Lieutenant Tom Spencer stood on the carrier’s observation deck, looking out at the bright Inkeren night. This star system occupied a much denser region of the galaxy than Earth did, and the sheer number and closeness of the stars in the sky here made for that much more illumination. Still, knowing the scientific explanation didn’t make the sight any less astounding.
“Ten hundred hours, standard time,” Ed said, interrupting his reverie. Tom turned in the direction of his voice, saw him standing in the doorway, a rectangle of light in the side of the darkened room. “We’re wanted in the briefing room.”
“All right, coming,” Tom said. He was supposed to have his com switched on at all times, but he preferred to forget about it. Most of the time there wasn’t a problem, since what his superiors didn’t know couldn’t hurt him. He left the deck and they headed over together, quietly taking their seats just as it was getting started. First came the weather briefing, which didn’t last very long: no solar flares and no meteor showers anticipated. The skies, and the electromagnetic spectrum, would be as clear as they ever got. Then came the routine safety briefing. Finally, they got to the good stuff, the mission. A hologram flickered to life in the center of the room. It was a representation of the asteroid belt, revolving slowly for the benefit of those seated around it.
Early in the war the Outer Planets of the Inkeren system had fought their way into the asteroid belt and dug in. They’d got into the rocks, planted sensors and positioned mines and blasted hangars into them, setting up stations from which they could launch fighters or refuel ships. Just as with ground troops in the old days of mechanized warfare, they were exceedingly tough to dig out, even after the OPs had lost so many of its heavy ships that it was unwilling to risk a major fleet action.
And the Inner Planets were paying for that initial failure to keep the OPs from getting their teeth into the belt. Fully sixty percent of their interstellar trade went through the Invari wormhole on the far side of the asteroid field and even overflying the thick of the belt their shipping was continually sniped at and ambushed, forcing them to resort to a convoy system. Since then, Earth had come into the war on the side of the IPs, dispatching the carrier Telemachus—just as the Podradhatu Dominion was known to be backing up the outer worlds, to have fed them the arms which enabled them to win their early victories.
“Zoom in, Sector 7-G,” the intel officer handling this section of the briefing said. The chart swam as the designated point portion of the three-dimensional image leaped out to form a second picture.
“Zoom in, Asteroid 4051-K.” A third hologram leaped out of the second, the named asteroid emerging from among its brethren. “Magnify four,” he added as an afterthought, at which the hologram quadrupled in size.
“This imagery was taken by a recon drone only twelve hours ago,” he said as it became clear why he was drawing their attention to it. A pair of massive doors had been blasted into the rock, the silhouettes, just barely visible at this level of magnification, momentarily highlighted in neon green. “We believe this asteroid is a base for two squadrons of enemy fighters involved in some of the recent attacks on convoys heading to and from the Invari wormhole. And we’re going to take it out. Two flights loaded out with Penetrator missiles, two others packing mixed loads and so able to provide a measure of cover.”
“Pretty risky, don’t you think?” Ed asked. “We could easily get overwhelmed if it came to a fight.”
“As you can see, 4051-K is in the middle of the belt. If we’re going to smear it, we’ll have to get in close, and the simulations we’ve run show that no ship of the line can negotiate the narrow openings, or maneuver close enough to avoid detection.”
The second quadrupled in size, with a flight path modeled on the anticipated distribution of rock, ice and metal through the sector illuminated in white. “In fact, we’d have a tough time controlling even a fighter force larger than a squadron, which will need to hit them before they can swarm out or shift position. Don’t forget, their doctrine calls for heavy point defenses at bases like that.”
That made for a total load-out of thirty-six missiles, which would be concentrated against the blast doors they saw in the imagery. In the worst-case scenario, they figured they could get in a half dozen hits. Not enough to wipe it out, but at least to put it out of action for a good long while, and should circumstances allow, a second strike to mop up.
“So it’s either going in quick and sneaky, or dispatching a battle fleet to hit them head-on, and the brass would prefer to avoid a bloodbath over this objective, if that is at all possible,” the intel said. “Any questions? Dismissed.”
Spencer’s squadron headed for the ready rooms and geared up, then took off in their fighters, leaving the ship behind for the asteroid belt, which contained about four times as much matter as the one back in the Sol system. And while that still left it pretty sparse next to any planetary surface, the extraordinary speeds involved in a sortie like this one kept them maneuvering constantly, accelerating and decelerating to steer clear of rocks as big as mountains or moons making their way around the system’s sun.
That made for a great deal of hairy flying, but no close calls. That was, at least, until Spencer felt a fireball burning up his spine, a feeling he’d had before when his squadron had been jumped while escorting a convoy. But all he had seen were ghosts; they shouldn’t have elicited that kind of physical response.
So maybe they were more than ghosts. He called up a second display, replayed the sensor record of the past half-minute, watching intently for the faintest signature. But there was nothing there. And that made him more uncomfortable than he would have been otherwise.
If what he’d seen earlier had still been there, then he would have had a lead to follow. Now, he felt like there had been something furtive about it, like their machines knew more than they were letting on, and he keyed the comm. “Sir, our equipment’s been tampered with,” Spencer reported.
“What? How do you know that?”
“I . . . caught ghosts on my sensor display, sir.”
“Have you rechecked your displays? Played the record over?”
“Yes sir,” Spencer said.
“I didn’t see them again.”
“I see.” There was a brief pause as his commander checked his own systems, however reluctantly. “My sensor records show nothing also. Is that all you have to go on?”
“Yes sir . . . I mean, I don’t know how I know, sir, but I do know that there’s more to this than what I just saw.” He sighed audibly. “Recommend we abort, sir.”
“Negative, negative, we will not abort,” the squadron commander shot back. “All units will proceed with the sortie. All units. Is that understood flight commander?”
“Understood, sir.” Damn it.
It crossed his mind that he should check in with his wingmen, but he decided against it. If his flyers saw that anything was up, they should have chimed in and he didn’t want to put any ideas into their heads . . . no, it was best not to bother them, to let them focus on the task at head.
And maybe he was wrong. Maybe it was just jitters. But why should he be jittery? He’d flown forty sorties in this campaign, and those missions hadn’t been uneventful. He’d tangled with the bad guys; he’d discharged his weapons in anger and he’d been shot at himself. And he couldn’t think of anything that had happened lately to get his back up, an accident, an inconsistency in the intel.
“Missile launch!” someone shouted, but it was too late. One of their fighters had already exploded, a flash visible in the distance. That missile had come in from the rear, Spencer somehow judged.
“Break off!” he shouted over the comm, and his flight split up, fighters going in different directions to confuse their attackers.
It was an ambush, he realized. Those fighters had been positioned behind those rocks, waiting for them, which suggested to him that they knew the route they were taking beforehand, that maybe they were tracking them right now, and Spencer knew why he’d felt like the computer wasn’t being on the up-and-up with them. The bad guys had sneaked in a virus. Not to ground them; stuck in a hangar they’d be fixed and live to fight another day. No, the intent had been to lure them crippled into a fight where they could be killed.
Still, maybe there was something he could do. Their approach meant treading lightly, so lightly that somehow his system had slipped up, momentarily failed to suppress the data long enough for him to catch a glimpse of the fighters falling on them before going back to erase it. So the virus didn’t sneak into all of their systems, something that would have likely given it away, and it seemed to him that there was a chance the back-ups were still uninfected. He called his up, in the hopes that it remained uncorrupted. Of course, that left his system down briefly, but it wasn’t doing him much good as it was now. Don’t see me, don’t see me, don’t see me, he thought childishly while the systems ran up, as if wishing could make it so.
There! Systems online, he quickly locked up one of the bad guys and fired, missile blasting off the launch rail and vanishing in the darkness. A fireball bloomed from the side of a stricken gun-ship which went cartwheeling into an asteroid, disappearing in a flash on the edge of a rock.
But then the enemy fighters dispersed, vanished beyond the asteroids and from his displays. They were gone. The fight was over. But he was the only one left in his unit, he saw. Ed, Jake, Kate, Quan, Ricardo and all the rest, gone, atoms scattered, or corpses floating frozen, or trapped in wrecked ships from which they were unlikely to ever be recovered. Maybe some of them were still alive in those wrecks, their deaths just a matter of time.
He hailed them over the radio, called out their names again and again, met only with silence; scanned the hell out of the rocks around him, hoping against hope to find a life pod, a ship still intact enough to support a living, breathing person, and saw nothing. Much as he hated it there seemed nothing for him to do but limp back home, and his welcome was anything but a hero’s welcome. He was seen as being tainted by having been the sole survivor of the massacre, come back with not a scratch on his ship, not even a missile loosed at him so far as the records showed. It was like the enemy had decided to spare him, even after he loosed a missile at one of their ships. His report that the systems aboard their fighters had been sabotaged didn’t make things any better for him. They wanted to know where he got such an idea, why he knew, why he survived when all the others didn’t – or said they did, since it seemed they’d already made up their minds as to the answers.
The investigators couldn’t make any really tangible claims against him, just left a lot of suspicion and unease floating in the air, like some perfume they’d sprayed. But they’d sprayed him badly enough to bring his military career to an inglorious end, and he’d since been discharged, which left him looking for something else to do. Tom was still a trained, experienced pilot, which made him eligible to pilot commercial craft, and that was what he’d ended up doing, driving a medium freighter from system to system.
Unfortunately, there was a surplus of them these days. You couldn’t fly fighters forever, and even washouts from the training program made acceptable commercial pilots. Besides, a coup brought the Inkeren War to an end that restored the status quo ante, and the Fleet scaled back, a process which hit pilots a lot harder than paper pushers, so there were now all these extra flyers looking for work. And pilots in unglamorous areas like transport were hit hardest of all.
Meanwhile, the industry was going through yet another round of consolidation. The yards were putting out bigger, faster ships, capable of making more trips with more cargo per trip. At the same time, improvements in astrogation programs and interstellar communications were shortening stays in port, making shipping quicker still. And of course, only the big boys were competitive in an environment like that, which meant mergers and layoffs and buyouts and bankruptcies and layoffs.
All of that meant fewer ships, and fewer pilots needed to fly them. Even his experience as a space combat veteran didn’t count for much against a trend like that, at least not during the cold peace. Sure, piracy was on the upswing in some parts of the galaxy, but the ship owners preferred to pretend that the problem didn’t exist, to dodge the higher insurance rates, and the safety precautions and higher wages that the ship crews would demand. But for Tom that was a moot point, since he didn’t fly in those sectors, and probably never would. Old, medium-sized vessels like his were being retired, and the pilots weren’t being given new ships, but walking papers instead. A couple of his friends had already met that fate, and he found himself half-expecting to receive his own, any day now.
The repairs being done on his ship weren’t helping matters, either. He certainly couldn’t help it if he got hit by the golden BB, that meteoroid that ripped out and aired out compartment number six, but his name would be connected with the unhappy coincidence and likely to get him axed. And changing jobs would likely mean changing his career as well. It was this unhappy thought that preoccupied him when he found himself no longer alone at his booth in the cheapest diner he could find.
Eyeing the woman’s clothes he suspected this was not her usual choice when she ate out; the suit would have cost anyone in here a month’s pay, maybe more.
“Hi,” she said.
“Hi,” he said back. She had auburn hair, shoulder-length, and large blue eyes and high cheekbones that lent her an alluringly feline aspect.
He couldn’t think of a way to broach the question delicately. “What do you want?” he asked.
“Just to talk.”
“An offer which I am sure you will find interesting.”
“Is this about something illegal?” He’d had approaches before, from people looking for a pilot willing and able to run contraband for a cut of the proceeds.
“It’s certainly not against Terran law,” she reassured him, “and not being a lawyer I make a point of not vouching for what’s legal or illegal in other star nations.”
“You know what shipping schedules are these days,” Tom told her curtly. “I’ve only got half an hour before I have to run.”
“That’s not true,” the woman said. “Your ship’s in for repairs, on account of a meteor impact it sustained during the last leg of your flight. You’re here for a good seventy-two hours standard, and more likely for ninety-six. All I ask is an hour of that time. One hour. Surely you can give me that . . .”
He supposed it couldn’t hurt to hear her boss out on the matter, and when he finished his meal (she had just a cup of coffee) he followed her to the Fresca Hotel, where he had a room. Entering the suite Tom encountered a stocky man in late middle age sitting in an overstuffed armchair, his most distinguishing characteristics a neatly trimmed mustache and a cane.
“Have a seat,” he offered.
“I’ll remain standing, thank you.”
“Suit yourself. As you know, this is about something you may be able to do for us.”
“Yes,” Tom said.
“We’re ready to pay you a fee of twenty thousand credits, half paid up front, half later. That’s a good six months’ pay for you. And the job will take no more than two weeks, the vast majority of it in transit time which you will spend under conditions much more comfortable than those aboard your freighter.”
“Uh-huh,” Tom said. “Transit to what, exactly?”
“A no-brainer. We need a file recovered. That’s it.”
“All right, what’s the catch?”
“I suppose the ‘catch’ is that the file’s to be recovered from Chermetevo.”
“Chermetevo? Inside the Podradhatu Dominion?” And he’d wondered just whose laws he’d be breaking. “Forget it.”
“Yes, yes, that planet has a reputation for being forbidding. But what do you really know about it?”
“I know enough to steer clear of it.”
“I assure you this is quite doable. We’ve developed countermeasures that will let you get about the planet virtually unnoticed.”
“Seriously,” the Old Man added.
“So why risk a secret like that by coming to me?” Tom asked. “Why not turn to someone you already know and trust?”
“You fit a profile for one of our people with the access we need who is, ah, unavailable. For completely unrelated reasons.”
Tom snorted. “Convenient.”
“Far from it,” the Old Man told him. “Or we wouldn’t be here. But don’t get it into your head that you’re indispensable. You’re not. Now will you take the job or not?”
Tom sighed, thought it over. He could certainly use the money, especially with the layoffs ongoing and landing a new job probably requiring him to land a new career as well. Fishy as their story was, the idea of going to Chermetevo intrigued him. He felt drawn to the very element of danger that would have made any right-thinking person walk right out of the room, a hunger that had found little expression since the Inkeren War, and these people knew it, Tom thought. Looking at the thin smile on the Old Man’s face as he watched him make up his mind he was sure that he could smell the adrenaline pumping through his arteries even now, though being transparent in front of him didn’t reduce the hunger one iota. Sneaking around behind enemy lines wasn’t the same kind of rush as flying a fighter, but the icy thrills of subterfuge sounded pretty damn good next to the banal anxieties of being a none-too-valued member of the civilian work force.
And these people did believe that this could be done, didn’t they? Certainly there were people who got their kicks doing strange things, but they wouldn’t pay a stranger twenty thousand credits to commit suicide, would they?
“I’m in,” he finally said, the idea of backtracking long since left behind.
“Good,” the Old Man said, glad to have what he regarded as a formality out of the way. “Now let’s start talking details. It won’t be like a common infiltration, pop-in, pop-out, or burrowing through like a mole. No, what you’ll have to do is slip into its body like a virus, some stealthy virus able to circulate through its bloodstream without being picked up on by its immune system.
“You can scarcely conceive of the density of nano-scale sensors . . . they permeate the air, they cover every surface. They’re on your skin, in your hair, like bacteria, or mites of the kind that you find on human eyelashes, or dust particles. You’ll suck them in with each breath and shit them out in your stool. No amount of scrubbing, no internal cure, not even sicing an army of our own nanobots on them is going to clean you out.
“Besides, there’s a real chance that that could give you away even more quickly. We frankly don’t know how their system is wired, how closely and continually these sensors are monitored, what the protocols are. It may be that they gather data for storage in a library, for later reference in case something pricks their attention. It may be that they’re there to be activated when they feel that something’s up. Either of those would give you some wriggle room, but we frankly can’t bet on it. The only good reason for doing either of those things is a finiteness of processing power, and we just can’t bet on that, not when we’re dealing with an intelligent planet.”
“So what can we do?” Tom asked. “I mean, there’s no way in hell I can do anything there if they have their eye on me the whole time, is there?”
“No, but that’s precisely what they won’t have,” the Old Man said, “their eye on you. No human eyes, in all likelihood. Just the machines. We may not be able to attack their nanobots, but we do have something that can spoof them, make it like they’re not there, at least for short periods. You just take an injection. But you don’t do it until you absolutely must drop below their radar, right before you do the job. Say, in your hotel room before going out, then after it’s done, come back in and wait for them to run down. It’ll be like you’ve never left.”
“That’s all well and good,” Tom said, “but won’t the injections look suspect? I mean, customs officers ask questions.”
“Not on Chermetevo they don’t, not really. With the kind of setup they have, why bother? But should they ask, one feature of your cover is that you have Scoular’s syndrome, and the injections keep you in something like normal health.”
“Non-contagious and treatable, yet requiring the eccentricity of a regular injection nonetheless, correct?”
“Correct. Besides, the medication’s composition is also similar enough that should customs take a cursory look at it your story should still hold up. And if they take more than a cursory look, they’ll assume you’re just an abuser.”
“Might the appearance of narcotics be a problem?”
“Highly unlikely,” he said. “They’re not particularly interested in that sort of thing, since they don’t look at narcotics the way that other cultures do. They don’t see the body as something ‘pure,’ something which should not be altered or modified; modifying it, after all, is the basis of their whole belief system. Their only worry is for the efficiency of their infostructures, and they look to other ways than shaking down or jailing drug-runners to insure that. Though of course, even if they don’t buy your story about Scoular’s, they’ll see that you won’t have more than what you require for personal use.”
Tom finished the haul and took his vacation, handing the freighter over to another flyer, trading its dubious amenities for a luxury suite aboard a passenger ship bound for Chermetevo. He looked out the window at the planet he was approaching, which he’d actually never seen before. It was a cold world, approximately a hundred and seventy million kilometers from its sun, circled by a moon with a quarter of its mass, a big, heavy moon that made for equally big tides on this dark, blue planet.
As the liner orbited Chermetevo he could see that even at night the surface was a blanket of illumination, the only open spaces to speak of on the world below the seas or the unusually large polar caps. Elsewhere, the crust of the planet was overlaid (and in many places penetrated) by what amounted to a single, giant computer. The people there merely dwelled on that surface, lived inside of it, serviced it, he thought.
The ship had docked at an orbiting station and Tom transferred to a shuttle which carried him down to the surface of the planet. The staff at the spaceport, the people on the streets of the metropolis, were supposed to be there just for the benefit of the off-worlders, he had been told. Yet, they hardly made him feel more at home. Were they actually humans, or simply robots designed to appear that way, there being no difference to the locals? He looked at the men and women behind the desk, as though he might be able to make out a circuit or a screw just by looking hard enough, but even if he saw nothing, what difference did it make?
Such humans as remained among these worlds were so closely connected with machines, so enamored of plugging machines into their bodies that he wondered if it was at all possible to distinguish between the organic and the organized here. To draw a line where one ended and the other began. He’d put the question to the woman he’d met in the diner, who’d later identified herself as only Melinda.
“You’d be astonished by how little we know about the Podradhatu, what goes on in it, even very basic information of the kind that you should be able to find in any atlas,” Melinda had replied. “It’s been estimated, for instance, that five trillion sentient beings live on Chermetevo.”
“That can’t possibly be true,” Spencer said. “No planet can hold that many people.”
“Of course, which is why it’s tantamount to our saying that we don’t have any idea how many actually occupy the only world in the Podradhatu Dominion to which we have easy access. Though they do have a penchant for secrecy, the real issue is that they just don’t regard that data as we do. An intelligent computer program, a robot, a flesh-and-blood human, a record of a living or deceased human being inside a computer’s memory, they are all the same to them. A man with special skills or of especially high-rank can have multiple personalities, divided, combined, copied as convenient, to assume multiple responsibilities, to be in many places at once as necessary. The notion of discrete human bodies, of individuals each counting for one, is alien to the people of the Podradhatu. So they don’t talk about men, women and children. They don’t talk about people. They just talk about units.”
And he wondered if just being here he was becoming the same way. He was only too conscious of the little machines surrounding him, covering him, entering him, but he found it curious how little their larger brothers were in evidence. There were surprisingly few ports and jacks and cybernetic limbs in sight, he thought, as he studied those persons he saw in the streets through the window of his taxi. Ordinarily they didn’t bother to dress their machines in human flesh, since their belief system held that there was nothing privileged about the shape and appearance of organic creatures. And he had the sense of being in some vast Potemkin village of the machines.
Public relations, the necessity of putting as human a face as possible on the cult’s vision, making it superficially more palatable to the outsiders the better to gull the “less enlightened races?” Or, perhaps, some human reaction against the tide of machinery, some lingering anthropocentrism, of a prejudice in favor of the flesh, of human flesh which they simply could not completely exorcise?
If consciousness could be downloaded through a high-res brain scan, then it could be deduced completely from the substance of his brain. Could their sensors get up inside his brain, crawl through the nerve tissue, map its pathways down to the atom and quark, and report back everything? Or quietly building an interface with his neural net that would let them do the same thing, literally read his mind, betray his intentions? But could they download a consciousness, really?
Such technology was supposed to be at the core of their ability to ‘translate patterns,’ to put your ghost into a machine. It was possible to extract memories, he’d been told, but Terran technology recovered nothing more than sensory imprints, data that any machine could collect. The essence of memory, of thoughts and feelings, that was believed to be beyond their abilities now and perhaps forever, but the people of the Podradhatu were not a people preoccupied with ‘essences,’ with things that couldn’t be quantified. Nor were they preoccupied with continuity. Perhaps no incarnation of a pattern remembered such things from earlier incarnations, had only the shadows of emotions and reflections on earlier experiences.
If there was ever a people without a past, these were it.
Still, even if they could get at the images in his mind they might see Melinda and the Old Man, might hear the words that they had exchanged in his hotel room. They would know his mission, what he intended to do here and how he was supposed to go about it. Tom had to hope that they could not, at least not this way. The experiments he knew of had recovered memory only partially and selectively, from a mind in an unconscious state, and then only with highly specialized equipment that might not easily be deployed on a nano-scale. Otherwise, how easy it would have been for them to dispatch him with nanobots, or slip a tailored virus into his bloodstream on this world where not merely the threat but the actuality of unlimited violence permeated the air. Nothing, however, had happened by the time that he was in his hotel.
And he was starting to think that perhaps nothing would. But then again, perhaps they were waiting for him to act, to learn something more of him that way. Perhaps they knew nothing of what he was here to do. Perhaps they knew only a part. And perhaps they knew that the needle he’d been given wasn’t what it was all cracked up to be. That maybe the devices which would cancel out the planet’s surveillance didn’t even exist, and he was just being given a dressed-up saline solution. Maybe it was a slow-working poison, intended to kill him when he’d finished, saving them money while keeping their secret. Yes, that seemed possible; his experiences in the military had soured him on the practitioners of the black art of intelligence. And maybe he was a guinea pig, the thing being tested on him . . . and maybe the Podradhatu’s security computers were waiting to see how the test would play out . . .
No, he had to stop doing this. The possibilities were limitless, and his power to affect any of them virtually nonexistent. All that reviewing them did was make him think of the thousand ways in which he could be victimized, and he couldn’t bear that; even if it was bound to happen, how much worse it would be that the last minutes of his life were wasted in such thought. He took a deep breath, closed his eyes, and swept all those thoughts out of his mind with an effort so profound that he felt his muscles strain in the process. Purified, before the doubts could nag at him again, Spencer injected himself with the needle, put into his body the little machines that would deceive the other little machines all around him.
He had rolled the iron die, but a new set of doubts attacked him just then, making him feel foolish and irrelevant. It was a contest between machines, machines that designed and built and dueled. And he was only a bit player at all because he’d become part-machine himself. In that moment it seemed almost inevitable that those machines would discard them and continue without them, and he wondered whether there was any point to this exercise after all. Whether the bad guys were right about this one and it was inevitable that they would be superseded, but maybe consciousness just wasn’t a survival value. Maybe it was better to be simple and oblivious, crawling along on primitive instinct, the grand and the spectacular not the product of will or reason or passion but a spontaneous, emergent behavior, complexity bubbling up out of the void.
In the beginning there was not the Word, there was only Kaos.
Tom left the hotel and proceeded on foot to the unmarked building identified to him as the security center. That was all he did, walk inside. With surveillance constant and the means of execution ubiquitous, crawling all over him, drawn in with the air he breathed, traditional security measures like armed guards and key cards, or for that matter policemen, were pretty much superfluous. He found the corridor leading to his destination and proceeded through it unnoticed and unremarked on by the few people he passed. They didn’t have to keep their eyes open, the machines did all the watching for them. And those who offended their god would suffer immediate and final retribution.
Tom abruptly turned on his heel, entered the sixth door on the right side of the hallway. An electronic agent that his employers had infiltrated into the Podradhatu—essentially an intelligent computer virus—shunted the file through the system, to the terminal inside. Once there, he sat at the keyboard, located the file and loaded it onto the crystal he had been given for the purpose, and then he walked right back out.
Out the door, back into the street. Even as he held the idea fixed in his mind that he could not, would not be seen, he was shocked at the fact of it, fully expecting to be struck down in his stride as though by a thunderbolt. The sensation of needles in his side sent him into a silent panic, certain that the nanites he knew to be in him had started to slice up his lungs, certain that at any moment he would drown in his own fluids. The feeling passed, and he started to become accustomed to being invisible, and alive. By the time he had taken off from the spaceport again and boarded a liner back to friendly space, he knew he was home free and he sank into a hot bath.
Coming back to the Sol system Tom caught a shuttle for Geneva, where he was supposed to bring the crystal to the Old Man’s office.
“Any trouble?” the Old Man asked when he walked in and put it on his desk.
“Uh, no, I guess,” Tom admitted, surprised at his own response.
“Guess what?” the Old Man said brightly, more animated than he’d ever seen him. “We lied about the injection.”
“What?” He looked ready to kill him. More than looked it. He vaulted over the desk, grabbed him around the throat with both hands and started squeezing, squeezing, waiting for his eyes to pop out of his head when a bolt of pain struck him in the side, threw him off.
Hitting the floor he looked at what the Old Man had been holding, his cane, which apparently doubled as a shock baton.
“In answer to your question,” the Old Man continued, completely unruffled, “it was a prop, that’s all, but a useful one. It made you believe you were not seen, believe it enough you made the machines believe it as well. Now, it wasn’t totally psychosomatic. It did something to your nervous system as well to ensure those faculties kept operating, but which I unfortunately can’t discuss with someone from outside the organization. But the fundamental thing is that it came from inside of you. Please, have a seat.”
Tom picked himself up off the floor, sat down in the armchair, listened to his lecture.
“Humans, you see, have been hunted by electronic sensors and weapon ever since the twentieth century. Yes, they were built and used by other human beings, but the problem remained nonetheless, and they only upped the ante. Systems that proved inadequate were cast aside, the designers constantly improving on them, favoring winners and discarding losers.”
“You’re talking about evolution,” Spencer said.
“Indeed I am. Of machines, but also of human beings. Of course, humans responded by building up countermeasures, but that just made the machines get smarter, made us more dependent on machines. So it wasn’t just a competition between one machine type and another, but between human and Machine, period. And it was inevitable that humans would start adapting. Nature’s red in tooth and claw, but the weak don’t stay the same easy victims forever, and no species goes without putting up a fight; some of them survive, advantaged by accidental mutations which inevitably proliferate, become the basis for a new species. The wars of the twenty-first century, the Machine Plague . . . they already began selecting for genes that enabled humans to take on and win against machines.”
“I’m not sure I follow you,” Spencer said, actually following but not really believing. “What genes?” Spell it out for me.
“We know that a telepath may be able to read a human mind, even to sense a higher animal’s psychic activity. But they can’t simply scan a computer the same way, read its ones and zeroes. Which leads us to assume, of course, one of two things: either that machines have no mind at all. Or that they have a mind fundamentally different from ours. That they are ‘organized’ life rather than ‘organic’ life and that this somehow makes them so different from us that we can not perceive their consciousness.
“However, this is no longer the case. You, people like you, make it so. You have a demonstrated capacity to read a machine’s mind, if that is the word for it . . . to interact with artificial, machine intelligence as ordinary telepaths interact with the intelligence of flesh and blood creatures. This capacity extends to deception. Just as a telepath can implant a false image in a human mind, so can you implant false imagery in machine minds. And that is how you hide from them.”
“Are you telling me I’m . . . some kind of machine-telepath?”
“Think of all of the times when you looked at a machine and you knew something was wrong with what it was telling you. Or, for that matter, when it should have picked up on something you were hiding, but didn’t. Intuition, luck, may sometimes account for these things, but not always.”
“You’re talking about the incident that got me booted out, aren’t you?” Spencer asked.
“Yes,” the Old Man replied, “that was what caught our attention.” He’d seen the displays, and known they were being spoofed. And then when the enemy fell upon his unit, he’d managed to stay alive when the others couldn’t—to spoof them in return. “You never knew you possessed the ability; you merely took it for granted, couldn’t see it through the broader complex of abilities you rely on each and every day. It’s the same for most humans. Yet, it did manifest itself in that emergency. That’s how you knew the fighter’s computer wasn’t on the up-and-up, and that’s how you managed to avoid getting blown apart. You were projecting false locations to the interceptor missiles coming after you. Perhaps not consciously . . . but in the course of your maneuvering, you couldn’t help but generate such projections.”
“But your people never came clean about that,” Spencer said. “You found nothing wrong.”
“Not entirely true. There was a hole in our networks through which the bad guys managed to sneak in a virus, one that hid their fighters when they came after you. It was something of an embarrassment, and so . . .”
“Motherfuckers.” He didn’t forgive or forget, not when it came to the bureaucrats who had railroaded him five years ago, edged him out of the service.
“I suppose that that is one way of putting it.”
“If I have this talent you’re talking about, where did it come from?”
“It may be the case that we’ve had this ability all along, but that it just never had the opportunity to manifest itself. Think of how recent an advent such machines are in our history . . . and for that matter, how rare your particular talent seems to be.”
“So I’m one of a kind?”
“Not exactly. Others have this capacity. Extraordinarily rare, no more than a few thousand, with a capacity comparable to yours, at any rate, according to our estimates. A few are even in the service, notably distinguished in areas like cryptanalysis and systems penetration, but so far as we know, you’re the only ex-line soldier who has this talent.”
“Which is why I stuck out my neck, instead of them,” Spencer said bitterly.
“It’s also why we’re also prepared to make you an offer of a permanent position here,” the Old Man said. “We need people like you. After all, it’s rare that something is gained without something of value being lost. We’ve made tradeoffs ever since machinery, social and technological, entered our lives. The Podradhatu Dominion is willing to make every single one you can imagine, because they don’t give a damn what they’re losing. We’re not. That means that they’re bound to win in the long run, if it’s an equal contest. But we’re not going to make it equal.”
“Because machine-telepaths will be your ace-in-the-hole,” Spencer said.
“Right,” the Old Man answered him. “Think of our situation as a kind of evolutionary arms race, between flesh and machine.”
“They could just build a new type of machine that can outwit people like me,” Spencer said.
“Don’t count on it,” the Old Man said. “No machine has ever demonstrated psi. It’s the critical dividing line between organic and machine life. There are others, more esoteric, less certain because we just don’t have the evidence to show one way or the other . . . but this stands up.”
“Then they could bring people back into their system,” Spencer told him. “Like attack dogs, for hunting people like me.”
“That would be a long leap down the slippery slope for them,” the Old Man said, “forcing them to do that. Forcing them to admit that flesh is unique, that its properties can’t always be replicated. Create openings for us to attack them in other ways. Every human civilization in history has gone down because of a crisis in confidence; the same could well be the case for the first machine civilization. And in playing your part, you’d be doing your bit for the species.”
“By working for you?” He stood up. “Forget it.”
“You haven’t heard the offer.”
“All right, then,” Tom said. “I’m listening.”
“We’ll pay fifty percent more than what you’re making now. Your military record gets cleared and you get your pension back. You also get a ten thousand credit bonus for signing, in addition to your earlier fee.”
Tom felt the same hesitation he had before accepting the first job, to get the file back from Chermetevo. But what other prospects did he really have? And he knew he wasn’t going to get a better offer than that, might not get any offer at all. And he so loathed the idea of a job search, that even with his qualifications he was still made to feel like a beggar when he sat before a recruiter. Still, work with these people? He couldn’t trust them. Then again, he didn’t trust anybody, not really.
At least that mistrust was out in the open here.