Before the Process took the others away, there had been four honeymooners on this slow ship. They were all married to each other in a collective contract, an arrangement which was quite common in this system with its relatively rapid population growth. But now that three of the partners were infomorphs, any chance of a fecund relationship seemed quite remote to Kelsa.
As she prepared to interview the last physically remaining partner, she recalled what little she already knew about this group. They had participated in a Dionysian ritual at which Kelsa had officiated, a mildly erotic ceremony which many passengers on the Fram had enjoyed over the years. But this one, Thaniel Ojoombe his name was, was more interested in her than in bonding with his spouses. Perhaps that was why they had all left him behind; he wasn’t really ready for such a commitment.
Inside their quite spacious ice-carved cabin, Kelsa was surprised to find all four partners present. The taller woman, Camile, welcomed her. “Chief Mate, do join us. We’ve been wondering about you often.” The other two virtual humans, almost completely opaque, smirked. But Kelsa didn’t want to play games with the infomorphs, at least not right now.
“My Captain will speak to you all in due course. He can communicate with you much faster than I, or so he tells me. But in the meantime I’d like to speak to Thaniel, alone, if I may.”
“See, Than, I told you, you’ve pulled,” said the male virtual, a thick-set fellow named Joh. But Camile said. “I think that virtuals make the Chief uneasy. We had better leave them to it.” With that the three infomorphs disappeared.
Thaniel had been sitting in a corner, somewhat apart from the others. Kelsa thought he looked a little persecuted. Or perhaps he was putting on a show. Uploaded persons have fewer property rights than embodied people in certain jurisdictions, particularly on Nathan; he might have somehow arranged for this avatar to become activated on board this ship, to get rid of his marriage partners for his own personal gain.
“Tell me, Thaniel, do you have any connection with the activation of the Proxy Avatar machine?”
“Why do you think it has anything to do with me? It’s a piece of crap that’s taken away my three best friends and lovers. Oh, sure, they are still around, all the time- you can’t get rid of them. But they are not the same; I’m cut out, all the time, now, not fast enough, not adaptable enough.”
“So you are not a fan of the uploading process, then.” Kelsa wanted to say how much she agreed with him, but that might spoil the interview. Damn, she thought; if only she knew more about investigative techniques she might get somewhere. But she was basically just groping around in the dark.
“No way. My blessed wives and husband think being virtual is wonderful, but I’m in no hurry to join them. I am actually quite fond of this body, and the pleasures, and pains, it can bring me.” The word ‘pains’ was emphasised in an odd manner, and he looked Kelsa straight in the eyes. She considered the implications of what he was suggesting, and mentally recoiled a little. What did she know about this guy? Only that he had made eyes at her during a Dionysian ceremony, and that he wore low-grav grippy boots despite being obviously a Nathanite.
“You’re not from Zadok V, are you?”
“No, we all come from Nathan, but we met up on Benaiah II,” Kelsa knew it well; the richest moon in the outer system. “That’s where we got married, and we’ve been on honeymoon ever since. But the honeymoon period is all over, I guess.”
“And on this honeymoon did you go to Zadok V?”
“No, not yet. Suppose we’ve missed our chance, now. We came aboard after this ship left V orbit. Haven’t you got all this in your records?” Thaniel said impatiently.
Kelsa supposed she had. She’d check this all out afterwards- but next time she’d do her research first.
“So there’s no way you could have been involved with this proxy avatar machine before coming on the Fram.”
“I already told you that. Look; I’ve considered copying myself before; that’s a completely different barrel of volatiles. All you do is get an injection of nanites, which just copy you without destroying anything.” It was more complicated than that, Kelsa knew. The nanomachines used in nondestructive copying were the end product of thousands of years of development, but some people (like herself) still didn’t trust them to make a perfect copy.
“In some systems,” Thaniel continued,” people have been using the copy as a backup, in case of accidents, or so I’m told. I guess that’ll come here, eventually. I might even try it. But destructive uploading; forget it.”
“I’m not keen on either process, myself. Well, thank you for your time, Thaniel. I’m sorry to bother you, but I need to know what is going on in this ship.”
“Oh, don’t worry; I can always make time to talk to you, Chief Mate.” The ambiguous tone had crept back into his voice. Outside the honeymoon suite, Kelsa noticed that she had two calls waiting. She mentally patched in to the first, using her direct neural link.
~I’ve interviewed the other three honeymooners, said Captain Shelley.
~That was quick work.
~Well, we virtuals can work a bit quicker than humans, sometimes. Anyhow. They reckon that this Thaniel character was about to leave the quartet pretty soon anyway; he had a roving eye.
~They say he’s taken up with a bushvec recently. One of the few still embodied.
~Really? I didn’t mark him down as a robosexual.
~He’s not really; more of a masochist.
~I see. Well, I’d better have a word with this bushvec then.
~Name’s Devi-568, you’ll find er in the Vec mess room.
The second call was from the ship’s computer.
~Chief mate, you should know that I sent a couple of maintenance ‘bots into the deep heart of the ice caves, but they have both ceased to function. I doubt that this is a coincidence.
~Thank you, Fram. Keep trying.
~I intend to. I’ve laid down a few more surveillance cams in the tunnels up there but someone keeps disabling them.
~Or something. Look; I’m at the Vec messroom now, I’ll call you back.
The Vec messroom was a place for robots and vecs of all kinds to recharge, take in nutrients and replace macroscale components, and to rest in various stages of inactivity. It wasn’t a particularly big room; most vecs have minimal requirements for personal space. Usually it was jam-packed full – but now, about half the mechanical persons who generally filled this space were absent, mostly converted into virtual form.
Kelsa called out “Vec by the name of Devi-568, are you here?” A bright blue bushvec resembling a florescent sea-anemone extricated erself from a mass of closely packed robots.
“That’s me. Hello! You’re the Chief Mate, aren’t you? Thought so. On a ship with only two human crew-members, it’s not that difficult to remember who’s who.”
“That’s right. I’d like to ask you a few questions, please. The reactivation of the proxy avatar machine has resulted in a large proportion of our passengers, of all clades, undergoing a process of destructive uploading. I’m trying to find out how the machine became reactivated.”
“No knowledge, Chief; sorry and all that. Nothing to do with me.”
“One thing that puzzles me is why a vec would want to be uploaded destructively in the first place, and why you, in particular, haven’t done it.” She led the vec out of the messroom, trying to get out of range of the various senses possessed by the other mechanical persons in that space. “Do you have any connection with the reactivation of the Proxy?”
“Ooh, am I a suspect? How droll. Well, I’d better answer your questions correctly, then. Firstly, why would a vec want to be uploaded destructively? Well, you should realise our processors are each carefully tailored to operate any particular bodyshape we might be installed inside. If we want to drastically change our functioning or capabilities we have to get an upgrade – this might mean extensive physical modification of our entire physical form, and it can get costly. When you are an infomorph you can get a completely new dataform and expand your functioning much more cheaply and easily. It’s upgrading made simple, basically. And then you get the vec who has got an old, or damaged, or badly maintained body, who just wants to get rid of eir old shell. Destructive uploading is no problem to a vec who wants to get out of er old shell. Then again it’s relatively easy to re-shell back into a new body; you just have to find a sponsor in the real world who wants your skill-set, and of course you can quickly expand that skillset during the time you are in virch.” The vec spoke quite rapidly, without hesitation, and, of course, without drawing breath. Most vecs were like this, in Kelsa’s experience.
“But that doesn’t appeal to you, then.”
“Not at the moment, no. I’ve discovered a new hobby. Sex with humans. It’s a fascinating field of study. With these ten thousand fingers-” the vec flexed and wriggled its branching fronds, “- I can drive a man insane. Or a woman for that matter. Perhaps you, a Dionysian, might be interested in that.”
“My, you are a flirtatious little bushvec, aren’t you? No, I have far more pressing matters that concern me at the moment. You’ve helped me understand the situation a lot more clearly, thanks. But I still have no idea who may have reactivated the avatar machine. Have you heard any rumours yourself?”
“Not about the machine, no. But the bots are chattering to each other about something that lives deep in the ice, that wants us all out of the way so it can take over the ship. Bots have been vanishing, you know.”
“Just tell them that the ‘bots are malfunctioning; we don’t quite know the cause yet.”
“So it’s true. Ha. Well, something’s going on; I wish I knew what. Look, I know these ships only have a skeleton crew these days. I just want you to know that whatever it is, you can count on my help. If you can trust a flirtatious bushvec, of course.”
The insulated tunnels stretched a hundred metres into the ice, then became simple icy tubes, with no hi-tech layer to keep out the cold. The ice tubes were separated from the rest of the ship by a bulkhead door; past the door it was cold, and lit only by occasional battery-powered lamps. Just inside the bulkhead was a suite of insulated, ice-carved rooms occupied by a small family of outer system tweaks, the kind that most people avoided. It was cold up here, despite the insulation and the bulkhead door, which was closed, but not locked.
A tweak male let Kelsa in to their spartan suite of rooms. He was covered in long, coarse, tawny hair, with a tuft on top of his head and a permanently surprised expression. The name that these people had for themselves was ‘A Caxa’, or ‘The Out-dwellers’. But most people called them Yetis. Or Snowmen. Sometimes worse names were used.
“So, you came at last,” the Out-dweller said. “I have been waiting to talk to you.” His voice was strangely accented, ands high-pitched.
“I’m sorry- did you try to contact me earlier?”
“I messaged your Captain. Did he not tell you?”
“It probably slipped his mind. He’s… not quite himself, these days.”
“Aha. Has that monstrous machine converted him, too? As I said in my message, that device is dangerous, and you should heave it overboard. Or at least bury it deep in the ice where it can’t influence the minds of those who remain in their own bodies.”
The rest of the Out-dweller family, at least six of them of various ages and sizes but all with the same expression of hairy surprise, waited for them in the main chamber of their suite. They had evidently carved these rooms themselves, and lined them with their own traditional materials. Kelsa glimpsed at the passenger list once again using her neural link; the patriarch went by the name of Omollon. She hoped she could say it correctly.
“I can’t do that, not without evidence of wrongdoing; besides the Captain is running on the Avatar’s computronium substrate, so I’d have to get rid of him at the same time as I disposed of the machine. But why do you think it is so bad?”
“The device is evil. By converting living minds into electronic ghosts it is not giving them eternal life, but instead it is denting it to them, ” The hairy man’s face did not change its expression noticeably, but his speech became more intense. “It talks of souls, but only by dying can a soul gain true eternal life.”
“I see. You have a religious view on the matter.” Outside the suite, the bulkhead door slammed shut. That wasn’t particularly surprising; the door was always opening and closing. There were other sounds out there too, maybe someone arguing. Well, they will have to wait. She focused on the hairy tweak once more.
“All my kin are Mortalists. We do not chase the false immortality of electronic resurrection or eternal life extension. You must know that every thing built by human or by machine will some day fail and be destroyed. The stars do not last forever, neither do the galaxies. Even if this machine could prolong your life into the last days of the universe, one day there would be no more energy or material to exploit, and you would finally die, cold and alone at the end of all things.”
“So you believe in an eternal afterlife, but you have to die first, is that the case?” She was already quite convinced that these snowmen had nothing to do with the reactivation of the device.
“Many religions hold this to be true. But we Mortalists believe that the deadliest sin of all is trying to obtain eternal life in this world; by uploading or copying your mind, you lose your only true chance of salvation.”
Now the sounds outside became very loud; ice was being ripped from the walls and thrown around like gravel; then the bulkhead itself made a creaking, complaining noise as if it were being forced aside. Kelsa shouted ‘Stay here!” and ran to the door of the suite. Through the door she could hear something being dragged away.
~ Fram! What’s happening out there?
~ The bulkhead door has been ripped from its housing. I don’t have visual data at the moment, because of the bloodspray -
~ Bloodspray? What’s happened? – whose blood?
~ Incredible to relate, but it is the blood of our Captain.
“What?” Kelsa said aloud. Then; ~ You’ll have to show me, Fram. Play me the cam recordings.
The ship’s computer piped the file across to her neural link, and in her mind’s eye she watched the events of a few minutes before. The bulkhead door opened, and a figure entered, moving with a strange, stiff gait. It quickly moved out of sight, perhaps hiding.
~Play that again, please, and magnify the face.
The file played again, and she could clearly see that the unknown person had the face of Captain Shelley. But only the face- when the figure turned, she could clearly see that there was no skull behind – the face was like a mask, with only a flat surface to back it up. It looked unreal, uncanny, bizarre. Then the figure was gone.
~By the stars! What was that?
~ I’m not sure, but watch what happens next.
The door opened again, and another smaller figure came through, from the cold tunnels that led into the ice. Kelsa vaguely recognised it as one of the passengers, one she had never spoken to and knew little about. ~ That’s – erm – I can’t quite remember his name-
~ His name is Colen Coell, and I must admit, I know almost nothing about him, either. Which in itself is intriguing. Watch.
The mask-Captain lunged at Coell out of the shadows, a heavy ice-pick in his hands, a blow that should have killed the smaller man. But Coell moved with startling speed, twisting himself around while disarming the strange skull-less being. Somehow the smaller man seemed to dislocate his own limbs while performing this action, then pop them back into place at a completely different angle. The ice-pick flashed- then a spray of blood covered the camera.
~That’s all I’ve got. While the camera was unavailable something broke down the bulkhead from the other side and dragged a body off into the ice tunnels. I know that Coell was not the body concerned, as I’ve spotted him entering his quarters less than a minute ago.
“I’m going to have to have a word with this Coell,” Kelsa said aloud, hoping she could sound braver by speaking aloud than by communicating with her neural link. Sometimes unwanted mental undertones could creep into direct neural conversations. The ship AI said “Don’t worry, I’ll send a maintenance-bot into his rooms under my direct control. If he tries anything-”
“Fram; I want to go in there myself. You can send your robot in with me if you like, but I want to talk to this fella, so see what he knows. Just try to watch my back.”
The maintenance-bot was a cluster of dexterous arms and eyes, constantly scanning the room as they entered. It handed her a wire-whip; the only weapons on board, designed to incapacitate rather than kill. Through their direct link Fram assured Kelsa that Coell had not left his suite; this was the only door, and the AI had been watching it constantly.
Inside the wall-lights had been disabled and the suite was in darkness. The ‘bot emitted wide beams of light, illuminating the room with shifting shadows. Kelsa looked in every corner of the room, which was almost completely empty; this Coell had very few personal possessions, or so it seemed. The adjoining bunkroom and headroom were both empty as well. “Coell! Come out- I need to speak to you!” she called, to no avail.
~Kelsa, do not react, please. Fram spoke to her silently, whispering in her head.
~What have you seen? She could not prevent an undertone of sudden fear from creeping into her mental voice.
~Our quarry is on the ceiling. Quite how he is suspended there, I do not know. Move backwards three paces and look upwards.
She did so, and the ‘bot threw a beam of light upwards. An inconspicuous shape on the ceiling was thrown into relief by the beam. “Ah, Zar Coell; won’t you join us.” She brandished the whip.
“If I wanted to escape, you would not be able to stop me,” he said, and nimbly dropped to the floor. Once again his arms seemed to pop back into place, and he looked completely ordinary. Kelsa realised that he was in fact extraordinarily unremarkable in appearance, which was probably important, though she didn’t quite know how.
“Something very strange happened just now, and I need you to tell me about it. You were attacked by – something – something resembling the Captain of this ship, and you either damaged or killed it. Then something else busted down one of the bulkheads, and removed the body. What in all of space happened up there, and why were they after you?”
“I should not tell you anything. People who know too much about me tend to come to an unfortunate end.”
“But you will tell me. The passengers on this ship are slowly disappearing into cyberspace, and there are some very strange things wandering about in the ice. What do you know, Zar Coell?”
“I know this; whatever or whoever is in the ice is after one thing, and I am that thing. But it has not got me yet. If you want to keep control of your ship you are going to have to work with me, even if you cannot trust me.”
“How can we work with someone we can’t trust?” Kelsa waved the whip at the short, innocuous-looking man. With very little movement the whip suddenly appeared in his hand.
“Because I’m your best bet. Do you like to gamble?” He handed the whip back, smiling.
The Fram had six tunnels leading from the surface pods into the ice; after recent events the ship AI had closed and locked the five remaining bulkhead doors, and sent a squad of heavy duty maintenance bots to repair the sixth. But before these bots arrived on site they encountered several passengers fleeing the scene in some distress. These robots were simple beings, and they had some difficulty assessing the situation immediately; before they could decide on a course of action they were attacked by whatever had caused the panic. The ship’s AI managed to get a few images of the attackers before the bots were put out of action.
In Coell’s bare apartment, Kelsa stared at the whip, which could easily have been used by this strange little man to overcome her and to disable her robot companion. “You are going to have to tell me who you are,” she said.
“No, I’m not. But just think of me as a soldier of fortune.”
“Some kind of mercenary, eh? Well, don’t think we haven’t had your kind on this ship before.”
“You’ve never had one like me, I’d wager. But-”
The genderless voice of the Ship suddenly sounded in her head, cutting directly into her conversation with no polite chime or visual call-alert . ~ Chief Mate, this is an emergency. Corridor A is under attack. I’ve lost a number of maintenance bots, and the passengers are in panic.
“Attack? Who – ? What?” then she remembered herself, and switched to silent mode. ~ Okay. Tell me what’s happening, Fram. Is it the thing that ripped the door off its hinges?
~I believe so, Chief. I’ve got a clear picture of it now. It’s that big krekvec that was uploaded a few days ago. The old shell seems to have been hijacked somehow. It’s faster and stronger than any of my mech remotes, and it is leaving a trail of destruction behind it. There are other attackers, too, but I can’t see them too clearly. And they are coming your way.
“An attack, is it? Coming from the ice tunnels, I’ll be bound. I told you – they are coming for me. I’m not a very popular chap in certain quarters.” The short man was grinning widely. “But together we can stop them dead, I promise you that. Are you with me, or do you want to lose the rest of your passengers?”
“Why don’t I just let them get you, if they want you so bad.”
“Do what you like. It just makes it harder for me. But be quick- they are in the corridor outside, now.”
A tumult of raised voices and running footsteps from without confirmed his statement. Kelsa rushed to the door, opening it with some trepidation; outside were several passengers, some running away, others peering up the corridor towards the bulkhead. She recognised two of the snowmen, and Thaniel the last remaining honeymooner. Fast approaching was the large krekvec, and four or five human figures wielding axes. The humans all had stiff, motionless expressions, and whenever they turned their heads Kelsa could see that they each had no skull behind their mask-like face.
Coell leaped over Kelsa’s head, ricocheting off the ceiling in the relatively low gravity. He launched himself at the axe-wielding mask-people, but the great krekvec shot out an arm, and grabbed his leg as he flew by. The small, lithe figure wriggled in a strangely inhuman way, and was suddenly free, scrabbling across the floor back towards Kelsa. She noticed, fascinated, that all the mask-people were watching him intently, and they all took a step forward as one. The vec reached down to grasp him again.
“Using the whip might be a good idea,” said Coell shortly. Slowly, as if in a dream, she brought the weapon up to aim; twin cords of doped carbon fibre snaked across the air to hit the vec, and the burrowing tip found the most sensitive parts of the robotic body. Almost instantly a charge shot into the vec’s body, and it toppled onto the space where Coell had just recently been laying.
He landed next to her, facing danger, ready for action. “Well done. Now let’s see what we can do with these cheerful chappies.” He leapt forward once more, snatching an icepick from the closest attacker, and laid into the others with it. Blood flew in arcing sprays.
The wire-whip only had two more shots left- the crew of the Fram were only prepared for a bit of drunken misbehaviour, not a full-scale battle. When it was exhausted, Kelsa wrested a pick from the grasp of one of the fallen mask-people, and buried it in the back of one of those still standing. To her surprise, it staggered, and turned to face her. She backed away, as it advanced towards her bleeding profusely. Eventually it fell to its knees, mask-like face tipping forwards so he could see the smooth surface behind. Gathering her courage, she placed her boot on the top of the mask, pressing the creature down until she could retrieve her pick. Another blow and it stopped moving almost completely.
“You are a born fighter, Chief Mate,” called Coell, who was leaping around among the creatures, quite drenched in blood. Most of his opponents were on their knees, or on the floor. “Nimble, too, for a spacehound.”
“I- er – I do try to keep in shape,” she faltered. “A bit of dancing, this and that, you know.”
“Oh, of course, you are a Lilith- you have to learn all those ritual dances. Fascinating religion, and so sexy.”
“We don’t learn how to kill, that’s for sure.”
“This- aggh!- isn’t killing. These things are already dead. Their spirits have all been uploaded, remember? Think of them – unnh! – as zombies.”
All the while, the maintenance-bot controlled by the Ship’s AI was methodically pounding away at the creatures. Despite the superior numbers of their opponents, this bot and Coell seemed to have the upper hand. Unnoticed, one of the mask-people wandered away from the fight and was advancing slowly towards Thaniel, who had been watching with fascinated horror. Kelsa recognised the body as belonging to one of Thaniel’s wives.
“Camile? Is that you? What have they done to you?” The advancing creature stopped, somehow seeming to recognise her former husband; but then quickly swinging the axe in her hand, slicing into Thaniel’s upper torso. He staggered back, and fell into a bloody heap.
Coell bounced off the ceiling and struck the mask-woman with his pick, smashing it to the floor with the force of the impact. It did not rise again.
Kelsa dropped her pick and turned her attention to Thaniel. He was gasping something, but she couldn’t make out what it was. He sounded surprised, rather than in pain. Losing blood rapidly, he slipped into unconsciousness. As Coell finished off the last of the attackers, Kelsa cradled the injured man.
A thin hum sounded from down the corridor. Like a wisp of golden smoke, a swarm of artificial bees approached and settled on Thaniel’s head. She tried to bat them away, but Coell said “Wait! Let’s see what they do.”
Presently a transparent projection appeared in the air above the wounded man, an image of Thaniel himself. “Hello, what’s occurring?” said the projection.
Another figure appeared, also evidently projected by the bees themselves. The image of the Proxav stood impassively before them, luminous yellow and semi-transparent. “You are dying. I may save you, but you must choose now. Do you wish to become eternal, like your wives and husband?”
“Do I really have a choice?” The projection of Thaniel looked around, spreading his arms in helplessness.
“You do, Thaniel. My swarm can preserve your mind until appropriate medical help can be obtained. This may be some while; you will sleep until then. Choose now. If you choose the eternal path, you can be united with your spouses straight away.”
“Sorry, pal. I’m not in a hurry to get back with them at the moment. Could you put me on ice till they get me to a meditech, if you don’t mind?”
“In this, you have a free choice. So be it.” The two transparent figures disappeared, and the man on the floor went limp, still breathing.
Kelsa called Fram on her neural link. ~ Better prepare a meditech unit; we’ve got a casualty. Oh and by the way, I think I might have misjudged that proxy.
To be continued…
More about the author, Steve Bowers, here.