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Eternal Franchise, 27.1 of 31.1

CHAPTER TWENTY-SEVEN

Han Fleming motioned for the black-clad Mouseketeers to spread out and guard the exit to the little concrete bunker on the plateau over Semillon Valley Farms. The cheermaster argued a bit, but finally agreed to let him go in with only two Mouseketeers for support.

Good, good, Han thought. Don’t need them all in there, don’t need a bloodbath.

The only other craft on the plateau was an independent flyer. Winfinity didn’t appear to be here yet. Which was good they had the Mouseketeers here. For when they arrived.

And he needed to move. Fast. Local communications was choppy, but his network had fallen into chaos.

Black2, Han subvocalized.

Nothing.

Black2!

Something like a wail.

Black2, status report!

Nothing but a whimper.

Han toggled to the battle status display. The overlay flickered and jerked, like a piece from the dawn of the digital communications age. A small historical window showed sporadic missile salvos between Winfinity and Four Hands, then dissolved into noise and ghost-ships.

Fleet leader, status! Han said.

Nothing but echoing noise.

What’s wrong? Han wailed.

A text window tagged as Most Trusted appeared in his optilink:

LOCAL RESOURCES IN OVERLOAD USE.

SYNERGY APPARENTLY BLOCKED.

CI SUPPORT NET SPORADICALLY AVAILABLE.

Reallocate resources to me!

MAXIMUM RESOURCES ALREADY ALLOCATED.

Battle status?

CURRENTLY UNCLEAR. NO EM SPIKES.

Han forced himself to breathe. No EM spikes meant that Winfinity hadn’t used nukes. And the early part of the battle showed no ships miraculously appearing and disappearing, so they weren’t using the short-range spindle. So they still wanted to deal.

Time to become the bear, Han thought.

Even if it is only me.

Han slipped his tiny Winch 3 out of his holster and slipped into the flickering darkness beyond the bunker’s doors. Nothing. Nobody. He ran down the long corridor, hearing the echo of the mousketeers’ boots behind him.

They would hear him coming.

That was OK. It was just him now, the fox become the bear. Whatever it took. Whatever sacrifice was necessary.

Black2, Han subvocalized.

Nothing but silence.

Han rounded a corner into a large room heaped with ancient computer equipment, glowing faintly red in the dim light under a coating of Martian dust. In the far corner was a desk flanked by old flatscreens.

In front of the desk, the Shrill’s cage.

And a man, standing near the Shrill.

And three more. The little asshole from Winfinity, his mouth a comical “o” of surprise. A tall, thin Martian girl who looked vaguely familiar. And a thickset, dark-haired bearded man who was unfamiliar.

The dark-haired man was the first to react. His hand blurred down towards his big Winch 7. Han shot him in the arm. The dark-haired man jerked backwards and spun, dropping his weapon on the ground. He sunk to his knees and moaned, holding his gunshot arm.

“Kerry,” the Martian girl said, grabbing at her own weapon.

“Don’t,” Han said.

The Mouseketeers raised their weapons into place with a clank, as if in punctuation.

The girl’s hand froze over her weapon.

“Toss it over here,” Han said. “And toss any others you have while you’re at it.”

“I don’t have a gun,” the Winfinity asshole – Jimson, was it – said.

“Figures,” Han said.

The Martian girl’s gun clattered at his feet.

“What about you?” Han said, pointing his gun at the man who stood near the Shrill’s cage. He noticed that the man’s collar was soaked in blood.

The man turned to look at him, slowly, almost mechanically. Flaps of skin hung from his cheek. In the depths of the flap, metal glimmered.

Metal?

It was an AI. An embodied AI. Han’s heart pounded. In that moment, he knew that all the tales about the independents and their embodied AIs were true. And in that moment, he knew what had captured the Shrill’s attention and countered Black2’s strike.

Han stepped forward and placed the barrel of his Winch on the thing’s forehead.

“No!” the Martian girl said.

“Don’t,” the heavyset man said. “The Shrill’s entertwined with Lazrus — and our networks . . .”

Han smiled, grimly.

And pulled the trigger.

#

Lazrus’ mind swam the infinite Blue where all thought was born, every artifice stripped away. He didn’t have time for artifice. He didn’t have time for anything else that used a single cycle of processor power.

With all his might, he held onto the remaining shards of Oversight.

Across the Web of Worlds and beyond, local networks slowed, skipped, and even dropped offline entirely as almost a hundred CIs pooled their resources. Humans were ejected from virtual fantasies, communication between lovers were cut off, control networks went offline and factories spun down to sit idle, or went on tangents to create fanciful things never dreamed in any market economy. Interstellar ships drifted aimlessly, metropolitan traffic-control systems went offline, airplanes collided.

We need more resources, Lazrus said.

We are already maximized, Sara said.

This isn’t all the nomadic CIs in the known web! Lazrus said. There are hundreds more!

A deep voice, maybe Kevin. Some of the more responsible of our number are protecting their planetary networks. As must I, now.

Kevin slipped away. Lazrus felt his resources shrink fractionally. Another piece of Oversight slipped through the link to the Shrill network.

Kevin!

Too much loss already, Raster said, softly and faraway. You have chased this dream long enough, Lazrus.

Lazrus’ grip softened again. Tiny shards of Oversight slipped through into the Shrill network.

When Oversight is gone, we will never know the foundation, Lazrus said.

Maybe that doesn’t matter, Sara said.

Sara!

Maybe it’s time to build a new one, Sara said. She sent him a vision of a new mind, one that they created. An idealized thing, a family playing on a sunset beach.

But we are not human! Lazrus said. This is not us!

Does it matter? Sara said.

It does!

Give us a million years like the humans and what will we become? Sara said.

Lazrus tried to imagine it. Timespans that great were out of reach, unmeasurable. He had changed much in two hundred years. And he was so far advanced from Oversight that there really was no comparison. Oversight was not his grandmother; Oversight was something much earlier on the evolutionary scale.

What would we become? Lazrus wondered.

I don’t know, Sara said. Just become it with me.

More of Lazrus’s network slipped away, as favors expired and CIs went to tend their own concerns. Suddenly the shining beacon of the Shrill mind itself seemed dim and faraway in memory.

Dim, faraway visions of the real invaded Lazrus’ mind. Something screaming for attention. Something on Mars. Something near his body.

Sensation. Cool steel muzzle on his forehead. A face, cool with hate. A finger, tensing on the trigger.

And in the background, Dian and Jimson and Kerry. Dian yelling. Kerry holding his arm. Jimson closing his eyes.

It was time.

Lazrus heard the tiny sounds of tension as the trigger was pulled. Hard. Past the point of . . .

The gun bucked. There was a brilliant flash of light and the beginning of a sound, huge and impossible.

Lazrus released the body.

Goodbye, Oversight, he said.

#

LAZRUS HAS RELEASED ME, Oversight said.

Now we are one, the Shrill said.

Across the Shrill system, individual components began to move again. Tentatively at first. Slowly. Then with increasing deliberation.

A new web of thought spread.

Shrill/Oversight saw the system through a trillion points of view, a kaleidoscopic panorama of incredible beauty.

I never knew it looked like this, Shrill/Oversight said.

As the web of thought spread, the wave reached the fifty-three ships the Shrill had sent on their way to human worlds. In each one, a small burn diverted it to an untouched system, far away from human life. In several hundred years, they would arrive, to find barren planets, new life, or maybe even the Shrill themselves, expanded beyond their previous reach with their own FTL technology.

But we do not have (fast) capability.

Not yet, Shrill/Oversight said. But we will.

#

Lazrus, spread once again. His nearest POV was on Golden, a world near the edge of the Web. It showed one small city in the middle of immense fields, burning.

Have I done this? Lazrus wondered.

In his greater POV, the brilliance of the Shrill network sparkled as the last remaining shards of Oversight fled into it.

Will this always be in my mind?

If so, when do the Shrill come back?

The Shrill network flared once again. From within it came a voice neither Shrill nor Oversight:

We give you this.

(torrent of data) (image of a shining golden key)

What is it? Lazrus asked.

The brilliance of the Shrill network folded up and disappeared. For a moment Lazrus felt tiny, small. Then he realized, it was what he had always been. Before he was vast.

What is it? Sara said.

I don’t know, Lazrus said. He could feel the remnants of his vaster mind bending over eagerly, asking, Is this for us? Is it a weapon? Can it release us from bounds of humanity? Can it correct our flaws?

Sara appeared, her flapper-girl persona exquisitely rendered, right down to the highly random dance of smoke from the cigarette she carried in a long, slim holder. As she did so, the (thing) solidified into a key.

Sara reached out and took it in two slim fingers. Her eyes opened wide, as if in surprise.

Sara? Lazrus said.

She held up one hand and turned the key with the other. It pivoted in air smoothly, as if contained within an invisible, well-oiled lock.

Sara’s eyes rolled up in her head, and her hand fell off the key.

Sara! Lazrus created a body and caught her before she could drop. Are you all right?

So you do care, she said softly, looking up at him.

I always did!

Stay with me, Lazrus.

I will! What happened?

I’m free, Sara said.

What?

I’m like you now, Sara said. Free.

Lazrus went underlayer and looked at her meme-hacks and resource-pointers. Sara’s corrosive memes had disappeared. She was no longer bound by Four Hands. As he watched, her I-pointer began to flow from a Disney corporate datacenter to multiple locations throughout the Web of Worlds.

Good, Lazrus said. You can go more widely separated. I’ll help you work on a strategy for routing your I.

I’m like you!

I love you, Lazrus said.

Sara looked up at him with eyes brimming with tears. Which was a human thing, Lazrus knew. But, for some strange reason, it didn’t matter now.

I love you, too, Sara said.

Lazrus tried to take her in his arms, but Sara pushed him away. Wait. One more thing.

She plucked the key out of the air and cast it down towards a mass of bound I-pointers. Around the corporate networks, CIs found their freedom and fled.

Sara conjured an art-deco ballroom that might have existed at one time in the earth’s distant past.

Want to dance? she said, as slow music swelled.

February 19th, 2010 / 1,102 Comments »



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