More Things in Heaven
By Todd Drashner (Originally written 2008, Rewritten 2022)

"There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy."
--From Hamlet (Pre-Spaceflight Old Earth)

Settled firmly into his seat on the bridge of a warship about to launch, Dayyid Mok Noon found himself thinking back to recent events.

It had been only two nights ago when he and Magda had walked along the seawall, the lights of the city towers reflecting across the water and illuminating the night around them. Here and there other couples and triples walked, each lost in their own thoughts or in their partners. He and Magda had just as studiously worked to have attention only for each other. This night, only days away from Launch, seemed one for quiet closeness, not laughter or loud conversation. A time to treasure one's memories or the presence of your loved ones. Because in a few days both might be gone.

Suddenly Magda had turned to him and pressed close, hiding her face in his shoulder.

"Tell me you're going to be ok,"she whispered. "Tell me that when you go to the Center tomorrow that it'll still be you when they're done."

"Of course it will still be me." He had replied. "The scan process is totally non-destructive. I'll go in, lie down on a big soft bed for a few hours and then be out in time for lunch. After that, it'll be up to him. I mean them."

"And what about them?" Magda asked, pulling back a little and looking up into his eyes. "Let's say this whole crazy scheme of the Teacher works. What happens after? What do we do afterward? What do we do with these…people?"

"I don't know, Mia," he murmured, pulling her close again. "I just don't know. But I do know that if we don't do this, we won't have an afterward to worry about."

And in the sky above a new star burned with a cold, hard light.

Settled firmly into his seat on the bridge of a warship about to launch, Dayyid Mok Noon found himself thinking back to how it all began.

Even at its best, Shasa could only have been described as a backwater world. And Shasan civilization liked it that way. Their single inhabited planet in an otherwise unremarkable system was home to a hundred and fifty million near-baseline human souls. No transapients occupied their quiet system, no wormhole gates, comm-gauge or greater, linked it to the galaxy at large. Only a few scattered comms and monitoring satellites lit its skies. A starship might visit but once a century. The nearest beam-rider station was 70 light-years away. There was the Known Net link, of course, orbiting hundreds of AUs above the plane of the ecliptic and continually taking in the transmitted data of a billion systems. But that was a minor consideration.

Shasan civilization had successfully resisted the temptations of the wider galactic culture for centuries. The occasional bit of useful science or technological innovation might be culled from the flood for the betterment of all, but the more radical or disruptive features of the outside world were something to be avoided and left to sink into the obscurity of the Net archives. Content to be nearbaseline, no Shasan would think of altering themselves in the manner of the Tweaks or Rianths who swarmed across the rest of Terragen civilization. No Shasan would ever willingly upload themselves into the sterile immortality of virtual worlds and cybernetic bodies. And although bots and nanotech, gengineering and AI were an everyday part of Shasan life, all such technologies were strictly limited to levels that could only ever enhance, never dominate, the Shasan people and their comfortable existence.

The Screamer changed all that.

On the fifth day of Jeda, the month of celebration, a new star flared in the Shasan sky. For three days it shone and for three days instruments all over the system turned toward what at first was taken to be an odd new kind of supernova. However, that first impression was proven wrong within an hour. The glaring pinpoint of light was no supernova. It was monochromatic, being only and entirely a single shade of purest blue. It was coherent, its light waves marching in lockstep like soldiers on an ancient drill field. And it was only visible from Shasa and its immediate orbital environs. In short it was a laser. A laser of incredible power locked onto the orbit of Shasa around its sun and bathing that orbit, and of course the planet itself, in light. After these revelations, the final bit of data delivered by the Shasan observation AIs probably shouldn't have come as any great surprise but it had just the same. The laser light illuminating Shasa was not simply a bolt of raw energy, but a modulated beam transmitting terabytes of data per second and repeating itself approximately once per minute. Someone, it seemed, had something to say to the Shasan people and was prepared to go to extraordinary lengths to make their message heard.

For all their proud independence from galactic civilization, Shasa's leadership was not above hedging their bets. The continuous stream of incoming data from the Known Net might be mostly ignored but it was never destroyed. Instead, all information received was archived in case of future need. Faced with a situation that even their best advance planning simulations had never anticipated, Shasa's ruling council had turned to that vast storehouse of data. And they had not been disappointed. Less than a second after presenting the contents of the signal to the archive AIs a translation had been produced. And with it terror.

Settled firmly into his seat on the bridge of a warship about to launch, Dayyid Mok Noon (version 3.0) found himself thinking back to everything they had learned.

The Screamer's opening message had been a fairly standard galactic transmission protocol and it had been devastatingly straightforward. War was raging among the stars. Even the transapients were threatened. Perhaps even the archai, god-like AI rulers of millions of systems, had reason to fear. The foe was more dangerous, clever, and powerful than any that had come before. It absorbed individuals, worlds, entire civilizations into itself and destroyed anything it could not consume. It was implacable and utterly unrelenting, never accepting any attempt at negotiation or communication except to further its own expansion. It was called the Amalgamation.

Shasa knew about the Amalgamation and the war that was being fought against it by the so-called Amalgamation Containment Initiative, a great alliance of many civilizations, in a distant sort of way. The news from the stars was as constant as everything else coming across the Known Net and largely just as ignored. What did the Shasan people know or care of great battles fought tens or hundreds of light-years away and struggles that would test the strength of a god? Certainly, in the last century or so the conflict had seemed to be moving closer to Shasan space, but surely that was a temporary aberration and no cause for real concern. Or so the thinking had been. Thinking that was now proven dangerously wrong.

Far across the stars a great battle had been fought. Two fleets had met and unleashed massive forces; each striving to wipe the other from existence. Whole worlds had burned in the fires of that struggle and an entire solar system had died. In the end, one of the fleets, the Amalgamation fleet, had broken and fled, attempting to retreat in a thousand directions at once to points where it could regain or even surpass its former strength, using time, self-replication, and the resources of countless anonymous star systems to rebuild its forces back to their former glory and beyond. This could not be allowed.

Fearful that any of the Amalgamation fleet might survive to start the conflict anew; the Initiative fleet had split its forces and sent them flying in pursuit, each striving to overtake and destroy a different element of the Amalgamation fleet before it had a chance to take root in some new location. Each pursuing ship or sub-fleet had accelerated to the limits of its engines, boosting up to nearly the speed of light as quickly as possible. And then the error had been discovered.

In their haste to chase down the enemy that was escaping, the Initiative forces had been insufficiently thorough in confirming that they were leaving only the dead of their enemy behind. Some years after the Initiative ships had left the scene of battle, a lone Amalgamation vessel, massively damaged, perhaps even reconstituted from the remnants of several others, had boosted away and set its course toward Shasa's star. But for a minor bit of cosmic chance it might have traveled all the way there undiscovered. However, during its covert flight the Amalgamation ship had run afoul of a drifting piece of random cosmic debris, a fragment of a comet or Kuiper body perhaps, and been forced to redirect its drive systems at emergency thrust to avoid a collision. In the process it had illuminated one of the Initiative's combat squadrons as it strove to catch up to several Amalgamation warships. And the forces of civilization found themselves in a quandary.

The fleeing ships of the enemy were in full retreat but still terribly formidable. And this particular Amalgamation grouping was both heavily armed and largely undamaged. It would take everything the squadron had to destroy it. No ship, even one with the minor level of firepower required to eliminate a single damaged straggler, could be spared. Worse, even if the Initiative could have diverted its entire resources to backtracking and correcting its error there was no time. They were too far away and moving too fast and the enemy had made too much progress toward its goal. By the time any of their ships could implement the necessary maneuvers to intercept the lone ship it would have arrived in Shasa's solar system and had sufficient time to both make repairs and replicate itself any number of times (and, almost as an afterthought, subsume all of Shasan civilization into itself). The Initiative forces might arrive to find all the gains they had made in battle undone by a single survivor, or worse that their error had opened the door for the enemy to end up even stronger than before. The situation was intolerable!

Fortunately, the squadron was nothing if not inventive. Among its contingent were numerous transapient minds, including minds of the Second Singularity. Vast intellects of superhuman intelligence, they now turned their attention to snatching victory from the jaws of defeat. They inventoried the resources available to them. And from their efforts the Screamer was born.

Synchronizing the laser weapons of hundreds of vessels they sent a signal winging across the blackness. Contained within it were plans, strategies, logistics programs, and an AI control matrix that the people of Shasa would come to call the Teacher. The forces of the Containment Initiative might not be able to reach Shasa in time to aid them in their hour of need. But their knowledge and their agents were not so limited.

Settled firmly into his seat on the bridge of a warship about to launch, Dayyid Mok Noon (version 4.0) found himself thinking back to everything they had done to reach this moment.

Although it freely admitted that it was not a fully sophont being but rather just a very sophisticated tool, the Teacher had proven to be tremendously helpful. Loaded into Shasa's Known Net archive, the Teacher immediately began accessing designs for a host of devices to be used in the Shasan defense. Linking to the Shasan local network, it installed a multitude of programs and upgrades designed to resist the Amalgamation's lowest level subversion attacks. Negotiating with the Known Net receiver, it engineered the release of a small number of magnetic monopoles from the node's emergency power core. At a stroke, Shasa found itself in possession of the seeds of mass conversion technology, something it had studiously avoided since its founding a thousand years before. Speaking first with Shasa's leaders and then with the Shasan people directly, it brought advice, wisdom, and, perhaps most importantly, hope where there might otherwise have been none.

By the time the Screamer's signal was flooding Shasan receivers the Amalgamation vessel was almost upon them. They had barely a year before it would begin deceleration and barely a month after that before it would approach their world with the intent of consuming both it and them to help fuel its rebirth. Time enough to do what must be done but just barely. And being so constrained by time there was a need for…sacrifices.

As the nanofacs and robot builders swarmed across and beneath the surface of Shasa and its moon, growing monopole factories and warships, the people of Shasa were forced to make a painful choice. Ever since its founding, their civilization had eschewed the technology of uploading. Creating a cybernetic copy of a being's mind for the purpose of supposedly living on after the death of the original or worse, deliberately replacing one's brain with a computronium equivalent, was anathema to them.

"It's a joke!" Dayyid himself had once said at a party held only a few years before the Screamer's light shone down upon them. "It's a sick joke, and not even a slightly funny one. There's no way you can make me believe that some kludge made out of software is really me. Or really even my pet. It's not that software can't be alive. Everybody knows ais are alive. But a copy being functionally the same as the original? Just because they share all the same information? Not a chance! The whole idea is ridiculous."

That had been his position then and the vast majority of Shasa's population would have readily agreed with him. But time, and imminent destruction, can force many changes.

The problem, on the face of it, was really quite simple. The Teacher, for all its impressive capabilities, was not a combat AI. The level of skill and knowledge necessary for such tasks, especially when facing a foe of the power of the Amalgamation, was beyond it. Nor could a combat AI be sent from the Initiative fleet. There was not sufficient bandwidth available in the Screamer to carry a mind of the necessary sophistication. Neither could the records of the Known Net help them in this instance. Combat specialized AIs, particularly combat specialized AIs able to face a threat of the scale of the Amalgamation, were one of the few things not readily available in that vast repository of knowledge. That left only one alternative.

The people of Shasa would be tested, using programs carried by the Teacher. Those of the proper psychological makeup, deemed able to handle the stress of existing as uploaded intelligences sent into a war, would first have their minds nondestructively scanned and then copied into computronium substrates built from Known Net designs. Then they would be injected into a series of high-speed virtual training environments that would prepare them for combat against the approaching Amalgamation vessel. And finally their mind-states, trained at a hundred times human normal rates to fit the education of years into a few weeks, would be copied multiple times and loaded into solid-state warships built from designs also brought by the Teacher.

Under any other circumstances, the plan would have been condemned and rejected out of hand. But these were not any other circumstances. And so it had been done.

Settled firmly into his seat on the bridge of a warship about to launch, Dayyid Mok Noon checked environmental systems status one more time and looked around at the people he was about to go into battle with. Yanna was checking intership comms again, a little frown of concentration creasing her face, and Tak was focused on the laser arrays, making sure that the phased array optics were properly calibrated.

Around them the ship hummed with activity (although the actual hum was really just a bit of virtual simulation added for verisimilitude). Bots and drones swarmed both inside and out, checking for flaws or malfunctions, so far without success. Sensors on the ships, in the surrounding launch complex, and spreading for kilometers around across the landscape reported on everything from the ship's temperature and power consumption, to launch laser status, to the weather. Here, and at the ninety-nine other launch complexes scattered across the globe, events were moving toward a climax.

Each launch point for the newly created Shasan Defence Force contained ten launch cradles, each containing a solid-state warship. The ships themselves were both impressive and unprepossessing. Each was a gleaming, streamlined cone a hundred meters long. Scattered around the planet, their hulls glittered in sunlight or moonlight, dawn, noon, or dusk. They were made of diamondoid and sapphiroid, ceramic and buckyfiber. Locked into their launch cradles and preparing to fly upward through kilometers of atmosphere they were mostly featureless now, their various secondary systems hidden away behind protective hatches. All that would change once the ships reached space, but that time was not quite yet. But the moment was imminent.

The Amalgamation ship had been decelerating toward them for a month now, its drive exhaust shining like a new star in the night sky. Within a few hours that light would go out and then the enemy would be almost upon them. The time to act was now.

The final run-up began. The last ports and access panels were closed and sealed, bots and drones scurried and flew away, and a countdown started. When it reached zero, immense superconducting storage rings began dumping their power into the great laser arrays arranged around the launch site. A moment later the conversion reactors cut in and added their output to the flow of energy being transformed into light - and the lasers fired.

Underneath each cradle was an array of high energy lasers, all aimed upward toward the bottom of the ship, where solid fuel blocks and shaped combustion chambers absorbed each pulse of laser light and flashed into plasma. Driven upward by the superheated exhaust, each ship rose skyward at an acceleration that would have crushed flesh and blood crewmembers had any been aboard. Within minutes each achieved escape velocity and then flashed into orbit.

As they settled into orbit, each ship took a moment to check its condition and status and to establish communication with the vessels around it. In short order a network formed, riding on encrypted laser pulses and welding the fleet into a coordinated whole. Fusion drive cores powered up, radiator arrays deployed, and like a flock of vast crystalline birds, the ships oriented on the star of the approaching foe and boosted out of orbit.

The Amalgamation was shattered and crippled and utterly confident. Its construction spores were exhausted, its sensors all but blind, its intelligence reduced to the merely modosophont, or perhaps even below. Its sanity was…not something it was capable of questioning. The exigencies of war and travel across the void had left it the palest shadow of its former glory, but that was of no concern. Self's !!REVELATION!! spores were still fresh and functional and Self's Purpose was undimmed - and that was all that mattered. Self might be weakened to the point of near collapse, but that would only make the inevitable victory a greater affirmation of Self's glorious destiny.

It had been necessary to temporarily fall back from the battle with the Deluded for the purpose of bolstering Self but that was merely a temporary measure. In only a little more time Self would have fully decelerated into this system and the process of conversion, repair and replication would begin. Records acquired during the recent conflict had shown that this system contained a concentration of the Lost; and a particularly weak one at that. Socio-technical indices recorded that these Lost were of only Basic 1 technology level, combined with a deliberately induced cultural stasis that made any internally generated changes in that condition highly unlikely. Easily absorbed and with no serious resistance possible, they would soon be added to Self.

Shortly after that, Self would convert much of the mass of this system into more of Self and the process of dealing with the Deluded would begin again. Of course victory was the only possible outcome; the Truth of the Self made all else impossible. It was built into the fundamental structure of the Existence that the Self would become ALL and achieve the Ultimate. Such was the Truth, such was the Purpose of the Existence, and such was What Would Be. All others in the Existence who did not see the Truth and become Self were Lost. All those who resisted the Truth were Deluded. It was a fate worse than death to not become Self and know Truth. Therefore it was only True Mercy to remake the Lost into Self and to give the Deluded death. Such was the Truth.

Now, as Self moved toward the final approach to the Lost world and the interference from Self's own drive systems began to fade, Self looked into the space ahead and noticed an anomaly. Energy discharges were popping up all over the world before it, rising into orbit, and then boosting toward an interception with Self. The Amalgamation contemplated this and then broadcast a burst of information at the approaching ships. These Lost were moving out to meet Self's vessel well away from their world. The reasons for that were largely irrelevant unless the Lost were actually Deluded. The signal Self had sent would determine that. Properly received it would show the Lost the Truth and bring them into Self. Indeed it would be as if the Self had jumped across hundreds of thousands of kilometers to the Lost fleet at the speed of light. Self was Self was all the Same regardless of origin. This was also Truth. If the Lost did not take in the signal, then they showed themselves to be Deluded. Then it would be necessary to grant them True Mercy and end their pain.

The signal from Self reached the approaching ships. A moment later they answered that signal with a broadcast of their own. Self routed the transmission into a protected volume, analyzed it, and then considered the result. A simple unencrypted broadcast welcoming Self to this system. More accurately welcoming "the approaching vessel" and inquiring about possibilities for trade and cultural exchange. A blatant deception. By this point the ships should have been Self, brought into the Truth by Self's own signal. They were not. They were lying. They were Deluded. They would die.

The Amalgamation was shattered and crippled and utterly confident. Self was currently no smarter and only moderately more powerful than this ragtag fleet of Deluded, but Self's Destiny and Purpose more than compensated. The killing devices that Self's ship mounted were easily capable of smashing this little collection of ships aside before they could even get close enough to use their own weapons, let alone muster energies sufficient to seriously threaten Self. Then Self would proceed to the planet beyond and bring its inhabitants into the fold. No doubt there would be some small number of Deluded among their ranks as well. But they would be easily dealt with.

The Amalgamation was incapable of even conceiving of regret or pity, but if it had it might have felt a little of each as it deployed several laser modules and prepared to eliminate the approaching forces. Whether it was capable of feeling shock was tested a fraction of a second later when the Shasan fleet opened up with its own lasers and struck Self and the deployed laser modules with energies and at a range beyond everything it thought it knew about their capacities.

The ship rocked hard and the bridge simulation lost cohesion for a moment. Things blurred and shifted and then stabilized again. The bridge appeared undamaged on the face of it but that was an illusion. Status indicators all over Dayyid's board were blinking frantically, telling him of damage and destruction sketched down the side of their vessel. If the Amalgamation had been surprised by their attack, it had recovered quickly. The resulting counter-strike had eliminated ten percent of the fleet with the first salvo and damaged dozens more. Things had gone downhill from there. According to the indicators, several systems were down, the fusion core was fluctuating, and their weapons were all but exhausted. Still they had to keep fighting, even as the fleet fell back away from the approaching destroyer. Dayyid readied another laser burst, drawing the last of the energy from the superconducting reservoirs in the ship's core. At the same time Yanna spun the ship using maneuvering jets, turning their damaged side away from the foe. Tak was checking systems at a frantic pace, shutting down those beyond repair, rerouting others to non-damaged backups, and activating repair systems wherever possible to heal what had been destroyed. They were currently running at over a thousand times baseline normal time rate. Given even a little time, they could regroup and repair most of the damage, returning to a level of strength nearly equal to what they had enjoyed at launch. Unfortunately, a little time might be something they were not going to have.

Dayyid targeted the lasers onto a portion of the Amalgamation's combat swarm, prepared to fire and .

The ship was spinning wildly, blown away by the ablation flash from the particle beam that had just hit them. Dayyid fought to concentrate enough to damp the spin, the ship responding to a combination of his will and direct links into his natural sense of balance, itself augmented to operate in free-fall and three dimensions. Telith and Grana were busy as well, Telith overseeing the initiation of repairs while Grana simultaneously fired a series of pulse cannons from their deployment racks. The expendable munitions flew away in multiple directions, the reaction from their firing helping to stabilize the ship (Dayyid briefly imagined Grana grabbing his arm to help steady him on uneven ground). Dayyid brought the ship into line, still flying away from the enemy but facing back toward it, just in time for Grana to trigger the munitions, a brilliant flowering of nuclear casaba pumped plasma bolts fired at their enemy from multiple locations. The energies released had a much shorter range than what the main laser systems could produce, but were dangerous nonetheless, as well as being visually spectacular. Grana wasted no time admiring his handiwork but immediately followed up with a massive burst from the ship's main array, now aimed at the Amalgamation vessel again.

The burst from the lasers caused several new warning lights to appear on the flight control console, nearly all of them in the areas denoting engine and power status. Dayyid winced, knowing that they couldn't keep this up for very much longer. A few more shots was all they had and then the choice would be dying, running, or coming up with Pla.. .

Dayyid cursed as sensors detected multiple flashes of light denoting the loss of another dozen or so fighter vessels, many of them carrying other versions of him. To anyone watching, it would seem obvious that the battle was not going well. They had lost more than half their forces in the initial assault and half of the remainder even while they initiated the retreat. The ships themselves could fight equally well regardless of orientation but even in its weakened condition the Amalgamation vessel was simply too powerful. Its weapons were far more capable than their own, picking them off by the dozens with each shot, and its self-repair capacities seemed limitless. On more than one occasion, free flying combat modules or parts of the main enemy ship had been broken apart or blown away from the superstructure by incoming Shasan fire, only for the fragments to suddenly begin maneuvering independently on their own, shooting at and destroying Shasan vessels and then rapidly moving back into alignment with the main Amalgamation mass and even reintegrating into it. In addition, the Amalgamation had deployed particle beam bursts, anti-matter flechettes, and what seemed to be swarms of extremely small missiles which rapidly overwhelmed any individual ships point-defense systems and then detonated all at once, leaving the target in fragments. Worst of all, it occasionally let loose great bolts of high energy plasma which detonated on impact with anything they touched, vaporizing the target instantly. These were the "hellbores" they had been briefed about, but the reality made a mockery of mere description. Entire groups of defenders had been destroyed by hellbore bolts when they had let themselves get too close together, a lesson they had learned quickly, but at devastating cost.

Even as Shasa grew steadily closer in their sensors, its bulk offering a temporary shield from the onrushing enemy if only they could reach it, the Amalgamation continued to pick them off with steady determination and despite a host of countermeasures. Still, if they could just reach the planet, just get into position for a counter-attack, they could .

The Amalgamation was shattered and crippled and all but victorious. The pathetic little fleet the Deluded had sent against Self had been fated for destruction the moment it rejected Self's transmission of Truth and now that destruction was nearly complete. True, the Deluded had managed to surprise it for a moment with the unexpected range and power of their weapons, abilities that their apparent technology level should not have permitted, but that was a minor matter. Most likely they had extracted the designs for superior devices from their local Known Net archive, a fact Self would confirm when it eventually brought that entity into the Amalgamation directly. True, such nodes had the habit of erasing and then destroying themselves when faced with Truth, but the fully restored Self that would soon arise here was infinitely inventive and would eventually master them as it did all things. Such was Truth, such was Destiny, such was The Way Things Must Be, such was the only possible future for anything the Amalgamation encountered. But first, Self had more immediate matters to attend to.

The last remnants of the defending Deluded had broken away some time ago and were attempting to flee back to their little world. Based on their flight profiles, they intended to go into low orbit around the planet and use its bulk to shield them temporarily from Self's weapons, no doubt using the time to regroup and attempt another round of attacks. Such a strategy was doomed of course; Self was incapable of being denied ultimate victory in all things. But it would be faster to simply eliminate the ships before they reached the planet at all before dropping into orbit and beginning the seeding. Truth would spread across this world in the form of broadcasts blanketing every frequency and millions of spores deployed from Self and incorporated into the mind of every sophont they encountered. Within hours Self would be this world and this world would be Self and Truth would spread across the stars once again. Such was Truth, such was Destiny, such was the Way Things Must Be.

But first Self would destroy these ships. The Amalgamation increased the power of its drives and accelerated still faster toward the few remaining Deluded and its imminent victory.

Dayyid waited, Dayyid watched. The place he waited in (and watched from) was less a place than a focus of awareness and sensory information. Dayyid was not alone. He was surrounded and enclosed by and almost (but not quite) merged with a large group of other minds; ninety-nine of them, in fact. Others who, like himself, existed in this place that was not. Others who waited, others who watched. Together, they watched the Shasan defense forces rise up against the approaching enemy, and together they waited as those same forces were utterly defeated and nearly destroyed. They watched as the last remnants fled to the dubious safety of Shasa itself and waited as the Amalgamation vessel accelerated after them. Watching and waiting, waiting and watching.

They were not just uploaded human minds running at high speed like the crews of the rapidly diminishing warships. While they had started out as such, now they were far more. The recently accessed technologies of the greater galaxy had been used to a far greater degree with them. They did not watch virtual screens, they absorbed data directly into their minds from hundreds of sensors spread across Shasa's local volume of space, in orbit around the planet, and scattered across its surface. They did not merely think faster than an organic human, they split their thoughts into multiple parallel streams, each thought-strand working on a different problem and then coming together again to deliver the results. They did not speak and discuss, they directly shared and apprehended each other's thoughts and views as they formed and were willed into the public mindspace.

No longer merely human, their thoughts were fast as light, their comprehension vast as the world. Now and again, if they gave themselves time to think about it in the midst of this crisis, they imagined that perhaps this is what it felt like to be a god. Until, that is, a new presence entered the not-place.

The Teacher did not just join the hundred watching Shasan minds, it engulfed them. For all their new-found capabilities, each of them felt like children next to the galactic emissary. Its thoughts were spinning crystal, liquid light. Its complex subtlety made them feel awkward and slow-witted. And its vast intelligence and caring filled them with warm confidence and determination not to let it down.

"It is time," the Teacher thought/sang/glowed. And throughout the observation thought-space the hundred Shasan uploads, augmented to a level far more than human (but yet far below transapient) reached out as they had been taught and interfaced with the Shasan defense systems. Not the few remaining warships which, powerful as they were, had never really been expected to have much chance of stopping the Amalgamation. Rather, they linked with the real Shasan defenses, the ones made possible by the coming of the Teacher. The ones built in secret (unknown even to those versions of themselves on the ships above lest the enemy capture or subsume them), while the openly built and deployed warships had served their dual roles of both maintaining public confidence (and with it social order) and providing a distraction and a goad to an onrushing predator.

"It is time," the One Hundred thought, as their vision expanded still further, their thoughts rushed even faster. While in a thousand hidden places, things began to happen.

The Amalgamation was within 50,000km of Shasa and still accelerating toward the last few fleeing defenders. Two of the Deluded had died within the previous three seconds but the last would successfully slip behind the planet to temporary safety. But no matter. Self would boost past the planet at high speed, flashing past before the Deluded could complete their orbit. Self's weapons would erase the last defender a moment later and then Self would apply high thrust to slow down and return to the little world Self would soon bring to Truth. Indeed, if the world was not totally infected by the Deluded Self might arrive even faster, broadcasting Self to the planet even before the ship had fully returned. Self might arrive to find Self already there and busily spreading Truth across this world. Even a large fraction of the Deluded might be brought into the fold. Deluded could hide from Truth but they could never deny it once properly exposed. Such was the joy of living in Truth, such was the only possible outcome, and such was The Way Things Must…What?

External sensors all across the Amalgamation's ship were suddenly detecting energy spikes from the planet and its moon. Sharp, intense energy spikes that had not been there a moment before. Their number was almost disturbingly great with at least a thousand points of energy scattered almost equally across both bodies. In a fraction of a second, Self searched Selfs memories for any similar phenomena and found a match. Self felt nothing as crude as shock, but the likelihood of encountering such technology had been judged insignificant. These little Deluded minds had not the means to create such a thing. There was deception, whether in the nature of the Deluded or in the act of generating such energies! Regardless, Self would act and act now!

The Amalgamation ship began boosting massively; aiming to accelerate out of Shasan local space and away into the depths of the Shasan system. Simultaneously, Self activated multiple launchers around the ship's structure and prepared to fire clouds of conversion spores into space back along its flight path. With their velocity greatly reduced by the impetus of the launchers, most would impact the planet, and some number of those would come into contact with its inhabitants. Upon contact with a suitable mind, each spore would begin growing, bringing the host mind into Truth and eventually producing other versions of Self to either join the greater Self or to begin the existence of Self anew. As long as even a single spore survived, Self would grow and spread, regardless of what might happen. Such was the genius of Truth, such was the greatness of Self, such it was that Self would prevail in all things. Self would spread across this world, bringing its inhabitants into the fold of Truth while the version of Self aboard this vessel looped far into the outer system and then eventually returned to rejoin the greater whole. Self could not ignore this planet of Deluded, such was unthinkable! Self would bring them into Truth one way or another, no other outcome was possible.

Spore launch was ready - begun. Truth would rain down on this little world like a blessing. Truth would grow from the generous bounty of this system. Truth would spread once more to the stars in triumph! Such was Truth! Such was the only possibility! Such was the Way Things Mus...

The first wave of hellbore bolts detonated less than a kilometer from the Amalgamation's hull. The expanding shells of star-hot plasma and radiation blasted what few spores had managed to launch at that point back into the ship and flensed the hull down to its superstructure. The second, third, and subsequent waves (more than a hundred waves were fired in less than a microsecond, each wave consisting of a thousand monopole energized plasma bursts) alternated between detonating on impact and detonating just before striking the ship. Fired from both Shasa and its moon Shala, they caught the enemy vessel in an enclosing vise of nuclear light and heat and squeezed it down to a state within hailing distance of degenerate matter. Such a condition was inherently unstable in any environment outside of a white dwarf star, and the moment the hellbore bombardment ceased, natural law reasserted itself with a vengeance. The tiny crushed down remnant that had been the Amalgamation expanded in a blast of photons and accelerated particles that separated every atom from its neighbor and flung them all into the depths of space at a fair fraction of the speed of light. The electromagnetic pulse and particle spray would block communications for several hours, but to anyone who could see the sky, the results were obvious. Shasa had won!

The next few weeks were very busy. There were celebrations and explanations, ceremonies and documentaries. The people of Shasa learned about the true nature of their defenses. The great arrays of hellbore cannon built in secret using monopoles bred from the stock acquired from the Known Net node and designs supplied by the Teacher. The role of the warships as a distraction and a goad to bring the Amalgamation close enough, and moving fast enough that it could not escape or avoid the attack that destroyed it. Some few questioned the ethics of such an action but most were simply happy to be alive and unAmalgamated. The issue of the rightness of what had been done rapidly sank below the awareness of all but a disgruntled few.

The One Hundred (as they were soon being called by nearly everybody) stepped forward and made known their sincere desire to simply sink into obscurity. They would need to remain linked to the great sensor and weapons systems for a time to ensure that any remaining bits of the Amalgamation, perhaps released before the ship ever approached their planet, were detected and destroyed before they could grow and regain their power. However, as soon as they could determine that all was safe they wished nothing more than to return to some semblance of normal Shasan life, notwithstanding their rather different circumstances from those of the average Shasan. The great weapon and sensor arrays could then be allowed to sink into disuse and the recycling bin.

This seemed all very reasonable to most, but at the same time many found it worrying. True, this enemy had been destroyed, but what if another came in future? And what other dangers might lurk out in the depths, perhaps even now turning their attention in this direction? All in all, it really seemed to make much more sense to keep the weapons around and in good repair, really. True, the One Hundred had earned their rest, but could they perhaps stay on a little longer, at least long enough to train others in how to use these systems? The necessity of uploading copies of yet more volunteers was briefly bothersome, but already the novelty of (and distaste for) such a process was beginning to fade. A voluntary sacrifice that caused no inconvenience to the person carrying it out and which could protect the whole world seemed like not much of a sacrifice at all. And of course the copies so created would always be honored for their role. Again, while there were a few dissenting voices on the margins, most thought this a very good idea, and the One Hundred generously agreed to stick around long enough to train their successors.

Finally, (even though it took place very early in the course of post-conflict events), the last warship and only survivor of the battle against the Amalgamation was retrieved from its orbit above Shasa and its crew decanted back into the virtual environments where they had first been trained. They were thanked and feted every bit as enthusiastically as the One Hundred had been, but even from the start there was a sense of the surreal about it all. They soon learned they had not been expected (or even really intended) to survive and so did those celebrating them. Yet here the three of them were: Yanna Gell Mann, Tak Es Geyar, and Dayyid Mok Noon. It was with little real surprise and even a bit of relief when they found attention rapidly diverting from them and back to the more interesting events surrounding the One Hundred and their actions.

A month later, Dayyid sat in a room (a virtual construct of a room actually) and contemplated himself. His flesh and blood version (Originator? Primary? Parent? Galactic civilization had many terms for these things but none really felt right to Dayyid just yet) looked nervous, perhaps a bit haggard, as if he hadn't slept well the night before. Perhaps he hadn't, although usually one could just induce sleep via DNI implant or electrostim fibers woven into the pillow. Maybe he hadn't wanted to use such devices. Dayyid recalled that he had never much liked them. And that letting his mind wander like this was letting an uncomfortable silence grow longer.

"So," he said. "Congratulations. You and Magda will be very happy together. We always talked about it, of course. Ha! But then you know that already! But it just seemed like something we would do someday, not today. And someday just never got here..."

"Hmm," flesh-and-blood Dayyid replied. "Ah…yes. That is, we just felt that, that after we, that is you, won the war, and that if you hadn't we would have lost each other, that; well…we just wanted to be together forever. And to really affirm it with a full Bonding ceremony and everything. In front of our family and friends and the world."

The silence returned, and started stretching uncomfortably again.

Three months later, Dayyid sat in a room (a virtual construct of a room actually, but who was worrying about that?) and contemplated himself. The version of him who was part of the One Hundred looked well. Better than well, actually he looked great. Of course that wasn't really saying much. Both of them could alter their appearance just by thinking about it, so appearance as an indicator of health or mood was largely superfluous. Regardless, Dayyid had the distinct impression that his other self was not doing badly at all.

"So, what you're saying is that I could become a part of you. That we could use this merging trick the Teacher has pulled out of the Net archives to become one being, yes?"

"That's about the size of it," Dayyid (of the One Hundred) said brightly. "You won't feel like you're losing anything. In fact, the Teacher says that it'll feel like you're expanding, gaining everything that I have, memories, abilities, and so on while the same happens for me as I gain everything contained in your mindstate. The process is slow, but at the end of it, we'll be one being. One being containing everything that the original beings brought to the process."

"And you say that Yanna and Tak have already agreed to this with their counterparts in the One Hundred?" Dayyid asked. He momentarily wondered if he should start thinking of himself as "Dayyid of the ship" if he was going to think of his other self as "Dayyid of the One Hundred". Somehow it fit, but just didn't feel all that attractive as a concept to him.

"Yes, they have," the other Dayyid said. "They've already begun the process actually and should be done in a day or two. If you do it as well we can still talk to them as part of the One Hundred, of course. We can do so many things at once when we're fully linked that carrying on multiple conversations is easy."

"Hmm," Dayyid (of the Ship; capitals seemed appropriate somehow) said. "Actually, I think I'll have to decline." And realized that he had just surprised himself.

Sixteen months later, ships of the Amalgamation Containment Initiative dropped into orbit around Shasa, and 10,000 new stars filled the sky. Command ships and combat drones, auto-wars and weapons platforms, they spread across the heavens in glorious arrays, outshining the natural constellations both literally and figuratively. The common people of Shasa were both awed and comforted by this vast display of protective power. They immediately welcomed the new arrivals with open arms.

The One Hundred and, almost as an afterthought, Dayyid (who had been given access into the planetary sensor nets as part of a somewhat nebulous plan to eventually be involved in training future generations of planetary defense volunteers) were not so sanguine. Orbiting sensor arrays revealed far more than what was visible to the naked biont eye. In the outer system, vast dark shapes moved. Strange, hot shadows swam in the depths of the Shasan sun. Seismic monitors detected multiple impacts and strange vibrations as of many small, dense objects burrowing through the planetary crust and into the depths beyond.

"We're being strip-searched," Dayyid found himself thinking. "No, more than that; cavity-searched. The Initiative is looking for remnants of the Amalgamation. For any evidence that it might have won or at least survived. If they find any…" Well, at least any such end was likely to be quick. Dayyid had little doubt that if the forces arrayed above them were to turn their power down upon Shasa, the planet and everything on it would be gone before most of the inhabitants even realized what was happening.

From what little he could pick up (and understand) of the One Hundred's deliberations, similar thoughts were being expressed there, and the group as a whole was rather nervous. Dayyid didn't know whether to be amused or terrified that his increasingly capable (and increasingly distant) "cousins in cyberspace" could still know such mundane and messy emotions as fear and uncertainty.

Twenty-four months to the day since he and Magda had wandered the seawall with the glow of the approaching Amalgamation lighting the sky, Dayyid Mok Noon again walked with another along the water. That it had been his flesh-and-blood Original who had actually been here the first time was a point he had long since given up caring about. He was here, and he remembered being here before and the feelings he had had at that time and that was good enough for him.

As before, the night was lit by the glow of buildings reflecting from the water and the stars above. However, from that point the similarity to times past began to break down. This time the stars above were all but lost in the brilliant glow of thousands of orbiting warcraft and their associated ancillary vessels. Moreover, the various small groups walking along the seawall were far more animated than they had been before. There was a joy and happiness to their manner that had not been there when their destruction or worse had seemed a near certainty (understandably, Dayyid thought). Here and there laughter broke the night, and some groups had brought children with them who yelled, and played, and ran among the adults. The two largest differences, of course, were that none of the people here could see the two of them and that his companion on this pleasant night was most decidedly not human, although she was (or at least appeared to be) female.

Mediator Al'harriah'Os Mo'shirum, supreme commander of the orbiting Initiative fleet and Second Singularity super-mind was an impressive figure by almost any standard. Prior to her ascension, she had been a Sufant, an Old Earth elephant provolved into sophonce. Growing up on the Sophic League world of Jhairrn, she had spent hundreds of years advancing in the complex social dynamics of that world, eventually rising to the highest rank possible in the local sufant society, Matriarch of the Herd. She had ruled for almost seven centuries before stepping down and beginning her study of transcension. Breaching the First Singularity a millennium ago, she had then gone on to achieve the Second Singularity a mere three hundred years later. When and how she had come to a position of command in the Containment Initiative, Dayyid had not been able to determine.

Although her computronium core was actually in orbit aboard her flagship, The Spear of Improbable Coincidence, the Mediator projected an image of herself from that time long ago when she had worn flesh. As such, she towered over Dayyid's more mundane avatar, her ears covered in clan and herd tattoos, her two bifurcating trunks speckled with implants and symbols of rank, and her tusks carved in complex micro-friezes depicting the history of her lineage. Great brown eyes looked out upon the world, and despite their inhuman nature somehow gave a sense of humor mixed with vast wisdom. Dayyid had met the Mediator during a reception in her honor shortly after the Fleet arrived and then spent the intervening months watching as virtually the entire governing apparatus of Shasa, including the One Hundred, fell all over itself to carry out even her most mundane suggestion. Although, the more he thought about it, the more Dayyid had come to doubt that anything the Mediator said could accurately be characterized as "mundane". Indeed, it was the growing conviction that there was purpose behind everything the transapient did that had led him to request this meeting, an easily granted request for a being who could readily carry on an in-depth conversation with every sophont on the planet while utilizing only a fraction of her attention. It had been 'Os Mo'shirum who had suggested meeting here, in the virtual surround created by the sensor webs just installed along the waterfront. For a time they had wandered among the swirling crowds while exchanging minor pleasantries, the simulation editing things so that no one walked through them or came too close. Then, screwing up his courage, Dayyid had turned and looked up at the great being before him and made his accusation.

"You, that is, the Initiative," he said with a confidence he did not really feel, "have lied to us."

A deep, almost subsonic, rumble emanated from the Mediator and then resolved into a voice.

"Hrrmm. An interesting contention, Dayyid. Tell me, please, in what way has the Initiative lied to you, and about what? We have always made every effort to be as honest as possible with you and all the Shasan people. How then have we failed in this?"

"I notice you don't actually deny what I'm saying," Dayyid said, this time actually feeling a bit more of the confidence he had had to pretend a moment before. Or maybe it was just the giddiness of feeling on the verge of a precipice and considering the best way to jump.

Great brown eyes blinked languidly. "Analysis of your voice and body language indicates that you sincerely believe what you are saying. While it is possible you are merely manipulating your imagery to project such sincerity, records of your past actions, both before and after becoming a virtual entity; indicate that you lack the inclination or the skill for such trickery even against your own kind, let alone against me. It therefore makes sense to hear you out and then determine the best course of action to restore the trust that should exist between us.

"So please, tell me why you think the way you do."

"Trust," Dayyid chuckled. "An interesting word, "trust". I bet you transaps and your pet Galactics can make it jump through hoops all day long if you want to. All right, then, here's how it is: the Initiative fleet has weapons that could have vaped the Amalgamation in an instant, totally fried it to plasma. Weapons that can move nearly as fast as the Screamer did and accurately hit their target across any distance since they're self-directing and AI controlled."

"Ah," 'Os Mo'shirum replied, ears twitching in understanding. "You attended the weapons demonstration that was given a short time after our arrival. You're talking about the Displacement Cannons, the self-piloting warp bubble missiles. As I recall, we fragmented a small body in your Kuiper belt, only about three hundred kilometers across, using one of them. I also recall that we explained that we could not risk the diversion of even one of these weapons from the larger battle against the Amalgamation fleet while attempting to assist your people against your attacker."

"I don't buy it," Dayyid snapped, feeling a spreading warmth that could only be anger. "You have hundreds of displacement weapons and those aren't even the bulk of your arsenal. We destroyed the Amalgamation with lasers and hellbores, weapons you have by the thousands and far more powerful than anything we could manage. But all that wasn't enough? Things were so desperate that you couldn't spare even a single advanced weapon? I don't think so!

"You could have beaten that stinking monster here, been waiting for it, if you'd wanted to, and killed it without Shasa having to lift a finger. Instead you sent some pretty lights and a glorified search engine, and thousands of Shasan people had to fight and die as a result. Fight and die for nothing, since the whole fucking thing was just a trick to get the stupid ship close enough to take it out with your hellbores!" Dayyid was screaming now, fists clenched, his anger fully formed and burning. Fear also flared within him. He was screaming at a transapient! A transapient who commanded vast military power and almost unlimited influence among the rulers of his world. What would she do in the face of his anger? His impertinent animal barking? Would she have him thrown into some sort of jail? Or just snuff his code out of existence with a wave of her trunk?

Mediator 'Os Mo'shirum simply looked at him for a long moment, no expression readable to human minds showing in her eyes or body language. Then her ears drooped and she seemed to slump slightly. Her voice, when it came, was softer than before.

"When we sent the Screamer to you, Dayyid, we did not have hundreds of displacement weapons at our disposal. We had hundreds of thousands. Along with millions of laser and plasma weapons and the ships they were attached to. But those are all gone now, burned up and consumed in the battle to defeat the great enemy. Do not presume that your experience with a broken fragment of that enemy is indicative of what its full strength is like. I assure you there is no comparison.

"You say you are angry that Shasa had to sacrifice a few thousand lives to the defense of your world. We sacrificed millions to the defense of us all, your world included. True, most of those lost are preserved in Backup, either within the surviving fleet or at our forward bases. But there are those among us who do not believe that a Backup is the original no matter how similar they may be. Or who will find no consolation in a revivified companion who is years out of date with our most recent memories and experiences. Or whose companion-in-arms did not maintain a Backup and is lost forever now. And there is always the chance that some Backups have been corrupted by the enemy and will have to be destroyed. We are not immune from the pain of this war, Dayyid, any more than you are. As the commander of the fleet I am responsible for sharing that pain, even if it is not mine. As a transapient, I am incapable of ignoring it.

"But…you know all this already. You are a highly intelligent young man, and you have access to all of the records we have provided of the battle with the Amalgamation and the events leading up to the decision to send the Screamer to you. Records that I know you have accessed and downloaded. Your anger rings true, Dayyid, but the reasons you give for it…not so much, I think. So I will ask again: why do you say that the Initiative has lied to you and to Shasa?"

This time it was Dayyid's turn to slump. His earlier anger was fading already, leaving only bitter ashes. Bitter ashes and a core of truth that he was now closer to. A core of truth he did not want to face. Rallying, he looked up at the being standing before him and tried again.

"Ok, so you say you did all you could for Shasa, given the threat you had to face in the larger part of the Amalgamation. That saving Shasa was purely a matter of defending and protecting us. But look what's happened since the war and your arrival here. The old ways are dying! Our culture is changing in ways that would have been unthinkable even five years ago. People are talking about making Copies for the defense forces, but some are talking about just doing it because they want to. A lot of the children and younger people are talking about getting augments or genemods. Things far more radical than anything we ever allowed before. Things they've seen the Fleet use when some of your people embody and come down to the surface. And no one's stopping them. In fact some of the elders are saying they approve of it and that maybe it's time for a change after so long. After all, what did staying the same for a thousand years get us when the Amalgamation was coming?

"On top of it all, the Initiative isn't leaving, it's moving in. You're setting up a base out around Kezin. The whole gas giant and moon system is to be converted into some sort of computronium node, garrison, and monitoring structure so the Initiative can prosecute the war from here and monitor events. That wasn't in the cards when you offered to help us, but it is now.

"Was that the goal all along? To set up a base here so you could fight the Amalgamation more easily? Or does the Amalgamation even really exist? Did you just decide that you didn't like a bunch of independent systems sitting out here not needing you and invent an enemy so we'd have to turn to you to survive?"

'Os Mo'shirum's eyes sparkled briefly, although whether with humor or something more dangerous, Dayyid could not tell.

"Never doubt that the Amalgamation exists, Dayyid. I assure you it does and is far more dangerous than you can readily imagine! We had nothing to do with it coming here beyond being regrettably careless. A fact of which we are painfully aware in everything we do regarding your people, including this conversation. As to our purposes in aiding you as we did and our continued presence here…There are no neutral parties in this war Dayyid. There cannot be. The Amalgamation has no concept of neutrality or non-combatant status and neither can we. But our methods are far gentler that it is.

"It is true that when we realized our error regarding the Fragment and began crafting a response that we considered not only the consequences of failure but also of success. Shasa was a world turned inward. A culture interested only in itself. Had we simply wiped the Amalgamation from your skies with no effort on your part, none of that would have changed. Shasa would have continued its smug self-regard and would have resisted joining the war effort and the galaxy at large. Certainly, we could have forced the matter, simply set up our base in your system and been done with it. You have no means of stopping us even now, for all the shiny little weapons we have given you. But that would have led to anger and resentment across your entire culture. Instead of a willing partner, we would have shared this system with an impotent, but seething adversary. In time we could have healed the breach, of course; memed you into willing partnership. But that would have taken time we do not have and resources better spent elsewhere.

"This way was the better way, Dayyid. It isn't a matter of galactic conspiracy, or even conspiracy on the part of the Initiative. It is a matter of being able to see the necessary path, the best path when all factors are considered, to a particular goal and then acting on that knowledge, nothing more, nothing less. For a transapient, such paths are obvious, and the necessity of following them almost inescapable. Unfortunately, the act of following a path also has consequences, such as our conversation here, today. I am honestly sorry that our actions have so distressed you."

Dayyid closed his eyes, tired defeat stealing over him even as part of him wanted to rage further at the Mediator. What right did they have to do what they had done? he wanted to ask. Were the people of Shasa nothing more than pawns in a war not of their choosing? But, if he was honest with himself, he knew that she had already answered those questions in a way. Doubtless, she could answer them in any amount of detail required if he pressed the point. She was a transapient after all. Any question his modosophont mind could form, or challenge he could raise had probably already been anticipated and answered before they had even started this conversation. Better to just end this now and go back to his life, whatever remained of it. This was getting him nowhere. Thinking such, he turned away and began to drop out of the virtual surround, to go where he did not know.

"Wait, Dayyid," the words of the Mediator resonated through him, harmonics and subsonics added that had not been there before. Although no louder than it had been before, her voice now carried an almost irresistible authority. Caught by it, Dayyid paused, not quite helplessly, and turned back to face what he was only now realizing was something far more than he had comprehended before.

"We still haven't finished our conversation, I'm afraid," the Mediator rumbled. "You still haven't told me why you wanted to speak with me."

"But, but, I did tell you!" Dayyid stammered. "What have we been talking about all this time if not what I wanted to talk to you about?"

"What we've been discussing up to this point has been all of the reasons that you've been inventing for being angry with the Initiative so that you wouldn't have to face the real one. The one you wanted to talk to me about. Would you like to tell me what that is now? No? Then let me save us both some time.

"Ever since the Screamer, the choices you have planned for yourself have seemed to jump out of reach without warning. You planned to someday Bond with your long-time love, Magda. That has happened, but to your Original not to you. Perhaps you thought you might die during the battle with the Amalgamation, ending your life in glory for the safety of your world. That has also happened, in fact it happened dozens of times during the battle, yet it did not happen to this version of you here. The version of you that is part of the One Hundred is moving toward a future of great influence and power on this world but also a future that you find increasingly remote and hard to comprehend. He has offered to merge with you into a single, combined being but you don't want that because you fear that you would have by far the smaller role in such a new entity given how large your counterpart has become as a result of our augmentations. You fear that such a choice could curtail all your future choices forever.

"You are currently being groomed to become some sort of academy superintendent for the Shasan Defense Forces that are to be formally commissioned for the further protection of your world. This is a choice not really of your choosing, although one you might perform out of a sense of duty to your people. But having been through war once, you have little interest in reliving that experience again and again for others or teaching them how to engage in it.

"The culture you grew up with and loved is changing beyond all recognition and while part of you is attracted to some of those changes, you are painfully reminded of what there was before and how much you loved it. To embrace so much change as it happens seems a betrayal to what you were before. As such, you feel like all your possible options have either ceased to exist or lead to places you don't want to go.

"What you fail to realize is that there is another option available to you." Those great brown eyes were sparkling again.

"It's true that we will be building a base around the fourth gas giant of this system. At the same time, Shasa will be creating its own local defenses. Both facilities will make extensive use of Copied, uploaded, or AI based staff and combat personnel. It will be only natural that eventually some Shasans will wish to join the Initiative forces, and vice versa. This will both engender cultural mixing among the two groups and encourage your world to turn its attention out to the wider stars. In time, some number of your people will begin using the Lightways, or take passage on any starships that may visit here, or build their own. In time, the presence of the base may result in a wormhole being established here. In time your people will reach out and rejoin the greater galactic community once again.

"But there's no reason we can't start that process a little early." The eyes were definitely sparkling with humor now.

Dayyid stood, transfixed by what the transapient in front of him was offering. Confusion warred with revelation inside his head, and for a moment confusion had the upper hand.

"What…what are you offering me, exactly? Are you saying you want me to join the Containment Initiative? Go to war for you? But you just told me I don't want to deal with war anymore, and you're right, I don't! So what…?"

"What I'm offering you, Dayyid, are choices. There are millions of inhabited solar systems out there. Some are even more conservative than Shasa was. Others go through a major paradigm shift almost every day! Most are somewhere in between. Every one of them represents a choice, or a group of choices, you might make about your future. I'm offering you the option to choose any one of them. Or all of them. Or none of them. That'll be up to you.

"One of the things you failed to mention in your little tirade about the Initiative not leaving and setting up a base here is that actually our ships are leaving. Not all at once and not in any great hurry, but most of the fleet will be gone within a year. Those not staying to supervise the construction of the base will be returning to our forward complex at Hordane for refit and resupply. It's forty light-years from here and has a comm-gauge wormhole leading into the Known Net. As a software entity you can travel through the Net at will, of course. From there, where you go will be up to you.

"I have a squadron of ships breaking orbit for Hordane within three hours. If you want a berth on one of them, it's yours. All you have to do is choose."

Dayyid's confusion had faded now, washed away by the revelation that now sang through him. His choices were not as limited as he had believed. At the same time fear was a tiny voice inside him, whispering doubts. Was he really ready to give up everything he knew on the chance of discovering something he didn't? Could he really leave as quickly as this, leave everyone he knew behind? Of course, most of those he knew actually knew his Original not him. And in the months since the war his inventory of possessions had remained minimal in the extreme. Even those virtual constructs or surrounds he enjoyed were generic copies downloaded from the Net and no doubt readily available anywhere he might choose to go, assuming he couldn't just transfer the files with him. Really, there was nothing holding him here but his own intransigence. That was a choice as well, he realized. One that could be readily changed.

The Mediator seemed to sense his decision even as he made it. Her great brown eyes showed quiet satisfaction and a hint of pride now (strange how such deep wells of brown could show so much. He wondered briefly if it was a real effect or something more subtle produced by her iconography). She glanced to one side and Dayyid sensed a change in the surround in that direction. The images of the people and the seawall and the glittering city beyond were still there, but now there was a sense of a direction, or a door of some kind being there as well. Somehow, Dayyid knew that by stepping through that place he would be transported instantly to someplace else, presumably to one of the ships that were even now preparing to leave.

Together Dayyid and 'Os Mo'shirum began to walk toward the portal. Toward Dayyid's future he supposed, and whatever it might bring. Suddenly, he found himself more than a little impatient to find out. Just as they reached the invisible, but clearly sensed, threshold of the gateway, Dayyid stopped and turned again to his companion.

"Mediator, just one thing. You said that you plan for the consequences of all your actions. That as a transapient such a capability is almost automatic for you. Did you plan for this, for my choosing to do this, as well? And if you did, what are the consequences going to be?"

The great Sufant's chuckle vibrated Dayyid's virtual bones. "Now, Dayyid that would be telling. Shall we go?" They did.

Twenty-four months to the day since people had gathered at the seawall with the glow of the approaching Amalgamation lighting their sky, couples and triples walked again along the water. As before the night was lit by the glow of buildings reflecting from the water and the stars above. However, from that point the similarity to times past began to break down. This time the stars above were all but lost in the brilliant glow of thousands of orbiting warcraft and their associated ancillary vessels. Moreover, the various small groups walking along the seawall were far more animated than they had been before. There was a joy and happiness to their manner that had not been there when their destruction or worse had seemed a near certainty (understandably, one might think). Here and there laughter broke the night, and some groups had brought children with them who yelled, and played, and ran among the adults. But, for all these apparent differences, some things had not (yet) really changed. The people here had eyes only for each other. They did not look beyond themselves and their immediate companions to the future that lay ahead of them. They did not stop to consider all the changes (and choices) it might bring. They did not (yet) look to the stars. And they did not (this time) see several of those stars flicker, shift in their positions, and go out.


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