Venus' Claws, Extended

I watched while the darkened side of Ceriphath glowed, dotted and dashed with a web of lights beneath the swirled clouds. A million humans, or something like that, living their short and mostly stupid lives; burning light like fireflies against the cold blackness of the sky and uncaring, cavernous space. I sat in my cockpit, knees bumping up against the cheap white ceramic of the dashboard, looking through the unconvincing window formed by a geodesic dome of monitors. They didn’t show anything like the reality of the outside world: their dynamic range failed them before they hit the true blacks or the dazzling highlights of outer space. They served their purpose, though. If I’d been anything less of a goddamn miser, after all, I wouldn’t have been able to weather this depression. If what I’d been doing the last ten years could be called weathering, and not just surviving.

Even out here among the numberless stars suspended in the infinite pit of space, humanity wasn’t free from the eternal oscillations of success and failure. Thanks to the financial morons, my trade route between Ceriphath and Rahmiel was all but dead, one foot in the grave and the other in the intensive care unit. All trade routes were dying, to a greater or lesser degree but this one had never been great— hardly even worth the time I was spending waiting here. I sat on the rough felt chair, writing my last journal entry into a simple electronic-paper tablet. I only use this shitty chair when I have nothing else to do but babysit the autopilot. It, also, is cheap, but it does the job beautifully. I don’t know why I keep a journal. It makes me feel like a fracking teenage girl sometimes, but it seems like the sort of thing the captain of a ship should do. The Shylock is damn old and I imagine, if its previous owners had kept similar journals, it’d contain a great many stories. I bought it a couple years before the depression, flush with cash and wanting to start a whole new life; make a fortune, maybe. Boy, even then I’d been cheap. Probably most of the stories this ship would’ve had would be boring, but a few would have to be badass. I’m hoping that I’ll stumble across one of those stories in my time. Make my dreams come true a little bit, even if I didn’t make a fortune, which doesn’t seem likely now. I plan to leave a copy of my journal with the ship if it ends up having anything interesting in it.

Finally, the trading station in geostationary orbit around this god-forsaken planet responds to my request to dock. Those lazy assholes couldn’t do anything on time if they wanted to, and thanks to union strikes and renegotiation, they don’t want to.

“Come in Shylock, this is Ceriphath Gate I. Your request to dock is denied.”

“What the frack? Why, Gate?”

“We don’t have space for your kind here. Its bad business in hard times. What with all the debts you’ve probably got, I doubt you could even pay the entrance fee.”

“And what kind would I be, brother?” I was trying to keep the vitriol (and profanity) out of my voice. It was a losing battle. That “brother” wanted to be something else. I’d already been waiting here for a week, and my food supplies were running low, and my wares were rotting in my ship’s hold.

“One of those star-prospectors. That’s the kinda ship you got, and don’t deny it. You’re the kind that put us in this depression. The banks loved you, until suddenly you can’t pay a goddamn thing because all the profitable systems ran out.”

“Well, you’ll be glad to hear that I was never one of them. I knew even before the news came in, too late thanks to the lightspeed-lag of communications, that we’d run out of all those golden systems. Hell, if the banks’d listened to me, we’d all be rich.”

“Sure. You expect me to gobble that up?”

I poked a few buttons, far to hard, taking my frustrations out on them. “Take a look at this,” I said.

A few seconds later, the Gate handler responded: “Okay that seems in order. It’ll still be a few days until we have space, one of our docking ports is scheduled to leave soon.”

Yeah, and when was the last time you stuck to schedule, I thought. You don’t have to worry about losing your jobs, you just get points for showing up. Making a living in these times was hard enough as it was, without other douchebags showing up to hinder you at every turn. I sat up and tapped a few commands into the autopilot, and disabled the nagging warning that popped up afterwards. The fusion engines hummed, a deep rumble purring to life like a resurrected lion. The ship dipped in, breaking stable orbit on the inner side— I knew exactly where I’d be directed to land once I go trough the Gate anyway.

“Cease this stupidity immediately, Shylock!” The static-y cry came through the communications panel, high end flattened out by compression.

“Shut up, motherfracker.” I said quietly, but loud enough for him to hear, before I shut off the connection. I didn’t need to hear a moment more of his evasive wining or self-righteous scolding. The ship’s engines roared, and now the planet was taking up every screen in front of me, making a sky of its own. I chuckled at the ironic joke— a sky made of land. Hah!

Eventually, my ship entered the atmosphere, glowing red plasma ribbons streaming off the front of my ship. The purple, white and dirty-yellow-streaked marble ahead dipped and bucked as the thin outer atmosphere messed with the non-aerodynamic bits of my ship, which were still in the process of retracting. She was made for atmospheric re-entry, certainly, but she hadn’t done it in awhile. There was an element of risk to this, more than I’d taken in awhile, but I needed to trade off my cargo before it spoiled. Times were hard, and I couldn’t afford a useless cargo-run. Nobody wants to smoke spoiled stimulants; that’s just not healthy. Not that smoking the fresh crap was healthy, exactly. It’d just be slightly more healthy. I lightly grasped the flying yoke, making a few small adjustments to the autopilot’s best-guess re-entry path. It was a good piece of software in space, but I’d been trained as a pilot back when I thought it was possible for a someone like me to get into the military, so I knew how to do a proper re-entry. Thank the big fairy in the sky I didn’t go in for a stimulant hobby. I’d probably steer myself into a mountain. The suckers that did go for it paid well, though. Guess that’s what happens when you’re physically dependent on the stuff.

When Shylock entered the thicker atmosphere, the boiling air currents threw my ship off into a bucking, uncontrollable spin, compounded by an unexpected sonic boom: I had begun to shed some speed along with the heat but not enough. I gripped the yoke as tightly as I could, bracing my legs and wrestling it with my entire body weight to force it to stay in a stable position, gee-forces dragging me this way and that but mostly forward thanks to the momentum I was losing. The ship creaked and shuddered, the black of space surrounding me deceptively, indicating that there should be no atmosphere, even though there was enough to give me hell. A little piece of outer armor ripped off with a shrieking sound as the planet hurtled toward me in the front hemisphere of the geodesic.

When my ship finally broke through the clouds, it was a shocking experience. The sea opened up beneath me, purple thanks to its flora and chemical makeup. The clouds seemed to adhere to the external hull, obscuring the view of some of the peripheral monitors in my display geodesic, and forming a corkscrew of dirty yellow against the black sky behind the ship. My braid felt heavy against my back as deceleration continued. Below, a volcanic island, composed of white rock and red molten lava, stood in the sea against the rolling purple waves like pimple. I realized, seconds before I passed over it, that the hot air currents would be a problem. Milliseconds later, the whole ship bucked up on one side, curling into a hair-raising spin. The yoke ripped itself out of my hands, shearing off most of the skin from my palms and leaving bloody marks on the grips. My entire body ached, the rotational spin only adding to the gee-forces acting on me. I could feel all the blood rushing from my head, and then to my head, and then out of it again. I was starting to black out, but I could see the spinning horizon approaching— the sea. I was going to crash into the sea. From this height, at this speed, it would be certain death.

I knew that this ship had old jet-based thrusters mounted around the hull, for desperate maneuvering during space-battles, but I didn’t know where the switches were. I forced my drooping, pressed head to look around the cockpit. Finally, I noticed a basically-unused, chrome row of switches: there, that was them! I didn’t have time to think much, but from the organization of the switches I guessed which ones were the wing-oriented ones. I flipped on the jets on the wing that had been destabilized, and the ship began to slow. Success, but not quite. Now I was flying upside-down, still headed arrow-straight into the ocean. I had to rotate the ship the other way, now. I flicked the other switches just as the ship rocketed to within a few meters of the surface. Slowly, radian by goddamn radian, the ship rotated upright. Finally, it reached ninety degrees to the vertical, just as one stubby wingtip touched the the water like a million-mile-an-hour knife. The ship jolted, but stayed steady, sending up a rainbow-ed spray of water. The autopilot complained about several maneuvering and operational parameters being exceeded, but there didn’t seem to be any damage that I’d have to worry about repairing.

I breathed a shuddering sigh of relief, and wiped the sweat from my face. That’d been way harder than I’d expected. I leveled the ship of, pointing it even with the horizon and towards the nearest landing base. Shouldn’t be more than a few hours of flying. Just enough time for my heart to settle down.

When I arrived at the ground port, it was all but empty. A few shitty, broken down ships still hung around the port; most of them even cheaper than mine, but a few star-hoppers that might’ve been expensive at one point. They were probably sticking around in a vain hope that some business would just fall their way. Lazy bums. Some of these people had been among those that’d caused the depression, both on the banker side and the prospector side. I knew better, of course then to expect good things to come to me; that’s why I hadn’t been one of them back in the day. Stuff didn’t come to you in life, you went and grabbed shit and held on like a banshee. I guided my ship over one of the docking platforms, its once-reflective but now burnt and scarred burgundy face displaying barely-visible directions for a proper landing. I already knew how to do that crap. As I lowered it carefully and expertly (if I do say so myself) down, the ship extended its landing gear with a whine, the descent adding to the burn marks already on the ground. When the ship’d finished landing, I kicked a foot-petal switch with my foot and the old door creaked open onto the soupy, muggy atmosphere of Ceriphath’s biggest city. I wondered, momentarily, as I always did when I visited this godforsaken mining planet, if the atmosphere was actually breathable. My forearm-mounted aide assured me that it was.

“Biggest” wasn’t a high bar to clear for a city, here. I’d been squeezed out of all the best routes even before this route had become exactly bad, thanks to one of the bigger families. They’d taken a dislike to me, and who the frack knew why. That was just how it was. The government was weakened by the thin spread of humanity, police cruisers barely capable of covering the entire volume, sometimes with single ships assigned to entire AUs of space. The whole apparatus survived on profit, too, thanks to a shortsighted rule by some old people in the distant past. So when it came to the powerful, big, rich families (who’d all but died out in riots prefacing the depression) the government had had to listen up.

It was a short walk from the landing pad to the repurposed house that served as a customs building in this mining town. An old sign was still affixed to the top, neon and inexpertly assembled. It read: “Mac’s Gentleman’s Club.” What an unfortunate place for me to end up— at least, that’s what I’d thought when I’d started here. Now, it wasn’t much better than anywhere else. When I entered, I found myself standing in a faded and dirty office. Or, it was clearly intended to be an office, the illusion broken by the pink walls, raised platform it stood on, and the pole stuck right through the middle. The ugly plastic desk that the clerk sat behind made me want to throw up. My flight boots sunk into the chipped and broken remains of the tiles that had probably, at some point, made up its floor. The clerk in front of me looked more bored than overworked or tired, and he was pretty healthy for someone living on a broken, depression-wracked world like this one. He could probably thank his cushy union job for that. His pudgy form seemed to meld into the folding chair he was sitting on, and the incredibly old, outdated capacitive static-paper he was beginning to disappear into the folds of his hands. I was already beginning to hate him before he began his slowest possible imitation of a competent human being, stumbling over his questions and miswriting entries into his endless goddamn forms. His buzz-cut hair revealed a receding forehead that seemed appropriate. What a caveman. Eventually, what felt like neigh-on thirty years later, he was finished, and I was in. He impatiently waved me out of the building, as if he had something else to do.

I glanced at a sign on the wall, as I left. It was made out of real, old fashioned paper, a thing that was as cheap as dirt most places, but rarely used. The sign had a list of the various sellers of the raw materials that made up this place’s best business. I’d start with the first two, they looked promising, even though their anonymized names screamed “boring” to me.

  1. Standard Ore
  2. Associated Hydrogen
I crunched out, my leather boots chipping up the floor even more, but nobody seemed to care that the place was in disrepair. I could see peeling paint, plastic rafters collapsing out of the roof, overturned or splintered furniture— what used to be tables and chairs. A few marks in cash floated around on the thick air currents, largely useless now. A single mark used to be able to buy you a meal. Now it wasn’t worth the paper it was printed on. I pushed out through the door, its one remaining hinge (out of three) making a long, frustrated shriek.

I walked out onto the airstrip again, considering my options. First, I had to call up the dealer and make sure the stimulant got to him. That’d make me a pretty penny for sure, but after that, I’d have to see what I could milk out of this planet, since I was here and neither fusion pellets nor Damocles fuel was cheap. I figured I’d check out the raw materials industry. There were still a few places in the Sovereignty that did heavy industry. The sorts of places that’d want metallic hydrogen, for instance.

I clip-clopped along the hard surface of the landing strip, until I reached the monorail stationed beside it. Ceriphath’s government had kept it running the last few years, even as it was losing money, in the hopes that it would encourage business to continue. The blackened and blasted form of the old travel office was a little beyond the dull metallic sheen of the rail, practically disappearing into the yellow tinge of the air, nestled in the rocky and uneven terrain. A fire had struck it a year ago and nobody’d been able to afford to repair it. I looked down, between the edge of the monorail and the edge of the landing pad, down into the chasm below. There was not a single surface on this planet of more than a few meters that was flat. It was impossible to build anything here without first making your own land, or building it on stilts above the existing, unusable, Lucifer-designed terrain. The monorails stilts disappeared into the soupy yellowness below, flanked by the rock faces of the cliffs that the entire structure was built over. I’d never had a problem with heights, but I’d been told that this kilometer-or-more drop made the sensitive go mad. I slender bridge crossed the space, from the pad to the station attached to the monorail’s track. It looked flimsy and its rust indicated years of disrepair. The monorail was running, sure, and in the government’s mind that was enough; but the stuff around it? Nobody cared. I didn’t care either. I stepped back a few feet, and with a running jump, sailed over to the other side, landing with an undignified crash on the other side, on the station-platform. The hole-filled roof for people waiting for the train loomed above me, white light shining in shafts through. The air was thick enough here that you could see light’s paths. It was disorienting at first. I climbed to my feet, rubbing my knees and massaging my ankle. I think I’d twisted it.

Far to the left, there came a warning beep, extended and tonally shifted by the vector of the approaching emitter, affixed to the front of the monorail train. I saw the sleek, bullet-like passenger car approach, magnetically suspended above the rail to avoid friction. It, too, was somewhat dirty and rusted, but not nearly as bad as the bridge, which I’d refused to trust with my life. A few seconds later, the train glided to a stop beside the platform, and I stepped aboard, using my armband to pay the fee. It would’ve been considered exorbitant a few decades ago, but thanks to the only true god, inflation, it was now pretty reasonable. The seats were dirty, and I didn’t dare think what’d been smeared on them, but I just took care not to touch them with any skin, and sat down. A few hours later, I’d been carted from the landing pad on the outskirts of Ikleadale, to the city center.

I wish I could describe this city as “bustling” or “vibrant” or all those other words you hear people describe cities with, but in all honestly it was the polar opposite of all those things. Borne up by hundred-meter long stilts and a horizontal webbing of platforms which served both to hold the city together in storms, and to connect the buildings so one could pass between them, it hovered in an unevenly circular, dreary rock valley, its edges, top, bottom, left and right disappearing into a thick fog. The atmosphere was even thicker here, thanks to the out-gassing of natural eruptions from the base of the valley. At the heart of the city, where the monorail stopped, a huge cylindrical factory took in the gasses and converted them to energy. It was a chemical reaction beyond my very basic scientific abilities, but apparently it was very inefficient and unreliable, but also free. It was supplemented with other energy sources, but not many, most opt-in for the rich. The central plaza was built around this factory, simple featureless platforms built in concentric rings around it, affixed its sides in multiple tiered levels. Ramps and walkways connected these rings to a million tiny shops, all designed for tourism that never came and erected when this was a boom-town. God, I can’t even imagine when that’d been. All those shops were closed and dark now. I picked one, off to the corner of the mid level tier, that’d had its sign removed. I walked furtively up to the building and knocked on the door. I could hear rustling within in response, as someone made their way through the door, and a heavy smell of stimulants.

The man that greeted me at the door was my intermediary with the kingpin, who didn’t ever show his face. The precaution, on his part, wasn’t really necessarily these days— Ceriphath’s government had contracted a serious case of leprosy, and didn’t do much these days. The gap-toothed messenger smiled at me, a black-tinted smile between a scant mustache and a disturbingly long and thin goatee and neck-beard combo. He hid his gangrene-infested arm behind his back, as if he thought I didn’t remember seeing it from last time, and reached out with his other hand. I handed him the keys to a hidden drop-site at the city limits, on the rim of the valley, where I’d already commanded some other contacts to drop the stimulants. They’d transfer them from my ship, which was programmed to murder them without hesitation if they tried anything like stealing it or accessing any of the other cargo containers, to the drop site. I couldn’t be seen with them, since I was a spacefaring citizen of the Sovereignty. That’d be unfortunate for my health. The man grabbed the keys, nodded shortly, and motioned to a suitcase. I slowly bent forward and grabbed it, making no sudden movements. I opened it a crack to check. Sure enough, it was the proper amount of gold. I nodded and turned away, walking down one of the ramps to a lower ring of the central plaza. I had a few days to find some business prospects.

A few weeks later, I’d basically cleaned up the sorry planet— of anything that was worth anything, anyway. Most of it was the last of the raw materials they’d produced before the combination of no buyers and overpaid union workers had crushed most of their businesses. The planetary government had been a pretty strong one, like most local governments before the depression hit, and it’d put in place strong-arm union laws. It had only doubled down on them when times got hard. Gotta protect those proletariat, they’d probably said, while sitting in their million-dollar chateaus. I’d bought the wares from a combination of perfectly legitimate, but desperate, sellers, to a series of increasingly shady crooks who’d stolen or murdered to come into possession of the stuff and were looking to make a profit on it. It wasn’t worth much to them, here, and I was the only person working this route, so I drove a hard bargain. Next, I planned set out for Earth, where they hadn’t gotten a lot of trade in raw materials recently, to see if I could pedal some of this junk on an unsuspecting merchant. They’d probably go for it— I’d heard there was still some heavy industry going on there. A few decades ago, before the depression, I’d heard rumors about a serious attempt at building a whole new fleet of ships. They’d used some extremely exotic materials, but before they’d gotten far they’d had to take the whole operation down. I’d actually seen a few instances of their logo, a flattened version of Venus, shaded so it looked round, on a few of the crates that I’d picked up from the more dubious customers— probably earmarked for that project and never actually sold.

It was a long fracking flight to Earth, and I didn’t appreciate the downtime; at least they let me dock immediately. The silver and white wagon-wheel Gate spun gently in the dead of night, its edge just kissing the Earth’s curve where it faded into space. An operator inside the giant station locked onto my ship’s autopilot and guided my ship in. I sat back in the chair, feeling it creak and tip back, and watched the wheel grow. It started out barely the size of a thumbtack in the distance, but as it grew more details began to become visible. It was a white torus, probably made of a combination of metal and ceramic, latticed with silver reflective windows which shaded those inside from the blinding sun when the Gate floated to the sunward-side of earth. It was not in geostationary orbit, but instead floated in a geosynchronous orbit above the prime meridian, spinning around Earth in a complete circle with a frequency of a little over twenty hours. The zero-gravity hub in the center, several kilometers across, a truly huge feat of deep-space engineering, bristled with docking clamps and indents for smaller, more fragile ships to dock within the hub itself. If it had been directly attached to the eight spokes which radiated inwards from the outer ring, it would have spun very fast, making it difficult to dock there. As it was, it instead used a spinning socketed vertical ring to indirectly connect to the spokes, allowing passage from the hub to the spokes every couple minutes. I could see, through the open sides of the spokes, pods running up and down, carrying fifteen, twenty passengers each. This Gate was the first one ever constructed by humanity, designed for an entire empire’s worth of traffic, and it showed. It had been built during the height of the boom, and Earth, being the major source of plants and food, as well as heavy industry (via Luna), for the entire empire, had been able to keep it in good repair. Even when its citizens weren’t doing well, the Sovereignty was able to keep its capital world in good health.

When my ship had mated with an airlock umbilical, and the docking clamps had settled carefully onto its sides, a basic AI with a bright female voice greeted me with a cheery advertisement: “Welcome to Earth Gate I! We hope you have a pleasant visit on Earth. What is your business here?”

“I’m selling raw materials.”

“Okay. Have a good day.”

I squeezed out of the cockpit, down the neck and into the main body of my ship, where it lead out into the engine room, my cabin, and the airlock. The cargo boxes were only accessible from the outside, useful to prevent accusations of stealing. I palmed the release button for the airlock, and it opened. I stepped through, allowed it to close behind me, and then immediately opened the other end— there wasn’t any atmospheric difference, so I didn’t need to be careful.

When I stepped out into the main hub, I noticed that only one other ship was unloading at the time I was. A few men in simple business suits floated out of their ship, a nondescript gray civilian corvette. Designed to be nice to fly, and nice to fly in, but not that unusual. One of the men held a thin black book, or something like that. They glanced at me once, but none of them gave me a second look. They floated to one of the exits, waited for the light to turn great, and stepped through into a pod. I followed them out, not out of any desire to see where they were going, but because there were eight different pod entry doors, and I had to choose one. Might as well chose the one others had taken.

The ring was filled with green, almost fake-looking vegetation, kept in high maintenance condition with automated systems that didn’t require much money to maintain. The air was more generous with its oxygen then on my ship, and it felt richer and easier to breath. Probably something to do with there being plants. In any case, it was a little difficult to walk under the three-fourths gee. I had grown used to zero-gee in the time it took to make it back to Earth. The Damocles made travel fast, but not too fast. It never got convenient. I scouted out a cheap hotel which still made some business up here, and booked a room for the night. It was pretty clean, a rounded-rectangle of a room that had very simple furnishings.

I took a shuttle down into the atmosphere the next day, fairly well rested. The talking heads on the news monitor in the shuttle spoke of some obscure disagreement between a general in the military and the police— I didn’t listen to it much. Nowadays, the politicians had largely lost most of the power, and the military and police force were the two major powers. They spent most of their time butting heads and comparing sizes, looking for a way into power. Beat the other guy, that kind of stuff. It wasn’t that interesting to me. The shuttle’s atmospheric entry was a bit bumpy, and it left me a little nauseated when it finally touched down in New York.

The first candidate in the airport directory who looked likely to have the desire to buy raw materials was part of Hadeon Manufacturies. They looked pretty rich for these times, and had a few contracts. Most of their contracts they’d extended into the indefinite future, short on materials, investment money, and labor; that was fine— they had one active job that looked like it might be able to use my shit. I called up the secretary and set up an appointment for that day. I was tired, sure, from the flight, but I didn’t really have anything else to do. She assigned a merchant from their acquisitions department to meet with me. I traveled through the city, admiring the ruins of once-amazing and ambitious architecture. Pyramids, Vs that swept into the sky like boomerangs and seemed to hover on inadequate supports, giant metal-and-glass domes; you name it, Earth’d built it. They’d grown complacent in their riches, and it had hurt the Sovereignty, but those riches were also helping them ride out the consequences.

The tiny merchant who’d been assigned to survey and attempt to buy my meager wares on was a nervous, suspicious creature, only rivaled in his dilly-dallying powers of annoyance by his twin brother.

“I’m not sure we need stuff like this,” he said, moments after I’d walked into his ground-floor office with a manifest.

“I have a list of the jobs Hadeon is doing, and railgun manufacturing definately needs ferrous metals.”

“Well, okay but we’ve got plenty.”

“Okay, I’ll move on then.”

“Well, maybe we might need them… For something else, of course.”

Just make up your damn mind, I thought.

“You know,” he said, in a slightly different tone of voice. This tone made me nervous— I’d had some experience with it. “I might be convinced—” he winked here “— to buy your wares. Maybe some alternative services?” He leaned his thin and angular bulk forward, leaning towards me from across the table.

His brother, standing behind his chair and a little to the left, seemed to take a hint from this. The wrong hint. He began making advances as well. I didn’t have to fracking take that sort of shit, and so I didn’t. I stood up right then and there, turned around, taking my inventory with me, and left.

Eventually, about eight companies down my list, I’d found a smaller organization, AE Engineering, who’d accepted my inventory, finally. I made a bit of money of the deal, and the CEO himself had met with me. He’d seemed nice enough. The profits just about covered the fuel ticket here, the hotel, and the meals I was eating. I decided to go looking for some more involved jobs. There’d have to be some work for a perfectly good ship, wouldn’t there?

The streets of Earth’s cities were cracked and dirty, left to rot by a government and population almost completely crushed. The tan surfaces of the sidewalks were more negative space between cracks and weeds than actually surfaces themselves, and the once-black roads were graying with wear and age, uneven and broken by the overgrown trees that were wilting from lack of maintenance. There were homeless everywhere, crouching in corners and under bridges. They wore the eternal uniform of their species: tattered clothes too warm for the ambient weather, and carried trash bags of their possessions, which were largely indistinguishable from actual trash. They loitered in every corner, too strong in numbers and too inconvenient for the overtaxed police to attempt to move them along. The lucky ones lived in disintegrating cardboard huts, separating themselves from the human waste, of both the organic and inorganic kinds, which was lying everywhere. Stimulant needles and bags of further feces lay in the gutters between the road and the sidewalk.

The blue sky above seemed to echo the heat of the sun, so that even in the shade, or where the sun wasn’t visible, the heat was inescapable. The road ahead and behind seemed to ripple like water thanks to the heat-distorted air, and crows and vultures wheeled above in the wispy-clouded sky. I trudged my way through the spectacular monument to the misery of neglected humanity, peering up into the distance in an attempt to avoid eye contact and viewing the sorrow that the world was drenched in. Apart from all this, though, in the bright and gleaming towers that stood above the dirty landscape, a few of the spectacularly lucky or intelligent had managed to preserve something of what they’d had before. No one had made it through entirely untouched, but there was occasionally a fortune that could weather the storm— that was where the business was. I forded my way through the fecomatter and waste that lay strewn along the dusty streets, a metal briefcase clutched tightly in my hand. It had most of my money, transferred to gold, a currency almost anyone could accept. Eventually, I reached one of the city’s central spires, a two kilometer-tall building which spiraled up into the sky like a DNA model made of glass and chrome. Its once impressive skin was dirty and cracked now, windows bashed in and the filth of the street creeping up the sides, blown by the wind. Above a certain level, however, the disrepair faded away, and although neglect had allowed it to become somewhat degraded, if I just looked at those upper parts I could easily imagine the wonder that the tower had been in the old days.

I walked carefully past the beggars and squatters stationed out front of the building, up the marble steps now crushed and cracked, with a few blocks missing, and stopped at the stainless steel door. It’d clearly been put in place instead of sliding glass doors, to avoid the riots and burglaries that occasionally happened in big cities. The entire bottom floor, in fact, had steel shutters installed in front of the glass windows, giving the impression that the tower was a great mutilated finger, pushing up towards the sky and passing through a wedding-ring. I passed my universal I.D. card through a scanner set into the shutter beside the door, a cheap affair— it was practically made of duct tape and hope, having clearly been rebuilt after some attempt to break in. I stood for a minute, waiting for the clerk within to review the I.D. and decide to admit me— or not. I caught the unsettling eyes of several lowlifes watching me, and I stared back at them without backing down. I could feel the cold metal of my slugthrower in the small of my back; they could probably guess I was armed, and unless they were high right now (and even then) wouldn’t attempt an assault.

When the light in the card reader finally blinked green and a little buzzing sound emerged, I was slightly relieved. A split second later, the lock on the big door clicked, and I pulled it open with a have and stepped inside. The lobby was empty, but at the far end, behind an over-sized desk intended for several receptionists, a young man tapped away quietly at a computer terminal. He looked up at me with mild surprise when I walked in, clearly not expecting someone, but not checked-in enough to really care. I walked through the lobby to the desk, my boots click-clacking against the granite floor. I hadn’t really thought this through much, but most of the business networks and most of my contacts had withered away by now. Door-to-door was really the only option. I clunked down my briefcase onto the desk.

“Do you know if there’s anyone here looking for goods transportation or trading? Anything you could use a good ship for.”

The kid eyed me. “I’m not sure. Are you with those guys that passed through here a minute ago? We had to throw them out.”

“No, I’m not. I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Alright then. Let me check with the residents. I don’t really speak for everyone here so I can’t just tell you right off.”

He made a few phone-calls with an earpiece (itself quite expensive, alone) and sent a few messages on his computer, and then looked back up at me. “It might take awhile for them to reply. You should probably go wait somewhere.”

I nodded, gave the boy my contact info, and left. With a nod. Before I had quite stepped out of the building, he shouted after me: “One last thing! There aren’t many hotels around here, but you’ll want to avoid those guys I told you about. Don’t pick the one close to here.”

I nodded, thanking him, and left. The kid was probably being paranoid. I’d seen the guys he was probably talking about, and they hadn’t seemed dangerous to me. Whatever.

I checked out a few more buildings and office-spaces that day. They were all mostly empty, accurately reproducing the impression of a ghost town. Usually, I was either turned away at the door, or politely told by the clerk that the single customer that still holed up there was uninterested in doing multiplanetary business. I hadn’t expected Earth to be a paradise, but it was still unusually discouraging —more than I’d’ve expected— to see how far Earth had fallen. This whole idea was a pretty inefficient plan, really, but who cares? I had to find something to do, and I had enough money from the last stimulant run to take care of me for awhile. Worst came to worst, I could go be an enforcer for one of the perimeter planets— they always needed volunteers.

That night, I holed up in one of the few cheap but still running hotels. I’d meant to ignore the clerk’s over-worried advice, but it just so happened that the hotel near where my day’s wanderings brought me was pretty far from the helix tower— almost definetly farther away than the “closest hotel.” I wondered what those guys had done to get the kid so upset. Who knows? Maybe the threatened one of the tenants. This hotel was pink on the outside, a truly unfortunate color choice initially which had only grown more unfortunate as time went on: it grew more and more chipped and faded and ugly. The building itself was a low, squat, wide, and hideous structure, complete with a fake-Victorian facade. I wondered why they’d chosen that. After the Neo-Reactionary uprising a century ago, that style left a bad taste in most people’s mouths. I guess they just weren’t trying when they designed it (I could be sure it wasn’t a N-R sympathetic establishment by several clues, including the presence of a bar). Inside, it was loud and the stench was thick, but it was somewhere to crash and my ship was too far off to get back to in a reasonable amount of time.

When I walked in the door, I noticed a few men sitting on the high-chairs at the bar eyeing me. Not sexually, but as if they’d been told to look for someone and were just checking to see if I was that person. After a few seconds they noticed me returning their look, and turned away. I got the impression I wasn’t who they were looking for. I checked in at the lobby beside the bar and headed straight upstairs to my room. Room 666. Ha. As I sat on the bed, I undid my hair and decided I’d just leave it in the morning. No one really cared about your appearance, anymore. Plus, my wide-brimmed hat would hide the mess if it got really bad. As I went to sleep, it occurred to me that the Ceriphath space-dock hadn’t decided to do anything about my unauthorized landing. Eh, they probably had enough on their hands.

The next morning, my compad only had a single call on it— from the first tower I’d scoped out, in fact. The yellow receptionist had turned out to be my only good lead. I noticed, when I turned on my compad to check the alerts, that a strange symbol was nestled in the upper right corner, indicating who the hell knew what. I made my way out of the hotel, through the bar and onto the street, passing the men at the bar again. It was easy to imagine they’d just sat there slowly drinking all night. I headed off to the tower, avoiding the prying eyes of the homeless and the prying hands of the gutter-trash thieves. Beggars stood at every corner, with their everlasting “Good lady, spare some change?” It made me want to take what they’d already gotten off some pliable passers-by. After a quite the trip, I arrived at the tower. I’d misconstrued the distance between it and my hotel what with all the twisting in my route the day before. The door-panel let me in, after checking my I.D., and the receptionist told me a business partner of the firm that owned the building wanted to see me. I stepped into the overly-ornate granite and gold elevator. It was in pristine condition, and every surface shined. I almost felt out of place, getting my dust and dirt on it. This ostentatious show of riches seemed out of place, and all the more ridiculous when juxtaposed against its old and cracking surroundings. It rode its track around the spiraling curves of the helix-shaped building, its transparent side allowing me to watch through the windows as first what was left of the common city fell away, and then the other towers, and then the clouds. The building was obviously pressurized, and so was the elevator. I could feel my ears pop as we climbed.

The office where I met the businessman was as ostentatious as the goddamn elevator, and he became all the more of a jackass in my mind when he stepped out looking well-fed and wearing a clearly recently pressed and cleaned pinstripe suit. What he wore, his stature and build, all of it seemed normal— except one thing that stood out: he was wearing a porcelain mask! I decided to ignore it, for now. If it came up, or became an object of interest at some point, I’d ask, but for now better to leave it be. As he led me into his office, it occurred to me that it was one thing to hold on to your wealth— that, I admired. But the asshole had to show it off while the rest of humanity scraped by a living? He had business, though, so I slapped a shit-eating grin on my face, adjusted my posture, and stepped forward and curtsied as I was “supposed” to. He stepped toward me, and gently, almost condescendingly, shook my hand before motioning for me to sit down. His side of the desk that dominated the office was elevated, and the seats which his visitors had to sit in were deceptively lower, giving him an elevated air of power. Or, that was the intention.

“I’d rather stand, thanks.”

“Sure, as you wish.” He said, before sitting in his chair and putting his feet up. His voice was disguised via a voice modulator, almost definitely embedded in the mask. It was unsettling staring at a too-pale but lifelike imitation of a face, which didn’t move when he spoke. The modulator gave his voice a disturbingly aggressive robotic quality. “So,” he began, “I hear you’ve got a ship and are looking for something to do with it. I’ve got a job for you, miss.”

“Well, let’s hear it.”

He nodded and pushed some papers across from the desk. I bent down and picked them up. “Those are a fake transponder-code I want you to put on your ship. Then here’s some fake I.D., and a few other things.”

“That’s a lot of secrecy, boss. Whaddya want me to haul?”

“That’s for me to know. Don’t you worry about it.”

“Well, this is gonna cost you. I’m thinking, two thousand kilomarks in gold.”

The man leaned back minutely. I’d gotten pretty damn good at reading people, and this read as frustration to me. It wasn’t a hard thing to guess, though: I’d thrown an absolutely ridiculous price at him.

“That’s fine. Just do the job.”

Wait a minute, that didn’t seem right. I knew he probably couldn’t afford a price like that, especially in gold. What was he trying to do? He must be desperate… yeah. Trying to get rid of some shit he ended up saddled with at an inconvenient time. I could probably raise the price more.

“Okay, how about two thousand, five hundred?”

“You’ve got yourself a deal.”

I couldn’t believe it. The boob was going to actually take me up on this? This was the jackpot of a lifetime.

“Alright, mister. Where’s the thing I need to haul?”

“Right here. I want you to take it to Seraphiel, they’ll pay you double what I paid if you get it there.” he pressed his hand onto a gilt-edged biometric scanner, a black-glass plate on the desk, and a drawer slid open on his side with a pneumatic hiss. He took out a thin black box, about the side of a slender paperback book. I had a sudden flash of memory: it was what the men arriving just before me had been carrying! That was interesting. It had a single marking on the front, a gold-inset circle with a little arc cut out, to make it clear that it was a rotating sphere. I wasn’t exactly familiar with that logo, but it did remind me of something. It was an old research project logo, for a secret military blacksite that’d been shut down before the depression. I recalled that they hadn’t made anything particularly interesting, mostly failed spaceflight prototypes. I wasn’t clear on what the material was that it was made of, but when he handed it to me, it was perfectly smooth and slippery like it and my fingers were repelling magnets. He nodded for me to go, and I turned and left, gripping the box carefully.

As I exited the building, I noticed something odd about the homeless people: they’d begun sitting on the steps of the helix building, and some of them were looking at me with more then usual interest. I quickly jogged down the too-long steps, trying to avoid eye-contact or seeming to notice the change. As I turned the corner, around a low, single story shop building that was now empty, I turned briefly and saw two of the homeless get up and run away. This wasn’t good. I felt goosebumps stand up on my arms. A little dump of adrenaline made my muscles tense up and shiver, but I tried to walk normally. I had to return to my hotel to check out and pick up my money, and then I would head straight for my ship.

As I walked down the street, I noticed that where there had been no people before, a few business-dressed men loitered. This ordinarily wouldn’t have concerned me, but after what I’d just seen, it did. I wasn’t sure if I was being paranoid or not, but I made an effort to hurry on, taking quick and furtive glances around me, keeping an eye on my surroundings. I made a quick turn into an alleyway, a shortcut to the hotel— that was a mistake. One of the men followed me in, his dark suit blending in to the deep shadows: the alley was covered above by a bridge between the two buildings that made up its walls. I sped up to a run, and arrived at the other side a minute before my stalker could reach it. I looked left and right, my breath panting in my ears, and saw an old bus that had just stopped at a nearby station. I ran over to it, and climbed on, slipping the driver some money as I did. Even if the bus didn’t lead where I needed to go, hopefully it would loose my tail. Just as I’d started walking backwards into the bus, the man dashed out of the alley, turning back and forth with totally undisguised searching. The bus started, making a guzzling sound and then its engine booming to life. At that moment, any hope that this would work as an escape tactic died— the man looked up, through the bus window and right at me. This was not going to be a good day.

As the bus powered away, the man started running. As he ran, his pitch-black business suit, which seemed to absorb all light, began to shift and change. At first, as I stared out the bus’ rear window, it was almost subliminal: a slight shift or waver in its form, inconsistent with the nature of regular cloth. Then, as its shape changed further, it became more obvious, and surreal. His clothing pieces were merging into a single suit. By now, he was at an all-out sprint, legs a blur, flattened hands pumping in quick arcs, his face contorted by the effort, grimacing. A part of me knew it was impossible for him to catch up with the bus, which was swiftly picking up speed, but a part of me was convinced that this man would. As he ran, the suit reformed itself into a bulky bodysuit, portions clearly thicker as armor, and other portions thinner to allow motion. It was still completely pitch black, and a second later, a matte-black helmet formed around his head, first thin black tendrils that reminded me of spider legs, and then a shiny black ovular surface. Shoes formed over his feet, and as they did, I noticed a thick reinforcing structure forming around his legs. What was the most surreal about the whole sight, was the fact that he was still sprinting, keeping up a pace that was already clearly at his limits, and the limits of a normal human being.

Presently, the bus made a turn, onto a dingy and narrow street. As he turned the corner in pursuit, the man reached a near-impossible tilted angle. Now, he was beginning to gain, the old bus’ top speed having been reached. I looked ahead at the driver, and then at the route map above him— damn it! The bus didn’t look likely to stop anytime soon. I got up, unstable from the motion of the vehicle, and walked as quickly as I could to the front. I waited until we had turned another corner, and this side of the bus was obscured from the pursuer. The man looked up at me, clearly not having noticed the creature following us, with confused eyes. Then he saw that I was opening the bus doors.

“No miss! Don’t do that!”

I didn’t answer, and pried them open, and jumped out. For a split-second, as I fell from the side of the bus, I thought I could stick the landing. That was before the speed of the entire affair impressed itself upon me. I’d remembered to jump in the opposite direction that the car was moving, but that wasn’t enough. I had to tuck and roll. I’d seen this done before, but even under perfect circumstances a stunt like this would almost definitely get you killed. Plus, I’d never done it before. An instant just before I hit the ground, almost too late to do it, I tucked my body into a tight, clenched ball; at the same time, I brought my chin to my chest, hugging it there with adrenaline fueled strength, and brought my arms and legs close to my body. This was going to hurt.

At the instant my balled body hit the ground, I nearly blacked out with the pain. The part of the road we’d been traveling on had been loose gravel, formed from a cheap road that hadn’t been repaired since before the depression. I bounced once, feeling the pain impact through my shoulder and into my nervous system like a sledgehammer. I screamed and screamed, letting out my fear and pain. When I landed again, I landed on my leg. I started crying, the tears whipping out of the corners of my eyes as I rolled to a stop.

When I finally did stop, I lay there, crying, panting and occasionally screaming again. When my sight had returned, and muscle control with it, I looked up. I’d landed behind an overgrown bush from the island in the middle of the road, and the black creature had continued chasing the bus. I got up slowly, pushing myself to my feet and forcing my legs under me, feeling my broken shoulder and ribs cry out at the motion. It was possible my leg was broken too, but when I tried to place weight on it, it seemed only sprained. My luck was both horrible and amazing today.

As it turned out, I was only a few blocks from the hotel, and as I limped in the door, a few guys from behind the bar rushed out to help me to a chair. A few called a doctor, and a few tried to tend to me. When the doctor arrived, it turned out my guess was correct. My ribs were broken, as well as my shoulder. He was going to take me in and get me a cast and shit, but I didn’t have time for that. He did what he could, put a stabilizing exoskeleton on my shoulder, and I limped up to my room, grabbed my stuff, and headed out.

As I sat on a bus back to the landing pad where my ship was, I heard a commotion in the back, and turned. The man who’d been chasing me was lying in one of the seats. For a second, I panicked, before I saw that his front was drenched in blood, his suit only partially formed around him. He’d clearly been shot before he could attempt to get at me again. By who? I turned and looked around, before I noticed a nondescript man in the backseat, also lying dead, stabbed with a shard of pure black. As I noticed all this, the bus screeched to a stop. The bus driver was shocked, and wanted to stop to get the bodies off his bus, but I paid him a couple kilomarks and he drove on.

The return to my ship was uneventful, but I couldn’t keep myself from constantly checking over my shoulder; a creeping sense of being watched haunted me.

Flying the route to Seraphiel was boring as frack, and all I had to entertain me was movies and books I’d seen before, and the little black box. I’d tried to do some research on the networked computer in my ship, about it or about the organization that I thought had created it, but nothing of particular relevance had shown up. That made sense. It’d been acting a little strangely, come to think of it. When I jumped to the edge of this solar system, it’d seemed to distort almost imperceptibly, both just before and just after the jump. Now it seemed to be melting a little. I was starting to suspect that it was made of the same material as my pursuer’s suit from Earth. Some kind of nanomaterial or intelligent self-assembling material, maybe? Anyway, I was so lonely, enduring the flight in from the safe edge of the system, that when I received a communications hail, I welcomed it with relief. It could be Satan himself and I’d have tried to make conversation with ’im.

“Enter braking pattern immediately!” the voice crackled in on the tightbeam line, without warning or preface.

“Excuse me, what in hell did you just ask me to do?” I asked, putting some force into my words. If they were bandits, my easiest way out was putting on a brave face. “I have no intention of doing anything of the sort!”

In response, I heard an alert beep: their weapons were powering up. I spun a dial, and the front hemisphere of the viewing geodesic zoomed in, showing a long, needle-like enforcer-class. “We won’t ask again. Begin braking pattern and wait for hard-contact docking.”

I didn’t have much of value aboard, besides that stupid box, but these were hard times. Who knew, they could just be after the ship. I didn’t have the resources to spare, though. I kicked in the thrusters on the bow of my ship, as if complying with their order, slowing the ship down slightly, but before too much happened I added in some commands to the attitude control, pitching the ship forward. The ship flipped at what must have approached six gs, pressing me deeply into the padded seat as the entire cockpit formation rotated on its gyroscopic stabilizers. When the ship’s pitch had rotated through the horizontal, past where the original reverse-facing thrusters had been a second ago, I punched the bow thrusters to full speed. Before they could react, I was rocketing backwards past them, just above their cockpit bulge. They engaged their attitude control quickly, flipping and spinning into a pursuit formation, but I had caught them off guard and it was a few seconds before they could acquire a weapons lock again. Meanwhile, I was flying with the front end of my ship facing towards them. What they hadn’t known, when they’d messed with me, was that I was a paranoid bitch and had loaded my ship with way too many weapons when times had been good.

Thunk, thunk thunk. I let loose three missiles as I retreated, and managed to wing the enemy ship. It slowly dropped out of pursuit. That was a little easier than I’d expected. As I approached the asteroid belt that surrounded Seraphiel in a disc, my radar reported no enemy ships in the vicinity. I was in for a surprise, though. As soon as my ship entered the outer radius of the disc, several ships emerged from behind the asteroids. They’d been hiding there, merging their radar signature with the asteroids themselves: there’d been no way for me to see them before now. At first the transponder recognition system had them marked as all one faction— but it realized its mistake in a few seconds as I started flying up and away from the plane of the ecliptic, and it was able to see that many of the projectile trajectories were between the two forces! There were two factions here: one was the government, sleek black police cruisers and bomb carriers, but then there were the silver enforcer-class military ships, like the one I’d just disposed of. That was goddamn strange— the military and the police were supposed to be on the same side!

This many people couldn’t have been interested in my ship all at once. A single guy, sure. Could’ve been some asshole “army man” with an eye towards getting into piracy. But like this? This was something bigger. It occurred to me that the businessman had been very eager to get rid of his box. I wonder why? Before I had time to begin guessing as to what it was, they began firing at me. The military was using powerful railguns, accelerating plutonium slugs at me in straight, fiery trajectories. The police, meanwhile, were using plasma-containment cartridges, useful for burning through things but not causing big explosions. They seemed to have given up on communication, but they seemed equally unwilling to break cover from the asteroids. They had obviously witnessed my overpowered armory. But it wouldn’t take much to take this ship down: offensive technology had outstripped defensive a long time ago.

I decided the best plan was to try to escape these goons. The problem was, I didn’t want to give up that item: I desperately needed the money, and moreover I didn’t think they’d just let me live if I gave it to them. Both sides were fighting among themselves as well, but much less: it seemed like they were more focused on taking me down as soon as possible, and then fighting over the item. Wonder why; maybe there was some sort of time limit to the usefulness of the thing? In any case, I needed to get to the planet’s surface. None of these ships were atmospheric-capable, and they’d been reading my faked transponder signal. If I could change it back before I got out of atmosphere, I’d be good to go. I powered up the Damocles Drive. This was a dangerous move: you weren’t supposed to use a light-jump drive too close to a planetary body. The gravitational forces could screw up your course. I plotted in where I wanted to go, allowing the autopilot to attempt to dodge the incoming fire. Every once in awhile I looked up to fire back, but it wasn’t very effective. Finally, I had a path that accounted for the gravitational forces.

Just before I was about to hit the “go” button, the ship vibrated at high frequency. I hadn’t been paying attention to the dogfight, and some of the military pilots had noticed that, and taken the opportunity to sneak up on me. There were three on my tail, now, and one of them had just taken out a wing. I tried to spin and get my nose weapons trained on him, but he had a tighter turning radius, and the other ships spread out, taking my right and left sides. As we turned and turned in a pirouetting dance of death in space, stars streaking by, they began hammering at the sides of my ship, taking out all the in-atmosphere maneuvering wings. It seemed mostly accidental, a side-effect of them trying to drill through the thick side-armor, but the effect was the same: jumping in-atmosphere would be deadly now. As the g-forces steadily increased, I looked around the cockpit for something useful. The ship creaked and vibrated and shuddered around me, and a small cloud of debris was forming. I slammed the yoke to the side, and my ship spun towards one of the unsuspecting ships at my starboard. I fired a missile again, and he was gone before you could say “surprise.” Suddenly, something exploded at the side of my ship, sending it into a terrifying spin, hurling it away from the two remaining fighters. I tried to look back down the hallway, but it was closed: one of the bulkheads had slammed into place. They’d blown a hole in the ship. I could feel heat emanating from behind the bulkhead. Something was burning. Red alarms blinked and beeped.

I looked at the box, with the strange circle-inscription on its cover. No amount of money was worth dying for, but I’d already taken out a few military ships, and whoever was using them wasn’t going to take kindly to that. I grabbed the box and began pulling at it, hoping it would open. At least, if I was going to die, I wanted to see what this clusterfrack was all about. As I pulled, it seemed to grow, larger and larger, and the symbol on its front began glowing slightly, like it was reflecting nonexistent light. The edges of the box began to liquefy, waver and grow uncertain. Then the black material began climbing up my arms. I tried to shake it off, beginning to panic, but the smooth, cold stuff continued to crawl up my arms. Finally, it reached my head, and left two patches over my eyes. I couldn’t see what it did after that, but a few seconds later, I could see everything.

It was like the whole ship, the viewing geodesic, everything, had fallen away. It was just me in space, now, flying with my arms out. I looked around, and saw the two fighters in pursuit, their purple exhaust fumes streaming out behind them. I willed myself to turn, like a dreamer would in a lucid dream, and I felt the ship turn around me. When I looked down at myself, I saw the black material slowly overtaking the shape of my ship, covering it and reforming it into a long, sleek black sharklike-shape. Sinister weapons bristled out at various points. I leaned forward and dove towards the fighters, faster- faster- faster, and as I passed them time seemed to slow. I reached out, pointing finger guns at the fighters. As I did, the ship’s weapons responded, sending out railgun shots that split clean through them. One went through a fighter’s cockpit, and I saw a puff of blood. I flew down to the asteroid belt, dodging back and forth between the asteroids. When the nanomaterial had finished remaking my ship, it had removed a lot of mass, and the ship was lighter and fleeter than anything I’d ever flown. It responded instantly to every thought, and the battle was over in mere time-slowed moments: smart-seeking missiles, lances of unknown energy, and railgun shots making quick work of everything on the field.

This was more than I’d bargained for, I thought, as I floated in orbit around Seraphiel after the battle. I now had possession of a war machine of staggering power, and I didn’t know what to do with it. I didn’t in fact, even know what it was. I figured I should try to find that out pretty soon, so I could take advantage of it. Maybe after that, I could try to get a job as an enforcer or even become a pirate? Anything I’d do would have to be far away from the central core of the Sovereignty, that was for sure. Maybe I could re-purpose the nanomachines and use them to make something useful for non-fighting purposes? Who knows. I checked my long-range sensors and there didn’t seem to be any more ships incoming. That was good.

First thing was first, though, I wanted to go for a walk on the planet’s surface, think a bit, maybe stock up on supplies. I flew down through the atmosphere, aerodynamic shape cutting through it without issue. While I glided through the stratosphere, I accessed the databanks from the object itself, mentally. I didn’t get anything, or anything that made sense, but a few solitary bits and pieces made it through: it was failed in some way (it seemed to be working great to me!) and had been canceled. The scientists working on it had sold it to the black market in the hopes of making enough money off of it to establish an independent research station now that their government funding was gone. The military’s leading general, who had been planting a military coup decided that he wanted it guessing at its power, and the regular government had mobilized its police force to stop him.

Thinking on all this, I flew confidently down to a landing pad. No one questioned what I was doing— they assumed I was flying some sort of prototype bird for the government. But when I touched down, I felt something was wrong. I tried to get the nanomaterial to release my eyes, to let me see the inside of the cockpit, to open a door, but the featurelessly smooth sides of my ship didn’t open, and I didn’t stop seeing through the ship’s eyes. Whereas before I’d felt a boundless sense of freedom, of being open and in control, a crushing sense of claustrophobia descended on me, making me feel as if I was packed into a coffin, with no escape. I tried to calm myself, but in spite of my attempts I began to panic, mentally pushing at everything, trying anything. Finally, I checked the life support system, thinking that it wasn’t letting me open anything because the airlock or atmospheric systems weren’t working. It wasn’t that. There was no life support system. Because there was nobody “inside” the ship. In fact there wasn’t space inside the ship at all. It was solid material. There wasn’t a “me” anymore: the nanomachines had eaten it all, used my mass, and the interior mass of the ship as raw materials, and collapsed the ship down to a tiny size, with completely solid internals.

There was only this machine, and my mind.

This was something worth putting in that journal, but it didn’t exist anymore. It’s constituent particles probably making a gun or something, like my particles. Repurposed by a cold, unfeeling machine intelligence.


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