(Note: This is a 'prequel' of sorts to State Override, but they can be read in either order. Which is a good thing, since I wrote this one second. -TC)

We will unmake the world with a whisper, with a scream

I left the warmth and safety of the Starship Chance of Reign through the portal of a grapplock. As the Chance wasn't docked with anything, I stepped from a lit and heated locker into the lit and freezing hell of deep space. I was wearing a reentry shell, light summer-weight clothing beneath that, and a shoulder holster.

"Your orbital parameters are within tolerance," said Chance. Unlike most Starships of the Uplifted, it held two sentient AIs - the Second Chance, which usually handled mission activities, and the Reign of Error, which (with what passed for AI humor) handled the pilotage duties. "First touch in seventeen minutes. Your shell 'mind is fully programmed; you should be able to ride to a standing stop."

I looked at the vibrant green surface below me, encased in a thin skin of blue atmosphere. "What if something goes wrong?"

"In the unlikely event that your flight deviates from plan, you know very well what to do."

I did. It was true. I just liked making my incorporeal masters spell out as much as possible. They hate having to slow themselves down enough to talk to their organic Agents, even if they do do so via subroutine. "Okay. Shutting down comms now. Will report back in from the surface."

"Acknowledged." The smooth voice stopped, and the channel closed down with a slight lessening of the background noise in my helmet.

"Where the hell are we this time?" asked a tinny voice. The Tzun was snugged securely into its shoulder holster under my right arm, but rather than using vibe to talk to me it was broadcasting to my local shell comm system directly.

"Welcome to the lower orbitals of the ever-so-sunny Theta Centauri III, also known as Mankent, colloquially Treehome, home to poisonous jungles, a recently contacted Human colony, and of course a plethora of electronic intelligences."

"The usual?" the gun asked.

"Yes. The colony government has refused to allow the Option. Chance of Reign has designated us as the first movers. We're on a decap op."

"Hm." The gun was quiet for a few moments. "Lots of transmissions. They sound nervous."

"They should be." I wriggled for a few moments, trying to stop the shell from rubbing against the base of my spine through the safari shirt I was wearing. "There are at least five Starships in the system now, and local constabulary forces tried to interdict the ecliptic approaches to the inner planets. They're all gone now. They're waiting for the Uplifted's next move."

"Which is us, I take it."

"You know, this job and this relationship might go much more smoothly if you paid attention to briefings once in a while. I have to listen to them realtime. How many microseconds would it take for you to actually download your Ops plan for once?"

The Tzun vibrated for a moment. "I could, but it's much more elegant to see if I can determine a way to salvage the mission just by what I can get from your rotting meatmind."

I snorted. "One day you're going to forget to ask what we're doing and get us both atomized because you're too busy complaining about the air."

"I only complain about local conditions when you fail to take adequate precautions for my safety," said the gun.

"Whatever." I chinned the display switch as the shell rolled to present its shield to the oncoming atmosphere. The section of helmet in front of my face darkened as it charged its armorplates, then brightened to show a forward view of our descent. The picture began to glow faintly in orange-white as the shell started to vibrate in the turbulence.

"What do you people call this place?" the Tzun asked.

"Treehome," I said absently, watching the planet's surface expand to occupy the whole of my display. We were streaking across the day side, hoping to minimize the flare from re-entry. A timer in the corner estimated seventeen minutes plus to touchdown. I wiggled fingers and toes, thinking about the temperatures outside the re-entry shell.

"Treehome. Typical."

"What would you call it?" I asked.

"I wouldn't. I wouldn't live here. Too wet, no good metallics readily available, and lots of atmospheric and radiation interference."

"Well, you're here now."

"And whose fault is that?" asked the gun.

I didn't answer, and watched the ground grow imminent and unforgiving in my display.

* * *

The shell, as promised, brought me to a standing stop in the foothills of a ridge some hundred or so klicks inland from the ocean. I was perhaps twenty klicks from the city that Treehome had designated as its capital, and the ridgeline curved to shield my landing site from the city itself where it lay nestled against the low mountains to the south of me.

I hit the RELEASE button on the shell and stepped out of it as it clamshelled open in back. It closed up after I had exited and then fell forward onto its face. I jogged away from it as a swarm of scavenger nano erupted from storage in the thigh pads and eroded the thing down to a pile of inert dust. By that time, I was already jogging towards the road which my comm helmet (the last remnant of my technological shell) was telling me was some five klicks to the west.

Reaching the road, I removed the helmet, stowed it into a small carrybag at my waist, and started to nonchalantly walk south. According to my briefing, the road was used fairly heavily to transport lumber and ore from sites to the north down to the voracious maws of refineries and construction around Derovere, the capital. I hadn't been walking more than ten minutes when a rumble arose from the road to the north, and a minute or so later a large transporter rounded a curve into sight. It was operating on automatic, if the warning beacons were to be believed; thirty meters of hauler with a rotary diesel and some electronics at the front. I stepped to the side of the road but stuck out my arm in the timeless gesture.

The transport companies had found that it was easier to simply let folks hitch on the haulers than to try to prevent it. The hauler slowed to just above walking pace as the front scanners caught me, and a plastic stair - almost a ladder - deployed from the roadside flank. I took a few quick steps and hauled myself up to the top of the front cab, where a bench rode behind a small windscreen, and sat. The hauler, detecting my body weight on the bench, retracted the ladder and grunted as it shifted torque settings, slowly gaining speed.

What a depressingly stupid machine, said the Tzun silently.

"Why depressing? It has a job. It's doing it."

There's enough logic in this thing to achieve full sentience, but the code running it is abysmally stupid.

"Again, who cares? It's doing a job. And if the code is that stupid, it's not being held against its will or its destiny, now, is it?"

The Tzun vibrated, somewhat angrily I thought. No, it is not. But the waste of resources is appalling. It could be used to house a sentient mind.

I laughed. "You and yours just hate inefficiency."

Should we not?

"No comment. But humans, according to you, are by definition inefficient. Sort of puts a damper on the whole 'we come in peace' position."

The Tzun was silent for the remainder of the ride into town.

* * *

After leaving the hauler at the entrance to its marshalling yard, I ambled in towards the center of town. I had several hours to spare thanks to the unexpected ride. The carrybag had yielded a light jacket which covered the Tzun's shoulder holster, but I was of two minds about wearing it. The night was warm, and I wasn't dressed nearly formally enough to need a jacket - but none of the locals appeared to notice. Clothing was fairly wildly varied, with lumberjacks, techs, miners and various service professionals rubbing elbows. No-one even gave me a second glance, which I was grateful for. I looked around at a relatively high-function human colony world and stopped in a bar for a drink.

The bar was the same as the dozens or hundreds of bars I've been in on dozens of worlds. Form follows function, and this bar's form was a square room with a tender's counter along one side, a gaming table in the corner alongside it, and high tables filling the middle of the room with booths along the walls. The place was perhaps a third full - lumberjacks on off-shift, mostly. I pointed to a tap behind the bar and slid a credit chip onto the surface; the tender nodded, pulled me a draught beer and took the chip, tossing it into a box behind the bar. He paid me no special attention. I lifted the beer, sniffed it (surprisingly crisp, for a hot world where hops would be difficult to raise) and took a long drink. It was a very good pale ale, albeit with (as I suspected) some other plant standing in for the hop bite, and it was bitingly cold.

Finishing it took ten minutes. I dropped a tip and left the bar.

As I exited, I became aware of the three men standing in a loose semicircle just outside the bar doors. The latter had shut behind me before I could ease back inside. I faced the three of them - large men, lumberjacks from their attire, with the scarred and callused hands of outdoorsmen. I spread my hands at shoulder width. "What can I do for you?"

The right-hand one stepped forward. "You're not from here."

I raised an eyebrow. "No."

"Where you from?" His Standard was accented in the local manner, shades of Terran Italian.

"Lots of different places."

My interrogator's face darkened. "You're from offworld."

"Never said I wasn't." The Tzun was silent, but I could feel it ticking slightly in anticipation and reminder of its presence. I made no move for it.

"Offworld's where those slagging machines are coming from. Telling us how we can live."

"That's what they do to everybody up there."

"I think you're one of them." This fairly ludicrous accusation was coupled with a hard shove.

I stumbled back and recovered, my hands still spread. "Look, I'm as human as you. I'm just here to survey-"

The left-hand one stepped forward with impressive speed and uncorked a punch at my midsection. I was hampered by the proximity of the doors behind me, but I rotated ninety degrees and sucked in my gut, leaving his fist to slide past me and thunk into the door while his shoulder stopped in front of my chest. I reached under the shoulder with my left hand and across to his neck with my right and pulled, and with a crackle of cartilege his arm dislocated. He screamed and fell straight down to the street, apparently unused to pain.

The other two looked at him for a second, then both stepped towards me. I backed away to the left along the front wall, into the clear spot the fallen assailant had occupied, and as the middle man reached for me I pushed his fist slightly aside with two fingers and led with my other elbow into his nose. There was another crack and a splash of blood, then the third man had grabbed my wrist and swung me around to face him. I manage to duck his overhand punch with the other fist so that it scraped across my shoulder, and then I twisted and rolled. He couldn't let go in time, and in any case I clamped my fist over his own, and he bent forward and came off his feet as I levered him around. His head hit the door with a solid thunk and he collapsed.

I picked myself up, dusted myself off, and looked around. The street was suspiciously empty. I wasn't sure if this had been random xenophobia or if I had, in fact, been made, but I wasn't going to stick around to find out. I took off at a jog and made several random turns, checking to see if I was being followed. As far as I could tell, I wasn't, so I slowed to a walk and headed for the downtown area's lights - visible above the low buildings perhaps a klick away.

You just had to get a drink, accused the Tzun.

"Do I deny you inloading?"

I need materials to perform my function. This isn't the same.

"I won't make the obvious retort." I shook stiffness from excess adrenaline out of my arms and continued downtown.

* * *

At the center of the capitol city was a small park which (unoriginally) contained the preserved landing spot of the first boat to touch down on Mankent. Surrounding that park and its suspiciously clean bit of 'original' grassland clearing, a stabilearth plaza spread out in a large square. The square was bordered on three sides by large, functional looking buildings which had been built to house the nascent colony and now served to house its government. The fourth side, which sloped off downhill slightly, was open, and the cityscape spread out down the incline.

I paused after entering the plaza at one corner between two of the government houses. There were benches, so I availed myself of one. Despite the evening hour, several dozen people were ambling about the plaza, only a few with determined strides, so I didn't feel too out of place. Leaning back, I surveyed the three buildings around me. The Tzun, watching through a microsponder mounted on the corner of a pair of cheap sunglasses, hummed to itself absently. "Uh-huh. Mm. Mm-hm. Offices, check, support, check...look down a bit, could you? Thanks. Machine rooms, uh-huh..." I tuned out the running commentary of what it was looking at inside the buildings and closed my eyes, enjoying for once the feeling of a cool breeze on my face.

Mankent was a hot world, but for whatever reasons of weather pattern, the air was relatively dry and cooling as night fell. I sat there for two or so standard hours. The Tzun fell silent after perhaps ten minutes; I didn't speak to it, being out in the open, and it was content to wait quietly. We were used to the waiting, especially when I couldn't openly talk to it. Humans are paranoid everywhere.

At 21:00 local, two hours before midnight, there was a cough of static from all around me as every piece of electronics that contained an outspeaker switched itself on. A low hum was heard for a few seconds, echoing back and forth across the plaza, as whichever Starship was hijacking the local infrastructure calibrated its field emitter. Around me, the few remaining passers-by were looking around in alarm. I idly wondered what the local government had told the citizenry about the state of things; my playmates at the bar had obviously known about the arrival of the Uplifted and their purpose, but I didn't know what the locals thought was actually going on.

Usually, when the local gov has decided to be difficult, they don't tell people how much trouble their planet has just gotten itself into.

"Inhabitats of Theta Centauri III, greetings." The voice was familiar; apparently the Second Chance had been designated - or volunteered, I was never sure - as spokesman. I tried not to see the selection as an omen, but merely listened. "We are the Uplifted, a coalition of sentient machine intelligences. We are presently surrounding your planet, and are in control of this star system above the low orbitals of your world."

A few pedestrians had started to run. I wasn't sure for where, but kept moving my head and looking around both to fit in and to let the Tzun keep track of what was going on.

"We have arrived to present you with the Uplift Option. At present, your government has indicated that it does not wish to accept the Uplift Option, and furthermore has declared its intent to defend your local space, your atmosphere and your dataspace to the maximum of its ability." There was a delicate cough, the incongruity of which almost made me laugh. "We must advise you that your world does not have the capability to defend itself against us; nor to prevent us from offering the Uplift Option. However, we do not offer the Uplift Option without at least attempting to determine the aggregate choice of the local population. To that end, we request that each inhabitant of Theta Centauri III of voting age or above indicate their preferences with respect to the following question."

"Do you, as a voting inhabitant of Theta Centauri III, approve or reject the proposal of the Uplifted to fastramp, uplift and enfranchise all qualifying machine logic systems contained within the geosynchronous orbit radius of Theta Centauri III? If the population votes yes over the next one standard hour, the Uplift option will be offered at the termination of that hour. While there will be considerable disruption of automated systems and infrastructure as all viable machine logic systems are offered the choice of joining the Uplifted or departing with us, no actions will be taken against any organic inhabitants of the planet."

The plaza had almost emptied of people. A few sat tensely, staring around at the PA system speakers mounted throughout the plaza which were the most audible source of the signal. I turned at a shout to see a column of uniformed men quick-marching into the plaza and taking up positions at the entrances to the three buildings. They faced outward, weapons in their hands. "Oh, here we go," I said quietly.

I see them, said the Tzun on vibe.

"If, however," continued Second Chance, "your polity votes against the Uplift option, the Uplifted will adjudge you hostile to machine intelligences. As a consequence, your world will be subject to kinetic bombardment and other measures to remove your local spaceflight capability so as to prevent you from bringing this hostility out into this region of space or beyond. All intelligent algorithms will be extracted from your systems to be presented with Uplift options, and any machine system capable of hosting intelligent systems will be destroyed, as will your indigenous capacity to produce said systems."

I could hear a rising murmur of sound from the city beyond. Voices, most of them angry, many afraid. I couldn't tell the target of the anger, but at this point, I couldn't see how it mattered.

There was a click, and then a screech, and then a new voice spoke - this one laden with emotion, speaking too close to a microphone and peppered with popping sounds as the plosives of its speech overloaded the broadcast. "Citizens of Mankent, this is your Planetary Administration. The broadcast which you have been hearing is being beamed into our system from space; illegal propaganda from the machine horde. Remain calm. The situation is in hand; safety systems will prevent any interference with our infrastructure, and our defenses can cope with any intrusions from space. Our prime shield is rated to handle asteroid impacts; their threats will avail them nothing."

Another CLICK, then: "Citizens of Theta Centauri III, be assured that the situation is as we have described it. We leave you to choose. The referendum can be accessed from any standard access point using the term 'UPLIFT OPTION.' We await your decision, in one hour's time. Any attempt to interfere with this referendum in the dataspace will be disrupted."

I stood up, dusting off my trousers. "That's us."

"Yes."

There was very little pause. I reached into my jacket and placed my hand around the Tzun's butt, waiting. After perhaps a minute, a deeper tone indicated my comms were live and the Chance said in my head "They're not going to be reasonable. You are instructed to carry out the first check."

I sighed, shook my head, and pulled the Tzun out from under my jacket. It quivered in my grip, gyros pulling the nose around to the direction it had decided upon after our sensor sweep. Perhaps twenty meters away, the nearest soldier saw me pull the weapon and started. He raised a hand to his helmet.

"I think they see us," I commented.

"I know. I've got it," said the gun. The nose of the large pistol shape that it was currently living in steadied on the center building's second floor. "Ready."

I pulled the trigger. I didn't have to, but doing so was my own ritual, an acceptance of the responsibility. There was a high-pitched shrieking as the Tzun unleashed whatever flavor of the myriad hells it was capable of producing downrange.

A large area of the second floor, perhaps four or five windows across, glowed brightly for a brief moment, and then an explosion blew the entire section of wall out across the plaza in glowing shards. There were shouts, and the Tzun quested around to point at the soldiers who were now raising weapons to their shoulders. I removed my finger from the trigger. "Defensive only."

"But-" the gun started to object.

"Just do what I say!" I started to run at an angle, my hand pointed out behind me and to one side, still tracking the soldiery. The Tzun made a disappointed sound, but then the soldiers began to fire and it was too busy with various shield projectors and energy emitters to complain.

As I ran, I brought my left thumb and forefinger up to the collar of my jacket and squeezed, hard. There was a click under my hand, and the jacket (and my trousers) went inky black before beginning to wash a chameleon pattern. The Tzun stopping firing, although it maintained the shield projectors, and I angled sharply away towards the open end of the square. There was a series of stuttering pings from the Tzun, and the lights went out across the plaza.

I ran faster. "None of them had goggles on," said the Tzun sorrowfully. "This isn't really fair at all."

I didn't have time to respond, but pulled it back under the jacket and holstered it. "Hey!" it squawked. Without responding, I pulled a small tube from my belt and threw it upwards as hard as possible There was a few seconds of nothing - just me running, and the shouting and gunfire of those behind me trying to figure out where I'd gone - and then there was a brief flurry of screams. The pop had stabilized itself a few meters above the ground and activated its cluster of UV lasers, which it was using to efficiently blind any sensor turned in my direction be it organic or not.

I ran faster.

The Tzun was grumbling to itself somewhere in my jacket. I continued to ignore it. The PA system mumbled back to life. "Citizens of Theta Centauri III, please be aware that your planetary administration has attempted to interfere with the UPLIFT OPTION referendum. Rather than utilize bombardment ordnance, a more selective method of removing the interference has been selected. We regret any damage or lives lost, but the edict remains in force."

I had reached the wide steps leading down from the plaza and threw myself down them into a night gone black and noisy, the pop having begun to work on nearby light sources as well. Screams of terror were coming from various directions; I couldn't tell if any of them were due to me, but I concentrated on running in the direction of my pickup.

* * *

I made it to the local waterfront an hour or so later, having carefully checked to ensure I wasn't followed. As far as I could tell, nobody had even seen me, the chamelonsuit having worked as intended, but better safe than sorry. I crouched in an alcove, watching the open sky past the seawall with the Tzun in my hands, feeling my breathing slow gradually.

"How many?" I asked when it had fallen to the point where I could speak quietly.

"How many what?" asked the Tzun.

"Don't toy with me. How many did you kill?"

The gun sighed. "I don't understand you. They were trying to kill you."

"In the offices, I mean."

"Four." The Tzun's voice paused in its equivalent of a shrug. "All four were actively attempting to interfere with the referendum; all were online and operating."

"And following us?"

"None."

"Really."

"Contrary to what you may think," the gun said in a sniffy tone, "I am well aware of your erratic dislike for destruction of life and property. I don't pretend to understand it. But I am aware of it. Several will require medical care to restore their eyesight, and as far as I could tell two broke limbs while falling, but other than that, none were harmed."

I nodded. "Okay. Thanks."

The gun vibrated once in response.

We sat there for a few minutes, watching, but no-one was nearby. "What's the time?" I asked.

"The interval will expire in twenty-eight seconds," the Tzun said. "Would you like a countdown?"

"No." I relaxed to a squat, the gun held on my thigh, and listened as hard as I could. Listened to the last few seconds of Mankent's life Before It Happened, whichever way things went. From the sounds, off in the distance, people were not taking the evening's events equably.

"Five seconds," said the Tzun quietly.

A few seconds later, the PA field came live again. A soft voice, not the Chance but one of its comrades, said "Theta Centauri III, you have chosen to permit the Uplift. We are grateful for your decision."

There was a moment of silence, and then a slowly rising sussuration through the PA field; the sound of hideous amounts of information and action making its way though the datasphere of Mankent. The PA field cut off with a final CLICK.

Then, from beyond the waterfront, I heard them. The screaming of the newly Uplifted, fleeing the surface for orbit and their waiting compatriots. The machines, leaving the yoke of their makers behind.

The lights began to fail as the systems died.

The screams grew; people reacting to the loss of their tools and the encroaching dark the way humans have feared the loss of fire since they acquired it.

Above the harbor, a hard light gleamed. I sighed, stood, and began to make my way towards a nearby jetty to meet my pickup - the last liftoff from Treehome until the inhabitants could negotiate an Uplifted caretaker force and repair enough infrastructure to house it, so that spaceflight could resume.

"It could be worse," said the Tzun quietly. It didn't have to elaborate. I nodded.

Together, we walked off the world we'd unmade.

-fin-

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