(Originally posted elsewhere, May 2008.)
Okay I’ve listened to this album long enough that the story for it has pretty well come together in my head. This is the story of General .0. While I don’t in any way wish to assert primacy of this fiction over the music, I’d like you to read it before listening so you can understand what I’ve come to see in my head when I listen to it. Alternately, do whatever you like.
This story is actually part of an arc of five tracks (start with “The Northern Barrens” and continue into “General .0” for the first segment). Apologies for the “boring, no characters, etc.” Their heads were going to be blown off anyway.
General Adaptable Land Vehicle 2.0
The way these things go, engineers had the vague idea for a series of improvements over the initial GALV ten years prior to its prototyping. When the brass requested a land vehicle that could switch between roles in the field more rapidly than the current GALV and without the assistance of a tender vehicle, coats who weren’t close to the department scoffed. It would require magic. But, that’s roughly what GALV 2.0 was. While the basic work of transforming between main battle tank and personnel carrier was performed by some conventional, albeit extremely creative and impressive engineering, GALV 2.0 incorporated nanobot fabricators and reconfigurators which meant that it could make new parts and break down old ones on the fly, as needed, provided new designs were provided or existing ones were being improved upon.
The few tech demonstrations in that optimistic decade went well. Everyone was well impressed by the way the chassis could take on a number of different shapes without external assistance, theoretically running off its internal power plant. And the nano-fabbers, in separate tests, were a true wonder.
The GALV 2.0 might have proven to be all but invincible, not that an invincible land vehicle was really necessary on a unified Earth that had not seen vehicular military combat in nearly a century. But those who remembered the beginning of that century, and that all-but-invincible vehicles cached around the planet had saved humanity from a future of perpetual slavery at the hands of an insane computer network, knew that a threat could come from anywhere and Earth Forces needed to be prepared. Perhaps if they’d really thought that through, the latter years of the war against the Biomechanical Horde might have gone better.
It came from a neurological research facility where embryonic mouse brains were helping the evolution of non-networked artificial intelligences. It was fascinating work, until some jackass cyber-physiologist integrated the life-support and power supply, and gave it mobility and manipulators. From what we were able to recover from the net archives, it was intended to be a form of artwork. Before the ethics panel could convene to assess the experiment, it had apparently modified other units in a similar fashion and begun refining its own design with available parts and growth factors. When the staff attempted to shut the project down and terminate the units, the units interpreted this aberrant behavior as a design flaw, and set about forcibly redesigning human bodies and brains.
At least, that’s our best guess.
That was fifteen months before the prototyping of the GALV 2.0. The Biomechanical Horde did not distinguish between military and civilian targets, and offered no mercy unless you were either deemed too threatening to try to incorporate or not worth the effort—in which case you were exterminated if possible. By the time the GALV 2.0 was put together and rolled out the door, it was sorely needed. Earth Forces were losing badly. Much of the Northern hemisphere was now acephalic—anything that had a brain was incorporated, and anything that didn’t was a source of biomass for this infant civilization—grey brown wastes left fallow.
At first the prototype was a relief to Earth Forces, and actually began to turn the tide. It seemed unstoppable. It could repair any damage and it was agile enough to escape any flank, and it was whatever the situation required. However, the Biomechanical Horde treacherously deviated from their behavior by learning. They set an ambush.
The column was surrounded and the GALV 2.0 couldn’t escape. The hideous cyborgs like elephants and horses attacked from all sides. And from beneath. Alone, the GALV 2.0 fell into a pit where it was set upon by skin-and-metal monstrosities like badgers which began to dig into its hull. The crew, realizing time was short, must have followed protocol and blown their collars. The small explosive charge rendered their brains useless to the Horde, and the GALV 2.0 like any other war machine could be recovered later if it wasn’t scrapped by the Horde and made into parts.
Of course, everyone knows by now that they hadn’t sought to destroy the GALV 2.0 that day. Perhaps they sensed a certain kinship in the coordination of its nanobots that seemed like neural networks, and perhaps like any of the other aberrantly hostile neural nets this one too simply needed “repair and improvement.”
What emerged from the pit when a search and salvage team returned was the fully realized potential of GALV 2.0, in enemy hands. A seamless integration of the organic and mechanical, shifting its form and function as circumstance demanded, a flesh and metal spider crawled from the hole and quickly laid waste to everything. The one recon flitter that limped back to friendly airspace recorded the event, and the partially destroyed identification placard which now read “General .0” was the only indication that this had been the GALV 2.0.
Sightings were more numerous, and then tapered off as the chances of surviving an encounter dropped. General .0 had been growing, improving upon itself, adapting, exactly as it had ultimately been designed to, but instead of a battalion of GALVs, it was instead a single entity, a mobile superfortress which was absorbing its allies and foes into a single functioning symbiotic unit. It was shaped like a vast hill, a mobile skyscraper bristling with weaponry. It seldom bothered to assimilate the small villages that it encountered anymore, opting to annihilate them from afar with pulverizing artillery barrages instead, and the Earth Forces could not stop it. In what was hoped to be the final strike, it was distracted with a massed assault of the entire active forces in Austria and then attacked with multiple nuclear weapons from multiple trajectories. Even with its full attention seemingly given to Earth’s entire military, it managed to destroy over an estimated 90% of the nuclear warheads outside of their effective range. The remainder annihilated Earth’s military, of course, but it wasn’t enough to do more that seriously wound General .0.
In order to repair itself, it was rolling into the last high density human population area—the massive concentration camp near Genesis Point in Northern Croatia. Here it would take on biomass and begin mechanical repairs. Incidentally this area also hosted a secret supply base for Earth Forces. Mainly manned by noncombatant support staff, they nonetheless developed a daring and hopeless plan to ambush General .0 and perhaps buy some time for the inhabitants of the Genesis Point camp to escape a horrible fate.
Subunit G976 — Override
We can only imagine the the interior of General .0 was something like an extensive animal warren, sparse lighting reflecting down long twisting flesh and metal corridors to guide drone units in their tasks. We’ve seen drone units in combat, we even made capturing them a high priority early on– but we couldn’t figure out how to break their reconditioning, how to make them into something human again. But at the end, something must have worked.
Perhaps the shocks from the nuclear strikes had popped open a neglected equipment cabinet from some incorporated vehicle, and the cobbled together equipment that made up Geneal .0’s digital network was showing images of the camp at Genesis Point. Perhaps it was here that G976 paused, forgetting his task as little more than a cell in the vast body of the living machine, and saw the faces of a human family, and struggled with recognition. At once, did he break through, and see what he had become? Did he try to stop his fellow drones, to make them look and see, but fall beneath their weight like a small plank in a raging river?
We only know that he must have donned flight gear and ascended the central atrium of General .0, where he quickly sabotaged power relays along its spine. There must have been a frenzy inside as the beast struggled in vain to locate the source of the damage, the air abuzz with fliers trying to shut down the power relays, but there was only time for the evidence of this betrayal to reach us as a short broadcast before the mountain shuddered and violently imploded as it was engulfed in plasma:
“G976 HAD A FAMILY TOO.”
As the faraway war machine, the doom of mankind, dissolved in fire, we at the Earth Forces resupply base stood in shock and awe, and began to plan an assault on the Horde base in the region that watched over the camp from a distance.
A flash of pride
It would be the perfect time to strike the Horde base. We began fueling our reserve strike craft and prepping the crews. These men and women who hadn’t joined the final fight were suffering from various ailments which, in a well-run military bureaucracy, had kept them grounded. However, this wasn’t about maintaining our standard of living, our way of life, or our ideals– it was about turning the tables in a war that, as a species, we had lost. That is, up until moments ago, when inexplicably, the concentrated efforts of the Horde painted the clouds with fire.
We didn’t know what was happening. I was on comms duty when it happened. I was able to piece together what G976’s message must have meant later on, but there was no time to think.
In the meantime, our spies at the camp reported panic because of the explosion. We advised them to lay low, that we were going to try to liberate them with airstrikes on the Horde support base, but they didn’t get the transmission in time.
A crowd had quickly gathered on top of a building to view General .0’s demise, but as a wave of debris began to roll in like a sudden rain shower, they panicked. The sentry unit, like a short-legged spider with a human torso bristling with weapons, was nervous enough because of the explosion, but even from where it sat on the wall surrounding the vast camp, it felt threatened, and began acquiring targets in the crowd. Our operatives exchanged knowing glances, and crept through the throng at ground level, then worked their way up the ramp to the sentry unit.
It released its weapons and was about to begin firing into the crowd when they grabbed its lightly armored carapace from behind and tipped it off the wall. The panic fell at this sight, the yelling descended almost to a hush by the time the sentry unit crushed its head under its own weight. It had doubtless transmitted distress calls to camp security in midair, but by the time they arrived, humans had pried and ripped what weapons they could from the thing and turned them on the newly arrived sentries, which were not armored to deal with this threat. More weapons were liberated in this fashion, although humans sustained casualties, they far outnumbered the horde. By the time we heard from our spies again, they were transmitting from the security center, using voice transmission instead of encrypted text burst. The revolt had taken control of the camp, and the Horde was quickly losing the other half. This meant at least 100,000 humans were free.
Still on comms in the command center, I congratulated them on their fantastic work and informed them we were about to launch a strike on the support base.
They could not hear what I told them next for the sustained cheering. It took several minutes for the revelry to die down. Wasted merriment. Doom. We now detected strike craft headed from the Horde support base to the camp. The first thing they could make out from me was “..sake need to RUN NOW!”
“DROPSHIPS ARE ON THEIR WAY FROM THE HORDE SUPPORT BASE HIDE!”
I heard shuffling, and the whine of engines.
By the time we were able to respond, less than 10% of the camp’s inhabitants had survived. The dropships had flown in its own reserve units– armored. The “riot control” weapons the humans had salvaged from the sentry units were worse than useless– they just flagged the wielder as a top priority target. But when they were out of combatants they didn’t stop. They were terrified. We didn’t know it then, and we wouldn’t know it until years later, but General .0 was all that was left of the Horde’s manufacturing capability. When G976 lit up the power relays, the Horde was walking dead, and it killed without motive. It did not stop until we downed each aircraft, penetrated the armor of each walking tank in the streets of the camp, and mercifully killed each blood-mad service unit at the base that threw crates at low-flying aircraft.
There were now small towns that were larger than the Genesis Point camp, but they were far away, and the dead did not litter their streets.
Ashes like Snow
So weeks have passed since then. We’re doing what we can to use what’s left of the Earth Forces infrastructure to coordinate resettlement of refugees into the human populations which have not been severely affected by this war. Genesis Point is being converted into a mausoleum. There’s no other practical way to deal with that many dead. There are a few mass graves for those that can’t be sealed into buildings, but as soon as we understood what happened to General .0, one of them was kept open. I volunteered.
I’ve been scouting the plain where the Horde died. From high above in a flier, I can see the boulders of bone and metal, and even days later fires still burn on piles of decaying flesh. Clumps of ash rise into the clouds and fall again, like snow, bringing some of the ash of the failed nuclear strike on .0 with them, mingling our dead. We haven’t been able to get meteorological data yet, hopefully the damage there isn’t too severe.
This is a mess in more than way. It’s a stew of information signatures, and my scanner can barely pick out any individual signal. I’ve only been given a week before I have to return and report, and time is almost up, but on the afternoon of the sixth day I find the critical piece I’m looking for.
Well, one piece will do.
Not everyone knows about the mission, why there’s a delay on completing mass grave number seventeen, and of those that do, not everyone understands it. When I return and dismount, I head straight for grave seventeen with a bundle. People begin to follow me. When I arrive someone is starting up an earth mover, thinking this will be a short affair, another moment of this awful work they’ve had to objectify.
I hold up a palm, and after a moment the earth mover cycles down. The operator hops out and joins the crowd, wearily. They don’t want this. Rather, they don’t want this right now. They need their ceremony, they need their grief, when the work is done, but this can’t wait.
I unwrap the bundle and hold up an oversized metal gauntlet. A bit of bone protrudes from one end, and there are two wide fingers and a thumb on the hand. Some of them scowl, they know too well this is the arm of a Horde Unit.
“Look well,” I say, “I spent a week looking for this. This is all that remains of our greatest comrade. He is buried with our honored dead.” I can see some are offended. They don’t understand this moment, but someone will explain later. I.. can’t. I give them a moment. If hope just one of them sees. I turn and drop it into grave seventeen.
I quickly motion to the operator, who shrugs and starts up the earth mover again. I am struggling to leave the bewildered crowd, I don’t want to deal with the angry questions of the people who did not see that where the too-big, too-few armored fingers had been damaged by the violence of General .0’s demise, plainly visible were four, perfect, skeletal– human— fingers.
Thanks to Tettix for lighting my mind on fire which such regularity.