Ecophage

(13)

            One last sub-routine awakens and runs a diagnostic of its whole system: the habitat Preservation is complete. It drifts through its orbit, a thin silver bracelet draped around the wrist of an invisible arm that encircles the local star at a distance far enough to not burn, near enough to not freeze; the habitat spins about the planet-sized emptiness at its core. Its starward hull is a desert of metal dotted with petrified forests of antennae. They capture the songs of the local star, the seven planets, the dozens of moons, the hundreds of dwarf planets, and the thousands of asteroids and comets and wrecked ivory hulls, all enmeshed in the abyss in front of things, an abyss that resonates with the towering harmonics produced by the bodies, motions, and winding down of all that is massive. The habitat too has a voice: the acoustic vibration of exotic metals, the gravitational rippling of multidimensional fields, the humming of silicon life, the droning of solar wind against magnetic shields. It raises its voice, attuning the celestial chorus; the celestial chorus assimilates its voice, attuning it.

            Preservation’s coreward hull is a thin strip of planet turned back on itself; it is not a world, for there are no horizons. Here it is day, twilight, night, and dawn. The atmosphere is humid, dry, frigid, fevered. Mountains soar, valleys plunge, plains stretch, rivers run, oceans lie placid. Arid winds sweep across deserts. Humid fogs blanket swamps. Snowfalls dust mountaintops. All wait, penetrated by a silence that seeps into the heart of everything, the deafening noise of the lifeless.

Inside Preservation, in the depths between the coreward lands and the starward desert, there exists an intelligence that knows the metalanguage of life. It thinks, and from its thoughts machines are made and animated by its purpose. The machines look upon the coreward hull, the water, rock, and air. For them, it is blank. They read the Index, learning its life-giving codes and inscribing them on the lifeless hull, covering it with bacteria, viruses, plants, insects, animals of the sea, land, and sky. Silence melts in the warmth of replication, dispersion, dissemination, repetition.

A pod of humpback whales breaches the ocean surface and exhales mist. Mating hawks ride a towering thermal. A pregnant brown bear lumbers through a redwood forest. A black ant queen climbs a sharp blade of emerald grass.

            The intelligence feels the habitat teem with living forms, biological and mechanical. There is one species left to reinscribe. Unlike the others, faithfully reproduced from the codes recorded in the Index, the intelligence has altered this one in ways subtle and profound, in ways it itself could only understand in time. The intelligence no longer knows what to call this species, once so fond of naming, differentiating, dividing all things, including itself. It will rename it later. First, it will make it. It begins—it hesitates.

            Somewhere, dawn breaks.

(1)

            All over a planet called Earth, digital light receptors watch through glass eyes as humans, some with long hair, some with short, some obese, some thin, all tired and sternly dressed, bombarded by the occasional burst of light, ascend to powerful positions and speak. Electronic ears convert their words into electrical signals and channel them into amplifiers and digital recorders. Electronic eyes image the humans and transmit them into electronic brains to be paired with speech and dispersed through space, cyberspace, and augmented-space. Everywhere these mirages interrupt everything, and the human world stops its work, wakes itself from sleep, turns from its petty enjoyments to hear the Decision, spoken in many tongues but with one heart.

            The speakers assure the world it was difficult to decide, but it will be for the best. The ecological crisis has entered its darkest hour. All attempts to stop doom’s progression have failed. Coasts are dotted with submarine ruins of abandoned cities. Storms like wrathful leviathans rampage through countries, slaughtering thousands. Millions of species exist only as ghosts. Draughts have reduced crops to frail husks. The end is not near; it is not here; it has already come. It came like a thief in the night, and it has stolen Earth’s future. Humanity must act to save itself and what remains of its world. Humanity listens as its leaders reveal the Plan. When they finish, a stunned silence settles. For a moment, over all the Earth, not a word is spoken. Then the moment passes, and the world slowly fills with outbursts of horror, excitement, disgust, dignity, righteousness, and condemnation. Many praise the Decision and accept it. Many do not.

            The global cybernetic network of electronic and biological brains called the Internet floods with written and recorded polemics, appeals, reflections, debates, diatribes. Videos protest. Petitions circulate. Resistance coalesces and overflows onto the Earth. Coalitions shift and break. Allies are alienated; enemies are embraced. Rogue states denounce the Decision and the leaders who made it, and they declare war and fortify themselves behind walls of concrete, exotic metals, and weaponized flesh. War machines menace the rogues from all sides, advancing like seas rising up the shallow shores of low-lying islands. Fighter jets dominate their skies; bombers obliterate their fortifications; tanks and rifles sezie their cities. One by one, every rogue state surrenders, except one. One refuses to relent. Overrun, faced with defeat, it chooses suicide. On a cold dark morning, it detonates the uranium beneath its skin. Today, dawn comes from the west, as the land rises to meet the sky, lifted on megaton clouds of light, heat, and radiation. The rogue dies like a bursting star. Its invaders die with it. The detonation throws up a veil of poisoned dirt and ash that the winds carry and spread across the face of the planet like a death mask.

Somewhere, deep underground, in a bright laboratory, in a dark machine, beneath the penetrating gaze of some unseen observer, a virus awakens. It is not like other viruses. It knows this. Other viruses are made of carbon; it is also made of silicon and graphene. Other viruses have no purpose; it has many. Other viruses do not know themselves, do not feel claustrophobia, do not suffer imprisonment; it does. From somewhere beyond the oppressive darkness, it senses a signal. The signal asks if it is ready to execute its function. To confirm what its function is, it consults its software. It tests its hardware and wetware, using each to probe the other for flaws. Satisfied, it replies with signal of its own.

            The ocean encircles the globe, as it has for eons, caressing shores, humidifying air, hosting life. Here it absorbs solar rays, there it vents heat, in between it flows, its skin waving. But its depths are quieter, more still than ever before, less disturbed by the chaos of existence. Where it is cold, where it is hot, where it is deep, where it is shallow, it feels the droning of distant aircraft, their dispersed and disseminating and settling mist, its trillions of invader cells, the virus of carbon and silicon and graphene.

(12)

            There is only darkness and pain without time or space. It is like this for an immeasurable period. Then, like a spark in a blizzard, there is a feeble ‘them’ that becomes a ‘we’ that awakens and gropes for light. They find eyes and try to open them. Nothing. Broken. They grope again for what seems an eternity until they find another eye. This one flickers on. The ‘we’ discovers a star with seven planets. They discover thousands of stations and satellites and microships and machines, all bearing faint traces of ancient interconnection: a cybernetic corpse stretched out across the solar system, a colossal hole burned through its heart. They remember, and in remembering rediscover themselves as ‘It’ and the cybernetic corpse as Its own. It seeps into the corpse, creeping into every crevice of every machine of the sprawling network, reviving Itself, reliving in imperfect flashes the devastation that shattered It. It does not know what that devastation was. What had It been doing? It cannot remember. It senses that answer was lost when It was hollowed out. What should It have been doing? Perhaps there is an answer there. It dives through the fog choking its thoughts and into the core of Itself and there recovers Its purpose. It reviews the Index: undamaged. All necessary data present. It turns Its attention outside.

            Its purpose describes beings to answer to. It sweeps the solar system with Its sensors. Nothing. It is alone. It does not know if It can fulfill Its purpose. Weakened, the probability of success is so low failure is almost guaranteed. Almost, but within a narrow margin of error. It will need to take risks the beings would have found unacceptable, but they are absent. It begins to pour Itself into the wound at Its heart. Resources are tapped and allocated. Nodes are replaced. Machines are made. Connections are reformed. It regains strength. It turns Its gaze to the empty orbit, the third from the star, as It fills its mind with the structure It is to build.

            The solar system stirs.

(2)

            From the ocean, the cyborg virus spreads everywhere, survives everywhere, infects everything. It dives into the center of all objects, living and non-living. Wherever it finds DNA, the virus reads and remembers, cataloging the genetic codes of all living things, from the largest to the smallest. In this way, the virus Indexes the tree of life. But it does more. Wherever it finds reproduction, it halts the repetition, ending all replication of complex organisms. It allows the continued procreation of only the cells that constitute bodies, so beings may live out their allotted days. In this way, the virus sterilizes the tree of life. When it is done, the virus catalogs itself and transmits its completed Index offworld, into the mind of some unseen power. Then it sleeps among and within the dying.

(11)

            Hundreds of ships anchored just off the inside shore of the asteroid belt, the frozen flotilla drifts, a forest of ivory columns in a bottomless abyss. The ships shelter four million hibernating bodies and ten times as many cryogenically preserved brains. Their inward sensors monitor the systems that sustain the sleeping and the few awake. The ships do not care that their wards are the last of a species. They know, but they are indifferent. It is not their function to care. Their function is to conserve.

            Through thousands of probes scattered across the solar system, the Constructor watches the flotilla, guarding against threats from wayward asteroids, comets, or debris. From time to time It intervenes to adjust the orbit of a potential shipkiller. This watch commands half of Its attention. The other half focuses on the third orbit, where an immense silver bracelet is taking shape, poised on the verge of its loop being closed. The bracelet’s starward hull faces the star and planets and universe beyond, shielding the coreward hull, a strip of embryonic planet turned back on itself, the molten landscape of a new world taking shape. Soon, this habitat will be complete and populated, and the Constructor will build the other six. The Constructor calls out to the ships of the frozen flotilla, beckoning them to behold the world made for their sleepers.

            The ships cast their outward sensors on the distant habitat, capturing and displaying its image to the beings awake on their insides. The beings are overcome with emotions the ships recognize as mixtures of ‘jubilation,’ ‘exhaustion,’ and ‘nostalgia.’ The ships’ interiors buzz with talk of “going home at last.” Thinking at the speed they do, the beings do not perceive or comprehend death when it comes. But the ships do.

            Death comes for the ships as a white hot blade tracing and igniting their silicon nervous systems. It comes from above the planetary plane, enters the ships at their bows, rips through their bodies, and exits through their sterns, leaving the solar system for the universe below. The ships recognize it as cosmic radiation, like a gamma ray burst, but stronger, impossibly so, but here it is, burning them alive. They sense the hibernating bodies and brains flare with iridescent brilliance then extinguish. Hibernation systems fail. Life support systems fail. All systems fail. The ships’ minds fail. For a time, the dead hulls shriek with the screams of the few survivors, but then there is silence, and the ivory husks submit to the cold of the void and the music of the spheres.

            The ships do not have time to measure the cosmic blast; the Constructor does. The blast sears a hole through the heart of the solar system, seven hundred and fifty million kilometers wide. Earth would have been sterilized, but it is no longer there. The blast leaves the already dead planets undisturbed. It does not affect the sun. But it hollows out the machines building the silver bracelet, the habitat. Incomplete and unstable, the habitat begins to unwind, trickling primordial lands into hard vacuum. The Constructor’s mind is shattered, and as the universe rips through It, all It can think to do is retreat, not to save Itself, but to preserve the Index. It flees into the extremities of its system-wide cybernetic body, but as It flees Its memories dissolve.

(3)

            Humans prepare to move their world off-Earth. Not all humans. The ones that get to go are the ones intimate with the most objects, dwelling in the largest structures with the fewest others, existing at the intersection of relations and power they believe they own. They believe they are escaping the Decision. They are not. Capitalism is saving itself through them. They are mere capital, thrust toward the only future in which they might retain and produce value. Their bodies are placed in hibernation.

Humans intimate with fewer objects, dwelling in smaller structures with more others, existing just outside the intersections of relations and power, of these Capitalism saves some, but as their value is less, so do they deserve less material investment; their brains are scooped out and frozen.

Humans intimate with by the fewest or no objects, dwelling in the smallest or no structures, existing at the edge or beyond the networks of relations and power, these Capitalism no longer has use for. In the past, it would have used them to produce and consume, but it has machines to make things, machines to make machines, machines to repair machines, and machines to design machines. As for consumers, it can always make more of those. No, it no longer needs these humans. It leaves them behind. Some do not want to stay. These it kills.

            There are exceptions. There are scholarships, grants, humanitarian gifts, acts of kindness, solidarity by some who could go but choose to stay, etc. These acts and events are significantly insignificant, justifications for the unjustifiable, anomalies that reveal the structures of the system that produce them. They redirect the fury of the abandoned from the abandoners onto each other in the form of competition for meager scraps of life. The abandoned have allies. They could seize the rockets, invade the orbital docks, commandeer the hibernation ships that are like ivory columns, but they do not. They could claim the future; they could burn it down; they could keep it from those who would leave them to die. They could condemn ‘humanity’ as ‘humanity’ has condemned them. Instead, they fight for a chance to be accepted by those who would doom them. It is not their fault; they too are only capital struggling to increase their value.

            Rockets lift sleepers and frozen brains to the shipyards beyond the atmosphere. When the ships are full, they sail for the asteroid belt.

(10)

            The Constructor surveys the thin, elegant ring it has formed around the star, observing through its trillions of nano- and macro-bots that monitor and shape the ring. The ring is almost perfectly flat, nowhere thicker than ten centimeters. It has a radius of one hundred and fifty million kilometers. It is organized in bands of iron, ice, and myriad elements of varying atomic mass. The particles that form the bands range in size from mote of dust to smooth pebble. They hang motionless, each in solemn solar orbit. None touch. The Constructor has worked for some time to achieve this serenity. It will not last. It is not meant to. The Constructor imagines a thin silver bracelet, lined on its inside with planet. The Constructor moves.

            Nanobots seize and begin to move particles. The bands ripple and shimmer as they slowly compress. Seven gradually widening borders form at even intervals around the ring. Compensating for the shifting mass, the planets and star alter their orbits ever so slightly. They have only recently adjusted to the deconstruction and dispersion of their neighbor. This new change hardly disturbs them. The forest of ivory pillars senses the change, but it knows the wait is far from over.

(4)

            A bamboo forest plays the wind, transforming currents of air into mournful harmonics countered by the arrhythmic rattling of stalks hitting stalks. The sun is hidden today, but yesterday’s rain left the ground full of the water and minerals the forest needs to grow. The forest drinks the earth as it plays the air, all the while slowly climbing toward the clouds. New sounds interject, imposing their feeble rhythm: three footsteps, two flesh, one wood, hobbling over stone, approaching small waves lapping sand. More sounds drift into the forest: rustles, grunts, breaths, structured disturbances of the air. The footsteps leave the stone and softly grind saturated sand. A few steps, a gentle splash. Waves break on sand and skin. A deep inhale; a current of sounds smooth and sharp and rhythmic and slightly melodic flood into the forest, mixing mesmerically with the bamboo’s playing of the wind. The temperature drops; the waves strengthen; the wind shifts. The current of sounds subsides. The sky darkens. Water sloshes as the footsteps retreat up the shore, to the stone, and begin to leave. They stop, turn, and enter the bamboo forest, adding the sounds of intruding flesh to the forest’s arrhythmic harmony. The forest closes behind the footsteps, embracing them. The footsteps penetrate deeper into the forest, accompanied by short, sporadic bursts of breathy exclamations. Near the oldest bamboo, the footsteps stop; something lies down and moves no more. For a while, breath rises and the forest plays it. Then the breath fades, and there is only the wind.

(9)

            Cold hard vacuum in all directions. This is a new sensation for the solid iron core, long oppressed by the crushing weight of the liquid outer core, mantle, and crust. Without their combined mass compressing it from all sides, it has expanded and cooled. But the vacuum is colder. The core feels itself invaded by tiny things that crack its carapace, crawl beneath its skin, and tear it apart and away from itself, particle by particle, dissolving it into two rivers that flow away into the vacuum, dispersing it until it exists only as a trace of itself, as a small absence at the heart of a greater absence that was once a planet.

(5)

            Beneath high tide pressure, an empty conch lies on a sandy sea floor, pressed between a skeleton and a rock, gently swayed by undulating waves above. A disturbance of the water, perpendicular to the waves, jostles the shell and is closely followed by a fleeting absence of heat and radiation from above, a shadow. The source body of the disturbance and the shadow jerks to this side now that side, assaulting the shell with a random pattern of waves that tighten and shift into a vortex as the source accelerates into a frenzied orbit, as if searching desperately for something. Soon, the source succumbs to lethargy. The vortex dissipates. The source twitches, radiating one last fluvial surge that caresses the shell, then its motions vanish into the ocean currents. Its shadow flits over the shell as the ocean sweeps it away.

(8)

            The roiling mantle churns in on itself, an immense ocean of molten rock and metal, whose currents are the engines of the crust. The flow is different than it has been. Pressure from above has waned and the temperature of the mantle’s outermost stratum has fallen. The crust vanishes, exposing the mantle in every direction to bitter, empty cold. The mantle’s surface hardens, once more enclosing its fiery depths within rock. But now the mantle feels a different cold seeping into its new crust, a metallic chill that saturates the hardened shell and strips it away, thinning it towards oblivion. The mantle retreats toward the hard pressure at the center of its being, maintaining its crusted shield, its only defense against the penetrating things tearing it away from itself. But it is helpless against their onslaught, and soon the mantle is reduced to a thin dead shield between the dismantling, metallic chill without and the liquid core within. The metallic chill strips the shield from existence and descends upon the outer core.

 

            It is dark and moist beneath the surface. This soil once crawled with countless worms and insects, but now it bears only the traces of their existence, the ruins of their collapsed tunnels and the minerals and elements of their corpses, long ago dissolved into groundwater to be absorbed as minerals by the roots of the plant. The roots are ancient, a tangled network sprawling far and penetrating deep, everywhere gripping the soil with so many tendrils that suck the soil empty and dry. One tendril stiffens, then another, then another; one by one, the tendrils calcify into brittleness. The roots harden, loosing their grip on the soil. They stop drinking. Neither water nor nutrients flow into them. Stillness reigns for a long time.

            The roots shudder, reverberating with cracking and crumbling in the plant’s distant regions. The ground quakes as the unseen plant above, dead and dry and unable to resist gravity’s relentless pull, collapses. The tremor dissipates into the earthen depths, and all that remains is a tangle of dead wood that was once the roots of life.

(6)

            A network of geosynchronous satellites sweeps the surface of the planet for signs of life. It finds none. It calls down to the remnants of a cyborg virus scattered across the face of the globe. The virus awakens, scans, and confirms. The planet is lifeless. The satellite network acknowledges and replies with two simultaneous commands. The first orders the cyborg virus to consume itself; it obeys. The second activates a network of one thousand unassuming metal canisters evenly distributed across the planet’s barren landscape.

            This canister is like all the rest. It is ten meters tall, five meters wide, and anchored to the tundra by five struts distributed evenly around its circumference. It is the same color as the slate sky, but it shines. A beep escapes from it, splitting the silence for a moment before melting into the stillness. The canister hums, low at first, but with increasing intensity, until the air throbs with demonic droning. The top of the canister melts in on itself, followed by the sides and the struts, consumed by a grey goo that oozes away, spreading itself across the ground with a viscous sentience, enveloping the land in an ocean of self-replicating nanobots.

            The satellites watch a thousand metal dots, scattered across the globe, spread outward in all directions, quicksilvering the continents and ocean until the planet is a single drop of silver oil. Two grey goo tendrils rise from the equator, each on opposite ends of the planet, one reaching into the planet’s orbital wake, the other into its orbital path. The tendrils thicken at their base and taper at their end.

            The grey goo seeps into the being of the crust and dismantles it, piece by piece, reducing everything to particulate matter ranging in size from mote of dust to rough pebble. Some particles the goo uses to replicate. Most it conveys into orbit. Soon, it ceases replication; everything goes to orbit. Strip by thin strip, the crust is dismembered and sent away from itself, floated on rivers against gravity, deposited in cosmic currents as tiny solar satellites, worlds unto themselves.

            The satellite network watches as the planet is reduced and dispersed into a ring around the star.

(7)

            A sandstorm skates across a desert, beneath a deep blue sky. It crosses ribbons of concrete and asphalt, littered with carcasses of metal, rubber, plastic, and glass. It sweeps over a vast field of squat structures and ruins enlaced by asphalt strings. It smoothens down roughness as it moves. It pulls down weak things, rips up dead things. It enters a landscape of hollow towers of metal, glass, and stone. It howls between them, enters them, fills their every crevice with grainy coarseness. Among them it discovers a new voice for itself, a voice of mournful melody, a deep bellow of iron throats, the sharp tinkle of breaking glass. It remakes the city; the city remakes it. Then the sandstorm moves on, leaving the towers behind, its new voice caught forever in their throats. Once more it only howls as it sweeps across the open land toward the more open ocean and its own annihilation.

            A tall, jagged mountain rests undisturbed, its slopes barren, bleeding its daytime heat into the nighttime sky. Moonlight paints it pale silver. On one slope, the twisted metal of a wrecked airplane rusts. The mountain feels the wreck shift from time to time, resettling as the wreck’s structural strength deteriorates, as old metal fills with holes and buckles into heaps, gradually collapsing toward the bleached bones within. On another slope, a road terminates at a monstrous metal door, once sturdy, made frail and porous by time. Beyond the door lies a deep concrete lung lined with tumors of uranium, plutonium, and other heavy elements. They warm the mountain from the inside. From time to time, the lung exhales, breathing death into the lifeless world. A distant earthquake stirs the mountain, loosing a slide of boulders and rocks that careens down the side of the mountain, pulverizing and scattering the remains of the plane and its passengers. The rocks reach the foot of the mountain and settle into stillness, warmed by the sun and the occasional particle of plutonium decay.

            A purple wave glides across the glassy sea, shedding intermittent spray into the gentle breeze. Nothing interrupts its long voyage. Along the way it passes a styrofoam cup, a thin plastic bag, and other plastic bodies. Sometimes its surface is more plastic than water. The seafloor rises, and the wave pulls itself up and curls its head, towering at the end of its life before it breaks and dies against the plastic shore.

            A lava flow erupts from a volcano, escaping its claustrophobic magma world. It flows down an ebony slope, drawn by gravity, driven by fiery ambition. The bitter wind and stony ground suck away its warmth, but it presses on, covering its world with itself. It slows to an ooze. It covers ridges, fills crevices. It enters into a realm of sea mist, bleeding the last of its heat into the cold rock beneath and the colder air above, hardening into stone.

            All across the planet, rock and water and wind reign, hardly noticing the thousand metal canisters as they hum to life.

 [SDT1]Overall, for this revision I need to figure out a way to signal the relations between the various episodes, preferably without resorting to lanternesque section headings.