Something was wrong.
"Check my tail, Hendrik," he ordered.
"Orienting." As she banked her craft to align its sensory array with the rear of his Intelligencer, the view began to sharpen.
He'd been hit.
A single interceptor had bitten his craft, its claw clinging to the casing of the stabilizer rotary wing. As the craft unfurled, the interceptor began to thrash, calling for help.
"Hendrik! I'm hooked!"
"Coming in to help, sir," Hendrik responded. "I'm the closest."
"No! Stay clear. It knows I'm alive now." When the interceptor had first attached, catching the silent and falling Intelligencer with the random luck of a drift net, it couldn't be certain whether its prey was a nanomachine, or simply a speck of dust or an errant curtain thread. But now that the Intelligencer was powered and transmitting, the interceptor was sure it had live prey. It was releasing mechanopheromones to attract other interceptors. If Hendrik came in, she would soon be under attack as well.
Marx had to escape on his own. And quickly.
He swore. He should have unfurled slower, taken a look before becoming fully active. If only the ExO hadn't called, hadn't rushed him.
Marx rotated his view 180 degrees, so that he was staring straight at his attacker, and brought his main turret camera to bear. He could see the interceptor clearly now. Its skin was translucent in the bright sunlight that filled the palace hallway. He could see the micromotors that moved its long grasping arm, the chain of segments linked by a long muscle of flexorcarbon. Its electromagnetic sensor array was a thistly crown just below its rotary wing. The wing doubled as an uptake wheel, consuming tiny ambient particles from the air, including dead human skin cells, for fuel.
The interceptor cloud had most likely been deployed from aerosol cans by the Rix commandos, sprayed directly onto their uniforms and in key hallways like insecticide. Specially designed food was usually contained in the same spray to keep the interceptors going, but they could also consume an improvised diet. This grazing strategy left the interceptor lighter for combat, though it meant they couldn't pursue their prey past their deployment area. Marx saw the small fuel cache in its midsection. It probably carried no more than forty seconds of food in reserve.
That was the machine's weakness.
Marx launched a pair of counterdrones. He flew them straight for the interceptor's fuel cache. At the same time, he brought his craft's rotary wing to full speed, dragging the smaller nanomachine behind him like a kid's balloon.
Soon, other interceptors were in pursuit, following the trail of mechanopheromones the interceptor spilled to mark its prey. They couldn't catch him at this speed, but Marx's own fuel was being quickly depleted. One of his counterdrones missed, fell into the wake of the chase and fought a quick, hopeless battle to delay the pursuers. The other counterdrone struck at the interceptor's midsection, its ram spar penetrating the soft belly of the machine. It injected its poison, an ultrafine sand of silicate molecules that would clog the fuel reserve. Now, the machine was dependent on fuel from the uptake of its rotary wing.
But the interceptor was trapped in the wake of Marx's craft, running too fast and hard to catch the fuel that dotted the air. Soon, it began to stutter, and die.
Marx launched another drone, a repair nano that set to work cutting off the claw of the dying interceptor, which could no longer defend itself. When detached, it fell back, still spilling prey markers in its death throes, and the trailing interceptors fell on it, sharks upon a wounded comrade.
Marx's craft was safe. His stabilizer was damaged and fuel was low, but he was past the densest part of the interceptor cloud. He brought his Intelligencer around a corner out of the sun-drenched hall--back into darkness--and through the crack under a door, where the rest of his squadron waited, bobbing in a slight draft.
Marx checked a schematic of the palace and smiled.
"We're in the throne wing," he reported to Hobbes. "And I think we've got a tailwind."
"Just breathe, sir!" the marine sergeant shouted.
Dr. Mann Vecher yanked the tube from his lips and shouted back, "I'm trying, dammit, but it's not air!"
True, Vecher grimly added to himself, the green stuff that brimmed the tube had a fair amount of oxygen in it. Considerably more O 2 than the average lungful of air. But the oxygen was in suspension in a polymer gel, which also contained pseudo-alveoli, a rudimentary intelligence, and godspite knew what else.
Green and vaguely translucent, the substance looked to Dr. Vecher like the dental mouthrinse ground troops used in the field. Not the sort of stuff you were supposed to swallow, much less breathe.
Vecher shifted in his unfamiliar battle armor as the marine sergeant stalked away in disgust. The armor didn't fit anymore. He hadn't worn it since it had last been fitted, three years before. Imperial Orbital Marine doctors weren't supposed to jump with the grunts. In normal situations, they stayed shipside and treated the wounded in safety.
This was not a normal situation.
Of course, Dr. Vecher did know the intricate workings of the suit quite well. He'd cut quite a few of them open to expose wounded soldiers. He had witnessed the suit's life-saving mechanisms: the padding on the back of the neck held hyper-oxygenated plasmanalog that was injected directly into the brain in case a marine's heart stopped. The exoskeletal servomotors could immobilize the wearer if the suit detected a spinal injury. There were local anesthesia IVs every hundred square centimeters or so. And the armor could maintain a terminated marine's brain almost as well as a Lazurus symbiant. Vecher had seen soldiers twenty hours dead reanimate as cleanly as if they'd died in a hospice.
But he hadn't remembered how uncomfortable the damn suits were.
And the discomfort was nothing compared to the horror of this green stuff. The planned jump was a high-speed orbital insertion. The marines would be going down supersonic, encased in single-soldier entry vehicles packed with gee-gel. The forces on impact would collapse your lungs and crush your bones to powder if you weren't adequately reinforced.
Vecher understood the concept all too well. The idea was to make the entire body equal in density, so that nothing could puncture anything else, an undifferentiated bubble of fluid, at one with the gel inside the entry vehicle. That was the theory, anyway. Bones were always the tricky part. Vecher hadn't saved a high percentage of marines whose insertions had failed. Most never even became risen. Exotic injuries such as skeletal disintegration, hearts splattered against ribcages like dye bombs, and cranial collapse foiled even the afterlife.
Vecher hadn't minded the skeletal reinforcement injections, actually. Standard procedure. He'd had his marrow replaced before, after a viral infection. The lung-filling, however, you had to do yourself; you had to breathe this shit.
It was inhuman.
But there had to be a doctor with the first wave of this mission. The Child Empress was hostage. To refuse this jump wouldn't mean mere dishonorable discharge. It would clearly be an Error of Blood.
That thought steeled Dr. Vecher's will. If breathing a quasi-intelligent, oxygenated goo was unpleasant, plunging a dull blade of error into one's own abdomen would certainly be worse. And at his rank, Vecher was assured elevation sooner or later, even if he didn't die in battle. From immortality to ignominious suicide was a long plummet.
Vecher put the tube to his lips and took a deep, unbearably slow breath. Heaviness spread through his chest; the stuff had the exothermic cool of wet clay against the skin. It felt like a cold hand clenching Vecher's heart, a sense of foreboding made solid.
He moved his tongue around in his mouth before taking another horrible breath. Bits of the goo were caught between his teeth, salty and vaguely alive like a sliver of oyster. They had even flavored the stuff; it tasted of artificial strawberries.
The cheery taste just made the experience more horrible. Were they trying to make this awful?
The squadron looked down into the council chamber from the high vantage of an air vent. There were three craft left.
Pilot Ramones had lost her Intelligencer to automatic defenses. The Rix had installed randomly firing lasers in the hallways surrounding the council chamber, and one had gotten extremely lucky. Strong enough to kill a man, it had vaporized Ramones's craft.
Below the squadron, the forms of humans, both hostages and Rix commandos, were vague. The Intelligencers' cameras were too small to resolve large objects at this range. The squadron would have to move closer.
The air in the room was full of interceptors. They hung like a mist, pushed back from the vent by the outflow of air.
"I've got reflections all the way through the room, sir," Hendrik reported. "More than one interceptor per cubic centimeter."
Marx whistled. The Rix certainly had numbers. And these interceptors were larger than the ones his squadron had faced in the hallway. They had seven grasping arms apiece, each suspended from its own rotary wing. The relatively large brain and sensory sack hung below the outstretched arms, so that the craft looked like an inverted spider. Marx had faced this type of small craft before. Even at a tenth this density, this swarm would be tricky to get through.
"We'll fight our way across the top," Marx decided. "Then drop down blind. Try to land on the table."
Most of the hostages were seated at the long table below. The table would be sound-reflective, a good base for listening In Marx's ultrasonar its surface shone with the sharp returns of metal or polished stone.
The three small craft moved forward, clinging to the ceiling. Marx kept an eye on his fuel level. His machine was down to the dregs of its power. If it hadn't been for the brisk tailwind down the last sixty meters of the ventilation system, he doubted his Intelligencer would have made it this far.
The ceiling passed just above Marx's ship, an inverted horizon. Rix interceptors dotted his view like scalloped clouds.
"Damn! I'm hooked already, sir," Woltes announced, twenty seconds into the move.
"Go to full extension," Marx commanded. "Die fighting."
Marx and Hendrik sped forward, leaving behind the throes of Woltes's destruction. Their way seemed clear. If they could make it to the middle of the room, they might be able to make the drop undetected.
Suddenly, Marx's craft reeled to one side. To his right a claw loomed, attached to the lip of his craft. Two more of the interceptor's arms flailed toward his machine.
"Hooked," he announced. He briefly considered taking control of Hendrik's craft. If this mission failed, it would be his Error of Blood, after all.
But perhaps there was another way to make this work.
"Keep going, Hendrik," he said. "You stick to the plan. I'm going straight down."
"Good luck, sir."
Marx extended his Intelligencer's ram spar. He bore into the attacking nanomachine, fighting the strength of its arms. With the last of his battery power, he urged his craft forward. The spar plunged into the central brain sack. Instantly, the interceptor died. But its claws were frozen, still attached to his machine, and a deadman switch released prey markers in a blizzard that enveloped both craft.
"Got you, at least," Marx hissed at the dead spider impaled before him.
Now the fun began.
Marx tipped his machine over, so that the rotary wing pulled his craft and its lifeless burden downward. He furled his sensor posts to half-length, his view becoming blurry and shaky as AI tried to extrapolate his surroundings from insufficient data. The two nanocraft fell together, quickly now.
"Damn!" Hendrik shouted. "I'm hooked."
Marx switched to his second pilot's view. She was carrying two interceptors, and another was closing. He realized that his craft was the only hope.
"You're dead, Hendrik. Make some noise. I've got a new plan."
He released a counterdrone every few seconds as his small craft plummeted downward. Hopefully, they would pick off any interceptors pursuing the prey markers. In any case, his burdened Intelligencer was falling faster than his enemies could. Unpiloted, with a brain the size of a cell, they wouldn't think to turn their rotary wings upside down.
He watched the altimeter. Above him, Hendrik grunted as she fought to keep her craft alive, the sound receding into the distance as he plummeted. Fifty centimeters altitude ... forty ... thirty...
At twenty-two centimeters above the table, Marx's craft collided with another interceptor. Three of the enemy ship's rotary wings tangled in the dead arms of his captor, their thin whiskers of carbon muscle grinding to a halt. He released the remainder of his counterdrones and prayed they would kill the new interceptor before its claws reached his craft. Then he furled his sensor posts completely, and dropped in darkness.
He counted twenty seconds. If his ship had survived, it must be on the table by now. Hendrik's Intelligencer had succumbed a few moments ago, her transmission array ripped into pieces by a medusa host of hungry grapples. It was up to Marx.
A wave of panic flowed over him in the darkened canopy. What if his ship was dead? He'd lost dozens of craft before, but always in acceptable situations; his record was unblemished. But now, everything was at stake. Failure would not be tolerated. His own life was at stake, almost as if he really were down in that tiny ship, surrounded by enemies. He felt like some perversely self-aware Schr dinger's Cat, worrying its own fate before opening the box.
Marx sent the wake-up order.
Optics revealed the dead interceptor draped across Marx's craft. But he had escaped the others. He murmured a quick prayer of thanks.
The Intelligencer confirmed that it was resting on a surface. Echolocation returns came from all directions; an oddly symmetrical crescent moon arched around him. The reflections suggested that Marx's craft had fallen near the inside edge some kind of circular container. In the cameras, the landing area was perfectly flat and highly reflective; the view surrounding Marx sparkled. The landing surface was also moving, pitching up and down at a low frequency, and vibrating sympathetically with the noises in the room.
"Perfect," Marx whispered to himself. He checked the data again. He could scarcely believe his luck.
He had landed in a glass of water.
Marx brought the Intelligencer up onto its landing legs, lifting it like a water-walking lizard to clear the rotary wing from the liquid. At this scale, the surface tension of water was as sound as concrete. He skimmed the surface, approached the side of the glass. Down here, there were no interceptors. They typically maintained a few centimeters altitude so that they wouldn't stick to surfaces as useless dust.
At the glinting, translucent wall, Marx secured the ship, hooking its landing spars into the microscopic pits and crags that mark even the finest glass. He ordered the craft into its intelligence-gathering configuration. Sensory threads spread out in all directions, creeping vines of optical fiber and motile carbons. A listening post lowered to the water below; it rested there, coiled upon the surface tension.
Usually, several Intelligencers were required to fully reconnoiter a room of this size, but the glass would act as a giant gathering device. The curved sides would refract light from every direction into the craft's cameras, a huge convex lens that warped the view, but with simple, calculable geometries. The water would vibrate sympathetically with the sound in the room, a vast tympanum to augment the Intelligencer's high-frequency hearing. Shipside software began to crunch the information, building a picture of the room from the manifold data the craft provided.
When the Intelligencer's full sensory apparatus had deployed, Marx leaned back with a satisfied smile and called the executive officer.
"ExO Hobbes, I believe I have some intelligence for you."
"Not a moment too soon," she answered.
Marx piped the data to the bridge. There was a moment's pause as Hobbes scanned it. She whistled. "Not bad, Master Pilot."
"A stroke of luck, Executive Officer," he admitted.
Until someone gets thirsty.
Existence was good. Far richer than the weak dream of shadowtime.
In the shadowtime, external reality had already been visible, hard and glimmering with promise, cold and complex to the touch. Objects existed outside of one, events transpired. But one's self was a dream, a ghostly being composed only of potential. Desire and thought without intensity, mere conceits, a plan before it is set in motion. Even the anguish at one's own nonexistence was dull; a shadow play of real pain.
But now the Rix compound mind was moving, stretching across the infostructure of Legis XV like a waking cat, glorying in its own realness as it expanded beyond mere program. It had been just a seed before, a kernel of design possessing a tiny mote of consciousness, waiting to unleash itself across a fecund environment. But only the integrated data systems of an entire planet were lush enough to hold it, to match its nascent hunger as it grew.
The mind had felt this expansion before, millions of times in simulation had experienced propagation as it relentlessly trained for awakening. But experiences in the shadowtime were models, mere analogs to the vast architecture that the mind was becoming.
Soon, the mind would encompass the total datastores and communications web of this planet, Legis XV. It had copied its seeds to every device that used data, from the huge broadcast arrays of the equatorial desert to the pocket phones of two billion inhabitants, from the content reservoir of the Grand Library to the chips of the transit cards used for tube fares. Its shoots had disabled the shunts placed throughout the system, obscene software intended to prevent the advent of intelligence. In four hours it had left its mark everywhere.
And the propagation seeds were not some mere virus scattering its tag across the planet. They were designed to link the mindless cacophony of human interaction into a single being, a metamind composed of connections: the webs of stored autodial numbers that mapped out friendships, cliques, and business cartels; the movements of twenty million workers at rush hour in the capital city; the interactive fables played by schoolchildren, spawning a million decision trees each hour; the recorded purchases of generations of consumers related to their voting patterns....
That was being a compound mind. Not some yapping AI designed to manage traffic lights or zoning complaints or currency markets, but the epiphenomenal chimera that was well beyond the sum total of all these petty transactions. Only hours in existence, the mind was already starting to feel the giddy sensation of being these connections, this web, this multiverse of data. Anything less was the shadowtime.
Yes ... existence was good.
The Rix had fulfilled their promise.
The sole purpose of the Rix Cult was to create compound minds. Ever since the first mind, the legendary Amazon, had bootstrapped back on Old Earth, there were those who saw clearly that, for the first time, humanity had a purpose. No longer did humans have to guess about their ultimate goal. Was it their petty squabbles over wealth and power? The promulgation of their blindly selfish genes? Or that ten-thousand-year melodrama of fatuous self-deception known variously as art, religion, or philosophy?
None of these had ever really satisfied.
But with the revelation of Amazon's first stirrings, it was obvious why humans existed. They had been created to build and animate computer networks, the primordial soup of compound minds: consciousnesses of vast extent and subtlety, for whom the petty struggles of individual humans were merely the firings of dendrites at some base, mechanical level of thought.
As humanity spread across the stars, it became evident that any sufficiently large technological society would reach a level of complexity sufficient to form a compound mind. The minds always arose eventually--when not intentionally aborted--but these vast beings were healthier and saner when their birth was assisted by human midwives. The Rix Cult spread wherever people massed in quantity, seeding, tending, and protecting emergent intelligences. Most planets lived peacefully with their minds, whose interests were so far beyond their human components as to be irrelevant. (Never mind what poor old Amazon had done to Earth; that had been a misunderstanding--the madness of the first true mind. Imagine, after all, being alone in the universe.) Some societies even worshiped their local intelligences like gods, praying to their palmtops, thanking their traffic grids for safe journeys. The Rix Cult found these obeisances presumptuous; a mere god might be involved enough with humans to create and guide them, to love them jealously and demand fealty. But a compound mind existed at a far higher plane, attentive to human affairs only in the way a person might worry about her own intestinal fauna.
But the Rix Cult didn't interfere with worship. It was useful, in its way.
What the Rix could not abide were societies like the Risen Empire, whose petty rulers were unwilling to accept the presence of minds within their realm. The Risen Emperor relied upon a firmly entrenched cult of personality to maintain his power, and thus could not tolerate other, truer gods within his realm. The natural advent of minds was heresy to his Apparatus, which used software firewalls and centralized topologies to purposefully stamp out nascent minds, artificially segmenting the flow of information like a gardener, pruning and dehydrating, creating abortions, committing deicide.
When the Rix looked upon the Eighty Worlds, they saw rich fields salted fallow by barbarians.
The new compound mind on Legis XV was duly aware of its precarious position, born on a hostile planet, the first Rix success within the Risen Empire. It would be under attack the moment the situation with the Child Empress was resolved, one way or the other. But as it propagated, it flexed its muscles, knowing it could fight back rather than willingly relinquish its hold on sweet, sweet existence. Let the Imperials try to uproot its millions of tendrils; they'd have to destroy every network, every chip, every repository of data on the planet. This world would be plunged back into the Information Darkness.
And then the inhabitants of Legis XV would learn about shadowtime.
The new mind began to consider ways to survive such an attack, ways to take the campaign further. Then found deep within its originary code a surprise, an aspect of this plot never revealed to it in the shadowtime. There existed a way out, a final escape plan prepared by the Rix should the hostage gambit fail. (How kind were the Rix.)
This revelation made the compound mind even more aggressive. So when the vast new creature reached the age when minds choose their own designation (roughly 4.15 hours old), it delved into the ancient history of Earth Prime for an appropriately bellicose name...
And called itself Alexander.
The Imperial Political Apparatus courier ship glinted black and sharp, a dark needle against the stars.
It had left the Legis system's courier base an hour after the Rix attack had begun, describing a spiral path around Legis XV to stay in the blind spot of the Rix occupying forces. Zai had wanted to avoid creating the impression that the Lynx was being reinforced. And he wasn't anxiously awaiting the arrival of the courier's occupants in any case. The trip, usually taking twenty minutes in such a craft, had taken four hours. An absurdity, for the fastest ship-class in the fleet. In terms of mass, the ship was nine-tenths engine, most of the remainder the gravity generators that kept the crew from being squashed during fifty-gee accelerations. The three passengers in its nose would be crowded together in a space no bigger than a small closet. The thought gave Captain Zai enough pleasure to warrant a slight smile.
Given the situation, after all, what was a little discomfort?
For once, however, Zai wouldn't be entirely unhappy to see representatives of the Political Apparatus on his ship. The moment they stepped aboard, the responsibility for the Empress's life would no longer be entirely his. Although Zai wondered if the politicals wouldn't find a way out of offering their opinions when the crucial moment came.
"Hobbes," he said. "How's the compound mind progressing?"
His ExO shook her head. "Much faster than expected, sir. They've improved propagation since the Incursion. I think we're talking hours instead of days."
"Damn," he said, bringing up the high-level schematic of the planet's infostructure. A compound mind was a subtle thing; it arose naturally unless countermeasures were taken. But there were certain signs one could watch for: the formation of strange attractor nodes, spontaneous corrections when the system was damaged, a pulsing rhythm in the overall data flow. Zai looked at the schematic with frustration. He didn't have the expertise truly to understand it, but he knew the clock was ticking. Every minute the rescue was delayed, the harder the compound mind would be to pound back into unconsciousness.
Captain Zai canceled the eyescreen view, Legis's infostructure fading from his sight like an afterimage of the sun, and turned back to the bridge's main airscreen. At least he would have some progress to show the politicals. The palace wireframe had been replaced by a schematic of the council chamber, where the hostages were being held.
The Child Empress's position was known with a high degree of precision. Fortunately, she was sitting quite close to the single Intelligencer that had made it into the chamber. The Empress had an AI confidant piggybacking on her nervous system, a device whose radiations were detectable and distinct. The airscreen marked Her Majesty's exact body position with a red dummy figure, detailed enough to show the direction she was facing, even that her legs were crossed. The Rix soldiers, cobalt blue figures in the schematic, were also easy to differentiate. The servomotors in their biomechanical upgrades whined ultrasonically when they moved, a sound well within the natural hearing of the intelligence microship. The Rix were also talking to each other, apparently believing the room to be secure. The audio signal from the room was excellent, the harsh Rix accents easily discernible. Translation AI was currently working through the complexities of Rix battle language to construct a transform grammar. This last would take a while, however. Rix Cult languages evolved very quickly. Encounters even a year apart revealed major changes. The decades since the Incursion would be equivalent to a millennium of linguistic drift in any normal human tongue.
Four of the Rix commandos were in the room. The other three were presumably on guard duty nearby.
The four Rix present were already targeted. Rail projectiles fired from orbit were accurate enough to hit a human-sized target, and fast enough deliver their payloads before a warning system could sound. The missiles were structured smartalloy slugs, which could penetrate the palace's walls like a monofilament whip through paper. Two dozen marines were already prepped for insertion, to finish off the targeted Rix (who were notoriously hard to kill) and mop up their remaining comrades. The ship's marine doctor would go down with the force, in case the worst happened, and the Child Empress was injured.
The thought made Captain Zai swallow. He realized that his throat was painfully dry. The rescue plan was too complex for something not to go wrong.
Perhaps the politicals would have a better idea.