by Chinedum Ofoegbu

Originally Published in Issue 2 of Voices/ Future Tense (july 2006)

Death is overrated; dying is not. All our philosophies, formed in long-ago times of inevitable mortality, have had to accept death. We crafted wishful fantasies of perfect afterlives, imagined an ordered cosmos with endless cycles of rebirth, we even wrote books! Then came the Singularities and all paradigms shattered. Now that one can save persona to disk, gene therapy has removed the specter of decrepit old age, nanoimmune systems can salvage health from the grossest of physical harm; death has become a distant shadow of its former self. Then came the Mortalists, who would have us choose death because: "Nay!" say they, "Of what now becomes our heroes, our martyrs, our saints?!" as if those noble souls had not died fighting for a better world.

Today, we have fulfilled that dream and done it one better; we're living in a better universe.

Yet, beneath the blithe certitude of techno-immortality lurks a shadow, that of bleak inevitable entropy. Backups can corrupt, genes can wear out, nanosystems can wise up and leave; radiation, meteor strikes, transcension events, supernovae; death hasn't gone away; merely moved next door; one disaster, one transapient decision away.

By putting ourselves in admittedly superior hands, we have outdone Esau's choice; trading our birthright, the rudder to individual fate, for species survival. Now, the life of hu is at the whim of ai.

24 posthuman fighter craft veer across sensor ambits, drivefields clawing at space-time for purchase. Fractal constellations of weapons fire burn, peter out and burn anew against the dark background. Missiles detonate early, kinetics inexplicably slow, attack drones turn on each other, and lasers? They are alternately refracted, reflected, returned to sender and absorbed by the starless sphere that is the Black Angel. For its part, it hasn't even bothered
attacking yet.

The Keplerians, smart enough not to try matching wits, begin initiating berserker doctrine. Deep inside concentric intellects, strange attractors start to bloom, randomizing a sea of combat algorithms.

::Hethuj, go egoless now! I need full focus for this::

Chaos theory deified, thought Hethuj.


"A thousand more of us wouldn't make any difference and you know it!!" Then, quieter: "You just don't want me to feel you die."

::Oh, rest assured, that won't be a concern::

"Not a very nice thing to say to your spirit. Shouldn't you be above that sort of thing … po?" As an organic, he could bring no useful reflexes or brainpower to the battle; that was her job. His, as fighting spirit, was simply to be her reason to fight. Her posthuman brains, her post-nuclear brawn, his clarity, his loyalty to archai and polity; it occurred to Hethuj that Ambitious might actually resent this commensal symbiosis.

Or maybe she's above *that* sort of thing. Heh…

Meet Iblis. She lives in space. She can do this because she is a Sailor of the Ebon Sea. As such, she often gets compared to the angels of antiquarian myth.

A quick Net-search reveals our girl not to have wings per se but an iridescent bioplasma sail. The gauzy black 'wings' she does have, furled in her grey hump, are far from propulsive; rather, they welcome starlight into her internal ecology, permitting she and her brilliantly space-adapted clade to thrive there. But that is all scientific minutiae, irrelevant to her current dilemma.

Iblis, formerly of Lesser-clan Thuoree, is a renegade. How else to rebel against nomadic society than to settle down? Originally, she'd merely wanted to explore the indoor universe for awhile. But like all teenage rebellion, censure was the water that made it grow. Thus it was that she set off on her galactic debut.

Sailor wanderlust, of course, can only be sublimated only so far. She still traveled the galaxy, albeit by ship and wormhole rather than her own steam. Unfortunately, nothing ever lives up to the hype; every polity in the Terragen sphere had its own uniquely unlivable flaws — until Kepleria. Like millions before her and millions hence, she fell in love with the galaxy's most acclaimed mega-Dyson for the same reasons as everyone else — her own. A few years later, that love lead Iblis to join the fighting spirits and, inescapably, to her present situation.

The angel is about to lose her wings.

Considerations of irony aside, only the green gelpod and nanometal skin separated Hethuj from the battle. He could shuck egoself, lose himself to the incandescent calculus of targeting solution and flash ambush. But Immedeist doctrine said otherwise. He had to see what was going on. The problem wasn't the profuse firepower; all sensors were calibrated to function around that. It wasn't even ECM: the posthumans were fortunate they did not need to actually communicate; the Angel's jamming would have doomed them otherwise. The problem was simple info-density; too much going on too fast.

Not good enough. But only for the moment.

He stretched free an abstraction-modifier complex; in his mind, it was glowing string, a luminescent Cat's Cradle. To the side, he pulled up icons representing the five peaks of his sensorium. A twitch of will and they intercollapsed into synaesthesia.

::Isn't this what your teachers would call Nadir Point? Getting to look your own death in the face? If you like, I could space you, free you from my proxy perceptions::

The complex, now a web of braided light, was too 'large' to fit. He inflated the sense-icon to match, minute featurescape springing to view. He rewove the web again, aligning with the newfound topography. And now, the easy part
He drops it in -

::Ecos savant techniques, hu? Tsk-tsk-tsk, you just don't give up, do

- and from chaos, rises clarity.

Ecstatic Dancer is on the receiving end of a neutrino beam — which should be impossible. He is a reactionless butterfly, a dancing marvel of fractal-derived evasion.

He is a victim of entomology.

Seconds flash by; intricacy fades into mediocrity. Swoop, loop, twitch, twist, stretch, quiver … wobble. What had once been Ecstatic Dancer is now little more than wobbling dumb matter. When he fissions apart, it is a Pyrrhic relief. A Black Angel sub-drone flits by. Blip of energy sing. Moments later, the scattering globules suddenly change direction and accelerate to better rip through Curlicue of Mass Destruction. To her credit, Curlicue's remnants immediately return to swarmlife.

Elsewhere, Now You See Me and Now You Don't lays ambiplasma cover for everyone excluding themselves. Sacrifice play. A naked woman floats past, emerald spattering away from her in frictionless slow motion.

Wasn't Ecstatic's spirit some kind of space-tweak …

Iblis stares at the Black Angel's nano, ugly sedimentary clouds penetrating her accel-gel envelope. Why the Angel drone singled her out for attack even after lobotomizing her fighter, she will never be able to answer. The nanites meet skin. They disappear.

When a human is in horrible pain, e will scream. This is a useful reflex; it diverts the sensory focus from tactile to aural, releases endorphins, forces deep breathing. It also summons help — in theory. It's not so different for Sailors, even if they do communicate by laser. What do you do when you have no mouth and do not breathe?

At first, through the fog of panic, she can feel nothing. Hope, desperate and frantic, wells up. Then comes a … shifting inside of her, organs doing things neither nature nor GeneTEK ever intended. Bones shriek; pain ignites like so much subcutaneous napalm. Photons spume off into the void. To another Sailor, it would be blood-freezing, a paroxysm of mouthless suffering. Anyone else, it wouldn't even show up against background radiation. Light noise.

::Your(ur) seefoo(foo) would be so proud(oud)::

Despite finding time to tease her spirit, Ambitious is not idle. She darts between missiles, scattering preemptive counternano in case of disassembler payload; threads through the crisscross trellises of particle and laser beams, every vintage represented. By staying in drivefield, she can random-bounce off photon pressure from explosions, starlight, especially her teammates' lasers, in return, she too pool-cues them around with entropic abandon.

Unfortunately for Hethuj, in order to avoid slowdown (and thus getting shot) from random dust particles (unavoidable shortcoming of an active bias drive), she had to keep dropping in and out of drivefield. Even through acceleration gel, he was riding an inertial bronco. This was no time to mock him.

Hethuj seethed "You're cracking jokes. At a time like this…" then exploded "Your sibs are dying out there!"

::Fuck you, mehum, I'm crying on another channel. This one's focused on keeping you alive::

In the resulting silence, Hethuj kicked himself repeatedly and more.

Keplerians died; Now You See Me and Now You Don't flew past each other, presumably intending to pull a tandem maneuver. Neither could have anticipated the former vanishing in a gravitational shockwave. The latter was of course obliterated; drivefield collapses tend to do that. Curlicue's hololect swarm got eaten by a BA counter-swarm. The same swarm then blasted her still floating spirit with antimatter. The explosion took out Obvious Karma.

At length: "… Near as I can tell, none of you are even hitting it."

::All my sensors are giving different location readings. I'm assuming it's the same for the others:: Ambitious wasn't screaming. Hethuj doubted if she even could, but the ice in her tone was somehow more unsettling; she'd never sounded that way before.

::And, before you ask, no I cannot detect the intrusion:: "So —"

::So you could be talking to the Black Angel right now:: She paused,
acknowledging the gravity of the moment. ::Yes::

He assumed the surfer's calm, riding a superconscious adrenal high, far above detrimental considerations of complexity. There was only the now and the here. Panic, terror, shock; all impotent sharks. They couldn't — mustn't — touch him. Not now.

"Do we have any options at all? Some crazy doomsday scenario?"

::Assloads, of course. But I have priorities. The others are going to activate Protocol Atzilut B:: Before Hethuj could even begin a search, she continued ::You never had access to allmy data, hu, for at least two really good reasons. One: your wonderful little brain would have burst like a tomato and two: I didn't know about it — not until a millisecond before I told you:: Hethuj just stared, eyes glassy, comm channels hitching.

::Starting to get the picture now, are we::

Iblis' hump is shrinking, skin, flesh, solar collectors housed within; all melting into her back. Twitches grow into shivering grows into convulsion; she arches violently, her spine a succession of high-frequency sine waves. Her defensive nano, having fought and lost, treacherously join the enemy's remodeling of her innards. Her myriad little photosynths never stood a chance. In minute seconds, they too are drafted into the assault on all she has ever been. Were her eyes not blinded shut with pain, Iblis would have known she'd lost infra-red. She`d have seen the rad-resistant dolphin-grey of her skin
become a healthy seashell pink. Or at least, the greenscale equivalent through accel-gel.

Irony is a killer.

Even as her chest shrinks, weird bumps rise from it, softly tapering to dark peaks. Tendrils of — hair, she realizes — swim around her eyes, tickle ears(?), tease nose. The unfamiliar sensation of saliva and a tongue to taste it with fills her … mouth(?) She is suddenly ravenous. She gags on gel she's never had to breathe with reflexes she's never needed.

When the lips come, what follows is obvious; Iblis screams, tongue, lungs, heart and soul. Her chest aches. Throat chafes, viscosity soothes. Accel-gel reverberates like crazed tachycardia, air bubble hysteria accompanies. Right on cue, the gel detonates off, freeing the inert BA nano, job done.

There are no last thoughts from a mind destroyed by pain, only frozen tears from baseline eyes.

… to be continued…

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