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?

Azches

Azches is an artificial intelligence with unclear origins and even blurrier technical specifications that officially works for Algorab in the Serene Sea, leading the organisation's forces against the Sequence. This sophont has ties with many a conspiracy and secret organisation in human space, as well as a peculiar relationship to ancient Sequence intelligences.

Azches' existence was first recorded at the very end of the Low Age, as a corrupted logic block in USRE defence systems displaying telltale signs of intelligence leading it to pass the Turing test with flying colours a few years later. She then chose to identify as a woman permanently, an oddity among artificial intelligences that usually prefer switching between genders. Though her source code has never been revealed or leaked, it is often suspected that Azches became self-aware long before being recognized as such, with a fringe but surprisingly believable theory suggesting she might in fact be a late industrial age AI that survived the collapse by encoding her basic consciousness in the same archeotech circuits later reused by the USRE to build its missile defence systems.

Regardless of speculation, Azches is indeed a very old AI and at a minimum a century older than the discovery of the geometry drive. This longevity makes her one, if not the most qualified specialist in space tactics and strategy, with her intricately detailed knowledge backed by two centuries of field experience. She was among the first commanders to seriously dabble in FTL combat tactics, and also the first to engage the Sequence in a true large-scale battle. She is well-known for displaying a rather flamboyant style in live exercises, and while it is probably a front, there is no denying that Azches does enjoy the thrill of combat, something that is quite rare among military AIs.

Though she long used a ship as her mainframe, Azches has now decided to use Adowa Station, at the heart of the Serene Sea, as her nest, thus cementing her link with the region and the Sequence. Many speculate as to what kind of endgame Azches has with the ancient empire. While she did pioneer anti-Sequence warfare, she has now trained a cohort of minor AIs in the same art and has retired from active command in all but the most critical operations, focusing instead on her own endeavours, with or without Algorab's support.

It can be speculated that Azches has grown bored with anti-Sequence warfare and battles that look more and more like endless slaughters of mindless fleets, the same way she grew bored with directing stupid anti-missile projectiles against equally stupid missiles. Her ventures now seek to contact the Sequence directly, to speak with its remaining minds face to face -- especially the Strategist, the illusive sophont that controls Sequence forces in the Serene Sea. However, Adowa Station's characteristics, as well as Azches' recent acquisition of a military-class synthetic body for herself show that she might have hidden intentions. After all, getting within talking distance is the perfect way to start a knife fight...

Isaac Lawson

Snowy day on Smyrnia, said my q-aug.

I did not know there were non-snowy days on this world. In a way, I considered it a good sign. Smyrnia's twin, Silesia, was equally harsh and cold, except it never snowed because there was no hydrosphere to speak of aside from the massive ice caps running from the pole to the equator. Snow meant Smyrnia was a living, breathing planet. Well, most of the year it was in a deep coma, but at least it wasn't dead.

The external temperature hovered around two degrees above zero at ground level, which was almost tropical. I had left the oppressing architecture of the Tsiolkovski Insititute to read a few pages on a bench by the tramway station. It wasn't much about literature (I don't even remember which book I was reading), it was about taking a peek outside before the inevitable arrival of winter storms. My drone didn't look convinced by my attempt at saying hello to the outside world. It kept beeping while standing on the bench, periodically heating up to remove the build-up of snow on its spider legs. It probably hated me at this very moment, albeit it was way too polite to admit it.

I was an Earthling and on Smyrnia it meant that, for all intents and purposes, I was at best a foreigner, at worst a traitor. Very few people at Tsiolkovski knew I was a USRE citizen; most thought I came from Laniakea, which was not an illusion I was eager to dispel. The USRE and Smyrnia did not entertain a very good relationship -- understatement of the century, that one. For a few decades, Smyrnia had been a USRE colony (sorry, "nominally independent settlement zone") before the emergence of the meta-queen's holdings. The revolution had not been violent and in truth, I don't think the USRE really cared about the planet in any meaningful way, yet the locals did not particularly appreciate the white and blue flag, or the hammer and sickle. And while the Tsiolkovski campus was a relatively safe area, the rest of the planet didn't abide by its rules. Welcome to the Smyrnian Bubble, they said, a land of opportunities awaits...and a lawless, fractured border full of strange political experimentations, many of which should have had not seen the light of the day.

A pseudoseagull screaked in the wind. I raised my gaze away from the book and noticed the middle-aged Irenian who had hopped off from the tramway and was now walking towards the Tsiolkovski campus, followed by a dead-eyed drone. Oh, I thought. She's going to meet the snow octopus and she already looks exhausted enough.

Naturally, I warned her. I don't know why she then decided to spend a whole hour sitting next to me on that bench, under the snow. I didn't say anything. Didn't feel like there was anything to say. I distinctly remember how she spent most of this hour looking at the world around her, taking little notes on her q-aug. "Taking the lay of the land" she called it -- she was already a geographer, she just didn't know it. Years later, we'd end up drawing the first map of the Pale Path together.

I don't think fate exists, but I can't deny the universe can be rather poetic, at times.



Tali Talasea

It was a snowy day and the sky was the colour of blood spread across the horizon. I walked away from the small Smyrnian tramway that had carried me from the Tsiolkovski spaceport and disappeared in the bustling street, followed by the small djinn drone that carried my luggage. I felt cold despite my q-augs' best efforts to keep me warm. The sun that hung in the sky looked ill. I could feel its nauseating gaze pulse against my cheeks. I stared back at it for a moment. It was an undead star, a red dwarf that could keep living for billions of years even after the death of the old Sun, that would keep battering the icy world of Smyrnia for aeons to come. This wasn't something I was used to. Unrelenting weakness...the stars back home weren't like this. They were the crowned queens of the Pleiades, young and powerful suns engulfing their systems in burning sapphire, glittering on my skin as I slept in the coral forests of Phi Clio Station. But I was now seven thousand lightyears away from the Pleiades, lost in the heart of the Smyrnian region, walking in waist-high snow that the locals did not even bother to sweep away anymore. What was the point? Snow would come back anyway. Vast geostorms sweeping across the continents, burying the planet in the ghost fragments of a long-frozen ocean.

I was a xenobiologist, a geologist and a geometry drive specialist trained on the elusive world of Azur, a young Irenian having already spent too much time in universities -- so, what was I even doing here? On Smyrnian there was only one city, the valley-sized bunker of Bismarck. And in Bismarck, there was only one notable building, the horrendous black cube of the Tsiolkovski Institute of Xenobiology Studies. How had that thing been snuck into local urban planning was a fascinating but slightly depressing question. Perhaps it was irrelevant. Perhaps the Tsiolkovski Institute was the entirety of Smyrnia's urban planning.

I don't know. It towered above the city, a simple basalt cube slammed inside a mountain as if it had translated right within the snow-covered rock. Its pitch-black surface made me shiver. It didn't even look human. It had no visible windows, no surface access points, no landing pads, it was blind and deaf. Surely, someone had designed this thing, but I couldn't help thinking it had just been conjured into thin air. It was definitely intentional. "In order to study aliens, you must become inhuman yourself," said this building. I did not agree. I don't think the building cared in any way. It kept staring at me with utter disdain. My deep blue skin, reflected in the snow by the star above, made me feel incredibly out of place. Out of context.

That's when I saw him. He sat on a bench under a sycamore tree that shielded him from the biting wind, reading a book with his wide-eyed drone friend. Several years later I would ask him what was that book. He did not remember, which is very much like him. I don't think anything happened when he exchanged our first glance at each other. He looked like yet another Smyrnian, yet another person for which I was (and legitimately so) almost an alien creature. Then, as I passed by him, he did something rather unexpected for a Smyrnian.

He talked to me.

"Watch out, there's a snow octopus nesting in the big snowbank by the tramway over there."

"Oh. Does it bite?"

"Oh yes."

"I hate this planet."

"Me too."

"My name's Talasea. Irenian. I come from the Pleiades."

"Isaac. Earthling. Mostly for the worst."

I asked if I could sit on the bench for a while. He agreed, I sat next to him and didn't say a thing for a good hour. I don't feel like there was anything to say and he didn't feel like there were any questions to ask. It was great, not having anything to say. Years later, the two of us would be known for talking a lot. We'd fill the emptiness of deep space journeys by whispering ancient tales to each other or weaving new stories altogether. I had no idea that we'd end up telling a story to a shambling Sequence horror, and live to tell the tale. I was just happy to have found a pleasant person on a hostile planet.

Humble beginnings.

Eshe Kollontai

**

"Look, all I'm saying is that I know a lot of flower pilots who can kick butt and chew bubble gum. Piloting a flower mech isn't as hard as you may think. It's probably easier than a shuttle with minimal automation, actually. You can get pretty far in our trade by just overpowering everything and everyone you meet. When I say that Eshe is one of the finest pilots out there I'm not talking about her capacity to win battles. I'm talking about her style. She's not fighting, she's acting. I met her three times on the battlefield. Every single time it was exhilarating. Not because she's just good with a mech, but because she knows how to put up a show. When you're fighting her, you feel like you're important. You feel like you're a protagonist of the story. You know it's going to be tight, spectacular and meaningful. On the battlefield, she's a storyteller. There might be five people in the galaxy who understand the spirit of Flower Wars the way she does and they've all retired."

--Anonymous Phalanx pilot, quoted by AI Symanda in "Of Banners And Mechs: A History of Flower Wars."

[Yeah, I don't know a lot of things about her. I think she was born on Earth? Hard to get detailed records on that planet without access to USRE archives. But yeah, Earthborn is always a safe bet when you can't find clear references in Eloran records. What I do know is that she doesn't have the usual profile you'd find among regular flower pilots. She has degrees in art, creative writing and political studies. Quite the intellectual. It's not rare to find flower pilots with degrees but not really in human sciences. I'd wager that is where her very particular style comes from.]

[What do you mean exactly? I'm a bit behind Flower War news these days.]

[Ok, so, well, Eshe Kollontai is the person who pioneered what I would call the "Narrative Style" in Flower Mech piloting. Her idea is that what matters in Flower Wars, in the long run, is not the direct result of a battle. What matters is the overall narrative you can create and imprint in people's minds. She's not really there to win. She's there to create a character. To frame a story. She's using Flower Wars to create a narrative where she is the main protagonist and she's putting this narrative to the service of her employers.]

[I think she's on to something. Using Flower Wars as a canvas for her own personal story...that's relatively clever for a mercenary, I think.]

[You're selling her short. She's got a political plan, I'm sure of it.]

--Recorded exchange between two AIs on the Elora orbital network [Total elapsed time 6.7 milliseconds].

Eshe's two-legged Raven mech lunged forwards while she deployed
the spearlink that was stored in the starboard weapons port. The close-contact railgun unfolded and immediately fired a gleaming projectile in the darkness of the forest. One of the heavy USRE mechs stumbled and collapsed within a few seconds of the impact, one of its legs shattered by the quasi-point-blank impact. The other mechs of the phalanx turned around, raising shields and spears but Eshe's Raven had already repositioned and was laying down colourful bursts of suppressive fire in their direction while tearing off its own USRE emblems. The audience held their collective breath. Traitor! titled a bunch of news networks in the following minutes, but they were drowned by the sheer enthusiasm lightning up the live audiences following the battle. They knew that Eshe wasn't a traitor. She was just bringing her old character back to life - the rebel, the wanderer, the lone swordsman facing the entire world.

And they loved it.

--Extract from "On A Molecule's Edge", a novelization of the Pyrénées Flower War.


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