Embers

Summary: At dawn I arose like a soldier, ready for the day's battle. I am a volunteer investigator in Chang'e lunar colony, and Earth's death disrupted more than my daily routine. You know why I'm coming for you.

At dawn I arose like a soldier, ready for the day's battles. The following routine gave me the strength and discipline I need to stay sane. I stretched and exercised. I cleaned the weapon that protected me for my entire life. I practiced the unarmed movements I'd need in case I was ever deprived of it. I ate and cleaned up, smelling far better than just an hour earlier. Approximately two hours elapsed since awakening, and I am ready for the day.

By the time I head out, the simulated sunrise started. The world stirred to life around me, as though by the activation of some unseen mechanism. I moved among the masses of the city, the trees of the forest, the void of space, and the waves of the sea. I felt at home in any of them, so long as I have my routine. I read along the way, until my attention moved towards more demanding tasks. The dark was banished for another cycle, and my routine continued.

Arriving at my place of employment, I ordered the iced green tea with no sugar. If my colleagues are there, I joined them for small talk and snacks. Otherwise, I directly headed into my lab and began work. While others dreaded the first workday of the week, I eagerly anticipated it. I am just a humble man in a universe far too complex for me to ever understand, a grunt in a cosmic war with entropy. All I can hope to do is my best. When I was younger, I thought there was more than that. I now wish that wasn't true.

I was shocked as everyone else was when Earth died. A relativistic projectile slammed the surface, turning my homeworld into a ball of burning slag. I was sleeping when it happened, owing to my early bedtime and early rise. It was a peculiar thing, but I remembered that dream about my first year in grad school, rather than when I read the news. I still preferred reading to direct neuraux feed, primarily out of force of habit. As a creature of habit, it suited me.

As horrendous as planetary genocide was, I more affronted by the break in my routine. I was an auxiliary police officer in Chang'e, the largest lunar colony. I applied my expertise in neuro-engineering at work for money, and to the security forces for civic duty. My day job, for lack of a better term, was devising ways to more efficiently upload and store human and transhuman minds. My civic one was forensic neuroscience, reconstructing crimes and incidents from uploaded memories and sensor data. It even included some old-fashioned door-kicking and on-site investigation.

Law in Chang'e was complex, to put it mildly. Decentralized energy and manufacture were essential for space colonization, so neighborhoods had their own culture and their own economies, industries, and governance. Chang'e was originally a Chinese mining outpost sold to commercial interests, and the new owners sold off colony charters for subsurface caverns. The panarchist Colonial Authority coordinated infrastructure, foreign relations, defense, and cross-colonial initiatives, but otherwise, Chang'e was a patchwork of neighborhood-states.

My typical morning commute started in Bukit Panjang, a Singaporean corporate cooperative where I board the train. The train snaked through the libertarian survivalist community of Farnham, and then terminated at the Autonomous Lunar Academy, the system's most controversial research center. On days I went in for civic duty, I went two stops past there for the Cargo Nexus, the cargo processing center beneath the space elevator. We piggybacked on their supercomputing cluster, which was typically used for plotting mass driver trajectories and maintaining the space elevator. The Nexus was built to control mass driver delivery of ore to Earth, but it was sidelined after the space elevator was constructed. Our head researcher was my post-doctoral mentor, Professor Ana Sandoval, and a captain in the Volunteer Investigative Corps. It's because of her I joined, but that's another story.

The interior of the Nexus was that same antiseptic white as the ALA Research Hospital. It's a jungle in augmented reality. There's self-repair diagnostics, interior temperature, and a host of other informatics that advanced across my sight like an invading army. I weaved through a pair of uniformed officials, and I saw myself in the reflection in my office door.

My decades on the moon and continued cybernetic implants gave me the pallor I jokingly called the lunar tan. I was tall for a lunar citizen, with my head topped by a dark brown hair in a buzzcut. My outer garment resembled a stereotypical lab coat over my jumpsuit, but it contained concealed armor and could unfold into a spacesuit if need be. Smart fabric's a wonderful thing, especially if you aren't expecting sudden depressurization.

Underneath was my trusty revolver, with an antique veneer and modern functionality. Having it look like a Victorian relic could spoof a tactical AI, at least until the first shot. In this line of work, if I needed more than that, I was dead anyway. The lunar burbs had a variety of views on weapons, from the home gunsmiths of Upper Ogden to the total pacificism of Samsara to the mandatory public sword-carrying of Nuevo Toledo, but most didn't care about holdout pistols, stunners, and simple melee weapons. Nor did we, since combat robots were far more dangerous than thugs. Even malfunctioning utility bots sometimes had to be put of their misery the old-fashioned way. Both research and law enforcement required a willingness to use hard resets.

The Chief was all too eager to see us, as four of her eyestalks turned to meet us. Beside her was the box-like body of my cyborg colleague, Dr. Singers. I could see their intertwined gastro-intestinal tracts in their translucent body, rather than the armored turret they normally wore. Chances were, the Chief would have chewed them out for being out of uniform on any other day. As much as those two loved showing off their literal guts, it unnerved the others. I thought it was boring, since my lab had more interesting displays than them.

Chief Ren looked more humanoid than Singers, but she'd augmented her head into a medusa-like bundle of prehensile fiber optic cables. Like the camera-wands used to scan under doors, her hair could see things from every angle, in spectra I could barely comprehend. Her hair undulated as she beheld the monitors from each sector. Other than a line of security drones outside the Authority Hall, everywhere was eerily deserted.

"Good to see you, Dr. Green," Chief Ren's falsetto voice said. She never turned more than a single tendril in my direction. "I'm sending you to secure the old launch track."

"It's been disconnected from the power grid, but there's substantial thermal emissions," Sellers interjected, their masculine and feminine voices speaking simultaneously.

"Given the strain on the colony, we can spare a forensic drone team and a security element," Ren said. "Sandoval acquired fresh schematics from an old associate of hers, and suggested an undercover insertion. I concur with this assessment."

As I'd soon find out, Singers and Sandoval had their own assignments on the other side of town. Dubois, Strugatsky, and Watts were stuck managing in-progress investigations. Li, Patel, and Kim were stuck on operational support. They'd have a real time feed of my mission, thanks to our comm sat. Meanwhile, I got to head into a potential gang hideout with security drone team for backup. Lucky me. Let it not be said that civic involvement didn't have a cost. I only hoped it would be the drones that picked up the tab.

I could've had a nice, peaceful career if I wanted to. I'd been desperate enough to pick through refuse on Earth before acquiring my current job and lodging, in that gray gap between academia and employment. My habits got me through there, and I sought to use those well-hardened habits to help others. Unlike Earth before it was slagged, loonies helped each other. My research in memory scanning was enough to get me positions in ALA and part-time VIC. I stepped onto the automated transport for my destination, and ruminated on harder times.

I was listening to a newscast, when I had the grimly mused that I needn't worry about anyone being raised on Earth. Just a few years ago, I survived on the charity of strangers and goodwill of distant friends. I was completing my studies in a rough city on Earth, when my research funding fell through. I did some things I wasn't proud of to survive. I'd even sold my memories and neural patterns to scientists, all so I could complete my research. Perhaps it was penance of sorts, but once I was officially Dr. Jacob Green, I set about volunteering however I could to help society. Unlike Earth, I was glad the many communities of Luna were all-too-eager to assist, as each settlement had its own safety nets. If you didn't like where you lived, any adult could relocate. I often wished I'd grown up on Luna instead of Earth, but I couldn't change the past.

What I could change was a single operation from Chief Ren. Even with every official and unofficial civil defense, law enforcement, and military group mobilized, Luna was still on edge. Civil defense was needed to keep things running. Law enforcement was needed to keep people calm. Military units were needed to deter any opportunistic expansion or retributive raids on our holdings. I was just one of many such players on a crowded board, even if I was in a role my original training did not cover. I'd survived through discipline and cunning, and I'd be damned if I'd sit around now. If Earth was gone, anyone could be next.

While Ren assigned me this job, I was not alone. Non-sentient artificial intelligences were powerful and plentiful, and they'd be controlling my companions. As the transport van rattled down the old access tunnel, the tactical AIs were already simulating a number of scenarios using architectural data on the old launch track. The reality was always vastly different, but repetitive training could only help. After all, I programmed the software. My memories and skills helped them move.

The transport van was crammed full of security and sifter drones, all controlled by AI that I'd be directing. The security drones were slightly shorter than an adult, resembling headless suits of armor with assault rifles and stunner pistols in hand. The sifter drones were only superficially humanoid, as their innards deployed swarms of microbots and modular tools to access everything from encrypted computers to mechanical conduits. Their torsos and limbs were black synthetic diamond, why we nicknamed them the Obsidian series. I had a dozen of each, and I thought that was too much for this job. Oh, how wrong I was.

Back in the early days of lunar colonization, the tunnel housed a mass driver. It was decommissioned after the space elevator opened up, since we already had two others. Currently, the tunnel was used by a storage company that didn't quite check out, according to the files Patel sent me. Paterson Lunar Exports only had a single employee we verified as real, a freighter captain who spent most of his time in the Belt. The owner of the company was a reclusive corporate consultant, Dr. Jay Murphy. The stolen off-world identities and software-run shell companies similarly boded ill.

The explosion only catapulted me to the floor. I quickly realized the transport would've been blasted to bits if we'd only been going a bit faster. The security transport was in incognito mode, so it would've required very specific foreknowledge to identify. As fearful as corruption or information breaches were, I recognized the more immediate problem a second later. Powerful hydraulic arms ripped open the rear of the transport, revealing the squat, simian posture of a loader bot. I'd already had my suit closed and pistol drawn, for the little good it would do me.

The gorilla-like robot ripped opened the rear doors of the transport, ignoring the five plastic bullets I shot at it, as though they were hurled pebbles. It ripped an inactive investigator drone from the wall and hurled it at me a moment too slow. I heard my own robots sprung to life around me, as though motivated by the destruction of their fellow. The blue light emanating from the dome-like head of the renegade loader fell on me, just as I aimed my last shot at its head. It reached for another robot, clearly intending to finish me with it. I exhaled and cocked the hammer. I pulled the trigger as he ripped the security drone clean.

Everything happened at once. The hammer struck true, like a blacksmith striking steel. Fire erupted from the muzzle of the pistol, but not the subdued discharge of polymer riot rounds. The hissing of the rocket engine reminded me of a deflating balloon as it spiraled through the air. The robot's head turned slightly, as if trying to track the incoming gyrojet round. It cartwheeled through the air for a second before lodging itself between the neck and head. It exploded a moment later, the explosion enhanced by unburnt propellant. The security drone fell from its grasp, collapsing to the ground. I remembered why I loved gyrok rounds.

I breathed deep, even though my biological lungs were removed decades ago. Despite being over a century old, I had greater physical prowess than an ancient Olympian and mental acuity than a genius baseline human. On Luna, so did everyone else. That was why they needed the toughest and most devious of us to keep it together. I had my forensic drones search what was left of the gorilla-bot's processor, and unsurprisingly, it was compromised by malware. That's why you always open strange computers in an expendable, virtual machine.

I stepped out into the access tunnel, right behind the security team. Our undercover transport, a boxy robot van indistinguishable from the hundreds in Chang'e, was immobilized. The entrance to my destination was less than a hundred meters away, and I was eager to charge in myself. I called in an incident report, using my recent memories and robot sensor data as validation. When I tried to call in directly, I got only an automated response.

Something was amiss, but I had my orders. My paltry unit wouldn't be able to stop anything that could take out the Nexus. If I was going to stall for time, I'd use everything in between me and my enemy's likely access route. For all I knew, I'd be wandering into a booby-trapped ambush. I looked at my support detail, which took up overwatch near the wrecked van. It was good I could send them in first. I had something else planned.

The entrance to the old mass driver tunnel reminded me of a warehouse I'd seen in an Earth slum. There was a junkheap beside a heavy bulkhead sealed door, with colorful neon graffiti in both physical and augmented reality. A red disk in a yellow circle marked the gang, the Red Spot Syndicate. They specialized in bootlegging memories and smuggling heavy machinery, so it was not totally unexpected. I saw steam rising out of two access hatches nearby, and the heat temporarily reminded me of the sticky humidity of Earth's tropics. Thanks to the tactile sensors on my suit, I flashed back to imagining myself in that fetid, sticky heat, interposed between obsolete industry and teeming humanity. Fortunately, my suit could easily withstand the steam.

My investigator drones opened up the leftward access tunnel, which was slightly closer to my destination. We overrode the security system, to the best of our abilities. Just to be sure, I sent in two of my forensics bots ahead to sweep for traps and unwanted surprises. Whoever, or whatever, defended the tunnel bay already knew I was here, so there was on logical option. I would enter with as much flourish and confusion as I could, and put down anything that didn't immediately deactivate or surrender. My security bots broadcasted the standard messages about standing down or speaking, but they received no response. That was greatly frustrating to me, as I'd much rather let a negotiator take over.

The view from the access tunnels allowed me an occasional glimpse at something much larger. I saw pools of frozen condensation on the floor, as though they'd been caressed by icy fingers. I heard the droning of immense, unseen machines, rumbling like chained titans beneath me. I felt the rust flaking off the wall of the access tunnels, crumbling like leaves from an iron autumn. I beheld the curious patterns of rust flakes in the tunnel, which interposed themselves like alternating lines of an ancient flag. While I could not smell the dead rat near a power cable, I had little urge to remove my helmet to do so. My senses compelled me onwards, as my curiosity grew with each step.

The access hatch to the control room was guarded, in contrast with the rest of the cavernous facility. I saw two skeletal sentinel bots, statuesque constructs that looked like they'd wandered out of an abstract sculpture exhibit. My augmented reflexes allowed me to bring my revolver to bear with transhuman alacrity, and put six gyrok rounds where it hurt. Sadly, the sentinel bots unloaded on one of my investigator drones, thinking its tooltips were weapons. That's why I went old school with weapons. Being underestimated can save your life, a fact I can attest to in other cases.

The spartan control room was turned into an ad hoc apartment. There was a moldy mattress on the floor, with a sleeping bag on top of it. There was a small stack of books, titles on neuroscience and combat psychology that I'd studied like scripture. An unfurled exercise mat hinted at similar exercises to my own calisthenics. I noticed revolver parts and custom ammunition stashed atop a console, where they could hardly be seen. I took in the scenery, and I found it all strangely familiar. I wondered what kind of poor bastard lived like this, but all I had to do was look in the mirror to answer that.

My splitting image shot the other forensic bot, his revolver still smoking. His face was completely concealed within the opaque hood of an environmental suit, as though he was a gray mummy devoid of soul and personality. His shrouded chest and legs jerked to the side, as he dove for cover behind a console. My own pistol barked twice, my muzzle tracing his trajectory through the air. He must've been cloaked, given the suddenness from which he appeared.

My own celerity matched my opponent's own. My two hands turned my pistol to the targets painted by my neural implant. They put a round where my foe was a moment ago, and he did the same. My attempts to adjust my aim were confounded by a acrid cloud issuing from his own pepperbox's barrels, a mixture I identified as vintage black powder mixed with chaff. Two rounds hit me, but I barely registered them through my armor. I heard a door open, a few more shots, and then the frantic footfalls of a fleeing fugitive.

Around me, I heard the facility spring to life. Long dormant motors stirred, sounding like a galley of enslaved titans. The buzzing in the walls increased in tempo and volume, like he'd kicked a nest of killer bees. Blinding lights illuminated the hallways, like glowing like a thousand braziers in an ancient lighthouse. My adversary's footfalls diminished with distance, like a skittering insect seeking a rock to crawl under. I pursued, ordering my own reinforcements to surround where I hoped the exits were.

I had to admit, the black powder trick was one I wasn't expecting. I'd developed and used such a trick years ago, since it was a simple, low-tech way to muck up high tech target acquisition systems. I'd only used it a few times, so I never expected to be on the receiving end of it. Fortunately, ancient black powder lacked the power of modern propellants, so my body armor easily absorbed his shots. As I futilely swatted the roiling gunsmoke, I realized he was trying to cover his retreat more than shoot me. I know I'd do the same, if I was outgunned and outnumbered.

I chased him into an access hatch that wasn't listed on the schematics, as I smelled ozone wafting through the tunnel. I could barely see my target, and I'd half forgotten about the machinery beneath. My oversight struck with vengeance as the electromagnetic pulse ripped through the walls. Plasma arced and discharged through a distant viewing port, and a shower of sparks bathed that inner chamber. I instinctively flinched, and I noticed that my connection with HQ was completely absent. I took cover behind a generator, but my security drones and communication connection was down.

I was alone in the guts of a fearsome machine, and my quarry negated all my advantages. I reloaded my expended rounds, but I knew it was insufficient. I considered pulling out, but a shot too close for comfort sent me back behind cover. I know if I'd got a foe cornered as thoroughly as I did, I'd want to finish them or capture them. My adversary was always a few steps ahead, and now he was the hunter. It was like the time that thug was pursuing me, but I simply pivoted around and punched him in the face. Another shot inched closer, and I wondered what I'd blundered into.

I saw rust flakes move like magnetized iron filings in the corner, and I cursed myself for not recognizing it sooner. I was near a giant electromagnet, or a system that utilized them. The coolant was from the heatsinks necessary to frequently operate such a system. The sparks might've come from dumping huge currents. There was probably a power generator or micro-reactor on site for power, and the source of those thermal emissions. The electromagnetic pulse was an unavoidable side effect, since I doubted these access tunnels were fully shielded.

My opponent advanced slowly and carefully, using an occasional shot from his pepperbox revolver to keep my head down. From the dents they created in the floor, it was easy to see he was using modern, armor piercing rounds. He was closing in, but I made a gambit of my own. As powerful as his new rounds were, he still had a revolver. After the sixth shot, I leapt out and unloaded my own rounds into his torso. He seemed genuinely shocked before going down, so I approached cautiously.

I wondered why this fugitive used an antique pepperbox design, instead of something more modern. I wondered why he lived in such a small space in the control room, despite having ample space in this entire, cavernous facility. I wondered why he used tricks that I, and only I, had used a handful of times. I looked under his damaged hood, and I understood why. His face was my own.

I dragged that body out, though his cyborg brain was still alive and intact. I had the forensic bots look over it for any fail-safes before trying to reconnect to headquarters. Acting out of a half-buried hunch, I looked up Dr. Jay Murphy's own background. His resume was almost a carbon copy of my own, although a few edits were made in recent years. I've had my connectome, my brain upload and memories, in the public domain for years. I deemed the possibility that someone would use them against me too remote, until today. What was truly disturbing, though, was what my mental doppelganger was building.

The view from my restored security element gave me another piece of evidence: the layout of the room. It was a series of parallel, helical rails in a double coil, like strands of DNA. A projectile injection system fed ferric flechettes into the center of the magnetic rails, where it would short out the capacitor bank. Each test firing caused an eruption of sparks like an ancient forge. It was a rail gun on steroids, a relativistic accelerator. A prototype of the weapon that killed Earth.

Whomever was behind this travesty made a mockery of all I lived for. My prisoner would have a lot of questions to answer, and I'd ensure the best interrogators in the VIC would get them out. Looking at the apparatus in the chamber, I recognized my own attention to detail and thoroughness. This mental clone, this fork, had been active for at least a few years. I thought for a moment, wondering if other versions of myself had been behind the murder of Earth. That nightmarish thought now had a single point of data in its favor, and the nausea that rose in my cyborg stomach would've been enough to get me to puke, if I'd been able to.

I'd always thought of myself as a tool, a fighter for civilization, science, and order. I'd naively thought my skills and expertise were inseparable from myself, despite the very implications of my own work. Someone had made this eidolon of nightmares from those very memories and skills, a pale imitation of the yesterday's embers. That someone was going to pay, and give me answers. By the time you read this, I'll have sent my report directly to the Chief, including my suspicions on Sandoval. Whoever you are, you've ruined my routine, and you've made me very, very angry. You know what's coming.