Ephemeral Skin
by Chinedum Ofoegbu
First Published in Issue One of Voices/ Future Tense (May 2006)

In space, no one will hear you scream — mainly because sound does not travel through vacuum. This is a physical certainty.

::Sensor array::


In space, someone will eventually hear you scream — with the sheer number of planets, colonies, polities, ships, moons, Jupiter brains and, if all else fails, the Argus Array. This is a mathematical certainty.

::Weapon systems::


The question then becomes, which is superior, su if you will, math or physics?

::Tactical infoware::


Which lights our way through this unfathomable universe?


"Optimal? We're not done yet!"

Which should?

::Fuck that, I know we're good to go, you know we're good to go, so we're out of here::

"What!? What about life support? Ambitious!? Ambitious!!"

The fighter craft designated Ambitious Targeting beamed musical white noise laughter into Hethuj Ysadam's brain. In the time it took him to pretend to take offence, she'd lifted off light as a gnatbot and, in seconds, was making hypersonic velocity away from the deployment platform. The acceleration gel pressed him from without and within like the grip of a careful giant. Or a womb.

::Hu, you wouldn't even need life support if you'd just take a space-adapt genemod. You know, like someone who isn't completely insane::

With the exception of Hethuj, every other "fighting spirit" in the squadron had been tweaked or at least modded for vacuum; it seemed like a not-unreasonable safety precaution.

::Besides,:: she smiled into him ::you'll have to do better than irrational paranoia::

Hethuj didn't deem this worthy of an answer. She didn't expect one — their game was still in progress and she'd won this round.

From inside her, Hethuj watched Ambitious and the rest of her squad synch up into formation without so much as a tight-beam communication between them. Their posthuman intellects meant they could just anticipate each other's moves based on past experience, kinaesthetic prediction and environmental sensor data. Hell, he thought, consoling himself with and relishing the archaic, thereby unique, swearword, they'd have to not only predict what the others are gonna do but what the others are gonna think everyone else is gonna do too. All in faster-than-real time. His irritation at the thought nearly made it to his conscious …

::Hethuj, wouldn't be it be nuking optimal if we just, like, went AWOL? Maybe joined the Emple-Dokcetic:: Ambitious teased. She was comming Pre-Leengwa Empatik, an empai-developed language consisting of emotionally evocative spatial patterns. But even if she'd been talking to him in prime numbers, he'd have still known she was joking. They were, for the day at least, just that close.

"Ambitious, you'd have to be the most playful po I've ever worn" he retorted, refusing to take the bait. She knew the Emple-Dokcetic was his personal idea of hell, a freakish melting-pot of modular selves.

He turned his attention to the perception data constantly cascading through her and over him; meson sensors, multi-frequency lidar imaging, tactical extrapolations, environment scanning, ambush pre-emption, potential evasive manoeuvres; innumerable senses like matroyshka layers of ephemeral skin. So easy to just disappear, he thought, his entire value complex recoiling at the thought. He withdrew into himself, taking the mental snapshot of space and the other squad members with him. She noticed, of course.

::Don't be silly, I'm the only po you've ever worn::

He emoted a smirk at her "Yeah, sure"

::Don't tease, you bastard. You know I'm the only fighter who'd accept you as eir 'spirit'. You may have passed the hab-loyalty tests but you're still obviously insane. You don't shut down egoself on flights, you duck out of scheduled backups and you won't even tweak for vacuum::

He blew the empathemote equivalent of a raspberry at her. He enjoyed the idea of confusing a higher toposophic entity even as he recognized that she almost certainly knew that and was probably humoring him. Still, it was a pleasantly self-indulgent, thought.

::Jeez Louise, hu,:: she said, knowing her appropriation of Information Age slang would irritate — it was, after all, his shtick — ::You know, it's not like *you're* doing the flying, you're just here to keep me loyal, not company::

As if to prove the point, she twitched into the sensor shadow of some metallic asteroid debris, stealthed then darted around it, revelling in the agility and power of her body. The rest of the squadron smoothly kept formation. ::Those EMPers won't know what hit em:: After incidentally flooding their shared channels with aerobatic joy, she continued. ::You don't have to be conscious, you know. Hell, you could just slow down subjective timesense and be back on Kepleria in an eyeblink. This is a milk run::

"What, and do without your dazzling wit? That would be the height of masochism."

::Says the man who won't even use a bioplant. Now, that's masochi—::

"Are we having this conversation again?" He said wearily, knowing that, yes indeed they were having this conversation again. But she surprised him. Of course. What else is new?

Instead of getting a reply, he found himself outside, getting an external view of her. She must have patched me into a sensor drone. Of course, she could have actually spaced me. I'll probably never know either way. Shaking off the thought, he gazed "down" at what looked very much like a stratocumulus cloud — if clouds had silvery reflective surfaces bulging with sensor spines. Being made mostly of liquid nanometal meant they, and any other part, could become radiators, drive supplements or weapons in a nanosecond should the need arise. She was the most elegant ugly thing he'd ever seen. Not that he'd ever tell her that; might go to her head. Heh.

He snapped back into the default tactile interface with her sensor data. It still felt too much like skin. Hethuj briefly dived into his Self Mansion. He'd had it for years so he was almost jaded by the iconic manifestations of his intellect; ignoring the diamond fountains, literal firewalls and everything else, he touched the painting of a carp morphing into a dragon and triggered a visual conversion interface. Better, he thought, finally relaxing. It was just a self-hypnotic illusion, but at least it felt good; like he was seeing through her sensors with his own eyes.

::Am I not beautiful:: she said coquettishly.

Yeah right.

::Am I not powerful? You don't trust me to protect you:: , projecting hurt feelings for all she was worth. Even knowing she was spouting pure wup, he could almost believe her act. Oh well, let the games continue…

Aloud he said "You're the most elegant ugly thing I've ever seen."

::Awww, Hethuj, you really know how to make a girl blush:: She emoted the matching impression with just the faintest shading of sarcasm to it. He got the impression of a cute teenage girl batting her eyelashes. He snorted.

"And that's another thing", Hethuj wondered, openly curious for once. "Why in the name of all that is Archai would a shiny 30-foot blob of nanotech bristling with weapons identify as female anyway? What's up with that?"

::You should see me in virchspace. I am *hot*::

A wave of imaginary heat colored with mock arrogance accompanied that last. Hethuj's heartrate quickened in almost visceral response; he slowed it back down absently.

::Besides, I've always thought human females to be more interesting::

"You would." Hmph.

::Don't you get ever tired of clinging to your birth body the way you do:: , entering into a new line of discussion with no warning. ::You're what, 98 years old, and you've never tried being female. I'll bet you haven't even had same-sex::

No need to gamble; she knew she was right and so did he. To a po like her, sub-S1s looked like little more than a collection of quantifiable variables.

::You even insisted on a systems checklist. I mean, who does that? Didn't you back up before we left::


::If you wanna to live dangerously, why bother with the systems check? You might as well live for the moment, the now, the thrill and so forth, right:: She emoted what he'd have liked to believe was exasperation. Once again he entertained the fancy that he actually in some miniscule way confused her. Once again, he accepted the fact that she was in all probability just bored and amusing herself by entertaining him. She's probably making me say exactly what she wants me to; like a puppet or something.

Warming to her subject now, she continued. ::I've never met anyone so attached to their proto-body. I mean, no offense, those Ecos martial arts have you looking real good and all, but *come on*! I know for a fact that 600 roentgens would kill you in an hour. Six hundred. That's pathetic. How did you baselines ever manage to survive this long anyway::

"We lived long enough to create you, didn't we? You are our mind children, after all." Score one for the baseline.

::I must be getting slow in my old age; I really walked into that one:: Her amusing reference to po fasttime aside, there was no sarcasm whatsoever in her tone — which of course meant she was being exceptionally sarcastic. I must have struck a nerve! He grinned with his face, careful not to emote or project anything.

They sped on in companionable silence, surrounded only by the hungry velvet of space and, half a lightsecond in every direction, the rest of the squadron.

::You'll take rejuve treatments every decade but you won't accept a nanoimmune system; you access the Net constantly, but you won't get a DNI. You baselines are so inconsistent. How can you live with so little self-knowledge::

"We share. Oh and allow me to add that you are also the most talkative po I've ever worn."

::Well if you'd just put your egoself to sleep like a good fighting spirit should, we wouldn't be talking, now would we:: came the retort.

At least she doesn't do that fake pause thing for my benefit; that'd be…"Hey!!" he yelped. She had rather suddenly interrupted his thoughts — by turning into a giant "vertical" hoop.

Intellectually, exceptional sub-S1 sapients tend to excel in one of three ways: specialization, multi-tasking or pattern-recognition. As one can imagine, the average post-singularity intellect is better at all three than even the best-trained specialist S<1 sapient is at one. Nothing reflects this better than their tactical abilities. Even as the relativistic micrometeorite passed through her already collapsing hoopform, Ambitious was activating janusoptic stealth, turning her forward motion into a sideflip, scattering antiplasma for cover, spamming a 13-lightsecond radius of the projectile's estimated origin with X-ray lasers and anti-drive weaponry. She released recon drones. She deployed semi-sapient antimissile mines and started butterfly evasion non-patterns. A brief gap in the sensory hurricane showed Hethuj the other squad members doing the same. They still hadn't needed to signal each other.

What a lightshow, Hethuj thought. The Lord of Rays emself couldn't have done better.

An inflectionless ::Whoa:: was Ambitious Targeting's only comment.

"Ambitious, what the fuck just hap —"

::If you say "what the fuck just happened" in that bayish state-the- very-fucking-obvious way, I swear I will space you right now:: The continued lack of expression in her voice was probably more unsettling than any roar. Playtime was over.

Hethuj furiously scanned the datafalls, willing his mind into a momentary focus-trance.

"…fuck.. RKKS?"

::And just go ahead and guess who *doesn't* use that:: Be it gray goo, black goo or even spores, replicating weaponry are the specialty of the Efficiency Maximization Paradigm, a malignant hegemonizing culture whose driving meme was the forcible transformation of all life into nanotech. Relativistic Kinetic Kill Systems are not. Intel was wrong.

::You're goddamn right Intel was wrong:: Hethuj didn't bother being surprised that she'd been hearing his thoughts all along. As her "fighting spirit", they were so intimately melded together it would've been a surprise if she hadn't. What did surprise him was that she seemed genuinely angry; there was a distance in her tone that he hadn't heard before.

"Trajectory? Point of origin?" Following the major nuances of the datafalls had been possible when they'd just been cruising. Now, Hethuj found himself reduced to slack-jawed baseline status. The thought grated.

::Pointless. No way whatever fired that was anything more than a decoy. The real offense is probably out of sensor range waiting to lure us into a trap::

"But if it isn't the EMP then who — oh no." The reason for Hethuj's exclamation became clear as all sensors locked on to the slowly appearing shape some 20 light-seconds out. It was obvious it could have come much closer undetected if it had wanted to. The sensor profile flickered erratically as their scout drones started going off-grid by the dozen. But they both got the gist of it- a gleaming sphere of utter black, 100 meters in diameter.

::Well. That is definitely *not* a rogue EMP squadron:: Battle calm. Fatalism from an SI:1. Normally impossible but what they were seeing completely justified it.

"Ambitious, am I reading these files right? Is that …"

::A Black Angel? I guess it wasn't Intel's fault after all. Remember when I asked if you'd backed up::


::I hope your answer was yes::

… to be continued…

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