Vagabond - 6.5
I was floating. It was a cliche, but nevertheless true.

Light, and a tunnel. Also cliche. Also true.

The light wasn't white, and the tunnel was littered with dreamscapes and horrific nightmares.

As the light shone within the gestalts, I plucked and discarded the false ones, myriad by myriad, leaving only the truth.

My truth.

It took an endless amount of time, but it was complete almost before I knew it. Consciousness was toroidal, ending where it began.

The tunnel was very empty now, and some nightmares still remained.

I filled in the gaps as best I could with the essentials, somehow cloning the uncloneable. When I was done the tunnel was secure enough to take the next step.

I was a small burned child, trembling and mewling at the hostility of the universe.

I was a lump of flesh and fluids, spun together agonizing fiber by fiber in the clutch of a monstrous spider with an inscrutable smile in a sepulchral cavern of hideous wonder.

I was a dark hairy man-thing driving my pitiful length of wood into the roaring maw of the beast.

I was the tall pale skinned intruder smashing my rock into the thick-browed wide-nosed face of my foe, over and over until it was a ghastly red-ruin, casting about for more hapless targets.

I was the terrible sickle-sword wielder, slicing the limbs from my enemies as my chariot onagers trampled the remains of the living and the dead.

I was the archer raining death upon the terrified ranks of peasant conscripts, the shafts of my composite bow piercing the broad leather straps of their insufficient armor from further than they could retaliate, a charnel house of slaughter upon the windswept desert.

I was within the massed ranks of my peers, the locked hoplons and doru of we few piercing and driving back the unending hordes of the many that threw themselves against us ceaselessly and died beneath the cliffs of the hot gates.

I was the centurion shouting orders to my hastati while catching the wild blows on my scutum and in turn stabbing the gladius into the femoral artery, splashing with red the screaming blue bodies of my foes.
I was all these things and more, but I could not linger overlong.

There was so much of me yet to be.

Stealth, flickered Heavy, with what I read as subliminal harmonics of excitement, is just a texture of Movement and the Hunt.

My brain hurt, in the psychological sense, from the aftereffects of integrating the visual lingua franca by which octopi and most bots communicated in realtime. There were a great many subtleties involving time-sequencing and texturing which I was still developing (and which my mind, having no natural centers for processing such information, was building up physically layer by layer in the visual cortex and conceptually with new vistas of understanding spreading cracks in my subconsciousness like caverns of wonder or fissures of madness).

But I'll spare you the details so we can get right to the point. Now flickers of -- amusement? -- and a particular glint in Heavy's eyes.

While I was struggling to keep up with the nuances of multimode conversation, three of Heavy's arms were performing some sort of diagnostics on the fat heavy cylinder of a portable hellbore. With deft grace, they folded it back under his four meter mantle and produced another one, this one looking a bit worse for wear.

"No, I'm interested," I signalled back. "I need to know what I don't know."

An unreadable expression settled over Heavy's visage. His siphon dilated and contracted rapidly.

Very well, it said, with a sideband jest but what if you don't know that you don't know?

I laughed.

Another unreadable expression, and Heavy again flickered with amusement.

Good old fashioned team building. Some things just can't be done by proxy.

After a lengthy series of transits from a place I did not care to remember just now, through some of the largest wormholes I'd ever seen (a bit of poetic license, please, there really wasn't that much to see, you've seen one caustic you've seen them all), I'd finally ended up here.

Here was a seemingly slow, stately approach to something which sprang into focus from nothing to a cross between a cluster of melted moons and a megameter-sized fractal bushbot. As the shuttle brought me closer, there were no obvious signs of engines or other propulsive artifacts, and no reference points to tell whether I was approaching some kind of artificial astronomical body, or a rather large (to my scale) vessel. There were no especially bright stars in my all-encompassing field of view, so I ruled out the theory that this was a body in some kind of system with one or more stars.

A small bright spot on the hull resolved into a thin line that became a kilometer-sized bay. I debarked unceremoniously from the shuttle to meet the first of my new team. Welcome to the family, said the shuttle before flying itself off to someplace else, presumably a repair bay for others of its kind.

Welcome indeed.

After the nearly endless array of vecs, another biont was a welcome sight. Even if it was a four meter octopus festooned in armor, heavy weaponry, and less identifiable objects.

My nose tickled inexplicably, bringing me back to the present.

You look tired, Heavy said. Perhaps you'd better rest first.

"Perhaps I'd better," I agreed. There was a lot to assimilate just then.

The Doks best understand the game, of course, Heavy said later, after a restful sleep and a nice meal in what appeared to be a cozy little cafe on the streets of pre-Spaceflight Paris.

That is, them and various nanoswarms, most of which don't see fit to converse at length with us meatbags.

Doks? I parsed the reference --

Ah yes. Hive minds. Interchangeable organisms. Right. I shuddered.

Don't believe what the library tells you, Heavy flickered. It's effluvium in that respect. Not all hive minds are alike even on fundamental levels. In fact, I'd have to say they are even more different from each other than our individual minds are to them.

"Uh, if you say so." I didn't really want to know the details.

Are you sure you want to know what you don't know? Again the peculiar glint, which I was starting to interpret as wry amusement.

I barked a short laugh. Here I was, getting an education on toposophy and aiology from the heavy weapons being on my new team.

"Here's to ignorance," I toasted, clinking my glass together with Heavy's rather larger bowl.

The wine was light and smooth, a Moscato of fine vintage. I presumed that Heavy enjoyed whatever it was that had been swimming around in his now empty punchbowl.

Notwithstanding what I just said, at it's basic level, a hive mind is a neural network operating on a genetic programming language. So fundamentally the Emple-Dokcetics are wrong when they view each individual organism as an interchangeable component of a greater whole.

Because the individual weights of the algorithms in each little neuron have no basis in reality, they're just what they are because they evolved that way as a response to something that they're now in a dynamic equilibrium with. So when you swap out the black box with another, it has to learn all over again to be part of its new system. And the system itself changes to accommodate the ignorance of its new component.

So you don't have the same system.

"But by that definition, you and I are not the same we were a moment ago. Our internal states have changed even if our external ones have not."

You are right to a degree. It's just, the internal changes that you and I experience are nothing compared to those of a hive mind. We don't regularly alter the equivalent of our fundamental values.

"Okay, but what has this to do with stealth?"

Nothing. Everything. You see, the Doks are right in a way that transcends their wrong. And that's why they're so successful. Mastery is not about mindless precision of irrelevant details -- effluvium! It is about focus on the right things, and conversely, taking focus away from the right things. And constant adaptation to only the things that matter.

When one of you endoskeletal types puts on an invisibility cloak, you don't move the right way, because it's not a part of your focus, your essence, your reflexes, your way of thinking. So, you're successful to a limited degree, but you won't fool me or something like me. You lack the required concentration and adaptation.

Suddenly Heavy was not there. I reached over my table and passed my hand through the space where a half-ton four meter octopus had been draped about nonchalantly.

Something hideously strong was engulfing me in my chair where I sat -- no, it was the chair. Rippling and writhing on my backside, and I was now sitting on a small blob the height of my chair.


Movement and misdirection. When your system integrates all the necessary components, it operates better than the sum of the individuals.

"Kind of like this team building exercise,"

Kind of like this team building exercise, Heavy agreed.

"Where'd you hide the hellbores?"

Two of them were the backing of the chair, properly textured of course, Heavy flickered, producing them with tentacular prestidigitation, and the other six are stashed safely in my mantle.

"But didn't you shrink yourself down when you did your sneaky chair switch right under me?"


I shook my head. "There's no civilized habitat that would let you anywhere near."

I don't hang out in civilized places.

There were many more memories, but I didn't have time.

Why the urgency?

There, said Cara, we need that one.

When did I acquire a muse?

It thrummed again, perhaps a sign of discomfort. It expelled more atmosphere, moving towards the Luminaire and away from the uncomfortably close boundaries of nothingness. It's axis of comfort ran parallel to the light.

It drank in the richness of nourishment; here in the thick atmosphere, it was intoxicating.

Most of its kind choose the descent into the dark depths for Ascension, rather than travel elsewhere, but the Legatus was itself for that reason.

The nourishment was too much in abundance, too quickly, and its upper plates began to shrivel even as it folded protectively upon itself. On it's homeworld, this would have caused it to plummet until it had evacuated itself back to neutral buoyancy.

Here it did nothing.

Not quite nothing. The brilliance was gone. Any place exposed was raw and damaged, but most of it remained elastic and functional. But now...

The storm was strong, and growing beneath it. The axial winds shoved continental masses of thundercloud over into a vast roaring funnel, and wild vortices were beginning to draw it in faster than it could escape at this velocity.

A strong burst from its circumferential thrusters. It accelerated rapidly away, the cyclone just a thin smear in a darkening sky. It tasted the haze, found it to be vile.

No, worse -- contaminated.

Its internal systems disposed of the invaders efficiently. They seemed ill-suited for its peculiar biochemistry. It moved to the clearer air.

A torpedo shape swam below. Its Eye resolved details.

Whatever it had been, it looked as though it was rotting from the inside. Hydrocarbons sizzled on its skin, wrinkling. Shapes swam beneath; it belched fire and flocks of tiny winged things.

It approached deliberately, on the best intercept vector it had available.

Legatus expended more propellant. The thing burned more of itself to match.

Legatus had no choice. When it was close enough, Legatus thrummed it into pieces, and then those pieces, and so on, until only a cloud of dust remained. The cloud was, in component form, not particularly mobile, so Legatus easily outdistanced it.

The sky smelled strange. The average incident wavelength was increasing, with a commensurate decrease in the amount. This was subtle at first, but Legatus knew the scale of the haze must be tremendous.

And growing.

As was the storm, nearly unseen, but felt through its turbulence in the surrounding air. The skies of this place felt very constrained just now, and the claustrophobia returned. There was only one relatively unconstrained direction, and Legatus instinctively followed it.

As did the storm, apparently.

Certain of Legatus internal crystalline structures changed, commensurate with a burst of hard radiation. The follow-on shockwave was fierce. Legatus tasted compounds and energies it had only ever sampled in the corona of stars.

The air was clearer, here. The storm was a dull roar below. The Luminaire was much brighter than usual.

Uncomfortably close, Legatus noted drastic changes to the thin atmospheric layer clinging to the walls of this incomplete toroidal star. The substrate itself was completely obscured. Storms and vast electrical discharges flickered and glistened along its twenty million kilometers.

Legatus could not thrum across the vacuum layer separating substrate from sky to be certain, but it seemed likely that the topography had changed drastically too.

There were no visible Shield Walls to break up the titanic cloud cells spawning planet-sized storms across the surface. Only plumes of haze and continuous emission of long radiation marked their locations, crisscrossing all around.

Legatus idled, storing up reserves.

Four different things came for it; different shapes, same malevolent intent. Legatus thrummed them all, but expended its reserves and more.

Move or die.

The nearest end cap was five million kilometers. Legatus glanced up often at the Luminaire; it's brightness steadily increasing, but differentially. There were distinct bright and dark spots moving within it. Some of them were half a million kilometers or more in size.

The Walls seemed equally uncomfortable. Legatus had no great desire to subject itself to the rotational gravity and brave whatever the storm clouds hid in an attempt to reach one of the spaceports there.

Anti-spinward, then.

More bursts of hard radiation, gusts of nuclear-forged compounds.

The signal was on the gravest emergency protocol. After Legatus had verified, quarantined, decrypted, and re-verified it said:

You must evacuate. All emergency protocols in effect. Tragadi Accords suspended. You must not linger near me, for I cannot guarantee your safety. Ge is lost; the Luminaire is in contention. You must make for the EndCap, and await decontamination and evacuation. Legatus swung as widely as it could around the battle without veering overmuch from its course. A particular shiver ran through its body, the track straight as an arrow.

A monopole had just passed through it. Legatus curled and shrank behind its thick armor plating, just in time.

Before they burned out, its small eyes saw a titanic bar of energy connect the Luminaire, the storm cloud behind it, and the Walls. Its under small eyes, protected, saw the vortices form around the vast hole that had just been blasted, the shockwaves contained by the vacuum between Ge and Ouranos.

Ahead, the storm clouds swirled and grew, dark living things with vast roaring funnels for mouths, striding earth and sky on enormous legs of lightning.

The haze tasted vile. The sheer numbers were wearing away its immune system, its vitality.

Legatus expelled the ancient fears, turned around, and dove.

The thing had been below it, trying to creep underneath and trap. It shot entangling filaments to snare.

Legatus ignore their corrosive touch, diving harder for the body. It summoned the last of its energy and thrummed. Parts the whole abomination fell to ruin as Legatus dove through the remains, terrifyingly large and close. The tendrils snapped, then withered and died after a brief battle with its immune system.

Vacuum never tasted so sweet.

Soundless Legatus fell through the gap. Others fell too, but Legatus could no longer defend itself effectively, even if it had the energy. It mustered some of its appendages for a last ditch effort.

The Eye of the Storm seemed very near.

Its enemies were closer. Legatus prepared for the end.

Flocks flashed into plasma in waves, as an invisible swathe cut them down by the thousands. Legatus detected backscatter X-rays; an unseen benefactor flensed away the enemies waylaying its path.

The shock and power of sudden atmospheric re-entry ripped two of Legatus appendages off as it dove for redemption.

Into the Eye.

The Eye was peaceful, and the storm a mere thousand kilometers or so across, but it was much much nearer, and Legatus dopplered atmospheric masses traveling at kilometers per second. These winds would surely complete it's dismantling if it fell into them.

Ten klicks was an eternity of falling through the darkened funnel. The glowing edges of the hole swallowed Legatus.

And then there was vacuum, and freedom.

The coldness of space was comforting.

Onward spun Dharamsala, the great megastructure receding slowly, slowly. Legatus lensed its entire length, seeing the silent explosions of substrate and lazy leakage of vitality.

It seemed peaceful for all that, a great wounded zeppelin-beast dying as they did, a slow graceful descent into darkness.

By Adam Getchell

Vagabond - Index of serial chapters

Back to Voices: Future Tense