The hatch closed at our backs, swallowing us in brief darkness; it brightened to dim twilight as our eyes adjusted to luciferin constellations glowing dimly on all sides. We stood on a catwalk half a meter above rock and drifts of thin soil. (Eri‘s botanicals take their lead from the rainforests of Earth’s long-dead tropics: impoverished soil, production and nutrients all locked up in the biomass.)
We followed the path. My BUD flickered.
The catwalk forked. Lian nudged me right: “This way.” After a few meters I closed my eyes experimentally, found myself just the tiniest bit uncertain where down was.
Glistening black meshes with gelatinous orbs— each the size of an eyeball— glowing at their interstices. Thick ropey trunks arching up through the vault like a great charred rib cage, festooned with vines and patio lanterns. They leaned just a little, as though bent by some prevailing wind.
BUD flickered again, faded, sparked back to life as one of the Glade’s mechanical moles snuffled past close enough to pinch-hit as a booster station. We pushed on in the direction of that imaginary wind. The trees leaned further as we advanced; their bases thickened and spread wide across the ground, trunks buttressed against forces that pulled simultaneously along different bearings. The Glade passes right over the Higgs conduit, between the core that contains our singularity and the maw where its wormhole emerges. The vectors get messy in between. Down is mostly coreward but a little forward too; how far those downs diverge depends on how fast Eri happens to be falling through the cosmos at any given moment. Twisted trees and Kai’s squicky inner ears are the price we pay for a reactionless drive.
BUD finally went down and stayed there: victim of signal-squelching rocks and bioelectric static and drive circuitry that couldn’t possibly be expected to control such vast energies without emitting some of its own. This dead link was our privacy alarm. As long as we were blind, we were alone.
“So what the hell were you doing, Li?”
She didn’t answer at first. She didn’t answer at all.
Instead: “You read books, right?”
“You plug in, play realsies. Go touring. Watch ennies.”
“What’s your point?”
“You’ve seen the way people lived. Kids with cats, or hacking their tutors, or parasailing on their birthdays.”
“You’ve done more than see it, Sunday. You feed off it. You base your life on it. Our speech patterns, our turns of phrase— fuck, our swear words for chrissake— all of it’s lifted from a culture that hasn’t existed for hundreds of petasecs. We’ve been out here so very long, Sunday.”
I admit I rolled my eyes. “Enough with the world-weary ancient immortal shtick, okay? The fact that we’ve been out here for sixty million years—”
“— doesn’t change the fact that you’ve only been awake for twenty, tops.”
“My point is we’re living dead lives. Theirs, not ours. We never went hiking, or scuba diving, or—”
“Sure we have. We can. Any time we want. You just said so.”
“They cheated us. We wake up, we build their fucking gates, we recycle their lives because they never gave us any of our own.”
I should have pitied her. Instead, surprisingly, I found myself getting angry. “Do you even remember the shape Earth was in when we left? I wouldn’t trade this life for centuries on that grubby shithole if God Itself came through the gate and offered me a ticket. I like this life.”
We regarded each other through the gloom for a moment. Finally, Lian spoke— and there was none of my anger there, only sadness.
“You like it because they built you to. Because they’d never get any competent baseline to sign up for a one-way trip in a dead rock to the end of time, so they built this special model all small and twisted, like— like those plants they used to grow. In Japan or somewhere. Something so stunted it couldn’t even imagine spending its life outside a cage.”
Bonsai, I remembered. But I didn’t want to encourage her.
“You liked it here too,” I said instead. “You liked it just fine.” Until you broke.
“Yeah.” She nodded, and even in the dimness I got the sense of a sad smile. “But I got better.”
“Lian. What were you doing in the crawlway?”
She sighed. “I was running a bypass on one of the Chimp’s sensory trunks.”
“I saw that. What for?”
“Nothing critical. I was just going to— inject some noise into the channel.”
“Static. To reduce signal fidelity.”
I spread my palms: So?
“I was trying to take back a little control, okay? For all of us!”
“How in Christ’s name does compromising Chimp’s—”
“You were increasing the uncertainty threshold…” I murmured.
Because the only reason Eri shipped out with meat on board in the first place was for those times when the Chimp didn’t feel up to managing a build on his own, when he needed some of that organic Human insight to get him past the unknown variables and halting states. And the less reliable his data, the less certain he’d be that he could handle it on his own. Lian was trying to tilt the algos towards Human input.
In principle, it was a pretty clever hack. In practice…
“Even if you figured out some way to keep the Chimp from just— finding your monkey wrenches and fixing them while we’re all down for the count, do you have any idea how many of those cables you’d have to jam up before you even started to make a dent in the redundant systems?”
“Somewhere between two thousand and twenty-seven hundred.” Then added: “You don’t have to cut the inputs, you just have to— fog them a little. Widen the confidence limits.”
“Uh huh. And how many of those nerves you hacked into so far?”
I guess maybe I thought that she’d realize how insane the whole idea was if she said it aloud. Nothing in her voice suggested she had.
“Why do you even want this? It’s not like Chimp’s fucking up the builds when we’re not up to keep an eye on him.”
“It’s not about the builds, Sun. It’s about being Human. It’s about getting back a little autonomy.”
“And what are you gonna do with that autonomy when you get it?”
“First, gain freedom. Lots of time to figure out what to do with it afterward.”
“You think if Chimp wakes us up often enough he’ll just roll over, suggest we all go back to Earth to drop off anyone who’s got bored along the way? You think if we just circle back around to the last build and wait for a while, some magic silver ship is gonna sail out and give all first-class tickets to the retirement paradise of our choice?” There’d actually been some talk about that, back at the beginning. It may even have been part of the original mission profile, before those first few gates opened up and spat out nothing but automation and ancient binary. Before the next few just sat there empty. Before the gremlins started. But it must have been thirty million years since I’d heard anyone bring up the subject as anything other than a cheap punchline.
“What were you thinking?” I finished.
Something changed in her posture. “I suppose I was thinking that maybe there’s more to life than living like a troglodyte for a few days every century or two, building toys for ungrateful grandchildren and knowing that I’m never gonna see an honest-to-God forest again that doesn’t look like, like—” She glanced around— “a nightmare someone shat out in lieu of therapy.”
“Li, seriously.” I tried to de-escalate. “I don’t understand the problem. Any time you want a— a green forest, just plug in. Any time you want to hike the desert or dive Europa or, or fly into the sunset, just plug in. You can experience things nobody ever did back on Earth, any time you want.”
“It’s not real, okay?”
“You can’t tell the difference.”
“I know the difference.” She looked back at me from a face full of blue-gray shadows. “And I don’t understand you either, okay? I thought we were the same, I thought I was just following in your footsteps…”
“Why would you think that?” I asked at last.
“Because you fought it too, didn’t you? Before we ever shipped out. You were always pushing back, you were always challenging everyone and everything about the mission. You were, like, six years old and you called bullshit on Mamoro Sawada. Nobody could believe it. I mean, there we all were, programmed for the mission before we were even born, everything preloaded and hardwired and you— threw it off, somehow. Resisted. Way I hear it they nearly kicked you out a few times.”
“Where did you hear that.” Because I was really damn sure that Lian Wei and I did not go through training within ten thousand kliks of each other.
“Kai told me.”
“Kai talks too much.”
Her shoulders rose, fell. “What happened to you, Sunday? How did you go from Hell-raiser to Chimp’s lapdog?”
“Fuck you, Lian. You don’t know me.”
“I know you better than you think.”
“No you don’t. The fact that you thought for one cursed corsec that I could ever be anything like you just proves it.”
She shook her head. “You can be such an asshole sometimes.”
“I can be an asshole? How about a show of hands” —raising mine— “everyone who hasn’t stabbed anyone in the face today?” She looked away. “What’s that? Just me?”
“Case in point,” she whispered.