Axial Alexeinov watched the earthrise, sipped beer through a straw. Axial’s muse adjusted the cameras on the flat’s exposure suit. The digital image was dutifully filed away, the muse filling out the metadata according to its human’s stored preferences.
It’s human was waiting, impatient, agitated. As his personal AI assistant, It interacted with the exposure suit’s onboard safety systems. It spoke in metrics, navigated the suit’s minefields of command queries and user assistance dialogue cues. Oxygen content in the suit were raised a few tenths of a percent, the beer bled out a couple degrees of heat.
Axial took another sip.
It ran idle for over a thousand milliseconds, and then accessed the archived files of their last visit to Cruithne, four subjective years ago. Ancient statistics on the quasi-satellite, a rock five kilometers in diameter and thirty times farther out than the moon. Sparsely beautiful holographic outlines of hypercorp ghostships, launched to perform discrete assays in case there was anything actually valuable there. Axial, the secret cosmonaut, built, bred and neurolinguistically programmed for this.
Sifting through the data, It fed select fragments into the mnemonic games Ax liked to play. Word games popped up on his ectoptic screen, the solutions of which would trigger remembrance, recall of essential details, and shifted data from long-term storage to short-term memory. No personal memories or experiences were recorded for the previous trip to Cuithne that It could find. The posthuman flat’s archived memories when no longer useful, reloading them to short-term recall only when instant recognition, knowledge, and action were desired.
It measured Axial’s progress, keeping score, shifting the games and key-data to measure recall and retention. As the amount of data It fed to the human flat increased, It stepped up the complexity of the games, moving from word puzzles to pattern games, the data coded in mnemonic cycles for quick recall of long strings of facts.
A squawk of ghostly echoes flitted through Axial’s earpieces, and the flat froze. It paused the games as Axial paid attention to the weak radio traffic. Software analysis identified Henq’s voice. It engaged word recognition immediately. Something about cocoons.
It registered a sudden shift of biometric data, and sampled it for further analysis. The exposure suit registered increased air intake, heightened pulse rate, a sharp rise of pheromones in the scrubbers. The ectoptic screen’s eye-motion sensors showed the human’s eyes had opened wider and dilated. Dozens of other innocuous sensors chimed in their supporting data.
It came to the conclusion that Axial was afraid.
It was programmed to respond to this result, in this place. It accessed a read-only memory cache, almost four standard years old. One of the black vaults of Axial’s memory, experiences that had been encrypted and stored. The effects of the memories were still evident in the flat’s personality, but not subject to general recall.
Locked files, erased memories. All that remained was a fear of spiders.
It unlocked the memories and began the instant replay.
Gilles swooshed softly down the access tunnel in hir mechacrab morph, its legs and claws curled up tightly against its hide. The biorg cannonballed down the microgravity well toward Cruithne’s center, crushing through elastic cobweb curtains and architecture. The soft chatter of eight billion spider legs and fifteen billion wings filled the space, and Gilles’ muse sampled the audio for later use. The sound gave context and contour to the purely speculative maps the Firewall agent had given them, but the sonic map hir muse was putting together was still sketchy due to the odd acoustics.
The air seethed with mutated insect life, generations of fast-multiplying fruit flies whose few chromosomes warped quickly and easily from the radiation emitted by Cruithne’s power source. Preying on the flies were genetically-engineered arachnids, tiny hairy grey things that spun impossible low-gravity webs and waged feasting wars on the flitting things. All for the amusement of the big brains in Cruithne’s rotten core.
Gilles sang softly to the rhythm, and hir muse provided a beat, slow and melodious, internal audio only. Hir muse controlled the descent with puffs of compressed air, timing the speed of descent to the tempo of the beat.
Dead insect matter drifted lazily through the air as organic snow until caught by some six-winged chitinous fly or stuck to a sticky strand of spider silk. The gene-spiders had formed curtains to catch this bounty, and as the biorg shell burst through them it became matted and covered with silk and the tiny clinging passengers. The mechacrab was sealed tight against atmosphere and vacuum, but spider and fly eggs could find their way into any crevice or cranny on the morph. Gilles would not want to take the critters back aboard the ship.
In the last fifty meters of the freefall, hir muse timed the counter-thrust bursts with the dying beat. Gilles listened and sang a cappella as ze floated just above the access hatch. Hir muse coordinated the dozens of tiny shutters and wipers that cleaned silk and detritus away from hir optical sensors and electronic eyes. The crab-legs stretched out, magnets clunking as the appendages anchored themselves around the access hatch.
Hir muse dampened secondary sensory data input as the biorg focused hir attention on the forward tool-limbs, cracking into the access hatchway’s electronics. Spiders and flies crawled over everything. The spiders from the interior were white and grubby-looking things which preyed on the grey hairy spiders in the shaft. Gilles’ tiny, delicate tool limbs had to wade through a spider war as ze tapped into the system.
Gilles’ muse registered a mental aria of success as the access hatch began to open. Mephitic vapors, heavy with oxygen and the thousand scents of insect life and decomposition spilled forth, and a pale waxy tide crawled out as the gap widened. The biorg instinctively recoiled, and hir muse responded by closing the shutters on all non-mandatory sensors again.
Sealed and blind once more, the mechacrab climbed into the crawling hole.
Nigh weightless, Henq slipped through the airlock door and into the sepulcher of a million flies. Hir shadow passed over mummified corpses wrapped in dried silk under hir feet. The neuter splicer stared at the cocoons on the wall for a moment, sent a brief communication to Axial. Floating forward, Henq groped the wall, gloves feeling beneath the macabre shrouds for the controls. Xuyen, hir muse, used tactile pulses to guide hands and fingers to the proper combination.
Bright sunlight dimmed as the outer doors closed again. The burst of air from the vents broke loose the petrified web, filling the air with long-dead spider-things that had too many legs and no eyes. Xuyen tried the local mesh, failed. Snatches of encoded traffic suggested the system software was at least ten years old. Xuyen fell back on older communication protocols, tried again. The system did not respond.
The splicer triggered a wide-spectrum light the chestpiece of hir exposure suit. Xuyen automatically brought up the visual overlay Henq preferred. The frequency data was converted down to something within the splicer’s visual range, presented as a color-wash that cycled from infrared to ultraviolet every fifteen seconds.
The air lock opened into a fifty-meter wide corridor bored straight down into the heart of the rock. Criss-crossing the corridor were suspension bridges of ridged webbing, strand woven on strand in intricate braided cables. Invisible to the naked eye but apparent under the light were monofilament strands, drawn taut and hidden by the crisscrossing webs.
“Jumping into a blender.” Henq subvocalized. “Xuyen: climbing mode.”
Xuyen responded automatically, reconfiguring the exposure suit for climbing. Wire-like claws extruded from gauntlets and boots. Inner cushions inflated and elastic bands cinched to give greater support to back muscles. Joints expanded at the shoulder to provide greater freedom of movement.
Henq climbed, head first. Xuyen synced to the internal gyroscope, working to adjust the splicer’s kinesthetic senses on-the-fly. The suit’s claws scraped through webs and punched into rock. With a secure hold, a slight twist would launch a micro-piton, already threaded with a belay line that spooled out above and behind hir.
Xuyen helped map a path through the monofilament defenses, using tactile tugs. The path often took Henq through the spider nests. By the time ze’d dropped thirty meters hir faceplate was obscured with silk, bug crap, and pale wriggling things. Xuyen adjusted the internal sponge-wipers to keep sweat out of the splicer’s eyes as ze climbed.
At the bottom, the security door was armed and active. Henq scanned the bottom of the shaft, focused on a section of the wall a few meters from the wall that refracted the wide-spectrum light differently. Xuyen opened a comm channel to Axial back outside as Henq cleared away the false rock with hir climbing claws. With the access panel exposed, Henq quickly pried it open and attached the router device. Henq let hirself float freely, attached by the final belay tether.
“Xuyen: Tharsis Plateau.” Henq subvocalised. Xuyen began the simulation.
Gwynn waited as hir gwynnettes synchronized hir echoes’ two-pronged assault. At the same millisecond, the Gwynn-þ and Gwynn-ð accessed Cruithne’s secure system. From its holding pattern around the quasi-satellite, the Analytical Engine that Could the infomorphs’ signal was broadcast to the routing devices hir partners had secured. Gwynn’s exploit gave the infomorphs access to the system proper, the dual breach slipping past the aging spypost’s firewall. The gwynnettes routed an XP feed back from Þ and ð. The Cruithne system was a digital spider’s web, eight-legged programs with glowing abdomens skittering through the artificial night. After years of solitary confinement, Cruithne’s posthuman intelligence had made the system a Byzantine map of its own mind.
Gwynn idled a moment to get hir bearings while hir gwynnettes picked apart the details of the system. The gwynnettes were a gestalt muse AI, each part a personality fragment of Gwynn, an extension of hir digital self, and ze rarely differentiated between hir internal voice and the gwynnettes’ internal communications. Hir gwynnettes fed mission data into hir consciousness. Cruithne, spypost. The central core was little more than a shoal of cerebral tissue, a coral-like mass of cloned brain matter organized to process the massive data the spypost covertly assembled from its distant, quiet observation of T.I.T.A.N.-ravaged Earth.
Ð moved more quickly from hir access point, heading along a lambent strand toward the communication center. Gwynnettes commented and scrutinized Gwynn-ð’s sensory feed, mapping hir position within the system.
Þ followed the data-spiders to the center of the web, slinking along with hir best stealth program. The gwynnettes measured the time the hack was taking, checking it against the air remaining for the three morphs on the surface. The chatter in the back of Gwynn’s mind comforted hir.
The center of the web contained a hoary, fractal orb of milling spider legs engrossed in its latest project: a blind, armored spider which bore more of a resemblance to a cockroach than an arachnid. Twittering in hir backmind, one of the gwynnettes suggested that the posthuman intellect had turned to genecrafted spiders as a cure for its loneliness. Þ’s discreet search of the files turned up treatises on artificial evolution, war game scenarios, diary entries about the conflict against the hated descendents of the original insect—the poor, lost flies which had been trapped here when the spypost on Cruithne was first built.
Taking advantage of the engrossed posthuman, þ sampled its traffic and captured his command codes, which ze routed it through Gwynn to ð. To the darkcast array, it was an order straight from the posthuman intellect at Cruithne’s core. Authorized, the equipment powered up and began broadcasting the spysat’s carefully hoarded intel.
In the web-center, þ worked to filter the signals from reaching the posthuman brain-shoal. Data-spiders squished and vanished as ze blocked them. The gwynnettes chittered in hir backmind, painting out which messages to block and which to let pass, and screamed a little with each shift and movement the fractal spider-orb made.
Xu Lin was meditating when the dataflow began, but she let Mother handle it. The Firewall agent felt she had chosen well in these new contacts. The next part of their task would be more difficult.
Mother shunted the incoming darkcast into secure datastorage. The data would need to be decrypted, and then sifted for the keywords Xu Lin would be interested in. The muse did not mind. Ze had no sense of time any more, no ability to experience or understand boredom. Ze would do anything for hir daughter.
Following hir script, Mother alerted the authorities on Luna of the Analytical Engine’s approach, the warrant for their arrest under Jovian law, began the pre-extradition procedure. If hir daughter’s agents did as instructed, they would be apprehended in cislunar space.
Xu Lin finished her meditation, and found Mother had set her drugs out before her. While Mother knew Xu Lin was not particularly attached to this morph, ze also knew bodies were scarce and should be well-maintained. It would hardly due for hir daughter to age or get flabby through neglect. Not yet, anyway.
Not unless necessary for the mission.
It was almost a ritual, between the two of them. Mother made the preparations, and Xu Lin followed through her exercises, her beauty treatments, her education courses and her ritual medication. Xu Lin had only to exist while she had Mother to look after her, to remember for her.
“Entertainment,” Mother said, and Xu Lin smiled.
The door opened and a short, skinny androgynous figure stepped in, all naked flesh and goosebumps. Dragon-shapes of nanotattoo barcodes crawled across hir belly, climbed up hir ribs, circled a smooth and flawless breast.
“Oh Mother.” Xu Lin said. “You shouldn’t have.”
Mother was silent. Ze said nothing as hir daughter began, again, to do the things she enjoyed doing so well.
This time would be different.
Coitus was brief, interrupted. Mother said nothing as the Terragenesis agents came, as the lover’s head erupted, spattering her daughter’s face and tits with brains and implant-tech. She didn’t bother to listen as they arrested her, the charges against her.
“I’m sorry Xu Lin.” Mother said. “It is for your own good.”
“Mother?” she subvocalized. “What did you do?”
“What I am programmed to do. What every Mother is programmed to do. I have protected you. You will be safe now. Safer than here, with those people.”
“Mother? Manual override.”
As her muse reset, Xu Lin lashed out at the hypercorp agents. The sudden shift from docile and limp caught them by surprise. Her left foot crushed an augmented trachea with posthuman strength, the fingers of her right hand scraped skin and meat off a plastic skull. They were trained, their reply brutal. Within seconds Xu Lin was running, naked, away from her apartment. Blood ran from her breast where a nipple had been torn off. Free for the moment, she darkcast an encrypted message to Firewall.
:: My muse has been compromised. Resleeve mission. ::