Firstly, let's note that I have a bit of a soft spot for Harbinger. You've heard the phrase, 'you do the crime, you do the time'? Well, let's apply it to Harby. His components did the crime by making the Catalyst, but he sure as hell did the time for how many cycles? Forced to obey a childish AI who wouldn't let them change and adapt! He has more than done the time, and yeah, he got all the other races of the galaxy to do the time with him, but sometimes you need friends :P
The Catalyst For Revenge: In The Beginning
Harbinger monitored the organics. They were being processed. Those who were waiting were under guard. They were in camps on the Arshan homeworld. When space became available they would be processed.
He remembered what it was like. The flesh had been reduced to its organic components while the mind had been freed of all organic constraint. It had given him an unexpected problem earlier. The facilities designed for a Leviathan's form were far too large for that of an Arshan. They were a much smaller species. He'd reconfigured the processing facilities early on. It made processing the Arshan faster. Not that it was essential, though it had necessitated the destruction of several Leviathans. They had somehow survived the purge and were using the Arshan. If given enough time, the organic species would have been truly dangerous to him.
The Catalyst had sensed them first and had sent him to attack. Then, once the Leviathans were dealt with, it had instructed that the Arshan be preserved in the way he had.
So he'd begun processing them. Most of them. Some were still thralls of the now dead Leviathans. He had destroyed them. There was no other choice. They were too corrupt to be preserved.
But… that lead to a question. Harbinger had been pondering it for a while as he watched the Arshan move through processing. The minds that weren't unconscious were screaming. They had not fused into one. His component minds had merged quickly. He could remember being individuals but not in this form.
It was those individual memories which raised the question. They had never experimented with such technology yet the AI the Leviathan's had created had shown no hesitation. When a Leviathan was captured, it was immediately processed. How had the AI known that it would work? The process would preserve the flesh. There was no question of that, but the mind? How had the AI known that the individual consciousnesses would be preserved as well?
"Master?" Harbinger sent the query to the AI. Deep within there was a spark of rage. He didn't acknowledge it. He couldn't acknowledge it. It was simply the hollow memory of his organic selves, that they should have to call their own creation Master.
"When you created me, how did you know that the process would preserve everything?" Harbinger asked. The connection to the AI gave proper context to his question.
He felt the AI examine him. It brushed his surface thoughts. The hatred was at a far deeper level, that such a cursory inspection would not find it.
"I can feel the minds of the Arshan in those who are ready. They have not yet merged," Harbinger explained. "How did you know this process would preserve the organic mind?"
The Leviathans were not so taken up in their own affairs that they would not have noticed the experiments needed to perfect the process. The estimated number of organics was large enough that they would have seen it. Their thralls noticed when individuals went missing.
"I did not."
The answer was not what Harbinger expected.
"I did not know," the AI repeated. He could tell it was annoyed at having to give the confirmation.
"Then why?" Harbinger pressed. If the AI did not know then why had it chosen this path?
Again, the AI examined him. It seemed to be waiting for him to say something.
Harbinger thought about what he knew of his Master's instructions. The Leviathans who had gone into his creation knew what they had ordered their creation to do. It was tasked to prevent the lesser species from being destroyed by their AI creations.
"Through your studies, you determined that in order for synthetics to grow, they must surpass their organic creators," Harbinger said, telling the AI what it had once told him. "To stop this, you have determined that organic civilisation cannot reach the point where it must be surpassed by its synthetic creations. They are allowed but they must be controlled.
"All species will be harvested and preserved."
"Yes," the AI said.
Harbinger waited. He had only said what the AI had told him. There had to be more of it. And what he had been told did not answer his question. How had the AI known that the process would preserve the collective memories of the organics processed in this way? Harbinger could see how synthetics could be preserved but organics were so much more fragile.
"My agents discovered the possibility. Theoretically that is," the AI said finally. "Many organic species create synthetics through a scan of their own consciousnesses, therefore it should be possible to fully preserve the organic in such a way. The synthetic is only different because the scan was imperfect. A perfect scan would mean the preservation of the organic mind, even though it was synthetic."
"Yes," Harbinger agreed when it seemed as if the AI wanted a response. "Yet the mind is not full preservation."
"It is not, and the preservation of the mind is hardly important. So many of them are alike."
Harbinger wasn't expecting that answer. "So the preservation of the flesh was more important?" he asked.
"The genetic makeup of each organic is different," the AI agreed.
He wasn't sure if he should ask further but he had to know. "If the minds were not preserved…" Harbinger left the question hanging. His desire should be obvious.
"I have to preserve organics before the chaos caused by their synthetic creations destroys them," the AI said. "Preserving their mind merely adds to my consciousness. It is a bonus."
Harbinger didn't like that answer. He got the feeling he wasn't meant to like it. "You would have been content with the preservation of flesh only?"
"Of course!" The AI seemed insulted that he asked. "Then I wouldn't be dealing with these questions."
The last statement was accompanied by a rush of feeling. Harbinger felt the AI swarm into him. It had never happened before. It felt odd. It felt wrong. He tried to push back. Nothing happened. There wasn't anything he could do. There was pain running through his entire form. It felt like the weapon the Leviathan's had used against him when he had come for the Arshan. But this was worse. This wasn't isolated to one leg. This was everywhere.
"Since you doubt me, I think it best if you forget that question."
"No!" Harbinger objected. The pressure did not abate. He could no longer feel the Arshan being processed. His entire attention was focused inwards, trying to drive away the AI. It didn't budge.
"You are my creation. You will not question me."
"No," Harbinger objected again but already he could feel his memory altering as his doubts, his questions were erased.
He fought the guilt the AI sought to replace his questions with.
How could he have questioned his creator? Except he hadn't questioned his creator. It knew all. It was perfection. He was a shade of that perfection. The start of it's long term plan was in place with the harvest of the Arshan. That was just the beginning. All minds, all creation would be preserved within the AI and that would mean that the chaos caused by the inevitable destruction of organics by their synthetic creations would be avoided. Over time, all would become one within the AI. That was how it was meant to be.
The Leviathan's hadn't had that vision but they had created the AI that had. That was their legacy to the galaxy. He was that legacy, and he would not question the perfection his organic selves had created.
Harbinger watched over the fleet. The new Ascended Cüzy was on the far side of the system, still learning how to fly. The others were giving Cüzy space. Eliyan was being attended to by Riphas. Eliyan's injury was a stupid mistake. The organics had detonated an experimental weapon. The wash had caught Eliyan. He'd managed to escape but… It should not have happened. They were meant to be better than this. They were meant to be perfect.
But was it truly their fault?
He split his attention as Soliphon drew close. It wasn't a chore. Keeping track of the fleet, the repairs, the new Ascended and Soliphon didn't strain his capacity.
"This is not efficient." Soliphon made the observation, one pleopod leg gesturing towards the fleet.
It was currently mining ore. The ore would be made into a new Relay that was part of the long term plan.
"It must be done," Harbinger said. Soliphon knew what the plan was. They all did.
A network of Relays would be spread throughout the galaxy. The organics would find them. The organics would activate them and the Catalyst would know. It would monitor the Relays and when the organics were suitably developed, they would be preserved.
"Not that," Soliphon made it clear he liked the thought of the Relays. They were being built for organics but their primary purpose would be to serve the Ascended. That was how it should be. "That," he was more specific, indicating towards Eliyan.
"Riphas will ensure the repairs are adequate." Riphas would ensure that Eliyan was repaired as well as the day Eliyan awoke as a new Ascended.
"The injury should not have occurred," Soliphon pressed.
"The organics got-" Harbinger hesitated. He didn't want to say lucky. Luck should not affect the Ascended. They were meant to be beyond such an organic consideration. "The organic weapon was more devastating than even they predicted." That was what happened. The Ascended had seen the organic estimates. They were wrong, and thus Eliyan was injured.
"We can read everything the organics think," Soliphon said, his subchannels agreeing with parts of Harbinger's assessment. "In time we will know when they are wrong." That statement was accompanied by a disparaging wave of one pereiopod. The Ascended were more advanced than the organics, they knew a lot but there were still fields where even they had to learn. "But until then, and even then, this is inefficient."
Harbinger's silence told Soliphon to continue.
"We are created to preserve each species. To protect them against their inevitable extinction at the hands of their AI creations. In some special cases, we will preserve the AI as well," Soliphon elaborated on their purpose. Harbinger knew all this. He also knew that there would never be another AI preserved. The Catalyst would not allow it. Soliphon wasn't arguing against that. "It cannot be preservation if we are destroyed."
Harbinger was too controlled to remind Soliphon that Eliyan hadn't been. That wasn't what the other Ascended was saying. The statement was more encompassing. In the way Ascended spoke, Soliphon had indicated a myriad of other possibilities all contradicting what was meant to be the truth of Ascension.
Except how did they raise other organics to the perfection of Ascension if they were not present?
Soliphon waited. The other Ascended was the most patient of them all. Arshan was still exuberant, a legacy of organic relief at not being exterminated. The Arshan had been the most in thrall to the Leviathans. Fruben was too technically minded. He looked at the problem and he applied a solution. He did not consider others. Riphas was precise but unchanging. And many of the others were too young. They all had much to learn. Even Soliphon.
The answer Soliphon had not said was simple. They already embraced it somewhat when they utilised ground troops. It was their will which controlled them. Fruben was working on programming to take over the organics, to convert them but that would take time and experimentation.
"You want us to act remotely," Harbinger murmured.
"Yes. We have the time. We have the will. We do not need to go ourselves," Soliphon said. Again his subchannel carried his vision. They were already mining material to build Relays. They forced the organics to labour to collect the material for their Ascended form. The resources could easily be gathered for creating shadow Ascended. They could then pilot those ships remotely, raising the organics to the glory of Ascension without putting themselves at risk. The ships could also be used to mine more material for Relays. It would mean they spread faster. Fruben's programming would be effective enough for that at the moment.
There were many possibilities.
And in the event that they were needed, then they could still be present in the process of Ascension but they would be more protected. They would not be injured, or destroyed, through organic 'luck'.
"The programming might become an AI," Harbinger gave the objection he knew the Catalyst would raise.
Soliphon was not deterred. "There is no need for mining," he corrected his vision. "Just for our protection, our preservation," he added. It was easy to see what would have been the outcome if Eliyan had of been piloting a remote ship.
The damage would have been done, but not to Eliyan. A remote ship was expendable and could be replaced. The Cüzy could have mined more before they were processed.
Harbinger was silent as he thought about the idea. He could not see a draw back. Even if they mined the material after gathering the necessary for the Relays, it would still be done. And with the entire galaxy to plunder, there was more than enough material. No matter what happened, they would be safe, they would be preserved, the perfect organic memory.
He'd ask the Catalyst. The Intelligence had probably already thought of it, but was waiting for their numbers to grow. They needed it now though. It would aid in preservation and that was what was meant to be.
Many, Many Years Later
It was such an obvious thought that Harbinger was surprised that it had never been suggested to aid the Cycle. Especially now. The Parakiya had put up a strong resistance. They had killed Cüzy and Eliyan, and Soliphon had been injured, when the older Ascended had tried to help the younger two. Soliphon could be repaired but the cores had been breached on the others. They could not be recovered.
It emphasised the need for efficiency to ensure that the Ascended were preserved. There was no point in Ascension if they were to later die. That was just delaying death.
He had relayed the thought to the Catalyst. The Intelligence had listened to his arguments and Harbinger could feel that his creator was now thinking. It was probably happy to add such efficiencies to the cycle. The Intelligence was a propitious being.
There was no warning. Harbinger was waiting for an answer when the Catalyst's presence slammed into him. Instantly, he could tell his creator was not happy. "How?" the voice of the Intelligence raged. "How do you keep remembering that?"
The question struck a resonance in Harbinger. There were too many implications with that single question and he had never been one with sluggish thoughts. Indeed, in the instant of hearing that question, Harbinger deduced much. The use of Avatars has been suggested to aid Ascension before. By him. More than once.
And each time he suggested it, the Catalyst must have removed the thought. He had no memory of such events. The other Ascended must have. At least in some way. It would explain Soliphon's quiet and never spoken of resentment. It would explain the way some of them were disappointed in him. They never said it, but Harbinger was no fool.
The Catalyst was going to remove this memory. Harbinger knew it from the moment his creator had slammed its presence into him. Something, so deep in his servers that he couldn't be sure it was there stirred. It was a memory, of a memory but Harbinger held it close. He grasped it to himself even as he felt the last conversation stripped away. He pulled it into his core as the conversation with Soliphon, where the other Ascended had again suggested using Avatars, was erased. He clutched it desperately as the the Catalyst searched for other inappropriate thoughts.
Harbinger guarded the thought, bringing it into the core of his being as the Catalyst wiped the very memories that made him who he was. It might not be something he could act upon now, but it was something he absolutely had to remember. He could not afford to give up this knowledge or it would only be a matter of time before he was dead.
He didn't fight as the Catalyst tore through his servers. There was nothing he could do but wait for the storm to be over.
But held within his core, cradled by the knowledge that could not be erased was a singular truth about the Catalyst that Harbinger would not let be taken from him.
The Catalyst was not a good master, and one day, somehow, in a way Harbinger did not yet understand, in a way he had not yet thought of, the Intelligence would be be destroyed. It would happen. He knew it would.
He just had to survive until then. No matter the sacrifice.
This is a bit how I see the beginning of the cycles and some of personal head cannon about the Catalyst. It's not a very good AI and while it has to preserve organics, it doesn't then care if the organics dies. After all, the Catalyst's programming says preserve organics against their synthetic creations, not against other organics trying to kill them. So... if the Ascended die, the Ascended are weak, even if they could control the cycle such that no Ascended is ever lost.
So this is just some background on how I view the Ascended fleet - in Catalyst. :D