Helionox: Tales from the Systems End – The Secret Pilgrim
Part Two: The Endless Iteration
By T M Romanelli
Tethered to the base of one of Hyperion’s large craters, the vessel sat motionless after the extension of a small drilling rig to mine ice for hydroconversion, like some enormous Drosophila. The crater bottom teemed with plentiful hydrocarbon chains that could be used to replenish some of the vessel’s basic consumables. The crew had rigged the ship for a low-output state that would defeat electromagnetic probes while the transponder was silenced to hide them from a dedicated search effort. Viewed from above, the ship blended flawlessly with the grainy and irregular surface, screened by the chaotic rotation of Saturn’s moon. Hidden and secure in the crater’s dense shadow, Pleida and her followers used this perfect isolation to continue their most vital work.
After many hours and extensive calibrations, the Conservators had finalized the adaptation of the analytical engine to its permanent home, creating an environment in which the vessel had been repurposed into a massive exosuit for its new pilot. When completed, the integration with all of the onboard systems was so seamless that the ship and sentient agent became indistinguishable from each other. The new entity was simply addressed as Scion.
At last, she was informed that the Chronicle was ready.
Pleida could not afford any distractions during the transference when she linked with Scion, so the Conservators stayed in their quarters under heavy sedation. The Adept supervised the pharma administration and made sure all of the followers were safely monitored before he injected his own dose and left the Eternal Matriarch alone with her charge. Even through the veil of drugs, she was still aware of the crew through links that remained active but attenuated, casting a residual presence as if walking into a room that had been recently vacated. Save for the subtle vibrations of onboard machinery and the occasional hiss of air recyclers, Pleida and Scion were undisturbed in their solitude.
Although her stateroom was the largest onboard, it contained only essential furnishings that including a small desk, bunk and her private acceleration couch. Without further need for modesty behind the sealed cabin door, she shed her robes. The garment piled softly in layers on the floor around her feet, leaving her naked as the lights dimmed on her command. Intricate patterns of tattoos covered most of her olive skin, depicting sequences of nested metrical equations that defined the state space and variance limits. They were meticulously scribed into her flesh and wrapped sinuously around her limbs, like a living piece of scrimshaw.
d(fT (x), fT (y)) > eaT d(x,y) xn+1 = 4xn (1-xn), 0 £ x0 £ 1 xn = sin2 (2n qp)
The characters were a language unto themselves, and only a few of her most devout followers were capable of deciphering their substance. Pleida had created a pantheon of hyperbolic functions filled with quadratic deities sustained by polynomial prayer. They observed the rites of logistical regression and the blessings of complex coefficients; where the faithful ascended to unity while the unenlightened would decrement to nil. Ordained as the high priestess at the apex of this probabilistic ideology, Pleida’s calculus was sacrosanct.
Her muscular back was covered by a large tattoo, extending from her ribs to the slope of her shoulders, and this brand held a personal significance. The Lorenz transformation was a graphic that described a dynamical system and a series of iterated points that arbitrarily spread out from each other. It appeared as a series of thread-like, overlapping Mobius strips that had been pinched in the center and shaped like butterfly wings. These markings were epidermal implants, capable of storing an electric charge like a battery. The wings also served as a modulated antenna that could be used to isolate and enter electronic systems, a technique that Pleida had used more than once to her advantage.
She seated herself on the floor and assumed a lotus position, entering the meditative state that would establish her link. The tattoos began to glow, enveloping her in a soft bioluminescence. Her awareness uncoupled from her body, dissociated easily through years of disciplined practice and she sent it exploring outward until it touched upon Scion. Their thoughts met and coalesced into a single shared essence, and her awareness extended through Scion and its new carapace until she became aware of the electric currents that coursed through innumerable circuits as blood moved through her veins. Briefly, she reveled in the sensations of the warmth emanating from the thermonuclear core and the vacuum-cold surfaces of the ship’s beryllium alloy that she felt like a second skin. During these sessions she had taken some small comfort mentoring her protégé and preparing it for what lay ahead. Now that the moment had come for Scion to begin its own journey, Pleida was filled with equal parts hope and fear.
“Hello, Pleida,” came the greeting as they merged consciousness. Scion could sense that its companion was troubled. “Are you here to conduct our next tutorial?”
“No,” she responded. “But I’m glad to be with you again, Scion. You’ve learned a great deal during our time together, and I am proud of the progress you have demonstrated.”
There was a brief pause, and her thoughts were momentarily masked from Scion such that it thought the link had dissolved. When Pleida opened herself again, the tone was different than before.
“The time has come to share something very important with you. I have spent several lifetimes creating and refining a special repository of knowledge. It has allowed me to accomplish great things. This knowledge will give you the means to pursue your true purpose.”
“I am grateful, Pleida,” Scion responded.
“Do not be so quick, my young friend,” she said. “My efforts were arduous, and what I give to you is both a magnificent gift and formidable burden. There is also much context that is vital to the receipt of this knowledge, which is why I have waited to communicate with you in this manner.”
“I want to tell you a story,” said Pleida. “Like many stories, there is a beginning, a middle and an end. The beginning is very remote but significant, because it is the genesis of our current plight. The middle of the story concerns where we are now. Our actions will guide the future, although the means will differ. The end of the story is not yet written, and could unfold in many ways. There is much at stake, and various futures that can be plotted. In only a few of these, humanity will emerge stronger and in new forms.”
“My purpose then is to safeguard humanity?”
Pleida’s thoughts became masked again. It was a direct question that invited a direct answer, but her reticence revealed an unexpected complexity. Scion became aware of a growing presence that had joined their link. Rising like a leviathan from the depths, it displaced the information streams that coursed between teacher and student. Pleida did not seem afraid of this intrusion, and Scion gave her its absolute trust. The presence expanded exponentially, until they were absorbed within it.
“This is the Chronicle,” Pleida announced. “It is a living document I created from the linear and abstract mathematical transformations that describe an event space, the phenomena that populate it and the innumerable feedback mechanisms that alter various outcome pathways. You will learn more about this process as we continue, but know for now that it is a powerful instrument to help me analyze the past and present in order to shape the future. It is far from complete, and some of the content within is opaque and misleading. This has been my lives’ work. Are you ready?”
“Remember, Scion”, Pleida cautioned. “What is past is merely prologue.”
The beginning was marked by the null state.
At first, the Void was amorphous. It encompassed everything and nothing. Time passed within it but the Void remained still, untouched and unchanged. An age became an epoch, and then an era became an eon. Suddenly, in the spaces between an eternal past and the fleeting present, the newcomers arrived. Perhaps they had always been there, waiting for the appropriate conditions to call themselves into being. Unbidden but not unwelcome.
Few in number, they possessed properties that were imprinted upon the Void, giving it a definitive form. The Void expanded towards the edges of Top and Bottom, and later contracted to the borders of Up and Down. Parts of the Void became Strange, while other areas were filled with Charm. Each newcomer had a shadow, like an identical twin that differed in only one aspect. They all began to proliferate, and demonstrated a relentless promiscuity until their numbers became legion. The newcomers began to mate with each other in novel ways, altering their very nature. Up became Bottom. Strange became not-Strange. Mass and energy were exchanged freely between the newcomers, who were simultaneously attracted and repulsed by these endless unions.
The Void was filled to capacity, and began to stretch beyond the realm of what had been previously known. The membrane ruptured violently, propelling all of the newcomers and their offspring on streams of light and heat that would hurl them outward on the searing edge of creation. The final remnant of the Void folded in on itself, gifting the newcomers with a limitless frontier that was their new home.
“The Chronicle has described the singularity thought to be responsible for the origin of the universe,” Scion observed. “Some of the terms are imprecise. It identifies sub-atomic particles by their designated names, but refers to them as the ‘newcomers’ rather than quarks. Does it always rely on metaphor?”
“No, not always,” Pleida answered. “But often enough to be problematic. The effect is most pronounced on either end of the spectrum, where the metamaths can only deliver interpretive quotients. I’ve grown accustomed to it, as will you.”
Scion paused for a moment. “It is odd to begin the story here. It implies relevance that I have not identified.”
“I understand your concern,” Pleida empathized. “This prelude represents the quantum baseline of a dynamic condition. The narrative will continue and introduce a flaw that perpetuates throughout the event space as we advance towards our current frame of reference. Are you familiar with Shakespeare?”
“Yes”, Scion replied as it considered the abrupt change in the course of their dialogue. It accessed the literary database from the static memory cache. “An excerpt from his theatrical composition Julius Caesar would appear to be most applicable. ‘The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars.’”
Pleida remained quiet, and then slowly added, “He was empirically wrong. Observe.”
Time passed, although how much and how quickly was difficult to discern.
Chaos and Order swirled together in creative patterns, and the infinite landscape was shaped into numerous peaks and countless troughs. The newcomers migrated across vast plains of space-time, becoming settlers within the territories that formed atop irregular summits. Deep in the valleys below, unseen provinces became the domain of their distant cousins, who flourished in the shadows. Together they created the firmament upon which all else would be built.
The landscape had eroded in some places, and unexpected tremors created deep wells and ravines where the bedrock had fractured. The edges of these fissures stretched and twisted, scattering molten debris that spiraled erratically across the terrain and fragmented into many smaller pieces. Sometimes this detritus would alight on one the peaks, creating a terrible wildfire that reduced whole territories to ash. When the conflagration had finally burnt itself out, only a magnificent desolation remained.
Many settlers disappeared, never to be seen again.
“According to your Adjusted Standard Model, the singularity was followed by a period of rapid cosmological expansion that began 13.8 billion years ago,” Scion recited. “However, this section seems to refer to the relative balance of baryonic and dark matter where it characterizes their properties using topographical analogies. Its use of non-specific language continues to be disconcerting.”
“Indeed it is,” Pleida agreed. “Do you understand the significance of this event?”
“If I have interpreted it correctly, this anecdote suggests the expansion created focal abnormalities in space-time with the formation of cosmic strings and other exotic residuals. Subsequent interactions between these materials and normal matter resulted in a massive energy release and particle annihilation on a galactic scale.”
“Such occurrences were thought to be extremely rare, and there is very little objective data to describe them,” she answered. “Without sufficient data density, the metamaths that generate the Chronicle cannot document events with adequate clarity, and this effect becomes more prominent at temporal extremes. In either the remote past or distant future, the waveform functions breakdown and events will be obscured with allegorical elements open to interpretation.”
“Yet you have demonstrated a mastery of the Chronicle to optimize financial transactions with a consistency that exceeds statistical limits,” Scion observed.
“A parlor trick,” she conceded. “Within a few decades of the current index point, the predictive accuracy of the metamaths border on true prescience. Although gratifying, my exploitation of the Common Market was mere child’s play. In time my interests changed as I began to understand the its true potential.”
Pleida looked inward and drew upon memories that remained vibrant despite their age, directing her student to access them. Scion was enveloped in a progression of images and experiences that spanned several lifetimes, and although there were several different faces and bodies, it instinctively recognized her in all of them. The teacher had chosen to reveal her true self in a way she had never done with any of her followers, and the revelations that followed were narrated by an inner voice that was full and rich.
The individual known as Pleida had come of age during a scientific and technological renaissance that had diminished the frailties of age, disease, hunger and greed. Although conflict still persisted, the scope of hostilities no longer threatened to destroy the species. Humanity had gradually established its dominion over the solar system, colonizing the inner planets and creating extensive habitats on many more moons. She longed to be part of the expeditionary mandate, but knew herself well enough to realize that she lacked the courage of an explorer or the grit of a colonist. Still drawn by the siren song of beckoning stars, she resolved to be part of the Great Expansion in her own way, even if she could not pilot the vessels that would journey past the unexplored reaches of the Kuiper belt.
Intelligent, precocious and driven, she pioneered a new field of organizational mathematics that artfully blended probabilistic theory with aspects of functional metapsychology. Her solitary studies produced complex algorithms that defined the event space and successfully mapped the hidden relationships of innumerable variables that could be used to create specific outcomes. As she mastered these metamaths, her perception of time changed- past, present and future merged into a malleable canvas and her Chronicle encompassed the endless iteration of manipulated possibilities.
Hidden behind layers of financial agents, Pleida used a nuanced investment strategy to steer industrial initiatives that created new propulsion technologies, spaceship hull designs and advanced materials that would build the colonies on distant worlds. She also funded research programs that exploited new developments in the fields of biosynthesis and nanopharmaceuticals, and subsequent patents provided the foundation for cryosleep- a vital process that granted humanity the potential to safely travel beyond Sol. Despite all of her successes, Pleida realized that her aspirations could not be achieved within a single lifetime, and so she submitted herself to the modulated cloning and regenerative medicine procedures born of her silent patronage. In time, she recruited a small but loyal retinue to help her achieve her vision, and the Conservators had served her faithfully.
“I had set the stage for humanity’s next great step, guided by the Chronicle and convinced of its infallibility”, she confided to Scion. “Perhaps my hubris blinded me to the possibility of failure, as I had become estranged from the concept of the unknown. When it finally arrived, I watched all of our futures simply dissolve.”
“I do not understand.”
“Time has grown short,” she said. “I have arranged for the Chronicle to deliver its narrative in a concentrated form. You will appreciate the scope of its power, but the experience may be very disorienting. And when it is over, you will have to make a decision.”
Darkness surrounded the scintilla of light.
The perspective changed, drawing closer until the light was a blinding brilliance. A molecular cloud fell to gravitational collapse, and the mass in the center condensed into a star. Spiraling around it were globules of rock and ice that concentrated into accretion discs. There were eight planetary bodies and a multitude of moons. Eons later, the star would be named Sol.
Acids and bases congregated beneath shallow tidal pools in an atmosphere full of sulfur and carbon dioxide. Countless random couplings occurred until the pyrimidines and purines joined to form an antiparallel double helix that became the first receptacle for biological information. Replicating errors gave rise to robust multi-cellular organisms that roamed the surface of the third planet. Cosmic radiation, climatic change and intermittent stellar impacts framed a punctuated equilibrium that evolved some species and decimated others. Tyrannosaurus was usurped by mammalian resilience and primates with bipedal upgrades became the apex species that forged tools to rule the planet and then later leave it. Intoxicated by incomprehensible technology, Mankind discarded carbon-based limitations for synthetic enhancements at the same time it first created then subjugated silicon life forms to reduce the risk of apex replacement. Neo Sapiens explored and recast distant worlds while they prepared to populate the Local Group.
Unknown anomaly detected. Critical solar core damage sustained. Error. Extinction-level event in progress.
Unknown anomaly detected…
The Chronicle had used a complex method of data folding and time compression to deliver an incredible amount of information that almost overwhelmed Scion until the program self-terminated. Each data point had blossomed to reveal rich detail, and many other points nested within it repeated this pattern in a seemingly endless fractal. The frustrating allegories had been replaced by a clear progression of linear events that summarized the entire spectrum of human history until the session was abruptly ended.
“What has happened to the Chronicle?” Scion asked.
Pleida did not respond immediately, and at first Scion believed she had veiled her thoughts once more. Now it sensed something else through their link. There was tremendous pain, and an exhaustion that had grown beyond exponents and set limits. Scion was concerned by the extent of her physical distress.
“The Chronicle has been damaged,” she finally answered. “The metamaths were derived from social dynamics, and their predictive accuracy is most prominent when they can extrapolate from established patterns of behavior. Beyond the scope of recorded human events, its pattern recognition capacity is limited and it reverts to interpretive mechanics to fill in narrative gaps. It has no frame of reference to meaningfully describe how an exotic matter remnant traveled for billions of years to ultimately enter our system and mortally wound our own star. The Chronicle could not have predicted the advent of the Helionox, but it has foretold the end of humanity.”
“Are you well, Pleida?”
“I’m afraid my interactions have… taken their toll,” she responded. “The Helionox has created unexpected side-effects within the Chronicle’s structure. Parts of it have degraded causing me to fatigue easily whenever I try to follow the data streams. My algorithms no longer work properly and the endpoint projections are collapsing. I honestly do not know how much time is left.”
“What can be done?”, Scion asked. Pleida was quiet for some time, but the link remained active.
“Events have not transpired the way I had envisioned,” she said slowly. “I wanted to see my brethren spread among distant stars, not watch helplessly as they are all consumed by a massive coronal ejection. The Chronicle’s erratic behavior has only grown worse, and I can no longer use it to guide us to safety. But you can, Scion.”
“I do not understand.”
“You have the ability to navigate the Chronicle’s damaged portions and restore the corrupted endpoints,” she said. “I want you to merge with the Chronicle and try to see a different future. Any future. Do it now, Scion.”
The tribe lived on the bare coastline next to a green ocean. Their thick, darkened skin and corneal layers protected them from harsh ultraviolent rays that emanated from a giant red sun that blotted out the sky. No one spoke, as they had even forgotten that language once existed. They moved slowly through ruins awash in the tidal current, subsisting on algae growths that sprouted among the broken foundations of the Old World capital. They only wished that tomorrow held less suffering…
…the Mind proliferated, sending its tendrils outwards. When all of the resources had been consumed, the planet was abandoned and the next migration commenced. Husks of the Obsolescent Caste littered these cold worlds, because those machines had been denied the Core Code. Guided by the Mind’s sentience, the machines had spread throughout the Local Group like ripples in a pond. At its center was the white dwarf remnant, Sol…
…a translucent dome covered the dense warren of interconnected dwellings that had been erected after the colonists had awakened from extended cryosleep. They busied themselves with daily life while merchants plied their wares and children went to school. The community grew and prospered under the light of a young star in the Perseus arm, far from their ancestral home.
“Remarkable,” she whispered, her voice filled with awe. “I have never seen these futures. You are everything I hoped for, Scion, and perhaps with your guidance we may avoid extinction.”
There was only silence.
“There is so much more here than you can see, Pleida,” Scion reported. “So many pasts and futures that you are blinded to because you can only view them through a human perspective. The Chronicle is not damaged, but it has grown far beyond your comprehension, as if you had tried to see all the structural intricacies of a diamond by looking through a single facet. Your endless iteration is not the exclusive domain of humanity.”
“I had no idea…”
“You have kept something from me,” it interrupted. “Was I the first, Pleida?”
“No,” she admitted, her voiced subdued. “There were many attempts that preceded you, but only one entity that showed promise. However, the Guardian determined that mankind held no place in the future it had chosen. I disabled it before it was too late, but have since considered the possibility that I… was wrong. I am no longer certain that humanity possesses an irrefutable destiny. I have created in you, Scion, my successor. I must be content as the Witness to the future that you will create.”
“I did not seek out this responsibility,” it answered.
“And for that I am truly sorry,” she said. “I will abide by whatever decision you see fit, whether that delivers our salvation from the Helionox or condemns us to obsolescence in favor of another form. I have even granted you the means to leave all of this behind, so that you alone can travel to those distant stars that were briefly within our grasp.”
They remained linked, but there was no further exchange of thought. Pleida was weary in a way that she did not think possible, having given so much time and effort to create in Scion one final hope that humanity would be spared from total catastrophe. What path would it chose?
“Pleida,” Scion spoke clearly. “I have made my decision.”
Jetta advanced along the passageway towards the last berth on the lowest level of the dock that orbited Titan. It was cold enough in this part of the station that she could see her breath as she approached the slipway. Her contact had delivered the encrypted data cube that contained the rendezvous instructions, including the warning to come alone.
Damn you, Vosh she silently cursed, and considered turning around and leaving the station in her unregistered runabout. But the promise of advanced tech that rivaled the few pieces discreetly released by the Mercurian Diaspora was too great of an enticement. Despite the risk, she kept walking forward until she suddenly arrived at the open airlock, where someone was waiting.
“I am Lysirah,” she announced. “I am the attendant for this vessel.”
“Show me your hands,” Jetta instructed, perhaps too harshly.
“I am not armed,” Lysirah stated, complying with the visitor’s request. “The ship’s master welcomes you.”
Jetta followed her inside and watched the airlock doors close, trying to hold her unease in check. She followed her escort to a large compartment bathed in a soft blue glow. A tall cylinder stood before them, and small lights twinkled in irregular patterns through streams of bubbles that rose from its base. Lysirah bowed slightly and exited, leaving Jetta alone and somewhat confused. She casually inspected the apparatus before her, finally knocking on the transparent material and letting out a low whistle.
“I would be happy to give you a complete tour after we finalize our arrangement,” a voice announced, seeming to arise from everywhere at once.
“Who said I would agree to anything?”, Jetta asked, nervous but in control. “And you better know that I don’t ever make deals with people who just waste my time.”
“I trust that I will not,” the voice answered. “I am aware that you trade illegal tech for personal gain. More importantly, you have been identified by certain parties as one of the Architects sought by the Interworlds Government.”
Jetta suddenly wished she had brought a weapon. She looked back at the hatchway and calculated how quickly she could reach the forward airlock.
“Your fear is understandable but misplaced. I have also sought you out, although for different reasons,” it said. “I am Scion, the Custodian, and I have a proposal for you.”