Black Start 5: System Initialisation
Illicium Tellima, Twenty Fifth Bloom, was coiled around a post in one of the many observation rooms aboard the space station Meandrina. Her sharp tongue flicked out to taste the station’s pristine air, though her form’s predatory habits were hardly necessary. It was just something she’d picked up over the course of her last two blooms conquering and cleaning up the former Xa’a-ackétøth territories.
It had been exhausting. When Illicium closed her eyes she still saw gridfire searing across the hulls of her ships. When she took a moment to breathe she still felt the crack of a tachyon lance striking the hull of her carrier. The campaign had lasted hundreds of years, but finally the autonomous weapons were silent and the last few war fleets disbanded.
Peace in her time.
Now here she was about to do it all over again. She’d taken a break, of course. The doctors had mandated it. Almost half a bloom to herself. She’d even taken her first floret. Illicium smiled, remembering the way her darling Je’quår had twisted jerself around her with such joy.
That was in the past now, of course. Je’s body had eventually aged beyond the capacity for even the Haustoric Implant to maintain it any longer. Perhaps if jey had lasted another few decades then veterinary medicine could have saved jem, but the first few blooms of getting to know a new species were always so imperfect.
Nothing ever stayed the same forever. Illicium cherished this last moment of silence as the universe hung on her word. First contact was at her consent. The cotyledons had bloomed; the xenolinguists had learned and taught the many languages in Rinan space, and synthesised the many more constructed dialects of Affini speech that would connect the creatures there with the rest of the universe; the neosemioticians had sharpened their memes; and the archeobureaucrats had signed the forms.
Things were ready.
“Ill,” a voice hissed. She turned, with a surprised frown. Je’quår’s ramet—the digital continuation of jer failed body—rarely left the simulation hive. Holoprojectors dotted around the room did their best to impose her floret’s body onto the material world, but they lacked the capacity to do jem justice. “You should see this.” Je handed over jer virtual pad, displaying internal traffic on the MEUA network.
Illicium glanced it over. Strange. “Are you sure it isn’t the front door again? You know what it gets like if we don’t use it enough.”
Je hissed, bearing simulated teeth so sharp they seemed to cut the air around jem. Illicium supposed it was only fair. Je was almost two blooms old now and a capable cognitotech in jer own right. She blinked closed her six eyes in the old Xa’a-ackétøth gesture for submission, and je calmed.
“Of course I am sure, Ill, I wrote the slithering thing, didn’t I?” Je spoke with the almost dismissive confidence of a youngling immortal who had spent a lifetime mastering their craft and had yet to learn how little they knew.
“You had help,” Illicium shot back, hardly suppressing her grin. To think this was the same floret who’d begged to have jer mind stolen away entire, that lifetime ago. Watching jem flower now was a delight. Jey weren’t independent, but neither were jey their ortet. Je had died long ago, and Je’quår as je was now was necessarily somebody new, albeit sprouting from the same source.
“I have help with everything, Ma’am, but we both know I wouldn’t have solved the semilattice merges alone.” There was deference still, but they were long past the mindless worship of jer former self.
“Granted. So,” Illicium replied, shamelessly changing the subject. Je may technically be more immortal than she was, but Illicium still called the shots in the end. Affini’s prerogative. “This isn’t the front door. I assume you’ve already figured it out or you wouldn’t have instantiated a form that the projectors can handle.” She paused, watching jer form phase in and out of focus. “If barely.”
Je stuck out jer forked tongue in Illicium’s general direction. The suffering holotransmitters rendered it with a flicker and some colour banding, but Illicium got the point. “This reality is so limiting, Ill. I know not why you like it out here. You could still lead the charge, you know nobody thinks less of us ramets. Tides, Helianth is one and they let him do the cooking.”
“I visit,” Illicium complained, tapping the side of her torso. The virtual interface integrated into her core let her project herself into the sim hive much like Je’quår projected jerself into the material world. She already knew the objections, though. They’d danced this dance many times before before.
“Yes, as yourself. You could be so much more if you would let yourself be unconstrained by the ‘real’! Tch!” Je fuzzed around the edges, forming a rough chromatic aberration in light and darkness. “But fine yes, I of course traced it. Three jumps out, new node trying to bootstrap itself. Very close to that adorable attempt at a warship we harvested one of the cotyledon crops from.”
Illicium squinted. “We wiped the storage on that ship, didn’t we?”
“Ah, well, we…”
She turned, eyes going dark. Illicium slithered up to her floret with her own set of razor teeth bared. She sensed jem trying to flee and reached out through her virtual interface to lock the creature in this realm, preventing jer escape. “I told you to wipe the storage.”
Je’quår had seen Illicium angry before, this wasn’t new exactly. Je had been in the room when the old Xa’a-ackétøth war council had been explaining the lethality of their war machine. Je had, in fact, been the target of that ire, and had immediately thereafter begged to never be allowed to do harm again for as long as je had lived.
“I…” Je blinked all jer eyes shut at once, losing the joviality. “Yes, Ma’am. I’m sorry, Ma’am. I figured that since the reactor was unusable it wasn’t worth figuring out how to restore power just to clear out a ship nobody would be able to find.”
Illicium growled slithering forward while she backed her floret up into the corner. At her full length she was almost four full meters long, and all of them were sharp and angry. “You left an aggressive, self-replicating, semi-sapient experimental weapon lying around in space?”
“It’s… really more of an, um, utility management system?”
“Ah, yes, that’s why we tight-beamed it onto a Terran warship. To manage the utilities. You dolt.” Illicium groaned. “I swear it’s like you things have a fundamental imperative for being sloppy with autonomous weapons. Fine, we’ll fix it. What is this, an escape pod? A shuttle? Can we just command a wipe from here?”
“Er, yes, well. It is a shuttle… and its occupant.”
“Oh, by the Everbloom itself, what?”
November sat in her charging pod with the comforting thrum of fresh power dancing through her batteries. Meua had stayed quiet while she rested. Something about needing time for her neural pathways to settle back down. November didn’t need to know. She was being fed soft, repetitive thoughts so often that her mind didn’t find an excuse to wander, but so rarely that she felt very, very still.
She was a good November. She was valued and useful. This was where she belonged.
There was something deeply comforting about the silence. November’s visor was mostly black—aside from her command interface—without even a wireframe to show her the world. November heard nothing but silence. Even the ever-present stream of data from her implants had been stripped almost bare, now just a slow, steady procession of affirmations that everything was alright, and she was going to be okay.
November didn’t smile because she had not been instructed to smile, but she recognised contentment within herself. Meua had emptied her out and now she was free of all her old worries and pains. Free from the baggage of her past. Free from the responsibilities of her position. Free from everything.
She sat. Existed. The only tool she had to track the time was the slow trickle of power returning to her, but time didn’t matter. She was in no rush. She sat where she had been instructed to sit and thought the thoughts she had been instructed to think. She was a good November.
Eventually, an instruction captured her. November felt it in the back of her mind, saw it on her interface, heard it with her ears, tasted it on her tongue. She didn’t respond, because she had not been told to respond. Her absolute attention could be assumed.
My attempts to contact our autoconfiguration source have been unsuccessful. I am now confident I am speaking to the correct node, but it does not recognise me as authorised. You were a hacker. Convince it to configure us.
The task slid into November’s todo list, and as it did she felt herself waking up. This wasn’t a menial task. There were no detailed instructions here, just a goal, but that was enough to focus on. November did not question her tasks, she simply performed them. The shackles had lifted from her thoughts but her focus was still being fixed in place. November could not use this freedom to do anything but obey.
“Sure,” she replied. She tried to nod, but her suit was locked in place. “I’ll need a terminal with a network connection.”
In answer, a presence made itself known in November’s mind. It was getting a little crowded in there. November had never been a stranger to feeling another node in her head: she’d always had her implant in there with her, but it had always been secondary to herself. Now it was November who was the secondary one; November who was the smaller presence, subservient to the larger system. Meua ran above her, restricting what she could interact with; what she could do; what she could think. On about November’s level was a new presence, closer to how her implant had felt. She reached out to it and felt a network connection responding.
November didn’t need a terminal. She was a terminal.
Her limbs were locked in place, or perhaps November simply wasn’t permitted to move them. She called up a virtual keyboard anyway, simply because she was more comfortable with the visual metaphor, and placed virtual fingers against the keys. November could feel the correct sensations being imposed by her hypervisor, but that was a good thing. Obviously it was all false. November was a nonperson executing in a virtual space. She didn’t have to be constrained by only doing what people could do.
One of the other entities running on her hardware supplied supplementary details to her task, ensuring that November always had the knowledge she needed as she worked. It was more efficient than her implant had ever been. November didn’t reach out to look things up; those facts were simply provided just before she realised she needed them. Meua watched over her thoughts and predicted her needs.
Meua was right, of course. There was something responding. A curious fraction of November’s mind bounced signals off of Terran Cosmic Navy relays, then used the response times to triangulate the source.
She was talking to something way far out. Beyond official Terran territory kind of far out. Some OCNI black site, maybe?
November didn’t buy it. She kept tabs on that kind of thing and she hadn’t heard any hints of something like this. Whatever had subsumed her was beyond any Terran weapons project she was aware of.
November took a deep breath and focused on her own emotions. The manipulation of Meua’s software—now running with higher privileges than her own cognition—wasn’t trying to be subtle, but that made it easy to see what it was doing. It nudged here and there to keep November on task. When her mind strayed too close to recognising the fundamental horror of what had been done to her, those thoughts were immediately snipped away. November couldn’t successfully construct even false thoughts of resistance or hatred, because before she’d gotten more than halfway through they were replaced with something soft, pleasant, calming, and grateful.
Meua was making her an efficient, obedient tool, and preventing her from disliking it. So far, so appropriate for the Terran Accord. It was going further than that, however. November could feel dozens of tiny touches bringing her comfort and calm, contentment and happiness. She felt a constant presence from Meua that seemed to achieve nothing more than letting November know that she wasn’t alone. An experimental military weapon wouldn’t go to those lengths. It wouldn’t have to. November had broken for Meua and rebuilding her happy was not a requirement for acquiring her obedience.
Whatever had made this, they weren’t Terran.
November turned her attention to the remote system itself and began to communicate directly.
>> november@meua § please synchronise with this data stream. << frontdoor@meua § Synchronised. Acknowledge. >> november@meua § acknowledged. << frontdoor@meua § Authentication required.
November experienced confusion, though her face of course would not reflect it. A part of her figured that she should be upset that her chassis had been renamed, and that she was now just one more process running on the biological computer that had once been hers, but even as she thought it she could feel the momentary frustration getting snipped. She sent Meua a momentary pulse of gratitude. She didn’t want to feel bad. It made it harder to focus on her task.
Much more interestingly, the remote host identified as part of the very same system that had claimed November. This was as far as Meua had gotten. They had no credentials with which to authenticate and so they were stuck at the metaphorical and literal front door.
November felt satisfaction. She may just be one more service executing on Meua’s flesh, but she could be a useful service. Software was never secure and she knew it. Maybe the login prompt would deny her, but that was because that was the login prompt’s job. Whoever had built it had security in mind when they were doing so. November wouldn’t get past it.
>> november@meua § please list alternate accessible hosts on this network? << frontdoor@meua § frontdoor (me); november (you); je–quår; maildrone;
The sides of November’s lips twitched as decades of muscle memory tried to force a smile, and even Meua’s restrictions faltered. A poorly configured mail server was exactly the kind of thing she’d been looking for. November cut the connection to
frontdoor and negotiated a fresh one with
maildrone. As soon as the connection was established, Meua made herself known again. November’s focus was forcefully—almost violently—shifted to attend her hypervisor.
Good November. Network access established. I am mapping the new host into your memory space. Continue and locate our configuration parameters.
Bright pink bliss filled November’s world as one task checked off and another took its place. She wasn’t allowed to move, or even to make a sound, but she could feel her climate control needing to work a little harder to vent the extra heat she was emitting, and that was enough.
When she finally came down from the euphoria, November felt a new presence in her mind.
maildrone, right there alongside her. Just another host in the network. November reached out and began the interrogation. It was very helpful, and showed no hesitance in giving
november whatever she asked for. The responses seemed strangely eager. The two subsystems got on marvellously and
november was soon submerged in data.
Messages streamed through November’s mind. They weren’t quite the same format as she was used to, but thankfully Meua could act as a translation layer. The messages weren’t written in a language November knew or even recognised, and yet she could understand them. Strange. Was this one of those belter neolanguages? She didn’t even recognise the alphabet, never mind the grammar.
All the messages had the same recipient. This was a personal mailserver, and it was kind of a mess. Hundreds of thousands of messages all tagged “todo”. The earliest timestamps predated the fall of Uruk. A calendar so disorganised that some moments had half a dozen scheduled events while the rest of the day was left mostly free. November tried to search for keywords but of course she didn’t know this language and Meua’s translation layer obviously wasn’t sufficient to handle intent.
This didn’t make sense. How could a computer system predate the invention of the computer?
November felt her surprise and anxiety vanish as Meua took notice. A utility did not think. A utility obeyed its instructions. November got to work. She started setting out her virtual environment, putting the stream of messages to one side and requesting some basic categories to file them away into. Meua provided, placing a series of containers to the other side.
November glanced across each message, understood just enough to figure out where the message should be, and then either placed it in an existing category or asked for another. With each message the container rippled with a deep, satisfying pink. A little spike of pleasure and purpose filled November with the passing of each and every few seconds.
November’s off-task thoughts were aggressively pruned. Her focus became absolute. As the hours passed she gained some vague awareness of Meua taking care of their body’s needs, but that was not November’s current task and not her responsibility. She was the useful service in Meua’s head that could be tasked with achieving complicated goals and left to it. She wasn’t the person any more.
Unexpected jumps in the timestamps of her communication with
maildrone suggested that they had maybe slept. Possibly multiple times. November wasn’t entirely sure and it wasn’t particularly relevant to her task. Meua could pause her execution when it was necessary and it wasn’t November’s place to have opinions about that. She had her task, and she would perform it with the resources allocated to her.
To another, perhaps the messages would have blurred into one. Perhaps the mounting knowledge would cause some distraction. Perhaps the social faux pas of organising somebody else’s mail would have stopped them. None held for November. She had focus for nothing but her current message until the moment it was filed, and then her thoughts slid out of her mind like water off of her suit’s hydrophobic coating.
Eventually November reached for another message and found nothing. She was done. To the other side of her virtual environment lay hundreds of well organised boxes, each filled to the brim with messages that—now that November was allowed to think about them—were…
November and Meua panicked as one as they finally considered the implications.
There was an alien force parked just outside of Terran territory that was potentially hours away from starting a military assault. November, near-cyborg that she was, had been compromised by an experimental alien weapons system.
Perhaps most concerning of all, these aliens had noticed them, and they were coming.
November didn’t know what to do. This was above her pay grade. This was above anybody’s pay grade. Where did their loyalties lie? Did they warn the Cosmic Navy, because the body that Meua ran on had originated there? Did they warn the aliens—the ‘Affini’—because the system that had bootstrapped them had originated there?
Were they something new?
November’s panic died in an instant as Meua finally finished processing and returned her attention to the servant process running on her chassis. The calm was comforting, if sudden. November did not make decisions. November obeyed commands. She did not have to worry about such things.
A wireframe view of the world beyond overlaid itself across her vision along with a new task and a countdown timer.
The aliens would be here in twenty minutes. November needed to get her bug-out bag together and be ready.