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Strange Planet

Strange Planet is done. Finally. This concludes the trilogy-in-five-parts that is Strange Future. Or it will do, when I have time to fucking edit it. The ending feels weak to me, but we'll have to see.

Retrospective:
1 - Strange Eden
2 - Strange Haven
3 - Strange Order
4 - Strange Religion

Strange Planet
by Stewart Wilson

Somewhere in Jovian orbit, the remainder of free humanity have a decision to make. They're not biological humans but uploaded state-vectors, advanced neuron maps projected into a slice of informational space. They're stored in the smart-matter processor known as the Habitat, a football-sized lump that the inhabitants have recently learned was a prison for a very nasty free-roaming informational entity. The Habitat itself has no means of propulsion, and only a low-power laser array to talk to the outside world. In six months, the inhabitants are going to meet the people they left behind on Earth. Nobody knows what will happen next.

The public area of the information space renders as an infinite fractal meadow, lush green grass and perfect trees tailored to calm the people there. It looks like something from a childrens' television show. A flock of birds swoops overhead. And on the meadow, the population has gathered.

Jerry looks around at the assembled people. There's maybe sixty, all told. Most of them look like they did in life. A few have gone for obvious modifications, stylistic enhancements that fit their self-image. At least two people are repeated multiple times, forking extra presences to capture every reaction to the meeting. It's the first time the whole population has attended anything rather than tuning in over the internal communications network when there's nothing distracting them. Their presence only highlights the faces he won't be seeing again.

His beard has faded back to grey with worry. No longer the distinguished technologist and raging memetic generator that terrorised the early third decade with dangerous free ideas.

“I suppose I'd better start.”

The distracted looks that come with private communications fall away. The crowd's eyes are on him.

“We've made a mistake. You, me, all of us. We've let ourselves fall prey to the same old mistake that our forefathers made. We've waited and planned and talked about going back and liberating part of Earth and whether it would be possible. We ran away to hide and plot and launch some decisive strike a few years down the line. Five, ten, fifteen, what does it matter?” A cigarette appears between his fingers. Several of the faces look ready to butt in, defend themselves. He can't give them chance. Let it sink in then hit them again, that's what Alex suggested would work best. He searches for his companion's eye and she nods back at him.

“The heads of the Traditions made the same mistake after the fall of the first cabal. They made it and kept on making it through to the end of the twentieth century. Always planning, but never working up the balls to throw everything they had at one chance. Everything was moderated by their need for contingencies.

“You've seen the reports that Alex and I brought back from down the gravity well. The cultural and technological delta has gone exponential. There's going to be a moment of maximum change within a year.”

“What about the statics?” Jenny's voice was clear. She ran fingers through the feathers she wore instead of hair. “I thought they precluded change?”

“Good question. The Technocracy don't oppose change, they just oppose change they can't control. A singularity won't change any of that. It just gives them the chance to turn the world into a panopticon. That's their end-point, what they've been fighting for all along.”

She nodded, and Alex favoured him with a wink. This was working. Jerry was beginning to feel like he was back lecturing again, taking a long drag at his cigarette before continuing. “We can change that. We've all worked on plans to change that. But... we can't wait for contingencies. We can't hold back resources, or have one-person bottlenecks. Look what that lead to.”

It was less than a month ago that the Habitat's system administrator had gone insane, locking and corrupting the stored backups in order to merge with the Angel locked underneath the blue skies and verdant hills. Jerry and Alex had managed to recover as many people as they could, but for some their backups were too damaged. The memory of waking up was still sore for the survivors, and not having some of their old friends only made it worse.

“We have to do something now. I've got a plan, but I can't do it alone, or with only half of you. Because it really does mean giving it our all. And if it doesn't work, there's not going to be a Habitat left.”

The communications channels flared, message windows spawning in the air around Jerry demanding answers. He put them all on hold. They were going to have to listen to him. “We're going to break their singularity and make it our own. But to do that, we need to get the Habitat down the gravity well. If we don't make it, we're fucked. If we do, we can put everything we've come up with to good use. If we go through with this, we can break the stranglehold. All the stupid rules, the invented scarcity and slave-uploads and draconian virtual property rights, we can get rid of them. We can show the world what it really means to be free again. I can't do it alone.”

Hubbub, both murmured conversation and private chat threads. A couple of people queried his seriousness and he answered them with total honesty. Alex was busy polling the responses, smoothing out other unanswered questions, filling in for him. The rush of energy had gone and Jerry was ready to collapse where he stood. Psychosomatic signs of getting old.

Alex stepped forwards. “It's a go. There's still plenty of questions that need answering before we start, but we can do that over headnet. Thank you all for coming, and thank you for your support.

* * *

Alex sat carefully, watching Jerry. The brown was beginning to return to his beard, a good sign that he was recovering. She passed him a coffee, after dialling down the stimulation level.

“Thanks.”

“You did well out there.”

“I guess. Next time I have to make a speech like that will be in front of the UN.”

“Give it time.” She leaned back, gesturing at the air in front of her eyes. “If we can get a laser out from Earth for a four-day burn we should be back with plenty of time to spare. I can teach you more about public speaking.”

“Or you can shoot me and do it yourself.” Jerry slumped forwards. “You're the one who got taught to do it by brain-hackers better than me.”

“You're the one with the globally-traded reputation. One of the reports I brought back from our jaunt indicated that they folded the global reputation market into the standard when it evolved. The FIF might not be quite so free any more, but plenty of people use your old patents and they're all tied to you through the company.”

“I was afraid you'd point out something like that. What have you got for propulsion?”

“It's got to be a sail. We hang out as good a mirror as we can make here, hook a sail to the front of this thing and use the reflected pressure to carry us to the orbit.”

“Good.”

“Not good. We've no way of making the mirror or the sail. No technology, no resource.”

“Give me a couple of days. Come up with a controlling intelligence for something that I'll put on headnet soon.”

“Why?”

“Do it. You'll see.”

* * *

//Headnet Forum -> Technical -> Habitat mechanics

Making Sails for Fun and Profit
-Jerry

The problem with comptronium is that it's a complex substance. Holding one avobit per mol — one binary digit per molecule — the whole thing networked on the atomic scale. The Habitat has no way of modifying anything outside it and no tools to act upon itself even if it had the raw materials.

The solution is the sort of crack-addict mathematics that only a lunatic would love. We have some resource matter. We made that when we trapped Sirhan and the Angel, compressing them down into a small space allocated to the outer skin and locking out communications with them. That cures our resource problem.

Breaking apart comtronium with nanotech is an NP-complete problem. Each molecule needs to be disassembled one at a time to avoid the system going mental from having a processor/storage node. Failure to do that means that signal is flowing through the molecule and it degrades before you can do anything useful. The resultant degradation usually also involves hard radiation, which is no good for most nanotech. Worse, this problem is a physical NP-complete problem. We have to do it one at a time, explore our solution space linearly. Except we don't. Assume that an interpretation of the Turning-Church hypothesis was proved by some nicotine-crazed mathematician. This reduces our NP-complete problem to a P-complete problem by nature. We then translate the physical problem to mathematical terms, reduce that down to our much faster algorithm, and write nanotech controllers to implement it. Rather than half an hour for each molecule, we should have our sail and mirror inside a day.

The remaining question: Where does the nanotech come from? Waste heat from irreversible calculations. Run them through certain molecular hubs and they'll restructure the molecules into genesis nanotech. Makers that can assemble anything out of comptronium, thanks to our algorithm.

Attached is the control specification for the nanotech. We go live in three days.

* * *

The Habitat had changed in less than a week. A thin reflector, angled to retain coherency, focused on a large sheet of fog-thin aerogel that bloomed off the block's front. The sail would also ablate most of the heat-damage from re-entry, at least if the self-repairing cloud of technology that held it together could be trusted.

On Earth, things have changed again. The sum total of changes between the start of the new millennium and now are equal to those since the development of language and the year 2000. Unfortunately, the world still has problems. A wave of brand identity memes had taken over New York, with gangs warring in the streets over Pepsi and Coke even if most of them preferred Dr. Pepper anyway. A wider schism has hit the Christian churches, as priests handle the thorny issue of human uploads. The theological debate over the existence or lack of the uploaded soul is thrust into the limelight when a Tennessee woman campaigns for her local church to marry her and her fiancé, uploaded after a near-fatal car crash.

An enclave of Rogue Specialists has been blamed for an attack that destabilised the educational nanotech in India. The children, taught to count in binary and hex but not decimal, are reported to be unharmed, though rectification of the problem will take lots of time. That the children have started referring to each other by number was not reported.

Gate stations worldwide convey people from major city to major city, and a personal version allows strictly monitored gating to any location you can think of. There's a rising trend in the market for libertarian and objectivist causes in general, pushing for the dissolution of the nation-state and the free market to allow people to buy whatever they want from wherever. Mumbai is a hotspot of activism, as scientists in the city release a telomere rejuvenation treatment available on prescription, rather than a four week surgical procedure. Estimates of the average lifespan continue to skyrocket.

The hot thing this month is cerebral modification. It's the only way to keep up with the increasingly posthuman economics of the world market, where intangibles like information and file-sharing matter more than old-fashioned theft. Microsoft takes a hit when their poor security measures are blamed for allowing a self-propelled pyramid scheme to fleece everyone infected for ten percent of their net worth, sending them ten percent of everyone's that they infected in turn. Automated business scams are predicted to increase for the next six months at least

* * *

There's no sign that they are moving. The past six months have been hectic work. The realisation that the Habitat is on course, that there's nothing left to argue about, has set in. Jenny's heading up a team who are working on implanting some of Alex's memetic suggestors in harmless microbes. Jerry is pumping out paper after paper on network protocols and the interface between mind and machine. He's also designing phages that will convert dumb matter in the sea floor, linking up the Habitat with the worldwide communications networks. Once that gets done, he and Alex have a meeting to be at.

The infowisp is slowing now, part of the sail ejected to act as a retroactive thrust reflector. Soon enough the Habitat will enter Earth's atmosphere, and then their theories will be put to the test. Heat buildup looks likely to overwhelm everything, and the rest of the crew will be backing themselves up before they hit.

Alex has been busy getting to know language. It's a talent she's not let slip, but more and more she's coming to feel like the scriptwriter for their own little reality show. She's the one with the handle on the language, how the people downwell think and communicate. What she loads up into the memebase will spread all over the world, convincing people to upload and move past their self-imposed exile into negative-sum games and fungible everything. She edits one of Jerry's longer rants on the benefits of uploading and apports to his private space.

A bare room. Not like her appartment-style room or Sirhan's cavernous chambers, the room Jerry spends most of his life in is bare. Grey walls, dark lighting. An old wooden desk for him to type at an old laptop. An overflowing bookshelf to one side.

He notices her enter. He's wearing glasses again, something to fiddle with while he thinks. “Something come up?”

“Yeah. There is soemthing... you're very insistent on getting people to upload when we get out. The UN speech. The memeplague, the reprogramming of the medical nanotech. I thought this was about giving people a taste of freedom.”

“It is. The individual cannot be free to make an informed choice without first experiencing those choices.”

“Bullshit. By that logic I have to shoot up on junk before I can choose not to take it.”

“True. But it works on most people.”

“Maybe so. But it doesn't answer my question.”

“Fine.” The walls blur, encryption that would take a universe of matrioshka brains to crack waking up and shielding them from evesdropping. “We're not just going to change the Singularity. Think. What's the most notable thing about the world since the crackdown?”

“There's been less Traditionalists around.”

“What does that tell you?”

“Fewer were deciding to go with the old ways rather than getting with the new program?”

“But there were fewer awakenings in general.”

“Because our lot separated the real world from extradimensionals? I don't know!”

“Exactly. You cut off access to the informational levels, the extra dimensions, the spirit worlds, whatever people call them. The Avatars couldn't get through.”

“Fuck.”

“Yes.”

“You're not going to get people to come upload with that kind of motive. You're too transparent, comes with the background. You're good at telling people the truth and good at telling people what you believe in, but you are a fucking awful liar.”

“So we take a gamble and tell them the truth, that we want them to upload.”

“No. People don't want you to gamble with them. They don't want the truth because the truth is too complex. They want nice, simple lies that ease them towards the truth.”

“I'll leave that to you.”

“You can't. The problem's the speech. I can't do it, I don't have the market value. And we can't just multicast and hope that people tune in, it'd bounce off their media cocoons.”

“What do we do?”

“We make them want to tune in. I'll make you a script with a heavy dose of information. Leave the rest to me and Jenny.”

“Right. Well, you seem to have thought that part through. I'd better get on with this, though. We'll be needed soon, for the hard part at least.” The walls shimmered once more, back to normal.

* * *

Splashdown. The Habitat landed as planned. Despite interference from the subdimensional baffler array still running in low orbit, the infowisp has made it to the surface from being a rock around Jupiter. The time for planning is up.

The remainder of the aerogel ablation shield and parachute disperses on impact with the water. Tailored constructors bond it with molecules from the water and sea bed, spinning low-bandwidth lines to the nearest communications trunks. The Starbucks AI agrees to add memetically-altered coffee to it's blends in exchange for full autonomy.

Within a week there are high bandwidth lines running to and from the sunken lump of strange matter, and the informational dimension is giving it's first tours to interested parties. The areas toured are segregated from the main, a tailored form of the sandbox that Jerry and Alex has been trapped in. Tourists are the influential, those who are going to convince a lot of people that it's worth the effort, especially because it's free. All funded by a resurrected old guy with a ton of money, where the law didn't get in the way of creation or the needs of anyone.

Another target are the crippled, forced to live life without repair. Not that they had to, medical treatments were available that could repair the spine and undo ageing. But these are expensive, and given to the rich who want them rather than the poor that need them. The bedridden will get new legs, the blind new eyes, in the Haven-based future.

While all this is going on, Alex is helping Jerry from the cold-storage tank in the Free Information Foundation's old headquarters. It's still technically Jerry's property (until he catches up on a six-year backlog of ignored mail, missed phone calls and house visits from corporate legbreakers. Having traded his name on the informal market of reputations with his work for the FIF as a pretext, Jerry became rather rich. When the stock market engulfed the reputation market, the value of his name in support and the value attached to the FIF made Jerry a very rich man.

The money bought him a gate to the UN building in New York, and a chance for a coffee and a cigarette before addressing his audience. He addresses the member states, who look on in shock to a man. Alex records it all, streaming suggestions to others to isolate streams of reasoning and pass them to certain news sites. Engineering the news, making sure everyone heard enough of what they wanted to pay attention and hear the real message: Party in the Haven, and all of humanity is invited.

While this is going on, the world's computer and communications infrastructure is being slowly transformed into a hypercomputing network, running entirely on comptronium. By the time people start to notice that their phone is made of smart matter they will already have moved. By the time the Habitat is done the world will be a simple interconnected point, holding anywhere up to a billion times it's current population.

* * *

The fractal communal space was jammed. The Haven was massive news, even six months after its arrival. More and more uploads arrived every day. Soon after that they would awaken to the true nature of the world, and their training could begin.

Alex turned on Jerry. “How did you do it? How did you get their Avatars to bond to them?”

“I didn't. It was your plan to integrate the Haven to integrate with the extant media infrastructure. That spread this informational subdimension to the point that it was isomorphic with those surrounding Earth. I just had to prove that. How are we doing for numbers?”

“People are still volunteering, but it's a trickle. They're down to the hundreds now. By the end of the day, this whole planet will be uploaded. And awake.”

“I could make a Shakespeare reference.”

“You had better not. Especially not if...”

“If what?”

“You'll see at the time.”

They split up, not seeing each other until just before the broadcast message. There were officially no more humans left who had not been Awakened by the Haven and her crew.

“So what happens now?” Jerry asked, scratching his beard.

“I don't know. Most everyone has departed anyway. They've severed the links between personal realities of their own accord.”

“The consensus... it must be breaking down.”

“I can only imagine. Once we're gone, that's it.”

“Responsibility.” Jerry shrugged. “Even if it is just to turn the lights out and lock up at the end of the day.

“Yeah.” The fractal meadow was replaced by an infinite white background. “We won't be needing that any more.”

“No, we won't. And... I know your father would be proud of you if he were here to say it.”

“Thank you. But now, the game's over. We've folded the board and packed up the pieces. All we have to do is put the lid on the box.”

“We had a good run at it.”

“We certainly did. But it was like everything else. Only a game, in the end.”

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( 5 informants — We want information! )
coaldustcanary
Jan. 22nd, 2005 04:50 am (UTC)
You know I still worship at the altar of your geekdom. *hug* This reminds me why.
(Deleted comment)
digitalraven
Jan. 23rd, 2005 07:17 pm (UTC)
Love it. Still a little confused. Did they win?

Depends how you count "winning". They managed to bring everyone across the Gauntlet, giving them chance to Awaken. And with everyone Awakened, Ascension soon followed. The breakdown of consensual reality as everyone realises that they don't have to believe the same thing.

The human race ascended to the next level. Whether that counts as "winning" depends on your viewpoint. Only Jerry (and Alex, near the end) fully knows what's going on, everyone else thinks they're just out to liberate humanity. Which they did, in a way.

I'm presuming you've read this.

Yes. I'm awaiting the Accelerando hardback with bated breath.

Charlie would be proud of you.

Let's not get ahead of ourselves, here. This is just takeoff fanfic written in his style.
(Deleted comment)
digitalraven
Jan. 24th, 2005 01:04 pm (UTC)
Very different, at least in terms of Mage-related fiction. But I would say you have something to be proud of, here.

Thanks.

The last section did become a little confusing, but that was in part because I was trying to translate directly into Mage terms, I think, when I should have been reading it as a story.

It all translates directly into Mage, but it's... nontrivial to do so. If there's enough demand, I'll do a brief overview of the story in Mage terms, and enough of a timeline that people can keep up.
(Deleted comment)
digitalraven
Jan. 24th, 2005 05:44 pm (UTC)
Interesting snippet: Back in the second part, I threw in something about grammar engines -- software that translates anguages into an understandable form based on both dictionary and grammar. What people don't get is that this is just an updated version of what Mage already has. The Spheres and Avatars and Umbrae are just a useful grammar engine to allow Traditionalists to talk to each other without wondering what the fuck each other is talking about.

I will do the coda, with the explanations and all that. I think the story deserves it.
figg
Jan. 29th, 2005 12:58 am (UTC)
Vague ending.
Interesting.


Thoughts developing.
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