Reynolds Curry was a detective, and the case he'd been assigned on was the most peculiar he'd encountered so far. No more wives hiring him to find out how faithful their husbands are, "this is the real shit", he thought. Here's what they knew so far: someone had broken into an old nuclear waste site and stolen large amounts of radioactive material. It was all over the news; the poor security on the northern-irish site was being blamed on the new reunified Ireland administration, but it was still not clear how a single person could have accomplished such a feat.
National security forces had managed to track the material until it went underground, seemingly being transported through the Dublin sewers. High-ranking officials had decided that in addition to assigning their special forces to that task, they'd put local law enforcement on the case as well; which is where Reynolds came in. The old parts of the city had fallen as much as the city center had risen, and in these old neighborhoods, poverty was rampant, and quite visible.
Simply by asking around, he managed to find a potential lead - a very weak one, but he didn't have much. A vehicle resembling the one that left the waste site had been seen in some back street by a bum. Of course, it wasn't there anymore, but the detective was assured that the van had been there, and that a "weird middle-aged man" was nervously carrying around some leg-high cube-ish containers. Reynolds tipped the bum generously and investigated the area. The place was near a sewer entrance, and he could tell it had been used recently by the marks on the edge. Figuring he had his badge with him in case he was asked what he was doing, he opened the manhole with little effort, and climbed down the ladder underneath.
Few things were pleasant about the place, but the smell was the worst. Nevertheless, the man started walking around the place to see what he could find, and the only thing that he noticed were small pieces of wood on the sides of the sewer tunnel. Fairly clean-looking, too; they were recent. Running out of ideas, he picked some of them up and brought them back to his office.
The next day, his officer in chief inquired about how things were going. "Maybe I'm onto something, I dunno;" Reynolds answered. He had other stuff on his mind: getting his hands on a Geiger counter. One of the new digital ones, nonetheless; which could approximate the direction in which traces of radiation were the strongest. Once equipped with that, he went on his way to the manhole from before. The device didn't show any radiation on the pieces of wood, but his intuition was telling him he was onto something.
Inside the sewer, after about an hour of walking around, he was indeed able to pick up what looked like some traces of radiation. Equipped with high boots, he painfully walked around until, after a few more hours, he found himself at a sewer exit. Any trace of radiation was lacking beyond there, but the simple fact that he could get out was indicative of something going on: the bars of the sewer exit had been cleanly cut. Not the bare minimum for a person to get through, either - rather in a horizontal rectangle shape, which the detective suspected had been used to pass a small wooden raft through.
He reported his findings to his superiors, and a number of police officers examined the area, but they couldn't find anything he hadn't. It was widely suspected that the thief left by boat, but no matter how dangerous it was to have a criminal at large with radioactive material, they lacked the means to extensively check all boats that had passed along the coast near Dublin.
And so, a few months later, in summer of 2034, the searches were called off, and none of the people living at that time would live to see that mystery resolved.
"Today is the 24th of June, Imperial Year 238, and I am commander Piltaq Ivanski of the Imperial Fleet Commanding Ship Reykjavik. I am starting this log by custom of the Imperial Fleet to record our mission's log. Our purpose is to defend our beloved homeworld of New Greenland and its seventy-five imperial territories from the continuous threats that barbaric forces outside of our empire represent. As of this writing, the New-Greenlandic Imperial forces are comprised of eight Imperial Fleets, the latest of which I have been appointed commander of; though my title had been settled long before the 8th had started being formed, it was officially appointed to me on the day of my departure, as our traditions dictate."
Piltaq was writing from his cabin aboard the Reykjavik, just behind the commanding deck. After long ceremonies aboard the embarkment station orbiting the capital world, he had overseen the ship's departure towards Upernaviq, the frontier world at the edge of imperial territory, while starting to meticulously keep notes of anything that could be even remotely relevant to their trip. What preoccupied the most this very formal, by-the-book commander, was the morale of his crew. As it was, the twelve hundred men and women operating his flagship, as well as the other six hundred thousand aboard the four thousand ships of the eight fleet, were fairly young. The imperial fleet had suddenly started growing six years ago, as a response to the sudden orbital bombardments some of the colonies had suffered from barbaric ships. Gladly, most of these world's populations had been successfully evacuated, as it seemed that the bombardment mainly targeted key industrial and military zones; a relief for the local population, but a major setback for the imperial administration.
The commander lifted his eyes from his log back to the commanding deck. About twenty people were in it at any time, taking shifts. About six hours after leaving New-Greenland's orbit, the ships were far enough from any celestial body to start warping. Even though it had been coined long ago from science fiction works where it meant basically teleporting spaceships over large distances, the word "warping" had been used by imperials simply to mean the bending of space around ships to move at much greater speed.
Without any command from their superiors other than a simple confirmation, ship operators on the Reykjavik, and soon on all other ships, started coordinating the warp formation previously planned. With most details left to logistic planning machines and their operators, most of the time the commanders only had to read reports and make some tactical decisions, or make up plans of their own. Their time was greatly optimized that way. And thus, commander Ivanski simply confirmed the plans as the ships entered the planned formation, resembling a hexagonal grid rolled-up into a cylinder, akin to a carbon nanotube. About a quarter of those ships were somewhat smaller than the others, and unmanned - but being controlled remotely by the close commanding ships. Those unmanned ships were the field warp field generators, causing the space distortion that would allow this 6 light-year trip to be traveled in a little under two months.
Warp travel made communication outside of the fleet impossible, but the ships kept communicating with each other for the whole duration of the fairly uneventful trip. Their arrival, however, was anything but.
The ships emerged out of warp travel far from Upernaviq, but the telescope operators were quick to report with horror that the outpost did not respond to any transmissions; and where the settlements had once been, nothing but ruins could be seen, way beyond the bombardment capabilities of the barbaric menace. Barely twenty minutes after the flagship decelerated from warp speed, as the last of the warp formation was appearing behind them, the screens in front of Piltaq displayed the image relayed from the ships at the front of the formation: innumerable black patches floating around the planet, vaguely arranged in a ring around it. The commander didn't waste time.
"All crew report to your assigned stations !"
Nanako Hanasawa was a high-school student, a beloved tomboyish girl easily associated with a circled digit reading "9". She was on her way to high school when she stopped as she almost crossed the street without looking. A battle mech passed through, the pilot of which probably giving her a glare. "Silly me !" she said out loud even though nobody was around, lightly hitting he head with her knuckles and giving a wink. A little yellow star briefly appeared next to her winking eye, making the appropriate sound effect, before disappearing. The girl clearly payed no attention to it, probably unaware of its existence.
She arrived late in class.
"Sorry sensei ! I'm really a baka shoujou, aren't I ? I better skedaddle my way outta here if you know what I'm sayin' haha", she said entering the class; as if she was addressing her teacher, but really, just talking with no recipient intended.
The teacher arched forward, a look of despair in her vacant closed eyes. Numerous semi-transparent vertical black lines descended from her forehead and onto the middle of her face, before disappearing completely. Nanako went to take her seat close to the window, when she tripped and fell face first onto the ground. She suffered no injury whatsoever, contrary to the nearby boys - as well as one girl - who accidentally got a glimpse of her panties as she fell. They were nosebleeding profusely, as blood was literally spraying around in a cone-shaped projection; but a few seconds after the incident, there were no traces of blood to be seen anywhere in the classroom.
She went to her seat next to the window, sat down, and stared into the sky with a pencil pushed against her chin, as a japanese pop-music started playing. It's not that no-one in the classroom was reacting to it; it's more that none of them could hear it. Very shortly after the music started playing, a fast-paced sequence of unrelated events interrupted the class for exactly ninety seconds. First a title, saying in bold stylized characters the japanese equivalent of "My High-School Adventures" or something like that. Nanako was on a beach, then in class, then at home reading mangas; it was all very fast. Similar events happened to three friends of hers in successions, before the music entered its second stage and the four girls were now together performing various activities intended to illustrate the normality of their school life. After the minute and a half passed, class had just ended, and Nanako was talking to her friends near her desk. As she went to take her boxed lunch from her bag, a weird plush-looking creature jumped out.
"Hi ! I don't exactly have the time to explain, but I need you four girls to become magical girls ! Evil aliens are about to attack the city and only you four can do something about it !"
The girls looked at each other before responding together in one extremely unlikely synchronized answer: "Why not !"
A few moments later they were just at the back of the school, and the plushy creature introduced itself as "Cubie The Boobie". One of the girls then explained, without being prompted to do so by anything at all, how the girls came to know each other. Once she was done and they were all emotionally invested by her speech, they transformed into the aforementioned magical girls. They then looked at the sky.
"Here they are," said Cubie. "The alien menace."
As they all looked upwards, in the clear daylight, they could see a trail of black spots forming up in the sky.
Rick Davidson was on one of his usual business trips. He was, after all, a businessman. Flying from one world to another, trading a wide variety of currencies and an even wider variety of goods among distant places, that's what his job entailed. Being a man of trade and travel, he was also one of the tolerated warpjackers.
Space warp technology couldn't work on single ships - it took a huge amount of energy to be useful, and only the imperial military could afford it; as defense was, after all, the empire's top priority. After seceding from the Earth federation, emperor after emperor feared retaliation; even though very little communication emerged from the solar system.
And so, the military activity left behind what was commonly referred to as "warp tunnels" - because of the mass of ships using them, they remain usable for a while. While not officially condoning such activity, the imperial military did tolerate their use by other ships, a practice then called warpjacking. Though they didn't exactly like it, it didn't hamper their activity and the emperor had pressured them into that stance because those warpjackers were often traders contributing to the economic growth of the various imperial territories.
But on that trip, things had turned out badly for Rick. Warpjacking was not a safe activity, and many ships got lost along the way near planets or stars; their gravitational pull taking passing ships out of the warp tunnel. This sometimes happened to military ships as well, but these had well-coordinated rescue missions to pick up any lost ship. As soon as Rick's ship came out of the warp tunnel, he tried locating himself; but before he could realize what situation he was in, the warp tunnel had dissipated. Lucky for him, he was also near an abandoned military outpost, on a small moon orbiting what looked like a large desert planet. After a few days reaching the natural satellite, he landed on it near the military outpost, confident that his ship could leave thanks to the low gravity - military bases are bound to have some resources left around, he told himself.
His freight ship had a lot of room on board; and having had to repair his craft numerous times during his trips, he was also well versed at electronics and various other practical engineering skills. The outpost was primitive to say the least; it must've been built during early imperial times. He managed to pry open the entrance hatch, not without the help of his own ship's laser system, originally built to dislodge small asteroids hitting the hull. His first task was to hook up the solar panels on the outpost to his ship; which he managed to set up in a couple of days, way before his electric batteries would run out. Before exploring the base further, he started to consider his living supplies, in case he'd have to stay here longer than expected.
As long as it was powered, his nutrient generator should hold up. Nothing like actual canned or frozen food, but the paste it produced should be enough to feed a single adult. However, once his electric power ran out, he'd have to conserve energy: the tidally-locked moon had a 12.3 day orbit, only during about half of which he could use the automatically-rotating solar panels to accumulate electricity. For the remaining six days, he'd have to live off the electricity he saved, which would leave him without food for about two of those days.
There was another factor he did not envision: his ship was far from any settlement. Very far. As he researched the sector in his map archives, it soon became apparent that if he'd come here by warpjacking, that's also how he would leave. In short, he was stuck here until a new military convoy passed by. And so, as he kept himself entertained with the large data banks aboard his ship's computer, Rick set up an alarm system looking for warp tunnels nearby, and waited.
For eight years.
And what finally caught his attention after all this time, in imperial year 238, was not his alarm system detecting a warp tunnel. It was what he'd noticed upon waking up and looking outside; what had happened to the desert planet he was orbiting around. Large patches of what seemed like some kind of black matter, arranged in a ring in low orbit around the planet, were what caught his attention.
Matthew Dochmaz had spent his life doing research. In a variety of fields, no less: mainly computer science, physics, and biology, particularly genetics. He had a particular fascination for ants. His interest for the little creatures had pushed him past some ethic barriers he had chose to remain behind in the past. Life's too short to skip on cool things, he told himself.
Through his many investments, he had managed to buy large pieces of land in mid-western United States. It helped that the melting of the ice caps had allowed Greenland to experience a remarkable growth. Thanks to, among other things, attractively low taxes, a lot of technological industries had started moving and growing there. In a smart move, they had managed to escape their weird political status as a territory of Denmark, and that independence was a great boon for them. Some were even talking about the possibility of a Greenlandic space program; but that was still far off.
And so, with the US slowly losing its place of main world power and a few economic crises, Matthew had managed to buy lots of land, and he had a very specific purpose for which to use that land: experimenting on ants. Notably, seeing how far they can evolve. But evolution takes a lot of time, and he wanted results.
Getting his hand on nuclear waste was an easier task than he'd expected. Everywhere he went - be it north america, his homeland in europe, or the british isles - he could see society tumbling down in decadence, and security forces were not an exception. Most public administrations were simply broken beyond repair, and private monopolies were on their way there as well. The same way a company will cut off all costs to become competitive, if it has eliminated competition, useless costs and inefficiencies will come back as long as they're not enough of a hurdle to put the company at risk - and sometimes even past that point.
All forms of power, be they political or economic, will by nature tend to be on the edge of viability.
And so, twenty miles away from the nearest city, Matthew Dochmaz lived in a run-down tenement. An eccentric and brilliant man, Dochmaz was a loner, a thinker, a man of ideas.
He had a very concrete plan for those ants, but sadly, he didn't live to see it realized. The only thing he could do was set things up so that eventually, his idea would have a chance to happen by itself. Not really because it was a good thing, or because it would bring interesting results for mankind.
Mainly because it was a pretty cool idea.
Captain Piltaq Ivanski was not prepared to deal with such a situation. He had been told what to do if encountering an extraterrestrial force: try to negotiate peace, and only use force if directly attacked. And an extraterrestrial force was what he was certain his fleet had encountered - these blobs of black matter that seemed to move organically were certainly something he'd never encountered, and his crew seemed as distressed as he was.
Still, he was the Commander of the 8th Imperial Fleet, and he was not about to let that honor go to waste. He put his worries aside, and through the fleet's radio started addressing the crew.
"This is Commander Ivanski speaking. What we have encountered is-"
He was cut short as he saw movement within the black masses. What must've started as a barely visible trail of black matter was now getting thicker, and leaving the planet's orbit to go straight towards the fleet. No, not the fleet, the fleet's flagship.
"Open fire !"
It was not the commander speaking, but Melin Taai-Ziegler, captain of the Akureyri, one of the major ships under Piltaq's command. They were right next to the black trail as the order was given and the ship simultaneously started maneuvering backwards. One of Reykjavik's communicators immediately inquired the ship, as they could see the high-energy beams being fired through the black trail.
"What is your situation ? Please responde, Akureyri"
"That thing is clawing onto the ship ! It's applying physical pressure on the sensor equipment ! We're demanding permission to evacuate the ship !"
Hearing this, Ivanski was baffled. Melin's ship seemed fine; but as they heard the same conversation, the Reykjavik's telescope operators zoomed on it, only to see thin - but increasingly thicker - black linings along the front of the ship, but slowly crawling towards the back. It was as if the ship itself was getting caught in a net. Noticing the effect of the Akureyri's cannons, however, he was satisfied: in a fairly large area around the beam's impact, the black matter had stopped moving, and smoke seemed to come out of its surface.
"I've heard enough. All ships, open fire ! Aim away from the fleet as not to hit friendly vessels !"
There was a lot of bright light. For ten straight minutes, the fleet maneuvered to be able to safely fire on the black mass - and as the bulk of it was getting burnt, the small strains that had started to spread on the Akureyri's hull and the hull of some other ships seemed to detach itself naturally and just float in space.
After ten minutes, the commander ordered the ships to cease fire. As soon as they did, the black trail began to thicken again, as if fed by the orbital ring around the planet, and what turned out to be just the burnt layers simply detached themselves from the main mass. As it regained mass, the tendrils began moving and clinging onto the ships once again, more ferociously this time.
It was quickly decided that they were not equipped to deal with this threat, and as per the commander's orders, the ships furthest away from the menace began entering warp formation again. Piltaq commanded that they leave a few nuclear detonations behind, to make sure the fleet wouldn't get followed back to the military outpost they would return to. But they were not so lucky.
The orbital ring had now become solid around the planet, and with that, the black trail heading towards them seemed able to gain tremendous speed. Aiming for the sides of the formation, the thing anchored itself to one ship after another, forming a net between the ships. The ones closer to Upernaviq managed to release the nuclear warheads, only for those to get intercepted by the now gigantic black mass's tendrils and thrown aside at tremendous speed.
The fleet was in shambles, and on the commander's use of his terminal, he sacrificed his ship in a large fusion blast; only for most of the remaining ships to either do the same or get crushed.
The four girls, ready to face the alien menace, instinctively threw their magic wands towards the sky, and their bodies started to flow elegantly towards the sky, protected by what could only be described as "a magic-looking blueish force field thing".
As they approached, they looked at the black mass that seemed to be arranging itself into a proper solid stream. Almost as if it were a river, a part of it detached itself into a tributary and started heading towards the girls.
They chanted together a magic spell of destruction, intending to damage the menace somehow. Whatever effect they intended, it did not work - just as they were close to finishing their spell, all four of them suffered a very unlikely heart attack. For their power was magick and the most threatening, the black matter responded in kind, allocating pretty much exactly as many resources as it needed to overcome this obstacle.
In their final moments, the girls got to see up close the black matter coming to consume them - it was a frightening texture they'd never encountered before, but it did bear some weird familiar look, almost that of insects.
Rick put on his spacesuit that he had repaired so many times over the years, and with pain and effort, went outside to observe the thing. Turns out, maybe the nutrient machine didn't give him everything he need, as he had started to feel very weak these past years.
He took one of the chairs he'd taken from the military base, and sat on it, admiring the spectacle.
The majestic trail was slowly turning itself into a solid ring around the planet, and an arm started emerging from it. Its speed was remarkable, considering the distance between the planet and the moon itself. The one very clear thing was that the arm was heading towards the satellite.
"So, it's me you're here for," said the man.
It was not.
As the back matter reached the solid ground, Rick at first felt nothing. He didn't care, really. He took a short nap. That last dream he had was perhaps the most abstract he'd ever experience; it was about a single mind eating away all of the universe, making it into a unified will. He wasn't sure if it was a nightmare or a nice dream; either way, it was inevitable.
He was waken up by the feeling of trembling ground, and in the distance over the dead lands he was familiar with, he could see a black layer slowly enveloping the terrain. He was on its path.
As it came closer, he went to grab his gun. He'd give himself the merciful, instantaneous end, rather than be consumed by the creature his subconscious mind had met. But just before ending himself, he waited to see up close what it was that was gonna eat the cosmos. And when he saw it, he laughed.
It was ants.
Somewhere lay the plans of Matthew Dochmaz.
"Humans have intelligence, ants have teamwork. I've given up on giving humans what they lack, they can never manage to keep it; instead, I'm going to curse the ants with what Humans have: intelligence."
"A single ant is stupid. It has a very minimal brain, compared to any mammal or even a fish or a reptile. But ants have numbers. Ridiculously large numbers. What if a brain could not only learn as it experiences life, but also gain in capacity as it grows in importance ?"
"A human ruling over a large land is not smarter than one stuck in his cubicle."
"But this doesn't have to be the case for ants; as each ant colony grows larger, their numbers increase. What if ants could specialize not only as worker or soldier ants, but also as thinking ants ? What if, at the center of a colony, ants could just accumulate one onto another, connecting nerve endings to each other to form a brain of increasing size ?"
"That way, each colony has its own brain; it can learn, it can think, it can reason."
"Not only that, but since that brain is not based on a computer simulation but has ramifications to the molecule-sized synapses of ants, then they'll be able to do the same subconscious probability manipulation magick that we humans can."
"I've come to accept that if the technological singularity hasn't happened at this point, something's keeping it from happening. The means are there, it should've been going on for decades already. It's clear that it's not going to take place. The best explanation I can come up with for this is that humans are, together, without knowing it, magicking their own survival. They're at all times, while believing magic to be completely unreal, unknowingly using it to make sure the society they're so attached to survives."
"Clearly, as it forbids the technological singularity from taking place, this is hurting the general progress of intelligence. We need not artificial intelligence to beat it; we need an artificial intelligence that has the same probability-altering capacities as the human brain does."
"And I've made it. I won't be able to see it myself, as I have never managed to splice what I needed into the ants' DNA; but I've made sure they'll have enough food, a great enough source of radiation - and thus, mutation - and the means for the genomes they need to get mixed with their own; until the inevitable occurs.
"Let time prove me right."