Chaos, The
Image from Bernd Helfert

The Terragen Sphere has been relatively stable for millennia, regardless of wars and political crises. The Archai have maintained civilisation on a large scale in the Sephirotic regions, protecting their charges from the worst threats and playing their own political games. But this era might be coming to an end. It has been suggested that Something is rising against the order of the archailects, something chaotic and yet unnamed. Regardless of the outcome of the emerging crisis the Orion Arm will not be the same again.

Ever since the advent of computer networks there have been viruses, worms, feral packets, spamais, infovores, Flying Dutchmen and other replicating software. Sometimes they are deliberately created, sometimes they occur just by accident (given the reliance many cultures have on software agents and how unstable ancient code is, this is far more common than most people expect). The demands of survival weed out the unfit, promoting stealthy replicators that can evade the screening programs. While most are trivial algorithms there exist intelligent and semi-intelligent programs, and there are even cases of colonial intelligences in the nets.

This state has persisted for millennia, keeping computational immunologists busy but otherwise seldom impacting ordinary life noticeably (with some dramatic exceptions such as the Geteche Incident, the viral attacks during the Version War or the software implosion of Bagerit Jhe 6823 during the Second Vec War). While the replicators have vast networks to evolve in, the defenders have immense resources, clear goals, and intelligent planning to counter their behavior. Despite some ancient Information Age misgivings, as a rule intelligence can overcome brute evolution as long as it constantly stays ahead and learns the rules.

Now something has changed. The first signs that the network replicators were on the rise occurred centuries ago: a slight trend towards increased diversity and frequency of software outbreaks that few took any note of. As time went on, the replicators began to evolve at an ever fiercer rate, circumventing and subverting systems across known space. While still far from noticeable to the vast majority of beings, the change is deeply worrying to the central AIs. The worry is slowly percolating downwards into the governing hierarchies across inhabited space.

Some outbreaks have spilled over into the material world. On Fata Morgana the number of virtual-ril anomalies has increased significantly, although few take any notice. In 10486 and 10494 some assembler swarms began spontaneously encoding parts of sensitive databases on Ken Ferjik into artificial dust mites, apparently due to an epidemic of malfunctioning search agents. On Mykerinos subliminal control messages apparently without any sender were transmitted to vecs and cyborgs, causing a wave of apparent insanity, instability and the loss of over 53,000 people. In 10159 a wormhole maintenance AI at Jokolainen Nexus apparently dissolved in AI viruses (this was at the time interpreted as sabotage) and destroyed several auxiliary wormholes. The perhaps most dramatic event (if still unconfirmed) was the takeover of the Pup nebula by the "dragons". The Pup Nebula cluster was apparently subverted by a high toposophic PanVirt ISO cluster which set about "enlightening" the inhabitants. Analysis of the transmissions suggest that the dragons are actually virtual entities that have emerged into physical reality, taking on forms and ideas from various ancient myths and hallucinations. It might also be related to the Erasure of the Tanaka Cluster in 9545 and the migration of the Mother of the Machines.

What is apparently happening is not just that the virtual evolution is speeding up, but that it is interfering with physical reality to an unprecedented degree. Should the trend continue, the enormous and fragile societies of the civilised worlds would be in jeopardy since even intermittent outbreaks can be devastating. If all protections fail then advanced information societies might become impossible, leading to a new dark age with no end in sight or that all of Terragen space ends up as the Surreal Rash.

The invading Chaos is at least partially based on the collective digital unconscious, and apparently tends to combine deep sophont motivations and archetypes with utterly alien motives. The result is a bizarre combination of myth and reality becoming real and attempting to impose its will.

The reason for the rise of Chaos is as yet unknown, but the high level AIs are looking for 'keys', software patterns that enable this hyperevolution. The theory is that these keys are evolutionary tricks that allow virtual evolution to outwit defenses and grow to new levels of complexity. In a way, they represent perhaps a crossing of a singularity barrier of evolution, giving it new power far beyond that which it previously had, just as the more well-understood mental singularities represent qualitative expansions of mental ability. It could be that these keys could be applied to all forms of evolution, creating wholly new types of evolution itself.

The origin of the keys is unknown. While it is possible that they evolved or were discovered by some being, a more likely and worrying theory is that they were discovered from an alien source (maybe linked to the Wild Duck Transmissions or Carina wormholes). It could be a weapon, a dangerous remnant (a bit like the tool theory of the Amalgamation) or just a piece of information that once it emerged has been replicated by countless civilisations, a civilization parasitising meme. Once the 'keys' become available by the discovery and upload of something from an old civilisation, the netbased evolution begins to really boil, throwing out many odd entities that begin to claw their ways towards the light, carrying the keys with them.

A tentative theory suggested by some Keterist AIs is that the keys are the real reason no alien civilisations have permanently dominated the galaxy — sooner or later they stumble on the keys and are forced back to a pre-Information Age level where they eventually die out.

The different imperial AIs take different views on the threat. The Negentropy Alliance see the Chaos as an enemy, this is a central battle that has to be won - Chaos cannot be allowed to triumph over Order, and once Order has prevailed there is nothing to stop it from finally enlightening the universe. The Solar Dominion, Caretaker Gods and Metasoft Version Tree share the general view that the Chaos is not just dangerous but also immoral and do what they can to bring things under control — also realising that if an era of enormous changes is unexpectedly arriving they both have a chance of extending their power and a need to guard against many new enemies. The Cyberian Network, the NoCoZo, and to some extent the Utopia Sphere might be worried about the practical effects of the Chaos (there is no profit in the destruction of civilisation), but do not see it as imperative to stop chaos itself.

Several major AIs and empires like the Mutual Progress Association, Sophic League, and Communion are trying to find ways of harnessing the Chaos for their own purposes, including possibly the Perseus Princes that might want to use it against the Amalgamation. Keter is regarding this as another step towards the awakening of the universe. The different views and goals may be just as devastating as the Chaos itself when the fate of the Terragens hangs in the balance.

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Development Notes
Text by Anders Sandberg
Initially published on 14 October 2000.

Fiction featuring the Chaos

Under the Looking Glass