In the garden:
As Phaethon stood and stared at the receding glimmer of the Neptunian, something came floating in on the night breeze.
Phaethon looked. A gaggle of little black bubbles swirled, windblown, across the grass under the trees and stars. Phaethon did not see from whence these machine organisms came. The bubbles swirled and swooped, circling the spot where the Neptunian just had been.
“Now what?” muttered Phaethon.
Some spheres dropped to roll across the grass, uphill and downhill. The main group of them slowly went back and forth along the path toward the grape trellises where Phaethon had first seen the Neptunian. The black spheres paused frequently to insert a slender probe or proboscis into the ground. Nearer to Phaethon, at the spot from which the Neptunian had launched, the spheres gathered into several rounded tetrahedrons and drove more probes into the ground.
It did not look very beautiful; the sphere movements were at once too slow and methodical, and too quick and efficient, to be an animation dance, nor was there music. Unless it was meant for an audience with senses not like his? Setting his hearing to a search routine, Phaethon found only high-frequency encrypted signals coming from the spheres, all squawks and stuttering whines, with no trace of rhythm or grace.
Phaethon pointed a finger and made the identification gesture, knowing it would be blocked by the masquerade. To his surprise, it was not. To his eyes, it looked as if a window had opened in midair, or a scroll unfurled, and in the frame was a dragon glyph radiating four ideograms in an archaic style: Honor, Courage, Fortitude, Obedience.
“Preliminary array, hostile organism detection and counteraction system identifies itself. Copyright information (Security Clearance required). Public Ownership. This unit is assigned to: Marshal-General Atkins Vingtetun, General-Issue Humaniform (multiple battle augmentations) Military Hierarchy, Semicompilation (ghosthaunted, and combat-reflexes), Warmind, Staff Command, Base Neuroform, Unschooled, Era Zero (the Creation).”
Phaethon was truly amused that someone would come to a masquerade disguised as Atkins. Atkins was the soldier. The last soldier. Phaethon was under the vague impression that Atkins had long ago, centuries upon centuries ago, killed himself or gone to stand-by or been stored in a museum, or something.
The impersonation was in questionable taste, however. A soldier? No one liked to be reminded of their barbaric past. And, unless Phaethon had misunderstood the masquerade guidelines, identity and location information could be masked but not actually falsified. But it seemed as if someone were nonetheless impersonating Atkins. Wouldn’t the Hortators consider this a breach of propriety?
On the other hand, falsifications of fictional people, or people whose identities were retired, or whose memory copyrights had expired, must be permissible. Such identities were in the public domain, were they not? After all, no one was going to object to Phaethon, for example, impersonating Harlequin.
But Phaethon was still curious. For what were the spheres so diligently searching? Had the Neptunian (assuming it had been real) left behind some clue or trace of its origins or goals?
Well, if the false Atkins was going to be so gauche as to imitate a long-retired war hero, Phaethon could overstep politeness also. (This was a party, after all, and the standards of behavior were relaxed.)
After all, it was also in very bad taste to intrude icon-objects (like this midair window and dragon glyph) into Phaethon’s field of view without any attempt whatever to blend the objects into the real environment, so as not to disturb Phaethon’s previously established visual-continuity aesthetic. So perhaps it was in equally bad taste to tap into another person’s private communication link, decode it, and find out what information all the spheres were sending back to their base point. But Phaethon did it anyway.
He caught only a fragment of the many messages: “ … an information-deception-and-avoidance routine more complex—magnitude eight—than a nonmechanical intelligence can produce … . Sophotechnology of origin unknown …”
“ … artificial viral bodies introduced into grass DNA where subject stepped. Excessive information strand-coding—unknown data-compression techniques—grass will spore microorganisms of highly complex systematology—intelligence level 100—seeking out raw materials and creating larger organizations …”
And also: “ … deduces (from the enemy success against civilian countermeasures) electron and quantum-state manipulation technologies comparable to those produced by Oecumenical civilization, based on the same history-development up through to late-period Fifth Mental Structure, but deviating thereafter in a fashion no member schola, or group embraced within the Golden Oecumene, could theoretically produce. Conclusion: …”
Then, an interruption: “Who the hell is on this line? Sir—hey, you! Excuse me, sir! But what do you think you are doing?”
The window in midair changed, and the dragon sign was replaced by an image of a man-shape in streamlined black power-armor of a style dating from the Sixth Mental Structure. The helmet turned toward Phaethon (who had his mask back on by then) and, somehow, Phaethon nonetheless felt that nape-hair prickling sensation which was his cue from Rhadamanthus that his name file was being read.
Phaethon was shocked beyond words. Then: “Who, if I may ask, are you, sir, that you just trample on the protocols of the masquerade without a word?”
“Sorry, sir,” the man in the floating window replied. “Atkins. I’m acting on orders from the partial-Parliament extrapolation of the Warmind. You’re tapping into a secured channel. May I ask what you’re doing in this area?”