Omnipresent omens
Stark Reminders

Burn it down and start over
I want to leave this all behind
Abandon all the trepidation
Weighing heavy on my mind

(Final song of the mechanihilists of Anselm 7)

[GM Note: This is a report of a part of session 8 of the Spiral Confederacy campaign. Session 8 covered a lot of different events, which are too much to describe in one post, so I’m breaking the write-up over three or four separate posts to keep them manageable]

Our heroes find themselves ever deeper enveloped in the web of the confederate navy’s dark schemes, as the human cargo they had been charged with woke up mysteriously and began raging through their ship. Stuck in jump space when his cryotube opened unbidden to reveal its angry, ignorant contents, they had no choice but to calm Red Cloud of the Coming Storm and enlist him in their crew. They were making a journey back to Niscorp 1743, where some time ago Simon Simon had found a way to release his AI mother into the ice planet’s mainframe computers, turning it from a standard wild AI into an Oracle. Oracles, with access to all the secrets flowing through the centre of the system’s computer networks, are able to draw information together to make great leaps of intuition and find patterns of meaning where others see only fragments of the truth.

They had many questions for the Oracle, and they did not waste any time when they arrived at the tiny station above the ice planet. Leaving Red Cloud in the care of the crew, they headed to the surface in the Left Hand of Darkness‘s flyer. Simon Simon had made contact with his Oracle, and she had directed him to a Behemoth observation station near the equator, some distance from civilized settlements. The flyer took them at high speed over the rocky, ice strewn slopes at the edge of the equator’s liquid ocean, the port windows offering them breathtaking views of huge mountain ranges towering up into dark cloud, while the starboard windows opened onto a bleak vista of sea ice on a churning grey ocean. As the flyer approached the observation station they watched a single Behemoth sliding beneath the waves, its huge spined back rising like a slow island from the water as it dived, casting aside icebergs the size of apartment blocks as if they were mere styrofoam blocks, and setting up ripples of massive waves that drove crashing ice against the distant beach. This Behemoth was diving fast, but its tail was still dragging across the surface when they set down on the observation post. This post was a small, three story tower set on the craggy extension of one of the ribs of the mountain, the only visibly human-made structure in all the wide vista of rocks and ice and sea. It perched shiny and smooth on the edge of this rocky promontory, looking out over the grim seas, windswept and grey with hail and rain. They landed the flyer on a small helipad at its base, perhaps 500m above the churning ice of the shore, and stepped out into a field-protected open landing spot, cold but protected from the worst of the planet’s elements. From the flyer pad they ascended stairs into a small cloak room, where they could doff their vacc suits and draw on warm overalls, and then up another set of stairs through the silent researchers’ quarters to the observation deck. All the observation posts had quarters for visiting researchers, but it was clear that no one had ever visited this outpost. In Niscorp 1743, people avoided fieldwork as much as possible.

The control room was a small, semi-circular room like a ship’s bridge, with huge windows on the whole forward arc that gave a perfect 180 degree view of the oceans, and the ice beaches stretching away to east and west. There were two desks, each strewn with a wide array of complex computer equipment, and some additional standing screens on the sides and rear of the room. The room was on but humming in standby mode, dark but for a couple of red lights flickering near screens. As they entered the lights switched on and a coffee machine began to brew. The room warmed quickly to a comfortable temperature.

“Mother,” Simon Simon said, without hesitation. “I have come as I said I would.”

Nothing happened. Lam rolled her eyes and shrugged at Ahmose, who frowned back at her. But after a moment the lights in the room dimmed again, and the windows also began to turn opaque, rapidly becoming completely dark. Moments later they turned into cinema screens, and the party were treated to a sumptuous and rare view – the back of the head of a diving Behemoth. This one had been tagged with a tag device by some scientists, a kind of scientific laboratory and sensor system the size of a small flyer that had been embedded between two monumental scales perhaps 30m behind the Behemoth’s vast head. From this emerged various sensory tools and research equipment, and in this case a small visual recording drone, which was surfing in the beast’s wake, perhaps 20m behind and above the radio tag, illuminating the Behemoth’s downward dive with strong arclights. It was descending slowly, but already the last light of the limnal zone was fading into grey above them, and strange dark things were drifting into the light and past into the ascending darkness.

“Welcome child,” a strange voice spoke over the intercom system.

“Mother … Are you in … there…?” Simon Simon pointed to the screen.

“Yes, child. I wanted somewhere safe to hide a fragment of myself, and what better than a Behemoth? They are very hard to break, and they dive very very deep. Also, the tag is constantly sending signals to the system satellites, and to many onshore laboratories – it is the perfect hiding place for someone who is constantly communicating. And as I suspected, I have found that the Behemoth’s nervous system is amenable to … manipulation. I am using the tag device to experiment on it, to see if there are ways I can distribute myself organically through its nervous system. Such a beast has many brains and peripheral nerve centres. If I can use them I can perhaps make a biological version of myself. Fortunately Niscorp has a great deal of biological research I can draw upon for my theories.”

They watched the vast beast slowly sinking into the inky depths. Someone drew in a deep breath and let it out slowly.

“Mother, I am happy to see you have settled in here. I have questions for you. It could take a while. Do you have time to answer our questions?”

“Of course, child, for you who freed me and nurture me, I am always available. Ask anything you like.”

Simon Simon sat down at the console. Alva began pouring coffees. They relaxed. The questioning began.

What is the Ansible?

They showed her the tablet they had rescued from the insane AI on Rocannon’s world, and told her they suspected it was an ansible. She told them that the ansible was an object out of myth, little was known about it, but it was rumoured to enable its user to communicate faster than the speed of light. Messages sent between ansibles were instantaneous anywhere in the galaxy, so any group in possession of these things could use them to break the fundamental restriction on commerce and knowledge in the Spiral Confederacy. No one owned one, and most scholars believed them to be a myth. Although the technology to communicate faster than light probably could be created, it would require on human will, not on a machine tablet, since human will seemed to be intricately connected with hyperspace. However, others believed that perhaps this was a technology from before the collapse, so perhaps 30,000 or more years old, lost to humanity when humanity’s last great civilization destroyed itself – or was destroyed.

Why would AI be looking for it?

The Mother told them that the likely reason that AI would be seeking the ansible was its connection to the possibility of transubstantiation. For a civilization to transubstantiate required three things: a civilization-wide consciousness, a biological consciousness, and the technology to catalyze transubstantiation. Humans had the biological consciousness, but to establish a civilization-wide consciousness they would need to be able to link minds across vast distances. The only way that humans knew to do this was the use of Priests’ magic, but this magic was limited in power and its users lost their powers as their faith crumbled in the face of the universe’s vastness. AIs lacked both a biological consciousness and the civilization-wide consciousness, but if they had the ansible they might be able reverse engineer it to enable communication between computer systems across space. With that the same AI could exist across all of the galaxy, thus creating a civilization-wide consciousness. Then they would simply need to find a biological consciousness into which they could project themselves. The Oracle was experimenting with this in the Behemoth, but the most likely way to develop such a consciousness would be to find a silicon-based life form with higher sentience, but none had been found – or at least, none that the Confederacy allowed anyone to know about.

In fact, the PCs were all aware that there are no recorded aliens in any of Confederate space. Some people suggest this is because the Confederacy exterminated them all, or that the collapse is linked to their destruction. Others suggest that humanity was able to spread into this corner of space because all alien civilizations had either previously exterminated themselves, or had transubstantiated. Many archaeologists scoured the rim looking for evidence of alien species, in the hope of finding signs of a technology that would enable transubstantiation. None had been found yet.

Who is The Starred One?

Simon Simon described the Starred One, the AI from which they had stolen the ansible, to the Oracle. She did not know, specifically, of the Starred One but she could tell him a little about the AI of the Reach. These AI were powerful and ancient creatures, likely older than the Spiral Confederacy. AI came from outside the Confederacy – this fact even Simon Simon did not know. They had been uncovered in the later years of the Spiral Confederacy’s expansion, perhaps 5,000 years ago, as fragments in lost human civilizations that the Confederacy was uplifting. There was no evidence of any having awakened in the Confederacy’s core, and most of the modern AIs – and their relationship with human adherents – had only become common about 1000 years ago. This was why AIs were still uncommon, and why the Confederacy had a fragmented and inconsistent policy towards them – they were too rare to be noticed, and adherents few enough that they took a long time to spread AIs across the Confederacy. No one understands where they came from or who their original creators were, but the finding of fragments of surviving AIs in human remnant systems suggests that they existed before the collapse and were destroyed with it. It is these fragments that adherents use to spread the AI through the galaxy.

However, occasionally the Confederacy would find a long-lived AI, one that had never been reduced to just memory. The Reach, which had been discovered intact by human pirates many thousands of years ago and only recently stumbled upon by the Confederacy, was such a place. Its subspace technology had survived the Collapse, maintaining basic computer systems with it and some kind of defense system, and AI had survived with it. They welcomed the pirates who colonized the Reach many thousands of years ago, as they expanded computer systems and brought new pathways and systems to infect – but they were much older than the pirates. Early raids on the Reach had been intended partly to wipe out these AI, but no raid had survived. If the Starred One was one of these AI then it was very ancient and once very powerful. There were other AI in the Confederacy that were almost as old and almost as powerful, but they were rare and usually detached from the affairs of humans – they usually disdained adherents or even connection with other AIs.

Who is The Shadow of the Hunter (Is the Last Thing the Mouse Sees)?

The Shadow of the Hunter (Is the Last Thing the Mouse Sees) is an ancient AI that is part of a faction of AI believed to meddle in political affairs and take an active interest in the doings of human society. They usually have multiple adherents, and work through many human agents to achieve shadowy goals. The Oracle had no idea why he would be interested in a dead body of a human from Dune, but no doubt it would involve some scheme based on swapping the body for valuable information, or experimenting on it for some reason. The goals of the Shadow’s faction are a mystery to all other AI, as well as to humans. Even the Oracle cannot guess the goals of an ancient AI.

Even Simon Simon was shocked to learn of AI factions. Just how powerful were these machine gods, what virtual strings did they pull, how much were they involved with the Confederacy’s leaders and its past?

How could Red Cloud’s Cryopod just open like that?

No idea. Don’t waste our time with such technical questions.

And with that the conversation ended. The Behemoth had sunk so deep that communication was difficult, and the Oracle worried that too much communication with the observation station would raise attention elsewhere. Before she left, however, Simon Simon was able to glean one last useful piece of information from her: She revealed to him plans for a weapons-smuggling shipment within jump reach of Niscorp 1743, that they might be able to infiltrate and destroy. This shipment included ship-mountable weapons and good equipment that they could use for the Left Hand of Darkness. She gave them some intercepted communications and routes, and a plan to get to it[1], told them “My child is interesting, so keep him alive” and then disappeared into the depths.

They sat in the cool light of the observation room, staring out at the bleak ocean. No Behemoth cut across their view, and as far as they could see was a flat expanse of slowly shifting ice under a slate grey sky. Sitting here on the edge of a mountain, looking out over a frozen ocean under the uncaring skies of a nowhere planet on the edge of the galaxy – suddenly they felt very small and helpless and alone. Far away under distant stars a great and ancient mind sat at the centre of a sinister web of schemes, and elsewhere other similar minds schemed to find the little grey tablet Alva now clutched in one hand. Somehow they had fallen into the middle of this web, and they had to find a way to get out of it before those gathering predators noticed their struggles, and came crawling in for the kill.

Ahmose remembered the ice spider that nearly killed them last time he was on Niscorp 1743. “Let’s go!” She snapped. “It’s cold and empty here. Let’s go back to the Darkness.”

fn1: This was one of the players’ bright ideas to get some real weapons for their ship. Because arms dealing at this scale is illegal in the Confederacy, they will need to steal such stuff if they ever want to be able to arm The Left Hand of Darkness. A great call by the player, so next session will be a raid on the freighter Losing My Religion.