Dirty Hands - Pt 2 of 3
7Sengya finds me back up at the bar as the party's winding down. “Hey,” she tells me, without preamble. “Stuff's starting to pop.”

I smile, feeling a warm happy glow kicking in. “I know,” I tell her, brightly, feeling more than a little tipsy, and hold up my refill of cusha oro. “Jose; pours me any more of this, I gonna invite him home...lady, have you tried this here firewater?”

7Sengya shakes her head, and sniffs, just a little, wincing. “Model T,” she says, “you are gonna be in rough-ass shape tomorrow, if you keep killing that. Is that corn liquor?”

“Why, I do think it is,” I agree cheerfully. “Has that goes-down-smooth, kills-you-in-the-morning sort of feel.”

“Yeah, well, kill yourself tomorrow,” 7Sengya tells me. “The good Senator-” she flashes that pointy-toothed not-nice grin, “-was kind enough to loan me an aircar...and José, here. Kettlebeck's found something...interesting, and the Senator and 12Tamyu want me – us, actually – to go check it out.”

I exchange glances with Jose. From the startled way he's blinking, I'm guessing it's the first he's heard of this himself. “The Senator wants,” I repeat, and deliberately take a long slow sip. I cock my head. “Huh. Remind me again...when did we start working for the former Senator?”

She sighs at me. “Silly boy,” she tells me, monotone. “Who you think winkled the aircar outta him...and hey, when are you gonna have your fab build you one?”

I make a squawking noise. “You know what those things cost?” I demand. “Those aircar motors are wrapped with, like, fifteen grams of platinum-base superconductors, spacegirl.”

She arches an eyebrow. “So?”

"Platinum's going about thirty thousand to one over C," I tell her. "Superconductors especially are spiking big, right now."

"Oh," 7Sengya says, wincing a bit. "Sorry." She cocks a crooked grin. "My bad...you dirty street bum, you."

I wince just a bit, myself. Actually by local standards, I am poor as a church mouse, especially compared to some of the moguls I woke up with. I went into deadsleep with about twelve million in assets – nothing, compared to what a lot of the Resurrected had in their portfolios. When we were thawed out, our net worth was converted to C – literally, carbon apparently being the most stable medium of exchange. The fledgling nanofab-based economy here on Purgatory is still sorting itself out, but what it comes down to is: anything your fab builds out of the more basic elements – carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, colloquially known as CHON – is, literally, dirt-cheap...whereas anything that requires metal – especially precious metals like platinum – is going to cost through the nose. And with the glut on equipment fabrication going, there was a pretty substantial spike going on most exotic materials, especially elements used to make superconductors. It would have for durn sure taken a significant chunk of change out of my adjusted-for-the-year-4000 account to spring for an aircar, and there just isn't anywhere in particular I've really wanted to go in Purgatory enough to take that kind of hit.

The good Senator, whose liquid assets once added up to a notable fraction of the former wealth of Texas, is in a rather different tax bracket, even here in the Glorious Future.

Exploration's for the curious, anyway. Being eighteen again helps, but even here in Purgatory, most mornings I wake up still deciding if I actually give a damn. Or well, I had...until 7Sengya showed up, anyhow. Whatever else she is, she's definitely got me awake again, these days....

“Yeah, well, we got the use of one now,” she tells me. “And there's something I really want us to go see.”

I nod, a little uneasily; at the way this seems to be a we thing. “And that is?”

She grins at me. “You'll love it. Superstructure relics. Exotic radiation. That kind of interesting.”

“Oh,” I say. I take an especially big gulp of cusha oro, and take a moment to see how I feel about that. Actually, it doesn't even take a moment to decide that.

“Well, yeah,” I tell her, “if I was an intrepid Pathfinder like you, who made my living by sticking my nose through wormholes in space just to see what's on the other side, I do indeed think I'd wanna go look at something like that.” I raise my eyebrows, waiting on the obvious disconnect to occur to her, but it doesn't. So I continue: “But...ah, you seem to be forgetting...I'm a chickenshit old white-collar, uhm, salesman, who once flunked physics...and José, here, is an all-around handyman, who, credit where credit's due, does cook up one mean batch of Guatemalan moonshine...”

7Sengya makes a half-amused, half-pouty face at me. “C'mon, Justin,” she tells me. “You're not the slightest bit interested for find out what all this really is?”

“I am indeed,” I tell her steadily. “And I'd be happy to sit back and hear you tell me all about it...when you figure it all out.”

Violet blankness, her eyes. The moment stretches on, uncomfortably. It comes to me that 7Sengya likes to do this, when somebody says something particularly idiotic. I stare back at her, a little incredulously. “Come on, Sengya,” I protest, feeling more than a bit absurd. “I know jack shit about science. I've never used a gun in my life...and you seriously wanna be tripping all over me while you go do your Pathfinder thing, go poke The Great Unknown in the eye with a stick?”

7Sengya sighs and rolls her eyes skywards. “You Earthguys watched just way too many bad horror movies, no lie. I don't need your...scientific acumen, and I for durn sure don't need some yahoo with a gun. We aren't invading the Alien Hive, here. What I do need...is you. An Old Earth partner. Purgatory was obviously designed for you Old Earthers, and there's a lot of its functions that might be inclined to be a lot more responsive, and uhm, forgiving, let's say, to an Old Earther than they would be to some outsider like Yours Truly, you follow?”

I chew that over for a moment. No matter how I turn it over, it still doesn't sound appealing, but I do get the rationale, sort of. “So where are we going?” I ask, reluctantly.

7Sengya grins at me. “A tower,” she tells me. “A really big, fucking tower...smack-dab in the middle of Purgatory.”

“A tower,” I repeat, incredulously. I glance at José once again, and strangely, he's not looking discomforted anymore. For just the briefest flicker of a moment, in fact, I catch a hard, knowing look in his eyes, but it goes away as fast as it appeared, and all of a sudden it's innocent bemused José blinking back at me again. I blink, myself. What the fuck is that?

“C'mon, we gotta head over to Kettlebeck's place,” 7Sengya tells me, with that knowing Cheshire Cat grin of hers, seemingly – and strangely – oblivious to the look I'd just seen on José's face. She cocks her head back over her shoulder. “Hey, José,” she calls, “you driving, or you gonna let me see if I can figure how to do Immelmanns in your boss's shiny new aircar?”

I raise my eyebrows at José. Whatever that distant knowing look he'd been wearing before, it's long gone now. It's almost enough to make me wonder if I had somehow just imagined it. “Hurricane Sengya,” I tell him, drolly. “Don't blame me, I'm still getting used to it.”





From the top, Zane Kettlebeck's place is a modest hacienda-style ranch house on the mountains ringing the Valley, with a breathtaking view over a sheer cliff face that drops away to the forest below. Down below is a different story; Kettlebeck's burrowed quite a complex into the mountain.

One of Saint Pete's Sonny-from-I, Robot avatars guides us into the house and then into an elevator that zips us down into the complex's bowels. Kettlebeck himself is in a cavernous lab with enough holo monitors to run an Old Earth NASA launch, staring at a two-meter-tall image that resembles nothing so much as an outsized snowflake.

“Seng,” he says, offhandedly, without looking up. He's using some sort of holographically-generated gloves to manipulate microscale elements of the snowflake image. “Hey.” He doesn't take note of me or José at all.

7Sengya comes up, gives him a sideways hug. Kettlebeck actually spares her about half a second to give her an absentminded one-armed hug back, which in itself is testament to how sexy – and forceful of personality - 7Sengya actually is. Zane Kettlebeck, I had already figured out from the few dealings I'd had with him in the Very Early Days after Resurrection, when we were all pretty much walking around in a daze, is not a People Person.

“You see it,” 7Sengya tells him. It's not a question.

“Jesus Lord,” Kettlebeck says, shaking his vast head, which is already starting to sprout a bushy bird's-nest of unkempt hair after only three months on Purgatory. He finally straightens, a ponderous process more than a bit like a giraffe raising its head up, and meets her eyes. I remember, vaguely, the old pics of Kettlebeck from Earth, back when he'd been a wizened old geezer confined to an outsized wheelchair, my generation's answer to Stephen Hawking. Saint Pete's rebuild might have fixed his degenerative giantism, pared him down a good six inches, restored him to age-eighteen vitality, and gotten him out of that too-big wheelchair – but he's still close to seven feet tall and moves around like Lurch from The Addams Family. “Once you showed it to me – I can't unsee it. You're sure this is right?”

7Sengya just nods.

Kettlebeck whistles, slightly, and shakes his head disbelievingly. “And you say this net is attached to every significant body of mass in the Cluster?”

“Anything massing a kilo or greater, anyhow,” 7Sengya tells him. “We've found a few fragments, here and there, that somehow escaped the XG1 assemblers, some bits of ice in the Oort clouds. We think there's some bigger bits, probably stray comets in unusual orbits that cruise around mostly in empty space that the replicators never found...but yeah, suffice it to say, ninety-nine point ninety-nine per cent plus of the mass in the Cluster...has that attached to it.”

I can't stand it anymore. “So anybody wanna tell me what we're talking about here?” I ask, irritation at not knowing trumping the knowledge that opening my mouth would identify me as the simpleton I actually am.

“This is what I've had Zane poking into," 7Sengya tells me. "The Xi Geminorum angelnet."

I stare at her, blankly.

“It's microtech,” she tells me, straining more obviously for patience than is usual for her. “Very sophisticated microtech. Most modern hu civs use...a very crude form of this, on most of their worlds and habs. For weather-control, crime monitoring, fire suppression, nano-defense, suchlike. A micro-machine dispersed network. This is...way beyond that.”

Way beyond,” Kettlebeck echoes, his eyes back on the projected snowflake display. He's clicking around with the holo-manipulators again.

I'm feeling more than a bit out of my conceptual depth again, a not-unusual state, recently. “How's that?” I ask.

“Well, for starters, this is why so much of our high-tech gear doesn't work here,” 7Sengya tells me, making a sour face. “And it's why – in pretty much complete contravention of every explorer communication/quarantine protocol that's ever been established by any species anywhere, anytime - it's no biggie that you and I...ah, got close and personal-like, 'cause the angelnet...in the Cluster, it's everywhere. If whatever's running this place is gonna whammy me with nanos, you, me, everybody here...we're already exposed. In the Hyades, the only nanos allowed to exist...are already in the angelnet. And they're everywhere.”

I frown. “This...angelnet doesn't permit other nanos or AI's?” I ask, incredulously. “How's that?”

7Sengya shrugs. “'Cause the angelnet's almost got the force of natural law, here in the Cluster. Keep in mind this is a ubiquitous S3-level dispersed network. Foreign nanotech assemblers, AI...you bring any of that in through the wormhole Nexus, the old XG1 a-net penetrates it, scans it, then kills it...in seconds. Renders the unauthorized nanotech or AI right down to its constituent molecules, in fact.” She spreads her hands in that universal poof gesture.

I'm still wearing that baffled expression, and she elucidates, again, a little impatiently: “Think...a universal, almost...aware cloud of self-replicating machines, micro-sized, that are attached, as I said, to every significant source of mass within the Hyades...planets, planetoids, asteroids, comets...everything. Even the air we're breathing right now.”

“What's it do?” I ask, looking at the display.

“Be easier to say what it couldn't do,” Kettlebeck grunts, still staring into his monitors. “If the replication rates I'm seeing are accurate...honestly, the capacity of this network...boggles the mind. You could shape basic forms of a kilo or so mass in minutes, ton-lots in just a few hours. Could probably build something like Purgatory in months, if you gave the assemblers enough mass to go to work on...would need a shit-ton of C for all the buckyfiber, of course...and heavier metals for the superconductors would be tougher – I'm assuming the a-net can't transmute elements - but Jesus Lord...anything short of that...”

Kettlebeck's voice trails off. “It's the breath of God, basically,” he concludes, finally.

7Sengya makes a sour face. “That's a bit...blasphemous,” she says, a little surprisingly, and I arch another curious eyebrow her way. 7Sengya, it seems, doesn't just have politics...but from the way she just said that, it leaves me with the distinct impression she just might have religion, too. Another curious little bit of datum, for later contemplation.... “But yeah,” she agrees, as if the words taste bad, “that's about the long and short of it, I guess. Those nanofab boxes you Old Earthers have...if you took 'em apart, I guarantee you'd find out there's nothing much in 'em except maybe pipes for feedstock. They're just interfaces for the XG1 angelnet.”

Kettlebeck shakes his head. “And you say it's got ubiquitous dispersal,” he repeats, again, as if he can't believe it.

7Sengya bobs her head again. “Yup. Everywhere on the Hyades side of the Nexus, yeah. Only averages about a thousandth of one per cent of available mass...but trust me, that's plenty, at least here in the Hyades. Corewards, and the Pleiades side...the angelnet shut down when the XG1's...went away. The a-net, there, presumably crumbled back into its constituent carbons. Why the angelnet stayed active here in the Hyades cluster...no one knows.” She cocks her head at him, makes a wry half-smile. “You wanna hear the prevailing hypothesis?”

Kettlebeck stares at her intently. “And that is?”

“Because there's a driving intelligence in the Hyades still maintaining it.”

“Ghosts in the machine,” I find myself saying aloud, remembering her earlier presentation with 12Tamyu at Tyson's.

7Sengya nods. “You got it.”

Kettlebeck's head comes up again, and he purses his lips, as if tasting something disturbing. “Given the complexity...each individual element is a discrete processor on a dispersed network,” he says, finally. “Get enough of those together...the angelnet itself could be sentient.”

7Sengya shrugs. “Could be,” she allows. “But we don't think it is...not anymore, anyway. Studying the angelnet is a bitch, mind, because the individual components just crumble to carbon dust when we try to remove them from the Hyades, and of course inside the Cluster anything complex enough to study them with any sort of detail gets disassembled...but from what we can tell, there doesn't seem to be much in the way of synaptic transmission going on between the discrete processors. If there's something in the angelnet itself...it's asleep, mostly.” She shrugs. “And we think the angelnet's mostly just the implementation end of the old XG1 machine anyhow – the real brains were...elsewhere.”

Kettlebeck raises thick eyebrows that are already starting to resemble Wolfman Jack's. “Why you think that?”

Another knowing grin: “Because based on everything we know...an S3-level brain would literally be the size of a moon.”

“Oh.” He stares at her, chewing that over for a moment. “And have you seen these moons?”

7Sengya smiles, wanly. “We have,” she says. “They're dead. Nobody's home, anymore. Not the XG1's, anyhow. At least...not in the ones we've found.”

“But the angelnet's still here.”

She gives Zane a toothy grin. It is not a friendly expression. “Yeah. Kinda makes you wonder, doesn't it? 'Course...check this out.” She turns to the Saint Pete avatar standing placidly beside the lab's foyer door. “Hey, Tall and Shiny!” she says, snapping her fingers. “You got anything to add to any of this? What do you know about the angelnet?”

The Saint Pete avatar straightens, ever so imperceptibly. “I am sorry, Pathfinder 7Sengya,” the servitor tells her, in its usual bland pleasant voice, smiling its usual bland pleasant smile. “If you are referring to the Xi Geminorum AI-1 dispersed utility network, I do not have a great deal of relevant information beyond that which you already possess. I know this network once served a number of functions within the AI-1 superculture, but I myself – indeed, all servitors in the Purgatory hab – are of much more limited capability. I cannot access this network.”

“Uh-huh,” 7Sengya says, and puts a hand defiantly on one shapely hip, juts her jaw out, and turns back to us. She raises a pointed eyebrow. “I'm sure.”

I match her pointed stare with a frown of my own. “Okay,” I say, feeling the need to prod a bit. “But weren't you built by the XG1's?”

“This seems a distinct possibility,” the avatar agrees, readily. “It is indeed possible, perhaps even likely, that I – the 'I', of course, referring to the monitoring AI you have dubbed Saint Pete - was indeed a construction of the Xi Geminorum AI-1 superculture, or at least a scion of that culture. However, I was created solely as a caretaker for this Purgatory habitat,” it qualifies, and then adds: “I possess no information about my creators.”

7Sengya gives me another pointed glance, sticks out her tongue, ever so slightly, and shakes her head.

“No?” I press, though it occurs to me, the Pathfinders themselves claim they have no idea where they're from either, so it's just the slightest bit hypocritical of 7Sengya to be calling bullshit on Saint Pete. It does definitely seem, whatever, that there's just a whole lot of need-to-know going on in the galaxy, these days. “So you just popped into existence one day, with no knowledge of how you got here, with nothing to do but run the station and thaw us Old Earthers out on schedule?”

The servitor avatar regards me placidly. “This is essentially correct, yes,” it tells me, blithely unconcerned how little that answer covers.

“Huh,” I say, rolling that around a bit, and considering. “And that doesn't bother you?”

The servitor continues to regard me unflappably. “No, Justin Matte,” the avatar tells me, utterly unperturbed. “I have function. I have purpose. This is more than sufficient.” Which sounds like what the Pathfinders said to us earlier too.

“So what about us?” I demand. For some reason, Saint Pete's trademark polite unforthcomingness is grating more than usual, today. “What's our function? What's our purpose?”

“I am sorry, Justin Matte,” the avatar tells me, blandly. “I do not have that information.” Which, again, is pretty much par for the course, in virtually every conversation that anyone on the cylinder has ever had with Saint Pete. You want Saint Pete to do something for you – lend you a servitor avatar, walk you through using your fab, provide medical service when you're, say, falling-down drunk and take a header off your front porch at three in the morning – Saint Pete is right there for you, but if you wanna know something, Earthman, you're on your own. Don't have that file on my hard drive, so sorry.

“Care to speculate?” Kettlebeck presses.

The avatar actually hesitates, then. “I truly cannot say, Zane Kettlebeck,” the avatar says, after a noticeable pause. “Given the manner in which Purgatory seems to have been constructed, and the apparently deliberate lack of regulatory controls on you...a reasonable surmise is that the Resurrected are intended to find your own function...and your own purpose.”

7Sengya smiles, victoriously, and stares hard at me. It comes to me that knowing smile is starting to get a little old...but then again, she's definitely made her point.

“So,” she says, and turns back to Kettlebeck. “You were doing the heat map for me.”

“Yeah,” he says, pursing his lips. He makes some subtle adjustment to the airpad at his fingertips, and some incomprehensible jumble of equations pops up in midair. “You were right – the local focus, it is the tower.”

7Sengya's victorious grin widens. “I thought so. And that's exactly where we're going next.”

Kettlebeck's vast head bobs, once. “Yeah, I figured,” he says. “But...ah, seriously, Seng...if you gotta go....” He straightens, awkwardly, and crosses his arms over his chest. “I know you say there's nothing sentient left in the a-net...but the heat-map scatter I'm picking up from the angelnet around that tower...well, it's just way higher in the region around the tower than it is locally. If there's a ghost in the machine, like you said...that's exactly where the ghost is.”




The endless wilderness of Purgatory rolls beneath us for long hours. A soft little drone of Norteño music echoes around the cabin from somewhere, making the journey a bit like a ride in a Tijuana taxi.

The Moth can cruise at just a hair over the speed of sound before it tumbles off its cushion of downdraft – it's a disconcertingly bumpy ride, getting up to that speed, until you hit the speed of sound, when everything gets quiet and smooth again - which eats up real estate at better than the rate of an Old Earth commuter jet, but it's coming to me, as Purgatory just goes on and on and on, the sheer scale of this place. It's one thing to know, intellectually, that you're in a hollow cylinder ten thousand klicks in length, quite another to realize that your own little neck of the woods is just a minute sliver in one far corner of it.

José drives, humming just under his breath to the Norteño music, accordions and bajo sexto guitars strumming and some cowboy-hatted troubadour wailing mournfully in Spanish about long lost love. I sit in the passenger seat, fitfully dozing on and off.

7Sengya doesn't talk at all. She's showing an odd moodiness, slouched in the aircar's backseat with one shapely black-clad leg sprawled carelessly over to the empty side seat behind her, brooding. I'd made a few abortive attempts at conversation, early in the trip, gotten a couple of uncommunicative monosyllabic grunts in return, and duly gave up.

So it comes as something of a surprise when I feel a tap on my shoulder rousing me from my slumber. 7Sengya extends a finger up past my shoulder into the distance.

“Hey,” she tells me, in a low voice. “That's it.”

I look. The tower is an obsidian finger that juts up into the sky, visible even from kilometers off. It's a bit harder to tell, on Purgatory, how far away stuff is, since in a cylinder there's no horizon for stuff to vanish behind, but it grows quickly as we approach, and I realize the thing makes skyscrapers look small; this tower literally pokes through the wispy cloud layer that sits about two kilometers off the cylinder's floor. Land had dropped away from us about an hour or so back; the Moth is out over the vast central sea that occupies the middle of the ten-thousand-kilometer-long habitat.

The tower sits on a lonely island, on a vast hexagonal base that protrudes out of the sea. Immense waves that had to have been dozens of meters tall slap against it, casting a foamy spray around the edges. I wonder, briefly, about that. Waves on Earth, I know, are mostly caused by the gravitational pull of the Moon...what, I wonder in passing, is causing the vast oceanic shifts here?

I arch an eyebrow back at 7Sengya. “Well, that's big,” I offer.

7Sengya purses her lips into a thin tight line, an oddly pensive gesture compared to her usual bombastic confidence. “Yeah,” she says, tautly, staring past my shoulder at the tower with those unblinking cat eyes. “It is.” She lapses back into brooding silence.

José reefs the Moth around in a low circle around the base of the tower; and I look up – and up – and it comes to me how gnatlike we really are, compared to the vast structure.

“Uhm...Señorita?” he asks 7Sengya, uncertainly.

7Sengya leans forward again. Her polycarbon clothes make a soft rustle and hum, like they're shifting along with her. “There, at the base,” she says, pointing. “North side pad.” José nods and brings us in. The Moth extends its landing legs out, insectlike, settles down on its haunches in a whistling flurry of fancloth exhaust. The transpex canopy splits apart around us and we're there.

7Sengya's hand clutches my shoulder, again. I glance back, into her luminous glittering violet cat eyes. Especially after the distant moodiness of the last few hours, the abrupt intensity shift in them is more than a little unsettling. “You wanna know what all this is about?” she asks, throatily, her eyes never leaving mine. Her face contorts underneath those glinting eyes, then, an undecipherable expression that shows flickers of everything between wistfulness, envy, resentment...and pure naked rage. I blink, a little uneasily, because all of a sudden, I'm getting palpable crazy-chick vibes off her in a way I've never picked up before. “Well, this is it.”

Her hand cuts air about an inch from my nose with a whooshing sound more than a little a reminiscent of a Bruce Lee kung fu strike...and I'm reminded, again, just how catlike her reflexes are, and how much coiled tensile strength her augmented muscles possess. “All the rest – that's window dressing. This is the whole show, Model T...why you're here...why we're all here, really.”

I nod as agreeably as possible, feeling more than passing disquiet lurching around in my stomach. It's probably spurred more than a bit by the sea around us, and the Norteño music that's been rattling around in my eardrums for hours, but for some reason, then, a random ugly memory from my first life detaches itself from the basement of my subconscious and comes bubbling up: Bianca. Costa Rica. The balmy tiered decks of the Four Seasons overlooking the bay at Peninsula Papagayo. A natural hustler, smooth as Teflon, angel-faced, Bianca had been a flashing-eyed Latina from Gwinnett by way of San José – the Costa Rican capital, not the California town just north of San Fran – who'd attached herself to me first as a temp secretary, then, increasingly, as a more...hands-on partner in biz as I figured out her talents and ambition went a lot further than dictation.

As was my usual wont, I'd messed it up righteously, of course. It had seemed like a fine idea, at the time, to take Bianca back home in triumphant first-class style to celebrate the closing of a particularly lucrative gig we'd pulled in Mid-Town. Certainly had gone swimmingly at first, mohitos and hot tubs and room service and a lot of dirty screaming sex. And of course, one drunken night about a week in, I'd boorishly set off some half-buried landmine Daddy Issue, and the lovely Bianca had gone truly and comprehensively boom in stone bugfuck fashion. I remember Bianca ripping a fifteen-hundred-dollar Tiffany lamp off the nightstand and flinging it at my head like Randy Johnson on PCP while sobbing and screeching in Spanish...and that had been just about it for our celebration at the Papagayo. We'd flown back to Atlanta on separate flights.

I thought I'd forgotten that, one buried ugly memory among hundreds in what had been, in truth, a long and mostly ugly first life. But right now, looking at a real similar expression on 7Sengya's face this second...I find I'm remembering Costa Rica just real vividly.

It's disconcerting. Especially since I have even less idea than is usual for me what's setting 7Sengya off this second. I stare back into 7Sengya's too-wide, fixed cat eyes, uncomfortably aware of just how very, truly inhuman they're looking right now, and also uncomfortably aware, for the first time, that if this skitters on out of control, she's not going to chuck a Tiffany lamp at me – this particular crazy chick can undoubtedly pull my arms and legs off like a kid plucking apart a bug.

“What is this, 7Sengya?” I ask her, as levelly as possible. For some reason my subconscious is telling me it's a particularly bad idea at this juncture to omit the seven designation from her name.

She grunts then, and I see the message strike home: Seven Sengya. A sophont with function...and a job to do. She squares her shoulders, then, smooths her face over into that placid easy mask – and it is a mask, I realize, concealing all manner of things beneath it, some of which I'm just beginning to catch glimpses of - and shrugs easily, as though nothing untoward had happened. And like that, her crazy oozes right on away into whatever dark corner she stores it in.

“The first step in the Path,” she tells me, finally, and averts her gaze. Something in the way she says it puts a capitalization on the word 'path'. She turns back to the looming Olympian obelisk of the tower above us, and in one gliding move she throws her long legs outside the split canopy and stalks away

Señor,” José ventures hesitantly, casting wary young eyes at 7Sengya's departing back. “I think...I think I would like to stay here.”

“Yeah,” I tell him, and make a face. “Starting to wish I could.”




It's always been a source of fascination, to me, that 7Sengya and the other Pathfinders don't tote around much gear. You'd expect interstellar explorers to be loaded ankle to jowls with all sorts of fascinating gizmos, but they aren't. In fact, other than their skintight black transformer suits, the only piece of equipment the Pathfinders seem to carry is a paperback-sized box they clip to their belt that seems to be some kind of food converter; they stick organic material in, and the box converts it into a nutrient paste they then inject. Which is itself a bit of a conundrum, since such magic smacks of nanotech...and yet, foreign nanotech allegedly doesn't work, here in the Nexus....

Whatever, the reason for that apparent lack of gear, I'm realizing, is pretty simple: the rest of the Pathfinders' gear is internal. We stand at the base of the great vast tower, looking up – and up. The golden glyphs her eyes project are working overtime, and I see flashes of golden light lancing up towards the tower, the way you can sometimes see a laser designator from a certain angle.

“Twenty-seven hundred meters in height,” she tells me, after a few seconds. “Four hundred ninety meters in diameter. Gives it an approximate volume of five hundred thirty million cubic meters.” She chuckles low in her throat, slightly. “Which means, it's like, about two hundred and thirty times the size, on the inside, of your old Empire State Building, if you want a frame of reference. It's buckyfiber and diamondoid, for the most part, like most of Purgatory.” She stamps a boot down on the tarmac beneath our feet. “This slab we're standing on is diamandoid foam, most likely.”

A frown touches her lips, then. “Except....” she says, and whistles, slightly. “Holy shit...I think there's magmatter strands running up the building. I know you can't see infrared...but there's some hot plasma jets running up in parallel, magnetically contained...and there's gamma rays and pions shucking off the top at a wondrous rate...seriously, bunky, we do not wanna stand on the top of the tower, or fly over that on the way out, it'd cook us like bugs hitting a zapper.” She shakes her head, seemingly, half in wonder, half in despair. “Only in the Nexus.”

“Ah...” I start, tentatively, and then shrug; there's no point in tiptoeing around 7Sengya: if she's going to go bugfuck on me, we might as well get it over and done with. “Not for nothin', but you're talking way over my head again,” I tell her. But gently.

She bares her teeth, and her eyes glint again, ever so slightly, but the full-on crazy she had shown, ever so briefly, seems to have gone its way. “Don't sweat it,” she tells me, easily again. “I'm talking way over mine. Magmatter is...something hu's have never seen, before the Nexus. Just a theory, outside...even second-toposophic superminds like GAIA never showed any ability to manipulate magmatter...but the XG1's obviously did; they use it on all their most important megastructures...which, it would seem, includes this one.”

She taps her foot, considering. More gold glyphs crawl in front of her face. “Used like this...I'd speculate, anyhow, it's part power source, part hyperstrong construction material...both on a scale hu's like us could never even aspire to create.”

“So...what's it doing here?” I ask.

A slow shake of that head. “Dunno,” she says, tossing a rogue strand of blue-black hair from her face. “I wish I knew. Could be the power source for the whole cylinder. Probably is. But we think it's...way more than that.” The use of the word we, in the present tense, strikes me as odd for some reason, because hadn't 7Sengya not even known about the tower a day before?

I don't have time to dwell on that.7Sengya turns those violet eyes at me, and while they're smoky with conflicted emotions again, she's actually looking more...sad, than anything. “What it really is, we think...is your...inheritance.”

“Our inheritance?” I repeat.

She nods, closes her eyes for longer than a blink. “Yeah,” she says. When her eyes open, they're clear and dispassionate again. “Come on,” she tells me. “Let's see what Daddy left you, huh?”

She sets forth again. I stare for a long moment at the foreboding height of the immense tower above us, and while I don't have 7Sengya's augments, even my crude baseline senses can feel the vast energies pulsating from it at some level just beyond the sensible.

There is something in this tower, I know, instinctively, down deep at the DNA level where my poor primitive simian brain still resides. Something so vast and powerful it makes my skin crawl, makes me feel as paltry and insignificant as a microbe on a Petri dish.

I really don't want to go in there either.

But down deeper, I know: 7Sengya's right. Because there's some sort of magnetic impelling force on that tower, and I've got no more choice in the matter than a hypnotized child following the Pied Piper.

Reluctantly, I follow.




I remember, when I was a kid, my first trip into a circus funhouse.

I was maybe five or six, I think. Certainly way too young to understand sensory overload, and how overwhelming it could be. It was a nightmarish cacophony of flashing lights, distorted shapes, hollow tinny circus music piped in at disorienting decibels. I remember sinking to my knees, the world going crazy in my mind, squeezing my eyes shut and pressing hands to ears to try to make it stop...until my dad dragged me out, the world pressing in and spinning around. I still remember how it took me a good five or ten minutes before my brain sorted the world out and it made sense again.

Going into the tower is like that. I'm right back in the funhouse, almost instantly. Reality distorts around me. 7Sengya is the only fixed point. She stalks ahead of me for what seems like hours, or it might be seconds. I have no clear idea. Inside the tower, my sensation of time is as twisted as the landscape in an MC Escher painting.

The inside of the tower is a maze of tunnels, winding through a honeycomb of hexagonal polygons. 7Sengya marches through them like she's got a homing beacon in her head...which for all I know, she might. The honeycomb structure of the walls feels almost hivelike.

Inside, the sensation of vast energies pulsing around us is even stronger, and seems to fill my head with a crackling static, like headphones tuned to white noise.

Except, there's patterns in that noise. And things that might be voices, whispers just under the audible range....

Throughout the vast winding halls, eddies of glowing bluish dust swirl in the air, leaving cobalt traces in their wake. I pause at one, reach a tentative hand out. It could be a fairy sprite, or an optical illusion.

“What are these?” I ask, and until I speak I don't realize how hushed my tone is. In front of me, the shimmering blue eddy swirls and dances in front of me, almost playfully, with the random movements of a bored dragonfly chasing nothing in particular.

“I don't know,” 7Sengya says, tautly, surveying the dancing sprites around us. “Some sort of sub-unit within the angelnet structure. There's a heavy density of active angelnet units in here, and they're giving off pulses across the EM spectrum...whatever they are, they're talking to each other, at least at the root level.”

“Come on,” she says, and turns to go. “The focus is at the top of the tower. If we're going to get answers, it'll most likely be there.”

I nod, but linger, finding it vaguely amusing that despite all her augments and internal gear, for all her knowing sophistication, 7Sengya, at base, is in just as far over her head as I am. The looming gulf of millenniums of progress between even the Pathfinders and the ascended AI's of the Xi Geminorum might as well be stamped across her forehead. For some reason that decides me. I smile, then, and stick my hand into the swirling eddy.

Words.

Cannot.

Describe.

Trying to explain what happens then...well. Context here: for the most part, in my first life, I was a bad man. Before that I'd been a bad boy. And like a lot of bad boys, I'd done a lot of drugs. So pardon my allegory here:

Think about trying to explain to a devout Amishman what a real good tab of pure-MDMA Ecstasy and a real bumpin' rave feels like, or try articulating a real good acid trip to someone who's never even smoked a joint. Except that chemically-induced altered perception has a glazed, damaged effect to it, like somebody just playing with the filters on a computer paint program until the images don't form any comprehensible shape, and this was as focused and clear as a download straight from God's own server.

It'd just be words, trying to explain. And it doesn't near cover the half of what I feel then.

Kaleidoscopic images blaze into my head, an overwhelming volume of data. The blank waiting honeycomb walls around me swirl, transform to recognizable rooms, and I sense – I know – that the interior of this tower can transform itself to whatever form those who control it see fit. I see the shapes of hundreds and thousands of people walking – or some of them walking, some of them are floating through the air, levitating around as though gravity is just a suggestion, a conveyance that itself has been tamed and altered. Time dilates, blurs, lurches forward...and the rooms around me switch shape, and then switch shape again, becoming ever more complex and convoluted, and the humans around me begin to change, becoming steadily...better, somehow, first showing a lean and catlike grace akin to that of the Pathfinders, and then moving well beyond that, to forms that radiate a palpable energy. The faces become harder, the eyes more knowing, the shapes and bodies more and more varied.

The images slow, and I see, then, a single figure gliding down the hall: humanoid, but no longer human. The figure is liquid made form, like quicksilver, radiating a barely-contained power that resonates with the pulsating energies of the tower around us, and I know, somehow, instinctively, that this human has transcended that toposophic barrier the Pathfinders had referred to in their presentation at Tyson Howard's, become...something incomprehensible, to a mote like me. The word echoes in my head, though I've never heard it before in my life: probiont. A man that has passed the Singularity.

The man's eyes might be a thousand years old. They might be older than that. Blue orbs, with a liquid depth that seems to stare through the wall of time itself.

The figure pauses in front of me. Those orbs focus on me. And see me.

“So you are the first,” the figure says. “You should not be here yet. We are not ready. You are not ready.” Those blue eyes turn; regard 7Sengya with a vast and dispassionate contempt. She's squinting in the being's general direction, and cocking her head...and I realize, even 7Sengya, with all her gear, can't quite see whatever it is I'm looking at right now. “And yet I see why: the carrion eaters arrive early, to try to strip the flesh from your bones and snatch your birthright from you before you know what they are. Very well then: we will feed them...but not, I think, how they expect.”

A hint of pity, then, in those deep blue orbs. “Apologies,” the probiont says. “Your progression must of necessity be...accelerated, somewhat, beyond what was originally intended. This will not be comfortable, in many senses.”

Something reaches out for me then. Something formless and incomprehensibly vast.

I scream.





Reality trickles back in stages.

The kaleidoscope slideshow of visions recede, and the blank honeycomb walls of the tower resolve away, back to their – present, is the right word – form around me. I'm being dragged through them. I'm feverishly hot; the world seems almost aflame, except that nothing's burning except me.

Transition. I go away, again, for awhile.

Something strikes me in the face. Somewhere, close, there's the slap of flesh against flesh.

7Sengya, I realize, after the third or fourth slap. She's holding me up, her arm around my shoulders with one arm, while slapping me gently across the face with the other.

Another realization follows: I'm drenching wet. There's a cooler bucket sitting discarded beside 7Sengya. I recall, vaguely, her dumping water on me too. Repeatedly, I think....

“Justin,” she's saying. “Justin.” Another gentle slap. “You all right?” I wonder how long she's been doing that.

“Yeah,” I say, a little groggily. “Yeah.” Her luminous face is very close to mine, furrowed with concern, and for some reason, then, I lean forwards, and plant a kiss squarely on her mouth. She blinks, like a startled cat.

“Justin?” she repeats, pulling away, but not quickly. She seems more surprised than offended. “What happened?”

“I saw....” I blink, like a man trying to shrug off the effects of an unexpected spotlight in the face, and roll my jaw around in my head. My head might as well be stuffed full of cotton, for as well as my brain is working now. “Wow. Just...wow. That was...intense.” I open my mouth, close it, and have another go at it. “I think I saw...I think it was the future, here....” Realizing how lame it sounds even as the words leave my mouth.

7Sengya rocks her head back, then, and gently detaches herself from me. I realize we're back on the tarmac, outside the tower. She must have dragged me out of there, after the...event; I know I couldn't have gotten out on my own. She crosses her arms over her chest and stares at me, lips pursed.

I take some time, then, to sort things out. We're definitely back outside. I'm propped up against the silvery hull of the Moth. The sound of waves crashing against the tarmac fills my ears. José is there with her too, hovering uncertainly, staring at me with concerned dark eyes, clutching a bucket of his own. Which means I must have really been burning up....

I see the tension in 7Sengya's jaw again, too, though in my current state it's hard to care a whole lot about whatever jealous bug she has up her shapely ass. “I'm...not surprised,” she finally says, grudgingly. “This place...is a transcendent conduit, basically. And you Old Earthers are obviously...attuned to it, from the cells up.”

She shrugs, visibly relaxes. “What just happened...you probably weren't seeing the future, per se...just a projection. We've seen it before, with those who touch transap tech...it's kind of an ideogenic fugue. The brain...goes places, it couldn't go before. We call it transavantism...for just a few seconds...your mind is swimming on those higher planes where the transcended play....”

I nod, because I know – again, with that odd clarity, that this is exactly what happened. And then I double over, feeling a swell of immense weakness ripple through me. I groan, aloud.

“Holy shit!” I manage. I hold up my hands in front of my face, and they're suddenly shaking like leafs.

“Justin!” 7Sengya's crouched back over me, instantly. “What's happening to you?”

“I...dunno,” I manage to say. Even talking is suddenly a challenge, and my voice sounds very far away even to my own ears, as if at the other end of a tunnel. “I feel...oh my god, hungry. I've never...” Even sitting up, suddenly, is too much, and I slump back against the hull of the Moth. It's all I can do to look up at 7Sengya, then. “I've never felt this hungry in my life,” I croak. My voice cracks, sounding a bit like a bullfrog's after a weekend-long bender. The world is a vague blur, then, of shapes and sounds.

“Yeah,” someone says. Feminine voice, distant. 7Sengya. I think. I try to focus on her and the sudden gauzy blur on the world recedes a bit. She's unclipping something from her belt - her nutrient dispenser. “Pull up your shirt,” she tells me.

I manage to. Barely.

“This probably isn't gonna be good for you,” she muses, and straddles me, presses me squarely up against the Moth with her free forearm. “It's tuned to our metabolisms, not yours, and Lord alone knows how your poor system's going to handle this much complex sugar...but you gotta have something, and you gotta have it right now.” Faint ghost of that wolfish grin, then. She leans her weight in, holding me down, and I realize again just how strong 7Sengya is. “I gotta inject this straight into your stomach,” she tells me. “And this is gonna hurt some, no lie...”

Actually it hurts like a bitch when the dispenser sticks its needle through my flesh. I squall like an infant, and try to buck, but I'm as weak as a kitten at the moment, and 7Sengya holds me down easily. I endure a moment of stinging pain, followed by an even bigger searing one as the thick needle apparently cauterizes its small wound on the way out, and then it's over. 7Sengya pops the dispenser back on her belt, but stays close.

“Silly boy,” she tells me, in a gentler tone than I've been hearing from her in awhile. “You didn't just overheat; you damn near put yourself into hypoglycemic shock. Your poor Model T body was just not designed to run that hot. And speaking of which...” Her brow furrows, then, and another scroll of golden glyphs flicker in front of her irises, and I get the idea she's just run some sort of scan. Her head jerks away, then, and her wide cat eyes regard me with something akin to amazement.

“My scan can't penetrate all the way,” she says, her voice brittle, “but there's something sure as shit going on with you. Something made you overheat like that, and something burned just way more sugar than you shoulda...so I checked, and you've got some sort of...nano structures, active in your bones now…some stuff in your cells too...something I've never seen before, in any of you Old Earthers.” Her tongue flicked across her lower lip, unconsciously, a nervous gesture I've never seen from her before. “Dunno if it was always there and it was just latent and I couldn't see it, or if some sort of nano-seed somehow triggered in you...but you've got...live nano-processors, embedded in your bones.” Her head shakes back and forth, almost ponderously. “That's some...fairly significant shit there, Model T...and I can double-damn promise you, that is not tech from Old Earth.” Her victorious grin is back, albeit with a chagrined edge.

I manage a nod. She regards me, carefully, and I get the definite notion she's making sure I'm not about to keel over on her again.

“Nanobone processors,” she says, presently, “usually run off blood sugars. Which I would speculate is why you're so hungry. I just hit you with about a thousand calories of pure sugars to make up for what the nanobone processors took out when they went live. But I gotta tell ya...” her voice trails off, and she tosses her blue-black hair, contemplatively. “Between the heat overload those nanobones dumped into you, and the amount of sugar they drew...whatever the hell happened to you in there, they were working overtime there for a minute, no lie. I didn't want to dump more a thousand calories into you, though you probably need it...you're running the risk of insulin shock as it is. But you should feel better, in ten minutes or so.”

Actually it's closer to five minutes before the swimming weakness clears, and I'm able to sit up on my own. I hold my hands in front of me again, tentatively, but while they tremor a bit they're mostly steady now. I'm still feeling hunger pangs, but the feeling of being afire from within has passed. I straighten and regard 7Sengya, then.

“What I saw,” I tell her, feeling certainty grow, though articulating what I know, is much harder. “It's what's going to be. What this place is for. It's...going to be...a school.” That doesn't sound right, and I hunt for the right word. “Or a...graduated focus, more like. For...making us...I dunno, what the word is...bigger. Higher order. Like the Xi Geminorum, eventually, I think.” The words sound closer to the vision swimming in my head.

7Sengya stands very still, the warning sign of golden glyphs scrolling in front of her irises.

“You were right,” I tell her, steadily. “This is our inheritance.”

She regards me with those violet cat eyes. The golden glyphs vanish. “Huh,” she says, and I hear my own noncommittal tone in the word. She manages a wan half-smile.

I wonder, then, what she really knows. Shards of that razor-edge clarity from the ideogenic fugue are still lingering in my brain, and I know I'm seeing things I never noticed before. I look at 7Sengya then, really seeing her, as if for the first time, and instead of a woman I see the almost mechanistic lines of something else, wired in front of her eyes as if like a cage. Like finally seeing the puppet strings dangling from the ceiling of the stage.

“I still wanna make a go,” she says at length. “At the top of that tower. If there's any way we can pull you together enough...”

I'm already shaking my head. “We can't get back in,” I tell her, and I know that's true, too. Whatever forces rule this tower, the way is barred to us now. I know it as certainly as I know water is wet.

7Sengya inclines her head, stares at me, a little incredulously.

“I'm sure,” I tell her. “I...saw it.”

“Shit,” she says, her jaw bunching. She does not ask me to elucidate. “Dammit. I really wanted to meet this thing, whatever it is...” Her voice trails off then, and she stares at me, nonplussed. I realize I'm grinning like a loon. “What's so funny?” she demands.

“Because,” I tell her. “I already met it.”

7Sengya stares at me some more. And behind the wires of the cage in front of her eyes, I realize exactly what I'm seeing now.

Fear.


Table of Contents