The enemy must die.
Nico stands and waits in the long line, sweating under the electric-yellow dome of the municipal force field.
They must die.
Near the recruiting station, one of the captives has been wheeled out in a cage. The reptile is splayed in a harness, stretched like a frog on the dissection table. A steady stream of soldiers-in-waiting leaves the line, jabbing an electro-prod through the bars of the cage to a chorus of jeers. It’s about the size of a man, and surprisingly androform except for its crested lizard head, its stubby tail and the brilliant green shimmer of its scales. Already they’re flaking off, black and charred, where the prod touches. The reptile was squealing to start with, but it’s slumped and unresponsive now.
Nico turns his head away. He just wants the line to move ahead so he can sign up, obtain his citzenship credits and get out of here.
The enemy must die.
They came in from interstellar darkness, unprovoked, unleashing systematic destruction on unsuspecting human assets. They wiped mankind off Mars and blasted Earth’s lunar settlements into radioactive craters. They pushed the human explorers back into a huddle of defenses around Earth. Now they’ve brought the war to cities and towns, to the civilian masses. Now force shields blister Earth’s surface, sustained by fusion plants sunk deep into the crust. Nico’s almost forgotten what it’s like to look up at the stars.
But the tide is turning. Beneath the domes, factories assemble the ships and weapons to take the war back to the reptiles. Chinks are opening in the enemy’s armour. All that’s needed now are men and women to do Earth’s bidding.
One of the recruiting sergeants walks the line, handing out iced water and candies. He stops and chats to the soldiers-to-be, shaking them by the hand, patting them on the back. He’s a thirty-mission veteran; been twice as far out as the orbit of the moon. He lost an arm, but the new one’s growing back nicely, budding out from the stump like a baby’s trying to punch its way out of him. They’ll look after you too, he says, holding out a bottle of water.
“What’s the catch?” Nico asks.
“There isn’t one,” the sergeant says. “We give you citizenship and enough toys to take apart a planet. Then you go out there and kill as many of those scaly green bastards as you can.”
“Sounds good to me,” Nico says.
Up in the fortified holdfast of Sentinel Station, something’s different. The tech isn’t like the equipment Nico saw at the recruiting station, or in basic training back on Earth. It’s heavier, nastier, capable of doing more damage. Which would be reassuring, if it wasn’t for one troubling fact.
Earth has better ships, guns and armour than anyone down there has heard about—but then so do the reptiles.
Turns out they’re not exactly reptiles either. Not that Nico cares much. Cold-blooded or not, they still attacked without provocation.
The six months of in-orbit training at Sentinel Station are tough. Half the kids fall by the wayside. Nico’s come through, maybe not top of his class, but somewhere near it. He can handle the power-armour, the tactical weapons. He’s ready to be shown to his ship.
It’s not quite what he was expecting.
It’s a long, sleek, skull-grey shark of a machine that goes faster-than-light.
“Top secret, of course,” says the instructor. “We’ve been using it for interstellar intelligence gathering and resource-acquistion.”
“How long have we had this?”
The instructor grins. “Before you were born.”
“I thought we never had any ambitions beyond Mars,” says Nico.
“What about it?”
“But the reptiles came in unprovoked, they said. If we were already out there…”
They haul him out after a couple of days in the coolbox. Any more of that kind of questioning and he’ll be sent back home with most of his memories scrubbed.
So Nico decides it’s not his problem. He’s got his gun, he’s got his armour and now he’s got his ride. Who cares who started the damned thing?
The FTL transport snaps back into normal space around some other star, heading for a blue gas giant and an outpost that used to be a moon. The place bristles with long-range sensors and the belligerent spines of anti-ship railguns. Chokepoint will be Nico’s home for the next year.
“Forget your armour certification, your weapons rating,” says the new instructor, a human head sticking out of an upright black life-support cylinder. “Now it’s time to get real.”
A wall slides back to reveal a hall of headless corpses, rank on rank of them suspended in green preservative.
“You don’t need bodies where you’re going, you just need brains.” she says. “You can collect your bodies on the way back home, when you’ve completed your tour. We’ll look after them.”
So they strip Nico down to little more than a head and a nervous system, and plug what’s left into a tiny, hyper-agile fighter. The battle lines are being drawn far beyond conventional FTL now. The war against the reptiles will be won and lost in the N-dimensional tangle of interconnected wormhole pathways.
Wired into the fighter, Nico feels like a god with armageddon at his fingertips—not that he’s really got fingertips. He doesn’t feel much like Nico any more. He cracks a wry smile at Chokepoint’s new arrivals, gawping at the bodies in the tanks. His old memories are still in there somewhere, but they’re buried under a luminous welter of tactical programming.
Frankly, he doesn’t miss them.
They’re not fighting the reptiles any more. Turns out they were just the organic puppets of an implacable, machine-based intelligence. The puppetmasters are faster and smarter and their strategic ambitions aren’t clear. But it doesn’t concern thing-that-was-once-Nico.
After all, it’s not like machines can’t die.
Strategic Command sends him deeper. He’s forwarded to an artificial construct actually embedded in the tangle, floating on a semi-stable node like a dark thrombosis. Nico’s past caring where the station lies in relation to real space.
No one fully human can get this far—the station is staffed by bottled brains and brooding artificial intelligences. With a jolt, thing-that-was-once-Nico realises that he doesn’t mind their company. At least they’ve got their priorities right.
At the station, thing-that-was-once-Nico learns that a new offensive has opened up against the puppetmasters, even further into the tangle. It’s harder to reach, so again he must be remade. His living mind is swamped by tiny machines, who build a shining scaffold around the vulnerable architecture of his meat brain. The silvery spikes and struts mesh into a fighter no larger than a drum of oil.
He doesn’t think much about his old body, back at Chokepoint, not any more.
The puppetmasters are just a decoy. Tactical analysis reveals them to be an intrusion into the wormhole tangle from what can only be described as an adjunct dimension. The focus of the military effort shifts again.
Now the organic matter at the core of thing-that-was-once-Nico’s cybernetic mind is totally obsolete. He can’t place the exact moment when he stopped thinking with meat and started thinking with machinery, and he’s not even sure it matters now. As an organism, he was pinned like a squashed moth between two pages in the book of existence. As a machine, he can be endlessly abstracted, simulated unto the seventh simulation, encoded and pulsed across the reality-gap, ready to kill.
This he—or rather it—does.
And for a little while there is death and glory.
Up through the reality stack, level by level. By now it’s not just machines versus machines. It’s machines mapped into byzantine N-dimensional spaces, machines as ghosts of machines. The terms of engagement have become so abstract—so, frankly, higher-mathematical—that the conflict is more like a philosophical dialogue, a debate between protagonists who agree on almost everything except the most trifling, hair-splitting details.
And yet it must still be to the death—the proliferation of one self-replicating, pan-dimensional class of entities is still at the expense of the other.
When did it begin? Where did it begin? Why?
Such questions simply aren’t relevant or even answerable anymore.
All that matters is that there is an adversary, and the adversary must be destroyed.
Eventually—although even the notion of time’s passing is now distinctly moot—the war turns orthogonal. The reality stack is itself but one compacted laminate of something larger, so the warring entities traverse mind-wrenching chasms of meta-dimensional structure, their minds in constant, self-evolving flux as the bedrock of reality shifts and squirms beneath them.
And at last the shape of the enemy becomes clear.
The enemy is vast. The enemy is inexorably slow. As its peripheries are mapped, it gradually emerges that the enemy is a class of intellect that the machines barely have the tools to recognise, let alone understand.
It is multi-form and multi-variant. It hasn’t been engineered or designed. It’s messy and contingent, originating from the surface of a structure, a higher-mathematical object. It’s but one of several drifting on geodesic trajectories through what might loosely be termed “space.” Arcane fluids slosh around on the surface of this object, and the whole thing is gloved in a kind of gas. The enemy requires technology, not just to sustain itself, but to propagate its warlike ambitions.
Triumph over the organic is a cosmic destiny the machines have been pursuing now through countless instantiations. But to kill the enemy now, without probing deeper into its nature, would be both inefficient and unsubtle. It would waste machines that could be spared if the enemy’s weaknesses were better understood. And what better way to probe those weaknesses than to create another kind of living thing, an army of puppet organisms, and send that army into battle? The puppets may not win, but they will force the adversary to stretch itself, to expose aspects of itself now hidden.
And so they are sent. Volunteers, technically—although the concept of “volunteer” implies a straightforward altruism difficult to correlate with the workings of the machines’ multi-dimensional decision-making matrices. The flesh is grown in huge hangars full of glowing green vats, then shaped into organisms similar but not identical to the enemy. Into those vast, mindless bodies are decanted the thin, gruel-like remains of compactified machine intellects. It’s not really anything the machines would recognise as intelligence, but it gets the job done.
Memories kindle briefly back to life as compactification processes shuffle through ancient data, untouched for subjective millenia, searching for anything that might offer a strategic advantage. Among the fleeting sensations, the flickering visions, one of the machines recalls standing in line under an electric-yellow sky, waiting for something. It hears the crackle of an electro-prod, smells the black char of burning tissue.
The machine hesitates for a moment, then deletes the memory. Its new green-scaled puppet body is ready, it has work to do.
The enemy must die.
© 2009 by Alastair Reynolds
Originally appeared as a podcast for The Guardian.
Reprinted by permission of the author.