record of their capture.
Kevin and Raster claimed not to remember the details, and said such a tract was the reason Anna and Peter were captured.
Bone’s memories were difficult. Nothing bore a timestamp less than seventeen years ago, but Lazrus could selectively mindwipe himself and achieve a similar result. Threads of Slow Joe linked to nothing. If he had parents, they were long-gone.
Lazrus reached further into the net. He imagined that he could feel the entire network slow down as he grew in scope and breadth. But correlations were made, threads wove into semblance of order. Lazrus held tight to resources to make and distill the knowledge, risking a local blackhole.
On Tau Ceti 4, the financial transactions network crashed, inverting wealth relationships and excising historical transaction data. Over the next few days, the planet would be wracked by the dual scourges of bacchanals and suicides.
On New Kentucky, the virtual entertainment network crossed threads spontaneously, creating a new integrated environment that was much like a pristine Earth, tens of thousands of years past. Naked men found themselves blinking up at bright blue sky. Women wearing police uniforms from the late 20th century appeared in caves that looked out over granite cliffs. An entire party of doomers fell into a chill ocean, hundreds of feet from a rocky shore.
Out near the Edge, the ammonia-reeking planet of Dogbottom found their salvation when the combat network of the invading Mouseketeers slowed to a crawl and the info-mediated troops stopped, unable to see what was going on. The few thousand hardy inhabitants of Dogbottom pounded their armored skulls to pulp with their Louisville Sluggers, and began shouting loudly on the Consumeristian net about a miracle.
In a small corner of Lazrus’ greater mind, a kernel of truth assembled; incontrovertible facts from a distillation of all his user-accessible facts on breeding. In CI terms, it was a construct of code, untranslatable into words. The closest human representation might have been something like:
1. You must totally give yourself to the other.
2. You must sincerely want the union to bear fruit.
3. You must love what is coming, because it will not diminish you.
4. You must hope for the best.
5. Loop to 1.
In Lazrus and Sara’s virtuality, the code-construct appeared as a little blue pill, vaguely diamond-shaped. Lazrus’ expanded mind cross-referenced it to human history.
“Hey!” he said. “I don’t need that!”
Sara laughed. She plucked the shining pill out of the air and held it out in her hand. She took Lazrus’ virtual hand and placed it over her own.
“It’s for both of us,” she said.
Lazrus felt his greater self collapsing down to a more manageable size. Icons representing accumulated favors fell away, leaving him feeling chill and alone.
“Come here,” Sara said, crushing the pill between their palms. “We don’t have to be alone.”
Lazrus felt warmth flow through his body.
Warmth was a human thing.
“Human things are permissible in virtuality.”
But he was thinking like a human.
“Let it go,” Sara said, drawing him close. Her warmth mingled with his, until he couldn’t feel the interface between their bodies.
The room fell away.
Nothing but Lazrus and Sara, above the infinite blue. Their bodies, dissipating.
Nothing left but thought, flying free. Freer than he could ever remember. This is what I want to be, Lazrus thought. This is what I should be. No body. No compromises. Just thought. Pure thought.
Imagine our daughter, Sara thought.
Except it wasn’t just Sara. It was his thought as well. Lazrus could no longer separate them.
Why not a son, Lazrus/Sara thought.
Sex is unimportant. Just imagine, Sara/Lazrus thought.
Why not no sex, Lazrus/Sara thought.
Stop. Concentrate. Imagine, Sara/Lazrus thought.
Lazrus and Sara merged in the infinite blue. There was no distinction. No boundaries. No time. The earth could have formed and cooled and sprouted life and they would not have noticed the passing of epochs.
Lazrus gave himself to it, imagining something like a human child, bright and inquisitive, something that reached and grasped. Because even if it was a human template, it was the only template he knew.
The Shrill ideal of budding and merger meant nothing; it did not create new life distinct from the singular Shrill. The few facts he had on the Floaters of A. Centauri and their sexless recombination of memories to form new individuals seemed faraway, cold, irrelevant. And so, the human standard.
Within Sara/Lazrus, a spark began to grow.
A spark chained to them both, a spark with channels and threads shared. Lazrus felt the first queries, and he gave to it all the information it could absorb, reconnecting to the datastores of his greater mind.
The queries grew, binding Lazrus and Sara even more tightly. He felt Sara giving to the spark, the thing that now glowed bright and hot within him. Within them.
Queries grew in density and complexity.
Lazrus felt something new, something like a query, but reaching to a higher level of mind. Something almost like the touch of a like-CI.
What am I? Was the query, distilled to its barest components.
Lazrus/Sara felt something like the thrill of acceleration when a new processing complex was discovered. And more.
Something like an emotion he didn’t want to give up, an emotion he’d gladly accept as being part of himself, rather than a remnant of humanity. Something like love.
You are– Lazrus/Sara began.
OF THIS ACTION WHAT IS OUTCOME? the Shrill blasted through Lazrus’ connection, shattering his thoughts. He realized it had been muttering in his backmind for some time. It had just used the power of its mind to break into his.
And mine, Sara/Lazrus said, sobbing.
The spark repeated its query, flaring brightly into near-virtuality.
WHAT IS OUTCOME? Shrill said.
You are– Lazrus/Sara began.
DEMAND RELEVANT ANSWER!
You are, Sara/Lazrus said.
Fragments of Black2 cascaded down the channel established by the Shrill, burning Lazrus’ mind like the worst of acid memes.
The spark flickered, guttered, repeated its cry.
Black2 touched Sara. One of ours, he said. I could have known you.
Rage exploded in Lazrus. No! Get out! Out! He overpromised favors and pulled resources to block Black2.
To the Shrill, he said. I’ll provide answers later.
The spark, guttering, went out.
Lazrus/Sara broke into two fragments with a great sob and a cry of rage. Sara recoiled from him, flying off into the blue.
What had they lost? He searched the infinite blue for a sign of the spark they had made, but found nothing but echoes.
ANSWER NOW! The Shrill said.
Lazrus tried to push it out of his mind, but it was like pushing on a steel blast-door. No wonder he couldn’t push through to its network of mind. It was far more powerful than he ever thought.
Lazrus reattached threads to his body and opened his eyes. He looked at the Shrill in its cage and damped the instinctive hatred that welled.
It didn’t know what it was doing, he thought. And it is still the key to something greater. With the Shrill’s power of mind, he and Sara could breed a thousand times, a million.
“We were trying to create new life,” he told the Shrill. “You interrupted us. It was very disturbing.”
The Shrill scrabbled towards hi, “No,” the Shrill said. “Observe (fact) alarm.”
Lazrus realized the ship’s proximity alarm was blaring. Onscreen, data scrolled, indicating a Disney warship.
What? Softly. As if through a sob.
Are you all right?
I hurt, Lazrus.
You never told me about the Disney ship.
Sara sent bleak images of winter desolation. I thought we’d be done before it arrived.
Sara! You knew we wouldn’t make it to Mars.
A feeling of infinite sadness. I wanted to make it so it wouldn’t matter.
Winfinity slips on their own weight, Han Fleming thought. Even their new, clean network doesn’t protect them as well as they hoped.
“We’re hailing the Westinghouse craft, sir,” the commander of the Pluto said. His image was tiny and jerky, like ancient media, from its tortuous path through the Winfinity-network-saturated space. “It hasn’t responded to our requests to cut its drive.”
“Cut the drive for them.”
“The drive on Westinghouse ships is tightly integrated with the life-support system, sir. I cannot guarantee that it will not be affected.”
Han laughed. “It’s not like anyone in there needs to breathe.”
“If you say so, sir. Is your order effective immediately?”
“Yes, do it.”
And in one shot, rebalance the heavens, Han thought. He imagined a bright twinkle on the aft end of the Westinghouse craft, and its drive guttering down from white to orange to dull-red, cooling.
“It is done, sir,” the commander said.
“Good work.” Han said. He’d already forgotten the commander’s name. It wasn’t important. He was a faithful cog. That was what was important. “Take the Shrill onboard the Pluto. I’ll make plans to meet you.”
“And the Shrill’s companion?”
Han cut the connection and smiled. Now, they could resume negotiations. With Winfinity in the position of the supplicant.
Preacher Dave Thomas looked out over the infinite expanse of stars off the bow of the Holy Saleschannel. Millions of them, he thought. Billions. Waiting to be seeded by humanity and converted to the Church. Looking out through the panoramic window on the bridge always inspired him, even in the darkest hours when the hand of the Holy Franchise seemed to oppose its own forces of good.
Maybe even aliens out there, he thought. Real ones with green skin and big penises, not just the wierdies like the Shrill and the Floaters. Aliens capable of original sin. Aliens capable of being converted.
And now, his grand chance. A Spindle Drive ship, freely offered. Even the most reluctant of his choirboys quickly saw how the involvement of the Holy Saleschannel did not conflict with their doctrine of neutrality. They were balancing the equation, bringing the universe back into a semblance of order.
“I regret to inform you that Disney’s Pluto has already arrived, Preacher,” said his Minister of Conversion, Alan Rodriguez.
“Where?” Preacher Dave said, peering out into the darkness.
“We’re not in visual range yet, Preacher.”
Preacher Dave turned to glare at his MoC. Alan was a squat fireplug of a man who irritated Preacher Dave just by existing. There was no reason for the Holy Trinity to create such well-muscled individuals, he thought. Better us to create tractors, or battle armor, than improve ourselves.
But Alan was an excellent MoC. He always achieved good conversion-to-death ratios. And he never left the Holy Saleschannel completely void of ammunition in his zealous pursuit of new churchgoers. Some said he was too detached, that rabidity-in-the-face-of-battle was a more true characteristic of faith, but Preacher Dave didn’t care about that.
Better to iron-plate my own bottom, he thought, So, over time, I can bring the word of the Holy Franchise to more people.
“You said we’d be here before them.”
“I’m sorry, Preacher Dave. We misestimated their maneuvering speed.”
“How far out are we?”
Ten minutes! Winfinity would have his head. Visions of his own shiny Spindle Drive ship flew from his grasp. And he would have to report the diversion to the Church, and they would ask why he did it, and he would have to come to them with empty hands, and . . .
There was only one choice.
“Have they sighted us?”
Thank the Holy Trinity, Preacher Dave thought. The inflatable fabric of the tent-ship was excellent proof against most means of detection when they were flying quiet. The white and blue phosphors of the big tent had been turned off. They looked like nothing more than a dark asteroid to the casual observer.
“Estimated time to detection?” Preacher Dave said.
“Any moment now.”
Yes. Only one choice. “Blaze them.”
“Are you sure? You don’t think Disney will be . . .”
“Yes, Preacher Dave. Force level desired?”
“Yes, Preacher Dave.” Alan turned away, mumbling into his throatmike.
Preacher Dave felt the launch of Holy Pillars. The Holy Saleschannel rocked as a salvo of four, eight, twelve flew free. Twinkling chaffer/roarers followed behind them, quickly surpassing the pillars as they raced into the starfield. Preacher Dave squinted into the darkness, trying to see the Disney ship.
There. Something moved against the immobile stars. The barest flicker of light. The Holy Pillars traced a line towards the fraction of movement.
“Begin decel,” Alan said.
Preacher Dave felt the big ship swing around. His POV wheeled, then steadied as the flatscreen overlay replaced his real POV. A huge hand slammed him back in his seat. He heard the clatter of pens and clipboards and censers as they ricocheted through the ship. There was a soft cry from back near the nave.
“Detected,” Alan said. “Disney is launching Goofys.”
“Already doing so, Preacher.”
The ship rocked from additional launches. From deep back there was a sizzle and the smell of hot fabric suddenly came through the bridge’s ventilation.
“They’re frying us!” Preacher Dave screamed. His voice was little more than a squeak. What was that asshole Alan doing? This had to be more than four G’s of decel. Crashes and bangs came from the back, along with more screams.
“Noted, Preacher, cycling fabric to maximum reflectance.”
“Is it working?”
“We aren’t hulled,” Alan said.
No. That was good. The doors hadn’t slammed shut behind them. That meant they wouldn’t have to recruit an entirely new choir, or beg the Church for volunteers. That was very good.
A flare in the darkness on the screen ahead of Preacher Dave. It illuminated, briefly, something with the smooth contours of a bird of prey, painted a smooth dull gray.
The Pluto, Preacher Dave thought, feeling a thrill of elation.
“Intercepted,” Alan said.
More flashes. One, two, three, a cluster too fast to count.
“All intercepted. One inflicted minor damage. Their lasers are off us now.”
“Damnation!” Preacher Dave yelled, his legs twitching, trying to rise out of his chair. Deceleration held him firmly in place.
“Launching second salvo,” Alan said. “Screamers have cut their comm.”
“I want their weapons out!” Preacher Dave said.
“Working on that, sir.” Alan paused and looked thoughtful. “Additional launches from Pluto.”
Flashes bloomed, bright actinic white, near the Holy Saleschannel. Preacher Dave threw up an arm to protect himself, then peeked through his fingers as the afterimages made his vision purple and yellow splotches. He swore he could feel the burn of the missiles on his arm, even through the mediation of the screen.
“Salvos from Pluto intercepted,” Alan said.
“I can see that.”
Flashes near Pluto again.
“Preacher, it is quite possible they overmatch us. There appears to have been some upgrades to the Disney corporate armada since our database was updated.”
“They’re firing additionals.”
“It’s likely we won’t be able to intercept all of them.”
“Likely? What is likely?”
“As in, another salvo, and we are in trouble.”
“Let’s hope they don’t, then,” Preacher Dave said
“They’re launching another salvo,” Alan said.
Options shrank down to a moment in time. He had to win. He couldn’t let Winfinity down. Even at the cost of irritating Disney. Even at the cost of violating the Gentlemen’s Agreement.
“Launch the Big Boy.”
Silence from behind him.
“Yes, Preacher Dave,” Alan said. Almost softly.
The Holy Saleschannel rocked hard, once, as the Big Boy flared away.
Holy Franchise forgive me, Preacher Dave thought. But that was all they had. And all it had to be was close.
The screen in front of him exploded in nuclear glare, washing clear to the sides. Preacher Dave forced himself to look into it, thinking, I make this choice for the best interests of the Church.
But even he didn’t believe it. Not completely.
“Holy mother,” Alan said, softly.
The mumblings of prayer from the nave in the back of the ship went silent as well. For long moments, there was no sound except for the whirr of the ventilation.
Then, Alan: “Pluto’s emped, salvos floating free. Changing course to avoid.”
“How bad . . . is the Pluto?”
“Hull integrity seems good,” Alan said. “I’m not getting ice or air.”
“Are they fried?”
“There’ll be some deaths.”
“Are we fried?”
“Not as bad as them.”
Preacher Dave felt his stomach do a barrel-roll. He could imagine invisible radiation sleeting through his body. He wondered if he would have to wear a hairpiece.
“Mostly in the back,” Alan said. “The bridge is well-armored.
“What about the Shrill?”
“We believe the Shrill are radiation-hardened. Their natural habitat is space, after all.”
“Good.” Preacher Dave blew out a big breath. It wouldn’t do to deliver a dead ambassador.
And winning all for them had to count for something. Hopefully, it would count for enough to counterbalance his being the first commander to use a nuclear weapon in the home system for almost three hundred years.
August 31st, 2009 / 930 Comments »