Simon’s Backup Weblog


Into the Virtual Mists…

Posted in Uncategorized by Simon Bisson on August 12, 2005

For your reading pleasure (and comments):

Virtual Mists

Those damn gorillas were on the phone again. Transcendence was never meant to be like this.

Agents had been fending away their calls for weeks, but today the gorillas had managed to skate their way in, past the guardian viziers, through an empty part of the nets, straight on to my private line. Somehow one of their crackers must have taken a copy of one of my agents, and reverse engineered a sneaker-probe from its algorithms. Now I’d have to upgrade my security systems. However, first things first: I had to answer that phone. I wondered if I still had the right subroutines.

Patching together a virtual office from a few old business promotionals and a Roman Empire environment was a matter of a seconds work, and soon I was sitting on a golden throne, the monarch of all I surveyed. The office windows looked out over the Valles Marineris, pulling in a light-lagged real-time video feed. It was late afternoon on Mars, and a squall was screaming up the immense canyon, driving a swarm of micro-lights before it. Just a few thrill-seeking body-hoppers, dodging the lightnings and the rain, playing with the winds, mortal flesh for a summer’s afternoon. Turning away from the worlds, I glanced over to the waiting swarms of agents and viziers: AI implants and intelligence augmentations hovering in the quiet corners of my mind. They shone bright, reflecting the invisible colours of a virtual light, thoughts dancing in the winds of the datastream.

An impulse, a command: “Let her in.”

The gorilla’s representative uploaded in through the door. She was tall, dark haired, wearing a Hong Kong copy of an Armani suit, a loose fit draped over her massive frame. She flowed over to the desk in the corner, before turning to me. Signing her name in swift, extravagant gestures, she began her presentation.

“I’d like to show you our tender for the Marineris Bridge Project.”

The gorilla was confident. She handed over the dataparcel containing her modellers and simulations, dropping it through the floor, into my system. Reflex defence sub-systems surrounded her software, unpacking it in a secure section of processing. It was cleaner code than I’d expected: the only threat was the obligatory small trojan, hidden in a database manipulation routine, easily defused.

“Go ahead. I’m all ears.”

I should have resisted that pun, the subliminal flicker of my image from the usual nondescript male human to an archive shot of a pre-Singularity kinglet. The gorilla’s teeth flashed bright as she grinned in surprise. She must have been real-time imaging, her clothing doubling as a hotsuit array, processors feeding the office image data to either goggles or implants. A support database would have identified the body image, updating her, informing her, letting her modify her negotiation strategies. These gorillas were close to achieving transcendent technologies, and I’d not known it. Time for me to be that bit more careful; time for me to buy updates for my down-Well libraries.

“We’ve seen the Ares Aesthetics Co-operative proposals, and feel that we can – and will – do the job. It’s quite an engineering challenge, growing the largest bridge in the System. As the largest engineering firm on Earth, we want the contract.”

“You’re the, ah, only engineering firm on Restored Earth now.”

She stared at me and her tone hardened, “Being the only doesn’t mean that we’re not able to compete with some of the transcendent bodies. It’s important that we must at least have a chance to show what we can do. Or has transcendent humanity not gone beyond its racism?”

I looked at her again. A kinaesthetics subroutine mapped her posture onto my emotional database. She was determined, and becoming angry. This situation hadn’t been simulated, let alone predicted. I was going to have to trust my instincts, and the speed of my processors. Viziers leapt up and down decision trees, shaping appropriate responses.

A straight face, then, and an even tone: “Show me what you have.”

She looked puzzled, her defensive stance fading into wary relaxation. I’d weathered that crisis, but I’d substantially weakened my position whilst defending it. My commercial viziers were starting to complain, the negotiation simulations weren’t coming out my way. Obviously the gorilla had her own processor backup, either intelligence implants or an AI assistant. I wasn’t outclassed, but it was much closer to an even match than I’d usually prefer. Not what I’d wanted at all.

I stood, the throne vanishing abruptly, and walked over to the centre of the room. A hole was appearing in the air, an area of nothing at all, as she activated her modelling systems. My time-lagged windows vanished, as the Marineris feed was pre-empted and fed into her simulation. A flash of light, arrays of modellers coming on-line, and, as gods in a private Olympus, we looked down onto the deepest part of the largest canyon on Mars, the silver paths of its many rivers shining as they meandered through the rain forests. A flight of hang-gliders swooped low over a lake, fluorescent wings darting with the winds.

The gorilla smiled, “It always reminds me of home. Just a wee bit bigger.” Her laugh was gentle, and I realised that I could get to like these people, her mannerisms were so like the way some of mine had been, before I’d left the flesh behind, uploaded and expanded.

“You’ve installed rain forests? A big job for those latitudes.”

“Why not? The Singularity gave us a lot of nice toys, and humanity’s left-over weather control systems are good enough for us to put macro-climates wherever we want. So we retrofitted a bit of Zaire to Northern Europe.”

I looked back to the model, watching the simulated fliers dance up, away from the lake, over the rivers. A small dirigible drifted down the canyon, trailing a banner. Magnified, the flag showed the icons of Ares Aesthetics: my body, my home, my very selves. A little touch of flattery, gorillas had always been political animals.

“Pretty. So this is where you want to put the bridge?”

“Yes. Art and engineering, combined with geology. It will be beautiful. Aesthetic, even.”

She leant over the model, “Watch!”

I just caught sight of her gesture, as the bridge unfolded over the canyon, a spider web trace of diamond, sparkling in the simulated sun, shimmering as warm air distorted the image. I watched, as the model drifted away from the table, upwards, moving to the ceiling. I felt the jolt, a surge of electric pain, as her software grabbed hold of my reality, stealing my processing, and, suddenly it was over, the office had become a gondola, hanging beneath the old Hindenburg, drifting in the blue terraformed sky of Mars.

————-

Viziers were screaming warnings, as violated security systems protested their electronic rape. It hurt. The second, much more sophisticated, trojan had been disguised as a graphics feed morpher. Not a bad piece of work, intelligent enough to hide from me, yet dumb enough to be intended only as a temporary intruder. Definitely time for that upgrade to the subversion detection heuristics of my security systems. An agitated diplomacy vizier was desperately trying to override my angry defences, urging me to let this attack happen, to use the security breach as a tool. I let myself be talked into passivity: if the gorilla thought I was still weak, it would give me an added advantage when push came to shove. Anyway, I rather liked her style. It reminded me of how I’d been, before.

I looked out the windows. A hang-glider drifted below me, its gorilla pilot raising an arm to wave, signing his amusement in a few brief gestures. He had to be one of the her team, dropped into the simulation as a monitor. The glider’s iridescent wings colourshifted, smart fabrics adapting to a sudden change in the digital winds. I felt the airship slide sideways, the same crosswind catching us, and the glider slipped below the gondola. As the spider-bridge came into view, I turned to the gorilla.

“Very smooth. I like that.

“I’ll even let you keep this processing for your simulation. But never, ever do that again. Most of the other transcendent bodies might not be as generous as me, and some, well, some could easily have killed you. My defence routines had begun to move a rock out of its holding orbit before I shut them down.

“It would have made quite a mess of your bit of the planet. You were very lucky.”

She paused, pensive, and quietly replied, “Thank you. Subversion was a risk that we thought was worth taking. We need your bridge. We need the computational power that the processing resources you offer in payment will buy.”

We were quiet for a while, as the immense airship slowly drifted upwind, towards the bridge. A school of skyfish span past, on their peacock fins, homing in on a flock of migrating monarchs. A flurry, as the butterflies vanished, the feeding skyfish flying on. A few tattered wing fragments dropped out of view, falling to the forest, dying wind-flowers sacrificed to the food chain. A vizier mapper plotted the airship’s route, recording the twists and turns of the airship, the patterns of the winds, whilst always monitoring the ways her software interfaced with mine.

I looked across to the gorilla. Eyes unfocused, she was peering out, out of the simulation, communicating with the rest of her team, reporting on the results. The bridge was close now, strands of polished uncut diamond tracing lines of light across the pale blue sky. It certainly fit my specifications. Viziers had analysed the stresses, computed the failure modes. I could sit and watch the bridge die in a thousand ways, all of them equally improbable. The gorilla and her team were excellent engineers, at least in virtual.

“So what now? You’ve shown me that your team has a knack for software subversion, an admittedly excellent grasp of simulation, and a rather pretty bridge. The numbers look good, and your price, well, we’ll just say that Ares Aesthetics has no complaints. But that’s all. You’ve not worked off-world, and certainly no down-Well tasks for any of the co-operative transcendent bodies. I’d be amazed if you’d worked for any of the extra-Solars. Tell me how you’ll show me that you’re up to the job.”

She was surprised, turning away from the external conference, her fingers sub-vocalising instructions to her implants, analysing my statements, comparing my words with the datastreams that my viziers were constantly spewing into her team’s systems. It was the moment for her to make big decisions, quickly, and correctly. One of the pictures on the gondola wall shifted, morphing from a simple landscape to a photograph, a photograph of a suspension bridge over a limestone gorge, a bridge covered in lights, silhouetted in the fading orange glow of a summer sunset. An antique bridge, lost forever in the chaos of the greenhouse years and the tumult of the Singularity. The gorilla nodded slowly as she looked at the picture, absorbing information from her advisors. The picture was changing again, the view becoming clearer, the bridge gone now, the gorge bursting with the organic chaos of mature rain forest.

“The Avon Gorge, as you humans used to call it, and the Clifton Suspension Bridge. We will grow a replica for you, at our expense. All we request is that you be there as we do it, so you can see us work.” Suddenly she was gone, and the Hindenburg faded away, leaving me drifting alone in the silence and the dark.

The audacity of her move: asking me to download just to watch them build a bridge. Legal viziers conferred, as I dipped into the datastream, trying to find a valid response, a response that would avoid me having to become flesh again.

————-

Two days later I was hunting a body. The gorillas had been most insistent, nothing but my physical presence on Restored Earth would do. No surveillance drones, no proxy remotes, no vizier extensors – nothing but me in whatever biological form I chose. I would have turned them down, cancelled their tender, except that they’d logged their bid in datasinks all over the Solar, and I would not have been welcome anywhere in-System, if I’d rejected their bid for a non-contractual point. The invitation from indigenes was a loop-hole in the Abandonment, the oath that kept Transcendents away from Restored Earth. I could have refused, but would have had to leave Mars and the Inner System. Ares Aesthetics Co-operative was a Martian Transcendent and I wasn’t ready for any extra-Solar commitments, I didn’t have the anti-matter resources for a jump out beyond the System. Next time I asked for project tenders, I would have to be far more careful with my choice of legal viziers.

So, after all, it had come to hunting through an archive wardrobe, trying to find something, someone, anything suitable for a trip to Earth. Growing a body wouldn’t be difficult, nor would fitting it with the implants that would record my experiences, storing them all in transcendent form. There would be no difference between being in a body on Restored Earth and being switched between processing systems in Earth orbit and in Mars orbit, my regular time-slicing across the Solar. A few new viziers would handle the extra work required, and even whilst trapped in a body I would have some form of access to my usual resources. This side of the Singularity I knew that I would still be me, wherever I was, however I chose to be. Individuality and mutability: those were the watchwords of life in the Transcendent Solar. All that held me back was the retrograde nature of having flesh again, the flesh with its corresponding fears, of mortality and limitations.

I had no choice, it was time to choose: I chose to pay a visit to the Body Library.

A free access datasink in a nanoformed rock orbiting out beyond Mars, the Body Library was a virtual from Old Oxford, the Bodleian in digital form, each book in its endless Stacks a bodymap with the required kinaesthetic routines and the corresponding genome. The Body Library: an artificial world full of digital bodies waiting for digital minds. Unenhanced, unprocessed, I’d need centuries to explore its contents, so I set one of my indexer viziers to work, hunting down a suitable body. I felt that a statement needed to be made in my body choice, a statement about my superiority, a statement about my transhumanity. Flat virtuals from before the Singularity flickered across the vizier’s mirror-bright surface, as it explored the library, its search spiral delving ever further in through history and celebrity. It was deep in the heart of the twentieth century, when it found the images I needed: a human in the jungle, cavorting in front of the cameras, playing with the pre-sentient gorillas of Old Earth.

I stood in the corridor by the shelves, holding the ancient book as I absorbed my vizier, feeling nothing but the smooth cold leather warming in my hands. Lightlag later I was home, in my own processing, transferring data to the systems that would give me a body. Viziers began to program up nanos, instructing the tiny AIs in how to make a human. I visualised one of my comets, a snowball adrift in a Mars-Sol Lagrange point, coated in active nano, watched it changing and growing, strange pods flowering in an organic frenzy of plastics and metals, metastasising into industrial cancers. The carbon compounds in the comet were all I needed to build the body, those and the trace elements that had been coil gunned up from the Lunar mines. Building bodies was a common enough event for Transcendents, bodies for the playgrounds of Mars, Titan and Europa, bodies lived in for a week, a day, an hour, and then discarded, the organics recycled for the next hop. I had never felt that temptation of the flesh, content to live off the perversions of compatriots using my Martian lands as a toy. It was for my customers’ delights that I was building my bridge. Ares Aesthetics Co-operative was starting to become the name in Martian leisure, and I’d wanted a symbol to show that I’d arrived, the chance to build a big dumb object of my very own.

In the heart of the comet tiny machines pushed around molecules, assembling amino acids, shifting proteins, tying together strands of glycogen. Myelin grew quickly in zero-g, and every now and then, as viziers fine-tuned my new interfaces, I felt the pains of my rebirth, the electric agonies of nerves feeling their way into the shape of man. A coil gun mass driver pulsed lethargically, pushing the comet slowly towards the Inner System, on a trajectory for Earth.

It would be a couple of weeks before the body was ready. With a medium energy transit to Restored Earth taken into account, my shiny new body would reach Terra in a month or so. I used the delay profitably, moving a high-bandwidth transmission array into the leading Mars-Sol Lagrange point, renting out timeslots for databounces between Mars and the extra-Solars: the slow-time ships subjectively streaking to the stars. With the cash from the sale of the array leases, I’d paid the deposit on a couple of Kuiper bodies, and arranged for some of my nano to be placed in a high energy trajectory out into the Oort. Just in case, insurance against a failure on Earth, a backup site with extra-solar capability.

Activity, expansion and retrenchment, the busy round of transcendent life. But the call of the unwanted flesh was there, and an appointment in what had once been Bristol. Orbital surveillance of the area hadn’t told me anything new, the deep climax forests on the seven hills hiding everything I needed to see beneath their seething carpet of life. Somewhere down there were the gorillas, and where they were would be the high energy traces of a nanoengineering complex. The only buildings I could see were on the river plain, incongruous brick structures standing in the traces of a harbour. There was something in them, I could sense the low level electromagnetic pulses of tempested processors, but it wasn’t enough to be the gorillas, certainly nowhere near enough power to produce the sort of tricks they’d been playing on my software. The parameters of the hunter viziers would have to be widened, extended to cover the area around Bristol. It was more than likely that the gorillas were somewhere in the vicinity of the lost city, as I’d tracked their bounced and proxied transmissions around the system to an antenna array on an island in the Bristol Channel.

————-

The hunt ended the day after my body was ready. The distinct signature of a high technology enclave was muted by the rock that enclosed it. The gorillas were living in the tangled jungles of Cheddar Gorge, hiding their nanosystems and processing in the miles of cave that snaked below the Mendips. I mapped their home, firing neutrino bursts through the hills, tracing the faint heat of their bodies in the forest, listening in to the incessant babble of their internetworks. Viziers tried to assess the capabilities of the complex, updating regularly with new, ever more pessimistic, threat assessments. I wasn’t going to go into this one blind. The reports that flowed through the datastream showed the vats filling with nano, the glowing shapes of data slipping through the parallelisms of their processors, drawing the lives of the gorilla engineers in every minute detail.

Real-time passed, days and hours spent skipping in and out of time-slice, deep processing the reflexes of my new body, relearning the ways of all flesh. I was simulating my old visual interface, peeking through a narrow window in the electromagnetic spectrum, when a watching vizier nudged me back on line. The gorillas’ antenna complex on Steep Holm was being warmed up. There would soon be visitors knocking on the door.

————-

She was wearing the same suit, when she walked into the Hindenburg’s lounge. The red walls of the Valles drifted past, a clear blue sky just visible above the rusted cliffs. Skyfish and hang-gliders danced below, following the cloud of monarchs: predators, spectators and prey migrating north for summer. Everything moving on. I smiled at her, “Ready for me?”

“As ready as we’ll ever be. The nano’s there, and the preliminary tests have gone well.” She passed me a sheaf of pictures: diamond bridges curving over dark underground rivers, strange artificial rock pillars that encased shining vats deep in calcite, dewars of superconducting processors frosted in frozen air, a gorilla deep in interface trance, herself, now.

“Holiday snaps…” I looked up, leaving viziers to finish processing the information she’d given me, “You’ve asked me to see the real thing. When will you be demonstrating the process?”

She was ready for that, “As soon as you get down to Earth. How long until your body gets there?”

Orbital dynamics viziers kicked in. “Thursday morning, 05:46:33.8, about 30 miles up the Severn from Bristol.”

“We’ll be there to meet you.” She looked up from her datapad. “It’ll be good to see you in the flesh at last…” A flicker and she was gone.

————-

The comet had been almost completely consumed by my nanos, when it finally eased into orbit around Restored Earth, eaten away for reaction mass and raw materials. Nanoassemblers swarmed in the remnants of the rock and volatiles, hunting for the atoms that would make my dropship. Time-slicing again, I watched the silver capsule at the heart of the comet grow, absorbing the last of the dust and frozen gas. Finally, it was all that was left of the comet: a mirror reflecting sunlight as it spun slowly, viziers guiding it gently to the drop window. Time to go down.

It hadn’t taken long to place an armada of tracking drones in various orbits around Restored Earth. Flickering from one to another, I watched my body begin its drop. The capsule was slowing as it matched velocities with Terra’s spin, a mirrored teardrop screaming from the sky, trailing a bright line of plasmas over the dark Americas, falling east. Decelerating, deforming, as active nanos adapted it to the atmosphere. At slightly less than twenty metres per second I watched it land in the middle of what had once been Gloucester. It was time, time to download, time for the flesh.

Drifting mirrors behind me, viziers following, as I walked through a set of virtuals, smelling the digital roses. A high limestone plateau, somewhere in a Greece that had never been. The dry grass and bright stone path ended, opening onto a gateway to Hades, an endless Styx pouring down the dark sinkhole. Metaphor stacked upon metaphor. I dived into the river of data, deep into the flow, only to rise up again in a pool of dying nano, on Terra, in the flesh. It was raining. Somewhere, quietly in the background, I could hear viziers whispering data, unintentionally harmonising with the sweet warning calls of the blackbirds.

The rain was fading away into the west, leaving the dawn mists, pearl grey and yellow. I stood there, naked and cold, slowly breathing the chill damp morning air, feeling the stillness. The silence was broken by the sound of a vehicle in the distance, the gorillas coming to collect me. Footsteps, a crackle of vegetation, and there they were, dark shapes in the cloud.

“Welcome home.” It was her, tall and solid in the morning light. No suit this time, just a harness covered in the simple grey boxes that contained her augmentations and processors. Behind her stood a pair of lighter haired gorillas, wearing the same equipment harnesses. I recognised one as the hang-glider pilot from the hijacked simulation, and watched his fingers dancing over a chord keyboard. Glancing away from the pilot, I caught the gorilla’s eye. She was looking down at me, laughing, her hands moving quickly as she signed something to her companions, “Well, it looks like I’ve lost my bet!”

“Bet?” That wasn’t what I’d expected her to say. I’d wanted to have some sort of formal greeting, just like in the old pictures of meetings between heads of states, not a joke at my expense.

“Ah.” The gorilla was grinning, “Whilst you’ve obviously been simulating us, we’ve been simulating you. We were certain that you’d find a body to remind us of our pre-sentient past, I’d guessed at Attenborough, most of the others at Fossey. I don’t think any of us had expected that film star…” She looked around her, and laughed, “Here we are, as ordered: your gorillas in the mist.” Glancing down at me, her smile broadened, “You’d better get dressed, it’s a fair trek to Bristol.”

I bent down, and ran my fingers through the pool of nanos. A few surviving assemblers woke, activating sub-programs. The silver liquid bubbled, flowing up my body, nanomachines at work, weaving molecules into smart fabrics. The suit flickered into suitable clothing for safari, and I stepped out of the hollow, and walked over to the gorilla. “So, where’s my vehicle?”

“There’s only one…” She was puzzled, “Why?”

I shivered, bodies, flesh too close to me, I’d been a solitary since transcending. It was going to take me some time to get used to people near by, and, on the whole, I hoped I wouldn’t have that time. However, I only had a few moments to compose myself, the vehicle was ready, and the only engineering company on Earth were waiting. I triggered an endorphin implant, calming the rising phobias, and climbed into the waiting car.

The old roads were long gone, fed to restoration nano in the wake of the Abandonment as the transcendents left Earth, cleaning up after the birth struggles of the Singularity. I remembered the area where I was as it had been: fields, roads, houses, people. As the mists cleared in the morning sun, all that I could see were the sun burnt plains of the Severn valley, herds of bison clustered under solitary trees. To the south scrub rose up to meet the green wall of rain forest that hid where Bristol had sprawled. Somewhere a hornbill screeched, drowning a skylark’s trill.

I closed my eyes, and triggered the links to embedded processors, firing up modellers and links to the viziers that were keeping Ares Aesthetics active in the Solar. Credit and data were flowing in from body-hoppers and communication leases, mappers and defence systems were watching my progress, my back-up link was on line, keeping a copy of me updated. The viziers in my head were grabbing information, interrogating the modellers and monitors, feeding on the simulations. From down here in the well I could only watch them work, only able to monitor part of my usual dataflow through this narrow bandwidth link.

I shrank back from her touch, the body’s reflexes coming back on-line as the gorilla shook me out of link. “Wake up, we’re nearly there.” Green light, reflections from the tree cover we were just leaving. The grass track the car followed was curving round the base of cliffs, paralleling the chromed tidal mud that twice a day becomes a river. “Look up!” I followed her gesture. High above us, on an outcrop that loomed out of the crushing greenery, stood a pair of dark shapes. “Some of our advance team.” The two gorillas waved down at us. “That’s where we’ll be building the bridge.”

There was a temporary camp set up on the meadows above the gorge, nanoformed domes and vehicles crowded around the sleek dark spider-shapes of the bridge builders. The gorilla led me to the largest dome, where she sat in front of a terminal. In its imaging tank the builders were crawling through the air, spinnerets whirring as they left a trail of diamond across the sky. I watched her, as she pulled data across her screens, checking the progress of her project.

“Welcome to Bridge Northside.” The gorilla had left her display, offering me some fruit. I took the most innocuous looking apple, and sat in the nearest chair, tossing it from hand to hand. I sank down, the seat forming itself around me, shrinking and supporting. The gorilla continued, “This is where we’ll start to grow our bridge, first thing tomorrow. The spinners are pulling in their carbon and hydrogen stocks at the moment, and should be fully charged within the next eighteen hours.” She paused, looking down at the terminal’s display, “It should be all over by mid-afternoon tomorrow.”

“Fine. That’s me here a day early.” A day too long in the flesh. “What are your plans for me today?”

“Nothing official. I’m not even sure if this meeting has any precedents. Certainly there are no etiquette rulings in any archives we can access.” She was smiling, “Just feel free to wander about the camp.” Another pause, “I’m afraid I’ll have to leave you to the tender mercies of a drone though, the trip to pick you up has left me with a lot of work to finish. I’ll be plugged in until after siesta.”

“It’ll give me the chance to look around. I’ll see you when you’ve finished.”

————-

Their drone was a silver coleopter, ducted fans whirring as it followed me around the camp. Gorillas were everywhere, scrawling on datapads, monitoring displays on the builders, driving the gleaming engines of industry. A few were aligning lasers, headsets linked to the surveying processors, drawing the lines of the bridge in the sky. No one looked at me as I headed down the hill, all intent on their work. The two brick structures by the river, with their hidden processing, were beckoning me. The gorillas were busy, leaving me with the best part of a day to kill, and the mystery datastore was worth investigating. A chance for a walk to take a look at these anomalies, the only two structures that had survived both the destruction that had been Bristol’s painful experience of a hard Singularity, and the green reconstructions of the restoration nano in the Abandonment. The heat was oppressive, but the paths were clear, and the buildings just a mile or so away. It only took me an hour to get to the river, the incessant buzz of my unwanted companion following me through the trees. An EMP pulse from an implant, and the drone fell, fans stilled. I was on my own at last.

I looked up at the building, red brick in stark contrast to the vivid green of the rain forest. The brick was all that remained of the structure, the windows and doors stood open to the elements, mute reminders of the city that had covered the hills. I reached up to touch the walls, to feel their antiquity, and, as I touched them, I felt the gentle flow of data through the nano that filled the brick. The buildings hadn’t escaped the city’s fate, they’d been protected and preserved.

The hum of the quiescent nano filled what few expanded senses I could use, their intense short range noise swamping the clean clear pulses of the processors hidden nearby. Somewhere close to me were the shielded processors that my more selective orbiting senses had detected, the camouflaged processing that had led me here, led me to these relics of a lost world.

I reached out and touched the bricks again, feeling the remnants of my lost pasts, pasts long gone in transcendence. As I felt the rough texture bite into my palms there was a silver flash as some thing, part machine, part creature, leapt from a doorway. Adrenaline pumped, internal biological processing clocked into fast-time, the long moment triggered by peril. Flesh instinct screamed “Predator!” I moved to avoid the long legged metal beastie from the tower, stressing my body past its limits. The creature’s processors were faster, its moments longer. A dragonfly jaw flashed out, my arm snapped, the bone giving quickly in a flash of pain and a rush of endorphins. I found myself crouching, trying to position myself ready to fend away any searching appendage, switching from the body’s obsolete wetware to defensive agents, when the creature fell, silent and still.

“You should have told me that you were coming here.” The gorilla looked at me sadly, “I never ever wanted to kill, nothing, no one, not even a Caretaker…”

I clutched my broken arm, grateful for her solid support, shaking as the panic was flushed out my systems. The drone I’d dropped hummed gently overhead as she slowly helped me up the hill. The shock slowly passed, toxins processed by bloodstream nano. My arm was healing nicely, the bone reforming quickly. It would be back on line when we reached the top of the hill.

We paused for breath and water, the heat and the humidity of rainforest midday making the hill hard work.

“That was Transcendent level tech.”

She turned to me, “Yes, it was. It was in Bristol long before us, and there’s usually at least one in any surviving pre-Singularity building. We call them Caretakers. They’re a part of a system of nano and macro technologies, preservation assemblers in the structure and the Caretakers themselves, defensive nanoformed dragonfly larvae. We think that they were left by some of your clade in violation of the Abandonment, probably to preserve some remnants of the non-digital past from the restoration nano. By touching the building you triggered its defences.”

“Programmed to protect the building from erosion and deliberate destruction. That explains the attack. But how did you get to me so quickly, through this forest?” I waved at the thick trees.

“I’m a mountain gorilla… Born and bred in the briar patch, Brer Fox!” She smiled briefly. “I was monitoring on peripheral. As soon as you dropped the drone I knew where you were, and guessed what would happen.”

————-

The trees thinned out as we approached the hilltop. Things were happening, the camp a hive of activity even in the oppressive noon. Huge tanks of carbon 60 and hydrogen were being moved to the site of the bridge. The spiders were becoming more active, limbs twitching as they stroked stressed-kevlar spinnerets together, technological crickets singing in the artificial heat.

It was cool in the air-conditioned dome, cool and dark, lit only by the gentle glow of display tanks. The gorilla bent down, and offered me a databand, a narrow strip of non-invasive interface.

“I should have saved myself a lot of trouble by giving you this earlier.”

I took the databand, slipping the soft fabric over my temples, feeling its sensors mapping the magnetic paths of my mind, watching it calibrate its hard-wired reality to my perceptions.

The gorilla watched me, as I slipped deeper into interface trance. I heard her, a voice echoing through the pressing electrons, “It’s only linked to a partially interactive feed. You’ll be able to examine the whole of our datastream, but not affect it.”

Immersed in my stimulated simulated senses I dipped a digital toe into the torrent of information, watching the ripples of data speed through the systems. The communications were clean and disciplined, the bright sparkle of the gorillas and the slow glow of the spinners. Discussion and debate moved in delicate patterns, whilst always the bridge grew again and again in a web of simulated buckytubes and diamond. The busy net was a comfortable place, I drifted, dreaming. It was full dark when I’d sampled enough of the datastream to have a feel for how the gorillas worked. A few coleopter drones hummed their way around the camp perimeter, cones of light weaving drunkenly through the trees. In the distance a barn owl hooted, only to be answered by the scream of mating toucans. Gorillas were still at work, fussing around the spiders, fine tuning the arrays of processing that would control the spinners’ nanosystems. A smaller group were readying the launchers that would provide the initial guidelines for the spinners.

“We start at dawn.” I felt her huge hand on my shoulder, her powerful presence behind me. My fear of company had gone, shattered by my reactions to the Caretaker and to rescuer. She was warm in the cool evening air.

“Good night.” I watched her stroll off towards her nest, her tired step at odds with her powerful shape. The cliff edge was nearby, and I walked over. Sitting down I found myself drawn up to the sky. The night drifted round the globe, pulling sun in its wake. I fast-timed through the long dark night, watching the stars spin around the pole, bright streaks on my retinas, high voltages on sensor arrays. In the east an indigo line was climbing up the darkness, dawn. The sunlight hid the small red planet that shone low in the east.

————-

Shifted back down to real-time, the gorillas were at work. Lasers calibrated the shape of the gorge one last time, tracing the lines that the cables must shape. As the sun leapt above the horizon, balloons inflated and the spiders began to crawl forward, scrambling in slow motion towards the cliff edge. As they moved there was a flash of light, a roar of rockets, an echoing roar of approval from the crowding gorillas, as diamond filaments were pulled taut over the river, guides for the spinners. I looked out over the gorge, watching the cables glisten in the dawn light. The spiders kept on moving, only pausing when they reached their guides, sliding them deep inside, taking up the tension. Then they began to spin bridge, burrowing spinnerets into the waiting limestone, injecting nanoassemblers into the cliff, anchoring the bridge to the skin of Old Earth.

The gorillas roared again, as the huge black mechanisms pulled themselves along the guide crystals, moving slowly out into free space, pulling a translucent sheet of carbon super-materials behind them. Two roadways of light arching out into the sky, pulled from the pulsating abdomens of living machines, stitched rigid into an arc of diamond.

“Two of the commonest elements, hydrogen and carbon.” The gorilla was exulting in the simplicity of her nanosystems. “Buckminsterfullerene tubes for flexibility, diamonds for strength.”

She stood there, as strong as she imagined her bridge to be, secure in the confidence of her simulations. Her arms waved incessantly, pointing out each detail in her grand design. I watched the spinners move out over the Avon, gazed at the glass towers rising in time-lapsed leaps from the soil. The gorilla’s fingers traced the lines of an army of tiny spinners that wove a web of light from tower to span, strength in the tension of a myriad of cables. The ether filled with the digital chatter of a billion machines, an electronic hymn to the harmony of architecture and engineering.

It was mid-afternoon when the arch of the span reached the far side of the gorge, the dark bulk of the spiders crouched low beneath the tower, rooting the bridge deep in the hillside. A final few weavers finished the last of the links between bridge and tower, tying the span into permanence. The song of the machines faded into silence, their tasks complete, their artificial intelligences fulfilled. It was a comfortable silence, a completion, the machines fading away as they silently blended into the structure they had grown.

The gorilla led the crowd to the bridge. They stood back as she walked out onto it, each footstep both hesitant and triumphant. As she reached the middle, she turned, arms raised to the sun. Even from the hillside we could see her grin, feel her exultation. The bridge she had dreamed was real.

I just looked on, drinking in the beauty of the bridge. It shimmered in the sunlight, the breeze strumming the cables. A cascade of music, pulled from an aeolian harp that spanned a river. I imagined the sound of such a structure in the winds that filled the Valles Marineris, hearing the immense power of the deep tones that would be struck in the kilometres long cables, cables that would vibrate for hours in the low Martian gravity.

It was time. I took my shoes off, and walked out onto the bridge, leading the rest of the gorillas out to her. The span flexed gently beneath my feet, a carbon carpet with deep diamond pile. The gorilla was waiting for me, there in the centre of the bridge, high on the apex of the arc. There was a question in her eyes, echoed in the dance of her hands. I looked down at the bridge, up at the towers, and then straight into her questioning eyes.

“The job? It’s all yours.”

She started to talk, gabbling thanks.

“Shhh.” I raised a finger to my lips. Sudden silence, the gorillas staring, as I strode to the edge of the bridge. The tide was in, water lapping at the banks, flowing in brown surges below me. It was a long way down. “Just one thing… You’ll need to get to Mars under your own steam.” I ignored their protests. “I’ll see you on Phobos in a year or so.” I grinned at the gorilla team. “Good luck.”

Then I leapt. A perfect dive down to the torrid Avon, to leave this flesh behind. As I hit the concrete water I felt a flash of pain, and stepped through into my virtual. Viziers clustered lovingly round me, as I shed the last of my body, and returned to the digital heavens.

approx. 7000 words

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3 Responses to 'Into the Virtual Mists…'

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  1. fjm said,

    This is very good–beautifully wrtten, a lovely idea.

    Two issues, one optional the other not.

    The optional one: first person is the easy way. Experiment with third person and see how it works.

    The compulsory one: your gorillas are humans in furry suits. You need to do some reading on what gorillas actually do when they are happy etc. What they don’t do is use human facial gestures.

    Thank you, I thoroughly enjoyed reading this. Send it to Analog when polished?

  2. sbisson said,

    Good point on the gorillas – it’s such an easy trap to fall into.

    On the viewpoint thing, I don’t think I could use some of the imagery I want to have by switching to third person. Normally I write third person…

  3. purplecthulhu said,

    Do you do APAe? PAPA has developing into a writer’s workshop on paper over the last few years, and is currently recruiting if you’re interested. I’ve had some very useful comments from PAPAns.


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