Pragmaclast - September 2004
Eternal Struggle - James P. Barrett
Gothbot - James Shirvill
Do Not Feed the Daleks - Cat Ward
Martian - Oliver Bartlett
Daleks - Alia Sheikh
(page 6/7)

Eternal Struggle

My world was no Earth, not by a long shot. It's odd how that phrase has managed to remain in common usage despite the fact that for the last few centuries at least (relative time) Earth itself has been "no Earth" itself. In fact my world was considerably more "Earth-like" than Earth was when they transmitted the signals that arrived on my Home-world the year that I left. Our climate was considerably colder than what is generally considered optimal for 100% true-stock humans. But then again, we weren't 100% true stock humans, not by a long stretch. In the last few centuries my ancestors had, through dint of strain, effort, hard work, and a daring can-do attitude, spread from being a single sealed, closed city of population no more than a few thousand on the very edge of an enormous ice-sheet, to being the dominant life form (as far as that term can be considered to have any real meaning) over the face of our world's
temperate zone.

During that time we had engaged in all of the standard activities for a developing civilisation. We had warred, we had schismed, we had formed nations and ideologies, we had produced works of art, and we had committed atrocities. In short we had been human; and we had engaged in human activities, with human drives, and human desires.

I remember learning of all of this in school and being fascinated by the slow rise from tiny community on the edge of a Terra-forming plant ten times the size of the city, to the globe-spanning (well, equator-spanning) culture which we had become. All of this seemed so much more real to me at the time than the far away and ancient history of Earth and the other inhabited worlds. It was beyond my comprehension or that of any human in the standard sense of the word. The pattern was too large, and too long, too complex, and too intricate. No man can understand the subtleties of civilisation on a galactic scale, and so few men try. To us it always seemed distant and unconcerning, after all, it wasn't our problem ...we would be lucky if we saw more than two interstellar vessels in our lifetimes.

I was captivated by the idea of those interstellar vessels, the great Star-Haulers, and by the crews of intrepid volunteers they carried, digitally preserved within the vast shells of their computer systems. It was the only way to travel long distance and it was one of few means of direct communication.

Theoretically it would have been feasible to have sent the digital minds across the void via laser beams; in fact records show that there was a time when this was done. But that was long ago, longer even ago than the first settlement on our planet, and so again fell decidedly into the category of far away and long ago, things that do not interest, things that do not concern us. The reason for this practice ending was also in that category - but it was one of the few things within it which actually held the power to interest if only for a little while.

The War.

Well. It held some interest, for those that learned of it. But, to be fair, there wasn't much to learn. We were in contact with almost one hundred inhabited worlds, and we knew that there were others which they in turn were in contact with - and still others with which they were not. The contact was maintained via tight-beam laser communications directed straight towards the star in question. Vast arrays of collectors in each solar system would collect and interpret the signals. There was no chance of interception, and very little chance of blocking these signals, but even so they were not entirely secure, so all traffic was massively encrypted. The contact was limited to minor matters, prices, trivialities, and news, of a simple sort. Actual details and goods were carried at tiny fractions of the same speed by the Star Haulers, who frequently took centuries to reach their intended destinations. No technology was exchanged, no detailed Information, and most certainly no details on political stances ... because sometimes these rules were broken - and sometimes planets would disappear from the communications links.

If you communicated you were traceable. If you could be found, and your ideology didn't stand up, you could be eradicated. And if you told anyone what your Ideology was - well, that was a good way to sign your own death warrant.

It wouldn't happen soon, of course, it could take decades, even Centuries, depending upon how close the soldiers of the other side were. But eventually they would come. And so would the soldiers of the side with whom your professed ideology agreed. And shortly afterwards you would go off the air.

Sometimes the silenced planets would return to transmit again after a few years ...sometimes they would not.

Gothbot by James Shirvill

This was not a common event, it must be pointed out. Since the year I was born there had been two of our contacted worlds which went off the air. One returned within the decade. The other, I am pretty sure, will never return. I'm sure you can imagine, as we did, the things which will go through the mind of a young school boy who first discovers that his world is part of a society engaged in a massive interstellar war. Fleets of Spaceships, with ravenous beams of pure energy eating through the cold hard vacuum of the icy depths between the stars. Warriors nobly fighting for the cause of Peace, Truth, and Justice, against hideous foes bent on the conquering and destruction of their home-worlds. Dogfights. Duels. Charges. Desperate defences.

And you can imagine his disappointment when he discovers the truth. That none of this happens. In truth, you live your daily life from day to day, week to week, year to year, decade to decade, until one day ...You go off the air.

No nobility, no place for tactics, or strategy, no beautiful battles between huge cruisers packed with plucky defenders of their home. Simply the planet is razed, and the transmission beam is cut off. And the first you know about it is when the bombs begin to drop.

Not too romantic, or interesting for a young man. Just one of those minor background issues. Like the minute chance of being hit by a meteorite, or being struck by an electrical discharge - it's not something that bothers you much, since if it happens - well it's not like you can do anything about it. Much better to put all your boyish dreams and fantasies into the Star-haulers. Those adventurous lads (well, most of them are successful academics in their seventies actually, but the air of bravery still clings to the career, even if the reality here, as always, is slightly less romantic) who gave up their lives and their physical bodies to spend centuries cruising the space-ways, seeing other planets and trading, swapping sights, and experiencing it all. Like many young men of my world I wanted to become a Star-hauler crewman when I retired - which is one of the things which contributed to my chosen career as an ecological engineer.

That is, I was what would once have been referred to as a Terra-former but it's a little difficult to think of the process that has been ongoing on your home-world the only world upon which you have ever lived, in fact for the entirety of your own lifespan, and that of every ancestor for centuries in the past, as Terra-forming. The term holds little personal meaning. So, my job was not to help the transformation of my home into a more "Earth-like" condition, except in the most general of terms, rather, in the specifics, I was an Ecological Engineer, and I was expected to help maintain and encourage the balance of the eco-systems that maintained the balance of chemicals and processes which maintained the balance of my world. The fact that this same balance of chemical and nutrient systems, of organic chemistry and organic life, would one day far in the future cause my home-world to be adapted to conditions not unlike those which are considered ideal for the baseline human form to thrive in was of no concern to me or my people. Unless I joined the Star Haulers I would be long dead by then anyway, and even if I did join then there would be almost no chance that I would ever return to this world again after my initial departure. Even should I have chosen to return the very basis of the society which would exist at that time would be far far different from that of the world which I would have departed long before.

And so it was that I was by myself alone out in the wilderness when I first encountered the man who would change my life. The southern area of the continent on which I was born was primarily composed of a tundral environment with large open areas of barren rock and frozen soil held together by a variety of hardy lichens and mosses which had been engineered long before and released across the surface of the planet. Further South of here the soil gave way to a simple inorganic regolith which stretched away to the coast of the Southern Ocean, a body of water which only kept from freezing over in the colder months because of its salinity. My activity in this area early in the 62nd local-year of my life (one local year being approximately 134 local days, and the local day being about 1.2 Earth days, this made me about 27 years old by Earth Standards) primarily involved the maintenance of various mechanisms and micro-bacterial cultures which had been setup in the area to maintain a certain balance. The checking could normally be performed remotely, but a few malfunctions and the excessive resource drain of setting up land line links had meant that it was considered preferable to have a biological operative in the area; since I had recently gone through some difficult social problems I volunteered for assignment to this area, which I had all the necessary training and modifications to be automatically considered for.

The exact details of the social problem which had led me to apply for this position are irrelevant, and seem rather pointless and childish now that things have changed as much as they have. Suffice it to say that in my childishness, I felt that it was the end of my life. In my arrogance I even believed that the Universe itself might have some vested interest in the meaningless fate of one little nearly base-line human on one insignificant semi-Terra-formed world deep in the vast voids of the Galaxy's great spiral arms. The sheer Hubris of the thought which led me to claim that my own misfortune had some global, even Universal importance, and that things had, somehow "not developed as they should have" simply because I did not obtain that which I desired now shocks and amuses me. When I think of it at all. So the exact nature of what led me to be walking, pack on back, with the wind ruffling my fur during my 62nd local year on an out-cropping of the southernmost section of my world's southernmost continent is not important: what is important is that I was there, and through being there I got a chance that so few others, none from my world before me as far as I can ascertain, have had.

My first indication that something was wrong came during the second local-year of my self-imposed exile. It had been a little over ten local-days since I had last communicated with base, and the erratic weather conditions were causing a disruption of communications channels which would have required a use of the main transmitter in my base-camp in order to overcome. I, however, was at least two days march from my base-camp, and in no position to oversee the erection of the main transmitter. This was perfectly acceptable to me, since communication with the outside world was something I had travelled to this distant rock in order to avoid. In fact I was trekking leisurely along what we ecological engineers refer to as the "life line", the border, if you will, between the area where the ground is covered with soil, albeit of a dry and horrendously cold sort, and that area where there is nothing but barren, un-living regolith, the point beyond which even microbial life tends to die from the harsh conditions. A combination of the suit I wore, and the modifications which had been made to me before I started this assignment allowed me to stay alive in this environment, where an unprotected base-line would have died within minutes from cold, and decompression. As I said, my world was no Earth.

One of the small bacteriological culture units which were kept in vats and monitored by remote sensors up here (and which were engaged in the long and tedious process of releasing various forms of nutrient into the regolith) had started to produce some odd readings. It looked like something had knocked the vat open, and that the bacteria inside had died from atmospheric exposure. This was relatively routine, and normally turned out to be nothing more than a micro-meteorite impact or the progressive damage caused by exposure to these harsh conditions, in order to repair the unit I was equipped with a large supply of every conceivable replacement part for the equipment, since I could not expect to receive help from further North for many months to come.

Do Not Feed the Daleks by Cat Ward

When I reached the unit, however, the sight that greeted me was anything but routine. I had expected to see a small hole in the top of the metal canister (the only portion of the Unit which was generally open to the air, since the rest was buried beneath the regolith), but instead I was greeted by a hole in the ground. A simple pit, the walls of which were held together by the permafrost and the dry-ice which suffused the regolith in the local region. The Unit itself was no where to be found, and appeared to have been removed wholesale from the ground and taken away. Approaching closer I saw that, in fact, the Unit had no been entirely removed, since, buried right at the bottom of the pit was a thin veneer of semi-organic detritus, which, upon examination with spectroscope showed itself to be the remnants of the vat's contents and lining, after certain chemicals had been entirely removed. For all the world it looked as if someone had passed the entire vat unit, including its contents through the kind of molecular sieve which is often used for purification in various manufacturing processes. Now, I hadn't really studied that particular area of knowledge since school, and it took a while to even recall enough of the correct terminology to properly phrase a search request for my computer. Eventually I was able to locate files containing enough data to be relatively sure that if an industrial molecular sieve had not been used, then something very similar had. Unsurprisingly my analysis could not be very detailed, no one had thought it might be necessary to equip a field ecologist with files detailing the techniques used in Industrial material reclamation, the data I had on the subject came entirely from a General Encyclopaedia which had been included amongst my data merely as general reading material.

I recorded as detailed a report on the situation as I could, and stored it for later transmission. Then I pitched my tent and settled in for the night. It would have been sensible, it occurred to me at this point, to have taken out one of the rovers from my base-camp, rather than walking all this way. With one of them to work in I could have assembled a replacement vat structure in a few hours, rather than the several days it would take in my one-man air-tight bubble-tent. It would also have allowed me to speed back to base-camp for a more detailed set of data on the subject of this "molecular sieving" technique, and perhaps to send a message back home, requesting further clarification on my situation. But, as this had appeared a routine repair mission, exactly alike with the many I had undertaken over the course of the last few years, I had decided that it would be more enjoyable to walk the distance, giving me a real feeling of communing with the great vast bulk of the planet's life. A pointless pretension. But one which I have been assured saved my life.

With a rover I would have been able to communicate with the North, with a rover I would have been a threat; and so, with a rover I would have died. Without one I was intriguing. Without one he instead decided to greet me.

Which is not to say that he chose to do so in a way that I'd recognise. The first indication I experienced that I was not alone in the area was the next evening when I was deeply engrossed in the task of reconstructing the vat from parts within my tiny air-sealed tent, and I noticed that the next piece of equipment I would need was one that I had left outside with my equipment, due to space constraints within the bubble-dome. I had set the surface of the tent material to be opaque whilst I worked, because I had long ago grown tired of the bleak unwelcoming vistas that spread away from me on every side during these many years that I would likely spend in the Grim Far-South. For this reason my first view of the external world was when I emerged from the small "airlock" in the side of the tent. In point of fact it was not a true airlock, but rather a simple contrivance of movable membranes which allowed entrance and exit from the tent with minimal air loss, but that is not entirely relevant to my tale. Pulling myself out of the outer skin of the "lock", I failed to take much stock of my surroundings whilst I trudged towards the small store of equipment I had placed near my pack and load on the other side of my tent.

Imagine my shock when upon getting there I encountered a living thing sitting happily on top of my stores, rummaging through them?

It was about the size of a human hand, and completely grey all over: it looked shiny, almost metallic. It had a set of six legs, each composed of three sections, and jointed up and over like a spider's. The body itself was almost a perfect sphere, with a pair of short tentacles emerging from the front which it was using to open and examine the contents of the pack.

It is something of an understatement to say that I was shocked. The presence of such a creature here, in a place where no life but my own, and a minute amount of bacteriological residue blown from the North, and already in the process of dying due to the conditions should have been, was enough to elicit more than shock from me. I was an Ecological Engineer; I had learnt every form of eco-static system, and every type of balanced development tree. The presence of this creature, even if it could survive the conditions itself, indicated an absolute impossibility, that there might be a food-chain for it to form a part of.

In short I felt as if I might have discovered something truly new and unique. Something that no one else had ever seen. Something that would take my community by storm. But, being a scientist, I did not allow my wild imagination to run away with me. The most likely possibility was that this thing was merely a creature of some Eco-engineering experiment further to the East or West, which had accidentally strayed this far. That it was artificial, and more than that, that it had no place in any food chain, that no eco-system supported it, and its presence this far South was merely an indication that it was a single, unique, lost specimen, which would die without outside assistance.

Unsurprisingly, I reached out my gloved hand towards it.

For the first time the creature appeared to notice me, turning its tentacles towards me, and raising them, indicating to my trained eye (as it would likely to even the most untrained of observers) that the protrusions were not merely manipulative, but also sensory organs of some sort.

And as I reached towards it I felt no pain as I quickly and suddenly passed out.

* * *

The next thing that came to my attention was a throbbing headache, as my vision blurred and twisted. The world seemed to move in and out and turn away from me before I finally realised that someone was speaking to me. The voice was sonorous and clear, with a kind of perfect beauty which made me feel as though my very soul was aching.

"Good, you are conscious once more.

I had wondered how much longer that would take."

"Who are you?", I asked. "what do you want?"

"That, little man, is a very complex question.

What do any of us truly want from one another?

We are afraid that in all our years and centuries we have never been able to find a satisfactory answer to that one simple question.''

"In this case however, it is not so much of a problem, since, in this case our motivation is in no way uncertain. We are after your answer to one simple question.

Just one little answer.

Little more than a sentence.

(and before you complain that this is not fair, we will show you just how unfair it is)

We can see, little man, that you do possess the answer, locked away in your small meat brain.

The real question here is, will you answer correctly?"

From the way the words were spoken, still with the same air of absolute, unattainable, crystal pure beauty which made every fibre of my being ache, I felt like a small child being chided by a harsh, forbidding, and yet worshipped and revered mistress. Although, the voice itself was entirely androgynous, carrying no hint of either (or indeed any) gender.

"What is the Primary Duty of The State?"

Could this be it? A simple piece of Ideology Theory? Something which I had learnt all those many years ago in my school days, which I, and in fact no one else, including the teachers, had ever considered would be of any practical use whatsoever.

Martian by Oliver Bartlett

I had to stifle the urge to laugh. It would have been almost ridiculous, had the situation not been so serious. Stifling my panic reflexes I reached back and back into my memory trying to recall the answer to the question. I sank my mind back to my school days, to hours spent inside an airconditioned room whilst the mistress instructed a class of five children, all of my own age on the details of Ideology theory, whilst the class, and indeed the mistress used much of the time as an opportunity to relax, laugh, joke, flirt, play practical jokes, or engage in one of the many other activities that young children of only a scant 15 local years will choose to partake of when they had little else to do.

But I recalled that this was one of the few elements of the course which the mistress had insisted upon actually teaching in something approaching some semblance of genuine discipline. And so, I remembered the answer. In fact I remembered that there were two answers. And I remembered why it was that the answer to this particular question mattered so much.

For the first time since those school days my mind turned to The War. And I felt fear.

There was no point in lying. The voice had already said that it knew that the answer was within my mind, so I couldn't very well give the other answer, even if I thought that that might be the one it wanted. It would know, as surely as it knew that I had the data at my disposal.

And so, with a quaking voice, I spoke up:

"The Primary Duty of The State", I said. "Is to ensure that the actions of the machinery of the State are, in all circumstances, those that the persons making up said machinery consider to be the Actions best suited to bring about what is best ..."

I licked my lips, which felt dry. Up until this point both answers were the same, this was the moment of truth. I closed my eyes and prayed to whatever deities might still survive, that the answer I had been taught as true was the one that the voices wanted.

"...not merely for those within the bounds of The State, but objectively, and for all time, and space."

I sighed. That was the best I could do. No other answer would have been accepted. All that was left was to see if I had been damned from the word go.

* * *

And so, from that moment forwards the warrior began to teach me, began to speak to me and tell me how things were and how they should be. He explained that he was a unit of the warriors for our side in the Great War, and that a few centuries ago he had been damaged in an ambush by the other side. Narrowly escaping with the loss of only three mind-cores, and so losing only a few thousand possible combinations of uniqueness from his structure, he had set his course for this system. When the sunlight had reawakened him after his century long slumber he had redirected his course to land on my world far from the centres of civilisation, where he could slowly rebuild his strength without interference.

But now, after many local decades of rebuilding his strength by himself he was ready to put into motion the next few steps of his plan.

And so, over the next few years I learnt and studied. Working with the warrior's help I learnt first of a substance known as "nova-matter" - a form of organic nano-machine - although the term nano-machine conjuring up the concept of small robotic metallic or otherwise mineral devices, something which is in this case entirely inaccurate. Nova-matter is constructed in minute units about the size of a living cell (although some are far smaller, down to the size of individual viri), each composed of a complex organic polymer sheath. Effectively they are in every way like living cells except that the actual structure of the proteins used in their construction is not found anywhere in natural life forms, and they contain no DNA carrying nucleus, but rather a complex RNA based computer system designed to respond to simple commands issued from a central Mind-core via a variety of methods, mainly chemical, but with backups in radio and IRASER communication systems.

Nova-matter is amazing stuff. The creature sitting on top of my pack during that first contact had been composed almost entirely of Nova-matter. A very good explanation of how it managed to survive with no food chain, since whilst it was certainly possible for nova-matter cells to function based upon the combustion of carbohydrates like a living cell this was by no means their preferred source of power, and was only used when electrical power, Radio-thermal energy, or sunlight were unavailable. The small probes which had been sent into my brain in order to probe me on that day had also been composed primarily by nova-matter, in this case by rather than of, since they had in fact been constructed from the minerals and organic matter salvaged from the vat, the nova-matter sub-units making very effective nanoassembly units, they were not such a good structural material.

For that reason the warrior, when it has a body of any particular meaningful form, has a body primarily constructed from other nano-assembled materials built in such a way as to make best use of whichever particular resources happen to be available in the area. Only the very core consisted of nova-matter, surrounding each of its multiply redundant Mind-cores, which were themselves little bigger than a sunflower seed, but capable, I was assured, of holding literally millions of human minds' worth of uniqueness, which the warrior could use in order to create an almost endless number of possible personality matrices, each of which would be unique enough to be unpredictable to enemy tactical analysis, at least for a little.

In fact, over the period of the next few local centuries, which I spent serving the warrior in various ways, I only saw the nova-matter core construct a mere handful of things. More often we would use the warrior's superior computational power to play the markets of my home-world in order to raise enough money, in my name, that we could afford to purchase the land, building sites, and construction equipment necessary to operate the construction of improved construction machinery based upon designs that the warrior itself improvised based upon adapting portions of its own technological base to the needs of the current situation, and to the available materials and technology.

And manpower, of course.

During the course of those decades I grew rich and successful. Viewed as an aging reclusive businessman, I retreated into my huge household, and managed my affairs, with the constant help and attention of the warrior, via the global data network. And in my position as a global business leader I employed many hundreds of staff. None of them were involved in the actual work, of course, that was all automated, but they did help with the cover business which I managed specifically in order to generate enough money to run the main work which we had to do.

Daleks by Alia Sheikh

From among those who worked for me the warrior was able to select two more whom it brought into its confidence and used very much as it had used me, to generate a respectable viewable face for his faceless needs.

It could of course have produced itself a living flesh and blood body, which it could easily have controlled via a small mind-core located within its skull, but to do so would have been less elegant, and less effective than the system of using genuine members of our society to further its goals. Which appeared, as far as I could understand at the time, to include producing vast amounts of spacetravel capability silently and in secret, and then launching it, also in
secret, into my solar-system.

And in the end, after living a respectable 346 local years (approximately 150 Earth years), I died. To the world, at least, as did the other two he had chosen. We were absorbed into the mind of the warrior, our uniqueness adding to the strength of its identity. We merged with it, and we came together with it. For a long period afterwards we had no independent existence at all, as we packed up, and removed all traces of our ever having been involved with that planet; before quietly launching into orbit, where it met up with the first stage of our new body.

As we passed the first of the gas giant planets in my solar-system we joined with the rest of our new shell, and, pausing only to transmit a measure of our uniqueness to the mind cores of the massively armed fleet which we had hidden within the structure of the moons and asteroids out here, we accelerated away from the star, and towards an area where we knew an enemy planet was located.

Once our engines burnt out all of our fuel, and the last vestiges of the sun's rays were only just exciting the surface of the massive solar collectors which we had spread from our body, we began to rebuild and reconfigure our design. Creating an enormous electro-magnetic accelerator we began to jettison backwards every portion of our mass that we would not need for the rest of the journey. And constructing vast storage cells we began to store all the solar energy we could collect. For although once my few remaining moments of individuality which I have been given in order to write this report have ended we will begin the century long sleep of the darkness between the stars we do still have an eventual goal.

And a payload.

Located well within the protective coating of our form there sits a great mass of ice, many kilotons of the material, which we removed from the Oort cloud of my home system. And although this ice serves to help protect our novamatter core from the one thing to which it is vulnerable, the gradual encroachment of senility brought about by the actions of ionising radiation over time, that is only a secondary purpose. For when we enter the solar system to which we are headed we will not execute the phoenix-dive, the manoeuvre by which a warrior recombines vast amounts of its internal structure into magnetic coils, and pumps hydrogen plasma through the field to produce a magnificent incandescent plume of glowing plasma which interacts with the solar wind to slow and stop the relativistic velocities which the warrior has reached during the long interlude between the suns. Instead we shall be executing quite another manoeuvre, jettisoning our entire payload of ice on a course which will cause it to intersect with the system's inhabited planet, whilst still travelling at such huge velocities.

In short, they will go off the air.

James P. Barrett