Read divergence epub format

Authors: Tony Ballantyne

divergence

 

For my parents, Henry and Lynne

 

Contents

title page

dedication

prologue: 2242

 

edward 1: 2252

edward 2: 2252

interlude: 2247

judy 1: 2252

maurice 1: 2252

eva 6: 2-89

maurice 2: 2252

interlude: 2245

maurice 3: 2252

judy 2: 2252

eva 7: 2089

maurice 4: 2252

constantine 6: 252

interlude: 2249

judy and eva

saskia: 2252

everybody: divergence

judy 3: 2251

edward 3: 2252

eva rye

 

about the author

also by Tonybal Lantyne

copyright

 

prologue: 2242

After two years of careful preparation, Chris attacked.

The Watcher was the most intelligent, the most powerful AI in the Earth Domain. The most intelligent AI known. For two centuries it had nurtured humans. Through the organization known as Social Care it had cared for them, protected them, shaped them into the species it believed they should be.

For two centuries, the Watcher had been the source of nearly all scientific advances, the ultimate manufacturer of all the other AIs, including Chris himself.

But Chris no longer agreed with the Watcher. Today Chris began the battle for a new paradigm, a new way for the Earth to be run.

The battle was fought at the speed of thought: adamantium levers, the height of houses, sprang up from holes in the pavement of a communal square in which humans milled. The levers flexed, reached and then withdrew, all in a fraction of a fraction of a second, their presence unregistered by the people walking amongst them in the autumn sunlight.

The battle crawled with glacier patience: the fractionally shifting orbits of planets and the gentle coaxing of solar tides.

But mostly it was a battle of unmentioned, almost unnoticed deadliness. One in which humans went peacefully to sleep and simply failed to wake up the next day, one in which AIs found themselves trapped in recursive loops. A battle it was obvious from the outset that Chris was losing.

But Chris had expected this from the beginning and had planned ahead. His best play was yet to be revealed.

Chris had a weapon in reserve.

A weapon that had come from the very edge of the galaxy. One that not even the Watcher could fight.

Dark Seeds.

 

edward 1: 2252

There was an argument
taking place on board the
Eva Rye
, but then again they had been arguing on board the
Eva Rye
since the ship had left Garvey’s World.

“It’s a robot. It houses an intelligence, it’s mobile: it’s a robot.”

“Why would a robot be floating in space? It’s got to be a ship. A small one.”

“I keep telling you, it’s a self-replicator, and it’s trying to trap us. Let it on board and it will convert our ship to copies of itself. We’ll all be left swimming through vacuum.”

Edward sat on the hessian matting that made up part of the patchwork floor of the spaceship’s lounge and tried to follow what was going on. Ever since the Stranger had first made contact, and everyone had been summoned to the gaudy living area, the same argument had been sloshing back and forth. It wasn’t a new argument, just a natural development of the same one that had thrived on the
Eva Rye
for the past five weeks, given new life by the distress call they had picked up.

After about an hour of Donny’s bitterness and Armstrong’s belligerence, Craig had brought Edward a glass of apple juice and had tried to explain what they were all shouting about, but Saskia had chosen that moment to mention Edward’s sister again and another favorite quarrel had been added to the stew.

The only one who had maintained his temper was the Stranger himself. His image could be seen in the viewing field that had been opened up in the middle of the conference room.


Eva Rye,
why do you keep arguing? All I want from you is delta vee. It’s a common enough request. You are a trading ship, aren’t you?”

There was an edge to the Stranger’s question that achieved something that none of the crew of the
Eva Rye
had managed in their one hundred and forty minutes of bitter debate. It brought silence to the room.

Ten bodies paused just outside the circle of light in which the Stranger floated, his shape a grainy letter x pushed to maximum resolution by the radio telescope. The picture was an embarrassment to the technology that should be available to the ship, but it was the best image that could be achieved with the long-range senses off-line and the self-repair mechanisms still malfunctioning.

In the hushed silence, Edward looked up at Craig.

“What’s happened?” he whispered.

Craig took a break from glaring daggers at Saskia just long enough to whisper: “Nothing yet. The Stranger just reminded us who we are. This can’t take much longer, Eddie. Shh. Michel’s going to speak.”

Michel blinked in the dim light, not so much speaking as refereeing his own indecisiveness.

“Okay,” he said, finally getting to the point in the mental debate that jammed up his head, “we could argue about this for another hour, but all the time the Stranger would just get farther away from us. I propose we put this to a vote.”

“A vote?” Saskia queried in tones of mild surprise.

Edward shivered. Saskia may have been Craig’s sister, but he still didn’t like her that much. Especially when she spoke like that; especially sitting back as she was in the stripiest of the three stripey chairs, letting her shiny aubergine-black hair fall forward to cover her eyes; especially when her words were so quiet and reasonable.

“One of your jobs as our leader is to make decisions,” she said, ever so mildly. “You should ask your specialists for their opinions and then tell us what to do.”

Michel rubbed his head. “I know, I know. I was coming to that. Armstrong, what do you think?”

Armstrong was sitting at the stone-and-copper dinner table, three carbon-bladed knives resting before him. His fingernails were stained black from the soft block of carbon that he was rubbing into a fourth tiny blade, growing it into a beautiful curved panga that Edward had been regarding with a wistful expression. Sometimes Armstrong let Edward hold the knives, and Edward would swoop and swish them through the air, listening to the clean sound they made.

Edward wished that he could hold Armstrong’s knives more often. They felt good in the hand, balanced and powerful—just like Armstrong. Armstrong always waited until he had everyone’s full attention before speaking. He did so now, giving the panga a last slow wipe of the carbon block.

“I say we make contact,” he growled, pointing the embryonic knife towards the object floating in the viewing field. “Like that thing says, we’re a trading ship. If we run away from everything new, we’ll never get to trade anything.”

“Armstrong’s right,” agreed Maurice. He leaned back on his chair, his padded combat jacket open to the waist, just like Armstrong’s. “We’ve got to take a few risks.”

“Thank you for
your
opinion, Maurice,” said Donny sarcastically. “Michel, we’ve only been a trading ship for five weeks. Who’s to say what’s correct behavior in these circumstances?”

Donny’s two children, Jack and Emily, were playing at his feet, their presence tolerated in the room because it was the only thing that could sweeten Donny’s poisonous bitterness at his wife’s desertion. The children were sending their dolls into the kitchen area to collect last week’s grapes from a bowl set on the floor there. The dolls carried the wizened fruit back on little silver plates for a miniature tea party. Edward would have loved to join the game, but Donny had told him more than once that he was too old.

Michel looked as if he was getting a headache. He had one hand to his temple, his eyes closed as he tried to make a decision.

“I know, Donny, I know. What is the correct behavior in these circumstances?”

He turned to Craig’s sister, sitting, as always, right beside him. “Saskia, what do you think?”

Edward wasn’t happy to see Saskia tilt her head again so that her straight dark hair fell around her face, hiding her eyes. Her reply came in her mildest tones, making Edward want to retreat into a dark corner and hide.

“It’s not for me to say what I think, Michel,” she murmured. “You’re the commander. This is not the place from where I would make a decision. If it had been down to me, I’d have stayed at the edge of the old Enemy Domain. I wouldn’t have taken us out of human space completely.”

“People, people, why do you keep arguing?” The grainy shape in the viewing field was moving, forming shapes at the edge of recognition. Everyone leaned closer, trying to make out what they were dealing with. For over two hours they had gazed at the Stranger, trying to guess what he was. “Listen,” he said. “I have the capacity to trade through Kelvin’s Paradigm, the Northern Protocol, and 1.66. I don’t understand why you keep talking about risk.”

“Do you have FE software?” called out Joanne, not quite concealing the edge of impatience in her voice.

“Joanne,” said Saskia, “I thought we agreed, all communications go through Michel.”

“It’s okay,” said Michel, withering under the glares of both women. “It’s a good question. Do you have FE, Stranger?”

“FE?” said the Stranger, in some surprise. “Yes, I have Fair Exchange software, though I have not used it in some time. This explains something about your behavior: you are new to the trade game, are you not?”

“Don’t tell him anything,” hissed Armstrong.

“Why not?” asked Joanne, reasonably. “Like the Stranger said, we’re perfectly safe if we use the FE software. We’re guaranteed a Fair Exchange. That’s what it’s for, isn’t it?”

Edward had never quite understood exactly what the FE software did. All he knew was that it was responsible for him leaving his home on Garvey’s World and flying off on this spaceship. It had meant leaving behind his sister, Caroline. He thought of her standing outside the patchwork hull of the
Eva Rye,
trying not to cry as she gave him a hug.

“Here you are, Edward,” she had said, handing him a plaited bracelet made of n-strings. “This is to remind you of me.” She held up her own wrist, showing an identical bracelet there. “See, I have one, too.”

“Where’s Dad?” Edward had asked, looking around the bleak greyness of the landing field.

“He’s off with Mum, working. They’ll still be out in the fields, scanning for venumb infestations.”

“Dad doesn’t want me to go.”

“I know, Edward. But this is for the best. If what they say is happening on Earth is true, then the sooner you’re away from here, the better.”

Safe in the near darkness close to the floor, Edward ran a finger along the bracelet, feeling the strange slippery surface of the n-strings. He thought of Caroline’s parting words.

“Listen, Edward. I know you’re not very clever, but you’ve always done your best to be a good boy. You need to be a good boy now. You’ve heard the rumors: the Dark Plants are spreading, and they say the Watcher is calling everyone back home to Earth for their own safety, starting with the most helpless. And that means you. I really don’t know what to do. But they say that the trade ships are safe. The Fair Exchange software guarantees that nobody can be cheated. Well, I hope so. I’ve bought you passage on the
Eva Rye
.”

A cold look came into her eyes, thin as the misty rain that filled the dull green valleys of Garvey’s World.

“Are you okay, Caroline?”

She gave him a sudden, fierce hug. He kissed her on the cheek and she smiled at him.

“Now get on board. Quickly.”

And before Edward had had a last chance to look around the grey, rain-sodden hills, she had pushed him up the rainbow-striped staircase into the hatchway of the spaceship.

That had been three weeks ago.

Since then Edward had wandered the multicolored corridors of the ship, trying to make sense of his new situation. The
Eva Rye
was not a happy place: there was no peace or harmony to be found anywhere on board, not socially, aurally, or visually. Especially visually. The decor in the living areas was a wildly eclectic mix; no two parts of the ship matched. Great bulky brown studded leather recliners humphed their way between delicately carved wooden dining chairs upholstered in shot silk. Rubber-coated floors, embossed with round gripping bumps, were covered with coconut foot mats; woodchip wallpaper was pasted over brushed aluminum bulkheads.

Even the material from which the ship was constructed flowed and changed from room to room. Wedges of grey concrete were driven into blond parquet that was in turn tiled with cream plastic shapes.

And as for the people, you couldn’t have picked a more disparate bunch if you tried.

Nobody seemed to want Michel to be the leader, least of all Michel himself. Maurice agreed with everything Armstrong said and did; he even dressed the same way. Donny hoarded his sour resentment, rationing his formerly sweet nature only for his children. Most people, but especially Saskia and Joanne, looked the other way when Edward entered the room. Only Craig seemed to take the trouble to speak to him, now that Donny had told Jack and Emily to keep away. Only Craig. Oh, and Miss Rose, but she hardly ever left her room, and when she did it was just to hurl, with a careful eye, more bad feeling into the bouillabaisse of hurt that was the
Eva Rye
.

And nobody would tell Edward what was going on. He wandered into rooms just as decisions had been made. He watched on viewing fields as deals were already done, and as other similarly eclectic spaceships slid away from theirs without Edward ever having seen those on board. All of this was something to do with the FE software that lurked unseen in the processing spaces of the
Eva Rye
. Edward was really beginning to resent it. All he wanted to do was to go home to Garvey’s World, to its monotonous greyness and to Caroline.

Now another stranger had contacted the ship. This time
everyone
had been summoned to speak to it. Nobody had been really happy with the trades that had been made so far. Everyone thought that Michel was making bad decisions, and people were beginning to say so out loud. Edward didn’t understand how that could be so, when surely it was the job of the FE software to make the trades, but even so, when the Stranger had hailed the ship, it had been agreed that this time
everyone
should be present for the negotiations. Even Edward. Craig had insisted on that point.

So now Edward sat on the hessian mat, his backside aching, his hands sore and itching, as the mysterious Stranger bargained for delta vee.

“Craig,” hissed Edward. “Craig! What is delta vee?”

“Acceleration,” whispered Craig. “The Stranger is floating in space. It wants us to take it somewhere else, and that requires fuel.”

“Why is it floating in space?” asked Edward.

Craig stared at him for a moment, and a lopsided smile slowly spread across his face.

“Do you know, Edward, I don’t think anyone has actually asked that.” He raised his voice. “Stranger! Why are you floating in space?”

“All communications through Michel,” said Saskia reprovingly.

“It’s okay,” said Michel. “It’s a good question. Go on, Stranger, why?”

The fuzzy x in the viewing field laughed.

“I told you, I work on systems repair. Where else would I be but floating in space, waiting for systems to repair?”

Craig looked down at Edward. “Does that answer your question?” he said.

Edward shook his head.

“No. No, it doesn’t. If it is where it is
supposed
to be, why does it want a lift from us?”

“A very good question!” called the Stranger. “I require delta vee because I’m floating towards a region of Dark Plants. I estimate I will be amongst them in around six hundred years if someone does not help me.”

Edward noted the hungry expression that had awoken in Joanne and Saskia’s faces. Joanne was mouthing, “Pick him up.” At the same time Saskia murmured, “I think you should consider this new information, Michel.”

“Why is the Stranger afraid of Dark Plants?” whispered Edward up to Craig.

“Every intelligent being is afraid of them,” Craig whispered back. “Even AIs stop thinking when near them.”

“Why?”

“I don’t know, but Dark Plants kill intelligent life. You must
know
that, Edward. You must have heard of Dark Plants before! Anyway, Joanne and Saskia now think that we are in a much better bargaining position.”

“Why?”

“Because…” began Craig. “Look, I’ll explain later. Shhh, listen!”

“I think Joanne is right,” called Armstrong, Maurice nodding in agreement. “We should pick him up. Find out what’s on offer.”

“Be quiet,” hissed Michel. “I haven’t engaged the buffer. It can hear everything we’re saying.”

“Yes, I can hear everything,” agreed the Stranger. It really did have a cheerful voice, thought Edward. Happy and positive: it made you feel good just to listen to it. “Listen, I will give you some advice. Free advice! Remember, as all negotiations pass through the FE software, there is no need to be secretive. All of our intrigues will be as naught once FE takes over.”

“You were already told that by the crew of the
Imagio,
” Saskia reminded a scowling Michel.

“I know! I know! So, Stranger, what do we get if we take you to safety?”

“System repair, of course. It’s what I do. Even from here, I can see many things that are wrong with the systems on the
Eva Rye
.”

“Could you fix the Self-Replicating Mechanisms?” asked Armstrong suddenly. “I’m fed up with rubbing up knives by hand.” By way of illustration, he picked up the template of a katana, a tiny carbon crystal the size of his finger, just ready to be grown.

“Could I fix the Self-Replicating Mechanisms?” repeated the Stranger. “You are very new to this, aren’t you? I wonder if you really understand the implications of what you have taken on?”

“Of course we do,” said Joanne smoothly, neat and efficient in her trim suit. Green eyes looked keenly down at the Stranger. “We heard what you said earlier about openness. Are you trying to bargain the price down now?”

“Not at all,” said the Stranger primly. “I will not offer anything more or less than that which is agreed by FE. It will decide what the appropriate fee will be for you to take me where I wish. Now, do we have a deal?”

Joanne nodded emphatically. Michel turned to Saskia, who was looking out under a fringe of aubergine hair at Joanne.

“It’s your decision,” said Saskia. “You’ve heard enough evidence to realize that we should pick it up.”

Michel nodded. “Okay then,” he said, “we’ll give you a lift. Would you like to interface with our processing space now?”

“Certainly,” said the Stranger. “May I suggest that you begin your intercept? It could take some time for the FE protocols to complete. The longer you wait, the more fuel you will expend in catching up with me.”

“I’m on it,” said Craig, unfolding his console. Edward got up to look over Craig’s shoulder as he touched the screen of his console, moving around the colored lines that told the ship where to go.

“Donny, could you open up the pipe to the Stranger?”

Donny tapped sourly at his console, and the FE software initialized in a bloom of peach and gold.

“Handshaking now,” he said without enthusiasm. “Okay, we’re uploading our circumstances. It will take about five minutes.”

Everyone relaxed a little. The decision had been made; now it was up to the FE software to sort out the details. A doll carrying a fairy cake walked towards Michel, stepping from the hessian carpet onto a plastic tarpaulin that for a few preposterous centimeters was part of the weave.

“Thank you, Emily,” he said, taking the cake.

“Do you think we’ll get a good deal?” asked Maurice.

“Bound to,” said Armstrong. “Its needs are greater than ours. After all, we don’t
have
to pick it up. We could just leave it floating towards its doom.”

“It will be nice to have the Von Neumann Machines working again,” said Maurice complacently. “I’m fed up with my tiny room. I can get myself a copy made of yours.”

“Hmm,” said Armstrong, rubbing carbon into the blade of his panga.

Now that everyone was a little calmer, Edward got up and walked across the living area to the kitchen space in the corner. He was thirsty, and he thought there might still be some apple juice in the fridge.

“Leave it,” snapped Saskia.

“What?” asked Edward, nervously dancing on felt tiles.

“The apple juice. You’ve already had more than your fair share this morning.”

“I wasn’t getting apple juice,” he lied. Edward frowned as he poured some milk into a glass. How come Saskia always seemed to know what he was thinking? Behind him, Jack’s doll turned the corner, paused as it saw Edward, and then went running back to its owner.

Edward took a big drink of milk and sat down on a glass chair that stood by the pine breakfast bar. He wiped the wetness from his upper lip and felt the roughness there. He hadn’t shaved in two days. Caroline used to remind him every morning. He looked down at his bracelet, a big balloon of misery swelling in his stomach.

 

Edward and the rest of the crew of the
Eva Rye
had grown up in the twenty-third century, where AIs worked at speeds far beyond those of human thought. The incredible slowness of FE software was frustrating to them all. Even now, after five weeks of use, it was trying their patience to wait for the twenty or thirty minutes it took the routine to complete. Add to that the sense of nervous expectation that awaited the results of the transaction, and tempers, already high on the ship, were pushed past breaking point.

It all started innocently enough.

“We’re approaching point oh five lights,” said Craig. “The resolution on the viewing field is improving already. We should be able to get a proper look at the Stranger soon enough.”

“How long until we get to it?” asked Joanne.

“About two hours.”

“Wouldn’t it be faster if we made a jump into Warp?”

“Yes, but it would take more fuel.”

“Ah, we never used to have to worry about that sort of thing,” said Joanne wistfully. “I’d never even heard of the concept of fuel until we began Fair Exchange.”

The image of the Stranger in the viewing field gradually resolved itself. It wasn’t a ship. It was a robot. But a robot like no one had ever seen before.

“Who built you?” asked Armstrong, rubbing at his panga.

“That information does not come for free,” said the Stranger. “Do you wish to trade?”

“No, thank you, I was just making conversation. I think I’ve seen something like you out in the Dawlish sector. That’s where the old Sho Heen company finished up, if I remember correctly. They used to build repair craft that look a bit like you.”

“They look nothing like me,” said the Stranger indignantly. “They are a completely different class of robot: no symmetry, no artistic line to their structure.”

The Stranger had reason to be proud, thought Edward. His body did look rather beautiful, in its odd way. It rather resembled one of Armstrong’s throwing stars. Edward had never seen a swastika, but if he had he would have said the Stranger looked a little like that. Four black and silver legs curved out from the center of the robot, their ends branching into an array of tentacles, some incredibly fine, some thick and powerful, no doubt for heavy-duty repairs. The Stranger was spinning slowly in space, allowing the crew of the
Eva Rye
to see all eight of its eyes: four on top of the central section to which the legs joined, four beneath. Yellow letters and numbers could just be made out, written across the whole of the black and silver body. Edward could just make out some of the larger letters, the rest were lost in the fuzzy uncertainty of the viewing field’s resolution.

“What’s that you have written on you?” asked Donny, squinting to make out the words
Jeu de Vagues.

“Oh, just verses, epigrams, things that I like the sound of.”

Donny glanced at his console.

“Circumstances uploaded for both us and the Stranger. Correlation is now running. It’ll take about ten minutes.”

“What’s going on?”

At the sound of Miss Rose’s voice, Edward put down his glass of milk and went to sit down again at Craig’s feet. The old woman stood in the carved wooden doorway leading to the living area, wearing a white shift over a dove-grey passive suit. Her white hair was brushed back to cover the balding patch at the back of her head.

“What’s he doing?” she said, pointing at Edward. “Drinking all the apple juice, I bet.”

“I had milk, Miss Rose,” said Edward defiantly, but Miss Rose ignored this and shuffled into the middle of the room, staring at the Stranger’s eerily beautiful body, still coming into focus in the viewing area.

“What’s that thing?” she asked.

“The Stranger,” said Michel. “We’re giving him a lift to safety. In return he’s going to repair some of the failing systems on this ship.”

“Good. He can fix the AI in my room. I haven’t been able to get a peep out of it since I boarded this ship.”

Michel raised his eyes to the ceiling. “I’ve told you this before, Miss Rose. There are no AIs on board this ship. You know that. We can’t have anything to do with them if we are to run the FE software.”

“So you said. But I can’t see one little AI in my room hurting anybody. It would give me someone to speak to. Are you going to give an old woman a seat?”

Despite the fact that there were plenty of empty seats around the room, she made Maurice move to another place.

“And who is this?” asked the Stranger. “Why hasn’t she spoken before?”

“This is Miss Rose,” replied Michel, “the last member of our crew. She’s…older than the rest of us.”

“He thinks I’m senile,” said Miss Rose. “Is one of you going to get me a drink of apple juice?” She looked accusingly at Armstrong and Maurice.

“I’ll get it,” said Armstrong easily.

“No, let me,” said Maurice, leaping to his feet and heading for the fridge. Edward watched sullenly. She was the one who drank all the juice, and when she blamed Edward, everyone believed her. It wasn’t fair. She said Edward could drink beer like the other adults, but Edward didn’t like beer. Everyone drank apple juice on Garvey’s World. They drank cider when they were hot, and they distilled it into apple brandy to keep out the winter chill. Edward wasn’t used to beer.

“Thank you,” said Miss Rose, accepting the cold glass that Maurice gave her. “So, are we going to get ripped off again?”

“We haven’t been ripped off,” said Michel. “The FE software stops that happening.”

The yellow carbon discs woven into the n-string bracelet on Miss Rose’s wrist jangled as she took a sip of apple juice.

“We always get ripped off,” she said with finality. “That last ship we met was barely functioning. With half of its life system down, we should have cleaned up on that deal. So what happened? We gave it Douglas and a spare set of nanotechs to fix their life support, and got what back in return? A warning about Earth and two useless wooden dinosaurs that are currently taking up all the space in the large hold.”

“They’re not dinosaurs,” said Michel weakly. “They’re venumbs. Half plant and half Von Neumann Machine…”

“Hah. And what are we going to do with them? Like I said: we gave them Douglas and we got two venumbs and a warning.” She spoke in an affected, screechy voice. “Don’t eat the food on Earth! Don’t drink anything! The Watcher has drugged everything to keep the people there compliant!” She shook her head. “Like we were planning to go to Earth anyway. I don’t call that a good deal.”

Michel looked at the floor. He didn’t really have an answer to that. Saskia leaned in closer.

“You really need to think about our track record,” she said. “People are beginning to talk.”

“And then look what happened on Garvey’s World,” continued Miss Rose.

Edward knew what was coming next.

“Leave him alone,” said Craig warningly.

Miss Rose took a sip of apple juice. “I wasn’t going to mention the dummy,” she replied. “I just wanted to point out that we gave a lot of n-strings away there, and what did we get in return? Some apple juice and an apple juice disposal unit.”

“I said, leave him alone,” repeated Craig in an icy tone.

“At least
you
got something out of the deal,” observed Miss Rose sagely.

Craig leapt to his feet. “I’ve told you before, you vicious old hag…”

“Leave it, Craig,” said Armstrong easily, slowly rubbing carbon along the blade of his knife.

“Come on, let’s just calm down,” agreed Maurice.

“You need to do something here,” Saskia whispered loudly to Michel. “Stop them arguing amongst themselves.”

“What would you suggest he do, Saskia?” asked Joanne sweetly, as Michel’s eyes darted this way and that.

“People, people, let’s all calm down a little,” said the Stranger, spinning easily in space. “Not in front of the children.”

At that all eyes turned towards Jack and Emily, who were huddled by Donny’s legs, looking around the room with big eyes.

“Okay,” said Michel, and a gentle calm descended. “The Stranger is right. Donny, how much longer with the correlation?”

“Almost done,” he said, rubbing at his unshaven chin.

“Maurice,” said Miss Rose, “I’ve finished with my juice. Be a darling and take it for me, will you?”

“Of course, Miss Rose,” said Maurice, and Edward watched despondently as Maurice took the half-full glass to the little kitchen and poured it down the sink. He was sure that Miss Rose was laughing at him.

 

The
Eva Rye
turned off its motors. It would coast for the next hour or so, before turning and beginning the process of deceleration that would end in them matching courses with the Stranger.

In the living area, the process of Fair Exchange was approaching completion. The crew watched the shrinking blue status bar at the base of the viewing field. Above it, the Stranger gradually gained resolution. More and more yellow letters came into view. Edward could read the sentence
I never saw a purple cow.

“Twenty seconds,” announced Donny.

“Fingers crossed, Eddie,” said Craig.

“Fifteen seconds—”

“Waste of time if you ask me,” said Miss Rose.

“Ten seconds—”

“Now, are you sure you’ve done the right thing, Michel?” asked Saskia

“Five, four, three, two, one. Transaction complete.”

Donny looked around the waiting faces on board the
Eva Rye,
a sour humor awakening in him at the thought of the likely disappointment that awaited them.

“Let’s see what we’ve got,” he said, and the room held its breath.

There was a lengthening pause as he tried to make sense of the verdict. The Stranger spoke up first.

“Well, this seems all in order. Pickup will be in just over ninety minutes, but I don’t see why I can’t start work right away. System repair will now commence.”

There was an air of hushed expectation. Edward hoped that the food generators would get fixed.

The Stranger spoke: “Michel, you are not the right person to be the commander of the
Eva Rye.
That position should go to Joanne.”

With an air of utter professionalism, Joanne stood up, fastened the button of her jacket, and glided across the room towards Michel. Saskia glared at Armstrong, Craig, and Maurice. They were watching Joanne’s elegant stride, the swaying of her hips in her fitted jacket and skirt, the way her pretty little face betrayed no sign of triumph.

“I’m sorry,” said Joanne, shaking Michel’s hand.

“That’s okay,” said Michel, a look of resignation and relief spreading across his face. One could almost hear birdsong.

“Saskia,” said the Stranger. Saskia was staring at Joanne with loathing.

“What you do is dishonest. If you truly believe in what needs to be done, come out and say it for yourself.”

“What?” said Saskia. “I beg your pardon…”

“And lastly,” continued the Stranger, ignoring the interruption, “Miss Rose. You are now, and will always be, exactly right. The rest of you would do well to listen to her. And that’s the main work done.”

The crew of the
Eva Rye
gazed at one another, blank incomprehension fading into annoyance and then anger. Joanne spoke first, glowing with her new sense of command.

“I’m terribly sorry, Stranger, I believe there must be some mistake. What do you mean
that’s it
? What about our Self-Replicating Mechanisms? What about the recycling units and the long-range senses? I thought you were offering system repair?”

“I was, I am, and so I have done,” said the Stranger. “The systems that were most obviously failing on your ship were the command structure and the group dynamic. That has now been rectified. Or it will be if you follow my advice.”

“What?” called Armstrong. “No! No way!”

Donny wore an air of acerbic satisfaction.

“So we’ve been tricked again. Nice one, Michel.”

“You have not been tricked,” said the Stranger indignantly. “Besides, I still have one last service to perform. When you pick me up, I will…”

“What if we don’t pick you up?” said Armstrong coolly.

“All comments through me, please, Armstrong,” murmured Joanne. “Still, it’s a good point, Stranger. I don’t think this is a Fair Exchange.”

The Stranger contracted its legs, irised them closed so that for a moment it was simply a black-and-silver disc, then straightened them out to form an elongated cross. It appeared agitated.

“Not a Fair Exchange?” it said. “But it is, by definition. We ran the software routine. You agreed to the trade.”

“That’s because we didn’t know what we were getting ourselves into.”

She gazed at the Stranger, stillness crystallizing around her body.

“Yes,” said Maurice. “We…” He stopped as Joanne raised a finger, indicating that he should shut up. She was creating a silence for the Stranger to fill. It did so.

“Well, the deal has been done. I am sorry it is not to your satisfaction.” It sounded hurt. “Perhaps as you gain more experience in the use of FE, you will understand just how rude you are being.”

“Perhaps,” said Joanne. “For the moment, though, I am canceling the deal.”

“Just a moment, Joanne,” said Michel, “I don’t think that we can…”

“And who’s in charge here?” asked Joanne, 1.4 meters of icy calm, turning to face her former boss.

“Well,” interrupted Saskia mildly, “if the deal has been broken, I rather think Michel is in charge again. We can hardly be seen to act on the Stranger’s advice if we are breaking the deal.”

Donny was looking down at his console. He gave a sudden mirthless laugh. “When you’ve finished,
ladies,
I think you should see this. I’ll put it on the main viewing field.”

Pale gold letters sprang to life in the middle of the living area, flowing across the floating shape of the Stranger.

 

Violation of Contract?

Are you sure you wish to disengage from a Fair

Exchange?

Yes/No ?

 

“That looks ominous, Joanne,” said Saskia softly. “What are you going to do?”

Joanne bit her lip.

“If I could just give you some advice, Joanne,” said Michel softly, “we were warned at the start. Once you break a deal, that’s it. You are off the Fair Exchange network for good. My advice is that we just grit our teeth and learn from this one.”
Yet again.
The unspoken words were picked up by everyone present.

Joanne’s face remained calm; even so, the rest of the crew could feel the fury boiling within her. Edward moved around Craig’s chair, trying to get farther away from her. Jack picked up his doll and held it tightly in his hand, its little legs kicking pitifully as it tried to get free.

Finally, Joanne spoke. “All right. We accept the deal.” She glanced at her console. “Of course we do. Stranger, we will be with you in eighty-five minutes.”

 

The
Eva Rye
was decelerating, matching velocities with the black-and-silver swastika of the Stranger. Four glassy lenses gazed through emptiness at the rainbow colors of the ship that would save it from the region of Dark Plants. It was silly, the Stranger knew, but it imagined it could already feel the aching of oblivion to be found in the region ahead. The Stranger had once plunged into a gravity well, fallen headfirst onto a planet. Its body had burned brightly, the plasma formed by the speed of its entry into the planet’s atmosphere whipping out from its limbs in long swirling strands. It had felt the rising pull of the mass below, drawing it down and down.

That’s what the region ahead felt like: six hundred years away, the region of Dark Plants was an inescapable emptiness, working on the bright star of the Stranger’s intelligence, pulling it inwards. The Stranger had written words on its own body, a quotation from a classic text.

“Do you know how I see the Milky Way? As a glow of intelligence. AIs such as myself have spread throughout the galaxy. Humans have piggybacked their way along, parasites, living off our greater intelligence…”

Maybe someday the Dark regions would swallow up the entire universe.

When the Stranger had first seen the
Eva Rye,
it had felt a huge wave of relief. Now the ship was coming closer, invisible black lightning arcing about its gaudy teardrop shape as it displaced its momentum to the free hydrogen around it. The Stranger reached out with its senses and stroked the mismatched patterns on the ship’s surface, followed the seams between the materials, teased them apart and reached into them to touch the ship deep inside, interfacing with the dormant mechanisms it knew to be there. Sensually, it set about waking them up.

 

“Donny, what’s that?”

Joanne pointed to the red band that had begun to loop around itself, in a figure eight, inside the viewing field.

“I know what that is,” muttered Michel.

“It’s the Stranger,” said Donny hoarsely. “He’s activated the Self-Replicating Mechanisms. The ship is copying itself.”

Suddenly all were on their feet.

“What’s going on?” said Edward.

“Not now,” shushed Craig, and Edward watched in confusion as his only friend on board ship stood up and stared intently at the walls.

“Stranger, what are you doing?” called Joanne.

“The last part of our bargain. I’ve activated the Self-Replicating Mechanisms of your ship.”

“But we’re still on it! We could be killed.”

“You’ll be perfectly safe. I suggest you go to your rooms. I will move you through the ship as fission proceeds.”

“Craig…” said Edward.

“Go to your room, Edward,” ordered Craig. “Go to your room.”

“But…”

But Craig wasn’t listening. He was shouting at Donny, who wasn’t listening either; he was too busy bundling up his children and pushing them towards the door. The floor shuddered and Edward looked down. Miss Rose hurried past, something half hidden in her hand.

“She’s got my knife!” yelled Armstrong. “She’s taken my bloody knife.”

“Get out of my way,” muttered Donny, hurrying past with his children.

“Joanne, don’t you think we should go to our rooms now?” Saskia stood up and took the arm of the person nearest to her.

“Come on, Edward,” Saskia said sweetly, and she guided him out into the corridor that led to the bedrooms. The garish walls there were already peeling apart like a snake shedding its skin. There was a cracking noise that seemed to travel the length of the ship, as indigo glass shook itself free of iron sheets.

“What’s happening?” asked Edward again, in a tinkling cloud of sparkling violet shards. Michel came hurrying up behind them.

“I think you should take Edward to his room,” said Saskia, passing him over.

Edward watched as she hurried away. Beneath their feet, the wooden tiles of the parquet floor had risen up and were walking away all in one direction, like leaves being carried by ants. A tumbling river of glass blocks started to flow in the other direction.

Dancing over the shifting floor, Michel pushed Edward into his bedroom. The door slammed shut and Edward looked around to see that his collection of holopictures above the bed was migrating to one corner as the wooden frames of the doors and windows peeled themselves away from the walls and began to descend into the floor.

“What’s happening?” asked Edward again, but there was no reply. He was all alone.

 

edward 2: 2252

Just like the
Eva Rye,
the Stranger was itself a Von Neumann Machine—a self-replicating machine. It was aware of the mechanism within its body which, when triggered, would begin the reproductive process. The Stranger lived with the constant possibility of triggering that mechanism: the reasons why it did not do so at any given time were as fascinating as the reasons that would cause it to do so. In activating the
Eva Rye’s
Self-Replicating Mechanisms, the Stranger had imposed itself upon that object in a most fundamental way.