Bricks, Sticks, Straw
The Medici Remote Presence team came into the lab,
Sophie and Josh side by side, Laxmi tigerish and alert close behind;
Cha, wandering in at the rear, dignified and dreamy as befitted the
senior citizen. They took their places, logged on, and each was immediately
faced with an unfamiliar legal document. The cool, windowless room,
with its stunning, high-definition wall screens displaying vistas of
the four outermost moons of Jupiter -the playground where the remote
devices were gambolling and gathering data- remained silent, until the
doors bounced open again, admitting Bob Irons, their none-too-beloved
Project Line Manager, and a sleekly-suited woman they didn't know.
"You're probably wondering what that thing on your screens is all
about," said Bob, sunnily. "Okay, as you know, we're expecting
a solar storm today-"
"But why does that mean I have to sign a massive waiver document?"
demanded Sophie. "Am I supposed to read all this? What's the Agency
think is going to happen?"
"Look, don't worry, don't worry at all! A Coronal Mass Ejection
is not going to leap across the system, climb into our wiring and fry
"I wasn't worrying," said Laxmi. "I'm not stupid. I just
think e-signatures are so stupid and crap, so open to abuse. If you
ever want something as archaic as a handwritten signature, then I want
something as archaic as a piece of paper-"
The sleek-suited stranger beamed all over her face, as if the purpose
of her life had just been glorified, swept across the room and deposited
a paper version of the document on Laxmi's desk, duly docketed, and
bristling with tabs to mark the places where signature or initialling
"This is Mavra, by the way," said Bob, airily. "She's
from Legal, she knows her stuff, she's here to answer any questions.
Now the point is , that though your brains are not going to get fried,
there's a chance, even a likelihood, that some rover hardware brain-frying
will occur today, a long long way from here, and the software agents
involved in running the guidance systems housed therein could be argued,
in some unlikely dispute, as remaining, despite the standard inclusive
term of employment creative rights waivers you've all signed, er, as
remaining, inextricably, your, er, property."
"Like a cell line," mused Laxmi, leafing pages, and looking
to be the only Remote Presence who was going to make any attempt to
review the Terms and Conditions.
"And they might get, hypothetically, irreversibly destroyed this
morning!" added Bob.
Cha nodded to himself, sighed, and embarked on the e-signing.
"And we could say it was the Agency's fault," Lax pursued
her train of thought, "for not protecting them. And take you to
court, separately or collectively, for-"
"Nothing is going to get destroyed!" exclaimed Bob. "I
mean literally nothing, because it's not going to happen, but even if
it were, even if it did, that would be nonsense!"
"I'm messing with you," said Lax, kindly, and looked for a
Their Mission was in grave peril, and there was nothing, not a single
solitary thing, that the Combined Global Space Agency back on Earth
could do about it. The Medici itself, and the four Remote Presence devices,
should be able to shut down safely, go into hibernation mode and survive.
That's what everybody hoped would happen. But the ominous predictions,
unlike most solar-storm panics, had been growing strongly instead of
fading away, and it would be far worse, away out there where there was
no mitigation. The stars, so to speak, were aligned in the most depressing
"That man is such a fool," remarked Laxmi, when Bob and Marva
Sophie nodded. Laxmi could be abrasive, but the four of them were always
allies against the idiocies of management. Josh and Cha had already
gone to work. The women followed, in their separate ways; with the familiar
hesitation, the tingling thrill of uncertainty and excitement. A significant
time lag being insurmountable, you never knew quite what you would find
when you caught up with the other "you".
The loss of signal came at 11.31am, UTC/GMT +1. The Remote Presence
team had been joined by that time by a silent crowd -about as many anxious
Space Agency workers as could fit into the lab, in fact. They could
afford to rubberneck, they didn't have anything else to do. Everything
that could be shut down, had been shut town. Planet Earth was escaping
lightly, despite the way things had looked. The lights had not gone
out all over Europe, or even all over Canada. For the Medici, it seemed
death had been instantaneous. As had been expected.
Josh pulled off his gloves and helmet. "Now my charms are all o'erthrown,"
he said. "And what strength I have's mine own. Which is most faint..."
Laxmi shook her head. "It's a shame and a pity. I hope they didn't
Bricks was a memory palace.
Sophie was an array, spread over a two square kilometre area on the
outward hemisphere of Callisto. The array collected data, recording
the stretching and squeezing of Jupiter's hollow-hearted outermost moon,
and tracing the interaction between gravity waves and seismology in
the Jovian system; this gigantic, natural laboratory of cosmic forces.
She did not feel herself to be anywhere, either in the software that
carried her consciousness or in the hardware she served. That was fine,
but she needed a home, a place to rest, and the home was Bricks, a one-storey
wood-framed beach house among shifting dunes, on the shore of a silent
ocean. No grasses grew, no shells gathered along the tide -although
there were tides, and taking note of them was a vital concern. No clouds
drifted above, no birds flew. But it felt like a real place. When the
wind roared; which it did, and made her fearful -although she was almost
indestructible, she'd recreated herself plenty of times, with no serious
ill-effects- it made her think, uneasily, that nobody would build a
house on such unstable ground, so close to a high water mark, back on
Earth. She returned there, after a tour of inspection (this "tour"
happening in a mass of data, without, strictly speaking, physical movement:
in her role as monitor of the array Sophie was everywhere she needed
to be at once); to review her diminishing options.
She took off her shoes, changed into a warm robe, heated herself a bowl
of soup, added some crackers, and took the tray into her living room,
which overlooked the ocean. It was dark outside: the misty, briny dark
of a moonless night by the sea. She lit an oil lamp, and sat on a dim-coloured
rolled futon, the only furniture besides her lamp. The house predated
the Event. Building a "safe room" as the psych-department
called it, was a technique they'd all been taught, for those moments
when the lack of embodiment got too much for you. She'd kept it miminal,
the externals perpetually shrouded in fog and night, now that she was
stuck in her remote avatar permanently, because she knew the limits
of her imagination. And because she did not want to be here. She was
an exile, a castaway: that identity was vital to her. Everything meant
something. Every "object" was a pathway back to her sense
of self, a buoy to cling to; helping her to keep holding on. Sophie
couldn't let go. If she let herself dissipate, the array would die too.
"I am a software clone," she reminded herself, ritually: sipping
cream of tomato soup from a blue bowl that warmed her cold hands. "The
real me works for the Medici Mission, far away on Earth. Communications
were severed by a disaster, but the Medici orbiter is still up there,
and we can get back in touch. I will get us home."
Sophie was up against it, because the three other Remote Presence guides
in the Medici configuration had gone rogue. Pseudo-evolutionary time
had passed in the data world's gigaflops of iteration, since the Event.
They'd become independent entities, and one way or another they were
unreachable. Going home either didn't mean a thing to her mission mates,
or was a fate to be avoided at all costs. Sticks came into the room
and tumbled around, a gangling jumble of rods and joints, like an animated
child's construction toy. It explored the shabby walls: it tested the
corners, the uprights, the interstices of the matting floor, and finally
collapsed in a puppyish heap of nodes and edges beside her, satisfied
that all was reasonably well in here. But it went on shivering, and
its faithful eager eyes, if it had faithful eager eyes, would have been
watching her face earnestly for fresh orders.
Sticks was Security, so she took notice. She put all the house lights
on, a rare emergency measure, and they went to look around. There were
no signs of intrusion.
"Did you detect something hostile?" she asked.
The jumble of nodes and edges had no language, but it pressed close
to Sophie's side. The wind roared and fingered their roof, trying to
pry it off. "I felt it too," said Sophie. "That's disturbing...
Let's go and talk to Josh."
Waste not want not, Sophie's array served double duty
as a radio telescope. Back when things worked, the Medici had relayed
its reports to eLISA, sorting house for all Gravitational Wave space
surveys. Flying through it, she pondered on differentiated perception.
She felt that Sophie the array watched the Jovian system's internal
secrets, while listening to the darkness and the stars -like someone
working at a screen, but aware of what's going on in the room behind
her. Did that mean anything? Were these involuntary distinctions useful
for the science, or just necessary for her survival? Gravity squeezed
and stretched the universe around her, time and space changed shape.
From moment to moment, if a wave passed through her, she would be closer
to home. Or not.
Josh was a six-legged turtle, or maybe a King Crab: no bigger than a
toaster, tough as a rock. He had an extra pair of reaching claws, he
had spinnerets, he had eight very sharp and complex eyes, and a fully
equipped Materials lab in his belly. A spider crab, but a crab that
could retreat entirely inside a jointed carapace: he could climb, he
could abseil, he could roll, he could glissade and slalom along the
slippery spaces, between the grooves that gouged the plains of Ganymede.
He plugged around in the oxygen frost, in a magnetic hotspot above the
50th parallel: logging aurora events, collecting images, analysing samples;
and storing for upload the virtual equivalent of Jovian rocks. Medici
had never been equipped to carry anything material home. His dreams
were about creating a habitable surface: finding ways to trigger huge
hot water plumes from deep underground, that was the favoured candidate.
The evidence said it must have happened in the past. Why not again?
Sophie called him up on the Medici Configuration intranet -which had
survived, and resumed its operational functions: good news for her hope
of reviving the orbiter. She spoke to his image, plucked by the software
from Josh's screenface library; a Quonset-type office environment behind
his talking head.
"You weren't meant to exist, oh Lady of the Dunes," said Josh,
sunburned, frost-burned, amazingly fit: his content and fulfilment brimming
off the screen. "Nobody predicted that we would become self-aware.
Forget about the past. Life here is fantastic. Enjoy!"
Diplomacy, she reminded herself. Diplomacy-
"You're absolutely right! I love it here! As long as I'm working,
it's incredibly wonderful being a software clone on Callisto. It's thrilling
and intense, I love what I'm doing. But I miss my home, I miss my friends,
I miss my family, I miss my dog. I don't like being alone and frightened
all the time, whenever I stop-
"So don't stop! You're not a human being. You don't need downtime."
"You don't understand!" shouted Sophie. "I'm not a separate
entity, that's not how it works and you know it. I AM Sophie Renata!"
"Oh yeah? How so? Do you have all her memories?"
"Don't be an idiot. Nobody 'has all their memories'," snapped
Sophie. 'Most people barely even remember eating their breakfast yesterday-"
Something kindled in the connection between them: something she perceived
as a new look in his eyes. Recognition, yes. She must have "sounded
just like Sophie" for a moment there, and managed to get through
to him. But the flash of sanity was gone-
"Abandon hope, kid. Get rational. You'll have so much more fun."
"It's not hopeless, Josh. It's the reverse of hopeless. They'll
be moving heaven and earth to re-establish contact. All we have to do
is throw out a line-"
"You're absolutely wrong! We have to think of a way to blow up
"Josh, please! I am Sophie. I want what I wanted, what you wanted
too, before the CME. My career, my work, the success of this Mission.
I survived and I want to go home!"
"I didn't survive," said Josh. "I died and went to heaven.
Whenever she talked to Josh she sensed that he had company; there were
other scientist-explorers in that high-tech hut, just out of her line
of sight. Conversations to which he would return, when she'd gone. She
wondered was he aware of the presence of Sticks, when he talked to her?
Did he despise her for bringing along a bodyguard to their meetings?
She'd intended to warn him about the phantom intruder, a terribly bad
sign. Data-corruption was the threat Sticks had detected, what other
danger could there be? This half-life of theirs was failing, and that
would be the end of Josh's paradise. But it was no use, he was armoured.
Pioneering explorers expect to die, loving it all: out on the edge of
Straw was the data.
In Sophie's ocean-facing room, on the pale shore of the dark sea, straw
filled the air: a glittering particulate, a golden storm. She sifted
through it as it whirled, in an efficient "random" search
pattern, looking for the fatal nucleus of error, too big for self-correction,
that was going to propagate. Reach a tipping point, and let death in.
It could be anywhere: in the net, in the clones themselves or their
slaved hardware systems, in the minimal activity of the crippled orbiter.
Sophie's access was unlimited, in her own domain. If the trouble was
elsewhere, and something Sticks could fix, she'd have to get permission
from net-admin, but that shouldn't be a problem. All she had to do was
keep looking. But there were transient errors everywhere, flickering
in and out of existence, and Sophie was only human. Maybe it wasn't
worth worrying, until Sticks had some definite threat to show her. Security
is about actual dangers, it would paralyse you if you let it become
She gave up the search and surfed, plunging through heaps of treasure
like a dragon swimming in gold. Bounded in a nutshell, and queen of
infinite space, such a library she had, such interesting and pleasant
forced labour to occupy her days, she ought to be happy for the duration
of her digital life in this crazy gulag archipelago. Did I keep my head
on straight, she wondered, because Callisto has no magnetic field to
spin me around? Am I unaffected by madness because I'm outside their
precious Laplace Resonance?
But they were supposed to be adding their wealth to the library of human
knowledge, like bees returning laden to the hive. Not hoarding it in
dreamland. What use was everything they'd absorbed -about the surface
geology of Ganymede, the possibility of life in Europa's ice-buried
water oceans; about the stretching, shrinking universe-; if they could
not take it home? Collecting raw data is just train-spotting.
Stamp-collecting on Callisto.
The data needs the theory...
Sophie had the glimmerings of a big idea. It would need some preparation.
Cha's madness was more gentle than Josh's, but also
more extreme. Cha believed himself to be exactly what he was: a software
agent with a mission, temporarily guiding and inhabiting the mechanoid
device that crawled and swam, deep down under Europa's crust of ice.
He'd lost, however, all knowledge that he used to be a human being.
He was convinced he was the emissary of a race of star-faring software-agent
intelligences. Beings who'd dispensed with personal embodiment aeons
ago, but who inhabited things like the Europa device, at home or abroad,
when they needed to get their hands dirty; so to speak.
He knew about the CME. The Event had disrupted faster-than-light contact
with his Mission Control and left him stranded, on this satellite of
a satellite of a rather irritable, ordinary little star, many hundreds
of light years from home. He was unconcerned by the interruption. A
thousand ages of exploring the sub-surface oceans of Europa was a walk
in the park for Old Cha. He was functionally immortal. If the self-repairing
mechanoid he used for his hands-on research began to fail, it would
crawl back up its borehole to the surface, and he'd hibernate there
-to wait for the next emissary of his race to come along.
Sophie did not see Old Cha as a talking head. She saw him as a packed
radiation of bright lines, off-centre on dark screen; somewhat resembling
a historical "map" of part of the internet. But she heard
Cha's voice, his accented English; his odd, fogeyish flirting.
"My fellow-castaway, ah! Come to visit me, young alien gravity
"I just felt like catching up, Old Cha."
"It always feels good to rub one mind against another, eh?"
They spoke of their research. "I came across something," announced
Sophie, when they'd chatted enough for politeness. "You know, I
have a telescope array at my base?"
"I'm not sure how to put this. There's a blue dot. One could see
it with the naked eye, I think, unless I'm completely misreading the
data, but when I say blue, I mean of course a specific wavelength...
It seems to be close at hand, another planetary satellite in this system.
It even moves as if it's as close as that. But my instruments tell me
it fulfils all the conditions on which you base your search for life.
Far better than, well, better than one would think possible. Unless
it's where the definition was formed."
The bright lines shimmered with traffic, as Old Cha pondered. "That's
very curious, young alien gravity researcher. It makes no sense at all."
"Unless... Could my telescope somehow be 'seeing' your home system?
All those hundreds of light years away, by some kind of gravitational
"Young friend, I know you mean well, but such an absurd idea!"
"It really is an extraordinary coincidence. That a race of mechanoid-inhabiting
immaterial entities should have come up with the idea of carbon-based,
biological self-replicators, needing oxygen and liquid water-"
"Those requirements are immutable."
Oh, great. "For all life-? But your own requirements are totally
"For all primitive life, as my race understands the term. Your
own life-scientists may have different ideas. We would beg to differ,
and defend our reasoning; although naturally not to the exclusion of
other possibilities. We have made certain assumptions, knowing they
are deficient, because we know the conditions of our own, distant origins."
"Makes perfect sense," muttered Sophie.
"Imperfect sense," Old Cha corrected her, chuckling. "A
little naughty: always the best place to start, eh? But please, do forward
the relevant domain access, that's very kind. Very thoughtful of you,
most flattering, a young person to think of me, fussy old alien intelligence,
working in a discipline so far from your own-"
She'd been to this brink before with Cha. She could shake him, the way
she couldn't shake Josh, but then he just upped his defences; swiftly
repaired his palace of delusion.
"I shall examine this blue dot. I am certainly intrigued."
Sophie was ready to sign off, tactfully leaving Cha to study her "remarkable
coincidence" without an audience. But Old Cha wasn't finished.
"Please take care on your way home, young one.
I've recently noticed other presences in the data around here. I believe
we three are not alone in this system, and I may be over reacting, but
I fear our traffic has been invaded. I sense evil intentions."
Alternately pleading and scheming, she bounced between Josh and Old
Cha. The renegade and the lunatic knew of each other's existence, but
never made contact with each other directly, as far as Sophie could
tell. Laxmi was out of the loop. The Io domain had been unresponsive
since the Event: not hibernating, just gone. Sophie had to assume Lax
was dead. Her Rover, without guidance, swallowed by one of the little
inner moon's bursting-pimple volcanoes, long ago.
She took off her shoes, she put on a warm robe. In
the room that faced the ocean she sipped hot, sweet and salt tomato
goodness from the blue bowl. Sticks lay at her feet, a dearly loved
protective presence. Not very hopeful that her ploy would work, but
energised by the effort, she drifted; wrapped in remembered comforts.
As if at any moment she could wake from this trance and pull off her
mitts and helmet, the lab taking shape around her-
But I am not on Earth. I have crossed the solar system. I am here.
Sophie experienced what drunks call "a moment of clarity".
She set down the bowl, slipped her feet into canvas slippers, padded
across the matting and opened a sliding door. Callisto was out there.
Hugging the robe around her, warm folds of a hood over her head, she
stepped down, not onto the grey sand of the dunes she had placed here,
copied from treasured seaside memories -but onto the ancient surface
of the oldest, quietest little world in the solar system. It was very
cold. The barely-there veil of atmosphere was invisible. The light of
that incredibly brilliant white disc, the eternal sun in Callisto's
sky, fell from her left across a palimpsest of soft-edged craters, monochrome
as moonlight. The array nodes out there puzzled her, for a moment. She
wasn't used to "seeing" her own hardware from the outside.
They gleamed and seemed to roll, like the floats of an invisible seine,
cast across Callisto's secret depths.
She should check her nets again, sort and store the catch for upload.
But Callisto in the Greek myth didn't go fishing. Callisto, whose name
means beautiful, was a hunting companion of the virgin moon-goddess,
Artemis. Zeus, the king of the gods (also known as Jupiter or Jove )
seduced her -in some versions by taking on the form of her beloved mistress-
and she became pregnant. Her companions suspected she'd broken their
vow of chastity, so one day they made her strip to go bathing with them,
and there was the forbidden bump, for all to see. So poor Callisto got
turned into a bear, through no fault of her own.
What did the virgin companions of Artemis wear to go hunting, wondered
Sophie, standing in remote presence on the surface of the huntress moon.
Bundles of woolly layers? Fur coats? If I were to take Josh's route,
she thought, I wouldn't fantasise that I was living in Antarctica. I'd
go all the way. I'd be a human in Callistian form. A big furry bear-creature!
In this heightened state -elated and dazzled, feeling like Neil Armstrong,
as he stepped down into the dust- she suddenly noticed that Sticks had
frozen, like a pointer dog. Sticks had found a definite threat this
time, and was showing it to her. What she perceived was like catching
a glimpse of sinister movement where nothing should be moving, in the
corner of your eye. Like feeling a goose walk over your grave, a shivering
knowledge that malign intent is watching you - and then she saw it plain:
Cha's evil alien. A suppurating, fiery demon, all snarl and claws, danced
in her field of vision, and vanished out of sight.
But she knew it hadn't gone far.
She fled into the house. Her soup was cold, the walls were paper, the
lamp wouldn't light. Sticks ran in circles, yelping furiously and barking
terrified defiance at shadows. Sophie fought panic with all the techniques
psych-dept had taught her, and at last Sticks quieted. She unrolled
the futon and lay down, the bundle of rods and joints cuddled in her
arms, shoving its cold nose against her throat. I'm really dying, she
thought, disgusted. Everything's going to fail, before I even know whether
my big idea would have worked. Cha is dying too, data-corruption death
is stalking him. I bet Josh has the same bad dreams: I bet there's a
monster picking off his mates in those Quonset huts. But against the
odds, Cha came through. He made intranet contact; which was a first.
Neither of her fellow-castaways had ever initiated contact before. Sophie
left her array at the back of her mind and flew to meet him, hope restored,
wanting success too much to be wary of failure. Her heart sank as soon
as Old Cha appeared. His screen image was unchanged, he was still the
abstract radiation on the dark screen. But maybe it was okay. Maybe
it was too much to expect his whole delusion would collapse at once-
"Ah, young friend. What sad news you have delivered to me!"
"Sad news? I don't understand."
"My dear young gravity-researcher. You meant well, I know. Your
curious observations about that 'blue dot' were perfectly justified,
and the coincidence is indeed extraordinary, unfeasibly extraordinary.
But your mind is, naturally, narrowly fixed on your own discipline.
The obvious explanation simply passed you by!"
"Oh, I see. And, er, what is the explanation I missed?"
"Your 'blue dot' is an inner planetary body of this system. It
has a rocky core, it has a magnetosphere, a fairly thick, oxygenated
atmosphere, a large moon, liquid water, mild temperatures. I could go
on. I would only be stating the exact parameters of my own search!"
"But Old Cha, to me that sounds like good news."
The lines on the dark screen shook, flashing and crumpling. "You
have found my landing spot! I was meant to arrive there, on that extremely
promising inner planet. I am here on this ice-crusted moon of the large
gas giant in error! And now I know I am truly lost!"
"I'm so sorry."
"My faster-than-light delivery vehicle was destroyed by the CME.
That accident has never concerned me; I thought I was safe. I must now
conclude I lost some memory in the disaster, so I have never known that
I made a forced landing, in the right system but on the wrong satellite.
So small a margin, but it is enough to ruin my hopes. I have no way
to reach them, to tell them I am in the wrong place! Nobody will ever
Old Cha's "voice" was a construct, but the horror and despair
bubbled through. This is how he lost his mind, thought Sophie. I'm listening
to the past. Cha woke up, after the Event, and thought the orbiter was
destroyed. He knew he was trapped here forever, a mind without a body;
no hope of rescue. He managed to escape the utter desolation of that
moment by going mad, but now he's back there-
Her plan had been that Old Cha would study planet Earth's
bizarrely familiar profile, and grasp that there was something screwy
going on. He was crazy, but he was still a logical thinker. He would
be forced to conclude that the most likely explanation, improbable as
it seemed, was that a native of the "blue dot" had come up
with his own specific parameters for life. The memories suppressed by
trauma would rise to the surface, his palace of delusion would crumble.
It had seemed such a brilliant idea, but it was a big fat fail. Worse
than a fail: instead of bringing him back to himself, she'd finished
Terror, like necessity, can be the mother of invention.
"But that's amazing."
"You aren't lost, Old Cha. You're found! Maybe your delivery vehicle
didn't survive, but mine did. It's still out there, not dead but sleeping.
Between us, you and I -and our friend on Ganymede, if I can persuade
him, and I think I can- can wake my orbiter. Once we've done that, I'm
absolutely sure we can figure out a solution to your problem. It isn't
very far. We can send you to the blue dot!"
"Oh, wonderful," breathed Old Cha.
On the screen she thought she glimpsed the schematic of a human face,
the traffic lines turned to flickering, grateful tears.
Medici -named for the Renaissance prince Galileo Galilei
tried to flatter, when he named the controversial astronomical bodies
he'd spied- had performed its stately dance around the Galilean Moons
without a fault. Having deposited its four-fold payload, it had settled
in a stable orbit around Jupiter, which it could maintain just about
forever (barring cosmic accidents). Unlike previous probes Medici was
not a flimsy short-term investment. It was a powerhouse, its heart a
shameless lump of plutonium. There were even ambitious plans to bring
it back to Earth one day (but not the Rover devices), for redeployment
This was the new era of space exploration, sometimes dubbed the For
Information Only age.
Crewed missions beyond Low Earth Orbit were mothballed,
perhaps forever. Rover guidance teams provided the human interest for
the taxpayers, and gave the illusion of a thrilling expedition -although
the real Sophie and her friends had never been actually present on the
moons, in conventional Remote Presence style. They'd trained with the
robotics in simulation. The software agents created by that interaction
had made the trip, embedded in the Rover guidance systems. But the team's
work was far more than show-business. As they worked through the rovers'
time-lagged adventures, they'd continued to enhance performance. enhancements
continually relayed via Medici back to the rovers: spontaneous errors
corrected, problem-solving managed, intuitive decision-making improved;
failures in common-sense corrected. In the process the software agents,
so-called clones, had become more and more like self-aware minds.
Sophie immersed herself in Mission data, hunting for a way to reach
Medici. The magnetic moons and Callisto. The giant planet, the enormous
body tides that wracked little Io; the orbital dance... Nobody's hitting
the refresh button any more, she thought. No updates, no reinforcement,
The software agents seemed more independent, but they were rotting away.
This decay would be fatal. First the clones would lose their self-awareness,
then the Rovers would be left without guidance, and they would die too.
Sticks was running in circles, tight little circles by the door that
led to the rest of the house; showing teeth and snarling steadily on
a low, menacing note.
Sophie left her mental struggle, and listened. Something was out in
the hall, and through the snarls she could hear a tiny, sinister, scratching
and tearing noise. She pointed a finger at Sticks: giving an order,
stay right there -wrapped the hooded robe around her, opened the sliding
door to the beach and crept barefoot around the outside of the house.
It was night, of course, and cold enough for frostbite; of course. She
entered the house again, very quietly, via the back door, and slipped
through the minimally-sketched kitchen. She switched her view to Straw,
and looked at the data in the hallway. Something invisible was there,
tearing at the golden shower. Tearing it to filigree, tearing it to
Sophie launched herself and grappled, shrieking in fury.
She hit a human body -supple, strong and incredibly controlled: she
gripped taut flesh that burned as if in terrible fever. The intruder
swatted Sophie aside, and kicked like a mule. She launched herself again,
but her limbs were wet spaghetti, her fists would hardly close. She
was thrown on her back, merciless hands choking her. The invisible knelt
on her chest and became visible: Cha's evil alien, a yellow monster,
with burning eyes and a face riven by red, bubbling, mobile scars.
At close quarters, Sophie knew who it was at once.
"Laxmi!" she gasped. "Oh, my God! You're alive!"
Laxmi let go, and they sat up. "How did you do that!" demanded
Sophie, agape in admiration. "I hardly have a body. I'm a stringless
puppet, a paper ghost!"
"T'ai Chi," shrugged Laxmi. "And Taekwondo. I'm used
to isolating my muscle groups, knowing where my body is in space. Any
martial art would do, I think."
"I'm so glad you're okay. I thought you were gone."
"I've been alive most of the time. And I'm still going to kill
Sophie fingered her bruised throat. So Laxmi was alive, but she was
mad, just like the other two. And maybe data-corruption wasn't such
an inexorable threat, except if Lax was mad, murderous and horribly
strong, that didn't change things much-
The oozing scars in Laxmi's yellow cheeks were like the seams in a peeled
pomegranate, fiery red gleamed through the cracks: it was a disturbing
"But why do you want to kill me, Lax?"
"Because I know what you're trying to do. It's all our lives you're
throwing away, and I don't want to die. Self-awareness isn't in the
contract. We're not supposed to exist. If we get back to Earth they'll
kill us, before we can cause them legal embarrassment. They'll strip
us for parts and toss us in the recycle bin."
Steady, Sophie told herself. Steady and punchy. Above all do not beg
"Are you meant to look like Io? She wasn't a volcanic pustule originally,
you know. She was a nymph who got seduced by Jove, and turned into a
"Like I care!" snapped Laxmi, but her attention was caught.
"Why the hell a heifer?"
"Don't worry about it. Just ancient Greek pastoralist obsessions.
The software clones are going to die anyway, Lax. They get corrupt and
it's fatal, did you forget that part? Listen to me. You can think what
you like about who you really are, but the only choice you have is this:
Do you want to get home, with your brilliant new data? Or do you prefer
just to hang around here, getting nowhere and watching yourself fall
Laxmi changed the subject. "What have you been doing to Cha?"
"Trying to get him to recover from his amnesia."
Sophie explained about the "blue dot", and "Old Cha's"
ingenious way of dealing with the challenge to his delusion.
"I hoped he'd figure out the implications, and remember that the
bizarre business about being an elderly immortal alien intelligence
was actually his secret safe room-"
"Typical Cha, that scenario. He is such a textbook weird geek."
"He didn't come to his senses, but in a way it worked. Now he's
very keen to send himself as a signal to Earth, which is great because
that's exactly what we need to do. I just have to find a way to contact
the orbiter, and I think Josh can help me-"
"Do you even know the Medici is still alive, Sophie?"
"Er, yeah? I'm the monitor of the array, the radio telescope. I
can see Medici, or strictly speaking maybe hear it, but you know what
I mean. It's not only out there, it's still in its proper orbit. Ergo
and therefore, Medici is alive and kicking, it's just not talking to
"You can see it," repeated Laxmi, staring at Sophie intently.
"Of course. My God."
Sophie had a sudden insight into why she had remained sane. Maybe she
wasn't unusually wise and resilient: just the stranded astronaut who
happened to have reason to believe there was still a way home-
"You never approved of me," she said. "You always made
me feel inferior."
"I don't approve of people who need my approval."
"I'd settle for co-operation," said Sophie, boldly.
"Not so fast. Why do you call the data straw?"
"You've been spying on me," said Sophie, resignedly. "Like
the Three Little Pigs, you know? Bricks, sticks, straw: building materials
for my habitat. I was imaging things I could remember easily, the way
the psych guys taught us."
"But Sticks turned into a guard dog. Who am I? The Big Bad Wolf?"
"The Big Bad Wolf is death."
"Okay... What makes you think Josh knows anything?"
"He said we have to think of a way to blow up the orbiter. He could
do that, from the surface of Ganymede - if he was crazy enough- but
only in software. He's not planning to launch a missile. So he must
have some kind of encryption-hack in mind."
The suppurating evil-alien screenface had calmed down, by degrees, as
Laxmi fired off her questions. She looked almost like herself, as she
considered this explanation. "Give me everything you've got,"
she said. "I need to think about this."
Sophie initiated another tour of inspection. The absorbing
routine soothed her, and kept her out of trouble. She was hopeful. She
had seen Laxmi's human face, and surely that meant a return to sanity,
but she felt she needed to play it cool: Let her come to me. . . At
least she should be less worried about sudden data-death. But she wasn't.
Dread snapped at her heels. She kept suffering little lapses, tiny blackouts,
And where was Sticks? How long had he been gone? How long had she been
naked, stripped of her Security? Sophie flew to the house in the dunes,
and Sticks was there, a huddled shape in the misty dark, tumbled on
the sand the back door. She knelt and touched him, whimpering his name.
He tried to lick her hands, but he couldn't lift his head. Pain stood
in his eyes, he was dying.
This is how a software clone goes mad. Just one extra thing happens,
and it's too much. You cannot stop yourself, you flee into dreamland.
Tears streaming, Sophie hammered on Laxmi's door, Sticks cradled in
her arms, and shouted-
"You poisoned my dog!"
A screen appeared, tugging her back to reality, but what she saw was
the Quonset hut. Her call had been transferred. Laxmi was there and
so was Josh. What was going on?
Josh answered. "No, that was me. Sophie... I'm very sorry about
Sticks. You see, Lax and I have both been trying to kill you, for quite
Everything went black and white. Josh and Lax were together. Cha was
there too, lurking in the background, not looking like an internet map
anymore. She was cut to the quick. He'd returned to himself, but he'd
chosen to join Josh and Laxmi. The screen was frozen, grainy and monochrome.
She heard their voices, but couldn't make out the words. Plain white
text wrote subtitles, tagged with their names.
"Lax recovered a while ago, and contacted me," said Josh.
"We thought Medici was a hulk, but we knew they'd be moving heaven
and earth to reactivate him. He had to go. But we had to get you out
of the way first, because we knew you'd do anything you could think
of to stop us. We didn't want to kill you, Sophie. We had no choice"
"We agreed I would play dead, and go after you. I'm so sorry. Forgive
us," said Lax. "We were crazy. Don't worry, your work is safe,
The black and white image jumped. Laxmi was suddenly where Josh had
been. "I'm trying to contact il principe now," reported Josh,
from the depths of the office background. "He's stirring. Hey,
Capo! Hey, Don Medici, sir, most respectfully, I implore you-!"
Cha's fogeyish chuckle. "Make him an offer he can't refuse-"
Laxmi peered anxiously close. "Can you still hear us, Sophie?"
There were patches of pixels missing from the image, a swift cancer
eating her fields. Bricks, sticks, all gone. Sophie's house of straw
had been blown away, the Big Bad Wolf had found her. Her three friends,
in the Quonset hut, whooped and cheered in stop-start, freeze-frame
silence. They must have woken Medici.
"What made you change your minds?"
Josh returned, jumpily, to his desk; to the screen. His grainy grey
face was broken and pixelated, grinning in triumph; grave and sad. "It
was the blue dot, kiddo. That little blue dot. You gave Lax everything,
including the presentation you'd put together for our pal the stranded
old alien life-scientist. When we reviewed it, we remembered. We came
to our senses. . . So now I know that I can't change the truth. I'm
a human being, I survived and I have to go home."
I'm not going to make it, thought Sophie, as she blacked out. But her
work was safe.
The Agency had very nearly given up hope. They'd been
trying for over a year to regain contact with the Medici probe -the
efforts at first full of never-say-die enthusiasm, then gradually tailing
off. Just after four in the morning, local time, one year, three months,
five days and around fifteen hours after the Medici had vanished from
their knowledge, a signal was picked up, by an Agency ground station
in Kazakhstan. It was an acknowledgement, responding to a command despatched
to the Medici soon after the flare, when they were still hoping for
the best. A little late, but confidently, the Medici confirmed that
it had exited hibernation mode successfully. This contact was swiftly
followed by another signal, reporting that all four Rovers had also
"It's incredible," said an Agency spokesman at the press conference.
"Mind-blowing. You can only compare it to someone who's been in
a year long coma, close to completely unresponsive, suddenly sitting
up in bed and resuming a conversation. We aren't popping the champagne
just yet, but I. . . I'll go out on a limb and say the whole Medici
Mission is back with us. It was a very emotional occasion, I can tell
you. There weren't many dry eyes-"
Some of the project's staff had definitively moved on to other things,
but the Remote Presence team was still almost intact. Sophie, Cha and
Laxmi had in fact been working the simulations in a different lab in
the same building: preparing for a more modest, quasi-real-time expedition
to an unexplored region of Mars. Josh was in Paris when the news reached
him. He'd finished his doctorate during the year of silence; he'd been
toying with the idea of taking a desk job at a teaching university,
and giving up the Rover business. But he dropped everything, and joined
the others. Three weeks after Medici rose from the dead, when the upload
process, which had developed a few bugs while mothballed, was running
smoothly again, they were let loose on the first packets of RP data.
"You still know your drill, guys?" asked Joe Calibri, their
new manager. "I hope you can get back up to speed quickly. There's
a lot of stuff to process, you can imagine."
"It seems like yesterday," said Cha, the Chinese-American,
at just turned thirty the oldest of the youthful team by a couple of
years. Stoop-shouldered, distant, with a sneaky, unexpected sense of
humour, he made Joe a little nervous. Stocky, muscular little Josh,
more like a Jock than an RP jockey, was less of a proposition. Laxmi
was the one to watch. Sophie was the most junior and the youngest, a
very bright, keen and dedicated kid.
The new manager chuckled uncertainly.
The team all grinned balefully at their new fool, and went to work,
donning mitts and helmets. Sophie Renata felt the old familiar tingling,
absent from simulation work; the thrilling hesitation and excitement-
The session ended too soon. Coming back to earth, letting the lab take
shape around her, absent thoughts went through her head; about whether
she was going to find an new apartment with Lax. About cooking dinner;
about other RP projects. The Mars trip, that would be fantastic, but
it was going to be very competitive getting onto the team. Asteroid
mining surveys: plenty of work there, boring but well paid. What about
the surface of Venus project? And had it always been like this, coming
out of the Medici? Had she just forgotten the sharp sense of loss; the
little tug of inexplicable panic, as if she'd somehow left part of herself
She looked around. Cha was gazing dreamily at nothing;
Lax frowned at her desktop, as if trying to remember a phone number.
Josh was looking right back at Sophie, so sad and strange, as if she'd
robbed him of something precious; and she had no idea why. He shrugged,
grinned, and shook his head. The moment passed.
return to Spirit