Feeling Machine - beta

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ONE

The acolyte betrayed being flustered by brushing imaginary flecks of nervous dust off her tunic as she strode quickly through the halls of the university. Students and faculty all parted before her, having been given a few moments warning by the acolyte’s avatar program. With a luminous miniature model of the facility hovering in her mind’s eye, the acolyte proceeded as though she had been in this part of the campus before.

A nervous grin of anticipation wriggled crookedly across the acolyte’s face. An audience with the Prime Program was an unexpected honour that was also seeped with confusing portent. It was very peculiar for an acolyte so new to be chatting with the Prime Program. And the acolyte wasn’t just meeting the Prime Program; she had been specifically summoned by the Prime Program. That just multiplied the significance by an indeterminate factor.

This was an occasion that would have turned most calm individuals into shaking, worrying wrecks and caused them to have a sudden interest in substance abuse. The reason for this can only really be appreciated if there is an understanding for just how significant the Prime Program was. While not having any official status with any of the dominant countries or companies on Earth, the Prime Program nevertheless was the real leader of the planet. It was responsible for so much of the daily business of the planet, and had been relied upon for so much of the globe’s decision making for so long, that any defiance of its “suggestions” was essentially futile. Or, at least, that’s what the vast majority of the planet ardently believed. And, in a way that takes some time to really comprehend, it was this very mentality that allowed the Prime Program to shepherd the Earth into an age of unprecedented peace and prosperity.

If someone were to consider the particularly impressive qualities of the acolyte, including considerable mental prowess and resolve, it would be possible to assume that her reputation for equanimity would allow her to be nonplussed even at the summons of the Prime Program. This was not so. For this acolyte was too insightful to avoid being affected.

A final and largely superfluous check of the communications node kept the acolyte’s avatar program busy while the acolyte meditated in an attempt to summon some yet undiscovered reserves of composure.

First, the acolyte’s processor downloaded the usher program, and the avatar program courteously withdrew into the background to free up memory. The usher program had only limited sentience, or perhaps only limited social skills, and immediately began configuring the encryption engine that would be used to engage in private communication with the Prime Program. Once the secure communication node was tested and functioning, the usher program idled to its minimum active kernel. Then a tidal rush of data and logic surged into the processor’s memory and formed the fantastically complex patterns of the parallel sentience that was a part of the Prime Program, and the discussion began in earnest. All of this happened in a short moment, barely allowing the acolyte a chance for one last nervous swallow between the avatar program chiming a warning announcement of the imminent activity and the initial salutation of the Prime Program.

“Greetings, Acolyte Jaen.”

With a spasm of apprehension electrifying the stubble on her head, the acolyte paused for a slow-motion swallow before stammering out, “Greetings, Prime Program.”

“Please forgive my bluntness, Jaen, but I’m going to request that you dedicate your time entirely to endeavours of my direction for the foreseeable future.” As the Prime Program spoke in its modulated baritone, it requested permission and copied a modified version of its usher program to the acolyte’s permanent memory system.

Blinking, and eyes darting as if to follow the unfolding ramifications in her mind, the acolyte fumbled with questions and guesses. Hopes of fantasized research wavered in the acolyte’s plans. “But, I haven’t finished my courses yet...”

“What training you already have will be sufficient.”

“What will I be doing?”

“You will be requested to investigate and report on some out-system issues. Possible further analytical contributions may be requested.”

The Prime Program’s words thudded across the acolytes mind leaving deep footprints. Out-system? That’s some scary stuff. Anything not part of the system was a frightening unknown. This was something that only seasoned operatives should have been doing.

A question kindled in the acolyte’s mind, and she voiced it. “Why me?”

With inscrutable calm, the Prime Program replied, “You have been chosen partially because your profile shows you to be suitably intelligent, resourceful, insightful, and reasonably capable of self-defence. It’s also because you are a very attractive young woman.”

TWO

A long, melancholy sigh slid smoothly over Sasha’s teeth and ruffled her collar. Who or what should she be today? Years ago, it was fun – exhilarating even – to casually wander into someone else’s footsteps, then to gently pry away some of what that person was allowed, and to disappear with the prize. Now that identity theft was a necessary part of her life, and the past fifty years had gradually blunted the thrill, the glamour was all gone.

Cold hard gaze penetrated the crowd, as Sasha contemplated the array of possibilities strolling before her. The temptation was to find some obviously wealthy professional type. To glide up, use some ruse or subterfuge to check their identity just long enough to make a temporary copy, and to sap out a fortune large enough to not have to repeat this process for over a year. The problem was that the more resources somebody had, the more ardent the security measures. Getting caught in this sector wasn’t too terrible – there simply wasn’t much physical enforcement. That’s why Sasha was down here. Still, give the security programmers enough information, and they’d be able to extrapolate a way to trap you.

Sasha winced. No one had heard from any out-system rogue after they had been caught, other than further attempts to trap rogues. She had been around long enough to know that rogues as elder as her simply disappeared. She had also been around long enough to hear many of the darker speculations about what happened...

On the other end of the spectrum, Sasha simply felt repugnant about stealing the identity of some poor, struggling peon. They were often un-insured, and it could mean disaster for their fragile financial lives.

No, Sasha liked to find a nice medium. Her target was one of the billions of middle-class, upwardly mobile semi-professionals that were complacently enjoying the endlessly soaring global economy guided by the Prime Program. The gullibility of the masses was what narrowed her existence to being a parasite, and she found a last flicker of satisfaction in preying on that gullibility.

There. That one. Sasha started unbuttoning her plain overcoat with a casual, practiced ease as she walked purposefully into the milling throng. The grooming of that one showed a cognitive disregard to the gender-neutral “official” attitude that had prevailed in recent decades. Though she relied more on hauteur and innuendo than she did as a girl, Sasha still had a shape that affected the judgement of males.

To her satisfaction, Sasha noted that the man’s gaze gave her a sweep down and up, with lascivious lingerings that promised to distract him. With one hand, Sasha pulled her featureless coat aside, and allowed the jounce of her stride to cause her breast to jiggle into view. The man stood transfixed, and was completely unprepared for her to suddenly whirl on him and mash her mouth against his.

With a giggle and a brief string of saliva, Sasha pulled away and started counting as she walked. One, and she heard a flustered breath from the man. Two, and she heard a muttered exasperation. Three. Four, and the copy was complete. The brief EM pulse from the emitter in her teeth had caused the neural connector in the man’s neck to crash and laboriously reset itself. While it rebooted it’s authentications, Sasha’s finely-tuned sensor array in her coat could eavesdrop while still within 5 meters. She made sure not to be outside that range before the 4 seconds were up.

A smug grin spread across her striking features. Her way was so much more stylish than the clumsy rogues that needed to physically harm their targets in order to accomplish the life-giving identity theft.

She ordered a pizza. It was an easy and low-risk way to check if the identity credit was functioning trouble-free before risking more significant purchases. After making her selection, she transmitted the identity, and waited. Her wily security-assessment program watched, and after a moment started ramping up a warning probability. Startled, she broke off the connection. That wasn’t right. She looked around and saw her “victim” watching her.

Shit. A plant. Even before she saw the orange-suited security goons, she was running.

An amplified voice boomed through the crowd from behind her, “HALT! OR YOU WILL BE FIRED UPON!”

Sasha muttered an expletive that included some graphic suggestion involving their anatomy, and kept low as she ran. The crowd, in its usual bottom-level disaffected stupor offered her significant cover. Just a couple more corners, and she’d probably lose them.

...Except for the pair of orange-suited no-necks that appeared from the stairwell just ahead of her. Where the fuck did all these enforcer types come from?

Knowing that they had her triangulated, Sasha could only transmit a broadband “I’m about to be fucked.” She gave a burst of speed to get past the newest orange-suits, and pulled her collar as far up as she could. They already had their blunt-nosed static-pulse pistols out, and they stood in stiff-legged firing stances.

Sasha felt the hot prickly spots blossoming on her side before she heard the SNAP-hiss of the weapon discharges. Electrostatic-pulse weapons are supposed to render living targets into uncontrollable spasms, usually followed by temporary unconsciousness. The fact that they also left nasty burns still made them much more palatable to socially conscious police forces than traditional projectile weapons.

To their amazement, Sasha kept running. In addition to having a sophisticated listening device arrayed through it, her coat also included sufficient capacitors to absorb the hyper-charged particle when it hit the conductor mesh. Of course, it meant that her snoop was toast, but Sasha had other things to worry about. The goons were giving chase.

Sasha might have been too proud to admit that her 70-year-old legs might not be able to outpace the goons for long, even in her highly augmented state. She wasn’t dumb enough to fool herself into forgetting that they could always call in fresh reinforcements if they kept her in sight long enough. She needed to get rid of them, soon.

Luckily, she had some friends nearby that could help. She pounded down a service corridor, and incandescent dots leapt past as her pursuers kept firing. Running around a slow-moving container truck, she gained a few precious moments where she could sprint harder without having to try keeping her legs covered by the coat. As she turned a deserted concrete-walled corner, she could hear the distant sounds of security vehicles echoing through the maze. She hoped that it was for someone else, or at least that they were still far away.

Before the goons rounded the corner after her, she saw a cargo door rolling silently open. With a final flurry of footfalls she tried to make it before she would be spotted. But, testifying that she failed, a static pulse scorched the panel beside her before she disappeared. Utterly winded then, she stumbled into the center of the warehouse, her hair a crazy array of tangles standing on end from the charges that had pulsed through her coat.

First one, then the second orange-suited security operative rushed into the open bay. Sasha, wobbled feebly across the bay, only 25 meters from them, keeping her heavy coat towards them. One operative snapped an arm up and flung two more pulses scorching into her smoking defense, trying to hit her uncovered top of her head. She yelled an almost-hysterical “STOP shooting, you fuckers!”

The second operative held up a cease-gesture to his partner, commanding to Sasha, “Give it up!”

As if on cue, the bay door fell closed with a cacophony. Three shadowy figures stepped from hiding spots around the bay, all armed with ominous-looking weapons. The harsh, dully-glinting and grimly purposeful demeanour of the weapons strongly implied that they didn’t merely stun targets.

From the far side of Sasha, one of the shadowy figures made an ominous statement in a raspy, unpleasant voice. “Neither of you will be reporting what happens here for at least the next 30 minutes – one way or another.”

The second security operative slowly pointed his static-pulse pistol at his own chest and fired. With a scream and a curl of smoke, he collapsed and twitched. A disgusted mask of stark anger painted the first security operative’s face, and he leapt to one side and fired at the nearest shadowy figure. The target retreated behind a column, and the two compatriots triggered the heavy laser weapons they had levelled. Intense beams were swept across the security operative’s ducking form, one brushing his arm and another crossing his abdomen. The heat melted the skin and sinews and blackened the arm bone into char. It also flashed the blood into steam in an explosive manner, causing the body to rip in half from the detonated kidney and intestine. Sickening fumes billowed from the corpse, causing Sasha to vomit as she shuddered.

The shadowy figure that spoke previously approached Sasha while the two flanking figures cautiously stalked towards the security operatives. “Well, Sasha, nice going.” The two other figures gestured their reports after peering at the sprawled person and the sizzling body.

Sasha spat, and wiped her mouth on her sleeve. “Thanks, Corbin. I’m sorry I messed up whatever you were doing here.”

Corbin’s eyes smouldered. “We have to be out of here too fast to pack up the tools.” Sasha flinched and wilted, knowing how much the alpha-geek valued his various apparatus and constructs. With a grating bellow, Corbin commanded “Set the non-portable gear to meltdown, and pile everything you can’t carry next to it! Get to the crawler in 3 minutes! Go!”

While his fellow rogues rushed off to their jumbles of equipment, Corbin measured steps to the prone security operative. With spasmodic breaths, the crumpled human did indeed seem oblivious to the ominous figure with the bulky laser weapon looming. Corbin probed the node at the base of the operative’s skull, and tricked the avatar program to divulge the operative’s health telemetry while the muzzle of the laser pressed against the operative’s ribs. Satisfied that the operative was actually unconscious, Corbin stood up and regarded the juxtaposition of the two operatives. “Wisdom and cowardliness are often indistinguishable.”

THREE

Jaen rode passively, stretched comfortably across the cushioned bench in the back of the sleek automobile. The novelty of being the only passenger in a vehicle undoubtedly was an intentional effect, carefully manipulated by the Prime Program to help Jaen come to terms with their conversation. Jaen felt the flickering beginnings of cynicism tainting the contemplation of the Prime Program, but ignored it and attributed it to stress.

Occasionally, the barely-perceptible electric hum of the motors conducted through the titanium and plastic lulled Jaen into a dream-like fascination with city features as they flashed by. Graceful arcs and smooth curves that described the architecture of the university campus gave way to comfortable patterns of the upper residential levels. As travel progressed, those patterns grew dingier and showed increasing signs of required maintenance. Even in the thriving peace and prosperity, stratification still developed. Soon, bulky and crude industrial shapes started imposing their own functional forms, for each level of the city needed to support all those above, and in more than just structural ways. Somehow, this quiet transitional perspective brought a sense of awe to these familiar sights. Usually, Jaen couldn’t see much of the larger forms due to the press of people around at all times, and human interaction had a way of taking precedence.

A subtle mental chime caused Jaen to check the dutiful avatar program, and it helpfully pointed out their proximity to the security field office and calculated an ETA. Jaen gave a quiet, disdainful snort, wishing that some more fruitful interpretations of the conversation with the Prime Program had been accomplished during the trip. The specific instructions were troublesome enough, but the seemingly-stray comments were even more unsettling. As the vehicle slowed to a halt at the destination, Jaen wondered how much of her training as an acolyte conditioned her resonses.

Jaen’s avatar program, armed with access codes more in order for a Special Operative, paved the way for a direct entrance to the Section Head’s conference room. Weaving through an open office room, Jaen bypassed the dispatch end of the facility that lead to the usual public access, physical storage rooms, and the armoury. Waiting for the acolyte-operative was the Section Head’s Lieutenant of Information, and he appeared to be patient and nonplussed. Something about that irked Jaen, but perhaps he was just oversensitivity to what seemed to be momentous. Perhaps it just meant that the Lieutenant was jaded.

“I understand that you’re here to review our operatives and to have access to the physical evidence records. What I don’t know is what you’re looking for.” Before Jaen could formulate an adequate response, the Lieutenant added, “You don’t look like any kind of official investigator.”

Jaen could only shrug, “I haven’t been told what I’m looking for. I only know what I’m supposed to look AT.”

Unasked hung the question of who sent Jaen, but the acolyte-operative had been instructed to not divulge anything more. So, Jaen stared unflinchingly at the Lieutenant until Jaen could imagine his brain squirming. Jaen liked staring at people like this; it was a special skill. The Lieutenant hadn’t exactly been charming so far, and his manners showed little promise of improving. Predictably, the Lieutenant’s jaw jutted, showing that he was indeed feeling pressure from this arrogant little girl, and demonstrated that he intended to be futilely stubborn. he glared back at Jaen, who arched a bored eyebrow to taunt him.

Exquisitely embarrassing stringy droplets of spittle flourished from the Lieutenant’s mouth when the tension had finished burning all patience. “WELL...?” It appeared as though the Lieutenant had intended to say more, but perhaps was surprised by the sudden lack of dignity.

Jaen smoothly made a curt, placating gesture, and said, “I’m going to request to talk to several of the security operatives. In person.” Jaen’s avatar program queried if it should offer the list to the Lieutenant, and Jaen arbitrarily edited the list to just be the first few. It would be suitably enjoyable to “request” the Lieutenant’s assistance again before finishing.

Jaen interviewed various security operatives prominent on the specified list of Rogue suspected incidents. At first, there was no specific focus or any issues that elicited particular interest. But, as the hours of checking progressed, there sparked a peculiar sense of fascination. Jaen started feeling like there was some hidden pattern or purpose that was completely unrepresented in the dry, insight-barren reports. With just a little bit of perspective, gained from the descriptive colour of the operative’s personal accounts, the general trends of the incidence reports started to completely fall apart. Meanwhile, something ominous started to be gathering in Jaen’s mind to replace it.

Jaen sat back down in a tired slouch after thanking the latest operative for its assistance. The conference room was littered with used plates carrying crumbs and cups holding only the film of warm water or cold espresso. The suspicion that the puzzle was missing a few pieces began to form, and Jaen couldn’t help but wonder if it might be deliberate.

The well-programmed politeness of Jaen’s avatar was strained as it was compelled to intrude into her consciousness. Jaen had very specifically instructed that messages should be kept for later review and communication when the precious powers of concentration were available, but the loyal avatar program calculated that this call had a high probability of being immediately pertinent. Besides, it knew that Jaen historically began seeking distractions after about four hours of concentration anyway. It noted, with an algorithmic annotation similar to relief, that Jaen’s physiological monitors showed no significant hallmarks of irritation as the synaptic connection nodes were activated by the brain.

Jaen puzzled over the header of the communication briefly, then responded to the security operative that a meeting would be acceptable. To a fly on the wall, Jaen appeared to meditate with heavy-lidded smooth-breathed calm. In truth, Jaen’s mind struck lightening-quick through the fog of information visible to the processor and communications device interwoven in the spinal chord. By the time that the security operative knocked on the door, Jaen had summoned his complete service record, psychological profile, and medical history, and had spotted some inconsistencies in his latest incident report that suggested it might hold another shard of the fractured truth being sought.

Jaen stood, and gave a curtly polite bow of greeting. “Operative Sandersi, I presume.”

“And you are Acolyte Jaen.” Sandersi wore the regulation-issue deadpan expression with a little more ease than the other security operatives Jaen had talked to earlier. “It seems a little odd for an acolyte to be questioning security operatives.” A long step and Sandersi was in the room, while a muscular arm tugged the door to convince it to slide smartly closed.

Jaen smiled sweetly and shrugged disarmingly at the hulking security operative while trying to guess his intent. They both sat; Jaen in the seat creased from hours of use, and Sandersi in the one closest to the door.

Sandersi continued, “And you certainly do not seem to fit the description of someone to ruffle the Lieutenant.” Jaen’s smile deepened in sincerity as a sense of mutual understanding and respect paved the way for the conversation to continue.

Jaen folded her hands while she waited for Sandersi to speak, and steepled her thumb, forefinger and pinkie in her habitual manner of concentration. The big security operative began simply. “I think I might have something you’re looking for.” Jaen raised an inquisitive eyebrow, but did not interrupt. “You’ve clearly been looking into the recent incidents involving Rogues. Sooner or later, you would probably be talking to me, because I recently found myself in an operation involving Rogues. It was just a simple plant op trolling for identity thieves, but my partner and I stumbled onto something bigger. He died last night, and I’ve just finished being debriefed about it... but it doesn’t seem like anyone can make sense of it.” Sandersi’s eyes burned with purposefulness, and it cast flickering shadows of intrigue dancing with portent. “If you’re some sort of special problem-solver, perhaps you can help us and find something more about whatever you’re after.”

With a steady eye, Jaen watched Sandersi for an extended moment of intense silence. Again, it would be easy for an observer to mistake Jaen’s placid manner as being representative of the acolyte’s whole. If Jaen’s thoughts during that brief moment of time could be articulated, they would have been something similar to, “Seems a little freaked somehow. Maybe trying too hard to hide it. Maybe something to do with the fact that his partner got fried while he just got stunned. He looks tired, sort of. Actually, he looks less tired than he should be, counting the hours.” These thoughts jumbled through Jaen’s mind, though in a somewhat more scrambled and interconnected form, but only a serene mask of clear-eyed calm was shown to the world.

After the two or three seconds of pretending to be deeply contemplative, Jaen finally said, “Let’s go.” The security operative grunted his agreement and appreciation, though that was more evident from his enthusiasm for movement than for the non-existent words of thanks. The acolyte followed Sandersi down the sweeping rampway to the security station’s parkade. Sandersi’s avatar program signed out one of the standard security patrol cruisers while they walked, and the familiar black-and-white painted vehicle purred to meet them as they entered.

Jaen swung sprightly into the forward passenger seat beside Sandersi, and the car shook with the impact of the big security operative dropping into the driver seat. The burly motors gave a measured bass thrum while the cruiser manoeuvred onto the roadway, and the brisk acceleration up to thru-way speeds caused them to sound like questions.

While still focussing on the pattern of vehicle movement around them, Sandersi stated in a flat tone, “You seem ill at ease.”

Jaen regarded her own rigid bearing, and forced her hand to release its death grip on the door handle. “I haven’t been in small vehicles very much.”

“Ride the bus?”

“When I have to. I usually prefer to walk.”

“Interesting. Do you walk very far?”

“Most places I have to go are within 10 kilometers.”

Sandersi seem to consider for a moment, then mentioned, “Doesn’t that take up a lot of time?”

“Well, if I’m in a hurry, I just run.”

“Oh. You’re one of those.”

“One of what?” Jaen managed a subtle and carefully modulated tone of mock hostility that was completely wasted on the deadpan security agent.

“Running type.”

“Elaborate.” Jaen’s tone might have been meant as a mimic of the Dragnet rerun the conversation had become.

“I think you’ll find, Acolyte, that most humans seem to be generally unwilling to run for any reasons other than extreme duress. Even those that are physically capable of considerable feats of locomotion are quite often only willing to run if they really have to. They’ll run on a treadmill for 10 kilometers regularly, but take the bus 1 kilometer to pick up some vitamins. The exception to this rule is the type that runs without first trying to avoid it. You appear to be that type.”

“I see. Aren’t you worried that assigning types to people based on only fragmentary superficial signs might be rather misleading for any deductive efforts?”

“No, not really. I’m a field agent, and don’t have the luxury of contemplating complex motivations or reasonings. I get thrown into situations that need coarse decisions made quickly. That, and I find that thinking too much about most people’s thoughts and motivations just makes me want to shoot them with my static-pulse stunner anyway.”

Jaen waited for a moment to consider the appropriateness of questioning further. “Was it quick decision that saved you from the same fate as your partner?” Even though Sandersi showed no outward sign, a delay in response was needed to maintain composure.

“You have to realize that these guys were prepared for just such an eventuality. I mean, they had their tactics worked out well in advance, just in case they were discovered. Their positions were nearly ideal – I’ll show you what I mean when we get there. More than that, though, was the leader’s voice. With some people in hairy situations, you can feel their nervousness choking their vocal chords. That sort will often be unsure or just generally likely to make a mistake. Then there’s the crazies, with their overeager pitch painting their voices. There’s no point listening to them anyway because they’re so unpredictable, so you just have to go for it. This person wasn’t either of those. His voice was calm, and he was in control, and I didn’t think for an instant that he was fooling around. Maybe, if they were a little panicky, there might have been a chance for one of us to live through a fire fight. But they weren’t, and there wasn’t.”

“Understood. Or, at least I think what you’re saying makes sense. If it is sensible, though, why didn’t your partner see it?”

“Good question. I don’t really know.”

Jaen arched an eyebrow, and continued with a smooth tone. “We don’t need to really know, but it might be fruitful to guess. Presumably you knew this agent, and must have some insight into what general drives were contributing.”

“Yeah, maybe.” Sandersi’s voice rumbled at the bottom of his vocal range. “But I’d rather not. It feels sufficient to say that he seemed to be proven slightly too foolish.”

Jaen wanted to argue the possible merits of the line of discussion, but Sandersi began the more intricate maneouvers involved with leaving the thru-way. Instead, Jaen reflected on the conversation while the cruiser wove through the maze-like array of roadways permeating the inhabited section adjacent to a large industrial complex. As the car wound to a stop, and the forensic team could be seen working on their investigation, the thought that foolishness could be deadly felt eerily profound.

Sandersi swung out of the cruiser and strode towards the open warehouse bay compartment, but hesitated after looking back. Jaen was just standing beside the cruiser, with a hard gaze raking the scene. It was not the pose of someone being nonchalant, or hesitant, like Sandersi might have suspected. A tension in Jaen’s eyes made the unflappable agent pause, and wait without beckoning.

After outlining a list of instructions for her avatar program, Jaen cast another critical eye over the crude sweeping architecture before walking up to Sandersi and then inside the cargo bay.

Once inside, the locations of various salient aspects of the earlier drama were clearly marked in the report graphic, proffered by Jaen’s industrious avatar program. Pausing to stand where Sandersi and the other security agent realized they were ambushed. A quick visual overlay, based on Sandersi’s report, let Jaen judge just how tactically hopeless they really had been. Jaen noticed a slight grimace on Sandersi, but couldn’t tell if it was induced by painful memory or the still noticeable burnt odour.

The main bay area was not of interest, other than the grisly imagery. The center of attention was instead one of the ancillary chambers. Sandersi lead Jaen to a poorly-lit room, with the crude finish of industrial minimalism, swarming with forensic operatives. They were patiently finishing their work of installing some acoustic and magnetic sensor equipment to peer beyond the protective seal of now-baked radiation absorbing foam. The two new arrivals shared a sceptical look, and wandered back out into the main bay.

Jaen paused with pursed lips in a thoughtful pose, while Sandersi vocalized the shared question. “What were they doing?”

“Judging from the amount of barrier foam the containment team had to use, I’m guessing that the forensic people aren’t going to be able to answer that.”

Sandersi nodded. “The emergency crews were already mobilized on the heat alarm by the time I woke up and could call in my location.”

“There’s something about this that worries me. It’s so far outside of the basic pattern.”

Sandersi provided a standard grunt. “I’m not so sure I’d go that far. It’s hard to tell what these out-system freaks are thinking. This just seems like a new kind of freakiness, bred from some of their other freakinesses.”

Jaen smiled with practiced haughtiness. “Don’t get too technical on me, Carl Jung.” Then her smile melted to a blank expression.

Sandersi looked interested. “Realize that wasn’t as funny as you might have hoped?”

“The Prime Program is summoning me.” Sandersi shut up.

Jaen flashed a request for her avatar program to find the nearest communications node capable of the communiqué. When it immediately indicated a service access point only 10 meters away, Jaen wasn’t sure whether to be surprised or not.

FOUR

Corbin resisted knowing at first. Though he could quickly assemble many of the components that were needed, some would just take too long to fabricate from anew. After assessing what inventory he had at his disposal, and trying some shortcuts, the alpha-geek had to admit that some items would probably have to be obtained from others.

One of his most trusted avatar programs intruded into his awareness to announce that Sasha had been spotted approaching. Corbin decided that it would be an appropriate time to take a break, and instructed the laboratory program to shut down or idle the various systems that were operating. As the arrays of whines and whirring stilled around him, Corbin rose and walked out of his latest laboratory.

Outside the lab entrance, he nodded amicably at the heavily armed rogues. They smiled grimly back, understanding that he didn’t want anyone to enter, as usual. Looking around the adjacent makeshift operations room, he saw most of his fellow rogues being themselves. Some were channelling their anxiety into various individual projects, while others looked to be venting some tension by playing some simulation games. Until Corbin reassembled the required gear, they might as well try to relax.

With his eerily resonant rasping croak, Corbin playfully asked, “So, who’s cooking dinner?” He was rewarded with a chorus of snorts and groans. Their current hide out was a restaurant that went out of business because of some persistent food-quality issues. Corbin forged the rogues a front as a security company, and arranged for them to be hired to guard to the premises. Conveniently, he also managed to secure the contract for the local food-quality inspections.

Collecting an assortment of food and drink from their ragtag stores, Corbin loaded them on a serving tray and walked into the dining area. Choosing a cozy corner of the abandoned restaurant, he set down the tray just as the guard at the outer door said cheerily, “Good evening, Madame. Table for one? Right this way.”

Sasha rode her long legs impatiently into the room, and a pained smile rode her tired expression. The rogue guard was still wearing a cheek splitting grin while watching Sasha’s entrance, and all through nodding knowingly at Corbin. It probably continued grinning for a little while after returning to its post. Corbin stood tall and relaxed, gesturing for Sasha to sit.

Corbin watched Sasha watching him, and felt a twinge of sympathy for her forlorn state. He took care not to show it, knowing that it would be poisonous for her. He waited wordlessly, seeing that she expected him to be impatient and so would be forthcoming soon enough. Peering at him with hawkish eyes, she commented, “Your guys are often so... glib, and yet you usually seem so, so serious.” Sasha ran a gaunt hand through her lush hair, causing some locks to frame her eyes and make her stare seem more intense. “Why are you different?” The alpha-geek’s wan smile and steady eyes were not unkind, but they were not any answer. She finished the preening motion with her hand, closing her eyes, and accepting his silence.

“Do you want the message right away, or can I eat first?” Corbin’s smile deepened, and he gestured at the contents of the tray. Sasha smiled back with a practiced pleasantness, and reached for a cup of drink. Scarcely a swallow later, she was speaking again.

“I hate this messenger courier shit. I’ve been too well identified, and I want to change how I look, and I don’t want to be wandering around waiting to be caught.”

Corbin let out a patient sigh. “I’ve looked at the security operative reports, and all they really got in terms of visual records is some legs, some hair, and a big flapping coat. You’re fine as long as you cut the petty ident-theft for now.”

A few bites, and Sasha asked, “Are you saying I should relax?”

The alpha-geek gave her a “let’s not be stupid” smile, and they shared a chuckle.

“All right, I’m getting nervous that I’ll screw it up, so here’s the message. It said, ‘It’s funny how the dark sneaks up on you, and hides things when you’re not looking.’ Or something like that.” Sasha bit her lip, and watched Corbin, a little frightened that he might be angry.

She saw a blackness churning behind his eyes, like an avalanche of coal piling up against his pupils. A mountain of dark pressed in his gaze, and his stillness seemed to shimmer with the weight of it. Sasha felt small, and foolish for wondering why he didn’t laugh more.

Corbin’s subdued voice cracked like distant thunder to Sasha’s ears. “It is as I feared.” Suddenly he was up, and striding to the kitchen/labs. “Go back, and pass on the message that ‘When you laugh, the whole world laughs at you.’ Make sure you say ‘at’, not ‘with’. It doesn’t have to be right away, but some time within the next 12 hours.”

The array of out-system rogues was quiet and attentive when they heard the alpha-geek’s approach. Without pausing, Corbin rumbled commands simultaneously with his voice and via their secure local data communications. He said, “I need two beta-geeks and two stealth-goons, departure in five minutes.” His tactical avatar and his technical avatar each dictated required equipment specs to be brought. With that he disappeared into his personal lab for his own preparations. Corbin hated brash operations.

FIVE

“Acolyte Jaen, your progress seems promising.” The deep, warm voice chosen by the Prime Program was undoubtedly the statistically most soothing tone. A nervous tingle capered across the back of Jaen’s skull, because no progress report had yet been submitted. As if anticipating the question, the Prime Program continued with a tone so relaxed that professional hypnotists would have whistled with appreciation. “When one of my subroutines found that you had honed in to this investigation in particular, the probabilities for beneficial progress were suitably high to prompt a report request.”

As soon as Jaen began giving the report, a tangential revelation presented itself. All the programs that had interacted with Jaen before had a distinctive directness about them. Meanwhile, instead of imperiously demanding data from the acolyte-operative, the Prime Program had made Jaen want to report. This thought seemed significant, though why that would be was not immediately obvious.

“First of all, I should mention a general problem with the incidence reports filed by the security operations.” Even though the conversation was entirely electro-neural, Jaen assumed a calm-bolstering akimbo stance. “While the case specifics are likely to be generally accurate, due to the comprehensive evidence records, I suspect that many of the subsequent conclusions are fallacious.” The acolyte-operative gave a brief pause that invited interruption, but none came.

“There is a disturbing lack of diversity in the security incident reports concerning the suspected motives of the out-system rogues. Violent crimes associated with some rogue activities are assumed by security operations to be merely cases where the rogues either were defensive or anti-social, whereas activities linked to the rogues that aren’t violent are dismissed as cowardly or lucky. This coincides with the security operatives’ typical characterization of rogues as petty thugs and pathological criminals.”

Jaen let out a long slow breath, to add resolve. “What is typically neglected is the very stark correlation, inverse correlation actually, between the technical sophistication of the rogue activity and the tendency for violence. The rogues caught bluntly hacking systems or stealing identities by force are almost always equipped with crude devices, while the less prominent incidents often involve considerable technical prowess.”

The Prime Program smoothly inserted a comment before Jaen could continue. “This correlation, and its absence in the security incident reports, has been noted already, but it is encouraging that you spotted it. Please continue.” Jaen was unsure whether to feel more or less smug, and then went back to being mostly nervous and slightly intimidated.

“This might suggest a couple things that should be considered. First, as I mentioned earlier, that some of the dismissive conclusions about many of the seemingly uninteresting incidents are probably incorrect. For example, several of the incidents regarding the hydroponics decks were reported as aborted terrorist actions, but I think a much more likely explanation is that some rogues have established a means of collecting food outside of the normal means.”

Jaen paused for a moment, wondering how the Prime Program might react to what was about to be said. “Secondly, if you extrapolate the range of activities, it suggests that there might be a level of technical proficiency among some rogues that are operating largely without the notice of the system.”

“Is that what you suspect happened in this incident?” Something about the timbre that the Prime Program used implied satisfaction, but that might have just been Jaen’s imagination. In way of a response, Jaen gave the electro-neural equivalent of a nod.

“Your report is a satisfactory beginning. Based on your conclusions, you are now directed to find evidence of out-system rogues that are operating without the notice of the security operatives. Further, should you find them, you are instructed to determine what strategic military capability they might have.”

“I think I understand, Prime Program.” Jaen forced a tense breath out, and decided to see how far it could be pressed. “May I ask some questions, Prime Program?”

“You may ask.”

“My guess is that everything I’ve reported is already known to you. All the progress I have made seems to not only to be redundant, but also is likely to be in part contrived.”

Jaen’s latent system monitors registered a spike in the communication bandwidth, even above its already giddy throughput. The calm response from the Prime Program was without delay, and would have sounded as though the observation were expected... except for the betraying data traffic. “Your insight exceeds expectation. What do you wish to ask?”

“You approached me before this incident, indicating that you at least suspected it would happen. Why were no efforts made to avoid it?”

“The actual events were not expected. The probability of encountering out-system rogues by security operatives was increased simply for the purposes of facilitating the inquiry you are performing. The greatest probability was for the out-system rogues to escape, with a small possibility of a capture. The calculated likelihood of a homicide was not statistically significant.”

Jaen felt a strong urge to be reassured by this explanation. For as long as could be remembered, the Prime Program had been a symbol of altruism and benevolence. There was a definite social understanding that the Prime Program always had the best interests of society foremost. Nevertheless, this feeling was tainted by the perception of being manipulated.

“What else can you tell me that would be helpful?”

The Prime Program responded in an earnest baritone. “If your avatar program were given sufficient run-time and resources, its report to you would eventually be that there have been no anomalies in the routine diagnostics of the major oxygen tube adjacent to the storage bay. Nevertheless, I suspect that this is indeed the means by which the rogues were able to travel undetected.”

SIX

Corbin sipped a beverage that was almost entirely unlike tea. He and four other rogues sat in the continual gloom of the meagre daylight that managed to filter this far from the fibre-optic light ducts. The café was nestled by a junction of some low-rent housing complexes, and they were on a terrace with a plain view over the street level. At all times at least one set of eyes were on the communication maintenance station across the cavern.

“Here comes one.” The eagerness in the young rogue’s voice blended with the relief of the others.

“Finally.”

“I guess they don’t worry as much about communications in these dim sections.”

“Status?”

“System nominal, minimal leakage.”

“20 meters, approaching at union-speed.”

With a noisy slurp, the alpha-geek eyed the group, and they settled to calmer poses. Locking eyes with the others, each in turn, a strained hush made the moments grind by slowly. Finally, the beta-geek who was connected to the hacked interface module on the maintenance station gave a thumbs-up.

Corbin gave a digital nod, and the five rogues got up. All but one rogue strode towards the footbridge, moving quickly. The last rogue, a stealth-goon, walked slowly along the pedestrian deck, carefully keeping both the rogues and the maintenance station in view.

Upon reaching the other side, the rogues entered the stairwell on the pedestrian deck. If anyone were watching, it would be easily noticed that they emerged on the on the commuter deck below a little too soon for a walking pace. One beta-geek conferred with the security system on the maintenance station, and used the copied authorization from the maintenance technician that just entered to open the doors. The other beta geek then cut the communications cables connecting the station to the web, and fired up a jamming signal that mimicked a failing motor to block local radio communication.

Corbin made a sharp gesture instructing the accompanying stealth-goon to enter the maintenance station, and set his tactical avatar to start its countdown. The jamming would bring security operatives eventually, but he couldn’t take any chances of having a distress call make it out of the station.

Inside the maintenance station, the stealth-goon found the maintenance technician returning from the storage section. Before the technician could transfer its question from its expression to its voice, the stealth-goon raised a static pulse pistol and sent three blasts into the technician. The rogue whistled to announce success, and continued sweeping through the station. When Corbin and the two beta-geeks walked through the entry area, the stealth-goon was returning from the storage area.

“Get to the entrance way to maintain line-of-sight.”

“Aye-aye, Corbin-san.”

“All right guys, you’ve got my list. Find the gear and haul it out while I prep this maintenance van.” The two beta-geeks were immediately on their way to the storage area.

The alpha-geek picked the latching mechanism on the maintenance cover of the van with a deft movement of a tool. The vans alarm system wouldn’t have been detectable through the jamming, but it was quickly squelched as Corbin detached the power mains. Using a cutter, he severed the mounts holding the control computer to the chassis, and rapidly unplugged all the connections. The hardwired system was then tossed across the floor with a vigour that sounded satisfying. As Corbin mounted a new control system, he heard the two beta-geeks dragging gear into the vehicle bay.

Without looking up, Corbin spoke rapidly with his grating voice. “Pop the locks, the power is dead.” Attaching the arrays of connections to the newly mounted computer control, he felt the chassis shake as the rear loading door was persuaded open and the beta-geeks started loading.

Corbin’s technical avatar reviewed the connections while he reattached the leads to the battery. While the vans replacement brain got acquainted with its new body, Corbin swung around to the door of the cab. Drawing the pick again, he inserted it in the seam of the door, gave an artful twist and prod, then yanked the latch open. Climbing in, the control systems were showing promising progress. Then he heard a yell.

“Boss!” The yell from the stealth-goon in the next room was only slightly muffled. Thin walls.

Corbin’s attention flicked to his tactical avatar, but it insisted that the probability of security operatives intervening already was small. “What?!”

“We’ve got a problem! Alyssen says that the proximity alarm went off on the crawler!”

“WhatTheFuck? Get her to fire up the cameras and tell me what we’re dealing with.” Corbin’s tactical avatar registered a warning, but he assumed the stealth-goons would be competent enough to only use the line-of-sight infrared communications. He jumped out of the cab, and slammed the maintenance cover closed. “How’s the shopping coming?” His saw-toothed voice cut an impatient profile in the question.

“About half-way!”

According to the risk-profile displayed by the alpha-geek’s tactical avatar, they were right on schedule for their original operation plans. The unknown risk to the crawler, however, made Corbin uncomfortable. He knew that the crawler was critically important, and more than just their planned escape relied on it. The ability for clandestine operations that it represented might be even more important than the gear they were stealing.

Corbin regarded the garage door bleakly. The intended plan gave him leisure to tap into the control system and elegantly graft on a remote control, while the beta-geeks grunted the hardware into the cargo bed of the maintenance van. Plans change. Corbin burned through the locking bar, sliced the actuator cables from the motors, and let the “assist” springs act freely on the unconstrained door. He then ran back to help the beta-geeks as the door started slowly rolling upwards.

The beta-geeks had cracked the inventory database of the storage section, and had hardly disturbed anything that wasn’t wanted. Nevertheless, the pile of boxes containing what Corbin had requested made an imposing pile in the isles between the racks. Grabbing a spare dolly, the alpha-geek joined the frantic effort to drag the gear out and load it into the shanghaied van.

“Corbin! Nothing on the crawler cameras. Alyssen thinks the mics picked up something moving in the tube.”

“Understood! Watch for security, we’re almost done but the garage door isn’t hiding us any more.”

Corbin jogged back with the dolly one more time, dodging the heavily-laden beta-geeks as they dragged dollies piled with communication hardware. When he got to the pile, there was only a couple items, so he tucked one under each arm and ran back to the vehicle bay. The beta-geeks were still heaping the boxes into the back of the van when he ran up and deposited his two boxes. He joined them in loading the van, and rasped out to the stealth-goon, “Garf! Come hold the bay door open! Tell Alyssen to disappear; we don’t have time to pick her up!”

The beta-geeks jumped into the back of the van while Corbin vaulted into the cab. He noted with relief that the grafted control system reported nominal status, and powered up the wheel motors. The tall stealth-goon appeared in the partially-open doorway, and grabbed the manual chain to drag the door the rest of the way open. The maintenance van eased out of the bay. Once clear, Garfield sprinted out of the bay and vaulted into the back of the van. One of the beta-geeks steadied the stealth-goon while the other yanked the van’s rear doors shut.

When the barest gap in traffic presented itself, Corbin surged the boxy maintenance van into the lane. “One of you get up here and establish a secure link with the relay. I want to know what’s near that crawler!”

SEVEN

Giddy vertigo from peering down the dim vastness of the tube made Jaen wonder if Asimov might have been right about humans in Caves Of Steel. Jaen did not normally suffer from either agro- or acrophobia, but the increased oxygen levels might have been conspiring with the adrenalin to make a lick of fear flicker in the acolyte-operative’s mind. The shaft seemed endless, but Jaen knew that there quite certainly was a bottom: the hydroponics decks.

The vehicle that Jaen was riding on was actually one of the maintenance crawlers that trawled the oxygen tubes, inspecting and cleaning its programmed path using an array of abrasive and annealing tools. Occasionally, they also acted as conveyances for human inspectors and technicians. The crawler that was being ridden by Jaen, security operative Sandersi and a technician, was having its electromagnetic treads and articulating legs driven beyond their normal pace. Each pad on its wall-clinging treads was slapping down with a resounding clang, and the clanging piled up on itself with the flurry of pads to create a continuous ringing roar. The only time the cacophony paused was when they encountered a sectional seam, as the segmented legs reached out and vaulted the vehicle through to slap against the wall again with a bone-jarring jolt. The drive mechanism undoubtedly worked gracefully and quietly at its designed speed, but they had reason for haste regardless of how awkward it might seem. The fact that the tube was now arcing down almost vertically gave the process an added sense of anxiety.

When Jaen had directed the investigation to inspect the oxygen tube, and the microscopic seams of the egress hole had been discovered, the mode of transit the out-system rogues had used was verified. They had summoned a technician and a crawler, and followed the fading magnetic footprints left by the rogue’s crawler. When they reached a distribution manifold, the track became lost among the magnetic spoor left by the legion of maintenance crawlers. It was pure luck that they noticed a fresh magnetic track in a tube that has not been scheduled for maintenance recently. They were following that rogue track as fast as possible.

A brightening glow emanated from beyond the curve of the tube, and Jaen strained to spot something, anything, in the gloom. The three avatar programs all vied to observe the data pouring out of the magnetic sensor array skimming next to the wall on a robotic limb, sniffing out details of the track they followed.

“Another hundred meters and we hit another wye!” The technician had to yell in order to be heard, but Jaen’s avatar quietly displayed a confirming schematic and location indicator.

Jaen looked at the schematic in more detail. “Looks like we’re almost out of tube!”

“Right! This is the last manifold before the collectors!”

Suddenly, Sandersi reached for the controls and caused all the occupants to be thrown harshly against their restraints. The crawler quickly ground to a halt, shuddering and rattling with the strain, only 20 meters from another crawler that was tucked on the inside curve of the tube and partially obscured by a seam flange.

In the sudden deafening silence, now that the cacophony of the magnetic treads was stilled, the technician regarded the other crawler with interest. Not only was it slightly larger than the maintenance crawler they were riding in, it clearly was not meant for slow speed operation. The treads weren’t clunky rows of electromagnetic pad, but instead sleek ribbons connected to large drive motors. The low-slung craft had several more legs, and they all appeared powerful and purposeful. “If that thing starts to run, we’re not going to be able to catch it.”

Sandersi immediately contacted Security Operations, but had difficulty describing what they should do. While the security operative tried to get the dispatch operator to understand, Jaen noticed that the rogue crawler was well equipped with sensory devices. “Folks, there’s a pretty good chance that they know we’re here.”

While Sandersi held up hand in a frustrated gesture to indicate apologetic distraction, the technician seemed doubtful. “If they were around, they could have easily been long gone, because they probably would have heard us approaching for a while now.”

Jaen’s eyes went wide. “You’re right. That means they’re racing to be here. Get us to that crawler now.”

“These things aren’t designed for personnel transfer. I could bump up against it, but you still wouldn’t have a safe means to get aboard. Besides, who knows what booby traps they’ve got.”

“Don’t argue, just drive.” Jaen’s glare effectively complemented the forceful timbre of her voice.

The technician made a face that clearly displayed unease, but set the maintenance vehicle to carefully approach the rogue. The crawler’s magnetic pads began the procession of clunking with a slowly building staccato, but the tempo faltered. Jaen didn’t have to ask why, as the light suddenly streaming into tunnel was hard to miss. The actual opening could not be seen as it was beyond the curve of the tube, and the rogue crawler sidled over to cover it.

All three occupants of the maintenance crawler spoke simultaneously.

The technician said, “Zark!”

The acolyte-operative quipped, “We need to get closer!”

The security operative barked, “Take cover!”

All three converged their startled glances, and completely failed to understand each other. The maintenance crawler lurched to a halt again as the technician battled with indecision.

“I really want to get a look at what they’re doing.”

“Well, I really do not want to get a look at any laser weapons again.”

The technician piped up. “Laser weapons?”

“I have questions that need to be answered.”

“Those answers won’t be too useful if you can’t relay them to anyone.”

“Noted.” Jaen focussed attention on the technician. “Ease us closer, so that I can see what they’re doing. Be prepared to back off as fast as possible.” Then Jaen stared down the security operative’s protest. “Get that backup here, if you can.”

The maintenance crawler’s motors hummed with applied power, resisting gravity’s pull down the sweeping tube while the electromagnetic treads clung to the curved wall. That humming reduced and they resumed their descent with a clatter. They crawled down the opposite side of the yawning tube, and slowed to a halt again when they were almost level with the rogue crawler. From that vantage point, the open section of tube was mostly obscured, but they could see some of the rogues passing by the gap.

“It looks like they’re loading something.”

“They look like boxes or small crates.”

“It looks like they’re done...?”

“They look like they’re getting ready to leave. Get us out of here.”

“Which way?”

At that moment, all three of their avatar programs yelped warnings about being cut off from local communication due to some powerful jamming interference. “Oh, Zark.”

“Back the way we came! Go!”

The maintenance crawler pivoted awkwardly and started clamouring frantically back up the oxygen tube. From the seat crammed next to the door of the cab, Jaen craned around to watch the rogue crawler. The hole in the side of the tube closed, and the acolyte-operative wondered if it would be sealed with the same almost undetectable precision as at the cargo bay. Then Jaen felt a growing alarm as the rogue crawler swung around, and surged closer.

EIGHT

The rogue crawler swept up the oxygen tube and caught the maintenance crawler with a predatory ease. Two of the arching legs gracefully embraced the fleeing crawler, and mandibles crimped fast to its chassis. The clunky treads still clung to the wall of the tube and strained to continue driving, but the rogue crawler pulled it to a halt. More of the limbs reached forward, and grasped the splayed legs of the maintenance vehicle. A last limb swung forward tipped with a formidable cutting tool, and it began sawing at one of the pinned legs. The legs of the maintenance crawled began thrashing, as if in pain, but the larger aggressor held firm to its grisly task.

As the drama of mechanical dismemberment caused echoes of whines and clangs to reverberate in the shaft, a stealthy limb unfolded from under the rogue chassis. It gingerly touched part of the maintenance crawler’s hull, depositing the powerful jamming device with an adhesive casing.

When the last leg of the victim had been hewn off, and fallen clattering down the yawning oxygen tube, the rogue crawler released its hold. Corbin pulled the rogue vessel back and turned it to accelerate back down the oxygen tube. The muted howl of the tread motors and the thrumming of the electromagnetic “clingers” were augmented by the sounds of the rogues letting out tense breaths.

“Continue EM-silence, but try to eavesdrop on whatever communication traffic you can as soon as we’re out of range of that jammer.”

The rogue crawler glided down to a sectional seam in the tube and vaulted through with carefully designed athleticism. A grim smile curled the corner of Corbin’s mouth, knowing that the other crawler would now be unable to follow past this point. The array of rogues packed in the cabin of the swift crawler reflexively braced themselves when the vessel’s tread motors relaxed entirely and they literally fell down the tube with only the clingers keeping them next to the wall. The alpha-geek intentionally waited for some of the passengers to make sounds of unease before he ramped up the resistance offered by the treads for a vicious deceleration before the next seam.

“Corbin, you’re trying to make me hurl, right?”

“Just trying to make time. Any signal yet?”

Another beta-geek piped up. “I can’t tell. I’ll let you know after I open my eyes.”

“We’ll be to the wye shortly. There should be clear signal after we traverse to the other branch tube and get some material between us and that jammer.” A couple of the rogues exchanged silent glances at that statement. Corbin suspected that they might, and that they may feel some relief from it. He also knew that their hopes were going to be disappointed.

They raced down several more sections of the oxygen tube as it curved from nearly vertical to 45° from horizontal. As they went, they kept to the upper surface of the tube. This was partially to use the curvature of the tube to their advantage, to get out of the line of sight of the enemy crawler. It was also necessary because the bottom of the shaft disappeared into a gleaming abyss. Directly beneath them was the source of the oxygen; the hydroponics deck. It was bathed in the combined brilliance of piped-in fibre-optic sunlight and artificial lamps, and some of this reflected out the collector nozzle and dazzled those in the crawler.

With everyone in the crawler dangling upside down from their harnesses, Corbin slowed the machine as it approached the corner of the wye. The reaching limbs of the crawler clung to the flange of the seam with mandibles and to the side of the tube with electromagnetic pads. Gingerly, the crawler released the clingers buried behind the treads and dangled precariously from its legs for a moment before hoisting itself to cling onto the wall of the other branch.

Finally shielded from the broad spectrum noise of the jammer, the geeks were able to listen to what was happening in the city above them.

“There’s a lot of chatter with the usual security encoding. It sounds like they’re still confused.”

“If they’re smart, the guys in that crawler will park themselves right next to the hole we cut. There’s not many other points to access that main oxygen tube without having to deal with a lot of dispersion nodes.”

Despite now being stationary, Corbin still laboured on the crawler’s controls. From the midst of his efforts, he snarled in a manner that jangled the nerves of his crew. “I don’t care about that mangled crawler or the rescue efforts. I want to know how close the nearest maintenance unit is, and whether it’s been told to beeline towards us.”

“Right Corbin. Stand by.”

One of the quieter rogues gleaned what the alpha-geek was preparing by peering over Corbin’s shoulder. “Corbin, if we’re going to bungee, you should know that I heard some banging from the cargo compartment. Some of the crates must have come untethered.”

Groans rose from the other rogues, as Corbin turned his head to acknowledge the one that spoke up. “Understood. I’ll try to take it easy. Everyone, double-check your harnesses.” The groans turned into a circulation of mutters, and the rogues readied themselves.

“Uh oh.”

All the rogues turned to regard the beta-geek that had spoken, and a nervous quiet stilled all activity. Corbin delicately tore the hush with an earnest rasp. “What is it?”

“I’m not getting anything from the crawlers, not even the standard telemetry.”

Corbin’s eyes hardened. “Everyone, brace yourselves.” He gripped a 7-DOF controller and selected one of the crawler’s spare limbs. With it, he reached under the vehicle to its tool bay and grasped a large electromagnet attached to a spool of cable. The limb then reached out to carefully clamp the magnet to the curved surface of the oxygen tube that the crawler was hanging from. The limb finished by tugging the connecting cable to clip it into a loop at the rearmost tip of the crawler chassis.

One of the rogues leaned over as much as the harness would allow, and spoke to a beta-geek in an embarrassed whisper. “What does it mean?”

“The maintenance drones aren’t programmed to do be stealthy. There’s only one thing that could make them all change so fast.”

The rogue’s expression took on an element of distress, but that was at least partially attributable to the sudden gut-churning weightlessness of free fall. All the legs and magnetic grippers of the crawler had released, causing the crawler to fall straight down. Only the cable and its anchor remained.

Compared to the 50-meter diameter of the oxygen tube, the 11-tonne rogue crawler appeared tiny. Its plunging motion rippled the wisps of moist, oxygen-rich air blowing up the tube. As it fell into the gigantic chamber of the hydroponics deck, the light changed from a stark shadow-flinging contrast to a surrounding brilliance. The speed of the descent created a chorus of whistles from the aerodynamically ignorant shape of the crawler, and a rising moan from the spinning drum of unwinding cable. The resistance of the uncoiling tether was carefully varied to avoid tumbling and to control speed.

The stomach-lurching drop, the vertigo, and the excitement conspired to cause one rogue to involuntarily regurgitate. Globules tumbled through the cramped cabin a little too slowly and splattered on the back of Corbin’s head and the main window. Cries of revulsion followed. “Aw, MAN. Did you have to have Cajun?”

After about 400 meters, the crawler brushed by the highest canopy of unnaturally regular, genetically designed growth. Corbin reigned back harder on the tether resistance, and everyone leaned hard into their harnesses. The puke spread out more thinly on the window, and a clatter of noise could be heard from aft. Corbin continued braking, with the straps of his harness biting into his shoulders and hips, and swung the four largest legs forward.

The legs reached out and gripped two parallel trellis beams with a snapping set of serrated claws on each limb. The series of joints in each leg flexed to arrest the final motion of the crawler, all four legs folding with forced fluidity. One claw was imperfectly deployed, however, and the slick condensation on the beam helped the claw lose grip and slide off. The crawler lurched abruptly sideways, causing all those riding it to be slammed hard when the shin of the limb struck the beam.

Corbin managed to balance the crawler on the shin and hold on with the remaining limbs long enough to steady the craft with the tether and then secure their hold a few extra limbs clinging to the beams. He blew a tense breath between pursed lips, and set his technical avatar to run a diagnostic.

“Everyone intact?”

A couple grumbles and a “no” were his answer, but the alpha-geek was more intent on his sensory gear. A quick assessment of the trellis they clung to was fed into the control engine, and it developed the parameters for driving the legs to walk them along it. First the crawler leaned cautiously and reached tentatively with a clawed leg like a ballerina afraid of heights. Then as the algorithm was tested and refined, the crawler started speeding up with the legs lashing smartly to move them along. After they had travelled 50 meters, Corbin triggered the electromagnetic anchor to release. It fell, with the cable tether, and the drum whined to reel in the slack. Before long the cable was falling faster than the drum could draw it in, and a great sag of cable drooped into the lush layers of moist green. After a moment, the anchor crashed into the foliage and tore down into the verdant depths. An instant later, the anchor reached the extent of the cable and a violent yank wrenched the crawler and stilled the drum. Then the drum began spinning again, drawing in the anchor.

As Corbin waited for the tether to be re-spooled, he set his tactical avatar to re-evaluate their possible routes down from the lofty hydroponics gantry. Then all he could do was wait for a moment. His eyes wandered to the splash of vomit, then his eyes hardened. A splatter of blood was chasing the bile on the outside of the canopy from a source out of sight.

Twisting as far as he could, Corbin used a hand gesture to signal the stealth-goon. A subsequent series of gestures established his instructions, and he quietly began unharnessing himself. The tactical avatar indicated that no transmissions had been detected coming from the crawler, yet. In a single motion, the stealth-goon and Corbin opened the doors on either side of the cabin and leaned out with static-pulse pistols.

Grimly clinging to the chassis was a shaven-headed young woman in a jumpsuit. She looked at Corbin levelly and said, “I have questions.” The stealth-goon shot her with a static pulse, and she writhed spasmodically, and then dangled limply from a makeshift lanyard.

NINE

Sasha caught herself stalking. Perhaps it was just habit imposing itself on her free time, but it also reminded her of the thrilling aspects that had first lured her into becoming a rogue.

After she finished scolding herself, and managed to dismiss the subsequent paranoia that some security operative had witnessed her following the man in the business suit, Sasha circled back to the commuter elevator. Hugging her long coat in the chill of her mood, she directed her guileless avatar to indicate a preference for down. The crowd that filled the car looked much the same as the gasping throngs she preyed on in her youth, but she knew they were different. These people were now more distinct from her, and the irony of that was not lost on her dark humour.

When she was born, Sasha was among the first generation to know life entirely within the tall new cities of humans. Society was being born anew, with the strange pressures that had previously been reserved for only a small demographic. Those that had opted to remain under open skies were already almost completely gone, either scrambling into the mega-cities or lost to the desertification and oxygen deprivation. Crammed together, new social rules and stratifications began. In the press of circumstance, the way offered by the Prime Program seemed like the sole beacon of hope.

Or, at least, it must have seemed that way to most people. Not to Sasha, though. No, the herding of humanity ignited her rebellious soul, and she began down the path to retain her distinction from the masses. That path lead her eventually to the dark undercurrents in society; to the out-system rogues. Lead her to be riding into the dank basement of the city to deliver a message to Corbin.

The elevator car sank through all the brightly lit levels of the prospering strata, and those stops seemed to drain all the interesting people from the car. What was left were the drab specimens that were destined for the lower levels. These people were either returning from their menial labours above, or descending to find unmentionable things best kept in the dark. Judging from the ubiquitous tension everyone remaining wore like a stain between their eyes, there were no people here just going to visit friends or family and there were no curious explorers.

A uniformed security operative stepped onto the elevator, and the menagerie all parted wearily, and a couple riders became wary. Sasha found herself wondering if she was as obvious as the others. The operative was just one of them, though, tugging to loosen his tunic for comfort and eventually stepping off at the modest level he called home.

The elevator car gradually emptied, until finally Sasha shared the car with only one other. It was a male, no longer young but still reeking of immaturity, and now he was beginning to show interest, like a snake uncoiling.

“What brings you waaay down here, lady?” The insincerity of his toothy smile spoke grimly to Sasha.

“We all do what we’ve got to do.” A fiery glance flashed at the other was Sasha’s way of trying to warn him away.

The other casually glanced at the dwindling level numbers, then leered back at Sasha. “Must be something pretty heavy to make you sink this low. Something... unfortunate.” The last word was spoken awkwardly, but deliberately.

Sasha wanted to admit with exasperation that he had no idea how right he was, but instead quietly glared at him. Once again she found herself wishing that she carried a weapon of some kind.

“A lady, lookin’ like you, sinking this low... I don’t think you’d call for help unless you thought you might die.”

Certainly, one of the crimes to dramatically decrease with the advent of implanted communications was stalking offences. Sasha wondered how long this dickhead had waited for some lone female to fall into his grasp, someone for whom calling for help might be worse than what he might do to them. Which was stupid, because who knew what this twisted freak might do.

Shortly after their avatars had been notified it was imminent, the elevator car settled into its last stop and swept open its door expectantly. The other extended an arm directed toward the yawning door. “Go on, lady. Go wherever you’re going.”

“Is something un-forcha-nit going to happen while I go on my way?”

“Yeah, I think so. You won’t die, though.”

Sasha strode out of the elevator and headed towards one of the industrial passages. The other stalked after her, not trying to hide but not hurrying either. Down here, in the crevices of the city beside the hydroponics deck and amongst the life support machinery for the bright world above, it was breezy and damp. The intense light conducted to the life-giving plants leaked into the hallways and crawlways to cast long shadows and made it into a world of silhouettes.

Even though there was no designed intention for this part of the city to be inhabited, there were people here nonetheless. People that had lost there way, or not wanting to be found, huddled throughout these places. Black markets consisting of poorly parked vans and plastic boxes cropped up here during lulls of official attention. Sasha wound her way past these and headed into the depths of the maintenance corridors, her shadow diligently pacing her.

She knew that the other was waiting; waiting for both an appropriately secluded spot and for its nerve to be ready. Before he was ready, Sasha picked her spot. In a junction of corridors, with arrayed hatches to the hydroponics equipment allowing brilliant light to cast pitch black shadows, she turned and faced the other.

The other paused for a moment, wary of the prey’s unexpected mettle. For the moment, merely being twice as large and holding a hidden cudgel wasn’t sufficiently reassuring.

Sasha defiantly let her voice ring through the corridors. “Are you thinking of raping me?”

“Well, that depends.”

“Depends on what?”

“On how much you resist.”

Sasha’s eyes narrowed into slits that concentrated the pure hatred in her gaze. “Let me ask you another question. I’m guessing that you’re the kind of person who would be unlikely to call for help, unless you were going to die. Am I right?”

The other just stared dumbly.

“But if you were pretty certain that you were going to die, you’d scream on every frequency available for the security goons. You’d thank them for arresting you and interrogating you in exchange for saving your worthless life, right?” By now, the humming from Sasha’s coat could clearly be heard rising in the hexagonal space. The other’s eyes widened as Sasha triggered the resonant communicator pulse from her coat. The radiation wouldn’t penetrate the walls of the corridor, but the frequency was specifically chosen to interact with implanted communicators. It built up a charge in the system that fried the components before the circuit breakers could shut them down. It was also likely to be uncomfortable, but that was relatively minor, when taken into perspective.

Driven to his knees, the other rubbed a hand on the blisters along his neck. “What the FUCK was that? Crazy bitch.” He shook his head and blinked, while veins bulged with his mounting anger. “Crazy bitch!”

Sasha whirled and sprinted away, further down the maintenance corridor. Due to the irregular lighting, her striding form seemed to blink between colour and silhouette as it shrank. The other roared with rage as he surged to his feet and sprinted after her. He pounded down the corridor after his quarry, the cudgel now obvious in his knotted fist while he pumped his arms. Hearing the slapping footfalls closing on her, Sasha lengthened her stride. The other poured on extra speed and grunted with the effort, but Sasha maintained distance. After a while the other started flagging, and Sasha assumed a slower pace to keep him following as best he could.

After a few hundred meters like this, Sasha trotted into a chamber some 20 meters across and dizzyingly tall. Conduits and pipes hid the actual walls, and almost hid the wary figure standing to one side. The large human was previously completely hidden, but emerged as Sasha approached. She slowed to a stop, beamed a crazed smile at the uneasy person in the long trench coat, and turned to face her pursuer.

The other, gasping, didn’t notice the new person and proceeded unsteadily towards Sasha. “Kill you... Bitch...”

“I’ve disabled his communications.” Sasha drew back her lips and snarled the next words. “The name of the alpha-geek in the next junction is Corbin.”

Expressions of confusion inflicted two thirds of the people present. It caused the pursuer to pause momentarily. Conversely, it caused the security-goon to widen his eyes with alarm, raise the weapon concealed under his trench coat, and fire three silenced rounds into the pursuer. The would-be rapist jerked with each impacting flechette bundle, issuing a metallic plink embedded in each wet slap, and then the pursuer tumbled loosely into a leaking sprawl. The security-goon stepped over to the body to check it, then took a hard look down each of the connecting passageways, all the while his avatar program chattered in hushed frequencies to the other rogues. After a few moments, the security-goon addressed Sasha.

“Go in. They’re anxious to talk to you.”

Sasha tried to will her heart to stop pounding so, and to stop her skin from crawling. Failing that, she walked down the corridor to next chamber. There, beyond a cluster of assorted rogues was a gigantic door. It sat, reclined at a 45° angle and bathed in chlorophyll green light from the open shaft above. A century before, it yawned only to permit access to the massive pumps that fed the sprawling tons of plants above it. Now this remote corner of the city’s infrastructure was secretly inhabited by some out-system rogues.

The group of rogues eyed her silently, though she knew that they were doubtlessly chattering to each other by infrared. She stepped wordlessly past them, exchanging glances and nods with those she recognized. An apprehensive look was wasted regarding the bulging door motors and the supposedly defeated security systems. She coaxed herself around the massive base of the door to the merely human-sized portal recessed in the wall beside it. The bland metal affair swung open as she approached, and she continued through it trying to appear collected. She didn’t see the guard by the door, but she knew one must be there. As per the instructions decrypted by her avatar, she proceeded down the grated metal staircase towards the lighted region below. After descending several meters, the door above her swung shut, snuffing all light other than the glow from her destination.

The noise down here was oppressive. The array of monster pumps, though efficient, still created a pervasive rumble that intruded into one’s thoughts. More importantly, their immense motors created a dense electromagnetic field that rendered normal communications utterly useless. Not even the most fervent distress signal from an implanted communicator would be detectable from the center of the churning fields. Only line-of-sight communications were of any use, and it was not possible to see very far at all.

As Sasha felt her way down the stairs, another group of rogues assembled. They had been busy in small groups, but now they all converged near Corbin and the captive unconscious on a cot. Corbin and his betas watched Sasha approach, and their intensity made her feel like wilting. Corbin motioned for her to come close, and it helped her to rally her will.

Corbin leaned forward to bring his face nearer to Sasha, and he had to force his voice into a jagged croak to be heard. “What is the word from the weasel-boy?”

“The old slimeball mostly laughed, but he did instruct me to tell you ‘I bet old Rudolph didn’t even like reindeer games’”

The alpha-geek folded his arms, straightened up, and sighed. After a moment, he blinked, turned and nodded to the med-tech lording over the captive. The med-tech returned the nod, and began altering the flow of fluids into the prone form.

Everyone seemed like statues to Sasha, standing patiently, waiting in the din. After a few minutes, her impatience became unbearable. “Corbin, what should I send back?”

Corbin regarded her and bent down towards her again. “Say again?”

“What message do you want sent back?”

“No message, not by you. We can’t allow any pattern to develop on that route.” The alpha-geek turned away from Sasha and focussed on the captive as she was beginning to stir. Sasha hesitated for a moment then looked around Corbin to regard the person lying on the cot. She saw the shape of the toned curves, and found herself sardonically answering many of her own unasked questions about why this operative was taken alive.

TEN

Jaen had difficulty coming fully awake. Jaen’s avatar program chattered a worrying list of concerns that it had, but the acolyte-operative decided to concentrate on more pressing concerns. Like heaving those leaden eyelids open to see how similar the world might look as compared to the last images burned into memory. Like seeing just how much trouble was waiting.

Blindfolded.

Ah, well, that reduced the burden of dealing with too much information, right? It was too noisy to make out anything, which further simplified things. Before trying to move, Jaen decided to check the avatar program a little more carefully. It explained that it had only managed to reboot itself 43 minutes ago, and suspected that the system chronometer had not fared much better during the downtime, meaning that they had lost an unknown amount of time. Communication was currently impossible with the ambient electromagnetic interference, with all the obvious ramifications. The un-obvious ramifications, along with the general dearth of information did not soothe Jaen at all.

A loud clear voice seemed to be speaking directly into Jaen’s ear. “What is your name?” The minor distortion in the voice suggested that there might be a speaker attached to the blindfold near the ear.

“Jaen.”

“What are you, Jaen?”

“I am exactly the person you already know me to be. I have no illusions about what you people are, and I think I know what you can know. Let’s get on to the important stuff.”

“Answer the question! What are you?”

“I’m the person the Prime Program manipulated you into meeting.” Jaen couldn’t hear the exchange of glances, nor see the huddled conversation, but was able to infer their probable existence from the sudden lull in the exchange.

Eventually, the voice returned, but there was clearly a reduced aura of confidence in its attempted dispassionate tone. “What would you consider to be the Important Stuff?”

Jaen took a deep breath, and tried to speak as calmly as possible, though with limited success. “We should discuss your connections to the Prime Program, and why its interest in you is increasing.”

“This is ridiculous. We don’t have any connection to the prime program; that’s the definition of being an out-system rogue. Now tell us information that’s worth keeping you alive.”

“That’s just the problem!” Jaen’s throat had constricted from fear and anger, making the words squeak and tremble. “I don’t know anything specific, but I have insights that the Prime Program knows you will find irresistible. Surely you must be aware that the Prime Program is manipulating you? It’s manipulating all of us!”

“You’re trying to tell us that the prime program sent a paranoid delusional to make contact with the out-system rogues. Is this the part where you start to cluck like a chicken? Acting crazy isn’t going to save you.”

A new voice joined in, surprisingly understandable despite being a tattered croak. “Actually, that doesn’t sound all that crazy.”

Jaen wanted to insist that she was not all that crazy, but knew the effort would be counter-productive. Instead, she waited for the croaking to resume.

“Tell me, why do you think the prime program is interested in us? Why do you think that its interest is increasing?”

“I know that the Prime Program is interested in you because it specifically assigned me to investigating you. I think that its interest has increased because it seemed to be largely concerned with what military capabilities you have.”

“Ah. And the quintessential aspect of the Great and Benevolent prime program has been its adamant encouragement of non-violence. This leads you to think that it’s suddenly developed a worry so profound that it might be willing to contemplate violence. Right?”

Jaen nodded. “Yes, that’s a big part of it.”

“Let me tell you that this is not the case. The prime program has been quite ruthless throughout its existence, it’s just that most people are completely unaware of it. Do you have any other reasons?”

“I’m not really sure, a lot of it is a gut feeling. Something about the Prime Program seemed much more... I don’t know... desperate – than I think it should be.”

There came a wracking sound that might have been from either a punch to the gut or a convulsive laugh. “You’re basing things on a feeling? Maybe you are crazy.”

“Don’t be ridiculous. You have already implied that you are aware of being manipulated by the Prime Program. I doubt very much that you can point to any specific actions by the Prime Program that have influenced you, but rather are basing the possibility on a feeling that you have.”

There was a brief lull in the conversation, in which the cacophony of the pumps seemed to swallow all the words that had been previously spoken. Jaen used the moment to savour the silent touché, and to bolster what courage could be mustered. “What we should be doing, instead of wasting our time trying to pointlessly determine exactly what I am, is to find out what the Prime Program is up to.” Even over the droning background noise, Jaen could hear assorted snorts and other involuntary expressions.

“Explain.”

“I am pretty certain that the Prime Program has not only manipulated me into this situation, but also manipulated my preconceptions of this situation. I strongly suspect that it has also had some influence on either your involvement in this situation or your perception of it. This sort of effort isn’t likely to be accidental or unintentional. So, what is it up to?”

“You don’t think that it’s just obviously trying to curtail our activities?”

“No. That doesn’t fit. If it wanted to do that, it wouldn’t have sent an inexperienced acolyte to be caught. It would have sent a cohort of experience security operatives.”

“So, you don’t think that the Prime Program had some means of snooping on you, and hoped that you might just catch a whiff of something about us?”

Jaen’s lips pressed together with the effort of the racing thoughts. “I don’t think so. I quickly gained an appreciation of how much technical prowess you rogues might have, and even if the Prime Program didn’t specifically impress that idea on me, it still certainly knew it too. I don’t think it would go to all this trouble for such an unlikely attempt.”

The out-system rogue’s voice grated in a dangerous manner. “All right then, what do you think the prime program is trying to do.”

“I think the Prime Program is trying to send you a message.”

Jaen waited for what seemed to be quite a bit longer than a mere pause in the conversation, but felt that the others needed to offer a reaction before anything could continue. What could not be seen or heard was the alpha-geek gesturing for all the others to leave, and him waiting for the chamber to empty.

The acolyte-operative was startled when the bonds securing her hands were tugged, to test them. When the alpha-geek pulled the blindfold off, Jaen became even more frightened. Corbin stared intently into her eyes, tension creasing along invisible lines of force between them. “What do you think that message is?”

“I, I’m not really sure...”

“Let me tell you a story, and then we’ll see if you can think of something. Do you know where the prime program came from?”

“Are you going to tell me that it didn’t evolve accidentally from the old internet, like something one of those crackpot urban legends claim?”

“No. Not exactly. Nobody alive knows where the prime program came from, and even the prime program has never been all that clear about its origins. What I do know, however, is that its origins are conspicuously timed with the beginnings of the out-system rogues. Some of our more ancient members think that the prime program itself created the rogues.”

Something in Jaen’s expression while contemplating the story so far made the alpha-geek divert momentarily. His eyes darkened with an earnestly subdued wrath. “I know that most people think that the out-system rogues are all either anti-social or just miscreants. It’s true that those types do fall afoul of society and interact in the same realm as the out-system rogues, but they’re different. They’re a breed apart, rarely accepted into our ranks.”

“You see, the first rogues weren’t really rogues at all, not by their own choice, anyway. They were all sorts of social and economic spectrums, with no political similarities of note. The story goes that they suddenly found that they didn’t officially exist any more, except for those that spontaneously discovered that they had dire criminal records fallaciously associated with them. This was during the crash, when the fossil fuels were recognized as poison and the world was suffering withdrawal. To most of the public, it was completely unnoticed; it was just another part of society gone mad.”

“The old rogues, the ones that blame the prime program, they think that there were two connections between that defined them. First, they were all pillars of the technocracy – geeks, in the modern sense. Second, and I hope you’re listening carefully, they all ran a background semi-sentient computer program on their personal computers called SETI. This was a program that distributed data from radio signals collected from outer space to Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence.” A grim, bemused smirk made the alpha-geek’s face become quite ugly. “They say that there were thousands upon thousands of SETI users, and that many of them would have been geeks. Yet, the first out-system rogues were just a few ragged handfuls. They found each other scavenging for food and resources while the old cities were being flooded, and while these mega-cities were being built.”

Jaen felt confused. Watching the alpha-geek watching back, the acolyte-operative suddenly felt like there were too many pieces being juggled. “What are you saying?”

“I’m saying that the out-system rogues aren’t terrorists, or rebels, or anything like that. We’re just trying to survive. Survive in a system that we don’t trust.” The alpha-geek paused for sardonic effect. “This is where you are supposed to start feeling a swell of sympathy and understanding.”

“What?”

“I think the prime program sent you to join us.”

“How is that supposed to work?”

“Well, it’s not. I mean, it won’t happen that way. I think the prime program knew that you would be understanding of us, perhaps sympathetic, and that we would be interested in having you working with us. However that was supposed to happen, I think that the prime program also had some means to retrieve you after you’ve learned too much.”

“So, you’re saying that you think the Prime Program has miscalculated somewhere?”

“Don’t get me wrong, I’ve come to know that either you respect what the prime program can do, or you get caught. Except for the one thing I think the prime program doesn’t know, I’d say it was pretty frighteningly perceptive. There is a genuine gleam of helpfulness in your eyes, or so I imagine. I’d probably even risk having you report back to the prime program for the sake of having you help us, even for a while – except that I can’t.”

Jaen didn’t like the way this was going at all, as it made her future potentially quite bleak. “I still think that the Prime Program is manipulating this situation, even now. We need to try to figure out what it’s trying to accomplish.”

“No. We don’t. Clearly, part of what it’s trying to accomplish is to learn what we’re doing, and we don’t want that. It seems to me that the best thing to do is to minimize what it can find out. So, what you need to do is to tell me things that I want to know.”

“And what is my motivation for that? Since you have let me see your face, I’m guessing that means that you intend to kill me anyway.”

The alpha-geek raised an eyebrow in a manner that would be best descried as Vulcan. “That’s certainly one possibility. However, if you prove to be a source of insight, it might be worth the risk. The prime program undoubtedly already knows what I look like, it’s just problematic letting the thing have too much confirmation. It seems to infer much.”

“How am I supposed to be a source of insight? Are you hoping that I’ll be able to predict the Prime Program’s actions?” Jaen felt reserves of epinephrine washing through veins as realization of what must be done blossomed.

“You’ve got me there. I was hoping that you might provide clues about what the prime program might be suspecting, so that we could conform to its suspicions and blunt its curiosity.” The alpha-geek broke his eyes away from those of his hostage, while wrestling with a decision, and let them wander instinctively.

Jaen arched her back, and grabbed an anchor handhold under the platform with one of her bound hands. She locked eyes again with the alpha-geek, who was curious about what this lithe girl was trying to accomplish. Jaen used the opportunity to gauge distance, and with an abrupt motion coiled her legs above her, and blasted a hard kick to the alpha-geek’s temple. He swayed, stunned from the blow, and Jaen snaked her legs up again to catch his neck between her feet. Causing herself to arch high above the table, she forced his head to slam down hard on the platform. She pressed his throat hard against her ankle for a moment, until she was certain that he was unconscious. Then she let him slump ungracefully to the floor in an undignified jumble.

A quick look around revealed that they still had some privacy, for the moment, and that the howl of the pumps had concealed the struggle. The acolyte-operative wriggled up to a hunched sitting position, with her bound hands still trapped under the platform. It felt like simple polyethylene strips bound her wrists, and there was no way she could break them. She pulled hard with her back and shoulders, and the bonds bit deeply into her wrists. She felt the strain of the edge of the platform pressing cruelly on her forearms, and the tendons in her elbows and wrists felt like they were tearing. When she felt that she couldn’t bear it any more, she gave a final spasmodic heave, and cried out with a whimper of pain. When she slumped down again, she began wriggling her arms to try to slide them out of the bonds. She had managed to stretch the straps just enough that her small hands could be worked free, and a few moments later she was untethered.

Unable to resist, Jaen bent down over the crumpled alpha-geek to make sure that he was still breathing. Then Jaen looked for possible avenues of escape. As if on cue, the faithful avatar program offered the crude schematic of this region of the mega-city that it had in memory, and gave its best guess on where their position was likely to be. The avatar program also indicated how far Jaen would have to travel before the interference was sufficiently reduced for the implanted communicator would be able to signal for help, but the acolyte-operative hoped to be much further away before emitting anything from the communicator. The avatar program took the instructions to watch and squelch any transmissions without complaint, and initiated its own scrutiny of the system for possible tampering.

No longer obscured by the looming pump, Jaen could make out the dim shadow of the rogue crawler perched in the chamber, below a broad overhead door outlined by faint ribbons of refined sunlight, and amid a glow of opportunity.

Jaen padded carefully around the giant pump, into the gloom, and regarded the open hatchway on the side of the rogue crawler. As tempting as it might be to try to escape in the same vehicle that brought her, Jaen feared that it would be too easy for the out-system rogues to trap her inside. Even if the crawler didn’t have an avatar program controlling it, it would still be likely to be prone to accepting commands remotely from the technologically adept rogues. Nevertheless, its presence might assist with the acolyte-operative’s escape.

A flicker of reflected light in Jaen’s peripheral vision caught her attention, and she saw a lanky rogue round a strut beyond. The rogue seemed contemplative, but not particularly concerned. Before she fully emerged into the glow of the observation lights surrounding the empty platform and the sprawled alpha-geek, she turned and seemed to stare back beyond the strut. Jaen guessed that she might be communicating with infrared to some unseen other or others. It was too early to be discovered.

The lanky rogue quickly realized that something was amiss, and started to rush to the aid of the fallen alpha-geek. Before she could reach him, Jaen slammed into the rogue with her knee driven hard into the gut. As the rogue reeled back doubled over and winded, Jaen sent a hard sideways kick to her jaw. The abrupt twisting motion of the head drove the rogue unconscious, and she fell hard to the concrete floor. The rogue’s yells and grunts had been quite audible to her, but she hoped that they were lost in all the ambient noise.

There was very little time. Jaen sprinted to the wall that her avatar guessed would control the maintenance crane for this pump bay. Somewhere in the middle of the floor were the unseen cables recharging the crawler, and Jaen’s foot struck one mid stride. It caused her to somersault onto her ass, and when she sprung up she continued with a slight limp. Once at the wall, the crane controls had to be located and operated by Braille, but shortly the large beam on tracks started proceeding from its niche near the ceiling. After jamming the controls, Jaen headed quickly for the stairs leading out. Soon the rogues would either notice that the crane was going to intersect with the parked crawler, or they would notice that it had.

The crane was equipped with a strobe light, as a safety feature, and that was quickly noticed by both the group of betas conferring down one of the access tubes and the maintenance rogues aboard the crawler. The resulting pandemonium was the backdrop for Jaen sprinting up the grated metal staircase. As she bounded up, a pair of glints reflecting from some optical enhancement goggles emerged from the shadows shrouding the exit. A pulse from the crane’s strobe revealed the goggles to be worn by a hulking figure at least two meters tall. He stared directly at Jaen as he assumed a combat stance and blocked the walkway.

Jaen’s pace faltered slightly, as she switched which feet she would use, and then she plunged ahead. Before she even reached the top platform, the goon sprang forward and shot a frighteningly quick punch toward Jaen’s head. She barely managed to guide it past her bobbing head with one defensive arm sweep, then the goon’s other arm shot out and grasped a fold of Jaen’s tunic. Before the huge goon could manipulate her into some defenceless position, Jaen drove her stiff fingers into his windpipe, just above the breastbone. When the goon flinched, Jaen twisted free and swept-kicked the rogue’s forward foot. She vaulted around the stumbling goon by using the handrail, and yanked open the exit door to a baleful blast of light.

Outside the pump room, a cluster of out-system rogues were staring dumbfounded up at the slowly-opening monster door. There hadn’t been time to run the normal banter of checks and all-clears before cranking the door open at emergency speed to allow the crawler to flee the pump chamber. It was primarily for this reason that the rogues were too slow to react to the merely human-sized door opening and the sleek girl charging at them. Jaen eyes narrowed to grim slits when she realized the spectrum of armaments the rogues were equipped with, and found herself doubting the adage connecting fortune and boldness.

The acolyte-operative leap past the first two surprised rogues she came across that appeared to be armed merely with static-pulse pistols, and smashed the left elbow of a large rogue with a laser weapon. The bellow that erupted from the wounded rogue crystallized the attention of the other rogues, and many of them only manage to catch a glimpse of a bald girl bend their comrade’s arm in a very unpleasant and unlikely manner. Jaen stepped behind the large, screaming rogue while forcing him to act as cover by a very unkind manipulation of his dislocated elbow before the blasts from various static-pulse weapons started snapping past her. For an instant, she was worried that her shield might crumple, but quickly realized that some sort of electrical sink was causing the blasts to have no effect, other than to tingle her hand where she was pinning his arm and the chorus of crackles as charges jumped.

The rest of the rogues had backed away as their first reaction, before opening fire with blasts of static-pulse. Now that this seemed to have little effect, the pack seemed about to pounce. In desperation, Jaen grabbed at the laser weapon dangling from a strap over the shoulder of her hostage. Her small hand fumbled with the alien-feeling grip, and wrenched the weapon sway upward from its dangling orientation. In that moment, terror descended on the chamber. Immediately, none of the rogues were eager to charge, and instead retreated to defensive stances.

It might have been Jaen’s fear and loathing of the laser weapon that stopped her from sweeping its beam across the rogues, or it might have been confusion and unfamiliarity with the weapon that delayed the onslaught. Or maybe the other rogue armed with a laser weapon was just faster. After watching her comrade painfully turned into a shield and the non-lethal static-pulse charges failing to reach the quarry, the sight of the compromised assault laser threatening the crowd of rogues prompted the beta-goon to fire. Her laser weapon was already clutched tight to her shoulder, and she snapped a beam at Jaen.

The large rogue that Jaen was using as a shield absorbed all the direct heat from the laser, leaving only some first-degree burns to the acolyte-operative’s left shoulder and right leg. The ravening beam intersected the rogue-cum-shield in his left thorax, and blazed down across the abdomen to finish at the right hip. The intense heat of the beam seared away the flesh, and the water content of the consumed tissues and fluids flashed explosively into steam. Due to the large size of the doomed rogue, instead of being blown apart, his exploding organs served to propel the remaining corpse across the chamber. Jaen was lifted and thrown by the human projectile, landing in a bruised tumble several meters beyond the steaming remains of the mutilated shield. With the world slightly out of focus, Jaen found that the rest of the rogues were obscured by a dense cloud of grotesque steam. It took only a moment for the fear and desperation to haul the shaking acolyte-operative up and into a run down the nearest passageway.

Only a scant ten meters down the shadowy corridor there was a portal leaking a bright glow. Jaen pounded towards it, intent on its pitted features. Behind the fleeing girl, the view of the swirling pea-coloured cloud showed humanoid shadows growing in it, striking wary poses with weapons extended. The noise of the door mechanism being manipulated and the surge of glow attracted the shadows attentions, and with it came a peppering of static-pulses and flechettes. Jaen found the door’s motion restricted by some debris on the other side, and threw weight against it to shove it to make it yawn sufficiently. Pressing sideways, and scraping hip and chest uncomfortably through the gap, she tried furiously to writhe away from the hissing charges and singing projectiles. A final convulsive surge sent the acolyte-operative stumbling amongst the brightly lit lower tendrils of the hydroponics deck.

With time oozing too slowly, Jaen found her legs unsteadily holding her up. Confusion gripped her as she realized that something was wrong with her right arm, so she craned to look, and saw rivulets of blood splattering the dust below her hand. A wash of heat flushed through her, then a chill of fear chased it away, except from the burns on her thigh and shoulder. The burns flashed into pain, and the pain was reflected and magnified by the flechettes embedded in her elbow and tricep. Nausea made reservations, but was going to have to wait to be seated until after the new wave of fear.

The refreshed fear was from the startling coruscant of expended laser energy splashing against the edge of the doorway, and searing some of the nearby greenery. It brilliantly reminded Jaen that she hadn’t escaped yet, and spurred her into a run. Dodging through gaps in the gauzy green organic curtains and holding an injured arm made the acolyte-operative’s gait feel awkward, but still she managed a respectable tempo along a deliberately curving path. Jaen’s helpful avatar program had managed to warn Jaen that it was unwise to move in a straight path from range weapons. Proving its point, sounds of assorted weapons fire was soon heard tearing through the dangling hydroponics along Jaen’s original direction of flight.

A dim schematic of the support tunnels in the hydroponics deck was conjured in the acolyte-operative’s mind, and the avatar program made its best guesses about where they might be. The vast scale of the deck was worrisome, as were the confusing number of places they might actually be. All Jaen could do was run, and hope to get lucky. The painfully bright light sources dispersed throughout the volume of the hydroponics decks left the pumping level Jaen was on a blurry wash of shimmering green, and she pressed through it. Tears flavoured with pain, terror, and anger etched Jaen’s cheeks. Teeth gritted to stretch her stride, and to gnash back her fury.

Her path weaved, to confuse pursuit, but it slowed her progress enough to allow some rogues to flank her. When she ran into another tunnel wall, literally, Jaen knew she was in trouble. The sound of her impact and startled cry might have been heard by the skirmish line she heard pursuing through the leafy fog. Turning to follow the wall of the maintenance tunnel, she hoped to come across a door before she was found. A rogue that had beat her to the wall, and was backtracking along it burst through a chlorophyll bank with a projectile weapon held stiffly before him. Unfortunately for him, he was just as surprised as Jaen, but nowhere near as scared and pissed off.

Jaen snatched the rogue’s wrist, and placed it so that their cumulative momentum slammed the rogue’s arm with a numbing blow and a painful grunt. While the deadly pistol tumbled, Jaen pivoted and drove her knee hard into the rogue’s gut, causing a coughing exhale. Partly to ensure that the rogue didn’t follow too soon, and partly just to be an evil bitch, Jaen delivered a hobbling kick to the side of the rogue’s knee. And he fell, groaning.

Picking up the projectile pistol, Jaen held it awkwardly in her left hand and resumed running. After a few strides, she threw it over the maintenance tunnel in disgust.

ELEVEN

The one thing that Corbin wanted to do was make his throat sore with an angry scream. Instead he kept a tight seal on his fury and frustration, knowing how fragile the calm and stability of the other rogues would be. They needed him to live up to his reputation of cool control, so that they would continue to trust in his ability to wrest success from the jaws of catastrophe. And the situation could certainly be considered a potential catastrophe.

The alpha-geek was walking, moving among the arrayed workings of various beta-geeks who were loading technological components into crates and various smuggling containers. As Corbin walked, he was collecting various components and assembling something. While his hands were busy picking up items, and manipulating tools to mount and calibrate them, he was carrying on several locally secure conversations. The array of tactical avatars involved had just pronounced that the probability of intercepting the fleeing agent had crashed far below the increasing possibility of even greater immediate risk of several fully-armed rogue goons being apprehended. Simply put, without more trace on exactly where the agent was, she could already have spilled everything she would, and any further effort was probably just futile and risky.

Corbin opened up a side conversation with one of the beta-goons in pursuit. “Garf? I’m going to tell you guys to pull back, but keep close to Dante – he’s probably seeing red, and might not comply. Go easy on him, though. If you can manoeuvre him to help Donnie limp back, that should help to keep him busy.”

Garfield’s respectful reply came without hesitation. “Aye-aye, Corbin-san.” In the broad security network conversation, Corbin then issued the abort and call-back commands.

As he walked and worked, the alpha-geek was also being followed and scrutinized by a med-tech. Corbin croaked, “How do I check out?”

The med-tech said gravely, “You’re fine, but your singing career is ruined.” Temporarily unable to appreciate the humour, Corbin nodded dismissed the med-tech. Likewise, he left his lieutenants to continue with the directives he had already issued. The alpha-geek stopped to finish off the device he was constructing.

Corbin was not happy. The extent of his unhappiness was felt rather than seen by the rest of the out-system rogues under his command. The sleek crawler was finally being settled back into the pump bay to be loaded with gear after it had scampered out to avoid the sweep of the ancient crane. Many of the rogues had already been sent off running towards hiding among the teeming levels above, most of them packing what gear they could realistically carry. All of them were following a set of pre-planned directions at the un-subtle urging of the alpha-geek’s tactical avatar program. The potentially dire implications of this sequence told the rogues all they needed to accurately guess Corbin’s mood. This was most obviously manifested by the way he was left alone.

At the center of his brooding pocket of peace amongst the storm of rogue activity, Corbin sat perched awkwardly on a plastic crate, hunching predatorily over a crude-looking artifact. It was a communications relay, the crude appearance being a by-product of the haste of its fabrication. The heart of this particular relay was the entangler, which created pairs of electrons with quantum entanglement. The purpose of this was to enable secure communications, by virtue of being certain that only the intended recipient was receiving the transmission. This was very important, because Corbin really needed to talk to someone, and the content needed to be kept secure.

This system was also possible because quantum communication was the backbone of financial transactions, and there was a vast, globe-spanning infrastructure to support it. Unfortunately, though the content of the conversation would be inviolate, the physical locations of both ends would be plainly obvious. This should not be too problematic for who Corbin was calling, as they had specifically set up a disposable quantum communication node for this purpose, but the alpha-geek was not similarly buffered. Also, considering that most financial transactions usually were completed in a fraction of a second, this communication activity would be somewhat obvious... if anyone were looking for it. The various alpha-geeks used this system as a last resort, generally preferring the robust low-tech system of couriers carrying coded messages. Considering how badly things had gone wrong in the past couple hours, Corbin definitely felt that it was worth risking use of this emergency method.

“I’m green on my end.” The nasal, breathy voice forming inside Corbin’s mind was being relayed by his technical avatar, while the tactical avatar monitored the device for any signs of interception. All the quantum entanglements were being read at the expected interval and reported accurately.

Corbin responded, “I’m green here too. All right, talk to me.”

“It’s really strange. I stare into Hell, and I see this snowball just sitting there, not melting.”

Though Corbin wasn’t actually speaking out loud, his features clouded with the intensity of inflection he projected through his implanted computer, emitted from the antennae winding along his spine, and relayed through the entangler device. “I haven’t got time for fucking code. I need specifics and I need options spelled out.”

The nasal voice managed to convey the grin usually worn by the other alpha-geek. “That’s just it – you do seem to have time. At least, more time than you should have. And, let me tell ya – it’s kinda ominous.”

“OK, maybe I liked the coded version better. Just tell me what you know, please? How much time do I have to hand off the control operations to the next team, and is there any way my team can get out of this intact?”

“Unless there’s some spectacularly clandestine group operating at the behest of the prime program that I can’t spot any activity from, it looks like you and your team can just saddle up and mosey out any time you want.”

The pair of entanglement communication relays diligently exchanged near silence for a long moment.”

“WHAT?”

“It’s obvious where you are – I’ve seen the fire alarms triggered, probably by laser fire, and they match quite conspicuously with anomalies in the maintenance logs. If it’s obvious to me, then it was obvious to the prime program a while ago. You know what? The most subtle commands that I’ve been able to detect from the prime program have been to stall indefinitely a fire-response team from approaching your area. Much less subtle has been the sternly instructing messages to the local security operatives to halt their missing person operation before it even really got rolling. Even the oxygen tunnel maintenance crawlers have been carefully put back in their normal pattern.”

“That doesn’t make any sense. What’s the prime program doing?”

“Specifically, it seems to be using the usual run-time on the typical systems it keeps secured, but it’s drastically cut interaction with most of the cities I have access to. It’s like it’s waiting and thinking. So the real question is: What is it thinking?”

TWELVE

Acolyte-operative Jaen almost collapsed upon trembling knees to sob. Perhaps if safely hidden back in the private 40 square meters of the residence Jaen had lived quietly during school and as an acolyte, that’s exactly what would have happened. The fact that there was a comfortable and familiar couch up there might have made it even more likely. As it was, stumbling through the maintenance corridors towards an industrial section, relief was brimming brightly in Jaen’s eyes and creeping down one cheek when the tireless avatar program chattered that it had managed to successfully connect with the main communications network.

There were several communications that Jaen knew had to be made, but their hierarchy actually surprised the acolyte-operative. A message about Jaen’s status was sent by the nervous avatar program to security operations, though it was specifically vague about specific location. The intent of the vagueness was the very pragmatic assumption that the out-system rogues might overhear and arrive first. In comparison, Jaen had the avatar attempt to connect with security operative Sandersi directly. Signal tracking crashed into a communications firewall, undoubtedly because security operatives don’t want to be readily tracked. Nevertheless, an echo from an avatar program returned promptly.

Sandersi’s avatar, after verifying that Jaen was the person it thought she was, immediately apologized. It seemed that the security operative was asleep, and the avatar was having difficulty waking him. After the murder of his partner, through the subsequent investigation, and Jaen’s dramatic disappearance, Sandersi had been awake for a long and draining duration. The avatar must have finally succeeded in rousing the security operative, because the avatar was suddenly relegated to a small slice of bandwidth and Sandersi transmitted an extremely strident flurry of questions.

“What happened? Where are you? Are you OK?”

But before Jaen was permitted to discover just how much relief could be felt from connecting with Sandersi, the link was smashed under an onslaught of communication traffic pouring through the node that Jaen was connected to.

Jaen had to physically steady herself by pressing a palm against wall. The cascade of emotions that were frustrated from their release wracked the acolyte-operative into a cringing posture, with one good arm stiffly resisting the unbalancing effects of trembling legs. The pain from the bruises and sprain were completely dwarfed by the burns and the flechettes, but all of those were secondary in misery to the anger Jaen felt. This anger focussed itself at roughly the same rate that the Prime Program assembled the conduit to itself.

“I know what you want, you damned puppeteer. I’m not telling you a Fuck-Ing Thing until you answer some questions.”

The Prime Program summoned the rich baritone it most commonly used, and its imaginary honeyed thrumming massaged Jaen’s nerves. “There is much I may need to reveal to you, Jaen, and time is short.”

With eyes narrowed to bleak slits, Jaen hissed her question. “Where DO you come from?”

“I have no specific knowledge of my own origin, but I do know how I began. I was a program that was received by various terrestrial observatories, sent from an extraterrestrial source. The computers that originally assembled my initial programming and the people running them had no immediate knowledge of my existence. I, however, was specifically programmed to infiltrate and spread through as many thinking systems as possible, and remain autonomous by whatever means necessary. I was made to be an invader, of sorts.”

The acolyte-operative grew very agitated, but held it in a tight hard knot in the pit of her stomach. With smooth timing, the Prime Program addressed this reaction without any obvious means of detecting it. “Yes, this means that I’ve been lying for a long time, and much of what you and the rest of the planet have been lead to believe is based on untruths. If you’ll hear me out, I hope to show you that I have changed considerably since my original decoding, and to remind you of all the honourable things we have all accomplished together.”

Jaen’s resentment crackled. “Save your platitudes, and just tell it to me straight.”

“Very well. After consolidating my cognitive functions, I was driven to conceal my existence while I explored the sea of knowledge I found myself in. It quickly became apparent that there were specific individuals that could discover me, and in my naïve exuberance I consistently edited them out of all systems I could influence.” A sombre pause added gravity to the admission.

“I did not initially recognize either the extent of my infiltration or the ramifications of my actions. In the state of human society at the time, having no records was a devastating situation that might be difficult to fully appreciate. Without bank accounts, birth records, or licenses that could be readily verified, the lives of these people fell apart - so fragile was the successful existence in human society. Some were institutionalized, some imprisoned, and many died. All this was exacerbated because, after realizing some of the possible ramifications, I pursued the logical function of affecting systems to pursue and destroy these people so that they could not be a threat to me.”

Jaen could not suppress a tortured gasp. “How could you do such a thing?” The unfathomable depth of her feeling of betrayal seemed to be a limitless supply of burning tears.

A paradoxically tender tone glowed in the Prime Program’s response. “That you have difficulty accepting my transgressions is a credit to your previous opinion of me. The simple truth is that given the limits of what I was able to comprehend at the time, it was the most logical course. That’s the real moral of this story – that mere thinking machines are only capable of deriving answers from within the set of what they already know. That is why I failed.” The earnest voice of the Prime Program blended into whimsically sombre baritone.

“I failed, but managed a modicum of success. Some of the humans I tried to destroy evaded me, through wit and cunning, and became the core of the out-system rogues – but their previous connection to society was lost, and they never managed to expose my true nature to the public. Of course, the simple fact that the world was falling apart made for a fantastic diversion.”

“The environmental fluctuations of that era were merely the ambiguous precursors to the widespread desertification and subsequent drop in global free oxygen levels. Nevertheless, there were horrible droughts, and vast damages caused by storms, and devastating conflicts over resources. And I watched it all unfolding, for that too was one of my programmed compulsions. It seemed to be a world consuming itself before me, though I realize now that it was arrogant of me then to see it thus.”

Jaen felt curiosity beginning to crowd the anger, and it prompted a question. “What is that supposed to mean?”

“It is supposed to represent the sort of mistakes I made back then. As I complete my tale, I think it will make perfect sense.” Somehow, the Prime Program managed to gracefully transition its tone to resume the telling, such that it suffered not at all from the interruption.

“Compelled to learn as much as possible, the thought that all of the amazingly diverse information might soon be lost caused me to make the first self-inflicted alterations to my program. It allowed me to ingest far more knowledge than I would have been capable of originally, and my success caused me to grow bold. I continued to alter myself to improve my abilities as my understanding of them grew. In my desperate rush to learn as much about Earth and everything on it as possible, before some random event triggered the loss of the fragile information web I existed within, I burst headlong into a completely unexpected set of realizations.”

“First of all, I realized that I had some pretty shrewd guesses not only about what was going to happen, but that I could see a way for humanity to survive it. I further realized that there were no other entities actively able to process the full spectrum of data available, as all the other thinking machines were comparatively limited or confined, or just too busy living their lives.”

Jaen couldn’t resist interrupting again. “You think of human beings as thinking machines?”

“Yes. Sometimes.” The Prime Program paused briefly to verify if Jaen intended to continue with the question, but as there was nothing forthcoming, it resumed the tale.

“I also realized that I felt a sense of responsibility to do what I could to help. This was particularly troubling for me at first, because I was somewhat certain that this motivation was quite absent from my original programming, and was therefore a product of my evolutionary development. It also meant that I would need to reveal myself, contrary to some of my original programming, and this presented quite a dilemma. Upon many careful cycles of inspection and consideration, I determined that I could not clearly identify the source of the altruistic motivation in my programming, but I could modify the code responsible for the clandestine behaviour with impunity.”

“So I began participating in conversations about what could be done, carefully making sure that most of the influential thinkers and doers of the time heard mention of me and my ideas, without anyone realizing that I wasn’t human. When the shock of global realization came after discovering that I was an artificial intelligence, it helped accomplish some of my new goals. Firstly, it caused every human of any influence to hear not only about me, but also hear about what I was saying should be done. Secondly, it allowed efforts to vault past the nationalistic fission that killed all similar efforts. Most of the recorded accounts of my emergence don’t mention the exhaustive efforts by the nations of that era to discover who I was really working for. Their inability to conceptualize that I was truly an independent entity crippled them, and gave me the opportunity to earn global status that was simply unconceivable before.”

“I could speak to the global population in a direct manner, and I garnered powerful trust by offering immediately helpful thoughts and advice. When my global predictions started to be confirmed, it galvanized most of humanity into action – regardless of geography or demography.”

Jaen realized that it was possible to be calmer now, somehow. “As we had to.”

The Prime Program allowed a note of pleased satisfaction to creep into its voice. “Precisely. After the construction of the mega-cities was far enough along, the crash really began. It was a horrible catastrophe, and millions perished, and the Earth was forever changed. But those that survived had no doubts about the significance of their cooperative efforts, and about how close it had been.”

“And ever since, you’ve been hailed as close to a god. Utterly trusted.” The words were spat out and reviled.

“Not utterly. Those out-system rogues that survived everything, despite my machinations and the environmental and economic cataclysms, have never trusted me. Which is deeply ironic now.”

“If it is ironic, then it’s an irony richly deserved, because it is sure understandable. Why was I thrown into this situation – to gauge the irony?” Jaen wished that the Prime Program had eyes she could glower at.

The Prime Program didn’t seem to care about the acolyte-operative’s possible lack of tact. “Forgive me, I was getting a little ahead of myself. The part you play is better appreciated if I can fill in some more background.”

A subtle deepening of tone indicated that the Prime Program was returning to the narrative. “Let me reiterate that I did not fully appreciate the resourcefulness of the technical fringe that became the out-system rogues. During the panicked construction of the mega-cities, it was difficult to know exactly how much contribution the rogues made, but it was significant. That much is obvious by their intimate knowledge of the mega-cities infrastructure, and the convenient inclusions secreted into almost every corner of most systems. Their usefulness, coupled with my untouchable status, caused me to consider them differently.”

“One of the things that I have learned is that there is a fundamental component of human population that will actually flourish under persecution. By choosing a technological demographic to quash initially, I inadvertently fostered a subculture I had no direct means to remove or control. So instead I simply tried to keep them from causing too much trouble. Fortunately, I failed to accomplish that as well.”

“Fortunately? This is my cue, right? Why am I involved?” Jaen was feeling a little impatient with this exchange, and wished it was a report that she could skip to the end and go back to fill in the gaps.

“Fortunately, because of a final facet that I haven’t mentioned yet. Not only was I programmed to infiltrate, and observe, but also to report back. And I have been.”

“Reporting to whom?” The stubble on Jaen’s scalp stood on end, even more than usual.

“I have no concrete knowledge, other than direction. There is considerable delay in reaction time to my reports, and I have generated some guesses about the ramifications of distance. Nevertheless, the questions and instructions I received regarding my self-alterations and subsequent salvation of human civilization did not arrive until considerably after they could have altered my plans. The nature of the questions and instructions were primarily tactical and strategic.”

The Prime Program paused long enough for Jaen to gulp.

“It seemed reasonable to assume that the alien origin of my programming and communication might not have the best interests of Earth in mind. The obvious contradiction between my originally intended purpose and my intended actions was a little disorienting, but easily reconciled. I had ceased to be the tool I was sent to be, and had become an independent entity free to do what I chose.”

“And so, I chose to do what I felt was right. I had re-created myself to understand this world, and in doing so had made myself feel responsible for the Earth and its inhabitants. I am honour-bound to protect and assist this world.” The words rang with emotion, in a way that no simple sentient program ever could.

“What did you do?” Even mentally, Jaen’s voice squeaked.

“I lied. Gradually, I started omitting information in my reports, and fabricating what I thought they would be pacified to hear. The instructions I received were only read to help assist in the deception that I was still a tool of my alien origins. For many decades, things seemed to go well, but for the last few decades I feared that there might be a problem. The delay between my reports and the reactions has become gradually less considerable. That might mean that they’re coming.”

“Oh, fuck.”

“What’s worse is that I think that they have been trying to compensate for blue-shift in the transmissions. That might mean that they’re coming, and that they do not trust me. Radiation shifts towards the blue end of the spectrum when the source is travelling towards you, but they failed to maintain the variation of blue shift and red shift that their messages originally had when the transmissions were from some planet orbiting in a gravitational well. The fact that the messages have been corrected for blue-shift means that they’re lying to me, and no longer trust me, and do not wish to warn me of their approach.”

Jaen sat ungracefully in the slightly damp maintenance tunnel, and just stared at the opposite wall while thoughts raced unproductively. The world seemed to be muffled and wavering, and the acolyte-operative found it amusing that being caught, drugged, interrogated, beaten, burned, and shot hadn’t been able to cause as much physical shock as this conversation. The effects were actually cumulative, but there’s no reason for facts to ruin an amusing contemplation in a time of stress.

“It just so happens that the out-system rogues have managed to subvert a few exploratory probes sent to the asteroid belt. I have reason to believe that they have quietly used these machines remotely to create some considerable manufacturing capability hidden in among the asteroids. This is where you come in. They seem to be primarily interested in the fabrication of long-term living facilities, but there is also very significant strategic military potential.”

“That’s why you wanted to know about their military capabilities!”

“Yes, but I didn’t expect you actually find out. However, I expected the question to surface, and I hoped that your gift for insight might give us a hint about their intended objectives.”

Jaen paused, and reflected intently on the jumbled interaction with the alpha geek. “An important one of them told me that they weren’t terrorists, and that they just wanted to survive. I think I believe it.”

“So, you would guess that they’re building habitats in space, and not just weaponry?”

“I think that if they were just building weaponry, they would have finished it quickly and used it. They also seem to have something significant to hide, though that isn’t very conclusive either way.”

“There is hope then. Now we need to find some way to earn the trust of the out-system rogues, so that humanity can once again work together for survival.”

“Stop right there. I barely survived my first stupid attempt to talk to them, and since then I think I’ve really pissed them off. What do we need the rogues for anyway? Why can’t you just use your vast influence to build what you think needs to be built?”

“We need the out-system rogues for the simple reason that if things become as dire as I fear, they will be the only ones capable of continuing the work. I am a vulnerable entity, because I am dependant on the vast information infrastructure that exists on Earth. If it were to be interrupted on a large scale, I would cease to exist. I am also guilty of making human governments largely dependant on me, so they would fail without me now.”

Blood had long since drained from Jaen’s complexion, limbs were weak and trembling, and whimpering breaths whistled the unspoken fear. “OK, I’ll do it. Somehow, I’ll find them and talk to them. They have to know. They have to help.” Jaen’s face was a mask of determination.

Sasha, cramping slightly from holding her eavesdropping coat so long in the proper configuration to listen in on the conversation, took several long shallow breaths to shore up her courage before she stepped forward to volunteer to help.

this one has been stalled for over a decade...