07:55:00 pm, by Nic Wilson   , 819 words  
Categories: Announcements, Old Ventures: Refuge

ANNOUNCEMENT: NaNoWriMo 2018, Old Venture: Refuge

I'm sorry. I know, no man is an island, but I've had trouble even being one drop of rain in a river. It's difficult, these days, not to feel like the very foundations of sanity are shaking loose. And I have struggled under my burdens, as I know many of you do. I only yesterday finished last year's NaNo (which I'll be uploading soon to the blog) and I'm going to try and publish one chapter a day this NaNo. It's going to be a rough election cycle this year, and I'm hoping we can get through it together. But if you retain none of the words before or after this, remember these: you are not alone. Amidst all the chaos, and pain, and dehumanizing horror, you are known, you are cared about, you are loved. And so long as we continue to have each other, and to hold one another in our hearts, we have hope. Below is an excerpt, a preview of a chapter I realized was important enough to write and publish out of order, where it might still have some impact. As always, check back daily for updates, on this as well as on older projects that I got behind in posting publicly. And in the meantime, may you and yours stay safe and close in these trying times.

* * *

Jack stepped out onto the stage, and for a moment was blinded by the house lights, and then the chorus of flashbulbs from the media. "I'm happier than I can say to welcome a true American hero onto this stage," the man said, flashing a wide smile.

Jack shook his hand stiffly, then waited for him to clear the stage before speaking. "I'm not comfortable being here," Jack said, "and I'm sure that shows."

The audience chuckled nervously. "That's okay. You're laughing with me," he paused, "I think."

"But I've never been comfortable using my... celebrity, I guess, like this. I've marched, with John Lewis, Martin Luther King, for many varied human rights on many different occasions. You could say I've never been apolitical... but I've always attempted to keep who I am as a man separate from who I was as a symbol. I never wanted to trade on the good I've done, and even today, that's not my goal.

"But I can no longer abide my prior silence. This is not the usual push and pull of politics. This is the rise of something far more sinister, an enemy we fought a world war against, an enemy I hoped we vanquished for good. Maybe that was naÔve of me. Maybe my generation failed to keep the flames of vigilance lit.

"I didn't decide to speak until last week. I waited, hoping that sanity would return, that someone, anyone, would be able to show the Republican candidate that he's not just trying to be the leader of conservative America, or scared America, that he'll need to lead all of us. He'll need to represent the will of all of us. He'll need to represent the hopes, as well as the fears, of all of us. And their convention convinced me that realization will forever evade him. At his core, he is a divisive and spiteful man. He doesn't like the idea of an America united, unless he can force us to unite behind him, not as a good and changed man, but as he is, angry, scared and lashing out.

"And with each passing day, the parallels with the fascist rise- a rise that cost our world millions of lives- become stronger, and harder to ignore. Every day, more language about how everyone but America is the problem is used, while more narrowly defining what counts as America. I have seen this ugliness before, I have seen what it does to good men and women caught up in its throes, and I have seen what they in turn do to those they deem unworthy of sharing soil with. I wish I could be here for any other reason, truly. But we do not get to choose our burdens, only how we rise to meet them.


"So please, vote. Not just for Democrats, but for democracy itself, for a return to normalcy, to respecting our differences, and the rights of others. For returning this country to an ideal for the rest of the world to envy. For a world where our most vulnerable are cared for, protected, and safe. For America as we want her to be, and need her to be, not what she was. Because viewing who she was through rose-tinted glasses can't erase those who were left behind or excluded in that past, and we know better, now, and we have to do better. The only hope I have to leave you with is this: we can do better. I've seen it. And I pray I'll live to see it again. Thank you."

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06/28/11

  07:21:21 am, by Nic Wilson   , 576 words  
Categories: Gitmo

Gitmo 12: Toolshed

I wanted to do my due diligence, so I stopped at the shed. The padlock was busted off at the hinges and the door hung open. But that was the thing. There was a bent to hell hand shovel, that looked like it had been used to pry the shed open. That didn?t make a hell of a lot of sense- how would somebody use tools from the shed to break into the shed?

So if it was a frame job, it was an incompetent one. Inside, the shed was a mess. Even if Noor was involved, he always took good care of the equipment, made sure it was all put back in its place. It was why he was in charge of the equipment.

I double-timed it, wishing I?d layered on some more of that Dove deodorant- because my 48 hours was well passed from the last lathering.

I knew Noor?s place. Not just because I?d memorized the housing assignments, but I?d been there. Had lunch in his home, once, after we spent the better part of a morning planting avens.

I knocked several times before he came to the door. His face was so pale it didn?t look like he had any blood left in him. ?Please, come and sit.? He led me into his front room. I plopped down on the couch, and he pulled in an uncomfortable wooden chair- I knew, because I had the same one in my office.

I?d been in law enforcement long enough to know that one of the most important interrogation techniques was not saying anything. Noor was anxious, and unable to make eye contact. He was telling me more than words ever could.

?I need to know about the toolshed.?

He flinched at the last word, as if I?d struck him. ?Please, do not hurt me.? He closed his eyes, as if he expected me to ignore the request. I let him stew, for just a moment.

His eyes fluttered open when I spoke. ?This ain?t a prison, and I?m no black-ops spook. Do we have a problem? Or did you just make a mistake. Sometimes mistakes happen, sometimes they happen on purpose. Did you make a mistake??

?Yes.?

?Did you mean to??

His eyes fluttered from a blank spot on his wall back to me. ?I? I did not count the tools yesterday before locking the shed.? He licked his lips, and his mouth hung open for a moment. His eyes were earnest, desperately needing me to believe him.

?Okay. But you did make a mistake. And somebody tried to use that mistake to hurt people. I don?t give a damn whether or not you like the people living beside you, they?re your neighbors. I expect you to do your part to keep yourself and your neighbors safe from here on out. Understand??

?Y-y-yes, sir.?

?Good. I believe you?re going to be more careful. Thank you for that.?

?I can go??

?Well, this is your living room- but unless you can think of a reason I shouldn?t let you, yeah.? He sighed, and his entire person seemed to grow a few inches.

?Thank Allah for that.?

As I was leaving Noor?s place my radio chirped. ?Uh, blue dog, this is orange cat, again, uh, we got a couple of men scratching each others balls.?

?Great.? I ran.

06/25/11

  09:59:01 am, by Nic Wilson   , 434 words  
Categories: Gitmo

Gitmo 11: Used Hoe

I stepped onto the front porch and keyed my radio. ?Orange cat, I want you to watch the men in the home I?m leaving. Any deviation in the GPS- one of them so much as shifts legs to scratch his balls, I want to know.?

?Roger, blue dog, we are on ball scratch watch.?

I went out the back door. I helped Ramzi up and onto the deck, then cut away his ties. ?You stay here. I?m going to need a statement from everybody. You want to stretch, that?s fine, but you?re confined to the yard.?

?Like a dog,? he said. It was hard to have sympathy for someone who, at least if he was pulling his weight, was responsible for at least a dozen of those stab wounds on Mahmoud?s body.

But I was in a hurry. I had the outline of the thing already. But what I didn?t know, what I couldn?t know yet, was who had gotten into the fertilizer. Nobody at Khalid?s had access themselves, which set off alarm bells. The sun had now risen to that annoying height where every remotely reflective surface was blinding. I felt like an idiot, walking with my head down and my arm up protecting my eyes.

Thankfully, the generator building itself was off the west side of the street, so my back was to the sun. The padlock was busted into pieces. Someone hacked at it with a garden hoe until the blade snapped off, then jammed it in and levered the lock until it snapped.

It was possible the hoe blade had been used to make those defensive cuts in Mahmoud?s arms, but I didn?t think it likely- if only because the blade would have been just as likely to cut whoever was holding it at that point. Besides, every kitchen in Bim Maa Chiaa had knives in it.

The camera inside was smashed- which was probably just as well; at that time of night it would have been too dark to see enough details anyway, and the generator building lights were operated on a battery that only kicked on if we lost power.

The door into the generators was ajar; I didn?t have to look in to know that the two jugs of diesel were gone, since they were still locked up in my office. I stepped back out into the daylight.

There was only one man in Bim Maa Chiaa besides me who had keys to the toolshed. So it looked like my list of suspects had just got a lot shorter.

06/23/11

  08:10:39 am, by Nic Wilson   , 814 words  
Categories: Gitmo

Gitmo 10: Doubting Mustafa

Hamdi didn?t know a damned thing. That?s why he was the one who answered the door- why he tried to broker with me. He was their lawyer, their insulation. He was a talker, good at pretending to know just enough to string interrogators along to buy time. Interrogation's all about time: within a couple of days operational knowledge becomes obsolete; high value targets may have organizational knowledge, which can be useful until things get reorged- but that's rarer.

I?m not even sure Hamdi was ever an actual terrorist; his file said all they ever had on him was bluster, but they had enough of that that Justice didn?t see fit to turn him loose after they closed Cuba.

But maybe Hamdi was also the key. Because while I knew he wouldn?t know much, and he might have known it, someone else might not. That?s why I didn?t want to talk to Hamdi.

Instead I killed a few minutes in the kitchen, letting Khalid stare limp daggers into me. His hate was so thorough it was practically comical, like a pouting kid after a spanking, as securely tied to the chair as he was.

?If I were not tied down, I would break your stones with my fists.? He squeezed his hands for effect.

?Yeah, and if I were given free reign I?d sodomize you with that chair you?re leaned against.? His eyes bulged. Apparently something in my hyperbole had been lost in the translation- which suited me just fine. He stopped even looking in my direction; I wondered idly if at some point he had been sodomized by an interrogator.

But it was time for me to have a talk with Mustafa. His name was an epithet, for Mohammed, peace be upon him. He was also one of the dumber prisoners here at the BMC.

Mostly, you got stuck here because you were a higher level operative, either leadership or someone who?d survived long enough to actually get good at terrorism. The kinds of people who couldn?t be trusted to go back to shoe-making or goat-milking in the civilian world.

I couldn?t help but think that Mustafa had survived on sheer luck. ?Hamdi told me everything.? He panicked almost immediately. ?But I haven?t decided how much I trust him- how much of what he told me is the truth. I?m looking for confirmation- though the law enforcement term is corroboration.?

Mustafa realized his hands were jittering, and he forced them down into his lap. ?We did not kill him.?

?We being??

?The men gathered here. We discovered the body on our way to morning prayers. We knew he was Shia. And we knew that we would be blamed. We wanted to hide him, long enough to discover what had happened.?

?If you didn?t kill him, why the pin-cushion act?? I made a stabbing gesture to puncture the cultural wall he couldn?t get the reference through.

?We knew there was a tracker in him- and that it would draw you to us. We hadn?t expected it to take as long to find as it did. We were desperate.?

?I don?t believe you.?

?I swear by the life of the One Who sent down the Qur?aan it is the truth.?

To a true believer like Mustafa, that was as good as the Pope swearing on the life of Christ. ?One aspect doesn?t feel right. You said you found Mahmoud?s body together. But one person saw it first- even if it was only others reacting to him that drew their attention. Who first noticed it??

?The old man. He shuffled to a stop. And that was when we noticed he was looking behind the mosque. Is that what Hamdi told you??

?Hamdi told me jack shit, because I haven?t asked yet.? His eyes bulged. ?Here?s the thing: if you?ve been straight with me, I trust you. And if I trust you, your brothers won?t. They may even try to shank you in the night.? I pushed my fist, still holding the pantomimed knife, into his chest, and let it rest there as the thought sank in. ?Your best bet is to be honest with me, and then tell them you weren?t. Sure, it?s dishonest, but it lets us all keep our comfortable fictions going.?

Mustafa understood immediately. ?Of course.? And I understood that was why he lived long enough to be a veteran: he knew how to follow good advice.

?I?m going to question every man, in turn, in the same way I talked to you.?

?And in that way we will never know who broke faith- and who to trust.? There was sadness in his voice, despite the fact that my deception was sparing him. I wanted to feel bad for him. But I couldn?t.

06/22/11

  08:03:02 am, by Nic Wilson   , 16 words  
Categories: Barren Mind

Barren Mind: At Least It Wasn't A Pussy Joke

Continuing in Barren Mind's tradition of subtle entendres comes At Least It Wasn't A Pussy Joke.

06/21/11

  09:46:47 am, by Nic Wilson   , 679 words  
Categories: Gitmo

Gitmo 9: Khalid

This just wasn?t turning out to be my day. See, I knew whose home it was- Khalid- Mr. Nine Eleven; though mostly around here, people just called him the old man.

I knocked on the sliding glass window out to the deck; I?d gotten lucky Ramzi hadn?t done the normal thing a startled person holding a knife does, and didn?t feel like taking my chances a second time.

There were five men standing around the kitchen table. They weren?t happy to see me, but they obviously weren?t surprised, either.

Hamdi opened the sliding glass door and said, ?Please come in, Marshall.?

?Got a mess, here,? I said.

Unfazed, he replied, ?We were hoping to cooperate.?

My eyes narrowed. ?No, you weren?t. But now you are. Pick a room, each of you, and sit alone. I?ll talk to each man in turn, starting with the old man. And if you move once you?re in the room, I?ll know. Whatever happened here, the truth will out.?

Not another word was spoken, but they left the room. ?Have a seat, Khalid,? I said, pulling out a chair on the other side of the table; he didn?t sit down.

?I have to ask where you were last night.?

He was silent, biding his time. We hadn?t spoken much since he?d arrived- mostly because he didn?t deem me worth his discourse; I think he was weighing whether or not he could afford to wait me out, before he said. ?I hate you with my very bones.?

?That?s fine, but I still need an answer.? He glared. ?I need an answer. If you have an alibi, I can move on with my investigation. If you don?t, then we need to talk some more.? He sat still, his anger a constant heat, like the sun at midday. ?It?s a new world. You should talk to me, I only want to keep the peace. If you don?t, you?ll be sleeping on the concrete slab in my office until you do.?

?You do not have enough concrete slabs,? he said, with the hint of a smile. I wanted to haul him off his chair, drag him to the ground and tell him I had enough for him. I didn?t like him challenging my authority, but I knew better than to engage him on that level.

?Sit down, Khalid.? He smiled, taking a step back from the chair. ?I need you to stay here until I?ve finished my interviews- then I?ll take you to the slab. But in the meantime, I?m not giving you the run of your home. So you?ll sit down, or I?ll sit you down.?

I didn?t waste any more time, but moved quickly, aggressively crossing the kitchen in wide steps.

I feinted to the left. Khalid?s not a fighter; he flinched back- curling to protect the soft points on his head and torso- I seriously doubt he?d ever had to throw a punch of his own, so he feared the pain, retreated from it, tried to move back- only, I was never coming at his front. I slid beside him, pinned his left arm over my bicep and grabbed the hair on the back of his neck. With my left hand I grabbed his left wrist, pulled it up while twisting, and he rolled with the hold- anything to nullify the pain, until he was sitting flat on the floor against the wooden chair he refused to sit in.

?This is uncomfortable, Khalid, but if you move, I swear to your God I?ll hurt you.? For a moment he didn?t even breathe. I released him, and retrieved another zip tie from my belt, and attached him to the chair in such a way that it would be almost impossible for him to get up without help.

I had tried to let him sit in the chair. How he was now, he was going to be sore as hell by the time I finished my interviews; that warmed my cockles.

06/18/11

06/16/11

  02:29:52 am, by Nic Wilson   , 169 words  
Categories: Gitmo

Gitmo 8: Finding Mahmoud

I practically landed in Mahmoud. The body bag had been opened up with knives, and they?d set about him with them.

The whole thing felt reminiscent of Julius Caesar.

Most of the men had moved inside, but Ramzi was still there, holding a knife. When he saw me, he immediately dropped it and fell to his knees. ?Please,? he said, his head bobbing from the direction of my holstered pistol to me.

?I?m not going to shoot you,? I said, grabbing his upturned hands at the wrist and twisting, ?but I need you to lay in the grass and stay there.? I used just enough pressure to move him down to the ground. I slid a tie around his wrists.

There was blood and footprints on the deck behind the house, leading back in. I got back on the radio. ?Orange cat, got the body. They cut the tracer out of it and threw it out back. I?m going in.?

?Good luck, blue dog.?

06/15/11

  08:23:33 am, by Nic Wilson   , 14 words  
Categories: Barren Mind

Barren Mind: No Jokes About The Fish Smell

There's a new Barren Mind posted, (classily) titled No Jokes About The Fish Smell.

06/14/11

  09:37:49 am, by Nic Wilson   , 323 words  
Categories: Gitmo

Gitmo 7: Blue Dog

The air was warmer, now, so I was thankful to have the excuse not to run as I turned back on the radio. I keyed my radio. ?This is blue dog to orange cat.?

?Orange cat, blue dog, what?s your status??

?Fine. Residents are on lock-down, but I got one past the line.?

?Noticed that; we have MPs out to intercept.?

?Call them back; I?m pretty sure that resident isn?t making it far. It?s the corpse- somebody moved the body on me.?

?Situation normal, then??

?Normal enough,? I said. ?But keep an eye on the other trackers. If anybody starts moving, I?d like to know before I see them.?

?Can do.?

I hugged the fence line between two houses, and hopped the rear fence. That was where the nicely manicured lawns ended, and the wild Montana hill took hold.

I could see the posts with signs in a dozen different languages stating ?No passage.?

Mahmoud?s tracer had been between poles 63 and 64 on the northern perimeter, but his body wasn?t there. ?Orange cat, what?s the current location of that renegade tracker??

?You should be standing right on top of it.?

?Well I?m not, so unless someone?s pulling a magic trick, we got a body miss-? I cut myself off as I felt the small plastic crush beneath my feet.

?Blue dog, we just lost signal from the tracker.?

I bent over, and picked it up. ?Yeah, that?s cause I stepped on it.?

?Uh, blue dog, you?ve got a weird gathering of residents. You said they were on lockdown, but we?ve got six trackers coming from the home behind you.?

I should have knocked on the front door, come in calm and quiet, sat down for a chat, but I?d been getting jerked around all morning, and I was getting tired of it, so I jumped over the back fence.

06/11/11

06/09/11

  02:18:02 am, by Nic Wilson   , 324 words  
Categories: Gitmo

Gitmo 7: Blue Dog

The air was warmer, now, so I was thankful to have the excuse not to run as I turned back on the radio. I keyed my radio. ?This is blue dog to orange cat.?

?Orange cat, blue dog, what?s your status??

?Fine. Residents are on lock-down, but I got one past the line.?

?Noticed that; we have MPs out to intercept.?

?Call them back; I?m pretty sure that resident isn?t making it far. It?s the corpse- somebody moved the body on me.?

?Situation normal, then??

?Normal enough,? I said. ?But keep an eye on the other trackers. If anybody starts moving, I?d like to know before I see them.?

?Can do.?

I hugged the fence line between two houses, and hopped the rear fence. That was where the nicely manicured lawns ended, and the wild Montana hill took hold.

I could see the posts with signs in a dozen different languages stating ?No passage.?

Mahmoud?s tracer had been between poles 63 and 64 on the northern perimeter, but his body wasn?t there. ?Orange cat, what?s the current location of that renegade tracker??

?You should be standing right on top of it.?

?Well I?m not, so unless someone?s pulling a magic trick, we got a body miss-? I cut myself off as I felt the small plastic crush beneath my feet.

?Blue dog, we just lost signal from the tracker.?

I bent over, and picked it up. ?Yeah, that?s cause I stepped on it.?

?Uh, blue dog, you?ve got a weird gathering of residents. You said they were on lockdown, but we?ve got six trackers coming from the home behind you.?

I should have knocked on the front door, come in calm and quiet, sat down for a chat, but I?d been getting jerked around all morning, and I was getting tired of it, so I jumped over the back fence.

06/08/11

  08:37:29 am, by Nic Wilson   , 9 words  
Categories: Barren Mind

Barren Mind: (Pre)Daters

Barry understands why women are so cautious online: men.

06/07/11

  08:17:56 am, by Nic Wilson   , 179 words  
Categories: Gitmo

Gitmo 6: GPS

Tariq was still staring numbly at the bars in the cell as I bolted the front door. He didn?t look up.

I picked up my phone and dialed in the number for the intercom, and told myself that an unofficial lockdown was better than calling in the Fifth. ?May I have your attention please. This is the Marshall. A matter of public safety has come up. I?d like all of you to remain in your homes this morning. Thank you.?

My hand was shaking as I put the receiver down. Someone had Mahmoud?s body, but it could have been anywhere; a one-man search of the town was going to take hours.

The computer in the other room booped, and I poked my head around the corner. The GPS screen was still up, and was still updating. Mahmoud?s tracker was surrounded by rings of red, making it look like a target, and the machine booped again as the underground fence line flashed on the screen in blue.

Mahmoud?s tracer was sitting just across the perimeter line.

06/04/11

06/03/11

  09:51:14 am, by Nic Wilson   , 4560 words  
Categories: Nexus

Epilogue: Worm-Gate

Friday Night Stories are written once a week, and updated on Friday. Recently, I've been doing serials, and this one, Nexus begins†here.†This†final chapter is below.

I?m going to skip ahead. Not because nothing happened on the trip back, but because I was focused, maybe even obsessed. I guess I was worried that after our last infoburst, the company might have an inkling what we were up to, and anticipate us. Maybe even send a few Destroyers through the worm-gate to wait for us.

Since we didn?t stop on the way back, we maintained a higher speed for the duration, around 75% of lighstpeed. That ten percent increase will get us back a whole 2 months faster; I hate physics.††

It was late. Sam and I were restless, curled together in our bed. I think she sensed my anxiety, and it was rubbing off on her.

We were approaching the worm-gate; perhaps I was approaching my own mortality. I?d thought about the question before, and maybe I was afraid Sam was going to tell me that she was four and I was a pedophile or something- though I?d say she was at a minimum emotionally, psychologically and physically mature- if not temporally. ?How long do the females of your species live??

?About a hundred and forty of your years.?

?And how old are you, now??

?A gentleman?s never supposed to ask, but- young enough that I?ll outlive you.?

?So you?re younger than seventy- that?s helpful.?

?Much younger.? I winced, and she picked up on it. ?But not too young; older than Elle when you met her.

I turned towards her, and she must have noticed something in my expression, because she stopped smiling. ?I want you to know I was never just killing time with you. You weren?t just comfortable, or convenient.? Her eyes searched me, and I felt the tickle of her touch against my thoughts. ?I?m not leaving you. But what I?m about to do. It could go badly. And I?ve noticed? when we imprint, you?ve learned to keep things from me. Learned control over it. Questions. Insecurities. I understand why you did it, but you shouldn?t- and you shouldn?t feel like you have to. I wanted you to know that, just in case- and because, I want this to be the beginning of something new for us, too. It?s a turning point for the ship, and the crew. But for me and you, too.? Her eyes were getting moister. ?I?m coming back.?

?Then why do you protest it so much??

?I?m scared. I have a lot more to lose, now.?

?Flatterer. Do you have time for?

?Again? You didn?t wonder at all about that marathon last night? I?m surprised you can stand up.?

?It just makes me want more.?

?You?re voracious- a one-woman plague of sex locusts. But I was hoping to sneak away, before anyone else got up. But if you could pencil me in for a nooner.?

?I?ll tattoo it.? She kissed me, and didn?t stop for a quarter of an hour. When I finally pried myself away, she told me, ?You?re coming back.? I nodded.

Most of the crew was still in bed. The halls were empty, and in the stillness for a moment I thought I heard Ensign Dickbite?s misogynistic rant, but it was just a memory. I looked out the deck window, and saw the worm-gate.

The ship was already in a synchronous orbit with the gate- not that you could tell. In space, everything?s moving, but it?s moving at the same time, and usually pretty slowly, against the empty backdrop of the cosmos. We were trailing the gate by the standard safe distance of a few kilometers- a short enough distance I could make it there using the gas thrusters on an unaltered spacewalk suit.

It was a bear getting into it alone, and more than once I thought about asking Sam for help- but I knew if I let her in a room where I wasn?t wearing pants I wasn?t getting out of there for another few hours. And I was burning daylight- or at least the amount of time most of the ship would still be unconscious.

The first vote, to destroy the worm-gate, passed by the barest majority. But over the last two years, people started talking, especially the ground teams. Nobody likes realizing they?re the evil invaders.

But it didn?t have to be a big, showy event. The worm-gates were automated, with a colony of maintenance drones operated by a central processor.

I flashed back to Ensign Dickbite as the airlock doors closed behind me, locking me in the purgatory between ship and vacuum. I?d threatened to do this so many times, but it struck me as strange that the first person I was throwing out an airlock was myself. I hit the decompression button, and a pump sucked as much of the recoverable air out of the room for the ship to recycle. Then the airlock doors opened.

I always forget that space is cold. I don?t know why, but I?ve always expected the vacuum to be room temperature- but without gases to equalize temperatures, space is always either really cold, or if you?re in direct starlight, roast you in your space suit hot.

The worm-gate had an orbital radius about the size of earth?s- well, the size of earth?s from the standpoint of radiation. The worm-gate?s star put off considerably more radiation, so its radius was wider, but it was about the same radiation you?d get on earth- well, earth without the atmosphere, anyway.

My suit beeped, to tell me I was receiving small doses of EM radiation. ?Yeah, but not enough to stay warm,? I bitched. I kicked on my thrusters. It felt like I was barely moving- and judging by my nearest reference objects, namely the Nexus and the gate, I was, but all of us were traveling in excess of 30 km per second- picture swimming with the current in a river, if that makes it easier. But it also meant that the slightest misfire on the thrusters, and I was headed off at more than 30 km a second in the wrong direction- and it doesn?t take long at that speed to end up way of course- like in the middle of a solar storm or a micrometeor shower.

I took it slow, and the gate grew moment by moment; it reminded me of the approach to the Stalagmite. I?d forgotten how big the worm-gate was. It?s hard to imagine that this one grew on the tail of the Argos, that we had one nearly 40% done forming on the tail of the Nexus before we jettisoned it into a star. It?s so big it?s hard to imagine it?s a work of man at all, like the Rhodes Colossus or the pyramids.

?What the fuck do you think you?re doing??

It was Elle. I?d hoped she?d sleep in; in fact, I?d plied her with some very excellent bourbon to the purpose. ?Well, you know all that crap I said about this being all of us, and a new democratic destiny and all that? There?s a pretty good chance the company is going to want our heads for this. Each one of these star-ships cost about as much as the GDP of Brazil, and each worm-gate is worth about double that. I figure this way, if they?re out for blood, you can always claim the old captain went off the reservation. Acting alone. Like the lunatic I?m sure most of the corporate brass take me for.?

I was so close I could nearly reach out and touch the gate. I increased thrust just a hair as Elle spoke. ?That?s bullshit. What if you need help??

My fingers in the glove slipped off the edge of an access port, and for a moment I felt like I was falling- and I don?t just mean that in the everything is falling in orbit way- but it was momentary vertigo. I tried to smooth my nerves to speak. ?With what? The gate is staffed entirely by robots. And they?re keyed to my identity. They?ll welcome me with open arms.?

?I can?t let you do this, Captain,? Haley interrupted.

?Not you, too.?

?I don?t have the same qualms about you risking your life. It?s one of your more endearing qualities.?

?That?s touching,? I said.

?I do take issue with the murder of the worm-gate automatons.?

?Crap.? I paused with my hand on the crank to the door. The gate was designed with longevity in mind. Parts were only electrical if they absolutely had to be. The majority of its operations were entirely mechanical. ?What would you have me do??

?I believe I can sever their connection with the central gate control core. From there it would be simple enough to slave their processes to my core and bring them onto the Nexus.?

?Fine- but it?s on you if it goes tits up. And we do it after I?ve set the gate?s power plant to meltdown- that way if they do give the robot finger to your plan it?s just me who gets burnt, not the whole plan.?

?I?m sorry, but that?s even more stupid.? Elle broke in, almost yelling. ?Your plan has gone from senselessly taking all the risk yourself, to taking on extra risk so you can liberate some microwaves.?

?Automaton life is just as important as?

?No, Haley, it isn?t. You?re an AI- and maybe artificial life is just as precious, if less fragile, than biological life. But most of those bots don?t have AI, they?re automated maintenance drones. They really are toasters.?

?Most?? Haley asked.

?Holy hell.? I whispered, knowing that she was breaking the encryption on the worm-gate files and reading all of them in the space of the time it took me to say it.

?You weren?t going to tell me there was an artificial intelligence on board the gate??

?I hadn?t actually thought about it, Haley. But now that I do, Walter- his name?s Walter. Lower-level AI functionality, nothing quite so like you, but it does create a problem.?

?No,? Haley said, defiant. ?I can share my processors with him.?

?What?? I asked.

?The equipment from the gate will be five year old technology. I should be able to run his AI from a back-up server without even impacting overall performance.?

?But what happens if the company foresaw tampering as a problem, and built some kind of vicious attack into his coding? What if your little mission of mercy cripples the ship? Suddenly that?s a whole lot of people stranded, waiting for the company?s retribution.?

?We can?t murder him.? She was defiant.

?Shit.? I was certainly being paranoid, and like she said, it was five year old tech. ?How did my ship become Noah?s robotic ark??

?Because you love me.? Haley purred.

?I don?t think I love you as much as you think I do.?

?Tut tut,? she replied. ?Now you?re just pouting.?

?Can you two geniuses handle the suicide mission while I go put on some underpants, maybe get a cup of coffee,? Elle asked. She was upset, but it was that boiling, knife you later in your sleep kind of anger. That I could deal with.

But Haley chimed in before I could reply, ?Your services should not be required. I will be sure to inform you if the situation changes.?

?I?ll be waiting with underpants on.?

?I?ll treasure that thought,? I told her, and turned the handle. There was a brief rush of moisture as the worm-gate door depressurized. I expected to walk inside, but the hole was barely large enough for me to crawl into. The door automatically closed behind me, and the gate partially re-pressurized. Dim track lights flicked on in the room, illuminating my path.

The gate was designed knowing that eventually it would fail. The halls left enough room for a human being to riggle through-if only just. There was enough oxygen I was able to adjust my supply down to 20% usage. It put me on a ticking clock, a couple of hours to handle business, and enough oxygen to get back to the ship.

Without climate control, there were portions of the ship that were nearly at the temperature of vacuum- and others where mechanical heat made the gate almost unbearable to touch. I was sweating, and alternately sliding down or inching slowly and painfully forward through tight, constricting metal ducts. ?I feel like a wayward buttplug,? I muttered to myself.

?Though you smell better,? Haley offered.

?Thanks.? The gates were planned to eventually get permanent repair staff, a crew of between ten and twenty who were willing to stay. But the lifecycle of the gates was such that they were supposed to last for sixty years without needing maintenance- so until there were a few more gates, the expense, and more importantly the difficulty of finding the right mix of greedy, talented and damaged crew members willing to ferment in a tiny colony hadn?t been worth their while.

The design of the gate meant that I was going to crawl through every section before reaching the port I?d entered through. I came to the generators first. The worm-gates, just like the Nexus, were powered by chunks of star. Convincing it to meltdown was as simple as turning off a few of the containment procedures.

Another series of ducts pointed me around the curve. I was in the middle of pulling up schematics on my HUD when my sweaty hands slipped out from beneath me, and I was grabbed by the rotating gates light gravity and hurtled down into the blackness. I smacked against several hard corners, until being spat out on in a wider room. ?Ow. I feel like robotic feces, tumbling around inside the colon of the one true robot God.?

?Silly human. Robots don?t have gods,? Haley said. It took a moment before I realized that it wasn?t coming through my commms; I?d heard it through the gate?s thin air. ?Silly human,? ?Silly human,? ?silly,? ?silly? I heard it echo around me, like waves in the shallow surf. I could see the eyes of the robot drones, shimmering in the dark.

I reached for my pistol, wondering how many of them I could shoot before they overtook me in these tunnels.

?Sorry about that,? Haley said over the comms. ?I?ve never talked to so many robots at once. I think I pushed too hard- I took over their processes for a moment.?

?So they?re not going to tear my into little pieces, then??

?Not unless I ask them nicely to.?

?Good. Then don?t do that. And ask them nicely to evacuate to the Nexus. It shouldn?t take more than a push-off from this direction to get back there. Just open up a docking bay to catch them in.?

?Like fishing,? Haley said.

Exactly. But I need to speed things up. I?ve got a date with Walter, and if I?m late, well, we?ll both be going hungry.?

?I won?t tell Sam,? Haley said, almost giggly. ?But thank you. I know you?re taking risks on my behalf. And that not everyone would.?

?Don?t mention it.?

?I?m afraid I already have.?

?It?s an expression. A deflection, I guess, to keep from having to politely say you?re welcome.? Drone storage was wider, and with a higher ceiling, to allow for the robots to maintain one another, as well as accommodate any larger parts. But it didn?t last. The room ended in another series of tubes just large enough for a man to squeeze through. It took the better part of thirty minutes to get the rest of the way to the core.

?Haley- this all has to go perfectly. A single T doesn?t get crossed, and you and I are going to be lynched- we?ve stuck our necks out turkey-far on this one.?

?I?m not concerned; I have no neck.?

?Your solidarity?s touching, Hale. You sure you?re all set??

?I believe I have successfully rerouted the usual subroutines. Um. Yes. Almost missed one. It?s early for me.?

?I hope you?re joking.?

?About the early part, yes. About missing something, no. There was an antiquated bit of coding that I nearly missed, because in C of Java that particular syntax has been deprecated. But it?s all taken care of now.?

I closed my eyes and opened the door. In the center of the room was the processing core. A small metal plate, not unlike an eyelid, slid back, and the core glowed. ?Hi, how ya doing??

?Did they program you specifically to sound like Groucho Marx, or was that a happy accident?? I reached in around the ball, to where the orb was secured into the stand, and I remembered all the rumors during training that the stands were designed to slice through the wrists in the event of unauthorized processor contact- say theft.

?What they didn?t do was give me a lot of extra ram to run my functions while conversing with some guy whose got his hands on my- hey, you?re touching my ball. Er, brain. Processor. Egg. Thing. Stop.? There was a loud pop as the ball came out in my hands, which hadn?t been lopped off. ?Actually, that feels kind of good. Could you scratch behind my ear??

?You don?t have ears. You?re an orb.?

?Just scratch everywhere, then.?

?I?m not scratching your ball.?

?Hey, we don?t do that kind of humor, here. This is a clean show, a family show. Ya get me??

?Haley? Are you sure I can?t just kick him really hard and assume he lands somewhere outside the blast radius??

?That would not be humane, captain.?

?Whoa, whose the dame? Sounds like a looker. Can I see her??

?She?s an orb, just like you; I don?t know that there?s much to see.?

?I like a woman with an orb for a form- curves in all the right places. Say, pal, are you a smuggler? I like smugglers. If I ever have a son, I think I?ll make him a smuggler.?

?I?m not sure that?s how it works.?

?Do you mind if I call you Captain Spaulding??

?Why??

?I just like that name, dunno why.? I didn?t respond, just checked the schematic for the exit. It was a small tunnel opening up just behind Walter?s pedestal. Carrying him made the going even slower. ?You keep looking at your doohickey. I can?t help but wonder what?s your hurry.?

?We?re on the clock. How?s the evac going, Haley??

?Drones are all accounted for in the hangar.?

?Good. Um. Delicate question. But how big of a drop can this orb sustain without taking any damage? See, I?m pretty sure this is going to be the same kind of drop as earlier, and if I could just let gravity have its way-?

?He should be fine,? Haley said. I let him go.

?Ow, my orb. Seriously. I could have sprained my orb, here.? I was able to slow my descent enough that I didn?t land on him. Then I picked him up. There was even less light here, so I kicked up my photosensitivity; but that confirmed what I feared.

?We seem to have hit a wall, Haley.?

?The schematics are clear,? she said.

?Haley, please tell me that you can open up another exit, so I don?t have to wriggle through this station?s colon again, or at least that you can reprogram these liberated robots to fix my spine afterward.?

?Of course.?

?You can??

?No. I was just telling you that to make you feel better.?

?Haley.?

?Though the chiropractic robots might be doable. But their limbs supply several tons of pressure per inch. Calibrating them to apply the amount of pressure necessary to realign a human spine, without powdering the bones in the spine, would take a slight degree of trial and error.?

?Including how many casualties??

?Roughly seven. It?s difficult to say, given the unpredictability of spinal injuries.?

?Probably best not to, then. I don?t know if I have seven expendable crew members handy.?

?I?m telling you, there?s a way out over here,? Walter said, apparently unaware that ?here? wasn?t a useful word without some indication of where ?here? was.

?I don?t see one.?

?Who are you gonna believe, me, or your own eyes??

I touched the wall. ?Open sesame,? he said, and it swiveled open, into that first airlock. I lowered us down to the floor of the other room, and opened the airlock door. There was another hiss, and I started to push myself and Walter through the port door.

As soon as Walter passed the exit threshold I heard a warning beep from my HUD. It had been ages since it had made that noise, so I barely got out of the doorway as it slammed, with Walter on the outside. An angry, robotically feminine voice spoke. ?Return my processing core, or asphyxiate.?

?The core is outside the doors, idiot. If you don?t open the doors, how can I??

?I suppose you will asphyxiate, then, while I requisition another processing core. Requisition sent. Expected reply in approximately 6 years, plus two weeks for turn-around. Arrival of maintenance personnel possible as soon as ten years.?

?So long as you?re not in any hurry,? I said, probably foolishly wasting the last gulp of air from my lungs. I turned my suit?s oxygen output back up, but I was already running late, and was going to need to hold my breath on the way back to the Nexus; it?s output was less than 80%, ad it was hard to see how it mattered whether I ended up suffocating here or in space.

There was a loud clanging at the door, followed by the rush of air back into the room. But I was still on the edge of loosing consciousness; if it weren?t for the lack of gravity, I would have hit the floor twenty seconds ago. ?Processor returned. Thank you for your cooperation.?

The door slid open. Walter was floating there, pointed at me. And Elle was holding onto him. She grabbed my collar and pulled my through the doors. The ship?s OS seemed to notice too late she was getting screwed, and tried to slam the doors on me, but failed to.

Elle dragged me back to the Nexus; I vaguely remember riding piggy-back, until I made an erection joke, after which she made me get off. Then I passed out.

??know he?s only lost a few brain cells, but I don?t know that he has that many left to spare.? It was Elle?s voice, and I was back inside the Nexus, just on the other side of the air lock.

I felt a hand, softly stroking my cheek, and assumed it was Elle until she stepped into my field of vision, standing some feet away. Sam must have noticed it, and leaned in to kiss me in a territorial kind of way.

?I believe the worm-gate reactor is about to reach a critical state.? Sam helped me stand, and we looked out the window. The Nexus had backed off its orbit, so the worm-gate was smaller now.

?Sure we have enough distance, Haley??

?It?s possible we will absorb a small amount of debris, and possibly radiation. But well within the tolerance of our shielding and defensive capabilities.?

The worm-gate cracked in half, as fire belched out of the reactor. The explosion flowed through the tunnel I?d just finished crawling through, until the pressure overwhelmed its structural integrity, and it shattered, forming a tiny galaxy of shrapnel. I winced, remembering something.

?Sorry about the other AI, Hale. I didn?t know they?d have a back up.?

?She?s a goal-based operating system that expresses itself in human terms; but she?s not an artificial intelligence. She doesn?t have emotions, or feel. She even lacks a compassion simulator. She is, to borrow the parlance, a microwave. Also, she tried to kill you. In this instance, I believe I can make an exception. Excuse me. EngDiv has just arrived with Walter?s core.?

?Uh, boss, are we sure this isn?t a catastrophically bad idea?? EngDiv was a little winded, and very unsure.

?Nope.?

?And we?re doing it anyway, then??

?Yup.?

?Okay. There?s going to be a little tickle, Haley.?

For a moment the lights on the ship dimmed. ?What was? I started to ask.

?Oh, shit, my bad,? EngDiv muttered. ?Uh, adding the core, that server had to restart to start processing through it, but that meant instantly shuffling anything in-process away from the server in a hurry. Nothing to worry about, though. Specs all still look good.?

?Hello. My name is Haley.?

?Walter. Um. I?m inside you. I feel funny about that.?

?That?s cute- but only because I don?t think you were being cheeky.?

?So we?re connected forever, huh? I?m just asking, because it seems we?re inseparable. I?ve got nothing against monogamy; marriage is a wonderful institution, it?s just who wants to live in an institution??

I turned down Walter?s volume, not just for myself, but on the master controls, figuring he was going to be obnoxious at least until he settled. I turned my attention back to the wreckage of the worm-gate.

?We?re free. I guess I didn?t recognize it before now. But the company doesn?t own us. Doesn?t control us. We can?t go home; the Earth wouldn?t take us back, not matter how contrite we might be. We?re free, but we?re also adrift. I don?t know what kind of a universe is waiting out there to greet us. It?s terrifying, and empty, but exhilarating.?

?I just hope you haven?t killed us all,? Elle said.

?Not yet.?

?But that doesn?t mean the dominos aren?t set to fall.?

?Dominos? How old are you??

?What? I played with them in a physics simulator. It?s not like I hand-carved them out of a log I stole off my younger than me neighbor Abe Lincoln?s cabin.?

?Still though, I?ve always wondered what mastodon meat tasted like.?

?Careful. You?re not the unquestionable captain anymore; you don?t have a crew champing to keep me from shoving you out an airlock.?

I laid my head on Sam?s shoulder. ?I know. Isn?t it wonderful??

?Captain, I?m receiving an infoburst.?

?That was fast,? I said, realizing immediately that it meant the message was sent before we arrived at the gate- years before.†

?It?s from the captain of the Argos. He says he?s coming for you.?

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