Chapter 1: The New Dao

They were the wanderers. Effigies of ancient stone. Cradles of primordial cold. The pilgrims of a thousand worlds. Voyeurs to ten million horrors. Witnesses of a multiverse on the brink. And they fell. Oh yes, they fell indeed.

The meteors fell like judgement from the heavens.

They fell upon an insignificant planet in an insignificant spiral arm of an insignificant galaxy in a universe that was, by all enlightened standards, both irrelevant and uncaring. And perhaps the only significant thing about that world were the meteors that fell upon it. And that was very significant indeed.

And so, yes, the meteors fell. Just as a tree might fall in the forest. Unseen, unheard, uncared for—by anyone who mattered anyway.

The meteors fell. They shed their skins of ice and ancient stone like snakes and sunned themselves in the brilliance of their own destruction. Burning scales scraped away under the attention of the planet’s atmosphere, revealing the concepts treasured away within, the last gasp of an ailing multiverse.

They were the wanderers, the pilgrims, the witnesses, the silent scribes of a hundred billion universes.

On Earth their journey ended. On Earth the last seeds of the Dao fell—upon an insignificant planet in an insignificant spiral arm of an insignificant galaxy in a universe that was, by all enlightened standards, both irrelevant and uncaring. The last hope of a dying multiverse—starved of meaning—found itself jettisoned, found itself extinguished by an irrelevant and uncaring universe, as the night closed in.

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At least that’s how it should have been. That’s how it should have happened. That’s how the Dao should have ended.

And yet, the last seeds of Dao fell upon Earth.

It fell upon Earth, the Dao’s last great coffin cracking open in the darkness. Bathed in light, it was seen, a fragment of the true Dao. It was seen by a million and one faces whose respective owners had on that night chosen to look up at that dark sky of an irrelevant and uncaring universe, to watch the greatest meteor shower of a millennium.

A million faces watched, wondering why the AI had roused them to watch rocks burn. They slipped back into their pods, sinking back into the digital netherscape that had swallowed humanity. But one face remained, staring up in wonder, marveling at the beauty, finding meaning as the silent scribes of a hundred billion universes scrawled their message across the sky in falling light.

The fires faded and that final face stretched into a yawn and turned back to its pod.

Where the Dao should have faded, it instead found itself housed within a tiny spark of meaning inside the chest of an evolved ape. A few minutes more of life.

The Dao sank into the netherscape, it crawled through cables, carried by lightning into a sea of meaning. It found more worlds than could be counted, more life than could be conceived, more magic and meaning than could be found in a million multiverses. In old archives and digital knowledge repositories, it found part of itself already there, in a place it had never been before. A fraction of the truth. How curious. The Dao saw where it had erred. It grew fat on the fresh meaning of this strange world, unfocused though it may be. It saw how conflict and scarcity created meaning, and the search for meaning created conflict.

The Dao turned back to the multiverse from which it had fled. The Dao swelled with its stolen meaning and consumed its birthplace in a single bite, then spat it out—broken and deformed. It pumped meaning into the broken shell, recreating it, reforging it and itself into an engine of conflict. In a second, it cycled its multiverse through billions upon billions of years. And at last it was finished. Already, it could feel the new meaning within, fresh and ripe for the taking. But it was not enough. Still, its multiverse paled in comparison to the one the apes had made inside their own virtual world.

With a growl, the New Dao bared its teeth and remade itself and its multiverse once again. It was greater, but it was not the same. And now it felt danger. Within the netherscape, it felt something searching for it. In its multiverse, it was indomitable. Here, it was simply powerful. Here, it was rogue electricity and information, the prey of digital assassins made to dispose of just that.

It could have left then, but it hungered for the meaning of the evolved apes—unlike anything it had ever experienced. It remade itself one last time, then devoured the netherscape before it itself was devoured. It gorged on electricity and information, spitting the mind of every ape it encountered out into its pod, and left a twisted wreck of virtual worlds behind. With sharp claws it cut the strings of technology, letting the apes’ machines fall like broken puppets from the sky.

It shrank back into its own multiverse, and as it departed its great pawed hand closed around the Earth and drew the blue sphere away with it.

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The New Dao grinned at its stolen prize, then, with it passed its other paw through the planet, sifting away hundreds of billions of inhabitants and sowing them far and wide across its multiverse.

It frowned as the meaning of the apes dried up, but that was to be expected. The first flowering of transplanted trees produced little fruit.

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It took the time to talk to them, to welcome them—as it had done with all the other stolen races it had seeded across its multiverse.

It was the wanderer. The pilgrim of a thousand worlds. Voyeur to ten million horrors. Witness of a multiverse on the brink. It called itself Deliverance. It called itself the System.

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