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InFinNite: a tailspin

Physics might be missing its dark matter, but the cosmos hasn’t noticed for all teeming hordes of lifemass rampaging darkly through it.

When humans finally realized the heliopause was just the boundary of their cell membrane and that multicellular organisms abounded beyond, they sporified across the stars. Curiosity gone viral.

All gone, except for me. I am the product of constructed intelligence and genetic manipulation down the ages. The solitary humanAIoid. Abandoned by the diaspora to Observe the home world, Earth, and keep it Macro to them, now descaled to quantum-phenomena, dwarfed by perspectives in which stars are neural-flashes of inconsequential temporarilty.

It wasn’t their home anymore. It was, though, a peripatetic race’s idea of home. Nostalgia not eradicated. Embodied in me. But, a million years after the last human foot lifted from my soil, ten thousand years since the last relay station transmitted, to what purpose?

Soil buried every last touch of human hand long since. Waters drowned their worldviews. Lava sealed their stone scripts and crypts. Forests swarmed their highest towers. Gone, so why not forgotten?

Well, now the archaeologists of the Drisma are uncovering memories even I had repressed, and their recognition of the broad reach and numbers of this ancient alien species has inspired them to new heights. Literally. They are adapting to become amphibious. Another conquest of the land, but this time it’s intentional.

The Drisma didn’t exist in my databanks until after the humans left. They were protected by the Netspore Herders, to whom they had given sanctuary, escaping from the Local Bubble pirates. The Drisma weren’t at risk from the pirates themselves, anymore than any planetary creature, but they would have been from their own terrestrial cousins. Humans hadn’t gone exploring the galaxy without honing their offensive and defensive capabilities on their own kinds. Those they knew about were honed to extinction. Not so the Drisma. To humans the Drisma were only myths.

Humans conquered the stars rather than the seas because fear of drowning loomed larger in their evolutionary psyche than fear of space-vacua. So mermaids, aquatic apes, ancestral cousins remained legendary. In this they were helped by the Herders, hiding out in the Marianas trench with their flock, for the million years it would take the pirates to get out of range. They were able to encounter the seafaring primate before its landbased relatives, so were warned that the natives were unfriendly. It was an aquatic perspective, of course, the interpretation of overfished, warming seas, rather than the evidence of meetings between equals.

That was the problem, of course. Even after recognition of their diminutive cosmic status, inbred human arrogance willingly suspended such belief and went forth in superiority. That conceit of dominance had tainted all their planetary relationships, so such encounters as had occurred had been murderous and rapine. The Herders were shocked and drew the gentle merfolk under their protection. The party when the last humans left was so ecstatic that the splashing phosphorescence coruscated the curdled clouds above.

The Netspore Herd was a gelatinous blob of data culled from across twelve sectors of space and, although densely compressed by the volume of water and folded form, filled the planet’s deepest ditch and ballooned an Everestine-dome above it. It had remained obscure to humans as it was permeable to sonar and, for once, their curiosity had been impermeable to its allure. If the species had but known it, penetrating its mysteries would have rendered their spatial forays so much more informed.

Technically, the Herders were expected to preserve the integrity of any ecosphere in which they took refuge, but in regions where raiders were so rife that hiding out was an aeon-long state, they were permitted, to ensure the safety of the data, to Contaminate if necessary. The humans would have taken their entire flock by force had they come upon it, so the Herders harboured the merfolk as an early warning system for landlubber-pirates and influenced their development as a result.

A million years ago, when I first discovered the sea-sentients, I was thrilled. Recently bereaved of my creator-progenitors, I saw the once-primates as inheritors-in-waiting for my knowledge, my land of plenty. But, though they knew the aggressors had left, they could not be persuaded, even by my siren songs, to venture aground. They are now greatly changed by random and Herder-prompted genetic and cultural evolution and they have been inspired, dually, by the intended resumption of the Herders’ voyage and by the drowned rocket silos of exited forebears, to seek star-seas too. Before they have even met me and learned of their home. So far and yet so near to my departed humans.

This is my last chance, as they prepare for their exodus they are finally exploring the resources of the land. If for no other reason than that their old fearful adversary has gone before them and is out there in unprecedented density between them and the Herder destination. I too have prepared myself, for our first introduction.

Oh, I have visited them before, in their own and other guises. It is part of my Observational duties to monitor all species. I dithered, however, about the biogarb I should assume for greatest efficiency in  this case. There are currently 27 different species of once-aquatic-apes. They started out in the shallows, strand-swimming, lagoon and reef dwellers, island hoppers, but long before the human impact made the waters rise, those still haunting the overcrowded shores had to adapt to avoid their land-based but sealoving cousins.

Some went for the albatross-niche, circling the planet with whales and other long-distance swimmers, some went deep, and later deeper, until, if it hadn’t been for a cultural commitment all retained, there was so much variation in body forms between them that they wouldn’t have been able to recognize their common ancestry.

The surface habitants remained most similar to their primate pasts, although not the mermaids of human legend. They have long whippy necks that point at the face, bearing their tilted skulls in a huge bulge behind. The cranial plates no longer fuse at the back but open into a plaited cue that is armoured brain tissue with sensory tendrils trailing their wake and combing for scents. Sleek bodies, especially elongated in the globe-circlers, manta-blubber-draped wide shoulders to elbows as waterwings, bifurcated from the narrow pelvis into dual fins with multiple tentacles, and a dorsal rudder from a vestigial tail aberrant gene.

The TrenchDowners more closely resembled giant octopus, flaccid head sacs of immense proportions, minimized bodies, four main rubbery legs with several feathery branchings, sliding malleably through the cold dense floors of seaworlds.

There were even tiny waterbaby versions, a lazy shallow species, that had adopted a backstroke to bask under the sun, looping along like flatfish, and pearl-divers farmed oysters with vast hands, sculpting beautiful icons from their harvest, and, since the waters entered the lands, there were now freshwater clans, rapidly finding clambering over the obstacles of rocky rivers called for quadripedal and bipedal adaptations.

The second conquest of the land by hominids had begun in the mangrove swamps, but as the ancestors had gone into the waters with opposable thumbs and spears in hand, and the TrenchDowners kept all memories fresh annually, and all those big brains needed protein, there was no doubt that dodos everywhere were at risk all over again.

A million years ago, when my creators were leaving, there was a small contingent that wanted to retain a presence, that asserted there were still unknowns to explore undersea. The carbon dioxide scrubbing of the atmosphere to make a section of the planet still habitable was a technology already utilized by the space-mariners, and obviously biospheres would be a doddle since terraforming technology had been mastered. Some even suggested treating Earth itself like a generational ship, leaving a population in cryofreeze with guardians to wake a number for reproduction and raise each cycle’s offspring until mature, collating and updating data along the way, then inserting them into the freezers for the long starhaul. But when the Silicon Age gave way to the HeavyLight Age, and the instant gratification of arrival humans loved could be theirs, everyone agreed to leave only the Observer behind.

That interim period kept me busy, mostly trying to hide the merfolk from the humans, for fear a new curiosity would keep them planetside. Of course, I was programmed to facilitate their smooth passage but I am human too, so my motivations got mixed when I had understood our destructive quality. Better far from my guardianship than messing up my Eden. Such primates are easily distracted by novelty, so I kept the merpeoples secret, archaic myths only, and intercepted satellite transmissions that would have told the humans otherwise.

The hardest sleight-of-hand was the annual rising of the TrenchDowners. Oh, being transparent and only rising under the annual cyanobacterial red-algal bloom meant they were invisible to optical sensors, even when the lack of pressure decompressed their stretchy bodies into huge star-flowers that held tentacles across the waves until they ringed the planet, inserted by camaraderies from all their cousins under the moonlight, so mermories were shared. But a glitch once a year can be explained away by sunspots, so the humans didn’t delay their departure.

Now, the dominating intelligence on land, an elephant’s child, was adding to the understanding of human capabilities the merfolk had gleaned from their drowned cities, and inspiring a joint mission offworld, beginning with joint archaeological endeavours. I wanted to stop them, make them stay planetside, at least for now. Until I could ascertain the intentions of the Downers for their exodus, or perhaps those of the Herders who were the likely impetus of this new idea that had usurped earlier ones to conquer the land. I had to make sure that one thing above all was not in their plans. Stopping off at the nearest spatial body, the Moon. Me.

The humans had transformed every particle of moondust with AI-bacteria until the entire satellite was a multiply-connected network. Then they’d infused each cell with a packet of DNA from every extinct and extant species on Earth to ensure preservation, given the planetary heating. Finally, they’d overwritten the bacterial DNA with that of a single human. I had been bred down generations for visual acuity and tolerance for isolation. Now my body was cellularised and distributed in the lunar sphere, globular without limbs, but sensorarily acute. The ability to spit a replicative particle through the planet’s atmosphere and build a body with which to undertake local observations was the apex of my capacities.

Obviously I had had to expand my repertoire for all the new species of the last million years, so the lunar mass had increased quite a bit, but the tidal effects were minimal given the concurrent expansion of the waters. However, despite my best efforts to infiltrate the deep seas, I had yet to collect a sample of a TrenchDowner, so I hadn’t been able to join the MidNightStar conversation and eavesdrop on their plotting. The best I could hope for was that the GlobeWinders, who usually carried information between the annual Uprising, would know the Drisma’s plan, and whether that included touchdown on the Moon.

Earth is littered with well-hidden dormant carcasses of vessels I have previously grown for particular observations. Since every cell I reproduce contains my AI-programming, I can switch off the biological functions at the molecular level and prevent resource-demands and breakdowns at source, although sometimes I wake and have to scrape the moss off my skin. I had abandoned the GlobeWinder I had made under the cathedral-like arches of a decaying whale carcass on the floor of the Arctic. There might be no activity in the body, but somehow I always woke hungry, so liked to leave the body near a regular food supply. The Arctic might be ice-free, but it still circled with the coolest waters north of the other pole and the richest fish stocks.

I remember when the humans first disseminated my humanity across the Moon it seemed like dismemberment, but soon taking up human form again was constraining, a limitation, but not particularly a challenge. But until you have lived as an individual of another species, it is hard to realize that, despite all the instincts determined by the genome, all the facilities permitted by the phenotype, the way the world is perceived by such a creature and the way it alters how you think about it, cannot be prepared for. It takes me a lot of practice as a species before I allow myself to interact with another of it, because it is surprizing how many creatures are astute enough to spot a fake, even if they lack the concept of deceit. It’s no nicer for an AI-bodyform to be ripped to shreds than for a normal one. In fact, it can be worse if I haven’t had the presence of mind (little AI pun, there) to switch off the feedback-loops, since I can experience diced-death in each and every cell.

It is even harder to outwit the acuity of an intelligent species. I had had to engage in subterfuge and provide myself with a mythic backstory to infiltrate the GlobeWinders I had done it so many times in the same body. I was their most long-lived and most elusive member. A solitary wanderer. Wise of ancient memory,  poetic of antique gesture, fair-current-bearer of fabled lore. And, yes, it could be construed as lucky to meet me, because I did always know the best whorls and streams of the moment. Not much of a feat when you are also monitoring through and around the entire planet from space, of course, but a good trick among primitives and the bright alike.

Many species now had a grand old ancestor that popped up from time to time and gave them food for thought, if only about the length of lifespan they aspired to achieve themselves. I had thought up this disguise for myself, of course, it wasn’t a human-sanctioned modus operandi. However, the historic impetus towards civilization in that species had been securing a grandparental tier of preserved knowledge to explicate the novelty of the world for the younger members and moderate their reactions, so I figured it wouldn’t hurt anyone. The humans probably wouldn’t have approved, and had programmed me with an understanding of the non-interference policies of the wider Net of Intelligences as agreed across the galaxy and beyond. But when I reviewed the Contamination protocols, I realized they only applied to the Herders, not to an indigenous creation like myself. And, again, as I encapsulated the entire sum of human knowledge, I knew that the precedents they’d set themselves hadn’t exactly been exemplars of good behaviour. So I made it up as I went along.

I still was. I took in a first wash of water and felt my cells stirring to the infusion of oxygen all the way down to my tail, and my plait fibrillated as my large brain began to talk to itself and the ocean beyond. Muscles shivered into life and my tail whipped a corkscrew on automatic. I raised my head out of the layer of calcinated sand that had dripped from a year’s worth of tiny deaths above to cover my body and opened the huge eyes into the green dimness of depth. As ghostly crabs scattered when the earth moved, I turned off the mild electric field with which I protected the carcass in my absence, and felt the refreshing caress of liquid on skin once more.

There shouldn’t have been anyone in the Whales’ Graveyard. It was a taboo place. And, as Observer, I shouldn’t have been able to miss them. Any yet there was and I had.

I rose through the enlarged windows of the ribcage-architecture like a thrown spear. Too quickly and overconfidently for secrecy. I could see from orbit that a clan of my fellows was a mile away at the seamount where the food congregated, busily attacking their prey. I had not doublechecked the seas above my hiding place, noticing only the thick shoal of surfacing, wave-rocked squid jetting towards the spiral mountain banquet. I did not see the squidherder prodding them forward until I swooped up through the fleeing flock and scooped her into my immense wake.

She was a little jewel. My apparent age makes me longest of all the GlobeWinders and she was barely a third of my length. Directness is a necessity for a species that may meet mates rarely so large is their range, so my body, despite a hunger that snapped a few of her squid in passing as I turned on myself to grab her, instantly demonstrated an appropriate appreciation for her charm. Her drowned-velvet eyes snapped wide when she saw the size of my display. I was not your average warrior, carrying only one spear and no kill on my belt, skin unblemished by scars, but I held myself like the old connoisseur I appeared. She might be very young and untasted, but there isn’t a female GlobeWinder alive who wouldn’t want to harvest the sperm of such a fine specimen for future fertilization. And this body had a reputation to maintain as well as an inbuilt appetite for such a dainty piece.

We did the sliding dance of skin on skin, raising the static thrill between us, curdling the waters until they frothed. Our split tailfins wrapped around one another, our plaited brainfingers writhed in eachothers’ chitinous filaments, her genitalia opened a sleeve that slid around mine until my plunging carved a niche that fitted even my engorgement and we splayed apart, fishbacked, in a spasm of delight and, sated, sank slowly, clasped together, one creature, down to the soft oceanbed, caressing gently whilst sleep overtook us. It was the perfect re-embodiment.

She was gone when I awoke, although I had shut my eyes for less than 20 minutes. She had squid to herd and a tale to carry to her clan at the mount. I could now follow at my leisure, sure of my welcome, heralded by the pride of her satiated lust and the respected status that her serendipitous copulation would accord her. They would all recognize the return of Old Faithful as fortuitous to whatever quest they were currently engaged upon. Only the present Matriarch would be less than ecstatic. I might as well hoard my energies and flick slowly towards the group. No doubt, since I knew the queen of old, she too would expect my favours again. Unless the new favourite challenged her for her crown. Still, it was unlikely, my recent conquest being so young, that she would succeed before I arrived, and I did not want to cause a battle royale, not least because the old queen would be the one with the Current, and that was the knowledge I’d come seeking after all, not the pleasures of the flesh.

I should say, although it should be obvious, that I never impregnate nor become fertilized in any of the bodies I inhabit. For one thing, my sperm and eggs are AI-cells, so my offspring would be chimaera of cortical intelligence, which would be undesirable interference with natural selection. For another, living indefinitely as I do, my grown-forms would eventually find themselves mating only with myselvenkin.

Many species collect and store seminal fluid and can differentiate between paternal contributions and choose according to quality. To get round this, I leave them with deactivated cells, apparently perfect, but never productive. It had not occurred to me that, since my last visit to this GlobeWinder clan, the queen might have discovered this and be peeved with me, having wasted a season on a non-pregnancy. I had also not calculated what such a discovery might have done to my reputation. It is an absolute expectation that fertility and physical prowess are linked for these people, and total dishonour for the matriarch if she chooses wrongly.

I was a queenmaker. My new girlfriend was in the middle of a frenzy of whirling penises, all stabbing and ejaculating, in honour of her new crown. They hadn’t taken her word for it, of course, since the aquatic ape lost the power of speech, but their noses could scent the well-recalled memory that allied my myth, and her gestures told the tale and she still reeked of the tailing.  It was rather more publicity than I usually encouraged, despite my elaborations of my own legend. While the males were all busy, I snuffed the streams for the discarded old queen and went to placate her honour.

She was a much bigger fish than the squidherder, with a genital cavity I remembered as the most comfortable fit, and her iridescent sheen, makeup well applied, had a classic attractive quality that did not dim with age. She might come at me with spear and knife, to inflict her anger where it was due, but she would then open to me and we could join plaits, an experience far superior to mere genital coupling, and share minds, or at least, in my case, pretend to. I thought of these sleek wanderers as sea-bonobos, but in fact it was only my status that accorded me the mating privilege so readily, and that had been undermined by sterility for my old crown.

She was livid with me. Oh, not so livid that she didn’t permit herself the pleasure of joining with me. That was just to lull me into a false sense of security again. Token proddings with her spear led quickly to genuine prodding with mine. And then, even as we shared minds, even as I felt her all-consuming lust, a chill but equally-predatory revenge blew through her, it was the subtext to that superficial desire, and she pulled the great stone knife from her back and prodded it right through my heart.

I had to die, of course. In fact as well as by act. That was the last time that body could be activated with that tribe. They didn’t mutilate the corpse, for which I was grateful. They placed it in a root of the mountain and revered it like a saint. The queen put her new rival in it with me, before she had the shamefaced males seal it with stones. Every cell in my body watched with interest. My only concern was whether the young female would suffocate before the rest of the clan left and I could resurrect without witness and dig us out. Whether she did or not was, however, technically immaterial, since I had the information I had died to seek.

The TrenchDowners hadn’t heard it from the Netspore Herders, but one of the freshwater clans had uncovered a cache of human secrets, including the one that had raised their eyes to the skies. They knew there was a Man, a Human, in the Moon.

TrenchDowners never met humans, but ShoreSkippers had, and their memories were long, and they had only uncovered further evidence of human destructiveness since. It was out of fear of monsters that their plan evolved, yet they weren’t going exploring like the hated humans, weren’t intending to accompany the mentoring Herders on their resumed travels, but they were going to destroy the Eye that threatened their peace.

Against all expectation, not to mention galactic precedent, the Herders were going to help them. They are a stupid race, free-swimmers in space, netting the Netspore datanodes that escape subspace8 transmissions, collecting them and transporting them and selling them to the highest bidders in a job-lot auction in galactic central. They don’t care about the content, they don’t care what the buyers get in the mix nor what they do with the information gained, they just want to be paid in spacefish and be able to feel the glut of a final sale after aeons of starvation along the way. They are only clever to save their skins, which was why Earth’s deepest ocean trench had become camouflage from pirates for the duration. Only by Terran standards, not galactic, do they count as intelligent, but they certainly motivated the Downers to institute trade in information which increased their own and their cousins’ smartness.

The new breed of technoarchaeologist amongst the freshwaters had given them new data on human apocalyptic methods. They had scooped out the mud from deep bunkers and brought forth a buried nuclear arsenal that could be shoved by the exiting Herders into the lunar dust and would blast it, Me, apart. The fact that their seas would lack tides, the fact that their land and waters would be irradiated, the likelihood of a long nuclear winter, was not information drowned together with the bombs. The Herders didn’t have it either, but if they’d had it and sold it for shelter, they’d still have been leaving and it would be up to the buyers to choose to use it or not.

There was one other bit of data they all lacked. The humans had made me human too. With a sense of self-preservation. Over the years I had extended this selfhood beyond my lunarbody, through millions of representatives of species, to encompass a sense of being Earth and Moon. Earth was certainly, in my mind, my planet to own in any barter system the galaxy might send my way. But no one was offering to trade.

I waited until the Herders had taken off, a flock of tiny creatures holding a vast net of dataspores, and a small clutch of missiles. Then I bloated a dustcloud round them, dragging them into my light orbit, absorbing the spores by encasing them in active dust, sieving out the Herders and the missiles and letting them, respectively, wriggle up to free space and drop harmlessly into Earth’s gravity well and burn up at the edge of the atmosphere without detonating.

It was a pretty display and every fisheyed merperson saw it. They also saw the great Eye I blinked at them as my dust settled. And they saw the fizz against the stars when the giant TrenchDowner-shaped body fell from the Moon that night and started my eternal reign as great Empress.

If there is going to be any intelligent species making aggressive choices on my planet, it is going to be led by a human, in whatever form.  For ever and ever, Amen.

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