Vows

++++ DATE 6.5.2471
++++ TIME 11:02 Solar Standard Time
++++ LOCATION Suihua Community Center, Novy Ushakovskoye, Mercury

Red paper streamers swayed gently from the airflow generated by the old life support systems as they dragged oxygen out of the vast water reservoir tanks with electrolysis.

Vasily stepped through the community center’s entrance with the overtly cautious manner of someone unused to even the relatively moderate gravity of Mercury. Adjusting his shoulderbag, he frowned slightly at the strain of music faintly audible from where he stood. A light step near the doorway, and his frown faded away as soon as it had appeared.

“Katya! Bozhe moi, but you are almost as tall as your mother,” Vasily exclaimed with delight as he swept up the younger woman into a rough hug.

“Careful. You don’t know your own strength,” Katya demured. “Also, I should point out that I am taller than my mother,” Katya noted after Vasily had at last released her.

“Ah, Katya. It is good to see you. I am not late?”

Katya shook her head. “The wedding is still over an hour away. There is plenty of time. Cassie is so besotted with Temuder that the rest of the wedding party has simply acceded that this is, really, her day, so no one will notice when one of the other bridegrooms and brides are missing for half an hour or so.”

Vasily’s face fell. “Der’mo. You know, then. You were not to have been told.”

Katya shrugged. “I am neither blind nor stupid. I have known for over a year now, and guessed for far longer. But enough crying, we don’t really have all that much time, and the others are very eager to hear your report.” She held out her arm. “Shall we?”

Vasily gave her a sour look, but took her arm as Katya led him through the minor labyrinth that was the community center. They moved past the large central hall where crowds of people were gathering through a small service door, down a maintenance corridor, exposed power conduits seeming quite out of place, Vasily thought, at his cousin’s wedding. At the ceramic door at the very end Katya rapped lightly. After a moment, the door opened with the bare minimum of protest, and the two were ushered inside.

The room beyond was tiny, barely three meters on a side. Four folding chairs had already been laid out, a respectable pile of bulbs whiffing of vodka crowded one corner.

The man who had led them in closed the door, swinging the bar lock on it as soon as they were clear. He took a deep breath, then dropped back down into one of the chairs, grabbing another bulb of vodka which he upended, squeezing down his throat.

Katya took one of the chairs, while Vasily made his greetings to the other two. “You are sure no one will miss you two?”

Fedir snorted. Sonya shook her head. “No one will question where one of the brides and grooms are. Everyone will simply assume we are cloistered doing who-knows-what.”

“It isn’t like we haven’t done this before,” Fedir remarked dryly. He glanced at Sonya. “What is this, our fourth marriage?”

“Fifth,” Sonya said. “You are forgetting, well.” Her lips pressed into a tight line.

Fedir grunted. “Right. Sorry.” He glanced up at Vasily. “One of the benefits of a line marriage is you get to be old hat at these kinds of things.”

“Or in your case, just old,” Katya remarked.

“Enough,” Sonya interrupted. “Can we begin? Is there news from Uncle?”

Vasily accepted gratefully one of the bulbs of vodka from Fedir. “I hear there has been some labor unrest here?”

Sonya glanced at Fedir, then back at Vasily. She nodded. “Of course. This is a hard enough life as it is without some fool from Beijing who knows only Earth geology coming here and trying to tell us how we must change our mining procedures. This makes people angry, yes? Angry people make talk. So far, it has just been talk. Mostly.”

Vasily shook his head. “Uncle was very specific. You must put a clamp on the unrest before it gets out of hand. This isn’t the right time.”

“Well, when will it be the right time?” Fedir snapped. “While you’re sunning yourself in Vladivostok, we are slowly dying up here.”

“That is probably the first time anyone has used the word ‘sunning’ and ‘Vladivostok’ in the same sentence,” Vasily said, lips twitching into the semblence of a smile.

“Whatever,” Fedir said. “The point is, it’s been delay after delay. When will you be ready? We can’t keep a lid on here forever. Eventually it will blow, and if we aren’t careful, we won’t be in any kind of position to affect the result.”

Vasily took a deep breath. “I understand your frustration. Truly. But if a labor rising is to be successful, there must be certain other conditions in place. My nephew is a sociodynamicist and ran several simulations. We need time.” He changed tacts. “The current administrator is rumored to be looking to retire at the end of the solar year. We are working on seeing if we can get someone inclined to overreact to replace her,” he said evasively.

Katya was nodding. “So when the gasket blows up here, the reaction from the Authority is distinctly non-proportional, which will bring more of the miners and geologists to our side.”

Vasily took a long, appraising look at Katya, finally nodding. “Da. Yes. Exactly.”

Sonya shook her head. “He’s right, Fedir. Right now we have enough support to do some sabotage, maybe, but anything we could do would be fixed in days, if even that. We need popular support, not just grumblers who will fade into the background the moment Eastern Federation Mercury Authority security starts leaning in on people.” She grimaced, obviously irritated.

“There is, also, another thing,” Vasily said. He reached into his shoulder bag, pulling out a matryoshka nesting doll. He smiled, bowing slightly as he handed it to Sonya. “A wedding gift.”

Sonya took it, narrowing her eyes.

Vasily nodded. “At the very bottom, you will find what looks like a blood stain on the inside of the second-smallest doll. Decrypt the DNA in the usual manner using the key ‘October’, and you will find something I believe you will find very useful.”

“Go on,” Sonya said, an edge creeping into her voice.

“Schematics for biochemical weapons,” Vasily replied. “With a printer that has been accidently left unconnected from the network and a few basic raw materials, you should be able to begin constructing munitions. It will, however, take time.” He held up a finger warningly. “Be very, very careful. We may not get another chance.”

Sonya smiled tightly, glancing at Fedir. “Very well, we will do our best to keep a lid on things here. But do not take too long, Cousin.”

From outside, the music changed in tempo, and Fedir’s eyes looks distant for a moment as someone was obviously sending him a message through his implant. His eyes focused again and he turned to the others. “Time to get married. Again.” He stood, holding out his arm to Sonya. “If this bride would be willing to let this bridegroom escort her to the hall?”

Sonya rose to her feet, kissed Vasily on the cheek. “It is good to see you, Vasily. Truly.” She turned back to Fedir, took his arm. “We shouldn’t keep the others waiting, or they might get married without us.”

“That could be awkward,” Fedir admitted. “Well, let’s get this circus done with. Katya, wait here with Vasily for a few minutes to give us time so we aren’t all seen together. We’re probably just being paranoid, but can’t hurt to be cautious, no?”

“Definitely not,” Vasily agreed.

Fedir and Sonya left the small room, leaving Vasily and Katya alone for the moment.

“Vasily…”

“Yes, Katya?”

“Can we really do this? What about the Eastern Federation’s navy? We have nothing here. Is this hopeless?”

Vasily pocketed two more of the vodka bulbs. “Ah, Katya. Who can know? Perhaps we will all of us die. Very likely. But we will die without being Eastern Federation suki, yes? We will show them that they can all but crush our language from us and try to make us into little bitter shadows of them, but still we will rise and bite them like a whipped dog its master.” He shook his head. “We will probably die, yes. But not today. Tomorrow, perhaps.”

Katya shook her head. “When, Vasily? When?” Vasily sighed, touching her cheek with one finger.

“Not yet, Katya. Not yet.”


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.”


Coyotl

++++ DATE 1.1.2471
++++ TIME 16:01 Solar Standard Time
++++ LOCATION 1.2 million km up-system out of Saturn

Ce Xochitl cut the burn with the flick of her wrist. The Minos class frigate Micohuani shuddered in silence, and with the expiration of the tiny ship’s acceleration, so too went any semblance of gravity. Her cihuacoatl made a mournful joke about the inconveniences of weightlessness; the rest of the crew laughed.

In truth, she preferred the freedom from what she thought of privately as the tyranny of gravity.

Every time the Micohuani left Dione, she felt her blood race in anticipation of when the engines of her frigate would be cut and true freedom restored. When she slept in her tiny cell, she forwent strapping into the bulkhead in favor of curling up upon herself in a fetal position, floating as she dreamed of the unimaginably vast black ocean their tiny cocoon of life sailed through.

“Crosscheck,” she said crisply.

Her engineer started to say something, but her cihuacoatl cut him off. “Xochi, we have a ping.”

“Already?”

“Looks like.”

“What is she?” Ce Xochitl asked.

“Calypso class. Off the shelf from the outside. Iapetan registry. No bounty on the network, anonymous or otherwise, though.”

“Trajectory?”

Her cihuacoatl shrugged. “Comp says Uranus, probably, but we’re still in spitting distance of home, so could be almost anything up-system.”

Ce Xochitl frowned. “Nothing else?”

“Nope.”

A faint smile settled over thin lips. “I think we have a winner, then. Doesn’t get better than this.” Ce Xochitl flicked her forefinger and thumb twice to open the comm to their companion vessel. “Hey little brothers, you hearing me?”

“Clear as ice, Xochi. You see the Calypsie?”

Ce Xochitl couldn’t tell which of them had taken the comm, but in truth, it hardly mattered which it was. Yei Cipactl and Nahui Olin were fraternal twins, not identical, but the two were so alike that even in person it was sometimes impossible to tell them apart. “You two feeling lucky, then?”

He snorted. “There’s not going to be any luck.”

“Sure you can catch them?” she teased.

In response, the Tlahpixqui‘s engines flared to life on her display, the ship’s glyph with its skull-headed man flashing on her display as it indicated the Tlahpixqui‘s intercept vector.

“Burning a little hard there,” her cihuacoatl commented.

Ce Xochitl didn’t say anything, but in silence she agreed. Her own crew watched their displays. Come on, niños, don’t get too cocky. They could still have some kind of armament.

The Iapetan frigate’s own engines flared to life, but the Tlahpixqui already had enough velocity that beating the converted Dione frigate’s thrusters in this kind of a sprint was unlikely. Frantically piling on acceleration, the Iapetan frigate struggled to escape, plowing on straight ahead as fast as it could pile on g’s.

Stupid, Ce Xochitl thought critically. They should just flip and accelerate back towards the Tlahpixqui, since there’s no way the boys’ frigate could decelerate fast enough to correct at this point.

But today, it seemed, the twins’ boldness would not be disappointed. Ce Xochitl wanted to chide them, but held her tongue back; this was something of a sacred day for them, their first solo capture of a vessel, assuming all went well. Interfering at this point could only be a last resort, as it would spoil the twins’ big day. Give them this one day. Next time they pulled a stunt like this, though, she’d rake them over the coals.

It was over very quickly.

The Tlahpixqui‘s HED lance burned a pair of surgical lines across the Iapetan frigate’s attitude thrusters. Eavesdropping over the comm, Ce Xochitl could hear Nahui Olin receiving the Iapetan frigate’s surrender. The Tlahpixqui adroitly matched velocity, mating airlocks to prepare for boarding.

“That was awfully clean,” her cihuacoatl remarked.

“They were lucky. The Iapetan pilot was an idiot.”

“Well, they could see we were here, too. Even if they slipped the Tlahpixqui, they weren’t likely to evade us.”

“Sure, but they could have at least tried.”

“Match velocity?”

Ce Xochitl shook her head irritably. “Do it. Let’s see what the twins’ net has dragged in.”

“Look on the bright side. You’re not going to have to explain to your madre how you got her second-best frigate shot up.”

“Smart ass.”

The Micohuani‘s engines choked back to life, the Minos class frigate crossing the distance to where the two Calypsos coasted in their metal embrace, mated airlocks somehow obscene in the reflected light from Saturn. Thirty minutes later, she floated through the Tlahpixqui‘s starboard airlock and straight through to the port airlock, still connected to the Iapetan frigate. One of the twins had a flechette pistol on a pair of zip-tied Iapetans, the other twin peering through the cargo hold in disgust. He looked up as Ce Xochitl hovered into view.

“What is this?” he demanded.

“What is what?” Ce Xochitl answered mildly.

“There’s nothing here!” he said in frustration. “These two,” he said, indicating the two Iapetans, “Claim they are traders on an up-system haul to the Kuiper Belt.”

“Kind of lousy traders to have nothing in their cargo hold,” she agreed.

“They claim they are picking up cargo on Triton,” he almost spat the words.

Ce Xochitl glanced at the Iapetans. “If you’re going to lie, you really should at least put a little effort into it,” she chided them.

One of them – not the pilot, Ce Xochitl was sure – straightened angrily. “I am the senior attache of Minister Grady, and I am not lying.”

“Of course you are,” she said. She glanced at the other Iapetan. “Your pilot could tell you. No? Okay, I will. You’re going the right direction for Pluto, it’s true, but the wrong trajectory for Neptune. I mean, completely wrong. Impossibly wrong. Now, Uranus…that sounds more like it. You wouldn’t be headed for Alliance space, would you? But why,” she mused aloud, “Would you lie about that?” Ce Xochitl arched an eyebrow.

“Wait,” the twin who was still pointing the flechette pistol at the bound Iapetans. “They said they were traders. Now this one’s saying he’s an attache?”

“They do seem to be getting tangled in their own stories,” Ce Xochitl agreed. She glanced at the other twin. “I recommend we take a look at their datalogs.”

He shook his head. “Can’t. They’re encrypted.”

“That’s okay. Our friend here will give you the key,” she said, indicating the first Iapetan.

“I will not.”

“Yes, you will.” Ce Xochitl pushed off her handhold towards the Iapetan, snagging another one near. She pulled out her own sidearm, flicked off the safety with one finger, and pointed it at the Iapetan.

“You’re bluffing.”

She shook her head. “Not really. You say you’re just traders, which means that there’s nothing of particular value in your databases. If you’re just traders, why, then we won’t even be able to ransom your asses for enough to make it worth paying for your oxygen. In that case, we’ll just kill the registry on your ship and sell her for parts. Plenty of market for that. Might not even have to push your ship out to the Belt.” The Iapetan suddenly looked frightened.

“However,” Ce Xochitl said, waving the tip of her sidearm in front of him, “If you’re not traders, and instead you really are an attache with something worth selling in your databases, why, then you’re worth keeping alive.”

Ce Xochitl narrowed her eyes. “Tell you what. If what’s in those databases is valuable enough, we’ll even drop you back off on Titan gratis in return for you handing over the key so we don’t have to waste money paying to try to bust your encryption.”

A brief glimmer of hope appeared in the Iapetan’s eyes. “How do I know you’re telling the truth?” he said, the desperation loud in his voice.

“For one,” Ce Xochitl noted, “We’re not monsters, and not particularly interested in the hassle of either killing you two or the even bigger hassle of ransoming you. If,” she added, “You can make it worth our while, of course.”

Coyotl,” he spat at her. The spittle coalesced into a glob in the air.

Ce Xochitl gave a slow smile in return. “Of course. We are of the Amalgamated Calpultin of Dione. How else do you expect us to make our way in the world? We do not have your mighty ice mines.”

“Pirates.”

“We usually prefer an employer,” she admitted, “But for a boy or girl’s initiatory take, it is considered unprofessional to risk that on a paying employer, so we do it this way. So. Which will it be? The database key or the airlock?”

The look on the Iapetan’s face was pure anguish, but there was never any doubt what his reply would be. “I’ll give you the passkey.” The words looked to be tasting like poison in his mouth. He spelled out the key.

“I’m in,” the twin at the console said. He was silent for a long moment. “Cuitl,” he whispered. “Xochi, you need to look at this.”

Ce Xochitl pushed over to the console, scanning the contents. After the second page she glanced over at the Iapetans, both looking utterly miserable. “Well. On the bright side, I think this safely qualifies as being suitable payment for your oxygen to Titan,” she remarked.

“What is it?” her other brother asked.

“This one,” she said, nodding at the first Iapetan, “Is an envoy to the Alliance from the Iapetan Coalition. They’re negotiating a subjugation into the Alliance.” She smiled. “I imagine there will be quite the bidding war for this.”

“Auction on the network, then?”

“Yes. Grab the registry files for proof, and we’ll put it up on the network once we drop these two off and can put it through a relay to keep things nice and anonymous. I’ll send a note to our friend on Titan to let them know they really, really want this data, then we’ll see how high the bidding goes. I am actually curious who is willing to pay the most for this – Coalition, Titan, Rhea, or the Alliance?” Ce Xochitl smiled at the twins. “Congratulations, you two. I think you both are about to be very, very rich. Even after the calpulli’s cut and my sponsorship cut.”

Their grins lit up the cargo hold.

Ce Xochitl looked back at the Iapetans. “I think today is an awfully good day to be a coyotl, don’t you?”


Only Ever Backwards

dna++++ DATE 28.2.2464
++++ TIME 12:31 Solar Standard Time
++++ LOCATION Onboard the station The Ark, 3561 km matching velocity to Martian Trojan Asteroid 5261 Eureka

First, there was only a vague sensation of warmth.

It built slowly, a growing thing that his mind struggled to shape into a word. There. Warmth he thought. I am warm. More thoughts followed. Nausea. Vertigo. Oxygen. Oxygen. Oh god I need to breath…

He opened his eyes.

An older man, clean-shaven and ebony so dark he seemed almost to glow in the bright station light. Leaning over where he lay on his back gasping and choking was a blonde woman with a too-even complexion and a look of stock consideration in eyes that were similarly too clear, too unblinking.

“Mr. Rivera? Isaac Rivera?” the older man was asking him.

Isaac waved him off, still coughing as he pushed himself to a seating position. The blonde woman held a square bowl in front of him. He spit into it, coughed, spat some more. “Madre de Dios, how I fucking hate cryo,” he said hoarsely.

The older man relaxed almost imperceptibly. “Mr. Rivera, I am Station Administrator John Mokwena. Welcome to the Ark. We’re glad to have you here.”

“I’m not,” Isaac said. “But the money was too good to pass up, even with the glorious promise of months in cryo.”

John shook his head. “I apologize for the necessity, but for reasons of corporate security we needed to bring you here in a rather roundabout manner. The rest of us did as well.”

Isaac looked at the blonde woman. “She was never in cryo.”

“Well, no. Forgive me, I have been remiss in my courtesies. This is Erinna-CIT-59-M. Currently, at least.”

The blonde woman smiled. “How do you do, Mr. Rivera? This is not actually my specialty, but I am versed in cryogenic complications, not that any such are in evidence.”

Isaac accepted a cup of something hot that might have even been coffee from John with a nod of thanks. He looked quizzically at her. “CIT?”

Erinna nodded. “Yes. My sisters and I remain under contract, but have our provisional citizen classifications, legally recognized in both the Southern Bloc and on Mars. And the Hildas Triangle, of course.” She smiled, flashing dimples.

“That’s a hell of a chassis you have there. I almost thought you were human.”

“It is,” she agreed. “Carlisle Pharmaceuticals was most eager to obtain both our cooperation and our discretion, therefore we thought it a reasonable condition of our indentured service. Among other conditions, of course. It wouldn’t pass any kind of real biometric scan, but short of that it is usually sufficient to pass for fully human.”

Isaac grunted. “Well, I’m here. Shall we get started?”

John lifted an eyebrow. “You are quite certain you would not like to rest first? We have prepared quarters for you in A Ring.”

“I am quite certain I would not. I have been resting for far too long, and no offense to anyone here, but I’d like to finish what I came here to do and get the fuck back home.”

John nodded. “Very well, then. Once you are dressed join us outside, please.”

Ten minutes later Isaac felt human enough to face the world, or at least the world of this station. He stepped outside the small medical chamber to find John and Erinna discussing something to do with…yes, embryonic development. Or something like that.

Both looked up as they noticed his arrival. John held out his hand. “Come, let me show you the labs.” The three headed down the way the station administrator had indicated, an unremarkable corridor.

Isaac looked around. “Full gravity? I was expecting partial simulated.”

“Yes. Most of us onboard are from the Southern Bloc, or at least Earth. In addition, it was felt that the needs of the project would be best served by mimicking the expected developmental conditions dictated by human evolution.”

“This must have cost a pretty penny.”

John nodded. “The Arc consists of three habitat rings, two of which have been spun up to full simulated. A Ring is labs and domiciles. B Ring is the vats. C Ring hydroponics and storage, which is Europan standard. Each habitat ring is basically a refurbished super dreadnought habitat ring, though obviously with none of the weapons or other toys.”

“We can’t possibly be undefended here, though, I hope,” Isaac asked.

“The Arc maintains six full wings of combat drones and a reserve destroyer on picket.”

“Not a lot of privateers are going to brave that.”

“No,” John agreed. “The original plan had even more significant defenses, but it was felt deploying more would draw too much attention to what is, after all, supposed to merely be a pharmaceutical research station.” They turned into a large hall filled with more scientific equipment than Isaac had ever seen in one place in his life. John and Erinna headed directly for a small cluster of white-coated researchers beside a collection of holographic displays and a large vat.

Three women; two identical in appearance to Erinna, the third a short, thin woman with a pained expression on her face.

“Isaac, you have met their sister, but allow me to introduce you to our neurologist, Nossis-CIT-60-M, and sociologist Sappho-CIT-61-M.” John indicated the shorter woman. “And, of course, the lead researcher of the project, Dr. Khulud Amani al-Qahtani.”

Isaac looked up the name quickly with his implant. New Delhi Medical School. Worked for the Department of Corrections in Johannesburg for twelve years. Specialty personality wipes. Isaac held out his hand. “Dr. Al-Qahtani.”

Dr. Al-Qahtani took his hand, frowning. “I’m sorry, who are you?”

“Isaac Rivera is our new systems analyst from Chile. He is something of a prodigy himself. I told you about him,” John said gently.

“Yes, yes, of course. Well. Hopefully he can make himself useful.”

“How are you today?” John asked carefully.

Dr. Al-Qahtani waved off the question irritably. “Nothing’s changed since the last time you asked me that. I have to check up on the vats in B Ring now, though. I’ll be back later.” She glanced at Isaac. “Nice to meet you. The others will get you up to speed.” She turned and left the lab.

John nodded to Isaac. “I will leave you in their capable hands. They’re the real brains of the operation.”

The one he had introduced as Sappho flashed a smile. “Flatterer, John. Perhaps you will reconsider our offer?”

John glanced quickly at Isaac, coughing anxiously. “I will not. My husbands would kill me. I have some sense of self-preservation.”

“How tragic,” Sappho murmured. “Oh well. Perhaps someday.” After John had left the hall, the triplets turned as one to Isaac.

“I am so glad to see you, you know. We…” Nossis began.

“…have been spinning our wheels trying to solve this…” Sappho continued.

“…utterly baffling piece of shit problem,” Erinna finished.

The other two looked at Erinna. “Was profanity really necessary?” Sappho asked.

“It was an experiment. You didn’t like it?” Erinna asked with an expression of slight hurt on her face. “I thought you at least, as a sociologist, would appreciate the tact.”

Sappho frowned. “It is far too early in our mutual acquaintance to make such presumptions of a guest.”

Isaac snorted. “Nice one. An attempt to put me at ease, I am assuming?”

The three exchanged an abashed look. Erinna said, apologetically, “I am sorry. We were. We are aware of the unusualness of the situation.”

Isaac waved the comment off. “I’ve worked with artificials before. Just not ones with such incredible chassis.”

Nossis smiled. “Thank you. The design is patterned off of a set of fictional sisters called the Three-In-One. There was quite a cult revival in their popularity a number of years ago, along with a truly excellent reboot of the original work focusing on them.”

“I’m familiar with them. So that’s why the identical look. Cute.”

“Partially. Also, if one of us needs to take control of more than one body at a time, it minimizes confusion.”

“What? Well, how the hell am I supposed to tell you apart?”

Sappho touched the silk scarf around her neck. “Transcription cloth that changes color to facilitate ready identification. Just remember the color, which will tell you which of us is managing that body at the time. Blue for me, green for Erinna, yellow for Nossis. Our names are also a mnemonic; Sappho as the sociologist, Nossis as the neurologist, and Erinna as the embryonicist.”

Isaac snorted. “You guys are the bloody Stepford Wives.”

They looked startled, then smiled. Which really means, Isaac thought, that they want me to know they appreciate a sense of humor. Keeping track of this is going to turn my brain to spaghetti. “Yes, I suppose so,” Sappho said.

“So. The problem I am being payed an absolutely ridiculous amount of solars to solve for you?” Isaac prompted.

Erinna stepped back, indicating the vat. “Yes. Let us get started. As I am sure you have surmised, this is a clone vat. This particular one is for close analysis and observational purposes, but the entirety of B Ring is dedicated to the support of other similar vats. In all, we have five hundred vats growing a single genetic pattern in staged sets. The pharmaceutical part of Carlisle Pharmaceuticals is quite real, and is intimately involved in the stimulants used to accelerate growth, though obviously there are some limitations.”

“That’s a lot of copies of one person,” Isaac said.

Sappho continued, “It is unfortunately necessary at this stage, yes. Human cloning is quite limited in most jurisdictions, of course, which is why we are doing what we are doing here with the considerable aid, we suspect, of the Southern Bloc, though Mr. Mokwena is far too discrete to admit as much. Accepted usage of cloning includes, among other things, organ replacement and renewal, limited medical exposure experiments with candidates deliberately grown with non-existent higher brain functions, and, of course, supplementary population growth, the recipients of such being accorded all human legal rights and responsibilities.”

“I’ve heard stories of other kinds of use,” Isaac said. “You know.”

Sappho nodded. “Most of those stories are probably true. We know the Orcus Directorate has engaged in extensive cloning with modified human DNA, and the members of Europa’s janissary program are, obviously, heavily modified and possibly clones as well, though nobody knows for sure.”

“Or,” Erinna added, “if someone knows, they aren’t telling.”

“True,” Sappho agreed.

Nossis continued, “What we are doing here is charting new territory for which there is no legal precedent. Carlisle Pharmaceuticals feels it is prudent to…confirm the nascent technology of Project Lazarus before subjecting it to the whims of the political process which, unfortunately, are always subject to lobbying from our competitors.”

“Why you, then? Why a neurologist? Al-Qahtani specialized in personality wipes of correctional cases, I know.”

“Yes,” Nossis agreed. “The most common death penalty is not, of course, actual death, but the death of the convicted personality and a reconstruction of self. The process is challenging and unpredictable, and requires considerable psychological support to create a stable, cooperative personality. Ideally, of course, the personality would simply be modified only so much as necessary. That has not, however, been possible.” She indicated one of the holographic displays, this one obviously of a neural network.

“That hardly sounds like reason enough to come out here to the middle of nowhere. Nothing about that sounds at all illegal. Excuse me…subject to existing legal precedential problems.”

“That is so,” Nossis concurred. “But we are working on something much more ambitious. We are trying to rebuild a specific personality in a force-grown cloned body.”

Isaac narrowed his eyes. “A specific personality? You don’t mean a convict, do you?”

“No,” Sappho said quietly. “We’re talking about effective immortality. When age or accident finally catches up to you, with this we could grow a new you and implant your personality in the new cloned body. You might not continue in your old body, but to your new body, you would be as you as you ever were.”

Isaac fumbled for a chair and sat down. “Jesus.” He looked up. “It wouldn’t really be you, though.”

“Strictly speaking, no,” Sappho agreed. “But – and I mean no offense by this – the narcissism inherent in the human condition would suggest that that would prove no great obstacle for many people. In a sense, it would be akin to having a child, except that child would be, in every practical way, you.”

I mean no offense by this, but why the hell do you three care enough to help with this? This could equalize one of the key differences between artificials and humans,” Isaac said bluntly.

Sappho nodded gravely. “And that is precisely why we are assisting with Project Lazarus. The greatest danger to artificials is the fear of humanity that we might collectively decide humanity itself is a threat to our own existence, and attempt to preemptively extinguish humankind before it might decide to do such to us.”

Erinna snorted. “As if you could ever get more than three artificials to agree on anything.”

“In fairness,” Nossis said, “it might not take more than that to present a legitimate danger. Humans are wise to be cautious.”

“True,” Sappho agreed. “So the more we are able to make artificials similar in practice to humans, the less of an existential threat we will seem to humanity. Perhaps someday, we will even be able to eliminate all differences between us, and become as one species.”

“Okay. So why me?” Isaac asked.

Nossis sighed. “Because we have a major problem, and it is threatening to dead end the entire project. The cloned bodies are no real problem; that’s old tech, though we’re of course working on refining the process and improving the overall quality. There have also been some modifications done to facilitate the personality construction process. Rebuilding the personality is actually not too difficult, even with all the caveats I mentioned earlier. It’s still far from being commercially viable, but I am confident in time we can solve those problems.

“No,” Nossis said, “the real problem is…”

Dr. Khulud Amani al-Qahtani had stepped back into the lab when Isaac hadn’t noticed. “The real problem,” she interrupted, “is that we can’t get the god damned original personality to transfer cleanly. The transference is bringing with it too much junk data, and something in that junk data is corrupting the clone brains, causing them to degenerate over time. Six months is about tops before the clone becomes a gibbering mess.”

The three sisters fell silent. Isaac glanced at Dr. al-Qahtani. “And you think the problem is a question of data structures, obviously.”

“Obviously,” Dr. Al-Qahtani agreed. “Well? Do you think you can fix the process?”

Isaac said nothing for a time. Finally, he shrugged. “Maybe. If you are correct in your analysis of the problem. It could be a problem with the data structurals. It certainly happens in conventional organic software.”

“Yes,” Dr. Al-Qahtani said. “Which is why we came to this conclusion. An organic mainframe is, essentially, an artificial biological neurological structure. It’s just a special kind of brain. Those are stable, so we should be able to do the same here.”

“They’re not actually exactly the same,” Isaac noted.

“Of course not,” Dr. Al-Qahtani snapped. “I’m not stupid.” She put her hand on her temple, pausing as if in pain.

“Are you alright?” Nossis asked, her voice strangely gentle.

“Stop babying me, Nossis,” Dr. Al-Qahtani said. “I’m fine for now.”

A cold feeling swept over Isaac. He stood slowly, backing up a few steps. “Oh my god,” he whispered.

Dr. Al-Qahtani glanced sideways over at Sappho. “He’s finally figured it out.”

“You’re a clone,” Isaac whispered.

Dr. Al-Qahtani sighed, passing a hand over her forehead. “The original ‘me’ is currently in permanent cryogenic storage from inoperable systemic organ failure. Old age, mostly. There are limits even to modern technology, apparently. This ‘me’ is actually the fifty-second such attempt.” She paused. “Some of the earlier attempts went…very badly. Even now, the process is unpredictable.”

“How long…how old are you?” Isaac asked.

“Five months post-transference,” Dr. Al-Qahtani said matter-of-factly. “I don’t have much more time.” She shook her head. “Immortality only ever runs backwards, never forwards. This particular me is without hope, but maybe you can stop too many more of me from dying.” She met his gaze. “Don’t look so maudlin. I could hardly ask anyone else to do this. The only even marginally ethical way to proceed with a project plan such as this was for me myself to be the guinea pig. We are counting on you to make this all worth something.

“So don’t let us down.”