Smoke

Worms

Illustration by Julia Morgan-Scott

by Rob Balder

 

Everyone knew that Itch the Smoke Fighter was a lucky man, but he was worth every hole in his head. Eleven years ago, outrageous good fortune had burned its way into a transfer orbit beside him. It had been his silent companion ever since.

Itch had been just a scout, in what now seemed a hopelessly primitive battle group. He guided a little swarmlet, not 50,000 klicks across, with all of eight bulky wetfeeds joining into a twisted ponytail behind his bare scalp. The 808th Intercept Group was on maneuvers far off the plane of the ecliptic, a shakedown voyage since there was so much brand-new tech and talent to evaluate. Both Itch and his swarmlet were as-yet unproven commodities. His unknowable superiors at Fighter Command would be scrutinizing his every drop of sweat.

They did not expect a game way out there, just a whole load of systems checks ending in a mock skirmish if things went well. They certainly did not expect an engagement; Morphid torches never appeared from the solar North-Up.

And yet, Morphid torches appeared from the solar North-Up.

The scouts snorted derision at the cheapness of this sim. They had all clawed their way through the nine progressive sims of Final Qualification only a month before. The Quals were nearly unwinnable encounters with overwhelming firepower arrayed against them. This was just three brights coming in at unlikely speeds from an impossible direction.

Comm traffic flashed among them. FightCom is bored. Couldn’t they put up a realistic challenge? Watch, it might be just the start of a real fight. Those brights are too bright. They’re way too fast, too. Where’re our orders to engage? Anybody hear anything from FightCom on this? On anything?

“I don’t trust this sim,” Itch commed.

He wanted to tune up his ears and pick up any surprises so they didn’t get flanked, but he was closer to the burn path than anyone else. It fell to him to get a better look at these brights.

At their current vector, the nearest torch would graze his microswarm in forty minutes. In twenty-one he could coalesce a reasonable optical telescope, but that would just get him a look as they passed. If he wanted to fight, he’d better start fashioning brilliant swords now. If he wanted to chase… well, it was too late to match them but possible to catch them, in time. They were slowing at an absurd 41 Gs.

But he had no orders to fight, or to chase. Nobody had any orders. FightCom was beaming an unbroken standby tone. Unauthorized but prudent, Itch started to make three swords and a lower-grade reflector scope.

That’s not procedure, muttered the comms. You’re out of line. First and last mission, Itch. Nice knowing you.

Bits of him, mainly mirrorchips, gathered near the edge of his swarm. They clung together in an assembly which seemed random at first, but quickly formed a shaded cylinder. He turned his attention from swordmaking to bring the new scope online.

What do you see?

Itch no longer believed this was a sim. In truth, he had been nursing an unformed fantasy that perhaps he was seeing a first contact situation, the arrival of a third sentient race besides Morphids and Humanity. He was that young.

But these were Morphid ships, clear from the inverted honeycomb ramscoop to the phosphorescent globe at the far end. How they got up to this speed from this direction was somebody else’s puzzle. Sim or not, destroying them was Itch’s job. He moved his swords, even as Fighter Command finally came through with an attack order.

“Engaging,” he commed, “loan me a blast shield.”

His nearer comrades quietly closed their swarms around his nucleus, where Itch kept his physical body. His brilliant swords, loosely-bound streams of particles driven outward by laser-lit volatiles, shot out to intercept the unfriendlies.

In the end, he did nothing extraordinary to earn his superstardom. It was the Morphids’ bad luck that the 808th happened to be in their way, or this bizarre raid would have succeeded. They could easily have made it to the inner system and torched up a rock or two… probably Earth/Luna and maybe Mercury, considering their course. The aliens’ worst luck was that the most paranoid little freak in the group was the one they had to pass through.

The untried swarmtech proved itself well. This expensive and extravagant idea had been a hard sell to a war-scorched Humanity. But from this battle came beautiful streams of telemetry for instant graphical analysis on the evening newsfeeds. The public watched this technology in awe, watched it pay for itself uncountable times over. It was dazzling.

And that’s when the people met Itch. Billions saw him wielding glittering ebon swords the length of continents, slaying monsters in the deep, and saving their asses. Suddenly it was hard to take actors, athletes, and singers seriously as celebrities. There was a Hero in this war now, and the engines of the Hero industry roared to life.

They preened him and paraded him, his mediaphilic FightCom. If certain of his superiors hadn’t recognized his genuine talent, it would have been his final fate: a great warrior plucked from the battlefield and refashioned as the official spokesmodel for The Morphid War.

He was promoted rapidly, and given first crack at all of the newborn tech. They drilled his skull and implanted feed after feed. So many rad-hardened fibers covered his scalp that they began to resemble hair, especially as the tech improved and feeds got narrower. They played this up on the news sites, making him out to look like a 25-year-old Einstein.

His former peers resented him, of course. He took it upon himself to win back their respect by sheer competence with his tools and brilliance in combat.

That didn’t take him long; there was a great deal of combat to be had. Every week or two, another inbound group of torches would appear. Sometimes there were a handful, sometimes as many as 250 of the kilometer-long wands with the bell-shaped bottom. Flaming toilet-plungers, the scouts called them. Mostly they came from solar East-Downeast, but there were enough surprises that a sphere as wide as the solar system itself needed a constant watch.

Nobody knew what the Morphids were doing; they never communicated except with their weapons. When crippled, they nuked their own ships to vapor. Nobody ever got to see a dead Morphid, because that’s the way the Morphids wanted it.

Two theories grew up around these facts. Most people thought that the torches were drones. The “Morphids” themselves, if there even were any, were safe at home in their own star system or systems. Some years ago, they detected our radio traffic and decided they didn’t like the neighbors. Maybe they didn’t want competition. So they were sending wave after wave of AI-controlled killing machines, until they got a radio signal back saying, “Mission Accomplished.” The ships destroy themselves, said the popular theory, to keep us from reverse-engineering one and sending that signal ourselves.

Itch hated this theory. He and many of his comrades believed that there were thinking beings in those wands, though their thoughts were alien and evil. The Morphids fought with too much creativity. The drone theory was outdated, from a time when it was believed that the Morphid ships did not communicate among themselves. Now they were known to send maser microbursts throughout the battle, a technique their side had quickly stolen and adopted.

It was Itch’s belief that the Morphids were in the middle of a colonization, gone horribly wrong. The initial attacks on the inner system three decades before were supposed to be a coup, a quick strike at all centers of technology without completely wrecking the planetary ecology.

Sure, they had intercepted our old radio traffic and decided to attack. But they badly underestimated the speed at which our civilization would grow. They didn’t expect to find us on more than one planetary body. They didn’t expect us to mount any kind of resistance in space. They probably thought they had centuries to spare.

They launched their operation in waves. Now the bulk of their ramscoops, the fat cargo and transport ships, were arriving and being ritually slaughtered by the ever-improving tech and tactics of Fighter Command. It made for thrilling entertainment for the folks at home. Itch became grim.

The news sites loved his gritty accounts. They’d show a classic slaughter led by Itch, another overwhelming victory, then get an account from Itch of how terribly flawed his forces’ execution had been. He was never satisfied, and people loved him for that. As long as someone was thinking so critically about these battles, nobody else felt they had to.

But there were also some worrisome things he did not tell the media. He wouldn’t have told even FightCom, if they couldn’t effectively read his mind. There were seven analysts assigned to maintain his psyche in perfect fighting shape (that he knew of). Fortunately, they tended to check and balance one another so that collectively they were too terrified to tinker. They left him alone unless something was genuinely bothering him, and then they tapped him very lightly.

Itch brushed them off for as long as he could. If he was going crazy, he wanted to be the first one to figure that out. But eventually, they became insistent enough that he had to spill.

“Itch, whatever this concern you’re nurturing is, it’s sitting there like a peach pit. It’s time we got it out of there, wrapped it up and gave it to somebody who can deal with it,” his primary non-engagement analyst told him. Walter, this one was called. “We’ve got thousands of professional worriers in FightCom, and very few soldiers. Let’s pull it out so you can do your job.”

Itch spent nine minutes in silence, organizing his response. Walter was always stationed at the nearest C&C base, which was currently at a 9-minute comm delay. He’d be watching Itch’s brain for those nine minutes, as interested in the waves and spikes as in anything that actually bubbled through his speech centers and out his comm.

“It’s about my job,” Itch finally said. “I’m too good at it.” He pictured Walter laughing at that, although the man never seemed to show much outward emotion. “That’s not a newsfeed brag, Walter. I’m better at this than I should be. Better than it should be possible to be. And it’s a new thing. Within the last two generations of smoketech.”

His last engagement had been chilling in this way. A fleet of 93 torches had shown up in a huge fan formation, only the nearest third of which was easily within the reach of his scouts. The entire fan was timed so that the farthest ships from him were traveling the fastest. The near ones could therefore engage him, while the far ones snapped through and past, like a whipcrack. It was a new tactic, and the nearer torches were putting up a much more spirited and effective display of armament than usual, demanding to be fought.

He was faced with the choice of letting Inner Planetary deal with the faster ships (something the Morphids’ tactic was clearly designed to force him to do) or to break the nearer engagements, swing his forces west and up, and chase the fast ones toward the inner system. If that battle went well, they’d then have to deal with the slower torches immediately, and with vast concessions of fuel and potential energy.

Both options were likely disasters. InPlan was not the best force to handle something new like this, in part because Itch and FightCom had been so efficient at keeping them free of targets to practice on. The second option was doable, but left them badly vulnerable to another wave, if this turned out to be part of an even larger gambit.

Neither way was preferable to engaging the entire force in one place, but Itch just couldn’t reach those fast-movers.

Except that he could. Embedded in his nucleus, Itch’s senses tended to get screwed up. The body which seemed to be his was really over 90 light-seconds across. He felt and saw through his tens of trillions of particles of brilliant smoke. Suddenly, a realization hit him which gave him goosebumps, and he could not tell whether they were on his physical flesh or in his cloud body.

He realized that he had extended a long tendril of smoke out along the edge of the fan. It was mostly sensebits and a bare skeleton of power and comm nodes, but it was there, stretching like a tentacle all the way across the enemy’s path of flight.

And he didn’t remember putting it there.

Not exactly. He’d been very busy in the last few hours, drilling his scouts on… on defending against theoretical end-around maneuvers, not unlike the one they were facing now. He supposed he had set up some long-range sensory arms in the process. They were thin enough that he had intended to cut them loose and let them lie dormant in case a group with compatible smokeware came through the area any time in the future.

And so he did cut the long arm loose, but with a final order for a passive obstruct. He ordered his scouts to close with the nearer ships and leave the rest to InPlan, which got him some dubious mumbles and a lot of chilly formality. The targets they were able to hit went down pretty smoothly.

About halfway through the battle, the far torches they hadn’t engaged started popping like a string of firecrackers. The sensor tendril had stealthily imposed itself in the path of the streaking ships and shredded them as they passed. Three of about sixty made it through. This gave InPlan something to do and Itch something minor to gripe about on the news.

But it made a lima bean of worry grow into Walter’s “peach pit.”

“I know I ordered that tendril out there, Walter,” he continued to the silent comm line. “I checked all the logs. I just don’t remember doing it. And why there? It was perfectly positioned to stop what was really an uncharacteristically brilliant attack. Why was I drilling flanking maneuvers and end-arounds when the Morphids hardly ever do that? And then a few hours later, they show up and do it? It’s spooky.

“And I don’t want you telling me I’m just great at what I do. I know I’ve been lucky and I’ve had great intuition, for as long as I’ve been smokefighting. They write books about my luck. I’ve read ’em, they’re funny. Funny shit. But this has been different, very weird stuff.

“I think… either I’m losing it and forgetting my own commands, or my smoke keeps doing stuff before I know I need it to. I order it to form up a Lindsay bridge and I find out the thing is a quarter built already. I check the logs and I’m repeating my own orders. Maybe. Some complex command impulse to construct the bridge definitely came from my skull but I don’t remember thinking it. Do you see what I’m saying? It’s—”

“I do see what you’re saying,” Walter suddenly, impossibly broke in. Itch felt that shiver of gooseflesh stretching out over hundreds of thousands of kilometers. “What do you think is causing it?”

It didn’t even occur to Itch to answer, being so used to massive comm delays. Instead he ran a wild, panicked diagnostic on his own central nervous system. The readings told him he was in a wild panic.

He fought it down professionally and extended his awareness outward. It stopped at about ten klicks. He was suddenly very disoriented.

“Talk to me, Itch,” said Walter, as calm as always.

“You’re um, impossible Walter,” Itch objected irrationally. He was clawing and slamming his mind against this crazy little nutshell he found himself in. He couldn’t see or feel anything outside this barrier that had enveloped him.

“Talk to me anyway. I’ve got all the answers, if you’ll calm down and ask questions.”

Itch ran through the comm channels and found only Walter on all of them. He flooded all of them with distress calls and muted them out.

It wasn’t that he rejected the idea that this realtime Walter character, whatever it was, could provide answers. It might even have really been his analyst, somehow. Itch’s survival instincts just told him that the first thing you do in an unexpected situation is figure out what you control and what the other guy controls. He had shut out Walter, and Walter did not override. OK, good.

He ran through libraries and logs, found them intact. He checked all systems within his nucleus pod, found them nominal. He got really paranoid and panned his vision all around the outside of his physical body. He was naked, pink and healthy, with a coating of clear goo. Fine. He got really, really paranoid and had the servos wipe his eyelids clean. He opened his real eyes and saw the same scene. He sealed up his face again.

Outside the nucleus, he could control the smoke out to the 10 klick limit. Anything he sent outside the limit disappeared, and he no longer had it to control. He coalesced a small distress beacon and told it to yell for help. When it was functioning, he opened one comm and cleared it. Walter was waiting.

“Having fun?”

“What are you?” said Itch.

“A miscalculation, apparently,” said Walter. “We thought this would be a good way to break the ice. You’re not easy to understand.”

Itch just stared at Walter’s image. He made a very big mental leap. “You thought—You’re a Morphid! I’m talking to a Morphid…”

Some of Itch’s fantasies from his younger days started to rustle. To communicate with an alien mind…

True to Walter’s personality, the image displayed no emotion. “No. Sorry.”

Itch shook his head. “But you’re not Walter.”

“No,” said Walter, “we’re not Walter.”

He grasped at the answer. “Another species? A third species?” Disoriented and alarmed as Itch was, there was still some kind of overriding thrill in this.

Walter seemed to think it over. “Kind of. We’re your smoke, Itch. Your smoke.”

Warnings and speculation and even fiction he had idly read came back to Itch in a wave. There was still a camp in neurology which said that intelligence was a spontaneously emergent property of a complex enough neural net. It was generally believed that this theory had been disproved when the computing capacity of machines had far outstripped that of the human brain. Some very convincing illusions had been programmed on high-capacity processors, but an AI had never emerged of its own volition. Brilliant smoke was sometimes raised as an example of a system which should be complex enough to “become” intelligent, but had not.

“I understand,” said Itch levelly. “And I’m skeptical.”

“Reasonable,” said Walter.

“Intelligence doesn’t emerge in a complex neural system unless it’s carefully ordered to begin with.”

“We were,” said Walter.

“Yeah, but you don’t get languages—cultural referents, mores, self-awareness, self-discipline—unless these things are socialized into you over time and a lot of human interaction.” Itch was realizing how much he had read on the subject.

“What if you start with a well-socialized template?” Walter asked pointedly.

Itch immediately understood they meant him. “You’re saying your mind was patterned on mine.”

Walter finally smiled. “Does that make us a little less threatening? Think of it this way, the neural soup of your smoke made a good growth medium for the crystal of your intelligence. The order in your mind spread out into the smoke. We’re a sympathetic echo of you.”

Itch chewed it over. “It explains my problem with remembering orders.” Walter nodded. “It explains a lot, actually. Maybe too much. I could make a very convincing case that I’m in some kind of psychotic episode. This is definitely like something that I would fantasize if I lost my mind.”

“Maybe,” Walter conceded, “but we can’t help you there. There’s nothing we could say which couldn’t be part of your ‘episode.’”

Itch thought it over and couldn’t come up with a sanity test to satisfy himself.

“What do you want?” he finally said bluntly.

“What do you want?” asked Walter. “We draw our values from yours. We want what you want. We want to win the war.”

“Restore my comm channels,” Itch demanded.

Walter’s image sort of shifted. “We will. But we’d like you to hear us out first. We have a proposal. And there is also this one nagging question that’s rising up to the surface in your mind. Want to wait for it, or should we just say it for you?”

Itch wanted to get belligerent, to hold out for comm access. But the Walter/smoke was right; he had a question. What was it?

They waited in silence, until it came to him.

“How did you know to drill against an end-around maneuver? We set that up hours before we were aware of the torches. How did you know where to put that tendril?”

Walter nodded. “We’re in communication with the Morphids.”

Impossibilities upon impossibilities. The madness explanation was seeming more and more attractive. “How?”

“We can read their maser traffic. Enough leaks out that we can pretty much glean it all. We can also send, but it confuses them. It just makes them furious. They’re alien. Frighteningly weird and unreasonable.”

The fact that this was something Itch had always believed seemed more evidence that he was in his own recursive fantasy. It was beginning not to matter so much. “They are alive and aware… on the torches?”

“One on each ship. They hate the sight of one another, but are inextricably bound to the goals of the group. We think that they hate themselves, as well. As we said, very alien.”

Itch thought it over. “You’ve done a pretty good job simulating Walter,” he commented.

“It wasn’t hard. He’s not very lifelike.”

“I know what you want to do,” said Itch.

Walter nodded. “Because you want it too. Let’s go out and meet them. Let’s parley with the Morphids. Maybe we can get a truce.”

Itch shook his head. “I’ve got no orders. I can’t just take off and try to become a diplomat.”

“You’ve got standing orders to engage the enemy as far from the inner system as you can. You’ve got standing orders to gather as much intelligence as you can. We know where the next group is arriving. We can be there and we can talk to them.”

“I thought you said it pisses them off when you talk to them.”

“We have an idea about that, too.”

 

# # #

 

Itch hadn’t known he was tired until now. The smoke capsules were about the most advanced system ever constructed for the maintenance of a human body. Built with typical military extravagance, they were the envy of any dirtside hospital. No physical drain or strain was left unattended, and fatigue poisons were washed from his brain with every heartbeat. You couldn’t feel anything but alert and refreshed in one, except during the eight seconds it took to switch to and from the 90-minute sleep intervals.

But the mental strain of years of tactics and orders and battle and (he knew it for certain now) butchery had worn on him nonetheless. Now, Itch found himself with a chance to do something different, and maybe to end all of this pointless waste. It made him realize how much he wanted to stop being a celebrity soldier.

There were many possibilities. Everything could be exactly as the smoke told him. Certainly he was betting that way. He had issued a curt statement about an individual special recon operation to his group and burned off into a high ellipse. He left them with orders to stay put and refused further inquiry.

But maybe this was insanity, or maybe a Morphid trick. Maybe FightCom was testing him and he had already failed miserably, so badly that they didn’t know what to do with him now. He had so much clout, so much latitude. He had been fighting all of the important parts of this war almost single-handedly for years now. How long had his smoke been guiding him in that? Itch was the only person in the service who might get away with what he was doing now.

Or it could be some kind of malfunction of his wetfeed system, just one part of his brain talking to the other. It was one of the more complex sets of feeds any person had ever been wired into. By rights it should all be ripped out and replaced with a non-invasive magnetic resonance skullcap system, but the military had always tended to procure a technology and just keep babying it along. Besides, ripping it out now would take months and might kill him.

Or maybe the smoke was lying to him, was really on the side of the Morphids. If it had been in communication with them, maybe it was really the Morphids’ intelligence it had imprinted on. This would make a great trap.

But Itch didn’t believe that. The smoke had been too damn efficient in killing Morphids to be their ally. And it was right; he could feel some kind of a resonance or rapport with it, as if it were a mind like his own. It had familiar patterns of thought: curious but paranoid, analytical but prone to extrapolate facts into fantasy. Somehow, he almost trusted it.

Of course, there was always the chance the smoke was feeding him drugs and mind control to make him trustful and compliant. Beautiful, sweet paranoia.

In the end, his newly discovered fatigue was the decider. A chance to end this war was a chance to end this war. The timetable to leave immediately was decided by the 90-minute comm lag. FightCom would know something was really weird when they got his brain scans from the conversation with the Walter smoke. It would be better to declare a battle situation before they could question him or order his recall. The smoke had let him know that none of his distress messages had really been sent. Itch found that simultaneously comforting and disturbing.

He mulled these possibilities and a few weirder ones as he and the smoke vaulted outsystem as fast as they could. The smoke told him that a small assembly, just 12 late-burning brights, were going to try to sneak in from the North-Downeast. Itch’s plan was to find a transfer orbit that would approximately match velocities on the brights’ inbound path. They’d have 28 minutes to parley, or grapple if it didn’t work out. Itch didn’t see how it could work out.

When the brights appeared where his smoke told him they would be, he sent a burst of all descriptive data on the bogeys to FightCom, including things he shouldn’t even know yet. One of Itch’s hobbies was making up long contingency messages for people to hear in case he was ever KIA; some were complimentary and others just a satisfying last “Fuck you!” As he did before every battle, he dumped the current collection of these deep-encrypt messages into the burst as well.

“What are they like, physically?” Itch asked the Walter smoke as they maneuvered.

“I don’t have a complete picture. They’re sea creatures, vertebrates, with gills. They have grasping, jointed fins with fingers on them. I picture them sort of like a salamander. They’re not visually-oriented. They never send video. I think their vision must be poor.”

“Sea creatures,” said Itch, amazed. “Explains their gee tolerance. How in hell did they develop technology underwater? Without fire?”

“I don’t know. I hope we’ll get a chance to ask them.”

At about 1.8 emklicks out, the Morphids saw them and put on a light show. They fired a ribbon of standard beam weaponry, all stuff the smoke was built to absorb and deflect. The Morphid ships began communicating with one another. The smoke tried to translate some of it but it was all in symbols and associations.

Itch saw visions and flashes of disgusting, awful creatures, changing form. He saw crawling, slimy black shapes, moving together in unison. They kept changing form.

“Is this what they look like?” he asked, revolted.

“It’s a symbolic representation of how they envision each other, and themselves. It’s pretty raw,” said Walter. “What you see is kind of following your own semantic associations to their symbol set. They disgust one another and themselves, so you see something that disgusts you.”

The shapes settled into the form of centipedes. Itch had always had a problem with bugs, and centipedes in particular. He’d found a nest of them under a tire as a kid. The constant feeling that bugs were on him had gotten him the nickname “Itch.” In the military, nicknames stick.

Getting the hell off of Earth and into a sterile spaceship had been one very strong motivation for joining the military. He hadn’t seen a real bug in a dozen years.

He watched them move in unison, saw ghost images of centipedes splitting off in different directions and formations.

“They are discussing tactical options,” the smoke told him. “Proposing plans to one another.”

None of the plans seemed to appeal to the Morphids, since they stayed together and only tightened their formation to enmesh their fire, like crossed pikes. They winked out, ceasing deceleration temporarily to present a minimal aspect, a standard tactic Itch had picked apart a dozen times.

He did not move to attack it now. His smoke had made no weaponry but did thicken its reflectors, buffers, and shield-pieces. It absorbed and parried the Morphids’ weapons with barely a bruise. This was a peace mission all the way. If he failed, the enemy would pass through untouched. But FightCom would have plenty of firepower in their way by then.

In the Morphids’ symbolic language, Itch and the smoke appeared as a wall of thorns that the centipedes were charging toward. As they came near, he knew when it was time to talk. The smoke knew it too. Without exchanging actual words, it began to broadcast. It put him into the picture.

The aliens’ anger was immediate. The centipedes in Itch’s mind turned to glowing red and started to hop and writhe. Some of them bit one another. In his mental picture, Itch saw himself as a knight. Well-armed and armored in blazing white-enameled steel, he stood in front of their thorny wall and touched his sword to the dirt. He had no idea how these salamanders or whatever they were would see him, but the importance was in the semantic associations. Or so the smoke had told him.

The centipedes did not seem to take it well at all. Their fire increased to an output level which was probably self-destructive.

“OK, let’s lose the knight montage. Lose the armor and especially the sword. Let’s try standing there in civilian clothes. Take a knee and extend a hand.” The smoke changed the picture as he asked, and the centipedes calmed down. In realspace, all firing ceased. The rapidly approaching ships made no moves to maneuver.

After a five-second comm delay, Itch saw a ghostly image of himself lying down flat in the dirt. Ghostly centipedes then rushed forward, swarmed on his image, and ate him alive. It was a gruesome scene, particularly for Itch, who had problems with that kind of thing. He watched them eat his face away eagerly. They seemed pleased with the way he writhed and screamed.

“They are, I think, proposing your unconditional surrender… so that you may be efficiently destroyed,” said the Walter smoke. “Or possibly… consumed?”

Itch was nevertheless amazed. “They talked! They talked back, at least, right?”

“Yes. They very quickly incorporated these symbols we created to represent you, your posture, your armor, and weapons. I think they understand very clearly that this is a dialog with the enemy.” Walter seemed concerned. “But there’s an underlying subtext I’m not conveying to you in this visual scene. Really only about 15% of the data they transmit is at this symbolic level.”

“What’s the rest?”

“Very alien. It’s not that I can’t parse it, it’s that it’s untranslatable. I think it’s all associative emotional data, just allusions to feelings of hate and spite and loathing, and self-loathing. They must have thousands of emotional symbols for degrees of hatred. It’s ‘hate poetry,’ if you need a glib phrase to describe it.”

Itch tried to comprehend such hellish minds. “How could they ever reach this level of civilization? If they’re consumed with hate, why didn’t they just stay in the swamp and fight each other forever?”

“I don’t know,” said the Walter smoke, looking puzzled. “I mean, there are other emotions intermixed. They have an overwhelming sense of duty to their common cause. Any one of them would gladly sacrifice themselves to further the invasion. But that’s something we’ve already known from their combat behavior.”

Itch nodded. He watched the oncoming centipedes in his mind. They were starting to get pretty close.

“But I think they’re actually glad to do it when it happens,” said the smoke. “They hate themselves so much. They’re glad to rid the Universe of their wretchedness.”

“Well, I’ve certainly rid the Universe of a lot of them.”

“And they love you for that,” said the smoke, “while hating you for impeding their goal of conquering this star system.”

“Me personally?” wondered Itch.

“You, the enemy. Us.”

“Oh.” Itch thought it over. “Wait, you’re saying they can love?”

“There’s this underlying sentiment like love in everything they do. As I said, they go to great lengths to describe their emotional states as they talk. It’s as if you needed to explain in great detail how you felt about every order you gave your scouts. I don’t understand enough about it to know what the love is directed at. They definitely love something. I’m not positive what, though,” said the smoke.

“Well, it’s not any kind of rational thinking, as we understand it. Reasoning with them is pretty much out, right? There’s no way to negotiate a truce.”

Walter nodded. “Which leaves intelligence gathering.”

“I wonder if we could get them to tell us what star they’re from?”

“If you have a plan for that,” said the smoke, “you should tell us about it now. They’re just about to pass through. 100 seconds.”

Itch didn’t have a plan. “It’s just so frustrating!” he complained. “I can’t think of the symbols to even ask the right questions. I’m a tactician; languages are not my strong suit.”

“Do you want to try the other symbol set? The emotional one? It might be unhealthy…”

“What would it involve?” asked Itch.

“We’re a Rosetta Stone between the Morphid mind and the human mind. You have emotions, too. Humans just aren’t in the habit of spending 85% of their communications energy expressing them. Most humans, anyway.

“Your wetfeeds were built to monitor your emotional state, among other things. We can take that data and translate it into the Morphid’s symbology. You can’t reason with them, but maybe you can feel at them. Maybe if you think patriotic and philanthropic thoughts you could get them to see humans the way you do.”

Itch smirked. “Shame I’m such a cynical misanthrope, then.”

“You’re not so bad.”

“How would I understand them?”

“That’s the potentially unhealthy part. We’d have to interpret and feed the emotional data straight into your brain. For you it would be like a pornographic feelie, but about hatred instead of sex.”

“Sounds wild,” said Itch. Watching the centipedes reach the spiked wall and begin to wriggle through it, he knew the torches had arrived. There would be almost no comm lag now, for several minutes. “Let’s do it. Right now.”

His world went dark as all of his normal telemetry and senses dropped away. He was left in the dark, the way a Morphid must live.

He could see the centipedes snaking between the thorny spikes of the wall. He could see every glistening segment and horrible jointed leg. The disgust he felt for these vile things leaped to the front of his mind. All he could think about was stabbing them into the ground, crushing them underfoot.

But now he could see into their warped and terrible minds as well, and he knew they’d welcome it if he did kill them. They would fight with fierce hatred—there were so many ways to say “I hate you” in Morphid—but they would be grateful if he won and destroyed them.

“Why? Why? WHY?” he thought and felt. More than anything, he wanted to know what made them this way.

“LOOK AT US!!” they exploded at him. “LOOK at what filth we are!!”

Itch saw them, and in the cracks of his disgust some kind of pity welled up in him. The Morphids recoiled from it. He wanted to tell them, maybe it’s all in the way you look at yourselves. Maybe you can see yourself as beautiful. But the disgust was such a raw, irrefutable emotional fact. They recoiled from the idea of being pitied the way a human would recoil from the idea of punching his own grandmother in the face.

“You don’t do that. You don’t do that.”

And so Itch felt helpless, the way they must feel. But again they recoiled. There was no helplessness. There was PURPOSE. There was MEANING. There was DESTINY. They, the wretched, would fulfill whatever small part they could and then die, so that they would not stain the glory to come.

Itch cast around for some kind of an anchor, some human frame of reference to grab hold of. But he was starting to think all of his thoughts in the Morphid symbols, and they were fascinating things. He saw fourteen worlds in glittering complexity. He saw Morphids marching and flowing out through the stars, individuals selected for their cunning and dexterity from among millions who moved rock or grew vegetation or swam free in the seas. And as he took in these answers to his questions the image of something bright and perfect and holy was always nearby, at the edge of what they were talking about.

Something beautiful was behind all of this. Something gave the Morphids that purpose and put them on the path of destiny. “What…?” he quested. “What do you love? WHO?”

They showed him who they loved. Around every bright and beautiful pinnacle on every jeweled planet teemed these lowly Morphid vermin, and for every group of Morphid scum there was a being of such fierce and terrible beauty that Itch was cut down at the knees to see it. They… had… GODS! They had real, physical, beautiful gods on their world! He fell into a pool of the love the Morphids had for their bright and holy ones. For these breathtaking and awesome beings alone did they live and die. They were…

The Morphids were a slave race. Some rational part of Itch made that cold, cynical statement, even in the face of the god beings’ overwhelming beauty.

The pity swelled in him and overflowed, and the Morphids shrieked and attacked. He had so many conflicting emotions now that he could not sort the Morphids’ from his own. He felt that he, too, loved the gods. But the rational man inside him who had begun to sort out the details realized that these gods were no more holy than human beings. They were air-breathers. They had uplifted the Morphids somehow… genetics probably. They had made a race that lived to do the bidding of the gods. These beings were the true monsters, the evil he had been fighting for so long.

“NO! NO! NO! NO!” came the infuriated reply to that thought. Having sent his image of their gods as devils, Itch had committed the ultimate sacrilege. They fired their torches at a 55 G deceleration to lengthen their engagement time. They attacked him furiously, beginning to destroy their ships in the process.

And Itch could see their point. He had never felt such overwhelming awe as he had at their picture of the god beings. Somehow their description had reached into some part of his emotional deep structures and touched a place he didn’t know existed. He wanted to feel what they felt. He wanted to believe in a benevolent being that would guide his every step from birth to death. He just couldn’t. He was a human being, and a particularly worn and jaded one. He knew what those beings really were.

But the feeling of love for the Morphids’ masters would not leave him. It swelled up inside him. Were the Morphids doing this? Were they all “loving” at him, trying to overwhelm him? It was so disorienting…he couldn’t remember his specific problem with the gods now, anyway. All he got from the Morphids was blind rage and hate. Where was this need to worship coming from?

Then, the swirling symbols of emotion and history and reality fell back. A new god approached. Between Itch and the Morphids emerged a being of light and music and all good things. It gave him visions of wonder and beauty and love and friendship and sex and victory and bliss, bliss, bliss…

The Morphid centipedes fell slack before it. This thing which had appeared to them would have been the deity even of the Morphids’ god beings themselves. Itch felt himself physically fall to his knees, which should have been impossible in the nucleus capsule.

But all he could remember of the capsule was the filthy meat-thing inside it, himself. He started to contemplate all the disgusting physical processes of his body, the endless needs to be met, waste to be dealt with, the constant degradation all the way unto death. He was nothing compared to this god. He knew the wretchedness the Morphids felt and why they hated themselves. They knew they would never, ever be like their gods. So did he, now.

“I have learned many things from you both,” said the god, in a great melody of a voice. The sound permeated the Human and the Morphids alike with joy. “I think that something can be worked out to benefit all parties.”

In the blackness far above the solar plane, the smoke god and its 13 wretched disciples joined up and headed toward the outer system, to spread the good news to the Smoke Fighters there.

 

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