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There is just us, and the way we do things.
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IT’S NOT WORKING. I don’t understand.

I’ve tried so many things on these creatures. For so long, I’ve tried so many techniques and ideas (admittedly with present limitations), but none of them make sense. I have been brought to tears some times. The others pressure me, insisting I provide some understanding of these things. I have looked at the material Kibo brought me, hoping to find some link. But I’ve found none.

For instance, I thought maybe, because they were soft instead of hard, these were a new variety of something I’ve studied before — so maybe their living material was amorphous, like other smaller things I have known. But no, the appendages do not reform or change shape; they are just malleable without fluidity. The central hard cell resists incoming communication, something I cannot understand... there are tubes and pipes and such but they seem to do nothing, or have some peripheral purpose. I sincerely wish to keep them all alive. Apart from being a simple responsibility of mine, it is such an opportunity, such a possibility — if we get to understand these creatures, we can appreciate ourselves, and life in general, better. Maybe we can be less arrogant and superficial as a result. I hope.

* * *

Garner was quite astonished. He lay back against the smooth rock, and enlarged the weightless screen to fill up his vision in front of the night sky. The stars lessened and dimmed, including the four moons. (Had he asked for four?)

Obviously it wasn’t astonishing he was here, on some imaginary planet with imaginary surfaces and views (not texture though, not texture; a lazy hand reached back, and tried to feel the rock without success). The fact they were letting him watch this, here on the screen — that was astonishing. Clearly the program must have survived countless software transformations and passed a great many System checks to reach him. How old was it? Who could tell. He studied the clothes on the figures that spoke to him. Clothing varied in style but certainly not in function, and the people still had (mostly) human features; the human body had largely remained the same in the face of scientific development. How old was it? Nothing much had changed.

Well, as far as he knew. He’d heard of research being pursued to increase the nerve-ending complexity in the skin, eyes, ears, genitals. But it hadn’t got far before he’d come here; trials were unsuccessful. Oh sure, bionics were one thing, and neurones were second-rate to the processors of proto-scientists — but nerve endings? It’d require rooting up the entire nervous system. And then where would it go? Setting your own sensitivity levels for the day, different levels for business, for laughing, for fucking? Pointless, for the next few centuries at least.

His body was lying in an immersion capsule beneath the colony’s library, the physical heart of records, data and information about absolutely anything. The Democracy was specific about it, with clauses in the Constitution in regard to providing every citizen, from vast continent-stations to tiny colonies like Fortium Rhegardé, with a library. Really it was only symbolic. The actual information network could be reached from people’s homes in their blocks, with the central Computer monitoring every transaction. But the library held a hologram display unit (used for designs and illustrations), and it was widely accepted that some study required immersion pods for an appropriate experience. Apparently the colony was even lucky enough to have two or three old “books”, made of printed paper. Primitive? The mind boggled.

Study — ha! He couldn’t even remember what code he’d given, what legitimate reason he’d passed off for being here. But here, on a mountainside, overlooking a glowing forest river basin, yes. This was something else. Immersion technology had developed inconsistently, sadly, and the limited sounds were frustrating — tapping the rock with a knuckle, for instance, returned the same sound as a footstep. The headphones meant he couldn’t quite tell when noises came from in front or behind him. But the graphics, just incredible! The detail, being fired into his retina, amazing, absolutely amazing. And here was the problem — computer visuals had long, long ago developed complexity beyond that of a human eye seeing the real world. Which made further detail pointless, and explained why synthetic eyes had been so popular (before their use had been limited). Garner thought about it with a god-like magnitude; never more than here, right here, was the limitations of the human animal more evident, nor the omnipotence of science so unblemished. With manipulation of nanoscopic detail, humans could be gods... He looked up to the sky’s stars in awe, and slightly hungrily.

How does it go?

Garner pretended not to be startled.

I wish you would create a visual when you do that. It’s unsettling.

Apologies I’m sure. You are seeing? And understanding the detail?

Of course. As you say, it’s certainly eye-opening.

This is just initial. You’ve only been looking for a mere number of weeks. Further points are enlightening.

How goes the plan?

Well, definitely. The program contains all the instructions, both for the changeover and for the new way.

And how soon will I know?

Not now of course. You’re still very impatient.

Maybe. But I am starting to understand.

The transmissions said nothing, and he closed the hovering screen that showed him different people and different worlds. He was left with the night-time landscape; he knew it was artificial, but he didn’t care. The stars shone gladly; the moons were pleasing.



Djalo smeared the grime from the plaque. It read “battery Ø1”.

Something in the back of his mind croaked about moisture, down here, in the highly-conditioned battery cavern. Normally conditioned anyway, since the climate systems were down, so now the air was still and heavy. It was hard to concentrate though with the hunger, this degenerate fire in his stomach. A flash of the torch into the depths above revealed gantries and beams, and huge twisted fibres of metal which he couldn’t recognise. But it was very very high up; the batteries were monstrous. There was something egg-like about them.

Djalo couldn’t fathom how far below the surface they were. He felt lost. He recalled a video from many years ago, when he was a child, about the pagans of centuries ago and their cults. Their religious homes had been nasty places, and he’d seen the hologram pictures: huge, imposing, everything designed to make you feel small and worthless.

The atmosphere here, Djalo thought, was very religious.

The Electric was here. But it wasn’t here. It was hard to grasp. Sleeping juggernauts, lining the darkness; there would be churning, monumental chemicals bringing Electric to life inside these steel wombs — but it was trapped, held hostage. He was tensing up, here in the cold darkness, feeling a great urge to let it out somehow...

The other man was crouching down, holding himself.

‘What’s wrong with you?’ The close echo of the corridors had gone; now the words came out static, and he heard them silently escaping down the avenue into blackness. Garner turned and looked up at him, touching his swollen face where the bolt-pistol had caught him.

‘I don’t like it here. This is wrong. It feels wrong.’

‘You’ve still got questions to answer.’

He saw Garner nearly spit in reaction. ‘You don’t know anything. You haven’t seen anything.’ He laughed. ‘All this information and you don’t know anything.’

‘And what do you know?’ snarled Djalo. He started walking. ‘No-one’s got the money or the technology for your precious program except the Democracy. How do you know it wasn’t an experiment?’

‘But it’s so real—’

‘Where did it come from?’

A pause. He stopped and turned, torch aimed squarely at Garner who blinked and squirmed in the light. ‘Where did it come from? It must have had a contact register.’

‘I wasn’t authorised to see it—’

‘Faeces! Where was the origin? The hub?’

The squatting man pulled his face back defiantly into the light. ‘The hub.’

Djalo let out a small laugh, and tried not to cough on his dry throat. He turned back and began striding off again, the beam crashing across the endless path between the batteries. ‘The hub, hundreds of years ago.’

Garner got to his feet painfully, limbs and muscles aching, and hobbled along in the darkness. ‘It doesn’t matter! It came from on high! Democracy seal and everything!’

‘So it was an experiment?’

‘No! I mean, I don’t know, I didn’t see—’

Djalo stopped listening to the whining, marching on in defiance of his tiring body. Different people? Idiot! They were the same people, thankfully, and equal. How could anyone know what was true with different groups trying to promote their own interests? You needed some independent source, a source of authority, to keep food free of addictives, to make drugs safe, to tell you what was true.

He was flying, heart-rent and sore. The batteries! This was home, this was the beating heart, the source of life. But the life was gone. Whatever accounted for his soul was lying crushed, achingly humble here in such presence, and dying for the sound (for any sound) to return, the fizz in the wires, the hum of the machine. Behind his determined eyes he wanted to scream. The warmth of the machine had gone! He felt like a child. His mother had died.

‘—saw, someone saw the chance for progress, no-one knows what progress is any more—’

Djalo thought he’d known what progress was. Now... well. The cold rock floor spoke by saying absolutely nothing.

He had to unblock it. The problem was here, not up there, not there in the Computer’s detail but here — here in the real programming, the slow belly of the colony. He just needed to look at it. Just needed to be able to see it. The case in his tightly clenched hand was the means. But even an interface here would be industrial, there was no guarantee of the format...

‘...need to think outside what the Democracy’s taught you! It’s not a door to calamity, it’s a new era, a vision, it was a vision! It was a plan!

Something in Garner’s words triggered the back of his mind.

‘Could someone,’ he began, stopping suddenly, ‘have modified it?’

Garner halted equally suddenly, certainty draining from his eyes. ‘It was maintained in its original form—’

Djalo was running out of things to trust, to understand. He hung on the edge of a huge chasm; he just had to hold on, as some monstrous concept reared itself in his mind. ‘It could have been modified. Evolutionary software... You don’t know who made it, who handled it...’

It was a renegade.

He started saying the words slowly to himself, ignoring Garner’s wild protests, slowly to himself in case they escaped through his haste. He only had a rough idea of software development in the Democracy but it was better than most. Maybe, maybe if you could write a program that could rewrite itself, or one person started something somewhere... and someone else continued it, before passing it to someone else. Who knew what it could have been? A military concept, an educational facility, a computing logarithm; it could have begun as any of these things, it didn’t matter. At the hub, or even between continent-stations, in the chaos of the System maintenance and the politics and the communications — could everything be tracked? Could everything be checked? On a long enough time line, perhaps, there would be one rogue program—

‘No! No! No!’

—that retained the authorisation codes, and went from node to node, unit to unit, being modified here and adjusted there, with no-one really sure what it actually was...

Scharla Kim.

Maybe, on a long enough time line, something could go on and on, unnoticed by the system, and turn into something else, something capable of moving continents or destroying solar systems. And all because—

‘The left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing.’ He looked at his own hands, one holding the torch, one clutching the case.

No! No!’ Garned raged. ‘It was no accident, it was designed, it was pure!’

Djalo frowned, and brought his head up. ‘It’s a renegade program. It’s an accident. It’s some demon, some jester, in the wiring — your “program”, the Crash, it’s just something that’s evolved. It’s all an accident.’

‘For fuck’s sake, we didn’t succeed the first time, this isn’t us—’

Garner froze and shut his mouth. Djalo’s eyes widened, then quickly narrowed. He dropped the case with a clatter, and his hand wavered near the pistol.

‘Tell me. Tell me everything.’

Garner told him something.

* * *

The children splashed softly in the stream, not caring about the jagged stones under their bare feet. The sun was high in the sky, very high, yet also hazy and merely warm.

It’s a very distant place.

‘Where does this go?’ asked the brown girl.

‘You don’t know?’ The boy turned his blonde head while walking. ‘I thought you lived here?’

‘I don’t live here. I just... stay here. Anyway you shouldn’t even be here.’

‘I’m allowed! I’m here, right? Couldn’t be here if I wasn’t allowed,’ he said with pride. He puffed his chest out, turned round, paused — and simply stuck his tongue out at her. This prompted her to run after him, and for the next few minutes they scattered flying insects as the chase splashed down the winding stream. They came to a gasping rest on the banks some way along, her trying to shove him over sideways.

‘It goes somewhere,’ said the boy, as if that were enough, eyeing the mountains in the distance.

‘Somewhere, oh really. Well I’m getting out, my feet are freezing.’ She dug her fingers and toes into the earth and, without much finesse, crawled up the bank.

‘Do you realise where we are?’ He looked up to see her standing on tiptoe, staring into the distance, shading her eyes from the sun. ‘You know how far away we are? Everything else is ages away.’

He shrugged; his feet weren’t cold at all. ‘That’s probably a very good reason we’re here.’

‘It’s probably a good reason you’re here,’ she smiled mischievously, lowering herself to the ground, resting her head in the long grass. ‘When are you going back?’

He shrugged again. ‘Quite soon.’

‘Huh, “soon”. You come and go as you please. Sometimes I wonder if you really care about me.’

‘Hey, why else would I be here?’ She threw her head back and gave off a loud ‘Hah!’ The veins of blue in her brown lips almost glowed as she smiled. ‘We both know there’s more to it than that.’

He feigned indifference, badly. ‘Think what you like. It’s quite close now, you realise? Not close close, I mean,’ he said, gesturing at the rolling green hills. It was surreally empty, green under the blue sky. ‘There’s not long. You might not see me for a while.’

‘Oh.’ Her playful mood flattened out. ‘You’ll say goodbye when you do?’

He looked up at her, the clear water washing over his ankles. He nodded.





Can you see that?

Of course I can see that.

You surprised?

Not entirely.

No Marcus wasn’t surprised. But seeing the crumpled remains of the pod with the Democracy seal — charred, twisted, but unmistakable — his mind was racing. At first, it laughed in the face of Argent’s “hostile target”. But it certainly made sense if this really was an experiment. He tried to examine the details of the wreckage through the dirty storm, lying there, still hot, at the end of the oval crater.

And then there were the words on the buggy’s monitor.

Crowded round the far side, the machine’s headlights illuminated the huddled maintenance bots looking down. Some were trying to climb down (unsuccessfully, most falling undignified into the mess), while others... others seemed to be just watching from the top. Marcus wondered at them, frowning. Obviously they were creatures, but even so, they had a job to do. They looked as though they’d just been passing and stopped to watch.

The buggy’s panel had lit up with communication from the pod’s onboard computer. The startling thing was the buggy didn’t recognise the characters, and neither did Steill or Marcus. There were shapes, options on the touchscreen — calling them words though might have been going too far. As for the pod’s contents... it was hard to know what would be more worrying, finding human remains inside or finding nothing at all. If there was someone in it, who were they? A messenger bringing warning, or the first official of the Crimson Republic? If there was nothing, who had sent it, and for what reason?

Do you think Argent knows it’s ours?

Maybe. Maybe not. What ranks above a governor?

Um... I don’t know. She frowned at herself inside her helmet. The thing is though... it’s not... it’s not entirely ours anyway.

He paused, considering the sentence. What do you mean?

Well, before bringing it down... the gun has shape scanners, right? To identify if a vehicle is part of the Empire or not. It didn’t recognise it.

Weird. But surely, who else could it be? There’s no-one outside the Democracy to make craft. Unless it really is your terrorists.

Steill ignored the remark as they walked back to the buggy. Pressing a pad on its front, a clip emerged from a small panel, and she pulled it out on a lead to attach to her belt. Clearly the crater was shallow and hardly dangerous, but the flight’s core would be far too heavy to simply carry out. Stepping gingerly down over the first bent fragments of silver panelling, he watched her carefully make her way into the hole.

He really was hungry now. Small pains were starting to scratch around the inside of his stomach. He’d have some more proto-fluid in a minute. But this was perhaps the most worrying aspect of the Crash: with no Electric, there was no food. The stores couldn’t be opened, the cookers wouldn’t work, the cans couldn’t be opened. They’d need to hook up the internal system to the supply ship that was coming soon; hell, they might even have to house the population in it. Or evacuate. There was an outside chance, as the results from the pod would soon show, that the Crimson Republic had commandeered the supply ship, and that there really was no hope for them. It was definitely coming though; they’d read the transmissions in the Watchtower, the signals coming closer and closer. He knew the exact time it was due to dock — even if he had nothing to tell the time with. What was Steill saying about wanting to leave the planet?

I’m nearly there. It’s hot down here.

The background fuzz of the maintenance bots came through on the radio, primitive and curious. She had to be down at the centre, with the scrunched up pod remains that were miraculously in one piece. Quite probably any body inside (if there had been one) wouldn’t be. But the recorder, that was the key. There was an additional hum, perfect, regular, mechanical — probably the cutter Steill had taken.

He thought about his boiling stomach. He thought about Steill’s metal skeleton.

This a nightmare. It’s... it’s horrible.

He felt her inadequacy. It was almost an autopsy what they were doing, or perhaps grave-robbing. Can you see anything?

What do you mean?

Can you — can you make anything out?

A pause. It’s definitely Democracy. But there’s something wrong. More mechanical noise, and a mental shudder. The wiring’s all, all different. There’s nothing like this here. This is different technology. There shouldn’t be anything like this in the Democracy.

Can you see any... any human?

A mental noise, like a shrug. Hard to tell. There’s some burnt material, but it’s, it’s too far gone.

Look harder.


I said look harder.

I’m trying! This is awful. And it’s really hot. I’m, I’m going to find the recorder and get out. I can’t do this. Frantic background noise of cutting, panicking meeping of bots. I think I’ve got it. I just need to, just need to find the clip, and you can pull it out...

Marcus was on edge. Perhaps it was his stomach affecting him. He flashed his torch into the swampy dark around. He couldn’t see anything. Only the front corner of the buggy anchored him here.

It’s done. I hope the buggy’s motor is up to this.

Nearly as a reaction, Marcus threw his hand down to the switch. The buggy began to shake, as the line pulled, pulled hard on some seemingly monstrous object in the dirty fog. There were moments when the rear wheels raised off the ground, and the whole thing jerked and shook as whatever was coming bounced and scraped its path out of the crater. And then—

There it was. The huge black lump, lurching like some crippled slug, drew itself into Marcus’ anxious torch beam and the buggy’s headlights. He stopped the line, leant down, and breathing fast examined the scratched but undamaged block, wires trailing sadly from where it had been ripped from the craft’s skull. He had to get it inside. His arms gripped tightly, and somehow he hefted it up to his chest, staggering dangerously in the wind as he stood up, and tottered over to the door, banging the pad with his elbow and throwing it down onto the opposite seat. He clambered inside, didn’t stop to repressurise, and began to fumble around for some wires to connect it to the buggy’s CPU. But the display’s shapes warped and ran through some new sequence; for so long abandoned by the colony computer, it lovingly glowed as it conversed with this new unit, this new item of authority.

Marcus held his breath, wide-eyed.

There was — there were more characters. Language. He randomly pressed icons on the display, and new reams of strange words and hieroglyphs appeared, without explanation, without sense. Maybe it was code? Maybe security? Maybe anything. But suddenly, his thick and clumsy glove touched a new icon, and the screen dissolved into a visual.

He watched. And even given current circumstances, he could barely believe it.

Steill. Steill this is it. Oh my...

Quite clearly this was the key to everything.


There was no reply.

Chapter 12 ->