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 your brains!"

"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 was required-

"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 pen.

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 way possible.

"That man is such a fool," remarked Laxmi, when Bob and Marva had departed.

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 suffer."


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 the orbiter."

"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. Go away."

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 the possible.

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 too finicky-

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 researcher?"

"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?"

"Of course."

"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 lensing effect?"

"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 different!"

"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 find me!"

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 him off.
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 elsewhere.
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 rags.

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 you."

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 sight.

"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 for mercy.

"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 white heifer."

"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 apart?"

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 us."

"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."
And vanished.

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, frightening herself.

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 a while-"

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, I promise."

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 survived intact.

"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 behind?

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 page