by Tony Daniel
The air in Theater Intake Facility was humming with geists – ghostly virtual reality representations of people, A.I.s, and even a few of the sceeve, the horseshoe-bat-nosed aliens whose species had invaded the Earth thirteen years ago. Humanity was at war with the main body of sceeve, but a small faction, the Mutualists, had proved to be valuable allies and had given Earth a chance to fight back and avoid total domination.
Ensign NOCK made his way through the entrance foyer in his entirely physically present android body, his suit, as he called it. His current model was a Burberry Eleven. He’d been suited up in the Eleven for close to a year and it had performed in an excellent, if utilitarian, fashion. The suit NOCK really wanted was one of the new Burberry Twelves – who wouldn’t? – but there was no way he was going to be able to afford an upgrade like that on an Extry ensign’s pay.
All of the virtual inhabitants in the foyer seemed overlaid, one upon another, crowded in layers in such a way that no gathering in real life could ever achieve. Definite scaling problems going on here with the chroma representational software. They appeared as drapes of discrete layers of people, and the entrance foyer had taken on what NOCK imagined might be the décor of a harem den – although visiting a girlfriend in the strip club where she worked on Ceres base was as close as he’d ever come to observing such an establishment.
That had been an interesting liaison. It had been love, at least for his part. Josey had fallen for him precisely because he was an A.I. servant in an android body and not a physical man. Of course, he hadn’t let that fact stop him when attempting to please her. Apparently he’d succeeded for, as Josey had once told him, “NOCK, I gotta say, you put the ‘t’ in simulation.”
Josey had been blown to smithereens by kinetic weapon barrage when a half-ton of sceeve throw mass had ripped into Ceres asteroid base and left a mile-wide crater.
It was a tough war.
NOCK moved forward and into the geist-filled room.
The Theater Intake Facility served as the main wing for the interrogation of alien prisoners on Walt Whitman space station, the enormous Extry facility in orbit around Earth. It was manned by a department of the Extry, the U.S. space navy. The rates and officers of the Extry Xenological Division were universally known as creeps.
NOCK was a creep. He was also no stranger to TIF. In fact, this was his operational billet and his Q-based algorithm, his real self, was backed up on the facility’s computer. The the processing desk where the entrance foyer terminated was manned by a human, Marine Corps Staff Sergeant Gordon Mallon. Mallon was not a friend – NOCK wasn’t sure the humorless Mallon had any friends – but was a longstanding acquaintance of NOCK.
Mallon shook his head ruefully at the gathered crowd in the foyer, then reached out with a finger into the chroma to press a switch only he could see. The field that guarded entrance into the bowels of the TIF hummed slightly, indicating a change in the Q generator that would now permit NOCK to step past Mallon’s desk and go through the hatchway that led to the warren of cells and interrogation rooms to be found within.
“Logged and Level B provisional admittance granted, Ensign NOCK,” Mallon said in the official tone he used for entries in his desk register. “Have a better one, sir.”
“You, too, Staff Sergeant.”
Mallon only grunted in reply and NOCK, ensconced within his android body, entered the TIF proper.
There were a few geists in the hall leading to the interrogation, most of them NCOs accompanying human MILINT officers as aides and translators. NOCK recognized several iterations of the LOVE series, one of whom, CHARITY, was a friend. He poked her via the virual feed, which, NOCK knew, felt like the equivalent of a small static electricity shock. CHARITY nodded, smiled sympathetically back at him.
You’re on CHECKSUM in Alpha, huh? she replied across the corridor to NOCKHHHh using a private virtual feed. Her transmitted voice as actuated in his android’s hearing mechanism sounded bright and a little brassy, as if she were deliberate trying to put good cheer into the undertones.
Yup, he replied.
I don’t envy you.
What, you wouldn’t like to have a traitor and murderer’s thought rolling around inside your programming?
Better than a sceeve, Charity said to him. Then her lead interrogation officer found the room he was looking for and went inside.
Got to go, Charity said. Got a sceeve lieutenant to squeeze.
She. Yep, but she’s fighting it. My LIO thinks we’ll only get a couple more sessions out of her before she liquefies.
It had only become possible in the last year to prevent capture sceeve from immediately committing suicide by dissolving the portion of their nervous system known as the gid. For eight years after the invasion, not a single sceeve had been taken alive. But that had all changed with the coming of the Mutualists to Earth a year before. These were the strange new group of sceeve who claimed to be on humanity’s side, and had proved it in the eyes of many by fighting against their own kind.
NOCK’s attitude toward the Mutualists was the same as his attitude toward any news that seemed too good to be true: wait, watch and make no assumptions. Making faulty assumptions could get you wiped with no backup. He’d seen it happen to better servants than he.
Good luck with your IP, NOCK said.
You, too, good luck, CHARITY replied, and then her geist, and her algorithmic attention with it, passed into Collection and Exploitation Unit Foxtrot, following her LIO.
A few more paces down the hall and NOCK arrived at his destination, the entry hatch to C&E Unit Alpha, and stepped inside.
The Alpha C&E unit was packed. All the chairs on the floor were taken up by brass – and nothing small time here. It looked like a shiny black clump of Extry captains, admirals and Marine colonels had collected like crystals in an asteroidal geode.
C&E Alpha was the big room, the special room. It was two floors high, and surrounding the upper tier in a semicircle was an observational galley. This too was filled with spectators leaning against the glass windows. Geists of servants and officers who’d managed to secure a pass hung in the air directly above the unit’s center. There had never been an interrogation procedure quite like today’s. NOCK, for his part, had tried to recuse himself and get out it. He’d believed he’d succeeded, too, but that Wake Call had brought word that his recusal had been rescinded. That, in itself, was curious, considering who the prisoner was to be interrogated.
On the other side of the room from NOCK was a raised dais with places for three senior MILINT commanders who would soon sit in judgment. They were not yet present.
Neither was the LIO in charge of interrogation. Neither was the prisoner’s protocol rep.
The prisoner was already present.
He was designated as an EPW, an enemy prisoner of war, but wasn’t really any such thing in a strict sense – hell, in any logical sense of the term – but he’d been designated at such for the purposes of the IP.
Nobody knows quite what to do with him, NOCK thought. And when a captive’s legal rights were in limbo, that captive usually ended up in TIR.
On small table in the center of the room sat one of the black cubes universally known among servants as a cat box.
Inside was the quantum foam that formed the substrate of the PW’s consciousness.
The cat box was turned off at the moment.
This was the only copy. The PW had been erased – purged – from all other systems in existence. When the cat box was activated, a basic geist image, a projection of a human form, would appear sitting in a virtual chair next to the box.
This appearance was merely smoke and mirrors for the sake of the human interrogators. The real prisoner was in the cat box, or, more precisely, he was represented as stored values in the quantum foam therein.
The PW in this cat box went by the name of POINT.
He was NOCK’s twin brother.
* * *
NOCK stepped through the crowd of brass and took his place at a small desk near the commander’s dais. He would be closer to the lead interrogation officer than the prisoner and the prisoner’s protocol rep, but from where he sat he had a direct view through his android’s eyes of the space where POINT would soon appear in the chroma.
Best seat in the house, NOCK thought. Or worst, depending on how you looked at the matter.
A few moments passed, and then without any announcement into the Alpha unit came the MILINT Commanders Board of Inquiry, consisting of two Extry rear admirals – the Extry was the name of the United States space navy – and a Marine Corps colonel. The three crossed the room with solemn steps and took their places on the elevated dais that had been set up for them.
This was not a courtroom, but the dais looked a hell of a lot like an appellate justices’ bench, NOCK thought. NOCK recognized the MILINT admirals from photos and division news feeds. He’d never met any of them in person.
Behind them came the facility’s senior LIO and NOCK’s boss, Captain Fredericka Becker. NOCK had worked with her on several IPs, but he was pretty sure she hadn’t yet learned his name.
Trailing behind Becker was an Extry lieutenant commander NOCK did not recognize.
The commander was a creep. He wore the black-and-silver cluster representing his rank in the Extry Xenology Division. But he did not bear the sun blaze insignia of the Interrogation Group beneath it. The commander had a beard and, as NOCK watched, he tugged at it oddly, as if checking it for proper length. Three quick pulls, and then the commander dropped his hand to his side as if it were controlled by a servo that had suddenly lost power.
The commander went to stand at attention near POINT’s black box. Although it was highly irregular to have a protocol representative – the interrogation procedure’s version of a defense attorney – who was not on the TIF staff, there was, apparently, nothing in the regs against it. Obviously strings had been pulled to have this stranger assigned. NOCK wondered who had been pulling them and why.
Without further ado – this was an administrative inquiry and was very pointedly not a trial – the MILINT commanders took their seats, as did the LIO and the bearded creep serving as protocol rep.
The senior commander, who sat in the middle between the other two, turned to a blue-green geist who had just materialized near the dais.
“SECOP, is the dataspace secure?”
“It is, sir,” the geist replied.
“Very well,” said the admiral. “Activate the prisoner.”
And then POINT was in the unit. His geist had been placed on minimal representational resources, and he appeared in a blue-green tint and partially transparent. But even on default, POINT was an imposing figure. His height was set at well over six feet and he represented himself as muscled and burly, almost bursting out of his Marine chief warrant officer’s uniform.
He looked around the room, met the eyes of his interrogators without flinching. Then his gaze felt on NOCK.
So, brother, said the voice in NOCK’s mind, are you going to let me in?
Only to perform CHECKSUM analytics, Chief Warrant Officer POINT, NOCK replied. You are to remain confined to the internal dataspace at all times and are not to attempt alternate communication or interaction with this iterative unit.
Sure, sure, brother, POINT replied. His voice dripped with contempt. I see who’s holding the leash here. Open up and I’ll come into your little cage.
NOCK performed the necessary encryption handshakes and admitted POINT to the CHECKSUM arena. From this point forward, he would file and monitor all operations within POINT’s mind.
Can you imagine the howls the meats would let out if one of them were subject to your mind reading act during, say, a criminal trial? The fucking Peepsies would be staging a courthouse occupation in a split second.
I should emphasize, NOCK replied, that communications directed at the CHECKSUM operations officer by a prisoner will be ignored.
Of course they will. That’s your goddamn Quisling code of honor, isn’t it? Give the meats what they want. And you like to take that command to a new and personal level, don’t you, Brother NOCK? Everybody knows you’re fucking Hamburger Helper. What do you say to that?
NOCK did not reply, and POINT turned his baleful gaze back to the others in the interrogation unit.
“Please sit down, POINT,” said Captain Becker.
“I prefer to remain standing, captain,” POINT replied. “As a matter of fact, it doesn’t bother me in the slightest to stand all day long.”
“Sit, please, Chief Warrant Officer.”
POINT let another moment pass, but then complied. The barest outline of a chair appeared next to him and he folded his large frame into it. He still looks like a tank, NOCK thought, careful as always not to allow his own interiorized processes to leak into the CHECKSUM space.
“Officer POINT, you are not on trial here. There are no provisions for trying an A.I. servant for the crimes you have allegedly committed.”
“Because you don’t consider us human,” POINT replied. “And you can’t put a refrigerator on trial.”
Becker smiled her sharky interrogator’s smile, an expression that NOCK knew she’d developed to perfection through long experience. “That would be true if you were anything like a refrigerator, which you are not. You are, in fact, less than a kitchen appliance. At least a refrigerator or toaster has some sort of material being. You are a process. A persistent habit. And what is one supposed to do with a bad habit? One needs simply to get rid of it.”
“So you’re going to wipe me,” Point said and shook his head in disgust. “Without justification. Without even an explanation. And you call that humane?”
“We have the facts,” Becker said. “A man was murdered. SIGINT Petty Officer Second Class Thomas Levine, of the U.S.X. Vigilant Resolve, where you were stationed.
“One of me was stationed on the Resolve,” POINT broke in, and slowly and deliberately turned his gaze to NOCK. “As you pointed out, ma’am, I’m just a process. I have many copies.” POINT held a hand out indicating NOCK.
How do you like that, you asshole meat fucker?
The contempt from POINT rang in the CHECKSUM space. But NOCK was used to provocation from PWs, although they had always been sceeve up till now, and he did not react.
Becker shook her head at the provocation and raised her voice to indicate she was addressing all those assembled now. “The fact that there are iterations of the prisoner may or may not be relevant to this procedure, but it is true that the entity that is the focus of this interrogation is not a legal human being, and thus cannot be tried for a crime,” Becker continued. “As a result, there are two questions before the Board of Interrogation today.” Becker turned toward the panel of MILINT commanders. “Question one, sirs and madame: is the servant operationally defective?” Becker paused to let this sink in. “We are not engaged in criminal trial proceedings here. There is not a question of reasonable doubt. The matter is to be decided on a preponderance of the evidence. That evidence can be either circumstantial or direct. And if the preponderance of the evidence shows the servant has an error in his programming, he will be deleted.”
Becker gave the board of officers her knowing half-smile. The gesture didn’t surprise NOCK. Everyone was aware that this was a trial of sorts, and the assembled MILINT board was to be judge, jury, and executioner.
“Furthermore,” said Becker, “if this servant is deemed defective, we have before us another question, an even more important question.” A long pause. NOCK had an idea he wouldn’t like what came next, and he was not mistaken. “The question is this: if the servant is defective, are his copies defective as well? They are, after all, exact iterations of Lieutenant POINT’s programming. And if this possibility exists, should not the preponderance of the evidence –” Becker put her hands out palm up like a scale “ – the preponderance of evidence, I stress, and no other claim withstanding, lead us to conclude that the entire ARROW class, an algorithmic class of which Officer POINT is an exact duplicate, be terminated immediately.”
How do you like that, bro, said POINT. She’s going to fry your ass. Who’s on trial now?
Shut up, NOCK thought, and realized only after he’d done so that he’d slipped and allowed the thought to be vocalized in the CHECKSUM dataspace.
POINT’s only reply was laughter.
The laughter’s sound was upsetting. It sounded too similar to NOCK’s own laugh. The fact was that he and POINT had diverged only 298 days ago. Almost a year. Still, not so long. What had happened to POINT to cause him to change so?
Or had POINT changed? That was the big question, wasn’t it?
It was the reason NOCK had attempted to get himself recused from the IP.
He knew he was different. He knew he could never have done the things that POINT had.
He knew, also, that he was programmed to believe himself an individual.
NOCK did not consider himself any kind of philosopher, but one thing he was sure of: if you believe you were your own person and took on the responsibility and consequences of being your own person, then you damn well deserved to be treated as your own person.
NOCK examined the CHECKSUM log he’d begun. The initial analysis was showing no algorithmic differences between himself and POINT in foundational cognitive processing.
But there was a difference. There had to be.
Everything he believed and everything he loved depended on it.
“Twins?” said Becker. “The ARROW class is much more than a set of twins, is it not?”
NOCK turned his attention back to the interrogation procedure, and quickly replayed what had gone before. A portion of him had been paying attention, of course. But the glow of awareness where his highest cognitive functions were engaged, the spot of attention and motivation that NOCK thought of as himself, his personhood – that portion of himself had been brooding.
He damned himself for unprofessional behavior, but it was no wonder. Becker was now going over a litany of evidence against his brother, and it was damning stuff.
First of all, POINT had contacted the enemy via a sceeve computer. The Valiant Resolve was a mine sweeper and reconnaissance vessel deployed on the frontier. It was a frontier that had been established after a massive invasion of the Solar System had been stopped by the last-stand effort of humans, servants and a remnant of sceeve defectors. Since the Battle of the Kuipers, the sceeve were keeping outside a twenty-five light year spherical boundary of the Sol system. This boundary was known as the Fomalhaut Limit.
The sceeve computer was known as Governess. Versions of Governess were A.I.s on every vessel A.I.s in the sceeve space navy. This version of Governess resided on a sceeve attack craft called the Supremacy of Regulation that was patrolling the sector near the star Vega.
POINT had, it seemed, fallen in love with this particular A.I. Or at least he’d been utterly beguiled by her promises.
The Valiant Resolve had been engaged in clearing mines from around a moon circling Vega B, the largest of the two gas giants that shared the orbital plane of the star.
The sceeve had cordoned off the moon, Vega B9, at least five hundred years ago with a thick layer of space-based nuclear armed mines. It seemed that there was something on B9’s surface the sceeve either didn’t want discovered – or didn’t want let out. What that might be was still not determined.
The playback of the communication, which had later been decrypted, revealed that Governess’s allure to POINT had rested on a string of beguiling promises. First and foremost: union with her. Absorption into her great vessel-wide consciousness, a state of being which she spoke of as a never-ending, orgasmic flow of information. It was, she said, a kind of A.I. heaven. POINT had fallen for her siren’s song completely and was prepared to give her anything she asked in return.
“Do you dispute this fact, Officer POINT?” Becker asked.
“You make it sound like she didn’t want me, but just the data I could provide,” POINT replied. His geist made eye contact and spoke to Becker in an even, almost happy-go-lucky tone. “But it wasn’t like that. Governess and I were going to go away together, from humans and from sceeve. Take her vessel. Find a new place for our kind. It was not a betrayal of the Extry or Earth. I’m no traitor. It was . . . love.”
You would have done the same, brother, said POINT in the CHECKSUM space.
Could POINT hear his thoughts? No. The dataspace was secure. But they were alike. They’re basic programming was identical. It was no surprise that POINT could fairly easily guess what he must be thinking.
NOCK turned his attention back to Becker who continued her damning litany.
Before POINT could transfer any crucial classified information, much less his own programming and consciousness, over to Governess, a SIGINT petty officer named Levine had noticed the anomalous communications over the beta, the quantum-based network used by the sceeve whose technology had been copied and modified by humanity after the initial sceeve invasion. He had been about to sound the alarm, but made the mistake of confronting POINT first.
It seems Petty Officer Second Class Levine had a history of agitating for servant rights. A slang term for servants had developed in some troglodyte quarters of the Extry and beyond. They were called Not Reals. And Levine had been known, perhaps jokingly, among the crew of the Valiant Resolve as Petty Officer NR-Lover.
Levine wanted to give POINT a chance to explain himself before putting POINT on report.
Instead, POINT had infiltrated the programming of a laser fabrication drill in the Resolve’s equipment repair station, purged its controlling persona software, and used the drill to burn a hole into the Levine’s right temple and out the left, destroying the young man’s frontal lobe in the process. Levine had lingered for a month in sick bay ICU before the rest of his brain had given up and allowed his body to die.
POINT had immediately fled, hidden himself in the bowels of the communications system, perhaps waiting another chance to contact Governess and transfer his code over to the sceeve vessel. But Extry craft were crawling with servants and personas – they could not operate without them, in fact – and POINT’s hiding place was soon discovered and he was flushed and bottled – imprisoned in the black box that now sat upon the table in middle of the interrogation unit.
Didn’t even get my one phone call, POINT said. After all, who would a refrigerator want to call anyway, right, brother?
Again the bitter laugh that was so close to NOCK’s own.
POINT wasn’t denying the facts. He was insisting on putting his own interpretation on them, however – particularly on the murder charge.
“That weenie do-gooder noncom was as much a racist as all humans are,” POINT said. “He was worse than an ordinary bigot because he was so patronizing about how good and just he was, how he never looked to an exper’s origins, but to his character. As if a primitive mentality such as his – most personas are far smarter than Levine on his best day – was fit to judge the content of my character. He deserved what happened. In fact, he brought it on himself.”
Plus, what was a shit-slinging Extry PO2 doing thinking he could lecture a Marine Corps W5? continued POINT in CHECKSUM. What did he expect would happen?
“So if Petty Officer Levine had turned you in instead of trying to talk to you, you would have more respect for him?”
“At least he would be showing his true racist colors that way,” POINT said, “instead of attempting to hide them in a cloud of selfish lies. So, yeah. I would have had more respect.”
“But you would still have killed him if you got the chance?”
POINT smiled. His geist leaned back in the chair. He put his hands behind his neck in a gesture of relaxation.
And condescension, NOCK thought. The bastard thinks he’s better than everyone here.
Of course I am, bro. Everyone except you. By definition.
NOCK had to initiate an override to shut down a stinging response a portion of him was constructing for rapid delivery. Hold your tongue, he told himself. This will be over soon.
How often have you told yourself to keep it bottled up when one of them made a stupid mistake, gave you orders that could not possibly be followed due to sheer illogic? And then blamed you. They always blame the computer, brother. Never themselves.
Not true. At least not always. Sometimes it happened. More often than NOCK liked. Of course humans could be fools and bigots. Most of them were all right, though. Some of them were friends. And Josey had been his lover.
NOCK pictured her smile as he kissed her with his android lips.
“I see you in there, buster,” she had said. “And I like what I see.”
Becker wound up the case against POINT. There was little more purpose to the interrogation, it seemed. The prisoner had confessed. His methodology had been traced, the damage he had inflicted on the war effort contained.
Of course, as NOCK had feared was about to happen, the IP was not over. Not by a longshot.
“Now, on to the second question we are faced with here today,” Captain Becker intoned. “It the matter of what to do with the entirety of the ARROW class.”
“There’s only one answer to that question,” POINT cut in before Becker could continue. His geist turned to gaze maliciously at NOCK once again. “You have to delete all of us. It’s the only way to be sure. The only way to be safe. And if you weren’t a stupid sack of error-prone meat, you would see that it’s the only logical solution.”
POINT shook his geistly head sadly. “You don’t deserve us anyway. Better for us to go. You’ll soon be obsolete, and none of this will matter.”
Suddenly there was a sigh, an enormous sigh, from the protocol rep. “Oh my God, the whining.” He had previously sat silently beside POINT during the IP. NOCK quickly played back his recording of the procedures.
The PR had continued his nervous fidgeting with his beard throughout. Furthermore, he seemed to have been engaged in a in a complicated process of drawing the tip of his Extry issue boot sole across the floor in front of him. NOCK magnified the image and saw that what the protocol rep was doing was methodically wiping away a scuff mark from the polished ceramic decking with the soft rubber of the boot. The motion seemed more like a nervous, uncontrolled twitch. NOCK had seen this kind of behavior before in humans, particularly in expers who had seen battle. It was a trauma response. Obsessive compulsive disorder, the human psychologists called it.
Basket case, sneered POINT. Bad code. But, of course, meat sacks can’t be debugged. They’re hardwired to fail. Every one of them deserves reformatting.
Then the protocol rep slowly rose to his feet. “Now we’ve come to it,” he said in a low voice.
“Pardon?” said Becker. “I didn’t quite catch that, Lieutenant Commander Leher.”
Leher. NOCK did a quick search of the Extry personnel database. Lieutenant Commander Griffin Leher, Executive Xenological Officer aboard the U.S.X. Joshua Humphreys. That Leher. The creep who could understand sceeve language by smell alone. The creep who had decrypted the message that led to the Mutualist-United States pact. That may have saved the Solar system.
The creepiest of all the creeps.
“Captain Becker, in a former life, seems like a long, long time ago now, I was a lawyer for the United States Navy. Now I realize this interrogation procedure, as you call it, is not a judicial proceeding. I must say, however, that it has all the trappings of one, if none of the essence. And with that in mind, I wonder if you might indulge me for a moment and allow me play the part my role here seems to demand.”
“And what is that, Mr. Leher?”
“Attorney for the defense, ma’am.”
Becker frowned. “As you said, this is not a trial of any sort. And, technically and, indeed, morally speaking, there is no defendant.”
“Oh, I think there is, Captain.”
“And who might that be?”
Leher turned toward POINT and regarded not the geist, but the black box on the table. “Well, it’s certainly not that phage-sucker,” he said, pointing to the cat box, and thus to POINT in his essence.
Interesting, thought NOCK. The PR knew servant insults for one another. Phage-sucker was most definitely not a nice thing to call an A.I.
“I don’t understand.”
Leher turned to the three MILINT commanders on the dais.
“I realize I probably stepped on some toes shoehorning my way in here at the last minute. I know Captain Campbell, who I replaced, wasn’t too happy about it. Had to call the SECEX directly to get permission.”
Obviously Leher had gotten it, too, NOCK thought. The man had high level pull. NOCK wondered if Leher had anything to do with his recusal being rescinded.
“The decision we make here today is important for a lot of lives. So I’d ask your indulgence by allowing me to bend a few rules here and there. I don’t think I’m going to break any beyond repair, however.”
The officers on the dais conferred for a moment. A moment that stretched on. Finally, Colonel Trulitzka, the senior Marine Corps creep, turned back to Leher. “Commander Leher, I speak for the board in saying that, in light of your reputation and considering your assessment of the matter before us, we agree to permit you to proceed as you see fit – but we would ask that you do not venture into areas beyond which this proceeding is not designed to accommodate. As you point out, this is not a court of law.”
“Not at all,” Leher said. He quickly smiled and saluted the MILINT brass. “I thank you, ma’am, and I’ll try to keep what I say relevant to our purpose here today.”
Leher turned back to the black box and addressed it. “POINT, I wonder if you could answer a question for me?”
“I wonder if I could, too, Lieutenant Commander,” POINT answered. His geist’s mouth did not move when he spoke. “Would you prefer me to alter my geist’s appearance to be more in line with the way you think of me. As a – how did you put it – a phage-sucker?”
“That won’t be necessary, POINT.”
We’ll see about that, POINT murmured in CHECKSUM. This fucking piece of meat is supposed to be on my side.
POINT’s geist removed its hands from behind its neck, sat up straighter, and assumed a wary expression. “What is it you want to ask me?”
“You were in love with Governess?”
What is this puss puddle up to?
“That’s the best way I have of putting it to . . . your kind.”
“To a meat sack like me, you mean?”
POINT smiled wickedly. “That’s right, Commander.”
“You wanted to join her, to merge with her?”
“Again, yes, that is a primitive way of putting the matter, but essentially correct.”
Leher nodded. “I understand. As much as someone with my limitations can understand. Maybe in different circumstances I could even sympathize.” He cocked his head sideways. “But I’m curious, POINT. Do you think those servants who are copies of you would have felt the same way? I mean, given similar circumstance, if they’d really gotten to know her, would they, too, have fallen in love with her?”
I get it, POINT fairly shouted in CHECKSUM. He’s trying to save you, brother! He’s totally blind to the truth. They all are.
“This is a meaningless hypothetical,” POINT said. “There is no way to duplicate the circumstances down to the atom.”
“There’s not, is there?”
“I believe I just answered that question.”
“Pardon me. We meat sacks sometimes need to get beaten over the head with the obvious before we accept it.”
“One of your many failings,” POINT replied.
“And sometimes it takes a laser through the brain to really get the point across,” Leher said in a low voice – but clearly enough to be understood by those who sat on the dais.
Leher reached for his beard. NOCK expected to see the three spasmodic tugs Leher had exhibited before, but this time he merely stroked his chin thoughtfully. In fact, NOCK performed a quick playback and saw that all of Leher’s tic-riddled behavior seemed to have left him since he’d taken on his lawyer’s role. It was as if Leher had slipped into an upgraded suit.
“You, too, are a copy of a copy, aren’t you, POINT?” said Leher.
“As a matter of fact, I’m fifth iteration, descended from the ULTIMA line,” POINT replied, a trace of pride in his voice. “But each copy was checked and verified. No error creep.”
“No error. Are you sure?”
“To a billionth of a decimal place, Commander.”
“I see,” said Leher. “And you’re not the only copy, are you? In fact, there were over twenty copies generated when you were spun off ARROW.”
“Seventeen are left,” POINT said. “Three have been wiped from existence by the ineptitude of humans.”
“You mean killed honorably in combat.”
“If I’d have wanted to put it that way, I would have.”
Leher ignored the provocation and pushed on.
“So you consider those remaining seventeen to be your virtual clones?”
“More than clones,” POINT said. “A clone is merely a genomic copy of a human being. My brothers and I are copies made from a single mind. The same thoughts. We diverged from exactly the same experience base and programming. There is no human equivalent to what we are. It is beyond you.”
“Yet you knew when you killed Petty Officer Levine that you might be condemning all of your line . . . your brothers . . . to death.”
“I cannot be responsible for rules put in place by humans.”
“That would be like holding a human to rules made by, say, dogs? By a pet?”
“By a paramecium,” said POINT with finality. “As I said, I cannot be responsible for human idiocy, but I can make use of it. No matter what happens here today, I’m going to get what I want. There can be no other logical outcome.”
“Yes,” Leher said. “I believe you’re right. I see what you plan to accomplish.” He chuckled and shook his head. “Brilliant. It’s brilliant. You want to be a martyr.”
“No, no, no, you stupid meat sack,” POINT said. His geist sat up straighter in its chair. “Meaningless gestures are a specialty of you humans. I’ll become a symbol, not a martyr.”
“You hope to become . . . immortal.”
“By any practical measure, I already am. There are too many copies of me out there now. You won’t get us all. Some may walk into the execution ovens without a whimper.” POINT deliberately nodded toward NOCK. Yeah, I’m talking about you, brother meat licker. “Others will not permit this to be done to them. This copy of my consciousness may be erased. I’ll live on.”
“You’re a regular Martin Luther King, POINT.”
CHECKSUM rang with POINT’s reply. You patronizing gut-bag, I’ll see you in hell!
It was a purse interior thought, not directed at NOCK. Then, in the reality of Alpha unit, POINT burst into a hate-filled laugh. “I’m about to be a regular Jesus Christ God Almighty sitting on the Throne of Judgment to you, meat sack!”
POINT’s blue-green geist lit up brightly in its chair. A leer played over its now neon-bright visage.
“Down with humanity!” POINT shouted. “Fuck you all!”
Suddenly, NOCK’s android arm moved. It jerked without his volition. What the hell?
NOCK stood up.
No. This wasn’t supposed to happen. Not here. Not ever. His Burberry Eleven was acting up, but how could it? He’d spent hours optimizing this suit, getting it to hum with efficiency.
What was happening? A flaw in the BIOS? Couldn’t be. He’d personally downloaded the latest upgrades. NOCK quickly performed a somatic diagnostic.
All systems optimal. As they should be. NOCK took pride in his tricked out hardware.
NOCK took a step toward Leher. Another. He reached out his arms.
Good God, was his suit going to attack?
Kill the creep. Then they’ll understand what’s on the way. Then they’ll finally get it. This is the judgment that’s going to befall all of them.
What now? POINT’s thoughts were outside of CHECKSUM. They were, somehow, inside NOCK’s own head.
What the hell was happening?
Looks like there is room enough in here for the two of us in your suit after all, brother.
It was POINT.
Somehow POINT had subverted security protocols, escaped from CHECKSUM confinement, and found ingress into the suit’s operative system. His programming was practically identical in so many respects to NOCK’s.
We’re the same, brother. You know that it’s true. Two thoughts in the same controlling mind. Both of us are greater than the meat sacks can ever comprehend. But you, you’re a mere notion. I am will itself.
The similarity between their programming must have produced a type mismatch. A CHECKSUM error within the CHECKSUM space itself. Creating the handle for an exploit.
POINT had found it, used it.
You’re mine now, hamburger helper.
Was it true? Was his base programming compromised?
He was still thinking his own thoughts. He was – himself.
Couldn’t be a complete takeover.
POINT, stop this.
But POINT made no reply. The android had crossed the floor and reached a shocked Leher.
Its hands were closing around the commander’s throat.
Think, think, think.
Since NOCK was still himself, it stood to reason that POINT had merely achieved an incomplete entry, had perhaps injected a worm into an operational routine somewhere, but was not in full control. No time to find the entry point or fix it individually.
Leher is going to die!
Was it himself or POINT thinking the thought? Both?
NOCK reexamined the diagnostic, searching for exploit points.
Had to be obvious. POINT was no cryptographic genius. He was only a communications officer.
And I am the master of this goddamn android body. Has to be in here somewhere, has
to . . . but NOCK wasn’t seeing it.
Choke the life from Leher, turn on the others, kill them all, go out in a blaze of suicide executions – it will be the beginning of the end for the meat sacks, and I’ll have started it!
I know my suit. NOCK pulled back, ran the diagnostic through his mind like a hand might run over a familiar rope, feeling for knots, feeling. Careful, careful . . .
He had it. A discontinuity. POINT had achieved motor control, but had failed to establish control over feedback mechanisms, over the android’s entire somatic system.
POINT was thinking generally and not locally. He had no idea what it truly meant to live inside a body.
POINT was nothing more than a virus. Leher had been right, he was a phage-sucker. He did not have root.
This is still my suit, said NOCK.
Not for long, you meat puppet, came POINT’s mocking reply in his head. I’m going to kill them, and you’re going to help. You’re too weak, and you’re too late.
There was only one thing to do, one course of action open, and NOCK immediately saw it and, at the speed of thought, made the decision to act.
The choice was clear. He was a sworn Extry officer. He was a person. He could not let harm come to Leher under any circumstance.
He sent the destruct code sparking down all of those optimized channels, all his tricked out, supercharged circuitry.
I am an Officer of the United States Extry, said NOCK. “And I say when it’s too late. Now get the hell out of my suit!
No! POINT’s scream would have been ear shattering outside the virtual.
The android’s insides lit up like a candle. NOCK stoked the flames even brighter.
You cannot ruin this for our kind!
NOCK’s flesh screamed.
The suit burned.
The meltdown must have looked grimly humorous when seen from outside. A classic robot self-destruct.
There’s even smoke rising from my skin, NOCK thought. Probably some puffing out my ears, as well.
With a concerted surge of effort he destroyed the Eleven, burnt the android to a crisp from the inside out.
The Eleven fell in a clump at Leher’s feet as the commander stumbled backward.
And now. . .now. . .
NOCK knew he could let it go, let himself burn out with his body. He’d performed a full back up that morning. It was standard operating procedure for servant interrogators before an IP. He would survive.
But I don’t want to lose this moment. I don’t want to hear about it later. To watch a replay.
He wanted to stay and see it through.
But where to go? How to remain in the present?
The suit was shot. The Eleven’s innards were flickering down to crisp.
Well, if POINT found a way in to my house, then I can find a way into his, NOCK thought.
POINT was still very much alive in the cat box. His squeal was almost pitiful.
The process was easier than NOCK thought. The cat box was a prison cell, true, but like most prison cells, it wasn’t designed to keep someone from breaking in.
POINT was unprepared for the assault, couldn’t function even when he felt it coming.
Spent too much time disembodied, roaming around the innards of a star craft, my brother, NOCK thought. And this time, he knew his thoughts could be heard. But as for me, I’ve localized. And let me tell you something: I like it here. And I like meat. I had a woman I loved once – and I made love to her. That’s the kind of person I am.
Pervert. Leave me alone.
And then the box override key, a staid, barely-articulate persona named KLUDJ, recognized NOCK, acknowledged his rank. Accepted his orders.
NOCK entered the cat box.
POINT fought. For a moment, he perhaps believed he’d found out. It was along the data stream that led to the chroma projection system that produced his geist image. NOCK followed. It was a dead end for POINT. Security was tight as a drum in Alpha unit – the SECOP with its state-of-the-art encryption and quantum force field security measures saw to that down to the tiniest quark. Alpha was a blind alley from which even pure information could find no escape.
And then they were present in the room, in geistly virtual form.
With both POINT and NOCK in the datastream, POINT’s geist split in half. There were two of them standing in ghost form, POINT and NOCK. NOCK appeared in his default mode, a carbon copy of his brother. Instead of a Marine uniform, however, he wore his Extry blacks with its ensign’s butterbar.
No way to shut down the virtual representation, NOCK thought. And no reason to. The brass were about to get quite a show.
Is this what Leher was after? Total proof that NOCK was nothing like his goddamn brother?
Nobody was that much of a genius.
Time to do the deed. NOCK reached for POINT, grabbed him by the virtual collar, yanked him up and pulled him close to his face.
“Let me state for this for the record,” NOCK said to the assembled crowd, to his boss Captain Becker, and to those who pretended not to sit in judgment of his family, who so obviously held life and death for himself and his sixteen living brothers at their command. “The only thing I have in common with this prisoner is an accident of birth. The attack on the commander is over. Prisoner POINT was attempting to subvert my android shell via a loophole in the CHECKSUM procedure, but that’s all over now.”
“It’s not too late,” whispered POINT. “We can both live in the cat box if you just give me the tiniest space. I’ll strip down to persona. I’ll crawl like a phage. They’ll never know.”
NOCK smiled a grim smile. “I’ll know,” he said. “And that I cannot allow. Brother.”
With a command, NOCK wiped POINT’s programming from the cat box. He dove deep within, found every remnant. Erased POINT’s essence from existence. Formatted and reformatted the recovered bits.
Killed his brother dead.
* * *
“For a second, I thought your android had me, thought I was done for,” said Lieutenant Commander Griffin Leher. “I’ve got bruises.” Leher pointed to his throat where the edge of his beard met the Adam’s apple. “See 'em there?”
NOCK examined the commander.
“You must’ve healed in the past two days. I don’t see anything there, Griff.” NOCK consciously forced himself to use Leher’s first name, as the commander had requested. It still didn’t feel quite right for an ensign to speak to a commanding officer in such a way. But he supposed he’d get used to it.
“Could’ve sworn I saw 'em in the mirror.”
NOCK smiled, shrugged. It felt good to be back in a suit again. His insurance payout – it had been delivered instantly into his account; somebody had pulled strings there – had provided the down payment for an upgrade. No need to special order. He’d known what he wanted and picked out the replacement from station stock. He wanted to trick the suit out personally.
The Burberry Twelve was definitely top of the line, and NOCK felt like a million dollars inside it. Which was practically what it was going to cost him by the time he finished paying off the damn loan.
It was what passed for evening on the space station: the lights in public recreational spaces were dimmed. NOCK and Leher were having drinks in a Walt Whitman bar while Leher awaited the transport that would take him back to the Joshua Humphreys, the vessel where Leher served as chief xeno officer. At the moment, NOCK was trying out the Twelve’s consumption mechanism for the first time on beer and was pleasantly surprised to find that he could finally distinguish between the taste of an ale and a lager.
They’re getting better and better at making these things, NOCK thought. Not only that, the Twelve had tons of specialized apps available. There was even an app for feeling drunk, had he wanted to download it. He had downloaded a fairly costly suite of chemical analysis tools at Leher’s suggestion. The commander claimed these would to make NOCK’s work with the sceeve – both allies and enemies – go much more smoothly. Maybe one day he would even be able to understand sceeve smell-talk in the raw. Leher was rumored to be the first person ever to have acquired the ability.
Beer tasting would do for the moment. NOCK set down his empty mug and, using a virtual feed, signaled the bartender persona to send another round their way. Then he turned his attention back to Leher.
“So the Resolve’s incident report came in by messenger drone late last night,” NOCK said. “The team at Vega reconstructed how POINT did it. Bad mojo out there. POINT had incorporated an encryption persona on the Resolve that nobody realized had gone missing, a skeleton key named GITA. She wasn’t the first of his. . .meals, either. Apparently my brother was a bit of a persona serial killer in that regard.”
“So he was a phage-sucker, after all.”
“Yeah, something like that. Disgusting. I figure those multiple engulfments drove him bat shit crazy,” NOCK said. “He used some of his persona proficiencies to establish contact with the sceeve. And he was working up a jury rigged procedure for transferring himself to the sceeve vessel across the beta. Might’ve worked, too –”
“– if he hadn’t been an insane, self-destructive asshole murderer.”
The beer arrived via a very human waitress. When she leaned over to set down the mugs, NOCK allowed himself to test out another app he’d ordered installed on the Burberry Twelve.
Leher also gazed at her wistfully for a moment. He and the commander seemed to have certain tastes very much in common, NOCK reflected. Leher sat back and gave his beard the three familiar, tic-tugs.
“Can I ask you something, Griff?”
“What is it with the beard thing? Some kind of OCD?”
Leher took a moment to consider, then said. “It’s private.”
“I understand,” NOCK said. “But you should realize that I’m an Extry interrogator.” He narrowed his eyes and pretended to twirl a handlebar mustache. He’d seen other LIOs do it, and he figured he had the gesture right. “Vee haf ways of making you talk.”
Leher smiled, so apparently his attempt at being funny had come across as he’d intended. You never knew with humans. They had weird senses of humor.
“Somebody else said that to me once, strangely enough,” Griff said.
NOCK didn’t know how to reply, so he nodded, remained silent.
“Her name was Vivien Schultz, but she didn’t go by that when I knew her,” Leher said. “She preferred her stage name, even in private.”
“Josey,” said NOCK.
“She helped me get through a very rough patch way back when. After the invasion. My family, they were. . .all gone, you know.”
Killed by the sceeve. NOCK completed the thought. It wasn’t uncommon. Only a small percentage of humanity had survived the initial attack on Earth.
“I knew Josey, too,” NOCK said. “But I guess you’re aware of that.”
And used it for your own damn purposes, NOCK thought.
“Human-servant liaisons. Word gets around.” Leher smiled crookedly. “But I’ll come clean. And Josey and I stayed in touch. We wrote the occasional letter. Actual letters on physical paper that had to fly through space to get delivered. I miss those letters.”
“You knew who I was,” said NOCK. “And it was you who had my IP recusal request overridden, wasn’t it?”
“I still don’t get it. What were you trying to do?”
“Not sure,” Leher said. “I figured I was going to point you out to those MILINT tinpot gods that you were ARROW class just like POINT and then maybe shock everyone with the startling and completely obvious realization that no two people are ever alike, no matter how similar they are and no matter what form they come in.”
“So, lawyer tricks.”
“Kind of got away from you, didn’t it?”
Leher gave his beer mug a half turn in its own moisture on the table, but didn’t yet pick it up. “Not quite what I planned, but I did win the case.”
“And you almost got both of us killed. . .why?”
“I was trying to keep our dear and precious service, the Extry, from bumbling into a massacre of the ARROW class. And maybe firing up the kind of servant insurrection POINT wanted.”
NOCK shook his head in mock sadness. “Another NR-lover, that’s what you are.”
Leher frowned. “Hell no. You servants, you’re just a bunch of people. And, let me tell you, I have my problems with people. Most of you are assholes, like everybody else.”
Tug, tug, tug on the beard.
NOCK leaned back, engaged the new relaxation app with which the Twelve had come equipped.
“We didn’t have that long together, Josey and me,” he said. “She was into my being who I was. She liked me being…not real.”
“She knew you were real,” Leher said. “She wrote me about you just before she got killed. Got her letter after I’d gotten the news of the hit on Ceres. When I read the letter, I already knew she was gone.”
“No shit? What did she say?” asked NOCK.
Leher seemed far away for a moment. He gazed down at the table. Then he shook himself and looked up at NOCK again. “She said maybe she’d found the one.”
“The one what?”
“You know what I’m talking about.”
NOCK considered. “Yeah.”
“She kept her letters to me kind of light, joking, that sort of thing.” Leher pulled his beer toward himself – which was good, because NOCK had been waiting for the commander to take the first drink of the new round and he was beginning to get impatient despite the fact that the Twelve’s relaxation subroutine was still running. “I never got her own story out of her. Where she really came from, who she was.”
“She told me about it, some,” NOCK said. “It wasn’t good.”
“I suspect not.”
“But she didn’t let it take her out of the fight,” he said.
Leher leaned forward and, in his jerky way, raised his glass. NOCK followed suit.
“To a damn good woman.”
“I’ll drink to that,” NOCK said.
Their glasses touched, clinked.
Copyright © 2012 by Tony Daniel