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Rage Against the Dying

He had lived too long, died too many times, and now there seemed nothing left that was new or remarkable. Not even this. What had he expected?

With the demolition bots ordered clear of this level, he should have been alone with his memories. Instead, he could still hear them, feel them even: faint vibrations coming up through the decking as they worked tirelessly elsewhere. Once, this had been the bridge—one of them, at least. Now fully one third of the room had been sliced away, floor to ceiling. Beyond—

His high vantage point gave him a dizzying view down into the guts of the Ship, decks cut and exposed like the ribs of a slain beast. Everywhere bots sliced and diced the Ship's interior, cutting and excising, scooping out its organs for recycling and leaving behind only vast, echoing cavities. Even great Ships outlived their usefulness if one waited long enough.

He remembered standing here long ago. Then, as now, not quite comprehending what he was seeing.

Memories.

Acrid smells—something sharp and unpleasant—reached his nostrils from the recirculating units. Perhaps it was the stench of death for a great Ship like this. Of course the HubMind was long gone: extracted, salvaged, repurposed. A Mind was a Mind, after all; precious, irreplaceable—no matter that it had once served the enemy. Now all that was left was the empty shell of the Ship, and soon that would be gone too.

He stepped to the very edge where the deck had been cut away, standing where he might have stood a century ago, in the heart of a crisis: millions of lives, whole planets, depending on what he said or did next. After so long in uniform, how strange that today it seemed ill-fitting: the too-tight collar chaffing, the tunic's belt hanging heavy with military paraphernalia, the concealed anti-matter flask pressing into the small of his back. He gazed into the artificial valley, the Ship's interior falling away and stretching outwards until perspective began to play tricks on the mind. Far below the lights of thermo-cutters flickered like guttering candles in a cathedral as the bots continued their dismantling.

He had waited a long time to watch this particular Ship die. He needed to see it with his own eyes, believe that it would be no more. Maybe then his anger would dim; the torment of unanswered questions a little more bearable.

He placed a palm flat against the energy field where the wall had been removed, knowing he could not fall, yet savoring the adrenalin spike as he leaned out over the drop.

Colonel Ettiard.

He snatched his hand away. No one had called him by that name in more than a century. He was no longer that person, physiologically. Not a single atom of the original body remained. But he supposed certain replicated patterns could be recognized, just as copies of memories and personality traits had been carefully preserved—though only those he chose to reproduce and carry forward for expediency. He had died so many times, the bodies patched and repaired if the damage was light, replacements grown if not. Colonel Ettiard's memories remained—but they seemed those of a stranger.

An honor that you should visit in these last hours.

The voice was inside his head. Or perhaps it was everywhere at once within the Ship. He remembered that voice.

"They told me the HubMind had already been taken." He hesitated. "I didn't—" What had he expected? What had he hoped to achieve by coming here? Not this, certainly.

I am merely a local node of the Ship's self-regulating systems. A number of such nodes must remain to control essential subsystems until they are ready for decommissioning.

"A local node?" He recalled no mention of such a thing in the Board of Investigation report. He wondered if it was just code for some isolated fragment of the HubMind. Even ancillary systems must have had to interface with the controlling AI.

Would he have dared come here knowing the HubMind was still installed? Probably not.

Your visit is... not unexpected.

Ettiard stepped back from the edge of the deck, sudden nausea leaving him weak at the knees, no longer certain a Ship-controlled field could or would protect him; no longer certain of anything.

"How do you know me?"

I remember you.

Ettiard too, was remembering. Back then, the Ship had a name: Atropos. According to ancient pre-dispersal mythologies, Atropos was a goddess of fate and destiny. Later he'd learned of the sisters who controlled the destinies of mortals, but it was always Atropos who cut the thread of life when the time came, Atropos who did the deed. The irony wasn't lost on Ettiard. Whichever Sylgani official had named the vessel probably thought such subtlety would escape their Asperian enemies. Their embrace of all things spiritual and metaphysical ran to the core of the Sylgani belief-system. Small wonder they despised Ettiard's culture for its hard-headed rationalism. At the very least, the name was calculated to annoy.

Perhaps that was why they chose it as a place to hide their secrets.

The Atropos had become a ghost ship to Ettiard, chased through the dark spaces around the Sylgani home-world and neighboring star systems. Atropos had no need to hide, only to be elsewhere. Ettiard and the fleet at his command were always two steps behind, sniffing traces of the great Ship, deducing where she had passed but never where she was now. Eventually Ettiard's frustration had become unbearable.

"What do you remember?" he asked the Ship.

Everything. And nothing.

Into the lengthening silence, Ettiard spoke carefully so there could be no mistake. "Fifty eight thousand, four hundred and twenty three." The number came easily, as though burned into the core of his being. It was a number he recalled every waking day of his lives. Yet still his voice caught and there was a sudden dryness in his throat.

The Ship chose not to answer. Then, finally, it spoke.

You wish to know if I understand the significance of the number?

"Do you?"

Of course. It is the number of passengers and crew aboard Atropos just prior to capture by Asperian forces one hundred and twenty-three years ago. It is a matter of public record.

"And?"

—And the records also indicate that when they all perished, one man was held accountable at the subsequent court martial. You, Colonel Ettiard. Is that what you came to hear?

In the end, Ettiard and the fleet had got lucky. How many turning points in history had been determined not by brilliant strategies or masterstrokes of planning but on some arbitrary roll of the die? He had lived long enough, fought enough battles to know that this was often the way of it.

By chance they stumbled upon Atropos running fast and silent far out from the Sylgani home system. Atropos had fled; the fleet had chased, playing cat and mouse for days, the outcome inevitable. Once discovered, Atropos could never hope to outrun the pursuing fleet. Yet no surrender was offered and Ettiard began to think they were playing for time. If the Eleven were on board, might they be preparing some counterstrike? His orders were clear: Search the Ship. Find and secure the Eleven. Act swiftly.

When Atropos at last deigned to acknowledge his signals, it was done in a way calculated to infuriate and confound him.

The woman identified herself as Sister-Captain Sulga Emegai. She stood on the bridge of the great Ship, deep lines on her face etched in a scowl beneath a shock of white hair. She was stooped, but there was a litheness to her frame as though age had stripped her body back to the essentials for living. She looked exceedingly old—and very disgruntled.

They put an old crone in charge of a great Ship such as this? Is this my adversary? It seemed vaguely insulting. But of course he'd forgotten about the HubMind.

"We travel in peace, yet your fleet falls upon us like a fox courts a hen," said the Sister-Captain. "Has the Asperian navy grown so morally bankrupt it now terrorizes a civilian ship with impunity?" Her image glared at him in a way that recalled to mind his venerable grandmother chastising him as a boy. The woman raised a gnarled finger and pointed straight at him. "Have you no shame?"

Ettiard blinked. His bridge crew were disciplined enough not to snigger, but he felt his face color all the same. "I order you to yield your Ship," he commanded. "My business is with the Eleven, not your citizens. And please don't insult me by pretending ignorance or denying their presence. Allow me to question them and Atropos can go free."

"All aboard Atropos are equally under her protection," Sister-Captain Emegai replied. "All. We make no distinction amongst our citizens. What crime has been committed? You should know better than to make such a demand." The connection was broken.

Ettiard swore, his patience exhausted. It would be done by force then. He gave the orders—his own attack cruiser maneuvering as close as he dared to the still-fleeing Atropos, enveloping her with a powerful energy field. It took time to slow the Ship; fields clashed, Atropos glowed with a blue-white aura as though a new star was about to be born. There was never any question of kinetic weapons, not if he was to take the Eleven alive. And for all their ruthless pragmatism, Ettiard's people were not barbarians. The crux of it was the simple need to find out exactly what the Eleven had discovered—or thought they had. And if the rumors about nidahl were true, could it be used as a weapon against their enemies? The risks of that were simply too great to ignore.

Atropos slowed. Fields clashed again and again in coruscating colors, but Ettiard knew his energy reserves were deeper.

And then—

What? A mistake? A miscalculation?

Later, it seemed that his cruiser's energy field must have gripped too hard. Atropos's own fields were suddenly, impossibly, absent. The Ship's outer integrity was breached like an eggshell crushed in a fist. It was unthinkable, impossible.

Fifty-eight thousand four hundred and twenty-three souls were aboard Atropos. Some died instantly in the explosive decompression, shockwaves rippling through the mostly hollowed out interior before compartmental barriers could be triggered. The rest died in the slew of radiation when the structural integrity of the engine toroid failed.

Hours later, Ettiard had stood on the Sister-Captain's bridge. The Ship's outer fields and basic environmental conditions were restored, though much too late for its unfortunate citizens. He felt the tremendous weight of guilt pressing down on him until it seemed likely his own skull would implode. His mission now had transformed into the grim task of cataloguing the dead, searching through the massed bodies for the ones they sought. When the job was finally done, it was the answer he had dreaded. There were eleven missing.

Eleven.

Could the rumors of nidahl possibly be true? In those final seconds, had the Eleven completed their elaborate rituals, transcended to some different plane of existence? If so, what a price had been paid.

The Ship's voice insinuated its way into his head once more.

Why have you come back, Colonel Ettiard? Why now?

But this time it was Ettiard who chose not to answer.

A court martial was convened. The fact that no Asperian lives had been lost was of little consequence. Outraged Sylvani authorities needed appeasing and there were political games to be played. That suited Ettiard. Here, finally, was a chance to dissect the facts and reveal the raw, bleeding truth beneath. He needed answers to the questions plaguing him night and day; to put the blame where it belonged.

In the end, it did neither.

For most of the proceedings, Ettiard lay strapped to a gurney while they pulled imagery from his brain. Apparently, it was how they did things these days. No one asked for his consent.

The Prosecutor had a sharpness, an arrogance, that Ettiard detested from the outset. "Tell me," the man said, as though musing on some ineffable philosophical problem, "what motivated you to act as you did?"

Images blurred and flashed on the giant screen at the side of the court room as Ettiard fought to gain control of his thoughts.

"Duty," he whispered, repeating it a second time, running his tongue over dry lips to achieve something more than a guttural rasp.

On screen: the coded signal containing his orders. Capture, contain, interrogate. Separate truth from rumor. An intercept trajectory. Complex equations to nullify momentum. Schematics appeared for the Atropos; field-density maps for the Ship's containment field, dense contours showing the more vulnerable areas of the hull. Had he ever studied these? He couldn't remember doing so, yet somehow the images were being conjured from his brain.

Then: headshots of the Eleven, some little more than computer-enhanced guesses.

Just ordinary people. Part scientist, part spiritualist, part shaman. But maybe other things too.

Ettiard wasn't sure what he believed any more. There was no doubt the Eleven were practitioners of nidahl, a strange blend of quasi-spiritual belief-set and hard genotype manipulation. But recent intel intercepts suggested they had made a breakthrough. If true, nidahl was no longer a spiritual goal with a cultish following, it was real. Individual humans could transform—transcend—into something other. A superior form of existence...

Maybe.

Wiser Asperian heads scoffed at such mumbo-jumbo. But add a generous dash of Asperian paranoia at the highest government levels and nidahl suddenly sounded like a potent weapon. Imagine an enemy with the ability to transcend physical barriers—

Or was this nothing more than an elaborate hoax designed to focus Asperian attention elsewhere?

Atropos held the answers now, with all the resources and processing power a great Ship could offer. Their best intelligence said the Eleven were aboard.

And then they weren't.

The Prosecutor broke in. "Capture. Contain. Interrogate." He spoke each word as though they held the answer to everything. "And yet you—"

"The risks were too great," Ettiard interrupted. "It's a matter of public record that the High Cabinet believed so. If nidahl, if this alleged process of transcendence, was somehow true, it would mean the heart of the Asperian home system could be attacked at will—"

"If, if, if. Transcendence! Did you really believe in such childish fables?"

"Of course not, but—"

On screen, the pictures told a different story. What if the dream was real? What if the dream was also a nightmare?

Atropos was the perfect hiding place. A generation ship, built back in the old times—what better place of sanctuary to pursue their goal undisturbed? And then? The thought of the Eleven spreading their secrets was alarming. The Eleven becoming the Twenty, the Hundred, the Fifty-Eight Thousand... Returning to wreak vengeance on their enemies.

And when Atropos had vanished...

"Did you act out of fear," the Prosecutor asked, "or was it hatred?"

On screen, Atropos faltered, a halo of debris blossoming around its breached hull. Inside, lives were snuffed out. But Ettiard had made no mistake. Either Atropos's fields had unaccountably failed at the precise instant his fields grappled the Ship, or they had been deliberately lowered. A HubMind did not make mistakes on such a colossal scale, and neither had Ettiard. And it seemed inconceivable the Sister-Captain would have ordered it. No amount of petulant anger was worth that price.

On screen the frozen, desiccated bodies lay strewn in the corridors and in the open areas of the ship; broken, lifeless husks. Even if the fleet had the resources to regrow bodies—which they did not—there were no memory backups for the Sylgani citizens and crew. It was not their way. No means of bringing any of them back.

"Tell us what you found, Colonel Ettiard." On screen, Ettiard stood on the repressurized bridge, numbly surveying the horror of the Ship's interior. "No. Pardon me," the Prosecutor corrected himself. "Rather, tell us what you didn't find."

Ettiard took a deep breath.

"The Eleven were not among the dead."

"Your conclusions, Colonel Ettiard? Do you believe the so-called Eleven really transcended to some different realm of existence? Yet in all the time since, I don't recall our home-world being attacked or overrun by forces we cannot comprehend. Or—" he paused, as though considering this for the first time, "were they never on board to begin with? Colonel Ettiard? The court awaits your answer, your explanations."

After a long pause, Ettiard finally spoke. "I have none," he said.

This... this dismemberment is not necessary, the Ship said. You can stop this, if you choose to.

Ettiard glanced down through the energy field at the flicker of cutting torches far below. He doubted he could. The rank he had so painfully regained still carried some weight, but the value others placed on his judgement had been debased long ago.

Dismemberment. A curious word for the Ship to choose.

"Are you afraid?" he asked it.

A long silence.

Are there things you still wish to know?

Ettiard pondered the evasion for a moment. "What things?"

When the Ship did not answer, a new thought struck him. "Are you offering me a trade? Information in return for... What? Self-preservation? A stay of execution?" It had a curious kind of logic to it. But there was nothing the Ship could offer him, only data on thermostatic controls and nutrient flows and a million other little details that made the Ship tick. Its job, he reminded himself, was to use its little over-clocked brain to open the goddamn doors when they were supposed to.

It's true the HubMind was removed long ago. But not all traces have been expunged.

"There's nothing I need from you. The past is the past. Just memories."

Colonel Ettiard—you know that is not true. You are incomplete. Thoughts of all those who died so long ago never leave you. Yet you yearn to know the truth of what really happened. You have searched for hints that might absolve your guilt but never found any. Your frustration is a ghost that still haunts you.

"You can't possibly know that."

Would you like to know what really happened?

The answer to that was obvious. Every element of his being ached to know the truth. But was the price worth paying?

"And in return?"

You know what I am asking for. I want to live.

When long moments passed and Ettiard still had not responded, the Ship must have taken his silence for assent.

Let me show you.

Slowly Ettiard raised his hand and placed it against the energy field and the Ship began to fill his mind with memories from long ago.

Atropos—bustling corridors, crowds collecting in the open spaces of shopping malls and parks, gathering to talk quietly by fountains and in the shade of ornate pavilions. No sense of panic, but an urgency and purpose in their movements. They watch big communal viewscreens—a scattering of lights pinprick the night sky, like tiny gems scattered on a velvet cloth. This is Ettiard's fleet closing in. Each of them understands this pursuit can only have one outcome.

Blurring transition—

A large enclosed space: a workshop or laboratory. A small group of men and women dressed in plain, drab-colored robes sit cross-legged in a circle. Eyes shut, still as statues, somehow their bodies seem almost to quiver with the intensity of some inwardly-focused concentration. This is not prayer or meditation. This is some trance-like state. Ettiard knows immediately who they are, even before his brain registers their number.

So the Eleven had been on board...

The group is almost completely enclosed by cumbersome apparatus, one for each of them. The scene reminds him of pictures of a ring of prehistoric standing stones, with worshipful disciples gathered within its embrace. Jumbles of cables snake away through conduits to other rooms. The humans sit quietly in the center of it all, like insects pinned to the viewing plate of some complex quantum-tunneling microscope.

Stepping back—

Thousands of workers go about their functions, each playing their part in the preparations. And thousands more are at their studies and devotions—junior disciples starting out along the long path that the Eleven have already traveled.

No, Ettiard breathes. This can't be real. Nidahl was only ever an unattainable dream surely?

Imagine, a voice says in his head. It sounds like the Ship but the timbre is richer, deeper. The HubMind? He remembers it from those hours and days after the energy field fails and Ettiard's men swarm aboard Atropos to retrieve and catalogue the bodies. The accident has triggered some kind of catatonic state within the HubMind, regressing it to imbecility. When they later probe it, they find large parts of its core rendered useless, corrupted—or purged—of any useful data.

Yet now it speaks to him.

Imagine the responsibility of being charged with keeping such a secret safe. These people see nidahl as a blessing, a gift. True nirvana within their grasp. But you— The Asperians think always in terms of strength and advantage for their own gain. Your government sees nidahl as both a threat—so long as it lies outside your grasp—but once possessed, a weapon that can be used against its enemies if its secrets can be learnt.

Had you not discovered Atropos when you did, we would in time have learnt to properly harness nidahl. What the Eleven did was only to take the first faltering baby steps. Do you see the irony? Your government might have got its wish—Sylvani civilization entirely removed from this realm within a matter of months. Even you cannot fight an enemy who is no longer there.

Asperian minds would have twisted this gift, beaten ploughshares into swords. The knowledge could never be allowed to pass to you. You see that now, don't you? No matter the cost.

Through a dizzying montage of images, Ettiard sees a HubMind in panic and disarray. The nidahl research database is much too valuable to be wantonly destroyed, yet neither can it be allowed to fall into Asperian hands. Two equally weighted logical states cannot co-exist—and yet they must. What to do?

Central cores are erased. Backups and any redundantly stored data, irrevocably purged. Equipment vaporized. Even the tens of thousands of hours of Ship sensor recording, peripheral data collection—anything that might provide clues—deleted.

And then—

Only the core dataset, the absolute kernel of the research, remains. The HubMind splits this into randomized fragments, heavily encoded. Individual bytes are inserted into routine instruction sets: an additional parameter in a temperature lookup table; a flow-rate range increased by a single value—and yes, a door that opens a millimeter further than spec because of an adjustment to its operating parameters. Tiny changes that individually mean nothing. And somewhere deep in the heart of these autonomous systems, a similarly dispersed coding pattern which can one day piece these data together again.

Just one problem remains.

The trail of human complicity is vast and meandering. Under interrogation, the Asperians are sure to find something. One clue maybe all it takes—enough to provide them a foundation to work from. That's an unacceptable risk.

Atropos plays for time. Surely there is another answer?

There is none.

Just before Ettiard's fleet makes its final intercept, the Eleven are gone. Vanished in the blink of an eye.

But the fifty-eight thousand remain. Such a terrible price to be paid.

What other choice does the HubMind have?

Ettiard stepped back from the energy-field, dizzy, light-headed. He waited for something to change deep inside him. A lifting of the responsibility which had lain upon him for so long. A lessening of the guilt. But there was nothing. Just a cold, desolate emptiness.

Far away on the opposite side of the valley carving its way through the Ship's core, movement distracted him. Fascinated, he watched a whole section of hull tens of meters thick detach and move outwards like a jigsaw piece being removed. Through the gap left behind, he could even see stars. The outer energy field preserved the Ship's integrity, keeping everything—included Ettiard—from being instantly exposed to vacuum. It was sobering to reflect that it had not always been so.

What had they missed, those investigators who had crawled over Atropos in the days and weeks after the botched capture? The HubMind told them nothing of use. The Ship's brain had been cut from the body: examined, interrogated, purged. Yet the nervous system remained intact. Dispersed throughout those local computational nodes: a few bytes of encrypted data inserted into semi-sentient programs here and there. Systems that adjusted the temperature, dimmed the lighting, maintained oxygen levels and scrubbed the carbon dioxide from the atmosphere—a thousand different localized subsystems, each carrying tiny extra packets of data. Individually meaningless until brought together in a pre-ordained pattern. Thus was a secret concealed—a dangerous, desperate move on the part of the HubMind.

And now they were cutting away that secret, piece by piece.

Please. Soon it will be too late.

It rose up through him then, like magma forcing its way upwards through many layers of crust. A relentlessly, unstoppable anger; an anger so terrible it could break apart his sanity in a seething, gushing torrent.

"All those men, women and children... They died so you could preserve your precious little secret? And now you're willing to do a trade so you can secure your own survival? What kind of monster did they leave behind when they cut out the HubMind!"

Listen carefully, Colonel Ettiard. It may be generations before the essential details of nidahl can be rediscovered. Perhaps millennia. Or mankind may never stumble across it again. It is such a delicate, complex process. Knowledge like that is too precious—

"Enough!"

He saw how the Ship had deceived him. Hiding, then running and playing for time. Convincing others that Ettiard's actions alone had been responsible for all those deaths. Somehow it had come to know of his obsession, his need to understand the truth or at least to atone in some way for his guilt. Stripped of his rank, Ettiard had fought countless other battles down through the decades—fought recklessly because there seemed nothing of value left to lose—dying in consequence, several times over. Even when there were no more than fragments of him left, it was always just enough. Always they brought him back; grew him a new physical body out of those scraps of flesh. But even when everything else changed, the memories and the guilt remained.

He wondered how much of the HubMind itself, knowing what fate was in store, had been dispersed throughout the Ship in a similar fashion. Even a tiny fraction of a HubMind was powerful. A dangerous adversary.

"I see the similarities now between you and me," he told the Ship. "We are remnants of our former selves."

I am not the HubMind...

Ettiard waited but it seemed unwilling to say more.

The removed section of hull slid out of sight, leaving a gaping hole like the top removed from a box. Or the lid from a coffin.

"Are you afraid to die?" Ettiard asked again. He wondered if there was anything equivalent to transcendence for a HubMind. Was that why it struggled so desperately to preserve the nidahl secrets?

He wondered, too, how his own people would use such knowledge. The answer seemed obvious. Suddenly, he felt the anger drain from him.

The Ship chose not to answer. Perhaps it couldn't. Too many dispersed nodes severed.

"When you become someone different," he told it, "when truly nothing physical remains of the person you once were, all you have left are memories. Is it the same for a Ship? I hope so. I hope those memories of the evil you did still haunt you."

I... comprehend... your anger. But still we made a bargain...

Through the communicator on his sleeve Ettiard sent a series of commands to those who watched and waited in their own ships far beyond Atropos. He half expected his request to be ignored or to be summoned back. Once, a single word from him could mobilize entire fleets—but no more.

He waited patiently. After an age, the flickering lights far below faded as the bots withdrew. The dismantlement ceased. The sudden silence throughout the Ship was strangely disquieting.

"When everything is gone, when all the secrets have been destroyed, what else endures?" he asked it.

The Ship only hesitated a moment. Memories?

"Wrong. Regrets. And those are harder to live with."

He unclasped the flask from the belt around his tunic. He pressed his thumb to the release mechanism, collapsing the magnetic containment and freed the anti-matter fluid within.

This time, he thought, there would be no coming back.

He found the thought strangely comforting.

About the Author
David Cleden lives in the UK, works in London and is the 2016 winner of the James White Award, with published work in Interzone, Betwixt, Electric Spec, The Colored Lens and other venues. His day job is writing business proposals but at the weekend he writes fiction. He can't stress enough how important it is not to muddle them up. One day he will have a proper author's website and write something intelligent on it, but for now he can be found on Twitter as @davidcleden.
Background image by ESO/IDA/Danish 1.5 m/R.Gendler, J-E. Ovaldsen, C. Thöne, and C. Feron.
http://www.eso.org/public/images/etamosaicnm2/, CC BY 4.0, Link