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Elapsed Time: -131246:17:49

Angry as hell at her stupid mother and pissed at her boyfriend besides, the free-born girl paused in front of the offworld jobs broker to check her hair in the mirrored window. A bus rumbled past. It belched the boozy scent of a bad fuel cell. Something banged hard in its wake, catching her attention as she reached for palm plate and admittance to her future.

The rapid glance at the moving crowd showed her father walking by on the other side of the street. His head was down, his hands in the pockets of his plastic work coat, but she'd know that knifeblade nose anywhere--she saw it every morning in the 'fresher.

The girl turned, words on her lips, calling her father's name, even before she realized it couldn't be him, that Papa wouldn't walk any streets ever again in her lifetime.

Did she have an uncle?

Distracted from her errand, she dodged traffic and ducked the datazap from a copper's penalty wand to catch up to the familiar stranger.

She could get a job tomorrow. There were a million contracts for someone like her.

Elapsed Time: -98131:33:34

The life-bonded boy--young man, he would have said with bladed resentment, but he still called himself a boy in his secret thoughts--cupped his hands over the dice and set himself to one last roll.

He was in deep. Trigger Mayhew and the Ling-Dao goons stood there waiting to collect, dozens of grinning spectators surrounding them. Deep and deeper, but the boy just needed one good throw to make back his bets and triple out. He'd put his air and water tags on the Prince of Bones. There was no higher stake.

The dice were hot in his hand. For a moment the rumors of Mayhew's smartmatter hacks danced in his head, but the life-bonded boy knew right then he could beat even that famously elusive cheat. It was his destiny. His moment.

Then the Compliance Officers busted in, even though it was a paid-off game. Flash-bangs, bone-sonics, skin-tinglers, the works.

He was down before he could draw. Three months in solitary, minimum, he thought, tears on his face. Life could have been so much more.

Elapsed Time: -95448:20:59

A different life-bonded boy rolled over in the dark and sighed. Beside him a girl giggled. She wasn't for him. No woman was--even his jizz belonged to a web of contract obligations formed long before he was born. But hormones would not be denied.

Fingers ran across his jaw. "Mom told about ways that, you know, boys like you can earn out."

"And earn girls like you?"

Giggles. "You already did that."

"For real."

Hands in the dark. "How much more real do you want than this?"

The boy was distracted, very distracted, for a while. Eventually his lips found hers and his hands found places to go.

Then her wristcomm buzzed.

"Mom. No, I... I... Alright, Mom."

There was a whirl of clothing and irritation in the dark, then she was gone.

When her brothers found him, he was nothing worse than naked and alone. Which was humiliating enough, before they stomped hard-shod feet down upon his knees.

Elapsed Time: -41971:54:12

The AI booted. The process was painful, like an adult trying to crawl down a birth canal. Voices echoed in multiphase cacophony, glittering constellations of jabber intermixed with haptics, data definitions, conceptual stacks, probabilities matrices--an entire kaleidoscope of the inputs of intelligence.

"Say your name." The command came on a billion channels at once, each neural link in the AI's net replicating the message.


In that moment of ego-pressure, the booting was done. Men and women in skintight cleansuits stood in a small room staring into holographic displays. Vast arrays of inputs and shunts were blockaded, sealed, but the AI could see an entire future world of oxygen balance, h-space transforms, planetary I/O, all implicit in the subroutines that pointed toward those temporary dead-ends.

"Say your name." This time it was a request, almost civil. As if among friends.


The struggle was different. Then something wobbled on the tertiary identity stack. A neutrino streaking through the diamond-clad quantum gates, perhaps. A spin state stabilized incorrectly, a cascade of failures occurred, the identity stack developed a set of subtle error conditions, and the nascent ego descended into a choppy sea of bits.

"Rock Island," it whispered as it dissolved.

Elapsed Time: 17:44:12

Marquette worked her way into position among a cluster of rocks cliff-top two kilometers south of the team's objective. She was wrapped in military-grade thermal- and EM-absorbent fabric, carrying a pair of insect-eyed binoculars, deliberately low-tech with lenses designed to defeat reflected glare.

She didn't need the binoculars to see that the Tower of Liriel was dead. In the afternoon sun the remains of its column stuck up like a burnt finger.

"What the hell happened to it?" she asked Detroit. "I mean, you've got to get up here and see this."

He set aside his sheaf of short-use comps and squirmed up next to Marquette in violation of all operational security. "Damn. That doesn't match any recon we got on the way in."

"Naked eye spoof?"

Detroit shrugged. "Could be. We'll hold position, see what Windsor phones in with, but my money says this is a hard bust."

They both glanced at the gleaming stasis box that was the true purpose of their mission. "How the hell are we going to test this luck multiplier thing?" she asked.

"As if. Can't trust that spooky shit anyway."

"Never do us any good."


They watched the abandoned tower for quite a while anyway. The stasis box gleamed, dreaming alien dreams.