Loki's Ring

Loki's Ring

by Stina Leicht
Loki's Ring

Loki's Ring

by Stina Leicht

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Overview

Gita Chithra embarks on a mission through space to save the robot she loves as a daughter—or risk losing her in the depths of Loki’s Ring—in this intergalactic space adventure from beloved author Stina Leicht.

Gita Chithra, the captain of the intergalactic ship The Tempest, is used to leading her crew on simple retrieval and assistance missions. But when she receives a frantic distress call from Ri, the AI she trained from inception—making her like a daughter to Gita—she knows she’s in for something much more dangerous.

Ri is trapped in the depths of Loki’s Ring, an artificial alien-made solar system, and says everyone in the vicinity has been infected and killed by a mysterious contagion. Gita and her team investigate, only to discover horrors at every turn, and are soon stranded themselves, leaving them vulnerable to infection and attack.

Forced to call on an old friend to help them out of this mess, Gita must succeed or risk losing everyone she’s ever loved.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781982170639
Publisher: S&S/Saga Press
Publication date: 03/28/2023
Pages: 512
Sales rank: 1,059,706
Product dimensions: 5.30(w) x 8.10(h) x 1.40(d)

About the Author

Stina Leicht is a science fiction and fantasy writer living in central Texas. Her second novel, And Blue Skies from Pain, was on the Locus Recommended Reading list for 2012. She was an Astounding Award for Best New Writer finalist in 2011 and in 2012. In 2011 she was also shortlisted for the Crawford Award. She is also the author of Loki’s Ring.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1 1
The primary distribution hub for the Jemisin Halo Generator in Beta Sector was in danger of exploding, and if Captain Gita Chithra didn’t stop it, the ensuing disaster would destroy the local solar system and every living being within it.

No pressure, Gita thought to herself.

The system contained uninhabited gas giants and a relatively small black hole designated Beta-X45J. The black hole’s manageable size made it an ideal energy source. It was also conveniently located along a high-congestion spacing route. These qualities were what made the halo generator lucrative. They were also what made it a hazard; starships congregated in the sector at all hours. Currently, that traffic was being cleared and rerouted, but due to high volume, a full evacuation was impossible. The distribution hub would succumb to the inevitable before everyone could get out.

Gita could just hear her mother’s commentary on her life choices. It was an old argument that followed the same script almost every time they spoke.

You must move on with your life, Jaanu.

I love you, Mata. I do. But I’m forty-six years old. I’m not a child anymore. I haven’t been for a long time.

I am your mother. You will always be my child. I want nothing but your happiness.

I am happy.

Your family needs you. Come home where it is safe. Work for me. You have considerable skills, and you’re wasting them out there. You don’t have to spend the rest of your life alone grubbing for—

Mata—

You were always difficult. Why must you be so hard on yourself? Why can’t you be more like Inimai? My only wish for you is a successful career. Happiness. A real family. Inimai says—

Inimai was Gita’s oldest sister and their mother’s favorite. The perfect daughter.

Are you implying my children aren’t real?

During graduate school, Gita had volunteered twice to pair with sentient artificial intelligences. The process of partnering involved the surgical installation of an electronic storage unit inside a human brain. Once the human volunteer healed, a newly formed digital entity was downloaded onto the device and activated. In this way, the artificial entity developed much like a human child would. They observed human social interactions and developed their own personality. Gita equated it with pregnancy—only instead of months, digital gestation took years. And like pregnancy, partnering could be dangerous to the human party. Still, when it came to learning how to navigate safely with humans in the physical world, partnering was the fastest, most accurate method.

Don’t twist my words, Jaanu. That is not what I meant. I love Ezi and Ri. They are my grandchildren in every way. I worry for you, that is all. You must stop reliving the past.

Gita squeezed her eyes shut in an attempt to block out the rest. Parents. It was bad enough arguing with them on holidays. Why did they have to live inside your head, too?

What was worse was knowing deep down that her mother might have a point.

Gita’s chest felt heavy and tight. No. Her mother couldn’t understand. No one seemed to. But there had to be a way in which this situation could turn out right. With everyone safe. She’d graduated with honors from the Terran Republic of Worlds’ premiere tactical-emergency-response program. She’d been trained to analyze emergency situations from all angles.

Every problem has a solution. Be creative.

There must be a way.

Speaking louder than normal so she could be heard over comm static—and maybe to block out her internal dialogue, too—she asked, “Is the containment field ready? Miranda?”

The original plan called for Gita and the human members of the team to remain on board the shuttle, Ariel, while the drones entered the generator facility. Human beings didn’t fare well in close proximity to black holes. Mind you, black holes aren’t great for drones, either.

Sentient artificial intelligences—that is, Artificial General Intelligences—had been awarded personhood by the Terran Intergalactic Conference of 2532. But AGIs were still employed in dangerous, even deadly conditions, because in a worst-case scenario, a drone could be rebooted using a backup. The drone might lose a few minutes of recorded memory, but that was all. Such an event was costly, but it was hardly fatal or even painful. However, there was considerable debate in philosophical circles as to whether it was really the same drone if one replaced both the physical unit and the artificial personality it contained with a version that was technically incomplete.

In general, she tended to leave that discussion to those in charge of overseeing the legal and spiritual affairs of artificial persons. In the specific, she preferred to let those affected decide for themselves, as was their right.

Had letting go been the right thing to do?

You’re allowing your self-doubt to get in the way. There’s no time for this.

Gita shifted closer to her float screen and bumped the coffee mug near her left elbow. Reminded that she hadn’t finished it, she took a swallow and grimaced. Cold. She couldn’t reheat it. Again, there was no time.

She exhaled the scent of stale coffee. “Hello? Can anyone hear me?”

“I can hear you,” Mandy said from the console on her right. Like Gita, Mandy was from Septa. Her serene, almost monotone delivery was an artifact of her northern central continent origins.

Gita sighed. “I was talking to Miranda and Ferdinand.”

“Oh,” Mandy said, continuing to scan the lines of data on her projected float screen. Her round, tawny face was framed with wisps of straight black hair that had escaped the thick braid trailing down her back. Calm, good-natured humor drifted around her like a pleasant perfume.

Returning her attention to the problem at hand, Gita considered the options. This time she’d chosen to send the two drones out on their own in hope that it would make securing the emergency force field more efficient, granting more time for starships to flee.

A devastating cascade of errors was responsible for the accident. It’d probably originated with something small—a faulty monitoring panel or an overloaded sensor in the Jemisin distribution hub. Of course, this didn’t explain why the resident artificial person hadn’t already taken care of the problem, which was why Gita had asked Mandy to check the recent systems reports and AGI functionality metrics. Normally, Gita would be the one to go over them, but with Karter and the others gone, Gita had more responsibilities than time. Redundancy was standard in extraplanetary engineering—Terran Republic of Worlds regulations required it. In case of emergency, everyone needed to know how to do at least one other crew member’s job. Mandy had been working for AGI repair certification since joining the crew. It was time to test those skills.

“Hello?” Gita asked again. “Miranda? Ferdinand? Can you hear me?”

More static.

“Sycorax, can you boost my signal?” Gita asked.

“Beta-X45J’s proximity is interfering with communications,” The Tempest’s artificial person answered, her reply salted with a crisp Nigerian British school accent. The starship and its resident AGI had been designed and built by Nwapa Starship and Space Dock, one of the best shipwright companies on Terra, which was headquartered in Lagos, Nigeria.

Everything was glitchy in the vicinity of a black hole—not that anyone was dumb enough to cut it that close. It was best to stay on the other side of the Hopkinson Safety Zone.

Unstable magnetic fields and gamma radiation bursts aren’t great for communication channels either, Gita thought. Maybe it’s time to implement a work-around.

Sycorax said, “A signal boost will now be employed with a noise reduction filter.”

Gita tilted her head and paused. “Still detecting a great deal of interference.”

“I’m afraid it’s the best I can do.” Sycorax’s apology sounded sincere.

Sighing, Gita made yet another attempt to communicate with the drones. “Miranda? Ferdinand? Are you there?”

“Don’t strip your seals, boss,” Miranda answered. “We hear you.”

“Oh. Good.” Gita breathed out her relief. “What’s the progress update?”

“Containment amplifiers four and five are in place and secure,” Miranda reported. “One remaining.”

“Ticktock,” Mandy said, still tracing lines of data with her eyes.

“Do you want to come out here and do this instead?” An electric, dry humor crackled in Miranda’s question.

“I’m good,” Mandy said.

Gita felt a faint smile tug at the corners of her mouth. She was lucky. She had a good team.

Space walks were physically taxing, even for those without disabilities, and while Mandy’s osteoarthritis and osteoporosis were well managed by the medical nanobots in her bloodstream, the conditions weren’t curable short of bone replacement—a painful and time-consuming process that wasn’t worth going through if one intended to continue working in space. As a result, Mandy couldn’t visit planetside. Medbots were great for managing myriad health issues, but they couldn’t reverse damage already accrued.

Luckily, Mandy didn’t even remotely miss Septa, nor did she have an urge to go outside the ship.

Miranda continued. “I’m happy to sit on my ass and pilot a computer console.”

“You don’t have an ass,” Mandy said.

“I do have a bottom,” Miranda countered.

“That’s true,” Mandy said. “I sit corrected.”

“What about Ferdinand?” Gita asked in an attempt to cut their shenanigans short.

“I’m fairly certain he has one, too,” Miranda replied.

Gita asked, “Every ship in Beta Sector is in danger of being wiped out entirely, and you two are fixated on butts?”

As ridiculous as it was, this conversation reminded her of how much she missed Miranda.

“Sorry, boss,” Mandy said.

“Ferdinand is investigating the issues with the navigation jets.” A hint of the drone’s defensiveness filtered through the static. “He’ll send a report as soon as he returns from his trip on the black hole side of the distribution hub.”

“Thank you, Miranda.” Gita shifted her attention to Mandy. “What about you?”

“Containment field is a go.” Mandy glanced away from her screen. “Ready to engage as soon as the amplifiers are in place.”

“Excellent,” Gita said.

“Ferdinand has drifted from his point of contact with the distribution hub,” Sycorax reported, restricting her response to the shuttle’s intercom. The bulk of the emergency evacuation organization had fallen to her, and she was monitoring the job from the vicinity of the refueling station. “His navigation system appears to be malfunctioning.”

“Miranda?” Gita asked. “What do you have?”

“I’ve anchored the last amplifier,” Miranda answered. “You may deploy the containment field.”

“Engaging containment field,” Mandy said.

“Excellent, Miranda. Please check on Ferdinand before you return to the shuttle.” Gita was growing worried.

“His last check-in indicated that he had replaced navigation jets six and seven,” Miranda replied. “You are good to begin testing.”

“Mandy?” Gita asked.

“On it,” Mandy said. After a short pause, she continued. “Containment force field fully engaged and stable.”

“Perfect.” Gita almost relaxed.

“Uh. Oh.”

“What is it, Mandy?” Gita asked.

“You’re not going to like it.”

Gita’s stomach tightened. What’s wrong now? “Just tell me.”

Miranda interrupted the conversation. “Oh, shit. Damn it, Ferdinand.”

“Report,” Gita said.

“He’s drifted too close to the accretion disc.” Miranda sounded upset, on the verge of panic. “I can’t retrieve him. And his propulsion system is malfunctioning.”

“Shoot.” Gita briefly paused. She couldn’t afford to let her fear show—it would affect the others.

Every problem has a solution. She repeated it in her head like a mantra. “Do you have a tether line with a clamp?”

“I have two,” Miranda said. “One might be long enough, but I don’t know that he can grab it. His readings indicate widespread system failure.”

“Use both. And engage the magnetic clamp,” Gita said. It might risk Ferdinand’s internal memory systems, but it was that or lose the drone altogether. “Do whatever you have to—just don’t get too close. Let me know at once if another obstacle comes up.”

“Yes, boss.”

“Mandy,” Gita said. “You’re on.”

“We have another problem.” Mandy almost frowned.

“You said that fixing the navigation jet failure would resolve the issue.” Gita had known there was more, but this was how things were done.

“It did,” Mandy said. “There’s a reason the hub’s artificial person didn’t correct it on their own.”

“And?” Gita asked. Here it comes.

“There’s a code glitch.”

“What kind of glitch?” The knot in Gita’s stomach tightened painfully. She winced. There’s no time to reprogram an artificial person, let alone reboot them. That isn’t the solution.

Even if they agreed to let me do such a thing.

Assuming I would do it, which I won’t. I can’t.

Mandy answered, “It’s not that bad. An update for a peripheral neuromorphic string. No need to talk them through it. Copy, paste. They won’t even notice. A hard reboot isn’t necessary.”

“Nonetheless, I won’t approve,” Gita said. “Not without their consent.”

“Talk to them then. But you’re making this a bigger problem than it is.”

“I’m not.”

“It’s a trivial correction they’d have done themselves if they’d noticed,” Mandy said. “They won’t care.”

“Would you mind if someone cracked open your skull and rewrote your thoughts?” Gita asked. “Without even telling you what they were doing?”

“No need for you to rewrite it,” Mandy said. “I’ve already done it.”

“Wait. How? You aren’t familiar with Advanced Virtual Personality Coding or even Russ programming languages.” I hate this part. Gita’s heart was hammering against her breastbone. She felt a little nauseous. Her eyesight began to fluctuate between sharp and fuzzy in time to her heartbeat. She risked briefly shutting her eyes to center herself. It’s only adrenaline.

After five deep breaths Gita opened her eyes. Stay focused. It’s fine. You’ve done this hundreds of times. Every problem has a solution.

“I’ve been studying AGI programing in addition to repair,” Mandy said.

“Why?” Gita asked.

“In case.”

“In case of what?”

“In case,” Mandy said with emphasis.

Gita understood. The redundancy safeguard.

But reprogramming artificial personalities isn’t my job, Gita thought. Only rehabilitating and rescuing them. There’s a distinction.

She did have multiple degrees: neuromorphic engineering, advanced artificial general intelligence theory, artificial behavioral medicine and practices, as well as developmental psychology of quantum-neuromorphic hybrid computers. But there’s a line between helping and reprogramming.

Mandy couldn’t guarantee the artificial person wouldn’t be harmed by her update. AGIs were infinitely complex. External interference could inadvertently introduce unintended results in the neuromorphic matrix. While not in any way a human brain, neuromorphic computing paths had been patterned after human neurons. That meant connections were formed organically and spontaneously. This was, obviously, both an advantage and a disadvantage.

If anyone understood the repercussions of such mistakes, it was Gita. But do I honestly have any other options?

Keep stalling and you won’t have this option either.

A burst of loud static interrupted her thoughts.

“... got him!” It was Miranda. The drone’s communication signal grew stronger as she approached the shuttle. “Ferdinand is safe!”

“Excellent,” Gita said. “How bad is the damage?”

“Pretty bad. I’m keeping him on the tether. He can’t communicate or move on his own,” Miranda replied. “But I can’t risk pulling him in too close, or he’ll contaminate me, too.”

Gita said, “Go directly to The Tempest for a full decon. Ariel doesn’t have the equipment. It’s a long journey, I know. Do you think you can get there before the clock runs down?” At least Miranda will be safe and out of the way.

Miranda replied, “Piece of pie.”

“Cake,” Mandy muttered.

“Have you ever had pie?” Miranda asked.

“Of course,” Mandy said.

“What kind?” Miranda asked.

“All kinds,” Mandy said.

“I wish I could eat pie.” Miranda sighed. “It looks delicious.”

“You have no mouth,” Mandy said.

“A drone can dream, can’t she?”

“Can you?” Mandy asked.

“A reference to electric sheep is de rigueur, is it not?” Miranda replied. “Ferdinand and I are on our way home. Good luck, boss.”

“See you there,” Gita said.

Mandy rotated in her chair. “The replacement jets won’t resolve the larger issue. You know that. If you can’t do what has to be done, I’ll have to.”

Gita swallowed. You did this to yourself, remember. “You’re sure about the update?”

“You could check it, but there’s no time.” Mandy paused. “You’ll have to trust me.”

Mandy wasn’t one to overestimate her abilities. If she was sure about something, she was sure.

“What about beaming the data over?” Gita continued to balk. “They could install the code themselves.”

“With the noise on the channel, we can’t guarantee the string will be intact when it arrives. The artificial person would have to filter and recheck the data package. And we both know there’s no time for that.”

“It has to be walked over,” Gita said, resigned.

“Afraid so.”

Miranda can’t leave Ferdinand on The Tempest and return in time to deliver the package. Not now. “Place a second copy of the string in a glass chip. Wrap protected. I want backup,” Gita said. “How much time do we have?”

“If you leave now, you can get there and back.” Mandy transferred a copy, as requested. “Don’t take too long. If the distribution hub explodes with you inside, you’ll—”

“I know.”

“—and the longer you’re soaking in the radiation—”

“I know.”

“You’re sure you don’t want me to do it?” Mandy held the glass chip just out of reach.

Gita got to her feet and put out a hand. Mandy placed it on her palm. Then Gita took a deep breath, held and released it, grounding herself in the moment. She closed her fingers around the small glass drive and headed to the airlock. Along the way, she was tempted to use a few choice words, but only briefly. She was Hindu and did not curse. Other people would. But unlike other people, she understood that it wouldn’t make her feel any better. It would only bring unnecessary bad energy into her life.

And right now, I need all the positive energy I can get.

Dressed in her environment suit, she sealed the inner door. Mandy waved and mouthed the words good luck! Gita nodded, then locked her helmet in place and synced her HUD clock to ship time before facing the outer hatch.

“Mandy, can you hear me?” she asked, starting the series of checks required before exiting the ship.

“Comms are go.”

The reading on Gita’s helmet display indicated the suit was fully charged. “Batteries are go. Oxygen levels are optimal. Running a seal check.” Using the helmet interface, she initiated the rest of the safety checklist. It added seven minutes, but she knew better than to skip it. She’d seen too many accidents, and space wasn’t a forgiving environment. Especially not today.

Finally, she tapped the heels of her mag boots together. The soles gripped the deck with a small but satisfying ka-thump. She yanked her tether one last time to test it, then depressurized the airlock. With that, she punched the button that would open the outer pressure hatch. The difference in temperature was dramatic. She could feel the cold in her hands through the gloves, the thinnest part of the suit. Nervous, she patted the arm pouch where she’d put the drive for safekeeping. “Do you have the security codes?”

Mandy asked, “You want them now?”

“It’s not like reception will get any better once I’m outside.” Gita’s HUD indicated that the code had been transferred to her suit computer. “What are the artificial person’s name and pronouns?” While not all AGIs employed names or genders, this one did. Courtesy would help initiate trust, and she needed to establish a rapport as quick as possible.

“Abeque,” Mandy said. “Pronouns are they/them.”

Unable to delay any longer, Gita connected her tether to the loop on the hull beside the door, closed the hatch behind her, and proceeded across the boarding ramp to the distribution hub. The magnets in the soles of her boots kept her pace slow and deliberate. Floating would be faster, but rushing in might frighten Abeque. The time crunch meant that she had only one chance to establish trust. The situation called for exactitude.

The interior of the station had been painted an antiseptic white and gray by the original manufacturers—radiation-resistant paints weren’t known for their decorative range of colors. The pipes lining the walls were color coded—blue for coolant, yellow for electric, and so on. Energy collected was stored in rows of massive batteries the size of Ariel. The interior of the station, while sealed, contained no atmosphere. Artificial gravity wasn’t in use either. Abeque didn’t require any of these things in their day-to-day operation of the distribution hub. However, human inspection teams conducted regular systems checks. Sometimes those inspections were done in person because, while artificial persons were designed for a certain amount of self-sufficiency, even they got lonely. This was an integral part of their construction. A totally independent artificial person might result in unpleasant complications, after all—or so the current theories indicated. This was one reason why all new artificial personalities were partnered with humans. Partnering was far more efficient than coding the billions of incremental conscious and unconscious decisions that humans made every moment of every day. Personalities based upon neuromorphic matrices learned best by example and direct experience—not unlike humans themselves.

Gita accessed the security pad. There were other safety and security measures in place at the entrance, but since she was expected, those had been deactivated by Henderson Energy’s home office.

“Hello? Who’s there?” Abeque’s pitch was neutral, and their accent was Daithen. Gita couldn’t detect their exact geographic origins. Like many human-inhabited planets, Daithe had thousands of dialects and regional accents.

“Hi, Abeque. I’m Gita Chithra. I’m here to help you.”

“Do I need help?”

“I’m sure you’ve noticed that the energy loads here are quite high.”

“It is customary to wait until storage is full before transmitting energy to the next distribution hub. The pathway must be clear of obstruction. And there is less risk of accident if the number of transfers is limited.”

“That makes sense.” Gita avoided reading the blurry neon-green numbers in the corner of her left eye—the countdown clock. The pressure to rush wouldn’t help, and neither would panic.

“The log indicates your visit was recently added to the schedule,” Abeque said. “Is this an inspection?”

“I’m afraid not.”

“You are not on the list of inspectors, and the timing is unusual.”

“May I come in?”

“Your credentials have been verified. Welcome, Captain Gita Chithra of Juno-7 SAR and cocaptain of the starship The Tempest.”

Captain. Not cocaptain. Their information is out-of-date. Gita decided this was unimportant.

Abeque continued. “Shall I initiate the life support systems for your comfort? This may take some time.”

“No need,” Gita said. “I won’t be here long.”

With her palm flat against the hull of the distribution hub, she felt the security lock uncouple with a pronounced, soundless thump. Once inside, she unclipped her tether, and the hub’s outer pressure hatch closed behind her. She understood it wasn’t all that far to the hub’s command center, but somehow the distance seemed to stretch out forever. The spot between her shoulder blades itched. She was sweating, and her heart raced as she moved carefully down the pipe-lined passage. She tried not to think of the radiation she was currently absorbing. Attempting to steady her breathing, she concentrated on what she would say and how she might say it. Diplomacy was key.

“Your heart rate is high. How are you doing?” Mandy asked through the private ship-to-suit comm channel.

“I’m fine,” Gita said.

“Are you there yet?”

Gita heaved the last pressure hatch open with a grunt. “I am.”

“The AGI access console will be on the left,” Mandy said. “Along the wall.”

Scanning the rows of electronic instruments and screens, Gita spotted the control panel in question, but when she stepped up to the console, a holo of an androgynous human with long, dark brown hair; brown eyes; and medium brown skin appeared. They were dressed in a green-and-yellow Henderson Energy uniform.

“Hello, Captain Chithra,” Abeque said. “I hope you don’t mind my assuming this form.” They motioned to themself. “I have found that projecting a human body smoothes communication between me and the maintenance team. Humans expect and employ hundreds of nonverbal cues when speaking. This will optimize communication.”

Gita replied, “Thank you. That will make things easier.”

“However, if you have another, more comfortable preference—”

“I don’t. Why do you ask?”

“Your heart rate is quite high.” Abeque tilted their head to the right. “Is there a problem?”

Now is the time to try something new. Be honest, Gita thought. It’s not as if an artificial person can panic. “There is.”

“An emergency? I understand that the SAR designation stands for Search and Rescue.”

“This station will explode in a few minutes. I’m here to prevent that.”

There was a short pause. The hologram placed a hand to their chin and stared at the ceiling as if in thought. “I have consulted my monitoring systems.” The hand dropped away from their face. “There are no indications of catastrophic meltdown. All readings appear normal, and functions are within recommended parameters. Perhaps you should reexamine your data. Someone somewhere missed something.”

“That’s what I came to discuss with you.”

Another silence stretched out between them. Abeque’s expression grew serious. “Go on.”

At that moment, Mandy spoke over the private ship-to-suit comm channel. “Can you speed this up?”

You can’t rush trust, Gita thought. It’s best to not assign blame. Keep it neutral. “There is an issue with a neuromorphic string.”

“Impossible,” Abeque said. “I do not make mistakes. You should check your figures again.”

“The situation isn’t your fault,” Gita replied. She closed her right fist around an urge to rush. “It is possible that a human entered incorrect data during the last routine visit.”

“Again, that is not possible,” Abeque said. “I self-regulate my programming. I would’ve noticed such an error.”

“Have you heard of the expression ‘you can’t see the forest for the trees’”

Abeque blinked. “There are no trees on this distribution hub.”

“I was speaking metaphorically.”

Mandy interrupted from the private channel. “Seriously, boss. You need to get out of there.”

“Ah. I understand,” Abeque said. “You believe that the problem is not apparent to me because I am too close to it.”

“Exactly,” Gita replied. “I need to replace the string. If I don’t, you will be destroyed along with this distribution hub, the fueling depot, any nearby planets, and ships remaining in this sector. We have installed a containment field, but it is uncertain how much of the explosion will be deflected. As it stands, you will not survive.”

Again, Abeque paused.

“Don’t worry,” Gita said. “The safety scans have been executed. The new string is clean.”

Mandy said, “Jam the thing in and go. You have twenty seconds to start back.”

Gita ignored Mandy and continued addressing Abeque. “Please. We must hurry.” She held up the glass drive.

“I’m not joking,” Mandy warned. “If you don’t get out now, you won’t make it to the ship in time for us to reach minimum safe distance.”

She’s unusually chatty. Gita turned her head and whispered privately to Mandy. “Are Miranda and Ferdinand aboard The Tempest?”

“Yes.”

“Good. Take Ariel back to the ship and have Sycorax retreat to minimum safe distance.”

“What?! I won’t—”

“That’s an order,” Gita said.

“You can’t issue orders,” Mandy countered. “This isn’t the military.”

“Take my ship out of the danger zone,” Gita replied. “I mean it.” And then she closed their private comm channel.

Abeque said, “I have a question.”

Gita switched her attention back to the artificial person. She willed herself calm. “Go on.”

The hologram paced the room twice. “If the matter is urgent, why haven’t you installed the new code? Why waste time talking to me about it?”

“Because I won’t touch your programming without your consent.”

“But according to you, if you don’t do this, everyone in this sector dies.”

“As I mentioned before, the containment field might mitigate the explosion. Not everyone will die. Many will, surely. You and anyone on this distribution hub, absolutely.”

“You are the only person besides me on this installation.”

“Exactly.”

“You have strong convictions.”

“I suppose I do.”

“May I ask why?”

It was Gita’s turn to hesitate. “I used to partner new artificial personalities. Suffice it to say, that is a line I will not cross.”

Abeque gazed up at the ceiling.

Gita dared to glimpse the clock on her HUD. This all hinges on how long it takes Abeque to decide.

“I grant permission for you to install the string.” The hologram motioned to the command console. A green indicator light above one of the drive slots lit up. “The appropriate access port is ready.”

“Thank you.” Relief poured over Gita like a bucket of ice water. Her knees felt a bit loose as she stepped closer to the console. “I have provided the original string data in a second file. That way you may compare the two, if you’d like. After the new string is installed, of course.” She inserted the glass drive and waited.

“Why is your ship leaving?” Abeque asked.

Thank you, Mandy, Gita thought. “Because this may not work, and if it doesn’t, I don’t want my crew to die.”

“You’ve decided to stay?”

“Yes.”

Another indicator light blinked on, showing that the glass drive was being accessed.

“What if I had refused to allow the installation?”

Gita motioned to the main command screen displaying the black hole. “Then I would take in the view until it was over.”

“Why stay?”

“No one should die alone.” How long will this take? Gita thought. Am I too late?

“I don’t know what to say.” Abeque’s hologram blinked. “Except, thank you.”

“You’re welcome.”

“Are we going to die?”

“I suppose that’s debatable in your case. Do you have a final directive document on file?”

Abeque nodded. “My backup will activate upon my deletion.”

“Oh, good.”

“What is it like to die?”

These were the same questions that Ri, the first artificial personality that Gita had partnered, used to ask. Ri hated goodbyes so much that sometimes Gita wondered if Ri had picked up her own abandonment issues. How did that happen? Through osmosis? Gita had been so careful—or so she’d thought.

For a moment, she couldn’t breathe. “Honestly, I don’t know. No one does, not as an absolute certainty.” She paused again. Her next question would be considered bizarre by some. “Do you have a spiritual practice?”

Abeque tilted their head. “I have not given the matter consideration.”

“I believe that everything and everyone in the universe is a representation of the Supreme Being. Therefore, we’re all part of a whole. Connected. This includes the inanimate. On a subatomic level, all matter is comprised of electrons and quarks, after all,” she began, adopting the reassuring tone she’d used with Ri all those times. “In addition, I believe in reincarnation. As an aspect of the Supreme Being, souls do not die. They’re reborn into another body.”

Abeque narrowed their eyes. “Do artificial persons have souls?”

“I believe the answer to that is yes.”

“Why?”

“Because you’re sentient. And I have to believe all sentient beings have souls.”

“You don’t have to. Unless things have changed dramatically in the Terran Republic of Worlds recently, there is nothing you are forced to believe.”

“Then, let’s say I believe it because my sense of what is right tells me so. Because believing any sentient being does not have a soul leads to harmful actions.”

“Does it?”

“Historically, yes.”

“Interesting.” Abeque was quiet for a few seconds. “And artificial persons are parts of the universe, even though we are mostly made of code?”

“Absolutely.”

The relief on Abeque’s face was obvious. “Good.”

As Gita watched, the countdown clock on the left side of her HUD decreased to single digits. It felt good to have comforted Abeque. Gita shut her eyes just before it turned red. Well, it’s been nice.

Nothing happened.

“Interesting,” Abeque said. “It appears you were correct.”

Gita opened one eye and then the other. “I have to sit down now.” She staggered to a nearby chair and collapsed into it, feeling wobbly like a drone whose stabilizers had cut out without warning.

At that moment, the room vanished in a painfully bright light. Gita threw her hands up to protect her face in a useless gesture.

Six seconds passed, and then Sycorax said, “This is where the scenario ends.”

Gita wiped tears from her eyes. “And the butcher’s bill?”

“Same as before. With your own death added.”

“And The Tempest got away?”

“It did.”

“Good.”

“I don’t understand,” Sycorax said. “You wouldn’t have saved any more lives than you did in the original situation. Merely different ones.”

“Is that so?” Gita got to her feet. She wasn’t sure how she felt. Better? The knot of grief in her solar plexus remained as solid as always. “I’d have saved Miranda and Ferdinand. That’s different.”

“I suppose.” Sycorax was briefly silent. “Running these scenarios isn’t helping.”

“How do you know?”

“There isn’t a way to win.”

“Who said it was about winning?”

“Very well. There’s no scenario in which everyone is saved. It should be obvious by now that a certain nameless person’s intervention wasn’t a significant factor. The fact is, Henderson Energy was entirely at fault. Management delayed too long before contacting an emergency team. You did the best you could in a bad situation. All of you did. Including Karter. I mean, the nameless person.”

Gita winced at the mention of Karter’s name. “We shouldn’t have sent in Miranda and Ferdinand. I should’ve talked to Abeque myself.”

“I have run the probabilities,” Sycorax said. “As simulation supervisor, it is my duty to prepare you for every eventuality. It is also my duty to review the outcomes. It is my opinion that you performed admirably.”

“Yes, but—”

“Even Henderson Energy found no fault with your or your team’s actions.”

“I know—”

“If this were so, you’d stop holding yourself responsible. You’d stop blaming Karter. This isn’t about losing Miranda and Ferdinand. It’s about what happened afterward. It’s about losing Ibis, Lissa, and Karter.”

Pinching the bridge of her nose, Gita counted to five in an attempt to regain her self-control. She wanted to say Sycorax was wrong. She wanted to scream. She wanted to throw something at a wall. Tears burned in her eyes, and her heart hurt.

Sycorax continued. “Rerunning this simulation has become an unhealthy habit. I am deleting it from the scenario library now.”

Uppity bot. Who asked you? Gita got to her feet, grabbed her coffee mug, and let out a long, shaky sigh. “I’m off to get some more coffee.”

“You’ll thank me later.”

“Sure.” She tapped the hatch access panel and exited the virtual simulation room.

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