The flowers, the sun, the wrecked ship and the sea, none of them respond to my cry. A pit has opened up beneath me and I am plunging into a void at the centre of the world. There is nothing left, only an emptiness consuming me.
A gnawing ache that has nothing to do with the poor state my body is in eat away at me.
Everything has ended.
“Bill!” I open my eyes, Jimmy is crouched before me peering into my face. “I know it hurts. I know you've fallen into a black hole and can't get out. We've done this before.” I blink at him. “It was a long time ago, let it go. We have more important things at the moment.”
“I...” I trail off, not knowing whether to be angry or apologetic with Jimmy.
“Relax a bit, you're beat up, tired, stressed to hell, have no idea what is going on and have just found out that the love of your life disappeared because it was too dangerous for her to be around you. You have the right to have a freak-out, but it really doesn't help anything.” This is the voice that talked me down from numerous fights.
“Now, listen. You have a safe back-up memory and after severe brain trauma it downloads back into your rebuilt grey matter, which is why you feel like you're constantly reading from the wrong page of the book of your life. We set it up so that certain information come out in a certain order, Laura's name is the last thing you relearn, it lets me know that its now all back in that noggin of yours. You're going to have some very weird dreams for the next couple of weeks. As for all the emotions that dumps on you, well you're just going to have to bottle it up for now. Later we can regrow your legs and then find something and give it a bloody good kicking.” Jimmy parks himself cross-legged next to me on the grass.
“How many time have I done this before?”
“Half a dozen. Once when the New Humanists put a bullet through your head in Jakarta. Once when you were buried in a collapsed building in Mexico City, that was mostly your own fault. A shuttle crash in the asteroid belt, you weren't even piloting...”
“Okay, I get the idea, I die a lot and you rebuild me, repopulate my memory and off I go again.”
“Something like that. But the back-up isn't complete, there a lot of the later stuff that unless you retained it after the crash will be lost forever.”
“So, I'll likely never find out what I am doing here?”
“Well, answering that phone call might help.” I stare at the watch terminal, still blinking with an incoming message, the watch helpfully identifies the caller as 'The Boss'.
Jason Vicker's name is yet to be changed on the door to the stationmaster's office, his replacement is very corporate minded and has already done his best to drive a wedge between those of us who willingly submit to the company's tests and those of us who are not mindless drones. I thank my security escort, it is important to maintain friends where I can. The door opens smoothly and I enter without pause.
The room has lost its aura of military efficiency and now smells of decisions made for the benefit of the shareholders. I ignore the offered hand from a man with a pasty face and a weak chin and the introduction to the woman beside him with a face straight from the company brochures and head straight to the window. I thumb the opacity control and stare out at the rotating view of the Earth, such beauty out of my reach.
There is an embarrassed and stilted silence, I see them look to one another in the reflection off the window, then I catch my own strange visage. In many ways it is the same face that forms my mind's self-image, but it is not the face that used to look out at me from the mirror. The lines, earned and not given, are gone; the hair is no longer thin and grey; the scar in my eyebrow, evidence of childhood misadventure is missing; the scar on my chin, a missile hit that killed my co-pilot and very nearly had me plough into Tripoli is no longer there.
In my place is a young man, I could be my academy graduation picture, except photoshopped into an inhuman perfection. My hair is a shock of muddy-blond, the nose razor-sharp and never broken, the lips thin and serious. The eyes do not fit, the blue of the windswept sea, they have travelled too far, seen too much to belong to this face. Now I see the disconnect people have with me, I was full-grown before the others in the room were born, but I am young enough to be their child. I turn to face them.
“I have a wife down there.” Sitting in on years of corporate trade negotiations has honed the tactic of keeping off the script while pushing your own agenda. “She probably thinks I am dead.” My mind trips over her message and I let the emotion play across my face.
“I am sorry, but I think you know why we cannot you contact her.” Rosamund Buhari opts for a motherly tone, the slight tinge of her native Nigerian accent adding an authentic touch, but utterly wasted on a man older than her.
“So why are you here?”
“Captain Larkin, may I call you William? I have read the files, and it all seems utterly fantastic. I just wanted to hear it straight from someone who is at the centre of it all, so I can understand it from a personal point of view.” So she wants to be the human face of the company, I lose nothing allowing her to think that, but I know she has already met with Davis, Tseng and Patrick, the company minded part of our bunch of changelings.
“Where would you like me to start?”
“First off I would like to say that I do not blame you for disobeying company instructions, you did what you thought was right and maybe it turned out so, I respect that. Too many in management thought giving you the position was just pandering to the more traditional members of the board and to look good for PR, I believe you proved them wrong.” The delivery is perfect, but I doubt the sincerity.
“I watched the whole drama, your heroism, the ship breaking up and the alien craft drifting away. We thought the alien craft was dead, it didn't respond to anything, didn't communicate in any way and went into an orbit close to the sun for nearly two years, we were building a new ship capable of reaching it, but it came to us first. I tell you there were fingers on triggers when it approached Bayard Station , but mine was one of the voices saying 'Let it come'. What was happening those two years?” Her hands are as expressive as her face.
“I don't know, I guess the Angels were repairing their craft and rebuilding us. I don't have any memories until just before we entered the station, just a lot of vague impressions and things that could be conversations.”
“What are they like?”
“Different, they don't think like us and they stopped being fully biological a long time ago, now they exist in mainframes or any bodies they build for themselves. They don't really exist as individuals, they are more like a colony, each Angel is a group of specialised personalities, each with a different job that makes up a whole person. Its a bit like talking to a committee.” She smiles at this, thinking that I am warming to her.
“I read that when they rebuilt you they made you effectively two people in one body.” Jimmy leans against the desk, I send a mental message to him telling him to behave.
“They didn't really understand us, and couldn't make us work properly the way we were, so they added a second personality to control the nanotech.” Jimmy gives a little wave to my audience, as though he were not just an image added to my vision.
“I am told everyone has a version of themselves except you, you have Group Co-ordinator Mahdi as your, you term them a controller?”
“Yeah, he died before the rest of us and they weren't able to capture all of him, not enough to make him a complete person.” I let genuine guilt and sorrow play on my face, I would swap any of those resurrected just to get Jimmy back whole, to be able to touch him. “Somewhere a decision was made that he should become part of me, I may have made it myself, we share many memories.”
“Why did the aliens, Angels you call them, why did they just leave without saying anything? They came all this way and then just dropped you and accelerated off.” Everyone has asked this question.
“They don't think like us. They are trying to find others of their kind. Something went wrong, or they became sick or something, they are looking for a cure. They homed in on our signals, checked to see if any of their kind had ever been here and then left. They assumed we were message enough.”
“They came, they saw, they shrugged, they fucked off.” Jimmy interjects for my ears only.
“I suppose we can't complain if the first aliens we ever meet turn out to be so alien.” A warm grin that must have won over many in the past. “I hear all kind of wild tales about the little machines they put inside of you, can you tell me more about that?”
“As far as I can tell they will repair any damage short of complete destruction, but without the controller to instruct them they do not do they much quicker than the usual human repair systems. Some of the other talk about the system being hackable allowing severe bodily alterations, but that is something I really don't want to mess with, there's no telling what side-effects could arise.” There have been some ridiculous suggestions banded about, but no-one has risked anything yet.
“And outside your body, what would these machines do?” Now on to the big questions, how can we monetise this.
“Nothing good. Without the controller the best you could hope for is that they start rebuilding what they come across according to my own genetic structure, the worst, probably try to turn everything into themselves.”
“And if we could build our own controllers?”
“Forget about it. Our most sophisticated machines still do not live up to the moniker or artificial intelligence. The controllers are a system both capable of simulating a human brain and directly controlling a million tiny helpers at the same time, small enough to fit inside me without displacing anything major and efficient enough to run off my own power.” Jimmy grins. “why don't we get down to the crux of the issue?”
“Can the company make money off us? I am sorry, but there is nothing in us that you can reverse engineer that is not going to endanger the whole human race. You can forget your dreams about providing eternal life to your paying customers and dominating the world in advanced nanotechnology We are getting fed up of being treated as lab subjects and company property, when is that going to be redressed?”
“For the very reasons you mentioned we cannot afford to let you loose amongst the general population. I do not know if you are aware of the current political situation on Earth, can you imagine the effects of a terrorist organisation getting hold of destructive alien nanotech?”
“Currently I have reasons to doubt the wisdom of letting such a thing fall into the hands of a corporation with designs on global conquest.” Jimmy covers his eyes, but I have just got started. “When I joined the war for company sovereignty, I thought I was liberating people from the yoke of ineffectual government, now I realise I just traded one set of uncaring slave masters for another. I don't belong to your company, I have fulfilled my contract, now let me go or be prepared to speak to my lawyer.”
“William Larkin is officially and legally dead. It is debatable that you are even the same person, you admit yourself that you are not really human. The contract states that anything recovered from the alien craft belongs to the company, and that, I'm afraid, includes you.” Now we have stripped off our disguises, I see the steel.
“Salvage law doesn't cover living beings.”
“But you are still stuck up here without outside knowledge of your existence.” She does not know how many holes there are in their security curtain, but I decide to keep the extent of the old boys network to myself. I half expect her to offer me a veiled threat about Laura, but she is too classy for that. Besides, she must know of Laura's disappearance, a report on it was 'accidentally' left open on a monitor when one of the security chiefs called me into his office for coffee.
“Look, call off any invasive tests on me and my crew and I'll co-operate more. That includes Peterson, no matter what he says. He hasn't taken to the transformation well, let's be honest, he's totally batshit, I don't think he'll ever be sane again, but that doesn't mean he can be a lab subject.”
“May I remind you of the massive cost of the project, if it does not bring any results the board my decide other action.” And now we have gone full corporate, I make a mental note to get the others on the escape committee to accelerate our plans.
I nearly take the watch off and throw it away. Suddenly the thought of talking with other, live people seems like a step too far, an intrusion into my little world full of little struggles. On top of that I do not feel at my best, tired with a deep down ache that I am certain Jimmy is keeping to tell me not to exert myself too much.
“Are you going to answer it or what?” Says Jimmy, I can see he is nearly vibrating with excitement, all this is a bit of a game for him, guess what mess Billy has got himself into this time.
“I'm not sure I really want to.” Some insect lands on my arm and takes a bite, I do not feel it and it flies off before I can rebalance myself to swat at it.
“C'mon, how could it make you situation any worse?”
“Just because your image is not real doesn't mean I won't find some way of strangling you when this gets me into even greater shit.” I press accept.
The image that appears is too small and too poorly lit for me to work it out. A pair of lips, but the eyes appear to be too wide apart and too large. There is something instead of a nose, but I cannot tell what. The whole background moves, but the movement seems too regular to be biological. I open my mouth to utter a greeting but the caller gets in first.
“How dare you!” It splutters in rage. The voice is as though it it not squeezed from a pair of fully human lungs, the resonance is strange, but the English is clear. “How dare you defy me so greatly and live? How can you survive when I had disabled the safety measures? How dare you destroy my property and think you can live?”
“You've got a live one there.” Jimmy deadpans.
“Alive! Take them alive, I said, not ram them out of the sky! You think that shuttle was cheap?” I cannot work it out at all, the voice ranges from a low grumble to a shriek, sometimes both at once. “And you killed Jun, do you know how much she cost me? And my babies, my poor, poor babies, you murdered them all, all my beautiful crabs, you despicable, heartless...”
The sound cuts out suddenly. The indiscernible figure remains, ranting silently, but a new voice replaces it.
“He'll be ranting for a while, so I am hijacking this transmission. Shit, Bill, what happened to the eye?” The voice is calm, level and female.
“Slight accident.” I reply, wary.
“Look, I don't know how you survived what you yourself called a suicide run, but I'm glad to see you alive.” She does not sound ecstatic, merely suffering from a mild case of non-disappointment. “I could really do with you up here, how extensive are your injuries?”
“Some locomotive problems, fairly severe head trauma. I'll be honest, I'm having some difficulties remembering some stuff.” I decide to downplay the details a little.
“Oh, I'll send something down to pick you up. You might have a wait before we can secure the medical facilities, but we might be able to patch you up a bit. Did you damage anything down there?”
“Might have squashed a few daisies, but nothing that won't grow back.”
“You must have hit your head hard if you've suddenly gained a sense of humour. We don't know how robust the planetary bio-network is, you could have ruined an essential system, or computational node.” It strikes me that it would be just like Liefman's mania to turn a screensaver into a planetwide computer system, she would probably have a good reason for it, too, not I just cannot fathom it.
“I think it is much more robust than you give it credit for.”
“Since when have you been an expert on anything but killing stuff? Did you manage to release the bees?”
“I think they are still on the shuttle.”
“Damn, we'll have to sort that after all the action. Listen, we're still moving into position to sever the dorsal root ganglion, but with virtually all the crabs gone it should be quite easy, Daddy will not know what hit him. Your plan has been invaluable.” The figure on the screen, Daddy, I assume, becomes even more agitated, the indistinct features thrashing about.
“Cheers, I...” ...really have no idea what is going on, but it sounds like a fun revolution.
“I'll patch you back in before he notices I've hacked the video, pretend you'll just listened to a fuckload of vitriolic mouth pissings. Shit, he's just targeted the shuttle and your wrist pad. Throw the pad away and get the hell away from it, hurry.”
“...never have spent good credit on a such a second rate hack job as you, no matter how unusually you were wired up. Well, have you got anything to say for yourself, you disgusting, semi-evolved ape?”
“Sorry, you must have the wrong number.” I rip the terminal from my wrist and summoning up the strength, hurl it over the edge of the cliff into the surging water below.
“Just move,” suggests Jimmy. “I'll deal with the hurting bits.”
The majority of my aches and tiredness just drop away as Jimmy works some kind of magic on my much abused body. The method of locomotion is now familiar, I do my best to increase my rate, straightening my arms more and attempting to walk on them. Flowers cease their singing as I crush them beneath my body. It feels like running but the ground passes at a depressingly slow rate.
There is nothing in my vision that announces the weapon strike, just a tearing of air as several somethings burn out of the sky impacting the shuttle, cliff and ground behind me. I embrace my head in my arms and attempt to merge with the ground as fire fills the world.
The flare cuts abruptly, the visor on my helmet adjusts to the return of darkness and all the stars come back. The Betsy-Mae, a hundred metres of engine, crew cabin, fuel tanks and other components that appear to have amalgamated together by themselves rather than have been built that way, drifts slowly away from the ball of rock and ice I am anchored to.
“That looks fine, I think we've fixed the problem” I say into the general radio channel. “Slow her and bring her back onto position.”
“Copy. Don't worry, Art, we aren't going to leave you sitting on that rock.” The manoeuvring jets, fired to balance the main engine slowly win their battle against the forward momentum.
“Take your time,” I mutter to myself. The others think I am slightly crazy, taking what opportunities I can to spend time space-walking outside the ship. There are five of us in that glorified tin-can that serves as a loosely affiliated asteroid prospecting vessel, even with our individual bunk/coffins it becomes somewhat crowded at times. “No whistling.” I add for Jimmy's benefit, he is ever amused by appearing suitless in a vacuum.
Betsy ponderously returns to to its position parked next to the rock, with far too much fussy use of the motors. The rock has time to rotate nearly twice over before they are finished, giving me a full view of the heavens. The sun seems too small, too far away.
“Amateurs.” Opines Jimmy. “Just think, this is what we trained for, all those years ago. Same ship, probably, too.”
“Hey, Art, you've got to see this when you get back to the ship.” The jagged accent of one born of here in the asteroid belt reminds me that I have forgotten to turn the radio off.
“If it is more shots of girls fitted with extra pairs of breasts then I am not interested, Dozer.” I get ready to make a leap for the Betsy-Mae, four hundred metres away.
“No, no, its something that happened in the Nano-wars, like something real big.” Wait, wait, and push. My strength is more than enough to break the weak pull of the asteroid, but my aim is slightly out.
“If you have found more of your evidence that all the nano-plagues and outbreaks were engineered from the blood of ten people who hitched a ride with some aliens, then I don't want to hear it.” A very short blast from my suit thrusters puts me into the open airlock door
I stow my suit carefully, staring at the picture I keep in the locker door. A man stares wistfully into the distance. Behind him stands an empty house, a sign offering it for sale. If you look closely you can see that there is no baby grand piano in the conservatory, no sign of the woman who once lived here, nothing to tell you of her child, no clue to tell you where she went.
The crew have been told that it is a picture of my father and leave I it as that. Many out here have reasons why they left the heavily controlled Earth of the Weathered Sun Reclaimationists and their successors. We do not talk about why we came to the new frontier.
There is a knot of fearful anticipation in my stomach as I see the others clustered around the main screen in the rec area, a tiny space that serves as a lounge, dining-room and gym, the ship's only real concession to human comfort. Monica does not react as I put my arm around her waist to anchor myself in the lack of gravity, engrossed in some footage of Mars and its moons. Except it is not Mars, the Sun's light is too bright, the moons show the signs of human habitation and there are three of them. The announcer starts a new sentence and I begin to make some sense of it.
“It has been independently tested that the signal does indeed emanate from outside of our solar system. The three artificial moons have been confirmed to match the shapes of three asteroids believe to been destroyed or mined during the turbulent and uncontrolled times of the Nano-wars. More incredible are the scenes depicting life both inside the moons and down on the planet itself...”
“Holy fuck!” Spouts Jimmy. “We did it, mankind went to the stars!”
“At least some people had the good sense to run away from our mess.” I tell him.
There is a smell of things burning, I think some of it is me. The singing meadow is now a scorched mess of smouldering wreckage and blasted foliage. A slight hollow has saved me from the worst of the explosion and luck has saved me from falling debris.
“Tell me the worst.” I ask Jimmy who is the only unscathed object I can see from my vantage point.
“The baby back ribs are done, but we're all out of the barbecue sauce. Seriously, there's nothing that's going to kill you more that the damage you've already done, you're just going to have to lie on your front for a while.”
I glance over my shoulder. My carefully and artfully crashed spaceship is now a blackened and burning hulk, part of the cliff has collapsed and taken the rear end of the craft with it. With nothing better to do, I start to drag my way out of the ashes and into a less ruined area. What is left of my clothes interferes with my locomotion, so I discard them. I might as well be naked in this garden of trippy Eden.
“So did you get anything out of that phone call, Jimmy, or are you waiting for the movie version?”
“Sound's like you're off Daddy's Christmas card list and I'm guessing that woman is 'J', but you probably haven't told either of them the true story.” I skirt around the big chunk of fuselage.
“You are secretly the prince of Atlantis and you plan on dominating the Universe with your chain of fondue restaurants.” Sharp things are probably sticking in the part of my body the drags along the ground, I find the thought does not faze me in the slightest.
“What is a dorsal root ganglion anyway?”
“I'm not sure.”
“You're in charge of rebuilding my body, you should know.”
“The parts don't come labelled, I just know where the bits go. I think it might be the bit of flesh that attaches your testicles to your body.”
“Ouch! If I hadn't already lost that part of my body I would feel sorry for Daddy.”
This far from the explosion some of the flowers are still standing. Looking closely I see some have holes in their stems that whistle in the breeze, others have small sacks which contract and expel out a note with a small puff of air. The nearest tulip suddenly makes a noise that sounds to my ear like it is saying “Bill!”.
I laugh, carefree, confident that the Universe has done its worst to me today and I have survived. Other tulips take up the cry and I find I have dragged myself into a glade sporting my very own floral fanclub. I lie there until my fit of giggles subsides.
“I understand taking up a hobby to get you through those lonely hours, but maybe it would have been better if Liefman had just got a cat.”
“Judging by what has happened to crabs, I'm not sure I want to meet a modern cat. Besides, building a planet into a living computer is quite an achievement, don't knock it. It must have tasted your genetic material.” Jimmy reasons. “Hang on, the singing has changed, seems like she left you a message. Probably pissed off that you never call her.”
“Call him!” The gloved hand thrusts the comm unit against my ear, waiting for my spoken command to make the connection.
“More people will die if you don't.” Jimmy adds, pretending to inspect the bonds holding my arms to the chair. “They've just upped the pain another notch.”
“Keep the pain at its current level.” Jimmy is allowing enough though to let it show on my face and not make them suspicious. “I don't care about more people, I care about him.” I shake my head to let them know my answer.
Like most of Cellinos the room is lit by the bare minimum of light, a dim, sickly green glow that leaves people as outlines. Jimmy's half-hearted effort to improve my vision means that I am still mostly blind, unlike the enforcers and their modified eyes. There are three of them and I am restrained, but their reliance on the implants means they are only lightly armed and their ignorance of exactly what I can do evens the odds.
“Call him!” A slap across the face that I do not feel. It is obvious that they have no idea who he is, and so he is safe as long as I keep silent. The shadow at the console makes some adjustments. “Sergeant, kill five more.”
“Bill, I don't like what the implant is doing, if this goes on much long I will have to destroy it.” All the colour drains out of Jimmy's image, his voice sounds strange.
“Do that and the game is up. You're just jealous, jealous of sharing my head with the implant, jealous of me sharing my body with Maffierre.” On the screen five people are segregated off from the contained crowd.
“Give him up, Bill, he can escape. There are innocent people being killed there as well as the rebels. The rebellion needs those people alive.” The sergeant signals the enforcer with the implant control box.
“Screw the rebellion. I don't want yet another person vanishing out of my life, they all disappear, Jimmy, only you stay and you're dead.” The five clutch their heads, subjected to incapacitating pain. One falls to the ground, another wets himself.
“Its the implant talking, Bill, take hold of yourself. If I destroy it the game is up and they'll massacre everyone there. Two hundred people, Bill. If you escape they'll do the same. Let him go, he will escape and then eventually we can get away, you might see him again.” Enforcers step forwards and despatch the helpless people with the knives that are the symbol of the Cellino Dominion. Another adjustment is made at the console and Jimmy's image vanishes completely.
“Still holding out? Remarkable, a new record.” My captor leans close, too close.
Jimmy has not completed the preparation but the weakness is there. I strain against the binding on my right hand, relax and then wrench my arm back. The flesh on my forearm separates with an audible tear, the bones breaks along a prescribed line. I plunge this living weapon into his exposed throat. The spikes of the radius and ulna pierce deep, a rich flow of his blood joins mine, painting me with black in this green dimness.
His compatriots start to react, but where the straps holding my legs have touched up against the cuts in my skin they have been eaten away and now snap as I stand. I club one man awkwardly with the chair still attached to my left arm. Jimmy has kept my body tuned to the Earth's gravity, twice what is felt here and so the blow is enough to knock the man off his feet.
The chair becomes a shield as the third man opens up with his shard gun, the sharp projectiles tearing holes in the seat and a couple of chunks out of my legs. I leap the console, pin him against the wall with the remains of the chair and thrust my arm/dagger repeatedly into his flesh.
The second man is still breathing, but knocked senseless by my attack, I stalk over and make sure he does not get up again. It takes me a couple of minutes to free my left arm, during which Jimmy is strangely silent. I recover my severed right hand and slide it back onto my arm.
“Jimmy, reattach that, I don't want it coming off again.” There is a slight tingling as the nano-machines get to work.
“Bill..., the console...implant.” We had thought the brain implant, used to control the population was crude and easily circumvented, seems we have underestimated it.
I do not understand most of the functions of the console. The pain control is easy to spot and I turn that off, thinking becomes a little easier, but there is still an odd feeling in my head, almost a taste of something. Carefully I adjust a couple of settings that look like that have been used on me. Nothing, maybe the air grows colder. None of the labels make much sense to me. A tone down something that seems to have been turned most of the way up.
I pause, my hand holding station above the console. The Jimmy control. Forever linked with his consciousness, closer than marriage, never able to be alone. I recall the talk of the fallback mode of our nano-technology, capable of sustaining us, but without direction not much quicker than the natural repair systems of the human body. It seems a worthwhile sacrifice to gain my own life back. I turn it up to the full.
On the screen the sergeant realises something is up, an alarm sounds and people start dying. I do not care, suddenly I am alone in my head for the first time since my resurrection.
“Fuck. Jimmy, am I really such a bastard?”
“Its more of a set of co-ordinates than an insult.” Jimmy says.
“Not that. I remembered what happened. What I did to you.”
“You were under the mind altering effects of a nasty piece of technology.”
“It was still me in there, I shut you off. I kept you off until the crash broke it, I could have turned you back on at any time. I killed you for a second time.” The injuries, the emotions, the whole damn weight of it all, it presses me into the dirt and I lie there, not even having the energy to cry.”
“I forgive you.”
“You can't stop me. You are my friend. We grew up together, we died together. And then we did other stuff. Together. Forgiving you is not the hardest thing I have ever done for you, I even learned to appreciate Jazz just for you.” Jimmy seats himself and leans back, basking in the sunlight. “Just. Don't. Ever. Fucking. Do. It. Again. Arsehole.” I can tell he is going to hold it against me, but I do not care, just happy to listen to his voice.
“Good morning, Doctor Diaz.” The voice is different, but the tone is the same, it grates on my ear sending a spike of revulsion through my mind.
2017RT, like many things, has been a casualty of the conflicts on and off Earth. Moved out of the asteroid belt and parked neatly in the Earth's L5 Lagrange point it was intended to be turned into a sparkling new habitat, the pinnacle of human engineering. Hostilities between the various partners and then the predations of designed diseases had left it an orphaned and forgotten rock a long way from home. Mostly forgotten.
The construction here is no longer secret, but the traffic to and from this little moon is strictly regulated. You would have to be not only capable of mimicking one of the few people cleared to approach, but also capable of passing a blood test or at least faking it. In short it would take determination, resource, some unusual abilities and a traitor from within. These things have taken time.
I pull myself along the handholds of a white-walled cylindrical corridor, the door ahead irises open, allowing me into the lab. I float up through the centre of the cubic room and come to a rest holding onto a handle, unsure of what exactly to do next.
“Do you really think you can fool me, Captain Larkin?” I breathe sigh of relief, happy to drop the pretence.
“No. But it was worth a try, Davis.”
“Even if I had not been tracking you ever since you boarded Jefferson Orbital, your ease of movement in micro gravity gives you away. Doctor Diaz is ungainly.” The voice is playing over hidden speakers, I know Davis is close, but really want visual confirmation.
“I should have known it was too easy.”
“Of all people we should know nothing is ever easy. I will admit that you have been a thorn in my side for longer than I would have liked, but you have only ever slowed my research, not stopped it.” I smile at the thought of the gleeful I have destruction wrought for that end.
“What can I say, I enjoy killing your clones, they remind me of you.”
“Quite. And now you are here, I suppose you had some daydream about beating me to death with an iron bar and then making your escape to the sounds of sirens and explosions. You can forget about that, you are in a sealed room and you will stay there until you wither and shrivel up if that is my wish. My apologies to mister Mahdi that he has to share your fate.” I nearly curse myself for not thinking of bringing an iron bar, it would have made a nice gesture.
“He has some choice things he would share with you, do you understand swearing in Arabic?”
“False bravado. I left the door open and you have come scurrying in here like a rat, too enticed by the prospect of a free meal to worry about a trap.” No matter what has happened since we last properly met, Davis has not managed to get over himself.
“Maybe I got tired of running away all the time. Tell me, did you ever manage to solve the problem of fragmenting personalities or are you still growing clones to shunt the fragments into?”
“I found a solution of a sorts. Am I to believe you are the only one who never suffered it?”
“Me and Jimmy very happy just being a couple. Liefman was stable, too, but then she never did suffer from all your self-loathing. So what happens now?”
“I take you apart and use your pieces to complete my plan. But no hurry, make your self comfortable.” I glance about, looking for the mini-bar.
“Yeah, your plan. I admit that it took us a while to realise that amongst all those nut jobs with a bootleg vial of our blood, a rough knowledge of how to reprogram the nano-machines and a grudge against someone else there was someone with a real aptitude and an aim.”
“By the time we found out the Hseng was leaking materials it was too late. But you don't realise how useful you were cleaning up our failed experiments and dead end research.”
“And do you know how many people died when your dead end research found its way into the wrong hands?”
“Acceptable losses, less than our projections of a conventional global war and the plan means it will never happen again.” I think back to all the people I have seen die, on the news and on the street, by conventional weaponry, constructed virus, overt nano-restructuring or my own hands, it does not seem that acceptable to me.
“You know, I never did work out your plan, I am sure someone explained parts of what you were doing, but if you start talking about neuro-transmitters and shit like that I tend to switch off.”
“You're too old school, I suppose you still use the Angel's gift just for repairing your own body and making cosmetic changes? When I realised I could grow a duplicate from my own body and populate it with a fragment of my own mind I realised that I would never have to rely on another person ever again, I could create a clone and then engineer the clone to replace any person. The company quickly became mine.” He loves himself so much that I start to wonder if he ever tried it physically.
“But the clones are even less stable than you, we watched them fall into psychosis.”
“There are limitations, they are not fully rounded minds, but they are infinitely preferable to the infighting of normal humans. No, I needed something more robust, simpler and quicker to manufacture. I didn't need to replace humans, just make sure they behaved in the manner I require. The solution, of course, is not direct control, but an additional organ within the brain capable of dampening unwanted desires and receiving a signal reinforcing desired behaviour.” I try to recall if he was such a monomaniac before we met the Angels, but in my mind he has always been someone I hate.
“So the virus that made people grow extra livers was your fuck up?”
“You still don't get the scope of my plan.” And he does not get the scope of his own madness.
“Oh, I do, you're such a raving egomaniac that you believe everyone should think like you do.”
“You're such a throw-back, Larkin. Imagine a world united, working together without fighting, everyone reaching their potential.”
“Without any free will or self-determination? They would not be human.”
“And what good has being human ever been? Humans go around killing each other and making a mess of everything. You've had the chance to be more than human yourself and you have squandered it, don't mock me for seizing the opportunity.” Making a mess of everything has always been my speciality, killing is a recently acquired skill and not something I ever want to become good at.
“But even with your advanced intellect, one man cannot control everything.”
“You still don't get it, I am no longer a man.”
The wall loses its opacity, becoming a window. Beyond is a large space filled with medical equipment, a life-support system. The bloated body lying in the middle of the machinery, a flabby bag of organs with atrophied limbs, is Davis. His features are just recognisable on his distended face, his head is far too large, with fleshy pipes connecting to a large collection of pods, like melons with human skin. Tubes and cables plug into meat everywhere.
“You've let yourself go, Davis.”
“I've advanced myself, you are looking at the greatest intellect the human race has ever seen, forty brains working in perfect parallel synchronisation.” His face moves in time to the voice, but I doubt that the sound comes from the human windpipe at all.
“Forty brains, but never heard of hubris.”
“You've carried some virus in here? I am in a hermetically sealed environment and there is no way you can break through that glass.” Again I bemoan my lack of iron bar.
“I've lived more than long enough to know when I am walking into a trap. Once I got into orbit it was obvious that your employees were trying to ease my passage here, so I took a few precautions.”
“You're still not getting away from here.”
“I don't need to. You are not the only one who can grow himself a second body, okay, so I can't do the brain, but I know still know an expert in prosthetics who can wire up a human nervous system to a remote control rig. You get used to the slight lag eventually.”
“I don't want you, just your body.”
“You're not my type. You might remember that Jimmy used to work in orbital traffic control, one of their jobs was defence from rogue asteroids. When they became defunct some of their inventory became unaccounted for. You probably have not heard of the HT193 rock-killer, its capable of breaking something the size of this place into tiny, manageable pieces, and is roughly the size of my abdominal cavity. Guess what?”
The link breaks, but not before I see his body spasm in panic.
“Happy?” Jimmy asks.
“No, mostly tired.” I start to remove suit which has been giving me feedback from the remote body, the movements seem heightened by the suddenly loss of the slight transmission delay. “Okay, maybe slightly happy.”
“So what do we do now?” I ask Jimmy, not really wishing to do anything.
Jimmy lies on his back, hands behind his head. I get a sudden spike of memory, another sunny day far, far away in both space and time, lying on a lawn. I push it back to the murky depths, intent to stay in the now for a while, at least.
“We wait for our rescue, beg some suppliers so we can rebuild your body, get a shower, hopefully a drink, wait for whatever is happening up there to finish and then convince the victors to take us to wherever Liefman's co-ordinates turn out to be.”
“That easy, eh?”
“Turn on the old Larkin charm, you've still got it.”
“And what about us?”
“We're friends, let's try to stay that way this time.”
“And when things get bad again?”
“Listen, I've flown with you since you got your wings. Every so often you make a mistake, or have a rough run of luck or lose a fight, and then you crash and burn. But every time you end up ditched, you pick yourself up and find something else to fly. Being your co-pilot is always interesting. So get your hand on the stick, push that throttle forwards.”
“You know I hate it when you say that.”
“Why do you think I say it?”
“You're a fucking bastard, Jimmy.”
“I'm your fucking bastard, just remember that.”
I lie there and feel sleep overcoming me, it seems like I have an entire life in one day, maybe several lives. I make a promise to myself to be a better person, but after all this time can I really change?