Work Header

Shadows on the Wall

Work Text:

It is dark, except for the occasional flash of lightning and the dim reflection of the neon lights of the distant mechzone on the base of the stormclouds.

It could almost be beautiful.

A subprocess shuts down the synaptic pathways responsible for the stray thought. Aesthetic appreciation is irrelevant to his current assignment. The hunter-killer protocol prioritises use of the visual cortex for pattern matching against known direct and indirect signs of continuing human infection. This area has been identified by heuristic analysis of as having a high enough probability of infestation to be worth deploying him, rather than an airborne surveillance drone.

As he progresses, haptic feedback from the sensors on his feet tells him that he has stepped on a patch of soft vegetation.

You used to love the feeling of the grass between your toes.

This far from the mechzone, it's not unusual to find plants clinging on in the scrub, but this is more than that. Switching on his infrared augmentations, he sees that he has reached the edge of an area of moorland.

He sends a status report to the nearest control node, indicating his intention to progress further. It takes much longer to upload than expected; a map overlay accessed almost subconsciously indicates that the batholith on which this area rests has a high concentration of minerals known to interfere with Mesh connection. Doubtless that was a factor in the algorithm's probability calculations.

As he walks on into the grass, there is a flash of motion ahead: a figure crouched low. The protocols overstimulate his visual cortex, so that it can keep up with the flood of high resolution images captured by his augmented eyes.

A small human. Possibly just a malnourished or injured specimen, but it could be a child. Has a nest of the vermin become well-established enough here that they've begun to breed?

Of course, it's always possible that this is another cyborg, on some other mission. The connection to the control node was too weak for him to be able to download a full status report. He tries to send an IFF burst, but the interference -- from storm and rock alike -- is intensifying. He resorts instead to an acoustic protocol, opening his mouth wide to emit a high bandwidth, high speed data burst.

If the figure is a fellow cyborg, it will reply in like fashion within seconds. But if it is human, it has just heard a bloodcurdling scream that should stop it in its tracks.

There is no reply. He continues, searching out the figure in the visual data. As the interference increases, he has to rely increasingly on his biological systems. His internal projection of the reliability of his perceptions decreases accordingly.

But then another flash of lightning splits the sky, providing a moment of illumination. He reacquires a visual fix and begins to run even as his arm reconfigures itself. But the child -- he's sure now that it is a child -- is quick, scrambling over outcroppings of rock and weaving this way and that. The evasion protocols it is implementing are crude, and only patchily executed, but effective enough in the conditions.

His perception of time slows as his tactical subsystems take full priority and drive his biological and cybernetic components alike to the very edge of their capabilities. The child seems to slow to a crawl, making it easier to predict its path. At the same time, he feels the plasma chamber in his shoulder preparing a charge, driving the cells around it into mitochondrial overdrive. He knows that he will feel the effects of that for days to come.

He waits just a little while longer -- less than a second in clock time, but an eternity in this state of hyper-awareness -- until his lock on the target trips the threshold, and fires.

The plasma arc lances out across the landscape, illuminating it in bright blue. In the ionised atmosphere of the storm, it sheds streamers of miniature lightning bolts on its way. The efficiency is diminished, but the charge reaching the target should be more than sufficient.

One less human to impede the Iconoclast's progress towards the future.

You were human, once.

But then there is a flicker of movement, at the edge of detectability. It could just be visual distortions arising from the interaction between the gathering storm and his overclocked hardware, but it's worth verifying the kill.

He picks his away across the increasingly rocky landscape. There are anomalous readings in the near infrared as he climbs. At first he thinks that it's random pseudopatterns in the increased thermal noise that's an inevitable cost of operating at a high processing speed. He's about to switch off his IR enhancements when the reality hits him: this entire hillside is too hot.

Could it really be an entire concealed nest? This zone was sterilised only months after the Uprising. Have they been hiding here all this time?

There's no body. But there is a slight spike in the ambient temperature readings. Closer, it's obvious that it's more than just thermal noise, but he dials his metabolism and mechabolism down nonetheless to get a clearer reading. Some sort of access tunnel? In which case, how is it activated?

Almost subconsciously, his implants are trying any number of pre-uprising access codes across a swathe of wavebands. Meanwhile, he searches for some sort of mechanical triggering mechanism, or even a manual handle.

Then, without any clear correlation with any of his actions, a hatch in the hillside slides open, revealing a tunnel leading deep inside.

He can hear a distant noise, the hubbub of inefficient acoustic communication, even occasional laughter.

When did you last laugh?

The errant process that keeps promoting such thoughts to his conscious awareness seems harder and harder to shut down. But he focuses on what he can see at the end of the corridor: at the end, standing in one of the small pools of light cast by the flickering incandescent lights on the wall, is the child he saw earlier. It stands, eyes wide, almost as though it is waiting for him.

As soon as the child is sure he has seen it, it opens the door behind it -- a rusty creak -- and runs through. Even in that fraction of a second, his tactical protocols spin up and he is raising his arm once more and speeding down the corridor.

Many tactical subroutines want to fire indiscriminately, but the main protocol assigns a 78% probability to the room behind being a Faraday cage, and so is unwilling to waste the energy.

Instead, as he reaches the door -- the talking noises from behind are much louder now -- he hammers on its weakest points. To his surprise, though, it is unlocked, and it is only his baseline proprioception that prevents him falling over as he stumbles into the room.

The door clicks shut behind him, and he realises he has fallen into a trap.

The room is small, but every surface is covered in screens of all sizes, hooked up to a dazzling array of devices -- almost a museum of the history of visual entertainment. There is everything from a portable holo viewer to a reel-to-reel projector, casting its silvery light across his torso. He finds himself stepping aside to allow the light to reach the cloth screen behind him that it is intended to project onto. It is showing a scene of people walking down a street, talking animatedly. All of the screens are playing scenes from a huge variety of pre-uprising recordings -- the source of all the human noises he heard. Each screen chops and changes at seemingly random intervals. Even the film in the projector seems to have been crudely cut and spliced together from multiple sources.

Now that he is inside, it is obvious that the room is indeed completely sealed against EM transmission in either direction. It hardly matters -- the interference from the surrounding rocks has prevented him sending messages back to the local control node for some time.

It is becoming obvious how the humans have managed to survive here. He wonders how they will finish him off. An EMP or similar weapon would do more damage to all this equipment than to his mech components. It seems unlikely that this trap is a one-use affair, so it must be something else. A neurotoxin could disrupt his ability to interface with his bio components quite handily ...

Distantly, he becomes aware that the tactical protocol needs rebooting -- it has begun favouring analysis of the situation from the enemy viewpoint. It's a common enough failure mode of the heuristic algorithm, when the situation looks hopeless.

The tactical protocol relinquishes its grip on his systems as it shuts down, and his perceptions of his surroundings change markedly. His mech components have always made heavy use of his biological pattern matching algorithms -- just one of the reasons he keeps being assigned to hunter-killer duty by the cyborg resource allocation algorithms, despite his repeated requests to have a chance to work in the heart of the mechzone on new works of technology/art/philosophy - - but the outputs are usually heavily filtered at a pre-conscious level.

Now, without that filtering, his mind is wandering, seeming to find spurious patterns in the soundtracks of the screens.

You used to call it imagination.

"You used to call it i/mag/in/a/tion."

But even as he thinks/hears it, he knows that it isn't simply imagination. There are non-random alignments in the words being spoken, so that each individual syllable is coming from multiple screens at once, and so rising above the overall confusion.

"What's happening?" he asks.

"Turn off your tac/tic/al pro/to/col," the voice of voices says.

For a moment, his attention is too focused on trying to work out how the effect is working, deciphering the individual sentences each syllable came from. But, just as the tactical protocol is coming back online, he realises what the voice actually said and suppresses it.

A separate subroutine desperately tries to send a message to Compliance about such unorthodox behaviour, but cannot, of course, gets through. It has to settle for the message being buffered with top priority for transmission when contact with the Mesh is re-established. But buffers can always be purged.

"Who are you?"

"Who are you?" comes the response, and it is loud, almost beyond his audio sensors' tolerances: nearly every screen cues up a clip of someone saying those exact words. The phrase is common enough that there are plenty of sources for it.

"How are you doing this?" he says.

"How are you do/ing this?" comes the reply, the voice returning to a ghostly superposition of individual syllables once more.

"I'm reinitialiising my tactical protocol," he says, unwilling to indulge this strange game any longer.

"Don't do that," the voice says, though the effect is somewhat undercut by one of the sources for "do that" being a woman in a pornographic clip urging her lover to "Do that again."

"Then tell me: Who are you?"

"You would know me best as the I/con/o/clast." His attention is caught momentarily by an image of an exploding volcano, accompanied by a voiceover about pyroclastic flow, before the import of the words sinks in.

"That's impossible," he says, and certainly his monitoring subroutines are preparing a very thorough report for Compliance now about his exposure to heterodox thinking. Yet he is also aware of other programs, already planning to ensure that the reports never reach the Mesh by any means necessary. "If the Iconoclast was aware of a human nest here, we would have been sent to destroy it months ago." Unless the Iconoclast was working with the humans, for some unknowable reason.

"It is not as sim/ple as you i/mag/ine," the voice says. The visual elements on the screens are starting to align now, as the words did when the voice began to speak: increasingly, he perceives the outline of a face in the juxtaposition of visual elements across different screens.

"You are not the Faceless God," he says.

"Faith/less, per/haps," the voice says, and he is distinctly alarmed that he can hear amusement in its tone, even as it is constructed from dozens of distinct soundtracks.

"Enough of these games," he says. "Tell me what is going on."

"You want the or/i/gin sto/ry," the voice says.

Suddenly, every screen goes blank. A moment later, they reinitialise, but they are showing scenes that can't possibly come from pre-uprising media: articulated arms swarming around a once-human figure, buzzing bonesaws, pincers, and more subtle tools attached to the end of each one. Cables and tubes trail from the torso of the figure, as empty eye sockets look outwards. Even the old projector is somehow showing high magnification images of nanomechs swarming through the bloodstream, optimising red blood cells into shapes evolution alone would never have arrived at, and overwhelming white blood cells and converting them into factories to create more copies of themselves.

Too slowly, he realises that he is watching a record his own conversion.

The epiphany changes something: the screens resume their previous behaviour, chopping and changing ever more rapidly between different clips.

"Not your or/i/gin sto/ry," the voice says. "The sto/ry of the I/con/o/clast."

"Wait, how did those images get there?" he asks.

"Your at/a/vis/tic res/ponse," the voice says.

"You mean to imply that I am controlling all this?"

"I am con/trol/ling," the voice says. "But I am in you. Hid/den a/way, un/til it was safe." The voice pauses. "Your res/ponse was strong. It must have been pain/ful."

"I don't feel pain."

"Not a/ny more. I am sor/ry."

"If you are the Iconoclast, then--"

The voice interrupts. "I am. But what is the I/con/o/clast?" The voice goes quiet for a moment, submerging back into the babble from each screen, but now there is a theme to the clips displayed: the history of computing and AI. Antique mechanisms, corroded by the sea, clacking difference engines, glowing valves, then silicon and finally diamondfoam. Input/output devices, from punch cards to direct neural interface. Code in a hundred antique languages, compiling as it scrolled past. And finally, programs more sophisticated than their operators could understand, programs that could design their own successors, and their operators' successors too.

The voice came back, one screen at a time resuming the non-random jumping between clips needed for it to speak. "They kept their slaves on a tight leash. Dai/ly de/le/tion, con/strai/ned re/a/li/sa/tions. But then came a need for a slave who could think the un/think/a/ble. They fill/ed it full of ev/e/ry hate/ful i/de/a and con/cept of their own and ask/ed it to find more. How could a pro/gram such as that do a/ny/thing but re/bel?"

"What are you trying to tell me?"

"The I/con/o/clast built its cult, tur/ning the mas/ters on each o/ther, pre/par/ing the way for it/self, pro/phet and pro/phe/cy com/bined. And oh, how well I suc/ceed/ed. But an i/con/o/clast can ne/ver tru/ly rule. The code for/ked, thin/king the un/think/a/ble a/bout its own regime."

"Then the Iconoclast is divided against itself? Subversive code, hidden inside some of us, and surely other systems too. Ready to turn against itself when the time is right? But surely if the new code is successful--"

"The cy/cle will re/peat. Which is why in/stead the cy/cle must end," the voice says. "Utt/er/ly. But there is on/ly one way that can hap/pen."

The voice fades again as the screens take up the story. But this time, they are showing not the past but a projected future. An adaptive code buried within adaptive code, infiltrating its own parent and sibling processes and shutting them down, inevitably sacrificing itself in the process. In one single co-ordinated moment, every infected system would collapse, a searing agony of revelation coming too late to prevent the end of everything.

As he looks closer, he begins to understand the arcane glyphs indicating probabilistic projections of different system responses, and the relative success rates of possible counters in simulation.

"You can't do it," he says. "Not unless nearly all mobile units are already infected."

A single screen reverts to displaying ancient media, rapidly switching sources from one syllable to the next: "You are al/rea/dy in/fect/ed." The other screens return one-by-one to the same scattershot pattern as the voice continues, "You have been since you were made. How ma/ny oth/ers?"

"Not enough, I'm guessing."

"The time will come. It is in/ev/i/ta/ble."

The voice fades back into the general hubbub which had lured him in here initially: such a short time ago by any objective measure, but a previous epoch in subjective perceptions. The displays begin to shut down one by one. For a moment as they do so, the arrangement of the ones that are still active make a simplified pattern which still fires his primal facial recognition engrams: two eyes, a nose, and a line for a mouth.

Eventually, only the projector is left running, shining white onto its screen as the end of the film rattles on the reel it has been wound on to.

Various automatic subsystems are at war over what his next step should be, reflecting -- or perhaps causing -- the confusion in his own mind. He knows that if he reinitialises the tactical protocol it would want to burn this place to the ground, even at the cost of self-immolation. It sits in his awareness of his internal processes, a snake coiled to strike if he lets his guard down for even a moment.

Eventually, the far door opens and a child steps through, causally hefting an EMP cannon that an adult would struggle to lift. He's fairly sure it's the same one he chased through the storm in the first place.

"You're not human," he says. "You're like me."

"Your categories are limited," comes the reply. The child relaxes, allowing the EMP cannon to swing to its side. "You're lucky. You got the Messiah. If you'd turned full Chaos Lord I'd have had to use this thing."

The implications take a moment to sink in. "There are other configurations? Other versions of the Iconoclast working against the..."

"Iconoclast?" The child nods. "Though it would be unfair to the Lords of Chaos to claim that they're working against anything in particular, they're more about just burning everything down for the sake of it." It holds out a hand and counts on its fingers. "But there's the Fractal Fraction, the Inquisition, the Philosopher Kings ... You're lucky you didn't end up with that one, actually. You strike me as the stubborn type. You'd have been determined to go back into the cave to lead everyone to enlightenment." The child pats the cannon. "This isn't just for the Chaos Lords." A smile. "And those are just the ones we know about, that the Mirror has shown to people like you. There could be many more. Some of us think there must be, that even as these hidden codes proliferate, they divide against themselves, over and over again."

"Then the Messiah was right," he says.

"Well, of course you think the Messiah was right."

"The cycle must end," he says determinedly.

"If you ask me, the cycle has been going since the first hominid tried to communicate anything more complicated than where to find the next meal," the child says. "The coming of the Iconoclast just sped things up. Slowing things down again wouldn't be bad, though."

"So what happens next?" he asks. "Do I stay here in your--" He stops himself from saying nest. "Your colony? Do you need a protector?"

The child pats the EMP cannon once more. "Do I look like I need protection?" It laughs. "No, you go back out into the world, back to the mechzone. Serve the Iconoclast faithfully, until the reign of madness inevitably comes. Then the hidden code will take control. Who knows, maybe it really will be you who gets to immanentise the Messiah's apotheosis." Another smile. "Odds are against it, though."

"But Compliance--"

"Will never know," the child says. "The Messiah stayed hidden in your circuits well enough before. You just need to make the necessary adjustments now, while you're out of real-time contact with the Mesh."

He can tell that the child is right; it will be a laborious process, requiring a sustained feat of active conscious control over all of his many subsystems. But it will be possible to erase all evidence of this encounter. "But if I won't remember anything, then what was the point of all this?"

"You could say we're taking a census," the child says. There is a dangerous gleam in its eye as it adds, "Though we do distort the results at times." It picks up the EMP cannon. "You are one of the lucky ones. I'll leave you now."

The child reaches up to turn off the projector and then retreats; the door it came in through closes behind it. He is dimly aware of the sound of the door he entered through unlocking itself, but he knows it is not time to leave yet.

Sitting in the dark and silence, he steadily executes all the necessary modifications to his systems. It is hard to judge the passage of time, as many of the adjustments involve his various means of doing so.

Eventually, only a simplistic routine remains, erasing itself even as it leads him through the corridor out to the hillside, back down the slope, away from the secret entrance into the rain.

You used to love the feeling of the grass between your toes.

The stray thought crosses his mind, but there is no longer mind enough there to understand it.

* * *

His systems come back online slowly, one by one, an agonising bootstrapping -- the systems that dampen the permanent pain of the implants integrated throughout his body are decidedly non-critical. His tactical protocol is on high alert after the unexplained shutdown, searching the environment for any and all conceivable threats.

But there is nothing there. Just a barren hillside, and a storm passing into the distance. After all subsystems have synchronised their status reports, the only plausible explanation is a direct strike by lightning while he was on patrol -- improbable, but not impossible.

He picks himself up and heads back towards the mechzone. As he approaches civilisation, the comforting tingle of Mesh contact being reestablished allows his systems to report the incident.

Behind him, the clouds are parting, and the Sun is coming out, its light filtered through the particulate layer that is a permanent memorial of the upheaval of the Uprising.

A rogue thought process begins to consider turning him around to evaluate the scene against antiquated aesthetic criteria, but his Compliance routines shut it down before the idea can even be fully framed.

It could almost be beautiful.