A throbbing sound grew in the racing fog. At first it seemed to be nothing but the wind; a figment of the imagination. Then it grew strong enough to overcome the masking wail of the atmosphere on the rocky surface of Witan. A dark shadow appeared in the sky, outlined by the diffuse light of the star above.
The shadow resolved into a small jumpship floating ever lower. The invader settled down onto the rocky surface of the planet. It looked out of place on the irregular gray stone, a sleek construct of titanium, ceramics and carbon. The noise began to fade. The spidery legs that supported the machine compressed as more of its weight shifted onto them. Finally it quieted and fully settled.
For a minute the vessel sat quiescent. Then an underside hatch opened. Four humanoid forms walked out into the angry fog that boiled over the ground. Their armored suits mirrored the black color of the ship that had disgorged them. The group walked purposefully, in single file, straight away from the ship. The mass of their ebony gear anchored them onto the stones, providing some immunity against the violent winds.
They appeared identical in their armor and masks, standing at the same height with the same build. Regular breathing filled the audio channel between them, devoid of comments as they marched steadily through the torrid air.
The sleek ship melted into the thick atmosphere behind them. The line did not waver; the four trudged along directed by some internal beacon. Their steps were not synchronized, yet they walked with the same gait. Whoever occupied the suits, man or machine, they were born of the same mold.
The outline of a building came into view ahead. The stone structure sprang from an age before that of the ship. The weather-worn castle stood three stories tall, nestled against the massive rock slabs of a high cliff. It sported no crenelations or murder holes, such devices being useless in the eternal swirling wind and mists that would take any arrow and tumble it away to unknown targets.
A heavy door of stone lay embedded in the center of the front face of the fortress. It extended a meter above the heads of the visitors in height, and as wide as the group of them standing side by side.
A transmission cut through the dense atmosphere, unhearable by any except these four.
“You know just as well as I do.”
“Yeah. I do. Just knock.”
Their voices interleaved smoothly on the link, identical. No one asked who spoke each piece. In fact none of the four knew or cared.
The fortress door lifted. The four visitors traded looks, then hurried inside. The door closed behind them, blocking out the howling wind.
The figures reached for their helmets. Hermetic seals popped and receded into their torsos at mental commands.
They were men. Or, perhaps one man, as they were identical: each with short cropped black hair that stood up a centimeter above white scalps, strong noses, and stubble-covered faces with sunken eyes. They popped open the voluminous suits and emerged, tall and strong, wearing black Veer skinsuits.
They faced the interior door of the small gray lock room expectantly. The door opened.
A shorter bald man walked into the room. His olive skin might have been a byproduct of the planet or his natural heritage. His link queried the men and retrieved their names.
“Jack. And Jack and Jack and Jack. Come with me,” he said. The man turned and walked back inside the second lock door.
“Who are you?” a Jack asked, though he walked after the man without hesitation.
The four Jacks followed Solarn down a long stone corridor. They took a left turn and came to a large room with a plastic table and stacks of sealed cargo boxes. The entire place had a metallic odor neither pleasant nor foul.
“I can see the Syndicate has come through with the first part of the plan, since there are four of you now,” Solarn said, taking a spot at the table.
The Jacks sat with him. One of the Jacks poked through an opened cargo box on the table and took out a can of glucosoda. The other Jacks saw this and quickly followed suit.
“So what’s the plan?” one of them asked.
“I’ll get to that soon. First, you each need your own call sign,” Solarn said.
The Jacks stared at each other. Solarn referred to their identical names and ids broadcast by their links.
Solarn pointed out one of them.
“You, go,” he said. “What names will you use?”
“I’ll be Jackon. He’s Jackoff. Jackup. Jackdown,” he said, pointing at each in turn.
“Jackoff. I like it. You’re Jackoff,” said another Jack.
“No, you are.”
“Okay, fine, I’m Jackoff and you’re Jerkoff.”
“Would you shut up?”
“I never realized how annoying I was until I became a copy of myself.”
“Jack. Jacob. Jace. Jake,” he said, point at each as he named them. “You can deathmatch for the original Jack right now.”
The four men were silent for a moment. They exchanged link messages while Solarn waited. Their names resolved to his suggestions in Solarn’s link.
“No point in deathmatching,” Jake said. “We just choose randomly. We’re all the same. Whoever wins the deathmatch would just be the lucky asshole anyway.”
“Actually...” Solarn said, then stopped.
“What?” asked Jack.
“What?” echoed Jacob.
“What already?” asked Jace.
Solarn held up his hands. “I probably shouldn’t have mentioned it. But it would only be a matter of time...”
“Yah?” said Jacob.
“When the Syndicate makes clones and copies your state over, you’re not all the same, actually,” Solarn said. “But it’s true, any given deathmatch would not necessarily result in a win by a superior one.”
“How are we different?” Jace and Jake asked together.
“Well, there’s the original. Unaffected. The clones, though, their bodies are better, because they chose healthy cells to grow the copy and so they will exhibit less cellular damage, and in less variety.”
“So the clones are the lucky ones,” Jack said.
“Well, physically, yes. As for the mental side of things, the original is ahead. Only about ninety nine percent of the neural pathways take the match. So the copies lost around one percent. For each copy, a different one percent.”
“So the copies are missing skills and memories or something?”
“Or something. You can lose a dendrite or an axon terminal and not lose a memory. But your voting is slightly different. The axon lengths are a little different, which usually means inferior since the network was not trained at the new lengths. Though honestly, some fraction of the new lengths might be accidentally superior. You know it doesn’t matter much. After a year you’ll all have diverged a lot anyway.”
Jake rubbed his eyes as if trying to alleviate a headache. Jace shook his head. They all took a deep breath.
“Depressing,” a couple of them muttered in near unison.
“Let’s not have these deep conversations anymore,” Jack said glumly.
“Okay, you said you would fill us in on the plan after this emasculating exercise,” Jace said.
“We’re going after the Hanger,” Solarn said.
“I’ve heard of it,” Jake said. “It holds a space habitat—”
“Andorix,” supplied Solarn.
“Well anyway, it’s an alien thing that Terrans aren’t allowed to study,” Jack said.
“Yes. It holds Andorix over the planet Elion. The people that live there are all Morix sycophants. Traitors to humanity. We’re going to steal the Hanger for study, and in the process, send Andorix hurtling down into the planet below, with those traitors still on it.”
“We’re going home,” Jack said.
“I’m serious. You know this has real backing. The Syndicate, of course. Also, some powerful people in the Science Arm. And more.”
“You’re on this dead-end planet living in a stone castle. How could you possibly go after the Hanger?” asked Jace. “Everyone knows the Morix are way ahead of us. This plan has no chance. It’s a suicide mission. In fact, you’re probably just planning on hiding a bomb on our ship and the rest of whatever you tell us is pure fiction.”
“And I know that wouldn’t work either, because I heard the Morix scan everything that even gets close. They’ll blow us away. End of mission. Hence, we’re going home,” Jake said.
“Good points. All of which are addressed by the plan,” Solarn said. “Besides, you won’t cross the Syndicate.”
“I will if they just signed me up to die,” Jacob said.
Solarn rolled his eyes. “Jack, come with me.”
The other men became wary instantly.
“What’s up?” Jack asked.
“Congratulations, you’re the leader,” Solarn said.
“Okay, now I think we should have deathmatched for it,” Jacob said.
“Get over it. Jack, come with me,” Solarn said again.
Jack followed Solarn out of the room. The other three immediately asked Jack for a video feed off of Jack’s retina and he granted it to them.
They traversed another stone corridor leading deeper into the complex.
“I can’t even hear the howl of the wind anymore,” Jack noted.
“We’re underground, now,” Solarn said. They came to a very modern looking metal door. “We have a sanctuary here.”
“What kind of sanctuary?”
“A lab. Come and see. Are you armed?”
“Please give me your weapon.”
“Okay, no, I’m not armed.”
“I understand you’re not going to accept a suicide mission. So I’m telling you about the plan. Getting you on board. If you’re here, I know the Syndicate sent you. They ordered you to complete this non-suicidal mission. Give me your weapon.”
“I really don’t have one. I was just bluffing when you said yes.”
Solarn looked Jack over carefully. “Okay,” he said disgustedly.
The door opened. Inside, shiny metal and white plastic gleamed. They stepped onto a clean rubberized decking two inches above the stone floor outside.
Jack looked around. He saw a lot of fancy machines but had no idea what any of them did.
“Okay. So you made a secret weapon here or something?”
“Or something. Take a left.”
Jack carefully walked left and headed deeper into the lab. The walls were many meters apart, but banks of equipment crowded them on each side.
A clattering came from up ahead. Jack thought it must be a lab machine. Then he saw a weird brown shape that did not register as anything for a second. He froze. His link sent a nonverbal signal for confusion.
“An alien? Is that alive?” Jake asked over the link. Jack still did not dare move.
The creature had six long legs, many-jointed. It had an even longer tail that reminded him of a scorpion, though instead of a stinger the end held only a flat grasper, like a webbed foot of a duck. Its oval body was armored on top, though its legs and underside looked softer. Jack saw no signs of a head or a mouth, though it had black knobs around the outside of its body that might be eyes.
“What the hell is that?” asked Jacob. “It’s a scallop-turtle-spider thing.”
“A Morix,” Solarn told them.
Jack cursed subvocally.
“We’ve been set up.”
“No, you haven’t been set up. It’s on our side,” Solarn transmitted.
“The Morix is on our side against the Morix,” Jack whispered, his voice dripping with skepticism.
“Like us, they don’t all see eye to eye,” Solarn said aloud. “...to eye, to eye, to eye... they have a lot of eyes.”
“So those are eyes,” Jack commented.
“Yes. Come over and speak with it.”
Jack stared at Solarn. The man was serious. For once, he bit off the reply and just took a deep breath. Then he walked over to the alien. The six legs held its body as high his chest, though it might not weigh more than Jack. Adrenaline flushed his system. It was scarier than Jack would have imagined. The thing was so big and so creepy.
“Hello?” Jack said.
“Over here,” an artificial voice said over his link. It sounded like the mandated voices used by AI. The law required that AIs use clearly artificial voices instead of sounding just like genuine Terrans.
The creature moved rapidly aside, its legs a whir. Jack stepped after it uncertainly.
“Hello,” it said.
“Is there something you want to show me here?” Jack asked, looking at the bank of equipment they now stood adjacent to.
“You moved with me,” the Morix said. “Stand over there.”
“I told you with my voice. Sorry, I forget that Terrans can’t hear it.”
“That’s okay. I’m sorry I’m standing in the wrong place.” Jack’s scowl belied his polite response.
The Morix said nothing for a moment, so Jack continued.
“Are you the one with a plan? The non-suicidal Hanger plan?”
“Hi, I’m Jack.”
The Morix was silent again.
“Did you make a plan to get the Hangar? Three copies of me were made for it.”
“I can throw that from over there,” Skitter said. The Morix scampered over to the left side again, moving two meters ahead to another niche. Jack was ready for it this time, so he strode along the middle behind Skitter.
The Morix’s tail flipped up in a long swing.
“What the hell is it doing?” asked Jacob over the link.
“Okay, so, what’s the idea?” Jake asked aloud.
“Oh, I know you’re there,” Skitter said. “You never stop breathing.”
It rotated ninety degrees to face them. Its tail flipped over its back again, pointing toward them. Jack resisted an urge to duck.
“Physical combat,” Skitter said.
“You take the Hangar. Then you fight your way out,” Skitter said. Its tail flicked again, a long motion from the ground arcing all the way over its back.
“It’s insane,” guessed Jace. “That’s why it’s on our side against the other Morix.”
“We can’t get weapons in easily,” Jack said. “The robots are heavily armed and armored.”
“You won’t have to know where they are,” the Morix said. “Don’t worry. I know they don’t breathe. But you won’t need to figure out their location.”
“They’ll shoot me,” Jack said.
“They’ll stop throwing,” Skitter said. It suddenly ran farther into the lab. Jack followed it to a machine the size of a land car. It was saucer shaped and silvery, reflective. Skitter stood close to it, then actually slid atop it.
A melon-sized spherical cap slid out of the body of the Morix and into a metal cradle arm. The arm flipped around and slid the smaller cap directly into a spherical robot standing by on the far side of the apparatus. The robot closed over the cap, lit up and floated off down the runway. It had thin metal accoutrements that looked like antennae.
“What just happened?” Jack said, moving to keep up.
“He placed himself into another body,” Solarn said.
“Migration urge,” Solarn said.
“Into another body though?”
“Yes. Look, Jack, it’s an alien, okay? Stop expecting it to make any sense. It asked me over and over the whole first day we met it, why we kept inhaling its air. Said we were giving ourselves away. We’re spanning a very long bridge here, okay?”
“I’m not following you. I mean, I don’t understand,” Jack said to Skitter.
The robot stopped in the hallway.
“I can see you from up here,” Skitter said. “You need some who can teach you. Grab a brain scan so you can teach yourselves from them.”
“What skill do we need from their brains?”
“Fighting without throwing,” Skitter said. “Bludgeoning. Breaking limbs. These ones know it well.”
“Okay, so who else do we have to help me grab these incomalcons?” Jack asked.
“Just you four,” Skitter said. Jack looked back the way they had come. It was still only the Morix, himself, and Solarn. Jack wondered if Skitter ever moved the other direction.
“I can’t do it alone,” Jack said.
“Just you four,” Skitter said again, then flew off. Jack turned to Solarn.
“You can,” Solarn said. “You’ll have a robot handler. He stays back with the ship.”
“I don’t think the Morix can explain it to me,” Jack said. “I don’t feel any more informed about the plan then when I came in here.”
“I’ll explain it to you. I’ve been working on the details.”
“So you’re the mastermind of this purple paste?”
“No. Yes. Parts of it,” Solarn said. “The Syndicate is paying for it so they got to call some shots. Skitter gave us the miracle part that makes the whole plan possible. I fit together the pieces.”
“So what did Skitter give us?”
“If you can get into Andorix, Skitter can give us a device that can shut the robots down. That’s what he means when he says to stop them throwing. It says throwing but I think it should be translated as, ranged weaponry. In this case though, the robots will have nothing. Shut completely down.”
“Really? Their whole security force?”
“Yes. He can do it.”
“As long as the damn thing can do what it says,” he told Solarn.
“Oh, it can.”
Jack smiled. “This is gonna be a green spark.”
Solarn understood that Jack meant it would be easy. But he shook his head.
“Well, no,” Solarn said. “You have to get in first. So you won’t have weapons...”
Jack’s mind started to process that.
“You have to get the device and get out. No weapons.”
“So... they don’t have robots, but I, er, we I mean, we don’t have weapons. So they shoot us?”
“Citizens don’t have weapons on Andorix. There’ll be no weapons for either side.”
“So they... so we... so we fight like apes?”
“Not a bad idea. I doubt any of the citizens would win. But the plan calls for skilled fighting. Unarmed combat.”
“Well count me out. Getting my body smashed by arm-thrown objects sounds like the most horrible death.”
“You’ll hit them,” Solarn said, as if that made it all clear.
“We’ll if I’m running out of there, I might hit them if they walk in my way,” Jack said.
“You have bones. They have soft parts. Never mind. You’ll be trained. They won’t be.”
Jack frowned. “Okay?” he said uncertainly.