Dissension (Conclusion)
"Because old friend, the truth is there was no way I was going to allow you to deliver that ship to Firmament. If we had not been waylaid by that patrol sent here to double-cross us, I planned to destroy it in the space between Tien Lan and Xiao Ping," she said.

"Well, you've turned us into fugitives now, whatever your reasons. Karen, Grip and I anyway. I'm sure you rigged it so they weren't aware of your presence. What's your real objective here anyway? It sure wasn't to make a little cred."

Onyx looked down at the floor. "You are correct. I do not need the cred. I run a dozen successful corporations. I have few personal needs besides server node space. You know at least a little of what I fight for. Karen soon calculated the probability that I was here merely for profit and confronted me near the beginning of our mission."

"Is that true, Karen?" Trash asked, feeling like chump.

"Yes Trash." Karen said, with a tone of artificial regret, which was the best she could do. Trash appreciated that.

"Apparently I can't trust you either."

"You can trust me to look after your best interest, and if that means withholding information, I will do so. Fear over our survival has clouded your thinking and made you short sighted. You would not ask the obvious questions and that told me much. I calculated that if I informed you of Onyx's true intentions, you would have ignored our warnings as mere conjecture, like you are doing now and proceeded to play into Firmament's hands."

Trash fought his mask's artificial feelings down and tried to evaluate what they said objectively, trying to trace where exactly things had gotten out of control.

"Hold on a second!" Grip broke in.

"I really don't give a damn what you're scared of. I didn't sign up for this, girl," he said, pointing a tentacle at Onyx's projection. His skin flashed pulses of white and red anger.

"It ain't no secret you virchers are in cahoots with those oort squatters somehow, but that don't have anything to do with me. I'm loyal to Clan Gurita. You got no call mixing me up in this rebel business!"

Onyx put up a feathered hand in a gesture of peace.

"I understand your anger. I am sorry I could not be honest with you. But I hope you will see that what we are working for concerns all the various clans and societies in Enki, including Gurita."

Grip shook his large head, his color changing to its normal yellow-striped brown. "I get it Onyx. I know this system's being gobbled up by the megacorps. I know the Confederacy is nothing but a puppet. But that's reality, and it ain't changing. We Guritas are getting out of Dodge as quick as we can. You can't put out a burning building by pissing on it."

"And how is that proceeding, Grip, or should I say Pangeran Hamengku." Onyx said pointedly.

Grip flushed white again, "Don't throw that in my face, Onyx. I know who I am. I never hid the fact that I'm a Gurita prince. Hell, there are thirty-two of us. Raja Kuwat likes his female companionship."

"My point is that you know better than anyone that the Gurita elder council and your own father have no intention of leaving this system to travel sixty light years on the hopes that Gaia accepts you." Onyx said.

Grip said nothing.

Onyx reached out to him, her image's hands nearly touching his shoulders.

"This is an opportunity, Grip, an opportunity to make Clan Gurita great again and fulfill the oath you and all other Guritas make to Gaia on your name days. Take your people down the path with a heart. Free them of their servitude to the corporate masters and take them home. We can help you do this." Onyx said, passion filling her soft voice.

Grip clenched two fists and brought them down into the other two palms. "The hell with it! I'll throw in with you. The worst thing that can happen is I get killed and the clan disowns me," he said with a deep gurgle.

"Ok, looks like I've been outvoted, which is strange since I'm supposed to be in charge of this vessel," Trash said, nonplussed.

"Where did you ever get the notion you were in charge of me?" Karen said with a dangerous edge.

"That's not what I meant, Karen, and you know it!" Trash objected. "I mean, I did buy you and I am your registered captain under Enki law, but I don't mean to say I'm in charge of you personally, that is…"

"Remember the law of holes, Hoss." Grip deadpanned.

Trash took his advice and changed the subject. "So let's get down to it. What was that single carrying anyway?"

Onyx nodded, "The singleship was carrying a special, I suppose you could say, substance."

"What kind of substance?" Grip asked.

Onyx gestured at the cargo hold. "Karen, would you mind retrieving it?"

One of Karen's interior arms went off to the hold and came back with a small cube in its manipulator. Trash saw nothing unremarkable about it. It was gray and four centimeters on a side.

"What is it, some new kind of computronium?" Trash said, unimpressed.

"The cube is a containment chamber. Inside are a few million nanites."

"Nanites!" Trash said, horrified. "You brought nanites onboard Karen?"

"It is fine, Trash. They are dormant and Onyx has informed me they are equipped with a series of fail-safes," Karen answered.

"So what are they for? Besides eventually breeding rogue copies and turning everything they touch into gray goo, that is." Trash said sarcastically.

"These nanites are designed to make possible non-destructive uploading." Onyx said. Trash detected a ring of fervor in her tone.

He immediately understood the impact that kind of tech would have on society and the power it would bring to those who held the tech. Billions of Enkites wanted to go virch, but were too afraid to take the leap of faith that was destructive uploading, never mind the loss of rights that went along with it. Non-destructive uploading would allow them all the freedom and power of a virtual being, while maintaining the sophont rights they possessed.

Karen was traveling at her maximum velocity outbound for the oort cloud. Trash's mask gave him a nervous itch. Onyx had assured them that they were not being followed. She explained that there were hidden probes scattered across the system that were copying Karen's unique signature that would thoroughly confuse any hunters sent after them.

Nevertheless, Trash felt exposed. He never left Karen's sensors, scanning constantly for hunter-seeker drones.

On the sixteenth day of their escape, they were deep within Enki A's oort cloud and Trash noticed they were headed directly for a small icy planetesimal that he estimated had a diameter of approximately 45 kilometers.

It was unremarkable in all respects. There were nameless millions in its size all through the cloud. It was pockmarked with small craters and gleamed grayish-white in the faint light from the distant yellow dwarf, Enki A and it's even more distant companion, the white dwarf Enki B.

Trash focused on it, attempting to pick up a tell tale heat signature or stray signals that would indicate there was a base located somewhere on it, but he detected nothing. He supposed it was a rendezvous point.

A few minutes later they were only a thousand kilometers away and Karen showed no signs of slowing down. He knew she was faithfully following the coordinates Onyx had given to her, but at this rate, they were going to slam into the ice ball at critical speed.

He began to send a warning to Karen when he noticed the crater directly before them had opened up into a black void. Minutes later, Karen was gliding through the opening, which was barely wider than herself. He noticed that it closed the instant they had cleared the opening. He scanned the surroundings. Expecting to see rough rock walls, he was surprised to see Karen's running lights illuminating a smooth, featureless tunnel extending towards the center of the planetesimal.

Suddenly, dim red lights appeared out of the gloom ahead on their left. The lights illuminated what looked to Trash like a hangar. Karen banked into the hangar and like at the entrance, the door closed immediately behind her. She docked in the first dock, which was also illuminated with dim red light.

It was clear that these guys were serious about keeping their heat signature to a minimum. A ramp extended to Karen's main hatch and she opened up. Still there was no communication and Trash thought that they were taking it a little far.

"Your friends are a talkative bunch, Onyx," he quipped.

Onyx's holo regarded him, "Unnecessary communication is strictly prohibited outside of the interior," she responded tersely.

Trash took the hint and shut up. Onyx's holo winked out in front of him. Trash and Grip looked at each other. Grip shrugged his shoulders and exited Karen, walking carefully in the near-microgravity and gripping the platform with the micro-suckers on his feet.

Trash hesitated for a moment, not liking the idea of leaving Karen behind in the unfamiliar place.

"Go, I'll be fine," Karen said, reading his mind as usual.

He followed Grip onto the ramp. He had barely stepped off onto the platform when a door opened up in the far wall. Two figures approached them. One, Trash recognized immediately. It was Onyx, even more realistic looking then as a hologram. She was inhabiting an old fashioned android body. Though a little archaic, it was a extremely well designed android shell that was her spitting image from her biont life, minus the cybernetic accoutrements. She moved fluidly, with none of the tell tale micro-jerking of lower quality androids.

Her companion was also an android, given his IR signature, but looked far different. It appeared to be an unaugmented middle-aged male hu, with features that would anciently be described as Asian. He stood a head shorter than Onyx's two meter height. He was well built with what Trash supposed a fellow hu would consider handsome, regular features. He had long black hair that hung loose to his waste, tan skin and broad, strong cheekbones. His eyes were piercing, with slight Ravens-feet at their corners. He smiled at Trash and Grip, beckoning them with his hand.

Trash and Grip walked to the door and followed Onyx and the man through. The door shut behind them with a snap.

Onyx turned around and cocked her avian head to the side, blinking. A raven rianth gesture Trash equated with a hu's smile.

"Sorry for the theatrics, my friends. They really are very serious about their secrecy here."

"Where exactly is 'here'," he said, scanning the surroundings. He found himself in a large room that looked like a meeting area for bionts. There were seats and tables. The room was filled with bionts, some injured, others just looking beaten down. He saw that they were mostly hu variants with a range of cybernetic and bionic enhancements. He also noticed a significant number of rianths, mostly raven, in addition to a few orangutan provolves of Clade Mawas interspersed through the group, keeping to themselves. The room was well lit with a soft white light in the hu standard visible range.

He looked back at Onyx, "And what about Karen? I don't like just leaving her out there." He made use of his mostly unused voice synthesizer for the sake of the hu, just in case the old android shell had archaic limitations.

The hu smiled at him broadly. "I'll answer your second question first," he replied, gesturing towards a side passage. Trash absentmindedly noted he answered properly through the common communication code, CCC. Just then a tall female hu android with short flame-red hair and green eyes walked into the room. She looked at him and smiled. Trash wondered if she was daft.

"Don't you recognize me, Trash?" she said.

He found himself speechless for an entire second as his processors buzzed, "Karen?…What have they done to you, you look positively garish."

Her smile evaporated. "Thanks for that, Trash. This shell was all that was immediately available. Unfortunately they did not have any miniature models of a 252-XT Interplanetary Light Cargo Ship lying around for me to inhabit, so this is the best I could do," she said flatly.

"That's too bad," Trash replied sincerely.

Karen shot him an ugly look. He was impressed at how quickly she picked up the subtle nuances of hu facial manipulation. She walked over and greeted Onyx. They clasped each other's hands and Karen smiled. Trash was puzzled by the affection. They were acting like they had not seen each other in years instead of only a minute ago.

He turned back to the male. "So how about my first question? And who are you for that matter?"

The hu male nodded, "Simply put, this place is a bastion for those living in the cloud who are threatened by government and corporate forces. And I am called Lung Feng."

"Wait a minute, that name sounds familiar. I just can't recall where I heard it," Grip interjected.

"You are thinking of Dr. Lung Feng, former chief nanoengineer of Kehidupan Seni Corporation and the first president of the Enki Confederation. Lung Feng is the alpha upload of that person," Onyx said.

"That's right! So, Mr. President, where the hell did it all go wrong?" Grip said sarcastically.

"Good question, my friend." Lung replied solemnly.

"So now you're looking to make it all better? Make your comeback and start a glorious revolution to bring a new golden age of peace and prosperity to the system?" Trash challenged.

If the shot had stung, Trash could not tell. Lung merely shook his head. "Nothing quite so ambitious, Trash. Right now we are just trying to help maintain the autonomy of the people here in the cloud who wish to live free of increasing central control and fight territory seizure. Those who were called pioneers and settlers once but are now called squatters, rebels or terrorists by refusing to give up their communities after the Confederacy started selling the oort cloud piece meal to the megacorps for their mining operations and other activities."

"Looks like your losing," Trash said mercilessly.

"I won't lie and say we're not fighting a losing war. We do not have the resources to outfit a military force to match the Confederacy, nor the resources to hire elite mercenary soldiers such as the Gurita," Lung said, bowing to Grip.

He looked back at Trash with a penetrating gaze.

"That is why what you have brought us is so important. Possession of this technology represents a massive shift of power. With nondestructive uploading, all can have the power and freedom of virtual being, without giving up their rights as sophonts. Virtual beings will be able exist freely instead of as fugitives subject to deletion at the displeasure of regional bureaucrats or molded into business being slave minds of the megacorps."

"Aren't you just a little worried about a nanite outbreak? I mean, that's sort of the reason you all came to Enki in the first place. What's going to keep the same thing from happening all over again?" Trash said.

"From what little Onyx has been able to gather, these nanites are more advanced than their earthly ancestors. They come with numerous fail safes. And once the nanites become integrated with their uploading subject, they immediately lose the ability to replicate. The key is to detect and contain stray nanites that do not integrate. It is these that represent the greatest possibility of danger. We require a sophisticated treatment facility with detection and containment capabilities. Unfortunately, Firmament and Phobos are also aware of the required facilities, making procurement of the necessary parts quite challenging." Lung explained, looking pointedly at the vec.

"I don't have what you bionts quaintly refer to as an 'intuition', but it's pretty clear this is leading up to some sort of request," Trash said.

"It is, actually. I need your knowledge and experience of trade and procurement to help gather the necessary components to construct our facility here. Onyx has told me that she knows no one better than you at finding or fabricating such exotic components," Lung answered.

Trash looked at Onyx, "Thankfully, my rianth friend knew better than to load my personality mask down with a vulnerability to flattery. So, Lung, why don't you tell me what's in it for me? I mean, it's very nice for all you bionts to go virch and use your new power to defeat the bad old corps and their government lackeys. But even among your precious cloud settlers here, I know for a fact you have sentient vecs toiling away, no better than slaves, discarded or parted out when convenient. You may be a virch, and you may be puppeting an android shell, but you are still biont when it comes down to it."

Lung nodded, "I understand your reservations and won't pretend biont-aiont interaction is what it should be by any means. But what better way to increase understanding of the minds of vecs and other sapient machines then to experience it as a virtual being? They will quite literally be able to put themselves in your skin, as I and Onyx and many other virtuals have done. Aside from that, I'm prepared to offer you a substantial sum for your efforts," he finished smoothly.

Trash regarded him for a few milliseconds. He put his manipulators up in the air in defeat.

"Fine, it's not like this fiasco has left me with a lot of options," he grumbled. "But you're going to help," he said, pointing at Onyx. "And you too Grip, if you're up for it."

"I'm in, Hoss. Hell, my options are about as pretty as yours at this point. And who knows, this might not turn into a total disaster."

by David William Wood (2013)

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