Ventus – Day 105 of 135

For so long have we thrown questions at the sky. We need the answers in order to live. We need answers so badly that we have invented gods and put words in their mouths, just so we could have something to believe in. We invented metaphysics and essences behind appearances for the same reason. Sometimes we need a dialog with the Other more than we need life itself.

Most recently, we invented science. It brings us very close to what we desire… close, but not all the way.

Marya reached the bottom of the stairs, and was faced with a single long corridor stretching out ahead. She must be a hundred meters below the city. That wasn’t surprising; the archives had been dug deep in hopes they would survive any future holocausts. Ironically, peace had reigned ever since the riots and shelling of the thalience rebels had burnt a quarter of the city. The power of the Archipelago being what it was, these archives would probably remain safe for millions of years, whether they were below the earth or above it.

The people who designed Ventus lived in a more uncertain time. They did not feel they could rely on civilization to preserve human knowledge; with their recent experience of nuclear wars, Marya supposed that was a reasonable fear. She had been taught that the Ventus artificial intelligences were designed as distributed nanotech in order to make it impossible to destroy the information they carried, short of incinerating the entire planet. It was obvious to her now that if the Ventus design team had the technical means to create these consciousnesses, then they were thinking in terms of taking the functions of perception, investigation and organization out of the human body and placing them in “inanimate” objects. Commonplace in Marya’s time, such an idea was closely associated with thalience in theirs.

They denied the connection–successfully, too. Their object, they claimed, was to actually create the metaphysical Categories, as real things. They said they were going to embed the official view of Science in nature itself on Ventus, so that no heresy such as thalience could ever occur there. Wolfgang Kreiger, the team leader, said, “Science has no way to show or access the metaphysical essences supposed to lie behind appearances. If these essences do not exist in themselves, we will create them.” The understanding was that they would be creating them in the image of scientific truth.

But what if, for whatever reason, the designers were to uncouple the nano from the requirement that it use human semantic categories? What if the real agenda was to let the Ventus intelligences develop their own conceptual languages? Theorists as early as Chomsky had suggested that languages can exist that humans cannot even in principle understand. Perhaps they didn’t plan for it to happen, but the Winds seemed to have developed such a language.

All it would take would be for one of the programmers to slip a thalience gene into the Winds’ design. That would explain why the self-aware nanotech that blanketed the planet grew to fruition, then suddenly become incoherent and cut off all contact with their creators.

Marya dismissed Cadille’s paper and opened her eyes. Her theory must be right. She knew it on a deep level, and apprehension and excitement made her almost skip as she moved down the tunnel.

The corridor ended in a huge metal valve door, which was currently open. A serling with the appearance of a kindly old man waited for her inside the archive itself. “May I help you?” it inquired; since it was part of inscape, and ultimately part of the Government, it already knew why she was here. Serlings had their ways, however.

“I’m told this is where I can find original photos and papers of the thalience riots. Also some of the original Ventus Project papers.”

The Serling nodded. “I can let you examine them, but I don’t know what good it will do. All this material is available in inscape.”

Marya had already had this very conversation with the Government. Had she not come directly from Ventus itself, she doubted the giant AI that ran the Archipelago would have let her in here. These papers were ancient and priceless, after all.

“I want to see it for myself.” She had pored over it all on the trip here, but all Marya had come up with was more puzzles. The word thalience, spoken by both Axel and the Desert Voice, had convinced her that some unguessed clue remained here at the source of it all. She had gleaned nothing from inscape; this was her last chance to crack the mystery.

“Let me see the originals,” she commanded. The serling scratched his balding head, shrugged, and gestured her to follow him.

The archive consisted of thousands of climate-controlled safety-deposit boxes. Many had tiny windows showing frozen contents; others were surrounded by thick-walled radiation screens, because they preserved ancient compact disks and other fragile data storage media. Supposedly, all the information here had been scanned into inscape long ago. Marya was skeptical; she knew from her own experience scanning Ventusian artifacts just how sloppy technicians could be.

The serling brought her into a room whose far wall was made of glass. Low lights came up revealing several deep chairs, and glove boxes built into the glass wall. “The papers are delicate, so we store them in an atmosphere of argon gas,” said the serling. “The gloves in the glovebox have force-feedback built in; if you try to crush or tear anything they’ll stop you.”

It sounded paranoid–but then, the serlings were charged with preserving this information indefinitely. Even an accumulation of small accidents over millennia could destroy these delicate objects.

Another serling moved in the dimness behind the glass. Marya settled herself in one of the chairs, and after a few minutes the second serling emerged from the gloom carrying a metal hamper. Marya savored the moment. She had never before had a valid reason to be here, looking at such original documents. These would not be inscape copies, but primary documents.

She put her hands in the glove box. She couldn’t feel the material of the gloves; it transmitted perfectly the textures of whatever it touched. She rubbed her fingers together as the serling set the box down on a table on the other side of the glass.

Marya closed her eyes and reached out. Her fingers touched… paper, yes it was definitely paper. She picked up the top document, let out her breath in a whoosh, and opened her eyes.

For the next half hour she happily sifted through the few records of the Thalience Academy that had survived the assault. With increasing disappointment, she discovered that indeed everything in here had been scanned perfectly into inscape, other than data records that were encrypted using keys that were now lost. There were no clues here. And some of the ancient photos were disturbing–particularly some color 2D pictures taken at a riot just weeks before the rebels took over the city center. One showed police clubbing protestors on a street. The blurred outline of a vehicle obscured the foreground; in the background was a row of shops. A sign saying PHOTO glowed above one of them; another was probably a restaurant.

Disappointed, Marya put the papers back. A second box held records of the Ventus project. It was obvious now she was on a fool’s errand; there really was more to be learned in inscape. At least, though, she would be able to tell people back home that she had held these documents in her own hands (almost) and seen them with her own eyes (really).

Here were photos of some of the team; she remembered their names intimately. Kreiger, the mastermind of the terraforming effort; he had come up with the idea of the nanotech-driven ecosphere. There was Larry Page, the geneticist. There were dozens of others at the height of the project, all driven by a shared vision of interstellar settlement on worlds terraformed before any human set foot on them. New Edens, by the thousands, of which Ventus would be the first.

They did not command the wealth of nations, these researchers. Although their grants amounted to millions of Euros, they could never have funded a deep-space mission on their own, nor could they have built the giant machineries they conceived of. In order to achieve their dream, they built their prototypes only in computer simulation, and paid to have a commercial power satellite boost the Wind seeds to a fraction of light speed. The Wind seeds massed only twenty kilos, but it cost nearly all their remaining money to pay for the satellite’s microwave power. They were famous–in the way that romantic dreamers and crackpots often are–but no one expected the Winds to bloom and grow the way they ultimately did.

She held each photo and paper in turn, then put it reverently down. Finally, at the bottom of the box, Marya found an image she remembered well: the single existing group shot of the project team. She picked it up.

It felt different from the other pictures. Heavier. Curious, she turned it over. While all the other photos had been digital images printed on ordinary paper, this one was done on some kind of stiff material, glossy on the image side and smooth and waxy on the other. The glossy surface was cracked in a couple of places.

She turned it over. A kind of watermark or stamp ran across the back of the photo: Walther Photos.

“Serling, why is this picture different from the others?”

“Ah, an interesting question,” said the serling. They always said that when they didn’t know something; it was a way of buying time while their AI widened its search for the answer. After a barely perceptible pause, the serling said, “This image was created using a photochemical camera. Photochemical cameras predate digital technology. During this era they were often used along with a holographic stamping technology to record events in ways that could not be digitally forged. The person who took his photograph must have wanted a provably authentic record of the event.”

Marya turned the picture over again. Sixty smiling academics stood on a set of stone steps. Nothing exciting about that, unless you knew the faces. But her heart was pounding again.

She put down the photo and reached for the other box. “Where is it…” There. Marya picked up one of the riot pictures.


“Serling, how many shops were there in Hamburg at the time that could make these chemical pictures?”

“Oh, let’s see… six. Quite a few, given the times.”

She held the riot picture up, squinting at it. It was too dim in here; she closed her eyes to view the inscape version in better light.

Above the word PHOTOS were the bottom serifs of some other letters. She couldn’t prove it, but the missing word could very well be WALTHER.

“Serling, who took this group photo?”

“Lawrence Pakin. He was the man in charge of the Winds’ psycholinguistics.”

“What records do we have about him?”

“There is very little about him personally. He left behind a very large library of writings. Some of it is encrypted, but I have the rest if you’d like to–“

“Wait! Some is encrypted? How?”

“Using primitive but effective trapdoor functions. The public-key method he used makes it prohibitive to crack the code using brute force. Since we never discovered the key–“

“Did any of the thalience people use similar codes?”

“Most groups at that time did, Ms Mounce.”

“Has anybody ever tried using one of the thalience keys to open Pakin’s records?”

“I have no record of that. They assumed…” The serling’s voice changed. “We assumed it was Pakin’s personal code. There is nothing linking him to the thalience movement.”

The serling’s new voice was that of the Archipelagic Government. It must have been listening in. Marya was now talking to the oldest, most powerful human-based god in the galaxy. Unfazed, she asked, “Have you got any of the keys of the Hamburg thalience conspirators?”

“Yes. I assume you want to apply them to Pakin’s files and see what we get?”

“Well, yeah.”

“I’m not sure where you’re getting the idea that Pakin was connected with the thalience movement, but here goes,” said the Government. “If the key works, you’ll see the file contents in inscape.”

Marya closed her eyes–

–And opened them on a vista of text, diagrams and charts– hundreds of pages flooding out of ancient time and into her hands.

Eyes closed, fists punching over her head, Marya danced about the room and sang a wordless song of triumph.

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