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2 /// The Soul of the Machine

We were a day out of Sinclair’s Landfall when I left my cabin and climbed to the flight-deck.

Since lighting out from the pleasure planet I’d slept for twenty hours solid, leaving Ella in charge of A Long Way From Home. As I neared the hatch I could hear Ella and Karrie chattering away. I paused outside.

“Sounds tough...” Karrie was sympathising.

“My parents were very strict,” Ella said.

“So you just upped sticks, took the first outbound ship, and ended up on Sinclair’s Landfall?”

“I’d dreamed for years of getting away.”

“So why the haste in leaving Landfall? Sounds like you were being chased.”

Ella fell silent.

I chose that moment to step onto the flight-deck.

“Why don’t you tell Karrie the truth, Ella?” I said. “We’ll be spending a long time together from now on. I don’t want lies coming between us.”

I slipped into my sling between Karrie and Ella. The viewscreen showed the grey expanse of voidspace. Ella pierced me with her midnight eyes. She murmured, “I think the fewer people who know, the better.”

“We’re all in this together, Ella. Now tell Karrie the truth.”

Karrie looked from me to Ella, bemused.

Ella leaned forward, looking around me, and stared at Karrie. “I am an AI construct, Karrie, designation HO-xia-73, running on an integrated self-aware paradigm. Technically I am the property of the Hayakawa Organisation.”

She lay back in the sling, her face serene, and gazed into the void.

Karrie was open-mouthed in astonishment. “So all that loveless childhood shtick... the strict parents?”

“My cover story.”

Karrie turned to me. “She’s an AI? A robot?”

“I am not, actually, a robot. I am a biologically nurtured entity constructed around a self-aware matrix core.”

 Karrie nodded. “That’s good to know.” In a whisper she said to me, “And you let this... this thing aboard the ship?”

I shrugged. “What else could I do? There were spider-drones after her. They’d’ve taken her back to a life of servitude.”

Karrie just shook her head. She hissed, “One, it’s not a ‘she’, it’s an ‘it’! Two, it’s a goddamned machine, and that’s what machines are built for – servitude.”

“She’s self-aware, Karrie. To me, that means she has rights. She can make choices. She wanted out. She wanted freedom. And I decided to help her get away.”

“Ed, she’s a soulless machine, a selfish, self-serving mechanism lacking in the slightest humanity.”

“That’s nonsense,” I began.

“Jesus...” Karrie breathed. “Listen to me, Ed. If Miss Universe here had been a Lyran cephalopod, would you have helped it then?”

I stared through the screen. “I like to think I would.”

“Bullshit, Ed! She’s sex on legs and when you met her your balls were bursting after six months banged up on this tin can – that’s why you helped her.” She barked a laugh. “And then you find out she’s a machine!”

“Karrie!” I snapped.

She slipped from her sling and hurried to the hatch, muttering to herself.

When Karrie was gone, Ella turned to me and said, “I’m sorry if my presence has caused distress between the two of you, Ed.”

“Karrie’ll be fine. She gets hot-headed from time to time. She’ll calm down soon enough.”

She reached out and squeezed my hand.


A couple of hours later Ella left the flight-deck, saying she wanted to take a tour of the ship and familiarise herself with its features. She hadn’t been gone long when Karrie climbed up and slipped into the sling beside mine.

“Calmed down?”

“I still think you’re one goddammed fool, Ed. You realise Hayakawa won’t take kindly to having their property kidnapped like this?”

“I’m not exactly kidnapping, Karrie. She came of her own free will.”

“And let’s see how that defence’ll stand up in a court of law.” She looked across at me. “You’re smitten, Ed. Admit it.”

“Don’t talk rubbish.”

“You should see your eyes when you stare at her-”

“Karrie. Look... She reminds me of my kid sister, okay? She died when I was–”

“You told me.” She shook her head. “But, Ed, Ella isn’t real. She’s no more a personality than... than the ship’s smartcore. She just looks a lot prettier, that’s all.”

I shrugged. “What’s real, Karrie? She seems real enough to me.”

Footsteps sounded on the rungs of the ladder. Ella inserted her slim form through the hatch and padded across to her sling.

After a short silence, she turned to us and said, “I can be of immense benefit to you, Ed.”

Beside me, Karrie snorted, “You bet!”

Ella continued. “Not only can I pilot the ship, and assist you, Karrie, with repairs – but my memory cache can be of benefit in locating the wrecks of starships.”

I looked at her. “It can?”

Her Venezuelan features remained neutral, watching me. “For instance, I know the precise location of a cargo vessel abandoned in the Dzuba system five light years from our present position.”

I blinked. “You sure? I’ve heard nothing-”

“It was never made public. The Nakamura was chartered by the Hayakawa Organisation to ferry classified products from one of its manufactories. When its ion drive exploded and the ship emerged into real-space near Dzuba, Hayakawa decided to empty the wreck of sensitive materials and destroy what remained.”

“So why haven’t I heard about it on the grapevine?”

“Hayakawa scorch-earthed the ship, but thought it wise not to publicise its whereabouts. I suspect they were hauling contraband, but I cannot be sure.”

“When was this?”

“Five years ago.”

“And you say you know where the wreck is situated?”

Ella nodded. “To the exact metre.”

“Lay in co-ordinates to Dzuba,” I said. I tried not to look too smug as I glanced across at Karrie, but she was busying herself with the controls.


We were a few hours from Dzuba, and still in voidspace, when Karrie looked up from her com-screen and murmured, “We’re being followed.”

“You sure about that?”

“Well, the same ship’s been on our tail for the past hour.”

Ella said, “Longer than that, Karrie. I noticed it a few hours after we phased into the void, a day ago.”

“Great,” I said. “Why didn’t you mention it then?”

Ella stared at me with impassive eyes. “Your knowledge of the situation would have made no difference to the fact of our being followed.”

“But I might have been able to do something about it.”

She opened her mouth to contradict me, but thought better of it.

I said, “Karrie, can you get a visual of the ship?”

“Working on it...” She tapped her touch-pad. Seconds later the viewscreen flickered and a small, sleek ship appeared.

Ella said, “It’s the same vessel that tracked me to Sinclair’s Landfall.”

I looked across at her. “I thought we’d got rid of the spiders.”

“We accounted for three of them on Sinclair’s Landfall. The Watson Interceptor carries a complement of twelve.” She stared at the screen. “Just nine to go.”

I considered our options. “Right... How about we phase from the void and make for Dzuba? If we head around the sun at maximum speed and then phase back...”

Karrie said, “That’s Watson Interceptor, Ed. We’d never outrun it in a straight race.”

“I have a suggestion,” Ella said. “We phase from the void, as Ed says. But instead of rounding the sun, we take refuge in the Hayakawa wreck.”

“And they’d just follow us in there and flush us out.”

Ella turned her wondrous gaze on me. “Ed, the wreck is vast. The ship was Titanic class. We could insert ourselves in the wreckage and they’d never find us.”

“This is madness!” Karrie said.

“We have no other option,” I said. “What do you suggest, we let them catch up and take Ella?”

Karrie stared at me. “You said it,” she muttered to herself.

I nodded to Ella. “We’ll phase from the void. As soon as we’re out, lay in co-ordinates to the wreck.”


“Good God,” I said, “will you take a look at that.”

Dzuba burned to the right of the viewscreen like a naked furnace. Before the sun, centre screen, the wreck of the Hayakawa ship hung like some demented sculptor’s schematic representation of an explosion in a scrap yard. At its centre was a solid tangle of concertinaed chambers, bulkheads and decking, warped and blackened by the blow-out.

“Okay,” Ella said, “I suggest we make for the core.”

I nodded. “Do that.” I glanced at Karrie. “Have the spiders emerged from voidspace?”

She checked her com-screen. “Not yet, but I reckon they won’t be long.”

“Let’s accelerate. If we can get to the wreck before they phase-out–”

I was silenced by the sudden thrust, pitching my sling backwards. I hung on as the ship careered through space towards the wreck, dodging peripheral shards and scraps of metal.

I glanced across at Ella. “You doing this?”

Tight-lipped, she nodded. “I am considerably faster than your smartcore drive.”

“That’s good to know,” I said as a blackened engine nacelle tumbled past the viewscreen with metres to spare.

Five minutes later we slowed our slalom ride as Ella eased us past great floating chunks of debris that resembled metallic icebergs. We made for a relatively intact section of the ship, which I guessed must have once been its cargo hold and storage decks. Wreckage hung all around us, eerie in its stillness.

“Still no sign of the other ship?”

Karrie shook her head. “We’re in luck.”

We slowed even more and inched between sections of buckled decking. The glare of the sun cut off suddenly. Ella activated searchlights, which picked out hanks of Medusa cabling and jagged superstructure.

We emerged into sunlight again, the glare dazzling.

“Okay...” Ella said, her tongue showing as she inched the ship onto a vast shelf that had once been a cargo deck. “If we hole up here, switch off the operating systems and hang silent...”

I nodded. “Do it.”

We settled gently and Ella powered down the ship little by little. Soon we were running just enough energy to keep the viewscreen operating, showing the view back the way we had come.

A few minutes later Karrie said, “There is one big flaw in this scenario, you realise?”

“Which is?” I asked.

“So we sit tight, twiddling our thumbs. Hoping the spiders get bored and go home. Only, ah, they’re machines, right? They don’t get bored. They have mission goals, and they stick to them, whether they take days, years, or decades to achieve.”

I looked across at Ella, who said, “Karrie is right.”

“So...?” I asked, exasperated.

“So... the spider-drones will wait,” Ella said.

“Which,” Karrie pointed out with sweet malice in her tone, “is all very well for non-human entities like you, Ella. But for me and Ed here, meaties – isn’t that what you call us? – we, like, need food and drink. That might run out after a month or so, no?”

“I have considered that eventuality, Karrie. That’s why I’ll be going out there to apprehend and destroy the spiders, when the opportunity arises.”

Karrie looked across at Ella. “Back on Sinclair’s Landfall,” she said, “you were running from just three of the critters... Now you’re talking about confronting a whole shipful of the bastards.”

Ella regarded Karrie impassively. “Back then running was an option, Karrie. Now there’s nowhere to run. I have to fight.”

Fear fluttered in my chest. “Is this wise?”

“It’s the only option.”

“I don’t want you to come to any harm.”

“Your concern is unwarranted. I’m perfectly capable of ensuring my own safety.”

Karrie interrupted, urgently, “When you two have quite finished – we have company.”

I looked up. The viewscreen showed a narrowing vista of decking, terminating in a wedge of dark, star-flecked space. As we watched, the Watson Interceptor settled at the far end of the vanishing point, facing us.

I said in a whisper, “Have they seen us?”

“Pretty much looks that way,” Karrie said. “So much for their never finding us.”

I wondered, then, if Ella had meant the spiders to find us, all along. Perhaps she wanted the ensuing showdown?

She leapt from her sling and strode across the flight-deck.

“Ella?” I called after her.

“Let her go,” Karrie said.

I slipped from my sling and followed Ella. “I’m suiting up and coming with you. You can’t go out there alone.”

She disappeared through the hatch and descended the ladder.

“Jesus, Ed. She’s damned machine. She’ll be ten times more capable than you in any situation-”

I knew the sense of Karrie’s worlds, but right then my heart was overriding my head. I slipped through the hatch.

“Christ!” Karrie yelled after me. “You’re not going out there alone, dammit. I’m coming with you!”


Karrie and I suited up and I broke out three rifles from stores and handed them out. Ella moved towards the exterior hatch.

I stopped her with a hand on her arm. “What about-” I began.

“I don’t need a suit, Ed.”

Behind me, Karrie snickered.

Ella said, “We’ll move away from the ship, gain high ground. And when the spiders show themselves...” She lifted her rifle.

We cycled through the airlock and stepped onto the buckled deck, to be greeted by a chiaroscuro panorama of black shadow and golden sun glare. The vista was disconcerting. The brain is soothed by order, neat lines and precise geometry, but the blow-out had rendered normality chaotic. What should have been the interior of a prime class cargo vessel was a blasted travesty of order, a haywire tangle of metal and machine parts. The spacer in me was troubled.

Ella gestured. I made out a twist of metal rising like a spiral staircase to a section of horizontal decking: a perfect vantage point.

She took off, sprinting and leaping and covering a couple of hundred metres in about ten seconds. Karrie and I gave chase, using our thrusters to assist us over the uneven deck and up the jagged rise of metal. A minute later we crouched behind a scorched radiation baffle and stared back the way we had come.

My ship sat directly below us like a contented toad. Five hundred metres away, the Interceptor perched daintily akimbo on thin magnetic stanchions, twinkling in the sunlight.

As we watched, movement showed towards the rear of the Interceptor. A gaggle of spider-drones jetted from their ship and took cover behind scraps of metal.

My heart thudded.

“Did you see how many left the ship?” I asked.

Ella’s reply sounded tinny in my helmet. “I counted four. That leaves five in the ship. We’ll take out the four, then I’ll tackle the Interceptor.”

Down below, a spider broke cover and jetted towards my ship, its domed carapace twinkling in the sunlight. In a couple of eye-blinks it reached A Long Way From Home.

The spider landed on the side of my ship and clung on, one tentacle directed towards the viewscreen. I wondered if it was scanning for life.

I glanced at Ella, gesturing at my rifle. She shook her head. “Don’t want them to know where we are. We’ll wait till the other three show themselves.”

The first spider climbed across the skin of my ship. Karrie touched my arm, gesturing back towards the Interceptor. The other three spiders were breaking cover and jetting towards the first.

Ella said, “I’ll take out one and two. You take number three. Karrie number four, okay? Fire when I fire.”

Heart pounding even faster, I nodded. Karrie gave the thumbs up.

I arranged myself on the edge of the deck, gazing down at the floating spiders.

Ella lifted her rifle, aimed and fired. Two quick blasts took out the drone beside our ship and the leader of the follow-up party. I aimed at the third drone and squeezed off two rapid shots, surprised and elated as the spider exploded in a dazzling blast. Beside me, Karrie accounted for the spider bringing up the rear.

Suddenly, all was stillness down below. Adrenalin coursed through me, bringing involuntary laughter to my lips.

My elation was short-lived.

Ella touched my arm and pointed. Another five spider-drones jetted from the Interceptor and headed towards us.

And now they knew where we were.

The leading spider raised a tentacle and fired. A line of flechettes hosed towards us, missing Karrie’s head by half a metre and ricocheting off a metal spar next to my shoulder.

Ella pushed herself away. I rolled, grabbed Karrie and applied vertical thrust. We shot into the air, earning a round of fire. A second later we thumped against what had been a bulkhead and I cut the thrusters, applied horizontal thrust, and sped off after Ella.


We dodged through a crazy obstacle course of tortured starship, fleeing for our lives.

Karrie and I might not have made it by ourselves, but Ella came back for us. One second she was nowhere to be seen, and the next she landed before us, grabbed our hands and took off towards a floating corridor. We passed within, jetting between flame-scorched walls.

The corridor snaked for a hundred metres then turned at a right angle unplanned by the starship’s designers. We eased through a tight gap and found ourselves in a small observation nacelle. Ella looked around, checking for another way out. She found one: a rent in the far wall of the bubble-shaped chamber.

I pulled myself towards the long, curving screen and gazed down on a sunlit scene of mangled starship, my heart thudding. Ella and Karrie floated beside me, staring out.

“There,” Ella said, pointing. “There, there and there...”

I made out four small, sunlit specks jetting their way through the wreckage, moving relentlessly towards us.

Karrie said, “It’s as if they know exactly where we are.”

“Impossible,” Ella replied. “They’re merely going on last observations and extrapolating.”

“So what do we do now?” Karrie asked.

“We circle back towards their ship. When we get there, we disable it and light out.”

Ella’s long, black hair floated, dishevelled, about her perfect features. I wanted to reach out and stroke her cheek.

Karrie said, “And how the hell do we do that – I mean, find where the ships are? I don’t know about you, but I’m lost.”

“I know where the ships are located,” Ella said.

I stared through the screen. Four spider-drones were leaping through the debris towards us.

“Where’s number five?” I said.

“Maybe they left it guarding the ship,” Karrie said.

“If so, then one spider will pose no threat,” Ella said. “Okay, let’s go.”

She made for the slit in the nacelle, eased herself through, and disappeared. I followed, pulling myself through the rent and turning to help Karrie.

We were standing on a narrow ledge, staring at a vertiginous drop past what had been the ship’s reactor. Below, all that remained was a blackened cauldron, littered with charred wires and what might have been shattered skeletal fragments.

Above us, two slabs of thickened metal provided a hidey-hole like an equals sign. Ella took my hand and leapt.

We sailed through the intervening space, blinded as we came back into sunlight, and landed on the lower slab. I swam inside, eager to be away from the open end. Karrie caught up with us.

Ahead, Ella stopped.

Now we knew the whereabouts of the fifth spider.

The spider leapt, caught Ella before she could move, and retreated with her into the shadows.

Karrie was faster, and more accurate, than I could ever have been.

She fired her laser and hit one of the spider’s standing tentacles. The spider tottered, giving Ella the opportunity to twist in its grip, raise her rifle and insert it into one of the drone’s cranial ports. She pulled the trigger. The resulting detonation sent her tumbling backwards.

She fetched up in my arms. The front of her onepiece was scorched, showing burned flesh beneath. I glanced at the spider gyrating before us, limbs twitching. Karrie fired again and finished it off.

“Thanks,” Ella said to Karrie. “I owe you one.”

“No sweat.” Karrie sounded dazed, as if she couldn’t believe her own accuracy. I wondered if it had been a lucky strike – helped by the fact that she had not been overly bothered about hitting Ella at the same time.

“Okay,” Ella said. “This way.”

We followed her down a helter-skelter of twisted metal, emerging in a sunlit chamber minutes later. I recognised what must have been the dining hall decorated with assorted art-works, its walls slotted with horizontal observation screens.

I took Ella and Karrie’s hands and jetted off across the void, fetching up against the far wall. We hung near a screen, gazing out.

Karrie pointed. A kilometre away, partially obscured by tortured spars and floating bulkheads, I made out the squat bulk of A Long Way From Home, and beyond it the Interceptor.

There was no sign of the pursuing spiders.

Ella turned, holding onto the frame of the screen, and stared through. She showed no reaction to the burn across her drumskin-tight abdomen. Floating there, she looked like a troubled teenager treading water, her expression pulled into a frown.

“What?” I said.

She pointed through the viewscreen, to a blocky, blackened chamber floating before the fiery ball of Dzuba.

“What about it?”

She ignored my question and pointed across the hall at a corridor. “This way.”

Confused, but trusting her, I took Ella’s hand, then Karrie’s, and applied horizontal thrust. We jetted across the hall towards the corridor, then pulled ourselves through the swing doors.

Ella led the way along a series of corridors and passageways, twisted out of true by the blast. We were heading away from the ships.

Seconds later the corridor ended abruptly, giving on to open space. Twenty metres away was the chamber Ella had indicated through the screen, connected to a floating corridor.

We joined hands and jetted across the gap, then inserted ourselves into the umbilical and bobbed along the snaking corridor. We came to a thick door marked: Limited Access. Authorised Personnel Only.

The sliding door was ripped diagonally. Ella eased herself through the gap. Exchanging a glance with Karrie, I followed.

We were in a long chamber, the entire left side of which had been torn away in the explosion. The chamber was open to the dazzling light of Dzuba, which illuminated a row of tanks along the length of the right-hand wall. I counted ten in all.

I approached the first tank, peered through the shattered glass, and grimaced at the contents.

The body was bloated, its nakedness swollen to gross proportions. He had been a young man, once, and the expression on his face suggested he’d been conscious of his demise.

I looked along the row of tanks. Most of them had been punctured and depressurised in the blow-out. I saw a tank whose screen was still in one piece, and jetted towards it. I peered in, shielding my eyes, and made out the contorted form of another human being. Whatever powered the tanks was still in operation: a strip-light illuminated the corpse’s tortured death mask.

“What the hell was this, Ella?” I asked.

She stared at me, an odd expression in her eyes, and just shook her head.

I couldn’t work it out. Cold sleep had been superseded decades ago, when the void was discovered. So why had the Hayakawa Organisation been transporting corpsicles through space?

Ella pressed her face against the glass of an undamaged tank.

“I always thought there was something strange about this ship,” she said. “Why did Hayakawa leave it becalmed, why the scorched-earth policy? They sent in operatives to destroy the evidence. This chamber was originally closer to the core of the ship, but blast pushed it all the way out here. The operatives obviously assumed it’d been destroyed in the blow-out.”

“How do you know all this?” Karrie asked.

“I downloaded a classified file just before I absconded from the manufactory asteroid. The file contained encrypted information about the ship and its cargo.”

I stared at her perfect face and indicated the tanked corpses. “They were illegally transporting colonists, right? Or ferrying criminals or...”

She said nothing, just nudged past me and headed for the entrance. I had no option but to follow.


For the next fifteen minutes we skirted the outer edges of the explosion. To our left, the fiery giant of Dzuba burned. To our right, somewhere in the tangled sphere of wreckage, four spider-drones continued their remorseless search.

Ella came to a halt, clutching a girder, and signalled for us to join her. “The ships are down there,” she said, pointing. We peered over a sheared bulkhead and saw the two ships, less than a kilometre away. “Follow me.”

There was still no sign of the spiders, and that made me jumpy. The drones were perfectly camouflaged in this realm of sunlight and silvery shards: they could be anywhere.

Ella swarmed over the bulkhead and pushed herself from one piece of floating debris to the next, pausing between each push to scan ahead. Cautiously, we followed.

We were half a kay from the ships when we came across the next spider-drone.

Ella was leading the way, scaling an abbreviated sponson. Karrie went next, using her suit’s jets, and I brought up the rear. We came to the top, paused and looked ahead. A battlefield of assorted debris separated us from the ships.

I actually saw the spider, perched on a blackened engine cowl five metres ahead and to our right. Its legs were retracted and it sat absolutely still, as innocent as a pepperpot. My gaze flicked over the drone, and only a fraction of a second later did I realise my mistake.

But by that time it was too late.

The spider waited until Ella was close, then struck like a mechanical cobra. A tentacle lashed out, snaring Ella. Karrie aimed her laser again, but this time she was too slow. The spider, clutching Ella, raised a second tentacle as quick as lightning and fired at Karrie.

I yelled out loud as a flechette struck her face-plate.

She tumbled head over heels, careering away from me, and I could only think that if a flechette had breached her face-plate...

I looked back at Ella. She hit her captor with a karate chop, snapping its weapon’s tentacle, then raised her laser and – instead of firing again at point blank range – smashed the butt into the drone’s optical sensor.

The drone released her, tentacles flailing, and she gave an expert karate kick. I watched the spider sail into space, impotently windmilling its limbs. Ella raised her laser, took aim and fired. The drone exploded, the beautiful bloom of its detonation quickly extinguished in the vacuum.

A second later she dived, hit me in the midriff and hauled me into the cover of an engine block just as line of flechettes stitched the air where I’d been standing. She pulled me after her, stopping only when we were a good hundred metres from where we’d been ambushed.

I looked around for Karrie. “Where...?” I began.

Ella pointed. “Look.”

I peered through a briar patch of tangled circuitry to where she was pointing.

“Oh, Christ,” I whispered.

Fifty metres before us, the three remaining drones were hauling Karrie’s unconscious form towards the ships. Unconscious, I hoped – not dead.

I attempted to reach her via the radio link, but she didn’t reply.

I said, “What do they want with her?”

Ella thought about it. “A bargaining chip?”

“But that’d work only if Karrie were alive.”

“She is. I am monitoring her suit’s metabolic read-outs. Karrie was knocked unconscious by the blast, but her suit retained its integrity. She’ll be okay.”

I felt a wave of relief. “So... what do we do?”

I stared through the wreckage. The drones had reached their ship, bearing Karrie like a trophy, and laid her on the buckled decking.

“Ed, make sure the spiders don’t catch sight of you, okay?”

“What about you?”

“I have an idea.”


But a second later she was gone – vanishing behind a jackstraw mess of metal-work – back the way we had come.

I reckoned she was going to make a detour around the ships and somehow effect Karrie’s rescue. She had said she owed Karrie one, after all.

I opened the radio link and told Ella to be careful, but she chose not to reply.

I raised my head and stared down at the trio of drones. They floated above the deck, surrounding Karrie’s bobbing form. They appeared to be discussing what to do next.

I willed Ella to appear and annihilate the bastards single-handedly.

I clung to the girder, floating in space, and I had never felt as helpless in all my long life.


Fifteen minutes passed, thirty...

One hour later I was beginning to think that the drones had caught Ella when I glimpsed movement a hundred metres ahead and to my left.

A slight, nimble figure moved through the wreckage towards the decking where the ships sat. My heart surged, then sank. I could hardly bring myself to watch the fire-fight that was bound to ensue.

Ella pushed herself from one chunk of floating debris to the next. As she kicked off, her momentum impelled the debris with motion, leaving an easily traceable pattern of wreckage swirling in her wake.

And if I could see it, then so could the drones.

The odd thing was, it seemed as if Ella wasn’t that concerned about being seen. I wondered if this was part of her master-plan, some tactic beyond my merely human cognitive capabilities.

She picked her way through the wreckage towards the drones, and minutes later appeared before them... and still I expected some last minute twist, some grand combative gesture that would render the spiders kaput.

She pushed herself from her last place of cover and landed on the deck with a quick genuflection, as if curtsying to her enemies.

And then she raised her hands into the air and gave herself up to their custody.

I called out her name, cursing her stupidity. I tried to get through to her on the radio.


I watched as the drones surrounded her, pinioning her arms and legs with their flashing tentacles and jetting with her towards the Interceptor.

She disappeared into the ship and the hatch slid shut behind her.

My attention returned to the ramp of my ship, snagged by movement there. Karrie was stirring. Dazed, she raised a gloved hand to her shattered face-plate.

Then she applied thrust, directed herself towards the ship, and hit the entry sensor. A second later she disappeared inside.

“Karrie...” I tried to get through to her. Still no reply: I assumed the laser blast to her helmet had affected the receiver.

I cursed Ella for her capitulation, and at the same time felt a quick welling of pride.


Seconds later I saw sudden movement to my left. I turned, raising my laser, thinking for a terrible second that I had miscalculated and another spider had found me.

I blinked. Ella was floating across the gulf of space towards me.


I caught her, feeling her slim form through my padded gloves. “Ella! What the...?”

She positioned her head before my face-plate and smiled in at me. Christ, but I wanted to kiss her.

“Ella?” I said incredulously. “You got away?”

She silenced me with a raised forefinger, pressing it against my face-plate. Her lips described a moue. “Shh,” she said. “Those corpsicles back there, they weren’t criminals or colonists, as you surmised. They were a series of state-of-the-art AIs, proto-types of the series that would become the HO-xia-73 designation.”

I stared at her. “You?”

“Me. But back then, five years ago, there was a Federation-wide proscription on the manufacture of semi-sentient, self-aware AIs. That didn’t stop Hayakawa from developing the series, though. This ship was hauling a dozen individuals from the manufactory to Sirius III, where they were to be field tested, when the blow-out happened.”

I shook my head. “I don’t understand,” I said, but I was beginning to guess at what had happened.

Ella said, “Back in the cryo-hold I found a survivor. The only one. I decided I’d go back for her, once we’d sorted out the spiders... but then the bastards captured Karrie and I had an idea.”

I shook my head in silent wonder.

“I resuscitated the AI,” she went on. “She was blank, just meat and an inchoate operating system. So I downloaded a doctored copy of myself into her program core.”

I stopped her. “So the AI who gave herself up in return for Karrie’s release... she’s a version of you?”

“A very limited version, Ed. She has a fraction of my memory capacity and mentation. But she is me inasmuch as she knows that she had to give herself up to the spiders in order not only to save Karrie, but to save me... herself, in effect.”

She touched my shoulder, gestured. I turned and followed her gaze. On the plane of decking below, the spiders’ ship rose slowly, turned on its axis, and burned away from the wreck of the Nakamura.

“The AI is sufficiently me,” Ella went on, “to fool the spiders. The drones will reach the manufactory in around seven days. We have a leeway of that long before Hayakawa realise they were duped.”

Laughing like a fool, I hugged her.

“Come on, Ed. Let’s get back to the ship. Karrie will be wondering what’s happened to us.”


Karrie was in her sling on the flight-deck when we pulled ourselves through the hatch.

She stood, elation making her look twenty years younger, and moved across the deck. “Jesus, Ed... What happened? The spiders’ ship just up and left!”

“It’s a pretty complicated story,” I said. “Ella, why don’t you tell Karrie while I start tractor beaming some of this junk.”

I slipped into my sling and ordered the smartcore to activate the beam. There were some mighty chunks of machinery out there that would fetch good money on the open market back on Altair III.

While I worked, I watched Ella as she recounted what had happened, and I smiled to myself.

When Ella had finished her story, Karrie nodded and said, “Thank you, Ella.” She glanced across at me, sharply. “And what are you smiling at?”

I waved. “Oh, I was just thinking of the killing we’ll make when we haul this junk back to Altair,” I said. “Okay, tractor beam established?”

“Affirmative,” Karrie murmured.

“Then let’s get out of here.”

“Phasing out,” Ella said, smiling across at me.

I returned her smile, considering what she had done back there. Karrie had called Ella a selfish, soulless machine, lacking in humanity, but I had no doubts at all. Okay, in rescuing Karrie she had also saved her own skin...

But if self-preservation isn’t a human motivation, I thought to myself, then what is?

We phased into the void and headed to Altair III.

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