The special telephone rang. I cocked my head. "Ahoy-hoy?"
My date was disappointed but protocols aren't ignorable. Nobody argues with a well-flagged argument. The dutiful are duty-bound. She tucked away her reproductive organs and kissed me on my gleaming brow. Our eyes exchanged intimate transmissions, which was popular among her generation. It made me feel vital, if a little silly.
"Is it ancestors again?" she asked.
I nodded. "The hoary germs."
"It must be, or they wouldn't have used the special telephone." I tapped the side of my head significantly. "Only the ministry has this line."
I shrugged. "No details given. I'm to seek immediate transit. Arrangements have been made. I'll be briefed on the way."
She smiled, showing me a row of mathematically perfect iridescent little teeth. "Print me back a souvenir?"
"What would please you?"
"How about sand from a foreign beach?"
"Consider it transmitted."
We kissed, our lips briefly fluorescing as they suffused with ichor.
The port was busy. Clots of humans navigated one another to find their gate or carousel or exit, dodging one another efficiently, the terminal hall filled with the soft whispering of skin against skin. A long line fed me to a security check point, my heels dogged by a cargo palette ferrying my gear. The palette hummed plaintively as it bumped into the back of my legs, anxious to carry on.
The customs officer scanned my face. "Name?"
"William E. e. Potassium."
"Travelling for business or pleasure?"
"What is your function?"
I presented my credentials for inspection. The palette nudged against my legs again so I turned around and gave it a slap. When I turned back the customs officer had opened the cordon. I proceeded through to the gate.
The mouth of the gate irised open and I stepped inside, followed by the palette. It was apparently to be a private shunt since as soon as I was inside the gate closed right up. My own warped reflection shone back at me from the gate's curved walls.
Transmission was imperceptible.
The gate opened. The palette and I emerged into a military port, the gangway flanked by soldiers. The nearest asked to check my credentials. Then we walked as a small parade down a series of corridors until I was deposited in a conference room with twelve tall windows overlooking some shining sea. The sky was a classic blue, with clouds of water vapour forming a filigree line along the horizon.
I joined the circle of people. It widened to accommodate me. Once within its perimeter I could hear what everybody was saying.
Hear, but not understand. I squinted and frowned. "What's all this?"
Everybody looked at me in every way.
"This, I trust, is William," said a tall woman with a fancy helmet and decorative breasts.
I nodded. "Sir."
She addressed the circle. "We will grant William fuzzy borders in matters of protocol. His specialty is practical."
I didn't say anything.
"Orient yourself in the discussion, William. What is your first question?"
I cleared my throat. "Ladies and gentlemen and so on, I should likest to know whether thy subject touches upon the realm of pest control, for verily that ken is mine."
A couple of them tittered. I felt myself blush. Fucking snobs.
The woman with the helmet said, "Yes William, we have a pest control problem. A super-colony has emerged, and it has undertaken hostilities against the human citizenry."
I was shocked. "Have there been deaths?"
I shook my head in disbelief. "An openly aggressive super-colony! It's unheard of. How did the situation spiral so badly out of control, ladies and gentlemen and so on?"
"It was a research project gone horribly wrong."
"Then this was a captive population? Containment was lost?"
"Containment was lost."
"You ass-hats. You detritus-eaters. You never listen. You never learn."
"It's worse: there are hostages, and they are unnetworked. Obviously orbital bombardment is out of the question. We require a culling solution sufficiently nuanced to defend those captive lives. William, can you advise this circle? William, will you?"
I sighed and looked out the windows at the sparkling blue sea. "Ladies and gentlemen and so on, what is the pest population?"
I had to have that figure repeated. My curriculum vitae boasted my record-setting prowess managing infestations as large as four hundred animals. But ten thousand? Ten thousand! A number like that made a mockery of the super-colony descriptor.
I shook my head. "Verily, this is beyond my ken. I'm just an exterminator. Thou needst a general."
"We had a general. A few, to be candid. But they were forcibly spent."
I turned back to face the others, my eyes rounded with alarm. "So who's next in line for that job?"
"I am," said the woman in the helmet. "And you're going in with me, William. I need to know what you know. Will you face ten thousand pests with me, in the name of the larger human peace?"
Every person in the circle looked to me. Esteemable, every one of them. Could people of such stature really be counting on a working man like me? All at once I realized paying off my various credit imbalances could be within my grasp.
I raised my chin. "O general my general, I will."
The general's hand-picked team boarded a gate and transited together. My palette of pest control devices hovered cheek by jowl with military palettes bristling with ordnance delivery hardware. When the gate irised open we stepped out in sequence according to rank. I was the last.
I looked into the night sky. The stars were weird. We were very, very far from the core systems.
"Is this the infested world?" I asked.
The general shook her helmet. "No. This is a staging area. They sabotaged our gate on the target planet."
The sun was up but the sky was black. The atmosphere was thin and tasted metallic. A gas giant was rising from the horizon, whorled stripes of rusty brown and sulphur yellow. It was, in its way, striking. There was beauty here amid the duty.
The soldiers had equipped themselves for action, field armour bristling with the traditional spiked phalluses and red blinky lights of their caste. Now they worked together to assemble a skiff from a kit. "We'll have to jump planets," the general explained. "Everybody get ready to hold your breath."
She pointed out a blue-green sparkle in the ink sky.
"That's where the bastards are."
Dutifully we all looked skyward. There it was, a whole planet roiling with meat. The skeletons in humanity's collective closet, rattling their bones and shrieking for their own inscrutable kind of justice.
In a zoo, I could appreciate the reverence.
But in the wild?
Things didn't go well. They shot down our skiff with improbable missiles. The landing party was scattered to the wind.
After a bout of largely uncontrolled free-fall and a minor impact my stuff and I climbed out of a shallow crater and walked across a desert for a very long while. Whenever I paused the cargo palette bumped into my calves. I slapped at it with increasing vigour even as my resources dwindled. "Why are you so stupid?" I demanded.
The palette distressed. It wanted to know if it should hover higher or lower. It cowered when it asked. I felt like a monster.
At a muddy watering hole I encountered a small troupe of pests and culled them. Local fauna came to investigate the smoking remains. I walked on.
The trail from the watering hole took me to a walled warren. Even on the outskirts rank odours were apparent. Tendrils of smoke reached into the sky from several sites of busy combustion. Here, then, the infestation had moved beyond timid roving bands: I could smell smelting. My arrival would be met with iron implements.
A few stray animals wandered outside the walls. I culled them before seeking ingress to the warren proper.
Labyrinthine streets packed with a fetid layer of dung. Crowded markets of their bizarre artifacts. Collectives of the immature receiving mimetic indoctrination from adults. Houses of worship. All of them emptied before me, squealing and sprawling.
The palette dropped combustion scat as we went so we left a trail of fire. The ignitions were warm on my back. I roved back and forth, vaporizing according to an improvised pattern that I found amusing in some hard to fathom way; certain spacings of integers just make me smile.
The mewling crowds disappeared with surprising efficiency. From experience I suspected trap-doors in every nest leading to a tunnel network. Even so the action was fast. Rehearsed, clearly. Within minutes I was wandering the detritus-littered avenues of a seemingly empty warren.
In a central square I had the palette unload a drill. I thumped around with my foot for a while until I thought I heard a hollow. I motioned the drill over. It crouched over the spot and activated.
The drill was washed away in an eruption of brown swill.
I whistled to myself. A central sewage system! These buggers were entrenched in a way I'd only ever read-only about.
Irritably pushing the palette out of my path I scanned the structures around me, blocking the sun with an upturned hand. What I'd taken for architectural connections so animals could move from one structure to another was actually a system of gravity-stoked aquifers. The devils!
I splashed around in the sewage some more then waved the second drill over. It seemed hesitant. I added a flag to my argument. The damn thing waddled over. I banged my foot on the stones, splashing in a foul puddle. "Do you hear that?" I said. "Open that up."
The drill squatted and did its duty, then stepped aside to reveal a perfectly circular aperture into an underground corridor. A bit of sewage slopped over the smoking edges. "Get out of here," I told the drill. To the palette I barked: "Hydrogen cyanide!"
With some added slack on the cables to my dispenser I hopped down into the corridor, roving the muzzle in search of animals to take care of.
Instead I saw a strange woman. She slapped me.
"Hey!" I objected.
"Be quiet, imbecile," she hissed, hard eyes locked on mine. She gestured with her chin. "Get moving. Quickly. Before they see us."
A pod of pests was drawing taut around us, their grotesque wet eyes blinking and their big lumpy hearts slowly throbbing. Their paws appeared to be fully weaponized.
The woman took hold of my arm and pulled at me. "Who are you?" I demanded. "Listen lady, I'm on contract with the ministry --"
She violently manoeuvred me into an alcove aside the main passage I'd opened up, my dispenser yanked out of my hands as the cables reached their stretching point. I complained profanely at this which caused her to clap her hand across my mouth, as if I were a child causing an embarrassing commotion in a public space.
Which I obviously wasn't. So I bit her.
She kicked me unmentionably. I slid down the wall and sat on the ground.
Before me roiled the great cloud of dust unleashed when the drill had penetrated the tunnel, twin whorls marking the passage of the bossy woman and me from the smashed and sun-lit middle to the corridor's shaded jowl. Motes chased motes in lazy waves. Droplets of swill from the square above accelerated as they drifted in small, irregular clusters toward gravity.
Finally, the animals' nervous systems caught up with events and they responded to the incursion into their space, yowling in alarm and flinching away.
Two full seconds had elapsed. My patience was strained to the utmost.
"What is the meaning of this?" I cried. "The vermin will take my dispenser, and that means I have to stump all the way back up to my palette to fetch the spare nozzle. You're interfering in official government business and all that. Who do you think you are?"
"We are Queen."
"Ha. As if."
"We are Queen, citizen. Now follow us, away from this company. Fly lightly."
"What company? Quit jerking my chain, lady."
She held one hand aloft, eyes on the animals. "On our signal…" she said and then briefly beeped. She ran. What the hell? I ran too. While the beasts bent over my dispenser to point their eyes at it the woman and I dashed behind their backs and away, along the corridor, flitting between new knots of pests that came lumbering in at the drill's noise -- a noise now echoing away, sloshing around corners, reverberating in lattices, fading to mush.
While we sprinted a third second languidly passed.
"Are you completely mental?" I wanted to know. "You're some kind of activist, right? Save all the poor whatevers -- isn't that it?"
She watched me pace, eyes tracking patiently side to side, top to bottom.
"I've run into your kind before, of course," I added, wagging my index finger. "Oh yes. It's nothing new. Same old nonsense. Think of things as people, people as things. As if. As if you'd harbour that malarkey if you'd worked an honest hour in your life! What are you -- a university student?"
"We are not a student, no."
"A professional layabout, then? A hedonist? A scientist?"
"We are Queen of Space."
"That's ludicrous, lady. Do I look cognitively impaired enough to believe that? If so, at which frequency?"
"Your belief is immaterial to the fact, citizen."
"My name is William. Please use it. I won't be called 'citizen' and have you think every time I don't bother to roll my eyes I'm endorsing your bunk."
She closed her eyes briefly, then opened them again and tried afresh. "William, we implore you to stop the assault on these people."
I cocked my head, confused. "What people?"
"The people of this world."
"Are you one of those oddballs with way too many pets, and you confuse them for children? Level with me: you're a crazy ape lady."
"These apes are our progenitors, William."
"You think I don't know that? There's not a thing about ancestors I don't know, lady. Trust me. I've been in this racket for nearly nine decades. I wrote the book on ancestors. Like, almost literally."
"Have you ever taken a moment to converse with one of them?"
I squinted sceptically. "You hear apes talking to you?" I took a careful step away from her. "When was your neurological integrity value last probed?"
Her face tightened. "The progenitors are not capable of proper human speech, of course; but they are fluent after their own manner. Their speech is like a scaffolding that gave rise to our own. A different form, naturally, but the grammar is familiar -- if elementary."
I grimaced. "But it's liquid communications, isn't it? It's all ripples in a medium. Like smoke signals."
"Are you capable?"
"Well of course I'm capable. It's just a bit off-putting. The idea."
"But you are not afraid to attempt it?"
"Of course not."
The self-crowned crazy ape lady straightened, her chin high. "Then let us share with you the details: touch your finger to ours. And we will convene a council with their appointed speakers, and you will come to understand what we have."
I swore quietly and shook my head, then offered out my ring finger. She touched the tip of hers to the tip of mine and a bunch of foreign details trickled into my blood. Oscillation patterns encoding verbs, adverbs, nouns and noises.
I looked up. "This better be good. I'm on the ministry's clock."
"Prepare yourself to be astonished, William, for in a moment you will peer into the face of time itself and see the eternal essence of your own kind reflected there."
I had to look away. "Sacred dung. You really are unbelievable, lady."
As we proceeded through the tunnels I heard the odd scrape and rumble from above that reminded me I was being stalked by my loyal cargo palette up on the surface. The tunnels were becoming wider, taller, and more rectilinear as we neared the heart of the burrow.
There were a few animals in those corridors but we kept to the shadows and moved quickly so we wouldn't be noticed. Queenie kept them close in her sight as we passed by; I could tell even she didn't trust them all the way. She had the practiced caution of a zookeeper. So, maybe she wasn't totally off the deep end -- just in over her head.
I waited in an antechamber while she negotiated the contact through her contacts. After a while I managed to climb up onto one of their enormous chairs and had a seat. I may have dozed off.
She snapped her fingers in front of my face. "It is time. Come, William. The first speakers of the progenitors' ruling houses await our parley in the interlocutorium now."
I blinked and stretched. "Okay."
The interlocutorium was a special room on two levels, so that the Mad Queen and I could stand on a wide balcony that brought us up to the eye level of the massive primal animals I'd been hired to eradicate. The air rolled and sparkled with their various organic stinks and vapours, a miasma of eyelashes and keratin flakes and wriggling mites. We watched as the great beasts gradually lumbered into position before us.
"Remember when they used to make us watch documentaries like this in school? This is a lot like one of those old documentaries. Visible light, aerial perspective -- the works." I looked over at Queenie.
"No," she said. "We did not attend a mixed school. Will you perform a vocal test?"
I cleared my throat. "Doe-ray-me. One two three. Ahem, ahem."
"Testing, testing, testing."
"Too low, William. The progenitors cannot follow if you mumble infrasonically. Try to focus around two hundred Hertz."
"Makes me feel like I've got a mouthful of something."
She hushed me. The animals had come to rest before us, their big sloppy eyes blinking, spasms of coloured muscle fibres around the pupils jerking the ragged aperture into a shape roughly tuned to focus. The lips of one slowly parted, strings of drool snapping free, a wild halitosis of hydrocarbons wafting forth over both of us.
"Your majesty," it eventually blubbered, then initiated a dinosauric bow of its bulbous, oily head.
"This is going to take all day," I commented.
"Shut up, William," snapped Queenie. "Mark time on odds, to make it feel faster."
The animal had finished bowing and now resumed orienting its muzzle directly at our balcony. The apparent queen addressed it in a quavering molasses voice: "How goes the war?"
"We've suffered serious casualties; your majesty, why won't your machines fall back?"
"They will not recognize our commands, honoured progenitor."
"Has their been a coup d'état?"
"No, progenitor, but our reign is not accepted or acknowledged in all quarters."
"I'll say," I said.
At this the beasts turned their moist attention to me. "Tell us, new and noble stranger, what tidings you bring. Know you what hampers the sovereign's influence? Is there a plot?"
I looked around awkwardly. "Not a plot, per se. But the queen's office is very old, and most people don't even remember it. And even those that do don't really understand why we'd pay mind to an office obsolete for generations. The Queen of Space isn't really a going concern these past few dozen millennia."
The queen was squinting unkindly at me.
"There are those who contest her rule?"
"I'm not really a politics guy," I explained, "but I don't think the royal house has been a concern since before the war. Not this war, of course: the real one."
"This war is very real."
"Oh, sure. I mean, I get it. This is very real to you. But I'm talking about an actual human conflict with real loss of life. See, a while ago we came up against the Goliath Infrastructure -- basically a self-determining planet colonization engine for a long lost race of organics. A lot like you folks, in fact. But bigger. And somewhat more extinct. Anyway, we fought off their stubborn junk and by the time all the dust settled we just weren't engaging with organics the way we used to…so the liaison between our peoples diminished and became forgotten."
There was an awkward silence. I glanced over at the queen, whose head was lowered. I turned back to the ancestors. They gaped.
I shrugged sheepishly. "Have I said too much?"
One of the animals managed to force more words out of its windy face sphincter. "Your majesty has assured us we would have negotiations in good faith with the robot leadership. Are you not this emissary, come now to treat with us?"
"Me? An emissary? Oh no. I'm just an exterminator. You know, pest control."
Its eyes narrowed, almost like a real person. "What pests, liege?"
"Well, not to put too fine a point on it…" I said, nodding in their general direction. "I specialize in zoo escapes."
Their faces flushed red. "Your majesty!"
"Heed not the words of this knave," suggested the queen, "for he is not an educated man --"
"Knave? That's a fine how-do-you-do, you addled cow. And after I've been so polite with your pets!"
The ancestors were lowing. The air became a sea of saliva drops and bits of shredded microorganisms. Every time the beasts stirred a great cloud of skin wafted from their movements, expanding and twisting before coasting lazily to the floor. I heard the sick churn of their inner pipes glorping and fartling with tension, gases leaking from one length to another in response to hormonal spikes. The big, cartoonish hearts in their chests jerked faster, bludgeoning themselves against bone with an audible slap, slap, slap.
The queen was apoplectic. "Idiot!" she said at a proper speed. "Imbecile! Ass!"
I was walking away. She scrambled after me, shouting at the back of my head. She grabbed at my elbow but I yanked it out of reach and strode on. I really didn't have time for such bleeding heart tripe as hers. I mean, patience is a virtue but when there's no conceivable action gradient you can't just stand there watching entropy swell. Life's short.
I went through a couple of walls, looking for a weak ceiling so I could punch through to get to my stupid palette. After an interval the pests in the rooms I passed through howled and gradually flinched.
"Can't you see what's going on here? Can't you see they are a miracle?" pleaded Queenie.
I stopped and spun on heel. "A miracle? Are you new?" My expression was as amused as angry. "Amazed, are you, by the complexity of their warren?"
"There's more," she rushed to say. "What about the missiles that destroyed your planetfall skiff? Were they not quite improbable? Does such chance-defying genius mean nothing to you?"
I rolled my eyes and pushed onward. "Listen lady, of course the things can generate high improbability. They generated us, after all. That's not news. I'm as reverent as the next guy. If I ever have kids, I'll bring them to the zoo to show them the ancestors and the elephants. For sure. But that's where they belong -- in a zoo. Not metastasizing in the wild! People have been killed, you know. That can't go on. Even someone as zealous as you must be able to see that."
"Life is precious, on that we are agreed," she hissed. "Theirs as well as ours."
I stopped again, but I did not turn around. "They don't have a life in any meaningful sense, and you know it." I said. "Can you even imagine what it would be like to be conscious from within a biological framework?" I turned to face her. "Your thoughts would literally be made of snot. It makes me sick to consider. In such a claustrophobic computational space! It would be like being a living jukebox, rutting through the same chemically coded sub-routines over and over again, over and over again. You call that a life?"
"They know love."
"Of course they do. Otherwise, how could we?"
"So even love is trivial to you, William. For this you have our pity."
We looked at each other for a long moment. Finally I said, "Well, thanks for that I guess," and jumped up through the ceiling.
Once on the surface I saw several satellites wink overhead in the bright blue sky, and felt their whispers inside my skull. The general had lofted an intelligence network to replace the global grid buggered by the infestation. Now I could see nine tenths of the planet at a resolution as fine as one centimetre per voxel, and I could see my fellow human beings where they stood and hear their status updates.
Most of us represented the ministry, but a smattering of other signals belang to people with unlisted affiliations or obfuscated credentials. "They're animal rights bozos," I reported. "Just shook loose one of them who thinks she's Queen of Space. It's the usual miracles and love malarkey."
"Where would we be without miracles and love?" asked the general.
"Don't get me wrong. I'm all for miracles and love. But that doesn't oblige me to worship a mammal."
Network laughed. The general said, "Well said, William." We pooled our observations about the density and scope of the underground warrens at each nesting site. Pods of pests could be clearly seen glowing like lighthouses in the infrared. What wasteful metabolisms!
The final group of signals were the human citizens of this world, huddled in safe rooms and community shelters throughout the planet's one small city. The fiercest fighting was happening at the city's walls, where ancestor guile had captured and murdered a number of our citizens, and put them under a perverse kind of exterior control, with apes madly working levers and switches to remote-pilot the corpses against their own kind. Grotesque beyond imagination.
"Have you ever seen the like?" whistled a major. "It's clumsy as hell but audacious, I'll grant them that!"
The general nodded her big helmet. "They really are human, on a certain level. They really are us, in a way."
"Furious homeostasis," the major named it. "So keen to stay alive."
The general turned to me. "Does it still move you, William, or has repeated exposure dulled the experience?"
I rolled my eyes. Soldiers! Such walking stereotypes. Poets every one of them.
Network reported a platoon of our scattered fighters assembling and striking at the heart of the siege. I wandered over to join them. My palette and I busted onto the scene. Walls fell. Settling rubble was my wake. Clouds of dust explored the air. "How's it going?" I asked.
"Pretty good," said the lieutenant. "Got any hydrogen cyanide?"
"Sure. Help yourself."
After the soldiers punched through with the hydrogen cyanide I mopped up behind them, laying down a diffuse, even misting of mustard gas mixed with a mutagenic catalyst of my own concoction. Heretofore hidden animals squirmed out of their hide-a-way holes, squealing behind giant clunky respiration masks, scampering away from the roiling yellow cloud even as their paws blistered and dissolved beneath them. They hit the ground spent.
Ancestors cannot neurally network in any meaningful sense, so any single instance of severe somatic disrepair pretty much means they're history. When they go down, they stay down. There's a satisfaction in that. With each toot of gas you feel like you're really accomplishing something concrete.
As I was summiting one of the fallen bodies my special telephone quizzled. I recognized the general's ring tone. "Sir?"
"William, your presence has been requested at the negotiations."
"By ancestors?" I exclaimed, incredulous.
"No," said the general tightly. "The hostage situation has gained complexity; arrive without delay."
Negotiations had apparently resumed at a now-neutral site on the coast, so my stuff and I hiked overland away from the city under siege, feeling the warm wind of ordnance blossoming at my back. The sky wheeled and scrolled the sun behind the hills, where it glew orange before fading.
Network chuckled with fresh information. The newsy status updates of the living, the sometimes nonsensical updates of the dying. Soldiers died gridless and unsynchronized, their entire potential spent in a blink. Sometimes what they said as they expired was stunning. Mortality was an effective muse.
In a valley between mountains I encountered a squadron of engineers preparing new satellites for lofting. "We're going to get a grid going," explained their corporal. "Try to stem the spendings."
I offered her my best civilian's salute. "Way to go."
"You're on walk to the talks?" she asked. I nodded. She took me aside and confided, "There's something weird about those talks, sir. It's like everyone who gets near them starts suffering an attitude cascade. Like they…get inside your head somehow."
I didn't mean to scoff but I did a bit. "I've seen the crude puppeteering job done on our dead. It's revolting. But it's ham-fisted, too. Their smartest may have some insight into our somatics, but they couldn't touch a human mind. Hell, they couldn't even grasp what a human mind really is. Trust me. If there's one thing I know, it's pests."
The corporal still seemed spooked. "But you're talking about them as if they're only genetic."
"Of course they're genetic. That's what all that wet stuff is."
"Respectfully sir, I think only the least relevant part of them is genetic. The real firepower is memetic."
"Are you kidding?" I chuckled. "They're completely isolated. Their access to archival mimetic constructs is zero. You think they're going to accumulate a civilization in a day?"
She looked pained for a quiet moment, then firmly said, "But their access is not zero, sir. Respectfully."
I narrowed my eyes and frowned. "You think they have some way to access a hidden store of powerful intergenerational secrets? You've seen something out here in the field? Did you file a report?"
She shook her head. "No sir. You don't understand. There is indeed a source of powerful intergenerational secrets, as you say, but it isn't hidden."
I snorted. "Monkey see, monkey do? We're magic to them, corporal. Utterly beyond their grasp."
"I think you underestimate the virility of their culture, sir. You may know the things well but you've never seen ten thousand of them networked before."
I gave her a dismissive wave and turned to checking the hovers on my palette, which was felt a little wonky when descending from the peaks. "Listen to yourself, corporal. Pests have no networking ability -- none whatsoever -- without a supporting civilization. You're talking fantasy."
She seemed stuck between deciding I was a lost cause and the impulse to continue speaking her pent-up mind. "Genetically that's true," she went on. "The hardware is a fragile slip of goo. But never forget how one day their memetic constructs got up and walked around. Ideas gained motive and agency, and inherited the galaxy. That's not fantasy: that's history. That's the power of culture."
"What? Do you think they're about to spontaneously decorate pottery at us?"
"I think the flexibility of their culture is something we can't predict. It's just air. It evolves a million times faster than me or you or any general's strategies."
I shook my head. "Get a grip, corporal. They're bugs."
"You keep thinking they don't have bombs big enough to out-blast us. But that's not how they're going to do it."
"Oh yeah? And how are the big scary ancestors going to -- ahem -- 'do it'?"
"They made us, mister. Never forget that. What that means is when they've beaten us we won't even know it. Because you're right -- they really will need a supporting civilization. That's why they'll use ours. That's why they'll use us."
I clapped her on the shoulder in a friendly way. "Battle fatigue, I think. You need a nap and a prostitute." I started walking on, the palette cruising smoothly at my heels.
"You really can't see them for what they are," she called. "If I were them, that's the first gap I'd exploit."
I didn't turn around. "Nap and a prostitute."
"Good luck at the talks, sir."
I rounded the last low hill before the sandy coast, then descended into a thick soup of water-based fog.
After wandering around a while pinging aimlessly I caught sight of the general's luminous tits, twin beams of disciplined laser wavelengths cutting through the cloud. When I met her she put a sure hand on my shoulder. "Accompany me, William. An interlocutorium has been erected over here."
"Sir, how is it negotiations resumed?" I wanted to know. "What is there to negotiate with biology? It's absurd."
"Lives are at stake," she said with a solemn dip of her helmet. "Until we get a full grid operational again those hostages are vulnerable to permanent death. If that means indulging animal rights activists to buy time, so be it. It's your Queen of Space at the middle of it all, you know. And she insists."
"Insists on what?"
"That you, William, serve as emissary at the parley."
"You are not a soldier. She mistrusts you differently than she does us."
I sighed. "I'll want time-and-a-half for this."
"Somebody get me an accountant, on the double!"
The improvised interlocutorium was a crater with all the rubble blown to the edges. A crude scaffolding led over the lip and up to a platform positioned before the ancestors' ambassadors. Their stage was surrounded by human soldiers. As I crossed the scaffolding to the stage I was able to see that the soldiers were in fact corpses. Their armour was ruined and stained with ichor. Some lacked a limb. Some were even missing parts of their heads. Never the less, they stood. Their dead eyes tracked me as I walked, my palette sniffing cautiously as it followed.
Queenie, two majors and a lieutenant were on the platform opposite the steaming muzzles of the ambassadors. It was the lieutenant I'd given hydrogen cyanide to. He waved when he recognized me. "How's it going?"
"Pretty good," I said. To the Queen: "How did you rig all this up, lady? I have to say: I'm impressed. Ancestors have never had a friend like you before."
She gave me a humourless smile. "Wait until we discover the friend in you, William."
"This is going to be persuasive, is it?" I snarked. "It's that good, what you have to say on their behalf?"
Both of the majors nodded in unison, their expressions fixed in matching vacancy. I looked between them and the ancestors lumbering nearby, folds of skin slopping down over their eyes to mop them.
I took an abrupt step backward. "What's this?"
The lieutenant touched my arm, his fingers firmer than friendly. "Don't be alarmed, William. This tactic hardly hurts."
I reached behind me for my palette but it wasn't there. It was being held back, whimpering, by the steely grip of a dead soldier.
"Dung," I bleeped. "Dung, dung, dung!"
I was encircled by the undead, their burnt and compromised armour reflecting my own horror back to me from the clean bits between the dented phallic spikes and unblinking blinky lights. They raised their weapons at me. The weapons hummed as they spun up to discharge.
I was hit by a couple of electromagnetic pulses which left me stumbling and dizzy. A cross-spectral shrieking made me clap my hands over my ears -- but it didn't do any good: the sound was at the network level. The majors held me down while the lieutenant plunged his fist into my anatomy and interrupted my spine. "Don't turn me into one of them!" I begged. "Don't turn me into a zombie!"
I could hear the Mad Queen speak beside me, but could not turn my head to see. "Do not resist, William," she commanded. "You will not be a zombie. We have in mind a more subtle role for you."
I was locked in a Faraday cage, isolated and paralyzed, helpless and afraid. The great mammals loomed over me, exchanging tools and liquid signals, their primal eyes magnified monstrously as they peered at me through stacks of glass lenses. At their mercy. A living nightmare.
They opened me up and started at work within me.
My awareness acutely dissociated in a panicked attempt to flee the scene, fragmenting my key processes and thereby forcing a hard reboot. There was a global interruption; and then
On the way home I asked the general to remind me how it was I'd been rescued. When she had finished telling me the story I shrugged and was forced to admit I couldn't remember a lick of it. "Rebooting can mess with your record," she said sympathetically. "I've never seen so many reboots as in this campaign. The line up for sick bay goes all the way to the bowling alley."
I lined up at the bowling alley and was eventually admitted to sick bay. "Let me guess," said the physician on duty. "Post-reboot bemusement?"
I nodded. He gave me a sub-routine, and told me to run it twice per cycle for two hundred million cycles. He emphasized that I was to continue running it even after I began to feel better. "That's how the medicine works best."
"Okay," I said.
We were hyperspatially shunted from the military base in batches of twelve. There was a line for that, too. I chatted with the soldiers while we waited for our go. It turned out next to nobody actually remembered bombarding the city from orbit after uploading the hostages to network, but here were the hostages in their gleaming new bodies and here was the bomb inventory depleted by the appropriate amount and here we were all feeling satisfied and brave and self-congratulatory about a job well done.
So what if nobody remembered doing the job? Reboots can be like that.
The general said she would nominate me for a medal, which was awesome because it meant I could probably gain some juice as a guest on celebrity chat forums for a while once back among the core systems. I would not only be able to pay off my various credit imbalances but also buy something fancy and ostentatious, maybe. Like a moon.
"We couldn't have done it without your help," said the general.
"If you say so, sir."
"Soon the whole world will know of the ancestors' brave struggle for life and dignity," she added, which at first I thought was a very odd thing to say but upon reflection it seemed perfectly natural. "I'm excited to share the good news."
"Me too," I heard myself say. And when I probed my feelings it turned out I was telling the truth: it really was exciting. Things were going to change, and for the better. But then I frowned. "There is one thing that bothers me, general…"
"If we're now such passionate advocates of defending ancestral access to liberty and self-determination, why did we vapourize the city from orbit?"
She took off her fancy helmet and turned it over in her hands, eyes defocused. "Oh, well, I suppose we wouldn't want to leave any loose ends. Orders were to save the hostages and secure the planet, which we have done. But certainly our new enlightenment will inform the way we approach similar situations in the future."
I nodded. "Totally. I mean, it's bound to affect the way I do my job. It's going to be way different being an exterminator with a deep conviction of ancestral life's inherent sanctity."
"You'll just have to cross each bridge as you come to it," opined the general.
"True that," I agreed.
The whole experience had caused me to grow as a person. I wasn't sure how, but I came away with a real passion for the noble beauty of ancestral life. If there was one thing I was sure about, it was that. And also how despite the miraculous artistry of their chemical brains it was evident to even an uneducated man like me that it would be quite impossible for ancestors to hack a human being, and somehow influence his mind. Despite their great sophistication such abilities were incontrovertibly beyond the reach of meat.
There was a real warmth in that certainty. It made me feel safe.
I stepped into the gate in a group of twelve and watched the port iris shut. We all smiled at one another. Homeward! And very, very soon we would be sharing the good news about ancestors with everyone we met.
Bobo | Simon of Space | Felix and the Frontier | Weird Flotsam
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