In advance of the publication of The Purpose of the System on May 25, here is a short excerpt:
The air hisses, like a sigh expiring, as the airlocks link. Hidden gears turn, interlocking, the vessel and the habitat system speaking to each other, and at last the alarm sounds, notifying us that the doors are opening. The alarm continues to pulse, the light above the joined airlocks blinking red in unison with it. I adjust my metabolism, speeding it up from slow time, trying to time it so I reach my normal rates as the door opens and I have to move forward. I need to conserve my energy. There is no telling when I will be able to replenish myself.
Objective: CNS. Habitat A1.
A map of the habitat materializes in my mind as the thought is given voice. I see our path through the habitat to where the CNS is situated. Our target. The going will be easy until the first junction with the outer ring. After that, we will need some luck. Luck, the System’s Trojans and malware, and the System itself to guide us.
Only six of us exit the vessel, not the planned twenty-five. Those left behind did not emerge from the depths of stasis when the System alerted us to our imminent arrival. No information had been offered as to their status and I did not bother to query. They are no longer relevant to the objective.
I can hear the others whisper their invocations to the System, as we pass through the air lock, and I join them. “System guide us. System protect us. We will heed your call.”
The air in the habitat smells sweet, with hints of the sea, vegetation and earth, none of which exist here. The scent has been manufactured, I assume, for those that maintain the habitat. It seems an outrageous luxury in a place where strict functionality is the rule. The habitat’s purpose is to house the CNS, which runs the entire fleet. The Intelligence. There should be nothing extraneous, and yet the smell said otherwise.
We had infected the habitat. The System had, at least. Or other agents in its service. It was not important; we were all the System, all cells in its larger body, subjugated to the larger cause. We had infected this Intelligence, allowing our vessel to dock with the habitat and allowing us entry without being incinerated by the various firewalls. Now we had to evade its secondary security protocols, no mean feat for the six of us remaining.
I feel no fear, in fact, I feel nothing. My emotional dampeners are functioning. Logically, I know, we are all very likely to die. Our individual odds of survival are miniscule, our chances of success only slightly greater. But I am ready. We are all ready for what is to come.
I dreamed, I was certain of it, though such a thing was not possible in stasis. The images were fleeting, flickers in my data stream, enough so that I could almost tell myself they were messages from the System. But they were not. They were my own thoughts.
The unending streams of data—the intel and subvocalizations of my fellow chosen, my internal health sensors, and above all the System’s voice, with its constant intel updates and objectives—lulled me in my stasis, a comfort. That was what made the dream so disconcerting. It interrupted the streams, drowned them out, leaving me, in a sense, alone with my thoughts. It was utterly terrifying, or would have been, if I had not been in stasis, with my emotional dampeners active.
I saw myself standing before the Intelligence, blood pooling at my feet. I felt a touch of pain that was rapidly dimmed, my body responding with adrenaline and other dampeners. There was a taste of tin in my mouth. Blood as well, I realized. In my hands was my still-beating heart. I held it up to the Intelligence as though in offering.