The Colonel: A Tor.Com Original

The Colonel: A Tor.Com Original

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by Peter Watts
Colonel Keaton is in trouble. His wife has retreated into a virtual heaven and his son remains missing after joining an extrasolar mission to track down an alien race. He is presently tasked by his superiors with the threat assessment of hived human intelligences, one of which successfully attacks a compound under his watch. Now, one of the strongest hive minds in the


Colonel Keaton is in trouble. His wife has retreated into a virtual heaven and his son remains missing after joining an extrasolar mission to track down an alien race. He is presently tasked by his superiors with the threat assessment of hived human intelligences, one of which successfully attacks a compound under his watch. Now, one of the strongest hive minds in the world approaches Keaton with an offer that could completely change his world.

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The Colonel

By Peter Watts, Richard Anderson

Tom Doherty Associates

Copyright © 2014 Peter Watts
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4668-7647-7


The insurgents are already vectoring in from the east when the flag goes up. By the time the Colonel's back in the game — processed the intel, found a vantage point, grabbed the nearest network specialist out of bed and plunked her down at the board — they've got the compound surrounded. Rainforest hides them from baseline vision but the Colonel's borrowed eyes see well into the infrared. From half a world away, he tracks each fuzzy heatprint filtering up through the impoverished canopy.

One of the few good things about the decimation of Ecuador's wildlife: not much chance, these days, of mistaking a guerrilla for a jaguar.

"I make thirteen," the Lieutenant says, tallying blobs of false color on the display.

A welter of tanks and towers in the middle of a clear-cut. A massive umbilical, studded with paired lifting surfaces along its length, sags gently into the sky from the pump station at its heart. Eight kilometers further west — and twenty more, straight up — an aerostat wallows at the end of the line like a great bloated tick, vomiting sulfates into the stratosphere.

There's a fence around the compound of course, old-fashioned chain-link with razorwire frosting, not so much a barrier as a nostalgic reminder of simpler times. There's a ring of scorched earth ten meters wide between fence and forest, another eighty from fence to factory. There are defenses guarding the perimeter.

"Can we access the on-site security?" He tried — unsuccessfully — before the Lieutenant arrived, but she's the specialist.

She shakes her head. "It's self-contained. No fiber in, no phone to answer. Doesn't even transmit unless it's already under attack. Only way to access the code is to actually go out there. Pretty much hack-proof."

So they're stuck looking down from geostat. "Can you show me the ranges at least? Ground measures only."

"Sure. That's just blueprint stuff." A schematic blooms across the Lieutenant's board, scaled and overlaid onto the real time. Translucent lemon pie-slices fan out from various points around the edge of the facility, an overlapping hot zone extending to the fence and a little beyond. The guns are all pointed out, though. Anybody who makes it to the hole in the donut is home free.

The heatprints enter the clearing; the Lieutenant collapses the palette down to visible light.

"Huh," the Colonel says.

The insurgents have not stepped into view. They didn't walk or run. They're — scuttling, for want of a better word. Crawling. Squirming arrhythmically. They remind the Colonel of crabs afflicted with some kind of neurological disorder, flipped onto their backs and trying to right themselves. Each pushes a small bedroll along the ground.

"What the fuck," the Lieutenant murmurs.

The insurgents are slathered head-to-toe in some kind of brownish paste. Mud idols in cargo shorts. Two pairs have linked up like wrestling sloths, like conjoined twins fused gut-to-back. They lurch and roll to the foot of the fence.

The station's defenses are not firing.

Not bedrolls: mats, roughly woven, natural fiber from the look of it. The insurgents unroll them at the fence, throw them up over the razorwire to ensure safe passage during the climb.

The Lieutenant glances up. "They networked yet?" "Can't be. It'd trip the alarms."

"Why haven't they tripped the alarms already? They're right there." She frowns. "Maybe they disabled security somehow."

The insurgents are inside the perimeter.

"Your hack-proof security?" The Colonel shakes his head. "No, if they'd taken out the guns they'd just — shit."


Insulative mud, judiciously applied to reshape the thermal profile. No hardware, no alloys or synthetics to give the game away. Interlocked bodies, contortionist poses: how would those shapes profile at ground level? What would the security cameras see, looking out across —

"Wildlife. They're impersonating wildlife." Jaguars and guerillas, my ass ...


"It's a legacy loophole, don't you —" But of course she doesn't. Too young to remember Ecuador's once-proud tradition of protecting its charismatic megafauna. Not even born when that herd of peccaries and Greenpeacers got mowed down by an overeager pillbox programmed to defend the local airstrip. Wouldn't know about the safeguards since legislated into every automated targeting system in the country, long-since forgotten for want of any wildlife left to protect.

So much for on-site security. The insurgents will be smart enough to hold off on coalescing until they're beyond any local firing solution. "How long before the drones arrive?"

The Lieutenant dips into her own head, checks a feed. "Seventeen minutes."

"We have to assume they'll have completed their mission before then."

"Yes sir, but — what mission? What are they gonna do, scratch the paint with their fingernails?"

He doesn't know. His source didn't know. The insurgents themselves probably don't know, won't know until they network; you could snatch one off the ground this very instant, read the voxels right off her brain, get no joy at all.

That's the scary thing about hive minds. Their plans are too big to fit into any one piece.

He shakes his head. "So we can't access the guns. What about normal station operations?"

"Sure. Stations have to talk to each other to keep the injection rates balanced."

The insurgents are halfway to the scrubbers. It's astonishing that such quick headway could emerge from such graceless convulsion.

"Get us in."

A wave of stars ignites across the schematic, right to left: switches, valves, a myriad of interfaces coming online. The Colonel points to a cluster of sparks in the southwest quadrant. "Can we vent those tanks?"

"Not happily." She frowns. "A free dump would be catastrophic. Only way the system would go along with that is if it thought it was preventing something even worse."

"Such as?"

"Tank explosion, I guess."

"Set it up."

She starts whispering sweet nothings to distant gatekeepers, but she doesn't look pleased. "Sir, isn't this technically — I mean, use of poison gas —"

"Sulfate precursor. Geoengineering stockpile. Not a weapon of war." Technically.

"Yes sir," she says unhappily.

"Countermeasures have to be in place before they link up, Lieutenant. If there's any exploit — any at all — the hive will see it. There's no way to outthink the damn thing once it's engaged."

"Yes sir. Ready."

"That was fast."

"You said it had to be, sir." She extends a finger toward a fresh crimson icon pulsing on the board. "Should I —"

"Not yet." The Colonel stares down from vicarious orbit, tries to make sense of the tableaux. What the hell are they doing? What can even a hive mind accomplish with reed mats and a few kilograms of mu —

Wait a second ...

He picks an intruder at random, zooms in. The mud sheathing that body has an almost golden glint to it, now that he looks closely. Something not-quite-mineral, something —

He calls up an archive, searches the microbial index for any weaponized synthetics that might eat heterocyclics. Scores.

"They're going after the umbilical."

The Lieutenant glances up. "Sir?"

"The mud. It's not just a disguise it's a payload, it's —"

"A biopaste." The Lieutenant whistles, returns her attention to the board with renewed focus.

The Colonel tries to think. They're not just aiming to cut the aerostat loose; you don't need a hive for that, you don't even need to breach the perimeter. Whatever this is, it's microsurgical. Something that requires massive on-site computation — maybe something to do with microclimate, something that can be influenced by wind or humidity or any of a dozen other chaotic variables. If they're not trying to cut the umbilical outright they might be trying to maneuver it somehow: a biocorroded hole exactly X millimeters in diameter here, a stretching patch of candle-wax monomers over there, and way up in the stratosphere the aerostat sways some precise number of meters on some precise bearing —

To what end? Play bumper-cars with the maintenance drones? Block some orbital lineof-sight, nudge a distant act of ground-based terrorism into surveillance eclipse at a critical moment? Maybe they're not going for the umbilical after all, maybe they're —

"Sir?" The first of the insurgents has made it to the donut hole. "Sir, if we have to light 'em up before they coalesce —"

"Not yet, Lieutenant."

He's a blind man in a bright room. He's a rhesus monkey playing chess with a grand master. He has no idea of his opponent's strategy. He has no concept even of the rules of the game. He only knows he's bound to lose.

The last of the insurgents lurches out of weapons range. The Lieutenant's finger hovers over that icon as though desperate to scratch a maddening itch.


That far-focus moment, that thousand-soul stare. You can see it in their eyes if you know what to look for, if you're close enough and fast enough. The Colonel is neither. All he has is a top-down view through a telescope thirty-six thousand kilometers away, ricocheted through the atmosphere and spread across this table. But he can see what follows: the fusion of interlocking pieces, the simultaneous change in physical posture, the instant evolutionary leap from spastic quadruped to sapient superweapon.

Out of many, one.


It knows. Of course it knows. It's inconceivable that this vast emergent mind hasn't — in the very instant of its awakening — detected some vital clue, made some inference to lay the whole trap bare. The station's defenses whine belatedly into gear, startled awake in the sudden glare of a million thoughts; multimind networks may be invisible to human eyes but they're bright blinding tapestries down in RF. The hive, safely behind the firing line, has no need to care about that.

No, what's got its attention now is the wave of hydrogen sulfide billowing from the southern storage tanks: silent, invisible, heavy as a blanket and certain death to any standalone soul. No baseline would suspect a thing until the faint smell of rotten eggs told him he was already dead.

But this soul does not stand alone. Eleven of its bodies simultaneously turn and flee back toward the fence, each following a unique trajectory with a little Brownian randomness layered in to throw off the tracking algos. The other two stand fast in the donut hole, draw sidearms from belts —

The Colonel frowns. Why didn't the sensors pick those up?

"Hey, are those guns — that looks like bone," the Lieutenant says.

The nodes open fire.

It is bone. Something like it anyway; metal or plastic would have triggered the sensors before they'd even reached the fence. The slugs are probably ceramic, though; no osteo derivative would be able to punch through the least of those conduits ...

Except that's not what the hive is going for. They're shooting at any old pipe or panel, anything metal, anything that might —

Strike a spark ...

Because hydrogen sulfide isn't just poisonous, you idiot. It's flammable.

"Holy shit," the Lieutenant whispers as the zone goes up.

* * *

It's a counter-countermeasure, improvised on the fly. It's a queen sacrifice; some of these bodies are doomed but maybe the fire will burn off enough gas to give the rest a chance, suck back and consume enough of that spreading poison for eleven bodies to make it to safety while two burn like living torches.

For a few seconds the Colonel thinks it's going to work. As Hail-Marys go it's a good one; no baseline would have even come up with a plan in that split-second, much less put it into action. But faint hope is only a little better than none, and not even demigods can change the laws of physics. The sacrificial nodes blaze and blacken and crumble like dead leaves. Three others make it halfway up the chain-link before the gas reaches them, still thick enough to kill if not to burn. The rest die convulsing in the dirt, flesh oiled and guttering with spotty candlelight, jerking with the impact of bullets that can finally kick at targets once they're down.

The poisonous carpet spreads invisibly into the jungle, off to kill whatever weedy life it might still find there.

The Lieutenant swallows, face pale with nausea and the unleashed memories of ancient war crimes. "We're sure this isn't against the —" she trails off, unwilling to challenge a superior officer, unconvinced by legalistic hairsplitting, unable to assess the threat posed by this vanquished enemy.

But the threat is so very real. These things are fucking dangerous. If not for some happenstance bit of intel — unpredictable as a quantum flutter, never to be repeated — this hive would have accomplished its goal without discovery or opposition. Or maybe it did; maybe everything that's just happened was part of the plan, maybe that lucky tip-off was deliberately crafted to make him dance on command. Maybe this was a defeat and he'll never know.

That's the thing about hives. Always ten steps ahead. The fact that there are still jurisdictions where such abominations remain legal scares the Colonel more than he can say.

"Why are we doing this, sir?"

He scowls. "Doing what, exactly? Fighting for the survival of the individual?"

But the Lieutenant shakes her head. "Why are we still just — fighting all the time? Among ourselves? I mean, weren't the aliens supposed to make us all forget our petty differences? Unite humanity against the common threat?"

The ranks are full of them, these days.

"They didn't threaten us, Lieutenant. They only took our picture." That's what everyone assumes, anyway. Sixty-four thousand objects of unknown origin, simultaneously igniting in a precise incandescent grid encircling the globe. Screaming back into space along half the EM spectrum as the atmosphere burned them to ash.

"But they're still out there. Whatever sent them is, anyway. Even after thirteen years —"

Fourteen. The Colonel feels muscles tighten at the corners of his mouth. But who's counting.

"And with Theseus lost —"

"There's no evidence Theseus is lost," he says shortly.

"Yes, sir."

"Nobody said it was going to be a weekend mission."

"Yes sir." She returns her attention to the board, but he thinks there was something in her face as she turned away. He wonders if it might have been recognition.

Unlikely. It was a long time ago. And he always kept behind the scenes.

"Well —" he heads for the door. "Might as well send in the clowns."


He stops but doesn't turn.

"I was wondering — if it isn't above my pay grade, sir — but you seemed really concerned about what that hive would do when it booted. No way we could keep up when it was engaged, you said."

"I'm waiting for a question, Lieutenant."

"Why did we wait? We could've gassed the lot of them before they ever linked up, and if they were that dangerous — well, it seems like bad strategy."

He can't disagree. Which is not to say it was unwarranted.

"Hives are dangerous, Lieutenant. Never doubt that for an instant. That said ..."

He considers, and settles for something like the truth.

"If killing's the only option, I'd rather kill one than thirteen."

* * *

Some threats lurk closer to home. Some are somewhat less — overt.

Take the woman on the feed, for example: a tiny thing, maybe 160 cm. Nothing about Liana Lutterodt suggests anything other than contagious enthusiasm for a world of wonders.

No hint of the agency that pays her expenses, sends her on these goodwill tours to dispense rainbows and a promise of Utopia.

No hint of forces deep in the Oregon desert, using her as a sock puppet.

"We climbed this hill," she says now, to the attentive host of In Conversation. "Each step up we could see farther, so of course we kept going. Now we're at the top. Science has been at the top for a few centuries now."

Her background's unremarkable, for the most part: born in Ghana, raised in the UKapelago, top of her class in systems theory and theistic virology.

"Now we look out across the plain and we see this other tribe dancing around above the clouds, even higher than we are. Maybe it's a mirage, maybe it's a trick. Or maybe they just climbed a higher peak we can't see because the clouds are blocking the view."

Little in the way of overt criminal activity. Charged with possession of a private database at thirteen, interfering with domestic surveillance pickups at twelve. The usual fines and warnings racked up by the young before they learn to embrace the panopticon.

"So we head off to find out — but every step takes us downhill. No matter what direction we go, we can't move off our peak without losing our vantage point. Naturally we climb back up again. We're trapped on a local maximum."

Finally managed to drop off the grid legally by signing up with the Bicameral Order, which gets special exemption by virtue of being largely incomprehensible even when you do keep an eye on them.


Excerpted from The Colonel by Peter Watts, Richard Anderson. Copyright © 2014 Peter Watts. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

PETER WATTS — author of Blindsight, the so-called Rifters Trilogy, and an obscure video-game tie-in — is an ex-marine-biologist and convicted felon who seems especially popular among people who don't know him. At least, his awards generally hail from overseas except for a Hugo (won thanks to fan outrage over an altercation with Homeland Security) and a Jackson (won thanks to fan sympathy over nearly dying from flesh-eating disease). Blindsight somehow ended up as a core text for university courses ranging from Philosophy to Neuropsychology, despite an unhealthy focus on space vampires. Watts's work is available in 18 languages.

Peter Watts is a former marine biologist and the Hugo and Nebula nominated author of novels such as Starfish, Maelstrom and Behemoth, and numerous short stories. He has been called "a hard science fiction writer through and through and one of the very best alive" by The Globe and Mail and whose work the New York Times called "seriously paranoid."

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