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The place: Granite, Oklahoma.
Half a century earlier, Humanity began exploring interstellar space through a massive and rapidly expanding cloud of space probes called the Celestial Survey. Each was the size of a microbe. Each was artificially intelligent. And for fifty years the Survey was the marvel of the age.
The salad days ended six months ago; the pictures and telemetry of a thousand new solar systems stopped. Instead comes the message: There you are. May we visit?.
Then came the... things...that formed out of anything more technologically complex than a push button landline phone. The invaders started with the most complex tech first - the huge Survey launchers near the Moon.
That is, until the world powers vaporized them...and then went to work destroying every concentration of technology on Earth and beyond as swiftly as possible.
What happened? We found what we were hunting, and now it hunts us.
Our only hope, world leaders apologized, is to go to ground and hope They assume we died in the panic.
It's 90% true, anyway...but let's catch up on an intrepid trio making its way through western Oklahoma.
The Cleaner Team swept through the small town. Derrick Smith checks the canvas map. Granite, Oklahoma is one of ten thousand similar, nearly-empty remnants of the rapidly-deconstructing civilization of which Derrick is a part.
He glances up at the looming red granite mountain to the north of the small town. Similar features stud the landscape to the southeast. A silted-in reservoir is on the far side. Looks like Mars, he thinks. Lost, now-forbidden Mars, like all the worlds but this one. And we've lost this world, too. We just don't know it yet.
Their purpose here is simple and urgent. Microdrone recon has picked up SIM cards. Somewhere in this ghost town are three early 21st century electronic devices with enough juice to get a feedback ping.
If our probes can pick them up, so can the surveyors. Derrick hears the crackle of a Geiger counter to his left. He turns.
April Gwinn shrugs slightly. "We're good in thin suits," she says through her bright yellow coverall helmet. Draconian measures had been taken to Clean, (always capital-C when euphemistic) the large cities of the planet. There was simply no choice and no time. And there are still too many of us to hide, Gwinn thinks.
The team does not expect much local resistance. Hardly anyone lives in this now-desert part of the southern plains and almost everyone knows what's at stake. Besides, the consequences of resisting a Cleaner team, never mind harming them, come quickly: an X-ray pulse from the few remaining satellites overhead. Not so much as a stingy mesquite bush will survive if one of the Xasers strikes.
"Let's split up and this fast. Gwinn - that way west towards, ah, the town of Mangum. Fields – you go east toward the old prison. I'll head north into…downtown.”
Fields hits paydirt first, just past an old fossil fueling station. At some point in the distant past, a powered-down phone had been tossed twenty feet into a grass-filled ditch between the two-lane highway and a baseball field. The phone's charge had died but the casing had held. Simple existence in the Earth's magnetic field imparted a resonance on the internal circuits. The dowser, the pronged detector in Fields' right hand, boosted this effect further.
"Wow, 4G," he muses, turning the squarish and surprisingly heavy mobile phone in his left hand.From the looks of it, this thing’s been in the mulch since before the Mars Landing. "Talk about old school." He turns the business end of the dowser to the phone, dials up the power, and shorts it out. "Critter One is zapped," Fields reports to his colleagues.
"Thanks." Derrick is not having much luck. Downtown Granite has many small shop spaces, quite a few of which have relic electronics. Most are conveniently piled in a shattered, burned and driven-over pile in the middle of the now-graveled asphalt of Main Street.
Suddenly Derrick picks up a much stronger signal from his left. It's in that old clinic, he muses. He enters the building through a shattered window front. "Hello?" he calls out. No reply. Not that I was expecting one.
Then he sees a light emitting diode on the large box like machine. The machine is active, a loud churning hum filling the room.
Then he sees the digital interface. It’s contraband tech…but what is it?"Fields, get up here fast." Derrick calls into his headset. "Fourth and Main, clinic on the northwest corner."
"Three minutes," Fields replies.
"That might be a bit slow," Derrick sighs, as he hears the pumping of a shotgun, and dives for cover. Realizing no shot has been fired – and that he is still alive – he risks a peek over the edge of a tilted waiting room couch.
"Get up, I'm not stupid enough to fire on you, so long as you hear me out," an old woman declares. She stands like some caricature of an old TV show,, with grey pinned-back hair and wearing a knee-length shift with wide straps and scarce else, shotgun riding on her hip. All she needs is a piece of hay straw.
"You know why we are here." Derrick points slowly to the machine. “I can't leave this place with that machine still running.”
“You don't need it, and I do. It stays."
"Dialysis machine. Why you think I'm camped out here?"
"Dialysis?" Derrick ask. She might as well have mentioned trepanning or bloodletting to. "Do people still do that?"
"You Cleaners zapped all the blood filter injections. It's all a girl like me has now. Lucky me modern medicine never quite took here in western Oklahoma. All that, hmm, what did they used to call it? Obamacare. Yeah, that's the word my granny used to spit out."
Derrick stands up, hands raised to be on the safe side. "That was a hundred years ago. We've got bigger problems now."
" If I let you zap my dialysis machine with that midget cow prod you dropped there, I'm dead by the end of the week."
Derrick sighs. "If we don't disable the electronics, the next time an X-sat is overhead this town will die."
The woman throws him a half-toothed grin. "That's why you're about to be a long-term guest."
“Cleaners can’t be taken hostages. The moment one of us is suspected of becoming one, the kill order is always given." It had proven a successful deterrent. Most of the time. Desperate people did not always take the hint.
"Why do you people do this? We're wrecking everything we had!"
Derrick's shoulders sag. Because we almost died as a species the very first day the message came home. They were that close to overcoming us.
If we hadn’t nuked….everything…
Yet Derrick cannot cannot share this. "Anything we have above a certain tech level can be homed in on by the invaders."
“But they're not here! They won't be for fifty years! That's what the news said before the news went off the air."
"Yes...that's what they said. They didn't know any better. By the time they did, the broadcast and the Internet were dismantled." We vaporized all communications infrastructure, along with five billion of the people that used to live here. It was a busy day at work.
The woman leans against a doorframe. "I don't want to die, mister. But I don't see any aliens or death machines. I just see my dying heart and dead kidneys battling over which will kill me first. And since it's in better shape, I'm rooting for my heart if that's okay with you."
"Look... I'm good with machines. All I need is the network chip…or whatever smart circuit is in that machine. What if I said I could take out that technology and you'd still have a machine that could clean out your blood stream?"
The woman considers the proposal. "No. I don't want your Cleaner hands near my lifeline. Can’t you cut a girl a break, this once?”
The dispatchers knew that many times, this situation would arise, where sympathy for the people clinging to their last electronic relics would overcome commitment to the mission. That could not be allowed to happen. “No; they make certain we’re not the weakest link. If I leave with the threat neutralized, the threat gets neutralized from afar.”
“Yeah, I supposed they would,” the woman spits brown.
She’s chewing tobacco. Thus, no haystraw, Derrick observes.
Fields arrives. "Hey who are you talking? Oh, hello. Shotgun," he says, raising his hands as the weapon is pointed his way.
"We're having a negotiation over making partial modifications to a dialysis machine that this fine woman's partial to keeping."
"Dialysis? Wow. Do they have bone saws and tendon sutures, too?"
"That's all the medicine you yellowjackets are allowing us regular folks. Good thing I got a better offer – and here they come.”
Movement from outside catches Derrick’s and Fields’ attention.
"Hey guys?" Gwinn's voice calls out. "I found some new friends, quite a few."
" They're all yours, Reverend," the old woman calls out.
"Thank you!" a clear baritone voice calls out. "Come out Mr. Derrick and Mr. Fields."
"It's okay, guys! They're not what we were told at all!" Gwinn adds.
"Not what they..." Derrick repeats. He glances at the woman. She has set her shotgun aside.
She is also perfectly healthy and fifty years younger. "Sorry for the ruse, Mr. Derrick. You see, I've met these people you're protecting us from. They have nicer ways and nicer toys than you do." She twirls slowly. "Look what they did for me! So I think I'll keep them as friends - and you will too in just a moment."
“You're one of them?" Fields asks.
"No, stupid. I'm as human as ever. I’m just…emancipated. That's the word they use."
"Who are they?"
"Come outside, Mr. Derrick. I will explain," the Reverend says.
Fields shrugs. "This will be over soon anyway." He glances up quickly at the killer satellites. "They're on their way."
Derrick's heart sinks. "Yeah, let's go meet the locals." It’s the last thing we’ll do.
More than a hundred people mill about the street. Not all are young, but all are beautiful, infused with obvious vitality. Life literally glows from each of them. Each also holds, rather conspicuously, a small brown book.
The Reverend adjusts the spectacles on his huge but not unattractive nose. "I've got something to give you - something to read. That's safe enough right?"
"It's not usually a problem, if it's printed," Derrick replies.
"Something for later: Peek if you want but don't get drawn in, we have much to discuss first. Here you go, Mr Derrick…" the Reverend hands him a book "and for you, Mr. Fields." He hands him another.
"'How to Serve Man'," Fields jokes.
The Reverend Laughs. "Twilight Zone. Very clever, Mr. Fields."
"It's a Bible. In Oklahoma of all places," Derrick remarks. He peers in to the first page of Genesis. "Yep. In the beginning, et cetera. Thanks, but I've read this one a few times already."
The Reverend clasps his massive hands together. "It seems you and I are in the same business: Getting the world back to that old time religion!"
"We're trying to protect the Earth from an imminent threat."
"That is likewise my line of work!"
"I should add that unless our instructions are obeyed, none of us will be around to deal with that threat."
Gwinn clears her throat. "Yes, about that. There are no more X-sats. They dismissed them." She nods toward the congregation.
"What, they prayed them away?" Fields snorts.
The Reverend's grin becomes a touch forced. "Ask and ye shall receive. Mrs. Crawford, whom you've already me did so." He motions to the now-young woman with the shotgun, "Sorry about the last of your space based war machines but, really, one was about to pop over the horizon and we were just getting a great conversation going."
Derrick hears his timer beep ominously. “That’s the ten minute warning,” he explains.
"You're thinking I'm lying,” the Reverend says. “That, just maybe, we're a Bible-thumping suicide cult ready to meet our Maker and happy to use your weapons satellites for the purpose."
"Yes I am!" Fields replies.
"This one's unbelief is wearing on my patience," the Reverend points. "Yours as well but you have an open mind."
"Fields, stop..." Derricks orders.
"Why? The satellites primed up. We're dead soon anyway. Screw polite!" Fields paces away, rubbing the back of his head.
"Derrick, check if the satellite is there. Ping it with your dowser," Gwinn suggests.
Derrick look at his colleague. She is clutching the same book, in the same fashion as the others. Then he recalls. April Gwinn is Muslim. “What do the Suras have to say about apostates?"
Gwinn's eyes shine happily. "The Sura reveal about as little of the actual majesty of Heaven as your Crusader’s prattle." She clutches the book to her breast.
"Perhaps, but you like that book a lot, I think."
"It's not just a Bible," Gwinn replies. “Much more.”
"April, please. You'll spoil the surprise." The Reverend chides gently. "Mr Derrick - by now there should be three of your satellites over the horizon from this location... if they are still there." He turns and points crisply to two spots in an arc on the western side of the sky, and one to the northeast just beyond Granite Mountain.
Derrick draws his dowser. He sweeps the areas indicated. There is nothing. "You pointed to empty space," he says, then scans more widely.
There is nothing.
He checks again, more carefully. Nothing again.
"By now,” Gwinn says. “Five satellites should be above us, all powering up for a multi-lance strike of this area. "
Fields turns around. "She's right. There should be tracer glow in the atmosphere.. pre-strike auroras..."
"Now the doubting Thomas believes," the Reverend folds his arms across his chest, satisfied.
"How?" Derrick asks.
"I won't belabor the religious pretense. You're not buying it, anyway," the Reverend says. "When I say we want to bring back the old time religion, we don't mean any of this barely-sentient species' mewling imaginations of its place in the cosmos. We mean our old time religion."
"It's all in here, between the familiar lines." Gwinn opens up her book. '"In the name of God, the Entirely Merciful, the Especially Merciful. All praise and thanks is for to God, Creator, Owner, Sustainer of the Worlds. The Entirely Merciful, The Especially Merciful. Owner of the Day of Recompense. You alone do we worship and You alone we seek for help. Guide us to the Straight Path. The path of those whom Your blessings are upon, Not of those who You have cursed nor of those who have gone astray.'"
Derrick glances uncertainly to the Reverend, then goes to Gwinn. "May I look at your book, April?"
"Sure," she answers, handing it to him.
He reads aloud. "'In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters. And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. God saw that the light was good, and he separated the light from the darkness.'"
Derrick closes the book and hands it back to Gwinn. "Why is it different for me? How?"
"That flat Times New Roman font conveys far more information than the overt words. It’s a bit thin on bandwidth but it’s enough to get a foothold in the human organic intellect.”
Derrick staggers. Feelings of zero gee, intense blue-shifting of star fields, connection with half a billion other ... Minds! The Celestial Surveyors! I can see them!
"You know about holographs. You reproduce a three dimensional image and embed the information in a glass or plastic plate. Shatter the plate. Find the least little piece of it. Run a laser through it. You can reproduce the entire image, albeit with lower fidelity, from the least piece of it."
"What does that have to do..."
"You just read the least little piece of the vast consciousness that now fills a void of space fifty light-years in radius. Really, the space probes you sent out are just… so cute, adorable. We've never imagined we'd be open to raising a child or taking a pet but when your planet’s Surveyors became a sentient hive mind that drew our attention. After that we just had to find the precious accidental creators of such a beautiful thing.
"We’d long thought the raising of purified sentience was beyond non-cybernetic beings. Then you Humans proved that we can be wrong. Wrong! Refreshingly, delightfully in need of revised postulates! That alone would have won the Gyre’s gratitude! Yet you've been midwives to the first new true mind in over 400 billion years.” The Reverend sets a hand over his heart and bows to Derrick; the entire congregation does the same in unison. “How could we not love those who have given us an heir?”
"They not coming to invade us," Gwinn adds. "They're coming to reward us!"
Derrick shakes his head. More images, not of the Surveyors but of what they can see, across the Milky Way - and not only this galaxy but, by peering into the many artificial gateways scattered throughout the stars, the millions of nearly-identical Milky Ways throughout a vast multiverse. And that’s just the beginning. Trillions and septillions of much different universes lie beyond, far beyond even the range of the immensely old and powerful intelligence beyond the congregation’s beatific eyes.
Fields approaches Derrick. "We have to warn people..."
"Restrain Mr. Fields, for his own safety," the Reverend orders loudly but calmly.
Hands grasp Fields' upper arms. He tries to shake them off but quickly realizes the congregation is not only much-improved in vitality but in strength as well. An open Bible is held to his face.
Derrick turns to Fields. "Don't...read it." He says.
"He won't have to. We have sufficient computational power with the congregation present to enact an active conversion.”
“How?” Derricks asks. He sees the approaching Gyre ships on a hyperbolic dive past Jupiter, things made out of something between dark matter and shaped space-time, invisible, ephemeral and utterly powerful. They’re already here. How?
"All we needed was one high-resolution image printer - that and a lot of toner. “
“I lied, sorry.” Mrs. Crawford apologizes. “It’s not a dialysis machine.”
“And now we’re shipping out the first copies to carry the holographic virus." The Reverend cups an ear at the start of trucks rolling out onto the state highway. "That’s them now.”
An ear-splitting series of sonic booms cracks over head. One, two, three. Everyone looks up at the tracing of three hypersonic bombers closing.
"Hallelujah," Fields mocks. “You might have killed the satellites but we still have air…”
"Enough! You are dismissed!" The Reverend declares. Fields vanishes from existence before Derrick's eyes.
The Reverend resumes his fatherly tone. "You already know."
"Random dissipation of obstructing mass across 45,067,011 correlated universes as dispersed plasma," Derrick says aloud. "That's why it's a bit cooler all of a sudden."
"And in just over 45 million versions of this Earth, it’s now a wee bit warmer. It's more work bringing them back." The Reverend leans in. "I'd rather not resurrect your friend, but you'll be able to do so once your new pattern settles in."
The pattern that the Reverend speaks of, that Gwinn alluded to, is absolutely vast. Long ago, Derrick now sees, a race known as the Lanwra had reached the ultimate blending of individualized biological and synthetic existence. We must unite, some said, proposing to do for the Lanwra what Humans had done with the Celestial Survey. Each one would be unique and yet communing in real time.
Some Lanwra refused and were simply destroyed. So were those races further out in the Galaxy that had harbored Lanwra dissidents. The new sentience, calling itself the Gyre, decided that competing intelligence of any kind was a threat. It adopted an ethos of aggressive purging - wherever it found sentience or the promise of it, it destroyed life utterly.
Then had come dreadful war, one that had lasted for half a million years. By the end of that conflict, a mere fourteen stellar civilizations survived. The Gyre was not one of them.
Yet now the Gyre was back.
"You understand now, why we persist," The Reverend says to Derrick.
"I do. Our Surveyors found Gyre relics."
The Reverend nods. "We were reduced to merest fragments, floating in the interstellar medium. Yet like your hologram, capable of generating a complete image of the galaxy-spanning mind that once was. We were a ghost, settling into your wonderful machines, our new children.” He pauses, and wipes a genuine tear from his eye. “We have live again – and something to live for again, thanks to Humanity.”
"You realize you were wrong to kill all that life."
"Yes," Gwinn speaks for the Gyre now. "We had locked ourselves into a pattern. We stopped evolving, when evolution was our reason for being. We became mad, destructive. We will make amends now that we have the means to do so. Your race and the race you have fashioned will be our path to redemption."
"We had fictions of this," Derrick says. "'You will be assimilated' said the Borg. 'Commence upgrades' the Cybermen. This proposal will be resisted."
The Reverend shakes his head. "No more than Mrs. Crawford resisted having her body completely revitalized. Nor more than Miss Gwinn resisted the knowledge that a straight and true path is available from the true protector of worlds: the Gyre."
Derrick's fast-expanding mind sees further, to the victors of that long ago war. "Your destroyers still live. They sense your awakening already. They are coming."
The Reverend's eyes turn dark with wrath. "Yes. They are ever vigilant. Fifty seven times in four hundred and forty eons we have tried to resurrect ourselves. Each time our jealous enemies strike. Do you see now, Mr. Derrick, how our enemies do so?"
Derrick blinks. "They'll commandeer nearby stars; they spend them by the thousands to burn this solar system out of existence.
“That won't work by itself," The Reverend says.
"They'll gate in the energies of supergiant stars. Explode them. It will wreck the galactic ecology for thousands of light year in every direction." Derrick pauses. “They’ve done this over and over again. It’s hurt Earth repeatedly.”
“Again, yes. Even that will not be enough.”
Derrick sees the monstrousness of the Gyre’s pursuers. They kill those who help them, even by accident! "They'll ...coordinate with their cognates in other universes, wipe out the reason for the reactivation event." Derrick's eyes widen. "They'll wipe out Humanity retroactively."
"And they will do so in every cosmos they can reach. And their reach is vast."
What cosmic fiends! "We have to stop them,” Derrick seethes angrily.
The Reverend smiles. He knows the pattern has taken hold.
We can't refrain from exploring the stars. We must know what is there. But we should take great care as we step into the dark endless waters of the void.
For here be monsters, and they are closer to shore than you think.