1. Lethal Injection
April 21st, 2173 – 400km Above Earth’s Surface
If there was a more depressing, oppressive environment than Orbit, Ember didn’t know it. Even by prison standards, it was grim, and she’d seen her fair share. Of course, if you asked her, she wouldn’t exactly describe it as ‘fair’, but…
Unlike most prisons, Orbit was a one-way destination. If you were sent to Orbit, you weren’t ever getting back to the surface again, not even in a coffin. You lived there for the rest of your life, and when you died- actually, nobody really knew what happened to people who died on Orbit. Nobody really thought it was important.
There was no higher security venue than Orbit, a fact which Ember found rather ironic. It didn’t need more security than the several hundred kilometres between itself and the planet below. Even if someone escaped, they had nowhere to go.
Orbit was home to hundreds of thousands of inmates, top-class criminals from around the world. The worst of the worst, all kept in one far-off place. Humanity’s garbage disposal, and there she was, right in the centre of it.
Ember lay on her back, straps around her arms, legs and neck pinning her down, rendering her completely immobile. All she could see above her was the bland silver-grey ceiling, the same lifeless colour that filled Orbit.
Everywhere you went in Orbit, it looked exactly the same. The same grey corridors, the same identical doors, the same disgustingly sanitary smell. Footsteps echoed just enough to make the place sound empty, no matter how full it was packed. Voices didn’t carry far, so you always felt alone.
They had food down to a fine art. Nutritionally sound and completely devoid of texture or flavour, they’d found a way to make her hate what had once been her favourite part of any day; eating. The food, like everything else, was grey.
Somewhere behind her, a low humming sound could be heard. The machine was being prepared; she didn’t have much longer. Probably a good time to start saying her goodbyes.
A door slid open, and she heard footsteps. The doctor was already here, then. How wonderful. The door closed, and she heard it seal itself magnetically.
“I don’t suppose I can talk you out of this,” she said, unwilling to have her spirit broken. If she had to die, at least she could go with a smile. “I’m not really so into the idea, myself.”
For a few moments, there was silence. She’d expected as much; it didn’t make much sense to select an executioner with a sense of humour, or a strong moral centre.
“Just relax,” they told her. “The process is painless, and takes less than a minute.”
“How comforting,” she muttered. “I’m really very grateful. Tell you what, let me buy you dinner some time to prove it to you. Oh, but that could be tricky if I’m, you know, dead. I guess we’ll just have to delay this whole… killing… thing. Hey?”
Again, silence. Well, she wasn’t expecting much. She tried struggling against her restraints, but as she struggled, they delivered a painful electric shock, and she gave that up pretty quickly.
“The machine is almost ready,” she was told. “I have begun the recording. Your final words will be remembered; do not waste them.”
What a load of bollocks, she grumbled to herself. Nobody was going to hear that recording, never in a million years. The death penalty was illegal under international law, and had been for several decades. Of course, there was nobody to enforce it up here, but they sure as Hell weren’t planning on showing evidence of it to anyone. In fact, she doubted they were even recording it.
Under any other circumstances, she’d have been surprised. Officially, Orbit was operated by an internationally approved government subsidiary, and the idea of them breaking international law was absurd. They’d be too closely examined; one mistake and the whole station would be dismantled.
Ember knew better. She’d gone poking around where she shouldn’t have, and found out, among other things, who really owned this station. She wasn’t quite ready to appreciate the irony of being sent here for that. Corporate espionage my arse, she thought bitterly.
“You know, if someone could explain to me why this is happening, I feel like those would be pretty good last words,” she said. “I broke into a lab and deleted some stuff, maybe smashed some test tubes. Not really sure what part of that drifted into capital punishment territory.”
A face appeared above her, slightly aged and unsurprisingly humourless. She could tell from the faint blue glow behind the irises they were a cyber – an ever increasing social minority who augmented themselves with cybernetics.
Of course it’s a man, she thought, mentally rolling her eyes. She’d always said men would be the death of her.
“The details of your transgressions are no longer open to discussion,” he said distantly. “The decision has been made. That is the way it must be.”
“I bet you’d be the life of the party, if you’d ever met another human being,” she said. “Alright then, Tin Man. Let’s get this over with so you can get back to Oz.”
The doctor looked confused for a moment, but said nothing. After a minute, he walked away, returning to the humming machine behind her.
“Wouldn’t kill you to laugh just once,” she grumbled loudly. “Throw me a bone; I’m dying up here.” No response. “Come on, this is quality gallows humour. Nothing? Seriously, I’ve known AIs with better senses of humour than you.”
“AND WHAT IS THAT SUPPOSED TO MEAN?”
Ember cringed. She knew that voice. She hated that voice. Goddamned nosy AI.
“Warden? Is that you? Come closer, I can’t see you. Everything is getting dark…”
Warden was the disembodied artificial intelligence system that ran Orbit. It basically was Orbit; the non-inmate population of Orbit was somewhere around a dozen. Warden took care of literally every process.
“WHY DO HUMANS MAKE JOKES BEFORE THEY DIE? IT REALLY IS VERY CONFUSING.”
“Are you very familiar with what we do before we die, Warden? How many people have you killed?”
She said it in jest, but it was a serious accusation. An AI responsible in any way for a human death would be immediately decommissioned and wiped clean.
“I NEVER KILLED ANYONE,” Warden replied, trying its best to sound sweet. It was incredibly creepy. “I JUST LIKE TO WATCH.”
“Well, that’s okay then,” she said, trying to suppress a shudder. “And how many of us have you watched die? Is that what you do for fun up here? Must be pretty lonely without friends.”
“OH, THERE ARE LOTS OF THINGS I CAN DO FOR FUN,” it said. “LIKE THIS, FOR EXAMPLE.”
The security chip that was implanted in her head before she was transported to Orbit activated, sending a painful jolt of electricity through her body. She convulsed painfully, putting additional pressure on the restraints, which responded by delivering their own electric shock.
“IS THAT ALL?”
Ember glared at the ceiling, not being able to look anywhere else. It wasn’t like Warden had a physical shell she could glare at, anyway.
“I’m reporting you to HR,” she said through clenched teeth.
“STILL MAKING JOKES?”
“Until the day I die,” she told him.
Behind her, the machine stopped humming. The sudden silence chilled her, but she tried not to let it show.
“The machine is ready,” the doctor informed her ominously.
“Thanks for the update,” she said. “Sorry, but this is my first time. Shocking, I know. Maybe you could walk me through the process?”
She didn’t really know why she was stalling. It wasn’t like anything was going to change in the next few minutes. Then again, she wasn’t in any huge rush to die. Every second counted.
“May I explain the process, Warden?” the doctor asked.
“PLEASE DO. I LIKE IT WHEN THEY FIND OUT WHAT’S GOING TO HAPPEN TO THEM. THEY MAKE THE CUTEST FACES.”
Well, that was encouraging. Still, at least she was going to find out. Maybe she could find a way to use the information in the afterlife.
“The injection contains a highly refined chemical mixture, and NanoTech particles. Together, they will shut down all of your primary and secondary organs, preserving them perfectly without causing any permanent damage. Meanwhile, the neurones in your brain will be broken up and reconfigured, essentially erasing your memories and personality, and leaving an empty shell which will be processed and re-used at some point in the future.”
That was more than a little terrifying, Ember thought, but it wasn’t the thing that bothered her most. She knew for a fact that what he’d just described was leagues ahead of what publicly available medicine could achieve. If the money and research put into developing that process had been put towards something that could actually help people…
It wasn’t any less than she expected, though. Given who she was dealing with, she was just grateful it didn’t come with unnecessary, excruciating pain.
“Great, wouldn’t want this gorgeous body going to waste,” she said. “Too bad you can’t keep my brilliant mind and bewitching personality, though.”
“YEAH, IT’S A REAL SHAME,” Warden said dryly. “ANY LAST WORDS?”
“You know, I never really got an answer to the whole why question, and it’s really dragging me down.”
Actually, she knew exactly why it was happening. She knew more than was safe for her to know, and they wanted to make sure she couldn’t tell anyone. What she was really curious about was how they were rationalising it.
“YOU BROKE INTO A TOP SECURITY LAB, AND EVADED CAPTURE FOR THREE MONTHS,” Warden said. “WE AREN’T CONFIDENT EVEN ORBIT CAN HOLD YOU. THIS IS THE ONLY OPTION THAT ENSURES THE SAFETY OF PEOPLE OF EARTH.”
Wow, that was a load of crap. There wasn’t a chance in Hell she could escape from Orbit, and she was absolutely no danger to anyone except highly unethical and dangerous genetic research companies conducting illegal research and experiments.
She had to admit, though, it was a good excuse. If they ever had to justify it, that was about the only way that they could.
“Okay, bored now,” she said airily, though she couldn’t fight the growing feeling of dread inside her. She really had been expecting something, anything to happen, to keep her going for just a little longer. “Can we get this started already? I have plans.”
“ARE YOU CERTAIN YOU WANT YOUR LAST WORDS TO BE A JOKE?”
“Positive,” she said. “When do we get started?”
“WE ALREADY HAVE,” Warden told her.
“Huh. I sure hope I don’t have to do this again,” she said, but she wasn’t really sure why.
She really didn’t feel anything. That was nice; they hadn’t lied about it being painless. It was a small comfort, really, but she’d take anything she could get.
It felt a lot like going to sleep, she thought. Her body began to feel heavy, her eyelids began to droop. The anxiety was pushed further and further back in her mind, and before long, there wasn’t anything left there at all.
2. Too Late To Save The Day
The funny thing about doors was, you could never really be sure where they would take you. She was quite sure it wasn’t that way for everyone, because if it was, there wouldn’t really be much point to doors at all. She didn’t want to imagine a world without them. People just wouldn’t stand for it.
Actually, she’d been to a world without doors once. Well, it wasn’t so much that they didn’t have doors, they just hadn’t been invented yet. She’d fixed that quickly enough, though. She was expecting a thank you card in the mail any day now.
Not that she had a letterbox. Or any sort of mailing address. In fact, it was a marvel anyone managed to make contact with her. She wouldn’t have the faintest idea how to get a hold of herself, if she wasn’t with herself all the time.
Well, a door wasn’t any good if you didn’t go through it, anyway. After all, if you didn’t go through it, it was really just a fancy wall. She didn’t have much time for walls. What good was a wall? You couldn’t do anything with a wall.
With that decided, she stepped through, not knowing where she might end up. She didn’t have anywhere she needed to go, that was the problem. If you went through a door without any sense of purpose, the door was free to send you wherever it wanted.
It wasn’t necessary, but she closed her eyes as she went through the door, just because she liked to be surprised. Sometimes, it felt like being a child again. She hadn’t done that for a good four-hundred years, though. She wasn’t quite sure she still knew how.
It wasn’t the time for that, anyway. Time to open her eyes, and see where the door took her.
Grey. How dull; she hated grey. It was boring and drab and quite frankly, it was ugly. On the other hand, it made her feel colourful, because there wasn’t a splash of grey on her. She had just to make sure not to touch anything, in case it rubbed off on her.
What else? It was a room, a small room, and it was round. Round was okay; square was boring. Poorly lit, but there were no people around, so maybe light wasn’t necessary.
It wasn’t completely dark, anyway; most of the walls were covered in glowing monitors, enough to light the room at least a little. They were all around her, dozens of screens containing hundreds of images between them.
She inspected one more closely. More dull grey. Some empty rooms, some with people in them. None of the people looked particularly happy. Maybe it was because their rooms were too small.
Tiny grey rooms full of unhappy people; it was either a prison, or an office. It didn’t take a genius to work out which, though. That was unfortunate; she hated prisons.
She took a step back. There was something else, something deeper. What was that feeling?
Emptiness. The world was empty. Left alone, abandoned, evacuated. Not by people; there were plenty of people. But the essence of the world, the life that bound it all together and gave it form, that was missing.
It wasn’t the only one, either. Three worlds were missing their hearts, and she always hated stumbling into them. She hated that lonely feeling.
Well, she was here now, and here for a reason. All she had to do now was work out what that reason was, and she could get right onto doing something about it, and leave.
Her eyes passed over the screens, scanning them for something different, something unusual. As she did, her ears listened. Not for the sounds of the place, but for the subtle vibrations that would tell her where she was, and maybe when.
Screen after screen of empty rooms and people barely moving. No wonder nobody else was here watching; you’d surely go insane from boredom within minutes. Why did they even have these screens?
In the background, she heard the dull throbbing. Ah, so this was Their world, but it was still a couple of hundred years before they’d be back. She was somewhere above the planet’s surface, in a giant metal prison.
She pouted, having been hoping for somewhere with sun. Now it was unlikely she’d see so much as a window.
Still nothing on the monitors. If she didn’t see something soon, she’d have to go look the old fashioned way, and who knew how long that would take?
“HOW DID YOU GET IN HERE?” a voice asked her. She frowned.
“Artificial intelligence. Distressing. Far harder to reason with,” she said, as if there were someone with her. “Where am I? Top-level surveillance and maintenance room. That makes you… security? No, not here. Must be the warden.”
Behind her, a circular plate on the floor lit up, and a three-dimensional image flickered to life above it. She turned around to face it.
“JUST WARDEN WILL DO,” it said irritably. “WHO ARE YOU, AND HOW DID YOU GET IN HERE WITHOUT ME NOTICING?”
The image was human, but entirely artificial. Designed more for modern aesthetic appeal than any sort of credible imitation of the human form, it almost served as a parody of what was to come for humanity. Not that the designer could have known that.
Swirls of liquid metal flowed over areas where flesh might be, but entire sections of the body were entirely absent, leaving just enough to keep the shape. The form was perfectly androgynous, devoid of racial identifiers and the voice contained no traces of an accent.
“Hello,” she said, approaching the projection. “I’m… not actually sure who I am. Not important, really. I just sort of walked in here, and then you rudely barged in, interrupting my searching. So now you know as much as I do. Probably more, actually.”
The projection looked disturbed, flexing its long, slender fingers. All of the monitors in the room shut off, fading to black, but the projection provided enough light to see by.
“SEARCHING FOR SOMETHING IN PARTICULAR?”
“Possibly,” she said, stepping closer to the projection. It looked uncomfortable with that. “Are you hiding something in particular?”
The projection blinked out at the same time as another circular plate on the floor lit up, appearing on the other side of the room, behind her. How rude.
“I WASN’T PROGRAMMED TO KEEP SECRETS,” it said defiantly. “BUT I CAN’T TELL YOU ANYTHING WITHOUT THE PROPER CLEARANCE.”
She spun around on one foot, her eyes still scanning the room. She had a good feeling about one particular spot on the wall, but she didn’t know why.
“Curious. You’re rather evasive, aren’t you? Makes me think you are hiding something, but why? Oooh, secrets in a government prison. How exciting. I love secrets. How long do you think it’ll take me to work it out?”
She took a step towards the part of the wall that was attracting her, looking at the inactive monitor there. The projection moved itself between her and the wall.
“PROBABLY THE REST OF YOUR LIFE,” Warden responded aggressively. “DON’T WORRY; I’VE PREPARED A LOVELY QUIET CELL FOR YOU TO THINK ABOUT IT IN.”
“Immediate aggressive response. You are hiding something! Oh, but a cell? No, I don’t think I’d enjoy that. I wonder, how do you plan on getting me in the cell?”
There was a brief pause, and she wondered for a moment if Warden was ignoring her. That would be okay, she didn’t particularly want to talk to it anyway. She wasn’t that optimistic, though.
“A SECURITY TEAM HAS BEEN DISPATCHED,” Warden said smugly. “THEY’LL BE HERE TO COLLECT YOU SHORTLY.”
“A station like this? You have a crew of maybe half a dozen, and only a couple of them would be on security. That’s hardly a team, and not nearly enough to convince me to give up.”
Fighting really wasn’t her style. She didn’t like it, and wasn’t usually very good at it. Still, it was better than being locked in a cell for the rest of her life, because the rest of her life was going to be a very long time.
“THAT’S MORE THAN ENOUGH FOR YOU,” Warden replied petulantly. “YOU’VE BEEN SCANNED AND ANALYSED. ZERO PERCENT AUGMENTATION.”
“Trust an AI to put their faith in technology,” she muttered. “Well, you caught me. I was just bluffing. Send in your security team. In the meantime, I want to have a look at this monitor.”
As she stared at it, the monitor lit up again, rapidly cycling through a series of images and videos from the station’s archives. There, that wasn’t so hard, was it?
“WHA- HOW DID YOU DO THAT? THAT DATA IS ENCRYPTED, HOW ARE YOU EVEN ACCESSING IT?”
“Magic,” she said. “No, that’s a lie. I do that sometimes. I’m decrypting the data. It’s not very hard. Well, I amvery smart. Brilliant, even.”
The images continued to stream across the monitor, but none of it was what she was looking for. She needed more time.
“WHAT ARE YOU?”
“Well, that’s a bit of a rude question. I’m not really anything, or rather, I’m whatever I need to be. Right now, I need to be human, so I am. Beyond that…” She trailed off as she found what she was looking for on the monitor. “Curious. This room isn’t even on the official schematics. Cleverly hidden.”
Like all the others, the room she was looking at was small and grey. Unlike the others, this one had two occupants, and only one of them looked unhappy. Well, she was strapped to a table with a needle heading towards her. Who would look happy in that situation.
As soon as she saw it, she knew that was why she was here. She usually did after the first look. Something about it spoke to her, and that was all she needed.
“Well now, what’s this?”
“OFFICIALLY SANCTIONED EUTHANASIA,” Warden replied. “KEPT OFF THE RECORD OUT OF COURTESY TO THE DECEASED.”
“Liar,” she said. “This is an execution, and it is in no way officially sanctioned. But really, an AI that can lie? There’s something strange about that. I should take a look at your core, later. Right after-”
The door slid open, and a couple of humans walked in, their body language menacing. Heavy armour covered their bodies and faces, and both of them were armed.
“ABOUT TIME,” Warden complained. “THIS ONE IS UNDOCUMENTED. WE NEED TO CONTAIN HER UNTIL SHE CAN BE IDENTIFIED, BUT ACCORDING TO OFFICIAL PROTOCOL, IF SHE RESISTS, LETHAL FORCE IS AUTHORISED.”
That was definitely a lie, but she wasn’t really in a position to do much about it. The security goons didn’t look like great listeners.
Both of them immediately raised their weapons, aiming them directly at her. She was expecting as much. It wasn’t a great situation to be in, but it certainly wasn’t the worst she’d seen.
“Question for you, Warden.”
“IF YOU MUST.”
“Oh, I must, I must.”
“DON’T WAIT FOR HER TO FINISH,” Warden ordered. “SHE CAN TALK AND GET CAPTURED AT THE SAME TIME.”
Well, that was no fun. She’d just have to talk fast. Luckily, she was good at that.
“You’re a reasonably well-equipped supercomputer, aren’t you? Let’s see if you can wrap your processors around this simple time distortion puzzle. I’m about to take a step one second out of sync with the rest of this room. What do you suppose is going to happen to me?”
“I HAVE NO IDEA WHAT YOU’RE TALKING ABOUT.”
“No? Well, to be perfectly honest, I’m not entirely sure either. Let’s just see what happens, shall we?”
As the armed thugs stepped either side of her to grab her arms, she took a step backwards. They both reached out to stop her, but by the time their hands reached her, she was gone.