Posted by: lordkyler | April 10, 2017

Proxy – Short Story Week 2017

I woke up to the scream of sirens and the panic of falling, startled from my bunk by the sudden noise. By luck and automatic reflex, I managed to catch the bedrail at the last instant, wrenching my arm instead of cracking my head open.

Cursing, I found my feet and cradled my shoulder, banishing all nuro notices until I could get my head in order. The darkness of my apartment was revealed as optic enhancements were suspended – the only light came from the slow pulse of my sleeping console and the muted neon flicker of the city that found its way past the foil-lined bedsheets I was using as makeshift security curtains. It was actually nice, in a way. In the dim lighting, I could pretend all the mess was the technological detritus of a young scientific prodigy instead of the dirty laundry and unrecycled garbage of an inveterate slob. It was actually almost impressive that I’d managed to create so much clutter in such a small space, but then again, I could have gotten by with less. As long as I had a bed, a bathroom, and my console, I could happily live in the Saturnine colonies. I would miss take-out Thai, though.

Right, the endless, earsplitting alarm. A nuro alert, but one that refused to go away until I acknowledged it. Emergency orders from Skyfleet. Shit. Cracking my neck and flexing my muscles, I nuroxed a hit of løgin and set the modafine on slow drip. If they were broadcasting an Apex-level alert, I needed to be at my sharpest.

Then I read the notice, and pure, old-fashioned adrenaline hit me so hard I had to order a stabilizer instead.

UTV EULER IN DISTRESS. REPORT FOR MANDATORY DUTY.

My heart fluttered in my chest like a dying bird, and for a moment, not even nuro implants could work fast enough to keep pace with my thoughts.

Power-console password:$K43L#I9M1A9 establish-fleet-link ID483396-E/X/L full-display request-status… the nuro network interpreted my half-formed thoughts into workable commands, firing up all systems – hardware and software, brightware and dark. Not even bothering to get dressed, I stumbled toward the console in my underwear, tripping over my own bare feet.

The console door slid open with a soft hiss, flooding the room with the soft glow the interior, only half-loaded. Bloated goddam military programs. My console cost more than  my aboveground apartment, and it still took ages to authenticate a connection to the fleet. Even with the stringent anti-hijacking protocols, a properly implemented system should have taken an eyeblink. Other times I’d joked about how faster-than-light communication could take so long to get going, but delays at times like this were no laughing matter.

I threw myself into the seat and began hooking myself into the system, fumbling movements that were normally automatic. Where was that damn stabilizer? I upped the dosage and forced myself to take a breath. I’d do more harm than good if I couldn’t keep a clear headspace. Only a second.

Still trembling slightly, I placed my hands inside the haptic rig and confirmed the connection by the glow of my false nails. Other lights blinked on in response, calibrating my position, followed immediately by my standard diagnostic windows. A thought changed them to a predefined configuration, all intuitive graphical displays and multi-sensory inputs, not far distant from the typical immersive shooter systems I’d grown up playing, if a little less combat-oriented. Finally, a long five seconds after stepping into the console, the familiar weight of the yoke settled onto my shoulders. I closed my eyes as the electrodes pressed against my temples with a static pop, and I was instantly far, far away from the cramped confines of my apartment in Kolkata.

My proxy lurched into life on the cramped corridors of the Euler, joining a stream of other robotic bodies as they swarmed to their stations. Here, too, the alarm was blaring, but the sound seemed distant, overwhelmed by the whirring of servomotors and the flood of commands and communication. The second I was grounded in space, I opened my physical eyes, using them as a supplement for my second sight through the proxy. It was one of the talents that had earned me a place on the Euler’s maiden voyage, and I could only hope it would help me save it.

The fleet’s AI sorted through the mountains of critical data being generated and spat out informations relevant to my duties, relaying a virtual path to my nuro, in case I had spontaneously become an idiot. As it stood, I knew my way around the ship better than the AI did. Fingers dancing, I took manual control of my proxy, as though it were a marionette under my control. Leaping above the crowd, I kicked off a reinforcement panel and swung from one of the support beams and around a corner, more monkey than machine, pushing the proxy to its full capacity.

Other proxies were working desperately at terminals and burrowing into the belly of the ship to tinker with damaged systems. From what I could tell, the damage had been borderline catastrophic, but the fleet hadn’t designated a cause. With technology so far out on the bleeding edge, they might not even know what had happened.

Sliding into a deserted access corridor, I sprinted for my station at full speed, well beyond human capacity, able to squeeze through spaces too restrictive for human anatomy and operate endlessly without tiring. It was almost criminal that they weren’t yet standard equipment. Interplanetary war might require compulsory military service, but my experience was vastly different than the poor grunts serving in person, and I knew it. I’d been good enough in school and lucky enough in life to scrounge up the exorbitant cost of sending a proxy in my place, allowing me to fulfill my service duties remotely.

And I’d proved myself, as young as I was, using my hard-won knowledge of theoretical physics and total lack of social life to earn my spot on the Euler.  It was an experimental craft under the command of Doctor – Captain – Adelaide Zeller, a pioneer in spatial distortion and my idol since the age of twelve. She was one of the few meat-bots actually onboard, placing her own life on the line. Being on the bottommost rung of the proverbial ladder, I’d only caught glimpses of her, but I’d spent hours studying her work, watching her lectures, even crafting a passable simulacrum in order to talk with her, in a sense. Fine, I’d had a crush, but any adoration on my end was well deserved. I could only imagine how she must be feeling right now, with her prize project in jeopardy. Everything I was feeling, squared and cubed and tesseracted.

I needed to reach my post, though I wasn’t sure what good I could really do. My speciality was in metaspatial communication, the same technology that allowed me real-time access of a bot nearly 250 light-minutes away. I knew every maddening quirk of the military’s metacom system intimately, but somehow I doubted that operating a glorified telephone was going to save the Euler from… whatever the problem might be.

Sliding past a viewport, I caught a glimpse of the black beyond and the asteroids of the Kuiper belt tumbling through it. Mountains of matter that drifted toward us with deceptive laziness.

The ship shuddered, and the alarms acquired a more urgent tone, lights flashing. Before the ship had even stopped shaking, my docket cleared completely, replaced by a single overriding command: DAMAGE CRITICAL. ABANDON SHIP.

I gasped, so shocked I slipped out of my second sight, and for a moment I felt like a kid again, retreating to my console after learning my mother had died. I was supposed to be safe inside these walls, like a chick inside an egg, but now that sanctuary had been cracked from the inside, leaving me exposed, vulnerable. The Euler had been everything – the focus of all my attentions, the platform of my future career, possibly the salvation of the war. And now it was dying, just like my mom had, but this time I understood that when the situation was this far gone, the only thing I could save was myself.

I tapped back into my second sight and shot down the corridors, headed for the escape compartments. By law, proxies were considered no different from actual flesh-and-blood humans, with all the same rights and privileges, though in practice things got fuzzy.

I’d never put my proxy’s survival ahead of a real person, of course. But the high command had recently decreed that the destruction of a proxy would no longer be considered a combat death. I would still be expected to complete my term, and I couldn’t afford another bot. Not as bad as death, but a real risk, nonetheless. When I thought of the poor luds they shipped off to Venus and Titan, stuffed into exoskeletal uniforms and shipped in stasis like so many packs of frozen nutrient bars, surrounded by the infinite blackness of space and knowing that you’ll never see what kills you coming…

It made me shiver, the involuntary motion nearly tripping up the proxy. I steadied it with a flick of my wrist, the motion as instinctual as keeping my own balance. Though I wasn’t the one actually running, I still found myself short of breath. Another dose of stabilizers, delivered directly to my panicked nervous system. I needed to stay calm and think rationally, but I couldn’t lean too heavily on the drugs. These were military prescription, potent enough to leave me dull and drooling for days if needed or abused.

Think. Between my father’s lessons on Buddhist meditation and my mother’s Scandinavian doggedness, I knew how to shut out distractions, but it took effort, and my brain was still closer to a stimulant soup than a functioning computer. Okay. Priorities. I needed to reach my assigned evacuation station. For once, I didn’t feel the urge to make a jingle out of the phrase.

A little more clumsily, I reversed direction, barely paying attention to the proxy’s movement as I tried to gauge the extent of the damage. Could the ship be salvaged? Was there anything I could do to help?

The ship’s roster showed no fatalities, no proxies out of commission, not even any structural damage to the ship, despite the asteroid impact. And yet we were evacuating. It had to be a problem with the metaspatial drive, then, some potential catastrophe of warped space and twisted time that even I could scarcely comprehend. We might very well find ourselves shunted outside of spacetime itself, lost to the strange, hyper-dimensional realm that the Euler was designed to traverse. One by one, names on the roster flashed and turned gray as members of the crew found their stations. By the time I reached the end of the hallway, a few blocks disappeared entirely as their compartments were filled and ejected, hurled into space at the highest speed their occupants could tolerate. I caught sight of one burning through the black, drawing a bright, clear line between the drifting dots of the asteroid field.

Soon, only a handful of names remained – names I recognized, mostly senior engineers who had been deep in the ship’s innards. Their proxies were racing for safety now, holding up the launch of my compartment. I reached my station, but paused before stepping in. One name remained on the list, unmoving and alone on the bridge, soon to be alone on the ship. Captain Zeller.

The captain goes down with the ship. The phrase came to me automatically, like a text message from my subconscious. An adage from ancient times, when men sailed the seas instead of the solar system. Nearly every aspect of philosophy, science, and society had changed since those days, but some things never changed. Captain Zeller had a steady and stalwart soul. She would fight to the firing of the last neuron, and she would die a martyr, a symbol of nobility, bravery and sacrifice in the line of duty.

She would die alone.

I froze, slipping out of my second sight once more. The console windows were flashing red, indicating a dozen different warnings, but they were of a place far away. My egg – my safe space – had been cracked. Or maybe it was time to hatch and spread my wings.

I turned and ran for the bridge.

Feeling an all-natural rush of energy and emotion, I ordered my nuro to clear all drugs from my system. This was a purely human decision, and I wanted to be 100% myself while I made it. Aside from my robotic surrogate, of course.

The ship shuddered again, but I set the bot to automatic for a moment. It would take a little longer to reach the bridge, but if I didn’t jimmy a few systems, I wouldn’t be able to do any good when I got there.

Focusing on my real-world console, I flashed through the metacom system at the speed of thought, finding my way through a maze of back doors and weaving complex webs of loopholes to arrange what I needed. Using a simulacrum program and an exploit in the roster program, I made it look as though I’d signed into my evacuation station, allowing the others to launch when they arrived. I then rearranged metacom channels to establish a second, secret link to my proxy, in case the fleet decided to sever communications.

Legally, even the most ardent optimist would be hard-pressed to call this anything less than treason. In a technical sense. But I knew how to work in the AI’s blind spots, and amid all the chaos, I doubted any flesh-and-blood techs were going to notice a little slippery business in the background. Whether the ship survived or not, I was pretty sure I could alter the records as required. Even if I couldn’t, I didn’t really care. Adelaide Zeller, of all people, did not deserve to die alone. She was worth the sacrifice.

Dubious deeds complete, I reentered my proxy just as it reached the bulkhead of the bridge. It was sealed off, but a moment’s work with the AI tricked it into opening just enough to vent off the toxic gas leak I’d invented, allowing me to work mechanical fingers into the joint and pry open a space just large enough for my robotic counterpart to snake its way through.

Captain Adelaide Zeller stood in the center of the bridge, surrounded by dozens of virtual screens, each one filled with flickering graphs and red-lined gauges, the innermost workings of the ship naked before her. She stood like a captain, firm and steady, but her hands worked like a the conductor of an orchestra, summoning and adjusting holographic controls with such speed that a viewer without nuro sight might have thought she was suffering from a bizarrely rhythmic stroke. Her eyes…

They were an enigma, a paradox of perfection, the one part of the simulacrum I’d never been able to truly capture. On her official fleet profile, they were listed as gray, but the word was too dull, too reductive to capture their true range of colors. They could be harder than a titanium alloy, fierce as an acid raincloud, or as soft and warm as my simufleece sheets. When she turned and looked at my features projected on the proxy’s face, they were all three at once.

“Ensign Khanna?” She said my name without a hint of hesitation, and for a second I could pretend the name hadn’t just popped up on her nuro. She showed no confusion, merely waited, working ceaselessly on the screens that had followed her, fixing those fathomless gray eyes on me.

“I- I wanted to, well…” I took a sharp, steadying breath. “I wanted to help.”

Damn, did it sound stupid when I said it out loud. I saluted, hoping it might make me seem like less of an idiot. I held that pose as a half-dozen alerts sounded, monitors flashing, and Captain Zeller’s eyes unfocused for a moment, taking in the panoply all at once, mind and hands working almost independently to get the problem under control. The last evacuation compartment jettisoned from the ship, and the display faded away from my vision, leaving my nurox field idle, nearly blank. For a moment, I felt strangely exposed, as though I was actually standing in front of the captain as my underwear-clad self, and I had to take my hands off the controls to keep from flinching.

All at once, the common sense that had apparently been buffering in the background suddenly caught up with me. What was I doing here? Abandoning my sole salvation and committing court-martial offenses so that I could offer some pitiful semblance of comfort to this woman? It was hero-worship gone awry, a moment of weakness at a key junction. There were still emergency pods, yes, but even if I could reach one, there would be no denying my actions afterward. I had just thrown away my life on a crush, a whim. Could she see the burning in my digitally-projected cheeks? Some genius I turned out–

“You can take the communications consoles,” Captain Zeller said. Her voice was so calm I almost missed the fact that she’d spoken at all, only catching her words a second later as my heart soared within my chest, filling me with warmth. I gave a quick, only half-ironic prayer of thanks to my personal pantheon – an amalgamation of Hindu, Norse, and scientific holy figures – and begged for the skill and intelligence to do this one thing well. Then I flexed my fingers and went to work.

Captain Zeller shunted about a quarter of her screen array over to me with a flick of the wrist, the vacant spaces filling with new screens almost instantly. I hastily copied them into my real-world console’s workspace. No sense in using an unnecessary middleman.

The ship was producing an astounding amount of data every moment – automated logs, measurements, metadata – all of which had to be collated, encrypted, and transmitted as close to real time as possible. I was reminded of the city during monsoon season, working non-stop to clear the inevitable blockages in a drainage system that was barely adequate at the best of times, knowing that every moment’s delay was another inch lost.

It took me several precious moments to get the situation sorted in my head, even with the help of nuro-assisted comprehension. All systems were running in default settings, choking on the influx of chaotic influences and essentially ignored in the face of greater problems. Priorities needed to be established.

Emulating Captain Zeller, I used my hands to sort the windows into a more efficient configuration while sorting through the feeds with my nuro-sense, pruning away non-essential or redundant programs. Personnel position tracking, HV/AC monitoring, crewman assistants waiting in standby – all were pointless on an empty ship, eating up valuable bandwidth and AI attention. I set the newly-liberated AI resources on monitoring fleet communications instead, automatically evaluating and answering the demands of ten thousand concerned bureaucrats and officers. I even added my own console’s meager assets to the pool, searching to alert me of troubling trends before they became a problem.

It still wasn’t enough. The backlog was building, and most of it was essential scientific data I couldn’t afford to cull. The Euler was the first of its kind, a metaspatial voyager that could slip into higher dimensions the way a submarine could slip beneath the waves. Requiring only a single molecule as an anchor in real space, it was the perfect stealth craft, and the precursor to true faster-than-light travel – a desperately-needed advantage over the separatist Venusian colonies and the radical Jovian factions. Even if the experiment was a failure, every point of data was a vital clue in crafting a successful replacement.

Desperate times. With only a heartbeat’s hesitation, I isolated and severed the connection of every proxy save my own, then reduced each evacuation compartment to only the bare essentials of communication – position, basic messaging, and life support monitoring on compartments with living human passengers – hijacking the rest. They would be inconvenienced, but I was sure anybody serving on the Euler would understand.

I was rewarded with a modest boost increase in bandwidth, enough to start draining the metaphorical pool. Now that I had a little breathing room, I could start fine-tuning the algorithms and responding to messages flagged by the AI, but I stole another glance at Captain Zeller first.

She had turned away, standing perfectly still in front of the mechanical gauges, almost statuesque with her hands clasped primly behind her back. I could tell she was comparing measurements between digital and analog sources in an attempt to determine the degree of spatial distortion, working multidimensional logarithms in her head faster than I could manage basic arithmetic.

On the monitors, I could see space bending, the stars contracting toward a single infinite point. The ship had been stabilized, but was still making the transition to metaspace. I was witnessing history – the first foray into higher space, and snatched from the jaws of catastrophe, no less.

Or… was it? What were the odds that a single woman, however much of a genius she might be, could reverse a evacuation-level crisis within minutes? Admittedly, it wasn’t impossible some simple oversight had led to a total breakdown, but if the crisis was averted, where was the all-clear signal? Why were the ship’s systems still reporting imminent distress? And why hadn’t Captain Zeller said a word about it since giving me my assignment?

I left communications to the AI and took a tentative step forward with the proxy. After the chaos and confusion of the last few moments, the silence of the ship was ringing in my ears, and I had the strange sensation that if I spoke, I would disrupt some delicate equilibrium and send the ship spiraling toward catastrophe once more. But now, the same curiosity that lead me to become a scientist drove me to speak up.

“Doc– Captain Zeller?” She didn’t respond, and I realized I hadn’t pushed the vox button. Swearing, I tried again, injecting a bit more confidence in my voice this time around. “Captain Zeller. With all due… ma’am, what the hell is going on here?”

Too much confidence. Captain Zeller turned and fixed me with a titanium stare, and I felt my heart stutter a bit, to see her so close, cool and commanding like some heroic archetype brought to life. She arched one eyebrow, Spock-like, and that simple expression put more knots in my belly than any amount of bad curry or manual military service could hope to match.

“What the hell indeed,” she said. How did she manage to imply such scathing rebuke without the slightest inflection in her voice? “You overstep your limits, Ensign Khanna… But then, I suppose you’ve gone beyond the bounds of duty as well.”

She studied me more closely, as if she could peer through my proxy and see my true form hiding beneath the robotic veil. I blushed, but refused to look away. Doubtless she was scanning my file in more depth, trying to determine who I was and what I could be trusted with. Had I stumbled into some secret plot or machination? The Venusian intelligence network was far-reaching and deeply-rooted, with spies suspected in the highest levels of the Fleet, and if the ambush at Io was any indication, the Jovian factions had access to at least some of our network systems.

“You can trust me,” I blurted out, sounding totally innocent and not at all like a dirty spy. Sometimes my status as a communications expert seemed painfully ironic. “Honestly. I’m just here to help. I’ve been following your work since I was twelve, and-”

I couldn’t say exactly how her expression changed, but I could see it nonetheless – a flash of understanding and what I desperately hoped wasn’t pity. Damn, was I that obvious? Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised. Hundreds of students must have been equally infatuated with her… and far more polite.

She sighed, and I suddenly realized how tired she must be. Human after all. “Ensign Khanna… Annika. I suppose we can afford to be candid, here and now. Just promise you’ll show me the same respect and hear me out. Can I trust you will keep this matter confidential?”

“I’d sooner die,” I said fervently. The Captain looked at me quizzically, and I realized I’d misspoken. “I would die before I betrayed your trust, I mean.”

“I should have few worries, it seems, if even your willing confession can be so easily misinterpreted.” The burning in my cheeks rekindled, but I deserved the barb. Clarity of communication was vital, especially in the military, extra-specially in the Fleet, and extra-damn-specially in front of authorities like Adelaide Zeller.

Striding the length of the bridge as though delivering a lecture at the Academy, Captain Zeller lofted one hand above her head, gesturing to the kaleidoscope of screens that followed her every movement. “Have you ever felt despair, Annika? I don’t mean the nervousness of finals week or anxiety over the environment. I mean immediate, omnipresent, all-consuming dread. The certainty that everything you know is utterly, irrevocably doomed, and you cannot – and never will be – able to stop it.”

I thought of my mother, and the false comfort of my cocoon.

“I think I have,” I said, almost whispering.

“This is my fear for humanity,” she said, and her expression softened as she slowed her pace. “As a race, we are still in our adolescence – growing too quickly too keep pace with our maturity. We are still prone to selfish, stupid impulses and violent outbursts, but we now our fits and tantrums have consequences we are ill-equipped to even comprehend, much less correct.”

“You’re talking about the metaspatial drive?”

“Among other things. Our capacity for catastrophe has increased exponentially, Annika. In the days of prehistory, we had no more impact on the universe than any other  ape. Then we began to change the course of species, alter entire ecosystems, shape the land itself. We entered the atomic age and gained the power to end all life on the planet. Now we’ve spread across the solar system, and our mass drivers could destroy planets if we so desired.

“That’s a candle next to the sun, Annika. Metaspatial technology is the engine of infinity, the back door to the greatest riches of the galaxy. It could make us gods… or it could spell the doom of reality itself.”

Another electric shiver crackled down my spine, but this time I couldn’t suppress it. “Well, we haven’t totally destroyed the earth,” I coughed, trying to loosen the constriction in my throat. “And we haven’t blown up the planets yet. I mean, would anyone really…”

I trailed off, and Captain Zeller gave me a pitying stare. “My dear, we’re standing on the deck of the first metaspatial craft, and it’s a damned warship. Take a look at Nagasaki or Ceres and then ask yourself if anyone would really. One madman, one accident, one innocent mistake. That’s all it would take cause permanent damage to the entire space-time continuum.”

The idea was too big for me to truly grok it, but I could tell from the captain’s expression that she did, and her concern was enough to make the matter my highest priority. The fate of the galaxy would always have my first allegiance.

“I’m yours,” I said. “Whatever’s going on, I’ll help. You have my hands, my head, and my whole heart.”

I regretted the last part of the pledge the second I said it. Was there something to the idea of Freudian slips, or had I just finished the phrase out of habit? I felt like I was about to implode from embarrassment.

Then, to my surprise, Captain Zeller smiled, even as she sighed and shook her head, and I nearly exploded instead. “It will take more than flattery to win me over, Ensign Khanna,” she said, sounding almost charmed. “Though I’ll admit such genuine enthusiasm is a strong start. A scientist can’t reach my position without a certain amount of ego. But I’m afraid I won’t be needing your help for very long.”

“Why? What’s going on?”

“There are over a hundred potentially habitable planets that we know of, a thousand wonders and a wealth of scientific information now within our grasp. Should we squander such limitless potential on squabbles with a few rogue settlements? Leave such powers to bureaucracy and the highest bidder? You’re a clever kid, Annika. You’ve seen the mess they make of metacom systems, the misappropriation of precious resources, their petty politics and Schrodinger’s cat ethics. Should the Fleet have access to metaspace?”

If it’s that dangerous, I thought, should anyone? But that question was pointless. If it could be done, someone would do it. Better to have someone trustworthy in control than to leave it alone.

“So what are you doing?” I asked for the third time. Judging by the signals between the Euler and the Fleet – both real and falsified – important people were beginning to ask pointed questions, and the ship could only maintain the charade for so long without drawing suspicion.

Adelaide sighed. “I’m committing treason, Ensign. A captain committing mutiny against her own crew.”

“So you did fake the failures,” I said, neither condemning nor condoning. “To sabotage further research?”

“To further research and sabotage the folly of the Fleet,” she responded, raising her chin proudly. “The Euler is equipped for interstellar travel. I will visit the stars, Annika, and find a way to protect them.”

“Oh.” I couldn’t think of what else to say. The idea was radical, but there was a certain thrill to it – the romance of the rebel, the explorer, maybe even the martyr. Success would grant her a prominent place in every account of human history to the end of time, and failure would still see her among the ranks of Tesla and Archimedes, minds beyond their time and place.

In fact, as I thought about it, I realized the objections that came to mind had nothing to do with danger or treason. They were about losing her, knowing that she would travel the stars in solitude, one of mankind’s greatest minds lost to us. To me.

But it didn’t have to be that way.

“Let me come with you,” I blurted out.

“What?” Adelaide raised an eyebrow again, but this time her confusion was genuine. “Don’t think the offer is unappreciated, my dear, but…”

“No, don’t you see? It’s perfect! I can help run the ship, give you news, keep you company… Anything you want. I know how to hide the signals, and I can–”

Adelaide reached out, taking my proxy’s hands in her own, and I swear I could feel their touch, cool and gentle on my fevered skin. “I can’t ask you to take that risk, Annika. I don’t doubt your ability to hide our metacoms, but if they did find something… well, I’m outside of space itself, but you’re back on Earth.” She gave me a sad little smirk, another side of her rarely seen in public.  “A rare case of proxy service proving more dangerous than the real thing.”

“I don’t care about the danger, ma’am,” I said, straightening both robotic and biological backs, squaring our shoulders. “I can make it work. I can get a second proxy somehow – indenture myself, maybe, or downgrade my console – and I can get by without much sleep. I’ve done it before, for far less important reasons. Let me do it for this. For you.”

Adelaide sighed, pulling her hands away to cradle her chin instead, eyes peering within me once more. This time, determination trumped modesty, and I stood firm, revealed rather than exposed, proud of what I was within.

A moment passed, time stretched by the gravity of the situation, orbiting a black hole of portent and possibility. Screens flashed in warning colors, fiery pulses of red and orange amid an ocean of blue, their light playing across the angles of the Captain’s face as she weighed her decision.

I felt as though I could read the thoughts flashing through her head as clearly as I could the data and dialogue flickering over the walls of my console, filled with a thousand variations on the same dilemma. Keeping a link between us invited danger, not only to myself, but to our mission. No matter how good I was, or claimed to be, there was always a chance I’d be caught, and her secrecy compromised. On the other side of the equation, even the most intrepid spirits could be daunted by the prospect of extended isolation – months or years spent with only an unimaginative AI for company, under the strictest form of house arrest in the universe.

She wanted me with her – I just knew it – but as we stared at each other, some extra sense told me she was going to decline, and I would lose the proxy for nothing. Worse yet, I would lose her, and I wouldn’t even have the closure of mourning her death. She was opening her mouth to say the words when half the screens in her array lit up all in the same instant, and the constant keening of the alarm redoubled in frequency and volume, forcing itself back into my awareness.

My own alarms joined the chorus, and my nuro began administering calmative drugs to deal with the sudden spike in my stress levels. I tried to curtail the doping, but with my emotions so elevated, I was only given limited autonomy over the dosage. Breathing deeply, I dragged myself kicking and screaming back to the Euler’s diagnostics. This time, the distress warnings lined up with the reality of the situation, backlogs piling up again. Adelaide’s deception had required walking a delicate balance between systems, and I’d distracted her long enough for the manufactured crisis to devolve into a real one. More than one critical function had drifted dangerously off-kilter.

The captain swore vehemently, then turned and began working furiously to correct the problems, using mind, mouth and motion to work on three tasks simultaneously. I was forgotten completely in the chaos, and I was painfully reminded how small I was in the midst of all this. For a moment, speaking with the captain so intimately, I’d felt like I was at the center of the universe, a person of real consequence. Now I remembered I was little more than a kid sitting in her socks and underwear in a crappy apartment millions of miles from the action. I had one useful skill, I controlled a solitary little robot, and I’d already caused my biggest hero more problems than I’d solved. Why the hell should she care about me?

And yet… I think she did care. She’d taken the time to talk, rather than just issuing orders or disconnecting me. She’d called me by my first name. Hadn’t she actually called me darling at some point? I couldn’t remember exactly what she’d said, but I would never forget how she’d said it.

I attacked the communication backlog with ferocity, using the work to distract myself from the doubts and questions buzzing around me like a mass-message attack on my nuro. If I could prove myself here, could I change her mind? Or was I only being selfish? I couldn’t afford to think about it.

There wasn’t much left that I could safely steal from other systems without robbing Adelaide, and with my newfound knowledge of our secret mission, I had to be careful with the data we shared. I did a quick pass to make sure my resources were optimally distributed, adjusted the timing of certain less-vital data clusters, and then began sorting through the high-priority messages, freeing up the AI to work on more suitable tasks than high-level language parsing,

With the help of my nuro and a few bio-spec mods from the grey-matter grey market, I was able to access, parse and respond to messages as quickly as I could think, flashes of knowledge flickering through my thoughts like impressions from a dream. Few people had the dedication and intelligence to exploit themselves so fully, to use their own brains as a biological computer, a perfect blending of a machine’s mechanics and memory with the intuition and imagination of the human mind. I was one. Doctor Zeller was another, but I could tell she was working at peak capacity, a masterful conductor of the electric symphony that was her mind, a thousand little thoughts working in perfect concert, assembling a glorious, cohesive whole from the aether. Bit by bit, she was somehow bringing the ship back under control, wresting reality with the force of her will.

But it would take precious time, and important people with a small galaxy of stars and a dictionary of scary initials next to their names were demanding personal answers, even going so far as to attempt overrides into her system. With Adelaide so short on time and attention, they might as well have been trying to scuttle the ship themselves. I intercepted their attempt, rerouting it to my console with enough encryption to hide my existence onboard the ship. Hopefully.

In the last second before the connection was established, I realized I was about to appear on the screens of the Fleet’s highest authorities in all my sloven, undressed glory, and desperately scrambled to cover up, crudely cutting Captain Zeller’s voice and body from my old simulacrum and pasting it onto myself like some sort of digital body-snatcher. For the first and probably last time, I was glad it took a small eternity to connect with the Fleet. The extra encryption load even gave me time to add a touch of age and exhaustion to the model, while also giving me plenty of time to contemplate the full scope of the treasonous acts I was about to commit. If anyone saw through my little masquerade, I’d probably end up wishing the Fleet still practiced capital punishment.

Everything around me – physical, virtual, and remote – fell away in the next instant, leaving me standing alone on the bridge of a virtual Euler, cloaked in a disguise I couldn’t see. I felt like the Emperor from that old story, except I was fully aware how exposed I truly was, too smart to believe my own lies.

Or perhaps not smart enough. I had spend years infatuated with her every eyeblink, and I had the help of a complex simulator based on decades of data buzzing in the back of my skull, but if I didn’t act like her, if I didn’t believe I could become Adelaide goddamned Zeller, I wouldn’t be able to fool a bargain-bin refrigerator AI.

I slipped into her mindset the same way I’d worn my father’s shoes as a kid; knowing I’d never truly fill them, but exultant in the experience, the strange sense of connection, comfort, and strength. As if I’d been born to it, I raised my chin proudly and ignited that trademark nuclear fire in my own eyes, annoyance and anger focused to laser intensity.

Then the figures of the Fleet – no, a single figure – fritzed into view across from me, image distorted by both a poor connection and deliberate scrambling, little more than a human-shaped cloud of spasmodic visual glitches and fractal metacom feedback. The voice that came through was equally garbled, set against a backdrop of synths and strange whistles, the words shifting wildly in tone, timing, and timbre, as though stitched together from a dozen computer voices fighting for control of one speaker, making it impossible to identity the caller by audio analysis. But for all that, there was no mistaking the person on the other end.

Daniel Yuen. Defector from the Fleet and mastermind of the radical Jovian factions. An extremist, psychopathic warlord, responsible for the deaths of more than a million innocent colonists. On a direct, shadowed, private line with the revered doctor Adelaide Zeller, decorated captain of the soon-to-be-late ship Euler.

Only my headlong momentum kept me from stopping dead and dumbfounded. “What do you want?” I snapped. The anger came all too easily, as did the fear around its edges.

“You’re behind schedule,” Yuen said, and though the words stuttered and shifted, the coldness in his voice could have been measured in single-digit Kelvin. “I dearly hope you aren’t foolish enough to break from our arrangement.”

Arrangement. A word like uranium, heavy with devastating potential. Even the idea of it was toxic, twisting my guts and leaving me light-headed.

It was easier to play along than think about what it meant. “You should be more careful, Yuen. The observatories on Earth might be able to detect hypocrisy of that magnitude. You should not have contacted me.”

“You’re behind schedule,” he repeated, stressing the first word. “Need I remind you how important this is?”

I paused, stealing another glance at the captain as I considered what he’d said. I could understand why Adelaide might defy the Fleet and run away to the stars. But what did the Devil of Deimos have to do with it?

“Maybe you should,” I said, doing some logical leapfrog. The captain might be up to some shenanigans with Yuen, but the sun would be cold and dark long before she trusted him.

It worked. The mass of malfunctions cloaking him buzzed angrily, as if their encryption patterns were tied to his moods. Maybe they were. “Extortion? Now? I expected better from you.”

I stayed silent, not willing to risk revealing my ignorance or my emotions. Yuen’s shroud bristled, a digital thunderstorm. I let the nuro take control of my own avatar, crafting a poker face to compensate for my own lack of composure.

Yuen growled and swore, employing the most colorful curses that Martian-dialect Mandarin had to offer. The simulacrum didn’t even blink, though in my console I was beginning to shake uncontrollably, but I refused to dull it with more drugs. This was my love, my pain, and I would own them if it killed me.

As the standoff continued, I felt as though every passing second would break me in a different way. I nearly caved in and spoke to Yuen. I almost forgot to monitor the metacom system. I wanted to step out of this false face and demand answers from the real Doctor Zeller. I thought about revealing my deception and telling the Fleet everything. I almost threw off my gear and stepped out of the console altogether.

For one brief, bottomless second, I thought about just dying. Exploiting the hacks in my modified nuro and shutting off my brain as easily as switching off a light. Easier not to deal with it all.

Some people think there’s a link between metaspace and free will, some tiny, invisible link between ourselves and the infinitesimal eternity of the higher planes. They may be right. I’m not a philosopher.

But it wasn’t fear of non-existence or eternity that gave me the courage to keep my courage through the micro- nano- picoseconds of dismay. It wasn’t hope that Adelaide would be vindicated, or the idea that I might be able to stop this mess and save the war. I held on because my mother used to tell me to be strong, and good, and true, and because her death had forced me to learn those lessons early.

In the revival of religious interest following the discover of metaspace, many newly-converted metatheists tried to tell me that some higher intelligence in the realm beyond reality was watching us. Some told me that everything was part of a mysterious, vaguely benevolent plan, right down to my mother’s accidental death.

I still think that’s bullshit. But after what I found in that brief, black moment, I wouldn’t be able to ridicule it anymore.

“Alright, dammit,” Yuen spat. “You’ll get your kingdom, Zeller. Twenty trillion in hard assets and command of the Callisto colony.”

It was as bad as I could have imagined. Worse, even. Captain Zeller lied to me. A fortune in supplies and an entire moon to herself? She wasn’t embarking on some altruistic odyssey. Maybe she did mean to visit the stars someday, but it would be as a major player in interplanetary politics, an empress in the making. And all it would cost her was the Euler, the embodiment of her life’s work. Her soul.

Yuen was still talking, a profanity-ridden tirade I’m sure our intelligence network would have given one of our moons to hear. I cut him off, closing the communication. He immediately tried to break in again, but with a passing thought, I unleashed a few government-concocted programs, sending them toward his private systems, forcing him to close all channels or risk infection from malicious AI with names like Mephistopheles and Robber Baron. It was the work of a millisecond, possibly a historic blow against the Jovians, and I’d already forgotten him.

Only the Captain mattered. As always.

My proxy leapt into motion, crossing the bridge in a matter of seconds. The motion drew Adelaide’s attention, and for one fleeting moment, as our eyes met, I felt as though we had our own metaspatial link. There was no distance between us, no layers, no masks, just a brief and terrible moment of mutual understanding. We knew each other then. We knew what we had to do.

I moved forward as she raised a pistol and shot me, a supersonic slug that breached my exterior and unleashed a lethal electric shock, shorting every circuit in the proxy. But the emergency pneumatics had already fired, throwing the bot across the room, and the bullet punched through it too cleanly to arrest its momentum. It crashed into the Captain with enough force to send them both flying into a control station, embracing her in a tangle of loose limbs and exposed wires, bleeding smoke and sparks and fluids.

It wasn’t enough to kill the Captain, who doubtless had the latest in surgical combat enhancements, but it kept her occupied long enough for me to take control of the Euler’s systems. So close to the brink of catastrophic failure, it was easy to give them one final push, even with Adelaide fighting me. Too easy, maybe.

The ship shuddered, and my connection faltered. Systems began stalling and shutting down entirely as space warped around them, and the cameras gave out, leaving me suddenly in my console, with only blank white walls and a few statistics for company. My hair and underclothes were damp, soaked with sweat, and I realized I was short of breath. I clung to my hard, lifeless seat, wet skin squeaking on the smooth plastic, but I found no comfort there. I needed to get out, to do something, hold someone, but I was riveted in place, unable to move until I knew for sure it was all over.

The bridge of the Euler was reinforced, one of the last place to be affected by overloaded metaspatial drive. I could tell from the input I was receiving that the Captain had fought her way free and was trying anything to escape the imminent implosion, but it was far too late. I couldn’t see her, but I could still hear her panting, muttering under her breath, desperate.

“I’m… I’m sorry,” I croaked.

She paused in her work, and when she spoke, her voice was soft and broken. “Why, Annika? To save a corrupt Fleet? To prolong the war? Or simply because I wasn’t what you wanted me to be?”

“Because…” I searched for the word that would explain it all, that could convey my outrage, my heartbreak, my dreams. But none of that was the real reason. “Because…”

The last screens disappeared.

“Because I had to,” I whispered. ‘Because of her.”

Slowly, I disengaged from the console, putting everything away for the last time. Letting out a long breath, I issued a last order to my nuro, telling it to scrub the system and power everything down in order.

Everything.

Falling to the floor, I finally accepted a full dose of medication, letting all my troubles melt away in a haze of delirium. The console went dead, and in the darkness I felt someone embrace me, somehow… somehow making it all okay. A sweet, familiar voice whispered in my ear, so soft and far away I could barely hear it.

“Don’t worry, Annika, it’s all over. You did well. You made it.”

And then I woke up.

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