Authors: Kevin J. Anderson,Doug Beason
Tags: #Science Fiction, #Literature & Fiction, #Science Fiction & Fantasy, #Space Opera, #Anthologies & Short Stories, #Anthologies
Kevin J. Anderson & Doug Beason
Copyright 1992 WordFire, Inc.
Originally published in
, Vol LXVII #1 1992
Digital edition 2011
eBook ISBN 978-161475-010-9
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I am still called the Warden. The prisoners consider it an ironic jest.
Barely a meter square, the forcewalls form the boundaries of my holographic body. Once this felt like a throne, an isolated position from which I could control the workings of Bastille. Now, though, I must look out and watch my former prisoners laughing at me.
This projection has been an image of authority to them. Since living on this prison world was too great a punishment to inflict upon any real warden or guards, my Artificial Personality was entrusted to watch over this compound. I am based on a real person—a great man, I think—a proud man with many accomplishments. But I have failed here.
Amu led the prisoners in their revolt; he convinced them that Bastille is a self-sufficient planet after all their forced terraforming work for the Federation. They have survived all Federation attempts to reoccupy the world, keeping the invaders out with the same systems once intended to keep the prisoners in. Besides the prisoners, I am the only one left.
Once, I ran the environmental systems here, the production accounting, the resources inventory. I monitored the automated digging and processing machinery outside. I controlled the fleet of tiny piranha interceptors in orbit that would destroy any ship trying to escape. But now I am powerless.
Amu’s lover Theowane comes to taunt me every day, to gloat over her triumph. She paces up and down the corridor outside the forcewalls. To me, she is flaunting her freedom to go where she wishes. I do not think it is unintentional.
At the time of the revolt, Theowane used her computer skills to introduce a worm program that rewrote the control links around my Personality, leaving me isolated and helpless. If I attempt to regain control, the worm will delete my existence. I feel as if I have a knife at my throat, and I am too afraid to act.
At moments such as this, I can appreciate the sophistication of my Personality, which allows me to feel the full range of human emotions.
It allows me to hate Theowane and what she has done to me.
* * *
Theowane makes herself smile, but the Warden refuses to look at her. It annoys her when he broods like this.
“I am busy,” he says.
Leaving him to dwell on his fate, Theowane crosses to the panorama window. Huge, remotely driven excavators and haulers churn the ground, rearing up, crunching rock and digesting it for usable minerals. At least, she thinks, Bastille’s resources are put to our own use, not exported for someone else.
Lavender streaks mottle the indigo sky, blotting out all but the brightest stars. A dime-sized glare shows the distant sun, too far away to heat the planet to any comfortable temperature; but overhead, dominating the sky, rides the cinnamon-colored moon Antoinette, so close to Bastille and so nearly the same size that it keeps the planet heated by tidal flexing.
On some of the nearby rocks, patches of algae and lichen have taken hold. These have been genetically engineered to survive in Bastille’s environment, to begin the long-term conversion of the surface, of the atmosphere. On a human timescale, though, they are making little progress.
Farther below, Theowane sees the oily surface of the deadly sea, where clumps of the ubermindist weed drift. A few floating harvesters ride the waves, but the corrosive water and the sulfuric-acid vapor in the air cause too much damage to send them out often. That does not matter, since they no longer need the drug as a bargaining chip. Amu has refused to continue exporting ubermindist extract, despite a black market clamoring for it.
Theowane finds it bitterly ironic that she and so many others sentenced here for drug crimes had been forced by the Federation to process ubermindist. The Federation supports its own black market trade, keeping the drug illegal and selling it at the same time. After taking over the prison planet, Amu cut off the supply, using the piranha interceptors to destroy an outgoing robot ship laden with ubermindist. The Federation has gone without their precious addictive drug since the prison revolt.
When the intruder alarms suddenly kick in, they take Theowane by surprise. She whirls and places both hands on her hips. Her close-cropped reddish hair remains perfectly in place.
“What is it?” she demands of the Warden.
He is required to answer. “One ship, unidentified, has just snapped out of hyperspace. It is on approach.” The Warden’s image straightens as he speaks, lifting his head and reciting the words in an inflectionless voice.
“Activate the piranha swarm,” she says.
The Warden turns to her. “Let me contact the ship first. We must see who they are.”
“No!” Bastille has been quarantined by the rest of the Federation. Any approaching ship can only mean trouble.
Shortly after the prison revolt, the Praesidentrix had tried to negotiate with Bastille. Then she sent laughable threats by subspace radio, demanding that Amu surrender under threat of “severe punishment.” The threats grew more strident over the weeks, then months.
Finally, after the sudden death of her consort in some unrelated accident, the Praesidentrix became brutal and unforgiving. The man’s death had apparently shocked her to the core. The negotiator turned dictator against the upstart prisoners.
She sent an armada of warships to retake Bastille. Theowane had been astonished, not thinking this hellhole worth such a massed effort. Amu had turned loose the defenses of the prison planet. The piranha swarm—so effective at keeping the prisoners trapped inside—proved just as efficient at keeping the armada out. The piranhas destroyed twelve gunships that attempted to make a landing; two others fled to high orbit, then out through the hyperspace node.
But Amu is certain that the Praesidentrix, especially in her grieving, unstable state, will never give up so easily.
“Piranha defenses armed and unleashed,” the Warden says.
Five of the fingerprint-smeared screens beside the Warden’s projection tank crackle and wink on. Viewing through the eyes of the closest piranha interceptors, Theowane sees different views of the approaching ship, sleek yet clunky-looking, a paradox of smooth angles and bulky protuberances.
“Incoming audio,” the Warden says. “Transmission locked. Video in phase and verified.”
The largest screen swirls, belches static, then congeals into a garish projection of the ship’s command chamber. The captain falls out of focus, sitting too close to the bridge projection cameras.
“—in peace, for PEACE, we bring our message of happiness and hope to Bastille. We come to help. We come to offer you the answers.”
Theowane recognizes the metallic embroidered chasuble on the captain’s shoulders, the pseudo-robe uniforms of the other crew visible in the background. She snorts at the acronym.
PEACE—Passive Earth Assembly for Cosmic Enlightenment, a devout group that combines quantum physics and Eastern philosophy into, from what Theowane has heard, an incomprehensible but pleasant-sounding mishmash of ideas. It has appealed to many dissatisfied scientists, ones who gave up trying to understand the universe. PEACE has grown because of their willingness to settle raw worlds, places with such great hardship that no one in his right mind would live there voluntarily.
Theowane sees it already: upon hearing of the prisoners’ revolt, some PEACE ship conveniently located on a hyperspace path to Bastille has rushed here, hoping to convert the prisoners, to gain a foothold on the new world and claim it for their own. They must hope the Praesidentrix will not retaliate.
“Allow me to stop the piranhas,” the Warden says. “This is not an attack.”
“Summon Amu,” she says. “But do not call off the defense.” Theowane lowers her voice. “This could be as great a threat as anything the Praesidentrix might send.”
She hunkers close to the screens and watches the lumbering PEACE ship against a background of stars. The deadly pinpoints of piranha interceptors hurtle toward it on a collision course.
* * *
The First Secretary enlarges the display on his terminal so he can read it better with his weakened eyesight. Across from him, the Praesidentrix sits ramrod straight in her chair.
She waits, a scowl chiselled into her face. The Praesidentrix looks as if she has aged a decade since the death of her consort, but still she insists on keeping her family matters and all details of her personal life private.
The way her policies have suddenly changed, though, tells the First Secretary just how much she had loved the man.
The First Secretary avoids her cold gaze as he calls up his figures. “Here it is,” he says. “I want you to know that your attempts to retake Bastille have already cost half of what we have invested in Bastille itself. On the diagram here,”—he punches a section on the keypad—”you’ll see that we have thirteen equivalent planets in the initial stages of terraforming, most of them under development by the penal service, two by private corporations. Several dozen more have gone beyond that stage and now have their first generation of colonists.”
Overhead, the Praesidentrix chooses the skylight panels to project a sweeping ochre-colored sky from a desert planet. The vastness overwhelms the First Secretary. His skin is pale and soft from living under domes and inside prefabricated buildings all his life. He doesn’t like outside; he prefers the cozy, sheltered environment of the catacombs and offices. He is a born bureaucrat.
“So?” the Praesidentrix asks.
The First Secretary flinches. “So is it worth continuing?” Especially, he thinks, with more important things to worry about, such as raising the welfare dole, or gearing up for the next election six years from now.
“Yes, it’s worth continuing,” she says without hesitating, then changes the subject. Her dark eyes stare up at the artificial desert sky. “Have you learned how one prisoner managed to take over the Warden system? He has a very shrewd Simulated Personality—how did they bypass him? I thought computer criminals were never assigned to self-sufficient penal colonies for just that reason.”
The First Secretary shrugs, thinks about going through an entire chain of who was to blame for what, but then decides that this is not what the Praesidentrix wants. “That’s the problem with computer criminals. Theowane was caught and convicted on charges of drug smuggling although all of her prior criminal activity seems to have involved computer espionage and embezzlement.”
“Why was this not noticed? Aren’t the records clear?”
“No,” the First Secretary says, raising his voice a bit. “She. . .altered them all. We didn’t know her background.”
“Nobody could!” The First Secretary draws a deep breath to calm himself. “But I think you are following a false trail, Madame. Theowane only implemented the takeover on Bastille. Amu is the mind behind all this. He’s the one who convinced the prisoners to revolt. He’s the one who refuses to negotiate.”
She turns, making sure she holds his gaze. “I have already set a plan in motion that will take care of him once and for all. And it will get Bastille back for us.” The Praesidentrix leans back in her purple chair as it tries to conform to her body. Her gray-threaded hair spreads out behind her. She was a beautiful woman once, the First Secretary thinks. The rumors have not died about her dead consort. . . .
The First Secretary makes a petulant scowl. “It’s obvious you don’t trust me with your plans, Madame. But will you at least explain to me why you are doing this? It goes beyond reason and financial responsibility.” He purses his lips. “Is it because the prisoners are in the ubermindist loop? I find that hard to believe. It’s just another illegal drug. Cutting off the supply will upset a few addicts—”
“More than that!”
“And cause some unrest,” he continues, “as well as some reshuffling on the black market, but they’ll adjust. Within a few years we’ll have an equivalent drug from some other place, perhaps even a synthetic. Why is Bastille so important to you?”
The coldness in her gaze is worse than anything he could have imagined from her two months before.
“The ubermindist is only one reason.” the Praesidentrix says. “The other is revenge.”
* * *
I feel as if I am watching my own hand plunge a sword into the chest of a helpless victim. The piranha interceptors are part of me, controlled by my external systems—but I cannot stop them now. Theowane has given the order.
I watch through the eyes of five interceptors as they home in for the kill, using their propellant to increase velocity toward impact. With their kinetic energy, they will destroy the vessel.
I receive alarm signals from the PEACE ship, but I ignore them, am forced to watch the target grow and grow as the first interceptor collides with a section amidships. I see the hull plate, pitted with micrometeor scars, swell up, huge, and then wink out a fraction of a second before the interceptor crashes, rupturing the hull and exposing the inner environment to space.
Another interceptor smashes just below the bridge. I hear a transmitted outcry from the captain, begging us to stop the attack. Two more interceptors strike, one a glancing blow alongside the hull; the shrapnel tears open a wider gash. The PEACE ship continues its own destruction as air pressure bursts through the breaches in the hull, as moisture freezes and glass shatters. The fifth interceptor strikes the chemical fuel tanks, and the entire ship erupts in a tiny nova.
From the debris, a small target streaks away. I recognize it as a single escape pod. I detect one life form aboard. Of all the people on the ship. . .only one.
The escape pod descends, but then my own reflexes betray me as another interceptor also detects the pod, aligns its tracking, and streaks after it. Both enter the atmosphere of Bastille.
Now Amu arrives in the control center. I can tell he is upset by his expression, by his elevated body temperature. His head is shaved smooth, but his generous silvery beard, and eyebrows, and eyes give him a charismatic appearance. He is raising his voice to Theowane, but I cannot pay attention to their conversation.
The PEACE escape pod heats up, leaving an orange trail behind it as it burrows deeper into the atmosphere. It seems to have evasive capabilities, and it knows the piranha is behind it.