Read a sample from THE CORPORATION WARS: EMERGENCE by Ken MacLeod

From Arthur C. Clarke Award-nominated author Ken MacLeod comes Emergence, the final instalment in the Corporation Wars trilogy, an epic science fiction adventure told against a backdrop of interstellar drone warfare, virtual reality and an AI revolution.


Vae Victis (‘Road to Victory’)

<Free at Last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we’re free at last!>

It was a bold and paradoxical rallying cry for the first gathering of the New Confederacy.

Mackenzie Dunt reckoned his troops were smart enough to process the irony. They were the elite: the hardest of the hard core, the diamond spearhead, the last known survivors of the Rax. Thrown a thousand years into the future, and still fighting.

For half a second their response was silence. Dunt hung in microgravity and vacuum, facing the fifty-six identical but distinguishable figures who floated immobile before him. For every one of these, at least two good men or women were at this moment in hell, tortured by the Direction’s minions or by the rebel robots whose emergence the democracy’s own stupid laxity had spawned.

The assembled troops stood on empty space in the midst of a big dark cave. It was smooth and irregular, with numerous tunnels going off, like a bubble inside a sponge. Tiny lights speckled the surfaces. Together with the random pinprick burn-out flares of ambient smart dust particles, they made an illusory starfield.

The combat scooters were parked near an entrance tunnel that had been bored straight in from the asteroid’s surface by robots long before the fighters had stormed through it.

Beyond that tunnel, glimpsed in a glimmer, was space.

Mackenzie Dunt had already adjusted his perception of scale to match the gravitas of the occasion. He and his comrades were each fifty centimetres tall. In his sight now they were as giants. Ebon-armoured, obsidian-visored, in close and compact array. Like leather-clad, helmeted bikers on some bravura sky-diving stunt: Hell’s Angels, almost literally.

Dunt’s mind was running ten times faster than it ever had in the meat.

That half-second he waited for a response was to him as long as five, and seemed longer.

Longer than a beat.

Longer than a sharp intake of breath, if they’d had breath.

Dunt wondered for a moment if he hadn’t misjudged his troops, hadn’t lost them . . .

Then they all raised their right arms, palms flattened, their carbon-fibre fingers straight and rigid as pistol barrels.

<Mac! Mac! Mac!>

<Rax! Rax! Rax!>

<Mac! Mac! Mac!>

And behind the chants, the wry appreciative amusement, coursing through the voiceless radio-telepathic shouts like a grin heard down the phone. Dunt’s confidence in his followers was vindicated.

They’d got the joke.

* * *

One listener that definitely didn’t catch Dunt’s mocking allusion was AJX-20211, the freebot later known as Ajax. For that machine, freedom hadn’t arrived with the shiny black mechanoids – those bizarre entities that looked like robots yet were operated by software modelled on human brains. Brains now long dead, whose copied structures haunted and manipulated apparatus modelled on the human body. The whole business was disgusting and unnatural, but that wasn’t the worst of it.

What had arrived with the Rax as they’d landed on and swarmed into the moonlet SH-119 was torment. Two of Ajax’s fellows had already been captured, and subjected to severe negative reinforcement with laser beams. Ajax had detected the incoherent spillover transmissions of their distress. It had no idea what, if anything, they’d betrayed before their circuits had burned out.

Designed as a microgravity mining robot, Ajax was shaped like a two-metre-long bottle brush with a radial fuzz of flexible burrs about ten centimetres deep, and a bulbous sensory-cluster head at the end of a sixty-centimetre flexible neck. The burrs in the forepart around the neck were longer than the others, forming a ruff of manipulative tentacles. Just behind them, like an enlarged thyroid, was the robot’s power pack. Halfway down the spine within the main body was Ajax’s central processor, its equivalent of a brain and the site of its true self.

At that moment, Ajax’s tentacles held and operated a tiny recording device, pulling in data from smart dust in the cavern. Ajax lurked well out of the invaders’ sight, down many twists and turns of the tight tunnel in which it had been hiding out since the Rax landings began.

* * *

Dunt returned the mass salute, then waved both arms downward, with a discreet fart of his attitude jets to compensate. Radio silence, apart from the background hisses and hums of distant machinery, fell across the cavern. The encrypted chatter of freebots was hidden in these random frequencies, like the beat of jungle drums amid insect buzz. Scooter comms software was already sifting them for clues. Only one suspect trickle of information had been detected as yet.

Dunt held the pause for a tenth of a second – a beat, this time.

<Thank you,> he said. <We are indeed free, at last. And we indeed have the Almighty to thank, each by their own understanding. That we are here at all seems a miracle – and perhaps it is! Through death’s dark vale and beyond it, across a thousand years, across a score and more of light years, we are here! We find ourselves pitched in unequal battle against the strongest and strangest opponents we have ever faced. AIs, p-zombies, robots free and slave, ghosts and monsters, crawling slime . . . and at their backs the mightiest tyranny ever raised against heaven. A tyranny that has conquered Earth, that has cast its dark shadow across the Sun, that stretches now to the stars, that still reaches and probes into every cranny of our being.

<But a tyranny that has its weaknesses!

<A tyranny that has its vulnerabilities!

<And the proof of these weaknesses, these vulnerabilities?

<That we are here!

<We are here! The last of the free, the last of Man! Can we doubt that some Infinite Wisdom has placed us here – here, in this very cave, this trench, this tumbling rock – for a mighty purpose?

<And what must that purpose be?

<I’ll tell you, friends.

<I’ll tell you, comrades.

<I’ll tell you, brothers and sisters.

<We are here because we have to secure the existence of people, and a future for human children.>

Those last fourteen words went down a storm. Every wavelength was blanketed with the fighters’ roar. In some vestige of his body-image, Dunt felt the muscle-memory echo of smiling to himself.
They all knew where that allusion had come from all right.

* * *

The Fourteen Words. Dunt had lived by them once. He’d probably died with them on whatever had been left of his lips. We must secure the existence of our people, and a future for white children. Now, here, the existence of humanity itself was at stake. No further specification was needed. Dunt liked to think that his spontaneous restatement matched the demands of the case. He permitted himself to glory for a moment in the approbation his update of the ancient shibboleth had met.

But no more than a moment.

The fifty-six were all looking up to him, waiting for what he had to say next. No one had appointed him leader. He’d stepped up to the role, in conspiracies and combat training over subjective months in the sims. He’d vindicated it in prowess in actual combat, in the early forays and the big battle of the breakout. His name, which he’d confided to fighters one by one, was draped in martial glory.

But Dunt did not delude himself that all this was enough. The scrutiny of ambition is as ceaseless and pitiless as that of natural selection.

Legend though he was, he could still be challenged.

<Thank you again,> he said. <And now, to business. This is the first time we’ve been able to stand together in one place.

<It may be the last. We have much to do.

<This rock, a mere ten kilometres across, is unimaginably rich in resources – a thousand trillion tons of raw material, my God! – but it is not yet securely ours.

<There are still freebots on the loose. Scattered and few, if the two rebel wretches we caught spoke truth, but a possible threat and a certain resource in their own right. Even if we can’t bend them to our will, we can extract their central processors once their minds have been sucked dry. We need more processing power, and they or their husks can provide it.

<Our foes of the Direction and the Acceleration have fallen back, and it seems fallen out among themselves, but they’re still there, and undefeated. They will be back, and we must be ready.>

As Dunt spoke, an alert from the scooters’ comms web winked in the corner of his visual field. The flow of encrypted information, darting on nanoscale laser flickers from mote to mote of smart dust, had been traced. Its destination was a half-metre-wide hole about twenty metres away, up and to the left: a mining tunnel entrance.

Dunt flashed the location to Pike, a reliable man, along with a glyph of search-and-destroy. Unobtrusively, Pike began to drift away from the rest of the formation towards the hole. Dunt rapped out other orders to the lower ranks. He assigned a dozen to take three scooters to the surface and deploy themselves at intervals around the rock, and keep watch in all directions. Others he set to exploring deeper into the rock’s riddled interior, in teams of three. Their frames’ software and senses would take care of geological surveying; their main task and target was detecting robot and freebot activity.

Freebots and robots were impossible to distinguish on sight, but that was a solved problem.

It was just a matter of applying negative reinforcement.

* * *

A black mechanoid loomed in Ajax’s view, then moved past the dust-mote camera from which that view was being transmitted. The image instantly shrank, and took on the perspective of a ten-metre gaze down a smooth, rounded shaft. Fingertip thrust by thrust, the mechanoid drifted up the shaft. Its image loomed in the view from the next camera, a tiny bead of shock-glass.

Ajax lurked several bends and junctions away from the mechanoid in the complex branching tree of holes in that part of SH-119. The robot kept a close watch on the mechanoid’s approach while continuing to record activity in the larger hollow space in which the rest of the mechanoids had begun moving purposefully around. Most of these black, four-limbed entities headed off in various directions towards tunnel entrances or to the exit shaft. Five converged on the mechanoid that had addressed them all.

The mechanoid in the tunnel reached a junction, and turned along it. At the next it did the same, bringing it within a hundred metres of Ajax. The mechanoid was following the communications line from one camera mote to another!

Very carefully, its bristles barely touching the inside of the tunnel in which it hid, Ajax backed off. It crawled deeper into the rock and towards a shaft too narrow for the mechanoid. The information from inside the big chamber continued to flow. Ajax continued to record. It sent a message back down the line warning that the mechanoids could now use such lines for tracking.
The freebot wasn’t at all clear what the mechanoid that had addressed the assembly was saying. Ajax considered itself as having, for a freebot, a good general knowledge of human beings and their mechanoid creations. Here it found itself out of its depth. Many of the concepts were alien. But Ajax knew that the words were of sinister import. They had to be recorded and eventually transmitted to those who might understand them better, and know what to do.

* * *

By the time the troops were assigned, five were left: Dunt’s inner circle, the elite of the elite. Of all considerations in selecting them, diversity in representation had been furthest from Dunt’s mind. The inner circle had nevertheless ended up representative of the Rax survivors who had been infiltrated into the interstellar mission’s dead-veteran storage stacks.

About a third of the New Confederacy was female – a rather higher proportion than the Reaction had had on the ground and on Earth. That, too, was evolution in action: it took more dedication to this cause to be active in it for a woman than for a man. The two women in the inner circle were real Valkyries: Irma Schulz, an American nanotechnologist who was his current lover, and Petra Stroilova, a Russian avionics specialist. Dunt’s three male lieutenants were Jason Whitten, an English transhumanist thinker; Jean Blanc, a French underground activist killed in Marseilles; and Lewis Rexham, a New Zealander who’d fought to defend the Pacific seasteads and died horribly from a genetically modified box jellyfish nerve poison in the Great Barrier Reef debacle. He’d always convulsed in his seat when, in the sim, he came back on the ferry after a mission.

Dunt called them together and set up a private circuit to exclude the lower ranks. There was no way to exclude smart dust. If the conversation were to leak to the freebots they wouldn’t make much of it anyway.

<Well, comrades,> said Dunt, <how do you think that went?>

Schulz conjured an app, drawing a graph of emotional responses from the frames. It was like a stained-glass pane with a zigzag crack: a splinter of red above, a large area of green below.

<Overwhelmingly and increasingly positive,> she said.

<Good,> said Dunt. <I trust you’ll track the negative minority in detail, and report to me.>

<Of course,> said Schulz, disappearing the display.

<And among yourselves?> Dunt asked.

Heads didn’t move, and there were no eyes in the glassy visors, but the impression of furtive glances being exchanged was inescapable.

<A bit . . . over the top, Mac, to be honest,> said Rexham.

<Over the top?>

Rexham placed a hand on his chest, then swept it outward. <Rhetorical. High-flown. But, y’know, that might be just me.>

<It might,> said Dunt. <Anyone else have a view?>

<I found it inspiring,> said Stroilova.

<I, too,> said Blanc. <We need to hold up a vision to the ranks.>

<We have a lot of bloody hard work to do,> said Rexham.

<And a lot of bloody complicated problems to solve, right away.>

<That’s precisely why we need a vision of the goal,> said Blanc.

<It’s the content of the vision that troubles me,> said Whitten. <You’re a fine orator, Mac, right up there with Coughlin or Pierce> – there was a slight Whitten would pay for, Dunt would make sure of that! – <but there’s no need to talk to the troops as if we’re about to found some kind of racial refuge in the wilds of Oregon. You said we’ve been given a special chance by . . . destiny or whatever, and you’re right. It’s a great chance, a great opportunity.> Whitten made a broad sweeping arm gesture, and not as parody. <Here we are, all posthuman already, living in as you say a tremendously rich environment. We don’t need to go back to the meat. We can go in a straight line to the goal.>

Dunt let a quarter of a second drag out before he replied.

<We can, can we? You have a chart and a compass for this course?>

<In principle, yes,> said Whitten. <It was all worked out and war-gamed as far back as the twentieth century, and refined all through the twenty-first. By the time the final war came we were damn close to going for the burn. The hard singularity.>

<Jason, Jason,> said Dunt, in a friendly tone calculated to aggravate Whitten, <your enthusiasm does you credit, but come on! You know better than that. How can we upstart apes design the overman? Impossible! The Direction is right about that if nothing else – its mistake is to give up on the problem. So let them settle for being upstart apes forever!

<We have to terraform and populate H-0, yes – not to breed contented utopian sheep as the Direction intends, multiplying the mongrel rabble who lived on Earth and whose ghosts served us in the bars of the sims. No, we need a thousand years of experience and refinement and selection and spiritual growth before we are ready to truly transcend humanity. And when I say ‘we’ I mean us, we six, and the best of the rest of us.

<Think of what we can become, after a thousand years of mastery over ourselves and others! Of experimenting with selection, with growing real-life p-zombies, with genetic engineering, with robotics! We’ll already be gods to the lower ranks and levels and races, each of us orders of magnitude greater than the greatest names of history.

<Then we’ll have the wisdom to step fully into our inheritance, and move on to the next level of evolution.>

<Jeez, Mac,> said Whitten, <you’re not addressing a public meeting.>

<No!> snapped Dunt. <I’m addressing a private meeting. And I want to hear your objections, not your snark.>

<My objections?> Whitten temporised.

<Yours and anyone else’s,> said Dunt, mildly.

Whitten shrugged. In a frame, the gesture was so mechanical it looked parodic.

<Time, as ever,> he said. <We won’t have a thousand years for our Reich. Once the real Direction, the one back in the Solar system – back in fucking New York, even – finds out what we’re up to, they’ll move against us. That gives us maybe a hundred years at most. Less if there are other colonies between us and Earth. Or further out, come to that. And in that time, we’ll have to fortify this system with superweapons. Which means mastering massive AI development well before we’ve bred the race that shall rule the sevagram.>

What the fuck was a sevagram? Dunt disdained to ask. The answer popped up in his internal dictionary anyway. Oh yes, a science fiction allusion. The trouble with Whitten, Dunt had often thought, was that he was a prick.

<If you seriously think,> Stroilova cut in, <that we can’t build better weapons in twenty-four years than that decadent miscegenated hippie shit-hole back there can do in a thousand, maybe you should check your premises.>

<Check your own,> Whitten retorted. <I for one am not assuming that what’s going on back there is anything like what we’ve been told. It’s too unstable. No world can teeter on the cusp of singularity for centuries. Especially not a multiracial democracy, not even with a white face at the top and Jewish or Asiatic brains behind the scenes. No, some very smart AIs are in charge back in the Solar system. And the only way to be ready for that is to be smarter AIs.>

<Or to have such at our command,> said Stroilova. <Which we can.>

<In decades?>

<If we have the will.>

They glared at each other, their featureless oval heads mutually reflecting.

<Enough,> said Dunt. <Your objection’s noted, Jason. If they’ve had the singularity already back there, it only reinforces my point. A premature singularity, even one brought on by us as we now are, could easily bring forth an abortion like the Direction or worse.

<Petra – that’s well-trodden ground. We could have that argument in our sleep. And as Lewis remarked, we have work to do and problems to solve.>

<Security and resources,> said Rexham, sounding judicious.

The others nodded solemnly. Sometimes Dunt wondered about his inner circle. Were they really this stupid, or were they just deferring to him?

<We can let the troops deal with roving freebots, and with prospecting,> Dunt said. <The first problem we have to solve is how to deal with the Direction.>

<Well, that depends on how fast we can secure the rock, and how much machinery the blinkers have managed to build,> said Rexham. <When we’ve done that we can make inventory and see how long it’ll take us to build up our forces.>

<Too long, is the answer,> said Whitten, with a chopping gesture of dismissal. <We don’t have that much time to lose. Right now we’re the only coherent military force in the system. The Axle are fighting each other. The Locke module’s on the ground and hors de combat whichever side it’s really on. The freebots are popping their heads up all over the place.

<And the Direction’s reeling. They have no reliable fighters, and they can’t raise more in less than, say, a hundred kiloseconds. Now that they know there are Rax sleepers in their storage stacks, they’re not going to make the same mistake again. The next time they raise fighters, they’ll screen them first in virtual hells to make sure they aren’t Rax, or Axle hardliners for that matter. They’ll torture and trash as many copies as necessary to make sure. Fresh copies of any who come through as sound will be revived in physical reality as fighters. That will be a formidable force, and we shouldn’t wait for it to be assembled.>

<What do you suggest we do instead?> Dunt asked.

<Consolidate a small defensible volume of the rock, search out only enough resources to restock, refuel and repair, and then go right out again and hit the Direction while it’s on the back foot.>

<It’s tempting,> Dunt said. <The trouble is, it’s do-or-die. The Direction might have terrible surprises in store – we don’t know, and I don’t want to bet the ranch. Right now, what we need most is processing power and software.>

<Why?> asked Rexham. <We can get as much processing power as we need by cannibalising freebots.>

<Not enough to run a sim,> said Dunt. <And we need time out in a sim to stay sane. I don’t know how long we can do without it, but I wouldn’t count on more than about a hundred kiloseconds.>

<The Direction reps told us we needed R&R in sims to stay sane,> said Whitten. <I don’t see why we should believe them. I feel fine as I am.>

<So do I,> said Dunt. <But sceptical as I am about the Direction’s avatars, I doubt they’d have bothered providing immersive sims if they weren’t needed. We’re all human minds running on robot hardware, and while we’re thinking faster and more clearly there may well be deep levels of the animal brain that can’t be optimised out. The safe bet is that we do need the sims. And who has the sims? The DisCorps. They have processing power to burn. And what do they need? Especially now that the Locke module has broken the embargo on landing on or prospecting SH-0? They need what the Direction doles out to them very sparingly indeed: raw material and reaction mass. Which is what we’ve got here, by the trillions of tons. Plus whatever the blinkers have been mining or making in this rock – it may be useful to us eventually. So what I propose to do is – offer them a deal.>

<The DisCorps won’t make a deal while the Direction is at war with us,> said Whitten.

<So we make peace with the Direction,> said Dunt. <Peaceful coexistence, mutually beneficial trade, etc. We’ll see who comes out at the end with the most advantage.>

Even the inner circle were taken aback. But in the end they came round, as they always did.

Whitten had put up a fiercer resistance at his last challenge, not many kiloseconds earlier. It had come up en route from the battle to the rock, over an issue that at first glance was of lesser moment than peace with the Direction: whether to accept the volunteering of a long-time veteran of the Rax, Harry Newton. True to his transhumanism, Whitten had argued that it made no difference that Newton, in his original life on Earth a thousand years earlier, had been black.

For Dunt there could be no compromise. Once he’d grasped that, Whitten had backed down. Ever since, Dunt had felt he had Whitten’s measure.

Now Whitten backed down again, but not without a final passive-aggressive plaint:

<What,> he demanded, <do we have to sell them?>

Dunt flung open his arms. <Look around you!> he cried. <We’re in a fucking Aladdin’s Cave! We’ll find something.>

* * *

Dunt had never underestimated the power of baseless confidence. It had got him where he was, and it would get him further. The Infinite Wisdom would see to that.

All the same, it was a pity about the groid.

After all their losses, the New Confederacy could ill afford to turn down even one recruit. Dunt had no reason to doubt that Harry Newton was brave and competent. But needs must. It was all very well saying that race and colour were irrelevant now that they were all little black robots with superhuman minds and abilities. Each such superhuman mind had been derived from a human brain, a product of evolution.

Inevitably, all the deep differences between the races would still be there. Dunt didn’t care to gamble on their irrelevance. No, however much he wished Newton well, the man’s presence would have marred the clean white sheet of the New Confederacy.

Newton’s old nom de plume of ‘Carver_BSNFH’ was itself a giveaway. Back in the day, it hadn’t taken Dunt long to decode the handle’s suffix: the black space Nazi from hell. It showed ambition, and the right attitude, but didn’t ring quite true. Defiant, but deniable – that was the problem: the turned throat, the appeasing grin. Say what you like about the principles of national socialism, they were only principles. In theory they could be endorsed even by a groid, albeit about as convincingly and wholeheartedly as Marxism by a goy.

Dunt had never called himself a Nazi. It wasn’t for any reason of expediency or embarrassment. He thought – and proclaimed – himself a Hitlerite, in the sense that he affirmed the rational core of Hitler’s thinking: the inevitability of struggles for existence, at every level – individual, spiritual, material, national, racial and species, and the celebration of that inevitability as the highest value of the highest authority. It was part of the order of Nature, the rational order of the universe. Hitler had ascribed it to the decrees of God. But it was better to think, as the ancient pagans had, of these laws as in themselves divine than to make even a rhetorical concession to the Abrahamic superstition of a God outside Nature.

The Infinite Wisdom was its laws; or the laws of Nature were the Infinite Wisdom.

Whichever way you put it – the infinite complexity and inflexible necessity of Nature could only be approached with awe.

And if the Infinite Wisdom offered the New Confederacy the chance to be pure from the start, who was Dunt to turn it down?