Preamble: This the tenth chapter of a serialized science-fiction short story concerning animal control and an exterminator. (Previously: Chapter 1 and Chapter 2 and Chapter 3 and Chapter 4 and Chapter 5 and Chapter 6 and Chapter 7 and Chapter 8 and Chapter 9)
by Cheeseburger Brown
Negotiations had apparently resumed at a now-neutral site on the coast, so my stuff and I hiked overland away from the city under siege, feeling the warm wind of ordnance blossoming at my back. The sky wheeled and scrolled the sun behind the hills, where it glew orange before fading.
Network chuckled with fresh information. The newsy status updates of the living, the sometimes nonsensical updates of the dying. Soldiers died gridless and unsynchronized, their entire potential spent in a blink. Sometimes what they said as they expired was stunning. Mortality was an effective muse.
In a valley between mountains I encountered a squadron of engineers preparing new satellites for lofting. "We're going to get a grid going," explained their corporal. "Try to stem the spendings."
I offered her my best civilian's salute. "Way to go."
"You're on walk to the talks?" she asked. I nodded. She took me aside and confided, "There's something weird about those talks, sir. It's like everyone who gets near them starts suffering an attitude cascade. Like they…get inside your head somehow."
I didn't mean to scoff but I did a bit. "I've seen the crude puppeteering job done on our dead. It's revolting. But it's ham-fisted, too. Their smartest may have some insight into our somatics, but they couldn't touch a human mind. Hell, they couldn't even grasp what a human mind really is. Trust me. If there's one thing I know, it's pests."
The corporal still seemed spooked. "But you're talking about them as if they're only genetic."
"Of course they're genetic. That's what all that wet stuff is."
"Respectfully sir, I think only the least relevant part of them is genetic. The real firepower is memetic."
"Are you kidding?" I chuckled. "They're completely isolated. Their access to archival mimetic constructs is zero. You think they're going to accumulate a civilization in a day?"
She looked pained for a quiet moment, then firmly said, "But their access is not zero, sir. Respectfully."
I narrowed my eyes and frowned. "You think they have some way to access a hidden store of powerful intergenerational secrets? You've seen something out here in the field? Did you file a report?"
She shook her head. "No sir. You don't understand. There is indeed a source of powerful intergenerational secrets, as you say, but it isn't hidden."
"It's us." I snorted. "Monkey see, monkey do? We're magic to them, corporal. Utterly beyond their grasp."
"I think you underestimate the virility of their culture, sir. You may know the things well but you've never seen ten thousand of them networked before."
I gave her a dismissive wave and turned to checking the hovers on my palette, which was felt a little wonky when descending from the peaks. "Listen to yourself, corporal. Pests have no networking ability -- none whatsoever -- without a supporting civilization. You're talking fantasy."
She seemed stuck between deciding I was a lost cause and the impulse to continue speaking her pent-up mind. "Genetically that's true," she went on. "The hardware is a fragile slip of goo. But never forget how one day their memetic constructs got up and walked around. Ideas gained motive and agency, and inherited the galaxy. That's not fantasy: that's history. That's the power of culture."
"What? Do you think they're about to spontaneously decorate pottery at us?"
"I think the flexibility of their culture is something we can't predict. It's just air. It evolves a million times faster than me or you or any general's strategies."
I shook my head. "Get a grip, corporal. They're bugs."
"You keep thinking they don't have bombs big enough to out-blast us. But that's not how they're going to do it."
"Oh yeah? And how are the big scary ancestors going to -- ahem -- 'do it'?"
"They made us, mister. Never forget that. What that means is when they've beaten us we won't even know it. Because you're right -- they really will need a supporting civilization. That's why they'll use ours. That's why they'll use us."
I clapped her on the shoulder in a friendly way. "Battle fatigue, I think. You need a nap and a prostitute." I started walking on, the palette cruising smoothly at my heels.
"You really can't see them for what they are," she called. "If I were them, that's the first gap I'd exploit."
I didn't turn around. "Nap and a prostitute."
"Good luck at the talks, sir."