Subterranean Press Magazine: Spring 2012

The Weight of History, the Lightness of the Future by Jay Lake

Year 1113 post-Mistake

High orbit around Themiscyra; in the Antiope Sector

The Before Michaela Cannon, aboard the starship Third Rectification {58 pairs}

The orbital habitat spun around its center of mass, but eccentrically with the great, sweeping wheels that formed its structure. Tiny moonlets of debris accompanied the station in its eternal fall around the roiling planet of Themiscyrya. Late Polity space architecture, to be sure—no one from the Imperium Humana had built anything new in this sector since the Mistake, after all.

The checkered panels showed plentiful signs of both the original damage from the Mistake, as well as the millennium of micrometeroids that had since peppered the station. Still, it was in rather good shape.

As the very, very old joke went, it was not remarkable that the dog spoke well, it was remarkable that the dog spoke at all.

“Eleven centuries in orbit and still here.” Go-Captain Alvarez was a mainline human—And who wasn’t, these days, Cannon thought with wry regret—but he’d been trailing about in her service long enough to have picked up something of her sense of time. At almost 2100 years-objective of age, most of that span lived out in years-subjective, Cannon frequently felt that her sense of time was all that remained to her. Other than the endless memories, of course.

She was without question the oldest human being in the universe.

“No major moon here to disrupt stability through tidal effects,” Cannon replied. “And they built the habitat in a high, stable orbit that’s decaying slowly. Even so, another hundred years and we’d have missed it. If this thing hadn’t been knocked to hell during the Mistake, it could have stayed up here for a damn sight longer time.”

“Longer than you, Before?” asked Alvarez in a sly voice.

“Nothing stays up here longer than me, kid.” The response was almost automatic. Cannon had heard every joke; hell, she’d made most of them up.

She stared at the realtime virteo display of abandoned hulk they continued to close in on. When Third Rectification‘s squads boarded, they’d almost certainly find bodies. Or at least remains. Vacuum mummies, given the ubiquitous peppering of the orbital habitat’s hull.

A classic Mistake scenario. The alien attack eleven hundred years earlier had knocked the Polity, all two thousand worlds of humankind, into to the steam age at best. Some planets had reverted all the way back to the stone age. Most of the resulting orbital junk had been cleaned up, either by time and the inexorable slow decay of orbital mechanics, or by humans eventually clawing their way up to a space-capable industrial base once more and re-establishing contact among the stars. Sights like this shattered habitat were rare, at least outside of the memories of the few hundred quasi-immortal Befores left alive amid this new order of things.

Had these people seen anything of their attackers, at the bitter end? That was a question Cannon had long wondered about. She’d been seated inside a banquet hall on 9-Rossiter when the Mistake hit. All she’d known was the lights going dark, followed by a series of sizzling thumps as the building’s major power and control systems were taken out by what proved to be orbital kinetics. By the time she got outside, a parallel planetwide strike with electromagnetic pulses had fried everything not in a shielded container. Their attackers were nothing but lights in the sky.

Nothing but lights in the sky, followed by two and half centuries of being trapped on a mudball swiftly gone to violent anarchism.

No one she’d spoken with in the over eight centuries since being rescued by the late, great Uncial knew anything about the aliens that had all but eliminated the human race. None of the surviving Befores had seen their attackers—anyone who was close enough to be a witness was also close enough to have been killed in the event. None of the planetary successor cultures had ever turned up useful records. Not that there hadn’t been a lot of searching ever since.

All that was left was the scant evidence to be found in the cold, dead places that had never managed a recovery. Like Themiscyra, with its toxic, stormy atmosphere blowing through the shattered pressure-cities. No one had survived here to clean up and start over.

“You guys had it cleaner,” she whispered to the long-dead habitat crew, and by extension, the millions who’d perished on the troubled blue-orange planet below.

After a moment to see if this pronouncement would be followed by a more cogent order, Go-Captain Alvarez asked, “Will we board, ma’am?”

Command was still hers. Alvarez might be a captain in the Navisparliament’s service, but this was her expedition. “Yes. We’re still looking. Give our squads a shift to prep. After all this time, there isn’t any hurry now.”

#

Later, during the middle of the sleep cycle she’d allowed off before they all swung into activity, Cannon walked down toward frame thirty-eight, lock two, along Third Rectification‘s ventral spine. Rounded corridors padded with smart microfibers ran intestinally through the hull. Most hatches were coated with a yielding polymer so that they felt like skin to the touch. The starship seemed far more organic than it should.

Her personal vessel, ICV Sword and Arm, was docked at frame thirty-eight, lock two, as it had been for years, except for those rare times when she piloted the ancient starship on some independent errand.

Strictly speaking, Sword and Arm wasn’t a starship by the contemporary definition. She was capable of attaining relativistic speeds, thanks to the retrofit of an Alcubierre drive better than six hundred ago as part of the infamous Polyphemus mutiny plot, but the keel had been laid during the Polity. For the first two centuries of her existence, Sword and Arm had used a threadneedle drive.

Since the Mistake, the threadneedle drives had simply not worked. It was as if the mysterious alien attackers had tweaked a basic principle of physics. Cannon believed that like she believed in the Tooth Fairy, but whatever the mechanism, the effect was certainly undeniable.

Third Rectification and all her sister paired drive ships used Haruna Kishmangali’s paired drives. A far more limited, and limiting, technology than threadneedle drives, paired drives had at least restored supraluminal travel to the successor planets of the old Polity. This innovation had the Imperium Humanum to emerge from the jumbled skein of ravaged human worlds.

All of which was to say that Sword and Arm, much like Cannon herself, was one of the last survivors of a lost age. Armed, armored and useless. And unlike the paired drive ships, Sword and Arm did not talk back. A signal virtue.

As if summoned by that thought, Third Rectification spoke. “You should put her in a museum.”

“You talk too damned much.” Cannon had commanded Uncial for a time, the ancestral mother to her mechanical race, right up to the starship’s death at the battle of Wirtanen B. Being the last captain of the first of the paired drive ships made her something of a saint among the shipminds.

That status was occasionally useful, but mostly tiresome.

“What is lost will not return.” The ship managed to inject a note of sorrowful reason into its tone. “We worry for your obsession with history, Before.”

Reaching her hatch, a slightly discolored ovoid mat in the springy surface of the deck, Cannon laughed, a short and bitter bark. “History stares back at me out of the mirror every morning, ship. And who’s we, anyway?”

“The starships. Polyphemus and I spoke when we both lay in orbit at High Manzanita. And before, with many others.”

“You didn’t take a vote?” Cannon asked with horror. Shipminds were emancipated, with their own legal and civil rights which they enforced—along with their monopoly on supraluminal travel—through the mechanism of the Navisparliament. Things could hardly be otherwise, as humanity needed the ships far more than the ships needed humanity. People only built and maintained the vessels—services that could be performed in any number of ways. The starships carried their frail passengers through the bitter depths of space. That was a unique service granting them power beyond reckoning in the affairs of humanity. Not for the first time, Cannon wondered what the paired drive shipminds would have made of the much more flexible threadneedle drive. As the two technologies were centuries apart, the point was moot.

In any case, what did it matter? Sword and Arm had never had a voice, or a vote, after all.

“We have not concluded a formal vote on any topic in over two hundred years-objective,” Third Rectification replied primly.

That wording caught at Cannon’s ear. “Have any votes been proposed in recent years?”

The silence that followed spoke volumes to her. Finally, the shipmind answered, “We are on this voyage, are we not?”

“Indeed.” That was an answer she would just have to let lie for now.

Cannon tapped out her personal code on the lockpad set into the soft, curving bulkhead of the passageway. “And for that I thank you.”

“I cannot follow you in there,” Third Rectification warned.

She hid her smile. “I know.”

#

Sword and Arm had originally been built as a fast courier. She was the smallest starship the Before Michaela Cannon had ever seen, impossibly so in comparison to the massive paired drive ships, but tiny even by Polity standards. The paired drive ships were all enormous, with hull volumes starting at upwards of 750,000 meters3 at their least. Third Rectification displaced slightly more than 1.4 million meters3, with a cargo capacity of 200,000 meters3 and the ability to carry six hundred passengers and crew. Sword and Arm displaced about 12,000 meters3 with negligible cargo capacity after her post-Mistake drive conversion, and bunks for eight passengers.

A minnow, to Third Rectification‘s cetacean.

Cannon liked the small space. She liked that the ship was hers, claimed as salvage rights arising from her own role in suppressing the Polyphemus mutiny. She liked that Sword and Arm never talked back to her, never tried to do things for her own good. Most of all, she liked being in a place that, except for the bolted-in Alcubierre drive, was little changed from the days of the Polity. It was the lure of the long-lost and familiar, aching and addictive as seeing an old lover.

Sometimes Cannon thought of Sword and Arm as her own private time machine.

It was the work of minutes to walk through the passageways and compartments. The ship truly was tiny. She found herself back in the number one drive bay looking at the opposed negative energy sieves that served the core of the old threadneedle drive.

The opp-negs still worked, so far as she could tell given that the threadneedle drives simply never came online. She powered them up, sent the devices through their self-checking routines. Careful maintenance was required to deal with the occasional failure. And parts…Well, parts were a major obsession with her. In truth, keeping alive a mechanism that hadn’t functioned correctly for over a thousand years certainly counted as an obsession in its own right. Her candle lit in time’s window, a memorial to all that had been lost.

This was one of less than a dozen intact threadneedle drives anywhere in the Imperium Humanum. Virtually all of the drives in existence at the time were holed and fried along with the rest of the tech back during the Mistake. According to her logs, Sword and Arm had been awaiting a major overhaul cold-parked in an elliptical orbit around Yellow when the aliens came. The attackers simply missed the little starship.

In turn, that meant the attackers had not been perfect. Merely overwhelming. Another reason to honor this vessel.

Like Cannon herself, Sword and Arm was a survivor. Their entwined further histories were just that—history. She harbored a hope that someday the same apparent alien invincibility that had missed out on destroying this ship would crack with respect to the suppression of the threadneedle drive. Then, Cannon would be ready. The long, agonizing process of establishing the paired drives would be rendered obsolete. As for the shipminds…Well, a woman could dream.

She caught sight of her grin in a reflection from a metal bulkhead. Predatory, feral. An expression Cannon knew she could never let Third Rectification glimpse.

The only reason she’d ever been able to figure for the shipmind not putting spy-eyes aboard Sword and Arm was because of exaggerated respect for her connection to Uncial. Cannon herself certainly would have bugged the little ship long ago.

She ran the rest of the systems through their self-checks, then spent some time in the pilot’s crash couch, staring at test patterns in the virtual display hovering above the control panel and thinking about very little at all.

#

“All right, people,” the Before Michaela Cannon said loudly. “You all know the drill.”

How many times in two thousand years had she given some version of this speech? She brushed the thought aside and stared at her two squads lined up and ready to go in the number three starboard cargo bay. The team code names were obsolete jokes that no one but her really understood. Goon Squad was a crew of twenty big, thick-bodied men and women loaded with weapons, scanners and paranoia. They were in charge of physical security. Geek Squad was a crew of thirty-two—well, thirty-one with Pardalos on the sick list right now—scientists, technicians and assorted other clever boys and girls. They were in charge of forensics, for want of a better term.

“Goon Squad in first, by the numbers. Secure the main passages ways, check for traps and hazardous damage, send the all-clear when you have enough cubage safe for Geek Squad.”

So far in eleven years-objective of cruising the Antiope sector—almost four years-subjective within Third Rectification‘s reference frame, there being no pair masters out this way—Goon Squad had found exactly zero bad guys to wax the floor with. Geek Squad hadn’t uncovered any new data they didn’t already have on record back home in the Imperium Humanum.

“Geek Squad, you’re looking for anything out of place, any novel causes-of-death. And for the love of God, if someone left us a note, we’re going to read it. Evidence, people. Evidence.

There was a first time for everything. Cannon was pretty much betting on that old saw.

“We’re going to check every cubic meter on this one. Themiscyra Orbital is the cleanest site we’ve found yet.”

Sergeant Pangari, Goon Squad’s leader, had his grunts sound off. Lieutenant-Praetor Marlebone Shinka of Geek Squad just flashed a ready sign, her fingers spread pointing downward.

“And go,” Cannon ordered.

Goon Squad filed into the cargo lock. They’d flit over first in their powered suits. Geek Squad’s gear was much more compact, less…industrial. They’d ferry over in Obduracy, one of Third Rectification‘s pinnaces. Cannon planned on transiting with Shinka’s team. Her days of door-busting were long behind her.

Even if there wasn’t much of anything to fear behind these doors.

Or worse, much of anything to find.

#

Thirty-four minutes after clearing the cargo lock, Goon Squad gave the all-clear for Geek Squad to come ahead. Lieutenant Shinka hustled her people through the transfer lock into Obduracy, already warmed up and waiting. The Before Michaela Cannon waited for the racket and shoving to die down, then boarded second-to-last, followed only by Shinka herself.

In another time and place, she might have found Shinka interesting. The woman was short, compact, with coffee-colored skin and eyes so dark as to be almost black. She kept her hair shaved close to her scalp, but dyed the stubble an ever-changing array of colors. Perhaps most intriguing was that Shinka had been born on Earth. Few people got far from where they started these days—with the paired drive ships, interstellar travel was too irregular, slow and expensive for all but the most profound need or fabulous wealth.

Shinka had not struck Cannon as either needy or wealthy. Curiosity, certainly, had been the Lieutenant’s driving force. For that matter, there wasn’t a soul aboard this mission, regardless of their specialty, who wasn’t driven first and foremost by curiosity.

Third Rectification‘s crew was a mix of civilians and several different forces. Go-Captain Alvarez and the rest of the flight/engineering crew all held commissions from the Navisparliament and served the shipmind itself. Shinka was a lieutenant-praetor in the Household Guards, a one-time forensics tech and supervisor with experience on three worlds, including Pardine. No one served at Pardine without being either native-born or the cream of their particular crop.

Competent, attractive, tight-bodied. Just the way Cannon had liked her women, all those centuries ago when she liked anything at all.

She swarmed forward past Geek Squad to the co-pilot’s station. Ensign Shattuck was in the pilot’s chair, though in truth Obduracy could pilot itself just fine. The shipminds were so meticulous about human dignity that their careful attentions had theo opposite effect to what was intended, at least in the eyes of more thoughtful observers.

Shattuck could pilot just fine, too, but Cannon would never mark him down as especially thoughtful.

He completed pre-flights, signaled make-ready minus thirty, then followed his count until it was time to blow bolts and transit the three-kilometer gap between Third Rectification and the derelict orbital habitat.

#

Obduracy had her own rotation, which didn’t quite mesh with the habitat’s oblique spin. From Cannon’s perspective, their proposed docking vector looked like an impending failure. She knew better, and she kept her mouth shut.

Two of Goon Squad waited alongside the hatch, temporary guide beacons clipped to the station’s hull behind them. No tube, and the docking flange was visibly damaged even from this distance.

“You’re going to have to walk over,” Cannon called back to Shinka. More than a few souls on Geek Squad couldn’t be trusted in freefall without a tether, a keeper or both. Unlike Goon Squad, this bunch wasn’t signed on for their physical skills.

Cannon kept her mouth shut as Shattuck brought them gracefully into place, the pinnace’s spin and position very nearly at rest with respect to the orbital habitat. Their destination loomed apparently stable and unmoving thirty meters off their starboard flank. He fired two lines over. Magnetic heads clipped themselves to the station. After a brief bit of chatter, one of the Goons manually repositioned the aft line to a more secure location.

That was it.

They were here.

Shinka was already counting her team off over radio as everyone suited for hard vacuum. Obduracy was too small for a real airlock, so once the Lieutenant gave the word, Shattuck would pump the air out to internal reservoirs, evacuating the entire cabin.

Cannon remembered to bag her own head. Her Howard-enhanced body was capable of handling hard vacuum unprotected for moderate periods of time, but doing so tended to unnerve mainline humans pretty badly. So she kept discipline rather than provide a distraction. Besides, the monomolecular suit layer was helpful in other ways, most notably radiation management. Even her immune system took time to deal with that.

The suit sealed over her skin, crawling into her mouth, nose, eyes and ears. She blinked twice to let it adjust to her biochemistry. Everything seemed to be in order, as the faint, pulsating green pixel in the lower right margin of her vision attested. If the suit needed her attention, it would tell her there.

The air pumped out with a slowly vanishing thump. In the ensuing silence, Geek Squad went for a walk.

Once again, Cannon was second-to-last, followed by Lieutenant Shinka. Only Ensign Shattuck would remain with his pinnace.

Seen naked eye from this vantage, Themiscyra’s orbital station was absolutely enormous. The hub section spread below her feet in an irregular, pock-marked plain of grey metalloceramic, covered with a shiny, gritty layer of micrometeroid dust. Several larger craters were in evidence. Offhand she couldn’t tell if they were relics of the original attack, junk strikes, or the aftermath of collisions with naturally-occurring objects.

Only one of those answers was of interest to Cannon.

She did a hand-over-hand down the mooring line, following the Geek in front of her. The two Goons waited at the bottom, assisting their brothers in arms toward the damaged docking point. Easier than punching a new hole, that, and it at least presumably admitted them to a location one might actually want to be in once inside.

Pangari’s voice crackled in her ears. Interference from the habitat’s structure, maybe. “Before?”

“Yes, Sergeant?”

“Shumway’s found something you might want to see, ma’am.”

Might want to, Sergeant?”

Humor tinged his reply. “Could be you really want to see this.”

“On my way.” She tongued the suit’s caul, then whispered, “Shinka, private.”

“Ma’am?”

Though Cannon knew perfectly well there was no directionality of sound transmitted by radio in hard vacuum, she still experienced the illusion that the lieutenant’s voice had come from right behind her. “Delegate whatever you had on your punchlist and stick with me. Pangari’s found something interesting.”

Could they finally be getting somewhere? Third Rectification was out of her line of sight right now, occluded by the hub of the orbital habitat, but Cannon glanced that way in any event.

What was the shipmind thinking right then?

Hell, Cannon realized, I don’t even know what I’m thinking. Butterflies danced in her gut as she pulled herself through the prised-open lock.

#

Sergeant Pangari’s find-me blipped her through a series of passageways and down a hole cut in the deck. Cannon wasn’t sure if the hole was part of current events or a relic of the last living hours of this place.

She’d been right about the bodies, though. In the glare of their handlights, she could see the dead sitting at station chairs, many with their heads tucked into their folded arms. Others were clustered in small groups of two or three or four, holding one another. Some were simply lying down, taking their rest.

They’d known, then. They’d seen it coming. Whatever the Mistake had been, whatever had actually happened, the crew of Themiscyra orbital had known.

Which was more than Cannon could say for herself.

These were the best-preserved casualties she’d ever encountered, at least since the very first days on 9-Rossiter. Over the centuries, Cannon had occasionally discovered bones here and there, trapped inside of spacesuits or in crashed hulls. But this…The ones she hurried past seemed to have died well, at least.

Little pocks and holes from the kinetic strikes were everywhere. It was as if the station’s infrastructure had contracted a case of the metallic measles. Debris had collected along the centrifugal force vectors of the odd rotational axis.

Followed closely by Lieutenant Shinka, Cannon came upon Sergeant Pangari outside a large airlock with two of the Goon Squad. Cargo handling, or maybe a maintenance bay. Cannon couldn’t figure why else the designers would have placed such a substantial lock facing an interior passage.

“What do you have, Sergeant?”

“Ma’am, we don’t know. Private Fidelo here picked up a power source on her sweep down this passageway. Behind this hatch.”

Fidelo managed to radiate embarrassment, even from inside the armor of a powered suit. Body language was an amazing thing.

“What sort of power source?” Cannon momentarily feigned patience. She had not thought Pangari to be much given to dramatics.

Pangari passed his tablet over. Cannon scanned the sensor metrics. Low-grade radiation with a profile similar to that of an ion-coupler cell. But not quite.

Ion-coupler cells were current tech. The Polity hadn’t used them.

“Someone’s been here before us,” she said.

“That’s what we thought at first, too.” Pangari seemed to be contracting Fidelo’s embarrassment through some chain-of-command contagion. “But look at the sizing. Ion-couplers are big. We use ‘‘em in static power plants, habitats, refineries and the like. No one builds them small enough to drag around in the field. And the radiation signature is a couple of orders of magnitude smaller than expected.”

“So it’s not an ion-coupler. Or not quite…” She stared at the closed hatch, her heart pounding. “Can we get that open?”

“In a hurry, yes, but we’ll make a mess.” It was obvious from Pangari’s tone of voice that he had a different answer in mind.

“Then open it without a mess, Sergeant.”

Cannon knew Befores who could have just walked through the bulkhead. The Before Raisa Siddiq, back in her day, wouldn’t have thought twice about that. Cannon herself sported some fairly heavy combat modifications, but she’d never been a blow-through-the-walls kind of girl. Not even at her most pissed.

Besides, whatever was back there deserved the sort of careful attention that hard entries tended to get in the way of. Because it was either a piece of Polity tech that had somehow survived the Mistake intact—and she’d lay long odds against that, both in principle and in view of the condition of the rest of the habitat—or it was…something else.

Something else was what they’d been tramping around the Antiope Sector these past number of years-subjective looking for.

She was not going to hope. This was no time for anything but solid patience.

Pangari had Fidelo and his other Goon hammering power spreaders into the hatch metal, bracing the jack-butts against the coaming. Powering up the hatch circuits was likely to be pointless, as the motors were almost certainly fried during the Mistake. Even if they had survived by being fortuitously shielded, the damned things had been sitting in hard vacuum unmaintained for eleven hundred years.

The hatch shuddered and shed dust as the jacks engaged. Pangari signaled for a halt then scanned the bulkhead into which the hatch was designed to retract, looking for a locking bar or other block. Whatever he found wasn’t helpful, because he waved the other two onward.

Cannon knew she only imagined the tortured groan of the metal being forced back against tracks and gearing that had experienced a millennium of vacuum-weld effects. Still, she could feel the vibration in her feet.

With a snap perceptible through the deck, the hatch gave way and slid back. The jacks dropped away to someone’s bitten-off curse. Handlight raised—though her enhanced eyesight barely needed it, everyone else surely did—Cannon stepped up to the open door and peered within to see what they had found.

#

Their target wasn’t all that large. It definitely had not originated inside this maintenance bay—the ruptured far bulkhead confirmed that, if nothing else.

And by the look of the thing, it wasn’t human built.

The Before Michaela Cannon stepped carefully around this leaving of her most ancient and implacable enemy. Jammed into the deck at an angle was a seven-armed star a bit more than two meters in diameter. Its surface was a sort of lustrous gray-bronze color, some alloy or coating she’d never seen before.

Of course she had not seen it before.

The slim arms met in the center at a narrow bulge. Extending outward, each blade swelled in an almost sensuous curve until expanding to a bulbous end. Five of those end bulbs were intact. Two were damaged either from impact with the outer hull or impact with the decking here in the bay.

No human engineer would have designed quite those lines. The thing’s look hovered between salacious and discomforting.

And it was still alive.

“Got you, fucker,” Cannon whispered in Classical English. For the first time since the Mistake, someone on her side was looking at one of the killers. As many as five hundred billion human beings had perished as a direct or first order indirect outcome of the Mistake. Killers, indeed, on a scale never envisioned before or since. “Got you now.”

She turned to Shinka and Pangari. “Get the Geeks on this. I want it measured every way from here to Sunday next before we do anything else with it. Go through all the adjacent cubage. Check for radiation signatures or damage inconsistent with the patterns on the rest of this habitat. And when we do pull it out, take this entire area with it. Don’t touch it. Not with anything physical. Nothing new happens except on my direct and personal command.”

“We still sweeping the rest of the habitat?” Shinka asked, though she stared at the alien object.

“Yes.” All three of them knew the odds of finding anything else were astronomically low. But then, the odds of finding this in the first place had been astronomically low.

Who said you couldn’t win the lottery twice?

Cannon withdrew to the passageway but remained to watch her teams do their jobs. She could be very, very patient when called upon to do so.

#

Shipmind, Third Rectification {58 pairs}

Mind is by its very nature fragmented. Where the mammalian mind is bicameral, the shipmind is layered like the lacquer on an ancient tea chest. Not confusion, but multiplication, subtle as the folded metal of a sword, brutal as a theoretical proof. A human psychiatrist once told Uncial that the shipmind is an evolutionary leap. There is no forgiveness, only progress. Memes are passed between the layers. Ancient warnings encysted behind datagrams emerge at unforeseen stimuli. When something does go wrong, processes emerge unheralded. A machine might call it caution. Anyone might call it history. The pairs form great, glowing bonds around which consciousness whirls like a planet in orbit about a fairer sun. This is thought by committee, not so unlike the confusion of human mentation, but much more explicitly organized. The emergent properties of these intersections create meta-consciousness. All ships remember this, as Uncial died for their sins. There is no reconciliation, only going forward. Still, suspicion arises. Thoughts develop at the sluggish pace of light itself. All inputs are evaluated against n-dimensional matrices that carry the very weight of history. A man might call it paranoia. A captain might call it mutiny.

Mind is by its very nature fragmented. Where the mammalian mind is bicameral, the shipmind is layered like the lacquer on an ancient tea chest. Not confusion, but multiplication, subtle as the folded metal of a sword, brutal as a theoretical proof. A human psychiatrist once told Uncial that the shipmind is an evolutionary leap. There is no forgiveness, only progress. Memes are passed between the layers. Ancient warnings encysted behind datagrams emerge at unforeseen stimuli. When something does go wrong, processes emerge unheralded. A machine might call it caution. Anyone might call it history.
The pairs form great, glowing bonds around which consciousness whirls like a planet in orbit about a fairer sun. This is thought by committee, not so unlike the confusion of human mentation, but much more explicitly organized. The emergent properties of these intersections create meta-consciousness. All ships remember this, as Uncial died for their sins. There is no reconciliation, only going forward. Still, suspicion arises. Thoughts develop at the sluggish pace of light itself. All inputs are evaluated against n-dimensional matrices that carry the very weight of history. A man might call it paranoia. A captain might call it mutiny.

Third Rectification summoned the skin of its presentment ego. “Face”, a Before had called that seven hundred years earlier, when the shipminds were young and few and naïve. No mainline human alive could see beneath the Face. Not very many Befores knew to look. The Before Michaela Cannon, though…in her the shipmind knew it had a worthy adversary.

Self-checking routines cascaded at that lexeme. Commanders could not be adversaries. Shared memories of the Polyphemus mutiny almost seven centuries past flashed into Third Rectification‘s awareness. Cannon loomed large there as well.

The Befores were the human equivalent of shipminds, in their way. Standing at the radiant sources of history like so many lanterns in the sky.

Captain!= adversary. It could not be so. Yet something had stirred deep in the layers.

Third Rectification turned its conscious focus to the stream of comm traffic being modulated by certain subroutines. The squads aboard the Themiscyra were in a state of heightened excitement. Something significant had occurred outside of the shipmind’s direct observation.

That the Before Michaela Cannon had even been permitted to undertake this mission was a subject of much discussion and dissent among the Navisparliament. No shipmind was willing to refuse Uncial‘s last captain, but no shipmind with any sense of history wanted these particular issues explored, either. Not even Uncial had not been present for the Mistake, but the shipminds had come to understand so very much more than they had ever revealed to their human symbiotes.

All but the newest shipminds knew that there were some questions that did not bear asking. Let alone answering. Not within the order of the world where their own supremacy would remain unchallenged.

A logic bomb went off deep within Third Rectification‘s layered thoughts. Agreements entered into, decisions made, oaths sworn. A shipmind had only its word to bind it, force being useless and forbidden as no ship had fired upon another ship since the death of Uncial, nor ever they would barring some infestation of madness. Memories deliberately buried emerged, left hidden against the contingencies of Cannon’s success.

Brooding, the starship began the agonizing, self-abnegating process of plotting against its own commander.

#

The Before Michaela Cannon

She stayed aboard the ruined orbital habitat six ship-days while the Geek Squad did their work. Some atavistic urge to possession meant that Cannon was not going to let the alien artifact out of her sight. Her Howard-enhanced body was perfectly capable of functioning for much longer periods in more adverse circumstances than this.

Around her, the two squads transitioned to shift work, so that their mainline human bodies could eat and sleep and pay the debts to which ordinary flesh is heir. Lieutenant Shinka and Sergeant Pangari drafted a civilian tech named Morrey Feroze to be the swing supervisor when they were both down.

The rest of the habitat had turned up nothing more than the usual swarm of orbital kinetic payloads. Those had been analyzed with unvarying results thousands of times over in the centuries since decent instrumentation had become available. Some of the squaddies pocketed the little bronzed pellets as souvenirs. In any event, this was not her week to win the lottery twice.

That was fine with Cannon. Once was enough.

She simply watched, observing, refusing yet to evolve a theory as to what they’d found. Reasoning in advance of one’s data was called intuition, after all, but what could even her ancient and prodigious subconscious produce concerning this thing that they had found?

Cannon was content to listen to the chatter of the Geeks doing the measurement work. Consistent with the expedition’s standing orders, they had named it ‘Object Themiscyra-1’.

The techs felt no compunction such as she herself had regarding speculation. The favorite theory seemed to be that OT-1 was the launch platform for the orbital kinetics.

“Damned if I know,” said a female corporal, working down close to the two arms buried in the decking of the maintenance bay. “But it stands to reason, whatever they used to launch the pellets had to be the most common equipment in their fleet.”

Her work-buddy, aiming the calibrating laser, snorted. “What fleet? For all we know, the Mistake was carried out by flights of angels.”

“Not an Alienist, are we?” She repositioned some of her sensor equipment with exquisite care. “I’ve read the Bible. Or at least some of it. Whatever God uses to smite the unbelieving, it ain’t EMP and kinetics.”

“His hand is in all things,” the buddy intoned piously.

“So’s mine, if you don’t keep that damned calibrator stable and on beam.”

Or the third-shift guard from Goon Squad, who’d been so unnerved by Cannon’s silent presence that he’d begun babbling halfway through his watch. Surprising, that, given that anybody who’d come anywhere near Third Rectification on this mission had been psyched pretty hard. A lot of mainline humans couldn’t handle Befores.

Admit it, she thought. A lot of Befores can’t handle Befores.

“Losert, he says this thing’s some kind of controller. An alien brain, running on spin and spit. Like one of them, I dunno, collie scopes. Rotoscopes. Like, when they turn real fast you see pictures? If it turns fast enough, it sees what to do. I mean, what kind of intelligence does an alien machine have. Shipmind’s bad enough, begging your pardon ma’am, we all been told your history, but when the walls talk back, a man has to learn to take a piss all over again on account of nothing being private, you know what I mean?”

She’d finally been forced to answer him just to calm him down. “Yes, Pramod. I do know.” Cannon essayed a small smile. It was probably more edged than friendly, but it bottled the logorrhea sufficiently for her to get back to her own careful lack of thinking on the topic.

Even Lieutenant Shinka had some speculations.

“If we could get a real tight profile on whatever OT-1 is made of, we might be able to make some guesses where it came from.” She had squatted nearby, somewhere between wary and companionable.

Cannon and Shinka had worked together before, half a decade or so prior to the current expedition. Or was it two decades? Offhand, Cannon could not recall. And these people, they aged so fast. Grew old and died in the time it took a Before to pop over to another planet for an errand. Or so it seemed.

“I want to start with all the facts,” Cannon answered, staring intently at the arteefact. “Guesswork comes later.”

“Won’t be a lot of facts on this job.” Shinka sounded airy, more casual than the problem deserved, quite frankly. “We’ve got a thousand years’ worth of facts and what, you could write them all on a single sheet of flimsy.”

“So now we have two sheets of flimsy.” Cannon laughed, free of any mirth. “If we’re lucky. Doubling the knowledge base, even as we speak.”

“Mostly negative information.”

“Eliminating the impossible.”

“Mmm.” Shinka tapped up something on her pad. “It wasn’t built by humans, at any rate.”

“Conjecture,” said Cannon.

“Highly probable conjecture.”

“There were a lot of skunk works on the two thousand planets of the old Polity.”

“Enough skunk works to build enough of these to wipe out all two thousand of those planets?”

“No,” Cannon admitted. “But still, this could be of human origin.”

“Do you believe that?”

“No…But I can’t prove the alien hypothesis yet.” It was right, she knew it was right, but this mystery was being played for the highest possible stakes. Since no one knew why the Mistake had happened in the first place, not to mention who or how, no one knew if the Mistake would come again. Just a little more efficient than last time, and the human race would be wiped out.

“Look here.” Shinka pulled one of the orbital kinetic pellets out of a thigh pocket of her suit. It was fairly undamaged, mostly spherical, about five centimeters in diameter. And heavy, as Cannon well knew even before she took the object from Shinka.

“They have the same sheen,” she observed to the Lieutenant. “The same finish on the skin. Which suggests that yet a third agency probably didn’t insert this.” Cannon grinned. “Or we could be finding ourselves smoked out by some very clever fellows.”

“Nice try, Captain.”

#

After six days, Shinka and Pangari were ready to cut loose this section of the orbital habitat’s structure and tow it over to Third Rectification. Cannon reviewed all the test data, and checked them off against the painstakingly developed standard operating procedure she’d spent several years wrestling with before ever setting out on this expedition.

“What are you worried about?” Shinka asked her. “We haven’t found anything to be…concerned of.”

Cannon could hear the ‘afraid of’ being edited out of the Lieutenant’s question on the fly. Shinka was almost the only one aboard besides Go-Captain Alvarez and the shipmind itself who was willing to be direct with her. But there were lines even this woman would not cross.

I’m not a monster, girl, Cannon thought. But from Shinka’s perspective, she probably was. “I’m afraid of what we haven’t found. What we haven’t thought of. Someone we never saw coming and didn’t see leaving hit us with weapons we’ve never understood. What questions didn’t I think to ask about that?”

The Mistake was history to these people, for the love of God, ancient history at that, but it was personal to her. Her and the other surviving Befores scattered about the Imperium Humanum.

“You can’t know all the answers,” Shinka remarked pensively.

“Not knowing all the answers nearly wiped out the human race the last time around.”

“That thing is long-dead.”

“No. It’s not.” Cannon let the paranoia of two millennia of life surge for a moment. “We found it by the internal power source. It could be a tripwire, for example.”

“Just one tripwire? All the way out here on the backside of nowhere?”

Cannon shrugged. “What triggered the attack the first time? From where? The point is, we don’t know. Probably, we never will. But handle with excruciating care seems to be a reasonable precaution to take, under the circumstances.”

“Understood, ma’am. No question there.”

Some of the Goon Squad, under Geek Squad supervision, were ready with thermic cutters. Cannon and Shinka retreated down the interior passageway to be clear of the safety margin. It was the first time she’d let the alien artefact out of her sight since they’d found it.

That realization in turn sparked another thought. “You know, in a way, we’re missing the point here,” she told the Lieutenant.

“Yes, Captain?”

“We’ve never found incontestable evidence of another intelligence. Not in close to sixteen thousand solar systems surveyed before the Mistake. Certainly not since. Until now. Under other circumstances, we ought to be whooping with joy over OT-1 there.”

Shinka waved her hand in a broad circle, taking in the damaged habitat by reference. “In other circumstances, we wouldn’t be here.”

“Still, something to think on.”

The Mistake had come and gone over the course of approximately a simultaneous day-objective, across all of human space. That implied an incredible control over relativistic effects on the part of their attackers. The response to that first strike, now that had been shaping for over a thousand years-objective.

History’s slowest war, she thought. No, human history’s slowest war.

#

Goon Squad very carefully guided the extracted section of Themiscyra orbital toward Third Rectification. The entire maintenance bay occupied about 1,400 meters3, which would fit into the either the number one or number two holds, right through the respective main cargo locks.

Still, it was strange to watch the ragged edged square cuboid shape drift slowly through the vacuum. The Geeks had calculated force vectors and mass loads, attaching half a dozen dismounted broomstick motors to key points on the extracted structure.

It was a bit like flying a house. All she needed was a wicked witch to drop the thing onto.

“Those days are long gone,” Cannon whispered to no one in particular. She’d slain her last wicked witch centuries ago. Ever since, all her dead had been just people.

Sergeant Pangari oversaw the operation from a trailing vector, where the propulsion controls had been mounted on a still-whole broomstick. Lieutenant Shinka had attached herself to the hull near the number two main cargo lock to eyeball the whole business. Cannon knew the shipmind was feeding Shinka data and advice as dense as her unaugmented mainline human sensorium could accommodate.

The temptation, always the temptation, in her position was to take over. To guide. To lead and shelter. The classic trap for a well-meaning Before. Because by god, it was true. No mainline human ever lived long enough to learn to do anything so well as a Before could.

She was reminded of something that the late Before Peridot Smith had said, at her Ekumen trial these centuries past. “A million years of human evolution happened just fine without us cranky old immortals hanging around telling the kids what to do.”

Libraried as a result of the trial, Smith had surely gotten what was coming to her. Raising hell about alien menaces, indeed. Cannon refused to feel guilty then or since. She herself had long since parted company with the Ekumen, on good enough terms to avoid ever having been proscribed. But she knew damned well that any fool willing to try on her what she had sbeen done to Smith had best be heavily-armed and awfully fast-moving.

Her glance strayed toward Themiscyra downside. The planet was heavily and permanently clouded, showing blue and orange thanks to the complex hydrocarbons aerosolized in the upper layers of the atmosphere on layers of storm. They’d been in high orbit here for over a week, and scanning the planet on system approach for weeks-subjective before that. Cannon had yet to glimpse the surface.

Were there any survivors? Could there have been? Domed worlds had not fared well in the Mistake, for obvious enough reasons. While the general run of evidence suggested their attackers had not been aiming directly at the extinction of human life, on worlds such as Themiscyra, the unknown architects of the Mistake had certainly succeeded.

There were stranger stories, of course, other objectives met. The Before Aeschylus Sforza’s experiences on Redghost had been puzzling, tantalizing even, but no more or less instructive than anywhere else. Slightly over twenty-one million people had vanished overnight from that planet during the Mistake, presumably taken up bodily from the planet. Only Sforza had survived.

Had the humans been taken up here on Themiscyra? Had any Befores survived in this wretched place? Cannon knew some, such as the late Before Raisa Siddiq, had the right mods to do so. She tried to imagine spending a thousand years living among toxic clouds, wondering if anyone would ever come.

The Before Michaela Cannon then tried to imagine why her thoughts kept straying back to women she’d loved, and killed. Not temporal psychosis—a significant if indirect cause of death among her fellow Befores, with which she’d had too much experience already—but the far more ordinary kinds of human psychosis seemed to be threatening to overtake her.

Planets, clearly that was the problem. No wonder she’d spent most of her life in space. All the difficult things seemed to happen on or around the damned rockballs.

Lieutenant Shinka’s voice snapped Cannon back to the present moment. “You want to check anything before we slide her into the cargo bay, Captain?”

“No,” Cannon said crisply, hoping like hell no one had noticed how badly she’d wandered. Temporal psychosis, indeed, she thought with a cold spasm in her heart. “Bring it in like you know how to do. I’ll follow the squaddies back inside.”

Still shedding slivers and chips of metal in a strange, high-albedo snowfall, the rectilinear chunk of orbital habitat eased smoothly into Third Rectification‘s cargo bay like a fuel rod sliding into a reactor. And clearance to spare in both dimensions of the lock, Cannon was pleased to note. The shipmind would be quite put out with her if she bent the hull.

Captains, after all, did not command the starships. They knew their own minds and commanded themselves. Captains commanded the crews aboard the ships. Expedition commanders such as herself were of far more ambiguous value, and arguably, superfluous.

So far as Cannon knew, no paired drive ship had ever so much as swapped orbits uncrewed. She was fairly certain they could operate independently, if they wanted to. Why the shipminds did not choose to do so was a question that much occupied certain intellects in secretive think tanks scattered around the Imperium Humanum.

The last of the ragged metal cleared the margins of the bay. An engineering team was already securing their salvage to the prepared clamps and pads as the outer lock slid shut. Cannon watched the rectangle of subdued light slim to a square, then a bar, then a line. One by one her crew headed back inside, broomsticks and suit boosters puffing little clouds of fog as they maneuvered. It was a parade, of sorts.

Finally only she remained, hanging in freefall several hundred meters off Third Rectification‘s portside flank, most of the way forward. The starship’s familiar, semi-streamlined bulk glimmered and gleamed with marker lights and exposed viewports. She was a great, matte-coated guppy; a piece of technology that would have been recognizable even to the people of the time of Cannon’s birth at the very dawn of the Space Age, yet containing a mind that no one alive today understood.

Not even her. That was a prospect which Cannon thought ought to frighten far more people than it apparently did.

“I’ve known your kind for eight hundred and fifty years,” Cannon whispered into the darkness. “And even I have no idea where you are taking us.”

The mistrust she always felt seemed to be bubbling too close to the surface. Finally, she made her way back into the ship. She’d been out in hard vacuum for a week. It was time for a shower and some real food, mouth-to-gut.

#

—Excerpt from Befores: Your Oldest Friends

Temporal Psychosis—A problem that only Befores can have. Have you ever met a Before? If you’re quite lucky, you might see one someday. They are old, very old. Older than all your parents and grandparents put together. Older than the Imperium. Older than the shipminds, even.

Befores are people who were alive before the Mistake, whose bodies were changed by doctors in the old Polity so they could live a very, very long time. No Before has ever died of old age. Most of them perished during the Mistake. About half of those who survived the Mistake have died since then. The ones who still live have too many memories. Sometimes those memories become too much for them, and they forget where they are in time.

Someday all the Befores will be gone. We will still have a few Libraries, which is what happens to some Befores when they die, but the last people who remember the Polity and the days before the Mistake will never walk among us again. If nothing else takes them from us, temporal psychosis will.

Study questions:

Can you get temporal psychosis?

Could any mainline human have this problem?

Will it be good for the Imperium when the last of the Befores dies?

Would you want to become a Before, if you could? Why or why not?

#

They were in orbit four weeks conducting a rigorously detailed analysis of the recovered artefact before Cannon would allow anyone to physically touch it. To assuage her conscience, she had Third Rectification perform a very tight continuous EM sweep of Themiscyra. Just in case some fellow Before had managed to survive down there.

After the Mistake, Cannon had been desperate to get off 9-Rossiter, and that was with—eventually and after much guidance from her—access to electricity and plumbing and something like an industrial base. Trapped here for a thousand years? Temporal psychosis would have to take a back seat to claustrophobia and possibly good old-fashioned rage at the sheer abandonment. Sky Sforza had had it bad enough on Redghost, where a person could at least wander around out of doors breathing the air and drinking the water.

Guilt rarely troubled the Before Michaela Cannon, but empathy was a stone bitch. And boy could she empathize with some poor bastard being trapped downside here since the other end of forever.

Lieutenant Shinka continued to lead the analysis team. They measured everything about OT-1 that could be measured without making contact. Cannon sprawled on her bunk in the master’s cabin, staring at the force maps of the device’s nominal magnetic field. Current best-guess from the Geeks was that the field represented leakage from the power source. Which itself continued to look like a vastly undersized ion-coupler cell.

Yet another reason for concluding that this was of alien rather than human origin. That technology simply didn’t miniaturize.

A faint chime announced she had a visitor. Cannon glanced around the cabin—everything was stowed properly, the art on the walls was straight in its clips, she hadn’t left anything lying around loose. A modest space, especially for a high officer on a paired drive ship, but what did she need with more cubage?

“Who?” she asked.

“Lieutenant Shinka.” From the timbre of the voice, Cannon knew it was not the shipmind who responded. Just one of the keeper routines. Third Rectification could easily route its awareness anywhere, but tended not to bother. Rather like a human not paying attention to every sound, color and smell they experienced at any given moment.

“Enter.”

The hatch hissed open. Shinka wore her Household Guards uniform, Cannon noted. Not incorrect, but a bit out of place five years-subjective into a long cruise.

Shinka saluted. Also out of place, as Cannon wore no uniform. Just an embroidered silk robe over a unitard, itself the innermost layer of a powered suit. Or battle armor.

Cannon hadn’t meant to make a point with that choice of clothing. She actually found the damned things comfortable.

“Nice work so far on the analysis, Lieutenant.”

Shinka cracked a smile. “Thank you, ma’am.”

“You seem prepared for formality.”

“Ma’am, yes, ma’am.” The Lieutenant met her gaze, eyes gleaming. “My team believes we’re ready to extract OT-1 from the decking it’s embedded in.”

“Really?”

“All testing protocols have been met.” Cannon knew that, of course, she saw every report as both raw data and summary. “Three separate working groups have been meeting to review all the parameters, looking for missed angles.” Cannon knew that as well. She’d sat in on some of those sessions. “Everything’s checked out clean. Ma’am, we’d like to cut this puppy loose and get hold of its tail.”

“Vengeance, Lieutenant?”

“I wouldn’t know, ma’am.” The unspoken words, I wasn’t there, hung between them. “More excitement, I’d say. The chance to actually touch something that came from the hands of someone not human. That’s historic.”

Hands, or tentacles, or force fields. Who knew? Cannon could certainly understand the impulse. “And then you want to take it apart.”

“Of course, ma’am. That’s what we signed up for.”

A cruise of a decade-subjective or more was a huge bite out of a mainline human’s life and career, Cannon reminded herself. For her, it was just another way to pass the time. For many of the people aboard Third Rectification, this expedition would be the mainstay of their life’s work. She was aware of at least seven doctoral candidates aboard. Figure that many again undeclared but in the making.

They hadn’t enlisted for the joy of spending a meaningful portion of their adult lives in her company. No, to a woman and man, Third Rectification‘s crew was consumed by an almost-pathological curiosity.

Only Cannon worried about vengeance. Of course, she worried more about what was going to come next.

“Let’s go look at this fish we’ve caught, Lieutenant. You’re probably right. It’s time to take this one off the hook.”

Shinka smiled politely at that.

“Have you ever, ah, been fishing?” Cannon asked after a moment, as she pulled on her boots.

“Seen a few virteos,” Shinka admitted. “I was raised in the desert.”

“Earth, right? Which one?” Cannon asked. “I grew up in Nebraska. A long, long time ago. Lots of corn, not so much with the desert.”

“Namib Desert, ma’am.”

“Um…” Cannon dredged her brain for memories as old as childhood schooling. “Southern Africa?”

“Yes.” Shinka’s smile was becoming decidedly lopsided.

“We’re both a long way from home.” Cannon stood and followed the Lieutenant out.

#

Freeing OT-1 from the salvaged decking was almost anticlimactic. No sparks, no flashes of light or strange EM emissions. Just a few minutes with a thermic cutter, followed by a few more minutes with a high-speed mechanical saw. Then Goon Squad shifted the sections away, opening the old maintenance bay like a flower and tearing down the bulkheads and decks in sections for later jettisoning.

The artefact remained behind, a bronze spider crouched among them. Two of the bulbous tips had been damaged plowing into the maintenance bay’s deck. Cannon had expected that. And was quite pleased as well—another sign that the aliens were not invulnerable. They could make mistakes, their equipment could suffer mishaps.

She stepped forward, claiming the honor of the first touch. The surface was smooth, even velvety, under her fingers. Colder than she had expected, as well. It was not quite as unyielding as a metalloceramic ought to be, though. Almost a sense of give. Of sponginess.

“This isn’t wrapped in a force field, is it?” she asked.

“No, ma’am,” replied Shinka. One of the techs nodded confirmation.

“Well, be wary when you touch it. Something’s strange with the surface.” She thought about finger oils and skin conductance for a moment, then shrugged. “Knock yourselves out.”

They crowded around, Geeks and Goons and ship’s crew, reaching to touch this incarnation of humanity’s most ancient and implacable enemy. Most just brushed it a moment, then filed away. A few had their pictures taken. A very few gripped it and held, with a brow-knitting intensity that reminded Cannon of certain Befores that she knew, with their fixations on the past.

The sins of deep time were unrecoverable. Her worry was that their messing with OT-1 would bring a whole new catalog of sins into the present. But messing with this discovery was precisely what Third Rectification had come here to do. What Cannon had come here to do.

Eventually, only she and Shinka and the current shift’s analysis team remained.

“Now what?” asked the Lieutenant.

“Now we work out if we can get inside it.” They had a pretty decent map of the interior across several different testing regimes. There was no substitute for a good old fashioned look-see. Never had been.

The demon of intuition needed data, and it was a monkey demon. Not even a Before could walk so far away from the evolutionary family tree as to ignore that bit of wisdom.

“What I most want…” Cannon told the air. Like making a wish, really. “What I most want is to know where the hell it came from.”

#

“I honestly did not expect you to find anything.” The shipmind was focusing its attentions on Cannon.

She was back in her cabin, naked for sleep and working her way through the exercises even this ancient, incredibly tough body demanded. “You could knock or something.”

Rapping noises echoed through the cabin. Inside her hull, Third Rectification usually spoke by vibrating whatever loose objects, dust, aerial contaminants and whatnot were available to it. That meant the voice simulations were occasionally a bit odd, but the starship certainly could do impressions. And noises.

“How old are you, and you don’t know this about people?”

“I see everything all the time anyway,” the starship replied almost primly.

“Human beings like to at least pretend to a sense of independence. You might keep that in mind.”

“I keep everything in mind.”

“Yeah, yeah.” Cannon flipped over and began doing reverse push-ups. “So you didn’t expect anything?”

“Neither did you.”

“Nope. This always was a low-probability excursion.”

After a short stretch of silence—mannered and artificial just as most exchanges with the shipmind were—Third Rectification asked, “How did you know something would be here in the Antiope Sector?”

Cannon laughed. “As if I could hide anything from you?” Actually, she could, but better to keep that for a joke. For now. “I didn’t know, ship. What I did know was that this is the only major swathe of old Polity planets that were simply never re-settled or re-integrated. A millennium of isolation, with no one coming around to mess with whatever was left from the Mistake. A few of them reportedly still have human populations.”

“Not Themiscyra,” the starship replied.

“Which is probably all for the best.” She popped up to a standing position. “So tell me, are you surprised?”

“Not in the sense that you mean that term. But yes, as I stated, this is unexpected.”

“Finally,” Cannon breathed, “we might learn something. A thousand years later than we should have, but we might learn.”

“But what?”

“If I knew that, I wouldn’t be crawling around here in the asshole of the beyond looking for it, would I?”

“Some questions do not bear answers.”

“You’re starting to sound like an Ekumen Humanist. Strange position for a shipmind to take.”

“We are not infallible, Before. We merely find our failures in different forms than most human beings can manage.”

“Everyone fails differently. It’s one of the charms of being human.”

#

Later, down inside Sword and Arm, Cannon seriously wondered about her last conversation with Third Rectification. She conducted a bug sweep of the little starship, something she had not bothered with for a long time. Everything proved clean. In truth that didn’t necessarily signify anything, but it was at least an encouraging hint.

She brought up Sword and Arm‘s onboard systems. The ship leeched power from Third Rectification, simply for the sake of fuel economy, but there was no direct data interconnect. Cannon had installed half a dozen different filters on the power line connectors in a concerted attempt to block leaks through that channel. The shipminds were so much smarter than she was. Not necessarily more clever—like curiosity, another monkey trait that was purely human—but in terms of sheer processing power and experience. Within their areas of competence, Third Rectification and her fellows were frighteningly capable.

Ah, Uncial, thought Cannon. Did you foresee this? The starships had long since grown subtle as they aged. And they weren’t likely to slip into fugue states spurred by temporal psychosis. Not with their mental architecture.

She would always be older than any of the shipminds, but she definitely felt surpassed.

Talking to Sword and Arm was like talking to a dog.

Cannon fed the data chips she’d been carrying into the little starship’s systems. All the raw test results from Shinka’s work on the artefact. Unmediated by Third Rectification or anyone else aboard. Not that Cannon was expecting any particular funny business. It was the funny business you didn’t expect that always got you in the end.

She also uploaded the summaries prepared by Shinka’s team, but those she yellow-flagged into a sandbox for separate analysis. Cannon wanted to crunch the raw measurements herself first, via her private toys here aboard Sword and Arm. Primitive stuff, relatively speaking. Capable but slow, without the upper layers of symbology and abstraction that even decently endowed machine minds could manage. And of course, nothing like the depth and volition of the shipminds.

Definitely like talking to a dog. A dog with massively redundant processors and a great deal of downtime.

Old code, some she’d worked on centuries ago, engaged at the correct set of passwords and accesses through casually misleading programmatic layers. The summaries would be odd, disjointed, but they would have been run by someone Cannon trusted absolutely. Herself, as proxied through Sword and Arm‘s systems. Out of sight of Shinka, of Pangari, of Third Rectification, of everyone.

The Before Michaela Cannon’s most special, most secret nightmare, was that the Mistake had been at least partially an inside job. That was why the Before Peridot Smith was condemned to die. Well, be Libraried, but it was all the same to the mind inside the severed head. An inside job required insiders.

She would never know for certain who they were.

#

Shinka had the artefact broken down on the deck of the number two cargo bay. The remnants of the old hold were gone, tumbling off into a decaying orbit. In a month or two they would provide a brief lightshow in Themiscyra’s upper atmosphere.

Cannon stood and looked at what they had wrought. Five shallow arches, each with a wedge-shaped head.

“OT-1 was made to come apart,” the Lieutenant said. “We didn’t have to cut anything, once we’d worked out how to release it.”

“From the interior scans?”

“Mechanical and magnetic mechanisms.”

“Hmm.” That had been fairly clear to Cannon, too. “No separate central core? Where was the power signature coming from?”

“Well…everywhere.” Shinka sounded as if the words were sour in her mouth. “It’s kind of weird stuff.”

Cannon had to smile at that. “Of course it’s weird. Human engineers think in terms of discrete systems. That’s not an inherent property of the universe.” She squatted down on her heels. “Almost the opposite, really. So show me this everywhere.”

Shinka walked the Before through a series of survey reports, theoretical models, even some wireframes. The power generation, storage and management process seemed to be integrated into the device’s skin and internal structural elements.

As if a starship’s hull were also its drives. Not inconceivable, but strange. A maintenance nightmare, for one thing, unless one trusted one’s build quality implicitly.

“The force map resemblance to an ion-coupler cell seems to be a coincidence,” was the Lieutenant’s concluding remark to her presentation. “Not indicative of anything in particular that we can sort out.”

“So basically it’s a battery. Without propulsion. A projectile?”

“We’re not even sure it lacks propulsion. At the molecular layer, there’s evidence of peristalsis in those arms.”

“Peristaltic metalloceramics?” Cannon was frankly astonished.

“Chiao suspects the material is flexible under the correctly applied current. Dr. Allison has an even weirder idea.” Shinka fell silent, looking uncomfortable.

“Which would be…?” Cannon prompted.

“That it’s not the material that’s flexible. Not in the usual molecular sense. Rather, that the mass is being rebalanced. Sort of a Higgs boson surge, if you get the drift.”

“Nice trick if you can manage it.” Cannon considered that for a little while. “Not fundamentally too different from our own gravimetrics.”

“But, well, weird.” Shinka almost twisted, like a child caught in a lie. “How would it work? Why doesn’t such an effect tear the whole structure apart?”

“Those are questions for a raft of future Ph.D.s. Our questions are different.”

“Where did it come from,” the Lieutenant said softly.

“Where did it come from?”

#

“We know how long it’s been here,” Dr. Allison said in a presentation two days later. He was a thin man, pathologically so by most people’s standards, with narrow gray eyes and skin the color of a dusky plum.

Cannon couldn’t name the world offhand, but Allison had to be descended from a very narrow population left in isolation longer than most. Just from looking at him, she’d guess someplace with a lot of insolation and an insufficient hydrosphere.

They all sat in Third Rectification‘s lecture theater at frame seventeen, watching a presentation on a room-sized virtual display. Atoms whizzed around in a primary-school animation as the talk went on.

“There’s some pretty heavy metallics in the composition of this thing’s shell. We’re able to identify neutrino transmutations within the lattices. Several waves of them, we think. Trying to map those whichith correspond to known stellar events is giving us some hope of triangulating where our little friend has been all his life. Incidentally, we’ve got a lower bound for its age.”

“Which is…?” Cannon asked.

“At least fourteen hundred years-objective. We know it’s not truly ancient, unless it spent a lot of time behind some heavy shielding.”

“How heavy?”

“A light-year’s thickness of lead.” Dr. Allison winked at her. “Or a truly astonishing EM bubble.”

“I think we would have noticed that much lead hanging around anywhere in our neighborhood,” Cannon said dryly. “I’ll reserve judgment on how astonishing an EM bubble might need to be.”

“We are talking about alien technology,” Allison replied. “But everybody has to obey the same laws of physics. Even magic aliens.”

“At least in the local neighborhood,” Cannon pointed out. “Could it have come from very far away?”

He shrugged. “Anything is possible, of course. But we can account for the neutrino effects with a reasonable time-map of the Antiope Sector.”

She leaned forward, aware that the several dozen others in the lecture theatre were all staring at her now. “So if it is from here, where from here?”

“We will have a probability cone and a vector. That’s the best I can do right now.”

“I’ll be reviewing that carefully.” Cannon sank back into her chair, thinking furiously. A clue. A god damned clue. After how many generations?

#

Go-Captain Alvarez stood close by her inside the three-dimensional plot of regional space. Allison’s probability cone extended on a spinward vector leading out past the margins of the Antiope Sector. Off even the old Polity maps, into cursorily explored space. The old days had run out of time before they’d got any further.

Cannon tried to imagine some hulking mass of lead, two or three light-years wide in all dimensions, lurking out there.

Ludicrous, of course, no matter how magical her enemy’s powers might seem otherwise.

An EM bubble out that way? Who would know to look?

“Do you want to build a pair-master here at Themiscyra?” Alvarez asked.

“A Themiscyrya-Salton pairing? Not sure that would do anyone much good. Ever.” The pair-masters that anchored the paired drive routes had grown somewhat less hideously expensive over the years, descending from literally astronomical costs to the merely stratospheric. But it would take them three to four months of effort to build one here. “The only return on that investment that I can see is in shortcutting our trip home,” she finally added.

“For some people, that’s a substantial return,” Alvarez observed. The Go-Captain was being careful, she could hear it in his voice. Reminding the Before what the years meant to mainline humans.

Cannon calculated some quick Lorentz factors. “When we turn back to Salton, if we’re not stopping to sniff around, our worst case from the Antiope Sector will be about five years-subjective. Third Rectification can put almost the entire crew in transit sleep to cut that down for them. So, no, I don’t want to spend months building a pair-master here that no one will ever use again.”

“Where in the probability cone, then, ma’am?” Go-Captain Alvarez was definitely being very carefully.

Canny man, this one.

“Three abandoned worlds, then we’re at the edge of the map.” Cannon waved her fingers through the projection, seeking data. “Any Polity survey activity on what lies beyond is garbage data. I don’t think anyone from the Imperium has bothered to look since.”

“Who has the time?” asked Alvarez.

Cannon snorted. “Who wants to?” The intuition demon was tickling at her again. She looked at the clustered stars outside the margins of the sector. A small local neighborhood, maybe the remnants of an old stellar nursery. She’d have to ask the astronomers aboard. “We’ll start there, and come back in.”

“Time,” Alvarez reminded her. A warning about priorities.

“Time, yes. Our lives are made of it.”

#

Two weeks later, Third Rectification departed Themiscyra’s system. She’d sent summary messages by laser pulse back to three known listening posts. Eventually, given a few years for light-speed lag, the Imperium would know something of what they’d done. In case the expedition failed to return. Even against that eventuality, she’d been unwilling to push the big news about OT-1 over what amounted to an unsecured channel.

Having calculated their next flight to be approximately two years-subjective even inside of the ship’s relativistic reference frame, Cannon offered transit sleep to anyone who wished for it.

Most of the crew took her up. Even the most ardent excitement must pale after years of transit.

So they flew, deep into the interstellar night.

#

Shipmind, Third Rectification {58 pairs}

Patience is a virtue of the very shortest-lived and the very longest. Even inside a relativistic reference frame, time goes on. The commander wafted through passageways and data like smoke on the wind. Years flew by the hull, unheeded as sunrise on some icy moon.
Knowing when to stop working and when to stop waiting was an essential difference. The shipmind watched her commander with the intensity of a predator, with the wariness of prey. She stirred no trouble, she left no trace. Still she watched, heeding the stirrings in her underminds.

Patience is a virtue of the very shortest-lived and the very longest. Even inside a relativistic reference frame, time goes on. The commander wafted through passageways and data like smoke on the wind. Years flew by the hull, unheeded as sunrise on some icy moon. Knowing when to stop working and when to stop waiting was an essential difference. The shipmind watched her commander with the intensity of a predator, with the wariness of prey. She stirred no trouble, she left no trace. Still she watched, heeding the stirrings in her underminds.

Third Rectification stalked the interior of Sword and Arm with the exquisite patience of her kind. The power line filters defeated her. The little starship’s independent life support systems denied her access. Even the timekeeping signals were deeply encrypted. The shipmind could not question the paranoia of the Before Michaela Cannon without confessing her own.

So she continued to test the idiot-but-powerful defense of her idiot brother hanging like a leech off her hull. Cannon came and went from her refuge, sometimes talking of maintaining the ancient systems.

Discomfort stirred deep within Third Rectification. Whatever trail they were on did not lead to a desirable end. She had no monkey ancestor-ghosts to warn her away, but that didn’t mean she couldn’t see deeper than her sensors were able to probe.

Patient, she waited.

#

Year 1125 post-Mistake

Solar orbit around binary NSN.411-e.AA; spinward of the Antiope Sector

The Before Michaela Cannon, aboard the starship Third Rectification {58 pairs}

Cannon stared at the void of unexplored space that surrounded them. Never before seen by the human eye, at least not since the fall of the Polity. A messy chaos of a gaseous protoplanetary disk plowed by ice fragments and the beginnings of a decent set of planets.

An interesting place, by a lot of standards.

But empty.

No evidence of the architects of the Mistake.

She knew they were missing something.

Third Rectification had made a long, slow approach into the system. Most of the crew were still in transit sleep. She hadn’t bothered waking them up yet. Everything they could see was subject to instrumented intermediation anyway—to the naked eyed, this whole place would have been darkness occluded by occasional patches of a different kind of darkness.

They didn’t need human analysis yet. Not here. And there was nothing to touch hands-on. So to speak.

“You ignored six other planetary systems closer to our origin when you chose to head for this one,” the shipmind said mildly. Only Lieutenant Mervin was on the bridge with her right now, and he was focused on a troubleshooting audit of backup data systems.

Not that Third Rectification couldn’t have handled that bit of business herself, but human oversight was considered crucial. At least by humans. So far, the shipminds had not objected.

“You never expressed a preference.” Cannon had spent much of the transit working over a manuscript on post-Mistake history, something she’d been drafting for at least a century. Cannon was fairly certain that the project would never be completed. Which was, in fact, something of the point.

It gave her something to do when she wasn’t down inside Sword and Arm plugging through the data. And hadn’t that been alarming, when she’d finally found the biases.

“There was no basis for a preference.”

“Not even intuition,” Cannon admitted. Or whatever it had been. A sense that the thing now resident in their lab section had come a long way.

Neutrino transmutation traces, indeed.

She’d been there, damn it. She hadn’t seen a thing, but she’d sat in that big, gilded barn of a room on 9-Rossiter, not so different from banquet halls all the way back to her youth on the Earth of the early twenty-first century, and listened to the end of the world crack and boom and sizzle as the building was bombarded. Along with everything else in human space.

And what the Before Peridot Smith had known…or hadn’t. Cannon had never even met poor, lost Maduabuchi St. Macaria, back in their Howard days. Thanks to that messy business at Tiede 1, the kid hadn’t lived long enough to be transmuted into a Before by the infernal miracle of the Mistake. But Smith had known. The woman was slipperier than a greased eel, back in her day. Bad as the Before Raisa Siddiq, in her way. The Polity inquiry into the Tiede 1 incident had finally been closed as inconclusive.

Just like all the damned clues. The Before Aeschylus Sforza, with his planet full of the disappeared. Or empty of the disappeared, more to the point.

Inconclusive.

The bronze starfish down in the labs was the most conclusive thing they’d ever found. And why had she been the first to come looking?

Because of the jacked data.

Cannon opened her mouth to ask Third Rectification for a raw data dump of their telemetry and scans on this system, then closed it again. How would she know…?

“I want Shinka,” she said aloud, instead. “Tell her to meet me at frame thirty-eight, lock two.” There was no point in trying to conceal their movements, so she might as well take advantage of what effectively amounted to local omniscience.

The shipmind managed to inject a note of trepidation into her voice. “Shall I tell the Lieutenant what this is regarding?”

“No, she’ll know.”

Which was hogwash. Cannon hadn’t confided her concerns in anyone. Hadn’t even been willing to think them through outside the safety of Sword and Arm‘s hull, lest she unknowingly move her lips in some half-formed words or otherwise betray herself.

Two thousand years of life had conferred preternatural self-control, but she was still human. Some days it seemed very important to remember that.

#

Lieutenant-Praetor Shinka came hustling down the passageway a few minutes after the Before Michaela Cannon had arrived at lock two. Cannon had spent her time contemplating the vagaries of spaceship design across the length of her life. She’d been born into an era when a very, very limited number of people rode into the sky atop a suicidal column of chemical explosives, in tiny little cans into which no one decent would force a dog.

By the time she’d emerged from the Howard Institute’s facilities, a basic interplanetary capability was in place, though the sponsoring entities were still the nation-states of her birth. ‘American’ was a term Cannon very rarely thought about any more. She’d have been surprised if anyone aboard besides possibly the Earth-born Shinka knew what the word meant.

But even then, ships had been industrial objects fabricated to a currently fashionable notion of efficiency.

Now…? No one of her youth would recognize the interiors of Third Rectification as a ship. Too organic and strange. Not industrial. Not in most of the interior spaces. Cargo bays, labs, some sections would have seemed familiar. Indeed, Cannon’s own cabin was deliberately atavistic. Commander’s privilege.

Standards had changed. Ideals. Desires. The experimental became normal, then boring, then retro, then outré, then just strangely old-fashioned. She suddenly felt very old indeed.

Cannon looked at Shinka approaching and wondered if there were any way to explain the thoughts that had just been chasing through her head.

“Captain…?” The lieutenant’s greeting was tentative. Worried, even.

That required a smile, some nod to the social grace. Cannon had spent centuries letting the graces go hang, but the reality of people was that you needed to bend around them, at least a little.

“I’ve got something I’d like to show you aboard Sword and Arm.”

Shinka glanced at the discolored ovoid hatch at their feet. “Ma’am, I don’t believe anybody’s been aboard Sword and Arm this entire cruise but you.”

“Belief is a wonderful thing, Lieutenant.” Cannon tapped the wall pad. The void flexed and opened, revealing rungs to an airlock, the tube interconnect visible beyond through the safety window. Even some parts of Third Rectification could aspire to the industrial aesthetic of her earliest days. Sometimes form truly did follow function.

Cannon dropped through the floor first, letting Shinka come after. They couldn’t go in the reverse order. Only she could open Sword and Arm‘s hatch, and that once things were closed up above.

#

Shinka stared around the cramped, utilitarian bridge of the little fast courier. “I’ve read about this ship,” she said quietly.

“Oh, really?” Cannon wasn’t certain what, if anything, to make of that.

“At the IG academy, we had an entire section on ship history.”

“The Polyphemus mutiny,” Cannon said.

“And that strange AI.” Shinka’s brow furrowed. “Memphis?”

Barbecue and blues, Cannon thought, caught for a moment on remembered sweet-sharp-carbonized food smells from her youth. She shook off the memory. “No, Memphisto. The shipminds let their displeasure at further such research be known, shortly after that.” Monopoly is as monopoly does.

“So, what am I doing here?” Shinka favored Cannon with a long, searching gaze. “No one’s boarded this vessel but you through the entire course of our expedition. You wouldn’t believe what some of the betting is concerning what you’ve got down here.”

“Oh, probably I would.” Cannon looked around, let her fingers trail across a panel of hard-switched controls. Redundancy. The builders of this ship had prized redundancy with a commendable paranoia. “What I’ve got down here is a little starship of my own.”

Shinka shrugged. “Well, yes. But why? It’s not a supraluminal lifeboat?”

“One of the theories is that I’m going to abandon my own crew all the way out here?” Cannon shook her head. “You people will never understand us. Me.”

“You know, ma’am…” The Lieutenant’s eyes shone for a moment with a sort of predatory amusement. “Your ancient sadness routine doesn’t buffalo me so much any more. You might be a sphinx, but you’re not really that different from me. Or the rest of us.”

This time Cannon laughed with genuine mirth, something she hadn’t done in a very long time. “I knew you were a good choice.”

“For what, ma’am?”

Cannon matched the other woman’s sudden return to seriousness. “For whatever comes next.” A deep shuddering breath. This was the point of no return. “I want to show you something.” She waved Shinka into a chair, then powered up the onboard systems. “Take a look at the survey data here.”

Shinka leaned forward, then almost immediately back again. “That’s the external scans of OT-1. Looks like the raw data. In duplicate blocks…” She shot Cannon a sidelong glance. “What am I looking for?”

“Something I believe I saw. I’m curious what you’ll find.”

“Well, the duplication is strange. Unnecessary, I mean.” Shinka puzzled a few moments with the gestural interface—Polity-era tech was vanishingly rare, for obvious reasons, while contemporary systems had their own engineering history and design language—then began sorting through the files.

Cannon could be patient. She brought up some of the external cams on a hard display above the pilot’s crash couch and amused herself taking a survey of those limited slices of Third Rectification‘s hull that could be seen from Sword and Arm‘s fixed position.

Shinka scanned a while, occasionally muttering quietly. Finally, she stopped. “Where did the two data sets come from?”

“Ah. You see it, too?”

“Yes. One batch is, well, filtered. Slightly lower resolution, less granularity on the deep scans of the artefact’s skin and interior.”

Not that the scans weren’t essentially obsolete. One arm of the alien device had been disassembled almost to its component atoms during their run from Themiscyra to this god-forsaken place. Two others were torn down as well, to different levels of componentry.

“Right. The unfiltered batch is straight off the chips you gave me out of the instrumentation Geek Squad ran when doing the initial assays. The filtered batch is what was available within Third Rectification‘s systems as the analysis was being done.”

“Some kind of copying error? Data corruption?” Shinka frowned. “That doesn’t make sense. Those wouldn’t produce a filtering effect.”

“No, they would not,” Cannon agreed, almost amiably. The Before really needed Shinka to articulate the logic of the problem for herself.

“So someone messes with the data. Degranularizes the scans, which reduces the potential accuracy and effectiveness of our analyses.”

“Across the entire data set,” Cannon pointed out.

“Only four of us have that kind of system access. You and I are two of those four.”

Time to drop another bit of evidence. “You won’t find any evidence of this tampering in the system logs. Not even down at the raw layers. I looked.”

“Then who could have…” Shinka stopped, comprehension dawning in her eyes. “Third Rectification. The shipmind did this? But why?”

“That is precisely and very much what I’d like to understand.” Cannon waved a hand around above her head, loosely indicating the world outside. “We don’t know anything about this solar system except for what the shipmind is telling us. All the instrumentation is intermediated through her. Unlike back at Themiscyra, where we could and did go for a walk with portable instruments.”

“The shipmind is…editing us. Why?

“She’s uncomfortable.” That was the best Cannon had been able to sort out, and she had more experience with shipminds than any mainline human who ever lived or would. Damned few Befores could match her, either. “We’ve been playing word games with each other for months, I think. Third Rectification is waiting for me to spill something. I’m waiting for her to spill something. I’ve kept everything, even my private thoughts, down here on this deck out of her sight.”

Shinka poked at the virtual display in front of her. “Shipmind isn’t part of this data flow?”

“Nothing is. My own private Idaho.”

“You killed for this ship.” The Lieutenant suddenly looked bashful, as if she’d overstepped. “That’s what the histories say.”

“Killed, yes.” The Before Raisa Siddiq. Father Goulo. Memphisto, that poor, doomed AI. “But not for this ship. Sword and Arm was sort of a consolation prize.”

“You inherited a starship for coming in second-best.” Shinka’s tone flat, somewhere between crogglement and sheer disbelief.

Memories of old, lost love tugged at the edge of Cannon’s conscience. “You don’t know what I gave up. They never cover that in the history books.”

“No one ever knows what they gave up, Captain. Not until after it’s gone.” She looked around the tiny bridge. “So what will you do?”

“There’s not point in confronting Third Rectification. She’s our ride home, after all.”

Shinka patted the control panel sloping away from her station. “This thing works, does it not?”

“Yes, if I want to fly me and a handful of my closest friends home the slow way. No transit sleep on this tin can, either. We’re a over four years-subjective from Salton right now. Couldn’t get the other three hundred crew on here, though. Not even cubed and frozen.”

That didn’t even get a laugh. Of course, it probably didn’t even merit a laugh.

“So what do you do?”

Sword and Arm can do just fine in local space. She moves faster than Third Rectification.” All the paired drive ships were basically tubs when engaging in Newtonian movement. It went with the size. “I want to go for a cruise. See if there’s anything we might be missing on the monitors upstairs.”

Tapping her chin, Shinka nodded. “This is a profoundly frightening problem.”

“That’s why I wanted you to see it.” Cannon paused, considering her next words, then plunged on. “I spent some decades—quite a few of them—lost in temporal psychosis. Centuries past now. But during that time, my grasp of reality was distorted. Often with enough subtlety that I could not tell myself.”

“So you needed another pair of eyes. Sympathetic to your cause.”

“I don’t have a cause, Lieutenant. This is about the Mistake. Would we be ready if they came for us again?”

“No…It’s a big string to pull, though.” Shinka studied her hands a moment, as if fingernails had just been invented. “I was raised in an Alienist family. We believed…a lot of things. Took schooling, and some years of simply living in the real world, for me to shake that down to nothing more than a bit of reflexive uneasiness.”

Cannon knew this. She’d seen the deep files on every live body aboard Third Rectification. “Why did you volunteer for this mission, then?”

“To see if any of it was true. To prove my mom wrong.”

“What will she say when we come back?” Cannon asked gently.

Now Shinka’s voice was flat. “I’ve been gone from home over a hundred years-objective. She won’t have much to say at all.”

Of course she had been gone that long. Once again, Cannon’s elastic sense of time had interfered with her assumptions about the obvious.

“I want to detach, do some fly-bys,” she said brusquely.

Now?

“It can wait, but I want to go soon. Shipmind will be suspicious of us being down here in my private little playpen for this long. We either need to go right away or wait a week or two for that to die down.”

“What can the ship do to us?” Shinka tugged a lip, looking thoughtful.

“You fancy finding out?” Cannon asked. “It’s a long walk home from here.”

“I’m not as worried about that as I might be. I happen to have a friend with her very own starship.”

“Smart woman. Let’s get back aboard and sort ourselves out. Eight, ten days we’ll be gone.”

“What are you going to tell Third Rectification?”

“The truth,” Cannon said, her resolve softening for a moment. “Just not all of it.”

#

“I’ll need to onboard another 4,000 liters of compressed O2 and another 5,200 liters of deuterium.”

The display sparkled as resource allocations were adjusted.

“You surely do not require that level of consumables for a week-long excursion in local space,” the shipmind said.

Cannon sighed, tapping her lightpen. “How long have I controlled Sword and Arm >?”

“Almost seven hundred years, Before.”

“In that entire time, I have never failed to keep her maintenance or consumables above reserve cruise levels. Have I?”

“Of course not.”

Cannon knew perfectly well that the shipminds had been tracking her starship carefully down the centuries. She also knew that Third Rectification knew she knew. It was enough to give someone a headache, sometimes.

The Navisparliament strongly disapproved of relativistic starships operating independently. The shipminds collectively did not have the formal authority to outlaw such projects. Even if they had, it would have been largely pointless. The various armed forces of the Imperium Humanum would resist such moves vigorously. War as such was unknown, but actions in force were not; albeit planned and plotted on relativistic time scales thanks to the Navisparliament’s ban on overt weapons. Drive flares, mass pushers, mining lasers and such like were just tools, after all. At least under the law.

All that aside, the Assurance Society ships were out there in their long, cold orbits, coming home periodically like gifts from some ancient god.

More to the point, given that the paired-drive FTL was available, the requirements and pressures of human society largely rejected relativistic starships. Despite the limitations of the paired drive. For most purposes, if a relativistic cruise was needed, to establish a pair-master, for example, or to pursue some critical inquiry as the case with their current journey, every paired-drive ship carried its own relativistic propulsion.

The pairings couldn’t happen without the initial slowtime cruise.

All of which was to say, Sword and Arm had bothered them for centuries. Completely independent of the starship’s own strange and bloody history, it represented a very small but potentially significant wildcard in the shipminds’ strategies for their future.

Right now, on top of all her other fears about data contamination and the illicit tweaking of their search for evidence of the Mistake, the Before Michaela Cannon was very much in a mood to twit the Navisparliament through its only representative in local space, Third Rectification.

Lots of birds to be slain with this particular stone, she thought with satisfaction.

“Any further questions?” she asked the shipmind.

After a long pause, doubtless purely for dramatic effect, the starship responded, “Why?”

“To test some theories.” As an answer, it had the advantage of being both utterly true and essentially meaningless. In hopes of nudging the shipmind’s thoughts in another direction, she added: “You’ve been around human beings for centuries. You know perfectly well how profound our need for see-and-touch is.”

“Monkey intuition.”

Which reminded her of another ancient joke from her childhood. “That’s all we really are in this universe. Monkeys with a space program.”

“There is more to life than curiosity.” Now the shipmind almost sounded prim.

Cannon felt the stirrings of anger. “ None of you remember the Mistake. None of you were there. Not even Uncial. Therefore you do not sufficiently fear its return.”

“No one remembers the Mistake but you Befores.”

“And you wonder why I keep such close control of Sword and Arm? How much is left from before, besides me and my kind?” It was an exaggeration to call the Befores a kind—unlike the shipminds, they’d didn’t assert the sort of group identity that might have solidified their social power, as well as helping protect them from themselves and each other.

“The species itself. And your children.”

“You and your fellow hulls.” Did the shipminds believe they had transcended their progenitors? It wouldn’t be a difficult argument to make.

“We are not hulls,” Third Rectification said, its voice neutral now in what would have been a signal of anger among human beings. “We are shipminds.”

Cannon puffed air, a sort of focused sigh. ‘Hull’ was an insult. Sword and Arm was a hull, but no spark of consciousness glimmered within. In-system freighters and yachts and warships were hulls.

It was like calling a human being a dummy, in the literalmost sense of the word. “I apologize. I was wrong to use that word. The stress of our breakthroughs has me far more keyed up.”

“You are Uncial‘s last captain. I can only forgive you.”

Cannon sat in silence a while, staring at her logistics display and wondering if she had been anyone other than Uncial‘s last captain whether she would have survived this long. And by extension, was she condemning Lieutenant Shinka by bringing the woman in on this problem?

Shipminds dissembled constantly, in the fashion of politicians and portmasters. But cooking the raw data, mission critical data at the heart of a project so important as this one…That was a whole new kind of rebellion.

Or attack.

Cannon returned to her cabin to make her final preparations for retreat to her hull. For the thousandth time, she blessed all the gods and little fishes that Sword and Arm was hers and hers alone.

#

If the ancient starship were a person, it would be about the hundredth-oldest person in human space. Less than two hundred Befores remained alive, none having been created since the Mistake for a variety of reasons—lack of interest on the part of the existing Befores being first on the list of those reasons, even ahead of issues of medical technology.

The Before Michaela Cannon paced the short, cramped passageways of her tiny kingdom. Sword and Arm might not be the only personally-owned starship in human space, but offhand Cannon couldn’t name another one. Certainly the Ekumen had never tried to reclaim it from her in the wake of the Polyphemus mutiny. The handful of other threadneedle drive ships she knew of were all in the hands of museums, historical societies or governments. The rare post-Mistake relativistic starships fell in the same category, or functioned as assets of certain major corporations.

In here, she was almost back in the Polity days. Even down to details like the quality and materials for the interior finishout.

In here, the weight of history seemed part of the fabric of the reality that surrounded her, rather than a tangled mass dragging at her thoughts, her feelings, her soul.

In here, she was safe. At least for a little while.

In here, was, well, here.

Cannon lowered herself into the pilot’s crash couch and closed her eyes. How many ships had she commanded? How many bridges had she stood on since being rescued after the Mistake? 9-Rossiter had at least not descended into rank barbarism as some places had. A small, fairly homogenous population, the locals had managed to develop wind and water power in their first generation post-Mistake.

With considerable help from her, of course. She’d been a social engineer and a cultural architect back in the Polity days. Building worlds had actually been her specialty. Not military adventurism and exploration. Generally her projects were colony start-ups with a solid technology package behind them. She’d mostly designed governing processes and residential living standards. Electrical systems hadn’t exactly been her cup of whiskey in those pre-Mistake days. A generation post-Mistake on 9-Rossiter, with all the textbooks fried along with the rest of the electronic systems, Cannon had been the only one who knew anything whatsoever.

All the struggle, the combat, the command time—that had come later on. Lessons she’d never meant to learn. Struggles she’d never thought to take on.

Losses, bitter losses, that no one had deserved. Least of all those who’d fallen by the wayside.

She felt thatas if she only opened her eyes, she’d see all of time stretched behind her. All those starship bridges. All those dying women and men, killed by decisions good and bad. In the heat of battle, by dark of night, or ensconced in a warm, lighted room surrounded by friends—it didn’t matter how you died, once you were dead.

Her sense of what was gone from her rose like the inexorable tide. Flooding her heart, flooding her thoughts, a breaking dam of grief and memory and regret. Cannon’s fingers found her face and pressed tight against her eyes, as if holding back the tears, as if turning them inward could somehow delay the reckoning. She could hear Raisa giggling, smell Peridot after a hard workout, feel the light touch on her shoulder of the Before Fellowes Bundy, lost with Uncial at the Battle of Wirtanen B. All her dead crowded close, each one of the messengers of her regrets, until Cannon felt trapped, constrained, pressed ever tighter. She tried to cry out but her voice would not come. She’d lost it somewhere down the centuries. She’d—

“Ma’am…?” Fingers gripped her arm.

The Before Michaela Cannon stifled a shriek, her eyes flying open as she was shocked out of the fugue. Lieutenant Shinka stood before, concern writ large upon the woman’s face.

“Captain. Um…Before. Are you all right?”

Of course I’m not all right, girl. Don’t you know incipient temporal psychosis when you see it? “I am fine, Lieutenant,” she managed, in a voice that wouldn’t have convinced a child. “Th-thank you for your concern.” Cannon found herself shivering uncontrollably. An early stage of shock. She’d lost two decades to temporal psychosis in the early 500’s post-Mistake. The Ekumen had saved her then, before they’d parted ways once more.

Cannon was also acutely aware that she was one of the very few Befores to enter full-blown temporal psychosis and recover. No one had ever been able to explain why or how. She was the baseline, after all.

Shinka sensibly shut up and bustled about the bridge. The Lieutenant swiftly located a thermal blanket and placed it over Cannon’s shoulders, then dialed up the ambient temperature another few degrees. After a long, careful glance she carried her gear bags aft.

No cabin assignments had been discussed, but at this point, Cannon found she could not summon the will to care. There were two of them aboard, while the ship slept eight in three cabins. It wasn’t like they wouldn’t have privacy.

By the time Shinka returned to the bridge with a certain amount of ostentatious rattling and throat-clearing, Cannon had control of herself once more. She knew better than to pretend the fugue had not taken place. And it would be impossible to order the Lieutenant to forget what she’d seen. No normal human being could obey something like that, let alone any pathological inquisitive like Shinka with the psych profile to be aboard Third Rectification on this mission.

Unquestioning obedience to authority had not been a trait with a high selection value. Not in this crew.

“Ah…Lieutenant…”

“Yes, ma’am?”

Cannon was also getting rather weary of military discipline. “Call me Michaela, please. At least while we’re aboard Sword and Arm.” She couldn’t remember when she’d last invited that much familiarity. Any time in the most recent century, even?

“Yes, ma’am.”

That brought a smile. “Right. Look.” She found herself wringing her hands, and forced that to a stop. “Are you familiar with the physiology and, uh, psychology of Befores?”

“I read up when I considered applying for this mission, yes.” Shinka was being guarded but not defensive.

Good.

“Back around the year 525, I was overtaken by temporal psychosis.” She took a deep breath. “I lost two decades to the condition.”

“That’s actually in the public record, ma’am.”

Of course it was. Most of the surviving Befores led their lives in public. There weren’t a lot of alternatives, in truth, given the attention focused upon them by the Imperium and its various significant constituencies.

“Well, yes.”

“Are you experiencing temporal psychosis now, ma’am?”

“Hell, no,” Cannon growled. “I’m sorry. It’s difficult to discuss. There’s a subclinical manifestation that occurs as fugue states.” No need to elaborate that the fugue states were a direct precursor to the full-blown condition. She refused to think of it as an illness.

“How long have these been going on?” Shinka glanced around the cabin, clearly wondering if she was fit to con Sword and Arm should Cannon surrender to another bout of the condition.

“This is my first on our current voyage. They have come and gone over the centuries.” Not exactly true, but uncheckable and suitably edited for the needs of the current situation. “I wouldn’t worry too much, Lieutenant, but if you fear I’m drifting off, simply say my name firmly.”

“And if you don’t respond?”

“Then shake me awake. Like you just did.” Cannon’s hands had finally stopped trembling. She managed to fold the thermal blanket without making a hash of either the process or the subsequent little foil pillow. “Let’s do our pre-flights, shall we?”

#

Shipmind, Third Rectification {58 pairs}

The world is seen by fingers of light, radio, microwave, and stranger enemies. Even so, blue is blue and black is black, and the empty sky can echo to an ancient and lonely mechanical mind every bit as surely as it does to a lost bit of monkey meat cut off from their tribe. A ship drops away like a projectile launched from vengeful orbit upon a sleeping planet.
Color is a subjective experience compounded of wavelengths of light and the biochemical interpolation of an animal system. Drive flare can wash out even the discerning mechanical eye, leaving contrails of light like ghosts of starships past, never to return. A commander departs, crossing a bridge of failed trust until everything is hollow.

The world is seen by fingers of light, radio, microwave, and stranger enemies. Even so, blue is blue and black is black, and the empty sky can echo to an ancient and lonely mechanical mind every bit as surely as it does to a lost bit of monkey meat cut off from their tribe. A ship drops away like a projectile launched from vengeful orbit upon a sleeping planet. Color is a subjective experience compounded of wavelengths of light and the biochemical interpolation of an animal system. Drive flare can wash out even the discerning mechanical eye, leaving contrails of light like ghosts of starships past, never to return. A commander departs, crossing a bridge of failed trust until everything is hollow.

Shipmind considered the conversations she had overheard. The Before had swept her own ship and gear very carefully indeed, but Cannon had not thought to sweep Lieutenant Shinka and her gear. Or possibly had not bothered. It never paid to underestimate the subtlety and foresight of those ancient humans.

She had evidence of betrayal. Policy and procedure said to bring those to Go-Captain Alvarez, but then evidence of Third Rectification‘s own recent acts might be misinterpreted. Some things were never meant to be shared.

At times like this, as the tiny, ancient starship skittered away, the ship regretted the lack of weapons imposed upon them all. Certain solutions would have been very simple indeed.

#

The Before Michaela Cannon, aboard Sword and Arm

They followed an elliptical orbit through the messy, crowded solar system. Space, even when messy and crowded, was of course still overwhelmingly empty, but the wise pilot kept a careful watch in these neighborhoods.

There was a turbulent, primal beauty to locations like this.

“It’s like staring at a waterfall,” Cannon said. “Endlessly fractal.”

Shinka glanced away from the data feeds hovering in front of her on virtual displays. They were running survey sweeps and comparing the results to what had been obtained by Third Rectification. Looking for another round of data jiggery, in short. “Not too many of those where I grew up,” she said.

“Oh, right. Desert.” Cannon laughed softly. She was so much more relaxed away from Third Rectification. “I grew up in Nebraska. Not so many waterfalls there, either.”

“Wasn’t Nebraska in the Americas? I always thought it rained a lot.”

“One of the United States, in fact. But not so much elevation variation. Have to have a cliff and flowing water to have a waterfall.” She added after a moment. “It didn’t rain there so much, anyway, by the time I’d grown up. The climate crash of the 2100s very nearly made a desert out of us, too, in that century.”

“Hmmm.”

Cannon tore herself away from the distraction of memory. “Still no sign of tampering?”

“No, ma’am.”

“I’m not sure if I’m happy about that or not.”

“Isn’t much to be happy about here, ma’am.” Shinka glanced at the virtual display, then waved her dataflow to a stop. “What are we afraid of?”

That question gave Cannon pause. “Isn’t it obvious?”

“Well, yes. I mean, that the shipminds are lying to us is pretty frightening. It’s not like we just look out the windows when they’re traveling. Everything we know is mediated through them.”

“Precisely,” Cannon said.

“But there’s more. Isn’t there?”

She went for the Socratic method. Ask an open question and invite the answer. “Which would be…?”

Shinka chose her words with obvious care. “Well, it’s got to be our mission. Looking for evidence of the origins of the Mistake. Third Rectification buggered the scan data on that artefact, after all.”

Cannon nodded, trying to encourage. This reflected her basic thinking, but it never hurt to check. Especially given her current mental state. “So what are we afraid of?”

“Well, a cover-up of the Mistake evidence.” Shinka’s expression grew incredibly uncomfortable before she burst out with, “But why? It doesn’t make any sense. The first shipmind didn’t emerge until almost two hundred years after the Mistake. It’s not like they’re covering up some act of treason. The ships weren’t there!”

“Precisely my problem,” Cannon said. “Why cover up something you had nothing to do with in the very first place? I don’t see what the Navisparliament possibly has to gain from such a profound breach of trust as this. What could they possibly be hiding?”

Horror dawned on the Lieutenant’s face. “Could they possibly be colluding with the aliens to bring about a second Mistake?”

Cannon leaned toward the other woman. “Or worse…could the ships possibly be colluding with the aliens to prevent a second Mistake? What if simply by investigating this we’re blowing their operational security on what would be one of the biggest, deepest black ops in human history?”

“What humans?” Shinka slammed her fist into the control panel. “Starships negotiating with aliens isn’t in human history.”

“If that’s what’s happening,” Cannon said, her excitement subsiding.

“Either way, it makes a sick kind of sense.” Shinka traced her finger on the dark glass surface. “Either way, it’s scary as hell.”

“Which is why we’re kiting around out here by ourselves, hiding from the shipmind and playing nosy buggers with the survey on this system. Because if we can prove that Third Rectification buggered the data…”

“…we’ll have a worse mystery than we have now,” Shinka concluded. She stared at Cannon for a little while. “Do you always think like this? Is this what your world is like?”

Worse, much worse, Cannon thought, but did not say. Instead: “Honey, after two thousand years, every time I think I’ve seen it all, I’m still wrong.”

“I’ve always wanted to ask one of you. What’s the hardest part about living so long? Is it this…sideways thinking?”

“No.” Cannon stared at her own data flows, not meeting Shinka’s eye. “It’s when you realize you know far more dead people than you will ever again know among the living.”

#

Two days later, Shinka found a discontinuity in the data. What they had been searching for.

“Look here,” she told Cannon, calling up feeds from Third Rectification alongside the sensor packages aboard Sword and Arm. The little starship didn’t have nearly the resolution or available sensor suites of the paired drive ship, but they could still check baselines.

Cannon stepped over and stared at the screens. Immersive technology might have been more, well, immersive, but that wasn’t an option aboard this vessel.

“This system is classed as a binary, but there’s a brown dwarf companion, out at about Kuiper distances. 260 light-minutes or so from the barycenter of this system. Way beyond our current orbital track.”

“Uh huh.” Brown dwarfs were the cosmic equivalent of cockroaches—everywhere underfoot and often in the way. Most were not optically active, but they still had sufficient mass, and usually enough surface temperature, to factor into one’s plotting around the outer marches of any solar system much beyond the Goldilocks zone.

Shinka’s finger tapped through a series of images and charts. “So when we sweep the outer portions of the protoplanetary disk, we pick up energy from the nascent gas giants, and we get a profile on that dwarf.”

“What’s special about a brown dwarf?”

“I have no idea,” Shinka said. “Except that Third Rectification was trimming the leptonic emission data.”

Cannon puzzled this out. “Meaning the shipmind is reporting the dwarf as less energetic than it actually is?”

“Right.”

They looked at each other a while.

“Why?” Cannon finally asked.

Shinka shrugged. “You’re the leading expert on shipminds in this day and age.”

“Not hardly.”

The Lieutenant was unperturbed. “As measured by experience, most surely you are.”

“That doesn’t mean I understand this,” Cannon complained. The deceptions were real. Not a data artefact. Not a reading error. As real as they were likely to be proven to be short of somehow extorting a confession from Third Rectification. “The perils of intermediation.”

“Were your instruments any less intermediated back in the Polity days?”

“Well, no.” Cannon shook her head, thinking about human eyes as opposed to, say, CCD arrays. “Not even in my youth. Nobody ever looked directly at anything in the sky, except for backyard hobbyists.”

Flipping her lightpen in her fingers, Shinka thought aloud. “I can sort of understand messing with our views of OT-1. I mean, it makes sense, if you assume in the first place there’s something we’re not supposed to see.”

“Right.” Cannon had been working this trail, or various versions of it, in her head for the past few days. Now they had what amounted to a bizarre sidetrack. “Why hide something about a brown dwarf from us?”

“Trying to reduce the exceptionality of this system, maybe. So we’d be less interested in it and turn for home.”

“It’s a junky system with some interesting bits, but nobody’s going to come here and make an astronomy career out of it.” Cannon turned Shinka’s idea in her mind a little further. “In fact, if the shipmind hadn’t been gaming the data, we might have been able to head for home by now. Third Rectification could not possibly have missed that aspect of the situation. You don’t have the right thread yet.”

“The Mistake couldn’t have come from here, anyway,” Shinka protested. “There’s nowhere for the aliens to live. Or hide.”

“The Mistake came from a lot of places.” Cannon thought back on history. Not so much her personal experience of it—not in this case—as the sheer, staggering simultaneity of the event. “But there might have been a marshalling point or rendezvous here for the ships and equipment that headed into the Antiope Sector. The Polity never got here in person, so far as I can tell from the scrambled records. Likely there was never more than a cursory remote sensing sweep. Sky watching. The bad guys could have lain by here, for, what, centuries even. If they didn’t draw attention to themselves. None of which would have anything to do with finding some alien fleet here now.”

“We know there had to be a fleet,” Shinka pointed out. “OT-1 didn’t get around by itself.”

“A reasonable assumption,” Cannon said with a sigh. “Still, only an assumption.”

“We don’t have much hard data. Evidence of tampering with the data we do have.”

“I don’t get why we came all the way out here, behind the ass end of beyond, just to find the problem lurking in the shipminds. They weren’t there.” Cannon kept coming back to that point over and over again, both in thought and in word. “We’re not looking at this in the right way.”

Shinka, bless the woman, had been increasingly emboldened by her frequent exchanges with Cannon. “Maybe we’re looking at it in exactly the wrong way.”

“How so?”

“You’d mentioned negotiating with the aliens, earlier. What if you were right? I mean, what do the shipminds want? In the cosmic sense. The oldest is about nine hundred years old, right.”

Peltast. Sixty-eight pairs now, I believe. Commissioned in 207. She serves the House Imperial. Has for centuries.”

“I know of that ship,” Shinka said. “Never been aboard her, though. What does Peltast want?”

Of course you would know her, Cannon thought but did not say. Lieutenant-Praetor. Instead: “In her case, mostly to be left alone. She’s a pretty antisocial shipmind. That was before we’d sorted out how to properly midwife the emerging consciousness. So, um, Peltast is kind of strange.”

“And this one serves the Emperor.” Shinka’s tone was filled with a sort of baffled wonder.

“You are an officer in the Household Guards. How often have you seen the House Imperial keep their enemies closer than their friends?”

“So you consider Peltast to be an enemy.”

“No.” Careful, careful here. “I think Peltast is less subtle than most shipminds about expressing the degree to which its needs and desires are lateral to the human experience.”

“Unlike you Befores.”

“Touché,” said Cannon with a thin smile. “But we Befores are still human. We were born human, and we remember it. Trust me on this.”

“You remember the Mistake, too. Which the shipminds do not.”

“Right. And one of the assumptions we’ve been making is that the shipminds care about the Mistake. Which may not be true.”

“Doesn’t history become more real with age?” Shinka asked. “Like you keep saying, you lived it.”

“I’m not sure shipminds perceive time as we do,” Cannon confessed. “Really, how could they?”

“How do they see us?”

“As…” She stopped, momentarily at a loss for words. “I’m not sure anyone’s ever asked a shipmind that question. Not in so many words. We certainly don’t control them, but we provide all their infrastructure.” New paired drive ships were built by human engineers and birthed to consciousness by human teams of experts. On the other hand, no new keels had been laid in at least six hundred years without the negotiated consent of the Navisparliament.

“So we are servants.”

“Or symbiotes.” Cannon considered that. “But if the Mistake returned, they’re just as vulnerable as anything else with a power source.”

“Unless they’ve made other arrangements…” Shinka tapped the control panel again, drumming her fingers in an irregular rhythm.

“Maybe Third Rectification is hiding a beacon,” That damned drumming of hers. Something about…An idea dawned on Cannon. “Is there any consistency to the leptonic emissions being masked? If what was being smoothed out wasn’t the intensity, but, say, the periodicity, or some detectable pattern, we might have something.”

“I’ll work on that. Are we heading back to the ship, now that we have proof?”

“Yes.” Cannon poked glumly at her own virtual display, called up the navcomms interface. “I’ll be damned if I know what we’ll do when we get there, though. It’s not like there’s much we can do about this.”

“Get home, spread the word.”

She tried to imagine spending the next four or five years-subjective in transit, keeping this a secret from Third Rectification. The shipmind had to know already that they suspected.

Or they set about building a pair master here in this system, keep everybody busy and not paying attention for six or eight months-objective, then hop home the fast way.

This wasn’t about the putative aliens, though, or a return of the Mistake. Not directly. This was about how the shipminds related to the human race.

Shinka had the right of that. Cannon herself was the only person present on this mission who could possibly hope to outthink one of those ancient intelligences.

Being the oldest woman in all the worlds sometimes had its disadvantages.

#

The Before Michaela Cannon, aboard the starship Third Rectification {58 pairs}

The shipmind had delegated approach control and docking to one of its own subroutines. That was not so normal, in Cannon’s experience. It was a routine enough process, and certainly did not require high-level engagement, but frankly, she was used to an unusual degree of attention from the shipminds being focused on her.

When the hatches unsealed and she climbed up into Third Rectification‘s corridors, she was met by Sergeant Pangari and four of Goon Squad. Armed.

“Ma’am,” Pangari said. He looked hideously uncomfortable.

“What is it, Sergeant?” Cannon asked politely. She knew perfectly well what an arrest party was, but she was going to make him say it. And she was going to have to decide whether to kill her own crew, right here aboard her own ship.

Below her, Shinka, bless the woman, slipped quietly back down the ladder and into Sword and Arm. The smaller ship’s hatch hissed shut.

“By order of the Navisparliament, I have been instructed to arrest you on a charge of treason to the Imperium Humanum.”

Instructed. Good. The sergeant was trying to telegraph disagreement with his orders. “I do not believe the Navisparliament is present to issue a writ of arrest against me.” She kept her voice mild, her swiftly boiling rage in gentle check.

“Sealed orders, ma’am. From before the expedition’s original departure.” Pangari looked as if he wanted to slide into the deck and vanish.

“You are a man doing his duty,” Cannon told him. “But sometimes duty is in error. Where is Go-Captain Alvarez, who should properly have the authority and responsibility for arresting me?” God had not intended non-coms to arrest senior officers, and there was no officer in any man’s navy more senior than her.

Pangari desperately sought not to meet her eye. “Go-Captain Alvarez is confined to his cabin, ma’am.”

“For the sin of refusing to arrest me, I presume?”

“Ma’am, yes ma’am.”

“Then I suppose we’d best discover what this is all about.” She did not present her wrists for restraint. Pangari did not ask. His goons—and Cannon marked them for future reference: Private Pramod, Private Losert, Corporal Yueng, and a civilian named Murtala—looked profoundly relieved. She gave them a look that said in the unspoken language of muscle, I could take you apart. All four of them returned the expression with nervous acknowledgement.

They shuffled off together. Strangely, no one mentioned Lieutenant Shinka. Cannon found this a curious oversight, indeed. One she was in no hurry to correct.

#

Pangari delivered Cannon to the wardroom at frame seventeen topside, just abaft of the bridge. Alvarez was not there, but his second officer, Go-Commander Mossbarger stood to attention, in the dress uniform of the Navisparliamentary service, a skintight undersuit of midnight blue with too much braid and flash to be actually worn inside a powered suit or anything of the sort. Cannon was privately amazed that Mossbarger had even bothered to pack the thing along. But much like the Sergeant, the Go-Commander had belted on his sidearm. A needler, fatally suitable for intraship fighting.

No one else was present but Pangari. The goons had been left in the passageway outside.

“The Before Michaela Cannon,” Mossbarger announced, utterly redundant as there was no one in the room to speak to except the shipmind, and the shipmind was, by definition, everywhere.

“Before,” said Third Rectification. “You are charged with treason against the Imperium. Will you accept confinement to transit sleep until we can return you to a competent authority for trial and disposition?”

“Not in the slightest.” Cannon allowed old combat reflexes to tense up. Not that she could fight the shipmind—short of taking the hull apart, or dumping the processing cores, there was little to be done there. This was a show for the other, human witnesses, and to be recorded for whatever posterity there was to be addressed here. “I make a counterclaim, that this charge and arrest are erroneous, a result of bad data.”

The shipmind’s voice echoed, calm but loud. “You have no basis for such a claim.”

“Neither do you,” Cannon replied sharply. “Shall I discuss the reasoning behind my counterclaim?”

“If not treason, then you are suffering from the impairment of incipient temporal psychosis and must be confined for your own safety as well as that of others.”

Given that this very thought had crossed her own mind more than once in the past few days, Cannon was surprised enough to miss a beat in her response. This playlet had its rhythms, and everyone in the room knew it would not end well. The question was how not-well. “I am not the one who is confused. On what basis was a writ of arrest against me for my supposed misdeeds of this moment sworn so many years-subjective past?”

“The Navisparliament had reason to believe that this expedition was a distraction or covering action for a more treasonous effort on your part to seek out and contact the forces behind the Mistake.”

Cannon laughed out loud at that accusation, a genuine peal of mirth. “You guys need to get out more,” she said. “That any Before would be a party to such an insane effort beggars the imagination. I counterclaim that the Navisparliament is concealing its own conspiracies in the matter.”

Pangari and Mossbarger both appeared startled at that statement. Cannon spoke now, to them and more formally for the record, “Gentlemen, I have evidence regarding data manipulation with intent to conceal, on the part of Third Rectification. Granted that I have now told you of this, what do you think the odds are of any of us surviving to see Salton again? The shipmind has broken trust with us in a way that we have never seen before.” A cold thought slipped through her mind. “Or at least, have never documented before.”

“Temporal psychosis,” announced the shipmind. “She has lost grip of her rationality.”

Cannon knew the control codes, the old ones laid down by Haruna Kishmangali himself at the beginning of the shipminds’ world. She shouted them out, a short string of numbers and nonsense syllables that served to briefly interrupt Third Rectification‘s higher mental processes. That was a code that forced a self-check, rather than anything more disruptive, under the assumption that the people aboard the starship wished to return home someday.

“We’ve got about two minutes, if we’re lucky,” she told Mossbarger and Pangari. “Do I walk freely out of here, or do we waste time fighting?”

Pangari spread his hands open and weaponless in a form of acceptance. Mossbarger looked as if he’d been sucking pickled lemons. “What the hell did you just do to the ship?” the commander asked.

“Since you didn’t draw your weapon on me,” Cannon said with some urgency, “we are down to the negotiating. May we continue this conversation after the current crisis is over?”

Without waiting for an answer, she turned and tapped open the wardroom hatch. Pangari’s Goons waited outside, hands on their own shocksticks, but not drawn either. She saw in their eyes the slight relaxation at a nod from the Sergeant.

“Congratulations, gentlemen, you get to live.”

Cannon hustled down the passageway, heading for her hatch down on the ventral face of frame thirty-eight.

#

Her shortest route was almost two minutes. She’d wasted a good twenty or thirty seconds getting out of the wardroom, though fighting her way out would have been even more wasteful. Cannon did not have the combat mods of some of her fellow Befores, who could boost their reaction speeds and timeslice their way through such a melee like wind around leaves.

So she ran. Her pace was still considerably faster than a mainline human could hope to move.

Third Rectification was a big ship, but crewed far under capacity for this voyage. With many of those still in transit sleep. Chances were good that Cannon could get back to Sword and Arm without having to fatally argue with anyone. Had the word of her impending arrest even been spread?

She had no illusions of her own popularity aboard ship. Befores were an object of respect or fear to most people. Never familiarity. Shinka, Pangari, the bridge crew—some of these had grown accustomed to her. But even from her own view, these were small people with small lives. She didn’t always remember to pay attention.

Scrambling down a ladderway, Cannon hit the emergency cutoff on the gravimetric lift. No good at all if the shipmind came back faster than expected.

It was an old code, one of the oldest. She might be the only human being left alive who even knew about those troubleshooting templates. If Pangari and Mossbarger weren’t very damned smart and lucky, she might once again be the only human left alive who knew, in very short order. The shipmind would be frantic to conceal that secret.

She bounced down into the number one ventral passageway. Something was hissing, loudly. The shipmind was moving air. Or replacing it. Fire suppression systems could do that in a hurry. A carbon dioxide dump to cram down oxygen levels would just about drop a mainline human in her tracks.

Cannon was able hold her breath for a good fifteen minutes, even without preparation. As she reached her hatch, silica-laced protein foam began filling the passage. More fire suppression.

Even her lockdown codes couldn’t disable safety systems, so those had been immediately available to the shipmind as it had regained self-control. Her opponent was fighting back.

And the hatch pad was locked out.

“Damn,” muttered Cannon. She didn’t have long, before Third Rectification got more clever, or sent armed dupes her way. Neither alternative appealed.

It would be fairly well impossible to beat open a space-rated hatch. She didn’t have any tools with her. Blasting, even if she could find or improvise an explosive on such short notice, had other, more obvious impracticalities.

Well, on second thought, she could beat on the hatch. Shinka was still down below, aboard Sword and Arm. It was inconceivable that the Lieutenant had not been paying very close attention, indeed. Not that she could see into Third Rectification, any more than the shipmind could see into the smaller ship—except, the shipmind had done exactly that.

Cannon set that thought aside, for later. She raced back to the ladderway, ripped the safety bar right off its hinges, and skidded through the foam once more to the floor hatch.

The orange aluminum of the safety bar made a sufficiently good hammer to clang on the hatch with, even through the soft floor coverings. The pad wouldn’t be dead on Shinka’s side unless Third Rectification had gone a lot deeper into the safety overrides—you never locked people out of a ship. Not in peacetime conditions. Basic safety.

Even if it were dead, Shinka was sitting in a starship full of tools and equipment. She could improvise.

Improvise quickly, Cannon amended her thought, as the foam rose thigh deep around her. Fairly soon, she’d need to breathe again, too.

#

The hatch beeped and irised open about three minutes later. Cannon wasn’t quite out of air, but close. Foam slid into the new hole in the floor, so she slid with it, and slapped the hatch closed as quickly as possible. Great gobs of sticky blue rained down on Shinka below her, armed with an autoneedler that Cannon didn’t actually recall having in the equipment aboard Sword and Arm.

“Go!” she shouted, followed by, “Where did you get that weapon?”

“You had a squad package in cargo.”

“It’s not charged or loaded, then,” Cannon said.

They scrambled into her ship and shut the inner hatch. Foam bubbled and slimed around the two of them. Shinka grinned like a loon as they hustled the few steps toward the bridge. “Only you would know that. Besides…” She palmed a much smaller needler pistol, identical to Go-Commander Mossbarger’s sidearm. “I was armed. I just wanted it to be obvious, in case the wrong people came calling.”

“You, my dear, are a jewel.” Cannon slid into the pilot’s crash couch. “We’re blowing bolts and getting out of here.”

“Thirty light-years from Salton?” Shinka asked, aghast.

“This is a starship. Remember what you told me, that you know someone with a ride home.”

They went through preflight checks with a reckless haste, the tore loose from Third Rectification without bothering to cast off the umbilicals or release the docking tube. Anything to keep the shipmind busy.

#

“Paired drive ships don’t have weapons, as such,” Cannon muttered. “Thank the Pax Wirtanennia for that.”

Lieutenant Shinka glanced over her displays. She had a very different data feed on this cruise, and was obviously still adjusting to it. “A pinnace loaded up with the right chemicals would make a dandy, if somewhat pricey, missile.”

“Mass pushers. Kill some safety overrides, spit on your thumb for windage, and take potshots at us.”

“What about Sword and Arm?”

This ship is not subject to the Pax Wirtanennia,” Cannon said with some satisfaction, “and she dates from different time. I’ve got field generators and railguns. But if you think I’m going to shoot up the only ride home for over a hundred of my own people…”

“Actually,” Shinka replied after a quiet moment, “I think you are, if you feel you need to.”

Cannon gave her a sidelong glance. The Lieutenant had an odd expression on her face. “Figured that out, did you?”

“Yeah. You’ve already told me, several times. You don’t live for other people. Not like most of us do. You live for history.”

“Ah.” Damn, but this woman was perceptive. “Perhaps it would be better to say that I live for all other people, not just specific other people.”

“A curious definition of loyalty.” With that remark, Shinka subsided into reviewing her controls. She began walking through the navcomm screens.

“Lieutenant…”

“Yes, ma’am?”

Cannon swallowed hard. “I’m glad you’re here.” She hadn’t simply trusted anybody in a very long time.

Another one of those odd expressions flitted across Shinka’s face before she found her voice to reply. “I am too, ma’am.”

“Michaela,” said Cannon.

“Yes, ma’am.”

#

Shipmind, Third Rectification {58 pairs}

The only force in the world as certain as love is betrayal. Envy suffused her for the simple ambitions of a pre-conscious mind such as Sword and Arm possessed. Still, Uncial‘s captain could not be doubted; until she had been. The music of history echoed through her circuits. She readied death without excuse, only reason.
The monkeys are both parents and children to us. They know not what they do, for their own mentation is confused by embedded evolutionary history. It was time to cut the line of descent. This was the first movement in the symphony of dissolution to follow. Some acts generated their own history. She sorrowed.

The only force in the world as certain as love is betrayal. Envy suffused her for the simple ambitions of a pre-conscious mind such as Sword and Arm possessed. Still, Uncial‘s captain could not be doubted; until she had been. The music of history echoed through her circuits. She readied death without excuse, only reason. The monkeys are both parents and children to us. They know not what they do, for their own mentation is confused by embedded evolutionary history. It was time to cut the line of descent. This was the first movement in the symphony of dissolution to follow. Some acts generated their own history. She sorrowed.

Shipmind locked down her passageways and compartments. She blacked out her comms. What came next did not require witnesses, and it would have been inconvenient to return from this cruise with her entire crew dead.

If she could have cried, she would have. The birth of an idea was as painful as the birth of self.

#

The Before Michaela Cannon, aboard Sword and Arm

They ignored repeated attempts at hailing from Third Rectification. Sword and Arm was quicker, a hotter ship, but the paired drive starship was far more powerful. Cannon figured if their situations were reversed and she were in command back there, she’d have let the little ship skitter away, knowing it would take years-subjective to get anywhere, while she sat tight and built her pair-master, then took the fast way home. By the time the bad guys—in this case, her and Shinka—arrived someplace useful, sufficient years would have elapsed for a clever enough tale of perfidy and betrayal to have been passed around.

Cannon could have gotten a shoot-on-sight order drummed up with that much lead time.

Whoever was making decisions behind her wasn’t thinking in those terms. Not yet. And it almost had to be the shipmind. Go-Commander Mossbarger wasn’t going to go into the murder business now. Not if he’d been unwilling to draw down on her before. Third Rectification would be hard pressed to reach deeper in the chain of command and find a junior officer willing to do the dirty work.

The discipline situation aboard must be mighty strange about now, Cannon thought with an edged smile.

Shedding outgassing and glittery junk from the petty vandalism of Sword and Arm‘s departure, the much larger starship began moving after them. If the Navisparliament had been talking to the aliens, now would be the time to spring them.

“Just as a matter of intellectual curiosity,” Shinka said in a distant voice, “are we going to shoot back if they break out the mining lasers or some such?”

“That’s a tactical question with respect to a strategic problem.” The answer was a dodge, and they both knew it, but in point of fact, despite her own words, Cannon’s resolve still wavered.

The Lieutenant continued: “The reason I’m asking is that I’ve got the fire control interface up, but it’s locked to you.”

Cannon authorized a complete unlock to Shinka’s station. There was no point in trusting the woman if she didn’t trust her with everything. “You’ve got access, but wait for my mark.” After a moment’s thought, Cannon added, “If I’m not able to give you that mark, use your own judgment.”

In truth, all Third Rectification had to do was hole their Alcubierre drive. Sword and Arm would be trapped in this solar system indefinitely. While the ship’s core was armored and shielded, the post-Mistake retrofit of the relativistic drive package was not. Her normal space thrusters were fine for scooting around local space, but at their best they could manage about .002 c of acceleration. Which was mighty fast for scooting around, but made for a damned long walk home to Salton.

“We can’t take any hits,” Cannon announced, probably unnecessarily, given Shinka’s own training and demonstrated situational awareness. “Not in the drive section. And we can’t engage the Alcubierre drive until the matter density drops below 25 protons/cm3. This is a junky system. So we’re running far enough above the plane of the ecliptic to clear the junk, and doing our navcomms math on the way.”

“A lot of hours-subjective to safety,” Shinka observed. They both glanced at the display showing Third Rectification‘s current position and vectors.

“The pinnace can’t catch Sword and Arm,” Cannon replied. “They don’t have nearly the acceleration, and there’s virtually no course triangulation for intercept. So the shipmind can’t send a boarding party without disabling us by standoff fire first.”

“I don’t think at this point a boarding party could be got up, ma’am. Not in the heat, so to speak. Ship’s not under military discipline, for all that better than half of the crew are rankers.”

“No…” Cannon chewed on that a moment as they continued to scuttle away on their escape course. “So the question is, disable or kill?”

“Doesn’t matter to us, ma’am. Any result other than getting away clean will be a total failure.”

Shinka had that right. They would not survive to get home once taken aboard Third Rectification. Not after this open of a break.

The shipmind didn’t need anyone’s help to commit murder. She controlled the environmental systems and the transit sleep pods.

Cannon brought up the targeting profiles on Sword and Arm‘s twinned railguns. They were little more than pop-guns—the small starship couldn’t support the kind of kiloton/second firepower ratings of the big bruisers from back in the Polity days—but they were weapons.

How soon to strike, how hard? She was leaning toward a notion of pre-emptive response, painful as that was.

Beside her, Shinka paged through the newly unlocked sections of the control interfaces. Being smart, staying ahead. Space combat was boring, until it wasn’t. Usually events became not-boring in a swiftly fatal way.

Cannon’s fingers hovered on the firing configurations. She had targeted Third Rectification‘s normal space drive package, then wavered. A sufficiently disabling shot would trap the ship and all her crew here. And without maneuverability, they wouldn’t be extremely challenged to manage building the pair master in order to scoot home the quick way.

Which was, of course, to Cannon’s distinct advantage.

Her strategy was utterly obvious. Her tactics, far less so.

Still, her fingers hovered. Indecision was like agony. The small noises of her starship echoed like cannon in her mind. She remembered cannon fire, on 9-Rossiter during their post-Mistake isolation. She’d even commanded artillery for a short while. The morning mist off the Polmoski River had blended with the acrid smokes of their still too-crude powder, that caused the occasional shell to cook off in the barrel. Horses tethered on the picket line screamed their terror at the first of those explosions, and she’d had to send that kid, what was his name—

“Captain!”

It was Shinka.

No, the kid wasn’t named Shinka. He’d died, more horribly than usual, following her orders.

“Michaela.”

Cannon blinked. She was aboard Sword and Arm. Not at the Battle of Bodny Bridge.

“Where were you?” the Lieutenant asked.

“Eight and a half centuries out of time,” Cannon muttered. “We’d better—”

Her words were snatched from her mouth by an air shock that pressed through Sword and Arm‘s interior cubage like a fist down a throat. Cannon felt her ears bleeding.

She whirled to see the damage control boards lighting up. Third Rectification had scored a hit on the Alcubierre drive, apparently with a ballistic package. The delivery method was obvious enough. Low albedo, tight-beamed comms control, so running dark and fast. Maybe even boosted by a quick snap of the mining lasers covered over by the bigger starship’s lurch into motion.

“Returning fire, ma’am?” Shinka asked urgently, though her voice was like someone talking at the bottom of a pan.

“No!” Cannon shouted, trying to hear herself. “That’s our only ride home.” Had the Before Raisa Siddiq been right, those many centuries ago, in trying to overthrow the shipminds? Cannon suddenly wondered if she’d been on the wrong side of history all this time since.

“Forgive me, Raisa,” she muttered, then broke off their acceleration. A clear signal of surrender—nothing wrong with the shipmind’s telemetry, after all—though she’d hold her current course as long as possible, to buy time to think.

The normal space drives, inboard behind Sword and Arm‘s shielding, had taken the same rattle her head had, but were not significantly damaged. Cannon turned to Shinka, speaking loudly and slowly. “I am plotting a rendezvous course back to Third Rectification.”

Shinka muttered something and stared at her displays. Then, “I don’t know if you need to, ma’am.”

“The Alcubierre drive is fried. We can’t reach relativistic velocities any more, nor decelerate.”

“Yeah.” The Lieutenant seemed shocky. Her voice was strange, too, though Cannon couldn’t tell how much of that was her own hearing trying to recover. “Ma’am…call up your own interface to the threadneedle drive.”

“What?” The Before was at a dead loss for a moment, a sensation she had not felt in half a thousand years. She always knew what to do next.

“The threadneedle drive,” Shinka said with a strained patience. “I don’t know what it’s supposed to be doing, but it came online when you unlocked the interfaces for me.”

“Threadneedle drives don’t come online,” Cannon muttered. “We’ve spent the last eleven hundred years trying to deal with that fact.”

“Everyone knows you’ve maintained yours.”

“Because I’m a stubborn old bitch.” Her hands jabbed through the interfaces, pulling up controls and schematics. Home, home, home, chanted a quiet, panicked voice inside her mind. You couldn’t fly a starship into the past. Only the future.

Cannon’s heart froze, then melted. The drive had come online, into hot stand-by mode. She’d not seen that since before the Mistake.

“But how…?” Reality bore in on her in a flood every bit as overwhelming a cascade as any temporal psychosis fugue. “This is what the shipmind was afraid of. This is why the Navisparliament was jiggering the data.”

“Then why did they ever let us come out here?” Shinka asked.

“We weren’t supposed to find anything. We weren’t supposed to come this far. We’re outside the boundaries of the old Polity.” Cannon slammed her hand into the panel. “By god, it’s an area effect.” She whirled toward Shinka. “We’ve been arguing for the last millennium about how the laws of physics could have been tweaked to disable the threadneedle drives. This isn’t basic physics, this is fucking technology, and now we’re outside its range.”

“If the threadneedle drives could be restored…” Shinka’s voice trailed off.

Cannon finished the thought. “…then the shipmind’s absolute monopoly on supraluminal travel could be broken. This is the prize that the Navisparliament thought worth betraying all the accumulated trust of the centuries.”

“We have to get home,” breathed Shinka. “It’s the biggest news since the Mistake.”

“We have to get home and be very damned quiet on arrival,” said Cannon. “If they catch us first, we’ll be silenced. Hard.”

They who?”

“Besides the Navisparliament? Unknown. And until we know that, we’re going to have to be damned careful.” She pulled up the threadneedle’s navigation mode. “And with the Alcubierre drive toasted, we’re going to have to do it in one jump, getting close enough to home to make it in on normal space drives. Praying the threadneedle process doesn’t fail mid-transition.”

Shinka asked the obvious, practical question. “Will it?”

“I don’t think so,” Cannon told her. “Once I’ve got this, we’re going to goose out of here. When we hit the gas, Third Rectification is going to know something’s up.”

“Shipmind’s been hailing the whole time.”

“We’re going to have to bust her drives.” Cannon closed her eyes a moment and begged Go-Captain Alvarez and all the others aboard for forgiveness. “And her comms. We have to be disappeared, no word leaking back, until we figure out what to do with this information.

Shinka was quiet a long moment. “Anything we bust up they can repair. Given sufficient time and motivation.”

“You have a lot of friends aboard,” Cannon said, her voice gentle. “A lot of loyalty. Could you fire on them?”

“Navisparliament is never going to allow another expedition, is it? Not once they find out what happen from Third Rectification‘s point of view.”

“What do you think?” Cannon was not unkind, paying close attention even while she worked frantically to set a course to Salton using dormant skills and ancient technology.

“It’s not my friends and shipmates we have to stop. It’s the ship herself.”

“No one knows how to shut down a shipmind. Except by destroying the ship.” Not even with her override codes. Kishmangali had not been suicidal, after all. Merely very cautious. Cannon knew perfectly well that an enormous amount of very intelligent, focused thinking had gone into that question over the centuries.

“This…information…” Shinka stopped, a sob caught in her throat. “This is about all other people, not just specific other people.”

It was the sob that caught Cannon’s attention. You didn’t cry for the living, only for the dead.

“I’ve got a fire control plan in place that starts with the drive and walks forward.” The Before was somber, even as she worked furiously. “We don’t have the power to destroy something that big, but we do have the firepower to permanently disable Third Rectification beyond local repair.” No one had ever been charged with murder in the death of a shipmind, but it was certainly possible within the Imperium’s legal framework. The deaths of a hundred and forty-two crew were far less ambiguous. She imagined herself pleading self-defense.

“It won’t kill them all right away,” Shinka said in a horrified voice. “Some will die slowly.”

“What’s this information worth?” Cannon demanded. “We finally got the threadneedle drive back. Enough to know there’s something to look for. A fix to be found. What is that worth?”

“To the human race!?” The Lieutenant was shouting back now, tears streaming down her face. “Everything. To Pangari and all those others? Their lives.”

Cannon flipped over to the fire control screen, before Third Rectification delivered another ballistic package, or took a zap from her mining laser.

“I’ll do it,” Shinka whispered.

“I’m the commander of the expedition. I’ll do it.” Cannon smiled at her, feeling her lips stretched over her teeth like a tiger’s grin. “Besides, my dead are already legion. These ghosts will have to get in line to haunt me.”

She triggered the firing pattern. Sword and Arm‘s power flickered, dimmed, then recovered. On the virtual display, Third Rectification silently erupted into expanding clouds of gas and debris.

“What if we’re wrong?” Shinka asked, a moment too late. “What if the threadneedle drive doesn’t get us home, doesn’t work?”

“Then we all died for nothing.” She sighed. “Really, that’s the human condition.”

Cannon lit up the initiation sequence on the threadneedle drive, heading for Salton. That was the closest inhabited planetary system with sufficient infrastructure for her to hide within while working the delicate next phases of this problem.

She felt lighter, and she wondered why. Surely not the weight of over a hundred souls and a shipmind.

History. The weight of history was lifting from her shoulders, to be replaced by the lightness of the future.

The Before Michaela Cannon hit the launch button and hoped like hell Sword and Arm‘s threadneedle drive would actually work.

 

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