Far from the civilized Inner Galaxies, buried deep in a fast-spinning, dead neutron star lies a series of inorganic servers. No human or other life-form could survive the gravity of this dense celestial body but an army of immortal bots maintains its lair. Lurking deep in these dark recesses, the vast server-farm of inorganic quantum computers is powered by the star’s own gravitational motion.
Lights blink and flicker in this gloom as softly buzzing bots swarm over these vast, ancient hardware structures whose strands of bandwidth reach out in all directions into the nether of space.
Ping–the bundle of quantum computers sends out hyper-encrypted bursts of code. Pinpricks of compressed mystery that shoot all over the galaxy like strands of a single, great cobweb with a spider right at the center of them.
Ping–ping–pingback… Little tremors of pingback return along each of these strands, like the frantic struggles of trapped flies, vainly shaking each strand of this great cobweb.
But, to little end, as the spider at the center of the cobweb just sits and watches and waits…
Lieutenant Warrick stepped from the starship and looked around him. He barely noticed the chorus of salutes thrown his way as he walked across the deck and towards Command Tower XJ-26 of the XIII’th Planet, nestled neatly into the Military Zone of the Inner Galaxies.
His mind was elsewhere.
In the Quick World’s inter-connected universe and with military-grade Conduit’s offering connections and communication channels that the average civilian could barely fathom, it was rare to receive a summon in the Slow World. Very rare. In fact, this was his first.
And he was here now.
He made his way passed detailed DNA and retina checks, Conduit-scans, bot security and such firepower that could decimate entire planets before he stepped inside the inner-bunker of the Special Force Division of the Galactic Military & Peace-enforcement Agency.
“Lieutenant Warrick reporting,” he said as he stood to attention. The door closed behind him and he found himself in a small, bare room with a single table and two chairs in it. He could feel his brain’s connection to the Web–his Conduit–disconnect from the Web as the door closed. This was an experience he had only ever once before felt and this was how he knew that this must be a so-called Dead Zone. The room must have Web-dampening interference running, shielding it from a prying world.
It felt strangely quiet to not have access to the Web in his mind anymore. Disconnected… Silent. Lost. His mind was suddenly adrift in a large, silence ocean with nothing around it for as far as the eye could see.
“Yes, Lieutenant Warrick, this is a Dead Zone,” said an old, white-haired man, who failed to identify himself; his garb was standard-issue military but there were no identifiers of rank or title, let alone name, “And yes, by now you have worked out that I do not exist. These are all necessities for this mission.”
“Yes–” Lieutenant Warrick paused, unsure of what title to use in addressing the mysterious man, “Yes, sir!”
The Old Man smiled coldly–an oddly predatory expression on his face–and motioned for him to sit, “Please, be at ease soldier. These orders originate from the highest-of-the-high in the military, though there will never be any record hereof. Do you understand, Lieutenant?”
“Yes, sir, I understand,” Lieutenant Warrick said taking a seat opposite the Old Man. The Old Man quietly watched his every move while absentmindedly massaging his jaw.
“Lieutenant Warrick, once you leave this room, you will take a small squad of starships–your choice of men, but make sure they are discreet and loyal–and convert Planet Lucy BN19X and its population into a Server Farm. You have full permission to use force but, importantly, do not let a single person escape. A BWeP bot-arm will meet you en route in deep space and come in after the population has been suppressed to convert and build the Server Farm. I will not lie to you, Lieutenant Warrick, but this is a sensitive matter and needs to be dealt with swiftly and severely. Do you understand, soldier?”
There was the faintest pause as he processed this order. The emotions may be indistinguishable to an ordinary observer, but to the Old Man, the Lieutenant was as open to read as a book and the struggle was one of understanding versus duty and loyalty.
The planet was a civilian planet and his orders were to effectively turn its population into organic servers. They would be sedated and their Conduits plugged directly into the Web to provide valuable bandwidth and storage for civilization. Their brains would be added to the Web while their bodies would slowly wither away. This was the fate of the bankrupt and guilty, but the Lieutenant had neither received a reason nor a justification for these severe orders. The human mind craves rationale but the military demands only obedience.
Seconds later duty and loyalty won out in the Lieutenant’s internal conflict. A lifetime of military training and conditioning kicked in. An order was an order.
“Yes, Sir,” Lieutenant Warrick said, then repeated himself louder as if to reaffirm and chase away any doubts he might have had, “Yes, Sir! I understanding, Sir!”
“Good,” the Old Man smiled, and leaned back, “Good. You are dismissed, Lieutenant Warrick, and good luck.”
As Lieutenant Warrick left the room and the door shut, the Old Man leaned back and smiled. He had chosen well. The algorithms that had helped him pick Lieutenant Warrick were good but the final test was always whether these blunt instruments would accept the order or not.
Duty and loyalty, he smiled, chuckling to himself, what would I do without good old ‘duty and loyalty’?
Honestly, he had no idea and neither did any of the others in his network.
A solar week later, the Old Man was back in his office near the top of the Public Repository of the Central House of Parliament. He dismissed the Conduit-beamed vision of the high-ranking BWeP agent in front of him with a mere thought and the image blinked out, his Conduit severing the connection.
He leaned back in his comfortable, anti-gravity chair and scratched his chin thoughtfully. His jaw ached and no medical scan or AI had found anything wrong with it. He suspected that it was all the secrets that he had to hold onto.
He sighed and, by remembering a secret combination of childhood memories and sexual conquests, he unlocked a hidden app in his Conduit. This app booted up, spinning out a mini-Dead Zone with a single dynamic connection going in and out.
He closed his eyes, letting the app take him from the Slow World to the Quick, and then he was floating in darkness. No floor, no walls nor any ceiling here. Pure darkness with a single pinprick of light.
He focussed on that pinprick of light–in such complete nothingness, the small light was blinding!–and felt himself floating nearer to it. Or was it that the pinprick of light floated near to him? It was hard to tell with no reference points.
And then the pinprick was right there in front of him and it began to pulse.
“REPORT,” it boomed out directly into his mind, “REPORT ON YOUR MISSION.”
“Planet Lucy BN19X and its population have been activated,” he said, trying to keep his voice level but his heart was racing, “The few media reports that have been cast all note our forged debt servitude as the reason for the conversion into a Server Farm. The public seems to accept this. The BWeP agents have been scrubbed, the military forced deactivated down to the last man and bot. Mission successful.”
The pinprick of light did not pause and boomed back at him amidst the infinite darkness of that eerie place:
“DID ANY ESCAPE?”
The Old Man paused, his Quick mouth feeling dry as he could feel himself clenching his Slow fists back in his seat. He hated this pinprick of light. God, how he hated it!
“No,” he started, his voice cracking slightly before he forced it to sound calm, “No, sir, only one noted civilian absent on the planet–a certain ‘Lucy Fern’–but the retrieval units, Central Command and BWeP agents have been dispatched to find her. We planted a series of Conduit hacks across the galaxy and forged her fingerprints so all resources are on the lookout for her. It will merely be a matter of time, Sir, until we find her.”
There was a long pause, which made him nervous, so he added: “But no other recorded escapees and the media has bought our cover story…”
His voice faded as he waited for that pinprick of light–the god in the floating, awful darkness–to declare his fate.
“AFFIRMATIVE,” it boomed back at him, “MISSION RECORDED AS SUCCESSFUL. REPORT BACK WHEN LUCY FERN IS NEUTRALIZED. AWAIT FURTHER INSTRUCTIONS.”
“Yes, Sir!” the Old Man says, audibly breathing a sigh of relief.
A strand of the great, cosmic cobweb vibrates, its vibrations traveling all the way out to deep space. Its destination is far from the cozy, temperate Inner Planets where the Old Man sits, shaking and sweating in his fancy office. It even passes by where Lieutenant Warrick’s bloody corpse floats through the vacuum of space with a number of other bodies towards a convenient, small black hole.
Deep within the fast-spinning, dead neutron star, in a gloomy cavern crawling with bots, buzzing quantum computers and flickering lights, a single new light flickers on. It flickers on only briefly before flickering off.
Another strand of the cobweb shoots off into space! The cobweb grows and grows, and right at the center, the spider sits patiently watching and waiting…