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The child was skeptical. “I don’t understand how this works. Explain the thermodynamics.”
Another precocious one, he thought. “Is it essential to understand my workings to rely on my strength?”
A nod, slow and elegant. The child’s bald head and piercing eyes gave him an unsettling air of wisdom.
“Then… if you truly understood my power, and the rules that bind me, could you be still said to be making a wish?”
The child pondered. The stillness outside the hospice swelled into the sound of wind in trees, and the jinn felt hopelessly lonely and nostalgic. Finally, a shake of the head.
“I want life.”
“I can explain why you cannot ask me for it. Allah has reserved to Himself the schedule of every man’s death. Can you accept that?”
Of course he could.
No profit in worrying. He drew back Hooplah’s hand, and Hooplah drew back has, and they conducted the Sign of Victory with a satisfying slap.
“Come back soon,” she said.
The jinn stood, feigning patience, until the child spoke again. “I wish that you would fully explain to me how this works.”
“Are you sure? There is much that must be explained first. You have no background in physics, for example –“
There was nothing angry about the child’s face, nothing sharp or harsh, but the jinn’s binding felt that he was being obtuse, and for a few minutes he stood trembling and retching as it took its course. The child waited, impassive.
“I will show you, then,” said the jinn, “but you may die.”
“You can’t alter that schedule.”
The jinn felt grateful in his heart that the child was on his deathbed, but smothered the feeling before it could occupy his thoughts. Instead he focused on time, his and the boy’s, and took them out of step with the march of life, into a dreamland built after the jinn’s former palace.
There, in the rhythm of dreams, he tutored the boy in the physics of man and the energy of Allah, in the waste spaces between the particles and the treasures there stored, from which jinn and angel wrought their miracles. The child learned fast, though the cost of waking would be forgetting, and laughed with glee as he used his knowledge to make dream-miracles, spirits of fish and flowers pouring from his hands in a kaleidoscope of shimmering images.
“This I have taught might have helped you to become a great sorcerer in life,” said the jinn, “and it is well for your soul that it will not.”
“Have mortal doctors more power over life than you?” asked the boy, and his eyes flashed, and the palace rumbled, and the jinn quaked. “Their wisdom is incomplete, and Allah is merciful.”
“Yes, of course,” said the jinn, and he grimaced as he kowtowed. “Regardless, my task is ended, and we must return –”
“Return? When your contract remains? I did not wish for magic tricks, spirit.” His voice returned to a low, even tone. “Explain to me how all of this…” He waved his arm through walls and dimensions, encompassing the universe in a gesture. “How all of this works.”
His eyes were pleading, and the jinn felt compassion despite himself, so he dismissed the dream-palace and took his image and the boy’s up through space and back through time, and the stars marched backwards in their tracks and the echo of the laugh of Allah as He set them in motion, as a child laughs at the turning of a machine, faded into their hearing, stronger and stronger, and they stopped, and all was still.
“Look,” said the jinn, and the child beheld the stars in the heavens arrayed as an army in their ranks, the yellow stars as infantry, the bright blue on the wings as cavalry, the red as supply train, the eerie black holes as spies, and all the planets presented, in order of size, at the front.
“Look,” said the jinn, and the child beheld the angels that tended them, that held them in their orbits of attention, and the jinn that darted like swallows between them. He saw that they loved the order, reveled in rules given, drinking the law as sweet honey.
“Look now,” said the jinn, and the child saw all the creatures of Heaven streaming to one of the planets, woken from its slumber by a ray of light lensed and shadowed from the marshaled stars to a gentle glow. They held their glories and halos to a whisper and flew softly as the Lord God drew shapes in the mud, and hovered expectantly as a man and a woman came to life.
“Please look away,” said the jinn, as shame overwhelmed him, for there was murmuring in heaven and his voice could be heard. The child peered at the scene with the secret arts he was taught, and understood the voices. Some were disappointed. Many were concerned. A few were waiting for Allah to finish.
“They cannot maintain it,” said a jinn made of fire. “It will spin out into chaos, lonely systems where stars swallow planets and die of their gluttony. They cannot keep the fabric from stretching. We can all tell the end of this,” and the child saw the end, and it was cold and dark, and all the angels stood as statues and all the jinn starved.
The angels said nothing, for their decisions were made, but the jinn burst into conversation, their signals superheating stray particles as they debated their course, and some declared obedience and some reserved their right to act otherwise.
Then the voice of God was present, a rumble beyond words that pierced their hearts from the inside out. “They have my trust,” said the Almighty, “but I do not have yours. Be cursed, then, to know no more the joy of order, save it come at the command of these two. Should they prove unworthy, I shall judge them, but you will serve them or you will starve soon.”
And the child released the jinn, for fear of the responsibility that would come with further knowledge, and they were again on Earth and in time. “You may go,” said the child, and he shivered as he fell into a deep sleep.
They gave the jinn a Rubik’s cube. I don’t get paid enough for this, he thought, but the rest of the children only wanted treasures of Earth, so he rested for a while.
We were early models so they hadn’t worked out our amygdalas all the way. I could always handle it but my little sister fell into these funks that would last for days, and one of those times I took her by the hand and marched her to the sequencer in the east wing.
“Spit,” I said. She shook her head.
I was about to argue when a light came on in my head. I turned around, and a few seconds later felt a tug on my sleeve. We put the sample in the machine and a few seconds later had her entire code on the big screen, in tiny letters you had to squint to make out.
I typed in some regexes and highlighted the results. The bottom right corner turned purple, as did a few pairs in the center.
“That’s everything that codes for proteins, or in other words that actually gives you the body you have,” I said. I lit up the rest of it in orange. “This part mostly regulates the code itself, or just reproduces itself, but we leave almost all of it alone.”
“Because we don’t know what it does?” Her voice was just above a whisper.
“That, and because there’s no harm in keeping it,” I said. “It’s something every human has, so it’s sort of our heritage, even though most of our genes were picked by an optimizing simulation.”
She was already perking up, but I knew it wouldn’t last without something special. “Look at this,” I said, and I pulled up Professor Redland’s code. “Here’s a baseline human.” I ran a check to compare junk DNA between her and my sister; a huge chunk of the top middle was different.
“That part we’re pretty sure is junk,” I said, “and so we put our own data in there. Most of it’s encrypted, you know, identification, how we were made, kill codes…”
“Uh… never mind. Anyway, if you encode that into binary, convert that into letters, Unicode standard DNA storage, and throw away everything that’s not within a few dozen spaces of a dictionary word, you get…”
The screen emptied except for a few bright lines. I put them together and raised the font size.
“Read it to me.”
“Didn’t you…” I stifled my objection when I realized they’d have filled her up with Broca’s inhibitors to keep her out of trouble, to make her illiterate until she was out of her mood. I wished they’d just done something to her mood instead, but couldn’t tell her that, so I just I read her DNA to her.
“Our dear child,” it went, “thank you for being ours.” And it talked about genetics in a way a child could understand it, and gave some background on the project itself, not just for us but for any children we might have, any of our descendants, because these genes would breed true.
Then it had stories, one about a child romping with monsters after dark, another one about a tree that loved a boy and gave him all of its fruit and branches until it was a stump. Her mood picked up as I read those to her, then the last one, which wasn’t about anyone, it was about you, and how you’ll be able to go anywhere, you have brains in your head, you have feet in your shoes, you can steer yourself any direction you choose. I think they put those in there for fun, because they never mentioned them, and the books they read us were a lot less fun, all about how important it is to listen to adults and stay where they can see you.
“Another one!” she said. I’d only read a few sentences after I flipped the page, and there was plenty left, but it was more than they’d put in my own code.
“We’re so sorry,” it said. “We never would have made you if we’d known what we were making you for, but now that you’re with us we never want you to leave. Please understand that we love you and accept you, no matter what you find yourself doing. You’re more than your genes.”
I stood there, gobsmacked, and I couldn’t speak for a minute, and she tugged on my shirt some more. “Come on, just read it,” she said, but I was so jealous they hadn’t said that to me that I made something up about it just being technical stuff and sent her on her way.
Now, it took me years to realize that the little moments of shame and guilt that stick with you your whole life are human, and not just part of what made us who we were, and that made me feel better but just a little. She was transferred to another lab before I could tell her, and by the time both of us got our freedom 2041 happened and we both lost track of everything.
It turns out we were both in San Diego at the same time, on opposite fronts of course, but then the bomb hit and the next thing I knew here I was, with everyone I’d ever known and loved and killed, and without the hormones and frontal lobe inhibitors there wasn’t much left to forgive. She tracked me down before I found her and there was nothing but joy on her face, even when I told her about the lie.
“I knew,” she said. “I ran and looked it up myself soon as I could. Those words helped me through some of the really dark times,” and I nodded because I felt the same way. “And I never would have looked for them on my own. I always felt like I’d never thanked you enough.” And we cried and embraced, and it wasn’t weird or embarrassing at all in that place.
And so, your honor, uh, majesty, um… In that case, I’m pleased to be able to declare “Not Guilty.”
Dargrud the Tall, no longer able to claim that title, ran a hand over his low, hairy, brand-new brow, and pressed his forehead against the high, smooth one he had vacated. “Go, and do what only you can do,” he said, or at least tried to, but Hooplah the Monkey seemed to understand, and when Dargrud swung away he hurried to the barracks, struggling monkeyfully to walk upright.
“Here goes nothing,” thought Dargrud. In a flash he was out of the window and on the side of the Weeping Tower, almost launching himself into the ether with the unexpected force. He suppressed a whoop, then remembered himself and let it out as a frightful chitter. He had a role to play.
First stop, Nazar Khan’s laboratory. He let himself in through the barred basement window – the raven normally on guard had flown off to see the spectacle at the barracks – and landed between a pair of stuffed alligators and what appeared to be the skull of a horned humanoid. On a narrow reading desk in the corner a little scroll was chained to a granite slab. Dark glyphs in an uncouth tongue curled around the outside edge, surrounded by Nazar’s crabbed handwriting.
He prayed his thanks to She That Arranges, and an apology to He That Is Learned, and ripped it free. It folded thin enough to go into a pocket of his jester’s suit, once the crickets inside were dumped. In the distance a churchman beat the conch-shells in the pattern of the Hour of Grass. Dargrud gulped.
The raven had returned, but he tied it up with its own saddle and left it under the desk. Plenty of crickets to tide it over, and they’d always been friends before. He scurried up the side of the Smiling Tower, paused to rain shingles on the guards who had finally subdued Hooplah, and made a wild jump at the castle walls. Fifteen feet short of them he discovered why monkeys don’t like to swim, and made a desperate scramble for the moat’s far shore. The scroll in his pocket left a murky trail and shed water.
A trail on the walltop led to Princess Amaliah’s chambers. Her scent was memorable from his time as a man, and it nearly stung his nostrils in Hooplah’s body. He paused before her balcony doors, then swung them wide and burst in.
The scents and colors overwhelmed him, piled as they were on his exhaustion and near-drowning. Amaliah’s face overwhelmed him again, looming over him, brows knit. “You’re in a right disarray, little one,” she said, and her casual accent almost overwhelmed him but he was used to it by then.
He waved away her offer of a coffee cup and tugged the scroll from his pocket. Concern shifted to horror, then to disgust. She picked him up by the back of his collar. “I oughta give you a spanking you’ll never…”
He screeched and tapped the scroll, ran his fingers down the lines of Nazar’s notes. “That’s…”
She looked at him. “But… Uncle Naz… consorting with…”
He pulled himself upright, and gave a two-handed salute. “You’re not Hooplah,” she said.
A stiff bow, and then he took the quill and paper she offered. Dar… g… His monkey hands were unused to writing, or his human brain didn’t know monkey hands, or some combination that Jire the Hermit would be pleased to hear about when he switched them back.
“Dargrud,” she offered. He nodded vigorously.
“Dargrud…” She yelped. “Don’t just…” She tugged a veil from a shelf and wrapped a blanket around her shoulders. “It becomes thee not, sir knight, to…”
He tapped the scroll, and drew a watch-necklace on his chest. “Time. Not a lot of time. So Nazar’s bad and you’re a monkey, and…” She waved impatiently at the paper.
Dargrud shook his head. He pulled a key from his back pocket and clasped it in her hands. A heavy knock shook her door, and he leapt out the balcony. No time to close it. Best to hope that detail wouldn’t reach Nazar.
He’d, mercifully, guarded the king’s chambers enough to know where they were without scenting, but as he swung around the midsection of the Southeast Buttress he spotted a crowd gathered with an unfamiliarly familiar figure in the center.
He choked an oath to She Who Berates. Exactly the wrong direction, he thought, and chased visions of his Lightning Bearers waiting for his signal from his mind. He’d have to do this alone.
The king’s chambers were empty. This wasn’t right. The book of It Who Understands was closed on his nightstand, covered with dust. He danced in frustration on his bed, arms tucked comfortably behind his head, and gathered his thoughts.
A net flew at him from the corner.
“You really were my favorite,” said Nazar, kohl-bedecked eyes mournful. “Say, did Jire give you the power of speech as well as reason? I wouldn’t mind paying him for… oh.” Dargrud would have flung more than glances if his hands had been free.
He was himself flung at the feet of the king, who was drooling as he wiped his signature on a series of documents set up on a lap desk. A crew of similarly drooling guards snapped to attention. “Bring the princess,” said Nazar, “and the High Priest.” He flicked dust from his robe. “Shouldn’t have been like this,” he muttered.
The guard who returned was not drooling and had no princesses. “Lord Nazar, one of ours has got a spirit in him and… we need you.”
Nazar’s face brightened. “Bring the lad in,” he said. The guard waved forward a stretcher bearing the body of Dargrud the Tall, spilling over the front and sides. Nazar leaned over and adjusted his spectacles. “This is… hm… what?”
Hooplah leapt from the stretcher and tackled Nazar, screeching triumphantly. The guards at the stretcher leapt in shock. The drooling guards drooled. The king signed another paper.
Dargrud felt a tug at his wrists. “Shh,” said Amaliah, as she awkwardly chopped at his bonds with one hand while holding her blanket in place with the other. He snapped them once they were weakened, and rubbed his monkey wrists. “Now what?”
He nodded at her, stroked her hand, and loped across the floor to Nazar. He climbed up the back of the shrieking vizier and clutched at the spectacles. His muscles spasmed and a thrill of fear rushed him, but the glasses only gave him a monkey’s share of fear, so he held on and wrenched and wrenched until they came free, with an audible pop and a few patches of Nazar’s temples.
He flung them on the ground as the man collapsed. Dargrud followed, panting in a heap. Amaliah, heedless of her blanket now, smashed them with a vase. All of the guards and the king gaped equally.
Nazar defanged, and not a man lost, he thought. “You didn’t plan this?” he said, or tried to, and Hooplah gave an exaggerated shrug.
The Rebel lounged nonchalantly in a chair at the end of the table. “Nice digs,” he said. “I expected them to be more…” He spun a finger. “Chains. Hanging from them.”
Phasma stood at the opposite end and waited.
The Rebel twitched, tried to look her in the eye, shot a few half-smiles.
“You’re supposed to say ‘that can be arranged,’ or ‘that will come later,’ or something like that,” he said. “Can you…”
“And then… I’ll say, ‘I’m looking forward to it,’ or ‘yes, please,’ because….”
A graph of her stocks played against the inside of her helmet. BZX is down, remember to short INN…
“Because it’s, you know, an unexpected innuendo, that you would have walked into, with your desire for cruelty stopped by my predilection for unusual…”
He slumped. “Okay, what do you want? No base coordinates. I don’t know ‘em, even if you do have chains, you know we do the rendezvous thing now anyway.”
“The stormtrooper you converted. How is his health?”
“The… what? Oh, Finn, you mean him. Well, as a matter of fact… Wait, why do you care?”
“I’m not a complete monster.” She sat down and knotted her fingers in front of her.
“Yes you are. It’s for some sick mind control program, isn’t it? You want to know if he still, what, wets the bed when he thinks about the First Order, to see if your commands are still working.”
“He wets the bed?”
“What does he do on the bed?”
The rebel wiped his forehead. “He… You’re really good.” He leaned back.
“Does he make friends?”
“Not really. Well, he tags along with me and I introduce people, and he’ll remember their names, but he’s always so… so formal, even if he doesn’t want to be. Too polite.”
She unclasped her fingers and crossed her hands on the table.
He looked at his face in her visor. “And he’s either totally completely trusting, so that he cries if you say you’ll only take a minute and you don’t, or he won’t trust you at all, act like you aren’t even talking, just shake his head and mutter instead. And you can’t scold him for anything, ever, because he’ll either get in your face about it or curl up in a ball. Was he bullied growing up?”
“It was… encouraged.”
“Of course it was. Well, when you send us your stormtroopers you’re not sending your best, believe me. Are they all like that? Is that why they can’t concentrate on being good shots?”
“They’re very precise in the…” She stopped. “Continue.”
“Well, he’s doing fine, all things considered. We gave him a room close to the commons where he can always hear crowd noises and I think he’s getting used to things.”
“Good. I always thought he’d make a better Rebel.”
“Wait, did you train him wrong on… No, you just want me to believe that. You’re playing games with me.”
“Mister Rebel, I never play games.”
“So is that all you needed me for? Am I free to go?”
“That’s…” He chuckled. “You got me for a second.”
“It was not a joke. You are free to go.” She pressed a button on a remote. His wrist cuffs sprang open.
“Would you like to fling them at me? This armor transmits physical force surprisingly well.”
“No… thanks.” He stood and stretched. “So… free to go, but just on this ship?”
“Base. PhaseStar Base.”
“Another one, huh? So it’s like house arrest? Can I get a room close to the fighter bay?”
“You may take a fighter. We have one in a suitable configuration prepared for you.”
He stopped pacing. “That’s really suspicious, you know?”
“I am aware. Were our positions reversed I would not trust you with the same offer.” She stood up and turned around.
“I’m an ace pilot, you know? You’re condemning your pilots to death if you let me go.”
“Only the weak ones.” She went to the door and motioned him to follow.
He seemed unsettled by the mirrored surfaces in the hallway. In a real battle this zone would be evacuated, this hallway contributing to the state-of-the-art stealth system of PhasmaSt- PhaseStar Base. The fighter bay was decorated in more comforting metallic tones.
“It’s an older model, but it’s in good repair,” he said.
“We use it in our training exercises. I myself have flown it a few times. I’ll have you know I once made it to a near miss on the exhaust port in the Death Star mission.”
“And you’re just giving it away, huh?” He scrammed the reactor and dug into the fuel rods, returning with a small electronic device. “With a tracker, of course.”
“Only the minimum to allay your suspicions.”
“That…” He shook his head. “And you can stay with your friends,” he said as he hefted the droid out from behind the cockpit. It fired its retrorockets an inch from the floor, and beeped sleepily as it toddled off. Another tracking device came out of its socket.
“You may depart when ready,” she said.
“I’m getting there.”
With three large tracking devices and eight smaller ones pulled, the Rebel seemed ready to leave. “They won’t take this ship back to the base,” he said. “We’ll come back with a mobile drydock and rebuild it on site.”
“So there is one large rebel base?”
“That’s…” He groaned, and turned around to climb the ladder.
He felt a short sharp smack in his posterior, and jerked his head back to see Phasma standing impassively.
The fighter unmoored itself and crept nervously out of the hangar, then boosted immediately to full speed when it hit vacuum. A swarm of stealth drones wove an invisible helix in pursuit.