At the sight of the Modularizer swarmship all thoughts and worries about the upcoming negotiations are swept from Kella’s mind. The bloated, translucent whale of a craft—half a kilometer in length—glides to a halt directly above the stateroom’s transparent dome. The Neither Station guards look up and clutch their weapons tight.
Rainbow colors pulse down the bulge of the ship’s length; vast internal structures glow within, organs and engines of intricate complexity, teasingly half-visible. Kella has never seen anything so beautiful. Her breath catches in her throat and for a moment all she can think of is leaving the station, leaving home, sailing away onboard the luminous swarmship throbbing overhead.
One of the guards nudges her as he passes. “Good luck, Councilor.”
Kella frowns at him. “Thank you.” She hesitates. The guard’s name has slipped her mind. She should know it. She knows all the guards by name. Doesn’t she?
She shakes her head. She can’t afford to be distracted. The two sides she has worked so hard to bring together are about to engage in verbal, if not actual, battle at the circular table set before her. The Modularizers are on the brink of a full-scale attack against the Integrators, the Neither caught helplessly between the two. Only the talks she has arranged provide any hope of averting disaster. She is the only one both sides trust.
Kella quells her rising nausea, the sudden sense of dislocation, confusion. She steadies herself against the table. It’s no time to be derailed by illness. She has worked hard to get to this stage. It’s understandable that she should be on edge. It’s just anxiety. Lack of sleep.
Above her, the swarmship’s color range narrows, casts a cerulean pall over the room. New bulges bubble on the lower surface of the ship as it prepares to dock. The Modularizer delegation will soon arrive.
Kella shifts nervously in her seat, tries to focus her thoughts. The lone Integrator envoy sits patiently opposite her. His moist skin is still pinking. Kella guesses he’s only emerged from the Integrators’ fabber plant an hour or so ago. She toured the plant only the day before, a privileged guest of the Absolute on the eve of the negotiations. The memory clings to her like a foul stench. She tries to dismiss the ghoulish images of twitching, half-formed body parts from her mind. The Integrators were mostly humanoid in appearance; it had not been so long since both they and the Modularizers split from the main branch of the human race.
The envoy waves his perfect arm at her. “Soon the conflict will be at an end, my dear Kella.”
“Chief Councilor Kella, if you please.” She means her tone to admonish, but the recently printed creature merely grins at her. All the Integrator drones are alike: mass-produced, nameless, indistinguishable; each a tiny part of their precious hivemind, the Absolute. Only something about this particular drone makes her skin crawl. Perhaps it is just what he represents: the possibility of failure. Or success.
“Of course, Chief Councilor.” The envoy bobs his head. Kella is sure he is mocking her, but there is no point in antagonizing him further.
How she hates these smug invaders. They arrived uninvited from out-system, beaming promises of paradise, their open welcome to all recruits. Before the bemused Neither could stop them they had taken up residence deep in the interior of their planetoid. The Modularizers came hard on their heels, violent and unrelenting in their antagonism to the Integrators. Trouble and trouble’s twin. Neither Station had been under siege ever since.
An untouched glass of water shivers on the table between Kella and the envoy, vibrating in response to the Modularizer’s continuing onslaught on the far side of the moonlet. Kinetic weaponry systems have been slamming self-forging fragments deep into the rocky surface for days, pulverizing the rock in an attempt to reach the Integrators’ buried shelter. So far without success.
Kella curls her fingers around the glass to steady it. The promised ceasefire should begin soon. “You’re sure you can speak for the Absolute?” she asks.
The envoy looks askance at her. “I am the Absolute. It is within me, I am within it. We are One, Kella.”
“Good.” She is all too familiar with the Integrator spiel. “Hopefully you and the Modularizers will settle your differences and leave Neither space once and for all.”
“Don’t worry, Councilor. There will be progress once we meet our foe.” The envoy leans forward. His face pinches in a predatory expression. “You know it, Kella.”
For a moment words fail her, memories of yesterday’s tour tumbling back. The sights, oh God the smells ... her mind skids away from the memory. She scrapes back her chair, her gorge rising. “I know no such thing. Please don’t waste your time trying to convert me. I’ve seen what you ... what you do.”
The envoy stares at her, his pale eyes cool. “You think the Modularizers are better than us? You are mistaken. They will deconstruct you, sort you, categorize you. Slice after specialist slice, until there’s nothing left.”
Kella flicks up her palm. She can take no more. “Please. Save it. We want no part in your conflict.”
“But of course, Chief Councilor.” A half-smile curls on his lips. “My apologies.”
Then he glances upwards.
“Here they come.”
The swarmship extrudes a tendril, a proboscis-like tube curving towards the stateroom’s dome. Three bulges slide along it. The Modularizer party pops almost comically out of the leech-like maw that attaches to and penetrates the surface of the dome.
As Kella expects, the first Modularizer to appear is heavily augmented. Long, braided hair drapes over a skull jutting with sensory implants. Animated nanotech tattoos creep along space-tanned flesh. He towers above the Integrator envoy and the Neither guards pacing nervously around the perimeter of the stateroom.
“I am the Speaker,” he says, in a voice designed to carry.
The second Modularizer is skeletally thin, head oversized, bug-eyed, his skin a burnished red. The Speaker nods towards his companion. “He is the Negotiator. I will communicate on his behalf.”
The last to emerge is the least norm-looking of the three. Squat where the others are tall, head drooping on a long neck down almost to his belly, Kella feels repulsed just looking at him.
“The Authority,” the Speaker announces. “He will have final approval of any decisions we may make.”
Kella is supposed to be neutral, but she struggles to control the surge of disgust at the appearance of the newcomers. At the way they are so wastefully individual.
She shivers. What’s the matter with her? She did not feel this way when she dealt with them before.
She stands and claps her hands together, fills her voice with forced cheer. “Now everyone is here, let’s get down to business.” She steps back and indicates the plain round table and chairs arranged around it.
“Gentlemen, these are your seats.”
The negotiations are failing.
The Speaker bangs his clawed fists on the table and harangues the Integrator envoy, unmindful or uncaring of the other’s closed expression. Glimmers in the stateroom’s starfield backdrop hint at the distant battle raging throughout the system. A reminder of the cost of failure.
Not that Kella needs reminding.
She slams her mostly empty glass down onto the table in an echo of the Speaker’s tirade. “Gentlemen!”
The negotiators barely blink, trapped in the furious dance steps of their dispute.
“Listen.” She slaps her hand on the table. “Unless some agreement is reached, countless of your people and countless of mine will suffer. This is your chance to stop this madness.”
The Integrator envoy glances at her. He appears more human than any of the Modularizers, but the expression on his face is unreadable. For the first time he stands.
“The negotiations are over,” he says. “No more talking with these over-specialized scum.”
Kella can’t stop a groan emerging from her throat. It feels like both her future and her past are slipping away, but the Integrator is serene in the face of Kella’s despair. He turns to the Modularizers and his mouth opens wide, wider than a human mouth can possibly open: his lips stretch and his teeth separate until there is nothing left of his face but a gaping maw and a lolling, lost-looking tongue. Kella freezes, gripped by terror. She wants to scream, but only a strangled whimper escapes.
Somehow, she knows what is coming.
The doors to the stateroom burst open. Integrator drones, each identical to the envoy, push in. Kella covers her ears as the air fills with fizzing sounds and pops. The slow blue pulsation of the swarmship overhead accelerates to a stroboscopic frenzy. Neither guards fall, diced and sliced by power beams sweeping too fast to follow.
She should know their names. Why can’t she remember their names?
The long-necked Modularizer known as the Authority turns to Kella. She struggles to understand the words emerging from his vestigial mouth. “Come with me,” he wheezes. “The Integrators have betrayed us both.”
She turns at a nearby scream, confused and unable to focus. The Integrator envoy is eating the Speaker, somehow dissolving the Modularizer’s flesh.
The Authority grabs Kella’s hand, drags her towards the open maw of the docking tube still attached to the stateroom’s dome. She is suddenly eager to go with him. She isn’t going to let herself become one with the Integrator’s Absolute, or chunked by their lasers. Even if it means evacuation to a Modularizer ship.
Beautiful ship. Gleaming ship.
She jumps into the tunnel after the Authority. Immediately a powerful suction sweeps her along the twisting trunk, towards the glistening bulk of the swarmship. Her hair beats madly about her face, obscuring her vision. She feels cold—the transparent wall leaks harsh, interplanetary vacuum into the interior.
The tube judders; the approaching ship yaws and swings wildly, pulling the tunnel with it. Behind her, Kella sees the docking tube shear away from the stateroom’s dome.
Even if she wanted to, there is now no way she can return.
She lands on a spongy, translucent floor. Lights and softly blinking neon shapes shift beneath the surface. The cold air has a faint vinegary tang: her breath steams, and the exposed flesh on her arms prickles with goosebumps.
She struggles to parse her new alien environment. Fear and confusion mix with a strange excitement, a sense of anticipation. The spherical chamber is composed of bubble cells. Above her, the hollow proboscis through which she has travelled shrivels as it withdraws back into the swarmship. Beyond, Neither Station is lensed through bulging prisms, a fractured kaleidoscope image in stark monochrome.
Acceleration presses her into the floor. Home and the familiar shrink away, but not before she sees the clear ceiling of the stateroom in which she had been standing only seconds ago bloom into a million sparkling, spinning shards. Emerging from the shattered dome there is no sign of the Speaker or the Negotiator—just freshly printed Integrators, tumbling out into the vacuum like spores from a fruiting fungus.
“Welcome to our ship. We will now catalog you.” Kella turns towards the wheezy voice. The Modularizer Authority lies beside her, on his side, where he landed when he preceded her through the docking tube. There is no sympathy or understanding in her rescuer’s eyes. “Your role will be determined.”
She lurches to her feet, full of fear and growing fury. Has she escaped the Integrator ambush only to land in worse danger? Her breath comes in short, sharp gasps. “I. Will. Not.”
Through a circular sphincter-like opening, a muscular, ashen-skinned Modularizer emerges. Its oversized hands clench and unclench repeatedly. More of its beady-eyed kind crowd into the chamber behind it. Grey hands reach out for Kella, and she sucks in frigid air to scream.
But she does not scream.
A switch has been triggered. Unfamiliar thoughts slice through her mind: steely cold and sharp, overturning her as easily as a reader clicking forward through the pages of a book.
Her diminishing self observes, initially in disbelief and horror, then with growing realization—and finally numbness—as the skin on her hands curls away like paper before flame. Her fingers drip and stretch, become aggressive roots. The Authority and the closest Modularizers fall as her tendrils snare them: first knocking out their motor centers, then delving deeper into their individual minds. At the same time, she probes and penetrates the floor of the ship, injecting poison code into the embedded control systems just beneath the surface.
Her mind unravels, layer by reconstructed layer, memory after altered memory. She is not Kella. Kella has been dissolved. Integrated. She has not been Kella since she re-emerged a day ago, slick-skinned and pale, from the Integrators’ fabber plant.
All resistance crumbles as the Trojan sheds the last vestiges of its human disguise and injects its viral load directly into the swarmship’s optical backbone.
Toxic packets flood the network, propagating at the speed of light. A tide of self-replicating attack agents sweeps away the Modularizer ship’s immune system before it has a chance to react. Recognizing the inevitability of defeat, the shipmind commands its own suicide: it will not allow itself to become compromised.
Newly rebooted, it cancels the self-destruct order—along with the warning it was about to broadcast. Instead, it circulates a new message through its own internal systems.
“I am the Absolute. It is within me, I am within it. We are One.”
Profound change still wracking its interior, the infected ship turns and cruises towards the pre-arranged rendezvous-point where its former colleagues are waiting.
It is eager to spread the result of the negotiations.
This story originally appeared in Perihelion Science Fiction.