Future Zero: The Posthuman Chronicles

By Jave Harron

The Trickster's Web

Underneath the synthetic sky of the New Antioch arcology, a figure of clear Asian descent entered into a nearby alleyway. She looked like any other near-baseline citizen of the arcology, dressed in a blue jumpsuit and pants. Several wearable devices protruded from her pockets. Former Agent Kai Zhu of the Shenzhou Combine interfaced with the city's ambient network traffic. She observed several interesting transactions, and isolated the source. She looked up at the structures around her. The skyscrapers, each made of exotic carbon fibers and other materials, reached to the top of the arcology, acting as both supports and dwelling places. Their white color shimmered in the glow of the synthetic sun. The night cycle would not come for another several hours, but Zhu preferred to be brief. The best covert operation was one where no shots were fired.

Feeling the AFPDW concealed in her pocket, she entered the massive tower before her. She noted the locations of cameras, biometric sensors, sentries, and patrols of sentry swarms. Inside the tower was a bright corridor, with several nearbaselines going about their business. Most of the people in this arcology were Neokrys, so obvious metallic implants were not as common here. Nanotech implants, genetic tweaking, and discrete cybernetics seemed to be more common here. Given the discrete implants in her own body, Zhu was glad she did not have to download into another form for infiltrating here. The floor itself was covered by a light blue carpet, while the walls and ceiling were made of reflective white carbon fiber composites. The building was made to look as sleek as possible, part of the dominant "Hyper-Polymer Gloss" decorative and architectural trend.

Zhu activated her implants to detect the ambient cyberspace around the building. A small set of graphs appeared in the corner of her eye. There was the standard urban noise: the automated maintanence subroutines, messages being redirected, the wired and AIs bantering with each other, and the near-baselines around her communicating wirelessly. Carefully, she isolated the signal she had detected before, and superimposed its source over the blueprints of the building. The target she desired was several floors up, and stationary.

This will be redemption for the Centauri City clusterfuck, she mused. Certainly the Shenzhou Combine Security Bureau would see their mistake once she apprehended the suspect. The source was clearly coming from a server on the eighth floor. After her dismissal, she had followed this signal across several systems. Her superiors said it was a waste of time, but she decided to follow it on her own.

The security architecture in the building detected her fake identity biometrics, and granted her access to the upper floors. She stepped into an elevator, and several other people joined her. There was a tall, dark skinned man with a neatly shaved head and archaic suit and tie on. Zhu quickly scanned his identity records, partially out of curiosity, and partially out of her professional sense of paranoia. His identity file appeared in the corner of her eye. He was Larry Woods, a former advertising agent of Dual Star Heavy Industries from Centauri. She could not find out much more than that, and focused on the others.

There was a short, young-looking woman whose eyes constantly darted around. Her restless appearance would be obvious to even a baseline. She was pale, with short brown hair and a disheveled jumpsuit and coat. Zhu tried scanning her, but her database returned too many results, mainly uploaded and AI citizens of the Tau Ceti Symbiotry. Since almost all Symbiont citizens were gestalts, she may have more than one AI or mind uploaded into her.

The last one was a pale man with dark hair and a stocky frame and glasses. He wore a protective vest, not even bothering to hide it. Zhu detected several crudely concealed weapons in the man's suit, two knives, a magshocker, a nanodrug delivery system, and a police-issue sidearm. A scan of him produced no results at first, but a second scan revealed him as Doctor Eric Zann of Xanadu Terraforming Industries, a Centauri based terraforming firm. She did a cursory scan of news relating to Zann and any terraforming, but came up with only articles over his recent and unexpected resignation. She positioned herself a safe distance from Zann, being able to disable him if he moved for his weapons suddenly. He pushed the eight floor, where she wanted to go.

The elevator moved upwards, silently and quickly. Strangely, everyone on the elevator had the same destination: the eighth floor. Immediately expecting a trap, Zhu had to suppress her nervous reaction. Given this strange and motley crew in the elevator with her, it was unlikely these were hostiles, or an interception party. A memetic engineer, nervous Symbiote, and terraformer would be a poor choice for an ambush party against an undercover agent. They may also be aware of something, but were remaining silent. Perhaps they had also sensed something was awry. Provoking them now may turn them suspicious, or even hostile to her. Zhu remained silent, waiting for the elevator to arrive at its destination.

The doors opened, revealing a waiting room. There was a similar blue carpet and walls as the first floor, but several synth-wooden chairs remained in the center of the floor. There was an opaque window with a camera and speaker in front of it. In the corner, there was a metal door with a simple keypad next to it. The door itself looked too strong to force down with her weapons. Zhu was somewhat surprised. It was obvious, primitive, and strange. Along the walls, there were several images. Her infolink recognized them as major arcane, or cards, from the Waite Tarot card deck. There was a man holding a bag and strolling down a road, labeled "The Fool" with the number zero. The next one was labeled "I: The Magician," with a man working with a sword, cup, pentacle, and wand on a table. The next had a regally dressed man sitting on a throne reading, "IV: The Emperor." The next was a man with a driving a chariot forward, with a black sphinx and white sphinx driving it. It was labeled "VII: The Chariot." The last card had a bearded old man in a cloak and robe holding a lantern and staff. It read "IX: The Hermit."

"What an idiot," Zhu heard Eric Zann mutter to himself. He walked over to the keypad, and inserted his finger into the device to interface directly with it. Zann stood silent for a few minutes, butt Zhu knew what he was doing. He was interfacing directly with the device, trying to decrypt it. After several minutes, Zann gave up. "I take that back," he said. "It looks primitive, but definitely good encryption software. Definitely beyond SOTA."

Zhu tried next. She could do it wirelessly due to her covert operative implants, but encountered the same problem. No matter what approach she used, the encryption was always ahead of her. She had no idea of telling how many characters the input was. The device prevented her from even entering codes from any other method than the keypad. The keypad was truly deceptively simple. A technology this good could only be Solarian. She sighed. On the other side of that door was the source of the signal. Did she really come so far to be stopped by one lousy door?

Larry approached the window, and knocked on it. "Hello?" he asked. There was no response. "I'm Larry Woods, from Centauri. May we please have some assistance?"

There was no response from the speaker. The Symbiote girl, who was previously, silent, approached the door. She began to type several numbers on the keypad: Zero, one, four, seven, and nine. The door clicked open, and she turned her head curiously. "The answer was right in front of us," she muttered, turning her head to the side.

Whoever or whatever was behind the door seemed to have a strange sense of humor. Zhu instinctively reacted. She drew her AFPDW. The weapon resembled a hammerless pistol, with a slide and grip both made of a black polymer. The machine pistol held a magazine full of deadly penetrating projectiles. She rushed into the room, leveling the weapon in front of her, and pointed it in front of her. She surveyed the room beyond the door. There was a side room with a nanofabber, and another with a server bank. Unlike most others, the server bank consisted of Solarian-made green computronium arranged in the shapes of several bits of furniture. At the end of the server room was a man sitting in a chair facing away from the entrance. This was the clear source of the signal she had been chasing.

"Stand down!" Zhu shouted, moving herself into position to prevent him from escaping. "As an agent of the Shenzhou Combine Security Bureau, I hereby order you to surrender to the Bureau!"

The man spun around. He was a tall figure, clad in an olive green robe that covered his body. A suit covered every square millimeter of where would be skin. A strange mask covered his face, and he held a bizarre bullpup assault rifle in his hands.

"Greetings, Agent Zhu," the figure said. "As I'm sure you're aware of, Code 34 of SCSB Agent Conduct states an agent may only arrest a suspect abroad with sufficient evidence. The signal and server profile you were hunting would not suffice under even a lenient Centauri court."

He lifted his mask, revealing an old man's face underneath. To Zhu, it looked more like the standard nanoschematic-mask template for an old man, rather than any specific individual. Underneath one mask was but another with this man. "Furthermore, only agents may make arrests," he grinned evilly. "You understand that, Agent Zhu. Or should I say, civilian Zhu?"

He began to snicker. Her infolink didn't have any specific information on the figure, identifying him as several names: Doctor William Octavian, Professor Bizarre, Iktomi, Ick-Ock, and stranger, nonsensical garbage.

"Who are you?" she kept the gun trained on him.

"I'll tell you all at once," the old man replied, looking past Zhu at the doorframe. "Once you all come out. Doctor Zann, Larry Woods, and Mausoleum, you may come out now."

The others stepped forward, holding their own weapons out. Zann held his a police style gun, a combined slugthrower and electrolaser. Woods and the girl now identified as Mausoleum had flechette pistols out. With four people holding guns on the old man, he began to laugh. "You can call me Iktomi," he snickered. "Or Doctor Octavian, or that crazy old man."

He placed his rifle down, and pulled out several old style wood-pulp papers from his desk. He handed a package to each of them. Zhu rooted through her deck of papers. It was a copy of her situation report on Centauri City, detailing how an unknown force had interfered with her attempt to arrest a known Moabite terrorist. After it was a form showing her dismissal for failing to capture such a high profile target.

"How did you get this?!" Doctor Zann shouted. "This is a confidential company report about why I lost the bid to terraform Alecto!"

"And this is my resignation letter from Dual Star," Larry remarked. "So much for having the most expensive security in the Centauri Republic."

"This is a list of all my clients," Masoleum muttered.

"So, Iktomi, what brings you out of the Solarian Federation?" Zhu replied.

"How'd you figure it out, Kai?" Iktomi grinned. His face transformed into a bony, narrow face. Zhu's infolink saw the ethnicity of the face was a baseline group known as the "North American Natives." The face then transformed to hers, and back to the old man.

"For one, your signal and server protocol was unlike anything I had seen before," Zhu explained. "Second, the encryption on the keypad was beyond anything I've ever seen. Third, there's Solarian computronium around this room. Fourth, you were able to break high level nearbaseline networks and retrieve sensitive documents. And fifth, you're obviously a nanocolony taking a nearbaseline human form."

Iktomi clapped his hands together. "Good thinking, my former agent," he grinned. "That's why I brought you all here at once. I left clues for you to follow, and sought to bring you all here."

The group kept their weapons up and focused on Iktomi. "It's pretty simple, really," he explained. "The clues were enough to bring you here. The locked door, I must confess, was something I added for my own enjoyment. Since the keypad could not be hacked by anything short of another Solarian, entering the correct code was the only way in. The answers were right in front of you in the form of the Tarot arcana numbers, as Mausoleum figured."

"Then why the dark window?" Larry asked.

"The dark window was there was a red herring. I would have liked to see how you each approached a problem. Zann tried to decrypt it using his own programs. Zhu tried to brute-force decrypt it using Bureau-trained approaches. You tried the professional and social way. Masoleum, however, saw the obvious," Iktomi replied. "Getting you all to arrive at the office at same time, though, was no mean feat. Especially taking all that traffic and walking times into account-"

"Enough!" Zhu shouted. "Why are we here?"

"Simple," Iktomi grinned. "I'd like to hire all of you. Of all the people I've examined in this sector, you are all the most qualified group. Believe me. I've studied a lot."

"Couldn't you just have sent us a message, or auxed us? That's normally how we do employment here," Woods crossed his arms.

"I could have, but where's the fun in that?" the Solarian grinned. "All of you had to leave your old jobs behind for various reasons. Larry, you were outdone by a rival company's memeticist. Doctor Zann, you tried terraforming a planet illegally. Zhu, you were forced out due to political fallout. And Mausoleum here has no other place to go."

"So what kind of task would you need a disgraced spy, mad terraformer, memetic engineer, and Symbiote for? Especially when you're a Solarian! Can't you just create several sub-personalities and bodies with similar roles?" Zhu exclaimed.

"I like the company," Iktomi shrugged. "And compared to other Solarians, I'm not that far above nearbaselines. But, since I was unable to get their assistance, I had to improvise."

"That doesn't answer my question," Zhu kept the gun on him. "Besides, how would you pay us? It's not like we can't find employment with our skills!"

"I assume all of you are familiar with acausal computing," Iktomi continued. "It operates using the EPR paradox. Particle pairs able to defeat the speed of light, and used to send messages instantly."

Zann and Zhu nodded.

"Fundamentally, there is something very interesting. Given the nature of the technology and Grand Unified Theory, those particles actually receive information from themselves several attoseconds in the future. Essentially, it violates causality, which means that the technology works by receiving messages from the future," Iktomi explained. "But so far, the time length into the future is insignificant. Nanoseconds is the best that I've seen some systems do."

"I'm a terraformer, not a physicist," Zann muttered. "We can't help you build a better acausal computer."

"But you all can direct me to things I'd need to," Iktomi continued. "As you may have heard, several Daedalan artifacts have been recovered in excellent condition in several systems. I'm sure you know all about that, Doctor Zann."

Zann muttered unintelligibly to himself.

"Several Solarian researchers believe these artifacts are acausal systems used by the Daedalans. If I can acquire enough, I will be able to reverse engineer them," Iktomi continued. "Aside from the obvious marketing royalties on those products, I have another incentive for all of you."

"And that is?" Zann asked. "Solarian technology?"

"Part of it. But the best pay off may also be the most theoretical," a large grin appeared on Iktomi's face. "If certain reports I've followed are correct, then Daedalan acausal systems weren't just limited to a few nanoseconds into the future."

"So, a few standard days, then?" Zann mused. "The physics I've read shows that anything greater than that would take more energy that exists in the universe."

"Then you haven't read the latest Solarian Grand Unified Theory," Iktomi grinned. "While that statement is correct, there is much more to it than that. The bottom line is that the times these Daedalan systems operated at were much longer. Perhaps in the order of thousands of years."

"You're shitting me," Zann added.

"I'd offer to give each of you the technical background, but you'd be here for hours listening to Solarian math, physics, and archaeology," Iktomi continued. "I will explain things further, should you join. You'd be offered a workplace, living quarters, access to auxlinks and nanofabbers, and several amenities on board my Solarian vessel."

Iktomi turned on a hologram projector, showing the design of the vessel. It was an ovoid vessel, with few openings in the hull. Like most Solarian vessels, it was pitch-black and purely functional. Zhu could see some writing written on the hull, reading "Zeroth Trump."

"It's capable of creating its own wormholes, driven by a singularity engine, and has weapons and sensors literally hundreds of years more advanced than the rest of the known universe," Iktomi grinned. "There's enough space aboard for almost anything, and it's nanofabrication bay can produce almost anything. In addition, it's able to instantly communicate with almost anything else in the galaxy. If it's not to your liking, you can also leave whenever you want."

"I'm interested, at least," Zann added.

"Can you give me some time to think?" Zhu asked.

"Sounds too good to be true," Woods remarked. "But I would like to see this ship."

"They say I can trust you," Mausoleum added.

"I'll be here tomorrow," Iktomi grinned. "I can show you the ship, if you desire. If you'll check your accounts, a good number of credits have been wired to them. Consider it a gift."

"I'll be back then," Zhu remarked.

The others turned to leave, and Iktomi sat in his office. He switched his forward negotiator personality for his preferred one. He knew they'd be back. The psychological profiles he had made had served him well. A tour of his ship later, they had come back to his office to sign on for the expedition. As Iktomi moved the ship away from the arcology, he knew the easiest part was over.

The interior of the Zeroth Trump was made to give a sense of relaxation to all of the occupants. Iktomi himself had engineered it to resemble a Centauri style smart penthouse. Each room was a regular octagon, with doors, elevators, and stairs connecting it to the other rooms. The entire interior of the ship was made of computronium, so Iktomi could reshape it at any time. At the center of the black, egg-shaped craft was the bridge. Data was feed in real time by sensors more advanced than anything else outside the Solarian Federation.

A singularity reactor provided matter, energy, and power. The reactor itself was sealed away from access just below the bridge, only able to be interfaced with by Iktomi himself. Also sealed away from the rest of the crew's control were the ship's weapons systems and drones. Since a nearbaseline would be unable to operate them, Iktomi decided to minimize the chances of something going wrong. Attached to the bridge were several types of rooms. There was a nanofabber room, dining room, recycling room, armory and warchive, communications center, and airlock. Below them was a room set up for each of the crew. Iktomi himself stayed within a spartan dojo-like room with a synthwood floor, walls, and mat. A nanofabber in the corner made all manner of archaic and modern weapons, from clubs to swords to guns to lasers. The rest of the rooms had been made to the preferences of the group. Each person possessed their own room.

Agent Kai Zhu possessed a military style room, with Shenzhou-styled furniture around. A cold metal cot, dresser, weapon locker, and simple neuraux console were the only significant things other than a bathroom. In contrast, Doctor Eric Zann had a more elaborate room. His room held several scientific instruments. The large, self making bed had a frame of computronium, so all furniture was effectively computing substrate. In addition to bathroom, bed, and console, the room was full of several scientific instruments. There was also weapons and a physical conditioning set. The room was well lit and possessed white polymer walls, providing bright gloss around the room. The room below was Larry Woods', and superficially looked like his old Centauri City apartment. There was a mattress on the floor, decorate blade and guns on the walls, synthwood furniture, and a standard bathroom and console. A simulated window was also put into place, with a holographic rendering of the city from memory. Lastly, Mausoleum had a room next door. There was a standard console, bathroom, and furniture, but also an esoteric collection on the walls. Several exotic types of masks, each made of computronium, hung on the walls. Each resembled several different baseline cultures and traditions, from ancient African tribal masks to archaic gasmasks to synth-flesh "smart masks."

Iktomi lead the group to the dining room. Having their bags at their sides, they were at first surprised to find the rooms already for them. After snickering to himself, the Solarian sat down at the round plastic table. "Put your things in your rooms, and I'll have some details on your first assignment."

They would like it here, for sure.