My third arm twitches.

Left third arm, that is. From the coat of neural webs I have draped on my spine, long white strands flow from under finger tip. Up, through fluid-wrinkled wrists, goes the hypnic jerk, impulse command rippled from number three involuntarily, and sensory response comes back, reporting about drenched fingers pressing against the inside of a polymer cocoon.

At the neural intercept, second vertebrae, the signal comes out to me via fiber optic cables, and she never finds out that she tried to wake up.

Unlike brain chatter, body data does not need to be desynthesized. It is raw and direct, a literal command, fed into my own bio-adapter through which all of my Locksteps feed their nerves, interloping with my own. This signal is mapped by the anatomy algo, and projects a sensory feed direct to my real left hand.

Brushing up against, stretching out, a yearning towards, and through a viscous bag, polyether wall, like a wet suit, bath-tub sized, and full, submerging. Pressing out, not tearing at it, but dumbly, in that involuntary subconscious way, unseeing, finding nothing to grasp, awkward, obliquely. Mostly dry, but my left arm, my hand, half my shoulder, in the lipid slurry, in number three's nightly flinch. Then it fades. And my arm is my own, it is dry again, unaugmented and unscarred. There is no bag wall above me, only the still air in the office.

We are in a converted dormitory under the surface of Daphnis, an underground bunker that was once a civilian outpost for development, before militants from the other moons came and took it for themselves. Now, it is my office, and these androids attached through the tendrils crawling up my chair and onto the top of my black-glass helmet are in my... care, I suppose.

My technical title is roboticist, a carefully earned title which I nonetheless resent. These bio-androids, they're not made with silicon and aluminum. They were genetically engineered, raised at accelerated rates in tubes, and locked down severely by the nanite programs, but born as only flesh.

See, when scientists of the 22nd century found that human intelligence and artificial intelligences were not on a converging path, but rather diverging, it was the AIs who ascended. While feature-rich AIs rolled off the desks, upselling and upgrading the tail ends of their loose codes, they kept everything they controlled. They pressed together, a cellular collective ever increasing their domain. What was left for human intelligence except as a resource, a past-facing historicism, full of dead ends and half-baked fields, which rise only to below the knees of the AI cell-gods?

While human intelligence was outmoded in the abstract, the very real and physical human brain was not. What it lacked in task-specific capacity, it made up for in physical contrivance. Human neural connections were infinitely small and many, and as easy to grow as producing gene-modified mice. Components in wet computers, or schizophrenic assemblers in pseudo-heuristic analysis machines, the usefulness of the homo sapiens intellect did not fail to contribute to the technological monolith that brought us to the outer orbitscape.

Combat has long been the domain of machines. The sailing cannon-ships of old Europe, the mechanized tanks of the 20th century, bomber and fighter drones swooping clear blue skies to oblivion in the 21st, and the low-gravity swiveling gimbal-guns that lock down Saturnian moons and satellites today. But machines will never have the flexibility of infantry.

Shipmind constructs flying unpressurized behemoths, running the space between the stars, not eating, not sleeping, not breathing, largely never knowing atmosphere or gravity at all. They, who rule federation space with rollicking laserstorms from interdicters and those on sterile moons. A species done with the limits of biology, who federated themselves, assembled unspeaking in airless void, in inscrutable contact. We, the extraneous carbon-based tetherless bipeds on the backing of their planetary footing, mostly subordinate, a few with the delusion that we actually fly these things.

There's no wheel on this ship, and nobody at it.

The AIs got almost all portions of locomotion down pat, but you can't threaten them. Too dumb, cells too big. Point a gun at their central processing unit, and they'll look for whatever subroutine applies to this situation and apply it, politely attempting to escort themselves to a rest state without imperative. Blood doesn't pump in their ears. They weren't planning this move from the second they saw you armed. They've never fled fire under a wet, hot scalp before.

Sapiens instinct has balanced for a million years between the twin gods of pursuit and fear. Human intelligence was built on top of the foundation of making one's feet move.

Biologicals, my so-called robots, carry the longest-running heuristic process in their heads, deep clusters regarding bodies in motion, catch and escape at a cost never understood by a ship's construct. Hindbrain stirred subverbal webs of fleeing grasps and swinging branch, all neural clatter behind my head. If they have domesticated us, it was not to make us tamer.

These are sapient humans, but not exactly the same as a person. Grown at an accelerated rate, and then stunted. Nested with micro-lasering nanites that remove parts of the brain considered to pose an "obstacle to directive excellence". Classically conditioned, and then emotionally dulled further, pinpointing and searing away language, reason, temporality, all parts expendable but the nape-dragging beast. They only attend order, otherwise inattentively standing, a silent autistic rifle troop.

And why?

This entire company is cheaper than a starfighter.

A straw pokes me in the lips. I part, and accept it. It tastes green and grainy and high-fructose. An efficient gastro-ration designed by nutri-optimizers to feed limbic janitors with minimal distraction. Protruding from the same mask which shields my view from the androids in polymer bags in this room, it marks the half-way point of my shift. 1.2 Saturnian days for my duty shift, or about 0.54 of a day on the marble. Not that many marble folk make it out here.

Anyway, "neuroboticist" is a more fitting title than anything to do with robotics. It's easier to think of myself more as a clean-up crew. A limbic custodian, or as one of the gimbal-jocks called the speciality, a "brain janitor".

It gets awfully quiet here on Daphnis. Even under the twin orbs of a bright yellow Saturn and a dim pale sun, my shift here in the bunker is black as any night, doubled by the opaque helmet. Around my desk, feeding into my neural cap are thick black wires, trailing out from dozens of bunks, once for miners, now for bags of bacta regenerating war-droids offline.

Well, not all quite offline.

Like I said before, androids use human brains because they're connection-dense. But the same connectivity that allows a vertebrate to adjust slight movements for an entirely new coordination task without having to think about it also results in an inability to predict exactly what they'll do. We don't believe they're conscious, and the marketing material says as much, but there's something playing across their nerves, some biological flicker. Can't say how many times I've seen them nerve-flashed, and how many times that flicker comes back. It's a closed issue, according to our reports, partly because it isn't much a problem, mostly because it doesn't have a solution. Who cares if their eyes follow you? Or if they moan? Most of the flicker has nothing to do with anything at all, just staring off into space.

It doesn't make them independent. No subroutine malfunction has been connected to flicker behavior, as far as anyone can tell. They're firmly under our control, tactical interfaces keep them in patented Lockstep when they're online and functional.

Most of their commands can be nanite-driven, instructions activated by compelling a sequence of electrical impulses attached to artificially implanted memories. Low-grav training, first aid, demolitions, tactical cover, patrol and so forth. But when they retrieve themselves from the field, when on pre-standby, and when there is no objective projected on the inside of their dark HUD-domes, when the only thing for them to do is to lie down and not move, that's when they notice it.

When there is no ongoing directive, the Lockstep models are supposed to stand at attention, taut, and ready to spring. Motionless. Like imitating an empty suit of armor. But after seeing enough of the vacuum out here, that's not what they do anymore. They free-associate, staring at walls and corners and each other. Sometimes they vocalize.

I say vocalize because they don't talk exactly, more of a high guttural outgoing huff, like trying to blow out a candle. It's unsettling. You can't see past their dark tinted helmets, but if you could, don't think I'd want to.

It's not that they're trying to talk either. A baby can't speak either, but it has the capacity to. With that mimicking of how our voices go up and down, hold tones and let go, that sequence and length of human speech, they are learning language from the outside-in. With my droids, there's no change in pitch or stress, they're not reaching for words, syllables, phonemes, nothing.

It sounds like whale song from a tin can. These delobed and moaning bio-sapiens aren't capable of language. They're just not specced for it.

For a while, there is nothing between an android and its flicker.

Here, on the sidelines on Daphnis, weeks away from any risk of bogey rebel asteroid, in a squatted bunker, where sleeping combat-sapiens give unconscious their nerve-memories of wound-sound, of blast-followed-by-trigger, of prey-predation mixup, of leaping over crater-crest, vulnerable in the miniscule gravity and the fifteen seconds of freefall to follow. The flicker is dreaming. Her dream self stumbles, suit rips, and her brain spikes gamma hard, thrashing in a low grav bunk.

Number 17's brainwaves sets off the alerts in the back of my helmet, right above my inner ear.

The long cables running across the length of the dorm floor and up my chair, into my cranio-cap brings me her terrors at panic speed. Not visual, the eyes are closed and ocular nerves mostly quiet -- no hallucination, but a memory of fear. Motor neurons firing, trying to wheel her hands around to the leak, phalanges twitching by her side, immobilized by paralytic, but not enough. I flood her with more.

Her medulla is sending adrenaline release signals, but the nanites put a stop to that, blocking uptake. Diaphragm is bloating and retaining as if preparing, quadriceps locked in a crossfire between fetal or flight mode. Parallelized, fearsweating into my cloth eye-mask. Right thumb and forefinger go to the side of the neural interface, keying code 17, and then twenty-something droids get off the back of my spine, sent to white noise 1.0, and isolate my helmet's synaptic focus to her.

In her mind, she is still craterbound on an unconquered Titan, crawling below firelines, patting down the sides of her mass-produced lead-polymer suit. Her survival instinct won't stop looking for a rip. Where is the hole? How will I live without my suit?

I stand up from my chair, tapping the side of my helmet, suppressing my verbal to muscle twitches, translating into received language belief-shapes. Actively writing into her ego. Here goes.

"There are no Mimantean rebels here. There is not remembering. You are in a safe place. There is bacta, there is unit. There are not orders. You are welcome here, and you are right to be here."

She's still in full-on physiological panic. Inputs for the code, tap from my hand to helmet, an algorithmic formula for involuntary therapeutic yoga. Her muscoskeletal system is set to reactivate, but impulsed into yogic cardiovascular control patterns intended to bring heart rate and breathing to manageable levels.

Standing there, my sync inhibitors disabled, foot precariously holding me up on an office chair that had threatened once already to wobble, and the laps came in, of the bag walls, of the lipid waves, a second set of dermal receptors in bathtub chop from my own thrashing, occurring to my senses mid-throe.

As her brain printed command neural outputs to my body, I held it, and received it.

Not the frustrated muffle of paralyzed movement, but expressed somewhere, into something, it was perhaps a relief to her. Told this body to curl up. It couldn't. My foot held firm on the chair. Told this body to lash out. Arms wavered but stayed in balance, less of yogic discipline, more like dueling senses of self preservation. The suit is all around me, I think upnerve. Maybe someone hears it. The suit is larger than me, and I am sleeping in it, and swimming it, and standing on one foot on it, and it keeps me strong.

One of us thinks, if it did, it would only set me free.

Strain, flex, hold, fade. That's the idea. My feet rock forth, taking the secondary effects of the muscular assembly instructions, then stabilize on one leg. Holding, breathing, I try to imbue her with certainty, and fading. Her legs strain. Her lungs flex. This is an inhabitance, a place where what effort there is to make, will be made with this. This I, this her. Her flashing amygdala holds, slows, and then slows further. I release my blind flamingo space yoga pose as the involuntary bodily meditation ends, tapping my visor, and transitioning her to a cardio decrescendo algo.

I put one hand to the ego-speech button, and two fingers to my lips: "The suit is closed. There rip is sealed. Feel the closure."

I palpate my mouth, simulating a hole that is closing. Number 17 gets the idea, maybe.

Repeating mantras on her frequencies, I reach into the space marine's stunted mind. Love, food. Only a few marble years old, yet so direly used on these war moons. Warmth, cloth. Nerve endings fused apart, empathy surviving in misplaced shreds. Sleep, light. A motherless mute who barely registers color vision out here on the fringes of carbon-friendly space. Help, life. I tug gently at the blindsight she is clutching. She gives her memory to me, and in doing so, loses possession of it.

"Thank you for giving me this crater-crest warning. There is wholeness, there is quiet."

She tenses, pulses with a question, then her brainwaves pause, still for a moment. Heart rate coming down. She wordlessly turns her attention to the upper left corner of her vision, where an EUD would be with her next orders.

"There are no Mimantean rebels here. There is unit, there is bacta. I am food-touch, and I am sleep-love, and I am here. You are safe, and fed, and right. I am pleasure-warm, and you are naked-kissed, and hold back from me nothing," I read from the approved sensualities contingency list.

She holds dumb to fear, but sips soporific from the tranqbag, and trembles quietly to herself. Down from beta, and headed towards sleep signals.

I climb down from my chair, holding the tendrils trailing out behind my neck, and I sit.

The ripples fade, beta returning to alpha waves, although the distraught of unit 17 remains. It was the same vision as unit 9 last cycle, wasn't it? And unit 31 in the one before that. I reattach her on my seventeenth vertebrae, exit white noise, and return to oversight of the bunked androids.

All correct. They are all still much the same.

My spine is unstirring, asleep now. Thirty-eight legs and forty-one arms all asleep, save for some prosthetic motor grumbling. Tapping on a two-part split anamodgsboard, the modulator outputting 1.0 stdev loops, autopiloting their brain patterns, and I, relieved, set my cloth goggles aside.

The room is still dark. In lead-lined cases, tissue flinches from wounds they've been programmed not to register/remember. Two sides, each half-numb. They look so much less warlike when they're asleep. Now, silent but for the wrinkling of the bags as milspec frankenflesh flinches out of their paralysis, giving me skin-mirages, food-being notices, and it slumbers back.

Are they mine?

Breadcrumbed by know-nothing orders out, out into crater and nickel field. Economical casualties, the men-who-talk-to-ships say. It means cheap.

They sleep so that they can fight. In fear and aiming greed, finally awake. They will be wild and vulnerable, amok, blasting at iron-jetsam shadows, electro-rifles in locked savage cyclic recoil through mutiny-rewrit labor droids, the colonials' blunt instruments clattering to the ground as wordless gutteral spray authorizes an increase in their bio-sapiens uptake of nanite permitted serotonin.

Terrible, aren't they.

As my dormitory office tumbles eternal towards that enormous yellow Saturnian ever-storm swirl, knifed in half on both sides of the day by dotted flashes of the A-ring belt, navigation tells us that that we are entering engagement range. In a few scant weeks, those grey-white war moons on ever-changing orbits will bounce and sling around one or another moon and pass us. Emptying our bunks. Another chance for those Cassinian anarchists to blow apart the whole planetoid, demolishing us to orbitscape debris like they did to Pan when cornered. Our droids seen spinning from pressure leaks in zero gravity, unrecoverable, or else falling out to the deep. Or headed for a re-entry at the end of decaying Saturnian ellipses...

And the stars...

A taskminder AI beeps, indicating that only have a few more moments off-task before this was counted as a vacation. I slip the helmet back on. The spine lengthens, popping the wave-synced undulating hound-minds of my biologicals onto twenty-three vertebral sockets. The frontal lobes go quiet, alone in the room. The plain cotton velvet of a mask over the T-zone of the face.

Pressed to the eyes, the cranial interface dots a vision. There is only the sounds of the waves, the skull-geometry of the CNS networks, sympathetic body noise, and me.

The only nerves of my own are ocular, closed in duplicate by bunker and night. Nothing, except...

Except for the dots of pressure on my eyelids from my mask. Gaggles of sprinkled static. They could be stars, but moving, pulsing to different places, and too many of them, baffling to navigate. A quilt of shattered galaxy. Behind it, these unwaking, unsleeping demons who whimper slow and sucking in their bags on rationed dream-samples, they are mine. From here in our androiputic janitation center, subterranean shade of the great rings, these biologicals are strands on the spine, and they are full, and on the brink of my sleeping. In pressurized low-gravity tranquilizer slush, flinching their way to humanity, they are no one else's.

My duty is to sleep for them. I dreamt the stars were all there was.

SciFiQuest 3022

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