Chapter 29: Pity for the Devil
 
The Allegra Bar and Grill
Standrest Plaza
Sacra Mensa, Martian Socialist Republic
Mars
September 2219

The datamancer was enjoying himself. At the rate Jacob Chryse was burning credits, the least he could do was enjoy himself. His partner for the evening, Tess, he thought her name was, was beautiful of course. And, the profile matching algorithms had indicated they were ninety-nine percent compatible. She seemed interesting enough, but a bit vapid. She was working with the terraformers on the atmosphere of Mars, and was certainly bright enough. But, the longer the evening went on, the more it became apparent to Jacob that she was lacking in that unique spark of cleverness that he looked for in a romantic partner. 

And perhaps THEMIS sensed that in some way, because suddenly and without warning his sensory input was replaced in its entirety. For a moment, the room around him simply vanished, turning into a blank white expanse of nothingness. In the next moment, Jacob was sitting on the surface of Mars. He was still seated at his table with his dinner before him; the system must have rendered it in so he could maintain his body’s balance in the real world. He also wasn’t alone.

The woman standing in front of him was not Tess. She wore the standard adventuring gear of the digitally employed, and the callout above her head displayed her as a Rank twelve Datamancer. It wasn’t often he ran into someone who actually outranked him. 

He put his fork down and looked at the woman expectantly.

“Jacob Chryse,” she said,  “Rank ten datamancer with a specialisation in network defense, one hundred percent mission completion rate, age one hundred and fifteen, with ninety eight years of mission completions under your belt.” She was reading the information off the callout she could see floating over his head from her perspective, he recognized the trick. 

He glanced at her own callout looking through the available information, but to his dismay very little was available. She was simply listed by name as ‘Weaver’ and her specialisation was listed as Data Architect, everything else had been hidden or redacted away, even her avatar was just a stock datamancer prop form. 

“You found me,” he said finally, setting his fork down. “You’re interrupting my dinner you know?” 

“The woman has been sent away, no one will disturb us,” she said. That was vaguely concerning, but he had no access to the real world, THEMIS was overriding all his sensory data. 

“Who are you?” Jacob asked her, “Why’d you drag me into this video game?” He looked around, studying the rolling regolith stretching off in every direction. 

“Look up,” she said, and he did. The sun was...wrong. It was dim and partially blocked out by a swirling cloud of static. “Twelve hours ago, this and forty-eight other servers came online and invites were sent to select high ranking datamancers. As best we can tell, each one is a super high fidelity snapshot of a point in time about a year into the future, a predicted scenario.” 

As she said that, she adjusted his access permissions and a huge number of callouts ballooned across the surface of the planet and out to distant points in space. The sun itself was labeled with an enormous callout that listed it as Scenario A18. 

“What’s happening? What are we looking at?” Jacob asked, studying the sky with confusion.

“The end of the goddamn world, that’s what,” she said. “This is what the system thinks is the most likely scenario at the moment, given everything we know. Earth has been dismantled for resources by a rogue AI and turned into Matrioshka Brain, Mars is fighting for its survival, and the Reshapers just showed up.” 

She raised her hand and a black staff unfolded in her palm. The ground beneath them broke free and the chunk of rock containing Weaver, Jacob, and his dinner table shot upwards through the sky, leaving the surface far below. Jacob took a bite of his steak, not wanting it to go cold before he’d been deposited back into reality. The piece of terrain climbed out of the Martian atmosphere and blasted smoothly past orbiting structures without any feeling of motion. 

As they cleared the lower orbits, Weaver pointed out a rippling technicolor distortion hovering over the world. Emerging from the underside of the energy cloud was an enormous harpoon of alien machinery, frozen in the instant of sliding out of the distortion and impaling the rust red planet. 

“No fucking way,” Jacob muttered, his mouth hanging open at the sheer scale of the scene, “You expect me to do something about that?” He asked disbelievingly. 

“No,”she said, turning and pointing at the dimly glowing sun, “We need you to do something about that.”

“Uh, how?” He asked, “I’m not going to take some open ended mission that’s going to sabotage my completion rate.”

“We’re attacking this problem at every possible point of intervention,” she explained. “We’ve identified a potential point of divergence from this timeline, a way to make sure this doesn’t happen but we need someone to act in the real world, and quickly, before the expected window of opportunity closes.” 

“And I’m your someone?” Jacob asked. 

“Are you?” She asked him. 

He sighed, thinking about it. He looked at the cloud of statites dimming the sun, the spear of alien metal frozen in the process of murdering an entire world, it was a nightmare scenario.

“What do I have to do?” He asked her. 

“We need to make contact with the AI and negotiate a cooperative arrangement with it,” she told him, “We want you to travel to Ceres, cross the demilitarized zone into the UN portion of the planetoid, and establish a line of communication between us and the AI.”

“The AI that you’re predicting is going to dismantle the Earth?” He asked. 

“Mercury and Venus as well actually,” she answered, “And yes, that AI.”

“Ah,” Jacob said sarcastically, “Sounds like a piece of cake.” 

“Do you accept this mission Jacob Chryse, or do we need to find another datamancer?” Weaver demanded.

He thought about it for another moment, and seriously considered refusing, but if Mars was going to be destroyed in a year, and he could play a part in averting that future, then he would. It wasn’t as if he had a better option, if the world was destroyed, he’d be destroyed with it.

“I’ll do it,” he said. Weaver, the chunk of rock, and the entire scene vanished once more into whiteness, and then Jacob’s table was back in the restaurant. Across the table from him was a young woman in the severely cut uniform of the Martian Navy. 

“Good,” she told him, “Pack your things, we leave for Ceres in twelve hours.” 


Constellation Project Colony
UNDSV 15-18 Jericho Ridge
Hyperbolic Stellar Escape Trajectory
1.96 Light Years from Sol
September 2219

Regan McKinley didn’t know if the winter had come on particularly hard due to the weather planners intent, or if it was just a product of variance and chaos in the weather control systems, but as the temperatures dropped through late autumn, heavy snow had begun to fall and now coated every surface with a thick blanket of cold whiteness. The inside of the colony drum took on a dazzling brightness as the blowing snow reflected back all the light of the central hub lamps. 

Regan and the other teenagers had retreated into their bunker, abandoning their usual wanderings of the town in favor of watching Seth Fiegel build a spaceship. The more time that went by, the more serious the boy seemed to get about the task. When he’d first started the project shortly after finding the bunker, Regan was certain he would abandon it before it went anywhere. But now, months later, he’d nearly rearranged his life in single minded pursuit of that goal. He’d taken a job at a local movie theatre, bought an old truck, started purchasing bulk scrap material from the recycling yard, and something vaguely spaceship like was starting to take shape in the hangar bay. 

The projectors generating the ghostly outlines of the ship were now partially filled in with a growing metallic rib cage of structural metal. It was beginning to have shape and form, and the whole thing would have been fairly impressive to watch if Regan hadn’t been concerned it was going to kill him. 

She looked away from the construction site and went back to watching the news. The instability in Sol was still dominating the headlines, and the debate about the various aliens was raging constantly between political pundits. It was all fairly depressing, but it fit her mood and it fit the weather outside. 

Lily Emerson and Harper Jordan had both enrolled in the local college, but Regan had just started wallowing. The colony environment evoked a sense of claustrophobic listlessness that she could never fully shake, and the pointlessness of her existence as anything other than a conveyer of genes sat heavily on her mind. On top of that, her whole colony had been rendered pointless by the invention of FTL drives. By the time their ship got anywhere of note generations from now, the world they reached would either already be populated by humans or dismantled by aliens. 

She didn’t want to admit it, but the more time that went on, and the more seriously Seth took his starship project, the more it started to look viable. The idea of sailing off the colony into the stars kindled a spark of optimism in her that she was torn between feeding and snuffing out before it consumed her the way it was consuming Seth. 

On one hand, it still seemed pretty likely that Seth’s spaceship aspirations would end shortly after takeoff in a fiery ball of death killing everyone involved. On the other hand, she’d been sitting glued to the couch for the last six hours staring blankly at the wallscreen and shoveling potato chips into her mouth every few minutes, and if this was going to be her existence for the rest of her life then she might as well take the fiery ride of certain doom. 

She decided to table to decision for the time being and peeled herself away from the sofa, standing and stretching her limbs, which had grown stiff from the amount of time she’d spent stationary. She pulled a blanket over her shoulders to protect herself from the chill of the huge hangar bay and passed through the airlocks into Seth’s domain. 

Upon crossing the threshold into the hangar bay, her ears were immediately assaulted by the sound of some machine furiously biting into a piece of metal overlaid with the sound of heavy metal music. Regan carefully picked her way through the piles of sorted material and climbed deeper into the ship’s skeleton. 

She found Seth inside the ship’s ribcage, drilling holes into some piece of structural metal and screwing in deck mounting plates. She leaned against a steel girder and watched him work. With his hood up and his welding mask down, it took him a while to notice her, and he nearly jumped out of his shoes in surprise when she turned off his speakers and he realized he wasn’t alone. 

“Oh, hey Regan,” he said, “Am I being too loud?” 

After making her disapproval with his project known months ago, Seth had been careful to skirt around the issue with her and avoid bringing it up again, and in her mildly self-reflective mood, Regan realized how much of a dick she’d been being about the whole thing. 

“No, no,” she said, perching on a piece of rebar, “I was just bored and figured I’d come keep you company.”

“I thought you didn’t want anything to do with the spaceship?” He asked suspiciously. 

“Look,” she explained, “I still think it’s a bad idea, and I still think it’s probably going to end in death by explosion, but like…” she trailed off gesturing to the space around her, “What the fuck else do I have to do with my life?” 

Seth nodded thoughtfully, and went back to work, drilling another hole into the metal, shouting over the drill to be heard, “You know, that’s pretty much my opinion on the matter too?”

Regan waited for him to stop drilling to respond, “What you think this is going to blow us up?” 

“No, yes, maybe, I don’t know Regan,” he said, “but I know the alternative is slowly rotting here, and I don’t want to do that either. I’ve got nothing to lose.” 

She nodded, sympathizing deeply with the other teen’s feelings, and that spark grew a little brighter. She quickly doused it with cynicism, replying, “except your life.”

He laughed and shook his head, “If this life is all I have to lose, then consider it lost, I don’t want any part in this life anymore, I’d rather get vaporized.”

“And what if it works, and you get out into the universe with your cool spaceship that doesn’t blow up and kill you,” she posited, “And it turns out the rest of the universe is just as shitty as this place?”

He smiled and looked at the skeleton of the ship all around them, “Then I use my cool spaceship to do what I can to fix things.”

In that moment, the spark of hope Regan was so adamantly keeping smothered flared up out of control, and she glimpsed a very different future from the one she normally saw herself in. The idea surged through her, and left her smiling uncontrollably as it rewrote her mind. 

“What’s got you so amused?” Seth asked her when he glanced over and noticed her expression.

She studied him for a moment, smiling bemusedly, and asked him, “What can I do to help you with this?”


Gasworks Park
Northlake Way North
Seattle, Salish Administrative Zone
Earth
September 2219

Bartholomew Morrow staggered upright in the shallow stoney waters at the north shore of Lake Union. He plodded through the darkened park, clothes slapping on the paved footpaths as he caught his breath after the twenty minute swim from the launch complex to the north shore. 

The park was closed for the evening, so Bartholomew kept to the shadows, vigilant for the presence of police drones and beat cops. The glittering towers of Wallingford Heights rose before him on the hillside, quietly promising the anonymity of civilisation. 

He knew not to rely on that though, Kamay Alcoseba’s daemon was in everything, and might be tracking him from security camera to security camera even now. It felt strange being on the other side of a manhunt, knowing the scope of the forces that could be leveraged against him. It felt like there were a million eyes upon him, the vast green expanse of the darkened park felt far too exposed for his liking. 

He needed to completely pull his implants, he needed to change his face so the facial recognition software didn’t flag him, he needed to get to Europe, and he had to get in front of Fairuzeh Najafi and warn her that they’d been infiltrated. 

To to any of that, he’d need resources, which meant getting to one of the supply caches he’d hidden throughout the system. The nearest to his current location was located in the mountains of southern california, and that meant he needed to somehow escape the city despite having no untraceable resources and looking unfortunately like himself. 

He crossed the street and started up the hill towards the subway station. His wet clothes were probably making it easier to identify him, but there was nothing he could do. He put a balaclava from his satchel over his face; it would fool the facial recognition software at least, but it would probably threat flag him to the beat cops when he passed through the automated station checkpoint while masked. One thing at a time though. 

The hike up the hill burnt a good deal of energy and he’d begun to dry off in the cool night air, leaving his skin feeling cool and clammy. The North 45th Street subway station shined in the twilight glow of the nocturnal city, and Bartholomew made a beeline for it, hoping to keep ahead of the forces that were likely searching for him even now. 

He ignored the payment system and went straight to the platform, if he encountered fare enforcement he’d deal with them then, but he didn’t want to log a transaction with a system the daemon might be able to see. He slipped onto the subway and headed for city center. 

The subway car was mostly deserted for the trip downtown, but Bartholomew was lucky and failed to encounter a fare enforcement team during the ride. He slipped out of the subway station under Pioneer Square and began what would be the most difficult phase of his escape. He was still planning out the details in his mind as he headed for the high speed rail hub a few blocks to the south. He’d need to slip onto a southbound train without being caught or identifying himself in the process.

The approach to the rail line was elevated above the station, which was down in a concrete pit, the trains slipping into and out of tunnels at each end of the platforms. It was a three story drop to the platform floor, or three floors of station, which meant cameras, security, and checkpoints ensuring that everyone bought tickets before boarding. 

One advantage he had though, was that payment was located off the platform, behind security gates, so it would be assumed if he was on the platform that he was supposed to be there, save for the mask. However, if he took the mask off, he’d expose himself to any cameras or facial recognition equipment. 

He looked around the surface level plaza carefully, and hung at railing overlooking the platform as if waiting for someone to disembark. He kept his face away from the street to conceal the fact he was concealing his identity, and discreetly dropped a rope over the lip of the rail. 

A middling number of people waiting on the platform below, which was good because it meant there was a crowd to blend into. He waited until the moment the train had arrived, and then in the moment of intense speed and motion while the train was attracting all attention, he silently leapt over the railing and slid down the rope to the platform below. 

Bartholomew mixed in with the crowd as they shoved past each other into the train car, and then ducked into a bathroom and locked the door before ripping off the mask, his face covered by another mask of sweat beneath the fabric. 

He listened breathlessly for the tense footfalls of security, but heard nothing but passengers, and after a few moments, the train began to accelerate out of the station. Bartholomew let himself breathe a sigh of relief, knowing he was safe for at least a few more minutes, and started considering the next phase of his plan. 


Fabrique Intersolar Deep Space Station
FI-ISCU Pioneer
Elliptical Orbit
30,000 kilometers from Aldebaran b, Aldebaran
September 2219

The Better Margins fell out of warp into Aldebaran after their long journey from the Hyades. She fired her engines in a deceleration burn that brought her into a position stationary relative to the station, but before she’d even completed her burn, the Better Margins was transmitting. 

Alice Pendragon, Zephyr Athabasca, and Doug Farragut, were in a small meeting discussing contact plans when the Better Margins appeared. As the three strongest proponents of the contact mission, they had banded together in the face of the opposition presented by the rest of the company. Zephyr had decided the mission was happening, and as CEO and majority shareholder, she was fully within her right to make that decision, but it didn’t do much to stop others from trying to convince her to change her plans. 

When the station computer reported the Better Margin’s arrival in system, the group stood up and began making their way to the command deck. Zephyr was halfway out the door when the transmission began, and she curiously opened the files and began looking over the stuff that Captain Nesco had compiled for them on her implants. 

Zephyr was fairly adept at multitasking with her implants, by following behind Doug she could focus most of her attention on her screens and just use her peripheral vision to keep going in a straight line. She opened the first file on the list, which was troublingly labeled OCP analysis abstract intro. She launched the video file as they waited for the elevator to the command deck. 

The video began playing, showing an image of a star in space. She watched as a strange disc of energy appeared below the star and a colossal alien hand reached up and dragged the star down into the depths. 

“The fuck?” Zephyr mumbled to herself as she watched onwards. Doug turned and glanced at her but she waved him off, still engrossed in the video. There was footage of planets being taken apart entirely, from start to finish. There were sections featuring enormous solar system sized nets that swept through space scooping up random detris, and there was that terrifying display of strength represented by making off with a whole star in the way they had. She felt herself shaking slightly as they rode the elevator upwards towards the command deck. 

“You okay boss?” Doug asked her, inclining his head slightly. 

She shook her head, trying to clear it of the insane mental images, “I’m not sure yet,” she said, “I think I may have just had my mind blown.” 

She quickly pushed copies of the file out to Doug and Alice. Doug pulled it up on his implants, and Alice removed her phone from her pocket as it chirped and started playing the video.

The three of them went quiet as they all continued watching the video and the elevator continued to slide upwards. The doors slid open to the command deck and they remained frozen in place staring at their screens. 

“Holy shit,” Alice said.

“Yeah,” Zephyr mumbled, “no kidding, these guys don’t fuck around.”

“Still sure trying to talk to them is a good idea Ishmael?” Doug asked as they finally stepped out of the elevator, “Those look to be some mighty large whales.” 

“We already knew they were big and scary,” Alice said, “I don’t see how this changes anything.” 

“Except the scale,” Doug said, “Taking apart a planet, even a gas giant, is easy compared to--what do you even call what they did--starjacking?” 

“Something like that,” Alice said.

Zephyr thought about the new information they were looking through and didn’t think it really changed her opinion on trying to make contact, but it was still rather unsettling. Doug was right, it was the scale. Moving stars, taking apart planets, sweeping solar systems barren, it was almost beyond comprehension. Almost. But a drill was a drill regardless of scale, and she refused to let the tools intimidate her. 

“We’re still doing this,” she said, “I’ll want to hear Ben’s report, but this isn’t a deal breaker.”

“You’re the boss, boss,” Doug replied. 


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