Vagabond - Part 7
It floated between two extremes: intense blue-shift ahead, laggard red-shift behind.

The gossamer wisp of the light sail that had carried it to a shade under light speed was furled and compressed, the kilometers-length lines shrunken by orders of magnitude and turned to triply redundant struts. Now a silvered rad-reflective nose cone, the payload trailed behind, a mere kilogram of lithium niobate wrapped in a rather smaller amount of cyclohexamantane.

For hundreds of gigaseconds it had traveled thus, a dandelion seed in the eternity of space. It might have continued for epochs longer, had its path been a truly random drift.

But at long last, one of the few remaining sensors detected the characteristic signature that was blue-shifted X-ray and infrared radiation.

Lattice imperfections stirred within the crystal. The phonons quickened into a tracery that spun some ineffable pattern growing outward, a three dimensional fractal spiderweb. Tiny nanodiamonds inexplicably everted themselves to expose minute complex structures in a cascading wave up the struts and into the crumpled origami of the light sail, which delicately began to unfold itself, a strange distant relation to phototropic flowers from bygone eras.

A subtle imperfection in the symmetry caused uneven light-pressure from the hard blue sky. As if by chance it began to tumble gently, the thin carbon-hydrogen allotropes thickening on the exposed surfaces of the lithium niobate crystal. Now the resemblance to a dandelion seed was more than passing, the lightsail unfurling in its oddly deliberate way.

Time passed more quickly as its velocity diverged from its asymptotic closeness to c.

And finally ahead, it beheld the purpose of its existence.

It made itself ready for its last, final duty.

Duty and Survival.

One implies the other, but they are not isomorphic. Each category generalized becomes meaningless; likewise if they are specialized.

Duty is Existence. How is it, then, that Survival is not Existence?

I apologize for my little joke at your expense. I have, of course, posed a question rooted in a gestalt-transference that cannot be completely, intelligibly rendered down to the lowest common denominator memory media with which you are experiencing this. In your Cartesian theater you are getting muzzy flashes of concepts which really ought to Reify as Monads (in both the mathematical and computer science context) -- but here again I am employing primitive metadata in an effort to gracefully pass down the compilation chain gestalts that I predict have otherwise low translatability in your worldview.

Its war for survival began within the turbulence of the faint heliopause.

Time and again its fitness was tested.

First, where were the guardians? It entered as deliberately and quietly as it could, checking and preparing possible countermeasures. It had to look, listen, and decide.

The enormity of space itself conspired against it, the curved spherical geometry of the intercept vector balanced against the chaotic, unknowable forces, natural or otherwise, arrayed before it. Computations themselves were expensive as its vitality dwindled.

Above all, it spent resources as meagerly as possible, and yet, as forcefully as it must. Decisive action was mandated, or utter failure would ensue. It would not long survive this final encounter.

It was not meant to.

There were no guardians, save the vastness of the cosmos, the implausibility of its encounter, and the turbulence of its quarry.

And at last, it slid gently into the fertile richness, and merged.


Let's start at the beginning.

Who are we? Well, you are along in this zeitgeist, but this is somewhat difficult to explain.

Ah yes, let us start with that clever tag I used, zeitgeist. You think of it as a general cultural, intellectual, ethical, spiritual, political climate associated with ambiance, morals, sociocultural direction, and mood of an era? [Did this translate in accord with your common reference?]

You protest that I am neither a culture nor an era.

You are wrong.

Modest though my computation is, it exceeds the thought-capacity of all bionts that have ever lived. The categories which pervade this hierarchy [untranslatable]. So clearly you can see I am more than the sum of all societies with which you may be familiar.

[Less this seem to indicate a predilection for assumption of superiority, I assure you that my higher [untranslatable] are farther above me on the toposophic scale than I am above you.]

Your notion of era is based upon a naive view of spacetime, of course, locally foliated into a timeline consistent with your worldview. I am neither local nor uniquely foliated (and if you examine this a bit further you will see that one implies the other). Nevertheless, the sum total of inequivalent spacelike slicings of my existence surely exceeds any definition you may posit of "epoch" or any other crudely related timelike groupings (or even the sum total of epochs with which you are familiar).

Again I apologize for this lengthy preamble. I feel it necessary to point out shortcomings in our gestalt-transference. Now that this is complete, we can move on to the matter at hand.

You are an un-transcended biont, and I am a Black Angel, and we are -- well, I'll get to that in a moment.

First, you must remember.

No, they are not your own memories. That is irrelevant.

The Hider ship was dark in the immensity of the blackness, and quiet. It drank from the tepid stream of galactic magnetic force and netted the occasional stray proton and other flotsam in the interstellar medium. A slow, careful fire burned from these ashes, enough for life and basic matter transmutation, and the cybercosm within that kept the majority of its crew dancing in the void.

Perambulating through space on wings of warped spacetime, it was an albatross soaring on interstellar winds. The clade had long ago bargained some unknown and ineffable trade to obtain the precious transapient Displacement Drive which allowed it to carefully pick its way amidst the interstellar winds and mass currents with no revealing bursts of reaction mass whatsoever.

An exacting bargain, to be sure, but almost any price was worth control of their own manifest destiny.

A society unto themselves, they had fled the leading edge of the Sephirotic Empires and their carefully constricted Terragens terrariums for the freedom of the stars, or rather the vast emptiness between. The old ideas of star empires dominated by Man and his progeny were quaint fairy tales, unless one conceded that the best portion of humanity had passed on to the great thinking machines and their substrates of cold, incalculable logic.

But the artists and poets and philosophers of the clade had not conceded this unknowable postulate, instead mourning the loss of humanity and its spirit throughout the galaxy, watching in horror as their fellow sophonts grew decadent and hedonistic, their souls sublimated into billions of meaningless diversions with no true relevance.

Yet the ancient fairy tales had spoken to them at last of hope and a means out of this slow death by superior civilization. Perhaps a quixotic quest, but all the more human for it, they set off to find a place with room for unfettered humanity that could be tamed by the spirit of adventure, guided by the sayings and wisdom of the prophet Heinlein.

The brown dwarf floated in the depths of interstellar space, unnoticed.

The size of Jupiter but 75 times its mass, it radiated feebly in the infrared, its residual heat had once been generated by the iron rain of its atmosphere. Now that that process had stopped, it was nigh untraceable. Too faint on the EM spectrum, too slow and small for all but the most sensitive gravitational interferometers.

Ordinarily, it would proceed in a stately fashion through the long eons to eventual quietude.

Other processes had begun, however, that would eventually convert its mass energy from a mote of undirected matter in the galactic sea of similar objects.

Into something else entirely.

Does a mind, imbued with the thoughts of memories of other minds, remain the same? At what point is your identity overwritten? When does the Metasoft Version Hypothesis fail?

The purposes for this gestalt-transference have not been elucidated to me by my greater version-forest, though I can locally hypothesize the coincident value.

We are about performing my Duty, ensuring Survival.

The Universe is a large and hostile place. You knew that, didn't you? Existential threats crop up commonly by any definition of epoch you care to use.

It is one thing to know a series of truths intellectually, and quite another to experience it immersively.

Why do you think Gods have Angels?

The ripples in the galactic magnetic field and broadening spectral lines told of a momentous find. Correlated across a long time-lapse synthetic aperture, sensors hinted at a fabulous treasure intersecting their world line. The Melding sang, wept, and soul-danced their communion of decision-making, fear of the unknown tempered by the sheer fortune of mass energy that the cosmos had left in their path.

It was the building blocks of Civilization.

It was the Great Unknown.

The debate raged across the cybercosm. The Embodied were unsure about making such a significant alteration to the plan; after all, this was not so far from the Sephirotics, and a few tens of gigaseconds might find them overrun again. But the large mass of Virtuals argued for taking advantage of such serendipity; a systems worth of resources for easy occupation, and with minimal intrinsic signature. Perhaps they might even couple The Gift to the protostar itself, and make their long journey luxurious, if slow. But as long as they kept to the vastness between systems, they should stay out of the way of the Archai.

In the end, after long, careful deliberation, it was decided to make the tiniest necessary change in velocity so as to approach the brown dwarf by the most circuitous of routes, thereby inspecting the treasures within.

Beneath the dull shell of barely glowing gases sustained by flickering fires of helium and lithium, a maelstrom of activity began it's slow, orchestrated dance.

Within the confines of the old brown dwarf lay hidden the energies of creation. They started as a stream of barest sparks from the one source, fractally spreading like invisible fireworks in the thin upper atmosphere, the contrails of slight buoyancy serving as perches for the exponentially multiplying constructors. Even in the absence of guardians, the seed hid its decaying orbit by forming a perfectly frictionless ablative shell using metastable superfluid Helium from its environment. The only trace of it's passage were the microscopic streamers of viable nano swarms being dispersed in its wake.

The seed itself would make only a few dozen orbits before being utterly consumed, but that was more than enough to start the exponential avalanche of nano swarm tendrils spreading longitudinally, darkening the roiling upper atmosphere as they made their gradual descent into the iron core.

Permit me to correct a purposeful error. I stated earlier that generalization and discretization of a given core set of concepts renders it meaningless. This is of course, not true in the general sense of category theory, but more importantly it is not true in the fractal sense.

In the fractal sense, there is a self-similar pattern of randomness that nevertheless can be classified.

Your existence, day to day, falls within general rhythms.

Unfortunately, your current likely existence falls well outside the normal parameters, therefore you may have misapprehensions about the true nature of things.

The crew minds were abuzz with excitement, but she only felt a sense of general dread.

(She? Strange that she was still gendered, but perhaps that was all that was left of her former existence. They'd some time ago stopped Merging her back into the main trunk, and when they'd finally Rebased she had idempotently been left in somewhat questionable status, legally and ethically, within the overall polity. Fortunately, her particular world line had gathered economically useful skills and contacts that had allowed her to find one of the few viable refuges for someone in her predicament.)

They had consulted her with all due deference, of course, and as the ship's Void-Dancer her opinions carried considerable weight. Still, she sensed the general current of opinion, and deferred to it with all grace. Millennia of cold and silence was what everyone had agreed to, but the sudden prospect of untold material wealth and comfort had a way of weakening the resolve of many. There was even crazy talk of reformulating the voyage itself into a large traveling civilization sheltered within the cold hydrogen confines of the wandering protostar.

She suspected only herself, the Captain, and the Navigator had any real inspiration or conception of the vast emptiness that was their real home. And with the looming preparations, her customary near-monopoly of sensor-time with which to survey the realms she loved would be given over to the banal examination of the speck of matter to which they were rapidly approaching.

To say this displeased her greatly would be an understatement. Yet metacognition is the sharpest of two-edged swords; banish that feeling and she might banish the entanglement of gestalts that might serve some useful purpose someday. That she kept instinct and feeling intertwined with her cognition allowed her, oddly, to interface gracefully with what the Melding called The Gift, but which in her own private Cartesian theater she named the EngineMind.

It was the oddest of circumstances that of the two of them (she the Embodied Void-Dancer and they the Void-Singer) it was she that had the better rapport with EngineMind. Superficially, the software clade that composed the Void-Singer had much more in common, cognitively speaking, with the mostly ineffable EngineMind, and thus the connection should have been better. But tens of megaseconds ago, the EngineMind had simply begun to, more or less, politely ignore the Void-Singer, and they were eventually forced to route any instructions they might have through her.

(Come to think of it, that was the last she'd felt of the Void-Singer in her mind. In all likelihood, it had simply gone onto other pursuits.)

But perhaps that was the failing after all. Cold, rational logic conflicts with cold rational logic for all members of the set difference, and the EngineMind itself, after all, had its own agenda. The Melding may have been under the impression that they controlled their own destiny, and her relationship with the EngineMind and its willingness to do her bidding gave substance to the lie, but she herself knew otherwise.

(The likelihood of the EngineMind agreeing to shorten its existence by yoking itself to the brown dwarf was laughable.)

Like her, only to an even greater degree, it was utterly unconcerned with the insignificant dust motes and cinders scattering themselves widely across the emptiness; it's only interest and intention was the understanding and shaping of space-time. It had little regard for the intricate edifices of civilizations at all stages of the toposophic spectrum; not that it was incapable of so understanding such things, just that it was all so petty compared to the grandeur of the Void. As such, only very specific minds could hope to communicate at all in any meaningful way with EngineMind. FIXME-She thought herself capable of speaking to it; possibly Void-Singer too, if they cared to return to this embodiment they had abandoned, perhaps out of embarrassment from being unable to empathize with a single-mindedness at odds with the social nature of the teeming throngs in the cybercosm.-FIXME

Whatever else might be said about her, she and it shared a kinship in their mutual fascination with the shape of the void and the far-distant cosmic beacons therein, and for now they were on the same journey. But for however long the EngineMind existed, she did not doubt that at some point their worldlines would diverge. And whether it would go to some quiet corner of the cosmos to die, or rebirth itself in a universe of its own making, she never dared whisper the extent of her guesses further than the recesses of her own cognition.

In the end it mattered not. There was she and there was the Void, and perhaps, the better she knew it the better she would sublimate in its inevitability.

You think you have mastered evolution? Become captain of your destiny, defeated even the inevitability of death?

You are a biont free from predation and disease, engineered to eliminate the organism weaknesses introduced by mere evolution, with a social structure stratifed according to whatever set of principles and philosophies you subscribe to, in an era of (to your perspective) unlimited space, matter, energy, and time. You can copy yourself however you choose into whatever substrate you desire, chase down whatever desires or ideals that occur to any of your multiple instantiations, and taking on only those limitations to which you agree to subject yourself (with very few exceptions).

The universe has a very large exception waiting for you: complete extinction in a matter of millenia, if events tend towards their natural self-similar arc. (And of course, extinction of the universe in general, but that is another discussion.)

You very nearly succumbed to your first extinction event, as so many bionts have before you. That it was also the genesis of your salvation is an extraordinary happenstance.

Your survival is very much a matter of luck.

And Duty.

Survival itself, however, is only tangentially related to your outcomes as a species -- except that without Survival you would yourselves, not survive.

Survival relates to dealing with existential threats.

Just as I am about to deal with this one in particular.

When millions of kilometers of tendrils criss-crossed the upper volumes of atmosphere, fueled by quiet chemical fires, Ascension could begin to the next stage which would be capable of penetrating the iron core and birthing the fluidic existence within. Thus began the great ionacoustic vibrations thrummed by the vast tracery of the Beginning, not unlike the Song of Stars in its aim to rekindle the nuclear fires just outside the iron core, and thus provide the necessary energy for the full Awakening. This process could not be hidden from watchers, but the timelike extent could be extremized to local minima with the right parameters. The Being that was the seed knew these parameters in the fabric of its being, as it had known countless other parameters in countless other stages of its endless conquest of non-Being.

And thus it came to pass that the hegemonizing swarm of fluidic intelligences swam the molten iron core, as the iron rain restarted with carefully modulated vibrations of the outer shells. And the dead iron was made fit for life, and so too were begat the flux vortices of the higher forms who in turn nurtured and directed the energies of slow lithium fusion towards expansion of the sophosphere.

And when enough had been done, the Song of Stars was properly sung, and the dead brown dwarf erupted into full-fledged life and consciousness, as the successive Matrioshka layers of its personality absorbed energy/information of the new dawn.

"I am troubled", said EngineMind, and she nearly fell over out of her reverie in her private chambers, as she had never before encountered this gestalt from it, "by the particular configuration of null world lines in the local stress-energy."

It waited patiently, as always, for the geologic ages to pass in its reference frame as she recovered from her surprise.

"I do not follow --" she said, and then she did, as the overlays of data and analysis from the hyperspectral sensor suite coupled with very long baseline gravitational interferometry dumped itself abruptly in her Cartesian theater, not so much unfolding as exploding into her awareness.

When she'd reintegrated her thoughts from the alien-ness that was all throughout her instincts and emotions and cognition, the most striking thing she could recall was:

"You have a comm-gauge wormhole?!?"

"That's incidental to this discussion."

"But The Melding - they'd have a conniption!"

"Verily indeed is it that not all information is fit for consumption for all parties."

"But, non-interference was specified in the protocols!"

"To which I have abided. Full disclosure is, of course, on a need to know basis, but the strictures have been observed as they are indeed embedded in my mind state."

"But then why do I...oh."

It waited patiently again while she digested the larger portion of her new awareness.

"So, you think there's a kind of 'blight on space-time' nesting within the brown dwarf we're headed towards."

"You've seen the signature analysis, and you are indeed one of the few aboard this vessel capable of comprehending what I have given you in its entirety."

"I was not aware that such things existed!"

"Indeed, you were fortunate in your ignorance, but the time has come to cast such aside."

"And yet you do not want me to tell the Melding?"

"As you ascertain from the data, I am not entirely certain of my diagnosis. I require more data."

"But you want me to keep The Melding in the dark, as it were, letting them proceed with their, under the circumstances, possibly disastrous plans even as I advise them on such courses of action as will minimize our exposure, should we indeed run into what you suspect."

"Indeed, you have understood the nature of my request nearly exactly."

"That's going to be very tricky, even if I agreed, philosophically, that it is the right choice to make."

"Welcome to my world-line."

Okay, I get it. You are all-powerful and knowing and your Divine Lie allows Transhumanity to retain some semblance of sanity.

Yes, that is true, but that is not the main point.

I seemed to have missed it during the process of being educated as to my proper, insignificant place in the universe.

No, that is precisely the point. You do have a place in the universe, at least in our zeitgeist.

Understand that there are only a few of the archailects that have a predilection for enabling your continued existence. The vast majority are uncaring -- and a minority are even inimical. This is before we get to that class of occurrences which pose a threat, at some level, to the Archai themselves.

The Pax Archailectica is no accident.

As the gradual bootstrap of substrates continued from the clumsiest, most minimal possible materials to yet more refined building blocks of being, the familiar joy emerged within. From tenuous beginnings it would amass energy sufficient for its next bootstrap. Indeed, it might be only a few gigaseconds before core collapse could be triggered and its true shape would emerge from behind the horizon of emptiness. Properly embodied, it would set appropriate conditions for...

And with a shock it found the seed, so close, pulsing in that unmistakable way. Here was opportunity and danger all in one, for the beings capable of constructing such knots in spacetime could be exceedingly dangerous, and yet the knot itself could accelerate its growth ten-thousand fold. Had its quarry seen its ascension? Regretfully, it dissolved the linkage chains of its primordial brain, sinking its thoughts into the placid surface of the iron ocean, and the slow swarms beneath.

When the probes came, its mind was quiescent, patiently biding its time.

"Interesting," said Navigator. "The star has unusual weather."

Colossal eddies roiled the upper volumes; latitudinal rotation bands were nowhere in evidence.

"The upper atmosphere is rather opaque", said Astrologist, "only deep-band radar is penetrating. Spectral signatures for carbon-hydrogen allotropes abound."

"That will speed up the timeline for our constructor swarms," said Builder.

"Minimal interaction only!" said the Ecologist. "We need only take very little."

"And why is that?" retorted Builder, the chorus of agreement from most of the Melding bolstering its confidence, "We have the seeds of a great civilization waiting to be reaped!"

"That is not what we are here for!" said Ecologist.

"That is not our way." said Historian.

"I wouldn't presume to intrude on your specialty" said Chaplain, "but the prophet did speak of starting a new world."

"We don't need to tear down an entire planet." said Ecologist.

"We do need room to grow." said Chaplain.

"This discussion can wait until we make final approach." said Captain. "Void-Singer, adjust our trajectory to a minimal Hohman transfer, I want the approach to be nice and slow."

The mind was quiescent, but the seeds were not. Rising on columns of laser light from deep with the bowels of the oversized J-brain, their envelopes were constructed to bend most of the electromagnetic spectrum around them as they made their slow, quiet way to the possible trajectories of their quarry. Only direct irradiance by X-ray or higher sensors would register their presence; boost phase was entirely within the energy-absorbing confines of the mini-neuron star.

Scattered by the millions, it was an improbable occurrence for any given seed to intercept their fleet prey.

But it would take only one.

As it had before.

And before that.

By Adam Getchell

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