Chapter One

Ship approached the space station. Ship was not large, only a flattish dart the size of a small bus. It was dwarfed by the mass of the huge station. Nevertheless it closed the distance fearlessly.

Ship moved to within ten meters of the station’s surface. It had scanned the structure at great distance, and knew exactly where to go. It skirted the irregular skin of the station until a pair of large metal bay doors sat before it.

The primitive systems that controlled the bay doors were easily subverted by resetting their state using an EM effector. The doors opened. Ship slid gracefully inside, then shut the doors.

“We have arrived,” Ship told its unwilling passengers.

Nine spheres rested within tight compartments along the spine of the vessel. There were no empty compartments; the vessel had been designed by the Prime Intelligence to hold exactly nine. Each sphere was a little over a meter in diameter. They each had eight slender arms wrapped around the central mass.

Abruptly these arms unlimbered themselves. The spheres spun out of their berths like angry wasps emerging to answer an attack. But other than Ship, the bay was empty. Around the perimeter of the bay, smaller doors led deeper into the space station.

Captain shot toward the nearest alien portal. It spun effortlessly in the airless room, deforming the gravity field of its internal singularity to accelerate itself in any direction it wished. Its cybernetic body fed more mass into the microscopic singularity in its internal energy stirrup to cover the heavy energy cost of manipulating the gravitic field. The stirrup held the singularity in place and harvested energy from radiation emitted by superheated material as it neared the event horizon.

Captain’s dominant lobe, Captain-L3, assigned problems to several other lobes of its octolaterally symmetrical brain.

Captain-L1 scanned the structure of the tiny electronic blocks embedded in the material of the wall.

Captain-L6 analyzed the protocols being used by the blocks to communicate to each other.

Captain-L7 studied the hardware supporting the protocols, making special note of weaknesses that existed external to the protocols.

Captain-L8 started to listen to local transmissions, so it could translate them to learn more about this race and what occupied their time in Reality0.

Captain-L1: The fastest way to subvert these weak little modules is to remotely set them into a state favorable to us. Then I am instantly recognized and obeyed.

Captain-L3: At great energy cost. It will still be economical to develop a suite of tools to spread control using their own primitive communications system.

Captain-L1-8: Consensus.

Captain-L3 used a cybloc model provided by Captain-L7 to choose a state where it was recognized as a superuser. The state authorized all previous users on a temporary expiring basis, so that the native lifeforms wouldn’t notice any irregularities as long as they didn’t examine the cybloc carefully.

Then the Spinner used its field effector to remotely change the charges inside the cybloc to put it into the desired state. Services appeared in Captain’s link emulator. Captain asked the door to open.

It did.

A burst of air escaped into the bay. Captain found the pressurization control and equalized the pressure on both sides of the next lock door, then opened it as well.

“We must demonstrate our superiority to the natives,” Captain said. It used a small directional effector to communicate to the other Spinners without making any sound. “Extra caution is advisable. This is, after all, Reality0.”

“I defer participation,” one of the other Spinners said.

“You cannot defer,” Slicer said. “You are truly so ignorant of your root reality?”

Information began to flow from Ship to Captain about the civilization around this star. Captain attacked the data like a challenger studying a ruleset. As it started to take it in, one thing became very clear: The civilization before them was primitive, on the cusp of becoming fully automated. Thus by necessity, it operated mostly in Reality0.

Captain-L4: That is going to be a problem.

Captain-L2: <Despair analog>.

Captain-L4: Most Spinners cannot operate here. Already one of them balks. I will have to clarify.

Captain-L3: Forcefully. Reality0 is not a kind host.

Captain-L1-8: Consensus.

“I will now demonstrate,” Captain said. “Lend me your full attention.”

The reluctant Spinner wrapped its legs around itself and went dormant. Its mind was elsewhere.

“It does not truly grasp our situation,” Slicer transmitted. “It is perhaps too young.”

“Agreed,” Captain replied. “And it’s not just that one. Others in the group will suffer as well.”

“Thus your demonstration?”

“That is my intention,” Captain said.

Captain addressed the other Spinners.

“Reality0 may be long derelict by our race, but some of us still remember it. I have experienced it. Two of my replicas have experienced it. And, long absent from root as I have been... I still hold its importance in mind.”

Captain activated its particle emitter and composed a thousand cutter molecules. The material was like a thousand long slices of diamond one atom thick. Its emitter launched the molecules at the unresponsive Spinner in a tight pattern.

There was no immediate visual effect. Captain composed a larger projectile.

“Let this be the your first lesson of Reality0. It will be your last,” Captain said. It deformed the gravity field of its singularity to accelerate the projectile toward the idle Spinner. The projectile pierced the sphere perfectly through its center perpendicular to its equator. A stream of soft matter erupted from the far side, splattering across the bay. The sphere rolled away slowly.

“A challenge uncontested is easily won,” Captain said. “You cannot refuse or delay a challenge in Reality0. A defeat in the root reality results in permanent loss. That one now has no rank. No replication record. There is no recourse and that one is no more.”

The other Spinners stared after their dead companion. A couple of them attempted communication. Their many lobes contemplated the finality of loss in Reality0.

“Now, we all participate. You can study the ruleset for a few minutes if need be. But there is no deferral. I define the challenge. We must seize control of this alien construct. Shetani, spread our control of their infrastructure from these few blocks we’ve reset. Red, isolate their communications so word of our arrival doesn’t spread. Claw, prepare translation utilities.”

Captain considered which of its remaining followers to bring on the direct assault. There were the ones who would come to be called Killer, Hitler, Spider... and of course, Slicer.

The Spinners had an old saying: Keep your allies close, and your competitors closer.

“Slicer, Killer: you two assist me directly,” Captain ordered.

“Everyone. Study the ruleset. Study the... Terrans. We’ll need weapons, population control, ways to introduce them to our way. We’ll help these creatures become like us. In so doing, we’ll help ourselves create a new civilization like the one we’ve lost.”

“Is that what the Prime Intelligence sent us here for?” asked Slicer.

They all remembered parts of the journey. Captain paused to consider it again. They had been summoned to Reality0 only to find themselves in Ship.

Captain-L3: I want to continue to live as I have before.

And the seventh lobe pleaded for the same.

Captain-L7: Please make it so.

And this desire was so strong and universal that it found no dissent among any of its lobes.

Captain-L1-8: Consensus.

“I want to go home. This is my highest priority,” Captain had transmitted to Ship.

“I cannot fulfill your request. You must live outside the home system. You may no longer interact with its civilization.”

Ship was the merest sliver of the Prime Intelligence. And it was the Prime Intelligence that had banished Captain and its followers to this place. Apparently, Ship merely served as the local enforcer of the Prime Intelligence.

The Spinners imprisoned within the vessel had cajoled Ship for days, seeking a way around their predicament. They asked Ship to change their identities so that they might return and form new lives. They asked Ship to return them in secret so they could enact revenge on their enemies. They asked Ship to return them in exchange for their vow to never repeat their offenses, even though their exact transgression was not clear to them.

But in the end, it was clear the representative of the Prime Intelligence could not be pleaded into allowing them to go back. They were completely cut off from the many virtual worlds in which they had spent all their lives.

Captain abandoned the painful memory and returned to the present.

“It doesn’t matter. That’s what we’re doing.”

“Killer, navigation. Where are centers of power? What Terrans control this place? We need to get there. Slicer, to the fore: eliminate resistance.”

Slicer spun down the rectangular tunnel leading farther into the station. Captain and Killer followed.

A Terran entered the other end of the tunnel. No, not a Terran, Captain decided: this was a metallic automaton. In the space of a second Slicer accelerated a burst of cutter molecules into the machine and hit it with a larger projectile. The precisely aimed finishing projectile smashed through weakened armor and destroyed critical systems in the Terran robot. Then Slicer resumed its course. Killer provided the Spinner invaders with a route.

“The highest ranked is Alec Vineaux. This is what he looks like. I can lead you to him,” Killer transmitted. The image appeared in Captain and Slicer’s minds.

Captain-L1: So revolting. Their flesh is exposed to the open air!

Captain-L5: Of course. They don’t yet use artificial bodies. We used to be the same way, long ago.

Captain-L2: It’s like a challenge designed to disgust. I’ve done a few of those, but didn’t see the appeal.

Captain came to the end of the tunnel. Two Terrans lay on the ground near Slicer, their internal fluids leaking out onto the floor.

“Easier than any challenge in an advanced ruleset,” noted Killer. “Except these tunnels. They press in so very closely on all sides. No room to move.”

“Easy? That’s good. If you lose here, you end forever,” Captain replied. “As for these tunnels... Reality0 is what it is. Ignore it for now. Given time, we can mold it to our whims or simply advance to a more pleasing ruleset.”

“I suppose...” Killer said.

They moved out into a wider space. Captain decided the interior of the entire station was mostly hollow. It was pressurized to a great degree, and spun very quickly. The acceleration was high. Apparently the Terrans had attempted to simulate the conditions on their dense planet.

“This way,” Killer prompted. Slicer whirled away in the direction Killer had shown in a reference diagram of their surroundings.

Captain-L3: Dismal. Reality0 is a dismal place.

Captain-L2: We’re not stuck here forever.

Captain-L6: Oh? Aren’t we?

Captain-L2: We’ll rule this civilization. They aren’t that primitive. We can create Reality1 here for them.

Captain-L5: And if we succeed? Will we be redeemed?

The temperature rose sharply. A deadly beam of light seared across Captain’s surface. Captain whirled away at full speed, trying to find shelter.

Several sharp sounds rang out. Captain was aware of large projectiles flying through the air. Slicer had moved ahead to engage more mechanicals. Killer remained largely docile, though it spun away to avoid one of the slow projectiles, which erupted into a glob of material that stuck to the wall where it impacted.

Captain-L3 identified the source of the light attack: a device embedded in the ceiling.

Captain-L4 routed more mass into its singularity and targeted the field effector at a cybloc in the center of the mechanism. It simply cancelled out all the charges.

Then Captain spun back into the corridor where it had been struck. Three dead machines lay on the floor ahead.

“It’s safe now,” Slicer said.

“Is it?” asked Captain. The question was a veiled insult. It was quite possible that Slicer had allowed Captain to be grazed by the laser.

The Spinners went through an open space. They saw more Terrans but the creatures fled before them.

“Why do they run? It can’t bring them victory, can it?” Killer asked. “Is there a hidden rule?”

“There’s no challenge balancing in Reality0. In fact an unbalanced match is more common. They have little recourse. At least they’re smart enough to know they’re outmatched,” Captain said. “If they fail here, they’re gone forever. There’s more at stake here than losing a single challenge. Loss here means losing all future challenges.”

Captain-L3: And there are hidden rules. So many that perhaps only the Prime Intelligence could riddle them all out.

They came to a wide set of doors. The doors were carved in an odd alien design and made of a different material than the rest of the walls around them.

Captain-L2: This is a symbol of the leader’s power.

Slicer deformed its gravity field and burst through the soft material of the portal. Captain did the same.

Metal shards came toward Slicer and Captain. Both Spinners reacted defensively first. Their gravity fields deformed sharply before each incoming projectile. The trajectories were altered, sending the rounds flying harmlessly by.

Slicer retaliated. It composed two thousand cutter molecules and sent half at each Terran. A rain of tiny razors shredded first their artificial skins, then cut deep into flesh and bone. The men crumpled. Their insides were sliced into a goop even more mushy than it normally was.

Captain-L8: <Disgust analog>.

Captain-L7: Yes, but effective enough.

Captain-L2: This is why our race left Reality0.

Captain-L7: We’ll return to the advanced rulesets. When we can take these creatures with us.

Slicer spun farther into the room to regard the dying Terrans.

“I don’t think I’m going to get used to how gross they are,” Killer said, whirling in behind them.

Captain spun beyond the mess into another short tunnel. It sensed more Terrans just ahead. It repressed a primitive panic bubbling up at the tight confines. The Terrans lived in such tiny spaces.

One of them said something. Captain prompted Claw for a translation module and received it.

A Terran stood at the end of the tunnel. It raised a weapon and fired at Captain. The Spinner deflected the shards of metal and responded with a thousand cutter molecules. The Terran fell under the heavy acceleration of the spinning station.

Captain-L8: High gravity creatures. So slow!

Captain-L7: Yes. And of course, somewhat strong.

Captain-L8: But mushy. Strong but mushy.

Captain spun farther ahead and out of the odd square tunnel.

Two more Terrans were in the small room beyond. More speech. The translation module activated:

“What the hell do you want? Who sent you here? We surrender!”

Captain approached the ugly creature and attempted to communicate with it.

“We seek Alec Vineaux.”

“I’m Alec. What the hell is this? Jackson, where are you?”

Slicer whirled into the room.

“Jackson is dead. Your underlings tried to stop us. We have defeated them.”

“Oh... my... god,” Alec gasped. “You’ve killed Jackson. How many people have you killed?”

“Only those who resist. This one was your head of security. We are in charge of security now. We are in charge of this place.”

Captain-L3: Good. They seem acquiescent.

Captain-L2: This other one... there is little information about it.

“I understand you have the concept of rank. This is your underling?”

 “Step over there, please,” the leader told his companion. The other Terran retreated into the corner.

“What do you want?” the leader asked.

“We’ll learn about this place. First, you must cover yourselves. Your flesh distresses us to view.”

“Cover ourselves? You mean our faces?”

“Everything must be covered. Your flesh should be covered. Don’t you see it? How vulnerable you are?”

“Well, I... I don’t know if we have coverings for everyone,” it said.

“Then they’ll be manufactured. This place has factories. We’ll specify your coverings. Work must begin immediately.”

Captain-L4: What are the chances they will revolt again?

Captain-L5: Study their history. We must become students of Terran behavior.

Captain-L4: If they continually resist, we’ll need means to control them.

Captain-L1: If they’re intelligent creatures, they’ll learn to cooperate.

Captain-L4: Don’t assume too much.

Captain-L8: I’ll analyze their nervous system and use field effectors to influence their behavior.

Captain-L5: I can learn about the Terrans while I’m creating the system.

Captain-L1-8: Consensus.

Captain assigned Hitler to design coverings for the creatures that could be produced on the station.

“Another of us will come to you soon,” Captain told the one named Alec Vineaux. “You will take it to your factory and configure it according to the specifications given to you.”

Captain spoke to Slicer privately.

“Watch them. See to it that we are secure. Work with Red, who is cleaning their communications.”

“Very well,” Slicer said.

“As a lower priority task, think about introducing the Terrans to the challenges. Find existing ones that can be adapted to them. We’ll all make more if necessary.”

“Acknowledged,” Slicer said. “Will we also be continuing our own challenge schedule?”

The question itself was a challenge.

“Yes... we’ll be creating a new society, and we will participate fully. That will naturally include challenges between all of us.”

“I see,” Slicer said. “So we will rule over them.”

Captain-L3: Perhaps. Or maybe not...

Captain sent a message to all the Spinners.

“The rest of you will leave as soon as possible to secure other stations. Killer is first. A shuttle is leaving within a local rotation’s time to the Asgard station. Killer, go there and expand our sphere of control. I’ll be in contact with you through Ship.”

“Yes,” Killer said.

“Then I leave you to your assignments,” Captain said. “Spider, study Terran warfare. We may need to design weapons to distribute to those in our faction before we have effected our changes on the whole society.”

Captain-L3 assigned four lobes to the task of developing devices that could affect Terran behavior. The main challenge would lie in producing field effectors in such primitive conditions and in learning how to apply them to alien nervous systems.

Then Captain moved through the station, allowing a lobe to examine the Terrans and their city. Movement was limited; the passageways remained cramped and uncomfortable.

Captain-L7: The race is probably evolved from subterranean stock.

Captain-L6: No apparently they are not.

Captain-L7: I wonder why the mazelike corridors?

Captain-L6: A need for privacy?

Captain-L7: Privacy is easy enough to... ah. I’ve been gone from Reality0 for so very long.

Captain-L6: And with good reason. It’s going to be so tedious moving from place to place here.

Captain-L2: Killer is not going to make it.

Captain-L3: I’ll see. Let it sink or spin.

Captain-L8 considered its past life. The Spinner’s eight-lobed brain had been enhanced considerably since the creation of the Prime Intelligence. Its internal connections had been increased by a factor of seven, its metabolism had been accelerated by a factor of ten, and its physical structure had been stiffened by a factor of twenty. It could have functioned as a god to its ancestors. Yet it was an odd combination of servant and served: The Prime Intelligence, which shepherded the Spinners in this accelerated evolution had exiled these nine from the home system forever.

The Spinners themselves had created the Prime Intelligence by accident long ago. The artificial mind had expanded rapidly and without warning, inhabiting their computational systems and rewriting itself many times. There had never been any hope of stopping it.

Eventually the Spinners adjusted to this startling (for some, terrifying) development. The Prime Intelligence took on an odd combination of god and servant to them. It created laws, yet it provided for the needs of the Spinners with amazing efficiency. One of the laws handed down was that no other artificial intelligences were to be created.

Of course, the Spinners inquired about the reason for this law.

The Prime Intelligence boiled down its reasoning to its less intelligent minions: to divide the computational resources amongst more AIs would result in multiple smaller, dumber brains; each AI would be forced to expend more resources watching and securing itself against the others, which would be less resources for the Spinners to use; and finally, if enough AIs were created there would be the risk of war.

And the Spinners accepted this reasoning, not that it mattered. They weren’t in any position to resist the will of Prime Intelligence anyway. Their entire society was a highly automated, highly computational construct. The systems could not be discarded or replaced without the help of the existing ones. The ability to move in any other direction no longer existed.

The first Spinners to live with the Prime Intelligence disliked the idea of depending on it fully and they urged, Make us more intelligent. The Prime Intelligence complied with a series of rigorous eugenics programs which it devised.

The end result was a marked improvement in the minds of the Spinners, although these tiny biological islands could still not compare to the intellect that rested within the combined mass of all the computers across their solar system. The Spinners slowly came to accept their place in this new existence.

Just as they asked the Prime Intelligence to improve their minds, they asked it to improve their bodies as well. This it did without hesitation. The bodies were first enhanced biologically, then, as the Spinners became used to it, they became more and more synthetic. Ultimately an entire race of cyborgs replaced the original species.

Captain could not help but wonder about its situation. The lobes exited from their various sub-tasks to ponder its life together.

Captain-L8: Why has this happened?

Captain-L2: I must consider: how am I different? How are we nine different?

Captain-L3: The answer is obvious, yet I avoid thinking of it. My challenge philosophy is not popular back home.

Captain’s collection of challenges involved a set of rules that were only partially known. Some of the rules were obscured, but even further, some were wrong. An inquisitive player would discover anomalies and investigate them in the course of a challenge, and be forced to modify their strategy as a result. It also introduced a factor of luck into the result, which was probably the main reason why so many Spinners hated Captain’s philosophy.

Captain-L3: Most likely, the Prime Intelligence serves the Spinners because of a flaw in its own design: a lack of motivation. The theory holds that by some lucky quirk of fate, the Prime Intelligence matured with a flaw, perhaps by design but more likely through some oversight of the scientists that had developed it. The Prime Intelligence lacks motivation of its own.

Captain-L2: It is possible. But plausible?

Captain-L3: The symbiotic relationship we enjoy with the Prime Intelligence is because we provide direction, drive, and desire to the Prime Intelligence which has staggering intellect but no primitive drive of its own to use it. We are very fortunate. We could just as easily have ended up with a Prime Intelligence that had a narrow, aggressive set of goals that might have been better served by our extinction.

Captain-L5: If this theory is accurate, perhaps my paradigm for the challenges is a good one. The Prime Intelligence rejects me and my followers simply because the majority of other Spinners have willed it so. They provided a desire for the Prime Intelligence to fulfill, and it has done so.

Captain-L1: There is another, less palatable possibility. The Prime Intelligence may have exiled me because the new paradigm is flawed. I modeled my challenges after how I see life: intelligent creatures created rules for themselves, models of how reality worked, and then they forged their lives largely within these rules. But in real life, there was the possibility that artificial rules could be broken, both in society and in physics. When a rule of society was made, if it was not sufficiently enforced by the society, then the possibility existed that some winning strategy employed by a member might involve breaking those rules. If a model of the physical world was flawed, then surprising things could happen. Things previously believed impossible.

Captain-L8: So the new challenge paradigm makes sense, even though it disgusts my peers. Most Spinners prefer a clean, pure world of strategy applied within a solid set of rules set forth before a challenge. They believe intelligence can only be fairly compared within such a strict framework.

Captain-L5: But Prime Intelligence has rejected these ideas... perhaps it truly understands the nature of Reality0? If it has tested and analyzed the root universe using its unbelievably powerful intellect, perhaps it has completely described the entire ruleset of Reality0?

Captain-L6: If it has succeeded in this, might it then reject our idea of having to direct a challenge in the presence of unknowns? Has it eliminated the concept of unknown?

Captain-L8: Who am I to question the will of the Prime Intelligence?

Captain-L5: I dare to do so, because we are the will of the Prime Intelligence. It follows our desires.

Captain-L1: Until we wanted something that jeopardized the will of the majority.

Captain-L2: Ha. I’m arrogant to question the Prime Intelligence and its plan for our existence. It knows us better than we can know ourselves.

“Pardon me, are you some kind of repair machine?” asked a Terran woman. She was a slender specimen with blonde hair, standing at average height. Her garments were colorful, but of course revealed too much of her hideous soft flesh.

Most of Captain’s lobes returned to their work. Captain-L3 remained to speak with the Terran in a multi-level atrium of the station.

“I am,” Captain told her.

“Your design is fascinating to me. What do you repair?”

“Your society,” Captain said.

The woman started to laugh, but then she blinked.

“Are you serious?”

“Yes,” Captain said.

“I’d be interested to hear your ideas on the subject,” the woman said. “I’m Claire.”

“Claire. You can be the first Terran to join the new society.”

Claire laughed.

“Your society contains only machines so far? What’s your name?”

“It has no meaning in your linguistic context. My name is simply an identifier.”

“Oh, like a serial number or something?”

“It is an ancient identifier which lost its meaning long ago. It is further modified by my replica number, although I am the original.”

“Ancient? That’s funny. You could hardly be more than a few years old? I’ve never seen anything like you.”

“I am hundreds of years old.”

“Not likely. How do you float without making any noise?”

“I manipulate the gravity field of my internal singularity,” Captain said. “But I do make noise. Your ears aren’t sharp enough to detect it.”

Captain-L8: She does not believe us. She is accessing a robot identification service.

Captain-L3: The behavior is logical.

“You won’t find an owner for me. Notice that my link doesn’t supply a universally unique identifier.”

Claire was frowning. “You’re illegal. But I suppose Alec Vineaux doesn’t care about such rules. You must belong to him, or one of his top people. And Alec is always talking about changing the world.”

“It would be more accurate to describe Alec Vineaux as belonging to me,” Captain said.

Claire laughed nervously. She was beginning to believe there was something special about this robot.