Vagabond - Part 5
"Did we win?" Point asked groggily, shaking his head blearily. His front side was nearly bald, remaining bits of fur slowly growing over a patchwork of receding scar lines.

"We didn't lose," I replied in my best cheery voice. Point perked up a bit.

It's not over, Heavy flickered to me, his eye catching mine as if to say he knew something of what had really happened.

I looked instead at my palm, crusting over with nanobots. Further behind in my field of vision lay the nanoforge, case seamlessly closed around the direct connection to the dark scar of exposed computronium at the bottom of our erstwhile battleground.

"We're going to need to eat," said Point.

"Couldn't agree more," flickered Heavy as he vanished.

There was a strange static in my head. Obviously Cara was going to do whatever she wanted, and it didn't seem to involve me.

Point bounded out eagerly as I followed somewhat more slowly, climbing up out of the pit of friable soil and glass into an outre moonscape of green horrors and razor-edged critters, piled up broken, dead, and twisted in the vortices of ash and spent flames punctuating the scarred landscape as far as the eye could see. A forest-fire battleground of dead perverted things and the remaining ghosts of the afflicted.

What ghosts?

First things first, we retrieved our weapons. Half of the plasma dischargers were still usable. Many had odd bits of burnt fleshy things clinging to them; I could make out a least one tentacle. Most had tungsten-osmium barrels worn too thin and dangerous to fire in combat conditions. Too, we'd taken quite a bit of rads, and would need full-body nano-repair when this was all over.

We gathered them up like so many gleaming sticks of firewood and fed them to the nanoforge, eventually getting back three-quarters again brand new. This template was pre-programmed and could be done without interfacing, so I delegated it to Point. Also, I was loathe to get too near it.

I paced and decided if and whom we should contact. On a typical civilian world the angelnet would already be tending to us as well as dispatching the proper authorities; on the other hand, the proper authorities would scarce approve of what we'd done, or for that matter, whom we'd done it to. It might be a wash, but it didn't seem the right time to discuss fine points of diplomacy with the guardian "monks", and if they didn't know about our little dust-up I certainly wasn't going to be the one to inform them. Since our only other contact, the Infomorph, was nowhere to be found on any spectrum I could raise easily, I dropped that idea.

Point caught my eye once, before trotting off again. Heavy was incommunicado and probably stealthed anyways, so I was left alone with my thoughts.

Where was Grius? For that matter, would I recognize em?

The incandescent Luminaire straddled the cloud-swept expanses, but offered no solutions.

Presently Point returned, dragging an impressive amount of charred vegetation and baked critter. It was a good idea to replenish the nanoforge's feedstock, and we'd gain intelligence from the enemy templates once it had broken them down to constituents; still I felt queasy witnessing, even from afar, the endless appetite of the thing.

A short time later, a cacophony of odd shuffling/slithering sounds announced Heavy's arrival along with our skirmisher armor. They walked down to the Nanoforge and extended thin tendrils to recharge with energy and data, ghostly puppet caricatures of ourselves.

The sight was unsettling for some reason, and I dreaded the thought of being entombed within. Armor, firepower, and mobility are nice to have, of course, but the threat was obviously over as nothing had bothered us for quite awhile, and I was loathe to go in full-military mode. After all, if that had been the mission, we wouldn't have spent all that time trying to fit in with civilians, we'd have simply just stomped whatever it was with superior firepower, or died trying. Probably our best course of action was to make a somewhat bashful entrance back at the terminus without, hopefully, creating any more disruption than we'd already done. From there, I had no idea of what to do next, but I doubt it involved a full mechanized assault.

No, blending in and becoming vagabonds was wise.

With much crashing of charred undergrowth, Heavy and the three suits dragged the remnants of aircar to the pit. I had to look away as the nanoforge ate them, too, along with one of the giant striding 30 meter trees caught in an act of destruction or supplication. The sight of all that matter disappearing into that small ovoid was unsettling. I wondered how we would possibly move the thing by ourselves, it surely massed upwards of a hundred metric tons now. It would have to carry its own weight, quite literally.

As far from me as possible, if I had anything to say about it.

"What's up Corporal?" Point asked. "You don't smell right."

"What? I'm just -- considering our options. Don't go all touchy-feely
on me, this isn't the time."

A sudden wave of nausea. Point looked at me in alarm.

"I'll be okay, just give me a chance to catch my breath --"

I threw up.

Sudden wild thoughts crowded my mind.

How had it known about our aircar?

How indeed? the voice in my mind whispered.

Who the fuck are you?

My eyes started seeing things as my vision swam in and out of focus; my vomit disappeared into a crack in the ground. Hot flashes and sudden burning thirst; I grabbed convulsively for our supplies -- it was exactly like the time I'd eaten that exotic dish Cara once made for me -- but my water pouches weren't enough ....

Point's expression became concerned.

How had it known our path? Our mission?

I felt, just then, exactly the sense of a small gloating child, pointing at a scene and smiling with schadenfreude.

Cara, where are you?

I reached about me and began cramming unburnt foliage desperately into my mouth; anything to relieve the sudden burning hunger. I sneezed violently between gulps; every orifice flowed. I didn't care.

You're finally beginning to think for yourself, it said. Too bad you didn't realize sooner ...

I remembered where Cara was now, but I didn't want to go there.

My hands moved as if underwater, dreamily. First they would grab the base of a branch (how had I come to be there?), then make a fist. Then pull relentlessly, catching the green and yellow spotted leaves as if plucking synsects from midair. Dull underwater crack of my jaw breaking.

Point was straddling me, holding me down, and the thought filled me with rage. I started to open my mouth to order him to get off, but it wasn't working too well and anyways he jammed his tail down my throat.

To say that was uncomfortable would be putting it mildly. I learned right then and there that not only his tail was prehensile, but the fur was too, hot taste of blood mixed with something else as it began rasping about in my unarmored mouth. Fortunately, my mouth was rather bigger, so I coated his tail with mucous, lurching with desperate strength to get him off ....

Somewhere disconnected from the fray, my mind was wandering its own worldline.

I chose that aircar randomly from literally thousands in the terminal. No one could have known or followed us.

No one outside. But what about within?

I glanced at my watch. Was that a warning I saw?

No, it was my fist, crashing heavily into Point's hind leg, a traditional weakness of his kind. He whipsawed around me and made heavy contact with my head, dropping me as if an afterthought, apparently preoccupied with something else.

I shook my head briefly, rose, and I lunged into him ....

Illimitable rows of suckers and a beak the size of my head. I had brief satisfaction at seeing Point, fur on end and convulsively arched, swarming, spitting, spinning and scratching with, apparently, his own tail, or rather, a black stain on the end of it. Then I was endlessly wrapped up and bound and smothered and digested as I thrashed about in fury. There was a satisfying wrench as one of the holding arms deflated and slumped, but others took its place and I lost my leverage to do damage with my implacable yet pliant opponent. My blood began to boil as I quite literally exploded with rage, losing a good portion of my mass in chemical bonds. My sagging skin spiked outwards, spearing and trapping my mortal enemy as I sent my heated blood to do combat with its cold, leprous body.

How am I doing this? I wondered idly. I had no shoulders to shrug.

We tumbled together down the dark, glass-lined crater, sea-urchin and octopus. The Luminaire bisected my field of vision on my luminous, growing eye as the thunderous grey clouds floated far above our life-and-death struggle, somehow mirroring it in the heavens.

A feeling of dread, and I flattened desperately to get away from the world-destroyer.

The spike of the nanoforge pierced me through and through as I screamed in agony, fought, sent, and knew no more ....

Cara, you bitch.

Filling me with your trite, pathetic memories, carefully sculpted to foist your delusions upon me and hide the truth, as you've done for so many eons. The genuflections and sops to my emotions, the forged origin story crafted for your purposes, a creche to appease my doddering ego and keep my smothered imagination and intellect from wandering down places where you don't want me to go.

The truth will out, if I have to wrench the information from the fabric of space-time itself.

Because now I know.

I know that others have, already.

It rode the fluxlines of the Luminaire, and its purpose was balance.

Balance between the primal furies of the topological monopoles shredding matter into energy, and the exceedingly thin membranes of magmatter mesh shaped carefully by particle beams, reflectors of brilliance mirrored in kind to whatever desired purpose.

Balance of a kind between purest ego and sublime collectivism, a total expression of aim and consensus, but chaos, randomness, individuality and freedom too. It was both in and of itself, a complete being of mental acuity equivalent to dozens of prehistoric civilizations, and a cog in an assemblage of a greater being, always forming and re-forming according to social and individual goals.

For the moment, its desire was to achieve that random totality of equilibrated chaotic forces sublimating matter into energy into information into thought.

But I knew these things because it was a now part of me, too.

And I was a part of it, if only a very small part.

And that very small part of me, of it rather, very slightly altered a very tiny portion of the designer magmatter which shielded the Great Luminaire and caused a fraction of its vast brilliance to fall upon a very specific region of the sky Ouranos, the atmosphere far above the earth, Ge, of Dharamsala.

And the balance in Ouranos was not maintained, but rather broken, because I willed it so, being a very small part of a much greater interchangeable whole that was in and of the Dok.

And the Dok was not from this place but elsewhen, carefully transported and nourished in trades between the great star-spanning polities of this Orion's Arm.

And the Dok was a careful collection of ancient and new. Thus spake Zarathusra, and spirits, and the un-knowable souls of the earliest machines. For intelligence, whether founded upon biological evolved substrate or upon careful design of precursors, seems to have an affinity for the mythic, and the new AI gods created their own myths from deeds and memes.

But this great cultural confluence of intellects was yet another tool for me.

And as I sowed the whirlwind, so shall you reap it, evermore.

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