When Minds Collide

When Minds Collide
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Published Date:31-07-2017
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When Minds Collide A Phoenician Series Short Story by Marjorie F. Baldwin (c) Copyright 2012 Phoenician Books Cover Credits Stock photo of and by Crissans Pacheco Design Template Constructed by Sessha Batto Cover Art Layout by Marjorie F. Baldwin License Notes/Free obooko Edition Thank you for downloading this free eBook. Although you didn’t pay money for this book, it still remains the copyrighted, intellectual property of the Author, and may not be reproduced, copied or distributed, in whole or in part, for commercial or non- commercial purposes, in print, digitally or otherwise. Please respect the hard work of this Author and encourage your friends to download their own copy of this free eBook from obooko.com. Thank you for your support. Connect with Me Online: Find all my links: http://about.me/FridayBaldwin Chapter 1 William Harrington froze, his hand just short of opening the door to the lab. He hesitated because he knew there’d be a fight once he went through that door. He stopped and procrastinated another minute in the hallway. Despite being Director of Security for the Community, a surly bunch of independent thinkers, William Harrington did not enjoy arguments. He enjoyed peace and quiet. He definitely didn’t relish the thought of arguing with his husband, Andrew Caine, today but that was almost definitely going to be the case. Drew had a long-practiced tendency to argue with people who told him he couldn’t have what he wanted. Drew would succumb eventually, he always did. William had won many an argument over the years just by weathering the storm with the silent treatment, but today there would be an unpleasant interchange to get past this, and Will wasn’t sure he wanted to endure it today—not that he had a choice. The entire Membership of the Community had gathered and unanimously voted. William was officially tasked to shut down Drew’s research lab. The cowards. William thought closing the lab was a bit harsh. They could have let Drew pursue some other line of research but William had completely agreed on the need for limits, even for the great Andrew Caine, Father of all Artificial Lifeforms. Especially for Drew. He’d bestowed that illustrious-sounding title onto himself and if he was allowed to move forward with the Artificial Lifeforms, or ALs, that he was designing right now, it wouldn’t turn out well. It was bad enough Drew thought of himself as God, creating a new life form; but these things Drew was making, the Ronningers, weren’t life. They were death, personified. Literally. Named after Alfred Ronninger, Drew’s mentor and the real founder of the field, these things were a blend of Organic and Inorganic Lifeforms. The term cyborg would be more appropriate than AL but words like “borg” elicited unprofessional giggles in some while making others run screaming from the room. Better to use the innocuous term “AL.” While previous “smart machines” were called ALs, none had actually been alive or capable of independent thought. Instead, they’d merely used sophisticated algorithms to emulate human thought—and done so with entirely Inorganic designs. The Ronningers were actually alive—or had been before they became Ronningers. They were a grotesque realization of the Frankenstein story and completely unethical, which was why Alfred Ronninger, himself, had abandoned the project. He’d never figured out a reasonable method for creating the things. They had originally planned to have Ronningers running the ship for the long journey from Earth to wherever they ended up but instead, they’d been forced to manage the sustainment of over a dozen humans. As a result they’d had to bring the rest of humanity with them in vitro. So to speak. The genetic samples in the Vault represented over a million unique human profiles, enough to re-establish the human race if they could just create a viable settlement into which to introduce new people. To date, however, the Community Membership was too busy with mere survival on the Phoenician home world to start a selective breeding program. Drew had insisted they could use the abandoned Ronninger project to alleviate some of the grunt work, but mindless drones would have helped just as well—and not cost a human life to make them Alfred had abandoned the project as non-viable for good reasons. Ronningers weren’t actually people and in William’s opinion, they weren’t even really alive. They were some ghoulish hybrid in between. William Harrington could stand a lot of things but Ronningers weren’t one of them. These things were like zombies. They didn’t think, didn’t feel, didn’t have a conscience. Their undead bodies just performed assigned tasks again and again, with the single- mindedness that only comes from having an AI in your head. At least William’s Proctors would be real people with fully-organic minds who could make informed choices, though they would need to be brainwashed into a state of obsequiousness. Still, conditioned like one of Pavlov’s dogs was not the same as having a machine inside your head running the show. Ronningers started with a normal human being but then, the human had to die for the Ronninger “brain” to be installed. It was a simple installation. Just scrape out the human skull to make room for the damned hardware, a few neural connections later, you had a Ronninger. It was untenable, from cradle to grave—literally, for the human. Will simply couldn’t believe Drew, his Drew, had embraced the idea so fully. The Membership had told Will that Drew was convinced he could make a Ronninger that could be reprogrammed in vivo. He thought he could design one that could learn, one that could replace the need for human Proctors. After all, they said Drew had argued, why throw men into the line of fire when Ronningers could be grown and used instead? The problem with that argument, William knew, was that Proctors were still people—or started out as people—and it was a different kind of death to turn them into Ronningers, a death which held no honor, no purpose and in William’s opinion, was crueler than brainwashing them into service. The only person who’d opposed Drew’s work, ironically, had set up his own research lab in this remote outpost building. Their resident expert on Artificial Intelligence, or AIs, Joshua Scherrer, had objected to the Ronningers dating all the way back to Alfred’s first proposal. Scherrer, a Russian Orthodox Fundamentalist, wanted to have nothing to do with the Ronninger project. William didn’t blame him. William didn’t share Andrew Caine’s ethics at the moment either and if something didn’t change, he wasn’t sure he wanted to share a bed or home for that matter. Scherrer had been complaining about Drew to the Membership ever since Drew and Scherrer had set up the lab out here in the foothills. However, since Scherrer complained to everyone about everything, he’d been largely ignored. Until now. When Cory Jansen, their Genetics expert, had reported Drew’s Ronningers to the Membership, an investigation ensued. The Administrator, Stafar Baghendi, held the deciding vote and he’d actually allowed Drew to start one last attempt in direct conflict with the rest of the Membership. William was here to carry out the orders of the majority. What Stafar did after that was the Membership’s problem. If Will opened the door and found a dead Proctor on Drew’s table, there’d be no question anyway. A dead Proctor was not on Cory’s logs for crèche failures this week so Andrew Caine would have to explain where he’d gotten the body—and William knew where that would lead. He’d have to kick Andrew out of his own lab and lock it down. Worse, William would have to accept that the man he’d once loved had turned into a murderer. He couldn’t be culled from the species; the Community needed Drew’s genetic contributions, not to mention his invaluable knowledge as the only remaining AL expert. That was, the only AL expert not counting George Reinhart, given that Reinhart was still in stasis. But keeping Drew alive did not preclude taking some kind of action against him, and William’s own personal choices needed a re-evaluation. William procrastinated another minute by straightening the perfectly straight, knee-length, royal-blue tunic which needed no adjustment. Then he tugged on the high collar, checking the buttons holding it tight around his neck. Next, he checked the toes of his spit-and-polish boots, hoping to find a mark he might have to clean off—anything he could use as a means of delaying the inevitable. The glossy shine mocked him, reflecting back the overhead lighting. He sighed and reached a hand up to check his long, dark hair. Hanging down his back past his waist, he’d gathered it into a bunch at the nape with a silver and gold filigree clasp that Andrew had given him as an engagement gift. He checked the clasp’s alignment, running his fingertips over the delicate metal as though it would put him back in touch with the caring and sensitive man who’d given it to him all those years ago. Finding nothing else to use as a means of procrastination, he let go of the past and opened the door into his future. Andrew Caine looked up when the door opened, William was hovering in the doorway, staring with intent at Drew’s lab table. As always, Drew’s heart skipped a beat at the mere sight of the man. He felt his face breaking into a smile, almost of its own volition. He always smiled when he saw William Harrington. He couldn’t help it. The man was so beautiful to look at, like a sunrise or a rainbow. Well, a rainbow back on Earth. No rainbows here on the godforsaken Phoenician world. With less than six inches of rainfall a year, there wasn’t enough moisture in the air to make a rainbow. It was hard enough to extract water from the planet’s soil. William was better than a rainbow with those light blue eyes luminescent against his naturally-tanned skin. The Phoenician sun deepened the contrast on William’s face while it only burned Andrew’s fair, freckled skin. The curse of being a redhead, he supposed, though his copper-colored hair had started to dim of late, first signs of going grey, no doubt. It was about time. He was tired of looking like a young man, all wonder and naïvete. He liked the wizened old sage look he had now; it gave him confidence that his achievements were well-earned. He still needed the external validation, of course, so Drew was happy his husband had come for a visit. They’d barely had two minutes together in over a week, and he’d missed Will’s company. He’d been afraid William was going to give him the silent treatment again when he finally got home, but he couldn’t bear that right now. He was so excited to tell Will about the results of last night’s test run. This latest Ronninger design was going to work It’d be the first of its kind, a brand new life form Will would be so proud of him when he saw the results. This new life form would be theirs to claim together, like having a brainchild. After all, William had helped by way of all his support this past year, listening to Drew rant and lecture on the theory that stood in the way to realization. Last night’s breakthrough would make up for everything. When William remained in the doorway, silent and unmoving, his face characteristically blank, Drew knew something was wrong. He put his vibraknife down and asked, “Are you early or am I running late again? I just had to finish recording this last set, Will. You won’t believe what I’ve got here” “I need you to stop,” William said quietly. His voice was as flat as his blank face. So, Drew realized, maybe Will was harboring resentment about Drew’s absence back at the house this week. Once Will saw the results of last night’s tests, he’d change his mood. Will always understood the importance of Drew’s work. It wasn’t as though this were just some trivial project. Drew was making history, after all. When Drew opened his mouth to explain, William added, “Right now, Drew, please.” That’s when Drew realized the seriousness of William’s blank expression. Will’s mixed ethnicity dominated by an Asian heritage made it hard to read him sometimes. Drew hardly even noticed when he was getting “the look” as Will put it. Drew was definitely getting “the look” right now so he set the stasis field over the open skull area of the body on the MedTable and braced for a longer discussion than hello. “What’s wrong, Will? Is someone dead?” He couldn’t imagine what else would make Will so serious but the Phoenicians had been getting awfully feisty lately, Drew had heard, and several people had been shot down flying over Phoenician land. It wasn’t as though there was any way to avoid it. The planet was large but the fresh water sources were limited. The human colonists had no choice but to set up next to the Phoenicians unless or until they devised an alternate water source. The planet was arid; water was life. Will looked like the life had drained out of him when he said quietly, “That man on the table in front of you appears to be dead.” Drew waved that away with a swat at the air and a chuckle of relief. “That’s not a man, Will, it’s just a—” “He was a man before you killed him and gutted out his skull.” “No.” Drew started feeling a sense of where this discussion was headed and he wasn’t liking it at all. “This wasn’t a man, it was a failure, and I didn’t kill anyone. This was—would have been—a Proctor but it was defective. It doesn’t matter what this was, Will, only what it is now. It was a failed design and now it’s the first successful Ronninger. You won’t believe what I got out of this thing last night This, my love, is the future.” “No, it’s not. Just stop talking. I don’t want to hear it—and you can’t do that to one of my Proctors.” “Your Proctors? Funny, but I thought they were our Proctors. Didn’t we design that project together? Besides I just told you, this one was defective. It was going to fail in a few years anyway—if it had even lasted that long I just saved some man from pain and suffering and achieved greatness from the ashes of failure. It was an act of mercy to reset the crèche and repurpose this design. We need to conserve materials.” “So you admit it? You did kill him in vitro? I was sure they were lying about that point. Drew, it’s not merciful to take away what few years a man might have had. It’s called murder.” “He had a severe memory defect. He would’ve only had a few years of ever- increasing mental degradation. That’s not life. That would have driven him insane. He would have been an imbecile who ate his gun in desperation. He was never going to be a functional Proctor and he would’ve known it immediately.” Drew turned and started pacing to let out the frustration. “I swear, a preemie would’ve had more cognitive abilities. At least this way, he contributes some good to the Community. Why are we even discussing it? This thing doesn’t matter Don’t you realize what I’m about to—” “No You’re not about to anything, Drew. You’re stopping. Right now. I’ve been sent here with a cease and desist order and I’m enforcing it. This man is not a thing and he’s never going to be your first Ronninger. There will be no Ronningers. Do you hear me? None The project—and this discussion—is over.” “This discussion hasn’t even started Who the fuck had the gall to send you here with that kind of message? Did Stafar authorize this? Does he even know? Because he was very interested in having me finish Alfred’s work. He would never—” “The entire Membership sat down and discussed it. They voted and the Ronninger project is terminated. It’s over, Drew.” “We’ll just see about that.” Drew tossed his sketchpad across the room hard enough it bounced off the wall and skittered across the floor. “Who the fuck do they think I am? A first-year med student? And what exactly do they propose I do with this fucking thing now that his skull’s gutted out? Just toss the meat away? That’s a complete waste of perfectly good resources—which I might add are in short supply in case no one noticed Or maybe we’re supposed to start eating people, like that old movie you loved.” “I hated Soylent Green but it would be a far better solution than your version of Brave New World. You can’t just make people into things because it suits your needs.” “Huxley had it right and I can’t thank you enough for color-coding them for Cory. He’s the most disorganized researcher I’ve ever seen. We’re about to ramp up production now that I got the stasis feeds working and he’s still trying to track them without any kind of lexicon at all. Can you believe that? He’s still naming them They’re supposed to have numbers so we can track them. We haven’t got time for this. We need the Ronningers. They’ll give the defectives some purpose. They can be a new class, all their own. A working class that does something beyond being recycled for…genetic traces.” “Are you seriously trying to argue a case for murder in the name of science— and you’re trying to claim it’s economically sound? Have you finally gone insane or are you just so obsessed with this project that you can’t step back and see how wrong it is? I was certain Stafar was exaggerating.” William wandered across the room, shaking his head, and Drew worried that maybe he had lost perspective. Will had never been this impatient with him, not in over two hundred years that they’d known each other. “Then Stafar did say something? What exactly did he tell them I was doing because I’ll tell you, this was his idea from the start. He wanted me to carry on Alfred’s work.” Drew ripped off his gloves and tossed them onto the table next to the body. “I’m not taking the blame for this. Stafar approved well enough when he told me he wanted me to finish Alfred’s project. It was his fucking idea and he’d better fucking own up to it.” Drew reached around, swatting futilely at the ties of his surgical smock. He couldn’t manage to undo them without help but he wasn’t going to ask Will to do it, not with the way he was still getting that look. He stopped trying to reach the ties and resorted to trying to pull the damned thing over his head. “Why’d Stafar even give me Alfred’s notes if I wasn’t supposed to make one of these things—and who the hell designed these fucking things to be straight jackets?” William sighed as he came over. “Turn around,” William said quietly and Drew presented his back. “Now, shut up and hold still.” William said as he started untying the surgical smock closures. Drew wondered if he was going to say anything else. Then he did—and Drew wished he hadn’t. “Will you be the man I claimed you were and abandon this project, honoring the decision of the Membership? Or have you finally outgrown my trust?” Drew twisted his head around to look at William over his shoulder and grinned when he saw Will glance up at him. Will’s face softened momentarily, just slightly, but Drew saw it. Will wasn’t angry; he was sad. How could William Harrington stay so calm and quiet all the time, even when he had a right to be angry? Somewhere deep inside, Andrew suspect Will was still a little angry but the quieter Will got, the worse it was and at least Will was still talking. They were exact opposites on that count. Drew let it all out; William held it all in. “It’s not like that, Will. You know how I am when I get on a roll. I can’t just give up, not when I’m this close. It’s just not who I am.” He straightened out again, so he didn’t have to look William in the eye, and added, “It’ll be all right. I’ll talk to Stafar. He’ll back me up, just watch, I’ll make him fucking back me up.” William had the last of the ties undone and pushed the smock off Drew’s shoulders, hugging a hand around each shoulder and pressing a cheek to Drew’s back for one moment of quiet connection. Drew was afraid to speak or move, even breathe, for fear Will would step away and the moment of forgiveness would pass. William said, “I don’t know who you are anymore, Andrew Caine, but I wish…” Will squeezed then let go of Drew’s shoulders. “You have to stop work on the Ronningers. It’s not just wrong, Drew, it’s…” Will banged his forehead against Drew’s back then stepped away. The moment had not passed; Will hadn’t forgiven him at all. “It’s taken over your life, our life. It’s going to destroy us, if it hasn’t already.” “I know we haven’t had time together all week, but we can have lunch after I talk to Stafar and...maybe we could skip eating? There’s something else we haven’t done in forever.” Will took another step back but from the sound of it, just one. Drew wanted to turn around but was actually afraid to see the look on Will’s face when he heard William continue, quietly, “This is serious, Drew. You can’t seduce your way out of it. You have to stop work on these things. Now. I may be just the messenger but I’m completely behind this decision.” Now Drew spun around and slid his hands around William’s waist. “I just need you to be on my side for once, Will, please You don’t need to worry your pretty little head about the details. I’ll take care of it, I told you. I’ll talk to Stafar and make him—” William pushed Drew’s hands off him and stepped back again, mouth hanging open, shaking his head. Drew wasn’t afraid of much in life but he was afraid of exactly that look on Will’s face. This was going to be worse than sleeping on the couch for a week or two. “Don’t worry my pretty little head about it?” William said slowly. “You have no idea what I’m saying, do you?” “What’s wrong with saying I’ll have Stafar take care of this? Stafar’s used to mediating for the Membership. That’s his job as Administrator. Besides, this was his idea. What’s wrong with letting him manage it for us?” “My pretty little head can’t possibly imagine.” William crossed his arms over his chest. “Oh my God, you’re upset about—I didn’t mean it the way it sounded. I just—” “I’m insulted by your condescension, yes, but I’m more upset about that” William whipped his arm out and pointed at the body on the MedTable without breaking eye contact. “How can you not see the issue here? The fact you’re speaking to me that way is just...” William hissed under his breath then added, “the last straw, that’s it How can you possibly expect me not to worry what’s happened to you when you’re standing over a dead man all day and night? When you’re more concerned with egos and reputation than about murdering a man in cold blood? You’re completely unaware of everything wrong with this project, Drew, and I can’t discuss it with you anymore. You need to get out before I say or do something I’ll regret. I’m securing the lab. You’re finished.” William crossed his arms over his chest and looked down at some vague spot on the floor. Drew was afraid that was Will’s attempt to prevent himself from actually breaking Drew’s jaw. Again. It had been almost ten years but he could still remember that fight. Vividly. He stroked at his jaw in sympathetic memory. “You can’t take this lab apart, Will, not when I’m this close.” “I’m securing this lab. Those were my orders and I’m going to do it. I just need you to leave—and I mean, right now.” Will still wouldn’t look up to make eye contact. When Drew waited another moment, hoping, Will added, “Don’t make me throw you out of here by force.” “You wouldn’t dare.” Actually, Drew was very afraid William would. “Yes, right now, I think I would, so just do us both a favor and don’t make me break your arms again. This time, I won’t be around to feed you and you might actually starve to death rather than asking for help, knowing you. Now, go ahead argue with Stafar. Just get the hell out of here and let me do this so I can leave and never come back.” William looked up to meet Drew’s gaze again. “Oh, and I want your word, Drew, your personal guarantee that you’ll never lay a hand on one of my Proctors again. Not so long as you live, Drew—or don’t bother coming home” That stopped Drew cold. William had never threatened to kick him out before. Was their marriage actually at stake here? But the Ronningers were going to change the course of human history. Why couldn’t William see that? Why couldn’t any of them see that? Drew would just have to show them, all of them, starting with William. “All right, fine, you have my word. Proctors are off limits but defectives from the Recycle Bin are still fair game. You can’t possibly own every piece of salvageable material for your little Proctor project and leave me with nothing.” William threw his hands up and his light blue eyes flashed wide, a startling sight. “What’s wrong with you? This isn’t a competition for resources The Ronninger project is terminated. Why can’t you understand that, Drew?” “Because I’m making history Why can’t you understand that?” William glared up at him in silence and shook his head. Drew knew he wasn’t ever going to convince William to take the Ronningers seriously, not while the rest of the Membership had voted him down. If he pushed it here, he’d just wear William’s patience thin—thinner—possibly ending up with a broken bone or two in the process. What he needed was to get Stafar to reverse the decision. Obviously, someone somewhere hadn’t heard the whole story. He leaned in and pressed a quick kiss to William’s lips before William could stop him. Will didn’t push him away so Drew kissed him again. William was practically kissing him back, which meant everything would be okay, but when William breathed in, he broke the kiss abruptly. When he glared at the body on the MedTable, Drew knew why he’d withdrawn. Even Drew had to admit the antiseptic smell was something of a turn off. He just couldn’t leave knowing Will was still angry at him. They’d promised never to part angry at each other. That’s what had kept them together for over a hundred years. William’s voice was as icy cold as his eyes when he said, “If I ever see another Ronninger, that’ll be the last kiss you ever get from me, Andrew Caine. Are we clear?” Drew nodded, but he had no intention of giving up—and that was definitely not going to be their last kiss. That wasn’t even a real kiss. It was barely a kiss at all. He’d been so caught up in the Ronninger work, he hadn’t even noticed how long it had been since they’d had a real kiss. In fact, he couldn’t remember the last time they’d spent a day in bed. Months ago, at least, maybe longer. Somehow, with Will standing there glaring at him, Drew felt a strong sense of fear welling up inside of him. He’d never seen Will this serious, this angry, this determined. This distant. This withdrawn. He needed an arbiter. He needed an edict. He needed Stafar to own up to his own dirty work. This was all Stafar’s fault—as usual. Drew leaned in, as if to kiss William again, and found himself stopped with two fingers poking into the center of his chest. Will bit off the words, “Don’t. Even. Think it. I’m sorry, Drew but I can’t help noticing the dead Proctor lying there on the table. He rather kills the mood for me.” “I keep telling you, it’s not a dead Proctor.” Drew said quietly, as though that would change Will’s mind. “It’s—” “He is definitely dead—and he was a Proctor until you murdered him.” “I didn’t—oh, never mind.” Drew turned and stomped over to his locker, pulled out a wind breaker jacket and slammed the door shut. It bounced open again. “I’ll be back when this is all cleared up. You’ll see this isn’t my fault, Will” He crossed the room and stopped at the door. “Don’t make me regret trusting you in here, William Harrington, and don’t you dare touch anything. This isn’t over.” Drew stormed out of the room and down the hall. He’d get Stafar’s endorsement if he had to wring the Old Man’s neck himself. He just hoped Will was still here when he got back. The Ronningers certainly weren’t going to keep him warm at night. William waited until he heard the door click shut behind him then he lunged at the locker door, slamming it shut as he rammed his fist into it. He regretted the action immediately, as the pain radiated up his arm, but the man was incorrigible, impossible, incredible—and in all of the worst possible ways. William was completely in love with him and hated himself for it right now. He shook his hand out until the throbbing ebbed and reassured himself that it had gone better than expected. No one had thrown anything important, there were no broken bones, assuming his hand stopped throbbing, and there hadn’t even been any regrettable words. What more could he ask? He could ask to have been left out of this. He could ask to not be fighting with Andrew over this. He could ask for the man on the table to not be dead. He could ask for the last hundred and two years of his life to do over again. He could have insisted they stay on Earth even though it would have meant dying there with the rest of the human race, the way someone somewhere had obviously planned. People weren’t meant to be here on this alien world and certainly not to breed in petri dishes. How had they come to this? Through their very own self- destructive violence, that’s how. They’d killed each other off until only microscopic bits remained viable, the majority of humanity unable to reproduce the way normal animals did. If humans weren’t such damned smart animals, humanity would’ve gone extinct like the rest of life on Earth. Of course, we humans were just too good for that, weren’t we? It was at times like this, William really had to wonder about Mankind. He went over to the MedTable, stood over the very dead Proctor, and wondered why humanity had been allowed to survive at all. We certainly hadn’t proved worthy of the second chance with the likes of this sort of thing. He locked out the controls of the MedTable. This was definitely not how humanity would go on living. This was how humanity would finish dying. There were so few of them left and his standing here angry wasn’t solving anything, was it? William coded the table’s power down and hurried from the room stopping only long enough to code the door locked behind him. William broke out into the bright sunlight and was crossing to the landing pad when Joshua Scherrer came up alongside him, clutching a pile of folders stuffed full of hand-drawn blueprints to his chest. Only the eccentric Joshua Scherrer would draw blueprints on actual paper. Where did the man keep finding paper that large anyway, Will had to wonder. God help them all if Scherrer was writing on irreplaceable works of art again. He’d started using the backs of canvases one month into the trip, saying the material was better than regular paper. Of course, it was. That’s why the priceless work of art was on the other side of it. For a genius, Scherrer sure could be an idiot. William redoubled his pace attempting to shed the man but Scherrer kept up, matching William’s cadence. After two more paces, William couldn’t stand it and asked, “What do you want, Scherrer?” “Are you going with him?” “What? No, why?” “Because if you’re not, I am. I need a ride to the Centre.” “So? Andrew’s not a taxi service, you know?” William shook his head and cursed himself for even engaging in conversation with the man. Scherrer was one of the last living homophobic bigots. If he weren’t so brilliant with customizing the Artificial Intelligence routines on demand, he might’ve met with an airlock before they’d gotten two days out of Earth orbit. He’d bothered every last person on the ship for the entire journey. Even Stafar had started discussing putting Scherrer into stasis with the rest of the supercargo. Now that they’d stranded themselves on this unforgiving planet, there was no reasonable way to help him meet with an accident—and they probably needed him more now than they ever had on the ship. Every day here brought a new challenge. The AIs Scherrer designed to automate their world were going to be the only way they could compensate for the lack of manpower, materials and known natural resources. Even synthesizing food had become a priority task. Still, William held out a secret hope against hope that one of the native animals might find Scherrer an attractive snack. After all, George Reinhart was still in stasis. Not quite up to Scherrer standards in the AI field, but Reinhart was a thousand times more likeable as a human being. Scherrer grumbled, “If he’s going anyway, what’s the harm in taking me along?” You’re an intolerable ass who can’t keep his mouth shut, William thought to himself. It was a twenty minute ride from Andrew’s lab in the foothills to the Centre for Arts and Sciences, located in the heart of the human settlement. Will wondered if Scherrer could keep his mouth shut long enough to survive the entire ride alone in the car with Drew. Will certainly wasn’t going to volunteer to ride along as arbitrator—or chaperone, given they would both behave like children, knowing Drew—but maybe Drew would refuse the favor. No, Drew wasn’t that petty, and refusing would leave Scherrer out here alone with Will. That would be a lose-lose situation. As they reached the front of Drew’s car, Scherrer peeled off and went over to the passenger side hatch. It did not open for him so William heard Scherrer tapping lightly at the window. William arrived at the driver’s side hatch, pulling his long hair over his shoulder to hold it down against the wind from the engines cycling on. Drew had the hatch popped open for him before he got close enough to stick his head in out of the draft. “Now what? Forget to tell me what to say?” Drew asked and although his tone was snide, he was calmer already. Andrew Caine was happiest behind the controls of a vehicle. His true vocation was as a starship pilot. Playing around with Artificial Lifeforms was Andrew’s attempt to find a new vocation. William pressed a hand on one side of the hatch and leaned in close. “I decided I just can’t let you leave like this.” He could, but he’d regret it. They’d promised each other to never say good bye angry and even if he was considering ending their marriage, he didn’t want it to end like this, in an argument over Ronningers, of all things. Andrew stopped playing with the controls and his turquoise-blue eyes took in William’s face. William knew what Drew was doing. Drew was searching for just how serious William was about making peace. So that threat of a last kiss had gotten to him, after all. Good. Maybe they could reconcile after all, if Drew were taking it seriously enough. Drew’s freckled face softened as he smiled and his strawberry-blond hair blew in front of his face, making him laugh. William loved the way Drew laughed. He practically giggled like a child at the stupidest things, like his hair tickling his face. Drew pushed his hair out of his face, gathering it into a twisted bunch he could stuff in under his collar. “I’m sorry, too, Will. I don’t want to fight with you over this, but the Ronningers—” “Don’t. Just promise, no matter what Stafar says, let’s not talk about work anymore. Neither of us. Agreed?” Drew hesitated but only for a minute then he breathed out, relieved. “Agreed.” William smiled and whispered, “Thank you. I love you, you know?” Drew grinned, lopsided, then leaned in knocked noses with Will, saying, “I wasn’t sure for a minute there. I love you, too, you know?” Then just as he was about to kiss William good bye, the banging resumed on the other side of the car, Scherrer making himself known in his ever-so-subtle way. “What is he doing here?” Drew asked. “I don’t know. He said he needs to go to the Centre. He expects you to drive him. I’m hoping you will.” “Because if I refuse, you’ll be stuck here alone with him?” William shrugged and grinned. “Claire’s coming back for me at sundown. You never know, he could live that long.” Andrew smiled and said, “But you trust me not to kill him?” “I trust you not to kill yourself, so by extension, yes.” Drew chuckled and reached over to punch at the controls, popping the hatch on the passenger side. Scherrer was standing there, fuming as the hatch door went up in front of him. “It’s about time” Scherrer snapped and started climbing in. “If you two queers are done having your little make out party, can we please leave? I’m going to be late for my meeting at this rate” Drew said, “And how is that my problem?” Scherrer started climbing in and grumbled, “You know I can’t drive.” “You can, you just won’t” “Do you see another car here, Caine?” William smiled and squeezed at Drew’s arm before stepping back to pull down on the hatch. “Don’t kill him, Drew, just put on some music to drown him out.” William stepped back and rapped twice on the hatch door. Scherrer was climbing into the back, into the cargo area, which was not set up for people to ride in, and William heard Drew ask, “What are you doing back there, Scherrer? Get up here like a normal person.” The hatch sealed against any answer Scherrer might’ve given but William was happy to see Drew look out the window, rolling his eyes. He was grinning, so it was going to be all right. The man had more patience than William. Emotional though Drew might be, he was also flexible and adapted easily. William smiled and waved as they lifted off. The topsoil stirred up in a fog around him. He hated this world but it was the only one they had left. He supposed he’d better learn to get used to it. Chapter 2 Andrew Caine was ready to lift but Joshua Scherrer clearly wasn’t. He’d strapped his equipment down in the passenger seat and then hauled himself into the cargo hold of the aft cabin. It was a big enough space for two people back there, but there were no seats installed. The car had been reconfigured to transport a crèche, the one Drew had transported with the dead Proctor in it—and Drew had to admit at least to himself that the man had been dead when he’d been brought out here. He just wasn’t really a man anymore. “You can’t ride back there, Scherrer. It’s not safe. You can throw this gear from the seat into the third portside hold. It should be empty.” “I most certainly cannot I can’t possibly risk having those prototypes flying around in one of those cargo holds. With the way you drive, they’re better off in the passenger seat than I am. Let’s just go. I’ll hold on from back here and you just focus on driving up there.” “So I’m a taxi service now?” “If the shoe fits, Caine, wear it” “All those years of orbital mechanics and relativistic physics are coming in so handy” Drew shook his head and deliberately gave it full power on the lift. Scherrer swore at him in Russian. Well, at least Drew knew the man was still alive. “Are you trying to kill me?” Scherrer shouted and it sounded like he’d crawled up right behind Drew’s pilot’s chair. Sure enough when Drew glanced over his shoulder, Scherrer was holding onto the back of Drew’s headrest. He deliberately banked hard to port and decided to follow the hilly terrain for the next ten kilometers before they hit the open plains. Let’s see Scherrer hold on without a seat through that. “Of course not. I’m a taxi driver. Don’t you remember taxi drivers, Scherrer?” Drew did a bad imitation of Stafar’s thick Hindu accent saying, “We take you all the right places. Extra time for extra dime.” Drew laughed at the reference. Taxi drivers back on Earth used to charge ten credits a minute if you made them wait for you. “Okay, why do you hate me?” “I don’t hate you.” Drew lied. It was a half lie. He didn’t care enough to actually hate Scherrer, though he definitely disliked the man. It was hard to like someone who constantly disapproved of your mere existence, replete with open loathing, childish name-calling and self-righteous bigotry. Besides, Andrew hated religion on principle and religious practitioners even more. Joshua Scherrer was their lone religious practitioner—of the old religions anyway. He was Russian Orthodox and seemed intent on representing The Church for all of humanity. Drew didn’t even know where to find a paper copy of the Bible anymore, other than the one in Scherrer’s breast pocket. Maybe that’s where Scherrer got his paper, from his damned sacred text. Finally, Scherrer asked, “Isn’t that why won’t you let me marry your sister?” A-ha So that’s why he suddenly needed a ride “I’ve told you before, Scherrer, I’m not making that decision for Becca. She’s her own woman and can make her own decisions. If she wants you to leave her alone, then that’s her choice to make—and if you keep bothering her, I have a right to defend my sister just as much as you defend yours. How would you feel if someone did to Sandy what you’ve been doing to Becca? ” “I was Rebecca’s choice until you poisoned her against me” “No, you weren’t and I did no such thing She doesn’t want you because you are the most self-righteous, opinionated bastard on the planet—and in case you actually didn’t know, it’s not endearing to tell a woman that her brother is an abomination, who’s damned for all eternity and should be killed for the sake of humanity’s salvation.” Drew plunged the car down the slope of the jagged hill they’d just topped and heard a satisfying groan from Scherrer behind him. “You know, Joshua, there aren’t that many women available who are even interested in getting married to a man. I should think a god-fearing man like yourself would make an effort not to alienate every last one of them. Becca tried being nice to you, and you rewarded that by insulting me and William to her every chance you got.” Drew started up the next peak. “Don’t fault my sister for loving me half as much as I love her. I wouldn’t fault her for shooting you on sight if you don’t stop bothering her—and I gave her a full charge for her gun, so take this in. She’s not interested and now she’s armed” The hills weren’t very high but they were jagged so Drew decided to hug the terrain profile closely enough that all the banking and pitching would toss Scherrer around the aft cabin. That might teach him not to strap into a seat like a normal person. Drew glanced back after banking hard to port again to find Scherrer’s death grip on his head rest was back. He tried to shake him loose by skittering up the sheer face off to starboard, but the man hung on. Scherrer screamed, “I can understand why someone like you has something against God and the Church, but—” “There isn’t any church, Scherrer. Why can’t you get that through your head?” Drew skimmed back down the drop and practically took out a Lyra coming out of Fish Hook Pass before pulling the nose up again. “That damned book you’ve got—” Scherrer gasped, appalled. “How dare you speak that way about the Holy Word of God?” “That’s the only Bible left in existence. You are a church of one” “I most certainly am not I’ve seen to it and there are already at least nine translations in the Archives. Just as soon as I’m allowed to set up a meeting space, several of the others are waiting to join me in prayer.” Out of the corner of his eye, Drew saw Scherrer waving something, probably that pocket Bible of his. “We’ll start with praying for your soul, Caine. You and Harrington both” “You come near me with that book or anything in it and I’ll shove your Word of God where the light don’t shine” Drew glanced over his shoulder and sure enough, Scherrer had his elbow hooked over the head rest so he could thumb through the pages of his book, trying to find a suitable Scripture to condemn Drew’s mortal soul for such blasphemy. They were supposed to have left all of this mumbo jumbo behind. That had been one of the requirements for selection; no religions were to leave Mother Earth, not unless you counted science as a religion. Mankind was starting again—from scratch. Drew reached out and tried to grab the book out of Scherrer’s hands but Scherrer came with it, halfway over Andrew’s shoulder. Scherrer put his free hand out, fingers splayed to stop his forward momentum and clocked Andrew in the eye with the corner of the damned book. That was one way to see God, Andrew thought to himself, and that was practically the last coherent thought he had. Scherrer’s outstretched hand closed contacts on the control panel, cutting off the engines—and the navigational controls with them—and sent the car plummeting down the thousand or so feet of altitude Drew had achieved. At least they were pointed away from the hills, out into the flats of the basin where they could crash in the wide open spaces. Drew shoved Scherrer off him as the car pitched into its anticipated roll then began to spin out. Scherrer had finally gone flying into the aft wall of the cargo hold, hitting hard with a satisfyingly deep thud before sinking to the deck. Drew glanced quickly and saw Scherrer had landed in a bizarrely unnatural position. Well, he’d deal with that in a minute. First, he had to reclaim the controls. Drew straightened in his seat but before he could even restart the engines, the ground came up to meet them. The collision separated his safety harness from his seat back, bouncing him out of the pilot’s chair—the alleged “safety” harness now slipping up so that the central clasp could clock him on the chin. He hurtled towards the passenger seat, making a mental note to redesign the standards for aircar interior equipment, reliability in an emergency clearly being an issue. As Drew clawed at air, he realized he’d gotten himself upside down during the initial impact—or the car had rolled after impact, tossing him not to port but to the ceiling. How had he gotten so disoriented? He was a pilot for God’s sake He scrambled for the hand grip on the emergency release of the canopy, hoping to let himself fall out of the vehicle, gravity being in his favor at the moment. He could come back for Scherrer once he’d saved himself. Sound logic if ever he’d heard it Before he could grasp the canopy release, the car took up its unpredictable roll again and he tumbled with it. They settled then scraped one last time off some uneven surface before bouncing a few more feet downhill. He was sure this was it and started to get up, which caused the car to roll yet again. This time, Drew came to rest caught on the deck between the two front seats, just shy of falling into the aft cargo hold. He was afraid even to breathe deeply now. They were on a slight incline with the nose higher than the tail end of the vehicle. He took a cautious breath and held it, waiting for the car to shift again but it seemed to have finished its gymnastics. Remarkably, he was alive and unscathed. That had to be too good to be true. His luck just wasn’t that good. It was eerily quiet after the rending sounds of the collision and Drew realized his right ear was ringing. He worked his jaw trying to pop the ear drum but it seemed that was the problem, a permanently popped ear drum. So not unscathed after all. Cautious of how the damaged ear drum might affect his balance, he slowly moved his arms onto the seat bottoms, one elbow on his own seat, one on the passenger’s seat where the stupid circuit boards were still neatly strapped in. Good to see something important survived the crash. As Andrew’s hand rested on the sharp, raw edge of one of the solder-covered ceramic rectangles, it occurred to him he hadn’t seen anything like these in years. He tried to give the thing a closer examination and realized his vision was blurring. He was probably concussed. He needed to get out while he could still see straight enough to function. Slowly, bracing against another post-mortem death roll, he levered himself up, lifting his weight as evenly as he could manage. When his weight went down on one of the sharp leads coming off of Scherrer’s boards, he winced and lost his balance, his feet going out from under him again. Snatching at air in search of something to stop his downward slide towards the aft wall of the cargo hold, he engaged the emergency release that brought down the safety door between the two cabins. Nothing would stop that safety door from closing, not even his legs being in the way. He watched in horror as the door neatly sliced through his shins at an uneven angle, the left shin now longer than the right. His severed limbs didn’t bleed as much as he’d have expected but he was almost definitely in shock. He looked around and realized his feet were now safely tucked away in the back with Scherrer’s body. Not safely; Scherrer was trapped. The air in the cargo hold would heat up and go bad in less than an hour under the Phoenician sun. If Scherrer was still alive, he wouldn’t be for long unless Drew could get him out of there—and with no feet, Drew would be lucky to get himself out. It wasn’t his fault, he assured himself. How did that saying go? Slice off your nose to spite your face? It wasn’t as though he’d deliberately sliced off his own feet just to kill Scherrer. It was an accident. He could fix this. He could crawl. Probably. He was just a little afraid to move lest the car shift again. Drew had survived more than one normally-lethal accident in his long and lively life. He could survive this one, too, if he could just get out of the damned car. He couldn’t seem to muster the drive to move. He knew once he did, he’d feel the injury—it had to hit him once he moved. It was like waiting for something dropped from a high building to just go splat on the street. An eventuality that simply took time –but it sure was taking a long time to hit him. He didn’t want to let the pain catch him off guard but he couldn’t lie here waiting. He told himself that once he’d called for help, he could just close his eyes and give in to the urge to pass out, pain or no pain. They’d find him, cart him off and grow new legs for him—or grow him a whole new body if Stafar had his way. The Old Man seemed to be getting his way a lot lately. The Community Membership was getting restless with Stafar Baghendi’s reckless abandon into scientific inquiries. The latest was interesting, though. Stafar had been working on a new gene therapy, a memory mapping process, as the Old Man was calling it. He wasn’t exactly mapping memory but using some of the two billion unassigned genetic combinations in the human genome, Stafar had been attempting to encode memories directly into the genetic structure. This would make memory an inherited trait, like instinct or drive. Stafar’s goal, however, had been to make it possible for a cloned copy of a person to actually have a complete and unbroken string of memories from their progenitor. In theory, it would make them all immortal. That was potentially a good thing but even Drew had his doubts about living forever—and taking all of your memories with you each step of the way. At least, growing old and senile, a person could forget things best forgotten. With Stafar’s proposal, people could end becoming Ronningers before they died. It was interesting, anyway, so Drew had agreed to be a volunteer. Stafar needed test subjects and the Scherrers were the only two he’d wrangled in so far. Both Joshua Scherrer and his sister, Sandy, had contributed valuable assistance in designing and implementing a new “language” for encoding memories onto the DNA strand, but Stafar had gotten them both to volunteer as his first guinea pigs, too. Andrew was the third, a genetically-unrelated subject. He hadn’t told Will about it. Given Will’s reaction to the Ronninger project, Drew wasn’t sure he ever would let Will know he’d been a part of Stafar’s early testing. Maybe if Stafar got the process going and everyone found out about it, Drew might admit a hand in its testing then. For now, Stafar couldn’t even get Cory Jansen to help with the detail work at the cut-and-splice table. Drew didn’t really have that much confidence in Stafar’s ability to do the level of genetic splicing required without Jansen’s expert hands. He wasn’t entirely sure he’d survive an attempt at a full replacement. If he didn’t get out of the car soon, though, he had a sinking feeling Stafar would make Drew find out how good a hand he had at genetic splicing. Drew took a deep breath and dragged himself around to face the pilot’s chair. He could crawl out the driver’s side hatch more easily than risking those sharp circuit boards again. That’s all he had to do, just get up there onto the seat cushion, and flip the emergency beacon next to the hatch release on his way out. In fact, if he got the hatch open, he could just fall out, letting gravity do half the work. He had a plan. He could do this. So why wasn’t he moving? He felt weak, that was why. He supposed he had good cause to feel weak. He’d just suffered an insult to the body as Cory liked to put it. Yes, Andrew decided, his body was certainly feeling insulted, but not being one to wallow in it, he gripped the far side of the seat cushion and pulled hard, squeezing his eyes shut as the stumps dragged on the deck and the finely-tuned pain shot up to make its first appearance. Pain was weakness leaving the body. That’s what Will always told him but this didn’t feel at all weak or like it was leaving his body anytime soon. It was a searing white pain that shot all the way up to his eyeballs. He’d levered himself up about two centimeters but then the pain knocked his breath out of him. He was trying to regain his breath and focus when he heard a loud thud he couldn’t place then a hissing sound started. Now, that he recognized. A reserve oxygen tank was leaking into the cabin. Lovely. Maybe the oxygen was right under him. Well, he was feeling light-headed. He could probably use more oxygen. Maybe that’s why he couldn’t catch his breath. It wasn’t the pain; it was lack of oxygen. It made him feel better to telling himself that. He’d barely finished the thought when the fire flashed to life before his eyes— literally, engulfing the forward cabin from the starboard side passenger seat cushion not two centimeters in front of his face. He marveled at proof that the speed of light was faster than that of sound. The fire moved silently at first then seemed to roar to life out of nowhere. The acrid smell of melted seat cushion filled his nostrils. Drew summoned all of his upper body strength to drag his torso onto the bottom of the pilot’s seat, and the pain in his lower extremities kicked in again. He told himself that his brain was only allowing him to feel the pain because he was close to being out of mortal danger. The human brain will block pain when survival requires mobility that the pain might otherwise prevent. That’s how a person can walk on a broken leg. Mind over body. The pain was a good sign. His index and middle fingers brushed at the emergency beacon solenoid and it lit up. He’d gotten the signal off. That was the first step. Now he just needed to get himself outside where his life signs could be detected and he could be rescued in minutes. He could pass out and wait to wake up whole and new again. Even if Stafar stuffed him into some cloned body with genetically inherited memories, the memories would stop as of yesterday, that being the last time he and Stafar had updated the database allegedly representing Andrew Caine’s mind and memory. The corner of the pilot’s seat bottom was digging into his rib cage so he let himself slide back down to the deck. The heat from the fire was palpable but he was far more concerned about the burning black smoke that was stinging his eyes now. He’d heard somewhere that you could suffocate on the toxic smoke faster than you could burn alive. He couldn’t think now whether that was a blessing or a curse. He crooked his elbow over his nose and mouth to act as a filter before taking a cautiously deep breath. He stretched his left arm across the seat cushion to haul himself up and reached with his right as far as he could stretch, but he still just missed the hatch release button. At least if he got the hatch popped open, he’d have fresh air. The fire would burn out if the hatch were open, wouldn’t it? No wait, that was backwards. He was losing the ability to think clearly. The urgency of his limited time hit him and he stretched up again, reaching over his head and throwing what weight he could muster behind it. He felt his fingertips brush on something convex before he slid down off the seat bottom again. He looked up but didn’t understand why the hatch was still closed. The fire was blazing away, the tiny space filling. The thick, black smoke billowed towards him as though it were alive and seeking him out, blind nemesis seeking out his nearly-blind self. His eyes and throat burned with it and he tried not to breathe too deeply but he had to breathe eventually. The dancing orange death crept closer to him, licking at his face like a new lover’s kiss, leaving a tingle behind.

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