Ventus – Day 74 of 135

Marya nodded. They’d seen one that afternoon, a vagabond moon as the locals called it, moving as slowly as a real moon through the sky, but from north to south. It had glowed gorgeous red in the sunset, and Marya had almost cried to think she might never have seen that, had she’d stayed out her term here in orbit. Being on Ventus was affecting her profoundly, in ways she hadn’t begun to figure out. All she knew was she was an emotional wreck.

She looked across at Calandria May. The mercenary woman looked back levelly, but it was the steady gaze Marya had seen from prostitutes and beggars–the challenging gaze of the emotionally damaged. Marya couldn’t figure her out. She was so formidable in her talents, but incredibly brittle somehow in her fundamental character. Why did she care to argue, tonight, about whether the Winds were gods?

“The Winds are in everything,” said Marya, watching Calandria carefully. “The air, the rocks, the soil, the water. But they’re not just sitting there, they’re working, all the time. Ventus is a terraformed world–a thousand years ago there was no life here. Our ancestors sent the seed of the Winds here by slow sub-light ship, and it bloomed here and turned a dead world into a living one. The Winds couldn’t do that if they were just instinctive creatures.”

“But they didn’t recognize humans when we came to colonize,” Calandria pointed out. “When the colonists landed, the Winds couldn’t tell what they were. They couldn’t speak, or interact with the colonists. They left them alone because as organisms they fit into the artificial ecology–they filled a niche, like they were designed to. But their machines looked like some kind of infection to the Winds, so they destroyed them, all the computers, radios, heaters, building machines. They pounded the people back into the stone age. A thousand years later, this is as far as they’ve gotten, and it’s as far as the Winds are ever going to let them get.” She shook her head sadly. “The Winds can’t be conscious. They act like some sort of global immune system, cleaning out potential infections, like us or Armiger.

“Because of that,” she said quickly just as Marya opened her mouth to speak, “Armiger could take them over. They were decapitated, or born without a brain. There was a flaw in the design of Ventus. Armiger is here to exploit that.”

Marya shook her head. “Can’t be done,” she said. “He would have to reprogram every single particle of dust on the planet. And even if he could, the Winds are conscious. They’d see through it before he could get too far.”

“You think he’s harmless?” snapped Calandria. She stood up. “You’re so enraptured by your beautiful nanotech terraformers you don’t think there’s subtler things out there?”

“I didn’t say that, I–”

“This system is nothing like a real god,” said Calandria. “3340 told me that even its thoughts were conscious entities. Conscious thoughts!” She laughed harshly. “3340 was like an entire civilization–an entire species!–in one body. With a history, not just memories. He could make a world like Ventus in a day! How do you know he’s not the one who put the flaw in the Winds in the first place? He might have done that a millenium ago, intending to let the place ripen then return to harvest it. But he got distracted by another planet before he could do that. Hsing was a much better toy, he could forge it into his own private hell much more easily. Still, he sent Armiger here. How do you know Armiger isn’t a resurrection seed? He may be planning to turn the entire planet into a single giant machine to recreate 3340. It’s within his capabilities. Your precious Winds are no match for Armiger.”

She turned and stalked off into the grass.

Marya turned to Axel. “Well!” she said.

Axel watched Calandria’s silhouette recede for a few moments. Then he grimaced and turned to Marya. “You touched a nerve,” he said.

“Obviously.”

“We went to Hsing to destroy 3340,” he said. “With Choronzon’s help, and the backing of the Archipelago.” Axel told Marya the story of how Calandria had beaten 3340 by becoming its willing slave. She shook her head sadly when he was done.

Marya shifted, finding that her rear had gone to sleep on the hard log on which she was sitting. She couldn’t get used to such physical annoyances. “She’s wrong about the Winds though,” she said.

“Don’t pursue it,” he advised. “Anyway, nothing we’ve seen since we arrived here suggests the Winds are conscious. Little bits of them here and there, like the morphs, might be. I don’t know about the Diadem swans.” He glanced up uneasily. “But the system as a whole? No, it’s just a planetary immune system, like she says.”

Marya shook her head. “If Ventus hasn’t spoken to you, it’s because you’re beneath its notice. You forget, this world is my subject. I know more about it than you do.”

“But you haven’t been here,” he said quietly. “You’ve never seen it up close. You’re here now–does it seem like there’s intelligence to this?” He waved his hand at the ragged grass.

“I don’t know what you see when you look at it,” Marya said. “Maybe it’s because you’ve been on worlds where life just is, like Earth. Where nothing maintains it. But everything around us is artificial, Axel. The soil: there may be a thousand years of mulch here,” she kicked at it, “but there’s meters of soil beneath that, layer upon layer of fertile ground underneath what’s been laid down since Ventus came to life. Every single grain of that was manufactured, by the Winds.

“Look at the grass! I know it looks like Earth grass, it’s uneven in height, looks randomly patched over the hillside. Maybe in the past few centuries things have settled down to the point where it can be allowed to spread on its own. But I doubt it. The grass has been painted on, by the nano. Look at the clouds. They look like the clouds I see in videos of Earth. But if the Winds weren’t busy sculpting them right now, do you think they would look like that? Axel, Ventus is not like Earth. Its sun has a different temperature, it’s a different size, the composition of the crust is different, so the mineral balance in the oceans is–was–totally different. As a result the composition of the atmosphere, and its density, are naturally very different. This weather is not natural.” She held her hand up to the breeze. “The air’s been made by the Winds, and Axel, they have to keep making it. The instant they stop working, the planet will revert, because it’s not in equilibrium. It’s in a purely synthetic state.

“You don’t honestly think the distribution of bugs, mice, and birds around here is natural, do you? It’s planned and monitored by the Winds, on every square meter of the planet. Bits of it are constantly going out of wack, threatening the local and global equilibrium. The Winds are constantly adjusting, thinking hard about how to keep the place as Earth-like as possible. It’s what we made them to do.”

He shook his head. “Well, exactly. It’s a complex system, but it’s still just a big machine.”

“Surely you’ve wondered why the Winds don’t acknowledge the presence of humans?”

“The Flaw? Sure, whole religions exist here to try to answer that,” he laughed. “You think you know?”

“I think I know how to find out. Listen, in your last report to us before the Heaven hooks incident, you said that Controller Turcaret claimed to be able to hear the Winds.”

He glared at her. “Not claimed. He did hear them.” Calandria still didn’t believe that part of the story, and it obviously annoyed Axel.

“We’ve heard of people like that,” said Marya. “But we’ve never been able to verify a case. If we had one to study, I’m sure we could crack the problem.”

He laughed shortly. “Too bad Turcaret’s dead.”

“I’m not sure that’s a problem,” she mused. “As long as there’s bits of him left…”

She heard the grass rustle; Calandria was returning. Marya saw the woman’s eyes glinting like two coals in the darkness, and shivered. “We go after Armiger,” said Calandria. “You know we must.”

“No,” said Axel. “We can return with reinforcements. I’m going to keep signalling for a ship, Cal. You can’t stop me.”

There was silence for a while. Then Calandria shrugged. “You’re right, I can’t stop you.”

The atmosphere around the fire suddenly seemed poisonous. Marya stood up quickly.

“Think I’ll turn in,” she said, smiling at them both.

Across the fire, Calandria nodded, her perfect face still as carven stone in the firelight. Her eyes betrayed nothing, but Marya thought she could feel the woman’s gaze on her back as she knelt and made her bed.

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