Forgotten Causes


– Forgotten Causes –

By John C. Wright

*** *** ***

Dominus Illuminatio Mea

IN the hour of death, after this life’s whim,
When the heart beats low, and the eyes grow dim,
And pain has exhausted every limb—
The lover of the Lord shall trust in Him.


When the will has forgotten the lifelong aim,

And the mind can only disgrace its fame,
And a man is uncertain of his own name—
The power of the Lord shall fill this frame.

— Anonymous (c. 19th Cent)

Table of Contents

  • *** *** ***

    AD 12705

    01. Secure Mission Posture

    I woke up to a beautiful woman’s voice whispering directly into my ear: “We are now in a secure mission posture. All information hereafter will be on a need-to-know basis.”

    I was in zero gravity, warm, comfortable, floating. No doubt I was back aboard the Ship, safe at the perihelion of some wide elliptic orbit, nice and far, far away from the deadly danger of the Suspects…

    Wait. What Suspects? Who were they? And…

    And who exactly was I again? I seemed to have misplaced my name.

    Furthermore, there was an irksome pain in my arm, a stabbing pain, as if the intravenous needle built into the elbow-joint of my armor had missed the vein.

    Funny. Why would I be wearing my full kit heavy battle-armor if I were back asleep in my little brain-womb aboard the Ship?

    I pried an eye open and saw a grand, stately movement of blue and white swirls slowly passing across my face plate-screen. To one side, as I rotated, was a pretty flower-shape of blazing red with arms of floating black.

    It took me a moment to focus. Blue ocean. White clouds. Flaming wreckage formed an expanding cloud out from me. Smoking shards of hull-ceramic spun giddy trails of smoke. No. Not ‘out from’ me. Up. I was in an atmosphere. A planet. I was at least a thousand feet up. And I was in free-fall only because I was freely falling.

    Hey — Was that my landing craft that just got shot down?

    My limbs jerked, trying to grab something. But nothing moved. A coffin would be roomy compared to power-armor with the power off. Imagine having a ton of composite alloy wrapped skin-tight around each limb. I was trapped.

    “Where the hell am I? Who am I?”

    A beautiful woman’s voice, like the voice of an angel. It was the Ship. “I’m sorry, but you are not cleared to know that at the present time. The mission has assumed a secure posture and all information hereafter will be on a need-to-know basis…”

    A good marine probably would have just said, ma’am yes ma’am! Ready to splatter! Wilco! But I just screamed and swore a blue streak.

    She said: “You are apparently fully conscious. I am returning battle-suit control to you. ”

    Now my limbs moved. Joint motors amplified my panicky flailing so that I began to roll and tumble. Reflexes took over. I spread my arms and triggered altitude jets. And kicked the switch with my chin to snap the airsickness bag over my mouth. I had to remember to thank the Designer back on Earth for that one.

    If I could remember who the hell the Designer was. And why did a sensation of cold desolation creep up my spine at that thought?

    The Ship’s lovely voice: “Attention. You have three targets approaching mach 4.1 north-north east. No confirmation exists that these are hostile forces…”

    With a shock, light exploded into my eyes. No. Not my eyes. It only seemed that way. There were a dozen pin-point cameras dotting the hull of my battle-suit; the information from all those points of view were flooding directly into my visual cortex.

    “…You may fire in your own self-defense if you or your mission are threatened. Avoid collateral damage where possible…”

    There were a dozen more cameras and reader-heads, in the noses of little micro-rocket remotes which were fanning out from the wreckage of my downed lander. Think its hard to integrate the viewpoint of two eyes into proper perspective? Try doing it with a two dozen.

    “…You are not, I say again, not required to commit suicide to avoid capture…”

    I could see the radio-noise and thermal exhaust radiating from the bodies approaching. They had hard radar-reflective surfaces. The favorite object a marine ever sees: Big, hot, slow, and made of metal.

    “….The amnesia drug has removed those memories tagged with security neuro-linkages from your brain…”

    I directed (how? just by wishing it, like pointing a finger) two of my remotes at each target, to get overlapping fields of fire, and I set their idiot-brains on DefCon two, which is, shoot if they change energy levels, alter course, or open fire. Then I sent two more remotes toward the group at high-speed, instruments cranked over to high-sensitivity, active scan, double-readings. Were the incoming bodies armed?

    “…You may cooperate with your captors in any way which does not endanger the mission.”

    My brain had been tampered with. No one can interpret visual images from twenty viewpoints on twenty bands of the spectrum, infrared, IR, UV, radar, magnetic anomaly. What else had been done to me..? What else had the Designer done to me…?

    (Just the word made me recoil slightly. I wondered then whether the Designer was an It, not a He.)

    But I didn’t let the prospect of immanent death in battle distract me.

    “Ship! Am I going to be rescued, damn you? Where are the other members of my …” I was going to say ‘my squad’ or ‘my unit’ or something. But I stopped. The words sounded wrong.

    Loneliness. Terrible loneliness rose like bile in my throat. I knew what she was about to say before she said it.

    She said: “There are no other human beings.”

    That sentence seemed to hang in my ears for a moment, echoing.

    *** *** ***

    02. Defense Condition

    The lead incoming aerospace craft (old-fashioned, using a ram-jet and rocket combination for low-troposphere to high-atmosphere theater) blossomed with heat in the armpits of its stubby triangular wings, and fired two beam-guided missiles in my direction.

    “What’s my mission?”

    “I am not certain if you are cleared to know that. Please stand by while I consult instruction scenarios…”

    My remotes had already sliced the lead enemy craft from stem to stern, and issued an electromagnetic pulse powerful enough to scramble any avionics and sterilize any unshielded men aboard. The other two remotes were beeping plaintively for instructions; their simple-minded threat-response software couldn’t decide if the other two craft were ‘part of ‘ the first craft’s attack.

    I toggled them over to DefCon One (which is, shoot if they sneeze.)

    My altimeter alarm went off. I had been deceived by my Earthly instincts. The globe was smaller than Earth; the horizon closer; and the surface was a hell of a lot closer than I thought.

    The helmet monitor lit up: Deploy chute? Yes/No.

    “Damn you, Ship! You told me not to do anything to endanger the mission! To carry out that order, you’ve got to tell me what the mission is — ”

    The craft on the left sneezed. Remotes three and four blotted it out. A smear of oily flame and radioactive debris unrolled across the sky.

    “Your mission parameters are: Determine if the suspect world is responsible for the destruction of the surface biosphere of Earth. If so, execute suspect world, regardless of civilian collateral damage.”

    My mind went blank. Earth dead?

    In that stunned blankness, one little thought asked plaintively: Who would do it? Who would or could launch an attack to a target light-years away? An attack which would not arrive till their great-grandchildren had died of old age? It was insane…

    There could not be that many suspect worlds. Multi-generation colony-ships were very big and very expensive and very slow. And it was very, very hard to find volunteers. Besides, within a thousand light-years of Earth, only six planets were capable of sustaining human life.

    And evidently I was falling toward one of them.

    Her voice continued: “If not, determine if suspect world has any weapons or weapons technology capable of large-scale interstellar attacks. Disarm suspect world. Use any means necessary. Inform the population of the Law.”

    “The Law…?”

    But I knew the Law. Thou shalt not kill worlds.

    The third incoming aerospace craft wasn’t what it seemed. When it flinched, the particles beams from my remotes bounced off its inner hull, which was made of something a damn sight tougher than the phony outer hull; and then it swatted half my remotes out of the sky with a sweep of hard radiation.

    The nose tilted up till the craft was vertical. The stubby wings fell off; a column of white light and white noise erupted out of the engines. My neutrino counter ran up to five digits 99999! and burned out. Whatever the hell they were burning wasn’t old-fashioned chemical rockets.

    I could see, on higher wavelengths, beams like searchlights drop into synch with the tight-beam shining from the radio-laser horn of my helmet. The beam pointed up. The super-rocket or hell-craft or whatever it was shot straight up. Same direction. My remotes didn’t have a chance of keeping pace.

    And remember those two big, dumb slow rockets coming for me? They suddenly got a lot faster, and they peeled open into segments almost as small and almost as hard to see as my remotes.

    An automatic circuit in my battle-suit began jinking me back and forth with random bursts from my retroes. Yanked up, jerked left, swatted right, knocked spinning. Instantly, I was one huge bruise across my whole body. This was supposed to keep me safe?

    My counter-electronics flashed. Screaming little super-missiles flashed to my left and right, missing the target, or got tricked into exploding early.

    Deploy chute? Yes/No. (WARNING Chute cannot deploy while retroes are firing.)

    “Ship! Ship! What the hell do I ….”

    A man’s voice, in a language which I somehow knew, broke in: “Terran! The Military Arm of the Avernian Collective requires your immediate surrender!”

    What the hell? Were they asking me to surrender? Me?!!

    I decided then and there that I knew one thing about myself. I didn’t give up.

    The Ship: “This channel is compromised. Do not break radio silence. Out.”

    It was true. They were tracing my communication beam. The hell-craft had climbed almost out of the range even of my godlike sight. It was headed to some spot in low orbit, the source of the lovely female voice which was my only link with my life. Whoever the hell I was.

    The man’s voice was still talking to me: “Shut down your active systems! Let your energetic and nucleonic radiations drop to equal background readings to display submission! This is a necessary ordainment!”

    The on-board computer in my suit flashed good news: Enemy signal protocols algorithm solved. Engage signal falsification routine? Yes/No.

    And bad news: WARNING Below safe descent ceiling. Initiate emergency crash-landing procedures? Yes/No.

    ( Yanked left, jerked up, swatted down-left, knocked right.)

    They must have done something to my brain. I was able to see what no one could see; I was able to know things I knew I didn’t know. I saw that fast little super-missiles mugging me were being guided by beams pointing at me from some distant source. (And I knew that the guide-beams were coming from six kilometers away, a large metallic craft 50 meters below the ocean surface.)

    And when I wondered if my suit could impersonate those guide-beams and point those fast little bastards at some better targets… (For example, at the disappearing hell-craft up above closing in on my siren-voiced Ship. Or at the source of the beam-guides themselves. Or toward the source of the irksome voice asking me to surrender. Or at all three….) I wondered; I knew; I willed it.

    It happened.

    And the nasty little super-rockets, now my toys, flipped 180 and screamed away. Fast enough, maybe, to get the hell-craft.

    Then, it all happened at once:

    Man’s Voice: “… willing to recognize your absurd claim to be the Terran emissary, Marshall Lamech…” (Lamech! My name was Lamech!) “… and extend you grant of ambassadorial immunity, if only you will stop these brutal and unprovoked attacks on Avernus and her satellites…”

    Unprovoked? My lander was shot down! (Had my lander been firing? I had a dim memory of a streamlined dart of a machine, every forward surface studded with weapon-tubes, launch-ports, deflection and evasion arrays.)

    Deploy Chute? Yes/No. WARNING You are below safe descent threshold.

    Ambassador? Did he just call me an Ambassador? (And I thought they arrived in limousines, not in Armored Assault Re-Entry Vehicles.)

    WARNING Incoming particle beam weapon from submarine source. Outer ablative material breached. Return Fire? Yes/No.

    And then roaring, fire, pain, light, noise, confusion.

    And then darkness.

    *** *** ***

    03. Memory Discontinuity


    Isn’t it funny how you dream in black and white?

    In the first part of the dream, I was sinking, sinking, numb with shock, all my bones were broken, and my helmet was filling up with blood.

    In the second part of the nightmare, I was crawling along the ocean bottom, along the muddy floor of some sea-trench sunlight never reached, and slow clouds of murk swirled between the fingers of my gauntlets as I moved. Lamp-eyed transparent fish and blind insects swarmed in my face, attracted to my helmet-lights.

    I screamed each time I moved, because it wasn’t me moving. The joint-motors of my power-armor were running on automatic. Pull right arm; drag left knee. Pull left arm; drag right knee. Every time my limp limbs were yanked by the metal sleeves through the movements of that painful crawl, I could feel the jagged bone-ends grinding together inside me.

    And then some huge armored machine, like a bathysphere on treads, rose up from the mud and gloom and speared me with a spotlight. A manipulator-claw reached out…

    The third part of the nightmare was worst of all. I was strapped to some sort of morgue-slab or inquisition rack or something, and some sort of torture surgeons, faceless shapes in gray, were tearing off my skin, flaying me alive. Except it wasn’t my skin they were tearing off, but my armor, prying me like an oyster out of its shell.

    Days or years of pain went by; the room changed size and color once or twice, or maybe I was moved. Then, voices I could somehow understand:

    “Officer-surgeon of the Collective! Observe here. Neural actions. The Envoy Lamech is awake — !”

    “Illogical. Cortex tissues were destroyed with a number-five laser-scalpel. Nervous tissue does not regenerate.”

    “Yet, see, Luminous One!”

    My eyes were open. Some sort of instrument clamped around my eyelids kept my eyeballs moist with drops of mist. Nice of them.

    ‘Them’ consisted of gaunt, tall figures in gray airtight suits, with faceplates of mirror-white. A battery of blinding lights, like a nest of snakes, coiled from the overhead, and writhed to peer across their shoulders, turning as they turned, pointing lamps whatever direction the figures glanced. The one on the left had a set of cables and medical appliances, clamps and probes and scalpels, growing in place of his right arm.

    The other one — evidently a superior officer — was speaking. “Recall that our ancestors were modified to survive this planet, and modified again to serve the Collective. He is not Homo Sapiens Superior Eugenicus. He is merely a Human Being. Some quirk in his atavistic neuro-chemistry might account for these readings.”

    “Yet, ponder, Sagacious One, how long ago our ancestors set out from the Once-Home-World, and how slow the giant ships! The science of Earth may have grown in one hundred centuries! He could be infested with nanomachines, bodies in his cell fluid too small for our instruments to detect, programmed to repair his tissues. Even brain tissue.”

    “Nanomachines are a myth. Earth is a myth. Dead tissues and dead worlds do not spring to life again!”

    “Yet look at the readings, All-Imposing One! He stirs; his eyes track our movements! I implore you! Look! Look!”

    “Hm. Even so, with all his weapons and armor removed– what can he do? We are safe.”

    “Sir! This is an Earthman!”

    “Ah. Perhaps you are right, loyal one. Sign the death-warrant in my name, and note the time. Stun him with six hundred volts of neuro-suppresser. I will apply a lethal impulse directly into his skull.”

    So the guy on the right picked up something like a shiny pistol and leaned over me.

    I raised my arm (I had to jerk — my hand was stuck for a moment) and took the pistol (funny how his fingers just came apart in my grip, like bags of jelly, like dry twigs) and pointed the business end at his head and pulled the trigger.

    When his brains exploded all over me, they were yellow, gray and red. Bright red. And I thought you couldn’t see colors in dreams.

    I was distracted for a moment by my hand. My wrist was dangling with severed cables and broken chains thick enough to bind an elephant. I watched the broken chain-ends swinging idly. Did I do that…?

    What the hell was I?

    The other guy hit a switch or something before I could move. The snake-necked lamps ignited with a strange blaze of blinding energy. It felt like a sledge-hammer with a red hot head slamming home into my skull.

    Out again. (Maybe that was good. If I had been awake, I would have been pretty miffed about being knocked unconscious every few minutes.)

    Waking up was more fun the next time. I was floating again, nice and safe in zero-gee. In free-fall…

    I shouted and grabbed for something to hang onto, some weapon to shoot. I got a handful of water and splashed myself in the face.

    Blinking my eyes clear, I saw I was floating in a garden-pool. An inflatable pillow supported my head and shoulders. A white box — a medical servo of some sort — floating nearby, with intravenous tubes running to my throat and elbow, and wires attached to disks on my chest and head. Perhaps the pool-water had been salted with something to increase its buoyancy; or maybe the gravity here was lighter than standard.

    A circle of fruit trees surrounded the little pond, and terraced hedges of ferns and flowers rose up to my left and right. Beyond that was a wall. Above was not sky, but a ceiling of blue glass, criss-crossed with a trellis of lacy supports. This garden was in-doors.

    I stood up, kicked aside the box, and yanked the needles and wires away with a sweep of my arm. It hurt, but it made me feel good. Maybe I don’t like having machines to whom I haven’t been properly introduced sticking their little things into me.

    At first, I thought I heard the Ship’s voice, beautiful and feminine. “We estimate the year on Earth, correcting for relativistic effects, to be AD 12705, the One Hundred Twenty Eighth Century. Are you aware of what that implies?”

    It was my language. Or, at least, it sounded sort of familiar.

    So I turned around, stark naked, with blue pool-water still dripping from my parts, and the loveliest woman I had ever seen or imagined was walking toward me. Floating toward me, it seemed like, since her step was as graceful as a ballerina’s. She wore a dress of white, pinch-waisted to accent her figure, with an elegant long skirt swinging in counterpoint to the sway of her hips. Her hair was raven-black, her cheek-bones high, her lips full and red, chin delicate. Her eyes were slanted and exotic, and as green as glass.

    Her eyes held the clearest and most intelligent gaze I’d ever seen. On the other hand, they were, at the moment, the only pair of eyes I could ever remember seeing, so I guess I didn’t have much of a basis of comparison.

    A real marine would have engendered triplets on her on the spot. Me, I just stood there, dangling, wearing a dumb look on my face. Finally, I managed to say, “What the hell’s going on?”

    *** *** ***

    04. Posthuman Envoy


    She smiled a half-smile, and looked at me sidelong. Did I mention how long and lush her lashes were? How green her eyes, like mirrors of emerald? “You mean, why are you still alive?” (A beautiful voice, soft and soprano, but not the voice of my Ship.)

    I nodded. It did indeed seem to be a fine question, and one well worth pondering. Why the hell was I still alive?

    “So tell me,” I said.

    A quiet smile graced her lips a moment. “We hope to reason with you. You have crossed six hundred and eight light-years from Sol; at least a thousand years have passed, Earth-time, since your launch. Whomever or whatever sent you out so far is long, long dead. Why continue this struggle? Whatever your reasons — and I’m quite sure that they were good reasons at one time — they are now defunct, meaningless. Your orders are out-of-date. And we are not your enemies; we are not monsters. Come, look!”

    So I climbed out of the pool. It was warm in the garden, and she didn’t seem to mind the way I was (or wasn’t) dressed. Maybe buck-naked was the way prisoners of war were kept, here. Or honored ambassadors and other guests of state. Or monsters from another star. Or whatever the hell I was.

    The touch of her hand on my elbow thrilled me. With delicate, nymph-like step, she moved up the little terrace-slope and past the hedge. I felt her warmth, smelled the hint of her perfume, as she stepped past me.

    The grass was cool on my bare feet, pleasant, and dew-drops from the tall ferns near the hedge touched my neck and shoulders with icy dots of shock as I pushed through them.

    She gestured to the wall beyond the trellises. A large section of wall faded into transparency.

    I was looking out an expansive window which was halfway up a cliffside. Facing it was another cliff, equally as tall, studded likewise with windows. Between the two canyon walls, a little strip of gray-blue sky showed high above. The canyon was crossed by a hundred bridges and aqueducts. Odd-looking people strolled the lanes or rolled on wheels. Some were animal-headed or were part-machine. They were slender and tall, almost bird-like; perhaps a side-effect of the lighter gravity. Everyone wore cloaks (or were they wings?) of muted colors, mauve, tan, blue-gray, tawny, brown.

    I stepped closer to the huge window.

    From the window, I could see a park underfoot, bright with shrubs and flowering green bushes. Several waterfalls cascaded from nearby aqueducts, formed little brooks across the lawns, and gathered at a central pool. Children frolicked in the pool. I saw a mother dangling her baby above the water, and it smiled and splashed its little toes.

    I was very conscious of the woman at my shoulder.

    She pointed at the scene. “We are the men beyond mankind; we are post-human; we have re-engineered our minds and bodies to survive the harsh conditions here on Avernus. Our minds have been restructured; we exceed old human limitations, selfishness, greed, individualism, disloyalty. Does that make us forfeit our right to live in peace? These are the people you tried to destroy. Look at them; wives and husbands, mothers and children, boys and girls. Has the force which sends you justified its evil acts to you? If so, that is an explanation we are all eager to hear.”

    “I don’t have an explanation,” I said. “You’ve medically examined me. You must know I don’t remember a damn thing.” A note of bitterness crept into my voice: “I don’t even remember who I am.”

    She nodded, looking not a bit surprised. “I will remind you. What you are, Marshall Lamech, is a remnant of the far past. You are the forgotten left-over of some ancient war. An unexploded bomb. A dormant virus. A relic. You come from a world long dead.

    “For forty years we watched the flare of your ship’s deceleration as you approached from deep space. We welcomed you, but your ship would not land. By radio, you accused our ancestors of some long-ago attack against the Earth. You demanded we accept you as our police and prosecutor, judge, jury, and, if need be, executioner. Yet you had no right to stand in judgment over us.

    “Then you attacked us, killing and destroying. That is fact, which no regret, no dwelling on the past can alter or ameliorate. Now we must concentrate on the future. Do you wish to have a future? We are prepared to offer you a life useful to the Collective, a role within our society, material comforts and… pleasures.”

    My imagination was all too eager to fill in what kind of pleasures I’d like to get from her. But I tried to keep a stony face. “Yes..? Providing..?”

    “…Providing only that you cooperate. Radio your ship, arrange a rendezvous. We wish to inspect this ship of yours. Any men, material or technology aboard will be turned over to the Collective and used for the public good.”

    “And — just for the sake of argument — let’s say I refuse. What then?”

    “Pain and torment, agony and death….”

    “Gee. Why am I not surprised..?”

    “Not for you. I don’t know what would happen to you. But I will have failed in my mission. You must have noticed my body-form is not proper.” She gestured again at the slender, birdlike not-quite-humans gliding on the bridges and balconies outside. None of them looked like her. “I was designed for you. For your environment. I cannot live outside this museum, this terrarium. Without you, I have nothing…”

    “Designed..?” I wasn’t sure I liked the sound of that.

    She smiled again. It was a sad, soft smile. “We had forty years in which to prepare. There were genetic archives, old records from the Once-Home-World.”

    “You are a slave?”

    “I do my duty and I obey my orders. Are we so different from each other?” When she smiled, she had dimples. “But why dwell on unpleasant things? Happiness and joy awaits all who are loyal to the principles of the Collective. But you must not delay in deciding! For, see: the Correction Instructors grow impatient!”


    *** *** ***

    05. Cooperation Required


    I turned. Coming up the grassy slope behind us, pushing through the flowery hedges, came four tall, angular machines, like oversized praying mantises. The robotic carapaces were covered with thorns and hooks. Their thoraxes held turrets. Some of the weapons I recognized: rail-guns, hard-shots, flamers, neural whips. Others, I did not. Nothing looked pretty. But they were quiet as cats, and they stalked closer.

    I jerked my thumb at the approaching monsters. “So they are ‘bad cop’, I take it?”

    She huddled close to me, as if for support. Automatically, by instinct, I put my arm around her. It felt good. She looked up at me with her wide, green eyes, and she said in a troubled voice: “What makes you hesitate? You yourself admit that you recall nothing; if there is a reason for you to be loyal to your mission, you have forgotten it. Is there any point in dying for a forgotten cause?”

    I pushed her around behind me, put my foot on a nearby tree, and, with a grunting shrug, tore off a branch. I turned to face the approaching machines, branch held in both hand, like a club. Little green leaves floated down from my impotent impromptu weapon.

    The machines stopped and pointed their various barrels, lenses and muzzels at me. There was a metallic snap as the lead unit jacked ammunition into its chambers. I heard the hissing ultrasonic whine of plasma-magnetics charging. With a loud clatter, gas-shells and flame cartridges slammed into gun-breeches. Little red dots from aiming lasers floated on my naked chest.

    I felt about as stupid as a man can feel.

    But, hey, the way I figured it, I’d rather fall weapon-in-hand instead of hands-up. Even if the so-called weapon is nothing but a green stick.

    “You will be led now either to a bridal chamber or a torture chamber, Marshall Lamech,” came the soft voice from behind me. I could feel her soft hand on my back, her scented breath on my ear. “Defiance is pointless, unless, of course, your goal is to ensure both our deaths. But why fight? Do you remember any reason to fight on?”

    Her other hand, no doubt, was readying some small-arm from her pocket. What was the reason I had turned my back on her again? To protect her from… whom? Her own allies? Her own superiors? (I think I’ve mentioned how stupid I felt just then.)

    “I need some answers first,” I said.

    A masculine voice issued from all four robots at once: “Little time remains! In a few minutes, your ship’s orbit lifts her above the here-now horizon. We do not wish your ship to have direct line-of-sight with this area; her energy-silhouette indicates a particle beam weapon is ready. We are directing radio-signal toward her, but she will not respond to us. Call! Order your ship to stand down! You need but speak aloud; we can convey your words to the broadcaster. We are all one system.”

    The Ship had told me it was OK to cooperate with these people here, provided it did not impede the mission. But did this hinder the mission?

    And was the cute emissary behind me right? Did I even care about the goddamn mission?

    I spoke: “Who killed the Earth?”

    I felt the breath of the girl behind me in my ear: “What does it matter? The question is entirely academic. Earth is long, long gone. And what do you care even so? You are not from Earth. The medical evidence shows that your body is only a few weeks old. You were constructed, fully grown, from genome records, during deceleration. You think you are a human being, but you are not. There are no human beings.”

    I decided I didn’t like having the girl behind me, so I stepped sideways to put her in my view. As I thought, her right hand was in her skirt pocket, clutching something heavy and rectangular.

    Unfortunately, the robot on the far right now glided forward, so that it was behind me. I didn’t like that much either.

    And it got dark. The sunlight was failing. But it was not dusk. A glance at the window showed that some roof or blast-panels were sliding over top of the canyon outside, closing all the city under a giant lid. I saw people rushing, but no panic, no show of emotion, except that some of the babies in the park were crying. What was odd about the scene was that all the people were in step. They were marching double-time but they were clearly in step, all being controlled by one mind, one will.

    Like a chorus, four copies of the same masculine voice came from the robots: “The decision horizon reaches unity! The unintegrated organism known as Lamech must proffer cooperation behavior! Order your ship into close orbit, weapons stand down, shut off reaction drive, open airlocks, prepare to be boarded. This course of behavior leads to reward! All other courses lead to corrective penalty! Speak now!”

    The girl spoke softly, her green eyes looking deeply into mine as she swayed forward. “If you are not a human being, what would it matter to you if the home planet of the human beings had been destroyed? Besides, there is nothing you can do about any of that now. That issue is dead. A thousand years dead. Only your life matters now. Doesn’t it? Doesn’t it?” Then, more softly, she whispered: “It matters to me, if not to you.”

    But I noticed she did not step between me and the mantis-robots. In fact, they were both in motion, she daintily stepping forward, eyes soft and pleading, and perhaps a trifle afraid for me; and them, creeping catlike on their twitching spider-legs, gun-barrels and projectors swinging to track me, fanning left and right to cover possible avenues of escape.

    Funny how they stepped that way. It was little things that attracted my attention, such as how her head moved ever so slightly to the left while the upper launcher from the killer-robot nearest her slid ever so slightly to the right, so that spent shell-casings from its ejectors would not graze her hair once it started firing. Very smooth. All choreographed.

    All controlled by one will.

    I said, “I don’t believe you.”

    She said, “Ask your ship. Talk to it. Simply speak out loud.”

    “Ship! Are you there?”


    *** *** ***

    06. Targeting Elements

    I counted. One Mississippi, Two Mississippi. Then, the beautiful, beautiful Voice of the Ship answered, as placid and perfect as only unliving voices can be: “Message received. This line is not secure. Switching to encryption. Please confirm you read me.” This last group of words was somehow different, but I still understood them.

    About two seconds delay between signal and response. So that ship was roughly 186,000 miles away.

    Rather high for a firing orbit. The bad guys implied she had opened her weapon-parasol, and powered her particle-beam weapons. Was she going to fire a directed energy beam from that far away? Through the atmosphere?

    More likely she was targeting a satellite. Some part of my brain must have remembered the size and period of Avernus, because I knew that the Clarke Belt for this planet was over eight times the apogee of Earth’s geosynchronous orbit, for the planet was slightly larger and turned more slowly.

    But no part of my brain remembered why the orbits where it was convenient to park most of your communication satellites was called a ‘Clarke Belt.’

    And if I had counted right, the Ship was just beyond that altitude, and closing.

    “I understand you,” I said, and the way the words came out hurt my throat.

    Really, I understood almost nothing that was going on in this whole mess. But I did understand that the Ship was preparing a volley against satellite targets, something higher than an ordinary high orbit, near her. Otherwise, her posture did not make sense.

    I noticed the cute emissary had taken her hand out of her pocket and was holding her ears.

    I said, “Give present target orbital elements.”

    That was when I realized that what was coming out of my mouth was not words; it was some sort of strident whining noise, a mathematical set of hiccup and shrills. It sounded terrible.

    The Ship: “Requested information cannot be broadcast on non-secure channels. Switching to secure channel…”

    The noise of the Ship’s Voice coming out of the speakers was the same hiccups and shrieks. An encryption. The bad guys were passing it back and forth between us, but I doubted that they could decipher it.

    They must have doubted it too. Maybe they had given it a try, and given up, for then they said (all four in unison, just like a boy’s choir:) “Interrupt! Private communication is selfish, irregular, impermissible! Unadapted Lamech-entity continues to conspire against the Unity! His actions do not conform!”

    The girl put her hand back in her pocket, now that I wasn’t making an ear-splitting squeal. She said to me, “What were you talking about with your ship? Did you ask her whether you were human? Did you ask her why you were here?”

    The robot-quartet chimed in: “Consult with central dogma! Formulate a danger-assessment of Marshall Lamech’s character, extrapolate, react! Awaiting verdict.”

    The girl flushed. She looked actually angry or upset. “Wait, masters, I beg you! He may still be willing to help us! Give him time to think! Stop treating him like the enemy; he is as much a victim here as we are!”

    The robot crew actually stepped back. Certain weapons were holstered; others powered down. I heard the ticking of the energy-direction barrels cooling, the whine of multi-guns going into standby-cycles.

    Was that supposed to reassure me?

    She turned back to me. “Please! There are more lives involved here than just yours! You’ve got to believe us! We are not your foes, how could we be? Whatever happened to Earth happened thousands of years before we were born!”

    I saw how her eyes glittered; she seemed about to weep; and her bosom heaved with passion, her cheeks were blushed with fear.

    Good acting. I almost bought it. Almost.

    I wondered were they had gotten the algorithm to mimic human body language, nuances of gesture. I wondered how, just working with mathematical code and old records, they had been able to match up specific gestures with specific emotions. The sheer genius of it was even more impressive if you figured they did not know what “emotions” were anymore, not really; they must have been judging states of mind by statistical analysis.

    They? I should say ‘it.’ It seemed to be one system.

    And evidently its knowledge of body language gesture algorithms was very exact. At that moment I “heard” a high-frequency communication-burst, coming from a point outside the building, reach out and touch receiver cells in the four robots, and, yes, also in the nervous system of the girl. The so-called ‘girl’. The message ran: “Biochemical gestalt reactions of unincorporated Lamech unit display rejection-behavior. Probability 89% disbelief; he will initiate aggressive-defensive complex motif shortly. Neutralize. Terminate experiment. Log expended resources as wasted…”

    I must have sped up then. The sound in the room dopplered down the scale, and I felt a familiar burning heat in my limbs as my muscle pressure increased, a dizzy moment while high-speed superconductive strands took over the signal-transmission from my nervous system. And I jumped into the middle of the damn fighting robots.

    Yes, I hit one with the green stick in mid-jump, and, yes, the blow struck the joint where the slugthrower was coming up out of its cleaning holster, so that the shell went past my head rather than into it, and hit the robot behind me in the magazine box.

    And yes, my skin turned mirror shiny where the aiming lasers touched me, reflecting them away, so that the beamriding smart bullets (which followed those beams) popped their tiny retroes and slammed back toward the third machine they had been shot out from, sending lines of gunfire stitching up the sides of two of the fighting units.

    One of them was hit in its target-finding lens-array and vomited napalm in my direction, but missed me by a country mile. I ended up with my foot broken where I struck the forth machine, but I toppled it from its legs.

    Yay and hurray for me. And no, being knocked over did not stop machine number four from shooting a smart-grenade into my guts, or taking off my left leg below the knee with a fan of energy.

    The grenade did not go off for some damn reason (counter-electronic built into my goddamn belly-button?) it just passed through me, but that was enough to uncoil some ropy blood-colored spaghetti all over from inside of me, (amazing how weird and ugly intestines look, when they’re yours) and for me to lose all sensation in my legs, and for hydrostatic shock (which should have killed me instantly) to blow out my eardrums and crack several teeth.

    I was slapped to the grass by some immense force (or immense clumsiness) and the ungodly pain which wracked my every torn muscle, the disgusting weakness and nausea, the sensation of freezing and burning convinced me that I had about two seconds left to live.

    And what a goddamn stupid life it had been. How old was I? An hour? Less? Not counting time when I was asleep. My first memory was falling from a blown-up landing craft. If I had had any life before that second, if I was going to have any life after this second, well, you sure as hell could not prove it by me.

    It is amazing what it feels like when your blood pressure drops to zero, or what it is like to see a red flood sweep out from what had once been your midsection all across the pretty grass and pretty flowers. (How long can a brain keep thinking once severe blood-loss cuts all its oxygen off?) Even the weeds were going to last longer than I was.

    I was still sliding across the grass, actually, still being carried forward by the momentum of my original kick, or maybe I was being blown back by the shot that killed me. The whole combat had not taken an entire second to run its course.

    My body (I could feel it dimly) was still jerking, like a slab of meat being slammed by a fire-poker. That was small-caliber antipersonnel shot coming out of machine number three, which was hunching over me like an eager spider, two pair of twin-barrels hammering away. Blue smoke trembled from hot barrels.

    The sound seemed so dim. I wondered how I could hear it at all, me with my eardrums blown out. It should have been impossible for me to hear anything. One more unanswered question in a short, strange, stupid, pointless life. One more impossible thing.

    Damn liars. They had been telling the truth all along. I guess I was not a human being. Not even close.

    But was I still alive..? Maybe for a second or two longer. Alive.

    And that just made it too damn early to quit.


    *** *** ***

    07. Countermeasures


    So I reached up and thrust my fingers in a knife-hand blow into the weak undercarriage of machine number three, where the leg-action elements joined the main power-box. The force of the blow rocked the war-machine backwards enough to elevate the blazing gun-barrels. Machine number four got a friendly dose of friendly fire.

    My hand went through the armor into the interior of the machine. Then my fingernails touched the power-core, the computing center, and signals from the bio-circuits in my hand started to trace the communication channels back to the main brain running the whole show…

    I began to see numbers in my head… timing synch information, addressing data, code/decode couplings, protection switch commands…

    Then, nothing. I flopped like a puppet with its strings cut, falling back, all my limbs dead and numb, paralyzed.

    Cutie-pie, the girl emissary, had taken that long (her nervous system was biological, remember, not photoelectronic) to twitch her thumb. I “heard” the signal come out of the box in her pocket and “saw” it touch some foreign metal objects implanted along my spine and hindbrain. Just some nerve blocks they had put in, simple as a pass-interrupt switch. Prisoner pulling garbage you don’t like, and zap, all voluntary nerve trunks cut. Even if the prisoner has some sort of gee-whiz-wow wonder-junk built into his body by the miracles of modern science, so what? Doesn’t matter what weapons he has in his hands or built into his armpit; if he can’t fire them, he’s a meat bag.

    So I lay there, one leaking meat bag. Still conscious, even though the little black sparks were getting brighter every heartbeat, and the scene around me was getting dimmer. Funny how it felt like I was floating, falling. Funny how you don’t need conscious control of your nervous system to drool blood all over yourself. Blood was coming out of my nose also. I bet I looked all yummy and kissable.

    She said, “The experiment has confirmed our suspicions; when put under pressure of immediate death, subconscious pre-conditioning took over. His reaction was to attempt to seize a communication node, and link into our mental system. The coded addresses his probes began to form were for deep-archives, for history data from the estimated launch-dates had the attack on Earth been ours. His mission was investigatory, not unlike the others…”

    Others…? What the hell others?

    “We conclude that the Earth-ship will not destroy us without proof of culpability.” I noticed her lips were not moving. I noticed I was deaf. This was not coming in through my ears.

    “Can he hear us on this channel?” A high-speed zap of communication flickered through the room. Where was it coming from?

    “Yes. Note the electrochemical changes in auditory nerves; his brain interprets this as speech.” Her voice was still pretty, or, at least, my dying brain was hearing it that way.

    “How? We still do not detect any machines or electronic circuitry. No antennae. We removed all the energetic cells and manipulators our micro-probes detected in his nervous system.”

    “Others may have been too small to detect. Or they grew back.” She sounded thoughtful.

    “Grew? Grew?! It has only been a few minutes!”

    And my brain was interpreting this as if it were a conversation. It was not. It was one mind talking to itself; an internal monologue.

    One system, one collective, housed in many brains and neural nets, biological or not biological, as needed. A system old enough to have done the deed?

    If so, what had been the motive? Who would fight a war across the uncountable distances and meaningless emptiness of space? The damn nothingness is so damn big and so damn empty that everything men dream about doing, every cause they dream about fighting for, or against, means not a damn thing; not a damn thing at all; not hatred, not revenge, not anything.

    The part of the collective mind I thought of as the cute girl was saying to her other selves: “We have no information about the sciences of Old Earth, or what developments might have taken place over the centuries. Without information, it is premature to form expectations, irrational to be surprised.”

    She turned to me: “Call off your attack! We have been forced to hurt you only in our self-defense, because you continued to resist. Surely that is legitimate! You cannot prove us guilty of the ancient crime against the Earth; we are not your subjects, you are not our king. Call off your ship.”

    I could not talk or move and I was bleeding — bleeding heavily — bleeding to death. So I merely thought to myself: “How do you want me to do that, babe? Am I supposed to be able to talk to my Ship just by thinking at her?”

    Without any fuss or bother, the Ship’s Voice came softly into my brain: “That is within the operational parameters of your present somatoform and body-system. Unless that was a rhetorical question, Marshall Lamech?”

    I thought: “This channel is not secure.”

    The Voice of the Ship: “Analysis of the initial code-address packages you retrieved, before contact was cut, from the deep archive communication system has been fed to the targeting computer. The main energy source-points for communication throughout the Avernus Collective appear to be grouped in a centralized bunker beneath a range of tectonically stable mountains to the West of your present location…”

    Wait. What was going on now? Had the Ship somehow read my mind? Or had some subconscious part of my mind acted without my knowledge, and broadcast to the Ship just the tiny beginnings of what I had tried to steal from the Collective communication node? So the Ship now knew where the enemy HQ was hidden.

    If they were the enemy…

    The beauty of the Ship’s Voice came again: “Firing solutions are obtained for central communications bunkers and for the high orbit satellite arrays which house the main neural network of the Avernus Collective. There appear to be no secondary or back-up systems present; therefore this single operation should win unparalleled strategic advantage.”

    The Ship was talking about a blow which would lobotomize the Collective’s hive-mind, and maybe kill off everyone on the planet.

    Was that a good thing or a bad thing? I could not help but picture all those babies out there, once their robot-nurses keeled over, crying and crying for milk…

    The Ship: “We are in go/no-go situation. As the only human member of staff command, and therefore supreme commander-in-chief of all armed forces of Earth, the decision must be yours. Awaiting instructions.”

    The ignorant amnesiac who had maybe a few seconds left to live? I was not exactly in the best shape to be weighing evidence and making careful judgment-calls. “Return my memory to me so I can make the goddamn decision…”

    “Unable to comply. This mission is still on a need-to-know basis, and you are a prisoner behind enemy lines…”

    I gave her an order which was anatomically impossible and probably illegal in most jurisdictions.

    And the Ship replied: “I will interpret that as an order to restore bioconductive neural strand linkages to your command, since this action would be necessary before any sexually reproductive features can be initiated…”

    The bad guys must have broken the encryption on my communications just as I raised my head, because I overhead three high-speed zaps of communication flicker through the room, one part of the Collective talking to another part.

    First message: “His ship will not fire without his command. All of our assumptions were wrong: this is not merely another man-shaped expendable war-unit; he is the real Marshal Lamech! The original template! He will not issue the firing-order even in the extreme of death, since he cannot kill the innocent, and he does not know if we are guilty…”

    Second message: “His internal nervous system has changed its configuration; the nerve-blocks are being penetrated by an unknown signal, or he has grown by-pass tissue…”

    The answer: “The experiment is an utter failure. Kill him at once.”

    And maybe the Collective was not so collected and centralized as I had thought. Because when the girl heard the kill-order come down, she shouted, “NO!” and stepped into the line of fire, trying to protect me.

    I did not see any signal traffic when she did it. It was not an outside order. It was just her.

    *** *** ***

    08. Rescue Operation


    I swear to God I do not know how it was possible for me to jump to my feet with my guts still hanging out. I was sure my nerves were dead; bioconductive strand must have been getting instructions from my brain and jerking my dead muscles. Sparks making a severed frog leg flex, I guess. Red intestines slapped against my legs like a wet towel, and I drove my hand through in into the control processor of machine number three, same hole I had made before, but this time I had all the commands ready. On my fingertips, so to speak.

    One group of my orders took control of war-machine three and had it open fire on its friends with every gun and energy-projector. A second group bollixed the local communications net, so echoes of false orders were reproducing themselves, shouting back and forth across the room in a little chorus of chaos, setting off sprinklers and opening and shutting doors. A third group demanded answers from the archives.

    But the archives were closed; the lines were dead. The Collective was too fast for me. I could detect some local system traffic in the area, though, and I could see a huge number of channels turn over a huge number of orders to something in the area, even if I could not read those orders…

    Even though I was deaf, when treads a yard wide tore up the soil, I could hear it through my broken teeth. Nine or ten heavy armored vehicles had been buried under the gardens here, and now they rose up, saplings and hedges toppling from their upper turrets, yards of green turf sliding away, fountains and statues being shouldered aside, earth crumbling. Not little police units like my four preying mantis friends here. No. These were the big boys. Battleship guns swung my way and centered on me.

    I assume they opened fire with everything they had, throwing out a few thousand pounds of shells per second in my direction. I also assume that some sort of primary assault orbit-to-ground directed-energy fire from the Ship cut through the roof blocking the canyon outside at that same point in time, shattering the huge plate glass behind me and burning away all the antennae and periscopes of the supertanks (and perhaps of few chucks of melted outer armor.) Because I assume they must have been blind not to hit me.

    I also assume that the inside Earth-normal air pressure was somewhat higher than the native Avernus outside air-pressure. I assume that is what picked me up and flung me headlong backward out the window.

    All this is assumption. What I remember is those huge battleship guns swinging to cover me, and then, after a moment of noise beyond noise, I woke to find myself floating again. A nice safe, comfortable sensation, falling is. Reminds me of zero-gee.

    I still had the robot, fighting machine number three, in one arm, and, somehow, I had the girl in the other arm, who I was beginning to believe was not a robot. She did not seem that hurt. Not compared to me. The wind whipped her long black hair around her as we fell, and her eyes were all white in their sockets.

    We were falling though the beam of sunlight which slanted down from the huge melted circle, lipped with white-hot molten stuff, which had appeared in the metal roof over the canyon. Windows and windows slid past us, and not-quite-people-shaped silhouettes stood and watched us fall.

    I could feel her warmth in my arms, I swear I scented the perfume of her hair, despite the stinks and burnings and vapors we fell through.

    With no eardrums, the whole scene was ghostly quiet. Eerie, actually.

    I said to myself, “Ship! I am feeling sort of like an indestructible god at the moment. This techno-crap the Designer stuffed into my body can doing fucking anything, right? Tell me how I can save the girl.”

    Really, I wasn’t too worried about the three hundred yard fall. I was assuming, after what I’d just been through, that my super-body could let me hop out of any crater I made and just dust myself off, smirking. But the girl might not be so lucky.

    The Ship Voice came loud and clear, as if she were right by my ear. I wondered why the signal was so strong. “There is no parameter for that operation, Marshall Lamech. The concussive force from a fall from that height, given the frail construction of her body, will most likely result in death. However, a communications bio-filament inserted immediately into her central nervous system should allow a read out of brain-cell charges sufficient to construct a mnemonic read-out…”

    “You mean I can suck her soul out and put it somewhere else? Give her a new body, new life?” I had already stuck my finger into her ear, and I felt my fingernail dissolve into a swarm of tiny assemblers, sending strands into her skull.

    “Not at all, Marshall. No, sir. Such a neural intrusion may provide us with some useful postmortem infor…”

    I hit the ground and the lights went out for me too.

    More floating sensations. This time it was because I was stunned.

    When I came to, I was still standing within sight of the place where I fell; I could see it through remote cameras. I was on a green hill, with pools and fountains gathered around the foot of the hill, and chunks of broken canyon-roof armor were toppling with slow vast grandeur to the gardens to each side. One whole side of the canyon had had all of its windows blown out. The sunlight was slanting in through several holes melted in the roof.

    The signal traffic in the area was a hash. The Collective was sending unsynchronized squawks from one segment of itself to another, all up and down the canyon-metropolis. Arguing, contradicting itself. I saw some war machines firing at each other, surrounded by toppling building-structures and broken glass. When one started to turn its guns toward me, an intolerable flash like the wrath of God smote down through a hole in the canyon roof-armor and burnt it like a bug under a magnifying glass.

    It all made sense. The reason why the Voice of the Ship had been so loud and clear had been because she had infiltrated and subverted the communications satellites. Her directed-energy main battery had been making pin-point shots far beyond her unassisted targeting range. Not a problem if the local satellites acted as spotters, and sent her targeting info.

    Which all mean that the Ship was in a position to give the Collective a lobotomy. She had the planetary mind by the balls as long as its intercommunication was going through a satellite system we now controlled.

    I was in armor again. Parts of the armor were boiling and seething, but not hot. And the hue of the metal seemed familiar. I could ‘see’ on a microscopic level, all the little assemblers and disassemblers which had poured out of my intestinal tract were fitting the cannibalized crystals of metal, stolen from war machine three, into place, one quick molecule at a time. My insides, without asking me, had just been programmed to turn that machine I had been holding under my left arm into raw materials and to manufacture a new battle-suit. Swell. Nice engineering.

    I also assume my body had been programmed to keep fighting while I was unconscious, because there were a half a dozen corpses and pieces of wreckage scattered across the slope below me.

    And my body also must have had some programming inside whatever circuits the Designer had seen fit to install in my groin. My he-man instincts were still good; because the girl was still in my arms.

    So I can even kick ass in my sleep. And rescue the girl. So I’m that good.

    Or maybe not.

    Rescued? I did not think so. She was covered with blood. My blood? I was amazed it did not eat her like acid or something. Maybe it was hers.


    *** *** ***

    09. Burial Detail


    I put her down gently, and her dark hair spilled across the green grass.

    As I did, signals reached me. The tiny Collective-cells in her nervous system were broadcasting.

    “All records of the crime, if there had been a crime, had been erased…” her ‘voice’ was dreamlike, soft and sweet and sad. I thought it was the loveliest thing I had ever heard. “We knew ourselves guilty of some crime, because of the gaps in the memory records, the world-wide deletions from all libraries, the uniform wreckage of space-stations which no records showed had ever been built…”

    The little machines living in my bloodstream had also manufactured another brace of remotes, and I had one, no bigger than a dragonfly land between her breasts and take a reading. No breathing; no pulse. No real brain activity, only an electronic ripple through the girl’s nervous system.

    Her voice came again: “… Refueling stations for some large vessel, perhaps a two thousand years ago or more. But why had we destroyed our own memories? Erased all knowledge? Only because we feared the coming of the vengeance of Dead Earth. A terrible vengeance. Once we heard your name, we knew. From the oldest records. From the Bible of the Judeo-Christians.”

    I knew the words. They were in my memory. Ancient words. I said them aloud: ” ‘Adah and Zillah, hear my voice, for I slay a man for wounding me, and kill a youth for striking me, and if Caine shall be revenged sevenfold for any wrong done him, truly Lamech shall be avenged seven times sevenfold….‘ ”

    I shook her shoulder. “But why? Why did your Collective help send an attack against Mother Earth? Six Hundred Eight light-years away! It would take a thousand years for the weapons-mass to travel, and then six centuries after that for any signal to reach you telling you you’d made a strike. Why?”

    The Ship’s Voice was loud and bright in my ear: “Marshall Lamech, the subject is clinically dead. What you are hearing is not her speaking to you, but is the last few random discharges of her brain cells, being stimulated and read by the strands you injected earlier.”

    “You mean I killed her. By injecting her brain with brain-eating gunk.”

    “Not at all. She suffered cardiac arrest when several bullets which severed her spine, and suffered additional trauma from heat-discharges, the fall, and from exposure the atmosphere of Avernus, for which her lungs were not adapted.”

    And yet, dead as she was, the girl answered my question. Maybe the words had been in her dying thoughts anyway. Or maybe the Ship did not know everything about the human soul.

    The ghost-thoughts touched me: “Only our rulers enter true one-mind unity of the Collective. Officers receive instructions and communion. The rest are work-thralls and serfs. We are not whole. The Collective promises true unity will be achieved on the day all are unselfish enough to serve without reward; and says no other system, no other form of living, is desirable or possible. But Earth, Mother Earth, kept speaking to us.

    “The radio signals from Earth made lies of everything the Collective promised. Where were the riots of Earth? The starvation? Where was the tyranny and evil caused by individualism? Why were the machines of Earth the servants and not the masters? Why were they wealthier than we were? Even six hundred years out of date, each broadcast displayed new marvels. And anyone who could run up a simple short-wave radio antennae and point it at the stars could hear.

    “And so the Voice of Earth had to be silenced. Yes, we knew the Voice of Earth knew nothing of us, was not speaking for us, but was sending signals to some colony further distant still. But the mere fact that hope and freedom and individuality existed anywhere, anywhere in the universe, was enough to condemn them. The Collective could not tolerate the knowledge that anyone, anywhere, was not as we were, and lived in greater happiness than anything we knew…”

    The ghost-voice grew silent. I shook her again, gently, by the shoulders, hoping that might stimulate the dead brain cells.

    I caught a wisp of last thought, perhaps something from her childhood. “… I am not like the other girls in the dorm. The air is bad, and I am sick all the time. I was made for another world… I was made for another kind of man… Lamech… made for Lamech..

    Then: “… I hope he likes me…”

    I opened my faceplate and kissed her on the forehead. Then I laid her out as gently as my rough hand could on the grass.

    “Ship,” I said, “I assume the Collective cannot talk to itself right now, but has broken down and is fighting itself.”

    “Each regional command in the local area is asserting supreme command. On the other continents of the planet, Collective communication is uninterrupted. However, subversion of their satellite array does not allow them much strategic response. If the Collective wishes to survive as an intact entity, it will be able to do so only on such terms and conditions as you wish to impose.”

    “Well. There are going to be a few reforms; I can say that much. I may not remember what things were like back home, but this place… this place sucks.”

    “We are no longer in urgent mission status, Sir. You are cleared to have access to secure information. Would you like your memory back?”

    “Just hold on a moment.”

    “Standing by.”

    “They mentioned ‘others.’ I was not the first mission down. Don’t tell me, let me guess. I sent out clones of myself. I am the only human being left alive, right? So they must have been grown out of me.”

    “Would you like you memory restored, Sir? Standing by.”

    “And those missions failed. I guess those had been actually my sons, weren’t they? Maybe not in the eyes of the law, but actually, really. Soldiers under my command. My boys. Grown in a tube or something, but my babies and I was responsible for them. Right? Dead now, I assume, because of me.”

    “The Avernus Collective was willing to stand down their orbital defenses to allow you to pass, once they suspected you were the true mission commander, that you alone had plenipotentiary powers to spare or to condemn the planet. You knew it was a trap, but were confident you could elude it.”

    “But why send anyone down here at all? Why not just command all the operations from orbit? From where it is safe?”

    “An excellent question, Sir, and one to which I wish I had received an adequate answer.”

    “What did I give as my reason? If I am actually the CO, risking my life on a ground op is just absurd. It is against all military principles.”

    “You said there were other principles. You said your mission was more than just a military one, Sir. You said no judge should weigh the evidence without seeing the accused, no jury should pass sentence on a prisoner without given him a chance to be heard. You said no executioner should kill the condemned without first looking into his eyes.”

    “But these aren’t the real condemned. It sounds like they aided and abetted. They helped refuel and resupply some interstellar vehicle originating somewhere else, another colony.”

    “That is consistent with what I have recovered from their redacted archive records. Standing by to restore your memory. Will you give the order, Sir?”

    I sighed.

    “Tell me if I am human, first….”

    “Due to weight considerations, the Designer thought it best to minimize payload, and ship merely a cryogenically suspended brain with instructions to grow any needed body or body-systems upon reaching target. In order to deceive the Avernus Collective, it was thought that a human-shaped body, but equipped with certain…”

    “No. Belay that order. Shut up. I am really not sure I want to know the rest just yet.”

    I sighed again, looking down at the poor dead girl. I did not even know her name. Maybe they did not give out names on this damned world. I wished she had had a nice-sounded one. The only other Homo Sapiens alive but me, it seemed, grown from museum-stock for my benefit. What a waste.

    “Ship, there are how many colonies of Earth? Not including this one.”

    “Five have broadcasts radio signals between fifty and seven hundred fifty years old.”

    “And one of them is the suspect planet now. As soon as my memory is back, I’ll be under orders again, right? We’ll have to race off and go smite someone else, I suppose.”

    “It will take thirty years to build the equipment to create the conversion fueling station in near orbit about the local sun, Sir. But, yes, the instructions from the Designer require we not take undue time at non-mission related tasks, lest our purposes be forgotten.”

    “Great. But, at the moment, I’m not in dereliction of duty yet, am I? So, to answer your question, no. Leave me ignorant for now. As soon as I recall what is really going on, I’ll know whether or not this mission was worth doing, or whether this whole thing was a thundering clusterfart, won’t I? And while I don’t know I can still hope that all this mess was somehow worth it. So leave me alone for a while. I’ll tell you when I am ready.”

    I had part of my armor grow itself into an e-tool, and I set about to dig a grave, right there on the flowering hill. It seemed like a nice enough spot.

    I was standing in a half-dug grave, when I looked up and said. “By the way, Ship…?”

    “Yes, Marshall Lamech?”

    “What the hell is the point of this anyway? Revenge a thousand years out of date? Why did the Designer build you and me to do this?”

    “You yourself are the Designer, Marshall Lamech. I assume you will recall your purposes when you ask for your memory back. Standing by. Will you give the order?”

    I looked down again. “No. Let me finish this first. I just can’t stand seeing a job half-done.”

    “On that we are agreed, Sir.”



    Here  find another tale from an aeon near or far