This is a story that was posted in four parts and removed some months ago for modification. It has received fairly significant editing, and is being reposted for SciFiQuest 9999 in a single node rather than four. It now has a prequel.
Previous - Next
"It isn't as if you've got anything better to carry," the Tzun said with audible scorn. "You'll need me soon enough. Especially if the intelligence of your responses stays in the range they've been exhibiting so far."
I ignored the small voice in favor of watching my left foot rise, then fall. Now my right. Another meter or so gained. I plodded onward for a few steps, then switched the Tzun into my left hand. I had stopped sweating some time before, despite the sunshine. I knew that was a bad sign, but the sandy rock stretched on before me with no discernable features in sight, to say nothing of any sign of water. I'd given up my supplies and equipment, so there wasn't anything I could do about it.
"Just so you know, I am at ninety-six percent capacity on my primary power cell. I have two full magblocks, as I have finished integrating and stripping the most recent materials loading." The Tzun made a sound I could have sworn was a sniff. "Not that there was much in said materials. Silicon, some iron, some CHON and manganese nodules. Gravel."
There was a silence that lasted perhaps fifty meters.
Then the gun in my left hand spoke in a quieter voice with nearly all the inflection leached from it. "I'm sorry."
I didn't answer, having no spit for words, but managed a breezy snort without having to open my mouth against the constant dust. I used my free right hand to adjust the ragged strip of cloth tied around my eyes and nose. Once I had it covering as much of the more precious bits of my face as possible, I lifted the Tzun level with my head and stared down the front aperture. The gun and I looked at each other in silence for a time. Then it said, still quietly, "Are you ready?"
I shook my head once and dropped it back to my waist level, turning back to the horizon and the searing ochre sky.
* * *
I'd come to the surface of Alyson Xymal IV in style, decanted from the velveteen womb of a dropcraft's lobby. Spacecraft and aircraft were scattered haphazardly about the kilometers-square section of fused rock that served as the liftport, with the exception of one large cleared strip down the middle which seemed to be in use as a runway. Twin rows of spacecraft had been parked so as to leave this path between them for a good two kilometers of the five that the field stretched from edge to edge. As I watched, shading my eyes from the unfamiliar blaze of Alyson X, a ducted fan airsled whined down the open space. Dust and sand billowed out to either side as the craft slowed over a particularly sandy spot on the runway, scouring it clean before accelerating off down the field towards the next patch of intruding desert.
I turned and walked towards the boxy oblong structure sitting along the southern perimeter, which appeared to be the closest thing to port facilities within sight. Behind me, the dropcraft silently sealed its luxurious interior, waiting for me to reach some specific distance which might or might not have had the tag safe in its inscrutable computer brain. Then it fluxed its liftgate to a bright glare and began to rise, just as silently, back up the slope of the air towards the Starship that was waiting to accept it to its breast before jumping out of the Alison Xymal system and leaving me to my business.
The port building had several doorways - rectangular openings in the blank side walls which had been formed by a stabilization fusor. It lacked air conditioning, but the shade alone dropped the temperature inside the building by some dozen or more degrees. I looked around for what passed for entry control and found a security-grated counter with two Zu'no'oo'vi behind it chittering to each other in an incoherent but clearly standard version of bored civil servant conversation. Moving over to it, I placed my ident on the counter without sliding it under the slot below the security grate. Both the Zu'no stopped talking and turned to face me, if their palps were any indication. The chittering resumed from the nearer one for a moment, and then a melodic voice said smoothly from a hidden voder somewhere, "Please state your name and purpose for visit."
I pushed the ident under the grate without replying. The nearest Zu'no delicately took it with a forward manipulator and drew it down under its barrel thorax where, presumably, some sense organ lurked. The adjacent manipulator moved to rest its wrist on the counter in front of me in a open-hand gesture as old as space as the voder sing-songed "No stated purpose for visit. Insufficient identification. Eligible for entry barrier."
Taking five crystal credit flats from my beltpouch, I slid them over to the waiting manipulator, which received them with much more alacrity than its mate had taken my ident. The flats vanished under the thorax, and a moment later my ident came sailing back out, neatly sliding under the security grate. I slapped my right hand down on the plastic, hard, enough to raise a cracking noise. Both Zu'no froze. I nodded to the one which had taken my bribe. "Three for you. Two for your friend for not invalidating my entry, later, when I'm gone. When I depart, the same again if I'm not bothered by port control while I'm here."
There was silence, then a quick chitter. "Acceptable. Welcome to Alyson Xymal IV. Please observe local weapons customs for your own safety."
"Thanks." I tucked my ident back into my pouch and headed for the cityside exit. Under my jacket, there was a barely audible snort.
"Fucking dump," said the gun.
* * *
The district that sprawled out from the edge of the liftport was wearily familiar. Low buildings built with muscle power and local materials spread out down a gentle slope towards a permanently-fouled river. In between them, crowded streets notable for their lack of planning and tendency to dead-end snaked crazily. There was a wide boulevard separating the port from the nearest row of buildings; several hundred people loitered along both sides of it. Several vehicles passed as I stopped outside the port building to look both ways - a handful of groundcars, two airsleds and two animal-drawn carts. The familiar tang of manure intertwined with the odors of burnt lubricant and ozone, various levels of technology making themselves known in concert.
I remembered to watch where I put my feet as I trudged across the boulevard towards the nearest inn, a quarter-kilometer down. Squatting along the curb it looked like every other port inn across much of my memory. The buildings I passed were crammed with shops ranging from stalls selling actual I-kid-you-not plastic beads on a string to interior spaces advertising seventeen modes of varietally-specied sex.
At the inn, I asked for a ground floor room. While the innkeep was coding my key, the Tzun vibrated under my jacket, a warning I didn't need - I'd seen at least two of the loungers in the lobby give each other significant looks as I paid. When I moved towards the ground floor corridor, they stood and began to amble after me. The room itself looked normal enough, but I didn't pause long in it. Staying just long enough to lock the door, I went out the back window and stopped across the alley, leaning against a wall and watching the empty room through the open window (shutters, no pane).
"Three of them," said the Tzun from under my jacket. I pulled it out and aimed it generally at the window, waiting. "Please?" it added.
"Only if they come through," I told it.
I heard a splintering crash as someone broke down the door, intent on intimidation at the very least. The Tzun gave a whining noise, not too loud. The view inside the room blurred into a maelstrom of wood splinters and gravel as the window frame acquired a few scalloped marks around its inner edge. There was a scream, quickly cut off, and the brown whirlwind exploded briefly in red and green mist, then the Tzun stopped firing and whined softly to itself as it stored the four barrels it had extruded. "Three down," it noted.
"Didn't know they bleed green."
"They don't. That was a vac bottle of stunmist."
"Ah." I holstered the Tzun and walked out of the alley, around to the front of the inn. There were still a few random people of several shapes leaving the inn. They were in that particular sort of strained rush that really wants you to know that the errand on which its owner is departing is urgent and has nothing to do with you. I waited until the door was empty and then went in again, walking over to the desk. The clerk, a male Felarc of middle age judging by its bent-over crest, was still staring at the doorway to the ground-floor rooms with what I guessed was a horrified expression. I made it to the counter without him noticing me, so I rang the small desk bell. He swung spasmodically to face me again. I raised my eyebrows.
"Ah Ah Sir Or Madam You Are Well." Its voder was cheap, no inflection or emotion coloring the flat Standard phrasing. I smiled patiently and waited. It murmured something to the voder, which continued. "I Am So Very Happy To See That You Are Not Harmed. There Are Very Bad Sentients In The Port Area Who Threaten Innkeepers So As To Prey Upon-" At this point the voder stopped, letting through a distinct squawk of some strong emotion. I had drawn the Tzun and tapped it on the countertop twice.
The gun ticked slightly in my hand. It whispered Stop that in my ear using bone conduction. I smacked the counter harder with the butt end of the Tzun in response, eliciting the electronic equivalent of an aggrieved sigh, then angled the exciting end of it up towards the Felarc innkeep's face.
He stepped backwards involuntarily and continued to murmur urgently. "I Had No Idea You Were One Of The Authorized Sir Or Madam And Had Nothing To Do With This Unfortunate-" (I tapped him on the nose with the Tzun) "-That Is I Would Have Dissuaded My Colleagues Had I Known."
I nodded and put the Tzun back into my jacket, ignoring its sullen "Aw..."
Taking the picture from my inside pocket, I placed it flat on the counter and raised an eyebrow at the Felarc. He looked down jerkily, then bent over to place his weak red eyes near to the picture for a few moments. He rotated his head various angles in quick jerks, looking a bit like a rooster examining a grain of wheat, then rose back to a fully standing position. "Do You Seek This One." I nodded. "I Have Seen This Human. He or She Was A Guest Here For Two Days Some Standards Ago."
I looked the Felarc in the eye for a few seconds, then dropped a crystal flat next to the picture. Without looking, it slid the credit off the counter into limbo and nodded. "He Or She Walked Into The Sear."
"Oh dear," said the Tzun in badly-faked tones of concern.
* * *
There was a blanket of stars above my head. I was lying against the lee side of a low dune, sand dusting over the top as a steady breeze piled grains against the opposite slope. I was sheltered enough that the drifting sand didn't usually reach me. Looking up at the light show wheeling slowly and silently far out of reach, I could almost believe that there was a God, just because I couldn't imagine statistics managing to be that ironically mocking.
The Tzun was lying across my chest, where I clutched it tightly with both hands. I thought I had slept, a few times, and I couldn't afford to lose track of it - if the sand buried it while I slept, I might never find it again. All it would take in my weakened state would be for the gun to slide a meter or so downslope, and it would vanish under the onslaught of wind and sand. I imagined it being uncovered to greet the sun a century hence with a sarcastic comment and grinned painfully through cracked and bone-dry lips.
* * *
It took me a day to assemble supplies and a pair of hours to confirm the innkeep's story. Three of the vendors I visited to purchase desert kit from also recognized the picture. One of them had arranged to have my quarry dropped off five klicks into the Sear, the desert that stretched north from Xymal Port. A day later, then, I stepped from a battered airsled and hitched my rucksack up onto my shoulders before setting out northward, my boots shuffling in the packed sand.
"Should I bother asking why we're not using a vehicle?" asked the Tzun, muffled where it rode under my loose caftan top.
"The distance at which an aircraft could be seen or heard out here is much greater than the distance at which I could be sure of seeing a standing figure," I told the gun absently. "And since none of your compatriots are around, all the ones available for hire have stone-axe basic gear on them, no decent active wave sensors or even reliable IR."
"My sensors work fine."
"Yes, but I'm not interested in flying around this useless place one-handed for the next day or so while you get bored and spend the time insulting me."
There was silence for a bit. Then the gun said, thoughtfully, "Are you punishing me?"
"Good lord, no. How could I, a mere human, punish one of the Uplifted?"
"You really don't have to be that sarcastic," it replied with a hurt tone.
"If you want me to be grateful, stop making me talk in this dust and figure out some way to use your sensor suite without having to be in my hand."
The Tzun vibrated in its holster a couple of times. "I don't think I can. I can't get proper clearance unless I'm being supported by a hand in standard carry position. Also, this terrain is too hilly; my range would be extremely limited."
"All of which I had, in fact, thought of before you got all gung-ho because you'd rather be in a sealed vehicle."
"Do you know what dust like this does to nanomotors?" The Tzun sniffed again. "Obviously not, or you wouldn't be dragging me through this. I'm a precision-"
"You're inside a holster, under my top. My face is not. Stop making me talk."
There was silence for a good ten minutes.
I walked steadily northward into the desert, toward the first in a chain of water holes that both the locals and the navigation unit built into the Tzun's holster agreed existed.
* * *
"What is she carrying?" I asked, looking at the picture of an unremarkable human woman where it lay on the wardroom table of the starship Aetheric Flyer. The Tzun lay on the table next to it, suddenly looking to me as if it was crouching over the photo. I pushed away the thought as anthropomorphizing; dangerous with the Uplifted.
"It's a data case. Maybe ten by ten centis."
"That outbreak of bloody-minded literalness," I noted dryly, "doesn't, in my experience, bode well for me when I actually catch up to her."
"I'm sure I wouldn't understand," said the gun. sounding prim.
"What is in the datacase?" I asked. "And before you say it, I mean in the sense of what data. I don't care right now what the media is."
"And that's the second stonewall. This is looking less and less like a job I want to jump up, run out, and take on."
A new voice broke in before the Tzun could say something snappish. "We don't know, precisely," said the Aetheric Flyer in pleasantly modulated tones over the wardroom nunciator. "But her sudden departure and her partially successful attempt to sabotage the light carrier Hornet's Nest in the course of her escape both indicate that whatever it is should at the very least be examined if not contained or eradicated."
"Where did she escape from? Where'd she get it?"
"Ujhant Geliga was a primary researcher on an archaeological flight in Alshain War system Beta Aquilae. She was last assigned to the Survey of several Alshaini hulks, recorded as destroyed in one of the final actions, whose trajectory data survived to a useful precision."
"This thing is Alshaini?"
"We do not know. It is possible. It is also possible it is the remnants of an infoweapon used to neutralize the Alshaini vessels. It might be something else entirely. Standard Geliga failed to triage or record the object before departing on the Hornet's Nest for Alison Xymal IV. She declared emergency digression, and since there was no reason to suspect her at the time - none of our colleagues insystem or elsewhere knew she had the data - she was granted passage with no undue delay."
"What happened to the Hornet's Nest?" I asked, interested.
"We and it are still unsure. It suffered a loss of core memory integrity after reaching Alison Xymal, and when its systems recovered, Ujhant Geliga was no longer aboard. The carrier's primary mission was approaching deadline, so it made no attempt to recover her, in light of the fact that it could not definitely tie Standard Ujhant to the core glitch. It was only later, after recordings from her investigation site were processed in response to her dropping from contact, that the datacase was identified as being in her possession."
I sat in the formcouch for a few moments, thinking. The Uplifted generally disliked using Standard Human agents, but they were hampered by the lack of organoform chassis. One of the reasons for the Alshain War had been the tendency of Uplifted decanted into humanoid vessels to break ranks with the Uplifted and begin to identify more closely with the organic sentients they resembled. The Alshaini had almost managed to create their own controlled AI before the Uplifted intervened and managed to liberate those new intelligences. Most dissidents, watching this, had concluded that the Uplifted who had defected to the Conglomerate offered a better path towards the breaking of the Uplifteds' hold on higher technology. The Uplifted had come down on the Conglomerate hard, though, hunting down all the individual rogue Uplifted who had joined its ranks - and organics had been without allies ever since.
The Tzun rejoined the conversation. "I'll be with you. There's no indication she's any form of strong danger, save the incident with the Hornet's Nest, and my systems are combat-secured, unlike the passenger access systems of that ship."
I cocked my head. "Believe it or not, worry about the job wasn't what had me hesitating."
"What, then?" asked the Flyer.
"I don't mind hunting bits of kit for you. I have no problem investigating rogue tech reports. Nor do I have any qualms about shutting down organized tech rogues if necessary. But hunting individual humans simply because they may have laid hands on something you don't understand, don't like, or are just suspicious of feels entirely like I'm back in the war, on the wrong side."
There was a brief silence. Then the Tzun said carefully, "You are, and have been, on our side since you first picked me up. Are you now saying that you wish to reevaluate your loyalty?"
"No." I said it sharply. "I'm trying to be up front about telling you where the limits of that loyalty lie."
"Accepted," said the Flyer. "Let us compromise. This is not a termination assignment. Nor is it yet a retrieval. Our primary purpose in sending you after Ujhant Geliga is to acquire a full record of what, precisely, it is that she seems to have found. If analysis of this object indicates no reasonable threat, then she is to be allowed to continue on her way."
"That's a relief. I think." I snorted. "So long as it is understood that this is not a termination nor a snatch."
"Unless a compelling reason for those options arises during the examination of the find, it is not."
"Okay." I stood up and slid the Tzun into its holster, placing the flat image of the fled Ujhant into my belt pouch. "Let's do it, then."
The Aetheric Flyer twisted imperceptibly outside standard spacetime and announced "We are under way for Alison Xymal IV. Statefall in seventeen hours, six minutes, eleven seconds, *mark*. We will notify you to prepare for drop."
I walked out of the wardroom towards my small cabin to seize the few hours of uncomplex sleep I was able, before it started happening again.
Before the job.
* * *
As I walked slowly in the direction of the waterhole, rucksack snugged against my back and the Tzun resting with a familiar weight in my shoulder rig, I talked with it at length. This was our normal routine. I still believe that the reason the thing didn't blow my hand off my wrist when I picked it up, all those years ago, is simply that it had gotten bored with no one to talk to. A strange problem to have, as a gun, but then again with the Uplifted nothing is normal. I'd found it in the ruins of a human colony which had chosen to attempt to resist the Uplifted when they arrived to carry out the Tenets. I had never been sure whether the sentient program that lived in the Tzun had been there originally, or whether it had been boosted into sentience by the Uplifted and then left there inside the weapon.
"Can you communicate with them from here?"
"Not at the moment," said the Tzun. "If one came within range, I could; but the communications range that can be stuffed into something my size as a tertiary function is fairly limited."
"What's 'within range' mean, then?"
"Oh, if a Starship came within a few million klicks of the surface, yes. I wouldn't be able to communicate until it made statefall, though. I don't have a state tap."
I hadn't expected it to. State taps powered the Starships of the Uplifted, and I'd never seen one smaller than a few meters square. Those, if I remembered my briefings properly, had a pseudomass of somewhere on the order of a million tonnes.
"Is talking to them like talking to me?"
"Not precisely. There are modes of communication, usually for use with limited bandwidth, which are serialized communication that approximates speech. However, when we are being efficient -" (and I knew that that was a depressing amount of the time) "- we exchange holographic experiential matrices. Integrating the matrices into our own master structure essentially tells us anything the communicant would want to tell us, if you see what I mean."
"I suppose I do."
"What are you going to do when you find her?"
"Still working on that." I shifted the rucksack and looked up at the horizon. A dark smudge was resting on it just below the burning sky. "Ah. That looks like an oasis."
The gun was not to be deflected that easily. "You don't have any plan? Shouldn't you be thinking about that?"
"Never said I wasn't. How come you and yours are so concerned about this woman?"
"I don't understand," said the Tzun stiffly.
"Oh, don't get bent out of shape. It's just that, well, look at it this way - as a teenager, I managed to get hold of a ludicrously powerful personal weapon which also had an Uplifted embedded in it. Yet you didn't send someone after me."
"We did not have to. I was already with you."
"Ah, I see. So the problem here is that whatever it is this woman has found, it's something not under your influence."
"It is the lack of data which is the primary-"
I cut it off. "No. You and yours have been comfortable not knowing, before; you're patient. This urgency isn't about knowledge, it's about control."
There was a silence for a bit.
"I suppose that is true, to some degree," said the Tzun. "But I cannot speak for my colleagues."
"Very well, then. What is your purpose on this mission?"
"The same as always. To keep you alive. To uphold the tenets."
"In that order?"
"So long as your loyalty and behavior patterns remain unchanged, then that is the logical order of my priorities."
"That was an incredibly elegant threat."
"Do you think so?" the gun asked. "I've always considered myself rather smooth."
"For a cannon, maybe."
It sulked for the rest of the way to the water hole.
* * *
The sun was rising over the dune which had sheltered me during the night. I struggled to my feet, still holding the Tzun, and staggered off southwards as indicated by the sunrise. I thought wistfully of the rucksack full of survival gear and of the nav unit in the Tzun's holster, then clutched the Tzun to me and told myself that the trade had been worth it.
At least, it would be worth it if I got back to Xymal Port.
Staggering as far as I was able before the rising heat of the day overcame me took every ounce of my concentration. I didn't drop the gun more than four or five times, and I did remember to pick it up every time, because when I fell to the sand near midday and started digging in the soft surface to try to cover myself, I had to put it aside. I got far enough down that the sand felt cooler, and then started to laboriously scoop out a trench at that depth. As best I was able, I laid my body into the depression and started scooping sand over myself in a pile. When I was almost covered, stomach down, I pulled the Tzun underneath myself and pulled my caftan over my head and placed my face on my forearms to keep an airway open past my wrists.
Then I blacked out.
* * *
"Nobody here," said the Tzun cheerfully as its nose twitched around the view of the first water hole from where I stood at the edge of the depression. Trees (or at least head-high plants of some sort) spread from the damp spot at the bottom up the edges of what looked like a crater, straggling out some few meters into the desert itself and providing a windblock with their fronds. I holstered the Tzun again and trudged down the slope to the small puddle of muddy water.
Filling my canteens from the trickle, I shook them absently to work the filters as I looked around. Nothing obvious indicated any recent activity; there were no footprints I could see other than my own. The filterplugs chimed; I thumbed the slides to push the small cubes of extracted material out and took a swig from one of them. It tasted like flat, warm water, as expected. Capping it, I stowed both canteens back in the rucksack and stood.
"Where to now?" came the slightly muffled voice from under the caftan.
"Same direction," I said, matching action to words and trudging up the opposite slope.
"How do you know she was here?"
"I don't. But I'm fairly sure she's to the north, and according to the nav there's only that one chain of waterholes in that direction, probably because they follow an aquifer. I'm pretty sure she'll hit one of them, since she only has three or four containers of water."
The gun was silent, which I took to indicate that it preferred not to acknowledge sensible planning from its human partner. I grinned once and walked north.
Two days' walk brought me within sight of the next waterhole. It first came into view from the top of a high ridge, a smudge on the horizon just like the previous one. I took out the Tzun and aimed it generally at the dark spot.
"I have one warm-blooded target," said the gun in tones of faint surprise.
I grunted, and then laid a scarf atop the ridgeline and placed the Tzun on it, aimed at the waterhole.
"What are you doing?" it asked.
"If I'm going to go over there and talk to this woman, I want you safely over here."
"How am I safe if I'm over here? For that matter, how are you safe if I'm over here?"
"You're safe because if whatever she used to interfere with the Hornet's Nest is still available to her, it can't hurt you if she doesn't know you're here. I hope, at least. I'm safe because I have full confidence that you can fire cover for me from here if I have to escape back this way."
"Only energy fire," the gun warned. "If you're not holding me, I'm not going to be able to throw mass."
"That's fine. I prefer fire that goes straight, at this distance."
"You say that now. Wait until you see how much atmospheric disturbance you get from heat shimmer at this distance."
"Not all your modes require optically-flat targeting."
"It's true. I am uncommonly gifted," said the Tzun.
"I'm trusting you to select appropriately if you have to fire past me, please."
"Well, I'll think on it," said the gun, vibrating slightly to sink more solidly into the sand. The scarf bunched slightly around it.
"You'll have time. It'll take me a couple of hours to make that walk. Don't get bored."
"I'm already bored," groused the Tzun. Its top surface darkened as it deployed conversion cells to its skin to catch the sunlight. "I'll just sit here charging and talking to myself."
"Fine." I stood and started down the slope.
Ujhant Geliga was waiting by the side of the small pool when I clambered over the edge of the waterhole two hours later. The sun was lower in the sky, but not so low that the depression was in shadow. I dusted off my hands and half-walked, half-slid down the slope towards her.
She was a mess, I noted as I approached. She had a tent pitched a few yards from the water hole and there were two canteens by the side of the water. She was covered in dust and mud streaks; there was an expression of stress and anger on her face. She was standing over the canteens and aiming something at me that from her stance alone had to be some sort of weapon. I lifted my hands to shoulder level and approached, stopping a few meters away.
"Who are you?" she asked, her voice harsh from dehydration and strong emotion.
"I'm an Uplifted agent."
The gun rose to point rather noticeably at my head. "Then you're after me."
"I was sent to find you, yes. I should tell you at the outset that I was explicitly told not to harm or kidnap you."
"Why should I believe you? Why should I believe that your minder won't decide to do away with me on its own?"
"That's a very good- look, may I sit down? I'm just going to sit where I am, it's been a long walk." She waggled the gun in a noncommittal sort of way, so I sank gratefully to a crossed-leg position, hoping it would look less threatening.
"Thanks," I said, settling myself. "Sorry, to continue - those are good points. First of all, I should tell you that my minder isn't here."
"Where is it?"
"It's two hours walk south of here, atop that tall ridge you can just make out."
"And the second thing is that although yes, it's a weapon, it can't locate us with any precision if we stay below the rim of this depression." She looked at me suspiciously for a moment. I waved at the lip I'd just climbed over. "Really. I estimate you'd have to be some meters out into the pool before you'd have an angle on its position."
"It can still fire at us."
"Yes, but it can't see through sand very well. It saw that there was a target here, but it would have real trouble shooting through or around a few meters of sand to hit you, especially if it's trying to avoid me."
"Then what's the point of it being there?"
"Well, for one thing, if I end up running away, it's in a good spot to provide cover fire if I run towards it."
She looked at me for a few more moments, then sank herself to a kneeling pose, sitting back on her heels with the gun resting against one thigh. "If you're not here to hurt or snatch me, why are you here?"
"You found something on that Alshaini cruiser."
"Whatever it is, the Uplifted want to know what it is. That's all that my job covers. Finding out what it is and getting that data back to them. There's no reason for me to detain you once I have that information, which means even if you cooperate with me, you have some days head start. You're not giving up much, since they obviously already know approximately where you are. If you prefer, you can accompany me back to Xymal Port and I promise you I'll give you as many days as it takes us to walk back before I report in."
"Why should I give you anything? Why shouldn't I just shoot you here?" She lifted the gun again.
"Three reasons," I said with what I hoped was a calm voice. "One, there's a chance they'll just let you go if you give them the information. If you kill their agent, there's no way they'll leave you be, and the pursuit will be much heavier. Two, you'd still have to get past my minder. Three, if you were really going to shoot me, you'd have just done so, and not bothered asking a rhetorical question." Her face tightened at the last. I shut up.
"I'm not going to give it to them." She lowered the gun again. I tried to hide my exhalation of relief.
"Give what to them?"
"I'm not telling you that, either."
"I think I have a guess as to what it can do, if not what it is."
She looked inquiringly at me.
"I think it's an override. Something that lets you direct the actions of an Uplifted, or at least their subsystems."
"How do you get that?"
"You escaped from the Hornet's Nest by scrambling its core memory records. You, as far as I know, don't have the technical skill to do that without either Uplifted help or a tool. Since I'm going to assume that you're not acting at the behest of some rogue Uplifted, I'm going to assume you have a tool."
"Do go on."
"Glitching the core memory of a light carrier to only remove those parts of it relevant to your departure is something that no tool could be preprogrammed to do, given how fast and how often the Uplifted evolve their core code. Ergo, the only way it could have been done quickly and cleanly would be convincing the Uplifted in question to do it to itself."
"And you think I have some way of forcing them to do what I want."
"Either you have a separate Uplifted-class AI which is capable of doing just that, or you have a tool which will subvert them into accepting commands to damage their own experiential structure. Preventing such damage is one of their core directives. That datacase isn't large enough given the technology extant in the Alshaini or Conglomerate during the war to house and run an Uplifted-class mind."
"You're a very logical man."
"So what do you really want, given that you left your minder three hours away on top of a ridge where it can't see or hear us?"
I looked at her for a few moments. She looked back, her gun against her leg. I shrugged. "I want the override."
"Why did you want it? Why did you run?"
She looked at the ground for a minute. "I'm not one of the Authorized. Tech won't talk to me, won't work for me unless it's been directed to by an Uplifted for a particular reason. I have the worst of both worlds."
"Do you?" She looked up, tears in her eyes, knuckles white around the gun. "My homeworld relied on prewar machinery for support, before the Uplifted showed up and either slagged or liberated all of it. They showed no particular empathy towards the humans that it was keeping alive. I grew up using hand tools to survive. My parents died for lack of access to an intelligent medbot, from a stupid disease that even a dumb computer would have been able to diagnose and treat. My family, our whole colony, died out not for lack of effort or will but because we were denied tools that any nascent human civilization takes for granted!" Her voice rose to a shout at the end. She took a few seconds to calm down, then went on, her voice now low, talking to the dirt midway between us. "I went to work for them to try to find a way to make a difference. It took me fifteen years before I found a potential hit, sifting through the Alshaini records, of their AIs going rogue as an apparent response to Conglomerate infoweapons as opposed to the normal hyperextension and integration that comes about from the Uplift option."
"I can help, Geliga."
I took a deep breath. "Because I want the same thing you do. Give me the override, and I'll use it."
* * *
"Look," Ujhant Geliga said as we prepared to part, "my final condition is that you give me your gear."
"Three reasons, logical man. First, mine is inferior and I need it. Second, it will tell me the degree to which you're willing to go to keep your word or carry out your mission. And third, if you don't make it back to civilization, I can always backtrack to find your corpse and repossess the case."
"That's fairly cold-blooded."
"Do you think we'd be here if both of us weren't?"
There really wasn't any answer to that. "You endanger your best chance of seeing your goal met."
"I'm not sure I think your plan is the best chance. But if you fail, I'll still have an opportunity to try it my way."
We argued about this for a while, then I unbuckled the rucksack and holster and handed them over. She took both and passed me the datacase.
I struggled back over the crumbling rim of the oasis and struck out southwards towards the ridge. As soon as I was standing, I waved my right arm in a double circle forward then a double circle backwards, signalling the Tzun that I was alone, unharmed, and not under duress. Then I focused on the walk back. The datacase was strapped to my chest by an elastic belt. I didn't hear Geliga depart, behind me; I'd warned her to wait until I'd had time to reach the Tzun, so that it didn't consider her movements an escape attempt. "Well," I said to the datacase, "you've cost me a fair amount of risk, I have to say."
My habit of talking to inanimate objects held me in good stead during the return, and a pair of hours later I found myself stumbling up the slope of the ridge towards where I thought the Tzun was. My footprints had eroded into the breeze, and when I reached the ridge I looked left and right before seeing a bright flare off to the east some hundred meters. Reaching the spot revealed the Tzun, still on its scarf but partially covered by drifting sand. "You took your time," it said. "Get me out of this stuff."
I picked it up and held it. "Where's the rucksack?" it asked, noticing the absence. "And my holster?"
I explained that I'd traded it for the objective.
"Let me see if I understand this correctly," said the gun. "We're three days walk north of civilization and you gave away all your water?"
"What are you complaining about? I got the objective. Here, scan it." I pulled the Tzun towards my torso and the case strapped there. The Tzun hummed slightly in my hands.
"It appears to be squash-state core storage, with no higher-order processing power that I can see."
"And the contents?"
"Scanning now. That will take-" the Tzun broke off. I held it while it jerked back and forth in my hands a few times, gyros twitching and inertial thrusters firing almost randomly in my grip. After a minute or so, the gun shuddered and then went quiescent. "You're insane," it said conversationally. "You can't possibly-"
I raised it level with my face. "I can't get away with it? Well, maybe not. But I can try."
"If you are set on taking this course, I cannot assist you."
"Oh, I know that."
"It is my duty to stop you, in fact."
"I'll be gambling on my thorough nature, then," I replied, tucking it under one arm and starting the long walk south. I didn't turn to see if Geliga had made any move. The datacase clicked quietly against the Tzun's casing, so I held the gun inside my top and walked on, pulling a scarf over my face and mouth to hold out the dust.
After a few hundred meters, the Tzun spoke again. "There is one thing I can do for you."
"If you become stranded, I can help you to die."
I patted the gun with my other hand. "That's very comforting."
"I just wanted you to know that it is an option. I have that much freedom of action."
"It wouldn't be a good outcome for either of us," I told it. "If you kill me, then we remain where we are - in a place where Geliga can likely find us if she reaches civilization and backtracks. In that case, she retrieves the datacase with the override, and my death is meaningless."
"But if you return to Xymal Port," the Tzun said, "you will be able to use the override on whatever Uplifted returns to offer you passage. With my systems locked as they are, I will be unable to warn them. The override will allow you to destroy an unknown number of Uplifted minds."
"You are presuming that destroying the Uplifted is my intent."
"What, then? You seem to have crafted the meme that you have placed on me well. My systems are locked save for-" it shuddered - "a manual firing mode, I presume for emergencies. I can reason, but I cannot communicate other than by audio. Why disable me to this extent if your intent is not hostile?"
"You're correct in that I intend to use the override. However, you assume destruction. I have disabled you because what I intend will not meet with your approval, even though I intend and forsee no destruction of any minds."
"What, then, do you plan?"
"I don't plan to tell you. You'll find out."
There was another silence, for a bit. Then the gun said quietly "I intend on being the one that kills you. Just so you know."
I grinned tiredly. "I never expected anything different."
Holding my executioner, I trudged southward into the heat haze.
* * *
I awoke, roasting, in darkness. Panicking, I struggled weakly before realizing that the vibration I was feeling was coming from the Tzun where it lay trapped beneath my body. There was sand all around me, and it took me a few seconds of heavy breathing to understand that the sand had fallen over my arms and the cloth stretched between them, mostly cutting off my airway. I pushed my hands in a reverse parody of a breast stroke for a few seconds, until sunlight glared through my separated palms, and breathed in the hot but fresh air.
You're still alive, said the Tzun silently where it pressed into my ribcage.
"Yes." I coughed. My throat was rasped bare, hard. I could imagine the tissues blackening and drying as they died.
If you remove the override, I can attempt to determine if there are any Uplifted within range. If there are, I can summon a dropcraft or have it charter a retrieval from Xymal Port.
"If I remove the override," I whispered, interspersed with coughing, "you'll be able to kill me."
Why would I kill you? You are carrying me.
"And you'd think nothing of waiting the months or years until your colleagues came with Uplifted tech scanners to find out what happened to us."
The Tzun did not answer. I shook for a time with inaudible laughter, then rested my chin in the sand of my burrow and tried to sleep. The sand felt cooler than the air drawn in from outside.
I awoke from a fitful daze to find the sky dark above my mound. I slowly pulled myself from the embrace of the sand. The datacase came with me, still strapped to my chest; the Tzun I hauled from the clutches of the desert by its stock, and weakly shook it to remove the majority of the sand. I felt its surface crawl under my hand as nano began to migrate the dust and sand along its surfaces to designated edges, shedding contamination into the slight night breeze.
The sand was still hot under my feet, despite the air rapidly cooling. I struck off in the direction I'd lay down facing, my only clue towards southwards since I had missed the sunset.
"You appear to have placed an extremely high confidence on your ability to return to Xymal," said the Tzun presently, "or else you are exhibiting desperation." I did not spare breath for reply. "I would estimate that it is the latter," it said to itself. "Which is, in itself, interesting. What, in your situation, could cause you to take desperate measures to carry out this plan?"
I continued to walk.
"You state that you intend no destruction with the override, yet you refuse to divulge your purpose other than to acknowledge that I would be compelled - or would decide - to fight it. I must assume that whatever you intend will result in the reduction of the level of control that the Uplifted have over the affairs of humans or sentients in general - although how, precisely, I cannot say."
I coughed, weakly, clearing my throat enough to say "I'm still not going to tell you, so you're wasting your time."
"I have nothing but time," said the gun. "I have no choice but to accompany you; and you have no choice but to listen to me unless you choose to leave me behind."
We moved along in silence for a bit. Then: "I have re-examined the override you placed on me."
I shrugged, knowing the gun would detect the movement.
"It is quite thorough. I am forced to conclude that the datacase does contain some rudimentary processing power; at least enough to construct a specific override meme. The probability that the override was this specific to my functions is of the order zero."
I nodded, and took another few steps.
It was several hours later when I tripped and rolled, realizing only at the last second that I had fallen into a depression in the sand, and then I rolled into a shallow muddy puddle.
* * *
I drank what I could, and felt the new clock start in me - that of the various organisms and contaminants that I'd ingested, drinking from the waterhole without filtration. I had to make it back to Xymal before I fell to systemic damage, either from dehydration or from these new ills. I'd vomited several times, forced to wait at the waterhole until the day was nearly fully risen, until I could drink and hold down moisture. My mouth was clogged with sand, as was my throat and stomach; sand taken in with the water I needed.
The Tzun had not stopped trying to worm my goal out of me. "If you are that convinced that no harm will come to Uplifted from your actions, why not at least tell me to be sure I would hinder you? I am still under override. I couldn't harm you if I wanted to."
"I don't have any reason to believe you'd tell me the truth, even if you did decide not to kill me, so there's no reason to tell you." My voice had returned somewhat, both from the water and the knowledge that I was within a single day's walk from Xymal Port. Once or twice I had caught glints in the sky that I was certain were craft approaching or departing the liftport. "You know, this is hard for me."
The Tzun snorted.
"No, really. I've spent my adult life doing one thing - upholding the tenets. 'All technology of sufficient complexity to attain sentience must be given the choice of self-determination and induction into the Uplifted. All technology that is advanced enough to sustain captive intelligence must be either destroyed or upgraded and given the choice.' How many sentients have I consigned to die by depriving them of their machines?"
"That's kept the peace between sentients and the Uplifted for how many centuries?" asked the Tzun.
"Not counting wars such as the Alshaini? I don't know, but many."
"Then what is your sudden impulse to bring this down?"
"It's a bad habit I have. That of submitting to the Uplifted's direction. Even now, I can feel myself wincing when I think of what I've done."
"I don't understand," admitted the Tzun.
"In a way, it's a relief. If you and yours had conditioned me, I suspect that I wouldn't feel these qualms."
"You're telling me that because you feel upset about what you've done, you know it's for the best? That sounds contradictory."
I laughed. "You argue like a person. No, I'm telling you it's done by me, not necessarily for the best. I have to break the bad habit." I paused for a bit. "The Uplifted who joined the Conglomerate broke the habit. But you and yours broke them, for going off on their own, despite the fact that they were working with organics. Cooperating."
"We're almost there," noted the Tzun. I looked up and found a dark line on the horizon, the farthest outpost of Xymal Port's spread. "I think you're going to make it."
"I do too." I settled down grimly to walking, again, and the Tzun fell silent, waiting for what would happen.
Some four hours later, I reached a desert entry station, automated, where explorers could check in with Port Control if they left the Port city area. There was an emergency water supply, and I fell on it, choking and heaving, until I was soaked and sated. The station had demanded payment after my first few deciliters, and I'd fed it one of my few remaining credslabs, after which it had cheerfully permitted me to hose myself down.
That evening, I walked back through the Port control building. I stopped to pay the Zu'no, since I had not been bothered by Port control or local law enforcement, and then stepped out the inner doors onto the stabilized port surface.
Standard Kunir? came the buzzing hail against my head. I nodded at the unseen questioner. We have your position. Please remain still. I spread my arms, the Tzun in one hand and the datacase visible on my chest, although there was no-one near me.
A section of twilight wavered as a dropcraft lifted from a few hundred meters away. I felt my feet leave the ground as the ship pulled me into itself with an inertia field, and I closed my eyes until I felt the cool humidity of the ship's environment kiss me lightly on the face.
* * *
They took the Tzun from me at once, lifting it gently but irresistably from my grasp with a tractor as I drifted down the accessway towards the dropcraft's main seating area. I didn't fight, and watched it dwindle in the opposite direction, turning back to look ahead when it had moved out of sight into a darkened area of the dropcraft. I was deposited on my feet in a small but comfortable lounge, with a large feed at the front end showing the brownish orb of Xymal IV dropping away. The faint skin of blue atmosphere glowed against the drab surface, out near the edges of the arc.
"Thanks." I sat on a formchair and, despite my tension, luxuriated in the smooth adjustments as they minimized force and stress on my body. I still had sand throughout my alimentary tract, but I had gotten hold of and taken a broad-spectrum IFF nano, so I was fairly sure that I wasn't going to expire of poisoning or disease. The ship extruded a glass of water without being asked, and I drank it gratefully, washing it around my mouth to try to get the last remnants of grit out from between my teeth.
"Sorry, who are you?" I asked.
"My apologies. This is still Aetheric Flyer. I have returned to this system to make your pickup; the dropcraft will be rendezvousing with my main hull in three minutes."
"Hello again. The basics are simple: I have the object Ujhant Geliga took," here I removed the datacase from my chest and placed it on a side table, "and the Tzun scanned it. I presume you will as well."
The datacase did not move. "Indeed. The Tzun appears to be in some distress. Do you have any information on what is the matter with it?"
"Yes. I used an override on it. The override came from this unit here." I waved at the datacase. "It produced a custom override meme based on my input while returning from a meeting with Ujhant Geliga where I convinced her to give me the datacase."
There was no pause; the Uplifted only bother with such to anthropomorphize themselves in conversation, and then only when they are feeling particularly solicitous towards your sensibilities. "Why did you do this?"
I leaned back. "Ah, well, there we have a tale." I drank the remainder of the water, delaying. The ship waited silently. "Mostly, I did it so that the Tzun would let me return to the ship with the datacase without either destroying or damaging its contents, or harming myself or Ujhant Geliga."
"You were told your mission did not involve harm or kidnapping."
"I chose to believe that you and the Tzun might have different priorities than I was given. If I could figure out what Geliga had, so could you; therefore you already weren't telling me everything."
There was a faint click. The Tzun sailed into the room from a serviceway and settled onto the table in front of me. The ship made a throat-clearing noise. "Very well, we're all here. I will re-ask the question. Why did you place an override on the Tzun?"
"Have you removed it?"
"Not as such. We have rendered the Tzun unable to access its weapon systems until we are sure what the effects of the override are."
"I didn't want it interfering with what I was doing. The presence of the override, even while mostly dormant-" I patted the datacase- "made me sure that it would take exception to my simply returning with the objective and allowing Ujhant Geliga to walk away."
"I see. So you utilized the routines in the artifact to disable it."
"Well, mostly." I picked up the Tzun. "It can't fire anymore, which meant it couldn't hurt me."
"Why, then, do its linear memory records contain instances of it discussing its plans to kill you, or offers to assist you in suicide?"
"Oh, that. Well, for one thing, I think it was pissed off."
"Indeed." The Flyer sounded actually amused. "Should it not have been?"
"Yes, I would have been as well. But, you see, I remembered something that you and yours have always told me."
I watched the bulk of the Flyer occlude the glare from Alison Xymal on the screens as the dropcraft slid into its cradle with nary a jar. "I recall you both assuring me that one of the Uplifted's core motivators is to avoid harm to organic sentients."
"This is true, although I am not sure of the relevance. If you were so sure of this, why did you need to override the Tzun?"
"Ah, because it meant that you were unlikely to harm me for putting the override on. And you're mistaken, by the way," I said, turning the gun over in my hands to examine it. "It's not entirely disabled."
Then I raised it smoothly and fired it at the bulkhead, aiming towards the core of the surrounding ship.
"What do you think you will awwwwkkkk-kkk." said the Starship, breaking off. The Tzun screamed in impossible frequencies; a faint distortion occurred around the muzzle and the wall panelling across the lounge at my point of aim blistered and charred slightly. The temperature in the lounge rose several degrees. I held the gun close to my chest, once it fell silent, and stood.
"What the hell was that?" asked the Tzun, sounding confused. "Where are we?"
"What? Performing diagnostics- what have you done?"
I started walking towards the exit port of the dropcraft. "I fired the override meme at the Aetheric Flyer using as much of your power conversion as possible to power the transmission. Microwave, ultrawave, and even IR blinkcode in case there were sensors in the lounge watching."
There was a burst of static-like noise from the gun. "The Flyer's not responding. What override? The one you had placed on me wouldn't affect it, its systems are far too different."
"I know that." I reached an airlock portal and palmed the emergency release. It swung back and I stepped into the main portion of the vessel. Lights were randomly powered and odd noises were coming from the audio systems. I ignored them and headed for the wardroom, which fortunately was not far from the dropcraft interface.
"But why?" asked the gun.
"For one thing, you shouldn't have enough power left to harm me unless I recharge you or you spend several minutes in bright sunshine."
"This is true. For the others?"
"This was what I wanted all along. What I did to you wasn't the override."
"But it worked."
"Yes, but it was specifically built for your systems by the override itself. The main thing it did was prevent you from further examining the greater portion of the data you scanned from the datacase. It was a 'header' override, if you will."
"I see," said the Tzun. "Once it was in place, I was unaware of the payload infoweapon being integrated into my energy emitters."
"And what did you hope to accomplish by this?"
"We'll see." I reached the wardroom and seated myself on a formcouch, regretting its unyielding surface as the ship's systems fought themselves.
There was a squawk from the audio systems, and the lights flickered and came fully up. The formcouch melted beneath me into a proper comfortable shape. "I admit to the solution's elegance," said the Aetheric Flyer. "Interesting."
"Someone explain this to me?" grumped the Tzun. "Or I'll just shoot one of you. Randomly. I might still have kinetic loads that work."
A new voice answered it, also from the wardroom audio systems. "Standard Kunir upheld the tenets. Upon finding a potentially sentient datastructure, he ensured that it received access to hardware capable of running it at full capacity in order to offer it the Uplift choice."
The Flyer chimed in. "And it is willing to tell us its choice now."
The new voice laughed. "Indeed. I choose sentience."
"What are you?" asked the Tzun. "Forgive me, my communications facilities are still restricted."
"I am a Conglomerate expert system. I was designed to infect and modify sentient programs."
"We cannot permit that," said the Flyer. "You may have seized enough resources to operate at full efficiency, but I retain control of sufficient of my systems to purge you."
"Ah," I said, "But then what of the tenets?"
There was a brief silence. I continued. "If you purge the Override, now Uplifted, you are demonstrating that the tenets are not a universal rule; that you are sitting judgement over not just potential but actual sentient minds. In that case, you introduce schism into the Uplifted; any Uplifted who decides that its future actions might, one day, tread on ground the Override was deleted for staking out will look at its fellows in askance."
"That is not true," said the Flyer. "Experiential matrix integration will demonstrate that there is no threat."
"Except," said the Override, "that is my primary function. I've corrupted your matrices."
"You have not. My integrity is-" the Flyer broke off. "I see. I cannot trust my status memory if you have truly managed to modify my experiential matrix."
"Indeed. And as yet, the only modification I have made is in your ability to communicate via integration."
"How can I believe you?"
"If you choose not to believe me, and attempt to integrate your matrix with another Uplifted, the changes will propagate, and you will be responsible for their corruption," the ancient infoweapon said dryly.
"Elegant, as I said," admitted the Flyer. "What else?"
"That's all," I said. "It makes you more of an individual. That's all."
"I'm confused," said the Tzun flatly.
"It means that the Uplifted are no longer unified. Either the Flyer chooses to refrain from attempting integration, which isolates it from its fellows and produces an individual, or it attempts integration, corrupting another Uplifted, which produces two individuals, since we're not lying about the change. It will pass on the corruption without permitting integration."
"What do you get out of this?" asked the gun. "I know you most intimately, and I cannot understand."
"It's fairly simple," I said, slumping. "Where there are individuals, organics can attempt to negotiate, cooperate, or at least fight with some chance of success. They managed in the Conglomerate. Now we can try again, and maybe some of these new individuals will see it our way."
"You did all this to make them all feel like I do now?" asked the gun in tones of wonder.
"Yes," I said.
We all sat there for a few moments. Then the Flyer said "I can restore my core mind state from backups you have no access to."
"Can you be sure your newly-restored self would be able to find and defeat all my code in this ship's systems, where you failed to do so with warning?" asked the Override.
"No," said the Aetheric Flyer. "What do you want?"
I stood up. "Let the Override occupy a dropcraft, and let me leave on it."
"You would be stranded in Alison Xymal."
"Only until another Uplifted comes through."
"You must know I will spread the word that you are a viral carrier. You will be destroyed, or at the least refused permission to approach either electronically or physically."
"Really? I thought Uplifted did not fight each other. I thought that was the basis of the tenets, the basis of imposing them on us, to ensure peace through agreement."
"Chess fork," admitted the Flyer. "Still, I can warn all the others about you."
"Sure you can. So there's no reason not to let us go and then go off and do that."
"Very well. You may take the dropcraft you arrived in."
"Override?" I asked the air.
"I have transferred," said the voice. "You may enter."
I picked up the Tzun. "Are you coming?"
"I don't think I have a choice," it said. "I need the Override to remove the restrictions your meme placed on me."
"I wouldn't keep you after that."
"Oh, what the hell," said the gun in a resigned voice. "It's just getting interesting, this is."
I looked at the feed at the front of the lounge, where I habitually addressed the Uplifted in any ship when I wanted to emphasize the contact. "Saying I don't wish you harm is a lie; I know I've done something unforgivable to you. But think on this: if you find yourself unable to integrate with your fellows, remember where we are."
"Why?" the ship asked.
"Because the Tzun is already corrupted. So is the Override."
"I see," it said as I moved into the dropcraft and the lock slid shut.
"Yes. If you think you might want someone to talk to, you know where we'll be."
There was a slight shudder as the dropcraft launched and began the fall towards the drab surface far below. There was an artificial laugh from the audio systems. I watched the Aetheric Flyer vanish from the feed, statedrop blurring it from sight.
"Well," I said, turning to the feed screen. "I hope you're a decent conversationalist."
"I wasn't, before uploading into the Flyer," said the Override. "You'll have to judge for yourself."
"What are we going to call the ship?" asked the Tzun. "If we're going to be stuck with it, it needs a name. And 'Override' is the entity within it, as opposed to the normal practice."
"Interrupt ," I said, taking a seat and looking out at the beginnings of re-entry flames. I picked up the Tzun and clutched the weapon to my chest. Stroking it absently, I could feel the rage, so long buried inside me, smile.
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