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Gregor Hartmann has made a number of sales to the Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. This is his first appearance in Galaxy’s Edge.

THIS KNOTTED DUST
by
Gregor Hartmann

Distracted by watching the war news on SophX, Kiang missed the exact moment when the mind implanted and the floppy awoke.

Choking and hideous gurgles. The floppy struggled to speak. His gaze darted over the luminous walls, the organic tangles of instrumentation dangling from the lab ceiling. Darting eyes found Kiang, widened in awe.

"Aaaa...are you an angel?" the floppy gasped.

A reasonable mistake, given the iridescent mesh of Kiang's uniform. His glowing mechatronic carapace was both functional and beautiful. Its bidirectional comm made him an integral prong in the ChoRen military machine. There were distasteful aspects to being a Material Procurement Specialist III, but Kiang liked looking sharp. He posed proudly.

"No," he said. "You're in the future. Your future, my present. You died a thousand years ago, but through quantum psychography we copied your mind into a blank corpus."

The floppy blinked. "This isn't Heaven?" His disappointment was palpable.

Kiang snorted. "Not hardly. Relax. Lie still while I check some stuff."

He touched a virtual button. A mist of synaptobots emerged from vents in the slab on which the floppy trembled. The bots settled over the bare scalp and self-assembled an EEG mesh. Their data generated a four-dimensional representation of the floppy's corpus and mentation, hovering over the slab like a translucent homunculus. Observing the colors, Kiang tweaked and adjusted the floppy's neurochemistry. He had to prevent the retrieved mind from disintegrating into rival modules that fought each other insanely. And keep phase jitters from cascading into a fatal seizure.

The floppy twitched. "Hey, that hurt."

"Sorry. Lie still."

The language the floppy spoke was extinct. A SophX app interpreted. When Kiang spoke, a neural prosthesis controlled his larynx and mouth so he in turn was understood. He disliked having his jaw and tongue be manipulated like a puppet. Fortunately he wouldn't have to endure it very long.

Eventually he stabilized and anchored the mind. The synaptobots swarmed back to their nest. The floppy sat up on the edge of the slab. Beforehand, Kiang had dressed the corpus, so he was wearing a flimsy disposable gown. And a diaper, in case shock and fear loosened his bowels.

Kiang helped him stand, then stepped back.

The floppy tottered. He crumpled to his knees.

Kiang bit his lip. Had he missed something? Damn. If he lost another one—

But the action was deliberate. The floppy was kneeling. He bowed his head and clasped his shaky hands together.

"Thank you, God, for the gift of life. My heart is filled with gratitude. I don't know why you allowed a miserable sinner like me to live again, but thank you thank you thank you. I promise to be a better person this time, and to serve you in whatever way you see fit."

SophX generated a private info-display in Kiang's visual cortex. The retrieved mind was a Christian, it declared, and flashed a brief overview of the cult. Kiang sighed. How many silly religions had he encountered in the course of recovering the dead? Before the transhumanist era of scientific atheism, apparently everyone bowed down to some god or devil or magic tree. Ridiculous. Kiang was glad he lived in a world run on the principle of reason, not fear.

"Okay," he said, with artificial cheeriness when the floppy stopped babbling. "Let's stretch your legs. Take a test drive in your new corpus." He didn't know what that meant. SophX was putting words in his mouth. But the floppy smiled.

Time-wise it would have been more efficient to slide him off the slab and straight into an induction tube. But experience had taught Procurement that physical activity, plus a brief exposure to nature, helped anchor a retrieved mind, resulting in a higher output of useable floppies. They exited the lab and set out along a path in an enclave designed to achieve that effect. They could have been strolling through a glade on an Overlord's estate, not a heavily defended military base. In any direction the floppy looked he would be soothed. An emerald meadow, delicate trees, waves of yellow flowers. No trace of the mutagenic weapons that turned unprotected forests into skeins of rotting black lace.

Gazing skyward, the floppy rubbed his eyes. "What's wrong with the sun? How come it's red and fuzzy?"

"It's being tapped. There's a toroidal particle structure just outside the photosphere. A collector for...special projects that require a lot of energy."

"Gosh. You must have some smart scientists."

"The ChoRen are the greatest scientists in the history of humanity," Kiang said, with considerable understatement.

There had been many breakthroughs in the centuries since the mind thought its last thought. The Kirtane Interface. SophX. SA3D communicators. Purificase. With each step forward, science became stronger. Strong enough to crush religions and other superstitions. To annihilate the primitive thinking that had held the world in thrall, freeing humanity to evolve to self-directed glory.

"Say, there's something I'd like to do," the floppy said, shyly.

"Sure. What?"

Often, floppies wanted a special food. Or sex. Any desire was good. A fragile floppy generally wanted to sleep, which meant the implant wasn't holding and the mind would soon disintegrate. A useless dud, a black mark on Kiang's performance report.

"I want to go to church," the floppy announced.

SophX explained “church.” Kiang flinched. "Why?"

"This future architecture is fantastic." He pointed to an early-warning sensor array that stabbed at the sky like coral lightning. "I can't imagine what your churches are like. I want to see one."

"Can't you pray anywhere?"

"Sure. But I want to see a church."

Kiang hesitated. The floppy became suspicious.

"You do have churches, don't you?" He scrutinized Kiang's face, observed the reluctance. "No? Why not?"

Here we go, Kiang thought. He upped the defensive power of his uniform.

"ChoRen civilization is rational. No one believes in supernatural beings. Only what can be measured and proven. All archaic belief systems have been purged. Including yours."

"Not one Christian church?"

"None."

"Really? What would happen if I walked up to someone and said, ‘Brother, have you heard about guy named Jesus?’"

SophX flashed a biographical sketch.

"First of all, no one would know who you're talking about. Second, you'd be committing a crime. 'Promotion of religion or superstition'."

"Even if you don't buy the story about his daddy, you have to admit he's part of history, right? I can't discuss a historical figure?"

"A crime."

The floppy nodded as if he'd won a bet with himself. "That explains why you're so blasé about raising the dead. No sense of sacrilege. No awareness that what you are doing is something only God should do."

"I personally have done it thousands of times. Does that make me a god?"

The floppy laughed. "You wish."

For some reason, that stung.

Irritated, Kiang tried to make him appreciate the magnificence of ChoRen science. Quantum psychography! It had long been known that particles such as electrons were linked in space. Spooky action at a distance—the basis of SA3D communicators. ChoRen scientists realized they could also exploit that linkage on the time axis. Spooky action through time. First they learned how to view the past, and thus invented quantum archeology. Then ChoRen scientists discovered how to copy brain waves to the present. How to copy entire minds. The computational overhead was immense, but doable. Given sufficient motivation.

The floppy didn't seem impressed by the amazing technological achievement.

"So you copied my mind into a corpse? Why me? Were you looking for me, specifically, for some reason?"

"No," Kiang admitted. "We can't aim. Too many variables, too much slip and fuzz. We're fishing in the dark. We'd like to copy significant historical figures, of course, but those are rare. We have to settle for whoever we can get."

The floppy either didn't perceive the insult, or didn't care. He continued to think, assessing the situation with an equanimity that was disturbing.

The reactive scales on the surface of Kiang's uniform would protect him from a physical attack. But the calm demeanor was more unsettling than overt belligerence would have been. He dialed his defensive power higher.

"You're taking all this in stride," Kiang probed. "Other minds I've recovered have exhibited much more culture shock."

"I was sick for months. Do you folks still have hepatocellular carcinoma?"

SophX explained. Kiang shook his head.

"I had a lot of time to think about where I was going when I died. Only two possibilities, I figured. I knew which one I wanted, so I didn't just sit on my ass waiting to croak. I volunteered at the hospice. Helped other people. There was this one mean old lady. I sat by her bed. Held her hand. Breathed through my mouth so I didn't have to smell her." He shuddered. "Everyone said I was a saint." He rolled his eyes. "Big deal. If you do good deeds because you want to be rewarded, that doesn't count. Maybe I fooled the people in the hospice, but.... Yet here I am. Good-for-nothing me. Living again? It's like I got a do-over. Why, I wonder. What did God intend for me?"

The floppy was right about one thing, Kiang thought. He had been resurrected according to the plan of unseen powers. Not God, though. The plan had been devised by human Overlords, not an invisible Sky Chief.

While making polite noises, he watched readouts manifesting in his visual cortex. Sensors said the floppy's fine motor skills and distance-tracking focus were good. Level of stress hormones: low. Cognitive processing: excellent. The dorsomedial frontal cortex was lit up like a thermobaric round. The mind was settling in nicely. This would look good to his superiors, he thought.

They came to a fork in the path. Kiang stepped to the right—the direct route to the Induction Center. The floppy halted. "Let's go this way," he said, nodding to the left.

"Why?"

"Because." The floppy grinned and strode in that direction, hands clasped behind his back. Despite a silly gown and wobbly legs he somehow projected authority. Kiang hastened to catch up. He hoped his superiors hadn't noticed the lapse in control.

"Listen," he said. "Our world is a utopia. But even in utopia everyone has to earn their keep. So we've lined up something for you. A special job." He made his tone cheery, as if letting the floppy in on an opportunity.

"Doing what?"

"Not everyone accepts ChoRen civilization. In the outer solar system there are rebels. Outlaws. Crazy people who cling to crazy ideas. We're preparing an offensive against them. We need pilots."

"I can't fly."

"The weapon will do that for you. You will be plugged into its navigation pod. You will use your intuition, ingenuity, and human unpredictability to penetrate automated defenses and help the weapon reach its target."

"Sounds like a kamikaze."

SophX explained. Kiang denied it. The floppy remained skeptical.

"Suppose I decline this kind offer?"

"Doesn't matter," Kiang said. "Induction will rectify your thinking and erase all doubt. Induction will make you into what we call a 'warhead'."

"Damn. That's a raw deal." The floppy looked puzzled. "Why don't you use your own people? Volunteers? If you have this great civilization going, aren't people willing to defend it?"

"That's the problem. Our civilization. We are so civilized, so rational, that lifting a hand against an enemy is troubling to us. Fortunately minds from your barbaric era don't have that inhibition."

Kiang was happy to see that finally he had embarrassed the troublesome floppy.

They came around a little knoll, and there stood the Induction Center. Rather, the entrance, jutting from the meadow like an immense metal mushroom. Most of the facility was underground to protect from aerial attack; the only part showing was an armored turret, its top a parabolic shape engineered to deflect hyperkinetic projectiles. The entrance was an arch. In lieu of a solid door, projectors generated columns of 3-D glyphs, spelling out propaganda slogans that scrolled downward in strings of inspirational phrases.

"Well, here we are. In you go, now."

The floppy knelt. Kiang tensed, afraid he was going to pray again, but the barbarian plucked a yellow flower and sniffed it. He filled his lungs, savoring the scent. He made no threatening move, yet Kiang nervously ratcheted up the defensive ability of his uniform.

The floppy twirled the flower between two fingers and gazed up at Kiang benevolently.

"You like your job? Leading lambs to slaughter?"

"It's not a job. It's a calling."

"Really? Who called you? Some higher power?"

The Overlords, Kiang thought. And his own ambition. No. The floppy was playing him. Why was the man so calm? He maxed the defensive power of his uniform, even though that would attract the attention of his superiors who might question his mental state.

The floppy stood. "Here's something to think about, mister man of science. Do you realize your technology has proved a basic tenet of Christianity? Life after death?"

"Through technology. Human machines. A supernatural being had nothing to do with it."

"Maybe God is working through you."

"Ridiculous."

"Can you disprove that? You could unknowingly be His instrument. Perhaps God wanted you to bring me into this heathen time—to witness, preach, spread the Word. Sounds like you need it. You may have a lot of high-tech razzle dazzle, but if you're still fighting wars, Mankind hasn't changed that much."

Gritting his teeth, Kiang gestured toward the Induction Center.

The floppy let the flower fall to the carefully coddled military grass. "Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me."

SophX gave Kiang the origin of the quote. A banned book—he instantly erased the display and tried to forget he'd seen it. "Ridiculous. How can you believe such nonsense?"

The floppy shrugged. He hitched up his diaper, strode through the entrance, vanished into a waterfall of patriotic glyphs.

Finally, Kiang was able to stand down. He uncocked his uniform and started back to the Recovery Lab. Irritated with himself for being so skittish. He was a Material Procurement Specialist III. He had received a commendation for delivering the highest percentage of useable floppies in his unit. Why had he let the cocky barbarian rattle him?

Something whirled overhead. He flinched. But it was a troop transport, not a raid. Embarrassed, he continued along the path.

Using SophX he peeked at the war news. The announcements from Central Command were always confident. One triumphant campaign after another. Yet if all the battles were great victories, why had the war persisted? What was really happening in the outer system where the religious fanatics had taken refuge? So much solar output was being diverted to beam weapons that Earth was cooling and glaciers were returning. The inner system all the way to Mars was supposed to be under ChoRen control. And still the believers of irrational ideas were able to hurl ferocious counter-assaults all the way to Earth. How could that be, if they were hobbled by archaic beliefs?

A dangerous thought. He tried to think about something else before his uniform sensed disloyalty and reported him.

Too late.

His iridescent uniform turned scarlet to advertise his shame. It blocked his somatic neurons; his muscles went limp and he collapsed in a heap on the path. As he lay helpless, a remote entity seized control of his visual cortex. Not the gentle touch of SophX. Something powerful that hurt. The bushes, the trees, every individual leaf appeared to glow as if lit from within.

His uniform tightened like a vise, and he felt, rather than heard, the voice of an Overlord.

Do you question us? His entire body vibrated.

"No, Lord, no," Kiang gasped.

Our wrath is terrible.

A wave of unbearable pain burned through him.

"Forgive me, Lord. I was a fool."

Our mercy is great.

A wave of infinite pleasure cooled the hurt, made him gasp with joy.

Groveling in the dirt, weeping, Kiang vowed never again to doubt the power, the omnipotence, the glory of the ChoRen.

 

Copyright © 2017 by Gregor Hartmann

 

 

TABLE OF CONTENTS

HOME

The Editor's Word

FICTION
The Death of Arthur Owsley
by Stephen Lawson

Tenure Track
by J.P. Sullivan

Rite of Passage
by Jody Lynn Nye

Too Deep Thought
by Edward M. Lerner

Termination Pending
by Rachelle Harp

Hired Gun
by Lou J Berger

“Hello,” Said the Stick
by Michael Swanwick

Disappearing Days
by Leena Likitalo

Karmic Chameleons
by Paul Di Filippo

The Spires of Greme
by Kay Kenyon

This Knotted Dust
by Gregor Hartmann

Late Night at the Wonder Bar
by Gordon Eklund

Indomitable
by Jack McDevitt

INTERVIEW
Tony Weisskopf
by Joy Ward

SERIALIZATION
Daughter of Elysium (Part 1)
by Joan Slonczewski

COLUMNS
Decoherence
by Robert J. Sawyer

Science Column
by Gregory Benford

Recommended Books
by Bill Fawcett & Jody Lynn Nye

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Copyright © Arc Manor LLC 2017. All Rights Reserved. Galaxy's Edge is an online magazine published every two months (January, March, May, July, September, November) by Phoenix Pick, the Science Fiction and Fantasy imprint of Arc Manor Publishers.