Vagabond - Part 1
Image from Scott Dellinger
Information is power.

That aphorism has been bandied about since the early Information Age. But, pardon me saying this, the ancients really had no conception of what they were talking about, nor did they fully grasp the fundamental truth of that statement.

The Transapients were not yet in existence to show them its true meaning.

The more advanced the economic system, the more abstract its symbology. First barter -- an exchange of goods based upon localized scarcity and specialization. Then currency -- an abstraction of barter -- a defined, agreed upon concept replacing tangible goods. Then credit -- a promise -- and a whole society based upon a web of implied payment. Then future value for goods that haven't even been produced yet, and still later, future value of intangibles -- the potential of organizations with information resources and talents freely offering valuable services in exchange for one thing.

More information.

The ancients just didn't get it, really. They passed legislation and rules of society that forbade inequities in information exchange -- look in the Encyclopedia Galactica under Insider Trading. They passed rules forbidding the free exchange of ideas -- lookup up Copyright, Trademark, and for a real laugh, Patent.

As if anything could trump Information Theory and natural behavior.

In a way, economics has regressed back to basics. There are only three things archai trade among themselves; matter, energy.

And information.

Purists argue that location is also vied for among archai, as it has always been. They point to the vitality of transport and the Wormhole Nexus as the underpinning of modern interstellar society, and the breakdown that occurred when the Wormhole Nexus went offline.

I'm of the mind that location has no relevance except as a means towards the three essentials, which are delineated by physical law, when you come right down to it.

And at least one Archai I'm rather personally acquainted with doesn't really have a location, in the sense that we would understand it, anyway.

Stockbrokers, well-connected day traders, and the interlocking directorates of Information Age corporations traded inside info, contracts, and favors to manipulate the global economy, backed by vast financial modelling systems repurposed from hydrodynamic simulation codes snatched from the latest physics theories. Currency and economic power followed a reverse entropy process, gravitating towards concentrated centers like so many black holes engorging themselves upon the birthright of stars.

Leaving the huddled masses to fend for themselves.

Child's play for the first artificial intelligences, beings capable of assembling the vast information ecology to make near-prescient investments in the old market economy. Enormous fortunes amassed instantly based upon a single critical fact gleaned from thousands of separate trends. The old centers of gravity -- corporations and the occasional government -- were swept silently aside by the new powers of the information ecology. And the new masters made the market economy hum with terrifying efficiency, and the rising tide lifted all boats, even the creaking edifices of the last vestiges of human power, and especially the huddled masses. Unparallelled wealth, prosperity, and liberation followed an age of invisible information manacles.

But it was a small price to pay. You had to look hard to see the catch.

Until the Crash.

Or it's more palatable name.

The Singularity.

I didn't want to open my eyes, but I did anyways.

At least that forestalled the inevitable conversation a little while longer. I wasn't in the mood.

Ah, breakfast. That helped, a little. I swung down out of my sleepsack, settling into the chair that obligingly oozed out of the floor. The breakfast table was piled high with my traditional carb-heavy meal. In this respect, I was quite lucky, because I had a predilection for a rather rich diet. In a less enlightened time I would have ended up overweight, with clogged arteries and a heightened risk for early retirement.

Now it was just high-density fuel for a self-repairing, augmented body.

Although, come to think of it, my chances at early retirement were still pretty high.


It really was quite good fare, much of it organically grown on an actual planetary crust, which cost a fortune in status and kept my tailored digestive system on its toes coping with all the wild, freely evolved strains of bionano symbiotes. Well, my nanites could file away another couple hundred molecular patterns as mostly friendly, and anyways it was one of the few luxuries afforded to soldiers. I amused myself by picking out the vat-grown stuff and setting it aside as I ate, although it was getting hard to tell with some of it. Nevertheless, it was always fun catching Cara cheating.

I savored the last of the waffles and cream, swigged down the last bit of juice. Now if only ....

"Someone's grumpy this morning."

I felt an overwhelming longing to climb back into my sleepsack and self-hypnotize myself into unconsciousness. I would have done it too, if I'd had the slightest notion I'd get away with it.

"I've been dreaming a history lesson Cara, and call me crazy, somehow I think you're involved."

"You're crazy, alright."

"I'd have to be, to keep working for you."

"And what else would you be doing?"

"I could find myself a nice uncivilized planet to settle on. I've always been partial to living out in the wilds, no angelnet or traces of civilization, just me and the elements, building, thinking, and living. Fishing sounds rather nice, about now."

"You tried that, remember? It didn't last very long."

"A few decades, if I recall correctly."

"You don't. Besides, there's something rather distasteful about tricking a lower-order being into becoming your supper. I mean, why wouldn't you just genengineer the fish into happily jumping onto your plate whenever you require? Assuming of course that you derive some satisfaction in manually procuring your sustenance, which after all is the true point of the endeavor."

"Now that you put it that way, the idea is rather disturbing."

"Of course it is, considering our relationship."

I tried to do an integrity check on the sly, but somewhere I could tell Cara was laughing at me.

"I retired for six months?!?"

"About that, yes. The planet you settled on had rather longer days than current shiptime. As I've been saying -- you're just not the introspective, retiring type. You've been in hibernation for longer stretches than that."

"Which suits you just fine. I'm beginning to feel like a fish."

"Then you should appreciate my distaste on the matter."

"Now Cara, you're not ever going to convince me that you don't engage in trickery -- and probably at levels I wouldn't even begin to fathom."

"Well yes, but there are certain -- the closest analogy would be aesthetic and artistic principles -- involved."

"Now I know I don't understand what you mean, and I'm not sure I'd want to."

"That's your choice, of course."

"So, how many times have we had this particular conversation?"

"It used to be amusing to map our conversation trees. I'm afraid you're becoming rather predictable of late."

"Alright, well I'm fully awake now."

"Shall we proceed to business then?"

"What if I said no?"

"You'll really have to make a better effort. As a suggestion, uncertainties multiply, so try being more chaotic in the beginning, when it will do the most good. The endgame is almost always a certainty."

"Then I'm certainly not going to like what you're about to tell me."

Cara's silence spoke volumes.

I ordered up some coffee, because it was going to be one of those mornings.

Cara didn't disappoint.

The normally cavernous squad bay was empty. Just a few of us were awake this time, drawing the gear that we'd need.

A few shapes looked familiar. Heavy, a provolved-octopus from Sargeant's fire team, was gracefully jetting about, at ease in his natural zero gee environment. His tentacles were weirdly muscular, and the folds billowing between them made a rather impressive net across his three-meter central span. The glance at all the rows of white suckers underneath, and especially the beak, was an uncomfortable reminder that his species ate ravenously and often.

Funny how instinct works. An involuntary shiver of reaction, when the truly dangerous eaters were too small to be seen by the naked eye.

Heavy gave a friendly ripple and eye-flash of greeting.

The obvious question was too good to pass up, so I asked it.

"So you got mixed up in this mess too?"

I volunteered.

"That would be insane."

Heavy gave me the equivalent of a grin.

Sarge thought so too.

"Well, she has some sense. You're supposed to gain some too as you advance in rank."

That's why I never get promoted.

"Speaking of insanity ..."

A sleek hyperactive bundle of fur jetted over to us; smiling a feral grin and waving and chittering to themselves.

"Hiya hiya hiya guys! What's happening Corporal, where's our fourth, how's the tentacles hanging, Heavy?"

I think Point greeted us simultaneously while conducting a conversation with his hive. He, or they I suppose (aggregate pronouns just don't fit my thoughtstyle) cheerfully multitasked everything and everyone; that was the core of his being, in fact. I'd suspect that if Heavy or I had possessed fur he would have rubbed all over us too. As it was, he maintained a polite separation, though a winning smile on a provolved ferret still looked like a sinister invitation to dinner.

"Let me guess, you ...."

"We volunteered too! This should really be a lot of fun, we haven't been on one of those types of habitats before, we'll really have a lot of ground to cover and people to talk to, why it might be months and years tracking it down, hmmm hope we don't get too bored and lonely, but then we'll have you guys around that sounds like we'll all really get to know ourselves!"

I looked carefully, but I still could not figure how he managed to take a breath.

"Say Point, do you have an internal air supply?"

"Well sure we have to plus turbochargers and some efficient pathway metabolistic modifications of course that's necessary for us to maintain our optimal speed and temperature not to mention health why do you ask Corporal?"

"Oh, no reason."

"So what's this Heavy about not getting promoted? But if you made Corporal you'd probably go to some other team or something we still don't really know how the rank structure goes and why do we bother with it anyways it's not like there's a lot of us around, heck they only let one of us go anywhere dangerous at a time when we could easily have 4 or 5 of us along to make our own Fireteam we don't know why they don't let us do that except very rarely like that time we were back on ..."

"You're hell on the equipment," I interjected.

"Toys are made to be broken! And anyways, they can easily make more we mean how hard is it to make things when there's programmable matter and nanoforges around -- Oops, here he comes now."

Armorer was a vec. Its current form was a two-meter brushbot, a glimmering laser-tipped carbon-rod puff-ball floating through the bay in free-fall, cillia flared to microscopic extension. It projected a multi-phase hologram that registered on my eyes as an ancient, male baseline human speaking in a somewhat nasal twang. The contrast between this and its true form made a weirdly comical gestalt.

"Gentlebeings, I am to begin your briefing and equipment inspection and rundown. If you'll please follow me, we can begin."

Point twittered at something. I wondered if this vec employed emotive resonance pathways, and if so, how long it would take Point to annoy him.

Naturally it didn't bother to project a full eidolon, as it was working on some unidentifiable lump of equipment while giving us a detailed briefing. Heavy, Point and I were the only ones there as we liked to look over our gear in person. Most everyone else absorbed it in downtime.

"Standard shipsuit, peak discharge reactor driving a full personal halo and scout grade plasma screen."

"Impressive," I said.

"Yeah, yeah ..." said Point.

"Multi-input sensor suite, with full angel and halo-net interface capability, and turing grade C3I."

"Very nice," I said. "Shush ..." I said to Point.

Out of the corner of my eye I caught Heavy flashing something sardonic to Point. I resolved to ignore it; fortunately, Armorer was a little more than preoccupied with fixing the strange device. I caught the fringes of a synchronization signal, and its branches wriggled and waved as it proudly procured for our inspection a grey, featureless ovoid perhaps twenty centimeters across.

"This," he breathed, the hologram giving a weird intonation, "is a fully reprogrammable nanoforge stocked with templates sufficient for almost any eventuality, from rebuilding a world to retooling a military-industrial complex.

"Templates are stored in the Builders' memory core. As we've been talking, I've attuned Builder to your unique signature and authorizations; it will only respond to your authorized commands within certain parameters of biont integrity. I've finalized the communication protocols, so you should all establish sessions now."

I opened a visual encrypted link and focussed my attention upon the Builder AI ....

Hello, said Cara.

Is that really you in there? I asked in astonishment.

Her laugh resonated in my mind. That's a rather interesting, if existential question. Let's just say that you should not be surprised, since this nanoforge is a subtle and infinitely terrible weapon, if employed in the wrong manner. Not to mention that its full capabilities are only available with, shall we say, an appropriate amount of computational capacity. See for yourself.

Plans, capabilities, pathways, organizational systems, emergent assemblages flashed by my minds' eye with dizzying perceptual velocity, each a logical extension of the one before. For a brief moment I held onto the mindstate of Kali, Destroyer and Creator of Worlds, and knew the wonderful and terrible duality of being.

I had gone slack and unfocused. Armorer looked into my eyes and nodded approvingly.

"Perhaps you understand, now."

Corporal, rippled Heavy. You okay?

I shook my head to clear it. "Yes."

"That's nice, but what's next? We're trying to be patient here, but do you think you could get to showing us the stuff that goes bang? We mean, we were taking a rather nice swim, and if we'd thought we'd be getting a lecture we would have just gone back to sleep. That's what sleep is for anyways, to dream about the briefings and take nice naps after dinner."

Armorer looked sadly at Point, before jetting ahead into what proved to be a weapons bay.

"Ooh, this looks much better, thank you."

Heavy flickered agreement.

"And finally, here's the really verboten stuff that no civilized world will be very happy about."

Point had already jetted over, rebounded off the wall, somersaulted to a stop, and snatched up three of the devices. He was slowly rotating, critically eying the device on the end of his tail as his dexterous black paws made numerous adjustments.

What do we have here? Heavy's full grin was an impressive display of arm suckers and poisonous beak.

"Plasma discharger." Armorer warmed to our obvious interest.

"Nice," I said, liking the feel of the gauntlet as it closed around my forearm, flared barrel protruding perhaps twenty centimeters past my hand. "Rather heavy."

"Of course. It's mostly made of a tungsten-osmium alloy impregnated fullerene weave, for thermal mass. Not quite the wattage of a hellbore, but it will get the job done."

By now I'd interfaced with the discharger. It carried a hundred tiny droplets of metallic hydrogen with a Hafnium ballotechnic trigger wrapped around a miniature monopole injection chamber. Though not in the same league as our hellbores, it was several orders of magnitude more energetic than any vaguely sophont-portable weaponry we'd run into.

We hoped.

"Where do I reload?" asked Point.

"You don't. After a hundred shots, the barrel mass will have worn down past safe tolerances. And if you fire it too quickly, you'll probably need medical attention, because even your internal nanites won't be able to repair all the radiation damage you'll have accumulated."

I get two hundred shots, flash-grinned Heavy.

"Not all of us can have real backbones," retorted Point.

Or an adequate number of appendages, rejoined Heavy.

I spoke up, to forestall further exchanges. "So I take it this is a last-resort, don't use around civilians weapon."

"Did you have to ask?" Armorer looked pained.

I looked around eloquently. "Not really, no. But it helps to be sure. Anyways, I'm off to the range for some calibration tests." I grinned nastily.

"Us too," said Point, jetting ahead.

Me thirteen, agreed Heavy sardonically, four of the weapons clutched in his tentacles.

"Wait! Don't you want to check over your other equipment?"

I looked at my departing team, then back at Armorer. "I suspect not."

The eidolon shook his head sadly. "Good thing I didn't show you this first, or you wouldn't have paid attention to the other, more important equipment."

"That's what downtime is for."

"Bionts," he sighed. "You really have no appreciation for fine machinery."

"How's it going?"

"Back to work today. Yesterday my eidolon suffered full core reboot. Some crazy bioborg detonated an isomer bomb at work site 57 while in a shootout with authorities."

"The things beings do."

"Yeah, my factory had to reconfigure itself on the fly -- we lost 25% production capacity for a few kiloseconds after the incident. Of course, work site 32 got increased feedstock orders, so we made back our data losses and then some."

"I flashed that incident yesterday, my agent must be decohering, it didn't cross-correlate your involvement. My apologies -- I'll schedule a software sculpt."

"Well, it gave us something to talk about for a microsec. You want an upload of the experience?"


Other peoples memories leave a dismal aftertaste in my brain. Judging from Heavy and Point's reaction, they must've felt the same.

The General cut in:

"This incident was recorded on Dharamshala, Ge level. Dharamshala is a megastructure in the Mutual Progress Association, integrate data accordingly. In particular, be mindful of the non-interventionist policies of The Dream Factory and the Tragadi Accords."

Sir, then why us? flashed Heavy. We're about as far from non-interventionist as one can get.

"I'm not going to discuss the political intricacies of the situation, except to say this: we have evidence of infection by certain, uh, agents. We need this infection to be contained as quickly and forcefully as possible. And we are operating at the pleasure of, but independently of, certain entities in the MPA."

A Black Op.

I pointed out the obvious. "Sir, there's no way we'll pass for civilians."

"You won't need to. Once on Dharamshala, you'll be interfacing with the fourth member of your team, who will be able to provide the appropriate credentials and protocols."

"Who's the mystery guest sir and why all the secrecy? Really secrets are absurd anyways why would you want to keep something from someone they're going to know eventually and ..."

The General's expression cut off further elaboration from Point.

"The being you will be interfacing with is an Infomorph, and they also are not native to the MPA. But they will have a rather easier time integrating with its protocols -- in fact, they should be finished by the time you meet them. I hope that you can appreciate that this is a rather unusual, politically delicate situation for all parties, and that you will act accordingly.

"Corporal, you will bring your team to Dharamsala and await further contact.

"I've heard that all of you were hoping for some downtime. Here's your chance.

"The mission parameters and contact protocols have been encrypted onto your forms, and will not be reflected in your Backups, for those of you that have them. It is entirely possible that you (in the most general sense) may have no memory of this assignment, so let me congratulate you beforehand on your courage and dedication in accepting an unusual and difficult task."

The General saluted us briskly.


I guess he didn't want further questions, flashed Heavy.

Point nodded morosely.

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