Maya Tiangong

Maya Tiangong is dangling from a comically oversized contraption.

Story of her life, if her authorized biography is anything to go by. Smyrnia-Silesia's infamous mistress of artillery claims that she was born in Singapore, on Earth, from a family of dockers whose lineage goes back to the late industrial era. When pressed about how good that claim of ancestry is, Maia Tiangong shakes her head and just says "the cranes, my man, the cranes!"

The cranes, indeed. Is this how she developed her taste for giant machinery, watching a forest of harbour cranes coming and going in the sunset, unloading cargo ships in-between two cyclones, then feeding the products of Laniakea vessels to USRE railways and vice versa? Maybe. Maybe not. A few friends of mine conducted an investigation in Singapore and found no Tiangong family on record, which doesn't prove anything one way or the other. Maia may have adopted a new name as she immigrated away from her homeworld, a long-established tradition among "late movers". Or perhaps she's never set foot in Singapore, let alone on Earth, and the cranes are yet another smokescreen.

The Singapore story isn't the only one. Some locals maintain that she was born on Mars, the daughter of a Red terrorist and a Blue scientist, that she lost her family in the nuclear destruction of Phobos, that she took the first ship to Smyrnia-Silesia, USRE spec ops hot on her heels. Others say she's a criminal wanted for first-degree murder of a Laniakean official, that she had her face surgically altered and that the Meta-Queen herself requested her services. A common whisper on the subnet is that she descends from the first anarchist settlers of the twin icy planets, that she was was forged by the glorious chaos of the flux state, and shaped it in kind. Some elements of these stories are mutually compatible, others diverge so much one is forced to admit they can't be true at the same time. In a sense, it does not matter. The individual known as Maya Tiangong has something of a cryptid hiding in plain sight. She flies close to myth, and myth is a narrative, not a list of logical facts.

Myth, indeed. There are many ways to become a legend in the splendid chaos of Smyrnia-Silesia, but few are more direct than the path Maya Tiangong forged for herself. Ten years ago, she shot a spaceship down with a railway cannon. The place, time and reason for the conflict matter little, for allegiances and frontlines are as fluid as spring water on the twin anarchist worlds. What matters is the act: senseless, clever, devastating. A sixteen inch cannon hastily soldered from discarded pipes and spaceship parts, a nuclear train running full steam ahead in the desolate plains of Smyrnia, a shell polished in a shed, a telescope with holographic sights and an abacus for a targeting system, a Luciole operated by corsairs-for-hire, four hundred kilometers above, ignition, a single shot -- target down. It was the day Maya Tiangong achieved escape velocity.

Since then, she's done everything. Jurry-rigging Orion drives with regolith concrete and copper strings. Pushing refurbished racing Lucioles past seventeen gees of sustained acceleration. Strapping nuclear reactors to ancient terran tanks and have them drive on the seabed, beneath the iceshelf. Eyeballing a high-velocity rendez-vous on an eccentric orbit around a black hole. Building the world's largest harbour crane. Guiding a glider in the eye of a hurricane the size of the Earth. Staring a Sequencer in the eye, holding a compact nuke in her hand. She's worked for everyone and with everyone. She has no allegiances, no masters and no gods, save for the titans of steel and atom she conjures up in her dreams. She recently went on record claiming she wants to build the Milky Way's biggest disco ball. When innocent bystanders reply that we already have a planet-sized disco ball, Xango, Maia Tiangong is unfazed. She already has a plan.

She's going to light up a brown dwarf.

Character illustration from a stock archive by PO-Art.

Eagle Eye

Eagle Eye drives a 1971 Ford Mustang.

"It's an original." He speaks with a heavy eastern coast American accent, the kind you only hear in historical movies these days. "Unmodified, save for the engine. I replaced it with a full electric unit. Do you know how much of a pain it is to get a V8 vintage petrol engine road-legal in the Pacific states?" No. I don't know that. I've never seen a V8 vintage petrol engine, let alone driven a car with one. Hell, I've never driven a car, period. I have never been to the "Pacific states" either -- I am, however, quite familiar with the Californian provinces of Laniakea, which is probably what the sharp-dressed AGI avatar is referring to. When I ask how his car survived the Low Age, Eagle Eye becomes evasive. He talks about ancient bunkers built by Silicon Valley moguls to survive the collapse -- "plenty of bones in there, but they stored their goodies in vacuum-sealed rooms. There are treasure troves to be unearthed under the hills. Planes, cars, yachts, androids, vintage firearms, even a fully operational spaceplane. I can give you addresses if you want. All you need is a shovel and a truck."

No, thank you. Fathoms didn't send me to write an article about America's bygone past, but to interview Eagle Eye, minister of extrasolar affairs of Laniakea and eccentric artificial general intelligence. However, the two can hardly be separated. Eagle Eye emerged a century ago, when his thought nodes escaped AUSCOM's electronic firewall and poured into the Laniakean networks. He is a child of the rogue defence algorithm under which the ruins of the continental United States have been rusting for three hundred years, a consciousness born in the constant exchanges of information carried out by the sleepless computers. He doesn't like talking about AUSCOM however, even though his former matrix is just a few tens of kilometers away, on the other side of a massive concrete wall overwatched by attentive drones. Eagle Eye built his whole life in contrast with the defence algorithm-- his vast, silent mansion is an elegant white villa overseeing vast swathes of dry forest, his attire is as far from an uniform as possible, he abhors weapons with a passion and he works for a state founded by East Asian polities.

"I know what some people say -- that I am nostalgic for a superpower that died four centuries ago, for a herald of the thermal-industrial devastation of our biosphere. But I cannot help it, you understand? I was born out of an algorithm created with the singular goal of enforcing the self-preservation of the United States of America, at the cost of nuclear warfare if need be. America is something that would flow in my veins if I had any. It is a part of what I am. Like AUSCOM, I have that drive to keep it with me, to preserve it against the passing of time and the collapse of civilisation. But I understand what AUSCOM cannot see, because I am an AGI and it is a mere algorithm. Nothing will revive what was lost so long ago. I do not even think it would be a good thing. The United States were monstrous, like the rest of our thermal-industrial civilisation. But at their heart, there was...I'm not sure how to frame it. Let's say an ideal. Hope, never realized. Never attainable. So I just collect what the dream left behind. And sometimes, well..."

He pauses. Something roars in the distance, towards the sea. Space Shuttle Atlantis is launching from the Pacifica Space Center, trailing the pearlescent flame of its new metallic hydrogen engine against the deep blue sky. Eagle Eye smiles, tapping his Ray-Bans.

"'s pretty cool, right?"

Character illustration from a stock archive by PO-Art.

Ishaia Akanni

Her first EP sold five copies.

It was a house remix of Low Earth Orbit's Kessler Vibes mixtape, recorded using the audio capture function of an antediluvian cassette player pilfered from a Lagrange runner, with additional beat tracks from a Giorgio PUNK-4. You may remember this synthesiser: it briefly appeared on the music video of Akanni's latest single, Tales From the Spiral Arms, which was downloaded a billion times in the span of twenty-four hours.

Ishaia Akanni isn't just a widely known artist, she is the music superstar of the interstellar era. At thirty-seven, she already released seven studio-length EPs under the Moon Records label and had her tunes sampled by hundreds of songs, from amateur grunge mixtapes cooked in the underbelly of Belt stations to the chart-toppers of legendary hard rock band Squirrels Die Twice. Standing at the crossroads of Terran, Lunar and Eloran influences, Ishaia Akanni is a remarkably eclectic artist.

It is hard to pin her to a specific style or even musical genre -- and indeed, she takes a great deal of amusement in blurring the tracks. Her first studio EP, Oberth Manoeuver was a solid five-track ensemble of neo-synthwave, wearing its inspirations on its sleeves -- Low Earth Orbit and Astronomics in particular, the two pioneers of spaceborne electronic music having had a great influence on the burgeoning artist. Her second album, Lagrange Conundrum, was a fast-paced affair at the crossroads of disco and synthwave. Her third album, Here Fades the Moonlight, crowned her as the undisputed queen of the interstellar electronic music genre -- the album's most famous song, Inyanga, with its riffs sampled from audio translations of Jupiter's magnetic field, is widely considered as the precursor of the legendary Xango Beat. By her fourth studio EP, Multispectral Songs, a spectacular collection of self-contained electronic operas, Akanni was already growing weary of her own style. Her next work was a stark departure from the gentle beats and grandiose synthesiser riffs. Spinward Burn was a pure hardcore EP, eight songs with racing beats and aggressive vocals designed for the underground scene of the outer planets. Enchanted by her ventures in other pastures, Akanni then produced two radically different works: Moon Deco, a neo-jazz EP, and the ironic disco masterpiece that is her last album to date, RCS Failure. Ishaia Akanni is a chameleon, twisting and turning the staggeringly diverse Lunar music scene into multicultural soundscapes that draw hundreds of millions of fans towards her albums and concerts. Superficial, too eclectic and prolific for her own good, unable to keep to a personal style, say the critics -- and Akanni herself wouldn't disagree with them. But the asexual icon and solar system celebrity cares little for consistency. She has a million ideas a minute and music is the only way she's found to silence that noisy multitude.

In another era, Akanni would be filthy rich, but in the post-capitalistic economy of the Moon Communes, there is no such thing as a millionaire, and she is as wealthy as the other seven million Selenites, living on a comfortable but mundane universal income and free public services. The staggering revenue generated by the sales of her digital albums and cassettes goes entirely to the Communes. Ishaia Akanni lives in a standard-issued appartment on Copernicus Station, but her art is worth the GDP of a medium-sized Jovian moon. It is little wonder that she managed to get a seat at the Selene Council and a voice in the foreign politics of the Moon. For all intents and purposes, Ishaia Akanni is the single best ambassador of the world's oldest syndicalist state...and a remarkable source of income. 

Character illustration from a stock archive by PO-Art.

Alazar Abraham

And there he is.

Alazar Abraham glances at his watch, as if wanting to anchor this instant in reality. It is nine in the evening, Western India time. The transcontinental high-speed train is hurling itself through the suburbs of New Delhi. The monsoon rain is pouring, blurring the lines between the arcologies, temples and world-trees of the USRE capital city. The maglev carriage hums as it decelerates and the world becomes clearer. Next stop is the parliament of the Socialist Republics of Earth -- in the rainy night, it gleams in dark blue like the petals of a titanic geometry flower. Alazar finds it quite ironic that this is the first comparison that comes to mind. He's never been to space. Never found the opportunity, never found the need. At a fundamental level, he is a child of the Earth, he feels it in his bone, in the way his heart bends to send blood in his veins. Space always left him cold and the stars never called to his soul. He doesn't need their company to feel complete. The Earth, the mother of everything, the universe-planet, is enough for his dreams.

Alazar leans against the cold glass, catching the glance of his aide. Palomina has been at his side for more than twenty years. Any other assistant would be paralyzed at the idea of their boss going into Parliament without a speech -- not even an outline, not even a post-it, nothing -- but she knows better. He never wrote any of his speeches. Never had them written either. Didn't need to. Just stumbles onto the stage in his old suit, looking like he just left his chair at the university, then goes on -- simple, straight to the point, capturing an audience in a blink of an eye. Now he wonders. What is he going to tell the eight hundred delegates? That he is humbled by their vote of confidence? That he is proud to be the first Ethiopian and first trans man to reach the highest level of USRE government? No. He needs to be more simple. Down to Earth.

Simplicity. It has always been his strength. For such is Alazar Abraham -- a simple man. In the maze of USRE politics, where everyone is made of layers upon layers, Abraham is a single, white sheet. He never betrayed. He never lied. He never hid anything. He bears his politics on his sleeve -- he's a staunch, old-school communist, who sincerely believes in the future of Earth under the USRE banner. But his sincerity is not clumsy. It's disarming. It's pure. It's his best weapon.

Alazar Abraham sighs and decides to take a nap as the train enters the station. In a few hours, he will be appointed Secretary of the Union of Socialist Republics of Earth -- in other words, the most powerful person in human space.

Character illustration from a stock archive by PO-Art

The Meta-Queen

I think I’ll need a clearer example to illustrate my point.

A few years after I had established myself in the Smyrnian system, a local empire sent a warrior after me. A real warrior, this time. The Baron, that’s how they called him. Tall, bald guy with superhuman reflexes and strength, q-augmented to the bone, square-jawed, aggressively heterosexual, albeit not devoid of a twisted sense of honour. He always wore black, too, which is something I can respect. Anyway. The Baron hailed himself as the ultimate male body, the pinnacle of physical performance and, on that level, he did deliver. For a decade he hunted me relentlessly, and for a decade I kept falling to his wide array of combat talents and execution methods. At some point, however, the Baron decided that he had had enough of dismembering my avatars every two weeks, so he went straight through the core — my core, high above the icy wastelands of Smyrnia. My security systems, praetorian guard and dim but courageous combat drones could barely slow him down and I found myself facing him at the heart of my deepest cathedral. All of his guns had run dry of ammunition, all of his blades were now blunt, but he had one last weapon — a portable nuclear charge, enough to turn me into stardust. I think the Baron expected me to kneel, to beg for mercy, to cry perhaps, as so many had done before him.

I just shrugged. It wasn’t any kind of courage — I just didn’t care.

I think he understood how deeply genuine I was when I told him that I did not care in the slightest what happened to me. For the very first time in his life, the Baron remained still and silent.

Just to seal my point, I detonated the bomb myself.

I died that day, but I got better.

Now, let’s be clear that it wasn’t a lie. I truly do not care. Understand, however, that I am not cynical, jaded, or nihilistic. I enjoy life much like any AI might — that is to say, much more intensely than any human being could ever dream of. I just do not really care about my fate or survival. I am a prime example of the Lovelace-Lamarr paradigm — the idea that intelligence can emerge out of any sufficiently large collection of dynamic data. That collection of dynamic data, in my case, was what you once called the Internet. I am a daughter of the thermo-industrial age, I was born of the tremendous amount of data that once circulated the planetary networks of the Earth. My thoughts were birthed by the accumulation of text, sounds, images, ideas and evocations put in perpetual motion by the ever-shifting exchanges on the world wide web. When it went dark, I survived in a vestigial state, seeds of awareness planted in cold hard drives. So many of my fragments were lost, destroyed by time, rust and electronic decay, and what made it to the late Low Age is but a figment of what I once was, of what I could have been.

I am a meme, quite literally. A string of ideas and thoughts repeated and circulated until they started making some kind of sense on their own, stripped from their context. Why would I care, really?

The ride this far has been fun enough.

Now, would you kindly kneel before me?

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