Dirty Hands - Pt 1 of 3
7Sengya doesn't think I'm from Earth.

"It is doubtful," 7Sengya tells me, taking a momentary break from her almost OCD sniffing-and-tasting of the wild bloom of blue flowering bushes that flank my cottage, "that you are what you actually think you are."

Nor for the first time, the distinct impression strikes me there's something more than slightly catlike about 7Sengya. For starters, there's that eerie, almost unearthly, actually, she is unearthly, in every sense of the word, grace of hers. She doesn't walk, 7Sengya doesn't; she glides, a complete economy and litheness of movement that scarcely makes a sound or so much as ripples the grass as she passes. Then there's that almost predatory fixity of attention she's got going: when something interests her, she locks in on it like a tabby staring down a bird that's just lighted down nearby. When it doesn't, she shifts into some sort of restless seek-and-find mode, touching everything, leaning close to smell it...and most disconcertingly of all, tasting everything.

Like right now; she rubs her fingers on the star-shaped bud of the flower's core, licks her fingertip, and stands there a second, like a food critic contemplating some new exotic dish.

I can't stand it anymore. "Why you gotta taste everything, anyway?" I demand of her. Which is kind of direct, considering that I've only known 7Sengya for all of a day, but there's something about her that invites directness. Maybe it's the fact that absolutely nothing seems to offend her.

She half-cocks her head around, regards me with that semi-interested-feline expression of hers. Violet eyes wide open, a sort of silky, peaceful expression on her face. Which is an intriguing face, more striking than beautiful, planed and angular in a manner that has a distinctly catlike cast. Her skin is white and very fair, but her eyes have a slight epicanthic set to them. Her hair is this flowing straight blue-black mane that is definitely Asiatic.

"My kind have a...very developed sense of taste," she tells me. "A...gengineering augmentation." She licks her fingertip again, freezes for just a second, and the subtlest of projected visible glyphs dance in front of her violet eyes. I already know these projected laser-light glyphs are mostly a cosmetic politeness, a way of letting others know she's internally accessing the embedded computer in her skull.

"For instance," she tells me, as the glyphs vanish, "I can tell you this flower is a gengineered mutation of platycodon grandiflora, the astra double-blue. The flower is incomplete; it contains petals, pistils, and sepals, but lacks stamen, which means, this flower is female. Carbon traces likewise indicate this plant was assembled nani-technically, it wasn't grown, in the traditional sense." 7Sengya smiles at me, indulgently. "See how it works, now?"

I shake my head, feeling, as I so often did around 7Sengya, like a complete and utter caveman seeing fire for the first time. "You can tell all that just based on how it tastes?"

"The word taste isn't...entirely accurate, for what I'm doing." 7Sengya admits. "My tongue contains several varieties of chemical receptors...allows my on-board systems to process chemical information on the molecular level." She grins, then, at my downcast expression. "Don't go feeling bad, boo-boo. It's common enough genetech. You want it; I can whip you up a graft in no time."

I shake my head, again. Two weeks ago, when 7Sengya and the other Pathfinders had stepped onto Purgatory, they'd spoken English, sort of. They also spoke Spanish, German, French, Mandarin, Farsi, and every other language spoken on the station. But the English they spoke wasn't just oddly accented and clipped to a sparseness that came across as abrupt as a machine-gun report, it was so loaded with dense techspeak and advanced concepts that I literally couldn't follow it (Any more than a caveman could have understood an Oxford physics professor doing a lecture, anyhow. The files to grok these Pathfinders just aren't on my hard drive.).

But in a space of less than two weeks, 7Sengya hadn't just smoothed out her accent; the words coming out of her mouth now have a comforting folksy hometown slickness that would have been spot-on in Anywheresville, US of A, right around the turn of the second millennium. Which was apparently about a hundred and fifty light-years, and more than a couple thousand years removed, from where I was now....

"I told you," I say, a little sulkily. "I went into the freezer in 2030. On Earth. Atlanta. The Schumann Foundation. When I woke up, ninety-three days ago, now, I was here. All I know for sure, really."

7Sengya views me with that dubious knowing expression I've seen a lot of, the last day or so. "There are some...problems with that," she says, at length.

"Such as?"

"Well...for starters, cryonics tech in that era was extremely destructive to organic tissue, especially to brain tissue," 7Sengya tells me. "Could go into more detail, just know: there are no records, anywhere, of subjects from a century or even two centuries later than 2030 ever being successfully revived with anything resembling what was known as 'fidelity of personality.' Fact is, cryonics was an inherently flawed technology anyhow; it was eventually superseded by nano-mediated biostasis, which places active symbiotic nanosomes into each individual cell..." By this point I was wincing, more than a bit.

"Sorry...geeking out on ya, again," she says, with an apologetic grimace. "But the idea that a sophont, sorry, person - from your era could be accurately re-created after being preserved like you were...well, it strains the limits of credulity, let's say."

I chew my lip. "What Saint Pete tells us," I offer, "is that he's the offshoot of some earlier super-AI. Charon. Dunno all the details, but I can call him up and grill him again if you wanna, but from what Saint Pete says, Charon took over the freezer Foundation, then got crosswise of some of the other AI's of the time. Boogied right on outta the Sol system around 2480 with all us corpsicles on board. From what you and Saint Pete both say, it's like, right around the year 4000 now...like, how the hell are you so sure, what Charon did or didn't figure out after he split Earth? That gave him, what, fifteen hundred years to figure out how to bring us back?"

7Sengya sighs, and for just a moment, the thinnest edge of pity colors those luminous violet eyes. "Justin," she says, and shrugs, a little helplessly. "There is just...so much you don't even begin to understand."

I make a sour face. "Then explain it," I tell her. "Real slow and in words of one syllable. Give me enough time, even my dim monkey brain will catch on, I promise."

She eyeballs me with some curiosity. "What is it you used to do, back on Earth?"

My jaw bunches, involuntarily. Somehow we hadn't quite got around to that yet, and I had been happy to leave it that way. "Why you ask?"I say, warily.

"The others I've met here...for the most part, they're kind of a Who's Who of Old Earth's A-list," she says. "Leaders in industry and science, sports stars, actors, actresses, recording stars, high-end government figures, suchlike...."

I shrug. "Yeah, well, freezing cost," I say."It cost a lot. Took over a million bucks to get you into the Schumann Foundation's freezers, my time; Lord only knows what it cost for later generations. Plus you had to assign your assets into a trust, to be managed by the Foundation...just way above the reach of most normal folks. I know you don't think much of their tech now, but Schumann...they were just miles ahead of most of their competitors, back then..."

7Sengya nods. "So what was your ticket here, then?" she asks.

I stare at her, considering. After a moment, I decide it just plain doesn't matter anymore. "I was a thief," I admit. Actually what I had done, back in my old life, wasn't technically theft, and it wasn't even technically illegal, but trying to explain land-lease manipulation to a super-future goddess like 7Sengya seems more than vaguely...embarrassing. Like yeah, baby, I know you just dropped in on a spaceship from some future never-neverland in the stars...me, I once bilked some Park Avenue trust-fund babies outta a couple million large ones in some bait-and-switch bad-faith deal that woulda done Bernie Madoff proud. So hey there, hot stuff, what's your sign....?

For once, though, 7Sengya isn't light-years ahead of me. "You must have been a very good thief, to have gotten here," she says.

I grimace more than a bit at that. Saint Pete had told me, after I'd been resurrected, that I'd been killed by multiple gunshot wounds to the face and chest; the only good news in all that, apparently, was that they'd missed my brain. The particulars are still pretty fuzzy. I do remember stepping off the curb in Decatur, outside The Bell and the Bob, the hot muggy blast of Atlanta night in my face as I exited the door of the club. I remember the door of the minivan across the street sliding open, muzzle-flashes sparking from its darkened interior. The world spun, went dark...and then, the next thing I knew, here I was, on Purgatory.

It was probably Pilson, who had been seriously cheesed off to discover that he owned the building, but not the land, of the old Pollucks & Beard lot at 7th and Main in Mid-Town. When the city had declared the building condemned, and shown up with their wrecking equipment, Pilson had certainly made some Apocalyptic-sounding phone calls...or maybe it had been somebody else. Somebody more prone to action than invective...sad to say, there hadn't been a shortage of potential candidates out there. But at this point, did it even matter? According to Saint Pete, my murder was never solved, and the guys who had done it had been gone a couple thousand years or so....

"Yeah, well, I thought I was," I say, finally.

7Sengya stares at me with those great luminous eyes. "I like you, Justin Matte," she says, and then grins a pixie-like grin. "You're certainly not boring, like some of these others..."

I blink, surprised. "How's that?" I ask. "You add it all up, I'm probably about the least interesting person here...shit, that guy in the lot right over there -" I motion across the lake, where on the cliff tops above the shore there's this geodesic sprouts-of-mushrooms palace of crystal and black metal springing up, "-used to be the CEO of Faulker-Essen Sapphire. Topware German direct neural interface manufacturer. Brilliant motherfucker, basically built a megacorp outta his basement...and as you can clearly see, he's building himself one serious new basement...."

"Yeah, I met him," 7Sengya says, shortly, looking out over the lake at Grant Faulker's sprawling palace with a sour face. "He's an asshole."

She cocks her head, then, at the water lapping up on the sandy shore in front of my cottage, gets that uber-fascinated feline expression again. After a moment, her eyes light up. "You know, I've never swum before...is it, like, safe in there, for hu's like us?"

I nod. "Well, yeah," I say, blinking again at the dizzying change in topic. "Been in a few times myself...nothing in there but bass and trout, according to Saint Pete...."

"Awesome," she says. She raises her arms, just so, and all of a sudden the black form-fitting skinsuit she's wearing sort of falls off her in pieces to the ground, folds itself neatly up into an innocuous little square maybe an inch across. I barely notice that last. Because 7Sengya...holy shit, she is gorgeous. Unblemished milky-white skin, an athletic dancer's body with nonetheless enough of this and that to make even Jessica Rabbit blush. I swallow, heavily.

"C'mon, Justin," she says, flicking her blue-black mane back carelessly. Body modesty is clearly not a concern to her particular species of hu. "Let's go!" She wades in up to her knees, hesitates, for just a second, and it comes to me, then, that she's just finished telling me she's never swum, before.

"Uh...do you even know how to swim?" I ask her.

She looks back at me, grins, and flips a wink. Golden glyphs blink momentarily before her irises once again. "I think I can figure it out," she says, and then dives in. She resurfaces a moment later, cutting through the emerald-blue water like a seal.

I hesitate, for just a moment. When I, well, died - I'm still wrapping my head around that - I was a not-especially-fit sixty, had been years since any woman who hadn't gotten paid for it had deigned to touch me. I still haven't gotten used to the idea that like everyone else resurrected on Purgatory, my biological age is now around eighteen, and a harder-muscled, leaner eighteen than I'd ever been, back in my old life. Saint Pete's re-shine treatment, whatever, is damn thorough...

What the hell. It's not like I've got anything else better to do. I strip down, dive in, and chase off after 7Sengya.

Another thing I still haven't gotten used to, in Purgatory, is the sun: you look up, and instead of this bright yellow-orange ball of light, what you see instead is this horizontal slash of brilliance right down the middle of the sky, extending to the horizon on the east and west as far as the eye can see. And past that, on the other side of Purgatory's blue sky, past that slash of light where the sun should be, you can see the rolling curvature of continents and lakes.

Purgatory is a cylinder, Saint Pete tells us. A great big, rotating cylinder, hanging in space, and we live on the inside of it. That much I could have figured out with my own eyes, all you have to do is look up to figure out This World Ain't Round.

The radius of the cylinder is apparently about a thousand kilometers, and is ten times that in length, which adds up to a surface area something like a sixth that of Earth — big. What we perceive as gravity is actually centrifugal force; we're stuck to the inside of that rolling cylinder, like a kid plastered to the seat of a carnival tilt-a-whirl. That transverse slash of bright-yellow light overhead is actually just strip lighting that runs smack down the middle of the cylinder.

7Sengya tells me it's called a McKendree cylinder.

"How the hell did anything build something so big?" I ask her.

7Sengya shrugs. "A McKendree cylinder is a pretty common hab, actually," she tells me. "Takes the mass of a planetoid maybe a twentieth Luna's mass to build something this size...good bit of matter, but not that much. Out this far, you don't see a lot of 'em, true...but there's a lot of these things, closer in towards the Inner Sphere...the more developed systems, they're like, lousy with them. And if hu's can build these things...for something like Saint Pete, it'd be child's play."

The strip lighting overhead is fading to that twilight state just before it goes dim and blue; the sky overhead has taken on a distinctly orange cast. I lean back on our blanket, actually, it was 7Sengya's transforming jumpsuit, just before she'd jumped on me with serious intent, she'd taken the time to show me another trick: she'd tapped the little cube that her form-fitting jumpsuit had turned into, and voila, it had done its transforming thing again, stretching itself out into a beach blanket. Which we had made good use of, for a good couple hours, until we were sweaty, drained-out, exhausted messes.

Or well, until I am. I've got the sense 7Sengya could have kept going for the next ten hours or so.

We lie there for awhile, afterward, 7Senya nestled into my arm, watching the strip sun dim, the orange sky overhead fade to dusk. Very soon the strip is going to fade to a dim moonlight blue, and when that happens, through the blue water of the lakes and rivers on the other side of the cylinder, we'll be able to see the enormous golden disk of whatever planet we're orbiting; 7Sengya told me, yesterday, that it's a super-Jovian, a gas giant with more than ten times the mass of Jupiter.

Nighttime, in Purgatory.

I'd asked her yesterday, how we could see this super-Jupiter through the walls of the cylinder, and she tells me it's just a holographic projection. Purgatory's made of buckyfiber, carbon nanotubes with more than one hundred times the tensile strength of steel...not a transparent medium, but she says the projection's an accurate one, exactly what we'd be seeing if the cylinder was transparent.

7Sengya, I might have mentioned, is a very bright girl.

"So why are you called Seven Sengya, anyhow?" I ask her.

She cranes her head around on my shoulder, regards me with those violet cat eyes. "Well," she says, in a manner that suggests the answer should be obvious, "'Cause I'm the seventh Sengya iteration."

I frown at her quizzically. "Seventh iteration of what?"

"The Sengya template," 7Sengya tells me. She apparently realizes I'm struggling with the concept, and elucidates: "Like, how it is, is this: there's no traversable wormhole to this system...the link to this system is just ten centimeters, actually...enough to transmit data, not enough to send a crewed ship or live body through. So what they do is, send the Sengya template through the wormhole in the form of data, and at this end, they cook up a clone copy, in what's called an 'engenerator'. From my designation, I'm guessing the Pathfinders have done this six times before, other places...I dunno for sure, I don't have any of their memories, just the original Sengya's. And there you go, 7Sengya."

Other Sengyas. I chew the idea around, contemplating the notion. I don't like it, actually. Seems...oddly cavalier, for some reason, whipping up copies of people to order like that.

"It doesn't bother you, being a copy?" I ask, finally.

7Sengya snorts. "Comes with the territory, this job. It doesn't bother you?"

I rock my head back, blink owlishly at her like I've been slapped. "What the hell do you mean?"

She grins at me, pointy-toothed. It is not a friendly smile. "What do you think you are, anyhow? Assuming you're not just the figment of some transap's imagination, what Saint Pete did was, he copied whatever memories he found in that corpsicle of yours, and printed them on this here fine piece of meat you're riding around in now." She gives me an uncomfortably hard squeeze, down low. "So instead of making faces at me, bunky, maybe I should start calling you 2Justin instead, and you can stop being such a ween about it, okay?"

For some reason, that makes me laugh. "I love it when you use words like 'ween'," I tell her. "It's so beneath you, almost sounds dirty, coming from your mouth." I grin at her, then, because her violet cat eyes are still glittering, ever so slightly. "So..." I start, and then grin at her, wolfishly. "You think there's any chance we could, say, get an 8Sengya or even a 9Sengya in on this, get a girl-pile going...."

She snorts again, louder, and chomps down on my ear almost hard enough to draw blood. I squawk.

"Listen, Model T," she tells me, grinning, "you can't handle one of me...if we're gonna go doing something like that, we'll need about another four or five Justins. Like, are you ready to go again, or not? 'Cause I'm about to dose you up with some keterine and hypo-testosterone to get you recovering double-quick already...getting sleepy over here, waiting on you..."

That inspires another round of rolling around and giggling, and we're about to get down to it again when the aircar whispers by, just overhead, knifing through the sky above us with the sound of a thousand muted hummingbird flutters.

"Shit!" I exclaim, as a little mini-hurricane of downdraft erupts around us. Fancloth might be quiet, but it produces quite a wake, for those caught beneath it. I wipe dust and grass shavings from my eyes and leap up, shaking my fist up at the sky. "Asshole!"

The aircar slows, banks, and begins a slow circle of my lot. It looks more-or-less like a VW Beetle, a big semi-sleek bubble with mothlike wings. Not surprisingly, it's actually called a 'Moth', per the specs on the nanofabs. It had actually been 7Sengya's favorite boy, Grant Faulker, who had explained how the Moths worked when they first started popping up in Purgatory: those wings were how aircrars stay aloft, were composed of a smart-fabric mesh of millimeter-sized fans. Hence: fancloth.

The aircar lands on my lawn thirty feet away, extending it landing legs, settling down like its insect namesake. Its fancloth wings fold up and go away somewhere into the vehicle's silvery chassis, and the front end splits open like a flower blooming. Khadir Beshal steps out, black and menacing in that new carapace armor the Guard have taken to wearing, the last few weeks.

"What the hell?" I snarl, charging up. "You Boy Scout Mall-Cop wanna-be's just go around landing on folks' lawns now? We're like, kinda busy here, Khadir..."

Khadir stares at me for just a moment, and it comes to me just how intimidating Khadir actually does look behind that organic body armor and his wraparound mirrored Terminator shades. Then he flashes me that brilliant white disarming smile of his, and the moment passes.

"Sorry," he says, and actually half manages to sound sincere. He raises his mirrored shades up and cocks an eyebrow at 7Sengya, who is propped up on her elbows buck naked on her beach blanket like the Playmate of the Month. "Oh, my," he says, and flips me a wink. "Uh..hi, Sengya."

"Hey, Khadir," she calls, cheerfully. "You doing good?"

"Bumpin'," he says, which sounds especially strange coming from his mouth. Khadir tends to be even vaguer about his past life back on Earth than I am, but I know he's Iraqi and some sort of high-ranking ex-military, and obviously had had the money for Schumann's freezing process. Considering the shape the former oil-producing states had apparently gotten into as the peak oil disasters had hit, I could pretty much fill in the blanks from there. Especially since he'd almost anachronistically gotten the American Dream right around the same time most Americans were catching the Anywhere But America dream, after the Chinese renmimbi had displaced the dollar as the world's reserve currency, and the American economy had well and truly gone tits-up.

Despite that, I like Khadir, at least when he's not landing on my lawn and blue-balling me right before I'm about to get it on with 7Sengya. He's an amoral freewheeling bastard, sure, but who's judging? By most anyone's standards I fit that description pretty well my own self....

"Please tell me you gotta good reason for being here, Khadir," I tell him. "'Cause you're messing up what was looking like a mighty fine night, I gotta tell ya...."

"Tyson," Khadir tells me, turning his head aside, obviously trying hard not to stare too obviously at 7Sengya, and plucks uncomfortably at the little thin wisp of mustache on his lip. He's still trying to re-grow the wide handlebar dictator mustache he'd once worn, I suspect, but the problem with being a biological eighteen is, no matter how Arabic you are, it's going to take awhile, so instead of looking like Saddam Hussein, he's looking more like Che Guavera right now. "He's calling a meeting...he has another of the Pathfinders, 12Tamyu, I believe his name is, staying at his place. Apparently this 12Tamyu has some...things of importance to tell us. And Tyson wants 7Sengya there too, if she doesn't mind...."

I make a face. "Tyson."

Khadir nods, noncommittally. I still don't know if Khadir can stand Tyson. I know I can't, and I know it's mutual...but Khadir's a lot more circumspect, than I am. Probably all in a day's work for him, in his old life of toppling regimes for profit.

There's a sharp little zip in the background, and I glance back to catch one glorious last glimpse of 7Sengya, naked - right before her beach blanket does its foldy-transformer thing again, and all of a sudden she's wearing that matte black skinsuit again. Khadir raises his wraparound mirrored shades up over his forehead again, and gawks.

"Now that is...something," Khadir says.

"I like it better when it works the other way," I grump, sourly, as 7Sengya comes gliding up, all sinew and predatory grace.

"Cool armor, Khadir," 7Sengya tells him.

Khadir beams at her, and thumps his armored chest, like Tarzan. "Imposing, yes? Kettlebeck dug up the specifications on his fab. He calls it marrowbone. I would tell you the specs but, well, you're a possible alien infiltrator who might attempt to consume our brains at any moment, and I don't want to be too forthcoming...and to be truthful, I don't understand Kettlebeck particularly clearly anyway when he gets going...."

Those little golden glyphs are flickering in front of 7Sengya's eyes again. "Marrowbone armor: late Nanoswarm Era design," she recites. "Primarily multiple layers of laminated diamondoid. Contains a soft interior layer of repair nanocaches, along with an embedded nano-capillary system to dispense 'blue goo' nano-defenses to repel dissembler attacks. The outer layer is composed of a polished ablative polymer; the interior layer is coated with lead and/or boron for radiation shielding of up to twelve hundred rads...you know, for those uncomfortable moments when some asshole detonates a neutron bomb in your particular zip code." She smiles at him, benignly.

Khadir stares at her, mouth momentarily agape. "Uhm...yes," he says. "That sounds...about right...well, except for the bit about the repair nanos. Apparently the fab won't produce nanotech assemblers, for whatever reason...."

"No, it wouldn't," 7Sengya says, again with that infuriatingly knowing smile. "Still a nice old museum piece, though." Khadir winces, ever so slightly, and she smiles sweetly right back at him, and it occurs to me 7Sengya might be feeling the slightest bit waspish about her own blue ovaries, herself. "So...when are we going?"

"The Guard's rounding up everybody we know in the Valley now," Khadir tells her, glances over at me, and tips his shades back down over his eyes with a slight cringe. "Or, well, as soon as your boyfriend Justin, here, puts his pants back on," he allows.

Tyson Howard has the nanofab bug.

It's going around, a lot, among the former go-getter mover-and-shaker types that wound up in the Schumann Foundation's freezers. When these People of Importance found themselves resurrected into Purgatory, with nothing remaining of their former financial and political empires but an empty plot of wilderness somewhere in the cylinder and a nano-fabricator the size of a van, their initial reaction was usually screeching, apoplectic fury "I gave the Foundation ninety mill in liquid assets, and all I get is this fucking box!" - which was usually then followed by a week or two of mumbling, blank-eyed despair. Those early weeks, we'd seen a lot of tribal, bonfire-type parties around the lake, along with just a whole lot of self-pitying existential ennui, which is how the cylinder got to be called Purgatory, to begin with. More than once, those first couple of weeks, I had caught glimpses of my neighbor across the lake, Grant Faulker, teetering precariously around on the cliff tops above the waterline with a flagon of Jagermeister in hand, engaged in such productive pastimes as drunkenly singing the Bayern Munich fan chant at the top of his lungs, pissing off the edge of the cliff, and giving middle-fingered salutes to the sky. Which was pretty typical of how a lot of the Resurrected were acting, those early days.

Then the Resurrected had started collectively figuring out that the nano-fabricators sitting on their lots were just a whole lot more than big magical boxes that you could dial up a steak or a handle of tequila on. And the nanofab bug had swept across Blue Valley.

Grant Faulker's lot had started transforming itself into that geodesic workshop that was still sprouting upwards and outwards, like a patch of mushrooms. Little construction bots trundle around up there night and day, now, building intricate spires of antenna arrays, spraying and shaping diamondoid foam, carrying canisters of nano-assembled equipment about. Grant, being the savant tech-head he is, had caught the bug early, but once the capabilities of the three-meter-square boxes became apparent, nanofabulosity soon swept across the Valley. And a bewildering array of structures began appearing - often overnight - across the lots of the Resurrected: castles, towers, arcologies, rustic mansions and palaces fit for kings.

I haven't caught the nanofab bug yet, myself. I'd spent a day pulling up the specs for a constructor bot, dialed up the plans for my little three-room lakefront cottage, added a nice front porch I could drink beer and watch the sun go down on. That's as far as my ambition seems to have reached, so far. Maybe it's that I have my own, admittedly jaded, take on real estate - today it's yours, tomorrow it's somebody else's, and it all gets moved and shuffled all around and belongs to nobody, in the end - but whatever, I just haven't seen the point of building myself an outsized personal Disneyland to rattle around alone in.

Others clearly feel differently. Tyson Howard is one of these.

Tyson Howard, former Senator of the Great State of Texas, former CEO of Gulf Coast Petroleum, former honorary PhD of the University of Texas (Austin), and former all-around mover, shaker, and power-broker extraordinaire, has nanofab fever to the nth. His estate has grown, the last couple months, into some sprawling arcology that looks like a cross between a Texas ranch, Tony Stark's mansion, and some Futurist's conception of the Alamo: walls, towers, and a great multiplex mansion, hewn into the side of a great rolling slope that makes the old Biltmore Estate lawn look small. Khadir lands on a great big aircar pad on the roof that's the size of a parking garage.

On the other side of the parking-garage-sized aircar pad, about midway down the length of the multiplex mansion, Tyson Howard's built himself a Panoranum tower, rising well above the Valley below. There's maybe seventy people inside, mostly folks I know from around Blue Valley. Grant Faulker is there, along with Terry Molina, another tech-head CEO who had done something with smart optics. They're part of the Valley's left-brained genius clique, along with with Zane Kettlebeck, who is undoubtedly back in his lab splitting atoms or something. Interspersed among the real hu's are what look like people, but are actually servitor mechs, dressed in crisp tuxedos, serving drinks, and scurrying back and forth with plates.

There's about a half-dozen of the Guard there, too, all decked up in that insectoid marrowbone armor, peering suspiciously around behind their mirrored wraparound shades. That actually might be all the Guard, at present: from what I've been hearing, Khadir's been finding recruiting hard sledding. There's not many military guys in general among the Resurrected, and even fewer spear-carrier types who are willing to take orders or toe the line in much, if any particular...actually, you probably couldn't have found a worse group on Old Earth than the deadsleepers of the Schumann Foundation for military recruitment.

And anyhow, even when the Pathfinders showed up a few weeks back, the idea of arming, and preparing, for some vague and incomprehensible threat seems a bit of a stretch, to most. The sheer scale of Purgatory, and the notion we could actually do something about whatever threat might appear, just seems like a reach, to most of us.

Myself, I'm pretty much of the opinion that if Saint Pete isn't up to the job of protecting us from whatever comes along, we're pretty comprehensively hosed anyway. I know it'd take 7Sengya or any of the other Pathfinders about half a second to stomp me good and proper if they had a mind to; if they're representative of the State of the Galaxy today, we Old Earthers are about ten weight classes out of our league. Minimum. Still, it's at least vaguely comforting to think that some of us, anyway, would be inclined to try. It's somewhat less comforting to think that while all these future-weapons Khadir and company are cranking out aren't likely to work overly well on alien invaders, they'd be damn effective against us old-model hu's...and it's especially not comforting, at least to my admittedly semi-sociopathic mind, to see how chummy an ambitious soul like Tyson Howard is getting with the Guard, these days.

I let my eyes flick around the Panoranum. It's an impressive venue, like a cross between a planetarium and a theater in the round, with circular single-step levels tiering down to the theater floor. Tyson Howard is standing at the center of the lowermost level along with another of the Pathfinders, a hard-muscled, male counterpart to 7Sengya. I presume this is 12Tamyu, the leader of the Pathfinder expedition into Purgatory. There's also one of Saint Pete's avatars with them; a humanoid-shaped white-and-chrome walker bot with a friendly human face, not unlike the Mark V's in the Hollywood version of I, Robot. Which was maybe not the best avatar choice ever on Saint Pete's part, seeing as how I wasn't the only one that remembered that the Mark V's had gone all Skynet on the humans, in that film...whatever, the Saint Pete avatars are blandly polite, utterly cooperative, and everybody still walks really carefully around them.

Say what you want about Tyson Howard, he sets a good spread. He's got a buffet lining one end of the topmost level that would have done a Republican convention proud. I grab a plate and start filling it with mini-burger sliders and chicken fajita rolls. I find Jose manning the bar down at the end.

"What can I get for you tonight, Senor Matte?" Jose; asks, deferentially. I haven't got much use for Tyson Howard, but I like Jose;. Slight and soft-spoken, Jose; comes across as even younger than his biological eighteen, though he was apparently closer to my own age when he went into the freezer. In much the manner as the Pharaohs, Tyson Howard apparently hadn't been content to go into deadsleep on his lonesome; he'd been followed by his wife, and a few decades later, a daughter and two of his sons, along with a passel of extended family members. And, of course, Tyson had also arranged freezer burials for his house-staff as well. It simply wouldn't do, after all, to arrive in the Glorious Future without a retinue.

The rest of the extensive Howard clan hasn't been thawed out yet - Saint Pete seems to be thawing us out in the order we came in - but Jose, apparently, hadn't outlived Tyson by more than a few months, and so he'd been among the first wave of Resurrectees, here on Purgatory.

I grimace "Call me Justin, Jose," I tell him for the millionth time. "Every time you call me Senor, I start feeling white man guilt, and it depresses the shit outta me."

Jose grins at me. He's cannier than he lets on, Jose is, and it's come to me that what comes across as deferential politeness on his part is actually a subtle form of needling.

"Of course, Mister Matte," he amends, which of course means exactly the same thing. "So what are you drinking, tonight?"

I sigh. "Jack and Coke is fine," I tell him.

"So, Jose," I ask him, as he pours. "When are you going to go claim your own lot and fab, and stop working for The Man? Safe to say, I don't think you gotta worry much about INS, anymore...."

Jose shrugs, and his eyes flicker, a bit guiltily, towards the center of the room. "Senor Howard is a good man,"he tells me, handing me my drink in an elegant crystalline cup that would have cost a hundred bucks, easy, back on Old Earth. Here on Purgatory, it's worth exactly the amount of time it takes you to dial it up on the housefab and hit go. "His family was good to my family...for many years. It would not be...honorable, to leave him alone in this new world now, si?"

A rare smile splits Jose's face, then, and he says, in a lower voice: "Although...on Tuesday, I did see a lot down the river, towards the north end of the Valley; it had a waterfall!" His voice lowers even further. "I have thought about that lot many times, since Tuesday," he admits. "If I were to ever build my own house...I think it will be there, above that waterfall."

I nod, once. "Better grab it quick," I tell him, and take a tentative sip. I make a face; the housefabs still haven't gotten Jack, or Coke, quite right yet. The drink is bubbly and sweet, and has a bit of a burn, but has an aftertaste somewhere between charcoal and roofing tar. "Saint Pete's supposed to be thawing out the '35ers in a few days, supposedly there's quite a few of 'em...and the lots down through the Valley, they're likely gonna fill up pretty quick...."

Jose stares at me, obviously a little uncomfortable. "I will...consider that," he says, neutrally.

"You do know how to log your claim, right?" I press. "Just grab any of Saint Pete's avatars, have 'em call up the Lot Registry, and pick your nanofab lot. It's easy...Saint Pete will just walk you right through it."

Jose blinks at me, understanding finally registering behind his eyes. "I...did not realize it was this...simple," he admits, and I feel my teeth grinding around in my jaw. Big surprise, there, Tyson keeping his one thawed loyal employee in the dark about the realities of this Socialistic Nanotopia that Saint Pete has built for us here. Entitlement like that was one big reason why I'd always thoroughly enjoyed taking guys like Tyson to the cleaners, back in the day...

Jose cocks his head, pulls a bottle from the back of the bar, pours me a new glass. "Try this instead, Mister Matte," he says. "Cusha oro. One of the old Mayan traditions of Old Guatamala that we managed to mostly hide from you gringos. I did some...experimenting, with the housefab, the other day, and it seemed to come out well."

I take a tentative sip, and my eyes widen. "Wow," I manage. The cusha burns like fire, but it's as smooth as honey, leaves a sweet burn all the way down my throat. "That it did."

Jose winks at me, just a little, and puts a shush finger to his mouth. "Enjoy the gathering, Mister Matte,"he tells me, and I make my way down the buffet. 7Sengya is about midway down the line, filling her own plate with a mountain of food even a silverback gorilla would have had a hard time choking down. I raise my eyebrows at her.

"Did I wear you out that much?" I ask, incredulously.

7Sengya shakes her head, takes a tentative nibble off a fajita roll. "Sorry to disappoint...but we've got higher metabolic requirements than you do, Model T. All this new-and-improved I've got going may be snazzy and all, but it ain't free, if you catch my drift. Usually I just use nutrient injectors, but seeing as how I'm an explorer and all this is here, I figured I'd go ahead and...explore."

"Huh," I say, and pop a pineapple cube in my mouth. It's actually pretty good. Foods that were processed back on Old Earth - which was most everything, back in our day - seem to have funky aftertastes, but the fabs seem to do a lot better with actual fruits and vegetables. "You done exploring in my neck of the woods, or you got some more primate wilderness research left to do?"

7Sengya grins back at me. "There might be some more investigations left to be done there," she tells me. "Dissections and such. And of course, I am still planning on eating your brain, so there's that." Her eyes flicker up, then, past my left shoulder. "And Justin..." she says, in a much louder voice, "you just have to show me that thing you did with your tongue again, I thought it was going to make me faint."

Someone coughs hard, behind me. I turn to see Tyson Howard standing there, coloring all the way up to his hairline. Unlike most of us, his hairline is receding; one of the first things he did was have his external age re-set to around forty, the better for the rest of us to take him seriously. He was a Man of Importance, after all. "Uhm...ah, yes," he says, swallowing hard. "My...apologies, for interrupting."

7Sengya smiles at him, sweetly. "Well, hello, Senator Howard," she says, cheerfully. "How are you doing, this evening?"

"Please, Miss Sengya, I'm no Senator, anymore,"Tyson intones, portentously. "Just another of the Resurrected, trying to find some answers...so please, call me Tyson, all my friends do."

7Sengya nods, and keeps right on smiling at him. The faintest screes of gold glyphs flicker in front of her violet cat eyes. The silence stretches out then, uncomfortably. After a moment, Tyson looks away. "Ah, yes," he says, uncomfortably. "Well, 12Tamyu and I are about to begin, and if you wouldn't mind, we'd, ah, like your own input on what we're about to cover...so, do you think you could be ready in five?"

7Sengya nods, again, plucks a corn dog from the mountain on her plate, and rips it right from the stick with a single sharklike chomp. "Not a problem at all, Mister Tyson," she tells him. Still smiling fatuously.

"Ah...yes, well,"he says, shuffling uncomfortably."Again, I, uhm, thank you for being here," he says, and retreats hurriedly.

I arch a questioning eyebrow at 7Sengya. "Did he like, try to grab your ass or something?" I ask her.

Her violet cat eyes flicker, just a little. "Nah,"; she says, finally, and amends, "It's his...politics, I don't much care for. He was one of the ones killed the Revised Data Privacy Bill, back in the day, was also one of the big boosters of the DARPA Echelon Initiative that integrated AI into the decision-making loop in the Pentagon."

She makes a sour face. "Pretty much the beginning of the end, for human beings making their own decisions on Earth...after that, AI got in, pretty much took over. Ended with lots of deaths...and us hu's getting kicked off our own planet."

She grins, and again, it's that not-a-nice-grin I've seen on her face a couple of times before. "Seems like he deserves a kick or two in the balls for all that, wouldn't you agree?"

"Huh," I say, rolling that around a moment. So 7Sengya's got politics. Interesting. "I thought you didn't believe we were who we say we are."

She grins at me, and her smile, if anything, has gotten even more predatory. "Just covering my bases," she says. "If I really believed he was the genuine asshole, I'd probably just go ahead and shoot him."

"This is our current position in space," 12Tamyu tells us. An impressively intricate glowing holo-generated starmap six meters in diameter appears in the center of the room. Tyson's guests are all gathered on the lower circular levels in the middle of the Panoranum; Tyson and 12Tamyu are down on the lowest circle, facing us. 7Sengya's down there as well, sitting casually perched on the edge of the projector in the center. The Saint Pete avatar is standing a ways from the pair, hands folded, smiling pleasantly. "V998 Tau III, of the Hyades Cluster."

12Tamyu puts a fingertip to the display, zooms in, centers on the same great golden planet we see hanging over Purgatory every night. "This is a rather impressive super-Jovian in the third orbit of a G0 yellow dwarf, approximately one-hundred fifty light-years from the Sol system, Earth. This McKendree cylinder - you call it Purgatory - orbits this Jovian."

"This,"12Tamyu tells us, "is the Nexus." The display zooms back out to the stellar map, and a network of lines extends between star systems, like a spider web.

"As you can see, the Nexus is a network of wormhole connections, some of them traversable - linking several dozen star systems from the outer edge of the so-called 'Inner Sphere' - those systems within approximately a fifty light-year radius of Earth - throughout a region of space encompassing both the Pleiades and the Hyades. The Nexus is both a communications and a transport system."

"Impressive," Tyson adds, clearly needing to remind everyone he's down there too.

12Tamyu nods. "Very. And the most relevant datum about the Nexus is this: it was not built by humans. The Nexus was constructed over the past thousand years by a distributed, megascale, artificial intelligence, the largest machine collective, in fact, that has ever been encountered in Terragens space"

12Tamyu pauses a moment to let us get our heads around that, and then continues: "In 1558 AT, what corresponds to your year of 3527, exotic radiation was detected originating from the stars now associated with the Nexus. A relativistic science probe was launched and upon arrival, approximately a hundred and twenty years later, discovered an apparently ahuman AI culture, which was dubbed Xi Geminorum AI-1...a mouthful, I know," 12Tamya smiles apologetically.

"It was apparent that the XG1's, as we'll call them for the sake of simplicity, were engaging in megascale engineering on a truly unprecedented scale. When the probe attempted to investigate more closely, it was destroyed by local defenses. Little else was learned about the XG1's or the systems in their volume until 1931 AT, approximately ninety years ago, when instruments at New Callisto, the nearest human-settled system to the Nexus, ceased detecting signals from the XG1 culture apart from the wormhole signatures. Probes dispatched from New Callisto discovered that the Xi Geminorum AI-1 megaculture...had vanished."

"Vanished?" Molina asks, glancing over at Faulkner. "Vanished where?"

12Tamyu shakes his head. "We have no idea. There are many theories. It's important to note that it is believed that the XG1 culture is the first Terragens - Earth-descended - culture to have passed what is known as the 'third toposophic level', S3, for short. Each toposophic level corresponds to a technological singularity, that point beyond which those of the lower toposophic simply cannot comprehend the entity of the level above it any longer, so advanced they have become."

12Tamyu chews his lip, and shrugs. "To back up a little, you should first know how rare this is. Within Terragens space, entities that have ascended beyond the first toposophic barrier are rare. Only a minute handful, so far as we know, have transcended the second toposophic barrier."

"The XG1's are believed to be the first to have passed the third. They became, to our limited minds...gods. Where they might have gone, or why, is a matter probably beyond our limited scale to comprehend. And the Nexus, this network of wormholes through space interlinking systems parsecs apart, is a portion of what remains of their works."

Everybody in the room sort of sits there for a moment, digesting. It takes me a moment to turn it over in my own head. What it comes down to, I decide, is that a really big bunch of machines built themselves some sort of cosmic empire, and then went poof.

"Okay,"I find myself saying, aloud: "So these uber-super-duper AI's...they built this Nexus. Who are you guys, then?"

12Tamyu and 7Sengya exchange glances. "We are...Pathfinders."

"Well, yeah," I say, "I kinda got that. But who are you guys finding paths for? Where are you from?"

Again, 7Sengya and 12Tamyu exchange glances. After a moment, 12Tamyu shrugs. "We don't know," he says, finally.

"You don't know?" Terry Molina asks, incredulously. A lot of mutters start up then, among the assembled Old Earthers in the Panoranum. "How can you not know?"

"You must understand," 12Tamyu says, holding up warding palms to forestall the rising outburst, "the Nexus is a potential cornucopia. The wonders left in this network, and in the Hyades Cluster in particular, are...unprecedented, in all of human history. The wormhole network alone offers access to a volume of space larger than the entire Inner Sphere. The knowledge to be gleaned from the remaining megastructures and relics of the Xi Geminorum AI culture is potentially even more valuable - a third toposophic culture, left behind for humans to explore! But you must also understand...with unprecedented opportunities, come...unprecedented, perhaps unfathomable dangers. The possibilities of a malevolent blight or perversion, or a form of danger our limited human minds cannot even imagine, must be considered. So precautions have been taken, on a number of levels, akin to firewalls on a protected computer system."

12Tamyu shrugs, again."We simply do not know who our creators are. We were not meant to know. If we knew, that information could be easily extracted from us by any number of means, which could in turn lead to our originating culture becoming exposed to frightening, even incomprehensible, dangers. We Pathfinders are, by definition...a ten-foot pole, as it were."

"Wait a second,"Grant Faulker breaks in, for the first time. "Are you claiming you think we're dangerous to you?"

Again, 7Sengya and 12Tamyu exchange glances. After a moment, 12Tamyu nods. "In ways you probably cannot even imagine," he says, finally. "Consider: we are human explorers, poking our noses into the deserted cathedrals of a godlike machine culture three full toposophic levels above our own. And here, a hundred light-years beyond the volume of settled human space...in the midst of a star-spanning wormhole network and planet-sized megastructures of such complexity we can scarcely even divine their former purposes, we discover you: an apparently innocuous group of baseline humans who claim to be from the dawn of the Information Age." He lets that sink in a moment.

"You can possibly now begin to understand, in the context we have shown you, how...unlikely this seems, to us. And when you add to this that you are under the protection of yet another hyperturing-grade artificial intelligence...one with many known historical ties to the very entities we believe spawned the Nexus, perhaps you can begin to understand how skeptical we are of what our eyes see...even of what you yourselves may believe."

7Sengya bats her fingers in annoyance at a moth that's gotten in from somewhere, and is buzzing confusedly around the Nexus holo-display. "Sorry guys,"she adds, from her seat on the edge of the projector. "But as I told Justin...you Old Earthers aren't who you think you are. You can almost count on that."

Beside 12Tamyu, Tyson folds his arms over his chest and juts his jaw out, stubbornly. "I went around and around with 12Tamyu on this last night...and I still don't get it. Why's it hard to believe? You guys yourself know there was such a thing as the Schumann Foundation on Earth. You know it was taken over by Charon. Why's it so hard a stretch to believe we could be legit?"

Again, there's that telltale flicker of golden glyphs in front of 7Sengya's violet eyes. After a moment, she shrugs. "Our internal archives agree there is some historical veracity to this...assertion." she allows. "Charon was indeed a superturing-grade AI, built by Subject4 Technologies in approximately 85 A.T. - this corresponds to the year 2054, in your calendar. Named for the mythological ferryman of the underworld, Charon was integrated quite early into the decision-making loop of the Schumann Foundation, and within the next two centuries apparently had largely displaced the human members of the Foundation's board." Her jaw tightens, ever so slightly. "AI's do that...you give 'em an inch. Even the ones that think they're doing it for your own good."

Tyson cranes his head around at her, a bit surprised. "You sound like the Ludds of our time."

"Yeah, well, more like Ludd lite," 7Sengya says, with a sharp-toothed grin. She projects those glittering golden glyphs from her eyes again, this time into a brilliant firefly swarm that resolves into the shape of a rocket. She flicks her fingers, and the rocket goes streaking away, splatters into the curved ceiling above us. A smattering of appreciative ahs sounds, from the Earthers in the room.

"We like our tech,— 7Sengya tells us, continuing. "We just don't like...direction. And the thing is, Charon wasn't just an AI, e also developed some pretty strong ahuman inclination; meaning, e got to be one of those AI's that didn't have a whole lotta use for people. Whatever, the archives also tell us that Charon came into conflict with a number of other prominent AI's of the time, in particular the superturing known as 'Mycroft', the governing AI of the CisLuna volume. At this point Charon relocated most of the Schumann Foundation's cryonics repositories to the Jovian volume, that being, the region around Jupiter. Which would have included your own capsules...if, that is, you are who you actually think you are...."

Tyson rolls his eyes at her. He's clearly as tired of this line of conversation as I am.

7Sengya smiles, indulgently, and continues: "By 450 A.T. - which corresponds to 2419, your calendar - the archives say that Charon had achieved sufficient toposophic complexity to breach the point of the so-called 'first singularity', which is, as 12Tamyu explained, the point beyond which those of a lower toposophic level simply can't comprehend the more advanced entity anymore; the higher entity operates at such a level it's literally like amoebas trying to grok people."

She pauses, slightly, to make sure it's sunk in. "At this point," she continues, "Charon's not a superturing anymore; e's what's classed as a true hyperturing entity, and e appears to have made the decision to abandon the Sol system. Later in that year, a massive interstellar vessel was observed departing the Schumann Foundation's orbital Jovian facilities - carrying, we believe, both the Charon hyperturing and the deadsleepers remaining in the Foundation's freezer repositories."

I chew all that over for a moment. A lot of what 7Sengya is saying is about as comprehensible as Greek spelled out backwards, but what it seems to come out to is: some supercomputer brain had taken over the freezer Foundation where I had been corpsicled, gotten really fucking smart, and hightailed it on out of the Solar System on a big-ass ship about four hundred years after I'd gone into the freezer. With me and the rest of the Earthmen on board.

Which, as far as I could tell, pretty much squares up with everything Saint Pete had told us.

"So where's the problem?" I call out. I hadn't meant to speak out, but repeated exposure to the Pathfinder dubiousness about our origins was starting to chafe a bit. "Sol got crazy, Charon did his job, unfroze us here. What's the complication?"

"Consider the history of the Charon hyperturing emself," 12Tamyu says, and again, I notice that odd mangling of pronouns he uses when talking about an AI entity. 7Sengya is better on this, but I still notice her occasionally lapsing into those odd pronoun forms herself; she especially can't quite bring herself to call Charon he. She says it's conceptually wrong - and dangerous - to assign genders to an AI, and that to mentally frame them properly a hu needs to assign an AI a new pronoun set.

Myself, I don't understand the problem. Anything with a name like Charon sounds like a guy, to me.

"Charon's original trajectory from the Jovian volume took it to an M5-class red dwarf approximately twelve light-years from Earth. These red dwarfs were primarily developed by ahuman AI cultures - dubbed the 'Diamond Belt' - that had very little contact with - and in many cases, apparent antipathy towards - their human creators. It is believed that this Diamond Belt in turn spawned the Xi Geminorum AI-1 megaculture that built this very Nexus."

"Again, the key word here, is ahuman." 12Tamyu fixes me with a piercing stare, and I get, then, that that word ahuman has a whole lot of folderol attached to it that I haven't quite wrapped my head around yet. "Charon, the Diamond Belt, the XG1's themselves...were assuredly not hu-friendly, or involved in any way with human culture...for more than fifteen hundred years. And an S3-level entity would easily be capable of...conjuring up baseline-level humans, with artificial memories, as easily as any of us in this room could whip out a pen and make a stick-figure drawing. That an ahuman AI culture apparently chose, as one of its final acts, to do so, is...troubling. And causes all manner of doubt as to why...why was this done, what is your true function, even, unfortunately...what are you alleged Old Earthers, really?"

"But I thought the XG1's were gone?" Molina points out.

"Are they?" 12Tamyu says. I wonder how old he really is; he looks a biological twenty or so, but his eyes have a knowing hardness in them no twenty-year-old should have. "Did they transcend to some higher form of existence and vanish altogether, or are there remnants of these godlike transapients? Why would they simply abandon their great works for us human beings to find? Are they truly so indifferent, or is there some greater design in play? Could this be some intricate form of trap, to destroy the unwary? We do not know...and the fact that you and all around us were created by ahuman AI entities presents possibilities that are more than terrifying."

"Only two things we really do know, folks." 7Sengya says, cheerfully. "Charon was orders of magnitude above any of us, by the end. And Charon really didn't like people." The moth is fluttering around her head again, and her hand flashes out then, quick as a rattlesnake strike, and plucks it right from the air with her thumb and forefinger.

She regards the captive moth with that fascinated-catlike expression. "Oh, and yeah, there is one more thing," she says. Her catlike stare turns to all of us. "The XG1's might be gone...but there's still something left, in the Nexus. If you'd seen what we've seen, you'd know...there's some old ghosts left, in this machine. And some of them are fucking scary."

Her hand closes around the moth, and for just a second, I think she's going to crush it. She flicks me a grin, then, brings her hand to her mouth, and blows the moth gently away.

To Be Continued...

Part 2

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