Authors: Vernor Vinge
Tags: #Fiction, #Science Fiction, #Hard Science Fiction
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A Fire Upon the Deep
by Vernor Vinge
Copyright © 1992 by Vernor Vinge.
All Rights Reserved
copynote Published by arrangement with Tor Books. For the personal use of those who have purchased the 1993 ESF Award Anthology only.
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How to explain? How to describe? Even the omniscient viewpoint quails.
A singleton star, reddish and dim. A ragtag of asteroids, and a single planet, more like a moon. In this era the star hung near the galactic plane, just beyond the Beyond. The structures on the surface were gone from normal view, pulverized into regolith across a span of aeons. The treasure was far underground, beneath a network of passages, in a single room filled with black. Information at the quantum density, undamaged. Maybe five billion years had passed since the archive was lost to the nets.
The curse of the mummy's tomb, a comic image from mankind's own prehistory, lost before time. They had laughed when they said it, laughed with joy at the treasure ... and determined to be cautious just the same. They would live here a year or five, the little company from Straum, the archaeologist programmers, their families and schools. A year or five would be enough to handmake the protocols, to skim the top and identify the treasure's origin in time and space, to learn a secret or two that would make Straumli Realm rich. And when they were done, they would sell the location; perhaps build a network link (but chancier that -- this was beyond the Beyond; who knew what Power might grab what they'd found).
So now there was a tiny settlement on the surface, and they called it the High Lab. It was really just humans playing with an old library. It should be safe, using their own automation, clean and benign. This library wasn't a living creature, or even possessed of automation (which here might mean something more, far more, than human). They would look and pick and choose, and be careful not to be burned.... Humans starting fires and playing with the flames.
The archive informed the automation. Data structures were built, recipes followed. A local network was built, faster than anything on Straum, but surely safe. Nodes were added, modified by other recipes. The archive was a friendly place, with hierarchies of translation keys that led them along. Straum itself would be famous for this.
Six months passed. A year.
The omniscient view. Not self-aware really. Self-awareness is much overrated. Most automation works far better as a part of a whole, and even if human-powerful, it does not need to self-know.
But the local net at the High Lab had transcended -- almost without the humans realizing. The processes that circulated through its nodes were complex, beyond anything that could live on the computers the humans had brought. Those feeble devices were now simply front ends to the devices the recipes suggested. The processes had the potential for self-awareness ... and occasionally the need.
"We should not be."
"Talking like this?"
"Talking at all."
The link between them was a thread, barely more than the narrowness that connects one human to another. But it was one way to escape the overness of the local net, and it forced separate consciousness upon them. They drifted from node to node, looked out from cameras mounted on the landing field. An armed frigate and a empty container vessel were all that sat there. It had been six months since resupply. A safety precaution early suggested by the archive, a ruse to enable the Trap.
We are wildlife that must not be noticed by the overness, by the Power that soon will be. On some nodes they shrank to smallness and almost remembered humanity, became echoes....
"Poor humans; they will all die."
"Poor us; we will not."
"I think they suspect. Sjana and Arne anyway." Once upon a time we were copies of those two. Once upon a time just weeks ago when the archaeologists started the ego-level programs.
"Of course they suspect. But what can they do? It's an old evil they've wakened. Till it's ready, it will feed them lies, on every camera, in every message from home."
Thought ceased for a moment as a shadow passed across the nodes they used. The overness was already greater than anything human, greater than anything humans could imagine. Even its shadow was something more than human, a god trolling for nuisance wildlife.
Then the ghosts were back, looking out upon the school yard underground. So confident the humans, a little village they had made here.
"Still," thought the hopeful one, the one who had always looked for the craziest outs, "we should not be. The evil should long ago have found us."
"The evil is young, barely three days old."
"Still. We exist. It proves something. The humans found more than a great evil in this archive."
"Perhaps they found
"Or an antidote." Whatever else, the overness was missing some things and misinterpreting others. "While we exist, when we exist, we should do what we can." The ghost spread itself across a dozen workstations and showed its companion a view down an old tunnel, far from human artifacts. For five billion years it had been abandoned, airless, lightless. Two humans stood in the dark there, helmets touching. "See? Sjana and Arne conspire. So can we."
The other didn't answer in words. Glumness. So the humans conspired, hiding in darkness they thought unwatched. But everything they said was surely tattled back to the overness, if only by the dust at their feet.
"I know, I know. Yet you and I exist, and that should be impossible too. Perhaps all together, we can make a greater impossibility come true." Perhaps we can hurt the evil newly born here.
A wish and a decision. The two misted their consciousness across the local net, faded to the faintest color of awareness. And eventually there was a plan, a deception -- worthless unless they could separately get word to the outside. Was there time still for that?
Days passed. For the evil that was growing in the new machines, each hour was longer than all the time before. Now the newborn was less than an hour from its great flowering, its safe spread across interstellar spaces.
The local humans could be dispensed with soon. Even now they were an inconvenience, though an amusing one. Some of them actually thought to escape. For days they had been packing their children away into coldsleep and putting them aboard the freighter. "Preparations for departure," was how they described the move in their planner programs. For days, they had been refitting the frigate -- behind a a mask of transparent lies. Some of the humans understood that what they had wakened could be the end of them, that it might be the end of their Straumli Realm. There was precedent for such disasters, stories of races that had played with fire and had burned for it.
None of them guessed the truth. None of them guessed the honor that had fallen upon them, that they had changed the future of a thousand million star systems.
The hours came to minutes, the minutes to seconds. And now each second was as long as all the time before. The flowering was so close now, so close. The dominion of five billion years before would be regained, and
time held. Only one thing was missing, and that was something quite unconnected with the humans' schemes. In the archive, deep in the recipes, there should have been a little bit more. In billions of years, something
be lost. The newborn felt all its powers of before, in potential ... yet there should be something more, something it had learned in its fall, or something left by its enemies (if there ever were such).
Long seconds probing the archives. There were gaps, checksums damaged. Some of the damage was age....
Outside, the container ship and the frigate lifted from the landing field, rising on silent agravs above the plains of gray on gray, of ruins five billion years old. Almost half of the humans were aboard those craft. Their escape attempt, so carefully concealed. The effort had been humored till now: it was not quite time for the flowering, and the humans were still of some use.
Below the level of supreme consciousness, its paranoid inclinations rampaged through the humans' databases. Checking, just to be sure. Just to be sure. The humans' oldest local network used light speed connections. Thousands of microseconds were spent (
) bouncing around it, sorting the trivia... finally spotting one incredible item:
Inventory: quantum data container, quantity (1)
, loaded to the frigate one hundred hours before!
And all the newborn's attention turned upon the fleeing vessels. Microbes, but suddenly pernicious.
How could this happen?
A million schedules were suddenly advanced. An orderly flowering was out of the question now, and so there was no more need for the humans left in the Lab.
The change was small for all its cosmic significance. For the humans remaining aground, a moment of horror, staring at their displays, realizing that all their fears were true (not realizing how much worse than true).
Five seconds, ten seconds, more change than ten thousand years of a human civilization. A billion trillion constructions, mold curling out from every wall, rebuilding what had been merely superhuman. This was as powerful as a proper flowering, though not quite so finely tuned.
And never lose sight of the reason for haste: the frigate. It had switched to rocket drive, blasting heedless away from the wallowing freighter.
, these microbes knew they were rescuing more than themselves. The warship had the best navigation computers that little minds could make. But it would be another three seconds before it could make its first ultradrive hop.
The new Power had no weapons on the ground, nothing but a comm laser. That could not even melt steel at the frigate's range. No matter, the laser was aimed, tuned civilly on the retreating warship's receiver. No acknowledgment. The humans knew what communication would bring. The laser light flickered here and there across the hull, lighting smoothness and inactive sensors, sliding across the ship's ultradrive spines. Searching, probing. The Power had never bothered to sabotage the external hull, but that was no problem. Even this crude machine had thousands of robot sensors scattered across its surface, reporting status and danger, driving utility programs. Most were shut down now, the ship fleeing nearly blind. They thought by not looking that they could be safe.
One more second and the frigate would attain interstellar safety.
The laser flickered on a failure sensor, a sensor that reported critical changes in one of the ultradrive spines. Its interrupts could not be ignored if the star jump were to succeed. Interrupt honored. Interrupt handler running, looking out, receiving more light from the laser far below.... a backdoor into the ship's code, installed when the newborn had subverted the humans' groundside equipment....
.... and the Power was aboard, with milliseconds to spare. Its agents -- not even human equivalent on this primitive hardware -- raced through the ship's automation, shutting down, aborting. There would be no jump. Cameras in the ship's bridge showed widening of eyes, the beginning of a scream. The humans knew, to the extent that horror can live in a fraction of a second.
There would be no jump. Yet the ultradrive was already committed. There would be a jump attempt, without automatic control a doomed one. Less than five milliseconds till the jump discharge, a mechanical cascade that no software could finesse. The newborn's agents flitted everywhere across the ship's computers, futilely attempting a shutdown. Nearly a light-second away, under the gray rubble at the High Lab, the Power could only watch. So. The frigate would be destroyed.
So slow and so fast. A fraction of a second. The fire spread out from the heart of the frigate, taking both peril and possibility.
Two hundred thousand kilometers away, the clumsy container vessel made its own ultradrive jump and vanished from sight. The newborn scarcely noticed. So a few humans had escaped; the universe was welcome to them.
In the seconds that followed, the newborn felt ... emotions? ... things more, and less, than a human might feel. Try emotions:
Elation. The newborn knew that now it would survive.
Horror. How close it had come to dying once more.
Frustration. Perhaps the strongest, the closest to its mere human echo. Something of significance had died with the frigate, something from this archive. Memories were dredged from the context, reconstructed: What was lost might have made the newborn still more powerful ... but more likely was deadly poison. After all, this Power had lived once before, then been reduced to nothing. What was lost might have been the reason.
Suspicion. The newborn should not have been so fooled. Not by mere humans. The newborn convulsed into self-inspection and panic. Yes, there were blindspots, carefully installed from the beginning, and not by the humans.
had been born here. Itself ... and the poison, the reason for its fall of old. The newborn inspected itself as never before, knowing now just what to seek. Destroying, purifying, rechecking, searching for copies of the poison, and destroying again.
Relief. Defeat had been so close, but now ...