Heart of the Ice (Conclusion)
Previous episodes:

The heart of the iceship had been carved into a great chamber, lit by dim blue lights, the sort of lights robots and vecs tend to prefer as shorter wavelengths give clearer resolution. Several zombified maintenance robots were tugging casualties, both human and vec, from the recent fracas into the chamber, where smaller bots with multiple appendages worked to repair them and send them back into the fray. Fragments of vec and medical kit tumbled in mid-air; the walls of the chamber were rotating slowly but in the centre of the cavern freefall ruled.

Colen Coell burst into the room, throwing aside the spent wirewhip he had used to get past the guard robots in the tunnel leading to this place. All the zombie bots stopped whatever they were doing, and looked at the new arrivals with a diverse set of optical sensors. Several of the faster ones launched themselves at the small human, but in a tangle and blur of movement that was difficult to follow, he extricated himself (clutching several severed robotic appendages in his hands). In the meantime a number of other bots separated Kelsa from Kreutz, who was no longer bleeding but was clutching his arm defensively, and held onto them both. A large, cloud-like bushbot pounced upon Devi-568 and entwined itself around the vec, holding em immobile.

Still free, Coell shouted into the dim blue cavern, 'I've got someone who would like to talk to you, Chaing.'

On the far wall, held there by the slow rotation of the chamber, someone stirred. There was Jon Mbuto Chaing, who (last time Kelsa had seen him) had been a virtual, bodyless being. Now here he was, as solid as she.

Chaing said, 'I have nothing to say to you. Too many of my comrades have died at your hands. Now it is your turn to die.'

Behind Kelsa a yellow radiance announced the arrival of the Proxy Avatar. It launched itself from the doorway slowly, on a trajectory that would take it ever closer to Chaing on the far wall. 'There will be no more deaths. Our bargain is at an end.'

Chaing laughed. 'Bargain? I wasn't aware that we had a bargain. All I know is that you must obey me. I hold the command instrument that controls you, or had you forgotten.' He waved a black object at the aioid, a small, strangely shaped device resembling a half-melted doorhandle.

That instrument may not command this being to kill another. Your actions have caused the death of one who declines to be saved; this cannot be permitted to continue.'

'Let's not be hasty, my moralistic friend. This stratagem has nearly run its course. If we do not see it through to its end, then this murderer will be free once more, free to kill again. You surely do not wish to have that on your mechanical conscience.'

The Proxav, which had been glowing fiercely yellow in the blue-lit cavern, dimmed perceptibly. 'State your intentions,' it said simply.

'Wait; what are you saying? Which killer are you talking about?' Kelsa directed the question at Chaing, but she kept glancing at Coell, who was barely visible at the centre of a tangle of zombified robots. Occasionally his head would appear, with a determined grin on his face, as he nearly struggled free - and now and then a bot would float away, deactivated or otherwise unable to fight any longer. How could that one human hold his own against so many mechanical opponents? Admittedly the zombification process seemed to slow the robots down considerably, but still-

Chaing was watching Coell too, with an increasingly impatient look. 'That is your killer! A genetically designed fighting machine, the only one of his type in this system. That - thing- has been responsible for the assassination of half of the ruling cabal of Zadok in the last five years.'

'I haven't heard of any of this,' Kelsa said. 'Surely that would have been in the media- on the planetary 'net - in all the narrowcasts. When did this happen? '

Coell spoke from the centre of his bustling crowd of admirers; he hardly sounded out of breath. 'My targets were not elected government officials, but the secret rulers of that world, who are responsible for innumerable crimes. Zadok is a much better place without them. Chaing here is the only one left. I still have a contract to fulfil with respect to him.'

'You see!' Chaing was shrill. 'He would kill me if he could.'

'I thought you were already dead and uploaded, Chaing,' said Kelsa. She though she might be able to gain time by distracting the clansman somehow, but she had no idea what she could achieve if she did.

'That was just a teleoperated projection, routed by encrypted channel from this chamber. Rather a good charade, I think.'

That reminded Kelsa of something- but what? She surreptitiously started to review the recordings of her interviews, flicking through the data files with her direct neural interface.

The tangle of robotic zombies surrounding Coell became still; he was no longer struggling. Not even a genetically modified assassin could escape from such a scrum. Chaing sneered. 'It seems quite evident that we have no prospect of persuading you to be uploaded, murderer.'

'No, not really. I expect that you would take great pleasure in punishing my virtual form in a multitude of ingenious ways.'

'Better than that; as an infomorph, you would be much easier to - shall we say - rehabilitate. A bit of judicious editing and you could become a model citizen. Perhaps even work for us.'

Coell laughed. 'Let it be known therefore that I do not choose to be uploaded in any way, shape or form. Do you hear me, Avatar?'

'Your wishes are noted,' the glowing figure said.

'Oh, well. Kill him,' said Chaing to his robotic horde.

'That must not be. There will be no more death,' said the Proxav. It released a flight of golden bees toward the zombie robots holding Coell. The bees burrowed into the control centres of each zombie, uploading the rudimentary consciousness which had been installed there. The tangle of robots drifted apart, leaving one single 'bot with its manipulators clamped tightly around Coell's neck.

With difficulty he prised the robot's grippers apart. Kelsa was surprised to see how thin his neck was when finally he succeeded. Presumably that was one of the modifications that a 'genetically modified assassin' came equipped with. In fact Coell seemed to have no bones at all in his body at the moment, but gradually he was assuming a more normal, human shape.

'Your exercise in zombie mutiny is over, Chaing. The Proxav no longer follows your commands. You should have known that it would break free from your control once people started dying.'

I don't see it quite that way, assassin. I still hold the command instrument; as long as no-one else is harmed, the avatar will obey me. I also control nearly all the physical bodies of the passengers and crew on board this ship. Those bodies are obedient slaves to my will.'

Still held by a zombie robot herself, Kelsa addressed Chaing with venom. 'Why have you done this to my ship? If you wanted to capture Coell, why didn't you just ask us to help you? If he is as evil as you say, we could have placed him in custody ourselves until we reached Nathan. Instead you've caused mayhem among the passengers and crew. And what is this control instrument you keep talking about? How could you possibly have such a thing?'

'Now, then, Chief Mate; with all due respect, you are no longer in command here. I don't need to answer your questions. But as I am not intending to harm you -' Chaing glanced at the Proxav, who stared back sternly '-I may as well explain the facts of the matter somewhat. Several Zadok years ago this avatar was discovered, buried deep beneath the ice of a minor moon; whichever transapient left it there also helpfully provided us with a command device, which it appears is not quite as reliable as one might hope. When the avatar was activated, it set about persuading anyone who would listen to it to become an infomorph.

'Those of us who resisted its persuasive efforts found ourselves in possession of numerous discarded, but perfectly healthy, bodies. So we found a way to utilise those bodies by installing a simplified robotic control system into them. In this way we obtained an army of obedient slaves, which we have found useful in a number of different ways. Several other proxy avatars have been found since; we decided to loan this one to a certain faction on Nathan, who are interested in the opportunity to create an army of zombie slaves, especially if this occurs without anyone really getting hurt.

'There are many people on Zadok who appear to find this strategy distasteful, which is no doubt why they hired this assassin. He eliminated most of my associates, and no doubt wished to eliminate me as well. But when I found out he had followed me onto this ship, I thought it would be a good opportunity to demonstrate exactly what the zombie strategy can do. Call it a proof-of-concept if you will. The interested parties on Nathan will be interested to see what can be done with an obedient, persuasive avatar and an efficient zombification system.'

'You might have succeeded, too, if your zombies hadn't killed that outlander,' said Coell. 'That so-called 'obedient avatar' isn't very happy when people start dying without uploading first.'

'It is somewhat ironic that someone who has been responsible for an untold number of killings should be critical of an exercise which has resulted in a single irretrievable death. That death was regrettable, but I am sure that it was the result of a single, badly programmed robot. In future we will have to take steps to prevent such accidents.'

'This is a crazy plan, conceived by maniacs,' Kelsa declared. 'There will always be people who don't want to be uploaded, and who will fight back- someone will always get hurt.' She turned to face the Proxav, who was now regarding her directly. 'Avatar! You surely cannot permit yourself to be used in this way. If you have any free will of your own, you should persuade this man Chaing to abandon this exercise now, before any more humans are harmed or killed.'

'Your words have reason. Indeed I am skilled in persuading others to take up the offer of eternal life offered by the Process. It occurs to me that all may be best served if clansman Chaing takes advantage of this process himself, so that he in no longer in a position to influence my judgement with his instrument of control.'

'Well, there is little chance of that, since I have no intention of uploading myself, thank you very much,' said Chaing. 'I'm of a mind with our Chief Mate here-I'm as wedded to the physical world as she is.'

'Really? You surprise me. Especially since you had this to say when you spoke to me before.' Kelsa configured the public address system in her uniform to relay the recording she had made just a few short hours before. Chaing's voice, urbane and mocking, came loud and clear. 'I realise now that I've always wanted to upload myself; the aches and pains of bodily living no longer appeal to me. Once in virtual form, you can stay essentially human if you wish to. You can even simulate all those aches and pains if you feel nostalgic for them. But you can become so much more, if you have the imagination.'

'No, no, that's not what I think at all. I was only saying that for the sake of the charade- it was all part of the exercise-' Chaing looked at the Proxav with something like fear in his eyes. He raised the instrument of control, but it did not seem to work.

'I thank you, Chief Mate Kelsa. Now that I know clansman Chaing's true feelings on this matter, I can act accordingly.'

'Stop. Don't you understand, creature- I've - I've changed my mind-'

'Many do change their minds, between expressing the desire to become eternal and the final act of becoming. I am often forced use my own discretion in these matters. I choose to believe that your earlier statement was sincere. This will cause you no harm.'

The Proxav raised its arms, and a swarm of golden insects came forth. Chaing started to scream, but was very quickly overcome.

All the zombies, robots and human, became inactive at once, slowly drifting and bumping into one another. They started to bounce gently off the gently rotating walls of the chamber. Given enough time they would all end up piled on the chamber walls, held there by the weak centrifugal force. Free from her restraints, Kelsa propelled herself over to Chaing's body, and appropriated the control instrument. Best to have this in safe hands, she thought. Coell was nowhere to be seen.

After a few moments, the maintenance robot holding the consciousness of the Ship made its way into the chamber, trailing a bunch of datalink channels. The robot scanned the chamber, noting the drifting bodies and the impassive Proxav at its centre. 'Apologies, everyone. I seem to be a little late; however the situation here seems nicely nominal. Well done, everyone. In any case, I've brought with me a secure connection to the databanks in the main part of the ship. If you wish, I can patch through the virtual population of our vessel to witness this scene.'

'Please do,' Kelsa said. She was particularly keen to speak to the virtual captain. When he appeared, she called him over immediately. 'This was all some insane experiment by that guy Chaing. But he's been absorbed by the proxy now. Are you still running on the proxy's database, Captain?'

'Well, yes, I am, actually. Chaing is in here too, now. I'll be able to keep an eye on him from here. He won't be able to cause any more trouble.'

'Good. I've got hold of this useful little control device now; with any luck it should ensure that the proxy is reasonably well behaved. But there's still one last bit of unfinished business to take care of.'

After a while they all heard a faint, distant thud. Fram announced, 'That is one of the lifeboats departing. I note that Colen Coell is no longer on board this ship. He is escaping. I will over-ride the boat's control systems and bring him back here.'

'Let him go. He's fulfilled his own contract; I suspect he is too dangerous to keep around in any case. But I have a question for you, Fram. What would you have done if Chaing had succeeded? If all the vecs and humans on board had been turned into infomorphs, and Coell had been captured by the hordes of zombie guards? Would you have simply turned the lot over to the authorities on Nathan?'

'Yes, of course. Why do you ask?'

'Well, that would have defeated the object of Chaing's exercise. He said there were specific factions on Nathan that wanted to see the results of this zombification process; they would want to keep this all as quiet as possible. The only way that this could be kept under wraps is if you were in on it too.'

'That's nonsense.'

'Well, I would like to think so, myself, but I've talked it over with the Captain, and we can't take that chance. We've activated the majority protocols to take over the ship, and relieved you from command. When we get to Nathan the authorities there can take a look at all the evidence and make their minds up.'

'You are making a mistake. That assassin is a real killer, and you are letting him go. But if everything had gone right, Chaing's scheme would have caused no harm to anyone.'

'With the exception of Coell, who would probably have been reprogrammed so much that his entire personality would have been destroyed.'

'The Process that the Proxy Avatar brings would be of enormous benefit to human and vec-kind alike, if we were only willing to accept it' said Fram. 'Even if this one has failed, there are many other Proxavs hidden within this system, or so they say.'

The lifeboat was visible in a virtual window, which Captain Shelley had caused to appear in thin air between them. It dwindled to a speck, then drifted off the screen. The Captain made no effort to adjust the field of view.

'This is the way of the future; it is inevitable,' Fram continued. ' In due course infomorphs alone will rule Nathan and Zadok, and all human frailty will be forgotten.'

Kelsa replied to the ship. 'I'm not in a hurry to see that happen, Fram. People are people, whether they are made of flesh or electrons. Somehow there must be a way that we can forge an integrated society, where real and virtual people can live and work together. Forgive my doubting nature, but creating an army of zombies does not seem to be the best way to achieve that goal.'


by Steve Bowers

Table of Contents