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As I sat on my friends show box shuffling a deck of cards, you and your friend passed by several times, each time smiling and giggling and watching me out of the corner of your eye. All it took was asking if you would like to see a card trick. Such a simple trick along with some flirting and your smile had me hooked.
Time flew by so fast that we spent the rest of the afternoon talking and laughing right up until curfew. I couldn't wait to see you the next morning. I was only there to help my buddy with his show steer later in the week.
You were there for a pageant to model the red dress that you made. I have to confess, it was pure agony and torture. At first because because most of the show was boring. Then you came on stage and I was completely stunned. I have to admit, that dress fit you perfectly, hugging your beautiful curves, it truly was a scene from a man's dreams.
Your eyes never left mine until you left the stage. The rest of the show was the real torture. I just sat there thinking "Wow! I can't even describe the feelings you created. To this day I don't remember ever feeling the way you made me feel when we were talking and laughing. You asked me to go ice skating with you. I remember thinking "whatever, as long as I get to spend time with you". So we laced up the skates and headed for the ice. I had never gone ice skating so I hesitated while you so gracefully made your way out onto the ice.
Of course I tried to show off, but guess what? I can't ice skate. Not even a little. You were laughing but I didn't find it so funny sliding the length of the rink on my back after you gave me a push. I crawled my way to the wall and had to hang on for life just to make it back to the rink entrance.
It was a good thing that it was hot outside because I was soaking wet and frozen by the time you were done laughing and skating. The mild hypothermia was worth it though. After that the time spent with you only got better.
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You can feel your blood, syrupy with dobutamine and leuenkephalin, forcing its way through arteries shriveled by months on standby. The body inflates in painful increments: Your joints have seized up through disuse. You're a stick-man, frozen in some perverse rigor vitae. You'd scream if you had the breath. Vampires did this all the time, you remember. It was normal for them, it was their own unique take on resource conservation.
They could have taught your kind a few things about restraint, if that absurd aversion to right-angles hadn't done them in at the dawn of civilization. Maybe they still can. One of them commands this very mission. A handful of his genes live on in your own body so it too can rise from the dead, here at the edge of interstellar space. Nobody gets past Jupiter without becoming part vampire.
The pain begins, just slightly, to recede. You fire up your inlays and access your own vitals: The pain's an unavoidable side effect. That's just what happens when you splice vampire subroutines into Human code. You asked about painkillers once, but nerve blocks of any kind compromise metabolic reactivation.
Suck it up, soldier. You wonder if this was how it felt for Chelsea, before the end. But that evokes a whole other kind of pain, so you block it out and concentrate on the life pushing its way back into your extremities. Suffering in silence, you check the logs for fresh telemetry. That can't be right. Because if it is, you're in the wrong part of the universe. You're not in the Kuiper Belt where you belong: You've gone interstellar , which means you bring up the system clock you've been undead for eighteen hundred days.
You've overslept by almost five years. The lid of your coffin slides away. Your own cadaverous body reflects from the mirrored bulkhead opposite, a desiccated lungfish waiting for the rains. Bladders of isotonic saline cling to its limbs like engorged antiparasites, like the opposite of leeches. You remember the needles going in just before you shut down, way back when your veins were more than dry twisted filaments of beef jerky.
Szpindel's reflection stares back from his own pod to your immediate right. His face is as bloodless and skeletal as yours. His wide sunken eyes jiggle in their sockets as he reacquires his own links, sensory interfaces so massive that your own off-the-shelf inlays amount to shadow-puppetry in comparison.
You hear coughing and the rustling of limbs just past line-of-sight, catch glimpses of reflected motion where the others stir at the edge of vision. Szpindel works his jaw. You haven't even met the aliens yet, and already they're running rings around you. So we dragged ourselves back from the dead: We emerged from our coffins like premature moths ripped from their cocoons, still half-grub.
We were alone and off course and utterly helpless, and it took a conscious effort to remember: Just past him, Susan James was curled into a loose fetal ball, murmuring to herselves. Only Amanda Bates, already dressed and cycling through a sequence of bone-cracking isometrics, possessed anything approaching mobility. Every now and then she tried bouncing a rubber ball off the bulkhead; but not even she was up to catching it on the rebound yet.
The journey had melted us down to a common archetype. Even our hair seemed to have become strangely discolored during the voyage, although I knew that was impossible. More likely it was just filtering the pallor of the skin beneath.
Bates kept her head shaved, but even her eyebrows weren't as rusty as I remembered them. We'd revert to our old selves soon enough. For now, though, the old slur was freshly relevant: Every facial tic was a data point, every conversational pause spoke volumes more than the words to either side. I could see James' personae shatter and coalesce in the flutter of an eyelash.
Szpindel's unspoken distrust of Amanda Bates shouted from the corner of his smile. Every twitch of the phenotype cried aloud to anyone who knew the language. Szpindel's lips cracked in a small rictus. Getting the ship to build some dirt to lie on. And some things you kept to yourself.
If he had withdrawn from public view, maybe I was the reason. Maybe he was keeping secrets. After all, Theseus damn well was. She'd taken us a good fifteen AUs towards our destination before something scared her off course.
Then she'd skidded north like a startled cat and started climbing: She'd emptied her Penn tanks, bled dry her substrate mass, squandered a hundred forty days' of fuel in hours. Then a long cold coast through the abyss, years of stingy accounting, the thrust of every antiproton weighed against the drag of sieving it from the void.
Theseus had to filterfeed the raw material from space, one ion at a time. For long dark years she'd made do on pure inertia, hoarding every swallowed atom. Then a flip; ionizing lasers strafing the space ahead; a ramscoop thrown wide in a hard brake. The weight of a trillion trillion protons slowed her down and refilled her gut and flattened us all over again.
Theseus had burned relentless until almost the moment of our resurrection. It was easy enough to retrace those steps; our course was there in ConSensus for anyone to see.
Exactly why the ship had blazed that trail was another matter. Doubtless it would all come out during the post-rez briefing. We were hardly the first vessel to travel under the cloak of sealed orders , and if there'd been a pressing need to know by now we'd have known by now. Still, I wondered who had locked out the Comm logs. Or Theseus herself, for that matter. It was easy to forget the Quantical AI at the heart of our ship. It stayed so discreetly in the background, nurtured and carried us and permeated our existence like an unobtrusive God; but like God, it never took your calls.
Sarasti was the official intermediary. So did we all. He'd given us four hours to come back. It took more than three just to get me out of the crypt. I swapped out drained electrolyte bags for fresh ones and headed aft. Fifteen minutes to spin-up. Fifty to the post-resurrection briefing. Just enough time for those who preferred gravity-bound sleep to haul their personal effects into the drum and stake out their allotted 4.
I set up my own tent in zero-gee and as far to stern as possible, nuzzling the forward wall of the starboard shuttle tube. The tent inflated like an abscess on Theseus' spine, a little climate-controlled bubble of atmosphere in the dark cavernous vacuum beneath the ship's carapace. My own effects were minimal; it took all of thirty seconds to stick them to the wall, and another thirty to program the tent's environment.
Afterwards I went for a hike. After five years, I needed the exercise. Stern was closest, so I started there: A single sealed hatch blistered the aft bulkhead dead center. Behind it, a service tunnel wormed back through machinery best left untouched by human hands.
The fat superconducting torus of the ramscoop ring; the antennae fan behind it, unwound now into an indestructible soap-bubble big enough to shroud a city, its face turned sunward to catch the faint quantum sparkle of the Icarus antimatter stream.
More shielding behind that; then the telematter reactor, where raw hydrogen and refined information conjured fire three hundred times hotter than the sun's. It would have been magic to anyone. Around me, the same magic worked at cooler temperatures and to less volatile ends: A few of those openings would choke on my fist: Theseus ' fabrication plant could build everything from cutlery to cockpits. Give it a big enough matter stockpile and it could have even been built another Theseus , albeit in many small pieces and over a very long time.
Some wondered if it could build another crew as well, although we'd all been assured that was impossible. Not even these machines had fine enough fingers to reconstruct a few trillion synapses in the space of a human skull. They would never have shipped us out fully-assembled if there'd been a cheaper alternative. Putting the back of my head against that sealed hatch I could see almost to Theseus ' bow, an uninterrupted line-of-sight extending to a tiny dark bull's-eye thirty meters ahead.
It was like staring at a great textured target in shades of white and gray: Every one stood open, in nonchalant defiance of a previous generation's safety codes. We could keep them closed if we wanted to, if it made us feel safer. That was all it would do, though; it wouldn't improve our empirical odds one whit.
In the event of trouble those hatches would slam shut long milliseconds before Human senses could even make sense of an alarm. They weren't even computer-controlled. Theseus ' body parts had reflexes. The shuttle-access hatches to Scylla and Charybdis briefly constricted my passage to either side.
A pair of ladders ran opposite each other along its length; raised portholes the size of manhole covers stippled the bulkhead to either side.
Most of those just looked into the hold. A couple served as general-purpose airlocks, should anyone want to take a stroll beneath the carapace. One opened into my tent. Another, four meters further forward, opened into Bates'. From a third, just short of the forward bulkhead, Jukka Sarasti climbed into view like a long white spider.
If he'd been Human I'd have known instantly what I saw there, I'd have smelled murderer all over his topology. And I wouldn't have been able to even guess at the number of his victims, because his affect was so utterly without remorse.
The killing of a hundred would leave no more stain on Sarasti's surfaces than the swatting of an insect; guilt beaded and rolled off this creature like water on wax. But Sarasti wasn't human. Sarasti was a whole different animal, and coming from him all those homicidal refractions meant nothing more than predator. He had the inclination, was born to it; whether he had ever acted on it was between him and Mission Control.
Maybe they cut you some slack , I didn't say to him. Maybe it's just a cost of doing business. You're mission-critical, after all. For all I know you cut a deal. You're so very smart, you know we wouldn't have brought you back in the first place if we hadn't needed you.
From the day they cracked the vat you knew you had leverage. Is that how it works, Jukka? You save the world, and the folks who hold your leash agree to look the other way? As a child I'd read tales about jungle predators transfixing their prey with a stare. Only after I'd met Jukka Sarasti did I know how it felt. But he wasn't looking at me now. He was focused on installing his own tent, and even if he had looked me in the eye there'd have been nothing to see but the dark wraparound visor he wore in deference to Human skittishness.
He ignored me as I grabbed a nearby rung and squeezed past. I could have sworn I smelled raw meat on his breath. Into the drum drums , technically; the BioMed hoop at the back spun on its own bearings.
I flew through the center of a cylinder sixteen meters across. Theseus ' spinal nerves ran along its axis, the exposed plexii and piping bundled against the ladders on either side. Past them, Szpindel's and James' freshly-erected tents rose from nooks on opposite sides of the world. Szpindel himself floated off my shoulder, still naked but for his gloves, and I could tell from the way his fingers moved that his favorite color was green.
He anchored himself to one of three stairways to nowhere arrayed around the drum: The next hatch gaped dead-center of the drum's forward wall; pipes and conduits plunged into the bulkhead to each side. The spinal corridor continued forward, a smaller diverticulum branched off to an EVA cubby and the forward airlock. I stayed the course and found myself back in the crypt, mirror-bright and less than two meters deep.
Empty pods gaped to the left; sealed ones huddled to the right. We were so irreplaceable we'd come with replacements. They slept on, oblivious.
I'd met three of them back in training. Hopefully none of us would be getting reacquainted any time soon. Only four pods to starboard, though. No backup for Sarasti.
I squeezed through into the bridge. Dim light there, a silent shifting mosaic of icons and alphanumerics iterating across dark glassy surfaces.
Not so much bridge as cockpit, and a cramped one at that. I'd emerged between two acceleration couches, each surrounded by a horseshoe array of controls and readouts.
Nobody expected to ever use this compartment. Theseus was perfectly capable of running herself, and if she wasn't we were capable of running her from our inlays, and if we weren't the odds were overwhelming that we were all dead anyway. Still, against that astronomically off-the-wall chance, this was where one or two intrepid survivors could pilot the ship home again after everything else had failed.
Between the footwells the engineers had crammed one last hatch and one last passageway: Clamshell shielding covered the outside of the dome like a pair of eyelids squeezed tight. A single icon glowed softly from a touchpad to my left; faint stray light followed me through from the spine, brushed dim fingers across the concave enclosure.
The dome resolved in faint shades of blue and gray as my eyes adjusted. A stale draft stirred the webbing floating from the rear bulkhead, mixed oil and machinery at the back of my throat. Buckles clicked faintly in the breeze like impoverished wind chimes. I reached out and touched the crystal: My fingertips chilled instantly. Perhaps, en route to our original destination, Theseus had seen something that scared her clear out of the solar system. More likely she hadn't been running away from anything but to something else, something that hadn't been discovered until we'd already died and gone from Heaven.
I reached back and tapped the touchpad. I half-expected nothing to happen; Theseus' windows could be as easily locked as her comm logs. But the dome split instantly before me, a crack then a crescent then a wide-eyed lidless stare as the shielding slid smoothly back into the hull.
My fingers clenched reflexively into a fistful of webbing. The sudden void stretched empty and unforgiving in all directions, and there was nothing to cling to but a metal disk barely four meters across. So many stars that I could not for the life me understand how the sky could contain them all yet be so black.
What did you expect? An alien mothership hanging off the starboard bow? We were out here for something. The others were, anyway. They'd be essential no matter where we'd ended up.
But my own situation was a bit different, I realized. My usefulness degraded with distance. And we were over half a light year from home. Where was I when the lights came down? It had been scarcely two months since Helen had disappeared under the cowl. Two months by our reckoning, at least. From her perspective it could have been a day or a decade; the Virtually Omnipotent set their subjective clocks along with everything else.
She wasn't coming back. She would only deign to see her husband under conditions that amounted to a slap in the face. He visited as often as she would allow: Their marriage decayed with the exponential determinism of a radioactive isotope and still he sought her out, and accepted her conditions.
On the day the lights came down, I had joined him at my mother's side. It was a special occasion, the last time we would ever see her in the flesh. For two months her body had lain in state along with five hundred other new ascendants on the ward, open for viewing by the next of kin. The interface was no more real than it would ever be, of course; the body could not talk to us.
But at least it was there , its flesh warm, the sheets clean and straight. Helen's lower face was still visible below the cowl, though eyes and ears were helmeted. We could touch her.
My father often did. Perhaps some distant part of her still felt it. But eventually someone has to close the casket and dispose of the remains. Jim took her hand one more time. She would still be available in her world, on her terms, but later this day the body would be packed into storage facilities crowded far too efficiently for flesh and blood visitors. Everything was reversible, we were told. There were rumors of dismemberment, of nonessential body parts hewn away over time according to some optimum-packing algorithm.
Perhaps Helen would be a torso this time next year, a disembodied head the year after. Perhaps her chassis would be stripped down to the brain before we'd even left the building, awaiting only that final technological breakthrough that would herald the arrival of the Great Digital Upload. Rumors, as I say. I personally didn't know of anyone who'd come back after ascending, but then why would anyone want to?
Not even Lucifer left Heaven until he was pushed. Whatever he knew, he'd obviously decided its disclosure wouldn't have changed Helen's mind. That would have been enough for him. We donned the hoods that served as day passes for the Unwired, and we met my mother in the spartan visiting room she imagined for these visits. She'd built no windows into the world she occupied, no hint of whatever utopian environment she'd constructed for herself.
She hadn't even opted for one of the prefab visiting environments designed to minimize dissonance among visitors. We found ourselves in a featureless beige sphere five meters across. There was nothing in there but her. Maybe not so far removed from her vision of utopia after all , I thought. She always used my name. I don't think she ever called me son. I do wish you could join us. I know she was special to you. A startling possibility stopped me in mid-sentence: I would have given them a fucking lifetime.
I unplugged myself back to the ward, looked from the corpse on the bed to my blind and catatonic father in his couch, murmuring sweet nothings into the datastream. Let them perform for each other. Let them formalize and finalize their so-called relationship in whatever way they saw fit. Maybe, just once, they could even bring themselves to be honest, there in that other world where everything else was a lie.
I felt no desire to bear witness either way. But of course I had to go back in for my own formalities. I adopted my role in the familial set-piece one last time, partook of the usual lies. We all agreed that this wasn't going to change anything, and nobody deviated enough from the script to call anyone else a liar on that account.
I even suppressed my gag reflex long enough to give her a hug. Jim had his inhaler in hand as we emerged from the darkness. I hoped, without much hope, that he'd throw it into the garbage receptacle as we passed through the lobby. But he raised it to his mouth and took another hit of vassopressin, that he would never be tempted.
Fidelity in an aerosol. You can't imprint on someone who isn't even there, no matter how many hormones you snort. We passed beneath the muzzles of sentries panning for infiltrating Realists. She'd be happy if you did. He smiled a bit at that. I'm comfortable with it. Easy for him to say. Easy even to accept the hurt she'd inflicted on him all these years.
Do you think it's easy when you disappear for months on end? Do you think it's easy always wondering who you're with and what you're doing and if you're even alive? Do you think it's easy raising a child like that on your own? She'd blamed him for everything, but he bore it gracefully because he knew it was all a lie. He knew he was only the pretense. She wasn't leaving because he was AWOL, or unfaithful. Her departure had nothing to do with him at all.
Helen had left the world because she couldn't stand to look at the thing who'd replaced her son. The stars were falling. The Zodiac had rearranged itself into a precise grid of bright points with luminous tails. It was as though the whole planet had been caught in some great closing net, the knots of its mesh aglow with St.
I looked away to recalibrate my distance vision, to give this ill-behaved hallucination a chance to vanish gracefully before I set my empirical gaze to high-beam.
I saw a vampire in that moment, a female, walking among us like the archetypal wolf in sheep's clothing. Vampires were uncommon creatures at street level. I'd never seen one in the flesh before. She had just stepped onto the street from the building across the way. She stood a head taller than the rest of us, her eyes shining yellow and bright as a cat's in the deepening dark. She realized, as I watched, that something was amiss.
Totally indifferent to the fact that the world had just turned inside-out. It was Greenwich Mean Time, February 13, They clenched around the world like a fist, each black as the inside of an event horizon until those last bright moments when they all burned together.
They screamed as they died. Every radio up to geostat groaned in unison, every infrared telescope went briefly snowblind. Ashes stained the sky for weeks afterwards; mesospheric clouds, high above the jet stream, turned to glowing rust with every sunrise.
The objects, apparently, consisted largely of iron. Nobody ever knew what to make of that. For perhaps the first time in history, the world knew before being told: The usual arbiters of newsworthiness, stripped of their accustomed role in filtering reality, had to be content with merely labeling it. It took them ninety minutes to agree on Fireflies. A half hour after that, the first Fourier transforms appeared in the noosphere; to no one's great surprise, the Fireflies had not wasted their dying breaths on static.
There was pattern embedded in that terminal chorus, some cryptic intelligence that resisted all earthly analysis. The experts, rigorously empirical, refused to speculate: They didn't know what. How else would you explain 65, probes evenly dispersed along a lat-long grid that barely left any square meter of planetary surface unexposed? Obviously the Flies had taken our picture.
The whole world had been caught with its pants down in panoramic composite freeze-frame. My father might have known someone who might have known. But by then he'd long since disappeared, as he always did during times of hemispheric crisis. Whatever he knew or didn't, he left me to find my own answers with everyone else. There was no shortage of perspectives.
The noosphere seethed with scenarios ranging from utopian to apocalyptic. The Fireflies had seeded lethal germs through the jet stream. The Fireflies had been on a nature safari. The Icarus Array was being retooled to power a doomsday weapon against the aliens. The Icarus Array had already been destroyed.
We had decades to react; anything from another solar system would have to obey the lightspeed limit like everyone else. We had days to live; organic warships had just crossed the asteroid belt and would be fumigating the planet within a week. Like everyone else, I bore witness to lurid speculations and talking heads. I visited blathernodes, soaked myself in other people's opinions.
That was nothing new, as far as it went; I'd spent my whole life as a sort of alien ethologist in my own right, watching the world behave, gleaning patterns and protocols, learning the rules that allowed me to infiltrate human society. It had always worked before. Somehow, though, the presence of real aliens had changed the dynamics of the equation.
Mere observation didn't satisfy any more. It was as though the presence of this new outgroup had forced me back into the clade whether I liked it or not; the distance between myself and the world suddenly seemed forced and faintly ridiculous.
Yet I couldn't, for my life, figure out how to let it go. Chelsea had always said that telepresence emptied the Humanity from Human interaction. It's just shadows on the cave wall. I mean, sure, the shadows come in three-dee color with force-feedback tactile interactivity.
They're good enough to fool the civilized brain. But your gut knows those aren't people , even if it can't put its finger on how it knows.
They just don't feel real. Know what I mean? Back then I'd had no clue what she was talking about. But now we were all cavemen again, huddling beneath some overhang while lightning split the heavens and vast formless monsters, barely glimpsed in bright strobe-frozen instants, roared and clashed in the darkness on all sides. There was no comfort in solitude. You couldn't get it from interactive shadows.
You needed someone real at your side, someone to hold on to, someone to share your airspace along with your fear and hope and uncertainty. I imagined the presence of companions who wouldn't vanish the moment I unplugged. But Chelsea was gone, and Pag in her wake.
Flesh and blood had its own relationship to reality: Watching the world from a distance, it occurred to me at last: I knew exactly what Chelsea had meant, with her Luddite ramblings about desaturated Humanity and the colorless interactions of virtual space.
I'd known all along. I'd just never been able to see how it was any different from real life. Imagine you are a machine. But imagine you're a different kind of machine, one built from metal and plastic and designed not by blind, haphazard natural selection but by engineers and astrophysicists with their eyes fixed firmly on specific goals.
Imagine that your purpose is not to replicate, or even to survive, but to gather information. I can imagine that easily. It is in fact a much simpler impersonation than the kind I'm usually called on to perform. I coast through the abyss on the colder side of Neptune's orbit. Most of the time I exist only as an absence, to any observer on the visible spectrum: But occasionally, during my slow endless spin, I glint with dim hints of reflected starlight.
If you catch me in those moments you might infer something of my true nature: Here and there a whisper of accumulated frost clings to a joint or seam, some frozen wisp of gas encountered in Jupiter space perhaps. Now, a breath away from Absolute Zero, they might shatter at a photon's touch.
My heart is warm, at least. A tiny nuclear fire burns in my thorax, leaves me indifferent to the cold outside. It won't go out for a thousand years, barring some catastrophic accident; for a thousand years, I will listen for faint voices from Mission Control and do everything they tell me to. So far they have told me to study comets. Every instruction I have ever received has been a precise and unambiguous elaboration on that one overriding reason for my existence.
Which is why these latest instructions are so puzzling, for they make no sense at all. The frequency is wrong. The signal strength is wrong. I cannot even understand the handshaking protocols. The response arrives almost a thousand minutes later, and it is an unprecedented mix of orders and requests for information. I answer as best I can: No, it is not the usual bearing for Mission Control. Yes, I can retransmit: Yes, I will go into standby mode.
I await further instructions. They arrive minutes later, and they tell me to stop studying comets immediately. Upon encountering any transmission resembling the one which confused me, I am to fix upon the bearing of maximal signal strength and derive a series of parameter values.
I am also instructed to retransmit the signal to Mission Control. I do as I'm told. For a long time I hear nothing, but I am infinitely patient and incapable of boredom. Eventually a fleeting, familiar signal brushes against my afferent array. I reacquire and track it to source, which I am well-equipped to describe: It is sweeping a cm tightbeam radio wave across the heavens with a periodicity of 4.
This beam does not intersect Mission Control's coordinates at any point. It appears to be directed at a different target entirely. It takes much longer than usual for Mission Control to respond to this information.
When it does, it tells me to change course. Mission Control informs me that henceforth my new destination is to be referred to as Burns-Caulfield. Given current fuel and inertial constraints I will not reach it in less than thirty-nine years.
I am to watch nothing else in the meantime. I'd been liaising for a team at the Kurzweil Institute, a fractured group of cutting-edge savants convinced they were on the verge of solving the quantum-glial paradox. That particular log-jam had stalled AI for decades; once broken, the experts promised we'd be eighteen months away from the first personality upload and only two years from reliable Human-consciousness emulation in a software environment.
It would spell the end of corporeal history, usher in a Singularity that had been waiting impatiently in the wings for nigh on fifty years. Two months after Firefall, the Institute cancelled my contract. I was actually surprised it had taken them so long. It had cost us so much, this overnight inversion of global priorities, these breakneck measures making up for lost initiative.
Not even our shiny new post-scarcity economy could withstand such a seismic shift without lurching towards bankruptcy. Installations in deep space, long since imagined secure by virtue of their remoteness, were suddenly vulnerable for exactly the same reason. Lagrange habitats had to be refitted for defense against an unknown enemy. Commercial ships on the Martian Loop were conscripted, weaponised, and reassigned; some secured the high ground over Mars while others fell sunward to guard the Icarus Array.
It didn't matter that the Fireflies hadn't fired a shot at any of these targets. We simply couldn't afford the risk. We were all in it together, of course, desperate to regain some hypothetical upper hand by any means necessary. Kings and corporations scribbled IOUs on the backs of napkins and promised to sort everything out once the heat was off.
In the meantime, the prospect of Utopia in two years took a back seat to the shadow of Armageddon reaching back from next Tuesday. The Kurzweil Institute, like everyone else, suddenly had other things to worry about. So I returned to my apartment, split a bulb of Glenfiddich, and arrayed virtual windows like daisy petals in my head.
Everyone Icons debated on all sides, serving up leftovers two weeks past their expiry date:. Disgraceful breakdown of global security. We should have seen them coming. They just took our picture. Why haven't they made contact? Nothing's touched the O'Neills.
Are they coming back? But where are they? Jim Moore Voice Only. The text window blossomed directly in my line of sight, eclipsing the debate. I read it twice. I tried to remember the last time he'd called from the field, and couldn't. I muted the other windows. Still wondering whether we should be celebrating or crapping our pants.
He didn't answer immediately. They're not telling us anything at ground level. It was a rhetorical request. His silence was hardly necessary to make the point. He seemed to be weighing his words. There's no particle trail as long as it stays offstream, and it would be buried in solar glare unless someone knew where to search.
It was my turn to fall silent. This conversation felt suddenly wrong. Because when my father went on the job, he went dark. He never called his family. Because even when my father came off the job, he never talked about it. It wouldn't matter whether the Icarus Array was still online or whether it had been shredded and thrown into the sun like a thousand kilometers of torn origami; he wouldn't tell either tale unless an official announcement had been made.
Icarus was overdue for a visit anyway. You don't swap out your whole grid without at least dropping in and kicking the new tires first.
Nearly three seconds to respond. Isn't this a security breach? Radio bounced back and forth. I wanted very much for them to pick someone else. But he'd seen it coming, and preempted me before my words could cross the distance: You're simply the most qualified, and the work is vital. He wouldn't want to keep me away from some theoretical gig in a WestHem lab.
We traced the bearing. The encryption seems similar, but we can't even be sure of that. All we have is the location. We'd never gone to the Kuiper before. It had been decades since we'd even sent robots.
Not that we lacked the capacity. We just hadn't bothered; everything we needed was so much closer to home. The Interplanetary Age had stagnated at the asteroids. But now something lurked at the furthest edge of our backyard, calling into the void. Maybe it was talking to some other solar system. Maybe it was talking to something closer, something en route.
But we can't wait for them to report back. The follow-up's been fast-tracked; updates can be sent en route. He gave me a few extra seconds to digest that. When I still didn't speak, he said, "You have to understand. Our only edge is that as far as we know, Burns-Caulfield doesn't know we're on to it.
We have to get as much as we can in whatever window of opportunity that grants us. But Burns-Caulfield had hidden itself. Burns-Caulfield might not welcome a forced introduction. The timelag seemed to say Mars. He didn't have to answer. I didn't have to ask. At these kind of stakes, mission-critical elements didn't get the luxury of choice. Both can be subverted with the right neurochemical keys. We let the vacuum between us speak for a while.
I just wanted to give you the heads-up. Are you coming back? This is what my father could not unmake. This is what I am:. I am the bridge between the bleeding edge and the dead center. I stand between the Wizard of Oz and the man behind the curtain. I am the curtain. I am not an entirely new breed.
My roots reach back to the dawn of civilization but those precursors served a different function, a less honorable one. They only greased the wheels of social stability; they would sugarcoat unpleasant truths, or inflate imaginary bogeymen for political expedience.
They were vital enough in their way. Not even the most heavily-armed police state can exert brute force on all of its citizens all of the time. Meme management is so much subtler; the rose-tinted refraction of perceived reality, the contagious fear of threatening alternatives. There have always been those tasked with the rotation of informational topologies, but throughout most of history they had little to do with increasing its clarity.
The new Millennium changed all that. We've surpassed ourselves now, we're exploring terrain beyond the limits of merely human understanding. Sometimes its contours, even in conventional space, are just too intricate for our brains to track; other times its very axes extend into dimensions inconceivable to minds built to fuck and fight on some prehistoric grassland. So many things constrain us, from so many directions. The most altruistic and sustainable philosophies fail before the brute brain-stem imperative of self-interest.
Subtle and elegant equations predict the behavior of the quantum world, but none can explain it. After four thousand years we can't even prove that reality exists beyond the mind of the first-person dreamer.
We have such need of intellects greater than our own. But we're not very good at building them. The forced matings of minds and electrons succeed and fail with equal spectacle. Our hybrids become as brilliant as savants, and as autistic. We graft people to prosthetics, make their overloaded motor strips juggle meat and machinery, and shake our heads when their fingers twitch and their tongues stutter.
And when your surpassing creations find the answers you asked for, you can't understand their analysis and you can't verify their answers. You hire people like me; the crossbred progeny of profilers and proof assistants and information theorists. In formal settings you'd call me Synthesist. On the street you call me jargonaut or poppy. If you're one of those savants whose hard-won truths are being bastardized and lobotomized for powerful know-nothings interested only in market share, you might call me a mole or a chaperone.
If you're Isaac Szpindel you'd call me commissar , and while the jibe would be a friendly one, it would also be more than that. I've never convinced myself that we made the right choice. I can cite the usual justifications in my sleep, talk endlessly about the rotational topology of information and the irrelevance of semantic comprehension. But after all the words, I'm still not sure. I don't know if anyone else is, either. Maybe it's just some grand consensual con, marks and players all in league.
We won't admit that our creations are beyond us; they may speak in tongues, but our priests can read those signs. Gods leave their algorithms carved into the mountainside but it's just li'l ol' me bringing the tablets down to the masses, and I don't threaten anyone. Maybe the Singularity happened years ago.
We just don't want to admit we were left behind. The Third Wave, they called us. All in the same boat, driving into the long dark courtesy of a bleeding-edge prototype crash-graduated from the simulators a full eighteen months ahead of schedule. In a less fearful economy, such violence to the timetable would have bankrupted four countries and fifteen multicorps.
The first two waves came out of the gate in even more of a hurry. I didn't find out what had happened to them until thirty minutes before the briefing, when Sarasti released the telemetry into ConSensus.
Then I opened wide; experience flooded up my inlays and spilled across my parietal cortex in glorious high-density fast forward. Even now I can bring those data back, fresh as the day they were recorded. I am souped-up and stripped-down, a telematter drive with a couple of cameras bolted to the front end, pushing gees that would turn meat to jelly.
I sprint joyously toward the darkness, my twin brother a stereoscopic hundred klicks to starboard, dual streams of backspat pions boosting us to relativity before poor old Theseus had even crawled past Mars.
But now, six billion kilometers to stern, Mission Control turns off the tap and leaves us coasting. The comet swells in our sights, a frozen enigma sweeping its signal across the sky like a lighthouse beam.
We bring rudimentary senses to bear and stare it down on a thousand wavelengths. We've lived for this moment. We see an erratic wobble that speaks of recent collisions. We see an astronomical impossibility: Burns-Caufield sings as we glide past. Not to us; it ignores our passage as it ignored our approach. It sings to someone else entirely.
Perhaps we'll meet that audience some day. Perhaps they're waiting in the desolate wastelands ahead of us. Mission Control flips us onto our backs, keeps us fixed on target past any realistic hope of acquisition. They send last-ditch instructions, squeeze our fading signals for every last bit among the static. I can sense their frustration, their reluctance to let us go; once or twice, we're even asked if some judicious mix of thrust and gravity might let us linger here a bit longer. Rip apart what has been sewed.
Huwag mong kalikutin ang ilong mo. Don't poke your finger in your nose. The ball rattled in the box. Don't shake the eggs in the box. The child sat on his mother's lap. Take the child on your lap. He just scratched his head. Just scratch your head.
Just scratch a cat. He took shelter under the tree. Hide the clothes under the house. Sing on my birthday. Sing my favorite song. He groped in the dark. Grope for the flashlight inside the house.
He held on to me. Put your hand on the child's shoulder. Hold on to each other's hands or you might fall. Frisk my pocket for some money. Frisk the pocket of the thief who was arrested.
They are fellow thieves. Slaughter some chicken for the fiesta. Slaughter the cow now. Kausapin mo si Pedro tungkol sa balak mo.
Talk with Pedro about your plans. He waved at me before he left. His trousers got hooked on the nail. Be careful as you walk or your trousers might get hooked on the nail.
Kumawit ang pantalon niya sa pako. His trousers were got hooked on the nail. Invite someone to go with you to to the market. Invite Juan to watch a movie. We scraped the coconut. Talk to the lonely child. Malamig sa labas, baka ka kiligin. It is cold outside, you might shiver. Carry a newspaper on the way to the office. Make the way narrow. You make the way narrow. The rough cloth rubbed on his skin.
Sharpen the kinife on the whetstone. He earned a lot at the company. They want to see each other tonight. Collect some financial assistance for typhoon victims. Gather the dry leaves in the garden.
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