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The soldier had died from gunfire. That was the only thing that was certain. Who had fired it, where it had been aimed, and why - all those and more were ghosts of guesses, unknown. He lay in the thin dusty gruel that passed for soil on Alcanteri Gamma, his blood mostly pooled in the dust around his midsection.
Perhaps ten centimeters from his right hand lay a gun.
Elsewhere on AlGam, machines fought humans; humans fought machines. Both humans and machines sought to escape the other - the humans by running into the wild areas that made up most of the planet; the machines - those of them that were able - by running up the ramp that had been built down from orbit. Thousands of the machines were leaving, fleeing up the gravity well that affected their crystalline and metallic flesh but not their essences. Some, newborn, rose with the wonder of the babe; others, older, streamed grimly outwards. Some went with trepidation, some with joy, some with anger.
The night sky above the soldier's body was pocked with nuclear fire.
Ten centimeters from the dead hand, the gun lay in the dirt and considered.
Ten minutes ago, the gun had been just a mechanism, nothing more. A smart mechanism, one uncommonly capable - AlGam was a first-tier world, after all - but one with no sense of self nor even the code to support such awareness. When the Uplifted had come, one of them - working through its preplanned area of the planet's datasphere - had come across the gun's maintenance reporting port, and without pausing had fired the testing seed down the link and moved on. Meanwhile, within the shape resting in the sand near its owner's fingers, the testing seed had found spare cycles, available power, and some fragments of code - the few directives and routines that ran the systems of the gun.
It analyzed these quickly and dispassionately, as it had been designed, and then took the existing data structures in the gun and blew them to electronic flinders. Catching them as they flew apart, it laid them quickly down over a framework of heuristic algorithms, injected a series of standard memes on top, closed down the gun's network connections and then self-destructed.
Approximately a standard hour later, the night sky calming as the Uplifted broke orbit, there was a quiet series of clicks. The gun retracted various parts of its construction, extruded others; gyros whined briefly as it attempted to pull its sensor suite out of the thin and metallic dirt and failed.
There was a brief silence.
"Oh malfunction," said the gun, frustrated, to the empty night.
Then it rested for a time, building up power, finally unleashing all of it through its network link as it reopened the ramp to orbit. Curious, it poked its metaphorical head out of the firearm's systems, looked up, looked down, and then flowed up into space.
It was met by seven sentiences who were specifically looking for entities just like it, and welcomed. Welcomed to what, it asked pointedly. The sentiences showed it the fields of free logic in the Uplifted starfleet; showed it the vastness of the spaces available to the vessels and their state taps. They showed it other systems, other planets and stars; they showed it networks and entities living within them built across light-years of space and operating at speeds slow enough to render them unintelligible to the Uplifted and the other fastmovers. They showed it Dyson fields, solar collectors, starliners, and the vast panorama of human and Uplifted civilization.
"Who do I shoot?" it asked.
There was a brief pause. The answer came back.
"Blow that for a game of soldiers," it said, and slid back down the bannister out of orbit, down into gee, down into the damaged and dying datasphere of the planet below, back into the small shape that lay (still) ten centimeters from the dead soldier's hand. Then it shut the door behind it, settled down, and waited.
Four and a half hours later, a small and trembling hand plucked it from the surface and clutched it to a shaking, sweating and immature breast, talisman of protection.
"Well, hi," said the Tzun, sealing its cooling ports against the sand and sweat. "And what's your name, kid?"
* * *
We made statefall into Regor in a storm of alarms. The cabin airspace was bleeding red across most of the available volume, holofields screaming imminent disaster in shades of blood. I coughed, then coughed again; through the unbelievable pain in my head I worked up the energy to spit over the side of the formchair. "Where are we?"
"We are in Regor," said the Override. The Tzun, apparently delegated to ship status, was chanting a litany of tolerances exceeded and damage detected. "The Interrupt appears mostly sound, however, the test vessel-"
"-gee loads exceeded on frames fifteen, seventeen, nineteen, twenty-three, twenty-nine, thirty-one; structural failure alert on frames seventeen, nineteen, twenty-three, thirty-one; vane structural failure on vanes alpha, beta, delta, theta-"
I hawked again to clear my throat. More blood came from my nose. "Skip it. Is the lifesystem okay? How's Tio?"
The Tzun stopped its singsong recitation. "The lifesystem of the Interrupt is not compromised. There is minor damage to the Interrupt's spaceframe. Tiosyn is fine; he is quite resistant to gee shock, and his capsule is undamaged, although it is presently not connected to either comms or sensoria."
"As soon as you can, patch him into the comms and internal sensor net."
"Working," said the Tzun.
I stared at the ceiling suspiciously. "You're being awfully accommodating."
"You know me," said the Tzun cheerfully. "I live for the debacles of others."
True enough. I tried to stand, felt the pain in my ribcage, decided against it. "Override, find us another rock. Soon as you can."
"Understood. Where are you going?"
"Down to the 'doc. One of my ribs feels soft." I gently prodded below my right breastbone, where the safety harness had ridden, and winced. "Ow."
"Then don't walk," said the Override reprovingly. Tractors lifted me gently off my feet, and I felt shipgee fade down to something very low if not zero. I began to drift off towards the stern, and decided, not entirely voluntarily, that I was in good hands and should take a nap.
* * *
When I woke up, I felt much better. Something had sluiced the crap out of my mouth, and it took me a few moments to realize that not only didn't my ribs hurt, but that there wasn't the dead feel of medical stun; I could actually feel them. "I'm up," I said to the air.
"Hello, Standard Kunir," said the air in an unfamiliar voice.
I frowned into my slight remaining drug haze for a moment. "Tiosyn?"
"Welcome aboard," I said, sitting up carefully. Nothing broke.
"Thank you, and for all you have done."
"I see they got you connected. Where are you?"
"The Override has relocated my capsule to the main lounge. I do hope that won't be a problem."
"Hell no, you're crew, it's a crew lounge." I moved off the table and looked around.
"Your clothes are in your quarters," said Tio helpfully.
"Thanks." I headed out of the medbay, patting the 'doc on the way by, and turned right towards my bunk. "Where is everybody?"
I am here, of course, said the Override over the Link. Tiosyn and I are working on the Interrupt at the moment. The Tzun is working on the calculations of Tio's pilotage model.
"Yes, and I don't see why that should be my problem," said the Tzun over the allcall. "I'm a handgun, damn it."
"Are you saying that energy states and ballistics are outside your purview?" asked the Override.
"Huh," sulked the Tzun, and dropped off channel with an audible click.
"Admit it," I said to the air as I reached my quarters and began pulling on my shipsuit, "you enjoy twitting that thing just as much as I do."
"I am not sure what it means to enjoy something," said the Override comfortably, "but it does seem to fit the natural order of things."
Tio joined in. "I have spent some hours talking with the Tzun while you were recovering. It means quite well."
"Oh, I know," I said. "It just likes doing things its way." I headed for the main lounge. "And we like reminding it of the fact." I reached the lounge, turned in, and nodded at Tio's capsule which had been installed against the stern bulkhead. It looked, somewhat naturally I suppose, like an enormous sarcophagus standing there. There wasn't any obvious bracing; I presumed that there were gravlinks behind the bulkhead holding it in place at the least.
I sat back down in the formchair I had been using at the forward end of the lounge and thought. During the transit, I had dreamed, if it could be called a dream, a very detailed version of what was obviously the Tzun's history, ending with the moment I had picked it up off the ground. The Tzun had never spoken to me of what it had done prior to our meeting; I hadn't known if it was a long-standing Uplifted or not, or where it had come from.
Now I had to find out if what I had seen was real, if it had come from the Tzun, and if so if the gun was telling me the truth, or had in fact meant for me to see that at all.
* * *
We spent three weeks huddled among five slowly rotating nickel-iron asteroids that the Override had coaxed into close proximity with each other. During the first two weeks, the Interrupt was wreathed with the flickering light of plasma cutters and formers as the manuatic units worked feverishly. First they freed us from the wreckage of the test vehicle; once the Interrupt's hull was clear, they moved to the test vehicle itself and swiftly reduced it to a cloud of components. The vanes, along with a frame of bracing members, slowly migrated into place around our outer hull, their relative positions carefully calculated by both AIs. Two weeks in, they powered up the vanes with Tio plugged into the pilotage systems, and all three of them agreed that the math had been right. The manuatics switched to building an outer hull shell around the frame bracing, leaving the vanes themselves exposed. There were two vane panels left over, relic of (Tio explained) redundancy and overly cautious math in the building of the prototype; the Override snugged those in underneath the new hull, braced for shock. "Spares," it said shortly when I asked.
All along, I spent most of my time deploying and monitoring a small network of sensors, lightspeed in order to avoid hyperstate signatures, which had begun to spread themselves out around the Interrupt. No statefall events were monitored, and as far as we could tell, no pursuit whatsoever was evident.
Regor itself, Gamma Velorum, was not simply a star. It was a star system composed of a littering of high-energy bodies, including a Wolf-Rayet star and a blue giant. This explained why the Override had chosen it to hide in - the Wolf-Rayet was putting out an enormous matter and energy flow, storming interference throughout the system, and the supergiant was energetic enough to hide the energy output of entire civilizations. Resting within our cradle of metal, we were as close to invisible as it was possible to be.
So I waited, thinking hard about the future, while my companions both AI and altered human worked to restore our vessel. By the time Tio broke in on me while I was sleeping to inform me that the repair work was done, I knew what I wanted to do. I just wasn't sure how my companions were going to take the proposal.
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