“If he’s your relative, why do you want to meet him here?” Admiral Stewart asked impatiently. Susan looked at the space station monitors. The bridge crew were busy at stations, heads down to avoid drawing the attention of Cet and its bodyguard, a Heavy Weapons Unit. The two Cull sat silently, casting a foreboding presence across the bridge.
“Because there are some relatives, you only want to meet on neutral turf,” she said in resignation, “and he said he had a surprise for me.” Her tone said that it would not be good.
“He’s just entered the elevator, Sir,” Ensign Rogers reported, and Stewart nodded. “There’s an unknown female with him.”
“That is nothing unusual.” The acid in Susan’s tone could have melted steel, but her smile settled into a perfectly sincere expression as the bridge doors opened. The General stepped out, looking round the bridge and gestured towards the table.
“Lynda, there they are! Let me introduce you.” The girl gave them a chirpy smile and the General gestured to each of them in turn.
“Cet, Susan, Admral Stewart I’d like you to meet my new assistant.” The General smiled, ushering the unknown female forward.
Cet scanned it. Then he fired, full power. The girl reeled, shrieked, one hand raised. Then the blast from the Heavy Weapons Unit hit. There was a blinding flash. When their vision cleared all that remained was a scorched mark on the floor. The General rushed forward, sweeping his hand over the mark. He looked up, stunned.
“You murdered her!”
“That was not alive.”
“She was my friend.”
“That was a human corpse infested with nanites and a primitive artificial intelligence overlay.” Cet informed him, confused. The General’s grief towards an entirely replaceable entity was puzzling.
“That was a genetically-spliced hybrid crafted with your own species.”
“Incorrect. That was a flesh shell with basic stimulus to response pre-programming.”
“Not Cull enough for you?” The General spat.
“Non-Cull genetics, pre-programmed personality, no weaponry. That is not a Cull IN ANY WAY.” Cet spat in disgust.
“She was the perfect creation. She would have lived as long as I would -” The General stared at the charred mark on the floor.
“Negative. She was not alive.” Patience was not a quality native to the Cull, and Cet was feeling strained.
“Then if she’s a robot, rebuild her.” The General turned to Cet. “See, you can’t! Life isn’t replaceable.”
The blue sensor lights narrowed slowly and then rotated to face the Admiral Stewart.
“I will require one of your security robots.” There was a pause, and then the Admiral Stewart nodded to Ensign Rogers, seated at the controls. A Security drone appeared, floating in the elevator shaft. “This has no intelligence?”
“No. It’s just a drone,” Admiral Stewart said.
“No,” The General said, stepping between Cet and the drone as he realised the Cull’s intent. “I won’t let you. This is obscene.”
“I am merely moving a computer program from one machine to another.” Cet floated towards the drone, manipulator arms unfolding.
“Reprogramming a drone to act like her is a travesty. It’s not bringing her back to life.”
“Her personality is controlled from a central computer. Her memories and visual inputs are stored there.”
“Look, A.I.s can be alive, you know. We’ve got some on the team.” Ensign Rogers pointed out.
“This one is not. Activate your monitoring logs to assess the program.” There was the whine of a handheld data terminal from behind Cet and the drone powered down. The General looked at him, and the Cull stared back. “I can get another.”
“That’s not necessary. Let her rest in peace.”
“You did not. When installed, the A.I. overwrote the organic component completely. The humanoid was destroyed by that process. I will waste no further resources on the matter.” The Cull turned moving towards the elevator shaft.
“Even if what you say is right, she was still my friend!” The General shouted after the Cull. “So what if she’s a bit different…”
“General, do you honestly not see anything wrong with this?” The voice asked from the console.
“I’m not human, don’t judge me by your limited – ” he stopped short as Susan looked at him.
“Walking corpses and desecration of the dead are wrong by most civilised species standards. Cull excepted.” There was an uncomfortable pause. “What happened to all those standards you told me about? Those ideals you wanted to raise me with? The belief that you always find another way?”
“I was wrong,” the General said. It cost him, the pain clear on his face. “When you are young, everything seems possible. Then you grow up.”
“You didn’t grow up. You just got old. All these bodies, younger every time, and a string of girls young enough to be my grand-daughters let alone yours. You’re not fooling anyone.”
“Hey” heads turned as Ensign Rogers spoke up, and he looked round, suddenly realising everyone was staring at him. “I know this isn’t the time, but where’s he’s getting all these intergalactic hotties?”
“Essex.” Susan said, with a flash of a grin, before she turned back to her uncle, switching languages fluently to her own. “I’m older than you – or at least more mature – and I still know that anything’s possible.”
“If anything’s possible, then undo the war. Put the Fallen back in the legends. Bring Home back, and the chairs of government in all their apathetic glory – ” He stopped, staring at Susan and began to shake his head. “Oh no. No. No. No.”
“One thing at a time.” She was actually smiling. It was the first time he had seen her smile.
“But that’s not possible – “
“Not yet. All things in time.” It was a Mona Lisa smile, enigmatic and hidden.
“That type of technology was only a theory when I studied it.”
“And you used to be so good at the long game, when you were my uncle.” She said it with overstressed politeness.
“But the power level. The energy to undo it would have to exceed the creation of a torus itself. Home has the technology but we can’t get to it, and without that technology we can’t access the power to create another torus to force the barrier and reach Home.”
“The Haidra have that technology, if their existence is restored.”
“They don’t exist yet?”
“But once they do, they always will have.” She stopped smiling, “But there’s a price. If your Cull hybrid exists, the Haidra never will. The two are incompatible.”
“Lynda or the Haidra? My friend or an intergalactic empire worse than our own?”
“No. Lynda or Home. Your companion or your people, General.” He looked back at the charred patch
“I can’t make that choice.”
“Then you are lucky that Command-Espionage-Tactics could. Even if he didn’t know that was what he was doing.”
“You’re talking about undoing the entire war.”
“Hardly,” she said with a dismissive gesture. “There are limits. I’m looking more at making it a causal backwater, shunting it to the side so to speak. As we move away from the core restoration point – and a few critical moments – its impact will be less.”
“You can’t re-write time like re-writing data on a drive.”
“You used to do it all the time. Or have you forgotten?” As she held up her hands to count, he waved at her irritably.
“Yes alright. But I knew where to draw the line. The Haidra? Susan, they had the power to destroy everything.”
“They also have the power to bring it back.”
“Why would they?”
“What did they say when you asked them about destroying Home?”
“They had the power, but no desire to do so.”
“Why not the desire, General? What might have happened if they destroyed us? It isn’t as if they would have anything to fear, once we were gone.”
“It’s not a matter of power, it’s – if they are wiping their own origin point. Then why – ” he stopped. “Their origin point is, must be, Home.”
“That’s what I thought. I don’t have any proof, of course.”
“But then if the origin point is on Home, they should still have been accessible even if the world is sealed.”
“But after the war it is not possible to contact them at all. They are in a backwater, almost isolated. For them to interact with causality again, a second evolutionary path would need to be created, a second origin point, to lead to exactly the same outcome but that excludes Home, at least directly. Fortunately time wears its own paths – if you set things up correctly it falls into old patterns very easily. Once they are back they can scatter their own origins effectively.”
“No, that’s not right. There’s something missing. Wouldn’t Lynda’s form, a humanoid Cull have been the first step?” He looked at her, desperate perhaps to think that his work, his creation had some purpose. Quietly, definitively, she destroyed that last hope.
“No. If the Cull evolve into humanoid form, it’s a dead end. The science becomes much the same as so many of these, using nanites and conversion, and the genetic legacy that produced the Cull, Cet, and eventually the Haidra, is quickly diluted and lost.” She smiled, taking some of the sting out of her words. “Trust me. I’ve only been working on this since 1931 after all.”
“Then our timelines crossed at least once. Why didn’t you tell me?”
“At that point it was just my personal timeline which said that so many had died. With all the paradoxes you create, General, nothing was ever certain until you actually made the choices. But I couldn’t trust myself not to tell you if I saw you. And if I had told you – ” she looked down. ” – imagine going through life knowing that, knowing what you were going to be responsible for. You would have let the Cull win or destroyed universes to stop them sooner than…” she trailed off, unable to continue. He looked away, and the staff on the space station bridge were suddenly very busy.
“You had a few eventful years yourself then?” he asked, finally.
“Oh yes. You weren’t the one talking a Cull out of having a Systemic Defence Killdrone posed like a piece of modern art at the entrance to our office. I managed to persuade him that it wasn’t worth the risk of it going out of control in the middle of New York.”
“Young lady, I thought on a backwater world like this you couldn’t get into trouble.”
“Well, General, I also managed to find a boyfriend you can really disapprove of.” The General spat his tea out and glared. She giggled. “That’s the uncle I remember.”
“Susan, that was an image I don’t need.” Susan smiled like a shark, and leaned forward, putting her head on one hand.
“I know. Call it revenge for the walking corpse-computer you just sprung on me.”