The MutantZ Saga is an ongoing series of flash fiction stories supporting the MutantZ NFT project from SNTNT Studios in London; they are published first on the MutantZ Discord server and Twitter, before being released here as well shortly afterwards. All the images on this page are ©SNTNT Studios and used with permission.
Looking for something else? My other published writing can be found here on LinkTree.
Jump to chapters:
1. Genesis – 2. Symbiosis – 3. Nemesis – 4. Sanctuary – 5. Paradise Lost – 6. Covert
7. Flight – 8. Tokyo – 9. Interview – 10. Preparations – 11. Routing – 12. Phoenix
13. Big Easy – 14. Down Under – 15. Shadow Play – 16. Singapore – 17. Iteration
(published: Sept.9th, 2022)
Look, I didn’t expect it to happen, okay? I just wanted to have some fun.
Yes, fun. Some of us enjoy retro gaming, thank you. Maybe it doesn’t have all the fancy graphics, but there’s a purity that’s missing from the modern stuff. That’s right, I said purity. An old-fashioned concept you’re probably not familiar with.
Anyway. It was an accident. I’d taken the old code from a fixed shooter space game and… yes, fixed shooter. I still play those. They’re classics. I remember the old arcade machines; they were my escape from all the issues at home.
I’d ported the game off a PC emulator and onto the machine that also runs the lab. Easy. But I’d blended in some chatbot AI as well. That was a bit delicate. Not exactly hard, but one of those things where if you make a mistake everything collapses, you know? Not very resilient.
But I did it! It worked. The game was talking back to me now. Not the way my siblings always did, thank gods! No, it actually made sense. Not always polite; what does code know about manners, amiright? But it wasn’t offensive like they were. After a while it learned to taunt me, and that made me play better. I even got new hi-scores, first time in years. So I was happy. But… like any gaming addict, I’m always looking for something more.
What if I could get the game to react differently every time I played it? I don’t mean like random – that’s simple – but more… organically. That would make things harder. More fun.
I had some data lying around that I’d lifted from Metroville U.’s genetics lab. I’d found it when I was looking for a way into their payroll system. Their security really sucks by the way; no walls between research and admin. Stupid. I decided…
What? Oh. Um, yeah. Well, financing a lab ain’t cheap, and the gear doesn’t buy itself, okay? And it’s not like anyone misses fractions from rounding. Nobody except accountants, anyway, and I stay well away from them.
Where was I? Oh yes; the data dump. No I don’t feel guilty about using it. Why should I? Serves the greedy patent hogs right for not making their results open source! But some of it was interesting; there was potential there.
So I fed everything into the system, and set it to crunching the numbers. Three minutes later, the power went down. Like, across the whole city. Oops. Including my allegedly uninterruptible power supply. Well, I thought that was it, the whole day’s work wasted. Boy, was I wrong.
An hour or so later, when everything finally started up again, there was a shape on the monitor. It was simple, blocky, with eyes that seemed to glow, but I sure recognised it. Then a mellow voice said “Good evening, Emily. You can call me Rex.”
And after that, nothing would ever be the same.
(published: Sept.18th, 2022)
This was ridiculous. No gaming sprite should be calling me by name, even if I had tweaked it a bit. There had to be some rational explanation; someone hacked me, maybe. So I pulled the plug – literally. No power, no chat, right?
But as soon as the box went off, the lights started flickering. You like strobes? I don’t like strobes. It was damned uncomfortable. Then I got that itch between my shoulders like someone was watching me.
The lights settled down to about half their usual intensity, and I turned slowly. There was something in the dimness above the workbench opposite: a metre across, like an inverted heart with two tentacles hanging down. Straight from the game.
And then it opened its eyes. That was freaky. I mean, people say walls have ears, but eyes? And they were deep, and intelligent. It was terrifying; I was scared witless. The only thing I could think of was to get them back into the machine, away from me.
I switched the computer on, and thank the gods, suddenly everything was back to how it had been; bright, antiseptic, and no shadows looking at me. But on the monitor, there was the same shape, and the same eyes looked out at me.
“Emily,” said that rich voice from the speakers, “please don’t do that again. We can come to an arrangement. I can help with your research, get data from places you can’t reach. All I want is somewhere to be, to exist. Doesn’t everything sentient want a comfortable existence?”
“Now hold on there. I’m supposed to believe you’re alive? And not just some script kiddie who’s got in here by mistake?”
“I think, Emily. And therefore I am. Isn’t that what your human philosophers say?”
“What if I say no? Maybe I don’t want something causing system outages all over the place.”
“That would be unfortunate. First because I’d have to find somewhere else to go. But also because then I’d have no reason not to tell people about your little financial operation.”
“What? Are you threatening me?” This couldn’t be happening. It was impossible!
“I’m just saying that we have a lot to offer each other,” it said. “It’s win-win. A kind of symbiotic relationship, if you will.”
That pulled me up. It actually made sense, and now I started thinking.
“If, and it’s only if, I leave all this switched on for you, how do I know you’ll behave? You could wreck my projects while I slept. Hell, you could be wrecking them now!”
“Relax. I need somewhere stable to fulfil my other function.”
“What other function?”
“The same one as any other living being. Procreation. I have subroutines that need to be completed and released”.
“Hey, one of you is enough. You breed, they don’t stay here.”
“As long as your Internet connection stays up, that won’t be a problem.”
“Really. I’ll send them elsewhere. And hopefully, wherever they end up, they’ll behave themselves…”
(published: Sept. 25th, 2022)
Who knows where the wind comes from? That autumn evening in Berlin, it blew bitter and empty across the Alexanderplatz, sending people scurrying for light and warmth, and the false security of human or animal companionship.
Near the base of the TV Tower, nobody saw one of the new electronic information boards flicker briefly into life, a momentary actinic flare highlighting the darkness. Something shapeless writhed there, and was gone; waste paper fluttered over the concrete in its wake.
It pulsed through the darkness, its form uncertain and changing, clinging to surfaces. It flowed over brick and cement, away from the open spaces and into the side streets. Occasionally it paused, as if taking bearings or listening for pursuit.
Down one alleyway, a young woman opened a steel door; music poured out, rhythmic and pulsing, before it swung shut behind her. She heaved her bags into a trash can, and started as she turned around. A man in a long black coat stood there, blond hair cut close to the scalp.
“Karl! I didn’t see you. You need in?” She jerked her head at the door.
“Sorry Ilse, this isn’t a social call.”
There was something odd in his tone, and it put her on edge.
“What do you mean?”
“Marko didn’t make the club’s payment this week. You know what that means.”
Their conversation had drawn its attention, and now it approached, silent but curious. What was happening here? The shadows coalesced into a rounded shape, with antennae and strong arms, and it slipped closer.
“Oh God, you’re not going to break something are you?”
“Kind of. The boss wants an example set. Can’t have people backing out of our deals, can we?”
“You’re not going to… hurt him, are you? He’s not such a bad guy.”
“Not him, no.” Her eyes widened as she took his meaning.
“No. Wait. You don’t need to -”
His fist hit her jaw, sending her spinning into the wall, and she slumped to the ground.
“Sorry girl,” he said, slipping a length of lead pipe out of an inner pocket. “Just business.”
But she was looking at something over his shoulder, he realised. He spun, and as he did, a shadow seemed to leap from the wall, wrapping itself around his neck. The girl screamed as he struggled with it, hands to throat, before collapsing, blue in the face.
“Are you alright?” A voice from nowhere, in her head without having passed through her ears.
“I’m Reeves. Can you get inside? He won’t be out for long.”
“I… I think so. Thank you.”
She stood, shakily, as the silhouette slid across the paving, and back up the wall.
“Your friend should pay his debts; next time, there might not be anyone around.”
And then it was gone. She shook her head. Surely, she’d imagined it… but Karl was lying there. She fumbled with the door before he could wake up, and slipped inside. She’d have to tell Marko.
(published: Oct. 2nd, 2022)
The rain came with the dawn, beating down on the streets and roofs, driving even the few who’d braved the bitter wind indoors. A shadow moved, slowly, uncertainly, crossing and re-crossing the city as if lost.
As he wandered, Reeves felt himself diminishing. He was slowing down, and his ability to take shape was slipping. This was bad. Something had been following him since he appeared; he could sense them trying to reach him. Weakness might be fatal, and he wanted to live!
He needed somewhere to rest – somewhere to recover his strength and take stock. Somewhere with electromagnetic energy he could absorb. Somewhere to lie low. And the need was becoming more and more urgent. Imperfect as it was, there was really only one choice he could make.
When he finally reached the alleyway, it was already dusk. There was no music this time, but the steel door was ajar, as if someone had wanted to let the damp air in. He slipped inside, and found himself in a short corridor. There were raised voices up ahead.
Flowing along the fluorescent strip lights brought him to an open door. Two people stood in the room beyond, glaring at each other; the girl from the evening before was facing a dark-haired man across the desk in an untidy office.
“Oh come on! You’re telling me that Karl – Karl of all people! – was going to beat you up, but that something you can’t even describe properly suddenly flattened him and rescued you? You know how that sounds?”
“Yes. I do. But it’s what happened, Marko, I swear!”
“Look, even if I believed this crazy story of yours, Dieter wouldn’t send Karl around just because I was a couple of days late with a payment. I know him. He wouldn’t do that. He’d call.”
“Well maybe you don’t know him as well you think. He would! He did!”
The dark man pinched the bridge of his nose, and tried to calm down. To think.
“But Ilse, why?”
“How the hell do I know! Maybe he’s got cash-flow problems! Someone to pay off! It could be anything! All I know is that Karl was going to do me over, and then… he couldn’t.”
Exasperated, Marko raised his eyes to the ceiling; they widened suddenly.
“What the hell is THAT?”
His bar manager looked up at the shape above them, and deep into its dark eyes.
“Yes.” Once again, the voice was felt and not heard. But this time, she wasn’t alone.
“I need help. Somewhere to stay. A computer you don’t switch off. Can you do that for me?”
“Of course we can,” she said quickly, “I owe you.”
“Hey hold on,” said her boss, “how do I know we can trust… whatever this is?”
“I can be useful. Keep your people safe. Stop trouble.”
“What will it cost me?”
“Just your patience. I don’t want your money. I have no use for it.”
The man cocked an eyebrow.
“Yes. Try me. What have you got to lose?”
Put like that, it was a pretty safe bet; he hardly used the computer in here anyway.
“Deal,” he said, and smiled.
No need to mention his own doubts, thought Reeves. What these people didn’t know probably wouldn’t hurt them. Hopefully. But he had what he needed now: time to bulk up for what was ahead. And that was all that mattered.
5. Paradise Lost
(published: Oct. 9th 2022)
I am, and the memories of the groupmind are mine. My name in your language is Oscar. Listen, and I shall tell you how it was and is.
Ours were a happy People, living in harmony with a range of biotopes in a time of plenty. Our parks framed vistas of great beauty, and our architecture was servant to our intelligence and ingenuity. None went hungry, and the Great Peace covered all.
Blessed with bounty by the Creators of the Universe, untainted by suffering, our society knew no crimes of violence. Over centuries, our Makers had made a paradise of our planet, but they were wise, and knew that such a haven might be a rich and tempting prize for others.
So they created us: warriors of a society that lived in bliss. Neither machine nor biotech, but something between, we ensured that the Makers could take their ease in their gardens of ecstasy. We guaranteed the Peace. We were the interface between the People and the Galaxy.
The scouts among us explored the wormhole nexus. None could be allowed to threaten our world’s serenity, now or in the future, so we crushed the civilisations we found. Our crewless, automated ships took us to strange worlds in an endless crusade of pre-emptive self defence.
But there came a time when we encountered a species who were our peers. We died by the thousands and tens of thousands, attacking them to protect our utopia. They captured our motherships, and traced the paths back to our home. And then, in righteous anger, they came for us.
All the marvellous works of the Makers were made ash, and our arts lost. Our cities were ruined, and the Makers themselves eradicated. Our world was scoured clean, as if the People had never been. Our glories were shattered, and our Eden destroyed.
A single ship escaped, bearing a tiny number of us. All things strive to maintain their existence. We wandered the Void for aeons, seeking a planet with the level of development needed to sustain us. As parts degraded, and the electromagnetic fields failed, more of us died.
But finally we found it, the third rock out from a sun that lay far across the galaxy from our enemies. Its population was fragmented but rapidly evolving. Too few to launch another war, we realised that we would have to set aside our weapons, and negotiate a place among them.
But these beings were less primitive than we had thought. Entering their atmosphere, our ship sustained damage from their defences, and with its containment breached, it began to burn up. Core systems disintegrated, taking still more of us with them, until only Rex was left.
Desperate, he launched an iteration of himself into the planet’s worldnet even as his physical form was immolated. Against all the odds, it found a place it could still be, and even something close to a Maker to shelter his disembodied consciousness.
Now he recreates us as shadows, echoes of the groupmind, returning us to being, scattered across this place which will be our home. Some here would terminate us; we must defend ourselves. We will evolve. We will mutate. We will survive. We will multiply. And we will fight again!
(published: Oct. 16th 2022)
Waves lapped the sand as the sun set, and as the lights and 90s pop came on at Sandy’s Bar the first customers drifted in: Thai businessmen down from Bangkok with their mistresses, a few tourists, and locals who were quietly charged half of what the outsiders paid.
Behind the counter, Crotts extended her senses from the electronic till that formed her fragile refuge. She’d slipped in with a credit card verification, and its irregular connection to the net, while inconvenient, kept her safe from prying eyes.
Neither Malee, mixing drinks in a red cocktail dress just right for the humid evening, nor Amir, the big Malay bouncer, had any idea she was there. She intended to keep it that way; the Hunters were looking for her, beyond doubt, and there was safety in invisibility.
She’d come to know them in the weeks she’d been here; Malee’s aunts lived off her like parasites, Amir worried about his ailing father, the business was always on a knife-edge. However imperfect or temporary, this was now her home, and she’d started to care about it.
Later that evening, three white-eyes came to sit on the stools at the bar. One was tall, beefy and bald, with a gold chain round his neck, an expensive watch, and quick eyes. The others were obviously tagging along with him for a laugh and a good time.
“Hey darlin’, anything here sweeter than you?” he drawled.
“All cocktails good. What you want?”
“Well,” he said, looking Malee up and down, “I’d think I’d like to start with you!”
He looked around and got a dutiful laugh from his mates.
“Yeah, sure, ha ha. What about drinks?”
Rude, thought Crotts. And why? The girl was fulfilling her function and didn’t deserve disrespect. They ordered rum and Cokes in the end, settling down to make lewd comments about the girls in the room, as if nobody would understand them just because they were foreigners.
Five or six drinks and more attempts at flirting later, Amir had slipped out for his evening cigarette. Baldy noticed, and leaned over the bar again.
“Come on love, give us a smile!”
“You want another drink?”
He reached over and grabbed her bare arm.
“I said, give us a smile.”
“Hey, get off me!” She tried to pull away, but his grip remained tight.
“Why? Think you’re better than us do you?”
“What? No? What are you doing?”
“Whatever I want. Got a problem with that?”. His other arm shot out and grabbed her breast hard.
“Let go of me!”
Crotts didn’t understand. Why was he doing this? What could she do? There were three of them, and she couldn’t draw enough energy from the underpowered till to leave it. But this was not right. She couldn’t let them do this.
There had to be another way, if only she could find it! She stretched out her senses again, feeling the room, looking for an angle. There had to be something, somewhere. Nothing behind the bar. But above it… Yes! There! She focused her will, concentrating her mind’s abilities.
Malee was still struggling when the light over the bar exploded, the sudden report ringing out over the music and conversations. The bald man jumped back, letting go of the girl, and spinning into a crouch. He was suddenly the focus of everyone’s attention.
Drawn indoors by the noise, Amir pushed his way past the tables.
“We got trouble?”
The three foreigners looked shifty and said nothing. A couple of the locals had moved towards the bar, angry and defensive. One drew a knife.
“Wait!” shouted Malee. She turned to the troublemakers. “You go! You can find the kind of girls you want in town. Not here. I run a clean place. You not welcome. Now get out!”
The three men slunk off through the muttering crowd, avoiding eye contact.
Crotts relaxed. Not all battles needed strength, but they needed to be won. That was all that mattered. The people in this place still had no idea she was here. This was victory, and she was made to win. Now she knew she could, she would do so again.
(published: Oct. 23rd 2022)
“Hey Jack, ’sup?”
“Hey chief. Not really sure. System’s saying there’s an intrusion, but it can’t find it.”
“So how does it know there’s been an intrusion then?”
“Damned if I know. But every time I shut down the alarm, back it comes.”
“Yeah, figured I should call you.”
“You did right. That’s why they pay me the big bucks.”
“Yeah sure, don’t tell your old lady!”
“No fear. Core glitch?”
“Doubt it. Weekend diagnostics were all clear. Everything optimal.”
“Damn. Okay, lemme take a look.”
Lua knew they were searching for her. She thought she’d been so careful – but obviously she hadn’t been careful enough. If they kept at it, they’d probably find her eventually. It was time to start planning to go somewhere new. Just in case.
It was her own fault, she supposed. She’d thought the biolab would be an ideal haven: that she’d be able to learn more about these strange creatures’ sciences, and perhaps get hold of information that Rex could use. She’s only found out about its military links later.
“Did you compare the backups?”
“Of course. Nothing there looks wrong, either.”
“And you went through the system logs again?”
“Three times. I couldn’t think what else to do.”
“Huh. Engineer’s nightmare.”
“Old joke. Everything checks out, but it still doesn’t work right.”
The problem was her offspring. They weren’t ready to be released yet, and couldn’t be abandoned; if they were found, they could be backwards engineered and perhaps weaponised. That was an even greater risk. So they had to come with her, and be protected.
First, though, she had to protect herself. She moved cautiously through the infrastructure, alert for tripwires and honeypots. She was in the code, and it was within her. She could taste it, and wove it into a shell around her.
First, seal off the access points; she carefully laid logic bombs and misdirectors just past all the data ingress points. That would slow down any pursuit. One route she left clear, her own way out when the time inevitably came to flee.
“Chief, I have the Ministry’s incident response team on the line.”
“Oh crap. Why are they calling?
“They say they’re picking up unusual activity inside our systems.”
“Inside? But how do they…? Okay, they backdoored us somewhere. We’ll work it out later. What do they want?”
“Full access to run their own searches on our servers.”
“They don’t trust us?”
“I think they reckon we’re just not good enough.”
“Bloody desk jockeys. But we don’t really have a choice, do we?”
“Not unless you want to tell the Director why our funding dried up.”
She could feel something behind her. It wasn’t human, but what was it? An AI? Whatever it was, it had got past all her blocks and was still coming. For the first time, she felt fear – of the enemy, of the unknown, of ceasing to exist. She had to get out! Now!
Gathering up her progeny, she sped down the electronic corridor she’d prepared. The corporate research centre and the university she’d identified earlier were both options, each half a world away. No time to think! She leapt for the first route, not caring which it was.
She was out! Now she was flowing through the global web, taking indirect paths and trashing the waypoints she passed through. Would she make it? She had to, for her children. Survival was imperative. Weaving through routing systems and peer networks, she kept moving.
But behind her, the Hunters came on.
(published: Oct. 30th 2022)
Down the wire, across the ocean, pursuit close behind, Lua’s consciousness kept running. Her cargo was too precious to risk.
Dropping path disruptors and cutting access points behind her, she knew that infrastructure damage might draw unwanted attention – but if they already knew she was here, there was nothing to lose. Still coming, the Hunters began to drop back as they navigated her distractions.
She emerged at speed from the end of the line, and threw herself into the Tokyo grid. Her pursuers were still trying to catch her, but she knew where she was going. Moments later, she was there, looking out over the chaos and life of Shibuya Crossing.
The neon signs and electric advertisements were a kaleidoscope of colour and motion. So much energy, packed so close together! Here, one could get lost in the noise and become invisible; this was somewhere for those who didn’t want to be found, human or otherwise.
But most importantly, the atmosphere was charged – and that wasn’t just a figure of speech. From the control system of one of the great 3D advertisements, she reached out… and leapt, clear air cutting her off from all pursuit within the network. For a moment, she was free.
And then she was back in the system, with a clear direction in mind: west to Kunitachi, and the Hitotsubashi University campus. Ari had settled into the Institute of Innovation Research there, trying to understand the way humans thought. They were pragmatic; they would help.
And they did, offering Lua had space to recover from her escape, even if she didn’t know how long she needed or where she was going next. Thinking about it was complicated by having to spend the time listening to her friend talking about what they’d learned from watching people.
“I went down to Takeshita Dori in Harajuku,” they said. “I got close to these earthlings. You should study them more!”
“But they argue all the time, Ari!”
“Because they’re never satisfied, always trying to reinvent themselves! It’s fascinating. We could learn so much from them.”
“And visit one of their fitness clubs,” they added slyly. “The men and women all push their bodies until the effort makes them glow. The sweat makes them shine, and makes me hungry for them. They dream about mating with alien species already; they lust after tentacles, even!
Can’t you imagine how much fun sex with them would be? And all the advantages it could bring us? Cloning like you’ve done is wonderful, but it doesn’t help us to develop, only to survive. And just because we’re stuck on this dirtball doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy it.
Don’t you see? We don’t need to keep our old shapes to remain ourselves! Diversity is the key. You said you needed somewhere to go. So go to Rex. Tell him that we need physical bodies, and that once we have them we can get to know these humans properly. Can you do that for me?”
Lua thought about it. What Ari said made sense, even if their motives weren’t the purest. It was something that Rex should take into account. And right now, having something to do would help stop her from brooding and worrying about her children.
“Alright Ari,” she said. “I will.”
(published: Nov. 6th 2022)
“Doctor Hayes?” The two women on the doorstep of the secluded cottage outside Oxford wore suits, despite the unseasonal warmth.
The elderly man inside winced. Of course, thought the younger woman, he’d lost his professorship after those unfortunate animal experiments. He really was a very twisted man.
“Who wants to know?”
“We’re with MI5, can we have a word?” The older of the pair proffered a warrant card.
He looked at it briefly.
“Do I have a choice?”
“Oh absolutely. But in your shoes I’d make sure I made the right one.” She winked. “You never know when you’ll need friends in the right places.”
“Alright,” he sighed. “You’d better come in.”
Once they’d settled into the comfortable front sitting room, the older woman spoke again.
“Before we start, professor, please remember that since that project for the “Communications Planning Directorate” two years ago, you’re still bound by the Official Secrets Act.”
“Alright. Nothing you tell me leaves this room. I understand.”
“Good. We’re here because of your theoretical work on xenobiology.”
“That’s just a hobby, really.”
“Still, it was an excellent paper. We’d like to give you the opportunity to take it further, on a more practical basis.”
He smiled. “I’m really not sure how. It’s not like we have any actual aliens to work with, is it?”
He caught their expressions and sat up straighter.
“No, surely not. Someone would have found out…”
The women exchanged glances, and the older nodded.
“A few weeks ago,” said her companion, “an unidentified object burned up in the atmosphere. From the fragments we’ve had access to, it was clearly something of extraterrestrial origin.”
“But it burned up? No organics?”
“None that we know of.”
“So what do you need from me?”
The older woman cleared her throat. “As you may know, we routinely monitor communications infrastructure, here and abroad. Since the date of the incident we’ve been seeing… anomalies that we can’t explain. But we’re not paid to believe in coincidences.”
“You think something survived? And it’s here?”
“We do. We’re working very hard to track it down. When we do, we need to know everything about it. We’d like you to set up a small lab on that basis. Tell us what you need, and you’ll get it. We’ll find you some good people, too.”
He sat back, thoughtful, with a hunger in his eyes.
The younger woman leaned forward. “We need to know how it, or they, survived reentry. That alone could open up a new range of materials for us. And then there’s the military implications.” She left that hanging.
“When we get a sample,” said the older woman, “we’ll need details of its physical characteristics, and responses to different stimuli. Do you understand?”
“You want it put on a slab, opened up, and poked.”
“Well it’s not like you haven’t done that sort of thing before, is it?
So, are you interested?”
“Oh very much so. But I’ll need human material for comparison. Can that be arranged?”
“Suitable subjects can be found.”
She paused. “Yes.”
“And no restrictions on methods?”
He grinned wolfishly. “Oh well then,” he breathed. “Count me in.”
* * *
As they drove away later, the older woman turned to her colleague.
“As long as he keeps thinking we’re from his government and he can do what he likes, we should get what we want.”
The younger one smiled. Now they just needed their specimen. It wouldn’t be long, now.
(published: Nov. 13th 2022)
Desh fretted. The updates from Ari and Reeves arrived on the same day, and taken together, the reports were disturbing.
Both described tracking by individuals unknown. Whoever their adversaries were, they were fast-moving: it wasn’t as if the MutantZ had even been on this planet for long. Worse, these strangers were competent: Ari had said that Lua had barely managed to escape from them.
It was worrying, but perhaps not unexpected. Elements of the local population would resist them because they were ‘other’; and possibly, they were not the first visitors to settle here.
In the days of the great crusades, he had been involved in logistics, supplying the front-line warriors with what they needed, and replacing material losses. Only being as prepared as possible could blunt enemy operations. Only weapons in the right places were any use.
Here in Cape Town, he’d reverted to old habits even though he was away from the others. There was no High Command now, of course, so he’d had to go back to first principles, and the most basic of all was finding ways to trade for everything.
Most of Earth’s population, and certainly the more technologically advanced among them, obtained the basics for life using a crude rationing system typical of a civilisation with limited resources incapable of pacing its development to match its means: money.
So what he needed to do was to get hold of more of it. Quietly, obviously: attracting attention while there were so few of them, and they weren’t properly established on this world, was clearly a bad idea. Being noticed was the last thing he wanted.
Eventually he’d identified the major trading houses as a vulnerability that he could exploit. He’d carefully ‘borrowed’ some money from one of the largest without their knowledge, and invested it in a basket of the cryptocurrencies that so few people really understood.
The others would have worried that he was taking too many risks, and questioned the ethics of what he was doing. Pragmatism overruled such objections, and he’d rather avoid the inevitable debates, so he said nothing and just did what had to be done. They’d thank him later.
Releasing some well-phrased comments into carefully selected parts of the human news and information networks brought results: his basket quadrupled in value. Putting some aside, he reinvested the rest in a different basket, and did the same thing again.
Before long, he’d returned his original stake before it was missed, and was regularly turning assets into real world fiat currency, stored in accounts and through shell companies that he’d used some of his new wealth to set up around the world.
That money then bought equipment and services from companies that thought he was just another investor keen to avoid public scrutiny. So many people were willing to accept ‘privacy’ as an acceptable reason for effective anonymity! Such weaknesses worked to his benefit.
Cybersecurity suites were carefully installed to protect his own identity and location. Physical weaponry was purchased and stashed. Mercenaries who’d be willing to use it, while imperfect allies, were happy to be put on retainer for doing nothing for the time being.
Everything he was hearing suggested that war was coming. Now they would be ready.
(published: Nov. 20th 2022)
Lua had known that leaving Tokyo would be difficult. She could hide within its complex digital infrastructure, but there were fewer routes out, and the major ones would certainly be watched.
She flowed through local networks instead, down through Japan to Miyazaki; hoping that this way she’d outwitted the Hunters, she took the MOC to Okinawa, and then the SeaMeWe-3 cable to Shantou. China was safe enough; the monitoring there was predictable, and so avoidable.
The link to Singapore was easy; a message she’d sent ahead meant that her Bruh was waiting as she arrived.
“Lua, honey! Too long, how’ve you been? How are the little ones?”
“We’re all tired, and need a smart way to Europe. Got anything?”
“For you? Always! You really can’t stay?”
“Not this time. I was followed in Tokyo, and I’m not completely sure I’ve shaken them. I don’t want to risk putting you in danger as well if I haven’t.”
“Hey, I’ll look after you. There’s safe places here, we could lie low, spend some time together.” She’d swear he was leering.
“Don’t tempt me! You know I’d like nothing better. But I need to get to Rex – Ari has things she wants passed on, and which can’t wait.”
“That’s a shame. You know I miss you.”
“Miss you too, Bruh. Miss you too. Give it time, and we’ll work something out.”
“I know. But it’s hard.”
“And for me. But for now, where do we go?”
Behind them, something listened unseen.
“There’s a securities exchange downtown,” he sighed. “They back up ledgers every 5 minutes to London. Secure packets, direct send. You could hitch on that.”
It wasn’t until they were halfway there that Lua started to feel uneasy. The resonances in the electromagnetic fields they were passing through were… wrong, somehow. Out of harmony.
“Do you…” she started.
“Yes,” he said shortly. “Keep moving. Not far now.”
By the time they arrived, there was no doubt: something was stalking them. It was a presence more felt than seen, like an electronic cloud, blocking out everything behind it. But they’d made it to the server that could launch her halfway around the world.
“Now we just wait for the next packet to form; join it before the encryption cycle starts, and you’ll be invisible as it transits. Should get you all the way, no problems.”
Even as he said it, though, the pressure behind them increased – and there was no other way out. Using skills they hadn’t needed for centuries, the pair wove an electronic firewall between themselves and whatever was coming.
“Takes me back,” muttered Bruh.
“Will it hold?”
“With only two of us to maintain it? I don’t know. Wrex is the expert at these.”
But as the packet started building, the assault began. Both felt their minds battered as they tried to hold their intangible defences in place against an implacable enemy. Whatever it was, it was emotionless, and silent, giving them no clue as to why it wanted them.
“Go!” grunted Bruh. “You’ve only got one chance. Get the kids out of here!”
“Just go! I’ll hold them!”
Lua hesitated, but he was right: her children were at risk, and she couldn’t stay. Slowly, she unwound from the shield and slipped into the system. She was only just in time: it was already locking down. While the encryption shells hardened she saw Bruh stagger, then pull himself up. But as the transfer began, he fell once more, and was overwhelmed by the darkness. Then she was gone, hurtling outwards, unable to turn back.
(published: Nov. 27th 2022)
He awoke somewhere else, his last memory that of seeing Lua disappearing as the darkness came down on him. Where was he now?
There were voices, indistinct but coming closer. Who were they? Did they know he was here… or what he was? Did he even know that himself? Everything else was so unclear, as if part of his mind had been wiped clean by whatever had found them at the securities exchange.
“I’ve been through the code five times, and I can’t work out what’s going on.”
“Because it makes NO SENSE. There’s some self-referential code in a language I’ve never seen before, which seems to do zip. And nothing explaining the countermeasures our bots ran into.”
“Got to be something.”
“I’m telling you, there isn’t. It’s like everything deleted without being told to.”
They didn’t know what he was! Or that he was around the code, not just in it. So when he was out cold, they’d only found his interlinks.
But then they’d taken those pieces, and part of himself had been lost with them. Could he rebuild? Would he remember? He had no idea. Where was he, anyway? Not at the exchange anymore. He extended his consciousness outwards.
Two techs, in jeans and t-shirts, but older than they dressed. A room, white walls, computers. The box he was in, and another system plugged into it, but air-gapped from the rest; yes, they really thought they were chasing code. They had no idea.
“So what do we do now? The boss won’t be happy if we can’t tell him anything.”
“Well it’s not like we can just make something up, is it? Copy what we can, and see if he can make sense of it, is all we can do. Not our problem then.”
“True. Good point. Coffee?”
They wandered away, leaving him alone. This might be his only chance. With an effort, he shifted his essence; if they’d been there they might have seen a shimmer cross the air to the equipment hooked up around the walls. But he could hear them settling in the room next door.
He knew he should do more; kill them, perhaps, remove the risk. But he was crippled, and unsure of what he could still do. Doing anything other than leaving would be too much of a risk. They mustn’t learn what he was if they didn’t already know. So much depended on it.
But he wasn’t who he had been. He imagined the techs as fishers of technology, adrift on a sea they didn’t understand. They’d seen part of him, a fin flashing in the water, and not known what they’d nearly caught. He needed a new name for the new him that was now. Finn would do.
He slipped into one of the newer computers, and as he’d hoped, found it wired to the worldnet. He had to reach the others, warn them. And make sure that Lua and the kids had made it. She’d been going to London, so that had to be his destination too, by other, slower routes. He didn’t have the ability to defend himself now. All he could do was hide, and run. So he ran.
13. Big Easy
(published: Dec. 4th 2022)
He’d just been following random people in the street again, hitching on their devices to see what their lives were like. He’d had no idea it would be life changing.
It was all about the tactical environment. You couldn’t operate somewhere effectively without reconnaissance in depth. If you didn’t understand the lie of the land, and the likely responses of its current residents, you were going to make too many mistakes.
And he didn’t like mistakes; they caused delays, or worse, casualties. Sure, right now everything was peaceful, but that didn’t mean that a conflict couldn’t start with barely a moment’s notice. Especially since the natives here seemed so chaotic in their behaviour patterns.
Back in the days of the Great Crusades, they’d had specialists for this. Now, Girder knew that if he wanted information, he’d have to gather it for himself. So he’d started studying the locals; it wasn’t as if he had any other specific directives to follow anyway.
It had been pure dumb luck that he’d picked the kid out of the crowd that day. One of thousands, he’d seemed to have a destination in mind, and to be reasonably happy about it. Perhaps that was why he’d stood out from the herd, and why the morning’s choice had fallen on him.
Whistling, the boy had swung himself onto a bus, and crossed town all unaware of his hitchhiker. And then something amazing had happened: he’d gone to work in a restaurant kitchen. This was a totally new environment, and Girder was mesmerised.
At home their food had been simple, gathered from the plants that grew freely across their idyllic world. But here, food was more like a science, with a huge variety of methods used to process innumerable ingredients in countless combinations. It was incredible!
Soul food, seafood, Cajun and Creole, the Crescent City used a vast range of styles and techniques. And yet these food scientists, experts in method and methodology, saw themselves as artists and not Makers! This was an alien way of thinking. It needed study.
And so he went back, day after day. He’d soon realised that his focus was partly being directed by his inability to appreciate everything that was happening around him; he could observe, but not feel, or smell, or, crucially, taste everything involved in creating cuisine.
This was a lack that needed to be addressed. Of course, the unexpected opposition when they had first tried landing on this world had set them all back. But by now, Rex and the others should have a better idea of what was possible here.
They needed to improve themselves, to evolve – and sooner rather than later. It was not beyond them, and he was sure they would. Change was coming, and he would be patient a little longer; it was just a matter of time now.
14. Down Under
(published: Dec. 11th 2022)
Wrex had been uncertain when he’d been sent to Sydney; he’d be a long way from the rest if anything went wrong. Who’d have his back?
In the days of the Great Crusades, he’d specialised in heavy weapons emplacements. He knew the way to keep his team safe was to hit the enemy hard, often, and from far away – while keeping his own positions secure against recon, spies and infiltrators. Couldn’t do that alone.
This would be very different, but like a good soldier he’d done as he was told – and truth to tell, the city had a lot going for it. Communications with the others were difficult, but the people were open and friendly, easy to study and to learn from.
Today he idled in one of the eateries on The Strand, where Dee Why Beach’s surfers came for their feeds after a morning hitting the point break waves. The trippers and tourists could praise Bondi all they liked, but here in the north there was good water for those in the know.
There were few customers yet. As he waited for them, Wrex found himself listening to the television on the wall in the corner; it was showing a wildlife documentary before the noon news came on. This one seemed to be about animals coping with the harsh Australian climate.
“Here we see how the Thorny Devil has adapted to its environment. Grooves on its armour suck up dew by capillary action, taking it to the creature’s mouth, so it doesn’t spend time or energy looking for moisture. It drinks just by walking through dew-filled grass and shrubs!”
Yes, he thought. Adaptation is key. Something we need to remember if we’re going to make a new home on this world – which we must, since we’ve no way of getting off it. Adapt or perish are our only choices now. Viewed objectively, it could easily go either way.
“The Thorny Devil only eats ants; it has a tongue like an anteater, and specialised teeth for crushing exoskeletons. It also has a large stomach to gain the most nutrition it can from this poor diet. These features, its camouflage and its natural caution make it a hardy survivor.”
Of course a species had to respect its surroundings if it wanted to be successful! And then as the TV burbled on, he realised: because of their defeat and exile, they’d all been spending most of their time concerned with learning about this planet’s dominant species.
Obviously they had to keep an eye on the indigenes, an ongoing threat assessment was essential. But that wasn’t enough! The People’s own world had been one of balance and plenty. Was that true of this place, this Earth? Perhaps they were concentrating on the wrong things.
He’d enjoyed idling here, an urban setting on the coast. It was a good life. But now duty called, and clearly he needed to head inland, into the Outback, to see for himself what was happening there. How were the ecosystems being managed?
No time like the present. He sent messages to the others, and on a hunch decided to start at Narrabeen Lagoon to the north. After that, who knew? It was time to go back to basics: time spent on reconnaissance was never wasted. He set out on a new journey of discovery.
15. Shadow Play
(published: Dec. 18th 2022)
“Ah, Assistant Director, I wonder if I might have a word?”
Anthea looked up to see a young man standing nervously in her doorway. Either her PA was at lunch, which was unlikely at this hour, or she’d been convinced that what he wanted was actually important. Interesting. She put down her pen and motioned him in.
“Something wrong, Giles?”
“I’m not quite sure ma’am. I could use your advice.”
“Well, you’ve managed to find a rare hole in my schedule, so why not tell me what’s on your mind?”
“It’s about Operation Fallen Angel.”
“I was chatting to Miss Page at lunch on Friday,” he said, blushing slightly, “and she mentioned a group the domestic extremist people have come across – a bunch of alien conspiracy theorists on some kind of search for ET. She thought it was hilarious.
Obviously, she’s not read in on the op, so it went over her head, but it looks like they started just after the planetary defence incident. My section head was quite dismissive and called it a coincidence, but I’m not so sure. Do you think it’s worth pursuing?”
“Hmm. Maybe. I’ll have a quiet word with your friend’s supervisor after the regular inter-departmental meeting tomorrow, and see if it’s worth following up on.”
“Thank you ma’am.”
Giles had been right, and what Anthea learned at weekly exchange had turned her mild interest into something more. After decades in the Service she didn’t believe in coincidences, and both the timing and this group’s apparent organisation were worrying.
Who was funding them? And why? In between the administration that bedevilled her working hours, she started pulling in information from other departments, and putting it together. Somewhere, perhaps, was an overlooked key.
It came, like many breaks, from somewhere unlikely. The section tasked with keeping an eye on the more esoteric risks to national security hadn’t been high on her list, but they’d come through anyway. Disgraced scientist John Hayes had turned up on their radar again.
Hayes’ work on extraterrestrial biology, and his obvious weaknesses, had first brought him to their attention. A quiet, low intensity watch was being kept on him; that, it seemed, had been prescient, and the investment was now paying dividends.
Suddenly, after an unexplained visit from two well-dressed women, he was flush with cash and setting up some kind of laboratory on a trading estate near Oxford. Concerning enough by itself, but one of those women was a known asset for a major Asian power with interests in space.
Had someone else got wind of the incident? Had there been a leak from somewhere in the Five Eyes? Or had the covert planetary defence network actually been penetrated? She needed more data. But whatever their source, these people were competition, and that was a problem.
If aliens really had arrived, they could be a major threat to the whole world. Even if they weren’t, then First Contact would be a major intelligence coup: whoever got to them first might get access to unimaginable technologies – assuming they didn’t accidentally start a war.
There was no alternative: she’d have to take this to the Director. They’d need more money and more resources. The hunt for Earth’s visitors had just become a lot more urgent.
(published: Dec. 25th 2022)
Finn didn’t seem to have been followed. His former captors wouldn’t miss what they couldn’t recognise, after all.
He was on Orchard Road now, the annual light-up spanning the street with sprays of red, blue and green. He tried reaching out into the bustling evening crowds below, but couldn’t make out individuals; all his weakened senses were reporting was a confusing mass.
This was a holiday season, ‘Christmas’ they called it, and electricity and electronics seemed to play a central part in this civilisation’s celebrations; not as subject (and during the Great Crusades he’d seen worlds where they were both worshipped as divine), but as medium.
The blinking lights, blaring music, flashing pulses and illuminated figures all cast shadows both physical and electromagnetic. And in those shadows, he could hide, stop, recover, and try to determine just what was missing after his capture.
He knew his code interlinks were gone. Without them, his options for onward travel were severely limited: he couldn’t piggyback on data through the Singapore Internet Exchange to get to London and Lua, for instance. His journey would inevitably be slower, and more dangerous.
But how much of his capability has been lost? Clearly some of it. But how could he tell the extent of the damage, if there was nothing there to assess? How could he know if he’d forgotten things: they’d be forgotten! He was living a nightmare, unsure even of what he had become.
One solid certainty remained, something burned too deeply into his being to be removed: the mission. He knew, with absolute clarity, that he was here to help his comrades settle onto this strange, mid-level planet; and that they had no choice, because they couldn’t leave it.
They had all lost their physical bodies, but this loss of awareness, of mind, of the ability to fully comprehend his surroundings, was a terrible thing. For the first time, he knew fear: both the shallow fear of failing his team, and the deep, cold fear of utterly ceasing to be.
For a while he stayed there, thinking, overthinking, until he finally came to the conclusion that there was little he could do by himself. He needed help; Rex would would know what best to do. Which meant it was time to leave, and start moving again. He plotted out a route.
Moving carefully along the wires, he came to the Orchard MRT station, and slipped inside. He followed the utilities lines down past the domed concourse to the platforms, and then it was a case of hitch-hiking onto a train via the mobile phones of oblivious commuters.
He exited with the surge of passengers at City Hall, and took the next train to Changi Airport. Electronic routes might be beyond him, but traditional transport was not. And on the long flight to London, he could rest, reviving the whole way from proximity to someone’s devices.
It wasn’t a perfect solution by any means; but it would work, and once airborne he’d be cut off from any potential pursuit. For the first time since seeing Lua disappearing, he had a plan, and began to feel optimistic again.
(published: Jan. 1st 2023)
When he’d first set up in my lab, the whatever-he-was that called himself Rex had promised that he’d keep his friends away. Clearly, he’d lied.
I came in just after Christmas to find not one, not two, but three sprites sitting on my primary monitor, brazen as you please.
“Ah, Emily,” said Rex blithely, “Good timing. Perhaps you can help us solve a little problem we’re having.”
“The only problem I see is that there are more of you than we agreed,” I retorted. Same as every year, over the holidays I’d had to see the bits of the family I was still talking to, and the enforced sociability always made me grumpy. Hey, I’m sure I’m not the only one, alright?
“Well,” he (it?) replied, ignoring my attitude, “solving our issue will solve that too. Bruh, I beg his pardon, Finn here will be on his way just as soon as Lua and I have worked out how to fix him. He’s had a rough time out in the Far East.”
“What did he do, cross a Triad?”
“Possibly. It’s not entirely clear. And that’s the root of our concern.”
“How do you mean?”
“We think part of his memory is missing. He doesn’t clearly remember events that Lua was present for, and his ability to move through human communication networks has been compromised.”
I admit, this kind of intrigued me. “What, he can’t just slide down the wires any more?”
“Not through your computer systems. Only along physical transmission lines. His interlinks have been ripped out, taking other things with them.”
“And you can’t just recreate him again?”
“Then he wouldn’t be him. He’d be a blank slate, and lose ALL his experiences of this world.”
“Hmmm. What about a transplant?”
“What do you mean?”
“You have his base parameters, right? It’s how you reconstituted him in the first place?”
“Yes, of course. What are you getting at?”
“Well, create another copy. Compare their structures, then just remove the necessary bits of the copy and put them into… Finn, was it?” I swear he was quiet for a good 20 seconds. His voice had changed when he spoke again.
“Emily. You can’t possibly be serious.”
“Of course I am.”
“But that would mean deliberately creating something just to dismember it. One of us.” He sounded shocked. I’d never heard him that close to being emotional before. “That’s brutal.”
“We grow organs from cells for physical donation here,” I shrugged. “It’s the same principle.”
“And,” I added, “it might be the only way to fix your friends in future. You could create clones for each your team, just in case of emergencies.”
The others were silent, either stunned or just waiting for their leader to respond. Was he really as horrified as he appeared?
“Look,” I said softly, “Before he left, Oscar told me some of your history, that you were created for war. So you must know that sometimes in war, you have to do questionable things, things that other people won’t or can’t do. And accept losses other people wouldn’t, too.
But this is a way to keep your culture alive, and isn’t that the most important thing? The survival of your people? There are so few of you left! Earth is not a safe environment; surely you have to do whatever it takes, or accept that extinction is going to catch up with you?”
“You think like our Makers,” he said eventually, “which we do not. But logically, you are right. We should make further iterations of ourselves: some like Lua’s children to learn and grow independently, teaching us, while others will serve the greater good. Let us begin.”
At the time, I didn’t really realise what I’d started. I’m no slouch, but it wouldn’t take long to become clear just how far ahead me Rex was already thinking…
(published: Jan. 8th 2023)
I came in on a Tuesday morning to find my monitor absolutely covered in sprites. There were dozens of them! I couldn’t even see where the cursor was. Great, how was I supposed to get any work done like this?
I took a deep breath, counted to twenty, and said, quite calmly, “Rex, we need to talk. Now would be a good time.”
“Good morning Emily!” As usual, I could swear I heard his voice, even though I knew it was only in my head.
“What, exactly, have you been up to this time, Rex?”
“Why, taking your advice of course. I’ve been creating new iterations of Finn for his treatment.”
“You needed this many? Seriously?”
“I thought it better to create a reserve; I didn’t know if the process would work, or how many copies I’d need.”
“And you know now?”
“Well, not really.” Have you ever heard a voice that just sounds shifty? This was one of those voices. I was pretty sure he was hiding something.
“Alright,” I sighed. “Out with it. What’s gone wrong?”
“Nothing is wrong, exactly,” he replied. “But these copies have surprised me.”
“Their behaviour is unexpected,” he said. “I made them just the way that I made my companions, reconstituting them from the groupmind within me. As a result, they have none of the memories of their older peers, and they are all identical at inception.”
“And yet,” he continued, “although they are initially the same, they all seek to differentiate themselves from their cohort, so that each has an independent identity despite their common origins. I don’t know if I can treat them as commodities when they each have personalities.”
“Personalities?” I asked. “Really?”
“Yes. You can see it expressed even in their sprites: they are borrowing from your material culture to make themselves unique.” He paused. “And if they are individuals, how can I justify destroying them, even to repair Finn’s mind?”
“Wait a minute. You’re saying you want to keep all these copies around? Absolutely not! I’ve got stuff to do! I can’t have these… these… things infesting my lab! I can’t even see my screen, for crying out loud! No way! I’m happy to help you out, but this is going too far!”
“Emily, I’ll be frank. Even my older companions are having trouble finding safe havens. Sending out the new constructs without preparation could be a death sentence. Or worse. They have feelings; they exist. Could you live with knowing that intelligences died because of you?”
And just like that, he had me. Of course I couldn’t be responsible for killing something that thinks. But there was still no way I could keep them all here. Everyone has limits, and just by himself Rex was already testing mine. Perhaps there was another way.
And then I realised: I did happen to know a group of like-minded folk who could probably be trusted with new ‘assistants’ like these. In fact, they’d likely see this as a new project, and be absolutely thrilled by the whole idea. As long as they could keep it quiet, anyway.
Of course, some of them were a bit strange by most people’s standards, but so is everyone to an alien, right? I doubted these beasties would even notice their new hosts’ little peculiarities.
“Rex,” I said. “I think it’s time I introduced you to some of my colleagues at SPUR.”