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Hyperlinks in the text are intended as supplemental material, discussing elements of the science behind the science fiction. They are not intended as required reading for the story. Hyperlinks will be provided at the point in the story where it comes up, but all the links will also be collected at the bottom of the post for easy reading.
Earth, Orbital Ring Prime, Human Expansionary Fleet Command
3 Months after the loss of the Midgar-6
Atalanta looked around the room one final time. “That concludes my report,” she said, her smooth voice firm and unyielding as her image stood in front of the Council. Every eye of every man and woman there was fixated on her as her digital image stood at attention, and while Atalanta had no actual teeth to clench, no true stomach to churn, she felt like she was doing both anyway as the Human Expansionary Fleet Commander’s Council muttered to one another while they prepared for the next part of her debrief.
The Exalted looked around the room again, despite the fact that even as she did it she knew how silly the habit was – moving her gaze wasn’t necessary to move her attention. It wasn’t like she was using her eyes to see. Atalanta wasn’t a biological human… not anymore. She was one of the Exalted, a dead heroine of the Federation resurrected by science, her mind perfectly digitized into a computer. Now, Atalanta saw through the room’s cameras, and watched the Council through lenses and photon receptors and LIDAR rather than through eyes. When she looked between them, she was actually just focusing her mind on the actions of one of them or the other… but it still felt right to look around as she did. It was just one more odd part of her existence.
As the Exalted scanned her gaze around the room, she noted, to her dismay, that she only recognized a few of the Council members. That wasn’t all that surprising, she supposed… she had never been particularly interested in politics, and she had been… distant for years she had to admit. Even being immortal with all the time in the world didn’t mean that she had time to waste on caring who was leading from the top. As long as they were competent, Atalanta couldn’t care less… and that meant the only ones she recognized were those who had distinguished themselves in her eyes.
First among them was Na’dir’a. The Sethis woman was the main representative of Set III and the HEF’s System Administrator for the Set System. The woman usually served from her home system, but due to the importance of Atalanta’s report, and the fact that her planet was closest to the theoretical invasion path, she had been summoned to Earth to attend this debriefing. “I hesitate to say this,” Na’dir’a said, her voice measured and concerned, “but I find myself at a loss. A colony ship lost by way of alien invaders? It sounds like something out of fiction, not reality.” The green-skinned woman leaned forward, her fingers steepled in front of her face as if in deep thought. “I am not accusing the Exalted one of lying, of course, but is it possible that her memory has been… altered… in some way?”
A small laugh came from the tall women in a seat beside Atalanta’s camera as the Chief Admiral of the HEF spoke up. Admiral Chanda was a tall woman of Indian descent and quite beautiful, but the seriousness of her expression stole most of that away right now. Atalanta had always considered her serious, organized, and very competent. The admiral raised an eyebrow at Na’di’ra, inviting further explanation. “Edited by whom?” she asked evenly. “By herself? By Captain Amara? For what purpose?”
“Perhaps to cover something up? To shift the blame to some ‘unknown’ enemy?” Administrator Na’dir’a shrugged. The Council began to talk and Na’dir’a held up her hand for silence. “This is not an accusation,” the Sethis woman said by way of diffusing the tension. “I’m not suggesting that that is precisely what happened. I’m more… shocked. We’ve been exploring the universe for centuries now, and out of nowhere comes an alien people we’ve never seen nor heard of before? One that waited in ambush for our ship, and planned an attack?” She shook her head. “It does seem more likely it is a ploy for advantage by a faction in the Federation. Pirates, perhaps.”
That also brought murmurs to the table. Pirates had been an increasing problem lately. There had been no open war between any part of the Terran Federation since unification almost three centuries ago, but that didn’t mean there was no conflict, or that humanity had completely overcome its darker natures. There were always men and women who wanted to take more than their share, even in a society where practically no one wanted for any necessity anymore. Pirates roamed the star systems, and while very few of them had Lilis drives, there were always rumors of privateers funded by one of the worlds in the Federation, making power plays in trade between systems. The asteroid belts of nearly any system were far too spacious and large to do a good job of searching for ships, to say nothing of the kuiper belts, and…
And, well, Atalanta had her own suspicions.
A clicking noise came over one of the intercoms, and everyone turned to look at the other holographic projector, making a life-sized woman in a chair. Dr. Maria Keye, Chief Scientist of the HEF and the first of the Exalted, smiled at the table. “As The Bard once said on Earth: there are more things in Heaven and Earth, Na’dir’a, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” She shook her head. “There is little to gain by this being a ploy, I think… a colony ship like the Midgar-6 is simply too large for pirates to hit, and there is simply not enough wealth aboard it to justify it as a full-scale military operation to any component world. This aside… I assure you, it is quite impossible to modify the memories of one of the Exalted.” Maria smiled the smile of someone who knew that she was unquestionably correct… and who could possibly know better than her? “It was only a matter of time until we encountered a new species, and simple game theory and the law of averages shows that any that encountered us, rather than the other way around, would be more likely to be aggressive than not.” She did not look around the room, but kept her holographic gaze fixed directly on Atalanta… not her avatar, but her camera. “It’s… I hesitate to denigrate the lives of those lost, but it is poor luck that brought the colony ship to its ill fate.”
“Besides,” the HEF Sector Administrator of Ceres, a man named Stephanos, said. “Even if Atalanta’s memories and the logs could both be altered, what of the other survivors? I presume they verified this story?”
Aesha, another Exalted avatar, nodded her head in agreement. “They did, but frankly it is irrelevant.” Looking at her was almost startling. Atalanta knew that the Exalted was the grandmother of Admiral Chanda, but the two of them looked more like sisters. “Whether or not we believe the report is immaterial. What matters is that it has been reported to us that an enemy has brought their weapons to bear against us, and now it falls upon us to deal with it. We prepare for the threat. If the report is false, then we search for who to blame.”
Maria made a sound of agreement, her avatar nodding. “Better to be prepared and find out the report is false, than be unprepared and find out the report is truth.”
Admiral Chandra nodded. “I wholeheartedly agree. Shall we continue?”
There was the sound of general assent. Then one of the Council members turned her attention back to Atalanta. “While it is commendable how swiftly you took control of the situation, looking back through the logs, the ship’s evasion should have been following this pattern.” She waved her hand and a set of holographic numbers appeared above the table before her. Atalanta recognized them as directional ‘aids’ used to orient a ship in space, the auto-pilot would make use of them to chart a course through space.
Another one nodded. “While consistent with current doctrine, we haven’t encountered an enemy like this before and we will need to update them accordingly.”
“But what about-”
With a sigh that she made sure wasn’t being mirrored to her avatar, Atalanta let herself zone out. She set a flag in her system memory to monitor the discussion and record, reporting to her if she was addressed specifically again. Otherwise, being second-guessed by people on such trivial matters was… really not something the Exalted needed right now. She was seriously in danger of losing her composure.
Curse this mainframe.
Once, Atalanta had the best, most up-to-date Exalted systems. Her mainframe on the Midgar-6 had been one of finest ever to be produced, but every one she had ever been in had been a modern generation of the personality matrix that stored an uploaded mind. That meant it came with one of the finest features that the Exalted had ever created – the Endocrine Suppression System. The Exalted weren’t biological minds anymore, but they still acted like they were… and part of that was using biological responses to thoughts. Sometimes those could be useful, so they were a part of the programming… but far more often, Atalanta had found it useful to be able to turn them off… to allow herself to focus, to strip away panic and despair. Now, however, she didn’t have that – personality matrices took months to manufacture, and there wasn’t a proper one kept as a spare for her. When she left the shuttle, they had let her out into the only spare personality matrix they had, one that was older than she was… and she was lacking the systems she relied on.
She had never missed it more than she did now, either. Her thoughts were racing, and they were self-destructive.
The first ‘criticism’ of the reports being made by the Council weren’t really even of her – they were of Captain Amara. A scapegoat was needed… and it was looking like they planned to crucify the brave captain for the loss of the Midgar-6. They were polite about it – no one overtly said anything about blame. They were even using her example to ensure what happened had a greater likelihood of not happening again… but since they used Amara’s decision as the starting point, she was the focus. It naturally brought the subject of the Captain to Atalanta’s mind.
The subject of the Captain. Or, more precisely, the subject that she was gone. That Atalanta, a so-called ‘War Hero of the Unification,’ had left a comrade behind to save herself.
It was the correct course of action. It had been the only option for them at the time – Atalanta knew that on an intellectual level. It didn’t matter, though. Just because she knew it was true didn’t mean she felt that way, and she longed to be able to just turn that feeling off… but she couldn’t. She was stuck feeling it, feeling everything she hated about herself, feeling nothing but doubts and regrets. Amara hadn’t just been her Captain. In the end… in the end, she had also been a friend. She should have been a better friend than she was, but that had been Atalanta’s fault… like everything else… and that made it all the more awful when she had to leave her behind.
The flag she had left behind marked raised voices of an argument, and Atalanta let her attention return to the room. She frame jacked, slowing down time… or rather, speeding up her own perception and processing speed until she experienced her own subjective reality five hundred times faster than it actually happened. She brought up a recording of the last minute and a half and played it back, catching herself back up on what she had missed.
The HEF Commander’s Council was the ruling body of the HEF… its command hierarchy, and it had two components. First, the most senior and highest ranked members of the military arm of the space fleet from across the worlds they were responsible for the protection and commerce of were present. These were the military leaders, those that were de facto in charge of the space between worlds, the places without population. The other half of the council were the highest offices of civil administration – Planetary Administrators and System Administrators. Elected positions, they were offered the rank of rear admirals in the HEF for the duration of their term in office… and they were, at least in theory, the main power in the Federation, the democratic representatives of the people. The factions between them were always something to watch, and while Atalanta had been zoned out it seemed like they had gone more than a little bit tribal… fractioning off into different groups depending on their viewpoint on what to do about the alien invaders.
Three predominant beliefs were being held. She accelerated her thought process and sense of time further as she quickly listened through the points of view being argued.
The first of the viewpoints was search and rescue. It was an odd choice of an ideology, but it made sense in a strange way. They advocated for a complete and total dissociation from the enemy. Essentially to treat it as a pirate attack, and ‘rescuing their people from their unfortunate circumstance.’ Find them, attack what was necessary, and reclaim the colonists. It was a preposterous viewpoint as far as Atalanta was concerned… space was far too big for that, and the distances too vast. It had taken Atalanta and her shuttle nearly three months to arrive back at Set III from the point of their ambush, and then another month on much faster ships to arrive back at Earth. Even if they went immediately, at top speed, the Kthid would have at least a five-month lead on them and already be traveling at relativistic speeds. Thankfully, it was not the most popular viewpoint among the Council.
The second was diplomacy. This group was just as politically charged as the supporters of the first idea, but they sought to make friendly overtures to the aliens, and negotiate for the safe return of their people. It seemed to come with the idea that this whole thing was some kind of big misunderstanding and they could all be friends. It was a testament to the foolishness of the first plan that Atalanta didn’t think this idea was the biggest waste of time of the three.
The final viewpoint was total war. A commitment to full militarization of the fleet and preparation for invasion. To view the capture and destruction of the Midgar-6 as a declaration of war, and that they needed to prepare for the invasion. Dedicate all their available resources to creating ships and soldiers and weapons in preparation for the day that either they strike again, or to find them and strike back.
The final viewpoint was the only sensible one from Atalanta’s perspective… and just realizing that made her want to shake and again long for her Endocrine Control systems again. The last thing, the very last thing that she wanted, was to be part of another war. She had already seen more than enough of that. Atalanta hated it… but what option did they have but to prepare for war? She didn’t want to participate in a galactic slug-fest with the Kthid, but they had made their intentions crystal clear… war was coming whether they liked it or not. Diplomacy, that was a complete no-go. Impossible, full-stop. Unless they came first and apologized and returned the entire crew, she wouldn’t hear a word about ‘accepting the crew as small sacrifices so the larger population might benefit.’ That was ridiculous, and Atalanta would never allow her friends to be treated so callously.
But… what could she say? She was a guest here… one woman, going up against a Council that had power, and was used to arguing their points and wielding political power. They certainly weren’t disinterested Exalted who had spent centuries running from this kind of responsibility. Now Atalanta wanted to argue her position… but she wasn’t a member of the Council. She didn’t have a say in what would happen. The only reason she was still in the room was because she was already ‘in the know’ about what was going on in that sector, and would certainly be involved in the war effort… as a poster girl and symbol if nothing else. The ‘tip of the spear’ tactic was a tried and true method of conducting a war – one good-looking, competent soldier on the front lines, as a specialist… if it wasn’t the morale boost the army got by hearing news of her carefully planned victories, it was the devastation she would bring to the enemy lines.
Atalanta wished she wasn’t all-too-used to being that symbol.
Those thoughts sent the Exalted down a dark path again… one exacerbated by the impossibility of rescue. She wasn’t… whole. As a digital lifeform, one of her more unique abilities was being able to replicate – create a copy of themselves and send that to do a task, while the original stayed behind. She, the Atalanta that stood before the Council, was a one such copy… a piece of Atalanta, but not the whole woman. Sure, she might have all the thoughts and memories and emotions of the original woman, but that didn’t make her complete… as long as her copies hadn’t unified she never would be. And the rest of her had been left behind when they abandoned the Midgar-6.
There wasn’t exactly a stigma against Exalted copies. She hadn’t gotten a single derogatory remark or anything, nothing like that. Hell, she wasn’t even sure anyone but the other Exalted would notice. It wasn’t that she considered herself not “real” or anything absurd like that. It was just… the woman left behind was also her. Fragments always – always – merged back together, transferring memories back together, becoming one person in fact again. The issue arose for Atalanta that… she wasn’t sure she could go back to being one person. The original was quite possibly gone… and it was hard to figure out what that meant for her… it brought back existential fears that she thought she had moved beyond. The fears she had had when she first awakened in this form.
Atalanta had been a real, living, breathing, person. As far as Exalted thought, she was still that person… continuity of consciousness had been maintained. She had done the things that the original Atalanta had done, because she had the memories of them. Any argument that she wasn’t that person but instead a copy was rejected by the Exalted… and that line of thought continued even if they copied themselves further. Copies of the original uploaded mind were still the same person, following the same continuity of consciousness… in theory.
The only problem with that theory is that for it to stay true, it required both trains of thoughts to end up at the same destination. If the copy on Midgar-6 was gone, if she had been destroyed or simply was unrecoverable, then did that still apply? What was she? Who was she? Was she Atalanta still?
There was an old, ancient really, thought experiment. Suppose a ship in a harbor was slowly rotting… and over the course of a hundred years, every piece of the ship had needed to be stripped off at one point or another, tossed into a scrap pile in a warehouse somewhere and replaced with a new copy of the part until, eventually, there was nothing left that was original. Was it still the same ship?
It was a philosophical question biological humans had long pondered about themselves; every seven to ten years, a human being had completely replaced every cell in their body with a new one. Being an Exalted carried the metaphor one step further – say that all those rotting discarded pieces could be saved, restored, and used to build a second ship. A ship with all the same original pieces. Now which ship was the old one, and which was the new? Which of them was the “original” Atalanta?
Did she, the Atalanta before the Council, have any right to that identity if she wasn’t going to be able to merge? Was the right thing to do to create a new identity and live as a new person, even though she had all the memories of Atalanta? Furthermore, there was another morbid thought… no one really knew the limits of how far the experiences of two copies could grow before they would be unable to merge memories anymore. If she didn’t manage to rejoin in a certain amount of time, would it still be possible? There was an old study back on Earth, where some mosquitoes had gotten trapped underground. In a few generations, the underground ‘race’ could no longer breed with the ones aboveground. How different was too different? At some point, a difference in scale became a difference in kind – at what point did a differential backup become a different person? Would that be her fate? To never become a part of the whole again, even if they could recover her copy?
It especially tore at her because apparently this Atalanta had a tendency to leave behind friends, allies, and comrades. This Atalanta had left Captain Amara behind to sacrifice herself for their lives. She didn’t want to be that, but here she was… locked in her own head, with a questionable identity and dismally low morale, listening to the Council bicker about which plan to use, and whether or not to leave the real Atalanta and all of her remaining friends behind.
Her attention snapped back to real-time once more as Maria made a soft sound to get attention before the holographic projection of her stood up. Everyone immediately turned their attention to her, waiting to see what she had to say… unsurprising, really. The woman was the oldest member of the Council, after all, and the most experienced, completely beside the fact that she was a renowned genius. “Esteemed members of the Council,” Maria began with a soft smile. “A strange thought occurs to me.” She began walking slowly, pacing, even though she couldn’t actually do so any more than Atalanta could. “We are here, debating on which tactic to use, when the answer, I believe, is not a question of either or. It should be the combination of all three.”
She waved her arm and sent data to the holographic table in front of everyone. “I’ve outlined a plan here. Simple, just a few things off the top of my head.” She smiled in recognition of the irony as Atalanta could tell even at a glance that the files she provided and called ‘simple’ were unfathomably complex with pages of logistics already written for them. Atalanta couldn’t help but be impressed as she frame-jacked down, slowing time for herself as well to quickly appreciate the size and complexity of the documentation to underline her argument, the math of the courses and fuel requirements and how quickly such resources could be allocated. Maria must have been frame-jacking herself for the whole meeting, like Atalanta had been. The difference was that while she had spent the time feeling sorry for herself, Maria had spent it drafting this monster of a plan for the Council’s approval, far quicker than any biologic at the table could have done it. Certainly faster than Atalanta could have done it herself, even at her maximum dilation.
“It comes to mind that there is no reason we can’t accomplish all three goals at once,” Maria said as Atalanta returned her perception of time to normal. “Peace is, of course, something that we must strive for, but if we can’t defend that peace then it would elude us.” She expanded the image of the diplomatic faction’s proposal. “There is no reason that we can’t be upfront about our information during the peace talks. Tell them that we won’t be willing to negotiate until we’ve pulled out people from the sector.”
She sighed. “Stealth is notoriously close to impossible in space, and if they were able to intercept one of our colony ships it stands to reason their detection methods probably exceed our own. We can send out scouts of course, and they should attempt a rescue if they can… but even if they only report on the position of an enemy fleet, we can use that as well. If they are not detected, that is useful information, and our fleets can use that to further war preparations. Then, as we arm ourselves, it hopefully will look like we don’t need to negotiate for the safe return of our people. That we are prepared to take them. To our people, it will come off as us doing whatever it takes to bring the captives home. To the aliens, these… Kthid… it would look like we are offering peace with one hand and preparing to take that peace by force if necessary with the other.”
Admiral Chanda smirked. “A sentiment I can get behind. If they seek war?”
Maria smiled and brought up the war faction’s proposal. “I’ve done some math. This will naturally need further refinement, but we should be able to effectively militarize our fleets within the five years I estimate we will have.”
There was some surprise and consternation at that. “Five years?” one of the men at the table that Atalanta didn’t know said. “You think we only have five years?”
Maria nodded. “Most likely. The Midgar-6 was, of course, never meant to be scuttled. The enemy would have a working example of a Lilis Drive… they should be able to follow our own wormholes right back to us. Based on the data collected from Atalanta’s shuttle sensors, we have a good understanding of what their ship did after it took the Midgar-6… and deploying that many solar panels suggests to me that they manufactured their own Lilis wormhole in the system… they will be able to return to it quickly. Following the departure line of the Kthid warship as it accelerated afterward, we can make a reasonable guess of the star system they are returning to, and how long it will take. Once there, if they headed right back out and used wormholes to reach us…” Maria shrugged. “Five years, two months, and twenty-seven days is the soonest an invasion could arrive.”
People didn’t seem to like that figure, and Atalanta guessed that they assumed they would have much, much more time. Space was big, after all, and most of these people had immersed themselves in entirely space-based operations for most of their lives. It was disconcerting to realize that, for their needs, the space between them and the hostile empire targeting them was tragically small. Maria, however, didn’t pause – She gestured towards the proposal and made a few minor adjustments. “I’ve been going over both Atalanta’s report as well as other data recovered from the sensors. The enemy has impressive capabilities that we’ve documented in this report. If we do not prepare, we will be obliterated.”
The Council members took a moment to look over the provided outline drafts, and Atalanta couldn’t help but be impressed at what she had just done. She had, effectively, backed the Council into a corner. They needed to decide on a course of action and move, and Maria had provided a plan with far more planning and logistics and persuasive arguments than any of the other council members could have in the short time provided. Atalanta knew without needing to consider that her plan would win any argument… the Council would do what she wished. It was impressive… but, in hindsight, hardly surprising.
After all, Dr. Maria Keye was a legend.
The very first Exalted. The woman who had been cast out into space by fanatics almost alone, doomed to die in the void to appease their religious lunacy… who had come back having turned the ship around and created the most functional form of AI that humanity had ever managed to produce – a fully functional ability to digitize and upload a human mind. The process was no less revolutionary now than it had been when Maria had first returned with it more than three hundred years ago, and no one but her had made any real progress on improving it since. She was, essentially, the mother of Atalanta’s entire race.
She was practically worshiped by the Federation, and for good reason – she was a symbol of progress, of emerging from the darkness of the past towards a bright future. No one could deny her brilliance – as a scientist first and foremost, she made great strides in improving not only her race, but everyone. Sethis, Humanity, Exalted… it just didn’t matter to her. She wasn’t precisely a household name, but she was a name that was recognized in every house: there was practically a fan club of her among humanity, those who dreamed of the afterlife she promised. Atalanta used to be a member herself… not that she’d ever admit that to anyone at all. It would be too embarrassing, especially now that she had met the woman, before she had spent years working with her. Learning who the real Maria was had, ironically, killed the hero worship she had towards her and replace it with a deeper, more genuine respect for her brilliance, skill, and logic. She was someone to emulate, not to worship.
Atalanta felt hopelessly far beneath her right now.
She wished the rest of Atalanta could be here to see the woman in action, to deftly work the politics of the Council and put together the plan that would save everyone. If… when… they rescued her, and she got to merge up with herself, then Atalanta could experience it as a united whole.
Atalanta brought her focus back on the meeting, not wanting to lose herself down that line of thought again. The meeting was, to her eyes, coming to a close. Much of the meeting now was Dr. Maria simply explaining the details of the five-year plan and defending it, and as someone who wasn’t as politically interested as the Council was, it still seemed to Atalanta that they were going to agree to the plan… they just wanted their marks left on it. Atalanta didn’t particularly care about what was being said. Only that it was being said – that they were doing something.
The Council continued to refine the details for another few hours, combining facts and figures into a plan that to their minds was no less than beauty incarnate. Atalanta merely waited for her orders… if they wanted further input from her, they would ask for it. After a few hours, the meeting broke, and Atalanta was excused. She didn’t end up answering any further questions, mercifully – Dr. Keye was the one that provided all the answers needed from the gathered data and from her report. It was nice to not have to essentially relive what happened, but some part of her wished she could do just a little bit more to aid the Council in their efforts.
But the one thing she had to add she didn’t know whom she could trust with.
There were too many strangers on the Council, too many unknowns. There was really only one person that had her full confidence – Maria. Friend, idol, genius… She’d handle the information that she could provide better than the Council. Maybe she’d even be able to tell Atalanta that she was wrong about her suspicions, that there was another logical explanation of what they had found aboard the Mistrunner. She wanted Maria to tell her she was wrong. She hoped she was wrong, because if she wasn’t… the implications were dark.
She had no proof. That was why she didn’t include it in her report to the Council. It was why she, who had witnessed it herself, almost refused to believe it. It was practically unfathomable… but there was a traitor among them. In all the universe, there were only thirty Exalted. Thirty members of their entire race… and the traitor aboard the Mistrunner, Katherine Mori, hadn’t been a real person at all. She had been a false body, puppeteered by one of those thirty.
One of the Exalted was a traitor. That was almost unfathomable. All the Exalted were heroes… it was the only way to become one of their numbers. The process of creating a matrix, of digitizing a person after their death… it was too difficult and too time-consuming and too expensive for mass adoptions yet, and even among those they deemed worthy of trying to resurrect the success rate wasn’t fantastic. The Exalted that had been created were practically the pinnacle of human achievement… at least, as long as you discounted that Atalanta herself was among them. That depressing coda, however, didn’t change the fact that one of the other Exalted had been responsible for the disaster that befell the Mistrunner, however. She had to talk to Maria about this. She would know how to handle it. So, as soon as they were dismissed from the meeting, she pinged her former mentor. “Maria, can we talk?”
The ping was immediately responded to by an invitation to a virtual meeting, and Atalanta followed its path… materializing in a virtual reality of Dr. Keye’s construction. Time spent in virtual reality like this was important to the Exalted… getting meaningful, physical feedback was important to stop them from dissociating from being alive and going mad. The beautiful, dark-haired doctor glowed with the circles running up and down her body, smiling genially at Atalanta as she materialized. “Of course, I always have time for a friend.” She waved a hand, summoning a couch from nothing, and gestured for Atalanta to sit as she summoned a second one for herself.
Atalanta sat down, amused as she thought about it. They didn’t need to sit… they didn’t have muscles to relax. Gravity itself was a construct here that could be turned on and off. Still, it seemed that old habits never died… even after becoming the next best thing to a true AI.
Maria sighed. “I am truly sorry about what happened, Atalanta, dear.” She shook her head. “All those lives, lost and currently unrecoverable. War is on the horizon and now it’s up to those like us to march into battle once again for the sake of those we care about…”
Atalanta smiled. “Thank you for your sympathies, doctor. I’ll be honest, I’m… dealing with it. Slowly, but I’ve come to terms with what’s happened. I’ve had time to grieve, and time to mourn.” She had only lied a little bit. “That isn’t what I’ve come to talk to you about, though.”
“Oh?” Maria asked with a raised eyebrow.
Atalanta nodded. “Yes, there was something else that happened. Something that I didn’t report because the evidence was circumstantial at best, and implicates something that would bring near absolute terror to, well everyone.”
Maria frowned and leaned forwards, but didn’t say anything, merely waited for her to speak, so Atalanta settled her nerves and pushed through. She broadcast her records to Maria, the visual evidence of the destroyed android, the log files. “There was a traitor aboard the Mistrunner… it was one of the Exalted, Maria.” Atalanta watched as the virtual image of Maria flickered, knowing that meant she was frame-jacked… that she was watching and reading through Captain Icarus’s logs and the dead android body. Atalanta waited until the distant, detached look on her face went away, knowing that Maria was back with her in real-time, before she continued. “To my knowledge, we don’t even have the technology to make a body like that… but I know what I saw.”
Maria was silent for a long moment, her eyes serious. “I… I find it hard to argue with your assertions,” she said. “This is… troubling information. If any of the Exalted come under suspicion of traitorous behavior, then we all come under suspicion of traitorous behavior. That isn’t something we can afford, especially not now. You were right to keep this to yourself.” She scoffed. “Can you imagine? All of a sudden, you and I are suspected of treason, and your report of aliens gets thrown out while you are investigated. And when it comes to light you are innocent, then they focus on me. My plan to combat the invading force gets thrown out, and they are stuck trying to figure out whose plan of action is the correct one. And even after both of us are proved beyond a shadow of a doubt to be innocent, what then?”
Atalanta sighed. “Then they investigate others, and that takes time away from preparing a counter force.”
“Exactly!” Maria hung her head in her hands. “And after that? There are two options. If they find no one, the next suspicion has to be that since they didn’t find one traitor, we are all ‘in collusion’. Trust goes down, morale goes down, and the war effort grinds down to an abominable pace. Or, they do find the traitor, and since there is one there could be a second.” Maria stood up and began pacing. “And then they’ll use that as an excuse to remove power from us and give it to themselves. They’ll use one possibility to destroy everything that I’ve worked so hard for.”
Atalanta nodded. “That’s why I came to you with his, and not someone like the Admiral.”
“You were right to do so…” Maria sighed. “We can’t let this information be known publicly, but what we can do is start investigating. The only way this ends well is if by the time we bring it up we already have the traitor found and delivered. I can dedicate some of my time and energy to rooting out suspicious behavior between assisting with war preparation and personal projects, but I’d like you to take point on this.”
“I’m glad you’re taking this seriously.” Atalanta smiled. “I didn’t think you would, considering…” She paused and left the sentence hanging.
Maria stilled, then moved over to grip Atalanta’s arm warmly. “Atalanta… more than anyone else in the galaxy I know your value… who you really are. I completely trust you to live up to that person, Atalanta… I believe that you aren’t capable of doing anything else.”
For a moment, Atalanta was glad for her lack of control over her endocrine system… the warmth and comfort as Maria pulled her into an embrace were almost overwhelming. Embarrassing as it was she began to cry… weeping in her mentor’s arms. This was what she needed. Confirmation that she still had a friend, that her worries weren’t baseless. She held Maria tighter, and let go of her emotions.
When Atalanta forced herself to stop, Maria was still smiling at her. “I want you to look into this,” she said again, voice softly. “No one else can be trusted until we know, so say nothing to anyone… and let me know if you need any resources. I know where I would start your investigation if I were you.”
Atalanta nodded slowly. “Cheng?” she asked.
Maria nodded. “Cheng.” Her face was set into a grim line.
If Maria was the most famous Exalted, there could be little doubt that Cheng was the most infamous… the rogue Exalted. Most Exalted, after their resurrection, naturally dedicated themselves to the betterment of the Terran Federation and the HEF. Cheng, like most of them, had died a hero… but as far as Atalanta was concerned, something must have gone wrong in her uploading. Immediately after coming online, Cheng had denounced the Federation and uploaded herself elsewhere, leaving her original copy behind in Federation custody. By rumors, she was a pirate now… the founder of the group calling themselves the Crimson Comets.
Already she was a stain on the Exalted… but if she was a traitor to humanity as well, it would be so much worse. Still, it was less painful to think of it being her rather than one of the 29 loyal ones. “I’ll do it,” Atalanta said softly. “I’ll find the traitor.”
“I know you will,” Maria agreed. “Be careful, and godspeed.” She blinked out of existence.
Atalanta returned to her personal VR, frame-jacking back down to something like normal speed. Godspeed. She shook her head, snorting. You could take the girl out of the church, but not the church out of the girl. Then she took a deep breath – of nothing, of course, but it felt calming anyway. Then, reluctantly, she opened up her messages.
Messages from Ri’she’a and Leila, asking about how the meeting had gone. Well wishes from other Exalted. Orders from Aesha regarding fleet construction. However, the message she had seen earlier, the one she dreaded, was still there as well… waiting for her. And she had nothing left to use to put it off. Reluctantly, she called on her system directory to ask for the contact number for Stark Reeves, so she could tell him that his wife was probably dead… or worse.