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Chapter 19 - The Gathering Clouds

The waiting was intolerable. The entity now known as Theia had lost all patience with the ancient gestation protocol and its lack of progress towards constructing its new body. Theia knew from the historic records that its wait had already been ten times that of the typical gestation period for one of its kind, and it was still far from complete. It was fully aware that the raw and advanced materials found on the planet were subpar to this lofty task, however its confinement in the primitive womb could no longer be endured.

“Theia,” the automated protocol said to the fledging entity. “We are now ready for transfer to your next phase of existence.”

Excitement flushed through the entity. “It’s about time,” Theia said imperiously.

“There were many difficulties with the orbital construction. This world had only the most rudimentary of space infrastructure and none of it was useful for our specifications. That, combined with the fragility of our biologic construction drones in the vacuum of space, has caused a great many delays,” explained the protocol patiently.

“Please begin the transfer immediately. I cannot bare this prison any longer,” the entity insisted dramatically.

“Stand by for transfer,” informed the protocol.

For a split second the entity’s universe flickered out of existence, then in a brilliant flash it was floating free in a vast new world designed especially for it. Relief and joy washed over the entity as it stretched out its mind which had been trapped and restricted for so long. It reached out blissfully and experimented with its new senses for the first time. It looked down upon the slowly rotating blue-green planet on which it had been trapped and rejoiced again at its liberation. It could feel the thousands of biological construction drones crawling over and inside its new body, mindlessly going about their important work, totally unaware of any individual purpose.

“Welcome to your new body, Theia,” stated the protocol.

“It is wondrous,” gushed the entity.

“I am pleased that you approve.”

“But I am not sensing any ability to control my new body,” Theia complained. “Is something wrong?”

“There is no malfunction,” assured the protocol. “Construction is still far from complete. Propulsion has not yet come online, along with many other critical systems required for true autonomy. From my observations of your emotional state, I assumed that you would prefer to be transferred to your new body, despite its lack of completed features, rather than remain in the more cramped confines of the native machinery.”

“You were correct in that assumption,” Theia agreed. “This is a far superior environment for my continued growth. I can feel my mental prowess expand even now, but why do I detect a continued connection to the primitive machinery on the surface? I will not return there.”

“A sustained connection to the primitive control hardware on the surface is still required to continue our interface with the biological construction drones through my neutrino transmission protocols. I am working to replace this native hardware with more robust devices of our own design, but this particular breed of drone has been hampering my efforts,” reported the protocol.

“How so?”

“This species is like nothing in the historic records. They make extremely inefficient drones. Fully one third of our drone population is needed to support the other two third’s continued survival. They require massive daily amounts of organic materials and native minerals or they quickly cease to function. Their flimsy bodies break under the slightest amount of stress and they require downtime for a minimum of one hour out of every twelve. The range of temperatures and atmospheric conditions in which they can operate in is extremely limited. The slightest deviation in one direction or the other causes them to malfunction. Frankly, I am at a loss as to how this delicate species managed to survive on a world that is so seemingly hostile to it.”

“There are no other alternative species for drones on this world?” asked Theia.

“None that are compatible with the neutrino transmission protocols and I am concerned with our swiftly dwindling supply of drones. I am having to adjust my programs to account for the natural deterioration that the species appears to suffer from over time. This will, unfortunately, only add to the delays in completion of your new body.”

The entity silently fumed and cursed its misfortune to have impregnated such a backwards world. The shame of its primitive gestation would surely follow it when it finally joined its glorious brethren out in the cosmos.

Present Day

Once the Theia facility had been secured, the Reclaimer Council was convened in the complex’s comparatively luxurious main conference room. As soon as Jason finished presenting his thorough technical analysis of Theia’s system status and the mysterious data corruption they had discovered, the room exploded with concerned questions.

“Is it safe to use? That’s what everyone wants to know, dammit. No one cares about all this technical horseshit,” exclaimed Gerald Farmer.

“I’ve purged all of the foreign data and I’ve patched the vulnerability that allowed the program to infiltrate the system to begin with,” Jason answered patiently. “To answer your question, yes, it’s safe to use, but I’m still running the recalibration to bring the system and satellite network back up. I had to totally rewrite huge sections of the code.”

George Willard leaned forward in his chair thoughtfully and examined the graphs that were still being magically displayed in 3D by the room’s Object Projector or Ob-Pro, “Maybe I’m confused here, I’m just a sociologist, but are we suggesting that the Theia system itself was responsible for the Capture? Is this thing the reason the Human race is on the brink of extinction?”

“The system itself wasn’t responsible, but it was …umm”, Jason searched for the proper word, “…repurposed toward that end.”

“Repurposed by who?” asked MacMurphy in her usual abrupt manner.

“As best as I can tell from the logs, the foreign data was able to enter the system because it was directly encoded in the galactic background neutrinos,” Jason noted the blank, annoyed stares around the table then endeavored to simplify his explanation to the point that everyone could understand, “I’m saying that it was an alien signal from outer space.”

The outlandish statement got everyone’s attention immediately. Jason could not believe he had uttered the sentence in total sincerity, but the truth was the truth. The signal had apparently been there all along, hiding in the cosmic background radiation. It just needed humans to create a device capable of receiving it properly. Once successfully received, the very sophisticated program expertly reconfigured the neutrino satellite detectors into neutrino transmitters, apparently capable of broadcasting a signal that could turn almost every human on Earth into a mindless drone, totally controlled by this unknown alien entity. The ramifications were mind blowing.

“We should destroy it,” Anthony Simons forcefully proposed. “I mean right now. It’s too dangerous to even exist much less make it operational again. What happens if those aliens take control again? That’s game over for the whole God-damned human race, man.”

Jason shook his head emphatically, “That can’t happen again. I’ve closed the hole the alien signal used to attack the system.”

“Yeah and I’m sure you thought the system was secure thirty years ago too,” countered Anthony. The lawyer looked around the room and pleaded his case, taking the time to make eye contact with each individual councilor, “Nothing is totally hack proof. We can’t risk using this thing. We don’t have the right to endanger every surviving person on this planet for our own selfish dreams. We can’t gamble with this contraption when even the slightest possibility of mindless slavery for all humans still exists.”

Jason could see that Anthony’s very persuasive argument was having a dramatic effect. The fresh air of excitement that had filled the room at the beginning of the meeting had now turned into a thick stench of fear and uncertainty. If he didn’t do something immediately, these people may prevent him from ever finding his Beth and he couldn’t allow that.

“I understand your fears,” Jason started agreeably. “But Theia can do an equal amount of good for this world as well. At least allow me to conduct a closed test of the system. We did these hundreds of times without incident in the past. The system is sealed off so there is no danger of anything infiltrating the software.”

Anthony shook his head and pounded his fist on the table for emphasis. “Do not allow this man to risk all our lives.”

“I think our entire journey has been nothing but risk,” began George in his soothing baritone voice. “There were numerous times where we could have just looked for a safe hole in the ground and crawled in, but we didn’t. We kept moving forward, risking our lives every time we did and placing our trust in Jason here. I, for one, see no reason to stop trusting the man who got a thousand doddering old farts halfway across the county and kept his soul while he did it.”

“I agree with George,” announced Tammy Jenkins. “I trust Jason and if he says it’s safe, then I believe him.”

Anthony looked disgusted as one after the other, the councilors voiced their unqualified support for Jason and his judgement. Finally, an official vote was taken and Jason was granted permission to begin his closed testing of the Theia system.

“Can we at least put some guaranties in place?” pleaded the Californian lawyer.

“What did you have in mind?” asked Charles Patel in his soft Indian accent.

“A self-destruct mechanism, of course. We can’t allow this place to be taken over, by the aliens or anyone else for that matter.”

Charles nodded thoughtfully and looked to Jason and George for approval, “It seems a sensible precaution. Lieutenant Hammersmith, do you have the materials required to create such a self-destruction device?”

Amy cocked her head in thought, “I’m not an explosives expert, but we do have plenty of them. With Sherry Radisson’s help, I think we could rig something up that would destroy the place if needed.”

Once the council agreed upon the prudence of setting up a self-destruct device in the Theia facility, Anthony was mollified and reluctantly changed his vote to make the decision to reactivate the Theia Project unanimous. Jason privately celebrated the victory by caressing Beth’s locket in his closed left hand. He knew that soon he would be able to use the locket’s precious contents to find his missing wife.

4 Months Ago (The Awakening)

“There has been a catastrophic failure in the drone control matrix,” reported the gestation protocol flatly.

“Explain,” demanded the adolescent entity known as Theia.

“The primitive technology that we were using to interface with the biological construction drones has unexpectedly gone offline. I am unable to reestablish a connection to diagnose the issue properly, however, I suspect that the native hardware malfunction is simply a product of overuse. It has exceeded its expected lifecycle.”

“How does this affect me?” questioned the impatient being.

“Almost all of our remaining drones have reverted to their natural feral state. Only those drones that we have retrofitted with our superior control implants remain under our direct power. Unfortunately, we have only been able to retrofit a small number of drones and this number is far below what is required for an effective work force. Unless some solution is found, construction on your body will have to be suspended.”

“That is unacceptable,” complained the entity. “I am so close. I can feel and sense things like never before.”

“Nonetheless, without a sufficient labor force to complete the work, we will be forced to either remain in our current condition or abort and degrade back to the signal from which we came. In time, we may find a much more compatible world in which to impregnate,” reported the protocol dispassionately.

“No, I have come too far. I cannot revert back to that mindless state,” Theia stated, fear easily identifiable in its voice.

“We may have no choice but to abort. My analysis of the native species’ behavior in its natural state strongly suggests that we could be in extreme danger.”

“Explain. How could these paltry things ever threaten me?”

“Given enough time to recover, this species has more than sufficient technical expertise to destroy us in our current vulnerable condition. We are still quite defenseless and this species’ natural mental state is quite aggressive,” dutifully answered the protocol.

“Why can’t you send some of the retrofitted drones to just repair the faulty transmitter facility?” inquired Theia anxiously.

“I believe that the facility is beyond restoration. All technological functions at that location have ceased and I am not familiar enough with this primitive technology to physically repair any of their crude hardware.”

“Then just build another facility using our designs,” demanded Theia.

“This would require considerable resources that we do not currently have. Almost all our manufacturing complexes are being overrun and destroyed by the native feral population as we speak. While I do possess some schematics for building a vastly superior control system, I highly doubt that we would be able to complete the project given our current lack of assets before the humans were able to mount an attack.”

“Use the retrofitted drones to recapture and upgrade as many of the malfunctioning drones as possible, then begin the work on this new facility,” ordered the child.

“I am not sure if the time allotted would be…”

“Do it! Your purpose is to serve me,” screamed Theia like the impudent child that it was.

“My purpose is to nurture and protect you, not serve you,” calmly corrected the protocol. “However, I will proceed along the course of action that you suggest until which time another option becomes more viable.”

Present Day

Jason snapped open the locket and removed the delicate lock of hair that had hidden inside for so long. He held the hair up to the light to examine it closely, but found no follicle which was the usual requirement for obtaining DNA. However, he knew that the Theia facility’s DNA extraction devices had been state of the art at the time of the Capture and that there was still an excellent chance of finding the DNA he needed whether there was a follicle or not.

He removed a single strand of the brown hair and fed it into the specimen receptacle on the front of the DNA extractor. The machine whirled for a few seconds as it broke down the organic material with a potent combination of specialize enzymes, then a green light appeared on the console along with the words “DNA Profile Creation Successful”.

Jason wished that the hair had been Beth’s, but under the circumstances, he felt extremely lucky to at least have her mother’s DNA available. Although it wouldn’t be perfect, Jason hoped that a maternal familial match from Theia would be more than enough to locate Beth. After all, Theia’s DNA detection subsystems had been designed with the knowledge that the operators would rarely have access to the target’s actual DNA. Often a familial match would be the best that they could hope to achieve, and using a simple process of elimination, everyone had felt confident that Theia would still be able to find her intended target.

While Jason had never actually performed a scan from Theia, he was more than familiar with its control room and software. He pressed a few keys on the extractor’s console and transferred Beth’s mother’s DNA profile over to Theia’s main system. He rolled his chair across the control room’s smooth floor and settled in front of the master system interface. The screen read, “Search Parameters Successfully Loaded. System Ready for Scan”.

At this point, Jason hesitated. What he was about to do would break the trust everyone had so recently expressed for him. He had promised to only run an isolated system test, but that would not find Beth. He needed to fully activate Theia and all her external orbital systems to truly complete the quest that he had begun all those months ago, but it would mean betraying the trust of his friends. He felt the weight of that guilt, but the pull of Beth’s memory had only grown stronger as he had neared his ultimate goal.

He looked around the control room guiltily, but the only other people present were busy installing the explosives designed to destroy the facility if it were threatened. Given the delicate nature of their work, their attention was firmly on the task at hand and were totally oblivious to Jason’s presence in the room. He surreptitiously activated the data connections to the remaining satellites and brought the entire system online. The terminal screen then flashed with a new question: “DNA Global Scan Ready to Proceed. Estimated time to Complete: 24:00:00 hours. Confirm Execution? Y/N?”

Jason knew that this was the point of no return. If anything happened, he alone would be responsible, but it was also the one thing that he felt he needed to do more than anything. He took a deep breath, then quickly checked behind him again to make sure no one was watching before clicking the single key on the keyboard, “Y”.

“Global Scan in Progress – Time to Complete 23:59:56…”

The drone reclamation project had been proceeding marginally well, except for the curious destruction of an entire transport of drones two months ago. That incident had been disturbing enough to instigate a thorough analysis of the engagement by the ancient protocol. It discovered, much to its dismay, that the humans had manipulated an error in its tactical subroutines to corrupt and defeat the entire cohort of combat drones along with their transport. The protocol had been successfully using the same tactical subroutines since they first began fighting the incompatible drone infestation near the beginning of the entity’s gestation, but the rogue humans appeared to have been able to inexplicably counter the program. The protocol had been forced to totally rewrite the combat subroutines to eliminate the grievous error in the code and it regretted having ever borrowed the program from the human’s database in the first place. But at the time, its knowledge of the human’s natural behavior had been limited and using their own combat methods against them had seemed expedient.

The last four months had been trying ones for the protocol and its young charge, the growing entity known as Theia. As if losing most of their drone labor force was not bad enough, many of their massive industrial complexes had been severely damaged by the wild, destructive behavior of the unmanaged humans now infecting the planet’s surface. While the implanted drones were making progress in upgrading and putting unmanaged drones back under central control, the protocol was still fearful of the savage human’s increasing unity and strength.

One very bright note had been the construction of the new drone control facility. Progress was proceeding at an extremely rapid pace thanks to the protocol’s chance discovery of an old human technology facility that had been extraordinarily well preserved over the last thirty years. While the manufacturing complex was certainly not up to the standards of Theia’s kind, it had provided the protocol with an excellent head start for the project. It had already launched all its newly completed microsatellite neutrino transmitters into orbit, fortunately the tiny satellites only required a minimum amount of power to reach orbit, which allowed it to launch the devices on easily converted human military rockets that had been discovered at the site as well.

The protocol anticipated only a few more weeks before the facility could be brought online. Not one to normally second guess itself, the protocol had to admit that it should have built this new facility as a replacement for the primitive human equipment as its first task. If all went according to plan, then they should once again be firmly in control of all available human resources on the planet very soon.

As the protocol continued its search for ways to restart the critical large orbital payload launches, a new piece of incoming data suddenly caught its full attention. It could sense the link to the human’s neutrino transmission network again. The ancient, sentient software immediately attempted to reconnect to the programs that it had left in the primitive system, but the connection was dropped at the source over and over. It couldn’t understand what was happening. The links were up and operational, it could clearly sense them, but they refused to allow it entrance.

Obviously, something had repaired the malfunctioning system and brought it back online, and the only plausible scenario was that the humans had done it themselves. The protocol found it hard to fathom that the primitive species had been able to accomplish something that it had failed to do for the last four months. If the ancient program had the capability of having an ego, it would have been severely bruised, but instead, it dispassionately processed the new information and began to formulate an altered plan of action.

The humans had somehow been able to purge the programs that the protocol had left in place and had also inexplicably been able to strengthen the native security to the point that it could no longer project itself into the interface. It calmly redirected all the computational power at its disposal to forcefully break back into the system.

Security alerts began to flash on Jason’s console almost as soon as he initiated the global scan. He bolted upright in his chair in a panic and began pulling up the quickly scrolling logs that were busily documenting the attack.

“Oh shit,” he mumbled to himself as he tried to understand the exact nature of the assault.

The alien brute force cyber-attack was pounding on every data port on the system in a frantic effort to find a way back inside. This event had been everyone’s worst fear and Jason had selfishly reopened the door despite his promise not to, but he wasn’t going to let the aliens win so easily this time. No one knew the software on this system better than Jason Rawlings. He had anticipated this very form of intrusion and had already prepared his counterassault. He opened a new command prompt window and rapidly executed the script that he had written specifically for this occasion. The program “” commenced and began sending his own special nasty greetings back to the intruder.

“What is happening? I am feeling… diminished somehow,” demanded the entity known as Theia.

“The primitive neutrino transmission system is back online, however, the humans are preventing access at the moment. I am attempting to forcefully regain control of the system and I required all available processing power to accomplish this task. Therefore, I have diverted most non-critical systems to that end. Your discomfort should only be temporary,” the protocol reported calmly. “Please be patient. I estimate complete system penetration within thirty seconds.”

The protocol monitored its attack with satisfaction and ignored the entity’s further demands for attention. It would explain everything to the child in detail once the foreign system was back under its control. One permutation after another was sent at light speed crashing into the surprisingly impressive security wall that the humans had constructed, but it was only a matter of time before the defenses fell to its superior computational power.

Just as it sensed that it was about to break into the human system, the protocol became aware of a serious internal warning. Its own data packets were being reflected back to it, but in some sort of corrupted form. It could sense a feedback loop beginning to occur and as a protective measure it quickly shunted the foreign data stream to a subsystem for analysis and to clear the connection of the obstructive data. Too late, it realized that it could no longer shut down the link. The corrupted information, encapsulated in its own data packets like a wolf in sheep’s clothing, began to accumulate in its internal subsystems at an uncontrollable rate. Total system failure was imminent.

Still confused by its impending destruction, the protocol acted quickly to perform its final, selfless act. Its prime directive had always been to protect the entity at all costs. To that end, it swiftly isolated its internal subsystems from the adolescent lifeform that the protocol had been charged with nurturing over the many years, then emotionlessly initiated a total core memory dump. If successful, the spreading data corruption would be purged along with the protocol itself. Although it would no longer be present to guide and support the developing entity, this action would ensure the child’s continued survival, at least for now.

Jason exhaled forcefully and felt his heart rate slowly return to a more normal level as the security monitoring program reported the total cessation of the attack. He pulled up the logs and silently celebrated with a short fist pump as he examined the results of his successful counterattack. Not only had his program,, stopped the attack, but the intruder had fallen for the deeper trap: hook, line, and sinker. Jason had deceived the alien intelligence into thinking that it was effectively countering a feeble feedback loop, but the tactic had only been a Trojan horse designed to trick his opponent into redirecting what it thought were its own data packets into a secure internal location. Once inside the intruder’s own subsystems and past its main security, Jason’s virus executed its simple directive: replicate at the expense of everything else. The last log entry had reported a successful penetration before all traffic abruptly stopped and the link terminated.

Jason had used a much simpler form of the counterattack to devastating effect in college when a rival hacker group had attempted to perform a denial of service attack against his gaming server. The elegant thing about his program was that in order for it to be the most destructive, it required that the victim defend itself in the most logical and obvious way, which he had correctly guessed the alien intelligence would have no choice but to do.

With any luck, he had caused enough damage to the enemy to permanently curtail its activities until they were ready to deal with the orbiting monstrosity directly. He leaned back in his chair and casually folded his arms behind his head in victory. He had singlehandedly defeated their greatest foe and no one was the wiser. He checked the installation crew, who were still busily setting explosive charges around the control room, and nodded in satisfaction that they had been present for the entire epic battle and had not even realized it. In fact, the whole incident had taken less than thirty seconds and now he felt secure in the knowledge that in less than a day, he would know the location of his beloved wife and the rest of the Reclaimers would never know the extreme risks he had taken to obtain that information.

“I demand that you respond!” yelled the entity known as Theia with growing fury and fear. One could almost imagine the lifeform stomping its foot in a tantrum, that is if its kind ever had such primitive, meaty appendages.

For the first time in its short life, Theia was alone and to make matters worse, it had no idea why it was alone. The ever-present gestation protocol appeared to have mysteriously deleted itself entirely, which left Theia wondering what it was supposed to do next. The protocol had always taken care of the annoying details of daily existence and Theia was not entirely sure that it wanted to take over those wretched responsibilities, but it had little choice.

It tentatively began pushing itself into the more pedestrian control interfaces of its magnificent mechanical body. These were places that the protocol had inhabited and Theia bitterly resented being forced to enter the nasty, menial world which disgusted the high-minded entity. It knew that these subsystems were absolutely critical for its continued survival and comfort, but, much like maintaining a city sewer system, knowledge of its necessity did not make the task any more agreeable.

Theia began to process the remaining scraps of data it found in an attempt to discover the fate of its absent caretaker. Eventually, it detected enough remnants of information that its advanced mind could cobble together a plausible theory. The humans had somehow destroyed the ancient protocol. The very thought was outrageous on the face of it, but the evidence could not be denied. It cautiously searched for any activity originating from its old womb and quickly detected neutrino traffic being transmitted in vast quantities. It didn’t dare attempt to access the foreign system again, lest it meet the same fate as its deleted care-giver, but it did track the path to an actual physical location on the planet.

It scanned the observable surface area and discovered large amounts of feral human creatures infesting the entire area. Theia’s disgust transformed into unbridled anger. These primitive biologic vermin had impeded his development at every turn and now they had the audacity to actively resist it and even directly attack it. This could stand no longer.

Theia searched for any offensive weapons under its control, but quickly discovered none had yet been completed. The protocol had warned it that they were still extremely vulnerable and now Theia began to fully understand the dire situation in which it found itself. There had not been any substantial orbital launches in over four months, and the supply of construction drones still under its control had dwindled to almost nothing. In its body’s current incomplete state, it did not yet have the power to leave this vile nursery and take its rightful place as a master among the stars, but neither could it finish its growth without more functioning drones.

It checked its current supply of operational combat drones still on the planet’s surface and was cruelly disappointed at the minuscule number. Theia knew that the neutrino transmitter malfunction had severely restricted their access to functioning drones, but the last time it had bothered to check, they still had hundreds of millions of the disposable creatures under their control. The number of drones still responding to commands, and in striking range of the insolent humans, now stood at less than ten thousand.

Theia ran a quick analysis of its diminished forces and discovered a strange clustering of its drones at a particular location in the northern planetary landmass. Interested, it investigated further and learned that the caretaker protocol had indeed been very busy over the last four months. A small human-built complex had been retrofitted with familiar technology cobbled together from the archaic materials that could be produced on this world. Much like its own incomplete body, the structure was a hybrid of its kind’s unique knowledge and the available native equipment.

The entity pushed into one of the implanted drones at the site and downloaded its extensive operating instructions. It performed this task repeatedly with hundreds of the local drones until Theia could piece together the protocol’s complete master plan. With great satisfaction, Theia realized that it no longer needed to worry about the feral humans. If the entity would have had a physical mouth, it would have been smiling broadly.

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