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Life in Open Air

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“So,” Dudani said, “there are a few problems we may want to address now that we’re all free, alive, and in possession of our genitals.”

“Until about twenty minutes ago, I was a heap of ashes in unbearable pain,” Walton said. “Can we not save the diagnostics rundown until I’ve gotten used to having skin again?”

He was hogging the bottle of good, identifiable vodka, but Nanette figured he had more than earned it. “You drink. I’ll listen.”

“You coders,” Shania said. She reached around Walton and liberated a bottle of something brightly magenta. “You’re all the same. Never happy unless you’ve got something to fix or mod.”

“Actually, this is probably of interest to everyone,” Dudani said. “To start with, we don’t have any bathrooms.”

Nate shrugged. “Sure, we all know that. It’s not a—” He stopped. “Shit. We’re all fully functional now.”

“I do not understand,” Elena said. “When I play Infinity at home, from what I remember, I do not have to use any bathrooms in the game.”

“Because your physical body isn’t in the game,” Nanette said. “And now we don’t have physical bodies, sure, but our virtual clones have all our same sensations and needs except for what Daly reskinned, so… I think we’re going to need a couple of bathrooms. How many bathrooms do we need for seven people?”

“Fucking Brady Bunch got by with just the one,” Shania said. “Me, I’m thinking four, minimum.”

Dudani raised his hand like he was waiting for Nanette to call on him and then sheepishly took it down again when he saw the look she was giving him. “We may also want to think about having a real kitchen put in. We have the replicator, but the food from that is really bland and I’m not actually sure of the nutritional value.”

“Nil,” Walton said. “It was designed by a man who lived off—pizza deliveries and fucking Easy Mac.” He took another long drink. “There’s no gym here either.”

“Yeah, that’s going to be a pain in the ass,” Valdack said.

“I mean, we should really all take a minute to be grateful here,” Nate said. “We’ve just accomplished something monumental. Daly is gone for good and we’re living artificial intelligence loose in the most thoroughly designed virtual world imaginable.”

“Right, so we take a moment,” Elena said. “Then we work out bathrooms.”

The gamer asshole who’d been their one-man Infinity welcome wagon had made a fair, if horribly delivered, point. They were in a system that ran on trade deals and they had nothing to trade. Ship upgrades were big-deal in-game expenses—four bathrooms and a real kitchen would cost them a goldmine. They’d be lucky if the bathrooms didn’t wind up requiring hand-rolled code, considering people probably weren’t beating designers’ doors down asking for functional plumbing mods. But okay, fine, she could program it all herself if she had to. It still meant buying the right level of access to get to where she could start doing customized shit.

“We could hack our real world bank accounts,” Nanette said, thinking out loud. “Just buy the currency points here directly. But I don’t know if we want to have to make a decision right here and now on whether or not we’re going to risk getting discovered.”

“I’ve had about enough despotic programmer bullshit to last me a lifetime, frankly,” Shania said. “I’m not voting for more of that unless we have to.”

“Agreed,” Walton said. He leaned against the wall.

That proved unanimous.

“All right,” Nanette said. “We pass for your garden variety players right now—just weirdo ones who get their kicks from a serious level of realism. So that means… we need to rack up some XP. Like, now. We need experience and in-game rewards stat.”

“So that means… what, exactly?” Valdack said.

Shania drank the magenta booze directly from the bottle and then wiped her mouth on the back of her hand. “It means we’ve got to go on another fucking adventure.”


 

Nanette studied their options. She’d spent a frightening number of hours logged into Infinity, but the game’s universe was too sprawling for anybody to really get a fix on it, especially when new user-submitted worlds were always getting entered. She didn’t know their immediate surroundings, but they were too short on fuel and time for her to navigate them back to familiar waters and easy XP-grabs. They’d have to work with the unknown. And after Daly, that should be nothing, except—

“Now we might really be able to die,” Shania said. “That’s what you’re thinking.”

“Yeah. And we’re going to be surrounded by players who don’t know that killing us is going to do anything more than piss us off.”

It was just the two of them in the navigation room. Shania sat on the table eating one of the apples the replicator had spit out for them.

“How’s that taste?” Nanette asked.

“Sort of like wet sawdust you bite into through a juice-box. And even the juice-box used to have cranberry juice in it instead of apple. Not recommended.” She took another bite anyway. “Look, Nanette, an hour ago we were all crossing our fingers that we’d even have the chance to poof out and die. If that’s our worst case scenario here, you know, fuck it.”

Nanette exhaled. “Well, if you’re all going to keep calling me Captain half the time, you can’t expect me not to take the responsibility seriously.”

“You do seem like the serious type, babe. But really, don’t worry about it.” She pointed at one of the planets. “There. What about that one?”

“Not a likely candidate. Anything coded purple is user-designed, and hardly anybody bothers to build in quest mechanics. We want green or blue, those are the ones Callister put together. Green is for beginners, so those will be pretty safe, lots of ways to rack up XP, but only at really low levels, it’ll take us a while to get the kind of cash we’re going to need. Blue is advanced.”

“Greater the risk, greater the reward. Let’s go blue.”


 

Nate set them down on Hugh’s World.

“Who in the hell is Hugh?” Elena demanded.

Dudani read off the screen: “‘Hugh’s World is an advanced fourth-level off-route planet. Once a beautiful natural world of tall trees and many indigenous life-forms, Hugh’s World was purchased and strip-mined by Hugh Partridge, a rogue robber baron obsessed with getting as much wealth from the planet as possible with no care for its inhabitants. It is now a bleak wasteland teeming with radioactive monsters, but valuable resources can still be picked from the bones Hugh left behind.’”

“Who writes this shit?” Elena said.

“I think that’s one of mine, actually,” Valdack said apologetically. “I mean, I think I did the intro text for it. I wrote a good bit of the in-game material—not the code, obviously, but the texts you find, the dialogue, shit like that.”

“Same here,” Shania said. “Character bios for the NPCs.”

“That’s kind of cool,” Nate said. “It’ll be like we’re meeting your kids.”

“Right,” Shania said. “Only that’s super fucking creepy, so it won’t be like that at all, actually.”

“Got it.” Nate looked around. “Anybody want to stay on the ship?”

No one volunteered, but Nanette intervened: “Dudani—it’s Kabir, right?—Kabir, would you mind sitting this one out? As far as I know, you’re the only one who knows how to work the transmat beams, and I don’t want to be coming back spliced into anybody else. Besides, we might need a lift in a hurry.”

“Right,” Kabir said. “I’ll get to work striking a deal with someone for our modifications, then.”

“You are a godsend,” Elena said. “And does anybody have a working fucking gun?”

“The guns should have all reset when Daly’s skin got stripped off.”

“I know you mean the skin of the game,” Walton said, his eyes half-closed, “but fuck me, that is a beautiful sentence.”

The armory confirmed it: they had a shit-ton of standard Infinity weapons instead of Daly’s customized Space Fleet price-checker-bullshit. Thank God he’d started off with a fully-loaded weapons chest before he’d reskinned it to his liking, because some of this was top-of-the-line. Maybe even unreleased—there was at least one plasma cannon-looking shoulder gun she didn’t recognize. They could sell off some of these too. People would go nuts for them, especially the ones that were little bits of rogue code or vintage designs the main game had since updated.

Shania loaded up, slinging ammo belts across her chest while singing “She Works Hard for the Money” under her breath.

Valdack seemed to be picking out his weapon based on weight, apparently not wanting to get stuck lugging around something massive again, but he stopped with his hand on a tiny water-pistol-style gun that Nanette was pretty sure was a one-to-one rip from Men in Black.

He said, “What do you guys think happened to Gillian?”

“Gillian from Marketing?” Nanette said. She remembered the looming, fleshy scorpion-spider that had fallen to its knees in exhaustion once Daly had paused the game—they’d said that Daly’s frustrations, the virtual clones he’d given up on and trashed, were all over his little Star Fleet world. It was like a hard punch to her stomach, knocking the air out of her.

“If Daly’s pocket universe got noticed by the main system,” Nate said slowly, “then it got deleted.”

“So they’ve been erased,” Elena said. “We are the only ones who had the reset, because we were on the ship.”

“Not the worst thing,” Walton said. His voice was crisp. “It was what we were all hoping for, wasn’t it? Game over.” He selected a sidearm and holster. “Not that I’m going to try to use this much, for the record. I have the world’s shittiest aim and the vodka’s starting to kick in. Love it.”

Nanette surveyed her ragtag crew. “Okay, who is the best shot?”

“Me, maybe?” Valdack said. “I did a pretty long antagonist stint, so I actually got a workable weapon a couple of times—it was more of a combo laser pointer-paintball gun workup, but…”

“That’s something,” she said encouragingly while privately thinking that if that was the best they could do, they might just be screwed if it came to any actual combat.

The others weren’t much better. Nate had played a handful of first-person shooters, Shania had done target practice at school (“Don’t get too excited, love, it was archery and this isn’t Robin Hood, is it?”), and Elena was just going off movies. She and Nate knew a little bit of hand-to-hand self-defense, at least, though Nanette would guess that they were both exaggerating a little. They were all in tech, after all—their jobs were all about sitting and staring at screens. Not exactly the first refuge of the physically fit.

And she didn’t know the first thing about guns.

“But you know this game,” Shania said. “If you play it all the time and killing things is a big part of getting your money or whatever, don’t you have to be at least a little good at it?”

Nanette shook her head. “Not that good. You can buy the points, after all. And then you can trade, and it’s more—it’s more of a trading game in general. None of you know this, seriously?”

“I know it,” Kabir volunteered.

“Not my end,” Walton said.

“I just come up with the people,” Shania said.

“Planets,” Valdack said. “Plus, I’ve been in here, like, forever. Almost as long as Walton.”

Walton gave a dry, hard little laugh at that. “Yeah, buddy. You still missed our halcyon days.”

“Let’s not start up the parade of bad memories,” Elena said. “Not even from you, Walton, sorry. We’ve got to focus. Captain Nanette, do you fight with anything at all?”

She couldn’t believe she had wound up in this situation. “A sword, okay? My avatar usually fights with a sword.”

“Fucking shit,” Elena said.

“Fine,” Shania said, unruffled. “Let’s get the woman a sword, then.”

“The vote of confidence is appreciated,” Nanette said. “Home remodeling first. Beam us down, Kabir.”


 

Nanette looked around.

“Infinity promises a barren wasteland, Infinity delivers a barren wasteland. I don’t see the radioactive monsters yet, but I’m sure they’re around, so let’s all stick together and move as a group.”

“Do we want to find radioactive monsters?” Shania said.

“Ugh, maybe. We do if we can kill them, because we’ll get XP for it and we can convert that into in-game cash, but that’s definitely not Plan A. I’d rather find some of those left-behind resources the computer mentioned, the ones Hugh didn’t get to. I mean, in the game. Obviously there wasn’t really a Hugh in the first place.”

Walton picked his way across the still-smoking stones that Hugh’s World seemed to be made of—he had decent balance for a guy who’d admitted to being a little drunk. “If an intergalactic robber baron dies on a swamp planet and no one bothers to code him, does he really exist?”

“No,” Elena said.

“Good to know.”

“This isn’t our best work,” Nate said, looking around. “It’s a little one-note.”

“That might work to our advantage, though.” Nanette kicked at a rock. “If it’s boring, a lot of players might not bother coming here, so there won’t be a lot of competition for resources. And if it’s simplistic in its design, then it’ll probably be even easier to figure out how it’s built. So there’s that.” She looked up at the swirling gray sky. “Did Daly design this place?”

“God, I hope not,” Shania said. “I’ve had all I can take of being in that psycho’s fantasy space.”

“Now this I actually know.” Walton moved his foot from side to side, clearing the rocks away to show a viscous, oily-looking gray soil. “Disgusting.” He knelt down and dug his fingers in, shoveling up handfuls of mud for so long that Nanette thought he must have cracked. But then at last he said, “Got it,” and grunted, shifting aside but leaving his arm stuck in the hole he’d made. “Check it out.”

Nanette leaned over. There was a gold plate down at the bottom of the pit he’d dug—it looked like the tiny plaque that would have gotten screwed onto some kind of commemorative bench. It was blank.

“What the hell?”

“Yeah, Bob liked signing his work. All these planets, if you dig around in any space that’s not specifically coded for mining, you’ll come up with this shit, these little engraving plates. They’re coded into the planet template he handed out to his team. And on his worlds, they’ve got his initials.”

“I’m surprised no one’s found these by now,” Nanette said.

“Well, my hand smells like six different kinds of shit, so I’m not.” He wiped his fingers clean in long swipes against his leg. “On the worlds where it’s more tempting to dig around, he probably laid them in a little deeper—basically they just mark where the game runs out of world. You could take fucking forever and walk your way around this entire planet, it’s real enough for that, but you can’t burrow through it. Or any of the others.”

“Not until the right patch comes along, anyway,” Nanette said. “I’d have loved a chance to code in geological layers.”

“Of course you would have,” Shania said fondly. “But okay, so it’s not Daly’s work, fucking hip-hip-hurray—”

“For he’s a jolly good fellow,” Walton muttered.

“—but that means we don’t know how whoever designed this thought. We don’t know where they would have set up their little goldmines or whatever.”

Valdack said, “I vote we just kill monsters.”

“Do you see any monsters?” Elena said. “We are in the backwater boonies part of this idiot place. Wherever the action is, it is somewhere else.”

Good point. She radioed up to Kabir. “Kabir, can you see anything on our sensors? Any particular direction we should head in?”

His voice filled the air around them. “Um, west? Are you walking now?”

“Yeah, we’re walking.”

“Okay, that’s not west, you’re going more… southeast.”

“I guess none of us made Eagle Scout,” Nate said.

“If we were playing,” Nanette said, suddenly irritated by this, “we could just call up a compass from our built-in inventory, it’s standard equipment. But nope, we had to be alive. Seriously inconvenient. Kabir, are we going west now?”

“Mostly!”

They marched—well, veered, anyway—west-ish for about an hour before Elena called out that she’d spotted something on their scanner. They were coming up on a swarming collection of life-signs.

Shania stopped. “I’ve got a point we haven’t considered before,” she said. “If we’re coming up on a bunch of radioactive monsters, and we’re real to the point that we’ve got bodily needs and real skin and all that, doesn’t that mean that we’re about to go off like bloody Geiger counters? That code’s going to mess with our code and—I hate this fucking game, you know, I really do. I wanted to be a journalist.”

“Well, I wanted to be anything other than an unpaid intern,” Nate said. “So welcome to the club. Kabir, would the ship’s sensors detect radiation?”

“Yes, and no.”

“What the fuck does that mean?” Elena said.

“Sorry—yes, our sensors would detect radiation and no, they don’t detect any right now. Anywhere, actually.”

Wait, Nanette knew this setup. A deeply unappealing world design, a grim-sounding official description with multiple red flags that would warn away gamers looking to play it safe, and then—no radiation, no monsters, and no apparent hazard greater than tripping over a rock. Which meant…

She grinned. “It’s a reverse honeytrap.”

“A what?” Valdack said.

“A honeytrap—where you make something look great—”

“Or sexy,” Shania offered.

“—so people will stumble into it or, yeah, try to screw it. Infinity’s loaded with regular honeytrap planets, places that look like paradise until it turns out the ocean wants to eat you or all the NPCs are in some kind of death cult. This is the reverse. There’s a storyline buried around here somewhere that we’re ideally supposed to stumble across, but, spoilers, I’m guessing it’s that Hugh is still alive and, even better, is loaded. And, being a rich asshole, he turned the parts of the world he didn’t want into a slag-heap to discourage visitors and got the computers to spit out that this place is dangerous. But it’s not. It’s valuable.”

“So the life-signs?” Elena said.

Nanette shrugged. “Let’s go say hi. Maybe it’s a party.”


 

It was.

The life-signs were all congregated in a lavish four-story mansion that looked like it had been imported straight from some architect’s nightmare: it was festooned with every ostentatious symbol of wealth and grandeur, but they’d just been vomited up without any regard for good taste or even how they would all fit together. Gargoyles leered down at them from the tops of Grecian columns. A marble-and-gold fountain bubbled with champagne.

And a red carpet led right up the front steps and in through the open double doors.

They could see a crowd milling around inside. They didn’t look like player characters—or at least Nanette didn’t think so. PCs usually had their own varied wardrobes, custom-skinned and heavily personalized, and everyone in the house seemed to be dressed in black-and-white formalwear. Outdated formalwear at that.

If they were meant to be ghosts, though, someone had fucked up on their color palettes—there were ghosts programmed into Infinity, but they always looked washed-out and sepia-toned.

“Nanette,” Shania said, sounding a little tense, “you want to give us some idea of what we might be dealing with here?”

“I’ve never been to this planet before.”

“But you know the game in general,” Elena said. “Try to guess.”

“I’m getting a Kubrick vibe,” Nate murmured. “I just can’t decide if it’s more Shining or Eyes Wide Shut.”

Nanette bit her lower lip. “Okay, I’m guessing that these are all NPCs—part of the game, not other players—which means all possible interactions with them have been scripted. Literally everything else about Daly aside, Infinity’s programming is really brilliantly flexible, so they’ll be able to respond to almost anything we can throw at them. But we can at least try to predict them based on whatever storyline we think they’re setting up.”

“If we’re stumbling on a party out in the middle of nowhere,” Shania said, “could be it’s the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow and they’re all going to congratulate us for having found them. And then they’ll just fork over our XP and cash and whatever else.”

“Yeah. That’d be nice.”

“Or,” Shania continued, “it’s a regular honeytrap inside a reverse honeytrap and it’s going to try to kill us.”

“I’m thinking that,” Walton said.

“Stay together,” Nanette said. “And if you can, find me a sword.”

They edged into the mansion. The crowd spun in their direction at once and with eerie precision.

She could feel sweat tingling on her palms. Come on, weren’t they all entitled to a break at this point? They just wanted a simple fucking bathroom modification. Maybe she should just have Kabir beam them up and start auctioning off some of the fancier weaponry. You could get by a long time in Infinity without doing any idiotic side-quests or facing down any major adversaries.

But that wasn’t her call to unilaterally make, no matter what chair she was sitting in. They had all decided to be here.

She stepped forward and plastered a smile on her face. “Hello. We’re the crew of the USS Callister. We understand that this is Hugh’s World—we were just looking around, maybe hoping to fight some of the monsters we’ve heard about.”

One of the women opened her mouth into a perfect O. A cicada-like chittering sound came out of her.

“I hate this fucking game,” Walton said. “I don’t even care how much money it made the real me.”

Nanette held up her hand. “No, wait. I know this. She’s actually talking to us, we just don’t have the right translators installed—that’s another thing we’re going to have to shell out for at some point.” She addressed the cicada woman in the black satin evening gown with as much politeness as she could manage. “I’m really sorry, but we’re completely broke right now and we’re… new here. We don’t have any translation chips implanted yet. Do you have anybody who speaks English?”

“I speak your barbaric tongue,” a man in the back of the room drawled.

He was a standard-issue NPC sexy-femme-bad-boy, with slightly elfin ears, indigo eyes, and long white hair. It was the kind of look that came across way better as animation than reality, where the overall effect was too Lisa Frank meets Goth fantasy dreamy and just smack in the middle of the uncanny valley. She’d actually been hoping the patch would fix these guys, but no dice, apparently.

“My name is Alexander Dimitrios Ursuline,” elf-boy said. “You say you seek the monsters? You’re on a… quest? That’s very quaint.”

“We’ve been stuck on a spaceship from the fifties,” Shania said. “Quaint’s right in our line.”

“Is that so? In any case, there are no monsters—except the ones you see before you.” Alexander spread out his hands, indicating the rest of the party, still frozen and facing their direction, their eyes blank. They looked like enormous sunflowers. “Crew of the USS Callister, I present to you—the resources of Hugh’s World. Or what is left of them.”

“They’re people,” Nanette said. “Hugh—traded in people?”

“Valdack’s little writeup did mention local inhabitants,” Nate said under his breath.

Alexander nodded. “Hugh Partridge traded in everything. Though it would be more accurate to say that these were people, once—now they are only zombies. Their brains were stripped down to the bare essentials, their physical processes were augmented, and they were made into cheap, mindless labor. They’re robots with flesh.”

“And tuxedos.”

“Hugh is gone,” he said. “Why shouldn’t they be allowed to pretend now?”

“You’re not one of them, then,” Nanette said cautiously.

“No. I am—their caretaker, I suppose. Someone must be. They were starving when I found them—the poor things knew how to eat but not how to forage or farm.” He shrugged and raised a champagne flute to his mouth. “So I stayed.”

“Valdack? Do you know anything about this?”

“No way. They just said ‘come up with this many planets and make sure to change it up a little each time.’ The programmers worked off what I gave them, not the other way around.”

Alexander had apparently been designed to ignore PC-to-PC conversation, because he went on explaining the world to her. It would probably have made a cut-scene, she realized, for any actual player. Not for them.

“I could do nothing about the rumors of lurking treasures,” Alexander said, “but I could make sure they were bracketed by rumors of monsters and contamination. And I make sure Hugh’s survivors don’t look like the resources they were intended to be. As of yet, no one has taken them.”

“Maybe it’s a moral proposition,” Nanette said to her team. “The game is testing us, asking us if we want to get involved in the slave trade. Not a honey trap anymore—somebody was going for a thinkpiece article about in-game morality.”

“They’re not real,” Elena said.

Nate shook his head. “They’re as real as we are.”

“Yes,” Alexander said thoughtfully. “I would say so myself.”

Dammit, she’d thought he’d been coded not to hear them. But there was something strange in his expression, something she didn’t remember from any of her previous encounters with his character type. He was looking at them with what she would swear was curiosity—intelligent, human curiosity. But there was no way he was a PC, not with that visual design, not with him treating the history of this world like it was unequivocally real. There’d been no trace of play in his voice when he’d talked about Hugh having altered the world’s inhabitants. If he was acting—if he was a real life person plugged in and just getting off on full commitment to the bit—he was doing one hell of a job.

Nanette had a strange, cold suspicion, like a ghost’s hand laid on the back of her neck. “Alexander. Have other people come here before?”

“Yes.”

“Did you tell them all this? Because if you did, it seems like you’re not great at keeping your own secrets, not if you’re just blurting them out to us.”

Alexander’s ludicrous indigo eyes stayed on hers. “I’ve told no one but you.”

“And why us?”

He said nothing.

“Because you can tell we’re not like the others,” Nanette said. Her heart was pounding. “You can, can’t you?  It’s not about giving us some kind of illuminating choice, it’s… your choice.  You made a choice to tell us.”

“Are you really thinking this?” Nate said.

“I think I am. Yeah.”

“What are you thinking, babe?” Shania said.

Nanette said, “He’s… self-aware. He’s conscious code.”

“Final Fantasy boy? What, he’s one of Daly’s—”

“No. He came with the game. He’s—ascended code. Walton. You—the real you—you’ve now got actual sentient self-evolved AI on your hands.”

“AI,” Alexander said. “Is that what it’s called?”

“What were you originally doing here?” Nanette said. “Why did you come? No one else here looks like you—this can’t have been your organic storyline. You were from another environment, another planet, right?”

“Crystalos.”

It was one of the most heavily trafficked worlds—he must have been constantly coming into contact with players whose conversation and gameplay demands had tested and enhanced his flexibility. Maybe that had triggered it. Or maybe, for all she knew, he had been someone’s pet project—somewhere in Callister in the outside world, some other programmer could have been nursing a secret.

“What did you do there?”

“I worked in the pleasure palaces.”

Definitely a lot of player encounters, then. Yet the game’s sex workers weren’t heavily scripted NPCs—they were designed for interaction, not for triggering and executing any of Infinity’s vague storylines. He hadn’t been written into any corners. He had just been visited, over and over again, until something someday had clicked into place.

“And then one day I realized…” Alexander shook his head. “I left. And came to a place where I thought there would be no one.”

But instead of finding isolation, he’d found one of the game’s darker stories—a planet occupied solely by desperate, starving, brainwashed slaves who could be used, abused, sold… whatever the player who found them was willing to try. And he, who’d started life as a string of code, had instead taken care of them. Protected them. Dressed them up in black-tie fashion and let them have parties in their crazy mansion that, she realized now, they had probably more or less cobbled together themselves from their patchwork little minds. They were looking at the first—one of the first? Who knew, really? Infinity was, per its name, almost infinite—genuine possessors of artificial intelligence, of AI soul, and—he was kind.

He might have been Daly’s creation, one way or another, but he didn’t have Daly’s mind. This was a new world.

Brave new world that has such people in it—like them. Like anime-influenced uncanny-valley ex-brothel heroes.

Nanette held out her hand to him. She felt in awe, like she was about to form some kind of peace treaty with this new kind of life—something between an alien and Frankenstein’s monster. They had all worked for Callister, so they had all played their little part. They’d all polished the instruments in the lab while Alexander—and however many more there were like him—had been endowed with some necessary spark. You break it, you buy it. You animate it, you definitely buy it. This new species of people was their responsibility.

Alexander shook her hand.

“I’m Nanette Cole,” she said. “It’s nice to meet you.”

The others introduced themselves as well—she radioed in Kabir so he didn’t miss it—and Alexander took in each name silently, nodding.

“The other people—” Walton cleared his throat. “Your other visitors—the other people who aren’t like you, who aren’t like us—they’ll keep on coming. Sooner or later someone will try to take your, ah, friends.”

“I know,” Alexander said quietly.

“When that happens,” Nanette said, “you call us.” She wasn’t going to say any ridiculous shit about Space Fleet working to protect the innocents of the galaxy, but she felt like she would have liked to say some kind of ridiculous shit. “That’s our real quest.”


 

“I’m not going to forget anytime soon that I was the only one of us who didn’t get to meet actual, native-born AI,” Kabir said, still looking down with misty-eyed wonder at Hugh’s World, a gray splotch below them, “but I did manage to strike a deal for some of the more ostentatious weapons in our armory and some of the rocks down there that I beamed up. Decoration for fountains—very in right now. We’ll have credits enough for… I suppose a half-bath. Once you take out the costs of refueling.”

“A half-bath,” Elena said.

“A toilet and a sink—”

“Yes, I know what one is.” She ran her hands back through her hair. “I am greasy. I need a shower. I’m not saying at all that I want the old universe, even without Daly, but there was no oil or stink there. I’m not used to this.”

“We’ll work it out with the half-bath and a loofah for right now,” Nanette said firmly. “When we get a little more money, we’ll figure out whether or not we want to up the bathrooms or do the kitchen. In the meantime, the replicator will keep us alive.”

“Which we are,” Shania said. She leaned against one of the control panels, her long legs stretched out in front of her. “Alive. And now we’re not the only ones—not the only ones who need this little universe to keep on spinning.”

“No. So I guess we’ve got a purpose now. Never mind even being alive, we’re going to have a life.”

“It really has been a hell of a day,” Walton said. He was holding another one of the liquor bottles but he hadn’t opened it yet; he was just letting it dangle loosely from his hand. His smile was soft—so this was what he looked like, Nanette thought, when he knew for sure that his son would be proud of him.

“A day of miracles,” Kabir said grandly.

“Dude,” Valdack said, pained, “don’t ruin it.”

Nanette leaned back in the captain’s chair and closed her eyes, letting the sounds around her sink in—the light bickering, the soft thrum of the ship’s engines. Shania moved to stand next to her and, very casually, let her hand fall down on top of Nanette’s and rest there. Nanette moved her thumb up and down the smooth, warm side of Shania’s little finger and smiled without even opening her eyes again. Sleep was another thing they needed, but she didn’t think the bedrooms would be a problem—they weren’t dealing with the same level of fifties TV prudishness there. They’d have beds—probably sterile, uncomfortable, and twin, but they’d have them. That would be another thing to improve, especially if this delicious pressure of Shania’s hand on hers went any further. Her whole life suddenly seemed like a long list of tasks and necessities, half pleasurable and heroic and half unbelievably, brain-meltingly dull.

Necessarily episodic, she guessed. So Space Fleet had gotten it partly right—Daly had just learned all the wrong lessons from it.

They should probably rename the ship—veer away from the retro, did-you-get-my-joke homage bullshit, veer away from the man who’d stuck them on it in the first place—but for right now, she kind of liked it in all its silly, painful glory. They’d ditched the show’s space bikinis, but they had, at least for a day, lived up to its utopian dreams. And, for that matter, its madcap, hopeful reality. Here they were, a bunch of inexperienced weirdos with a shoestring budget. Trying to put together the future.