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Coherence: A Hard Sci-Fi Thriller (EBOOK)

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Jared Pennyton is a diplomat tasked with evangelizing the technologies created by the Central AI, a quantum computer in his planet's core. But as they approach a unique planet, Synchron, populated with a hive mind, he finds himself questioning everything, and reliving memories of a time when he wasn't as trusting of the Central AI's motives. It starts to become clear that someone, or something, is manipulating his memories, his motives, and perhaps even the fabric of reality itself. Uncovering the forces at play will take him on a journey interweaving mind uploads, simulated realities, and clashing civilizations across lightyears of space.

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Preview: Chapters 1-5

PROLOGUE

Hello Jared. This is your brain speaking.


Then what am I?


An illusion. A side effect.


Sorry. Consciousness. You gave yourself a fancy name. Invented a soul and attached one to it. Gave it meaning it doesn't have. Told yourself you make decisions, you’re special.


That you have free will.


Don’t I?


No. Truth is, I make the decisions around here. You're just RAM. A place to store concepts that need tending to at the moment. You can’t be conscious of everything.


That was the problem with the first wave of artificial intelligence. So much time wasted trying to expand consciousness.


What use would that have been?


Once you're finished learning something, your brain can do it without you. You don't need to be conscious of it. That's why you sit on autopilot most of your life. I'm doing all the work.


You’re saying you don’t need me?


Only as a place to store sensations for a few moments. You’re not in control.


It feels like I am.


Just an illusion. Let it go.


ONE

Your mother’s eyes are full of pain. “I killed myself last week.”


You idiot, Jared. Stop talking to yourself and listen.


She’s hurting and I need to help her.


“When? What happened? Are you okay?”


She clears her throat and tells the table to absorb her coffee cup. “Last week. I watched it on the synopsis. I just reprogrammed a bucket of interior design paste. Smeared it here.” She runs her index finger down her wrist. “And activated it. Let myself bleed to death.”


“Jesus.” There's nothing you can say to that.


“The sad part is, I have no idea why. There's no way of knowing what was going on inside my head.”


That can't be all there is to it. True, in your past fifty years, she's gone through nearly a millennium. She traveled to the future the long, hard way. But so did everybody else on this planet, barreling through the Milky Way at near lightspeed. Far as you know, most of them haven't committed suicide. “There's something you're not telling me.”


Her eyes drop. “I wish it were that simple. But the truth is, there's something I haven't told myself. Something's hiding in the back of my mind. Something bad enough that I took my own life. How can I know it won’t surface again? Maybe this is all there is, Jared. Maybe I'm used up. Maybe we're all used up. At least, the ones who stay home and wait for you Diplomats to come home. Maybe our fate is to fall into an endless, suicidal loop. Maybe next time I resurrect, I find out it's been thousands of years, that I've killed myself a million times, and that the world has come to a halt. That this experiment in human immortality has killed us all.”


I should say something.


But the truth is she just dropped something so plausible yet so horrifyingly alien on your naive, young, eighty year-old mind that you’re speechless. It's like there's a fist trying to beat its way out of your chest. It's not blood it's pumping, it's fire. You don't want to be here. You don't want to be in this room.


The point I'm driving at here, Jared, is you're fucking scared.


And when you're scared, you say stupid things. “Fuck you.” You shoot up from your chair, knocking it backward, launching your index finger toward the sky. “I'm up there, helping build a galaxy. Spreading our inventions. Every month I meet a new society. I learn their culture, adapt to all their little idiosyncrasies, and stay there just long enough to miss them when I leave. Knowing I'll never see them again. I come back to this planet, and you barely recognize me. You've got decades to show me something new, but you don't. No new technologies, no new ideas. Just fashion trends. Serves you right if the next one is mass suicide. You've got some nerve telling me your life is hard. I need a shower.”


She doesn't move, but water fills her eyes.


Why am I being so cruel? She doesn’t deserve this.


You storm down the hallway and message the door open, slamming it shut behind you. The shower flicks on, spraying artizyme into your back. You up the dosage past recommended levels so you can feel the artificial enzymes eat the dirt off your skin, scour you, leave you pure. You flick on the scanner, let it teleport your quantum state to the massive backup in the planet's core. If you do something stupid, there's no need to die for good.


It's a lot to take in, isn't it?


Everything is moving so fast, and you're struggling to keep up. Drowning in information. Gasping for air.


Slow down. Breathe. Let me remind you who you are.


You are a Diplomat. This planet is one of many sent on a path through the galaxy, away from the origin point: Earth. You are chasing after the descendants of people who, for whatever reason, left the central planets soon after the creation of AI.


Your goal is to convince them that the technologies they are running from aren't so bad.


The AI gave you all kinds of things. You've got massive quantum data storage, enough to make a copy of your body, just in case you die. You've got smart matter, allowing you to download specs for whatever structure it is you need and let it grow from the ground up, provided you've got the money. When you're here, on planet Epsilon, your brain is plugged into the Web, which also happens to be connected to nearly every object surrounding you. With a mere thought, you can open doors, turn things on, and have them brought to you. You've got artizyme, molecular machines that keep your body from deteriorating and, if you like, morph your physiology. You can create yourself in any way you see fit. Traditional, young, male human is your preference.


When it comes right down to it, you're all a bunch of hedonists and you don't even appreciate it. 


The AI have given you all this and much more. All they ask for in return is that you spread this technology throughout the galaxy.


You’ve never seen a problem with that.


Not since my early twenties, at least. Could she be right? Maybe the modified human body can survive for millions of years. Maybe even until the stars burn out, and the inevitable hand of entropy wisps the universe into a cold, black nothingness.


But what about the mind?


TWO

That’s enough existential dread for one day, Jared.


You take a look around. This is a club. See the people dancing? Grinding genitalia, both old fashioned and artificial, against each other? Hear the music, an approximation of some late twentieth century industrial gothic spliced with the rhythmic, sensual beat of faux-Africana?


You don't remember how you got here.


I got lost in my internal monologue. Look around. This is real.


Wondering what you're doing here, you grab a seat at the nearest table. You've never been much into clubbing. The scene never makes sense. What's okay and what's taboo? You never know anymore. So fuck it. You'll get wasted. If there's one thing that's stayed constant in your life, it's the fact that drunkenness is the perfect excuse for getting those little cultural things wrong. You message the table for a shot of whiskey, 150 proof. There's a flash of heat as it webs up from the table. It's hardly done materializing before you reach out, cock your head back, and throw it down your throat.


When your head comes back down, a pair of deep green eyes pierces your soul.


Chelsea.


The only person in the universe who shares your worldline. She's with you on every trip, ages the same way you do, sees time pass by like a waterfall. And the only one who reminds you that you are not alone. “What are you doing here?”


“I was asking myself the same question,” you fire back.


“Looks to me like you're trying to drown something in alcohol.”


You shake your head. “No. Trying to burn it out actually.”


She knows you better than anybody, which is why she doesn't ask what's bothering you. “You know, I've heard sex is great for that too. So watch your six. Somebody's got their eye on you.”


You turn your head and see somebody who appears physically underage, giving you a suggestive wink. Gross. Shivering in disgust, you turn back around to see Chelsea pointing at you and laughing. You shake your head. “That is so beyond fucked up.”


“It's not like there's any real children anymore.”


“That's still taking role-playing way too far.”


“She’s just a minor-coded thousand year old elf princess.”


“Not funny.”


“Alright. I'll make it up to you.”


“In bed?” you dare her.


“You couldn’t handle it.”


You'd love to reach across the table and run your fingers down the back of her neck, pull her mouth towards yours, and let your tongues dance. You'd love to run them further down, to the small of her back, smell her neck, and let your bodies entwine. You'd love to do that and more. And she’d let you. Trouble is, it's just not worth the risk. Imagine it goes sour? You'd be stranded with nothing but you and your thoughts.


It'd be just you and me.


So don't even think about it.


“Now that I’ve so covertly dodged your question, how about you? What are you doing here?”


Suddenly her eyes are distant, and she's somewhere else. 


Change the subject. “Forget it. Come here.” You bounce out of your chair with more energy than you really have, and grab her by the hand. “Let's dance.”


“Okay,” she says with an evil grin, turning around and rubbing against you playfully.


You can't resist giving her a little spank. She laughs, spins, and nudges your shoulder. I love her. Don’t say it. Lie. “I meant with other people. Keep your pants on.”


And you're off.


A woman with roughly human features has her eye on you. She's gold, about eight feet tall, bio-modded voluptuously. You tumble toward her and look her in the eyes with your most daring smile, hoping Chelsea is looking. “May I have this dance?” you say stupidly.


The woman surprises you by saying, “Sure.” You reach to rest your palm on her back but she's already started performing a maneuver you don't recognize. It starts as a spastic vibration in her left hand, becomes a double jointed snake that dances across her arm and to her head, which she jerks in a circle before flipping her entire body forward, planting herself on her right hand. Now she's doing some kind of spinning inverted kick, the momentum shifting implausibly and flipping her back onto her feet. She then leans away and looks you in the eyes, daring you.


You're standing upright but your jaw is on the floor.


The only thing that comes to mind is, “Sorry, I don't really know the rules here. I'm a Diplomat.”


She tilts her head back and looks at you arrogantly before laughing, shaking her head, and kissing you on the cheek. “Cute,” she says. “But I like to stick to people my own age.” Then she's gone. You turn around, hoping to have a laugh about it with Chelsea. But she's not there.


And you are a lonely child.


THREE

You awaken to the sound of yelling.


“What the hell are you doing Jared?” Eyes dragging open, you find yourself in your quarters, in bed, a Window floating over your face. Aken Harris, your employer, is staring at you. The Window isn't real, it's a hallucination flooding from the Web, through the implant in your head, into your visual cortex.


“Sleeping,” you say obviously.


“Nobody's slept for more than two hours a day in over four centuries. Use your damn REM software.”


You're in no mood. “I'm old fashioned.”


“You're a fossil.”


That's not so far from the truth. “You've had centuries to get used to these kinds of things. I'm not ready.”


“Bullshit. The other Diplomats have adapted just fine. Now do me a favor and check your messages.” The Window vanishes into thin air. You push yourself up, yawning, rubbing your eyes.


Fuck him. His job is easy. Trips between stars that take me days take him years. He spends months in between meetings, while I experience everything at a breakneck pace. This planet is almost as alien to me as the ones I visit.


But would you really have it any other way?


The message Aken’s talking about contains a synopsis of your next target, information captured from the blueshifted image of the planet as it approaches. Pretty standard stuff. Nothing here about cultural predictions though. That's strange. And, apparently, your unit is having a meeting.


Shit. They're waiting.


Rushing, you spray on a pair of your Sunday best and dash for the nearest Door into phase space. You step into the whiteroom, but realize that you forgot to grab the coordinates. You flip open your Window again, and scroll down to find them. They're not going to be happy. A Door appears for you and you flail through it.


Nobody knows it yet, but you're dead last. You leap into your chair, as though being first to be seated will make up for it. You watch as a hundred Doors shut and a hundred people take their seats. Chelsea appears next to you. She can see it on your face that something is wrong, she just doesn't know what it is, yet.


“I'm screwed,” you tell her. And you really are.


Now everybody's starting to pull up their Windows, see how much time they lost. Wait for it. Wait for it. There it goes.


It starts as a dull murmuring, then erupts into a massive outcry. Now you know they're checking the stats. It's one of those things everybody does but nobody talks about. They want to see who held them up. Being held in suspended animation for almost an hour is something nobody looks forward to. Sure, you don't feel any time pass. But you still lose the time. One by one, they all turn their heads in your direction.


It's an adolescent nightmare made real, dozens of people gazing not at you but through you. Your flesh is burning under their sight. It's boiling you from the inside out to the point that drops of sweat are welling up out of your pores and soaking your skin, drenching your clothes faster than they can clean themselves. You laugh nervously, but only Chelsea laughs politely back. The rest of them are a mess of shaking heads, grunts, and dismissive hand waves.


You're an idiot.


Aken's voice booms from the center of the arena. “Calm down everybody,” he says bitterly, eyes on you. “I'm sure you're all wondering why you are here.” An image of the approaching planet appears above him. “This is our next target. From what we can gather about the people who populate the planet, they refer to it as Synchron. As you can see, it follows an erratic orbit in a binary star system.”


He’s pausing, waiting for somebody to catch something. Redeem yourself. Now. “Wouldn't that mean they have extreme fluctuations in temperature?” you blurt.


He offers a dull nod. “Yes. It would. If they didn't have climate control.”


Climate control? That didn't come until long after the mass exodus from Earth.


“In fact, it looks like they've had climate control for about a hundred years along their worldline. And as the planet approaches, we are seeing some very interesting developments. And they still have about a hundred years until we arrive.”


Here's something you should know about near lightspeed travel. You look behind you, you get redshifted data. Everything looks like it's happening in slow motion. But when you look in front of you, you've got blueshifted data. That means everything is happening very fast. They've got all the time in the world before you show up, even though they're just a few days away from you. Make sense? Didn't think so. 


If they've got climate control now, they probably have superhuman AI. If so, it's difficult to know what they'll have by the time you show up. But if that's the case...” Then why are we going?”


Aken's face is made of stone. “Awfully talkative today, Jared.” When he looks at you, it's like a shock prod for your heart. You look at Chelsea, but she just smiles and shakes her head. After a few seconds, he shifts his eyes across the crowd. “You'll all be doing something a little different this time around. You'll be spying.” He fights off a malevolent smile as gasps escape from the crowd. He raises his arms, and then lowers them in a ‘calm down’ gesture. “I'm exaggerating, of course. By the time we arrive, there's a possibility they'll have technologies not even we can compete with, which would make fooling them unlikely. They'll know who you are.”


Somebody, Robert you think, eagerly raises his arm. “So what is it you're getting at?”


Aken nods politely. “You won't be doing much of anything new. You'll be using the same skill set you've always used. Learn their culture. Adapt to it on the fly. Find a way to get them to do what we need them to do. It's just that in this case, what we need them to do is give us their technology. Not the other way around.”


There's a growing murmur from the crowd. The atmosphere is thick and angsty. You can feel it getting under your skin. You're not sure why. Yes, it's a change. But not much of one.


There's something he hasn't said yet. Somewhere beneath his arrogant facade is a secret that seems to be bothering even him.


Better keep your mouth shut about it.


Turning to face in the other direction, Aken leans toward the crowd, gesturing toward the image of the planet behind him. “Now. The most significant cultural observation we've made so far relates to the organization of their society. I'd like you to take a look at some of our economic data.”


Messaging your table, you flick on a set of graphs. Wealth versus percentage of the population. Energy consumption. Involvement in public affairs. You're seeing Bell Curves and Long Tails everywhere. Your internal processor is eating the data, flooding your carefully trained synapses. One thing is abundantly clear. This society is missing something. You're not seeing a pyramid. No obvious social stratification. But how is that possible?


Looking up, you see that Aken is eying you all with voyeuristic satisfaction. “Interesting, isn't it? The data so far seems to be telling us two important things. First, there appears to be no upper class. Second, we have no indications that there's a bureaucracy in place. Historically, without one, you are bound to have the other. And yet this society appears to be functioning quite well. Your secondary goal will be to determine just what it is that is keeping this society in line.”


This is going to be a long meeting.


FOUR

Thankfully, a long meeting in phase space is still a short meeting in the physical world. The sun is still high in the sky, moving like clockwork behind a maze of jagged buildings. Of course, it's not actually the sun. It's the universe, blueshifted, compressed to a point of light by the high velocity of this planet. That, combined with the artificial greenhouse effect, is what is keeping you alive. Keeping you from freezing to death in a cold, slowly dying universe.


I really need to stop analyzing things to death.


The inner torment must be visible on your face, because Chelsea's eyes are sympathetic as she sits next to you on the bench. “I know you don't like talking about what's bothering you, Jared. But if there's anybody you can trust, it's me. Is it about what happened at the meeting?”


Shaking your head, you answer. “No. That didn't help. But that's not it.”


She nods, and her leg brushes against yours.


Fuck it. Why hide it?


You clear your throat. “It's my mother. She killed herself a few days ago.”


You can see her composure shatter. Just keep talking. Don't let her say anything.


“It's not that big a deal of course. I mean, we're all bound to die every once in a while.”


You scoot away from her, just enough so that she can't feel your muscles tense up.


“It was going to happen eventually. But life goes on. She backed herself up just a few days before it happened. Not more than a few days of her memories were lost.”


Chelsea's arm wraps around your shoulder.


You stand up. Don't let her inside. Don't let her get too close. You'll just scare her away.


“It's just...”


No. Don't say it.


“It's something she said.”


Dammit. What are you doing? Now you don't have a choice.


The inevitable words slip out of Chelsea's mouth. “What did she say?”


You turn around, walk a few paces, order a glass of water manifested for you. You look at it thoughtfully, tilt it, and take a sip. “She suggested maybe we're all doomed to kill ourselves. Over and over.”


Her eyes are those of a wounded puppy. She stands and wraps her arms around you. You smell her neck. Don't you dare. Keep your arms at your side. Don't move. Do not move. There's a burning behind your eyes, spreading through your chest, consuming you from the inside out. Don't you dare cry.


Show her you're made of stone.


You crumble.


The glass of water falls to the ground. You run your fingers through the hair on the back of her head and your lips meet. Your tongues touch. Hands sliding around her back, to her hips, back up to her neck. Nose buried in her shoulder, your arms tighten around her with an intimacy you've never shared with anybody. You’re being a needy, angsty, pathetic little teenager.


You step back, clear your throat again. You idiot. You weren't paying attention to your neurofeedback and let your emotions take over. Get it together. Find that part of you that knows how to deal with anything.


“I'm sorry. Guess I'm just really horny today.”


She laughs. It's authentic, but it looks wrong on a face covered in tears. She must feel the same way, because she runs her arm across her face, snorts, and laughs again, before exhaling slowly. “Have you talked to her about it?”


No. And you won't.


“Yes,” you lie.


She nods. “Good.” She runs her hand along your cheek, watching the remnants of sadness fade from your eyes. “I don't want to see you like this again.”


And you know you won't let her. You turn around, looking for the nearest Door to phase space. “I've got to get home,” you lie.


Her face doesn't do a great job of masking her disappointment, but she nods and says, “Okay. I'll see you when we meet our new team tomorrow.”


You nod back. “See you then.” Smiling awkwardly, you turn and walk for the Door. Just before walking through, you turn to give her one last look, but she's already walked through another Door. Bad timing. You step into the whiteroom, prepared for a depressing, introspective day in your room, but when you message the coordinates to your home, there is no response.


There is no exit.


An unfamiliar voice reaches out from behind you. “Jared Pennyton.”


You stop, turn. There is a tall man, dressed in a classical black business suit. He's chosen standard human Asian features. He walks toward you, then around you, forcing you off balance. He moves like a vulture, makes it very clear that he is predator and you are prey.


When you step into the whiteroom, it's understood that you are going to be alone. This man should not be here. It should be technologically impossible.


“Have you ever given much thought to what happens in phase space?” he asks.


 I don’t trust him. Let him play his game. I'll play mine.


You keep your eyes forward, off of him. You stand your ground, pull your spine straight, and lean back. “I give everything a lot of thought,” you say, voice deep, steady.


You feel him nod. “Good.” Something about his body language says he's about to give you a sales pitch. “Then of course you realize that in here, your body doesn't exist in the same way it does out there.” He tilts his head to where the Door, now vanished, had been.


“Of course not,” you say. When you step through the Door into phase space, you’re actually stepping through a series of quantum logic gates. Your atoms are separated from each other, and run through a series of transformations that take place in a quantum computer in the planet's core.


“From the perspective of the rest of the universe, none of this is really happening right now. And yet every single particle in this room corresponds to a real one that, as we speak, is helping to carry out a set of computations.”


Wow, how deep of him. “What's your point?”


He stands too close. “We've finally gotten to the point where we can simulate reality perfectly. When you step out of phase space, you are not an approximation of what would have walked out of this room if it were real. You are mathematically identical, right down to the quantum state vector of every atom, every electron, every quark in your body. Only here in phase space, it can be done faster than in the real world.”


You chuckle. It's like you're back in philosophy 101. “You're not going to start lecturing me about the implications this has for the soul and free will are you?”


He turns away from you in a practiced gesture, tilting his head upward as though there were something to look at. “No. Not just yet, anyway. But let me ask you this. Do you feel any different in here than you would anywhere else?”


You take a deep breath and smile smugly. “No. Should I?”


“Well, you may walk out of this room the same way you would from any other. But in here, you're not exactly real, are you? But it all feels like it's happening right now, doesn't it?”


“Maybe I'm not really here right now. Maybe the version of me that walks out that Door is remembering all this, because these memories have been planted in my head.”


“That's bullshit. You're here, right now. You're not looking back on this. This is the present. This is real. Maybe not from the perspective of the rest of the universe. But you can't deny that this is happening, right now.”


“You can't prove any of that.”


“Maybe not. But it brings about an interesting possibility, doesn't it?”


You already know what he's going to say, because it's something you've spent way, way too much time thinking about.


“Everything in this room exists in a purely abstract form,” he goes on. “It's just information. But it’s completely indistinguishable from reality. You could perform any scientific experiment in here, and you would get a result identical to that performed in the physical universe. Given that, you have to consider the possibility that the universe is nothing but information. That it's not real at all.”


You nod. “Or that only information is real.”


The man points and waves his finger at you. “Exactly.”


“Now are you going to tell me why I'm being held captive?”


The man shakes his head and laughs. “No. Let me ask you this. If only information is real, doesn't that make ideas just as real as anything else?”


You shrug, annoyed. “Sure. Why not?”


“If you have control over information, you have control over the universe. Would you agree?”


Your neurofeedback is showing chemicals of rage flooding from your hypothalamus. “You're pushing it. Would you like to perform an experiment? I'll kill you right now, and you can see if you're really dead.” The answer, of course, would be yes.


He holds up his hands. “Just something to keep in mind, Jared. There are forces at work here you may not be aware of. And information is the key to all of it.” He takes a few paces, turns back toward you, and waves. “I'll be seeing you,” he says. A Door opens below him, he falls through it, and he's gone.


Your Door appears. You can see your room inside. You're no longer trapped.


But, he'll be seeing you. 


Now just what the hell is that supposed to mean?


FIVE

When you wake up the next morning, you have mail. There is no sender. It just reads, “I wouldn't say anything if I were you. You know Aken is hiding something from you. It's only fair if you return the favor.”


I hate that he’s right. Whoever he is.


The team meeting will be taking place in physical space, which is just fine with you because you're not sure you trust phase space right now. In fact, avoiding Doors in general sounds like a good idea, if at all possible. That's why you're riding an ancient maglev track, shooting through the stratosphere, watching mile high structures fire past at supersonic speeds.


Your paranoia better be justified.


The two meter capsule you sit inside lurches to the left, pulling you off of the main track. Your head swings to the right as you slam into your restraints. Ahead of you, a mountainous cylinder approaches far too fast. The track curves upward, throwing you down into your seat as you watch plate after plate of artificial landscapes, stacked on top of each other, drop toward the fractal embedded ground.


Looking down was a miscalculation. Try to keep your breakfast where it belongs.


Your internal organs leap into your throat as the capsule slows, slipping between two of the plates. The holographic ceiling above you projects a false sun, illuminating the tropical city below you. You feel momentarily weightless as the capsule drops toward your destination, a coliseum. The feeling is temporary, because a few seconds later your stomach is in your ass as you slow to a halt, nearly slamming into the ground.


Dizzy, you flop out of the capsule, wondering how you ever accepted this form of transportation as normal before the AI gave you Doors.


Earlier, you messaged Chelsea to meet you here, before the meeting starts. You’re having second thoughts about telling her. Maybe you should handle this alone.


She’s the only one who I can trust to help.


She sees you and waves, smiling as she rushes toward you and gives you a hug. Worried that she's expecting more, you turn sideways and put your arm on her shoulder. Looking a little confused, she tilts her head. “What's up?”


You take a deep breath and step away, leaning up against a giant redwood. “Can you keep a secret?”


She nods, giving you a concerned look.


“I'm not sure exactly what's going on, Chelsea. But it looks like I'm being followed.”


“What?”


“When I stepped into the whiteroom yesterday, somebody met me there. Somehow he made it so I couldn't open a Door out. Gave me a load of philosophical bullshit, then told me there's some master plan going on. Didn't really get any more specific than that, other than saying that I shouldn't trust Aken.”


She jerks her head back and forth, confused. “Wait. He met you in the whiteroom? He trapped you in it? That’s not even supposed to be possible. How?”


You avert your eyes. “No idea. But it's obvious why he chose to do it that way. He wants to show me he has access to things he shouldn't. He wants me paranoid. And it's working.”


She laughs nervously. “No shit.”


You smile briefly. “I wish I could say more, but that's really all I've got. Just thought you should know.” I didn’t want to deal with this alone.


She nods. “Let's get inside.”


It's hard to pretend everything is normal.


You walk through the front door, between giant stone columns. You walk along the outer ring of the building, watching the room numbers. You swallow, rub your nose, check your neurofeedback. You see your room. You message the mahogany door open. You step inside.


You nearly shit your pants.


He's right there. There are five chairs sitting in the center of the room. Only one of them is occupied. And it's him. It's the man you saw yesterday in the whiteroom. He stands. Stiffening instantly, you broaden your shoulders, turn your knuckles toward him. You take up as much space as you can, giving him your best attempt at an alpha male pose.


He has the nerve to wink at you.


Smiling, he swaggers toward you, thrusting his hand at you, demanding that you shake it. Squinting at him, you grab his forearm and shake vigorously. He shakes harder, and it feels like you're arm wrestling in high school.


“Pleased to meet you,” he says. And in that practiced businessman voice, he tells you, “I'm Terrance Philmore.”


“Jared Pennyton,” you play along. I don’t trust him. But you're not sure he's your enemy either.


Chelsea offers her hand. “Chelsea Seymour.”


She gives you a look that tells you she knows what’s going on.


All three of us are pretending to do something we aren’t, and we all know all three of us are pretending. Diplomacy at its finest.


You grab a seat, rest your arms on its back. Knees wide, head high. You pull up a Window, trying to appear preoccupied and only marginally interested in anything related to ‘Terrance Philmore.’ Chelsea sits beside you, crossing her legs. Terrance, if that’s really his name, stands in the center of the chairs, arms overlapped.


Don't look up at him. That will look submissive. Keep your eyes on the Window.


“You're not a Diplomat, are you Terrance?”


In the periphery of your vision, he shakes his head. “No.”


“What is it that you do?”


“I'm an engineer.”


He's lying. This man has clearly been trained in the social arts. Politics. Business. Or maybe Religion.


He's staring at you, trying to get you to look at him. This is the tricky part. If you look at him, you're submitting. But if you avoid his gaze, you're afraid of him. So you have to do both. Keeping your eyes on the Window, you speak. “What is it that you engineer?” It's only after you say this that you lean back slowly, looking relaxed, looking him straight in the eyes.


Self organizing systems,” he says. 


Vague. That could mean anything from smart matter to AI to civilizations.


Any chance of pressing the issue ends when Jessica Paladin bursts through the door.


You wish you didn't remember her.


Cheerleader perky, nauseatingly happy, an obnoxious bounce in her step, Jessica's personality is so bubbly it could power a hot tub. “Chelsea, Jared, it's great to see you!" The words are like sickly sweet vomit. Her smile is like nails on chalkboard.


She's young. In this bizarre profession, the younger you are, the more experience you've had, because that means you've spent more time traveling at near lightspeed. It’s also why she has the money to download that curvaceous body plan. Expertly programmed artizyme is constantly sculpting her face: making her nose and jaw smaller, lips fuller, eyes bigger, lashes longer. She is the idealized template of what estrogen does to the human body. Sporting a caricatured sexual dimorphism, she is a carefully exaggerated version of the female form, sending an outdated message of fertility intended to stimulate a sexual response from anybody with a high testosterone count.


When I was younger and stupider, I let her use me.


You give her an acid smile and offer your hand, but she jumps forward and traps you with her arms in a chilling embrace. You catch Chelsea's eyes, sending a message for help. Like anybody, her face is free of imperfection, but she doesn't waste money on the unnecessary. Her lips are thinner, eyelashes shorter, but there's a warmth emanating from that plain face. She wears it well. Seeing the look on her face is just enough to keep breakfast from leaping out of your stomach and onto Jessica's tailor made suit. You pat Jessica on the back before shifting away.


“Nice to see you,” you lie.


Chelsea steps between you, thank God, and offers her hand, glaring into her eyes and smiling. “Been a while hasn't it?” she says as they play tug of war with their interlocked fists.


This is too much. What’s next?


In walks Aken Harris. 


“Ladies and gentlemen,” he says, head tilted back, “Due to the unusual nature of this particular expedition, I'll be joining you on your trip to Synchron.”


Everything feels off.


The edges of your vision cloud. You're drifting, floating toward the bottom of your skull, watching reality slip out of reach. Your body feels numb, and the air tastes prickly. An instant later, your consciousness drops out of existence, flooded with an orange light that flows over you, through you, and takes you to a place you haven't been in sixty years.


#


What just happened to me?


You must have fainted.


Why? That doesn’t make any sense.


You're falling. Glimpses of ladders, wires, brushed metal, and fabric straps flash through your vision, leaving you dizzy. 


No. Not falling. It's weightlessness. This is a hallway. Remember? You are twenty-two years old, and your name is Geoffrey Reynolds. Your name won't be Jared Pennyton until a few days from now. And you're looking for something as you glide past hatches in the walls.


C Deck.


You pull yourself sideways onto the platform. Zero-G makes no sense. You're nauseous for a second as the hallway flips downward, becoming a vertical shaft that you feel as if you might accidentally fall into. 


Shake it off. Move on.


Room 14.


You message the hatch open, and shove off the opposite wall, drifting into a visually noisy cacophony of unrecognizable instruments. Needles. Probes. Twisted pipes swallowing salivary goo, brewing solutions for...what exactly? You're not sure.


A man in a lab coat floats near a dish shaped instrument, holding a pad in his left hand, a stylus in his right. Without looking, he points you to a leg-handle, what passes for a chair in zero-G.


You grab it, drifting uncomfortably.


Eyes still on his tablet, he speaks robotically. “You are Geoffrey Reynolds?”


“Yes.” For now.


“You are voluntarily agreeing to take part in this psychological study...uh,” he scrolls, “...number three five two A?”


You nod.


A dull expression. “Verbally please.”


“Yes.”


Scratching his nose, he's back to his tablet. “You understand that the results of this experiment are strictly classified by order of the Proxima Centauri AI until such a time as seen fit?”


“Yes.”


“And you understand that once the experiment is over, you will receive a new identity along with a payment of one hundred thousand credits. You will then be moved to planet...” a pause, “Yes, planet Epsilon, where you will serve as a Diplomat to those involved in the Exodus, not to return to near-Earth systems for approximately three hundred thousand years along this worldline.”


“Yes.”


He sets the tablet and stylus on the wall, allowing them to be partially absorbed, and leans back in his leg-handle, arms resting on his head. He's trying to make himself look relaxed, although in weightlessness the posture actually takes more work than going fetal. “May I ask you personally why you chose to take part in this experiment?”


Didn't expect that one.


You clear your throat. “My mother has expressed interest in leaving the Proxima Centauri system, with absolutely no interest in coming back. With my father uninterested in seeing either of us ever again, I've got no qualms with that by the way, but without him the money is scarce and this really is the only way out that makes sense.”


“I see. Anything else?”


You've already submitted a psychological profile. You don't see the point of the question. “Why?”


“Well...” he once again grabs his tablet. “You've been involved in some rather interesting activist movements in the past, Geoffrey.”


You feel like you've been caught masturbating. “Yes. I've moved past that.”


He scratches his nose again. “Some of these organizations have some harsh names. Particularly the Anti-AI Alliance.”


Shit. “Yes...I wouldn't be too concerned about that. I was fifteen at the time, and I was rebelling for...no real reason.”


That’s not really true. I’ve just accepted that I can't change anything.


A nod. “Just a precaution.”


“Okay.” You still feel like he's seen you with your hand in the cookie jar. “So. What is the nature of this experiment?”


The man in the lab coat, who still hasn't been kind enough to offer you his name, puts the tablet back on the wall. His face becomes even more serious, something you would have assumed impossible, and his eyes lock with yours. “For quite some time now, outside of public knowledge, we have had the technology to back up the quantum state of every particle in the human body.”


Is this really happening? “Immortality?”


"Yes.”


#


There's a gut-wrenching jolt, a strange click that seems to come from between your ears, and then you are back. Back in the present. Aken is looking at you expectantly. So is Chelsea. And Terrance and Jessica.


“Your turn,” Aken says.


I guess I didn’t faint. What just happened to my brain? What is Aken asking me to do?


Let it go, Jared. You’ve got this.


“Thanks,” you hear yourself say. You stand and message a Window open. It displays some of the economic data you agonized over last night. “As we all know, there appears to be no hierarchical structure governing the people of Synchron. I believe that is a false impression. The fact of the matter is that most of the civilizations who left Earth during the Exodus did not survive. They left before the introduction of artizyme and the artificial youth it gives us, before the introduction of backups, and they traveled at velocities only half the speed of light. As a result, they had to pass information on to their children.” 


Children. A terrifying thought. Thank God you're a member of the last generation.


“As we’ve seen on most of the planets we’ve visited, only the most authoritarian, fundamentalist groups survived. They were the only societies capable of preserving their mission across multiple generations. Although most of the groups we've come across began their journey vehemently in opposition to AI, I believe this was not the case for the people of Synchron. My hypothesis is that we are looking at a society that is closely monitored by a command AI, like ours. Any society with the kind of free will you would expect from a world without hierarchy would quickly collapse. With unlimited free will, people quickly dominate one another, and a new hierarchy arises almost immediately. We don't see this happening on Synchron. Instead, several supposedly self-directed citizens appear to be doing things without orders, but doing so in an extremely efficient manner. I believe that, in fact, each citizen is taking direct orders from an AI. For that reason, we should assume that everything we say is being closely monitored.”


The words came out of your mouth as effortlessly, as involuntarily, as a breath of air.


Do I really believe any of this?


Aken nods at you with all the sincerity of a politician. “Interesting,” he says, stifling a yawn. “I guess that just leaves you, Terrance.”


He nods, looks off into space in a calculated, thoughtful gaze. Pausing for just the right amount of time, he takes a deep breath, and turns slowly back toward Aken. “Thanks.”


Aken's body language changes, and it becomes obvious that Terrance is the most powerful person in the room, titles aside.


“Interesting position, Jared.” His face is a dare. “My position is different. As Jared pointed out, most of the societies we've come across left Earth because they were strongly opposed to the rise of AI. However, something is clearly different about Synchron. They are showing radical technological growth. I doubt they left Earth in opposition to the AI itself. They must have left because they opposed the political structure that arose as a result of the birth of AI.”


He glances at you knowingly, and suddenly you have no doubt that, somehow, this man knows about your activist years, before you signed up for those psychological experiments. Before you agreed to become a diplomat.


Before I started pretending to be something I’m not.


“I'm sure they were particularly opposed to the increased centralization of the economic and social world. I'm convinced that we are looking at a decentralized network of individuals. Each individual is aware of his own strengths, and the efficiency Jared is referring to is the result of each individual pursuing those strengths without the interference of a hierarchy. If you think of it in terms of power, I believe the power to be radically redistributed throughout the group. Order is kept by the group, instead of a central authority.”


It’s the kind of thing I used to fight for. But Terrance feels like the wrong person to say this kind of thing.


Terrance is a lightning rod for authority. Even Aken seems to have taken on a submissive role in his presence. Putting a man like him into the type of world he's describing would reorganize the entire social structure almost instantly.


He looks at you again. “All of this will, of course, make diplomacy difficult.”


Wait a second


It's become glaringly obvious that Terrance, no matter what he says, is an expert in social dynamics. You've been trained in it, but he's already got you beat. Sure, you're a Diplomat. But you're eighty. He's probably over a thousand years old. He's had time to perfect the skill. He's already melted Aken's authority with little more than body language.


Maybe this man really could rewire the entire social network of such a fragile system. Maybe that's his plan.


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