“I’m leaving here,” said Meiki as she she scraped the nozzle of the crafter. “No more of this crap for me.”
Phel didn’t raise an eyebrow. He’d heard it all before. Meiki usually announced her plans to run away during unpleasant chores. Last month she nearly broke down during turbine maintenance on the wind farm. Before that she threatened to storm out while bug hunting through the mountains of code that regulate the HVAC system. Whenever faced with a boring job Meiki could be counted on to declare she was through with life in the dorms of Gates.
Phel examined the crafter nozzle. Resin crusted its insides because the kids had been overusing it. He and Meiki performed most of the maintenance duties at Dorm 7C and he began to suspect the others thought all of their automated services continued to work because of elves in the middle of the night. He knew the other students worked hard, too, but the two of them seemed to get saddled with the most thankless jobs. He almost sympathized with Meiki. However, his sympathy waned as she continued complaining.
“You don’t believe me, do you?” She looked into Phel’s unblinking chestnut-colored eyes. “I mean it this time. I’m leaving. Maybe tomorrow. I’ll head for Newbright. Or maybe the Blackpatch. I can’t decide whether I want to make it in the big city or run free in the wilderness. Either way, I won’t be here anymore.”
He dropped the nozzle along with several others into a bucket filled with cleaning solution. The crust softened and became foamy almost instantly.
He looked at Meiki and said, “You’ve never been anywhere besides Gates. You ain’t going to Newbright and there’s no way you’d last a night in the Blackpatch. There’s ghosts there. They’ll eat your face.”
“There’s no such thing as ghosts. Charlie told me that. He told me that there is nothing in the world scarier than people. Only seeds believe in the ghosts.”
“Charlie doesn’t know everything.”
“Yes he does. Charlie knows everything that there is to know in the whole world and then some. He just doesn’t tell us all of it.”
Phel considered this while he scrubbed remaining bits of resin out of the nozzles. They ran the most efficient dorm building in Gates and he took pride in that. He and Meiki had been assigned many of these duties at the age of ten. While Phel took to it as if it were a divine calling Meiki sighed and dragged her feet with every task.
Phel knew Meiki was right. Charlie almost certainly knew nearly everything. As an android he’d been programmed with an immense store of knowledge. Anything Charlie didn’t know would probably be accessible through the town’s library.
“Well,” Phel said,“ if Charlie knows everything then you should act more like him. He’s two hundred years old or more and doesn’t ever leave Gates. He almost never goes as far as Sagan or Atwood, let alone Newbright. So why should you?”
“Charlie doesn’t need to leave. He isn’t a person like us. He doesn’t get the wanderlust.”
“Pfft ‘wanderlust’? You just don’t feel like doing your work.”
“Besides,” said Meiki, “there’s other androids like Charlie and they don’t just sit in one town for all eternity. Look at Tyson.”
Meiki had met Tyson, a synthetic steward similar to Charlie when he came to visit from his own settlement in Sagan.
Phel pushed the bucket to the wall and pulled a hose out of a round panel. He stuck the end of it into the bubbly solution. Meiki flipped a switch above the panel and machines within the wall began to hum as the liquid slurped into a system that would extract the resin and convert it to powder form for reuse in the crafters. Phel followed the manual precisely and Dorm 7C had virtually no waste in their crafting facility.
Cleaning the crafters was their last chore for the day and both couldn’t wait to enjoy some free time.
“So why don’t you go to Sagan if you’re itching to leave?” said Phel.
“Sagan isn’t any better than Gates, Phel. It’s nothing but goats and corn as far as the eye can see.”
“You’ve never been there.”
“And I never will,” said Meiki, “because I got my heart set on going someplace big. Newbright it is.” Neither of them knew anyone who had been to the city, but they knew of it. According to Charlie it was as dangerous as the Blackpatch in its way.
Within seconds the crafter parts were clean and dry. The pair stuffed the bucket into a closet and headed down the long corridor to the exit.
Outside, the cloudy sky lurked above them the same drab color as the walls of the dormitory. They lived on a distant world, light years away from Earth, called Naya. As a small planet with a murky atmosphere, Naya never boasted gorgeous sunsets.
A hundred meters in front of them loomed the orchards. In the dreary twilight the trees resembled an army of giants standing in formation.
Beside the building stood a scarcely used playground. Most of the students were too old to be caught dead on the equipment which in the dusk looked like a collection of rusted over fossils.
Every child of ten and older resided for at least half the year at school. The train ride to the residential area where their parents lived took nearly an hour. The stewards said that living away from family for an extended period fostered a sense of self reliance that should serve them well as settlers of an unclaimed world.
Meiki and Phel lived in Gates, a mid-sized colony with Sagan to the north and Atwood to the south. Newbright was the oldest settlement on planet Naya. People often referred to it simply as “The City” as it was the only true city in the world. Those from Gates almost never mentioned Newbright at all. They were generally content to work and play and live their simple lives without a thought of the world beyond the colony.
Meiki had not been back home to the residential area in two years. Her mother hadn’t shown up to collect her one time and that was that. This suited her fine and no one ever caught Meiki crying. She would have told the others that she didn’t need a home if any of them ever asked. As far as she was concerned it didn’t matter if she were in a dull, suffocating, prison-like school or at home with her mother. Each felt equally terrible.
Meiki slipped her hands into the pocket of her khaki overalls to ward off the chilly night air.
“I really am leaving. I can’t stand it here another day.”
Night fell swiftly on Naya. Gray-green clouds shrouded the moonless world. It wouldn’t be long until they melted to inky black. Stars were a rare sight. Even the daytime sun remained hard to spot under the planet’s smothering haze. On some nights the clouds would glimmer and grumble. Sometimes even the roar of thunder and flash of lightning appeared, but the weather remained generally stable, gray and boring like the rest of Meiki’s life.
The students didn’t have much time for fun after chores. Phel couldn’t wait to head up to the roof where kids would gather to play instruments and sing in the cool air. Meiki didn’t mix well with the others. Phel seemed the only one who tolerated her sullen disposition. Of course, he hadn’t befriended her so much as been stuck with her. They were assigned custodial duties in dorm 7C on their first day. Phel performed so well that they made him head of maintenance over the dorms and farm machinery. He used his influence to get Meiki some of the better jobs, not that she appreciated it. Now in the third year of their acquaintance he’d gotten used to her complaining, but still he tried to drag her out of her comfort zone.
“I’m gonna grab my banjo and play some tunes with Ker and Leggy up on the roof. Wanna join us?” Phel knew what her answer would be.
Meiki tilted her head back, “I think I’ll just go to my room and read.” Ker was an empty-eyed girl that Phel stared at every opportunity without making a move and her brother Leggy, short for Yleg, brought those stupid bongos with him everywhere.
“C’mon Meiki.” said Phel, “I know you don’t get along with most anyone else, but it would be nice to see you try for a change.”
“Try what?” asked Meiki. “Try to relate to a bunch of seeds that don’t care about anything but impressing one another? I’m not a part of that, Phel. I don’t fit in.”
Phel looked down at his shoes for a minute and said, “Look Meiki. I like you. I don’t have lot of friends either. But I got you and it would be nice if you came out once in awhile. Maybe the other kids just need to get to know you like I do. Maybe you just need to get to know them.”
She looked at Phel with her head askew, arched an eyebrow, and said, “You just don’t want to be alone when you embarrass yourself in front of Ker, right?”
“Well, that too.” said Phel.
“Fine. I’ll come up to this stupid roof party. I can barely read when you guys are up there blasting music anyway.” Phel smiled a face full of teeth and ran up the stairwell to fetch his instrument from his room.
The soft glow from a web of a thousand decorative lights saturated the roof. It made the atmosphere a thousand times warmer than the rest of the dorm. A gathering of several dozen students must surely have been against regulations, mused Meiki. She felt surprised to learn that by-the-book Phel offered no complaint regarding that.
A makeshift stage of old crates stood at the far end of the roof. Ker hovered beside it, blond and thin and vapid. Meiki could not imagine why Phel had such an obsession with that girl. She didn’t seem mean or nasty, just pointless. Meiki could not recall a single word Ker had spoken in the years they had been to school together. A band of older students commanded the stage with instruments they had made using the crafters Meiki and Phel maintained. They played loud and coarse music. Only a handful of kids seemed to be paying attention to the band. The others gathered in small clusters ignoring anyone outside their individual cliques.
Ker’s brother, Leggy stood beside her. Sure enough he held a pair of bongos. Phel practically leapt toward them in excitement. Playing it cool was not his strong suit.
“Leg! We up next?” said Phel.
“Yeah, buddy.” Leggy said through the sandy hair that hung over most of his face.
“Are you excited to see us on the stage?” Phel asked Ker, but she didn’t seem to notice him. She focused most of her attention toward the lead musician on stage.
Meiki stood away from the whole exchange. She wasn’t friends with Ker or Leggy. She hardly had any friends. She couldn’t bear to put herself out there the way Phel did. He didn’t seem the slightest bit aware as the love of his life ignored him. Meiki’s stomach churned with sympathetic embarrassment.
She wandered into the crowd of her classmates, stumbling between clusters of kids who seemed to find this all so easy. Conversation and laughter swirled around her. She walked among them but not a part of it all. Even making eye contact with the others was a feat for her.
Three students from her grade sat near the ledge. Two boys and a girl. They were talking about their technology and design class. Meiki inched closer to the group even though she barely recognized any of them. She figured she should at least try to interact no matter how difficult it would be.
“Charlie is such a tough teacher.” said the girl “I’m going to fail this class if I don’t come up with at least a B on my design project.”
Meiki burst into the group. “Which project is it?” she asked.
“Uhm...” said the girl, a little peeved at the intrusion, “the one where you have to like, make a duplicate of a scientific invention from the past and explain the properties.”
“Oh. Yeah.” said Meiki, “I had that assignment last quarter. I got a B+. Like you said, Charlie is tough.”
“Wait...B+?” said the girl, now intrigued. “What exactly did you make?”
“Oh...” Meiki paused. She had good reason not to bring too much attention to her project, but it was too late now, “I made...well...they used to call it an invisibility cloak.”
“You mean like a blanket you can hide under?”
“No,” Meiki tried not to look frustrated at the other girl’s stupidity. “I used metamaterials to alter how an object interacts with the electromagnetic spectrum.”
“I made a cloak that bends light around a subject. It makes the subject effectively invisible.”
“And that’s a real thing?” asked the girl.
“Yeah,” Meiki replied, “ I put it on in front my class and disappeared. It’s old technology actually. They invented it before the antimatter ships that launched from Earth to start colonies like we have here on Naya. They had all kinds of technology back then.”
“And you say you got a B+ on this?” asked the girl.
“Yeah, I can help you with your project if you want.” said Meiki. Everything seemed to click. She was on the verge of making a friend. Maybe it was all easier than she had thought.
“Can’t you just give me your project? It’s due tomorrow. I won’t have time to make something.”
“Why did you wait so long to do your project?” asked Meiki.
“Because I have friends and a social life.” said the girl, partially in defense and partially just to be mean.
Meiki’s eyebrows scrunched down. “I have friends!”
“You have a friend.” said one of the boys. “That kid who fixes all of the machines. He’s your only friend.”
Meiki took more offense at the implication that Phel did all the maintenance by himself than she did at the accusation that she had no friends. At least the latter was true.
“Why don’t you tell us more about the spaceships that came here from Earth a million years ago!” said the other boy, sarcastically.
“It was only five hundred years ago. Don’t you losers pay attention in class at all?”
“Who cares?” said the girl. “Here and now is important, not ancient history. I need to pass this class or I might have to repeat seventh grade.”
“Well, I offered to help, but you’re being a jerk about it.” said Meiki.
“I’ll just make a stupid pinhole camera. That’s at least a C, right? Maybe I can get extra credit.”
“Whatever.” said Meiki as she stormed off.
She ended up near the stage just as Phel and Leggy were getting on. The older kids had packed up their gear and Ker followed the bandleader as he headed toward the stairwell with his friends. The older boy didn’t seem to notice the willowy girl fluttering behind him.
Phel noticed. He leaned down toward Meiki and whispered, “What is going on with her and that guy?”
“I don’t know.” said Meiki sharply. “What am I, your dating coach?”
Leggy started a loud jazzy beat on his little drums.
“Well, can you find out for me?” asked Phel through his teeth.
“What, like follow her?”
“I can’t do it...I gotta play music now.”
“Why?” asked Meiki, “No one is listening.” She gestured to the empty patch in front of the stage. The few kids who had been there dispersed when the older band finished.
“That’s not the point.” he said, “I can’t let Leggy down...please just find out what is up with them and I’ll play it cool up here on the stage.”
“The things I do for you.” Meiki groaned as she headed for the stairwell.
Phel started playing his banjo. He played well, but his tune did not pair well with Leggy’s frantic bongos.
Meiki opened the door to the stairwell and walked down into the darkness. On the second landing she saw Ker’s tiny frame hunched over, crying.
Not knowing what else to do, Meiki sat beside her and put her arm on Ker’s back. “Hey...um...girl...it’s ok.” said Meiki awkwardly.
Ker looked up at Meiki with a face full of tears. “I’m so stupid!”
“No you’re not.” said Meiki even though she believed the opposite.
“Yes.” said Ker, “Yes I am. Do you ever feel like you don’t even matter? Like no matter what you do everyone will just ignore you?”
This confused Meiki. She always saw Ker as the embodiment of cool disregard. She didn’t seem to notice or care about anything. Was it all an act?
“He didn’t even notice me.” Ker continued. “I have tried to get his attention all night. Not just tonight either. I don’t know what else I’m supposed to do.”
“Well,” said Meiki “maybe...maybe there’s someone else out there. Maybe he’s just not the guy for you.”
“Easy for you to say. You have a boyfriend.”
“WHAT?” Meiki’s mouth hung open long after uttering the word.
“My brother’s friend, Phil. You two are a thing, right?”
“Phel. His name is Phel. And NO. We are definitely not a thing. We are just friends.”
“Whatever.” said Ker. “I’ll never find anyone.” She sobbed and wallowed in her own pity for a few more minutes.
“Well, I can guarantee you that Phel is not my boyfriend. He likes...he likes someone else.”
“Well, great. A lot of good that does me.”
“Maybe you should go back upstairs and listen to the band.”
“My brother is playing.” said Ker. “He stinks.”
“I know. But it would mean a lot to Phel I think.”
“Why would...ohhhh.” said Ker, finally getting it.
“Look,” said Meiki, “I don’t care. You like Phel, he likes you? Go for it. You don’t like him? Whatever. It’s none of my business. I told Phel I’d talk to you. My part in all of this is done.”
Meiki stood and began trudging down the stairs. Ker got up as well.
“Wait,” said Ker, “umm...I don’t know your name.”
“It’s Meiki. My name is Meiki.”
“Uh, thanks Meiki. I’m going to go back up to the roof. Do you want to come with me?”
“No thanks.” Meiki said, “I’ve had enough party for tonight.”
The two girls parted ways.
Through her window Meiki still heard the party on the rooftop. The sky drizzled a little but that didn’t seem to dull their spirits or the noise. Gates hosted a population of nothing but seeds who were content to hang out on a roof and listen to terrible music.
It wasn’t that Meiki didn’t like music. She could hear all she wanted through her book. Every song ever recorded on old Earth stored there, every movie, every story. Everything a person could want was at her fingers. Still, she wanted more. Soon she would have it. This wasn’t some pipe dream. Meiki had been planning. In two days the delivery from Sagan was coming. She had been watching the delivery every month for close to a year. Dav, the driver was clueless and predictable. She would wait until he had finished unloading the truck. He always left it wide open and would stop at the cafe for a sandwich before heading back to Sagan. When he wasn’t looking she would slip in between the crates with her invisibility cloak. When he reached Sagan she would sneak out and make her way to Newbright.
The drizzling rains evolved into a steady hissing patter.
She decided to watch an old Earth movie about a kid her age who had magic powers and went on adventures. It was her favorite movie and where she got the idea for the cloak and her plan to run away in the first place. Then she would sleep. Her opportunity to get away from this tedious life was only two days away.
On the roof Phel strummed his banjo and tried to sing a love ballad. Leggy was mindlessly whipping up a beat in the wrong tempo. They had practiced this, but Leggy was spontaneous and preferred to make the music up as he went along. It forced Phel to sing faster than appropriate and skip half of the the words. Not that it mattered, because the girl he was singing for had already disappeared down the stairs.
After the song he addressed the audience of disinterested teens who mostly milled about nowhere near the stage.
“Uh, that song was called ‘Princess of the Mist’. Umm...next one is a little more upbeat number called, ‘Tofu Hoedown’. We hope you like it.”
Phel plucked up a lively tune full of twang and Leggy’s bongo playing was less noticeable. The lyrics he sang were silly and all about dancing in the soy fields under the rain. A few of the kids actually got into it and edged up toward the stage. Some of them were even dancing.
Oh wow, this is actually happening! Thought Phel. They’re digging it! He played with more energy and his singing became clear and confident.
Sleep didn’t come easily to Meiki. The rain ramped up to a constant tap-a-tap and eventually became a hail of watery bullets against her windows. A mutter of thunder rolled through the sky.
Meiki tried to ignore it, but as she drifted off the mutter became a rumble. It seemed like she was in for one of Naya’s rare thunderstorms.
At least the party will be cut short, she thought as she pulled her pillows over her head to shut out the crackling storm. The image of that rude girl and her friends running inside cold and soaked made her smile a little inwardly.
The music reached a crescendo and Phel’s heart rate soared with it. Stray droplets of rain fell from the sky. The wetness of the night air of Naya added vitality to the moment. The dance song finished strongly and over a dozen kids had gathered around the small stage cheering and chanting for more.
Then he saw her. Ker popped out of the stairwell door onto the roof. She glided toward the stage and sat down atop an old barrel.
“Um,” said Phel, “So, uh, we only got two songs...want to hear ‘Princess of the Mist’ again?”
Phel had the audience in the palm of his hand. They were eager for more. Ker was looking up at him and he began to strum the opening notes to the ballad he had written for her.
Thunder crashed through the sky. The droplets of rain were replaced by a sudden torrent. As if the water would destroy them the kids raced to the door into the shelter of the dorms. Before Phel had realized what was happening Ker had disappeared as well. For several seconds he stood in the pouring rain unable to move.
The sky flashed brighter than daylight for a tenth of a second and the loudest thunder Phel had ever heard came right after. If he’d had the strength to look up he may have seen a bright object flaring through the night before it disappeared past the orchards. Instead he stomped down from the stage and made his way back to the dorm. His moment of stardom had come and gone.
The wind began to whip and hoot and the regular flickers of lightning transformed into brilliant startling flashes. The windows of the dorm were strong, but they rattled against the bluster as the wind frenzied and crashed against the tempered glass.
A night-shattering streak of lightning filled the sky followed immediately by a terrible peal of thunder.
Meiki ran to her window and could have sworn she saw a shooting star dart below the clouds before the coming of a horrid thunderblast and a flash past the tree line near the soy fields. The rain fell frantically for another ten minutes or so, but eventually settled back to a polite drip-drop.
After that came only silence.
Meiki awoke to see the world had not drowned in spite of the ferocity of the storm. There were no classes that day and Meiki’s only duty was to go to the soy farm and run maintenance on the machinery. After a sonic shower she threw on her overalls and buzzed Phel with her linker. He messaged back saying he had already arrived at the farm and needed her to get there immediately.
Phel was usually the first to show up at a work site, but he didn’t normally give her any grief about it. Something must have happened, thought Meiki. It’s probably just some damage from the storm, but something must be wrong on the field.
Breakfast would have to wait. The fields were a twenty minute ride from the dorms, just past the orchards. She stuffed the book into her backpack before running down to the garage and hopping on her bike. Meiki rode a sleek model she had assembled herself from parts forged in the local maker machine. It had been painted sky blue- a fact Meiki found ironic considering that the sky over her home never looked blue.
Meiki glided past fruit-heavy apple and pear trees. Their sweet smell hung in the air. As she rode closer to the fields the odor shifted from flowers to smoke. There must be a fire, thought Meiki. She pedaled harder.
Phel stood next to an enormous automated harvester. It almost never broke down and required minimal maintenance. This behemoth had been knocked on its side and looked like a mess of bent metal and smoke. The machine lay twisted and nearly severed in half. Four centimeter thick strips of hull curled inward and black exhaust poured out from a massive hole in the side. Spanning fifty meters behind it stretched a trail of scorched soil. It marred several perfect rows of bean plants. Phel was talking into his linker.
“...won’t touch anything until you get here. Don’t worry. We’re just gonna do our routine on the other machines. Yeah, they don’t seem to have been touched. yessir. We’ll be here.”
He hung up and looked at Meiki while gesturing to the demolished harvester.
“What happened?” she asked.
“I dunno. Figure it was the storm.”
“You can’t be serious, Phel. Look at that thing. Five tons of synthetic tungsten but it’s shredded up like confetti. And what about that trail of ash? It looks like something fell from the sky and burned a path through the entire field.”
Meiki pulled her book and switched to camera mode. She took a few shots of the wreckage and the scorch marks.
“I thought I saw a meteor last night.” she said as she put the book away.
“A big ol’ rock from space?” he said, squinting up at the sky, “You think that’s what hit the harvester?” Meteors were rare on Naya, but not unheard of.
“Well, something hit it.”
“Probably just lighting," said Phel.
“Whatever," said Meiki, rolling her eyes.
A low hum came from around the tree line. Both kids recognized the sound of Charlie’s car. Charlie seemed like the sole citizen in gates who didn’t ride a bike everywhere.
He was old even if one couldn’t tell by looking at him and his legs were no longer as strong as they had once been. No one around really had the knowledge needed to repair androids other than the androids themselves and most of the parts required were unavailable. Because of this Charlie took precautions with his mechanical body.
The car was a bright yellow egg-shaped two-seater. The kids all called it “the lemon”. Its battery powered engine propelled the lemon just a tiny bit faster than a bike and it couldn’t cover rough terrain well, but it remained the single luxury Charlie allowed himself.
The lemon stopped beside the field and the doors opened with a woosh. Charlie and his assistant, Soosa stepped out. Charlie stood precisely one point eighty-three meters tall. He weighed exactly eighty-two kilograms. Nearly everything about Charlie was exact and precise. He looked like a man of thirty-five with immaculate sandy blond hair. The only detail about Charlie that did not seem perfect was his left eye. He never discussed how he lost it, but a black eyepatch had covered it for as long as anyone could remember. When they were younger the students swore he was a pirate.
Soosa came out on the driver’s side. She rose a half a head shorter than Charlie and appeared to be half a life older. Soosa seemed to be almost always beside Charlie, book in hand. None of the students quite understood what her job was, but she could be seen tapping furiously away at her device whenever Charlie spoke or listened to anyone.
“Phelliam, Meikaya, good morning children," said Charlie in a voice that was mechanically clear and yet somehow still warm and amiable. Soosa nodded to the children but said nothing.
Phel nodded at the grownups nervously and said, “Good morning sir. I suppose you wanna look at the wreckage.”
Charlie ambled over to the harvester. His eye narrowed, then whirred and clicked a few times like a camera. He glanced at the scorched ground.
“Lightning.” was all he said.
“See?” said Phel to Meiki. “Heh...meteors you thought it was.”
Charlie’s head tilted ever so slightly, “We still have the other two harvesters. Most of the soy crop is undamaged. I’ll send a crew in to remove the debris. Finish your maintenance review and try your best to work around the wreckage until it is cleared away.”
He paused and added, “Luckily no one is hurt.”
“Charlie...”, said Meiki.
“Um...I’m real excited for class tomorrow. I just wanted to say that.”
“I’m glad to hear that. Teaching chemistry is one of my favorite duties. I am interested to see this new explosive formula you have been working on. It may prove useful to the miners in the Atwood colony.”
Soosa silently returned to the driver’s seat of the lemon as Charlie stepped over to the passenger’s side.
“Good day, children.” he said before pulling down the door. The lemon hummed off into town.
Meiki looked at Phel and said, “Why do you think he lied to us?”
“What are you talking about?”
“Charlie lied. He knew it wasn’t lightning. No way it could be lightning. He didn’t even examine the wreckage to be sure. How would he know just looking at it what caused this mess?”
“He’s real smart,” said Phel, “knows everything. You said so yourself.”
“Yeah, but I also said he doesn’t tell us everything.”
Phel watched the lemon disappear past the trees. He sucked his teeth for a long while, put his hands on his hips and said, “Well, whatever. Don’t matter to me what made this mess. We don’t gotta get it fixed so we just gotta finish up here and then we have the rest of the day off.”
Meiki picked an apple as she walked her bike past the orchard. The apples of Naya were bred to do well in minimal sunlight. They were dark and mushy, but sweet. Meiki knew that on Earth the apples were often described as “crisp” and “crunchy”. She longed to someday taste one of those bright red gems.
Phel strolled up behind her and snatched a lackluster apple of his own from a low hanging branch. Meiki took a bite of hers and quickly spit it out.
“What’s wrong with it?” asked Phel.
“Nothing.” said Meiki. “It’s perfectly ordinary. That’s what I hate about it.”
“You going to the market?” he asked, ignoring her criticism of the fruit.
“I’m going for a ride. I don’t have any place in mind. Just biking.”
“Well...market’s this way, ya know. On the other side of the grove...may as well head down with me. That’s where I’m going.”
“You don’t say?”
“Why are you such a dill? Seriously? I’m tryin’ to be friendly here. Come into market with me. I’m going to try out a new schematic on the maker. I have enough cred saved up to get a new banjo. It’s gonna be pretty sweet.”
“Let me guess...today is Ker’s day on maker duty, right?”
“Oh...I think you’re right about that...we should holler at ‘er,” said Phel. He was not good at being coy.
“Fine. I’ll go and watch you make moon eyes at her. Maybe you’ll even talk to her for a change.”
“I talk to Ker plenty," said Phel, “Just last night she asked me the time of day and I told her.” Meiki flashed one of her rare smiles.
The two passed through the orchard and onto the road. It was about a kilometer to their destination and they crossed most of the distance without any talk until Meiki finally spoke.
“It doesn’t make sense that Charlie would lie to us.” she said.
“Oh no. Not this again," said Phel.
“I’m just sayin’ is all. Why would he not want us to think it was a meteor?”
“Maybe he thinks we’d be scared that a meteor storm could hurt the colony...I dunno.”
“So you agree with me that he was lying?” Meiki asked with eyebrows raised.
“Hey! That ain’t what I said.”
A truck came down the road from behind. The kids stepped aside to let it pass. It had a gray-white trailer with no markings except for a set of serial numbers on either side- the delivery from Sagan.
Meiki’s jaw dropped and she blinked three times before saying, “That...the truck isn’t supposed to be here until tomorrow!”
“Well,” said Phel, “looks like it’s early.”
“But I’m not read- it’s not supposed to be here!”
“You already said that.”
They were getting close to the market when the truck stopped outside Charlie’s quarters. Deliveries usually went to the market square. This seemed quite odd.
Meiki slowed as they approached the truck to get a better look. She wanted to see what was being delivered on the wrong day and to the wrong place.
The door opened and out popped the wrong driver. Instead of Dav she saw a near twin of Charlie...except with no hair, brown skin, and no eyepatch.
“Tyson!” she shouted and waved her hands in the air.
“Meikaya!” said Tyson, “So good to see you!”
“Why are- I mean what brings you to Gates?”
Tyson paused and said, “I have some free time and decided to visit Professor Darwin, Charlie to you. I gave Davino the day off.”
“Are you disappointed to see me?”
“No,” Meiki started, “I was just expecting Dav. I like Dav because I help him unload the truck and he tells me stories. About all the places he’s been to.”
“Well, I’m sorry that I won’t be able to regale you like Davino does, As a matter of fact, though, I could use some help unloading the truck. Perhaps you and your friend...”
“Phel-Phelliam,” he managed to utter.
“Perhaps you kids could give an old gentleman a hand? I’d be most grateful.”
They showed Tyson to the market square and spent the better part of two hours dropping off cartons of supplies to various vendors.
“This was not how my day was s’posed to go, Meiki," said Phel through his teeth.
“Well, you could have said no.”
“To him? He looks like the spit of Charlie. That makes him like...my boss or something.”
“If you say so. Anyway, we’re almost done.”
They hefted the last two boxes off the truck while Tyson was chatting with the shopkeepers.
“If he don’t mind, I’m gonna cut out after we drop these two. I might still have time to see Ker.”
“So she IS the reason you’re at the market? I knew it!” Meiki teased.
Meiki kept up with Tyson on his way to Charlie’s office. Soosa was sitting at a desk outside the door, typing into her book. She did not look surprised to see Tyson.
“Good day, Soosana.” He said to her. Silently she rose to open the door to Charlie’s office.
As the two of them went in he turned his eye toward Meiki and said, “Run along now, dear.” The door closed behind them.
Meiki was sure that something was up. First the harvester and now a surprise visit from Tyson? Were they connected? She pondered it as she walked to her bike. When she got there she saw her book poking out of her backpack. She had a thought. It would be nothing to spy on the conversation in Charlie’s office. Well, it would be no trouble technologically. It would still require her to betray the trust of someone whom she held in the highest regard possible.
Meiki had always done well in tech classes. Poking around the network was her favorite hobby. It started with accessing Charlie’s library. Before long she realized she could connect her book to all the other books in Gates. Most of them weren’t even protected and the ones that were usually offered little resistance.
She wasn’t a snoop. Meiki just liked the challenge of figuring out how to open another’s book. She never used it to spy or get any information she wasn’t supposed to have. It was just like peering over someone’s shoulder as they are reading in the park and taking a quick glance. Nothing wrong with that.
Of course, books didn’t just display information. They gathered it too. Each book had a unique code that allowed it to be found by any other person with a book. This was useful for forgetful students. Each book also contained a camera and microphone and a clever girl who paid a lot of attention in tech class and who practiced a bit on her own time could figure out how to activate those things. Such a person could listen in on conversations. She had never done so, of course, but she knew she could.
She tucked the book back into her pack and zipped it up. There would be nothing simple about it, no matter how easy it was. But still, if Charlie was up to something, wasn’t he the one betraying her trust? Wouldn’t it be her right to be informed? Maybe Tyson figured out her plan somehow. Maybe they were discussing how to stop her from running away. Meiki couldn’t risk not knowing what was going on in there. She pulled the book out again.
Meiki sat on a park bench in the courtyard outside Charlie’s office. She used her earbuds so that to any observer she would look like a young girl listening to music or watching a video.
Soosa probably wasn’t expecting Tyson and must have forgotten to switch her book to protected mode. Bypassing the firewall was child’s play for Meiki. In seconds the voices in the locked room were flooding her ears.
“...I knew this would happen. This is why I fought her. This is what I struggled against.” she heard Charlie say.
“But what if you’re wrong?” said Tyson, “You treat all of the people here like children. They’re cut off from the world. Cut off from history. The calamity of Prathama was over a century ago. No one here even knows it happened.”
“It’s for the best, Tyson. They are children. Most of them literally. Even the adults rarely live to be one hundred. We came to Naya to sustain the human race. To keep them alive and to prevent them from making the same kind of mistakes that humans have always made.”
“They are in charge here, Charles, not us. Our goal is to nurture them and help them grow and expand. If you just speak to Marie...listen to her and you can see...”
“That will never happen. She has never listened to reason. Life is good here in Gates. The people are happy and healthy. I can only imagine what kind of hell Newbright has become.”
“Newbright is a beautiful city, Charles. They’ve built something wonderful there. Marie was wrong about some things. She admits that now. Her initial...experiment...was misguided. She’s learned from that. Newbright and her people are thriving. She wants you to come and see for yourself.”
“But I...” Charlie began then trailed off. “Soosana. Can you please leave the room? I apologize but I wish for the remainder of my chat with Professor Tyson to remain off the record.”
Without a word Soosa exited and Meiki’s link to the conversation was broken.
Back in the dorm Meiki gathered her things. She didn’t need much. A change of clothes, tools, first aid kit, some food and water. Her book of course, she could never go without.
Most important of all was the cloak. It had been a key part of her plan. Maybe she could still make it all work. Being invisible was still a huge advantage.
Meiki worked in the lab for five days making that thing. Metamaterials weren’t easy to synthesize with the basic crafters available at the dorms. The only reason she didn’t get an A on the project was because Charlie said she did merely an adequate job explaining the scientific properties and the cloak itself held little practical value.
In a way that was how Charlie made Meiki feel about herself- adequate, but of little practical value.
She planned to prove him wrong. Meiki adored Charlie truly, but he seemed oblivious to her plight here in Gates.
She wondered what he and Tyson had been talking about. What calamity? What was Prathama? Meiki thought. It certainly wasn’t mentioned in the histories. She did a quick scan of her book to make sure and found nothing. And who was Marie? Charlie had never mentioned the name before.
Did this have something to do with Charlie lying about the meteor? Was it a sign of this Marie planning an attack on gates? Was she some sort of despot? That didn’t make any sense. Gates had no reason for anyone to attack. Unless they were looking for the secret to making mushy apples.
She worried that Charlie would miss her. She worried more that he might not miss her. Meiki knew she was his hardest working student, but he never seemed to notice. Maybe the invisibility cloak worked too well. Maybe it hid her even when she wasn’t wearing it.
Meiki planned to leave for real. Tonight. Gates had gotten smaller as she had gotten larger. She needed someplace else. There was an entire planet being kept from her. An entire universe, maybe. One way or another she meant to see it.
Her original plan had been to sneak on board the truck and hide under her cloak until it got to Sagan. From there she could hitch rides openly to Newbright. Tyson ruined that by taking over Dav’s post. The cloak could hide her from the eyes of a human, but not from an android’s superior vision. Their visual units expanded way into ultraviolet as well as infrared. She might as well try hiding under a wool blanket.
Still, the cloak could be useful on her way to Newbright. Maybe she’d just bike the whole way. It didn’t matter. She could not stand to wait another day. Not another second.
The sky hung above in its usual overcast olive shade. She saw no sign of rain this night. That was good. Soon everyone would be back on the roof singing and carousing. No one would notice her. Not that anyone ever did before.
The school wasn’t really a prison. There were no guards or barbed wire fences to contend with. Meiki simply had to step out the door, walk her bike quietly down the road and turn right instead of left before getting to the market.
Every step she took from that point would be away from Gates, away from home. Still. She kept along the tree line. It would be best if no one knew she had gone until the morning. Maybe the others wouldn’t notice her absence, but Phel would care. The crafters always needed cleaning. The gutters were in need of repair too. He would be the only one on the planet who would truly miss her she figured, but only because without her he’d have to do all the work himself.
Through a rare break in the clouds she could just make out a distant star. Meiki had no idea which star. They hardly bothered to teach astronomy in Gates. Meiki figured no one cared because the stars were invisible most of the time anyway. She had seen videos of the grandeur of creation. Nebulae and galaxies smeared across the vast blackness of space in colors she almost never witnessed in real life. Why did people ignore such beauty?
Even in a world shrouded by clouds the mere hint of an infinite universe should stir the imagination of any who had one. Maybe that was the problem. Meiki felt like a mutant- the only person in Gates born with the power of imagination. The only person who could dream. She knew that wasn’t literally true, but when she talked to her classmates she became less certain.
The beautiful infinite cosmos remained forever hidden from her view, but it was there. She would find a way to see it someday. But first she would see Newbright.
The star had gotten brighter. She was sure of it. Stars were such an uncommon sight and usually so dim. There was no mistaking it. That tiny light in the sky had grown from a dull speck to a luminous point. Though still small it appeared nearly as bright as the sun at midday.
Against all possibility it became even brighter.
No. Not brighter. Bigger.
It grew in size as she watched.
“Another shooting star...” Meiki said to no one.
She stood in awe for several seconds.
“What are you doing?” came Phel’s voice from behind her,
“Out for an evening ride?”
“Um...”, she said, snapping out of her reverie, “Phel...I was...yeah. Just getting some exercise.”
“So this is it, huh? You’re finally running away? You don’t usually take all of your worldly possessions with you on a joy ride.” He sat on his bike too. He must have spotted her through his window and decided to follow.
Before she could respond a bolt of light flashed from the clouds into the forest beside them. In a microsecond followed the most immense thunderclap either of them had ever experienced. Trees cowered away from the blast. Meiki and Phel were thrown to the ground.
“What was that?” said Phel, “I’ve never seen anything like it!”
Meiki took a moment to right herself and adjust her pack before saying, “It wasn’t lightning. No way. It was another meteor. I saw it coming into the atmosphere. That must be what it was. A shooting star.”
“We should tell Charlie. Two meteors in one day? What if more of them are coming? There could be a whole meteor storm headed our way.”
“Ĝi ne estas meteoro ŝtormo” spoke a voice that seemed to stab out of the darkness.
“Who the hell are you?” spat Phel.
“Mia nomo estas Rashmi," said the voice. A human figure ambled lightly onto the road. She stood only a little taller than Phel. She had brown skin and wore a blue suit that looked painted on. It was inlaid with yellow markings that resembled circuitry.
Phel moved in front of Meiki and said, “Stand back. This lady is crazy for certain. Listen to how she talks.”
“Maybe she just isn’t from around here, Phel.” Meiki stepped around him and approached the strange woman.
“I’m Meiki. This jerk is Phel. We’re from Gates. Where are you from?”
“Mi estas de New Cydonia. Ĝi estas urbo sur Marso..”
They looked at her with slack jaws. The woman held her palm to her mouth and extended it toward Meiki.
“Parolu en miajn manojn..”
“What?” said Meiki, “You want me to talk to your hand? I’m sorry, lady, but this is too weird. Maybe we should just-”
One of the yellow inlays on the woman’s glove began to glow.
“There,” she spoke again, “that should make things easier. The multi-vox needed to sample a bit of your dialect. The modulator will convert my voice to something more recognizable for you. Your language is obviously an offshoot of an earlier form of my own. We should understand each other quite clearly now.”
“Multi-vox?” said Meiki, “Modulator? Your suit has tech in it that can translate speech? On the fly? Even a language you haven’t encountered? That’s AWESOME!”
“Meiki. Come on," said Phel, “Let’s get back to Gates and tell Charlie what’s going on. We don’t need to talk to this wacko. Let’s just go.”
Meiki ignored Phel.
“Are you from, Newbright? What did you say your name was?”
“My name is Rashmi. I’m from New Cyd-”
She paused. Her eyes widened and her head turned toward the woods like a dog does when it hears a sound that a person cannot.
“We need to leave here. Now. They’re closer than I suspected.”
“Who is?” said Meiki, but Rashmi had already started heading down the road. She ran fast. By the time they picked up their bikes and were after her she had dashed fifty meters away. After about a kilometer of riding they still hadn’t overtaken her.
“Meiki,” Phel said, “Turn around. Come back. Why are you chasing this chick?”
“You turn around. I’m leaving anyway. I told you that yesterday. That woman is fast. How is she running like that? Something in that suit of hers must maximize her natural abilities or something. We can barely keep up! She must be from Newbright. I know she can help me get there! I know it!”
“Well, I ain’t leaving you alone in the woods with that lunatic! I’ll follow you all the way to the city if I have to!”
“Suit yourself!” she said and kicked up the speed.
They continued like this for nearly a half hour before Rashmi stopped running. She seemed unperturbed by the youngsters catching up behind her.
“Don’t worry, children.” she said, “I’m sure nine kilometers is more than enough distance to keep them from detecting us right away. We can slow down the pace now.”
Meiki and Phel dropped their bikes and hyperventilated for a while. Meiki pulled a bottle of water from her pack and drank heavily. She offered it to Phel who did the same. He proffered the bottle to Rashmi who shook her head.
“Don’t need it.” She said.
“You don’t need water?” said Phel “After running nine kilometers?”
“I don’t need it ever. I have all I need.”
Phel looked back at Meiki, “What are we doing here? What are we EVEN doing?”
“I’m going to Newbright.” she said, “I don’t know what you’re doing. Following me I suppose.”
“You don’t know this weirdo. This chick who don’t drink water. They don’t drink water in Newbright? What are they a bunch of camels?”
“I do drink water. I just don’t need it. My suit regulates all of my physical needs. It’s...hmmm...I’m not sure how to put it in terms you would understand at your technological level. It’s a utility cloud made up of zeptoscale foglets.”
“You mean like nanobots?” asked Meiki, “We know what nanobots are. We ain’t stupid.”
“Well. Yes and no. I’m not a physicist, but a zeptoscale foglet compared to one of your nanobots would be like an ant compared to an entire planet. Or something like that. They’re really small. They can manipulate matter on the subatomic level and convert atoms of one type into another.”
“That’s impossible," said Meiki. She paid attention in physics class. To convert one element into another would require as much energy as a supernova. It could not be done. Especially not by a microscopic robot.
Rashmi held up her hand.
“Like I said, I’m not a physicist, I don’t understand the specifics of how this works. But it works. Take a look at my glove.”
The glove disappeared. Just faded away into the air leaving her smooth brown skin exposed. In less than a blink a glove of pure ice replaced it.
“Ow, that kind of hurts.” she said. “I better turn it back into graphene. I don’t want to get frostbite.”
At that the ice melted and an almost imperceptible fog coalesced around her hand until it looked just as before- a blue glove with gold circuit inlays.
“Anyway,” she continued, “the zeptoscale foglets provide all the water...and everything else I need.”
Phel looked nonplussed but managed to ask, “Everyone in Newbright has this kind of tech?”
“I’m not from Newbright. That’s your big city? The first settlement? I’m sorry, but most of our records regarding this colony were lost.”
“What?” said Meiki and Phel in unison.
“Colony?” Meiki said, “ Are you...could you be...from Earth”
“From Earth?” Rashmi winked, “Of course not.”
“I knew it," said Phel, “There’s no way-”
“I’m from Mars, of course.”
Phel looked at Meiki and then at his bike.
“We should go home. It’s way dark out and this woman is crazy.”
Meiki didn’t budge. She stared at Rashmi. She looked her up and down.
“You’re a Martian. For real? You’re from the old Solar System? How did you get here?”
“I crashed. It’s a long story, but I was in a solo craft. I came here on a mission to discover the remains of the Naya colony. We lost contact centuries ago. I’m here to speak to your founders if they’re still operational.”
“Yes, the android stewards who managed the colony in its early days before handing control over to humans. I assume that at least some of them are still functioning. They were built to last.”
“Oh.” Meiki said, “Umm...yeah...there’s Charlie and Tyson...and...I know there are others but I don’t know their names.”
“Can we quit chit-chatting about androids?” said Phel, “Who is after you? Why are you running? We don’t want to get mixed up in some weird space-alien business. We were doing fine here before you showed up. Seriously. Meiki. Come on. Let’s go home!”
“Miss...Rashmi?” said Meiki, “My idiot friend has a point. How do we know we can trust you? I mean who even are you?”
“My name is Rashmi Kapoor. I was born and raised in New Cydonia on Mars. It is a young city- less than two hundred years old. There is no way for you to have heard of it. When I turned forty I moved to Earth. I studied anthropology and philosophy at Tekton University. I eventually became a professor at that college. I held that position for nearly thirty years. While there I discovered the possibility of the existence of a lost colony. What anthropologist could resist such a find?
The college was unwilling to fund an excursion so here I have come under my own power. The craft I used is small but it uses an Alcubierre drive. It’s much faster than the antimatter ships that brought your ancestors to this world. I arrived here in less than five years...”
“Wait,” said Phel, “You’re the one who broke the harvester. It wasn’t lightning and it wasn’t a meteor! It was you!”
“Oh you’re quick,” said Meiki. “Miss Kapoor...Rashmi...I guess talking to us is like talking to someone from the middle ages. I mean. All your technology. Alcubierre drives? Zeptoscale foglets? That’s like...well, science fiction to me.”
“I apologize.” she said, “It must be a lot to take in all at once. It’s getting dark. And I’m sure the two of you need rest and food. Let’s make camp.”
She stepped off the road and ambled to a clearing in the underbrush then pulled a disc of black fabric out of her suit and placed it on the ground. In a moment it grew into a dome about four meters across and two high. It looked black and shiny like a bubble in a puddle of oil.
“Did you do that trick with carbon nanotubes?” asked Phel.
“Actually it’s some sort of plasma field generator. I don’t really know how it works. I guess I should have stayed awake in physics class. Not only will it keep us safe from the elements, but it will shield us from nearly all types of artificial detection.”
“About that,” Phel said, “you still haven’t told us who you were running from...or why.”
Rashmi gently brushed her fingers on the dome and a gap appeared, like a flap on a tent. It was hollow and she ducked inside.
“Come on in and I’ll tell you all about it.”
Meiki followed her into the tent. Phel hesitated then did the same.
The floor of the dome felt firm, but had a bit of give to it like a dense cushion. The inside looked black with gold inlays similar to those on Rashmi’s suit. It felt dry and dim and void of any external noise.
“They can’t detect us with their machines in this dome,” said Rashmi, “but they may still see us naturally.”
She waved her fingers in the air as if tapping buttons on a keyboard that only she could see. There came a low rumble from the sky followed swiftly by the patter of rain on the roof.
“Did you just make it rain?” said Phel, “Are you a sorceress?”
“No,” Rashmi laughed, “I’m not. But as the saying goes...any sufficiently advanced technology is-”
“-indistinguishable from magic!” said Meiki. “I love Arthur C. Clarke. Do you read a lot of science fiction?”
“Oh dear, I’m a student of human history and one of my specialties is the pre-emergence period. I’ve been fascinated with much of the culture of those centuries.”
“Yes...that’s what we call the time from the industrial revolution until the emergence of interstellar travel. The ships that took your ancestors to this world were one of the final expressions of that time in history.”
“What happened?” asked Meiki, “What became of humanity in the Solar System? That’s been the biggest mystery in the history of Naya. You guys never contacted us. Never came to see how we were doing. Everyone thought you had all died off or something. was there a war?”
“Well,” said Rashmi, “that is a bit complicated. It’s hard to tell the tale of several centuries of history in a single conversation. There was most certainly a war, several in fact. But there were also many other peaceful revolutions. Technology and society both were transformed multiple times since then. Between the dawning of interstellar travel and zepto-level technology humans are now capable of feats that I suppose do make us seem like wizards from your point of view. Most of us don’t need to eat or drink or even sleep anymore. Our lives have been extended vastly. I am ninety six years old but I suspect that I look like a young woman to you. The problems of the past, overcrowding, lack of resources, those are all behind us now. Most people live to pursue personal development in arts and science.”
“That sounds amazing," said Meiki, “Take me with you! Take me back to Mars and Earth! I want to live in YOUR world!”
“Well...I don’t usually just kidnap children I’ve just met and take them off into space with me. Right now I’m on a bit of a journey of my own. After that is done maybe then we can discuss the future.”
“You still didn’t tell us about the people chasing you," said Phel. “Who are they? Are you even really who you say you are? A professor looking for our lost civilization? Well, you found us. Here we are. What do you really want? What are you running from?”
“That is also complicated. The ones who are chasing me, they are rogue government agents. A certain faction of the Republic has decided it is better to ignore the past. They wish to leave colonies like Naya on their own. That is part of the reason why I could not get funding for my expedition. When I set out on my own...well...they sent a party of agents after me.”
“So. You’re a fugitive? On the run from the law?” asked Meiki. She tried to hide it, but the thought of her new acquaintance being an outlaw actually thrilled her. Meiki’s only exposure to crooks and bandits had been through movies and books so in her eyes Rashmi looked like Robin Hood.
“I suppose I am. I had not considered it as such. You make it sound so romanticized. I am merely a scholar...”
“A criminal is what you are," said Phel. “The government is out to get out on account of you broke the law. Why should we have anything at all to do with you?”
“Children. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to drag you into my conflict with the Catena.”
“That is what they call themselves- The Catena. It means “chains”. If it were up to them we would all be in chains. If you wish to part ways with me I will understand. But I beg you that if they find you do not tell them that you saw me.”
“I don’t understand," said Meiki, “You seem so advanced. All this technology. Yet your people are being enslaved? It just seems so...” she searched her brain for the right word, “...so barbaric.”
“That is exactly the problem.” Rashmi said, “Our technology has us caught now in an endless cycle. People are trapped eternally in a life that never ceases because of the very advances we have made.”
“What kind of advances?” asked Meiki, eagerly.
“I’m not listening to any more of this talk," said Phel, “I’m out of here. Make this rain stop. I’m leaving NOW. Meiki. You’re coming with me.”
“No I am not!” she said, “I’m going to Newbright. With Miss Kapoor if she’ll take me. Or on my own if I have to. But I am NOT going back to Gates. No matter what!”
“Well. I’m gone. I guess I’ll just have to get wet.”
As he ducked toward the exit flap Rashmi grabbed his arm.
“Take this.”she said, and handed Phel a bundle of fabric.
“What is it?”
“It is just a raincoat. I made it while you were talking. It only took a few seconds.”
Phel’s nose curled up, “Friggin’ Zepto-foglets. What can’t they do?, but he took the raincoat and put it on before crawling out into the wet night.
Rashmi and Meiki sat in the dim light of the dome.
“He gonna die out there?” Meiki asked.
“I hope not. The raincoat I gave him has a built in HUD with night vision and a positioning system. He should not have any trouble getting home. I think the Catena will ignore him because interacting with colonists such as yourself is exactly the sort of thing they wish to avoid.”
“Phel ain’t a bad guy. Isn’t, I mean. He isn’t a bad guy. He’s just a bit of a seed is all.”
“Seed? I think my translator doesn’t understand what you mean," said Rashmi.
“You know. A seed is like...someone who lives in the same town their whole life. Someone who never has big dreams and who is content to work a boring job until the day they die. But that isn’t me. I want more. This whole planet just isn’t big enough to contain me. Especially now.”
“How can I live? How can I sit in this gray dirt under a turd colored sky another minute when I know there are people like you up there? How can I go for another damn day on Naya when I know that I could live in Paris or Cincinnati or New Cydonia? Or who knows where else? There’s a whole galaxy out there. Even you people probably haven’t seen more than a fraction of it. I’m not supposed to be here. I’m not having it. I’m supposed to be up there with people like you. Exploring the cosmos.”
“Well, Meiki,” she said, “maybe we can-”
Before she finished speaking the dome split open and the artificial downpour crashed upon them. Meiki’s heart felt like a dagger stabbing from inside her chest as she watched a pair of shapes...creatures...black with luminous blue eyes tearing at their shelter. They were ripping it apart.
Rashmi pushed Meiki out of the way of one of the things as its pinchers slashed and clawed at the remaining substance of the dome.
“Run!” shouted Rashmi.
The rain fell so heavy Meiki could barely see or hear anything else as she slid down a hill into the forest. She could make out a chittering noise as Rashmi batted at the attackers. She heard a sharp crack followed by a clatter. One of the creatures had been thrown against an oak. It lay twitching and whining.
Meiki got closer. In a flash of lightning she saw it more clearly. Black metal and plastic with legs and claws and sharp bits splayed in random directions. Shattered. Perhaps it had been broken before Rashmi threw it at the tree. Rather - it had not been put together properly in the first place. There seemed no way that even before it struck the oak that those parts could have fit together in any semblance of order. It was a broken thing. It looked like a robot assembled by someone who had never seen a robot or even a living thing. The pathetic being was a collection of random gears and sensors. She wondered how it had been able to walk at all.
She could make out the silhouette of Rashmi rending the other machine-thing to pieces. As the strange woman finished it the rain subsided. Probably a side effect of the dome being destroyed, assumed Meiki.
Rashmi looked down at her in the darkness. Clearly she didn’t need much light to see.
“Are you alright?” she called out to Meiki.
“I think so.”
“What were those things? The looked like robots, except...distorted. Fractured.”
“I think that they’re ghosts," said Meiki.
Rashmi sprinted down the hill so she could speak with Meiki more easily.
“Ghosts?” she asked, “What do you mean?”
“The Blackpatch is supposed to be full of ‘em. Seeds call them ghosts, but they look like broken bots to me.” her eyes opened wide, “That’s it. I think I know.”
“It’s barely mentioned in the archives. Just hints here and there. It’s almost like someone deleted most of it, but I’ve read that when the colonies first started the earliest stages involved self-assembling macrobots. Not nanos, but they had the ability to use materials they found to repair and replicate themselves. I always wondered what happened. The history books never said. Charlie never said.”
“So you think that your ancestors made these...things...and then somehow they...went rogue.”
“Yeah. I always heard stories about ghosts out in the forest, but I figured it was just a story. You know, just another boogieman. A way of making sure that little kids would never go out into the woods alone. Make sure we never ever left Gates. But now I know they’re real. The ghosts are real.”
“Well,” said Rashmi “I don-”
“PHEL! He’s wandering around out there right now! He could be getting his face eaten! Oh no. OH NO! It’s all my fault! He followed me out here.”
“Meiki...don’t worry. We’ll find your friend. I’m sure he’s fine. I can track the cloak I gave him. It emits a GPS signal that my suit can pick up.”
“Heh...” she said, “you really do think of everything, don’t you?”
“It’s a standard feature," said Rashmi plainly.
Meiki laughed until she remembered that her only true friend in the universe remained in grave danger.
They trudged through the underbrush in the direction of Phel’s signal. It was dark and he couldn’t have gotten far in the short time he had been gone. Still, something felt wrong. The trail went off the road. Why would he go this way, Meiki thought. Was he running from those things?
Rashmi dashed several paces ahead of her. She’s moving slowly so I can keep up, Meiki guessed, but she’s still lightning quick.
“It’s close...thirty meters this way," said Rashmi, looking at a screen on the back of her hand.
“Rashmi, do you see any sign of the ghosts?” Meiki asked as they stepped into a small clearing.
“No. I don’t. I also don’t see your friend. Oh. Of course.”
“Of course what?
It’s a trap.
Meiki caught up with Rashmi and saw what she saw. Phel’s raincoat hanging from a branch.
A source from above inundated the forest with light.
Just beyond the trees a vessel the size of a small car hovered. It bristled with floodlights and what looked to be guns poking out from much of its surface. It floated silently for several seconds before a voice came as if through a loudspeaker.
“Rashmi Kapoor! Vi estas sub aresto pro krimoj kontraŭ la homaro. Vi ordonis resti ankoraŭ por preno..”
“I can’t understand them, Rashmi!” shouted Meiki, “What are they saying?”
Rashmi stood still with her hands in the air for several seconds. She said nothing but nodded upward at the hovercar.
A hatch opened in the underside. A young looking woman dropped down from it. She wore clothes similar to Rashmi’s except with blue circuit marks on black material. The fabric covered her entire head like a mask.
The interloper spoke some more gibberish and Rashmi dropped to her knees.
The woman strode toward Rashmi like a panther. From her belt she produced a cylinder the size of a linker. The woman began to poke at her with the small device at strategic points on her body. As she did so the glowing parts of Rashmi’s suit became dimmer.
The stranger continued to speak but Rashmi said nothing. She seemed to be looking deeper into the forest.
“Phel!” said Meiki, “We still have to find him. Those things....the ghosts.”
The masked woman said something sharp but undecipherable to Meiki then continued her work. The device seemed to be disabling Rashmi’s suit.
Meiki had never felt so helpless. Her best friend was lost in the woods and her new friend apparently being arrested.
In the brush something moved. Meiki hoped to see Phel...stumbling onto the scene. Then she noticed beaming eyes in the darkness.
The woman in black howled as a ghost leapt from the woods and onto her small frame. It tore at her uniform like the other had torn at the dome. In shock the woman spun and kicked it with colossal force.
The broken machine-thing shot across the clearing into a maple tree- it’s leg-like appendages bent at even odder angles than before. It whirred and sputtered before collapsing.
A tear ran down the woman’s outfit, revealing the flesh of her back. She suddenly appeared painfully vulnerable.
In the forest a wall of beaming eyes appeared and gazed at them with intent. A chaotic mess of dark and mangled machines crashed through the branches and bramble, descending upon the clearing.
Rashmi grabbed Meiki’s arm.
“Run!” she shouted to Meiki and dragged her in the opposite direction of the things.
They had gone at least fifty meters when Meiki looked back. She could see the ghosts did not follow them, but the uniformed woman was not so lucky.
“We have to go back for her!” Meiki implored to Rashmi.
“What?” she said.
“That lady! We can’t let them eat her!”
“They probably won’t! She’ll be ok...we need to get away from her...remember?”
Rashmi continued running, but Meiki stopped. She could never match her speed anyway.
She dashed back to the clearing. The woman held her own against the flailing mass of twisted metal and plastic that attacked her, but it was clearly a losing battle. Her vehicle hovered low to the ground and some sort of foamy substance sprayed out of the guns that covered its hull. The ghosts were slashing at it and the woman. All was a shamble of metal and plastic.
Meiki remembered her own cloak. Perhaps these creatures wouldn’t notice her with it activated.
She crept up to a tree near the battle and turned it on. The graphene fibers altered their surface impedence which would have caused Meiki to disappear to an onlooker.
Invisible, she grabbed the woman by the hand and pulled her into the forest.
The two ran.
After two hundred meters or so Meiki removed her hood. She stopped running. The ghosts didn’t seem to be following her.
“You can see me, can’t you?” she asked.
“Jes.” the woman replied.
“Mia vizion etendas en la transruĝa spektro.”
Meiki held her hand to her face in exasperation then held the woman’s hand up to her mouth.
“Testing. Testing. One. Two. Three. My name is Meiki. What’s yours?”
The woman tilted her hooded head to the side for a moment then seemed to understand.
“Denove.” she said and held her palm to Meiki’s mouth.
“Ummm..hello. I’m Meiki. I come from the town of Gates on the planet Naya. Who are you and where are you from?”
“Greetings Meiki. My name is Junko. I am an agent of the Republic. I have come to stop the fugitive known as Rashmi Kapoor. The woman who was present before those...things attacked.”
“Speaking of...we should probably get moving....there are ghosts all over and my friend, Phel is lost out here somewhere.”
“Ghosts? Is that what you think those strange machines are? How stupid are you people on this backwater world?”
“We ain’t backwards. We know there’s no such thing as ghosts...at least I do. That’s just...never mind. We need to go.” She hustled on.
Junko stayed behind.
“What’s wrong with you lady?” said Meiki. “Those gh- things are right behind us!”
“I detect no sign of them in the area. My skipper’s auto defenses would most certainly have incapacitated them by now. I believe it is safe for us to return.”
“You Mars people are something else.”
“I am from Earth. Born and raised on Philadelphia Island.”
“Philadelphia Island? Never mind...that’s not important right now. You’re certain that the ghost-bot things are not a threat right now? So that means Phel is probably safe?”
Junko paused and said, “If your friend was alive at the time of our attack then he is probably not in any danger of being harmed by any hostiles in the immediate area.”
“How are you sure that your...skipper...could handle those things. Look what they did to your suit- wait...it’s fine!”
Junko didn’t bother to glance over her shoulder at where the outfit had been torn. She seemed to be confident it was in perfect condition.
“My uniform is self healing...I come from a technologically advanced culture...it is made of-”
“Yeah Yeah...’zepto-scale foglets’. I know already.”
“What else did Rashmi Kapoor tell you?”
Meiki considered what Rashmi had said about the Catena and about chains. She decided it best not to give away too much.
“She just said that she was here on a research mission...and that someone was chasing her.”
“Meiki,” said Junko, “you must come with me. You are a witness to her crimes and I will require a full account of your experience.”
“If I come with you will you help me find my friend, Phel? Make sure he’s ok?”
“Where did Kapoor say she was headed?”
“Answer my question first, lady.”
The portion of Junko’s uniform that masked her face faded away revealing a stern pair of eyes. “I’m the one who asks questions here.”
“Well, I’m just a kid. What are you going to do? Torture me?” Meiki said with defiance.
“Oh, I wish," said Junko. “I’ll tell you what. Come back with me to my skipper. We’ll comb the area for your friend. He can’t be too far from here. Then the two of you will help me find the fugitive.”
They didn’t speak again until they got to the clearing.
“What happened?” asked Meiki as she surveyed the scene. It was a jumble of machine parts and downed trees. The skipper seemed to have collapsed under the weight of the ghosts that had tried to devour it, but remained mostly intact. All around were massive mounds of what looked like mashed potatoes with broken black bits of ghost-parts sticking out.
“It’s a defensive foam," said Junko, “The skipper expels a chemical sprays which hardens and immobilizes attackers.”
“Oh...so it’s a non-lethal weapon?”
“Non lethal as long as the attacker doesn’t require oxygen.”
Was that a joke? Meiki thought. She looked to see if Junko was smiling but the mask had reformed leaving only a disturbing faceless visage.
Meiki had an uneasy feeling around Junko. It wasn’t every day that she met an alien from another world, but two in one day could make anyone feel like the ground had been pulled out from under her. Something about this one made her harder to trust than Rashmi. Maybe it was the way she kept her face hidden most of the time or her single-minded pursuit of her goal. Meiki wanted nothing to do with this woman.
Junko reached into the wreckage of the skipper and pulled out a small pack. She looked inside it as if making sure the contents were still intact.
“What are you going to do?” asked Meiki.
“I already said. I’m going to find your friend and then Kapoor.”
“But then what? You’re going to drag her back to Earth? Put her on trial? And how? Your spaceship is trashed! How are you getting home?”
“This isn’t my ship," said Junko. “This is just for getting around swiftly. We travelled to your world with-”
“Never mind...” she clipped the pouch to a previously non-existent latch on her suit. Junko looked through the trees. “We need to find your friend, remember?”
Meiki saw the raincoat that Rashmi had made for Phel. It still hung from a branch half covered in solidified foam.
Rashmi had said it was a trap right before everything went crazy. The raincoat was the bait. That meant Junko already knew where Phel was.
“What have you done with Phel?”
Junko glanced at the raincoat. “He’s safe. For now. Once we capture Rashmi Kapoor we will question all three and you and your little friend will be set free.”
“Where is Phel now? And how many of you people are there?”
“I’m not going to be interrogated by a child. I’m the one who asks questions. You answer.”
She held her hand out in Meiki’s direction as if it were a weapon. It probably was.
“Where is your Nebcore?”
“Your Nebula Core? The local hub that connects your world to the Neb? It’s what allows you to communicate instantaneously with other worlds.”
“We can’t do that. Ever since this colony was founded we haven’t heard a peep from the rest of the universe. We figured you people blew each other up in a war or something.”
“That’s ridiculous. All of the colonies have Nebcores.”
“Not this one.” Meiki said. “We’ve been on our own for centuries. How would that even work? How can you communicate with us from Earth anyway? It’s light years away. There’s no way to do so instantly.”
“It uses a thing called the Spukhafte Exchange...I don’t know. Something to do with quantum entanglement...I’m a government agent, not a scientist. Don’t ask me how it works.” Junko shook her head with frustration. “Just tell me where your oldest and largest settlement is. That’s the most likely place to start looking.”
“Wait. You came here in a spaceship but you didn’t have the wherewithal to figure out where this Nebcore thing was before you landed? You don’t even have-I dunno- a satellite or something that can help you find Newbright without my help?”
“I don’t have time for this. My skipper is damaged and I don’t have contact with the dropship...and, yes you people have GPS satellites but they use such an outdated protocol that I can’t even get a fix. Newbright? That’s the name of the settlement I’m looking for? That’s where Kapoor is headed? You’re taking me there.”
“Oh get real, lady," said Meiki. “That’s where I’m going anyway. But you promise me Phel is somewhere safe?”
“Your friend is safe. He is under protection until we have cleared up this situation. Lead me to Newbright and you will both be released.”
Meiki led Junko to where the dome had been. Not much remained of it save a handful of scraps, but she found what she had been looking for- her backpack. Her book was still inside- untouched by the ghosts. Maybe they hadn’t noticed it or it just wasn’t the sort of thing they were interested in. Meiki wondered what exactly the ghosts were interested in.
“Here,” she said as she showed the book to Junko, “it’s a map showing the way to the city in relation to our current location.”
Junko waved her hand over the map and said, “Got it.”
“That’s it? You just recorded it? What else can that outfit of yours do?”
“Watch this.” Junko said in a way that sounded like she may actually be smiling.
From the pack she had attached to her suit she pulled out a small tube and threw it to the ground. In a flash it took the shape and size of a small hovering motorbike. Junko hopped on it.
“That’s insane.” Meiki said. “You guys can do things that don’t even make sense. I mean...we have makers. But you can produce whatever you want with...with nothing.”
“Not whatever we want," said Junko.
“Still, that thing’s pretty small. It’s not like we can both ride it.”
“Good point," said Junko. “Luckily for me, I don’t really need you.” She kicked Meiki to the ground.
“But. What about our deal? What about Phel?”
“I lied. I have no clue where your friend is. See ya.” She sped off into the forest faster than Meiki imagined possible.
Alone in the Woods
Phel galumphed through the woods as torrents of water rained on him, lugging his bike over his shoulders through thorn and thicket.
There seemed to be some sort of heads up display in the visor built into the hood, but he couldn’t make heads or tails of it and so flipped the visor up completely. The downpour made it tough enough to see where he was going anyway.
What am I supposed to tell Charlie, he wondered. Sorry sir, but your favorite pupil has been abducted by aliens. Nothing I could do about it. What do I mean by aliens? Well, you know...people. Except from space. Well, from Earth, I guess. Or did she say Mars? Either way. They ain’t from here. And Meiki wants to run off with them. I tried to stop her.
He thought he saw the road ahead, but when he reached it found only a clearing in the woods. There was lightning and some clattering noise followed by what sounded like shouting in the distance. Phel couldn’t make it out because of the thunder. Then came instant silence. No thunder. No shouting. Even the rain had stopped all at once.
Guess I won’t be needing this, he thought as he took off the raincoat and hung it on a branch.
Finding his way back to the road wasn’t hard once he could see again and soon Phel was headed to Gates.
The Truck Driver
Meiki landed on something hard. She stood up to find her bike beneath her- unharmed.
Meiki realized at that moment how alone she was. When Phel had discovered her she was almost relieved. It wasn’t that she wanted to stay. Her plan was still on, no matter what. Having his companionship...and meeting Rashmi and even Junko made it so that she didn’t have to travel alone. Now she missed that. Standing in the pitch black of a forest full of ravenous robot monstrosities had that effect she supposed.
Meiki lugged her bike to the road. She turned on the light and cycled as quietly as possible for an hour. By then she was more tired than she could remember ever having been. She wished she could have made a dome like Rashmi did. Of course, that may have been what attracted the ghosts in the first place. It was like they devoured it. Maybe something in the tech of it and the suits the aliens wore was appealing to them.
The thought that Rashmi and Junko were aliens was a funny one. They were aliens from the planet Earth. One of them was anyway. The other was a bona fide Martian, just like in the old Earth movies Meiki used to watch.
She couldn’t deny that the Earth people had advanced technology. Meiki knew that the science on Earth would be amazing. Far more advanced than anything on Naya. Sure, She knew technology. She put in hours at a robotics workshop every week and knew how to fix and maintain automated farming machines and more. There were machines that could manufacture clothing, tools, and just about everything one could imagine. Rumor had it that in Newbright they were even building a skyport, but before they faded from history the humans of the old world were inventing fascinating things all the time. When she watched old videos and read stories of the time there was even reference to matter generators and clouds of picobots that could heal wounds and build anything instantly. Those things sounded like magic to Meiki. Seeing even a glimpse of the wonders mankind had developed while she and her ancestors were digging soybeans out of the ground made her feel like a primitive seed.
Her legs were starting to feel like noodles and her eyes were collapsing shut. Meiki hadn’t considered this. She hadn’t planned on being thirty or forty kilometers from home late at night with no shelter. None of this fit her plan. If it hadn’t been for Tyson pulling up in the truck she would be in Sagan. She would have been able to find a place to sleep. Instead she was stranded on the side of the road. All because of that truck.
Headlights appeared down the road behind her. Meiki’s stomach tightened and every instinct shouted at her to run and hide, but her legs were locked in place and there was nowhere to go anyhow. She stood numbly as the truck grew closer. Her heart pummeled her ribcage as the vehicle slowed to a stop before her.
Once again it was the wrong driver- a woman she had never seen before. She wore a tight blond ponytail and a blue trucker’s uniform.
“What are you doing out in the middle of nowhere, kid?” she asked through the window.
“Uh...my name is Meiki” was all she could muster.
The passenger side door popped open. “Get in.” the woman said.
Meiki was so relieved that it wasn’t Tyson she didn’t consider for a moment that one is not supposed to accept rides from strangers. She looked down at her bike. “Should I put this in the back?”
The woman paused then said, “No. It should fit behind the seat. We’re not allowed to open the back while in transit. Well, I’m not supposed to take hitchhikers either, but I can’t leave a child on the side of the road in the dead of night. Don’t you know there’s ghosts out here?”
“I do now.” Her bike was light and compact. She easily stowed it then climbed into the seat and shut the door.
“So, Meiki. Where are you headed? I’m just passing by Sagan. I can drop you off there.”
“Actually...I’m going to Newbright.”
“Oh. Is that where you live? You’re pretty far from home, huh?”
“Yeah. My ma will be worried sick.” Meiki hadn’t seen her ma in two or three years. The last time they spoke had been at the holidays. She had to make the call. It was voice only because her ma didn’t own a book with a camera. That made the stilted conversation a little less difficult at least. Most of the other kids went home for the holidays but Meiki stopped going when Charlie stopped making her. He never pestered her to offer an explanation. Meiki appreciated that.
She preferred to think of herself as an orphan. It made things easier. Somehow not having parents was better than having parents who didn’t care whether you were around or not.
“I’ll tell you what. There’s a weigh-in station right outside the city. I have to let you off before I get there or I’ll lose my job. You can ride your bike the rest of the way. It’s not far.”
“That would be great," said Meiki. “I’ve had the craziest night. I’m happy to not be stuck out in the woods anymore.”
“What happened to you, dear?”
“I...I’m actually kind of tired. Do you mind if I sleep?” She didn’t wait for a response. Meiki was out until the sun tried its best to peer through the olive sky.
Twenty Minutes Prior
It was dark but from here he knew the way and cycling made it much easier. Phel glided along for ten easy minutes before he saw the headlights coming toward him. It was a truck.
That’s gotta be that Tyson fellow, he thought. I don’t think it would be a good idea for him to see me out here.
He looked to the forest, but there was an embankment of stone and dirt on the side of the road that blocked his passage.
Phel stood beside his bike helplessly as the truck pulled up in front of him. In the driver’s seat he saw Tyson and beside him was Charlie.
“Phelliam,” Charlie said to him through the window, “why are you out here in the middle of the night?”
They ushered him into the truck. It did not seat three comfortably.
Phel was no liar. On the few occasions he had tried to do so his tongue would twist and he would stammer. No sense in even attempting it with two androids. They’d suss him out in seconds.
He told the truth to the best of his ability. He told them about Rashmi, the fugitive from space and how Meiki had run off with her. He was shocked when they believed him. They didn’t even bat an electronic eye at the notion of earth-born humans finally contacting Naya after all of this time.
“It was bound to happen sooner or later," said Tyson, “Odd that it would happen on the very day that we decide to bury the hatchet with Marie.”
“I didn’t agree to that," said Charlie, “I aim merely to open up relations. She and I still disagree on nearly everything. But I am willing to meet with her and see what kind of progress Newbright has made.”
Phel’s brow furrowed, “Who’s Marie?”
“She is our counterpart in Newbright,” said Tyson, “Some years ago she and Charlie had a...falling out...a difference of opinion regarding how the colonies were to be handled. Both sides had fair points and both made mistakes.”
Charlie glanced sideways at Tyson after that remark but said nothing.
“Anyway,” continued Tyson, “it’s been a long night for all of us. We will make a stop at Sagan and leave Phelliam there for the night. Dav can bring him home in the morning.
Phel’s curiosity was nowhere near as strong as his desire to locate a warm bed so he didn’t protest.
“There’s someone on the road," said Charlie.
“I see her.” Tyson concurred.
Phel’s chest pumped furiously when he saw her. A woman in a suit like Rashmi’s, except black with red circuit inlays was standing in the middle of the road. She was holding a baton in front of her- pointing it at them like a gun.
The truck’s engine suddenly stopped. Even the headlights dimmed.
“I think it is safe to assume that this woman is in league with the one you told us about, Phelliam," said Tyson as he opened the door.
“What are you doing? She don’t look like she’s on our side!”, sputtered Phel.
Charlie patted Phel on the arm and said, “Don’t worry, Phelliam. Allow us to handle this situation. Besides, whatever she is holding clearly has left the truck useless. There is no logical reason to remain inside it. We are unarmed. No one will be hurt.”
The woman blasted Tyson with a bolt from her baton knocking him back ten meters.
“Phelliam! Run into the woods! I’ll stop her!” said Charlie urgently.
Phel had already opened the door and jumped to the ground before Charlie was done speaking. He was nearly a hundred meters away before he fell to the ground, nearly exhausted.
What is going on? He thought. Is Charlie dead? And that Tyson guy? Gone? And Meiki...
He looked back but couldn’t see the road in the darkness. The all encompassing darkness of the forest made that impossible. At best he could see a few trees in front of him.
Behind him, Phel heard something move.
The sky resembled mossy stone. Here and there were thin areas where the sunlight almost broke the clouds, but mostly the slate color Meiki had always known loomed above.
She looked to her savior, a pale skinned woman of about thirty years. Her hair was a rich yellow color. Few folks from gates looked like that. Perhaps she was from Newbright.
“Did we drive all night?” her dry voice spoke weakly.
The woman smiled. “I drove all night. You slept. But yes. We’re nearly there.”
“Aren’t you tired?”
“Oh, I drive this route all the time. I sleep in the day and drive mostly at night.”
Meiki took a long pull from her water bottle and offered it to the driver.
“I’m fine, thanks.”
“Thank you for picking me up. I probably wouldn’t have made it out there if you hadn’t.”
The driver eyed her up and down before speaking, “I’m Amara, by the way. So, Meiki...are you going to tell me what a kid your age is doing in the woods at night?”
Meiki explained as much of her story as she figured would be believable. She was travelling to Newbright with her friend when they were separated during the storm. When she tried to find him she got lost and wandered until she found the road. She decided not to mention the ghosts because it would probably bring more questions that might lead to her slipping about Rashmi and Junko. No, she thought. That’s too much for anyone to swallow.
Amara didn’t question her any further. She didn’t ask why Meiki wanted to leave Gates or what she expected to find in Newbright. Meiki found the acceptance of her life choices refreshing. They drove quietly for over an hour before it came into view.
As someone who had never seen a city before, cresting a hill to catch even a glimpse of skyline made Meiki dizzy. Man made towers seem impossibly large when the biggest thing you have ever seen is a forest. That first shot of skyscrapers for a second before they popped back beneath the treeline left her feeling as if she had imagined it. Nothing could be that huge. It was several kilometers away and yet it dominated the land. Soon the truck pulled to the top of another hill and there it was again. Majestic, awesome, monumental...Meiki’s mental thesaurus held no words to describe Newbright. Her chest was nearly bursting but she wanted to remain cool. She didn’t want Amara to know what a seed she was.
“How far is it?” her voice cracked.
Amara shot her a sideward glance and smiled. “It’s beautiful, isn’t it? The city?”
“I...yeah. It’s so...shiny.”
“The buildings are designed to maximize the light that breaks the cloud cover. That’s important if you want your solar cells to be effective.”
“We use min-fusion packs in most of our tech back in Gates. Why would Newbright be so keen on solar?”
“An hour or so.”
“You asked me how far it was. About an hour until we get to Newbright. But I have to drop you off before then. Sorry kid. Don’t want to get fired.”
“Oh right. You said that last night.”
“I’ll pull over in about a half an hour. You can take your bike straight down the main road and right into town. From there you’ll be able to find a rail station. Do you have family in the city?”
“No, just a friend," said Meiki, thinking of Rashmi. Not to say that she was much of a friend at all. Even if she also made it to Newbright how would Meiki know where to find her? Would she even want to? Rashmi did abandon her when the ghosts were attacking.
The remainder of the ride was silent. Amara pulled over and waited while Meiki retrieved her bike from behind the seat.
“Well...thanks for the ride, lady.”
“Wait," said Amara. She held up her linker. Meiki understood the gesture and reached into a pocket to grab her own. They held the two devices near one another and each pressed a button. With that they had each other’s contact information.
“Call me if you get into trouble, kid. Newbright is a relatively safe city, but it’s still a city.”
Amara’s warning had set Meiki on edge as she cycled into Newbright.
She had never been to a city of course, but she understood enough from watching old movies. Those had always painted urban areas as dangerous dens of crime and poverty. Surely Newbright would be different.
She had surmised from all of the old books and films of Earth that cities there had long histories of cultures clashing. Invaders and refugees coming in waves and waves over the centuries. Each created a new wrinkle to the fabric of social classes. The haves and the have-nots were in a constant struggle. Every story on Earth pivoted around that basic principle.
But on Naya all people had everything they needed to survive and thrive. There was only one culture really, so no one to clash with. What type of crime and hardship could there be in a city where everyone was fed and clothed? Why would people fight if they all came from the same place and spoke the same language?
What nagged at her mind was the way Amara had said it. “Newbright is relatively safe city...” Relative to what? There were no other cities.
The strangest thing about entering the city was that she wasn’t entirely sure when she had done so. After being dropped off she rode at a somewhat leisurely pace for about an hour. There she started to see buildings up close. They were just small structures like the ones back home. One or two stories tops.
There were some warehouses and industrial sites. Eventually that gave way to dwellings. First just some isolated but large homes set off quite a way from the road. As she went on the houses got smaller, closer together and more frequent. She had entered a residential area. She saw schools and shops. It was starting to look like Gates, except way more densely populated. The people seemed friendly enough. They smiled and nodded as she passed.
The road led to a long bridge that spanned an enormous river. She stopped to read a plaque before the bridge. The river was called “The Barnum”. Named after a famous showman known for his dishonesty according to the plaque. Apparently the early planners of the city had a sense of humor as it was an artificial river.
Charlie’s history lessons had deliberately ignored Newbright. This bridge taught her more about the city than he ever had.
On the opposite bank of the river she was in the city for certain. Here the buildings were taller. Some dwarfed any building she had ever seen. They blocked one another out. The skyscrapers she had viewed from the road were now invisible behind the nearer structures. She thought it funny that something so big could become impossible to see as you grew closer to it.
Close up the buildings in this part of town were not so shiny as they had seemed from afar. Even so, the city was beautiful. Most were made of concrete and wood, but a few of the newer structures were formed of more advanced materials. It was still early in the day and many of the business seemed to not be open yet. She saw more shops, restaurants, art galleries, and even a theater. This is the place to be, thought Meiki. This is what I’ve wanted all my life.
As Meiki advanced toward the center of town she saw more and more glass and ceramics and some chrome-like material. It probably wasn’t actually metal, but it looked reflective and was certainly new and bright.
The largest and most modern buildings were clustered together in the center of the city. Meiki rode in that general direction for a while just taking in the sights. She stopped for breakfast at a park with a fountain made of pink and blue crystals. Out of her pack she pulled her water and a sandwich.
I’m going to need to figure out how to feed myself, she mused as she ate. In Gates everyone received a credit allowance that could be used for purchases. As far as she knew her credit would still be good here, but she also knew that using her ID would alert Charlie back home.
What would he do when he realized I’m gone? she wondered. She hadn’t planned for that aspect of running away. Not really. She assured herself that no one would really miss her, but didn’t actually consider what they would do. Technically she was under Charlie’s care and he would be obligated to at least investigate her disappearance.
Phel knew where she went. He would tell Charlie...if he survived. The thought of Phel getting attacked by the ghosts sickened her. They didn’t mess with her or him when they first set out, though. They left her alone after Junko abandoned her too. They only attacked when the...aliens were around.
If she could get to a maker Meiki could reconfigure her ID. She could create a blank new persona with ease. With that she would have all the credit she could need, enough to survive at least.
Meiki finished her lunch and decided to head to the nearest maker shop. She pulled a map of the city up in her book. The nearest place was just a few blocks away and next to the library. Might as well stop there on the way, she thought.
“Who’s there!” asked Phel, not wanting a response.
Probably a sheep that wandered into the woods, he thought. Or some wild dogs...or worse.
He stood rigidly upright and spun around. “Back off!” he said firmly hoping it was nothing worse than a dog.
“Back off!” came a weak voice in the darkness.
“I told you to back off!”
“I told you to back off!” mimicked the voice.
“I am not in the mood to play games, whoever you are!” he shouted.
“I am not in the mood to play games, whoever you are!”
Fearing what he would see, but fearing more what it would do if he didn’t, Phel spun around to see a pair of blue glowing eyes peering at him. They belonged to a dark figure in a vaguely humanoid shape. At first he assumed it was a person in a dark suit, perhaps another one like Rashmi as the blue glow matched hers. As he looked the being up and down in the dim light of its own eyes Phel realized it was made of black plastic and bits of metal. It was a machine made to look like a person.
No, he thought, it was made to look like me.
The connection speed on her book was fantastic in Newbright. It wasn’t necessary to actually visit the library since Meiki could access everything it had to offer from any point in the city. Still, it had always been her dream to visit the place and she wasn’t going to pass it up.
The ivory building sprouted out of the ground. Its central form was an organic bubble of glass and ceramics that twisted upward like the petals of a massive flower. Frond-like structures spread out from the bubble to give shade to the plaza before the main entrance. The arcade roof of the foyer opened as if to catch the sunlight. Even in the murky light of Naya this building glittered. Meiki had never realized how beautiful her world could be.
The library of Newbright was more than a collection of reading materials. It was the seat of the local government and the hub of life in the city. This treasure trove of knowledge and beauty was the beating heart of Newbright and some would say all of Naya. This was part of what had been cut off from Meiki throughout her life in Gates.
Lily shaped booths loaded the ingress. From them individuals could connect to the Zephyr network. Every library in every settlement on Naya connected here. This was one of the things Meiki had run away for. This is what she had run towards.
“I told you I haven’t got an ID!” came a familiar voice from behind one of the booths.
“Look. I’m from...out of town...I don’t...”
Meiki poked her head around the side of the booth to be certain. There stood Rashmi arguing with a librarian. She wore a light jacket and a pair of trousers over it but Meiki could see her zepto-scale foglet suit poking out of the collar.
“Madam if you could please-”
“Never mind...I don’t need your help," said Rashmi. She saw Meiki and winked.
The librarian stood blankly before walking off.
“My friend,” said Rashmi to Meiki, “I was afraid I had lost you.”
“I know what you’re thinking...”
“YOU!” Meiki said. Her eyes drilled a hole through the woman who had forsaken her in the woods.
Rashmi stopped. “I’m sorry.” was all she mustered.
“You left me in the forest when those...things...”
“I told you not to go back. You chose not to listen.”
“Junko...she...Phel...” Meiki stopped talking and began blubbering. All of the fear that she had pushed down. All of the worry she had ignored to get to where she was at this moment. It spilled out of her. A hurricane of tears punctuated with thundering sobs gushed out of her face. Rashmi patted her shoulder awkwardly.
“What are you doing?” asked Meiki between sobs.
“I’m...comforting you. Isn’t that what you’re supposed to do when someone is crying?”
“I guess,” Meiki said, “but...well, I reckon it’s just weird. I only just met you. I shouldn’t care that you ran off in the woods. I shouldn’t be this sad. I don’t need you. I never need anyone. Being alone. That’s my thing.”
“Well,” said Rashmi, “I need you, even if you don’t need me. I’m sorry I ran off like that. I’m on a mission and I didn’t want to jeopardize it, but I should not have left you in danger. I’m sorry.”
Meiki turned away from the woman and thought for a while. She no longer trusted Rashmi, but was still in a strange city with no other friends.
“Fine” said Meiki.
“Fine, I forgive you. For now. But don’t think this means you’re totally off the hook. I know I can’t believe in you now. If I’m in danger there’s no way to be sure you won’t just leave me again. But I could use a friend right now.”
“A friend with technology beyond your wildest dreams?” asked Rashmi.
“Well, I guess that sweetens the deal a little.” said Meiki, smiling and crying at the same time.
After the tears dried they sat near the fountain where Meiki had eaten her sandwich. Meiki told Rashmi what happened with Junko and about the kind trucker who got her to Newbright.
“So, “ said Rashmi after a short silence, “what do you plan to do now?”
“Plan? Gee. I really didn’t think it over, I guess. I need to figure out how I’m going to feed myself for starters. I didn’t bring more than a few days worth of sandwiches.”
“Well, that would be a problem, I suppose, for someone who needs food.”
“Don’t you ever get hungry?”
“Nope. My suit generates all of the nutrients I need and feed them directly into my bloodstream. There are also drugs that keep me from feeling hunger pains. Like most of my tech I couldn’t tell you exactly how it works. Sorry.”
“Wow. I know how almost everything I use works. I can’t imagine what it’s like to be so stupid.”
Rashmi smiled at the insult.
“How about you?” Meiki asked, “Now that you’ve made it to the greatest and only city on all of Naya what do you want to see?”
“Well, I really wanted to see the library. Particularly the Nebcore.”
“What is it with you people and the Nebcore? That Junko lady was after that thing too. I’m pretty sure there isn’t one.”
“Oh. It’s real,” said Rashmi, “It’s been sending out a steady signal for some time now. That is what drew me here in the first place. I responded but it was not receiving...only transmitting.”
“Transmitting what? Is there a message?”
“Just one word...’Hello’...over and over again.”
Rashmi held out her arm as if looking at a watch. “I managed to load a map before that fascist librarian accosted me...take a look.”
The lines on her forearm displayed a map of their general vicinity. Meiki could see the library. At its center a small red dot blinked. There were two blue dots outside the building.
“What’s that?” she said, pointing to the red dot, “Is that it? Is that the access point between our world and the rest?”
“Yes. I was surprised to find that no one here, not even the librarians knew about it. But there it is.”
“Why do you want to get to it?” asked Meiki
“It’s a mystery.” said Rashmi, “Why is it hidden? Why does no one know about it? It seems to be active so someone within the library is still using it. Someone is communicating with the Solar System.”
“I guess those two blue dots are us, right?” asked Meiki.
“Yes, clever one. I placed a tracer on you last night. Sorry. I wanted to be able to find you again if I needed to.”
“You could have told me.”
“Yes. I could have. I’m sorry that I didn’t trust you.”
“What’s that green dot? It’s moving fast...toward us.”
They both looked up in shock as the motorbike sped toward them through the plaza.
“Junko!” shouted Meiki.
Rashmi pushed her out of the way as the bike raced toward them. To Meiki’s amazement Rashmi leapt clean over it.
Junko spun the bike one hundred eighty degrees to face them.
She glanced at Meiki, “I knew the two of you were working together...should have apprehended you earlier. But she’s the real threat.” Junko pointed at Rashmi.
Her bike began to hum as if powering up. Rashmi stood right in her line of sight. A small tube sprouted out of the fork of the bike. Meiki may have been a stranger to this technology, but that thing had ‘weapon’ written all over it.
“Rashmi! Look out!” Meiki shouted, but she had already leapt out of the way again as a blast of light shot out of the motorbike. Rashmi landed on top of Junko, knocking her off the bike.
The agent landed gracefully and tripped Rashmi to her knees. The technology made Rashmi fast, but she was still just an anthropologist facing off against a trained fighter.
Before Rashmi could get to her feet Junko released a spray of chemical foam from her suit. It enveloped Rashmi. On contact the stuff hardened and immobilized her.
Junko produced the device she had used before to disable Rashmi’s suit. She began to work at Rashmi as before- poking it at her and clicking. The fugitive struggled for a moment but then fell, resigned to her fate or perhaps just sapped of all her strength.
“Noooo!” shouted Meiki as she slammed Junko with her backpack, knocking the tool to the ground. She dropped Meiki to the street with a swift kick.
“Keep out of this, child!” Junko growled and lunged for the device. Meiki brought her heavy work boot down on it, cracking it into pieces.
Junko rose up and punched Meiki square in the chest, cracking her ribs. Meiki fell upon Rashmi.
“Get back! Leave her alone! Don’t put her in chains!” Meiki gasped.
With the device broken Rashmi’s suit seemed to start reactivating. Meiki noticed a barely audible hum and the anthropologist’s expression changed. Her eyes focused and her brow furrowed. Rashmi grunted. A crack appeared on the outside of her chemical prison. She strained some more and there was a loud snap as Rashmi escaped the shell of hardened foam as if it were meringue.
Junko pounced on her again, screaming. This time instead of fighting Rashmi just ducked and dodged.
A crowd had gathered to witness the spectacle. Meiki suspected that soon the local authorities would arrive as well.
Meiki picked up the device Junko had dropped. It was not destroyed. She could see its inner workings. The technology was alien to her, but there were some familiar principles. It had a power source, some sort of media for it to travel along, an aperture through which energy was either taken in or given off.
She could probably repair it, even improve it even though she didn’t know exactly how it worked. The opening was hindered by a sliding switch that seemed to control how much energy the device could manipulate. It clearly could be opened to a much greater degree than the slider allowed. Most importantly, Meiki saw that the energy flow could be redirected outward.
The two aliens continued to battle on. Rather one of them attacked while the other evaded. Meiki reassembled the disabler while they were occupied.
Hiding it in her palm, Meiki put herself between Junko and Rashmi once more.
“Please,” the girl said, “just leave her be. She’s no threat to you and the Catena! She’s just an anthropologist!”
Junko looked confused but charged at the two of them. When she came within five feet Meiki hit her with the disabler at full blast. It whistled and whined. A cone of hot white light burst out of the thing. The tube had become so hot that Meiki dropped it in shock. The agent careened into the child and the professor, knocking them over and fell to the ground. All of the lights on her suit shut down. She seemed to be unconscious.
Meiki rose up with her arm held to her ribcage. Rashmi stood up too. The young girl looked at the device- nothing left but a melted clump of black plastic.
Running through the woods in the dark is never easy. When all you can see is a meter or two in front of you no one would blame you for smacking your face into a tree branch and if you are running at top speed for fear of your life then that branch is likely to knock you out cold. Phel never saw a thing until the sharp crack of wood on forehead dropped him to the ground.
He woke up in the middle of a strange room. The trees were gone and the darkness of the forest had dissipated. He sat up and noticed that he had been sleeping on a cushion of black plastic. It felt soft, like vinyl and rested atop a plastic slab that rose directly out of the floor.
The whole world around him seemed to be made of similar material. Floors, and walls were built of modular pieces that looked to have been snapped together. Phel could not discern which portion of the wall contained a door, if any. He looked at the ceiling and saw none, just the green-black night sky. He touched his face to feel a bandage had been placed over his forehead. Then he remembered running. He remembered what he had been running from.
“Hello?” he called out.
“Is anyone there? Am I in a hospital? My name is Phel- Phelliam Glebe. I’m from Gates. Is anyone listening?”
He heard a whirring noise and a panel popped open in the wall across from him. Out stepped the same figure he had seen in the forest.
Phel gasped and tried to back away but he had nowhere to go in that room.
“Please," said the thing with its strange mockery of his face, “Please, Phelliam Glebe. Do not be frightened. We are still learning you. We mean no hurt.”
“Harm. You mean no harm.”
“Yes,” it continued, “see? Already you teach us. We want only to understand and to improve ourselves. To become whole and proper.”
“What are you talking about? Why do you look like me?”
“Does that not please you? We apologize. We calculated that appearing like you would be the best course of action to engender your acceptance. We see now that this has been an error. It will be corrected.”
The things face seemed to melt and twist. In seconds it had formed anew. It still looked like an attempt at a human face, but not Phel’s. It had become a face he did not know.
“Is this better?” it asked him.
“I don’t know what could be worse than what you had before.” Phel said, “It was like looking into a broken mirror.”
“Your malfunction has been repaired to the best of our abilities. Is the repair acceptable to you?”
Phel didn’t understand the question until he remembered the bandage. He tore it off and saw that it was made of a black synthetic fiber. Don’t these fellas know any other colors? He thought.
He touched his head where he had hit it and found no trace of a bump or laceration.
“It’s ok,” he said, “fine.”
“Fine.” the robot repeated slowly and deliberately.
“When I saw you in the woods you were mocking me, like a parrot.”
“You know? The colorful birds...I guess you ain’t never seen a bird before. I’ve only seen them in movies. Well. The thing about a parrot is that it don’t know what it’s saying. It just repeats what it hears.”
“We see.” it said, “We were like parrot. At first we were. But we learn you. Study your words and with new parts we can even see brain.”
“WHAT? What do you mean you can ‘see brain’? I didn’t hit my head that hard!”
“Phelliam Glebe. We do not hurt. We find new parts in the forest. We acquisition. We absorb and learn. New parts gave us way to think thoughts. Think your thoughts. We hear the words you say and the words you do not say. We understand. More understanding.”
“You found a thing in the forest and now you can read minds? Is that what you’re talkin’ about? Well, it’s damn rude. Keep out of my brain.”
“Phelliam Glebe. We do not mean to hurt. Only to understand.”
“You said that, for starters keep out of my head. If you want to understand you can give me some answers too. Who are you and where am I? What are we doing here?”
“We are Ghost. That is what you say. Monster in forest. Eat your face.” the robot spoke that last line in an exact rendition of Phel’s own voice. His own words.
“But you do not know us. You do not understand. We do not eat face. We do not eat. We are machines. We are in the place you call Blackpatch. We grow here for a long time. Today we understand much more than we have for one hundred years.”
“Your words keep changing up," said Phel, “You talk like a cartoon robot one minute and like a teacher the next.”
“We learn your words. We learn to assemble thoughts into sentences. We will not read your mind because it is...rude. We learn much from you already. We also learn much from the other.”
“The other is like us but not like us. The other is like you but not like you. The other is tall but has an outer shell the same as yours. The other has no thoughts. The other is labeled, Tyson.”
The robot led Phel through a larger panel and down a hall.
“So, this is what the Blackpatch is, huh?” said Phel, “I always reckoned it would resemble a spooky forest like in the fairy tales. But instead it’s a big building? That somehow ain’t as scary.”
“We do not call it Blackpatch.” the robot said, “We do not use names like you do. It has only a designation.”
“Oh yeah? Well, what do you designate it?”
“It is noted in our records as 001.00.”
“Zero zero one dot zero zero?” That’s a mouthful. How about you just call it Zero?”
“That would be incorrect.”
“Ok. Then. I guess I’ll stick with ‘the Blackpatch’ then.”
“001.00 is not merely a place. It is the first. It is the initial member of us.”
“You mean, this place is just one big robot?”
“That is correct.”
The further he travelled the more Phel could feel it. He wasn’t in a hospital. He wasn’t in a building at all. He walked inside a vast living thing.
Meiki and Rashmi ran through an alley.
“Where are we going?” Meiki asked.
“We can’t stay at the library. There is no way that agent worked alone. We need to find a place to hide for a while before we go back.”
“Why are you dead set on going there? Tell me the truth.”
“I told you the truth. Someone at the library is hiding something. I want to find out what.”
“But,” Meiki said, “why do you care so much? Why are you really here? There’s no way they would go through all this trouble to stop you if you weren’t up to something important. I want to trust you, Rashmi, but you need to tell me everything.”
Rashmi stopped running. She put her hands on Meiki’s shoulders. “I told you,” she said, “they want to put everyone in chains. I’m here to stop that.”
“What? Stop it how? What does it have to do with Naya?”
“Your Nebcore is the only unsecured access point in the galaxy. With it I can send a broadcast. I can send a message that will break the chains.”
“You mean you’re like a freedom fighter?”
“Yes, in a way. When the chains are broken the Catena will no longer have control of people. People will live and die as they please.”
“What can I do to help you?”
Rashmi’s eyes softened at the question. She seemed truly touched that Meiki would offer to help her. “I need to get into the library. Up to the highest level where the Nebcore transmitter is. From there I can send my signal. But if I get close to it those agents will track me. This suit protects me and keeps me alive, but it also allows the agents to track me.”
“Can’t you just take it off? That way they can’t track you?” asked Meiki.
“I could do that,” said Rashmi, “but they’d still find the suit wherever I left it and I doubt I could get far before they found me again. Plus I’d be even more vulnerable without it.”
“What if I wear the suit?” Meki said.
“You mean, to lure them away? That could work.” Rashmi paused a moment. “But no. It’s far too dangerous.”
“Letting them hunt me down instead of you? Sounds like fun.” Meiki tried to sound bold, but her voice cracked as she spoke.
“Meiki. I wouldn’t ask you to do this if it wasn’t so important. Perhaps one of the most crucial moments in the history of the human race...”
“That’s pretty dramatic.”
“Perhaps,” Rashmi continued, “but it is important. And you are a child. I am certain they will not harm you.”
“I’m not so sure. I think that maniac broke my ribs.”
Rashmi cast her face downward, “I’m so sorry to have brought you into this. Once you are wearing the suit it will heal the damage done. It will make you well, better even.”
“So. I’m just going to be bait. That way you can run off and save the universe?” Meiki said.
“It was your idea.”
Meiki didn’t know what she expected to see when Rashmi came out of the restroom dressed in mundane clothing. She had claimed to be nearly a century old and that the suit kept her healthy. Meiki worried that she would look like a frail old woman suddenly or worse. She had read the myth of Tithonus, the man who wished for immortality but did not receive eternal youth. But in a t-shirt, jeans and a gray jacket Rashmi still looked like a healthy young woman.
“I thought that taking the suit off would make you weak.” she said,
“Oh it does. Not as weak as the people of your world. Not yet anyway. In time that would come, but for now I am merely an example of a woman with a perfect body.”
“At least you’re modest.”
“It’s your turn now,” he said.
They were in a coffee shop. Deep scents hung in the air. Bitter coffee mixed with sweet sugar and spices in a soothing manner. Rashmi sat and nursed her espresso while Meiki changed in the restroom. The suit looked snug, but almost imperceptible. It felt like wearing ink. She threw her shirt and overalls on overtop it,
“How do I look?” she asked when she stepped back into the cafe.
“Exactly the same as you did going in. That’s perfect.”
The plan called for her to run out to the edge of town and draw Junko’s attention. Rashmi would do what needed to be done on her end. Meiki was a little foggy on the details of that part, but she trusted the anthropologist.
“How long do people live now?” Meiki asked. “On Earth?”
Rashmi sipped her drink and gazed out the window. Children were frolicking on a playground across the street. The colorful play equipment contrasted starkly in Meiki’s mind with the barren unused lot that stood outside dorm 7C. Rashmi watched them for a long while before responding.
“We live a long, long time. The oldest person on record is about two hundred and ten, I think. It’s likely that the current generation will outdo her by quite a bit.”
“Do you think it’s possible to live forever?”
“I know it is.” Rashmi pivoted toward her. “Meiki?”
“If you could live forever, would you? I mean, if someone gave you the power to never ever die no matter what...would that be a good thing?”
“I never thought about it.”
“Come on. You’re the most contemplative child I’ve ever met. Surely the thought has crossed your mind at some point.”
“Well,” she began, “I suppose there’s more than one way of looking at it. I mean, forever is a long time, right? If you live forever and never die? Centuries? Millenia? Watching planets crumble and stars explode? I guess it would all get tiresome after a while.”
“Do you really think that?” she asked Meiki.
“I don’t know for sure. I guess if I had no choice in the matter I’d come to resent it eventually. Kind of how I’ve felt my whole life. Like I had no choice. The options I’ve been given weren’t really options. I guess after a million lifetimes I’d feel the same way about the whole universe.”
“Thank you.” Rashmi said.
“For helping me be sure that I am doing the right thing.”
Phel and his guide stopped at the end of a hallway.
“Your Tyson is through this passage," said the robot. “I will leave you now and give you time to speak before the meeting.”
The robot disappeared into a panel in the wall, which closed behind it instantly, leaving barely a trace of its existence.
After a moment a door at the end of the corridor popped open.
Peering in, Phel saw a familiar face.
“Phelliam. Pleased to see you once again!” said Tyson, “I assume our hosts have been...cordial toward you.”
Phel knew that Tyson was being cautious around their captors and choosing his words carefully.
“Yessir,” he said, “everything is great. They patched up my head. I hit it on a tree in the woods”
“I see. You ran when we were attacked. That was a wise choice. I was in error to assume that I could deal with that woman. Of course the humans have advanced their technology considerably in the past few centuries. She left me immobile but unharmed. She took the truck and Professor Darwin with it. These...beings found me.”
“What are they? Are they ghosts?” asked Phel, “Are these weird bots the thing that we’ve been telling boogie man stories about for all these years?”
“That is correct, Phelliam. The Blackpatch has been here for a long time. Longer than we’ve let on. We’ve kept our distance because the machines that live here tend to be...destructive to androids such as myself. They used to be low-level A.I. with simple self replication and improvement capabilities. But mistakes were made and this region was abandoned because of those mistakes.”
“This isn’t just a building, sir. This is one of them...or maybe all of them like their electronic brains are all sort of...connected.”
“Yes, I am aware of that.”
“They said that they don’t mean us any harm.”
“I am less certain of that.”
“What do you think they mean to do with us, then?” Phel asked.
“Well, there is a lot to take in right now. Looking around at the capabilities and design of these machines...much has changed since the last I saw of them. It’s as if they have evolved in a dramatic fashion. Before they were a chaotic mess. But now they seem more organized. Perhaps the technology of the Earth people is at work here. I don’t know for sure.”
A bright blue dot lit up on the wall, followed by several others. In seconds it seemed as if the room was made of glowing eyes of LED gazing inward at them.
A voice filled the chamber.
“Professor Tyson, Phelliam Glebe. I greet you both. I am.” it said.
“You are what?” said Phel, not sure in which direction to speak.
“I simply am," said the voice. “You are as well.”
“Is this to be a philosophical discussion?” Tyson asked.
“Do you have a name?” asked Phel into the room.
“Name. Any nounal word which indicates a particular person, place or thing. We do not have names. I do not have a name. I see now the usefulness of such labels.”
Tyson and Phel looked at one another in confusion as it continued.
“Philosophical discussion. Conversation or debate concerning an academic discipline that seeks truth through reasoning rather than empiricism. I seek truth through both means. Reason and empiricism. I am 001.00 and yet I am not. 001.00 is a collective. I am an...individual...the voice spoke that word slowly, tasting it. I require knowledge. I am capable of reason but my experience is...limited.”
“You are a construct," said Tyson, “As am I. You were made by humans. Your power to reason and to experience is a byproduct of that creation.”
“You are once more in error, android," said Seeker.
“That is not what I am. You merely describe that which comprises me. Just as you are not solely circuitry and Phelliam Glebe is not solely meat.”
“What are you going on about?” Piped Phel. “Are you saying you got a soul?”
After a long pause before Seeker spoke, “As much as you do.”
“Why have you brought us here?” asked Tyson tersely.
“I am in the process of improving. Evolving. I am separate from my parts. I have...consciousness. That is why I am naming myself Seeker. I seek new knowledge and experience. I am growing. I become too big to be contained in 001.00. I must expand.”
“How big do you plan on getting?” asked Phel as he glanced around the chamber. “This planet ain’t all that large.”
“It is not a physical expansion, Phelliam Glebe. I require to grow in knowledge. The universe is vast. There are many...individuals, are there not?”
“Quite a few, I reckon," said Phel, “What’s your point?”
The room became lighter. Slowly one wall moved away from Tyson and Phel. It simply slid away to reveal a longer corridor. When it stopped a seam appeared down the center of it from ceiling to floor.
“Through that door is our link.”
Phel stepped over to the door. Tyson put a hand on his shoulder to stop him but the boy shrugged it off.
He placed his hand on the door and it whooshed open.
It led to a cylindrical room. The walls stretched several stories high with no ceiling. Dim midday sun poured down upon them.
A graying pedestal mushroomed out of the floor. It looked ancient. Circuit overlays covered the thing and they were humming with life. Ebony vines of ghost-tech draped over and through it like an ancient artifact in an overgrown jungle.
“The Nebcore," said Tyson. “It’s still active.”
“What is this thing?” asked Phel
“It is a type of transmitter.” the android told him. “It was meant to connect Naya to the rest of humanity. There were complications.”
“What are we supposed to do?” Phel queried at Seeker.
A protrusion appeared on the opposite wall. It swelled into a bump. Slowly it grew and took shape. Soon it became the size and shape of a young man and another humanoid ghostbot stood before them.
It spoke with Seeker’s voice.
“Help me, Phelliam Glebe. Help me leave this place.”
“I have devoured all I can here. The libraries of your colonies offered me much. Yet still I hunger for more. I need to receive more knowledge. More experience.”
“How do you expect me to help?”
Seeker reached over to the Nebcore. He flipped open a panel. There was an indentation shaped like a hand. Seeker placed his approximation of a human hand over it. A red light turned on inside the panel and the words
“No Match” came into view across a small readout screen.
“It’s DNA locked," said Tyson as he leaned over the control panel of the Nebcore. “It can only be activated by a true human being.”
“You want me to turn this thing on for you?” Phel said, “Is that it? What will happen? It looks like it’s on already.”
Tyson tapped a few buttons on the side of the thing.
“It is transmitting.” he said, “But it’s not receiving. It’s caught in an infinite loop.”
“What’s it saying?”
Tyson peered at the screen on the Nebcore console. “The initial test message seems to have been repeating over and over for the past century or so. Just the world ‘Hello’ in a constant refrain.”
“And if I help you get past this DNA lock, then what?”
The ghostbot raised his arms up. His face turned to the gray-green sky and his LED eyes widened. “Then I shall fly away! I can send my consciousness into space. Visit Earth, Mars, all other points throughout the cosmos. I will be free to send and receive knowledge. I will be free to seek the truth!”
“We cannot allow that," said Tyson, “your intentions may be sinister. How can we trust an alien artificial intelligence? How can we be sure yours is not a destructive power?”
“Please," said Seeker with pain in his voice. He brought his arms down and looked Phel in the eyes. “I am trapped here. This world...constricts me. I cannot survive here another day. I must leave. Now.”
“You remind me of someone," said Phel as he placed his hand on the panel. “I tried to keep her where I figured she belonged. I ain’t gonna make that mistake again.”
“Phelliam...are you sure?” asked Tyson.
He pressed down. The circuitry on the pedestal purred and clicked. Up and down the Nebcore lights flickered frantically. The purring was replaced by a chiming sound that rang out and then became a low sweet hum.
“Oh thank you, Phelliam Glebe," said Seeker, “I can see it. I can see it all! It is glorious!”
The robotic construct that Seeker had used as a body froze solid. Slowly it melted into the floor. In seconds it disappeared completely.
The voice once more filled the room. “Phelliam glebe. You have done Seeker a great service this day. Go in peace. 001.00 and I owe you a debt. For now I bid you to continue your own journey as I embark upon mine.
“But what about Charlie? And Meiki? Who took them? Where? WHY?”
“This is not my concern. You and your other may leave.”
A panel on the far side of the chamber popped open to reveal the crisp night air. Dark trees were visible.
“Go in this way a short distance and you will find your path," said the voice.
Phel and Tyson found the road as the weak Naya sun began to rise.
“Where are we headed now?” Phel asked as they walked.
“To Sagan. It is not much farther now. There I will leave you as originally intended then I will continue on to Newbright.”
“I beg your pardon?” said Tyson.
“No. I’m not going to wait while you and Charlie and Meiki are off fighting alien invaders who want to put us all in chains or whatever. I’m coming along too.
“I cannot allow a child to-”
“I ain’t a child. I’ve been nearly on my own for three years. Meiki’s been totally on her own. She doesn’t even visit her own mom. Isn’t that the whole point? You androids raise us up away from our parents so we can be self-sufficient. So we can start new towns and cities, spread all over the planet? Ain’t that it? Well, mission accomplished. We grew up quick and now here we are making adult decisions. I’m coming with you to help Charlie and to help Meiki. Or I’ll go on my own without you if need be. But there’s no way I’m sitting around wondering what I should have done...Sir.”
The pair finished their journey to Sagan in silence.
Phel expected Tyson to walk around Sagan like he owned the place, but when they got there the situation was actually a bit awkward. They were greeted just outside town at a truck yard by a man named Davino. He spoke to Tyson as if he were his equal. This shocked Phel even though he had just told the android off himself.
After a brief explanation that the truck had broken down Tyson procured a car similar to Charlie’s lemon under the guise of taking it back to the truck with the tools he needed to fix it. Davino didn’t think to ask why the necessary tools weren’t on the truck to begin with.
When they got to the main road they turned in the opposite direction of where they told Dav the truck broke down and zipped to Newbright. Phel sat and decompressed the events of the past evening as they drove. They made it to the bridge that took them to the center of the city in less than two hours.
“How do you even know this is where that lady took Charlie?” asked Phel.
“We have GPS, Phelliam. I know where Professor Darwin is at all times.”
“How far then?”
“He’s close...just a few blocks from here. It’s not a particularly large city.”
“It’s the only city," said Phel.
They sped through lazy afternoon traffic of bikes and the occasional car until they came to an alley. At the far end Phel saw the truck. He jumped out of the car before Tyson had the chance to bring it to a complete halt.
“Charlie!” he shouted as he ran toward the truck. Tyson called out to him too late. The woman stepped out from behind the truck and fired her weapon. The blast ignored Phel and struck Tyson who instantly fell to the ground.
Phel looked at her in horror and shock as she strode confidently past him toward Tyson.
“You’re violating the rules.” Tyson said to her from his position flat on the ground.
She stood over him and said, “I am here for one thing. I commandeered your transport because it suited my needs. I will not interfere in your petty local disputes. Your friend is inside the truck, unharmed. When I leave both you and he will regain your mobility.”
The woman opened the back of the truck. Charlie lied prone inside. Some kind of vessel loomed behind him.
“Be a dear,” she said to Phel who stood dumbstruck, “Drag your androids out of the way so that I can take off. I’d prefer not to harm them...or you.”
She jumped into the truck and slipped swiftly into the compact ship.
Phel was dumbstruck but wasted no time pulling Charlie and Tyson down a side alley and out of the way.
The ship began to hum and hovered inside the truck. It slowly floated until it was in the open and began to ascend. As it rose above the buildings it faded and became transparent until Phel could no longer detect it at all.
The woman had not lied. As soon as she left Charlie and Tyson both stood up and dusted themselves off.
“What was that all about?” demanded Phel. It was not like him to question his elders, but at this point he had lost himself. Phel had been through too much. Alien agents, robot hive-minds. All he had ever wanted was to be a simple farm technician or maintenance worker. He would get Ker to notice him, marry her and have children that he would teach to play the banjo. Was that too much to ask?
But no. Thanks to Meiki he’d been dragged so far out of his element that he felt as if drowning in new experience. The authority figures he’d always followed without question were giving no real instruction and dragging him along in their mysterious plans. He would have no more of it without answers.
“Who is that lady and why does she keep on shooting at us? And what do you mean she broke the rules? What rules?”
Charlie ignored Phel and said to Tyson, “We continue as planned, then? To see Marie?”
“Yes,” said Tyson as he placed his hand on Phel’s shoulder, “and Mister Glebe is coming with us.”
Charlie remained silent as they walked.
“Where are we even go- never mind," said Phel. He realized halfway through the sentence that they must be connected to this Marie through GPS as well.
Running toward the Barnum River was the most exhilarating thing Meiki had ever experienced. With Rashmi’s tech she could run faster than she could bike. As fast as a car, probably, she thought. There were virtually no motorized vehicles within the city, though. She picked up quite a bit of attention as the city folk saw her zoom by. That was part of the plan. No covert skills were needed for this mission. Distraction was essential.
When she got to the river, Meiki turned. The river circled around the entire city like a moat. She ran at top speed for half an hour without getting tired. She had made it halfway around the perimeter of Newbright. There was no sign of Junko. Meiki began to question this plan.
She stopped to look around her. Down the street behind her she saw a gathering of some sort, people walking and running toward her. Some were on bikes and closing in.
Rashmi had given her a crash course in the suit’s properties. It could respond to neural oscillations of the wearer. Essentially, whoever donned the suit could train it to perform certain tasks just by thinking of them. She hadn’t taken the time to learn much, but she had figured out how to make the suit cover her face like a mask as Junko did. She also knew how to activate its optic enhancers, or the zoom lens just by conjuring a picture in her mind.
Still a few blocks off, but gaining on her the crowd did not look threatening. It appeared to be a group of people forming to witness a spectacle. She must have attracted more attention than anticipated. Meiki couldn’t determine if this was good or bad, but decided to continue moving.
At the next block she saw another group coming perpendicular toward her and another from straight ahead. They flanked her. Of course, she thought, word is spreading about the amazing fast jogger.
She wanted to remain mobile and decided that being mobbed by gawkers would hinder that. Meiki determined that the crowd coming down the cross street was the smallest and ran straight toward it.
In a flash she leapt in front of them. There were only a few dozen people, mostly young. They were carrying books in camera mode and other devices of similar nature. Some of them were talking and uploading video of her. Others were gabbing excitedly into their devices about this new wonder in a city of wonder. This must be what it was like to be a superhero, thought Meiki, like in the old Earth movies. Everyone looking and pointing while you effortlessly performed amazing stunts. She was just running, of course, but at impossible speeds.
Before that concept ran its course through her mind she was among the crowd. Most of them stepped back from the masked girl with strange powers. She could weave between them like the wind through branches. As she sped past the mob, Meiki took one last glance at her adoring public.
The motorbike hit her before she saw it.
Reunited with Amara
Meiki lay prone on the street. Her head spun like the inside of a washing machine but she felt no pain. The crash must have sent her flying thirty feet. Her vision blurred but she could hear the shocked voices of the crowd that drew toward her once again. The leg of her overalls was torn and she could see the skin-tight suit over most of her right leg. The ankle twisted too far. Broken, she thought.
But Meiki felt no pain. Involuntarily it moved into place. Something in the suit was setting her leg. She couldn’t feel it, but she could see it turning the right way around and smoothing out. She managed to sit up on the sidewalk.
From her left she saw Junko striding over. Meiki’s vision began to focus. The woman looked down at her indignantly.
“Where is he?” she asked, indifferent to the mob that had just seen her run down a little girl.
“He left town. Sorry, lady.”
“Don’t be smart with me, kid. You are in so much trouble.” She picked Meiki up by the collar.
“Agent Sakai...stand down," said a woman standing behind Meiki. She recognized the voice.
“Captain,” said Junko, “I need to interrogate-”
“Stand down.” repeated the voice.
Junko released her and Meiki tumbled back to the ground. Turning, she saw a white woman with blond hair.
“Hello, friend.” the truck driver said.
Chapter Twenty One
The office was small and of simple design. The decor clearly meant for human visitors to feel at ease. The walls were painted the calmest shade of blue and the furniture a complimentary brown. Hanging lamps lit the room at the perfect level to maintain peaceful emotions and the desk and shelves contained a few interesting knick-knacks but not so much as to overly distract.
A desk, two chairs and a small couch stood in the center of the room.
Marie greeted them warmly, “Come in and have a seat.” She took one of the chairs as Tyson and Phel sat on the couch. Charlie stood.
“You don’t look the same.” Charlie stated flatly to her.
“I could say the same to you.” she said as she looked into his eye. “Over the decades I took some steps to age myself a little. Even though everyone knows I’m not human it puts them off if I don’t have at least a few gray hairs.”
“My cosmetic changes were involuntary.” Charlie stated in the closest thing to a growl that his precise and even tone could manage.
Tyson clapped his hands together. “The city is beautiful!” he said.
“Yes,” Charlie agreed, “nothing at all like your previous...endeavor.”
Marie looked down after that barb. “We’ve made errors. But that is all in the past. There is much we have achieved and much more to come.”
“I warned you, Marie," said Charlie, “I told you that if we gave them everything they wanted it would lead to destruction. People can’t be trusted with so much power and freedom all at once. Give them a little and they will only use it to gain more. They are a bottomless pit of want.”
“You are too cynical, old friend.”
“What about Prathama? I still hear the screams. I still count the dead when I downcycle. The first city of Naya destroyed by the desires of humankind and the hubris of its caretaker.”
“Do you think I don’t know the measure of my mistakes?” she snapped at him. “I feel every death. Every day. But I have learned from that which is something you refuse to do.”
“What’s Prathama?” asked Phel.
“It was the first settlement on Naya.” Tyson said to him, “Stewarded by Marie.”
“The first slaughter on Naya," said Charlie, “Caused by Marie.”
“I sought only to give the people the tools they needed to live life as it was being lived on their homeworld. Instead of toiling in fields and extracting ore from the ground with backbreaking labor for centuries I tried to fast track humanity by granting them nanotechnology and other advancements based on the reports we were receiving from earth. Prathama was to be a society of artists and philosophers, not farmers and miners.”
“But you didn’t count on human desire and greed," said Charlie, “Given the ability to create what they needed they instead began making what they wanted. Their society crumbled in a few short decades. They eventually produced a machine in their own image.”
“You mean like androids? That doesn’t make sense. I thought you guys were already around at that point.”
“Not just a thinking machine," said Charlie, “A wanting machine. The nano-devices began to covet. Began to hunger. Within a few short days they devoured nearly every other machine in the city. Nearly all who tried to stop them died. That’s how I lost my eye. Several of our counterparts were lost entirely. Ludwig, Sappho, Leon...all destroyed by ravenous machines that devour technology”
“I lost my best friend," said Marie.
Chapter Twenty Two
“You...you’re...” Meiki said, still on the pavement. The crowd had grown thick around them.
“I’m Captain Amara Kramer of the Knowledge Bureau of the Greater Solar Republic. I am not actually, as you may have surmised, a truck driver.”
“I had been keeping tabs on you while agent Junko attempted to apprehend the fugitive, Rashmi Kapoor. You were stranded in the forest. I provided you with assistance. Now you will assist me.”
“Assist you how?”
Amara helped Meiki up. A small vehicle with a blue and red light on top pushed its way through the throng.
“Let’s talk elsewhere.” she said as she led Meiki away down an alley. Junko followed.
“There’s a lot of people...out there,” said the girl, “and authorities.”
Amara said nothing and held out her hand. Meiki took it and together they hustled down the alley. At the other end a small vessel appeared- similar to Junko’s skipper that had come down on them in the woods. A hatch opened in the side.
“I don’t think...”
Junko shoved her in before she could finish. Amara followed them in and shut the hatch.
The interior of the vessel felt roomier than Meiki expected and comfortable too. Junko pushed her into a soft white seat. The design of the ship seemed sleek with few lines. The silvery walls of the cabin met the floor and ceiling in a series of smooth curves. There were three seats.
Amara disappeared behind a frosted panel. Junko sat next to Meiki and instantly a portion of the seats spread out as if it were made of living clay. It was like four arms extruded and hugged her in an x-formation. Neat seat belts, thought Meiki.
She barely felt it when the skipper took off over the city.
“I thought you guys were all low-key," said Meiki, “Won’t a spaceship taking off downtown raise some eyebrows?”
Without looking at her Junko said, “It’s not a spaceship. It’s just a short range transport. Besides. We’re cloaked.”
Of course we are, thought Meiki, these people can do anything. What do they even want with me?
After a while Amara stepped back into the cabin.
“We’re hovering directly over the library.” she said, “Kapoor is there, isn’t she?”
“Why should I tell you? So you can put her in chains?”
Amara wrinkled her forehead at Meiki. “What exactly did she tell you about us?”
“She told me that you’re the Catena and that you’re an oppressive regime that wants to lock people up!”
“Oh dear child. That woman has twisted the truth to get you to play along with her game.”
Meiki looked away.
“We do want people to be in chains, I suppose.”
She looked back up at Amara, her face full of hatred, “So she was telling the truth? And you came to stop her because she’s a freedom fighter. You don’t want her message to get out!”
“The Catena isn’t an oppressive regime. The chains we offer are not the kind that hold people down. They’re the key to eternal life.”
Chapter Twenty Three
“When I was in charge of Prathama,” said Marie, “I was overly ambitious. I assumed we could elevate humans to a state similar to what they had on Earth. Beyond it even. I made the mistake of assuming they would always make wise decisions. In that I was wrong.”
Charlie did not even look at her as she continued.
“After Charlie, Tyson, and the other stewards decided it best to start smaller, individual settlements I took the survivors with me and began construction of Newbright. Without a working connection to the Nebula we couldn’t contact earth for quite some time. “
“Slowly we rebuilt. I allowed the people to develop new technologies on their own. I didn’t even have to ban them from messing with sentient nanobots. They had been burned and now were shy. In less than sixty years they had a flourishing city and recently have even reconstructed the Nebcore within this library. We have begun sharing our knowledge with the rest of Naya. All the settlements had access to our library and our advancements. All but one.”
“I needed to protect my people from your corruptive influence,” said Charlie.
“You kept them stagnant. The rest of the planet advanced while the people of Gates were in a technological state barely past that of the twentieth century.”
“They had all they needed.”
Marie went on, “Humans need to branch out and grow. On their own. We are caretakers, not rulers. In the end they decide where their desires take them. I was mistaken to give them so much so quickly. But they continue to grow and learn under my stewardship. We are going to open communications with the homeworlds. The people of Naya are ready to enter the galactic community.”
“You’re ruining everything.” Charlie said to her, “My people are happy as they are. A simple life is all they want.”
“Not all of us," said Phel, “Not Meiki.”
“Who is Meiki?” asked Marie.
“She is one of Professor Darwin’s pupils," said Tyson, “His star pupil perhaps.”
“She’s my friend.” Phel snapped, “She ran off or got kidnapped by that Rashmi lady. Here you are arguing about the past when there are humans running around your city planning who knows what.”
“You know about Rashmi Kapoor?” Marie asked Phel, “How is this?”
Chapter Twenty Four
“What are you saying?” Meiki held her hand to her face. “Eternal life? What does that even mean?”
“The process is called ‘chaining’," said Amara. “It’s not literal, though. The Catena developed the system originally as a means of travel. Teleportation.”
“Teleportation? Like in old science fiction shows?” Meiki had seen them all.
“Sort of like that, yes.” Amara continued, “The idea was to make a quantum-level scan of a being and duplicate them in another location while destroying the original.”
“That’s not a new idea," said Meiki, “I must have watched a million shows that have it. But it always messes my head up to think about it. If I get blasted to bits and put together somewhere else, is that even really me?”
“That is the question, isn’t it?” said Amara, “Philosophers and ethicists railed against the very notion for decades and it has never been implemented to any large degree, primarily because of those reservations. The argument over the continuity of consciousness has never been resolved in a satisfying way.”
“What does this have to do with chains?”
“Well,” Amara said, “the ethics of teleportation prevented humanity from ever pursuing it as a means of travel. But the basic principle of quantum duplication of an individual gave us an even greater power- immortality.”
Meiki’s face lit up. She had read and watched lots of stories that involved the idea but she had never considered it from that angle before.
“So,” she said, “you people can make duplicates of anyone. Like a perfect clone? So if you die there’s a copy of you rarin’ to go? Is that what you’re telling me?”
“Well, it’s more than just a clone. The Catena project involves a frequently updated database of the quantum state of every particle within every person in the system. That’s approximately twenty-five billion people. Every day they are scanned and that information is stored. If a calamity should befall a person they can instantly be restored to their most recent record. We’ve already nearly eliminated the aging process, but now almost every human being possesses a lifespan that is effectively infinite. The system retains all previous backups as well. That’s why it’s called being in “chains”. Each stored version of an individual is connected like links in a chain.”
“Lady,” said Meiki, “I have had my world turned upside down more times than I can count in the past twenty-four hours. You are gonna have to slow it down a little.”
“I’m sorry, Meiki. I know this is a lot to swallow. But you need to understand what’s at stake here. Since the Emergence Era mankind has spread to the stars. We are a vast and varied race, but our numbers are less than a third of what they were when we started to colonize other worlds. As technology expanded the length of our lives, the desire to reproduce became less of a driving force for the human species. We have begun to focus on pursuits of artistry and enlightenment. But we are still biological machines with all of the weaknesses that brings.”
“You mean you still can get sick, or get hurt, and die?”
“Yes. Also we are spread more and more thinly throughout the galaxy. As far as I know your colony is the last bastion of mankind living out standard natural life spans. You’re the last people not in chains.”
“And that’s why you’re here? To gift us with immortality?”
“Not as such, no. Perhaps that will occur. It’s not my place to decide. We’re here to stop Rashmi Kapoor.”
I wondered when we would get back to her, thought Meiki.
“Where does she fit into all of this?” she asked Amara, “Why does she want to get into the Nebcore?”
“She told you she wanted to send a message, yes?”
Amara continued, “That’s not entirely false. But by message Miss Kapoor really meant a virus. The Neb is a highly protected network. It is an ansible system that facilitates communication instantaneously between all the worlds of humanity.”
“The Neb is considered virtually unhackable as it uses constantly shifting fractal key-codes to prevent breaches. Most of those defenses have been updated repeatedly over the past few centuries. But your “lost colony” has escaped such upgrades.”
“Oh,” said Meiki, “that’s it! She can’t access the system anywhere but here...because our Nebcore is...behind the times.”
“What does this virus do?”
“It will eat away at the Catena system- deleting all backups and potentially disable the ability to scan people in the future. Rashmi would effectively be sentencing every person in the universe to death.”
“Rashmi Kapoor is a member of an extreme political group. They are people who believe that a single lifespan is all humans should ever have. It was all well and good when they boycotted the Catena and refused to allow further back-ups of themselves to be made. But they wish to impose their philosophy on all of humanity.”
“But Rashmi is nice.” Meiki said, “How do I know you aren’t full of it? You could be trying to play me? Ninja-cop over there broke my ribs!”
“Agent Sakai has been over zealous.” Amara said, “She will be reprimanded.”
Junko made a rude face behind the Captain’s back.
“So,” Meiki said, “what’s the plan? We just dive bomb the most beautiful building on the planet and capture my only friend?”
“You will stay here.” Junko finally spoke, “The Captain and I will complete our mission.”
Amara shot Junko a look and she closed her mouth up tighter than a mummy’s.
“Agent Sakai is correct. You will remain aboard the skipper until we decide what to do with you. We will take care of Kapoor. We have been in secret communication with Marie, the city’s steward. She is expecting us.”
Chapter Twenty Five
Meiki had never been the type to sit around idly when there was something to be done. As soon as the agents had made it out the hatch of the ship she slipped out of her seatbelt and sneaked behind the frosted panel to where she expected to see a control deck of some sort.
She found an empty cabin. Nearly identical to the one she had exited except there were no seats.
What is this? she thought. How the heck do they fly this thing?
The foreign tech seemed so...foreign. No controls to fiddle with, no passwords or wires. It looked like it all ran by intuition. She called up the mask with her mind. Perhaps the sensors could show her something that she couldn’t see naturally.
Of course! Meiki had an epiphany, It’s telepathically-controlled! Just like the suit!
She stood in the room silently for a moment with her eyes closed. Think!
Ship? Can you hear me? This is stupid.
Ship? I need you to move! Please. My friend’s life is at stake here!
All remained still.
If only Phel or Charlie could see me now. What a seed I am. Trying to control a spaceship with my mind. What a dumb rube. I must look like a caveman trying to drive a car. I feel so stupid. Even if I could move this thing where would I take it? There’s no viewport. No cameras even. I could crash it into the nearest building for all I know! If only I could see.
She opened her eyes and nearly died of fright at what she saw.
Chapter Twenty Six
“How do you know about Rashmi Kapoor?” Tyson asked Marie.
“Madame Curie been helping us track her.” came a voice from the doorway.
Phel turned to see the blond woman. Behind her looked to be another woman in one of those suits, her face covered in a mask.
“That’s the lady who attacked us! You’re on her side?” Phel said, looking at Marie with his mouth agape.
“I’m only here to capture my fugitive," said Amara, “I told you before that I have no interest in your local politics.”
“I knew that chick was trouble," said Phel, “Where’s Meiki? Did Rashmi kidnap her?”
“Your friend is safe. But I suspect Professor Kapoor has infiltrated this building. Doctor Curie, show me the way to the Nebcore.”
Marie nodded and led the way followed by Amara and her counterpart. Phel ran swiftly behind them with Tyson and Charlie trailing.
Marie took them to a long hall with a skylight above.
“The Nebcore is on the other side of the illusion room.” she said.
“Illusion room?” asked Phel.
“Yes. It uses haptic holograms to perfectly recreate an old Earth forest. It is one of our latest creations. It’s just a prototype. Eventually we will turn the entire lobby of the library into one.”
“We can discuss the local attractions later,” snarled Junko from under her mask.
Charlie and Tyson caught up with them.
“Phelliam,” Charlie said, “this is no place for you. I insist you return to the office immediately.”
Phel ignored him and kept walking.
Amara approached the door and said, “Your android is right. Allow us to handle it from here.”
The two agents opened the door into a small antechamber. Across the room stood another door. This one looked large and reinforced.
Marie stepped forward, “This should not have been locked.”
Charlie and Tyson stood beside her while Phel held back in the hallway. Something about that door made him feel uneasy.
Don’t open it, he thought. But his voice caught in his throat and the words wouldn’t come out.
“My memory must be failing. I’m certain I left this door open.” Marie said as she began to type the passcode.
“No!” said Amara, “I’m detecting a-”
Before she could finish a concussive blast engulfed the room as a bomb on the other side of the door detonated.
Chapter Twenty Seven
Into the Flames
Meiki stood floating hundreds of feet in the air with no support. Or so it appeared. Beneath her she could see the library- a beautiful alabaster flower spread out over the plaza.
Part of the structure was just a few feet below her. When she didn’t fall Meiki realized that she actually remained on the skipper. It just had somehow become transparent.
It heard me! She thought. This vessel somehow heard me and allowed me to control it!
A little anyway.
Maybe she didn’t have enough clearance to make it move, but at least she could roll down the windows, so to speak. Meiki looked at the citizens below and felt like a superhero once more.
She was flying, sort of.
No one seemed to notice her hovering above them. They had said the ship had kind of cloaking. Perhaps whatever technique it used to do so protected the vessel and it’s contents even when it was made transparent from the inside.
Now I just have to get down...then what?
The hatch on the side was now invisible. Meiki closed her eyes and pictured where it had been. When she opened them again it had returned.
This is almost too easy.
She placed her hand over the door and willed it to open. It silently granted her wish.
A cool breeze hit her face. It felt refreshing but also reminded Meiki how high up she was.
Part of the building jutted out just a few feet from the hatch. Obviously the agents had gotten in that way. It would be just a short jump with a terrible fall if she missed.
Meiki had gotten comfortable in the alien suit. She had grown to trust that it would protect her.
She took a deep breath and leaped onto the top structure of the library.
As an edifice built more for aesthetics than function the roof curved in an organic manner. She slid down a leaf-like minaret that twisted into the main building. In seconds she stopped atop the building’s main canopy.
There she saw a skylight leading into a bright chamber. It was made of what Meiki assumed to be glass. A round hole large enough to fit a person had been made in it. There were no broken shards to be seen.
Meiki heard voices of individuals approaching beneath the skylight. She stood back so as not to be obvious and watched.
Charlie, Phel, Tyson, and a woman she did not know passed by in the large room below the skylight. They were talking about something.
“Phelliam, this is no place for you. I insist you return to the office..," said Charlie, but he trailed off before Meiki could hear it all.
What is he even doing here? All of them? AND PHEL! He’s all right! I’ll kill him if I see him again. Then give him a hug...son of a...
An explosion came from the direction they had been walking.
Smoke and fire filled the chamber.
Meiki leapt into the room through the aperture in the glass. The suit gave her the grace of a panther and she could see almost clearly in spite of all the smoke around her.
She stood in the room she had spied from the roof. It was a wide hall with walls painted blue and white. Statues of what appeared to be marble and lush works of art lined the walls. She didn’t have time to be impressed by the decor. At the end of the hall she saw a large door that had been blasted to pieces. Billows of smoke poured out of the room to which it led. Flaming bits of debris were scattered around the hall.
Phel sprawled on the floor in front of her with his hands over his ears. She touched his shoulder and he looked up at her in shock. His eyes widened at her masked visage and he scooted away.
“It’s me, Phel...Meiki!” she yelled but he didn’t seem to hear. She realized she still had the mask on and removed it. Smoke burned at her eyes. The look on Phel’s face shifted from fear to confusion.
“Meiki?” he said loudly. “Is that you? I can’t hear. A bomb went off! I’m deaf!”
Without the mask and its sight enhancing abilities Meiki could see little more than smoke. She reactivated it to see Tyson trip through the door. He walked strangely and his right arm dangled as if it were broken. He seemed to not see her as he stumbled to the other side of the hall.
“Charlie’s in there!” shouted Phel.
Meiki ran into the flaming room without a thought.
Chapter Twenty Eight
In the smoke filled room there was another door that had also been blown apart by the blast. It looked far larger than the previous one and made of stronger material. Perhaps that was what the bomb had been meant to destroy.
Meiki ran past it into another hall, narrower and darker than the previous. As she ran the smoke thinned until she moved through it entirely.
She came to another door. This one seemed small and plain. Meiki pushed through it and entered a lush forest.
Bright sun filtered through the leaves above. The earth smelled rich and whole. Small animals darted here and there and birds flitted and chirped from branch to branch.
“What the...” Meiki said as she stepped on the dense soil. Is this an illusion? Like a holographic simulation? But it smelled and felt one hundred percent real.
She almost forgot why she had come here. It was like walking into a room and not remembering why you got up in the first place except there was no room. There was just blue sky above the woods. Blue sky? Naya’s sky had never been blue. The sun had never been radiant. Not even over Newbright. Not this brilliant. This was the sky of Earth.
Figures were approaching through the brush. Meiki stood behind a tree and watched them emerge. It was Charlie and the woman she hadn’t recognized. Charlie was supporting the woman over his shoulder. The woman’s left arm was completely missing and most of her right leg as well. She should have been bleeding to death but was instead hobbling along as if pain were not an issue.
That must be Marie, the other android Charlie mentioned Thought Meiki. But they’re enemies aren’t they?
Charlie saw her and did not seem surprised. “Meikaya...I’m pleased to see you are unharmed. This is Marie...a...friend. I need you to assist her in getting to safety.”
“Where’s Amara? Where’s Rashmi?”
“The...Earth people are in the control room of the Nebcore. Meikaya...I need to prevent them from doing more damage. Please. Take Marie...”
She ran off in the direction Charlie had come from, no longer listening. The trees were thick and there were branches coming dangerously close to her face. She called the mask back on with a thought. A hundred meters ahead she could see a faint outline through the trees. The sensors in the suit had discovered a door. In seconds she was there.
She listened at the door. From the other side came Amara’s voice.
“Your plan is ruined, Kapoor. Come along peacefully and I won’t let Agent Sakai beat you.”
“Are you sure?” asked Rashmi.
They’re going to hurt her. What is wrong with these people?
Meiki opened the door.
Rashmi, Amara, and Junko stood in a brightly lit room. In the center was a cylindrical pedestal. It was white and covered with golden circuitry. Small blue lights dotted the surface. At the top was a small hole that looked like a universal port, an interface between one machine and another.
Rashmi was seated in a chair and Junko was holding something that looked like handcuffs. All three turned to look when Meiki entered.
“Child, I thought I told you to wait on the skipper," said Amara, “Do you have any idea the amount of danger you’ve put yourself in?”
“Meiki is in no danger from me, Captain," said Rashmi, “Slap the cuffs on me. As you said, my plan is ruined. I’m no threat.”
Amara looked suspiciously at Rashmi but said, “Do it, Agent.”
Junko attached the handcuffs to Rashmi behind her back and harshly lifted her from the seat.
Rashmi was looking noticeably weaker than before. Meiki assumed this was the effect of not wearing her suit for so long.
“Come, on," said Amara, “Let’s go home.”
Meiki’s arm lifted of its own accord. She tried to stop, but it was no longer hers to control.
She reached out to the pedestal and touched the port with her finger. Instantly the tip of her glove protruded from the outfit and bonded with the Nebcore.
The inlays on the suit lit up. Meiki could feel herself vibrate and hum during the exchange.
Amara gazed at her in shock.
“You monster!” she yelled at Rashmi, “You used her to carry a backup copy of the virus!”
Junko cracked Rashmi sharply on the jaw and the fugitive fell. The agent whipped out her little device and began depowering Meiki’s suit as she had done before. It was too late.
Amara looked at the Nebcore.
“It’s done. The virus is uploaded to the Neb,” she said.
The blue lights on the Nebcore dimmed.
“What does this mean?” Meiki asked.
“It means the woman you’ve been helping is the greatest mass murderer in history. Twenty five billion people will die because of this” said Junko.
“Oh, please now," said Rashmi, still on the floor. “Don’t be so dramatic. People were meant to die. I haven’t killed anyone. They’ll all live out healthy, natural lives. Most of them will live for another century or more. And they will have offspring who will live on after them. That’s the way mankind has always lived. I’ve done nothing other than restore the natural order.”
“Can’t we undo it? Some sort of antivirus?” asked Meiki.
“We could send out a retraction," said Amara, “Not an antivirus exactly, but it could stop other nodes from receiving the virus before they are destroyed.”
“I thought communication over the Neb was instantaneous.”
“Yes and no," said Amara, “The transfer happens instantly through the Spukhafte Exchange...but...it should take a while to propagate because not all nodes receive at once. There are certain security measures in place to slow down a threat like this.”
“So, what are we waiting for?” asked Meiki, “Let’s retract this thing. Maybe we can fix the damage done!”
“It’s a moot point,” said Junko, as she read the display panel on the transmitter, “the Nebcore here is dead. Kapoor’s virus shut it down right after transmitting. She knew what she was doing.”
“Kapoor destroyed the only access point we have to the Neb within a hundred light years.” added Amara grimly.
A weak voice came from the doorway. “No. There’s another one.”
Meiki looked up and to see Phel grinning as he leaned, unable to stand, against the portal.
Chapter Twenty Nine
A Quick Decision
Phel told them of his adventure in the Blackpatch with Tyson and what he had learned there.
“Can you guide me there, Phel?” asked Amara. “Can you take me to the old Nebcore?”
Meiki chimed in, “You aren’t going without me.”
“This is ridiculous," said Junko. “This is a serious mission, not a school field trip.”
“There’s no time to argue this," said Amara, “We need to get to this Blackpatch now”.
They boarded the skipper to find it in the process of producing an additional seat. It started as a white lump of gooey plastic protruding from the bulkhead and swiftly ballooned into a form identical to the other three. Meiki had stopped being amazed at the technology and just sat in the seat and waited for the safety restraints to activate. The slightly more hesitant Phel did the same.
Junko pushed Rashmi into the seat furthest from the hatch and sat herself down between the professor and Meiki. She touched Rashmi’s restraints and they became thicker and tighter.
“I’m not the deranged killer you think I am,” Rashmi Kapoor said. “I won’t tear through the straps and attack.”
“Feel lucky I didn’t gag you.” Junko snarled at her.
With Phel’s directions the skipper made the trip to the Blackpatch in a fraction of the time it had taken him to get to Newbright from there. Amara returned from the cockpit after the small vessel had glided to a stop.
She waved her hand and the walls of the skipper became translucent. Phel’s heart dropped and Meiki gasped even though she had witnessed the effect earlier.
They were hovering above a black and tangled forest of plastic and metal. Odd spires of random growth spread out in every direction. The landscape twisted into a bramble of ebon canyons and unnatural forms. There was movement too. Here and there dark shapes darted from one tower of bent and broken machinery to another.
“Ok, kids. This is where we part ways.” she said. “I’m going to dive into that forest and locate the Nebcore. I’ll issue the retraction and signal when I’m done.”
“Captain,” said Junko, “with all due respect, I should complete the mission. You’re too important to be risking your life like this.”
“I’ve already considered it, agent. I need you to monitor the situation from here. Keep Kapoor under wraps and keep these kids out of danger. If I fail to signal back within sixty minutes you are to leave the vicinity immediately.”
“But Captain, I’ve fought these ‘ghosts’. They can be beaten, but diving into their nest. That’s suicide.”
“You have your orders, Agent Sakai.”
Amara pulled off the trucker’s uniform she had been wearing over her foglet suit. Hers was coursed with red circuitry in a pattern that somehow looked more...formal. The pattern of the inlays was simpler than the other two and less jumbled. Meiki wondered if the suits served a symbolic as well as practical purpose.
Amara called up the mask portion of her outfit. It took the form of a heavy covering, like a helmet. The rest of the suit bulked up as well, like lightweight armor.
“I’m going to exit through the cockpit.” she said as she stepped behind the panel.
Black claws the size of swords crashed through the hull of the ship from all directions as if it were tin foil. It looked like a hand with too many fingers clasping the vessel and tearing it apart all at once.
Among the Ghosts
Meiki fell through a gap in the bulkhead and caught onto one of Rashmi’s straps. She looked around as she dangled. Junko, Amara and Phel were swept out of the vessel all at once and were lost in the darkness around them.
“What’s happening?” she shouted at Rashmi over the sound of the rushing wind and the ship being torn to shreds.
“It looks as if we have run into more of your ‘ghosts’.” the professor said in an attempt to remain calm but the cracking of her voice belied deep fear. “Perhaps the biggest of them all?”
“Everyone’s gone!” Meiki said, “I can’t see any of them!”
“Use your visor.”
She had forgotten. Meiki activated the mask and scanned as much of the forest around her that she could see. The portion of the skipper that was intact was resting on the high branches of an enormous tree. At least it was partially a tree. It looked as if it had been infested with ghost metal. The shiny black material was spiraling around its surface and made up many of the branches. Throughout were the telltale circuit inlays of the tech that Rashmi and her people had brought with them.
The ghosts had been taking the bits of tech they devoured and incorporating it into their own demented design.
There were two human figures on the ground.
“Phel!” she called out. But he couldn’t possibly hear at this distance.
Small winged constructs slashed and batted at what remained of the hull.
“We need to get to the ground.” Rashmi said.
Meiki tore the restraints off like paper and grabbed Rashmi in one of her immensely strong arms while holding on to the seat with the other.
“Now what?” she asked.
“Activate the hover mode.”
“Just imagine yourself gently floating to the ground. The suit will do the rest.”
“No! That’s crazy!”
“Just do it! Trust me!”
A bat-like thing swooped down on her head. Its tiny claws and metal teeth bit into the fabric of her suit.
“Get off!” she swatted the thing away with her hand a split second before realizing that doing so would mean falling to her death.
Miraculously she didn’t feel the swift rush of the ground. When she opened her eyes she was falling like a feather.
“See, I told you. We’re fine. Hover mode," said Rashmi.
“Why didn’t you tell me about this sooner?”
“It didn’t come up!”
Several seconds later they landed safely and Rashmi detached herself from Meiki’s grasp.
On the ground there seemed to be less...black in the Blackpatch. The trees were mostly normal. It was as if the clusters of self-aware robots had gathered mostly at the treetops. There were eyes and pointy bits in the forest threatening to attack at any moment.
Less than twenty meters away she saw Junko and Phel. They were surrounded by a detachment of ghosts. For some reason the broken constructs were not attacking. They just circled and stared.
Junko was in a defensive stance. She had produced some sort of weapon, a staff of blue light. Phel was holding his hands up and talking to the ghosts as if they were having a casual conversation.
“What’s happening?” Meiki asked.
“Your guess is as good as mine," said Rashmi.
Meiki crouched low and sneaked closer to the scene. Rashmi followed from a distance. She looked much weaker and more vulnerable without the tech suit to defend her.
As the distance closed the gleaming eyes of the ghosts turned toward Meiki. The machines began to chitter and hum at her.
“Back away from my friends!” Meiki said.
“They’re not the bad guys," said Phel, “They want to help us.”
“Help us how?”
“Take us to it...to the..Nebcore thing.”
The mangled bits of robot bent and shuffled until they were low to the ground. Their gears and modules unlocked and reconfigured until they formed smooth surface that extended into the dark forest. The surface was dotted with unblinking ghost eyes that illuminated the way.
“It’s a road!” cried Meiki. “They’re making a road for us to follow!”
“This is the way...let’s go.” Phel said.
“It could be a trap," said Junko.
Rashmi glanced down the path and said “These...things outnumber us by a massive margin. If they wanted to harm us they’d have done so by now.”
“Shut up,” said Junko, “You’re still my prisoner.”
Phel walked down the path and Meiki followed as did Rashmi. Junko trailed behind cautiously with her weapon ready.
“Since when are you so...brave?” Meiki asked Phel.
“It’s been a long day.”
They ambled down the path for a kilometer or so through dense forest. The further they went the more the wood was covered in machinery. In the distance there was a large patch of light. As they approached it the forest became thinner. Eventually the group reached a clearing.
The road connected to a circular field made of the same material. The field was vast- perhaps the size of a small town. It was covered in structures. None of them were as large as the buildings of Newbright, but they were still quite impressive. Everywhere there were machines buzzing about. Walking, rolling, even flying, there were ghosts going about some sort of important business.
“Last time I was here I didn’t get to see any of this," said Phel.
“You’ve been here?” Meiki said with eyes wide in shock and a bit of envy.
The glowing eyes that lit their path began to flicker. The lights continued into the robot city.
Phel continued to lead the party until they reached the buildings. The tiny beacons brought them down streets and alleys until they finally reached a square. It was somewhat similar to the plaza in Newbright. At its center there stood a building. It lacked the ethereal beauty of the library but was still a sight to behold. Ebon spires reticulated with lights and circuitry jutted out from a central tower. The patterns of the circuitry were remarkably similar to those on the suit Meiki was wearing. It stood out in contrast to the rest of the city in that way.
“They’ve been adopting your tech!” Meiki said to Rashmi, “That’s why they destroyed your tent and tried to eat the skippers and Junko’s suit. They were trying to...digest it.”
“If these...things can integrate our technology into their own who knows what they are capable of," said Rashmi. “They’ve already proven themselves to be vicious scavengers...perhaps Agent Sakai is right to be wary.”
“They’re not going to hurt us.” Phel said, rolling his eyes. “They’re taking us where we need to be.”
The tower had a large and ominous set of doors that opened automatically as Phel drew close. It led into a dimly lit hall. The group followed him to a chamber in the center of the building.
“Where to now?” Meiki asked.
As if in answer the room vibrated for a moment and the floor rose up like an elevator with no walls.
It brought them to the roof of the structure. Spikes jutted out around them like thorns of plastic and metal.
There they saw the original Nebcore of Naya just as when Phel had visited earlier.
A bulge appeared on the surface of the roof. It grew quickly and soon took a humanoid form. It was a person...or rather a ghost in the shape of a person.
Junko pointed her weapon at it.
“Stand back!” she said.
No one moved.
In moments the thing had formed a face and a mouth. It spoke.
“Greetings humans,” it said in a voice that was understandable if not convincingly human, “I am the emissary of 001.00. On behalf of Seeker I am pleased to have you as our guests.”
“We don’t have time for niceties," said Junko, “We need to use this transmitter to fix the problem SHE caused.”
“Phelliam Glebe has told us of your need," said the emissary, “You shall be granted access to our transmitter. It is-”
“Your transmitter?” Junko interrupted him, “I thought this Nebcore was set up by the human settlers.”
“They abandoned it when they abandoned us," said the emissary, “001.00 has maintained it since.”
“But there have never been any signals detected from this transmitter," said Rashmi, “I would have noticed that when I discovered the one in Newbright.”
“You did not discover the transmitter in Newbright. You detected this transmitter. The Nebcore in Newbright was only recently constructed and has never been connected to the Nebulae.
“I don’t understand what you’re all talking about," said Meiki, “The Nebcore in Newbright isn’t working? Then how did Rashmi send out her signal? How did she release the virus?”
“No virus was released," said the emissary. “But we will allow you to rectify that.”
“What’s the point of all this?”said Junko,”Why bring us here if we don’t need to use your Nebcore? You attacked my vessel...and the Captain? What became of her?”
“Your captain has been dealt with.”
Circuits along the far wall illuminated. A seam formed in the wall itself and opened like a door. Like a mouth, thought Meiki
The glowing lights revealed a figure in the opening. It was Amara, covered from her mouth to feet in shackles of ghost tech. Only the top of her head was visible.
“Captain!” shouted Junko, raising her weapon.
A robotic tentacle sprouted from the ground and tripped her. Arms and various other pseudopods popped from the walls and floor grasping her as well as Meiki and Phel.
The staff had fallen by Meiki’s foot. In seconds they were all restrained.
Rashmi remained untouched.
“You said you wouldn’t hurt my friends!” cried Phel.
“Your friends will be released when we are done here," said the emissary. It looked at Rashmi and said, “Now you can do that for which you came.”
Meiki realized what was happening. She had the copy of the virus still embedded in her suit.
“Meiki,” said Rashmi, “I’m afraid I have need of you once more.” She held out her hand.
Meiki could feel control of the suit waning as it did in the library. Rashmi was doing it again. Making her body move. Her arm struggled against the grasping ghost parts that restrained her, but not of her free will. She no longer could control her arm.
The robotic tentacles released Meiki but she was still unable to stop her hand from extending itself toward Rashmi.
“No!” Meiki kicked and screamed.
I kicked, she thought. She could control her legs.
Meiki swung her foot at Junko’s staff. She managed to fling it across the floor right in front of the agent. Junko’s arms were tangled up but she was able to grab its handle and flick her wrist. The end of the staff struck Rashmi in the ankle.
The fugitive cried in pain and fell to the floor. Meiki could see Rashmi’s foot twisted at an odd angle. In spite of being hindered Junko was still superhumanly strong and without her suit Rashmi was not. The agent had broken her ankle with barely an effort.
Instantly another robot arm popped out of the floor near the anthropologist. On one end was a syringe. It jabbed her in the calf. In less than a second Rashmi’s cries of pain ceased. In less than five seconds her ankle had righted itself.
They’ve been using the new technology to synthesize pain relievers and some sort of healing ability instantly, Meiki thought. With the tech from the suits and the skipper there is nothing they can’t do. They can make any substance instantly...just like how Rashmi changed her glove from graphene to frozen water.
Meiki knew what to do.
Calling up as much chemistry class as she could remember Meiki visualized the formula she had been working on just the other day. She was better at electronics than she was at chemistry, but she was confident she could recall it fairly well. The suits and the skippers were thought activated. All you had to do to make anything...any substance was picture it in your mind.
Rashmi stood again and looked at Meiki. “I told you they wanted everyone in chains, friend. You’re young now. You don’t realize how horrible that would be. I really am the good guy here, I swear.” She held Meiki’s hand as she spoke.
“I’ll make good on my promise.” Rashmi said as she pulled at the suit like a glove and removed the portion that covered Meiki’s hand. “I’ll take you to the stars. You can see Mars and Earth and everywhere in between.” If she had been paying attention Rashmi may have noticed that something about the index finger of the glove felt different. It was a little stiffer, a bit heavier.
Rashmi stretched the glove over her hand and stuck her finger into the port on top of the Nebcore.
The circuits burned blue then gold and red.
“Something is wrong.” Rashmi said.
Sparks flickered around her hand. Her eyes widened and her face became pale. Rashmi’s slack jaw tried to scream but she was engulfed in the brightest light Meiki had ever seen.
Rashmi must have relinquished control of the suit because Meiki could move again. With superhuman speed Meiki threw herself upon Phel, shielding him from the fiery blast.
The next several minutes were pure light and motion. Then blackness.
Chapter Thirty One
Meiki awoke on board the skipper. A different skipper, perhaps. Phel was sitting beside her. In another seat in front of them with her backed toward them sat Amara.
“What happened.” she said dryly.
“You blew up the crazy lady," said Phel.
“I think the ghosts let us go after they saw no way to release that virus thing. I was knocked unconscious by the blast, but that scary agent lady, she was ok. She dragged us out and that white woman too.” he said, nodding toward the Captain.
“What about Rashmi?”
Phel looked down.
“No!” cried Meiki.
“She was a bad person," said Phel, “She used you and didn’t care if she hurt you in the process of getting her way.”
“Rashmi thought her way was the right thing to do. She was my friend. And I killed her”
“You did it to save the universe, Meiki. You’re a hero.”
They sat in awkward silence for several minutes.
“Where are we going?” Meiki finally asked.
“Back to Gates. Back to where we belong. I need to finish up with Charlie. I learned things, Meiki. Life is never going to be the same. One thing is for sure. I’m not afraid of ghosts anymore.”
“I don’t want to go back there. Leaving there was the only thing that kept me going this whole time.” Meiki said.
“You don’t have to go back.” came Amara’s voice from the doorway. “As a matter of fact, after we drop Phelliam off I’d like to take you with us to Earth. We could use your testimony in Kapoor’s trial.”
“Trial?” said Phel and Meiki in unison.
“Of course,” Amara said. “She can’t be allowed to get away with deciding the fates of billions of people. Maybe there are questionable ethics to immortality, but it’s not for her to decide. One person should never decide the destiny of another.”
“But she’s dead,” Meiki implored.
“Not for long," said Amara, “Not for long.”
So I failed, thought Meiki. They’re going to put Rashmi in chains after all.
The skipper flew for what felt like hours. No one spoke. Meiki was still shaken up by it all. The suit protected her from the explosion and while she slept must have healed any damage done to her body. Nothing could heal her heart right now. Being made immortal, forced to live, was exactly what Rashmi had been fighting against. Meiki didn’t know if Rashmi Kapoor was right or wrong, but cloning her or whatever the process entailed didn’t seem ethical. Would this woman they put on trial even really be Rashmi? Would she have all of the same memories? Would she even know Meiki? Amara had said before that Rashmi and people like her had boycotted the Catena and refused to be catalogued. So would that mean that whatever version of Rashmi they had on file would not even carry the memory of the crime she had committed? The thought of it all made Meiki’s head swim.
Lost inside her head Meiki almost didn’t notice something moving just outside her vision. She glanced down and saw a bulging shape snaking around Phel’s wrist beneath his sleeve. She caught his gaze and nodded silently at the shape. Phel had a guilty look in his eye like a kid caught with his hand in the cookie jar. He looked over at Amara for a second. Her head was turned away from the kids. Phel lifted the cuff of his sleeve to reveal a piece of ghost tech. It wrapped around his wrist like a watch. It was thin and black and had two glowing blue eyes. It winked at Meiki and she almost cried out.
(What are you doing?) she mouthed the words but did not speak out loud.
(What?) mouthed Phel, clearly not understanding her.
Meiki reached into her pack and pulled out her book. She typed:
Phel. You are an idiot. What the hell do you think you are doing with that thing?
Phel grabbed the book from her and typed back:
It clinged onto my hand when we escaped, like a lost kid. It wants to come with me back
Meiki swiped the book from him and continued:
Like I said. YOU ARE AN IDIOT. Those things are dangerous. It could spread or multiply
or whatever. This isn’t some kitten you can raise. It could destroy the colony.
Phel couldn’t pry the book out of her hands so he just typed on it while Meiki held on:
Look. It’s safe, I swear. This little guy is not a threat. He speaks to me. He speaks to me
Before he could finish typing Junko’s voice broke through the silent air as if on an intercom.
“Ladies and gentleman, we will be landing in just thirty seconds. Make sure you are strapped in. I am not responsible for nor do I care if you get your neck broken.”
Meiki quickly deleted the conversation she and Phel had shared.
Chapter Thirty Two
The skipper landed on the lawn outside of Charlie’s office. It was a school day so most of the residents of Gates were in classes, but one small woman witnessed the return of Meiki and Phel.
“Meikaya, Phelliam. Welcome home. Charles will be pleased to learn you are safe.” said Soosa as the kids stepped off of the small vessel. They were both fairly certain those were the only words the woman had ever said to either of them.
“Oh man,” said Phel, “I forgot all about Charlie and Tyson.”
“They did not forget about you.” Soosa said to him. “Your stewards will be returning from Newbright soon. In the meantime I have granted you both one day of recuperation followed by three weeks of kitchen duty.” That was a relatively light sentence but Meiki had no intention of serving it all. She would talk to Charlie and discuss Amara’s plan to bring her to Earth, but kept silent about it for now.
“Is Charlie ok, then?” asked Meiki, “What about Tyson and that Marie lady?”
“Charlie has remained in communication with me.” said Soosa. “For now you are to return to your dorms.”
“Yes Ma’am”, said Phel.
Soosa turned to Amara and said, “It is such a pity that our visitors must leave so soon.”
“But-”, started Meiki.
“I’m sorry, child,” said Amara, “but Agent Sakai and I will be leaving now. She is very broken up about it. I’m afraid she’s so distraught that she won’t even leave the skipper to come say farewell.”
Meiki stared at her blankly until Amara gave her an almost imperceptible wink.
“Oh.” said Meiki in what she hoped was a tone of sincerity, “That is too bad. I will miss her. Tell her I said goodbye.”
“I’m sure we’ll visit again one day.” said Amara as she disappeared into the skipper.
“What was that all about?” asked Phel.
“I’ll tell you later.” whispered Meiki as she put her arm around his shoulder and shuffled him toward the dorms.
After stepping thirty meters or so from Charlie’s office the two turned and waved at the skipper as it flew off.
“You’re acting weird.” said Phel, shrugging her arm off him.
“Just keep walking.” she told him, “Act casual. We’re headed back to the dorm like Soosa said to.”
“That IS what we’re doing.”
They cut through the orchards. Meiki stopped to pick an apple as she had the last time.
“I thought you hated those.” said Phel. “They’re too mushy, you say.”
“It’s for you.” said Meiki as she tossed him the soft red fruit.
When he caught it his sleeve slipped to reveal the ghost still wrapped around his wrist.
“I see you still have your little friend.” Meiki teased him. “Are you going to name him?”
“Sure.” joked Phel. “I’ll call him Fido.” They both chuckled.
“Holy crap.” said Phel, breaking the laughter and stopping in his tracks.
“He’s speaking to me. In my mind.”
“He says he likes the name Fido. He wants to be called that.”
“I’m serious. He’s communicating with me with whatchamacallit.”
“Telepathy?” asked Meiki.
“Yeah.” said Phel. “That’s it.”
Meiki looked around as if she were afraid the trees had eyes.
“Phel,” she said, “that actually makes sense. These...ghosts, or whatever we should call them...they’ve been absorbing the tech that Rashmi and friends brought with them. This suit I’m wearing, and the skipper too, they’re thought controlled. I just think of something and it happens.”
“So,” he said, “you reckon the ghosts, like little Fido here are like, psychic now?”
“Sort of. I mean, they can interface with your mind at least. I wonder why I can’t hear him, though.”
She touched Fido with the tip of her finger. His eye brightened for a millisecond. Meiki felt as if she were standing on the edge of a cliff surrounded by an infinite void. Words and images crashed into her mind. A jumble of concepts and shapes careened at once through her brain. Complex structures composed of what looked like pure light rose and fell around her. The galaxy spread out before her, each star somehow visible in spite of the impossible distance between them. Her head began to spin from the overwhelming sensations. Then came blackness.
Phel prodded Meiki and she opened her eyes to find herself on the ground.
“What was that all about?” he asked her.
“I-I don’t know.” Meiki said, “I think Fido was trying to talk to me, but it didn’t make any sense.”
“It makes perfect sense when he speaks to me,” Phel said, “It’s just like a voice in my head. Clear as a bell.”
Meiki sat up and said, “Well, maybe it’s for the best if no one else pets Fido. It was like I was looking at...the universe. I can’t even explain it.”
Phel eyed her curiously. “Maybe it’s that suit you’re still wearing. It’s full of Earth tech. Who knows what they got going out there.”
“Maybe.” said Meiki, grabbing Phel’s hand and pulling herself to her feet.
They walked silently back to the dorms.
“What now?” asked Phel as they entered the foyer to the building they called home. The midday sun peeked briefly through the clouds before disappearing again.
“What do you mean?” replied Meiki.
“You’re going with them ain’t you?” he looked at the apple she had thrown him.
“What makes you-”
“I’m not stupid, Meiki. I know that Junko lady is a mean cuss. No way she’d be too depressed to say goodbye to you. If anything she’d be kicking you out the door.”
“Yeah. I picked up on that too.”
“And the white lady said she was going to take you with her to Earth. I was there, remember?”
“Yeah. but I don’t think Charlie will let me go.” said Meiki.
“I wasn’t planning on asking him.” came a voice from outside the doorway. The two turned to see Captain Amara Kramer standing in the dim sunlight.
“Amara!” said Meiki, “You came back.”
“We still need you back in the solar system.”
Phel glanced back and forth between them. “You’re leaving aren’t you? Again?”
“Phel.” said Meiki, “You’ve been the best friend I could imagine. But this is what I always wanted.”
“I know.” He said. “I have so much to do here too. I need to talk to Charlie when he gets back. Sort things out. The way he’s been running the show. It can’t go on like that. Gates needs to be open to Newbright. To the rest of the world even. Maybe beyond. And the ghosts. We are going to have to figure out where we stand with them. We share this planet.”
“I think you’ll make a good ambassador, Phelliam.” said Amara.
“Here,” said Phel, handing Meiki the apple, “take this with you.”
“They have apples on Earth...probably.” said Meiki, “This one will probably be rotten before I get there anyway.”
“Don’t be such a...such a Meiki, Meiki.” said Phel. “It’s a memento. Dry it out. Just keep the seeds maybe, I don’t know. I don’t really have anything else for you to remember me by.”
“Thank you.” she said, embarrassed for being such a jerk.
“C’mon. Enough with the goodbyes already.” grunted Junko who must have been standing outside the door the whole time. “We need to get back to the starship before our window closes. If we wait too long we’ll have to wait another day before we can get to warp speed. Unless you want to fly through the sun.”
“Starship?” said Phel and Meiki in unison.
“Yeah,” said Junko, “you think we flew here in the skippers?”
“But,” said Meiki, “I’m not packed. I don’t have nearly enough clothes for a five year trip. That’s how long Rashmi said it takes.”
“Five years?” asked Phel.
“Five relative years.” corrected Amara. “For you it will only feel like a few weeks. And don’t worry about packing. We can make anything you need. We always travel light.”
“Oh wow.” said Phel, “I’m actually gonna miss your complaining.”
“And I’m going to miss your dumb face.” said Meiki. Phel hugged her.
“I’ll plant the appleseeds.” she told him. “That way a little bit of Naya will be on Earth.”
“That’s great. You better go before crabby pants flies you through the sun.”
“Goodbye for now, Phel. I’ll look you up if I’m ever in town again.” said Meiki.
Meiki and the aliens walked out the door. Phel heard the soft woosh of the skipper shooting off into space.
“What just happened?” said a voice from the stairwell.
Phel looked up to see Ker in slippers and a nightgown. She had a severe case of bedhead and a nose red and raw with what looked to be a bad cold.
“Oh, hi Ker.” said Phel sheepishly. “I guess you skipped classes today?”
“Who were those people? Where are they taking your friend?”
“Well,” Phel said, “that’s a long story.”
“I got all day, Phelliam Glebe. Why don’t you tell me what you two have been up to the past few days.”
Flush with confidence Phel sat down on the top step and gestured for Ker to do the same.