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.