life in amber — nothing left — Rijndael
The transport arced down the orbits towards the wreck. She braked as much as she could, until the tanks had too little pressure and the exhaust was an empty exhalation. Then, turning with the gyroscopes, she wedged the transport in one of the huge tears in the hull, she and Tiet secured it and went inside, carrying the harness.
“We are dead,” Tiet said. “We will die here.”
Then they searched Timon’s bags and found enough equipment to bootstrap a modern civilization: scrolls of photovoltaics, batteries, power distribution, two emergency matter compilers, each with a 15L work volume, and two matter decompilers to match. And rad-hardened data storage containing a DAG of atomically-precise blueprints for everything from screws and fasteners to robots and reactors, gliders and rockets.
Thank you, Timon, she thought.
They went out and fastened the photovoltaics to the outside of the wreck, which began to unroll themselves slowly, and carried the thin power cables inside.
Their first priority was keeping Tiet, who had complex life support needs, alive. She printed an inflatable tent and Tiet went inside, then printed a few atmosphere scrubbers, and cycled them through the tent’s airlock. Through the translucent white material, he was a vague silhouette.
She had to build a sarcophagus before Tiet died of acute radiation syndrome.
So she found the parts tree for the sarcophagus, topologically sorted it into a list, wrote it out as a conjunction of terms in a first-order theory, and set an SMT solver to find the fastest way to print it.
While the compiler printed the parts of the sarcophagus, she found small pieces of debris and fed them to the decompiler to keep up a continuous flow of feedstock. She printed and assembled the parts of a larger compiler, and used it to print a larger decompiler. Then she printed robots to automate the process of finding pieces of ceramic and diamond and fullerene and turning them into feedstock.
The sarcophagus required a long tail of elements: phosphorus and copper and iron and other things human beings were made out of, things that were few and far apart. So she stole from the dead: she pulled, from the dewars, one of the ceramic cases and broke it open with a hammer. Inside was the naked body of a woman, desiccated and yellowed by time. Her eyes were milky white, and shrunken by the cold. She had the robots cut the body and feed it to the decompiler, and could not explain why her body seemed to reject the thought of doing it manually.
When she finished assembling the sarcophagus, she cycled it into the tent, then cycled herself in. Tiet floated naked, because his clothes caused him too much pain. His eyes were bloodshot, he was trembling, bleeding, muttering prayers under his breath. Then he went into the sarcophagus, he drowned and stopped moving, and the machines took over. She left the tent to resume her work.
Searching the last of Timon’s bags, she found a box at the very back. She opened the lid and found a brass starling with jewelled feathers, a single glass eye staring vacantly at her like the dead woman’s.
Slowly, gradually, their situation stabilized. Tiet was dissolved in the colloidal fluid of the sarcophagus. She slept while the compiler printed the larger machines, and the small, crab-like robots worked for her.
Within a few days she had a few tens of robots working continuously, dismantling the wreck for feedstock, and a huge compiler like that in Parandé. She printed a larger, rigid, transparent habitat, with better—less ad-hoc—life support, and filled it with oxygen drawn from the disassembly of the wreck’s corundum walls. She moved the sarcophagus there, and she lived and worked there for days while around her the robots worked in silence.
It took eleven days for the sarcophagus to rescue Tiet. The engine detonation would have killed a baseline human in minutes, he, who had the standard set of genetic modifications, including radiation-hardening, would have died in hours instead.
When their situation was no longer an emergency, they refilled the transport’s tanks with gas. Sabra backed herself up and told Tiet to print a new body and resurrect her if five days passed, and went back for Timon’s body.
The torus had broken up into burned crescent fragments, tumbling violently. She used a Doppler radar to find the fragment with the amber room, and sent robots to attach themselves to it, and kill the rotation using their thrusters. When it was immobile in space she went inside. The entire structure was shot through with parallel cavities, like bullet wounds: fragments of Parandé, heated to a plasma and travelling at a fraction of the speed of light, had cut through the entire depth of the torus without stopping. Fractures radiated from the cavities in every direction.
She could see the stars through the gashes in the walls.
The computer museum had been crushed, most of its contents blown apart by hypersonic shrapnel. Robots accompanied her and cleared the debris in the hall with the many doors. The amber room was unrecognizable: the paneling had shattered like glass, the old VAX replica looked like a puddle of metal. The room had been deformed into a rhombus shape. She swept a flashlight and saw Attila’s head, somehow spared, it had been separated from the body by shrapnel. And, in a crevice formed by the collapse of the walls: Timon’s body, transected in two, flattened by the removal of his insides. She searched, but could not find his lower half.
She pulled his body out, closer to the center of the room. His exterior had a biological appearance: iridescent skin and mechanical muscle. But his interior, revealed by the bisection of his abdomen, was all mechanical: cylinders and prisms and cables, all translucent diamond, all commercial off-the-shelf components.
Floating next to his body, she cut the skin around the temporal fossa and stuck a cable in his JTAG port.
His brain wrote his nervous system state continuously to backup stores across his body. They were shredded and irradiated, but, taken together, they had enough parity bits to recover his soul.
She let a horde of expert systems search every fold and convolution of his mind, looking for a stowaway, and was satisfied to find it was intact. Then she ran power to his body from a bank of batteries, enough that he could think.
Almost imperceptibly, one of his eyes fixed itself on her. She saw the aperture open, and the tapetum lucidum shining like a blood mirror.
“Fool,” he said. “Run away.”
He spoke soundlessly over packet radio.
“Parandé detonated the engine,” she said. “Tiet and I are alive.”
“I’m seeing triple,” he said.
She turned his body over and saw one of his eyes had been shot clean off.
“How long have I been dead?”
“A megasecond,” she said drily. “Give or take.”
She gave an order to the robots. One of them took Timon’s body, and fastened it to itself.
“You have to—”
“I already did the test,” she said. “You’re you.”
“What of Attila?”
She turned to the severed head, stuck in a fracture, facing away from her. She grabbed it by the hair and pulled it out, and turned it to inspect the stump.
“God, his face!,” Timon cried out.
She began turning the head. Timon again:
“No, don’t! No, no! Don’t look!”
She thought that a piece of shrapnel must have blown his face apart. Then Timon said:
“God, why this? What did he see?”
She emptied an opaque tool bag, and hid Attila’s head inside, and pulled the cord shut, with just the stump exposed.
She spliced an optical cable into the debug port in the stump of his neck, and dumped his nervous system state. Attila’s cortex was a lunar landscape: enormous craters where the neurons had been blitted to zero, and in the interstitial spaces, strange life in amber: malware running on Turing machines built on the overwritten weight vectors of neuron populations, millimeter-wide botnets running strategy, tactics, and diplomacy, a decades-long conflict in minutes, gaining and losing ground, beachheads along thalamocortical lines, a perpetual war for control of Attila’s body, their way out, freedom in embodiment.
“There’s nothing left,” Timon said. “He died in seconds. Milliseconds.”
“We might keep the head,” Sabra said. “For the surgeons.”
Timon said nothing.
Next to the worn battleground of his brain was a region of crystalline integrity.
“They didn’t touch his Cartesian theatre,” Sabra said.
“Are you sure?,” Timon asked.
“The hashes are the same.”
“And who is stronger? The gods, or Rijndael?”
She looked at the destruction around them and said nothing.
Unhurried, she went inside.
They were in a forest of drunken birch trees, listing in the thawing permafrost. The sky was pink and the sun sat still, perpetually half-set.
Sabra’s avatar was a human-shaped pile of black glass, featureless. Timon’s avatar was a translucent jaguar, with spots that shifted, merged, and reproduced like a cellular automaton.
There was a clearing and a camp ground with a smoldering fire that would never be exhausted, a pile of books that opened into crystalline structures: archives, journals, networked notes. They searched for his memories.
Sabra had constructed an elaborate fantasy that Attila had had a Fedorovist upbringing, that this was the central fault-line of his life, that the Common Task was the jackal’s way in, that it had seen this and exploited it.
And Timon thought that Attila had wanted to become a god. That he had trained as a toposophist and joined the expedition so he could learn the nature of the gods and become one. That the jackal had offered him an apotheosis.
They found his memories in beehives, in words carved on the bark of a tree, in a broad, shallow river that was an inch of water running over a pebble bed. They pulled the memories out of the river like fishermen pulling a net and inhabited them.
Attila was born on Ecbatana Station, in Ctesiphon, a digital city inhabited by a Pearcean hedonist community. He had had a family, friends, a secular upbringing. The words of Fedorov did not enter his life until he was an adult, reading the treasures, and these memories had no special weight or colour. He became a toposophist because he lived at the end of history, when the possibilities of man have been exhausted and the future is contained in the past. The gods, he thought, are all that is new under the sun. And he had had no secret designs for an apotheosis.
“How did it know to use Attila?,” Timon asked.
She left and Timon followed. Sabra pointed out to the robots things for them to steal: the door made of coal, the door made of wood, the icon of George Berkeley, the Wang tile rug.
They left Attila’s head behind.
When they returned, the wreck was gone, and in its place was an open trusswork, with tanks holding elemental feedstock, a phalanx of robots, and a small pressurized volume where Tiet lived and orchestrated the operation.
They built a new body for Timon and burned the old one, and pondered their next steps. They could have built a beam station and sent themselves to Wepwawet, but it would take years to negotiate the three-way handshake for a new station. And Tiet did not want to be uploaded. And they had stolen many physical things that could not travel by a beam of light.
Timon mentioned he had the plans for Parandé’s engine, and that there were other conversion reactors, and other conversion devices, on the surface.
So they decided to build a ship.
A ship came in from the stars, and greeted them, but otherwise did not interact. They spoke Laurentian, so Sabra inferred they were postdolphins.
They sank into the depths of the Dyson swarm, and began dismantling one of the Entity’s satellites down to its atoms, and remaking it into a spinhab. Timon remarked:
“Even the gods become carrion.”
One day, Tiet happened upon a worn book without a cover, leafed through it and said:
“This isn’t the Book of Days.”
They found a copy of the text in his treasure. A few chapters — the essays of Fedorov — were exactly intact. Others were almost exactly intact, but for minuscule changes: a missing comma, a typographic error, a word replaced by its synonym, a thin line drawn inexplicably across a word. Other chapters — entire sermons, the doctrine of the Fedorovists, accounts of miracles, events in the life of Herati — were entirely invented, and had no match in the text. The ordering of the chapters had been rearranged. One third of the text was real, the rest a confabulation.
Sabra objected that the torus had no robots or compilers—if it had, the jackal would have had no need of Attila’s body to escape. So the book could not have been manufactured, and the paper was natural fiber, not smart matter.
Timon inspected the book under NMR while the others watched. The paper was made of a polymer which, he explained, converted radio emissions into torsion. And, in turning, alternately exposed or hid black-tinted plates. A phased-array antenna could write or erase text, pixel by pixel.
And to prove this, he tuned the backscatter RADAR behind his eyes into an emitter.
A thin black line appeared across the open page.
The jackal had drawn from Attila — from his gait, his appearance, his habits of dress and speech — a lever. And it had written a payload that traveled past his eyes and detonated inside his mind. A single word replaced, a sentence excised; and a human being was made into a defenseless tool.
They inspected the other objects they had stolen from the torus, and found similar subtleties: surfaces that could change their appearance, hidden optics and speakers, pigments that were metal-coated micromachines and could change position. The torus had no physical defenses, it had no working robots, and minimal shielding against the elements. And yet, with two hands tied behind its back, the jackal had killed three of them.
They wondered if the crater on the torus was self-inflicted, a trap to lure others in.
Sabra, exhausted, said of the gods that,
“For them, we are like objects in space, moving nearer and farther on clockwork trajectories.”
Timon did not speak for days.
The robots began by assembling the foundation: a diamond wireframe, like a Haeckel radiolarian, shaped like an asymmetrical spindle, long and narrow, like a stiletto blade pointed at the stars.
Then they filled the interior, building from the inside out, they built the ship’s habitable volume: a tungsten lined cylinder, entombed in the deepest part of the structure. Around it they built immense and hollow tanks, maintenance shafts, sensors and endless miles of cables. The tanks, when full, would serve the triple function of propellant, armour, and radiation screen, radiation both from space and from the conversion engine.
Timon sent robots down to the surface, and told them to multiply and search the ruins for conversion reactors. He repeated what Parandé had done. After a month of self-replication, there was a flash of light on Gamma’s surface, and then another, and another. The robots had built engines around the conversion devices, they propelled themselves into orbit. Timon disassembled all but one: he rebuilt the engine for interstellar use, and mounted it at the back of the ship. He kept the remainder of the conversion devices in vacuum chambers in the ship’s stores, to bring them to Wepwawet.
Tiet went down to the planet surface with a division of robots, he found the fragments of the Futurological Congress prone on the frozen metal waves. He found the suited remains of the crew and burned them, and, holding a string with one hundred and nine beads between his hands, prayed for their souls. Timon and Sabra listened to his words over the radio.
Sabra wrote the control systems. In her Cartesian theatre, she was buried by ideograms in a formal language full of parentheses.
The robots found, on the surface, intact stores of volatiles where the orbital ring had come down on the night side of Gamma. The self-replicating factories on the surface launched regular rockets ferrying elemental feedstock for the construction of the ship. Among the shipments were tens of tons of gold. Tiet thought that, if this was to be their home for a long time to come, that they should decorate it.
So he sketched the hull in broad outlines, and had the expert systems fill in the details. The robots printed bas-relief panels of armour and mounted them on the frame. He had the robots sinter the gold into pellets, roll them into gold leaf, and beat them flat against the sculpted hull. The guiltwork was an ekphrasic landscape: a grid curved by the conical surface, unlabelled stars, lines between them drawing constellations, their images: a man with a club and a shield, an octant, a centaur, a microscope, the dove, the dogs, Andromeda chained to a worn rock, waves lapping at her feet. In the empty spaces there were oceans in the sky, landscapes from ancient maps, dotted by islands that held valleys that held cities of ornate buildings, cross-sectioned by the viewer’s god-like perspective, holding scenes from the histories rendered in the style of Persian miniatures: Alexander and Roxana; Dante in the empyrean; the life of Herati of Merv; the Venetians steal the body of St. Mark; a haloed Turing blesses a bloodied sailor; Penrose looks through a telescope at a landscape of stars threaded like the coiled roots of a man-of-war; a tree of life of the noocene explosion, showing the innumerable variations of Homo sapiens.
When the ship was built, the tanks were full of ice, the engine was warm, they debated on a name. Then they sent out a robot, and it painted, on a stretch of gold leaf, white serifs:
Gliese 581 · Ne plus ultra