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The flitter tumbled from the shimmering throat of the wormhole transit route from Port Sol to Earthport. Louise Ye Armonk peered out of the cramped cabin, looking for Earth. Mark sat beside her, a bookslate on his lap.

Earthport was a swarm of wormhole Interfaces clustered at L4 one of the five gravitationally stable Lagrange points in the Earth-Moon system, leading the Moon in its orbit around Earth by sixty degrees. From here, Earth was a swollen blue disc; wormhole gates of all sizes drifted across the face of the old planet like electric-blue, tetrahedral snowflakes.

The flitter unmanned save for its two passengers surged unhesitatingly through the tangle of Interfaces, the mesh of traffic which passed endlessly through the great cross-System gateways. In contrast to the desolation of the outer rim, Louise received a powerful, immediate impression of bustle, prosperity, activity, here at the heart of the System.

At the flitters standard one-gee acceleration the final leg from L4 to Earth itself would take only six hours; and already the old planet, pregnant and green, seemed to Louise to be approaching rapidly, as if surfacing through the complex web of wormhole Interfaces. Huge fusion stations constructed from ice moons towed into Earth orbit from the asteroid belt and beyond sparkled as they crawled above green-blue oceans. The planet itself was laced with lights, on land and sea. In the thin rim of atmosphere near the North Pole Louise could just make out the dull purple glow of an immense radiator beam, a diffuse refrigerating laser dumping a fraction of Earths waste heat into the endless sink of space.

Louise felt an absurd, sentimental lump rise to her throat as she studied the slowly turning planet. At moments like this she felt impelled to make private vows about spending more time here: here, at the vital core of the System, rather than on its desolate edge.

But, she reminded herself harshly, the rim was where the Northern was being built.

Louise had work to do. She was trying to equip a starship, damn it. She didnt have the time or energy to hop back to Earth to play guessing games with some unseen authority.

Growling subvocally, Louise rested her head against her couch and tried to sleep. Mark, patient and placid, called a new page of his bookslate.

The little ship landed in North America, barely thirteen hours after leaving Port Sol all of four billion miles away. The flitter brought them to a small landing pad near the heart of Central Park, New York City. Louise saw two people a man and a woman approaching the pad across the crisp grass.

The flitters autopilot told them to make their way to a small, anonymous-gray building close to the pad.

Louise and Mark emerged into the sunshine of a New York spring. Louise could see the shoulders of tall, ancient skyscrapers at the rim of the park, interlaced by darting flitters. Not far away, shielded by trees at the heart of the park, she made out one of the citys carbon-sequestration domes. The dome was a sphere of dry ice four hundred yards tall: sequestration was an old Superet scheme, with each dome containing fifty million tons of carbon dioxide boldly frozen out of the atmosphere and lagged by a two-yard layer of rock wool.

Mark raised his face to the Sun and breathed deeply. Mmm. Cherry blossom and freshly cut grass. I love that smell.

Louise snorted. Really? I didnt know cherry trees grew wild, on Titan.

We have domes, he said defensively. Anyway, every human is allowed to be sentimental about a spring day in New York. Look at those clouds, Louise. Arent they beautiful?

She looked up. The sky was laced by high, fluffy, dark clouds. And beyond the clouds she saw crawling points of light: the habitats and factories of near Earth space. It was a fine view but quite artificial, she knew. Even the clouds were fakes: they were doped with detergent, to limit the growth of the water droplets which comprised them. Smaller droplets reflected more sunlight than larger ones, making the semi-permanent clouds an effective shield against excessive Solar heating.

So much for sentiment. Everything was manufactured.

Louise dropped her head. As always on returning to Earth, she felt disoriented by the openness of the sky above her it seemed to counter every intuition to have to believe that a thin layer of blue air could protect her adequately from the rigours of space.

Come on, she said to Mark. Lets get this over with.

Following the instructions of the autopilot they approached the nearby building. The structure was brick-shaped, perhaps ten feet tall; there was a low doorway in the center of its nearest face.

As they got closer, the two people Louise had noticed from the air walked slowly toward them from the rear of the building.

The two parties stared at each other curiously.

The man stepped forward, his hands behind his back. He was thin and tall, physical-fifty, with a bald, pallid scalp fringed by white hair. He stared frankly at Louise. I know your face, he said.

Louise let her eyebrows lift. Really? And you are

My name is Uvarov. Garry Benson Deng Uvarov. He held out his hand; his voice had the flat, colorless intonation of the old Lunar colonies, Louise thought. My field is eugenics. And my companion He indicated the woman, who came forward. This is Serena Milpitas.

The woman grinned. She was plump but strong-looking, about physical-forty, with short-cropped hair. Thats Serena Harvey Gallium Harvey Milpitas, she said. And Im an engineer.

Uvarov gazed at Louise, his eyes a startling blue. Its very pleasant to meet you, Louise Ye Armonk. Ive followed the construction of your starship with interest. But I am a busy man. Ill be very pleased to learn why youve summoned us here.

Me too, Milpitas growled. She had the lazy, nasal pitch of a Martian.

Louise felt confused. Why I summoned you ?

Mark stepped forward and introduced himself. I think youve got it wrong, Dr. Uvarov. We dont know any more than you do, it seems. We were summoned too.

Louise stared at Uvarov, feeling an immediate dislike for the man gather in her heart. Yeah. And I bet we had further to come than you, too.

Mark looked sour. First blood to you, Louise. Well done. Come on; the only way were all going to get away from here is to go through with this, it seems.

Striding confidently, he led the way toward the low building.

Studying each other suspiciously, the rest followed.

Louise passed through the squat, open doorway and was plunged immediately into the darkness of space.

She heard Mark gasp; he stopped a pace behind her, his step faltering. She turned to him. Hed raised his head to a darkened dome above them; a sliver of salmon-pink (Jovian?) cloud slid across the lip of the dome, casting a light across his face, a light which softened the shadows of his apparent age. She reached out and found his hand; it was thin, cold. Dont let it get to you, she whispered. Its just a stunt. A Virtual trick, designed to put us off balance.

He pulled his hand away from hers; his fingernails scratched her palm lightly. I know that. Lethe, youll never learn to stop patronizing me, will you?

She thought of apologizing, then decided to skip it.

Uvarov walked forward briskly hoping, it seemed, to catch the Virtual projectors of this illusion off guard. But the chamber moved past him fluidly, convincingly, shadows and hidden aspects unfolding with seamless grace.

The four of them were in a dome, a half-sphere a hundred yards across. At the geometric center of the dome were tipped-back control couches. A series of basic data entry and retrieval desks clustered around the couches. The rest of the floor area was divided by shoulder-high partitions into lab areas, a galley, a gym, a sleeping area and shower. The shower was enclosed by a spherical balloon of some clear material obviously designed for zero-gee operation, Louise thought.

The sleeping zone contained a single sleep pouch. There was a noticeable absence of decoration of any real sign of personality, Louise thought. There was no concession to comfort no sign of entertainment areas, for example. Even the gym was functional, bare, little more than an open coffin surrounded by pneumatic weight-simulators. The only color in the chamber came from the screens of the data desks, and from the slice of Jovian cloud visible through the dome.

Serena Milpitas strolled toward Louise, her footsteps clicking loudly on the hard floor. She ran a fingertip along the surface of a data desk. Its a high quality Virtual projection, with semisentient surface backup, she said. Feel it.

I dont need to, Louise groused. Im sure it is. Thats not the bloody point. This is obviously meant to be the life-dome of a GUTship a small, limited, primitive design compared to my Northern, but a GUTship nevertheless. And

Light, electric-blue, flooded the dome. The explosion of brilliance was overwhelming, drenching; Louise couldnt help but cower. Her own shadow sharp, black, utterly artificial seemed to peer up at her, mocking her.

She lifted her head. Beyond the transparent dome above her, an artifact a tetrahedron glowing sky-blue sailed past the limb of the Jovian planet. It was a framework of glowing rods: at first sight the framework looked open, but Louise could make out glimmers of elusive, brown-gold membranes of light stretched across the open faces. Those membranes held tantalizing images of starfields, of suns that had never shone over Jupiter.

A wormhole Interface, Milpitas breathed.

Obviously, Uvarov said. So were in a Virtual GUTship, sailing toward an Interface in orbit around Jupiter. He turned to Louise, letting his exasperation show. Havent you got it yet? He waved a hand. The meaning of this ludicrous stunt?

Louise smiled. Were in the Hermit Crab, arent we? On Michael Pooles ship.

Yes. Just before it flew into Pooles Interface just before Poole got himself killed.

Not quite.

The new voice came from the control couches at the heart of the lifedome. Now one of the couches spun around, slowly, and a man climbed out gracelessly. He walked toward them, emerging into the glaring blue overhead light of the Interface. He said, Actually we dont know if Poole was killed or not. He was certainly lost. He may still be alive although its difficult to say what meaning words likestill have when spacetime flaws spanning centuries are traversed.

The man smiled. He was thin, tired-looking, with physical age around sixty, Louise supposed; he wore a drab one-piece coverall.

The face the clothes were startling in their familiarity to Louise; a hundred memories crowded, unwelcome, for her attention.

I know you, she said slowly. I remember you; I worked with you. But you were lost in time

My name, the man said, is Michael Poole.

Lieserl wanted to die.

It was her ninetieth day of life, and she was ninety physical-years old. She was impossibly frail unable to walk, or feed herself, or even clean herself. The faceless men and women tending her had almost left the download too late, she thought with derision; theyd already had one scare when an infection had somehow got through to her and settled into her lungs, nearly killing her.

She was old physically the oldest human in the System, probably. She felt as if she was underwater: her senses had turned to mush, so that she could barely feel, or taste, or see anything, as if she was encased in some deadening, viscous fluid. And her mind was failing.

She could feel it, toward the end. It was like a ghastly reverse run of her accelerated childhood; she woke every day to a new diminution of her self. She came to dread sleep, yet could not avoid it.

And every day, the bed seemed too large for her.

But she retained her pride; she couldnt stand the indignity of it. She hated those who had put her into this position.

Her mothers last visit to the habitat, a few days before the download, was bizarre. Lieserl, through her ruined, rheumy old eyes, was barely able to recognize Phillida this young, weeping woman, only a few months older than when she had held up her baby girl to the Sun.

She could not forgive her mother for the artifice of her existence for the way understanding of her nature, even data on Superet, had been kept from her until others thought she was ready.

Lieserl cursed Phillida, sent her away.

At last Lieserl was taken, in her bed, to the downloading chamber at the heart of Thoth. The chambers lid, disturbingly coffin-like, closed over her head. She closed her eyes; she felt her own, abandoned, frail body around her.

And then -

It was a sensory explosion. It was like sleeping, then waking no, she thought; it was more far more than that.

The focus of her awareness remained in the same functional hospital room at the center of the Solar habitat. She was standing, surveying the chamber no, she realized slowly, she wasnt standing: she had no real sensation of her body

She felt disembodied, discorporeal. She felt an instant of panic.

But that moment of fear faded rapidly, as she looked out through her new eyes.

The drab, functional chamber seemed as vivid to her as the golden day she had spent as a small child, with her parents on that remote beach, when her senses had been so acute they were almost transparent. In an instant she had become young again, with every sense alive and sharp.

And, slowly, Lieserl became aware of new senses senses beyond the human. She could see the sparkle of X-ray photons from the Solar photosphere as they leaked through the habitats shielding, the dull infra-red glow of the bellies and heads of the people working around the shell of her own abandoned body and the fading sheen of that cold husk itself.

She probed inwards. She retained her memories from her old body, from prior to the downloading, she realized; but those memories were qualitatively different from the records she was accumulating now. Limited, partial, subjective, imperfectly recorded: like fading paintings, she thought.

She had died, and she was reborn. She felt pity, for the person who once called herself Lieserl.

The clarity of her new senses was remarkable. It was like being a child again. She immersed herself, joyously, in the objective reality of the Universe around her.

He it was a Virtual, of course. The realization brought Louise crushing disappointment.

Uvarov snorted. This is an absurdity. A pantomime. Youre wasting my time here.

The Virtual of Poole looked disconcerted; his smile faded. How so?

Ive read of Michael Poole. And I know he hated Virtuals, of all kinds.

Virtual-Poole laughed. All right. So this simulacrum is offensive; you think Poole would have objected. Well, perhaps. But at least its got your attention.

Milpitas touched Uvarovs arm. Why are you so damn hostile, Doctor? No ones doing you any harm.

Uvarov snatched his arm away.

Shes right. Virtual-Poole waved a hand to the couches at the heart of the lifedome. Why dont you sit down? Do you want a drink, or

I dont want to sit down, Louise said icily. And I dont want a drink. What am I, a kid to be impressed by fireworks? Even as she spoke, though, she was aware that the wormhole, sliding across space above them, had frozen in its track at the moment Virtual-Poole had climbed out of his couch; exotic-energy light flooded down over the little human tableau, as if suspending them in timelessness. She felt confused, disoriented. This isnt Michael Poole. But all Virtuals were conscious, to some degree. This Virtual remembers being Poole. She wanted to lash out at it to hurt it. Damn it, it would have been cheaper to take us to Jupiter itself rather than to set up this charade, here on Earth.

Perhaps, Virtual-Poole said drily. But this diorama isnt just for show. I have something to demonstrate to you. This setup seemed the best way to achieve that. As, if youve the patience, youll see.

Louise felt her jaw muscles tighten. Patience? Im trying to launch a starship. I need to be at Port Sol, working on the Northern not stuck here in this box in New York, talking to a damn puppet.

Poole winced, looking genuinely hurt. Louise despised herself.

Uvarov said, I, too, have projects which demand my time.

The sky-blue light cast convincing shadows over Pooles cheekbones and jaw. This simulation is serving several purposes. And one of those purposes is discretion. Look Im only partially self-aware. But I am autonomous, within this environment. There is no channel in or out of here; no record will exist of this conversation, unless one of you chooses to make one.

Milpitas snorted. Why should we believe you? We still dont know who you represent.

A trace of anger showed in the hardening of Virtual-Pooles mouth. Now youre being absurd. Why should I lie? Louise Ye Armonk, I have a proposal for you. A challenge for you all, actually. You may refuse the challenge. You certainly cant be forced to accept it. And so, we meet in secrecy; if you refuse, no one will ever know.

Bullshit, Uvarov growled; pink Jovian light gleamed from his bald pate. Lets skip the riddles and get on with it. Whos behind you, Poole?

Briefly, Virtual-Poole looked pained almost as if he was too tired for such confrontations. Louise remembered that although Michael Poole had accepted AS treatment, hed persistently refused consciousness adjustment treatment. A deep dread of memory editing kept people like Poole away from the reloading tables, even when the efficiency of their awareness clogged by decades of memory started to downgrade.

Virtual-Poole seemed to rouse himself. Tell me what you know.

Mark spoke up. Very little. We got a call to come in here from the Port Sol authorities. He smiled. We got the impression we didnt have a lot of choice but to comply. But it wasnt clear who was behind the summons, or why we were wanted.

Milpitas and Uvarov confirmed that they, too, had received similar calls.

But, Louise said drily, it was obviously someone a bit more senior than the Port Sol harbor master.

Virtual-Poole rubbed his nose; shadows moved convincingly across his hand. Yes, he said. And no. Youve no doubt heard of us. We dont report to Port Sol or to any single nation. Were a private corporation, but were not working for profit. We get some backing from the UN, but also from most of the individual nation-states in the System as well. And a variety of corporations, who

Louise studied Virtual-Poole suspiciously. Who are you?

Pooles face stiffened, and Louise wondered how much restriction had been placed on the Virtuals free will. Lethe, I hate sentience technology, she thought. Poole doesnt deserve this.

Poole said, Im a representative of a group called Superet. The Holy Superet Light Church

Superet. Mark smiled. He looked relieved. Is that all? Superet is innocuous enough. Isnt it?

Maybe. Virtual-Poole smiled. Not everyone agrees. Superet is well known for the Earth-terraforming initiatives of the past. But not all Superets projects are simple balls of dry ice, you see. Some are rather more ambitious. And not everyone thinks that projects with such timescales should be permitted to progress.

Louise shoved her face forward, seeking understanding in the Virtuals bland, simulated expression. What timescales? How long-term?

Infinite, Virtual-Poole said quietly. Superets backers are people who wish to invest in the survival of the species itself, Louise.

There was a long silence.

Good grief. Milpitas shook her head. I dont know about you, but I need to sit down. And how about that drink, Poole?

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