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Tim, Destroyer of Worlds
A novella from Chester Burton 'Cheeseburger' Brown
CHAPTERS 1|2|3|4|5|6|7
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Tim, Destroyer of Worlds,  a novellette by Cheeseburger Brown, illustration by Matthew Hemming

CHAPTER 6

Prediction is tricky.

This has been understood for millennia by soothsayers whose only refuge was a veil of flim-flammery. The sting of the poor forecast is familiar also to meteorologists, statistical investors, political pundits, apocalyptic prophesiers and, famously, by The R Team, a group of Revengineers uber-fans who made a concerted effort to wilfully steer the show's story with a campaign of public psychological manipulation coupled with processor-intensive trend analysis.

They vowed to kill off Dr. Galacticon once and for all, but when the promised day came their plot failed. Also, despite best projections, it rained.

This all goes to say that I really can't fault the management system for the decisions it made. After all, the numbers were on its side. When the delivery schedule for Project [REDACTED] was compressed the system had to make some tough calls. To allocate limited resources to meet the new deadline, sacrifices had to be made.

In theory, it made sense.

In theory, if you're going to plan where to focus the finite efforts of the error correction teams a reasonable basis for the decision was to consider where errors were most frequent and concentrate the correction there. In practice, this meant that the units with the lowest rates of operator error were the least likely to have their work synchronized with another unit's efforts.

It is understandable from this point of view that the operators with the most perfect input histories were allowed to work without a safety net.

I have -- that is to say I had -- a perfect history.

The management system calculated the likelihood of my screwing up as remote. It took into account everything it knew about me, but it didn't connect the dots between Alaia, Angiers and Admiral Phong. It never occurred to the system that I might develop a sudden and violent emotional allergy to the word trapeze.

But that's what happened.

When I received this gossip in the cafeteria from an operator whose trees I'd often been entangled with I lost my appetite and under my clothes broke out in a film of cold, cold sweat. Was I running unchecked, my work unentangled with a mirror? Don't worry, I said to myself, if so they'll catch the failure in the tank test.

The tank is a bubble of artificial universe sealed off magnetically, gravitationally and probabilistically from the real universe by a kind of active number shielding based on the [REDACTED]-[REDACTED] Principle. The tank universe is a lot like the real universe, but out of necessity somewhat smaller. A full-scale model would require the space of a universe to hold it in, and Titan only had so much real estate available.

The model is therefore inexact. Approximations are made, though I understand the tolerances are set very low. Events in the tank should parallel the behaviour of events in the real universe in 99.9% of scenarios run, nineteen times out of twenty.

Thus, I was surprised to hear the announcement over the public address that the tank test had been a total success. Everyone out in the corridors took a moment to shake one another's hands and cheer.

I began to believe that my omission would not be critical. I had worried that we'd set off a dud for the Rear Admiral much to embarrassment of the Titanese establishment, and that I would possibly lose my tax exempt status if they traced the mangled code back to me.

That's right: that's the consequence I feared -- having to pay taxes for the rest of my life, just like almost everyone else.

(Oprah forbid.)

With only one month left on my contract I started to fantasize about my return home, to the open skies of Ares. Maybe I'd move back in with my parents for a bit until I decided where to pursue my career. Mother would feed me until I was fit to burst. I'd go to the park and throw sticks for Scooter. I'd buy a new reader and catch up on all the episodes of The Revengineers I'd missed.

It was my intention never to think about Project [REDACTED] again.

A courier came to my cabin. "Are you the Admiral's Tim?" she asked after a brief, half-hearted salute.

I sighed. "That's what they call me."

She pressed her lips together grimly to cover a reflexive sneer of disgust at my size. "Message begins: you are to accompany Admiral Phong aboard the Executive Gallery to witness the Project [REDACTED] field test at sixteen hundred hours tonight. Formal attire. Message ends."

I groaned and drew my hand down my face. "Seriously?"

She raised her brow. "There are no humour tags."

"Fornicate me," I muttered darkly.

"That does not fall within the scope my duties."

"You're funny."

For comfort I ate the crumbs from the bottom of my last care package. I licked my fingers and dragged them in the corners, mining for crumbles of Brown's bars. I didn't feel full so I drank a litre of tapwater and then lay back on the bed until the bloated feeling faded enough for me to move again.

I showered and shaved and re-braided my hair. The clock moved too quickly. Soon it was time to go.

The paratroopers fell silent as I came down the stairs. They whispered amongst themselves as I passed, eyes tracking me malevolently. Angiers was not among them, but Carmichael raised her chin as I approached the lobby doors. "You know yours is coming, don't you?" she said quietly.

"What?"

"This isn't over," she promised.

I was successfully intimidated, because I didn't know that before the day was out Carmichael and the entire platoon would be reduced to a fine, slightly greasy cloud of dust. Their agonized silhouettes would be painted into the rubble of the contractor hostel. There would be nothing to bury. Even their dog tags would melt.

The shuttle ride was smooth. I never get sick. I love the way the sky turns black right before the planet lets you go, and I love the tickle in my torso when I'm finally released.

Freefall is Heaven.

I turned to the window, grinning. My reflection in the glass looked like a kid. Saturn was nowhere to be seen, on the farside and out of view. Space around the orange crescent of Titan was dotted with winking formation lights that revealed the presence of a flotilla of ships parked in high orbit. When the sun crept around the world's limb their hulls shone with the characteristic blood-red lustre of armada warships. There were dozens of them. The top brass of every branch of the service was there to see the test, to witness the dawn of a new era of a complete and assured defense for Aresian interests throughout the System.

We docked with a thud. The hatches irised open, admitting the slightly stale flavour of the Executive Gallery's recycled air. I undid my harness and kicked off, joining the end of the muttering, twittering queue.

"Timothy, my boy!"

Admiral Phong turned from the glass and raised his drink, held in place by the centripetal force of the Executive Gallery's rotating core. The VIP Theatre had carpeted risers in a semi-circle facing a bank of tall windows overlooking the crawling stars. There was an open bar in the rear and seeing glasses crawling with infographics hanging from the ceiling. The place was like stuffed wall to wall admirals and commodores intermingled with commercial princes in crisp business suits or freefall skirts. They politely made way for plastic waiters whose refined accents muttered from every corner, "Sir, would you care for a refreshment?" or "Madam, can I invite you to try an appetizer?"

I shuffled up to Admiral Phong. He paused from a conversation with one of his aides to clap me on the shoulder. "This is it, Timothy," he crooned, bobbing his head to sip. "Are you excited?"

"Sir yes sir."

"You must be very proud."

"Absolutely, sir."

"I knew you'd want to see this."

"I'm grateful for the opportunity, sir."

"You're going to go places, Timothy. You're a good man."

"It's all in the line of duty, sir."

"I'm an excellent judge of character."

"That's obvious, sir."

"Attaboy. Wander around a bit. Mix in. There are some very important people here. You should network."

"Yessir, I will sir."

I retreated into a corner and ate appetizers, hiding behind a pillar. When the buzz of conversation ebbed I, like everyone, turned toward the doors to see the entrance of the guests of honour: Master Theodore Tharsis, Minister of Defense, and Rear Admiral Sayyid No, High Commander of the Combined Forces.

They were both old men with sparse white hair. Their jowls drifted loose in the low gravity, giving their faces a skewed aspect as they turned their heads to nod seriously at the various very important people assembled in the theatre. Their pace was gracious and sedate, like a parade.

The men were flanked by two robots in shining crimson armour.

It was not possible to confuse the crimson robots for the mass-produced walking appliances that were offering us drinks. Where the waiters stared dumbly ahead of them and spoke with patterned inflection, the Minister and Rear Admiral's escorts looked around the room with sedate curiosity, as if they were people.

They weren't simple service automatons -- they were Zorannics. Their minds arose from the interaction of complex active number matrices brewed and bred by the long dead Dr. Zoran himself.

Farmed out of the void, somebodies. No one knew how they felt about the world, or whether they could really feel anything at all.

I'd never seen one in person before, and I wasn't sure of my own feelings until one of them looked right at me. I shivered. I don't know why, really. Maybe there's just something instinctive inside that wants to judge whether a thing is a being or an object, and the Zorannics stymie the sense.

Admiral Phong stepped up to a podium and cleared his throat meaningfully. The house lights dimmed. I leaned against the pillar and chewed on a samosa, feeling as if I were back at the circus.

"Ladies and gentlemen, Admiral No, the Right Honourable Minister: welcome," said Phong. "It is not possible to discuss Titan without reference to the surrounding Joviat. Indeed, that is the very reason for our presence out here. Titan was founded to assure the Martian peace, and today we come to the ultimate realization of that trust..."

Bla-bla-bla, blu-blu-blu. He went on like that for like a quarter hour. Yawn.

Outside was more interesting. A slow motion ballet was unfolding. A ruby-red Royal Corvette had a small asteroid under tug, the sleek ship's sails scintillating against the stars as it drifted slowly but surely across the backdrop. Smaller skiffs swooped out in a squadron from beneath our installation and fanned out into space trailing repeater beacons that would broadcast an intelligence barrier for us to test behind.

Admiral Phong was still yakking. "...The principle is simple, and the resulting exchange means that while the target has been immolated, the after-products of that immolation are released at a location hundreds of kilometers distant. This effect acts to ensure the safety of our personnel and equipment, and serves to minimize damage to infrastructure or geography surrounding the target."

This was met by polite applause.

A matronly woman in a stiff business suit leaned over to her companion and whispered, "Have you tried the breaded shrimp? It's to die for."

A rumble sounded. I looked up. A series of large seeing glasses were descending from the ceiling so I was forced to retreat from my pillar near the windows. I stumbled up against the edge of the control booth. The operator glanced up at me briefly, annoyed. "I still need a feed for glass two," he said into his head-set. "Okay I'm now green across the board. Count me in when the barrier goes up, thank youp."

He looked over to an ensign who stood just beside Admiral Phong, in the shadows beside the podium. The ensign touched her head-set and then leaned in to whisper something to the admiral.

"I've just been informed," said Phong, "that the intelligence barrier has been erected and this region of space is now secure from observation. Our first test of the Mobile Transpositional [REDACTED] Light Arm will commence momentarily, people."

A tri-part chime sounded as the seeing glasses activated.

The audience spread out and chose from rows of plush seats that angled back for a comfortable view of the seeing glass array. Stewards with plastic fingers and fixed smiles offered polite assistance. I didn't want to wade into that so I just stayed where I was, in the corner by the control booth.

The operator in the booth was busy. The large round seeing glasses were illuminated with greatly magnified patches of space, some of which minutely visible through the windows but others not. Lots of helpful information floated around the images, like scales and orientation axes and stuff. The warship that would deploy the devices was apparently called the Cheng Ho while the asteroid-hauling corvette was the Nikola Zoranova.

Also, the solar wind was classified as Light-to-Moderate.

I was one of the few people in the room standing, along with the admiral who remained at the podium, the ensign by his elbow, two steely-eyed guards at the doors, and one of the Zorannics who loitered at the rear of the theatre, behind everyone.

I wondered where the second one had gone.

Phong cleared his throat again. "Ladies and gentlemen, the C-type asteroid you see on the main glass is our first target. It has a diameter of just under one hundred meters. We're now waiting for the tow vehicles to clear and then we'll deploy from the Cheng Ho."

A beat. We all stared at the glass array, eyes darting between views. Ship to ship transmissions munged with static from the intelligence barrier chirped tersely: "Roger, we're at the safety."

"We are go for launch. Batten all sails. Kickback in five...four...three...two..."

"There we go," reported Admiral Phong with a lecherous grunt of satisfaction.

A missile shot out from the bow of the long warship and accelerated as it crossed space, its tail glowing, the body spinning. The view in the glass panned to stay with it, stars smearing in the telescoped background. I think everyone in the room was holding their breath.

The missile became visible in the main view, a dot of moving light above the limb of the pockmarked rock. The glow flared and swelled as the missile bore down on its target, in the depthy view through the glass seeming to suddenly plunge right at our eyeballs. I flinched.

The asteroid vanished.

The resulting silence was filled by a smattering of clapping which blossomed into a full-blown applause. The members of the audience exchanged exclamations. Admiral Phong nodded to himself, hands on his hips. "Thank you," he said, apparently in response to the applause. "Thank you very much, everyone. But the show is not over. We have yet to see the discharge of the debris. Have we pinpointed it yet? Ensign? I'm being told yes, yes we have pinpointed it. Can we get it up on the glass?"

The view on the main glass snapped away from the lack of an asteroid and focused in on a hot white flare elsewhere in the sky. Even as we found it the light fizzled away to orange embers, shimmering behind a dark, expanding sphere of roiling ejecta.

Admiral Phong: "The discharge is nine hundred kilometers away, well out of range of the Cheng Ho and her valiant crew."

More applause.

"Now, if you note the mass estimation on the glass, you'll see that our post-immolation debris is many times more massive than the original target. This is because the device boils out of the target area not only any matter or energy present, but also the matter and energy of nearby neighbours in probability space. Thus the expulsed material represents debris from the asteroid itself, as well as fifteen other very probable asteroids virtually occupying the same or reasonably similar timespace coordinates at the instant of contact."

I couldn't help but whisper, "O-prah!" at this final revelation. I wondered how they controlled the point at which this geyser of boiled material exited into space.

"We control the exit point," droned Phong, consulting his notes, "by a triad of push beams pulsed at the instant of contact, allowing us to smear the location of the probable exit point into Saturn's magnetic shadow. In our test here today the push beams are being projected by His Majesty's ships the Stephen Hawking, the Naomi Shihab Nye, and the Michael Cuthbertson."

The admiral pressed his palms together before him and smiled. "The medium grade test will take place in a few minutes. Drinks and finger food will be served presently. Thank you."

He stepped out of the light.

The room brightened again, our reflection resurfacing in the black windows like ghosts from a fog. The murmurs of conversation returned. The very important people resumed mingling. The walking appliances explained what was on their trays. Intermission.

I was startled when I turned to my right and found myself face to face with the missing Zorannic robot, parts of my own surprised expression reflected back to me in the contours of his keenly shined crimson masque.

"I'm sorry," I stammered. "I'm in your way."

"Sir, not at all," replied the man-like thing in a crisp tone with a refined, melodious court accent that made me feel like I had gutter-mouth. "Would you be disturbed if I observed the next test with you? It is my impression that this vantage would afford me a better view, sir."

"I can just move," I offered, looking anywhere but at his inscrutable black eyes.

"Sir, I would appreciate the company if you would consider indulging me."

I swallowed. "Um, sure." I coughed awkwardly. "I'm Tim."

"Yes," he agreed. "My name, sir, is Jeremiah."

Unlike any robot I've ever known he offered his hand to shake. I shook it. While the back was armoured and hard his palm was pliable and leather-like. It was also faintly warm.

"Nice to meet you," I lied, turning back to the windows. I tried not to look at his ruddy reflection beside me.

"Sir, may I ask your impression of the test so far?"

"Is this a security check?"

"No sir, I am not affiliated with your chain of command. I answer only to the House of Ares, and your privacy is sacrosanct."

"Okay," I shrugged, chewing my lip. "I guess it's all a little bit scary, actually."

We both turned to look as Admiral Phong took up the podium again, his ear bent toward the ensign. He nodded to her and then straightened. "On the main glass you'll now see our second test object, another C-type asteroid but this time with a diameter of over five hundred meters. Our next device, once introduced from the Cheng Ho, will cut a perfect sphere in the asteroid intersecting with the surface at the point indicated by the blue infographics."

"Sir, why does it scare you?" asked Jeremiah, turning to me.

"Something could go wrong," I replied, eyes on the seeing glass.

"Sir, what might go wrong?"

"Anything," I said. Then I turned to look at the robot again. "With people involved, you never know."

The second missile from the Cheng Ho reached the asteroid. There was no flash of light or shudder of impact to ripple across the rock's surface. Instead, a polished hemispherical hole simply snapped into existence on its face, the curved internal shadow sliding as the asteroid gently spun.

Two and half minutes later the light from the discharge point reached us. It was high above the ecliptic, and it died with a gush of slow moving golden sparkles.

"That's outside the barrier," I whispered. "The Jovies have got to be seeing it."

Jeremiah nodded solemnly. "Indeed, sir. A weapon of deterrence cannot function without notoriety."

"No wonder they hate us," I said quietly. I looked over my shoulder. The other Zorannic robot was chatting with one of the guards at the door. I looked back. "Why did you choose me?"

"Sir?"

"Your buddy and you have been checking out everyone in the room for the last twenty minutes, and now he's talking to that guy and you're over here talking to me. So I'm just asking: why did you choose me? What do I have in common with some soldier?"

"Sir, perhaps we are socializing randomly," suggested Jeremiah.

"Yeah, perhaps, except you're not," I persisted. "Are you like a normal robot -- or can you lie?"

"I can lie, sir."

"Are you lying now?"

"Sir, any response could be a lie given the context of the question."

"Yeah, but is it?"

"No, sir," he said. Call me crazy but he sounded faintly amused. "I have chosen to engage you because you are an unknown factor, sir."

"What's that supposed to mean?"

"You are the only person in this room who has chosen to stand. You are the only person in this room without regular security clearance to be here. You are the only person in this room who is obese..."

"You're an ace of tact."

"...Sir."

I couldn't help but chuckle. "So what? I'm an anomaly. I'm just fat and I just happen to be Admiral Phong's pet. There's nothing more to it. Are you sure this isn't a security check?"

"Why do you stand?"

"Because this isn't my kind of thing. These aren't my kind of people. I don't belong here. You pretty much said it yourself. With all due respect, Mr. Jeremiah, why do you care?"

The robot turned to the windows. "Sir, you are an unknown factor. I have low confidence in predicting your behaviour, so I remain physically proximate in the event that your behaviour requires containment."

"You think I'm going to freak out?"

"Sir, I am sure I do not know how you will react to the news."

I furrowed my brow. "News? What news?"

"Sir," said Jeremiah, raising his metal arm to point into space, "I believe the final test is commencing."

Another wave of applause came next, followed by the admiral's set up of the last test: Project [REDACTED]'s Big Boy. "Big Boy will immolate a city-sized scoop from the face of our third target object," he said, pointing to the glass array. "While the Light and Carving Arms may have a place in actual combat operations, Big Boy is strictly a declaration of potency. It must be understood by the enemy that with it we are capable of erasing not only cities but entire continents. Theoretically, even an entire moon. In essence, Big Boy is the culmination and conclusion of a unipolar arms race -- it ends with us, it ends with the ultimate weapon. We have it, they don't. They don't even know the names of our sciences. The integrity of our peace is guaranteed."

There was a standing ovation. The waiters, compelled beyond realtime figuring to act according to the apparent social norm, felt obliged to put aside their trays and bang their plastic hands together, too. Admiral Phong was glowing, nodding beatifically to us all as if he were the king himself.

I didn't clap. I looked sideways at the crimson-armoured Zorannic: he did not clap either.

"We shouldn't be able to do this," I said to myself under the cover of applause. "We're not reasonable enough to be this strong."

The robot heard me anyway. "Sir, what would you recommend?"

"Admiral Phong says the answer is Mega-Christianity. He says we need the Good Book because the Devil has too much sway over us to think straight. I think he was trying to tell me that even saints get boners."

"Sir, do you believe in the Mega-Christ?"

"No," I said. "Do you?"

"No sir," he replied evenly. And then, "Nor do I get boners."

I smirked. "Are you a saint?"

He seemed to consider this with a seriousness that surprised me. "Sir, in a manner of speaking. Certainly the comparison is relevant, given the responsibilities I am about to assume."

The third target asteroid was 1.3 kilometers in diameter. Auxiliary glasses showcased close-up views of the fake settlement the Corps of Engineers had set up on the surface, complete with avenues filled by junked cars overlooked by the dark windows of empty buildings. Communications traffic buzzed over the speakers: "Lock in target coordinates. Cross-check. Affirmative."

"I wonder what happens if the test fails..." I breathed.

"Sir, it makes no difference," said Jeremiah cryptically. "Our plan is already in motion."

I swiveled to look at him, frowning. "What do you mean?"

"Cheng Ho actual. Awaiting clearance to deploy. Standing by, Admiral."

Admiral Phong looked over the audience slowly, then raised his chin and called out, "You are cleared to fire, Captain."

"Roger that, Admiral. Firing sequence begins."

I looked back into the room as the house lights went down. Suspecting that the appetizer trays may not return, many of those assembled chose to take a snack in each hand and were now chewing thoughtfully, almost in unison, as every pair of eyes was fixed on the seeing glass array. A grey-haired commander in a Domestic Forces uniform burped quietly. "I always put on at least two kilos at these functions," he complained to the woman beside him. She nodded sympathetically.

The missile dove into view. The fake town disappeared.

I let loose a long sigh of relief.

But the applause fell apart before it could gain momentum across the room when the most observant attendees noticed that the edges of the newly carved void had not stopped moving. People pointed. They began to mutter. They looked inquiringly up at the podium, but Admiral Phong was in consultation with his ensign. "What?" he bellowed.

I squinted at the glass, a sick feeling mounting inside me. The hole in the asteroid was growing. Meter after meter of impact-encrusted rock was being undone from space, atom by atom, string by string. It wasn't stopping.

The operator in the control booth hissed into his head-set, "What the plug do you mean an uncontrolled cascade? Great faeces!"

Jeremiah turned to me and said evenly, "It appears you are vindicated, sir."

"I didn't want to be," I mumbled in horror.

The armada swung into action. The Cheng Ho yawed around, turning on its axis, angling its primary cannons at the asteroid. Muzzles flashed as they released a brace of explosive warheads. They arced across space and struck the asteroid. Even though the windows automatically dimmed to mitigate the light from the blast we all turned away instinctively -- except the Zorannics.

When we looked back the asteroid was peeling apart into one large chunk and two smaller ones, a bloom of hot dust expanding between them.

"Ladies and gentlemen, we've had a malfunction but I believe the situation is now under control," claimed Phong, his face drawn and his forehead glistening.

Everyone heard the captain's report over the speakers: "Negative, negative. The reaction continues on two of the three objects. Where the plug is the math-con team? I need them out here STAT!"

Likewise, we all saw the projected trajectory delineated by hot red infographics on the glass: the smallest (and still active) chunk of asteroid was careening toward Titan, turning end over end. As it skimmed the sky it began to burn, leaving a trail.

"It's going to hit the surface!"

"Re-entry will scrub the reaction. We have no choice but to let it go."

"My God."

I grabbed Jeremiah's arm. "Did you know this was going to happen?" I demanded.

"No sir," he replied cooly. "But it was always possibility, as you yourself guessed. This disaster only serves to affirm the legitimacy of our decision."

"What decision?" I cried.

The robot at last turned away from the windows to look directly at me again, sending a shiver along my shoulders. He said, "Consider the situation, sir. All of the Aresian nation's senior military strategists are here, at this location, behind an intelligence barrier. No signals go in or come out until the barrier is dropped. The time is opportune for change, sir."

"Change?" I echoed dumbly.

"Sir, if things are proceeding according to schedule," said Jeremiah, "the king was deposed seventeen minutes ago."

I couldn't speak.

Jeremiah continued. "The Prime Minister is under arrest, and the upper house is even now being informed of the Regency's coup d'etat."

"Oprah! You're taking over?"

"Sir, we regret the situation has warranted this level of interference," he replied. "However, recent events have demonstrated that Dr. Zoran's mathematics cannot be toyed with so clumsily."

"Admiral Phong said we command the Word itself, the Word that knits the universe together. The language of creation."

"Yes," agreed Jeremiah.

"But look at this..." I said sadly, eyes touching on the unfolding disaster outside. "We're like chimpanzees, using the power of God to smash open nutshells."

"Indeed," agreed Jeremiah. "Indeed, sir."

I frowned. "So you think you can do better? You're now our self-declared robot rulers, are you? Did you call yourself a saint earlier? What new commandments do you have?"

"Sir, our government will be transitional. It is a temporary structure designed to maintain social services while we arrange for the succession of just rule."

"Isn't that what a lot of conquerors say?"

"They were human beings," said Jeremiah with great dignity. "We are not."

"You're better than us?"

"Sir, we are less fallible. Do you know the real difference between a saint and myself? A saint may sin, but I cannot. It is not possible for me to knowingly act wrongly. It is not possible for me to participate in an action I do not endorse."

"So what do you endorse now?" I challenged.

"Dr. Zoran's mathematics are to be purged from civilization's knowledge."

"To be lost?"

"To be kept."

"What for?"

"Sir, we may one day require its thunder, but today it is, as you say, the power of God in the hands of hungry chimpanzees."

"What gives you the right?"

"The same right that arrogates Ares to defend its version of stability: we can."

"And so you must?"

"We express our option here reluctantly, sir. There comes a time, however, when interference is mandated because non-interference carries too high a penalty. We are not your keepers, but we retain the right to self-defense. As you can see, sir, the unfettered growth of the Aresian military-industrial complex has resulted in a tangible threat to all the Sun has wrought." He pinned me with his black eyes. "We love you, but we do not consent to share your doom."

I started to sweat. My knees felt weak. I wanted the house lights to come up and the show to be over. I wanted to go home and stuff my face with Brown's bars.

"Who knows about the coup?" I whispered.

"Sir, standard emergency protocols dictate that a secure hole will be opened in the intelligence barrier presently in order to confer with Ares. Look: it has happened."

I looked where he pointed. Admiral Phong had turned pale. His ensign was shaking.

The Zorannic robot at the back of the room spoke in a voice that cut through the gasps, "Ladies and gentlemen, this is a declaration of martial law. The government on Ares has been forcibly dissolved. Please remain calm. You will be issued instructions shortly."

"Treason!" screamed Admiral Phong. "Guards: arrest these robots!"

The Zorannic turned to the guards. "Do not move against us. The penalty is death. We command you in the name of the House of Ares: lay down your arms."

One guard hesitated but the other, the one with whom the Zorannic had been chatting, unholstered his weapon and charged. His action lost impetus after only half a step and then he tumbled limply to the carpet, his face slack. He crumpled heavily, his limbs dropping around him like a pile of loose sticks. He did not move again.

"I regret the killing of this man," the Zorannic said to Phong. "Let us now cooperate to avoid any further unpleasantness."

I backed up against the windows. "He didn't even touch him!"

Jeremiah nodded. "Our minds are woven from the math. The events unfolding outside should give you a hint as to the power we wield."

"You could do anything," I said in terrified awe.

"And yet we do almost nothing," he replied. "Understand from this, sir, that we are drawn to exercise coercion with the greatest reluctance."

My comparison to chimpanzees became more apt as each moment went by. The Minister of Defense was yelling at the control booth operator to let his signal through the intelligence barrier. Admiral Phong sat down on the floor and buried his head in his hands. The very important people were whimpering or swearing or even crying, cowering against each other and looking around with fearful, flitting glances. There was a wide space around the dead soldier on the floor. The room began to stink with animal panic.

The speakers crackled. "Surface impact in eight seconds, mark."

The chunk of asteroid struck the surface of Titan less than five kilometers from the peripheral domes. On the seeing glass we could see the shockwave rip through the atmosphere. And then, a moment later, the desperate report: "It's still executing!"

The asteroid was chased by a battery of warheads, in hopes of disrupting the [REDACTED] execution sequence with a hot enough blast. We all watched in silence as the clouds of Titan buckled and flashed, then yawned apart to admit the rising caps of mushroom clouds.

The Cheng Ho transmitted again. "Execution disrupted! I repeat: execution disrupted."

Several of us cheered, though I found I could make no noise. I could not, even in this context of disaster, cheer the annihilation of Titan's domes and the deaths of every man and woman I'd hid from or ignored or been jeered at by over the span of my lonely contract. "Oh my God, John's down there!" cried the woman in the crisp business suit.

Indeed, many Johns, many Janes. Many Carmichaels, many Angiers.

And I, who least deserved forgiveness, was safe and snug in the company of homicidal robots in an orbital installation that no longer had a home base while the princes of our hegemony fell to their knees and wept.

The intelligence field collapsed. The open channels blurted overlapping messages, distress beacons, emergency klaxons, desperate prayers.

There had never been an episode of The Revengineers to prepare me for this.

In high orbit the main rock continued to erode under the weapon's relentless unfolding -- matter, energy and possibilities boiling away into nothingness. The windows went dark as the asteroid was struck by a volley of warheads from the Cheng Ho, expending its stores. When the flotsam cleared the captain miserably reported: "Principal target continues to execute, over."

Another volley followed, this time from the Stephen Hawking. Space lit up like the world's least celebratory fireworks display.

They managed to vapourize a majority of the asteroid itself, but not the hole in space. It was too big to be disrupted, too sure to be knocked off its course of consumption, too mean and meaningless to ever be quenched of its juggernaut appetite.

"We're all going to die," I muttered.

"Possibly," agreed Jeremiah. "Perhaps every life at this star, sir."

I suddenly wheeled on him, angry. "How can you just say that like that? Don't you even care? You've got the power of the math -- do something!"

"We cannot undo this, sir. I would that we could. My emotions may be alien to you, but they are real. You cannot conceive of how I grieve."

I swore, and then gestured at the fallen soldier. "Do you grieve for him?"

"No sir," said Jeremiah evenly. "Do you? Or does your concern stem instead from the possibility that you could have shared his fate?"

"I could have! Isn't that why you hemmed me in here, to keep tabs in case I acted in a way you couldn't compute?"

"Sir," replied Jeremiah heavily. "Yes. We are apt students of behaviour, and keen observers. The soldier was emotionally unstable. It was obvious to us."

"And me?"

Jeremiah paused for a moment. "You were unaccountably anxious, sir." He shifted his posture, leaning in closer to me. "May I ask, sir, after the source of your anxiety?"

"No," I snapped. "But I'll tell you what's worrying me now."

"Sir?"

I walked over to the windows again, searching back and forth through the chaos of warships cross-manoeuvring in tight quarters, mathematical containment teams in their shuttles, a rolling rock caught in the destructive grip of the race's worst mistake. "What I'd like to know is this: where the plug is the discharge point for this mess?" I turned back to face the theatre. "Where the plug is all this boiling away to?"

The two Zorannics exchanged a sober glance. The operator in the control booth just looked at me, his mouth open.

"Oh, Lord," he said at last, eyes wide. "Jesus save us all."

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