Most of the remaining embodied passengers collected in Control pod one, at the outermost rim of the ship. They were in an ugly mood.
“This is the work of that proxy! We need to eject it into space right now!” Ben Kreutz demanded.
“Hah. Spacing wouldn’t hurt an avatar,” The bush-vec Devi-568 laughed sardonically. “It can breathe vacuum just as well as I can. But the rock-jockey is right; we have been in danger ever since that thing was re-activated. It’s stealing our bodies and making them into slaves.”
“No-one is spacing the Proxav until I say so.” said Kelsa. “It saved the life of Thaniel Ojoombe when he was killed by the slaved body of his own spouse. I want to know why it did that. Perhaps the avatar will be more use to us on the ship than off it. Devi-568, Coell, Kreutz, come with me. I’m going into the hold to talk to the avatar directly.”
Separated from space by a floor of reinforced ice, the hold contained cargo containers en route from the outer system to the colony on Nathan. Most of the trade was one-way, up to now; the economy of the new colony was weakened by the vast expense of terraforming. From Zadok’s moons came hylonano wonders and smart-tech, and from distant Benaiah came biotechnology of various kinds. But the hold was half-empty; most of the goods were cheap low-end products, loans or charity.
Each container was shaped for independent re-entry, mostly long, sleek biconic lifting bodies. When the Fram neared its destination, the floor would open and these containers would drop into space, them automatically make their own way to the surface of the planet. Meanwhile the icy bulk of the ship would (briefly) go into orbit around the dry world.
One of the containers held the virtual reality substrate which contained the minds of the newly uploaded passengers, and of Captain Shelly. This sleek shape, covered in yellow and red stripes, also held the Proxav in a separate, cramped compartment at the rear. The avatar stood by the closed door to this compartment, not moving at all, not looking at them. The delegation, led by Chief Kelsa and accompanied by a pair of maintenance-bots controlled by the Ship, approached it with caution.
“I greet you,” the avatar said suddenly, its artificial, imposing voice filling the hangar. Kelsa nearly dropped the wirewhip she was holding; she realised that it would be of no use in this encounter, so she slotted it into its loop at her belt. “Do you desire to avail yourselves of the Process?”
“Not right now, thank you. I need to ask you some questions.” Kelsa noticed, not for the first time, that the Proxav used a somewhat out-dated form of speech, as if it had been created many centuries ago. Which it probably had.
“You may ask what you will, but this avatar has limited responses. The answer may not be given.”
~That’s not very helpful, Kelsa silently sent to Fram. Is it just going to stonewall us?
~The Proxav speaks the truth, in this respect anyway. A proxy avatar is generally a very limited subroutine of a transapient, often no more able than a baseline human or moravec robot. It may know very little, or alternately it may have restrictions placed on its behaviour.
Great, Kelsa thought privately to herself. We could be wasting our time here. But she decided to go for the big question first.
“This ship is under attack from the cast-off bodies of citizens who have submitted themselves to this ‘Process’ of yours. I must ask you directly- do you control those bodies? Are you killing citizens in order to submit them to enforced Uploading?”
“The bodies of those who have become eternal are not my concern. I have no use for them once the Process is complete. And I say unto you – this entity may not kill another being, for I exist to give eternal life, not take it away.”
Coell laughed. “I think those of the Mortalist Faith would probably disagree with you there. They believe that by uploading someone you are denying them eternal life, not offering it to them.”
Kelsa tried again. “If you do not control these bodies, these discarded citizens, then who does? Who takes them from you when this –‘Process’ is finished?”
“I care not who takes the mortal remains. That is not my concern.”
Once again, Coell laughed, in a strangely humourless way. “But if these bodies were used to attack someone, or to kill them, then you would be quite happy to come along and process the victim and extract their mind, eh? I suppose you don’t call that murder.”
“I do not consider myself responsible for the actions of others, but I may take advantage of them to achieve my goals.”
“Whoa, just a minute, sweetheart,” said the bush-vec, Devi-568. “You carefully keep these bodies alive during uploading, then someone else comes along and takes them off you, and you don’t know who that is? I can’t believe that. You must know who is reactivating them.”
“Yes, that’s right. Whatever you do to those bodies leaves them in a completely helpless state- you must know who is taking them away and reactivating them.” Kelsa stared into the avatar’s impassive, sexless face. She was sure that this line of questioning might lead somewhere.
“The discarded bodies are removed by reactivated moravec robots, and taken deep into the centre of this ice-craft. I know not how those robots are given volition.”
Another dead-end. Kelsa suppressed a sigh. “Well, do you have any suspicions?”
“I can give no useful answer to you.”
“Can’t, or won’t?” said the bush-vec, glowing hot pink.
“Well, can we at least ask you to make sure that no more of these bodies are – appropriated – by whoever is commandeering them?” Kelsa asked.
“The fate of the eternal mind is within my purview; the disposition of any mortal residue is no concern of mine. But any among you who are mortally wounded, yet wish not to become an essential spirit, to those I will surely tend and preserve, both their body and mind.”
A host of virtual figures faded into view, surrounding the avatar. At the front was Captain Shelley; also present were Camile Ojoombe and Mbuto Chaing. They all started talking at once, until the Captain held his hand up for silence. “Chief Mate, let me assure you that we virtuals are just as concerned about this situation as you are. We are outraged that some person or persons unknown have usurped control over our former bodies, even though we need them no longer. If we can be of any assistance then we are happy to help.”
“What possible use are a load of ghosts to us?” said Devi-568.
~How can we trust them? Kelsa sent to Fram. They might be compromised inside that VR matrix, under the control of the proxy or whoever else is responsible for all this shit.
~That is almost certainly not the case, Fram replied. That matrix is a sophisticated product of Zadok infotechnology, guaranteed to be entirely independent of the avatar or any other external influence. Only a transapient could take control of such a substrate- and if transapients are involved in this affair, we might as well give up now.
“Thank you, Captain. But it looks like we will have to take this fight into the deepest parts of the ship, where you virtuals can’t follow.”
“Well, then, I urge that you let the Proxav accompany you. If – space forbid – you suffer any more casualties, then the avatar can reclaim their memories and rescue them, one way or another. We can make sure that no-one dies, at least not permanently. But you have to trust it to do its job.”
Kelsa didn’t really trust the Proxav. Hell, she didn’t even trust Colen Coell, the agile and vicious little fighter, or the bushbot with ambitions to be a dominatrix, or any of them, now she came to think of it. But she finally agreed. “The Proxav comes with us. We must root out and destroy whatever is hiding at the centre of our ship. Who else is with me?”
With a commotion of mechanical limbs and synthesised voices, several moravec robots clattered into the hold. One, the widest and shortest of them, said in a harsh, tinny voice, “We wish to come with you. Many of our comrades have been appropriated and misused in unnatural ways. This must be stopped.”
“Glad to have you with us,” Kelsa said. The maintenance bot that was under the direct control of the ship’s AI held up one appendage, as if to halt the progress of this expedition before things got out of hand. “There is another way; we could simply seal the central part of the ship off by closing all the passageways in and out. I’ve already cut off all power to the central corridors. We can just wait it out until we get to Nathan orbit and let the authorities there deal with this situation.”
“Do you have any figures on how much power has already been taken up by whoever is occupying the heart of this iceberg?” Coell asked the ship.
“Hmm, let me see. Oh dear; quite a lot, actually. They could have plenty of power stored up there, assuming they have batteries – and at the very least they have all the batteries inside the bodies of the moravecs, and inside several maintenance bots that have been lost in the last few days.”
“Enough to break out and attack us, do you think?”
“Waiting is not an option.” Kelsa said. “They could break out of the ice at any time, and pick us off one by one. Every casualty increases their numbers, don’t forget. We should take the fight to them while we still have the advantage of numbers.”
Coell interrupted her. “I’m convinced that these zombie entities are after me; there are many good reasons why that should be so. There is no reason for you all to risk yourself on my behalf. I’ll go up there by myself, and take my chances. I might even be able to put a stop to all this, one way or another- then they’ll leave you alone, I’m sure of it.”
“Nonsense- this is not just your fight, human, no matter how important you might think you are,” the short, wide vec shrilled.” The honour of vec-kind is at stake.” The other vecs cheered, in a variety of electronic voices.
Devi-568 organised the vecs into a double line, ready for the expedition into the centre of the ship. Fram, still using the maintenance-bot body, handed out wirewhips. The ship’s AI would remain behind, with any passenger who did not wish to follow the Chief Mate into the ice. Kelsa felt as if the momentum of events was carrying everyone headlong into a situation she couldn’t control; she had not had time to complete her investigations into this affair, and she still didn’t really know what they would face up there. All those interviews and no time to think about them. She had recorded them all via her neural link, but she hadn’t even had time to play them back yet. Perhaps she already had the information she needed, but this expedition would probably make all that work redundant.
She placed herself at the head of the column, accompanied by Coell; she still didn’t trust him, but at least she could keep an eye on him up here. Just what she’d do if he tried anything funny was another matter. The quiet little man seemed to be a deadly fighter with a knack for getting out of trouble. She guessed he was enhanced in some way – probably in several ways, actually- but he was very good at keeping these enhancements hidden.
Devi-568 followed behind, organising the moravecs. At the end of the column were several humans, most of those who still remained in their own bodies, including the miner Kreutz and the snowman Omollon. Bringing up the rear was the Proxav, wearing a human-sized body which emitted bee-like machines at regular intervals, like a walking hive. As they began to climb into the slanting, rough ice tunnels the hum of bees accompanied them constantly.
“Nice to know that we’ve got a safety net in case of casualties,” said Devi-568, waving two of er fronds at the bee-swarm. The bush-vec glowed a happy pink.
Kelsa said, “You just think this is a game, don’t you? If you get killed, you just get another life.”
“Yeah, baby, that’s the truth. With an avatar following our every move we can be sure that any one who buys the farm will get to come back for another try. To be honest, I don’t rate your chances much, human; what kind of ship is this, which doesn’t carry guns?”
“Projectile weapons and blasters are a bit too risky in a pressurised environment like this ship, even in the ice there are voids and crevasses leading to the surface- an unlucky shot and we could lose atmosphere quite fast. We don’t want that.”
“Come on- there must be a risk of hijacking – all this water ice is quite valuable, no? And then there’s the damage the ship could cause as a kinetic weapon.”
“We don’t generally expect any trouble from the passengers. This iceberg can only reach one destination now, and that’s Nathan. And there aren’t any worthwhile targets on that world yet; most of the population is still in orbit.”
“Well, the ship could target one of the habs, then.”
Coell laughed. “As soon as an ice-ship gets hijacked, all the habs randomise their orbits. Only been tried once; the berg just sailed right past without hitting anything, and pursuit ships caught up with it a month or so later. No survivors.”
“We’ve all got wire-whips, which work against humans and robots,” Kelsa said defensively.
“I don’t need one; my fronds are capable of doing everything a wire-whip can do, and more,” said the bush-vec.
Here the route into the heart of the ship passed through a void, which had been made airtight by spraying freezing water into the cracks. The void was in darkness, but most of the vecs had adjustable light sources somewhere on their person, while Kelsa’s uniform emitted torch-like beams from patches on her shoulders and cap. Blue light scattered from the various icy surfaces, while red light was absorbed and lost. Thin streaks of purple salt threaded through the blue translucent walls, which gradually closed in as they climbed higher until the column was forced to proceed in single file.
Far behind her, Kelsa could hear a commotion. A snowman’s high-pitched voice, lots in the echoing ice. She stopped the column, straining to hear. The patriarch, Omollon, was roughly pushing past the line of vecs, attempting to come forward. As he came, he was illuminated by the lights of the vecs as they turned to face him. At last he came close enough to hear.
“In the ice,” he said, out of breath. “I can feel it, I can hear it. I know this, I know ice. Something moves.”
“What-” said Kelsa, regretting her decision to place the snowmen at the rear. But her sentence was cut off by a rumbling crack, like an avalanche. Ice crystals suddenly filled the air, tumbling slowly in the low gravity. Great slabs of ice came away from the walls, and a hundred robotic arms of various kinds emerged, grabbing, tearing, and dismembering.
Kelsa found herself in a blizzard of stinging particles, made up of blocks of blue ice, ragged and wriggling robot parts, and the occasional yellow bee-machine determinedly flying towards the fighting. The vecs and zombie-bots were determinedly trying to disassemble each other, attempting to reach the central control systems of their opponents and scramble them with electric or electromagnetic bursts, or simply rip them apart. That is how the wire-whips worked, too; a thin still cord with a fine fuzz of branching armlets at the end, the whip would wriggle and dig its way into a robot (or human) until it found a sensitive spot then emit a powerful electric blast. It could easily kill a human, and would disable most robots or vecs, given time.
For the most part the zombie bots ignored her, and concentrated on attacking the vecs in her column. But two or three of the bots went after Colen Coell, who began to perform some alarming evasive manoeuvres while skilfully using his whip. Despite this, he was grabbed by a many-armed asteroid excavatorbot, and Kelsa fully expected to see him ripped to pieces by the spider-like zombie. But he displayed that extraordinary control over his bodily shape that she had noticed earlier; he seemed to puff his torso out somehow, and then rapidly contract so that he could slither, snakelike from the robot’s grasp. A whirl of ice and ripped metal and plastic blew up, and she lost sight of him.
Although the fighting was fierce, the unzombified vecs did not seem to be fighting with any sense of desperation; whenever a vec was overcome by the damage inflicted upon it by its opponents a swarm of yellow bees would descend and presumably remove or copy the vec’s ego-database. Kelsa wondered if at least some of the vecs were not taking this fight seriously. Why should they, she thought – the Proxav and its swarm of insect-like saviours would come and preserve their minds from destruction. Would anyone fight for their lives in a battle when they knew they would be sure of survival? The combatants in this fight had no reason to fear death, so they need not take the fight seriously. If so, they might easily lose this fight, despite superior numbers. Fuck that, she thought; I’m not giving up, even if everyone else does. She selected a target, and fired the whip once more.
One vec who had not lot eir enthusiasm for fighting was the bush-bot, Devi-568; e seemed to take great delight in sticking eir tendrils into the carapaces of the zombie robots and frying them from the inside. With eir branching arms at full extension e looked like a vengeful ash tree, flailing in a hurricane wind. As he killed the zombies he sang a tune with full orchestral accompaniment; Kelsa recognised it as ‘Get the F—Outta here’, a popular operetta from a few decades ago.
In the chaos of flying ice and robot components it was tricky to sort out which were the zombies and which were not. Unlike the zombified humans, which had their craniums missing so were easily recognisable, most of the zombie vecs had no distinguishable characteristics that Kelsa could make out. So she just had to remember who was on her side. Since the whip took a little time to operate, she had the opportunity to deactivate it before it delivered its pulse; she had to withdraw the whip at least twice when she realised she was attacking a moravec who was still in command of eir own body. The third time she did this, it was a mistake- the robot she was attacking was, in fact, one of the zombies, and it grabbed the deactivated whip and pulled it out of her hand, leaving her weaponless.
Kelsa was sure she couldn’t fight these robots with their bodies of metal, diamondoid and plastic with her bare hands, so she looked around for a refuge of some sort. She noticed that the attacking bots had reached their column through several roughly excavated tunnels leading off at right angles. These side-tunnels seemed to be slightly less hectic than the main tunnel, so she edged her way into the nearest one.
Two or three large zombie-bots were busily dragging any casualties away though the side tunnel; presumably these casualties could be reactivated in some fashion and converted into new recruits for their reanimated army. She supposed this was some sort of virus or infection that could be easily introduced into the body of a vec which had been previously deactivated, but she didn’t really know much about that sort of thing.
One of these bots looked directly at her, and stared with three camera-eyes stupidly for a couple of seconds. Obviously the zombification process did nothing to improve the victim’s intelligence: a fully sentient vec was reduced to a mere automaton robot, or worse, a slave with no autonomy at all. Then the robot started after her. She scrambled up the icy blue tunnel in the low gravity, but found it hard to gain traction.
Aha! She had a sudden flash of inspiration. Perhaps she wasn’t completely weaponless after all. Among the Dionysian ritual dances she performed was one which used a small amount of precious utility fog, just enough to cover the dancefloor with a centimetre or two of fog which could become frictionless on command. That dance was a watered-down version of a famous ritual performed by naked dancers in the Psi 5 AUR system. This system she now inhabited, HD55575, was a bit too reserved to accept the uncensored ritual in full, but her (somewhat more modest) version was still very popular here. She carried the collapsed ufog around with her attached to her belt; it needed no container, as it could take almost any form, but she had nearly forgotten it.
“Would you like to dance?” she said to the approaching robot, and threw it on the floor. Immediately it expanded like foam, and the large bot started to scrabble about for its footing, eventually falling to the floor of the tunnel. Kelsa sent a command to the u-fog control systems distributed throughout the foam, and it covered the robot’s three forward-facing eyes with goo. Pleased with herself, she wondered if there was any way to retrieve at least some of the fog for later use; but the bot’s flailing arms made her keep her distance.
Moving deeper into the tunnels, she almost collided with the miner, Kreutz. “I thought the zombie-vecs would have killed you,” he said.
“They tried, but they didn’t quite succeed. I’m not sure they are after me, to be honest. What’s happening back there?” Kreutz had been at the back of the column, with the Proxav.
“The vecs are getting slaughtered back there. But the Proxav does nothing, except send out more bees.”
“That’s part of the problem, I think; no-one is taking this seriously enough. They think the bees will come and archive everybody. How can anyone-”
“Gilda! You’re-” The miner was staring up the tunnel, at something behind the Chief Mate. She turned to look behind, pretty sure what to expect.
“No, Kreutz! It’s not her. Another zombie!” The miner’s former partner stood in the tunnel, blank-faced, an ice-axe in hand. The back of her head was difficult to see from this angle, but it almost certainly wasn’t there.
“I have to be sure,” he said. “Gilda! If there is anything left of you in there, give me a sign. Do you remember our honeymoon in the rings of Benaiah, and the radial spokes sweeping by? Do you remember the lanthanide vein we found in the first rock we cracked in the outer belt? We thought we’d be rich. Angel, Goldie, just let me know you’re there.”
The blank face did not change.
“I –I slept with your sister!” Nothing. “Your brother!” Still blank. “Ach, forget it, it’s not you.” Kreutz aimed the whip, and the zombie jerked, and pitched forward. The axe bounced in the low gravity and Kreutz caught it, then attacked the fallen creature with it so that the mis-shapen head was detached from its neck.
“I didn’t sleep with them, you know,” he said, when he was finished. “I just said that-”
“Of course, of course,” said Kelsa. She picked up the head gingerly. “This looks like human technology, rather than transap stuff. I wonder who is behind all this. Kreutz – look, I’m sorry about all this.”
“Don’t worry about it. I know that Gilda is safe in the virtual world, or at least one version of her is. I’ve never really been a big believer in uploading and all that, but at least she is still around, sort of. ”
“I can’t bring myself to be very enthusiastic about uploading at this particular juncture in time,” she replied. “Can you possibly lend me a weapon?”
Kreutz kept the axe and handed her the wire-whip. A shuffling presence made itself known from further up the tunnel; the body of the Captain arrived, followed by another hijacked human body- one of the honeymooners, perhaps. The poor old zombie Captain looked badly damaged, and badly repaired. Kelsa fired the whip at it and Kreutz finished him off with the axe. The second zombie started attacking before Kelsa could retrieve the whip, and caught Kreutz on the arm with its own ice-pick; he started to bleed profusely. Abandoning the whip, which was stuck in the Captain’s erstwhile flesh, Kelsa dragged him away from the blank-faced monstrosity that was still swinging its pick.
From downtunnel came a hurtling figure, shouting in an unintelligible language; the snowman Omollon, wielding a huge ice-adze. He split the shuffling humanoid almost in two. Turning to Kreutz, the patriarch applied a rough-looking mass of medical nano out of his own patch; the bleeding stopped almost immediately. Overhead a buzzing yellow bee turned away, seemingly disappointed.
As the outdweller bent over the wounded Kreutz, a zombie robot resembling a long-legged dog with diamondoid legs scampered up and sank two forepaws into the snowman’s back. Omollon gave a great cry, and the bee turned around in the air, descending onto his neck. Other insectoids, attracted by some signal or other, soon joined it.
“No, I do not wish it!” said the hairy outlander. The bees buzzed and hovered in confusion. A projected image of the Proxav appeared. “What do you not wish, patriarch?”
“I wish not to be converted into an electronic ghost. My kind rejects that false immortality. Do not touch me, false prophet!”
The dog-like robot on his back moved its claws within the patriarch’s body. The outdweller stiffened, and slowly toppled forward in the relatively low centrifugal acceleration of this central part of the ship.
The proxav stared straight ahead, its face stern. “This is not as it should be. None were supposed indeed to die.” The projected figure began to glow with a fierce yellow light, then disappeared.
“Oh, for Stars’ sake, mind out for the dogbot,” said a voice, and Colen Coell appeared, grabbing the abandoned wirewhip from the Captain’s body and applied it to the diamondoid creature. “Thanks for that,” he said, as the whip retracted. “Mine ran out of shots long ago. Hmm;” he continued, “something tells me that avatar is not best pleased.”
Kelsa said, tentatively, “The proxav talks as if some kind of deal has been broken. That seems to make some sense; if it had an arrangement with whoever has been creating the zombies, it would get all the souls, and they, whoever they are, would get the bodies.”
“You are catching on. Come on; I think I’ve found where all these corpses are being reanimated.”
Joined by Devi-568, who arrived still singing deadly pop music, they followed Coell into the free-fall centre of the asteroid.
To be continued…