Ventus – Day 117 of 135


Sixteen battleships from the Archipelagic fleet were scattered like jewels across the velvet of space near Ventus’ trailing trojan point. They kept the regulation two hundred kilometers distance from one another, but to the Desert Voice, watching from the window of a cutter approaching the flagship, they seemed very close. Each was the size of a mountain, and harnessed energies capable of reducing the surface of Ventus to char. The Voice had a good grasp of the scale of things here, and knew that even a thousand such ships could not boil the rock of Ventus and Diadem down to the mantle, unless they spent decades nudging asteroids and comets into a collision-course with it. And that crude attack was bound to eject colossal amounts of potentially infected debris into stellar orbit, which could hide the escape of one or more of the Winds’ ships now being built on the moon.

In all the boiled magma seas the navy proposed leaving behind here, there was good odds that some tiny pocket of cool stone would preserve grains of mecha, perhaps too small to be seen, that might regrow all of Ventus again, given a thousand or a million years. The corollary to that was that if 3340 had began to infest the Winds with the algorithms of a resurrection seed, then 3340 itself might reappear here, in a millennia or an epoch.

Marya Mounce had told the Voice that all of Ventus had come from a package of nanotech assembler seeds massing less than twenty kilos. There was no doubt in anyone’s mind that Armiger, so much more complex a being than the Winds, had the potential to regrow from himself a god.

The cutter docked gently with the side of the flagship. For a moment the Voice felt a pulse of empathy with the ship–she knew what docking felt like to a starship. Then the spell was broken as the door before her slid open, and a uniformed human glided in.

The man led her past steel bulkhead doors as thick as she was tall, and into the narrow buttressed interior of the battleship. There were no straight lines here, nor any corridor longer than ten meters. Everything was organized in tight armored cells, each with its own power supply and life support. To kill the crew of a ship like this, you had to literally batter it to pieces. The Voice was awed by the strength of the vessel; she couldn’t imagine what it would be like to have it as her body.

They passed honeycombed cells full of fluid, where humans wearing inscape gear floated in seeming sleep. The consciousness of these men and women lay outside the ship, in swarms of micro- and macro-missiles, or in system-wide simulations where they targeted and tracked every object bigger than a grapefruit.

Her guide left her at another set of pneumatic pressure doors. As these valved open, the Voice heard the sounds of angry debate coming from the chamber beyond.

“Look at that pattern! It’s obvious they’re ready to make a run for it.”

“To you, maybe,” said another. She recognized the timbre of the voice as belonging to an artificial intelligence. There were other beings like herself here. The Voice stepped inside.

It was impossible to gauge the dimensions of the chamber, because the walls had disappeared under a holographic projection of the Ventus system. The planets were all pinpointed with arrows, and to her upper left floated a rotating box containing a zoomed-in view of Ventus and Diadem. Dozens of tiny specks representing ships hung in the black space of the main display. Many of them trailed Ventus in its orbit, like a wreath of fog left behind it.

Diadem was almost obscured under a cloud of thousands of specks.

“Ah, our Diadem expert is here,” someone said. The Voice looked behind herself; no one had entered after her.

Fifteen men and women floated under the system display. About half wore uniforms and moved with the cat-like grace of cyborgs. Four more were holograms of generic human beings; each wore a complex heraldic symbol on its chest showing which faction of Archipelagic politics it represented. These were artificial minds whose attitudes and intentions were controlled by the aggregate will of millions or billions of humans back home. True to the principles of Archipelagic politics, however, each perspective on an issue held only one vote. These beings were not as powerful as they might at first seem.

Of the remaining three, one was not known to the Voice. The woman appeared to be a pilot. The last two were Marya and Axel. When she saw them the Voice glided immediately over to them.

“Now that you’re here, we can ask the burning question,” said one of the cyborgs. He wore admirals bars on his shoulders.

“How many copies of you can Diadem produce per day? And how many in total?”

The Voice blinked. “I– I’m not qualified to answer that.”

“Come on now. You were there for weeks. By your own admission, you wandered over hundreds of square kilometers. You were a line starship. You must have assessed their production capability.”

Marya put her hand on the Voice’s arm and smiled. “If you don’t know, don’t guess. It’s all right.”

A little reassured, she said, “I only caught glimpses of the vacuum areas. I was pretending to be alive, so I stayed in the main labs most of the time.”

“Yes, yes, we know that. But you must have seen the other facilities, or walked around them, or under them. You must have seen materiel moving back and forth. Robots. Commerce, even. What scale is it on? What are they capable of?”

“Well, I did get a good idea of how much they put into refining the terraforming techniques. And I did see a lot of evidence of other activities.” She paused to calculate. “If they abandoned everything else they were doing? –Which they wouldn’t. But if they did… they could probably produce two thousand copies of my original plan per week. It’s a whole world, after all, if small.”

The admiral nodded. “It’s consistent with what we’re seeing. They’re using all of Diadem then. They’re moving to a war footing.”

Argument broke out among the others. Axel leaned close and pointed to the cloud of dots around the image of Diadem. “See those? Copies of you. Ships. And there’s more arriving by the second.”

The Voice gaped. Ventus’ little moon was englobed by a vast fleet of ships–all copies of herself. All, if the one she had touched was any indication, capable of star travel.

“But how many in total?” asked one of the holograms. “Are they turning Diadem into a giant factory? And are they doing the same to Ventus?”

“Well, that’s the question. Our Ventus expert says they wouldn’t do that.” The admiral gestured at Marya. “Her institute’s AI’s agree.”

“All of Marya’s co-workers were captured by the Winds,” Axel whispered. “They were all taken to Diadem, presumably. So she’s the reigning expert now.”

“This is insane,” said the Voice. “How are we going to–“

“My question for the Desert Voice,” said the admiral, “is, do you recognize any of these structures? Are they like what you saw on Diadem?” He waved his hand, and a new cube appeared overhead. This one showed a telescopic view of the limb of Ventus’ horizon. Square solar mirrors hung in the black sky like fantastic butterflies, and down below, just beyond the terminator on the nightside of Ventus, lay a lozenge of sunlit land.

Diaphanous scarves of glowing light, like solidifying aurora, could be seen spiralling down towards the planet in the vicinity of the sunlit oval.

“It’s the swans!” The Voice vividly remembered them closing on her, and how they had crushed and devoured her body. “Are they attacking something?”

“That’s what we want to know. Are they attacking, or are they building? Did they hang like that over the shipyard you saw on Diadem?”

“No. This is something else.” She concentrated on the daylit side of the terminator, until she could make out the shapes of a continental edge there. “That’s Iapysia they’re over. It’s very near where I set Calandria and Axel set down originally.”

“More to the point,” said a hologram, “it’s roughly where we think Armiger is.”

“Well,” said the admiral. “You heard our experts. They’ve never built ships before.”

“They’ve never been threatened like this before,” the Voice protested. “They’re doing this because we’re here. If we went away they would turn back to running the terraforming system.”

The admiral grimaced. “Well, you came late to the discussion. We’re not sure they’re maintaining the system anymore. That’s the point.”

The Voice turned to Axel. He shrugged. “They think Armiger may have taken the Winds over already. It would certainly explain that.” He pointed to the fleet. “As to what they’re doing on the surface…”

“We think they’re starting to modify it to his standard,” said one of the AIs. “If Diadem can be turned into a giant factory, so much more so with Ventus itself. Worse–it could be turned into a single giant organism.”


“Exactly. Your friends don’t believe it. They’ve been petitioning to go down there and investigate. But based on the numbers you’ve just given us, we don’t have time. If 3340 is back, and it starts converting Ventus itself, there could be geometric growth of these ships.”

Marya shook her head angrily. “They’re just protecting themselves against you! They can see you, sitting out here like vultures.”

“If that were the case, then they wouldn’t be putting themselves in position for a run to escape the system.” The hologram pointed at the specks trailing away from Ventus. “They’re ready to fan out–maybe carry resurrection seeds to every other world in human space. We’d never be able to stop 3340 then.”

“Have you asked the swans what they’re doing?” Marya asked.

“Yes. They don’t answer. We’ve tried sending probes in but that fleet of theirs blows them away before they get close enough to see anything. We have no way to find out what’s going on.”

The admiral sighed. “Since we can’t learn more, I think it’s time to make a decision. I presume the consensus is to cauterize the threat now?”

The others, all save Axel and Marya, nodded.

A slow horror crept over the Voice. “Because of what I said… you’ve decided to kill everyone on that world?”

“It’s not your responsibility,” said the admiral. “Don’t worry about it.”

She could only hang there, stunned. She didn’t even feel Axel put his hand on her shoulder until he pushed her into motion.

In moments they were outside the chamber, and Axel began cursing viciously. She heard Marya gasping, “They can’t! They can’t!” over and over.

“They will,” said Axel quietly. “The people down there mean nothing to them. After all, it’s only a few million; that many people die in the Archipelago every second.”

“If anything’s happening, it’s the Winds fighting Armiger themselves! If we could only prove that. If only one of our ships could get past the swans and see…”

In her mind’s eye the Voice could picture the entire holo display from the conference room; she remembered the position and trajectory of each and every ship, and she knew something she had neglected to tell the admiral. The Voice had been inside the nervous system of one of the Winds’ ships; she knew their tactics, their transmission frequencies–and their recognition codes.

She took a deep breath. It wasn’t fair, she thought bitterly; she had wanted the first real action she took as an individual to be on behalf of her new human side. Nonetheless, for the first time in her existence the Voice felt she was acting by and for herself when she said, “But you do have a ship. Me.”

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