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Medusa Uploaded

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Author: Emily Devenport
Publisher: Tor, 2018
Series: Medusa Cycle: Book 1

1. Medusa Uploaded

Book Type: Novel
Genre: Science-Fiction
Sub-Genre Tags: Artificial Intelligence
Generation Ship
Space Opera
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Synopsis

The Executives control Oichi's senses, her voice, her life. Until the day they kill her.

An executive clan gives the order to shoot Oichi out of an airlock on suspicion of being an insurgent. A sentient AI, a Medusa unit, rescues Oichi and begins to teach her the truth -- the Executives are not who they think they are. Oichi, officially dead and now bonded to the Medusa unit, sees a chance to make a better life for everyone on board.

As she sets things right one assassination at a time, Oichi becomes the very insurgent the Executives feared, and in the process uncovers the shocking truth behind the generation starship that is their home.


Excerpt

1
Lock 212

My name is Oichi Angelis, and I am a worm. I exist in the outer skin of the Generation Ship Olympia, and I spend most of my time squeezing through its utility tunnels, doing work for the Executives. I am partially deaf, dumb, and blind. That I am not entirely so is my greatest secret. It is the reason I was able to kill Ryan Charmayne two hours after curfew, inside Lock 212.

Don't feel bad for Ryan. He was there to commit murder, too. He thought he was going to bump off a rival who was using Lock 212 to rendezvous with a mole from his inner circle. The fact that Ryan didn't know who the mole was may have been the reason he didn't order someone else to do the killing, but it wasn't the only reason he came in person. Ryan enjoyed the dirty work. He just couldn't afford to stoop to it as often as he would like, considering his lofty position in the House of Clans.

Curfew doesn't apply to Executives, so Ryan roamed at will. His brethren rarely had business in the tunnels where we wormy folk live; he felt sure no one would see him. He hardly seemed to mind that it was cold enough to make his breath condense into mist as he marched through the tangle of narrow corridors.

I felt a grudging admiration. If only his character were as fine as his sense of direction.

The air locks in Sector 200 are massive; they were built to accommodate cargo ships. They possess an odd, almost Gothic beauty because of their vaulted ceilings and curved outer doors. They're the only wide-open spaces most worms can access on Olympia. Their grandeur inspires me.

Air locks inspired Ryan for a different reason. He had used them (sometimes secretly, sometimes with official approval) to kill people. Lock 212 was a bit too grand for his purpose--after all, you just needed something big enough to spit someone into the void--but it had the advantage of being isolated. Olympia hadn't received a cargo ship in many years, so Executives had no reason to come here. And it wasn't the sort of place they liked to slum. The worms were all in their burrows, so he had the place to himself.

He slowed his pace when he saw the inner door. It was open, which is against regulations. If the outer door suffered a catastrophic breach, depressurization would occur until the emergency doors spun shut. The inner doors shut within ten seconds under those circumstances, but that was all it would take to suck a bunch of people and equipment out the door. Ryan didn't give a damn about the potential loss of life, but if there's one thing that will piss an Executive off, it's a broken rule. Disapproval was clear on his face, until it gave way to curiosity. After all, he had two goals: to kill the rival and to find out who the mole was. They must be somewhere inside, plotting, and that also must be why they had left the door open.

I wondered why he didn't smell the blood. I smelled it from my position. I'm a Servant, and the Executives believe they control everything I see and hear. All worms share this modification; it's implanted into our brains. But for some reason, they never thought to control what I smell, taste, or feel. I would have been able to smell the blood even before I entered the lock, but he didn't react until he saw his rival's body.

He looked surprised. Then his mask of Executive serenity slipped back into place. I'm guessing that he wondered if the mole wasn't working both sides--maybe the traitor had decided to stick with him after all. But he couldn't trust a guy like that; he needed to know who it was. He had hoped to find his rival and the mole together.

And he had, though he didn't know it yet. Because I was the mole.

I wanted him to come farther inside the lock. His curiosity warred with his caution, but I had gambled he would be fascinated by the wet stuff. My bet paid off.

The lock was so huge, you could have fit several hundred people in there. Giant machines sat on claws and treads around the periphery, and cables hung from the ceiling. He paused and listened for a long moment. Unlike mine, his hearing was normal. But in this case, that was his undoing, because I'm modified to be as silent as a statue.

Finally he walked across the floor, the heels of his fine boots sparking echoes. He knelt beside the body of Percy O'Reilly, his former best friend and nemesis, and placed his finger on Percy's throat. A casual observer might have thought he was feeling for a pulse. He was merely touching the blood. His expression revealed disappointment, not triumph. He wanted to have been the one who killed Percy, and to have enjoyed taunting him as he did it.

He regarded the smear of blood on his finger. Perhaps he wanted to taste it, but I didn't give him the chance. I closed the inner door.

Ryan jumped. He made a halfhearted attempt to run to it, but gave it up as futile. Anyone else would have run to it anyway. They would have tried to work the controls to get it to open again. But Ryan had played that game with his own victims. He knew the door wouldn't open for him.

I would have run for one of the utility lockers. They're full of pressure suits, and we worms make sure their air tanks are full. The outer door takes sixty seconds to respond to an order to open if the lock has not been depressurized first, and he could have made it to the lockers by then. He could have shut himself inside one of them, or in one of the machine cockpits. But I know that because I'm a worker.

Ryan could only think like an Executive. "You're messing with the wrong man," he barked as he turned in a circle, searching for his hidden enemy. Then he heard me descending from the cables, and he looked up.

The anger in his face gave way to wonder. I was plugged into Medusa, and I'm sure he had never seen anything like her. No one is supposed to know how to activate her, and no one is supposed to have the modifications for the brain interface.

I knew how. I had slipped inside her suit and had her tentacles stretching and flexing as if they were made of flesh instead of biometal. I hovered over Ryan until Medusa's face was inches from his. What I saw through her eyes was far more than what I could have seen with my own. What I heard through her ears was the wild beating of his heart.

"Who are you?" he asked.

I didn't answer, though I had things I wanted to say to him.

"I think I need to offer you a job," he said. "I'll make it worth your while.

I could use someone with your talent."

That was nonsense, of course. Ryan's grandmother, Lady Sheba Charmayne, had written the Right to Work Rules. Only the Executive clans were rewarded for their work. Everyone else worked for just enough food to survive, just enough heat not to freeze.

I activated my voice. It was a voice Ryan knew well, because it was his favorite.

When I serve the Executives, they don't control what I say, but when I'm in their presence, they control what voice I use. They can make me sound any way they want. They have a variety of voices from which to choose. The one Ryan likes best is the Magic Kingdom voice. It is remarkably cheerful.

"You must be that new girl from Shantytown," I said.

He frowned. I think he felt insulted because he thought I was calling him a girl. I was disappointed that he didn't recognize the very speech he had delivered to me not long after I began work as a Servant. Granted, he had said it to me six years before, and a lot had happened since then. But I had hoped he would recognize the derogatory term. Shantytownwas the name he and his fellow Executives had used for Olympia's sister vessel, Titania. Titania had once been as grand and glorious as Olympia, until Ryan's father, Baylor Charmayne, pirated as many of her supplies as he could get his hands on--and then blew her up with two hundred thousand people aboard.

My parents were among the people who died on Titania. I wasn't there, because I had come to Olympia to work as a Servant. I was attractive enough to please their eyes, and I was willing to undergo the modifications. I had hoped to earn enough credits to move my parents to Olympia.

Those first cycles as a Servant, I stood behind the banquet tables in the home of Baylor Charmayne and reacted instantly and smoothly to the needs of his uber-privileged guests. My face was deadened so I couldn't show any expression. That's so I wouldn't offend them or make them uncomfortable by looking shocked, grieved, angry, amused, or annoyed by anything they said or did when I served them. If we are serene and our voices are pleasant, they can concentrate on the very important work they do. They can relax during their leisure time and forget about the multitude of responsibilities with which they are burdened.

Ryan behaved himself while his clan elders were watching, but he eventually cornered me in a service tunnel after one of my work cycles. He believed himself to be handsome, because he was tall and athletic, and he had lustrous black hair. The Charmaynes were well known for their great hair. But his charm did not persuade me, so he was forced to pin me against the wall. He couldn't grope me, because my uniform was too stiff, the material too thick. So he bit my lip until it bled.

While a doctor was patching my lip, I used one of my secret modifications to link in to the communication network and call my parents on Titania. That's when I found out Titaniawasn't there anymore.

Six years later, I held Ryan in my tentacles among the shadows in Lock

  1. I placed my gloved hands on either side of his face. It must have felt like a caress--the gloves are supple, though they can withstand void conditions. "How about a kiss, little Shantytown girl?" I said with my Magic Kingdom voice. "You're not going to say no, are you? Shantytown girls who say no can find themselves on the wrong side of an air lock."

There was a glimmer of understanding in his eyes. He might not remember that those were the exact words he had once said to me--it was one incident in a lifetime of fun he had enjoyed at the expense of people who couldn't fight back. But he wasn't stupid. When I said Shantytown girl, I gave him a clue about my status in life. He seemed hopeful he could use it against me.

"You'll pay for this," he said. But I guessed he was talking about what I had already done. He still hadn't realized what I was going to do. Not until the alarm for the outer door sounded.

I held him tight--I didn't want him to fly out the door. Medusa's tentacles locked us both in place as the air rushed past us, taking Percy O'Reilly with it. Death by exposure to void takes less time than you might think. Air will immediately vent from the higher-pressure environment of your lungs, out your nose and mouth. Because of that, you lose consciousness pretty quick.

So Ryan didn't struggle that long.

I held him that way for a while. The light of the Hella system poured into the air lock, lending the scene a sacred quality. To me, it was sacred. Those grand air locks were the only places where I felt the presence of God. I wondered if Ryan had felt him, too.

I took Ryan's body to the open door. With my modified vision, I could gaze directly at Hella Major. I had never seen a sun that close--in person, so to speak. It didn't look like the big yellow sun I had often seen in tutorials about the Homeworld. We were over 9.0 astronomical units away from it, yet it still looked like a sun instead of a distant point of light. Unfortunately, Hella Major was between Olympia and its binary partner, but it was still a glorious sight. Only one star rivaled it in the field visible through that grand lock: Charon, a third companion to the Hellas, influenced by them but distant enough to host its own planets. Within the next couple of years, Charon would dominate the view, and the Hellas would recede.

I turned Ryan to face Charon and gave him a big push. He and Olympia were going the same speed, but their paths diverged as Olympia continued her journey to the star toward whose system we are faithfully bound.

He must be floating there still.

I no longer have my natural eyes, so I generate few tears. But I shed one as I closed the outer door and bade farewell to Medusa, who went back to her lair. I didn't cry out of pity for Ryan, but I couldn't say it was for joy, either. I think it may have been for the sheer terror and beauty of what I had seen--and done. The music that played in my head then was Ralph Vaughan Williams's Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis.

Its theme could have been sung by a monk raising his voice to heaven in a lonely cathedral, but it was written to be performed by two string orchestras. The first few notes are plucked on the strings; they sound like dawn spreading its arms over the edge of a world--something I have dreamed but never seen. And when those strings are played with bows, they evoke the voices of a celestial choir. Soloists emerge from time to time to lend the music a human quality, and then the other instruments join together again in a swell of passion that transcends mortal limitations.

I'm sure Ryan would not have understood how I felt when I listened to the Fantasia. My father was the chief advocate for the preservation of classical music from our past, and my father failed in that mission.

Or he seemed to fail. Because when I immigrated to Olympia, I brought more than my toothbrush. I brought technology entrusted to me by my parents. That technology is the reason Ryan Charmayne had to die.

Perhaps you think I killed him for revenge? Not at all. Ryan died because he was trying to shoot down Lady Charmayne's Music in Education initiative. Music was a tool of discipline, not inspiration, according to Ryan. He wanted to make the point that his father, Baylor Charmayne, was a wimp who was afraid to defy a mother who was long dead.

Ryan had never heard a note of that music. But that didn't matter to him--or to me. His stupid obstruction of the bill mattered. That opposition died with him, and Lady Charmayne's (posthumously stated) will prevailed.

I returned to my duties, though I had long since stopped posing as a Servant. I spied on Baylor Charmayne and his cronies. I was watching when he learned that his son had disappeared. He eyed Clan O'Reilly, and they returned the favor. The Executives have very good reasons to suspect each other of murder and treachery. But no accusation was spoken out loud.

Within ten rest-work cycles, Baylor rallied the House to pass the Music in Education bill, dedicating it to his son's memory, and every child on Olympia was implanted with the vast library of classical and folk music that my father had so lovingly compiled and preserved. The Executives congratulated each other for their foresight, never suspecting what else had been implanted along with that noble music.

No one will ever know how hard my father worked to preserve the music he truly loved, that he believed to be one of the truest connections to a past that was lost to us. He would have done so even without the communication biotech hidden inside that database. Everyone will believe Lady Charmayne designed the music education program, even though that idea never would have crossed her mind. She knew little about music. Her true ambitions were utterly heartless.

She was the chief architect of our misery. But if I have my way, no one will remember her that way.

No one will know what she was really planning.

2
The Girl from Shantytown

"We felt soil and grass beneath our feet," my father told me. "Can you imagine the mud squishing between your toes?"

"No," I said. "I never squished anything." I had never seen the Habitat Sectors inside Olympia and Titania, but my parents pined for them. I was five, and my father spoke of the Habitat Sectors the way other parents speak of the wondrous lands in fairy tales.

"Flowers and fruits and vegetables grow there," he said. "Grain and nuts and sweet grasses. The air smells of green things. Far above you, clouds float, and sometimes rain falls from them."

I knew what he meant, because I had seen images of rain. Also of snow, lightning, and tornadoes, though none of those happened on the generation ships. The ships were big enough inside to create light rain showers, but that was all. Crops were watered by irrigation, and the water was recycled. My father had worked in those gardens when he was younger, but robots did most of that work now. He was no longer allowed inside the Habitat Sectors. As a scientist, he was restricted to the tech sector.

"Think of The Enchanted Lake." His eyes shone. "Hear it inside your head. The images you see will show you the beauty of nature."

I didn't have to search my memory for this gentle music by Anatoly Lyadov. Father had implanted the music database in my brain when I was four. He broke the law when he did this, but his crime was unsuspected. My modification was one my father believed all children should have. His proposal had been shot down. The Executives thought it was foolish and pointless--they could not imagine why he wanted to do such a thing. So they didn't suspect that he already had.

My mother enfolded me in her arms. Flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, horns, timpani, bass drum, harp, celesta, and strings wove their musical threads together inside my head, like braided streams flowing into The Enchanted Lake. I imagined birds hopping from branch to branch as the dawn woke them, and frogs suspended with just their eyes over the water; I would have done so even without the images my mother had contributed to complement the music.

Those images came from our Homeworld: rain and lightning, waves on the shore, underground pools, tall grass waving in the wind--vids, photographs, drawings, paintings, tapestries, sculptures, depicting scenes of a living world in all its aspects. The three of us snuggled in our cramped burrow, seeing those scenes and hearing our music. It allowed us to hope, and dream, and imagine, while our fellow worms slept and plotted to survive another cycle.

* * *

When I was eleven, my father tried to enroll me in the science program, and they refused me. It was the first time I ever saw him angry. But his voice stayed reasonable as he spoke with the official at the enrollment desk. "My daughter tested in the top two percent."

The official didn't smirk, but I could tell she was enjoying herself. "The class is full," she said. "They had to cut back, you know that. We're in emergency mode."

My father's hand tightened around mine. "She will have to work in the manual labor force if she doesn't enter this class."

"Good thing she's so smart," said the official. "I'm sure she'll find a way to rise above it all."

My father's face was the color of coffee-with-creamer, but it darkened to purple then. I was astounded at the amount of rage and despair that simmered in his eyes. The official should have melted on the spot.

Instead, she seemed to feed on his anger. She pointed toward the Security officer slouching near the door. "At the end of that corridor there's an access hall that leads to Lock 017. You have two choices, Citizen. You can walk your brat out of here and get back to work, or you can take your complaint to the wrong side of Lock 017. Got it?"

She seemed to hope that he didn't get it.

My father turned and escorted me out of the room. His hand still held mine tightly, but he took small steps so I could keep up with him. We walked down corridors that became narrower, but when we arrived at the junction that would lead me back to the children's school-work sector, he chose another direction. His hand relaxed, and I could tell he had a plan.

Executives have always said that the generation ships are overpopulated, but you couldn't tell that if you judged by how many people you encounter in the tunnels. Sometimes you can walk for hours without encountering anyone. We were alone, but my father didn't speak until he ushered me into a small room that looked like a doctor's office. He helped me onto an examining table and put his hands on my shoulders. "Oichi, never act unless you have thought first."

"Okay," I promised, not yet realizing that he had given me the advice by which I would conduct the rest of my life.

"I am not surprised by what the official had to say," he continued. "Your mother and I worried this could happen, and we have a backup plan."

I gazed into his face. I thought my father was the handsomest man alive, but I worried about the white hairs on his head that seemed to be chasing away the black. My father was twenty years older than my mother, and he was beginning to look it.

"Oichi, the database we placed in your head does not just contain music. The mathematical structure of that music is perfect for hiding information. People think it's just a collection of pretty sounds; they never search to discover what's hidden between the notes."

"Between them?" I said.

"Between them," said my father, "hides an interface that is far more complex than the one used by most people. Only twenty of us have it. We thought we could introduce it to children as part of the new generation of education enhancements, but our program was cut. The Executives decided that music is frivolous, and has no value in education." His scornful tone warned me what he thought of that attitude.

"We implanted them in each other," he continued, "because we knew the interface would give us an advantage. This is your gift from us--and it is your greatest secret. You must never speak of it to anyone, not even to your mother and me--not even over what you assume to be a private link."

"I won't."

"Good," he said. "Because I'm about to break the law again. The version you've already got is limited. I'm going to give you the updated version."

* * *

Two hours later, I felt my mother's hands on my face. I lay in our tiny quarters, and she was toweling my hair dry after washing the blood from it. I didn't try to open my eyes; I felt content to drift in the new inner space my father had implanted in my brain.

There was nothing hazy about that space. But despite that clarity, I have trouble conjuring my mother's face from that time. She had skin the color of honey and hair that was blacker than the void. She wore her hair in an ancient style, like a performer in the Noh plays in my culture database. She moved like one of those actors, gracefully and with economy. But what I remember the most clearly about her is her voice.

She finished her toweling and arranged my clean hair on the pillow. "Oichi, an ancient philosopher named Marshall McLuhan once said that the medium is the message. It doesn't matter how elegant, or practical, or brilliant, or fair an idea may be. It will be ignored if it comes from the worms, or the asteroid miners, or the scientists, or even the midlevel Executives. It does no good to preach to that choir. For the powerful ones to change the laws, they have to believe that those changes are the result of their own intelligence. Their pride will stand nothing less."

I felt her lips on each of my hands, and then on my brow. Her voice was so beautiful, I'm surprised the Executives didn't include it in their library of pleasant voices.

"From now on," she said, "you will learn everything you can from school, and even at work. Then you will come home, and your father and I will teach you everything we know about how to appear normal--and how to survive." What she didn't say was that everything they taught me would stimulate what was now in my head to make other connections for intelligence and survival. But if that were to happen, we could never speak of that again--we could never even hint at it.

"This cycle, you need to rest." Mother kissed me again. "A new work cycle begins in twelve hours."

She and Father spoke quietly to each other, and a little later they made sure I sipped some nutrient broth. I amused myself with my music library, starting with Gustav Holst's PlanetsSuite, then wandering on to orchestral performances of Claude Debussy's Nocturnes. The images that accompanied the music ranged from majestic to whimsical, but all of them were beautiful, and I enjoyed myself immensely.

Eventually I fell asleep, but I don't think I slept very long. When I woke, the lights had been dialed down to night mode, and my parents were tucked away in their own cubby. I tried to decide on another music selection, but my mind kept wandering back to the official who had told us there was no room in the science program for another student.

My father had scoffed at this. "They always claim there is not enough. Not enough food, though we have plenty. Not enough fuel, though we mine it as we go. Not enough heat, not enough light. Not enough room in the Habitat Sectors--for anyone but the Executives. But the space on the inside edge of the generation ships is immense; it could accommodate all of us."

"Then why don't they share?"

"Because," said my father, "nothing is valuable unless it seems to be scarce."

I lay in my cubby and wondered about the grass under the feet of the Executives, the mud they squished between their toes, and a notion occurred to me. My new modifications allowed me access to more than just music and images. They linked me with an extensive communications and surveillance network as well.

This was what my father and his colleagues had hidden inside the music program. We thought the Executives would approve of our music database, he said. But we overestimated their appreciation of high culture. They couldn't grasp the point of preserving that part of our past.

At that age, I wasn't inclined to ponder the frivolous way the Executives had axed my father's life's work (both the public endeavor and the private, subversive one). Instead, I indulged my curiosity about things I had never seen.

I thought there must be monitors inside the Habitat Sectors. I wondered if I might have a peek at the green spaces my father remembered so fondly. I pictured the general directory, then selected subdirectories.

The directory was far more complex and detailed than anything I had known. What delighted me about it was that it didn't just provide links for individuals; it also provided them for systems--for instance, the Maintenance system might contact a repair drone and order it to perform a task.

Even more intriguing, it showed me links that were currently in use. I dived deeper into the directories, until I saw something that surprised me, a link in use between two people: s. charmayne and b. charmayne.

Even at my age, I knew who Lady Sheba was. My mother privately called her the Iron Fist, which did not make her sound like a nice woman. Without planning to invade anything, I touched that highlighted link between S. and B., hoping it might tell me who they were.

<... not enough room in the lifeboat.> I heard the woman's voice as if she were speaking right into my ear. This was because I was accessing the link with my communication implants, and the parts of my brain that processed language and hearing were stimulated. The voices I heard were the ones the Charmaynes had chosen to represent them.

I withdrew from the link, startled. Did Sheba know I had eavesdropped? Was it really the Lady Charmayne? Would she blow me out Lock 017 if she knew it was me?

But Father had said nobody knew about my special modifications. That must mean they couldn't know, unless I told them. So I touched the link again.

<... always use that metaphor,> said a man's voice. <Can't you find a new one? It's getting old.>

<It's not a metaphor, you idiot, it's the truth. If we don't control the piggies, they'll overrun us. We didn't make all these sacrifices and come all this way just so our inferiors could outvote us and ruin everything. Put your damned boot on their necks and keep it there, Baylor. Do you hear me?>

The man sighed. <Yes, Mother.>

They talked in that vein for quite a while, and I got bored with them. So I dropped the link and searched for anything that might give me a look at the Habitat Sectors, but the closest I got was a doorway leading from a supply room on the inside edge of Titania's skin. The door was open, and I could see light filtered through green things. I saw a spot of color, too, from a patch of flowers. It was pleasant, downright charming, but try as I might, I couldn't get on the other side of the door to gaze at the big picture. My father had said that there was a horizon, and it curved up, and if you looked straight through the thin clouds, you could see the other side of the Habitat far above you. But there were no pictures of that in my head, and there seemed to be none anywhere else either. It was as if the Executives didn't want us to know what it looked like.

Why not? I wondered.

S. and B. might give me a clue, if I listened to them long enough. They might put me to sleep with their conversation, but maybe I could learn something if I was patient. I checked the link--it was still in use. So I touched it again, and I did learn something.

<Enough of this beating around the bush,> said Sheba Charmayne.

<How do we kill them before they figure out what we're up to?>

3
Gamelan, My Little Doggie...

The smell of rain is an astounding thing. If you live inside the arid skin of Olympia, you may smell machines, blood, human sweat, that sort of thing. But the smell of rain is unlike anything you could imagine. Yet even if you've never smelled it before, you will know what it is.

I stood in the rain of the Habitat Sector, waiting to serve the Executives at Baylor Charmayne's garden party. They stood in the same rain. Precipitation on Olympia was so fine, it fell as a mist. Our clothing couldn't absorb it; a Servant's mantle covered our heads.

Some of the Executives wore their own version of mantles, but most of them let their hair get wet. They found the discomfort amusing, because they endured it so rarely and could end it at any time.

This was near the end of my fourth year on the job, and I watched this behavior because I found it odd. I also took note of the moisture on my skin, the colors of the fresh vegetables, and the handsome face of Nuruddin, who was one of my coworkers. In his Servant's mantle, he looked like an Egyptian king. But ancient art was not generally studied on Olympia at that time, so I was one of the few people who noticed that.

Despite these distractions, I remained focused on my duties. The Executives require Servants to respond to their slightest cue, to be at hand with whatever is required in an instant, whether that be a napkin, a dish, a refill of a beverage, or any one of a thousand other details. We're like the Japanese Bunraku stage technicians who dress all in black, pretending to be part of the scenery; we must move silently, unobtrusively, and efficiently. Those of us who can't, don't make it out of training.

My father hadn't been happy when I told him my ambitions, though he did understand them. No tech training had materialized for me on Titania, and we hoped that Olympia might provide more opportunities for me, since I was sixteen and still trainable. But extensive modification is needed to become a Servant, and my forbidden implants could have been discovered at any time during that process. My father had to pull a lot of strings to make sure the right med techs were on duty the cycles I went in for modification.

I had passed through it easily. I even received artificial eyes as a bonus--I would be able to change the iris color at will. That pleased my vanity, but would also come in handy for special projects, later.

I moved to Central Sector on Olympia. I had goals, both short-term and long-term. First, I wanted to move my parents to Olympia. But I didn't do it soon enough.

They were dead before I finished my first day of work.

Four years later, we had left the wreckage of our sister ship far behind. Now Baylor Charmayne sat at the head of his clan's table. He still talked about his mother, which was sad when you considered all the other people who had died on Titania. Sometimes he cried when he talked about her, though he wasn't doing it tonight. He was in a fair mood, which was as good as it got with Baylor. He, the food, the table, and his guests were all visible. But I could not see the plants that I could smell. I could not hear the rain falling.

We, his Servants, are beautiful. The Executives will tolerate nothing less. They are not so attractive as we, but they don't know it. They seem enthralled with each other, and they never tire of arguing law or of playing at politics--not even at this supper. That's why the Tedd clan sent a representative to the party, a cocky young upstart named Glen Tedd.

"A toast!" cried Tedd, which was our cue to fill their glasses. We performed like clockwork. "To Sheba Charmayne! Now, there was a tough negotiator. We'll never see her like again. We Tedds thank God for that." He grinned. "We've done very well since her untimely demise."

All eyes shifted to Baylor, who didn't seem inclined to sip his drink. "Convenient that her escape shuttle was destroyed before she could use

it." Tedd winked at Baylor. "Otherwise, she would be sitting at the head of this table."

Baylor had no obvious reaction, but his gaze flicked to Ryan, who wasn't so good at schooling his expression. Tedd was going to die for what he had just said.

I wondered who else knew it. Ryan did, because it was his favorite sport. But I don't think Tedd did. I think he believed his clan was too powerful to suffer those sorts of consequences. He drank his wine, and demanded more. The party continued its dreary pace.

When the food and drink had been cleared from the table, Baylor and his guests moved inside, leaving us to stand at our posts. A group of lower-level Executives came into the garden. They were all clan members, but they had only slightly more status than the bureaucrats working in Titania's skin. I recognized one of them, Terry Charmayne. Though I had never spoken to him, I knew something of his personal history. Recently, he had appeared at our staging area on a regular basis, and I assumed he had become a useful liaison between Baylor and Security.

I watched him covertly. Ryan Charmayne thought of himself as a goodlooking fellow, but Terry actually was. Like most of the people in his family, Terry had olive skin, black hair, and black eyes. He was slim and well toned, too. But if I were objective, I'd have to say that Terry's good looks were partly a matter of demeanor. A face tends to be pleasant when the mind behind it is.

In my case, that may be less true.

Some of the less-favored Charmaynes resented the fact that they weren't invited to the fancy dinner, but I couldn't tell whether Terry felt that way. They stood for quite a long while before Terry decided they should move out of the rain and onto one of the covered patios not being used by the elite. They left us alone.

We stood patiently. All of us were experts at waiting. To entertain myself, I played gamelan music in my head: slow, courtly pieces for orchestras of gongs and cymbals. It seemed to fit the scene, and I found it entertaining. But as the minutes slipped by, and no one dismissed us, an idea began to form in my head. Those flowers I had always longed to see were just a meter away. I still couldn't see them, but I could smell them.

I took a slow step toward them. No one reacted. I took another. Altogether, it was four steps until I was no longer standing on the paving.

I knelt and reached blindly. My hands encountered something soft and fuzzy. I explored further and found the ground--the fuzzy things were growing out of the soil, so this was a plant I was touching. It was not at all what I expected a plant to feel like, with big, soft lobes and a central stalk that had clusters of other fuzzy things near the top.

I leaned over and smelled the stalk. It wasn't perfumed like the flowers in Baylor Charmayne's vases, but the aroma was pleasant.

Someone kicked me in the butt, not hard enough to hurt me, but firmly enough to get my attention. I looked over my shoulder and saw Terry Charmayne. "What do you think you're doing?" he said. "If someone sees you doing that, you could get terminated."

Terminated was an interesting word. I had a feeling he didn't mean fired.

Yet his tone was not unkind.

"Don't get curious," he said. "Just do your job and you'll be all right."

I stood and let my hands fall passively. "Yes, sir," I said in the Girl Friday voice.

One side of his mouth quirked in a sort-of smile. "Come on. I'll escort you to the Security lock. You may as well call it a day."

He led the way, so we all fell in behind him. I was able to study him more closely as we walked along. His clothing wasn't that fancy, and the superiority was almost completely absent from his demeanor. He was a midlevel Executive from a powerful family, yet he acted more like a Ship Officer. He saw us to the lock, waiting until he was sure we were safely through, then gave me a brisk, "Pleasant rest."

"Yes, sir." I didn't look back. Instead, I searched the networks for Terry Charmayne's recent footprints. He may become useful someday.

The other Servants walked quickly, eager to be done with their day and reclaim what they could of their senses. But Nuruddin slowed his pace until he was walking beside me. "What did it smell like?" he rasped in what was left of his real voice.

I had to think about it. "It smelled--green."

"Like tea?"

"Very much, yes, but--stronger than that. It was pungent. It was a living thing."

"Is that why you risked so much to smell it?"

"Yes."

Nuruddin was silent for a long moment. Then he said, "You are braver than I, Oichi. But you are no more curious."

We kept pace in companionable silence, until the others had disappeared ahead of us. I hoped Nuruddin was enjoying my company, but for my part, I was pondering the wisdom of asking him questions. Questioning someone can be an adequate method of gathering information, but they may ask you questions in return. Nuruddin had already warned me of his curiosity.

Before I could reach a conclusion, someone pulled the plug on our senses. I could see nothing but white void. My hearing was gone, too, without even the ringing that accompanies natural silence. I probed for a surveillance camera and linked with it. Nuruddin and I stood in the tunnel with two Executive boys who could not be more than twelve years old. They had eliminated themselves from our audio and visual feeds so we wouldn't know they were there. I hadn't smelled them at first, because the ventilation had blown their scent away from us, but now that they were close, my nose detected an undertone in their sweat that raised the hair on the back of my neck. They both held knives, and they grinned at Nuruddin, nudging each other as if to say, I dare you to do it....

Nuruddin's face was calm, but I could see concern trying to surface through the strict muscle controls that we Servants must endure to keep our demeanors serene. He must be wondering why our senses were being blocked. I doubted he would guess the truth until he felt the first slice. I would have to take him to the hospital once they let us go.

"I'm going to cut his lips off." The boy giggled. "And then I'm going to cut his nose off."

So no. Nuruddin would not be able to recover from this assault with some minor medical attention. I would have to intervene.

The order would have to originate from someplace outside the normal grid. I searched desperately, my mind racing along the network.

And suddenly I found an unknown pathway. I used it to trigger the alarm. Our hearing and eyesight returned as the klaxons sounded. "attention," warned a gigantic voice, "explosive decompression is imminent. all

personnel must evacuate tunnel h17 immediately. repeat..."

The two boys jumped as if they had received electric shocks when they lost control of our sensory feed. They forgot they were Executives facing Servants, and they raced away--though not before Nuruddin saw the knives they were brandishing. As soon as they were gone, the alarm cut off, along with the warning voice.

Nuruddin stared at me, his face stiff with shock. "Explosive decompression?" he croaked. "Is that even possible, this far in?"

I shrugged. "I guess it would be if something catastrophic happened."

"Like what?"

"I don't want to imagine it." Unfortunately, I didn't have to imagine, because I had seen fragmented Security footage of what had happened on Titania. "Anyway, it seems to have been a glitch."

"In the future," he said, "I guess we'd better stick with the others so we're not in here alone."

I nodded, and the two of us hurried down the final stretch of corridor to our staging area.

* * *

Servants are not allowed to socialize with each other when we're off duty. I went back to my quarters without seeing or speaking to a soul. I bathed, sipped nutrient broth, and bundled myself into my cubby. I had hoped to listen to more gamelan music, but I couldn't stop thinking about the remark Glen Tedd had made at supper.

Convenient that her escape shuttle was destroyed before she could use it.

Sheba Charmayne didn't make it off Titania. But like everyone else, I had assumed that disaster overtook her on the way to her escape shuttle. I never thought it had been sabotaged.

True, I knew she and Baylor despised worms. When Titania was destroyed, I suspected the two of them. I had even overheard some of their plotting, through my secret link. But I was still a child then, and what they had said at the time didn't make much sense to me. So instead of trying to figure it out, I recorded it.

I still had the recording. I had never replayed it, because I never heard them overtly say they were going to blow Titania up. What was it they had said?

How do we kill them before they figure out what we're up to? Sheba had asked. That was what got me to start listening.

But Baylor's answer didn't make sense. Couldn't we just dismantle them?

Use their components for something useful?

Dismantle? I thought. Components? It sounded as though they were talking about machines. But why would you talk about killing machines?

They're too complex for that, said Sheba, managing to sound impatient, even though she wasn't using her throat to speak. Too sophisticated. They have a self-defense system, and they would suspect what we were up to. No--if we want to destroy them, they can't appear to be our main targets. They can't appear to be our targets at all.

Back then, this was the point in their conversation when I began to lose interest. Their discussions had turned to inventories of supplies, energy consumption and production, that sort of thing. But now I realized they were talking about Titania's statistics in a particular sort of way; they were debating whether they could afford to sacrifice her, even though they never specifically said they were going to do that. These stats were incomplete, too, as if they had discussed them many times and no longer had the patience to go over them in detail. Amazingly, I almost lost interest again, almost stopped listening.

But then Sheba said, ... their pathway is not part of the known network....

When I triggered the alarm that saved Nuruddin, I had discovered a pathway outside the normal network. Now I had time to explore it and figure out what it was. I reached for it again, but it wasn't the same this time. A new link had appeared on it.

The link had no name. I touched it anyway.

<Awake,> said a voice in my head. <Orders?>

I was flummoxed. I hadn't rung the link, I had simply touched it--and now someone was talking to me.

<Orders?> repeated the voice, with relentless patience.

I tried to disengage from the link, but I couldn't. I felt alarmed. I couldn't just struggle; I needed to take action.

<Who are you?> I asked.

<Medusa,> came the reply.

The voice did not sound like any human voice I had ever heard, either inside or outside my head. It was unique. <Where are you?> I asked.

<Lucifer Tower.>

That sent a chill up my spine. Lucifer Tower was not a pressurized habitat--it was in the mysterious sensor array, at the leading edge of Olympia. Tech personnel no longer visited Lucifer Tower; it had its own repair drones. Yet something abided there, something with a voice that was almost machinelike--but not quite.

<I would like to meet you,> I said. It wasn't so impulsive a remark as it may seem.

Medusa touched me through the link. No one had ever been able to do that before. The secret part of my brain was stimulated, and I saw her face. She seemed too beautiful to be mortal, as if she were a mask. But then the mask spoke: <Oichi, your parents are dead. Titania is gone.>

<Destroyed by Baylor and Sheba Charmayne.>

<I shall honor your parents' wishes, and yours. We will collaborate.>

<How?>

<I will come to you when the time is right.>

I woke with a start. Had I fallen asleep and dreamed Medusa up? I looked for the link again. I couldn't find it.

Yet the pathway remained, and I traveled its length. Though it existed outside the known network, it could form links with that network at any juncture, then dissolve the link when the user was finished with it.

Medusa hid at the other end of that pathway. And she mentioned my parents. Had they known about her? How had she known about them? Was she one of the sophisticated machines Sheba and Baylor had talked about killing?

Did they destroy Titania and kill two hundred thousand people--just to get rid of machines like her?

My heart had been a burning coal since my parents died. But the anger didn't blind me; it gave me ideas about the secret link, my recordings of Sheba and Baylor, and possible uses for the biotech hidden inside my father's music database. My new plans were beginning to take shape.

But other people's plans were already in motion. And they had quite a head start on me.

Copyright © 2018 by Emily Devenport


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