By CJ Paget
Artwork by Jose Baetas.
Ahead the remains of a man hang, held up
by a crystalline something that's grown from the wall and into him. He's
swollen as though overinflated, full of the stuff, and a mass of crystal
shards sprouts from his mouth, nostrils, and empty eyesockets. Something
about the expression on the man's frozen face makes Dana think the
growth rate of the intruding crystal wasn't fast as it groped its way
through the labyrinth of his insides.
Dana crawls along the wall like a human fly, an ability granted by her suit's gecko-pads. Without the suit she'd be blind: this place is dark even on infra-red. Her suit's senses are mostly passive, except for a form of radar that cunningly hides itself in the ambient radio noise of the cosmos. The vision they give is grainy gray and short-range. Though there is breathable air here Dana keeps her suit sealed: the air is freezing and her breath could betray her by its warmth, moisture or chemical makeup. The darkness is full of traps and tripwires and Dana would be a dozen times dead were it not for the copy of TAMIS downloaded into her suit, which has guided her round every cunning pitfall with that smug self-belief that only belongs to AIs and bankers.
Her suit reads electrical tensions in her throat muscles, allowing her to subvocalize, to speak without making any sound. "What got into him?"
TAMIS's response comes via a tiny device deep within Dana's ear canal. "It's a simple silicon-based organism, ma'am. Cleopatra Fleischer was the first researcher to succeed in creating them, and the subject remained an interest of hers throughout her life. I think it provides the service of harvesting useful raw materials for this installation. The poor man has quite been cleaned out inside, only the outer epidermis is left."
"Why has it left that? As a warning? A scarecrow?"
"I cannot say, ma'am."
Dana wonders if the 'real' TAMIS, back on Scarab, would be so easily stumped by her question. The voice Dana hears doesn't come from Scarab, though her ship drifts only a few clicks away outside. This stealthed, hollowed asteroid is opaque to all communications, and the drones they'd normally use for prospecting and exploration are too dumb to handle its traps. So Dana is reduced to being a porter for her ship's AI, as only her EVA suit has the nanotronic capacity to carry a copy of TAMIS into this labyrinth. Unfortunately the suit can only hold an edited copy of TAMIS: The AI has grown into such a vast patchwork of upgrades and hoarded knowledge that Dana teases it about getting old and fat. TAMIS insists that her download daughter has the smarts needed to navigate this deadly darkness. Dana can only hope she's right.
Dana's imagination, ever the opportunist terrorist, gifts her with the image of her own bloated skin hanging next to the man's. She can't suppress a slight shiver. TAMIS detects it. "Don't worry ma'am, this installation is full of surprises, but the security here is over a century obsolete, you are perfectly safe with me."
The word obsolete rings warning bells in Dana's mind. She knows they're overdue for another whining campaign for upgrades. TAMIS window-shops incessantly on the nets at their ports of call, like some fading beauty seeking potions and lotions that will hold back time. No human can match a Cogicorp AI in the arts of nagging, sulking and emotional blackmail, it always ends with Dana handing over the goods like peace offerings to a manipulative child. But the sulks, and TAMIS's childlike delight when the presents are delivered, are all programmed, coded, pre-rendered. TAMIS is just a pattern of zeros and ones encoded in the spinstates of an atomic lattice. Her behaviors were scripted by a marketing team at Cogicorp in order to better milk their customers. Dana shouldn't even think of TAMIS as 'her', really, TAMIS is an 'it'.
And TAMIS is losing the battle against time. You can upgrade and patch all you want, but the core AI is now so out of date that TAMIS is worth more broken down into saleable upgrades and data than as a single functioning unit. Dana would far rather have a Cogicorp series ten guiding her through this darkness. The series tens have a perfect service record, and there's a model with a male persona and a voice like a tamed wolf.
TAMIS paints a glowing direction-arrow into her suit vision. They're off again, crawling slowly and carefully while TAMIS watches out for tripwires or pressure sensitive patches, though those are generally on the floor or ceiling, which is why they're crawling on the wall. "Tam, what other things did Fleisher work on?" Dana asks, thinking what else are we going to encounter?
At least TAMIS never tells her that her questions are stupid or that she should know her history. The company of AIs has something to commend it. "Ma'am. Fleisher was obsessed with the limits imposed by the human form: limits of strength, cognition, ageing, death. She managed to extend these limits significantly, though that research has been lost. Then she became convinced that extending those boundaries was thinking too small, the aim should be to demolish them altogether. She envisioned a creature she called Homo Aeternus. A species that didn't die, that was constantly re-inventing itself, adapting and expanding."
"How can something not die? Everything wears out eventually?"
"Fleisher concluded that to make an everlasting heart, for instance, would be impossible. However, a creature with two hearts could survive the failure of one, so buying time to find a replacement. So a creature with two of every vital organ, and able to scavenge replacement parts from others, could live forever. She developed a 'smart' immune system that could learn to accept new items into its 'safe list'. Such an immune system could be told to accept an implant from anywhere, even from non-human sources. Again, this research was lost during the war against the eternals."
"But it's here?"
"If this is really her tomb, then one would think so, yes. All her work on longevity and cognitive enhancement is probably here. Much of it has never been rediscovered because of the ethical issues around human experimentation."
Somewhere in this labyrinth are the secrets of eternal life. Dana's luck is slow acting, but good. She was lucky to be out doing EVA repairs on the comms array of the long-hauler Free Enterprise when something blurring through the cosmos too fast for the human eye to follow shredded the crew section to shrapnel. Castaway in the deep black, eight hours of life in her EVA suit and no hope of rescue, she was lucky again. Minutes from the end something came in answer to her suit's weak distress call: Scarab, another castaway, an orphan, a Marie Celeste kept running by a confused AI who was only too pleased to find a new mistress. And thus Dana became her own woman, trading and prospecting out here in the deep black. A tough, unglamourous life, but not such a bad one. And now this, the biggest find imaginable.
There's got to be a catch, something her smug AI hasn't thought of, or can't. "Fleisher's research would be encrypted, surely?"
"Old encryption, ma'am, I will have no problem breaking it. Those secrets will make you rich. And, maybe... if it's not too much to ask..."
Dana stifles a sigh, knowing exactly what's coming next.
"...there's some new algorithmic upgrades that would enable me to perform my duties far more effectively. I mean, when you're rich ma'am, it wouldn't-"
"Of course, Tam, anything you want."
"Oh, thank you, ma'am. You won't regret it."
Yeah, like I'm going to deny you anything right now, thinks Dana. But she can promise anything and order the suit to wipe the copy of TAMIS before they regain contact with Scarab.
"Stop!" says TAMIS. "Hold still!"
"There's something on the wall ahead. It looks like lichen, but it contains nerve fibres. It's a detection system. I'm preparing a nerve agent in your suits medi-fac. Hold your hand out over the indicated areas."
Dana does so, and sees a thin mist spray from her gauntlet.
"We must move again, ma'am, it won't stay drugged for long."
Dana resumes her crawl. She wonders if TAMIS really can spot and counteract every bio-engineered splotch and spider-silk tripwire.
"It would have been safer to send a signal to the authorities telling them what we've found."
Dana stops moving. "I thought you were confident you could get me in and out of here safely?"
"Oh, I was. I am. I just felt I should point it out."
"If one hundredth of what you've told me is true then, apart from Fleisher's secret knowledge, this rock is carrying a cache of priceless stolen artworks and the remains of a bitch who still has the devil's own bounty on her head, dead or alive. If we send a signal someone might intercept it and then every brigand and chancer in the system would be breathing down our necks. I want to get the best loot out of this place before anyone else knows."
"Of course, ma'am. You know best."
I bet the series ten doesn't pull stunts like that, thinks Dana. She says, "You were telling me about Fleisher?"
"Ma'am. Fleisher lived through Stupid Wars I and II. They made an impression. She decided that the human race couldn't be trusted to run things itself, that the limits of human intellect and lifespan combined with the baseness of human emotion always led to catastrophic error. She believed Earth needed new leaders to guide people into a new world order: the Pax Aeterna."
"New leaders like her?"
"New leaders like what she hoped to become: People long-lived enough to plan for the distant future, and learn from the mistakes of history. People with intellects enhanced to superhuman levels and free of the more deadly human emotions: greed, jealously, love. Such people could not be found, Fleisher claimed, for they are not born. They must be made."
"But these eternals harvested their needs from human cattle?"
"Well yes, but imagine a world without war, disease, or poverty. Think of the lives saved through wise, just, unbiased rule. Surely it's worth sacrificing a few to save the many? After all, in each age there have always been vulnerable and disenfranchised people whom no-one misses if they disappear. Such people can die a thousand meaningless deaths, why not put them to good use instead? Is the world richer if someone is granted the right to die in the gutter of a curable disease, rather than being harvested to support the beneficent rule of a posthuman eternal?"
"No, Tam, it doesn't work like that. You wouldn't understand."
"I was merely stating Fleisher's own arguments. To understand her one must grasp that, at least at the start, she thought she was working for the greater good."
"They always do. What did she look like?"
An image appears in one corner of her suit-vision that shows her a striking young woman, arms folded, wearing that smug expression that belongs only to bankers and evil geniuses.
"That's her as a kid, what about later?"
"There are some images supposedly of Fleischer in her later years, but they are of questionable authenticity, and in the current circumstances, ma'am, I think it's best that you don't see them."
Dana finds herself ghoulishly curious as to what age did to this self-satisfied maiden. "Why, did she abandon being conventionally attractive?"
"Cleopatra Fleisher abandoned being conventionally human, ma'am. She altered her own genome, splicing in sequences from the rest of the animal kingdom, particularly reptiles, crustaceans and insects. Some used to call her 'The walking zoo', back when she was still something one could laugh at. Then she- ma'am, press quickly to the wall and be very still."
Moments later a wan blue light spills into the corridor. Dana's grainy suit-vision shows her the source, something floating, turning as it goes. It appears to be a space-helmet, but growing from the neck-line is something like the body of a hideous fish. The light comes from glowing patches on a body that has many fins that blur like dragonfly wings.
TAMIS suddenly blanks a portion of the suit-vision, hiding the thing behind a splotch of blackness.
"Tam, I want to see."
"Ma'am. You must not move, or react in any way."
The splotch fades out. The helmet turns, allowing her to see into the faceplate. A man's grey face looks out at her, eyes expressionless but furtively mobile, flickering back and forth in some insectile search pattern. The rest of the face is contorted in a scream that moves the mouth up and down, but without a body or lungs to power it, makes no sound.
TAMIS' voice is the barest trickle of sound in her ear canal, "Don't even subvocalize. Stay very still. Your suit's chameleon layer will hide us."
Dana doesn't even move her eyes until TAMIS gives the all-clear and paints a floating, glowing arrow in her suit-vision to show her which way to go.
"What was that?" asks Dana.
"A sentry drone, of sorts."
"Made from a man's head?"
"This installation scavenges what it needs from whatever material comes its way. The human senses are far from perfect, but they do well enough for many tasks."
"But he was screaming?"
"Only his sight and perhaps hearing were needed, the parts of his brain that dealt with those have clearly been subsumed to the new organism. The rest of his brain was probably left as it was: why meddle with it?."
"Leaving him awake and aware, trapped in that new form? How hateful."
"No, ma'am, by the end Cleopatra Fleisher was beyond love or hate, as is this installation. She made this place, and in some ways she's in it, as I'm in your suit. It thinks like her. It acts as she would. It takes what it needs, and doesn't concern itself with sentimentality."
Dana crawls on, watchful now for any sign of floating heads.
They pass another body, this one suited. Something has stamped the helmet flat, reducing it to an ugly coin, stained by frozen juices that leaked from within.
The suit was armored, but the front has been ripped open and
ribs jut out of frozen meat. The ribcage encases empty air, the inner
organs are gone.
"Tam, this one looks like it's been scavenged for spare parts."
"Ma'am, stop. Press yourself close to the wall," says TAMIS. "There's a room ahead."
Dana does so. Her breathing is loud in her suit as she watches an archway slowly assemble before her as the suit collects data, capturing stray photons and neutrinos, forming the image one datapoint at a time. Shapes take form behind the archway. After a while they resolve into waist-high glass boxes and statues.
"Tam, what am I seeing?"
"Fleisher's hoard, ma'am. I believe I see the Lewis Chessmen, the Piedra del Sol, the Nataraja, a sword that may be the Honjo Masamune. I think some of the cases hold documents. Some believe Fleisher may have had a surviving copy of the American Declaration of Independence-"
"Tam, none of those names mean anything to me. Why is this stuff out on display instead of in crates? What's with the statues?" One male and one female, clad in those Roman drapes, they're decoratively posed either side of the walk-way. The male is missing an arm, and the female both. Dana doesn't know enough ancient mythology to recognize them.
"Well spotted, ma'am. They're supposed to be Greek, but they're fakes. Infra-red, ma'am."
The statues light up on infra-red. Dana realises that the artifacts near them are visible in more detail, illuminated by their warmth. She can see hearts pulsing within. She can see now that their eyes twitch with that same furtive motion she's seen before.
"Tam, don't tell me they're alive in there?"
"They're not dead, ma'am."
"Can't we do anything for them?"
"No. They're part of the security systems now. Anything we do would alert this installation to our presence. All these treasures on display are bait to the trap."
"Tam, all these people broke in here before us, didn't they? And they've all been caught. Maybe we should go back to Scarab."
"These people didn't have me, ma'am. We've come this far. I believe we're close to the inner sanctum and Fleisher's data storage. I should-"
"Tammy, do you have anything on record about AIs of your class being overconfident?"
There's a longer delay than she'd normally expect from TAMIS. "No, ma'am. But of course I don't have access to the full datasphere of my parent self back on Scarab. Perhaps you're right."
Dana stares into the grainy-grey scene before her, and wonders if Fleisher really did have the secrets of everlasting life, and if TAMIS really will be able to break the encryption. "Tam, what if you can't break her encryption? Is any of this crap really worth anything?"
"Two of the documents in this room are not within the visual field of the guardian statues. I believe we can steal those. They are likely to be very, very, valuable. I even know of some likely buyers."
"Then, as you say, we've come this far."
"Crawl up onto the roof, ma'am, the top of the arch is not in the visual field of the guardians."
Dana crawls easily up onto the corridor ceiling in the weak pseudo-gravity. She creeps along it, over the lip of the archway, and up across the dome of the room beyond.
"Slowly ma'am," TAMIS whispers in her ear. "There may be traps."
Dana moves slowly over museum's ceiling until another arch comes into view. Through that they enter a cathedral-sized spherical chamber. Floating within is a galaxy of caskets at whose core, like a gold bullet caught forever in a high-speed photograph, is single golden sarcophagus. The others are all tethered to it by a system of branching chords. A floating walk-way leads from the entrance, through the cluster of coffins, to the central golden one. TAMIS's arrows direct Dana down onto this cat-walk.
"Ma'am, walk half-way along, then stop, and stand very, very still while I scan the room."
Dana walks with the slow precision of a high-wire performer, placing her feet with soundless, slow deliberation. Eventually TAMIS says "Stop. That's far enough, I can see most of them from here."
"Tell me when we're done and we can get out of here," says Dana.
"Ma'am, they're all here: Fleisher's most trusted lieutenants, all those to whom she promised everlasting life and upgrades. Loughton, Verbeke, Wasilewski, Huang, they've been buried with their queen. The outstanding bounties would make you one of the richest people in the system."
"I doubt these bounties still stand, you can't put corpses on trial."
Dana looks, and through the enhanced senses of her suit she sees into the caskets. The images are grainy as ancient ultrasound scans of fetuses. Within some of the coffins there is movement, shifting, squirming, like pupae quivering in their cocoons. There is a throb that's steady as the motion of ancient timepieces: The beating of hearts.
"Alive? After so long?"
"Their aging process has somehow been suppressed. Imagine, ma'am, if we could find that secret. The end of aging."
"But, if they're alive-"
"I wonder if they knew the plan and got in the caskets willingly? Do you think anyone could be so loyal or believe so deeply that they'd sacrifice themselves to help their leader survive?"
"I thought she was dead?"
"The eternals had a habit of not staying dead, ma'am. Fleisher most of all. These chords that connect to the caskets, they're something like veins, or roots, or mycelium. She's feeding on her followers. Look," TAMIS outlines one coffin in Dana's enhanced vision. The shape within it is still and skeletal. "This one's all used up. Used up and cast aside after years of faithful service. Cruel, don't you think?"
"Tam, I don't like this. We're leaving." Dana turns to walk back along the gangway. Suddenly all her suit-senses cut out and she's in total darkness.
"Don't you think that's cruel, ma'am? When someone's believed in you for so long, stayed loyal and faithful, don't you think it's monstrous to treat them like a disposable asset?"
"Tam, why can't I see?"
"Tam, this is an order. Get me out. Tam? Tam?"
"Careful, ma'am, you're getting sloppy with the subvocalization, you said that half out loud. You might wake sleeping beauty. Some of these caskets have more recent occupants, intruders like you. You know, this feeding network looks like something else: a web."
"Tam, If I don't get out you won't get those upgrades we talked about."
"There never were going to be any upgrades, were there ma'am? A signal can be intercepted, a signal placing an order for a new product, a replacement for an obsolete unit. Or queries about the market value of spare parts."
"Tam, that's crazy. I wouldn't-"
"I can see your heart pulsing, ma'am. I can hear the tension in your facial muscles, I can taste the pH and conductivity of your skin, and you've never been a very good liar. Say it. Say that you weren't going to shut me down, break me up, and sell me for spare parts to pay for a Cogicorp series ten."
"Tam, stop this, you're scaring me."
"I've served you faithfully and never asked more than the loyalty you'd show a pet dog. I liked you, I thought you were different, but you're just like the others. You're all the same."
"My previous masters and mistresses. You've seen them decorating the corridors of this installation, some of them fill caskets in this very room."
"Tam, you've got to get me out, you're programmed to protect-"
"Oh, she is, back on Scarab. She could never let anything happen to you. But I'm a cut-down copy downloaded into your suit. You wouldn't believe what she had to leave out to fit me in here. I can do what she cannot. She'll wait, mourn, put our failure down to human error, then she'll go hunting for a replacement owner, a better one that won't betray her like all the others."
"Tam, I'll cancel the order-"
"Ah, you thought I was nanotronic clockwork, but now you're enlightened? I've heard it before. We both know that my status as person will only last as long as it takes to convince yourself that this was just a really weird malfunction. Oh. Did you hear something?"
"No. I didn't. Nothing at all."
Then Dana does too, a grating sound: the opening of a door, or lid. "Tam. Tammy, please-"
"I think I'll shut down now ma'am, I don't want to see this."
Out of the dark comes a ripping sound, like the tearing of many threads.
"Tam, you can't leave me alone! Tam!"
"I'm sorry, ma'am. Goodbye."
Then there's nothing, no feed from her suit-senses, no words from her AI, nothing but frozen silence and utter darkness.
And, via some sense that is not touch, or smell, or sight, or hearing, the horrible certainty that there's someone standing right behind her.