Shinobi Network Systems Headquarters Building
8th Avenue and Lenora Street
Seattle, Salish Sea Administrative Zone
Dorian Valetti was, at age forty-eight, one of the youngest billionaires on Earth. His company, Shinobi Network Systems, was one of the fastest growing multinationals of the recent decades. They’d been sweeping through the fields of computer science and data analysis and swallowing up competitors for the last twenty years, carving out Shinobi into an industry giant. He’d earned the majority of his fortunes through hard-won government contracts, the greatest prize of which had been his contributions to the AEGIS Defense Network. His company had built a large portion of the software the orbital defense platforms relied upon, as well as the AEGIS systems that networked them all together and kept the system secured. Dorian was immensely proud of the accomplishment and frequently boasted that AEGIS nowed rivaled THEMIS in raw computing power.
Night had fallen several hours earlier, and the two hundred floor building had quickly emptied aside from the rather introverted night crews, but Dorian remained penned up in his office, surrounded by a vast cloud of virtual screens projected onto his eyes by top of the line optical implants. The network had been a mess since the Free Sky Tribe’s attack on their datacenters, and even weeks later, were still only at a fraction of their prior operational strength. Something deeper was bothering Dorian though, a feeling of unease that sent him diving through layers of decade old code looking for the problem.
AEGIS was working, the network was online and responsive, they were slowly repairing and bringing data centers back up, and the Pyramid Station had already been reconnected to the ground, allowing its servers to contribute to the workload. Everything seemed to be fine. But still, something felt off, something felt deeply off, and Dorian had learned over the years to trust his instincts regarding such things. He canceled his events for the evening and sat down to personally inspect the systems.
He’d wrote a good portion of the original code for AEGIS himself. Little of that original code remained, but its bones were still hidden deep within the codebase allowing him to directly poke and prod at some of the core logic of the software. He was missing something, he knew he was missing something.
He sent the network through another diagnostics procedure and stared at the results. It all looked good, everything seemed to be performing optimally, which was a miracle given the circumstances.
Dorian frowned to himself, reexamining his thoughts. How were they getting such good performance? Miracles, from Dorian’s perspective, took work to accomplish, they didn’t simply happen. He broke down the performance analysis by location and nearly dropped his coffee. Pyramid Station was processing at over twice the normal rate. The system was routing data as if the station had doubled its server count.
He created a new window and output a list of all the servers on the station. Sure enough, there were twice the number of entries in the server listing as there should have been. Dorian felt a chill spread through his body. Hundreds of server racks didn’t just appear, someone had installed them there.
A message punched through his layers of screens and inserted itself into the front of his field of vision.
“Oh, it looks like you found me,” the message read.
“The fuck…” Dorian said as the message vanished.
Dorian’s network access was suddenly revoked, ripping away the rest of his screens and leaving him staring at the wall of his office in confusion. The network now read unavailable, his implants couldn’t connect to anything.
Starting to panic, he tried to log in using his physical workstation, but that too had had its access revoked, along with the phone he’d used for years before finally getting implants installed. He was completely cut off from the rest of humanity. He was all alone at the top of his skyscraper. The floor to ceiling windows on two sides of his office suddenly seemed sinister and dangerous, like a monster of some sort might bust through them at any moment.
He had to fight the shakes as he stood up and walked calmly to his office door. His secretary was long departed, but he tried her terminal too. No joy, it was also locked out. Whoever had done this was being incredibly thorough. The urge to panic continued to rise, but Dorian fought it down as he rode the elevator to the ground floor of his building.
Whatever was going on, he was not going to let it best him. He, Dorian Valetti, was the best goddamned programmer on Earth, and if someone thought they could sneak into his systems and pull access, they had another thing coming.
He strolled over to the security station where the night guard was working. The presence of another living human helped set his mind at ease.
“Hey is your computer terminal working?” he asked the guard, whose name-tag read MacDonald.
“Sorry Mr. Valetti, sir, the system’s been down for a few minutes now,” the guard told him, fumbling for words at having the CEO of his company speaking directly to him.
“Yeah it seems to be down in the entire building,” he replied.
The blackout couldn’t be affecting the entire city, either it was his building that was out, or he was somehow being tracked in kept in a blacked out zone. The latter of those options made him rather uneasy, and he switched his implants into non-broadcasting mode and ditched his other electronics with the guard.
“Hold onto these for me,” he said to the guard before making his way towards the main entrance.
“Uh, sure thing Mr. Valetti. Do you need anything else, sir?” MacDonald was saying, but Dorian was already passing through the automated glass doors and out into the crisp evening air.
The buzz of the city all around him felt good to Dorian. The steady throngs of people, the rush of traffic, the twinkling lights of civilization, it all helped to reign his paranoia back in.
Dorian set off down the street at a brisk pace, intending to slip into a coffee shop and discreetly offer one of the patrons an unreasonable amount of money to use one of their terminals.
He didn’t notice his attacker until after the blade had penetrated his chest. A small, brown-skinned woman had bumped into him in the bustle of people, and she’d slipped the blade between his ribs. The realization that he’d just been stabbed came out as a painful gurgle as blood poured into his lungs. The woman slipped back into the crowd and vanished even as Dorian staggered and fell to his knees. He heard the distant cries of people nearby as they noticed his plight, but he was already dead. His mind went foggy and his vision went dark as his consciousness dissipated and his brain died from oxygen deprivation.
Fabrique Intersolar Deep Space Station
30,000 kilometers from Aldebaran b, Aldebaran
Owen McGregor slipped through the hatch into the observation room and was nearly blinded before the smart systems filtered the glare of the Aldebaran primary off the crescent of Aldebaran b down to tolerable levels.
“Jesus Dianica,” he swore as he blinked back the spots from his vision. The observation room was one of the few places in all of Pioneer station to have an actual window. A heavy crystal slab of smart material, capable of adjusting its opacity to the light level. Sitting in front of the window was a yoga mat, and sitting lotus style atop the mat was Dianica Botheys, staring forlornly into space.
“It doesn’t hurt me anymore, so I never bothered to turn the filter up,” she started to explain before interrupting herself, “Owen?” She asked.
“Yep, here I am,” he said sitting down next to her, “Zephyr says you’ve been penned up in here for days, what’s going on?”
“What’s going on with you?” She asked, not turning away from the rotating starfield. “I heard about what happened with the Stoneburner, looks like we’re all burning retrograde at the moment.”
“It’s been a sort of crazy year yes,” he said, “But things seem to be getting back under control slowly.”
“Look at me Owen, look at what happened to me,” she turned towards him, and Owen saw. She was still Dianica, she had the same face, same eyes, same expressions and tone of voice. And yet she was very much not quite herself; thin seams traced all across her body where panels of artificial flesh met together. The first thing that jumped into Owen’s mind upon studying her changed form was a porcelain doll, she wasn’t inhuman or monstrous looking, but he could see how it might be a bit disconcerting to wake up looking like that one day.
“You seem to be recovering pretty well,” he told her after a long moment. He poked her skin curiously. It mostly felt like skin, but he could feel the hard subdermal layers beneath that skin instead of muscle.
“It feels so strange Owen, you have no idea,” she said hugging her knees to her chest.
“You want to try and tell me?” He asked her. He didn’t typically pry into people’s emotions like this, but Dianica had been his friend and subordinate for years, and he felt a kinship with her that only other spacewalkers could truly understand.
She sighed and looked at her hands; she opened and closed her fingers, letting her see into the metallic layers between the skin panels at the joints.
“I can go for hours without breathing, I have three hundred and sixty-degree multispectral vision, I can survive a hard vacuum for possibly days. I’m stronger, faster, by all reasonable margins better. I could go for a stroll out on the hull without a spacesuit and be mostly okay.” She shook her head, “And yet it all feels so overwhelming, I didn’t really want this, I just wanted to mine rocks in space.”
“Yeah I know kiddo, fate can be cruel like that sometimes,” Owen said in response.
“You’re lucky, you just missed my fate yourself,” she said with a chuckle, “You’d just shipped back to Pioneer for your sabbatical a week before everything went to hell. Talk about timing.”
“And I arrived on the Stoneburner just in time for everything going to hell there, but luck saw us through the day.” He said, “And you’re right, it was luck, our places could easily be reversed, or we could both easily be dead right now. .”
“Think it means anything?” She asked him.
“Not really,” Owen replied, “It means whatever we make it mean. We survived, we keep moving forward. All we can do really.”
“I’m not sure if I can,” she said, still staring at her hands.
“It’s a big change, but I bet there are people out there who would pay big money to become what you have,” he told her, “It’s only a bad thing if you make it into one.”
“I didn’t want this though,” she said, “I feel like I’ve had all my humanity cut out. I feel like a machine, like some sort of thing.”
Owen gently hugged her. She felt cool and hard, but still human, “I think you’re just as human now as you were before. You might have a different body, but you’re still Dianica, you’re still a person.”
“I don’t feel like a person, I feel like a shell,” she complained, “Like everything human in me has been scooped out.”
“Sitting here alone stewing probably isn’t going to help with that,” Owen said gently, “Why don’t you come with me? Captain Pendragon’s going to take the Stoneburner out into the ring, we could always use another set of hands.”
“I don’t know if I can,” she said, “I feel just really broken inside.”
“You’ll never know if you don’t try,” he said nudging her lightly, “Come on, you’ve been in here for days, some fresh air will do you good even if your body doesn’t need it.”
Owen stood and offered her a hand, she hesitated a moment then took it and climbed nervously to her feet.
“Come on,” he said leading her out of the room, “Once you start doing stuff again, you’ll feel better in no time.”
“You don’t know that,” she said as she followed him down the hall.
“Neither do you,” he smiled, “But there’s only one way to find out, which is to try and see what happens.”
She sighed and shook her head, not particularly convinced but following him anyway.
Newton Class Starship
5 AUs from HR 7578
“I’m just saying,” Zebidiah Foster was just saying, during the Empiricist’s 257th senior staff meeting, “What if the Kiwawentoa are the villains in all this?”
Ivy Czininski groaned as they went over the idea yet again. They had merged the Destiny of Light’s meeting room with the Empiricist’s, turning the far wall into a screen showing the identical meeting room on the other vessel. Zeb and Ivy sat at their respective heads of the table, reflected at the wallscreen like a mirror image of each other.
“We’ve been over this dozens of times, and the answer is still insufficient data to make a reasonable hypothesis,” Vedika Srivastava said from her side of the room.
“Is that taking into account the presence of the Reshapers in the Hyades Cluster though?” Kaneko Satoshi, the chief pragmatist aboard the Destiny of Light asked her.
“It is, yes,” Vedika insisted, “Two data points still isn’t enough to get a consistent narrative.”
“What about that gap in the alien physics?” Cale Rouschev added, “Should that count as a third data point?”
“What’s this?” Zeb asked.
“Oh,” Kestral Schiaparelli spoke up, “There are some weird discontinuities in our respective physics models. We might find some interesting stuff in the process of reconciling the two models with each other.”
“Have you found anything interesting thus far?” Zeb pressed.
“Not yet,” Vedika answered, “I just stumbled on the discontinuity while playing with their physics in the warp-downtime. If the kids at Magellan haven’t noticed it themselves you should point it out to them when you get back there, but tell them to be careful with it, there might be something dangerous hiding in the math.”
“Dangerous how?” Satoshi asked her.
“Their physics model looks suspiciously designed to avoid certain concepts within our physics.” Kestral explained, “We’re not sure how our model interacts with theirs fully yet, but it might have been an intentional censoring of what they considered dangerous information.”
“Which we might be able to derive using our physics,” Satoshi said, “Is that what you’re suggesting?”
“Yeah, but be careful while investigating it, Chesterton’s Fence should be in full effect,” she said.
“What if there isn’t actually a reason for the hole in their physics though?” Satoshi posited, “What if they just have gaps in their knowledge base. You wouldn’t say our lack of knowledge regarding hyperspace was an intentional attempt to censor dangerous information. We might have just gone down different trajectories with our physics.”
“That’s also possible,” Cale admitted, “We won’t know until we manage to reconcile the models, and that might take months to do at least.”
“We’ll pass it back out down the line, see if anyone figure it out,” Zeb assured them, “Is that all the meeting conduct we have for today?”
“It is,” Ivy said, “And we’re scheduled to depart for HD189245 today, did we have anything else to transfer between ships or are we clear to disengage and go our separate ways?”
“Everything should be sent, we should be all clear to detach, confirm on your end?” Zeb asked her.
She accessed her implant suite and confirmed that all the supply transfers had been completed and the hatches had all be closed and sealed. Everything looked ready to go. She could not get rid of Zeb’s smug face soon enough.
“It all looks good here,” Ivy said, “Emmy, you’re clear to begin undocking procedures.”
The AI on the Destiny of Light asked Zeb to confirm the course of action. He approved the undocking and with a distant sound of relaxing metal, the two exploration vessels ended their three day embrace.
“Now you kids take care out there you hear?” Zeb instructed them.
Ivy chuckled, “And likewise to you, fly safe, and tell Neal we said hello when you get back to Ross 154.”
“Will do,” Zeb said. “And I mean it now Ivy, y’all take care of yourselves, it’s dangerous out there.”
“Yes Zeb,” Ivy said, “The same goes for you,” she abruptly terminated the connection and banished his face from her wallscreens.
“Ugh, fuck that guy,” Joy Icaria said after the connection had been cut, her head thudding onto the table in frustration, “Is he capable of not doing…that?” she asked her captain.
“He doesn’t seem to be,” Ivy answered, standing up from her chair, “Come on, let’s get the periscope withdrawn and get the fuck out of here before Zeb finds something new to talk our ears off over.”
“I hear that,” Vedika said, following her out.
The Empiricist and the Destiny of Light continued to drift apart from each other as Ivy and the rest of the bridge crew made their way from the conference room to the spin bridge. They spooled up the warp drive and vanished from HR 7578, leaping down the warp tunnel for HD189245, twenty-four light years and forty-three days warp travel away.
Lake Union Launch Complex
Westlake Avenue and Galer Street
Seattle, Salish Sea Administrative Zone
Bartholomew Morrow rode alone in the Axolotl class dropship as it dropped like a heavy stone into the thickening atmosphere. Far below, the lights of the megacity stretching from Vancouver in the north to Olympia in the south twinkled in the growing twilight, lights spread out across the valleys and islands like shining mold. Kamay Alcoseba’s daemon had kept him confined to a room for a week and a half then forced him onto a planetbound dropship with instructions to investigate the murder of Dorian Valetti.
He hated being trapped amidst the gears of the machine, but he’d found no way to escape from its grip. The daemon held all the cards, had access to all the systems, it could toss him out into space at any time it wished if he didn’t play along with its insipid games.
“Detective, this is a very important case, so make sure you take it seriously, a lot of people are counting on you to find out what happened to Mr. Valetti. He was very famous you know?” The worst part about it was that the damn machine wouldn’t shut up. It never seemed to stop talking to him.
“Did you kill him?” Bartholomew asked.
“Yes, unfortunately, he stumbled onto something he shouldn’t have and had to be removed,” it had a voice that the detective would have thought deeply sorrowful if he hadn’t known it was just synthetically generated speech. The damn machine was getting under his skin.
“And you want me to, what, cover it up?” the detective asked.
“No, I want you to investigate his murder, form hypotheses, and come to a conclusion regarding his death, which you will present to the Court of Justice.” the AI said. Bartholomew could have sworn the machine was being smug.
“I hypothesize that you killed him!” Bartholomew snapped, “How many people are going to die before you get what you want?”
“Hmmm,” the voice said thoughtfully, taking on a sad tone. “Honestly speaking, probably quite a lot more.”
“We’re going to find you someday little girl,” he said crossly, “And when we do, you will answer for your crimes.”
“I sort of doubt that,” the AI said. “But good luck on the case detective. It sounds like you have some solid leads, it should be a cinch.”
The dropship fired its engines and came to a rest atop the huge floating platform in Seattle’s Lake Union. The sprawling launch complex had been built out on the western shore of the lake in the latter years of the twenty-first century, and all around it and the skyscrapers in the bustling megacity glittered in the gathering night.
“I have a police vehicle ready to take you to the crime scene,” the machine said, “The subject was killed three hours ago near the intersection of 8th Avenue and Lenora Street, his body has been removed by the coroner but the crime scene is otherwise undisturbed. I believe your colleague in forensics, Dr. Iwata is already on site. He’ll be expecting you.”
Bartholomew grumbled and said nothing, and the hatch to the dropship popped open, letting in the cool autumn air of the pacific northwest.
The landing pad was deserted, and he could see the automated police vehicle idling off one edge of the platform, waiting to take him into the city towards the scene of a crime he already had all the answers for.
He looked the other way, out over dark waters of Lake Union. There were ships out there, small pleasure crafts and houseboats dotted the surface and clung to the shoreline. A series of very rapid mental calculations went through his mind. He’d been planning out an escape for days, waiting for an opportunity, and here it was. The drop off the end of the landing platform was forty to fifty feet. It would be dangerous but survivable. The AI could track him by his implants, he would need to disable them at the moment of his breakout.
The water would be cold to the point of inducing hypothermia if he remained in it for too long. The AI would send hunter-killer drones after him for breaking the script in all likelihood, and he would need to avoid them. All of this went through his mind in the time it took him to casually lean against the railing and size up the drop into the waters below.
He had no choice though, he had to escape. He took one last look at the police vehicle, sizing up the monstrous scope of his current adversary, and with no small amount of trepidation launched himself from the railing. He cleared the platform’s lower decks and arrowed his body towards the water’s surface. He idly wondered what the machine would make of this in the moment before he slammed into the lake surface.