Helionox: Tales from the Systems End – The Secret Pilgrim
Part One: Sub Rosa
By T M Romanelli
Pleida had dedicated her considerable wealth and influence to finally gather all of the necessary resources in one place for the completion of her latest endeavor. Accustomed to planning decades in advance, she had on more than one occasion accelerated the adoption of a new technology rather than wait for its plodding commercial maturation. Her ability to leverage market trends and realize impressive dividends would have been celebrated by the media had she not prized the anonymity that permitted her to conduct business like a Ministry of System Security black op. In time she had created the most profitable business enterprise among the colonized worlds, even if no one knew of its existence, and it provided her the financial and logistical means to support several diverse projects simultaneously. Pleida had long ago dispensed the pretense of vanity and her accumulated fortune and power were only important as a means to subsidize her most secret agenda. Time was now the most precious commodity, and she was deeply troubled by how quickly it seemed to be running out.
The requisite components had been sourced from hundreds of vendors throughout the system so that no authority would have been likely to notice the pattern of purchases or could have identified the final shipment destination. Each piece of equipment, refined metals and advanced electronics was accompanied by a forged bill of lading and assigned invoice that was sufficiently authentic as to withstand a detailed inspection. The special biological material was ordered only in small quantities, and slowly accumulated over a period of months to avoid detection by the Customs Enforcement Ministry that was responsible for prosecuting violations of the Technology Export Control Act. Every single item was shipped through layers of shell companies and third-party carriers so that each freight dispatch was rendered untraceable.
The final terminus for these clandestine shipments was the subterranean research complex that Pleida had commissioned just beyond the demilitarized zone that surrounded the city limits of Hatra. The irony of this location was not lost on her since the region had once harbored the cradle of Old World civilization. The facility laid in stark contrast to the ancient ruins that were a short distance away, and her implant could have provided a virtual exploration of the municipality as it had been at the height of its glory millennia ago. The crumbling battlements and columns of the old city held no interest for her but she maintained the fiction that it had been funded by a prestigious university for the purposes of archeological study, and this fallacy was one of many that was designed to shield the current activity. What remained true was that any programmed extrapolation of the old city would have been incomplete, because her Conservators could not resurrect the genuine historical records that had been irreversibly corrupted by warfare or neglect. Despite their considerable skills, these fragmented histories could never be made whole and it was difficult to meaningfully chart the waypoints of potential futures projected within the Chronicle. This fact continued to haunt her.
As the final elements arrived from their staging area on Luna, Pleida conducted an inspection of the three-level complex and its personnel. This was the first time she had visited the facility since its completion, and her staff finished wiping the memory processors of the construction drones before releasing them back to remote contractors. She would reside here for the duration of the project, and as Pleida roamed the corridors and central administration area she was satisfied that her intermediaries had fulfilled her exacting specifications.
The complex and all of its machinery required substantial amounts of energy, which could not be reliably delivered by the regional grid and threatened to draw unwanted attention when utilization tariffs were issued by the local department. Buried half a kilometer beneath the complex was a small fusion core, which was nested at the bottom of a pilot hole drilled before the heavy wellhead was installed. The sealed Helium-3 unit provided abundant energy to the complex, which was then weaned from the temporary stacks of deuterium fuel cells that had powered it during the initial phase of construction. There were no radioactive emissions from this system, but it did require higher ignition temperatures to sustain the reaction. The Conservators made sure that the reactor vessel and its fail-safe moderator was buried at a sufficient depth to cloak its presence from thermoptic scans.
Pleida wished her followers possessed the needed aptitudes for the next phase of the project, but she reluctantly had to rely upon the skills of artisans outside of their circle. A significant retainer was paid for the services of a small engineering guild whose expertise was matched by their discretion, and the stipulations of their contract included a bonus schedule and appropriate benefits for the isolation they were expected to endure. They arrived by a circuitous route so that satellite imagery would not reveal the true complement of personnel working within the facility. Security badges were issued and each engineer carried a personal data slate that would organize shifts and help them navigate the complex with a projected hologram.
After a brief rest period, they started their work.
The analytical engine was a singular design, more intricate than the quantum computers used by the Mercantile Exchange. After many long hours testing configurations in the main workshop, the engineers created a tall cylinder and inserted long cellulosic sheets that formed a woven lattice to support the germinating neural networks. It was primed with a nutrient-rich medium that bathed the maturing circuitry in a complex blend of disaccharides and electrolytes. An aerator delivered oxygen and removed carbon dioxide from the chamber, ensuring an optimized environment for accelerated cellular growth. Continuous streams of small bubbles rose from the container’s base to the filtering equipment positioned at the top, where a myriad of pipes and conduits ran beside the transparent polymer. The entire unit was braced in an open metal frame with embedded monitors that displayed information about chemical balances and laminar flow rates.
The engineers had done their best to limit the size of the device, but it still occupied a substantial portion of the main workshop and had displaced some of the minor manufacturing activities to other nearby sections. Auxiliary power and life support mechanisms only added to its considerable mass, so that heavy equipment would have to be used for its relocation. Pleida had dismissed the mobility limitations raised by the engineers during the initial design interviews, but mandated that no part of the structure be permanently affixed within the facility.
The biomimetic circuitry had blossomed into unique patterns, with countless branching pathways interweaving with each other in a delicate codependency. The process had taken much longer than originally planned because of the occasional impurities that had corrupted portions of the organic matrix, so the engineers continued refining nutrient substrates to sustain the growth of the neural networks and amplify the diversity of interconnections. The fully matured cellular nodes were irregular, some noticeably larger than others, and each one had developed a specialized function such that some network segments were very efficient at mathematical optimization while others excelled at automated reasoning. The most substantial clusters had formed near the center, and were capable of probabilistic calculations using dynamic Bayesian algorithms that mapped the correlations of innumerable variables and their propagating effects on each other. This was the core of the analytical engine.
The engineers predicted many obstacles in reliably sustaining an organic computer but also advised caution regarding any programming enhancements, as this approach had the potential to violate the Interworlds Government moratorium on synthetic intelligence. Whereas cortical simulators and static neural networks were permissible but heavily regulated, the inception of an independent sentient agent had been decreed a capital offense by the High Magistrate. They emphasized the importance of these statutes during one of the briefing sessions with their employer. Pleida had listened attentively and praised their caution, but then misled them into believing the device could only be used to predict value fluctuations within the Common Market, allowing her holding company to profit handsomely from arbitrage positions.
After some time, portions of the network emitted a soft-blue glow that was refracted throughout the cylinder volume. The bioluminescent cells had spontaneously arisen from their stem lines and replicated, creating the appearance of an exotic aquarium with the neural growths spreading throughout it like coral beds. At first, the engineers theorized that this was an undesirable mutation and prepared to reseed the matrix, but Pleida recognized these emergent properties and instructed them to do nothing. The light patterns varied in frequency and intensity and the pulse sequences became another form of data compression that was exchanged between different parts of the network. The analytical engine was thoroughly tested with a variety of input loads and stresses and its performance exceeded all predicted benchmarks. The foundation of computational intelligence was firmly established, and the next evolution would begin the systems integration protocol.
A series of increasingly complex tutorials was administered, testing the device’s current cognitive limits and correcting deficits when they were found. The exercises challenged the functions of each sub-unit in isolation and as elements of an integrated nexus. The analytical engine achieved all desired specifications, although there were a few results that surprised the engineers. Some of the network divisions had developed language processing, speech recognition and basic visual acuity. There were also indications that the machine was capable of recursive learning and could reorder its synaptic hierarchies when exposed to novel stimuli. These developments concerned the engineers because they had installed appropriate programming safeguards to prevent the generation of rudimentary awareness. Pleida had overwritten these limits without their knowledge, and after enduring so many past failures she dared to hope that this time would be different.
Unsettled by this incident, the engineers challenged the device with a modified Turing test and Boltzmann reductive series. When the comprehensive analysis was reviewed, there could be no doubt that an independent sentience had manifested despite their precautions. During the briefing that followed, the mood among the engineers was somber as they realized that all of their progress would be confiscated and then destroyed in accordance with the laws governing synthetic intelligence. They informed their patron with a mixture of fear and apology that all work must cease and an official investigation was needed to exonerate them of unintentional criminal activity.
Pleida was seated at the head of the table in the largest conference room where she listened to the assembled guild leaders as they issued their report regarding this most unfortunate occurrence and the recommended course of action. She nodded in agreement and mirrored their concerned expressions while they waited for her to berate them for this setback and wasted materials. If things were different, she would have congratulated the engineers and embraced them for their singular achievement, but she already knew what their future held.
Pleida rose silently from the table and assured them that her staff would take the necessary steps to minimize the legal repercussions of their mistake. She left the conference room and silently linked to Rojaan, who immediately ordered her followers to isolate all communications and purge the facility. As she entered the elevator, her last view of the engineers was through the glass partition, and she remembered that the retainers of the Egyptian Pharaohs would have sacrificed themselves and be entombed with their king to preserve their secrets. Pleida was confident her followers would deliver a more merciful fate.
Although the Conservators were not trained soldiers, the weapons released from the secret armory gave them a decisive advantage against their unsuspecting guests. The engineers throughout the complex were hunted and killed, the aggression of their hosts so surprising that few even had the chance to scream. The massacre was brutal but efficient and the Emeritus commenced the evacuation protocol before the bodies had grown cold. Pleida had observed the cleansing from her command center, and while these deaths were regrettable, she had already sacrificed a number of moral luxuries to achieve her greater goal.
The analytical engine was carefully transferred onto a dropship that ascended to its rendezvous with Pleida’s cruiser, the Scion. The unit was delivered to its station deep within the inner hull. Far below, the fusion core that had been sabotaged by the Conservators reached criticality. As the vessel prepared to leave orbit, the workshops that had nurtured the sentient agent, the remains of the doomed engineers and the ancient city walls of Hatra were consumed in a brilliant light. The Scion engaged its drive and left the Old World behind.
Only now could the real work could begin.
They transited as far as Saturn before Pleida and her closest initiates were satisfied that they had distorted their trail sufficiently to avoid unwanted interruptions. The complex had represented an unusually large investment, but it paled in comparison to the prize that was cradled in the ship’s hold. The Emeritus had disembarked on Luna so he could be present when the current cycle ended and other Conservators would emerge from stasis. The rotation schedule had served them well for hundreds of years, keeping selected members active while sustaining others in dreamless cryosleep. These periods were variable, based upon the skills required for the meticulous transcription of the histories that would be incorporated into the Chronicle. Almost all of the Conservators would be awakened now, for she needed the primary archive in its most complete form for dissemination to her pupil.
The Conservators had been recruited over many years, organized as a bygone fraternal order with the members distributed among different geographical septs. Trained by Pleida to amend and maintain the Chronicle, each group also possessed other abilities that supported her objectives. The sept members that accompanied her now specialized in ship operations, and her brief inspection of the cruiser they traveled on revealed it had been thoroughly refitted according to her instructions.
As the ranks of Conservators expanded under her tutelage, levels of authority and responsibility were granted in an ascending order from servile Advocates to the senior Adepts who administrated the various septs and the rare Emeritus that was personally appointed to supervise the most vital tasks. There were generations of them now, and those who had died peacefully or otherwise in her service were eulogized on special occasions. Pleida had outlived them all due to her regular use of life extension therapies- cortical remapping, protein remodeling and ribonucleic renewal were the methods of her enduring status and her sole privilege. Throughout her existence she had discarded many aliases, worn different bodies and even changed genders. Her followers venerated her as the Undying Sovereign, the Eternal Matriarch and the Ascended Intellect.
Although Pleida tried to limit the distractions of ritual and symbolism that tended to permeate a secret society, she encouraged the minor ceremony that marked the surgical alteration of her followers as they received a cortical interface. Information flowed through this device, linking all of them across enormous distances and coordinating their activities. Some of the data was encrypted so its contents were revealed only to a select few and in this way, sensitive projects could be compartmentalized and effectively hidden from the others.
The technology that united her acolytes was a central feature of their cultural identity, so Pleida was not entirely surprised when the septs adopted distinctive tattoos near the outlet at the skull base. This minor conceit was tolerated because it reinforced the commitment she demanded from her followers, all of whom had surrendered any vestiges of personal privacy and gave themselves completely to serve their leader. They were never truly alone or without her guidance, even when separated by different orbital paths.
The interface could also be used to deliver suitable punishments when she was displeased. Decades ago, a faction from the Martian Sept had abused the potential of the Chronicle for material gain. Copying a small portion of the primary archive, they went rogue and escaped towards the outer system settlements. When Pleida discovered their deceit, she activated a feedback loop within their implants that caused substantial brain damage. Unable to disengage the autopilot, their ship became a prison and carried their mindless bodies beyond the light of Sol. Word of this transgression and its consequence spread among the septs, and Pleida reluctantly accepted the principle that fear renewed faith.
Adept Lovell was waiting for her in the ship’s library, where he had sequestered himself and several other Advocates to proof the final version of the Chronicle. Unlike some other areas of the vessel, this compartment was brightly lit and filled with consoles that depicted numerous sets of equations, unusual symbols and serial outputs. Pleida was well versed in the complex metamaths that Adept Lovell and his team practiced- she had bestowed this knowledge upon them years before and was pleased to see her teachings deliver meaningful results.
Pleida sensed that the Adept was nervous while he briefed her on their progress. Lovell had served her faithfully with steady competence and she had no reason to doubt his abilities. A private link was established to discuss the project details. They remained immobile and silent during their communion, although the Adept moved his lips through the course of their mute dialogue. The other Conservators continued their studies and respectfully ignored this exchange. She gently explored the Adept’s superficial thoughts and had learned to interpret the subtext of emotion that often accompanied this merger, appreciating the contextual clues that direct data traffic could not convey. Lovell was as proud of their accomplishments as he was humbled by the trust placed in him to curate the Chronicle. An aura of rigorous discipline and care surrounded the theorems that coursed between them and Pleida would have been moved by his sincere devotion had she not discarded the hindrance of emotion in her remote youth. Lovell had proven himself worthy, so she reflected back upon him the notion that one day he would become an Emeritus, and his anxiety receded with this unexpected praise. Pleida knew that the strength of his unwavering commitment would allow her to manipulate him as she had Rojaan, and that this boundless adoration could be channeled into the creation of a new life form or subverted to commit mass murder.
The link dissipated and Pleida prepared to leave, allowing them to focus on their specific tasks under Adept’s guidance. She celebrated each of them and restated the importance of their work in relation to her personal goals. Before she secured the hatch, she inquired when the Chronicle would be ready. Lovell’s answer pleased her.