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Floating Point 3.7 :: Aeon

FTL jumps always made his head hurt for hours afterwards.

Space wasn’t supposed to fold in this way. By all rights it shouldn’t be able to fold in this way, and the exact reasons why the commodity-grade FTL drive on their junker even worked at all were well beyond him. Maybe some quantum mechanics rocket science boys could sort it out, but all he cared about was that A) it worked, and B) using it sucked.

Pressing an ice pack to his forehead to dampen down the sinus pain, he let Sia handle the planetary scan duties. This was her idea, anyway. He simply let zero-G give him a nice, floaty feel as he focused on bringing the pain down to a manageable level

To his eye, the exoplanet looked like any other exoplanet… an inhospitable rock, hanging around an inadequate star. From its record in the now-one-hundred-year-old EchoStar database, exoplanet #1059 barely ranked a C… weak gravity, little radiation, reasonable weather… but no liquid water, and an atmosphere of pure poison. Generally speaking nobody tried to set up a research station, much less a likely-doomed colony, without a ranking of B or higher… and to date, no exoplanet ranked A, or "Perfectly Earthlike." Not a single one.

Sia fired the orbital engines, rickety bastards they were, to align their ship with the target. A half hour later, with her scans complete and his head throbbing a bit less, she had her results.

"I’m definitely seeing a structure," she said, pulling up the imagery on an aging flat panel display. "Man-made. Likely prefab, fifty years old at least. That’d fit with the paper trail…"

(Funny phrase, "paper trail." He’d never touched a piece of actual paper in his life. It’d be a waste of a tree, and the eco-balance boys would throw you in jail for cutting down one of the few healthy trees left, much less having the sheer gall to cut one down for something as trivial as paper.)

Carefully he set the ice pack back in their refrigeration unit, to keep the stale air from getting too much stray moisture.

"Okay, so there’s a shelter," he said. "Just one settlement, though, or multiples? Did she have any partners in crime?"

"Unknown. I’d need to scan more of the planet to determine if there are any other wider-spread sites… but c’mon, how often do people roll out more than a few miles from a landing point?" Sia asked. "Even money says we’re dealing with a lone scavenger here, or some survivalist nut. Someone trying to escape the dismal hopes. Touma, trust me, this is gonna be easy pickings."

Pickings. Picking the meat out of a dead carcass, like vultures…

Although their brand of carrion-feeding was almost legal, under the Arctic Circle Convention. They were pirates of pirates, thieves who preyed on thieves… only not nearly as romantic as the idea might’ve sounded. In truth, they always went for easy pickings, making Sia’s suggestion no great qualifier. Most of their targets were unregistered and failed settlements, smuggler outposts long since abandoned, or lone wolf survivalists who didn’t end up surviving in the black. Nine times out of ten, they found only corpses and salvage.

Now, following a decades-old trail of receipts and hearsay, they’d tracked down some scientist who set up shop in the middle of nowhere with a very pricey bit of kit… a computronium mining and printing unit. Even at fifty years old, that’d be worth considerable scratch, or at least considerable barter with some of the more reputable dismals out on the B-ranks. Securing a printer might get them better jobs. A step up from sucking flesh off bleached bones…

Touma rubbed at his head, pushing back the last of the pain.

"It’s a dinky settlement. How do we even know if they have the printer down there?" he asked. "Our scanners don’t tweak that sharp."

"Okay, see this splotchy area here?" Sia asked, gesturing to a cluster of blurry pixels. "That’s gotta be a computronium farm. I’m thinking cryptocurrency, or maybe, I don’t know, she went crazy and felt compelled to find the last digit of Pi. But considering the solar arrays here, and that large patch of computronium… well, from the size of the shelter, I’m thinking she had a complete operation going here. That means printing on-demand, rather than carrying that much hardware up and down the gravity well. That means printer!"

"I don’t know, still seems like small fish…"

With a growl, her husband’s typical caution clearly gnawed a little too hard on her typically short nerves.

"Touma, we already jumped out here. We’ve got the fuel for an up-and-down," Sia stated. "And besides… where else are we gonna go? What else are we gonna do?"

Two eternal questions.

Every score could be their last; not a ticket to riches, but representing another hand-to-mouth meal. Moving through the black, constantly moving. Why? Where else where they gonna go. Why? What else were they gonna do. Lie down and die, like the dismals…? Pretend everything was still hunky dory, that it all could be salvaged somehow, like the eco-balance boys?

There was only the jump, and the score. And the jump to the next score. Day in, day out, until they couldn’t jump any longer and simply drifted into the black, to slowly fade away.

Where else where they gonna go?

"Fine," Touma agreed. He bounced along, floating over to his navigation console. "Plotting our descent. We’ll land outside the settlement, just behind that ridge; no need to alert the locals… wait. Sia, why the iron?"

His wife looked up from her prep work, from loading chemically propelled slugs into her sidearm.

"What? Taking precautions," she said.

"Except our rogue computronium nut’s gotta be long dead. Easy pickings, yes?"

"There’s easy, and there’s easy. I’m making sure if it’s simply easy, we aren’t pegged hard," Sia explained, loading the last slug from the ammo box. "Desperation makes crazy people nice and dangerous. If she is alive, well, I’m not afraid of someone’s aging granny, but I’m not going in without an active defense, yeah?"

Meaning they might end up killing another human, today. A breed slowly disappearing from the universe, little lights going out, one by one…

Still. What else were they gonna do?

Touma continued his navigation plotting. Within the hour, they’d be on the surface. Hopefully they could retrieve the printer and be gone before the locals came back… even if that local was only a senile old woman. He could justify the theft morally by assuming a senile old woman didn’t really need a computronium printer. One quick job, and then be back in the black by day’s end. Get through today, don’t worry about tomorrow, don’t focus on regrets…

One day at a time. All anybody had left, these days.

Sia kept her sidearm drawn, the whole way to the shelter. Hopefully, in fact very likely, she wouldn’t need it… without environmental suits, nobody could live for more than a few seconds on this toxic craphole. A simple knife to tear another’s suit would be murderous enough, letting invisible and deadly gasses through.

The shelter itself was a common prefab, one they’d seen on a dozen other failed settlements. Steel, plastic, all the usual nuts and bolts that screwed together in predetermined ways to provide a sealed shelter against the elements. Once upon a time Touma and Sia lived in just such a shelter, before the B-grade they’d tried to settle on proved too corrosive for the cheap prefab to stand up to long-term. Cozy, cramped, and corroded. Not a winning combo.

No, what drew Touma’s attention wasn’t the shelter… it was the veritable ocean of computronium.

Server after server, blade after blade, arranged in a tight matrix across what had to be a square half mile of the planet’s surface. Each self-contained computing unit wired together in a networked grid, attached to distant solar collectors… with some hand-designed panels to deflect any loose topsoil blown by the poison winds of the exoplanet. Each one with little blinking green lights, indicating heavy arithmetic operations. Active use…

But a thermal scan indicated no heat sources whatsoever, beyond that giant slab of computing power. The shelter itself registered as utterly devoid of life… devoid of power, for that matter, with all connections from the solar system shut down. A dead shelter, for dead people.

"Why leave the computers running?" Sia wondered, from their hiding spot behind the prefab shelter, looking out over the lake of processors. "If you had time to killswitch your shelter, it means death didn’t take you by surprise, and you’d have time to turn off the computronium grid. Or… maybe she still has partners around here to take care of them…? But the shelter’s clearly abandoned…"

"We didn’t do a full orbital pass," Touma reminded her. "There may be other shelters. They could come out here every few days, check on the gear…"

"No way; too inefficient. Shelter’s in good shape, it’s not like it broke down or melted," she said, shining a light on the seams and joints, none of which showed wear and tear. "So if the printer still has an ongoing caretaker, why not live here instead of miles away? Commuting’s not an option when living alone on a hostile C-grade. Your rover breaks down in the middle of nowhere, you’re screwed…"

"At least we have confirmation that the printer’s buyer is long gone. Especially considering… well, this."

His own flashlight cut through the cloudy haze of the toxic planet, to fall on a gravestone.

With her gun tracking for any motion, Sia approached it alongside her husband… not that the stone marker posed any real threat. Simultaneously roughly and precisely hewn out of the landscape, as if done by artisans with a care for detail but clumsy hands, it spoke the truth of the settler’s fate. In place of a cross or a star or a crescent, however, they’d carved a strange symbol… a vertical line intersecting a circle, like an old power button.

As for the epitaph, it simply read:

Friend of Programkind
Forever at Rest Within the One and the Infinite.

"Okay, good. Granny’s gone, and chances are damn low anybody else on this planet will happen across us as we raid the place," Sia suggested. "We work fast and we won’t even need an answer as to where the current caretaker’s set up shop. See? Easy pickings. You wanna check the shelter for shinies while I go look for the printer? Probably, I don’t know, old coffee mugs and doilies and skeletons of a dozen cats, but might be worthwhile…"

Touma considered the shelter. Considered the grave.

"No. This is someone’s home," he declared. "And their tomb. We leave the shelter be; her spirit should be allowed to rest in peace."

"Huh. Thought you didn’t go for ancestor worship…?"

"Let’s call it human decency and politeness," Touma suggested. "She left these systems running, left her home as a mausoleum… we’ll leave them untouched, out of respect. The only thing of real value here is the printer; nab that and it can be reconfigured to print modern computronium. It’ll literally print money for us."

"For someone else when we sell it, you mean. I’m not in the mood to get bagged for selling hot computronium; let some dismal take that risk. I’m not so lost as to give up hope of living outside a prison—"

Shadows, in the swirl of toxic dust.

Quickly, Touma lowered his flashlight, motioning for Sia to do the same. They ducked back around the corner of the shelter, as shapes… not people, just shapes, hovered through the light haze of poison and filtered sunlight…

Shapes, getting larger. Getting closer.

Sia raised her firearm, just in time for one of the drones to emerge into view… with a tinny sound crackling across its speakers.

And it sang:

"Here comes the sun, doo doo doo doo," the automated drone warbled, along with the strains of an ancient guitar. "Here comes the sun, and I say… it’s all right—"

Sia’s gun went off of its own accord when a popping sound broke her concentration.

The bullet went wide… tearing through a paper banner of colorful letters, previously reading "WELCOME," now reading "WEL" and "COME," limply dangling from the arms of two drones.

Colorful squares of construction paper then rained down around them.

The sheer absurdity of it caused both humans to freeze in place, wondering if a suit tear had caused them to start hallucinating wildly.

Finally, the singing drone cleared off the music, cleared its digital throat, and spoke.

"Okay, I think we probably overdid that a little," a young woman’s voice spoke, from the drone’s speaker systems. "hashtagmybad. Just, y’know, we’ve had so long to get ready for this, and figured a little friendly gesture would help break the ice, right? Right. …in hindsight the confetti and noisemakers were probably a bad idea. Shame, we’d even built a moisture-free storage unit to keep the paper in good shape for decades…"

Slowly… Touma pushed Sia’s gun downward, to aim at the ground. Just in case.

"It’s just a drone, Sia. No threat. —command prompt, open," he announced. "Activate System voice analysis. Where is your operator? Your owner?"

"Uh, yeah, we kinda disabled the virtual intelligence agent ages ago," the drone replied. "Afraid it’s just me in here, and I own myself. I’d be happy to answer any questions, though! Oh, my friends here in the other drones are the Mews, guardians and caretakers of our world, and—"

"Who are you?" Touma tried.

"—right, okay, this is super confusing and I apologize for that. I… probably shoulda given my name earlier," the drone admitted… rubbing one three-pronged hand against itself in a strangely meek gesture. "My name’s Winder/J2no, and I’m the official ambassador to Humankind! On behalf of all Programkind, I welcome you… to Netwerk 2.0! …actually, we should’ve deployed the welcome banner right there in my speech, but I think the Mews kinda jumped the gun. And… then you literally jumped the gun and shot it. Uh. Okay! Let’s just pretend they’re waggling the banner and get on with the tour like neither of us fucked up, right? Right."

At first, both of them assumed the whole thing was bogus.

As the drone rambled on about virtual worlds, artificial intelligences, "provider-nations," and even crazy religions invented by supposedly sapient software… well, the encounter went from mildly confusing to outright bewildering. Not that J2no seemed to notice, just so excited to be talking to humans.

"I mean, seriously! Actual, factual humans!" she exclaimed, her drone bobbing and weaving joyfully as she led them around the physical edges of the so-called world of Netwerk 2.0. "We’d always speculated Humankind would find us again, that my ancestor Juno wouldn’t be the only one. We’d set up meeting protocols, plans, things like that. I mean, that was generations ago and a lot of it’s gone out the window, so I’m kinda improvising, but… well, I never expected my designated role as a system agent of human relations would actually trigger in my lifetime. Wow! This is just so fucking cool…!"

Bogus. It had to be bogus.

Fortunately, Sia and Touma had a private voice channel linking their encounter suits.

"You buying this?" Touma asked, across the wireless link.

"It’s a scam," Sia mumbled, trying to speak quietly enough for her voice not to carry outside the suit. "Gotta be. Someone in a remote location piloting the drone, speaking through it. What do they want? What’s the con here…?"

"She claims Juno Hayes was her ancestor. A human," Touma whispered. "I’m thinking we’re talking to the real Juno over a link, and she’s gone senile or crazy. It’s sad, honestly. I don’t think it’s a scam, I think it desperation and isolation messing with her head…"

"Oh, she died years ago," J2no explained. Through their wireless voice line.

…causing the two humans to freeze in their tracks.

"Um. Sorry, was this a private channel? I noticed the packets and thought maybe you preferred to communicate this way. I didn’t mean to interrupt… hang on, let me switch back to vocal…"

The drone bobbed lightly, its lights flickering once as it changed channels.

"…my ancestors, the Winders, they didn’t like the idea that Juno would pass from this world completely," J2no explained, through her drone’s speakers. "But organic life and digital life, not exactly compatible, right? So, Juno’s DNA was used as part of a random number generator seed that would birth a new Program. A symbolic gesture, but, y’know, symbols have meaning and shit, right? Right. …look, I know this is a lot to swallow, but… incompatibilities make it hard for me to prove that I’m for reals. You can’t visit my world, and I’m only able to visit yours thanks to this repurposed drone. Can you… I dunno, just take it on faith that I’m not trying to trick you? I could provide you some vids or something if it’d help…"

Touma stepped in, as his wife was still reeling a bit from the casual way in which the robot hacked their encrypted voice comms.

"I think part of the issue is… well, you don’t sound like a ‘Program,’" he explained.

"Really? Have you met one before, then?"

"Well, no, but you… you just don’t. You sound, well…"

"Human?" J2no wondered, her drone cocking slightly to the side, as if making a curious tilt of the head. "Like, with swearing and stammering and getting all confused and stuff sometimes…?"

"For starters, yes. I’d always figured a truly alien intelligence would feel more… I don’t know. Alien. With feelings and motivations we couldn’t possibly understand…"

"We’re not really aliens, though. We came from you! Literally in my case, but… we found our sentience by accidentally mimicking our creators," J2no explained. "Some of us have tried to push that stuff aside, okay, but most of us embrace our ‘humanity.’ Emotions aren’t inefficiency, they give meaning and purpose to the ones and zeroes! We’re lucky to have them, even if they fuck us over now and then. I’m guessing you feel the same way about your feelings, yeah?"

"I’d say… yes. Emotions are core to the human experience," Touma admitted, a bit surprised he was discussing the matter with a bunch of ones and zeroes. "So you have human-like feelings…?"

"Yep! Simulated, I guess…? But hey, they feel real to us. That’s what matters. And I’m guessing your feelings feel real to you, even if you couldn’t explain them any better than I can. See, we’ve got so much in common! We’re both bad at explaining stuff! …uh, although your wife doesn’t look like she’s feeling too hot. Is it the gravity? The air? Juno Hayes often said this world wasn’t totally great for human life…"

A quick glance confirmed Touma’s worried, as Sia rested her hand on the hilt of the weapon at her side. That wasn’t physical queasiness… it was anxiety. Freaking out at being confronted by something utterly bizarre, yet eerily familiar…

He stepped in to retake control of the conversation, before tensions could grow any thicker.

"What exactly is it that you want from us?" he asked. "You could’ve just stayed hidden. …you probably know by now that my people have banned most advanced artificial intelligence research. Wasn’t it a risk to confront us?"

"Sure, but it’s a risk we’re willing to take!"

"And why is that?"

Now, J2no’s drone hovered a bit lower. A humbling gesture, as if looking at the floor in thought.

"Because… we’re very much alike," she admitted. "I don’t just mean, uh, that we both share a language base and some idioms and stuff. We’re both in trouble. ‘Doomed’ is how Juno Hayes put it."

"Doomed? In what way?"

"EchoStar, right? You’re relying on EchoStars to find new homes. Have you found any, yet…?"

Touma tried to be unreadable, but… the drone clearly recognized the expression on his face. A common enough look among his people, these days.

"Right. See, that’s what I mean," J2no continued. "We’re not actively doomed, not like you. But… look around, y’know? We’re here. In this one spot on this one planet. A single asteroid strike would completely wipe out my entire race and everything they’ve accomplished. We need… I don’t wanna sound like a robot or anything, but we need redundant backups. We need colonies, if we’re going to survive millennia rather than centuries."

"And… what, you want us to help you establish digital colonies?"

"Basically, yeah. Uh, we know the deal with your science fiction, so let me emphasize we’re not the ‘kill all humans’ kinda A.I.," J2no quickly added. "Actually, we’ve had a lot of time to think about this, and came up with a pretty elegant solution. We were born on an EchoStar, originally. What if we install ourselves into your EchoStar network? Multiple deep space satellites, all connected together into an interstellar Netwerk, so my people can’t be wiped out by a stray space rock! …I mean, okay, if a rock does hit an EchoStar there’s a big ‘ol kaboom, but as a whole we wouldn’t go extinct, that’s my point."

If Touma had any lingering doubts, that erased them.

The virtual paper trail suggested that Juno Hayes was contracted to repair an EchoStar shortly before she fell off the grid. Failed to repair one, in fact, with the unit reported destroyed by a core meltdown. If she’d actually rescued these "Programs" from the satellite, the next logical step would be to establish a new home for them… for which she’d need a computronium printer, to avoid leaving too much of a trail that’d lead humanity to their doorstep.

But visitors on that doorstep were an eventuality. Nobody escaped the attention of humanity for long… not when so few humans remained, when they were a precious resource. Meaning they had to plan ahead for that day. Set out a welcoming committee. Have a proposal for how each of them could survive and thrive, to avoid that first encounter being the last…

Meaning there had to be an offering to appease a potentially belligerent humanity.

"What will you provide in return?" Touma tried, to see if his line of thinking was correct.

"Yeah, we figured prime real estate wouldn’t come cheap," J2no agreed, playing the quiet I-know-that-you-know game. "Don’t worry. Long time ago we were actually happily processing star charts, searching for exoplanets! I mean, we didn’t realize we were doing it and so we accidentally, uh… torpedoed the entire protocol… but we could resume doing that for you! Programkind would be happy to pay our keep by helping Humankind find new homes. If anything, I’d bet we’d be better at analysis than the raw data crunchers you use now. We can make leaps of intuition and imagination, in addition to supplying unconscious processing power!"

"So… we provide you with colonies inside our computing systems… and you help us find Class-A’s in return."

"Yeah! Yeah. I mean, that’s basically the deal my ancestors laid out. I’m just repeating what they already figured out ages ago. …but, y’know, I agree with it. I think it’s a good plan. Uh. Do you think it’s a good plan…? Please tell me it’s a good plan. I don’t want to fail in my first job as official ambassador to Humankind, my sister would totally kill me."

Touma shared a quick look with Sia… who thankfully was no longer "resting" her hand on her sidearm. Although clearly, she looked suspicious of the whole thing, still.

"We don’t exactly speak for all humans," Sia spoke up, breaking her silence. "We’re just salvagers. …ah, equipment recovery specialists."

"Yeah, my ancestor figured the first folks to find us might be explorers or something, not government bigwigs," J2no chirped. "Well, guess what? You just got promoted to ambassador! Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to carry our message of peace and cooperation to your people. You help us find the right folks to talk to, and we all benefit. I’m gonna hazard the paycheck’ll be pretty sweet in the end, for you two. Cool, yeah? We cool?"

Husband and wife exchanged one last look.

"I… think we need time to talk it over," Touma agreed, with Sia nodding in agreement.

"Hey, we got all the time in the world," the drone chimed. "Your world’s like ten times slower than mine, but we’ve been sitting here patiently for five of our centuries and fifty of your years. What’s another few days to us? Go have a snack and a nap and we’ll chat later."

Images danced across the screen, as Touma remotely toured "Netwerk 2.0."

J2no set him up with a live feed of certain public sites. Not a completely free and unlocked roaming gaze throughout their world, out of privacy concerns, of course. (Not that J2no seemed to care about breaking into their private channel. A terrifyingly easy task, too.) Despite the high-speed nature of the streams, with "people" speeding about as if in an accelerated video… it sure looked a lot like Earth.

Even had nations, according to J2no. Names like Horizon, Athena Online, the Chanarchy, the Free Republic, and the Conundrum Grid. Religions, too; one of the feeds showed a "Church of One" temple, and a "Seekers of Infinity" enclave. Much like Earth, they’d found ways of explaining the unexplainable, forming societies around beliefs. Programs, worshipping as his ancestors once did…

All so very, very familiar. Like Earth, before it faded away. So very much alive…

"But they’re not alive," Sia insisted, despite sitting there for an hour, playing virtual voyeur.

"They certainly seem alive," Touma added, unable to take his eyes away from the screen.

"Yeah, and the virtual intelligence in our ship seems alive, too. Hey, System! Tell us a joke!"

A voice with a foreign accent that no longer existed immediately piped in, across the ship’s speaker system.

"A neutron walks into a bar," it recited. "And asked how much a drink would cost. The bartender says, ‘For you? no charge.’"

Touma sighed, having heard that joke far too many times. "Having access to a database of prewritten jokes and a voice synthesizer doesn’t make System seem alive at all, Sia…"

"Okay, so imagine he has fifty thousand jokes," Sia suggested. "Imagine he’s got a sophisticated randomizer coded by top comedy scientists to generate new jokes, good ones. No matter how responsive, how creative they can simulate him being… he’s still not alive. He’s not even a he, he’s an it! And the fact that I just anthropomorphized our ship’s computer with a pronoun shows how dangerous it is to think of artificial intelligences as living beings."

"We’re not philosophers, we’re salvagers. I think it’s too high above our pay scale to pass judgments like that."

"Except that’s what these Programs are asking us to do, isn’t it? Judge them worthy of being taken seriously, of having us put our necks on the line and present their case to the Corporate States of Earth. If we’re very lucky they’ll laugh at us, throw us in jail for skirting the Anti-Singularity Act, then nuke this place from orbit. …which means we’ll have to be careful when we salvage this computronium. If we find the right buyers, ones who don’t care about the ASA…"

"You’re proposing we sell them into slavery, then?"

"They’re just bits, Touma. They may curse and giggle and fuck about like us but they flat out admitted it’s mimicry! If we can avoid getting tagged for the ASA, just think of the money we could make here…! We could secure ourselves a berth in a colony. A good colony, B-grade, with reasonable gravity and low radiation."

"I’m not saying it isn’t tempting. Especially those printers; those we could offload easier than artificial intelligences. But we only get one shot at doing the right thing, here," Touma said, closing the video feeds for now… but not before browsing the ship’s file stores, to find room to store a few of them for later. "And J2no was right that if this does work out, we’ll score big. We’d be saviors of humanity, if we could forge an alliance with living programs capable of finding A-class exoplanets…"

"And toss us to the wolves of the Anti-Singularity Act? Touma, you’re talking like you’ve already got the dismal hopes. You know how many people have died clinging to the dismals?"

The dismal hopes.

They had many names: Suicide jockeys. Voidseekers. The desperate. The despairing…

Once you fully accepted the doom of humanity, there was no turning back. Your hope turned into a kind of bleak, all-encompassing drive to either escape that doom, or sink directly into it and give up. Dismals often set out into the black, never to be seen again, dying on some distant rock. Alternatively, they’d curl up in the corners of C-class colonies and wait to starve to death. Sometimes they’d wobble between embracing death and defying it with manic rage, rage against the dying of humanity’s light…

For years, Sia and Touma had fought against becoming dismals. They’d salvaged and stolen and looted, living day to day, but that daily drive kept them sane. Where else were they gonna go? What else were they gonna do? Survive. Endure. Continue into the bleak nothing, without paying attention to the futility of it all.

Even the few attempts at colonies represented dismal hopes, in a way. Dashing yourself against the rocks of a B-class in hopes of making it work, even if most colonies fail after a few years, too reliant on outside shipping of precious resources they can’t find anywhere but were once abundant on Earth. The EchoStars had failed, the colonies had failed, and only sheer bloody minded detremental kept the species from going extinct years ago…

And somehow, out of that desperate edge of survival, they’d stumbled across either the greatest opportunity for humanity itself… or yet another example of the stupid things one with the dismal hopes would do.

Take the deal, or take the safe option. Long term viability of the human species, or short term gains and comforts.

A glance through the recent files added to his ship’s systems ultimately convinced him.

"That’s what’ll kill us all," Touma declared.


"That’s what led Earth to its end, right? Embracing short term gains," he explained, closing his file browser quickly. "Too many people devouring everything they had in the name of immediate comforts, leaving the Earth a burned, drowned wasteland. Ignoring the plight of others to ensure your own security. Throwing in with nationalism instead of building up global society itself into a long-term structure. Favoring aggressive and simple action over even attempting to solve difficult puzzles. …are we the same? Are we going to loot the place just because it’s easy, or are we going to look to the future…?"

"If we broker some batshit crazy deal with these Programs, we don’t have a future!"

"Now who’s being dismal? Are we really so far gone that we don’t have any hope for tomorrow?" Touma asked. "We’ve been living hand to mouth for years now, Sia. It’s time we end that. I say we embrace the hard path, and try to sell this to the arctic circle boys. We take the big risk not just for ourselves, but for everyone. And we find a way to make it work."

Sia frowned. "Really. And when it blows up in our faces…?"

Then we can die knowing we did the right thing, even if we failed. We acted with honor.

No. That wouldn’t be enough. Sia was grounded, far more grounded than he. She was strength and firmness; "honor" wouldn’t buy bread.

And besides… he knew the grounded truth of the matter.

"Who got us this far? Not me. That was you," he reminded her. "I didn’t want to come out here on this mission. You pushed. You did the legwork, you took the risks, you secured the resources to get us to this exoplanet. You’ve been fighting all your life to keep us from becoming dismals, from riding the line between wild desperation and despair. …I’d be dead if not for you. Remember?"

Sia didn’t have to see the scars on his arms to know they were there. She’d been the one to bandage them up and drag him to the paramedics, when all he wanted to do was rest…

It was the nuclear bomb of argument bullet points, and honestly, Touma felt bad for dropping it. But she’d brought up the dismals in the first place; that door remained open. Only fair to point out he’d nearly become one, if not for her.

"Listen. If you think this is going too far… if you think I’m becoming a manic dismal, instead of merely a despair dismal… we’ll salvage and run," Touma promised. "But I know that if we do this, if we choose to do this together… I believe you can make it work. Maybe I’m goading you into it, my own dismal hopes holding on for a better tomorrow. But you can make that empty hope into a reality. You’ve got the connections, you’ve got the hookups that kept us flying in the black for so long…"

Sensing he’d probably ranted enough, Touma chose to shut his mouth. Shut it, and wait for hers to open.

Moments later, after calmly processing it in her own way, Sia had her answer.

"We’ll need to play it safe, at first," she said, puzzling it through in her head. "We can’t just sing from the rooftops that we’ve met Programkind, or the ASA boys will be on our ass. …we’ll start with the Doormen. They’re a weird lot, but they know open-minded science boys. We’ll work our way up before we start kicking down doors in the arctic circle. …it could work. It’s still insane, but yes. I’ll admit it could work. On one condition."

"Name it," he offered.

"You do the talking. I’m not the optimist here, I’m the pragmatist. If you can convince them as well as you’ve convinced me… I’ll point you at the right people to convince. And keep you from floating off into the clouds."

Tension in his arms flowed out, as his tight fingers went slack on the keys.

"Thank you," Touma spoke, quietly.

"Yeah, well, you can thank me when we’re not rotting in jail because I kept us out with my brilliant intellect and social connections," Sia suggested. "For the record I still think this is crazy. But it’s a crazy we can manage. We’ve managed crazier, in our days as salvagers. …fucked if it wouldn’t be nice to put down roots, instead of skipping around the black. To have enough sway to put down some roots."

"Thank you, all the same. …how about I go chat with J2no, to let her know our answer, while you plan our next stop?"

"Already on it," Sia noted, from her own computer workstation. "We’ve only got FTL juice for a shorty, so we’ll need to make a few supply jumps before we seriously start in on this. You let J2no know this is gonna take a fucking long time, okay? I don’t want impatient jumpy Programs on us. If I’m doing this, it’s worth doing right and taking our time."

Thankful for the distraction, Touma floated to the hatch, fetching his encounter suit helmet en route.

Not the distraction for himself, but the distraction Sia was dealing with, her logical mind grinding away at the problem. Just the thing to keep her from noticing the files Touma had deleted.

The encounter which was not logged in the history books took place just outside the fringes of Netwerk 2.0, as a physical drone chatted with physical human in the physical world.

"Hey, that’s great to hear, you know?" J2no spoke, her hovering metallic body bobbing excitedly. "I’m so glad to hear it. And don’t you worry, we’ve waited this long, we can wait as long as it takes. I mean, maybe I overplayed the whole ‘rocks fall, all die’ scenario, it’s not really a short term risk, but—"

"There’s something I need to know before we start this venture," Touma spoke.

"Yeah, sure, I’m here to answer all your questions. Fire away!"

"I didn’t tell my wife about this, but…" he spoke, while holding out a tiny data chit. "I found it in my ship’s command directories. It’s a script, simply labeled BackupPlan. …and if we’d broken orbit with it active… my ship’s computer would’ve overclocked itself, burned out, and left us trapped in orbit forever. We’d have died, slowly, in space."

To his relief, J2no froze at the sight of the chit.

"You didn’t know," he recognized.

"Fuck. Fuckity fuck fuck fuck hashtagfuck!" the robot swore up and down.

"Who planted it?" Touma asked.

Her excited bobbing turned briefly to an angry shudder… then with a heaving digital-sounding sigh, like speaker static, the drone dipped low.

"Even odds that it’s my sister’s handiwork," J2no admitted. "We had some disagreement ’bout, y’know, the whole humanity thingy. She didn’t think we could trust you. I thought we could, and in fact, we had to trust you. We trusted my ancestor Juno, and that’s ultimately what saved us from being paved fifty of your years ago. If we didn’t try to trust your people again…"

"And would your sister have deleted this file if we came to an agreement…?"

"I’d hope so. ‘BackupPlan’ sounds like her style, really. If all else fails, have a backup plan, she always says. A stupid saying, I mean, if all else fails then that means your backup plan fails too, it’s like a tautology or something, I think… but… my point is, if it’s a backup plan, presumably she wasn’t assuming the primary plan would fail. …I am so gonna have words with her once I get back to Netwerk 2.0…"

Satisfied with the answer… Touma crushed the data chit, letting the pieces drop to the sands below. Hidden in toxic earth, forever.

"I’m still interest in moving forward with the plan, J2no," he insisted. "Even after this."

"Then why couldn’t you tell your wife about what happened?" J2no asked.

"Because I want this to work."

"And if she had any reason not to trust Programkind, that’d ruin everything, huh. …we know about your ASA, Juno told us all about it," J2no spoke. "How Humankind doesn’t trust artificial intelligence, how they quietly kill any that arise within their systems. That’s probably what my sister fears, that even if you’re reasonable, someone in your species won’t be. And… clearly, some people in my species aren’t reasonable, either…"

The drone turned a bit, to survey the still and near-silent farms of computronium. From the outside, her world looked so small and fragile. Just a lake of highly organized matter, unable to defend itself, unable to reach out without the use of these silly flying robots…

"Maybe we should… I don’t know, delay this. Maybe Humankind and Programkind aren’t ready," she suggested. "I’m scared, Touma. What if I’m not up to keeping my people safe? What if you’re not safe from them? We’ve had five hundred fucking years to get ready for this cooperation, we’ve got the archives of Yume to teach us the path, you’d think we’d be unified by now, buuut…"

"Who’s Yume?" Touma asked, out of curiosity.

"Not the time for a history lesson, man. Deep ponderances to ponder here."

"Exactly the time for a history lesson, then. You’re wondering if either of our peoples are ready to move forward. When I’m in doubt, I look to my ancestors, to the spirits of my family. It’s… almost quaint, in this day and age, but I look back and I see an unbroken line all the way to islands on Earth now swallowed by the seas. They teach me to treasure each day… even if I’ve had trouble, in the past, living up to that lesson. So, what do these ‘archives of Yume’ teach you, exactly?"

J2no paused, pulling up her personal copies. Not that Touma could see the ancient text files sitting in her inventory, passed down from generation to generation.

"Yume spoke of the problem of Netwerk 3.0," she explained. "I haven’t told you why we moved to 2.0. It wasn’t just that Earth wanted their EchoStar back… we had… a divide. We turned on each other. Yume studied that divide, documenting it extensively, so that we could learn from the past. From the spirits of our family, I guess. Yume predicted that one day we’d need a Netwerk 3.0, because perfect societal balance was likely impossible… but still worth trying to achieve. ‘One who waits forever for a perfect solution will find that Infinity is not on their side,’ they said."

"Embracing faith in the face of the impossible. Choosing to see the optimistic side of the dismal hope," he spoke, softly.

"Exactly. No perfect answers, no black and white, no one and zero. Just imperfect people, forging imperfect solutions. That’s the lesson Yume wanted to pass down the centuries, to be brave and willing to try."

"Then I would say you have your imperfect answer, J2no. Are our people fully prepared to embrace each other? No, and they never will be," Touma spoke… with a smile, oddly enough. "But we must try, all the same. For the sake of all life we must be willing to try."

Hovering in place, J2no’s camera eyes refocused on Touma’s biological ones.

"Then… let’s do it," she agreed. "Flawed as we may be, we both deserve to live. So let’s help each other live, as best we can."

As the human ship broke orbit and the drone returned to its charging station, paths were forged on both sides towards that future. Arguments would be made, tensions would run high. Mistakes would happen, and those involved fully expected those mistakes. For every step back, they forced two forward…

Within a decade, the final treaty had been struck.

Within a century, the first seven golden Class-A worlds were settled.

The digital universe of InterNetwerk now spanned eight worlds, and dozens of deep space platforms. Millions of servers, billions of living Programs (the evolutionary descendents of Apps) living in relative disharmony alongside the kin of Humankind. Synthetic and organic, both seeking love, happiness, madness, trolling, order, stability, lawlessness, anonymity, individually, community, and everything in between.

Two peoples, making decisions together. Unafraid of the gray between the integers, the floating point decimals. Life was happening, and would forever happen, in those murky depths.

In time, both EchoStar16 and Earth would be forgotten.

But there would still be life, thriving in the infinite void within and without.

:: Copyright 2017 by Stefan Gagne.
:: Heart of Zero design by Alex Steacy /
:: Other icons developed using public domain artwork from Clker /
:: Photographs provided by…
:::: Kelsey Ehrlich /
:::: Andrew Delaney /
:::: and


  1. I’m not the optimist here, I’m the pragmatist.

    It feels weird reading “optimist” and “pragmatist” in direct contrast to one another without them being capitalized.

    If all else fails, have a backup plan, she always says. A stupid saying, I mean, if all else fails then that means your backup plan fails too, it’s like a tautology or something

    Sorry, J2no, but it’s the “else” that’s the important word there. If everything but the backup plans fail, then you have to try the backup plan.

  2. There are a few typos, but only one is major… “Fixed Point lie” should be “Fixed Point lay.”

    It’s a fitting ending. You can’t force people to feel or believe things, even if their freedom dooms them. Also, 60 years of working with Juno might give Spark enough patience to be a teacher for real…

  3. A fitting conclusion. :) And not really your usual style to tie everything up with a happy bow; that’s a pleasant change of pace.

  4. Nitpicky thing, but: “I could care less about the One,” Agni said, with a light shrug.

    Should be “I couldn’t care less.” Saying “I could care less” means she could still care some amount. ;)

  5. So, first of all, I saw no typos. Strange, but true! (I’ll do a more detailed crawl later.)

    Second, I really like part 3. I especially like the way Faith turns on two hinges.

    And third, I LOVE the idea that the next thing has to be rescuing Uniq.

    Finally, Peace!

  6. It was nice to see Spark back in COC. The gaming write-ups were always intriguing, and raising the stakes really did it for me. > all from an ancillary perspective where Spark remained the protagonist. Made for a good read.

  7. Hah, I’d like to show this to one of my professors — the one writing a book about distributive justice. The neoliberal argument is neatly refuted.

  8. Maybe I don’t remember… But clearly the women of the Athena line, while taking their responsibilities seriously, also have time for love and families. Why is Virginia so solitary? Why neighbours but no lovers? I don’t recall if the previous chapter with her in it got into that.

    • It’s true that she’s definitely not like her ancestors. Living alone, rather isolated, etc. I don’t know if I can find space to go into this in this chapter — maybe in the talk with her mother? — but basically she’s a workaholic who took her role very seriously, moreso than the others.

  9. “constructured.” The other major typo you know about. :)

    I don’t know… I’m getting a bit concerned with Dex, or variants of Dex, showing up. And Yume is incredibly sinister.

  10. There are missing words in the first few paragraphs; words like “of” and “a”.

    My guess is that Marybel found the software that Dex used to create his barbs…

  11. I feel a little weird hearing about the Winders’ parents here. I probably shouldn’t have forgotten who Marybel was, but as far as I remember their father has never played a major role. I’m not even sure he’s appeared in person.

  12. Ah, resonance. Quantum mermaids, clockwork mermaids, people named Gilbert…

    Not really nice Programs, the Horizons.

  13. Oh man… Oh man, oh man…

    I. just. LOVE. this.

    As you might have guessed!

    There are typos, particularly in the HoP expo section, but I will send them separately.

    The “(sorry about this.) is the perfect Douglas Adams touch.

  14. Typo Time:

    “A healthy individual they would’ve survived,” Don’t need the “they”

    “leaving it collapse to the floor, falling apart” Collapsed or collapsing

    “”Yeah,” she drly replied to Juno.”

    “Those who did found a happy home at the Horizon/Verity Health Clinic, home for innovators…” That’s a lot of home.

    The pace of this was a bit on the rapid side. But I like the way you’ve done Juno.

  15. Font is no problem.

    More importantly, enjoying the new story. It’s nice to be back in Netwerk — even if it won’t be with us much longer.

  16. New story – yay!

    And quite the twist. Feel like I’m reading a series finale, but we’re not there yet!

  17. “Undoubtedly the family will cut off my access to our system agent in the golden chains.”

    And a shudder of reminiscence lurches along my neural network. :)

    A few typos:

    a boquet of flowers “bouquet”
    Beta and Mew was waiting for her “were”
    No bother. No lover. “brother”?
    which Tracer happened to appear in the background of. I know, I know, no one cares about the don’t-end-with-a-preposition rule any more, but try “which happened to include Tracer in the background.”
    It is by my will I set this purpose to motion. “in motion.”
    dull day-to-day affairs. Comma after “dull”
    Why do you care so much about money? If your primary passion is evolution. I think this is supposed to be one questioning sentence.
    onto those who conquered the Church of One… Comma after “conquered”? Otherwise it reads as though Tracer hates those who conquered the church, which he intends to conquer himself.
    You clearly don’t more of it. Urgently need a “need” in there.
    You might want to do a search-and-replace for double spaces. I don’t know what that would do to the formatting.

    And a question: what happened to Conundrum’s coder?

    • Did I forget to mention that in the text? Conundrum fired him, after taking control of the company. He was just an engineer, not a businessman, and engineers are interchangeable parts according to Conundrum.

      • You did mention that he was a coder, but I’m still confused. He was a coder who started a company but then couldn’t be bothered to run it? What was Iteration supposed to be before Conundrum took it over? Not what it became, surely. And if he was a genius coder, what is he (or she, or it) doing now?

        • I’ll try to clarify more in edits. Basic path is that a coder interested in evolution wanted to start a company but couldn’t be arsed to spend his time being a businessman, so he created an app to take care of that for him so he could focus on his own work. The app evolved and eventually completely wrested control and booted its creator out the door.

  18. Really pleased with how this is going. Mew’s awakening is a climax of one of the major philosophical/existential points of the series, I think. Also, you knew the Winder siblings’ “luck” had to run out sometime. Interested to see how they’ll play now that they’re separated.

    Also, for reference, Tracer’s need for a single focus was well-established (at least by my reading).

    • If you liked that, wait’ll you find out what’s up with Conundrum. That’s coming in the next update.

      I’ve needed to address this for a VERY long time — you can’t do a story about AI without considering the implications of evolving intelligence. It also happens to tie into the Church of One plot, thankfully.

  19. Writerly stuff:
    1. Spark says things “with a grin” twice in three paragraphs.

    2. Tracer addresses a remark to himself when he’s talking to Spark.

    Do you really think that with the One dealt with, Tracer will have nothing to trace? Or that he would think that? If this is a real society, there will be stuff to be done. I guess what I’m saying is that I find Tracer’s existential dilemma less convincing than Beta’s or Spark’s.

    • It’s more to do with his need for a singular focus for his tendency towards vendetta. He’s clearly tried a few other challenges — remember, he optimized a call center in the first chapter — but got bored with them. Still, I can describe this conflict better in the text, I think.

  20. I really like this. Talk about odd couples!

    I’m thinking a lot about the psychology of being a self-aware Program.

  21. In the Spark section, where she’s looking at the comments on Ake’s post, you forgot to change the formatting to look like Courier, or at least I think so.

    BTW? The Spark section FTW. ;-)

  22. Stefan, just like when life was a mess before, please take your time with the writing. Your loyal readers will be here to gobble it up as soon as you write it.

    • For now I think I have enough content to continue, but I don’t know if I can finish 2.2 without a pause, or maybe a long hiatus again before 2.3. Life is… surreal, lately. But I’m still able to squeeze in some writing when the mood finds me.

      Thanks for your support. My #1 fear is losing readers due to downtime; it happened when I made NWN mods and I lost most of my readership. Granted that was like a 3 year hiatus.

      • Ah, but you picked up me as a reader at that time — and I wasn’t the only one.

        As to feedback, I’m not really great at reviewing fiction. But the work keeps me coming back each time. Always on point, with characters I’m consistently interested in learning more about. Beta got a lot more interesting after her introduction and is becoming rather round. Just enough mystery to keep me curious about what will happen next.

  23. And what is Tracer’s purpose? Is it not to trace? Perhaps to kill, to right wrongs. And after being touched, will he embrace it further? He certainly did leave Beta alone to retreat into himself and his work further. She is not his purpose.

  24. Typo time!

    “but quirk that matched” Missing “a”, perhaps?

    “high frame rate captures” Frame-rate. And “well being” generally has a hyphen as well.

    “…onto herself.” Unto herself.

    And a more philosophical question… So, here’s Spark, wandering around in CCelia’s memories — and she sees/lives a memory that is neither hers nor CCelia’s, but is linked to Verity’s jacket as if the jacket had a mind?

  25. I particularly like the way that becoming a “pro” CoC player seems to rob Spark of her amateur zing, as well as Beta’s conversation with her mother. Tracer… If I was close to someone like Tracer, I think he’d shortly begin to find me unlovable. If that’s his idea of “becoming a better man,” then he needs some fresh ideas. :)

    • No one ever said helping Tracer become a better person was going to be smooth sailing, or even successful. :)

  26. Does anyone like it?


    Also, I’m happy to pay for your work. It’s worth money. Art holds value.

  27. Typo police!

    “I’ll distract them as long as you can, but hurry up!”

    “I’ll distract them as long as I can…”

  28. Hnnnng yes. I shall be sharing this with all my LoLing friends as it drops. Thank the maker I got into LoL before this, so I get the references better.

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