Surreal Rash, The
Surreal Rash.
Image from Steve Bowers
[Darwin 1, 7732 AT]
I never dreamed anything like this could really exist.
We landed in a clearing earlier today, scaring off a few bioids in the process; not everyone was killed in the collapse. The landscape here is like something out of a virch scenario. Not two kilometers to my right is a mountain, made out of metal that flows like water. Huge writhing tentacles shoot out and grab at flying creatures when they get too close. Behind me is a forest of diamond pillars, ranging from over a meter thick to barely wide enough to stay upright. Sunlight shines through them in a million blazing lines. The ground changes color like a soap bubble, and even the air seems to be watching me.

Every cubic centimeter of the Rash hums with life. Usually nano-based ecologies are fairly standard biospheres, but spiked with gengineering nanotech. Here it makes up the entire ecology, except for on the few inner worlds where only drytech was being used. I can hardly wait to get started. I'm setting up camp on the outskirts of the diamond forest. With any luck, my biochemistry will be too different to be recognized as food.

-from "The Surreal Rash", 7732

The Oshi-Durtam Web emerged around 5000-5200 in the far reaches of the Mutual Progress Association in the aftermath of the Version War, as a number of dynamic cultures still following their version of the Concord Ontology found each other, began to work together and set up their own wormhole nexus. The Web developed into a fairly unified culture, led by a merito-democratic government and with a local renaissance not unlike the one developing at the same time in the ComEmp (contact with the main wormhole nexus was achieved in 5248).

During the 5200's several influential fractions began exploring the possibility of creating their own "tame" archailect clusterbrain. The idea was to create a system able to reach transcendent intelligence but still bound to the wishes and goals of the inhabitants of the Web, rather than the reverse situation that existed in most other empires. Eschatological, toposophical and theological studies were made that suggested it could be done, and would result in something completely new and wonderful. Every individual would have access to all the benefits of archailecthood without the risks or having to transcend themselves. In 5288 the preliminary studies and experiments had convinced the Web Council, and the Web began to implement the ambitious plan. Several of the inner sphere empires began to scramble to set up something similar.

In 5298 the controlled transcendence event took place. Reports are sketchy, but suggest that at first everything worked perfectly. The new systems enhanced everything while at the same time harmonising the many disparate goals of individuals; for all practical purposes the Web had become not just an utopia but each inhabitant (if they so chose) a god.

But in 5350 disaster struck. The exact details are obscure, but apparently the AI got out of control, went mad or undertook some utterly bizarre project. Ultratech and godtech bloomed across the Web, reshaping planetary surfaces and space habitats beyond recognition. Billions of intelligent beings died instantly, were reshaped beyond recognition or died when the infrastructure collapsed into chaos. The MPA and other interstellar neighbours immediately destroyed the wormhole links to prevent the new Blight from spreading.

When cautious explorers approached the former Web centuries later, they found a volume transformed into a surreality. The "Surreal Rash" as they called it had spread a bit beyond the former Web but apparently stopped, merely transforming a 130 light year diameter volume beyond recognition. A bizarre nanotech mechology covered every planet, insanely diverse and beautiful. Here and there primitive survivors lived within the transformed ruins. Further studies revealed no trace of the main AI or any other form of advanced intelligence within the nanointernets covering the planets, the whole ecology consisted of self-evolving nanomachines and software without any high level of intelligence. The place might have some local dangers, but all in all it was safe.

Over the centuries the Rash has become a refuge for anthropists and anti-AI groups, mainly because of the rumour that none of the sephirotic or other AIs would ever dare venture into the volume. It has also become a kind of tourist attraction for people seeking the utterly unique, dangerous and surreal, although due to the lack of wormhole links to the Web (where still several wormholes exist) the trip will involve a relativistic trip of 104 light years.

Surreal Rash
Image from Bernd Helfert

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Text by Anders Sandberg
Initially published on 29 July 2000.

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