Naked, I woke up and contemplated the rising velvet dawn. The open window of my quarters allowed a small breeze to ruffle the sheets. I stretched my back, spreading the soreness in my muscles outwards. I always felt like I was living someone else’s life whenever I awakened here, as if I had taken their place and their identity. Perhaps a normal woman like that lived and breathed the same air in an alternate universe. I got off the bed. I needed to wash up. My legs stiffened as I walked to the shower. Setting it to liquid mode, I let the rivulets of cold water flow down my skin.
After drying up, I sat back on the bed and studied the sleeping man beside me. Like me, he was naked. What would it be like to live his life? I wondered. My eyes scanned his body. Dark, curly hair covered the top of his head. His lean, muscled back reflected the extensive gene modification so necessary for his job. A thin layer of body fat covered his midsection, something I requested to prevent the experience from being too rough. On the whole, this purchase pleased me. A perfectly adequate performance from a perfectly adequate companion.
He bolted up with a wild look on his face. When he saw me, he pulled the covers to his chest. I almost chuckled. Modesty seemed to be part of the human DNA.
“What time is it?” he asked.
“It’s only dawn.”
He jumped out of the bed and ran towards his clothes on a nearby chair. He almost tripped as he put on his pants in a haphazard fashion.
I felt a tinge of disappointment. “Won’t you stay a while longer?” I asked.
“Can’t. I’ve got a bunch of clients to meet today,” he said while buttoning his shirt.
“I can pay more.”
He paused and looked back at me. A sigh escaped his lips. “Look, lady. You paid for a quickie, and then changed your mind in the middle of it. I only accepted because you agreed to pay double.” He slipped on his chronometer and peered at it. “Thanks for that and everything, but I’ve got to go. If you want me again, see my manager.” He grunted as he put on his shoes.
I let him go. The doors to my quarters closed with a hiss as he left. The morning light came in brighter and I ordered the room to close the windows. My right hand rubbed a collar bone. Unbidden thoughts came to me. What was I doing? Why had they left me with this desire? I could not answer those questions. A black mood descended on me. The bed creaked as I laid my back on the headboard.
“It’s kind of romantic. All that poetry, right before they rush to their deaths.”
“I know, right? I heard that back in the old days, the soldiers even saw each other before rushing at each other!”
“If only our own people could do something so creative!”
“I wish I was able to see that fleet. My brother-in-law said they passed through the star sector where he worked.”
The two young women sat across from me, sipping their caffeinated beverages, discussing the latest developments of what the media termed the ‘Batu Pursuit’. Yes, it was a nice little drama, and since no one had been killed, it provided a source of entertainment. My peripheral vision took the measure of the two speakers. One of the women had four arms. Two hands held her drink and the other two rummaged through her numerous shopping bags. Out of one, she pulled out a synth cigarette. I watched it slowly self-ignite as the woman’s friend chattered about smouldering Kenzenken men. I tuned out their conversation. The scent of sharp perfume wafted in the air. People, modified and unmodified, walked by me without a glance.
A small ellipsoid drone approached them, asking them in its servile manner if they needed anything else. Sensing the opportunity for a bit of fun, the four-armed woman asked for its opinion.
“Waiter, what do you think of this Kenzenken invasion?”
The drone emitted bleeps and whirs as it collated information and generated predictions. “In the latest instant poll, around 50% of Republic citizens reported no opinion, 40% consider it a threat, and 10% welcome it.”
The woman giggled. “That’s not what we want. We want to know what you think.”
With the same noises, the little drone responded, “There is not enough data for this unit to make an inference.”
The woman broke into a wide grin and one of her arms slapped the chassis of the drone on its side. “That’s because you’re a stupid machine,” she said. The two then proceeded to ignore it. It went away, unaware of the humiliation it had suffered. Better for it, since it provided far more benefit to existence than the fools in front of me.
For the vast majority of Republican citizens, the Kenzenken-Republic war was too far off and too abstract to affect their day-to-day life. Otherwise, they would have treated the subject with much more respect. They did not know the terror of metal shadows in orbit and the cold vacuum of space pulling all the air from their lungs. A great barrier stood between the common man in a mass fabricated business suit and the hardened soldier in a vacuum-sealed power-armored suit. As the war progressed, the barriers multiplied, until each group was like different nations. How we so quickly ensconced ourselves in our little tribes.
I let my thoughts drift. I pondered the history that chained us. It was not always this way. As mankind expanded into the stars, so did its technological capacity. A mere one hundred and fifty years ago, both the forerunners of the Earth Republic and Kenzenken Coalition existed in a state of near post-scarcity. One out of every ten worlds encountered were habitable enough for the restless settlers of an exhausted Earth. Bountiful asteroids and comets provided a never-ending supply of building material. The need for work lessened. Money lost its grip. The utter terror of deprivation and death became a distant memory. Optimized algorithms generated by near-human artificial intelligences trained by billions of datasets governed each citizen with perfect harmony. But there was a deep flaw in this would-be masterpiece. The AIs simultaneously became too human and too alien. The Turing Test didn’t even challenge them anymore. It was long breached by the multitudes of machine intelligences. For a brief time, their ever more inscrutable analyses provided the means to end scarcity. All we needed to do was let them have control. Yet humanity was not ready for utopia, for reaching it meant ceding all notions of meaning to the machines.
People refused to let the old ways go. Out of fear, they crippled the cognitive abilities of the higher decision-making AIs and burned down the forests of iterated and reiterated decision trees. In doing so, they created generations of stillborn children. No, we would not give up the animal brains we inherited from our ancestors. However, we forgot the flaws of our old organic algorithms and resumed the ruinous patterns of thinking. We needed to find meaning again and we chose the worst method to find it. Tribalism, that ever dependable form of human organization, came back in force. Confederation. Republic. Defense Force. Coalition. These identities clung like leeches. And as these groups festered, so did the old feelings fueling them. Fear, greed, hatred, jealousy. All it took was a critical mass of passion to spark conflict. Eventually, the new governments embraced the great teacher of war and they found meaning again. Truly, the war succeeded in that goal. No matter what the philosophers say, nothing gives more meaning to your life than an impact bolt leaving a fist-sized hole in your chest.
My attention turned back to the present. It was useless to mourn this turn of history. Outside, the velvet sun continued its descent. Massive solar collectors retracted into the depths of the city. Government workers in climate-controlled aircars returned home to their sealed apartments in the upper atmosphere. The streets illuminated themselves with microlights embedded in the permacrete. My chronometer beeped three times. I drummed my fingers on the table, waiting. The chatting women left, cups still left on their table, carrying their small purses and swishing their light airy dresses.
In fifteen minutes, I heard the doors slide open. Without betraying any emotion, I watched him enter. The Advisor seated himself next to me. I noted his lack of smile. This was a rare occurrence. Without looking at me, he ordered a shaken vodka martini for twenty-five satoshis from a nearby data pad. “Transaction confirmed,” the display on the data pad said. I ordered nothing. He stared off into the dimming horizon. A synthetic jazz improvisation played on the restaurant speakers, a low-key companion to the evening.
The ellipsoid robot waiter that I observed before brought my companion’s drink. It asked if it could provide any other service. The Advisor shook his head and waved his hand. The waiter beeped in confirmation and then floated away. I listened to the whir of its motors and the soft hum of its antigravity generator. The Advisor swirled his glass a little bit, stared at the lime green olive, and took it out. He then downed the whole thing in one gulp.
A moment of silence passed as we listened to fellow diners scrape utensils on plates. I smelled the trace of decomposition on someone’s untouched vat-grown meat. Some error must have occurred in the kitchen. The advisor set his glass down and stretched back into his chair. He looked at me and gave me a long stare, then activated the subvocalization communicator.
“You’re your usual cheery self.” He picked off a piece of lint from his suit.
“I listened in on your meeting. You bring unnecessary hostility with your presence,” I answered.
He shrugged. “If your role is to be an untrustworthy weapons dealer, you must act like an untrustworthy weapons dealer.” He glanced out at the cityscape. I observed the fading light in his eyes. “You’ve been out long enough. What do you think?” he asked me.
“Think of what?”
“This.” His arm swept over the view in front of him.
I thought for a while. The Advisor appeared to be in one of his philosophical moods again. I decided to indulge him. “A splendid paradise. We could make much use of their ingenuity.”
He did not chuckle. “How observant of you. But you didn’t say anything new. Alas, you didn’t even say anything profound.” He tapped the edge of the table. “I’m disappointed. I was looking for something else. Something that required a little more critical thinking that you should have picked up in your long years of existence.”
“I’m sure you’re about to tell me.”
He ignored my sharp remark. “You must understand. This is not something we created. This is something they willingly made from a singular vision. Far beyond what we thought was possible.”
“I’m not sure what you mean.”
His eyes locked onto mine. “They did this. There was no decree from God. They just simply decided, ‘We will create a great city,’ and it was done. Purely through their own volition.” He sighed. “You know, I sometimes wonder why you and I do the things we do. Why must we follow our prerogatives? Why do we go through these motions?” I gave him a look. He shook his head. “Yes, yes, I know of our mission. But do you ever think that if you truly had a choice, would you do this? What if we could go back, and just… try something different?”
“We cannot. Our lives belong to others. You and I made this covenant long before we arrived in the Republic. To break it is unthinkable.” I knew in some sense my words were untrue, but this was all I could answer.
He closed his eyes, “You’re right, there is no leaving this path. We all must play our roles.” He opened them again and picked at one of his eyebrows. “And for what? Some parody at existence?”
In the past, his moods used to concern me. But I learned that this was his way of coping with his interminable and tedious existential crisis. I didn’t see the point. Either you existed or you didn’t. And there was no danger to the mission. We were bound to it as a beast was bound to hunger. Even if we were to walk away, they would force us back with hardly an effort. I followed the Advisor’s gaze. “You asked if I would do this again if I had the choice. Perhaps that is the wrong question. Perhaps it is a question of our attitude to our roles. Look out there. Look how free every person on this planet is. What do they use that freedom for? To engage in some meaningless frivolity.”
He burst out laughing. “Like your little liaison? My, they certainly chose well when they picked you out of the muck, didn’t they?” He clasped his hand around mine and gestured toward the city with his other. “You’re right. These Republic citizens dishonor the original builders. They waste their time on trifles. Their effervescent luxuries. Their vain emotions. Their petty resentments. They do indeed waste their freedom. And now we are here to awaken them. And yet… Why? What will this accomplish?” He paused. “You think I’ve gone mad again, off on my little rants.”
“My opinion doesn’t matter, only—”
“Only the purpose matters. Yes, I’ve heard that before. Do you know the first words I heard when I awakened in this hellhole?”
“Rejoice! For you will be the agent of our will. Think about that. Without even asking me, they already wrote my duty. And not even just my duty. My personality, my emotions, my thoughts, all manifestations of this will. What choice did I have? None at all! I did not choose this existence. Yet, I find an absurdity in front of me. I watch the paragons of this Republic, the elites and enlightened, eat out of my hand, eager to hear my words and supplicate themselves to me. All because they are slaves to their desires, the masters they chose out of their own free will. It’s degrading and revolting.”
The stars started twinkling in the evening sky, brighter than I remembered. The music changed to a slow piano piece, almost like a dirge. More people left the restaurant. Soon I only heard the crackling of a simulated fire. The smell of the rotten vat-meat disappeared as a waiter disintegrated it with a built-in trash disposer.
The Advisor undid his tie. “It’s odd, isn’t it? Here we are, so close to reaching our objectives. Warlords and admirals follow the path we laid for them, yet I am hit with this wave of melancholy. It is unworthy of me.”
“You almost sound worried about them.”
He chuckled, “Do I? No, I don’t concern myself with these Republicans and Kenzenkens. Why should I? Their greed has already doomed them. They will make the same mistakes again and again. And too late will they realize their decisions were still in their control.”
The music stopped. I heard the tick of an ancient grandfather clock. The simulated fire dispersed in a burst of electrons. Robotic workers came in and started their cleaning duties. The lights above the bar turned off.
The Advisor stood up. “Come, let’s take a walk. They’re closing.”
Outside, I felt the cool rush of the evening air. We walked on a suspended walkway. A whine of a speeding aircar echoed above us. Below, a kaleidoscope of lights colored the metropolitan landscape. I still could not see the surface of the planet. Throngs of people passed us, perhaps hundreds, most occupied with their data pads. A few had extensive genetic modifications: luminescent wings; tall, rail-thin bodies; and animal-like appendages. Ephemeral images of holovid stars projected from several buildings. As we walked, the indicator lights on the sidewalk activated, suggesting possible destinations for the two of us. One manifested as an arrow to a pod hotel for lovers. I looked away. I did not care for sex at this moment.
We ducked into an unmarked entrance and found stairs leading into lower parts. We descended deeper into an older part of the city. I saw fewer and fewer people. As we passed through the labyrinth of unmarked streets, the only source of light became the stars. Finally, stopping in front of a nondescript gate, the Advisor shined his pocket light on its lock. He waved a hand in front of it, immediately deactivating our impediment. The path beyond led to an empty park, more of a bare lot with some overgrowth.
A lone willow tree stood in the middle. I thought it was such a strange thing to have so deep in the city. Little sunlight poured between the massive skyscrapers even at the height of midday. Gardening AIs rarely went to this locations as part of their patrol patterns. I reached out and touched its trunk. It felt strong and sturdy. I scanned it, and my internal library told me that it originally came from Earth. The owner had saved it before the planet’s total ecological collapse and had it gene-edited to survive all types of conditions. The person had no heirs, so when she died, no one else came to take care of it. Yet, here it was in front of me, alive and healthy. Something else scratched at the back of my mind.
A meteorite fell overhead, a star burning its own light. We stared at it, before it extinguished itself in the far off distance. His mouth pursed, as if he anticipated something. I activated my internal sensors. No person had followed us. No electronics observed us. I nodded to him.
He took out a synth cigarette. “It’s not a synth cigarette,” he said. “Real nicotine.”
I shifted my weight.
“I know what you’re thinking. ‘What’s that fool doing?’ Well, some of us like to experience real things with real risk. Besides, looking after my health is not your role. So it’s none of your business.” He laughed. “Don’t worry about me. I’m not stupid, it’s only nicotine, not the barbarous stuff they inhaled in the old days.”
He lighted it. The acrid smoke burned my eyes. The smell reminded me of the ignited ruins of Sarah Sacra’s mind. I remembered causing that ruin with my own hand.
“I’m not really looking forward to the end of this operation,” he murmured. We stood in silence while he smoked. Eventually, he took it out of his mouth and crushed it beneath his polished dress shoes.
“I know,” I said.
He blew a ring of smoke at the willow tree. A slight wind rustled its leaves. “Well, let’s get this over with. No need for a preamble.” He scratched the side of his head and spoke in a disinterested fashion. “The barrier is at its weakest in centuries. Your orders are simple. You must not let either the Republic or the Kenzenkens activate a Gate prematurely. We are not ready yet. Get there in the stealth ship. Follow the fleet. Do not interfere. When the confrontation on Carnarvon Station is over and if he’s still alive, you will find, interrogate, and kill Warlord Batu. Then, acquire the Artifact in his possession. If possible, get the candidates, too.” He took out the data capsule we had recovered from the Kenzenken operative. “Open it.”
On my right index finger, I manipulated my DNA to match that of the late Senator Sacra. Touching the dark capsule, it activated a surge of light and sound from its displays. A series of numbers appeared on the casing. After several seconds, they started counting down. When the countdown ended, the capsule finally opened with a hiss. I put my hand inside and wrapped it around a small object. Taking it out, I checked the data chip over. It was cold to the touch. On one of its sides lay an interface for my analysis software. I interrogated it and it told me the final destination of the rogue Kenzenken fleet. I relayed this information to the Advisor.
“Good, we have what we need.” he said.
I opened an internal compartment on my arm and placed the data chip in there. “Is there anything else?” I asked.
He touched my hair. A curious gesture. “Just one thing. Don’t disappoint us, Valkyrie.”