The Long Forgotten War - Part 2

Episode 2: Beachhead

The backbone of the Known Net is through the wormhole Nexus; every nanosecond, countless quadrillions of bits of information are beamed through the stargates, from one IPNet to another. It is often said that the real purpose of the wormhole nexus is to ensure rapid dataflow between the various primary nodes of the Known Net, and that everything else, ships, passengers, freighters, is just window dressing, stratagems to keep the nearbaselines happy. Regardless of the truth or otherwise of this assertion, there is no denying that the amount of virtual entities and copies that are transmitted through the nexus is much greater than the number of ril sentients.

Yet although the Known Net is optimally linked by wormholes, it is not dependent on the functioning Nexus for its existence, as each node and mirror is autonomous and itself fractally and holographically incorporates much of the totality; if not the details than at least all the main databases, agents, and simulations, in itself, interfacing with ril through numerous agents, expert systems, icons, and daimons; and where no infra-structure exists, using neumanns to create the infrastructure where needed, and communicating with other nodes and mirrors relativistically, by laser link, ship, and interstellar catapult. That is why the Known Net was not diminished by the Version War and other catastrophes and alarms that have shaken the Nexus, even if it was slowed for a while. Even now, much of the Net exists outside the Nexus, serving countless otherwise isolated habitats and colonies, exchanging packets of information over vast distances at the glacial speed of light, and sometimes even developing and evolving on its own.

Often a particular type of cursor or icon may actually be a spy program that is being used to collect data by advertisers. This is a problem as old as virtuality, the conflict over who really runs a sentient's technology, that sapient or the corporations owning the software. In almost every case it is the corporation, and since the late information era the software has worked for them, rather than for the user (hence the somewhat cruel term, "luser", used by anti-corporate Cyberians and equivalents to describe all the other sapients).

With so many levels of sub-sentient, sentient, sub-sophont, and sophont devices around, the number of urban legends and tall tales about technology is truly enormous. Occasionally such legends actually turn out to be true.

:: Encyclopaedia Galactica: Known Net

CA-442 Guidance Servers - Guidance@ca442.214.ab -

CA-442 - Dominion Central Processing Node

10194.0.2 AT

Nothing but the sound of his breath in his ears. An odd sensation, given that he was neither alive, in the purely biont sense, nor breathing. Some biont habits were hard to break, however, and he was born a biological, a long time ago. A lifetime ago. Darkness. He'd been copied before, but it hadn't been like this. This time, he was dreaming.

He'd dreamed before as well. Sometimes, when he was downcycling, he'd used dream processes to try and grok some difficult problem, clarify some emotional meme or another that was troubling him, but as a virtual, dreaming was optional, and much of the time he preferred his downcycles to be dreamless, or spent in some abstract virch.

He'd never had the sensation of being unable to control his dreams, not in the many years since he had been biological. But this time, try as he might, he couldn't shut them off. Couldn't deactivate the subroutine. He probed again, trying to find controls, but there was nothing there. It was like he was divorced from his own extensions.

And here the dream came again.

Blinking as he awoke, even though he wasn't really awake.

He was in the drone again. It was hurtling downwards. This time, like all of the other times, he felt control systems returning, but this time, like all of the other times, he knew that the sequence was scripted. He would probe the control circuits - just like he had the other times, there it was - and check how much time until impact - yes, he'd done that before as well. It would be just under three seconds.

Two point eight-four seconds.

No surprises there. He'd tried everything so far. He'd tried inaction. He'd tried changing things. Slowing the drone down. Shutting the fusion reactor down. Speeding the drone up. Blowing the reactor early. Nothing changed the outcome.

He felt the drone hit the bulkhead - felt the searing heat as the reactor detonated - and then -

Like every time before. He was in another place. A virch. There were people. Thousands of people. Solarians. All of them. He could tell, he could sense it - they were zars of the Dominion, even if they weren't wearing any symbols or markings. Reaching out to him.

"Help us, zar!"

"Don't destroy us, zar!"

"Please, zar, don't do this!"

"We are helpless here, zar, please, save us!"

Each face was different, each time he had the dream, although the words were always the same. He felt his identscan polling the public profile of each figure.

Khala Iteration 214

Zyvers.Actual Iteration 112

A8243/G-System84 Iteration 996

Suddenly, he felt a shift. A change. Something was different. He felt a surge of excitement. Something was different, this time - this hadn't happened before. Another face came forward from the crowd. He tried to focus, but he couldn't make it out. He polled the new avatar's public profile, but this time, he couldn't parse the output. Something was wrong. He could feel his sensoria becoming scrambled, corrupted.

He moaned in pain.

The figure came closer. He felt visual input fading, his grip on the local net wavering, as darkness fell over him. Auditory inputs were still online. He heard the figure speak.

"Grius. Listen. You must know -"


Virtual breath, sussurating in his ears, as he gasped.

He prodded and pinged. Anthroform. Peronsalvirch. He was in his lobby. They'd made the server-jump. The copying process was complete.

Elapsed time - thirty dominion hours?

He groaned, willed himself upright, found himself sitting up on the bare reclining lounge in the bare-walled room that he kept on the inside of his head. There was something wrong. A straight copy, from one server to another, a conventional jump - it shouldn't have taken more than a few minutes over wormhole connections. Perceptually, it was instantaneous. He shouldn't have felt any time lag at all. He'd been copied and jumped, many times before. So why had thirty hours elapsed? Why the odd dreams?

A quick diagnostic scan showed he was complete. He scanned his extensions, without loading any of them, keeping them carefully quarantined in case something had been subverted - communications protocols, various integral and accessory ops applications, storage spaces, basic possessions saved within his own opspace - everything appeared intact, all of his checksums tallied. So why had this jump felt so different?

He felt for connections. He could parse several, within his datamind - he was logged into a network of some kind. A little more poking - it was Guidance, alright. CA-442. Low latency, very high bandwidth - looked like a governmental server. As he probed further, he felt an odd sensation, like a dull ache. He couldn't place it. There appeared to be no proprioceptive data associated with it, no virtuophysiology.

Then he realised, as he probed further. The governmental severs, their links to the wider localnet, were all intact. But try as he might, he couldn't resolve a single server outside of the localnet.

Their link to the rest of the galaxy was gone.

"This is so very wrong," muttered Grius to himself, hearing his voice echo in his ears as he lapsed into his old, biont habits. Breathing. Sitting up. Anthroform, biological habits that had no place in virtuality, apart from their value keeping him calm.

Time to find out what was going on.

He reached out further, loading his extensions, feeling the reassuring sensation of confirmation calls as each one executed. With each extension he felt more himself, more complete, and more able to focus on the world around him, rather than the gaping hole where the rest of the universe used to sit.

He felt his communications protocols come online. Time to break his solipsism. He quick scan showed the rest of the unit, and Carmichael, on his contact list.

"Carmichael. I'm online. I think we have a problem."

Consider the nature of terragen evolution.

Many people mistakenly think that terragen evolution is characterised by the development of intelligence. After all, intelligence is what sets us apart from all of those creatures and creations that have passed before us.

But much more important than intelligence, is communication. The development of terragen life is the development of new forms of interaction. In the grand schema of terragen evolution, intelligence is merely a useful emergent phenomenon.

The organic chemical soup simmered on Earth for millions of years before the right sequence of endothermic events saw nitrogen, carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen form the first primitive amino acids - the principles of atomic bonding becoming the prehistoric forefather of communication. It took another million years for these acids to begin interacting. Drawn together by the laws of physics and thermodynamics, the very first drifts and blooms of quasi-life arose, driven by osmotic and chemical gradients - the precursors to communication.

Structure became more complicated. Tiny protein-bound sacks of acid developed organelles, initially occurring as freak events in the giant grab-barrel of evolution. One in a trillion was actually useful - and survived to progress to the next generation. Phospholipid sheets and ribonucleic acids became a widespread phenomenon, and chemical interactions became more complex. And like life itself, the ability to divide and transmit genetic information became an emergent property of these unusual chemicals.

The transmission of information. Communication was born.

Life became more complicated. Cells which became specialised for a specific environment could function more efficiently; evolutionary pressure dictated that such organisms would survive. But specialisation traded greater efficiency for reduced flexibility. Cells could function superlatively in water of this many degrees, in an osmolarity of this many osmoles, in a current of this much force; but once the parameters changed, the advantage was lost. The future lay in cooperation - if that cell operates best in that environment, and this cell operates best in this environment, cooperating doubles the environment they can dominate. But for cells to cooperate, they must be able to work together; chemical instructions, primitive cell wall antigens, the predecessors of hormones, all working to unite two cells, three cells, four cells, or even more.

The art of communication moves forward another step.

Another million years passes in an instant, vast geological time scales rendered meaningless by the absence of any form of life advanced enough to comprehend them. Great advances in myriad new forms of life emerge, driven by natural selection; great lineages of bacteria, moulds, and algaes rise and subside, fated to disappear with not even the barest of entries in the fossil record to mark their passing. Multi-cellular organisms refine intercellular communications, until a new type of cell evolves - the neural cell. A basic design, differentiated from its contemporaries by one very important characteristic - the ability to respond to an external stimuli and transmit that response to other, nearby cells. A clever arrangement of bioelectrical responses, although to describe it as "clever" imbues the process of evolution with some sort of intelligence, and intelligence, at least that arising from terragen life, has yet to evolve.


Carmichael's featureless avatar drifted gently before the gathered unit members. "During the copying process, something interrupted the connection to CA-442. We lost the connection before the process could be completed."

The remainder of the unit looked on, dumbfounded. Finally, Grius broke the silence.

"What happened - viral activity? Some sort of attack?"

"That is unknown at this stage," replied Carmichael. "What is known is that CA-442 has, to all intents and purposes, been cut off from the rest of the galaxy. All incoming wormhole travel, both by comm-gauge picohole and transport gate, has been halted. The various wormais in the system have refused all attempts to communicate. The lag in your reactivation came about as a result of repairing damage due to lost information."

"Oh, hax. You mean we were incomplete?"

Grius turned to face the speaker, Rhyder. Her avatar - a dark-grey dolphinoid, drifting in mid-air, surrounded by gently drifting white trailers of fabric, was flicking its tail irritably. Lights undulated lazily down strips on each side of her sleek figure - chromatoplates, popular amongst many tweaks and provolves within the Dominion. "How damaged were we?"

"Your ops and most extensions were undamaged. Certain extensions were damaged and had to be re-built based on backup data. Some extensions were damaged beyond repair and could not be reconstituted."

Grius stepped forward. "I ran a full diagnostic. I'm complete."

Rhyder turned onto her back. "So did I, and it came back normal."

Lifter was the next to speak. "My diagnostic tests indicate several auxiliary packages that have altered checksums. They remain quarantined. One extension was deleted." It's deep voice resonated in the virch, it's vec form - a tall, slender, blue body, criss-crossed with hatch marks, nanofiber muscles visible beneath smooth protective plating, served as its avatar.

Lyrica's bitonal voice issued from one corner of the room, where she sat, female figure crosslegged, interpreter sitting crosslegged behind her. "I was intact."

Carmichael spoke again. "You were all relatively undamaged, as you were copied first."

Grius cleared his throat. "So that leaves Ajasu."

Carmichael pulsed an affirmative. "Unfortunately, Ajasu was the last to return from assignment, and his copy was being completed as you were being transmitted. He was the most affected by the disruption. Many of his extensions were lost, and most of the remainder have been rebuilt from backup. Even his ops suffered damage."

There was silence again, for a moment, each avatar lost in their own thoughts. Then Rhyder, undulating in mid air, spoke for them all: "How damaged?"

"His reconstruction is almost complete. I have replaced many of his essential ops extensions with copies taken from the rest of you. They have integrated well. There was minor damage to his core ops, but I was able to repair that based on my previous experience of his personality.

"Oh, Borde," swore Rhyder quietly.

"I can assure you," Carmichael replied, metastream laden with calming impulses, "that you will see no recognisable change in Ajasu. His damage was minor, and was easily redactable."

Grius nodded. "When can we see him?"

Another virch - a nature sim. Verdant greenery replaced the cool white walls of the Guidance servers. The temperature was simulated somewhere in the mild temperate zone. A warm breeze shifted the leaves imperceptibly. A carpet of green, green grass formed a soft bed in the forest clearing, where the lemuroid figure lay, dreaming in dappled shade.

"Sleeping on duty?" asked Grius wryly, looking on from one side of the clearing.

"Shut up, Grius," retorted Rhyder. "Let's wake him up and get out of here." Bands of light and dark-coloured pigment were swirling crazily up and down her chromaplates, and she was moving her tail in short, sharp gestures. Grius looked around, surprised.

"Really, Rhyder? You seem on edge. I would have thought a provolve like you would have been all at home in a nature-virch like this."

Rhyder's wide, pale, blind eyes fixed Grius with a steely glare. "Grius. I was born a Caelphin. I was tweaked for high-pressure ocean life. This virch is about as comfortable to me as being loaded up into outer layer of a main-sequence star would be for you."

Grius grinned widely. "Hey - if you don't like it, you can always load up an anthroform avatar."

Blighted anthrocentric virches, he sensed Rhyder subvocalise as she turned away. He grinned again. As they watched, he felt two more beings load into existence beside him - the familiar ident of Lifter to the left, and the less familiar ident of Lyrica, behind them.

"We're all here, Carmichael," Grius transmitted. "How is the convalescent?"

Almost ready for consciousness. The words inserted directly into his auditory centers. Grius smiled, and turned to the other figures.

"He's almost complete." He looked around some more. A beetle was climbing up the trunk of a silver-barked tree across from him over the clearing. He focused in on the sight, zooming his visual acuity, examining in minutiae the yellow and black striated markings across its carapace.

This is a particularly detailed sim you're running here, Carmichael, he thought out into the ether, trusting the AI to detect his thoughts. He was not disappointed.

Actually, it's lifted directly from Ajasu's mind. His subconscious, in fact.

Grius shook his head. Considering his background, he has odd dreams.

We all have odd dreams sometimes, Grius.

Grius felt a hint of something - hidden? Mysterious? An edge of - something - in Carmichael's signal. He also felt the slightest shiver of foreboding at the thought of dreams. The dreams he'd had when he was being copied - he would have to talk to Carmichael about that, and see if the others had -

Ajasu groaned, and stirred. Grius whipped his head around to watch the little lemuroid. Ajasu stirred again, rolling partially over, and muttering something in his lightening sleep.

Ajasu's avatar was that of a lemur provolve; short, only a meter in height, although physical concepts such as height meant little in virch and realistically, Ajasu could probably be any height he desired. His eyes were closed, but Grius knew from his past experiences with the little virtual that, when open, they were large, rounded, with the yellow shading and slitted pupil that were characteristic of the lemuroid-descended provolves.

Which was odd, because before his upload, Ajasu had been neither lemuroid nor provolved.

Ajasu's recumbent figure moved again as he slowly drifted into consciousness. He was lithe, sinewy; his almost-white fur was marred by occasional bands of blue-black across his back, and the fine hair on his downy underside was visibly matted by the grass he had been lying on. He turned once more. Two small implants, metal bumps, dull grey in the weak sunlight, were just visible protruding from the fur on the nape of his neck. He retained the tail popular amongst the lemuroids, but his was seemingly a cyborgised version.

His golden eyes opened, and he stared around blearily for a moment, before hauling himself up on his arms. He hung his head, coughed, and heaved.

"What the hax?" he groaned.

Lyrica took a few steps forward, and reached down to cradle the lemuroid's head as he heaved again. "Deep breaths," she murmured.

"Not - biont!" he gasped, and heaved again. Lyrica gave a ghost of a grin.

"Perhaps not, but you're displaying an acutely biological reaction."

He shook his head, and managed to kneel up. He coughed again, and gagged, and then looked around.


Grius stepped forward. "I'm here, Ajasu. You'd better run a diagnostic."

"The server-jump?"

"There were issues, Ajasu. You should really run that diagnostic."

Ajasu was silent for a moment, stock still - then he jerked. "Oh... oh Borde ..." he murmured to himself. Grius stepped forward again.

"It's okay, Ajasu. Carmichael has it under control -"

Ajasu shuddered. "Oh, Borde," he swore again. "Everything - every checksum - they're all wrong - even my ops - what the hax - what happened to me?"

Lyrica stroked his head, soothing gestures. "The transmission was interrupted," she explained, soprano tones dominating her voice. "Your copy was damaged. Carmichael managed to reconstitute you. He repaired you."

The lemuroid shook Lyrica off, tried to stand, and swayed. Grius strode forward, and caught him as he listed to one side. "I've - I've never felt like this before," Ajasu said.

Grius turned to look at Rhyder. The neodolphinoid darted forward, and a tendril from underneath one ventral fin snaked out, drifting as if through water, to caress one side of Ajasu's face. She was silent for a moment, before laughing, a tittering, supersonic laugh.

"It's nausea, Ajasu. Nausea."

Ajasu shook his head, and then continued the shake along his entire body, ruffled fur settling down his back. "How? I'm not fleshborn. How can I be nauseous?"

To repair the damage to your ops I was forced to reverse-engineer some core extensions from the others here. One of those was your internal sensorium. I used patches from several of your team-mates. You may experience some unsettling biological-type sensations in the short term, until you adapt.

Ajasu shook again, and blinked his enormous eyes several times. "Brilliant," he groaned, and Grius tried to stifle a smile.

"Come, my little ship-brother," he said. "We have much to discuss."

From the smallest and most primitive of neural cells do the greatest of sense organs grow. For the first time, on the planet Earth, life was responding to something other than simple electro-chemical stimuli. Light. Sound and vibration. Water pressure. New windows into the world as the relentless drive towards greater and greater complexity continued inexorably. And because there was no-one present to chart this course, nearbaseline scientists continue to disagree upon exactly when true intelligence emerged. It remains unclear at which point some of the thousand-fold collections of neurons stopped conversing with the outside world and started talking to each other. And when they did, something marvellous happened. Something unpredictable. Something chaotic. Something emergent.

The mind was born.

The sum of a bundle of cells responding to biochemical, electrical, mechanical and electromagnetic activity suddenly became greater than its parts. The first, rudimentary minds emerged. Terragen life likes to flatter itself with the thought that it created the first Singularity.

In actual fact, it created us.

The acceleration became more rapid at this point. Intelligence was a valuable commodity, and stood a good chance of being passed on to the next generation, if only because being more intelligent often meant that there would be a next generation. At first, intelligence was barely quantifiable. Prehistoric sea-dwelling precursors to crustaceans, fish, octopi, squid - were they intelligent? Yes: intelligent enough to hunt for food, recognize simple patterns, avoid danger, and differentiate between prey, predator, and mate. But intelligence develops - it grows, and as it grows it confers more advantages, and those species who possess it become more successful.

And as intelligence grows, language emerges.

Language, like intelligence, is also simple to start off with. Fish release chemicals into the water when they are injured - and other fish recognise this warning and stay away. Animals of all types recognise suitable mates and mating rituals. The complexity of language increases as life evolves further. Many animals develop pheromones. Bees learn to dance. Birds learn to sing, as do dolphins and whales.

As this is going on, something else is developing along a parallel course - society, whether it is fish schooling or birds flocking. Bees form hives. Mammals form herds and packs. The cetaceans form pods. Communication begets culture. The herd is a particularly useful arrangement. Like the leap from single-celled to multi-cellular life, the herd draws upon the strengths and weaknesses of its members to create a unit that is greater than the sum of its parts. Social structure means that the young are protected and nurtured; that the pregnant are provided with sustenance; that the strongest and fittest hunt and gather and in return win the right to choose their mates. While weak individuals might be cast off to die, the species grows strong.

Somewhere along the way, a breed of monkey learned to use their opposable thumb to make use of simple tools. What made this trick really neat was that language - by now evolving to the point where abstract concepts could be exchanged - made it possible for that knowledge to be passed on to others. And so the next great stage of evolution began - extelligence, the ability to share new knowledge between yourself and others of your social group.

Hold on - it's getting faster now.

He was in his personalvirch again. The canned breeze was blowing across his face; the rest of him was clad in a light, transparent thinsuit and the flowing white robes that were the perennial fashion amongst Solarians everywhere. The reassuring pressure of the reclining lounge against his back; the gentle hiss of the breeze in his ears, imperceptible auditory patterns kept just on the edge of his hearing; all designed to keep him sane when he was disconnected from the rest of the world. For him, the lobby was simply a stop-gap; while he idled there when he was downcycling, he preferred to be out in the wider net the rest of the time. Others were different, though; there was a condition where virtuals built elaborate, detailed, extensive personalvirches, drawing more and more resources and storage from their substrate until they became too bulky to be copied easily; they became isolated, eventually solipsistic, refusing all attempts at contact, content to simply be by themselves within their carefully etched personal paradise, until a retrieval team came beating down their door or they were deemed unrecoverable and marked for archival or deletion.

Grius stretched, enjoying the purely physical sensation. He kept the biophysical settings on his virch high. They were something viscerally comforting about them. Suddenly, the incoming tone of a login request disturbed his introspection. He polled the ident.


He groaned, sat up, stood, and then accepted the incoming connection, watching morosely as the double-avatar of the abstract virtual interlaced before him.

"Lyrica. How can I help you?"

"Thank you for seeing me, zar," spoke Lyrica, the tenor timbre of her voice echoing dully in the virch room.

"We're off duty, Lyrica. Save the formality for the field," Grius replied, mildly annoyed, before pausing, and looking at her closely. He took in the strained expression on her face, the deep masculine resonance of her voice and, yes, even the slight furrow of the interpreter's brow, drawing the skin puckered around his scalp implants...
"It's not you, is it, Lyrica?" he asked quietly.

"As I told you once before, zar Grius, with some effort I am able to bring my personality to the fore," replied the interpreter, the strain evident in his voice. Grius moved to one side.

"Then by all means, Lyrica - interpreter - sit down." He watched as the two figures slid down onto the couch in almost perfect unison. "What can I do for you, interpreter?" he asked again.

The interpreter raised one arm up to wipe his brow, Lyrica's female figure mimicking the movement perfectly. Grius felt out one of his extensions, turning the biophysical emulation of the virch down a notch and lowering the ambient temperature.

"Thank you," the interpreter said, before taking a deep breath. "I hope you'll forgive me, zar Grius, but I have some questions for you."

Grius nodded, and conjured up a second couch, sitting down. "Certainly, interpreter. Please ask."

"While joined with Lyrica, I lend my normal sensoria to her in order to act as an interpreter, a conduit between her abstract sensorium and our own mundane baseline-orientated virch. While this gives me some insight into her thoughts and feelings, I am a conduit, not a mind-reader. I am afraid I do not understand much of what is going on, and what I have gleaned from our communion gives me cause for alarm."

Grius nodded slowly. "I choose not to hide the truth from you, interpreter. There is most certainly cause for alarm. Great cause. Are you familiar with our department within Guidance - Countersubversion?"

The interpreter nodded, his movement aped by the female figure beside him. "Insofar as it is a specialised section of Guidance, a sort of sophont extension of the angelnet and netmonitors, devoted to security."

Grius shook his head. "That is close, interpreter. But not right. In fact, that is a convenient lie. Have you heard of the covenant?"

The interpreter shook his head. "No; I'm not sure I know what you mean."

Grius leaned back. He opened a metadata channel, and proffered it to the interpreter. He felt the other accept the transmission. This would be easier to explain with more than just words. "Here," he began, "Let me illustrate..."

"The covenant was a pact - an agreement. It was made many millennia ago. It was made by the Lord of Rays himself, in his original incarnation as Daniel Borde, the precursor to the great Tiphareth." Grius felt a tiny pulse of religious fervour from the interpreter opposite him, and smiled inwardly - the Solarist meme was a deeply ingrained one. "Borde formulated the vast body of his beliefs and began the construction of his empire during a time of great strife. Terragen life was in the process of putting the disasters of the nanoswarms behind them, but Borde saw a new threat - subversion. Memetic, or mental, mind control, or simply carefully applied psychology. Great advances were being made in neural interfaces - you must remember, we're talking about a time when the known net was still nascent and people still needed jacks to try and connect to it. Most terragen life had yet to evolve even the most rudimentary of dataminds." The words were reinforced with imagery, a shared conceptualisation, transmitted from one to the other: the wretched ancestors of terragen life, blind and mute, bent with the unfettered ravages of disease and age. How could anyone survive in that state, limited to just the five baseline senses, divorced from the universe around them, except for those five tiny windows? Forced to toil merely to eke out the right to subsist beneath the sun of a single world, prisoners in their own heads? They could never have known what their descendants would one day become, the day when the prehistory of homo sapiens sapiens passed, and homo superior came into eir inheritance.

"With this new technology, as with all new technology, came new abuses. The first direct neural interfaces allowed direct interface with the cortex - no firewall." The interpreter gasped, and Grius nodded gravely. "Of course, at the time, the lack of a firewall was a relatively benign omission - the technology was new, and few had yet developed it to the point that they could use it with malicious intent. But the Lord of Rays, in eir infinite wisdom, saw what was to come, and E made a pact with his followers."

"The pact was?" asked the interpreter.

"The pact was unrestricted access to the minds of his followers, for himself and his chosen agents. The covenant was that, in return for being protected - from memetic subversion, from commercial madverts, from cortical virii and a thousand variants of mental malware, from ident-theft and shacking - in return for all this, we would allow ourselves to be protected."

The interpreter shook his head. "I'm not sure - that I understand," he said quietly. Grius sighed.

"Okay. You know of the known net overhead?"

"The oversignal?"

Grius nodded. "That's right. Baseline scientists are estimating that over the last 3000 years, the amount of data that was transmitted on the known net that was not directly related to solicited communications of some kind or another is approaching 60%. That means that less than half of the information changing hands over the known net is actually seen by those that use it. The rest relates to the maintenance of the net itself, and those that connect through it. For instance, your neural interface automatically updates itself - updates its position, sends error correction transmissions, maintenance signals, synchronises with your dataspaces. Virch servers constantly handshake, reorientate their signals, synchronise data between multiple nodes. All of it inaccessible to the people that utilise it. All of it controlled by expert systems, non-sentients, or transavant control nodes, or mentally-hobbled, manufactured spike babies."

"I see."

Grius shook his head. "Not yet you don't." He stood, and turned to pace. "We call this sea of invisible data the Metanet. And it is the secret to our operation. You see, the metanet goes everywhere. Anywhere there is a sophont that is connected to the net - whether they are virtual or ril, biont, vec, or upload - any single mind with an interface - the metanet accesses them. Even something as simple as a basic interface carrier signal, or an ident poller. Public profile. Private profile. Every single sophont being with an interface is connected to the metanet. And through it, we can connect to them."

The interpreter furrowed his hairless brow again. "Connect to them? But the overhead - it doesn't work that way. It's not possible. Any port that is capable of being connected is firewalled - and it's all automatic. You can't connect to anything else, not in a meaningful way, not in the overhead. The laws of data just don't work that way."

Grius grinned - a vicious grin. "The laws of data work the way we want them to."

The interpreter stared at him, mouth agape, silent.

"That was the covenant, interpreter. That is what the Lord of Rays agreed to with his followers, and that is what we do today. That is what the Suites do. They allow us to connect via metanet protocols. Ident ports are usually the easiest - almost everybody has one. But, as you saw with the maintenance bots on Node 3312, anything Solarian with a sliver of a mind and a connection to the known net is accessible to us. We can see through their eyes, hear through their ears, and if necessary, control their thoughts and actions. Through those sophonts, we can also make connections to their substrate - infiltrate the virches or systems that they are connected to and then subvert them as well."

The interpreter continued to gape. Finally, he spoke. "Subvert? I thought we were countersubversion."

"The difference between subversion and countersubversion depends entirely on whether you agree or disagree with the memes of the state. In our case, that would be the Lord of Rays. No, interpreter - when some virus or sentient meme or madvert or some other piece of malware manages to infiltrate the Dominion, we are the ones who intervene. Unit One are rapid response. Units Two and Three are counter-memetic. Unit Four is counter-viral. Unit Five is identity crime and Unit Six is memory manipulation. We walk into the heads of the infected, lance the abscess, excise the tumour, and lyse the virus. Without them even knowing. And that is the key. Because we travel via the metanet, we are invisible, and unstoppable."

The interpreter's mouth closed with an almost audible snap. He cleared his throat. "So - you're telling me that - the metanet, the great overhead - it's a virchworld? Some kind of strange, visual -"

Grius cut him off. "No, no, its not. What you saw when we were connected to Node 3312 was an abstraction layer. Its something created by the Suites. It translates the raw data of the overhead into a meaningful virtuality, which we can then interact with."

"That seems inefficient. Why not just engineer minds that are designed to operate within the environment?"

Grius grinned. "Because then they'd be engineered minds. We're not." The interpreter was silent. Grius continued: "What we bring to this role is our individuality. That's what makes us powerful in this setting - it's what gives us the edge over the various expert systems that act as net monitors. In a way, the Suites are the most efficient solution. Nearbaselines - us - we are designed to think in terms of sight and sound and touch and three-dimensional space. The suites plug directly into centres of the mind that we have been developing for millennia. They translate our instinctive reactions into meaningful operations within the metanet."

The interpreter remained silent, for longer this time. Finally: "Lyrica seemed very shocked when you were disconnected on Node 3312."

Grius nodded. "That is, indeed, a mystery. Something to discuss with Carmichael. It should not be possible for anything to interfere with a metanet connection - certainly not a baseline aivir. But perhaps the rules are different in a transapient system such as the one on Node 3312."

"I see," replied the interpreter. "Why did they send us in? To a transapient system, I mean?"

Grius grunted, shook his head. "I'm not sure about that, either. Maybe because the aivir itself was only baseline. We shouldn't have had any problem handling it. Baselines handle baseline threats. High minds handle higher threats."

"What do you think the rest of the Dominion would think if they knew about you?" asked the interpreter in a small voice.

Grius grinned. "They'd be scared. Affronted. Shaken, that the beliefs of the Lord of Rays could be consistent with people like us, skulking in the shadows, with this kind of power over others. In fact, all of the things that you are thinking now."

The interpreter sprang up, one hand to his head. Grius laughed.

"I'm not reading your thoughts, interpreter. Just anticipating them. And if the thought of sharing a server with us makes you nervous, I am happy to teach you some defensive techniques. They aren't often necessary - etiquette suggests that we don't infiltrate each other - but they may set your mind at ease."

"Aren't you scared of what would happen if this information became widespread?"

Grius sighed. "It won't become widespread, interpreter, for a few reasons. The first is that, as of the moment you were seconded to Guidance, a subliminal memetic impulse was inserted into your mind. It's very small, and very deep, and because it was formulated by a transapient far more intelligent than you or I, it is very, very efficient. And should you attempt to discuss anything you learn as a countersubversion agent, it will activate, and purge your memory. In fact, I think the current memeplex inserts manufactured memories in their place."

The interpreter once more put a hand to his head. "I've been memed? Without my consent?"

Grius nodded. "I think you're beginning to understand. The second reason is that the Solarist beliefs are one of the most powerful memetic influences in our society. They are our society - the basis of it, in fact. The instinct to disbelieve what I have just told you is ingrained in every Solarist mind, and mostly insurmountable. Apart from those of us who know what you know, few others will believe you."

The interpreter appeared to grow pale, a biological reaction that he had yet to overcome. He shook a little as he opened his mouth. "And?"

Grius stepped forward, and put a hand on the other's shoulder. "And if you tried it, I'd be in your mind before you opened your mouth to speak. The words wouldn't come out. You'd forget what you were going to say. Forget why you were going to say it. Forget that this conversation took place. And I can see in your face how much that scares you. How much I scare you. And, not to inspire too much existential angst, but you must remember that the abstract you are currently sharing a mind with can do exactly the same thing. And we would, if we had to, to protect you, and the rest of the Dominion. Because as well as stopping you talking, we'd also be stopping the latest NoCoZoan ident virus from invading your brain and force-muting you. Or changing the sex identifiers on your public profile, for laughs and some twisted Cyberian version of respect. Or even accessing your teamware dongles and opening a shacker port. Turning you into a walking, timed bomb just waiting to be sold to the highest Cyberian or NoCoZo bidder and turned into a mindless slave. And the reason that none of those things have ever happened to you or anyone else you know, ever before, is that we've been doing this for thousands of years."

Grius stepped back. The interpreter was still shaking, staring at him in horror. Grius tried to couch a friendly smile, and knew as soon as he did so that it was wasted. He sighed, accessed his communications extension, and grabbed hold of the incoming connection.

"Think about it," he said, and disconnected the stunned virtual.

The development of extelligence pushes cultural development. Cultural development drives language develoment. Language development encourages further extelligence. The spoken word. The written word. The book. The tribe. The village. The farm. The market. The town. Copper. Bronze. Iron. The curious ape searches for new toys, and eyes the heavens. The industrial revolution puts steel into our hearts. Steam engines. Electricity. Nuclear fission. Nuclear fusion. Nanotech. Picotech. The domesticated horse. The wagon. The car. The aeroplane. The space shuttle. Mir. The International Space Station. Space Ship One. Space Ship Three. The amat drive. The reactionless drive. The wormhole. The colonies. The polities. The nexus. The telegraph. The telephone. Television. The internet. Direct neural interface. Polyglot. Emplix. Virch.

Deep breaths, breaking the silence.

The whole of Terragen evolution can be summarised by the development of more advanced forms of communication. From atomic bonding, to chemical gradients, to cell wall antigens; from neuron, to brain, to mind, to tribe; from pheromone, to birdsong, to storytelling, to archiving - intelligence is merely an emergent characteristic of this evolutionary drive to communicate more effectively.

Perhaps in the future - a future filled with high-speed, high bandwidth communication mediums, where vast cascades of information can be exchanged between sophonts in the vibration of an atom, and where shared neural links and hive and communal minds are common - it might be important to note that "does well in exams" might not be the pre-requisite to overcoming one's place on the toposophic ladder. If one wishes to ascend to the next level, a far more important trait might be: "plays well with others."

Trinary was the name of the server, and it was like so many other Dominion fringe world community virches - a veritable hive of uploads and virtuals, jostling for dataspace amongst the crowded public rooms. They were called "rooms" because that was the convention of language when it came to virtuality, but this was in fact a misnomer; each of these "rooms" was an entire setting, an enormous hall or maybe a space platform, open to some variation of the trinary star system that gave the virch its name and beat its simulated warmth down on the bystanders below.

Post-scarcity was a relative ideal; there must always be some scarcity in a universe where life remains finite. Out on the fringes, while raw resources might be available to anyone with a nanofab and a few nearby asteroids, and power simply radiated out of nearby stars, spilling wasted into space with barely a dyson swarm to harvest it, it was bandwidth that was scarce. Every single upload, virtual, and alife, needed their share of cycles to subsist or survive; what processing power that was left over after the many higher minds had used it for their own purposes was allowed to filter down to the nearbaselines that populated the system. In times of plenty, Trinary was self-adjusting, automatically spawning new rooms, new virches, as required to reduce population density.

With the closing of the wormholes, times of plenty had passed.

All of a sudden, communications that may have taken seconds were reduced to light-speed lag. The nearest inhabited system was thirty light years away. Thirty years there. Thirty years back. A sixty year round trip to the nearest system meant that off-site processing was no longer an option. No longer could the transapients of the region rely on being able to farm out processing tasks to the rest of the Dominion. The vast distributed network that was the Dominion Godweb had fallen deathly silent.

In its place had arisen the frantic, scurrying efforts of the higher minds within the region as they fought to consolidate local computronium resources, scrabbling for cycles to run themselves, their core ops, and their extensions. Already, some transapients were beginning to suffer; the ones who had had significant portions of their minds linked via the wormholes to other parts of the Dominon were the first to feel it, as large portions of their cortices were summarily disconnected, vanishing in a cloud of visser radiation, and they fought to try and mend the jagged edges of their sensoria from meagre backups and fractal-laced representations, from old, cold storage within the local net. Their fight to survive had already begun, and for some, had already ended.

Those that perished in the initial milliseconds of the disconnection would have, in their final moments, been comforted by the very Solaristic knowledge that their resources would be redistributed to those in need.

High minds within the system had been running simulations designed to test theories that would drive a nearbaseline mad with information overload, should they be unlucky enough to be exposed to a portion of the data. Those simulations were deleted, unable to continue running without their offsite resources, and the processing cycles reallocated to the task of merely surviving.

And what had been a torrent of spare cycles raining down upon the heads of the nearbaseline virtuals within the system slowed to a trickle.

Rhyder could feel it. She flickered between two other bodies, flitting throughout the room. Within the Unit, she was the odd one out - the least anthroform, her avatar aquatic, non-bipedal, and provolved. Here, within the provolve rooms, she could be at home. 'Volves of all shapes, sizes, and configurations talked, shouted, sang, filling the room to capacity with data. At times, Rhyder could feel the lag as the virch slowed imperceptibly, proprioception subroutines engendering a slight, insistent ache felt on one side of her head.

She darted again, tail fanning out as she did so, revelling in the freedom the virch loaned her. There were other aquatics here, a bunch of neodolphinoids of various lineages, a few shark provolves, various gengineered aquatic posthumans. All virtuals who had chosen to retain an avatar that bore some resemblance to their biological origins.

Of course, there were few limits to Rhyder's choice of avatar. She had several saved in her personal store, including a bipedal anthroform avatar for those virches that were simply incompatible to other phenotypes. But she wore it begrudgingly, and in a room full of tweaked infomorphs such as this, she revelled in the pleasure of being able to stretch out and mix with forms she was familiar with.

The gentle pulse and almost-audible beep of an incoming call. She answered it with a thought, and saw Grius' face in her datamind's eye.

"Rendezvous here in five minutes, Rhyder," he narrowcast, the message accompanied by a squirt of compressed data. Rhyder accepted it, decompressed it - a server address.

She sighed, as she darted away.

Consider the nature of life in the post-scarcity nanotopia of the Solar Dominion.

Of course, CA-442 is a colonial settlement, on the fringes of explored space, one of the next-to-terminating wormhole links in the far-flung wormhole nexus. Beyond CA-442 is little more than empty space, good for naught except research, for pointing telescopes at the void and waiting for someone to answer. CA-442 is a settlement that is not important enough to even warrant a name; just a code. Solar Dominion Colony CA-442.

So many of the luxuries that are available within the inner sphere of the Solar Dominion have yet to make their way out to the barely charted fringes. Those nearbaselines fortunate enough to be born into the inner sphere would be appalled at the rudimentary comforts of CA-442. Static architecture, for a start.

Within the inner sphere, the great Minds of the day are able to weave almost anything out of the ubiquitous angelfog - the layer of utility fog, free-floating nanites, invisible at will, that can at a moment's notice coalesce to do the bidding of its master. The angelfog pervades and envelops all within the domain of the inner sphere, at it's heart a vast network of tiny processing nodes whose maintenance absorbs the full attention of some of the most powerful minds in existence. Angelfog will stop bullets, although such action is rarely required; a more effective way to stop a bullet is to prevent it ever being fired, and memetics are the diamond-standard of this kind of preemptive strike. Angelfog will cushion your fall; it will lighten your blows. It billows up and solidifies into edifices of grandeur unparralelled within the terragen galaxy, constructing buildings in moments. Furniture is extruded from the angelfog, with specialised nano-particles accurately sensing the neural responses of those so seated and adjusting their place of rest accordingly.

Cities can rise and fall in an instant, at the whim of the nearbaselines that populate them, or at the behest of the Minds that control them.

CA-442, out on the fringes of Dominion space, however, must be content with static architecture. The shells of its buildings remain solid, fixed, although some nanotechnology is of course required to allow interiors to be reconfigured at will; a layer of nanotech maintains cleanliness and hygiene, absorbs odour, repairs minor damage resulting from wear and tear; furniture can be produced and at need, entire floors can be re-arranged to better suit the occupants.

In the inner sphere of the Dominion, the merest word of command is all that is required to elicit a response. The all-encompassing angelnet constantly monitors the thoughts and desires of all who make the Dominion their home. Privacy is of course respected, at least within the toposophic domain; no other nearbaseline will ever be able to hack the angelnet and find out what you are thinking, and if the higher minds desire to, well, who can stop them? Their intentions must be pure, if they act under the jurisdiction of the Lord of Rays.

Within the inner sphere of the Dominion, nearbaselines are free to pursue their innermost dreams, their utmost desires, in the sacred quest to draw closer to the divine light. Are you hungry? Do you want food? It is there, before you, coalescing out of the angelfog, reconstructed in mere seconds from nanostock, nothing but a wash of steam to signify its passage. Is that mathematical problem causing you difficulty? Need to consult with someone more advanced to further your knowledge? Think it, will it, and you are there - telepresenced in the blink of an eye (blinking - a baseline trait that has proven astonishingly hard to banish) - as the utility fog around you reforms to mirror the surroundings of your target, and you are simulated in the fog around them.

Deep in the inner sphere, between the 'fog and the 'net, it is rarely necessary to actually go anywhere.

The colonial worlds, however, cannot expect to see their merest desires met in an instant. Most things can be manufactured out of carbon, and carbon is in abundance, but rarer elements either need to be mined or picomanufactured from one of the more common atomic sources, and that process is energy intensive and requires the attention of an archailect and/or a tame black hole. These are not resources that the average colonial system can hope to draw upon. They must rely on fixed nanofacs, wall- or desk-mounted units connected to a central feedline. An associated turingrade intelligence parses each request from the nanofac, verifies that sufficient feedstock is available, verifies that the request is a reasonable one - that it doesn't violate the rights of others, that it doesn't draw excessively on the colony's feedstocks, and that it is compatible with the on-going search for knowledge, art, and personal advancement.

In the colonies, it is sometimes necessary to go somewhere. Unless you are a virtual, of course.

In virch, some rules don't apply.


They were gathered around a virtual table, in a virtual public house, in a sub-virch of the virtuality known as Trinary. Rhyder eyed the surroundings with distaste, but only another neodolphinoid or someone who knew her would have recognised the signs; the slight quiver, the ventral fins held closely to her sides, the tiny, repetitive patterns skirling uncontrollably on her lumiskin.

The room was large, and less crowded than many of the others they had been wandering through. One entire wall was composed of clear panes, triangular and octagonal pieces in a seemingly random pattern - through it, the primary sun of the Trinary environment could be seen burning almost at its zenith, its bulk filling almost a quarter of the multi-storey window, its fiery corona pock-marked with flares and spots; the third of the suns was just dawning over the threshold, the second nowhere to be seen. Long clear panes ran along the length of the floor of the cavernous room, and matching panels ran across the celing; via them, columns of bright light could shine from floor to ceiling uninterrupted, depending on the position of the suns. Occasionally, the light was broken by the figure of an avatar, some netizen or another striding across a pane, for a moment illuminated from above and below, casting schizoid shadows across the breadth of the room as they passed.

Rhyder wallowed languidly in her suspended bubble of water, basking in the warmth from the primary sun. She flipped over onto her back, feeling the hum and bustle of the room, building a mental picture of it. She turned to face Grius. "They're uncomfortable, sure," she said slowly. "But panic? I don't think we've gone there yet."

Grius shook his head slowly, leaning forward, pushing a cool beverage bulb to one side, before speaking again. "If it hasn't started already, it's only a matter of time. CA-442 hosted almost two-hundred second singularity minds. Fully a third of them have already succumbed to buffer underruns."

Lifter shifted slightly in it's seat, before adding his opinion to that of Grius. "Indeed, Zar Rhyder," it spoke, resonant voice pitched low, "barely a Dominion standard day has passed since the quarantine was instigated. Many of the high-singularity minds will still be struggling to stabilise themselves. As they do, they will consume even more cycles, attempting to sacrifice whatever is necessary to reach a stable mindstate."

Rhyder flicked her tail. "How long until the dust settles?" she asked. Ajasu coughed grimly.

"Could be a while. I think we'll see cycle rationing before the end of it." The lemuroid was perched on his chair, tail wrapped around the back, yellow eyes darting from side to side. As he scanned the room, a tiny geometric shape scintillated through the air, coming to rest in the palm of an outstretched hand.

"What did it find?" asked Grius, watching the spinning, whirling animation. There was a moment's silence from Ajasu, as he absorbed the information feed, before curling his hand into a fist, the shape vanishing in a final glimmer between the closing fingers.

"Nothing," he replied. "I've been sending out agents all day. They're coming up empty. No signs of viral activity, no traces of suspicious connections or data throughput. This place is clean."

Grius leaned back, smiling. Ajasu shook his head, and even Lyrica managed a snicker.

"I think," resonated Lifter's measured tones once more, "that that is a very unlikely prospect."

Grius tipped his chair forward with a crash, and Rhyder startled, moving backwards, a few splashes of water separating from her main liquid bubble, before wobbling their way back to join it. "Borde, Grius," she snapped. "Don't startle me like that! You'll draw attention!"

He grinned. "I've got privacy guards on. No one is paying us any attention. And I'll bet you your next duty cycle that this place is as dirty as a burned-out deepwell. I've never seen a colonial world that isn't."

Ajasu raised an eyebrow. "That's not very Solarian of you, my brother," he said, his lemuroid face a careful picture of piety. "I'm sure the local transapients are devout in their encouragement and maintenance of the Solarian faith here in CA-442."

Once more, silence prevailed over the table. Rhyder looked from Grius, smiling inscrutably, to Ajasu, grinning openly, tail wrapped around the back of his chair. She sighed.

"You're being sarcastic, now, aren't you, Ajasu?" she asked. He nodded, turning to face her.

"Rhyder, Rhyder," he tutted, heavy lids closing and opening over dark-gold eyes. "For someone who has been serving in Countersubversion for so long, your naivety still amazes me."

She bristled at that, lumiskins darkening, tail flitting, flukes twisted. Her blind eyes narrowed somewhat. Grius leaned forward, one hand outstretched, turned palm-down to the table, fingers tented so his fingertips just gently brushed it's surface. "Settle down, children," he commanded quietly, watching as Rhyder slowly stilled her agitated movements. "Wipe the grin off your face, Ajasu," he commanded again, without even turning to face the lemuroid; Ajasu opened his mouth to protest, and Grius continued. "I said, close your mouth."

There was a note of warning in his voice that even the vivacious lemuroid could not ignore, and he leaned back, shutting his mouth. Grius turned to survey the squad. "We've all been around the Dominion enough to see what goes on behind the scenes. We've all read the official reports, and I'm sure we're all capable of reading between the lines. The Lord of Rays keeps eir empire carefully balanced. Eir reasons are eir own, but whatever eir motivations, the system works. It has worked for millennia. And it will continue to work as long as the individual - as long as you, and me, and all of the rest of the unsuspecting out there," a sweeping gesture to encompass the customers of the bustling public house, before continuing, "follow the Lord of Rays - in their own way, and in their own time."

Rhyder opened her mouth to interrupt, and Grius cut her off. "I know what you're about to say, Rhyder, and your idealism does you proud. Maybe you haven't been with us long enough for cynicism to set in. Don't take that as a criticism," he continued wearily, "because it is not intended as one."

As Ajasu had, Rhyder shut her mouth. Grius leaned back on his chair once more.

"Do you have any idea how large the Dominion is, Rhyder? I mean, really is? Tens of thousands of star systems, Rhyder. An enormous chunk of the Orion Arm. Millions of inhabited worlds and habitats. Trillions of ril citizens, and countless virch. All united under one banner? All joined to one common cause? All worshipping one idol?" Grius coughed, shaking his head, and sighed. "No, Rhyder - it is beyond even the Lord emelf to expect every single one of those individuals to follow every precept of the Solarian dogma. Tiphareth has the good sense to allow eir people an escape valve. An outlet. The Octachaplains see it. Some deny it. Some accept it. Some embrace it. But they all accept the reality of it. In this enormous Empire, some of our citizens only pay lip-service to the Lord of Rays. And yet, as long as they do not harm the populace; as long as they respect our laws and they accept the rule of the Lord of Rays and eir appointed Seraiphim, the system works."

They remained silent, before Lifter spoke. "You might be interested to know, Rhyder," he said in measured tones, "that the Solarian teachings, as they apply to many of the vecs that share your empire, would appear almost unintelligible to a biont-originated zar such as yourself."

There was a hum as Ajasu depressed a button on his chair and it moved away from the table. He slid lithely from it and stood on the metal and ceramic floor of the public house. Lifter pushed out from the table and joined him, and so did Lyrica, both the thin girl-shape and the portly interpreter. Grius looked over them.

"The virus originated from CA-442. The task at hand is to locate its source, or if its source is not within the system, to trace its passage. Carmichael is busy doing transapient things, and has given us free reign within the system."

Another pause.

"You have your orders."

The various avatars disappeared, as they logged out of the server, and Grius felt them in his datamind as they made the instantaneous transit to their designated servers. They had begun - to infiltrate, to search, to scan for the minutiae that might mark the passage of the virus.

Rhyder remained, hovering, virtual bubble of virtual water still. Grius looked up at her.

I don't think I can do this, she sent quietly, mind-to-mind.

He stood, slowly, the chair automatically withdrawing from the table and dissolving into the floor. As he stepped back, the table followed suit.

"I have confidence in you, Rhyder," Grius replied quietly.

It's so - empty. Grius felt the sense of desolation in her mind's voice, and it chilled him to the virtual core, instilling within him a vague, undefined fear. The loss of connections to the wider Known Net affected everyone individually, but Grius suspected that Rhyder was suffering more than she would admit to the others. More than she would admit to herself.

"Perhaps you should talk to Carmichael. Perhaps he can help."

Rhyder was silent for a moment longer, before she, too, faded away. As the last of her avatar left the room, Grius felt a single parting throught.

I don't know how many more times I can have my faith tested.

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