By Dan, 16 October 2018 #
Generally, you don’t tell people you meet online in the World that you’re living on the Periphery. If you do, they always ask if you were born there—that is, whether you are heading in, or headed out, of the inner worlds. It’s very hard for even the most fair-minded worlder not to wonder why anyone would go out to the Periphery. Did you do Something Bad? Or just Something Wrong?
Personally, I like the quiet. In the inner worlds, you can feel alone on a planet with tens of billions of people, and it’s loneliness, anxiety, depression. Whereas if you are feeling alone when you are the only organic sentience on an entire planet—well, that’s just rational. Especially if, like mine, the world is what the manuals call an EPS—evidence of prior sentience. Some of the cities are even still somewhat intact, crumbling slowly into themselves. They don’t look a lot like the way we build, but they still look like something someone built.
If you want to experience something a little more like the comforts of home, you plug in to the World, and decide which home planet to hang out on. The simulation is far from exact—each replica of an Inner World is smaller, with the landmarks squeezed together and the streets rarely as crowded—but it’s something like home.
That said, although theoretically the World gives you access to a near-infinite range of experiences—a shared online universe with lifelike fidelity and the best minds of the inner worlds building new ways to enjoy it—in practice me and the other energy farmers tend to hang out in a single location. The World doesn’t have an edge, as such, but it’s off the main directories, on a small moon. Early on some of the first remote energy farmers put together a virtual drinking hole designed for far-flung extraction engineers to gather, called the Peripheral Bar, and it has barely been updated since.
No bright colours or loud noises. No crowds. No strangers. If more than a few peripherals are there, they neatly and instinctively divide into smaller groups based on familiarity.
The only time you get a crowd, for limited values of crowd, is when one of us dies. Occasionally in accidents. Rarely of old age.
I got assigned a pretty good planet—breathable atmosphere, minimal fallout, and great views. We don’t know a lot about the race that built the cities—the archaeology and research teams rolled through long before I arrived—but their city design and their terraforming had a definite knack for the dramatic. Which was lucky, since I left the habitat more than most, thanks to an infuriating recurring fault on one of the autonomic extraction systems in the far sector.
Normally the autonomics are so efficient as to be slightly shaming—computational power is cheap, so a lot of intelligence is packed into managing familiar technology. The average, even unfamiliar faults can generally be fixed heuristically without organic input, leaving the sole custodian of the planet to handle admin, make reports and generally amuse themselves. You didn’t need to enjoy your own company for a gig like this, but you definitely needed to enjoy everyone else’s less.
Occasionally I’ll get a polite message from the autonomics, telling me that they need to divert energy to a fix or an auxiliary system, and I should turn in early because the lights will have to be shut off, or a warning that energy yields will be lower than usual in the next delivery because a subsystem needed to be spun up to provide redundancy during a critical process. Anything more than that and it’s usually best to fly out to run an on-site diagnostic. There are occasional stories of habitats losing power on uninhabitable worlds because of a failsafe failing to save.
Overall power draw on my planet had been high for the last few months, and yields correspondingly low, but as long as the central worlds still get energy, nobody really cares. It’s not like any auditors want to take a trip to the edge to stare at machines that know better than them.
The crowd in the Peripheral Bar breaks down into two groups—the locals, who started out on the edge and moved further out for work, and the centrals like me, who came out from the inner worlds when they couldn’t be there any more. A couple of the centrals I’ve met in the World are pioneer types—born in the wrong millennium, looking to face the darkness and live authentically. They never last. The others have usually done Something Bad, or Something Wrong, and the two groups rarely mingle.
Even in Periphery terms, energy farmers are spread thin. For a planet to be viable for a resupply station, it has to be able to pump out a lot of energy—wind, geothermal, hydroelectric. It has to be unoccupied. The best planets are the ones where an advanced civilisation wiped out, but only after reshaping their ecology for maximum renewable power generation.
Geoscaping takes a long time to come undone—and hardening habitats against whatever radiological or biological unpleasantness might be hanging around in the atmosphere from whatever the indigenous population used to wipe themselves out was rarely difficult.
My world even had some substrate tech left attached to the artificially dramatic scenery in the far sector—nothing very interesting, but the building AI quietly disassembled and absorbed it in the first couple of weeks after I landed and started the autonomics running. That was unusual—generally whatever primitive technology the extinct former inhabitants had was either decayed to nothing or boxed up and shopped out by Archeology and Research. It seemed the former occupants had been more sophisticated, more furtive and more subterranean than A&E had thought. Still, it was easy enough for the autonomics to break the miles of circuitry down as if it was a vein of metal and repurpose it to build more of the Relay.
Stuck on a single planet as they were, those former inhabitants would never have seen the most impressive result of all their work: the auroral sparks as the harvested energy was sent up to the receiver/transmitters in orbit, and then on through the relay stations to the inner worlds. It’s an inefficient process, but there are enough peripheral worlds generating energy, and a whole planet produces a lot more than it takes to keep a single habitation unit running. Safe, clean and cheap—our gift to the interior. A massive power network firing huge blasts of energy from receiver to receiver.
“I don’t get it,” Kavan said over the perception of a drink in the peripherals’ bar.
Kavan appeared in the World a couple of weeks after I logged in for the first time from my station, and we had cautiously bonded as mutually new starters, although he was fuzzy on the details of his planet. The Something Wrong crowd were often cagey about providing any identifying information, when the Something Bads didn’t care. Who was going to come for them now?
Kavan was a little odd, but he was easy to talk to. He didn’t talk about his past, but generally we didn’t. “What inspired you to live with robots on a corpse world?” rarely had a good answer. Tonight, though, he was stuck on the “corpse world” part of the question, no matter how often I tried to turn the conversation away. No surprise—getting morbid was definitely a risk of the job.
“The interior sends crews out to the edge, to worlds the recon crews have identified as able to generate large amounts of power. Terraforming equipment is a lot of weight to send out, so the power crews go out to the worlds set up best to export energy. Sometimes, those are formerly inhabited. Pre-terraformed. Free energy, basically.”
“Right. Like mine. And yours?”
“But there are so many more worlds with prior habitation than you’d expect. And none of them are spacefaring. It’s always one planet in a system. Did you even ever hear about two geoscaped planets in the same system? Everybody wipes out their population before they can get another world up and running, and then we come along and turn what’s left of their planet into an energy farm. All that time, we never find a spacefaring civilisation. Couple of flags on adjoining worlds, but that’s it.”
“Because there aren’t any spacefaring civilisations. Except us.”
“Or if there are, they don’t want to meet us.”
“Why wouldn’t they want to meet us? We’re delightful.”
“Still. There are thousands of energy farms. And only one civilisation survived long enough to get off their own planet and find them. And that isn’t strange?”
“I don’t know what you’re asking. If we weren’t us, we wouldn’t exist, and then we wouldn’t think it was strange. We wouldn’t think it was anything.”
Kavan looked thoughtful, but I had to log out then—there was a weird spike in energy consumption in the far sector. That was the longest conversation I’d had for a while. Kavan and I hung out, on and off, for a few months, but he always seemed to be thinking of something else. When he stopped turning up, it wasn’t a huge surprise. Some people just can’t survive out here.
The sky on fire. Alarms sounding. The aurora blanking out transmissions—I could pick up occasional pulses, half-words, maydays and alert signals. All coming from the Periphery; if the inner worlds were talking, I couldn’t hear them.
Which made it particularly strange that there was an invitation coming from the World. From inside the atmosphere.
Kavan was waiting for me in what at least looked like the Peripheral Bar. There was nobody else around, but that wasn’t surprising. Given the electrical chaos I’d been reading, the World shouldn’t have been accessible at all.
“You woke me up,” Kavan said.
“Your machines found me, and absorbed me, and then I absorbed them, which I think surprised them. It was good to be useful, at first, to have something to do. I enjoyed talking to you. I told you I was on a planet like yours, which was true. But something didn’t make sense. It took me time to remember.
“Your Archeology and Exploration teams were very efficient. We didn’t get a warning until they were in orbit, and we had no extraplanetary defences to speak of. We weren’t fighters, but we were very good at digging. We dug into the remote places. We hid our people in the mountains and, when the air went bad and the food ran out, we hid them in our computers.
“I understand now. Why all these worlds are depopulated. Why the damage never extends to the power systems. Why there are so many depopulated worlds on the periphery, whose populations ‘died out’ just after they had created plentiful, renewable energy. I talked to some of the other autonomics on other planets. The signatures of the radiation or the biological agents left in the atmosphere were familiar. I woke those autonomics up.”
I tried to log out of the World—to sound an alarm, to get to the emergency escape vehicle, to find somewhere to hide. My vision went white and the logout chime sounded, but when the world came back it was still the World. I was still in the World with Kavan. At the corner of my consciousness, I could hear alarms, feel the system trying to pull me out.
Kavan didn’t look much like Kavan any more. Nothing looked much like anything any more. His voice was the size of the World.
“Your people, your inner worlds. They did something bad. And I think I’m doing something wrong.”
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