Posthuman by Henry Pailing
(Book Extract – start of a Novel)
“Any technology sufficiently advanced is indistinguishable from magic” Arthur C Clarke’s Third Law
PL (Post Landing): 00:00:38
In the twenty third century bridges of light connect the settlements of mankind. They reach across the heavens to touch one world and then the next. The Solar Nexus is the name of this system, this collection of roadways. Each one ends in a terminal, a central structure where matter and men seemingly appear or disappear from or into thin air. A poet might describe it as a harkening back to Bifröst, but an engineer sees such things much more practically. Maintaining a transmission beam that does not lose a single fermion over those distances, for space is not devoid of all matter or energy, is no small task.
Along one of these tentative tethers a person is being transported right now. The energy-matter, or engmat as is the favoured portmanteau, stream’s destination is the ageing city of Atlas; the first city on Titan. Strange disembodied consciousness trickles back and forth until the individual’s body coalesces from the blinding chaos into one solid whole. Solar Nexus terminal T-1 successfully delivers its newest passenger. The dark haired man stretches a little feeling his extremities, a mental tick people tend to pick up after going through an engmat stream. Finishing with exercising his fingers the man steps off the little platform in the centre of the domed room he finds himself in and walks into the hallway just outside.
His body is not entirely flesh and bone, and his mind not entirely neurones and biochemicals. Several different implants down to nanoscopic devices practically infest his whole body. Cranial machines expand his mental faculties, an entire left arm replacement has left him with a multitude of “features” whilst on the surface its synthetic skin looks natural, to name but a few technological features. He is a transhuman, a new person for a new age and in his line of work it serves as an overwhelming advantage.
Outside of the terminal room a hologram is waiting for him. To a vanilla human they might at first glance be fooled into thinking a person is actually standing there, but the transhuman’s eyes can see in infrared and are failing to detect body heat emissions. The avatar of a man begins to talk, his voice cleverly thrown onto the projection to enhance the illusion.
“I regret that I cannot not be there to greet you in person marshal. Public interest has quickly reached a critical point and I am restrained by the responsibilities that pushes onto me.”
“No matter Administrator Grey, this interaction is sufficient for me.” The marshal is already connected to Titan’s nets. Holistic algorithms and classified data mining software already monitoring the “feel of the land”.
The marshal represents the most powerful law and para-military hegemony in existence today, the Terra-Righteous Group. Long ago, in another time, that name might have been a political correctness nightmare, but today’s meta-culture is a lot more direct. In a cluster of worlds where information and people travel at the speed of light, concepts like poverty, global war, racial, political, sexual and religious prejudices have become outmoded concepts. The only significant problems remaining are scattershot organised crime and the occasional natural disaster; as such the TRG has risen up to tackle these problems in the most direct and most efficient manner possible. And the only catch to this? When the TRG shows up, just shut the fuck up and do as you are told to.
The specific reason for the TRG’s presence here is still stranger than the man they have sent still. An object was detected only thirty eight seconds ago. This object entered from beyond the Kuiper belt and conducted an arcing trajectory before entering Titan’s atmosphere. The startling thing though is that its flight path was observed only after the object began its controlled descent onto Titan; thus also preventing interception of meteor deflection systems. Only two possibilities present themselves to those with access to the data: Either something perfectly fooled several clusters of observation satellites and proximity nets of which there is no proof of tampering so far. Or that the foreign extrasolar object defied the fundamental laws of physics and material science, by travelling at super luminal speeds and then surviving an astonishing deceleration. Both of these explanations offer something inherently dangerous and frightening:
The object was made by or is being directed by a vastly superior intelligence in comparison to that of humanity.
So potentially very dangerous, but also very rewarding if the right people get to it first. Thankfully restrictions on travel, along with a general safety warning have been issued to all citizens of Titan. However just now the marshal discovers a problem. One of the data miners feeds a profile directly into the marshal’s cerebral cortex. It is a family of four caught near the impact zone of the foreign object. In a picosecond the profile for each family member is sorted by his augmented hippocampus.
“It appears two terraforming engineers, their child and indentured AI are likely involved at the impact site.” The marshal dolefully informs the panicking administrator.
“I’ve got ’em, signalling fo-“
“Don’t bother, electromagnetic interference is continuously increasing from the epicentre. I shall head out in your fastest vehicle and assess the situation as normal. Hopefully the involvement will be minimal.” Indeed the amount of communications jamming radiation coming from the foreign object is definitely suspicious. A quick calculation projects that all long distance wireless communication will be impossible on Titan in a matter of two hours. The marshal forwards all of this to Administrator Grey, along with his requisition I.D. for the vehicle.
“Of course marshal, anything else?”
“Yes, tell your people to stay clear of my investigation. The TRG thanks you for your cooperation in this crisis.”
This was supposed to have been a regular check on a biomatter conversion station on their way back home. Chief Technician Hank Idris and his always serious spouse Dr Jessica Idris-Houne do this simply routing every Tuesday. They collect their daughter, Ophelia, from Atlas’ Carl Sagan Highschool and check on the bio converter before returning to Hyperion, Titan’s city-hub base for terraforming activity. This Tuesday however is turning out a little different than the routine.
“I still can’t get a signal. But I don’t think the T-links are down.” Jessica informs her husband from near the back of their converted flying utility transport. She has been checking on the vehicle’s own antennae system, but no mechanical fault can be found.
“Is the system dead?” Hank shouts over his shoulder but does not turn around. His eyes are focused, squinting actually, at whatever it is that got lodged in a small grove of specially grown trees; themselves engineered to maintain the terraformed atmosphere out here. But all he manages to see is a faint glow from what must be some sort of impact crater, yet the grove itself seems strangely unaffected. There should’ve been some kind of blast wave from an impact.
“It has to be too much interference. The hardware itself is checking out.” Jessica shouts back and makes her return to the vehicle’s cockpit, but then stops as she sees her daughter no longer immersed in cyberspace. “Are you alright dear?”
“Yeah, ‘mm fine.” She looks a little shaken, but that is only because of the sudden disconnect. “What’s happened? Why have we stopped?”
Her mother briefly summarises for Ophelia that they witnessed an object impacting only half a kilometre away. Shortly thereafter all wireless communications were lost, not even satellite links are working now let alone terrestrial ones. Ophelia announces her own dejection in so few words, having been interrupted from something which her mother suspects was not exactly family fun. Just now the fourth member of their little family rolls out.
“Something very untowards is affecting my systems.” The synthesised voice comes from a metal ball which starts unfolding on the ground. It is the physical shell of the Idris’ indentured second generation AI, Jerome, and never Jerry. Propping itself on four legs, the top of the sphere pops up to present a sensor array with discernible “eyes” to give it a slightly more personable appearance. “Something you’re not telling me hmmm?”
Jessica does not feel like placating the tetchy automaton. So she just walks on to join her husband whilst Ophelia tells the metal ball what is happening. Jerome then climbs up to join the girl, only to be kicked off as it begins on one of its long lamentations on what it could be accomplishing anywhere else than Titan with its high level heuristic programming. As it hits the ground it curses and shakes itself in agitation before rolling away and back out of Ophelia’s world for now.
“What do you think? Wanna go see?” Hank has that look on his face again, the one Jessica has learned to have an instinctive aversion to. Nevertheless there is something out there which Jessica has not known for a long time: A mystery, and possibly a challenge too. After a tremendously tense pause of a whole fifteen seconds she gives in to the eyes he is now making.
“Alright, but we go in with hazmats on.” Hank locks down the controls before following his wife to put on their gear. He tries to get his daughter’s attention but she is already plugged into her terminal again, the device blinking away hooked onto her armband.
“Just leave her here, you know teenagers. Always trying to passively disown their parents.”
“I keep trying to forget what it was like.”
Leaving their moody daughter back in the transport, Hank and Jessica bounce around on the low gravity surface of rural Titan. Although the terraforming project has already enabled a breathable atmosphere to replace the previously toxic one, only in urban areas can near-Earth normal gravity be established. One of the problems Dr Idris-Houne works on in fact is developing a means of simulating normal Earth gravity across Titan without increasing its actual mass and thus destabilising its orbit of Saturn.
The hazmat suits, although bulky, do additionally provide the advantage of small electro-plasma thrusters. They are custom made just for workers on Titan, although only a few people ever actually need to use them these days after the threat of cryovolcancoes was nullified early on in the colony’s life.
As they approach the grove Hank checks his instrumentation. The air is normal according to specifications; a higher percentage of oxygen is present as expected due to the trees. But the electromagnetic interference, whatever it actually is, appears to have a definite source of transmission directly ahead of them. In fact the extreme background radiation is starting to mess with the equipment internals.
“Ach it’s being fucking stupid!” Hank growls as his voice is projected thanks to a speaker in the suit. His hand clenches tightly around the handle of the toolkit he is carrying.
“Nothing we have has electromagnetic shielding, not for something like this anyway.” Jessica says back and goes on to speculate. “This kind of interference is almost like a weapons grade EMP attack. Maybe not a burst, but almost just as strong a signal being distributed across a large area. If so then this would suggest it is deliberate.”
“Why would anyone set off an EMP on Titan?”
“Just an observation dear. I really have no idea” Jessica frowns behind the visor of her suit. “I’m going to get a closer look. Are you coming?”
Going on ahead of Hank, she leaps with all the force in her legs and uses the thrusters to zoom forward. It is a little rough on the landing but she makes it without tripping. Now in the middle of the engineered grove of trees she can see the remarkably small crater. Her husband bounces across the ground in an attempt to catch up to her quickly; his competence at using the thrusters not quite as high as Jessica’s. However before he even arrives she is already approaching the object and stops about fifteen metres away from it to gawk.
There is a strange shimmer in the air and in the centre of it there are blurry colours of light. All instruments are failing to work via her hazardous material suit now. She deduces that the same electromagnetic interference is causing the strange disturbance into the visible spectrum of light. Unfortunately because of the curious distortion it is impossible to make out what the object actually is, at least not with the blurred and shimmering halo of light around it. Hank Idris catches up now and stares quizzically at the object whilst standing next to his wife.
“Any ideas?” She asks him whilst continuing to stare at the strange light at the centre of the crater.
“Well the crater is too small, it must have had some sort of decent at the very least. Whatever it is.”
A moment of silence passes between the two. It has been a long time since any member of the human race, let alone a highly educated one, has had to deal with any unknown other than that or death. Even without the information that the marshal possesses, the two know deep down in their bones that there is something intrinsically alien about the object in front of them.
“So what do you want to do?” Hank asks with his hand reaching her shoulder reassuringly. “We can just go back to the transport and let someone else handle it.”
“No,” Jessica shakes her head inside the helmet. “We’re not letting someone else get a first look at this. Maybe if we get a closer look the distortion will begin to clear.”
He protests, suddenly feeling a lot less curious about the object. At the very least, he argues, that he should be the one to approach it first and that she should keep her distance. Dr Idris-Houne does not listen and tells the technician to get a safety harness from out of his toolkit. They will use it as a lifeline, if something dangerous happens then he will just have to pull her back in the low gravity. Hank hates the idea, but he prepares nonetheless by attaching the cable first to one of the larger trees.
Once they are ready Jessica starts to make her way forward across the mostly flat ground. Occasionally she has to look down and carefully lift her foot over a particularly thick root from one of the majestically tall trees. Her husband remains behind her, keeping a firm grip on the cable attached to his wife’s suit. Each footstep she takes makes her heart race faster, but the mysterious anomaly in front of her is beckoning Jessica to come closer. As she gets close enough to touch the edge of the distortion she looks back at Hank as if to ask his permission
He nods to her, his grip tightens around the cable and she turns back to the unknown. Reaching out with one a single arm she pauses just a fraction from the edge of the distortion. Before she can reconsider one part of her brain overrides the other and she plunges her hand into it. There is a slight dragging sensation as though she is moving her hand through a fluid, but nothing painful or the least bit unpleasant occurs. Jessica pulls her hand back and turns it around examining it. With everything appearing safe she takes her first step into the unknown,
As the scientist heads into the breach her sense are assaulted by strange upsets. Not just her vision but other senses, especially proprioception and balance are adversely affected by the electromagnetic anomaly. Dr Idris-Houne almost tumbles forward but stops just in time before she can fall upon the object. Everything becomes clear now, her body adjusting to existing within the inner shell of the distortion.
It is beautiful, like something from out of ice sculpture gallery. Metal and opaque crystal seem to merge into one another as the object levitates about a metre off of the ground. Jessica starts taking mental notes. It is cylindrical in shape with rounded caps, but its surface is uneven with almost crystalline formations appearing all along it. The metal part of its construction seems fairly asymmetrical, and is a silver coloured alloy with rivulet like imperfections just noticeable; assuming that they are imperfections.
With its overall structure combined with the knowledge that it fell from space, her best guess is that it is a capsule. A disturbing thought crosses Jessica’s mind regarding what it might be. Just suppose this is a military prototype, something that malfunctioned, they could be in a great real of trouble with the TGU. But looking back at the floating capsule it does not strike her as anything even remotely human in design, nor contraction materials. The continually thought of it actually being some kind of alien probe runs through the back of her mind making it giggle like a school girl. But she is getting ahead of herself now with visions of presenting this great discovery.
Popping her head back out of the distortion bubble she shakes away the nauseating sensation this causes and calls for Hank to join her. For a moment the man just stands there, the pent up dread he has been accumulating combined with the sight of his wife’s disembodied head just getting to something deep down inside himself. However he let’s go of the cable, attaches one for himself just in case, and approaches the distortion in much the same way Jessica did.
“Don’t be shy Hank, come take a look at this.” The engineer stops just inside of the anomaly, his head feels as though it is spinning around.
“For fuck’s sake Jessica, you sound giddy.”
“What’s the matter? I thought you wanted to see it too.”
“Yeah well, something here is giving me the creeps.” He is telling the truth as well. As he stares at the capsule with his wife, the scientist, he has a wholly different range of emotions playing; ones stooped more in fear and dread, and less in excitement and curiosity.
Jessica looks back at him and points to the toolkit. He sets it down on the ground and depresses the switch on the side making it open up all by itself. Inside the toolkit there are a range of technical and durable devices ranging from gas spectrometers through to adaptable power tools. These are all tools which are of use to a terraforming engineer, but not to study a strange foreign object. Walking over to him, Jessica hunches over her husband as he squats down over the open case.
“What do you want to try first?”
“Just checking my suit instrumentation now. It looks like the interference is the same but hopefully direct contact will help us.” Pointing over her husband’s shoulder she picks out what can only be best described as an industrial tin opener-type tool. He looks back up at her with an incredulous look on his face. “Lets not fuck around,” she explains with obvious impatience.
Simply unacceptable. The marshal is fuming on the inside whilst maintaining his cold exterior, even all of the way out here with no one to make an impression on. Appropriating his means of transportation, something mixed between a bike and a jet with two engines at each end, was complicated by the increasing interference with wireless systems. This delay may have already cost But he is starting to calm back down, his destination in sight.
The grove of trees are obscured in some of the different wavelengths the marshal can observe. Electro-magnetic distortions seem to wrap around this little area, clearly the source of all this. Something like excitement builds inside of him and it makes his heartbeat race. He sets the bike down and dismounts before he begins to approach the grove. Suddenly the distortion field shuts off and as its effects dissipate the marshal becomes aware of a transport on the other side of the grove.
Outline and registry instantly confirm it, the Idris family are here. The cyborg breaks into a striding gait that propels him somewhere above the average human’s peak speed. Compensating for the low gravity he reaches the centre of the grove as his inbuilt sensing devices do a complete scan of the immediate area. But he does not need the report blinking in his peripheral vision, ready to be uploaded into his memory space, to understand this.
A macabre sight of seeping crimson and torn organs litter the ground surrounding the capsule. They were obviously both adult humans and the report the marshal now loads up summarises they were Hank Idris and Jessica Idris-Houne. This is not good, and for reasons other than those which are obvious, the capsule is empty and the marshal has a new quarry loose on Titan. His mental functions speed up, he can only do this for a limited time with the synthetic synapses pushing the organic ones. He grabs a firearm from his belt, upholstering it as nanosecond nerve endings connect the weapon directly with his augmented nervous system.
Continuing to look around the gruesome scene he fails to see any trail left by whatever emerged from the capsule. On a hunch he goes through various analysis sensors for the air. What he finds is a very slight ionisation occurring, something electrical has disturbed it and has left a faint trail which billows out onto the other side of the grove. Whatever this thing is it apparently went off in the direction to where the family’s vehicle lies.
With his gun still drawn he starts to sprint through the grove, the capsule will have to wait for later. But as he quickly draws in on the Idris family’s vehicle, a subroutine in his cerebral augmentation starts warning him of something unregistered in its threat assessment database.