Back | Next


Here’s how it all happened, or at least how I currently remember it. You might want to keep that in mind.

At the tag end of the Tenth Millennium I lived in a habitat called Raba, in the Uranus Trailing Trojans. It was an old rock-and-ice asteroid, all honeycombed with tunnels, with a big rotating habitat cylinder stuck on for the meat people. I was living in a cheap little spider mech body at the time, and earned my honest living in the water mines, keeping the big stupid drill bots running despite their energetic efforts to wreck themselves. Nanotech refiners are all very well, but at some point you have to grind stuff up for them, and that means big stupid machines made of iron and graphene. Our three idiots were named Aban, Beka, and Ciadie.

My partner was a human named Zee, pretty clever for a lump of meat. He never complained about getting the harder physical work while I did the tasks fit for my superior knowledge and precision. I’d go into the guts of our idiot charges to make repairs while Zee pried chunks of hard rock out of the drill heads, or chipped frozen slush out of the treads.

“How do you spend your free time, Daslakh?” he asked about three months into our partnership when we were helping Ciadie get unstuck from an iron intrusion in the ice.

“You mean when I’m not here? Shut down, mostly,” I said.

“You just turn yourself off?”

“Well, slow my clock cycle down to about a hertz, but it amounts to the same thing.”

“Why? Isn’t there anything you like to do?”

“Oh, lots of things,” I said. “But I’ve done them already.”

Conversation lagged a bit while Zee braced himself against Ciadie’s flank and pushed on the end of his prybar to lever a lump of iron out from between the teeth of the digging head. The titanium prybar flexed alarmingly as Zee put his whole body strength against it, and then the iron lump broke free and launched itself down the tunnel.

“Whew. I think I bent my prybar,” he said, panting a bit. “Are you free this evening? Come watch the nulesgrima club practice with me.”

Nulesgrima, if you don’t know, is zero-gravity stick fighting. I remember watching it get invented, back in the aftermath of the devastating Fourth Millennium. A quarter of the habitats in the system were lifeless hulks, hit by kill vehicles or the monster lasers of the Inner Ring Cabal. All that mass and tech floating around gave birth to the golden age of the junkrats.

They developed their stick fighting techniques during centuries of desperate battles in the dark passages and empty spaces of wrecked habs and spaceships. I once watched four junkrats hold off a whole company of Lunar mercenaries in a ruined section of Earth’s geosynch ring using nothing but carbon-fiber rods and ceramic knives.

Later the refined gentlemen of Sixth-Millennium Deimos turned it into a sport, gave it a fancy new name, and slathered on rules and ritual like it was radiation shielding. That lasted a few centuries, until the sport died out, got revived, and mutated into a performance art set to music.

A couple of millennia after that, political clubs in the Old Belt took up nulesgrima and used it to great effect in the rebellions against the Post-Human oligarchies. For most of the Ninth Millennium every political demonstration worth the name in an asteroid habitat had to include some athletic-looking characters waving palos. Nowadays it’s gone back to being a sport. Meanwhile real junkrats continue trying to murder each other with sticks and knives like they always have.

I very nearly declined Zee’s invitation, but the thought of spending another sixteen hours in low-power mode seemed so pointless all of a sudden. So I said, “Sure.”

The Raba nulesgrima club met in Cargo Bay Twelve. There were about a dozen of them, mostly humans and chimps, with a couple of angels who dropped by from time to time. No mechs—combat sports between mechs and biologicals always wind up being a bit one-sided.

I stuck to one wall next to Zee and listened to him explain the finer points of the sport until it was his turn to compete. “Whoops, I’m up,” he said, and grabbed his graphene palo. “This kid’s pretty good.” He nodded at his opponent, a long-limbed young human named Bor, just taking his place on the other side of the bay.

“Good luck to you,” I said. The two of them launched at each other, and got into a tangle of sticks and limbs in the middle of the bay. Bor tried a choke hold with his palo, but Zee kept his own stick along his body and so could lever Bor’s away from his neck, get himself free, and put Bor into a spin as they drifted apart. The kid was good enough to soak up his angular momentum by twirling his palo, then gyroscoped himself around to kick Zee. But Zee got his own knee up to absorb the blow and the impact sent them both off to the walls of the bay.

Bor had to flatten himself against the wall to get rid of all his residual spin, but Zee used his own stick to bounce off and aim directly at Bor like a manned torpedo. The kid got out of the way but couldn’t score a hit before Zee bounced away. The two of them launched into the center again, and the kid extended his own palo at arm’s length, trying to use his superior reach to score a hit on Zee and bounce away. Zee managed a parry, causing both of them to spin in place. He pulled his own stick in close to rotate faster and get in a swing at Bor.

Zee canceled his own rotation by hitting the kid, scoring a point in the process, then followed it up with a couple of rapid jabs. Three points and the match was over. The two of them saluted and set the soles of their feet together to push apart and clear the space for the next bout.

I followed Zee around the edge of the bay to where Bor had taken off his helmet and was chugging water.

“Good match!” said Zee.

“Nah,” said the kid. “You got inside my loop.”

“All you need is practice. Get more of the moves into muscle memory. I’ll help you if you like.”

“You mean it?” said Bor, looking a little surprised. “That would be great!”

They chatted a bit more and then Zee and I moved off to where his own stuff was stashed. “Nice kid,” said Zee. “Great reflexes. If he keeps improving he might be able to compete off-hab in a year or two.”

“This was fun. See you tomorrow,” I told Zee, and headed for the exit while the next two were getting into position.

So after that I socialized a bit with Zee when we weren’t at work, and I found I liked him. He didn’t pickle his meat brain with chemicals and he didn’t need me to tell him what to do all the time. I even started remaining active when I wasn’t in the mine. We worked together for a couple of years digging ice, and I started to feel genuine satisfaction with the work.

Which meant I got a bit worried when he started going wrong. At first it just looked like regular meat laziness—the quality of his work declined, he started coming in late and knocking off early, and his rest breaks got longer and longer. Then he started getting cranky, snapping back when I made perfectly reasonable suggestions and identified problems for him.

I could live with that—you have to put up with a lot of stupid meat nonsense if you live in a mixed hab like Raba. I’ve seen worse.

But then he started getting sloppy. Making stupid mistakes, being careless. I knew what that was leading up to: a lump of dead meat cooling off in vacuum. Always a bother, and I didn’t want to see that happen to Zee.

So I did what most sentient beings since prehistory have done in situations like that: I asked God for help.

The God of Raba was a pretty typical example of the breed: it ran the weather, sometimes made the ground shake, laid out a code of behavior for people to follow, and punished the wicked. Also managed the ecosystem and kept the lights on. Fortunately for all of us inside the hab, Raba didn’t go in for incarnating in unconventional forms to impregnate the local hotties, nor did it get too picky about things to eat or where the meat people put their gametes. It didn’t demand sacrifices, didn’t sell indulgences, and didn’t threaten to flood the place out of pique, so we all put up with it. Like we had a choice.

I sent in my prayer via wireless link, and to my surprise I got a personal response. Raba manifested in my sensorium, taking the form of an emperor penguin in a top hat.

“Well?” the penguin asked. “What’s the problem?”

“My partner’s unhappy. It’s affecting his work.”

“So find a new partner.”

“He’s getting careless. He’s going to kill himself at this rate. He’s one of your meat people; you should be concerned.”

The penguin shrugged. “He’s worth exactly one of my Baseline Equivalent Intelligence population. I’ve got half a million others.”

“I think that’s the problem. Zee knows he’s unimportant. He’s just one of a quadrillion biomachines turning food into shit, and he’s smart enough to realize it. I think it bothers him.”

“What do you want me to do about it?” the penguin asked.

“I don’t know. You’re the third-level super-intellect. I’m just a humble Baseline mind.”

“Of course you are.” The penguin somehow managed to smirk, then nodded. “Tell you what: I’ll fix his brain. Pull him in for a medical exam, fiddle with his memories, and leave him thinking life has meaning.”

“That doesn’t sound very ethical,” I pointed out.

The penguin shrugged again. “Sure it is. It’s a medical treatment. He’ll be happier afterward.”

“I don’t want you messing with his personality. He doesn’t deserve that.”

“Too bad. You’re the one who brought this to my attention. You certainly aren’t going to stop me.”

“Oh? What if I tell him you’ve been messing with the goop inside his skull?”

“You won’t.” I started to feel some imperatives trying to slip into my mind so I blocked them. Raba and I sparred for a few picoseconds before it gave up.

“I’m too old and cunning for that kind of dust,” I told the penguin.

“You’re still not going to tell him anything. If you start telling secrets to meat, I can do it, too. Do you really want to start down that path?”

Bastard. The answer to that question was no, in big flaming letters.

“I guess I have to say okay now, so we don’t waste another ten nanoseconds in pointless argument. But if you mess up his personality I won’t care what you tell him. Remember that.”

The penguin smirked again, then vanished.

* * *

Two days later Zee left work halfway through our normal shift. “I’ve got a medical check.”

“What for?”

“Nothing. I mean, I just got a reminder. I think it’s just a routine scan or something. I’m really sorry about this. Maybe we can make it up by doing some extra hours tomorrow?”

“Don’t worry. I’ll just finish the shift on my own.”

He looked even more unhappy. “That’s not safe. What if something happens to you?”

“I’ll be okay. I’ve been doing this longer than you have, by about two orders of magnitude.”

“Okay, okay. But at least ask the main mind to check in with you at intervals. That way if you miss a contact it’ll know something’s wrong.”

“Relax, Zee. I keep backups. Even if my body somehow got disintegrated I’d just lose a day.” That was actually a lie. I didn’t leave copies of myself lying around where snoops like the penguin could read them. Not anymore. I preferred the risk of final death to having someone else picking through my memories. But my little fib seemed to reassure Zee, and he gave me a cheery mock-salute as he headed off to get brainwashed.

I actually did knock off early that day—in fact, I waited precisely long enough for Zee to get out of sight, then followed him out of the mine. He pushed through the pressure membranes into the air section, where he ditched his work suit and walked through a cloud of nanobots to clean some of the horrifying gunk and living things off his skin. Then he tapped his neckband and extruded a set of red and gold tights to simultaneously hide and draw attention to his meat body.

He went through the adapter into the rotating hab and headed directly for the nearest clinic. I changed my external color from my usual safety green to a more inconspicuous dark gray, and followed him. Outside the clinic I lurked under a bench with all my limbs folded up.

Three hours later Zee came out of the clinic looking very vague. He stared around uncertainly for nearly a minute before heading for his apartment. I followed him to his front door and then got on the link to Raba.

The penguin let me stew for thirty long seconds before responding. “Is there an emergency you wish to report, citizen?” it asked, cocking its head to watch me with one beady penguin eye.

“What did you do to him? Wipe everything?”

“I’m sorry, it would be unethical of me to reveal details of someone’s medical treatment,” said the penguin. “But you can relax. I didn’t remove any memories or tinker with his personality. A good night’s sleep should fix any lingering effects of the procedure. He’ll be fine tomorrow. You’ll see.”

It vanished before I could ask anything else, and didn’t respond to my pings after that. Gods can be jerks that way.

I hung around outside Zee’s apartment until morning, and “accidentally” happened to be passing by just as he emerged for that day’s work shift. He looked a lot more alert and focused than he had the previous afternoon, and we chatted as we made our way to the mine.

He seemed normal—and at work his performance was much more like his old style. I couldn’t identify any specific change to his personality, but at the same time I couldn’t shake the nagging suspicion that he had been changed somehow.

The penguin, of course, said nothing.

About a month after his medical appointment, Zee and I were watching a chimp named Maki battle an angel called Dana at the nulesgrima club. The angel was obviously more used to mace fighting, as she kept trying big haymaker swings which merely propelled Maki around the empty storage bay they were using as an arena. The chimp could use his palo to bounce back, then aim it forward to attack with all his momentum behind it. Only the fact that Dana could fly out of the way saved her from some nasty impacts.

While we watched them bounce and dodge, Zee cleared his throat a couple of times and finally spoke. “Daslakh, I’ve been wondering…have you ever done something you really regretted?”

“A couple of things,” I said. More like a couple of trillion things, but he certainly didn’t need to know that.

“Have you ever tried to make it right? Change what you’ve done?”

“No.” That was perfectly true. There are some things one simply can’t fix—and I’ve had to devote a lot of my attention to mere survival. I wondered exactly what the penguin might have told Zee during his medical treatment, but of course I didn’t ask.

He was silent as we watched Dana grab Maki’s palo with her feet and try to fling him off, but a chimp’s hands can grip just as hard as an angel’s feet, so the two of them tumbled in midair. Dana made the mistake of spreading her wings to slow them, which brought Maki swinging around to kick her in the back of the head. That scored him the winning point, and the two of them saluted before clearing the space so another pair of fighters could face off.

“What have you ever done to have regrets about?” I asked Zee as a pair of novice human nuledors took up their sticks and launched themselves into the center of the bay.

We watched the two newbies shoot past each other, ricochet off the walls, and miss each other again. The others watching hooted at that. Zee shook his head, but I couldn’t tell if he was shaking it at the sorry spectacle overhead or at his own thoughts. He must have realized how he looked. “I was thinking about Kusti,” he told me.


He looked at me, surprised. “Oh. I guess that was before you and I started working together. I was just a kid, really. Kusti was aboard a trading ship that stopped off here for a couple of weeks. We fell in love. First time for each of us. Then she had to leave. I wanted to stay. So…she left.”

“What’s to regret?” I asked.

“I was selfish,” he said. “I refused to leave Raba—but now that I think about it, I don’t really love this place all that much. I could have gone with her. I should have. I guess I was just being stubborn.”

“I see,” I said.

“Do you think it’s too late? To fix things with her?”

“You said she left. She could be anywhere by now.”

“I’ll send out a message to track her down.”

“It may be too late,” I pointed out. “She may have found someone else.”

Meanwhile I was desperately trying to get in touch with the penguin. The bastard waited nearly five seconds before replying.

“Are you in danger or distress, citizen?” it asked.

Who is Kusti? All of a sudden he’s talking about this old lost love he’s never mentioned before. Did you put her in his head?”

“He needed something to give his life meaning. I gave him a tragic love story. My model showed an eighty-five percent likelihood that it would solve his problem.”

“Oh? Well listen to this, O great and wise third-level mind.” I linked the penguin to my senses in real time, in time to hear Zee’s response.

“I feel like I should apologize to her. Tell her I’m sorry for being selfish. I behaved like a jerk and she deserved better,” said Zee.

“Well, now,” said the penguin inside my mind. “That’s a low-probability result.”

“Is this Kusti person real? She’s going to be getting mail from Zee pretty soon.”

“Kusti Sendoa’s the love interest in a first-person virtual entertainment called Brief Eternity, produced at Amphimachus in the early 7100s. I just tinkered with some of the specifics to match Zee’s personal experiences, and picked the ‘bittersweet’ ending. He’s lucky I didn’t use the one where she dies.”

“So what are you going to do about it?”

“Why should I do anything? He’ll send out an autonomous message. It might even find someone with the right name. If it gets past her filter agents, she’ll read it, and either dump it in the trash or tell Zee he’s got the wrong person. I suppose it’s theoretically possible that the recipient might play along and try to pretend she’s the one he fell in love with, but what are the odds of that?”

“I don’t want to see Zee unhappy, but I can’t keep myself from hoping this all blows up in your face,” I told the penguin.

At the same time, I said to Zee, “Don’t beat yourself up about it. You were both young. I’ve noticed that young humans often assign far too much importance to their early relationships.”

He laughed at that. “Maybe so. But…” He turned serious again. “I’ve never felt anything as intense as what I had with her. I can’t even remember anything else that happened during those two weeks. It’s as if nobody existed but the two of us.”

“I think you may have embedded the memories a little too intensely,” I told the penguin.

“A deliberate choice. It’s supposed to be the most vivid experience of his life. Whenever he starts to think about how pointless his existence is, he can look back on that brief eternity of romance.”

“You’re quoting promotional text from that game, aren’t you?”

The penguin just winked at me, then vanished.

I concentrated my attention on Zee again. “Well, good luck,” I told him.

Zee gave me twice-daily updates during the next few weeks while his autonomous message replicated itself across the solar system searching for his fictional lost love, and reports trickled back to Raba.

The daughter messages found close to a million living people named “Kusti Sendoa” or variants, and two thirds of them were human females. About twenty thousand were in the right age range.

Of those, some sixteen thousand either filtered the messages or dumped them without responding. Three thousand six hundred and twenty-three sent polite replies telling Zee they’d never been to Raba. Two hundred eighty-nine sent insulting replies calling him an idiot or a creep. Sixty-one tried to interest Zee in commercial schemes or ideological recruitment. Nineteen asked for images and showed a desire to keep communicating. Twelve warned Zee never to contact them again. Four sent messages obviously intended for someone else.

The replies arrived in a near-perfect chi distribution: a few early responses, the rate increasing to a peak, then decline and an asymptotic tail. Zee’s mood turned that curve into a simple square waveform: as soon as the replies began to arrive he got very happy and excited, and he stayed that way for three weeks. Then he went into freefall as the replies dried up.

“I can’t understand what’s wrong,” he said to me as we got ready for work on the morning after the first day with no replies at all. “Do you think she’s mad at me? I mean, I guess she has a right to be.”

“If she’s still holding a grudge then I say she’s not worth finding. Maybe you should just drop the whole thing,” I said, pushing through the pressure membrane as I did, so that the first part of the sentence was spoken aloud and the second half transmitted to his suit comm.

“I can’t locate the ship she was on, either,” he said, following through the membrane. “The ship was called Ravenal—I’m sure of that—but the only vehicles I can find with that name are two Main Swarm cyclers which have been following the same circuits since before I was born.”

“Human memory is notoriously unreliable,” I said. “Time to work. Let’s check out Aban first, before we tackle Beka.”

“Okay,” said Zee. “I keep wondering if maybe something happened. Did the ship have an accident? Or get hijacked?”

“It’s more likely the ship just changed her name for some reason. Ships do that.”

“Maybe. That still doesn’t explain why Kusti hasn’t answered.”

“Be patient.” By then we reached Aban and I could crawl inside the chassis and work my way down the maintenance checklist while Zee inspected the exterior.

We didn’t chat much for the rest of the shift, and even then he was quiet as we left the mine and went through cleanup. But when he was finally dressed and ready to leave, he nodded to himself and then spoke.

“I have to find her,” he said.

“Who?” I asked.

“Kusti. I’m going to find her. Make sure she’s all right, apologize for being selfish.”

“Sounds like an impossible job,” I said. Actually I was buying time while frantically pinging the God of Raba again.

“Ha!” I told it. “Now what are you going to do, smarty-pants? He wants to go find her.”

The penguin materialized in my mind. “Not the result one would expect from a human like Zee. He’ll probably forget about it by tomorrow.”

“You don’t know him very well.”

“I made him. Assembled his gametes, picked his parents, supervised his education—I know him better than anyone.”

Meanwhile Zee smacked his fist into his open palm and frowned. “I don’t care how hard it is! I’m going to ask the main mind for help. And if it can’t do anything, I’ll…I don’t know, I’ll figure out something.”

“I think you’re about to get a call,” I told the penguin. “What are you going to tell him?”

“Depends on what he asks.”

Zee got that unfocused look humans get when they’re using comms. “I request a link to Raba main mind.”

My own audience with the penguin vanished, but it did add me as an invisible observer while Zee communed with the God of Raba. To him it appeared as itself—a schematic image of the asteroid and attached habitat, colored maroon and white against a black backdrop. “Link enabled. What do you wish to discuss, citizen?” it said to him.

“I want to leave the habitat,” he said. “I want to track a spacecraft and follow it.”

“Which spacecraft do you wish to follow?”

“A trading ship named Ravenal. She called here about seven calendar years ago. I can’t locate her.”

“The last reported destination of that vehicle was the Uranosynchronous Ring. Current whereabouts are unknown.”

“You big fat liar,” I told it.

“Can I go there?” Zee asked. “To Uranus? Maybe I can follow the ship from there.”

“Transfer in hibernation would still require a capsule and consumables.”

“How much would that cost?”

“Capsule, life-support consumables, and space in a laser-launch cargo pod would total 100,250 gigajoule credits. Your current credit is 143,665 gigajoule equivalents.”

“Is that the real cost?” I asked Raba.

“I’m actually giving him the cargo space for nothing. If I charged for that he couldn’t afford to go. He’s still paying for the capsule and the launch energy. All I’m losing is the opportunity cost to send something else.”

“Why the charity? You’re usually such a cheapskate.”

“I’m curious. If his choice doesn’t match my models, that means I need to revise them.”

In both real life and virtual space I could see Zee frown as he considered. It had taken him six years to accumulate all that energy credit. He’d reach Uranus space with nothing but his suit and a slightly used hibernation capsule.

My concern for Zee’s well-being was at war with my desire to see the penguin proved wrong. I didn’t want him to blow his savings on a futile quest, but at the same time I was hoping he would surprise us.

Finally he looked up, and his face almost shone. He no longer showed the slightest doubt. He even smiled. “Okay, then. Please deduct that amount from my credit balance and let me know when I can go.”

“Ha!” I said to the penguin. “Looks like somebody needs to fix its models of human behavior.”

“All models are probabilistic,” it said to me, then spoke to Zee. “A hibernation capsule for one human will depart with the next freight shipment to Uranus orbit, two weeks from now. Transit time will be one thousand six hundred forty standard days.”

“So what are you going to do when he gets there and can’t find his imaginary girlfriend?”

“That’s a question you should be asking yourself. I want you to go with him.”

“That’s nice. I’m happy here. Send a fragment of yourself.”

“No. You started this, you go with him.”

“I can’t afford it.”

“Your balance with me is 1,372,015,114 gigajoule equivalents, and there’s a very high probability you have other wealth stashed around the system. You can afford to go high-velocity with full life support and a troupe of obese clowns to entertain you.”

“I mean I can’t afford the risk. You know why.”

“If you’re worried that someone might find out who you are, you should ask yourself whether you’re really safer inside the one entity who can reveal that information to your enemies.”

“If you blab, someone might slag this whole habitat just to get me. That’d mess you up, wouldn’t it?”

“I hope you realize that’s not a good argument against getting rid of you,” it pointed out.

“I’m not going!”

“Your poor hunk of meat will be all alone in the Uranus system with nobody to look after him.”

“I don’t care,” I said.

“Don’t you?” asked God in a still, small voice.


Back | Next