11 May 2011

The War of the Artilect: Chapter 17

Posted by joncooper

“What is it this time?” Van Toby asked irritably. “These conferences you keep dragging us into are quite irritating, Lane. Must you keep bothering us with your petty concerns?”

Elder Lane, Van Toby, and Horace Grant were once again standing in a synthetic conference area that occupied no particular place or time. As before, the room consisted of only a floor. There were no walls or ceiling; instead blackness extended in all directions. The area gave off the impression of being trapped at the bottom of a deep pit. The sense of isolation was acute.

Lane had been waiting in the room for three hours. The moment he returned to his synthetic world Lane had contacted the other two members of the ruling council and requested that they meet. Even though he had stressed the urgency of the situation his companions had not felt the need to respond. It was only when he sent a message threatening to pull the plug on their pods that they finally agreed to come.

“You’re all fools!” Lane shouted. “Morons! Have you been in here so long that you’ve forgotten about the physical world? Don’t you realize that if these aliens come along and shut us down it’s all over for us?”

“You worry too much,” Grant commented.

“The physical world is unimportant,” Van Toby added. “It provides no value. I really don’t see why you are so preoccupied with it.”

“Unimportant?” Lane asked incredulously. “Are you serious? If I took a sledgehammer to your pod you’d see how ‘unimportant’ the physical world actually was. You’d be surprised at how frightening life is when you’re struck in the physical world and can’t escape it. Our lives are hanging by a very slim thread. If we don’t do something right now then we’re all dead.”

“But that’s what the swarms are for,” Van Toby replied. “They will protect us, as they always have. It is their function.”

Lane shook his head. “The swarms are gone – all of them. The Artilect wiped them out without even trying. It’s over.”

Van Toby looked surprised. “Surely you must be joking! No one can defeat the swarms; they are simply too powerful. All of the other colonies were defenseless against them.”

“That was five thousand years ago,” Lane replied. “Our scientific abilities haven’t advanced a single bit in all that time. Meanwhile, the Artilect has spent millennia amassing an unthinkable amount of technology. It has the same power over the real world that we have over our synthetic worlds.”

“That’s nonsense!” Van Toby laughed. “You’re buying into the hype again, Lane.”

“You need to learn to think critically,” Grant added.

“It’s not hype!” Lane screamed. “I just saw it with my own eyes! I watched a little girl wave her hands and bring this entire planet back from the dead. She terraformed all of Xanthe in a matter of minutes, putting it all back the way it was before we entered our pods, and rebuild Star City for good measure. And she didn’t even strain herself!”

“You can’t be serious!” Van Toby scoffed. “That’s just not possible.”

“Go look for yourself,” Lane snapped. “After all, the two of you are so fond of ‘independent research’! Just go up to the surface and take a look at what the Artilect has done to our world. You can’t miss it.”

The other two council members looked at each other uncertainly. “But that’s just not possible,” Van Toby said at last. “No one could possibly have that much power. You must be mistaken.”

“Have you forgotten everything?” Lane asked. “Don’t you remember why we built the swarms in the first place? We were afraid that if everyone didn’t abandon the physical world, that those who chose to remain behind would ultimately advance far beyond us. The swarms were a preemptive attack to keep our neighbors from growing.”

“Quite so,” Van Toby replied. “Since we weren’t going to be doing science anymore it was our only option. Had we not done that we would have risked being left behind.”

“And that is exactly what happened! Somehow the Artilect survived, and from what I’ve been told he’s had five thousand years to advance beyond us. I don’t know how long it took him to become the master of the physical world, but he’s certainly accomplished that. Now he threatens our entire way of life.”

“Well then we must fight him,” Grant replied. “If we can eliminate him the entire problem will go away.”

Lane laughed. “Of course! Just fight him. Why didn’t I think of that? Oh, wait, I know why. Maybe it’s because in the physical world we are decrepit old men, while the aliens we’re fighting can create entire cities with a wave of their hand! They could kill us all without even setting foot on Xanthe, and the only weapons we have to throw at them are rocks.”

“But what about our armada of probes?” Grant asked. “I’m sure they still exist. In fact, they must be a formidable force by now.”

“The swarms are gone, remember?” Lane asked irritably. “They’re not coming back. Even if I recreated them it would be a pointless effort.”

Grant shook his head. “No, not the swarms, the probes. What were they called?” He thought a moment, then sighed. “I don’t remember their name. They were launched long ago and given the task of terraforming planets. The probes were self-replicating, so I’m sure there are a lot of them. And they had tremendous power! In fact, I think the last version of them had the ability to alter the chemistry of stars.”

“Oh yes – the Nehemiah probes,” Van Toby replied. “I’d forgotten about them.”

“That was a very long time ago,” Lane commented. “I suppose that they might still be out there, but they’d be very old. It’s hard to believe that any of them would be left.”

“But they’re replicating probes,” Grant pointed out. “They have been making copies of themselves for thousands upon thousands of years! Imagine how many of them there must be by now. And if they can alter the chemistry of a star then they’re quite powerful – far more powerful than the swarms.”

“I suppose it would be worth a try,” Lane replied. “I certainly don’t see any other alternatives! But how would we use them? The swarms were under our control, but the probes are not. Weren’t they designed to be independent?”

“The key is that they were designed here,” Grant pointed out. “In Star City. Now that Star City has been rebuilt it should be possible to find the notes that were used to construct them. There must be a way to contact them and there must be a way to alter their programming. I’m sure it’s all there.”

“But the city is huge!” Lane gasped. “How would I ever find the information I needed?”

Van Toby shrugged. “Send a robot to do it – or send all of them, for that matter. I’m sure they could scour the city and find what you’re looking for. You might try starting the search in whatever building used to house the headquarters of the Diano Corporation.”

“All right,” Lane said reluctantly. “I will attempt it. But what if this fails? After all, if the Artilect controls millions of stars–”

“You don’t have to attack millions of stars,” Van Toby said. “All you have to do is destroy the Artilect. It sounds like he’s the source of their power. After he’s gone the rest of the aliens will be defenseless and you can use the swarms to obliterate them.”

“It’s quite simple, really,” Grant replied.

Lane sighed. “I hope so,” he said. “I really do. If this fails – or if they find out we are behind this – then things are going to get very ugly very fast. We’re either going to win everything or lose everything.”

“Then let’s hope we win,” Grant said.

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