Hollow Shell

This takes some explanation, to put it mildly.

Hollow Shell is a story I’m working on. It’s perhaps the single most bizarre fiction idea I’ve ever had. It’s sufficiently weird that it took me a while before I decided to actually start writing it. And frankly, I’m not 100% convinced I’ll be able to bring it to a successful conclusion. In terms of genre, I think what I’ve got here is an oddball mix of SF and horror – but this is sufficiently off-the-wall that I’m not entirely sure!

Alex, our main character, used to be an estate agent but is now living an unexpected and entirely-non-theological afterlife as a sentient machine. In fact, Alex has woken up as the AI for a very specific and unusual type of machine. Said post-human AI has been brought back to not-quite-life through the use of alien technology, by aliens, for alien purposes.

And some of what’s been explained about said purposes might even be true…

(For purposes of warnings, Hollow Shell is rather dark in tone, and there will definitely be violence. However, it isn’t planned to have anything in the way of sexual content[!]. The writing style is first-person, present tense and semi-expository, for reasons that are shown in-story. There is also some humour, gratuitous pop-culture references, and an alien who gets taught human swearwords.)

Below the cut is Chapter One: These Haunted Wires.

‘What are you doing?’

Onyx is looking at me. I’m more-or-less used to his alien stare now. As he looks at me, nictitating membranes flick out across his eyes, momentarily hiding the vertical pupils. It’s a stare, but it’s not a human stare.

Oh, sorry, I wandered off the thread there, didn’t I?

Anyway, Onyx isn’t human. But if you’re reading this, you probably already know that.

‘What am I doing?’ If I could blink, I would. I can’t, my current anatomy rules that out. I have specialised sensors instead of eyes, so I don’t have eyelids or tearducts or any of that old meaty stuff. ‘I’m just keeping busy. You’ve sort of got my leg, after all.’

Onyx is fixing my leg. Or rather, he’s supposed to be fixing my leg. It’s laid out on the bench behind him. The knee pad’s been removed and he’s poking around at the insides with some sort of multitool. There’s a worklamp sat next to him, casting a sharp actinic light down on the scene. Various components are neatly lined up off to one side. But he’s not mending the leg right at this moment.

Instead, he’s still looking at me.

‘That scritching noise,’ he says. ‘And that charcoal stick. You’re doing something.’

That would be the document I’m writing, then. Wait, he hadn’t asked me what I was writing. That’s odd.

Oh, oh, I see. The proverbial penny finally drops.

‘You’re not familiar with handwriting, then?’ I ask.

‘Hand … writing?’ Onyx makes a face. His headcrest shakes. He’s producing that expression that the Folk do when they’re confused – or at least, experiencing a subjective state that appears to be a proximal analogue to what we call ‘confusion’. I’m not sure if it’s exactly the same, but then, being neither a Folk nor telepathic, I’ll probably never know.

The qualia question remains as annoying as ever, even now.

‘Look.’ I hold up the plastic sheet I’m writing this on. Or rather, I did hold it up – obviously I had to do that before I went back to writing. Even I can’t do things out of time order.

Just work with me a bit here, okay?

Onyx peers at it. ‘Carbon squiggles,’ he says. ‘I’m not seeing the writing.’

I sigh. My hands have three inhuman digits, inhuman because there’s only three of them and also because they’re made out of alloys and composites. One of them is clutching the plastic sheet. The other is wrapped around a charcoal stick. The sticks are used for marking things on the firing ranges – I’ve borrowed this one off of the range master, in return for letting them have a look at the targeting sensors on my rail gun. (Apparently they suspect that Onyx is cheating on the practise assignments; don’t worry, we’ll correct this soon enough. Sadly Onyx gets a lot of this sort of treatment. He has to work twice as hard as the rest of the Folk to get even half the credit.)

I point at the squiggles with my charcoal stick.

‘It’s a form of writing,’ I explain. ‘You’re used to keypads and text on screens. We had that too, but we hadn’t had it for as long. This is what we did … before we had computers.’

Onyx takes a minute to process that. ‘I suppose there must have been a before,’ he says. ‘I’d never thought about it.’

‘Presumably you had a before too,’ I say, phrasing my words carefully. From what little I’ve been able to glean, the Folk had once lived in some kind of semi-normal society, a long time ago. But then along came the War. ‘Presumably there must have been a period before computers. On your homeworld. So there must have been Folk handwriting too.’

Onyx considers this. ‘I suppose I could draw our characters,’ he agrees. ‘And learn to recognise them, if I wanted to. So your argument makes sense. You’re probably correct.’

This, in a nutshell, is why I picked Onyx. Almost uniquely amongst the Folk that I’ve met, he’s open to new ideas. And he can analyse, if he feels inclined to do so.

He adds, ‘But I’ve never seen it.’ He means Folk handwriting, not new ideas. Though new ideas are pretty scarce around here too, come to think of it.

‘Probably not,’ I agree. ‘Something else I guess they decided not to keep.’

That’s their standard answer to any question about their old culture, and its apparent disappearance: it wasn’t helping them in the War, so they didn’t keep it. For most Folk, this is perfectly fine. To his enormous credit, Onyx appears to recognise that there are some holes in the official story.

Onyx is still making the confused face. ‘So – if it isn’t needed, why are you doing it?’

‘I want to write an account of all of this,’ I say. ‘In case others need to see it.’

‘You could just use a terminal. Or save it to your file-system.’

I can see that Onyx hasn’t caught my real meaning. ‘If I create an electronic document,’ I say, carefully, ‘there are no guarantees who can see it. If it’s on the network, I mean. If I want to write an honest account, that could be difficult.’

Also, if it’s on my local file system, then I can’t show it to anyone else. Or at least, I can’t without putting it on the network, which would defeat the object.

‘How does scritching at some plastic help?’

For a moment I’m irritated. Learning to hold the charcoal stick – call it a ‘pencil’ for brevity, even though it’s not – has taken some time. I don’t really have a sense of touch in this body. Its servos and motors are also calibrated on the assumption of force-feedback from an organic musculoskeletal system. Without either of those, I’m prone to either dropping things or crushing them. And also falling over at random intervals.

Seriously, that is so very, very embarrassing. Watch the sufficiently-advanced xenotech machine fall on its face! Crash, bang, thump.

It’s taken me about a month to gain enough dexterity for handwriting. The first time I managed to write, yesterday, I felt really pleased with myself. I know it’s not fair to be annoyed at Onyx for not recognising the achievement, but then, life isn’t fair.

No, life definitely isn’t fair. If it was fair, neither of us would be in this place.

Onyx’s question is an honest one. Still being careful, I say, ‘This way I can control who reads it. It’s easier to hide plastic sheets than files. And even if someone should see it – well, how many Folk can read handwriting? Handwriting that’s in English, as well?’

Given that Onyx didn’t even know what handwriting was until a few moments ago, the answer to that would be, “not many”.

Onyx puts the multitool down. It clinks on the tabletop. ‘So you’re keeping secrets again,’ he says.

Above us, air is gently sighing in and out through the ceiling vents. Somewhere under the floor panels, a bubble groans its way through some pipe. My sensors register the vibration, but the sensation is quite distinct from how my old body would have felt it.

‘Not exactly,’ I reply. ‘More I just want to organise my thoughts. And perhaps write something to help anyone else. You know, anyone else who finds themselves in this, uh, situation.’

Situation – now there’s a nice euphemism. Bland, trite, arguably meaningless, it’s the sort of word we resort to when we’re trying not to think too much about something.

Onyx’s headcrest moves again. I’m not sure what that signifies.

He says, ‘That’s a helpful idea. Team-minded.’

Team-minded is a big compliment amongst the Folk. Everything here revolves around the team. For the Greater Good! and all that. Funny thing is, like with the Tau, the Greater Good and the Smaller Good don’t often seem to line up. And that does make you wonder. Every group is ultimately made of lots of individuals, so how can everything that’s good for the group always seem bad for the individual people in it?

In any case, Onyx undermines his own compliment. He adds, ‘But is it necessary?’

I’m surprised. ‘Why wouldn’t it be?’

Onyx says, ‘You didn’t have a document like that. And you managed.’

‘Yes, but how many don’t?’ I say. ‘They admit the Forge filters out personalities that can’t handle the change.’

Filter out – there’s another nice, trite, bland euphemism. Also, change. If I could shudder, I would. (My current body doesn’t have that reflex, so I don’t. But the sentiment is there.) The Forge, of course, is the construction apparatus that we all come out of. My current body has been out of it for about five months, as best I can tell.

That blasted pipe was still groaning. Another bubble had found its way in.

Onyx takes a moment to process this. Finally, he says, ‘Yes, but why keep someone who can’t cope? What good would it do? It wouldn’t help them. It wouldn’t be good for us. And it wouldn’t aid the War.’
Before I can stop myself, out pop the words. ‘You realise that logic was what they did to you?’

Onyx just says, ‘Yes, I know.’

Before my adoption, they were going to have him killed. And he was completely accepting about it. While he had been scared, he hadn’t resisted and certainly hadn’t fought back. He’d barely even protested. If I needed a reminder that I was dealing with an alien, there it is.

(If I needed a reminder. Which actually, I didn’t. The green scales, the headcrest, the vertical pupils, the backwards-looking legs, forward-canted body, the tail and the three-digit hands were pretty big giveaways too.)

I quite deliberately make a sighing noise. Not having lungs or a mouth, I have to synthesise it through my external speakers. Then it occurs to me that this was pointless – Onyx has no idea what that noise signifies.

Carefully, I say, ‘Look, I know you seem to just accept their judgement. I’ll admit that I can’t understand that. But then I haven’t had your life experience. So there is context I don’t have.’ That’s the understatement of the century. ‘But if you could avoid being, uh, packed off to the organ banks, surely you would want to?’

Packed off to the organ banks. There really isn’t a nice way to say that. Here’s a place where a bland, trite euphemism would actually be good.

Onyx says, ‘If it was optional, of course. And I have avoided it. Thanks to you. Though I admit I don’t wholly understand your decision.’

Nor does anyone else, but that’s okay. I couldn’t care less whether the Folk agree with my choices or not.

I have an unfortunate tendency to say exactly what jumps into my head. Hence: ‘Believe me, I’ve picked up on that.’

For a moment, Onyx’s alien face twists. The nictitating membranes surge across his eyes, several times, in fast succession. I see that his breathing has sped up. He looks like he’s about to panic. Then I realise what he’s read into what I just said.

Quickly, I say, ‘No, wait, that’s not what I meant. Calm down, I’m not changing my mind!’

Onyx relaxes, slightly. ‘You’re sure?’

The funny thing is, Onyx is insecure about this. He does his best to hide it, but the insecurity is there. He’s terrified that I’ll abandon him. He won’t admit to the fear, but it’s there.

‘Yes,’ I said.

‘I’m glad of that.’ His headcrest subsides a bit.

The sad truth is, he’s justified to be afraid. If I did walk away, he’d be in real danger.

Being more careful, I say, ‘Look at my point this way. Would you want to hand people evidence that could send you back there? To that previous situation, I mean. Surely you agree that would be, shall we say, problematic?’

Onyx is looking uncomfortable again. He shifts around on his rest-bar. Its bearings squeak and it pivots to one side. (Thanks to their anatomy, Folk can’t actually sit like we ex-humans, uh, used to. But then, you already know about that, right? Why am I even writing something so obvious? Anyway, their equivalent of a chair is a padded bench which slopes upwards. They lie forward on them, chest-down. That’s their version of sitting. They also sleep on the things.)

Onyx says, ‘What problems could there be?’

I should probably mention at this point why I feel secure enough to have a conversation like this right now. Because they’re definitely listening in, wherever you are and whatever you’re doing. And if like me, you’ve been built with a full sig-int analysis suite, the sooner you know to start using it, the better.
We’re in Onyx’s personal room. That’s right, he gets his own actual room, with a locking door and everything. It’s a new development, since I adopted him. Before that he was living in a communal barracks, like most other Folk. Well, actually, when I met him he was detained in the isolation block, pending you-know-what. But that’s a story in of itself.

The room we’re in is small and bare. The walls are riveted metal, marked only by a drain in one corner and the ventilation grills near the ceiling. There are a couple of overhead lights, the workbench and the rest-bar. There’s also the maintenance frame that I’m half propped up on. Being minus one leg, I’m not exactly stood up right now.

Onyx’s room does have a single bug. Bizarrely, it’s a surprisingly-crude thing. Built into my hardware, I have an unexpectedly-advanced ECM countermeasures system. It’s good enough that I’ve been able to hack the bug. If anyone bothers to watch us, all they’ll see and hear is an innocuous conversation that Onyx and I had earlier about the base’s food. Onyx admitted to not liking it much, and I said something to the effect of being glad I didn’t have a stomach anymore. It’s the sort of dull, carping chatter that thousands of people have every day around here, without them experiencing any bad consequences.
With this in mind, in this single place, I feel safe enough to talk relatively freely, at least to certain audiences.

(There is another way we can talk privately, but I’ll only do that for Onyx. And only after he’s washed.)

‘Onyx,’ I said, ‘I really don’t think the army is telling either of us the entire truth. Or even most of the truth. Or possibly any truth at all.’

Onyx is silent. I watch as the alien tries to digest that statement. It’s a pretty basic part of the official Folk worldview that the army is always truthful. Except when it isn’t, of course.

I ask, ‘Do you actually know how long I was … dead?’

It’s hard not to hesitate when asking something like that.

Onyx twitches and makes some alien gesture. Then he deliberately and slowly shakes his head. It’s a gesture I’ve taught him – ‘no’ is a concept both of us need to be clear on.

He says, ‘I can’t quote a number. I know it was at least a few centuries, though.’

Can’t quote a number – no, no-one ever can quote specifics, can they? Everything is vagueness and generalities. Unable to help myself, I have a small outburst. ‘The brain should have rotted! There shouldn’t be anything left to upload!’

‘Yes. But that’s not what happens, after a burning.’

A burning. That’s another euphemism, but this time the euphemism isn’t any better than the reality.
Onyx continues, ‘The burning kills everything. Including the bacteria. Don’t ask me how they do that – we don’t know. But you can’t really make things rot without micro-organisms.’

‘There should still be entropy,’ I say, persisting with idiot determination. ‘Oxygen, weathering. Water! The water cycle would continue, even without life.’

Onyx says, ‘My understanding is we found lots of bodies, when we got to Earth. Millions, I mean. Bodies everywhere.’

‘Probably billions, then,’ I pointed out. Yeah, I have a pedantic streak. Sorry. Also, pedantry allows me to think about what Onyx said, rather than what he means. Because you don’t really want to think about the meaning of the end of the world, do you?

Particularly when the end of the world is apparently ancient history.

Onyx politely ignores my interjection. ‘Anyway the vast majority were unrecoverable. For exactly the reasons you describe. When we find a new planet, we only expect to recover a few thousand personalities. At most. Sometimes less. Potentially even, none at all.’

‘And you only find planets burnt,’ I said.

Onyx makes the uncertain gestures again. ‘We’ve only found a few,’ he says. ‘I know that. We want to find somewhere, you know, first. But it’s never happened. The Burners seem to be everywhere. Or the rumours are true, and they have some sort of faster-than-light.’

‘They didn’t burn you,’ I say. Also, how many is a few? Does Onyx even know? More of this damnable vagueness!

He says, ‘No, they didn’t burn us. Because we didn’t let them. But they tried, multiple times. We know they’d still like to. They keep attacking. That’s why we’re at war now. Why either of us are here, in fact.’

‘So,’ I say, ‘this presumably means you found my body, as well.’

Oh God help me, why can’t I let this train of thought go?

Onyx’s upper body shakes. It looks dramatic, but it’s just their version of a shrug, literally shaking the point off. He says, ‘Obviously. Where else would your personality have been, except in your head?’

Was that sarcasm? From Onyx? If I could have blinked, I would have.

I said, ‘Okay, that was a dumb question, wasn’t it?’

Onyx did the shaking thing again. ‘You can ask me any question you like. Including the dumb ones.’ That wasn’t sarcastic; he really is that desperately grateful. He thinks I took him on as a charity case or something. Well, maybe a little, but it was his brain I wanted.

I feel like a shit, but no, I’m not above using his gratitude. ‘Be careful, I might hold you to that.’

Then, to my surprise, he asks me a question. And oh my, it’s a big one. ‘You don’t remember it, do you? You don’t remember dying?’

Hole in one, Onyx, hole in one. I can’t help myself, I actually do rock back a bit on my rack. Things rattle around me.

He does this sometimes. He tries to pretend to be a good soldier and never ask any difficult questions, and he mostly manages it. But every now and then, there’s that little glimmer of perception. That’s what got him into trouble with the army. And it’s also why I picked him over all the others.

Because you see, I don’t think I believe a word of what I’ve been told. I want answers. But to get them, I need the help of someone else who also wants answers. There’s a real limit to what I could accomplish on my own.

I say, ‘No, I don’t.’ I have no memory of dying, but I’ve been told that I did. A long time ago.

Onyx’s headcrest shakes. ‘It just seems strange. No-one ever does. The end is always a blank. But you’d think you’d know something, about the burners themselves. They must have come to your planet, at least near the end.’

I say, ‘Actually, the last thing I remember is getting the train to work.’

Onyx’s nictitating membranes slide out and back again. ‘The train? You fixed it?’

And here’s Onyx’s overly-literal side. ‘No,’ I said. ‘I was speaking metaphorically.’ I sometimes forget: I’m from a basically-normal society, so there’s a ton of cultural grammar that Onyx just doesn’t have. Jobs, commuting and salaries have not been a part of his life.

‘I meant,’ I said, ‘I was travelling to work. From my house.’

‘Oh,’ Onyx said. We have talked about my past life as a normal human. I think Onyx even understood some of it.

‘The train was running late,’ I add. ‘I was fuming. I was already half an hour behind, and I had the first viewing almost as soon as I’d get in. My boss was going to be furious. And I would’ve had my company car, except one of the other agents was borrowing it. She was going to Bristol, you see. Because I’d let her call in a favour, I had to get the damn train.’

‘This is your agentish thing?’ Onyx asks.

I’ve tried to explain to him what it was that I’d done for a living. Onyx’s sole life experience is of a centrally-planned command-and-control economy, so he had a hard enough time of understanding what money was. My attempt to explain what an estate agent did had gone right over his head. He’d been able to understand that people needed houses to live in, but the idea that they could be bought and sold had stalled him. What was intuitively-obvious to him was that the government would just assign you somewhere to live. After all, he argued, if there was a varying rate of exchange for these things, surely that would mean at least some people couldn’t manage to meet that rate? Where would they live if they had no house?

When I’d admitted that yes, homelessness had been a thing, and yes some people did end up on the streets, he’d been horrified. Being judged and found morally-wanting by an alien lizard is a surreal experience, particularly when part of you agrees with the lizard.

(What’s worse? The fact that we had a problem with homelessness, or that an alien was able to independently derive its existence from the first principles of our economics?)

I’ll say that for the Folk: they can be pretty cruel if they don’t have a use for you, but if they do have a use for you, you’ll not have to worry about getting fed. And if they don’t have a use for you, they won’t piss around. There’s no equivalent to our unadmitted system of allowing the undesired to just quietly die of neglect. If the Folk don’t want you, they’ll do the deed themselves.

And keep your organs, of course, because there’s always a need for transplants. Waste not, want not, and all that. They’re certainly efficient, I’ll give them their due.

‘Yes,’ I said. ‘It was my agent thing. You had to be on time for the viewings. Well, the Boss didn’t care about the viewings, but they did care about the commission we’d lose. You know, if an annoyed buyer is left waiting and they go off with another agency.’

No, Onyx wasn’t getting it. He listened intently to the words, but I could see that most of the meaning was passing him by.

He says, ‘So you remember nothing after that?’

‘No,’ I said. ‘I don’t even know if I got to work that day. It just cuts off. But I don’t remember anything unusual from then. There weren’t any flying saucers. There hadn’t been any signals from space. There hadn’t been anything weird in the news. It was just a day, like all the days before it.’

‘So this train was always late, then?’

I would have laughed. Also, was this more of Onyx being sarcastic? It was hard to tell. He could just have taken my complaints over-literally. I say, ‘It often felt that way. No, it was usually on time, but you don’t notice those days. The ones that stick in your mind are the ones that go wrong.’

‘So the next thing you remember is waking up here.’

‘Yeah. And that was disorienting, I can tell you that.’

I’d woken up on a slab, surrounded by inhuman things. And everything had looked subtly off. I realised later, that was because this body did its visual processing differently from my old one. There were also the differences in shape, the absence of some senses, and the presence of some others I hadn’t possessed before.

Yeah, disorienting.

‘I suppose,’ he agreed. ‘You dealt with it, though.’

‘Actually I tried to jump off that table,’ I said. ‘And nothing happened.’

‘Yes. We don’t turn the motors on straight away. For exactly that reason.’

Actually that was probably for the best. I literally hadn’t known my own strength at that point. And part of the whole point of my unexpected second existence is my rather-epic ability to fuck shit up. If the motors hadn’t been off, I could’ve done a lot of damage before I calmed down.

Either that or I’d have fallen flat on my face due to the lack of force-feedback. Now wouldn’t that have been an absurd scene? Start your mechanical afterlife as you mean to carry on – face down on the floor!

I say, ‘They told me I was a reconstructed personality. That original me was dead and had been dead for some time. Then they produced a mirror.’

‘That must have come as a shock.’

‘Yeah, it’s fair to say I had a bit of a turn then. They don’t sugarcoat it, do they?’

‘ “Sugar-coat”? I know what sugar is, but why would you make a coat out of it? And how?’

I made the sighing noise again. ‘It’s a figure of speech, Onyx. Sugar tastes nice, so if something isn’t coated in sugar, it might not taste nice. If news is bad, we sugarcoat by trying to deliver it in a more-gentle manner, you see?’

‘Oh, I think I see.’ Actually I wasn’t sure that Onyx did, but he was trying to be polite.

The mirror had indeed been a shock. It hadn’t reflected my own face. In fact, it hadn’t even reflected anything human. I hadn’t even recognised what was in the mirror, until I moved and the reflection moved with me. (They’d enabled a few of the motors by then, for exactly that purpose.)

If you’ve ever been to a museum, you might have seen a medieval suit of full plate armour. Now, consider the resemblance that has to an actual human form. Take what Onyx or any other Folk look like. I have the same sort of resemblance to them that said suit of armour would have done to my old, human body.

Or, look at it another way. Draw a Venn diagram with three circles. One is “diplomatically-challenged AI based on an uploaded human personality”. Another circle is “robot that has a problem with falling over”. The third circle is “alien power armour that’s adopted the wrong alien”. The place where I’m currently living is where all three of those circles overlap.

But of course, if you’re reading this, then you already know that, don’t you? Because you must be in exactly the same situation. (By the way, I do hope your alien has good personal hygiene. If they don’t, um, yeah. Sorry about that.)

This is also why my new body is partly disassembled, and why I’m not bothered by that. After all, it wouldn’t make much sense to give power armour pain receptors, would it? And the actuators in my left leg have been playing up for the last day or so, and the sooner they get checked out, the better. My diagnostics had tied the problem down to a single component, but that component has checked out fine. Onyx thinks the problem might be somewhere else, and the diagnostics have got confused.
I’m insistent that Onyx learns how to do basic maintenance, and I also insist on him actually doing it. I have good reason to want him to be the maintainer. Quite simply, he’s more motivated – if some random Folk technician screws up, they don’t have great personal reason to care. If Onyx screws up, it might get both of us shot.

Plus, call it paranoid, but I’m not one hundred percent sure I want other Folk messing around with my components. I don’t think my personality chips have been bugged, either in the infosec or comp-sci senses of the word, and I’d like them to stay that way. I really don’t want anyone listening in on my inner musings, you know?

‘You don’t usually wake up with a tin can where you had a head,’ I add. It’s an unnecessary elaboration, but it sums up how I feel right now.

Strictly, what I call my head is actually Onyx’s helmet. Like the rest of me, it’s hollow. In fact, the actual bit that is properly me is quite small. That consists of a very solid box mounted underneath the backplate. That box has my personality chips plugged into it. They’re the bits that are doing all the thinking – that’s right, my head is completely removable. Every single thing is replaceable except for my personality chips. An injury that would have killed my human body won’t be anything more than a minor annoyance to this one. In principle, the entire body is fixable.

It’s impressive. The engineering and the science are remarkable. It’s also, quite frankly, suspicious as fuck. I mean, think about it for a minute. Granted some sort of AI system probably is needed to run all these systems, but using uploaded organic personalities? It’s not the most obvious solution to said problem.

Onyx considers my remark. ‘It’s never happened to me,’ he agrees.

‘And they don’t use Folk personalities, either,’ I say. ‘Don’t you find that a bit odd?’

Onyx is silent.

‘You’ve never thought about it, have you?’ I ask him.

The nictitating membranes slide out again. The alien says nothing. You could mistake Onyx’s silences for stunned incomprehension. It isn’t. It’s quite the opposite. When Onyx goes silent, it means he is thinking about things, in the sort of deep, introspective way that Folk generally don’t.

He picks up the multitool again. He turns it over in his hands. The light gleams on its stark metal. He says, ‘They do store our personalities. When we’re … not required to serve.’

‘That’s what they were going to do with you.’ Before they break your unwanted carcass up for spare parts. Morbidly, I wonder whether they euthanize it first? Or do they let the cutting-up process do that at the same time?

Yuck.

He nods. ‘Load me onto a set of personality chips, like yours. Only mine would go in the Peace Vault.’

It’s called that because supposedly, its contents would be brought back to life in cloned bodies, when the War finally ends. From what I can see of the War’s progress, I wouldn’t advise holding your breath. It didn’t look like it was going to end any time soon.

‘Do you actually believe you’d ever come out again?’ I ask.

Onyx stops moving. His eyes focus on me. He’s completely still. He’s barely even breathing.

My suspicion is that the Peace Vault is a fraud. It’s just there to put a public softening on their euthanasia policy. Offer people a flicker of hope, however implausible, and they’re less likely to rebel. I suppose it’s using a lot of the same basic psychology as organised religion.

I’m a literal hollow shell; the Vault is a figurative one.

Onyx says, ‘They can’t use us to run the suits, as that would break the Peace Vault’s promise. Plus, they send us there because we’re not good enough for the War. So if we’re not good enough to fight, how can we be good enough to run war machines?’

Onyx hasn’t actually answered my question, I note. He does have a talent for evasion, I’ll give him that.

Let’s try again, shall we?

I say, ‘If you went into the Vault, would you be worried that it was you coming out of it again?’

He makes that shudder-shrug again. ‘Do you think you’re you, right now? You’re an upload, after all.’

Answer a question with another question. Stay classy there, talking alien space lizard thing. But privately, I’m pleased. I want Onyx asking lots of questions, so this is good.

I say, ‘I’m me right now. Whether I’m the same me as the one who was late on that train?’ I shrug. ‘I have no idea. I did worry about that for a while. But I decided I couldn’t answer that question. I’m not even convinced that question has an answer. I have those memories. I feel like I’m the same. So I decided to tell the existential thing to go and hang itself.’

‘Why are you asking me, then?’

‘Strictly,’ I said, ‘I asked you whether you worry about it. I didn’t ask you whether you thought it would be literally true.’

The nictitating membranes reappeared. Onyx puts the multitool back on the table, folding it up. It clinks against the metal surface.

‘You ask a lot of awkward questions,’ he says.

I say, ‘Yes, and that isn’t going to change.’ I feel that Onyx deserves elaboration as well as flippancy, so I add, ‘At university, I did a year of – oh.’

Well, that was unexpected. My linguistics database has no Standard cognate for one quite-common English word.

‘ “Oh” ?’

‘I just got a new system error,’ I say. ‘Not a nice feeling. It’s kind of tickly and tingly. What’s the word for the study of knowledge and reasoning?’

Onyx looks bewildered. ‘I don’t know of any such word,’ he says.

I really don’t want to get all Sapir-Worf on your ass, but it’s not a good sign when a culture has no word for “philosophy”. Either they’ve stopped asking questions, or they actively don’t want you to ask questions.

‘So my first year at university was doing an academic discipline that literally doesn’t exist here. Well, that’s good.’

I’m writing this account in English, but Onyx and I are talking in Standard. That’s the language used by Folk soldiers. Possibly some of the chips in the Peace Vault know some other alien languages, but if they do, no-one alive is talking with them. The point is, I’m translating the conversation. Some of the translations are a bit sketchy, to be honest. Where English has ‘university’, Standard has a word that literally means ‘institute of advanced technical education’. Granted there’s an overlap, but the Folkish isn’t an exact match. There are other weak matches too. I’m not always convinced that Onyx and I are talking about the same thing in every conversation, and Onyx is the Folk I get on best with.

‘You did a year of the unnameable discipline,’ Onyx says. ‘Was that before you caught that train?’

‘Yes, but years before. I was actually at university for three years. I did three different subjects. There was our unnameable-‘ philosophy ‘-then I switched to Economics.’ That wasn’t an exact translation either; the Standard literally means “study of efficiency, exchange and resource optimisation”. ‘I liked that better, and I enjoyed the maths, but there was too much political crap in there.’ As it happens, “crap” translates just fine. It seems shit really is the one universal constant. ‘I moved on to Physics. I liked that a lot more than the others, but I failed badly at the maths. Then the money ran out, so I had to leave.’

Really my academic studies hadn’t been the high point of my working life.

Quite suddenly, Onyx changes the subject. ‘Also,’ he says, with the look in his eyes of someone who thought they had a knock-out argument, ‘if we were the uploads, you wouldn’t get your revenge.’
Once more, I’m irritated by my inability to blink. ‘Our revenge,’ I say. I’ve heard this argument before. Apparently we were supposed to be very concerned about getting revenge on the burners. I’m not so sure about that – given that I don’t remember the burning, and it was supposedly centuries ago anyway, should I really be that bothered? No amount of revenge now will un-burn the Earth, after all.

‘Yes,’ Onyx says. ‘This way you can help. You wouldn’t be able to get that if you were still dead.’

‘Onyx,’ I say, ‘I’d be dead. I wouldn’t care.’

Onyx’s membranes roll out and back again. His headcrest stands up a bit more. It seems I’ve surprised him.

‘So, you object to not being dead?’ Apparently that’s how he’s parsed what I just said. Interesting that he’s passed right over the bit where I imply that no-one really needs to care about the burners. Apparently that’s so far outside the main track of accepted Folk discourse that Onyx can’t even process it. Either that or he thinks it’s such a toweringly-stupid idea that he’s going to diplomatically ignore it because he doesn’t want to piss me off.

I consider his question for a moment. Is he, in a strange sort of way, right? Not really, but there is an odd resonance to what he just said. After a pause to think, I say, ‘Not exactly. What I object to is being a thing.’

Onyx considers this. ‘I don’t think you’re a thing,’ he says.

‘Well, thank you.’ At least one of the Folk can be reasonable, then. ‘Really, what I want to avoid is ending up on the scrapheap.’

‘You think they’d do that?’

‘I reckon it’s a possibility. I mean, if they break you up for spare parts…’

Onyx is silent for what seems like a long time. Then his face contorts into an expression I haven’t seen before. ‘You get a choice,’ he growls – and it is a growl! He opens his mouth. It’s almost a smile, except that he’s showing me his teeth. There’s some serious cutlery in there.

Whatever else the Folk are, they’re obviously not vegetarians.

With a tone approaching wonder, I say, ‘Wow. I think you’re actually angry!’ It’s amazing to see. Onyx is usually just so accepting of what the Folk do to themselves.

My pleasure appears to short-circuit whatever was going on in his brain. The nictitating membranes flicker back and forth and for a moment his mouth opens. A forked tongue tastes the air, a rather snake-like gesture. For a moment I wonder what the room smells like. Whilst I have analysis packages and could write for hours about the chemical composition of the room’s air, I have no idea what the scent is. I am entirely without a nose.

‘You – like the fact I’m angry?’ Onyx really is surprised.

‘Yes. There’s nothing wrong with a bit of healthy anger.’ And anger is something I can work with. If Onyx starts to recognise that the system is screwing him over, he might be more willing to investigate it.

Onyx says, ‘Well, consider this.’ Onyx, talking back to me? Wow. He really must be furious. ‘You get to pick who wears you. And you don’t get packed off to the Peace Vault if no-one wants you. They can grow loads of us in the tanks, but one of you takes ages in the Forge. In some ways, you get a better deal than we do.’

The fucked up thing is, he’s arguably right. It does seem that as long as you turn up for the shooting, an upload can get away with a lot more than an actual Folk. I guess it comes from having an incredibly durable robot body with lots of guns built into it.

I can sense a workable angle here. ‘I want to stay off of the scrapheap. You want to stay out of the organ banks. I think we can help each other with this. But if we’re to do that, we need to actually understand what the deal is here. And I don’t think we do, right now.’

Onyx mulls that over. ‘I suppose,’ he says. He looks back at the tabletop. ‘I need to get on with fixing your leg, don’t I?’

‘Please,’ I say. ‘I mean, it’s not like the bust actuator’s going to grow back, is it?’

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