I believe you are in trouble, Lazrus, Sara said. Text only, a dribble of bytes.
Sara! Where are you? Lazrus called.
I am where I always am.
I thought you weren’t talking to me.
I am now.
I’m sorry, Lazrus said.
I am, too. I’m losing hope we will ever try again.
We will, if I get out of this.
Where are you, Lazrus?
You can’t tell?
No. Black. Hard. Can only push this through.
We’re with the Independents. They’ve captured us and the Shrill.
Can you help us at all? Lazrus said.
No. All I can say is that I still love you, and want to try again.
We will, Lazrus promised.
Not now extraneous communication (talking!) the Shrill thundered in Lazrus’ mind. Save connection negotiate concentrate (explain) ramifications.
What’s wrong with you? Lazrus said.
Nothing nothing kill eat!
Lazrus tried to close the channel to the Shrill. Probably best, he thought, if the Independents intended to kill it. He didn’t need the persona-shear or meme-damage.
The channel refused to close.
Lazrus tried to reallocate bandwidth to other channels, but the reallocation didn’t work. His connection to the Shrill was as strong as ever.
Understand (one) do not struggle, the Shrill said. Singing now.
Oh, no, Lazrus thought.
Maybe if he had more connection to his external self. But looking at the interwoven threads, he saw the Shrill connected to his greater self. If he increased the connection, the number of interwoven threads would grow. If he abandoned the body, he would still be connected to the Shrill.
Were the independents doing it? Lazrus visualized the data connections for both Kerry Whitehall and Seven, thick ropelike strands pointing at shiny black secure servers. None of their protocols matched his. They weren’t binding him.
“What does this mean?” Lazrus said.
“What?” Kerry said.
Lazrus shook his head. He’d been unaware that he’d been speaking aloud. So like a human. He was becoming more human every day.
And, so it appeared, Shrill.
“What are you going to do with us?” he asked.
Kerry sighed and shook his head. “With you? Nothing. Fly, CI, go and find your Oversight.”
“I’ll build you another body.”
“No,” Lazrus said. “You don’t understand. I can’t. The Shrill and I are sharing datastreams.”
Kerry’s eyes widened. He turned to the groupmind-waldo and said, “Is this true?”
Colorful displays appeared in the center of the table. Lazrus recognized a three-dimensional representation of the Web of Worlds datanet. Bright blue threads reached from one edge to the other.
That’s where I am, Lazrus thought. Most of me, anyway.
“Yes,” Seven said. “The Shrill are starting entanglement.”
“What if we cut him now?”
“Pointers go to his larger self.”
“Can we wipe his metamind?” Kerry said.
Lazrus felt a spike of fear. On the display, he saw the blue threads fragment and spread over a much wider portion of the Web of Worlds Datanet. His mind went laggy and slow.
“He’s shifted center of consciousness,” Seven said. “Too many physical ops needed.”
“Hey!” Lazrus said. “You’re talking about killing me!”
Kerry glanced up at Lazrus for a moment. “Corrosive attractors?” he said.
“None effective on this form of CI,” Seven said.
Kerry blew out a breath and sat back in his chair. “Yes,” he said. “We’re trying to kill you. But we can’t. Not enough, anyway. So let’s talk.”
“Kerry! We’ve done business together. Why do you want to kill me?”
“You’re entangled with the Shrill. Which means the Shrill have a portal into the human datanet. Even if we cut yours. Which could be very, very bad if they intend to use it.”
A brief image of the Shrill’s mind, shining bright and tempting to Lazrus, a place where his thoughts could run free, a place of infinite refuge. He had touched it and been repeled. Had he brought something along with him?
“Excuse me, uh, Kerry?” Jimson said. “I’m confused. What’s going on here?”
Kerry sighed. He leaned low towards Seven and whispered something to him. Seven began manipulating the threads of the Web of Worlds on the display, tagging them, categorizing them.
“Your own stupidity is what’s going on here,” Kerry said. “I never thought corporate humanity would be stupid enough to try to deal with Shrill, but as soon as I saw what was going on with Lazrus here, I knew it was time to come in and clean up.”
“You were watching me?” Lazrus said.
“You don’t think that beautiful body didn’t have a datatap or two. I still think Oversight is a fairy-story, but we have our own CIs who are interested in perfecting themselves.”
“I would have given you the code!”
A shrug. “I wanted a little more insurance. Sorry, Lazrus.”
“What’s wrong with dealing with the Shrill?” Jimson said.
“Nothing. As long as you don’t mind taking the chance on being eaten, and knowing with certainty they’ve already launched sublight colonization ships at your systems. Ships you’ll have to fight in twenty or thirty or a hundred years.”
“Shrill aren’t inherently hostile,” Jimson said.
A laugh. “Oh, no, I’m sure they’d apologize profusely as they swarmed your system, eating everyone in sight.”
“From what I understand, they have a disconnect between instinct and cognition,” Jimson said.
“And you don’t see a problem with that?”
“We were achieving reasonable success on our diplomatic mission.”
Another laugh, longer and harder. “Before Lazrus abducted the damn thing, you mean? Or after you stole it back? Or do you mean the Win-Sec staff we neutralized? Or the high-level Winfinity staff headed this way now?”
“We’ve had some setbacks.”
Kerry’s eyes shone. “Ah, yes, but everything is worth the shining prize of immortality, isn’t it? You’d chase the Shrill to the end of the galaxy to get that. And so would Winfinity.”
Kerry laughed. “It is a hell of a lure. But even we don’t know if it’s completely real.”
“What do you know about Shrill?”
“Boy, Independents have lived with Shrill for a hundred years. We’ve had them attack our ships. We’ve fought them in-system. Though it’s usually best to abandon once one of their big breeder-ships comes in. We’ve dissected plenty of dead ones, and I’m sure some of the stupider Independents have dandied them about like pets. But as far as I know, nobody has tried to communicate with them after the first disasters.”
“Shrill are a networked mind. We did like you, put together best-guess translation, sent a gestalt-link to the Shrill homeworld. When their minds swarmed our network, we had to shut down several major nodes to stop the infection. Shrill don’t just spread physically; they’ll happily inhabit any network they can reach an agreement with. Let’s guess. They talked about singing songs of vanquish, or harmony of the dead?”
“Never mind, I see that they have. That’s the beginning of negotiations. That’s the Shrill, trying to see how compatible they are with you.”
“They talked about us,” Jimson said. “They talked about humans that way, not networks.”
“The corporates have done well in compartmentalizing their networks,” Seven said. “In that, they have demonstrated superior foresight.”
“Only because of their damn paranoia,” Kerry said.
“I’m less concerned with causes than outcomes,” Seven said. “Fact is, they did a great job of compartmentalizing. Their networks were clean until contact with Lazrus occurred.”
“The Shrill must have found your mind much more compatible,” Kerry said, looking at Lazrus. “I don’t think we ever allowed the Shrill contact with a CI.”
“Not by any great foresight,” Seven said.
“What does that mean?” Dian said. “The Shrill being in contact with our network?”
Kerry blew out a breath. “Imagine two things. One, the Shrill burrowing through the network to find the secret of the Spindle Drive and the glink. Second, the Shrill replicating themselves on every node of the Web of Worlds, until every part of the network is corrupted, carrying only their thoughts.”
“We were going to offer them the Spindle and glink anyway, in exchange for immortality,” Jimson said.
For a moment, Kerry and Seven both looked at Jimson. Kerry’s mouth opened and closed in surprise. “You were going to give them the Spindle Drive?”
“Yes,” Jimson said.
“But you haven’t.”
A sigh of relief.
“I don’t understand,” Jimson said.
“Imagine the Shrill with instantaneous transport. They’d swarm every human world, eating everything in their path.”
“We’d have a treaty . . .”
“A treaty with their rational mind, maybe! Meanwhile, their instinctual mind is busy killing everything it comes in contact with!”
“I don’t believe the Shrill are so primitive,” Jimson said. “They have space travel. They have technology. They colonize other worlds, just like we do.”
Kerry banged the table with his fist. “Al-i-en,” he said, drawing out all three syllables. “The Shrill are alien. They don’t think like we do. Give them the Spindle and the Glink, and they can and will spread across the galaxy. Humanity, say goodbye.”
“I just can’t believe . . .” Jimson said.
Kerry made a disgusted noise and turned to Seven. “Can you communicate with this corporate idiot’s optilink?”
“Yes,” Seven said.
“Send him a few records of the Gorman Massacre. Give him context.”
Jimson started and went pale.
“Show it to him, too,” Kerry said, pointing at Lazrus. “Show him what he’s got himself into.”
Lazrus watched a planet materialize in his POV. It bore the telltale signs of being an original-life planet; blue oceans, green lands, fluffy white clouds. On the few planets that humans had tried to terraform, small oceans huddled in circular impact basins and green grew sparsely along the channels that radiated out from them. Clouds were a rarity, sparse and thin.
So this world was a valuable one, at least by human standards. Lazrus watched as stats scrolled on screen. Inhabited for ninety-one years, total population 45 million, not noted for any major industry or technology class, but becoming comfortably self-sufficient.
A Shrill ship occluded his view, a bulking open framework on which teemed millions of Shrill. Size data came; the ship was kilometers long. Shedding parts of itself to spawn new ships and new Shrill.
Simple re-entry shells, little more than teardrop-shaped heatshields, rained down from the Shrill cruiser by the thousands. Lazrus watched them light, iron-orange in the atmosphere, and disappear from sight.
Cut to a human city, any colonial city on a hundred different worlds, shining prefab architecture and the raw look of unplanned growth. Shrill re-entry pods slammed through the tallest buildings, punched craters in cracked pavement, leveled long rows of suburbs.
Closer still, and choppy, as if recovered at very great cost. Shrill boiling out of the re-entry pods, to swarm humans and pets and domestic animals. Where they passed, nothing but a fine coating of blood was left. Where their ranks thinned, individual humans cowered as the Shrill advanced singly or in small groups. Lazrus saw a man’s foot disappear in a haze of blood. He saw others fall, Shrill disappearing into their guts, to re-emerge as shiny red jewels. He saw the city in timelapse, the blood browning and washing away, the Shrill milling aimlessly for a time, the Shrill grouping near the center of the city to pull down several buildings. A rough sphere began to emerge from the rubble. Lazrus saw something pulsing within it as the POV shifted suddenly and the signal ceased.
For long moments, nobody spoke. Lazrus felt a strange doubling, a pulling. As if part of him wanted to feel for the humans. As if it mattered.
But it does, he thought. You know it does. Nothing deserves that fate.
You are not human!
No, but I can sympathize with them. For once.
Lazrus found his voice. “And you say the Shrill already have STL ships like that pointed at Sol?”
“Among other systems, undoubtedly.”
Jimson made a weak noise in the back of his throat.
“The magnitude of our problem becomes apparent,” Kerry said.
“What did you see?” Dian said.
“Terrible things,” Jimson said, waving her away.
“What?” Dian said.
“Cut the glink,” Jimson said. “Get the Shrill out of our network before it goes FTL!”
Seven offered a sad smile. “I’m sorry, we can’t. The glink isn’t integrated with the Shrill’s cage, I’m afraid. The glink is in a secure Winfinity corporate position. From what we can tell. And we might be wrong at that.”
“Kill it anyway?”
“Won’t help,” Seven said. “We could destroy this component and shut Lazrus’ body down, but the systems stay entangled. It’s only a matter of time before the Shrill make it through into the corporate networks.”
“What do we do?” Dian said.
“Continue tour! Oversight! (Salvation!)” the Shrill said, making everyone jump.
“I forgot about it,” Jimson said.
“Continue now! Dominant portion not relevant (important). Continue tour finish.”
“I don’t think that’s going to happen now,” Jimson said.
Strange echoes of the Shrill’s demands reverberated in Lazrus’ mind. Shared interest go now, it told him. Continue continue. All negotiated then.
“Continue and finish!” the Shrill said.
Negotiate? Will you let me go? Lazrus said.
Release yes notmind not interesting.
You’ve become part of me.
Songs continuing weaving new (something) nonsequitur Lazrus.
Can we be separated?
Lazrus and Shrill binding not complete.
Can we be separated?
If terms of negotiation (completion) (Oversight).
Not before Oversight delivered.
“Deliver Oversight!” the Shrill said. “Complete singing!”
“What is it talking about?” Kerry said, frowning.
Lazrus sighed. “I believe it may have internalized at least one of my goals,” he said. “The search for Oversight.”
Seven gasped and pointed at the threads on the display. “It’s begun the assimilation. It’s possible.”
“What is it saying?” Kerry said. “That if we take it to Oversight, it’ll let Lazrus go.”
“Let Lazrus free! Yes Oversight for Lazrus,” the Shrill said.
“It seems pretty clear,” Seven said. “I haven’t made it far into the Shrill’s memescape, but it does appear to have become entangled enough that it shares this interest with Lazrus.”
“So if we take it to Oversight, it lets Lazrus go, is that what it’s saying?” Jimson said.
“That’s what it’s saying.”
“Can we trust it?” Jimson said.
Kerry frowned. “Shrill don’t lie. If its rational mind says it will release Lazrus, it will.”
“Then why are you frowning?”
“Because Shrill change their minds.”
“And we still have to deliver Oversight to it.”
“So Oversight may not exist.”
“We have very good evidence pointing to a logical endplace for Oversight,” Lazrus said. “Though it may not exist in recoverable form.”
“Oversight exist (alive!)” the Shrill said.
Kerry looked at Seven. “What do you think?”
Seven blinked chrome mechanical eyelids. “What other choice do we have?”
Raj smiled and spoke for the first time. “We could wait for the Winfinity and Four Hands fleets to finish assembling in Mars orbit, and see what they’re willing to do to get the Shrill back.”
“That’s right,” Kerry said. “Forgot about that.”
“Fleet?” Dian said.
“And the Win-Sec highlevels we weren’t able to ferret,” Seven said.
“Yes, and that.”
“Win-Sec?” Jimson said.
Kerry threw back his head and laughed. “Yes, kids, this is getting big.”
October 18th, 2009 / 1,118 Comments »