The following is a transcript of a recovered audiofile recovered after the catastrophic decompression event on Walther-Pemborke Station. The audiofile is believed to have been created by Donovan Astrides and to be a summation of his unpublished work A People's History of an Unfortunate Universe.
[Sounds of scratching on the microphone, creaking of furniture, the noise of a woman clearing her throat]
Fuck you. I do this how the fuck I want, though it was nice of you to put me in this nice young woman’s body.
[Sounds of hands running along fabric]
Does my vulgarity shock you, corporate lackey? No matter, I’m sure you can edit it out for your proles.
Now—you asked about my book? Is it a history book you ask? No. It is an anti-history book. I shall tell you about the future.
[Mumbling, questioning tone]
What does it hold? The future, you mean?
No. I don’t think you care about the future. What you really want to know is: will you get the future you want? And that is an easy question to answer. No. No, you will not get the future you want. Because you are stupid enough to ask this stupid question about the future.
I remember reading a scan of an old real print comic once. The character in it was railing against
the imaginary people of his imaginary world, taking them to task about their dissatisfaction with the future they lived in. But it was really aimed at the stupid people who wanted their stupid little futures and who were too stupid to see that the future is now. It’s always now. Except it isn't anymore. The TITANs changed that. The future is now yesterday, and last week, and ten years ago. Especially ten years ago. But the future is also back on poor old Earth—it’s a legacy of where we've been and what has come before.
Do they teach you history on Venus, in your sealed compounds and resort aerostats? No, don’t open your mouth, I could really care less what they teach you. For it is most certainly lies. I've lived in the inner system. I know the rules and the deceits told in the name of civil order and “national security.”
Nations! Ha! Even at the onset of the 21st century, nations were starting to go into decline. It just took everyone a while to realize they were obsolete.
Do you remember the great nations of the world? Are you old enough to remember how they sat around and debated whether the major climate shifts they were creating were even real? Even when many of them agreed that something needed to be done, none of them stood up to do it. The leaders of the world carried on with business as usual, secure in their privilege, as droughts ravaged Africa and Central Asia, Europe froze, and severe weather wreaked havoc everywhere. People across the globe were feeling the pinch of starvation or rampant epidemics, but the leading nations were more concerned about the refugees pouring over their borders and polluting their lily white paradises with their customs and languages and willingness to work for a pittance just to survive.
The wars over oil and energy were only worsened by wars over the weather and water that followed. Unstable regimes rose and fell or were pushed over the edge, all in pursuit of precious liquids. The great nation states transformed into fortresses, steeled against the twin threats of the barbarians threatening them on the outside and the masses of their poor and dispossessed internally, all of them wanting to come in only for a little drink.
You know, I've actually heard some conservatives refer to that period as a golden age, a peak time for the corporations and the rich. It’s certainly true that it was a golden age for repression—and profits. If you were in that lucky fraction of a percent of the population who could afford it, it was certainly a good time, but for the majority of humanity it was a time of horrors. Global inequality was larger than ever before. Robots were taking jobs away from human hands.
This was a time of radicalization for many. Failing governments no longer supplied people’s basic needs. The globalized poor turned to local tribes, fundamentalist groups, political radicals, and criminal networks for the means to survive. Insurgent groups flourished, but they depended on the black market to survive, and soon their leaders were more concerned with making money than making change.
The nation states, as always, resorted to repression. Civil liberties were restricted and surveillance increased. Automated weapons systems were deployed first against guerrillas and terror cells, and then against agitators and demonstrators. I remember the first time I saw those police drones, at a demonstration in support of a worker’s strike in Long Beach. The drones ordered us to disperse once, only once, before they opened fire with their “nonlethal” weapons. Nonlethal my ass. Three people died that day and dozens were injured. The mainstream media ignored it even if the bloggers didn't.
Meanwhile, the privileged elites continued to prosper. Longevity treatments expanded lifespans—for those who could afford it. Major crackdowns swept up off-brand pharma and bootleg procedures by pioneering biochemists, even while worldwide life expediencies dropped for the first time in decades. Why extend the lives of so many poor people, when expert systems as smart as any human could be built in a fraction of the time it would take to educate an actual person, and robotics and drone technologies allowed menial jobs to be turned over to uncomplaining and unpaid labor. And the rich had their high-price tag designer chimeric pets to keep them company anyway. Not all of the upper classes were wallowing in opulence while the planet around them starved and drowned. A few were looking ahead at the changes on the horizon, scheming how to stake their claim. Some of these worked to expand their dominion, building a space elevator in sub-Saharan Africa and sending robotic probes out to map the solar system in detail. They even founded the first stations on Mars and Luna then, more than fifty years before the Fall.
The ecopocalypse wasn't going away, however, no matter how much those in power tried to ignore it. Severe winters and droughts continued to pound at us. Rising ocean levels devastated coastlines worldwide with massive flooding. A few last-ditch efforts to undertake mega-scale geoengineering projects created as many problems as they fixed. These were viewed with cynicism anyway, as some were thinly-disguised test runs for terraforming techniques being prepared for off-world deployment.
It often seemed as though the eyes of the fortunate were no longer focused on the world around them, but rather on the heavens above them. The completion of the first space elevator and the first mass driver on our moon kicked off a new space race and the competition was on to stake claims around the solar system. All this new expansion was powered by the first mass-produced efficient fusion power plants and the establishment of Helium-3 mining enterprises.
Back on Earth, though, the hammer finally fell. Insurgents adopted fifth generation warfare techniques, sharing open source methods of resistance, utilizing swarming attacks on critical systempunkts. People crushed under years of oppression rose up in these opportunities and smashed at the state and corporate apparatus that had held them down. Nation after nation fell to insurgencies manned by those who had fought in thousands of little wars over fuel, ponds, and bread crusts.
Most states fought back by becoming more totalitarian and repressive, but the tide of rebellion spread off-world as a series of outposts and stations declared themselves in sympathy with their earthbound compatriots and announced a manifesto for a more humanistic approach to solar expansion. Even numerous scientists and engineers, who had previously worked as pawns in corporate expansions, adopted a technoprogressive stance. That’s how the argonauts were born, you know, taking their name from a previous group of scientists who advised the US government and Pentagon on science and policy called the Jasons. Faced with reprisals from their corporate masters, a number of argonauts defected from the hypercorps, in some cases taking key resources and research with them, while others went underground.
This is when the hypercorps really took off, though, those shark-like bastards. They let the nation-states and lumbering multinationals of old take the brunt of the global rage and assault. They took advantage of the chaos to slip free of the old moral and ethical restraints on human experimentation and from the legal purview of the nationalities that had birthed them. They embraced the opportunities of numerous new technologies and the drive into space. It was their research labs that cooked up the first sentient artificial intelligences, the first genegineered human clones, and the first true uplifts, chimps and dolphins brought into awareness as corporate experiments and slaves.
As the last of the old states became increasingly desperate to cling to their power and land, the hypercorps extended a helping hand. They offered debt bondage terms to those who were willing to sign over their rights and humanity for a trip off-world, to work as indentured servants on corporate colonies and stations. Hundreds of thousands took the offer as an alternative to the crushing poverty and chaos on Earth. The business of resource exploitation exploded across the solar system, as stations were established as far out as the Kuiper Belt. Voices that spoke of respecting biodiversity and natural ecologies were ignored as the hypercorps toiled to reshape various planets and moons to their will.
This was the state of things until about 20 years before the Fall. Though many of the old oppressor states had been struck down, new ones arose, and the various global insurgencies oscillated between making radical changes and falling into the same old tribal warfare traps. Reactionary religious and political forces on Earth also railed against the hypercorps’ agenda, resulting in some terrorist attacks and sabotage strikes, and culminating in a failed attempt to disable the space elevator by an Islamist suicide cell. The hypercorps were quick to retaliate, ordering an orbital bombardment using high-density objects against the headquarters and compounds of several key opposition leaders. Though effective in decapitating several terrorist networks, the mass destruction sparked outrage against the hypercorps, creating a deeper rift between Earth and off-world interests.
The hypercorps remained out of reach, however, though they were not completely immune from Earth’s troubles. The workers and colonists brought from Earth transported many of their ethnic, political, and socio-tribal grudges with them, leading to several outbreaks of violence in habitats and orbital stations. Some also harbored allegiances opposed to hypercorp interests, illustrated by isolated acts of preservationist sabotage and religious terrorist attacks. Various criminal networks also came along for the ride, expanding their black markets and vice trades wherever humans went.
As the hypercorps expanded, so too did their political opponents: the anarchists, socialists, argonauts and others who worked diligently to establish their own independent presence, mostly in the outer system, further from hypercorp reach. The hypercorps even contributed to this growth by sending their criminals and undesirable elements into exile beyond Mars.
Both sides invested heavily in research and new technologies. Advances in biotech, nanotech, AI, and cognitive science were now moving so rapidly that major breakthroughs were made on a yearly basis. Developments in one field created a recursive boost in the others, creating a feedback loop that spawned immense technological improvements. Off-world, genetic modifications were widely adopted, and new transhuman adaptations became a common sight. We even created new synthetic life forms that were part biological and part robotic. Despite some being so repulsed by this development that they dubbed these new types of beings “pod people,” it certainly didn't stop pods from being rapidly absorbed into corporate workforce and brothels, nor did many people care enough to support claims that, as sapient beings, pods should have their own civil rights.
Two breakthroughs in this period deserve specific mention, not least because of their impact on our human—now transhuman—society. The development of the first nanotech assemblers signaled a paradigm shift for economics. Available only to the upper strata of the hypercorps at first, these elites jealously guarded these machines, capable of building almost anything from the atoms up. They placed all sorts of restrictions on their usage and availability, claiming that the capability to construct drugs, weapons, or other restricted items was a security risk that required them to be strictly controlled. Open source advocates promptly set to work undermining blueprint controls and seeding their own open source designs, of course. Likewise, within months, criminals and anarchists liberated their own assemblers, and suddenly an economic conflict was born. Some were put to use feeding the black market trade, while others were used to establish habitats and colonies with post-scarcity economies that no longer relied on wealth, property, or greed.
At the same time came the ability to map the human brain and digitally emulate the mind and memories, making “uploading” possible—followed closely by the ability to download back into a separate human brain of course. The already long-lived hypercorp masters no longer had to fear death by accident or injury. This technology also made its way into the hands of others, despite the costs. Experimentation with other bodies—both biological and synthetic—became a new playground for culture. And let’s not forget those who willingly shook off the shackles of the flesh to experience the virtual life and dive deep into their own dreamscape realities.
While we all enjoyed our new toys, though, Earth, poor Earth, continued to die a slow death. I can still recall the speculation that it might take centuries for the Earth to totally slide into ecological devastation. It was frustrating, everywhere you turned it seemed that someone was lamenting the state of the motherworld, but no one wanted to do anything. It was too expensive, or too far away, or too dangerous. We all have blood on our hands from that time. We stood by and watched from our places in orbit as the world burned around our brothers and sisters. We thought we had time, we thought the world was slowly dying and that we could find the cure. We didn't plan on the TITANs.
We all remember the Fall. It was only ten years ago, but I never cease to be amazed at how confused people’s memories are of that time. Part of that is propaganda perpetuated by people like you, of course, and part of it is that most of us are afraid to really look back and examine how we humans managed to fuck it up so badly.
We like to pretend that the TITANs exploded on the scene, wrecked up the place, and then disappeared as quickly as they appeared. The truth, as always, is more complex. We claim to know that the TITANs somehow evolved by accident from a military netwar system, or so the theory goes. That is what their name means: an acronym for Total Information Tactical Awareness Networks. No one knows for sure where these first seed AIs came from, though—or if they do, they’re keeping quiet. Perhaps the TITANs were intentionally designed to be a recursively improving, self aware digital intelligence. Perhaps the military boffins thought they could keep such an intelligence under their control, and that it would give them the edge they needed. Perhaps there was only one at first, and it quickly created hundreds if not thousands of copies of itself. No one even seems to know how many of them there were.
According to the written history—vetted by the hypercorps natch—we now know that the TITANs took several days after they “woke up” to scan the world around them, to learn about us. In their initial stage they were relatively benign, leeching network power and resources only where there was enough to spare and extending their senses beyond their cradle on Earth. Perhaps they were absorbing everything they could to understand us. Perhaps they were indifferent. Or maybe they really were planning to destroy us, as the vids all say.
I remember this time. I remember that when this new round of conflicts re-ignited on Earth, there was no word of anything about seed AIs or TITANs. For months and months, it was a simple escalation of hostilities. It started with claims of netwar operations and major intrusions, sparking some alarm and retaliatory attacks. Aggressive stances led to incriminations, then border conflicts and raids, followed by missile strikes and outright hostilities. Old grudges and sleeping enemies suddenly awoke and turned their renewed wrath against old foes. Brush wars, corporate rivalries, and ideological disputes flared up as insurgencies and rebellions were suddenly everywhere. At the time, it seemed like a not-so-unusual spate of violence had taken a drastic turn and was rapidly spiraling out of control.
According to the party line, this was all a carefully concerted effort, the first stage in the TITANs plans. Perhaps it was, though I remember some military officials once claiming that the TITANs were brought
online because of this violence, and not before then—an opinion that was quickly silenced. Then again, maybe we really were played, played by greater intelligences who could barely be bothered to deal with us themselves when they knew we were more than willing to murder and annihilate each other.
When the first reports of strange automatic factories cranking out large numbers of robotic weapons systems broke, no one knew who to blame, but clearly something was wrong. This was a turning point, a chance for humanity to realize that we collectively faced a new enemy, but the finger-pointing and direct conflict continued. Even when the first open attacks by the TITANs came in earnest, crashing major systems, taking control of critical infrastructures, and wreaking havoc and destruction, we treated it as a new front in the war, and never stopped taking shots at each other.
There is still debate over whether we should have tried to talk to the TITANs, whether they would have been willing to listen to us, whether they even saw us as something more than we see rats and roaches and other forms of vermin. But it’s all academic. The fact is we didn't. The people who made the decisions, the ones who had to put it all on the line at the time, saw the TITANs as a threat. And they acted accordingly, trying to purge them from their systems or capture them for future study.
The philosopher Thomas Hobbes once spoke of the war of all against all. Whatever he imagined could not have been anything close to the conflict ignited by the TITANs. We killed ourselves by the millions, wielding the nuclear fire and the silent death of bioplagues indiscriminately. Among this carnage walked the TITANs, taking control of our machines as though we were children, harvesting millions of minds with forced uploads for unknown purposes. Every strike we launched against the TITANs was met with untold disaster and ruin, all our artifice and devices turned against us in our moment of need.
The Fall was a horror. Factories sprang up like a blight in the most ravaged and deserted places on Earth, pumping out legions of dread war machines. Advanced [[Nanoswarm|nanoswarms] far beyond our own capabilities—infested everywhere, mutating to deal with any threat they encountered. Biological nanovirii ripped through human populations, inflicting irreversible neurological damage. Potent infowar worms penetrated even hardened systems, shredding our crucial networks with ease. Prisoner populations were rounded up for forced mind emulations, suffering a luckier fate than those who were merely decapitated by head-collecting drones or pierced by robots with neuro-scanning proboscises. Neuropathic virii turned some humans into pawns of the TITANs, turning them against the rest of us. Other reports spoke of strange, alien happenings and unimaginable terrors. We found ourselves fighting a rearguard action against coming extinction. The plot of a hundred novels and movies made manifest in our lifetimes, the doom of transhumanity at the hands of the machines.
For over a year they stalked and destroyed us. There seemed to be no hurry on their part to bring us to an end, and why would there have been? Nothing we did affected them. They were data and information, they were thought and impulse, they were everywhere and nowhere, and there was nothing we could do that they could not turn back against us. Their influence spread outward from Earth, with outbreaks in orbit, on Luna, Mars, and many other places. Everywhere we had a foothold, the TITANs followed.
Perhaps you remember that point when it became clear that transhumanity might not survive. I do. Millions must have seen the signs. And so the great diaspora began, the teeming masses doing whatever they could to flee Earth. Ships were diverted, even built, to help people escape. Those who could not buy their way off the planet did their best to send their digital backups, in the dim hope they could acquire a new body. Perhaps one in ten escaped.
You might hear that we banded together to stop the threat, that in our darkest hour we forgave ancient grudges and simmering hatreds in the face of extinction. That would be a lie in the face of the ten thousand shot down over Buenos Aires by North American forces as they sought to escape, or the compromising of network security on over two dozen habitats in Lagrange orbits by corporate competitors as their rivals strove to fight off a TITANs attack. We were just as gleeful to destroy ourselves.
Then, as quickly as they appeared, the TITANs vanished. Over the course of a week, the attacks and disturbances trailed off and then stopped but for an occasional outbreak. The retributions and attacks by our own kind continued for a few more months, but the damage we did to ourselves was nothing compared to what the TITANs had done.
In the aftermath, we stood among the smoking ruins of transhumanity and surveyed all that had been lost. Of all the billions that existed before the Fall, fewer than one in every eight survived, and of those fewer still retained a corporeal form. Nevertheless, the surviving habitats and stations were overcrowded, with tensions high. Vast numbers of infugees circulated in storage, as there were simply not enough bodies on hand to accommodate them all. Some were placed in permanent storage, where they remain forgotten. Others were shunted into virtual reality, given no choice but to live their lives in simulated environments. A lucky few were given the chance to work as indentured servants, often to build new habitats, working on the promise of a body of their own someday. You've no doubt seen them, working in cheap mass produced synthmorph bodies in menial or dangerous tasks kept out of sight of the rest of us.
Those left dead or bereft of a body were the least of our problems. Our war with the TITANs had left the Earth a smoking, irradiated, toxic wasteland, still populated by dangerous machines and plagues. The newly formed Planetary Consortium, composed of hypercorp interests among the Martian and Lunar colonies, placed Earth and the space around it under quarantine. The official reason is that it’s for safety reasons, allegedly to keep any remaining threats from escaping Earth’s confines. Or perhaps we could not stand to look at our homeworld in such a state and face what we had done to ourselves.
Even now, ten years later, we are told that the Earth is dangerous, that it holds risks and surprises. That’s partly true, I believe—there are surprises alright, but the Planetary Consortium wants them all for itself.
[Rustling noises, murmurs]
Of course I’m talking about a Pandora Gate. The one the TITANs left behind on Saturn’s moon was just the first. You’re a fool if you think that there are only five in the entire system. I’d be willing to bet nearly anything that there’s one down there on dear old Earth.
Have you ever seen a Gate? No? Of course not. The hypercorps keep them locked down. Not like out in the wild, wild outer system. Sure, the Gatekeeper Corp lets anyone with a death wish and the minimum training take a jaunt through the original on Pandora, but if you’re lucky enough to come back, they own everything you find on the other side. I suppose it’s the chance for a certain type of adrenaline junkie “to boldly go” and all that nonsense.
The extrasolar colonies—now, those are an all new frontier. You inner system types are so predictable with your rush to colonize and expand and own everything, as if the universe is just there for your rich overlords to claim for themselves. I expect your extrasolar colonies are expanding quite nicely, given the sheer number of poor debt-conscripted souls you toss through. You probably have grand schemes of building galactic empires. Us. Transhumanity. A galactic civilization.
Well, galactic squatters at least. That was made clear when the solemn crossing guards of the cosmos showed up and issued us a warning that we were dabbling in Things What Ought Not To Have Been. Maybe the Factors are telling us the truth, maybe they are acting as ambassadors for a collection of spacefaring alien species that want to warn us away from Forbidden Technology— y'know, the technology we've already been burned by and of course have no plans to actually abandon. Think about the Two Commandments they have given us: thou shalt not create self-improving AI, and thou shalt not use the Pandora Gates. Oops. Do you think they know? About what happened with the TITANs? That even we don’t know where they went and that we’re kind of afraid to find out? Surely they know that we've been using the gates and have spread beyond our little backwater, and maybe that’s their real fear. But why do we even listen to what some highly-evolved slime mold tells us to do anyway?
Taking risks, that’s the price of progress, no? Let’s face it, we need some hope. We need a new Earth to replace the one we destroyed, a place where we can go and breed like rabbits and fuck it all up over and over again. We need to know that we can expand beyond this solar system, because right now it’s feeling a little confining, like we could be easily trapped and wiped out if the TITANs ever return. We need to know that we have a future. We need to know that we can make it through our own efforts. That we won’t do ourselves in on our own.
The Lost proved that. It was a noble objective, to speed a new generation of children to adulthood, but the process was flawed. Taking force-grown clones, raising them in VR, and then dumping them into adult bodies after they've only been alive for a few years of objective time—but over eighteen years of their subjective time? An entire childhood, having only each other and AIs for company. It’s enough to fuck anyone up. It was a grand experiment, but it failed, and now we have another reminder of our failures living among us.
That’s us, in all our glory. Ten years after the Fall and we remain a broken, squabbling mess, jailed by slime molds, beaten by uppity software, and yet our own worst enemies. Spreading out from a home we don’t even have any more. Our numbers reduced and dwindling further with each passing day. Who will save us? We don’t even want to save ourselves most of the time. Or so it seems. But if we don’t, there’s no future. And I, for one, have not lived this fucking long to give up now. You, me, we’re effectively immortal. The entire galaxy is waiting out there for us. We’d be stupid not to go see it.