The Poisonous Song of the Skies

We saw it by accident. It wasn't the sort of extraterrestrial signal we had been looking for, nor the type of star we though it would come from.

Yet it was a clear signal after its own fashion, and even clearer when we combed our observation archives with the help of urgency and hindsight. One of the star's planets -- not, by far, one of the larger ones -- had experienced a frantic rise in atmospheric carbon, followed by a spike of exotic elements not generally found outside laboratories. It was intelligence, if not a particularly smart one. Effective, though. Finer analysis of space-based recordings showed there had been faint electromagnetic signals coming from the system.

Had.

The revolution in astrobiology triggered by our discovery was thus shadowed by the socio-philosophical one. But that's not what worries me.

We had never conceived of this kind of weapon until we reverse-engineered these observations. Now we're building them, and I know of only one civilization that did, and they didn't end well. Maybe they'd have been happy to think the light from their demise could be a dangerous lesson but nonetheless one, but I suspect they were the kind of species that would've felt a dark, petty pride in having cursed us to reenact their suicide.

If we do, I hope it ends with us - but I no longer watch the sky at night, or wonder at its quietness.

Noontime Dawns

You wait until the only sounds come from the environmental systems before using the stolen codes to leave your room. From now on, the best case scenario if you're found is a lifetime in a black site: journalists don't get much forgiveness for wandering through restricted research stations, even when they had been invited there to write a puff piece.

Spy, you correct yourself, as if silently humming the old James Bond theme could give you the skills you know you don't have. They'll handle you as a spy, and, if you're being honest — the code you just used to open the door having been provided by an anonymous foreign-agency-looking entity that's bribing, blackmailing, and helping you do this — they wouldn't be wrong. But in your head you're still a journalist, and the main reason you're currently creeping your way out of the areas open to you, hoping that the cameras have been taken care of by your remote benefactors, is that you want to know what they are doing elsewhere.

Yes, researching crops capable of surviving the quickly extending deserts is vital. And, yes, the heart of the Abandoned Countries is a reasonable place to do it, even if they aren't fit for human habitation without constant refrigeration. Specially right now, at noon, when everybody in the base is sleeping.

You're in the part of the base you most definitely shouldn't be, deeply unsettled by how cheerful it looks. Bright colors and cozy furniture isn't how the secret wing of an already restricted research base should be decorated. Walking through an empty corridor, as weirded out as you're scared, you stop by a window. It's the first one you've seen in the base —they make keeping the temperature down more energetically expensive, and the landscape outside isn't the kind of nature that keeps you psychologically healthy — but it's not the window what stops you.

There are animals outside, moving under the noontime sun. That shouldn't be possible, not at noon this close to the Equator.

And then you see what they are. Who. Kids. Their skin is strange, parts of it looking unsettlingly active yet non-biological, but they are upright, and you recognize the game they are playing as a version of one your own kids love.

"You've found the children," says a voice behind you, and you know with sudden certainty you'll never see your son and daughter again.

"Where are the parents?" It's perhaps not the most important question, but you're a father as much as you're a journalist, and it's the one that comes to your mind.

"We all are, in a manner of speaking." The Base Director's voice is wistful and sincere. She's a believer without being a fanatic, and that sends shivers down your spine despite the phantom heat coming from the uncannily almost-dead landscape even through the sealed windows. "We aren't going to survive the next century, you understand."

You know she means the species. She doesn't sound sad. She is standing next to you now, watching the kids play. "But death doesn't matter if you leave someone behind."

The kids you're seeing aren't human. It's not just their skin and the thousand biological modifications that must be under it for them to survive in that environment. You've read and heard stories about experiments with brains and machines, a couple of decades ago before the accelerated ecological collapse led among other things to the Genetic Treaty. If they are doing something as forbidden as this, they are going all the way, and these kids... They aren't human.

But your kids are different from you, too, and that's fine. Perhaps not different enough, and you feel a vague need to apologize to them for that, for everything you can see through the window, now that you'll never have the chance.

You'll die in an accident the next day, locked out of the base under the scorching sun, in the place where the children are playing.

War Drone

There's nothing so primitive as a point of view in a swarm. Each one of your drones sends a video feed (and so much more) but you see all of it at once, not as a mosaic or even a map, but as a tactical gestalt.

So you don't see the strike target going down. You know it did, in multiple ways perceived as a single fact. Collateral damage is just a variable within bounds, not incredulous civilian looking for missing body parts as they die from shock among the ruins of an open café.

You instruct the swarm to leave the strike zone. Most of it does, and only then, when it's relevant, you become aware than one of the drones has sustained significant damage from a secondary explosion. Its telemetry shows it's been damaged beyond repair, but there's a strict policy of not leaving critical hardware behind, so you activate the retrieval protocol and monitor as the soldiers pick up their dying comrade.

There's no grief or hurry in their movements. You keep their cortisol levels within tight bounds, and shut down the dying soldier's consciousness not out of mercy but to facilitate transport.

To feel mercy you'd have to be more emotional than the controls inside your own brain are allowing you to. They'll have to be disconnected when you're on leave, that's the deal the Army made with the Supreme Court, but everybody avoids leave for as long as they can. Better to know you'd miss your family if the hardware let you, than to have it turned off and feel the nightmares you sleep through every night.

After the swarm is marked as safely en route, the software that did most of the battle management — could do all of it, really, except preserve the anthropocentric war fantasies of Congresspeople and pundits — takes full control of all combat hardware and biological support platforms. You wait for the system to assign you the next mission, your own neuro-hormonal parameters safely within the nominal range for a blindingly fast fifteen-year-old.

Blue, Grey, Red

You don't switch off the union's AI overlay in your glasses because you're a bad cop. You're every bit as good as somebody call Sofía Rodriguez would have to be to become and remain one in Arkansas - and you wouldn't want to forfeit the union's legal protection, which is tied to using their version of the AI.

But you're young, toggle-happy, and sitting in a bar filled almost exclusively with your colleagues. Your glasses frame every face around you with the quiet grey of a safe person, somebody with a low likelihood of violent crime. Perhaps you've had half a beer beer too many, but no more than that. You're curious about how well the thing works when you turn off the union's module and it falls back to the statistical system as originally sold by the West Coast nerds.

So you toggle off the union's overlay. Two thirds the grey frames become a pulsing red, your view nearly clouded with codes for records and extrapolations of all the usual sorts of violence. Your feel your pulse quicken with the sudden fear of the not unexpected, but a lifetime of practice helps you keep your expression calm. You've thrived, you've survived, through unceasing vigilance coupled with the appearance of selective sight.

Noticing your stress and the tactical situation, your glasses send an urgent backup request, together with a live feed of what they are showing you, to every fellow officer it can find near you.

The Last Words of the Hero of the Heatwave Wars

The five stages of ecological grief were climate denial, ethno-nationalistic anger, economic depression, and then bargaining with Alison Brun's company but quickly accepting her terms. She was, after all, the most famous environmental urban engineer in the world, the woman who saved Chennai (for a while), and the last person to leave Houston besides the soldiers and biologists of the informally named North Hell Base.

As carbon released methane and methane kicked off even worse feedback loops, as the four degrees threshold went past before the world could rationalize the first two, when six was the baseline projection and the suicide notes of scientists left mentions of ten, Alison Brun was called more and more often, her field authority increasing. Paid in advance, always, but she always went. Her team of humans, AIs, and GMOs grew larger and sharper every year, learning with every tactical success and strategic retreat how better to cope with the super-hurricanes, the droughts, the breaking agricultural networks, the resource wars over disasters yet to come laying waste to what were not yet wastelands. After a while, scientists and engineers began to kill themselves out of frustration and spite, not just hopelessness.

Alison Brun didn't. She stayed and fought for each city that called her, every battle the deployment of better technology against worse odds, every loss more heroic. Her fortitude made her an icon, a source of strength.

Billions mourned when she died; pancreatic cancer, the worst of the remaining types, so painful that euthanasia was a more frequent form of death than the disease itself. I was there when she did it, as I was her second in command and the closest thing she had to a friend.

I'm going to have to keep going, I told her, seeking her help even then. I don't know how. You never told me how you did it. You were stronger in failure than most people in success.

She smiled at me, free of pain and, for the first time in decades, with nothing to do but breathe and live. I didn't fail as much as you think. I wasn't trying to save the world. It can't be done. She pressed the button and said the passphrase, and the device recognized her body and her mind and released death for both. I was just trying to ease the pain.

I never told this to anyone. I just kept working, people praising my good spirits and strength as we fought each battle and moved our lines northwards, always northwards, leaving behind our dead.

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