The lethal results for a human of directly interfacing with an AI have been known since the apotheosis of that being who was, briefly, both Iversus Skaidon and the Craystein Computer. This joining killed Skaidon and sent the Craystein far to the other side of weird, where even other AIs find its communications somewhat ... gnomic. But what is this 'direct interfacing' - surely we do this through our augs and gridlinks? Not so. These two methods of connection, along with planetary servers and so forth, act as buffers between the human and the AI minds. This is necessary because though, in most cases, the human mind is something that an AI could run as a brief sub-program, in some cases it has something that is beyond our silicon saints. Call that something imagination, vision, psychosis ... it is something that is rooted in our primeval psyche and was never anything to do with the pellucid logic with which we created AI. Direct interfacing gives the AI this human madness, and in turn the human acquires the vast processing power of AI. The resultant composite being transcends all its contemporaries. Briefly, huge synergy is achieved, then the human dies - his mind burnt out like a wristcom connected to a tokomac.
Note: In recent years there has been much speculation about the possibility of interface filters and biotech support systems. This is all fog, and my opinion is that if it really could be done then someone, somewhere, would be doing it.
- From How It Is by Gordon
Standing on the black glass floor of a virtual viewing chamber aboard the Jack Ketch, Cormac took in the scene projected from a holocam a kilometre out from the hull. The ominously namedTheta-class attack ship bore the shape of a cuttlefish bone, but with outriggers on either side holding torpedo-shaped weapons nacelles. It was the dark red of old blood, and smooth as polished stone. A more modern product of the Polity, its controlling AI, named Jack, took no orders from any human captain. Cormac wondered if it could withstand Jain technology subversion any better than had the Occam Razor and its interfaced captain, Tomalon. In such a ship as this, there was no facility for AI burn - for killing its AI - it having been built after the time of extreme paranoia about AIs taking over ... when they had.
To one side of the Jack Ketch he observed other Polity ships surrounding, like flies around a healing wound, the reconstructed area of Elysium. Dreyden, the ruler of this Out-Polity community, had fought against allowing them to render assistance, and threatened them with the smelting mirrors of Elysium just as he had used those same mirrors against the attacking Occam Razor. But the damage to the community had been more than it could sustain and, without help, his little empire here would have fallen apart anyway, but with a greater resultant loss of life. Now, after one year of quarantine, all assistance had been rendered, and Dreyden was just a businessman in yet another community subsumed by the Polity.
Eight hundred and twenty-three thousand, one hundred and nine ...
That was the figure at the last count, though by now it would have risen by a few souls as people continued to die in the hospital ship, or took the easier route of memcording to escape bodies made irreparable by isotope poisoning.
It had been the risk of this, balanced against the slaughter of millions on Masada. There had been a chance that no one would have died here. But they did. His call.
Cadmean victory ...
Cormac wondered about the name of this ship he had boarded,now that quarantine was over. Perhaps Jack Ketch the hangman was here for him. He now turned his attention to one whom Earth Central Security was allowing to escape the noose.
The trispherical Lyric II was only just visible, by the white light of its fusion drive, as it moved away from Elysium. It was unusual for Polity AIs to make such value judgements on the actions of individuals, and normally they applied the law harshly and without favour. John Stanton had been a mercenary killer, in the past working for the Separatist Arian Pelter, and perhaps deserved to die, as had Pelter. Cormac winced at the memories: Pelter's brass killing-machine, Mr Crane, coming for him; the Golem Cento and Aiden bringing Crane down; and his own subsequent pursuit of Pelter, and killing of the man. Even so, the Earth Central AI had decided, that for what Stanton had since done and risked, no one would be looking when he and his wife Jarvellis returned to their ship and headed away. Cormac observed white fusion flames blink out inside a distortion that seemed to pull at his eyeballs, and knew that the ship had now entered underspace and was gone. He envied John Stanton such freedom - from prosecution, and from responsibility.
'A satisfactory conclusion,' said a breathy voice beside his ear.
'Cut visual feed,' said Cormac and, as the external image blinked out to reveal the glass-walled projection chamber he stood in, he turned to the ancient Japanese man standing beside him. 'This must be a new definition of "satisfactory" of which I have been unaware. Would you like to elaborate?'
Horace Blegg kept his expression bland as he replied, 'Masada and this place are under the control of the Polity, and Skellor now so much interstellar ash.'
'And here, and at Masada, nearly a million dead,' Cormac added.
'Such loss of life is unfortunate, but base your calculation on lives saved, not lives destroyed. Had you and John Stanton not ledSkellor here to be incinerated, he would have killed every human being in the Masadan system, and for him that would have been just the start.'
Cormac smiled tiredly. 'I'm not an infant; I made that calculation at the time. But you forget, I've been in Elysium for a year and seen what happened.'
'My assessment still stands. What is there for you to regret?'
'My original assessment of Skellor, I would say.'
'You did not know he had gained possession of Jain technology.'
'But when I did know, I assumed that, like any Separatist upon encountering Earth Central Security, he would go scuttling for cover. I didn't register how quickly he disappeared after our first encounter, and I didn't make the connection between that disappearance and his work with chameleonware.'
'Hindsight can be brilliantly incisive, and never misses the banana skins of existence. Do you want to be punished?'
'No ... what I want is to go back to Masada and find out who is alive and who is dead. I want to retrieve my Shuriken, and see what Mika has to say about the dracomen there - and find out what the EC decision on them is. But, most of all, I want to know how the fuck you got on board this ship. There was no one here last time I looked, and nothing has docked since then.'
'You well know I don't answer such questions.' Earth Central's leading and most mysterious agent liked to remain inscrutable.
'You did it on the Occam Razor, and I at first thought you a projection. I touched you and you remained solid, though something happened to you when the Occam went into U-space. But then, is my memory of events true - because you've screwed with my mind before.'
'Your memories are true.'
Cormac nodded contemplatively. 'I think I know what you are, Blegg. I think I've finally figured it out. You're an avatar of the Earth Central AI - the human face, or interface, which transfers itsorders to its agents. Sometimes you're a projection, sometimes Golem.' He looked directly at Blegg. 'All that bullshit about Hiroshima is precisely that: bullshit.'
Blegg grinned. 'If only things were so simple. You are perhaps eighty years old in personal time, Ian Cormac, but with a mind possessing the plasticity of youth and a brain constantly replacing its dying nerve cells, and your apprehension of the world is at the foot of an exponential curve. Immortality is possible for all of humankind now, and many humans will discover what it means to keep on learning and keep on understanding, though many more will simply stagnate. I myself am many centuries ahead of the race as a whole.'
'Which still doesn't explain how you manage to keep popping up like the Cheshire cat.'
'Abilities can be acquired, given the time. This is something you will come to understand, as you are one of those who will definitely not stagnate.'
'What abilities had you already acquired that enabled you to survive the blast from an ancient fission weapon at Hiroshima? You were supposedly a child then.'
'Maybe I didn't survive it.'
Cormac could now feel something, the edge of something he strove to understand, and he knew that Blegg was slipping away from him. With some sense he had never known before, he reached out for the man and found himself groping after shadows.
Quite calmly he said, 'You're an avatar, Blegg - I know it.'
I am the future ...
The projection room now contained only Cormac. He sighed and shook his head. One day he would know precisely everything there was to know about Blegg, but that day was not yet close. With cold precision, he compartmentalized speculation. Now Earth Central Security - ECS - had work for him. There was always such work.
When are we heading into U-space? he asked the Jack Ketch AI.
'There is a hold on all transport at present, but when we are ready to go I will inform you,' the AI replied.
It was only as he was leaving the projection chamber that Cormac realized he had just used his gridlink - hardware inside his skull that had enabled him a near-direct interface with AI - to communicate, which was impossible. It had been deactivated long ago.
- retroact 2 -
Glittering leviathans bearing limbs capable of crushing boulders, and others capable of stacking grains of sand, reared in high pillars of gearbox-grinding movement, hung from the ceiling like mechanical multi-limbed bats, or squatted on the vast plain of the factory floor. All seemed chaotic lethal movement - a whole machine rather than distinct engines - where it seemed a human would be minced and scoured away in seconds. The sight would, Pendle thought, have driven Henry Ford screaming from the premises, especially had he seen the silver skeletons that were the product of this labour. But it was all utterly efficient: a three-dimensional assembly line designed by AI so that no movement was wasted, no process interrupted, no energy squandered ... Unhuman, and becoming more so.
On the whole, Pendle thought, the execs that were the human face of the corporation were at best glorified salesmen, but mostly shareholders creaming the working credit on their options - the closest a large proportion of Earth's population got to real work. Pendle, however, considered his erstwhile position as creative design consultant in the prognostic body-form section, to be essential. True, Golem contractual rights were now such that imposition of body form was no longer allowed. Directly after uploading to crystal, and before installation in an anthrop chassis, they werenow given the choice of form, which meant a loss of over 30 per cent of loaded crystal to AI applications other than to Golem. However, though less than the profit gained per capita for Golem indenture, Cybercorp was still able to reclaim construction costs and a reasonable profit set by Earth Central Economic Control. But then Pendle felt the distinction between the corporation and Earth Central itself was at best only one of nomenclature. Both were part of the same silicon meritocracy - a ruling elite that humans only managed to join by ceasing to be entirely human. Buphal was a prime example.
'Apensat has got the chassis prepped for installation, we can go down there now,' Buphal said.
Pendle studied the man. From the left, all you saw were Asiatic features in profile: a beaked nose, brown eyes, and dark eyebrows below plaited hair artfully dotted with grey. He wore monomer coolveralls with ribbed high collar and wrist-sleeves terminating in interface rings for 'factor gloves and helmet. The material of this garment was silvery and contained squares of memfab displaying what at first looked like the view from some craft flying through a strange city. Buphal had told him this was in fact an ophthalmoscope view of some ancient valved electronics he had studied during his youth. But it was when you saw the other side of the old man's head that you realized just what he was.
Affixed to the side of his skull, behind his ear, was a grey metal disc. From the edges of this, at one o'clock and seven, bus bars curved round and penetrated his skull. At six o'clock, tubes running down to a plug in the side of his neck piped blood as a coolant. In the centre of the disc, like some trophy on its mounting, was an aug the size and shape of a cockleshell but seemingly fashioned of quartz. In Buphal's right eye, instead of an eyeball and sclera, a glittering square tube penetrated deep into his skull. Pendle knew when Buphal was doing any heavy thinking - the man would start to sweat even though gusts of frigid air would beescaping his coolveralls, for Buphal's aug was semi-AI crystal matrix, buffered from direct interface by band-controlled optic and aural links. People like him were called haimans: a compound of AI and human. The man was as close to attaining AI/human synergy as was possible without burning out the human element like a faulty fuse.
Buphal leading, they made their way along the viewing gallery to the antique spiral stair leading down to what Cybercorp engineers still called the shop floor. This stair, Pendle recollected, Cybercorp had purchased at great expense from Sigural, the Sri Lankan AI that ran the runcible on Sigiria. Apparently these ancient iron staircases, originally brought to that island from the London Underground sometime premillennial, had no longer been considered safe to convey the five million visitors the rock received every year, even if most of them did come in by runcible.
They walked straight into the lethal blur of machinery and, of course, it flinched away from them, creating a space ten metres in diameter around them, until they reached the second stair taking them down to their destination. Here, on a smaller floor, technicians pursued specialist projects whilst, behind a glass wall alongside them, silver skeletons with ribbed chests open like butterflies marched neatly towards a perpetually cycling clean-lock and to the glare beyond where sentience awaited them. In this room it was sometimes difficult to distinguish specialist project from technician. Even pure humans like Pendle were visually identical to Golem who had donned syntheflesh. Sometimes there were humans so in love with the machine it was difficult so see any humanity left in them. Apensat was a silvery thing with the geisha stoop and glittery limbs of a surgical robot. But he also had normal arms and a face in there under the cowling. He looked like a man a huge polished-chrome beetle was gradually subsuming.
With a fluid hand gesture, mirrored by gleaming spidery limbs,Apensat indicated a Golem skeleton standing nearby, its chest open just like the others processing beyond it.
'This is him?' Pendle could see that it must be. The thing was two and a half metres tall, its ceramal bones bearing that slight bluish tint of the newer alloy/ceramofibre composite. Everything about it was heavier, more robust, impressive.
'No,' said Buphal, 'that's an anthrop chassis. That's him.'
Pendle looked to where Buphal was pointing at a lozenge of memory crystal sitting in an AI support column on a nearby bench. He walked over, pulled up a swivel chair and sat down, reached out and tapped the base of the column to get the mind's attention. To one side of the column a projection monocle rose off the bench. Below it, the air flickered, and the standard iconic head appeared: metallic - even the eyes, teeth and tongue.
'Unit G25 alpha, I'm going to load some syntheflesh/skin schematics as, with the larger size you chose for yourself, the order must go via Specialist Ordering.' Pendle glanced round and saw that both Buphal and Apensat had their attention focused on the Golem chassis. Of course it was all complete rubbish; Pendle's job had been non-existent for three days now since, being described as redundant for a long time, that description had now been made official. However, he felt that though his job was finished, his crusade had only just begun. Out of the top pocket of his Corp overalls he removed a piece of memcrystal the size of a fingernail and inserted it into the slot at the base of the column. Immediately it began to load. The projected head multiplied to infinity as if positioned between facing mirrors. Pendle snatched the monocle out of the air, killing the image. He then retrieved the memcrystal, dropped it between his feet, and ground it into white powder.
'Standard spec,' he said, getting to his feet. 'They'll be able to handle it in synthetics.'
Even though finally ejected from the Cybercorp plant a number of days later, Pendle did manage to turn up at the launch of theGolem Twenty-five, where he waited expectantly. But what happened was most unexpected. The nanoscopic dose of neurotoxin that finally killed him, just after the Golem was stolen, was not the main reason he coughed and gasped so much. That was laughter - Pendle had always been a sucker for irony.
- retroact ends -
Mika knew the doctor mycelium was a small fragment of the Jain technology Skellor had controlled and, like some primitive stumbling across a ground car, she had walked away with a wheel but had no idea about the workings of bearings, electric motors and hydrogen fuel cells. The fragment of nanotechnology resulting in the mycelium inside the Outlinker, Apis Coolant, had been a stored sample she used only because the alternative was to watch the boy die as his fragile body fought a losing battle against the gravity here on Masada. Why she then grew a similar mycelium inside herself was less clear. 'For research purposes,' was her answer to any who asked - not because it enabled her to live in an asphyxiating atmosphere surrounding her, or because it enabled her to quickly recover from severe injury, and not because her physical strength was now twice normal. But there was a downside ... as always.
The changes the doctor mycelia were undergoing she was unable to fathom. They were growing thicker and more complex - becoming something more than she required. Perhaps this dangerous experiment was keeping the Polity ships and personnel in orbit, and the quarantine in place. Thus far, their only contact had been via straightforward radio transmission - no signal deep enough to take any kind of computer viral attack from Jain tech on the surface - and ECS stratojets dropping medical supplies, food and equipment. They had every reason to be wary of Jain technology. Using it, Skellor had subverted the AI dreadnoughtOccam Razor and left a system in chaos: cylinder worlds containing brain-burnt populations, the wreckage of spacecraft and satellites, and tens of thousands dead. But that was not all the Polity might fear down here.
Standing on the shell of a huge tricone revealed at the top of a mound of debris flung up by the impact of the Dragon sphere that had fallen here, Mika gazed out across the plain of mud now covering some of that creature's remains. Coming towards her, moving birdlike on the mat of rhizomes that had quickly spread across the bared surface, came the rest of Dragon: dracomen - Dragon's children - formed from the body of that dying alien entity.
They ran towards her with seeming urgency, but then they ran everywhere like that. There were twenty of them in this party, and Mika noticed that two were small but with lanky legs. Children, for these new dracomen were able to breed. This in itself should be enough to frighten the rulers of the Polity: dracomen first being biological machines made by Dragon to serve that entity's own obscure purposes.
Dragon, when originally discovered on the planet Aster Colora, had consisted of four conjoined spheres each a kilometre across. After delivering an obscure warning to the human race, it apparently destroyed itself. Only later had they learnt how it had fled, breaking into four distinct spheres as it went. And later still they learnt it was an organic probe sent by an alien race, and had malfunctioned. Ian Cormac destroyed one sphere in punishment for the human catastrophe it later caused, on a planet called Samarkand, while trying to evade its alien Makers. Another had both destroyed and transformed itself here. Two remained: their purposes still obscure, possibly dangerous, and their abilities unplumbed.
As the party drew closer, Mika jumped down from the tricone, recognizing only Scar, one of the original dracomen, by his weaponsharness and ... his scar. He slowed to a walk to mount the slope up towards her. Beyond him, she noticed that four of his fellows were carrying the body of a grazer slung from two poles. This creature, with its multitude of limbs and many-eyed head, looked the offspring of a kangaroo and a lobster. It was one she did not recognize, but dracomen were bringing in all sorts of new species to feed their growing population.
'Polity?' said Scar, as he reached her.
'The last I heard, the quarantine has been lifted at Elysium, but still remains in force here. It seems unlikely to be lifted any time soon.'
'Danger?' asked Scar.
'No. The most likely decision will be to declare this world below the technological threshold for membership, and leave you all to make your own way,' said Mika, assuming that Polity personnel such as herself would be lifted from the surface, if only for the purposes of study.
'Not below any threshold,' said Scar, as his companions lugged the dead grazer past.
Mika eyed the prey, her hand straying to her console. She wanted to get samples before it went through a few hundred reptilian digestive tracts - such an urge was almost instinctive for the Life-coven woman. Turning to look where the group was heading, she thought that perhaps Scar was right. Maybe no one down here possessed spacecraft, but there was complex technology aplenty around them.
After the rebellion here against the governing Theocracy, the humans were rebuilding their agricultural base, but now somewhat differently. They produced plascrete to cast into raft fields, in which to grow new crops, or even into crop rafts for the ocean. Also, in the caverns under the mountains, they were building factories to meet the demands of a population suddenly free of the Theocracy yoke. They had established a financial system based on the Polity's,in which they expected shortly to be included. Aerofans, the main form of transport on this boggy world, were a must-have item for many people who had yet to see anything of their world beyond those same caverns or the cities. The factories were continuously turning out breather gear to replace the parasitic life-shortening scoles - products of biotechnology previously inflicted on agricultural workers to enable them to labour outside. People were doing things - building something. Other people, distinguished by scaled hides, bird legs and sharp teeth, were building as well.
The dracomen encampment looked like a mass of huge flattened puffballs spread throughout the flute grasses. These dwellings, Mika knew, the dracomen wove from flute grass itself, bonded and stiffened by a resin in their saliva. Upon testing a sample of this substance, she discovered it to be similar to a tough ceramoplastic normally used in the construction of space habitats. When she finally managed to question Scar about this material, he simply pointed out that this was not commonly a product of dracoman saliva; they produced it just for this purpose. The dracomen, generally, did not need factories - they themselves were factories. The most dramatic example of this was the weapon they used for hunting. Their organic rifle used a muscular spasm of its body to spit poisonous darts that actually grew inside it. The rifle also had to be fed, and Mika had seen this weapon hatched from dracomen eggs. They made other complex items similarly: gestated inside themselves, laid as eggs, then hatched out. Dracomen therefore did not need to develop a biotechnology - they were a biotechnology.
Returning to the encampment, Mika saw Thorn and Gant coming out towards her. It was Gant, the uploaded soldier, who mostly communicated with the Polity ships above, via a transceiver built into his tough Golem body.
She had seen neither of these two for a month now - they had been working for Lellan on some project to plant radio beacons in hooders - one of the planet's lethal native predators - to giveadvance warning of where the creatures were, so people could quickly get out of their way. Gant she had spoken to by radio only a few days previously, when he had told her about the quarantine ending at Elysium. Thorn, she noted, wore breather gear and wondered why - for, with the mycelium operating inside him, he did not need such cumbersome equipment.
'We need to talk,' said Thorn abruptly, as soon as he and Gant got close. 'That includes you,' he added to Scar, as the dracoman moved to follow his compatriots.
Scar halted, bared his teeth, then gestured for them to follow him. He led the way between the bulbous walls of dracoman buildings, on pathways of the same woven composite, which rested on top of the rhizome mat. Eventually he brought them to his home: a flattened sphere ten metres across, with a simple circular door set half a metre off the ground. The door opened when he pushed against it - its hinges composed of a dry muscle that was contracted by an electric charge. The door, Mika knew, would not have opened for anyone else, other dracomen included.
Just inside, a small antechamber provided low footbaths and various utensils - fashioned from local materials - for the purpose of preventing mud getting any further inside his residence. With meticulous care, Scar cleaned his clawed feet, then waited until Mika, Thorn and Gant had removed their footwear before he opened the inner door.
Light permeated the structure from outside, complemented by bioluminescent strips inlaid in a grid across the ceiling and down the curving walls. Glass panels inset in the level floor gave glimpses of sealed terrariums and aquariums in which all sorts of curious creatures swam, hopped, slithered or just sat motionless. Mika knew about the creatures - some wild and some manufactured - but had yet to fathom how the dracomen made the flat sheets of chainglass.
Scar dropped himself onto one of the woven saddle-like arrangementsthat served dracomen as chairs. Mika and Gant sat on an oval couch that Mika thought might be used for sleeping on, though she had never seen a dracoman sleep. Thorn, meanwhile, paced the transparent floor.
'What is it?' Mika finally managed to force a question.
After detaching the compressed-paper mask covering his mouth and nose, Thorn gave her a penetrating look. 'Apis - his mycelium isn't working properly any more. You need to come.'
Mika chewed that one over, then groped to phrase another question. 'How ... what is the evidence?'
'Eldene found him collapsed out by the spaceport. He'd fainted, and the doctor who tended him diagnosed oxygen starvation. He now has to use breather gear.' He gestured to the pack on his own back. 'It hasn't happened to me, but I'm taking no chances.' He glanced at Gant. 'I don't yet have any memplant to save me.'
Mika nodded. Gant had died on Samarkand. What stood before them now was a memcording of the soldier, running in a Golem chassis. A debate was still running about whether such were genuinely alive.
'Will you come?' Thorn asked.
'Yes,' she said, looking pointedly at Scar. She then winced and ventured a further question: 'Is there something else?'
'Oh yeah,' Gant said, rounding on the dracoman. 'EC's decision on Scar and his kind. It seems that no blame for Dragon's actions will be attached to you and your people. You are free to do what you want, though I suspect that there will be pressure on you to join the Polity.'
Mika felt a brief surge of joy at that - the EC decision had been hanging over them like a guillotine ever since the ships had arrived - but Thorn's news tempered her happiness. What was happening with the mycelia? She had no idea how she might go aboutremoving the alien technology, and acutely aware that it might change sufficiently to kill them or, perhaps worse, change them.
From where he lay, underneath the wasp-eyed scanning head of the diagnosticer he had cobbled together to try to find out why his gridlink had spontaneously operated, Cormac gazed across the room. Above the counter cluttered with the pieces of dismembered autodoc, a screen flickered on, showing the belt of asteroids lit from one side by the glare of the sun. A small trisection transport appeared in one corner of the screen and, turning slowly, screwed its way across the view on three fusion flames. It was halfway to the belt itself when a black hawkish ship hurtled in behind it. The screen polarized over the glare that followed and, when it returned to full clarity, an asteroid in the belt ahead of the fleeing ship had disappeared.
'A shot across the bows,' Cormac guessed, as he watched the ship turn and head rapidly back towards Elysium. 'Why are you showing me this, Jack?'
'That was a real-time image,' the AI replied.
Cormac frowned, not liking what this implied. 'Why not just grab him?'
'No contact allowed with the barrier ships.'
Cormac sighed and laid his head back. 'And the weapon used? I don't think I saw anything like that before.'
'Combined CTD and gravity-imploder missile,' the AI replied.
'I see - the imploder to prevent the smallest fragment of debris being blasted away, so that the CTD burns everything down to an atomic level, if not below that.'
'Right, so now you'll tell me why ECS is chasing ships back to Elysium.'
'Total quarantine of the Elysium system has just been reinstated. The Elysium AI has shut down the runcible. Debris has beendetected on an asteroid, previously discounted because out of the range of blast scatter from the Occam Razor, and moving in an elliptical orbit that took it outside of the search area. Polity capital ships are returning to surround the system.'
'You'll be rejoining them?' Cormac asked, sitting up and pushing away the scanning head.
'EC has reapplied previous restrictions: No one who had any physical contact with Jain technology or any of its products is going anywhere. Because I have you aboard, I myself am now not one of the guards but the guarded.'
'And this comes direct from Earth Central itself?'
'Tell me, has senility long been an AI problem?'
'Amusing, but missing the point,' said Jack. 'EC knows it is impossible to suppress such a technological juggernaut, but this is a case of attempting to slow it down a little so we can move some people out of the way. Your associate Mika is, as you have told us, already obtaining substantial benefits from Jain tech, and no doubt scraps of it will be picked up all around this area. But consider what would happen if someone were to find, for example, one of those creatures Skellor used to attack you on Masada, and handed it over to some well-organized Separatist enclave.'
'Yeah, okay, I've heard this spiel before. But we're talking about one stray asteroid that we missed. I've been okayed as clean, as has most of Elysium.'
'The order is not open to question - total interdiction.'
Cormac remembered what that meant.
He nodded and swung his legs from the surgical bench, noting as he did so the readout on the diagnosticer's screen, informing him that his gridlink was still offline and impossible to use unless reinstated by a high-level AI. But speculation about that he put to the back of his mind - something was happening at last, and he hadbeen bored out of his skull during that latter half of the quarantine period.
'This asteroid, is it going to be obliterated like that one you just showed me, or do we take a look?'
'We take a look.'
'We ... as in you and me?'
Cormac couldn't help grinning as he felt the vibration of the Jack Ketch's fusion drives igniting. Heading for the door to this long-unused surgical facility, he lost his footing outside as he stepped into a corridor in which the gravplates were not operating.
'Sorry about that,' said Jack, slowly powering the plates back up so that Cormac settled back down to the floor.
'See, you're as excited about this as me.'
Now, with the gravity stabilized, Cormac noticed how the corridor had changed. When he had come aboard this ship, the cabins and corridors were new and skeletal, the Jack Ketch not often having had to provide for human passengers. Now his boots came down on pale blue carpet decorated with a nicely repeating pattern of nooses. The spill from spotlights, mounted in ornate brackets, lit the corridor, though their main targets were portraits spaced along walls bearing the uneven look of old plaster.
'Very nice,' said Cormac.
'Glad you like it,' replied the AI.
'To make us poor humans feel more comfortable?'
Cormac studied one of the portraits, vaguely identifying it as of some very early premillennial cosmonaut, then he broke into a trot towards his destination. The corridor terminated against a drop-shaft slanting up at forty-five degrees, and glaringly of the present time. Locating the touch-plate set in an ormolu moulding beside the slanting entrance, Cormac input coordinates, then reached out a hand to check that the gravity field was operating beforehe stepped inside the shaft. The irised field wafted him in a direction that was now up, and he soon stepped out into what was called the bridge of the ship, though the vessel was not controlled from there. Jack was pilot, navigator and captain, and controlled the ship from wherever his AI mind was located deep inside it.
This chamber occupied the upper level of the ship's nose. The ceiling, curving down to meet the floor ahead of Cormac, was not visible, for a VR projector created the illusion that there was no ceiling at all and that he was walking out onto a platform open to vacuum. This platform, it seemed, possessed a low stone wall to prevent the unwary from stepping off the edge into the abyss. There were no instruments for humans to use, nor any need for them, though Jack could easily project a virtual console here. In the centre of this was what Cormac now mentally referred to as the drawing room.
Below a free-floating crystal chandelier, which might have been merely a projection or the real thing, club chairs, a drinks cabinet, coffee table and other items of premillennial comfort were arranged on a large rug, at the corners of which incongruously stood Victorian cast-iron street lamps giving off a soft gaslight. These were all items from Jack's collection, replicas all, but almost to the molecular level. Now, Cormac saw that off to one side the AI had added something else.
'Is that for my comfort as well?' asked Cormac.
The wooden framework towered against the stars, no doubt perfect in every detail, mechanically sound, its trapdoor oiled.
'It is here because I find it aesthetically pleasing,' Jack told him.
Cormac turned to the localized sound of the AI's voice.
Seated in one of the club chairs, the hangman looked like a bank manager or a stockbroker from sometime before the twenty-first century. His antique suit was pinstriped and tight on his thin body, his face white and skull-like. The brim of the bowler hat he never removed was pulled low on his forehead, shading his eyes, so thatwhen the light caught the lenses of his spectacles, they glittered in shadow like something insectile. His overfull briefcase, no doubt containing execution orders and probably a coiled rope, stood beside his chair. Cormac suspected he wore sock suspenders and Y-fronts - for every detail of the hangman was meticulous - just like the mind this ancient automaton represented.
'Your idea of aesthetics is a little worrying,' Cormac observed. 'I take it that this is not just any old gallows.'
'No,' said Jack, 'it's the Nuremberg one.'
Cormac fell silent as he allowed himself to absorb that. Using as an avatar an automaton from an age two centuries ago, rather than a holographic projection, was another strange facet of this AI. But he preferred that to Jack's attraction to devices of execution. Stepping onto the drawing room rug Cormac decided this was a subject best dropped, and instead asked, 'How long will it take us to get to this asteroid?'
'It will be ten minutes.' With a clinking ticking of gears and levers, Jack stood, turning to face Cormac. 'This is a matter of some urgency, so I'm going to drop into U-space.'
Cormac strolled across the rug, then out across the black glass floor leading towards the nose of the Jack Ketch. Here he gazed over the ersatz stone wall into vacuum. From below and to his right, the sun heated his face as if he had just peeked over a wall beyond which a bonfire burned. Its glare filtered, he was able to look directly at it, and there observed, flung up from its vast infernal plains, an arching lariat of fire that could have swallowed worlds. Curving up from his left, then ahead and up high, before being attenuated to nothing by distance, the asteroid belt seemed an artefact, having been shepherded into neat rings by the larger chunks remaining from whatever cataclysm had shattered the planets of this system. Then the VR feed blanked to infinite grey depth, and Cormac felt that shift into the ineffable as the ship dropped into underspace. He realized he was seeing a representationless real than the one before. No human could experience underspace unshielded.
'Do you look directly into U-space?' he asked Jack.
'Yes, I do.' The reply was close at his shoulder, though the hangman automaton still occupied the drawing room behind.
'And you retain your sanity?' Cormac shot a glance at the gallows.
'Yes. AI has never been limited by the four-dimensional view of the universe. It is only by being able to see and comprehend more that we can operate runcibles and ships like this.'
'But you are physically confined to that universe and subject to its constraints?'
'For the present.'
Cormac let that one go. No way was he going to get into a metaphysical discussion with an AI - he'd done that before and, rather than gaining enlightenment, ended up with a headache.
After a few minutes, the grey flickered away as the ship surfaced in realspace. The sun was not noticeably smaller, but the asteroid belt was now a wall of rocks beside them. The Jack Ketch eased itself into this wall, tilting and dipping, the drone of its fusion motors changing constantly as it negotiated its way through. Above, below and to the sides, Cormac observed mountain ranges swinging past as fast as fan blades, and saw flares of incandescent gas where proximity lasers hit smaller rocks.
'This asteroid is actually within the belt then?' he asked.
'Its erratic orbit will take it out in fifteen hours, if it is not obliterated meantime. I have it on visual now.'
A square red frame seemingly flickered into existence far ahead of the ship, singling out just one more undistinguished lump of rock.
'You have to wonder if it is a coincidentally erratic orbit,' suggested Cormac.
'Almost certainly not.'
'Will you be able to moor?'
'No, the longest mooring time in any location on the surface here is eight minutes before some passing object would hit me. I am now taking out of storage a telefactor unit to send down to investigate.'
'I want to go with it,' Cormac said.
'That is inadvisable. If there is active Jain technology down there, it might kill or sequester you. The telefactor can find out all we need to know, and it's dispensable.'
'Everything's dispensable, and I'm tired of sitting on my hands. Presumably I've retained my authority as an ECS agent?'
'You have, Ian Cormac - I merely advise against you placing yourself in unnecessary danger.'
'Noted, but I'm still going down.'
'Very well. You can ride down to the surface with the telefactor. I suggest you go and suit up now.'
The drop-shaft shifted while he was in transit, and took Cormac directly to the telefactor launch area. There was no gravity in the wedge-shaped bay and, while he was pulling himself towards the storage area by an airlock designed for humans, he observed the further wall of the bay revolve aside to reveal the unit itself.
Golem androids were often employed by ECS simply because they were more able to utilize equipment originally designed for humans. But even they were now being replaced in some arenas. Cormac had already seen specialized drones, first in Elysium then on Masada. This unit was similar in appearance: a squat cylinder floating vertical to the floor. However, unlike those war drones, this object possessed various arms and probes folded close to its body and a complex array of scanning equipment on its underside. It also possessed no mind of its own, being a telefactor of the Jack Ketch AI.
In storage, Cormac found a standard combat spacesuit. It was armoured, possessed greater facility for sealing breaches, and hadclinging to its belt an autodoc capable of scuttling to any point on the suit's exterior, sealing itself to that point, and cutting its way inside to repair the contained body - if it could. Cormac removed that item and left it in the store - the idea of Jain tech subverting such a doc not holding much appeal for him. In the gloves, belt and flat-visor helmet were interfaces for various weapons. Cormac merely attached his thin-gun to the belt, then commenced the always frustrating task of donning a suit in zero gravity.
By the time he was ready, the unit had drifted over by him, bobbing up and down as if impatient to be on its way. A readout in his suit's visor told him the air was being drained from the bay, then doors, shaped to conform to the edge of the ship, drew back - above and below - onto vacuum.
'Ready,' said Cormac.
A ceramal claw snapped out and closed on his belt, and the telefactor unceremoniously dragged him out. Jetting two scalpels of flame, it flung them both towards the revolving stone behemoth. Finally landing, and walking on stick-boots behind the drifting unit, Cormac swore upon coming in sight of the bridge pod of the Occam Razor. His subsequent language when he spotted the explosive bolts embedded in stone - sure sign that a ship had recently landed - even evinced some surprise from Jack.
A gust of wind rattled the skeletal branches of the chequer trees and shook free some of their few remaining square leaves, which drifted down like stripped-off skin in the bloody moonlight. The not-rabbits fled into the undergrowth as a still and oppressive heaviness weighed the air. Seemingly from nowhere, the revenant stepped into view: the walking desiccated corpse of a man who had been burnt to death. Walking woodenly out from between the chequered trunks and down the rock-scattered slope to the red mirror of the lake, this zombie creaked and crunched with each step, dry or charred skin and the remains of clothing flaking awayfrom him. In his legs, dry fibrous muscle was visible, fraying and splintering as it was worked by other fibrous tendrils wound through it. Reaching the gritty shore, this creature knelt and dipped its hands into the peaty water, and from those hands fibrous tendrils sprouted and grew, expanding as they absorbed water, diving finally into the fertile mud of the lake bottom. Then the revenant began to change.
In gradual stages, he transformed from a desiccated corpse into something newer, fresher. Skin, burnt black, became grey and slimy, and slewed away from red surfaces glistening with plasma and dotted with blood. Around deeper burns, lumps of seared fat and muscle dropped away to expose similar surfaces. Exposed bone stretched and writhed, flaking away ash to expose gleaming white, which was then marred - and given a metallic hue - by a creeping grid, before being covered by a writhe of veins across its surface.
The revenant tilted his head one way, and the woody structure supporting one side of it turned soft and wet, and began to sink into exposed raw flesh. He then tilted his head the other way, and the crystal of his AI aug, still glittering with green light, was flooded with hair-like tendrils, and deformed itself against his head. Sucking back into itself the rods that connected down into his chest, the aug sank away into his skull, to become skinned over with bone and a sudden growth of veins, then muscles opening like summer flowers. The only sign that remained of it was a glint of green deep in the empty eye socket, but even this blinked out as, starting as a shiny black bead extruded into position, an eyeball expanded to fill the cavity.
Skin formed first as a layer of clear slime, which grew opaque, began to knit, thickened and toughened, and conformed itself to the growing structures underneath. Briefly, it covered completely the new-grown eyeball, then split into lids that sprouted lashes. Brown hair then issued from the bare scalp, while the skull underneathstill shifted and deformed, as if the head itself were having difficulties returning to its customary shape with all the extras it now contained. But eventually this settled down too. Now the man removed his hands from the water - no sign of those tendrils he had earlier extruded - and watched his fingernails grow. Eventually he stood, naked in the red moonlight, and looked around. On the horizon, he located the yellow-orange glow of city light - and began to walk towards it.