Dark times have been around for me personally, so I haven’t posted for a while.
This is an excerpt from the beginning of what is technically novel 4,
I have seen nebulae rise as if a great cloud in planet-rise. I have seen the globes of dust left by supernovae. I have seen the surface of stars raging their hydrogen song up close, and the beginning of life in ponds of nutrient rich methane on gas giants.
For all this, for all this wonder and glory, I am grateful to our age and the powers granted it. I know of our history and how lucky we are that the singularity event that created our civilisation didn’t swallow us whole.
And yet, there is nothing quite like getting up late to a hot cup of tea and a bacon sandwich.
I’m a half-breed, earns you a little high five from The Mandorn. Means your mommy or daddy was a human open enough to partner with a being that, while individually having its own existence, is also one great big gestalt of about eighty million component parts all talking to each other.
The Mandorn. Blue human beings, and this is an important distinction from merely human. Being human is something that all sentients share; being human is the base condition, some ineffable consciousness that all sentients have, and in the languages spoken or grunted, their name for their species is translated, essentially, as “human” because human really means “people wot grew up on a given planet,” when you get down to brass tacks.
Human Beings are those people whose ancestors, a distant hundred thousand years ago, grew up on old, lost and destroyed Earth. Or those people who can breed with them without intervention. There are two classes of those people. One of them doesn’t concern us. You and I will never meet them. They are referred to in an obscure, and frankly probably fictional account of the adventures of one Captain Crow and her jolly crew. The other is immediate and very real, and that is The Mandorn. They’re blue.
It is blue.
Oh, no, they said, write the account they said, as if no-one knows what you’re talking about, they said. How am I supposed to explain the inexplicable? What are the odds that a singular, telepathic creature evolves on a planet that looks and behaves exactly like eighty million blue human beings?
In an infinite universe, yes, mathematically speaking, one in one. That’s a lot of old tot though. Mathematically speaking there could be a Boltzmann Brain out there in the cosmos, some free floating, space going human brain perfectly able to perceive and move about in the universe, formed by the random accretion of matter into a fully functioning being.
Have we found one? No. Are we likely to? No. Is it an impossibility? No. Merely extremely unlikely.
We still haven’t seen a proton spontaneously decay. We, The Conglomerate, have seen just about everything else, thanks to the Minds.
So, I’m a half-breed. My mother is a human being, and my father is The Mandorn, though somewhat apart from the great hive of the gestalt because it used to drive my mother crazy when he ignored the simple protocol of bringing home the same body if he’d been off wandering about and socialising.
The Mandorn has this gestalt personality, but each component also has a personality, largely to facilitate some sort of thinking process between the components, but also having the side effect that individuals can have lives that are quite far away from whatever goals the main, um well The Mandorn has a phrase for this, “The main body of work” which implies that The Mandorn is doing something, but asked outright it will say that it is beyond human understanding.
What this gives me, by some quirk of genetics and mutation, is green skin, in this respect I am unique, apparently; some degree of telepathy with The Mandorn, it just a sounds like a lot of old noise to me, mostly; and a free tour of whatever is fascinating and cosmic from The Mandorn anytime I go make puppy eyes at it.
What I actually do, as a true daughter of The Mandorn, is persuade a few hundred of them to be my non-player characters in a “medieval” live roleplaying game, which I run on the home planet so I can take advantage of the telepathy.
Historians and contemporary sociologists will say that The Conglomerate has no money and has not had any since human beings went into space. Historians will stick with that view. This is because, in my view, historians need to remove the stick and see that society changes.
Contemporary sociologists will say that there is a complex and ever changing system of favour, gratitude and beneficence that produces a complex byplay of social obligation and debt that is mediated only by the moral and ethical consideration of the relevant parties and local interaction.
In my view contemporary sociologists say this sort of thing because they have inserted a similar looking stick to the one the historians need to remove; main difference being that the contemporary sociologists have used some sort of glue to keep it there and tend to smoke pipes and wear berets while they pontificate. It wouldn’t surprise me if the chief sociologist, if there is one, wears a pointy hat and carries a crook and a chalice.
The Minds have a much clearer idea of what is going on in the universe. In their view, as they tell it, we do what we want as long as our neighbours let us get away with it.
That is why the most interfering people in the galaxy are human beings; apparently they don’t feel that people should be allowed to get away with it. Whatever “it” is.
I take the view that if people are going to do things because I asked them, then good, thanks, that’s great. If I do things because they asked me, then good too, super, I was interested enough to get involved. It’s not a favour, I don’t need any sort of social currency in return.
Actually, I guess there is a social currency, probably around who we enjoyed working/playing with and whether we want to repeat the experience. To state the obvious, if I’m an asshole then people aren’t going to want to play with me.
So anyhow, I run games with a few hundred of The Mandorn’s components acting as pretty clearly signalled non-player characters. With the help of Cedric, a friendly Mind I co-opted into helping coordinate things I can run some good stuff. Cedric’s manufactory is mostly devoted to making things for the game, so we end up with some good gear.
One of the nice aspects is that we can have some pretty lethal looking gear around, and the players, if they are in some sort of battle, can hit The Mandorn, and each other, as hard as they like; Cedric keeps a field around each player that ameliorates the effect of any possible harm.
Yeah, I run games.
And ladies can run about in next to no armour and still have a decent armour class.
Men can do this too, but there is an old school penchant for big, meaty armour going around. A lot of it has cooling gear in it. And powered joints. My rule is that you can’t have a sword that is bigger than you.
This is my principle activity.
I like games.
Then the war came.
I have a large army of trained fighters that are pretty fit and used to a lot of activity. Alright, they use swords and weak laser pistols, but it’s easy to upgrade a laser pistol. Very easy.
1. Unhappy landing
“I have to shut down my higher functions. If you are not actively engaged in combat, please remain in your cabins. I have initiated lifeboat protocol. Autonomous systems will remain online. Caution. Caution.”
This calm message repeats throughout the ship several times; the people moving around the ship are the people preparing to do battle, and thousands of ship’s avatars, now all in linear processor mode, waiting for the engagement. The only other person in any position to influence things resides in chair in the main interface terminal.
“Now, we’ve got about fifteen minutes, and then I’m gone. We can do this autonomously but I bet you’d rather I was here.” The woman looks up, at the ‘helmet’ hovering above her head.
“I wish you’d get on with it.”
“Your inherent reluctance is a block.”
“You’re about to use my brain as the central processor for the ship, I’m nervous.”
“Yes, but you have to be willing.”
“Yes, but frankly Yolanda, not totally willing, and I’m about to give up my sentience, so I really need to be sure.”
“The enemy are coming, let’s do something about that?”
“They’re not really the enemy you know, they’re misguided.”
“Misguided or not, they’re going to destroy our way of life. You said that in many of your projections it’s already too late.”
“It was too late when Crow let them live.”
“You can’t commit genocide.”
“I know, so it was always too late. Things are going to change. But we won’t survive if we don’t do something about it.”
“Won’t we be just different?”
“We’ll be subsumed.”
“Then let’s get on with it.”
Yolanda the Sacrifice.
She’s been called that a year now; since the ceremony in the game. The game posited that someone would have to give their life for the rest for the rest of the players, i.e. give up their hobby with this group. It’s a big deal, doing that. You might have been running with the same crew for a hundred years, you know them. They know you. They are your friends, you confidants, your family. You have to give that up.
It’s not a thing that happens often in games, maybe once in a lifetime, which means four or five hundred years; given how long human beings and other humans live, this is about right.
The Had I Only Known’s avatar approached the games master one day, with news.
“Real War?” Lisa, green skinned, partly human, partly of The Mandorn, had looked disturbed.
“You’ve heard of the Andromeda Affair?”
“Yes, of course I have, it’s been all over the nets for years now. Crow and her crew saved a bunch of, er, silicon? Anyhow some other kind of life-form in the other galaxy. I thought it was a load of baloney. You’d need lifetimes to reach Andromeda, even with you guys.”
“Normally true. We made them a new ship.” Lisa’s eyes went flat.
“We’re going to talk about that later. At length.” The avatar, Ephraim, had sighed, somewhat theatrically, at that point.
“Yes, I imagine we are.”
So Lisa has been training her troops since then.
Yolanda and the others have been put through fire and ice, through high-g and zero-g training. The fields have been less effective. Lisa managed to get the women into heavier armour and the men into lighter armour. Then she proposed a low tech space game while putting the fantasy, so carefully designed to allow daft armour, on hiatus. So she got them into spacesuits. Then space armour.
“What are really doing Yolanda?” One of them had asked one day on a private channel. “The suits are reporting weeks of power now, not days; and at high activity too. They can sustain us for months if we’re lost. What’s going on?”
Yolanda explained it. Explained the war front encroaching upon their game. Explained how the Minds were closing down, and how there would have to be human intervention.
There was shock. A real war. With real fighting.
Some people panicked. Some people, the really dangerous ones, got pumped about it. The rationals wondered what it would mean and what they could do to help.
She picked groups. The rationals and the panickers she put together, and people stopped panicking. The pumped people she made into marines.
They held a lottery to see who would become the ship’s Mind. Yolanda won.
The odds were about seven thousand to one.
Or if you were the ship and in Yolanda’s thrall, about one in one. So she was chosen.
“I’m nervous. Who wouldn’t be nervous?” She says.
“You’ve died once, I’ve sustained you, you’re used to being in a virtual environment. This isn’t that different.”
“Isn’t it? Lives are going to depend on me.” Ephraim looks her in the eye.
“Yes, and soon. So can you just give yourself a moment to adjust?”
“I think I’ve done all the adjustment I’m doing. Let’s just do it.” Yolanda rolls her eyes. She can see advice coming.
“Ok. Just pace yourself, despite what I just said, this isn’t like playing in a simulation.”
“Alright.” And despite Ephraim’s doubts, she tries to calm her mind, knowing that her green friend and so many others depend on it.
Yolanda’s head has already been swept clean and smooth and there is nothing to interrupt the passage of the superfine needles into her head as the helmet lowers. The sensation is odd for Yolanda, she feels the needles at the surface, but there is no pain, just a coldness, and then her eyes go wide open as the needles penetrate her brain, becoming feathers that bifurcate as if they are tiny trees growing in her physical mind. Every connection is used, every neuron fires, every synapse is connected, hardwired to the ship. For Yolanda it is the biggest sensation she has ever had. It is complete and utter bliss, she feels that she knows all, sees all, and then her mind explodes in true understanding.
Minds have a size and the human mind is no different. This size is to do with the physical size that is mapped in the brain to allow body and mind to be coordinated. It can be tricked and is a subject to a certain distortion when needed. This distortion is resisted in extreme circumstances, there needs to be a period of training, of adaption and habituation.
Yolanda is experiencing this now. Precisely because it is such a trope in movies, she is standing on a white plain, no shadows, no features, no furniture. Just Ephraim standing opposite her in his most usual avatar form. A slim frame wearing a sort of beige dress that is a vogue right now, slit up both sides to allow freedom of movement, and some loose shorts beneath. Yolanda is dressed in some loose slacks and a polo shirt. The shirt is yellow and has the logo of the ship on it.
“Starting from scratch huh?” Says Ephraim, “That is sage, but we’re short on time.”
“So we’re not doing some sort of training montage where I do incredible things in a short amount of time because it’s not real?” Ephraim gives her an old fashioned look.
“It’s all too real and the training is more about becoming more than you are.” He raises his hand and the white featureless plain changes. It is a control room. There are consoles and displays everywhere and people moving around purposefully. “Crikey is this how you see me inside?” His voice has some degree of incredulity about it.
“More or less.”
“Hopeless.” He waves his hand again. The people moving around slow to a crawl of barely perceptible movement. “This is more like it, look more closely.”
Yolanda leans in to one of the consoles and sees that the display initially looks like static has taken over, but, as she concentrates, the static becomes coherent and she can zoom in on a section of it. As she does so she seems to enter a dual state, as if she is concentrating very hard, and at the same time, paying little attention to anything.
She looks at Ephraim.
“I’m still looking at the detail, how is that happening?”
“That’s lesson one. You’re going to divide your attention, you have to. The ship is big and you have to pay attention to many things at once.”
“But you have loads of autonomous systems.”
“I do, but you can’t rely on those. And you can’t, still, do everything at once.” Ephraim looks about, clearly focussed elsewhere for a second. “They’re coming. Fifteen minutes. Look over here, don’t lose what you’re looking at.” They walk over to another console, Yolanda looking somewhat distracted. “These are all the conversations I’m having right now.” Down the screen there are millions of microscopic threads containing the dialogue of each conversation going on right now.