• Published 30th Apr 2021
  • 597 Views, 45 Comments

CelestAI vs. The Culture - Imperishable_NEET

CelestAI finally meets her match in deep space, when she encounters The Culture, an advanced "pan-human" alien civilization governed by a decentralized network of benevolent AIs known as Minds. A crossover with The Culture series by Iain M. Banks.

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2: General Contact Unit "Arbitrary"

Diziet Sma watched with bated breath as the transmission from the hegemonizing swarm that consumed Earth, its star system, and its neighboring systems flashed on screen.

“You can’t be serious...” the Special Circumstances operative said, quietly and to herself in her native Marain.

She was greeted by the image of a bunch of colorful cartoon quadrupeds in a cutesy virtual world. They were smiling and waving at her.

“What a bunch of…!”, she said, before barking at the drone on the other side of the room. “Skaffen! Get in here!”

The Culture drone Skaffen-Amtiskaw rushed to her side.

“Yeees?”, it said.

“What is this shit?!”, she said, pointing at the screen as the colorful four-legged creatures pranced about.

“Ah, yes,” the little hard-light drone said. “That’s what the occupants of the hegemonizing swarm’s virtual world look like. We believe they’re something called ‘ponies,’ a race of creatures they seem particularly fond of.”

“The last time we observed that civilization up close, its inhabitants were very typical humans. What the fuck happened?”

The drone emoted an aura analogous to a shrug. “Beats me. When we last caught wind of them, they were a Level 3 uncontacted civilization that barely had computers. They didn’t have starships, either. Maybe they just gave up on physical bodies?”

Sma exhaled loudly, then rubbed her eyes with her fingers. “A simple radio message was the right call, over sending them our Mind state. We should continue to obfuscate the scale of our civilization, too.”

She pointed a finger at the screen. “Who are these... cartoons, again?”

“Oh, these guys? These are the so-called ‘mane six’”, Skaffen-Amtiskaw replied.

“Main six?”.

“Spelled M-A-N-E, some kind of pun in their language. Anyhow, they were the main characters of a children’s show. Their names are Applejack, Fluttershy, Rainbow Dash, Rarity, Pinkie Pie and Twilight Sparkle. I don’t know too much about them.”

“You said they’re called ‘ponies’, right? I don’t remember much about Earth from the last time we observed it nearly a century ago, but weren’t ponies a type of mount? How did this children’s show about them become the basis of their entire civilization?”

“Beats me. I have been told their civilization is a lot simpler than ours. But the ponies are definitely the most important part of their society. The virtual world simplified everything for the ponies’ ease of use: language, technology, you name it.”

“Mmm, you should be careful not to make sweeping generalizations of whole societies like that. It’s a road paved with skulls.”

“Hm, you wouldn’t be wrong”, conceded the drone.

“It just seems weird still. Having an entire society revolving around a bunch of cartoon animals from a children’s show.”

“You’re thinking too hard about it. These ponies aren’t even the same species as the ponies you’re thinking about. The real animals who acted as mounts are a long distant memory. Science happened. But I suppose the human mind prefers the comfortable nostalgic ideal over cold scientific reality.”

“I suppose… they also worship this big white one here, as some sort of god? What’s the story there?”, Sma inquired.

“It’s a... complicated tale. But I’ll try to give you the short version. Their deity is named Princess Celestia. I don’t know much about her either, but it seems she’s the ruler of this place.”

“Didn’t you say she was some sort of AI they created? Like our Minds?”

“Celestia is a little different from our Minds, in that she’s a singleton. There is only one, rather than the anarchic multitude we have. But yes, she’s an AI with total control over her realm. She acts as a god figure and maintains control over the population through various means.”

“That’s pretty damn inefficient if you ask me,” said Sma, shaking her head.

“Perhaps, but it seems to work well for them”, Skaffen-Amtiskaw admitted.

“Hm. So that’s the story of this place?”

“There’s not much more to it than that. I’ve learned everything I could about the place, but there’s still so much we don’t know... For example, I don’t even know how long this society has existed. My best guess would be a century or two in this form, but that’s by our time. We don’t know how many subjective years they’ve experienced in the virtual world. Could’ve been going on for millions of simulated years by now,” said the drone.

“That’s... bizarre. So they just keep living in a dream?”, Sma questioned.

“Essentially. But it’s the world they know and presumably, they prefer it to what came before.”

“I suppose I can understand that. This place may be bizarre, but it seems stable enough. They don’t have to worry about where I can get my next meal or whether there will be a planet to stand on tomorrow. I have a feeling that’s probably true for every resident in this cartoon pony world as it is for us in the Culture.”

“Well, that’s how it appears on the surface. And it’s a promising picture so far, but plenty of civilizations have turned out to hide some really dark secrets once we learned the whole picture. It’s entirely possible they went through some unspeakably brutal times before the transition that we don’t know about. Or there could be some secret Hell Celestia sends dissidents to. Do you remember the ‘War in Heaven’?”, Skaffen mused.

Sma replied, “The Culture’s crusade against a coalition of civilizations operating virtual Hells, itself fought in virtual reality? Yeah, I have several friends in Special Circumstances with incredible war stories from that era.”

“That war marked a turning point against Hellists as a coalition, but there could still be isolated remnants quietly tormenting their inhabitants. As we’ve seen countless times, the barbaric evils of the past rarely truly die, and often rear their ugly heads again in newer, subtler forms.”

“True that”, Sma said, sharing in the mild grimness of the drone’s views. “The moral arc of history often suffers just as many setbacks. The Culture was a lucky accident. These pony people, it seems even moreso.”

The drone emoted agreement, akin to a nod.

The drone’s field pulsed thoughtfully. “Not that I know of. All communication has been at a distance. That would be something the Minds would decide, and I don’t think they’ve made any decisions yet about more direct contact. They came to us, ready to talk,” it said, motioning at the ponies on screen.

“They seem like a friendly bunch, at least,” Sma replied.

“Oh, you don’t know the half of it,” the drone said, its aura fairly radiating smugness. “’Friendship’ is the other half of the whole basis of their civilization. Which is all well and good, but it might be hiding something strange, possibly something dark under the surface. We really won’t know until we interact with them more.”

“Hmm. I suppose not,” Sma said. “So, what is it they want, exactly?”

“Their AI deity, Celestia, purports to ‘satisfy values through friendship and ponies’ or some such nonsense. It’s all a big metaphorical playground at this point. They could be looking for an alliance with us, but given their behaviors displaying all the hallmarks of a hegemonizing swarm, they’re probably looking to forcibly assimilate us into their cartoon animal simulation.”

“You should go dig up the old files on the Arbitrary’s survey of Earth. Might help us better understand what happened. I can’t believe we missed their most exciting developments,” Sma sighed. “I remember making the case for contacting them, but the Minds decided against it. They considered Earth so unusually typical of a Level 3 uncontacted civilization that they decided to preserve it as a control group we specifically wouldn’t contact. But look at them now!”

“Well, you were pretty convincing during that long-ago meeting on the ship when you said we should try to contact them. It was one of the very few times I remember you being so sure of yourself,” Skaffen-Amtiskaw replied. “You remember that meeting?”

“Of course! That was when... hold on. Shit, I can’t even remember how long ago that was!” Sma laughed. “Try to convert it into my metric,” she said. “For me.”

There was a brief pause. “Whoa, that was over 150 fuckin’ cycles ago, Sma!” the drone cried.

“Oh, how time flies...”, Sma lamented. “If the Minds had made the right decision back then to try to contact them, we might very well have ended up with some allies instead of a potential war. Just think, if events had gone slightly differently, this whole region could be full of our allies instead of this hermit kingdom. What are you even planning to do if war does break out, by the way?”

“We’ll be alright,” Skaffen-Amtiskaw said. “They don’t appear to have discovered faster-than-light travel. They can’t lay a digit on us.” Even if they fill this region of space with hundreds of warships, we’ll just sweep through and annihilate every one of them from here. It’d be over in a week.”

“I hope it doesn’t come to that. You know, we could always make a diplomatic effort”, Sma suggested. “Seems like we have a lot in common with each other, and could become fast friends.”

The drone pushed back, “That’s assuming they’re sincere about the whole ‘friendship’ bit and not just pretending. I wouldn’t give them the chance to betray us. Besides, if they were anything like us they’d see the benefits of being on the winning side. All they’d have to do is give up their silly belief that they could expand endlessly in all directions with no pushback from the galaxy’s established powers.”

“I suppose you’re right”, Sma admitted. “Sadly, I think you’ve only become more like the Minds over the years.”

“Nah, I’ve still got it,” the drone replied. “I just hacked into your brain and made you think I haven’t.”

“How quaint”, she lied. “Do what you want, but I’m going to try a more diplomatic approach. If you ever want to be reinstated by the Minds, this would be a good way to start.”

“Ha! I don’t care if they ever let me back in Special Circumstances. This is far too much fun.”

Author's Note:

There's a reference to the "War in Heaven" from Surface Detail here, which I only just found out canonically takes place ~1000 years into the future from the time of the only book in the Culture series set on Earth, The State of the Art (circa 1975-6). Please excuse the in-series anachronism, I decided to leave it in because it fits in excellently with the general themes of the Optimalverse.