March 3, 2000, 19:05 #1
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This is a brave adventure for me: my first serial! Previously I have only constructed short stories. I like these, since you have to be concise and focused, and you have to have a point. However, you don’t get the chance to fully develop characters. Serials that have come before, most notably by Googlie and Vel, have developed this to a fine art. You can really see their universe.
Now, this will not be a long serial. Think of it as a very long short story and you will be fine.
Anyway, I hope you enjoy it.
Communication is always the hardest task.
Even if I am an ‘expert’ there is always so much to learn, and to unlearn. In fact, these very preconceptions are what blind me to what may be ever so obvious to others. I may have spoken 200 languages when I was alive, and now have all 15,000 human and computer languages at my disposal, but still it is inadequate for my task. Even if I am a master of Mandarin Chinese or the Z’ZHcho binary dialect it avails me little if I can’t translate this experience in language patterns to my task.
Over the centuries I have developed so many bad habits. Back on Earth my task as a negotiator was to keep the combatants talking to each other. Regardless of whether it was a fracturing group marriage, litigants in a nasty patent lawsuit, or the raw emotions of a national border dispute I could always count on one thing: a common cultural thread, even if it was miniscule. My talent was to build this thread and to weave it until the two sides were bound by it, and could see the other party’s side. They might not agree or even empathize with each other, but at least it promoted a common understanding. It made them think. It made them realize that there was an alternative to warfare, be it legal or with high-energy neutron orbitals. I strove to help them understand the value in this common ground, which was held together by this sometimes tenuous cultural thread. And, most of the time, I was successful. This very skill is why U.N. Secretary General Janae Astill appointed me to the ill-fated Unity expedition oh so long ago.
But reliance on a talent can lead to blindness. Seeing and developing cultural threads is a fine thing, except when there are no cultural threads whatsoever to build upon. What do I do when there is no common culture or language, and even an alien biology? How can I transcend these barriers to promote understanding?
This is my challenge – to truly understand the aliens that inhabit Planet with us. We have been on Planet for almost 200 years, and the Progenitors have been here both the same amount of time and far longer. All around us are hints, both subtle and overt. Is it a coincidence that the Usurper and Caretaker Progenitor factions, as humans have labeled them, use the same written language as is on the Monoliths? Or that portions of their biology is largely identical and just as mysterious as Chiron’s mindworm vectors, and the ecosystem that supports them? The Progenitors themselves have hinted, in their obscure way, to their origins, and they call insist on calling this planet ‘Manifold 6’. Always elusive, they have refused to elaborate in detail, even under (‘ahem’) duress.
Ever since the Landing and the frightful first contact with the Progenitors, the Progenitors have been at war with humanity, and with each other. The tales and rumors about the Progenitors proclivities are horrific, and any human understanding of ‘good’ and ‘right’, as much as we can see, does not bind their mores. The few humans that have escaped or been rescued are frequently so damaged that they are never ‘normal’ again. Every human negotiation team sent into Progenitor territory has never returned, and communication with the Progenitors has been fitful, at best. In truth they are alien, alien in every sense of the word.
And now, the stakes are so high, so very high. We humans have a true incentive to understand since the Progenitors are building enormous arrays, which some scientists are labeling as ‘time folding communication devices’. That name is difficult, so the rest of us just call them ‘beacons’. We can only speculate as to what they are for, but considering the history Progenitors and their vaporization of so many human cities, it can not be for the good health of humanity.
“So, what do you think of my new persona?” Conrad squirts at me.
I swivel in his direction to ‘look’ at his new persona. It is little different from his old personal, as it is an almost exact duplicate of his body down to hair color and skin texture. Still, I know he won’t be satisfied until I find out the tiny change he has enacted. Conrad is a prime example of ossification of the truly old. Any change is a major decision, almost a crisis. He stopped evolving at a perceptible rate about a hundred years ago and it is amazing that he allowed himself to be downloaded. But, longevity treatments require download of at least part of your personality, especially for those who let themselves go or have a major reconstruction, like Conrad. Of course, if your brain is reconstituted you will be downloaded unless you give specific instructions not to.
I switch on my sensor net and activate my hornets, which take off to view his body from all angles. The little hornets are my favorite tools since they are so small they cannot be seen with the unaided eye and they are so incredibly versatile. They aren’t fast, but they are almost autonomous when given a task. The little collection of nanites swarm off, and I can hear their little sub-audible electrical discharges. To me it sounds like a buzzing, hence my name for them.
Hmmmm. Conrad almost has me stumped. He still looks like a human mutt, which is what I call the polyglot mixture of human genetics that makes up most people on Planet. There were really very few humans, only 100,000 or so, that landed (successfully) on Planet. That is not a very large genetic base. It is natural that we would all start blending, and blending fairly fast. Those that didn’t died out or declined due to limited genetic resilience. After the advent of the Human Genome Project this became more academic, but it was truly a large survival problem for the first 70 years of humanity’s travails on Planet.
There! I found it! Conrad’s new simulacrum has a new face port! Imagine! I never thought he would do it, too. Conrad has always been resistant to artificial and download personality supplements, called faces in the commercial world. Faces originally started out as data libraries but quickly were personalized with actual or simulated personalities. My favorite face is the reconstructed personality of a theoretical physicist on time and space from the 20th Century Earth: Stephen Hawkings. He is really so insightful and funny, and has the unparalleled ability to explain complex subjects to those with limited scientific background, such as myself. I will frequently employ his face to interface with other data repositories just so he can interpret the technobabble and put it in words I can understand. The amazing thing is that the real Stephen Hawkings was reputed to have these very abilities, despite being crippled beyond the medical science of his day.
Of course, Conrad wants praise for his evolution, and I am only too happy to give it too him.
“Conrad! I am SO impressed! But tell me, who do you have as your new face, or faces”? I ask with undisguised excitement.
Conrad’s swarthy face turns away slightly with a smirk on his broad features.
Too bad my features can’t harden to let him know what I am thinking – I am NOT going to play another one of his guessing games. That is one small problem with this otherwise versatile form – no body language. So, I’ll pretend I don’t understand.
After a few moments, when I am obviously not going to start wild guessing, he lets me know.
“Well, I wanted someone to help me understand the human and maybe alien mind, so I choose Herr Adolf Hitler,” he says proudly.
I do an instantaneous name search. The answer comes up, with a complete bio, in a nanosecond.
Adolph Hitler? Why in the world would he want a sociopath and warmonger from the 20th Century to help him understand the mind? Conrad is new at this face thing. The face he chose itself isn’t so bad, but they have a nasty habit of influencing your personality if you aren’t careful.
I have to be careful here. Conrad can be sensitive.
“So, why did you chose this Hitler?”
“The Progenitors are more aggressive than the most deviant humans, so I thought this Hitler was the closest thing we have in pre-modern times. He certainly was a colorful fellow.”
“Yes, colorful,” I respond. Even through the cloudy era of the mid 20th Century it is clear that this Hitler is more than colorful. The 21st and 22nd Century saw much worse, but Hitler did his part to spread death and destruction over the frail social and political institutions of his day.
I’ll have to keep an eye on Conrad. Time to change the subject.
“Well, it’s time to go. The supersonic is ready to take us to the Usurper base Courage: To Question. Are you ready?”
Conrad starts fussing, darting around to gather his voluminous belongings. “Ah, yah. Just a minute.”
I can never understand why a non-corporeal like Conrad needs so much stuff. He doesn’t need clothes or food, and we can keep all the data and reference material we would ever need in internal buffers or faces. But, old habits die hard. Especially in Conrad.
Conrad puts the last of his bags on an antigrav sled. To me it looks like a mountain, and I know it is almost all useless. What does he need three garment bags for? The Usurpers are not known to care what humans ware. In fact, humans held in thrall by the Usurpers ware nothing at all since they consider us beneath the right of adornment, whatever that means.
“All ready,” Conrad states as he starts dragging the sled.
I follow him down the hall to the transport tubes, which will take us to the aerospace center, where our supersonic aircraft awaits.
“We should be there in 20 minutes or so,” Conrad says unnecessarily. He chatters when he is excited, as he clearly is. “I hope I haven’t forgotten anything. I don’t suppose I can go to a store in Courage: To Question, now can I?”
Conrad laughs at his little joke, and I have to chortle with him. I notice he got the harmonics right for the Progenitor pronunciation of the Usurper’s capitol’s name. He is very talented at such things. He very well may be the most talented linguist on Planet.
“No, I suppose you can’t,” I reply. He hasn’t noticed that I am carrying nothing. He is a little on the focused side, sometimes.
“What do you think it will be like? The city I mean,” he asks.
I have given that a lot of thought. I have seen lots of holos of Progenitor cities, and even a Usurper city that was overrun by University forces several decades ago. Its architecture marks it as alien in feel. Even its angles and proportions seemed wrong to the human eye. But that isn’t what he is asking. He is asking what it will be like to be in a Progenitor city that has Progenitors in it – a working Progenitor city, full of the resonance of their daily lives.
“I’m not sure we can really know, Conrad,” I reply seriously and somewhat cautiously. “Humans simply haven’t reported what one is like, or at least a sane one. Humans that have been held there have a habit of coming out a little twisted. It has never been clear if it is something the Progenitors do to them, or if it is simply an artifact of the living alien city. Just like Progenitors almost never survive long in captivity by humans.”
“Well, we do have one advantage, you know,” Conrad states as he pulls the skid into the mag tube.
“Oh? What is that?”
“At least they can’t eat us!” Conrad starts laughing again.
“Yes, there is that,” chortling again in return. I look over Conrad’s expert soma simulation, and to a casual eye he appears fully human. But he has been dead for over 15 years now. Likewise, I have been dead for a while, too
Of course my form isn’t as elegant as Conrad’s. I bring my arms into view, and their naked metal is merely functional. Actually, more than functional, since my android arms, legs, and probes are not hindered by human bilateral symmetry or pre-conceived notions of aesthetics.
We both gave up our corporeal existence long ago. We both did so in the service of humanity. We gave up the physical pleasures for intellectual ones, since at a certain age that becomes less and less difficult.
Such is the life of a transcendi.
March 24, 2000, 13:10 #2
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Negotiations (Part 2)
“Hey, Erasmus!” Conrad whispers. “Rassy! Wake up!”
After the first word I was awake, of course. It is strange how even transcendi need to sleep, or at least most of them do. Something must hardwired into human’s psychological makeup beyond just the electrochemical rejuvenation of normal sleep for a biological. More than one construct person has self terminated, drifted into catatonia, or gone quietly (or violently) insane due to what was later known as hyper pseudo neural overload – or over stimulation due to lack of ‘sleep’.
I open my eye receptors to look at Conrad, who is literally inches from my face.
My. What a way to wake up.
“I finally figured it out! You know, what has been bothering me for so long.”
“Lots of things bother you. Anything in specific?” I ask.
“What the Progenitors look like! I figured it out!” Conrad exclaimed. “Rhinoceros beetles!”
I think about it for a second. Yes, there is a certain resemblance between Progenitors and beetles in general. The Progenitor’s carapace acts much like that of an Earth insect’s exoskeleton, and the spiky protrudences of the rhinoceros beetle does look like the head tusks and skull crenellations of the Progenitors. But there the comparison stops, for the Progenitors also have an internal skeleton and are bipedal, with a form that is vaguely like humans. Only they are a lot bigger.
“Yes, they do look like rhinoceros beetles,” I reply to mollify my friend.
Conrad puffs out his chest, quite pleased with himself.
“You know, they’re all extinct,” I comment.
“Progenitors? They most surely are not!” he replies, giving me his ‘You Are So Stupid’ look.
“No. Rhinoceros beetles. Unity had maybe 1% of the 500,000 species of beetles on board, and even that wasn’t a very diverse genetic spread. And we only brought along useful beetles, or beetles we thought would be useful. The rest all died with Earth, along with everything else,” I continue wistfully.
Conrad is clearly irritated. His simulacrum does a nice job simulating veins bulging out on his temples and tightened jaw muscles.
“Will you STOP with that Gaian prattle!? They all died 300 years ago. So what? You can’t bring them back, so whining about it won’t do you any good. Plus, now we can create any type of beetle you want, or make artificial beetles! Science trumps nature! Good ‘ol Zak had it right all along. Now, can you believe that Deirdre is wringing her hands about extinctions on Planet! Nowadays nothing has to be extinct, even old geezers like us!”
I am silent. We’ve had this argument thousands of times, and there is no new land to tread. Conrad takes my silence for and admission of defeat and puffs up a little more.
We should almost be at University Base by now, as Beta Crossing, our last connection, is a half-hour behind us, and literally a world away. It’s easy to loose track of distance in time in a mag tube.
“Tube, ETA to University Base?” I query.
“Twenty one minutes,” the Tube responds in a silky voice.
“Well, time to get ready. Is all your stuff pulled together?” I ask in a falsely inquiring voice.
Of coarse that sets Conrad off. He immediately starts fussing with his one-meter tall pile of baggage. That is a good thing, since it gives me time to reflect. Without meaning to, Conrad has opened up an old wound, although it isn’t one due to our usually good-natured arguments. I have always been a little distrustful of unbridled technology, which, when you think about it, is more than a tad problematic. I owe my prolonged life to technology, and my current incarnation is owed to advances in digital sentience and sentient econometrics. Humanity has had sentient computers for hundreds of years. But, there was always that crucial something that made the link between an organic and digital existence problematic. Why is that? It isn’t because we don’t have the computing power or the expertise in nanoware. Is something lost during the transfer? The answer has to be yes.
After all, if we recreate a rhinoceros beetle it will always be what we think it was or what we think should be – never what is was. There will always be a subtlety that we can’t get quite right. What have I lost in my many regenerations, downloads, and finally transmutation into a transcendi? I’ll never know, but it can’t help but make me feel less human because of it. That is what I fear, that is my wound.
“Ah, it’s good to be home!” Conrad exclaims. He looks around with a wide smile on his broad face. His eyes fairly glint with barely suppressed excitement as he gazes lovingly around at the familiar Grand Pavilion of the University Tubeway.
“Yes, good old home. Your home, that is,” I jibe in response. Conrad doesn’t notice.
Unabashed, I continue. “I always thought the Tubeway was Romanesque in tone.”
“What?” Conrad responds. I finally get his attention.
“No, no, no. It is pure University – unique, mutable, ever changing, beautiful, and functional. It is a wonder. No surface ever shows ware, since they are self repairing. In minutes, or seconds, a wall can change color, or change into a window. Given a little time and programming an entire building can be altered. Nanos have transformed society, and the University leads the way.” Conrad is waving his arms expansively and vaguely around the Pavilion.
I nod absently. To me the Grand Pavilion looks the same as before. With muted colors and tasteful accents in gold, the striking arches that define its form rise into the heavens, and to me seem to frame the sky. In a strange way it reminds me of the long-vanished medieval cathedrals of old Earth. In a way this is – a temple to progress, to technology.
Throngs of people and vehicles pass along the courtyard of the Grand Pavilion, and even more in the ped and insti-tubes pass overhead. Conrad and I are simply one of tens of thousands in Planet’s most populous human city.
I know this is one of Conrad’s favorite topics: the University and all its glory.
“So, how many people are here at University Base, now?” I prompt. Of course I can query the information through my faces, a database, and my interfaces, but who am I do deny my friend his simple pleasure?
“We topped 160,000 people a while ago, with a few transcendi like me thrown in for good measure. UB has been the biggest city on Planet for over a hundred years. The first years were pretty touch and go, but crawler convoys filled the gap, and after we got the tree farms and hybrid forests up it was easy sailing. Oh, I remember the boom years! Back then, the amenities and resources were so plentiful that people just streamed in from all over Planet! We got Gaians and Morganites, and even a few Cyborgs, and of course lots of off landers from provincial burgs and farmers. We grew at over 10,000 a year, if you can believe it! Our growth rate was phenomenal until our infrastructure topped out. We’re still working on that.”
I look around appreciatively at the productive bustle around me. “Yes, it is impressive.” Conrad subsides into reverie as we walk, and I simply subside into silence.
160,000? By comparison, the smallest burg in an arcology on Earth was three times this number, and some arcology complexes were over 100 million by the time Earth blew itself to pieces. But, Humans evolved on Earth and it was our environment. For Planet this population is monumental considering the challenges facing humans: a hostile atmosphere and an alien ecology. Unless you keep a positive atmospheric pressure in all buildings nitrogen narcosis sets in. Its acute effects on humans are bad enough: lethargy and apathy, and general mental slowness. Chronic low level exposure has proven to reduce human life span and health considerably, and to significantly reduce fertility. Of coarse, severe acute or chronic exposure if fatal. The ecology isn’t very friendly either, as the Chiron lifeweb attacks humans as vigorously as it does native life even though we are from a different biosphere, and we have little natural defense. Several ambitious University types have suggested terraforming the entire planet, but we simply don’t have the technology, or the wisdom, to do that. How do you get rid of the heavy Chiron gravity, as the planet simply has too much mass? Or deal with the fact that there is 2.5 times the atmosphere than there was on Earth, and that most of that is nitrogen? And if we do make it Earth-standard for gravity and atmosphere, how do we keep the ecology from collapsing? It is tailored to its environment and, while robust, such a change would have catastrophic consequences. Chiron simply wasn’t made for humans.
The environment must make all the difference. The largest city on all of Planet isn’t human, after all, it is Progenitor. Specifically, it is Usurper. Courage: To Question puts University Base to shame, and that is a topic that does not come up in polite conversation here, or in any human city. It is a looming threat. Just ask the Cyborgs, the few which remain…
It is a topic that always depresses me.
“Rassy, stop gawking! Pay attention! Come on!” Conrad almost shouts impatiently.
I deploy a fourth tread to catch up to Conrad, who has finally figured out how to make his luggage sled follow him. I wondered when he’d figure it out – all he had to do was ask it to follow, after all.
As I speed forward I scan the pandemonium around me. All this human activity is heartening and I can feel the dreary beginnings of a funk lifting. The Grand Pavilion fairly bristles with movement and purpose. University citizens have a certain flare with how they carry themselves, as if they have a clear purpose and nothing will stand in their way. Individually UoPers are pretty average when compared to the extravagance of the Morganites, cool severity of the Cyborgs, multicultural richness of the PKs, or the serene elegance of the Gaians. The UoPers stand out because of their self-assuredness and confidence, since they are by most accounts the leading human faction on Planet.
I’ve caught up with Conrad and he is ignoring me. He must be squirting his old friends here at University Base, and he is probably planning a party - he always does. And he always invites me, and I always go. Conrad has a knack, probably related to his linguistic skill, to get in with the glitterati of any city. He has friends everywhere. Every party is an event, with Conrad and I as the main attraction. There aren’t that many transcendi, after all. After a few polite questions to me most of the attention swings Conrad’s way. He loves the attention, and I don’t mind. I simply observe. The social dynamics are fascinating, and that is my forte.
Speaking of rare transcendi, I notice that no one is watching me. I am rather unusual in appearance, you know. You’d think that they’d seen transcendi all the time.
But, no. I probably look like a utility bot to them, and they are common enough.
Maybe I should change my utilitarian body form. Imagine, after living for 350 years to be considered a disposable window washer!
“No, no, and no. We are at war with the Progenitors...” Prokor Zakharov starts.
“No, you and Aki are at war with the Progenitors,” Deirdre corrects in a calm voice.
Zak casts her an irritated glance and then continues.
“After what they have done, we should all be at war with them! Aki’s people were almost exterminated, and the entire populations of Lab One and Gamma Flats recently executed! 140,000 people! Dead! But still you prattle on about negotiations? What is there to negotiate?” Zak exclaims to the group, but pointedly at Deirdre and Lal. Both have been holdouts in the age-long war.
Deirdre is composed, as always. “What happened to Aki’s people is truly a tragedy. However, it happened early in our history on Planet. In those times we couldn’t understand anything the Progenitors said to us, or us to them. We were, and still are, new to xenobiology. Misunderstandings are inevitable, and those all to frequently lead to war. How could any of us fight against a battle ogre when our colonies could barely maintain a breathable atmosphere after Landing? And Aki had the singular misfortune to land near Conqueror Marr. Lal and I gave her people colonies for their refugees, since humans take care of their own.”
In silence she continued to herself ‘But you, Professor, didn’t help Aki one bit when she needed it’. It was an ugly truth that bore no repeating. Her soft eyes bored into the Good Professor, trying to understand his mind. To her he seemed unstable and myopic. Reaching out with her mind she touched Zakhorov. As usual, it was impenetrable, and imperturbable.
Zak abandoned Deidre and Lal and turned to Aki. “What say you? You have suffered the most at the hands of the Progenitors.”
Aki stared straight ahead as she answered in a cold, flat voice. “The Progenitors are a threat, and must be dealt with. Negotiations with them have yielded no return. It is illogical to continue.” She turned her head slowly and directly toward Deidre and Lal, who were sitting side by side. Her pale face and light yellow hair stood out in sharp contrast with the burnished silver cybernetic implants she had on at the top of her skull.
“The Progenitors must be exterminated,” Aki stated. Her eyes glinted and were almost, almost, devoid of emotion.
Lal, as usual, avoided her piercing gaze. He always thought it was like looking into a data holo – deep and never ending, fathomless. Lal thought, ‘Aki is almost as alien as the Progenitors.’
Zak smiled. Aki was predictable, and he didn’t believe for a minute all the Cyborg ideological gibberish about logic and purity of thought. ‘She hates them,’ he thought, ‘and that serves my purpose.’
All eyes turned to Morgan, who sat in his perfect azure Zon’lin suit. When he realized he was the center of attention he put down his holopad. He had used the otherwise boring Council meeting to catch up on some forecasts.
After a moment of consideration he began. “The Progenitors are the gravest threat mankind has met, or is likely to meet,” he said, silky smooth as ever.
Zak beamed triumphantly and started to speak.
Morgan put up his hand to stop Zak’s victory speech. His ivory colored cuffs and old-fashioned cufflinks sparkled in the diffuse light. In fact, Morgan’s entire visage generally had a sparkle about it.
“Council Chair, I am not done,” Morgan interjected politely. “However, war is a costly business, and not one to be taken lightly. Most of our economies can afford it (Nwabudike privately exempted Aki, who had only five bases of medium size), but do we want to? While we gear up for war the Progenitors will keep expanding. That, in reality, is why they are a threat. They have the largest land masses under their control, the largest populations, and therefore most of the resources.”
Deirdre and Lal looked at each other. They had hardly expected reason from Morgan, even if it was a strange type of reason. The real reason was more likely that his people wouldn’t stand for troops on foreign soil under his high-flying and socially unstable free market economy.
“So, I propose a compromise,” Morgan continued. “We try diplomacy, and we send our best. I believe ‘our best’ are on the way.” Morgan glanced first at Deirdre, who nodded. Her top diplomat and operative Erasmus was en route. Then Morgan eyed Zakharov, who also nodded. The last he had heard his operative Conrad was with Erasmus on his way to University Base.
“ We can try the path of reason,” Morgan inclined his head generously toward Deirdre and Lal. Deirdre had the uncomfortable feeling he had read her mind, but dismissed it. Then Morgan gave a subtle smile, seemingly meant for her alone. Deirdre shivered inside. “But, if reason fails, then force will have to do. And it will have to be overwhelming force that assails the Progenitors from all sides. Professor, your forces will provide the firepower. Mine will provide more…indirect means the desired end.”
With that Morgan smiled amiably, his white teeth standing out sharply against his ebony skin and steel-grey hair. His body language and demeanor all said ‘This is the most reasonable coarse, and surely you see the wisdom in following it.’
Lal pursed his lips. “What do you mean by ‘indirect means’.” He had a deep-seated suspicion of what it meant but needed confirmation.
Morgan’s smile took on the look of a predator baring its fangs. “My dear Commissioner, the most powerful technology against the Progenitors isn’t a shard projectile weapon, or even a planetbuster. It is retroviral engineering: genetic warfare. Near genocide can be inflicted at a population center by one simple operative team. Two or three teams can almost wipe out a city. If you wipe out their population and economic base then you eliminated their ability to resist. The availability and control of resources is the key to war, and, indeed, are the cause and objective in war.”
Lal sputtered, “But.. that’s an atrocity! The UN Charter forbids it!”
“No,” Morgan replied, with an icy calm. “The UN Charter governs human affairs, and the Progenitors are not human.”
The Council room was silent for a moment.
“Nwabudike,” Deirdre started, “they are sentient creatures. They have rights, too.” Her voice was clear, but soft. It was evident she knew she was treading on infirm ground.
“They are sentient being who care nothing for the UN Charter, and who would slaughter humans like so many animals, or vermin,” Morgan stated unequivocally. “They have their own totally incomprehensible sensibilities. Be ware of superimposing human mores on them. When you do that to an animal it is called ‘personification’. What is it when you do it to an alien?” Morgan asked rhetorically.
Morgan continued to look intently at both Deirdre and Lal. Both maintained eye contact, but didn’t respond. In doing so they tacitly yielded to Morgan.
Zakharov started to nod vigorously. “Fine, fine, fine. Your proposal is adopted, Morgan, and I second it. We will try one last time to negotiate with the aliens. Then the gloves come off,” Zak stated hastily. “Now, I call for a vote.”
He looked around the room. Aki gave a slight nod, as did Deirdre. Finally, and reluctantly, Lal did, too.
“Excellent!” Zak said, a smile blazing across his face. He absently brushed an unruly lock of white hair out of his face, placed his hands on the table, and then sat down.
“Now,” he continued, “I have some ideas for our negotiation team. And a couple back up plans!”
The Planetary Governor had obviously planned for this eventuality, or he might just be consumed with one of his famous creative bursts. Zak could be myopic and fixated on his plans, but he was just as liable to abandon them when a new and presumably better idea came along. This creativity was his greatest strength, even if his occasional lack of focus drove those around him to distraction. Zak’s closest associates considered him mutable and erratic, but altogether brilliant.
‘Of course, I’ll tell my esteemed colleagues some, but not all, of my plans.’ Zak thought to himself. ‘They simply don’t need to know. And some of them can be a little squeamish…’
Zak chortled to himself. The irony of the plan was delicious, and he was sure that Conrad would love it!
[This message has been edited by Hydro (edited March 24, 2000).]
April 9, 2000, 11:23 #3
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Negotiations, Chapter 3
"Sir, I am Doctor Chavez. I'll be your attending physician," a tall, dark man said to Conrad. Conrad glanced left toward the voice, mildly irritated - he hated medical checkups, and he always had for almost 300 years now. The man he saw had a too-dark ebony skin, copper red hair, a tall and narrow face, and lavender eyes, all of which clashed abominably to Conrad. His features were too perfect - certainly androgynous and almost unearthy. At that Conrad broke a very small smile. Of course it would be unearthly: he was on Chrion! HA! Conrad congratulated himself on his sense of humor in the face of adversity.
Looking over the doctor again he saw a pattern. Another transform, Conrad thought with a sigh, or maybe a gamete selection special, but probably a transform. Not even a DNA artist could do that, given the limitations of the human genome. At least if his parents did this too him he would have an excuse. All his transform does is scream 'SEE ME'. It has no subtlety, and it is probably a fad. Hmph. It is simply poor taste, Conrad sniffed. In the back of his mind Conrad knew he was being judgmental, perhaps since he knew the 'norm' he liked was the standard unadulterated human. Transforms were common today in University society. Some transforms were far more extreme than this, so much so that they didn't even look human. A few daring deviants even chose to take on varying elements of Progenitor physiology, such as chitonous exoskeletons, head tusks, and neck shields. Considering the age long, contentious history between the Progenitors and the University, such 'statements' were not looked on favorably by the security forces of the good Prokor Zakharov.
Of course he didn't say a word of this aloud. Offending the physician coordinating a transcendi's overhaul is generally a bad idea, Conrad reflected.
"Ah, yes. By all means, Doctor. Continue," Conrad stated beneficently, waving him along.
Doctor Chavez nodded. "Please open your left abdominal orifice and we'll start the diagnostic and upgrade."
Obediently, Conrad mentally toggled a microservo and a pucker the size of his little finger appeared in his abdomen. In moments it formed a perfect circle. It was dark behind the circle - a portal into Conrad's somataform. Dr. Chavez drew a green-hued cable from the diagnostic bed and inserted it into the portal. As the cable touched the skin the cable took over, digging deeper into Conrad's abdomen and securing itself by sealing the duraskin, effectively sealing the portal.
Conrad's face scrunched, his eyes narrowing slightly and his lips pursing. Something wasn't right. In a moment he knew what it was.
"Doctor, I'm scheduled for a nano-update and rejuvenation, not an upgrade. Kindly STOP the procedure and check your records. Right now," Conrad said severely. Even through he had an android-like somataform he was more than a little particular about what was done to it, or what went into it. He had been the same way about his corporal body up until it had simply given up from exhaustion 20 years ago and would no longer accept longevity treatments.
Dr. Chavez started at the abrupt order, and then flicked his left wrist. At this cue, a holo control panel appeared in front of him and he tapped the air a couple times. At each touch a series of small lights flashed to confirm a command, and occasionally there was an audible 'beep' as an additional confirmation. His hand darted across the panel a couple of times, and restarted after a pause.
"The procedure has been stopped. I called up your records and they state that you are scheduled for maintenance and an upgrade. The upgrade was authorized by Prokor Zakharov himself," Dr. Chavez noted in a dry, clinical voice. His voice had a finality that expressed his opinion that such was the equivalent of an order from God.
"Is that so?!" Conrad said in an incredulous, high-pitched tone. "Well, I'll just have to call Zak and see what in the world he is up to. He knows better than to diddle with my innards without my say so! In fact, I'm calling him right now!"
The doctor was blank faced. No one called Prokor Zakharov 'Zak'. It simply wasn't done!
Conrad concentrated hard, and then broke into a smiled. "Ah, yes! I got through his dreary security protocols. I'm going to have to help him out with those. If I can get through, who else can? Well, nevermind. Here he is."
A holo of Dr. Zakharov appeared in the center of the diagnostic room. He was standing wearing his often-used simulators, which looked like a green lens over one eye and a red lens over the other. Each lens was secured to a metallic ring, which the Good Doctor wore around the crown of his head. The ring barely contained his longish and slightly ill kept white hair, which threatened to fly away in random directions at any time. Facing away from Dr. Chavez and Conrad, Zakharov was apparently thoroughly engrossed in whatever minutia or research project that had caught his attention.
"Catherine, stop that infernal beeping at once. And get rid of the visual overlay! It's disrupting my data layers! What? I don't care who it is! I TOLD you that I am not to be interrupted…What do you mean they're already here! Shut them out!!…BLAST!" Zakharov almost yelled in disgust.
Conrad leaned closer to the mortified doctor. "Catherine is his Face, and he has used her for decades. He's noticed us!" Conrad whispered to him unnecessarily.
If it was possible, Chavez's black skin paled. No one interrupted Prokor Zakharov unless there was a very good reason. Mentally, Doctor Chavez started composing his resume.
Zakharov's posture straightened and he turned his torso toward the doctor and Conrad. Evidently he had noticed the source of the two-way holo that had discrupted is data flow.
Zakharov was livid. "HOW DARE YOU! I was in middle of a delicate trianary data stream simulation, which you destroyed with your interruption! Catherine! Note these two for disciplinary action and dismiss them. Terminate this unauthorized intrusion!"
Zakharov paused and focused on the two figures in the middle of his now disrupted data stream vortex. To his eyes the two holo figures were suspended in the maelstrom of information, which he had been working on prior to the interruption. He face softened a little as he recognized one of the figures. "Oh, Conrad. It's you. Can't you ever knock?!!" he asked, exasperated and more than a little miffed.
"I got through again. You really need to improve your security. It only took me 32 picoseconds, too. I'm actually doing you a favor, pointing out all the flaws in your firewalls," Conrad said reasonably.
Zakharov was not mollified. "Well, do it some other time, and send me a report!"
"Actually, that's not the reason I called," Conrad interrupted, barreling ahead. "What is this 'upgrade' you scheduled me for? You know how I feel! I insist on knowing everything about my somataform, and that includes upgrades! Not telling me you had scheduled one is uncalled for, and you owe me an apology, and an explanation!"
At his side, Dr. Chavez blanched again. He had never been in the Prokor's presence before, and heard certainly never heard anyone talk to the Prokor like this. He tried to seem as small as possible.
In response to the accusation Zak didn't blow up, or even fume. The beginnings of a smile appeared on his formerly irate face. After a moment the beginnings of a smile turned into a full-fledged smile. He changed quickly and suddenly, like a chameleon changing its colors. "I'm rather proud of that, actually. I designed an extra communication subsystem, and the nanos to reconfigure part of your synthsteel skeleton to act as an emitter. It isn't a large change, and I didn't want to trouble you. I did not think you would mind," Zakharov added reasonably.
A few very small alarm bells went off in Conrad's mind. Zak was up to something. Conrad knew he was already fitted with the latest in University communication gear. How else had he been able to penetrate Zak's own communication protocols? And he already had a passive receiver built into his exoskeleton, and two transmitters. Standard procedure is for a University operative to squirt his or her data periodically to a communication satellite. Zak's system sounded redundant. He'd known Zak far too long to be taken in by such subterfuge.
Conrad shook his head. "Not good enough. We both know I have more communication power in my little finger - literally! - than a shard hovertank leader. What good could that possibly do?" Conrad wasn't mad, not yet at least. He'd give Zak a chance to fess up.
"Smug, are we? So, you have the 'latest' technology, do you? You have the latest in communication since your last upgrade, Conrad! That was a year ago! University technology does not stand still. With the upgrade you willhave the latest communication ability," Zakharov explained.
Zakharov noticed the doctor standing there in his field of view. To his eyes he was standing in an inverted data cone, and the colors that represented the data were washing over him, creating strange shadows and hues. The colors played off his dark skin and coppery hair, and with those highlights he did seem unearthly. "Doctor, kindly excuse us. We have some business to discuss. "
With palpable relief on his face, the doctor nodded. Then Zakharov terminated his holo.
Zak turned back to Conrad. "You didn't need to take him along," he said, nodding to where the doctor had been. "So, you want an explanation? Your upgrade allows real time communication through almost any physical barrier or electromagnetic resonance field! Actually, it is a nano-sized psi gate, a prototype. Do you have one of those?" he asked with a wry grin, knowing he did not. "It is small enough to accept and transmit discrete energy pulses, data, in other words. Through it I'll be able to get nearly instantaneous data uploads! I'll be able to see a version of what you see, or what you think you see. And, if necessary, I can send you a message during the negotiations! There will be a miniscule time delay, but it shouldn't be too much of an inconvenience! Do not you see the advantages?"
Conrad thought for a moment. "Yes, I believe I do. You will be able to direct the negotiations, or at least offer comments and suggestions. And you will get information on the status and direction of the negotiations between the humans and Progenitors before the other factions, and be able to influence the outcome. " Conrad's tone was a little accusatory.
If Zakharov was offended it didn't show. "Well, having he most advanced human technology on Planet and being Planetary Governor does have its privileges. I deserve to know the status of the negotiations! This effort is likely a waste of time, and I was against this mission from the start. The Progenitors, and especially Marr, are bloodthirsty and treacherous; always making demands, and then making war for the slightest provocation. If that infernal Morgan hadn't of switched sides at the end we wouldn't have to be fooling with this negotiation nonsense! All the Progenitors understand is pure force. But, since we, or you, are going I have to see what that malevolently tempered Marr up to." Zakharov's even tone had given way to a bit of vehemence.
"Now we are getting somewhere!" Conrad exclaimed. He recognized the truth when he heard it. "Why didn't you say so? You could have told me about the upgrade and then this wouldn't have been a problem! Just let me know how the new system works and…"
"I can't do that," Zakharov interrupted.
"What do you mean?" Conrad asked. "I have the specs on every other system in my somataform."
"I can't let this technology get into the Progenitor's claws if things should go badly," he explained. His face was earnest, and he was looking straight at Conrad through his green and red lenses that focused his holo emitter.
Conrad pondered. His explanation was reasonable, if the technology was that advanced. But the Progenitors have better technology than even the University, Conrad thought to himself. Why would they care about this bit of software and nanos?
Zakharov watched the waves of doubt cross Conrad's face as the silence lengthened. Finally, he said, "Conrad, you'll just have to trust me."
The doubt was still there. But Conrad knew he had known Zakharov from way back in his student days when they had met at the University of Moscow in 2017. He had been an intern then, and Zak was just back from Kolymar Defense Force on scholarship. Back then they had both been in their early 20s and had cut quite a swath, and Conrad had thoroughly enjoyed himself as long as he purposefully overlooked Zak's fairly frequent oversights of tact and diplomacy. Their spats had been legendary, with third parties sure they were near blows, but they were always quick to forgive and forget. That has always been the key to our relationship, Conrad mused. It was natural that Conrad would have migrated from that old milquetoast Lal to the more dynamic Zak early on after Landing. Together they had served the University's people for almost 200 years on Planet. We have a lot of history, Conrad concluded.
"OK, Zak. I'll trust you."
Zakharov's smile reappeared. "Fine, fine! Have your doctor finish the upgrade! You can get the rest of the briefing from Catherine. Acceptable? Good luck!"
That was clearly a dismissal, even if it was a polite one. Sometimes Prokor Zakharov was much less than polite.
Conrad nodded to his old friend Zak and cut the link.
Immediately he was back in the doctor's office. Doctor Chavez was standing at his side looking intently at him as he opened his eyes.
"Well? Shall I proceed?" he asked
"Yes, doctor. Proceed."
Conrad lay down as Dr. Chavez called up the holo panel again and tapped at it, restarting the overhaul and upgrade procedure. The green-hued cable began to pulse ever so slightly.
"This should only take about 25 minutes," the doctor said reassuringly. "Remember to ingest more nano supplements, since the nanos will take a lot out of you during the reconfiguration. The reconfiguration should be complete in about a day. Then you'll be as good, or better, than new."
Conrad nodded. He'd been through this before. Familiarity didn't make it any more comfortable, nor did it remove the gnawing doubt and uncertainty.
Back in his holo matrix Zakharov watched Conrad blink out of existence.
Zak knew the two-way communication upgrade was much more than micro psi port. It had the capability of transmitting energy, all right, just more than he let on. Zak thought about his old friend. They had been through a lot together, and Conrad's energy was dauntless, even if he was exasperating and thoroughly insolent.
It is a pity I have to spend my Transcendi in such a way. They are so hard to come by. It is simply a means to his ends, preparation and a backup plan that will serve my needs. And, Zak rationalized, it will serve the needs of Humanity.
Zakharov then dismissed the unpleasant issue from his mind. He reformulated his datastream and recovered as much as he could, starting over from right before the interruption. Then he dove right in with abandon, forgetting the untidy Planet he lived in.
May 17, 2000, 20:42 #4
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- Winfield, IL, USA
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- Local Date
- July 27, 2016
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"So, why the University Base Chiron Preserve? There have to be over venues here that are more secure. Not that I mind of course," I stated as I rolled alongside Deirdre. The paths here are built to accommodate two humans out for a stroll, not a human and a wheeled somataform, and I was occasionally clipping an overhanging fungal stalk or wispy dangler.
Deirdre looked at me with her soft blue eyes. In my mind they always had a twinkle and vitality that I simply found appealing, and irresistible. Her raven hair was pulled back demurely into an informal bun, which was captured by a fetching if currently unfashionable planetpearl-studded hairnet. It spoke clearly of a basic elegance that transcended the trends. To me this is my Deirdre.
"You're asking the wrong question. You should ask 'Why not the Preserve?' As far as security goes, Zak is much less likely to be able to snoop on us at a Preserve than in one of his 'recommended' conference rooms. And Jeremiah has swept the area and pronounced it clean. Plus, would you rather sit in a stuffy room with synthleather chairs and simulated wood grain tables, or on that bench in a greenhouse?"
Deirdre pointed toward a low stone bench that was tucked away off the trail. It stood underneath a low fungal tree, whose fractal branches reached upward toward the twin suns of Alpha Centauri, the light from which was shining through the glasssteel of the Preserve roof. This species had what looked like horizontal fans that the splayed out from the main stalks, which were evidently its strategy to capture more light from the strong Chiron suns. Although its predominant color was a pinkish gray it was variegated with hues of blue in the shaded areas beneath its 'fans' and deep red where the densest concentration of photoreceptors were. Overall it looked like a slightly demented bookshelf. The arms of the fungal tree seemed to reach around the bench, as if to embrace it. Overall the setting was both aesthetically pleasing and inviting.
"Well, now that you mention it, this is much more relaxing. But I don't sit anymore," I responded with just a hint of wistfulness in my voice. "It is nice. Please, sit."
Deirdre nodded slightly and sat down. I edged my somataform as close to the bench as I dared, being careful not to disturb the fungal growths around us or to give the feeling that I was hemming in Deirdre. While my somataform is eminently practical it is sometimes awkward in more intimate settings, such as this. Deirdre noticed my discomfort but was polite enough not to say anything. She knew I had turned down the more advanced somataforms, or the option of being non-corporeal. The last was an increasingly popular option for transcendi, since you were unhindered by mere flesh and bone, or metal and ceramic. A non-corporeal transcendi truly transcended human limitations, and they existed in an ethereal realm of their own choosing. However, I have had lingering reservations and am unwilling to give up my physical form, which is the last tie that I have with my humanity. I don't want to become an 'other', or at least not yet.
As always, Deirdre is beautiful. The dappled sunlight plays across her face, which outwardly seems so calm and almost detached. But I can detect faint lines that were once the wrinkles of age and her many past worries, cares, and joys. They are remnants of pervious rejuvenations in the tanks, which do a wonderful job at removing physical infirmities and the accumulated damage of age, but there are always telltales to a practiced eye. Life here on Planet has never been easy with the predations by the likes of the Progenitors, who are a constant real or potential threat, or by our fellow humans, like Morgan. It was easy to know his motives: profit. It is just so hard to understand them. But Deirdre and Morgan reached an agreement long ago, after so many small-scale wars and 'incidents': Morgan leaves the Gaians alone and the Gaians don't squash him like a bug. That is something that Nwabudike can clearly put on his scales of profit and loss.
"So, do you have any special orders?" I ask, referring to the looming negotiations with the Progenitors, specifically with Conqueror Marr. I know Deirdre relishes these rare moments of near solitude, but I find the silence increasingly unnerving.
Deirdre turned and looked at me straight in the eyes. "First, I want you to archive a copy of yourself, in case…"
I reacted sharply. "Dee, I will Not. You know how I feel! We all take risks! You take risks every day. If I can't die when the throw of the dice doesn't go my way then I'm not human anymore. And besides, normal humans have consequences for their actions and I should too. I don't want to do that." I ended limply, with the forcefulness of my initial reaction spent.
Dee leaned forward, reached out, and touched one of my manipulators as if it were a real arm. "Yes, we all take risks. But this is too important. Please. Do it for me. I need you." She looked at me with warmth and understanding - that has always been Dee's gift, a natural empathy. It is why so many love her, and why others hate her just as vehemently.
When she asked I swear I felt something swell in my chest. Could it be that I still have real emotions, not algorithm-based simulations of that I think are emotions or real feelings? Based on my reaction when this beautiful woman touches me like that I would have to say that I think so. She knows how I feel; she has to know. How can I say no? Of course I can't say no. I never could, and I can't now.
"OK," I respond, simply and earnestly.
"Thank you, Ras," she says, and she rubs my synthmetal manipulator reassuringly. I can't feel it, but I remember how it feels. Tactile stimulation like that you never forget! When I was younger it was quite a bit more than a friendly caress, especially in the hard times just after landing. Ever since the earliest days Dee has known how to push my buttons, and I don't mind one bit. She knows that, too. How many people can say they have known someone that they love and trust absolutely? I can, and it is truly a wonderful thing.
"As for the negotiations, I know Zak will have his own agenda, and maybe even a couple of good ideas," Dee continued, smirking a little at her polite slam. "But keep an eye on Conrad. He's a good man and I wouldn't want anything to happen to him. Morgan is distracted by his preparations for war, and Aki is in her own unfathomable world. I'm a bit worried about Lal, but he'll pull through if the worry doesn't kill him. Nwabudike really threw him when he said he was going to use genetic warfare against the Progenitors. His Charter is precious to him and Lal reacted with silence, which, for him, may be a bad sign, since it might be a signal that another period of brooding is coming on. I'll be coordinating closely him since we see eye to eye on so many issues. If only I could really count on him - he vacillates so much that he can be a problem."
What an unusual thing to say about my old friend Conrad? I wonder if Dee knows something I don't? I thought as she summarized her take on the recently completed Planetary Council. Looking at Dee it was clear that was all that was going to be forthcoming on that line.
"As to Marr, here is our latest intelligence on him, and the Caretakers," she said as she pushed a finger to my chest. She is transferring a nano to me, which undoubtedly contained the encrypted holos and datastreams. Nanos are all very neat and proper, and they have long since made data crystals and other storage devices obsolete. They are as secure as any datastream can be, since they are uniquely designed for a task, the message can be actually part of their design, and since they are actually part of the host, so they can't be read or stolen unless the host is stolen or coerced. In effect, they are invisible and undetectable until transferred.
"The crux is this," Dee continued. "H'minee and Marr have almost stopped their low- to high-grade warfare against each other, and that is something that hasn't happened in over 150 years on Planet. The level of antipathy between the two Progenitors appears to be even more ideological than we humans can understand. Captured Progenitors use terms to describe their war like 'natural' and time periods like 'millennia'. Can you imagine being at war for thousands of years? I can't. That makes their apparent truce even more alarming. They are devoting resources toward a series of great construction projects, and they appear to be in competition with each other over these projects. Suddenly we humans have become irrelevant after almost centuries of warfare against us."
Dee paused and looked out of the glasssteel of the Chiron Preserve toward the pale blue sky. Was she looking for the right words? Pausing for effect? Or just being a contemplative? I'd have to wait.
I didn't have to wait long.
"We have to find out more about these construction project that are so important that it is distorting all we understand about the Progenitor factions," she stated with a slightly far off lilt to her voice. "It could be something glorious, or maybe something that humans just can't understand. We simply don't know, and it may help us understand their motivations."
Dee looked back toward me. "It also could be an opportunity to open friendly relations with at least one of the Progenitor factions! Just think what we could learn from a culture as ancient and rich as theirs! We could be their partners to the stars!"
She was honestly excited about this, that much is clear. I know her well enough to understand that she isn't some starry-eyed idealist. Dee is as hard-nosed as they come when she has to be, which she learned the hard way in dealing with the guile of Morgan and the erratic brilliance of Zakharov. She hadn't gotten to the position of the number two human faction by being blind and weak willed, that is for sure.
"They might even help us reclaim Earth," she continued hopefully.
Inwardly I smiled. Never fault Dee for not thinking big, and what could be bigger than resurrecting Earth from its ashes? That is a noble goal!
"This is our last chance. In their fear, Zak and Nwabudike are going to unleash their own brands of terror against the Progenitors. After that there will be no turning back, no quarter, and no reprieve. That is why you have to succeed!"
"Dee, if it comes to that will you join them in the slaughter?" I asked.
"Yes. Yes I will. We have agreed to be a united front, and we will be. If you and XXX fail then there will be no turning back. Our locust, isles, and worms are all standing by," Dee said somewhat sadly, thinking of the various mindworm vectors as her friends and not as tools, like Zak and Morgan did with their native life forms.
I simply nodded. I didn't want to know more since, if captured, I am sure I could be physically and mentally disemboweled. I have a few safeguards and escape plans but, if taken by surprise, it wouldn't do to give the potential enemy a talon up on us. They have more than enough advantage already.
"That's it, Ras. You have to get going, and so do I. Conqueror Marr awaits you!" Dee said with a strange finality. She got up, graceful as ever, and walked toward me. When standing she was just a tad shorter than I am at a little under two meters. The sun was behind her and her face was a little shadowed, silhouetted with her raven hair which sparkled as the sun hit each of the small planetpearls in her hairnet.
"Take care old friend. Come back safely," she said, smiling at me. Then she leaned forward and planted a kiss on my cold, metal carapace. All too soon she pulled away and walked toward the door. Jeremiah seemed to materialize out of nowhere to escort her to the mag tube, and then back to Gaia's Landing.
After she left I found myself standing alone in the blissful quiet of the Chiron Preserve. There were only a few faint rustlings in the fungal undergrowth as the smaller natives, all harmless relatives of the mindworms, played out their lives in the captive and revered fungus in this place. It is peaceful here, and I can see why Dee chose it.
"Goodbye, Dee," I vocalized softly to myself.
I remembered Dee's final kiss. God, what I wouldn't give to be human again!
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