Newton's Wake: A Space Opera
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ACROSS THE UNIVERSE
In the aftermath of the Hard Rapture-a cataclysmic war sparked by the explosive evolution of Earth's artificial intelligences into godlike beings-a few remnants of humanity managed to survive. Some even prospered.
Lucinda Carlyle, head of an ambitious clan of galactic entrepreneurs, had carved out a profitable niche for herself and her kin by taking control of the Skein, a chain of interstellar gates left behind by the posthumans. But on a world called Eurydice, a remote planet at the farthest rim of the galaxy, Lucinda stumbled upon a forgotten relic of the past that could threaten the Carlyles' way of life.
For, in the last instants before the war, a desperate band of scientists had scanned billions of human personalities into digital storage, and sent them into space in the hope of one day resurrecting them to the flesh. Now, armed, dangerous, and very much alive, these revenants have triggered a fateful confrontation that could shatter the balance of power, and even change the nature of reality itself.
As soon as she stepped through the gate Lucinda Carlyle knew the planet had been taken, and knew it would be worth taking back. It bore the thumbprints of hurried terraforming: bluish grass and moss, low shrubbery like heather. No animal life was visible, but she had no doubt it was there. Five kilometres away across an otherwise barren moor dotted with outcrops and bogs a kilometre-high diamond machine speared the sky. Complex in aspect, somewhere between a basaltic cliff and a cathedral, it had shown up on the robot probe, but that was nothing compared to actually looking at it.
She turned away from it and looked back at the gate. It was marked by a hilltop henge, whether by the gate's builders or by subsequent, less sophisticated minds she couldn't guess: two three-metre slabs upended, and topped by a third. One by one her team stepped forth from the unlikely shimmer and gazed around at the landscape. A yellow G5 sun blinked a bleary, watery morning eye over the horizon.
'Grim place,' said Macaulay, the ordnance fellow, as drizzle gusted. 'Minds me a Scotland.' He heaved a Charnley plasma cannon to his shoulder, mimed a shot at the distant edifice, andabashed by Carlyle's sudden glarelooked to the robot walkers that carried the heavier gear.
'Divil you were ever in Scotland,' jeered Amelia Orr, comms op and Carlyle's great-great-grandmother, who had been.
'Shut it,' said Carlyle. She flinched slightly at her own words, but she was in charge here, and she had to stamp authority on seniority, and fast. She strongly suspected that Orr had been put on the team to keep an eye on her, and harboured contingency plans to take over if Carlyle faltered. On the inside of her helmet the names of the rest of the ten-person team lit up one by one. Meanwhile the suit's firewalls fenced with the atmosphere. The planet was habitableinhabited, even, damn their cheek but its bacteria, viruses, and fungi all had to be neutralised. It would be an hour or more before the suits had passed on the new immunities to the team's bloodstreams, and the suits, or at least the helmets, could be dispensed with.
'Are you picking up anything?' she asked Orr, in a carefully polite tone.
The older woman tight-beamed a glyph of
Carlyle raised a suit-gloved hand. 'No the now.' She swept the hand forward. 'Come on guys, this is gonna be a slog.'
Two hours later their suits were covered in mud and stained with bits of the local analogues of bracken, moss, and lichen, crawling with tiny tenlegged analogues of arthropods, and their firewalls were still running the virtual equivalent of fever, but they were all standing in front of the glittering cliffs. Carlyle let the team deploy a hundred metres away from the first visible ground-level gap and consulted her familiar. Professor Isaac Shlaim was an Israeli comp sci academic whose vicissitudes since the Hard Rapture could have filled a book, and had. So far Carlyle had resisted his entreaties to have it published.
'Whaddae ye make of it?' she asked.
The familiar's icon filled a quadrant of the head-up. The icon was a caricatured face that Lucinda varied whenever she felt too uncomfortably reminded that Shlaim had once been human.
'From after my time,' he said, a slightly smug tone overlying his usual mixture of resentment and resignation to his plight. 'Can you confirm that it is the only such artifact on the planet?'
'May I access your remote sensing equipment?'
Carlyle hesitated. The familiar's efforts to escape the circuits of her suit were as predictable as they were persistent. On the other hand, she needed his assistance more than usual.
'I'll scan then gie ye a download,' she compromised.
'Excellent!' said Shlaim. Even centuries removed from muscle-tone and breath, his cheerful compliance sounded forced.
The radar and sonar pings and full-spectrum scan took about a minute and returned a mass of data quite incomprehensible to Carlyle, or to any individual human. She filed it, isolated it, and tipped it and a copy of Shlaim into a firewalled box. Let the poor bugger fight whatever demons might lurk in the electromagnetic echoes of the posthuman relic before them.
Macaulay was chivvying his iron gorillas into setting up the field pieces to triangulate the provisionally identified entrance. Orr was lying on her back surrounded by small dish aerials. The other team members were prone on the edge of a dip, periscope sights and plasma rifles poking over it, for whatever good that would do. From here the irregularities of the diamond cliff looked like crenellated battlements, its high black hollows like loopholes. But there was no evidence anywhere Carlyle could see of firing on the moor: no burn marks in the knotty ankle-high scrub, no glazed slag. The sense of being watched was overpowering, but she knew from experience that this meant nothing. She'd felt the same tension on the back of her neck in front of natural cliffs.
She ducked to stay beneath this nominal skyline and ran over to Jenny Stevenson, the biologist, who had one hand on her rifle and with the other was picking bits of grot off her suit and feeding them into an analyser.
'How's it looking?' Carlyle asked.
Stevenson's brown-eyed gaze flicked from her head-up to focus on Carlyle, and crinkled to show the top of a smile. Her grubby glove's thumb and forefinger formed an 'O.'
'Compatible,' she said. 'After we've got the immunities, we could turn they plants into food, nae bother.'
Carlyle flicked a finger at a clump of scrub, jangling its tiny violet bellshaped flowers. 'Is this really heather?'
'Naw really,' said Stevenson. Her smile brightened. 'Just an analogue, like. Somebody's done a real sweet job on this. Took some ae the native life and adapted it. Ye can still see bits ae the native sequences in the DNA, braided in wi the terrestrial stuff. Every cell here must be running two genetic codes simultaneously, which is quite a trick. I'm picking up signatures of they Darwin-Gosse machines fae way back, where was it?'
'Aye, that's the one.'
'Good work,' said Carlyle. This was a puzzle; AO, the main population of terraformers, mistrusted Darwin-Gosse machines, but it was always possible that a deviant sect had bought some. 'That'll maybe gie's a handle on the squatters. Speaking of which.'
She rolled to Orr, staying outside the barrier of aerials. 'Have the locals spotted us yet?'
Orr remained staring upward, at some combination of the real sky and the images being patched in from her apparatus. She didn't turn around; probably still smarting.
'No's far as I see. Place is under satellite surveillance, sure, but I've no ta'en any pings. Most ae the action's round the other side of the planet, and all we're picking up here is spillover. I got a few quantum demons grinding through the encryption. Should be cracked in an hour or so.'
'Any low orbit presence?'
Orr waved a dismissive hand skyward. 'Scores of satellites. Sizes range between a grape and a grapefruit. No exactly heavy industry. Typical fucking farmers.'
'Any deep space stuff?'
'Aye, a few, but it's hard to tell fae leakage ae tight-beam transmissions. The odd asteroid miner, I reckon. Maybe a fort or two.'
Carlyle chewed a lip, sucked hot coffee from her helmet nipple. 'Makes sense. The squatters don't seem to be AO, whoever they are.'
Orr sniggered. 'Squatters coulda picked a better place to fittle into. Makes me wonder why they didnae fittle straight back out.'
'Yeah,' said Carlyle. 'Well, assuming.' Assuming a lot about the squatters' tech level and motivations, was what she meant. She sat up, hunkered forward, elbows on knees, looking around. 'When your demons have finished we might have something to go on. Meanwhile' She toggled to an open circuit. 'Time for a bit ae combat archaeology.'
The mission profile was straightforward. They were neither to hide from nor confront the squatters, but instead pull down from the busy sky as much information as they could about them, then scout the diamond machine-mountain for any traces of usable tech and/or dangerous haunts, and get the hell out before sunset. Her familiar had found no signals in the noise bounced back from the precipitous face, but as Carlyle stalked forward alone, the Webster reaction pistol strapped to her hip, her backup team behind her to keep her covered, she felt her knees tremble. It wasn't so much the possible soul-searing dangers presented by the incomprehensible posthuman artifact, as it was a fear of screwing up. This was her first big job for the firm, one she'd fought hard to get, and she had no intention of blowing it. And on the plus side of the ledger, there was always the chance that the tech in here would be radical and capable of being parlayed into wealth beyond the dreams, etc. There was always that, but it wasn't enough. It wasn't what kept you walking forward, like a soldier into enemy fire. The Carlyles led from the front, always had, from the days when the worst any of them faced was a chibbing in a Glasgow close.
From a few metres away she saw that the lower part of the face, to about head height, was overgrown with moss and grass, evidently on the slow stacking of windblown dust. Above that the...
Copyright © 2004 by Ken MacLeod
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