Ventus – Day 100 of 135

I recalled that the Winds are protective of living things. They are conscious, and have ethics and priorities, and on Ventus their priorities put human life well below the integrity of the ecosphere as a whole. In space, their priority would be to protect fragile life forms, since there is no ecosphere to manage there. They would be hostile to me as a technological construct, but as nurturing as possible to the lives within me. I had no proof for this theory, but it made sense from what I knew of them.

Their fingers began to pry the seams of my hull apart. As they entered they ate away the machinery in their way. They were curious about it, in the way that a surgeon is curious about the extent of a growth that has to be excised. The instant they realized there was no life aboard, they would crush me to dust and be gone.

I was not built with the latest technology, but I did have the ability to repair myself and create replacements for damaged parts. Near my power core was a nanotech assembler station. I diverted all my resources to this as I felt my airlocks failing. As radiant fingers touched the inside doorframes, I flooded the assembler station with energy and ionized gases. I had a maintenance robot climb into the organized flame, and it shut the door just as a human-shaped member of the swans swept into the chamber, its searchlight eyes hunting for signs of biological life.

At first I thought I might be able to create a hard-shelled message buoy, or a thousand of them, hoping one or more might escape my destruction. That hope faded as I felt the swans eating me thoroughly, from the hull in.

My other maintenance robots fought the swan that had penetrated to the power core, and meanwhile I remade the maintenance robot in the assembler station. I gave it a pseudo-biological skin that it could regenerate from an inner reservoir of fluids, and changed its shape so that it resembled a human. I chose the best model in memory for this body: my captain.

The body’s skin I designed to exude the pheromones and other trace proteins that I knew from my identity-scan records of Calandria May. And behind this skin I made shields and cloaks to hide the mechanisms that ran it. Finally, as the swans tore my bird-shape into a million pieces and devoured them, I uploaded my AI into the new body.

I opened my eyes to see hands–my hands–pressing against the inside of a cylindrical chamber. I was swimming in a plasma of hot gases, enmeshed in the fine spiderwebs of the assembler gantries. An oval window in the chamber’s door showed only bright light. I moved to it, and beheld the final disintegration of the Desert Voice take place outside.

The swans opened the door–or to be exact, they ate it. The glowing fields around me collapsed, leaving me in darkness lit only by the glow of the swans. They looked at first like a nest of flaming serpents; the gases escaping around me sounded like the hiss of their tongues.

When they scented life, they drew back, built a bubble to stop the air escaping, and then detached a human-shaped member, who reached into the cylinder to draw me out. I stood, human, in an iridescent cocoon specked with the debris of my old body, my wrist clasped by an angel. Behind me the swans fell upon the assembler station and consumed it.

“Are you injured?” the swan asked.

“No,” I said. For the first time I heard my voice echo back from outside my body, rather than within my corridors and chambers.

“Do not be afraid,” said the swan. “We will provide you with sustenance and the places of life.” Then it withdrew, dissolving into the wall of the cocoon.

As the cocoon slowly rotated, the transparent sections began to reveal tantalizing glimpses of Diadem, which we were approaching.

The swans had withdrawn, but they were observing. I could feel the ping of signals striking me; I had crafted this body so that it would absorb them and re-emit the kind of response a human body would produce. They had not seen through my disguise, but they also did not seem to be convinced. They kept watching.

The hours passed, and Diadem approached. My new body was breathing, taking in oxygen and emitting waste gases, for no doubt they would be monitoring that. As time went by, though, I began to realize that they would expect me to eat and excrete as well.

This I had not designed myself to do. Luckily, remnants of the nanotech assemblers were stored in the core of my body, and I had some command of them. I gave them new instructions, and curled up as if to sleep, while they constructed an alimentary canal, or at least a good approximation of one.

I let them believe me asleep while they lowered a long tendril containing my bubble to the surface of the moon, where it was received by gentle cargo mechanisms and drawn into a cavernous storage hangar. When I uncurled and opened my eyes, I found myself in the very center of a floor that my newly imprecise senses told me must be a kilometer on each side. The place was not empty; it housed hundreds of dead trees, and sheaves of yellowed grain and dried bushes. I did not know what the human sense of smell is like, but I sensed the chemicals that leached into the cold air from these bodies. I knew how Calandria and others had described the scents of autumn; I took the galaxy of readings and categorized them: musty, dry, fungal. I did not know it at the time, but that small act was the first time I altered myself for reasons that did not directly have to do with survival. There would be more such changes.

I cried aloud to the Winds to give me food. I told them I could not eat dried bark and leaves. They eventually relented, opening a door from this chamber to an adjacent one that held a garden.

You should not be surprised at this. The purpose of the Winds–or so my records said–is to craft and maintain the ecology of Ventus. They require a laboratory to test new methods and ecosystems. Diadem is perfect for this. Indeed, I believe at one time the entire moon was a honeycomb of gardens and aquaria, inhabited by Winds of types and names unknown to Man for a thousand years. Supplying me with food was a simple matter, for every living thing on Ventus has its prototype on Diadem–except for Man. I met no humans while I was there, although I did meet ample evidence of their presence in the past.

What evidence? asked Marya.

Writing etched on the walls; journals hidden in niches; the remains of houses and other structures in some of the bigger gardens. These gardens are for the most part the hollowed bottoms of ancient craters, roofed over with one-way glass. Some are many kilometers across. To my new eyes they appeared as hazy bowls of jungle or tundra, sky’d with jewels. They are joined by networks of underground tunnels, much like the ones I sensed in my scans of Ventus. Beneath them are caverns and catacombs in which dwell the greatest Winds–the ones who I think are masters over the Diadem swans. Throughout this wild realm I found evidence of humans, but centuries old. It may be that unwary travellers arriving at Ventus have had their ships eaten as I was, and have been marooned on Diadem to live out their lives in the gardens. Or maybe the Winds bring specimens from the planet every now and then. I was not too concerned. In fact, I was concerned with avoiding them, for I did not need human contact to survive and they might have seen through my disguise, and alerted the Winds to the fact that I was a technological infection.

So I wandered, conscious of the Winds’ gaze upon me. I ate and defecated like a human, tried without much success to make clothing, and shivered a lot. I spent much time worrying about whether my behavior would appear human to them, so I was careful not to stand in one place for more than a few minutes, and to lie still with my eyes closed about one third of the time. This might not have been enough, though. To be thorough, I should mimic the more subtle aspects of human behavior. What would a human’s emotional response to this place be?

So I consulted my records regarding my captain. They were extensive; after all, in order to guard my captain I needed to know the differences between cries of passion and those of fear, the slowness of distracted thought and that of illness, and so on. I already had a model of her emotions. I merely had to take that model and make it my main behavioural drive.

You became Calandria?

Yes, Axel, as best I could. There were many sights on Diadem that would stop any human in her tracks. To describe only one: one morning I emerged from a long hexagonal tunnel full of machine traffic to find myself on a hillside above a lake. This oval crater, at least two kilometers deep and five wide, was roofed with geodesic glass like others I had seen. It was muggy and hot here, and palm fronds waved dissolutely in an artificial breeze. Just then sunlight was falling in a single shaft through tiny trapped clouds onto the emerald surface of the lake. I gasped as Calandria would have at the light that shimmered there.

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