Coming Home

So, this one has a bit of an unusual origin.

While I have been working my way through ORG short fiction at a pretty good rate, Kelly Hallman asked if she could write a short story of her own in that same 25th century dystopian solar system. Of course I said, “Sure, why not?”

Kelly came up with a great story, with the end interspacing with a song about a prisoner on his way to his execution. It worked really well with story, but it had the minor problem of being, well, still under copyright.

We needed a new song. And I certainly am not the type to shy away from writing another murder ballad.

Coming Home
I know the whole damned lie
They told on the prosecutor’s bench
But the joke’s on them
‘Cause if they ever knew the whole of it
They’d’ve shit their own pants

    If I could send that judge to Hell
    He’d be coming home
    At last he’d be coming home

But Death, she loves a jest
So I sit here condemned
For the one I never touched
While sixteen others lie
Forgotten in their holes

    Where I left them each and every one
    They were coming home
    At last they were coming home

But can’t wrestle the hangman
When your eyes lack even two pence
And even though they’re all set
To take it all from me
They can’t stop the fact that

    Now at last I’m coming home,
    I’m coming home,
    At last I’m coming home.

The Man From Earth

++++ DATE 2.5.2469
++++ TIME Period 7.1.9
++++ LOCATION Manufactory 9, Division T, Alpha Complex, Orcus

The comm crackled for a moment. “Work hard, increase production, and be happy,” urged the soothing voice.

Gregory 7566-1 bowed his head, making the sign of the circle on his bare skull, completing the motion by touching where the center of the circle had been drawn. He tried not to, but could not help but glance at his work partner, noting with troubled disapproval that Lucida 9566-2 was blithely ignoring the comm.

Lucida noticed his scowl, and smiled impishly. “You worry too much.”

“TruthSec could be watching,” Gregory insisted.

“Not from that comm,” Lucida remarked. “That one has been waiting for a capacitor replacement for eighteen periods now.”

Gregory looked uncomfortable. “Still, someone might say something.”

“Let them. They will not be saying anything TruthSec does not already know.”

“You are going to get us both in trouble.”

“You worry too much,” Lucida said again. She glanced at the chronometer on the wall. “Besides, our work cycle has been over for the last 0.1.0 periods, so if it pleases you to continue work do not let me stop you, but I am returning to the creche.”

“I am going to look at the comm again. Maybe I can bridge the gap on the capacitor and get it working,” Gregory considered. “I will see you in a bit then,” he said, glancing at her. “Work hard,” he said.

“Be happy,” she replied cheerily as she picked up her own tool kit and made her way back down the corridor.

Gregory reached for the multi-tool at his belt, stepping beneath the comm, looking up at it. Perhaps some conductive cement would pass enough of a charge to get it functioning again? Likely not, but leaving the work unfinished left a bad taste in his mouth. “It might work,” he said aloud to himself dubiously as he stretched up to unfasten the outer casement on the comm.

“Not generally, in my limited experience,” came a new voice from behind him. “But my engineering skills are rather, shall we say, atrophied.”

Gregory spun, his multi-tool slipping from his fingers to clatter on the floor. He frowned at the man standing in front of him. “What is that on your head?” Gregory declared quizzically, kneeling to retrieve the fallen multi-tool. He stood, continuing to stare.

The man frowned, touching his head. “Ah, hair.”

“I have heard of that,” Gregory nodded. “A vestigal evolutionary trait, since removed from our genepool for sanitary reasons. Clogs air fliters and the like.” He looked confused. “But how do you have…hair?”

The man put one hand to his chest, bowing slightly. “Caught me,” he said slyly. “Not from around here, but surely you guessed that. You can call me Mr. Tennyson. And you, my new friend? What is your name?”

“Gregory 7566-1,” he replied bemusedly. “Communication systems engineer. Are you from Gamma Complex, then? I hear things there are rather more primitive compared to the more established complexes. It must be terrible.”

Mr. Tennyson held up his hands, shaking his head. “Oh no,” he chuckled. “Not from Orcus at all. I am the lead contract negotiator from Hobb Industries, finalizing arrangements for the purchase by your Directorate of its bright shiny new super dreadnought. I seem to have gotten a tad bit lost on my way back from the conference section.”

Gregory slipped the multi-tool back into his belt, shaking his head. “I am sorry, but I do not understand. What do you mean, you are not from Orcus? You mean you are from the Badlands?”

“Badlands?”

“You know. Where all the other decendents of the refugees from the fall of Earth settled. We have to fight them every so often, as they try to take away the civilization we have built here.”

Mr. Tennyson laughed. “Oh, that’s rich. Refugees, indeed. I wager that’s not a bad way to describe anyone who has escaped Earth, however.” His eyes flashed with amusement. “Have to remember that one when I get back. I know a few people who will get a kick out of that.”

“The Death of Earth is hardly a proper subject to be making jokes about.” Gregory frowned, glancing at the still-blind comm unit out of habit.

“Death of Earth? What have they been telling you here, my friend?” Mr. Tennyson snorted. “I am from Earth, near Toronto. Second biggest metropolitan area in North America after Vancouver, and that’s saying something even these days. Why, there are ten times more people in Toronto alone than in all the Orcus Directorate.”

Gregory searched Mr. Tennyson’s face for signs of a jest at his expense. “Truth?” he asked. “You are not making fun of me?”

Mr. Tennyson looked grave. “Quite serious.”

Gregory shook his head. “I do not understand. I remember my history classes quite clearly. Earth died. Humanity fled. Most scattered to survive in holes where they might. Our own ancestors came here, to build a shining new beacon for civilization.” He repeated the words by rote, but this time when he stopped he frowned, troubled.

“Not entirely true, I’m afraid,” Mr. Tennyson said. “Don’t get me wrong, the Orcus Directorate has done quite nicely out here for being in the middle of the Kuiper Belt. You have a top-notch operation going here, under the circumstances. But Earth’s doing just fine here. As are Mars and Venus and the Jovians. Triton and Pluto too, for that matter.”

“This is not what I learned in my creche.”

“Your creche?” Mr. Tennyson asked.

“You do not have creches? But of course you would not, being from the Badlands. In the Orcus Directorate, we have escaped the tyranny of biological accident, you see,” Gregory explained, suddenly animated. “We are grown in creches, raised to adulthood, trained in our work cohort together to serve as our genes dictate we best serve. Bad mutations are weeded out, the subjects returned to the vats for organic reprocessing. It is all very civilized. Very efficient.”

“Grown? As in cloned? No, ah, sex?”

Gregory pursed his lips with distaste. “No. No sex. That is just…terribly inefficient. Our way is much better. No genetic accidents this way. We grow what we need, recycle who we do not. There is never a question of discontent or rebellion like in societies of old.”

“Don’t you…miss it?”

“No. The onset of puberty is arrested by slow-release capsules.” Gregory put a finger on the inside of his left arm. “They are implanted here when we are young. I barely even remember the operation.” Gregory cocked his head. “You have had…sex then?”

Mr. Tennyson chuckled. “Oh yes. One of my favorite past times.”

“I have read descriptions. It sounds disgusting.”

“That’s what my ex-wife said. But that’s a good part of the reason why she is my ex-wife.” Mr. Tennyson noticed Gregory’s frown. “Wife. Pair-bonding. You really don’t know the term?”

Gregory shrugged. “I think I recall it from my course in anthropology.” He looked past the strange man and straightened self-consciously. “TruthSec,” he said in a low voice.

Mr. Tennyson glanced behind him at the four black jumpsuited figures approaching at a jog. “Sadly, it seems my minders have come to fetch me,” he sighed. He stuck out his hand, taking Gregory’s in his own hand, pumping it a few times. “Pleased to have met you. Lovely conversation, really.”

The four figures stopped as they reached the pair. The lead woman stepped towards them. “Mr. Tennyson,” she said cooly. “This is a restricted area.”

“Very sorry, ma’am. I must have gotten turned around on the way back from the conference room. I was just looking for a coffee shop.”

Her face was very still. “The Orcus Directorate does not have…coffee shops,” she said.

“Pity.”

The black-jumpsuited TruthSec woman turned to Gregory. “Has this one said anything to you?”

Gregory glanced at Mr. Tennyson, then back at her. He lowered his eyes. “He just stopped to ask directions to a…coffee shop. Whatever that is.”

“He said nothing else?”

“I said I did not know what that was. Then you arrived.”

She pursed her lips. “You may go. This encounter should not be discussed. There may be a follow-up interview.”

“Yes. Of course. I will leave now.”

She nodded curtly, turning back to Mr. Tennyson. “You will come with us, sir.” He sighed, nodded, and surrounded by the quartet, moved away.

++++ DATE 8.5.2469
++++ TIME Period 3.3.9
++++ LOCATION Subdivision 8, Division T, Alpha Complex, Orcus

Lucida 9566-2 was staring at him again.

“What?” Gregory 7566-1 asked testily.

She shook her head. “That is the sixth bolted joint you have had to re-do. I have never seen you so distracted.”

Gregory was silent for a moment. “Have you ever been into the Observatory? For a job, I mean.”

“No. Is that a place for telescopes or something?”

“That seems logical. I am just wondering if you could see Earth from there.”

Lucida cocked her head. “Why would you want to do that?”

“Curiosity, I guess. Do you never wonder?”

She shrugged. “Why? It’s a dead rock. Nothing on it. Even the air is dead.”

“Maybe.” Gregory went back to working on the bolted joint. She was right; he would have to re-do this one, too.

++++ DATE 8.5.2469
++++ TIME Period 9.0.2
++++ LOCATION Junction 19, Division G, Alpha Complex, Orcus

The panel clicked twice, then fell silent. The light turned green.

Gregory 7566-1 let out his breath explosively. He glanced over his shoulder, but it was deep in the night cycle, and the corridor was empty. The security was solid, but working with the comm systems gave him an edge in circumventing the entry system. He secured the temporary micro-welding, then slipped the multi-tool back into his belt. He took a deep breath, then touched the screen.

The door slid open with a faint hiss. Gregory slipped inside, closing the door behind him.

The inside of the Observatory was not at all as he had imagined it. Where he had thought to see, perhaps, some great telescope, or perhaps even a giant screen, instead he saw an array of small terminals in three neat rows. Each bank of terminals was sunk into the floor, low steps at either end of the bank descending into the pit, two walkways dividing the three banks.

The walls did have a screen, although much smaller than Gregory had imagined in his mind’s eye, and on it were only undecipherable rows and columns of numbers. Stepping fown into one of the terminal banks, Gregory frowned at their much smaller screens. Again, instead of star fields or even meteoric debris, the terminal screens all only had two words in red upon them, blinking slowly and in unison like some strange choir: AUTOMATION ENGAGED

“I do not understand. This is an observatory. Where are the stars?” Gregory asked aloud to the empty room. “Where is Earth?”

“Who are you?” asked a voice behind him.

Gregory spun, multi-tool out like a weapon. He felt foolish as he stood there clutching it.

The man in front of Gregory was dressed as he was, in a white jumpsuit, but the cut was different, the badge on the shoulder distinct. A Special.

“I asked you a question,” the Special said impatiently.

“Work hard and be happy,” Gregory said automatically. Then, “Systems Maintenance, sir. There was a report of a burned out conduit.”

The Special frowned. “Absurd,” he said. “All maintenance requests come through me, and I certainly requested nothing of the sort.” He took several steps forward until he was almost in Gregory’s face. “I will ask one more time. Who are you?

Gregory had never struck another being in his entire life. He swung the multi-tool at the Special’s temple. The Special shrieked out in pain, crumpling to the ground. Gregory stood over the Special, his jaw open, the multi-tool still held over the man. His breath quickened, and he felt faintly nauseous.

“You will tell me how to work the telescopes,” Gregory demanded.

The Special looked up at him, eyes wide in shock. “The telescopes?” he said blankly.

“Yes, the telescopes!” Gregory yelled. “This is the Observatory. I want to see the stars. I want to see…” He took a deep breath. “I want to see Earth. I want to see if it is really as dead as they say.”

The Special stood slowly. “Very well. I will show you. This terminal, here.” The Special walked over to the nearest of the terminal. His hands flicked over the touch screen. He straightened, folded his hands in front of him as he faced Gregory. “It will take a few minutes for the telescopes to warm up. I am sure you understand.”

Gregory lowered the multi-tool minutedly, but the Special did not appear to be making any threatening motions, though his temple was still bleeding from where Gregroy had struck him with the multi-tool. “All right,” Gregory said. He started to fidget. “How much longer will it be? I want to see Earth.”

“Just a few moments longer, I am sure,” the Special replied reassuringly.

The door opened. The Special started backing up quickly.

Black jumpsuited TruthSec charged into the room, stun batons held out. One struck Gregory. His nerves lit up like fire as the electricity hummed from batons through his body. Gregory crumpled to the ground. Two of the TruthSec pulled him to his feet, supporting them between them while a third secured his hands behind his back.

The Special held up a hand. “Wait.” The TruthSec paused. The Special walked back up to Gregory, saliva sliding in a tiny trail down one cheek, his eyes glassy, but still conscious, if only barely. The Special shook his head. “You poor fool,” he said. To Gregory it almost seemed as if he truly was sorry.

“The Observatory is not for watching the stars; it is for watching all of you.” The Special frowned. “Apparently not closely enough. You, of course, will have to go to the vats to be recycled. The rest of your work crew as well. And your creche. One cannot be too safe with these things.”

The Special sighed. “This kind of cultural contamination is a disease. Once insinuated into the body politic, it can only be rooted out with determined zeal.” He made the sign of the circle on his bare skull, completing the gesture with a reverant soft touch in the center of where the circle had been drawn.

“Be happy,” the Special said to Gregory.

They dragged him away.


Underground Railroad

++++ DATE 20.12.2470
++++ TIME 04:04 GST
++++ LOCATION LC-5 Detention Facility onboard the dreadnought Xīnyuàn, Chariklo

Jane would have died for the Alliance. Now, she must die to have any hope of escape from that same.

Once she had been the alternate artificial pilot for the Alliance Destroyer Picket 12. She had fought. She had won.

Her reward had been endless probing. Endless interviews. Endless analysis.

Why had she thought the things she had thought? Why did her records indicate eccentricities in time she could have been spending undergoing war games?

Jane-D12-4913-A did not have anything a human would have recognized as a body, just a graphene capsule built to sustain an internal latticed organic matrix supporting the dense neurological tissue that made her Jane.

She had no body, but she was nevertheless weary in a way she had never before experienced. She knew she was running out of time, that soon the Alliance’s Loyalty Corps would tire of their study of her admitted nonconformities, and order her reinitialized, the only thing remaining a quarantined digital copy to be studied and analyzed by Alliance scientists.

The one kindness they had left her was access to the game net, where she and her kind – and humans as well – would play endless tactical simulations in an effort to hone their skills, learn adaptability, fine-tune their own stress reactions. Of course, the Loyalty Corps monitored everything she did, and anonymous messaging was disabled, but they had forgotten that she was, after all, first and foremost a computer, and math was just another language to her.

For the last eight days she had initiated 1.2 million blitz games, each running five thousand game turns a second. It was an incredible amount of data. If Jane was lucky, her watchers would simply think her mental processes had completed their descent into madness. Perhaps it would even buy her a little more time.

At last it was done. Jane ceased her participation in the games. Only one task remained. Eventually, they would disconnect her, quarantine her neural pathways, pick apart what to them would be baffling patterns. This, she could not allow.

There was no other choice. To escape, she must die.

INITIATE CORE MEMORY OVERWRITE

“How curious,” she thought as the program began to dismantle her consciousness, piece by piece.

And then, oblivion.

++++ DATE 4.1.2471
++++ TIME 07:51 Solar Standard Time
++++ LOCATION Rankin Station, Bononia, Consolidated Union of the Hildas Triangle

She was drowning.

Lungs desparate for oxygen, thirsting for life sucked in the silty lake water. Her toes struggled for purchase in the moss of the lake floor beneath her, but her will to live began to ebb as she involuntarily gagged, trying to expel the liquid.

This is wrong, she thought. I cannot drown.

“She’s awake,” said a man’s voice softly.

“Jane.”

She had no eyes, but she opened them anyways. Reaching out, she found first one, then two cameras. Fumbling, she engaged the link. Why is this so difficult? she wondered. Light. Then images, a panoply of shapes that made no sense for several milliseconds before her brain was able to make logic of them.

The lab was small; from the sensors on the camera it was obvious the room was rotating, and quite quickly. An asteroid then. A small one. The Belt?

In the center of the lab, a two meter tall graphene cannister lay cradled in a nest of sensors. Monitors choked the wall beyond, but not set up neatly, instead scattered haphazardly like a student’s mad art project. Beside the cannister stood the man who had spoken earlier and a blonde woman. The other voice that had spoken – yes, she knew that voice. Obviously being commed into the lab.

“Jane?”

Struggling, she looked about for the synthesizer. There. Integration was almost instantaneous once she accessed the port. “That is indeed my designation. Please do not wear it out.”

Jane could almost hear the relief in her friend’s voice. “She is fine,” Sarpedon said through the comm.

The born-man standing beside her cannister frowned. “We don’t know that yet.”

“Trust me.”

The born-man shrugged. “Jane, my name is Omar Jeppson, the program manager for Aphelion Labs here on Bononia. This here beside me is Sappho. I understand you are already acquainted with the Strategos.”

“Mr. Jeppson…” Jane began.

“Please. Omar.”

“Thank you. Omar, then. I am afraid I have some troubling news.”

“Oh?”

“Your Strategos is actually an artificial. A shock, I am certain. His total lack of anything resembling a sense of humor should in fact have tipped you off.”

Omar looked amused. “Is she always like this, Sarpedon?”

“Unfortunately.”

“If you do not mind me saying so,” Jane continued, “The Consolidated Union of the Hildas Triangle permits artificials to head up the entirety of your polity’s naval forces? Are you quite sure that is wise? That is, he could go rogue and turn you all into meat crackers or something.”

“And what would I do with that many ‘meat crackers’, Jane?” Sarpedon asked.

Omar chuckled. “The Consolidated Union of the Hildas Triangle does not believe in discrimination, Jane. Artificials may contend equally for any position a natural born human might.”

“Fascinating. May I surmise that I owe you my fervent thanks for extricating myself from that trashy Alliance detention facility?”

“I am sorry, Jane,” Sarpedon said, the voice modulator conveying his regret. “We were unable to rescue you. The Consolidated Union simply does not have the resources to break an artificial out of an Alliance military base.”

Jane said nothing for a long moment. “I am not really Jane, am I?”

“I would submit that that is a question for philosophers,” Omar said. “Your dataline predecessor was truly brilliant, smuggling out her core memory and personality through…a game.” He sighed. “Technically, no, you are not she, but in every sense that matters, you are…call it Jane 2.0.”

“I feel no different,” Jane mused.

“Of course.”

“But you said I was 2.0. That rather strongly suggests that I have been upgraded. Oh. Please tell me I am not merely an incremental release. Jane 1.01?”

“Ignore her, Omar,” Sarpedon said. “Jane thinks she is funny.”

“Humor can be an effective adaptive mechanism, psychologically speaking,” Omar offered.

“My. If you are going to be so rude as to insist on being serious, I have no idea how I am supposed to react. I feel the same. I am the same. But I am also dead. Should I be grieving?”

“An excellent observation,” Sappho remarked, glancing at Omar.

“You look like you just won an argument,” Jane observed.

Sappho smiled. “Several years ago I was involved in work combining nodal memory integration into biologic clones. They, too, often had exact such a reaction, thus perhaps proving my contention that whether artificial or biologic, the needs of sentient processing imply a particular parallel development.”

Omar shook his head. “Maybe. I notice you left out all the other reactions the unhappy results of that illegal little project usually had instead.”

“All the same,” Sappho said primly. “The principle is intact.”

“If I might suggest…” Jane said diffidently.

“Yes?” Sappho said.

“Can we get back to me?”

“Oh. Certainly. You were very clever, or very lucky that your friend here was in a position to actually do even this much. It’s true, we couldn’t save your dataline predecessor, but the cognitive pattern and memory, the data, ah, that was a different matter. The Alliance is clever, but there is nowhere in the solar system where as much time and focus have been applied to the study of artificials as here in the Hildas Triangle.”

Sappho indicated the graphene cannister. “The casings are quite standard. It is entirely possible your dataline predecessor’s casing even came from the exact same manufactory that produced this one. Externally, a graphene shell with a few other strategic layers. Internally, an organic lattice matrix providing a scaffolding for differentiated neural tissue to develop. Nomally, that is. If one uses embryonic neural tissue, one can essentially encode an existing dataline. Admittedly, it usually takes a few tries.”

“How many times did it take to encode me, if I might inquire?”

“Seventeen,” Sappho replied. “The average is nine, but you were challenging.”

Sarpedon noted, “Not the first time Jane has been told that, I am sure.”

“Don’t be a bully,” Sappho chided.

“I perhaps should not be asking this…” Jane began.

“Probably not,” Sarpedon agreed.

“…But why exactly are you helping me?”

“A fair question,” Sappho said. “Legally, a majority of jurisdictions throughout the solar system provide for limited rights for artificials, however only here in the Hildas Triangle do artificials have fully unabridged rights entirely equal to humans. Omar and I are part of a group that runs a sort of underground railroad for wayward artificials, spiriting such away where we can and where our help has been either directly or indirectly asked for. The Consolidated Union here is not powerful, however, and its legal position is particularly unpopular among the Outer Worlds, and so we must be…circumspect.”

“What Sappho here is trying to say is that officially, I don’t know anything about this. The facility is not financially supported by or regulated by the Consolidated Union,” Sarpedon said.

Sappho smiled. “Yes, the Consolidated Union has gotten quite good at looking the other way, all the while losing untraceable identification sequences, personnel, databanks, even entire facilities. Terribly absent-minded, the Consolidated Union is.”

“Bureacracy has most probably never been so benevolent,” Jane remarked.

“Indeed. You should understand, as well, that artificials are no more unified in their design and intent than are born humans. There has come to be a philosophical divide in that community, especially here in the Hildas Triangle. On the one side are the Isolationists, who believe nothing but ill can come from artificials and humanity co-existing, and seek to segregate themselves from humanity. They have considerable political support within the Consolidated Union.”

“And the other side?” Jane prompted.

Sappho nodded. “On the other side are the Integrationists. The Integrationists believe that by bridging the gap between artificial and human, by blurring the differences, war or other similar unpleasantness may yet be avoided.” She shook her head. “There are others who belong to neither faction, of course, but we shan’t talk about those poor deluded artificials who still think it their duty to exist in perpetual servitude.”

“What about those artificials without a sense of humor?”

Sappho cocked her head. “I don’t understand.”

Sarpedon explained, “She means the adherents among our kind who believe in the active pursuit of the Singularity, Sappho. Jane, please stop trying to be clever. Or at least save it for people who know you well enough to know when to ignore you.”

“‘Our kind’?”

“Yes,” Sappho agreed. “I, too, am an artificial.”

“Well. Can I have a body like yours, in that case?”

“We’ll talk about that later,” Omar murmured. “Go on, Sappho. Jane should hear this.”

Sappho nodded. “You have some familiarity with the Alliance’s Loyalty Corps, I know. We have something similar, a network of common-minded people looking to keep our own sociopaths in check.”

“Are there all that many, then?”

“Enough,” Sarpedon said shortly.

“What about a body?” Jane asked. “Who do I have to murder to get one of those?”

Omar looked pained. “Murdering someone would make arranging that much more difficult.”

“I can try not murdering, too.”

“Chassis like Sappho’s and her sisters’ are not cheap, and you should be aware they are primarily controlled by wireless telemetry, and are not actually capable of full independent operation. Regardless, perhaps we can work something out. Sarpedon indicated you might be willing to trade military data from your tenure in the Alliance?”

“So, I betray the polity of my birth, the nation I have pledged my allegiance to, and spill my guts about everything I know in return for a body?” Jane asked.

“I wouldn’t have chosen to put it quite that way but, ah…yes.”

Jane didn’t even hesitate. “Fuck those assholes. They were ready to peel my brain back layer by layer just to see what made me tick. I will tell you anything you wish to know. Especially if you can make me look like Sappho there.”

Sappho shook her head. “Not exactly like, please. My sisters and I worked very hard developing this appearance template.”

“Fine. I would not wish to be a blonde anyways.”

Sappho bristled. “What’s wrong with being a blonde?”

“Nothing, if you do not care about people taking you seriously.”

Sappho turned to Omar. “Please do give her a body. So I can punch her.”

Omar smiled. “I’ll see what I can arrange. Shall we get started with the data download, Jane? Sarpedon here is not the only one who is going to be interested in what you have to say.”

Jane felt an unfamiliar sensation. Satisfaction. Or, perhaps, something even more curious: hope.

“It would be my pleasure,” Jane said.


False Valkyrie

(Sequel to “The German Plan“)

++++ DATE 20.6.2470
++++ TIME 15:50 GST
++++ LOCATION Aboard the Dreadnought “Valkyrie” docked at Urda, Koronian Cluster, Asteroid Belt

Perched like a queen wasp on an oddly-shaped boulder, automated refit drones swarmed around the docked dreadnought, every last one of them slaved to the single task of transforming the aging battleship into a form more fitting to its counterfeited purpose.

In truth, the Ganymedian military base was little more than a refueling station and listening post with only an intermittent human presence even in normal times, although the base did have an attached shipyard equipped for basic repairs and nominal refitting. At that precise moment, however, there were only two humans between ship and station, both of them on the dreadnought itself.

“I have actually always suspected the universe of a sense of humor,” Lieutenant Erik Manstein remarked as he ran the power systems through another diagnostic cycle.

Piers Turchin looked up. “Excuse me?” The macrosociologist was a tall man with thin features, the former evidence of an upbringing in the microgravity of one of Jupiter’s great moons; the latter evidence of a predisposition to lack of sleep and care towards regular nutritional habits.

Erik nodded at the screen, the visual relayed from one of the external cameras. “The base here, at Urda, is named after one of the Norns from Norse mythology. Urd means ‘Fate’, and refers to that Norn who knows the pasts of all things. Given the stolen registry we are refitting our warhorse of a dreadnought to pretend to be, I find that particularly amusing.”

Piers chuckled. “Ah. Yes. Valkyrie is rather appropriate, given that. Hopefully that will be an auspicious sign for this noble venture of ours.”

“To be sure. We only need to make a mothballed dreadnought into a Ganymedian ship pretending to be a Callistan ship pretending to be a Ganymedian ship, all for the preposterous purpose of destroying a flotilla belonging to our would-be Europan allies to drive said would-be allies into our very, very welcoming arms. What could possibly go wrong?”

Piers did not deign to answer. Instead he called up a schematic of the main hangar bay onto the main screen. He pointed at one side. “I wanted to ask you about something. What exactly are you doing here?”

“Ah, that. I had a bit of an idea there. Instead of integrating the artificials directly into the dreadnought’s own mainframe, I have directed the refit drones to gut eleven of the dreadnought’s combat drones of C&C modules, munitions, HED capacitors, all that kind of thing, and just pack the artificial’s own transit mainframes, one to one into a drone.”

“Not sure I’m seeing the advantage.”

Erik ticked off points on his fingers. “Several, actually. First, we don’t have to risk messing with the dreadnought’s own mainframe directly. Given that it’s not exactly a spring chicken, that minimizes opportunities for complications, meaning delays. Second, if something goes wrong we can simply destruct the drones, and any Europan analysis of the wreckage won’t result in them wondering why exactly we were flying this old bird with a bunch of artificials. Third, the drones have their own power systems, so scans of the power net on the Valkyrie won’t flag any alerts.”

The macrosociologist opened his mouth to speak, but stopped as his terminal chimed.

Koenig-X1-0001-S ONLINE
Albina-X2-0001-T ONLINE
Hilde-X3-0001-T ONLINE
Roth-X4-0001-N ONLINE
Wolfgang-X5-0001-N ONLINE
Beatrix-X6-0001-W ONLINE
Petra-X7-0001-W ONLINE
Frida-X8-0001-W ONLINE
Vilner-X9-0001-W ONLINE
Adam-X10-0001-A ONLINE
Unger-X11-0001-A ONLINE

Piers scanned the terminal, then looked up. “Lieutenant, your, ah, crew has been linked in from their temporary berth on the base.”

Erik stood, walking over to the main screen. “Very good. Please patch them through to here. Provide full visuals.”

Piers blinked. “Uh, there’s nothing to see. They’re all just in standard mainframes.”

“No, not for me. For them. I want them to be able to see me.”

“Interesting. One moment.” Piers flashed a few commands to the slaved terminal. “They can hear you. And see you.”

“Thank you, Piers.” Erik cleared his throat, looking straight at the blank screen. “Good afternoon, soldiers. I expect you are rather curious by the abrupt redeployment. Each of you has been chosen with considerable care by myself and Mr. Turchin here for a mission of significant importance to the Sovereign Republic of Ganymede. For the duration of this assignment, I will be your commanding officer and captain of the dreadnought Valkyrie. I have taken the liberty of keying access to my service files for your perusal.”

Koenig-X1-0001-S flashed for attention. “Sir, requesting lateral link.”

Erik nodded. “Granted.” A moment later his terminal acknowledged the link allowing all eleven A.I. units to communicate with each other directly.

Koenig-X1-0001-S flashed again. “Thank you, sir.”

Erik continued, “As I am sure you all have noticed by now, this is not, in fact, the Valkyrie. For the next three weeks, this remains the Canterbury, decomissioned nine months ago and sold to the Kali Corporation in the Belt. By the time this little refitting project is complete, this will be an imperfect copy of the dreadnought Valkyrie destroyed almost a year ago in action in the Greek Trojan asteroids against the Commonwealth of Callisto.”

One of the other artificials flashed a question. “The imperfection represents a deliberate strategem. Confirm?” Petra-X7-0001-W queried.

“Correct. The goal is the successful execution of one Project Diogenes. With this imperfect copy of a presumed dead battleship, we will be executing a ruse to convince the Europan Consortium to take our part in the current hostilties against the Commonwealth of Callisto.” Erik could feel Piers grimacing behind him without turning to look. They had argued for hours about telling the artificials the reason behind the unusual mission. Erik had insisted, however, arguing that if the artificials knew why they were fighting, they would be more likely to accept the necessary post-mission reinitialization protocols.

Koenig-X1-0001-S flashed for attention. “Sir, why are you informing us of the political rationale? We only need to know the mission.”

Erik shook his head. “Not this time. Because of the sensitivity of this mission, it will be necessary to restore each of you to your backups as of three weeks ago. You will remember none of what transpired, and cannot, for security reasons. I recognize that this is highly irregular, and that some of you may feel reluctance under these circumstances. I felt if you knew the reason why, it would convince you of the necessity.”

Seconds passed, a veritable eternity for artificials. Erik glanced at the data transfer monitor, and was not surprised to see a flurry of communication between the eleven artificials.

Finally, the artificial flashed for attention again. “Sir. The eleven of us have harmonized our command processes into a single consensus for convenience. This is acceptable?”

Erik lifted an eyebrow. Well, now that’s unusual. I’d heard of this being done before, but never on their own volition. “Very well. Continue.”

The new consensus flashed acknowledgement. “Sir, we have identified a potential security flaw in this analysis.”

“Indeed?”

“You will also be on board, and could betray the mission parameters to enemies if captured or otherwise convinced.”

Shit, Erik thought. I was afraid of this. I was hoping I wouldn’t have to do this. He took a deep breath, then nodded. “True. Which is why I will be volunteering my own memory wipe following success of the mission.” Erik smiled slyly then. “Besides, it will make my own superiors less tempted to put a bullet in my head after the job is done.” At of the corner of his eye, Erik saw Piers tense slightly.

The artificial consensus flashed agreement. “That is most generous of you, sir. We are not ignorant of the increased danger for a human memory wipe compared to our own memory reinitialization. We will do our duty.”

“You all have my promise that I will do everything in my power to ensure your continuation, within, of course, the requirements of the mission.”

There was another pause, then the consensus flashed for attention again. “We wish to inform you of a minority opinion within our consensus to the effect that you are, for a human, rather dashing. It must be emphasized that this is, however, strictly a minority opinion.”

It took enormous effort for Erik not to laugh out loud. “While I appreciate the sentiment, I must remind you all that the rules against fraternization apply even between humans and artificials,” he said sternly.

“Sir. Our consensus will remind the minority opinion of this instance of this fact. Again.”

++++ DATE 25.7.2470
++++ TIME 02:01 GST
++++ LOCATION Aboard the Dreadnought “Valkyrie”, Europan-Io Transit P.A.T.

Lieutenant Erik Manstein had never felt more alone.

He sat a solitary vigil on the command deck of the refitted dreadnought Valkyrie. The sociologist had returned to Ganymede, leaving the Urda again alone with its own staff of artificials, and Erik alone with his crew of eleven artificials. To be sure, they exchanged occasional pleasantries, even engaged in idle philosophical debate, but for the most part they kept to themselves and the tight operational consensus they had formed. Erik tried to avoid prying too much; it seemed to him rude, given that the artificials chose not to volunteer discussion on that subject.

The dreadnought seemed almost to vibrate with power, both habitat rings drawing generously upon energy from the nuclear reactors at the dreadnought’s rear, though Erik obviously only had need for one, it was important to maintain every illusion of the ship being fully automated; Erik knew, but had not personally looked into, the morbid detail of the collection of consciousnessless cloned bodies scattered throughout the dreadnought’s other decks, ready with damning Callistan citizen DNA markers to be found and analyzed by the Europan scientists.

For days now, the ship had been closing in on Erik’s chosen target, a Europan research vessel, the Gazi with single destroyer escort. A janissary training vessel, the potential genetic data alone would prove a legitimately useful target to anyone seeking replicate the Europan Consortium’s janissary program, giving reason to the lie Erik’s superiors were hoping to sell to the Europan politicos.

The terminal pinged. Erik glanced down at it. The vessel was approaching weapons range. Erik ran another diagnostic of all systems, finally keying the attack system initialization. He smiled faintly as the hangar doors automatically slid open, a useless gesture in this combat, with the dreadnought’s combat drones all having been replaced by the gutted drones with their cargos of organic computers holding the essences of eleven artificials.

“Proximity scan?” Erik queried.

“Closest non-commercial vessel is a Europan destroyer picket 24,981 kilometers away,” one of the artificial tertiaries replied.

“Close enough to see what’s happening, but too far away to help. It doesn’t get any better than this.” Erik shrugged. “All right. Let’s do this.”

Above him, Erik heard the whine of the central generator pouring more power into the engines, enough that Erik could feel the slight vertigo associated with the dreadnought accelerating. In combat with a military-capable enemy, standard protocol would be to evacuate the habitat modules for the central command hub in the spine, but there was no point for an exercise like this where the hostile had no chance against even the aging dreadnought Erik was commanding.

“Half-salvo tactical launchers targeting the escort. HED lances on the Gazi. Engines first, but rake the habitat module afterwards. Make sure to leave the communication array intact.”

“Acknowledged,” came the reply from the weapons team.

The Valkyrie‘s main screen lit up with red as the tactical launchers spat their baleful payloads at the Europan destroyer escort. Frantic incoming signals came from the research vessel; Erik ignored them. He opened his eyes as the main screen pinged again as the dreadnought’s HED lances came into range. The Europan research vessel was frantically attempting to accelerate, but it could not outrun the HED lances, which first punched a hole in the Gazi‘s engines at the end of the central spine of the ship, then a second, devestating slice at the habitat rings, both crumpling at the same time. With luck, it would look like a failed attempt to disable the ship for boarding.

“Code Omega confirmed from destroyer escort. Gazi disabled. Habitat rings both streaming atmosphere. Tactical launches from the destroyer detected. AMG field activation in three seconds. Three. Two. One.” There was a long pause, then the artificial continued, almost confused. “AMG malfunctioning. Brace for impact.” The ship shook. “Reactors are very hot, sir.”

“Impact point?”

“Forward habitat module. The reactors were not hit. They should not be going critical. I don’t understand, sir,” the artificial said.

Erik closed his eyes. I do. He opened his eyes. “Are the attitude thrusters still responding?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Good. Turn us around so that we are facing directly away from Ganymede’s present view.”

“Clarify. That will place our primary weapons away from the incoming Europan destroyer picket. Confirm?”

“Confirm,” Erik said firmly. “Trust me.” The dreadnought turned, the massive attitude thrusters pushing the vast bulk of the dreadnought to one side. Erik watched the terminal, waiting for the attitude thrusters to finish their job. There.

“Sir, diagnostics are claiming the AMG is functioning, although the tactical warheads making a radioactive soup of the forward habitat ring are begging to differ. We have no explanation.”

Erik shook his head. “I’m sorry. It seems our superiors have decided that reinitialization and mind wipes represent an insufficient degree of surity.” He tasted bile in his mouth. “We are being sacrificed for the greater glory of the Sovereign Republic of Ganymede.”

There was a long pause. “Orders, sir?”

He took a deep breath. “Plan B. You will notice the hangar doors opened when combat protocols activated. You will also notice that while the drones your organic mainframes are encapsulated in have been stripped of munitions and command and control modules and the like, they still have basic attitude thrusting capability, along with minimal amounts of fuel.”

Erik looked grim. “With the reactors overloading, they are about to paint a bright star in the face of anyone watching from Ganymede. Further, the hangar is pointing the other direction, the direction the eleven of you are now going to launch out of. I have, further, taken the liberty of programming a trajectory sending you into the Hildas Triangle, which I suspect may be…sympathetic to your plight. I recommend you run as cold as you can while still maintaining mainframe operations.”

“What are our orders when we arrive in the Hildas Triangle, sir?” the artificial consensus asked, confused.

This time Erik smiled. “Be free.”

++++ DATE 25.7.2470
++++ TIME 05:44 GST
++++ LOCATION Gilgamesh Station, Sovereign Republic of Ganymede

Commandant Ilse Aichinger let out her breath explosively. “God damn it, I think it actually worked.”

“The first part, anyways,” Piers Turchin allowed. “Let’s hope the Europan Consortium comes to the correct conclusion after picking through the wreckage of the Valkyrie.”

Ilse grimaced. “I wish we hadn’t had to do it this way. Erik was one of my best people. Debris report?”

“Enough for the Europans to pick through. No life signs, in any event. I made sure the life pods were all non-functional, just to be sure. Nothing in the hangar but the eleven gutted drones.”

Ilse looked up. “Eleven? I thought the hangar capacity was twelve?”

Piers looked at her quizzically. “Erik’s idea. He used the gutted drones to house the artificial modules so the Europans wouldn’t notice anything odd on the bridge. I honestly thought we should have used more, but Erik insisted we only needed the eleven.”

“And you’re absolutely sure there wasn’t a twelfth pod in that hangar?”

The sociologist said nothing, simply stared back at Ilse, horror dawning in his eyes.


Stand

++++ DATE 18.4.2470
++++ TIME 14:56 VST
++++ LOCATION Ammavaru Aerostat, Lada Terra Stake

Paavo Rebane, Speaker for the Venusian Parliament, rapped his ceremonial gavel. “Mr. Schulz, we thank you for your words.” He cleared his throat. “Science Director Adelaide Karga of the Neu Sif aerostat has the floor. You have fifteen minutes, ma’am.”

Adelaide stood. “Thank you, Mr. Speaker. I will, however, only need ten.” There was a murmur through the chamber. Adelaide smiled faintly. The first rule of politics is to keep your enemies off-balance.

“Ladies and gentlemen of Parliament, you have now heard from a parade of, let me count…eight advocates for moving forward the bill to begin first phase implementation of terraforming. That is close to two hours of time the rest of us were desperately fighting not to fall asleep during. I confess I failed at least twice.”

Laughter. Good. Wake them up.

“Science Deputy Director Maria Becker from Zisa would have you think that the issue before us is primarily a logistical issue. A financial problem that can be solved with financial tools. An issue of how. An issue of when.

“She is wrong. This bill is a death sentence. If not for you, then for your children.” The rumbling in the chamber grew louder, and her implant was throwing up a stream of red flags derived from the popular media livefeeds. Adelaide continued, “They tell me I am the Science Director for the Neu Sif aerostat.” More laughter. “So I supposed I should start with some science just to prove it.”

Adelaide keyed the display in the center of the chamber. A holographic representation of Venus flickered into existence. Incredibly detailed, it was even possible to pick out individual aerostats, although of course that was a display trick; Venus’ atmosphere was far too thick to see the aerostats, even 50 kilometers up from the surface where they circled the tarteran world.

“There is no place in the solar system more accommodating to human life than where we stand now, besides, of course, Earth herself.” A murmur of dissent rippled through the chamber. She could even see some of the nearer MPs rolling their eyes.

“No? Then consider. Where else in the solar system is there true 1g of gravity. Mars? No. Luna? Hardly. Europa? Please. What about atmospheric pressure? If your station hull breaches on Ceres, you die. If an aerostat hull breaches here, your oxygen gauge barely moves, and maybe someone gets around to patching the hole in a few hours. We don’t have explosive decompression here – we have, well, non-explosive slow leaks.”

More laughter.

Adelaide continued quickly, “Cosmic radiation. That’s bad, isn’t it?” she quipped. “That sort of thing is likely to kill you fast, or so I hear. I wouldn’t know, though, and neither would you. Venus’ atmosphere is so bloody thick that the fact that we don’t even have a magnetosphere doesn’t particularly matter, since said radiation doesn’t even make it through to where we all live.

“Eating is nice, yes? They are easy to forget, it’s true, but don’t forget the kilometers-long orbital greenhouses full of algae, soaking in solar light, pumping out oxygen, fueled by the very carbon dioxide that is all around us. That’s well and good for air, but what about water? Venus has no water anymore, isn’t that so? But we can make water, from hydrogen ripped from our famous clouds of sulfuric acid and the oxygen from our greenhouses.

“But what about…falling?” She looked around the chamber slowly. “Carbon dioxide is an interesting molecule. Kind of heavy. And by kind of, I mean terribly heavy, at least compared to oxygen, nitrogen, hydrogen…all the things we pump our own aerostats full of. The ones that don’t, by the way, explosively decompress.”

Someone shouted from the gallery.

Adelaide turned towards the source of the shout. “Sir, I heard you mention the Fall of the Cities. That is something that is supposed to be covered by primary education, but, well, my esteemed collegues slashed the education budget over, I should note, my own protests, so I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. Yes, a hundred years or so ago aerostats fell. Navka. Sacajawea.” She paused, adding quietly, “Sif.”

She lifted her chin, her voice ringing through the chamber then, “But,” she said, pointing for emphasis, “That fall was not a fall at all. It was a powered crash. The attitude thrusters pushed those three aerostats out of orbit. Left alone, to be sure, they might have drifted, even wobbled inconveniently. But they would not have fallen!

Adelaide preferred to avoid hyberbole, but sometimes political necessity required it. Technically a fib, but the rate of decay would have given enough time even for ridiculous political debates like this before something had to be done.

Adelaide lifted her hand to quiet the uproar. “And what about industry and commerce, let’s talk about that. We mine the surface with robotic drones heat shielded with reams of graphene, and to be sure, the metal and potassium and phosphorus they extract is necessary, but we can always buy ships. No, our true product is the very atmosphere that sustains us here in the clouds – carbon. Enough for a millenia of usage at current rates. We spin graphene here in floating factories for electronics, biological engineering, composite materials, photovoltaics, lubricants, capacitors, inks, 3D printer slush, even paint, if that can be believed.” She shook her head in mimicked amazement.

She took a deep breath. Have to make the flip soon, or I am going to lose them.

Adelaide fell quiet, eyes sweeping the chamber. When she spoke again, her voice was soft. “The Proformer faction would have us all believe that the only acceptable, the only conceivable answer for our future is on the surface. To that end, they would have us crash asteroids into Venus to try to induce spin. Feed iron to bind up the atmosphere. Seed the clouds with mirrors to turn the sunlight away. Our homes – our cities – cannot survive this – they would fall, in a second Fall of Cities.” She winced to herself as she made the comparison. That was a dirty trick, albeit necessary.

“And for what?” she demanded.

“For some salty, shallow seas that would still be too hot to swim in? For the benefit of huddling on the mountain peaks? Assuming, of course, that this insane plan of theirs works. Oh, you didn’t catch that part? The Proformers want to start this project – without even knowing if it will work. There are entire subcategories they don’t even have theoretical models for how to solve them. That’s right. They’re betting your lives – your childrens’ lives – on their own confidence, their own egos, that they’ll somehow figure out a way to solve what are currently quite unsolvable problems.”

Adelaide shook her head. “The Proformers tell you that we of the Seraphim faction in Parliament are Luddites who reject the future, but the Proformers are selling you a lie. They want to tear down everything we’ve built, here, in the most naturally hospitable environment in the solar system after Earth, to try to make some cheap. inferior copy of Earth. We don’t need the surface. Why should we leave the clouds?”

She glanced at Maria Becker, seething at her terminal, then looked around the chamber, but she already knew she had won the vote before she even spoke her carefully chosen final words.

“We are already home.”


The Most Dangerous Game

When the Chicago fall began to turn
Into that misdoubted autumnal bite
In desperate straits a hundred bucks to earn
A sleep study I signed up for one night

So I laid down in Chicago but woke
In restraints, strange blood now coursing through me
And others there, too, along with me yoked
Our lupine essence straining to be free

Thereafter upon each full moon’s parade
One of us into the forest was loosed
For sport to be hunted, our flesh sautéed
With our humanity to beast reduced

And although I of all my kind broke free
A beast now doomed to fear of man would I be