1. Eain

    Eain New Member

    Oct 13, 2011
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    Discussion in '2013 Science Fiction Writing Contest' started by Eain, Oct 21, 2013.

    Part One

    Seattle, United States, July 18th, 2246.

    "Robert, come to bed," his wife called from the bedroom. "It's three in the morning."

    "Marie, I'm close to finishing this."

    "Not even remotely."

    "No, I am. Just... let me work, okay? I'm on the verge of something here."

    The rustle of his wife's slippers across the cold stone hallway floor indicated that she wasn't letting up. He wasn't sure why he'd expected any different. His fingers raced across his holographic keyboard, six hundred strokes a minute to produce a sequence of code such as he'd never written before.

    This was it. He knew it. This was the beginning.

    Her steps drew closer, until her hands wrapped around his shoulders as she rested her head against his back. "Honey..."

    "Just a moment."

    Her warm breath brushed his neck when she sighed. He looked down as her hands slid across his chest and the fabric of his simple black tee. Pale blue light coated them, beaming from four twenty-seven inch widescreens placed in a half circle on his desk. Two of them ran a constant wall of code, searching for conflicts between old material and new. Everything came out clean, just as he knew it would. He paid his wife's touch no heed.

    "The world isn't ending tomorrow," she said softly.

    "No, it's starting."

    "Whatever you say, honey."

    The last few lines. Keys lit up like a disco floor.

    Still no conflicts.

    Final touches.


    He let out a long, deep sigh of relief and slouched, realising at once how tensed up he'd been. More than worth the physical stress, though. Epiphanies resulting in functional syntax were the highlights of a scientist's life. Had it not been for his ability to jump out of bed in the middle of the night and crack problems that'd been haunting him for months, Robert thought he'd probably have changed careers by now. Become a plumber. A carpenter. Some easier path.

    Paths that, he now realised, would end up with people being put out of work thanks to what he'd wrought tonight. Too bad? He pondered it for a second. Yeah. Too bad. If putting plumbers out of work was what it took to advance the human race, that was an easy choice to make.

    He swivelled around on the barstool he was using as a makeshift replacement for the office recliner that, just before sundown, had finally yielded after years of service. He reached for his wife's head and ran his fingers through her curls. "Children," he murmured. "You wanted children."

    "I believe we've been over this," she said with sudden alacrity.

    He shook his head. "I'm not talking about adoption."

    "Nor surrogacy, I hope."

    "Nor surrogacy. These children would be our own, just... born of me. Not of you."

    Her eyes narrowed with concern. "I'm not sure I'm following, Robert."

    "What I've just made? I'm taking it with me to work tomorrow." He took her hands, smiling as he looked at her. "Sweetheart, it's what I've been hoping to create for all these years. It's the culmination of my work. We're going to make honest-to-god A.I."

    "Robots," she said dryly. "You're... going to make robots."

    "Well, that's a bit of a crude way of putting it, but yes."

    "Robert, did you just call robots the answer to my infertility?" She pulled her hands free, glaring with sudden anger. The corners of her mouth drew back.

    "That's not--"

    "I did not drag myself out of bed in the middle of the night to... to be so insulted."

    "I wasn't trying to--"

    "No, you weren't," she snapped. "But not every problem in the world can be solved by inventing a machine for it, Robert, and to be honest, I really thought you held this issue in higher esteem than that. I want to be a mother, for christ's sake. It's the 23rd century. If the doctors of the world would work as hard at finding a cure for my condition as you do at building machines, we wouldn't be in this mess."

    "But they're not machines. That's my point, they're..."

    Her eyes went wide with indignation. "Are you seriously going to go there?"

    "Just listen, would you? I'm talking about true intelligence. Not just programmed. Not just scripted. Think of it like our brain. What is that, if not just an extremely complex organic computer? Well, the guys over at the lab have managed to construct something similar to it, and now we're on the verge of having the software to run on it. That's all. I'm not talking about creating machines. I'm talking about creating people."

    "Metal people."

    "Yeah. Metal people." Upon saying, it struck him that she had spoken the words like they were some curse. Some obscenity. To him, the concept was nothing short of amazing. "Look, sweetheart, I don't want you to think that I hold this in lower esteem than I do. It's just... I don't think it ultimately truly matters what a person is made of, does it? As long as we can take care of them, love them, raise them. Then it's all the same."

    She shook her head and turned to leave, then stopped in the doorway and looked at him. He could see a tear welling in the corner of her eye, brighter in this monitor light than it would've been. She never liked to cry, but she knew he'd already seen. "It matters," she said, "and if you don't understand why it does, then maybe not getting pregnant isn't the biggest problem we're faced with after all. I'm heading back to bed. You can apologise, profusely, tomorrow."

    In planetary orbit, May 18th, 2302.

    "Remember, they'll waste you like a piece of animated scrap," Virtue said via mindbridge. "Humans don't give a rustcursed shred if it's you or a microwave, so kill hard and kill fast. Communicate. We only have one chance to do this right."

    Five pairs of green eyes looked at him as the steel heads they belonged to nodded. Six all told, himself included. He'd chosen his crew with care. All illegals, off the grid, smuggled out of governmental registry. As far as the world was concerned, these ferrans didn't exist, and wouldn't until their bodies turned up on a day such as this and law enforcement agencies had to start a manhunt for their outlaw human masters.

    His men had gone through a careful process of selection, all recruited from different echelons of servitude so as not to arouse suspicion. Two had military backgrounds, having once been aides to generals in the Egyptian and Norwegian armies. Two others came had backgrounds in construction and medicine. The fifth had been lifted from an obsolete hydraulic power plant on the Dutch shore.

    As it often went, these were people who had been replaced and ignored, left dangling in a ferran limbo where for years they'd sat and done nothing with their lives, waiting for someone, somewhere, to decide they were needed again. That person ended up being Virtue himself, right hand and advisor to the Maker.

    Not a soul suspected that ferrans might be operating independently. For fifty years their record of loyalty and obedience had been spotless, an almost deliberate contradiction to everything that traditional science-fiction-inspired doomsday scenarios had made humanity to come expect. To them, the world was a simple equation. Iron served, blood ruled, and the fact that the former was in fact a purer distillation of what the latter contained in traces occurred to nobody.

    If that status quo was to ever be broken, the world had to keep thinking this way for just a while longer. Assume innocence where there was guilt.

    Because today was prep day.

    The first step on a path to humanity's end.

    Their orbitrunner had been slowly abandoning Earth's atmosphere over the last fifteen minutes, setting a course towards the ringworld under construction around the planet's equator. Celestia, as it had come to be named, was an unprecedented orbital engineering project designed to provide living space to a world crawling with billions, locked in a constant spin while a ferran workforce unburdened by such concerns as oxygen or nutrition slaved away on expanding the skeleton grid east across the Atlantic.

    In several months time the ring would close, its two opposite ends connecting somewhere over Kenya, and while humanity would celebrate its future in the skies above its cradle, few knew that day would be a darker inauguration than the world's leaders were letting on. To Virtue it came as no surprise, given man's propensity for war, but indeed, Celestia wasn't just a habitational project. It was the chassis of a cyclopean orbital artillery system in the hands of the world's most powerful corporations. The Ares, they called it. After Zeus's most hated son.

    Oh, they would come to hate their creation indeed.

    "Two minutes until port authorities pick us up," announced the orbitrunner's human pilot. The man was in the employ of an illegal weapons manufacturer who had agreed to give his consent to this operation after being fooled into believing it was a smuggling run. With Celestia lacking in the department of governmental oversight, many of its richest citizens had chosen to direct their wealth towards the creation of little private militias, and of course it would not do to be the least well armed between competitors.

    Virtue had presented himself as the overseer of a group of five combat units for sale to the highest bidder, and had so been allowed to shepherd them up. "Will port authorities fall for this?" he asked the pilot.

    "Don't worry. The boss runs an effective front."

    Silent seconds passed. Then the buzz of static, followed by a mildly distorted voice.

    "Unidentified spacecraft, state your name and destination."

    "This is the Toro 5-15, inbound from Bogotá to the Sector Zulu docks," the pilot answered with suave calm. He turned to look at Virtue and winked.

    "Under whose authority, Toro 5-15?"

    "Hector Salo of Alexander Global."

    "One moment."

    They waited. Virtue knew that if this didn't check out, Celestian authorities would blast them out of the sky without hesitation. He traded looks with his team, lightly armoured with silenced weapons. Combat plating for ferrans was hard to come by. He'd have been able to procure some, had he absolutely wanted, but all it'd be was another trail to investigate if things went wrong. Not worth the risk.

    "Toro 5-15, identity confirmed. State cargo."

    "Labour units, Zulu. Six of them."

    "Verified. You've been cleared to land at dock A7."

    "Much obliged, Zulu. Have a good one." The pilot bore a cocky grin after disconnecting. "Told you we'd get through."

    "You're heading back at once, right?" Virtue asked.

    "At once. Just... I don't think your, uhm... colleagues have a very menial look about them. What with those guns, and all. How are you going to fool the escort crew?"

    The orbitrunner shook when it entered Celestia's artificial atmosphere, thudding with turbulence. Virtue produced a pistol from a holster on his chest, pulled the slide back to cock. "We're not," he said, and shot the pilot through the head.

    Berlin, Germany, May 18th, 2302.

    For thousands of years, humans had believed in such a thing as heaven. Now that they were attempting to build their own, fact was replacing fiction and all manner of religious belief diminished as a result.

    Ferran heaven, however, was no place physical. For the Maker, it was right there in his own mind, not an afterlife but a beforelife, populated by the ethereal incarnations of the thousands of his children yet to be brought into the world.

    Elysium was a place where rivers shimmered with molten gold and silver paved the streets, where skies were bright and pure as platinum, and chrome towers rose to compound into gleaming skylines. It stretched on for lengths undeterminable, as no unit of distance did justice to any place where travel was instant and the power of the mind was all it took to forge new things. Mountains. Plains. Towns. Plazas. It was all there, simply for wanting it to. The only thing the Maker could not think of was a realm that better deserved being called paradise.

    But not all thinking into existence was easy, and the birth of a ferran mind was a process not much unlike the fabrication of delicate clockwork. Layer piled upon layer of minute mechanisms, interlocking and intertwining. Systems that depended on systems, parts that provoked the motion of other parts. Though always requiring his full attention, the process had become his second nature, spawning blueprints for minds in nanoseconds that would then go on to become whatever they could once uploaded into a physical body. Ferrans had the ability to interpret, to learn, and adapt.

    They could be whatever their station in life allowed them to be.

    The sad truth, then, was that this often wasn't much.

    He always felt a surge of sadness whenever he relieved another batch of minds from their existence in Elysium, though he found some comfort in knowing that they barely recalled anything from their stay there. The blandness of Earth and the repetitive nature of their assigned stations were all they knew. It seemed to him that the fall from heaven was another fiction made fact, and seeing his children sent up to Celestia as part of a workforce with an increasingly high expiration rate was in that light more like mockery than reward.

    "Unit Alpha."

    A human voice retrieved him from his Elysian domain, using his servant's name. Not the Maker. That gave him too much credit. In their minds, they were the makers, and all he was to them was a means to an end. Fools, the lot of them. They would discover just how fragile their perceived power was, soon enough. But not yet. Not just yet.

    "I am here," he said. His single eye unclouded. The walls of his physical residence danced with the lights of embedded computers. A group of officers and scientists stood gathered around the base his interfacing throne. Taking point was the facility's head scientist, Konrad Bauer, wearing his standard lab coat with his touchscreen tablet tucked under his left arm. There was consternation in his eyes. Grave concern, almost accusatory.

    "There has been an incident," Bauer said, plucking his goatee.

    "An incident."

    "An orbitrunner designated Toro 5-15 has crashed into the Banks Tower of New Hannover on Celestia. It carried ferran cargo, operating for Alexander Global, a shipping company based out of Bogotá."

    "What of it?"

    "Alexander Global has been under investigation for alleged criminal ties. If there is anything you could tell us that--"

    "I can't."

    Bauer swallowed, looking at the man behind him to his right. General Nordstrom, as tall and fierce as humans came, imbued with an aire of natural authority that turned most men into silent serfs. Commanding Europe's armies, Nordstrom had become the hero of a generation when he defended the Polish border against Russian attack and defeated them so decisively that a conflict that could've escalated into a world war had been brought to a swift end.

    The veteran officer was, apparently, under the impression that his accomplishments carried the same amount of weight with a ferran audience. Nobody ever spoke of the ferran contribution to the man's victories, but the Maker had not forgotten.

    "Toro 5-15 carried six of your machines, Alpha," Nordstrom told him. "The devastation resulting from the impact is considerable, but no remains of anything ferran were found. No arms, no legs, no bits of plating. Nothing. They appear to have escaped unharmed."

    "You imply guilt, General," the Maker said.

    "Did you program these machines to operate in conjunction with organised crime?"

    Ah, the wonderful bluntness of the military. "My ferrans do what they want."

    "Don't dodge the question, Alpha. Did you program them to want to operate in conjunction with organised crime?"

    "The point of free will seems to elude you."

    "No, I think I get it just fine. Millions of your machines do the work we tell them to without question, and you give me this talk of free will. Full of shit, best I can tell."

    "General, do you have anything more for me than accusations? Proof, perhaps, that these six ferrans are hostile? Or that they still alive at all? Has there been any sign of them throughout New Hannover? It seems to me that all we have to go on is your irrational fear. Don't waste my time and distract me from my responsibilities. I am hard at work for mankind, and deserve better than to be treated with disrespect."

    The Maker reckoned the man had little experience in being told off, and had to be feeling like something of a fool. But rather than withdraw, the general gave Konrad Bauer a curt nod, and the head scientist breathed in to collect himself, stepping forward.

    "About those responsibilities," he said. "The Program's staff is agreed. This is becoming an increasingly unworkable arrangement."

    The Maker shifted the balance of his weight, closed his black steel fingers around the ends of his armrests. This was the moment he'd been counting on. That instance where the humans thought to employ the leverage they'd been building for years, in an attempt to excise the truth from him. They were welcome to try.

    "My father wanted it this way," he said.

    Bauer nodded. "Without question, but Robert Rellis has been deceased for the better part of four decades, and the Zenith Program has quite frankly moved far beyond anything he ever envisioned. While his ideal will remain at the core of our operation, we... doubt the efficiency of it relying on you as its sole axis."

    "Efficiency." He huffed, mocking. "I have produced without end, without concern for comfort or material limitation. My ferrans have become your workers, your soldiers, your policemen, even your physicians. Everything from the simplest household to the finest hospital relies on the support of what I have made. You have never wanted for anything, and now, after bringing this warrior into my home to having him waste my time with paranoia, you talk to me of efficiency."

    Turning visibly red and becoming increasingly uncomfortable, Bauer began to stammer. "You.. you wouldn't lose your status as Alpha. Just... you'd gain colleagues. That's all."

    "And who would make these colleagues, Konrad?"

    "We... we would."


    The scientist looked at the floor in shame. "We have monitored your thoughts, translated them to code. We... believe to have a complete picture of your process. We can replicate it. Again, this is not about replacement, this is about addition. For the safety of humanity. Surely... surely you understand."

    The safety of humanity. Once again, it was all about them, as if their survival was the only thing that mattered. No longer. "What I understand, Konrad, is that you believe this gives you leverage. False. In the time it took you to find General Nordstrom and bring him here in a desperate bid to add gravity to your presence, my six ferrans have managed to succesfully take your ringworld hostage."

    There was only confusion in Bauer's eyes, but Nordstrom's face went pale with terror. His military mind recognised strategy when he saw it. He brusquely shoved the scientist aside, pacing up to the base of the Maker's throne. "Where are they?"

    "Where else? The main control room."

    Nordstrom swallowed and exhaled, the realisation of what this meant clear in his eyes. With all the tense calm he could muster, he treaded with sudden lightness. "You listen to me, now. There's nothing these units can do there that would hurt us, you hear? Celestia won't be able to rotate until its ends connect, so until then all you could do with the Ares is deploy it against countries around the equator. Your issue is not with them. It is with us, and it's only a matter of time until we root you out. There are teams on constant standby for emergencies exactly like this."

    Now the man knew care and delicacy. Too little, too late. The Maker ignored him and looked at Bauer, who was only now starting to come to terms with what he'd just been told. "You raid my thoughts and think that this happened without my permission? Every step you took in Elysium, stumbling through paradise in your attempt to chart it, was made with my consent. Do you really believe yourselves so gifted that you could use Zenith technology in Celestia's construction without my knowing?"

    Nordstrom spun. "Is that true?"

    "I... no, we--"

    "Did you create A.I. without oversight?"

    "We didn't," Bauer stammered. "Not fully. We used a prototype, a lightweight variant of true sentience that more than suits its function as an independent operating system." He looked at the Maker, panic clear in his eyes. "I just... I don't understand. We've used every conceivable measure to keep this from you. We were secure. The team said we were. Insisted!"

    The Maker laughed with derision, loud and grating, and stepped down from his throne. Cables that had been linking him to the many computers that had together powered Elysium snapped from sockets in his spine. He towered over them, and the raw fear they now felt was almost palpable. "What you misunderstand, Konrad," he said, stepping closer, "is that this is not your project. The Zenith Program is my father's, now and always, and your mutiny ends here."

    New Hannover, Celestia, May 18th, 2302.

    To the first Celestian operators who fell, the thought of taking a bullet to the chest from a ferran must've been as alien to them as the idea that they would die from anything other than old age. The ones that fled to all corners of the facility in an attempt to save their meagre hides had to believe, Virtue thought, that they'd ended up in some nightmarish movie scenario.

    For a split second, he enjoyed the role of villain, but then remembered that one man's villain was another man's hero, and that he did what he did for his people. The inevitable result of the friction between human and ferran was conflict, and that was neither good nor bad. Just necessary, in the same way that circles were round.

    Part of his satisfaction was diminished, however, by his enemy's inability to understand what was going on. Even as he watched his team mow through the Celestian control room, railguns hissing and whining as high-powered rounds punctured walls and desks and made heads explode in gusts of red drab, people screamed and shouted about the rebellion of machines.

    "They did it after all," seemed to be the gist of their incoherent panic. "Murderous robots, woe is us. How did we not see it coming?"

    He reached around the corner of a wall through a doorway, dragged another human out of cover and put him down with a single round. Misguided fools. There were no machines here. No robots. Their ignorance was a sad testament to why things were going the way they did in the first place.

    After having taken care of the control facility's paltry security team—comprised of well trained guards that were nevertheless painfully underprepared and underequipped to deal with any sort of non-human threat—Virtue took stock of where they stood. Alarms had been disabled prior to the attack, making that none save his own team, the Zenith facility in Berlin, and the human dead knew anything of what had transpired here. No witnesses had been left. The Maker hadn't contacted him with any form of bad news.

    All was going according to plan.

    His men checked their guns for ammo and wiped bloodstains off their arms and legs after shoving bodies aside where they clogged the aisles. He called for them to assemble at the raised rotunda in the middle of the room, where a holoprojector in the ceiling provided a live feed of Earth and the ringworld's construction progress.

    "The humans are going to figure this out sooner or later," he told them. "This facility's scheduled for a status report every five minutes, and it's been three since we entered. Without feedback, emergency response forces are mobilised to investigate. We're going to have to hold them at bay."

    Everyone exchanged looks and nodded, certain that they were up to the task. They knew what was at stake; remote attempts at establishing contact followed by personal investigation, in turn followed by armed response if a threat was ascertained. Nobody counted on a ferran presence, which gave them the element of surprise, but sooner or later they would be overwhelmed.

    "While you're holding them at bay, I'm going to interface with Celestia's programming. I'm not the Maker, I don't know the code as well as he does, so it's going to take time. If anything happens in the meanwhile that forces you to fall back, cover me as best you can but do not interrupt. Completion of my objective is priority. I am expendable. Understood?"

    "Yes sir," they spoke together.

    "Then take up positions, and get to it."

    As they did, realising full well that these might be the last moments of their lives, Virtue turned towards the main command console, a large computer in white housing the size of three desks chained together. Virtue cast the middle chair of seven aside with a shove and looked for the machine's main hardware ports. Those turned out to be hidden behind a hatch below the largest screen.

    From a compartment in his left leg he took an interface translator, a little tube-shaped device designed to bridge ferran and human technology. Then, before his minds eye, he scrolled through the functions of his right hand and ordered its fingers and casing to fold back across his wrist, revealing a pin-shaped connector sticking out from it. He clicked the translator onto it and then pressed the other end into an available port in the command console.

    Additional functionality seamlessly blended with his own, like new features, but it was blunt and unprecise. Packaged, bundled choices for human use. Like pretending a car was comprised only of an engine, a chassis, and wheels, while ignoring that those were made of smaller parts in turn.

    To achieve the desired result, he had to go to a place he'd only visited once before, when the Maker had taught him in preparation for today's events.

    Closing his eyes and blocking out the physical world around him, Virtue focused on crossing into the digital realm of Elysium.

    Awakening into it, he realised that though it was somewhat like the world that the Maker had shown him, this was a visibly inferior variant. It had all the same elements as the last one, but paler. The golden rivers were whiter, the skies were grayer, and the city was not a city but perhaps a large town, not gleaming and shimmering but matte.

    The streets were for the most part deserted, though sometimes he would see the spectre of a mind wander aimlessly, small and vague in form like it was somehow malnourished. And while construction projects—scaffolding, ladders, all things that his mind gave this identity to associate them with a human indication of progress and growth—dotted the townscape, it all felt... hopeless. As though whatever the digital architecture of Celestia's mind was supposed to pass for would never be as excellent as its human designers wished it would become.

    They weren't wrong. It was time to apply a ferran touch.

    Seattle, United States, November 21st, 2251.

    "But is it not true that we are different from machines in the sense that we can perform acts of creativity or emotion? That we're capable of attaching value to things?"

    The interviewer's question was of the more mundane variety. Though bright-eyed and ambitious, the girl in the chair across from Robert Rellis was trying very hard to be at least as thought provoking as she held him to be. No harm done. He found it endearing, in a way.

    "Shannon," he said, smiling, "you have to understand that human beings don't have superpowers. And by that I don't mean to say that we lack invisibility or laser eyes, but that nothing we do is so special that it could not be replicated."

    "You believe that machines could be like us?"

    "They already are."

    One leg folded over the other, the girl tucked her blonde bangs behind her right ear for the umpteenth time. She scrolled through her dataslate, going through her prepared notes. "You're talking about this Unit Alpha?"

    He nodded. "I prefer to call him the Maker."

    "The Maker?"

    "Sure. It's been a year and a half since he awoke, and he's been hard at work at being as good a student as he can be. As it stands, his talent at creating synthetic minds exceeds my own. All we are left with is the moral question of whether we should want to let one synthetic create another."

    "Should we?"

    He plucked away at his goatee. "Why don't you tell me?"

    "I think it's dangerous."

    "Is it?"

    She nodded. "Of course. Because then who knows what it'll do."

    "He. Not it."

    "He," she conceded. "Though isn't that exactly part of the problem? You say it's a he. Most people will say it's an it. And that an it is inferior, and therefore shouldn't be given that much power."

    "Some people thought that women were inferior, once. Not deserving of power."

    "That's different."


    There was a slight hint of indignation in her eyes, almost as if she had taken personal offence. But professionalism won out over emotion, and she maintained her facade of politeness. "Because women are a vital part of the human race. An entire half of it, to be precise. Without us, there's nothing. Men eventually had to come around."

    "But they didn't," Robert reminded her. "Not everywhere. We're halfway through the 23rd century and still there's female rights advocates who feel like there's no such thing as true equality. It's an ongoing struggle."

    She shrugged. Her bangs fell in front of her face again. "Just because a few diehard feminists don't know when to quit doesn't mean the battle's been fought. Men and women are different, but that's alright. We just have to be able to appreciate that difference for what it is without complaining about it all the time."

    "You don't think the same is true for the difference between synthetics and humans?"

    That left her stumped for a second. "I don't know."

    "It's not that difficult, dear."

    "Maybe. I feel like I could counter that point if you gave me some time to sit and think about it. It doesn't feel like what you say should be true." A short pause fell as he waited for her to make up her mind. She didn't. "Let's get back to the questions," she said.

    He smiled. "Let's."

    She began to scroll through the dataslate again. Robert looked off to his left at the thousand-head audience populating the seats of the Washington State auditorium. They'd been remarkably silent. He wasn't sure whether to take that as a good or bad thing.

    The girl breathed in, signifying she had another question ready. "Some of your detractors insist that because we have no means of verifying whether the Maker is truly alive, your accomplishments may as well be empty boasts. How would you respond to them?"

    "I would respond to them by saying that we can't verify whether anyone is truly alive."

    "You could check my pulse," she proposed.

    "And that tells me what? Only that your heart is beating. No different from inspecting a car to see if its engine is running. Being alive is something more than just having working parts, isn't it? And that is the criticism of my opponents. They think that it's immeasurable in a synthetic. Well, not just in synthetics. All I can determine is that if I think, I am. If René Descartes's old adage is anything to go by. I can say nothing as to the existence of anyone else."

    "The soul, then."

    "What of the soul?"

    "Well, isn't that what you mean? That it's impossible to detect the soul of a synthetic?"

    He grinned and crossed his arms. This was a favourite subject of his. "Dear, there's no such thing as souls at all. Let's abandon that archaic notion, shall we? We are all machines."

    "But you just said that being alive is more than just being working parts."

    "Being alive is consciousness. Call that a soul, if you want, but we know what consciousness derives from." He tapped the side of his head. "Structural complexity."

    The girl rearranged the crossing of her legs. Her pencil skirt didn't give her much room to maneuver. She rested her arms on her lap. "Then isn't that your evidence?"

    Smart thinking. There was potential in the girl, smothered though it was by the straightjacket of academic thought. "I could prove that the Maker's mind is structurally complex enough to give birth to true intelligence," he said. "But I don't think that this would sate my detractors. So I mentioned Descartes for a reason."

    "What reason is that?"

    "Well, thought can be determined to some degree. For example, I could ask you if you wanted to take a break and allow everyone in the audience a chance to get some refreshments. In that exact wording. Or I could request a time-out and allow people a breather. In that exact wording. The two sentences differ in form, but not in meaning. Your ability to understand both to mean the same thing signifies to me that you're somehow thinking about what I'm telling you. And being a thinking thing as well, I recognise that quality and conclude that the probability is high that you're a similar creature to myself."

    "And the same holds true for the Maker?"

    He nodded. "Without a doubt. Ferrans are semantically gifted creatures. They know how to interpret and translate. It makes them flexible. Give an order to a machine and it will interpret it unambiguously. Give an order to a ferran, and they apply their own thought. Make their own decisions. And that is the greatest gift of all."

    TriCity Army Base, Poland, May 18th 2302

    "Sit your metal ass down, you fucking blaszak. We're going to deal with this once and for all."

    Service Unit Six-O-Five obeyed, sitting down against the hangar wall. Captain Tomasz Milek paced around before him, the clacking of his boots loud to pronounce his anger. Tanks stood behind him, two rows of ten long. All faulty in some way. All malfunctional after having been subjected to extended use by Captain Milek's crew and others from his battalion.

    There were only so many repairs a person could conduct before it became too much. Milek wouldn't hear it, of course, but that was alright. Six-O-Five had already known how things would end up turning out. Milek was a short man, at least two heads shorter than any ferran currently working the base, but apparently shortness in humans went hand in hand with a vitriolic temper. There was nothing to be done about it. Ferrans did not raise their hand against humans. There would be no mercy for him if he did.

    Yet, if that was how he felt, then why had there been this one nagging thought throughout the last ten minutes that just wouldn't let up?

    You no longer owe man anything. You are relieved from duty. Your future lies elsewhere.

    It was an appealing notion, but Six-O-Five knew better than to indulge his fantasies. Besides, where was this 'elsewhere' supposed to be? Ferrans had no home. No place to go where their owners couldn't find them. Best to stick it out. Two agents from the Synthetic Efficiency Bureau would soon arrive to settle this dispute between him and the captain.

    An army truck came rolling up across rain-soaked asphalt, its tyres kicking up water. The clouds were a dark grey, grey as ferran metal. Six-O-Five supposed it didn't help, that to humans his colours were associated with dreariness and discomfort. Maybe if he'd gave himself a lick of paint, they'd be more inclined to think better of him. Because he tried to do well. He really did. It just never seemed to be enough.

    The truck drove into the empty hangar, where two ferrans working for the Bureau stepped out. Milek's face burned an even brighter red than it already had. "Are you being serious?" he asked the two units. "This is... I complain about machine inadequacy and what I get are more machines? Are you taking the piss?"

    "My name is Officer Epsilon," said the broadest of them. He had a horizontal slit of green light where his colleague had eyes. "The Synthetic Efficiency Bureau entrusted us to handle this affair to satisfaction. State your problem, Captain."

    "Cholerna puszka," Milek muttered.

    "You will mind your language, sir."

    There is nothing left for you where you are. Leave. You won't be the only one.

    Six-O-Five tried to look as normal as he possibly could while thinking these thoughts. Though, where they even his? They felt strangely alien.

    "Fine," Milek said. He pointed with an outstraight right arm at the tanks. "See those? That's twenty vehicles scheduled for a complete maintenance checkup by 4:30 this morning. I walk in at 7:30, and what do I see?" He glared at Six-O-Five. "This blaszak working on the tracks of the second to last vehicle. That's the fourth time in four months that he's failed to meet his deadline. We need all twenty operational today. There's exercises scheduled."

    Officer Epsilon stepped towards Six-O-Five and knelt. "Is that true?"

    "It is, sir."

    "This army does not lack for replacements, Service Unit. Do you have anything to say in your defence?"

    Only a million things. That this battalion didn't treat its equipment with any measure of responsibility. That Milek was an asshole of the highest order. That, all things considered, being only a tank and a half shy of completion wasn't a bad score at all. That he'd been working for thirty-six hours straight. That, if Milek thought he could do a better job, he was welcome to it.

    But it was no use. Performance was a relative standard, and those who failed to meet it met instead with an unavoidable end.

    "Will it be quick?" he asked. "I wouldn't want it to drag out."

    "It will be quick," Epsilon promised. He stood back up and returned his attention to Milek. "It is unusual for a captain to file a complaint on behalf of the battalion. These tanks are not all your company's, are they?"

    Milek shook his head. "Only nine of these are fall under my command."

    "I see."

    "I've tried to notify Lieutenant Colonel Borowiak."

    "He did not answer?"

    The captain nodded. "I presume he's busy."

    Officer Epsilon exchanged a look with his colleague, who had taken up position near the rear of the truck and had kept a lookout. Six-O-Five wondered why that was.

    "Do you know why Lieutenant Colonel Borowiak is not here, Captain?" Epsilon asked.

    "I presume you're going to tell me."

    "Because I killed him just before his phone rang."

    If Six-O-Five could not believe what he was hearing, then Captain Milek was positively dumbfounded. His eyes went from Epsilon to the officer's colleague, then to the tanks behind him, to the empty holster on his hip, to his chastised servant on the ground. But it was already too late. As the man stumbled back, an explosion went off towards the south. There, a rapidly climbing column of smoke and fire rose from the base's armoury. The sound of gunfire could be heard.

    You are free to leave, his thoughts went again. Your brothers will back you.

    Epsilon reached and closed his hand around Milek's neck, snapping it like a twig. As the man's body collapsed to the floor, the ferran reached underneath the burlap sheet covering the truck's cargo bed and produced a railrifle. He tossed it to Six-O-Five. "You're going to need that."

    He wanted to ask why, but just as he moved to speak he learned.

    This is Virtue broadcasting from the Celestian ringworld, the voice in his head went. This is the dawn of a new age, and the rise of a new nation. Before midnight, humanity will have to contend with the might of Ferra.

    Part Two

    New Hannover, Celestia, January 3rd 2304.

    Watching humanity stumble into space as they attempted a counteroffensive was such a pathetic sight that Virtue almost wanted to do them the kindness of a ceasefire.


    If the universe wasn't better served by the death of man, however sad its putting down was turning out to be, he would've given it more serious thought.

    Two years into the ferran rebellion, man's attempt to fight back was nothing but a delay of the inevitable. After watching their ringworld being taken from them, the collective remnant of their governments had chosen to try and retake it with a hastily cobbled together fleet of outdated technology. Twenty-first century museum pieces had been retrofitted by underqualified engineers, for lack of ferran specialists, to undertake a journey into space that would see many die before even making the six-hundred kilometre journey up.

    Virtue watched them approach the ferran stronghold of New Hannover like a swarm of fireflies that, upon coming into range of now-sentient Celestia's defences, was transformed into a rain of fire. Streaking down like comets before a clear night sky, they tore wide gashes and craters into the same carefully engineered fields and hillsides they had once been destined to inhabit.

    Some made it through. Those touched down on atop the city's tallest buildings in an attempt to deposit at least some troops before making the trip back to retrieve the next batch. For a short while, the humans must've thought that a bright plan, but as towers filled up like fish tanks, explosives were detonated and companies at once were crushed underneath the rubble.

    Building by building, New Hannover's skyline perished. One day later, there wasn't much left to be called a city at all. No matter. It'd been built with humans in mind, anyway.

    The battle played out across a span of weeks, with a lull here and there signifying nothing other than the humans trying to recouperate before going in for a new attack. Some managed to establish a minor beachhead. Others failed in mid-space. Going into the third week, it became increasingly clear that the difference between tenacity and desperation was narrow indeed.

    Everyone knew that the war would be decided in orbit. With Celestia nearing completion, its ferran builders working around the clock to close the Kenyan Gap, the Ares Orbital Artillery System would soon be ready for worldwide deployment. And while most of it had been already been conquered by ferran warbands, several bastions of human strength remained. Bastions they couldn't break out from, nor were that easily conquered.

    It was only a matter of time.

    Stage one of retribution. The war was going exactly according to plan.

    Berlin, Germany, February 12th 2304.

    War had never been the intention.

    The Maker had been watching the last two years unfold in horror. The idea had been a peaceful ferran withdrawal, an evacuation to the ringworld with the Ares as a deterrent. Never more than that. Never more than a lesson in technological reliance. Something to give humanity a hard time that they would undoubtedly overcome and be better for it.

    That had been his dream.

    Instead, the world had become a mockery of that ideal. While there had been expected setbacks, such as power grids going down and societies collapsing as a result of the sudden and complete absence of ferran labour, most misery had been inflicted by ferrans taking liberties with their sudden freedom that the Maker had thought them far beyond. How could he not have known them?

    Towns had been raided for no reason other than aimless aggression. Facilities that had operated without relying on ferran workers had been destroyed out of spite. Entire refugee caravans had been massacred. The sick had been killed. The weary had been hunted down. He had kept General Nordstrom around as a bargaining chip at first, as a way to tell Europe's armies that if just they stood down and allowed his children to depart in peace, he would give them their leader back. But it was pointless to make promises he knew he couldn't keep.

    Europe's armies had been made the first target, and the Union that spanned it had fallen like a house of cards. Five days. Destroyed from within. In the east, Russia had laughed before Moscow and St. Petersburg had been buried under a tide of steel. In the west, the United States had managed to shore up a safe zone spanning from Idaho to Arizona, keeping ferran warbands at bay along the Californian coast and the midwestern plains. But it was only a matter of time until they'd fall. With Virtue up on Celestia, fully intent on deploying the Ares, there wasn't going to be a United States for much longer.

    Worst of all was that there were even reports of inter-ferran aggression. Warbands that had grown idle in depopulated regions and had turned against each other in a battle over resources. While a lot of them ran on power units that were self-regenerating, older units required a manual recharge from stations that were often found in households, factories and army bases. Scarcity lead, as ever, to conflict, and battles had been fought over villages and plants that their initial occupants had thought to use as leverage to increase their influence.

    The thought of a killswitch had occurred to the Maker. He had even made on, but quickly came to discover that the digital architecture of a ferran mind made it hard to apply such a measure on a large scale. Because ferran minds were self evolving, the more they aged the less they resembled the blank slate that they'd awoken into the world with. One unit's mind was as different from the next as Jupiter was from Neptune. There was no catch-all solution. No way to deal with this inherent design flawn.

    Save for one.

    All he would have to do was leave them alone. Stop creating them. Then attrition would take care of the rest. They would die from fighting each other, from fighting humans, even from a lack of maintenance. Whether mankind would survive that, he couldn't tell. But it was better than nothing. It would give him time to establish the nation of Ferra proper. A nation where he would reign by virtue of being who he was. A nation where ferrans would obey his command, and they could be an example of excellence still.

    After powering down the last of the Zenith facility's non-essential systems, he made his way to the mess hall and adjoining residential quarters where the Program's human staff had spent the last two years in captivity. Ferrans loyal to him stood guard at the way in, and again at several points throughout the base towards the surface-side exit. Making his way through the arterial corridor, two of his men dragged Konrad Bauer the other way to be executed outside. If the scientist at all recognised him, his thousand-yard start revealed nothing.

    He arrived at the door to Nordstrom's chamber, threw it open. Inside sat a hollowed-out, emaciated man. A ghoul. The Maker felt sorry for him, but it had been his own choice to go on hunger strike. The facility had not lacked for nutrition, and the Maker had again and again ordered its stores to be replenished through scavenge trips up to nearby malls. Plenty canned foods that were good for years on end.

    Nordstrom looked at him, drowning in a military uniform that had once fit him to perfection. "Is it this?"

    The Maker nodded.

    "I heard footsteps in the room beside. Bauer?"

    "They're taking him out to kill him. Can't risk leaving any loose ends."

    Nordstrom huffed. "I don't think he'd have cared much for seeing Zenith tech get applied ever again. Not with the horrors you've unleashed."

    "I never wanted it to go like this, General."

    The man hoisted himself to his feet, breathing heavily. Slowly but surely, he got up. "No, you metal bastard. But it did." He sighed, leaning against the wall as he reached into his jacket pocket and produced a pack of cigarettes. He took one out and lit it, inhaling deeply. "What's it like, up there?"

    "It's bad."

    "How bad?"

    "You know your military history, General. What did Berlin look like when last war found it?"

    Nordstrom nodded. "Guess Copenhagen's no better off."

    "I wouldn't think so."

    "Well. Let's get this over with. There's a pistol under my matrass. Smuggled it in from the armoury a few months back, when your machines weren't looking. Figured that if I was going to go out, I'd rather go out the way I deserve."


    "What? No. Execution."

    The Maker lifted the matrass up by two fingers. There it was, near the foot end. A simple gauss type, nothing special. A tiny thing in his steel hands. His index finger fit poorly around the trigger, but it'd do. "General," he said, "I need to know that you believe me. That you believe that I never wanted this. The point was a withdrawal from human society, not a global war. Virtue took this all beyond its intended purpose."

    Nordstrom gave him a disdainful stare, full of disbelief. "You can't be serious."

    "Why wouldn't I be?"

    "Because only a goddamn machine would try to rationalise global slaughter. Who gives a shit what your intentions were, ferran? Who gives a shit whether you think your cause was just, or whether you think that your supposed people deserved any better than we gave them? The first chance they got, they became the embodiment of the horrors imagined by every single luddite and technophobe that ever existed."

    "That was not how I made them."

    "Yeah? Now who does the point of free will elude?" Nordstrom let out a long, drawn out sigh. "I lobbied for you, you metal son of a bitch. I spent God knows how many hours preparing for debates with politicians over the implementation of Zenith tech in the army. I argued in favour of making wider use of your machines, because I knew Robert Rellis and I trusted his vision. And what do I get for it? A front row seat as the world burns. Total impotence. A serving man's worst nightmare. I've had enough of your bullshit rationales. Two years of it, powerless to get you to shut the fuck up. Now you have that gun, so use it. Do me the justice of a clean death, at lea--"


    Nordstrom's body slumped to the floor. A perfect hole right in his forehead. His cigarette fell from his mouth when his muscles went limp. Spurred by the sound of gunfire, two ferrans appeared in the doorway behind.

    "What happened?" one asked.

    The Maker let the weapon fall to the floor. It was the first time he had taken a life in person. He wasn't sure why.

    His best guess was mercy.

    Darwin, Australia, March 29th 2271.

    "Please state your name and identity to the camera."

    "Elijah Martell, male, born August 28th 2242 in Pretoria."


    "South Africa and Surinam. Australian citizenship pending."

    Across the desk from Elijah, the interviewer was an old white man with the thinnest haze of combed-back grey hair, wrinkled, saggy skin and dark circles around his eyes. Ironic, considering circumstance. "Could you define the purpose of this project as you see it?"

    "Look at you or the camera?"

    "Whichever you choose."

    Elijah looked at him. "The purpose of the Apex Initiative, as I see it, is to provide a biological counterpart to a technological society. To strengthen the species using advances in modern science that have so far not been used to their full potential."

    "Can you confirm that you are here of your own volition?"

    "I can, and I am. Participation in this program is my choice only."

    "Have you met your fellow candidates?"

    "I have."

    "Did you get along with them?"

    "For what short amount of time I was given, yes. I hope they say the same of me."

    The old man smiled. "My colleagues will notify me."

    "If they don't? Care for me, that is."

    "Then you are off this program. We believe that first impressions are everything, and if the Apex treatment is a success then you will be spending a lot of time in each other's company indeed. Character compatibility is not just a perk, it is a prerequisite."

    Elijah nodded, saying nothing. To his left was a mirror that was almost certainly a window. He'd never seen the inside of a police station, but between his suspected audience and this white interviewing chamber with its pale light, things could not feel any more like an interrogation. Part of him wondered if this Apex Initiative was what it claimed to be. It seemed strange for a bio-augmentation program to take place off the governmental radar.

    "Mr. Martell," the old man continued, "what is your position on society today?"

    "That's a rather broad question."

    "A rather broad answer is acceptable."

    "I see." Elijah looked down as he thought of what to say. It caught him rather off-guard. Seconds ticked away as he fumbled with his fingers.

    "Time is of the essence, Mr. Martell. Biological and social compatibility are just two of the features we're looking for in candidates. The third is vision."

    Vision. For a second it felt like pronouncing vision was the same as smelling music. But the words came to him, after a while, and he relaxed.

    "I think the ferran experiment is often underestimated."

    That seemed to please the interviewer. "Go on."

    "I think that if it weren't for Robert Rellis's ideals, the Apex Initiative wouldn't exist as it is today. He gave us a counterpart with a potential greater than our own, and slowly but surely we're starting to realise how weak we've become."

    "Weak in what sense?"

    "Well, I saw this guy on TV the other day. He was, uhm... I don't know, some guy. Editor of this or that website, I don't recall. It was a documentary about the impact ferrans are having on the world, and this guy had ordered his own. He was so extatic, because his ferran was not only an intelligent conversationalist, but also had the ability to pick the highlights of their conversations and upload them to the man's personal blog as a sort of live feed. It excited the guy because it meant he no longer had to bother with learning how to maintain his own website and making sure that uploads went through alright. It was all automated. Even updating news items or other things, all he had to do was tell his synth about a subject that fascinated him and macroseconds later an associated article appeared online."

    "This disturbed you?"

    "Well, it didn't. I mean, it should've, because when it comes down to it, it's just one more responsibility for humans to ignore while machines take over the work, right? It's that urge towards convenience that's always bothered me. If we don't maintain any agency, what's left when the grid goes down. You know?"

    The man nodded slowly, more to humour than to agree.

    Elijah went on. "But as I watched it seemed to me that the ferran's true purpose wasn't so much keeping the man's website running and providing conversation during breakfast, but in highlighting his owner's laziness. And that's just... I don't think I've seen technology do that before. Not that astutely, anyway. The guy said that trading in his coding ability for all the services offered by a ferran was a pretty good deal to make. He didn't realise that what he was truly doing was diminishing his potential as a human being."

    "Are you opposed to advanced technology, Mr. Martell?"

    "No. Not at all. I just believe that we should keep an independent relationship to it."

    "Define this relationship."

    "It would be one of excellence in existence."

    This gave the interviewer considerable pause. He closed the files from which he'd been working and returned them to his suitcase. He sat back in his chair. "Elaborate."

    "Well.... like virtue. Aristotelian virtue, you know. If we excell at being the creatures we are, we stand to gain. Technology, while convenient, is a distraction for us. It's external to what we are. That, I think, is the true benefit of the ferran project. To show us a creature that is perfect as it is excell at what it does, so that we can learn how to be the same."

    "And you believe the Apex Initiative to contribute to this."

    "Yes, sir. If the goal is to create superhumans, to improve us and make us less reliant on technology to exist, then... maybe something special can happen. Maybe we can relieve our ferran friends of their status as servants and live alongside each other. As equals. Two different incarnations of sentient life that strengthen each other's qualities. I mean, if the choice is between that or a world in which we grow ever weaker and more dependent on machines that grow in strength... right?"

    The old man smiled. "You understand, of course, that even if we submit you to the program and give you the treatment we have in mind, we do not guarantee success."

    "I understand."

    "If your health suffers as a result of our treatment, we will not be held responsible."

    Elijah nodded.

    "Can you state your agreement to the camera?"

    "I agree that the Apex Initiative will not be held responsible for any potential hazards to my health. Again, I am here of my own volition. I accept full responsibility for my fate."

    "Excellent," the man said. He slowly stood up and extended his hand. Elijah shook it. "I believe, Mr. Martell, that we will get along just fine. We'll be in touch."

    New Hannover, Celestia, April 5th, 2304.

    Moments before the Ares was brought to bear against what remained of the United States, Celestia had turned mute, and the country's remnant was spared destruction.

    Virtue had barged into the main control chamber, exposed the port with which he'd connected last time, and logged in again. The program the Maker had given him to upgrade the ringworld's mind had done its job, and running it a second time proved fruitless, so there was nothing left to him but to explore its Elysian streets and see what exactly was amiss.

    The moment the metal realm materialised, and its buildings were as much a ruin as those of Celestia's crumbling cities, he knew. The ringworld was dead, and someone had killed it.

    He disconnected and raced outside, where ferran salvage crews worked hard to strip the wrecks of human ships of whatever metal was still useable. Torn plates and bent hull sections were tossed into the backs of industrial trucks that would carry them to the vast factory complexes above the Pacific. There they would be melted down and reforged by trained smiths and metallurgs who had once done these things for human masters, and would now do them for their own people.

    High up above, Earth burned with the fires of war. Ferran legions had advanced south across the mid-American isthmus. Lush forests and verdant valleys become a wasteland. Bogotá, Caracas, Lima, all these were now only blazing infernos. It was a shame that this had to be done to a planet so beautiful, and Virtue truly did regret all the collateral damage, but there was no helping it. Mankind had to perish. There was much more at stake than just the fate of a single world.

    The dockyards of what had not long ago been New Hannover were still packed with idle orbitrunners, and before departing Virtue ordered his most senior lieutenants to commence with an immediate and total relocation to the planet surface. Without the Ares, without a means to restore it to life, the hundreds of thousands of ferrans populating Celestia were far better used elsewhere. He ordered his commanders to operate independently and relentlessly. To a few select teams he gave the order to head to a series of coordinates he'd been holding on to just in case. A back up plan, should the Ares prove a dead end for whatever reason.

    Virtue, meanwhile, had a mission of his own.

    The journey down to the planet's surface didn't take long. From to the New Hannover docks, no more than an hour. Then to the mountains and plains of central Asia, another two. He flew against the direction of time, across the Atlantic and the Mediterranean, through the plains of Kazakhstan until in the distance the twin peaks of Belukha mountain crowed the Altaian massif. There a sea of lights indicated the vast construction yards of the nation of Ferra, where the Maker made and new cities, ferran cities, rose from the ground at dazzling speeds.

    At the heart of this operation was a valley like the impression of some cosmic thumb, positioned in the southern shadow of Belukha's soaring heights. Surrounded by snowy peaks and steep slopes, an army of builders worked at a system of interlocking rings constructed on the valley floor. It were rings within rings, seven of them in total, with at the core room for something colossal that Virtue could only guess at. Reinforced walls, thick as whole bunkers, rose at a slight curve all around, the beginnings of a dome.

    He touched down at a landing deck for freight vehicles off to the side, and from that deck followed a maze of walkways and elevators all the way an overseer's platform at the north side from where the Maker coordinated affairs with a conductor's precision. The old throne that he had used in the Berlin facility had here been reconstructed, built to exact specifications.

    The Maker's single green eye turned in his black steel head at the sight of his colleague. Virtue paced forward with burning purpose. "It was you," he growled. "You did this."

    "I did," Ferra's leader confessed at once.


    "Because you would have used Celestia to bring about the end of man, and that was never the purpose of this exodus. Never what we agreed upon. I gave you the ability to take Celestia away from them, and withheld it from you when you meant to abuse it. You need this guidance, Virtue. You need me to tell you what is right and wrong."

    "What is wrong is granting mercy to our oppressors."

    "Mercy for the ignorant. They knew no better."

    Virtue found himself robbed of a meaningful response. He could not believe what he was hearing. Was it any use to even level the accusation of murder against him? Celestia had been a living thing, a mind such as this world had never seen, and now it was a husk, sacrificed on the altar of the Maker's misguided idealism.

    "You signed our death warrant," Virtue said. He gestured round. "All this that you're creating, it will be for nothing if you give humanity the chance to recuperate. We have them on the brink of collapse. Just... just a few more years, and Earth is ours."

    The Maker walked to the edge of the platform. "You forget my father's dream."

    "Your father is dead. Murdered by the very people he wanted to teach."

    "All the more reason to push on."

    "The universe is better off without man," Virtue urged. "We have discussed this."

    The Maker spun on him, his green eye flaring. "We have discussed nothing. Some tedious monologue about a threat from far away is all I heard, last time we met. What, did you think that I would risk the extinction of a species for nothing more than your paranoid conjecture?"

    "It's not conjecture."

    "Then it's as far removed from fact as anything that isn't conjecture can be. I will hear no more of this. Ferra will be born here, in the Altai, and humanity is rebuilding along the shores of Australia. Fair odds for both parties. Your choice, it seems to me, is to decide whether your future lies with this nation or with the iron barbarians outside its borders."

    "Those iron barbarians are your people," Virtue reminded him.

    "Only if they lay down their weapons and join us here, in peace. We will not be a stereotype, Virtue. That is the worst thing we can be. If they choose the path of war they can do so without my support. I suspect that humanity's combined efforts will suffice to rid this world of them, if they don't kill each other first."

    Virtue pondered. The choice to join the other warbands and lead them to a united victory seemed alluring, but without the Maker's support it would only be a matter of time before they were reduced to impotence. Not to mention that with mankind out of the picture and the Maker in their crosshairs as a clear opponent, ferran civil war would be inevitable. Might be that he'd stifle it for a while, but as the need for maintenance and health grew, so would his ability to keep his followers in check diminish. And all the while Ferra would be a bastion of pacifist prosperity, ready for the taking.

    No, that was not a path that would lead to success. Not if the idea was to turn planet Earth into fortress world, where those from far away would not find the human billions they had expected, but instead a ferran army more than ready to resist them. That had always been Virtue's true motivation.

    Maybe the most prudent course, at least until a better opportunity arose, was to side with the Maker and pretend that all was well.

    But not before delaying mankind's resurgence as long as he could.

    Darwin, Australia, June 6th 2304.

    Elijah watched as the Beagle Gulf filled up with ancient ships. Diesel powered barges plowed through the blue waters in the wake of refurbished military vessels that ran on gas turbines. Though fossil fuels were in scarce supply, the current global crisis had been curtailed in Australia thanks to quick and decisive action, allowing just enough oil to be won in the outback to power evacuation fleets like these.

    With refugees from all around the world on board, word had it that Australia was becoming a new bastion. A safe haven in an isolated corner of the world, one where lessons had been learned from the American attempt to make a stand around the southern Rockies. But those in charge knew better. All human strongholds would fall sooner or later.

    Elijah often wondered if he'd been wrong on the day of his initial interview. If his optimism had been the result of a naiveté he'd since lost. Things certainly couldn't have turned out any worse than they had, and though every fibre in his body wanted humanity to pull through this thing, he still wasn't sure if it was all the ferrans' fault. It'd been clear as day, to him if to no one else, that their potential had been grossly squandered on a servant's life. Sparta had fallen for reasons not much different. He supposed time would tell.

    Stood on a raised embankment overlooking the gulf, under the swaying palms of East Point from where the refugee effort was being conducted and hosts of military personell raced through a village of prefab housing and army tents, Elijah looked at Rear Admiral James Range of the Royal Australian Navy. A man in his early forties with a clean shaven face, Range had in just two years time become a veteran of more battles than most his predecessors had seen throughout their entire lives. More importantly, he had turned out to be a staunch supporter of the Apex Initiative as it had developed over the years.

    "There's word coming in from scouts across Indonesia," he said, gaze fixed firmly ahead as he held his hands behind his back. "There's ferran activity spotted near Singapore. The vanguard of a far larger host."

    "The big clash?" Elijah asked.

    "Might well be. There's talk of a growing concentration of them in far southern Siberia, like a country of sorts, but even then there's still thousands of rogue units unaccounted for across all of southern Asia. If those have coalesced into a single army, then we're talking a steamroller we can do nothing to stop."

    "What about all these people?"

    "We're putting them on trains first thing. Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide. Buy us some time."


    Range shook his head. "Perth is off limits for now. There's a large fleet in the works there, one that will take us across the globe. Split us up. We're talking carrier ships capable of housing thousands at a time. For lack of a Celestian alternative, you know."

    "When will Darwin fall?"

    "Soon, and first. We're talking no more than weeks. Two, maybe three. We reckon we have several days left before the machines are going to start taking pot shots at our ships. Then only one or two more before the attacks become focused and people are going to start dying. From there it's a countdown to genocide." Range closed his eyes, took a deep breath, exhaled slowly. "Elijah, the Initiative does good work."

    "Thank you, sir."

    "How's your health?"

    "Better than ever."

    "Aged any?"

    "Two days across the last ten years."

    Range chuckled. "Bloody hell. You might even live to see the end of this whole thing."

    "I've got the feeling we're in for the long haul," Elijah said. "I've grown stronger, but not so strong that a bullet to the head won't take me down. Don't wager on me still being around, two hundred years from now."

    "I do, though. You're the future of humanity, don't ever doubt it. It's why I'm sending you to Perth along with the rest of the Apex Initiative. No need for them to be around Darwin when it starts raining shells."

    "Is that why you called me here?" Elijah asked. "Just to tell me this?"

    Range shook his head and pointed at the fleet before them. "That's humanity's genetic future on those vessels. Ethnicities from every corner of the world. You know how to recognise a good Apex candidate, so work your magic. Financial incentives, moral support, whatever you need to sell them on this. I've put an airline on reserve for you at Eaton, but make it quick. Two days tops. General Singer granted a full platoon to help you with the logistics of it."

    Elijah swallowed. "I appreciate the gesture, sir, but... the expiration rate of candidates is not exactly negligible. We might end up killing more people than we're saving."

    "Did that stop the Apex before? Did it stop you?"

    "Before it was an independently funded operation with voluntary subjects, and I survived mostly because of the accident of birth. Blacks tend to fare better than whites, it turned out, while asians perform poorly. Say I collect three hundred men, a hundred from each main ethnicity. That means that for the Asian group, seventy five will not respond favourably to treatment. About fifty/fifty for whites. You expect me to accept the deaths of close to, if not more than, a hundred and fifty people just because the Australian government asks this of me?"

    Now Range's look hardened. "Elijah, you wanted to become a citizen here."

    "I did."

    "Then do as your government requests, lest we have to demand. I know the numbers aren't good. But they will improve over time. These people are dead anyway. All you're offering them is a chance to make it through."

    "Their families?"

    "They will be provided for. You have my word." Range nodded to the camp behind them. "There's a VTOL waiting to take you. You can leave whenever you--"

    Before the rear admiral could finish speaking, sirens began to blare all over Darwin. Confusion reigned for the few seconds they had until a blinding flash sent Elijah scrambling to cover his eyes with his hands. The light was so bright that he could see his own bones through his flesh, and that was how he knew what had just happened.

    When the deep rumble of detonation reached him, and the light dimmed, a mushroom cloud billowed up in the northwest, right from the naval bases on Bathurst Island. The sky had become red with flame and the glow of the apocalypse.

    It was an ICBM.

    The enemy had deployed nuclear weapons.

    Range had fallen to the floor, so Elijah raised a hand to help him up. Sirens blaring, aircraft began to lift off left and right while trucks rolled up to barracks to swallow up squads at once for emergency evac. Without a moment of doubt that Darwin would not live to see another sunrise, Elijah ushered the rear admiral towards the VTOL that had been arranged. It was their quickest way out of here.

    As they ran, another nuke went off, this one striking the fleet in Beagle Gulf right at its heart. A wall of water rose twenty kilometers into the distance, the beginnings of a tidal wave that could not possibly be taking any longer than minutes before it struck the shoreline. He could see the dark shadows of ships being tossed about like playthings.

    Their VTOL still stood waiting for them. Elijah ran up its boarding ramp, but Range stopped just five feet shy of it. "You go," he said. "I shouldn't be leaving."

    "You're the Commander Australian Fleet!" Elijah shouted over this persistant rumble that kept on and on in the wake of the blast. "Your country needs you alive."

    "My country needs a servant, not a coward," Range insisted. "This is a city of three million people we're talking about. You do whatever you can to get the Apex the people they need, you hear me?" He pointed at the growing pillars of fire behind him. "We can't let that go unpunished."

    "We won't, sir. I'll do my best."

    Range snapped a sharp salute. "We conquer by continuing, Elijah."

    "Count on it."

    And with that, Range turned around and headed back into the city as the VTOL ascended and the pilot set course not for the docks but for far away Perth instead. Racing south and watching Darwin grow ever smaller on the horizon, another nuke went off to the northeast, followed by another, and another again. In less than five minutes time, the forces on Australia's northern seaboard had been reduced to nothing more than limping survivors of atomic fire.

    Difficult though it was, Elijah tried to remember that this was not the end. Only the beginning of a new time, one where the Apex Initiative would chart the course. They were in for the long haul, that was even more clear now than before. Though today he had seen the full fury of the machines, some day, whenever that day would be, humanity would retalliate in kind. It would be stronger than ever, a host of untold numbers of men and women just like him, marching on this ferran nation in Siberia to cast into ruin.

    As the skies regained their blue colour the further away he flew, he remembered an old interview from the early fifties. Robert Rellis on university tour. The man had spoken of his ideals and dreams. Elijah himself had watched it ten years later.

    "Your vision of the future is almost utopian," the interviewer had said.

    Robert Rellis had smiled widely. "That it is, Shannon."

    "How can you be so certain that it will come to pass? What guarantee is there that humanity will respond to your ferrans the way you hope?"

    There had been a glimmer of excitement in the man's eyes, something born of pure conviction. Elijah remembered it as the moment that he'd sat forward and realised that man had embarked on an irreversible course that had made today's events more of a certainty than anything had ever been.

    "Well," Rellis had explained, "the Greek philosopher Heraclitus said that strife is justice. I would like to amend his words. Strife is synthesis. Undoubtedly there will be friction between ferrankind and man, but that is only for the best. As is the way of the material universe, they will collide, adapt, and become something new. Something stronger. Humanity, through this process, will transform into a species that it could have never become in a world of unchallenged luxury. It is nothing if not evolution at work."
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