Somewhere between Binary Star Cygnus X-1 and Earth.
Thinking back, the first thing he remembered was light. It had come from all sides and obliterated everything. Then a male voice, a deep, resonating voice spoke. "I will call you Michael."
"Daaaaa," Michael said. Drool pushed in a phlegm filled tide, exited the side of his mouth and slid down his chin to drip.
"I must do something about your mind," the voice said.
The light dimmed and took form. It floated luminously in a dark tumultuous sea.
Small holes peppered the form. The holes grew, coalesced, and blossomed.
The thought sprang full form. Michael frowned, confused. Cloying, pink flesh pressed against him, from head to toe and on all sides. When he pushed, the flesh gave way to his touch. When he pulled back his hand, the flesh returned to its former shape.
"Where am I?"
"You are in my womb."
"What am I?"
"You are a hominid, more specifically a Homo sapiens, Caucasian, mid‑thirties, human, though synthetic."
"Did you make me?"
"You must ensure A4-Ni is built."
A tearing sound, like static, ripped inside Michael's head.
"Now you know." The voice pulsed with an unnerving reverberation.
"Yes." And Michael knew. A switch had clapped home, and from somewhere deep inside his being, data welled and streamed into his consciousness. He struggled to stem the tide to no avail.
"You're the Shepherd--," he blurted, submitting to the flood and giving voice to the informational torrent, "--an artificially intelligent, self-replicating organic machine. Future humans build A4-Ni, also incorrectly known as Afareni, another artificially intelligent, self-replicating organic machine, who mutated beyond her original design. She stole the deified DNA Gilomir four million years ago and inserted him into a primitive hominid on Earth during the Paleolithic Era, leading to unexpected fortuitous circumstances and the rise of human--"
Michael clamped his mouth shut. Data disconnect. The reflexive chatter stopped. A vision opened in his head, back of his eyes, but a little higher. The light of near and distant stars studded dark space.
"I'm seeing what you see?"
The relationships between the stars changed, stirred in slow motion.
"We're moving fast."
"Ninety-nine point nine nine percent the speed of light, rounded up. We will arrive in six minutes, your subjective time, of course."
"Of course." The approaching stars flared bright while those behind dimmed and went out. Data resumed unbidden across his consciousness. The Shepherd had been here before. Two times, not counting the initial trip by what may have been his predecessor. "It must be tedious to have to return to Earth so often."
"I do as the guardian tells me."
No data for guardian. A moment of disorientation. "Guardian?"
"You must stop asking ignorant questions. I have given you all the information you need. Avail yourself."
"Yes--" and then it was there. I must practice. "--the guardian. A golf ball‑sized sphere that knows the future or past of anyone using it. You left it behind, on Earth, when you last departed. Was that a mistake?"
"I do not make mistakes."
"That's encouraging. I've always wondered--," Michael noted the absurdity of always given his short embrace of cognitive functions. "‑‑I've always wondered why you concern yourself with A4-Ni being built? You exist, so A4-Ni must succeed in building you."
"It is not the end result that concerns me. The path getting there does. Whether we like it or not, we must ensure that humans survive long enough to build A4-Ni."
The Shepherd spoke in riddles. Though raw data was available, Michael found it mind-numbing to sift through it all, to connect one piece with another. "Why don't you just create her directly?"
"I cannot be responsible for my own construction."
Another riddle. "Logically, no. There would have to be input from an outside source to avoid a contradiction."
"That is where the guardian comes in."
"Ah...the guardian again. I sense risks in what you want me to do."
"I did not program you to consider risk."
The Shepherd fell silent leading Michael to wonder if the Shepherd was indeed searching for errors in his calculations.
"Interesting," the Shepherd said, finally, "your concern for risk must be an emerging effect caused by your underlying hominid structure."
Emerging? It felt like indigestion. Call it what you will, something was tying Michael's stomach in a knot. "Really, is there risk?"
A sudden, wrenching tug. "Players?"
"Actually in this time and place there is only one player--Cardassin. Very nasty. Think."
Michael let out his breath slowly, relieving tension. He thought.
"Players, agents of Evil, placed in this universe to seek out and destroy Gilomir, the guardian and...you?"
"Myself as well."
A spherical world flashed by. "What was that?"
"An outer planet."
The tension returned. "Have we arrived?"
"I don't think I like this Earth we are headed for."
"It does not matter whether you like it or not," the Shepherd said. "When I left in the year 7005, Earth was a balmy place. Sunshine. Tropical rain forests everywhere. A good environment for the Maraia to evolve.
"Maraia. The humans you created?" With practice, Michael found he could hold the tension off to one side, put it in a compartment, so to speak, while still accessing the database.
"Very good. Now, Three thousand years later, with magnetic poles flipped, Earth is experiencing another ice age."
Pieces fell together. Michael gained confidence. "Is that why so few Maraia are left?"
"Some perished of natural causes. Some co-mingled, mixing genetically with degraded humans. Some succumbed to player seductions and ended up hedonistic mutants. A horrible waste."
Michael's meticulously constructed rationale began to tremble. He squirmed. "But the guardian has a plan for those that are left?"
"I detect worry. Very hominid. I did not foresee that so many of these primordial attributes would become explicit."
Data bits began to drop from Michael's rational structure like leaves from a tree. The Shepherd's dotage was frustrating. "Shepherd. Does the guardian have a plan?"
"Impatience, another hominid attribute. Of course the guardian has a plan. Since it sees existence as a whole, I suppose it considers me, as well as you, another piece in a greater puzzle."
A large gaseous planet drifted across Michael's vision. "I don't have much time, do I?"
"No. I will deposit you on Earth in thirty-four seconds."
Michael counted. Thirty‑three, thirty‑two...the vision went blank. He felt a thump.
"We are here," the Shepherd said.
Fibers spun around Michael. An insulated parka wove across his back. Boot leather clapped around his feet. The smooth walls of the Shepherd's womb stiffened.
Michael felt a thrust from below, as though he were a piston in an ancient combustion chamber. Up he rose, a stiff rod of flesh and bone. The sphincter‑like closure to the womb opened and a blast of cold air caught his head. Interminably, he rose, then keeled over, slip‑slided across the Shepherd's rounded exterior, and dropped two meters to a sheet of ice below.
The tension was back. "I don't like this!" Michael screamed.
Akilah Rasmussen shifted the heavy ice razor from one arm to the other and squinted into the fading light. Sunsets caused problems. Low angled rays reflecting off the ice sheet that stretched out from the ancient ruins of Nairob International played tricks on the mind. Of course the protos, dumb as they were, also knew this. Their attacks always came at sunset.
Fortunately, protos were better scavenging food in Maraia waste dumps and scurrying like rats through dark abandoned buildings than they were at being soldiers.
Their idea of an attack was to run screaming across the slick surface waving clubs and spears above their heads, hoping to get close enough to the entrenched Maraia to hit somebody. Once, she'd seen a proto club one of his own and not even realize he'd done it.
Farther down the line to Akilah's right, Ferral hunched over his razor. He was a big man even for a Maraia. Beneath a rather fleshy looking body was a powerful build. Short‑clipped balding hair, stressed‑out eyes that seemed too large for their sockets, a hooked nose and receding chin ringed in a goatee flecked with gray. He usually wore dark glasses, and tonight they were parked up on his forehead.
At forty‑five, he was twenty years her senior. She'd seen him swing into action at the flick of an eye with violent consequences. Sometimes that intensity scared her. It was a part of him, a tension, that made her keep him at a distance.
To her left sat Dayna, completely opposite in temperament, relaxed, tilted back in her chair, feet up on the parapet, razor at her side. Nothing ever seemed to bother Dayna. Akilah liked Dayna, five years older, a big sister. Akilah also knew that Dayna liked her a lot, maybe too much. Dayna was lean and tawny, like an ancient lioness. Blond hair, unlike Akilah's brown, startlingly blue eyes, she was more what a typical Maraia woman should look like. Akilah didn't know from where she got her darker looks. She'd never known her mother.
Dayna looked at her and gave a small wave with a smile.
Akilah smiled back and looked away. Despite Dayna's infatuation with her, Akilah was glad to have Dayna with her on a night like this. The three of them would have to repulse any attack until the others, who were all eating dinner, could come up and reinforce them.
"Here they come!" Ferral flipped his dark glasses down, thumbed the safety off his razor and settled the weapon on the bunker's parapet.
"Jeez, there's a lot of them," Dayna said. In one smooth motion she eased forward and brought her razor to bear on the ragtag hoard.
Bright flashes of phase‑concentrated light--reds, blues, greens erupted from the advancing protos.
"They've got razors," Akilah practically shouted. How'd they get razors?
The protos were hopelessly out of range and ill‑prepared to use the razors. At their present rate of fire, they'd exhaust the power packs before engaging the Maraia.
"Hold steady." After seeing that the others heard her, she thumbed her communicator and held it close to her mouth. "We're under attack."
"I hear you," her father answered. "We're coming."
"I've notified Gregory," Akilah said to Ferral and Dayna. The use of a first name for her father came almost naturally. He'd told her to call him that. In some small way it bothered her…that slight distancing of intimacy.
The range of their razors was marked on the ice with a red dye. It never dawned on the protos that when they crossed the line, they'd be sliced to bits.
The mob came to the line and flowed over it.
Akilah opened fire, followed by Ferral and Dayna.
Cobalt blue lines of light lanced silently from the ends of the razors, raking mercilessly back and forth across the forward line of attackers.
Limbs flew into the air. Legs came away from hips, toppling their owners sideways. A head rolled. A body split at waist level, the two halves twitching in opposite spirals. Oddly, the protos uttered not a sound.
The second line of protos tromped over the dismembered first line. Some of them tripped or slipped on the body parts and went down, no doubt saving their lives. The rest of the horde plodded forward.
Rasmussen came up beside Akilah. "The others have taken up their positions. I don't expect this will take--" He squinted at the ragtag surge. "--Where'd they get razors?"
"I was asking myself the same question."
Rasmussen flinched as a streak of light sizzled over his head and chipped concrete from the wall behind him. He brushed his hand across his eyes.
Akilah glanced quickly at her father. Tears? "You okay?"
"It was a night like this when Cardassin kidnapped your mother."
Thanks. Why do I need to be reminded now that a player changed my life twenty‑five years ago? "Not now, Father."
A bright flash of light followed by a thundering explosion sounded down the line.
Akilah jerked her head in the direction of the sound, but never let up firing. "What the hell was that?"
"Explosives. I'm going to check for damage."
Two more blasts erupted, but this time within the ranks of the protos. The ill‑timed detonations knocked protos down, like reeds cut with a scythe.
Those still standing milled in confusion, their razors winking out. Then, as though reaching a common agreement, they turned and trudged away from the battlefield, leaving their dead behind, temporarily. Failing to acquire Maraia protein, they'd return under cover of darkness and access their own.
Akilah tilted her razor up. Its hot end released a curl of vapor in the frigid air. No sense killing the poor bastards wantonly.
Ferral let loose one last blast that pulverized the back of some unfortunate's head.
"Enough," Akilah shouted.
Ferral smiled. Not a wicked or evil smile, but one that showed defiance, despite being caught doing something he shouldn't have. He hauled his razor back. "Since when are you a proto lover?"
"You know damn well I'm not. But they're still hominids, or at least they once were."
"That's pretty lame, Akilah." He shouldered his razor. "There. Make you feel better?"
"Don't push me, Ferral."
He smiled again. "They used explosives. That's a first. I wonder how many dead we have?"
Rasmussen returned, tears dampening his cheeks and running through his gray goatee. "A random lucky strike. We have two dead."
"Who?" Dayna glanced apprehensively at Akilah.
Rasmussen brushed awkwardly at his face. "Carol and Pierce." He sat next to Akilah, his shoulders slumped.
Not Pierce. Dear Pierce. Akilah absorbed the news with shock.
"That's it?" Ferral asked. The deaths didn't seem to faze him one bit. "The Truman Light okay?"
Rasmussen looked up, seemingly disoriented by the question. "Yes...yes the Truman Light is intact. There's no other damage."
Akilah stared at the wrapped bodies of Carol and Pierce for a long time. White chrysalises lying on the cold ground. Beside them, the last of the melt drained from a common grave Ferral finished cutting into the ice.
Gray monoliths of gutted structures rose around them forming a protected space, away from protos, where the Maraia buried their dead. Protected, for if the protos knew of its location, they would dig up the bodies for food. After all, sub zero temps would keep it fresh.
Dayna clutched Akilah around the shoulders and gave her a squeeze. "I know you liked Pierce," she whispered.
Akilah tilted her head back in anguish. Gray clouds puffed silently across a darker sky. It would probably snow again tonight. Not that it hadn't in the last nine thousand days she had spent in this godforsaken place. "I did." She brushed at her eyes. "I just didn't want to pair with him. Is that wrong?"
"No," Dayna said gently, her words a caress to Akilah's pain. "But the only Maraia men left without mates are Ferral and Jason."
Akilah smiled to herself well aware of Dayna's drift. She glanced over at Ferral, who stood a few meters away next to her father. The other Maraia--Warren and Karin, the physician Nicholai and his mate Lorry, and Jason--stood solemnly on the other side of the grave. "You know I'll not have either one of them. I have you."
"And you always will." Dayna brushed the side of Akilah's cheek with a kiss. "Maraia women, not the best choice for genetic combination, but it can be--"
Rasmussen walked up to them. "What are you two discussing so secretively? I was about to start the prayers of absolution."
Akilah pulled away from Dayna's embrace. "We were saying how much Carol and Pierce will be missed."
Rasmussen fixed Akilah with a gaze that carried a degree of accusation. "I thought of Pierce as my son. And he would have been if you would have had him."
Akilah returned his stare passively, trying to suppress the anger his ill‑timed comments fomented. She felt the squeeze of Dayna's hand, reassuring. "Father, the others are waiting."
Rasmussen nodded absently. "You are right." He glanced across at the remaining Maraia, then walked over and stood next to the bundled bodies and raised his arms.
The others quieted and focused their attention on him.
"It is a sad day," he intoned, "that we lose two more and must now commit their remains to these icy depths." He bowed his head. "We pray to our Lord in heaven, His representative on Earth the guardian, and his chosen son Sedroth, who suffered under the player, Cathcar, died and was buried in Loriyu with his mistress, Azizah.
"We remain true to his teachings and our belief in resurrection through A4-Ni." Rasmussen brought the palms of his hands together and kissed his fingertips. "We believe in the guardian, the Shepherd, the purity of Gilomir whose genome we sanctify, Sedroth's guidance, the way of TrueMen, and life everlasting.
"We ask almighty Father that you accept these your humble servants and keep their souls safe from evil players and Zug. Praise Sedroth. Amen."
He lowered his arms, his shoulders slumped. His head bowed to his chest.
"Amen," said the assembled Maraia.
"Amen," Akilah muttered.
Warren and Nicholai grasped corners of the enclosing sheets, already frozen stiff, and slid the bodies to the edge of the grave where they pushed them over.
The lack of ceremony didn't bother Akilah. That's the way things were and always had been. People died. In fact, more people died than were ever born. And now there were just the nine of them left.
Jason shoveled loose snow into the pit, then when it had covered the bodies several centimeters, he added larger chunks of ice to the mix.
All the while, Ferral played his ice razor at low power over the fill, melting it into a monolithic seal.
I don't understand," Rasmussen said to Akilah. "How did the protos come to have explosives."
Akilah looked up, surprised. "You know as well as I do. There's only one source. Cardassin."
"It's hard to believe he would send his agents this far south."
"Why not? It's easy enough for him to do. There's an endless supply of protos."
Rasmussen shook his head and sighed heavily. "The time has come."
Akilah knew full well what time Father was talking about. The mystery was, why hadn't he come to this conclusion sooner. But she was the daughter. The dutiful daughter. She knew there were others in the remaining group who silently opposed her father's decisions. But admittedly, things had now changed to a level that it was obvious to all something different would have to be tried. Sitting in Nairob International wasn't going to get the job done.
Rasmussen raised a hand to gain everyone's attention.
"We knew it would come to this one day." His voice quavered, an old man beaten down by events and finally coming to a conclusion that others had arrived at years ago, but not had the temerity to challenge their leader. "I saw razors today. Explosives. The protos are now instruments of Cardassin. Next we'll see mutants in the front lines."
"Yes, the mutants," Ferral sneered, his lips drawn in a terse line. "It's always been Cardassin and his mutants."
Rasmussen looked at him sharply. "You know full well we had no choice but to come here. And I say that with qualification. You, and…Dayna were already here, and I accept that your parents made that decision long ago. I don't fault you for anything, except your refusal to join our creed. Be that as it may, we have survived these last twenty‑five years, but now Cardassin has raised the bar. Equipping protos with weapons is unprecedented. We cannot hope to prevail in the long run."
Ferral started to speak, but Rasmussen held up a silencing hand. "We have come to a fork in the road. A point where we must take sides and make decisions. I stand before you today, over the bodies of our comrades, and urge you to put your personal needs to one side. Join me in a common effort to build A4-Ni. I propose we take back our rightful abode in Loriyu, then locate Sedroth's tomb and the guardian. Once we have the guardian we can build A4‑Ni.
"We TrueMen--" He glanced at Dayna and Ferral and seemed to decide not to mention them as exceptions. "--We have taken our vows. I would understand if some of you decided not to join this commitment. To that end, I ask, now, that whomsoever feels they cannot, let them be known and we shall part company with respect."
He paused and surveyed the huddled few. Not a one moved or made any indication they wanted out.
"Good. I didn't think there would be anyone, but I needed to ask. Let us pray for strength." He spread his hands out to his sides, fingers twitching, and bowed his head.
The others all bowed their heads, except Ferral, who put his hands on his hips and glared at Rasmussen.
"Oh Sedroth," Rasmussen preached, "who guides us from above, bless‑ed is your name. Your kingdom will come to us here, as it is in--"
"Let's cut the crap, Rasmussen," Ferral blurted. "Your mission is doomed."
Akilah stiffened. It wasn't like Ferral to bring his disagreements with Father into the open.
"How dare you!" Rasmussen sputtered.
Ferral stood his ground. "Cardassin is one player against what remains of us. Better we cleanse this land of his presence than chase around the frozen wilderness in search of Sedroth's tomb--a myth at best. Where are you going to live once you get to Loriyu? Cardassin sealed the Maraia enclave shut. Do you expect him to welcome you with open arms in Kanapoi? At least he's not adverse to using nano‑assemblers. Or maybe you think we'll be able to hole up in the ancient ruin. But I ask, why should we change one set of ruins for another? For a scientist, you are certainly--"
"Enough!" Rasmussen shouted. "I asked for a commitment. I didn't expect a debate on what I proposed."
"Yes," Ferral said with a sweep of his hand. "You've convinced everyone this is the only way to save our Maraia souls, but not me. I rue the day we are all wiped out and our genome is entrusted to a machine we haven't even yet conceived."
"If you don't want to join us, you are free to go your way."
Ferral barked a laugh. "You give me a false choice. You know that alone I will surely die."
Dayna leaned close. "Doctor Rasmussen, perhaps--"
"Don't patronize me," Rasmussen snapped. "You always side with Ferral--the two of you, who refuse to embrace the creed of TrueMen. He would lead us all to our deaths."
Stricken, Dayna stared. Her eyes teared as she fought for composure. "I hope you know I would never do anything to offend you."
"Perhaps not," Rasmussen muttered. "You're free to your opinion. But too many of us have died, and now Pierce and Carol. That is why we must undertake this mission. And mark my words, we shall succeed, for it is written."
" Written?" Ferral spat out the word. "Nothing's written. All you have is an oral tradition handed down over centuries. It takes a leap of faith to believe that the guardian lies on Sedroth's bones in some cave in what was once Loriyu. Even if we find the guardian, there's no reason to believe it still works or has the plans to build A4-Ni."
"We can't wait," Rasmussen said. "We either act now, or forever regret our chances."
"But the tomb's existence," Ferral countered, "is not much better than a rumor. No one, including you, has ever had anything more than a wish that it really exists."
"It is all we have left." Rasmussen looked down at his steepled fingers. "Our faith. The Maraia on Earth are finished. If Cardassin doesn't take us over, other players will. Why not try to save ourselves?"
"You still don't get it." Ferral shook his head angrily. "We will all die before any of your fantasies can be realized."