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Hydrogen Steel

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Hydrogen Steel

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Author: K. A. Bedford
Publisher: EDGE Science Fiction and Fantasy Publishing, 2006

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Book Type: Novel
Genre: Science-Fiction
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When retired top homicide inspector Zette McGee, late of Winter City, Ganymede, gets called out of her mysterious retirement to help Kell Fallow, a desperate former android accused unjustly of murdering his wife and children, she knows she has to help him, for Zette has a secret she is desperate to keep, and Fallow knows all about it.

With the help of her best friend, the elderly but very suave former secret agent Gideon Smith, and his ridiculously impressive personal starship, the Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time, Zette sets out (a) to help the accused man, but also (b) to keep Gideon from finding out her own awful secret, even as everything they learn in the investigation keeps pointing to it.

But when Kell Fallow is killed by a bomb he didn't know was buried in his guts, and when a homebrew android identical to Zette destroys her home on the luxurious Serendipity habitat, Gideon and Zette go on the run, only to run afoul of sabotage, spies, nasty infections, and bad guys galore and ordinary machines come to relentless, murderous life.

The case will take Zette and Gideon on a terrifying journey into the darkest reaches of human space, in pursuit of an ancient truth -- and will bring her into deadly contact with that truth's keeper, the awesomely powerful firemind, Hydrogen Steel, an artificial consciousness evolved far beyond its original design, and which is utterly determined to keep that same truth from getting out, at any cost.


Chapter 1

My fictitious dad used to say: "Secrets are strange things, Zette. It's like they're alive. Some want to be known. They'll do anything to escape their confinement. But there are other secrets, the darkest, worst kind of all, that kick and fight and spit and will do everything in their power to stay hidden -- even if their keeper wants to bring them out into the light."

This strange story of mine starts late one afternoon, in the nineteenth year of the Silent Occupation, on the Serendipity retirement habitat in the Sirius A system. I was spread out comfortably on a sun lounger on the balcony of my condo, sipping iced tea made from genuine tea leaves, and reading over unsolved case-files. This was my idea of a lovely relaxing afternoon.

From my balcony I had an expansive (and expensive) view of the marina and the rest of the condo complex. It had been designed to look like one of the whitewashed and blue-domed villages from Earth's Greek Islands. The dazzling white of the walls against the artificial blue of the simulated sky was a striking thing to see and the salty tang of the sea, carried on a cool afternoon breeze, was fresh and invigorating. Even the squeals of the seagulls didn't bother me; I liked their squabbling, cranky personalities.

At the time of my sudden, early retirement, four years earlier, I had been working homicide on Ganymede in the Winter City Police Service. I'd been a copper, in various districts, for sixteen years, the last six of those at the rank of Detective Inspector, Lead Investigator. It was a tough life, and I loved it. Yes, it was always raining and was always so damned cold, and for some reason, no matter what the terraform engineers tried, there never seemed quite enough light to see anything. But I believed that these things either made you tougher or they ground you down and spat you out. I saw a lot of officers ground down over the years.

But that was the way things were out in the "frontier". Some people said things had been better before the Earth was destroyed, but who really knew? Once the Earth was gone, human space suddenly felt like an abandoned frontier town, left to rot or thrive on its own. There was no central moral force anymore. It was like the Roman Empire: imagine what life would have been like if Rome itself had suddenly disappeared one day. All those provinces, all those fractious tribes and nations, the whole teeming continent-spanning bureaucracy, all of it would just collapse. And so it was with human space in the years following the disappearance of Earth.

The strange thing was, we still didn't know what the hell had happened to Earth. Theories abounded. All anybody knew was that one day, around a century and a half ago, the home world had disappeared, along with any witnesses and evidence of what had happened. Investigations followed, for years. Eventually, an official report said that most likely Earth scientists were tinkering with free-energy experiments, or tame black holes, or some damn thing. Nobody really knew what happened, and nobody believed anything purporting to be an official explanation. Conspiracy theories thrived in the dark recesses of the human space infosphere like bathroom mold.

Which leads us back to me. I didn't know this at the time my headware phone started to ring that afternoon, but soon I would know the greatest, most closely held secret in human space: I would know what had really happened to Earth.

And I would know why it had been kept such a secret all this time.

# # #

I blinked through my headware phone interface. "McGee."

"Zette McGee?" It was an audio call. The voice was male; he sounded agitated, short of breath. The status display on the phone interface showed that this call was coming from somewhere in local space, using only low-level, cheap commercial crypto.

"That's me. And you would--"

The voice cut me off. "I'm Kell Fallow. We used to know each other. I really need your help..." He was breathing hard, and it sounded like he must be in a very confined space.

I was already sifting through my memories. "I'm sorry, but I don't remember anybody by that--"

"It was before you were activated. We lived in the cloud. Don't you remember?"

That got my attention. "What did you just say?" I sat up, frowning. "Who the hell are you?" My biostats fought my racing heart.

"My name's Kell Fallow. I'm a disposable ... like you."

I swore under my breath. Nobody, and I mean nobody, knew my secret. I'd quit the Police Service rather than be found out. "I'm sorry. You've got the wrong number. Good bye." I was right at the point of blinking out of the call.

"Wait!" he said, quickly. "They think I killed my wife! Please you've gotta help me!"

I hesitated and kept the line open. I felt cold deep in my guts. The biostats redoubled their efforts to keep my heart rate steady. "What did you say?"

There was a sound from the other end. It sounded embarrassingly like a man trying not to cry. Fallow managed to say, "Thank Christ! Zette, are you there?"

"You say your name is Kell Fallow, and that we knew each other a long time ago..."

"Yes, before we were activated. When we were still in the Cytex tanks and--"

I didn't like the sound of this at all, but I couldn't just abandon whoever this was. "How do you know about Cytex?" I said.

"I just remembered it. Years ago. It just came to me one day."

This stirred up feelings I hadn't confronted since my retirement. But there was no time for reminiscence. Fallow sounded desperate. "Where are you now, Mr. Fallow?"

"I'm ... um, I'm in a cargo container on a transport coming to Serendipity. The connection on my phone's nearly out. Can you hear me?"

"You're smuggling yourself?"

"I had to get out of there, Zette! They were gonna charge me with Airlie's murder and you know what that means, right?"

I knew only too well. If he was indeed a disposable, and accused of just about any crime, he would be sent straight to the recycler. Disposables were dead cheap to make, so cheap that repairs and treatment usually cost more than the unit was worth. "Airlie is your wife, is that it?"

"She's dead! I told you that! Come on, Zette, I need your help!"

"What can I do?"

"Prove I didn't do it. Find out why she was killed!"

"Did you do it?"

"I don't know!" Now he cried. "I don't know!"

I thought for a moment. "How long before your ship docks?"

"She's the Trajan Lines freighter Hermes VI. Coming into cargo dock 12 at 2100 local. I'm in a container of antique furniture." I heard some noise and distortion crackling through the connection; it sounded like a throwaway phone dying.

"Mr. Fallow! Mr. Fallow? Where are you coming from? Can you hear me? Mr. Fallow?"

There was no answer. The line was dead.

I swore.

# # #

Twenty-one hundred hours local. It was 1745 now. So, that left three hours, fifteen minutes. It wasn't much time, and I had a dinner engagement at 1900 with my friend Gideon Smith.

The first thing I did was check that I still had a recording of Fallow's call stored in my headware. It was there, ready to crack open, strip apart and get whatever extra information I might be able to find. Next I checked on the ship. Serendipity Port Authority records showed that an unremarkable hypertube cargo hauler, SV Hermes VI, was indeed riding the beam, and was on final approach to the habitat's docks. She had a listed capacity of two million tonnes, a crew of eighteen disposables and a single human captain, identified as one Joaquin Martez. The ship was carrying more than 450,000 self-loading freight containers, many of them full of antique furniture of various ages and condition. The information from the Port Authority also listed the ship's previous stops and significant details -- cargo taken on or offloaded, crew transferred, maintenance performed. I'd look over all this later.

Kell Fallow identified himself as a disposable, like me. Nobody knew about my secret; I'd never told a soul. I hadn't even known about it myself until about four years earlier, when I started getting dreams that were more disturbing than usual, more detailed, and which made more narrative sense than usual. The dreams slowly revealed that I had had a previous existence in some kind of factory, and also showed that my memories of decades of normal life were in fact programmed fantasies squirted into my brain over a matter of hours.

At first I didn't believe these dreams, but they kept coming and I developed an exhausting dread of sleeping. Then one night, lying in bed, I started hacking into the secure compartments deep in the off-limits bowels of my headware, the ones I wasn't supposed to know about, but which I had "seen" in my dreams. Hacking was one of the specialist areas of police training available in Winter City, and was considered essential know-how in a town where data crime was even more of a problem than the more basic and ugly things people did to one another.

My early explorations deep in the bowels of my headware seemed not at all promising. Everything looked the way it should. I nearly gave up, and was set to dismiss the dreams as paranoid nonsense, when I noticed -- while rummaging in the interface system logs -- what looked like it might be an access panel that shouldn't have been there. It looked like the rest of the compartment, but it was slightly the wrong color. If it hadn't been for the dream, I'd never have even thought to look for it.

I blinked on it, and it opened.

I swore.

Once I worked up the nerve, I pushed on into the new area, and discovered, among other things, a locked compartment, deep in the interface structures tapping directly into my brainstem and surrounded by black and yellow diagonal hazard striping.

There was a label, reading: "Unit Destruct -- Cytex Systems Access Only".

I had a self-destruct function.

Or, rather, I had a destruct function that I couldn't access, but which was available to employees of Cytex Systems, a large multistellar corporation known for the inexpensive nanofacture of a wide range of biological and non-biological robotic devices. The information I found told me the self-destruct mechanism used the programmed release of nanophages -- microscopic devices designed to break down cellular tissue, resulting in an accelerated process of complete organic destruction. I didn't sleep that night, or many nights afterward.

Then there was my warranty, thousands of pages of unreadable, tiny legal text, related not only to my headware, but to all of my biological functions. Once, I actually got a printout of it and sat down to try and read through it. It said I was a "Claudia" model, version 3.0. The public infosphere -- the galaxies of data circulating throughout the worlds of human space -- had plenty of information about Cytex Systems Claudia 3.0, which I read were used for "security, police and crowd-control applications".

I quit the Police Service the following day.

The guys at work were all shocked to hear that I was leaving, but I made noises about the pressure of the work, stress, the long hours, the lousy pay -- the noises everybody made when they left -- and they nodded and understood. It was hard leaving, though. The guys were more than my friends. I hated lying to them. But how could I tell them the truth? "Well, actually, boys, it turns out I'm a machine! Who knew?"

Meanwhile, at home each night, I continued my secret headware explorations. The whole time, prowling the infosphere, I was also worried that my interest in the business would arouse somebody's notice, and that they might not like someone sniffing around, and maybe learning a few things she shouldn't.

And an idea haunted me, distracting me even during those final, horrible days at work. Looking around at everybody, looking at the office, and at the city outside, I wondered: what if none of this was real? By now I was starting to understand, at least intellectually, that my memories of growing up were fake. Maybe, I wondered in my darkest hours, I was part of some big media stunt, and people were watching me twist in the breeze, and having a laugh at my anxieties. Maybe I was still in a simulator. If the sim and reality couldn't be distinguished, how could I possibly tell the two experiences apart? Or maybe it was all a big joke at my expense, and one of these fine days they'd pull me out of the sim and show me what a gullible twit I was.

Except, what if there were no people out there running the simulator?

Or what if there was no simulator, but in fact everybody else I'd ever known had also found out they were androids, and they were all too terrified to tell anyone, just in case they got recycled?

It was a pathway to madness, lined with funhouse mirrors.

I had a bad time during those first months of my Awareness. What if nothing was real? But then, what if everything was real, except me?

What if...? It was all I thought about.

My entire existence was now contingent on factors I could know nothing about.

Worst of all I had clear memories of my dad telling me I was "built like a brick shithouse", which was to say, big, immovable and solid. I loved my dad.

My wonderful, caring, funny -- fictional dad.

I hardly slept. I read everything I could find about the android business. Over the past several decades refinements in android technology and nanofacturing had reached a point where biological, flesh-and-bone androids could be built in nanofabrication chambers in only a matter of hours, and at very low per-unit cost. Disposables could be programmed to do all the disgusting, demeaning, low-status jobs proper humans refused to do. The great appeal was that you didn't need to pay them, they had no rights of any kind, and required only basic food and water to survive. And, when you were done with them, whether the next day or after many years of faithful service, you could put them in the recycler -- or ask them to recycle themselves, and they would cheerfully do so. Disposables had become the ultimate human appliances.

Even as I came to realize that I was one of these androids, I knew something was wrong. Unlike other disposables I was conscious of what I was, but I would have sworn on a stack of Bibles that I was as real and fully human as anybody else I knew.

What did it mean? I felt myself going mad just thinking about it. I had vivid memories of a healthy and reasonably normal life before I joined the Police Service; I remembered my parents, relatives, friends, boyfriends, favorite pets, embarrassment, laughter, going to school, yelling at my parents, and even the pain of loss and bereavement. Even now, as I write these words, I find myself reflecting back on particular, compelling family memories, effortlessly believable memories. I remember funny stories, the smell of the different houses we lived in, the taste of my mum's lamb casserole, how nervous I felt on the night of my first "proper" date.

Yet at some point I went to sleep in a simulated existence and woke up in the "real" world. I'm still not sure exactly when the transition occurred. In my mind I left Second School in Winter City, feeling aimless and exhausted after a tough slog through what felt like endless years of mind-numbing studies and turbulent adolescent feelings I barely understood.

Then, one night, our home was invaded. Home invasions weren't unusual in Winter City. A group of maybe six or seven masked and chemically amplified kids would find a way to break into your house, punching through any number of layers of commercial security, and they would storm in, and attack or kill anybody who gave them any trouble. They'd steal everything of value, turn over the place, usually shit and piss somewhere in the house as an added bonus, and then leave.

The kids who came to my house killed my dad and sister. They tried to kill my mum too. Amazingly, though, she killed her attacker, and would have killed the others, too, but they cut their losses and left.

I don't remember that night well at all. I remember hearing screams, running footsteps, laughter and kids calling out to each other in a language I didn't understand. Then I heard Mum's gun. Three shots. More screaming.

Then silence and crying. And a horrible smell. Shit, I think. And blood.

The coppers, when they came, were fantastic.

Not only did they do all the cop things you'd expect them to do, they also provided emergency accommodation for Mum and me, and great psychological counseling that actually helped. They said they had a collection at work and gave us a stack of money to help us get our lives back together. When we said we wouldn't be going back to that house, they helped us find another house, and then, later, even sent a couple of guys to help us move our stuff.

They caught the kids, too. It helped that Mum got one of them. The kid was part of a group with what the coppers called "a bit of form", meaning a history of this kind of home invasion. It took no time to round up the rest of the bastards.

It worked out as well as you could hope for.

I missed my Dad. My sister, who had only been two years old, I didn't miss nearly so much, which I knew was horrible of me.

I asked the cops loads of questions. And, surprisingly, considering grownups were always so busy and had no time to talk about anything, they answered everything.

It was inevitable, you might think, that at some point one of the officers suggested to me: "You know, we're always looking for good people. And you could do worse than join the Police Service. The pay's not great, but you get an education, you get accommodation, and benefits. Give it some thought."

It was all downhill from there. I remember turning up at the recruitment office one horribly cold Monday morning, and submitting my application, all the while feeling surreal. I couldn't believe that me, of all people -- someone more inclined to go to protest demonstrations -- was really here trying to sign up for something like this! My friends couldn't believe it either and mocked me mercilessly; they were not the kind of friends who last, of course. Not that it really mattered since they had never really existed outside the factory sims.

I've thought a lot about my transition to "real" life, in the years since learning about my "sinister secret". In the course of my police training I'd had numerous routine medical scans -- none of which detected my factory origins. Was I so perfectly created that I could fool even the most sophisticated Police medical scanners? Or, was all that preliminary testing handled while I was still in sim mode?

It did make me wonder, though, about those times later in my life when I'd needed medical scanning for some damn thing. The pathology services I had visited might have been paid by the Police Service Executive to give me a "normal human" report. Or, suppose I had some kind of nanobot transponders buried deep in my flesh, deliberately transmitting signals to scanning machines, so that I would always test as normal, no matter which pathology service I might use.

It made me want to peel my skin off, it was such a horrible thought. I felt cold and revolted just thinking about it.

Three long years after my recruitment, I graduated, and a year after that I was a junior constable running the office and making tea and coffee in the Eighth District Station on Feldspar Street. A year later I was paired up with Senior Constable Halle Jervais, and we patrolled Winter City's vast, ugly and run-down Stalk Base Complex -- the foot of Ganymede's only space elevator -- which was always a haven for the city's villainous element.

I'm sure my transition from simulated memory to real life was somewhere in those couple of years. Then again it also occurs to me, on lonely and dark nights, that I might still be in the simulator and who knows what's going on outside in the "real" world!

But what mattered, now, as I sat there in the gathering dusk, idly watching the artificial sun darkening, was that now there was one other individual in the universe who understood something very personal about me. This Kell Fallow person might hold the answer to all my questions ... and he was in trouble.

I knew just the guy to ask for a little expert assistance.

Copyright © 2006 by K. A. Bedford


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