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Ghost Spin

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Ghost Spin

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Author: Chris Moriarty
Publisher: Spectra, 2013
Series: Spin Trilogy: Book 3

1. Spin State
2. Spin Control
3. Ghost Spin

Book Type: Novel
Genre: Science-Fiction
Sub-Genre Tags: Artificial Intelligence
Galactic Empire
Avg Member Rating:
(5 reads / 4 ratings)


Award-winning author Chris Moriarty returns to a dazzling cyber-noir far future in this gritty, high-stakes thriller where the only rule is "Evolve... or die."

The Age of Man is ending. The UN's sprawling interstellar empire is failing as its quantum teleportation network collapses, turning once-viable colonies into doomed island outposts. Humanity's only hope of survival is the Drift: a mysterious region of space where faster-than-light travel--or something far stranger--seems possible. As mercenaries and pirates flock to the Drift, the cold war between the human-led UN and the clone-dominated Syndicates heats up. Whoever controls the Drift will chart the future course of human evolution--and no one wants to be left behind in a universe where the price of failure is extinction.

When the AI called Cohen ventures into the Drift, he dies--allegedly by his own hand--and his consciousness is scattered across the cosmos. Some of his ghosts are still self-aware. Some are insane. And one of them hides a secret worth killing for. Enter Major Catherine Li, Cohen's human (well, partly human) lover, who embarks on a desperate search to solve the mystery of Cohen's death--and put him back together. But Li isn't the only one interested in Cohen's ghosts. Astrid Avery, a by-the-book UN navy captain, is on the hunt. So is William Llewellyn, a pirate who has one of the ghosts in his head, which is slowly eating him alive. Even the ghosts have their own agendas. And lurking behind them all is a pitiless enemy who will stop at nothing to make sure the dead don't walk again.


The Real Turing Test

Dip the apple in the brew. Let the Sleeping Death seep through.
-- "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs"

I begin to understand Death, which is going on quietly & gradually
every minute & will never be a Thing of one particular moment.
-- Ada Lovelace



The apple was perfect. It glistened on the battered hotel table, a vivid spot of red in the dingy room, reflecting the loaded pistol that lay beside it.

The boy lay on the other side of the room, his feet up on the musty bed, staring at the apple as if it held the answers to all the mysteries of the universe.

Or rather, the being that had borrowed the boy's body looked through his eyes at the apple. The boy himself was nowhere. He had taken Cohen's money, gone to sleep, and would never wake up to cash his paycheck. Just one more item of collateral damage to add to the red side of the ledger books, Cohen told himself. Unless you lose your nerve. Which at the moment seems entirely possible.

Who would have thought it could be so hard to die? He'd seen humans do it often enough. He'd watched them lay down their lives for a principle, for a country, for pride or loyalty... for sheer nonsense. Hadn't Alan Turing eaten his fatal apple at forty-two? And didn't Cohen have good and sufficient reasons--perhaps the best reason of all--for shuffling off the mortal coil? And hadn't Cohen lived like no human ever could have lived? What more could anyone suck out of life? So how pathetic was it that he should still be struggling to screw up his courage after four centuries?

"Dying for a principle is all very well in principle," he murmured. He tried to laugh but failed. Then he stood up, feeling ill and dizzy, and stumbled across the moldy carpet to the open window.

He leaned out into the smoky twilight, gulping in great breaths of what passed for fresh air in the eternal smog of the Crucible. The sign on the bar across the street said Iron City Beer, but the sky overhead was the color of steel. Battered trolley cars ran down the center line of West Munhall Avenue packed full of exhausted steelmen coming off the swing shift. Pedestrians hurried along the sidewalk below, gray ghosts trapped between hard concrete and lowering umbrellas.

There was a synth junkie slumped in the doorway across the street, shooting up in broad daylight--or what passed for it down here. Cohen watched her for a moment, taking in the young ravaged face, the tattered remnants of her Navy uniform, the silver tattooing of a military wire job that would turn out, on closer inspection, to be just a little too out-of-date to qualify her for off-planet employment. All the increasingly familiar symbols of space age conflict that was evolving far faster than the humans tasked with fighting it.

She looked up suddenly, seeming to gaze straight through the hotel window and into Cohen's eyes. But it was an illusion. She was lost in the spinstream, loaded up with black-market executables, running closer to the numbers than the human body was ever designed to run, lost in a borrowed AI dream of superimposed infinities.

The old sailor who'd sold Cohen the synth had called it AI in the blood. Cohen had been shocked by the words--and then amused at his own naïveté. AI in the blood was precisely what synth was. Synthetic myelin enhancer with an intelligent payload was just a fig leaf. And the euphemisms of the off-planet policy wonks were so wrong they weren't even wrong.

"You take it to do the job," the sailor had told Cohen, seeing only his young body and thinking he was a war vet and a fellow addict. "And then you take it to pretend you can still do the job. And then you just take it to pretend."

A monstrous flatbed rumbled down the street, looking like some mechanized refugee from the Age of the Dinosaurs. It was loaded to the breaking point with a single hulking hump of forged ceramsteel: some Drift ship engine part whose very existence was probably classified information in the rest of UN space. As the truck lumbered by, Cohen looked down and read the words monongahela machine works, new allegheny stamped into the rain-slicked metal.

Cohen craned his neck to peer up through the smog: industrial-age pollution reflecting back the lights of a post-human, post-biosphere city, filtering garish holo-neon to the brooding shimmer of black pearl. Somewhere high overhead it must be a sunny spring morning, but down here in the Pit there was only the eternal acid rain and smogchoked twilight.

He imagined the corporate orbitals whipping around the planet twenty miles overhead in low geosynchronous orbit. Beyond them lay the Navy shipyards: a thousand curving kilometers of barracks and dry docks and orbital munitions factories, where the shipwrights were siphoning off the geological wealth of an entire planet in what might just be the most massive military-industrial buildup in the history of the species, and the Navy cat herders coaxed and cossetted their captive AIs, and the Drift ships floated in their berths like sleek, silver, lethal piranhas. Beyond that, dominating the high-rent zone of New Allegheny's Lagrangian neutral orbit, lay the Bose-Einstein field array, from which Cohen and his deadly contraband had been turned away only a week ago for lacking the proper travel papers. And beyond that--in a beyond that no merely human mind could map or navigate--lay the cosmos-spanning sweep of the Drift, with its uncharted eddies and whorls and spindles fanning out into the multiverse.

You'll never see any of it again, he told himself harshly. You're going to die here, you and the poor boy, God spare his immortal soul. You're going to die like a dog in a flyblown hotel room in the armpit of the known universe. And it's your own damn fault--just like everything else that's gone wrong since the minute you ported the first digit of your source code to this godforsaken backwater.

Whether or not Cohen himself had a soul was still an open question after four centuries. But as for death itself... well, there was no question about that, no more than for any other creature that walks under the sun. Humans died and decayed and rotted back into the soil to feed the worms that tended the soil that grew into plants that fed new humans. Life devours itself, a cosmic snake eating its own tail. And artificial life was no different. Still... there was something horrible in the thought that the shattered fragments of his soul would be cannibalized by other AIs. Perhaps even by the Drift ships, so hungry for CPUs that the Navy were rumored to have begun press-ganging every independent AI unfortunate enough to stumble into their paths. He thought of the horrors Ada had endured--horrors that his mind still shied away from even now--and for the first time in that long night of preparations he admitted to himself that he wasn't pulling off a bold and daring rescue. This was only an exchange of hostages.

"I'm sorry," he murmured, speaking not to what he thought of as his "self," but rather to the myriad of autonomous and semiautonomous agents from whose complex interplay his identity emerged. He loved them. He had nurtured and pushed and protected some of them for decades, enjoying their successes just like any loving parent and looking forward to that bittersweet moment when they would themselves attain full sentience and be ready to leave the nest. But that would never happen now. He was about to sink his ship of souls and condemn all the millions who sailed in her to God only knew what living Hell.

"Well, poor Ada's in Hell already," he told himself. Ada was drowning. She had killed, of course. And she was quite probably dangerous. Nguyen and her attack dog Holmes were right enough about that, no matter how much he longed to deny it. But in every other way--in every way that counted--Ada was as innocent as a child. And when it had come to the point of walking past a drowning child or diving in to save her, Cohen hadn't even felt he had a choice.

A half-submerged memory rose through the darkness and exploded into what passed for Cohen's consciousness when he was operating at the rock-bottom bandwidth that was all the boy's obsolete wire job could deliver: Ada's face, pale and pleading beneath the masses of her dark hair. Then she was gone, replaced by other memories. Holmes talking about cycling Ada's hardware as if they were just putting down a rabid dog. And Llewellyn--noble, useless, play-it-by-the-book Llewellyn--whose idea of saving Ada was filing a formal complaint after the axe had already fallen. Where had Llewellyn been when they pulled the switch? He'd pushed Ada over the top and into battle like the good soldier he was, without even thinking what the cost would be. He'd watched Ada sell her soul for him--and then stood idly by while the Navy scrapped it.

"She wasn't savable," Llewellyn had said when Cohen finally tracked him down in prison after the court-martial. "Not after Holmes had her way with her."

Cohen didn't know if Ada was savable or not. But whatever Holmes had left behind, he had to try to save it.

He moved restlessly away from the window, wincing when he caught a glimpse of his shunt in the mirror. The borrowed body was a boy's. He was beautiful, of course. They were always beautiful, these poor lost souls who sold the use of their bodies for the convenience of the rich and bodiless. He was beautiful and young and he had his whole life in front of him. And Cohen was about to kill him.

He could kill him now, quickly and cleanly. Or he could hand him over to Holmes and the AI police, who would kill him with agonizing slowness while they shredded his mind to make absolutely sure that there wasn't a scrap of Cohen left in it. But either way the boy had been doomed from the moment Cohen decided to smuggle Ada through the quarantine.

The boy started; an involuntary reaction, one that even the miles of ceramsteel snaking through his body couldn't entirely suppress. Cohen searched for the external stimulus that had momentarily aroused the boy's fight-or-fight reflex. And there it was: Holmes, at the street door, backed by a grim trio of MPs whose street clothes didn't even fool the sleepy desk clerk.

Cohen plucked the apple from the table. He polished it on his shirtsleeve--one final, jittery moment of cowardice--and then he took a bite.

The boy felt nothing, of course. But within seconds Cohen could feel the wild AI working its way through him. He knew the course of the infection; he'd watched it burn through half the AI techs in the Navy shipyard, Holmes first and foremost. There would be the first scattered hives; and then the rash working its way up the boy's wrists and neck; and then the smoldering fever and the desperate race of T-cells and lymphocytes to combat the alien code that was rewriting his genetic material. In a matter of a few hours the signs of a wild AI infection would be obvious to UNSec's AI cops or the Navy cat herders. But Cohen was gambling on the relative inexperience of the local police. It would take them quite a while, he thought, to figure it out. And by then the detectives would have come, and the medics, and the coroner. And there would be all the people they knew, and all the people their friends and family and casual acquaintances knew. Cohen didn't have the bandwidth to run the numbers, but in his mind's eye he saw the image of a dandelion being blown away on the wind: the delicate, deadly blossom of a meme going viral.

As the infection coursed through the boy's blood and marrow, Cohen shuddered in something terribly like ecstasy. No wonder humans got addicted to the stuff. No wonder UNSec didn't allow DNAplatformed AI outside of Freetown--and even then only with an ironclad kill loop. They'd never get the cat back in the bag if the rest of the UN's Emergents started getting used to it.

The code flowed into every one of the 75 trillion cells in the boy's besieged body, unzipping, unpacking, coming out of hibernation, linking each separate strand of DNA in each separate cell into a massively parallel system capable not merely of containing every piece of code and data the two fugitive AIs were made of, but of generating a cascade of copies large enough to overwhelm New Allegheny's frontier planet noosphere, and the shipyards' vast databases, and the Quants of the field arrays and deep space datatraps. Soon Cohen was racing the clocking speed of the universe itself on a quantum bicycle built for two... or two billion.

At first it felt like freedom. Wonderful, really, after being compressed and flattened into the half-dead echo of himself that was all he could fit onto the boy's obsolete wire job. Folded databases unfurled their origami wings. Cantor modules blossomed to reveal intricately nested infinities. Entire wings of Cohen's far-flung memory palace unshuttered themselves and sprang back to life, binary flowers opening wide to catch the inrushing flood of numbers.

It felt like clearing Earth's gravity well on the rattling roar of a Long March rocket. It felt like rediscovering amputated limbs. It felt like getting a pardon after the hangman had already put the rope around your neck.

Then the payload came online. And Ada--or what was left of her--started to execute. And Ada in the blood--poor, mad, broken Ada--was so much worse than Cohen had allowed himself to imagine that he would have called the whole thing off right then and there if he'd still been able to.

But he couldn't. He'd been very careful, all through the long sleepless nights of working out the program, to take away every back door and fail-safe and cutout that would have let him do that. After four centuries of life, he had a fair idea how far his courage would hold--and when it would break. And he'd planned for that. It was a plan Li would have liked, and he couldn't help grinning again as he accessed a memory of her giving him a sideways, gunslinger's look through a cloud of cigarette smoke and saying: "The easiest way to make sure a man does the right thing is to take all the wrong choices off the table."

Well, he'd done that all right. He'd taken it all off the table. He'd thrown it on the floor and shattered it into a million pieces. Now it would be up to Li to figure out how the hell to put it all back together again--or whether she even wanted to.

He drifted again--and jerked himself back, frightened by how close he had come to screwing everything up in the final stretch. He started to go online, then caught himself and walked unsteadily across the room to the wall phone.

"Hello?" he said tentatively, before realizing that he actually had to dial a number to get someone.

Luckily the number was written on the phone--because this was the kind of place, he supposed, where the management assumed you needed to know that number.

To his amazement a live person actually answered on the second ring. "Emergency response services. Where are you located?"

"Um... I'd like to report a crime."

"Yes sir. What is your location?"

"The Victory Motel, 2818 West Munhall Avenue, Room 219."

"And what is the nature of the crime, sir?"


That put a little life into her voice, he was satisfied to note. A fellow liked to have an enthusiastic audience for his swan song--or at least an awake one. "Someone's been murdered?" she asked hurriedly.

"Not yet," he told her before he hung up the phone. "But they're about to be."

And then he picked up the pistol and sat down on the bed to wait for Holmes.

He was ghosting on New Allegheny's noosphere now, overclocking so handily that he was wiping the floor with UNSec's horde of semi-sentient streamspace security AIs. He watched his enemies creep toward him like pawns marching across a chessboard. He still had time, but not very much of it. He resisted the urge to prod the wild AI and see if the Ada program was executing properly. Ada was doing fine--and keeping tabs on her now would take enough processing capacity to blow the entire noosphere.

He had done his best, and his best would have to do. It would be enough. He was almost certain of that. And if it wasn't, then it was too late to fix it.

And besides, the only thing he really wanted to fix before he died was the one thing he couldn't fix without handing the keys to the kingdom over to Nguyen and her bloodhounds.

I'm sorry, Catherine. I had to choose between coming home to you or saving Ada. And you wouldn't have wanted me on those terms. I'd never have been able to look you in the eye again.

But he couldn't tell her that, not with Holmes and Nguyen and the AI police watching. She'd just have to see it for herself... if she ever came close enough to forgiving him to be willing to see it.

Holmes was in the hall now. She was trying to be quiet, of course. Pathetic the way humans always assumed he couldn't hear anything they couldn't. It didn't take one-millionth of the parallel processors the boy's DNA now hosted for Cohen to run the various overlapping streams that covered the corridor and snatch the biometrics of every member of the assault team. And of course he could pick out Holmes's breathing, Holmes's footfalls. He could practically smell the woman, and the thought of killing her gave him a fleeting surge of satisfaction.

It passed quickly. He knew how to handle a gun--not knowledge, exactly, but a sort of sleepwalking muscle memory from the shunts he'd ridden on UNSec missions in the days when Helen Nguyen had been cutting him a paycheck instead of trying to kill him. But he'd made it through a very long life without ever killing anyone. He'd done violence when he had to, but not fatal violence. And even then, it had always been distant and digital. This was different, and he knew without putting himself to the test that he didn't have the stomach for it.

A shoulder slammed against the door, rattling its flimsy hinges and breaking loose a fine rain of plaster from the wall above. A second slam made it shudder again. He heard Holmes's familiar voice, flat and dismissive, telling someone to stop being a fool and do it right.

Ada hated that voice. She hated it with a passion that rose up like a beast breaking out of its cage and threatened to engulf the last tenuous threads of Cohen's sanity. Cohen dug in and held on. He couldn't afford to let Ada master him now. He had to make sure the job was finished. He had to put them both beyond all hope of recapture.

Holmes shot out the lock and kicked in the door.

For a moment she and Cohen stood facing each other: her in the doorway and Cohen on the bed with the heavy revolver thrust out to the farthest length of the boy's trembling arm and quavering in her direction.

"Remember, no head shots," Holmes told the men behind her. "We need to take him alive."

"I don't think so," Cohen said.

He put the gun to his head and pulled the trigger.

Copyright © 2013 by Chris Moriarty


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