This is part four. Prior reading for people playing catchup:
1 - Strange Eden
2 - Strange Haven
3 - Strange Order
by Stewart Wilson
One of the many communication satellites that orbits the Earth opens a long-disused eye to the heavens. An agent loaded with old pattern recognition software scrutinises the space close to Jupiter, almost six astronomical units away. Satisfied that it has found a target, an equally old communications laser opens a high-bandwidth channel through space. Five years ago, the lasers were in constant communication with the world outside Earth. Since then the rate of cultural change has gone exponential, and the delta between now and five years ago is approximately the same as between the Industrial Revolution and the year two thousand. Extraplanetary activities are nothing now, systems left only for legacy purposes. Which is fortunate, as that means nobody sees Jerry and Alex going home.
The habitat's network interface lights up, copying the two uploads back into the main system. The glittering light is the only sign that the book-sized lump of complex matter is anything more than just another rock. The transfer goes on for almost half an hour before Earth falls silent again, all attention turned inwards once more.
Alex opens her eyes to a meadow of gently curving hills. Simulations of birds swoop through the sky and rabbits frolic in the grass. The shared simulation-space of the Haven hasn't changed one bit. She feels the grass under her hands, breathes the clean air and turns off her anti-spam memes. Earth's infosphere is cluttered with free-roaming viral marketing schemes, enslaved intelligent corporations, and wandering clouds of sapient nanotechnology. The noise is appalling. Compared to that, the dull chatter of trusted headnet channels in the back of her mind is as good as silence.
She turns her head and sees Jerry. He's sat in the grass, half propped on an elbow. Like Alex, he's been watching the birds, but counting under his breath. Standing, she wanders over and offers a hand.
"Need help getting up in the morning now?"
"What? No. No, I'm fine. Just thought I saw something in the birds."
"Something in the birds. Random generated simulations of long-extinct avians tell you things now. I thought you were supposed to be a hacker, not a witch."
Jerry had been a member of the Virtual Adepts alongside Alex' father, a group of informational anarchists and miracle workers now lost to a world that considered breaking copy-protection to be the greatest crime imaginable
"All right, I'll stop looking at them. It doesn't matter, you know. It's going to take at least six months to get this thing on the ground. You get the others caught up, I'll go see Sirhan." With that, he heads towards a door in one of the hillsides.
Alex lays back in the grass, opening her mind to the bulletin boards and news. Another of their informational ghosts killed in the last attack, but the denial of service seemed to end there. The consensus is that the beings responsible were targeting Jack Carolin, a powerful witch and one of the first people to transfer. Aside from that and the usual chatter and informal announcements, she is free to update the rest of the world on what life on Earth looks like now.
* * *
Sirhan's quarters are gloomy, a maze of ribbed pipes and hanging chains encrusted with symbols from every secret language and occult tradition. The Habitat's system administrator is sat behind a set of terminals, running three ghosts at the same time. The sight still disturbs Jerry, and he's done it more than once himself
"What did you find?" The voice comes from all around the room, cheap theatrics to further Sirhan's image.
"Alex is writing a full report now. The short form is that it's bad. Hypercapitalist, tied up in a mess of copyrights and intellectual property laws that forbid unlicensed breathing, with AIs and uploads as no more than slaves. It's insane."
"Don't tell me you want to go live there. I've not been shot fifteen times, so I don't have to worry about being a slave to the first person too claim ownership."
"You're lecturing, Jeremiah. Again. Information, not rhetoric. Tell me: how are we supposed to immentise the eschaton?"
"We crash the Habitat. Set ourselves up as a separate country away from government control and get central links to the global bandwidth. Presto, one imaginary nation where uploads and non-human intelligences are treat as equals."
Sirhan was incredulous. "How do you propose we do that? We're an orbiting lump of matter with a storage capacity power of one avabit per mol. We can't just start burning molecules unless you want to lose half the simulation space or more."
One avabit is Avogadro's number of bits, 10^23 binary digits. One avabit per mol is one bit per molecule, the densest form of comptronium possible until the femtotech revolution. None of the Habitat's molecules are free to be used as propulsion without weakening or destroying the very reason Jerry has for moving it.
"We'll think of something. We always do." Jerry turns, heading back towards the door.
* * *
Alex frowns at the response from headnet. She'd tried to post an update, filling in the rest of the disembodied population on the state of their home planet, only to run into a number of errors and general blocks. Something was wrong, likely a bug in the high-level protocols. Even so, it didn't sit right with her.
She transfers to her office with little more than a thought. This time, she can trap the feedback and work out precisely what is going wrong. It isn't efficient, but it is something to do to focus her mind. Unlike Jerry she can't just sit back into a world in her own head and think these things through. She has to be doing something, leaving her subconscious to kick into gear and solve the hard parts for her.
When her make-work task turns up the result she had been looking for, she's as surprised as anyone. She tries again, the same result. This is not feedback from headnet, not really. The word choice, font... all psychologically targeted, albeit very subtly, to look like a normal error while dissuading investigation. Another jump takes her back to the communal meadow just seconds before Jerry leaves.
"Hold up. We have a problem."
"No, we just need a solution. Perhaps if we compressed the population... but we wouldn't get the processing power back. Damn."
"Not that problem. We're sandboxed."
"We've been 0wned." She says it how her father did, strong on the zero. Her cheeks burn before she can stop them. Talking like her parents, like the dropout hackers she'd done her best to avoid, not good for her self-image. Five years on the habitat hasn't cured her of that. Now, though, she can't tell how much of her embarrassment is natural and how much is the manipulations of whoever was on the other side.
"You're joking. You're going to turn round any minute and deliver a fantastic punchline, because otherwise we've been 0wned and somebody is fucking with our state vectors for fun and this is not. Fucking. Happening."
"It is happening. Check the headnet latency. It wouldn't be that blue if you weren't going through a proxy."
Alex has already altered her vision to measure the Doppler shift of information between herself and the underlying network. Everything had a blue tint, much slower than she expected. Her mid-point was set for Earth-normal, and she'd got so used to the sea of red that the other end of the spectrum was a worrying thing to behold. She summoned a cigarette for Jerry, and coffee enough for both of them.
"We've still got access rights to this layer of the underlying reality, we just can't get out. Everything we send is filtered, if it gets out at all."
"Right. You realise that our captor knows that we know, and that turns the tables against us."
"That doesn't matter. Anything we think of, he can know."
Jerry frowned. "Don't think. Fork yourself. Full copies with all privileges. We have to take up more than the available storage capacity." Already phantom clones blurred around the edges of Jerry's body, clouding him in a fog of motion.
"How much is that?"
"One bit per molecule. But we're growing exponentially and whoever is on the outside has to shut down each one individually."
Alex' vision is breaking apart, objects becoming pixellated blocks. "What happens when we overload the space?"
"The simulation shuts down and one of our forks gets reinstantiated. Or they restore us from backup before they can rebuild the sandbox. Deep system took backups just as I told you to fork."
The world fades out, and goes black.
* * *
Alex opens her eyes to a meadow of gentle curving hills. Simulations of birds don't swoop through the sky and rabbits are noticeable only in their lack of frolicking in the grass. That must be what had Jerry on edge. Now that she thinks about it the birds were moving in a simple flocking pattern, nothing like the detail of the real Haven. Or this place. If it is the real Haven, and not another fake.
Jerry's sat, looking dejectedly at the sky. “Do you think that perhaps our captors turned off the birds to save processing power to run the trap? Or is the lack of animals a sign that this is just another, that they were sacrificed to give us good network latency or something?”
“Shit. I hadn't thought of that. Sandboxes wrapped around each other, like those Russian dolls.”
“Virtual machine Matrioshka. Descartes' Demon all over again for us. If we try breaking out we run the risk of missing the real world, not that we could tell which it was.”
Alex shrugged. “So we treat this as the real world. And we go find someone to hit.”
Sirhan's door was the only one present. The other residents were nowhere to be seen and weren't responding to messages. Their doors, if ever they had any, no longer existed in the shared space. Without thinking, both Alex and Jerry materialised guns.
The three screens that reflected the underlying code were dark, an empty chair in front of them. The reality controls were locked into hyperrealistic; both uploads could die here. Maybe they already had a hundred times over, each time a previous instance restored from backups.
The room widened ahead of them, the chains and pipework forming a very effective barrier. Dim light from an open brazier glistened off a misshapen lump on the wall slick with blood. A figure sat near the back of the room curled in on itself.
“Sirhan?” Jerry took a step forwards.
“Once.” The voice echoed around the chamber as the Hermetic stepped forwards. Razor-sharp blades hanging in a parody of wings from his back, black iron hooks sticking out of his bare chest. His hair is longer than before, lank and matted. Every detail of the world turned up to eleven.
The creature fixed his eyes upon Jerry. “They freed me. You and I were both so wrong. The denial of service wasn't trying to destroy the Angel. It was trying to free it. This place is a prison, Jerry. And now I am free.”
A headnet check realised Alex' worst fears. “He's got no backups. This is everything that he is. The others are present but corrupted.”
“It takes all of me to contain an Angel.”
“You killed the crew. You 0wned us. All for what, power? A deal with something worse than one of my ex-wife's lawyers? What?” Jerry can feel the blood running to his head, the primal need to use the gun.
“You don't understand. I had to bond with it. You wouldn't want it to transfer to Earth while you were living in my enclosure, would you?”
”Is this all some kind of self-sacrifice game for you? What makes you think it wasn't just using you for a cultural reference point? Now you have it but it has you, you stupid bastard. Why shouldn't I shoot you now?” He's shouting now, pressure behind his eyes. Pull the trigger, end all their misery.
“If you could only see what I can see.” The ragged creature that was once the Habitat's administrator steps forwards, black-taloned hands outstretched. “The universe is different. Information is too easily used to chain the inner truth of things. Only by accepting entropy can we break out. Move on. Evolve, on a mental level.”
Alex raised her gun, square at Jerry's head. “No. If it was imprisoned in something this complex, it can't die. You'd just sever it's host body, leaving it free to transfer to Earth. We couldn't stop it if that happened.”
“What exactly do you suggest?” The muzzle of Jerry's gun touched the flesh of his former friend's chest.
“Compress them into a set of molecules and use them for a sail. Cast them off into the sun when we're on an injection orbit. It's the only way to be sure.”
“We're not going to get out of here alive enough to do that, Alex.”
The thing that was Sirhan watched the argument with amused indifference. “It matters not to me what you do. I have experienced life, and the end of life, once more. You will both end up as just another delicacy.”
Alex smiled. “I've restored a backup who has absorbed all your original notes about this place. Fully integrated with my present sensorium. Jerry has one too. They're outside, waiting for us to finish this horror-film standoff before locking you down for good.”
“The reality's too hard. We'll be trapped in here with him.” Jerry frowned. He'd known nothing of this. How many more contingencies did Alex have up her sleeve?
“We can't run. The compression started when we found Sirhan. They've been monitoring us since, so they can reintegrate everything. All we have to do is to take the easy way out.” Alex pressed her gun to her head, and pulled the trigger. The final sign of defiance, taking her own life to save this instance from torture at the hands of the Angel. Jerry followed suit, seconds before Sirhan's claws opened his chest.
Back in the shared environment Sirhan's door sealed and faded away, cutting the whole area of space off from outside investigation. Jerry was hard at work restoring the backups of the rest of the crew and bringing them up to date. He half-turned to Alex. “Why build this place? Why make a simulation-space for a trapped self-aware informational entity that will never experience it?”
“Somewhere to instantiate the jailers, before they were lost to bit rot?”
He paused for a while, working something out in his head. “This doesn't change anything, you know.”
“I knew you'd say that. We should have propulsion designs ready within a fortnight.”