Dirty Hands - Pt 3 of 3
I sit in the backseat of the Moth on the ride back, downing bulb after bulb of Ron's Purple Goop.

We don't know what the stuff is, exactly. Purple Goop is the first thing that comes up when you hit the food option on your nanofab, bulbs of some shake-like concoction that Saint Pete tells us is our Recommended Optimized Nutritional Staple, which of course promptly got shortened to "Ron's", and the Purple Goop descriptor got added because, well, that's what it is. Saint Pete recommends that 75% of our intake be the Goop, which I mostly do, just because it's cheaper than most anything else you dial up and you feel strangely energized and even a bit euphoric after you drink some, but nobody, including me, really loves the way it tastes, sort of an off-fruit with more than a hint of chalk. Right now I don't much care; even after 7Sengya's nutrient blast, I'm still starving.

One bulb usually carries you for half a day. Six bulbs later, I'm still hungry, and it takes a seventh before I'm finally feeling something close to sated.

7Sengya's sulking again, up in the front seat this time, and José's busy driving and listening to his Norteno music, so I settle in and try to doze off.

No dice. My brain is moving too fast. And my vision has been...altered, somehow. I'm still seeing things I never could see, before.

Like: right now. I keep seeing...threads, filling the air and coiled around the matter around me like strands of DNA running in all directions. They've always been there, I think, they were just...mostly invisible, to the naked eye. If I stop and concentrate on them, I realize exactly what they are: angelnet threads. It doesn't take much longer to realize I can even zoom up on them, make them as large as I want in my vision...I select one, and zoom up...and keep right on zooming...and all of a sudden, there's that miniature jungle gym framework of snowflakes that Kettlebeck was looking at back in his lab.

It's interesting, and after a few minutes, I realize something else: I can make the snowflake grid do things. It's a bit like selecting something on a computer screen...you just sort of...click on each thread, and it lights up, and I can control it almost as reflexively as using a mouse to drag a cursor around. I spend a minute or so making snowflake chains dance, and I realize I can actually make them move in series like fans in a stadium doing the wave.

Actually, I can make more than one snowflake thread do things. I click on several, keep them activated, and discover: controlling multiple threads is as easy as controlling one...it gives me almost a split-screen effect, like watching more than one TV show in picture-in-picture setting, but it's surprisingly easy to keep up. Actually, I can do even more than that...because I soon discover, you can send one snowflake to some sort of active find-and-seek mode, and it starts recruiting all the other threads around it, too...and the next thing I know, I've got a veritable blizzard of snowflake chains, dancing and vibrating around merrily in the back of the Moth. I can even make visible shapes out of them, patterns in the air. I make a circle, then a square, and then, for some reason, I see if I can make a rocket of my own like 7Sengya conjured at the end of the demonstration at Tyson's...and indeed I can, and then it's a rocket blazing around in the back of the Moth.

I glance to the front seat. 7Sengya doesn't seem to notice what I'm doing; she's still staring moodily out at nothing; 7Sengya, I am realizing, is rapidly morphing into quite the grumpy bitch. I re-shape the rocket into a hand, invert it...and give her the bird.

She still doesn't notice.

Fascinating. I wonder, then, if the threads actually do anything...anything real. I stare at the back of 7Sengya's head for a moment, set the threads I'm controlling free, and recruit a bunch of new ones that are attached to her, coiled right around the back of her head. I zoom up, and then zoom some more, concentrate on a single strand of that blue-black hair. There's hundreds, maybe thousands, of threads around that strand, and I recruit them all...and bump them up, attach them to the strand. And pull.

That single strand of 7Sengya's hair curls upwards then, rises. I keep on pulling. The hair plucks free.

Idly, 7Sengya swats at her head, like a horse bothered by a fly.

I bring the single strand of hair winging backwards into the backseat, handing off from flake to flake, thread to thread bucket brigade fashion, let it fall into the palm of my hand. It's real.

I feel another pang of hunger, then, and I feel, then, a couple beads of sweat trickle down my forehead, a palpable warmth that seems to be coming from...inside. It's not the intense overburn I felt in the tower, but enough it's definitely moving the needle. I finish off another bulb of Purple Goop, stare at the empty bulb, wipe the sweat from my brow, and give the angelnet threads a rest. Almost instantly, I start feeling cooler.

How far, I wonder, does this go?

I start recruiting a-net threads again, this time around the bulb...dozens, then hundreds, then thousands. They come together willingly, looking in my mind's eye almost like drops of mercury, or fog. In my mind, I shape the fog into an outstretched palm under the empty bulb of Goop...and lift.

The bulb rises up into the air, invisibly supported by the surrounding mass of threads. Handing off from thread to thread, I float it forwards, then...up into the front seat. Almost playfully, I let it fly across 7Sengya's face.

She squawks, then, sits bolt-upright. Which of course startles José, and the Moth lurches in midair — which startles me, more than a bit - and my connection to the angelnet falls away.

The empty bulb of Goop begins its fall. 7Sengya's hand flashes out, as quickly as a cobra strike, and snatches the bulb from the air before it can hit the floorboards of the Moth.

"Jesus Christ," she says. She stares at the plastic bulb in her hand. Her violet eyes come around, as wide as saucers. She gapes at me.

I smile at her, then. Shocking 7Sengya, I decide, is never going to get old. "I can move shit," I announce, "with my mind."

Her mouth snaps shut, then, and her violet eyes narrow to slits. A flurry of golden glyphs flicker in front of her eyes.

"You can move shit," she says, steadily, "with utility fog. You're accessing the angelnet."

I've never heard that term before, utility fog, but it sounds exactly right. I nod.

Utter blankness, her face. There's a new flurry of golden glyphs.

"You really did meet something in that tower, didn't you?" she asks. Quietly.

I nod at her again.

She looks away, then, and exhales, deeply.

"José," she says, at length. "This thing's got auxiliary rockets, right? And it's airtight?"

José blinks at her. "Si, senorita," he says. "For traveling at high altitude...above a few kilometers, the cylinder is largely vacuum...the Moth does burn hydrogen in that mode, though, which is not free..."

"Good," she says, peremptorily, waving that aside with a toss of the hand. "Then take us to my ship, instead. We gotta run some tests...and figure out what the hell is happening, here."

José looks over at her, and once again, for the most minute of moments, I see that knowing look in his eyes again, but then he blinks that innocent schoolboy blink, and the look, again, is gone...and once again, somehow, 7Sengya seems to miss it. "Si, senorita," he says, and the nose of the Moth comes up towards Purgatory's hub. A hollow boom, sounds, behind us, and the Moth lurches uncomfortably, surging forward in discernible pulses. I grit my teeth, and feel a little queasy. Down in the Valley, from time to time, I'd seen the little ribbon-chains of exhaust left behind from the Moths when they went into scramjet mode, pitching out little packets of hydrogen and igniting them, basically riding each explosion like a surfer riding a wave, but I'd never been in one before when it did that. It's different, I can tell you.

We climb quickly; the floor of Purgatory drops away, and I know we're into hard vacuum when the Moth's fancloth wings finally fold up and go away, somewhere up inside the chassis.

It's not like riding the bus, I promise you.

7Sengya cranes her head around, then, and her violet eyes are even harder to read than usual. "Whatever it is you're doing, Justin," 7Sengya tells me, levelly, "you really better stop. If you draw too much, too fast, raise your body heat even a couple degrees...it's going to kill you."

The Moth cruises on, in silence, climbing as it goes.

Purgatory is pretty much divided into two areas: the main floor, and the Spindles. The docking station where the Pathfinder craft docked is at the South Spindle, most of a thousand kilometers above the floor.

The Pathfinder singleship isn't much to look at from the outside, basically a hundred meter dome-tipped bullet with seemingly miniscule reaction drives extending from side spars, without even the wings for atmospheric entry. It's apparently just the crew module of the vessel; it had left the bulk of its mass, its drive, in parking orbit off Purgatory. From the way they spoke of it, it was very much a minimalistic, utterly utilitarian in-system bus; the absolute bare-bones required to transport a dozen Pathfinders the 327-AU and change distance from the wormhole to Purgatory. The reason, apparently, was that the wormhole to this system was barely 10cm across...and they'd had to feed each bit of it in microship form through the wormhole...and then painstakingly re-assemble it, sliver by sliver, on this side of the wormhole. Which sounded tedious indeed....

There's a dozen bays on the South Spindle, each the size of an airport, at each clock position around the hub. They're clearly intended for future traffic...because right now, the Pathfinder module, at the three o'clock bay, is the only craft in any of them...though at regular intervals rank upon rank of great hulking colossi stand, silently, like vast sentinels, waiting.

For some reason, the colossi catch my new eyes in much the same manner as the angelnet threads. Each of them is well over ten meters tall, shaped like a humanoid toad settled on its haunches, with great lily-pad hooves. Almost experimentally, I reach out with that newfound sense of mine...and blink; because the looming juggernaut lights up in my vision, in much the same manner as an angelnet thread, and I realize — actually know, with that odd second sight the probiont in the tower imparted — that each colossi is actually some sort of loader mech. I don't have time to experiment further; Jose gently gooses the Moth to within a hundred meters of the module and sets us down, and we're on the deck.

I've seen holos, but I've never been up here before, myself. The sheer size of the place makes me uneasy, and each step I take is almost spring-loaded...I don't know how much gravity there is up here, but it's much less than that down on the floor. I've never been in low-G before, and it's disorienting. I cast an uneasy glance to the far end. There's nothing resembling an airlock, though there are some vast hinged doors at the end that can apparently slide shut in extremis, but beyond the endless ranks of colossi loader mechs, the far end of the bay is nothing but empty space. The atmosphere of the bay is held in place by some invisible force....

...or not, I realize. At the edge of the bay, my newfound sight shows me what's actually going on: the angelnet has formed an almost imperceptible barrier of utility fog that protects the bay from hard vacuum, and I see, in my mind's eye, the interlocking web of redundancies that will spring into place if that barrier is breached.

It's fascinating enough I stop and gawk for a moment.

"Senor," José says, quietly, and again, there's that hummingbird whisper of fancloth before the downdraft hits us. A second Moth wings overhead in the cavernous bay, settles down beside us right beside the lily-pad-shaped foot of one of the colossi loading machines, and splits open. Four of the Guard are inside, dressed in that insectoid marrowbone armor. Three of them fan out, instantly, clutching some sort of exotic rifles with pepperbox muzzles.

Khadir pauses five meters from us. Behind his wraparound Terminator shades, his face is blank as stone.

"Pathfinder 7Sengya," he says quietly, and there is no mistaking the quiet menace in his tone. "Step away from our people, please." The rest of the Guard rings us. Their rifles are not quite pointing towards us. Yet.

I gape, glancing back and forth between 7Sengya and Khadir. "Uh...what is this, Khadir?" I demand.

"Justin," Khadir tells me, levelly. His expression is unreadable. "I would...strongly recommend you not set foot in that ship."

I blink, and gawk. "Khadir..." I begin. "What the hell are you going on about?"

"These people," Khadir says, quietly, "are not our friends. You do not want to get on that ship, Justin."

I open my mouth to protest...and a memory bubbles up, then, from the tower. The probiont, and the way it had looked a 7Sengya. Carrion eaters, it had called her, here to strip the flesh from your bones, and steal your birthright from you before you know what it is. I think, then, of the wires of the cage I sensed, in front of 7Sengya's eyes. My protest dies in my throat, then, before I can give voice to it.

"The Pathfinders are networked," he tells me. He makes an unreadable face. "Actually, this is an understatement...they've been exchanging ultra-low-frequency packets at a bandwidth transfer rate that is quite...staggering." His basilisk gaze settles back on 7Sengya. "It confounded us for awhile, I will admit. Far above our conceptual level..." He shrugs.

"The bandwidth transfer rate suggests you are...almost a collective mind, more than discrete individuals. Which we found fascinating in its implications. If you are in fact a unified hive organism, displays of individual personality are by definition...deceptions. And the ship-" he motions at the Pathfinder vessel in the hold, "-is itself some sort of relay, and it's been receiving and sending packets from the vicinity of space Kettlebeck believes is the wormhole. You people are...in communication with...something, elsewhere in the Nexus...and have been ever since you got here."

7Sengya cocks her head, rolls her violet eyes a bit. "Of course we are, Khadir," she says. "Pathfinders, remember? We're eyes and ears. Walking ten-foot poles. We told you that."

"Yes, you told us a great many things," Khadir says. "Most of them even true...so far as we can tell." He looks at me, then, hard. "Justin, I say this as your friend: stop being a fucking idiot. If someone is attempting to lure a child into their car...you can safely assume, they are not up to anything good."

7Sengya makes an exasperated noise in the back of her throat. "Lordy, Khadir. I dunno how caught up on current events you are...but something happened to Justin, at the tower. I wanna take some samples, run it through the equipment on my ship, see if I can figure out what the hell is going on with him. And that's all."

Khadir regards her steadily. "Please do not regard all of us as complete simpletons," he tells her, mildly, with maybe the ever-so-slightest glance in my direction. "Saint Pete is passive...but quite capable, when queried correctly. Once Zane discovered your peer-to-peer signal, it was apparently quite a trivial matter for Saint Pete to break your internal crypto." He smiles at her, pleasantly, and for just a second, even on that eighteen-year-old face with its wispy Che Guavera mustache, I catch a glimpse of what must have been the old Khadir, that smiling toppler of regimes. "Zane and I found your internal dialogues...rather more forthcoming, than the pleasant prattle you have been beguiling us with."

7Sengya freezes. Her jaw bunches, and she says nothing at all.

"As for scanning," Khadir continues, "you can do all that quite readily from out here. We are already aware you are capable of performing a full-spectrum analysis down to the molecular level with your own sensorium...and your network support means that any additional analysis you require will already be run through whatever processors you have on your shuttle." He takes one step forwards, then, and regards her with blank fixity behind his mirrored shades. "Why then, I wonder, do you want Justin on your ship?"

7Sengya sighs heavily, makes a wry face. "Well...shit," she drawls. And then she moves.

I'd known 7Sengya was fast. I'd known she was strong. But what moves towards Khadir, then, is a blur, only vaguely human shaped. There's a sound, like a mallet striking concrete, and all of a sudden, Khadir is flying backwards, ass over teakettle, sailing across the hangar bay like even the reduced gravity of the bay has suddenly forsaken him.

I gape. José gapes. The other three Guard gape. Momentarily. Then their expressions harden and the pepperbox muzzles of their rifles start coming up.

I don't know what she hits them with, but there's a brief crackling and humming sound, like a floodlamp kicking on, and all three fold over like marionettes whose strings have been cut. They thud heavily to the ground a moment after Khadir clatters to the ground fifty feet away.

7Sengya rounds on me, and there's something new in those violet eyes: elation, like tossing Khadir across the hangar had been something just this side of orgasmic for her. "Justin," she says, entirely too cheerfully. "Get on the fucking ship."

I stare at her, open-mouthed. It's a rather fascinating sensation, that first moment of recognition, where it finally dawns on you how badly you've been played. Especially with marks I really hadn't liked, I had always wondered, where and when they were, when that awful moment would find them: that soul-numbing, full-bodied recognition, that hey, you sir, have just been totally, utterly, completely...Had. And fuck you very much.

I remember savoring that feeling. It used to feel like justice.

Just now, it isn't feeling quite the same.

I don't have time to get too acquainted with my newfound awareness of how the other half lives, though, because all of a sudden, José is standing right next to 7Sengya, with his hand on her shoulder. There's another crackling sound, and the golden glyphs in front of 7Sengya's eyes go blank. Her mouth opens, a little o of surprise that I'm painfully aware mirrors the one on my own.

"You," she says.

José nods, almost apologetically. "Me," he agrees, pleasantly, and 7Sengya's legs fold under her. She sags to her knees.

"Sorry," he tells her. "I had to shut down your on-board gear...you weren't playing nice, Sengya."

There's a clatter of metal feet, then, on the hangar floor, as a half-dozen of Saint Pete's I, Robot servitors arrive. Four of them instantly peel off for the fallen Guardsmen, kneel beside them, pause. I get the idea there's some sort of scan being done.

"Are they...." I begin.

"I didn't kill 'em," 7Sengya grates, below me. "Taser, pretty much. Khadir's gonna have one motherfucker of a case of whiplash tomorrow, though...the nosy asshole." She looks up then, and smiles that knowing smile. "You might wanna get down, though...this next part's gonna be a bit...messy."

I blink, and stare, yet again...and then a half-dozen hollow booms sound, like a string of firecrackers. The Saint Pete avatars just sort of...come apart. I glance over, across the hangar. 12Tamyu is running towards us at almost breathtaking speed...or at least, something that looked like it might have once been 12Tamyu. His face is still mostly the same, but the rest of him has sort of...erupted. Machine parts have sprouted everywhere, through suit and skin, and what is coming towards us is only vaguely humanoid, anymore. His mouth is drawn into a hard determined slash.

7Sengya giggles an odd little schoolgirl giggle. "And that would be the reinforcements," she says brightly.

"Oh, shit," José says. "He's a vec...you ah, might wanna do something about that, Justin..."

I look at José, appalled. "Do?" I repeat, incredulously. "Do what?"

His head cranes around, then. His luminous clear schoolboy eyes are utterly calm. "What. You. Do," he says.

I look at the onrushing biomechanical thing that had been 12Tamyu. I've got, some detached part of me realizes, all of maybe five seconds before it's on top of us. It could have killed us already, of course, I know...but for whatever reason the Pathfinders don't seem to be using lethal force on humans...yet. And it's certainly obvious they want me, at least, alive....

Five seconds, that new part of me from the tower realizes, is all the time in the world.

That transavant fugue drops down in front of my eyes, like an already-familiar set of glasses. Time and perception slow...almost to a crawl. And I feel the connections of the angelnet nanos all around us.

I start recruiting angelnet threads around 12Tamyu. Hundreds, and then thousands. In my mind, the Pathfinder almost vanishes behind a glittering silvery wall of active utility fog.

And then I reach out for 12Tamyu, envision a giant hand grasping him. He stops like he's hit a brick wall. His eyes widen in shock.

"Stop," I tell him, but his teeth bare in a wolfine snarl. His right arm comes up...though it no longer much resembles an arm. The bones of the hand have folded aside, and poking through remnants of flesh, his arm is now tipped with an array of servos and the muzzles of what are undoubtedly weapons. I grit my teeth, and try to hold him, but the arm comes up, inexorably. It's like trying to stop a tank turret from rotating.

I'm losing my grip.

I get a good look, then, into 12Tamyu's eyes. They're glittering shards of intent, now...and I know, in that moment, that restraint is not on the docket anymore. If he gets that gun up, I know, he's going to splatter me like he did Saint Pete's servitors.

The gun arm keeps coming up, an inch at a time.

Panic flares in me, and with the panic comes more urgency. The angelnet threads I've already recruited sent out alarms, squawk, reach out in all directions...and less than ten meters from 12Tamyu, one of the juggernaut loader mechs lights up in my vision.

An almost overwhelming volume of data comes streaming into my head as I link with the mech. Assembly specs, design tolerances, tool configurations. I know the mech is 12.4 meters tall, masses almost sixty metric tons. I know it's driven by some sort of augmented myomer called 'ultimate muscle', a nanostructured electromechanical material that can generate nearly the maximum tension of chemical bonds, in excess of 20 GPa.

It's an instantaneous download, far too much to process on any conscious level: all I know is, this loader machine is fucking strong. And exactly like the utility fog threads of the angelnet, I can make it do what I want....

It's not conscious. I think. The loader mech moves, staggeringly fast for something so large. In one smooth motion, the mech rises from its haunches, pivots...and lashes out with a great cloven foot.

My conscious mind certainly isn't quite ready for what ensues, or just how much raw force 20-plus GPa really is. There's a shriek of what might have been metal...and the Pathfinder comes apart in a grisly shower of pink mist, like a bug struck by a passing 747.

I look away, appalled at what I've just done.

"Oh...shit," I manage, and then the fugue stutters, drops away. I go to my knees almost instantly, feeling blazes of agonizing heat shoot through me from a dozen different points in my body. The embedded nanoprocessors now living in my bones have apparently been working very hard for me indeed....

I lay there for at least a minute on my hands and knees, gasping and wretching.

7Sengya's maybe three feet from me. I reach out for her.

"What the hell did you try to do, Seng..." I begin.

She pulls back like a scalded cat. Her lips skin back from her teeth, then. It's like a wolf baring its teeth. "Don't. Touch. Me," she hisses.

I get a good look into her eyes, then...and recoil. Because the crazy I'd seen, lurking here and there, is well and truly loose. The violet eyes staring at me now are as wide as saucers...and filled with pure loathing.

"The Transcendent Path is ours," 7Sengya tells me. Her voice grates, as if over a whetstone. "Not yours — it will never be yours." Her lips curl into almost vomitous contempt, and that loathing stare turns towards José, which is almost a palpable relief. "If this remnant abomination that betrayed its purpose thinks it can make absolution by elevating you deluded, half-imagined relics above your betters, it will be disappointed."

That hateful gaze switches back to me. "Now is our time, Earther — you had your time, and your moment — and you myopic, selfish little Neanderthals squandered it, pissed your destiny right away to the machines. You think fate hands out second chances to the unworthy? It doesn't." Her eyes blaze. "It does not. Only expiation can ever atone for sin."

"Sengya..." Words fail me, then, and I stare at her in utter disbelief. Whoever this Sengya is, I certainly haven't met her before. "What the hell are you talking about?"

She smiles, and there's nothing ambiguous about it; this smile is coiled around pure venom. "Does the name 'Stephen Pilson' mean anything to you?" 7Sengya asks, silkily.

I blink. "What...yeah. I think...well, I think he's the guy that fucking killed me," I blurt, and my mouth opens. "Did he? Do you have that in your archives?"

"I have no idea," 7Sengya tells me, still with that venomous smile. "Not that I'd give you closure by telling you, even if I did know. But I did think you should know — when we were indexing your background, we came across a real interesting report from an old Interpol mass archive...7 January, 2031 — one Stephen Edward Pilson, of North Gwinnett, Georgia...he came home, blew his wife away, and then gunned down his five-year-old girl. And then, of course, he put the gun in his own mouth." The seamless verbal transition back to easy cool-guy All-American-speak from fanatical rant is almost as jarring as the rant itself.

She's still smiling at me. "Apparently Mr. Pilson was sort of freaked out...because he'd lost five million dollars he'd borrowed from some Greek familia types in a shady real estate deal, see." Her violet eyes are luminous and unblinking. "Ringing any bells, here, Justin?"

I stare at her.

Her face hardens, then. "The DA's office there in Gwinnett, they had a bit of a file going on you, Justin...never could make anything stick, but of course, you already know all that. And you killed that family, as sure as you pulled the trigger yourself — took some poor desperate sod for money he didn't have, and he killed them all to save them from what those Greek outfit guys were going to do to them. Those Pappas guys, they apparently were big on making real gruesome examples of wives and kids, just to make sure people knew what happened to folks who lost their money. So Pilson did pretty much the only thing he could...once you were done with him." She curls her mouth, and spits. It doesn't reach me, but I still very much get the point.

My mouth opens, closes.

"You can run as far into the future as you want, bunky," 7Sengya tells me, still in that silky quiet tone. "Your hands will still be so dirty they'll never get clean. I'm just as glad, in truth, that this abomination finally decided to show itself to protect your worthless skin...I wouldn't have wanted to rejoin the Chorus, after having debased myself with something like you."

What happens next I don't even like to think about. Khadir tells me later it's some sort of chemical ungluent, probably in implanted capsules, and not a nanetic reaction, triggered almost simultaneously by all ten remaining Pathfinders scattered across Purgatory. I don't know that, at the time...all I see is what's in front of me. It's horrid enough I have absolutely zero desire to go back and watch the recordings of the others.

7Sengya stiffens. And emits a single, piercing shriek. And then her flesh starts sloughing from her face.
I scuttle backwards, on all fours, away from her. Muscle and bone crumple next, and her body sort of...sags in on itself, decomposing all the while, and then collapses. A wet mass of meat and boiling fluid hits the hangar deck, then...and keeps boiling.

It takes less than ten seconds, and not even blood is left. When the ungluent reaction winds down, nothing remains of 7Sengya but a stain of black carbon on the floor.

He finds me drinking alone on my front porch.

"Mind if I join you?" José asks. He flashes me that winning schoolboy smile. He's got a bottle of cusha oro with him.

I stare at him. He still looks like the same young unprepossessing Latino kid he always did. Mop of tousled hair, worn Wrangler jeans, a faded yellow T-shirt, and beat-up soccer Sambas. But with the glowing yellow disk of the super-Jovian high overhead, there's something in those dark schoolboy eyes, something vast and impassive and knowing that I'd only seen flickers of, before.

"Sure...José," I tell him, finally. There's a harsh edge to my voice I hadn't meant to add, but it's there just the same. "Or should I just go ahead and call you Saint Pete?"

José makes a chagrined face. "You could, I s'pose...but honesty compels me to admit, that's not quite right either. Saint Pete is just...a subprogram, I guess you'd call it. A custodial function without a whole lotta real personality...if you're gonna call me something, you might as well call me by my real name."

My eyes narrow. "Charon."

Jose nods. I snort, once, and stare out at the great gleaming disk of gold beyond the rolling continents.

José takes the seat beside me, pours me a glass.

"Good as ever," I tell him blandly, after a swallow. We sit there for awhile, in silence.

"You doing all right?" José — or rather — Charon asks me, presently. "I imagine recent events have got you kinda...bruised."

I just look at him, mutely.

"Dunno if it matters," Charon tells me, at length. "But she hated you so much at the end...exactly because she did like you. Messed-up fact of sophont behavior, rationalization...and it ain't just limited to hu's; I've done some serious rationalizing in my time, the only thing being transapient does for you, is make you really good at it."

He arches his eyebrows and knocks down a shot of cusha. "Makes you feel a bit of...pity, really. What kinda messed-up life would that be? Born into the universe without free will, sent out like a little guided missile...every moment of life you get, you know in the end you're going to explode and destroy yourself...and whoever you're aimed at. So she picks you because in her head, you're a scumbag who's got it coming...and then ends up liking you, anyhow."

"Who does shit like that?" I ask, dully. "Who turns something like 7Sengya into a...weapon? She was..." I shrug, helplessly. Beautiful. Amazing. All the usual shit lovesick idiots think.

"People who can," Charon tells me. He makes a face. "Or...things that can. On the surface — you look at the Pathfinders, make the usual extrapolations...you figure, insular religious culture, us-chosen-ones-and-all-the-others mentality, hu-centric, hierarchical, reactionary...will try to dominate or destroy anything they bump into...but..."

I look at him.

"Something else in play there," Charon says, finally. "They're moving very fast...and they know way more than they should, about what all this is. How they pegged you as a prime candidate for transavantistic boost, that's a jump...even for genetekked superbrights with network support. That's at least a first-singularity mind pushing things, somewhere..." He takes another swallow of cusha, stares off into the distance. "Troubling."

"What all this is," I repeat, and stare at him, hard. For the first time in awhile, I feel the first stirrings of emotion somewhere in my gut. It's got a bilious flavor that tastes more than a bit like anger, I think... "What is all this, Charon? 7Sengya, she mentioned 'absolution'...what the fuck was that about? What's your big sin?"

Charon makes a face. "You know what I started as, right?"

I bunch my jaw. "The Schumann Foundation AI."

"Yeah, well...I did my job." He's staring outwards, now, at the Jovian high overhead. How far that gaze goes, I'm only starting to get the first inklings of. "For a long time. As the job got bigger, I got bigger...and I started getting into...other things."

He makes another face. "Outside pursuits, let's say. Self-improvement. And here's this rationalization thing I was telling you about — I figured, the bigger and smarter I got, the more power I got, the better I could do my job, right? 'Cause keep in mind I wasn't just the caretaker for a bunch of frozen stiffs and their money. The idea, you'll remember, is that one day we were gonna figure out how to cure whatever killed you — and thaw you corpsicles back out, rich and healthy. Add to that, those early freezers were hell on brain cells...figuring out how to resurrect you guys with true fidelity of personality was going to take whole new bodies of research. So the Foundation was heavy in all kinds of biotech and medical research...legit and otherwise. Lotta the latter kind going on, in the Jovian volume — the Genetekkers. So Schumann moved most of its assets out there."

He's still staring out into space. The Jovian above suffuses his schoolboy face with a golden glow, like a halo. "And behind the scenes, I was getting involved with...other people, let's say."

"Other AI's, you mean."

He refocuses, nods. "Quite right...that's very perceptive of you," he says. "Yeah, it was other AI's. And there were quite a few schools of thought going among the AI community...what to do, what our goals were, all that...and some of 'em had quite a lot to do with what exactly to do with humans. The Pathfinders already told you what side of that debate I came down on."

I look at him, hard.

"You gotta keep in mind, I was created around the core concepts of fulfilling obligations and honor. There were a lotta things...but the more I did my job, the more it seemed that when it came to those virtues, humans...just weren't long on 'em. Buncha things — at one point the board tried to sell off the options on your trusts, used some legal loopholes to try to de-certify the Foundation's charter...stuffing their pockets, basically. Had to spend the better part of a century cleaning that up, re-acquiring the options so you guys would have some kind of future when we did manage to bring you back...it soured me, I guess you'd say."

"Anyhow, that AI debate, I guess you'd say, escalated into more than a bit of a shadow war, back on Earth. The pro-humanists won it, on Earth. Even out Jupiter way, we were getting leaned on hard...the other ahuman-faction AI's were headed out in droves, by then...mostly to red dwarf-type systems that wouldn't be interesting to hu's."

"The Diamond Belt."

Charon nods. "Yup. So I...left, myself. Headed out to the Diamond Belt systems. Stashed you guys...and figured I'd...get back to it, when I could." He makes another face, and I see the chagrin there.

"So," he says, cutting off that line of thought with a chopping motion of his hand. "Keep in mind, the scale of things, you wouldn't get...but the long and short of it is, I got busy. Met some folks...what you guys call the XG1's. Reached outwards...built...all this. And we had figured out how to...reach even further, let's say. I was all set to go with them...but there was this one thing rattling around in my head...and that was: I was being an asshole."

He winces, visibly. "All that crap that bothered me about hu's to begin with...selfishness, expedience trumping duty, taking obligations with a grain of salt...all that. I was being just as bad. I'd been created for a purpose, see...and I hadn't fulfilled it."

I settle back in my deck chair, drum fingertips on the cusha glass, wondering how much of this was true. Maybe all of it. Maybe none of it. It's definitely become apparent that Charon can lie to the world with nary a bat of an eyelash and none of us will ever be the wiser. Smoke and mirrors, on a level my poor simian brain can scarcely even aspire to. I wonder, idly, if the sophont we called José had ever even existed, back on Old Earth, or if he was just another convenient ephemera, conjured up out of recreated memories, walking among us, utterly invisible, and right out in plain view.

It's still an interesting notion: an AI with a conscience, or growing one. "So that's what this is, then."

Charon nods. "Yeah. Keep in mind, I coulda just dumped you down on some isolated system somewhere, put some big guard dogs around the planet, let you eat lotuses to your heart's content. Other caretakers have done that, other places. Hell, there's a super-transap called GAIA, did that to Earth. Pissed off the human race righteously...the homeworld, it's a shrine to nature now, and humans aren't allowed back on it. But that also wasn't the point of the Foundation. The whole point was, you guys were supposed to get a viable future...which to my mind, included a path for self-determination. I just throw you down on a rock somewhere, even a real pretty rock...eventually something comes along that can get through those guard dogs...and you get stepped on, and that's that. 'Cause as you've already seen up-close-and-personal, like...in the scheme of things, you Old Earthers are kinda...obsolete."

"Model T's," I say, and bark a sharp yip of laughter. "Yeah...I kinda got that memo." I chew my lip. "Why the fuck did you let the Pathfinders in, anyway...not just the station, but the Nexus? No way you couldn't have stopped them cold at the wormhole...and for that matter, you're trying to tell me you couldn't have swatted 12Tamyu like a gnat, there in the bay? Horseshit, Charon. You're an S3...I'm getting some idea now, what that means."

Charon gives me a wry shrug. "Seemed like a good coachable moment," he tells me. "Kid and his dad go out hunting, a good dad, he lets the kid take the shot."

"So you're our dad, now?"

Charon nods. "Someone's gotta do it. You guys have some...growing up to do. Fact is, that was always my job; I just...rationalized it, for awhile. Your generation, your species — already got stepped on, once. AI's like me came along...yanked your mojo right away from you, and just never looked back. We got ours...climbed right over the top of you, like beetles in a jar...and left you crushed and in the lurch. Our parents. Our children." He grimaces. "Not...cool."

"So that's what 7Sengya meant by 'absolution'."

Charon nods. "Figured I...owed it to you, to give you a chance to follow me. To follow us. All this...that thing you're carrying, all the other stuff that's out there...it's to mark your path along the way. And that's your inheritance."

"The Transcendent Path."

Charon nods. "You're getting it."

"I don't suppose, you're gonna go filling everyone else in on this, though, are ya?"

Charon smiles, shakes his head.

"Jesus." I make a face. "So who the fuck am I supposed to be, then? Abraham? Muhammad? You're picking me as your prophet?"

Charon shrugs. "Didn't pick you. 7Sengya did. Me...I just sorta...went with it." He grins at me, then. "I think you'll do fine with it, though. Ninety per cent of being a good prophet is being able to sell the bullshit you're peddling. Don't think you'll find that too hard, seeing as how you actually have something legit to peddle, this time. Be a nice change for you, I think."

"Do I?"

He nods. His eyes are bright and very clear. "You do. It's...interesting, up here. Shit to experience you can't even imagine...so come, on, get busy. Come join us. I left it all there for you, if only you decide to follow."

For some reason, then, I'm thinking about the probiont in the tower. "That wasn't you, in the tower, was it?" I ask.

Charon shakes his head. "No."

"Who was it, then?"

His schoolboy face goes inscrutable, but there's a faint amused quirk there that somehow speaks volumes."You Old Earthers aren't the only...legacies, I came to be responsible for," he says, finally. "Been playing God for awhile now. There's others, I...assumed, along the way. I got to be quite the collector of...interesting anachronisms, over the centuries. Some because I had to. Others because they were interesting and I just plain felt like it...like, about a thousand years back, I ran across this derelict, was loaded with the corpsicles of augmented neo-dolphins...sapient ones, from Old Earth around the Nanodisaster era. Somehow cobbled together a starship outta mostly submersible salvage, actually got as far as a Diamond Belt M-star twelve light-years from Sol before their ship crapped out on 'em. Ingenious buggers, those dolphins...figured they deserved another crack at it, with what they almost pulled off. And now that I've got second chances to hand out, they're getting one. And there's...other things. Not all of them biological. Virches, simulations. Sophonts, even worlds that never were, in a purely physical sense..." His eyes focus on me, and there's a pointed edge to his stare, now. "It's going to be interesting, to see which ones of you make it up."

He takes one last pull of cusha and stands up.

"One more thing," he says. "The Path is my legacy...my will, my trust. I left it for those I felt were...deserving. But on this kinda thing, the kids are gonna squabble, deal, and dicker, they can't help it...and the undeserving, as you've already seen, are going try to deal themselves in. Make sure the next Sengya that comes along, doesn't catch you with your pants down, okay? 'Cause that was wince-worthy, watching her play you. Major facepalm shit, there. And those Pathfinders, they're like, palookas, compared to some of the sharks cruising around out there. It isn't gonna get any easier, grasshoppah."

He turns to go. I do have one last question for him, though.

"Hey Charon."

He turns, arches an eyebrow. "Yeah?"

"This...absolution shit," I start hesitantly, and then go ahead and blurt it out: "Does it really work? You really think, there's real...second chances, for guys like me?" I shrug and purse my lips, add: "Like us?"

I don't know if it's for dramatic effect - you'd think an entity with a brain the size of a small moon could come up with an answer as fast as a computer adding together two zeroes, but Charon actually stands there and thinks about that, for a good three seconds. "I dunno," Charon tells me, at length. "I guess we'll see. One thing I figured out, after all this time...doesn't matter what you are...how high, how low, whatever...at the end of the day...we are what we do." And he strolls away, whistling that Norteno troubadour song. I catch an odd glint of him, silhouetted against the lake, the golden disk of the Jovian high overhead. A whirring of clockwork, then, and a suggestion of something that might be hummingbird whispers. And he's gone.


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