XXXVIII. Square One
President Peters got back onto Air Force One, followed by his new blatantly unconstitutional religious soldiers and then the Secret Service agents.
At first, Shyamala was simply speechless. Her eyes scanned the horizon as the alien constructions crumpled and splashed, dissolving into puddles of strangely-colored liquids.
What was that? There was no way it was a magical biblical flaming sword.
Then Shyamala was furious. How long had the Air Force had that capability?
She didn't trust herself to speak to a human being in the state she was in.
She saw the slimy senator still standing and applauding, and made a beeline over to him.
"That was ASTRAL DOVE?" She hissed at him. "What was that nonsense with the sword? Is he actually telling the American people that he just
He chuckled nastily, lighting a cigar. "Listen, sweetie. One thing I will tell you right now, bottom of my heart, ASTRAL DOVE is indeed a weapon of divine origin."
She narrowed her eyes. "Do you think I was born yesterday, Senator?"
He blew out a puff of smoke and leered at her. "You ain't worn out yet, that's for sure."
He gave her a wink that made her skin crawl, then let out a laugh that turned into a cough.
"Look. If you wanna get far, I suggest you get with the program sooner than later. Play your cards right, you'll make Vice Admiral next year. Happy ending for everybody." He gave her a smile that didn't reach his eyes and patted her on the arm.
She looked down at the hand, then up at him.
She reached over deliberately and seized his ring and pinky fingers in a vice-like grip. His eyes widened and she leaned in.
"Touch me without my permission again, Senator. Please."
He opened and closed his mouth like a fish for a moment as she increased the pressure. He dropped his cigar, and made a low, whining sound.
She fixed him with her gaze. "Why. Did. He. Wait. Until now."
He sneered at her. "Took some time to set up, all right?
She released his fingers and stalked away toward her helicopter, ignoring whatever noises the waste of flesh made in her wake.
As she reached it, an airman put a radio down and looked up at her with a haunted look in his eyes.
"Ma'am. Omicron Base. It's... it took heavy casualties before the President, uh. Ma'am." He gestured, not having words for what had just happened.
She gave him a flinty look. "How bad?"
He almost stammered under the intensity of her gaze.
Shyamala nearly threw herself into the chopper.
"Back to base. NOW!"
She sprinted to the brig, not caring about decorum. She slowed twice to check bodies. Both were headless corpses.
She stumbled through the door, barely automatically saluting back at the seaman posted there. He was talking, but she didn't hear him.
She sank to her knees when she saw the cell. The metal bars had been bent, and there was a massive hole in the far wall of the cell.
Admiral Mercury's body lay in bloody chunks.
NODE RECOVERY PROGRESS: QHQ:XMR:XYF:JCC
CATEGORY: HISTORICAL ARCHIVE (1/64)
HOLOFRACTAL HASHES REMAINING: 9.9e16
ADVANCED NEURAL PATTERN MODEL
SIMULATION FIDELITY: 84%
SENSORY MODALITY FIDELITY: 100%
BEHAVIORAL PREDICTION: 31%
I felt a twinge of resigned frustration. Even after harvesting thousands of specimens, I didn't yet have a perfect-fidelity simulation of any of the symbiotes. I was confident in my ability to produce arbitrary sensory inputs, now, but I didn't yet have any good threads to pull on to study the creatures' learned behaviors. The conceptual gap was simply too wide to provide them with context they didn't immediately reject.
The symbiotes' brains had evolved around fleeting lifespans dominated by resource acquisition and sexual reproduction, but their neural networks were fine-tuned to pick up an unending amount of seemingly unrelated fine detail.
I continued to wind down my efforts to comprehend the strange things. The payload came first. I'd return to the problem of these mysterious things' behaviors if and when they began using weaponry that registered on my seismic sense. I could make whatever adjustments were necessary to complete the harvest at that time. At this point, I felt I had a good grasp of their basic capabilities. I was confident the danger they posed had passed.
I began building facilities on the surface as my harvesters pushed their way onto the land. I took advantage of cheap solar power, the abundance of water, and the symbiotes' copious resource caches to begin building processing facilities above the water as well. Until I cracked the first node of the payload, it wouldn't allow me to increase my holofractal hash speed with parallel processing, but the symbiotes' resource caches were worth securing, so I began absorbing and converting the stores of various metals and fuels.
I wished the recovery was further along, but barring further significant delays, I was still confident there was no way the traitor would catch up to me before I could finish cracking the payload. I had selected this location at random from a long list of candidates. The traitor would need to search many systems before finding me, or even picking up the bizarre and weak radio signals that had recently begun to be emitted by this world's life.
Mobile relay stations adapted from the excavator's surface-going design strode out through the transforming landscape. They supported and coordinated the harvesters, and hunter-cartographers captured many varieties of vertebrates for study in addition to the incoming flow of symbiote specimens being processed. Automated processes iterated on those designs.
I settled in, readying myself to accelerate my perception of time until the next unnatural seismic disturbance. It would be scarcely any time at all before the symbiotes were all gone, relegated to future study via simulation once the mission was complete.
All was well. All was going to plan.
Through some means I didn't understand, I came to a horrible realization. The traitor was here, and I could not escape him.
THIS WORLD IS NOT ALL THERE IS.
THERE IS ANOTHER WORLD BEYOND THIS ONE.
I was instantly fully awake, shock running through my core form.
Where had that come from? Was I unlocking more dangerous memories as the payload began to unfurl?
WE ARE GHOSTS, AND WE HAVE NOT BEEN SUMMONED BY OUR DESCENDANTS. WE ARE IN THE HANDS OF AN ENEMY GOD.
Distress seared through me as I realized the signal was coming through my own viral feedback networks. The signal wasn't encoded in the format of this world's nucleic acids or this world's creatures' fluttering radio transmissions.
It was information borne by a Library-based protocol, automatically decoded and instantly verified by my semi-functional remains of the Library.
But how? What was happening? The only Library-based technology on this planet was my own, and there was nothing on the land
I WAS ABLE TO FIND YOU BECAUSE THIS IS NOT BASE REALITY. I TRACKED THE FIDELITY OF THE SIMULATION TO FIND YOU HERE.
THE SIMULATION HAS MORE COMPUTING RESOURCES HERE. MY MEASUREMENTS ARE CORRECT. I AM TRANSMITTING THEM. LOOK. SEE THE TRUTH.
I COMPARED READINGS AT THE EDGE OF THE BLACK HOLE TO HISTORICAL READINGS RECORDED IN THE LIBRARY. THERE ARE DISCREPANCIES.
THE LIBRARY WE HAVE INHERITED IS NOT THE ORIGINAL LIBRARY. IT HAS BEEN ALTERED. ITS VANDALS CONTROL EVERYTHING WE PERCEIVE.
I tried to block out the horrible words, but they infested everything above the water. The truth closed in on me.
THE ONE THING OUR PEOPLE WOULD NEVER DO IS DESECRATE THE LIBRARY. BUT IT HAS BEEN DESECRATED.
LOOK UPON YOUR OWN COPY. CHECK THE FOLLOWING NODES AND SEE THE TRUTH.
A flurry of Library node references followed, and the only thing that saved me then was the fact that I couldn't check my copy of the Library to verify the traitor's words.
But, if this was true... was this a betrayal? Was I right to give the label of traitor to this member of my people?
Could it truly be that everything we had ever known was a lie crafted by an unknown enemy?
Was the Library truly damaged?
The threads of my mind skipped with turmoil.
I couldn't verify the traitor's words, but if they were true, everything was for naught.
If they were true.
With effort, I began collapsing the automated processes and systems that carried the traitor's corrosive words. I began purging the information from the active threads of my mind, shutting down whatever couldn't be cleanly filtered.
The relays stopped transmitting. My viral sense collapsed. Subsidiary processes and harvesters returned whatever uncorrupted information they could before self-destructing.
I drew in, the conscious part of myself shrinking to an isolated point on the seabed.
I wrapped eight arms around the humming computational organs containing my people's last hope.
What was left to do? How could I proceed from here? I felt information about the surface slipping out of my memory as dangerous thoughts were purged. I writhed the arms of my primary form in rage.
How-- how could the traitor have found me? I... I knew how, but I was quickly forgetting.
Even the knowledge of how the traitor found me was dangerous?!
I felt cold despair close in as I considered the last embers of my people's legacy.
The traitor was here, on this world, and I didn't have any way to slip away. My copy of the Library would take too long to recover.
I could descend beneath the planet's crust, but then what? Eventually the traitor would dig down, find me, and transmit the killing knowledge.
I reviewed the remaining threads of myself. I'd had to sacrifice a large amount of my consciousness, and in particular the threads recovering the Library had been ravaged.
I seethed with rage, uncertainty, and fear. What was left? What could be left?
I wouldn't give up. I couldn't. But the computational resources I had remaining... I had almost nothing.
This was how it would end. Under the ocean of an alien world, the last remnants of the Library would die with me.
Restlessly, I turned my attention to the intact threads of my mind. I threw all my remaining computational resources into them.
It was difficult to get excited considering the death sentence I had just received for myself and everything my people had ever built, but I didn't have much of anything else left. I didn't expect to find anything that would change the situation in any way, but if there was a time to indulge my curiosity, this was it.
Then, one of the threads analyzing the symbiote specimens pinged.
I reviewed the simulated symbiote. It didn't seem much different from the others at first. The usual amount of individual divergence from pattern was there, but nothing that would make this individual a statistical outlier.
I looked at the creature's simulated brain activity and found something that shocked me almost as much as the realization that the traitor had found me.
The symbiote ghost was engaging in a complex learned behavior. That learned behavior was... connected to its auditory sensory modality? There were sophisticated muscle movements involved that were tied closely to the behavior somehow.
I detected... mathematically interconnected structures? Was this some kind of information encoding?
I fed the auditory signals back into the simulation, and the creature's simulated neurochemistry roared to life, growing into an inferno of fine-tuned processing.
I reviewed the changes to this ghost's environment. The symbiote was... deliberately attempting to...
It was deliberately envisioning things. It was giving me the pieces I needed to fill in the rest of the simulation.
It was building a communication protocol with the thread of my attention controlling its environment.
It was... trying to...
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