Two years after their arrival, the Kelv'v'ara prepared to leave. Their ship was repaired and their urgent mission could not wait any longer.
Their ship had darkened since the palladium had begun to arrive; now it was a dark battleship gray. They didn't explain the change in coloration and any questions about it had been answered with a single sentence: "Our hyper-light drive is undergoing repair."
I suppose the reason for the change in color had something to do with the physics of their FTL drive, something they were not willing (or able, considering our knowledge of physics) to do.
Alyssa had disappeared twice, each for a couple of days; both times I saw her coming back from the Sphere. The second time there was something subtlely different about her, but she resumed her seat at her docking station as if nothing was out of the ordinary. When I questioned her about it, she said that the Kelv'v'ara had needed to use her hands.
The day before their departure, she disappeared again, and I wondered if what she had said about them not having any use for "her kind" was really true.
"Cassandra, where is Alyssa?"
The activity lights on her ear pod flickered. "Her IP address does not answer a ping request," Cassandra said apologetically.
"She's aboard their ship, then," I said with a sigh. "Check the countdown. When are they leaving?"
"In one day, four hours, thirty-five min--"
"In one day, four hours, thir-thir-thir-thirty-fi-fi-fi-vvvvvvvvv-
"What the hell?" I demanded. Her activity lights were full-on and she stopped for a moment, posed like a mannequin, but about to fall over.
"It's coming soon," she said, correcting her balance.
"Encode. System check. Decode."
She stiffened and got that faraway look she got when she was doing diagnostics. "All systems are nominal."
"Encode. Check your error log. What caused your most recent stutter? Decode."
"Access to the Kelv'v'ara web site took longer than expected."
That didn't make any sense. "Cassandra-- Encode...." And I realized that I didn't know what I wanted to do to check her statement. "Ah, hell. Decode."
"Command not recognized."
I was about to comment when Alyssa returned from the Sphere. She told me, without preamble, "They are leaving now."
"Wait--now? I thought they were leaving tomorrow."
"There is a storm forming on the surface of the sun. They assign a high order of probability to it producing a flare which would produce gravitometric interference likely to prevent going to hyper-light drive. Expect to be able to see the aurora borealis in the next three to five days."
"Uh," I said, going outside. The early May air was still a bit chilly, but it was warm enough in the sunlight.
The Kelv'v'ara sphere looked almost black now; and without so much as a whisper it began to rise into the air. By now we knew that the thing moved by changing the local curvature of space; it was some kind of gravity drive which was still very far beyond our technology. But that was why the thing could just hang there like that, without making any fuss at all. (Well, the birds didn't like it.)
It left behind no hole.
"How the hell--?" I demanded.
Alyssa said, "The ground was placed into superposition while their ship occupied that area. A full explanation has been placed on their web site."
"Oh...good." I looked up as the ship rose higher in the sky, and I saw that there was a bulge on the bottom of the Sphere, with a central concavity. "Is that new?"
"The modification was necessary. They lacked the tools to make a proper repair to the existing systems."
The ship simply rose, gathering speed as it went, until it was out of sight. And a few minutes later, there was a bright rainbow flash in the sky.
"They have left this star system," Alyssa said.
I felt alone.
<* * *>
Time passed. In June, a new type of fusion reactor, using what the Kelv'v'ara had taught us, went on-line, and it was at least twice as efficient as the former best. Things really seemed to be looking up for the human race, as the realization that we were indeed not alone in the universe was making us re-examine ourselves in a new light.
But it didn't last.
Systems administrators were kept busy all through June trying to stem the tide of computer viruses coming from Europe--Belgium, to be precise. None of them were quite the same, and every day there was a new one percolating through the Internet. The benign ones just printed odd messages on people's computer screens; the really bad ones crashed systems and deleted data. A malignant few actually managed to wipe out some of the Internet hardware itself.
This malware was strange stuff; it was adaptive and compact code, able to do all kinds of odd things.
It all came to a head that July.
<* * *>
It was a beastly hot day in the American midwest; I had been trying to sand down the front fender to a 1976 Harley-Davidson XLCH 1000 Sportster, preparing it for paint, but it was just too hot to work outside. I'd had a shower and then sat down to lunch in front of the TV, expecting to watch the news; instead I got random digital garbage.
I had Cassandra reset the satellite receiver, and that seemed to help; but the news was all about the massive virus and worm infestation that was bringing the Internet to its knees. The east coast telecoms had finally cut their connections to Europe, it was so bad. Europe had been brought to its knees; everything was at a complete standstill as anything that was connected to the Internet just stopped working.
But modern telecommunications systems didn't have hard switches any more. Sync and status signals were sent back and forth across the cables; the only actual way to sever, completely, the connection to Europe was to cut those cables. So malware was trickling through the "closed" connections. Satellite communications links were being strained to their maximum, and even those were starting to get flaky; the telecoms were sure they were going to have to close them even though they had firewalls which were supposedly impenetrable.
By mid-afternoon (Greenwich time) of July 4, Europe was effectively back in the Stone Age. All their infrastructure was shut down. They had no electricity, no communications. Even their transportation system--one of the most highly-connected systems in the world!--was utterly useless. People were being paid large sums of money to bring out their antique vehicles, ones without highly-networked computer systems, because at least they worked.
It was 9 AM in the US, and things were just starting to go bad here.
The phone system went first. Anyone who used a cellular phone--that is, everyone--found that his phone simply would not work, that its display had turned into a random scroll of garbage. Wired phones would not dial; instead of a dial tone one would hear digital noise. Before noon the transportation systems began behaving erratically; that lasted a chaotic half-hour before everything stopped moving.
The TV stopped working shortly afterwards, so at the time I had no idea what went on after that. I just knew that the power went off at two PM, leaving me in a mercifully cool house which would not remain so for longer than six hours.
The military base around my house had been in the process of being dismantled; but the activity changed now. They set up a perimeter and thigns I didn't understand began to happen. Planes were landing--the only ones still flying were military, I noticed!--and supplies were being moved around. I couldn't figure it all out.
My robots seemed perfectly normal until five PM, when Cassandra stiffened, made a choking noise, and fell to the floor, stiff as a statue.
Alyssa helped me move her into a spare bedroom and lay her on the bed. Alyssa herself was unaffected.
"What's happening?" I asked her. "Do you know?"
"I can't access the Internet," she told me, shaking her head. "Cassandra's operating system seems to be corrupted with several virus and worm programs."
"Are they a danger to you?"
"Why not? Because of the Kelv'v'ara modifications?"
"I think so. These viruses are not of human origin, though."
My skin prickled. "No? What are they?"
Her mauve eyes regarded me dispassionately. "I think they are the beginnings of Singularity."
#228: Singularity, Part XI
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