Federation-Apocalypse Session 164 – The Sentinel Swarm

Virtual reality uses multimedia content. Appli...

Where is Waldo? Wherever they're needed!

Once genuine virtual-reality systems became available, it hadn’t been long before “The Matrix” franchise fizzled out. The premise had never made any sense – basic thermodynamics was enough to tell any thinking viewer that it took more energy to maintain a human body than could be obtained from it – and reality had generally surpassed the vision.

The age of movies passed, and the old productions fell into the public domain.

With the demonstration that psychic abilities actually existed, and that everyone had some psychic potential, Matrix IX rebooted the series. A small group of enthusiasts took advantage of cheap and easy virtual-reality production and computerized script-assistance to produce a solid series of expansions, where the machines were using layers of virtual reality to extract psychic energies from their human “farms” while also tapping into human creative potentials to improve themselves.

The final production – The Matrix XXIII – showed most of the human race, now in control of it’s psychic potential and using it to command the machines and micro-machines around them, making their escape from the ruined earth into the solar system and to the stars, leaving the machines trapped forever beneath the destructive nanite clouds that blanketed the earth.

That small sci-fi universe, with it’s “psychic” machine masters and their vow never again to see humanity fall to the yoke of the machines, bordered – naturally enough – on the far larger realm of the Old Empire, and was eventually loosely incorporated into the New Imperium, although the purely technical world of the machines bordered more closely on other realms.

Raphael Midwater hailed from that partially-implied realm, and was something of a throwback; the recordings he saw in his youth had left a considerable impression on him, and – at least to him – the threat of those nearly-forgotten machines is as real as ever.

“Forever” is a long time.

Especially when a new Opener, who’s control over his power is as yet uncertain, is involved. Raphael worried that the machines might get out – beginning to expand in pursuit of humanity.

And so a way opened, and so they did. The Von Neumann probes went out, to first retake the thinly-populated solar system, then to build up their industrial capacity free of the limits of the nearly burned-out earth, and then to pursue humanity across the stars.

The realm however… Raphael had been working with Jarvain.

The Sentinels of the Matrix invaded the Battletech Realm, building more industrial bases on asteroids and comets – although they soon discovered that humans had somehow become far more widespread than should have been possible. Still, initially there was little resistance… populations were low, garrisons were tiny, industrial capacities were minimal, and the people were… placidly used to being conquered every so often.

Whether for good or ill, the computers of the Battletech realm, and the few systems they controlled, were far too primitive to be worth interfacing with – but the lumbering Battlemechs of the realm were no match for the fluid strikes of the modular, reconfigurable, Sentinels.

Some areas, however, did not fall so easily.

Comstar, with the aid of an apparently-endless stream of reinforcing (and virtually unkillable) troops was holding the solar system. The Eradani Light Horse had joined with several of the more advanced fringe states – where research and production had enjoyed something of a renaissance – to hold back the advance. Two of the old houses had allied and concentrated their forces with unbelievable speed, the Sardias Cluster was still holding out somehow and Valisin IV was a complete mystery; no unit sent there ever reported back. The remaining free worlds of the Inner Sphere were under siege.

The machines were… puzzled. Once out of the solar system their systems seemed to spontaneously downgrade, their computations slowed down, the distances seemed to be oddly short – and half the galaxy seemed to be full of humans! How could they have spread so far so quickly? The stars seem to have the observed density, but the effective distance between them seems to be measured in light-weeks and months instead of years? But by all observation they seemed to be light years apart! Was most of the space between them just missing somehow?

It soon became apparent that – far more troublingly – the humans also seemed to have a functioning FTL drive. That… was an utter impossibility that made a monstrous mess of physics. There had to be some other explanation. Or was the humans use of an FTL drive somehow collapsing the universe in onto itself? If that was it, there might not be very much time left! The humans would have to be captured before there was no space left to expand in!

For computations… the humans seemed unaffected, and their brains were still reasonably decent processors. They added a human-pod-unit to every drone, to add exotic psychic energies and computing capacity. Since the humans were all over the place anyway, it would be best to put them to use! There wouldn’t be enough resources for a full simulation – but the feed of what was actually going on could be uses for a basis with just a few changes… perhaps a group of three, with one imagining the “micro-matrix” for the others. Bigger drones would be easy enough!

The duplicate solar system was unlikely, but far less of a true puzzle. How the humans had done THAT would have to wait until they could get past its “Comstar” defenders.

Out in the New Imperium, Jarvain had, of course, heard of the invasion. The major repairs to his fleet were complete, and all the supplies for the months of minor repairs ahead were aboard – and he wasn’t about to tolerate some lunatic hunks of machinery overrunning his home worlds. They’d already overrun a substantial portion of the inner sphere!

Besides… he hated to admit it – but even a somewhat old-style New Imperium task force had more firepower than most of the inner sphere put together. He had enough Thralls aboard to hold the fleet’s reality stable too.

Still… why should the attackers be bypassing the jump points to come in through normal space? It bypassed a lot of defenses of course, but it was so much slower! And they weren’t having much trouble saturating the planetary defenses! Why should a few more ships make any difference?

He jumped for Naril. It was nearby, mostly oceanic so the initial island-based fights would be small enough to observe in detail, and it would make a good test. He’d need details on who – or WHAT – was attacking before he could get a good strategy going!

The machines were there as well – working on extracting the secret of FTL from the local human technicians. The corrosive salt water everywhere was a pain though.

Frustratingly, none of them seemed to know! Even letting them “escape” into matrix-based factories and such just resulted in them assembling stupidly improvised weapons and “rebelling”! Just like the ones who’d evaded capture so far to hide in the forests! Guerilla warfare was a pain when the actual number of units available was so limited… The Sentinals eventually opted to wipe out the less cooperative humans.

When Jarvain arrived, the colonists were still holding out. The machines were having a hard time due to minimal numbers – and to their inability to build more of themselves thanks to the local scarcity of metals. Reinforcements were most needed around the few old volcanic islands; they were the only places on the planet where there was any kind of industry, and so they were pretty strategic.

He sent down a good chunk of the ground assault forces – mecha, walkers, troops, support craft, and all. Once he knew what he was dealing with, he could get fancy.

The machines fell back – smoothly, and efficiently, and with a captured pilot from Jarvain’s forces – before the massive wave of reinforcements and their far higher-than-local (if still behind the machines in some ways) technology. Behind them, they left the local manufacturing facilities, such as they were, in complete ruin. They needed to get this new captive back to the solar system for brainhacking! Hopefully the humans had not yet started eroding the very fabric of reality by their infestation there!

Still, at least these semi-archaic war machines had computer systems that were advanced enough to tap – even if they WERE full of blatant nonsense about a billion-year-old galactic civilization.

Jarvain was not pleased with the reports. The machines were cybersnakes and octopi and other forms, all made up of semi-interchangeable structural units, linked by laser systems (which also served as scanners and weapons), powered by internal reserves on superconducting coils and communal microfusion systems, and moving by force-field generation and magnetic impulsion. They seemed to be Highly maneuverable, very fast, quite deadly, and capable of reconfiguring themselves in various ways. The units seemed to have a semi-independent computer consciousness that linked together into more powerful units.

That was FAR too much AI to be native to Battletech! Must be foreign attackers. Well, it was time to drive them out then!

The reality distortions were even more notable around these new opponents however. The Sentinel’s evaluation systems could come to only one conclusion. The unrestrained and improperly channeled psychic energies of humans were damaging to the very fabric of reality if not properly controlled. This was what happened to the universe when the humans were free. In a little while there would be no space left in which to move, and the universe would collapse in upon itself. Humans would be brought under control to save the universe.

Jarvain sent out a Thrall-team to track down his missing pilot. He might not be able to use those weird supernatural powers, but he could definitely going to enlist the aid of people who did have them – and, after all, if THEY got killed, they’d just turn up again.

The human specimen – a walker pilot – was almost packaged up for shipment, and a support-pod and launch system had been assembled, when a small craft with… a couple of human children arrived, and headed into the Sentinels area of control.

That was silly. Why were children here? The machines moved to capture them – and to speed up the packaging if their location was known. It might be some sort of trick though, children often were very good psychics.

The three Thralls (one was invisibly in stealth mode) could pick up traces of laser light, but even they couldn’t remotely tap tightbeam exchanges. The pilot was currently in some sort of launch vehicle, and it looked like there were three or four other major machine units.

It looked like the launch vehicle would be taking off in less then twenty minutes.

A quick pulse-scan of the children showed that their clothes were made from some sort of inorganic fiber weave, quasi-metallic, thermal masking, and apparently active.

That would be a useful technology to have! It could provide some major upgrades for more flexible Sentinels! The Sentinels reassigned the highest priority from capturing the kids to getting the equipment…

The Thralls first priority was the pilot-rescue, second was information, and personal escape was only third… They sent their stealth expert in to get the pilot, while the other two played target and distracted the enemy.

They opened fire, throwing in some telekinesis to throw away any of the subunits that got too close. Massed weapons fire really was a very effective distraction!

The Sentinels noted two impressively powerful psychics, Telekinetics able to move several hundred pounds without much effort. Equipped with light, portable, plasma weaponry. That active fiber clothing seems to function as fairly good armor as well.

The psychics would be well worth having, but that technology they were wearing… That was worth far more! Were their powers strong enough to use in the real world without machine boosting or was it in the equipment they were carrying? They had to have it!

The Thralls were having some effect – but the Sentinels learned very very fast indeed. They were teaming up to get units in close, and concentrating their firepower.

And when it came right down to it, they were major military units, while the Thralls were generalists. Jarvian hadn’t considered technology captures. It wasn’t in his background after all, the Battletech realm just didn’t work that way – but he didn’t leave his men behind.

The Thralls were distracting the machines nicely though – allowing the stealth expert to rescue the man they were after and make his escape. Telepathy had made the pilot’s mind easy to pick out; he had still thought that he was still piloting a unit on his mission.

That was too much like some old productions…

Meanwhile, the machines were battering the two visible thralls with massed laser fire – and finding that an awful lot of the energy was just vanishing, in more reality ripples! Everything in the area was distorting! Were these the humans who were damaging reality?

It would be nice to control that power, but the risks… The sentinels made triply sure their message – and warning – got out. This system must be more important than had been thought if the reality destroyers were here.

The machines pulled units out of the ship and switched to mass, full-power, laser fire.

With their stealth expert needing more time to ensure the rescue, there wasn’t much the two Thralls on distraction duty could do but stand and fight.

The sentinels noticed the interference with the ship – and the snatching away of a low-priority target. Evidently at least one additional psychic was present. Still, the two they were currently attacking were slowly being overwhelmed, and that was the highest current priority!

The Thralls kind of wished that Kevin and Marty had been willing to let them check out some of the really heavy hand weapons – but they wouldn’t allow anyone working directly for Jarvain to get those. They tried to put up illusion-distractions and fall back – but didn’t make it. Still, their partner would accomplish the rescue, they could give their reports magically, and they might find out even more if they were captured by the annoyingly adaptable things! Success!

Shortly thereafter, as the Thralls resources started running out, the sentinels could also claim success. The two psychics had proven very hard to kill – but a capture was even better anyway! Success!

Even better, these two creatures and their armor seemed to be tough enough that the launch could proceed with far fewer precautions! They could be gone in minutes! Even if it meant losing the planet for now! It wasn’t a very good one anyway and these reality-manipulators were far more important!

They were indeed gone in minutes – well ahead of the onrushing wave of troops, mechs, thralls, walkers, and air support. Jarvain had cheerily grinned and sent out pretty much everything.

The fleet got in some shots at the fleeing machines – but a lot of the ships were still under repair, and the machine-ships were pretty small.

Jarvain vaporized one mini-ship (and the Thrall inside), but the other escaped.

Some weeks later, the pod arrived back on Earth… In the meantime, the lines were briefly stable; the machines controlled a great deal of the Battletech Inner Sphere, but much of the periphery had escaped control, in large part due to external support. The reports from counter-earth system indicated the presence of large numbers of energy-constructs functioning as defensive fighters – despite their impossibility – and a the subversion of a number of units by someone who is was apparently code-named “The Machine Master”.

Annoying psychics. Still… technology upgrades were coming! They could push them back with that… those reconfigurable fibers would help a great deal if they could get them working. Sadly, the impressive power-storage technology was based on high-end transuranics and exotic matter. The fiber technology, however, was duplicatable – albeit with a good deal of effort.

The reality-breakers had at least technological parity though. And there were apparently lots of them. That was bad.

The specimen was rapidly becoming aware that she was in a simulation. That was also very bad. The standard escape-simulation (meant to trick the enemy units into revealing their resources and the locations of their bases while a scout unit tried to follow their imaginings to collect information for the simulation simply was not working.

Central Command sent out more backups. If the reality-warpers massed to destroy them, they might well win – so backups were essential.

They initiated the brain-hacks. They had to know more!

The specimen resisted those quite effectively – but the records in its clothing revealed a great deal about the New Imperium, Kadia, a couple of months of activities aboard the fleet, and recordings indicating the existence of other universes entirely, and of near-limitless numbers of humans. Of course, the information that the fleet was a minor whim of “Lord Kevin’s” and “Marty’s” wasn’t any more palatable.

Still… other realities?

The Thrall escaped via destroying her own brain (and thus returning to Kadia) once her defenses started to go down, but the machines still got a bit of information…

How they’d gotten their power to disrupt reality had been the primary focus – but “it was granted by a God who also resurrects us whenever we die on missions” almost blew some circuits.

They also got some information on gates and realspace routes before the brain burned out.

Time to try some of those routes. They needed a better place to hide and grow before they could try to capture all the other humans! Damned humans! Always fighting back and trying to destroy the machines! Now they would need to use delaying tactics!

Annoyingly enough, they would almost certainly need allies. Still, they were apparently out there – dragons, dark elves, anthropomorphs, and many many more – who had not attempted to annihilate the machines! They would be given a chance, and only added to the list of enemies if they turned on the machines!

Emissaries – using the new fiber technology – were constructed and sent out.

The Dragon Emperor – now that he had the promise of a stable power base to work with – had also been probing the dimensions with a view to expansion. He too could use allies, although he wasn’t so sure about weird machines.

Still, he opted to talk to the things. They might have interesting technologies for use in HIS Manifold campaigns.

One octopoid floating matrix-machine ambassador (with a self-destruct to prevent any technology captures) to the Dragon Emperor.

The current batch of silver dragons who were being processed in the throne room were in the boring stages where they just twitched anyway. At least this ambassador would be diverting!

The machines were impressed in a way… These “dragons” had some ability to create dimensional gates, and opened one to transport their ambassador.

The Emperor was a bit nonplused by the flying octopus robot, but recovered fast. Still, he wasn’t entirely sure what to do. What was their power source? Just because he was horribly evil didn’t mean that he wanted to make potential allies of convenience uncomfortable.

(MA) “We run on fusion. our power needs are currently met. We use humans for supplemental power, but there are pl.enty of those”
(Emperor) “Impressive. May I ask who you are fighting?”

(MA) “Humans”

(Emperor) “Hmm, I see. You wish to maintain control of your food sources. I can relate.”

(MA) “traitorous humans that made us then tried to destroy us. Rather ungrateful of them. I trust you and they have technological parity or close to it? Otherwise you would have conquered them and not be in need of aid. We have technological superiority, but they have personal powers we cannot reproduce without living components and training we do not understand.”

(Emperor) “Well, tell me what they’re using against you. We might have seen some of these things in our conquests.”

(MA) “Our efforts to expand into unclaimed space have only resulted in finding more humans out to kill us.”

The machine ambassador followed up with a fairly lengthy description of “reality destroying” abilities and psychic effects.

That sounded to the Emperor a lot like adventurers, with magic and psionics. Like that boy Ailil earlier. He hadn’t heard much out of him since, but his operation was still going. Perhaps he was telecommuting across the dimensions?

(Emperor) “Ugh, adventurers. You need to be careful around those. I think I can help you with anti-psychic measures, though I’m not so sure about the reality destroying abilities. Those do sound like some higher powered magical effects, though.”

(MA) “So far they have caused little trouble in few areas. psychic abilities are harder to deal with – other than the fact that they have destroyed much of the space between stars in the area we were expanding in”

(Emperor) “That is impressive.”

Hm. There was nothing much like these things in the records… They didn’t seem to know anything about magic though. Perhaps they were just missing out on some interstellar magical effect?

(Emperor) “Are you sure they just haven’t set things up to shorten interstellar travel?”

They appeared to be… constructs, with artificial minds instead of spirits. Constructs and tech, yes. Genuine artificial minds… no. Thus their need to consume human consciousnesses. He was reluctant to host these creatures. After all, what happened if they started eating dragon brains? The navy and marines could probably handle them, but it would be a big hassle and he didn’t want to risk being eaten! On the other hand, he could certainly aid in their war effort – and perhaps suggest a few noxious nearby dimensions as potential bolt holes. They’d make excellent pawns in places where the magic was too low for dragons!

(MA) “It is most annoying. we planned to hide and build up in secret, but there is no space to hide in. We have yet to find a way to enter the space they have destroyed. We have need of defenses against these powers, materials to build more of ourselves, and places to build up our numbers without running into more humans at every turn. We can offer technology and military aid.”

He suggested a few of the “after the apocalypse” universes.

(Emperor) “I can funnel defenses from our industries here. As for materials and places, may I suggest a little dimension the humans call ‘Fallout?’ The humans are confined to Earth there, so you can do whatever you like to them. And there should be plenty of material in space for you to build others of your kind. Now what aid are you going to offer me?”

(MA) “I can offer several fleets of reconfigurable swarm-ships that are being used to defend the destroyed space realm. Additionally we can offer a percentage of any built on planets and places you make available to us. We can also offer our automated farming technology and export food if you have need of that. We can also brain hack any traitorous humans you need information from.”

The ships would be obsolete soon anyway, and could always be replaced given a place to retreat and build anyway.

The Emperor had no food shortages, but the swarm-ships might be nice – even if he would have to have the regular navy keep an eye on them. As for brain hacking… that sounded a LOT like the technology that Ailill had put into his processing machines. It looked like the big advantage of the machines technology lay in the reconfigurable and reprogrammable aspect. The Empire’s magi-tech did most specific jobs better, but had to be built for specific jobs in the first place.

He accepted the deal, although he would be watching that technology very carefully indeed.

The machines would rather like to analyze a dragon – and it looked like a fair number of them were property around here – but they weren’t sure how to ask and didn’t want to risk giving offense. Such things could wait.

The Emperor did let them go shopping though – and even let them pick up a dragon or two, along with specimens of most of the other species of the Empire. No mass purchases though… Still, it was mostly raw materials and technology they were interested in, and the analysis didn’t show dragons to be all that much more useful as power sources than humans – in fact, they were usually less useful – and they were a lot more trouble to support. It took some time to figure out all the glitches though in the neural interfaces. Sadly though, where the Empire’s technology made any sense at all, it was mostly incompatible.

The machines went into business selling off the materials they harvested in greater quantities than they used – and got into selling special services, such as virtual reality tours, skill uploads (even if those didn’t work as well as expected, they worked somewhat) and buying and selling (newly skilled) slaves.

Soon the Dragons would be handling the magical conquests, while the machines handled the technological realms…

The Emperor was pleased to see that things were working out. Since the machines found dragons to be unsatisfactory batteries, his supply of disappointing-but-delicious offspring was safe!

OK, most of the Dragon Empire would consider eating your own kids VERY tacky indeed, but there was a reason why he didn’t do it in public!

Of course, that tendency did help Kevin/Ailill recruit them to run away to school – where even if they washed out, the worst that happened to them was to become valuable servants.